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People’s SAARC: a valid agenda

Starting November 23, scores of social and political activists from all the SAARC nations have gathered here at the campus of Nepal Administrative Staff college, Kathmandu, at the ‘People’s SAARC’  (PSAARC) to plan strategies for shared concerns they feel are not sufficiently high-priority at the official summit. Violence against women, children and ethnic minorities, right to food, survival of tribal communities, housing for all and the perils of landmines – these are just a few of the issues on which PSAARC seeks to build a trans- national solidarity.

South Asians can note the contrast with the official summit and the People’s summit. When all the heads of the SAARC governments arrive here November 26 for the official summit, they will be greeted by large colourful hoardings, displaying the flags of all their nations, and their own smiling portraits. In comparison, People’s SAARC is far from the lime-light, a motley gathering of NGO workers and members of the village communities they work with. Their voices will appear at the governmental summit only in the form of a memorandum – a wish-list of demands and aspirations that will be finalised on November 24 and presented to the heads of SAARC nations.

Even though the official SAARC has often been regarded as a non-starter, the PSAARC has plodded along as a lose network of groups committed to influence national governments and the SAARC mechanism to address the concerns of ordinary South Asians notably relating to livelihood, migration, ethnic violence and environmental degradation. There is also a strong assertion of the need to recognise and celebrate a shared cultural heritage.

A statement issued at the inauguration of the PSAARC yesterday says that while there is an exemplary interdependence, interaction and closeness of south Asian people, “ties among the rulers seem more formal and are marked with doubt, distrust and dearth of common efforts…” On paper, the previous 17 SAARC summits have crafted polices that would be conducive to greater well-being in this region. But implementation has been poor and the dream of a tension-free neighbourhood still seems distant. This dream, the PSAARC statement says, cannot be made true simply by lowering tensions on borders. It requires a deepening of democracy and social justice.

So the scores of parallel sessions spread across the venue of PSAARC, are focused on the nifty gritty details of social justice.

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

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