In April last year, SAARC celebrated its silver jubilee with the summit being held in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. Since that summit where the leaders openly admitted to the SAARC's failure and promised to take measures to make it effective, little progress has been made in terms of economic and social benefits to the millions of people living in abject poverty throughout the region.
It appears that all the hype about SAARC solidarity is only when the summit is on. Once the summit ends, the SAARCness is thrown behind the back only to be picked up, dusted and polished when the next summit approaches. The lack of media enthusiasm in reporting SAARC or related matters during the period between two summits speaks for itself. SAARC makes big page one news or becomes the subject of an opinion piece or two only when the summit is on.
Even at summits, the SAARC solidarity or camaraderie is largely confined to photo-ops. The ground reality speaks of one of rivalry, mutual mistrust or apathy. The never-ending India-Pakistan wrangling, needless to say, is a major contributory factor that has stunted SAARC. Charges that one country is aiding and abetting terrorism in the other's territory are rampant — with India pointing to the 2006 Mumbai attacks and the troubles in Kashmir while Islamabad links New Delhi with a simmering separatism in Baluschistan. Apart from Kashmir, the two countries are fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan.
One needs not go into the details of the much-discussed topic of how the India-Pakistan rivalries have affected SAARC. But take the relations between other SAARC countries. Hardly a month passes without the Hamid Karzai government blaming Pakistan for terrorist activities in Afghanistan, drawing fiery responses from Pakistan. Forgotten in this duel is not only the SAARC spirit but also the millennia-old cultural ties between the peoples.
Then take the lack of SAARCness in the relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh. On Tuesday, a Reuter report from Brussels said Bangladesh had thwarted a European Union attempt to grant beneficial import conditions to Pakistani textile makers as an aid measure following Pakistan's devastating floods last year. Under WTO rules, concessions of this nature are given only if there are no objections from all WTO members. India which also opposed concessions to Pakistan withdrew its objections recently.
The issue became a topic of discussions on Wednesday between the officials of the two countries at the Addu islands on the sidelines of the SAARC foreign ministers meeting. Bangladeshis officials indicated that they may withdraw the objection while Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbbani Khar called it an "accident". "Of course, we are very concerned about it. We have been told by them that it was at best an accident," she told Reuters.
But rarely does the spirit of give-and-take that is seen at SAARC summits manifests when leaders return to their capitals where decisions are made on national-interest basis rather than each country's commitment to SAARC. Well, SAARC solidarity has its place but only when it benefits the member-state's national interest.
The unresolved refugee problem between Nepal and Bhutan is another case in point. The two countries could find a solution if they act in true SAARC spirit. But they won't.
SAARC spirit was also missing when Sri Lanka recently formulated new immigration rules, declining to grant favoured nations status to visitors from SAARC member states, although one of the objectives of SAARC is to improve people-to-people contacts. It was only after India objected that Sri Lanka relented and made concessions.
This year's summit's theme 'Building Bridges' is perhaps an admission of the existence of widening gaps in relations between member states.
SAARC has tremendous potential for solidarity-based growth. But the region's healthy 6 percent GDP growth — with India recording 9.7, Sri Lanka 8, Bhutan 7.4, Bangladesh 5.8, the Maldives 4.8, Nepal 4.6, Pakistan 4.4 and Afghanistan 3.4 — is hardly attributable to SAARC-based factors. The much talked about South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) which was signed in 2004 and became operational in 2006 has not made much progress though the member states are expected to adopt a zero customs duty policy by next year. Trade among SAARC nations accounts for only 5 percent of the aggregate trade.
At the Addu summit yesterday, India's enthusiasm for trade liberalization in keeping with SAFTA was not evident in other member-states. This is largely because they still fear that India will gobble up the economies of smaller states if full liberalization of trade comes into effect. As a result, SAARC, which is essentially an economic union, remains largely ineffective, unable to achieve its main objective — raising the living standards of its people through economic cooperation.
With the European Union in crisis over debt problems involving Greece, Italy and other countries, a big question looms over the concept of regional integration — a politically vogue concept in the 1970s and 1980s. The formation of SAARC was largely a reaction to the success of the European Commission and the Association of the South East Asian Nations in that era rather than a product of much research and thought.
But today, with the World Trade Organisation governing trade, the concept of regional economic integration is losing its appeal. This does not mean SAARC is obsolete or bound to crash. It can move ahead but it needs to be pragmatic rather than idealistic. It should identify its capabilities, handicaps and the extent to which each member-state can compromise and then set its goals aimed at economic development rather than living in a fool's paradise with the dream of zero custom duties and total liberalization of trade.