Addressing the SAARC Foreign Ministers meeting here, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj strongly emphasised on improving road, rail, sea and air connectivity among the member countries to spur economic growth and asserted India's "neighbourhood first policy" to ensure overall development of the region.
Referring to a recent suicide bombing in Afghanistan that left more than 50 people dead, she said, "This cowardly act, of killing and maiming people watching a volleyball match, has shown once again that terrorism is the biggest challenge our region faces today, and requires a collective response."
She also conveyed condolences to the government and people of Afghanistan for the "terrible tragedy". Talking about making SAARC more effective, Swaraj said the new BJP-led government has been following the vision of "together with all; development for all" and it is also India’s vision for the regional grouping.

"My government and I are firm believers in the policy of Neighbourhood First. It was this vision that animated the invitation that Prime Minister Modi extended to the Heads of Government of all SAARC countries for his swearing in. It is the same vision that has made me travel to five of the seven SAARC countries in the six months that I have been in office.
"Another vision that my government is committed to is sabka saath, sabka vikas. Together with all; Development for all. This is also our vision for SAARC. "How together all eight member states can make faster progress and improve the quality of life for all our peoples.

But, for this to happen, SAARC will also have to adapt itself to operate more effectively and efficiently as a purposeful vehicle for regional economic cooperation," she said.
Swaraj expressed India's "sincere and abiding commitment" towards the shared vision of regional peace, prosperity and development and said New Delhi would like to contribute, whatever it can, for expediting the process of intra-regional cooperation and share our technical, scientific and human resources capacity with our SAARC neighbours in order to make the region "safer, stronger and better".

Emphasising on the need for improving connectivity, Swaraj said SAARC must be "imaginative" and think of innovative ways to connect the countries through road and rail, sea and air or through integrated multi-modal transport.

"Enhancing connectivity would not only increase productivity, bring down costs, raise our economic growth and accelerate our common development but also help us remove the endemic poverty in the region," she said.

Welcoming the process of review, rationalisation, strengthening and streamlining of SAARC institutions, Swaraj said now it should concentrate on core areas and shed peripheral mechanisms so that the revitalized institutions could bring intensity of focus to the grouping.
"It is in this spirit that I would like to highlight three broad areas which can lead us towards 'deeper regional= integration for peace and prosperity'. These can be summarised as the 3 Cs – Culture, Commerce and Connectivity," she said, adding "The salubrious air from the Himalayas has invigorated us already and I am sure we will have very fruitful and productive deliberations at the meeting."
The heads of governments of the member countries will participate at a two-day summit meeting beginning on Wednesday. "SAARC has completed 29 years. In 2015, we will celebrate the thirty years of our organisation. As in the life of individuals, so in the life of an organisation, the thirtieth
year is supposed to mark a turning point. It is the time when the edifice that has been built is energised and the organization given the needed momentum," Swaraj said.
On economic growth, Swaraj said intra-SAARC trade would lead to accelerating regional economic growth. "The Agreement on the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) has given some momentum to intra-SAARC trade but it still remains far below potential. India has already taken several measures to boost intra-regional trade, including providing duty-free access to goods from SAARC LDCs.
"Other member states may like to give special attention to increasing regional trade by developing production chains, removing logistics bottlenecks, improving both the soft and hard infrastructure for movement of goods, investments, capital flows and services across the region.
"The integration of economic activity can help us in reaping the economies of scale for both trade within the region and the region's trade with the outer world. We need to move faster in this era of globalisation or risk of being left behind.
"Finally, connectivity. Our maritime and waterways, land and air connectivity is still tenuous and under-developed. We must focus on building infrastructure which transcends our boundaries. The ASEAN and EU have developed seamless connectivity and reaped enormous benefits. These benefits could accrue to our peoples as well if we look beyond our national frontiers," she added.

Swaraj said over the last 29 years SAARC has created the architecture of institutions and processes and it was time that these are effectively mobilised and operationalised for fulfilling the vision.
"Now is the time to give free expression to the creative upsurge across the region. In India, we are regularly hosting South Asian art and crafts exhibitions, popular bands and literary festivals for brining this massive youth force and talent on SAARC platforms.
"This needs to be replicated, not only in SAARC capitals, but also in all major cities in the region, so that people in the hinterland also get the flavor of SAARC in their lives. Promoting mutual understanding and contacts among our peoples, especially between our youth, is an area whose time has come," she said.
Noting that South Asia is home to enormous wealth of human and natural resources, she said unfortunately, these resources are still lying largely untapped.
"We need no other agency but the collective will in SAARC to tap this creative energy and channel it to improve the lives of all our peoples. We have the means to do this. Over the last twenty nine years instrumentalities have been created through the several agreements and conventions, the regional centres and specialised institutions, the apex organisations and recognised bodies.
"It is time for us now, in the thirtieth year of SAARC, to find the necessary political will to exploit these instrumentalities, to implement projects and programmes, to develop policies and plans, to share information and knowledge, and to build pan-SAARC projects which can realize what our predecessors aspired for.

"I am happy to inform that the South Asian University in New Delhi is now in its 5th academic year, with 436 students from all eight SAARC countries. We have ambitious plans for this University and the role that it will play in increasingly shaping the new generation with a pan-SAARC consciousness. I hope other SAARC specialized bodies will also continue to deliver on the objectives with which they were established," she said.
The 36th Session of the SAARC Council of Ministers Meeting was opened by Dunya Maumoon, Foreign Minister Maldives who was the Chair of the SAARC Council of Ministers. Nepal's Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey was elected new Chairman of the Council at the meeting.


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