India on Thursday pitched for unleashing the "collective strength" of SAARC as Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj underlined the need for a South Asian Economic Union with greater connectivity and forward movement on pending agreements on rail and motor vehicles.
Swaraj stated that while the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries are doing well individually, they have not been able to unleash their collective strength effectively.
"We have taken some important decisions to integrate our economies through SAFTA and South Asian Trade in Services Agreement. These need to be developed and consolidated further if we are to achieve a South Asian Economic Union," she said in her address at the 37th SAARC Council of Ministers meeting here.
Underlining that the South Asian region is hailed on Thursday as having the potential to be the front-runner of growth and prosperity and is one of the fastest growing regions of the world, she pointed out that regional integration is lacking.
"The statistics are telling: our region accounts for merely 2 per cent of world trade and 1.7 per cent of world FDI. Our intra-regional trade is less than 6 per cent of our global trade and intra-regional FDI accounts for only 3 per cent of total FDI inflows," she said.
Swaraj said that despite strong growth and huge advances in education, healthcare and rural development, the SAARC region still has the world's largest number of people living below the poverty line.
"We continue to face significant challenges in delivering food security, health, nutrition and education to our peoples.
"All this goes to show that while we are doing well individually, we have not been able to unleash our collective strength effectively. We must think innovatively and find solutions so that we may harness our economic complementarities and ensure a conducive environment for rapid growth," she said.
Swaraj said connectivity is central to regional development and will determine how "we meet our goals of growth, employment and prosperity."
"As we seek to overcome basic problems of physical connectivity, it is important for us to move forward quickly on pending agreements on rail and motor vehicles. Economic activities, cultural connections and people to people contacts will flow naturally from such connectivity," she said.
The minister asserted that the Indian government has shown its commitment to a 'Neighbourhood First' policy from its very first day in office.