Charting the Way Forward

Theme for the 17th SAARC summit titled ‘Building bridges’ is most appropriate. The establishment of physical connectivity in the form of improved trade, air, road and shipping links will help the fulfillment of long-awaited dream of economic integration.

The ‘Addu Declaration’, a 20-point agenda, marked the conclusion of the 17th SAARC summit. In the Communique, the member states reiterated their determination to protect human rights, improve governance, and promote peace, confidence-building, freedom, and democracy. In addition to reducing poverty and inequalities, they also expressed their resolve to improve the standard of living of their people sustainable development. The declaration also affirmed the resolve of the member states to eliminate terrorism in its forms and manifestations, transnational crimes such as narcotics, human smuggling and illegal transfer of small weapons through concerted efforts.

Environmental degradation forms another important area contained in the ‘Addu declaration’, which has been identified as a potent challenge warranting collective approach. The need of further strengthening the institutional mechanism of SAARC was emphasized to bolster regional cooperation.

The issues raised in the Communique are of immense importance, which have potential of resetting the direction of South Asia. The way the member countries have risen above their individual positions to craft an agreement on a broad set of objectives augurs well for the future prospects of SAARC.

Poverty and escalating unemployment are the gravest issues facing the entire South Asian region, which call for employment of an integrated approach to resolve them. If the member countries initiate efforts to reduce poverty at individual levels and share their experiences, there is no reason why the overcall conditions of the people cannot improve.

The declaration also urges governments to sign inter-governmental framework agreement to analyse the proposals for establishment of Regional Power Exchange and cooperation in the field of energy. The implementation of this agreement can help accelerate process of development among the member countries.

The Heads of States and Governments also directed their foreign ministers to work on proposals aimed at accelerating capital flow and investment in the region. One way of doing this is to increase the scale of economic activities among member countries, leading to increase in intra-regional trade, which can, with the passage of time, form a major component of the world trade.

The foreign ministers of the governments also put their signatures on four agreements prior to the adoption of declaration, which included agreements on rapid response to deal with natural calamities, SAARC Seed Bank, SAARC Agreement on Multilateral Arrangement, and Implementation on Local Standards.

The establishment of peace through elimination of terrorism needs to be given high priority. As long as scourges of terrorism and militancy continue to afflict SAARC countries, the peoples would remain deprived of their due rights as the countries would be compelled to spend on augmenting their defence capabilities. It needs to be understood that SAARC does not afford to lag behind. The member countries must strengthen collaboration in dealing with the issues of terrorism, militancy, narcotics trade and human smuggling.

It has been 26 years since SAARC came into being with an ambitious agenda. If compared to other regional groupings such as European Union, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), SAARC cuts a sorry figure. In the unipolar world, strong regional organizations have, in a way, created a balance of power in order to protect their vital economic and strategic interests. It is unfortunate that despite being blessed with immense natural resources and ‘demographic dividend’, SAARC remains a document-producing body, which is high on rhetoric and low on actions.

Theme for the 17th SAARC summit titled ‘Building bridges’ is most appropriate. The establishment of physical connectivity in the form of improved trade, air, road and shipping links will help the fulfillment of long-awaited dream of economic integration. The increased interaction among the member countries at the people-to-people level will help carve out ‘peace constituencies’. South Asia is a home to rich civilization, robust cultures and ancient heritage, which goes beyond Indus Valley Civilization. A shared history of close geographical proximity can provide a basis for enhanced interfaith dialogue with a view to creating harmony.

Turning these promises into concrete policy actions has been a major challenge for the SAARC region. There is a need to work out timelines for each area by identifying deliverable items in short-, medium- and long-terms. Unless a mechanism for review and implementation of joint declarations is evolved, SAARC would continue to remain irrelevant to the region as well as beyond. The potential of SAARC can be measured from the fact that it now has nine members with Observer status. China has requested to be upgraded to the status of a dialogue partner from being an observer. The grant of membership to China can potentially be a game changer given its massive political and economic clout.

One potent reason of why SAARC has failed to evolve into a strong regional grouping is the rivalry between Pakistan and India. The recent meeting between the Pakistani and Indian Prime Ministers ended on happy note with both countries vowing to ‘write a new chapter’ in the history of their bilateral relations. Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh called Prime Minister Gilani as ‘man of peace’. The Pakistani PM also affirmed that both countries discussed all issues including core issue of Jammu and Kashmir. He said that the ‘next round of talks would be more constructive, more positive.’

The meeting between the Pakistani and the Indian Prime Ministers on the sidelines of SAARC summits has always been a matter of immense importance. However, the recent meeting took place in the backdrop of Pakistan granting Most Favoured Nation Status to India. India, on its part, supported Pakistan’s bid for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and also declared to withdraw objections to Pakistan’s efforts to get Generalized System of Preference status with the EU.

While the SAARC summit ended on a happy note, it remains to be seen as to how it would be able to walk the big talk. However, it needs to be understood that SAARC has to take revolutionary steps to find an honourable place along with regional blocks such as EU etc.

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