SAARC: So Little Free Trade, But So What?

August 31, 2008

Benny Kuruvilla* (1), Focus on the Global South-India

South Asia’s talking shop – the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – held yet another annual summit from 2 -3 August 2008, with the usual entourage of ministers, bureaucrats, media, think tanks and NGOs descending into Colombo. Over 1200 delegates attended the 15th summit of the eight-member club, considered the world’s largest regional grouping. (2)  The spotlight was expected to be on the food and energy crisis, but bombings in the last week of July in the Indian cities of Bangalore and Ahmedabad ensured that the ‘fight against terrorism’ became the centre piece of the conclave. 

The Colombo declaration titled ‘Partnership for the growth of our people’ emphasised, more than anything else, the need for the strongest possible cooperation in fighting terror and trans-national organised crime.(3) There were sections on climate change and a separate statement on food security. This was a positive step as concrete initiatives to deal with the climate crisis, rising food prices, declining agrarian incomes and ensuring food security will be welcome. But there was also a lame section in the declaration on the nearly defunct free trade treaty for the region, the Agreement for a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA). The absence of any serious commitment from the SAARC political leadership to move ahead on SAFTA met with criticism from business quarters. Expressing disappointment on the lack of concrete steps to invigorate free trade in the region, Tariq Sayeed the President of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SAARC CCI) said ‘hunger and terrorism are undoubtedly vital issues for a region like South Asia, but promoting trade and entrepreneurship could be the best answer to deal with such issues’. (4)

This sidelining of regional trade integration is not new. Despite previous attempts beginning from the SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) in 1995, economic integration has been a consistent no-show in South Asia. And frankly other than the usual suspects — the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, a few neo-liberal think tanks and some bureaucrats — nobody is really is clamouring for free trade in the region. For sure, trade between SAARC countries is marginal; intra-regional trade accounts for only 5.5 per cent of total trade and there is merit in increasing that  substantially but, as this article argues, a deep integration Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is barking up the wrong tree.      

Despite modest expectations, a flexible structure and three rounds of preference exchange negotiations, SAPTA came a cropper. There are several reasons for this. In the 1990s member countries preferred the route of unilateral domestic reforms for trade concessions rather than through the SAPTA. (5)  In the initial rounds, although India offered, on paper, the largest number of concessions in tariff lines, it tactically left Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) off the agenda. (6) Moreover the Indian tariff cuts were not deep enough and excluded items such as textiles in which countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were competitive. This ensured that the largest market in the region remained effectively closed. In short, there were not enough of the preferential aspects in SAPTA for a preferential trading arrangement to flourish. While some argue that this led to a loss of trade opportunities, the flexible approach in SAPTA did indeed address some of the sensitivities of member countries. (7)  The positive list for instance addressed the fear of a surge of imports from India into other countries in the region that already experienced enormous bilateral trade imbalances with the latter. (8) The political situation in the region didn’t help the trade liberalisation cause either; the 1999 coup d’etat in Pakistan, the assassination of members of the Nepal royal family in 2001, the 2001 election boycott in Bangladesh and the continuing ethnic strife in Sri Lanka ensured the primacy of domestic political priorities. 

This slow progress of the SAPTA should have called for a rethink and directed policy makers towards more flexible options to manage trade, especially for the smaller countries in the region, but instead there was a foolish attempt to speed up the process by removing flexibilities and converting the region into a fully-fledged Free Trade Area. Predictably, this set it up for failure yet again. The SAFTA was signed in 2004 and, after arduous negotiations on revenue loss compensation, rules of origin and sensitive lists, it came into force in January 2006. Unsurprisingly, SAFTA still had long negative lists, a limited number of products for tariff concessions, restrictive rules of origin, exclusion of issues such as para-tariffs and NTBs and the exclusion of the services sector. Members gave themselves till 2016 to achieve total liberalisation and agreed that there would be a two tiered system of tariff cuts; a slower pace for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and a faster pace for others. 

The large number of items on the sensitive list (those that will not be subject to tariff cuts) is evidence of the recognition of possible negative consequences of tariff reductions on tax revenues and livelihoods. The mid 2006 lists had India with 867, Pakistan 1183, Sri Lanka 1574, Nepal 1355, Bangladesh 1254, Maldives 671 and Bhutan with 259 items which would not face the chopping block. (9) Facing a SAPTA like situation, hectic parleys began to try and prune this long list, but progress continues to be elusive as before. Part of the reason is simple. For instance in the textiles sector the presence of several products (such as readymade garments, woven and knitted garments, special woven fabrics, handlooms, handicrafts, jute and jute goods) in the sensitive list illustrates that India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan are in competition with each other. India, the benign hegemon that promises to undertake ‘asymmetrical responsibilities’, has 302 textiles lines in its sensitive list. As each country would want to protect its domestic sector, duty free quota free trade is not likely to be on when there is competition from the region. 

