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Inaugural Address at the 6th South Asian Conference on "Prospects for Stability and Growth in South Asia"

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  • Hon'ble HRD Minister, Shri M.M. Pallam Raju
    November 06, 2012

    DG IDSA,
    Excellencies,
    Distinguished delegates,
    Scholars of IDSA,
    Ladies and gentlemen,
    I extend a warm welcome to all the delegates and participants who have come from all the states of South Asia for the 6th South Asian Conference organised by IDSA. For the sixth consecutive year, IDSA has taken this initiative at the track II level to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern among delegates from different countries in the region. This is an important initiative that must be sustained. “Think South Asia”, should be the motto for all of us to connect with one another and build bridges across artificial divides that inhibit the process of regional integration.

    The theme of this conference, “Prospects for Stability and Growth in South Asia” is quite apt. It underlines the interconnection as well as inter-dependence between socio-political stability and economic growth. The ongoing global economic down-turn has affected us all in various ways and its aftershocks will continue to pose critical challenges for the leaderships in all the countries in the coming days. Such moments call for united action-plans for future. In conferences like this, perspectives from various countries emphasizing the need for coordinated action to meet common challenges will certainly show us the way forward in the right direction.

    During the last five years or so we have witnessed a ‘democratic moment’ in the South Asian region. Democracy has taken stronger roots in some countries while in others processes of democratic transition are under way, driven by people-power. The governments in the region are struggling to fulfill popular aspirations for better lives, for greater individual liberty and economic prosperity. While the groundwork has been laid for more representative politics, sustaining the pace of democratization remains a challenge in many countries in the region. We must work towards reinforcing the processes of change bybuilding more capable institutions, improving governance, tackling the problem of corruption, reaching out to the vulnerable sections of the society, and strengthening the feedback loops.

    We must also take into account the desire of our people to connect with each other, physically, culturally and through sharing of ideas. The people of the region now want to overcome distrust and hostility to build partnerships based on shared cultures, values, beliefs and aspirations. The governments will have to be responsive to such popular desire for peace and prosperity and intensify interactions at all levels.

    The positive environment created by the progress of democracy in the region should notdetract from the formidable challenges we continue to face. Poverty, illiteracy, crisis in governance, ethnic conflicts, intolerance, religious extremism, climate-change and disaster management remain unresolved and require urgent attention. Our separate experiences in dealing with some of these challenges successfully need to be shared for mutual benefit.

    The world’s attention is also focused on the region because it is being perceived as the nerve centre of terrorism. Too many innocent lives are lost to terrorism every day. We are all victims of this menace. We need to ensure that double standards in dealing with terrorism are eschewed. The lessons of history teach us that those propagating terror are often the worst victims of it. We need sincere and effective cooperation to root out this scourge. Initiatives taken by the SAARC forum provide excellent frameworks for cooperation to deal with this issue.

    Sustaining economic growth is a major challenge confronting us all today. After registering decent rates of growth for the last few years, due to the global financial crisis, we are faced with a situation which compels us to think that there is no choice left before us other than cooperation. The developmental goals that are lying in front of us are humongous.

    A glance at the combined performance of the South Asian countries would reveal that for a population of about 1.65 billion, we have a GDP of about 2.27 trillion US dollars and a per capita income of about 1299 US dollars, which is marginally above the figures for sub-Saharan Africa, which is about 1255 US dollars. The average poverty ratio, defined very liberally by most of the countries, remains above 22 per cent. The external debt situation for most countries remains quite worrisome. The annual rates of growth have declined. Due to rising inflation the food security situation has turned for the worse in most of the countries in the region with huge number of people below the poverty line.

    Due to low level of regional trade and commerce, we are unable to pool our resources together to meet these challenges in a cooperative fashion. There are so many economic complementarities that we tend to overlook in our desire for unilateral response to such adverse situation. Sometimes, in times of crises, we are compelled to cooperate briefly but lose the strand soon after we overcome the crises.

    We must remember that we are passing through an unprecedented global financial crisis. Our region cannot be insulated from it. We need to ponder: what has been our collective response to these crises. There is a need for us to sit together and examine the impact of the crisis on the region and come out with our own responses. No doubt, we are affected by the global trends. At the same time the importance of regional initiatives cannot be underestimated. The finance ministers and the central bank governors should come together and discuss the crisis at the earliest. I hope this Conference will come up with some broad ideas as to how the region can cope with the ongoing global financial crisis.

