Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles
Essential Tenets Bilateral Dialogue Regional Cooperation Contemporary Challenges
  SAARC : A HOLISTIC VISION  

 

.

SAARC: A Holistic Vision

It has been India’s privilege to have chaired the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation over the past two years. I gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and constructive support which we have received from the member states in carrying our collective agenda forward. SAARC is the central vehicle for regional transformation and there are, rightly, many high expectation from it, which we have to fulfil.

SAARC serves the uplift of close of a fourth of all humanity. The task before us is a noble and compelling one, a responsibility we share both as individual states and together as a region. Progress and advancement in the world today wait for no one. It is imperative that South Asia too marches ahead to claim the rightful place, which its populations, enterprise, skills and creativity entitle it to.

The last two years have seen regional cooperation and economic integration make rapid progress the world over. We, in SAARC too, must set our eyes on the future and evolve strategies to meet all the expectations, hopes and aspirations of a new millennium.

We are now embarked on the second decade in the life of our organisation. The Ninth Summit must erect signposts to direct our collective future, expressive of the enormous potentiality of SAARC, which has caught the imagination of our people.

Economic cooperation has received the focus it deserves in recent years and is making rapid progress. The third round of the South Asian Preferential Trade Arrangement (SAPTA) will be launched shortly and will further accelerate the pace of trade liberalisation in the region. However, tariff concessions have to be deepened and extended to cover all product lines and accompanied by dismantling of non-tariff barriers, so that the objective of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) by the turn of the century or very shortly thereafter, to which we are pledged, is achieved. I reiterated India’s commitment not to let non-tariff barriers come in the way of expansion of imports from SAARC member states, which would be generated through tariff concessions. We have already removed these barriers substantially and this process will continue. Our collective effort in the tariff reduction rounds from now on must be to ensure that what began as a trickle in the first round, is converted into a cascade. To achieve this, the approach should now embrace across the board tariff reductions. The goal of SAFTA must be achieved to launch us into the next millennium as a free trade area. This is a goal within our grasp, as we are already pursuing policies of lowering tariff rates and removing non-tariff barriers in our global policies.

The canvas of our economic cooperation is now wide ranging, covering areas such as investment promotion and protection, avoidance of double taxation, harmonisation in customs procedures and documentation, upgradation and coordination of standards and modalities of smooth arbitration, to name but a few. The creation of an economic environment where the productive potential in our countries can be optimally harnessed to shared benefit is becoming a reality. In fact, given the momentum of global economic activity and the dramatic advances which other regions have made, our vision for South Asia should reach beyond SAFTA into the contours of a South Asian Economic Community (SAEC). This project would cover crucial issues vital for our shared economic future, such as a regional investment regime, export-oriented joint ventures, easy movement of goods and capital, enhancement of our export potential by raising quality standards and expanded regional markets, human resource and skills development, scientific and technological cooperation, upgrading and augmenting of regional infrastructures, regional diffusion of financial and other services - in short, the harmonisation of the economic life of the region as a whole for our common benefit. We would entrust the commerce ministers and the Committee on Economic Cooperation with deciding on modalities for realising this goal.

It is particularly heartening that in the momentous task of shaping the economic future of our region, we have the enthusiastic participation and commitment of our business and academic communities, and broad-based participation of professional groups and civil society. We applaud the pioneering SAARC Conference on Economic Cooperation, organised by the SAARC Chamber of Commerce in New Delhi in November last year, the ambitious targets which this conference posed, and the decision to make the conference an annual event, at the same time as the SAARC Trade Fairs and meeting of SAARC commerce ministers. Economic cooperation goes beyond ensuring positive indices and growth statistics; it lies in the core objective of raising standards of living and quality of life as part of an all-embracing social transformation.

The development strategies of SAARC have to be formulated on the basic premise of the primacy of the human being, and particular care for the most vulnerable sections in our societies. Social and economic advances have to embrace all constituents of our societies without exception, if they are to be self-sustaining. The goal of all SAARC activities, simply expressed, is to elevated and enrich the lives of all those who call South Asia their home. All our efforts in SAARC are ultimately addressed to this goal of human enrichment and human dignity. We, therefore, attach the highest importance to the assault on poverty within a broad-based social agenda.

