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Something to `feel good' about?

While the truth is that progress in the SAARC is directly proportional to the state of relations between India and Pakistan, the seven member-countries cannot ignore the aspirations of their people, says AMIT BARUAH, in a commentary on the Islamabad summit.

REUTERS

No boundaries ... the stakes of the people are high in the SAARC vision.

TWELVE summits and 18 years on, will the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) finally shed its status of a talk shop and deal with the real issues of economic cooperation in the region?

Born in suspicion and bred in tension, the SAARC has always held out promise, but failed to deliver on the all-crucial issue of free and greater trade between the countries of the region. Is the Islamabad summit (January 4-6) in which its members agreed to the formation of a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), with effect from January 1, 2006, going to change all that?

For once, the chief hurdles to greater economic cooperation in South Asia, India and Pakistan, stood together in proclaiming that the SAFTA accord was "historic" and had the potential of transforming the region.

Pakistan, which had shown little appetite in the past to address trade issues with India, seemed to be a transformed nation at the Islamabad summit. It did not, for instance, stress that a solution to the Kashmir issue was a must before SAFTA could become a reality.

In fact, India had made its dissatisfaction known many a time on Pakistan's approach to the (now abandoned) South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) rounds. India had pointed out that while Pakistan was offering items for trade under the SAPTA, many of these were on the negative list of trade with India.

Thankfully, all that is behind the SAARC and the seven member-countries now have a negotiating framework for a free trade area before them. Of course, the SAFTA framework treaty, it needs to be pointed out, is just the starting point for a series of difficult and complex negotiations.

As came out graphically before the Islamabad summit, Bangladesh has its own concerns as a least-developed country and wanted that India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka show greater flexibility in opening up their markets under SAFTA.

In a concession to these least-developed countries, India and Pakistan agreed that they would reduce their tariffs to between zero and five per cent beginning January 1, 2006. This single act finally made the finalisation of the deal on the SAFTA framework possible.

While the new talk of economic cooperation is a welcome change for South Asia, the fact is that even the new nations of Europe, created by ethnic turmoil, are moving ahead in the direction of economic union at a much faster pace than in this part of the world.

Though it may be fashionable to talk in terms of emulating the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU), keeping the lid on tensions between India and Pakistan is the only way in which the SAARC has a fighting chance to move forward.

Interestingly, there are some "additional measures" that the SAARC member States have agreed to consider. These include the removal of barriers to intra-SAARC investments and transit facilities for efficient intra-SAARC trade.

If India-Pakistan relations move on track, then both countries can use these "additional measures" to allow a gas pipeline overland from Pakistan into India. In fact, the flow of Iranian gas through Pakistan into India would come as a visible and demonstrable benefit to the whole region.

Highly-placed official and diplomatic sources have indicated to this correspondent that a decision on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline is likely to be made after the general elections in India. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress(I) appear to favour the project in principle.

Other than trade, the issue of terrorism figured prominently at Islamabad, with leaders agreeing to an additional protocol to the existing SAARC regional convention on the suppression of terrorism.

Steering clear of contentious issues like a definition of terrorism, the additional protocol stressed the need to tackle the issue of funds that finance terrorist activity in the region. It also spoke of the SAARC leaders' commitment to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, which calls for resolute action on the part of governments against terrorism.

Separately, in their Islamabad declaration, the SAARC leaders said: "We condemn terrorist violence in all its forms and manifestations and note that people of South Asia continue to face a serious threat from terrorism.

"We are convinced that terrorism, in all its forms and manifestations, is a challenge to all States and to all of humanity, and cannot be justified on any ground, whatsoever. Terrorism violates the fundamental values of the United Nations and the SAARC Charter and constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. We agree to fully implement the relevant international conventions to which we are parties," it said.

On the issue of poverty alleviation, the Islamabad declaration described it as "the greatest challenge" facing the people of South Asia. In his speech to the summit, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, announced a contribution of $100 million to a proposed "poverty alleviation fund". This money, he said, would be used entirely for projects within the SAARC, but outside India.

"We recognise poverty alleviation as the greatest challenge facing the peoples of South Asia and declare poverty alleviation as the overarching goal of all SAARC activities. It is imperative to relate regional cooperation to the actual needs of the people," the declaration stated.

While there have been "poverty commissions" under the SAARC umbrella before, it remains to be seen whether the region as a whole is serious about addressing the basic issues of hunger and poverty. If the SAARC is to have real meaning, anti-poverty measures coupled with the provision of water, housing, health and education remain a priority for a majority of governments in South Asia.

Consider these (World Bank) figures: 45 per cent of South Asia's 1.4 billion people live below the international poverty line of $1 a day, comprising 40 per cent of the world's total poor. The region has the world's highest illiteracy rate of 45 per cent.

Finally, the Islamabad declaration also referred to the vision for the region: "We envision South Asia to be a peaceful and stable region where each nation is at peace with itself and its neighbours and where conflicts, differences and disputes are addressed through peaceful means and dialogue."

That may be a tall order to achieve given the fact that Indo-Pakistan differences have even prevented summit meetings from taking place, but is, clearly, an objective worth pursuing.

The SAARC-5 (Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh) has been the victim of the SAARC-2 (India and Pakistan) in not being able to work together. Today, the situation has been transformed by the dramatic visit of Mr. Vajpayee to Islamabad and his meetings with top Pakistani leaders.

As demonstrated by the meetings in Islamabad, progress in the SAARC is directly proportional to progress in resolving differences between India and Pakistan. Other SAARC members may not like the current state of affairs, but clearly there is little they can do about it.

The stakes of the people of South Asia in this vision are high. They want a better future. They want their children to go to school, hold jobs and improve the overall quality of life. This is a story which all SAARC leaders, collectively and individually, are aware of.

Conferences and summits generate fine sentiments, but the time has come to deliver - deliver on peace and progress. The people of South Asia can do with nothing less.

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