Friday, April 27, 2007

Supreme Court Blocks Mandal II: An opportunity, not a threat

The Supreme Court on March 29, imposed an interim stay on the application of the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admissions) Act of 2006, throwing well-advanced admission procedures in these institutions into considerable disarray. In introducing legislation for reservation of seats for “socially and educationally backward classes”, the court held that the Government had been inattentive to material realities.

It is a curiosity of India’s policy on reservations, that its legislative foundations are rather thin. Mandal II, or the move to reserve seats in higher educational institutions run by the Central Government, was indeed the first occasion that a law was enacted, rather than the customary “Government Order” on reservations. That this first attempt by Parliament has encountered a judicial roadblock, is a bitter blow to the political establishment in Delhi. Coming in a sequence of several other such rulings by the court, this has led to much resentful murmurs about the judiciary as an institution becoming an impediment to social justice.

Yet with all the argumentation that has been produced in making the case for reservations, there has been little attention devoted to its actual track-record as an element of social policy. Indeed, as a well known media commentator recently observed, for all the importance of reservations in India, the best work on the efficacy of this manner of undoing the disadvantages of history, have come from scholars overseas. In India, reservations are simply not a matter where cool logic and rational argument can be applied.

If for a moment though, the passions and partisanship were to be kept aside, certain key findings on reservations would seem relevant. It has been found, as it would be intuitively obvious, that students benefiting from reservations generally under-perform in relation to those who gain their admission through the “open category”. Their rates of graduation also tend to be lower. On this account, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they would probably perform less well than the open category candidates who risk being displaced by the reserved quotas. Outside the university setting though, once the candidates have graduated and entered the workforce, there is no reason to believe that their performance is any less efficient or useful to society. Reservations in other words, contribute to the democratisation of decision making in society. They also engender significant benefits in sectors where people-orientation is necessary, since the individuals performing these tasks are likely to be more understanding and empathetic towards the disadvantaged.

It has also been found that over time, there has been a convergence in the qualifying requirements: the gap at entry level between the beneficiaries of reservations and the open category candidates has been narrowing over time. But there is little to suggest that the beneficiaries are being drawn from a broad-based section of the target groups. In fact, the better off among the backward classes have gained and continue to gain disproportionately from reservations.

If these fairly well established findings were to be factored in, a number of fine adjustments would suggest themselves in policy. Unfortunately, none of these issues seems to have come up for discussion in either the legislative or the judicial forums. The basis on which the Supreme Court issued its interim order was the numerical imprecision of the Central Government’s estimate that the “other backward classes” number 52 percent of India’s population.

The court relied upon a recent survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), which estimated that OBCs number 41 percent of the population. It did not go into the nuances of this issue, since the NSSO used a rather different methodology of estimation, merely asking the respondent whether or not he belonged to a backward class. The 52 percent estimate in contrast, is based on an official list maintained by the Central Government and extrapolations of population growth from the 1931 census, the last occasion when castes were enumerated.

The material point uncovered by the NSSO survey has been lost in this quibble. The OBCs, whatever their number, still continue to suffer enormous social disadvantages, registering numbers well below the average on virtually all welfare indicators.

Despite these realities, a feeling still persists that the process of identification of backward classes suffers certain serious infirmities. This is a conceptual vacuum in which varieties of high-voltage pressure politics have flourished. Since the Mandal Commission report became part of official policy in 1993, backwardness has become an appellation that various social groups have been willing to fight for. A case in point would be the Jats of Rajasthan, who despite winning on average 40 percent of all seats in state-wide elections, began agitating for the tag of backwardness in 1999. Ashok Gehlot, then the chief minister of the state and himself a member of a notified backward community, had little time for this demand and paid the price, with the Jats mobilising state-wide to inflict a severe drubbing on the Congress. Soon afterwards, empowered bodies at both state and national levels, conceded the Jat demand.

It could be asked whether a community that is able to mobilise so powerfully and articulate its case with quite this kind of energy, can be described as backward under any criterion. The issue it turned out, was not their relative deprivation in relation to society as a whole, but in relation to the politically dominant Rajput community. This is an issue that stretches back to the 1920s when the Jats first began mobilising against Rajput dominance in all spheres of activity. Some part of this battle was fought on the terrain of land reforms and tenancy legislation. Another chapter in that battle came after independence, when the Jats managed to use the new panchayati raj institutions to shore up their social power. When the Mandal recommendations were implemented, reservations became another weapon in this battle of attrition. In the process, reservations stood diminished, it became a weapon of political contestation between two powerful communities, rather than an instrument of promoting the general social welfare.

