Male, Feb.19: Acknowledging that trade is the most critical factor in accelerating regional economic growth, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh on Wednesday called on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations to be more cohesive and connected.
Addressing the 40th session of the Standing Committee of SAARC here, Singh said, “There should be no reason why in the 21st century we cannot become more cohesive and connected, and why barriers – whether physical or otherwise – cannot be brought down to enable our peoples to connect better with one another, develop relations, and work for mutual benefit.
Trade is perhaps the most critical factor in accelerating regional economic growth.”
“We are all aware of the objectives and the vision that we eight neighbours have for SAARC. Our desire to deepen cooperation to meet the expectations of our peoples in promoting peace, friendship and development in the region is steadfast and unwavering. It is, indeed, critical to our future as a region, a part of the world which is bound by ties of history, culture and commerce,” she said.
She said commendable progress has been made in the implementation of South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) but still a lot remains to be done.
“The agreement on the SAFTA was signed in Islamabad in January 2004 with intent of reducing customs duty to ‘zero’ by end 2016,” she said.
“Though intra-SAARC trade flows under SAFTA have been steadily rising, they still remain a fraction of our total intra-regional trade. Moreover, our total intra-regional trade is a small percentage of our total global trade. This is far below potential. India has provided duty-free access to goods from SAARC LDCs from January 1, 2008, which was one year ahead of schedule. Our Prime Minister announced the virtual elimination of our sensitive list for LDCs, reducing it to 25 tariff lines [mostly comprising tobacco and liquor products] from 480 lines, in November 2011,” she added.
She said that these major initiatives have helped in promoting regional trade and SAARC’s goals of shared prosperity.
“Whether for trade or people to people links, a sine qua non is connectivity – maritime, land and air. These are still at a rudimentary stage and much infrastructural work needs to be done to connect our region. The Sixteenth Summit in Thimphu called for greater intra-regional connectivity and endorsed 2010-2020 as the “Decade of intra-regional connectivity in SAARC,” she added.
Reiterating India’s deep and abiding commitment to SAARC and its objectives, Singh said, “India’s resolve to work closely with all our neighbouring countries for mutual benefit is unwavering. We believe that it is only through genuine regional integration that our region will be able realise its full potential as one of the most important regions of the world in terms of economic growth, development and possibilities.”
She also said that the SAARC nations should work towards rapidly operationalising the SAARC Regional Railways Agreement and the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement so that services under these can be launched expeditiously.
“Other initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service, an important field of sub-regional cooperation, should also be expedited. Greater focus on these issues would lead to exponential growth in people-to-people contacts and, consequently, intra-regional trade and regional integration. Enhancing connectivity would not only serve as a catalyst for accelerating economic growth but would also lead to better mutual understanding and friendship among our peoples,” she added.
On the SAARC Development Fund, or SDF, Singh said it was established to promote the welfare the people of the region, operationalise its Economic and Infrastructure Windows, in addition to the Social Window which is currently up and running.
“This spreading of wings by SDF is required so as to fulfil its mandate of financing result-oriented development projects in critical areas, which should, it goes without saying, be well monitored,” she said.
Contented about the process of ratification of the Agreement on SAARC Food Bank being completed, Singh said most of the operational issues have been addressed by its Governing Board.
“We must also expedite the Agreement on Establishment of SAARC Seed Bank. On security, we need to commence operational programmes for cooperation. The SAARC Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters signed during fifteenth SAARC Summit in Colombo in 2008 should be ratified,” she added.
She also said it is in mutual interest of the SAARC nations that cooperation in this area moves from declaratory to implementation stage.
Commenting on the South Asian University, Singh said, “It is of particular satisfaction to note that the University has 374 students and 56 faculty members and that its first convocation will be held soon. India is committed to providing 100 scholarships per annum to students from SAARC LDCs. The South Asian University is a shining example of regional cooperation under SAARC.”
She further added that India remains committed to bearing the entire capital expenditure for this project.
She also asserted that several activities have been organised by SAARC Cultural Centre to promote mutual understanding through people-to-people links by acquainting this region of the rich cultural diversity that exists in each of its parts.
She also pointed out that a SAARC Museum of Textile and Handicrafts, and a training Centre, is being established in Delhi to encourage age-old textile traditions of the region.
“While we pursue our overarching goals of regional integration, we should not miss out on the opportunities of sub-regional cooperation within SAARC. SAARC neighbour countries and regions such as the north-east of India can work together to create win-win situations. Similarly, littoral and island states have their unique concerns and requirements; an example of furthering sub-regional cooperation here is the sub-regional Ferry Service,” she added. (ANI)