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     Volume 4 Issue 71 | November 18, 2005 |

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Cover Story

When Hope runs High

Expectations and Realities from the Summit

Mustafa Zaman

The recent summit was an occasion to reiterate the resolve to make Saarc a viable institution to bring economic change in the region

On November 10, two days ahead of the South Asian Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Summit, police personnel went door to door requesting the roadside residents of Kalyanpur not to venture out to the veranda for the whole day. Several of the police personnel even posted themselves on the rooftop of many roadside apartment buildings. On the first day of the Saarc Summit on November 12, at 3.30 pm, crowds were kept waiting several yards away from the Farmgate crossing to let the head of the states of the Saarc countries return to their hotels from the China Bangladesh Friendship Centre where the summit was taking place. "The main thoroughfare from Farmgate to Shahbag was off limits to the public since 2.20," announced an irked pedestrian. The wait was a protracted one; the road was reopened to the public at 3.45 pm again to be made inaccessible again an hour later. This went on intermittently throughout the two days of the Saarc summit. The extent of the security measures taken before and during the Saarc summit held on 12 and 13 of the month of November was unprecedented.

For most Dhakaites, preparation for Saarc Summit boiled down to one and only thing, restriction of movement to facilitate smooth passage of the guests. During the two-day summit, traffic flow in some of the roads was drastically reduced. And avenues near the summit venue and the hotels and state guest houses, where the dignitaries were staying, were made off limits to the general public for hours on end. CNG-run scooters as well as motorbikes were marked out as underdogs that the security personnel comprising police and RAB religiously kept at bay from the roads linking the China Bangladesh Friendship Centre with the places where the dignitaries were staying. On top of that the wholesale as well as the kitchen market at Karwan Bazar was shut down for four consecutive days. And to spare the office-going public from going through the hurdle of avoiding the earmarked roads to reach their workplace, November 13th was declared a government holiday. All this has prompted a young poet to quip that "the heads of the Saarc nations are coming to a fictional Dhaka". Fictional or improvised whatever one calls it, life in Dhaka for most Dhakaites had been curtailed or came to a total halt during the summit.

But besides the regal arrangements and the unprecedented tightening of the security, what does Saarc strive to achieve? What does Saarc have to offer to the common people of this vast region that is home to half of the world's poor? (The World Bank estimates about 50 percent of the world's 1.1 billion people who earn less than $ 1 a day live in South Asia). Yet there is no stopping in dreaming for a better future. Experts feel that Saarc has the potential to bring about a qualitative change in the region by increasing the economic activities among the nations. Although it was officially launched as a political forum, it is the economic cooperation among the nations that has now become the focal point. While many may argue that Saarc has failed to benefit the people as a whole Hossain Zillur Rahman, an economist and executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre, feels otherwise. "What does general people expect from Saarc, they want freedom of movement, they want to see tourism to flourish. On the first day of the 13th summit the king of Nepal had urged for a visa-free South Asia, Saarc is the platform to make all these things happen," he argues.

Making the region visa-free is certainly a long shot; however, for economic benefits to reach at the level of common people there are avenues to be explored. Rahman has a clear notion. He says that "intra-regional cooperation as well as intra-regional investment" will change the economic matrix of the region. "If Saarc becomes a viable institution and plays a role in the economic integration on the basis of equality the whole region will benefit from it," he points out. Another important issue which Rahman believes would go to the advantage of the countries of the region is the question of negotiation in the international forum. "Through Saarc a collective voice can be raised to negotiate issues in the international forum like WTO". But all this, he emphasises, depends on whether Saarc would be able take up some "concrete programmes".

At present, what is at stake is the political will to sort out the differences among nations to rally for common goals, goals that have been given official shape in papers but await practical implementation. Among these goals Safta (South Asian Free Trade Area) is one important issue that was the most talked about in the 13th Saarc summit, and on Safta alone many peg their hopes at present.

Last year, in Islamabad, only a framework of Safta has been signed. There are three issues that stand on the way: rules of origin, sensitive list of products and revenue compensation. "The talks scheduled for November 29 have been earmarked to sort out these contentious issues," says Rahman. He is of the opinion that to make Safta

On the occasion of the 13th Saarch Summit Dhaka received a thorough face-lift.

operational the countries need to overcome their bureaucratic mindset. He believes that the sensitive list of products normally should be a small one, but most countries have come up with lists that are unimaginably large. "The sensitive list should be rationalised so that it doesn't counter the spirit of free trade in the region," he says. He also points out that if Bangladesh has a product to sell to India and India puts that same product in the list of sensitive products than the whole idea of opening up for free trade will end in a fiasco. "For instance Bangladesh produces batteries for which India can be a market, but if that product is in the sensitive list of products then it contradicts the very ethos of trade liberalisation," Rahman points out.

