Stuck in time

  • Though the outcomes of the ongoing Summit are predictable, there is room for hope
Stuck in time

Nov 24, 2014-

Although the concept of regional cooperation in South Asia was mooted in the late 1940s, it did not work out until the mid 1980s. A series of informal discussions and negotiations led to the formation of the Saarc in the mid 80s consisting of seven countries in the region (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.) Afghanistan joined Saarc three years ago as the eighth member.

South Asia is one of the most underdeveloped regions in the world with high levels of poverty, illiteracy, superstition and other symptoms of underdevelopment. In terms of physical and population size, India is greater than all the other countries put together. There are two tiny countries (Bhutan and Maldives), three landlocked states (Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal) and two island nations (Maldives and Sri Lanka). India and Pakistan are the only two nuclear powers in the region and are constantly in conflict. And insurgency troubles more than half the region resulting in political instability. Terrorism induced by religious fundamentalism still haunts most of South Asia.

Focus on meetings

Saarc is an intergovernmental organisation with the concept of equality of its members as sovereign states. However, with India as a member, which claims to be the largest democracy in world and it is emerging as world power it is a difficult task to maintain equality of status among member countries.

Given the socio-economic underdevelopment, the main goal of Saarc is facilitating development in the region through technical cooperation, rapid industrialisation and free trade among member countries.  Back in 1983, an Integrated Action Program was agreed upon way with a focus on five areas for mutual co-operation: agriculture, rural development, telecommunications, meteorology, health and population activities. Each successive Summit has maintained its focus on those goals and declarations have been made accordingly. But the implementation of those pledges and promises is grim. There is a conspicuous hullabaloo during the Summits, but the enthusiasm dies down as soon as the ceremonies are over.

Each time, it appears as though holding a Summit is the main goal of the Saarc. This is best exemplified by Nepal’s efforts at beautifying Kathmandu for the ongoing 18th Saarc Summit. Nepal poured money and resources beyond its means to demonstrate its hospitality.

Same old

The main constraint Saarc faces is the lack of initiative to act, supplemented by a lack of technical and management skills. In addition, there are multiple restrictions in the form of high import duties on goods from the less-developed and weak states discouraging their exports. In part, the big brotherly attitude of India was also a discouraging factor in the early phase of Saarc. As an institution, Saarc seems to be more of a forum for discussion rather than action. Its decisions are not mandatory for member states. There is political instability and lack of peace in many member countries. There is no leader with a regional vision. And all of this has resulted in the lack of political will.

So the outcomes of the ongoing Summit are predictable. Heads of states or governments of member nations will deliver fiery speeches; resolutions will be passed; Kathmandu Declaration will promise to usher a new era of regionalism and every attempt at glamourising the event will be made by the media. But things could be different if Saarc is given an executive role for implementation of the promises with commensurate power and resources. This could alter the course for the region which is brimming with possibilities.

There’s hope

In terms of regional vision and leadership, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi has taken the initiative by inviting heads of governments of the Saarc countries in his oath-taking ceremony and has also shown an active interest in matters of the region. In his earlier visits to Bhutan and Nepal he has made commitments to provide support in matters of development. This is going to foster active participation of member countries creating a conducive climate for investment. The proposed rail and road links will foster faster economic growth in the region (save the island nations).

Nepal’s prospects, therefore, look brighter. The establishment of permanent peace after a decade long insurgency has encouraged foreign direct investment in the fields of energy (hydropower) and tourism (hotels and resorts) which holds great potential for Nepal. But the country will have to make more effort at the bilateral level to reap its benefits. In his earlier visit to Nepal, Modi promised a direct line of credit of $1 billion. Now, a trade agreement has also been signed with India in the power sector. Nepal’s private sector is also coming up with its own initiative and interest for investment in the power sector. China, which has an observer status in Saarc, has been extending helping hands in terms of investments in the power sector too. Other countries from outside the region have also shown interest.

However, the finalisation and enforcement of the new constitution is a precondition to all of it. Until then, the political climate will remain fluid, not conducive for foreign investment. This requires the government to work with a lot of resilience, patience, restraint and ingenuity to bring the opposition together for the finalisation of the constitution. This is more important than all the efforts to put in to beautify Kathmandu for the Summit.   

Sharma is a freelance political analyst  

Published: 25-11-2014 09:22

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