Sound or light

Updated: Nov 15 2005, 05:30am hrs
That the Dhaka Declaration, adopted by the 13th Saarc summit, proposes to expand the scope of Safta to include trade in services and investment, apart from its commitment to Saftas implementation as per schedule, is a constructive move, given the success stories of regional integration in other parts of Asia. The perception, however, is that it would be a long haul before the cooperation potential can be seriously tapped, with mutual distrust still the undercurrent, despite the visionary articulation on the welfare of South Asia heard at the Summit.

Saarc leaders have committed to resolving all outstanding issues on Safta by the end of this month, so it can be operational from January 1, 2006. The key concerns relate to sensitive items, rules of origin and concessions on tariff reduction. India, particularly, needs to adopt a more pro-active stand; the six Saarc nations run an estimated combined trade deficit of $2 billion with India. The way forward may not be smooth, unless members gain more confidence in a mutually beneficial equation. The logic applies to other measures, such as Indias offer of transit facilities on a reciprocal basis. A stronger statement could have been through unilateral offers. The agreements on cooperation on customs, trade issues arbitration council and avoidance of double taxation are promising. One would have also liked concrete news on physical connectivity through roads, inland waterways and railways. In the absence of such linkages, the promised efficiency-seeking restructuring of industry on a pan-regional basis will remain a pipe-dream. Many other messages in the declaration are carry-forward versions from earlier years; it is time for implementation and adherence to deadlines to win over rhetoric.

On the whole, theres much to be said about this summit, pronounced by the Indian PM as most productive. Much depends on India and Pakistan. The trust deficit acknowledged by Dr Singh and Mr Shaukat Aziz has to be dealt with. That Saarc home ministers will meet annually to work together against terrorism sounds good. But will progress gather pace, with mutual confidence only just building up and still very tentative Will this grouping be able to go the interdependency eases conflict route Both the Indian and Pakistani PMs are known to believe in the new economic paradigm; one hopes contentious political issues are not allowed to derail the process. Only then can the vision of a prosperous and competitive South Asia be translated into reality.