logo logo

Feeding on fears

The News International, Pakistan, 12 May 2005

Opinion: Feeding on fears

Ikram Sehgal

We need to guard against attempts by vested interests to discourage South-South trade, says Saman Keligama of IPS, Colombo, citing a recent World Bank Report according to which this trade, compared to North-South trade, is a failure. On the contrary, he argues, there is enough evidence to show that South-South trade has increased. It is true that market access comes at a cost, but we must be on guard against efforts to divide the economic unity of South Asia.

Mr Keligama was among the academics, experts from NGOs, businesspersons, retired government officials and speakers from South Asia gathered recently in Colombo to attend the Regional Seminar on Economic Cooperation in South Asia, organised by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) organisation and the CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics and Environment (CUTS-CITEE) in Jaipur, India.

There were other interesting observations at the meeting, like the assertion by A.N. Ram, former secretary of the Indian External Affairs Ministry, that SAARC is a flawed concept. It was agreed to, he elaborated, without enough preparation, or studies to delineate the parameters. Mr Ram presented six points: (1) Economic cooperation must maximise inter-structural linkages where possible (road, rail and pipelines, etc); (2) While promoting sub-regional cooperation, include Myanmar and Afghanistan; (3) We should have bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTA), along with a common investment regime; (4) South Asia should not ignore linkages with other regions; (5) We should harmonise and coordinate policy on global issues; and (6) Remember that economic cooperation can be beneficial for political issues.

Speakers were apprehensive about the role of India within SAARC, considering the adverse trade regime that it has with Bangladesh. There are concerns whether SAPTA will really come into effect in January 2006.

Mr Posh Raj Pandey of Nepal said that the "sensitive" list has to be negotiated as well as the rules of origin. Provisions of SAPTA agreement make it clear that the agreement will go on to an economic union. Four issues were addressed at a recent committee meeting held in Kathmandu, including the issue of negotiating a sensitive list must be subject to a maximum list; various countries have placed various items under a negative list: Bangladesh 1,393 items, Bhutan 133 items, Nepal 927, Maldives 584, Sri Lanka 1,302, India 1,302 and Pakistan 1,214. The nutshell of Mr Pandey’s arguments was that unless institutional reforms are undertaken, SAPTA will not become successful and the services sector must be brought into the programme.

Mr Abid Suleri from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Islamabad, argued against SAARC’s becoming an isolated trading bloc and for a better negotiation position with other established trading blocs — the need to get real stakeholders into negotiations rather than only government representatives, who tend to be over-protective about issues that relate to governments.

As Tarun Das, former secretary general of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), said, "The countries of the region need to think in terms of a collective South Asian market, collective regional endowments and combined growth. The heterogeneity factor, in development levels within the region has its own challenge.... Most of us fail to look at ourselves as a single community of South Asians, and are often oblivious of our regional identity. The countries of the region need to think in terms of a collective South Asian market, collective regional endowments and combined growth. Opportunities are unlimited, resources are in plenty, but there are constraints of free mobility and connectivity. There are several disconnects at work in South Asia. But this is what underlines the need for faster and extensive cooperation."

Summing up, CUTS-CITEE secretary general Pradeep Mehta said that governments apart, the civil society, the intelligentsia, the business community and the NGOs must all emphatically promote awareness about the need and advantage of regional cooperation. South Asia has great economic strength in terms of its market potential, rich natural resources and human capital. The need is to make SAARC a strong economic bloc, leaving aside bilateral disputes, as a significant amount of trade is already taking place through informal/illegal channels.

Regional cooperation in South Asia will not only help increase the level of intra-regional trade among South Asian economies and also integrate smaller economies into the larger regional economic space, thereby expanding the size of the market and facilitating cost reductions. Greater interaction is needed between civil society and the political class across the different countries of South Asia. This would contribute to a quicker settlement of the differences and a greater South Asian solidarity, which is essential for the progress and prosperity of all our people.

South Asia has been occasionally described, in the words of Raju Kothari, as "a loveless hothouse where member-states feed on each other’s fears." If our people’s destinies are to be changed, we need to exploit each other’s strengths, feed on trust rather than fear. Or, as Field Marshal Slim said in his book Unofficial History, "Do not take counsel of your fears."

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

 Fuente: News International