A day before the two-day SAARC summit kicks off in this southernmost Maldivian island, India on Wednesday hoped for progress on liberalisation of trade in the region and struck an optimistic note, saying it will work to promote a "South Asian identity."
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arived in the idyllic Addu Atoll, the venue of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit which is being held for the first time south of the equator, Wednesday afternoon and began a four-day visit to the 1,190 islands' Indian Ocean archipelago. He was warmly received at Gan island by Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed.
The 17th South SAARC summit has an overarching theme of "Building Bridges" and is expected to give fresh momentum to economic integration of South Asia, home to over one-fifth of the world's population.
The eight-nation summit will culminate in a joint declaration Friday and four agreements, that include a pact on creating a seed bank to boost agricultural productivity and another pact on setting up a rapid action force to deal with natural disasters like cyclones and quakes.
In his departure statement in New Delhi before he headed for the Maldives, Manmohan Singh said India "expect to move forward the procees of liberalisation of trade under the South Asian Free Trade Area Agreement (SAFTA).
The prime minister stressed that India will work "to promote regional integration as well as the development of a South Asian identity at the forthcoming summit".
He will highlight these themes at the summit plenary Thursday. Amid scepticism about the future of the regional grouping, which some have been prone to dismiss as a talk shop, Manmohan Singh stressed that SAARC has established itself as "the leading mechanism for regional cooperation in South Asia".
"It has enabled enhanced cooperation within the region in a wide range of areas such as trade, connectivity, poverty alleviation, food security, women and child development, combating organised crime and terrorism, among others," he said.
Taking note of the summit's mastertheme "Building Bridges", he said India welcomed this focus and pushed for enhancing connectivity for the socio-economic development of the South Asian region. "We have undertaken several initiatives to improve connectivity on a bilateral, sub-regional and regional basis, and are willing to do much more. The theme is also in consonance with the observance of the current decade as the 'SAARC Decade of Intra Regional Connectivity'", Singh said.
Ahead of the summit, official sources said in New Delhi that despite cynical voices, SAARC has done better than many other regional groupings like the ASEAN and the European Union and has a bright future ahead. SAARC was able to conclude the SAFTA in 2004 whereas the EU had taken much longer to remove trade restrictions, they said.
"We keep politics out of economics and socio-economic development," the sources said while underlining interlinked fates of all South Asian countries. The sources pointed out that SAARC has achieved a lot since its founding in 1985 and has resulted in the creation of leading regional institutions like the South Asian Regional Standards Organisation, South Asian Development Fund and South Asian University, which is based in New Delhi.
"The untold story of the last decade has been slow and quiet integration of the neighbourhood," the sources said.
They, however, struck a realistic note, saying while the achievements have been laudable one should not expect to "pull rabbits out of the hat and hope for spectacular outcomes at every summit."