SAARC: Dis­tant Dreams

Like other re­gions, the peo­ple of South Asia cre­ated SAARC in 1985 to futher friend­ship, trust and un­der­stand­ing. Have th­ese ob­jec­tives been achieved?

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

Formed in 1985, the South Asian As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion (SAARC) is now in its 30th year. Its mem­ber­ship has in­creased from the orig­i­nal seven ‘truly’ South Asian coun­tries - Bangladesh, Bhutan, In­dia, Mal­dives, Nepal, Pak­istan and Sri Lanka - to eight after Afghanistan’s in­clu­sion in 2007. Myan­mar is also flap­ping its wings to be a part of SAARC.

Great ex­pec­ta­tions were as­so­ci­ated with the new or­ga­ni­za­tion. For­mer Bangladesh Pres­i­dent, Gen­eral Zi­aur Rah­man who was the mo­ti­vat­ing force be­hind the for­ma­tion of SAARC, had dreams of mak­ing it a pro­to­type of the Euro­pean Union with free trade, visafree travel, common cur­rency and, per­haps, even common de­fense as some of its fea­tures.

But the re­al­i­ties are dif­fer­ent in the South Asian re­gion. In the EU, for ex­am­ple, there is no be­he­moth coun­try as In­dia. More­over, In­dia and Pak­istan are eter­nal ad­ver­saries. Sus­pi­cions have there­fore al­ways dogged the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Smaller coun­tries, led mainly by Pak­istan, are ap­pre­hen­sive of In­dia's hege­mony, while In­dia is wary of its smaller neigh­bors gang­ing up against it.

How­ever, de­spite ap­pre­hen­sions, SAARC was launched with great ex­pec­ta­tions with the aim "to pro­mote wel­fare eco­nomics, col­lec­tive sel­f­re­liance among the coun­tries of South Asia and to ac­cel­er­ate so­cio-cul­tural de­vel­op­ment in the re­gion." In other words it hoped to undo the dam­age done by split­ting In­dia and heal the rift.

Trade be­ing the back­bone of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was en­vis­aged as the first step to­wards the ul­ti­mate goals of a cus­toms union, a common mar­ket and an eco­nomic union.

The SAFTA Agree­ment was signed on Jan­uary 6, 2004 dur­ing the Twelfth SAARC Sum­mit held in Is­lam­abad, Pak­istan. The agree­ment en­tered into force on Jan­uary 1, 2006 and the Trade Lib­er­al­iza­tion Pro­gram com­menced from July 1, 2006. The agree­ment re­quired the mem­ber coun­tries to "bring their du­ties down to 20 per­cent by 2009." But it is not known whether this con­di­tion has been im­ple­mented. Mean­while, the SAFTA Min­is­te­rial Coun­cil has been es­tab­lished and it com­prises the com­merce min­is­ters of the mem­ber states.

But it has yet to de­liver on its prom­ise as there is very lit­tle sign of any con­crete steps by the mem­ber coun­tries to lib­er­al­ize trade among them­selves. Pak­istan has not even re­cip­ro­cated In­dia's grant of MFN sta­tus to it. Ex­ports from Nepal to Afghanistan are still not pos­si­ble by the land route through In­dia and Pak­istan. In fact, be­cause trans­port by the over­land route does not freely ply among Bangladesh, Nepal, In­dia, Pak­istan and Afghanistan, the aims of SAFTA are dif­fi­cult to re­al­ize. More­over, trade be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan re­mains hostage to the Kashmir dis­pute.

Another tan­gi­ble step was the

Sus­pi­cions have dogged SAARC since its for­ma­tion. Smaller coun­tries, led mainly by Pak­istan, are ap­pre­hen­sive of In­dia’s hege­mony, while In­dia is wary of its smaller neigh­bors gang­ing up against it.

SAARC Visa Ex­emp­tion Scheme. It was launched in 1992, after the lead­ers at the Fourth Sum­mit (Is­lam­abad, De­cem­ber 1988) de­cided to is­sue a spe­cial travel doc­u­ment to cer­tain cat­e­gories of dig­ni­taries which would ex­empt them from visas within the re­gion. But this is a far cry from the visa free travel model prac­ticed in the Euro­pean Union where the cit­i­zen of one coun­try could freely travel to another mem­ber coun­try or where a tourist from out­side the EU can freely travel to all mem­ber coun­tries if he ob­tains the visa to en­ter one EU coun­try.

