Worth the effort

The heads of state or government of the eight SAARC nations on Sunday concluded their

two-day summit with a 41-point Colombo Declaration, in which they reaffirmed their earlier commitments, and made fresh ones. Their declarations have always been long, but most of the pledges have remained unfulfilled, and on core issues, the South Asian peoples are yet to witness visible impact. The summit decided to establish a SAARC Development Bank, an idea, if implemented, could prove to be a significant factor in helping the growth and development of member states. Welcoming the early operationalisation of the SAARC Development Fund (SDF) from the available resources, the top leaders called for early ratification of its charter. In light of global food shortages and soaring prices of food grain in recent months in the region and the world at large, the summit has decided to set up a SAARC Food Bank at the earliest, thus taking forward the earlier efforts at building regional food security. The SAARC leaders have also approved the idea of drawing up a 20-year plan for social and economic development of the region.

As before, the member states have emphasised collective efforts aimed at ombating ‘terrorism’ that has marred much of the region, and bigger members have all become victims of this scourge, including India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. At the

same time, poverty alleviation, which is the key to uplifting the quality of life of the 40 per cent of the world’s poor population, was stressed. Energy crisis, too, received the attention of the regional leaders, who laid stress on the development of environment-friendly power, such as hydro-electricity. They pledged to focus on other common problems, too, besides deciding to undertake a number of smaller projects for common benefit. Other issues that got their attention included regional connectivity, education, trade, SAARC social charter, tourism, and transport, and the making of efforts aimed at boosting cooperation at international forums.

Many of the ideas and sentiment expressed in the 15 SAARC declarations since 1985 may well appear pious in view of the slow progress on the ground. However, SAARC has not been entirely without achievement. Something is better than nothing, and there is hope and expectation that in years to come, the governments of the region will have no better alternative to forging closer regional cooperation. The regular meetings of the officials and political leaders, including at the highest level, should in themselves be considered something desirable and significant. Though the SAARC Charter prohibits the raising of bilateral issues at the regional forum, informal talks between leaders during summits, their comparing of notes and the positive atmosphere the summits tend to encourage are likely to help leaders to reduce tensions and talk cooperation. For instance, on the sidelines of the Colombo summit, Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani, held their first face-to-face talks, agreeing to continue the peace process launched in 2004, despite the heightened tensions between the two countries very recently. Hopes must be pinned on SAARC, however slowly it may have been moving.