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Media Briefing by External Affairs Minister at the end of 14th SAARC Summit

April 04, 2007

External Affairs Minister: We have just concluded a very successful, indeed a landmark, 14th SAARC Summit. Let me briefly go over some of the main points.

For the first time in its history, SAARC expanded its membership to welcome Afghanistan as its eighth member. Again, for the first time, five Observers from outside the region attended the Summit, which also decided to give a similar status to Iran. The expansion of SAARC and the developing external linkages are indicative of the high level of maturity that SAARC has reached as an organization.

The Summit adopted a comprehensive and forward-looking New Delhi Declaration, which sets out the core principles underlining our collective vision of an inter-connected South Asia where there is a free flow of goods, services, people and ideas. At the Retreat this morning, the Leaders agreed to make tangible progress in the next six months on four issues that affect the daily lives of our people. These include water (including flood control), energy, food and the environment. They decided to work with international agencies to develop and implement viable cross-border regional projects in these four sectors, which address our peoples' basic needs. The Leaders also decided to designate 2008 as the "SAARC Year of Good Governance”.

During the last few days, there have been intensive discussions on how to move SAARC forward at a time when South Asia is in the midst of an unprecedented political and economic transformation. There was unanimous support for moving SAARC from the declaratory to the implementation phase. In this context, we committed ourselves to early operationalisation of the SAARC Development Fund. This will allow us to implement concrete projects, particularly for alleviation of poverty in the region. India is keen to utilize its offer of $ 100 million for this purpose.

This has been a highly productive Summit in terms of two very important intergovernmental agreements that were signed to establish the SAARC Food Bank and the South Asian University. The Food Bank will be developed as an exemplary model of regional cooperation to collectively meet our region's food shortages in times of emergencies and natural calamities.

The South Asian University, which will be developed as a center of excellence in higher education for the entire region, is yet another milestone in the history of SAARC. This will be a multi-campus University. We will set up a Steering Committee to draw up the Charter, bye-laws, course curriculum, governance structure, and administrative and financial issues for the University.

Connectivity was the overarching theme of the Summit. This was aptly symbolized by the flagging off of the SAARC Car Rally just before the inaugural by the Leaders. We decided to extend the SAARC Regional Multimodal Transport Study to Afghanistan that will speed up the move to greater connectivity in our region and in turn connect our region to Central Asia and beyond. The Intergovernmental Group on Transport has been directed to identify and develop sub-regional and regional projects based on the prioritized recommendations of the SRMTS.

There was full agreement that SAFTA was one of the most successful outcomes of SAARC's collective efforts. We all agreed that it must be expanded to cover trade in services. We also underlined the importance of trade facilitation measures. As the largest country in the region, India is ready to accept asymmetrical responsibilities, including opening her markets to her South Asian neighbours without insisting on reciprocity. PM has already announced that before the end of the current year, India will allow the Least Developed Countries among its South Asian neighbours duty free access to its markets. It will also further reduce the sensitive list in respect of these countries. India also hopes that difficulties related to the full operationalisation of SAFTA will be resolved and that all member States will be in full compliance of SAFTA provisions in letter and spirit.

The decisions that we have taken at this Summit will not only boost intra-regional trade and investments but also promote cultural exchanges and travel within our region. In this regard, Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh proposed connecting all the SAARC capitals with direct flights. He also announced unilateral liberalization of visas particularly for students, teachers, professors, journalists and patients from the region. The Summit also decided to cover 50 journalists from each SAARC country under the SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme.

A calendar of activities has also been drawn up for this year to prioritize and rationalize our programmes. As the present Chair of SAARC, India will focus on implementing decisions taken and projects initiated. Within this year, we will implement a regional telemedicine network connecting two hospitals in each of the SAARC countries with super-speciality hospitals in India. The Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts will begin its activities with an exhibition-cum-sale of artifacts, crafts and textiles from the region. Each member State will also earmark one rural community as SAARC Village to showcase innovative models of development and poverty alleviation and home grown best practices for transforming the lives of the people in South Asia.