The rigor of travel re­stric­tion is more glar­ing in the case of In­dia and Pak­istan. Vis­i­tors from both coun­tries are re­quired to re­port to the po­lice sta­tion, while a trav­eler must re­turn through the same point from where he en­ters the other coun­try and use the same means of trans­port. If a Pak­istani vis­i­tor en­ters In­dia through the Delhi air­port, he must re­turn via Delhi and only by air. He can­not even re­turn by the land route. Pro­ceed­ing to Bangladesh or Nepal is sim­ply out of the ques­tion. So in prac­ti­cal terms SAARC has failed even to pro­vide visa-free travel to fa­cil­i­tate peo­ple to peo­ple con­tact which is vi­tal for the pro­mo­tion of good­will and peace.

SAARC has es­tab­lished 11 cen­ters in some of the mem­ber coun­tries that cover var­i­ous sec­tors, such as agri­cul­ture, me­te­o­rol­ogy, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and HIV, doc­u­men­ta­tion, hu­man re­sources de­vel­op­ment, coastal zone

man­age­ment, in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, en­ergy, forestry, cul­ture and dis­as­ter man­age­ment. Each cen­tre pro­motes ac­tiv­i­ties in its own sphere through sem­i­nars and pub­li­ca­tion.

The cul­tural cen­tre holds monthly events in­clud­ing fes­ti­vals such as the tra­di­tional dance and mu­sic fes­ti­val, rep­re­sent­ing all SAARC mem­bers. There also are sem­i­nars on pho­tog­ra­phy, de­vel­op­ment of mu­se­ums and dis­cus­sion on chil­dren's lit­er­a­ture in South Asia. But it has not made any head­way in the field of sports. Or­ga­niz­ing an an­nual SAARC sports fes­ti­val could be a good ini­tia­tive. There is also a SAARC in­for­ma­tion cen­tre but news­pa­pers and pe­ri­od­i­cals are not yet freely ex­changed among mem­ber coun­tries.

A num­ber of fac­tors bedevil SAARC, pre­vent­ing it from achiev­ing its am­bi­tious goals. In ad­di­tion to the Indo-Pak­istan hos­til­ity, there is the un­sta­ble sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan. How it shapes up after the draw­down of U.S. troops re­mains to be seen. Ac­cord­ing to the Bi­lat­eral Se­cu­rity Agree­ment, about 10,000 troops are go­ing to stay in Afghanistan. This can at­tract Tal­iban at­tacks. Be­sides, a clash of Indo-Pak­istan in­ter­ests is also ap­pre­hended as both sides are vy­ing for in­flu­ence in Afghanistan. In­dia has al­ready in­vested a size­able amount of money on de­vel­op­ment in Afghanistan. Pak­istan, on the other hand, re­lies on the Tal­iban support. All th­ese fac­tors have the po­ten­tial to af­fect SAARC's growth.

No less cru­cial is the role of Bangladesh. It is no more as en­thu­si­as­tic as it was when the or­ga­ni­za­tion was founded.The rea­son is that Bangladesh’s Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina bears a seething en­mity to­wards SAARC's founder Gen. Zi­aur Rah­man. She has sys­tem­at­i­cally re­moved his name from many in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the Dhaka Air­port whose name she changed to the Shah Jalal Air­port. Zia's name be­ing in­deli­bly as­so­ci­ated with SAARC is an anath­ema to her.

How­ever, Naren­dra Modi has gen­er­ated new hopes for SAARC's re­ju­ve­na­tion. His first ac­tion as prime min­is­ter was to in­vite all SAARC mem­bers at his oath-tak­ing cer­e­mony. In fact, In­dia be­ing the largest and the most ad­vanced among SAARC coun­tries is uniquely qual­i­fied to take the or­ga­ni­za­tion to new heights. How things move from this point to­wards the achieve­ment of SAARC’s ob­jec­tives is a puzzling equa­tion.

Afghanistan Aus­tralia Bangladesh Bhutan Canada China France Hong Kong In­dia Ja­pan Korea Malaysia Mal­dives Myan­mar Nepal New Zealand Pak­istan Philip­pines Saudi Ara­bia Sin­ga­pore Sri Lanka Thai­land Turkey UAE UK USA Afg. 50 A$ 6 Taka 65 NU 45 C$ 6 RMB 30 Fr 30 HK$ 30 Rs. 65 ¥ 500 Won 3000 RM 6 Rf 45 MMK10 NcRs. 75 NZ$ 7 Rs. 150 P 75 SR 15 S$ 8 Rs. 100 B 100 Lira. 2 AED 10 £3 $5

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