Monday, April 23, 2007

Getting connected at the SAARC Summit

Among the ceremonial events that marked the opening of the 14th SAARC Summit in Delhi early April, was the flagging-off of a car rally. Beginning two weeks earlier in Bangladesh, the rally had briefly halted in Delhi en route to covering all the member countries (then seven) of the regional grouping, in the space of a month. It was a rather literal-minded effort to underline the Summit’s ostensible theme of ‘connectivity’. But even as the cars went their way, proudly emblazoned with the emblems of generous Indian corporate sponsors, nine forlorn youths from Maharashtra were making their way back from the Wagah border. They had cycled 2000 kilometres over a few weeks, in the expectation of visiting Lahore on a peace-and-goodwill mission – only to have their visa applications rejected at the last moment.

Is ‘connectivity’ about a coming together of the people of Southasia? Or is it merely a means of creating greater opportunities for Indian business? Certainly, as the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, addressed his summit partners shortly after assuming the SAARC chair from Bangladesh, he seemed to be advocating connectivity in its widest possible sense – a confluence not merely of “physical, economic” attributes, but also “of the mind”. Southasia as a region, he said, has traditionally only flourished when it has been connected within itself and to the rest of the world.

Prime Minister Singh was reprising a much-favoured theme: the endeavour of making borders irrelevant, and giving the people of the region the wherewithal to move freely across the vast populated expanses of Southasia, searching out and utilising every opportunity available for both their own betterment and the larger social good. This is undoubtedly a noble vision, yet it overlooks a significant point. As the cyclists from Maharashtra found, they probably do not enjoy the same privileges of cross-border mobility as the owner of a car. While connectivity within Southasia could become a right theoretically enjoyed by all, it may practically remain the preserve of a mere handful.

To give him due credit, what the Indian prime minister envisages is a situation in which the freedom to travel becomes a reality for a broad cross-section of the people of Southasia. And thus, he promised that India would soon announce a unilateral liberalisation of visa rules and procedures for students, academics, journalists, as well as individuals traveling for medical treatment. India would also provide duty-free and quota-free access for imports from SAARC member countries that happen to be classified among the “least developed” – excluding Pakistan from the party. The sensitive list of commodities, where the new rules would not apply, would, the prime minister assured, be pared down and soon made public. No time frame was specified for these decisions being made and operationalised, though the history of SAARC as a regional grouping is strewn with promises made in the effulgence of a summit, only to be forgotten just as rapidly.

It was little surprise that the assembled dignitaries were underwhelmed by Prime Minister Singh’s announcement. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Muchkund Dubey has commented, trade liberalisation in Southasia has been “flawed” from the start – and this has been a conscious “political choice” on all sides. A key aspect of all such agreements is the ‘negative list’, which specifies the product lines where free trade does not apply. As yet, no Southasian country, least of all the region’s largest, has shown the generosity or courage to prune this list to a meaningful level. In the inchoately formed and contentiously interpreted South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), India’s negative list is four times larger than the most recent offer it has made to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Regional tokenism
When it is not of purely symbolic value, the fact is that ‘duty free’ access could also be a means of increasing opportunities for Indian business. India’s free trade agreement (FTA) with Sri Lanka, which came into effect in 2000, has been an umbrella under which shrewd businessmen have managed to arbitrage customs-duty differentials on third-country imports. Sri Lanka, for instance, allows duty-free imports of copper scrap and Indian businessmen have been sharp enough to spot the opportunities this affords for investing in copper smelters in Sri Lanka, for re-export to India. A similar process has been underway in the vegetable-oils market. Value addition in Sri Lanka from these exports, which account for the bulk of its trade with India, is minimal. The principal upshot has been that a few Indian businessmen have managed to enrich themselves. How Sri Lankan business groups have fared in the same sectors, remains a matter that is yet to be documented.

On the other hand, India could be using the promise of duty-free access for the region’s least-developed member countries as a means of leveraging greater trade openings within Southasia, with an eye towards emerging as a major investor in regional light industry, transport and telecom. This is likely to encounter competition from China, which perhaps could underline its own investment ambitions with a greater infusion of funds. Moreover, as long as the smaller countries in Southasia remain locked in a low-level equilibrium of poverty and slow growth, the opportunities for such investments are not likely to be particularly large in the near future.

