The idea of a trans-South Asian road network has been around ever since the creation of SAARC in 1985, but the project could not see the light of the day because of tensions between the two largest members of the group, India and Pakistan.
But recently, large regional economic projects such as the Trans South Asia Road were taken up by the South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), another grouping of South Asian countries that includes India, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh. Pakistan is not part of this group.
SASEC was set up in 2001 to bring together these six countries to promote regional prosperity and boosting trade by improving cross-border connectivity.
The six nations are now likely to sign an agreement for seamless transit across their borders for passenger, and personal and cargo vehicles, in the next two months. Representatives from four of the nations finalized a Motor Vehicles Agreement at a meeting in Kolkata in February. Pakistan’s absence from the project could increase the distance between Islamabad and New Delhi within SAARC, and could affect future economic projects in South Asia.
“Pakistan sought more time. We were ready to sign the pact in the 2014 Kathmandu summit but there were delays from Pakistan,” said Vijay Chhibber, a former secretary at the Indian Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. “Pakistan was uncertain about signing the deal due to its internal issues. We did not want to delay signing the agreement with the SASEC countries.”
SAARC remains one of the least integrated groupings in the world. Less than 5% of the region’s global trade takes place among member countries compared with 66% for the European Union and 25% for Southeast Asia.
“Trans South Asia road, like so many other initiatives in India-Pakistan relations, has tremendous promise but sadly it is unlikely to materialize. Transport links can be a great confidence-building measure for bilateral relations, not to mention a major boon for economic development,” says Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a US think tank.
“Until these two countries, the cornerstones of South Asia, resolve once and for all their fundamental differences, notably on Kashmir, this project will not go forward. Needless to say, hundreds of millions of people would have much to gain from the fulfilment of this project as it would facilitate trade between all the South Asian countries and assist in their economic development. Such a network, was it to come to pass, could eventually link up with China’s grand One Road, One Belt project and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor,” asserts Claude Rakisits, a senior fellow at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Prospects of a SAARC rail agreement have brightened
Satish Misrah, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, believes the network is “crucial for the development of a region which is the poorest, the most deprived, the most malnourished, least gender sensitive and the most illiterate.” He believes the road would “give fillip to faster economic development to the whole region as South Asia will establish linkages to West Asia and beyond on the one side and to South East Asia and China on the other.”
With the recent forward movement in the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) pipeline project, prospects of a SAARC rail agreement have brightened, particularly in the light of the Indian prime minister’s emphasis on the issue of regional connectivity. Pakistan could join in the already planned transport project between the four SAARC countries.
However, there are reports about the meeting of the transport secretaries of the two countries in New Delhi soon, in which they will try to resolve outstanding issues and chalk out details of the protocol for the Motor Vehicle Agreement.
“The Trans South Asia road is an old idea. India would very much like it to happen,” says Mohan Guruswamy, who heads the Centre for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi, an independent and privately funded think-tank. “It would somewhat integrate the two big neighboring markets and will be mutually beneficial. The railway lines are already in place and all that needs to be done is to lift the mental blinds.”
He believes Islamabad is reluctant because of a mutual lack of trust with New Delhi. “Many Pakistani opinion makers are still of the view that anything that benefits India must be bad for them. The logic that benefits are mutual eludes them. I am sure there is a similar mindset prevalent in many parts of Indian security establishment.”