New Delhi: The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), often described derisively by critics as a talk shop, is at a crossroads with people of the region seeking regional integration and governments of the region grudgingly realizing its potential, a Bangladeshi official said on Tuesday.

“Despite all our frustrations, the situation in South Asia has dramatically changed and there has never been a better time (for Saarc) to move towards South Asian regional integration—developing it into a South Asian community," said Gowher Rizvi, international affairs adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

“To me this is a very opportune time. A lot of compelling forces have come together, which essentially means if we can grab this opportunity we can really do much," Rizvi said at an event in New Delhi.

“There is noticeable change in public opinion (in South Asia), public wants greater cooperation, public wants greater mobility, they do not understand why all these obstacles are created (in the way of good relations) between the neighbours," Rizvi said. “Whether grudgingly or opportunistically, governments are also recognizing that Saarc has much to offer and therefore one begins to notice there is more governmental will now than ever before," Rizvi said.

Another reason was that all major challenges confronting South Asia were transnational in nature, whether it was climate change, drug trafficking or terrorism, Rizvi said.

His comments come a week ahead of the 18th Saarc summit that is being hosted by Kathmandu. Leaders of all South Asian countries are expected to take part in the 26-27 November summit.

The idea of Saarc was first mooted in 1980 and the first Saarc summit was held in Dhaka on 8 December 1985, when the grouping was established by the governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Since then the organization has expanded by accepting one new full member, Afghanistan, in 2007 and several observer members.

But almost three decades into its existence, the Saarc’s achievements have been negligible compared with groupings like the European Union (EU) on which the South Asian grouping was modelled. The lack of progress on many issues, including regional economic integration, has been blamed by many on bickering between member states, especially India and Pakistan, who share tense relations over their dispute over Kashmir. India’s ties with some of its smaller neighbours too have been less than cordial with some intimidated by India’s economic and geographical size.

One of the reasons for the smaller countries coming together under the Saarc umbrella was that they felt this would give them some “manoeuvring" space vis-a-vis India, which made India keep Saarc at “arm’s length", Rizvi said.

But in the past 3-4 years, there has been a tremendous change in India’s position towards Saarc, Rizvi said, adding, “partly, this shift has come from growing Indian confidence, growing Indian affluence; India’s now sure of its place in the world, it is recognised as a major power...also India has recognized that it makes good sense to have your neighbours with you if your aspirations are higher than just the region. Having troublesome neighbours on your borders is a drag," said Rizvi, adding that in consequence, India had become much more receptive and supportive of the Saarc countries.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran agreed that India’s new government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had signalled in terms of intent that South Asia would be a foreign policy priority.

Modi’s invitation to heads of government of all Saarc countries to his oath-taking ceremony was an indication of this.

Modi also chose Bhutan for his first foreign visit and followed it up with a visit to Nepal—becoming the first Indian prime minister to pay a bilateral visit to the Himalayan country in 17 years.

Modi is set to visit Nepal this month for the Saarc summit.

Saran said India had made a start in direction of “emerging as a kind of economic engine for entire region... To make the Saarc work, India has to take the lead, because it shares its borders with most member countries. And logic of greater Saarc cooperation is compulsive".

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