Acknowledging the fact that South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions, the heads of state and government gathered here for the 18th Saarc Summit urged for greater cooperation on energy development.
All Saarc countries, except Bhutan, face acute power shortage despite having tremendous potential to develop energy. Nepal has 44,000MW of hydropower potential while Bangladesh has abundant gas reserves.
“Let us treat electricity as a commodity like any other that we invest in and trade,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his inaugural speech.
With the summit focusing on “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity”, leaders stressed on connectivity and integration through rail and road, intra-regional trade and creating a conducive investment climate. They also advocated for increased cooperation and collective efforts in agriculture, health, sanitation, education and women empowerment.
Saarc makes for six percent of the world’s population, attracts one percent of total global foreign direct investment, less than five percent of the region’s global trade takes place between the eight member states and about 10 percent of the region’s internal trade takes place under the Saarc Free Trade Area.
The South Asian leaders also called for a more realistic, result-oriented mutually beneficial partnership to prosper together and pledged for a peaceful, progressive and connected South Asia.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala said: “It requires a quantum jump in economic linkages through implementing Safta and further liberalising trade, including services, to move towards the goal of achieving a South Asian Economic Union. We need to build roads, railways, airways, pipelines, ports and waterways to facilitate a greater movement of goods, services, capital and people.”
The heads of state and government also suggested ending all forms of terrorism for political stability and economic prosperity. “Yet, when we speak of Saarc, we usually hear two reactions—cynicism and scepticism. This, sadly, is in a region throbbing with the optimism of our youth,” said Indian PM Modi.
In view of further facilitating business activities in the region, the Indian PM mentioned that India will now give business visa for 3-5 years for applicants of Saarc countries. “Let us make it even easier for our businesses through a Saarc Business Traveler Card.” The move is seen as an attempt to further attract investment and create jobs for the South Asian youths.
For the health sector, Modi pledged to meet the shortfall in funds to establish the Saarc Regional Supra Reference Laboratory for TB and HIV. He offered the five-in-one vaccine service for South Asian children as well as monitoring and surveillance of polio-free countries. “And for those coming to India for medical treatment, India will provide immediate medical visa for the patient and an attendant.”
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina viewed connectivity through a wider lens and urged for intertwining ideas, knowledge, technology, culture, people, road-rail-air, movement of goods, services and investment in the region.
Highlighting the low trade indexes among the member states, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that his country attaches high importance to Saarc specially at a time when more than a fifth of the population is between the ages of 15-24. “We must reach out for more foreign direct investment to create a win-win situation.”
He appealed for people to people relations to bolster integration in economy and trade as well as promote cultural connectivity. “Pakistan is actively pursuing this initiative to integrate South Asia, China and Central Asia for transnational oil and gas pipelines.” He also underscored to need to give China a greater role in South Asia.
The distant dream of realising a South Asia Economic Union by 2030, however, remains a challenge unless the member countries fully implement Safta.
As Saarc approaches its 30th anniversary next year, the global world today demands massive economic and technological innovations. “Time has come for us to decide what kind of Saarc we want. People have patiently waited for long. They deserve development dividends as benefits from enhanced regional cooperation,” said PM Koirala.