The 18th SAARC Conference following its establishment in 1985 was held for the third time in Kathmandu in 2014. The chances of it being held again, turn by turn in the eight capitals or a major city means that Nepal will not have to arrange it for another 16 years at the minimum. The citizens of Kathmandu might never again have to be subject to the hassles that they have to cope with on their way to work. There is every chance that with the confrontations between two major powers India and Pakistan that SAARC may even come to an early end. What must be accepted is that there has always been a constant of words following each get together. The rhetoric has been constant but the attainment of the pronouncements and the promises made have been negligible. What should have been a Free Trade Region in 2006 is nonexistent.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi- Sectoral Technical & Economic Cooperation - BIMSTEC came to be formed also as long ago as 1997. Initially consisting of four countries, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand a fifth Myanmar was added the following year and BIMSTEC formed. Bhutan and Nepal became members later. The secretariat of this organisation is in Bangladesh in comparison to that of SAARC which is in Kathmandu. Though sixteen ministerial meetings have been held and three declarations made following official conferences, the reality is that a charter of this organisation has still not been made. In reality the activity seems to have been stagnant till 2004 when the first conference was held at Thailand at which our then Premier Deuba represented Nepal. Subsequent conferences at Goa, India in 2008 and at Napidaw, Myanmar in 2014 were attended by PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal and PM Sushil Koirala respectively. The current situation is the PM Oli happens to be Chairman of both SAARC and BIMSTEC and has gone to great lengths to state that one organisation is not an alternative to the other. The fourth conference in the twenty years lifespan of BIMSTEC is being held at Kathmandu. At this rate the next one to be held in Nepal will be three decades hence. Many of us will be dead and gone by then. However the fifth conference is due to be held in Sri Lanka.
The areas for concern for member countries are stated to be in a number sectors amongst which are: connectivity, poverty alleviation, trade, investment, tourism, climate change and security matters. Although PM Oli has said that BIMSTEC is not an alternative to SAARC the fact remains that the concerns identified by BIMSTEC have also been repeated over and over again at SAARC get togethers. Just as BIMSTEC has not been able to implement the intent of 2004 regarding free trade in the regions, the same is true of SAARC. Even at the open border between India and Nepal the officialdom stationed there periodically stop the movement of various items on and off periodically. Such is the reality of officialdom – pronounce one edict act otherwise!
We have been hearing these types of pronouncements for long. Lollipops have been offered as inducements for action. The words are sweet, the offers of help or co-operation alluring but the fact remains that the implementation takes a long time. Foundation stones for many projects are periodically laid! What to do? The leaders' egos have been satisfied but who is to carry out their diktats?
SAARC was formed in the wake of the European Union. We had positive visions that SAARC in Nepal. We enthused over the ‘Year of the Girl Child’ & ‘The Decade of the Girl Child’. What has been the result of all this down the years. Presently we are reading about the various abductments, rapes and murder of minor girls, not only in the Western area of Nepal but all over the country. Former visions of a single currency, unrestricted travel over a borderless Europe has become a subject about which rethinking is occurring. Whether Brexit becomes a reality or a new referendum has to be held is a topic of much debate in the UK. Refugees from the African countries and Syria, trying to escape hazards and get to the safe regions of Europe are being held up at the borders of many of the countries. Is a similar fate awaiting SAARC?
The fact that five countries of eight in SAARC and of seven in BIMSTEC are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka is a cause of worry. Will the tendency to make high sounding pronouncement recur so that nothing gets done. Are the periodic conferences just gala extravagant exercises to hoodwink and fool the public? The signs are there. Even the Charter of BIMSTEC has not been evolved after an existence of twenty years! The possibility that SAARC will rise up from the ashes like a phoenix appears slim.
We in Nepal can count ourselves as fortunate in that having held these two jaunts recently we will not be subjected to the ‘Movement of additional VIPs’ for many years to come. Of course our local VIPs are still there and the enthusiasm of our traffic police is active as ever to make us Nepalis suffer. The people who have gained from these conferences are the contractors beautifying Mandala Point and the Tinkune Park each time a conference or state visit occurs. These two areas are literally gold mines to periodically make oasis or art galleries at times of conferences at huge costs and then allow degenerating so that the process can be repeated again and again.
If free trade becomes a reality, religious tourism takes place and cheap internet connectivity is provided to the peoples of the BIMSTEC region a great leap forward in the lives of the people of this region will have taken place.