'We create the templates for members to follow through'

The Inquirer

'We create the templates for members to follow through'

 With over 1.5 billion people, the conglomerate of India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka is the world’s largest regional grouping in terms of total population. But the bloc has struggled to be a purposeful organisation and has a long way to go to turn into a strong regional grouping, like the Asean. Ahead of the Saarc summit at Thimphu on April 28 and 29, its secretary general Sheel Kant Sharma spoke to Anirban Bhaumik of Deccan Herald. Excerpts:

Has the Saarc served its purpose well in the past 25 years?
The strengths or weaknesses should be seen in the perspectives of the countries concerned. Over the past 25 years, Saarc has done a large number of norm-setting. With 1.5 billion people, this organisation alone cannot undertake implementation. It provides a template and the member states have to implement it. People forget that not only India, but even Pakistan and Bangladesh are large countries with huge populations. Making South Asia prosperous and peaceful are the goals with which the Saac came into being and therefore it has always been focusing on the importance of economic growth, social progress and cultural development to meet the expectations of people of the region.
South Asia has challenges stemming not only from demographic explosion, but also from compulsions of economic development and, on top of this, terrorism that menaces this region. We are not flush with funds: every dollar for any of our countries has 20 priorities chasing it. Therefore, Saarc cannot afford to be profligate.

Is the troubled bilateral relations between India and Pakistan hindering the emergence of Saarc as a strong regional grouping?
No. Pakistan and India have been supportive of various Saarc activities, initiatives and programmes. Long period of cooperation has made Saarc common asset for all. Its charter clearly defines the principles based on which cooperation is taking shape. Contentious issues are excluded from the Saarc agenda. I think both the countries have made great contributions to Saarc in the past and will continue to do so.

How do you see the future of Saarc?
I firmly believe that in today’s world as well as in future it is the co-operative endeavour that carries the day. Saarc has been focusing on many specific areas of co-operation like trade, energy, transport, education, poverty alleviation and others which could produce tangible results to the people of the region.

What does the ensuing Saarc summit at Thimphu have on its agenda?
The secretariat is working on the agenda taking into account the regional priorities, including climate change, poverty alleviation, tourism, energy, transport, science and technology, trade, education, agriculture and food security.

What has Saarc done towards regional cooperation against terrorism?
The process started in the mid 80s, and one of the very first steps, which we took was to have a convention for the suppression of terrorism in 1987. It was followed up by a protocol on criminalising and preventing financing of terrorism, which went into operation by 2004. There has been further agreement which was signed at the last summit, on mutual legal assistance. These are the building blocks on which the Saarc countries have agreed to work towards the objective of eradicating terrorism. Implementation of these instruments has to be done by the member states.

Has the South Asia Free Trade Agreement or Safta been able to boost the intra-Saarc trade? Can you tell us about the SAARC endeavours to boost regional connectivity?
Yes, Safta is serving its purpose as trade among countries is increasing year after year. Since the launching of trade liberalisation programme in 2006, intra-SAARC trade has reached more than half a billion dollars and may go up further when complete data is available from all member states for the period July-Dec 2009. Further, a working group on ‘reduction in the sensitive lists’ was set up and it agreed that the member states while maintaining overall balance in tangible preferential market access to all contracting states, shall reduce their sensitive lists by 20 per cent.

A Saarc regional multimodal transport study has been conducted with the assistance of Asian Development Bank to suggest ways to expand regional connectivity. An inter-governmental group on transport is addressing the first steps in this direction. A meeting of the transport ministers has also considered identifying various corridors through which the Saarc member countries could be connected with one another.

A Saarc cabinet secretaries’ meet had recommended sharing of best practices in governance among the member countries. Has any progress been made on this?
The meet held last year had recommended that the member states provide detailed information on six best practices in the field of administrative reforms undertaken in their respective countries. After receipt of inputs, the secretariat would prepare a compendium, and also post it on its website. Information on best practices has already been received from some of the member states.

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