India and Sri Lanka were the pioneers in the region to experiment with a free trade agreement. Signed in 2000, the ISFTA did lead to increased trade between them but it also brought in its wake negative impacts in specific regions and sectors. The agricultural sector in one of India’s southern states, Kerala –  which directly competes with Sri Lanka in a number of products — was adversely impacted. The implementation of the FTA saw high volatility in pepper and coconut prices which resulted in farmers in Kerala facing uncertainties in their incomes. For instance, the export of pepper from Sri Lanka to India increased from 2154 tonnes in 2000 to 6167 tonnes in 2003. (10) The price of pepper per quintal declined from the all time record of Indian Rupees (INR) 21502 in 1999-2000 to INR 6980 in 2004-2005. (11) The sharp drop in prices accentuated the ongoing crisis for small producers and the initial years of the FTA saw hundreds of farmers in the pepper belt of Wayanad district in Kerala committing suicide. 

Despite this, India has pushed for scaling up the ISFTA into a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and pre-SAARC media reports did indicate that the CEPA would be signed on the sidelines of the 2008 Colombo summit. But Sri Lanka had to postpone the event indefinitely due to opposition from left parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) whose member of parliament Wimal Weerawansa argued that a CEPA would deal a crippling blow to the service sectors in Sri Lanka. (12). Weerawansa argued in the Parliament that the provisions of the deal would give Indian investors an upper hand, leaving local enterprises in the doldrums. 

The 2008 Colombo declaration calls upon SAARC members to commence negotiations for a Framework Agreement on Trade in Services and an Agreement on Investment Promotion and Protection. While India, with a relatively developed services sector, has a vested interest in this move, it is a contentious issue for others. In a February 2007 meeting at the Ministry of Commerce, industry representatives in Bangladesh came out against the liberalisation of the country’s incipient services sector under SAFTA. (13) And as mentioned in the preceding section the India Sri Lanka CEPA is now stuck on the issue of services. 

There are of course proponents from civil society as well. South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE), an NGO based in Kathmandu agrees that Pakistani and Indian services companies in information technology, telecommunication, banking and financial services and engineering will gain from a services agreement within SAFTA. They also argue that since the potential for intra regional services trade and investment is high it is also a better option for LDCs, given that weakness in manufacturing in almost all SAARC countries except India. Moreover, since services provision is, at times, inadequate in the LDCs, it is assumed that free trade in services can add to the overall availability and quality of services. (14) 

This is a dangerous and flawed argument. Given the experience of developing countries in liberalising services the reluctance of countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in opening up their services sector under a legally binding framework is justified. Liberalisation and concomitant de-regulation, especially in basic services, undermines the public sector, resulting in diminishing access of such services to poorer sections of the population. Liberalisation kicks in de facto privatisation in cases where big private sector operators crowd out the public sector (in sectors such as finance, insurance and telecommunications). It is thus prudent that countries be given the time to scale up regulatory frameworks and do comprehensive sector level assessments based on consultations with all affected constituencies such as industry, unions, consumers, local and regional government representatives and different line ministries before they open their services to the private sector, even if they are from neighbouring developing countries. 

At the February 2007 SAARC business leader’s conclave in Mumbai investment was identified as a key sector to be integrated into SAFTA for an effective increase in regional trade. At the event Indian Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh stated that countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan would not be able to have a positive trade balance with India, because of the nature of their economies. The key to resolving this issue was not trade but integration of investment rules in the region through protocols in SAFTA that provide market access and protection to FDI. This, according to Ramesh, would make it possible for other countries in the region to improve their trade balance with India. It is unlikely that policy makers and the business sector in other SAARC countries will fall for this logic that is reflective of Indian business’ mercantilist interests. Applying free trade principles of non-discrimination to FDI would seriously limit the ability of countries to reach national development objectives through proactive industrialisation policies. Policy makers in many developing countries have recognised the importance of the quality of the FDI received and have attempted to improve it through selective policies and by imposing performance requirements on foreign affiliates and by providing incentives for high quality investments. For example, East Asian countries such as South Korea have in the past pushed FDI into high technology and export-oriented sectors using various policy instruments. (15) These include provisions on localisation, contribution to development of modern industries, transfer of technology and export orientation.  