India will also host Ministerial meetings of Finance, Commerce, Home and Transport to prioritize our work in these areas.

Deliberations at the Summit and other meetings also reflected the strong condemnation of terrorism. The Leaders re-affirmed their commitment to combat this scourge and agreed to consider India's proposal to work towards finalizing an Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.

In terms of atmosphere, this was the smoothest, least contentious Summit ever. Clearly, this is on account of the fact that there is recognition that SAARC is an idea whose time has come. The constructive deliberations at various meetings of the Heads of State or Government, of the Council of Ministers and of Senior Officials and the high level presence of Observers, including the expression of interest of others, are all testimony to the fact that this is recognized not just within the region, but also outside of it.

The presence of Leaders at the Summit provided an excellent opportunity to hold bilateral discussions for energizing our substantive neighbourly ties with each of the Member States of SAARC.

Let me conclude by stating that India is firmly committed to regional cooperation for mutual benefit. I would like to reaffirm our wholehearted support and cooperation to our SAARC partners so that we succeed in our efforts to translate ideals into meaningful cooperation on the ground. As India assumes the Chair of SAARC, we are determined to utilize the forthcoming year to implement and build on this successful Summit.

QUESTION: Mr. Minister, I would just like to ask you, much has been spoken of terrorism and peace, what is the threat perception from LTTE for India at the moment and what steps have been taken post the Katunayake Air Base attack?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: In fact, we have already assured the Sri Lankan Government our full assistance if they ask for it. But, as we believe, to resolve the problem we must also engage in the peace process which was initiated, as military solution ultimately would not yield results. Therefore, we have suggested that both sides should exercise restraint. The devolution mechanism which is contemplated and from which all-party representative Committee have made recommendations should be examined and be implemented within a time frame so that the legitimate aspirations of various ethnic groups find their reflection within the framework of Sri Lankan constitution while maintaining its territorial integrity.

QUESTION: What is the threat perception to India from LTTE at the moment? What is our assessment of that?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: Look, threat perception of a country depends on various circumstances. Generally, I can point out that terrorism and terrorist activities are the biggest menace to world peace and tranquility, not merely to India but all over the world. But, apart from that, we shall have to ensure that peaceful, conducive atmosphere prevails and as far as possible, shall have to try to resolve these issues through dialogue, at the same time without letting (go of) administrative efforts.

QUESTION: What gives you hope this time that the tall agenda that you have got in the Delhi Declaration will be implemented? We have had SAARC Summits each year. We have an agenda but half of the things are not implemented. So, what is different this time?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: Lot of differences in the sense, as I mentioned to you, we have signed two agreements. I have also indicated and Prime Minister in his concluding observations stated that we should expose important projects in collaboration with the international agencies in four crucial areas which will affect the livelihood of a large number of SAARC countries. They include flood control, energy, food and environment. There too we have indicated apart from the general declaration, it was decided in the Council of Ministers meeting that SAARC Development Fund would be operationalised at the shortest possible time and the Inter-Governmental Committee suggested to make their recommendations to the next meeting of the SAARC Ministerial Council which is likely to take place by the end of November. The short point which I am trying to drive is that on different projects we are identifying, the timeframe by which we can take the decisions.

QUESTION: There were media reports about joint management of Kashmir. What is India's position?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: In fact, the news item which appeared in a section of the press, I checked up from Prime Minister H.E. Mr. Shaukat Aziz. He mentioned that in response to a question in his press conference, he indicated that we are having discussions on all issues including Jammu and Kashmir and there has been good progress. He himself told me that he refused to give any details at what level what type of discussions are taking place. I think that is adequate to dispel any doubt or any question if anybody has.

