An organization called RIS (Research and Information System for Developing Countries) invited me to speak at a workshop celebrating 25 years of SAARC. I see nothing to celebrate, but came nevertheless because there is value in cross-fertilization and because it was time to apply some more pressure on changing the absurd international calling prices and roaming charges in the region.
It was like being the new kid in the class. These people had been meeting each other for the past 25 years or more and knew each other well. Many warm and fuzzy things were said about what a wonderful thing regional cooperation was. Having been in the trenches of implementing regional and bilateral cooperation, most recently as the only voice defending trade liberalization with India, I was none too impressed with warm and fuzzy.
If SAARC is real, there must be something one can do within the territory of SAARC, easier than outside. I cannot think of anything. Therefore, I think of SAARC as a fiction; as some kind of bad joke played on the people of South Asia by the late President Ziaur Rahman.
1. Is it easier to get a visa to all SAARC countries than to those that are not in SAARC?
2. Is it possible to fly from one SAARC country to another without hassle?
3. Is it cheaper to make a phone call to a SAARC country than to a non-SAARC country?
4. Are roaming rates charged from SAARC citizens in SAARC countries reasonable?
Overwhelmingly, the answers are in the negative. SAARC citizens coming to Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives as tourists can get visa on arrival. But try getting a visa to Bangladesh, Pakistan or India. Lines, fees, delays abound (unless one has channels).
Every time I go to Bangladesh or Pakistan, I transit through airports outside SAARC.
The answers to questions 3 and 4 are in the slideset that I presented on the 16th. Progress has been made since LIRNEasia succeeded in getting language that intra-SAARC calls should be cheaper than calls to countries outside SAARC included in the Declaration of the 15th Summit, but not enough to yield an unambiguous yes to question 3.
LIRNEasia started collecting data on roaming charges at the request of the then Chair of TRAI in 2008. It has been a waste of time so far because the region’s regulators have not done anything about the outrageous roaming charges, where for example, an Afghan roaming in Sri Lanka will have to pay USD 3 per minute and a Sri Lankan roaming in India will have to pay more than USD 2 per minute.
We hope that this latest publicity push will arouse the regulators from their stupor. It’s not that we have not tried to wake them in the past. If they do, then there might be something to celebrate about.