Nirmala Sitharaman. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Nirmala Sitharaman. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

India urges Singapore, S. Korea and Japan to sign MRAs on degrees

Despite signing services deals as part of free-trade agreements, the three countries refuse to sign MRAs recognizing professional degrees issues by Indian institutions

New Delhi: India has raised concerns with Singapore, South Korea and Japan that despite signing services deals as part of the free-trade agreements (FTAs), India is not benefiting as they refuse to sign mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) recognizing professional degrees issued by Indian educational institutions.

While MRAs for goods under FTAs between two countries are meant to eliminate duplicate testing and certification of products to facilitate the entry of goods for sale in the respective markets, in services they relate to recognizing each others’ qualifications and academic certifications so that professionals of one partner country can work in the other country. Regulatory bodies of various professional services such as engineering, accountancy, architecture are encouraged to enter into MRAs with their counterparts.

Though the FTAs that India has signed with Singapore, South Korea and Japan aim to create MRAs for professionals such as accountants, auditors, architects, doctors, dentists and nurses within one year of entry of force of the bilateral trade deal, any delay or failure by these professional bodies to reach and conclude agreements on the details of such arrangements are not regarded as a breach of a country’s obligations under the FTA.

At the sidelines of the recently concluded RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) ministerial at Laos on 5 August, commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman met her counterparts from Singapore and South Korea and raised concerns about the delay in concluding MRAs. “I told my counterparts from Singapore and South Korea that the services agreements are not helping us due to lack of MRAs. The issue has also been raised separately with Japan," she said on Wednesday.

Sitharaman said movement of natural professionals cannot be compared with migration of workers. “So, I conveyed that your fear that your country will be flooded with Indian workers stealing jobs is just misplaced because they come for a particular project for which permission has already been taken and when the project is completed, the individual will return to India. So, how can you classify it under the broad category of movement of natural persons? It is not migration," she added.

She said that India has drawn the red lines at RCEP talks on MRAs. “At the RCEP ministerial, we have raised this concern. Even if we have a services agreement, what will happen if MRAs don’t work? We have gone to the extent of saying that lack of MRAs in services agreement are non-tariff barriers. I think there is recognition of our concern. Simultaneously, at WTO, because India has been asked to present a paper on trade facilitation in services, that is also having an impact," she added.

Arpita Mukherjee, professor at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, said professional courses in Indian institutions are not standardized and do not match with international curriculums.

“While our trading partners have asked us to identify premium institutions with whom MRAs can be signed, India’s position so far had been that we can’t prefer one institution over the other since we are a democratic country," she said.

That changed recently with the ministry of human resource development ranking engineering, management, pharmacy, architecture institutes for the first time under the National Ins-titutional Ranking Framework.

Mukherjee said the Indian government also needs to conduct a study to identify what are the problem areas in MRAs and how to overcome them.

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