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Regional groupings are important platform for change
Ershad Khandker

          December 8, 1985 was the day the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) came into being. A regional grouping was of a particularly important necessity for this region, more so than other regions. The Indian sub-continent is a region deeply divided in strong religious communities that are suspicious of each other, despite the fact that the communities share ethnic similarities. That is why the Indian subcontinent gained independence from the British only after it was carved -up into two nations based on the religious identities of two communities. Ever since India and Pakistan came into being, the two nations were not able to take advantage of the ethnical similarity and the large populations that they possessed simply because of deep suspicions of each other's motives. Lingering border problems as well as unfounded suspicions kept two great people at loggerheads.
This long-standing chasm was having serious repercussions for the entire region as the smaller nations found it impossible to make their own problems heard. And when they did get a hearing, the bigger nations were perhaps not giving as much important to the smaller problems. The smaller nations needed India and Pakistan to come to terms with each other. If India and Pakistan got along, then that would give these two nations the chance to give attention to some of problems that exist with their smaller neighbours.
But even more importantly, the peaceful co-existence would make available the larger markets of the bigger nations for the smaller nations to trade with. It was impossible for the smaller nations to think of trading with their bigger neighbours with any degree of acceptable balance simply because trade always took backseat as they remained pre-occupied with their long standing border problems. An association of the nations of the Indian sub-continent would give the nations a platform to talk about the need to work toward achieving maximum economic benefit by trading with each other. Just sitting together and talking would be a great breakthrough.
A regional association of states precludes bilateral issues from being discussed and India has certainly discouraged bilateral issues to be brought up in the SAARC platform. However, closer economic ties would necessitate that each state talk about resolving their outstanding bilateral issues with greater urgency! This very point makes SAARC very welcome and crucial body.
In this context, December 8th, 1985, would remain an important date simply because such an association of regional nation of the Indian sub-continent came into being on that date. Given the fractious history of this region, such an association marked the first true breakthrough for the people of this region from the standpoint of seeing increasing cooperation.
In the realm of international relations and international geo-political realities, regional groupings of nations have been undertaken primarily for economic and political reasons and also as a way to defend the smaller nations against the larger ones. It is a system which was a failure as a concept during the bi-polar regime of world politics during which the world was divided into capitalist and communist blocks. A nation either joined the western block or the communist block. And while these were regional blocks in one sense, they were hardly the kind of association that would lead to the kind of economic and political benefit that regional blocks should offer. In those days, joining any of the power blocks meant that you acted as per the directive of the dominant denominator of the block, namely the capitalist, or the communist, power broker.
The demise of one of the power block has given regional groupings of nations a greater significance. The voice of the smaller nations could now be heard louder. The history of regional groupings does not impress many. It is pointed out that regional groupings like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) or North American Trade Association (NAFTA) are not very successful. In such groupings, large differences, it is noted by some critics, in living standards persist. The critics of the concept of regional grouping fail to understand the objective of such groupings. They are not formed to give poorer nations a platform to receive free handouts and that is why differences in living standard remain.
But the tremendous benefit in preferential trade facilities and large consumer base that such groupings provide are benefits that any self respecting nation-state would want. Once you can trade in a free and fare way, then the superior business talent, backed up by superior product and service of a nation, would bring that nation the desired success and higher living standard it is looking for. Regional groupings are meant to be a great catalyst for economic and, to some extent, political cooperation. They are not meant to be economic aid organisations for any particular poor or small nation.
It takes a long time for separate nation-states to achieve the right balance in their desired and declared aim of working toward trade and economic cooperation on the basis of regional cooperation. That is only natural since independent nations are basically individualistic and proud of their independent heritage and populations of nation-states are not easily convinced of the benefit of giving-up a little ground to other nations. This is never so obvious than in the chequered history of the European Union. The people of France rejected the constitution of the European Union (EU) when the political leadership was the most serious advocates of the constitution. Yet the fact remains that the EU gives generous help to economically backward sectors of its member states leading to substantial improvements in these sectors, irrespective of the nationalities of the peoples who work in these sectors. Such help usually go to nations that are not as developed as larger member-nations of the EU. The politics of the EU remains hard to achieve union simply because the political goal is to achieve political union. SAARC would not look to that goal in the foreseeable future! It wishes to gain political stability in the region and to promote economic cooperation.
The SAARC was and remains the platform that gives the member-states the best chance of achieving economic cooperation of the kind that would open up the economies of the region, leading to strong economic cooperation. This dream is not easy to achieve and we cannot accept any quick opening of the economies of the region to unfettered trade. Yet, there are various committees of SAARC that are devoted to this goal and are working closely behind the scene to bring the nations nearer to a desired goal.
The summit in Dhaka beginning from the 12th of this month is going to be held in the backdrop of a substantial thawing of relations between India and Pakistan. The devastating earthquake in the Kashmir region has reminded the people of this region of human mortality and the folly of long-held acrimony that leads to noting but poverty and degradation. We hope that the Dhaka summit will lead to a giant step toward closer economic cooperation, leading to improvement of the living standard of the downtrodden. That is what the Dhaka declaration has declared to be the main aim of the summit. We would like to see that things are going the right way with the SAARC.


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