Bhutan, which has declined thrice to host the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), has finally decked itself up for the 16th summit beginning here on Wednesday.

Though overshadowed by the prospects of a meeting between the Indian and Pakistan Prime Ministers, officials are busy working out the final document intended to demonstrate the efficacy of the eight-member grouping after nearly two decades of inaction — it was only at the 14th summit in Delhi that the SAARC resolved to move beyond the declaratory to implementation.

Driving force

With India as the driving force, the current summit is expected to unveil two agreements: one on environment and the other on trade in services. The pact on environment is likely to see announcements on a regional institutional architecture to tackle climate change, and the setting up of 50 weather stations in member countries, beginning with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, to provide storm warning.

The climate change pact is aimed at evolving a fresh SAARC position as per the Bali Action Plan and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The agreement on trade in services is meant to give a fillip to regional trade which, as several studies have shown, is the poorest among all regional trading blocs in the world.

India is also pushing for agreements on motor vehicles and railways and rapid response to natural disasters. Officials say a couple of countries, including Pakistan, have reservations about the prospects of a “combined rapid response” force and have sought clarifications.

Islamabad also wants a holistic arrangement for regional connectivity that clears some of the doubts among the member-countries. However, with India taking the lead, the vision of a region-wide physical connectivity unveiled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is being implemented bilaterally and among three countries, as in the case of Nepal-India-Bangladesh and Bhutan-India-Bangladesh.

The expert-level meeting, which was to have been held in Kathmandu earlier this month, was postponed at Pakistan's request. Similarly the movement on anti-terrorism has stalled, with Nepal having sought postponement of a meeting of the SAARC Home Ministers scheduled in Islamabad for earlier this year to give an impetus to the SAARC Ministerial Declaration on Cooperation in Combating Terrorism. However, a rudimentary structure to share unclassified information on terrorist and drug-related cases is already functioning.

To give trade a fillip, India is also keen on some pact that will bring down non-tariff barriers.

Officials point out that the 14th SAARC summit in Delhi marks a new beginning. India is the first and only SAARC member to have committed itself to pay nearly Rs.1,000 crore for a development fund even before its regional office in Bhutan is yet to take shape. India has also moved rapidly on setting up a South Asian University which, the officials, said is likely to be operational after five years.

New Delhi feels that considerable progress has been made in implementing the SAARC Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), with India again taking the lead by giving zero-duty access to the least developed countries a year ahead of the scheduled date of January 1, 2009, and reducing the number of negative and sensitive lists. “With increasing economic inter-dependence among member-countries, the SAARC will metamorphose into the core vehicle for enhanced economic cooperation,” says an Indian background note.

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