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Last Updated: Friday, 11 November 2005, 10:05 GMT
Can Saarc come of age?

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC News, Delhi

Indian troops patrol the de facto border in Kashmir
India-Pakistan hostility has long cast a shadow over Saarc
South Asian leaders gather in Dhaka this weekend for an annual summit of a regional grouping which has often been overshadowed in the past by tensions between India and Pakistan.

The 13th meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) is taking place amid a relative thaw in relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

But tensions over the issue of militant groups looms large over the meeting.

India is expected to convey a strong message to Pakistan following last month's bomb blasts in the capital Delhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said there was evidence of "external linkages" in the blasts, hinting strongly that militant groups across the border were responsible.

"A clear message must go out from the Saarc summit that there is zero tolerance for terrorism in any form," India's junior foreign minister E Ahamed told reporters ahead of the meeting.

Saarc brings together seven nations - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives.

'Slow boat'

Cooperation on trade and investment and the fight against poverty in the region, where nearly a fifth of the world's population lives, are high on the agenda.

The leaders of the region will also seek ways to work together more effectively when faced with natural disasters such as last month's earthquake or the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Discussions are also likely on the entry of Afghanistan into the regional fold.

However, one of the main challenges before the two-decade-old grouping remains how to make itself an effective regional force.

"All the platitudes at its 13th summit cannot gloss over the reality that since its founding two decades ago, Saarc, has been a slow boat to nowhere," writes analyst C Rajamohan in the Indian Express newspaper.

But officials insist Saarc in its third decade can achieve more than in the past.

"Saarc is moving from the stage of making declaratory sentences to doing collaboration work," Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran says.


But observers say any major breakthrough for Saarc remains elusive given the old disputes and mutual distrust among the members.

India's relations with Bangladesh have been strained following incidents of border skirmishes.

A Karachi trader
South Asian trade could double with a free trade pact

India also believes that Dhaka provides refuge to some Indian separatist groups, a charge Bangladesh denies.

With nearly 75% of the region's total resources and population, India is often accused of being less sensitive towards the needs and aspirations of the smaller members.

"Both India and Pakistan should try and ensure that voices of the smaller nations are heard too," analyst Professor Premanand says.

India is expected to express displeasure to Nepal's King Gyanendra at the lack of progress towards the restoration of democracy in his country.

Experts say since diplomatic rows are difficult to resolve, creating greater trade ties could be a way forward for Saarc.

A treaty aimed at boosting economic activity by creating a South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) was signed at the last summit in Islamabad in January last year.

If implemented, it could hugely increase trade among the seven nations, which at the moment stands at only 5% of their total global trade.

The treaty is scheduled to come into force in less than two months time.

But serious differences over issues such as tariff cuts and a mechanism to compensate poorer members for loss of revenue have put a question mark over whether it will be implemented on time.

Experts have urged the leaders to show greater political will.

Without that, they say Saarc will remain an annual "fashion show" of top leaders and bureaucrats in the region, organised at a huge cost to tax payers.

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