Less rhetoric, more action

  • It is time to consolidate Saarc’s past achievements and work with common resolve to overcome hurdles
- Surya B Prasai
Less rhetoric, more action

Nov 26, 2014-

As Nepal hosts the 18th Saarc Summit after a three-year hiatus, the regional grouping’s critics have become all the more vocal. There has been a call for the organisation’s transformation into functionality that borrows more from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping and abandons its propensity for mere rhetoric. Saarc needs to prove itself through economic results by honouring past agreements, instead of creating new benchmarks. This includes providing a stronger role to Saarc Observers, who have not had an influential say in the regional grouping so far.

Lots to do

Even as the Summit provides ample opportunities for regional leaders to meet on the sidelines, it will ultimately be up to Saarc’s two most populous member-states—India and Pakistan—to optimise commonalities in perception and redress the current trade, transportation, and security barriers that hinder progress, including the South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) and newer cooperation models in the much-touted energy sector. This could also be an opportune moment to heed the words of a poem composed by Abhay Kumar, a young Indian diplomat who composed the Saarc anthem, aimed at integrating South Asia through a common theme of peace and identity, including its language.  

With ample security measures in place and the Nepal government having declared a two-day national holiday in Kathmandu, a flurry of meetings were expected to strengthen the raison d’etre of Saarc as originally conceptualised in Dhaka in 1985. For instance, the four-stage 18th Summit was preceded by the 36th session of the Saarc Council of Ministers on November 25, the 41st session of the Standing Committee on November 23-24, and the 46th session of the Programming Committee on November 22. These meetings have set the course for the Kathmandu Declaration.

Saarc, however, must go beyond past agreements to strengthen inter-country road, rail, waterways, and airways to encompass broader workings, such as the energy sector, which are key to future economic cooperation and growth in the region. India shares an almost contiguous border, land or maritime, with all countries except for Afghanistan. But the stark truth remains that in 2014, the Saarc region lags behind in economic cooperation and widening disparities are more visible here than in any other regional grouping. As a result, Saarc has yet to bear meaningful results even as its peoples seek increased contact among themselves in pursuit of more democratic openings and justifiably, a more equitable per capita distribution of economic gains.

Positivity and achievements

Yet, some academic positivists and historians in various Saarc capitals remain firmly convinced that the 18th Summit might still prove a new chapter in regional cooperation. For one, the political landscape has changed for the better for Saarc to move forward fearlessly in the new world order seeking regional cooperation as a modus operandi to benefit its largely middle and lower-middle class population. Tensions had somewhat reduced after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic overture to all Saarc heads of state and government to attend his inauguration. Thus, the time is ripe to look beyond the prism of Kashmir, which has bogged down past political agreements, and positively consider a ‘Saarc Plus’ model. The United States and China should both be given a more proactive berth in Saarc’s future proceedings. This is also a view that Subramaniam Swamy, an influential Bharatiya Janata Party leader, personally voiced at the international level recently.

What have the Saarc’s achievements been to date? In its nearly 30-years existence, Saarc has attained a somewhat structured institutional shape, where people-to-people contacts have led to a new South Asian identity movement. Saarc’s Integrated Programme of Action has created a network of innovative thinking and ideas supported by some useful independent commissions, task forces and groups of eminent persons. Some of Saarc’s researches in poverty alleviation, disaster management, environment, trade, manufacturing, and services have received United Nations and G-8 funding. However, Saarc’s signing of various Conventions, Treaties, and Agreements on curbing drugs, terrorism, and preferential trade have created contradictory results in some prominent capitals. Saarc has indentified 16 sectors for inter-regional cooperation, such as agriculture, health, forest, environment, and fighting terrorism. It is now time to consolidate these sectors’ past achievements and work with common resolve to overcome past hurdles. Less rhetoric, more action, as they say.

Looking ahead

Nepal’s Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey recently asserted that the Kathmandu Summit will focus on installing durable peace and prosperity in South Asia and prioritise­­ regional unity. He also mentioned in a recent Kathmandu press meet that the 18th Summit would pledge to eradicate illiteracy in the region by 2030, stress quality education, end violence against women, create employment opportunities for the region’s youth, and call for an end to all forms of terrorism. Nepal holds the view that international migration factors must also be considered in the ambit of Saarc dialogue, since it has a catalysing effect on the region’s economic growth.

What about Saarc’s workable future? A common Saarc SIM card, a common postal union, one Saarc travel card, and inter-country degree recognition are all possibilities. But Saarc has yet to boost an open-sky policy to encourage intra-Saarc tourism. With similar cultures, common histories and heritages, Saarc countries have a lot to gain from each other. The Kathmandu Summit could well be a transformation point for Saarc and its eight members. But in the end, the 18th Saarc Summit’s success will be judged by the wordings of the Kathmandu Declaration, for which the Nepali Foreign Ministry has put in its fair share of brainstorming and has already circulated to other member states for approval and amendment.

Prasai works in strategic communications and development resource mobilisation


Published: 27-11-2014 09:31

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