QUESTION: Sir, I wanted to ask you about the part of the Declaration which deals with terrorism. When one reads that, it essentially appears to be a reiteration that the countries have agreed to finally implement what they had agreed earlier. Would India have liked to see a stronger statement on counter terrorism, or at least something more concrete on counter terrorism? Are you a little disappointed that that has not happened?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: In fact, if you look at the Declaration, we have mentioned both in paragraphs 25 and 26, the position which has been reiterated by the leaders. In addition, we have the SAARC Convention on Terrorism. It has been pointed out and that too is reflected in the Declaration that various countries should work on having arrangements for mutual legal assistance in respect of the criminal activities. Once it is institutionalized within the legal framework, it would be possible to take appropriate measures against terrorist activities. You read these two paragraphs, it is quite strong.

QUESTION: Mr. Mukherjee, what is your reaction to the Pakistani Prime Minister's assertion that Kashmir is the core issue and resolving outstanding disputes like that is a prerequisite for infusing new life into SAARC?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: In think on several occasions Pakistani authorities have declared that Kashmir is the core issue. Therefore, to me it is nothing new. But, at the same time, we are having talks. Fourth round of Composite Dialogue has begun. Confidence-building measures including along LoC in Jammu & Kashmir have been taken. This is continuing for almost more than three years. Therefore, I am not very much perturbed over a particular expression through. But, I am a bit optimistic about the progress which we are having in our dialogue within the framework of Composite Dialogue on all issues including Jammu and Kashmir.

QUESTION: Would you explain what do you mean by the Arbitration Council? What would it do if there are bilateral disputes? You already have institutions set up in Pakistan and India. So, what would it do? Would it resolve issues between like Bhutan and Pakistan, or what?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: You know, to deal with the business contracts there are domestic laws, municipal laws and international laws to implement it. Therefore, I do feel all the legal courses will be taken care of by it.

QUESTION: Admission of Afghanistan in our fold, as you claim, is a historic event. But as you know well, the country has been marked for rehabilitation and reconstruction. How is SAARC going to help them and what is the timeframe?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: Inclusion of Afghanistan within the SAARC family will provide an opportunity to have connectivity through Afghanistan to Central Asia. So far as the reconstruction activities of Afghanistan are concerned, a number of countries including India are engaged or providing bilateral assistance, as you are aware of. Our commitment to the reconstruction activities in Afghanistan is about US $ 750 million and more than US $ 300 we have already spent. Many other countries are also engaged in it. I do feel that with the inclusion of Afghanistan within the SAARC family, many other countries may also show interest in building up their activities in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Yesterday the Prime Minister of Nepal had proposed to eradicate poverty by mutual cooperation. How is the SAARC leadership going to address this problem?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: The whole objective is to improve economic conditions and the specific proposal which we have indicated, the basic objective of creation of the SAARC Development Fund and specially the present commitment of 300 million US dollars, is to ensure that poverty alleviation programmes could be identified and taken up immediately. In addition to that, all the core issues like food security, energy security, connectivity, water management, all ensure adopting the programmes for the overall economic development and poverty alleviation. But we are just not believing in the theory of trickling down. That is why through the window of SAARC Development Fund we want to confront the poverty alleviation programme with specific projects funded through this Fund.

QUESTION: Indian Prime Minister has given duty-free entry to the least developed countries in SAARC and you already have a free trade area agreement with Sri Lanka. This means that India has free trade with five of the seven member states except for Pakistan. So, now it is only Pakistan which is not having free trade with India and apparently Pakistan has to make up its mind whether it wants to join SAFTA or having free trade with you or not, and Pakistan has already indicated its mind. My question is, how important is Pakistan for the success of SAFTA and for Indian trade? A related question, how actively Pakistan participated in the preparations of the Delhi Declaration? I asked that because you said it was the smoothest and least contentious Summit.
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: As you know, so far as SAFTA is concerned, there is a paragraph in the Declaration itself and all the Heads of State and Government committed to operationalise SAFTA, the exact words used there are ‘in letter and spirit'. Therefore, I do feel that an international arrangement, a regional arrangement agreed upon would be implemented. Secondly, as you know the practice, when we discuss and prepare a document, almost every sentence and every paragraph is debated in the Council of Ministers meeting, before that in the officers level meeting, and through this process it comes to the Heads of State and Government, and participation of every country at this stage takes place. Therefore, there is no question of not having participation by any country or anybody.

