In Nepal, cleanliness and discipline is a choice and never a preferred behaviour. So it seems as though the Nepali government decided to impose cleanliness and order on everyone for the SAARC Summit. Gardens have emerged overnight; trees have been planted and expensive private houses en-route to the Summit venue painted for free by the government. Just as in Dashain and various other festivals, we now expect common people to also walk around in clean clothes, polished shoes and well kept looks. Parts of Kathmandu now look so good that it could make every Nepali proud while at the same time, acknowledge that it will be too difficult to maintain. Soon after the event, we will be back to our old ways of littering the streets with garbage, traffic indiscipline, putting up ugly hoardings and posters and life will be back to normal.
Close to $100 million was been spent for SAARC preparations. It time to ask what will the return on investment from the Summit be? More specifically, what is the return on investment in SAARC for all the eight nations? How is Afghanistan benefiting from being a member and what is Myanmar losing by not being a member? Has SAARC delivered apart from being an occasion of celebration similar to the ones held by guthis—social organisations within different families and members of the Newah community of the Kathmandu Valley? The time for serious introspection is now.
The guthis in Kathmandu are waning and many of them are dysfunctional because of warring siblings. SAARC is no different. We have two family members who barely talk to each other and are always at loggerheads. Like in a guthi, where one brother refuses to drink wine brought from the house of another brother, we have a similar situation in SAARC where one country (Pakistan) is refusing to use a vehicle brought from another (India).
The controversy which surrounded the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s now cancelled visit to other parts of Nepal also resembles how in a guthi, there are disagreements on whether a certain family member,especially the richer one, should be given access to some parts of a family temple or not. They always make a lot of religious and social excuses. The issues are petty and it is difficult to expect these countries to really figure out an agenda that is far reaching, practical and doable. To expect India and Pakistan to mend fences is too far fetched an idea and SAARC has been taken hostage by this relationship. Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Program of Chantham House, an independent policy institute based in London, once told me, “First put India-Nepal, India- Bangladesh relationship in order, then you can talk about SAARC, else we are wasting precious time. ”
In well-functioning guthis, good relationships between members have delivered major economic growth for its members. There are no fights even during disposal of assets and everyone makes a contribution in case a family part of the guthi is undergoing a financial, health or any other crisis.
East Southasian Union
It is now time to explore some out-of-box ways of looking at how the members of SAARC can benefit from the organisation. West Southasia, comprising of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India share a complicated relationship. But Nepal and Bhutan share an open border and currency parity with India. Bangladesh and Myanmar can be brought into the fold too. India needs these four countries to ensure that the Northeast of its country, that has been neglected for past six decades, joins the mainstream economic growth story of the rest of India.
Just as in Scandinavia where southern Sweden benefited from the integration of its economy with Denmark, similar benefits are possible by the integration of the economies of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Nepal in two phases. The free flow of money, people, trade and investment should be allowed within the region with proper regulation to prevent security threats to each country. The availability of good technology platforms make regulation easier if there is good intent rather than creating rules for petty gains. East Africa has been benefiting tremendously from integration. Countries in the region, have put their problems behind on realising that integration is the only way for the region to develop. This is not starting something on a clean slate; it is basically building on platforms that already exist in bilateral relationships.
Nepal’s experience shows that only making improvements on social indices does not deliver economic development. Infrastructure development and investments to foster economic growth are equally important. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement mooted in 1996 and signed is 2004 has outlived its utility as technological advancements have made commerce virtual. If SAARC does not serve any economic objectives, merely organising exchange visits for artists and holding meetings will relegate it to a dysfunctional guthi.
The key economies between two countries lie in the border towns and cities. A population larger than that of the US is connected to the border economies of East Southasia. We have seen how the border areas in the Asean countries have benefited from the regional body. So it is for Delhi, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Thimpu and Yangon to think of how their border economies will benefit from fostering the East Southasian Union.
Hopefully, when Nepal gets to host an event next time, it will be for commiting investments and signing agreements for a new economic order rather than again cleaning the city for another guthi event.