Connecting SAARC: Telecom trumps borders, not

May 04, 2010 (LBO) – The Wagah border crossing on the Grand Trunk Road, between Lahore and Amritsar, is world famous for the elaborate rituals of nationalism enacted at sundown every day. High stepping soldiers in ceremonial dress glower at each other cheered on by large crowds on both sides whipped up to (different) nationalistic frenzies by words and music that do not sound very different to foreign ears.

Zindabad sounds and means the same in both Urdu and Hindi.

Despite the carefully choreographed belligerent poses, there were two handshakes, one at the beginning of the performance and one at the end. The handshakes and the symmetries of the dual ceremonies signified the unavoidable communication and coordination that was needed for these two nuclear-armed nations to coexist. Except for a faint smile on an officer’s face, there were no indications that the Manmohan Singh – Yousuf Raza Gilani handshake in Thimphu a few hours earlier had percolated down the capillaries of these belligerent behemoths.

As I was walking toward the border, the arbitrary Radcliff Line drawn by the colonial power as a prelude to partition, I received a number of texts, welcoming me to Vodafone and giving me exchange rates for India. I was physically in Pakistan, but my mobile phone had decided that I was in India, based on the relative signal strengths.

My handset’s behavior was probably an idiosyncratic interaction of handset design and prioritizing of roaming agreements.
But the fact remains that telecom is preeminently a connecting technology (“connecting people” is Nokia’s tagline; “reconnect with PTCL” appears to be what the Pakistan fixed incumbent is saying these days, as it tries to woo back those who have left it) that does not respect arbitrarily drawn lines, which national borders are.

Despite the guns and grimaces, telecom was doing what came naturally: connect.

Connecting South Asia

Since the time of the previous SAARC Summit in August 2008, I have been making the case that intra-SAARC communication should be made cheaper than communication to countries outside the region. This not only makes common sense (why have a regional cooperation organization, if it is easier to cooperate outside its bounds than inside?), but it is official government policy in all eight SAARC countries, having been included in the Final Declaration of the Colombo Summit, agreed to by all the heads of state and government (http://www.slmission.com/statements/88-ministry-statements/109-colombo-declaration-of-the-15th-saarc-summit.html).

But as is too common in this region, policy rarely translates into action at a pace faster than the glaciers melt in the Himalayas. The Presidents and Prime Ministers may speak, but the regulatory agencies with authority over the subject have simply danced around the topic, doing nothing.

Two Sri Lankan operators dropped call charges to India to levels below what they charge for distant Canada and USA. But it still costs an arm and a leg to roam in SAARC countries. In any case, the lowering of call charges to India does not complete the job. And these were voluntary actions, having nothing to do with regulation.

The Sri Lanka regulator should have taken the lead, since Sri Lanka inserted the language. But all that the former regulator cared about were brownie points from demonstrating that he too could have ideas. After that he moved on to the next ceremony. And the President? As the person who inserted this language and to whom the regulator reported to, did he follow up to see if the Telecom Regulatory Commission was on the job? Apparently not. He did fire the regulator, but not because of a failure to implement.

The Indian regulator at the time was also the chair of the South Asian Telecom Regulators Council (SATRC). He expressed interest not only in lowering intra-SAARC phone calls, but also in lowering roaming charges. My organization was asked to provide evidence on roaming charges. We did so, together with information on calling charges (http://lirneasia.net/2009/11/progress-on-lowering-prices-of-calling-among-saarc-countries/). I even arranged to visit Delhi while the SATRC was having its annual meeting, so that I could assist their deliberations if required. End result? Nothing.

I looked up the Thimphu Declaration to see if there was anything more on the decisions from Colombo. Here is what Article 5 said:

The Leaders agreed that the scope and substance of cooperation had expanded to diverse fields . . . . However, ,a number of these had not translated into meaningful and tangible benefits to the people. They, therefore, highlighted the need for more efficient, focused, time-bound and people-centric activities and called for appropriate reflection of all the SAARC decisions into the national policies and programmes of Member States. They resolved that the Silver Jubilee Year should be commemorated by making SAARC truly action oriented by fulfilling commitments, implementing declarations and decisions and operationalizing instruments . . . . (http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=61202 ; emphases added)

Guess there is little else to do than to ask the SAARC regulators to read the words of their heads of state. And to ask the SAARC Heads of State to walk their talk, by checking the last few Declarations to see which, if any, of their directions are being implemented.

If half the grand resolutions passed at the SAARC Summits are implemented, there would be fewer calls for its abolition. Connecting people through road, rail, plane and ship has been the subject of innumerable resolutions. Let’s recognize this is hard, as long as the belligerence displayed at Wagah is present and terrorist bombs bedevil our cities and villages. Let’s allow people to talk across SAARC borders as easily and as at low a cost as they now do within their borders. Then there is a chance of less strutting and shouting at Wagah; of more handshakes and perhaps even brotherly embraces. Then we can all say SAARC Zindabad.

Rohan Samarajiva is a former Sri Lanka Telecommunications regulator. To read earlier columns please go to the ‘Choices’ category on LBO’s main menu or click on the ‘related stories’ below.