Even if all these issues are resolved and Safta becomes operational Bangladesh stands to lose revenues from import. How will that be compensated? There can be a provision of compensating the loss from a Saarc fund. In fact it is among the contentious issues that needs to be resolved through talks. And this is exactly what Rahman looks forward to in the coming experts' meeting on November 29.

Dhaka's biggest kitchen and wholesale market at Karwan Bazar remained closed for four consecutive days

Rahman sees ways to see the deal through. "For the less developed countries within Saarc, the organisation may compensate the loss incurred in the form of revenue just the way EU has compensated Ireland for its revenue losses," he points out. He also proposes an alternative. "If trade liberalisation is done at deferential rates, by giving the less developed countries more time to join in the liberalised regime, then the question of compensation could be avoided," he adds.

Rahman sees tough negotiation in the coming experts' meeting and hopes that "some headway will be made in that meeting". He also hastens to add that Safta may not be operational from January 1st as declared. "I would neither be too surprised nor be too disappointed if it doesn't become operational in time. Because, it cannot be a mere document. The meeting on November 29 is a crucial one where all the contentious issues will be raised and it will also be a test of the political goodwill and an occasion of thorough resolution of the nations of Saarc," says Rahman. He cites the example of the European Union which had started as a "coal and steel community" back in 1952 "and operated as such till 1967". "It assumed its present name -- the European Union -- since 1993. Saarc too will have to grow in phases. The main factor is that the underlying issues must be resolved first, otherwise everything will remain only on paper," he explains.

The festivity matched the high expectation that marked the recent summit, but will the resolutions on paper translate into actions for a change?

Not everyone sees Safta in the light of hope. Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, an economist and the president of the Bangladesh Economic Association, says that before Safta there was Sapta (Saarc Preferential Trading Arrangement) which was signed in 1993, and no headway had been made in line with the agreement. He feels that Safta too may become embroiled in bureaucratic entanglement. "Bangladesh is a trade deficit country. It imports items even from Bhutan and has little to offer in return," he points out. "With Garment, knitwear and hosiery amounting to 66 percent of our export and fish, shrimp, jute and jute goods taking up another twenty percent of our export, there is little chance for us to be able to benefit from the Safta treaty," says Ahmad.

Ahmad feels that the trade gap with most of the countries suggest that Bangldesh is not ready for a free trade regime. "We must go for export diversification. Besides, most of the contentious issues are yet to be resolved. There has been no decision concerning rules of origin and how Bangladesh would be compensated for losing import tariff, as the government stands to lose huge revenues from import. Therefore, once we go for free market the negative trade gap will increase," he argues.

Ahmad differs in principle with the way the Saarc summit has been conducted in the midst of security high alert. "Before setting foot on the soil of Bangladesh, Manmohan Singh (prime minister of India) reiterated the issue of 'connectivity', it is the people to people contact that will increase cooperation in all the sectors, including trade. With people kept in a state of imprisonment how can Saarc reflect the will of the people?" he argues.

City life was drastically curtailed before and during the summit; the roads traversed by the guests were made off limits to the public for hours on end

Another issue that Ahmad strongly feels is a prerequisite for a people-oriented Saarc is to make sure that all the participating nations are democratic. "All the countries must have affective local government. Other than India the rest of the countries of Saarc have no effective local governments. It is essential for ensuring participation of the people in the economic, social as well as political process. If the Saarc countries remain undemocratic in governance, the aspiration of the people will never reflect in Saarc," he adds.

As for encouraging trade among the nations, Ahmad believes that easing custom regulations is the first step. There has been some headway in the 13th Saarc summit in terms of "custom harmonisation" as well as in the process of avoiding "double taxation".

Many fear that with existing trade gap between Bangladesh and India, Bangladesh stands to lose huge revenues from import when Safta becomes operational

Rahman cites them as progress. He stresses that the success of the present summit also rests on the fact that there has been a semi-agreement about the "arbitration council".

