Suhasini Haidar

SAARC: Bursting with potential, burdened with disappointment

All eight countries will have to put their differences aside and accept the reality, that the sum of their parts is not greater than the whole. Photo: V.V. Krishnan  

Six months into his tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come full circle, attending the SAARC summit in Nepal with the leaders who graced his swearing-in ceremony in May. For the next two days, the eight leaders of South Asia - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka - will meet, first at a plenary in Kathmandu, and then at a retreat in Dhulikhel, to try and build closer ties and trade in the region.

The theme of the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu is “deeper integration for peace and prosperity”, and to this end, the member countries have been discussing various initiatives for building intra-regional connectivity that will hopefully result in at least three agreements being adopted during the concluding session on Thursday. The agreements deal with energy cooperation, railway linkages and easing motor vehicles and passenger traffic movement. The agreements were cleared by the Cabinet this week, and the government has been authorised to sign bilateral agreements with each of the SAARC countries in order to make the multilateral agreement a reality.

“I am very hopeful that this SAARC summit will be a milestone and a watershed moment in realising the collective hopes of the region to integrate and prosper together,” Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay told The Hindu ahead of the summit. There are some reasons for such optimism. Five of the eight SAARC leaders attending have been elected since the last summit in the Maldives in 2011. Each of the countries in SAARC have since made improvement in their own economies, and the hope is that they will further benefit once they open up to trade within the region, and facilitate people’s movement, to realise the full potential of 1.6 billion people.

But the SAARC grouping also suffers from many challenges. With one-fifth of the world’s population, South Asia is home to two-fifths of the world’s poor. However, it accounts for only 3 per cent of global output and 2 per cent of world exports. Compared to every other regional grouping, the intra-regional trade in SAARC region is the lowest in the world. For example, EU countries trade about 66% of their goods and services in their region, NAFTA reaches 53%, while ASEAN reaches 25%. SAARC’s intra-regional trade so far is just about 5%.

But unlike the European Union, SAARC countries range in size, and are not of similar strength. As a result, continuing tensions between the two biggest member-states India and Pakistan have held back the region. In particular, terrorism emanating from Pakistan, that affects both India and Afghanistan have derailed any normal trade and travel in that entire part of the region. Conflict has held back other parts of SAARC in the past too, like the war against the LTTE in Sri Lanka, and Maoist conflict in Nepal. It is to be hoped that the SAARC countries will also step up cooperation in future conflict resolution, but for the moment, that seems difficult. Secondly, tensions in the region have also meant that the SAARC summit itself has not been held more than 18 times since its inception nearly 30 years ago.

On issues like education, employment, agriculture, climate change, and managing the environment, the countries that share culture, languages, food, and social structures have much in common, and can learn from each other. If they harness renewable energy, especially hydropower, solar energy and wind power together, they can power the entire region at lower and cleaner cost than many other parts of the world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan for a SAARC satellite, an Indian satellite launch vehicle that can launch the space exploration dreams for all countries of the region is a powerful idea in this direction.

For this, the eighteenth SAARC summit will have to cover rapid ground in these two days. India has already taken the leadership on the agreements for bettering intra-regional connectivity, and has begun upgrading infrastructure for highways from Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal, while improving the border trade infrastructure with Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has also worked on improving bilateral ties with its neighbours, in line with the new government’s push for the neighbourhood. In the past few months, there have been bilateral visits to Nepal and Bhutan, the PM has met his counterparts from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, and leaders of Afghanistan and Maldives had visited India earlier in the year.

However the cancellation of talks with Pakistan in August has dealt a blow to efforts to improve relations and build trade. For the SAARC summit in Kathmandu to be successful, all eight countries will have to put their differences aside and accept the reality, that the sum of their parts is not greater than the whole.

(This commentary was prepared for All India Radio ahead of the 18th SAARC summit)

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 2:02:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-suhasini-haidar/article6632431.ece

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