SAAPE statement from 1st meeting of the General Assembly, Colombo, Sri Lanka

The First General Assembly of SAAPE met in Colombo from 14 to 16 June 2003. Representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka focal organisations, independent social movement activists, mass organisations, academics, non-government organisations and members from civil society organisations in Europe were present. After two days of deliberation, the following Statement was adopted:

South Asia, both as individual countries and together as a region, has a claim to a history of adopting their own ways of development. There has been 500 years of reversal of the development process since Vasco de Gama attempted to discover India 500 years ago. The damage caused during the last 55 years of the Bretton Woods institutions has been far greater than the damage of the 450 years before that. Not just to the economy, but to cultures and the way of thinking of the people. In our countries the natural resources and wealth of nature have been completely destroyed. Some of the ancient traditional practices still remain with the people. So the struggle for us today is the second struggle for independence to recover the right to utilise the resources and traditions that we have.

We are painfully aware of the fact that more than half of the world's poor live in South Asia. Colonial rule in this part of the world had already ruined our economy and pushed our people into abject poverty. Our people rose in rebellion and through the multiple paths of resistance we gained our freedom and got rid of colonialism and its rapacious plunder of our resources and our wealth.

Following national independence our governments made many promises, which were not honoured - yet there was increased employment, the establishment of public sector industries and some attempt at the introduction of basic services by the state. The immediate post-independence societies, guided by the euphoria of freedom, were committed to social goals and freeing the people from poverty. Above all a system of Constitutional governance was introduced in many countries of the region.

Ever since the new wave of Globalisation began these gains have been quickly eroded. No time was lost in imposing upon us the new dogmatism of Neo-liberalism. We were told that the panacea for all our ills was Structural Adjustment through the route of market fundamentalism as prescribed by the Washington Consensus. Our governments surrendered before the architects of the global economic restructuring plan and invited imperialism again as if it were different from the earlier spell of colonialism.

Though direct foreign rule is not physically seen, Transnational Corporations have invaded and influenced every corner of our market to extract profits for imperialism once again. Trade was initiated as a means of exchange and not for greed, profit and accumulation. It has for a long time served to achieve progress for human kind but when we look at the reality today, we now see trade leading to destruction. Impoverishment, deprivation, job losses, marginalisation, pauperisation and de-proletarianisation have returned to our lands. Millions are displaced, deprived of their access to natural resources and livelihood opportunities and thrown on to the urban streets, slums and unemployment with diminishing state aided welfare support, thereby exacerbating their misery. We take note of the indignities imposed on the Dalits for centuries and the displacement of tribals from their ancestral habitats and we draw attention to growing poverty, powerlessness and the denial of rights of women - leading in some cases even to the commodification of their bodies and body parts and the accompanying increase in social violence. This is true also of religious and ethnic minorities, indigenous minorities, and of urban and rural workers. 

The Colombo meeting of SAAPE has demanded that development plans be developed by the people themselves and budgets decided by people living in poverty. We have had enough from the mergers of internal and external profit driven forces. We know how government borrowings benefit the donors and elites, leaving the recipients poorer than before; how free trade facilitates super profits for the TNCs; how liberalisation reopens our market once again for another round of rapacious plunder as happened during colonialism; how Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) result in bio-piracy; and how privatisation leads to jobless growth and deprivation of basic needs. Women and children are specifically affected by the denial of their right to basic health and educational facilities, and employment. We now demand that the destinies of our countries be with the people themselves. They should now decide what is in their best interest. 

We are aware that imperialism never gave up its colonies voluntarily--neither will they give up their neo-colonial empire because people ask them to do so. We therefore need to prepare our second liberation struggle. This time we must make sure that the architects and agents of imperialism and globalisation are ousted lock, stock and barrel. For this to happen the poor must take the lead--they need to understand the true nature of neo-colonialism. We must expose and delegitimise the path laid down for us by the Bretton Woods institutions--we must expose their true character and the perfidy of their modus operandi. We must expose their lies, deeds and actions through public trial. We must let them hear the judgement of our people and through the peaceful and non-violent path mobilise the ravished millions to achieve our second independence.

For this to be possible SAAPE must get down to unrelenting serious political work. We have to build pro-poor alliances at the local, national, regional and international levels. There are hundreds of initiatives going on in distant corners of our land: these must be brought together, they must all be linked and relinked, all energies and all efforts must be channelised. It is not enough to remain at the micro level. We must obtain the richness of the micro experience and feed it into wider sectoral processes, we must encourage debate and discussions among ourselves, we must shed all sectarianism and those negations that have already destroyed many mainstream political parties, we must have the openness, the humility and the courage to learn from the best that is going on in any corner of our region. We must bring these experiences to the wider level, share our sectoral insights and knowledge so often generated through long years of struggle and tenacious praxis, and come together at the inter-sectoral level in order to ask the more basic questions related to the root causes of all our misery and poverty.

It is our considered opinion that SAAPE must become such a platform at the South Asia level. We already have the material basis for doing so. We are moving forward with amazing rapidity and everyday produces new fascinating experiences of solidarity and convergence. We are greatly encouraged by the unique and valuable links we have already established with people (civil society organisations) from other countries throughout the world. *

The SAAPE initiative has been unique in many ways. It is the first South Asian Alliance to focus primarily on the question of poverty in our region, even as the rulers of this part of the world shed crocodile tears for the poor when they get together in SAARC. We even have reason to believe that some big countries of this region are keen to avoid SAARC holding meetings. We witness them being postponed again and again. We consider this to be a very disturbing tendency--especially when we are aware of so much communal and ethnic disturbance causing death, disturbance, and destabilisation in our region. In this context we are determined to create a people’s SAARC and carry forward the potential of working together for our common good. 

SAAPE is also unique since it has from the very days of its inception been looking for like-minded partners in the North and is heartened to have found allies from the civil society of the North, some of whom have taken a pioneering lead to build concrete linkages with the South and proactively cooperated with SAAPE to raise fundamental issues of common concern in many fora within the European Union including the European Commission as well as the European Parliament. We are happy that many of these friends are with us in this First General Assembly of SAAPE and are signatories to this Colombo statement.

We do feel that the conditions for carrying forward our constructive and creative work in the mode of "ahimsa and satyagraha" have arrived in our region once again. During the last freedom struggle they divided us, drew boundaries across our lands and sold arms to our governments to fight each other, but during the coming freedom struggle we will not be fooled again. We must be prepared with clear plans. 

We are proud to take note of our South Asian identity. Whenever we meet across artificial borders that divide us we are reminded of our deep cultural and civilisational commonness. We not only cherish this oneness but also see in it great opportunities for our people to lead a more peaceful and prosperous life if only the arms race and militarisation in our region are brought to an end. What we need is pro-people forms of governance in which local self government is given its due place of primacy and importance and all national governments that are anti-people--be they military, monarchical or authoritarian are replaced by more people friendly institutions of governance at all levels. It is only the ruling elite and their agents who search for differences and seek so many artificial ways and means to introduce and perpetuate strife among our people.

We the people of this region will draw from the richness of our plurality and build on our rich cultural, religious and spiritual heritage so as to come together against all those who foster communalism, fundamentalism, ethnic strife, armed struggle and non-peaceful means. We must prepare for the next struggle for national liberation and this time it must be under the leadership of those who have been deprived of their basic human rights and their genuine allies. The political economy that generates wealth for the few and poverty and powerlessness for millions needs to be restructured by the millions into a political economy that honours labour and creates wealth and well-being for all.

The Colombo Statement reiterated the Manesar Declaration and reaffirmed the power of people in the South Asia region to regain control to abolish both poverty, and the politics that creates this condition.