Home/ Politics / Policy/  Saarc summit nears failure as Pakistan, India differ

Kathmandu: Three pacts aimed at boosting rail and road connectivity and set up of a regional power grid seemed destined to remain unsigned as the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in Kathmandu looked headed for failure on Wednesday with leaders of the bloc unable to reconcile differences, described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “shadows of the past".

As a collapse of the talks loomed, Modi warned those holding back the bloc. “The bonds will grow. Through Saarc or outside it. Among us all or some of us. We can all choose our paths to our destinations. But, when we join our hands and walk in step, the path becomes easier, the journey quicker and the destination closer."

Modi, a big supporter of Saarc, pointed to “a new awareness" within the eight-member grouping for need to quicken progress and regional integration.

India had been pushing for regional rail and road connectivity besides a power grid linking the region. The three pacts were expected to be the showpiece outcomes of the Kathmandu summit that would blunt criticism that Saarc summits are mere talk shops. But with Pakistan throwing a spanner in the works, citing the lack of “internal processes being in place", the three pacts were not expected to be signed on Thursday—the last day of the summit.

“Virtually everyone whom prime minister met said this did not augur well for the organization (Saarc)," Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.

He said the failure to sign the three pacts could be a “major discussion point at the retreat" that the Saarc heads of government would be going for on Thursday morning at Dhulikhel outside Kathmandu.

“Saarc doesn’t stand or collapse on the basis of the three agreements", but India would be disappointed if the agreements did not fructify, Akbaruddin said.

On Wednesday, Modi called on Saarc members to put behind past differences and move ahead together to build an economically vibrant and integrated region as he announced a number of initiatives to revitalize the bloc.

Easing of visa norms for business leaders, a pledge to address Saarc member countries’ concerns over level playing field in India, funds for establishing a Saarc Regional Reference Laboratory for Tuberculosis and HIV and speedy visas for those coming to India for medical treatment were some of the promises made by Modi at the opening session of the two-day meet.

Modi also promised to launch a Saarc satellite that would “benefit us all in areas like education, telemedicine, disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting, communication".

Saarc groups together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and is home to 1.6 billion people. But poverty, poor connectivity and the barriers to trade, besides tensions between member states like India and Pakistan, have been cited as reasons for the region not achieving its potential in the three decades of its existence.

“For India, our vision for the region rests on five pillars—trade, investment, assistance, cooperation in every area, contacts between our people—and, all through seamless connectivity. This is the call of our times," Modi said.

“Today, less than 5% of the region’s global trade takes place between us. Even at this modest level, less than 10% of the region’s internal trade takes place under Saarc Free Trade Area (Safta). Indian companies are investing billions abroad, but less than 1% flow into our region. It is still harder to travel within our region than to Bangkok or Singapore, and more expensive to speak to each other," he noted.

The Indian prime minister urged the Saarc member states to emerge from behind “walls of our differences" and “move out of the shadows of the past".

As the largest constituent of Saarc, India was prepared to do its part, Modi said, promising a special fund to finance infrastructure projects, better facilities at the borders and three to five-year business visas.

“We will address your concerns (on trade) and give you a level playing field in India," Modi said. “But I encourage you to attract Indian investments, to produce for the Indian market and create jobs for your youth."

“I also look to a future when your companies can easily raise funds in India for investments at home; and, when we have cross-border industrial corridors, so that we can take advantage of the natural synergies and connected lives in our border states," he said. In the area of education, Modi said India was prepared to connect South Asian students through online courses and electronic libraries.

Modi’s initiatives at the Saarc summit come exactly six months after his 26 May oath-taking ceremony was witnessed by the heads of government of seven Saarc countries and the Speaker of Bangladesh, all of who attended the event at the invitation of the prime minister.

Connectivity and its importance was a recurrent theme in the speeches of many other Saarc leaders such as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.

“The most obvious path to prosperity in through intra-regional trade...in this context we welcome finalization of Saarc agreements on motor vehicles, regional railways and the inter-governmental framework for energy cooperation," Tobgay said.

In his speech, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said promoting regional connectivity “is one of the seven pillars of our (Pakistan’s) development strategy. My government is actively promoting this initiative, which has the potential to integrate South Asia, China and Central Asia—the three engines of growth in Asia".

Noting that all countries in South Asia were democracies, Sharif hoped that Saarc member states “would be able to work together to make our region peaceful and prosperous…. We must strengthen the regional cooperation," he said.

“My vision for our region is a dispute-free South Asia, where instead of fighting each other, we jointly fight poverty," Sharif said.

Rajapaksa and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai highlighted the challenges posed by terrorism.

“Terrorism remains a fundamental security challenge both regionally as well as internationally.... Sri Lanka cannot remain complacent in maintaining safeguards against its possible resurgence," Rajapaksa said.

Ahmadzai, in a veiled reference to Pakistan, slammed countries who “embrace and sponsor non-state actors, providing them with resources and sanctuaries, use them as proxies in their competition with other states". Afghanistan would not allow its soil to be used to launch terrorist attacks against another country; neither would it allow anyone to use Afghan soil for proxy wars between countries, he said.

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Updated: 27 Nov 2014, 12:25 AM IST
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