Kathmandu, Nov 11,2014: The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), established amid paucity, poverty and backwardness in the south Asian countries with special and active initiation of Nepal and Bangladesh has turned thirty. With Nepal hosting the 18th SAARC Summit this month, debates and discussions are rife again whether this regional organisation has achieved its goals, become mature and Nepal has benefitted to the extent it should have.
The 18 SAARC Summit is taking place on 26 and 27 of this month in Kathmandu. This is the third SAARC summit that Nepal is hosting.
Nepal is one among the least developed countries in the SAARC region which has disappointing records especially on the economic front with huge trade imbalance to its neighbour. Fostering peace and harmony in the region with better connectivity and economic integration have always been just the sweet talk and promises of every Summit, but real achievement zilches to this. Non-implementation of the south Asian free trade area (SAFTA) envisioned to boost the economy of this region by accelerating trade has been a prominent issue since its inception in 2006. Induction of a new member, Afghanistan, to SAARC too is yet to establish the relevance. The member countries are engrossed more on the political issues than the regional one. Big member countries’ rivalry is another factor to hinder the SAARC to meet the goal of peace and prosperity in the region.
Other issues as security, anti-terrorism, cross-border crimes and trafficking to latest global problem as climate change effects have dominated the bilateral and trilateral meetings and forums of the member countries and the summits. Areas missed to preach in the SAARC are little while practices are disappointing. So, such issues can not be avoided to reverberate with the ambience the Heads of State and Government of SAARC member countries are meeting here on November 26-27.
Nepal is not only a least developed country but also locked by land on three sides by a single SAARC member country, India. Nearly 70 percent of Nepal’s foreign trade is with the SAARC countries while more than 90 percent out of this is with the immediate neighbor India. But, Nepal is incurring a huge trade deficit with India. Despite being a resource-rich country, lack of the use of modern technology, of skilled and apt human resources to harness the assets, is to blame to a large extent. While, non-implementation of the south Asian free trade area (SAFTA), a concept envisioned to boost the economy in the region by accelerating intra-region trade, is deemed another unavoidable matter.
Needless to say, the SAARC is always criticized for not meeting its economic goals. It is obvious that various agreements and commitments whether on security or economy are limited in written, for lack of feeble infrastructures. A fine example to this is non-implementation of the SAFTA. Economic analyst and columnist Gajendra Budhathoki observes that weak infrastructures, trust deficit in industrial sector, policy-level obstructions and cross-border inconveniences are some factors leading to weak implementation of SAFTA. “Significantly, as a big member of SAARC, India has given more emphasis on bilateral trade agreements keeping in centre the personal economic prosperity. India’s focus is more on bilateral free trade agreements (FTA) with neighbours than SAFTA which is the reason why the concept of free trade in the SAARC region has not turned into success.”
Another point to ponder is: is the relevance of the induction of Afghanistan to SAARC established? So, questioning Afghanistan’s entry to SAARC can not be denied on the ground that it has not helped the seven countries to accelerate SAARC activities to meet the goal. So, whether it is an asset or added responsibility in SAARC is a debate.
In this connection, senior journalist Dhruba Hari Adhikari argues that talking of the feasibility of induction of new member to the SAARC, other country like Myanmar could be more appropriate than Afghanistan. Geography and common problems of the region could fit Myanmar best to it, but Afghanistan was inducted in a manner that India was balancing the Nepal’s proposal of taking China to the SAARC. Analyst Adhikari further said, “Afghanistan’s entry is mere additional burden and responsibility than an ease and asset to other member countries, because the pace the SAARC should have taken is slowed instead.”
There are some arguments that India, being a member of other bigger organizations as BRICS, does not heed the SAARC to the extent it should have, but tries to emerge stronger in global politics. It has already risen above South Asian woes, so it wants to compete with others in view of the global political orders as impacted by economic progress of its immediate neighbour China which also boasts of military prowess to the West, and West’s eyes on Asia, the Middle East and gradually to the south Asia.
On the other hand, arguments can also be that time has come for India to foster better relations with its neighbours in the SAARC reasoning China is gradually showing presence in its immediate neighbours Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives. It holds meaning also because Pakistan and India are now in competition, and India wants to compete with China as well. Both Pakistan and India are countries possessing nuclear power which they were not in the inception of the SAARC.
Similarly, the uneasy relations between the two big members of the SAARC- Pakistan and India- are taken in a point for the slow- very slow- development in this region.Â Former prime minister of Nepal, Dr Baburam Bhattarai, while talking to the National News Agency of Nepal (RSS), said, “Although the SAARC principle does not entertain the bilateral issues in the Summit, the disharmonious relations between India and Pakistan obstruct the development. Unless the relations between these two are not improved, efforts from only small countries can not ensure SAARC to achieve its goals.”
In Nepal’s case, in the name of India-Pakistan uneasy relations, India’s leadership prowess, changing attention of the global politics, and the transition within the country, Nepal can not remain lackadaisical to identify the areas it can benefit from the SAARC and debate vigorously in the bilateral meetings to raise the issues of serious concern from promotion of trade and commerce to technical prosperity. Home to the SAARC secretariat, Nepal, has found the alternative forum (the bilateral talks in the sidelines of the SAARC Summit makes it an alternative forum) to bring the pressing issues on surface and debate again. Mere preparation of Kathmandu Declaration with ambitious lists does not show the diplomatic prowess but a rigorous homework needs to be done to prevent the Summit from turning into a talk programme.
With this, time has come for the SAARC countries to show farsightedness and will power to unlock the potential of development-in economy, in foreign relations, in socio arena and information and technology. So, it would not be unfair to say that practical assessment of the past commitments and agreements and realization of the obligation carries much significance. Formulation of to-do-list without assessing self on the welfare of collective whole may turn the euphoric past to frustrated future. It is time to act in a mature way. SAARC, you are 30.
By Narayan Prasad Ghimire