SAARC Charter Day: Relevance of the association takes centre stage | Sunday Observer

SAARC Charter Day: Relevance of the association takes centre stage

15 December, 2019
The 35th South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Charter Day was commemorated in Colombo last week. Pic: Dushmantha Mayadunne
The 35th South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Charter Day was commemorated in Colombo last week. Pic: Dushmantha Mayadunne

The dismal trade performance, poor air connectivity, lack of concern for the environment and regional security were some of the major concerns reiterated by the speakers at the 35th South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Charter Day commemorated in Colombo last week.

The relevance of the regional association took centre stage at the day’s commemoration following the stance taken by India to distance itself from the bloc citing Pakistan’s unrelenting support to terrorism.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended his greetings and felicitation to the people of the member countries in a letter addressed to the SAARC Secretariat on the 35th SARRC Charter Day.

The need for member states to pull up their socks in many fronts including trade and investment, security, simplifying Visa procedures and greater cooperation for mutual and collective growth was highlighted by panellists.

Trade between member countries has not grown as expected despite the existence of the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) along with other bilateral trade agreements.

Sri Lanka’s abysmal export figures standing at around US$ 13 billion as of last year against US$ 39 billion by Bangladesh and US$ 240 billion by Vietnam and the need to shed pessimistic views and grab opportunities to enhance trade for greater prosperity was emphasised by speakers representing Sri Lanka.

Statistics reveal that Sri Lanka spends only around 0.1 percent on Research and Development whereas India spends one and half to two percent, Vietnam three percent and South Korea five percent of their GDP.

SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Ruwan Edirisinghe said Sri Lanka’s private sector should focus on manufacturing high tech products taking a cue from some of the fast growing economies in the region.

“We cannot any longer rely on traditional export commodities to develop the economy. We need to switch on to technological products that are in demand world over,” he said.

Citing the past three presidents of China who were engineers and the country which has one national policy which does not change whoever rules the country, Edirisinghe said Sri Lanka must stick to one national policy for the economy encouraging local entrepreneurs and industrialists to expand exports with a wider basket of commodities.

SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vice President Dr. Rohitha Silva said SAARC Charter Day should be an eye opener for all member states to take stock of the progress made by the region.

South Asia provides enormous opportunities as one of the fastest growing regions accounting for a third of the world’s heritage, 24 percent of the world’s population and around 3.8% (US$2.9 trillion) of the global economy.

“With a host of resources and a plethora of opportunities for development air connectivity among member states is unsatisfactory. The region shares common resources and values in areas, such as Ayurvedic medicine, spirituality and a rich bio diversity which should be harnessed to promote tourism attracting the high spending western traveller to the region.

“We have free visas and a SAARC Development Fund which are not used properly for the welfare of the region. No country has adequately benefitted from the Fund which is lying in banks,” Dr. Silva said.

The need to pay greater attention on minimising environmental pollution which is high in the region was also stressed at the meeting as high concentration of toxic gasses emitted by one country could affect another.

Climate change effects have wreaked havoc in the region with devastating impacts of flash floods and droughts among member states.

Women and youth empowerment and focus on ICT development in the region was also emphasised by speakers who also underscored the need for policy measures to bridge gender disparity and poverty levels still high in the region.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Dinesh Gunawardane said the region needs educated and strong leadership to ensure security and stability among member states to achieve peace and prosperity.

“Sri Lanka recognises flexibility in trade relations, easy air connectivity and financial transactions among member states for mutual and collective growth,” the minister said.

Founded on December 8, 1985 SAARC comprises nine member states and its secretariat based in Kathmandu, Nepal to promote economic development and regional integration.

It launched the South Asian Free Trade Area in 2006. SAARC maintains permanent diplomatic relations at the United Nations as an observer and has developed links with multilateral entities, including the European Union.