Another category of problem relates to the equity of reservations within particular categories. OBCs are a broad and heterogeneous grouping and unless sub-quotas or certain criteria of exclusion are specified, there is little likelihood that the agreed quantum of reservations would be shared out equitably. This is a problem that is already evident in the realm of Scheduled Castes reservations. It is a firmly established fact that certain castes within the SC category – like the Jatavs of north India and the Mahars of Maharashtra – have been over the generations, gainers from reservations to a degree that goes beyond their share within the SC population. This has led to a demand by others, such as the Valmikis of north India, for a sub-category within SC reservations. Needless to say, admitting such a demand would prove immensely challenging in an administrative sense, and politically, it could quite possibly be promoting the infinite fragmentation of society.

Informed observers believe though, that there are ways around these difficulties. But that would require above all, that the formulaic approach to reservations be abandoned in favour of more subtlety and sensitivity. If the Supreme Court order is viewed in this light, rather than an occasion for plotting acts of institutional vengeance or one-up-manship, that would be an unequivocal gain for the cause of social justice.

Wolfowitz's fatal attractions

The scandal surrounding Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, and a female companion who he secured a cosy billet in the U.S. State Department for, is one among many sordid dramas being played out in Washington DC. The unifying theme of it all could be called the implosion of the Bush administration.

It is an index of the precipitous fall in public esteem of the U.S. president and all those associated with his signature campaign – the war in Iraq – that Bush’s ringing endorsement of Wolfowitz was, like a similar testimonial handed out a few days before to his embattled Attorney-General, read as sure sign that the World Bank president’s political demise was nigh.

Wolfowitz came to the World Bank with a formidable reputation as a strategic hawk, the original author of the infamous doctrine of the “New American Century”. When his name was announced early in Bush’s second term, editorial comment even in sympathetic quarters held that an uncompromising proponent of “hard power” may not be the most effective steward of the foremost agency of “soft power”.

But for those of more sober judgment, what seemed germane was Wolfowitz’s distinguished record of delusional thinking. He had few credentials in the development domain, except the monumentally misconceived forecast made in the second week of the invasion of Iraq, that “we’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon”. For sheer idiocy, this must rank close to the prediction made by his neo-conservative confrere Richard Perle in September 2003, that a grand square in Baghdad could well be named after Bush within a year.

Robert McNamara was the analogy that sprang to mind when Bush chose to place one of the principal architects of the Iraq tragedy at the helm of the World Bank. It was an inexact comparison, since McNamara had with Vietnam’s Tet offensive in 1968, realised his folly. And as World Bank president for 13 years, McNamara brought in many of the values of the Kennedy-Johnson administration’s civil rights agenda and its “war on poverty”. Though his approach, when not distinctly quixotic, was U.S. foreign policy by other means, McNamara is widely credited with bringing poverty front and centre and vastly expanding the lending of the institution.

In contrast, Wolfowitz brought the Manichean worldview of the Bush administration with its sharply etched distinctions of good and evil, its refusal to admit error and its propensity to dissemble for any cause deemed worthwhile. Unlike McNamara again, Wolfowitz had few credentials as a manager or institutional leader. Indeed, it transpires, his approach towards leadership, best expressed during a visit to Iraq in July 2003, was different only in its shades from that of a gang-lord. With the sheen of “victory” yet to wear off, he pronounced then, that leadership was not about “lecturing and posturing and demanding, but demonstrating that your friends will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies will be punished, and that those who refuse to support you will regret having done so”.

It is now known that soon after the September 11 attacks on the U.S., Wolfowitz had shocked moderate elements in the Bush cabinet with his unseemly eagerness to attack Iraq. But if this frenzy was confined at least then within the inner cabals of the Bush White House, there was little that was secret about the response he favoured. The U.S., he proclaimed, needed to go beyond “capturing people and holding them accountable”: it would necessarily have to start “removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism”.

It was the statement of an obsessive ideologue, which had the U.S. Secretary of State, a distinguished soldier who knew what war was about, scrambling to undo the potential for damage around the world.

