Ahead of the SAARC summit in the Maldives in November, India has pushed for "progressive economic integration" of South Asia and underlined the need for expanding intra-regional trade and investment.
"We all know, of course, that our region is among the least economically integrated in the world; there are adequate studies that offer statistics in this regard," external affairs minister SM Krishna said on Thursday night at a dinner in honour of representatives from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries participating in the first South Asia Forum.
"However, for me, the litmus test of integration is really whether we are able to make it viable for our businesses to expand intra-regional trade and investment flows," Krishna said while urging the forum to "assemble a robust argument in favour of progressive integration of the region".
"If this can be incentives either through policy measures or by means of forward-looking steps by our premier chambers of commerce and industry, the connective tissue of a South Asian economic community can begin to be created," he said.
The two-day South Asia Forum started on Thursday, with an inaugural address by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. The overarching theme for the first South Asia Forum would be "Integration in South Asia: Moving Towards a South Asian Economic Union."
Touted as a Track 1.5 initiative, the South Asia Forum brings together government functionaries businessmen, media and academics to generate 'out of box ideas' for facilitating greater regional economic integration and people-to-people contact in the region.
Krishna also called for enhancing the participation of civil society in the SAARC integration process.
"However, for future editions of the Forum, we may perhaps need to consider widening representation from civil society, media, academia and business, while proportionately reducing the scale and extent of governmental presence," he said.
"It is only through an expansion in the number of stake-holders in the processes of regional cooperation that we can create a critical mass in favour of deepening and widening integration in our region. The South Asia Forum creates precisely such a platform," he said.
The Maldives will host the two-day SAARC summit at its capital Male beginning Nov 10. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan and Afghanistan are part of SAARC.