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Special Address at International Seminar on Changing Political Context in South Asia and Prospects of Security and Regional Cooperation

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  • Hon'ble External Affairs Minister, Shri Pranab Mukherjee
    November 05, 2008

    (as marked for delivery)

    It gives me great pleasure to address the Second Annual Conference “Changing Political Context in India’s Neighbourhood: Prospects of Regional Security and Cooperation”. I commend the organizers for making the Conference an annual event. I had addressed the Conference last year and saw firsthand the value it offers to academics, diplomats and members of the media from South Asian countries, to get together and exchange views on regional issues and developments.

    The Conference is a welcome addition to Track-II events in the region’s diplomatic calendar. We have a collective stake in ensuring peace and prosperity in our neighborhood and it is imperative therefore that we forge stronger links to establish region-wide prosperity. With popular will gravitating towards peace and understanding, I am confident that there will also be the necessary political resolve to create the conditions for fruitful cooperation amongst governments and the people.

    The theme of this year’s Conference, “Changing Political Context in India’s Neighbourhood: Prospects of Security and Regional Cooperation” is particularly relevant. The changed political context in the region has been the advent of democracy. In recent months, we have witnessed successful elections in Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Maldives. Bangladesh will soon be going to the polls. The democratic urge we are witnessing in the region provides an opportunity for further deepening bilateral and regional cooperation.

    For our part, India remains a factor for peace and stability in the region. Our goal of a peaceful, stable, prosperous neighborhood is rooted in our fundamental belief of enabling each of our neighbors to pursue the shared objective of the development of our peoples. We believe that a democratic framework provides us with the most effective means to achieve these goals.

    The positive environment created by the progress of democracy in the region should not, however, detract us from the formidable challenges we continue to face. Poverty, illiteracy, ethnic conflict, intolerance, religious extremism, and disaster management require urgent attention.

    The world’s attention is also focused on the region because it has emerged as a major centre of terrorism. Although it is a global scourge, it affects our region significantly. Terrorism is a threat to the stability of our respective democratic framework. We in India have been a victim of this menace for over two decades. Too many innocent lives are being lost to terrorism. Nothing, no cause, no grievance, no wrong can ever justify acts of terrorism. Terrorism represents a grave danger to the security of all nations and it is time that we all cooperated and committed to root out this scourge, sincerely and through effective cooperation; there can be no double standards in dealing with this menace. It can only be defeated by organized action and it should be the primary task of all open, democratic societies to develop collective means for tackling terrorism. As early as 1987, the SAARC concluded the Convention on Suppression of Terrorism. The Additional Protocol to the SAARC Convention on Suppression of Terrorism, signed at the 12th Summit, reaffirmed our commitment to collectively fight this menace. While the SAARC Convention of Terrorism provides a framework for cooperation to deal with this issue we also believe that the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism can reinvigorate collective, multilateral efforts. It is imperative that we cooperate at all levels to comprehensively eradicate terrorism from our region.

    Fortunately, the overall environment in the region has been undergoing positive change in other spheres. This is particularly evident on the economic front. During the preceding decade, our economies have registered impressive growth rates, resulting in a reduction in incidence of poverty. I must add however that we still have a long way to go in this direction. The task before us is to ensure that economic growth is inclusive, people-centric and sustainable.

    There has also been an improvement in the regional bilateral relations. The composite dialogue process between India and Pakistan has resulted in substantial achievements credit and the proved to be a useful instrument for developing and enhancing bilateral relations. It is encouraging that a climate of peace and cooperation is being steadily put in place. I sincerely hope this trend will continue and deepen in the future.

    We are meeting today at a time of unprecedented global financial strain. Our region too is not insulated from this crisis and it is likely to have an adverse impact on our economies. High oil and food prices are already seriously impacting our peoples. There is a need for us to examine the impact of the crisis on the region and devise our own responses. Undoubtedly, we are affected by the global trends but at the same time, I hope the Conference will come up with ideas as to how best the region can cope with the current global financial crisis.

    In this context, I would like to draw your attention to a few of the issues that will form part of your discussions. These impact our developmental efforts and hence necessitate greater cooperation. I will take as my focus the issue of economic development and, energy and food security issues. These are issues critical for our continued development.

