21-27 November 2014 #733

SAARC’S raison d’être

If the South Asian Summit helps us to finally start thinking regionally and acting locally, it will be a start

Twelve years ago, the SAARC Summit was finally held in Kathmandu after being postponed twice because of India-Pakistan tensions. The regional summit has a history of being held hostage by the persisting cold war between its two largest nuclear-armed members. The most newsworthy event in January 2002 in Kathmandu, in fact, was the perfunctory handshake between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Gen Pervez Musharraf.

A dozen years later, not much has changed. There has been deadly shelling over the Line of Control in Kashmir, and there was some worry that the Pakistanis would pull out at the last moment, or that Afghan leadership uncertainties would force a postponement. Barring late hitches, however, SAARC 2014 is on.

As international summits go, this will not make world headlines like the recent APEC, ASEAN or G20 Summits in Beijing, Naypyidaw and Brisbane. SAARC, after all, is a grouping of countries that numerically has the largest number of the world’s poorest and hungriest people. The sub-continent and the sub-Sahara are not much different in terms of average life-expectancy, rate of open defecation, child malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality. Despite progress in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, the sheer population size of India and Pakistan drags down the regional average. There are still parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains where more than half the children go to bed hungry every night.

Yet, these two countries are at each other's throats, spending precious resources on arming themselves when they should be allocating them for education and health of their people. For the past decade, India has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest annual importer of conventional arms. Pakistan lavishes $6 billion a year on its military.

The level of human development of South Asia, its economic status, and the well-being of its citizens, influence how seriously it is taken by the international community.  Inequality, deprivation and exclusion have a direct bearing on internal security of our countries. Popular insurrections, communal riots, insurgencies are fuelled by disenchantment and disillusionment of the youth.

Underdevelopment, therefore, is a national security issue for South Asia. Inequality and social injustice have implications for stability and geo-strategic status of each of our countries.

Let’s redefine the term ‘security’. It now has to go beyond ‘military security’ to include ‘human security’. A nation is secure if it is free from hunger, disease, homelessness and unemployment – not from perceived external enemies.

You can be sure these matters will not be discussed at the Kathmandu Summit next week. There will be platitudes about poverty, of course, and lofty rhetoric as there has been for the past three decades of SAARC’s existence. So, let’s not be too ambitious.

What will drive regional growth will still be bilateral economic ties. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made improvement of relations with neighbours a priority. That he took the trouble to invite leaders of South Asian countries to New Delhi for his inauguration went beyond symbolism, it indicated a shift in the paradigm of regional relations. For too long, Indian foreign policy towards the region has been driven by paranoia over encirclement, and a siege mentality stemming from none of its neighbours bordering each other but all of them sharing borders with India. Modi is trying to turn geography to India’s advantage, and make his country's vast market available to neighbours in a refreshing, new push for co-prosperity and stability.

SAARC can, therefore, focus on do-able things like loosening border controls, visa-free travel, promoting meaningful regional free trade, improving transportation and tele-connectivity, building a regional power grid, sharing rivers, flood control and weather early warning data. Few SAARC capitals are connected by air. If air connections are bad, you should try rail, road or sea links. Actually, you can’t. There aren’t any. Even Modi had to cancel his overland trip to Nepal.

There is really no sense in blaming the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu for not doing much. SAARC is the lowest common denominator of our red-tape, lack of transparency, and a debilitating cynicism about our own ability to work together. If the Summit helps us to finally think regionally and acting locally, it will be a start.

Read also:

Pride and prejudice at SAARC, Kanak Mani Dixit

Modi plays it safe, Damakant Jayshi

Reimagining South Asia, Anurag Acharya

SAARC Timeline, Ayesha Shakya

The second coming, Editorial

Land-locked to land-linked, David Seddon

Modi doubles down on the neighbourhood, Alyssa Ayres

Just being SAARCASTIC, Ass

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