Print Edition - 2014-12-14  |  Free the Words

Saarc and the Summit

  • Saarc cannot move ahead without the proactive efforts of India
- Jainendra Jeevan
Saarc and the Summit

Dec 13, 2014-

The 18th Saarc Summit meeting is over and so is the hectic schedule of the host nation. The Saarc Summit has always been the highest-level international gathering Nepal has ever hosted. The attention paid to and the resources Nepal spent for the Summit was therefore natural, whether justified or not. The events certainly cost a few billion rupees to the state treasury, which was mainly spent on giving Kathmandu a facelift  and the repair/maintenance of certain essential facilities such as the City Hall (the venue of the Summit). But, most of these public works were long overdue, whether Nepal was hosting the Summit or not. Except for minor inconveniences faced by Kathmandu city dwellers on account of traffic control and tight security measures that were in place during and a little before the occasion, people didn’t suffer much.

The event was also a blessing for the news hungry media. Amid the never-ending reports of deadlock in constitution writing, political manoeuvring, power struggles, too many road accidents, the anti-corruption agencies’ sting operation targeted at petty public servants (thus shifting the nation’s attention from big scandals like the ‘cantonment loot’), they found new and readymade materials. A handful of smart people—mostly former diplomats and politicians—who have succeeded in branding themselves as foreign/Saarc affairs experts, were busy attending meetings and TV talk shows.

Not committed

Often referred to as the ‘poor nation’s club’—as each member-state ranks low on the list of wealthy nations—the region is also, unlike the neighbouring Asean and several other regional bodies, one of the least inter-connected and least integrated in terms of travel, trade, and services (including telecom services). Rapid economic development, more exchanges between people, and more engagements between governments, along with better roads and railways connectivity, should therefore have been the focus of Saarc. This was all the more essential because it is not a political or military association; it is a geo-union whose declared aim is to achieve fast economic development and promote intraregional cooperation and connectivity. But progress in most areas identified for cooperation remains poor even as promises have been tall. That is why, out of seven ‘functional centres’ designed to work in different areas that were established on a one-each basis in all seven founding countries, three are to be closed while the remaining four are to be merged into one, as per the recommendations of expert committees.

In fact, countless commitments have been made ever since Saarc came into being, but their implementation has been poor. This was mainly because, in most cases, the respective national governments (except the one that proposed/tabled the proposal) hardly attached priority to those proposals/commitments. While individual governments have their own agendas and priorities, the Saarc Secretariat has no mechanism to force them to focus on the collective body’s commitments and proclamations.

Bilateral problems

Saarc’s charter forbids bilateral political and contentious issues from being tabled or discussed. The bar was introduced to avert its possible failure/break up on account of bilateral disputes, which were plentiful, and which often soured the mutual relationships of member-states. Though this clause helped put outstanding issues aside, it did not help resolve them. The relationship between disputing nations, particularly India and Pakistan, remained cold whenever they met or avoided meeting, during the Saarc Summit and/or its sidelines. This time too, the Indian and Pakistani premiers not only refrained from meeting one-to-one, they also tried their best to avoid each other. When they finally shook hands and smiled during the photo session that followed, mainly at Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s behest, it came out as the most important and most sensational news of the Summit.

The hostility between India and Pakistan—the two biggest countries of the Saarc—have overshadowed and negatively affected the functioning of the Association. Their historical animosity, deep-rooted mutual suspicion, and contradictory stands and claims on Kashmir will continue to spoil relations for a long time to come, which in turn will continue to affect the business of Saarc. This is so because, according to the Saarc Charter, all decisions are to be reached through consensus, not voting.

India must lead

Despite all this, Saarc can move ahead, mainly if and when India takes the initiative in this direction. It seems that now is time for those ‘if’ and ‘when’ to happen. The new Bharatiya Janata Party government in Delhi, led by its visionary and charismatic leader Narendra Modi, has not only signalled both through words and deeds that it attaches greatest importance to its neighbours but it has also helped accelerate cooperation in many areas within Saarc.

Without the proactive efforts of India—which is not only the biggest country in terms of economy, size and might, but also is located at the centre of the Saarc region-sharing borders with four out of seven nations—the association won’t move ahead. Unfortunately, even the ‘India-centric’ Saarc has so far figured low in India’s priorities, as the country has always preferred bilateralism to multilateralism when it comes to dealing with neighbours.

This time, rays of hope have appeared on the horizon, as a ‘breakthrough’ agreement on energy has been possible, thanks to the tireless efforts of host Sushil Koirala. The agreement has paved the way for trade in energy through the construction of inter-state transmission lines. Similarly, agreements reached and progress achieved on tourism and climate change, too, are promising. Yes, more needs to be done in enriching connectivity among nations and people, and in enhancing intraregional trade and cooperation by further liberalising their respective economies, and in making the South Asian Free Trade Agreement arrangement fully effective. Yet, the 36-point Kathmandu Declaration generates some optimism, from the viewpoint of both content and situation.

Published: 14-12-2014 09:35

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