India Pakistan talks an anomaly in SAARC: Secretary General

Thimpu (Bhutan), Feb.5 (ANI): South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Secretary General Sheel Kant Sharma has described the possibility of talks between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the SAARC as being anomalous to the South Asian grouping.

"India-Pakistan talks coming into SAARC is slightly anomalous because the SAARC charter doesn't deal with these problems. So, we are not asked to deal with this problem. So, why should we be blamed for that? Why should these problems come to us? We are not dealing with it," Sharma told ANI in a candid interview.

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir are expected to have a meeting on sidelines of the SAARC Foreign Secretaries and Council of Ministers meeting here on Sunday.

Smaller nations like the Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal have time and again expressed the view that the SAARC agenda and the voice of smaller nations is often overshadowed by the India-Pakistan talks.

However, Sharma disagreed with this argument, saying: "SAARC is the forum where smaller nations and bigger nations are at par. We work in consensus so that nobody feels that they are overlooked."

He further said: "On the other hand, people try to hide behind these problems. Pakistan and India both ratified SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Agreement) in spite of their own bilateral problems. Pakistan and India let the SAFTA fly. They also signed the SAARC Trade and Services Agreement."

"It is what we want to offer SAARC. Without wanting to get into the problems, we give you a platform for all eight members to come and converse among themselves. Thanks to SAARC, we had eleven ministerial meetings last year. We provide a platform where they can come and talk. We should not grudge that," Sharma added.

The SAARC, which is a grouping of eight South Asian nations - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - has a population of 150 crores. It signed the SAFTA last year, and the collective regional trade under SAFTA is estimated to be about 900 million US dollars.

Sharma said: "The trade so far under SAFTA in addition to bilateral trade is nearing 900 million dollars. It is still very small compared to what people have variously estimated that it is 80 billion US dollars to 120 billion dollars. So, we have a long way to go."

Sharma also hopes that the SAARC member nations will soon overcome their connectivity and transit problems.

"If you want to connect to Bangladesh with road transport, your own roads in India and Bangladesh should be good. So, there is a national action also involved in say connectivity with Nepal. You need border road connections, railway connectivity. A 100 years back, this region was connected by railways. So, they have the railway network, which is intact. Broad gauge is there in all countries. So, it is a easier framework and paperwork takes time," he said.

Over the next four days, eight South Asian countries will discuss ways to relax visa norms and take forward various other initiatives, including cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme is expected to be one of the major issues on the agenda of the meeting to be attended by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and his counterparts from other seven SAARC member nations.

There has been a proposal for expanding the list of people from various fields of life to be exempted from visa requirement for travel within eight SAARC member countries.

At present MPs, judges, 100 identified business leaders, sportspersons and 150 journalists are availing the SAARC visa facility.

The SAARC Council of Ministers' meeting is also expected to discuss the progress made in the implementation of the regional Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT). By Naveen Kapoor (ANI)

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