|Kadirgamar exhorts India to help SAARC become Engine
of economic growth in South Asia
From S Venkat Narayan
NEW DELHI, January 12:
Former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar has exhorted India to help the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) become an engine of economic growth for the region by turning it into a Free Trade Area.
Delivering the 10th Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial Lecture here on Saturday evening on "The Seven Sisters of South Asia: Where Are they Going?", he said he is optimistic about the future of SAARC even though its performance has been less than spectacular. The most desirable possibility is for SAARC to grow into a fully functional organisation, fostering cooperative and even joint action on problems common to the region. "For this India is key," he declared.
President Chandrika Kumaratungas Senior Adviser on Foreign Affairs noted that India accounts for about 75 per cent of South Asias land area, population, resources and skills. Therefore, "if India were to take the lead, SAARC could become a regional entity of some weight."
Kadirgamar went on: "It is clear that SAARC cannot succeed without India, but the other States must help India to participate wholeheartedly." Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and The Maldives are the other six nations that constitute SAARC, which was established in December 1985.
If bilateral problems with some of its neighbours like Pakistan persist, there is a possibility that, without dismantling SAARC, India may become indifferent to it. Kadirgarmar warned that this is "a very real danger if India proceeds alone on a trajectory of economic growth, or takes the route of bilateral economic agreements." He quoted the Free Trade Agreement between India and Sri Lanka as an example of such a policy.
But in todays world, bilateral and regional arrangements are not mutually exclusive, and concentric regional groupings are becoming a common feature of international life. Kadigamar declared: "It would be in Indias interests to turn SAARC into a viable Free Trade Area and thus make it an engine of economic growth for the region."
However, "if it is perceived that India is deliberately undermining SAARC, it would have a very adverse effect on Indias standing in the world community, and a very adverse effect on Indias prospects of securing a permanent seat in the Security Council,"he cautioned.
Referring to the strained relations between India and Pakistan, Kadirgamar said: "The road from New Delhi to Islamabad is strewn with the boulders of history. Powerful compulsions and influences, domestic and foreign, unpredictable events seem to render futile the well-meant attempts of a few individuals, from time to time, to move those boulders."
He went on: "1999 began with a brave bus journey to Lahore which lifted the spirits of the entire sub-continent only to end with the battle in the snows of Kargil, which brought the work of SAARC to a near halt for two years." Without referring to Kashmir, he added: "In terms of finding a solution to one of the most complex problems of all time, one cannot reasonably expect a regional organisation to achieve in 17 years what the United Nations has failed to achieve in 57. To think otherwise is to condemn SAARC for failing to accomplish a recognised impossibility."
He said the getting together of the seven South Asian nations to establish SAARC was a natural and inevitable process that would have taken place in time. This is because "our cultures are interdependent, deeply common, historically ancient. The links between all seven of us are unfathomable. As ancient as they are, they are deeper than we think. Not only do we look very much alike, we speak languages that have remarkable similiarity, our music is common, our culture is common, we are at home wherever we go in this great region of the world."
"When you have a mass of that kind, a vast number of human beings with enormous potential, potential that is being revealed every day in different areas of life, most recently in the field of information technology, there is surely reason to believe that a bright future awaits our peoples," he proclaimed.
Kadirgamar said SAARC has retained its political relevance and usefulness to its constituent members as a mechanism for regional cooperation as well as a forum for bilateral consultations in areas such as agriculture, communications, education, culture and sports, environment and meteorology, health and population activities, prevention of drug trafficking and drug abuse, science and technology, tourism, transport, and women in development.
But progress has been slow on economic issues. It took ten years before SAARC could actually take off with the operationalization of the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) in 1995. Discussions on measures for encouraging intra-SAARC investment and joint ventures are now on. Proposals for a Regional Investment Treaty and a SAARC Arbitration Council have also been initiated. So also with Double Taxation Avoidance.
Kadirgamar noted that intra-SAARC trade is a very small proportion of the member States trade with the rest of the world: 2 per cent in the 1980s, and 4 per cent by the end of the 1990s. In Europe, it is 70 per cent. This is why the incentive for a regional treaty is absent.
Referring to the unity being achieved in Europe, he said the two savage wars that were fought there during the past century caused so much death and destruction that few people thought those deep wounds would ever heal at all. But what has happened now, 50 years after the last war? "It is unbelievable. If one had been pessimistic then, one would have said that what has happened now simply could not happen; that France and Germany could never be friends; it is not possible at all."
But today the situation is totally different. Kadirgamar explained: "There has emerged, in that block of countries, an astonishing degree of cohesion among a vast collection of human beings, over 300 million people, with immense resources and immense promise. Historical barriers have been brought down, boundaries are beginning to erode to the point of obliteration and all the time new initiatives are coming up-cultural, legal, technical and scientific-which are inexorably hastening the process of greater cohesion."
It is distinctly possible, 25 or even 50 years from now, that there would be a United States of Europe with a common currency, something unthinkable 50 years ago. "But those who had hoped that would happen, knew it would happen. Their reading of the historical situation at that time told them it had to happen. I say the same thing about SAARC," he declared.
Kadirgamar predicted: "We will overcome the problems that beset us now. There are problems that bedevil relations among some of us. They are intractable, but not insoluble. There is a vast reservoir of goodwill among all the peoples of our region which in time will propel member States concerned to get together, to bury their differences, and move SAARC along."
He praised the bonding of professionals-doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, teachers working together-as a "real" achievement of SAARC. There is more and more business being done jointly in the region. Out of this intricate network of contacts, strong ties will grow that governments will not be able to ignore.
Kadirgamar went on: "The future of SAARC will not lie in the hands of governments. It will lie in the hands of the people. And it is the people who are going to see to it, who are going to ensure, who are going to insist, that SAARC must be kept alive, functional and positive. It will happen, believe me it will happen. The children of the seven sisters, they will determine the future of South Asia."
Kadirgamars brilliant lecture on SAARC and its future was lustily cheered by a well-informed audience in a packed hall. Former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral presided over the function.
The lecture is organised annually on January 11 to mark the death anniversary of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the man who succeeded Jawaharlal Nehru on his death in May 1964 as independent Indias second prime minister. It was in the early hours of January 11, 1966 that Shastri had died in the Uzbek city of Tashkent shortly after signing the famous Tashkent Agreement with Pakistans Ayub Khan, brokered by Russia in the wake of the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Known for modesty, honesty and integrity all his life, Shastri died homeless, and is widely respected in India as a simple and honest leader.
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