“The SAARC summit and the Kathmandu facelift” by Michael Hutt
On 25 November I was contacted by Monocle Radio, who wanted to hear my views on the massive cleanup of Kathmandu that took place during the run-up to that city’s hosting of the 18th SAARC summit (see http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/11/pictures-kathmandu-20m-facelift-2014112392617611.html). The interviewer asked me where the Government of Nepal might have found the $20m it is said to have spent on this project, and I think I disappointed him by saying that his guess was as good as mine.
The summit promised little, and more or less lived down to general expectations. Still, at least it happened: this was the first such gathering for three years, and it was only six months ago that the heads of states last met, at the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi in Delhi.
The theme of the summit was ‘Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity’, and its main tangible achievement was the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity). There is some hope that agreements on the regulation of ‘passenger and cargo vehicular traffic’ and on railways will be concluded once transport ministers have completed the necessary homework. Otherwise, the 26-point Kathmandu Declaration was dismissed as a wishlist by most commentators.
Much was made in the international and local media of a supposed thaw in the frosty relationship between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif during the leaders’ retreat at the hill resort of Dhulikhel, and of a public handshake between them on the final day, for which Sushil Koirala, the Nepali Prime Minister, took credit. But the fact remains that the chief obstacle to wider regional cooperation is the Indo-Pak standoff, which has visceral distrust as its baseline.
The other South Asian nations’ courting of China, which has observer status at SAARC summits, upsets the Indians too. Both India and China share an interest in making SAARC work, but India is extremely wary of Chinese initiatives such as the Silk Road Economic Belt, which aim to establish China as the economic giant at the centre of Asia, and threaten to push India to the margins. The irony of the fact that the summit was held in a conference facility built with Chinese money cannot have been lost on delegates.
Here at SOAS much of our research and teaching effort treats South Asia as a region, and we focus not only on India but also on the neighbouring nation-states. We see many commonalities and continuities across their borders, and would love to see more connectivity too. As for cleaning up Kathmandu: well, I love the place, and it is arguably the most neutral venue in the region. But, as Tom Bell says in his recent book Kathmandu (Random House India, 2014), it’s an environmental catastrophe, and no amount of prettification (whoever pays for it) will solve its fundamental problems.