THE watchword of the era of neo-liberalism is a globalised marketplace. However, when it comes to the implementation of this slogan into practice, the proponents of the slogan often fail to live up to the expectations themselves. The last Hong Kong ministerial of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was a living proof of how the countries most vocal against protectionism and every kind of barriers to free trade were trying to protect their own domestic markets against certain goods from developing and the least developed countries. Little wonder that, as in the case of trade forums at the global level, some countries conveniently forget their professed ideals and fail to practise what they preach in the regional level trade forums, too.
If the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) has to realise its promise, it must see some positive departures from the traditional practices in most of the regional forums. The South Asian region is home to about one fifth of humanity. If the leaders of this region are able to demonstrate their will, this region can turn into the next engine of global growth after the Far East, Southeast Asia and lately China. The projections made by the different international research bodies point to such prospect in the near future. However, the country to which the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members are looking up for the most vital role to play to turn that prospect into reality is India.
The incumbent Prime minister of India, in his address to the last SAARC summit in Dhaka as well as on many other occasions, made no bone about India's intention to act as the trailblazer so far as the economic growth of the South Asian region is concerned. The smaller and less developed economies of South Asia too, are eager to pin their hopes on an Indian leadership that wants to develop its economy in sync with its immediate neighbours belonging to the SAARC forum. Thankfully, the South Asian nations have already devised an appropriate forum comprising their commerce ministers to talk about the issues on regional growth through trade and various other forms of economic transactions. The first meet of SAFTA commerce ministers will begin tomorrow (Thursday) in Dhaka.
Ideally, the focus of any such meeting of SAFTA should be the unhindered flow of goods and services among the member nations in the true spirit of the gospel of free trade. What are the central issues on the cards in this first-ever meet of SAFTA ministers on trade and commerce? Oddly, though, it will be about lifting the barriers, particularly the non-and para-tariff ones, on trade among the SAFTA member nations. Although, the main obstacles to free trade between any two countries are traditionally the duties and tariffs their national governments impose on the normal movement of goods and services between them, it is quite the opposite issues like non- and para-tariff ones that will now occupy the centre stage. The requirement of fulfilling certain testing standards by the goods to be imported by one SAFTA country from another, reducing the number of goods in the sensitive lists of members, the issues of compliance, etc., are to name some of the issues to feature in the upcoming talks.
That, in other words, means that in spite of the slogans of globalisation and laissez faire on a world scale -- terms that are quite a mouthful when uttered -- it is again those age-old arguments of parochialism and national protectionism that need to be settled before a meaningful dialogue on free trade among the SAFTA members may commence. Therefore, it is again on the goodwill of the biggest partner of SAFTA that the real success of the upcoming meet hinges.