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People-Centric Partnership: The Way Forward for SAARC?

The theme of the Colombo Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation held in August 2008 was "partnership of our people". Until now, however, the body has remained an intergovernmental mechanism with the people hovering at the margins and its economic and political initiatives proving to be mere procedural exercises. Only a people-centric agenda and action plan will help address this fundamental lacuna.


People-Centric Partnership: be examined and processed through o fficially scrutinised visa schemes, and
The Way Forward for SAARC? f ellowships for students which were o ften known for hindrances they created
in promoting scholarship. To cap it all
there were the SAARC audio-visual ex-
Rahul Tripathi change schemes which were meant to be

The theme of the Colombo Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation held in August 2008 was “partnership of our people”. Until now, however, the body has remained an intergovernmental mechanism with the people hovering at the margins and its economic and political initiatives proving to be mere procedural exercises. Only a people-centric agenda and action plan will help address this fundamental lacuna.

Rahul Tripathi ( is with the Department of Political Science, Goa University.

Economic & Political Weekly

october 11, 2008

dispassionate reading of the Colombo Declaration of the recently concluded 15th summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), largely i gnored by the mainstream media, fills one with a sense of déjà vu. Never short of good intentions and ideal statements, all SAARC declarations have remained reflective of that elusive regional idea that the grouping has aspired for since the last 23 years. Be it commitment to social development, poverty alleviation, economic interaction, cultural cooperation or combating terrorism, SAARC has said it all, with such regularity that one need not really be extra curious about summit declarations at all. There is nevertheless one single phrase in the declaration, given its location as the theme of the 2008 conference, which has the potential to catapult the grouping into the third phase of its much needed evolution. “People-centric cooperation”, listed as the first subheading of the declaration, may indeed be an idea in the lexicon of SAARC, whose time has come.

Mere Aspirations

Not that SAARC appears to be detached from people since its inception. Article 1 of the charter stating the objectives makes it clear that the grouping is all about “welfare of the people of South Asia”. S ubsequent declarations talked about r egional cooperation as a mechanism for betterment of people with amazing r egularity. But somewhere down the line, as the SAARC moved on from the first d ecade of institutional consolidation to the second decade of programmatic intensification in core economic areas, p eople somehow r emained at the margins of the discourse in the regional body. While there was a clear consensus for moving into certain core areas of regional cooperation, the people-centric dimension was very conveniently placed in a folder titled “people to people contact”, to telecast on regional TV programmes on the national broadcasters on the first Monday of every month at an hour when they were hardly viewed.

SAARC was not doing very well in the economic or political domain either. D espite its recent thrust on economic interaction within, the region has always been guided and cautious in its approach. During the first decade of the grouping the discussion in trade and economic matters was at best inadequate. When it was indeed initiated, the long drawn South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement and the equally prolonged South Asian Free Trade Area appeared to be more a procedural exercise which could not really lift up the level of intra-regional trade to more than 6 per cent of its total trade with the rest of the world. It was as if expanding trade in the region was an end in itself, forgetting that it would merely have been an instrument for the region to revive its old connectivities which could spur f urther economic integration in the r egion through joint ventures, investment c ooperation and financial cooperation. To that extent the dream of south Asia as an integrated economic unit which can c ollectively strike a better bargain for i tself in the trans-regional and global sphere r emains a distant dream today.

Second, the more fundamental aspiration of an economic consensus within the region paving the way for creating a constituency for addressing vexed political i ssues has remained a mere aspiration. South Asian countries remain mired in p olitical conflicts – both internal and cross-border that often impede the regional spirit. Economic cooperation within the region without a certain minimum p olitical consensus within the member countries will therefore remain susceptible to a certain lack of will. The nearly twodecade old SAARC convention on suppression of terrorism therefore remains a d ocument which perhaps none of the member countries had the resolve to


f ully implement. To that extent the basic principle in SAARC of keeping bilateral and contentious issues out of regional d eliberations does not a ppear to have helped much.

SAARC has at best remained an intergovernmental mechanism, guided by the political leadership and the bureaucracy with a very structured place for “people” within it. Frustrated by the lack of progress within SAARC of making it a medium of people’s interaction, parallel fora were floated with a commendable performance in terms of the interaction they promoted within non-state constituents – such as South Asian Free Media Association and People’s SAARC which held parallel meetings as the official SAARC summit deliberations took place. Unfortunately because of their ideological and professional disposition, the two parallel movements have had limited convergence with the official SAARC. It is in this context, a third voice, mainly emerging from an academia-policy advocacy combine which calls for the transformation of the official SAARC from its procedural-formal existence to a more people-centric organisation, appears to be well in tune with the basic postulates of what the Colombo Summit has finally laid down.1

People as Basic Premise

By stating the need for cooperation to be made “people-centred” and giving a go ahead on identifying cooperation in a reas where people-centric partnership projects could be initiated, the SAARC l eaders have tried to address a fundamental lacuna that has been afflicting the regional process so far. There has usually been a “shopping list approach” which drives the SAARC process aided by a detailed bureaucratic apparatus covering a wide range of issues at the level of exchange, but fails to deliver in terms of concrete results at the grassroots, whether it is meteorology, health, communications or culture. One is yet to see a SAARC initiative, though meaningful in intent, making a lasting impact on the ultimate constituency it is meant to serve.

There is thus a need to prune the shopping list and make the deliberations

o utput-driven. There is a need for SAARC to revisit its mandate and transform i tself into a people’s institution rather than an intergovernmental institution. It should adopt a four-pillar approach based on knowledge, technology, commerce and culture and a host of multiple partnerships could be created at the l evel of civil society, business, scientific community and cultural groups which would be a manifestation of a People’s SAARC or a SAARC from below. The

o fficial SAARC should play more the role of facilitator rather than i nitiator of this exchange.

The SAARC secretariat may therefore be well placed to initiate a feasibility study for a “people-centric partnership” model where the output and effectiveness of a project would be judged by the difference it is able to make in the lives of the target group. Such a study, premised on sound theoretical foundations for regional cooperation, has to be embedded in a sectoral micro application which makes the whole idea of regionalism output-driven and r esult-oriented positive sum game. This would be far removed from some of the existing studies where the ideal of cooperation has taken precedence over the p ragmatic aspect of the same. Needless to say, the basic references for such a framework have to be the people of south Asia

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themselves. If not, then SAARC will remain more of the same.

It is this premise on which perennial optimists would still be enthused by the theme of the Colombo Summit as “partnership for people”. Building up on last year’s theme of “connectivity” which did indeed see some meaningful activity on the ground level, apart from seminars and roundtables, the grouping will indeed be rightly placed by putting a people-centric agenda and plan of action in the designated areas of cooperation. The member states of the region have to realise that the ultimate sovereignty lies with the people of south Asia, therefore people-centric i nteraction and cooperation is indeed an idea whose time has come. The sooner the leadership translates the stated desire into practice, the better.


1 South Asia Together Project of International C entre, Goa, recently concluded with a call for r edefining the emphasis of regional cooperation in south Asia which becomes a vehicle for liberating the people from the shackles created by the excessive concern of the nation states with the “security of the state”. It sought a people-centric regional interaction in the area of knowledge, technology, commerce and culture as one of the key paths to greater human freedoms in south Asia. For details see V A Pai Panandiker and Rahul Tripathi (eds), Towards Freedom in South Asia, Konark, New Delhi, 2008, p 373.

october 11, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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