For a while it seemed likely that European shareholders, whose voting power in the World Bank has increased over the years, would turn down Wolfowitz’s nomination. But the European Union and its main powers proved disinclined to do battle then, since a global division of spoils was at stake. A challenge to U.S. hegemony over the World Bank would have threatened the E.U.’s customary prerogative to name the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Besides, the E.U. was also then manoeuvring to place a partisan in its cause, Pascal Lamy, at the head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Details of the generous package of benefits that Wolfowitz personally worked out for his female companion were intimated to the World Bank board soon after they became operative. But the board chose to sleep over it, only to rouse itself into a simulated sense of outrage when an internal audit reported that the deal was out of line with rules. Wolfowitz had by then managed to tick off just about every significant shareholder in the institution with his crusade against corruption, rightly seen as an effort to bend the rules of the World Bank to the U.S.’s militarist agenda.

That the Wolfowitz scandal has not been resolved over two weeks, despite all the feints and manoeuvres of its principals, suggests that the ongoing shift in the global power balance, is yet too slow to produce the summary justice warranted for a man who bears constructive responsibility for some of the worst war crimes of the new millennium. Like the Bush administration itself, it is indubitable though, that Wolfowitz is soon going, deservedly, to be consigned to the garbage dump of history.

The Media and Communalism: Changing scenarios, unchanging predilections

The media function in society was for long studied almost exclusively in terms of a “transmission” model, which emphasised the autonomy of the institution and the anonymity of its audience. Its central focus was the influence exerted by the media on social perceptions, through a process of “indoctrination”.

The passage of years has brought in a more sensitive approach, which concerns itself not with the transmission of a message that is passively absorbed by a mass of recipients, but with the meanings attached to the message at the point of reception. In this sense, the modern sociology of the media tends to view it as an apparatus, or more so, a process, of creating shared meanings that an audience can identify with, that equip them with the vocabulary and the empirical knowledge to engage in a public conversation. The media is not just about answering a community’s needs for information; it is as much about constituting that community.

To the extent that “communities” are defined by negative association, the media would reflect, sometimes subtly though often rather crudely, the perceptions of “otherness” without which communal boundaries would remain uncomfortably fluid. But there are also sections of the media that claim to represent a “national” perspective, untainted by narrow pulls of community loyalty. Penetrating the subtleties of the “national” media discourse is often a challenge, since it succeeds in most cases, in disguising communal predilections in the pretence of a larger solidarity.

Several of these features emerge from a comparison between two crucial reference points in India’s recent history, when the communal virus was rampant. The first is the period between 1990 and 1992, when the country was convulsed by the conflict over the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. If the media in most parts of the country was guilty of not opposing the communal adventurism of the Hindutva forces with sufficient passion or principle, the media in the Hindi speaking region was engaged actively in abetting them. This is no subjective judgment, since it was the firmly established view of the Press Council of India, which in 1990 went into the news coverage and editorial comment of four of the largest Hindi language dailies and passed severe strictures against all of them.

Moving forward from those dark days to 2002 and the communal carnage of Gujarat, another pattern of media conduct is evident. With the exception of the Gujarati press – where a clear tilt was evident towards blaming the victims, towards lurid exaggeration and incitement to violence – the rest of the press nation-wide, both in English and the bhasha, earned wide credit for their unflinching portrayal of the brutalities of Gujarat. Indeed, the pressure was severe enough for the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, to lash out at the media for creating what he called “secular riots”. If it could elicit this manner of a response from the man widely identified as the architect of the carnage, then the media must have been doing something right.

There had evidently been a significant cultural change in the media over the preceding twelve years, especially in the Hindi language press. The crucial factor here could well be the tremendous growth in the reach of the Hindi press since the days of Ayodhya. One estimate puts the total number of readers of Hindi dailies in 1990 at around 7.8 million. By the year 2001, it was over 21 million. Today, the two leading newspapers in Hindi alone, are estimated to have a total readership of 40 million. This quantitative explosion has led to significant qualitative changes.

