Although a diplomatic breakthrough between India and Pakistan remained the highlight of the 16th SAARC Summit held last week in Thimphu, Bhutan, the summit’s proceedings reflect a realisation among the body that it would have to move past bilateral disputes and forge regional unity to combat collective problems, at least at the level of statements. The Thimpu Declaration called for alleviating poverty, improving development and finding solutions to climate change. Symbolically, the fact that the summit was held in Bhutan, situated at the eastern end of the Himalayas, highlights the significance of our natural water reservoirs, the source of life and livelihood for millions, which are being adversely affected by global warming. Bhutan is the most environment-friendly country of South Asian and the message of countering climate change through eco-friendly policies could not have been conveyed at a better place.

The participants pledged to plant 10 million trees over the next five years (2010-15) in the region as part of a regional forestation and reforestation campaign of the member states.

The summit gave detailed recommendations in the areas of transport, communications, and trade; generating broader support for SAARC initiatives on connectivity through civil society, parliamentarians and the private sector; the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and integration of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs); monitoring of the social charter; cooperation in the energy sector; climate change, agriculture and biodiversity. Whether these recommendations will translate into policy formulation and progress on the ground remains to be seen.

Energy and trade stand out as areas of immediate concern. All the South Asian countries are energy deficient. Ambitious growth figures cannot be met if there is shortage of energy. A collective effort in developing an eco-friendly energy sector can answer our problems and considerably reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for energy production.

South Asia constitutes roughly one fourth of the world’s population, but the share of its mutual trade stands abysmally low. Despite adoption of SAFTA, there has been little improvement in the mutual trade volume of South Asia. By not focusing on trade, South Asia is foregoing all the advantages of proximity and ease of transportation, thus hampering its potential of emerging as an economic bloc.

The restrictive visa regimes of member countries have much to answer for for lack of progress in trade. Even otherwise, people-to-people contacts are necessary for creating an atmosphere of bonhomie and friendship. A freer visa regime would go a long way in mitigating, if not reversing, the climate of conflict and tension existing between certain states. In today’s world, a regional approach has been found to be most effective in responding to collective issues. As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and European Union (EU) have demonstrated, regional cooperation can accrue rich dividends for member countries in a wide array of fields. It is unfortunate that South Asia lags behind due to bilateral disputes, despite tremendous potential.

The keen interest shown by China, which was present as an observer, in the internal negotiations of SAARC and its emergence as a new factor in the South Asian region, given its power and economic clout globally, should cause some reflection. Some analysts believe that China will leapfrog India into becoming perhaps the most important factor in Asia. Before that happens, all South Asian countries, particularly India and Pakistan, should wake up and concentrate, first and foremost, on the interests of the South Asian countries as a whole. *

Second Editorial: Workers’ woes

Prime Minister Gilani, in an address to a gathering of workers at the Convention Centre in Islamabad, announced the Labour Policy 2010. A comprehensive and detailed programme aimed at following the universal principles of equality, justice and constitutional rights, the policy ought to come as a sigh of relief to the working class. Promising amendments to the existing labour laws such as increasing the minimum wage to Rs 7,000 from Rs 6,000, setting up committees at federal, provincial and district levels to check timings, pay, and the work environment, ensuring that private organisations pay salaries via cheques and bank transfers, lifting the ban on trade unions and labour bodies and welcoming incentives like increased pensions and free medical facilities, this policy promises to finally give workers some of their due.

Following the announcement, the many rallies and protests organised by leftist and union leaders throughout the country spoke of the working class’s misery and problems. With inflation rising at an amplified rate, to increase the minimum wage by just Rs 1,000 hardly seems befitting — especially since the last basic wage is yet to be universally implemented. However, it is no secret how financially constrained the government is, with cost cuts and taxes being imposed to meet budget targets. Some appreciation nevertheless is due for the government for trying to improve conditions within the present financial constraints.

This is not a government entirely lacking vision, but it has to wrestle with inefficient and corruption-riddled institutions and mechanisms. Implementation of corrective policies will require a complete rewiring of the internal system whereby inspection and regulatory bodies are cleansed of corrupt practices.

Although this is a comprehensive policy aimed to better the state of all sectors, it must be noted that it is the private sector where a real lack of workers’ rights remains the norm. With pocket unions formed by managements, timings being abused and salaries and increments being brushed aside, the labour policy should have addressed these grievances to prevent private organisations from getting away with virtual murder.

In the state sector too, good policies must be actualised. If not, the government’s reputation will be at stake, once again, in the eyes of the working class.

Source : The Daily Times – 03.05.2010

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