Realising the uniqueness of SAARC
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
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
(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
(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
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.
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
SAARC countries have several core competencies and every country has
a vision to become a developed nation in a time-bound manner.
Let us 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
Based on my study of connectivity needs of African countries in
communication, healthcare, and education, I have 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)
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
The network is scalable to support different applications catering to
increased numbers of users. Based on this experience, the creation of a
SAARC knowledge platform, which will generate the knowledge input needed
for sustaining our developmental growth and accelerate regional
transformation will be a good idea.
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
(1) Creating e-partnership in education, healthcare, business and
(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
(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
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.
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is a former President of India.