An in-depth study has been carried out by the independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation. This resulted in a comprehensive set of recommendations, based on which SAARC had set up a three-tier mechanism to oversee the translation of these recommendations into practice. More than anything else, this report delivered a strong political message and proposed a strategy to bring the poor and marginalised sections of society within the mainstream of the growth process, through participatory approaches. In the approach to our Ninth Five Year Plan, seven basic services have been identified for priority attention with an all-out effort for their complete coverage in a time manner. These are safe drinking water, availability of primary health service facilities, universalisation of primary education, provision of public housing and assistance to all shelterless poor families, nutritional support to children, connectivity of all villages and habitations by roads and a public distribution system targeted to the poor. This plan would also support the process of social mobilisation through organising the poor, empowering women and setting up support structures, including informal credit institutions, for the poor. The third meeting of the ministers of finance and planning should, in the light of the recent experiences gained in implementing economic reforms and structural adjustment, examine what further innovative methods can be adopted to create more space for the poor in our economic systems.

Parallel with direct action by the government, the most important instrument of poverty eradication is enabling the poor to help themselves, by providing them social help, technical assistance and resources, including lines of credit through sensitive support organisations. Recent meetings of the SAARC mechanism have made valuable recommendations, such as evolving a common SAARC yardstick for definition and measurement of poverty, which can then be used to supplement national definitions and to evaluate our accomplishments in this field, and micro-credit, where one of us, Bangladesh, has achieved widely noted success. Our finance and planning ministers should evaluate all recommendations and approve plans for effective action.

We attach very great importance to the social agenda of SAARC, as all of us bear a special responsibility for social justice, gender equality and redressing the burden and indignities which the most vulnerable in our society have to bear. 1991-2000 had been declared as the SAARC Decade of the Girl Child here in Male, in 1990, during the fifth SAARC Summit. We have, before us, the Rawalpindi Resolution on Children, the mid-decade review of the plan of action that we had adopted, as well as an appraisal of the situation of girl children in the region in especially difficult circumstances. Some valuable recommendations have been made, and we endorse them. Whatever we may achieve, such striving is never ending. We have to continuously pose and achieve higher standards and targets.

Our approach has to be multidimensional. For instance, the question of water and sanitation, and the provision of a safe, secure and clean environment for our children, is intrinsic to their welfare. This also has trans-border implications as is evident from the disquieting reports on arsenic levels in ground water in the State of West Bengal in India and in Bangladesh, which directly affects the health of women and of children in particular. Ground water levels are dropping, and pollution increasing all over the region. There is need for the launching of SAARC technology missions to develop low-cost, easily replicable technologies, appropriate to local regions for harvesting of clean water, prevention of fluorosis and similar associated problems. This is but one example of where such an approach can be rewarding.

We should launch a SAARC initiative on nutrition, involving an assessment of national policies for reducing malnutrition and promoting household food security. Another important aim of such an initiative would be supplementing and fortifying of micro-nutrients in food on a region-wide basis, for it is evident that folic acid, iodine and vitamin-A deficiencies have severely affected growth patterns and the well-being of the most vulnerable categories, women and children.

The two SAARC studies on the Causes and Consequences of Natural Disasters and the Protection and Preservation of the Environment, and on the greenhouse effect and its impact on the region, and the recent meeting of our environment ministers at New Delhi, have put environmental issues firmly on the SAARC agenda. Despite the momentum and the hopes generated at the Rio Summit, the balance in obligations the South had expected has not materialised. Today we have a common position which we together, as a region, will be presenting in New York next month. It clearly states our position that the North must bear its proper share of responsibility in alleviating environmental degradation and that poverty in the South is a major factor in the degradation of the environment. Basic environmental issues cannot be addressed without a global partnership towards a healthier, safer and more productive planet Earth.

The South Asian environmental is in need of urgent rehabilitation. We must repair the damage caused by past years of neglect, protect what we have the eliminate environmentally damaging and threatening practices. Sustainable development, along with rapid economic growth, can be achieved, but it requires concerted and enlightened action, commitment at the highest levels of government and broad-based support in society. A little foresight and planning can save us future years of irreparable damage and huge costs of corrective action.

