South Asian leaders to discuss povetry and disaster management at summit

A twice-postponed summit of South Asian leaders this weekend will tackle poverty and disaster management in a region where most people are impoverished and about 130,000 people were killed over the last year by a tsunami and an earthquake.

A disaster management center and one or two regional early warning centers will be proposed at the Nov. 12-13 meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, Indian foreign ministry official Pradeep Kapur said.

The summit is also expected to declare 2006-2015 the SAARC Decade of Poverty Alleviation. An estimated 60 percent of the region's 1.5 billion people do not get two meals a day.

At a dozen summits held since SAARC's inception in 1985, member states India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh have adopted resolutions or signed accords on forming a free-trade zone, combating poverty, fighting terrorism, ensuring gender equality, protecting the environment, and many other issues. But most of the agreements and conventions are yet to turn into reality because of regional rivalries, especially between India and Pakistan, and the suspicion with which the other members view their giant neighbor, India.

"The first two decades identified areas where collective efforts were needed. The time has come now to take advantage and make the third one a decade of implementation," Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan said Tuesday.

The summit was postponed once because of last December's tsunami. A second postponement in February came after India refused to attend because of King Gyanendra's seizure of absolute power in Nepal. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's presence this weekend is likely to pressure Gyanendra to restore democracy in the Himalayan nation.

During the summit, the seven nations plan to sign agreements on customs, double taxation and the establishment of an arbitration council.

They also will try to make progress on the proposed South Asian Free Trade Area.

Although scheduled to be in place by January 2006, creation of the area may be delayed if member countries are unable to resolve outstanding issues involving rules of origin and compensation for lost tax revenues.

An agreement on promoting and protecting regional investments is also on the agenda.

The region frequently faces natural disasters. Last month, more than 87,000 people are estimated to have died in an earthquake in the Kashmir region, which is divided between Pakistan and India.

Last year's Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 31,000 people in Sri Lanka, nearly 11,000 in India and 82 in the Maldives.

"There is considerable scope for preparing strategies for disaster preparedness, emergency relief and rehabilitation. The summit needs to focus on fighting natural calamities," columnist and retired diplomat G. Parthasarthy said, reports the AP. I.L.

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