Towards a stronger Saarc

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As the 6th Conference of the Association of Saarc Speakers and Parliamentarians (ASSP) gets underway in Islamabad, serious issues continue to bedevil the South Asian region. While the conference focuses on its core agenda – i.e., meaningful participatory democracy in South Asia, its parliaments’ affirmative action and the targeting of food security through the parliaments’ role in ensuring the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – it is important to spotlight some of the fundamental imperatives for transformation of Saarc into a strong regional body.

South Asia is the least integrated region of the world. Big stumbling blocks and barriers exist in the free movement of goods and people. Due to deep-rooted suspicions and differences, a baggage of history, the region has not been able to exploit the economies of neighbourhood for the benefit of its peoples. Widespread poverty seems to be the only commonality that defines the South Asian region, home to a majority of the poor around the globe. Empowerment of the common man and poverty reduction can thus be common ground to work on.

From this perspective, participatory democracy through affirmative action by parliaments and making the South Asian region food-secure are pertinent themes for consideration at the conference.

Participatory democracy implies, with special reference to this region, abolition of exclusionary policies and structures for the mainstreaming of the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged sections of the society. For example, the region has failed to fully realise the potential of women due to deep-rooted gender discrimination. To this day, the birth of a girl in a typical South Asian home is not celebrated with the same enthusiasm as the birth of a boy. The number of missing women (a term coined by Amarta Sen) is high, compared to the numbers in other regions of the world, and this is due to huge gender imbalances arising from gender discrimination.

Due to exclusionary policies generally adopted in the region, social and economic inequities are sharp and structural in nature. The fruits of growth have not been shared widely in the region, which is manifest from the vast income inequality between the haves and have-nots.

This situation certainly calls for affirmative action from the legislators of the region for the empowerment of the poor. The fights to food, education and healthcare, which are the basic rights for realisation of political and economic rights, are some of the areas to attend to. It is only through realisation of these rights that democracy can be strengthened in these countries. The Indian parliament recently legislated on the right to food, thereby setting a precedent for other South Asian legislatures.

Participatory democracy in the region is based on three pillars: empowerment of people, pro-people legislation, and good governance. Wider participation of the masses in the political process is a must, and that can be possible only when people are fully empowered and feel that democracy is delivering. It simply means that the fruits of democracy are reaching them. The goal of meaningful and participatory democracy cannot be achieved without exclusionary and discriminatory policies being done away with. This is where strong affirmative action by the parliaments is sine qua non for pro-poor and inclusive policies.

Closely related to this aspect is lack of good governance, an area in which the region has done badly. The rampancy of corruption across South Asian societies and governmental structures gives one an idea of how deep rooted the scourge has become.

In order to check malpractices and change corrupt culture, the parliaments need to come up with strong accountability legislations. The Lok Pal Bill in India pushed by the civil society and the Accountability Bill lying in our parliament are pertinent examples of the need to bring in anti-corruption legislations on a fast-track basis. Strong, effective and bipartisan accountability structures backed by relevant legislations are essential to ensure real democracy.

Targeting food security in compliance with the MDGs is the second theme of the conference. This region is highly food-insecure due to prevalence of poverty, escalating food prices and over-population. The concept of food security should not be confined to merely increase in the production of wheat, rice and maize.

The concept of food security is wider than that and implies both unavailability of food and structural inaccessibility to adequate food levels due to a variety of reasons. For instance: People do not have sufficient incomes to meet basic minimum nutrition requirements; while food prices have steadily escalated, people’s incomes have not risen in proportion to the rising food prices, which pushed those on the periphery of food security into the ranks of the food-insecure; and poor governance, which also gives rise to problems such as hoarding and distorted incentives for the food growers. Added to that are natural calamities, which affect unhindered supply of food to people.

In this context, creating a food-secure South Asia requires a partnership approach on the part of the governments of the region. Back in 2007, an agreement among the South Asian countries was signed for the establishment of the Saarc Food Bank (SBF) with two main objectives: firstly, to act as a regional food security reserve during normal times, food shortages and emergencies; and, secondly, to foster inter-country partnerships and regional integration, and tackle regional food shortages through collaborative action. However, true to Saarc’s pattern of its being high on words and low on action, the SBF has not been able to become fully operational despite passage of five years.

In theory, Saarc can be credited with numerous praiseworthy initiatives, but it has not had a good record of walking the talk. Consequently, there exists a huge gap between theory and practice, which denotes lack of sustained political will. In order to forestall the possibility of Saarc being reduced to a debating forum, it is important that strong implementation mechanisms are put in place to periodically oversee the progress. The various layers within the Saarc system should evolve arrangements to attend to this aspect. It also calls for strengthening the Saarc Secretariat to serve as an effective body for coordination and implementation.

The 6th Conference of the of the Association of Saarc Speakers and Parliamentarians must focus on the broader issues and the ASSP delegates should give effective recommendations to their respective governments. The peoples of South Asia deserve better and it should be the endeavour of all member-countries to come up to their expectations.

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