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OP-ED: Why South Asia can’t work together

  • Published at 07:51 pm July 14th, 2020

Should we write off Saarc as a failure just yet?

Several research studies about South Asia have led to various estimates about the potential growth in the region. Much of these suggested numbers have been surpassed when it comes to the growth story of individual states, but remains unrealized vis-à-vis the regional growth and the intra-trade within South Asia. 

South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) was essentially meant to facilitate a free trade agreement to capture the unrealized economic potential. This, unfortunately, for a variety of factors, never materialized. The political differences between India and Pakistan have often been cited as a reason for the dormant state of Saarc, but be that as it may, even the sub-regional attempts within the region remain a work in progress. 

For any regional organization to function at optimal levels in South Asia, there are several challenges. The idea of competition has been entrenched in individual mental maps and state behaviour has followed similar lines. Cooperative behaviour has been a post-facto attempt for overcoming political dissonance. Nation-states have collaborated when they have seen merit in working together, unable to pursue their goals individually. 

History is replete with such examples, and South Asia is not isolated from that phenomenon. To move away from this inherent competitive behaviour to collaborative endeavours presupposes the existence of a level playing field, which a cursory glance in South Asia suggests that it does not exist. 

In South Asia, the smaller states each have recorded remarkable improvements in economic growth and human development indices through various implementable measures, but the South Asian states are yet to feel the collaborative dividends of working together. 

Second, given the nature of the member states and them being poised at various levels of growth and development, patterns, and political systems, it is virtually impossible to follow any common policy beneficial for all. While public health programs, food banks, environmental degradation, and issues of disaster management are common concerns for all members states, the trade and economic policies would be far more effective through smaller clusters, rather than a one-for-all approach. 

Thus, the sub-regional initiatives have been a part of the Saarc charter. But here, also, the lack of progress is evident. The Motor Vehicle Agreement amongst India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan (BBIN) was signed in Thimpu in 2015, and apart from a few trial runs, the process has been delayed inordinately. 

The latest delay surrounds the redrawing of an agreement that enables Bhutan to join in the seamless road connectivity plan at a later stage. While Bhutan dilly-dallying to join the four-member agreement has been made the scapegoat for the operational delay, it clearly points to the fact that the region is not ready for this. 

The governments continue to push, but such projects see success when the non-government stakeholders and businesses discover the interplay of market dynamism beyond the projected reports. 

Third, India is seen as the driving force in the regional initiatives that seems contrary to many other regionalism experiences. The smaller states need to see dividends in the process, and while India and Bangladesh share political convergence and also over cross- border connectivity, and others states have in the past requested India for providing unhindered transit facilities given its geographical positioning, the benefits of BBIN seem iffy as yet for the smaller states. 

Fourth, there is the Indian preoccupation with other regional initiatives where other Saarc members have been included, namely, BIMSTEC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association. With these preoccupations, India has sent mixed signals to the South Asian neighbours. 

While they expect India as the larger state in the region to push the organization, they also question its future given India’s half-hearted commitments. Undoubtedly, Saarc is the core organization for all the South Asian states, but the lack of clarity about its future seems to have held back the states and the region too. 

Fifth, the lack of speed within the bureaucratic structures is phenomenal in South Asia. There are always several reasons for the lack of progress, but the delayed implementations of most projects undertaken in the region remains the unfortunate reality. There are some bilateral exceptions like the Indo-Nepal gas line or a few more, but they remain as the exception, not the rule. 

The heavy dependence on governmental support has stymied the progress largely. Sixth, it was assumed that the Covid-19 experience would have enabled a reset in the way the states do their business, but evidently, the member states are yet to see outcomes in regional collaboration growth, and recent political dissonance in the region has not been a particularly welcome development. 

For Saarc to bring about meaningful cooperation and for South Asia to work together, India needs to woo each of them individually through sustained bilateral efforts spanning across all levels. The bilateral ties have to grow beyond the chemistry between political leadership into a more comprehensive state to state engagement. 

While other powers may find success through checkbook diplomacy, India’s geopolitical position is important for all the neighbours. The problem is, the neighbours believe that India does not see or view them as important enough. 

Notwithstanding the initial success of the “Neighbourhood First,” the neighbours do not see India as committed to working closely with the neighbourhood. Changing this perception would be a precursor to making Saarc vibrant and meaningful. 

Sreeradha Datta is the Centre Head, Neighbourhood Studies, and Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation. Email: [email protected]

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