By Sabah Ishtiaq*
“It is harder to travel within the SAARC region than to Bangkok or Singapore”, remarked Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 18th SAARC summit held in Kathmandu, Nepal. The need for a SAARC visa has been deliberated over the years among its member countries.
The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme was launched in 1992, which currently allows 24 categories of entitled persons that include Dignitaries, Judges of higher courts, Parliamentarians, Senior Officials, Businessmen, Journalists, Athletes etc to travel without taking visas of the countries they visit. This scheme was a product of the discussions that took place during the 1988 Summit held in Islamabad. Realizing the importance of having people-to-people contacts among the citizens of SAARC countries, the leaders from the member countries of SAARC decided that certain categories of dignitaries will be entitled to a Special Travel document, which would exempt them from visa within the region.
Cut to 2015: from July this year, India has relaxed its visa policy by providing Business visa for a period of three to five years in order to boost trade activities within the SAARC region. It does not apply to the citizens of Nepal and Bhutan as they don’t require a visa to enter India; same is the case for Indian nationals travelling to Nepal and Bhutan. A special category of Pakistani businessmen of assured financial standing and credentials too will now be issued a three-year multiple entry Business Visa for 15 different cities (instead of a one year multiple entry visa for 10 cities). The Indian businessmen however, still await this policy to be reciprocated by Pakistan.
The troubled bilateral relationship between India-Pakistan seems to hinder most of the possible regional integration processes within the SAARC region. For example, the Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) which was up for ratification during the 18th SAARC Summit held in Nepal, could not be signed due to reservations from Pakistan.
Instead India along with three countries- Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal have signed the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement. The underlying point is that had the SAARC member nations, particularly Pakistan, agreed to sign the SAARC MVA, it would have benefitted the entire group and encouraged deeper cooperation through greater freedom in themovement of goods, people etc.
The scope or possibility of achieving a visa-free SAARC area can be highlighted by citing the examples of regional groupings such as European Union (EU) and Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) which have been successful in achieving visa-free movement within the region with the main aim of promoting regional and economic integration.
Under the European Union, the ‘Schengen Agreement’ (1985) which came into effect in 1995 abolished the EU’s internal borders, enabling passport-free movement across most of the bloc. On the same lines, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping has also been pushing for a common visa within the region. The initiative was put forward at the ASEAN summit in 2011. Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2013 signed an agreement to facilitate easier travel within the region through a common smart visa system.
The process for an ASEAN common visa scheme is still ongoing. Similarly, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador have agreed to collaborate on a smart visa system in the region at the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Summit in 2013. The main objective is to make the region more accessible to tourists and provide greater social and economic development.
Within SAARC, there are certain obstacles that need to be identified and dealt with such as issue of technology, political issues, concern of sovereignty, security as well as the different visa systems of member countries. However, a common visa system has the scope of benefitting SAARC as a regional grouping provided the countries are willing to overcome the security/political disputes particularly between India-Pakistan.
For SAARC, an initial step could be to have a SAARC Business Travel Card which was proposed by Prime Minister Modi during the last SAARC Summit. This could be modeled on the lines of APEC’s Business Travel Card (ABTC). The ABTC allows business travelers pre-cleared, facilitated short-term entry to participating member economies. This would initiate more people to people contact, increase trade and investment within the region etc.
Under a common visa system, SAARC visa holders would be able to travel across all member countries without the hassle of any official paperwork, thus reducing administrative and other transactions costs. A single visa for the SAARC region would act as a boost to the tourism sector, lead to development of border infrastructure for easy movement of goods and people, bring in more foreign investment for the member nations through collective action within the region. Hence, the need of the hour is to focus on bringing the region on the path to common economic growth and regional integration.
*Sabah Ishtiaq is a Researcher at Centre for Policy Research. She can be reached [email protected]