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South Asia think tanks in integration push at Sri Lanka meet amid political lethargy

South Asia think tanks in integration push at Sri Lanka meet amid political lethargy

South Asian academics and think tanks develop policies and strategies to integrate the region, despite political lethargy and a moribund South Asia Association Regional Co-operation which started a decade ago with high hopes.

In 2008 the SAARC organization started with a preferential trade agreement, which was expected to lead to a free trade deal, customs union and by 2020, European style integrated area.

But the SAARC had ground to a halt, Dushni Weerakoon, head of Sri Lanka’s Institute of Policy Studies said, kicking off a South Asia Economic Summit, bringing together think tanks, civil society and several private enterprises.

The annual meet was initiated 12 years ago by top Sri Lanka economist and former head of IPS, Saman Kelegama, who was a strong advocate of free trade. This year’s summit looks at ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ as technology drives change.

Weerakoon said there were challenges including premature de-industrialization, jobless growth. South Asia had an increasingly educated workforce but technology was also bringing challenges including in privacy and ethics, that had to be dealt with.

The SAARC process had also ground to a halt, amid political differences.

Mustafisu Rahman, from the Center of Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh said while the SAARC political will had waned the regional thinkers and academics who believed in the original vision should not give up.

“I think that vision something which still drives us,” he said. “I think we have to be prepared with a policy agenda and recommendations when political leaders are ready.”

He said at bi-lateral and sub-regional level as well as non-state level some progress was being made.

Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, said the region was running into global geopolitical issues with trade tensions between the US and China.