The 18th Saarc Summit is being held after a gap of nearly three years with the theme of ‘Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity’. Even at a time of global economic meltdown, South Asian economies are fairing an average GDP growth of 6 percent. Today, more and more multi-national companies are coming to invest in the region. Our middle class itself is the second largest market in the world. With a vast potential of human, natural, and cultural resources, the region is already becoming the fulcrum of Rising Asia in the 21st century. It is urgent for Saarc, which is the only organisation with all eight South Asian countries as members, to tap into this buoyancy and start delivering concrete results on its past promises, rather than engaging in flowery statements bereft of substance.
The first priority is economic integration. According to eminent Nepali industrialist Binod Kumar Chaudhary, “Saarc is the poorest example of any economic block anywhere in the world. It is made for leaders and bureaucrats, artists and academics but not for businesspersons.” This is where the Kathmandu Summit needs to delve into seriously, because intra-regional trade in South Asia hovers around just 5 percent whereas it is 70 percent in the European Union (EU), 32 percent in North America, and 37 percent in the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). Once the most open and freely journeyed region, South Asia’s borders today are barriers to trade, compounded by inadequate rail and road networks, cumbersome import and export procedures, delays, red-tapism, and corruption. Intra-regional investment and tourism is also low, compared to other parts of the world. Except for Nepal, Sri Lanka and The Maldives, other member states are still very tight on their visa regimes. The region is more open to the outside world than to itself, prompting great cynicism on the track record of the Summits, often called ‘annual picnics for heads of state and government’.
Focus of the Summit
Saarc was formed amidst hopes that like other successful regional groupings around the globe, it would also provide a platform for spectacular breakthroughs on issues such as trade facilitation, energy cooperation, freedom of movement, customs union, and common currency, ultimately leading to an economic union. It would also provide impetus to bilateral ties amongst its members. There was anticipation, albeit a cautious one, that the Summits would be an avenue where bilateral contentious issues would be discussed and resolved during retreats of the heads of state and government, which have become integral parts of each Summit. It is after all these very issues that are hindering the progress of the organisation into becoming a dynamic economic body of substance.
Over the years, Summits were held with pomp and ceremony and very soon, the organisation started focusing on too many areas of activity—from biotechnology, meteorology to information and communication. Summits have provided closed door opportunities for bilateral meetings confined exclusively to the countries that require them, but diplomats, notable analysts, and strategic thinkers all agree that except for photo opportunities of famous handshakes, little that is tangible has come forth. Soon enough, it was evidently clear that the organisation was a ‘tooth-less shark’ without any political or security roles and its Secretariat deliberately conceived of as weak and powerless, thereby becoming an extension of the foreign ministries of each of the member state(s). Saarc’s Charter clearly stipulates that there should be annual Summits of the heads of state and government, but it has only managed 17 Summits in the 29 years of existence. The foremost hindrance to the healthy growth of this regional grouping has been—and continues to be—strained India-Pakistan relations. India’s relations with other smaller neighbours have also functioned like ‘traffic-lights’, directly impacting the overall progress of the organisation.
A stable South Asia is not possible without trust. With the Modi government in power in India and focus being given to the immediate neighbourhood, there is a greater sense of confidence in the region that India will own up its obligation of ‘special responsibility’, as the biggest state and the largest economy, to make the Saarc project a success, now that a prime minister is at helm of affairs who sees the importance of taking all smaller neighbours along. But speeches and pronouncements are not enough. India needs to invest more in its own bordering areas of Uttar Pradesh, North Bihar, North Bengal, Tripura, and Assam so that the local populations of Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh don’t view India as a country of the fourth world. The infrastructure in these areas, especially roads, railways, health services, and education, is deplorable, compared to what one finds in the emerging megacities of Gurgaon, Noida, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. We need to talk of rail, roads, or energy cooperation; nothing is possible between other countries of the region without India’s concurrence and active support. It is hoped that the ‘modified’ neighbourhood policy under PM Modi will reenergise the Saarc process.
Implementing past agreements
Saarc does not need new, brilliant ideas anymore. It has already touched on every facet of human life. The only tragedy is that it has not been able to show tangible results on any of its endeavours. Its regional centres are epitomes of over-bureaucratisation and lack of action. It was with much pressure from think-tanks and civil society that certain crucial schemes and initiatives—such as the Saarc Visa Exemption Scheme, launched in 1992; Regional Conventional on Suppression of Terrorism, 1987, and Agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta), 2004—were undertaken. Each one had a direct connotation with political, economic, and security issues facing the region, and therefore, were hailed by everyone for their signing. After decades of their coming into force, let us analyse their progress.
The leaders at the Fourth Summit (Islamabad, December 1988), while realising the importance of having people-to-people contacts among the peoples of Saarc countries, decided that certain categories of dignitaries should be entitled to a special travel document, which would exempt them from visas within the region. As directed by the Summit, the Council of Ministers regularly kept under review the list of entitled categories. But currently, the list includes only 24 categories of entitled persons, which include dignitaries, judges of higher courts, parliamentarians, senior officials, etc.