    India is a trillion dollar economy and has sound promise of growth at a sustained pace despite some setback for a couple of years. It can play the role of an economic power house in the region. All countries in the region have an opportunity to link up with the Indian economy and improve their own prospects of growth. I do hope that the trust deficit which comes in the way of cooperation will yield to a climate of change and the positive side of growing together with India will be appreciated. Sri Lanka, Bhutan and to some extent Bangladesh today have benefited from deepening their economic cooperation with India. Pakistan and India have taken some significant step forward to improve bilateral trade. If the tempo is maintained, many analysts predict that the volume of trade between the two countries will reach 10 billion dollar mark very soon. This has the potential to boost regional economic integration. The present intra-SAARC trade is only 4 per cent of the region’s global trade. There is enormous potential of intra-regional trade and investment that we must not leave untapped.

    Looking at the last few SAARC summits, it is encouraging to find that there is greater willingness among the state to engage each other at all levels in spite of the inhibitions and reservations in certain quarters. India need not be seen as a “big-brother” and this attitude must change. India faces the same problems as others in the region. Our destinies are closely interlinked. There is no escape from that reality. Intellectuals, economists, civil society activists and members of the media who see the larger picture are beginning to bring in pressure on their domestic governments to jettison isolationist mindsets and to cooperate more fruitfully amongst ourselves. This is a welcome development.

    However, we need not be complacent. We need to institutionalize regional efforts for cooperation at various levels. The ideas being evolved at the SAARC meetings need to be implemented well to unlock the regional potential for collective development. SAARC ministers for Foreign Affairs, Home, Finance, Transport, Tourism, Commerce, Energy and Environment are now meeting on a regular basis. Such exchanges and communication at ministerial levels should be followed by concrete results.As the Indian Prime Minister emphasized in the last SAARC summit at Addu in Maldives last year, we should seek “imaginative ways to create new avenues and sources of growth and investment in South Asia”, and seek “complete normalization of trade relations in SAARC”, which will create “huge opportunities for mutually beneficial trade within South Asia”.As he noted, India is aware that it “has a special responsibility that flows from the geography of our region and the state of our economy and market”. India is ready to undertake asymmetric responsibilities and push the process of regional integration forward. This will provide the impetus for regional development and have a stabilizing impact on the political systems in different countries.

    The relationship between political stability and economic growth is quite well-known. Any initiative for sustainable economic development is likely to have a moderating influence on politics. It will contribute to human welfare and create conditions for peace and stability. Similarly, stability is the necessary precondition for economic growth. Political instability often wards off potential investors and leads to flight of capital and human resource.

    South Asia is rich in human and natural resources. Because of its vast youth population, the region has a demographic dividend that it should use to its advantage. We need to improve the quality of education and training to improve the quality of our human resource. India has quality institutions of learning and countries in the neighbourhood should tap into them to enrich their human potential. India is ready to play its role to enhance regional cooperation in this field and open its institutions to students in the neighbourhood. We should all invest in education, undertake a mission for universalization of education and develop as knowledge societies. Only then can we leverage our human resources for building better futures for ourselves.

    Our region has vast potential for attracting external investment. Instead of wasting their energies on mutual differences, the states in the region need to focus their attention on strengthening the foundations of democracy,and ensuring transparent governance and inclusive development.Other threats like weak institutions, use of asymmetric means to weaken perceived enemies, interference of armies in politics and negative role of external actors will have to be taken note of while addressing the issue of political stability. Only then the vicious cycle of political instability and economic underdevelopment can be stopped.

    Think Tanks like IDSA can act as facilitators of change and promote mutual awareness and understanding. By providing a forum for discussion at a track II level— where academics, experts, strategic analysts and media personnel meet and discuss common issues that affect them— IDSA is creating avenues for cross-pollination of ideas and building an atmosphere of trust and mutual confidence.

    I am sure, during the deliberations in the conference many useful ideas for action will come up for discussion. These ideas must be stitched together as policy inputs for governments, like the outcome report of the last year’s conference on cooperative security framework for south Asia. This will go a long way in connecting the various tracks of dialogue and will be of great value for the policy makers in various countries of South Asia.

    I wish you all success in your deliberations.

    Jai Hind.

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