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India Proposes SAARC Fund For Infrastructure Projects

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India on Wednesday pledged greater cooperation with SAARC countries in various fields as Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a special fund to finance infrastructure projects in South Asia and called for common standards to boost trade.
 
Seeking a better environment for regional trade, Modi said, "India will now give business visa for 3-5 years for SAARC. Let's make it even easier for our businesses through a SAARC Business Traveller Card."
 
Infrastructure is the region's "greatest weakness and its most pressing need", he said, adding it is harder to travel within the region than to Bangkok or Singapore.
 
"I promise to ensure that our facilities at the border will speed up, not slow down, trade... Let's all make our procedures simple, our facilities better, our standards common and our paperwork less burdensome," he said.
 
Modi said the proposed Special Purpose Facility would help in funding projects in the region.
 
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation 18th summit in Kathmandu brought together leaders from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
 
Medical Visa
Identifying health as a major sector for cooperation, Modi announced that India will start issuing immediate visas to patients coming for treatment.
 
"In the area of health, India will meet the shortfall in funds to establish the SAARC Regional Supra Reference Laboratory for TB and HIV. We offer the five-in-one vaccine for the children of South Asia," he said.
 
Modi said information technology has removed all barriers to quality education and India was prepared to connect the South Asian students through online course and e-libraries.
 
"When we set up India's National Knowledge Network, we will be happy to extend it to the SAARC region. The dream of a South Asian University has become a reality in New Delhi. But, to be truly South Asian, it must also have partnerships with at least one university in each SAARC country," he said.
 
During his 30-minute speech, Modi also referred to India's "gift" of a satellite for the SAARC region and said it will benefit the countries in areas like education, telemedicine, disaster response, resource management, weather forecasting and communication.
 
"We will also host a conference in India for all South Asian partners next year, to strengthen our collective ability to apply space technology in economic development and governance. And, we plan to launch our satellite by the SAARC Day in 2016," he said.
 
The Prime Minister also offered India's capability and expertise in disaster management saying it will always be available to South Asia.
 
Indian Investment
The Prime Minister said that nowhere in the world are collective efforts more urgent than in South Asia and "nowhere else is it so modest." 
 
Even though Indian companies are investing billions abroad, Modi said that less than one per cent of it flows into the SAARC region.
 
"We will address your concerns and give you a level-playing field in India. But, I encourage you to attract Indian investments to produce for the Indian market and create jobs for your youth. I also look to a future when your companies can easily raise funds in India for investments at home; and, when we have cross-border industrial corridors, so that we can take advantage of the natural synergies and connected lives in our border states," the Prime Minister said.
 
Modi said India would soon launch a new arrangement to meet Maldives' need for oil.
 
"India and Bangladesh have deepened their links through rail, road, power and transit," he said, adding that a new era of co-operation in energy has started with Nepal.
 
"Distance and difficulties have not held back India and Afghanistan... And, bus and train sustain contacts between people in India and Pakistan," the Prime Minister said.
 
India and Pakistan
Economic integration of the South Asian region, home to one-fifth of the world's population, has been hampered by rivalry between India and Pakistan.
 
India and Pakistan account for 85 per cent of South Asia's population and 88 per cent of the region's economy.
 
Trade between SAARC members accounts for just 5 per cent of total trade compared with 25 per cent in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
 
Pakistan proposed upgrading China's and South Korea's status in SAARC at a meeting of foreign ministers on Tuesday but India is not receptive to the idea.
 
China said its attaches great importance to the group's status. "China is also willing to elevate the level of its relationship," a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said in Beijing.
 
"We need to first deepen cooperation among SAARC before we try and move it horizontally. Once we are through with that, we will address other issues of observers because, after all, observers are always peripheral to members," an Indian government spokesman said.
 
Afghanistan became a member of SAARC in 2007, while Myanmar enjoys an observer status. Australia, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, and the US are other observers.
 
Terrorism Threat
India has sought concerted regional efforts to combat terrorism and trans-national crimes.
 
"We feel the endless pain of lost lives. Let us work together to fulfill the pledge we have taken to combat terrorism and trans-national crimes," Modi said, remembering the victims of Mumbai terror attacks that left 166 people dead and hundreds of others injured.
 
Modi echoed the views of presidents of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, which described the menace of terrorism as "fundamental challenge, both regionally and internationally." 
 
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said neutralising of terrorists groups in Sri Lanka in May 2009 vastly changed the environment in the region.
 
"Terrorism still remains fundamental security challenge both regionally and internationally. Sri Lanka cannot remain complacent," he said, adding concerted efforts are required to deal with the menace.
 
(Agencies)