Saturday, April 7, 2007

Uniqueness of SAARC: A.P.J.Abdul Kalam

Realising the uniqueness of SAARC

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

The various member states have core competencies that can be pooled together for mutual benefit.

THE SOUTH Asian Association for Regional Cooperation represents 1.47 billion people, which is around 25 per cent of the world population. The inspiring and unique aspects of SAARC countries are: high intensity of bio-diversity in the region; largest population of youth in the world; combined purchasing power that has the potential to be the highest in the world; a civilisational heritage that goes back thousands of years. What better environment can any region in the world have for socio-economic development, and promoting peace and prosperity, if a common vision is shared and work is done together.

In spite of these major structural advantages, there is an impression among the people of SAARC nations that we have yet to make a distinctive contribution that can make a difference to lives of the people of the region. My visualisation of SAARC countries in the year 2017 is as follows:

(a) People living below the poverty line will become near zero from the existing 25 per cent; (b) The per capita income of the SAARC region as a whole will increase to $10,000; (c) The infant mortality rate will become less than 10 per 1,000 from the 260 per 1,000 prevalent in some countries; (d) All countries will be free from water borne diseases and receive affordable, quality heath care; (e) All countries will realise the goal of 100 per cent literacy from the existing less than 40 per cent in some; and (f) All citizens will be empowered with quality education, healthcare, and employment potential leading to overall enhancement in prosperity and happiness.

The main objective of SAARC is to provide a platform for the peoples of South Asia to work together in a spirit of friendship, trust, and understanding for accelerating the process of economic and social development of member states. SAARC countries have several core competencies and every country has a vision to become a developed nation in a time-bound manner. Let us now focus on some of them, which can be collectively pooled for mutual benefit. Afghanistan is endowed with natural resources such as untapped oil and natural gas, minerals and metals, and animal husbandry resources such as sheep and lamb wool in substantial quantities. The Grameen Bank concept of Bangladesh, which has made a difference to the life of many people, has received international attention and acclaim. Bhutan is known for its hydel resources and is a model for the promotion of the concept of Happiness Index. India over the years has established itself well in IT and e-connectivity. Maldives is known for its innovation in tourism. Nepal for its biodiversity and hydel resources. Pakistan has created a name for itself in cotton, textiles, and apparels. Sri Lanka is known for tea and rubber processing. Let us see how these national competitive advantages can be harnessed for accelerating the transformation of the region as a whole.

Since more than one billion citizens of SAARC countries live in villages, there is an urgency for all of us to improve the conditions of rural life through better physical connectivity, electronic connectivity, knowledge connectivity, which together will lead to comprehensive economic connectivity. For this mission, we have to ensure that the overall GDP growth rate for SAARC countries reaches 8 to 10 per cent and remains at this level for the next ten years. For this, employment generation, particularly in the rural areas, is very essential. This necessitates spreading the development process to the rural sector.

India has a programme called PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) involving geographically co-located clusters of multiple villages with four connectivities — namely, physical, electronic, and knowledge leading to economic connectivity.

It is also essential that the rural economy should be driven by renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, bio-fuel, and power from conversion of municipal waste. With this approach, the core competencies in the rural sector would be harnessed for sustainable development of the economy as a whole.

Based on the terrain and climatic conditions there could be four types of PURA clusters in the SAARC region. These are plain terrain PURA, hill PURA, coastal PURA, and desert PURA. In the plains and coastal regions, the PURA population may be 20,000 to 100,000, clustering into economic systems of 20 to 30 villages. In a hilly or desert region, the PURA population may be 7,500 to 15,000 people in a cluster of 30 to 100 villages or hamlets.

These are conceived not only as self-sufficient, economically viable village clusters, but each cluster is endowed with its unique competitive advantage in the form of a portfolio of special products relevant to that region and local talents and skills. In this way each PURA cluster will be able to contribute to the rest of the economy within and outside the country and thereby to the overall competitive advantage and economic strength of the entire SAARC region.

During 2003-04, I visited African countries such as Sudan, Tanzania, and South Africa. Based on my study of connectivity needs of African countries in communication, healthcare, and education, I proposed the concept of a pan-African e-network using seamless and integrated satellite, fibre optics and wireless network connecting all 53 African countries. The pan-African e-network will primarily provide tele-education, tele-medicine, Internet, videoconferencing, and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) services. It also supports e-governance, e-commerce, infotainment, resource mapping, and meteorological services. The proposed network will utilise state-of-the-art technology and can be integrated with the latest broadband technologies such as Wi-Fi and Wi-Max. The network is scalable to support different applications catering to increased numbers of users. Based on this experience, I would like to propose the creation of a SAARC knowledge platform, which will generate the knowledge input needed for sustaining our developmental growth and accelerate regional transformation.

A SAARC knowledge platform will combine the core competencies of the member nations and will become the launch pad for many innovations waiting to be unearthed by the combined power of scientists and technologists drawn from countries in the region. It will take up missions in areas of utmost urgency to the SAARC region: (1) Creating e-partnership in education, healthcare, business and trade; (2) Transforming energy security to energy independence; (3) Enhancing quality of existing water resources, using recycling technology, rainwater harvesting, interlinking of rivers, and seawater desalination using renewable energy; (4) In health care, creating vaccines for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other water borne diseases, and also using traditional medicine and making drugs based on the raw materials available in the region; (5) In agriculture and food processing, increasing the per capita yield from agriculture, creating new technologies for preservation, developing varieties of crops for semi-arid and arid region; and (6) Capacity building in state-of-the-art internationally competitive skills development and higher education with research as a focus, through partnership among educational and research and development institutions via direct and virtual classrooms.

The core competence of the SAARC countries will have to be pooled for design, development, and marketing of world class products and systems.

For a comprehensive and inclusive approach to measuring true socio-economic development, we have evolved what is called a "National Prosperity Index (NPI)" which is a combination of (a) annual growth rate of GDP; (b) improvement in quality of life of the people, particularly those living below the poverty line; and (c) the adoption of a value system derived from our civilisational heritage in every walk of life.

It may be noted that the concept of a National Prosperity Index includes the factor of International Human Development Index. That is NPI=a+b+c. Particularly, `b' is a function of availability of housing, good water, nutrition, proper sanitation, quality education, quality healthcare, and employment potential. `c' is a function of promoting the joint family system, creation of a spirit of working together, leading a righteous way of life, removing social inequities, and, above all, promoting a conflict-free, harmonious society. This will be indicated by peace in families and communities, reduction in the corruption index and court cases, elimination of violence against children and women, and of communal tensions. There should also be progressive reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line leading to its becoming near zero by 2017.

Based on this or a similar model let a SAARC Prosperity Index can be evolved, which will represent the overall quality of life of the people in the region. This will enable the SAARC organisation to implement programmes in an effective manner.

(Adapted from President Kalam's address at the Joint Call at Rashtrapati Bhavan by the Heads of States /Governments attending the 14th SAARC Summit on April 3, 2007.)

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