By Ravi M. Khanna
At last India and Pakistan, it seems, have woken up to the need for genuine cooperation in South Asia where countries of the region start depending on each other for those crucial products which they now import from the West. This way they will pay lower freights and at the same time contribute to the economic growth of the region.
May be the first step in this direction came this week when New Delhi and Islamabad agreed in principle to trade in electricity through a specially-built high voltage direct current link between Amritsar and Lahore. Right now the plan is to transfer 500 MW through the Punjab border with the tariff linked to the market rate.
If this kind of pragmatism spreads in the region, the region, given its potential, can become a bigger market than China and the whole of Europe and can also become self-reliant in a number of products and services that they now import from the West. And the West knows that, and may be that is why it does not encourage such logical moves that may not serve their self-interest.
Hopefully, the agreement between India and Pakistan is just the beginning. At at first glance, it seems each country has something it can share with the others for which they go outside the region to import. Just consider: rubber production in Sri Lanka, natural gas in Bangladesh and, with all its waterfalls, Nepal's capacity to produce hydro-electricity.
Let us take Sri Lanka first. It produces almost 150,000 tonnes of rubber annually. This trend continues with Sri Lanka exporting about 20 percent - 30 percent of the rubber production in raw form while 70 percent-80 percent is used by domestic industries. So, given the quantity and quality of the rubber produced in Sri Lanka, they can even produce more quality tyres than the total demand of the South Asian countries and then even export some.
If its tyre industry gets a boost from SAARC, or just India, it can produce enough tyres itself and for the whole region. Then countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh will not have to import tyres from Western countries. They will also have to spend less on freight due to the proximity of the supplier.
Bangladesh is among the fortunate to have a substantial volume of natural gas resources. Part of it is discovered, and only part of discovered resources has been proven. But the natural gas situation in Bangladesh is a desperate situation because it is letting its gas fields to hibernate. So it needs swift development and production of natural gas in order not to allow it to hibernate. SAARC countries can help Bangladesh do it and at the same time produce fertiliser and also power in some sectors. Such a pragmatic move can help Bangladesh in producing power and also fertiliser to meet the demand of the whole region, eliminating the need for importing fertiliser from the West by India, the biggest importer of fertiliser in the region..
Power is also in shortage in Nepal that has a huge hydropower potential. In fact, the perennial nature of Nepali rivers and the steepness of the country's topography provide ideal conditions for the development of some of the world's largest hydroelectric projects there. According to some estimates, Nepal's hydropower potential is more than 40,000 MW of which it has developed less than 1,000 MW. Therefore, bulk of this economically feasible generation has not been realised yet. SAARC countries can help Nepal generate enough hydroelectricity for domestic consumption and then also for export to neighbouring countries like Pakistan and India.
So, if the SAARC countries begin looking beyond their noses, they can prosper themselves and in the process make South Asia a self-reliant region, perhaps to the envy of the West.
(Ravi M. Khanna is a longtime South Asia observer. He has also headed the South Asia Desk in the Voice of America Newsroom in Washington and published a book called "TV News Writing Made Easy for Newcomers". He can be reached at ravithenewsmanonline.com)