LAHORE: Apart from boosting the business of some Kathmandu-based hotels, which have reportedly witnessed a record-high occupancy of more than 94 percent this November, the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit may again fail, like all the previous moots during the last 29 years, in increasing the intra-regional trade as all the eight member states just trade about five per cent of their goods and services within their region.


Just 18 Saarc moots in 29 years since 1985 also speak volumes of the fact that this hostile region, spearheaded by two world nuclear powers, has been nourishing enmities at most times during these last three decades.


A study undertaken by the Jang Group/Geo Television, by taking into account the statistics quoted by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Pakistan Economic Survey, World Trade Organisation (WTO), Saarc Secretariat, various research papers on the subject and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) etc, shows that the intra-SAARC trade is far less than the 66 per cent level in the European Union, 53 per cent in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), 32 per cent in Asia Pacific region and 25 per cent in the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).


Ironically, the total GDP of the SAARC member states is only 3 per cent of the world’s total GDP——a food for thought for the observer countries like Australia, Burma, China, European Union, Japan, Iran, Mauritius, South Korea and the United States!


The importance and growing awareness about the benefits of regional trade have reached even Africa, where all countries have come to an agreement to promote their tea products.It is imperative to note that the exports from all eight countries in the region are hardly two per cent of global exports and the total tourism revenue earned by all the energy-starved Saarc nations is less than the tourism income of Malaysia!


Food and energy security thus remain the biggest challenges for the leaders of the Saarc countries.About 43 per cent of the 1.6 billion Saarc inhabitants today languish below the poverty line, as the member countries continue to struggle in facilitating cross border movement of goods through a better infrastructure, improving people-to-people connectivity by liberalising visa regimes, promoting conditions of fare competition in the free trade area and in ensuring equitable benefits to all members.


A prestigious Indian newspaper The Hindu has noted: “With one-fifth of the world’s population, South Asia is home to two-fifths of the world’s poor. However, it accounts for only 3 percent of global output and 2 percent of world exports.”


This is what the above-cited Indian newspaper has maintained in one of its recent stories pertaining to the 18th SAARC Summit: “But unlike the European Union, Saarc countries range in size, and are not of similar strength. As a result, continuing tensions between the two biggest member-states, India and Pakistan, have held back the region. In particular, terrorism emanating from Pakistan, that affects both India and Afghanistan, has derailed any normal trade and travel in that entire part of the region.”


The Hindu has gone on to write: “On issues like education, employment, agriculture, climate change and managing the environment, the countries that share culture, languages, food and social structures have much in common, and can learn from each other. If they harness renewable energy, especially hydropower, solar energy and wind power together, they can power the entire region at lower and cleaner cost than many other parts of the world.”


During the recent Kathmandu Summit, the Indian Premier Narendra Modi had viewed: “Today, goods travel from one Punjab to the other Punjab through Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai and Karachi – making the journey eleven times longer and the cost four times more.”


Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was heard asserting that his vision for the region was of a dispute-free South Asia where instead of fighting one another, the countries jointly fought poverty, illiteracy, disease, malnourishment and unemployment.


Of the eight Saarc member nations, five countries i.e. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal share common borders and provide vast opportunities for business through road and rail, but high trade barriers, poor connectivity, terrorism, trans-national crimes and inadequate trade facilitation measures etc serve as some of the major hurdles towards the long-elusive goal of lasting prosperity.


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