External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj addressed the 37th SAARC Council of Ministers in Pokhara in Nepal. Swaraj pushed for greater “collective strength” among the SAARC nations.
She noted that regional integration was lacking in the South Asian region considering it has been hailed as having the potential to be the front-runner of growth and prosperity and is one of the fastest growing regions of the world. She underlined the need for a South Asian Economic Union with greater connectivity and forward movement on pending agreements on rail and motor vehicles.
“As we seek to overcome basic problems of physical connectivity, it is important for us to move forward quickly on pending agreements on rail and motor vehicles. Economic activities, cultural connections and people to people contacts will flow naturally from such connectivity,” she said.
“We have taken some important decisions to integrate our economies through SAFTA and South Asian Trade in Services Agreement. These need to be developed and consolidated further if we are to achieve a South Asian Economic Union,” Swaraj explained.
Swaraj said connectivity is central to regional development and will determine how “we meet our goals of growth, employment and prosperity”.
“We continue to face significant challenges in delivering food security, health, nutrition and education to our peoples….All this goes to show that while we are doing well individually, we have not been able to unleash our collective strength effectively,” Swaraj said in her address.
Despite strong growth and huge advances in education, healthcare and rural development, the SAARC region still has the world’s largest number of people living below the poverty line, Swaraj pointed out.
She hailed Modi government’s commitment to a ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and its vision of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’.
Swaraj said India is prepared to work within the SAARC community to realise developmental goals in various fields including education and science.
“Looking ahead, I am confident of your support for a SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Centre in India,” Swaraj added.
“We must recognise that we have common enemies in poverty, illiteracy, terrorism and environmental degradation…We will need to fight these challenges together since we have a shared history, and a shared destiny. Let us reach for it together,” she said.
SAARC comprises Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
(With inputs from PTI)