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Pokhara Parleys: Efforts to Connect SAARC

Nihar R Nayak is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • March 22, 2016

    Sixteen months after the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, there are now visible efforts being made by the member states to give connectivity a chance in the region. This effort, however, requires Pakistan’s approval for the SAARC motor vehicles agreement (MVA) and the SAARC railway agreement. The SAARC council of ministers’ meet was held in Pokhara in Nepal during March 14-17, 2016. The objective was to review actions taken on the '36-point Kathmandu declaration' of the 2014 SAARC Summit.

    This was the first high level major meeting among SAARC member countries after the Kathmandu summit. The 37th SAARC council of ministers’ meeting is significant because it came after the mutually-agreed cancelation of the foreign secretary level meeting between India and Pakistan over the terrorist attack on the Pathankot air base in January 2016. Also, there has been some differences between Nepal and India over the restoration of peace in the Terai region by duly addressing the Madhesi demands. The meeting also presented a good opportunity for high-level interaction among the officials of India, Pakistan and Nepal to discuss major bilateral issues on the side-lines.

    Issues discussed

    The inter-summit meeting started with a session of the SAARC programme committee at the joint secretary level. Over two consecutive days, the committee discussed a wide range of issues proposed during the 2014 summit. Four reports, related to SAARC University, Development Fund, SAARC Arbitration Council and South Asian Regional Standards Organization, were discussed. During the meeting, Nepal proposed a new community foresting programme in other SAARC countries in line with its home-tested model that has proved very fruitful over the years.

    After the programme committee meeting, the SAARC Standing Committee at the level of the foreign secretaries was held on March 16. This meeting prepared the ground for the session of SAARC foreign ministers/council of ministers’ meet later.

    According to media reports, around 32 agenda items were presented in the Standing Committee, but many of them remained unresolved. Some of the important issues that failed to generate consensus were: understanding on expediting regional integration, connectivity, signing of the SAARC youth charter and projects approval for nine observer nations, among others. Consequently, these issues were forwarded to the ministerial-level meeting.

    In fact, one of the most important projects of the SAARC regarding regional road and railway connectivity could not be taken forward by this meet. A month earlier, Pakistan had, reportedly, asked Nepal, which is holding the SAARC Chair, to postpone the SAARC inter-governmental group meeting on transport, which was scheduled to be held on February 15, 2016, in Kathmandu. The meeting was to be followed by the SAARC transport ministers’ meeting. Pakistan wanted more time to sign the SAARC motor vehicle act. Earlier, it had opposed the same during the Kathmandu Summit.

    Other Challenges

    In the wake of Pakistan’s cold response, India and three other SAARC member countries signed the sub-regional connectivity agreement known as BBIN-MVA in June 2015 and the same was implemented in January 2016. A trial run of passenger vehicles was conducted on some of the BBIN routes in India, Bangladesh and Bhutan in November 2015.

    However, the member states are yet to finalize the modalities of the trade transactions on the BBIN corridor. The process has been delayed because Bhutan is yet to ratify the agreement due to various reasons. First, Bhutan is still analysing the security, economic and environmental implications of the BBIN-MVA. Second, Bhutan has expressed concerns over blanket permission to vehicles carrying goods and passengers from other countries. It proposes that either trucks from other countries would be allowed up to the Bhutan border or only a limited number of pre-determined trucks would be allowed entry into Bhutanese territory. Third, Bhutan also expects strong implementation of Article 14 of the BBIN-MVA, which allows continuation of the present informal arrangements.

    In addition, the six-month long trade blockage between Nepal and India due to unrest in the Terai region has also posed a new challenge to furthering sub-regional cooperation. The BBIN trial run could not reach Nepal due to political tensions in Terai.

