South Asia stands today at the cusp of history: Between a past, darkened
by poverty, disease, illiteracy and conflict, and a bright future, when
the great potential of its human and natural resources, and the shared
humanity of its diverse cultures can be actualized. In this context the
Islamabad Summit was a watershed in the contemporary history of South
Asia because it held out the possibility of a future quite different from
the past. The Summit declaration of January 6, 2004, signified a change
in the mind set within which India-Pakistan relations have been conducted
over the last five decades: From mutually destructive confrontation to
mutually beneficial cooperation.
Underlying the observed change in the mindset of governments was the powerful
yet simple logic of the people, to live in peace and well-being rather
than persist in poverty under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. The will
of the people was dramatically demonstrated in the spontaneous warmth
of embrace between Pakistanis and Indians during the current cricket series:
The knotting together of the flags of Pakistan and India, the singing
of Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan by Indian cricket fans and the dancing of the
Bhangra in tandem by citizens of both countries was seen on television
by billions of people around the world.
As the world applauds President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee
for their sagacity in starting the peace process, the people of South
Asia await the fruits of peace and regional cooperation. It may be useful
at this stage to identify the tasks that lie ahead in putting SAARC on
the fast track and thereby fulfilling the aspirations of the people of
South Asia. Five initiatives need to be undertaken to enable the economic
benefits of cooperation to become palpable for the citizens of the region:
- Facilitating private sector joint projects to build a network of
motorways and railways at international quality standards through out
South Asia. These modern road and rail network could connect, for example,
Peshawar through Lahore to Delhi and Dhaka. There would be a sharp increase
in investment and employment initially and would continue as economic
growth accelerates through secondary multiplier effects as all the major
commercial centers of the Sub-continent are linked with each other as
well as with the economies of Central Asia, West Asia and East Asia.
- Energy cooperation projects for both the distribution of electricity
as well as the transportation of oil and gas in the South Asian region.
To enable power trading there is an urgent need to establish high voltage
interconnections between the national grids of the countries of the
region, particularly Pakistan and India. For the cheaper availability
of oil and gas, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh should cooperate in establishing
oil gas pipelines for transporting oil and gas from Iran, Qatar and
- To facilitate the gains from trade for the people of South Asia,
rapid implementation of the SAFTA Agreement should be undertaken. In
this regard, treaties to eliminate double taxation could lower the transaction
costs for businesses working across international border in South Asia.
It would also be useful to set up an arbitration mechanism to handle
intra-SAARC commercial disputes.
- A SAARC Educational Foundation in South Asia should be created on
the basis of contribution by individual SAARC member countries and also
by multi lateral donor agencies. The purpose of this foundation would
be to create a network of high schools at an international standard
in every Tehsil (at least one in each Tehsil), of each of the countries
of South Asia. These SAARC schools could act as role models and set
the standards for both the private sector and the individual governments
- A SAARC Health Foundation could be created as a model for high quality
health care support to the people of the region. My work for the UNDP,
Pakistan National Human Development Report has shown that poor health
is a major trigger that pushes people into poverty. Therefore taking
urgent measures at the regional level for both preventative and curative
health institutions could have a direct positive impact on poverty alleviation
and human development. In this context the SAARC Health Foundation would
have the following objectives:
- To establish maternity clinics in each Teshil of each country
of South Asia for providing pre-natal and post-natal care to mothers.
This could help improve the health of mothers and thereby ensuring
improved outcomes of pregnancy in terms of the health and productivity
of the next generation.
- Establish high quality model hospitals, (one in each district)
of each country of South Asia.
- SAARC district extension services for sanitation and provision
of drinking water at the community level. The rich corpus of experience
of different communities in South Asia who have tried on an experimental
basis to provide sanitation and clean drinking water at low cost
can be accessed and made available to village and mohallah level
The financing of the proposed initiatives can be done by linking together
the private sector, governments and donor agencies in a multi pronged
initiative that could improve employment, incomes, health and education
of the people of South Asia. There are adequate financial and technical
resources available in the world for such a venture. What is needed is
political will. It could change the material conditions of life of the
people of South Asia where the majority of the world’s poor reside.