Centre in fresh trouble over FTA with Asean

Congress parliamentarians voice concern in the Lok Sabha

Congress MPs from Kerala on Monday expressed concern over the FTA in the Lok Sabha. They were joined by the leftist MPs too. The anti-FTA clamour indicates a fresh trouble within the Congress, just after the ruling party reluctantly came out in support of the prime minister on the controversial Indo-Pak joint statement despite reservations of some of its senior leaders.

The Cabinet approved the draft Indo-Asean FTA in a late evening meet last Thursday. Sources said that the prime minister himself had pushed the FTA and secured the Cabinet’s nod for it, although Defence Minister A K Antony, Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi and Law Minister M Veerappa Moily aired concerns over its impact on the cash-crop farmers and fishermen in the coastal States like Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

Though they could not block the FTA in the Cabinet, the Congress MPs from Kerala raised the issue in the LS during Zero Hour on Monday.

K C Venugopal, Congress MP from Alappuzha in Kerala, told the House that the FTA would hit hard the people engaged in fishing, fish-vending and fish-processing as well as in palm, rubber and coconut plantation in the southern state.

Venugopal was supported by P C Chacko and other Congress MPs from Kerala. The CPM’s P Karunakaran and other leftist MPs too joined them.

Sources said the Congress MPs from Kerala were also concerned over the political implications of the FTA with the Asean in the Left-ruled State. The Congress did well in the just-concluded parliament polls and won 13 of the 20 seats from the State, while the ruling CPM got just four. The Congress is now gearing up for the 2011 assembly-polls in the State.

Reservations

Sources said that the Congress leaders from several other coastal states also expressed reservations over the Indo-Asean- FTA within the party.  Once India signs the FTA with the Asean, its critics argued, the imports from Thailand, the world’s largest exporter of farmed shrimps, and Vietnam, the eighth largest seafood exporter of the world, would pose a threat to the fishing community in the coastal States. The FTA, they said, would allow zero tariff imports of sardines, mackerels, anchovies and crabs.

Cheaper imports of cuttlefish, squid, shrimp, sole and pomfret from Asean countries might spell doom to local fishing communities in States like Karnataka and Kerala. The deal would also force the government to bring down customs tariff on produces such as pepper, tea, coffee, cashew, rubber, spices and palm oil.

In the Cabinet meet on Thursday last, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma presented the draft FTA, while Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, Home Minister P Chidambaram, Transport Minister Kamal Nath, and HRD Minister Kapil Sibal argued in favour of it.

The anti-FTA brigade had to give in when the prime minister himself intervened and said India would be isolated in world economy and might lose South-East Asia to China, if it did not go for such an agreement with the Asean. The prime minister, however, promised to set up a panel to vet the concerns raised by the ministers from the coastal states over the FTA with the Asean.

DH News Service

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