Thursday, 25 April, 2024

Regional Integration In South Asia

Kushal Pokharel


South Asia (SA) constitutes a region with shared history, geography and culture. Our socio- cultural, historical identities are deeply interconnected. 25 per cent of the global population resides in South Asia. Moreover, the immense youth power in SA has been considered as a great opportunity in terms of expediting regional integration.
Having said that, SA is the least integrated region of the world compared to other regional organisations like EU and ASEAN. One of the key components of ASEAN is the export led growth which is missing in SAARC-- a regional grouping of SA nations. The slogan of SAARC for integration, peace and prosperity has taken a backseat. Nevertheless, connecting South Asia through rail, road, and water ways and developing trade to collect the Buddhist holy sides of the region and facilitate movement of people from one country to another is high on the agenda. In this regard, the government of Nepal has agreed to pursue the goal of achieving South Asian Union through common economic and monetary union and common market but this has not materialised yet. In a study done by ADB, it has been found that some key issues persist in terms of non-tariff barriers for smoothening of trade and monetary exchanges.
The fourth ADB-SAARC special meeting identified ways in which we can connect the region better. Unfortunately, we have been slow in implementing the decision. Member states have not been able to settle the tariff hurdles when it comes to exporting commodities to other countries of the region. During the 18th SAARC summit, two agreements on connectivity had to be signed. One was SAARC agreement on railway and the other was on motor vehicles. While all SAARC leaders agreed to sign, one of the members refused to be a part of the deal. Furthermore, the framework agreement on cooperation has also been unable to come into force due to the reluctance of two countries represented in SAARC. In this way, the efforts of regional integration hit a roadblock.
In fact, the idea of official SAARC has become problematic for some time. Serious bilateral issues between mainly India and Pakistan has stagnated SAARC. For instance, the long standing conflict between India and Pakistan has gone from bad to worse. Even the SAARC summits have come to a halt due to bilateral rifts. In the same way, the implementation of various conventions under the aegis of SAARC has become shaky owing to unstable politics and lack of political ownership among the SA nations. While various pledges have been made in terms of deepening economic exchanges, the progress of such accords have been rather sluggish in the absence of a pragmatic leadership in the region. The problem has been exacerbated by various conflicts which the region has been witnessing throughout its history.
Rescuing the people from the state centric system of governance has also become a matter of heated debate over the past few years. Even the official idea of SAARC has come under a huge crisis with the notion of sub-continent gaining greater currency. SAARC was originally conceived as a platform for the people of the region to come together for the common prosperity. However, this has not happened. As a result, our environment, water and forest system among others, have been endangered. Instead of becoming a facilitator, state has become more of an obstacle in deepening the regional integration in this sense.
Hence, the pertinent question is whether we can prepare platform for collaboration in health, education, industry, small enterprises, financing etc. Expanding socio- cultural and spiritual exchanges will also be crucial. For instance, thinking of Yoga as an alternative healing and promoting it in the region and beyond. Promoting Nepali and Bhutanese medicines to the furthest potential can be the stepping stone towards deepening regional integration.
Connectivity can start from a few countries which can later be expanded in the entire region. Addressing the issues of social inclusion and gender in the entire process of improving connectivity should be on the top priority. Devising strategies for tapping the potential of women force who comprises half of the population of this region and accounting their contribution in the GDP could be a great step forward.
Nurturing a research culture among SAARC countries to generate innovative ideas and disseminate interesting insights and knowledge all over the world is the important aspect of making the regional well integrated and prosperous. Moving towards a common market to address our common issues is the key to expand opportunities in South Asia region.
Hence, reinventing SA and working on building more vibrant South Asian communities to which can shape public policies have become urgent. Expanding people to people interaction through joint academic and research programs, skill enhancement and employment generation will help in the economic progress of this region.
(The writer is a member of the Social Science and Research Faculty at NIMS College.)