As home to the largest concentration of the world’s poor, Southasia needs to reconsider how well the process of trade liberalisation truly aids in increasing social welfare. There is at least an equal risk that liberalisation within the region could become a zero-sum game, with each country trying to out-compete the other in lowering wage levels– in other words, in using poverty as a source of competitive advantage. Trade liberalisation has all too often been seen exclusively in terms of a charter of rights for business. What Southasia needs in order to escape from its grinding poverty is a social charter, one that will secure at least the barest entitlements to subsistence for its people.

Of all the pronouncements made in the Summit’s Delhi Declaration of 4 April, two may have a direct bearing on mass welfare. First is the SAARC Development Fund, which has now been ordered operationalised in full conformity with the charter of the association. Second is the SAARC Food Bank, which is intended to “supplement national efforts to provide food security to the people of the region”. Scepticism would not be out of place with regard to either of these endeavours, especially since India’s management of its food economy over the past decade and a half of globalisation has been little short of chaotic. In short order, the depleted warehouses of the early 1990s were swamped with an over-abundance of food, which was subsequently disposed of by exporting at prices lower than those reserved for India’s poor. Since the severe drought of 2002, the pace of stock depletion has accelerated, and the last two years have seen grain imports of unprecedented magnitude.

When the efforts of national governments have been so disastrously askew, there seems little reason to believe that trans-national efforts at cooperation will fare much better. Anybody viewing the financial allocations that have been made would be justified in concluding that these programmes are but the barest tokenism. They would serve little purpose other than sustaining the somnolent SAARC bureaucracy through another year. Of course, if a much needed fillip is also imparted to the various track-two efforts that have rather ineffectively sought to energise ‘regionalism’ thus far, that would be an outcome to celebrate, even if it is unintended.

A regional institution
This does not mean that the Delhi Summit was a complete fiasco. As Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, it was the smoothest and least contentious such gathering in many years. This despite SAARC’s new member, Afghanistan, having provided a rather colourful prelude, in President Hamid Karzai’s trenchant attack on Pakistan just before his arrival in Delhi. In remarks to The New York Times, published to much consternation just when the committee of SAARC foreign ministers was in session, President Karzai accused Pakistan of harbouring a “colonial” mentality, and being intent on transforming Afghanistan into a satellite state.

Landing in Delhi, President Karzai would have undoubtedly been comforted by the thought that most of the member countries in SAARC were undergoing transitions, though with varying degrees of tension and trauma. Indeed, aside perhaps, from Bhutan and the Maldives (the two smallest members) and India (which is too big to feel the pain of its million mutinies too acutely), every other SAARC member state might witness a change in the character of its ruling arrangement before the next summit. This raises some interesting questions about just how far the decisions made in Delhi will stand the test of changing times.

Yet for all the cynicism that customarily shrouds the SAARC organisation, there was at least one decision made during the Summit that was welcomed across a broad spectrum. If all goes according to plan, a Southasian University could soon be a part of the academic landscape of the region. Its central campus would be in India, with satellites and perhaps entire faculties being located in other countries. An intergovernmental steering committee has now been tasked with drawing up the charter of the university.

Considering the record of earlier initiatives in the realm of education (for instance, the little-known SAARC fellowships programme), there is reason to believe that things may not indeed pan out quite as well as the more optimistic observers believe. Presumably, with the Southasian University’s location having been broadly settled, any residual uncertainties on this count would be an internal matter of India’s. There are believed to be two contending opinions within the Indian government, the first of which seeks to convert an existing campus – such as the Viswabharati at Shantiniketan, West Bengal – into a Southasian institution; while the second favours an entirely new establishment, based in all probability in Delhi. Quite apart from these decisions, there is immense potential for discord between the member nations when the charter of the new centre of learning is drawn up.

With the extravagance of hope continually bumping up against the recognition of reality, some scholars believe that the best course for the new university to follow would be to go to the heart of the most contentious subjects that divide the Subcontinent: history, comparative religion, contemporary politics, international affairs and the like. Southasia is a region divided as much by conflicting readings of history as by competing ambitions of national elites. And for reasons of history and sheer geopolitical clout, India has assumed for itself the mantle of representing the civilisational ethos of the region, in a manner that neighbouring states find insensitive, if not hegemonic.

The groves of academia may well afford a congenial environment in which an alternative vision could be constructed – one that provides room for all Southasians to participate, and respects their particularities. Though optimism is at a premium after the indifferent performance of SAARC over the first 22 years of its existence, there is still room presumably, for the occasional extravagance of the imagination.

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