Seriously Saarc

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to South Asian leaders to overcome the many shared challenges holding back the region emanates from a stark fact New Delhi has long understood: India’s full potential cannot bloom on soil scorched by regional conflict and backwardness. He won’t be the first prime minister, though, to realise that while the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is great at agreeing to do things, its record on

doing them isn’t luminous. Even though Saarc members signed on to a preferential trade agreement way back in 1993, trade among member-states makes up just 5.2 per cent of their total foreign trade —  and almost all of that is Indian exports to its neighbours. The comparative figure for Asean is 26.5 per cent. The citizens of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, can travel in the region without visas; not so in Saarc, though its states agreed to give certain categories of visitors that right back in 1988. BRICS, like ECOWAS, has a bank; Saarc doesn’t. In 1983, Saarc leaders hoped regular consultations between them would make conflict less likely. In reality, almost every member state has seen bloody conflicts, often fuelled by neighbours. India and Pakistan, are yet to  cooperate even on disaster relief.

The reasons behind this inertia aren’t unknown: many of Saarc’s members are hostile to each other in varying degrees, and view all regional-level developments through the prism of their bilateral competition. In 1980, when then-Bangladesh president Ziaur Rahman first pushed the Saarc idea, both India and Pakistan feared the other would use it as a forum to corner it. India has since moved forward, signing bilateral agreements with many states outside the Saarc framework. Pakistan has responded by blocking agreements that would facilitate Afghanistan-India ties, and is pushing to bring in China as a counter-weight.
This unhappy record, though, should be reason to get the nuts and bolts fixed right — not throw away the South Asian idea. There is lots of low-hanging fruit governments could pluck with a little administrative will. The fledgling South Asian University in New Delhi has been growing at a glacial pace and, with a little pushing, could emerge as a genuine regional centre for excellence. New Delhi and Islamabad could at least agree to allow journalists to travel to each others’ capitals on long-term visas. For all their bilateral tensions, every leader ought to understand that problems like disease and climate change don’t recognise national borders. South Asia has to choose between getting serious — or getting left behind.

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