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India-Australia FTA long overdue: FM

Neena Bhandari/Sydney (Australia) 31 Mar 16 | 12:22 AM

The sooner the India-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is signed, the better, said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while addressing the ethnic Indian media on Wednesday at the Shangri-La hotel in Sydney's central business district.

When asked if signing the FTA was a priority for his government and if the FTA would address services and make material concessions to attract Australian companies to operate and partner in India, Jaitley told Business Standard, "This is at the negotiations stage; therefore, it is not fair for me to comment."

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Recently, while delivering the 2016 Lowy Institute for International Policy annual speech, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, "Trade with India has not looked this promising for hundreds of years. That's why, to aid the transition to a new and more diversified economy, I'm placing a high priority on the conclusion of a free trade agreement with India - as complex as those talks have been."

Jaitley said, "It (FTA) was a priority even when the Indian Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) was here in 2014. He (Modi) wanted this to be done in 2015. So, we have already crossed the deadline. The sooner the better."

The minister was quizzed by the ethnic media on a wide range of topics from Adani's coal mine to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) issue back home.

Jaitley said Adani's pit-to-port Carmichael coal project in Queensland was "not really" on the agenda. "This is a subject which is internal to Australia and that is not a subject for the purpose of my visit. But, in the course of my discussions, one of the ministers of the Australian government has informed me that as far as the government of Australia is concerned, they are trying their best to stick to the contract, subject to whatever other influences in a democracy are there."

On the question of how much of a dent had incidents like JNU made on the image of India abroad, Jaitley said, "I don't think it is an issue of creating any dent to an image, for the simple reason that no country - however, liberal - can allow an agenda, which openly speaks in terms of breaking up the country. India is a liberal society; it is a democratic society. It allows free speech, but even under our Constitutional order, sovereignty of India is an exception to the principle of free speech."

When asked to list the two-year-old Modi government's achievements and challenges, Jaitley said, "It has maintained a direction and the government has not committed any major mistake. More so, the government is perceived to be more decisive and, certainly, corruption has disappeared from the corridors of New Delhi. I think the challenges will still be fighting poverty, strengthening India's agrarian sector and building infrastructure."

He emphasised that "there are areas of Australian expertise, which can do a considerable amount of good to the Indian economy. For instance, in the recent Budget, I have opened the food processing sector to 100 per cent FDI (foreign direct investment). This is an area where Australia has done a lot. Mining is another area."

Jaitley said there's considerable opportunity available in the power sector - in thermal, hydel and renewable energy.

On when the first smart city would be completed, Jaitley said, "It will take time. Twenty cities have already been identified and their partners have been found so the actual development works on those areas can take place."

India is seeking Australian expertise in building smart cities. David Holm, director at Cox Richardson, Sydney's leading architectural and planning practice, told Business Standard, "India can be a template for the way cities should be over the next century. But, one of the great blocks we have in India is working with the bureaucracy. Most of the work we do (in India) is with private entities and they solve a lot of the issues of governance and contracts."

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