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SAARC: The Way Ahead

May 14, 2010 15:35 IST

Irrespective of SAARC's banal performance audit, it would be at South Asia's peril to accept the idea that SAARC as a framework has little to offer, especially to its poorer members, writes Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

Leaders of eight South Asian Nations and observers from many more beyond the region met last month amidst the splendour of Bhutan's mountain ranges to infuse vitality in a regional organisation that has too often been faulted for not having lived upto expectations.

This organisation is also the forum that represents one fifth of the world's population, its members combat poverty that engulfs over 300 million lives, hosts the largest numbers world's illiterates, is the region with highest mortality in children below five, except sub-Saharan Africa. However, just shift the sights and the panorama is fairly different. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations averaged approximately seven percent growth in the last decade. They weathered the global downturn quite nimbly. In fact, Bhutan posted amazing double digit growth rates.

The SAARC family is constituted today of only democratic countries, with two nuclear neighbours, a recurring flashpoint in Kashmir, an ongoing battle in Afghanistan, about three lakh soldiers in combat gear in North West Frontier and Waziristan provinces of Pakistan.

At the other end of the spectrum is the new found comfort level in Sri Lanka sans the LTTE, while Nepal, visibly totters as it tests its newly-implanted democratic legs. In effect, together with West Asia, South Asia remains one of the most volatile zones, globally.

The central theme of this year's SAARC meet was climate change, an issue of enormous relevance to most of the nations with Bangladesh assessed to be one of the prime losers as the sea levels rise and flood its lower regions. With the Copenhagen meet just behind, and the fragile economies of some of SAARC's member states definitely at a loss in facing the challenges that climate change imposes, this was undoubtedly an urgent issue.

Notwithstanding the urgency, the declaration at the end of the meet is definitely not a fast-paced narrative outlining an action plan. It lays down a series of activities to be pursued, without an accompanying road map.

SAARC's historical baggage of being unable to generate greater momentum in pursuing various issues has been its bane at Thimpu, too. This baggage is also undoubtedly the result of two of its towering members -- India and Pakistan -- mutual animosity that often disallows convergence of members in its meetings to address multi-lateral concerns.

Irrespective of SAARC's banal performance audit, it would be at South Asia's peril to accept the idea that SAARC as a framework has little to offer, especially to its poorer members.

It is in the interests of the region to keep SAARC going, thereby improving through trade, unified stance on global issues, co-operation in various fields including trade, energy and water management, to accelerate the rise in living indices in the lives of more than 1.5 billion people. SAARC's record does hold out some hope, too. 

SAARC, in the past, has been able to steer a course for multilateral progress on certain issues of import. Foremost amongst these is the South Asian Free Trade Agreement that boils down to a phased tariff liberalisation amongst SAARC members with greater commitment for the least developed nations.

Indo-Bangla trade has already received a huge boost. Bangladesh provided free trade to Bhutan for 18 products just before the conference. Bhutan also extended similar concessions to Bangladesh. The regional trade in South Asia is woefully short of trade within other regional arrangements like the ASEAN, and provides enormous opportunities.

Amongst other major issues progressed by SAARC is the Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism adopted in 1987 in the Kathmandu summit. An additional protocol to the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism was inked at Islamabad in 2004.

Not that the convention, to include the additional protocol, has been able to suture together a common definition of terrorism -- a difficult task for any multi-nation forum -- yet, some progress has been made on fighting terror, a phenomenon that afflicts all its member states but for Maldives.

Under the circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect SAARC to run the race hereafter at a rapid pace on all fronts. However, certain issues can be pursued within the characteristic dynamics of SAARC that would have a far-reaching effect on the region.

Greater inter-regional connectivity, an issue that finds emphasis in the meet's declaration, needs to be augmented by a road map. The growth in trade and commerce would be definitely enhanced when the connectivity facilitates opportunities, especially to SAARC populations inhabiting the boundaries of its neighbours.

There is a lag time between the payoffs from state to state trade reaching the common man, even with the best governance in place. However, together with SAFTA and trade facilitation by member states, strengthened by connectivity, and allowing private players, the payoffs going to the common man, would be faster. Certain issues like business visas would require simultaneous easing.

Food security and increased sharing of agricultural technology and techniques that finds mention in the declaration emanating from Bhutan, is also an area for immediate action. This region hosts 40 percent of the world's poor against 22 percent of its population. The urgent necessity in this area remains availability of cheap food. Similarly, poverty alleviation initiatives need a boost. The scheduled Third Ministerial Meeting on Poverty Alleviation in 2011 to be hosted by Nepal, will hopefully chart a course with definitive timelines to meet agreed objectives. For long-term gains in the agricultural sector and stability in the region, water management and exploring energy trading hold out immense dividends.

The SAARC Developmental Fund also holds out promise, should it become a more dynamic organisation that is responsive to local needs. With a paid up capital of $300 million, more than half of it having been contributed by India, the fund could make a difference in the sectors of maternal and child health, teachers' training and other such activities listed in its charter.

SAARC has also to address the issue of terror with assiduous determination. The problem finds manifestation in each of its member states, except Maldives, where the worries of Lashkar-e-Tayiba possibly taking roots is already being viewed with misgivings. This is also an area where major steps are fraught with risks of failure, given the relationship between India and Pakistan.

Notwithstanding the difficulties anticipated in getting member states to be aligned cohesively, terrorism is a phenomenon without adequate answers within national boundaries. It's global, and a regional approach is the least congruence required for effective mechanisms.

For us, South Asia is the first challenge in the contest that we are faced with as we progress on the road to being a global player. Today, the region is not optimized to benefit from mutual growth. In some cases it serves to waste our resources in guarding our borders with member states, our insurgent movements finding sanctuaries, and in the worst case, terror being exported with state support to our country. If we can be the driver of South Asian harmonisation and rise, we will be able to usher in greater affluence in the region and gain influence. In the bargain, we will have also progressed on the road to our rightful place in the emerging world order

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)