Shekar Shah on South Asia’s Prospects

On a recent visit to Sri Lanka, the SAES team caught up with Dr. Shekhar Shah, Director-General of India’s National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), and spoke to him about his views on South Asia’s socio-economic challenges and opportunities. This interview is part of a larger interview he gave IPS. This segment is particularly relevant to the 6th SAES as he talks about the region’s growth prospects and the socio-economic and political imperatives influencing it.

In the interview, IPS Research Economist Anushka Wijesinha queried him about the growth prospects for South Asia, given the increasingly changing dynamics taking place on both a global and regional level. Dr. Shah stressed the importance of ensuring sound fundamentals are established in the region, and identified two major components that South Asia would need to focus on more strongly. The first, is the lack of integration in the South Asian region.  He observed that “South Asia remains the least integrated region in the world”’.  He went on the elaborate that micro-level policy changes were a crucial part of this required shift, including how borders are  manned and how cross border trade and investment take place. He also emphasized that India’s neighbors should make use of the large market,  “in terms of selling their goods and inviting foreign direct investment from India into their neighboring countries’’.

According to him, the second shift that needed to take place was in terms of sharing natural resources. He spoke of the major concern being the sharing of water and  the vast hydropower opportunities that should be taken advantage of.. He remarked that this has been an area that has not been addressed adequately enough in the past.  “Each country has political compulsions that draw away most of the political leadership… we need to think about the shared future that South Asia has, it the largest concentration of poor people in the world, if we are going to tackle global poverty… this is where the real changes will have to happen’’, he remarked.

Considering the high level of debate taking place in the ASEAN region compared to SAARC as well as the higher propensity of the debate being fed into policy changes in ASEAN, Anushka asked Dr Shah what his opinion was of the future of SAARC.. Dr Shah responded by saying that debate had to take place at all levels – from think tanks to ordinary citizens . He reiterated that “if we just left it to SAARC we would be bound by all the political constraints that SAARC has as a multilateral organization’’.

Dr. Shekar Shah was until recently the World Bank’s Regional Economic Adviser for South Asia based in New Delhi and Colombo and covering the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.