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     Volume 7 Issue 32 | August 8, 2008 |

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United We Stand

Saarc leadership must show brinkmanship to make the region an economic powerhouse

Ahmede Hussain

While its counterparts in Europe, the Far East and Africa have made viable economic unions, South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc), which is going to celebrate its 23rd birthday this year, eerily resembles a paper tiger. Though the regional forum has a total landmass of 5,130,746 square kilometres, making it the seventh biggest region in the world, the eight countries of Saarc, which share the same culture and history, have not been able to come close enough to form a Union. Bilateral disputes are rampant, so much so that they at times taint the spirit of co-operation of the organisation.

The summit meeting of the Saarc that has ended in Colombo last week has taken some steps to bring the gap that exists between its members. The Colombo declaration has rightly incorporated two important issues that its leaders have said Saarc will handle--the creation of a food bank or expressing the desire to fight terrorism together.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shakes hands with Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani during closing ceremony of the two-day Saarc summit in Colombo last week. AFP PHOTO/RAVEENDRAN

The question that, however, remains unresolved is the challenge of translating the resolves into results. History tells us that the Saarc has been one of the most poverty-stricken regional groupings in the region despite the fact that its Gross Domestic Product is the 4th biggest in the world; from Kabul to Kolkata one comes across an army of poor, most of whom do not even earn two meals a day. This has been exacerbated by violence and extremism of a different hue that South Asia is littered with. Poverty breeds terrorism, and it is no wonder that the region has witnessed so many terrorist attacks in the last couple of decades. The biggest impediment to self-reliance is perhaps the air of mistrust that the leaders of the group are dogged with. While it is well connected by air to Europe, up until this year there has been no direct flight link between Dhaka and Colombo. An Indian may get a visa to a European country without any hassle, but to get a Pakistani one she will face a wave of difficulties, the rejection rate, it is said that, is an all-time.

Trade barriers are yet to be removed. Footballs made in any western country may be as easily available in Bangladesh as a slab of molasses, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to get one made in Sialkot, which is famous across the globe for producing fine quality footballs. So, economy suffers, and in spite of an economic boom that South Asia has seen in the last couple of decades the number of poor is increasing fast.

To begin with, the leaders of the association should think beyond and start the process of forming a South Asian Union à la EU. A common passport can be introduced, and more importantly, interconnectivity, of all forms, should be thought of to foster development and increase people to people contact. For the Far Eastern countries, South Asia can become the gateway to Central Asia; Nepal and Bhutan can take benefit of the Chittagong Port. A rail and land route can be laid down to connect all the big South Asian cities.

Saarc leaders attending a summit in Colombo met at the national
parliament last week. AFP PHOTO/Sudath SILVA

Sharing of energy and water resources is also a must for the region's growth. The countries have to open up their borders and markets to each other for the common good. The regional leaders must not forget that the only way to slay the two-headed monster of poverty and terrorism is through economic development and social connectivity. The Saarc has a long way to go to achieve a poverty-free developed South Asia, the path to South Asian Union is slippery, there are risks at its every turn, but the risks are worth taking for the 1.5 billion South Asian definitely deserve a better future.

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