The limping eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) got a little breather with the last-minute regional electricity grid deal, although it remains unclear if Pakistan can deliver due to past objections of its army in cross-border electricity issues.
Energy, power and trade are the issues that these countries need to address, but even South Asian Preferential Trade agreement (SAPTA), signed in 2006, is yet to be implemented fully.
The focus and blame has been India and Pakistan. Their uneasy relations have kept SAARC from flourishing.
In the 18th summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, the focus was on Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. A report said that a brief meeting between the two “appears to have salvaged” the summit.
The regional electricity grid deal is something all the countries of the region needs as all of them are struggling to meet increasing demand for electricity. India’s Modi has been seeking a South Asia to become a viable economic balance against China, which has made inroads in the region.
Reports said until that point in the summit, the leaders of the two rivals had cold-shouldered each other.India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, and just last month exchanges of fire across the border in disputed Kashmir killed 20 people. Peace talks were called off in August.
Four people, including an Indian army officer, were killed on Thursday in the worst militant violence in the Indian part of disputed Kashmir in more than a year.
Analysts said the grouping’s failure to integrate the region over the past three decades has left the way open for China to step in, with port and road development. China has observer status at the grouping.
Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin on Wednesday promised $30 billion for road building in South Asia over five years, and suggested increasing trade to $150 billion over the same period.
Modi announced an easier regime for business and medical visas and promised to lower India’s trade surplus.
Pakistan, which still refused to sign two other planned pacts to boost cross border road and rail traffic, was increasingly sidelined at the summit.
For Bangladesh, its leader Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, left no stone unturned to ensure a regional cooperation on trade and electricity. Bangladesh, which once six years back regular black outs, have almost forgotten power outages.
Dhaka imports electricity from India, beside multiplying its domestic production. During the SAARC summit, Sheikh Hasina brought up the issue of signing Land Boundary Agreement and sharing of water of the Teesta river agreement.
India’s Modi, who has set a new approach with his neighbours, promised to quickly implement the Teesta agreement. He even said That West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee would accompany him to Dhaka to sign the deal.
SAARC, brainchild of Bangladesh, has however earned few points. The most important is a must meet of the top leaders of the eight countries in a more relaxed atmosphere than in any other international meets.
Benefit lies for its members of it could sideline issues of discontent on a more important areas of trade, the regions and its people will benefit. Otherwise, SAARC will continue to limp.
Nadeem Qadir, a senior journalist, is a UNCA Dag Hammarskjold Scholar in journalism
NOVEMBER 27, 2014