14th Saarc summit: The way forward
Now that India appears to be taking Saarc seriously, we can finally look forward to some concrete results, suggests Farooq Sobhan
The recently concluded Saarc summit in Delhi was noteworthy on several counts. All the heads of government attending were on their best behaviour. The usual fireworks between India and Pakistan, a hallmark of several previous summits, were missing on this occasion. Bonhomie and friendship was in the air.
Most important of all, the chair of the Summit, the Indian prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, made it abundantly clear at the outset that India this time round was serious about injecting some life and vitality into Saarc. This was a welcome change from the days when Indian skepticism was palpable. India, in the past, made no secret of the fact that she preferred to deal with her neighbours bilaterally. Moreover, given her stormy relations with Pakistan, Indian enthusiasm about regional cooperation in recent years was, at best, lukewarm.
Dr. Manmohan Singh has always been a great believer in south-south cooperation and regional integration in South Asia. Eight years ago, when he was still in the opposition, I was able to persuade him to attend a conference that a few of us had jointly organized in Kathmandu, on how best to accelerate the process of regional cooperation in South Asia. His belief in a common destiny for the people of South Asia was evident then, as it was in Delhi earlier this month.
Of course, the fact that the Indian economy today is doing so well, and that India is being courted and wooed by both the developed and the developing world, has clearly invested India with a sense of confidence, sufficient for it to shed its inhibitions about regional cooperation and the involvement of others in Saarc. For the first time, Saarc was attended by observers from China, Japan, the EU, Republic of Korea, and the United States. Afghanistan became the eighth full member of Saarc.
But what will make the Delhi summit an important turning point for Saarc was the shared conviction of the Saarc leaders that the time for pious, and occasionally pompous, statements was over.
Far too much hot air had been generated since the birth of Saarc in Dhaka, back in December 1985. People, our people, asked (and continue to do so): "After all these years what have we achieved?"
Countless studies and reports have shown over and over again the very high cost of non-cooperation, and the enormous benefits for everyone, both people and states, if we could work together. The Indian premier spoke for the 1.5 billion people of South Asia when he said: "The time has come to move Saarc from a declaratory phase to action and implementation."
It was agreed at the summit that priority would be given to cooperation in the fields of trade, energy, the environment, food security and combating terrorism. A whole range of implementation issues would be tackled. Special importance was given to the implementation of the Social Charter, which was adopted at the Islamabad summit in January, 2004.
The importance of connectivity was recognized in fulfilling these objectives. But improving rail, road and air connectivity within the region was only half the battle. More important was the need to further expand and strengthen people to people connectivity. Indeed, any objective analysis of regional cooperation in South Asia would lead to the conclusion that the greatest achievement of the past twenty five years has been in the area of people to people connectivity. But much more needs to be done.
True, Dr. Manmohan Singh offered to make some concessions in issuing visas to journalists. The visa business remains a very sore subject, with endless tit for tat battles. If we are really serious about connectivity, then it is high time that a concerted effort was made to totally abolish all visas throughout the region. After all, if the common vision is that of a South Asian community, then the free and unrestricted movement of people must be given the highest priority. After all smugglers, terrorist, insurgents, and others operating outside the law, generally prefer not to queue up for visas.
The announcement by the Indian prime minister that India would provide duty free access to its market to all the LDCs in Saarc was warmly welcomed, as was the offer to reduce the number of items on the sensitive list.
India can well afford to be generous, and earn for itself enormous goodwill amongst its neighbours by providing unhindered access to its market.
What will now be important will be a concerted effort to get rid of all the non-tariff barriers that stand in the way, and also to address various other trade facilitation issues. Based on recent experience, governments in the region would be well advised to tackle this subject within the framework of a task force, which includes both, government officials and the private sector. The task force should address a host of implementation issues in a practical and flexible manner. The Saarc heads of governments should collectively monitor the progress of work in this vital area.
Combating terrorism is priority number one for very nearly all the member states in the region. This was clearly reflected in the statements made by the heads, and in the final declaration. However, notwithstanding the fact that there is a Saarc Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism, and the Additional Protocol to the Convention, in actual practice the cooperation and interaction in this field is minimal.
In the meantime, all the Saarc states have seen a substantial increase in acts of terrorism within their respective countries. It is high time that a regional expert group was established to devise a common strategy to combat terrorism in the region. Special importance will need to be given to the need to adopt a host of practical measures to combat terrorism.
A rather tricky and delicate subject that Saarc will have to tackle in the very near future will be the role to be played by the countries and organizations that have been granted observer status. One possible way forward is to adopt the Asean practice of having dialogue partners.
This approach would be much more useful than having the observers deliver short speeches and do little else, as was the case at the Delhi summit. In this connection, some serious thinking will also have to be done about the Saarc Development Fund. In particular, what should be the terms of reference for the Fund and, most important of all, whether non-member states and multilateral institutions can contribute to the fund.
In his speech at the closing session, the chair, Dr. Manmohan Singh, in the light of the exchanges that had taken place among the heads at the retreat, said: "we have agreed to make tangible progress in the next six months on four issues which affect our peoples' daily lives: water (including flood control), energy, food and the environment." Equally significant was the indication that the help of "international agencies" would be sought for developing projects in these four sectors. For the first time, there is a clear sense of urgency.
Now that India and, above all, its prime minister have decided to take Saarc seriously, we can look forward to some concrete results. In the meantime, it is imperative that people to people contacts are intensified, and that civil society in South Asia maintains constant pressure on all the governments in the region to accelerate and intensify the process of regional cooperation. South Asia has to catch up with the rest of the world in respect of regional integration, and the sooner we get on with the task the better.
Farooq Sobhan is President of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and ex-Foreign Secretary.