Kathmandu, November 16

The stalling of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has doubly highlighted the importance of Track II initiatives like the South Asia Economic Summit, according to Swarnim Wagle, vice chairman of the National Planning Commission.

Track II initiative is popular in diplomacy, which is carried out by non-state actors to keep alive relations among countries and create an environment where the governments can sit for talks.

Addressing the concluding ceremony of the 10th South Asia Economic Summit (SAES X), Wagle stressed on the need to take the initiative to set up a permanent secretariat to institutionalise the region-wide deliberations on regional issues.

During one of the plenary sessions, Rehman Sobhan, chairman of Centre for Policy Dialogue Bangladesh, said the move away from SAARC is not an altogether new phenomenon, and at such times, civil society needs to be particularly proactive to keep the idea of South Asia alive.

Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of Sustainable Development Policy Institute Pakistan, said if South Asia could still move ahead despite Pakistan’s lack of readiness in Motor Vehicle Agreement, it would demonstrate that complementarities do attract initiatives for cooperation.

Also speaking in the plenary session, Nagesh Kumar, director of Social Development Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), said that sibling rivalries are a fact of life among neighbours that holds back cooperation. But, he said, there will also be sudden upsurges in complementarities to push cooperation forward.

Similarly, Dushni Weerakoon, executive director of Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, said earlier that each country in the region was undergoing its own travails at the moment, which has stalled the regional cooperation process for the time being.

Posh Raj Pandey, executive chairman of South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment, highlighted the need to focus on trade in services with the sector’s increasing growth and contribution to the economies of the region, including at the firm level that helps the small entrepreneurs and the overall economy. He pointed out that the implementation modality of SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS) needed to be sorted out and SATIS be implemented without any further delay.

Former minister for water resources, Deepak Gyawali, during his presentation in an expert session on energy cooperation, said that most of the complexities in cooperation in the hydropower sector arise from failure to recognise the multipurpose nature of hydropower projects and going after them only as clean energy projects. He cited the example of farmers getting a free ride on irrigation water while energy users foot the bill.

Panelists discussed the shortcomings of regionalism and ways to overcome them in different sessions today. Some saw sub-regionalism undermining South Asian regionalism while others saw the trend strengthening countries’ willingness to benefit from new complementarities that was unavailable previously.

China came up frequently in addresses of speakers of the different sessions. They said that because of China’s centrality in economic relations of every SAARC member, it too should be given space in collective sub-regional forums that already exist or are to be formed in the future. The discussants also explored the possibilities of tapping the observers as dialogue partners while discussing the tremendous challenges associated with their deeper engagement.

The South Asia Economic Summit was launched in 2008 as a platform to discuss and analyse development challenges facing South Asia. The annual event brings together regional experts from various fields from across the South Asian region. South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment, Nepal; Centre for Policy Dialogue, Bangladesh; Research and Information System for Developing Countries, India; Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan; and Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka take turns to organise the annual event in one of the SAARC countries.