How distant is South Asian economic integration?

– Md. Shariful Islam

South Asia as a region is fairly late to embrace the notion of regional economic integration which was highlighted in the later half of the 1980s. Notably, it took almost a decade after the establishment of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985 to promote regional economic integration through a regional agreement. In December 1995, the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) came into its formal operation. The South Asian leaders agreed in 1996 to go a step further to promote economic integration through a South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). But due to lack of political will, it was delayed.

Later in 2006, after 10 years, the SAFTA came into operation. During this time, due to political reasons mainly, SAARC summits were postponed for several times. For instance, from 1989 to 2005, SAARC summits were postponed for 10 times. This clearly underscores the level of apathy, lack of political will and commitment of the South Asian leaders to promote regional cooperation.

Given the deadlock situation of the SAARC for its slow progress, what are the ways forward to promote South Asian economic integration? Ironically, the outcome of the SAFTA is not at satisfactory level. Promoting free trade in the region will not happen automatically. To pursue South Asian economic integration, the following ways can be taken into consideration.

Education is the password for progress for any kind of change. Needless to say, it can play the role of a catalyst to inculcate regional consciousness. In fact, nurturing cooperative attitudes, relations among the students will go a long way in promoting peaceful co-existence in this region.

Hence, South Asian mutual hostility and distrust can be taken away only by promoting education focused on the region. In this regard, the South Asian University (SAU) can play a key role. It can be exemplified that because of having experience of studying at SAU, this writer observed that a culture of friendship, cooperation, sharing, and caring is nurtured there. This is very much imperative to promote South Asian economic or political integration in the days ahead. We saw the celebration of Indian and Pakistani Independence Days together on the same stage and the active participation of all other South Asian students. When these students will be in the important positions in their respective countries, certainly they will think about their region since regional consciousness is being nurtured among them.

Furthermore, in a 2012 UN ESCAP conference at Delhi on food security, the South Asian leaders were claiming that there is dearth of scholarship regarding positive impacts of regional integration. Besides, knowledge over regional cooperation is pertinent to promote it. Hence, there should be more studies on the consequences of regional integration; how the countries of the region will be benefitted from such integration, what the challenges are, way-out and so forth.

In case of South Asian economic integration, perception matters. It is perception which plays a leading role during foreign policy formulation of Pakistan and India. It is also pivotal to look at how India and Pakistan are represented to the citizens of Bangladesh, most importantly in history text-books. So, the psychological dimension–most importantly Indo-Pak rivalry– needs to be taken into account with regard to economic integration. And to change the perception, the enlightened, regionally conscious citizens are needed in both the countries. One of the eminent columnists in India, KuldipNayar expressed his commitment to see an improved India-Pakistan relation. As he points out, ‘Improving India-Pakistan relations have been my passion as well as my prayer. Mine is a commitment, not just nostalgia’.

Many argue it is lack of political will which is the major hurdle towards South Asian economic integration. As Ananya Mukherjee contends, historically, regional cooperation in South Asia has been fraught with problems. The political reasons behind this apathy towards regionalisation, as is well known, involve serious strife in which the countries of the region are mired. As economics and politics are inter-linked, economic and political integration needs to be taken into account for integration in South Asia. It is also pertinent to note that in promoting political integration in the region, the role of India and Pakistan is crucial. Former prime minister of India I. K. Gujral ‘sees great potential for development in South Asia and for this potential to be realised. However, regional cooperation is necessary. India, as the leading power, can afford to be accommodative to promote such cooperation’.

Notably, the invitation of all SAARC leaders during the oath-taking ceremony of Narendra Modi is a good sign from the Indian leadership to promote political integration. Such initiatives need to be accelerated for  greater interests of the region. It is also argued that India cannot rise as an economic superpower until her poor neighbours are developed.

Restrictions on cross-border transportation are major hindrance to trade and cross-border investment in South Asia. Due to such restrictions, transaction cost increases which negatively impacts intra-regional trade. For instance, currently trade between India and Pakistan takes place mostly via Singapore or Dubai which undoubtedly increases transaction cost. In case of India-Bangladesh trade, it takes 45 days to transport a container from Delhi to Dhaka which would require only 2 to 3 days if overland railway transport is permitted by Bangladesh.

Promoting people-to-people contacts is quite imperative to galvanise the South Asian economic integration. In fact, people-to-people contact plays the role of a catalyst to promote regional integration at the state level. Introducing border haat in the Indo-Bangla border is expected to be imperative to promote people-to-people contact between India and Bangladesh.

It is often claimed that the military rule in Pakistan is one of the major reasons for hostile relations between Pakistan and India. This hostile relationship is sustained due to vested regime interest. Hence, promotion of democracy and democratic values are important since the democratic leaders intend to focus on welfare of people rather than on regime interest.

Although, South Asia has a number of common challenges i.e. rise of fundamentalism, terrorism, environmental insecurity, poor water governance, corruption, human and drug trafficking; studying these challenges at the tertiary level in the discipline of international relations or political science is hardly found. Only the South Asian University offers a course on regional integration at MA level in international relations. So, there is an urgent need to redesign curricula at tertiary level incorporating a course entitled ‘Regional Cooperation or Integration Processes’.

Pedagogy plays a pivotal role to shape intellectual ground and to take appropriate steps to resolves such problems. Furthermore, developing curricula on South Asian cooperation is crucial since it will educate tomorrow’s policy-makers the students which will be imperative to promote regional integration in the days ahead.

Finally, the SAARC leaders must take lessons from the recently-held APEC Summit where China offered ‘vision of Asia Pacific dream’ based on a ‘shared destiny’ of peace, development and mutual benefit for the people of the region. Can we expect any ‘South Asian Dream’ based on shared prosperity for the people of South Asia? The proposal of the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific (FTAAP) came up. The whole world is going for a deeper economic integration. Then why not South Asia? If APEC can take the initiative for Asia-Pacific integration and can view the world prosperity through itsc partnership, then why can’t the SAARC? South Asian countries need to come out of the the 19th century notion of sovereignty to the 21st century concept of interdependence.

We would like to conclude by expressing the desire to see a prosperous, peaceful South Asia so do expressed by KuldipNayar in his autobiography Beyond the Lines. As Nayar said, ‘I hope one day I will be able to see a region of friendly states working together for their mutual benefit’.

The writer is Lecturer, the Department of International Relations, University of Rajshahi.

The writer is an alumnus of South Asian University, New Delhi. This article appeared in The Financial Express, Dhaka