The seven beggars with their bowls

ONCE again they are meeting. At the end of the day, lofty ambitions couched in confidence-boosting rhetoric form the final communiqué. We have seen 13 South Asian summits in the past. And the present one being held in New Delhi is not going to be different.

By Ameen Izzadeen

Published: Tue 3 Apr 2007, 8:37 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:05 AM

I am reminded of a parable whenever the annual summit of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is held. Seven beggars set out in the morning on their begging rounds and meet in the night in a dilapidated and abandoned building that offered no shelter from wind or rain. Every night, before they go to sleep, they discuss their plight. Everyone agrees that they should set aside a part of their daily collection to buy a piece of land and build a new shelter for them. But the following day, they set about their usual chore —begging-with none of them making any serious effort to work towards the overnight resolution. Each beggar thinks only about himself.

Is Saarc any better? With probably the exception of academics, journalists, officials involved in the summit preparation, many people in Sri Lanka do not know that leaders of South Asia are meeting in New Delhi with an aim to uplift the living standards of its people.

There had been hardly any news stories in the build-up to the New Delhi summit until last week. Opinion page articles barely talked about Saarc.

I conducted a quick survey in a gathering of about 15 people and asked two questions: a) whether they knew that the Saarc summit was being held in New Delhi and b) what does Saarc mean to them? A young computer artist among them looked at me as though he had been hit by a bolt from the blues. He confessed he had heard a very little about Saarc. A retired gentleman said, "Saarc had not done anything to lift my standard of living". The general consensus was Saarc meant little or nothing to them. If this is the case in urban areas of a country where literacy rate is over 90 per cent? I can imagine the reply of a villager. I am sure I will get similar answers in other South Asian countries as well.

That Saarc is regarded as the world’s biggest regional grouping has not made much impact for the region’s more than 1.5 billion people —one fifth of the world’s population. The ongoing summit is largely a non-event for them.

With a Saarc identity or South Asian solidarity being largely part of political rhetoric, Saarc’s role has been greatly diminished over the years and the annual summits are just a platform for talks between its leaders.

I have covered Saarc summits and closely followed its progress. I was enthusiastic in the early days of Saarc, like some of the founding fathers of the grouping. When Saarc had come under criticism for its lack of progress, I had defended the grouping by pointing out the positives. But today, I am not as optimistic as I had been in the past.

Twenty-two years after Saarc was formed and its leaders met for the first time in Dhaka in 1985 with a vow to raise the living standards of teeming millions languishing in abject poverty, the grouping today resembles a rudderless ship in stormy seas.

The initial enthusiasm which helped Saarc leaders to propel the ship in the early stages is either missing or muted.

Sri Lanka’s then President JR Jayewardene, one of the founding fathers of Saarc, was the first to foresee the troubles. In his address to the inaugural summit, he warned, "Saarc will have to sail through a turbulent sea".

"We are setting this ship afloat today. There may be mutiny on board, I hope not. The sea may be stormy but the ship must sail on and enter the ports of poverty, hunger, unemployment, malnutrition, disease and seek to bring comfort to those who need it," Jayewardene said.

The question as to why Saarc as a regional grouping has not brought in a positive change in the lives of the South Asians or made them feel its tangible results needs serious analysis.

Saarc apologists may point to the South Asian Free Trade Agreement which came into force in July last year and say it was a big achievement. But critics may say that intra-regional trade has increased only marginally and still accounts for about four per cent of South Asian nations’ global trade. Areas of cooperation are many. Agreements Saarc has churned out are largely cosmetic as very little tangible benefits have trickled down to the people.

Why? I believe Saarc’s failure to bloom as a powerful regional grouping like the European Union or the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is largely because each member state puts its national interest before Saarc interest. Only a few would disagree that the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan has hampered the progress of Saarc.

Saarc matters to member states only as far as it serves their national interest. Some may say that this is the rationale behind a nation joining any economic or political grouping. But as far as Saarc in concerned, India and Pakistan feel that cooperation in certain areas is a national interest liability. Take for instance, the passage of SAFTA. It came to force only after much wrangling between Pakistan and India. Though SAFTA is in operation, member states are yet to come to agreement on tariffs with regard to several products.

However, there is a silver lining among the dark clouds over South Asia. I am not talking about the thaw in the India-Pakistan relations. I am talking about the South Asian honey-pot which attracts flies from all directions. The liberalisation of economies in South Asia, the region’s mega market and opportunities offered by SAFTA have stirred a renewed interest in the grouping. Big economic powers such as the United States, the European Union, Japan, China and South Korea have gained observer status and are sending representatives to the summit for the first time. Iran is knocking on the door.

We hope at least Saarc’s partnership with big economic powers would give the necessary impetus for South Asian leaders to steer the Saarc ship to reach its destinations.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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