Tourists, pilgrims, common folk, students, and academics regularly face immense hassle travelling from one country to another, especially between India and Pakistan. Nepal, Sri Lanka, and The Maldives have arranged for visa on arrival for nationals of member states, except for Afghanistan, but it is still a far-cry from the Schengen visa scheme that has become the norm in the EU.
The Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism was first agreed to back in 1987 in Kathmandu and was a pioneer for this kind of contemplation well before such instruments came into force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US. South Asian leaders at the time, “aware of the danger posed by the spread of terrorism and its harmful effects on peace, cooperation, friendship and good neighbourly relations which could also jeopardise the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states”, resolved to take effective measures to ensure that perpetrators of terrorist acts do not escape prosecution and punishment. Its additional protocol was signed in 2004. Despite the noble intentions, not a single terrorist has been arrested or extradited to date under this Convention in South Asia. The region has been unsuccessful in forming a South Asian Defence Minister’s Forum to chalk out differences on some security-related cruxes facing the member states. Talking about joint efforts to tackle terrorism is one thing, actually implementing various provisions of the convention already agreed upon without any double standards is totally different. Four South Asian countries—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal—are among the top five troop contributing states to UN Peacekeeping, but despite that, we have had no collective position on how to assist Afghanistan post-2014.
Safta was initiated in order to increase the level of trade and economic cooperation among the Saarc nations by reducing tariffs and barriers, and also to provide special preference to Least Developed Countries (LDCs) among the Saarc nations. From an “economic integration point of view, [few] issues were noteworthy viz. a) desire to strengthen Safta and trade facilitation, b) initiative to incorporate trade in services into Safta, c) initiatives to promote regional tourism, and, d) renewed emphasis on cooperation in energy.” The process from preferential treatment to a free trade area was necessary but the Safta process has been slow. The maintenance of extensive sensitive lists, which are outside the scope of Safta tariff reductions, has acted as a real constraint to Safta’s trade generating impact. While member countries have recently revised and brought down their sensitive lists, they still encompass almost 20 percent of trade and a very large number of products continue to be excluded.
In a draft paper, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI) has suggested a five-pronged strategy—providing freedom to trade without barriers, freedom to invest across borders, freedom of seamless travel, connectivity across the borders, and creation of a South Asian brand equity. This is undoubtedly a tall order.
Enlarging role of Observers
There are more Observers than members in Saarc. Some of them are engaged in most regional organisations in the world, such as the US. Observers such as China, the EU, Japan, South Korea, and Australia are prosperous economies, politically stable and strategically critical for South Asia. In this author’s experience, the EU and China are not only the most active Observers, eager to help South Asia through Track-I and Track-II in every way, but also to organise events and support projects to augment the concept of regional-ness. Cooperation between the EU and Saarc notably seeks to promote the harmonisation of standards, facilitate trade, raise awareness about the benefits of regional cooperation, and promote business networking in the Saarc area. The European Commission has offered to share its own expertise in trade and economic integration with Saarc. According to the Head of the EU Delegation to Nepal and Saarc Rensje Teerink, “Supporting regional integration was one of the three priorities for EU’s regional cooperation program from 2007-13 and this will continue till 2020.” Several European parliamentarians, ex-ministers, mayors, and experts have come to South Asian countries and shared the experiences and lessons learnt from the EU integration process, which has been quite valuable.
China too has been organising an annual Kunming Expo to facilitate South Asian products in the vast Chinese market. Its ever-increasing engagement with each of the Saarc countries in the form of trade, investment, connectivity, and tourism has resulted in a situation that it is almost difficult now not to upgrade China to a ‘Saarc +1’ framework. It is the largest trading partner of Bangladesh and India, second largest of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and the largest source of tourists to The Maldives. Kathmandu’s City Hall, where the 18th Summit is being organised, was itself constructed in 1970 with Chinese assistance. The Lhasa-Shigatse railway being extended to the Nepal border will bring China that much closer geographically to northern South Asia, as well as its assistance in the construction of several ports, highways, and waterways in the region’s southern tip. The restricted Memorandum of Understanding that was signed by Saarc with its Observers needs urgent revision if we are to take advantage of their expertise and resources for our collective benefit.
Criticism from heads of government
As the process has been bogged down more by delay than dynamism, there is increased criticism on Saarc’s performance, not only from the media, think-tanks, and businesspersons, but also from the heads of government themselves. Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan, while speaking at the 15th Summit held in Sri Lanka on August 4, 2008, stated, “In order to make our Summit more meaningful, we need to open our eyes to the wonders of the great opportunities that we have missed and take stock of the vast potential of South Asia’s natural, cultural, scientific, and human resources that are the envy of any country our region.”
Toeing a similar line, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Reza Gilani of Pakistan stated, “We must recognise in all candidness that the gap between the promise of Saarc and the reality of its accomplishment remains wide. We need concerted efforts to build on areas of convergence.”