QUESTION: Mr. Minister, since SAARC is talking about moving from confabulation to implementation and India has announced that it will liberalise its visas for SAARC countries in particular categories, can you tell us what liberalization of visas mean? Is there a timeframe to implement this visa? For instance, students from many countries in SAARC, especially Pakistan have difficulty in coming and studying in India. Is that finally going to be removed now, also because since we are going to have a South Asian University in place?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: There are two issues. The first issue is that certain liberalization process will be taken by India unilaterally in respect of the students, professionals, journalists, etc. In addition to that, we have also agreed that fifty journalists from each SAARC country will be given visa under the SAARC Visa Scheme and everything will be implemented. So far as unilateral decision of India is concerned, I do hope it will be possible to implement it shortly and under the SAARC visa system, we will be able do as soon as we get the requests from the countries concerned.

QUESTION: Prime Minister talked about connecting all the capitals. He was talking about open skies. We already have open sky with Sri Lanka. As you are aware, tourism creates maximum jobs. Prime Minister also talked about doubling tourism, intra-SAARC tourism. Could you just throw more light on it as to when it is going to happen, how it is going to be achieved?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: In fact, tourism is expanding and if we provide the facilities which are needed and make aggressive campaign, it would be possible to enhance the tourism and to reach the target. If you look at the trend of growth of tourism within the SAARC countries, it is expanding very fast. What is needed to be provided is the necessary infrastructural facilities which the tourists expect at the tourist spots and the connectivity. One instance I can give you. If we can connect all the SAARC capitals through air routes, naturally it would have larger impact than what we are having today. Visa liberalization is another incentive. In addition to that, every member state is building up their infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the tourists.

QUESTION: This is a question regarding Point.22 – the Heads of State and Government have stressed the need to collectively overcome challenges of poverty, disease, natural disasters and terrorism. My question is, are they already of one mind, have they agreed on what should be the definition of terrorism and poverty?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: In fact, the various programmes which have been undertaken basically it is the objective which we are going to have already we have goals before us - Millennium Development Goals, SAARC Developmental Goals. In the developmental plans of the respective countries, where members of the SAARC countries will like to integrate these plans. In addition, as I mentioned through the projects specially directed to the poverty alleviation and social projects through the SAARC Development Fund, it can be operationalised faster. Different projects can also be operationalised through SAARC Development Fund. So, we are emphasizing on operationalising it faster so that the benefit can be reached to the member countries.

QUESTION: India has announced unilateral tariff reduction for SAARC LDCs. What will be its impact on Indian economy? On these LDCs, do you think it will be injurious to India's small-scale industry?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: I do not think (that) because we have done tariff reductions on several occasions on several items. At one point of time it was suggested that if you give duty concessions to Jamdani sarees from Bangladesh, our textile industry is going to be affected. But it has not affected because market is expanding so fast and consumption pattern is changing so fast. Therefore, if we reduce the tariff, there is no need to have any apprehension that because of the reduction of tariff, it is going to be flooded by imported goods. After all, market is competitive.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about the meeting between the Prime Minister and Shaukat Aziz, Prime Minister of Pakistan. Did Mr. Shaukat Aziz say anything about the Kashmir issue? And also, was there any discussion on Siachen issue and what is India's response to both?
EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER: In fact, when the two leaders discussed among themselves, they covered a large number of their bilateral relations. Not merely bilateral relations, they shared their perceptions about the regional and international issues also. So far as Kashmir is concerned, as I mentioned to you, we are having regular dialogue within the framework of the Composite Dialogue. This is the institutional arrangement continuing for quite some time. In respect of Siachen, Defence Secretary level talks are going to take place in a couple of days, I think on 6th or 7th of April it will take place and that will be the 11th round of the talks. So, talks are going on.

Thank you.
(Ends)

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