Pak invites Sharma to sign 3 trade liberalising pacts

Islamabad: Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has been invited to Pakistan next month to sign three agreements removing non-tariff barriers in bilateral trade, according to a media report today. "We have extended a formal invitation to the Indian Commerce Minister through the Pakistani High Commission in India," an unnamed official was quoted as saying by the Dawn newspaper.

The official was speaking after the Special Parliamentary Committee on Kashmir was briefed yesterday on trade liberalisation with India. Signing of the proposed agreements on customs cooperation, mutual recognition and redressing grievances is expected to remove all tariff and non-tariff barriers that hinder Pakistani exports to India, the report said.

The Indian government has been asked to get approval from relevant departments for signing these agreements during the minister`s visit, Commerce Secretary Zafar Mahmood said during an in-camera briefing for the parliamentary panel, the report said. The chairman of the Special Parliamentary Committee on Kashmir, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader Fazlur Rehman, had sought a briefing by the Commerce Ministry on the issue of granting India Most Favoured Nation-status.

The meeting discussed Pakistan`s move to change its trade regime from a positive list to a negative list as part of the liberalisation process. Trade of items in the negative list will not be allowed. Pakistani industry has proposed 1,000 items for the negative list, the Commerce Secretary said. The list is expected to be finalised early next month. Pakistan currently has 1,958 items in the positive list for trade with India.

The Pakistan Commerce Secretary assured the parliamentary panel that a sufficient level of protection would be ensured for domestic industries before completing the process of trade liberalisation with India and granting it MFN status. The Commerce Ministry will make a "transparent presentation to the Cabinet in February for a final decision on MFN", Mahmood said.

Signing of the three agreements with India will provide a level playing field to Pakistani exporters, the secretary was quoted as saying. "The Federal Cabinet has already empowered the Commerce Ministry to normalise trade relations with India on the basis of non-discrimination, which means MFN-status," the secretary said. Indian exports to Pakistan are currently worth USD 1.6 billion dollars and Pakistan`s exports to India are worth USD 500 million.

Some members of the parliamentary committee questioned the government`s move for de-linking trade liberalisation with India from "core political issues". The Commerce Secretary admitted that after granting MFN-status, the trade balance will remain in favour of India. He said a widespread campaign will be launched soon to inform domestic industries of challenges and opportunities in the post-MFN trade regime with India.