Interview: H.E. J. Goburdhun, High Commissioner of the Republic of Mauritius to India

COMESA 2018 Special Report, Interview

COMESA 2018 Special Report

Mauritius has been a founding member of the Preferential Trade Area which existed before COMESA, since its inception in 1981. It aims to transform the island into an open and globally competitive economy and to fully integrate it into the world trade system through its trade policies. In a candid conversation with Diplomatist, H.E. J. Goburdhun, High Commissioner of the Republic of Mauritius to India, discussed COMESA's economic history and background and the important role played by Mauritius.

As one of the key members of COMESA, Mauritius has played an important role in in this bloc over two decades of its journey. What is your vision for the next decade?

Mauritius is fully aware of the immense benefits of regional integration as part of its overall development strategy and on which it has prioritised/refocused in line with the Africa Strategy. Since 1980, it has joined regional organisations and has made appreciable in-roads without waiting for the African Continent to be “the new place to be”. In 1981, Mauritius became a member of the Preferential Trade Area (PTA), which graduated into COMESA in 1994.

For the next decade, the vision of Mauritius is to steer its economy more towards the COMESA region comprising 19 Member States, cutting across various parts of Africa. Such a huge economic space will require Mauritius to redouble its efforts so as to increase prosperity. Regional integration, being multi-dimensional, requires many stakeholders, particularly the business operators, to go beyond frontiers. Mauritius will give the necessary accompanying push to such operators. In lieu of the same, Mauritius has already signed the declaration launching the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA), an initiative which aims inter-alia at establishing a pan-regional Free Trade Area encompassing the 26 member-states of the three regional economic communities, namely COMESA, SADC and EAC. Mauritius will also support the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) as agreed at the AU Summit in 2012. The Tripartite and continental FTA will, inevitably, boost inward investment in the country and attract more Foreign Direct Investment.

Mauritius can be ascribed as a strategic partner to Africa markets; it has a peaceful and stable government and has huge potential for maritime power, blue economy, the fishing industry and port-led development. What do you think about these strengths and opportunities?

Mauritius, strategically located in the Indian Ocean and surrounded by miles of sea, offers tremendous opportunities for Asian countries to access the African Continent. It can also serve as an ‘infrastructural’ bridge.

Infrastructural connectivity is another driver for regional cooperation. The development of maritime infrastructure to match global standards, and increase the network of air links will serve to bring us closer to our regional partner countries. The aim of the Government is to transform Port Louis from a destination port to a regional hub through massive investments in port infrastructure. In the same vein, discussions are on-going for the setting up of a regional shipping line, to expand regional trade and to make our port a regional hub in the region.

One of the strategic objectives of COMESA, as reflected in its Medium Term Strategic Plan (2016-2020), is to strengthen the Ocean Economy, which is in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), specifically SDG 14. Mauritius will collaborate with other COMESA partners, and the Oceanic Member States in particular, to harness the various benefits of an ocean economy such as economic diversification, food security and sustainable management of the marine environment, as well as to develop a maritime corridor between the development of a Maritime Corridor between the Island and mainland Member States. This is line with the October 2016 COMESA Council decisions.

Mauritius would need to further tap on the expertise of larger countries such as India and Australia for the development of its ocean economy which is the new pillar of the Mauritian economy.

What is it that binds the COMESA countries together besides geographical proximity? Is there a shared identity over FTA?

The process of integration within COMESA started in 1981 with the establishment of a Preferential Trade Area. The objective set was to create a larger market, to diversify market concentration of its constituent members away from Europe and US as well as to create conditions for the mobilisation of investment, trade, industrialisation and address infrastructure deficiencies. These were some of the factors which led to the creation of the PTA which subsequently was transformed into a common market in the year 2004.

The COMESA Treaty provided for the tariff liberalisation programme to culminate in a Free Trade Area in the year 2000. The main objective of the Free Trade Area was to achieve deeper economic integration through the elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers. The FTA was launched with 9 member states and as of date, there are 16 participating member states. Intraregional trade has evolved from $3 billion in the year 2000 to $20.9 billion (according to latest statistics).

How important are COMESA’s FTA efforts and the exploration of new avenues of investment in your country? What do you have to say about Mauritius’ focus on diversifiying its economy?

Mauritius must be able to use market access provided by the RECs like COMESA to diversify its export markets. Exports of Mauritius to the COMESA region have increased from Rs 2.5 billion in the year 2000 to Rs 8.02 billion in the year 2015. However, exports are still low as compared to existing potential due to capacity constraints.

But what is interesting to note is that the export basket of Mauritius to the COMESA region is a well-diversified one. While exports to the EU and US comprise of a handful of traditional products such as sugar, garments, canned tuna, jewellery, etc., exports to COMESA are far more diversified and comprise many non-traditional items such as fertilisers, day old chicks, soap, beer, etc. These products are mostly produced by SME’s, which confirms the importance of COMESA as a lever for SME development, as well as an important outlet for products and market diversification.

Next Year, India and Mauritius are celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations. Would you like to share some new initiatives that are expected to be taken to increase trade as well as strengthen the bilateral relations between both countries?

Mauritius and India have maintained excellent economic cooperation since independence. Both countries enjoy excellent bilateral relations, sustained by geographical proximity, historic cultural affinities and frequent high-level political interactions. India is the second largest trading partner of Mauritius in terms of imports and 19th in the term of exports. Mauritius ranks first among countries in terms of FDI inflows into India.

The Government of Mauritius (GoM) is working on a long-term strategy to steer the country to the status of a ‘High Income Country’ by the year 2030. For that purpose, GoM is relying on the support of India to establish the suitable platform and framework to spearhead its transition toward a high-income economy through economic cooperation, improved innovation policies and reinvigorated cross-border investments.

The conclusion of a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Partnership Agreement (CECPA) will be yet another milestone to mark our already very strong bilateral relations. The CECPA aims to, inter alia, strengthen and enhance the economic, trade and investment cooperation between India and Mauritius, liberalise and promote trade in goods and services, and establish a transparent, predictable and facilitative investment regime.

In November 2016, an MOU was signed between GOI and GOM for the implementation of five projects with project values totalling $712.5 million for which a grant of $353 million has been obtained. These projects include the construction of a Metro Express and a new Supreme Court building in Mauritius, the provision of digital tablets to students of primary schools, the creation of social housing for the poor, and the construction of a new ENT hospital.

Over and above the grant, the GOI is offering a financial support envelope of $500 million through a line of credit. An agreement in that respect was signed in May 2017. Another tranche of $130 million, which was approved in February 2012, is also being made available by GOI for the implementation of several major projects.

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