Our environment ministers have proposed for us an agenda of cooperative action dealing with issues such as the conservation of rich biodiversity and the increasing fragmentation of our eco-systems, the management of our oceans and the handling of hazardous wastes. We need to develop an environmental strategy which permits sustainable use of natural resources. Social forestry, alternative sources of energy and clean fuel, dealing with water and air pollution are all elements in this strategy. I particularly welcome the ministers’ recommendation to establish effective information networking on environmental issues, which should supplement and support concrete action on the ground.

Global climate changes will affect our region severely, particularly the low lying littoral regions- in particular, the Maldives itself. We must carve out our role in the ongoing process of climate change negotiations. We need to develop a clear and coordinated position before the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto in December this year.

The SAARC region is blessed with a vast biosphere which offers immense potential for bio-industry development in agriculture, livestock, forestry and fisheries. It is a vital, life-giving and irreplaceable asset. It holds promise for increasing productivity and quality efficient processing and at the same time reduces reliance on agro-chemicals and other external inputs. It has implications for environment and health care. There are bio-safety concerns of protection and returns from this unique and irreplaceable resource, that we should address regionally. We need to launch a biotechnology initiative in South Asia, perhaps beginning with the identification of the resource and priority areas of investment in biotechnology to our technological and commercial advantage.

Education and literacy are vital for the future of our societies and hold the key to many of our problems. The literacy rate in much of our region continues to be embarrassingly low, and is falling further behind global levels. This situation quite obviously requires urgent remedial measures. In our efforts, we must also harness the considerable expertise that exists in Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and community-based voluntary organisations throughout our region, in the field of education and literacy.

Enrolment in education institutions has been increasing, but paucity of resources, insufficient trained manpower and lack of infrastructural facilities are major constraints. In this context, distance and open learning education assumes a significant role, through which we can reach out to a large number of people with cost effectiveness and flexibility. Cooperation among us could ultimately lead to the formation of a consortium of open universities in SAARC countries.

The youth must be our special concern. The future of our region will always be in the hands of our youth. There must be free and extensive interchange between young people in all fields in order to foster a sense of belonging to the region they share. The 1994 Ministerial Conference on Youth in South Asia in Maldives had been an important initiative aimed at integrating youth into the processes of national development and emphasising the commitment of our societies to their overall development. The SAARC Youth Awards Scheme and the decision to organise SAARC Youth Camps are ideas with good potential and these and other ideas should be pursued and institutionalised for maximum effect.

Sports brings people together, and needs to be further promoted by exchanging teams and organising joint camps for training of players as well as coaches. This will promote fellow feeling and also help in improving standards in the region.

People-to-people contact at all levels is the life blood of SAARC. We have made some progress in facilitating speedy visas, but this is indeed very modest compared to the expectations of our people, professional groups, volunteer organisations and our business community. They have a right to expect responsiveness from member states and we have an obligation to respond meaningfully.

South Asia must develop a distinct and dynamic regional identity in a future where regions are asserting their rightful place the world over. Such an evolution for our region is also natural. We have geographical distinctiveness. Our historical and cultural experience is a shared one and reaches back into the recesses of history. We have, through the ages, shared a coherent and distinctive economic life. However, what is most pivotal is that, in our hearts, we believe that we constitute a unique community. This is the bond which will pull us together into attaining our shared destiny.

This destiny has already been proclaimed for Asia. We are but a little time away from what has been predicted will be the Asian century. Authoritative studies reveal that in 1820, Asia comprised 60% of gross world product. By 1950, that had declined to 20%. It is projected that by the year 2020, it will be back up to 60%. Such projections, from the most eminent and respected sources, have heralded Asia as the continent of the future. This promise can only be won by us with belief, sustained collective endeavour and committed political will.

The Ninth Summit here in Male can become a landmark in our journey into that future by deciding on a holistic vision for our region for the year 2020, and in directing that the stages and strategies for realising it be elaborated. 2020 has become a symbolic as well as a specific destination, representing both perfect vision and a target year. Let us too, spell out such a vision to inspire and guide us, aware that what we achieve transforms not only our region, but, in good measure, changes the world as well.

[Ninth SAARC Summit, Male; 12th May 1997]

 

 


Essential Tenets Bilateral Dialogue Regional Cooperation Contemporary Challenges

Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles