Jan 12 - 18, 2004





The 18 years old South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which has so far remained hostage to hostilities between its two main members India and Pakistan was really activated last week in Islamabad which hosted the 12th Summit. The 2-day conference of top South Asian leaders was crowned with breaking ice between the two countries when Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee met his Pakistani counterpart and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf pledging to work for peace and further to strengthen the present momentum of improving ties between the two countries through cooperation and understanding to resolve all their disputes and conflict. It gave new hope and aspiration to SAARC. Besides opening new chapter in the sour Indo-Pak relations when the two countries agreed to initiate composite dialogue next month on all issues including Kashmir.

The 12th SAARC Summit attended by the heads of the seven member states or government India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Pakistan proved to be landmark event in the beautiful surroundings of Islamabad. It was a superb show by all standard and it did not merely contain thought provoking speeches by various Prime Ministers and head of the governments, but also witnessed the signing ceremony on an agreed social charter that focus attention on the people of the region. It contains a number of articles that emphasize on poverty alleviation, health, education, human resource development, youth mobilization and improving the status of women. It calls for promotion of rights and well being of the child, population stabilization, drug addiction, drug de-addiction rehabilitation and realization. It also approved the agreements prepared by the SAARC Ministerial Committee regarding free-trade between the member countries (SAFTA) setting up a South Asian Bank for economic development and an additional protocol for combating terrorism.

Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who became the current chairman of the organization emphasized upon the fact that greater economic integration is in-extricable linked to the creation of requisite political climate of peace and stability "The ideas of establishing a South Asian Economic Union or a Monetary Union or of Schengen repeat in South Asia, would remain distant dreams, unless we are able to address the political environment in our region in a just and realistic manner," he said.

He said that it is the stark reality of political differences and disputes that has held back economic cooperation in South Asia. He welcomed a number of steps in economic cooperation like agreement on the Framework of SAFFA, and spoke of the useful avenues provided by the mechanism of SAARC finance, including establishment of a South Asian Development Bank, and said the focus of SAARC endeavours should be the welfare of the peoples. He pointed out that the SAARC functional mechanisms and structures need to be further strengthened and assured that Pakistan will spare no effort to translate the vision of the SAARC charter into a reality.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that he had spoken at the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu that at sixteen years of age SAARC needed a dose of economic and social realism to move from adolescence to childhood. "Our organization is now 18 years old. I can think we can look back with considerable satisfaction over what have we achieved since the last Summit. We have finalized a social charter. We have moved forward on Preferential Trading Arrangements and have concluded a set of substantive recommendations for a regional approach to poverty alleviation."

Referring to a hoarding in Islamabad, that he saw on arrival at airport, which said "together we stand a better chance in the world," he said it aptly expressed a profound truth. He proposed a Poverty Alleviation Fund and said India would be willing to make an initial contribution of US $100 million to it, on the understanding that this money would be used mainly on projects within SAARC, but outside India.

Begum Ziaur Rehaman, prime minister of Bangladesh emphasized charting a realistic and forward-looking course in the light of various transformations the world has undergone since the last SAARC Summit was held. Ending her speech with "Allah Hafiz," she called for making SAARC a more vibrant institution.

President Chandrika Badarnaike Kumartunga, who greeted those present with an Asslam-u-Alaikum also, said SAARC during its relatively short existence traversed a difficult path, seeking its way through the thickets of intra-regional or bilateral tensions. She said that in South Asia we face the danger of marginalization in the global economy and thus, even risk of regression in the spheres of economic and social development." The reduction of tensions between the two largest member States of our Association goes rise to much confidence, she said.

Attaching great importance to the Framework Agreement on SAFFA, President Mamoon Abdul Gayoom of Maldives said it heralded a new phase in regional development. He appreciated the agreement allowed the smaller countries a longer time frame to adjust to the free trade measures suggested.



Prime Minister of Nepal Suriya Bhadur Thapa said he was encouraged by the recent development in the region for a conducive atmosphere leading to meaningful cooperation.

The Prime Minister of Bhutan said the purpose of development is not to become clonies of industrialized countries. "While we must learn from the experience of others, we strongly believe that the best solutions will come from our own Asian genius," he said. He also lauded other subjects like the Agreement on Additional Protocol on Terrorism, steps for elimination of poverty, etc.

When the SAARC was founded in 1985 at the initiative of then president of Bangladesh, the heads of the state and government reaffirmed that their fundamental goal was to accelerate the process of economic and social development in their respective countries through mutual cooperation by making optimum utilization of human and material resources available in the region to promote the well being and prosperity of their people and improve their quality of life. They were conscious that peace and security was an essential prerequisites for the realization of these goals.

The organization, however, could achieve nothing significant in its 18 years existence not only because Indo-Pak hostilities but also because of hegemonic ambition and big brother attitude of India. There is now an apparent change for the betterment in Indian attitude in its dealing with other states on the region including Pakistan. This change has really helped the 12th Summit in Islamabad to yield a rich crop of measures to bring the seven countries of the region together in ties that encompass economic and other strategic areas. Unlike past discussions, this has made real progress on the issue which had been the organization agenda since long. The change of climate in the relations between India and Pakistan has been further strengthened by Vajpayee to visit to Pakistan and his conciliatory meetings with PM Jamali and President Musharraf.

This happy development, however, does not mean all that has been proposed or decided will be translated into reality promptly. Nevertheless, it would be useful to build on the momentum generated in this Summit to continue studies and discussion on these ideas pending resolution of all regional disputes especially between Pakistan and India with Kashmir on the top of the list. In today's world, in the absence, so far, of the global free trade agreement after the failure of WTO conference in Cancun, regional cooperation offers the best alternative for countries struggling for development. What has been begun in Islamabad is, therefore, worth pursuing bilaterally and regionally to help South Asia realize its full potential for economic growth and count the growing poverty that affects millions in the area.