Perhaps the only time Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are eager to feign an Indian nationality is when confronted with a $ 5 “foreigners” fee at Taj Mahal or Qutub Minar. Bangladesh’s welcome proposal to treat tourists from Saarc at par with nationals is but one of the positive outcomes of the recently concluded Saarc summit.
This ‘least contentious’ of all Saarc summits, with bickering at an all-time low, witnessed a renewed push on development issues, with a guarded approach to terrorism and SAFTA, issues that have scuttled progress in the past. Despite throwing its doors open to observers, it sent out an assertive message, with bilateral talks on the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline and the grant of observer status to Iran.
Former JNU professor and South Asia watcher SD Muni is cautiously optimistic about the “positive indications that Saarc is maturing into a regional forum that can tackle bilateral differences without jeopardising the multilateral agenda.” Changing global and regional dynamics are forcing the region’s talking shop to open its doors for business. As the EU celebrates fifty years of European integration, development and closer union have emerged as the biggest casualties of Saarc’s distinct lack of progress.
In recent years, states have sought to tighten control over borders to stem illegal movement of people and materiel. Strict border controls and poor connectivity has stymied intra-regional trade. According to a Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) March 2007 paper, if traditional trans-border routes are re-opened, the 5272 km distance from Kabul to Yangon via Lahore, Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka and India’s northeast can be covered in about 12 days.
Members have failed to cash in on Indian proposals for direct links between state capitals, with the exception of Sri Lanka, which is now the largest foreign operator in India with over 100 flights per week. High airfares, rigid visa policies and the lack of preferential incentives have meant that regional tourism has suffered. Tourism in Saarc countries accounted for less than 1 per cent of total global tourism with the tiny state of Singapore drawing twice as high a number of tourists than the seven member countries of Saarc put together in 2004, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
Despite poor physical connectivity, an increasingly vibrant and vocal civil society is fostering regional interaction. A 25-point development-centred declaration followed a “People’s Saarc” summit in Kathmandu last month.
But popular and global pressure for meaningful cooperation has languished due to Saarc’s failure to deal with terrorism, feel Saarc watchers. The Delhi Declaration calls for a draft mutual legal assistance treaty to tackle extradition and terrorist financing. Despite provisions included in the Saarc Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and Additional Protocol, counter-terrorism efforts have been hindered by the lack of a common definition of terrorism, even as implementation remains dependent on national laws.
Political violence continues to displace millions, illegal migration is rampant and Saarc’s failure to deal with the resultant humanitarian crisis is glaring. According to the UNHCR, as of June 2006, Pakistan alone had over 1 million refugees in its camps. Amnesty International puts the figure of the conflict-displaced in Sri Lanka at 350, 000. Beset by internal turmoil, four Saarc countries rank below the 10th percentile for political stability in a 2006 World Bank report on governance.
But South Asia stands poised for change, given the political churning and high economic growth across the region. Even though Saarc has repeatedly failed to translate rhetoric into action, the success of the recent summit lies in the optimism it has generated. Says Smruti Pattanaik, Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, “those who say that Saarc has not managed to live up to its potential, forget the fact that in its very potential lies the future.”