Is SAARC headed anywhere?

June 11, 2007 at 10:16 am Leave a comment

Organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs (which is part of the Ministry of External Affairs) and the Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung (who funded the exercise), the Regional Conference on SAARC 14th Summit & Beyond was an unusual one for me. The speakers were mainly researchers, civil society representatives and a sprinkling of business people. In addition, there were government speakers mainly from the host country and some observers – the Minister of Trade from the Pakistan High Commission and his counterparts from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The conference started off with some very eloquent speeches on the history of ICWA and SAARC and very encouraging quotations were cited from speeches made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others. Then there were a number of detailed presentations on the Physical Connectivity between the 8 SAARC nations. A study had been commissioned and this chap took us painfully through every existing and missing rail track. From what he said it would take years and cost billions of dollars to get the infrastructure in place to connect the SAARC countries sufficiently to deal with the flow of people and goods. This included rail, road, water and air links.

The next session was on Economic Connectivity – the session that I was a part of. I don’t think I started my speech very diplomatically when I said “Pardon my cynicism but SAARC is now 21 years old and many of us are weary of the fact that beyond summits and declarations and conferences, no progress has actually been made in bringing the 8 countries together in any kind of meaningful initiative.” I went on to say that whereas it was lovely to be in Delhi again, most of us wondered if this would be just another series of talks and presentations leading to no firm implementation or recommendations.

What was strange about the morning session was that when all sorts of infrastructure was being discussed, no-one mentioned the infrastructure that already exists – the Internet and the telecom infrastructure! There was talk about setting up a South Asian University where kids would study and work together thus developing a better understanding. Okay not a bad idea at all, but what about doing simpler things like connecting the education institutions in the region so that they could share knowledge, research and curriculum and work on collaborative projects, share lectures being delivered by brilliant professors, etc etc.

Why not connect the hospitals so that research and medical practices can be shared and better ways found to address the many health issues of those living in our part of the world? And why stop there? What about working together in the area of Disaster Managemen, Open Source, Wireless Rural Connectivity, Technology for the Disabled, and a host of other things that can be started NOW.

As for the IT sector, there are businesses that want to work together in the area of developing and training human resource, as well as on joint projects. India is facing an HR problem because of rising costs of trained people. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka need assistance to build up their software and services sector. At the moment companies in Pakistan and India are working below the government radar, sometimes via a third country like the UAE. This just adds to costs and makes it a lot more difficult to collaborate.

To create more economic wealth and job opportunities for the young people in our region, especially in the area of IT, two things need to be addressed – the visa regime and the ability to easily transfer funds and invest in each others countries. Can the governments of our region handle these two issues while they are working on the physical infrastructure issues and the political issues?

I brought out all these points in my address and a number of people came up to me later to say that they agreed there were areas that SAARC could move on with speed if they really wanted to.

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