Finally, the 13th SAARC summit is now a few days away. “Finally” because the summit had twice been postponed, and now it is set for November 12-13 in Dhaka.

Whatever uncertainty had existed earlier, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes that struck Pakistan and India, has disappeared. The series of bomb blasts in New Delhi have not cast any shadow on the meet since such happenings have unfortunately or incidentally become common in most South Asian countries. The SAARC leaders are expected to discuss issues pertaining to strengthening the seven-nation regional forum in the third decade of its existence.

The summits have often been a victim of regional political crisis. The problems have mostly stemmed from hostilities between the region’s two key players — India and Pakistan. This is undesirable. The road of SAARC has not been smooth. This condition has existed for the past 20 years because none of the member nations felt it relevant given SAARC’s slow pace of progress. Still, it is continuing with modest achievements despite problems. In the meantime, it is also gaining greater acceptance from various quarters. The UN General Assembly a few months ago accepted this regional forum as an observer.

Clearly, the forum is handicapped by certain problems like resource constraint and political differences. Nevertheless, the emergence of the forum is undoubtedly a great leap forward in a region where such an organisation was unthinkable more than two decades ago. The charter provides for a summit once in a year. Commonwealth leaders meet once in two years, non-aligned and Islamic countries once in three years. All these groups have big number of members who come from different continents, whereas SAARC members are neighbours. Hence the decision for annual conference of the leaders was rational. Sadly, this vision did not work, as annual summit remains a problem even though it was the forum’s basic intention.

Arguably, the SAARC secretariat in Kathmandu functions effectively and meetings at other levels are useful, but consultations by the leaders are imperative for the organisation’s development, which is afflicted by manifold problems mainly stemming from political differences. After all, it is the summit that effectively helps clear the hindrances that scuttle the expected growth of the forum. The summits should not be subjected to delay as failure to hold the event in time spawns mistrust and doubts about the effectiveness of the forum. Contacts among the leaders have a sobering effect as evidenced by the current phase of reconciliation between India and Pakistan that began with the meeting of their leaders on the sidelines of the 12th summit in Islamabad.

SAARC summits must not be held hostage by big nations’ rivalry in the area or bilateral political differences. The upcoming summit must stress the meet’s regularity at the highest level. True, some members may not be very enthusiastic about this and may cite “inherent problems” as bottlenecks. Still, this negative aspect needs to be overcome in the greater interest of the region. Otherwise, SAARC cannot deliver the goods.

Chowdhury, foreign editor of Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), writes for THT from Dhaka