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27 May 2014, Gateway House

Hopes for a South Asia union

The South Asian region is one of the least integrated in terms of trade and human interaction. The presence of SAARC leaders at the swearing-in ceremony of the new government heralds a step towards removing barriers and integrating the economies of this region

former Gandhi Peace Fellow

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The presence of SAARC leaders at the inauguration of the new government in Delhi revives hopes of this region moving closer to fulfilling the dream of a South Asian union that fosters economic democracy.

This would mean much more than just an increase in the volume of cross-border trade and knowledge sharing by top and middle rungs of the business sector. A futuristic reconfiguration of SAARC relations would have to tangibly expand economic freedoms and opportunities for those who are now at the bottom of the pyramid. Such freedoms can lead to dispersed wealth creation – which is the essence of economic democracy.

It was in a speech given at the central hall of the Indian Parliament in 2009 that Bangladeshi Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus spelt out the dream of a South Asian union founded in order to completely eliminate poverty so that “some day, school children will be taken to visit poverty museums.”

This can be done, Yunus said, by promoting social business – that is ventures which earn money profits but are primarily focused on generating social well-being and environmental regeneration.

Since then social enterprise as an idea has grown by leaps and bounds. Noted venture capitalists like Vinod Khosla and the Omidiyar Network are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into this sector. But there is no trans-border effort to remove the barriers that are holding back the promise of social enterprise and other models that would lead to a rapid increase in livelihoods at the bottom as well as enhance the ease of doing business for the hundreds of millions who run micro enterprises.

Given the cross-border tensions that have plagued this sub-continent the idea of such a South Asian union has remained a lofty but somewhat orphaned ideal.

Sceptics might say that the presence of SAARC leaders’ at the swearing-in of the new Indian government is not reason enough to get excited about this dream getting some traction.

But the symbolic moment on the lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan does raise the bar for those who have a vision of a South Asian union based on economic democracy and cooperation in addressing environmental crises that are set to accelerate.

This moment is an inspirational reminder of just how much work needs to be done before a South Asian union of this kind becomes truly plausible.

Here is one tangible step. This space invites inputs from all SAARC countries on one question to begin with: what are the various ways in which opportunities are being quashed for those at the bottom of the pyramid?

Detailed answers to this question are already known but that knowledge is scattered, both within each nation and across the region. Pooling those answers and working together to prioritise how the economic ‘un-freedoms’ can be addressed would be a small but decisive start.

Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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