    While SAARC connectivity has remained elusive both at the regional and sub-regional levels, surprisingly, the SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) meeting on March 15 in Kathmandu was a success. The meeting urged prioritising better connectivity by improving transportation facilities and easy approval of visas to traders and businessmen. It also recommended the establishment of SAARC industrial parks for better investment facilitation in the region. The SCCI proposal for an easy visa regime, however, flies in the face of the concerns at the interior/home ministry levels that such a regime along with an open border between Nepal and India might be an easy travel option for the entry of terrorists into India. The SCCI also expressed its anxiety over the negative impact on regional trade because of political hostility amongst member countries despite having a SAFTA regime. It reiterated that regional trade will cross the five per cent mark only if member countries set up a SAARC industrial park, increase the involvement of the private sector in development, and promote youth entrepreneurship, better connectivity and mechanized customs clearance facilities.

    On the side-lines

    There were many formal and informal meetings on the side-lines of the Pokhara meetings. There is now an increasing perception amongst many SAARC countries that such high-level SAARC meetings have become platforms to carry out informal meetings between Pakistani and Indian leaders and top officials. Since hostility between these two neighbours continues to dominate the discourse on regional integration and has often held the SAARC process hostage, some experts would argue that the leaders of these two countries discuss less about how to take SAARC forward and more about improving bilateral relations. Ironically, other countries of SAARC encourage such parleys on the side-lines, hoping that normalisation of the relationship between India and Pakistan would give a solid push to the integration efforts attempted under the SAARC banner.

    This time round, the meetings also provided an opportunity for India-Nepal contact at a high level. On his way to Pokhara, the Indian foreign secretary first met Madhesi Morcha leaders in Kathmandu and then called on Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Oli. During the meeting, the secretary reportedly reiterated India’s position on resolving the ongoing political crisis in Terai region through dialogue.

    On the same day, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had an hour-long ‘one-on-one’ meeting with Oli. Media sources indicated that Swaraj suggested that Oli resolve the Terai crisis by resuming dialogue. It was communicated from the Indian side that, without timely action taken in this regard, the Terai region might witness a fresh round of conflict. Swaraj also hinted that India had been closely monitoring political developments in Nepal.

    Swaraj also met Sartaz Aziz, advisor to Pakistan PM on foreign affairs, at a dinner party and again the next morning for a talk over breakfast. They also had a 20-minute ‘one-on-one’ meeting after the SAARC council of ministers meeting. And unlike in the past, this time the discussions ended on a positive note: (i) India agreed to host a joint investigation team (JIT) from Pakistan to investigate the Pathankot attack; (ii) India accepted the Pakistan PM’s invitation to attend the 2016 SAARC Summit; and (iii) other pending issues were also discussed. Both leaders felt that the interaction was fruitful and held in a positive manner.

    Takeaways

    The purpose of the Pokhara meet was specifically to assess the actions taken over issues agreed upon during the 2014 Summit and to set the agenda for the forthcoming Summit in Islamabad. Some of the major takeaways of the meeting were: First, it resolved the dispute over housing the SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Centre. As agreed in Pokhara, India will now have the Disaster Management Centre and Pakistan will host the Environment and Energy Centre. Second, the council of ministers endorsed the standing committee proposal on holding the SAARC summit within a span of every two years in the month of November. Third, it also endorsed amendment to the SAARC Development Fund Charter by changing the requirement of endorsement by three members for implementing projects to endorsement by one member as was the case earlier. Four, the positive atmosphere created during the meeting between India and Pakistan could help SAARC make progress.

    However, the outcome of the meeting appears less significant and limited given the extensive deliberations held over 32 agenda items at three different levels. The member countries once again failed to generate a momentum towards forging a consensus on SAARC-MVA and railway connectivity. This indicates that, along with continuation of its ‘neighbours first policy’, India needs to focus on rapid infrastructure development at the sub-regional level. While India may wait for full cooperation of other member countries to make SAARC a success, it must take the initiative and lead the way for forging more agreements amongst the member states in matters concerning economic and social cooperation. At the same time, it is imperative that India continues its efforts towards reducing the trust deficit amongst member countries.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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