Excuse me…Southasia?

 Published in: The Daily Star on June 16, 2014
Excuse me…Southasia?

The sight of Narendra Modi reviewing Vikramaditya battleship, his declaration of Bharat playing the role of neither an aggressor nor a victim, and the visual of the stormy seas said one thing …India is enjoying sending strong messages to the world. Just back from Japan and China, our prime minister has also sent clear messages of aligning within Asia. Countries in Asia will soon be defining the global atmosphere and countries in South Asia might as well be investing in a single word: Southasia.
How will this region ever turn into a one word? Last February, during a Saarc literary festival held in Dhaka, only one participant from Pakistan turned up, who too was shamed by her fellow poets saying that Pakistanis ought not visit Bangladesh, a land where people were being hanged by war crimes tribunal.
Long ago, Saarc launched South Asian Visual Exchange (SAVE), a platform where all the nations in South Asia were looped together into contributing socio-cultural material which would eventually give birth to a regional broadcast. Needless to say, that never worked. Track 1 diplomacy hardly works anyway. A private initiative called TV Southasia (one word here) was launched from India, and that too fell apart owing to lack of finance.
Apart from a socio-cultural platform what other elements can sew this region back to a position of strength? Trade? A free trade area was aimed by Safta way back in 2004 during the 12th Saarc summit, which committed to duties being reduced to 0 by 2016. Ten meetings of the Safta Committee of Experts and 7 ministerial council meetings have been held so far and, excuse me, what exactly has happened so far? Nothing much. A shipment from India from Mumbai port still has to come via Colombo or Singapore; a truck from Benapole carrying shipment from Ahmedabad is still taking 21 days to reach the destination while a vessel from Shanghai now arrives in 10 days.
Statistical reference to the intra-regional trade is far from new now. They just serve as harsh reminders to our reality. Asean is shoring up its economic integration through the Asean Economic Community (AEC) by 2015 and its intra-regional trade stands at a 22%, while EU’s at 55% and South Asia’s at 5%. We South Asians trade only up to $2 billion amongst ourselves, while only 1.3% of South Asia’s parts and components are traded within the sub-region, and 56.3% go to East Asia. South Asia accounts for 5.5% of India’s exports, while imports from the region have a share of just 0.55%.
Unfortunately, an asymmetry of a substantial extent exists in South Asia as India runs a big trade surplus of $15 billion with Saarc countries, with exports worth $17.5 billion and imports of just $2.5 billion. In spite of India having granted duty-free-quota-free access to all LDCs in Saarc, mainly Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, that mostly use land route to trade with India, face innumerable non-tariff barriers. The infrastructure to support cross-border trade is totally inadequate and multiple supply-side constraints range from transport to poor investment within the national borders of South Asian LDCs. All of this leads to the goal of a South Asian Economic Union by 2020 to remain as a dream while Southeast Asia focuses its economic integration efforts through the Asean Economic Community (AEC) for 2015.
Luckily, a few balls have started to roll with regard to a few issues. The Indian Commerce Department has already planned for better connectivity between Chittagong port in Bangladesh to Haldia and Vishakhapatnam ports in India. India is also reported to be unilaterally considering vehicles from Bangladesh to ply within the country in a bid to facilitate cross-border trade by reducing transaction costs. A deal in electricity and hydrocarbons between India and Pakistan may also be inked soon along with the good news of both the countries opening banks’ branches in each other’s territories. Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s second largest trade partner in the region, has already expressed an interest in expanding its free trade agreement (FTA) with the island, which will create growth in bilateral trade that has already exceeded $460 million, according to Sri Lanka’s trade ministry. In terms of connectivity, Nepal and Bhutan revised the bilateral air services agreement (ASA) on May 17, increasing the flights between the two countries by three-fold, with immediate effect.
Development of hydro-electric plants in Bhutan and Nepal, wind power in Sri Lanka, oil exploration in the Maldives are also encouraging news that indicate that there are better value chains existing within this region of Southasia if only stronger partners like India wish to extend both technical and financial support for improved trade in the region with increased investment and support in trade facilitation measures.
Now, what exactly needs to be done if we want to take South Asian integration to the next level? Is the need of a grander vision of South Asia inevitable? For that, how badly would civil society members like us need to battle with the politics of xenophobic nationalism and reason with how secure or insecure we all are within our own spaces? How can we fight the intra- regional trust deficit?
For this, we need to understand that with the birth of a nation state, we are often forced into our national identities and very often we forget that beyond our own families, language and states, we all have bigger identities as South Asians. That is exactly why many of us from Bangladesh and Pakistan run Indian restaurants in London. This is the beyond-border-magic in South Asia.
Manmohan Singh dreamt of a similar magic in 2007 when he expressed his desire to have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul –all within a day. Seven years later, a reality check reveals that a similar journey would take him more than 96 hours today. Somewhere, somehow, beyond the tight budget of the 8 foreign ministries, a special Saarc magic wand needs to be waved for this to change.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

Posted on