Friday, 26 January 2007

Evolving South Asian Fraternity

Imtiaz Alam

Profound are the changes that are taking place in Asia to take the centre-stage for the first time in modern history. In the next 25 years, Asia will have the two largest economies of the world -- with China becoming the No.1 and India becoming the No.3 economic power. Seen inthe South Asian context, the region as a whole could become the hub of the second largest economy, leaving United States behind. And with China bordering four states of the subcontinent, China and South Asia together can become the largest economic regional grouping with no comparable rival. The centre of economic gravity will for the first time tilt in favour of South Asia, if China also joined the grouping at some stage. Consequently, the dynamic of current globalisation that favors more developed countries of the West will turn in the service of Asia.

In this 21st century, which belongs to Asia, and in the next two decades, South Asia and China can together reshape history with half the world population residing here. But are we preparing for the role the 21st century is going to assign us? The skeptics, who live in the past, may drag their feet, but the historic opportunity is there to be grasped by those who see history moving to their side. The time has, for once, come to support formerly colonised people. Given our common history of national resistance to colonialism that most of us lost in 1857, the history will, however, not repeat itself in colonialism-by-reverse. With the most contiguous region of the world, a common history to share and similarities of cultures, South Asia has fewer baggage(s) to shed than Europe or the Far East.

South Asia is now booming with the ideas of regional cooperation, as reflected by this conference of South Asian Journal and South Asian Policy Analysis (SAPANA) Network which we are going to create. Significant sections of intelligentsia, economists, experts, journalists and peace activists have begun to take a wholist approach towards the collective good of the region as they increasingly find state-centric and security-centered approaches inconsistent with the interest of our 1.4 billion people. This conference on Envisioning South Asia reflects the urge of our intelligentsia and the people to outgrow the past and take a leap into a future which is ours. Certain stages of history can be skipped, so can various evolutionary stages through which, for example, the European Union had to pass in the 20th Century.

The road to evolving South Asian Fraternity is quite easy, if viewed purely from our people's viewpoint and ecological harmony; it is far more complicated, if taken from the perspective of bureaucratic establishments or merchants of hate. Indeed there are disputes, and there have been wars, that hinder progress towards our real goals of freeing our people from the yoke of poverty and backwardness. But there could be no cause greater than the emancipation and progress of our people. The conflict over disputes, such as on Kashmir, must give way to reconciliation and resolution that must at the same time allow, rather than hinder, regional cooperation to address the demands of our common destiny. The lines of conflicts must change into the bridges of friendship and the ironed-barred borders must melt before the urge of South Asians to become a fraternal and indivisible community of people with nation states joining hands in submitting before the will of their real sovereigns -- the People.

Steps can be simultaneously taken towards South Asian Free Trade Area, South Asian Union (Water/ Energy/ Communication/ Information/ Tourism/ Economic), South Asian Currency, South Asian Parliament and South Asian Collective Security. However, to take a leap forward, there will have to be no hegemon, nor a ganging up by the small against the big-one. A new paradigm of equitable partnership must evolve to reshape our relations.

The landmark agreements reached at the 12th Summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), at Islamabad, have spurred efforts at collectively tackling the real issues faced by the people while meeting the demands of globalisation and the WTO regime at the regional level. The agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) requires effective implementation, expanding the space for trade and, more importantly, economic collaboration and development. If South Asia's economies are to be integrated, it presupposes development of transnational infrastructure and monetary cooperation involving greater coordination among the governments and the central banks. Despite limited complementarities in trade-able items, due to similar comparative advantages, expansion of trade warrants vertical and horizontal integration of industries and investment in joint ventures by public and private sectors.

However, trade and investment will not move ahead unless tariffs are lowered, the negative-list kept to most minimum, para and non-tariff barriers removed and standards harmonised. This will, subsequently, translate into a South Asian Customs Union which may lead to a common exchange rate policy that will, eventually, result in adopting a South Asian Currency underwritten by macro-economic management at the regional level. No less important is the cooperation in the transport and communication sectors envisaging an integrated transport infrastructure that allows uninterrupted travel across and beyond our region and communication highways facilitating free flow of information.

