KATHMANDU (TIP): The 18th SAARC Summit concluded on November 27 in this scenic Nepalese capital with the eight South Asian nations signing a pact on energy cooperation and adoption of the Kathmandu Declaration that called for deeper regional cooperation in core areas of trade, investment, finance, energy, infrastructure and connectivity.

The two-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit started on a discordant note on November 26 with Pakistan blocking three proposed agreements. But it ended on a bright and positive note on Thursday with the eight countries signing the Saarc Framework Agreement on Energy Cooperation and promising to sign two other deals — the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic, and the SAARC Regional Agreement on Railways — within three months. The energy agreement will enable greater cooperation in the power sector among South Asian countries.

It is expected to improve power availability in the entire SAARC region and would facilitate integrated operation of the regional power grid. According to the Kathmandu Declaration adopted at the closing ceremony Thursday, the summit decided to accelerate the process of creating free trade in the region and formulation and implementation of projects, programmes and activities of SAARC in a prioritised, focused and result-oriented manner. Similarly, the summit also agreed to launch regional and sub-regional projects in the agreed areas of cooperation, especially in the area of poverty alleviation, infrastructure building, connectivity and energy.

Strengthening the SAARC Development Fund, effective implementation of the SAARC Action Plan on Poverty Alleviation with a view to making South Asian free from poverty and hunger and enhancing regional connectivity through building and upgrading roads, railways, waterways infrastructure, energy grids, communications and air links, was also agreed on. The declaration called for combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and having effective cooperation among the member states for preventing the trafficking of people, arms and drugs and exploitation of children for forced labour.

Increasing agricultural productivity and ensuring food and nutritional security is also the part of the Kathmandu Declaration. Providing quality education, eliminating illiteracy, providing vocational education and training, and making South Asia an attractive common tourist destination by promoting public-private partnership, are also mentioned in the declaration. In the opening ceremony on Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the cynosure of all eyes, exhorted the eight SAARC member states nations to “walk in step” as he proposed a slew of measures, including ease for business travel, a level playing field in trade, and initiatives in healthcare and tourism.

He referred to terrorism, especially the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, in which 10 Pakistani terrorists unleashed mayhem in India’s commercial capital in 2008. “Today, as we remember the horror of the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008, 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,” he said, without naming Pakistan. Urging for seamless connectivity in the region, Modi said “for India, our vision for the region rests on five pillars — trade, investment, assistance, cooperation in every area, and contacts between our people”. “There is a new awakening in South Asia; a new recognition of inter-linked destinies; and a new belief in shared opportunities,” he said. Host of the summit, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, said that SAARC would focus on connectivity, security and eradicating extreme poverty.

While Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought implementation of the SAARC free trade agreement (FTA) that was signed nearly a decade ago, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif called for a dispute-free South Asia. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani asserted that his country would not endanger regional security. While Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen sought a common SAARC platform on climate change, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay called for greater integration among South Asian countries to bolster growth. Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa called for a common voice among South Asian nations on international issues and cooperation on eradicating terrorism. The heads of state and government also held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit.

After having met Nepal Prime Minister Koirala soon after his arrival here on Tuesday, Prime Minister Modi met his Bangladeshi and Bhutanese counterparts Hasina and Tobgay, and later the presidents of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives — Ghani, Rajapaksa and Yameen. Though there was no meeting scheduled between the Indian Prime Minister and Pakistan’s Sharif, the two eventually greeted and informally spoke with each other at the retreat organised for the delegates at the Dhulikhel hill resort near Kathmandu on Thursday. Modi and Sharif shaking hands on the podium in the closing ceremony was the lasting image of the summit.