M A I N   N E W S

India-Pak trust deficit may again eclipse meet
Will Prime Minister have bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart?
Ashok Tuteja
Tribune News Service

What is SAARC?

The association brings together India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and the Maldives. Others like Mauritius, Iran, the US, EU, South Korea, Japan and China have been accorded observer status while Australia and Myanmar will become observers at the Bhutan summit.

India’s focus

  • Better regional connectivity through new trade
  • Transport and telecommunication links
  • Harmonisation of customs procedures
  • Enhancing people-to-people contacts

Thimphu, April 26
It was hailed as an instrument that would rid the region of illiteracy, poverty and disease when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was launched in 1985 amid much fanfare. As it celebrates its silver jubilee in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu this week, the grouping is still searching for an identity while all other regional blocs — particularly ASEAN and the European Union (EU) —are basking in the glory of their achievements.

Thanks to deeply-rooted animosity, especially between its biggest members India and Pakistan, the grouping — whose strength is now up to eight with the inclusion of Afghanistan —has failed to live up to the expectations despite its potential to bring about a definite change in the lives of the people of South Asia, observers say.

And as the SAARC standing committee of foreign secretaries meets here for the second day today in the run up to the 16th SAARC Summit on April 28-29, the focus has once again shifted on whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have a bilateral meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Reza Gilani on the fringes of the summit.

The trust deficit between India and Pakistan has always eclipsed the multilateral agenda at SAARC Summits, much to the consternation of other members of the regional bloc, and the situation is expected to remain the same even in Bhutan. This time, too, questions being asked in diplomatic and media circles are: Will Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan meet? Will it be a structured meeting or just a photo-op? Will the meeting lead to resumption of the stalled Indo-Pak dialogue?

Observers say it is time to give the regional grouping a facelift. It has the potential to be an important organisation with far-reaching economic and political consequences. The reason is that South Asia as a region has done remarkably well in terms of growth in recent years. The India story is, of course, well known, and has been written about widely, but success stories of Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka have hardly been written. Countries like Nepal and Afghanistan have certainly lagged behind but for well known reasons — the former because of Maoist violence and the later due to the ongoing war.

An analysis of SAARC activities since its inception shows that the grouping has floundered primarily due to lack of strong political will. The low level of integration witnessed so far in the region has been driven by myriad constraints that restrict economic interaction among the South Asian countries. The situation is such that Pakistan refuses to grant the most favoured nation (MFN) status to India and yet talks of its commitment to promoting intra-regional trade.

Observers argue that gains from regional integration can emerge only after these constraints are effectively addressed. Recent global developments and increasing openness of SAARC economies are moving the principal drivers of this process towards a more supportive stance for SAARC and this creates a new window of opportunity.

It is overwhelmingly felt that SAARC could take a cue from ASEAN, which has resisted any attempt at bilateral issues among member-states hijacking the vibrant grouping’s agenda. This has also helped ASEAN in engendering new sets of confidence-building measures (CBMs) with all major powers while retaining the initiative in its own hands.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is learnt to have vetoed the SAARC Natural Disaster Response Mechanism aimed at building a permanent team of rescuers from all eight countries to provide rescue services in case of emergencies or natural catastrophes. Islamabad is believed to have done so because of its reluctance to open its borders to Indian rescue workers.

The eight-nation grouping will focus on climate change and sign pacts on environment and trade in services. Bhutan has chosen climate change as the theme of the summit, which is expected to culminate in a joint declaration entitled “Towards a Green and Happy South Asia”. A separate Ministerial Declaration on Climate Change will also be issued.

The SAARC countries will sign a convention on environment to boost exchange of best practices and knowledge, capacity building and transfer of eco-friendly technology in areas such as climate change, coastal zone management, wildlife conservation and environmental impact assessment studies.

India will focus on improving regional connectivity through the development of new trade, transport and telecommunication links, according to Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. New Delhi will also focus on the setting of common standards and harmonisation of customs procedures; and enhancing people-to-people contacts, particularly among the youth, civil society, cultural personalities, academics and parliamentarians.

“We are confident that the forthcoming SAARC summit will provide ample opportunity for member states to work together to chart a blueprint for regional development over the next few years,” Rao said.





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