Human rights groups, labour organisations, and common people have realised the importance of cooperation
By Shujauddin Qureshi
South Asia is home to one-fifth of world's population, making it both the most densely populated geographical region in the world. Despite having considerable human and natural resources, this region is still backward as a majority of its population lives below the poverty line.
A history of conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir and other regional conflicts have marred efforts aimed at regional cooperation. The creation of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985 had raised hopes for regional cooperation but the performance of this regional block has not met expectations.
Other regional blocks like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and European Union (EU) have made huge progress as regional groups. Dr. Moonis Ahmar, Chairman Department of International Affairs, University of Karachi, says there has been no sincere effort to increase regional cooperation, which reflects in statistics, "Internal trade among SAARC countries is only 5 percent and SAARC countries' contribution to the world's GDP is only 1 percent." Dr. Ahmar says SAARC has always refrained itself from interfering in the internal matters of its member states, which has resulted in ineffectiveness of SAARC. The Secretary General cannot take decisions because of veto status of each country – that means if one country disagrees on an issue it cannot be taken up.
The political confrontation between India and Pakistan has always put the peace of region at stake. The recent conflict that flared up after Mumbai attacks in 2008 increased the arms race between the two countries, thus the funds which are meant for people were diverted to buy weapons.
"India and Pakistan have placed orders of weapons worth 20 billion dollar after Mumbai attacks," says Karamat Ali, Executive Director of Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER). He says Pakistan has recently reduced its development budged by 30 percent and that funds have been used to acquire weapons for the army that is doing a military operation in Swat and South Waziristan.
Human rights groups, labour organisations, social activists, and common people have realised the importance of regional cooperation. Therefore, they have got together and established people-to-people contacts. One of the initial platforms for regional discussion was the 'Conference on Trade Union, Human and Democratic Rights' held in Colombo in March 1991. Organised by International Trade Secretariats of three international trade unions, the Conference in the Sri Lankan capital brought together 60 labour and human rights activists from five SAARC countries, including India and Pakistan.
The Colombo Conference was followed by the Pakistan Conference held in Karachi in 1992. These two events led to informal discussion among activists for the need to devise a South Asian civil society mechanism for a collective voice on regional issues.
The idea of a mechanism on the pattern of SAARC was put forward during this time. Efforts towards realising a people's SAARC continued for a couple of years through informal meetings of South Asian activists. The last meeting of this process was held in Kathmandu in 1994, the year the official SAARC Summit did not take place. The year 1994 also witnessed the founding of yet another crucial South Asian network – the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy. In July 1995 the People's SAARC meeting was held in New Delhi parallel to the official 8th SAARC Summit.
The process of the 'People's SAARC' suffered constraints in the following years and the gatherings parallel to the 9th and the 10th SAARC Summits at Male (Maldives) and Colombo (Sri Lanka) could not take place. In 1999, the South Asian groups and activists made an effort and reinstituted the gathering at the South Asian People's Summit. However, due to the deteriorating Indo-Pakistan relations, SAARC Summits were not held from 1999 to 2001.
A South Asian Citizen's Commission was formed to pressurize SAARC member states to get the SAFTA 'Framework Treaty' by late 2001 but to no avail. In December 2000, the South Asian People's Summit was held in Colombo with the slogan "Listen to the Voice of the People". Though the organizers -- the South Asia Partnership-International -- called it the first South Asian People's Summit, it was yet another link to the same chain -- the process of people's consultation parallel to the official SAARC.
The second People's Summit was held simultaneously with the 11th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. The third People's Summit was held in Islamabad in 2003 with the slogan, "Even if leaders cannot meet, people can meet" because the official 12th SAARC Summit was not held as per schedule that year.
The fourth People's Summit was held parallel to the 12th official SAARC Summit in 2004 in Islamabad. The South Asian civil society held its gathering in 2005 in Dhaka parallel to the 13th official SAARC Summit, this time re-naming the event as the People's SAARC. The 2007 People's SAARC was held in Kathmandu in late March, a week earlier than the 14th SAARC Summit held in New Delhi on 3-4 April 2007. The shift in the venue country was deliberate as Nepal is the country with a friendly visa-regime, compared to India where visa processing, particularly for Pakistanis, is long and tedious.
In 2008, the South Asian People's Assembly was held in Colombo, parallel to the 15th SAARC Summit held in the city, bringing together some 2,500 to 3,000 civil society organisations and groups, and 5,000 participants, of whom 1,000 were from across the SAARC region. By now, at the time of the 16th SAARC Summit, scheduled to be held in Thimphu, Bhutan, on April 28-29, 2010, the People's SAARC Assembly would be held in New Delhi on April 22-23, a week before the official summit to force the governments of SAARC to bring people's agenda in their decision-making.
Civil society activists from all eight countries of SAARC are scheduled to meeting in the Indian capital to discuss matters of mutual cooperation, including Climate Justice and Economic Cooperation, Impacts on Livelihoods, the Discrimination and Human Rights, Politics of Hate, and Terrorism and Militarism.