Agreements on environment and trade in services to be signed at Bhutan SAARC summit: Rao

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New Delhi, April 22 (ANI): Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao on Thursday said that the next week's 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit will witness signing of two important agreements-one on environment and the second on trade in services.

The Summit is being held in Thimphu, Bhutan on April 28 to 29.

The Foreign Secretary informed that Bhutan has chosen 'Climate Change' as the theme of the Summit. "As one of the world's ecologically most diverse, and yet one of the most ecologically fragile regions, South Asia is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with an urgent need of adaptive action," Ms. Rao stated.

"The Summit is expected to draw regional attention to this pressing issue. Bhutan has also proposed a Summit Declaration entitled "Towards a Green and Happy South Asia" and a separate Ministerial Declaration on Climate Change," Ms. Rao informed.

"We are happy to note that two important SAARC Agreements, on Environment and Trade in Services, are to be signed during the Summit. The SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services will enable the realization of the region's immense potential in service areas such as Health, Hospitality, Communications, Computer and information Services and Air Transport and is expected to augment intra-regional trade in services in a mutually beneficial manner," said Ms. Rao.

The SAARC Convention on Environment is expected to promote cooperation among the SAARC countries in the field of environment and sustainable development.

"The scope of cooperation under the Convention would extend to "exchange of best practices and knowledge, capacity building and transfer of eco-friendly technology" in a number of areas, including climate change, coastal zone management, wildlife conservation and environmental impact assessment studies," Ms. Rao said.

She said in the last few years, particularly since the 14th Summit in New Delhi in April 2007, SAARC has also begun to lay the institutional framework for regional cooperation. Regional institutions, in the form of the South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) in Dhaka, the SAARC Arbitration Council in Islamabad, the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) in Thimphu, the South Asian University (SAU) in New Delhi, among others, are the building blocks of regional development.

Reminding mediapersons that the SDF had been proposed by India at the 15th SAARC Summit in Colombo in August 2008, Ms. Rao said: It is a matter of great satisfaction to us that the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) Secretariat is being inaugurated in Thimphu during the forthcoming Summit."

"Two projects on Women's Empowerment, being undertaken by SEWA, and Maternal and Health Care are already under implementation. We also expect the Summit to endorse the rules, regulations, academic and business plans of the South Asian University in New Delhi," Ms. Rao added.

One of the successes of SAARC, Ms. Rao said, has been the recent steps taken to implement the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Intra-SAARC trade touched 529 million dollars in 2009, a considerable jump from the previous two years since SAFTA was implemented.

"Under SAFTA, we agreed in principle to prune our sensitive lists by twenty per cent. SAARC Member States have also agreed to reduce tariffs on 30% of tariff lines outside the Sensitive Lists to Zero," Ms. Rao stated.

She informed that the regional projects initiated by India in Telemedicine, Tele-education, Rain Water Harvesting, Seed Testing Laboratories and Solar Rural Electrification, are under implementation in most SAARC Member States.

Mentioning that the thrust of most of these projects and activities is at grassroots levels where the results are less visible perhaps but far more significant and rewarding, Ms. Rao said: "We believe that in this Silver Jubilee year of SAARC, its members can take satisfaction from the fact that SAARC is taking on the role of service provider for the economic and development needs of the people of the region, who number almost 1.5 billion."

"Our focus in SAARC would be on improving regional connectivity through the development of new trade, transport and telecommunication links; the setting of common standards and harmonization of customs procedures; increasing understanding by greater people-to-people contacts, particularly among the youth, civil society, cultural personalities, academics and parliamentarians," Ms. Rao said.

"We are confident that the forthcoming SAARC Summit will provide ample opportunity for the SAARC Member States to work together to chart a blueprint for regional development over the next few years," Ms. Rao stated.

Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh is leaving for Thimphu next week to attend the 16th SAARC Summit. (ANI)

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