Dhaka basked resplendent under a blue sky as I emerged from the cavernous Zia International Airport. As a hardened Dilliwalah, I was preparing to fend off taxi drivers lunging for my bags but the entire vista was completely taxi-free. Even the CNGs, Dhaka’s three-wheelers, had been forced into a three-day holiday.
Eventually a van from one of the accredited official hotels took pity on me, and soon I was sailing down what felt like a California freeway. There were still no people as we entered into Dhaka – only a blur of grassy verge, fresh paint, sets of seven freshly stitched flags, shuttered shops, and sharpshooters positioned on rooftops. We reached the media centre at the Sonargaon Hotel in record time, to be held virtually captive there for three days. The main roads remained closed much of the time to facilitate the ‘movement’ of the many VIPs who came to attend the thirteenth SAARC Summit. As an Indian, I could hardly complain – hadn’t we cited the security situation as a reason for postponing the summit back in February?
Banners everywhere announced the Decade of Implementation – meaning, of course, the decade to come, which says a lot about the two decades already past. Offerings at the documents desk were pretty meagre, and there were no briefings from either the host government or the SAARC Secretariat. All of the action was apparently at the Sheraton Hotel, where the delegates were staying, but the young woman who gave me my ID card told me I would need a separate One Time Pass (OTP) card to get in there.
I got hold of the 14-page official programme, which was a nearly minute-by-minute logistical guide to all of the ‘movements,’ the sort of thing WTO agitators would have paid an arm and a leg for. The programme sheet was also a manual on the various protocols to be observed by and towards the “HoS/HoGs” – the heads of state and government, with valuable nuggets like the one asking that “the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Pakistan will kindly come in front of the leaders table for handing over the award…”
After every entry relating to any arrival of an HoS/HoG, the programme stipulated in bullet point: “to be received by A-Grade Ambassador”. A significant number of ‘A-Grade Ambassadors’ must have been required throughout the proceedings. There’s nothing quite like creating a sense of involvement, and I wonderered whether the B-Grade ambassadors were made to feel a bit left out.
In this low-key summit, the journo gossip mill centered mostly on who did or did not want to include the Afghans as SAARC members and the Chinese as observers. Naturally, once the Afghans were in, both the Indian and Pakistani briefings seemed to want to take credit. Meanwhile, someone looking like he was from the Chinese embassy sat in the back, busily taking notes.
One prays that by the time it is Kabul’s turn to host a summit, Afghanistan will be a land of raisins and pistachios; the Kabul River will be again be sparkling and garbage-free; and the HoS/HoGs can conduct their one-on-ones beneath the shade-trees being planted at the Bagh-e-Babar. At least, Kabul already has the Sheraton, perched atop an easily defended hill.
But of SAARC capitals, my favourite venue will always be Male — where they do things in style, with gunboats cutting a swathe through the water as the VVIP-bearing launches go about their movements. It is no coincidence that the delegations, scribes and camera crews swell exponentially whenever the summit is in the Maldives.
Back to Dhaka — on Monday, the day after the summit closed and with the summiteers safely dispatched (after cancelling all scheduled flights for the second time), every vehicle in Dhaka was out in the streets at last, stuck in what appeared to be citywide gridlock. I nearly missed my ferry ‘Rocket’ to Khulna, since access to the Sadarghat boat terminal is through the narrow lanes of old Dhaka, and most of the boats leave almost simultaneously every evening. The bedlam on the pier must be one of the best sights in Dhaka, with last-minute passengers and vendors jumping on- and off-board, and paddlewheel steamers pushing each other aside as they lumber off in frenzies of churning foam.
I had arrived into Dhaka just a week earlier, on a Friday afternoon. After my trip through the Bangla backwaters, I now made it back to the airport in time to catch my Friday morning flight, but was told I had overstayed my seven-day visa. Long arguments ensuedwith several officials. What carried the day was I had come for the SAARC. Perhaps the decade of implementation had begun.
~ Prabhu Ghate is a well-traveled development consultant based in New Delhi.