Even as heads of governments in South Asia meet ritualistically yet again on November 26 in Kathmandu for the Saarc summit, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) has shown little success in strengthening regional cooperation. South Asia continues to remain one of the least integrated regions of the world.
It has not been short on intentions. Saarc has announced many integrated action programmes; signed agreements and conventions on food security, terrorism and human trafficking; announced deadlines for poverty alleviation; set up a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), a South Asian University; adopted a social charter; pursued regional connectivity and set up joint centres on agriculture, energy and meteorology, among others.
However, 29 years of effort has not led to a coherent regional approach or an appreciation of the advantages of cooperation.
The poverty alleviation deadline of 2002 set in1991 has come and gone. No one knows whether the Saarc Food Security Reserve is real or virtual and despite several calamities in the region, no one has ever drawn on this food reserve. Under SAFTA intraregional trade is insignificant and non-tariff barriers to trade and investment remain.
There is no collective economic policy nor is there a coordinated social and legal framework to support a rapid expansion of the market.
Connectivity, by land, sea and air is a key to expanding trade. Yet the number of direct flights within the Saarc nations has actually come down over time. It is impossible to drive a car from one neighbouring country to the other except between India-Nepal and India-Bhutan.
Until the Indian Ocean trade and passenger ferry initiative takes off there is no passenger ferry service between the member states.
Connectivity in the region is so low and visa regimes so restrictive that it is easier for a group of South Asians to meet outside the region than in one of their own capitals.
Even today, member countries of Saarc find it more cost-effective to trade outside the region than within it.
The 16th summit of Saarc in Thimphu called for greater regional connectivity and endorsed 2010-2020 as the “decade of intra-regional connectivity in Saarc”.
In Kathmandu some more sloganeering on connectivity is likely as the member countries sign the Saarc Regional Railways Agreement and the Saarc Motor Vehicle Agreement.
All Saarc members are energy deficient and have been talking about energy cooperation since 2000. A Saarc energy centre was established in Islamabad and studies have been conducted for developing a Saarc market for electricity, but the members have not yet developed a framework for regional energy cooperation. India has proposed the setting up of a Saarc electricity grid, but for the moment that is no more than a desirable goal.
The range of resolutions passed by Saarc show that there is no lack of vision here but implementation is weak. Take the instance of the Convention on Terrorism.
It was adopted in 1988 and an additional protocol was signed in 2004 to deal with the financing of terrorism. Yet, the enabling domestic laws to give teeth to the convention have never been adopted.
Terrorism is not even an extraditable offence and there is no provision for granting extra-territorial criminal jurisdiction if extradition is denied.
Why does Saarc not work effectively? One reason is that there is no convergence of security interests between the member countries.
They do not face a common ideological enemy. They also have many outstanding bilateral issues ranging from border demarcation to sharing of trans-boundary resources.
Together, many of them resent what they see as India’s hegemony and attempts at influence domestic events in other countries.
Many of them seek to use China, another large economic power abutting South Asia, to balance India’s influence and to India’s chagrin, have managed to successfully campaign to accord China an observer status in Saarc.
Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles to the success of Saarc is the persistent India-Pakistan rivalry. Indians say that it is the cussedness of Pakistan exemplified best with its reluctance to trade normally with India even under World Trade Organisation rules which is the major hurdle to Saarc.
Pakistan’s intransigence also makes Afghanistan’s membership of Saarc virtually meaningless. Even if a Motor Vehicle Protocol is signed for the region for example, it is unlikely that Pakistan would allow Indian cargo to move to Afghanistan by road.
Since there are no signs that intransigence to India’s west will go away, bilateral and sub-regional cooperation to its east has become a favoured option of India’s neighbours.
India’s own emphasis to “Look East” and “Act East” policies are results of this. Thus, for example, a Saarc electricity grid may take a long time coming but an eastern grid, linking
Nepal, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh could easily emerge first. India and Nepal have recently signed a Power Transfer Agreement making electricity a tradable commodity.
India and Bhutan already trade in electricity. With Bangladesh a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) line has been set up between Berhampur in India and Bheramara in Bangladesh to transfer 500 megawatt of electricity linking the eastern grid of India to Bangladesh’s western grid.
However, if such a grid fructifies it would have to be outside Saarc because its charter guidelines insist that all eight countries have to agree.
Because Saarc has been slow to take off, its members have responded to other regional initiatives like the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). India is keen on forging close ties with Asean.
The inertia of South Asian regional cooperation is giving way to other regional initiatives like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) forum as they hold a greater potential for cooperation than Saarc.
It seems that its member states have decided to explore market expansion through regional cooperation initiatives other than Saarc. As of now, it seems that they will invariably be eastward looking.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi