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South Asian cooperation – SAARC can do better

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In Brief

No other region in the world has a greater affinity in terms of culture, language and, above all, poverty, than South Asia. Also, no other region has a deeper history of mutual mistrust. It has prevented cooperation among a region which constitutes half the world’s poor. As the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which represents the region's eight nations, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, turns 25 this year, we ask, what progress has been achieved in the region?

While smuggling is rampant, trade within the region is languishing. Each country is looking for ‘safer’, more lucrative markets outside the region. For instance, only 3.2 per cent of Bangladesh's trade is within the region. When demand in developed countries recently decreased, this trend changed but only marginally.


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India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh echoed a similar view when he noted, ‘despite the telecommunication connectivity, intra-trade and investments flow are far less compared with East and Southeast Asia.’

In a region dominated by one major economic power, India, it has been difficult for SAARC to forge cooperative agreements. Comparisons with other regional groupings, especially the EU and ASEAN, are frequently made and the contrast with them lamented. The problem is SAARC is different from them geographically and therefore in geopolitics. No single nation, large or populous, dominates Europe or Southeast Asia as does India in South Asia.

There exists an inherent fear that Indian movies, food, cotton, or fruits, will sweep their domestic markets. Only Sri Lanka has a free trade agreement (FTA) with India. Pakistan receives most favoured nation (MFN) treatment from India but does not reciprocate.

Historical disputes and differences are disrupting progress in the region and after two decades the Himalayan subcontinent remains divergent. India-Pakistan squabbles tend to adversely affect regional agreements to the justifiable irritation of smaller neighbours. Additionally, the region faces critical challenges from terrorism, extremism, narcotics and organised crime.

At the recent summit in Thimphu, Bhutan, leaders admitted to many of the region’s  shortcomings on cooperation and pledged to work together to achieve better outcomes and pursue mutual trust that has been lacking. Seven key initiatives where addressed at the summit:

– The need for SAARC to become truly action-oriented through implementing declarations and decisions and operating instruments to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the people of the region.

– To form a ‘South Asia Forum’ for generating debate and exchange of ideas on South Asia and its future. The forum, comprising eminent personalities from diverse backgrounds, must function as a public-private partnership.

– To convene a ‘Conclave of SAARC Parliamentarians’ in line with the SAARC Charter.

– Initiate a process to formulate a common SAARC policy position for the Mexico United Nations Conference on Climate Change in December this year.

– Have an action plan on energy conservation prepared by SAARC Energy Centre in Islamabad.

– Welcomed Bhutan’s offer of a SAARC workshop on Gross National Happiness (GNH) this year – focusing on people-centric development in the region.

– Cooperate to root out terrorism and commit to addressing illegal trafficking in drugs, firearms and people.

Additionally, the summit adopted a 37-point ‘Thimphu Silver Jubilee Declaration’ and the ‘Thimphu Statement on Climate Change’ that was the result of hard bargaining among the member countries.

Pro-active under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, Bangladesh succeeded in pushing the regional cooperative efforts ahead, and in taking other member states on board.

Several other ideas emerged from the summit. Hasina’s call for the development of a regional power grid and harnessing renewable energy sources is one idea that ought to be dealt with on a priority basis.

If the suggestion is to be considered a basis for further cooperation between the nations in the region, Manmohan happily went a step further with his view that regional cooperation should mean an opportunity for a free movement of people, goods, services and ideas.

Quite pertinently, it is a shared heritage he spoke of, one he felt needed to be rediscovered. But rediscovery will in the end depend on the degree of trust and confidence the states in the region are able to bring about in their interaction with one another. Merely passing resolutions and signing agreements is not enough to address the most pertinent problems the region faces.

Bhutan’s premier Jigmy Y. Thinley, the new SAARC chair, put it bluntly at the summit: ‘Some 200 meetings take place every year among SAARC countries but these meetings are not matched by results.’

The role of civil society, including academics and media, in discussions, debate and analysis on issues for promoting regional integration has to be critical.

In an increasingly interdependent world, more so because of the common threats countries face, as over connectivity, climate-related issues, poverty and militancy looms, SAARC must adapt to changing needs.

A version of this article first appeared here in New Strait Times.

Mahendra Ved is a Delhi-based writer.

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