Public Diplomacy Public Diplomacy

Foreign Secretary’s media interaction during curtain raiser for 1st meeting of SAF

August 25, 2011

Official Spokesperson (Shri Vishnu Prakash): Good evening and welcome. In the last SAARC Summit in Thimphu a decision was taken to set up the South Asia Forum (SAF). The first meeting of the Forum will take place in New Delhi between the 7th and the 9th of September. Foreign Secretary is here to apprise you of this very important initiative.

He is also joined by Mr. Asoke Mukerji, Additional Secretary MEA and Senior Vice-President of FICCI, Mr. R.V. Kanoria.

Briefly the programme is that we will have the Additional Secretary make introductory remarks, thereafter there will be an address by the Foreign Secretary followed by remarks by Mr. Kanoria. And thereafter Foreign Secretary will be happy to take a few questions. After that at 1900 hours, as you are aware, there is a reception that the Foreign Secretary is hosting and all of you are very cordially invited.

Asoke, the floor is yours.

Additional Secretary (Shri Asoke Kumar Mukerji): Thank you, Vishnu.

Foreign Secretary, Mr. Kanoria, friends in the media, I want to take this opportunity to briefly mention the reason why we are meeting today. The idea of the South Asia Forum was proposed at SAARC Summit in Thimphu in April last year. Subsequent to that, since it was an Indian proposal we followed up with the concept note on what we thought the Forum could look like and discussed it in a meeting of SAARC countries in January this year again. I was chairing the process of the SAARC group back in January and subsequently informed a Steering Committee which met in April. Both these meetings were endorsed by the SAARC process, by the Foreign Ministers. Subsequent to the endorsement of this process we have now an agreement among all the eight member countries of SAARC to collaborate together in convening the first meeting of the South Asia Forum.

It is a public private partnership and we are grateful to FICCI which is the nodal chamber of commerce in India represented in the SAARC Chambers of Commerce for partnering the Government of India and the Ministry of External Affairs within the Government of India in hosting this Forum.

Foreign Secretary I think would be the best person to provide us with the details of what we had conceptualized in terms of what the Forum would intend to do and how it could help. I would like to, therefore, turn the floor over to Foreign Secretary to …(Unclear)…

Foreign Secretary (Shri Ranjan Mathai): Thank you very much, Asoke.

Ladies and gentlemen of the media, Mr. Kanoria, friends from FICCI, and my colleagues:

I would like to thank all of you for joining us in what we are calling a curtain raiser for the forthcoming South Asia Forum which, as you have been told, India is hosting early next month.

As Asoke mentioned, this is an initiative that emanates from the Silver Jubilee Declaration of the SAARC Summit which was held in Thimphu in April last year. This is we believe a very unique construct for our region. We already have some Track II processes which are in the way in the region, but this is the first of its kind to be formally endorsed by the SAARC Summit as a platform that explicitly includes business, academia and non-governmental entities.

The Summit at which SAF emerged, visualized that the Forum would be a platform to generate debates and facilitate an exchange of ideas on what you might call our shared South Asian home, and how its future development could take place. The Forum has been tasked to provide inputs to the next Summit which will be held in Maldives in November. At that point we hope to take stock of where SAARC stands after 25 years of its existence. And the suggestions which emerge from the Forum will also provide something of a roadmap for the medium and long term for the SAARC as a whole.

So, I think it is fair to say that the Forum will provide the Governments who meet in the Summit an opportunity to listen to some new thinking, fresh thinking, as a group on what we can do to energise our cooperation programmes to move forward on the larger goal creating a South Asian community and a South Asian Economic Union. This concept is timely and relevant as SAARC's potential as a driver of regional integration all the way from Afghanistan to Bhutan, and from Nepal to Maldives is steadily being realized. And I think it is important to note that it is also recognized worldwide that economic integration in this region could be a factor for stability.

Within the history of SAARC it is inevitable that the Forum will develop in an evolutionary manner. We do not expect the entire process to be completed in a single meeting. We are, therefore, happy that India is hosting the very first meeting as a partnership between MEA and FICCI. The Government's presence in this event is rather extensive, and it is intended to provide the initial support to establish the Forum and to encourage its future development.

