When the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was set up in 1985, critics said it was way ahead of its time. Now, they say it has outlived its usefulness. But blaming SAARC is like blaming the UN: the organisation can only move as fast as its slowest member. SAARC is by definition the lowest common denominator of one of the least developed parts of the world.
South Asian countries have shown, as the Europeans have realised now, that all politics is local. You can cooperate on tuberculosis, postal services and sports, but South Asia, which has twice as many poor people as in sub-Saharan Africa, just can't seem to lift the living standards of its 1.4 billion people. Regional cooperation is even more intractable if it is about free trade, security cooperation and political multilateralism.
Part of the reason the Track One train derailed long ago is because of the gravitational pull of its largest member. India borders all SAARC members (except Afghanistan now), which themselves are not contiguous. As long as New Delhi would rather deal individually with its neighbours, SAARC ain't going nowhere.
Which is why Bangladesh is now looking east and is more excited about BIMSTEC. Pakistan is preoccupied with restoring its strategic depth. Sri Lanka and Maldives behave as if it just an accident of continental drift that located them offshore of India.
SAARC is such a lethargic beast that its inertia has even infected Track 2 initiatives usually populated by retired South Asian bureaucrats. As one wag put it recently at a South Asian conference: "Track 2 is full of Track 1 wannabes." So perhaps we can already look beyond Track 2.
Track 3 encompasses South Asian artists, activists, film-makers and writers who have joined hands across a region that was once one, before the boundaries of nation states cleaved us into many. A good example is the Travelling Film South Asia documentary festival that begins at the Yala Maya Kendra on Friday. Or the Aman-Asha collaboration between Indian and Pakistani newspapers.
Then there are the global South Asians we can call Track 4: Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis or Nepalis living in Canada, UK, US or Australia. They are lumped together whether they like it or not, and now mingle, interact and are building a common identity. The Gulf and the Malay peninsula, too, are now part of a Greater South Asia.
And what of Track 5: the cross-border osmosis of traders, farmers, brides and grooms (and even terrorists) that infiltrate across barbed wire and land mines? The India-Nepal border is perhaps the ideal international frontier: all borders should be as open, allowing people and goods unfettered movement. We know that the more regulations we put into border controls the more our law enforcement and immigration officials get a chance to harass and extort our own people.
Track 6: of the South Asian institutes in universities around the world where researchers and academics know more aboiut us than we do.
Borders shackle our minds and bind us to puerile patriotism, forcing a piecemeal approach when our problems and our solutions are transboudnary.