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All about a handshake
By: Abid Qaiyum Suleri

SAARC summit ended with a desire that Pakistan and
India would move ahead of their stated positions for integration, peace
and prosperity in the region

All about a handshake

A 30-second handshake between the premiers of two nuclear neighbours,
some photo shots and exchange of pleasantries; this is how the drama of
18th SAARC summit concluded in Kathmandu.

One should not expect that this handshake would bring any major
difference in troubled relations between India and Pakistan. However,
this gesture at least partially helped to salvage the theme of the
summit, i.e., “Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity”. Having said
it, the fact remains that integration, peace and prosperity would only
come when there would be trust among SAARC nations.

The lack of trust was very evident when SAARC was being conceived in
1985. India took this initiative as a Pakistan-backed attempt to counter
India with the help of other regional neighbours. Whereas, Pakistan
thought it was an Indian attempt to strengthen its influence. In fact
Article X was inserted in SAARC Charter on Indian suggestion to keep
bilateral issues out of the mandate of SAARC. However, Article X turned
counterproductive as now SAARC has been held hostage to Pakistan and
India’s bilateral issues.

Having said it, one must admit that rest of the six countries did get
benefit of SAARC especially when it comes to their bilateral economic
relations both with India and Pakistan.

A bilateral meeting between Pakistan and India did not take place and
both the Pakistani and Indian premiers had had bilateral meetings with
rest of the six heads of government/state. I am sure one would have
expected slightly mature statesmanship from regions’ most powerful
leaders, especially when they are mandated to lift millions from
poverty, hunger and impoverishment.

It goes beyond saying that the world cannot achieve any of its
development goals, be MDGs or forthcoming SDGs, unless South Asia
delivers. According to MDG 2014 report, one third of the world’s
1.2billion extreme poor lived in India alone. Bangladesh houses another 5
per cent, Pakistan around 1.7 per cent. Can international community
think of changing world’s poverty profile if three countries housing 40
per cent of world’s poor are not talking to each other on collective
ways and means of reducing poverty, increasing agricultural
productivity, ensuring food and nutritional security in the region,
providing quality education, eliminating illiteracy and providing
vocational education and training to the youth of the region.

True some of these things do get space in finely drafted Summit
declaration. However, in the context of weak implementation mechanism
and even weaker institutional arrangements, many of such declarations
get reduced to a wish list.

The seriousness of SAARC governments may be gauged from the fact that
only 18 annual meetings could be held during last 29 years. Perhaps
this fact led to the decision to hold the SAARC Summit every two years
instead of the current provision of organising it annually. It was also
decided to hold the next SAARC Summit in Pakistan in 2016. I hope by
then, Pakistan and India would be in “talking terms” enabling Indian
leadership to accept Pakistan’s invitation.

There were three draft agreements on table in Kathmandu Summit; an
agreement on energy (electricity trade), and agreement on movement of
passenger and cargo vehicles; and an agreement on rail movement.

South Asia is an energy thirsty region but in an ideal situation the
members may meet each other’s urgent needs. In this context the only
breakthrough in Kathmandu is ‘SAARC Framework Agreement on Energy
Cooperation (Electricity)’. This may open the door for electricity trade
among the countries.

 South Asia is an energy thirsty region but in an ideal situation the
members may meet each other’s urgent needs. In this context the only
breakthrough is ‘SAARC Framework Agreement on Energy Cooperation’.

Reportedly, Pakistan showed its initial reservations, but finally
ratified the agreement after other heads of state and governments took
up the matter with PM Nawaz Sharif. With the energy pact in place, all
the SAARC members have agreed to “enable” the concerned agencies in
their respective countries to develop transmission interconnectivity
within the region. The agreement would allow power supply from surplus
countries to those with deficit in the region. However, whether Pakistan
can make use of it to meet its electricity demands is conditional to
improved trust level between Pakistan and India. Right now, it seems
quite difficult that government may convince all stakeholders to start
energy trade with India.

Leaders from eight SAARC member states also univocally stressed on
collective efforts in combating terrorism in all its forms and
manifestations and having effective cooperation among the member states
to prevent trafficking in persons, arms and drugs and exploitation of
children for forced labour.

However, it must be understood that a joint approach to combat
terrorism requires common understanding of possible root causes of this
phenomenon. One needs to understand the crucial linkages between
terrorism and poverty, terrorism and lack of democracy, terrorism and
social injustice, terrorism and growing militarisation in society and,
finally, terrorism and intolerance. If global North can enter in
intercultural and interfaith dialogues to understand the possible causes
of growing extremism and intolerance leading to violence, then what
stops the stakeholders in this region from making an attempt to
understand the point of view of their neighbours vis-à-vis terrorism
through constructive debate and dialogue. An understanding of how
conflicts happen would provide the clues needed for avoiding and
managing terrorism.

Recent monsoon floods in South Asian countries raised the importance
of regional cooperation on cross border information sharing, early flood
forecasting system as human induced and natural disasters affect
everybody irrespective of national boundaries and socioeconomic status.
Sharif did raise this issue explicitly and it was decided to merge four
Regional Centres — Coastal Zone Management Centre (Male), Meteorological
Research Centre (Dhaka), Forestry Centre (Bhutan) and Disaster
Management Centre (New Delhi) — to create a new centre named ‘SAARC
Environment and Disaster Management Centre’. The location of the centre
will be decided later. However, it is a step in right direction and one
hopes that if get implemented effectively, it would have long term
dividends for everyone.

Like previous summits, the heads of state/government once again
reaffirmed their commitment to the principles and objectives enshrined
in the SAARC Charter. They renewed their resolve for collective regional
efforts to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural
development, which would promote the welfare of the peoples of South
Asia and improve their quality of life. They also talked of “effective
implementation of all SAARC programmes and mechanisms by rationalisation
and performance evaluation on a regular basis”.

However, there are certain fundamental issues that need to be
addressed for turning SAARC into an effective body for regional
cooperation. I wrote in these pages many years ago that
“Demilitarisation is a must for people-centric development in South
Asia. How can South Asian countries contribute to integration, peace and
prosperity when they are busy in a maddening arms race? How can they
afford to spend on people’s welfare when they have egoistic mind-sets
and are not willing to face each other? How can they talk of joint
efforts to combat terrorism when their intelligence agencies are making
plans to destabilise the neighbouring countries? How can they talk of
conserving water resources when Pakistan and India, the two biggest
countries in the region, are directly responsible for the melting and
receding of Himalayan glaciers?

In fact, many of the problems facing the region can be solved simply
by demilitarisation. I am still sticking to my arguments that we need to
give peace a chance for the sake of regional prosperity.

The second core issue hampering any progress towards realising the
objectives of SAARC is the draconian visa regime. SAARC heads of
state/government again talked of promoting trade in services, tourism,
cultural cooperation, education, etc. Who can disagree with the wisdom
of SAARC leaders on this issue? However, a soft visa regime is a must to
achieve these objectives. How can one think of promoting trade in
services, tourism, cultural cooperation and education with the existing
visa problems, especially between Pakistan and India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh, and Bangladesh and India?

SAARC has gained international recognition. Currently, Australia,
China, the EU, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mauritius, Myanmar and the US are
observers to the association. An enhanced role for SAARC observes
especially China was a major point of discussion during the Summit.
However, India was not comfortable with such arrangement. Thus (with
caution) SAARC leadership agreed to review and analyse a previous
document regarding the engagement with the observers to establish
dialogue partnership.

Source :


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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.