Addu (Maldives): Leaders of SAARC countries, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, will meet here on Thursday to discuss a range of regional issues with a focus on boosting intra-regional trade which stands at USD 1.3 billion.

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The two-day SAARC Summit is expected to move forward on liberalising trade under its free trade agreement and ink new deals on regional standards, rapid response to national disasters and establishment of a seed bank.

Prime Minister Singh leads a high-level delegation to the 17th SAARC summit of the 8-nation grouping that is meeting in Maldives for the third time but what is unique about this meeting is that it is taking place in Addu City, the southern most point of the island nation, lying south of the Equator in Seenu Atoll.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai are part of the Indian delegation to the Summit, which will be attended among others by Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and Nepal Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai.

With 'Building Bridges' as the theme in the Summit, the SAARC is working to intensify regional integration and develop a South Asian identity. Implementing the provisions of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) remains central to creating a more prosperous region.

Singh said as much in his departure statement in Delhi when he expressed the hope that the SAARC nations expect to move forward on the process of liberalisation of trade under SAFTA.

"We also expect to sign agreements on Implementation of Regional Standards, Multilateral Arrangement on Recognition of Conformity Assessment, Rapid Response to Natural Disasters and establishment of a Seed Bank," he said.

Singh said India would work to promote greater integration as well as the development of a South Asian identify at Thursday's summit.

He said over the last 26 years of its existence, SAARC has established itself as the leading mechanism for regional cooperation in South Asia. It has enabled enhanced cooperation within the region in a wide range of areas such as trade, connectivity, poverty alleviation, food security, women and child development, combating organised crime and terrorism among others.

Intra-regional trade currently stands at USD 1.3 billion.

It has also created new institutions to promote regional integration such as the South Asian Regional Standards Organisation, the South Asian Development Fund and the South Asian University which is based in New Delhi.

Singh said India welcomed the theme of the Summit, "Building Bridges", because it has always emphasised the importance of enhanced connectivity for the socio-economic development of the South Asian region.
"We have undertaken several initiatives to improve connectivity on a bilateral, sub-regional and regional basis, and are willing to do much more. The theme is also in consonance with the observance of the current decade as the SAARC Decade of Intra-Regional Connectivity," he said.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) comprise of seven founding members Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan joined the organisation in 2005 as its eighth member.

Indian officials point out that the India's neighbourhood at the moment was far in a better position now than at anytime in the recent past with relations with Pakistan on a positive note with the latest decision of Islamabad granting Most Favoured Nation status to India marking the situation.

In Nepal, democratisation process was in full swing with integration of the erstwhile Maoists, while security concerns with Bangladesh have been addressed.

They point out that the SAFTA, entered into in 2004, was working well while ASEAN has still not been able to frame a free trade agreement and EU had some restrictions in some sectors.

They said while they do not expect rabbits out of every summit, the SAARC grouping was at a stage when it should implement its decisions.

Issues of importance to individual nations would also come up at the summit like the climate change issue which was very important for hosts Maldives, which fears it could become extinct.

However, sources said India was not in favour of further expansion of the grouping even at the level of observers saying it would impinge on the capacity of the grouping to carry forward.

Equally it was against making SAARC a security forum given the fact that Indo-Pak issues would overshadow the grouping. Even at the last summit in Thimphu, President Nasheed of Maldives had given vent to his feelings of dismay that Indo-Pak issues tend to dominate the SAARC summits.

India's effort is to keep politics out of economy and to keep issues like Af-Pak out of SAARC summit because these issues would make the grouping hostage to least common denominators, sources said.

Earlier, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the dialogue process with India has increased the importance and effectiveness of the SAARC forum.

"Naturally, Pakistan and India have a dialogue procedure under which everything is going in the right direction," Gilani told reporters in Lahore before leaving for the SAARC summit in Maldives.