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Opening remarks by EAM at the 32nd Session of SAARC Council of Ministers meeting

April 27, 2010

Your Excellency, Chairperson of the Council of Ministers
Your Excellencies, Ministers of Foreign Affairs of SAARC Member States,
Distinguished delegates

It gives me a great pleasure to be in Thimphu for the 32nd Session of the SAARC Council of Ministers. My delegation and I are deeply touched by the warm hospitality accorded to us, and take this opportunity to thank the Royal Government of Bhutan for the excellent arrangements made for the visiting delegations. I wish to congratulate Your Excellency on your election as Chairperson of the Council of Ministers, and to assure you of my delegation’s fullest support to you in the fulfillment of your responsibilities and objectives. We have no doubt that SAARC will record visible gains under your able stewardship.

I wish to also record our appreciation to Sri Lanka, the outgoing Chair, for their very able leadership. I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate the Secretary General, His Excellency Dr. Sheel Kant Sharma, for most ably guiding and steering SAARC over the last two years. I thank him and his able staff for the excellent preparatory work undertaken for the 16th SAARC Summit and its preceding meetings.

The 16th SAARC Summit is a very special event as Summits go for two important reasons. This year marks 25 years of the establishment of SAARC. This is also the first SAARC Summit hosted by Bhutan. We have no doubt that these unique circumstances will contribute to taking SAARC to new heights.

It is a matter of satisfaction that starting from a modest level in 1985, our Association has emerged as a model of regional cooperation in dealing with the wide range of issues that impact directly on the lives and livelihoods of the people of our region. As the reports under consideration indicate, SAARC has made impressive gains in addressing issues of regional concern such as poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, trafficking in women and children, terrorism and drugs, etc.

We, as Member States of SAARC, have an abiding obligation to address the pressing problems that beset our region, which we should set about achieving through well-defined goals based on mutual cooperation and understanding. Our effort will be to infuse a fresh dynamism into the regional processes and to strive to channelise the fruits of our collective efforts to the most vulnerable sections of our societies.

As we emerge out of a period of unprecedented global recession into expectations of relative economic growth and stability, we should seize the opportunity to advance our collective efforts to enhance trade, open borders and facilitate economic integration in our region. Our focus should be on improving regional connectivity through upgrading trade, transport and telecommunication links; addressing issues relating to trade facilitation such as harmonization of customs procedures and standards; increasing understanding through greater people-to-people contacts, particularly among the youth, civil society, cultural personalities, academics and parliamentarians.

In the last few years, SAARC has also begun to lay the institutional framework for regional cooperation. Regional institutions, in the form of the South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) in Dhaka, the SAARC Arbitration Council in Islamabad, the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) in Thimphu, the South Asian University in New Delhi, among others, are the building blocks of regional development.

These and other SAARC initiatives were formalized through instruments that were signed by our Heads of State and Government during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth SAARC Summits to advance intra-SAARC cooperation in these crucial areas. The relevant Agreements pertain to the Establishment of SARSO, the South Asian University, Afghanistan’s Accession to SAFTA and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. While we would urge Member States to expedite the process of ratification, we may also direct the Secretariat and relevant SAARC mechanisms to simultaneously operationalise the provisions of these agreements while awaiting conclusion of the legal processes. Distinguished delegates will recall that we had undertaken similar measures in the case of the SAARC Food Bank Board and the SDF.

I am pleased to note that progress has been achieved in the last few months in facilitating trade in South Asia. Intra-SAARC trade under SAFTA touched US $ 529 million in 2009, a considerable jump from the previous two years. Under SAFTA, we agreed in principle to prune our sensitive lists by twenty per cent. SAARC Member States have also agreed to reduce tariffs on 30% of tariff lines outside the Sensitive Lists to Zero.

We are happy to note that two SAARC Agreements, on Environment and Trade in Services, are to be signed during the Summit. We are also hopeful that the SAARC Agreements on Motor Vehicles, Railways, Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, Multilateral Arrangement of Conformity Assessment Activities of Goods and Services and Regional MRA on Product Certification will also be finalized at the earliest.

It is a matter of great satisfaction that the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) Secretariat is being inaugurated in Thimphu during the Summit. I wish to convey my best wishes to the CEO of the SDF on his appointment. We would urge Member States to take full advantage of the mechanism of SDF through expeditious clearance and implementation of projects and programmes to promote the welfare of the people of the SAARC region, to improve their quality of life and to accelerate economic growth, social progress and poverty alleviation in the region.

We are fully committed to working within SAARC to contribute to the development of the region through social development and regional economic integration. In this context, I am happy to report that regional projects initiated by the Government of India in Telemedicine, Tele-education, Rain Water Harvesting, Seed Testing Laboratories and Solar Rural Electrification, are under implementation in most SAARC Member States.

The "Climate Change” theme of the Summit is very apt. We are happy to support the proposal of the Chair for a Special SAARC Declaration on the theme of Climate Change to be issued by the Heads of State / Government. We also support a fresh SAARC position on Climate Change for COP 16 in accordance with the UNFCCC principles and Bali Action Plan. It is my sincere wish that the dialogue on Climate Change is carried in a meaningful manner at this Summit.

Terrorism poses a serious danger to the economic stability of any civilized society. The South Asian region is particularly afflicted by this menace. The time has come for us to rally against the forces of terrorism that seek to divide and weaken our societies. I extend a call to my fellow leaders to join hands to fight and defeat terrorism, including through the early ratification of regional instruments such as the Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, signed at the last Summit in 2008, and early conclusion of the proposed UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), as directed by our leaders at the 15th SAARC Summit. India, in cooperation with Sri Lanka, is involved in the strengthening of the SAARC Terrorists Offences Monitoring Desk and the SAARC Drug Offences Monitoring Desk for sharing of information amongst our security forces.

Our member countries have made positive progress towards establishment of the South Asian University. I am happy to note that the SAU will start classes in August 2010.

SAARC belongs to the people of South Asia who have ensured that its focus is delivery oriented and intended for the larger benefit. It is also an important reason to ensure that that parallel strands of culture and trade are inter-twined for greater regional synergy and for economic prosperity. We in India have always attached importance to facilitating people-to-people contact in our region through exchanges in the fields of culture, tourism, literature, youth etc. I am also happy to inform the Council that permanent premises for the SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts have been acquired in New Delhi and work on developing the Museum is progressing as per plan.

I am grateful to all SAARC Member States for ensuring their participation in the training programmes that has resulted, not only in the exchange of knowledge and know how, but also in the cementing of bonds of friendship among officials, academics, students, and representatives of civil society. Experiences shared by Member States at the 30th Session of the Council of Ministers resulted in the development of ‘Model Villages’ in each of our countries. I am pleased to inform you that our experience with the model village cluster has been extremely satisfactory. There have been calls from the grassroots levels for an expansion of this programme. I look forward to hearing your experiences on the model village scheme.

I wish to conclude by once again thanking our host for the excellent arrangements and assuring Your Excellency of India’s consistent support.

Thank You

New Delhi
April 27, 2010


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