FICCI's partnership underscores the need for many more private initiatives, especially from business, to underpin SAARC's focus on a more cooperative future for the region. The fact that this is a public private partnership signals that SAARC is today building a sense of South Asian identity across the region and that the linchpin of the future any integration schemes will inevitably be driven by the economic integration and business partnerships. That is the way in fact many other regional entities have developed and the cohesion of many of those in the other parts of the world has in fact been driven by business and by non-governmental agencies. In fact, as I said in the beginning, the aim is to really provide a lead, to provide a catalytic process in the beginning, and then ensure that FICCI and its partners will carry the weight from there.

The theme for this first SAF is, therefore, integration in South Asia : Moving Towards a South Asian Economic Union. I understand that Vishnu has provided a media kit which will give you all the details of the programme. So, I would not go into them. You will see that the event is structured in three sessions and the focus is on enabling a free-flowing discussion while promoting a conversation, a genuine conversation.

Sessions 2 and 3 are intended to draw up ideas that could contribute to starting a vision for SAARC over the next twenty-five years. These include themes which are of great topical interest like business and economic integration, culture, sports, climate change and the environment, and finally demographic issues which are politically relevant to our region, which has the largest growing population of young students.

How we will work is that each SAARC member state will nominate a delegate to anchor a thematic panel and one delegate to present the paper on the theme that is intended to initiate the discussions. We are currently awaiting these nominations from each of the SAARC states though the programme is well under way.

So, thematic sessions are also reflective of areas of our Government's focus on our immediate neighbourhood and on ways in which we can work with our partners in South Asia to embed the habit of beneficial regional cooperation. The key is to find ways of building institutions and mechanisms of regional relevance which provide benefit to our peoples to improve connectivity, development opportunities and trade facilitation in an environment of peaceful cooperation and energy.

We have a good panel of participants from among our SAARC neighbours the details of which you will find in the media kits. I am particularly gratified that the Deputy-Chairman of the Planning Commission has consented to inaugurate the Forum and to participate in the stocktaking sessions that will follow. A very eminent predecessor of mine Ambassador Lalit Mansingh will be chairing the entire meeting. He would then be requested to summarise discussions and draw together plans for convening future meetings of the South Asia Forum which is intended to meet annually somewhere in our region.

We are happy that we will be having a number of eminent participants from among our partners in SAARC including at the Ministerial and Deputy Ministerial level from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal who have confirmed so far. The delegations list which is in your media pack includes many eminent academics and former civil servants who have contributed significantly to the process of establishing SAARC and developing the habit of regional cooperation. We hope this first meeting of the South Asia Forum will, therefore, help us to achieve the objective of creating new and effective mechanisms for regional cooperation in our immediate neighbourhood.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would now like to hand it over to Mr. Kanoria, and thereafter we will take questions.

Shri R.V. Kanoria (Senior Vice-President, FICCI): Thank you very much, Sir.

Mr. Ranjan Mathai, Hon. Foreign Secretary to Government of India; Mr. Asoke Mukerji, the SAF's Steering Committee head and Additional Secretary of Ministry of External Affairs; Mr. Vishnu Prakash, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; and friends from the media:

We are absolutely delighted in FICCI that we will be part of this very important new initiative of the public private partnership between the Ministry of External Affairs and FICCI to launch the South Asia Forum within the context of SAARC. I would like to thank the Ministry of External Affairs for supporting FICCI in jointly organizing the first meeting of the South Asia Forum.

As the Secretary has already said, friends, the South Asia Forum is the first of its kind and will facilitate the active sharing of experiences and best practices and allow an exchange of ideas to be an enabler for enhanced engagement among South Asia's intellectual diaspora. We can endeavour to evolve a vision for South Asian regionalism in the coming twenty-five years. And as the Secretary has mentioned, there is no better way than economic integration to …(Unclear)… not only …(Unclear)… but as Foreign Secretary mentioned that it is perceived that any economic stability in this region actually is contributing to global stability.

FICCI and the Indian constituent of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry have already made pioneering efforts to bring the business community of SAARC countries closer together. It is our desire in FICCI to pursue the agenda of bringing together both the Track I through the political process as well as the Track II through the business process towards greater regional economic cooperation.

