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Indo-Pak issues hijack SAARC agenda

By Naveen Kapoor
April 21, 2010 15:40 IST
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Persisting ambiguity over the possibility of an Indo-Pak dialogue taking place on the sidelines of next week's SAARC summit in Bhutan, has once again hijacked attention from broader and more complex issues involving this nearly 25-year-old regional grouping.

Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meet his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani? Will it be a structured dialogue or a photo op? Is India ready to resume the stalled 'composite dialogue' with Pakistan during the summit? All of these speculations are doing the rounds.

Scant attention, however, is being paid to the SAARC agenda, which does not mandate its members to raise or discuss bilateral issues.

But, paradoxically, bilateral issues have always dominated multilateral agenda and the 16th SAARC Summit in Thimpu is not expected to be any different from the past.

The 'trust deficit' in the Indo-Pak relationship has time and again eclipsed and cast a shadow on multilateral agenda of the SAARC. It has remained a source of frustration for smaller nations like Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan.

According to sources, three agreements, the Trade in Services in SAFTA, Natural Disaster Response Mechanism and the Convention on Cooperation on Environment have been finalised by the SAARC Expert committee meeting, which took place in Thimpu in March.

But at the last minute, Pakistan vetoed the SAARC Natural Disaster Response Mechanism that was intended to build a permanent team of rescuers from all eight nations who could provide contingency rescue services in the case of emergencies or natural catastrophes.

Islamabad has reportedly scuttled the mechanism because it is wary of opening its borders to Indian rescue workers.

Analysts believe this move by Islamabad is not only counter-productive for itself and India, but will also be a setback to other smaller nations like Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka which are prone to marine disasters. 

Located along the high seismic zone of the Himalayas, Afghanistan and Nepal could have been major beneficiaries of the regional mechanism.

Over the years, SAARC nations have been pushing for connectivity and free transit. Talks of a visa free regime are also heard aloud at the forum, but nothing has been translated into reality.

With countries like Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan landlocked, overcoming high transaction costs due to poor trade facilitation appears to be a priority for the regional grouping.

Pakistan has shown no cooperation in opening a transit route to Afghanistan for Indian goods.

Similarly Bangladesh wants India to open up a transit route to Nepal and Bhutan.

This can only happen if there is unanimity, especially among the larger member nations like India and Pakistan.

The implementation of the SAFTA in real terms still seems a distant dream.

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Naveen Kapoor in New Delhi
Source: ANI