Exploring areas of cooperation for SAARC

By: Sahibzada Hussain Mohi-ud-Din Qadri

The intention of transforming the South Asian region into SAARC Customs Union or better still SAARC Economic Union expressed during the last SAARC summit held in New Delhi is no doubt quite formidable, to say the least. Other issues aside, one thing comes home in very stark terms that the South Asian leadership is seized of the idea of pooling together their respective sources, goods and services in creating collective economic body for the benefit of the member countries on the pattern of European Union. There is no dearth of those who would certainly doubt the practicality of such proposition in view of immense structural and political problems SAARC has historically been faced with. In an atmosphere marked by dominance of religious rabble-rousing, half truths and lack of vision to grasp the emerging realities in the global order, conditions may not be that conducive for the realization of this dream.

However, the difficulties involved in the enterprise should serve to further boost the efforts for gathering political will for starting the movement towards the avowed goal. This is, however, not to suggest that real issues among the South Asian countries should be put at the backburner. What this writer aims to propose is the fact that time for rigid and inflexible positions on matters of foreign policy is long past. Every age has its own preferences and compulsions. Therefore when old methods have failed in resolving the issues due to maximalist positions, there is a need to employ more creative and innovative approach to deal with them. The world experience amply proves that the economic cooperation plays an important role in creating 'peace' constituencies, which in turn are helpful in bringing the disparate viewpoints on the negotiating table. That is why the economic integration of South Asia may be instrumental in resolving the age-old issues, for economics and politics are inseparable.

South Asia is the poorest, most illiterate and least gender sensitive region of the world. All countries of the region have very low ranking on the Human Development Index, which speaks volumes of appalling state of vital indicators like education, life expectancy and real income. What really makes the situation further deplorable is the short-sighted vision of the ruling elite of South Asia towards resolution of the regional problems and their failure in taking bold initiatives for South Asian regional cooperation. There are a number of areas where the member countries of SAARC should cooperate with one another for collective benefit.

South Asian countries should make investments in the field of education. At a time when knowledge-driven growth is the order of the day around the world, our educational standards are abysmally low, which do not correspond to the demands of the market. Furthermore, the female education is one of the most neglected areas. No country can progress without capitalizing on the capabilities of its women. But unfortunately South Asia continues to lag behind the rest of the world in empowering its woman folk in making them a useful and productive member of the society. Another aspect of education deficit relates to the child education, which does not figure that prominently on the agenda of the countries of the region. Sound education coupled with targeting of nutritional poverty should be an important ingredient for educational uplift of our peoples.

Energy sector is another very important area where joint cooperation of the South Asian countries is required. Almost all countries of the region are hit very hard by the shortage of energy, which is taking heavy toll on the industrial growth of these countries. In future, this crisis is likely to worsen with incalculable consequences. In view of this, the countries should explore various options for the solution of this problem. Gas pipeline project between India, Iran and Pakistan is a bold initiative and needs to be pursued much more vigorously than is the case at the time. Some experts on South Asian affairs have put up the proposal of interactive energy grid throughout South Asia. The policy makers need to look into this proposal seriously.

Intra-regional trade between South Asian countries is very low as compared with other regional blocs like EU, NAFTA and AFTA. Despite several efforts made in the past, intra-regional trade has not registered any noticeable growth. The future of SAFTA is not very bright as the experience of SAPTA suggests. It is now accepted fact that trade is an important stimulator of economic growth and economic growth is a necessary condition for poverty reduction. Concrete measures need to be adopted for enhancing the trade within the region. It is suggested in this regard that trade barriers are removed to facilitate the flow of trade. India should take bold decisions in this respect.

Development of infrastructure is a necessary condition for boosting the intra-regional trade since sustained investment in infrastructure increases the labour productivity, reduces cost of transportation and production, both farm and non-farm, and promotes rural-urban linkages.

Growth of Information technology has come to play meaningful role in achieving development in any country. It has brought countries together in the form of a global village. India has done well in this sector and should be a role model for other countries, for growth without technological basis will be slow and costly. Water is also very important given its multifold importance and the South Asian countries should also explore possible solutions of this problem for short-term and long-terms needs.

It is also required that practical steps are taken for the harmonization of Customs clearance procedures, quality standards and sanitary and phytosanitary standards. The establishment of banks and other financial institutions across the region can also be a target area. Their business processes and standards should be harmonized.

South Asia has a tremendous potential for growth. What it lacks is the political will and determined leadership who has the courage to take bold and practical decisions for the collective good of its people. A lot of time has already been wasted and the circumstances dictate that we should grow wiser by the day. For failure is a non-option in today's globalized world.

E-mail: hmq@hmqadri.com