I would like to say that business leaders of SAARC countries have confidence in their abilities to compete with the best and the brightest anywhere in the world. They have the desire and they intend to raise the potential to make South Asia an economic powerhouse of the world. We need to look at inter-related South Asian future where trade and cross border links flourish and bring prosperity to all our people. As a region blessed with an abundance of natural and human resources, a youthful population, and a unique spirit of enterprise, this surely should be an achievable goal.

On behalf of the business community, may I just reiterate what the business community endeavours and perhaps the entire civil society of South Asia would like to look forward to.

  • Freedom to trade without barriers
  • Freedom to invest across the borders
  • Freedom to travel seamlessly
  • Connectivity across the borders through world class linkages, open skies, open roads and open seaways
  • Building a South Asian brand equity.

The first meeting of the South Asia Forum should aim at successfully gauging the interest of the member states. The Forum is bringing together, as the Foreign Secretary has already mentioned, a group of eminent persons comprising of key policy makers, prominent industry players, and active representatives from think tanks, civil society and the media. The overarching theme remains South Asia Economic Union. The meeting's focus is on the economic dimension of SAARC and on the socio-cultural dimension. To this end FICCI has already launched a website which is for the forthcoming South Asia Forum. I hope that this website ultimately would become popular in this region to continue to foster trade and business amongst the business community. The finding of this unique forum would be an excellent input to the forthcoming SAARC Summit at Male in November 2011.

I would like to thank again the Ministry of External Affairs for partnering with us. Thank you very much.

Official Spokesperson: Thank you, Mr. Kanoria. The Foreign Secretary will be happy to take a few questions pertaining to the SAARC process and the South Asia Forum.

Question: If the idea is to have a South Asia Economic Forum on the lines of the European Union and African Union and ASEAN and NAFTA, are we working with a time limit in mind as to when it is going to be a reality considering that at the moment intra-SAARC trade is less than five per cent or around 20 million dollars or whatever? What are your expectations from South Asia Forum as well as SAARC in the next 25 years?

Foreign Secretary: Before starting to answer that question I would like to acknowledge the presence of an ex-colleague of ours who has actually been the Secretary-General of SAARC, Ambassador Sheel Kant Sharma. If any of us does not have very fine technical details we will always be able to turn to Sheel because he has actually been Secretary-General.

You pointed to the ASEAN and the European Union. These are indeed very successful examples of economic integration in our area. I think the Forum is not intended to head in that direction. Forum is intended to be a clearinghouse for ideas, thinking out of the box through people who are not necessarily directly related to the official channels of how SAARC is moving, but who can bring to bear their knowledge, as FICCI has said, what is best in terms of how the movement called the SAARC can move forward towards an economic union.

Certainly the very outstanding examples you have mentioned would be a long-term direction but if one were looking for a model of what the Forum is trying to achieve, I would like to say with a degree of modesty because we are just starting but if we see the way in which certain other fora like the World Economic Forum in Davos has contributed through its own deliberations, non-official, to inputs into official agencies, into official channels, into official fora, in the same way this forum could contribute by bringing people together, the people from diverse disciplines from outside Government, from business, from think tanks, from academia, from media, from civil society at large, to assist you might say the Governments and the officials in the process of developing a common vision. I think that is what we intend to do.

You mentioned quite rightly that intra-SAARC trade is not very impressive. I would just like to say that I was shown a figure which, while indeed is not impressive, has grown remarkably in the last five years from something around a 150 million within the SAFTA process to something like a billion in five years. So, the potential for a very rare rapid growth if we all agree is indeed very great.

Question: You said that the region will not truly be a free trade area as long as free movement of people, labour, currency and other forms of capital is hampered. That is what you said in conclusion. I just want to ask you since you are looking for twenty-five years ahead, just to follow up on what Mr. Venkat has said, is there any possibility of this emerging into a kind of a South Asian Parliament on the same pattern as the EU? Secondly, is there a possibility of a common currency? Are you talking about a common currency like in Schengen countries?

Foreign Secretary: If I can just seek some further clarifications, I would ask our Additional Secretary to add. What I would like to say is, whether it is a movement towards a common parliament or a common currency, these are ideas which will have to emerge, be discussed, be approved at the Summits. I think they are quite far away from any kind of plan in that direction. But certainly, on the path between now and moving towards any such goal, if all the leaders jointly agree on that, an agency like the Forum, a group like the Forum, can throw up ideas on where you can go, what is the advantage in it, what is it that other regional groupings have achieved, what was the process by which they achieved it, what was the role of non-governmental personalities, eminent personalities, academics, thinkers in achieving that? And we believe that by throwing open the Forum to such an idea perhaps the next Summit could in fact think in terms of, okay yes this is a roadmap which we need to start on. It is a journey of a thousand miles but it always starts with the first step.

