THE demise of SAARC is now almost certain and perhaps it was inevitable. It was not just about a ‘region’ — collected together based on mostly the British colonial past — but also a very unrealistic attempt to put some collective pressure on India, the ‘lord’ of SAARC. As the level of asymmetry is high in the region, it was not a very successful attempt to have a more ‘balanced’ South Asia. Every SAARC member is in a state of bilaterality with India where most of the pressing problems rest but SAARC is not empowered to deal with bilateral issues. Multilateralism as a concept was never strong; so, this attempt at bilateral problem solving using a multi-lateral body was not destined to succeed. While South Asia remains a fact of life in geopolitical terms given the many changes occurring globally, it is important to assess if there can be other regional cooperation arrangements that are more practical both within and beyond present South Asia.
KEEPING SAARC aside or intact, it is useful to look at some other ‘regions’ within South Asia with which certain common positions can be evolved for development and amity. The eastern India is a very natural region in several ways. Firstly, Bengal/Bangladesh has a common geography and shares much ecology. However, development planning around the exclusive concept of nation-states does not always work as the Farakka Barrage example shows.
Bengal is a lower riparian zone and the Farakka Barrage was planned on the basis of political (Indo-Bangla) of the pre-1947 era. Had the advantages of a ‘region’ of both Bangladesh and Bengal been considered, a very different plan could have been developed including water sharing management benefiting both. Farakka was designed to benefit Kolkata port, a part of India politically, and its impact on Bangladesh, part of the common delta, was not taken into account. A solution based on zonal/sub-regional/regional needs would have served both the members of the delta better.
Similarly the Rampal plant in the Sunderbans is a major example of how political geography can affect common environmental spaces. The Sunderbans straddles both Indian and Bangladesh Bengal but Rampal will affect both. Curiously, it is an Indian company that is involved in partnership with a Bangladeshi company with the blessings of both the governments. But although it is in the Bangladesh part, its impact will fall on both parts of the region. Unlike Farakka, which spared West Bengal and, hence, no protest arose there, it is a different story now; so, there is protest against it in Kolkata too. It makes the case for understanding environmental zones as regions more urgent.
The north-east as a region
ANOTHER natural region/zone is the eastern India in its extended state which would include north-east India. The region has many common features in terms of terrain, environmental linkage, common cultures and ethnicity, etc. But the adivasi connection is very deep and the communities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and north-east India have many common linkage, including ethnicities. Bengali-adivasi migration relationship is common as well though they are often problematic but it also shows that they occupy common spaces in socio-geographic zones. But as the problem is dealt in political terms of the nation state priorities only, resolution remains distant and prospect of shared resources and mitigating common problems are dimmed. Managing water resources which is another common issue is also ignored as are demographic movements as they become ‘central’ rather than regional problems. Both Bengal and the north-east are historically ‘perennially penetrated zones’ and can try to evolve common strategies if they perceive their issues as regional and not political realities only.
Bangladeshis, in particular, and Bengal people, in general, are the most Mongoloid penetrated people of India. Hence, there are several histories in common spaces, of convergence and divergences both but commonalities as well. The eastern India’s larger geography becomes more real in this context and, hence, it is worth exploring the scenario of co-operation as well.
The rice connection region
JUST as the past binds us in terms of being ruled by a series of invaders — Aryans, Turko-Afghans, etc — and overlords — Kolkata, Karachi, Islamabad, etc — which were linked to mostly historic changes in north India or in the colonial era, our ancient history is simpler and continues to be attached to natural flows of people and livelihood. A major connection is that of the ‘rice civilisation’ and the people affected by its journey. A map would show that rice, which began its journey from the Chinese region, made its way to Bengal at some point. People carried the rice seeds from other parts of South East Asia which met the fertile soil of Bengal to turn it into an explosive mix of food and people that has created more elements of our socio-economic history than most other elements.
Common agricultural techniques of these ancient migrants — some of our ancestors at least — can be seen spread all over South East Asia as well. What is called ‘shifting agriculture’ is the footmark of a common origin in the path of history. Many of the agricultural and livelihood challenges are the same and show that ancient migration routes show that the rice regions form a common zone. And that is leading to the resurgence of old histories with new configurations.
The China factor
CHINA is becoming not just the ‘motherland’ of the rice civilisation that stretches across South and South East Asia but also is one of the strongest economic players in the world. China has created through economic relationships a new ‘zone’ that is not bound by geographical contiguity only. It has become the investor next door and as established and newly emerging economies of Asia attempt to take off, China is becoming a critical player in this new set of equations. With technology and global economics we are seeing the rise of new forms of ‘economic regions’. In one such region, China and Bangladesh have also become economic neighbours.
The past was held together by many factors but the recent past was deeply defined by our colonial yesterday. However, such realities though also rooted in history are not historical enough to be the only source of imagination of our future. While political geography will continue to play a role, and SAARC too shall exist, the potential of political geography alone, pushing everyone into better environmental and economic health appears limited. Thus, new configurations are necessary and the conventional threat perception based colonialism birthed region models are rapidly coming to an end simply because they are not useful enough. They will become realities, whether one likes it or not, and can reduce or resolve many problems that occur now. If there is acceptance early on, better will be dividends.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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