By Liladhar Upadhyaya

Bangladesh, Dhaka, Jan.22 - Participants at a seminar organized by People’s SAARC on 18-19 January 2011 in Dhaka on ‘Envisioning New South Asia: People’s Perspective’ discussed the possible contours of an effective SAARC Union and the possibility of a peaceful, democratic, united and just South Asia.

The group observed that South Asia is home to some of the world’s richest; and also of the largest number of poor people in the world. The region is plagued by conflict, poverty, lack of access to basic necessities and services; and ravaged by conflicts of various kinds.

Rampant unemployment, feudalism, abysmal living conditions of the large majority, is further complicated by religious sectarian violence and state sponsored violence, both domestic and cross border.

"There is an urgent need to find solutions to the deep seated problems in the South Asian region. And clearly, these cannot be found in the failed neo-liberal paradigm, nor in the right wing alternatives based or, religious sectarianism and national chauvinism," the organizers of the PSAARC said in a statement.

"It is also clear to us that the solutions to what are common problems spanning the entire region are more likely to be effective if they are regional in scope. Regional unity can be a good beginning to finding solutions and alternatives."

Yet many of the governments of the SAARC countries, particularly the more powerful ones, are not upholding the lofty ideals that form part of the SAARC Charter which they are committed to defend, the organizers in a press meet organized at the end of the programme said.

"Although SAFTA has been in place since the 1980s, formal trade within the region is still negligible. Intra-regional trade can be a vehicle for pro-poor, equitable growth, but only when such trade includes safeguards and regulations to allow for equitable growth both within and between the countries."

The Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that are being negotiated and implemented within the region bilaterally and with other countries follow a neo-liberal model that undermines labour regulations and benefits richer countries disproportionately, they said.

The intra-regional trade based on the principles of complementarity and protection of workers, farmers and other marginalized communities is necessary and essential for the economic wellbeing of countries in the region, they said.

Climate change is critical issue throughout the region, with coastal and mountainous communities facing the greatest threat. Climate justice is closely linked with the more fundamental questions of poverty, marginalization, deprivation, and skewed development, they said.

"We appeal to the governments of SAARC to respond to this threat by addressing the question of climate justice, and also by working out unified positions on the climate negotiations and climate justice, and measures taken in energy policy and the development of clean energy."

"We in PSAARC are deeply concerned about the rise in sectarian violence, militancy based on nationalism and religion, and the support they are getting from the various quarters including the state, army, intelligence agencies, etc."

"The new South Asian region can be created only when we and out political leadership have the courage to develop and implement solution to these issues and this meeting is important first step towards this."

"Fundamental to the creation of the united peaceful and prosperous South Asia is a liberalized visa regime. The tightening of visa restrictions does not affect those who carry out armed attacks on innocents. These are the criminals and they do not apply for visas."

Religious extremism has been spawned by imperialist interests and their drive for global hegemony. It should be fought collectively by the people of South Asia. An increased commitment to democracy and justice and the intensification is the only way to combat this trend.

The members of academia, trade unions, NGOs, social movements, women organizations, who are part of the loose network called PSAARC, believe that SAARC must play a pro-active role to fulfill the aspirations of the people of South Asia along with civil society organisations.

Source: The Rising Nepal (23 January 2011)