Some concrete advancement has been made regarding the poverty alleviation fund. "The Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation was constituted in 2002 with 14 members. Dr Kamal Siddique of Bangladesh heads the commission as its chair, and I'm the core group coordinator of the same commission. We have come up with 22 Saarc development goals, along with the plan of actions," says Rahman. The Saarc development fund has three windows and one of these is the poverty alleviation fund. India has already promised 100 million and another two million will come from the rest of the nations. Rahman is hopeful that by identifying specific regional projects countries may benefit from this three million earmarked as Poverty Alleviation Fund. "On the first day of the meeting, Manmohan Singh has suggested that a textile museum be built in the region in Bangladesh which is famous for its handloom industries. It is this kind of regional (not national) project that would be built using the fund," he adds.

Yet there are people who do not hold such sanguine a view regarding the use of funds. Ahmad warns that a Poverty Alleviation Fund may result in "too much money being spent in useless research rather than in real actions." But he does admit that the establishment of the fund is a positive move. He stresses that the fund must be made easily available. As for proper utilisation, Ahmad feels that there must be a component that would take care of research and development. "For example Bangladesh needs funds in the

Forty thousand RAB, BDR, police as well as army personnel turned Dhaka into an invincible fortress for four days

agricultural sector to improve alternative corps. When the government of Bangladesh fails to allocate money in research, the Saarc fund should be made available," he adds.

Saarc has prompted a lot of expectations from the people. To make it effective is the task that awaits realisation. "The style of operation of Saarc must become business-like to make it more effective. Pressure must be created to make the policy decisions more effective," stresses Rahman.

Saarc, at present, is at a crossroads. It could either be an action-oriented forum or merely a yearly event that has no bearing on the realities of the region. With four percent business among the nations of the region, one can only hope that it does not remain mired in the political skirmishes that continue to affect the bilateral relationships between the countries.

As for the lapses of the past, Rahman points a finger to the "historical mindset" that is overburdened with political mistrust and that is truly endemic of all the ailments -- "buraucratic limitation". However, the occasion of 13th Saarc summit has left people with some flickers of hope. Almost all the nations of the region were either recovering from a natural calamity or from spates of bomb blasts. But one thing is for certain that there have been a greater realisation among the heads of the state regarding the effectiveness of Saarc since they were meeting during these difficult circumstances.

Saarc has already received the status of an observer in the UN general assembly. As Jillur Rahman envisages that as a collective body it may make the voice of the region stronger in the international arena. It would also have to contribute to the economic advancement of the region. Ahmad points to the kind of cooperation that may make a world over difference in the region. "Nepal and Bhutan has the potential to develop hydroelectricity, India, Pakistan and even Bangladesh's shortfall would be replenished if a regional energy grid is developed," he points out. This is the kind of concrete advancement that Saarc needs, otherwise the association will not have much to show for.

Making Friends before Making Business

Shamim Ahsan

IF one happens to catch sight of more than half-a-kilometre long queue comprising several hundred desperate people drained out of their last drop of energy in a busy thoroughfare in a posh area, one can be sure he is close to the Indian High Commission. The hours long wait is not for Aladin's cherag but for an Indian visa. While there is perfect consensus among the Saarc leaders that facilitating people to people contacts in a broader scale is essential for creating a friendly milieu in the region, the ground reality does not reflect such amicability. Journalists, artistes and cultural groups also allegedly face unnecessary delays in trying to get an Indian visa. Clearly people to people contact is not encouraged by some countries with great enthusiasm.

But then things might very well change for the better. At least that is the impression one gets from the just concluded 13th Saarc summit. While most of the seven heads of states have been frank about admitting that Saarc has not lived up to the expectations, they have also been unanimous in their hopefulness that the 13th summit will mark the beginning of a qualitative change for Saarc. The Bangladeshi premier Begum Khaleda Zia, the chairperson for the next summit, has been more explicit as she termed the 13th Saarc summit as "the commencement of the third cycle" for the seven-nation grouping in which focus will be on implementation rather than on declarations. A certain degree of frankness and a distinct note of optimism on the part of the Saarc leaders have also given rise to new hope among people weary of too many words following too little action from the previous summits.

Saarc has failed to deliver mainly due to the lack of sincerity on the part of the Saarc leaders, originating from a mutual mistrust among the countries of the region and almost all the leaders have pointed it out overtly or covertly and urged each other to overcome the hindrance.

Economic co-operation, the main goal of Saarc, cannot be built among nations who nurse deep suspicions of each other. The bitter relations between India and Pakistan, the stronger powers among the seven Saarc nations, has always stood in the way of Saarc's potential to be an effective, meaningful association. India and Bangladesh have not always enjoyed the greatest of relationship. Again even good relationships do not always help, as national interest often forces a country to adopt policies that creates problems to its neighbours. When it comes to regional co-operation the bigger countries have to shoulder greater responsibility and often have to give concession to the smaller nations. India, inarguably the strongest economic power of the region, has not exactly been very generous to its weaker neighbours. On the contrary, India has often remained insensitive and apathetic to its neighbours' plight.

