Prime Minister Narendra Modi today announced three- to five-year business visas for businessmen from all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member countries, in a bid to boost regional trade across the region.
Addressing the SAARC Summit in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, Modi pointed out that trade between the eight member countries of the grouping comprised less than 5 per cent of the region's global trade.
He said there is a more urgent need for collective efforts in South Asia than anywhere else as we all face the same challenges, irrespective of size, in the path of development.
''But, I have great belief in our boundless potential; and, confidence - that comes from the many inspiring stories of innovation and initiative in each of our countries. There is much to learn from each other; even more - to do together,'' he said.
''How much have we done in SAARC to turn our natural wealth into shared prosperity, or our borders into bridgeheads to a shared future?'' Modi asked those in attendance.
Other major issues referred to by Modi included a SAARC satellite to be launched in 2016 as well as greater coordination in fields like health care and higher education.
Modi called upon SAARC members to end cynicism and scepticism as the region is throbbing with the optimism of its youth.
SAARC has not so far achieved its primary goals as even today, less than 5 per cent of the region's global trade takes place among member countries. Even at this modest level, less than 10 per cent of the region`s internal trade takes place under SAARC Free Trade Area, Modi pointed out.
He said, SAARC should not be found wanting at a time when there is a rising tide of integration from the middle of the Pacific to the southern coast of Atlantic Ocean.
Yet, he said, ''South Asia is slowly coming together. India and Bangladesh have deepened their links through rail, road, power and transit. India and Nepal have started a new era of cooperation in energy; and, India and Bhutan are making those ties stronger by the day. With Sri Lanka, we have transformed trade through a Free Trade Agreement. We will soon launch a new arrangement to meet Maldives` need for oil.''
Despite the distance and difficult environment, he said, India and Afghanistan are cooperating in several areas and bus and train services sustain contacts between people in India and Pakistan.
''We have given five South Asian partners duty-free access to 99.7 per cent of their goods and prepared to do more with others,'' he added.
Indian companies are investing billions abroad, but less than 1 per cent 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.''
While SAARC has not done much to turn its natural wealth into shared prosperity or make borders into bridgeheads to a shared future, he said, India has been able to provide assistance of nearly $8 billion in South Asia over a decade.
''The amount may not be great, but we are grateful for the opportunity to have made a difference to the lives of a few brothers and sisters in our region,'' Modi said.
While each SAARC member has taken its own initiatives, as a group SAARC has failed to move with the necessary speed. This, he said, cannot be explained away as part of the region's inherited development gap, which should actually have spurred members to do more.
We should not ''get stuck behind the walls of our differences and remain hesitant to move out of the shadows of the past as it won`t resolve our differences, but will certainly deprive us of opportunities,'' he said.
He said doing business in the region will ensure that our facilities at the border will speed up, not slow down, trade.
At the same time, Modi said, India will try to reduce its huge SAARC countries, as he said it was neither right nor sustainable. He also asked other SAARC countries to attract Indian investments to produce for the Indian market and create jobs for their youth. Also, he said, SAARC nations should be able to easily raise funds in India for investments at home; and cross-border industrial corridors come up taking advantage of the natural synergies.
Connectivity by rail, road and air is so important that it will not only make a difference to the lives of the people, but also promote tourism in the region.
Modi said, India will try to reduce its huge trade surplus with SAARC countries, as he said it was neither right nor sustainable. He also asked other SAARC countries to attract Indian investments to produce for the Indian market and create jobs for their youth.
Also, he said, SAARC nations should be easily be able to raise funds in India for investments at home; and cross-border industrial corridors can come up taking advantage of the natural synergies.