The need to bring larger numbers of readers on board, for one thing, has induced Hindi newspapers to go beyond traditional notions of audience taste and take in cross-community interests. There is a theory in the sociology of the media, which likens the daily ritual of reading a newspaper to the erstwhile practice of prayer, a mass ceremony which individuals in their social isolation pursue, without direct knowledge of others who are similarly engaged. But the implicit knowledge that others too are going through that mass ceremony serves as a form of social solidarity. In this sense, the growth of the Hindi language press in the 1990s may be both the cause and consequence of these emerging new forms of communal solidarity.

At the same time, there are other forms of social exclusions, other kinds of particularities, that are unstated premises of media functioning. It is not necessary to go any further than the news coverage and editorial comment on the Rajinder Sachar committee report on the status of India’s Muslims, to grasp the processes through which this works.

The presentation of the Sachar report in Parliament, coincided with an outbreak of violence in Maharashtra over the vandalisation of a statue of Dr B.R. Ambedkar in Uttar Pradesh. The country’s largest English-language newspaper, The Times of India (ToI) confined the Sachar report to the news digest section, occupying about 3 column-centimetres on the first page. Considerably more attention was devoted to the violence of the Dalit protests in Maharashtra, with the picture of a train that had been set afire between Mumbai and Pune getting marquee space on the front page.

Both the Sachar committee and the Dalit protests earned significant space in the inner pages of the ToI that day, with the latter enjoying by far the greater prominence. What the ToI chose to put front and centre in its coverage of Sachar was the government’s uncertain resolve about introducing reservations in education and employment for the minorities. Thus the issue of the institutionalised discrimination suffered by the Muslim minority was transformed in the ToI discourse into a concern over keeping India’s enclaves of modernity secure from the ingress of the underprivileged.

Where the Dalit protests in Maharashtra were concerned, perceptive media critics have pointed out that the consistent refrain of the mainstream press, in both English and the bhasha, was the inherent violence of the Dalit agitators and the ease with which they could be provoked into serious acts of depredation. There were oblique references to the Khairlanji massacre of September 29 in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra -- in which four members of a Dalit family, a mother and three children, including a visually challenged young man, were killed -- as a contributory factor in the upwelling of Dalit rage. But no effort was in evidence to make amends for a shocking record of media neglect of the egregious crime. Indeed, the record of the media since the massacre was to underplay it, to not see in it the unrelenting social prejudice and persecution that Dalits suffer, but to cast it as a regrettable case of moral vigilantism carried to excess. And it speaks eloquently of the blinkers that the media willingly dons on account of ownership pressures and the social conditioning of its staff, that it took a Dalit-owned newspaper in Maharashtra to investigate and bring the crime to light after weeks of arduous effort.

Similar acts of wilful social blindness were in evidence in the media’s approach to the Sachar committee findings. There could be various alibis offered for the relative inattention with which the report was received by the media. It could well be argued that the social and educational handicaps of the Muslim community are not exactly a news flash. Again, those familiar with the dynamics of competition in the newspaper business, might ascribe the relative neglect of the Sachar committee to another factor. The Indian Express (IE), had as the media jargon has it, “scooped” the main findings of the Sachar committee well over a month before its report was formally presented. The IE coverage appeared in a compact series of articles on the front page, through the last week of October. The newspaper then chose to pronounce its final editorial verdict on the issue by urging the political leadership to acknowledge the undeniable verity, that economic growth was the way out of social backwardness. In effect, the IE succeeded in submerging the complexity of the Sachar committee’s findings in a simplistic nostrum much favoured in today’s neo-liberal climate.

While the IE was constructing this narrative of discrimination on its news pages and paying obeisance to the virtues of globalisation editorially, a quite different picture of willing thraldom to superstition and a stubborn refusal to adopt modernity, was being assembled in another quarter of the print media. Between October 24 and 29, the ToI carried no fewer than 6 articles – of which two were on the frontpage and one on the editorial page – on the case of Imrana, the young woman who had been raped by her father-in-law and stigmatised by the Muslim clergy for her temerity in seeking to bring the criminal to account.

On October 25, the ToI ran a story on Imrana on page one, right alongside another one on the confusion within the Muslim community about when precisely the Eid festivities were to be observed. This latter story led off with a description of the subjectivity underlying the identification of the precise date and the tension that this set up with modern notions of objectivity.