Shahiduzzaman, professor, International Relations, DU, believes the real trouble lies with the Indian mindset. On the one hand, they are talking about friendship and co-operation and on the other they are putting up fences along the border it shares with Bangladesh and Pakistan. The huge gap between appearance and reality is too glaring to miss. Just take the border skirmishes; cold-blooded murders of innocent civilian Bangladeshis committed by BSF on a regular basis. Bangladesh's frequent pleas to stop such mindless killings have been greeted with denials and apathy by India, he said.

Again, India and Bangladesh have long standing contentious issues like corridors, water sharing and the river-link project of India to resolve. The way India has dealt with these issues has naturally caused a sense of suspicion among many Bangladeshis and an anti-Indian feeling has developed among a large section of people here. "It's the bureaucratic dominance on India's foreign policy that has not let India perform the way it should have done. The political leadership is often hostage to these bureaucrats who possess a mindset shaped by British imperialism," Shahiduzzaman said.

It is easy to be sceptical about Saarc's future, especially in view of the mutual mistrust the major players in the region have among themselves. But then there is always some room for hope. The recent improvement in the relation between India and Pakistan after the devastating earthquake that left a large part of Kashmir to ruins has raised new hopes. The ever-quarrelling neighbours have even seen the borders along Kashmir being opened up. Again General Mosharraf's immediate denouncement of the Delhi bomb blasts that killed more than 60 people, saying "We are with India on this issue" and the fact that Indian leaders have not readily resorted to blaming Pakistan for the blasts, is also a proof that the relationship is getting better.

Shahiduzzan, while critical of Indian policies which he believes have often been the greatest impediment to Saarc's progress, does not write off Saarc's possibility altogether, as he sees a positive attitude in the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech. The "car rally" across South Asia that Singh has proposed, is for instance, a healthy development. Free mobility or direct communication among the countries that Singh alluded to will certainly bring people of the entire region closer. Singh's proposal of building a food storage is also very pragmatic and demands real consideration.

Pakistani Premier Shaukat Aziz and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh sat on the sidelines of the 13th Saarc summit to sort out some bilateral troubles

Another thing that has soured the relationship among the Saarc countries is terrorism. India summarily accuses Pakistan for any terrorist acts on her soil and holds Bangladesh responsible for giving shelter to insurgents. Bangladesh also blames India for allowing Bangladeshi criminals to find safe havens in India. "There is a technical problem here. Who is a terrorist? While India brands the people of Kashmir fighting the Indian army as terrorists, Pakistan describes them as freedom fighters and has always maintained that it has moral support for their cause," Shahiduzzaman points out. India is not alone, Sri Lanka and Nepal have also been fighting insurgencies for decades. The racial conflict in Pakistan and the rise of Islamist extremists in Bangladesh are also great problems. These countries have to invest so much of their time, energy and resources to contain these problems that they cannot concentrate on the economic front. Thus terrorism has naturally figured prominently in the 13th Saarc summit and leaders have pledged to fight it unitedly. It won't be easy though as the very definition of terrorism is a disputed area, as Shahiduzzaman pointed out.

The 13th Saarc summit has seen a number of agreements being signed. Three major agreements have been signed all for facilitating intra-regional trade. A poverty alleviation fund to the tune of 300 million dollars is also going to be created. The Khaleda-Manmohan meeting has also appeared to have gone quite well with Manmohan saying "good relationship with Bangladesh is their "highest priority" Pakistan premier Shaukat Aziz, skilfully evaded the question of repatriation of the "stranded Pakistanis" , has also proposed Bangladesh to enter into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Pakistan. The Dhaka declaration has also identified a number of very significant areas that needs to be given immediate attention like poverty alleviation, combating terrorism, disaster management etc. But, there were a lot of declarations in the last twelve summits as well, but few if any, have seen any signs of implementation. Khaleda Zia has rightly hoped that Saarc should now enter into a new era of implementation from that of declarations.

South Asia, home for 150 crore people more than half of whom live under the poverty line, is beset with woes on all fronts. If the seven-nation grouping becomes effective, as the leaders have vowed to do, many of these problems can be resolved to a great degree. One hopes, their pledges will be matched by their honest efforts to steer the people of the region to better days.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005