India has to play a proactive role to develop South Asia economically and socially, said Mashiur Rahman, economic affairs adviser to Bangladesh's prime minister, yesterday.
“If you look at the map of South Asia, you will see the size and centrality of India. Other countries around India are relatively small,” he said.
“If South Asia is to work together for economic growth and development, India is expected to play a proactive role.”
He made the observation at the inaugural ceremony of a two-day international conference titled “Rethinking Development in South Asia'' at the University of Chittagong. The Social Science Research Institute of the university organised the conference at the Faculty of Business Administration. The adviser said people may differ on how proactive India has been or whether there is a need for further pro-activeness of India in order to develop all these countries together.
Trade among the South Asian countries is very low because they protect their own domestic industries, said Rahman.
On the integration, he said Nepal and Bhutan have special arrangements – in trade and currency – with India like that of the European Union. On the other hand, Bangladesh and India have a higher level of trade and Bangladesh's export to India has increased recently.
Rahman said India has signed a comprehensive economic agreement with Sri Lanka and is seeking to do the same with some other middle-income countries.
He said Bangladesh did not show interest to sign a comprehensive deal with India as some policymakers think the country does not have enough products to export. But the argument has some weaknesses as well, he said.
“This kind of trade agreement gives you larger access and creates opportunities for new products.”
Bangladesh is entitled to the common Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) that India grants to the least developed countries (LDCs) and Bangladesh has the advantage of proximity over other LDCs, said Rahman.
For better integration, the adviser said, Bangladesh has allowed India and other neighbours to use its ports for their export to third countries.
Vice-Chancellor Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury underscored the need for solving different issues regionally through a common platform.
Manusher Jonno Foundation Executive Director Shaheen Anam called rising inequality and a widening gap between the rich and the poor the biggest challenge for South Asia.
She said there are a huge number of issues such as poverty, malnourishment, maternal mortality and illiteracy in the region, yet it is going ahead.
“We are all so proud in Bangladesh that we will become a middle-income country within the next few years. But too much emphasis on it may leave marginalised groups behind,” she said, adding that economic growth and social development should go hand in hand.
University Grants Commission Chairman Prof Abdul Mannan said this region just followed the western formula of development in the past but it did not work.
“We have to think of our own development formula,” he said.
Consisting of eight countries, South Asia is home to about 1.9 billion people, of which a big portion is young.
Conference Convener Prof Farid Uddin Ahamed, also the dean of the Faculty of Social Science, said as the world is growing more and more complex, it is increasingly necessary to challenge conventional wisdom together.
After the inaugural session, Anup Kumar Dhar, director of the Centre for Development Practice at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, said economic and social development have to go together so that people from all classes can benefit from the growth.
Around 70 articles and a keynote paper would be presented at the event, attended by more than 100 academics and development practitioners from home and abroad, including South Asia and countries such as the US, Malaysia, China and Thailand.