Q. While going through SAARCstat.org the data related to trade are not that good. But you have a lot of growth agendas, especially the six major trade and business initiatives that you have undertaken. We are interested in the industrial plant concept – how far has it moved forward? You have approached Pakistan and Bangladesh. What’s the status on the plants there? Why not India?
A. I think you must understand the concept. A lot of people feel that SAFTA has failed and that free trade has not really happened. What the new team is looking at is the need to create investment in South Asia. India is talking about ‘Make in India’. In the same way, Nepal is also saying give jobs to them in Nepal. Most of the young people are leaving Nepal because of the lack of job and business opportunities. So before you talk about trade if you create the atmosphere for investments then trade will flourish. If I have nothing to trade with then SAFTA will never succeed because there is nothing to trade for. So the new team’s concept is we need to make more investments, we need to decrease the cost of production. Today the biggest problem of South Asia is getting land for any investment. Land is so expensive that it makes any investment unproductive because of the high cost of production. So we went with the concept that we should try and encourage the SAARC industrial plant in all eight countries. So Pakistan offered this land in Faislabad, it’s still there. It’s about 300 odd acres. Afghanistan wants us to invest, to put up a SAARC industrial plant. India is looking at textiles, SAARC textile plant. But unfortunately, without the government’s support industrial plant will not move forward because the land belongs to the government and therefore there has been a setback to the entire effort. So what we are doing now is we are unleashing South Asia from a different perspective; we are trying to have people invest in South Asia, within South Asia. So we have come up with, for the first time, a book that has 20 projects each from every country and these are green field and brown field projects where we are looking for investment within South Asia. If we don’t get it, then we will get money from beyond South Asia for these investments. So our focus is on creating jobs for young people. Today in Afghanistan the youth are leaving their country. In Pakistan, the people are leaving their own country because they don’t get job opportunities. India has changed in the last few years as you have an inward flow. Sri Lanka is still sending the youth outside for jobs, Nepal is doing the same. A country like Bhutan is thinking of sending its youth outside for jobs. And this isn’t making South Asia prosperous. If we can’t bring investment in we need to make an arc. The regional blocs are more productive blocks. The trade is at present so small- just 5-6%. There is nothing much to trade with. Thus, the concept that we have is that investment is the biggest thing, creating jobs will follow and therefore, nations will prosper. Industrial plants, as you said, are still there. We are pushing it in Bangladesh, we are pushing it in Sri Lanka, Nepal. Probably it will work out in these countries. But Pakistan and Afghanistan have problems of their own, so we need to see how it works out. But for the rest of the countries, we will look forward to it.
Q. Is the proposal for SAARC branding of products a way to bypass the constraints on free movement of goods and services in the region?
A. See, if you really look at the SAARC, in spite of the political differences, there is still a lot of trade taking place. For example, either it is going on illegal routes or it is
going via other country routes like Dubai, Singapore, etc. But trade is still taking place. So what we are saying here is we need to somehow formalise this. And the only way to formalise this is with SMEs, because SMEs comprise people who have common interests. Our country is the same, our heritage is the same, our handicrafts, and our technologies are very similar to each other. So there is a lot more we can trade with each other. From Nepal, we could be exporting Pashmina and carpets. From India, you get beautiful handicrafts, textiles. From Bangladesh, you get fantastic products. From Afghanistan, the dry fruits will be tremendously good for the entire region, then there is tea from Sri Lanka. This is what we try and encourage and what we see is that SME is the backbone of the nation. About 90% of the people are employed in the sector. We want to create jobs for young people who carry the hopes of regional prosperity. The only way you do that is to give them a platform. So this is a concept that we have.
Q. Is there any chance of an SME bank being established by the SAARC like the one by BRICS?
A. Politics overrules a lot of things. If you look at what happens in the European Union, the desire of the people is still very strong. If you look at the region that they are having, it’s not on the issue of economy, it is not on the freedom of movement of the people, it is on immigration, the migration of the people and terrorism. But motivations can also be different and more fruitful. Take for example, hydel power in Nepal. When there is a need for sustainable energy, you get the neighbours who are ready to produce that for you. So we need to look at the strengths of the region and move forward. It is not fear of the other that is holding back the region but the lack of people’s movement between states. For example, when we went to Pakistan, they were friendlier with the Indians in our delegation. We need to build on this. We believe, regional growth is important. In SAARC, if the member countries want to move ahead, everyone has to move forward. If one says no, nothing moves forward.
Q. What policy suggestions would you like to put
forward for regional growth, especially on the financial front?
A. The SAARC bank is something on which we have
already given our proposals to the government. The eight governments need to give us a clearing house. It is in New York. Even when I open an LC to India, it’s routed to some other country and then India. The first thing is the clearing house, the second is coming out with the bank and the third is the common friends that we are talking about. But I think what is necessary is that this age is learning the simple step forward. Let there be a financial clearing house. When you see a bank there is a lot of regulations coming. I would like to start by saying let there be movement of people. When people know each other, they will appreciate each other. If you don’t allow your people to move from one country to another, you will never trust each other.
Q. What’s your position on the issues of security
concerns anda visa?
A. Do you think a terrorist needs a visa? Do you think a terrorist needs a passport? There is 1% of the population who are terrorists. But this 1 % of the population is dangerous to 99% of the population, the good people that want to learn, explore and shake hands and improve our cultural exchanges. We need to have securities for the border control to be high. But what I would say is that let the good people move. You have got good media houses. You are reputable people. For you to travel to any part of South Asia should be an easy. In business if you can’t go to some other places and invest, then there is a problem. This problem mainly involves India and Pakistan. In this context, I suggest let the decisions of SAARC be governed by majority votes instead of unanimity. It is because of this one problem of trying to be always unanimous, SAARC is not moving forward. In SAARC Chamber, we have the East, West, and South. The West consists of Afghanistan and we have an office for that in Mumbai. For South, we have Maldives and Sri Lanka. The office is in Columbia. For the East, we have Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and East India. The office is in Dhaka. What will Nepal sell to Maldives? My trade will be perhaps Bhutan, Bangladesh, and East India. If there are regional blocs, the problems will build up. I think the politicians are also using this in a way. In all parts of the world, the politicians have a sense of responsibility. It is not economic diplomacy. It is terrorism, women’s security- these are more important. I have high hopes for this region. I know if we pool our strength and resources and work together, we can be one of the most developed regions of the world.
-As told to BE’s Sangeeta Mahapatra.