Colombo summit: Clearing the air

Despite looking like a ritual from the start, the 15th SAARC summit in Colombo dealt with some very pertinent issues and serious concerns of the SAARC nations. Kudos to Sri Lanka for hosting such a mega-event amidst mounting concerns over dignitaries’ security and dire threat from protracted terrorism. Colombo wore a deserted look as security was beefed up and offices and business establishments were closed throughout the summit. Had Nepal not taken part, the huge fund funneled by the Lankan government would have gone down the drain.

Most discussions at the forum focused on combating terrorism. Since almost all the SAARC countries are reeling under the menace of one or the other type of terrorism which in turn has been a major stumbling block for countries’ sustainable development and regional integration, the SAARC delegates unequivocally ratified the declaration to fight all forms of terrorism. South Asian leaders were firm and willing to cooperate to fight all kinds of terrorist threats as everyone realised that terrorism in the region could only be reduced if regional partners co-operate and collaborate with each other.

That SAARC region has seen tardy implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and other regional affairs owing to issues related to terrorism between neighboring states. Mutual cooperation is the best way to manage the crisis. Had there been no terrorist activities in the region, SAARC would already have achieved a great deal lot in the field of regional cooperation.

Another milestone of the summit was setting up of SAARC Development Fund in order to grapple with a series of development retarding issues and concerns. The Fund’s priority is to channel resources in the realms of infrastructure and institutional establishment for meeting common concerns. As the Fund is a permanent mechanism of resource enhancement, a new Secretariat will be established in Bhutan within this year. Amidst the ongoing SAARC session, Bhutan and Pakistan showed interest in keeping the permanent secretariat in their respective countries.

Bhutan had also requested Nepal to support their move. At the last leg of the retreat, this proposal got endorsed unanimously and the deck has been cleared for the establishment of this office in Thimpu. The modalities for operating this fund will be finalised later through consensus. Initially, the fund size will be $300 million; Nepal has to contribute $30 millions in five years from the commencement of its operation.

Food and fuel crises were other areas of concern in the summit. All the sides were serious about finding alternate means to meet daily needs of the people of this region. However, unanimity was reached for harnessing available resources: primarily solar and water. The imminent SDF, in the days ahead, is likely to look seriously on this front so that colossal energy crunch could be reduced.

The Fund will certainly be directed towards these types of projects of common concern. Skill-oriented training at micro level is another area where this fund could help alleviate poverty in the region. Another priority would be enhancing connectivity of people in the region for cementing people to people cooperation through land, sea and air.

Baral is PM’s Foreign Relations Advisor