KATHMANDU, Nov 26: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday urged the SAARC leaders for setting aside their differences and work on collective strength for bringing real prosperity of the people of the region.
"SAARC can actually attain collective political will and ambitions. What is needed is to set aside our differences and work on collective strength for bringing real progress of the region," she said.
The Prime Minister was addressing the inaugural session of the 18th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at the City Hall in Kathmandu.
Calling upon the SAARC leaders to undertake more realistic, result-oriented and mutually beneficial partnership for cooperation to prosper together, she said, "Let that be our contribution to redeem our pledge to our people to leave a more peaceful, progressive, connected and knowledge-based South Asia."
For achieving development faster, the Prime Minister said, the SAARC nations must deepen their collective efforts to develop, use and apply science-technology-innovation at all levels.
She called for deeper cooperation in the areas of health, agriculture, food and climate change technologies saying a candid assessment and frank conversation among us is needed to bring dynamism in SAARC activities.
Sheikh Hasina said poverty is the common and main enemy of the SAARC hindering peace and development of the region. Ensuring food and nutritional security of our ever-increasing population is a big challenge, she said.
She said much of South Asia has attained self- sufficiency in production of key cereals over decades, which helped reduce abject poverty and improved our MDGs profile. In Bangladesh with an average growth rate of 6.2 per cent for the last five years, poverty rate has been reduced to 24.4 per cent now from 40 per cent in 2005.
Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh has attained targets of universal safe drinking water and sanitation for the people. However, we need to do more as we have targeted to turn Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed country by 2041, she said.
Cooperation in increasing productivity of key cereals, inland fisheries and livestock, improving water efficiency in agriculture are crucial for attaining nutritional security of our people and eradicating poverty, Sheikh Hasina said, adding in this context, it is very important to make operation of Food Bank and Seed Bank under the framework of SAARC.
She said SAARC region is home to a large youth population. "We need to develop them as human resources primarily by giving them quality education and effective training."
Focusing on development of education in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina said, Bangladesh has taken innovative steps to ensure education for all. Girls are getting free education up to graduation level, while about 12.8 million students from poor families are getting monthly stipend, 75 per cent of them are girls.
Each year, nearly 318 million textbooks are being distributed free of cost among all students up to the secondary level. Gender parity in primary and secondary schooling has been achieved. Now, we are focusing on "quality education" for our students, she said.
"We recognise that our education system should be need-based and innovative, with adequate exposure to scientific and technological advancement and comparable with the advanced countries," Sheikh Hasina said.
Placing emphasis on easy access of males and females to affordable and quality technical and vocational education, she said, "Our education and skill development need to be linked to employment and entrepreneurship."
She also laid emphasis on empowerment of women and their equal participation with men in all walks of life for sustainable development.
In this context, Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in empowering women in social, economic and political arena.
Pragmatic policies, resource allocation and strong commitment of our government were instrumental in this achievement," she added.
Sheikh Hasina said technology, especially ICT, determines our everyday life in so many ways. It is changing our lives and livelihoods bringing solutions that we could not even thought of a few years back.
She said Bangladesh has established 5,275 Digital Centres across the country to materialize the vision to build "Digital Bangladesh" by 2021.
From those centres, Sheikh Hasina said, rural people are receiving more than 200 ICT-related services. They are also getting healthcare services from 13,500 IT-connected Community Health Clinics with free medicine, she said.
Terming climate change as a threat to the development of Bangladesh and South Asia region, Sheikh Hasina said intensity and frequency of disasters are rising. The risks are so grave that it wipes out two to three per cent of Bangladesh's annual GDP and poses threat of displacement of more than 30 million people by 2050.
To address the challenges of climate change-related risks effectively and comprehensively, she said, the government has adopted National Climate Change Strategy and National Plan of Action.
She said the government has so far allocated US$385 million from own resources for adaptation and mitigation. At SAARC level, we need to secure result-oriented implementation of the regional agreements and plans through cross-border initiatives to address climate change, she added.
Laying importance on a comprehensive cooperation among SAARC nations in the energy sector, she said it is the time to commit ourselves to regional, sub-regional and bilateral initiatives for the development of energy sector in a comprehensive manner.
Optimum supply of energy remains fundamental to ensuring steady growth and sustainable development of our people. Progress on the SAARC Framework Agreement on Electricity Cooperation is laudable, she said.
The Prime Minister added, energy is a sector where we have much to tap in terms of regional hydropower. There are aspects, like energy regulation, efficiency and conservation, regional power grid -- where we can work beneficially.
Sheikh Hasina also urged the SAARC leaders to focus on the Fourth Frontier -- the Indian Ocean -- as the new global development agenda requires.
"There is so much to benefit through collaborative exploration of the living and non-living marine resources," she said, adding that ocean resources-based "blue economy" can play a critical role in sustainable development of the SAARC region.
Sheikh Hasina said, "We should collaborate on development of capacities, partnerships and research in utilizing our marine resources. Our common undertakings must secure protection, development and exploration of seas and oceans in a sustainable manner."
On regional connectivity, she said physical connectivity is important to ensure overall peace, progress and stability across South Asia as multimodal physical connectivity links territories and communities.
She said Bangladesh approaches connectivity in a wider context. "We believe in connecting ideas, knowledge, technology, culture, people, road-rail-air, movement of goods, services and investment."
In this context, Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh will appreciate the early signing of the Regional Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Regional Railways Agreement.
She urged all SAARC leaders to lend their support to advance implementation of the agreed regional outcomes on connectivity. SAARC nations also need to focus on increasing intra-regional trade. Early and effective implementation of SAFTA remains important, she said.
"We particularly need to address the non-tariff and para-tariff barriers. Our people want to see robust actions on-the-ground," she said, adding that they want to see "outcomes" than "process".
The Prime Minister welcomed the engagement and contribution of Observers to SAARC forum saying, over the years they brought in useful knowledge and support and Bangladesh gives value to their contribution.
Sheikh Hasina called for giving necessary support to the Centres established under the framework of SAARC and said the centres have generated important regional goods, knowledge and ideas. "We must support them in all possible ways to develop them as centres of regional excellence," she said.