Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Wednesday exhorted the eight neighbouring nations of the south Asian regional grouping Saarc to “walk in step” as he proposed a slew of measures, including ease for business travel, a level playing field in trade, and initiatives in healthcare and tourism.
Modi, in his maiden speech to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) here, urged the nations to work together to “change cynicism to optimism” and added that it is time that the member nations are not just “paas paas” (next to each other) but also “saath saath” (standing together).
Speaking mostly in English, the prime minister also referred to terrorism, especially the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, in which 10 Pakistani terrorists unleashed mayhem in India’s commercial capital in 2008.
“Today, as we remember the horror of the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008, we feel the endless pain of lost lives. Let us work together to fulfil the pledge we have taken to combat terrorism and trans-national crimes,” he said, without naming Pakistan.
Urging for seamless connectivity in the region, Modi said “for India, our vision for the region rests on five pillars — trade, investment, assistance, cooperation in every area, and contacts between our people”.
“There is a new awakening in South Asia; a new recognition of inter-linked destinies; and a new belief in shared opportunities,” he said.
He said there is a need to “shrink the distance between producers and consumers and use the most direct routes of trade”.
He stressed that “infrastructure is our region’s greatest weakness and its most pressing need” and referred to his earlier proposal of travelling to Kathmandu by road, which had to be called off due to the poor condition of roads at the border.
Modi proposed setting up a Special Purpose Facility in India to finance infrastructure projects in the region that would enhance connectivity and trade.
He said India will now give business visa for 3-5 years for Saarc and a Saarc Business Traveller Card.
Referring to India’s huge trade surplus with Saarc countries, Modi said “I believe that this is neither right nor sustainable” and assured to address their concerns and provide a level playing field in India.
He urged the seven other nations to invest in India “to produce for the Indian market and create jobs for your youth”.
“I also look to a future when your companies can easily raise funds in India for investments at home; and, when we have cross-border industrial corridors, so that we can take advantage of the natural synergies and connected lives in our Border States.”
He proposed treating electricity as a commodity and trade in it and said India would fully support these initiatives. Modi also pushed for connectivity and services by rail and road and also by air.
On promoting tourism, he said Saarc should use the strength of shared heritage and diversity to encourage tourism within the region and outside, beginning with the Buddhist circuit.
In health, he said India will meet the shortfall in funds to establish the Saarc Regional Supra Reference Laboratory for TB and HIV and also offer the five-in-one vaccine for the children of South Asia.
He said India will support monitoring and surveillance of polio-free countries, and provide vaccines where it might reappear. And, for those coming to India for medical treatment, India will provide immediate medical visa for the patient and an attendant, he said.
“India is prepared to connect our South Asian students through online course and E-libraries. When we set up India’s National Knowledge Network, we will be happy to extend it to the Saarc region. The dream of a South Asian University has become a reality in New Delhi. But, to be truly South Asian, it must also have partnerships with at least one university in each Saarc country,” he said.
He said India’s gift of a satellite for the Saarc region will benefit the region and India will also host a conference in India for all South Asian partners next year, to strengthen our collective ability to apply space technology in economic development and governance. And, “we plan to launch our satellite by the Saarc Day in 2016”.
He also said India would be there for all our South Asian citizens during any disasters.
Earlier, in the speech, he referred to the various regional blocs and trading blocs coming up across the world and said “nowhere in the world are collective efforts more urgent than in South Asia; and, nowhere else is it so modest”.