The Imrana story and the accompanying article on Eid enjoyed roughly the same priority in terms of space allocation and placement. But these stories were topped off by a large photograph, occupying marquee space on the front page, which showed the touring Pakistani cricket team offering Eid prayers at their port of call in Chandigarh. The picture was rather boldly captioned “Champions of the faith?”

With this rather bizarre juxtaposition of stories and visuals, the ToI managed within about a third of the space on its front page, to reinforce several stereotypes about the Muslim community, not least among these being their supposedly extra-territorial loyalties.

Yet the ToI could not remain oblivious to the news emerging from another quarter on the findings of the Sachar report. On November 4, it ran an editorial on the main findings of the committee. It began by deprecating the policy of reservations as a “blunt instrument” that failed to address the roots of the problem. Instead, other forms of “positive discrimination” could be thought of, including building “quality schools” and “providing healthcare” in “backward districts” that have high settlement densities of Muslims, dalits or tribals. Government contracts again, could be preferentially allocated to these disadvantaged social groups, to “facilitate their participation in the modern economy”. In turn, the ToI chose to place a special onus on the “Muslim leadership” to “encourage the community to take to modern education in larger numbers”.

Article 350A of the Constitution mandates precisely this manner of positive discrimination in favour of minority communities where State investments in education are concerned. Backward area development policies adopted by the central government, not to mention various states, have also sought, without overtly assuming the colours of a class or community-based approach, to direct attention preferentially towards regions of economic stagnancy. The ToI has shown admirable percipience in waking up to the reality that backward areas are in most parts of the country, also predominantly populated by people who would fall within the broad rubric of “backward classes”. But this realisation is not informed by any effort to understand why backward area development policies have also proved fairly ineffective in redressing disparities, indeed, why they have proven an even blunter instrument than reservations.

On November 8, the ToI carried an article on Islamic schools or madarsas, on its editorial page. Titled “Beyond Terror”, the article argued that the debate on these institutions had remained for too long confined to the issue of terrorism, but because the Muslim community was under pressure in times of global concern over the issue, it had responded with a spirited defence of these institutions and the learning they imparted, as uniquely imbued with a moral and spiritual sensibility. This attitude in turn simply evaded the reality that the madarsas have a tendency to “promote a narrow, insular mindset”. And as long as security concerns remained the principal impulse behind the debate, there was little chance that matters of immense import to the “welfare of millions of children studying in madarsas” would be addressed.

Though not formally released at the time this article was published, many of the key findings of the Sachar committee were in the public domain by then. On the issue of madarsas, the conclusions were fairly clear: fewer than 4 percent of Muslim children in the school-going age group attended these institutions; at an all-India level, their number is not the “millions” as the commentator in the ToI suggested, but just marginally over one million. Far from being an institution of choice, madarsas were “often the last recourse of Muslims especially those who lack the economic resources to bear the costs of schooling”. And for all the odium heaped on them, madarsas had very often been found to “have indeed provided schooling to Muslim children where the State (had) failed them”.

Granted, the commentator in the ToI could not possibly have reflected all these findings in their complexity since they were yet to be made public in an official sense. But to admit that gaps exist in the level of public information is one thing, to leapfrog into realms of conjecture, quite another. A few inconvenient facts could not evidently, stand in the way of constructing what seemed a compelling narrative of social backwardness by choice among the Mulsim community.

It was mid-November by the time the ToI returned on its news pages, to the theme of the Sachar committee. On November 17, it reported that the committee’s recommendations had put the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, in a “fix”. The following day, it frontpaged a report arguing that the committee’s recommendation that the Muslim share in several vital sectors be increased, would in effect “give rise to the demand for a community quota leading to a fullscale political confrontation”. Having begun its coverage of the Sachar report by viewing it through the prism of the reservations issue, the ToI undoubtedly saw no reason to change course when more details were available.

To look at the media today is to look at a complex, dynamic and evolving scenario, to consider a quantitative explosion that has not quite been accompanied by a corresponding qualitative change. While the media can be relied upon to raise its voice against overt and violent attacks on minority communities, its resolve in dealing with systemic discrimination that is less visible, is not quite so clear. Some of the rougher edges that were evident in the early-1990s may well have been ironed out. That was the time that the Muslim minority was portrayed as the legatees of the numerous abuses that India’s culture and civilisation had suffered in the past. Today, they are portrayed as an impediment to the glittering promises of modernity that lie in the future for India.

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.