Additional Secretary: I would just like to add that this was keeping in mind the fact that we are entering into a completely new concept that we structured the Forum in as flexible manner as possible. I think the ideas that we have put forward of the Parliament and the currency and issues of that nature would find resonance within the SAARC process if the Forum deliberates on these ideas and then provides these ideas after deliberating on them as inputs to the Summit. So, we have taken a conscious decision in the SAARC process that every Forum would more or less be held linked with the Summit so that the outcome of the Forum would feed into the Summit.

Foreign Secretary: In fact, in the very first Summit connectivity is one of those themes. Connectivity is not just transport. It is communications, it is the ability of people to use transport systems and move, travel just along the lines you mentioned. Certainly we would expect the Forum to contribute with suggestions and ideas as to what the best way forward is.

Question: Members of chambers of commerce used to exchange visits of delegations to each other's countries, especially with Pakistan. Is there any move to resume those visits, especially organise exhibitions and things like that?

Foreign Secretary: Mr. Kanoria, maybe you can throw some light on this?

Shri R.V. Kanoria: We already have delegations between the countries. In fact, in November there is a FICCI delegation which will be going to Pakistan. It has been our constant endeavour to continue to build up economic relationships including with Pakistan. In fact, we would very much like to see that there is an engagement where there is a stake of business in each of our neighbouring countries to improve relationships through economic cooperation. So, delegations continue. There is a regular framework of delegations. I know that it is not just FICCI which is doing it but PHD chamber also has delegations to Pakistan.

Foreign Secretary: Would you like to add anything on the chambers of commerce and their role in SAARC?

Shri Sheel Kant Sharma (Former Secretary-General of SAARC): There is a SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry which has all the national chambers of commerce and industry in SAARC countries as its members. They keep meeting with a considerable regularity. In the past three years that I used to be Secretary-General of SAARC, they have an economic summit where people from the chambers of commerce got together and met in SAARC capitals. That process is actually under way. The idea of the Forum is to harness everything together.

Question: One of the major stumbling blocks when we talk about the huge potential or untapped potential of SAARC has been the troubled relations between India and Pakistan. The core problem is not just India and Pakistan but also the trust deficit between different countries in the region that has hindered the movement of people and trade and ideas. What are we doing to address this which is often being overshadowed by India-Pakistan issues? How do we take this forward?

Foreign Secretary: You are quite right. There has been a fairly slow movement in many of the areas where movement could have been a lot faster, if what you might say the confidence in each other was greater. We have seen in other areas of the world, ASEAN and Europe are the two examples which are very often mentioned, that what happens is that when you have a high degree of convergence of ideas and trust and confidence in each other, that cooperation becomes like a habit. And it is the rare area where you do not cooperate which you can find people raising questions that why it is not taking place. So, certainly this has been a factor. I would say that the answer is at two levels. One, the SAARC itself does not address bilateral issues. But we have seen that within the region there are concerted efforts by the various countries, I have been speaking only for India, to have discussions and dialogue to resolve all outstanding bilateral issues with all our neighbours. And I think we have had a considerable degree of success in this regard certainly even with Pakistan which you referred to. If you note the recent visit of the Foreign Minister, this was part of that process, to try and rebuild trust and confidence and to ensure that any such lingering leftover, residual doubts do not come in the way of the SAARC process.

That said, one has to also see that in the last five years SAARC has indeed been able to achieve a very substantial progress on issues which some years before you might have thought were not moving ahead fast enough. To mention a few examples, we have had the South Asia University, we have had the SAARC Development Fund, and a number of developments of this nature. So, I think the answer is that things have really speeded up in the last few years but certainly progress could even still be faster.

Official Spokesperson: Thank you, Sir.

This brings the interaction to a close. I once again reiterate the invitation of the Foreign Secretary to you all to join for a reception which will be held now in the adjoining venue of Diwan-e-Aam. Thank you.

New Delhi
August 25, 2011


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