Increasingly, the governments and concerned institutions are realising the necessity to address acute shortage of energy and water, incidence of drought and floods that often bring miseries to the people and states into conflict. The distribution and management of water resources, though quite a divisive issue among the upper and lower riparian regions, needs to be undertaken amicably in the spirit of riparian rights without depriving the lower riparian regions of their due. In this regard, energy cooperation should evolve into a South Asian Energy Grid with integrated electricity and gas systems. As India and Pakistan now agree, and they must, the gas and oil pipelines can run from Central Asia and Iran, through Pakistan and Afghanistan, to whole of South Asia and beyond.

Given a lowest rate of investment to GDP ratio, South Asia must create attractive environment for investment in high value-added manufacturing lines and trans-regional projects. Enhanced investment flows, both from within and outside the region, would culminate in production facilities located across the region through integrated production systems. Shares of both national and regional companies would be quoted on our stock exchanges as capital moves without hindrance across national boundaries to underwrite investment in any part of our region through a South Asian Development Bank. However, economic cooperation, investment, development of transnational physical infrastructure, transportation, communication, energy grid, equitable sharing of water and efforts at poverty alleviation would not produce tangible results unless the concerns of least developed countries (LDCs) are genuinely addressed, the negative-list is minimised, tariffs are substantially brought down and non-tariff and para-tariff barriers lifted, the economies are gradually opened up with a recourse to investment-trade linkage that takes care of trade deficits between partners through investment flows and capital account, vertical and horizontal integration of industries that benefits from relative advantages and economies of scale.

To realise this immense economic transformation, interstate and intrastate conflicts and attendant security threats and perceptions of political hostility will have to be addressed. The main obstacle to regional cooperation and economic integration remains political and strategic. The prevailing barriers to cross-border movements make neither commercial nor logistical sense and originate in the pathologies of interstate, as well as domestic, politics. Therefore, the political leadership in the countries of South Asia, whether in government or opposition, must show courage, flexibility and statesmanship to resolve interstate and intrastate conflicts and dismantle political barriers to regional economic takeoff and elimination of the scourge of poverty. They should get out of the straitjacket of enmity and look beyond the traditional notions of security and focus on an integrated South Asian Cooperative Security that recognises interdependence that binds South Asia. The states ought to act in their enlightened self-interest to resolve their conflicts and differences through peaceful means and to the mutual benefit of our people. The choice is often, erroneously, posed between regional cooperation and conflict resolution. We urge all states to simultaneously move forward to address long-standing political disputes and intensify economic cooperation and people-to-people contact.

Beyond cooperative security, South Asian nations must ultimately move towards South Asian Human Security by placing people -- their well being and rights to peaceful life and development -- at the centre of security concerns, rather than continuing with the arms race. To include the excluded, governments of South Asia take concrete steps to implement the SAARC Social Charter and give priority to poverty eradication. It is imperative for the South Asian countries to agree to a South Asian Human Rights Code and set up institutions under the Paris Principles and purposefully set about creating the required mechanisms. There is an urgent need to allow greater interaction among the policy-makers, parliamentarians, businessmen, media practitioners, professionals and the leaders of civil society. To enable this to happen, it is necessary that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who have the most restrictive visa regimes, drastically revise their visa policy and remove impediments to free movement of people. To overcome information deficit about the countries of the region, it is essential that all restrictions on access to and free flow of information are removed forthwith and media persons and products are allowed free movement across frontiers. In this regard we refer to SAFMA's Protocols on 'Free Movement of Media Persons and Media Products' and 'Freedom of Information' which must be adopted by the national legislatures/governments and at the next SAARC Summit. The media, on their part, should give special attention to coverage of the countries of South Asia that remain under-reported. Similarly, all scholars, academicians and researchers be freed from all visa restrictions and allowed joint researches in every conceivable field.

The scope of collaboration in the sphere of culture, sports, tourism, education, research, human resource development, poverty alleviation and environment is infinite. Let a South Asian fraternity defy all restrictions imposed by the past and usher in a new era in which our people could become the master of their destiny while contributing tremendously to the progress of whole humanity regardless of geography, ethnicity, nationhood, gender, creed and color. Let us put together our collective wisdom to evolve a South Asian Vision and join hands to evolve a South Asian Fraternity.
(Source: South Asian Policy Analysis Network [SAPANA])

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