President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka also said, “We must ensure that Saarc becomes more meaningful to all our people. Therefore, throughout the ensuing year, we have to give Saarc a truly people-centred focus through all its programmes and mechanisms. It is then that Saarc can become the robust partnership for growth for all our people.”
The Kathmandu Summit therefore needs to comprehend that in order to bring Saarc closer to the people, it needs to implement past accords, reduce bureaucracy, facilitate Track-II diplomacy, enlarge the role of Observers, and bring the private sector into the driver’s seat. Without this, spending the South Asian taxpayer’s money on jamborees that are more for excursions than tangible results for the people will face even harsher criticism in the future.
More also needs to be done to strengthen various institutions to make the Saarc process more efficient, effective, and result-oriented to realise the objectives of the Association. A performance evaluation is urgently needed to promote Saarc as a common destination for the people of the region.
South Asia Forum
The South Asia Forum, for instance, was conceived as a think-tank of the organisation and to generate ‘out-of-the-box ideas’. Its first meeting, with the theme ‘Integration in South Asia: Moving towards South Asian Economic Union’, was held in Delhi in September 2011. Leading the Nepali delegation to the Forum was the Minister of Land Reforms and Management, who was issued an arrest warrant on murder charges a few days after his return. The Forum itself has not met since. Such a lull of over three years depicts the larger malaise in the organisation. Some even feel that there is no need to resurrect this Forum. Instead, assist think-tanks, chambers of commerce, the media, women groups, and other civil society actors of the region, which have been functioning well long before this Forum was created.
South Asian University
The South Asian University (SAU) has been set-up in New Delhi at the old Akbar hotel and has been running courses on a wide-range of subjects. The Government of India has provided 100 acres of land for the university in an expensive South Delhi area, but it will take some more years for SAU to become operational at the new address. The University offers post-graduate and doctoral programmes in various disciplines. Although more and more South Asian students are enrolling in the SAU, the number of Indian faculty is still larger in proportion to other countries. The same goes for key office bearers.
There is still an issue with student visas for certain member states. Set-up under the shadow of reputed universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University, SAU has to struggle to get international commendation. This is where it has to make efforts to attract internationally acclaimed faculty. It ought to be remembered that among the top 100 universities in the world, none are in South Asia. Rather than replicating the Saarc model of focussing on every activity of human life, SAU has to carve out a niche for itself in a specialised area of scholarship.
Saarc Development Fund
The Saarc Development Fund (SDF), with its secretariat in Thimpu, has been set-up to promote the welfare of the people of the Saarc region, improve the quality of life, and accelerate economic growth, social progress, and poverty alleviation. It supports projects under three windows—social, economic, and infrastructure. The 13th Saarc Summit in Dhaka decided to reconstitute the SDF to serve as the "umbrella financial mechanism" for all Saarc projects and programmes. The SDF has to begin focusing on core areas, open economic and infrastructure windows, and not only fund ‘soft issues’. It has to sponsor major regional conferences and Track-II dialogues on Saarc, and ease its complex funding mechanisms.
With the mandate from the member states for the first time, the Saarc Secretariat has undertaken a comprehensive study to streamline, rationalise, restructure, and strengthen all Saarc mechanisms and processes, including the Secretariat, Regional Centres, and Saarc specialised bodies. A similar recommendation was also made by a Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) 15 years ago, but its suggestions were neither made public nor implemented. One would hope that this new study undertaken by none other than the Secretariat itself will capture the attention of the heads of state and government in order to restructure the Saarc institutions, thereby injecting dynamism and energy into the entire process. This is what the retreat should be delving into at the scenic Dhulikhel resort. Exchange of ideas is urgent on certain provisions of the Charter itself, as it states that there are seven members in Saarc whereas Afghanistan has joined as the eighth member. It also does not envisage Observers, programming committees are not even mentioned, and moreover, there is a cursory one sentence mention of the Secretariat.
The bright side
Although a lot needs to be rectified with the formal Track-I process, there is a certain positive aspect of South Asia’s tryst with regional cooperation, which is the growing South Asian consciousness among its people and among its diaspora spread across the world. Institutes of South Asian studies are being set-up in world renowned universities. South Asian fashion shows and food festivals are taking place regularly. South Asian languages are becoming popular among international students. Our Track-II engagements are perhaps more active than those from Southeast Asia, Central Asia, or the Middle East. Thanks to the various apex and recognised bodies, academics, scholars, media persons, women leaders, artists, and even retired diplomats and army generals all feel elated to connect to one another across borders and deliberate on the common future of this region.
This year is a historic one for Europe. It marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. We in South Asia need to catch up fast with other regions and break the artificial walls of mistrust that we have built amongst us. Therefore, the 18th Summit must dwell on the very core of this organisation—how to reenergise the entire Saarc process and chart out a common future and a shared destiny.