New Delhi, April 26 : To boost sub-regional economic cooperation, Bimstec Secretary-General Shahidul Islam on Thursday called for faster negotiations for the conclusion of a free trade agreement (FTA) within this grouping of South Asian and Southeast Asian nations.
Speaking at the launch of report by industry body Ficci titled "Reinvigorating Bimstec: An Industry Vision for the Next Decade" here, Islam said that though a framework agreement was signed for a Bimstec FTA in 2004, negotiations have remained stalled for the last-two-and-a-half years.
He called for specific steps to rejuvenate the regional grouping through greater political commitment, expeditious negotiations on Bimstec FTA, adequate funding, Bimstec special visas and closer people-to-people contacts.
"The time now is to consolidate on the progress made in the last 20 years and take immediate steps to give Bimstec a distinct regional flavour," the Bangladeshi diplomat, who was appointed Bimstec Secretary-General last year, said.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) came into existence in June 1997 through the Bangkok Declaration.
It comprises seven countries lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The main objective of Bimstec is technical and economic cooperation among South Asian and Southeast Asian countries along the rim of the Bay of Bengal.
With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) virtually rendered ineffective as a bloc, largely due to non-cooperation on the part of Pakistan in a number of areas, India has been giving more importance to Bimstec in recent times.
The bloc brings together 1.5 billion people or 21 per cent of the world's population and has a combined GDP of (Dollar) 2.5 trillion.
India is the lead country for cooperation in four priority areas: counter-terrorism and transnational crime, transport and communication, tourism and environment, and disaster management.
In his speech, Islam said that at a Bimstec ministerial meeting held in Bangkok last year, four major pillars were identified on which economic cooperation between the member states rests.
"First, closer public-private partnership to promote economic cooperation and to this end, creation of Bimstec Economic Forum to facilitate high-level exchange of views between policy makers and business community," he said.
"Second, identification of sectors, sub-sectors and projects for economic cooperation.
Initially five key sectors were identified, namely, textile and clothing, drugs and pharmaceuticals, gems and jewellery, horticulture and floriculture products, information technology products and services."
Thirdly, he said, there should holding of senior economic officials' meeting to promote intra-regional cooperation on elimination of non-tariff barriers, market access issues and services.
Fourthly, he mentioned infrastructure building with assistance of multilateral institutions, UN agencies, World Bank and ADB.
Islam said that FTAs were no panacea for development, but they represented a crucial first step towards spurring growth and development in the region.
Bangladesh, he said, had agreed to hold the next round of trade negotiations for concluding the Bimstec FTA which should be started without delay.
The Bimstec Secretariat in Dhaka, he said, needed to be adequately financed as its present budget is a mere (Dollar) 1 million.
The Ficci Knowledge report on reinvigorating Bimstec, prepared by a core group with former Indian diplomat Rajiv Bhatia as the Chair and Vikramjit Singh Sahney of Sun Group as Co-chair, suggests funding of (Dollar) 2 billion from India and (Dollar) 1 billion from other member states.
"This is the kind of commitment required to give a fillip to generating meaningful activities in the region," Islam said.
Ficci President Rashesh Shah said the Bimstec member nations together have untapped economic potential to catapult regional trade and investment to the next level and provide a framework to achieve sustainable development.
"The Ficci core group report strives to understand the key drivers of the development paradigm for the region and identify the contours of an economically feasible and result driven approach for BIMSTEC to achieve sustained progress," Shah said.
"To fulfill this vision, all stakeholders concerned have to work together for a stable, prosperous and integrated neighbourhood."
Bhatia, who also served as India's Ambassador to Myanmar, said that with Saarc regional grouping facing difficulties, "we can work on revitalising Bimstec".
"We should bring Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into Bimstec and reconfigure it," he said.
He also called for the holding of a Bimstec summit meeting at the earliest.