New Delhi: Countries of an economic grouping spanning South Asia and South-East Asia on Friday called for the early adoption of a master plan on transport connectivity in the region to boost trade and people-to-people contact among member states.

Leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand meeting in Kathmandu sought the speedy conclusion of a free trade agreement, the establishment of a development fund and the forging of common positions on key issues and seeking recognition for the group in various multilateral organizations, institutions and processes to build up the group’s profile.

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BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, formed in 1997, has seven members. It is home to 1.6 billion people, or nearly 22% of the world’s population, and has a combined gross domestic product of $2.8 trillion. However, the bloc has held summit-level meetings only thrice before the current Kathmandu summit, putting a question mark on its relevance. In its joint declaration, BIMSTEC also deplored terrorist attacks in all parts of the world. The group underlined that the fight against terrorism “should target not only terrorists, terror organizations and networks but also identify and hold accountable states and non-state entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuaries to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues".

It also urged member states to “devise a comprehensive approach which should include preventing financing of terrorists and terrorist actions from territories under their control, blocking recruitment and cross-border movement of terrorists, countering radicalization, countering misuse of internet for purposes of terrorism and dismantling terrorist safe havens."

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On connectivity, BIMSTEC leaders “reiterated their resolve to establish seamless multi-modal transportation linkages and smooth, synchronized and simplified transit facilities through the development, expansion and modernization of highways, railways, waterways, sea routes, airways in the region," the declaration said.

The grouping resolved to speed up efforts to conclude the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement “as early as possible taking into account the special circumstances and needs of the member states," the declaration said. The possibility of establishing “a BIMSTEC Development Fund (BDF)", with voluntary contributions from countries for financing projects in member countries was also discussed at the summit and found mention in the declaration. The declaration also sought an upgradation of the profile of the grouping—made up of countries situated along the periphery of the Bay of Bengal—a demand voiced by members like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh with representatives noting that the grouping was little recognized by the people of member countries or those outside.

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The leaders also called for accelerating “progress in the core areas of cooperation and to review, restructure and rationalize the existing areas of BIMSTEC cooperation and streamline the operational modalities for activities, implementation of programmes and projects under BIMSTEC for bringing out tangible results."

They sought the quick conclusion of a Free Trade Area (FTA) negotiations and directed the BIMSTEC Trade and Economic Ministerial Meeting and its subsidiary bodies to speed up finalization of all related agreements of the FTA as early as possible.

The group also agreed to look at developing a comprehensive plan for energy cooperation within the region and decided to constitute an intergovernmental group of experts to enhance energy cooperation including in hydro-power and other sources of renewable energy.

BIMSTEC members also signed a preliminary pact on BIMSTEC grid interconnection and also ensure the early establishment of a BIMSTEC grid to strengthen energy cooperation in the region.

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