February 14, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

Time to look beyond the subcontinent

When the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation was set up in 1985 to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia, its leaders pledged to expand economic, scientific, social, cultural and technical co-operation. They also agreed to work together in international fora on issues of common interest.

Even though there have been ten summits of SAARC leaders, precious little has been achieved either in promoting economic co-operation, or in jointly implementing agreements that have been reached on issues ranging from combating terrorism to expanding trade, investment and industrial ties.

The SAARC convention on terrorism is full of so many loopholes and inadequacies, that securing the extradition of terrorists is virtually ruled out. Despite this convention, people like Dawood Ibrahim live in resplendent splendour in the posh and elite localities of Karachi and Lahore. Further, there has been very little progress achieved in promoting meaningful economic co-operation, primarily because Pakistan is not prepared to develop economic ties with India.

While self-styled SAARC enthusiasts in India tend to find fault with their own government for not being enthusiastic about another SAARC summit, they ignore the fact that it is Pakistan that has refused an early meeting of experts in Kathmandu, on further expanding the South Asian Preferential Trade Arrangement.

The reasons why SAARC has not been able to take off are obvious. SAARC is perhaps the only regional organisation in the world where only one member (India) shares common borders and has extensive interaction with others. There is precious little by way of economic or other co-operation between say Nepal and Maldives or between Bhutan and Pakistan. SAARC does, therefore, periodically tend to become a forum for "India bashing" by any member that has a real or imaginary grievance with India.

This is particularly so of Pakistan, which tries to make every political level meeting an exercise in theatrics, rather than an opportunity to promote economic co-operation. There is nothing to suggest that Pakistan is going to change this approach. But India does now have an opportunity for setting an agenda for SAARC. It should, however, be made clear to other SAARC members that if we are not going to achieve substantive progress on expanding economic co-operation within the SAARC framework, we will seek to achieve this both bilaterally and sub-regionally outside SAARC.

In any case, it is now time for us to look beyond the narrow confines of the subcontinent, shed some of our earlier inhibitions on projects of sub-regional cooperation and develop new links and strands of cooperation bilaterally, sub-regionally and regionally across the entire Indian Ocean region.

Our 'look east' policies have led to vastly expanding economic ties with members of ASEAN. Singapore is today one of the most important partners for economic co-operation and tourism with our southern states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. States on our eastern shores will find countries ranging from Myanmar to Malaysia as viable partners for meeting their energy needs. The BIMSTEC -- bringing together countries of the Bay of Bengal -- Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand needs to be activated and specific projects in areas like fisheries, transport, communications and energy resources involving two or more member countries identified expeditiously and implemented.

The SAARC experience has shown that unless there are specific projects identified and implemented, all talk of regional or sub-regional cooperation is meaningless. But, in moving ahead on this road we should be prepared to show understanding and generosity in concluding free trade and investment arrangements with countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. We should avoid the sort of unseemly haggling that we indulged in, while negotiating a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka.

Maldives seldom receives media attention in India. But, there does appear to be considerable potential for developing a sub-regional grouping involving India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to promote co-operation in areas like trade, tourism and fisheries. There will be considerable interest in the private sector in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu in such co-operation. Similarly, states on our west coast like Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat will benefit immensely if New Delhi expands co-operation in energy related and other areas with members of the Gulf Co-operation Council and Iran.

We have to recognise that in a liberalised economic environment, states in India will develop natural complementarities with countries in our neighbourhood. The identification of specific projects in the growth quadrangle involving Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh will be of particular interest to the people of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. But, here again New Delhi should shed its inhibitions in seeking co-operation from institutions like the Asian Development Bank and World Bank in studying the implications of and financing these projects.

The insistence on bilateralism on such economic issues can be counterproductive if overdone. A similar approach needs to be adopted in developing economic and tourism ties between our northeastern states including Assam and countries in their immediate neighbourhood like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and even the Yunan province of China.

The adoption of measures to place increasing emphasis on bilateral and sub-regional co-operation in our neighborhood, does not necessarily imply that we have to give up efforts to promote regional co-operation within SAARC. The SAARC Vision Beyond 2000 report provides an excellent framework for regional economic co-operation in the subcontinent (one wonders why we fight shy of calling it the "Indian subcontinent" instead of referring to it even domestically as "South Asia"!).

The SAARC Vision 2000 envisages the subcontinent becoming an economic union by 2020 in three stages. SAARC is to become a free trade area by 2008 with the free trade provisions coming into effect for its least developed members by 2010. A Regional Investment Agreement is to be concluded prior to this. This is to be followed by the establishment of a customs union in 2015, before an economic union is set up in 2020. In the meantime, the countries of the subcontinent will adopt a social charter incorporating social welfare targets in population stabilisation, universal primary education, empowerment of women and nutrition and protection of children. The former foreign secretary, Muchkund Dubey, played a key role in finalising this vision report.

New Delhi should even now indicate that it is prepared to commence discussions at official level to implement the provisions of the SAARC Vision 2000. In case Pakistan expresses reservations about moving in this direction as it has hitherto been doing on developing a SAARC Preferential Trade Agreement, we can conclude it is really not serious about promoting regional economic cooperation. There is little point in holding annual regional summit meetings if all these efforts are meant to merely pave a road to nowhere.

India and the other countries of the subcontinent like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh are today showing signs of accelerating their economic growth and improving the human development indicators with rates of economic growth varying between 5 per cent and 6.5 per cent annually. Pakistan is, however, fast proceeding in the opposite direction. Pakistan is today the sick man of South Asia. This trend is going to continue, especially if our western neighbour continues to mismanage its financial priorities and remains rooted in its advocacy of jihad, even as ever increasing numbers of its children are schooled in the bigotry of its mushrooming madrassas, instead of receiving modern, secular education.

Hence, while calls to "revive" SAARC are laudable, the hard reality remains that even as we attempt to do so, we must realistically promote alternative options also.

G Parthasarathy

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