ISLAMABAD - A parliamentary committee on Tuesday unanimously demanded the federal government to liberate the Ministry of Commerce from the influence of Ministry of Interior and the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).

“The Ministry of Interior and FBR are the main hurdles in the promotion of local businesses that resultantly affects the exports,” said members of the Senate Standing Committee on Commerce.

The committee met here with Senator Syed Shibli Faraz in the chair.

The committee also regretted that Pakistan had practically taken no step to increase trade with Iran, Cuba and other such countries, while other states soon joined the bandwagon and resumed trade relations with these countries.

“India had started planning trade with Iran one year before the lifting of international sanctions on the country, but the Pakistani government kept sleeping on the Iran Pakistan gas pipeline project,” the members deplored.

The committee noted with concern that the government had even failed to materialise the already contract signed under the pipeline project, which, if had been implemented, could have greatly helped the country in controlling the energy crisis.

They grumbled that while other countries’ embassies and consulates were very busy in attracting the foreign investors to their respective countries, the Pakistani commercial councilors and embassies, in contrast, looked like just passing time and having no role in increasing the country’s exports.

“Even our immediate neighbour, India, is very active in promoting its trade,” the senators observed. One of the committee members, Senator Salim Mandviwala, was of the view the country’s exports were constantly on decline, and the government had done nothing to rectify the situation.

“Commercial Councilors are appointed on political bases, and the system will not run in the long run until drastic changes are introduced,” he opined.

He also claimed the government had totally failed to get benefits from GSP plus facility granted to the country.

“The South Korean envoy, in a statement, had said that Pakistan’s exports had declined by 27 percent,” he said, and added the government was only interested in completing the LNG project, which, he alleged, was based on some hidden vested interests.

Briefing the committee on the role of Pakistan’s embassies in promoting trade, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said that economic diplomacy was part of the country’s foreign policy. “Promotion of trade is the vision of Prime Minister,” he said. The advisor informed that appointments of around 41 trade officers were in the pipeline, who would be posted in different countries for attracting investment.

Sartaj informed that Pakistan had 88 embassies and 29 consulates in different countries of the world, while it had trade officers deputed in 36 embassies.

“A trade officer has to work on different dimensions, including dispute resolution, negotiating bilateral trade agreements, building and supporting business networks, image building and branding of Pakistani products,” he elaborated.

He added that when the present government took over, the PM had told all the ambassadors that trade not aid should be their priority, and that they should concentrate on bringing investment to the country and increasing exports.

“Pakistan’s exports had dipped from $26 billion to $24 billion,” the advisor said, and added, “The decrease was caused by multiple reasons, including regression in the world economy.”

He said that Pakistan had also started renegotiating Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China. “This is called FTA-II, and the government is examining who made most of the agreement,” he informed.

He said that FTA could not increase Pakistan’s exports to China; instead the Chinese exports to the country increased.

He highlighted the importance of promoting bright image of the country, adding that image and perception had an impact on trade.

Sartaj further said that competitiveness, lack of skilled human resource and cost of doing business were the challenges the country had to cope with to boost its trade with rest of the world.

He stressed the need for export diversification and overcoming the energy shortage so that trade Pakistan’s trade could thrive.

The advisor was of the view that standard certification as well as promotion of entrepreneurship, research, development and technology were essential for increasing the trade. On Iran, he clarified that after lifting of the sanctions on the country, high-level discussions were in progress to promote trade.

“Although, the UN sanctions have been withdrawn, but the US sanctions are still in place; hence the trade through dollar currency is not possible,” he told the senators. “However, other currencies like Euro could be utilised for the purpose,” he said, and added, “The government plans to increase the trade with Iran up to $5 billion.”

On Iran Pakistan gas pipeline project, the advisor said the project had to signed in 2009 and to be completed by 2011. “If it had been completed, there would have been no energy crises today,” he said.

He said the previous government could not initiate the project on time, and just signed it at the end of its tenure so that the new government should deal with it.

Syed Shibli Faraz, Chairman of the Committee, stressed the importance of exploring South American markets by holding exhibitions of Pakistani products in countries of the region and also arranging such events here.

Senator Hilalur Rahman suggested the government to open another trade route with Afghanistan, near Mohmand Agency, which would lead to business activities there.

Senator Usman Khan Kakar said there was no representation of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in trade promotion related activities. “It is strange that none of the trade officers is from mineral and dry fruits producing provinces,” he lamented.

He called for ‘retrieving’ business activities in Balochistan from the Ministry of Interior, which it exercises through FC, and putting it under the Ministry of Commerce.

“The FC would not allow the business to flourish in the province,” he said.

Kakar further said that due to the policies of the commerce ministry, 75 percent of Afghanistan Transit Trade had been transferred to the Iranian port of Chahbhar.

“Similarly, the ministry also discourages coal import from Afghanistan by imposing Rs 800 to Rs 1200 tax on its import,” he said, adding, “On the other hand, coal import via Karachi is promoted.”

He said in Karachi, there was a monopoly of two companies, while 60 companies were involved in the import of coal from Afghanistan. Chairman of the Committee further said that all the provinces must have a representation in the trade promotion activities.

“Pakistan is not only Punjab, and the government needs to think of other provinces beside only one,” he asserted.

Secretary Commerce Azmat Ali Ranjha briefed the committee about the selection process for the appointment of 41 trade officers.

He said the selection process was transparent and was purely on merit. He said there was no provincial quota in the appointment of trade officers.

He rejected the claim that all the trade officers belonged to Punjab. He informed the committee that the export target of $35 billion set in the Strategic Trade Policy Framework (STPF) 2015-18 was achievable.

Senators Naseema Ehsan, Hilal-ur-Rahman, Mufti Abdus Sattar, Muhammad Usman Khan Kakar, Saleem Mandiwala, Rubina Khalid and Haji Saifullah Khan Bangash attended the meeting.