S Asia bound by poverty, torn by tensions
South Asian leaders opened a summit in Colombo Saturday focusing on spurring regional economic cooperation as raised tensions between India and Pakistan dampened hopes for any big progress.
The main common feature of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation's member states is deprivation -- more than three quarters of the 1.5 billion population in the region earn less than two dollars a day.
The smallest member, the Maldives, has a population of 330,000, fewer than the number of babies born in a week in India, the biggest Saarc member. India has over 1.1 billion people and the population growth rate is 1.5 percent.
All eight states in Saarc enjoy a veto in the organisation where every decision must be taken through consensus.
That is partly blamed for the snail-like progress of the group, founded in 1985 with ambitious plans to follow in the footsteps of the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).
Almost all Saarc members except the Maldives have some sort of border issue or dispute with neighbours, and the cross-border conflicts have soured relations within the organisation and applied brakes on trade.
But most often, the summits have been held hostage to tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan which flared anew after last month's attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in which New Delhi suspects Pakistan's intelligence service.
The Indian Ocean atoll nation of the Maldives, the smallest member with a population of just 300,000, is listed as a "Least Developed State" together with four other Saarc members -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
The second biggest member in Saarc is Pakistan with 155 million people, followed by Bangladesh with 141 million. It was Bangladesh, which floated the idea of regional cooperation to enable Saarc's establishment.
The two Buddhist countries in the region are Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Nepal's population of 27 million is just below Afghanistan's 29.9 million.
Sri Lanka has the best social indicators with a life expectancy of 74.4 years, while at the other end of the scale is Nepal, where people can expect to live to 62.2 years, according to World Bank data.
Most are in political turmoil, with Bangladesh under emergency rule and Nepal struggling to form a government after abolishing its monarchy.
Afghanistan is battling a resurgent Taliban and Sri Lanka is in the grips of a bloody ethnic civil war.
Pakistan is struggling to combat Islamic extremists while India is fighting a host of insurgencies including a deadly revolt in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
The World Bank said recently governance was a key challenge for the region to overcome the poverty rife in South Asia.
"If South Asian countries can accelerate and sustain economic growth at eight to 10 percent a year, strengthen human development... the region has a real chance of ending mass poverty in a generation," the Bank said.
Despite fast economic growth, South Asia has some of the worst levels of human deprivation on the planet, the Bank noted.
"India has levels of child under-nutrition nearly double those of Sub-Saharan Africa. One in 10 Pakistani children die before their fifth birthday; only 34 percent complete primary school.”