In a major step towards opening its markets, India announced on Tuesday that it will allow zero duty access to least developed countries of South Asia by the year end and reduce the sensitive list in respect of these nations while unilaterally liberalising visas for certain categories.
Inaugurating the 14th SAARC Summit here, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasised that peace was a primary requirement for prosperity in South Asia.
He asked member countries to implement in a "meaningful and sincere manner" the commitments and pledges to root out terrorism.
Referring to the flagging off of SAARC car rally moments before the Summit, he made a strong case for inter-connectivity and proposed immediate linking of capitals of all the member countries through direct flights.
"After several years of effort, the time has come to move SAARC from a declaratory phase to action and implementation," he declared at the Summit where Afghanistan joined as the eighth member of the regional grouping.
India was elected SAARC Chairman on the opening day of the two-day Summit. Touching upon the ongoing process in South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), he said India was ready to accept "asymmetrical" responsibilities by opening its markets to its South Asian neighbours without insisting on reciprocity.
"I am happy to announce that we will allow zero duty access to India before the end of this year to our South Asian neighbours who are least developed countries and further reduce the sensitive list in respect of these countries," Singh said.
Asserting that South Asia was in the midst of an unprecedented political and economic transformation, the Prime Minister said, "The political transitions, painful as they may be, are something that each of us has to work out for ourselves, within our countries and between our governments."
"I see signs of hope that our governments are now addressing the bilateral political issues that have prevented us from achieving our potential. We must break with the past and join hands to realize our shared destiny," he said.
Singh said there was also economic vibrancy and social change today in every country in South Asia. Never before has it been truly within their capacity to envisage a future where the people could be free from the twin curses of poverty and disease.
"It is possible today that SAARC can realize the goals of our Charter to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural developments in the region. The question before us is whether we will seize the opportunity that beckons. Can we make this association of states touch and improve the lives of our peoples," he said.
Singh said connectivity -- physical, economic and of the mind -- enabling the people to use fully the geographical and resource endowments had historically been the key to the region's peace and prosperity. South Asia has flourished most when connected to itself and the rest of the world, he added.
The Prime Minister said the popular response for the SAARC car rally was a graphic reminder of the potential of connectivity. The study for a regional multi-modal transport system has given the grouping a useful basis to carry this work forward.
Singh said the South Asian grouping should encourage its civil society to interact and develop the habit of cooperative thinking.
"Our agreement to establish a South Asia University, as a world-class institution of learning, will be an important symbol of the connectivity of ideas and of our youth that would build the knowledge economy of the future."
Singh said the ongoing process of building an open and integrated market from the Himalayas to the Pacific, covering a vast and dynamic economic region and SAFTA could have a major role to play in this emerging architecture.
He said it is time that SAARC began to address global issues and to consider how it might do so together. Energy security, food security and climatic change were all issues that impact on South Asia's development strategies and which need focussed attention.
"All of South Asia is now or will soon be short of energy. A South Asian energy community could start by harmonising systems and methods and grid structures and ultimately move on to an energy exchange with energy markets that cover the whole region. Promoting appropriate local technologies for harnessing renewable energy is an area we should consider for future cooperation."
The Prime Minister said the current summit would be taking the first step towards improving food security by setting up a Regional Food Bank which would meet shortages and losses caused by natural calamities.
The Prime Minister said he had a compelling vision of an "inclusive, plural and rapidly developing" South Asia playing its role in an interdependent world's economic development and peaceful evolution.
"I am therefore particularly happy that this summit should see the high level presence of observers from outside the region. In the coming years, SAARC will learn to work with our partners from outside the region evolving ways of involving them in our progress," he said.