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South Asia’s boring club

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RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_india3Next year will be the 30th since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was formed. Its career as an association has since the mid-eighties been neither distinguished nor even promising. The countries of the region, viewing the emerging tides of multi-lateralism elsewhere (especially in Latin America) and viewing the debris of the non-aligned movement, shuffled together to form SAARC. The group has all the equipment – a secretariat, various centres that profess to tackle common subjects, a stable of professionals who advise bored officials, and so on – but has produced little.

Some of the blame for such a desultory career must lie with the relations between Pakistan and India, which every other month swing between ‘hostile’ and ‘concerned’ but rarely tread any other territory. Still, that ought not to have weighed so heavily on the other members of SAARC – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan. The accoutrements of SAARC should have served them just as well, but have simply not been used.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_bangladesh_bhutan3This is the greyish and uninspiring background to the 18th SAARC summit this week in Kathmandu, Nepal. The script of this one, as with so many others before it, has followed the same desultory trajectory. The leaders of Pakistan and India say they will meet cordially, formally and informally, and dutifully repeat all that has been said (but not done) from the previous 17 summits and numerous non-summit SAARC meetings.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_ceylon3Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan announced that peace and stability is what the region needs, that the summit participants want to make SAARC a strong trading and economic bloc, and that the region will prosper through better security and economic cooperation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced that the development of close relations with neighbouring countries is a key priority for his government, that greater regional integration at all levels of socio-economic development is important, and that the participants would seek concrete outcomes.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_pakistan3Few, other than the most committed followers of South Asian diplomatic prose, pay much attention. The economic globalisation of the last decade especially has linked countries – within South Asia and outside – with bilateral agreements rather than through multi-lateral fora like SAARC. Even where the association has invested some collective funds (in the creation of specialist centres for example, and the endowment of study and research programmes meant to benefit neighbours) the outcomes have been close to invisible.

RG_SAARC_old_maps_201411_smThis poor showing has not deterred the countries from announcing yet another new SAARC centre which will merge four existing regional centres – the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (in India), the SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre (in the Maldives), the SAARC Meteorological Research Centre (in Bangladesh) and the SAARC Forestry Centre (in Bhutan). The suspicion, not unfounded, is that SAARC and its colourless apparatus exists to provide convenient sinecures for ex-diplomats from the eight countries and their colleagues.

Of course, the “meetings on the sidelines”, over which some mild interest is mustered pertaining to SAARC, may lead to a front page headline or two, but in the balance, that occasional fillip is hardly worth the expense of maintaining the club.

[Sections from maps are, top to bottom, (1) From ‘Madras, Mysore and Goa’, in Constable’s 1893 Hand Atlas; (2) from ‘India, Afghanistan, Belochistan, Burmah, and Siam’ by John Bartholomew; from ‘Zell’s Descriptive Hand Atlas of the World’, Philadelphia, 1873; (3) from ‘Southern India and Ceylon’ in ‘Letts’s Popular Atlas’ 1883; (4) from ‘India’ by Edward Weller, for the Weekly Dispatch Magazine, 1859. Click here for a sheet of them all (jpg, 772kb).]

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