Saarc: Search for value addition

The member states’ optimism after a summit pales in the looming shadow of numerous problems & crises back home. The resulting Saarc process has tended to be slow, fitful and desultory.

The emerging geopolitics of Asia envisages greater role for South Asian regionalism in strategic terms. The region seems to hold the key to stability in Asia and beyond. This larger context should not be missed in evaluating the recent 17th Saarc Summit in Maldives and assessing the Asean and East Asia Summit meetings in Bali. The Maldives summit also proved the considerable default value of Saarc as an institution once again.

The smallest nation of the region, playing host in a setting south of the equator, underlined the vital maritime dimension of the grouping. The summit also projected the improving outlook in India-Pakistan relations, and the upgradation of other bilateral ties all round. It showed Saarc’s inherent strength to coax and cajole the region to summit diplomacy every year and a half.
The optimism, comfort level and progressively better convergence of interests of leaders at the summit should now be matched by rapid follow-up action. Going by the trend so far, the summit host as chair of Saarc has to carry the burden of being proactive. The dynamism of the Maldives, therefore, will be far more in demand in the coming weeks and months.
The summit declaration together with the statements of all South Asian leaders reflect a substantive thrust for deliverables: on stronger all-round trade, more tangible connectivity, much more intra-Saarc tourism, activating energy linkages, and promoting sub-regional and regional projects with strict timelines. The drive for stepping up intra-Saarc trade was certainly helped by traction in trade prospects between India and Pakistan.
India has also announced major unilateral measures for zero tariff and drastic cuts in sensitive lists for the Least Developed Countries. The stage is set for progress on multiple aspects of the South Asian Free Trade Area i.e. to proceed with tenacity to accomplish agreed lowering of tariff and non-tariff barriers, reduction in the sensitive lists for tradable goods and of the number of days for border and customs procedures.
The Saarc agreement on trade in services adds substantially to the gains. Work on its schedules must be speeded up with a
fixed timeline. A good marker may be next April, when it will be two years after the signing of the agreement.
Closely allied measures for upgrading physical connectivity by rail and road for carriers/container traffic and soft connectivity through facilitation of currency, visa and communication links are feasible and overdue. Energy trade, tourism and transport are areas underlined by the summit for quick result-oriented work. The mechanisms exist with reasonable mandates in this regard. Care must be taken to activate them in the next six months and to demand convergence of states’ views on feasible steps — for instance, if the region as a whole is not ready, action can commence for a sub-region as stressed in the Addu Declaration. The India-Sri Lanka- Maldives ferry service can be showcased as pace-setter. Imparting traction and sustaining momentum to regional cooperation calls for focus and push at levels far lower than summits. These should be empowered and held accountable.
The nine observer states too approached the summit with mounting interest in South Asia, even though our own media habitually viewed it through the Indo-Pak prism. Differential priorities of the media this week were seen in sharp contrast when live coverage of the Indian Prime Minister’s Saarc statement, and those of his South Asian counterparts, was scarce on TV channels in India, which only a day or two later carried live interview of the Kingfisher chairman. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement was forthright in the exposition of a consistent and compelling vision of South Asian regionalism, and common strands were clear in the statements from heads of other member states at the summit. The implied preferences of the viewers of the popular TV channels, however, reveal a facet of Saarc’s predicament — that regionalism in South Asia is yet to have adequate appeal for the larger public.
The Saarc Secretariat services the cooperative agenda with member states, but the personnel tasked to do it remains small. The member states’ optimism after a summit often pales in the looming shadow of numerous problems and crises back home. The resulting Saarc process has tended to be slow, fitful and desultory. Many ministerial meetings are scheduled between summits but most initiatives and proposals endorsed by summit leaders go through agonising and sterile processing and plodding at working levels for years. This in turn perhaps leads to the public and media indifference.
As the overall economic situation in the region is not so sanguine today, there will be inevitable tightening of budgets — both at the national levels and at the Saarc Secretariat. Nonetheless, as the summit has underlined, ways and means must be found to reform, strengthen and speed up the Saarc system.
The Saarc Development Fund (SDF) is ready to drive project-based cooperation with paid-up capital of $300 million contributed by Saarc member states. A fervent hope has been that in good time the SDF may attract external funding. It was devised with relatively greater autonomy and freedom of action from Saarc’s humdrum committees.
However, in the shine and glare of summitry, the fine print has sneaked through, which might even consign SDF to those technical committees. As it is, of the $300 million earmarked since 2009, only a tiny fraction has been invested so far on a couple of projects. Such low delivery rate is paradoxical for a region whose diaspora has a good reputation as international civil servants for effecting quick delivery.
South Asians must get their act together this time and carry out the mandate handed by the summit under the dynamic and energetic stewardship of the Maldives. Saarc must project its worth to observers and the outside world with the real value addition to South Asian cooperation and interdependence that is within its grasp.

The writer is a former secretary-general of Saarc

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