Room for a view

The 15th SAARC summit, scheduled for August 2-3 in Colombo, will focus on economic issues, including regional trade promotion, and fight against terrorism. In its 23-year history, SAARC has skipped eight annual summits. This points to problems in SAARC, but, in a region fraught with conflicts and bitter rivalries, particularly between India and Pakistan, the two largest and most powerful nuclear-armed member states, this record is not entirely disappointing, either. The responsibility of organising the current eight-nation summit has fallen on Sri Lanka after the Maldives expressed its inability to hold it for various reasons. Admittedly, in core areas, the regional body has not progressed so much in over two decades as to make the impact visible in the lives of the South Asians, who account for some one-fifth of the global population. However, in several ‘soft’ areas, there have been certain gains, though one feels there is a lot to be desired.

The summit is expected to take up economic and developmental issues, such as SAARC regional multimodal transport study, operationalisation of SAARC development fund, implementation of SAFTA, trade facilitation agreements/measures, poverty alleviation, food crisis and energy. It may also identify new areas for cooperation. But the member countries have been extremely slow or at times even unable to put into practice what they have decided to do. Take the case of SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Area), which agreement was reached at the 12th summit in Islamabad (January 2004) but which came into effect on January 1, 2006. This free trade agreement means reduction or removal of tariffs on designated imports by member countries. However, Nepal, for instance, has not been able to do trade yet under SAFTA in these two and a half years. Despite years of hype, intra-regional trade comes to less than the region’s total foreign trade, an eloquent testimony to the lack of serious and sincere efforts in this area.

Though a number of factors may explain the slow pace of regional cooperation, it is widely thought to be due mainly to Indo-Pakistani enmity. SAFTA is no exception. The full implementation of SAFTA alone could convey a sense of something achieved. There are many other issues the regional body has taken up, committing itself to taking them to their logical conclusion. Perhaps, their attention, given their not-so-high level of actual commitment, may have been scattered on too many things. This might make one wonder whether it would not be wiser to focus on a limited number of major targets and hit them perfectly. These apart, the imminent Colombo summit may leave some inadequacy showing up on account of the kind of Nepal’s participation. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, accountable to the erstwhile parliament, has had his resignation already accepted by the newly elected President. How much political legitimacy and authority the representation of Nepal by a Prime Minister in a purely caretaker capacity carries is a serious matter that needs to be properly sorted out — and also, what will be the status of the accords and declarations Koirala will sign on behalf of the Government of Nepal?