The national treatment clause (Article 5) in SAFTA would prohibit member countries from using several of these policy instruments. Regulations such as equity ceilings (regulation on a maximum of FDI allowed in a national company), obligations on technology transfer, universal services provision (legislation that obliges private providers in basic services such as health, education, water to supply services to marginalised sections) and employment of local labour will fall foul of SAFTA rules. Such an investment framework under SAFTA rules will maximise investor rights at the cost of development priorities.  

In the ongoing WTO trade talks, South Asian countries have been reluctant to cut industrial tariffs under the WTO Agreement on Non Agricultural Market Access (NAMA). They have argued that under the formulas proposed in the WTO they would have to implement steep tariff cuts which would severely impact local industries, balance of payments, tariff revenues, policy space and employment, all of which are crucial components of national development and poverty reduction policies. As SAFTA follows a similar logic of progressive tariff cuts, the effects on small industries that are as yet not ready for competition will be similar.

Trade and development policies for a small vulnerable economy such as Nepal will be significantly different from those of countries such as India and Pakistan. For Nepal this would entail product diversification, deepening of local industrial activity and scaling up technology. An economically integrated South Asia will not allow the Nepalese Government to follow policies that allow this. National policy space is both needed and justified to create an enabling environment for local industry and employment. This is not to say that trade cannot happen among the SAARC countries. In fact reports indicate that there is vibrant ‘informal’ trade within the region which shows that complementarities do exist. It is up to policy makers to go beyond lofty empty rhetoric at summits and instead meaningfully engage with traders and agriculture groups to find ways of creating a bottom-up trade co-operation framework for the region. Or they can wait for the next SAARC summit in the Maldives to insert another paragraph on the importance of implementing SAFTA.

* Benny Kuruvilla is a research associate with Focus on the Global South based in Delhi, India. 

1. With inputs from my colleague Afsar Jafri and Susana Barria, a former intern at Focus. Comments can be sent to: 
2. With a population of 1.5 billion, the SAARC is the largest regional grouping in the world. Member countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The second largest regional group is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with 526 million followed by the European Union (EU) with 500 million. 
3. SAARC (2008). ‘Declaration of the Fifteenth  SAARC summit’
4. Anonymous, ‘SAARC chamber concerned over sidelining of trade issues’ , The News, August 06, 2008
5. Research Information Systems (2003), ‘Regional Trade Liberalisation under SAPTA and India’s Trade Linkages with South Asia’. New Delhi 
6. Non-tariff barriers include government measures such as quantitative restrictions, import licensing and variable levies.
7. The SAPTA was based on a positive list approach and did not have any strict deadline for implementation. A positive list approach allows countries to choose products that will be liberalised as opposed to a negative list in which all products are deemed covered unless specific exceptions are made.  
8. Bhutan is the only country which has a positive trade balance with India largely due to energy imports by the latter.  
9. Government of India. (2006). ‘South Asian Free Trade Area, Annex-I- Sensitive Lists of Member States’. Ministry of External Affairs: New Delhi. Note that where member countries have 2 sensitive lists (for LDC and NLDC) the longer list has been used. 
10. Report on Export of Pepper from Sri Lanka to India under ISFTA –Implications, by Sri Lanka Export Development Board, Page 7,
11. Dhar Biswajit and Verma Poornima (not dated), ‘India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement: Regional Implications for India. Working paper. Unpublished. 
12. Anonymous, ‘Sri Lankan MPs clash over CEPA with India’, Economic Times, 6 August 2008. 
13. Anonymous, ‘Bangladesh sets SAFTA strategy tomorrow’, South Asian Media Net, February 11 2007.
14. Raj Bhatt Shiv, ‘Services under SAFTA: how to make it work for South Asia’, SAWTEE, September 9 2006.
15. Nagesh Kumar. (2002). ‘Globalisation and the quality of FDI”, Oxford University Press: New Delhi. 

Gallagher, Kevin P. (2005). Putting Development First: The Importance of Policy Space in the WTO and IFIs. London: Zed Books.
Nath Mukherji Indra. (2004). ‘Towards a Free Trade Area in South Asia: Charting a Feasible course for Trade Liberalization with Reference to India’s Role’. RIS: New Delhi, December
Research Information Systems (2003), ‘Regional Trade Liberalisation under SAPTA and India’s Trade Linkages with South Asia’. New Delhi