    Our region is endowed with rich hydro-power and bio-energy potential. Yet our cooperation in this area has been minimal. There is an urgency to focus our attention and discuss how best we can complement each others’ strengths in meeting our energy needs. Apart from developing renewable sources of energy, we need to discuss energy security, energy reforms, energy efficiency and trade. Underlying this will be the importance of developing and putting in place modalities for sharing technology and expertise. Within the SAARC framework, we have put forward a South Asia Energy Dialogue and the SAARC Energy ministers are expected to meet in Colombo in 2009. Modalities for discussion can include a regional inter-governmental framework to develop regional hydro potential, grid connectivity and gas pipelines. The recommendations of the Energy Dialogue would need to be implemented at the earliest. The adoption of the SAARC Action Plan and Dhaka Declaration on Climate Change in July 2008 is an important first step in regional cooperation. Considering the fact that climate change is a highly complex issue with multiple dimensions, this must be discussed and debated by regional think tanks. We need to step up on climate change and study its impact on South Asia. We must be mindful that Climate Change has the potential to aggravate existing tensions. We must use climate change as an opportunity to reinforce cooperation amongst ourselves.

    Closely related to the issues of energy security and climate change is food
    security. The continuing increase in food prices, seen over the past year, has the potential for slowing down progress towards Millennium Development Goals (MDG). To a great extent, agricultural crops in our region tend to be rain-fed and dependent on the monsoons. One of the major factors impacting on foodgrain output is climate change, for instance unseasonal or prolonged rains. In addition to taking steps to mitigate these effects, some of which are beyond our control, our objective should be to assure a remunerative and stable price environment. This is important for maintaining agricultural production and productivity.

    The recent devastating floods in Nepal and India have underlined the necessity of cooperation amongst ourselves in water resources. These events have once again shown that our region continues to be afflicted by our inability to address the cyclical availability of water – of floods in the monsoon months and low water levels in the dry months. There is urgent need to foster cooperation in the water conservation through capacity building, encouragement of research and enforcement of best practices designed to use water in a sustainable manner. Given the nature of our river systems, these issues can be most effectively tackled through cooperation.

    The Indian economy has a huge potential, giving countries in the region an opportunity to link up with the Indian economy and improve their own prospects of growth. We will continue to take unilateral steps and extend concessions to our neighbors. The facility of extending duty free access to imports from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan demonstrates India’s readiness to assume asymmetric responsibilities. Pakistan and India have also taken a significant step forward by resuming cross-LOC trade after 60 years. Given that present intra-SAARC trade is only 4 per cent of the region’s global trade, there is enormous potential for intra-regional trade and investment. The SAFTA provides an excellent framework for deepening trade and investment cooperation amongst ourselves. I hope that the democratic impulse will help realize this potential.

    In the SAARC, we have set the goal of achieving in a planned and phased manner a South Asian Customs Union, a South Asian Economic Union and South Asian Community. The logical continuum on this vector will be the establishment of better intra-SAARC connectivity through direct air connections and by restoring the infrastructure that existed till 1947. The popularity of the resumed rail links between Bangladesh and India, after a lapse of more than 40 years, is testimony to our commitment.

    Looking back at the previous three SAARC summits, I find it encouraging that there is greater readiness on the part of countries in South Asia to engage with each other at all levels. After all, our destinies are interlinked. 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.

    Think Tanks have a special role to play in promoting mutual understanding. They provide a forum for free and forward looking thinking. In today’s circumstances Track II interaction forms an important input for foreign policy. There is an obvious need to deepen these contacts and encourage interaction amongst the scholars in the region. The proposed South Asia University will play an important role in fostering mutual interaction. It gives me great pleasure to note that the IDSA will be offering fellowships to scholars from neighbouring countries. Under the scheme, scholars can come and spend up to nine months at IDSA pursuing their research interests and interacting with Indian scholars. This is an excellent initiative which should promote to meaningful interaction and collaborative work amongst scholars of the region.

    I have no doubt that the deliberations of this Conference will be most useful. Its chief merit lies in the fact that it provides a forum for regular exchange of views amongst our people. I hope that in the coming years, the Conference will include participation at senior levels from the governments, academia, media, NGOs and businessmen.

    Rabindranath Tagore, one of the greatest poets and thinkers of all time from our region, had foreseen the fundamental problems we are facing today almost 70 years back when we were still under colonial rule. He was dismissive of the idea of petty nationalism which divided rather than united people. He sang the songs of humanity instead and rued about a world divided by hatred and distrust. In his “Atma Parichay” or “Songs of Myself” he urged people to come together in the bond of love. He had put it very poetically:

    “As the mission of the rose lies in the unfolding of the petals which implies distinctiveness, so the rose of humanity is perfect only when the diverse races and nations have evolved their perfect distinct characteristics but all attached to the stem of humanity by the bond of love”.

    I wish you success and trust your deliberations will make a valuable contribution to deepening mutual understanding, and help pave the way for mutually beneficial cooperation.

    Thank You