In 2009 fourteen people died in Munawar Chand’s neighbourhood in the old city of Hyderabad, due to water contamination. Today Chand is the leader of Basti/Vikas, a small community organization that works to improve the lives of residents in slum where he lives.
This week Chand travelled to Kathmandu to be part of People’s SAARC (PSAARC). Exchanging notes about his work with activists from other SAARC nations Chand was amazed to find that the poor in the whole of South Asia face the same problems.
It was not this shared pain which made the journey to Kathmandu worthwhile for Chand. “We are used to officials not listening to us” he said, “so here we got a chance to raise our voice and send a message to all our governments together.”
That message took the form of a PSAARC Declaration which was released on 24 November at the conclusion of the three day gathering which attracted about 2500 people from across south Asia. The declaration was formally handed over to Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, the Nepali Minister for Foreign Affairs.
While individual participants might experience a sense of empowerment how relevant is the PSAARC platform – after almost two decades of shadowing the official SAARC process? This question must be addressed in the context of the fits and starts nature of the official SAARC process.
A range of conversations with participants at the PSAARC indicates that those who have a long standing engagement with the network have few illusions about it.
First of all PSAARC is marked by a joyous camaraderie – both of a common cultural base and shared agenda about social and economic justice and environmental sustainability. This is further bolstered by the conviction that in the long run these concerns have to be tackled at the regional level.
On some issues the PSAARC mobilization has even made a dent in government policy – most notably in getting governments to jointly acknowledge the gravity of the problem of human trafficking in south Asia.
However, giving substance to the dream of an ‘alternative regionalism’ is a daunting task. The declaration sent by PSAARC to the official summit asks for policies that ensure food security, protection and expansion of labour rights, climate justice, economic cooperation aimed at expanding livelihoods, gender rights, human rights and ending of caste discriminations.
While most of these are goals on which there is not dispute there is little agreement on how to achieve these ends. Matters get still more complicated when the PSAARC declaration calls for a cessation of the politics of hatred by ensuring protection of minority rights across the region.
While this demand is a no-brainer, making it real is an excruciating challenge in a region where every country’s minority is the neighbouring country’s majority.
Therefore PSAARC might be more accurately described as a platform of NGOs and people’s movements which have a progressive humanitarian agenda – one that often lacks popular support among the people of this region.
For instance, at a time when privatization is seen as a key element of aggressive GDP growth, the PSAARC declaration favours community control over natural resources and a restoration of commons.
When the Nepali minister of foreign affairs today promised to carry the PSAARC declaration to the official SAARC Summit he said “your declaration is the aspiration of the people.”
It is true enough that the aspirations for greater justice have a wide base – just as there is for the numerous agreements made in the official SAARC. It is in the implementation that both official and civil society platforms still appear to be on the margins of trends shaping our societies.
Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House
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