Relevance of SAARC
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The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a regional organization of South Asia. The concept was first envisaged by Bangladeshi President Zia-Ur-Rahman in 1980. SAARC came into being in 1985. The aim of this organization is promotion of economic and social progress in the region. When compared with other similar regional organizations SAARC has not been much successful. In this blog the “Relevance of SAARC” has been analyzed.
Members and Observers
SAARC was founded by seven states: Bangladesh,,Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1985. Afghanistan joined as the eighth member in 2007.
US, South Korea, European Union, Iran, Mauritius, Australia, China, Japan and Myanmar are observers.
Potential future members
Myanmar has expressed interest in upgrading its status to a full member. Russia and Turkey have applied for observer status. South Africa has participated in meetings.
Objectives of SAARC
The objectives as defined in the charter are as follows:
- Promote the welfare of the people of South Asia and improve their quality of life.
- Accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region by providing all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and realize their full potential.
3. Promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia
4. Contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of each others’ problems.
5. Promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields.
6. Strengthen co-operation with other developing countries.
7. Strengthen co-operation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest.
8. Cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes.
- Over the last 25 years, despite extremely difficult political circumstances, SAARC has managed to create situations, institutions and forums where heads of states have got a reason to meet and diffuse tension.
- SAARC has tackled important topics for the region such as a social charter, development agreements and even the sensitive subject of fighting terrorism.
- The food and development banks, agreement on transportation and energy are important steps.
- Exchanges in the areas of civil society and science have become one of the pillars of South Asian integration efforts.
- In its 30 years of existence, SAARC failed to hold 11 annual summits for political reasons, both at the bilateral and internal levels. The last summit in Kathmandu was held after a gap of three years.
- The intra-regional trade of SAARC constitutes just 5% of member countries’ trade. This pales into insignificance when compared with the volume of trilateral trade between member-countries of NAFTA or ASEAN.
- While different regions of the world have progressed even to monetary union, SAARC has failed to even come up with a free trade agreement.
- Even in the Kathmandu Summit 2014, there were three connectivity agreements on road, rail and energy, to be endorsed by the eight SAARC leaders. Only one of these – on energy – could be signed.
Reasons for Failure of SAARC
- Conflict between India and Pakistan. Rivalry between India and Pakistan, the two largest members of SAARC, has hovered hugely on SAARC. This is the single biggest reason for diminishing the relevance of SAARC and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.
- Recent Past. India’s role in 1971 war, Sri Lankan civil war and economic blockades against Nepal haunt the neighbouring countries and makes them suspicious about India’s ambitions.
- Unresolved Border and Maritime Issues. The region is still beset with many unresolved border and maritime issues. These unresolved borders have led to problems of terrorism, refugee crisis, smuggling and narco-trade. The unresolved issues continue to mar cooperative relations.
- Role of External Powers, especially China. India’s ambitions in the region crisscross with China’s ambitions to have an influence in the region. China has in past decade strengthened its relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and has been a trusted ally of Pakistan and also has been close to Nepal. This has led to a trust deficit in the group.
SAARC: Strengths and Weaknesses
- Comprises of rising economies. Also provides large consumption market.
- Common rivers, a mountain system, an ocean open opportunities for regional trade, hydro-power generations etc.
- Demographic dividend.
- Challenges faced by member countries are similar in nature. Finding solutions to them will hopefully bring the members closer.
- Regional cooperation can also attenuate inter-state and intra-state conflicts and helps to stabilize the region.
- Low regional connectivity among member countries.
- Huge deficit of skilled manpower.
- Lack of infrastructure development within national boundaries.
- Trade barriers and less integration have made trade costly.
- Scarcity of capital to invest in productive infrastructure.
- Low Human Development Index (HDI).
Initiatives by SAARC
- South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA): It was signed by founding members in 2004 and came into force in 2006. It created a free trade area of member nations. It is aimed to reduce custom duties of all traded goods to zero by the year 2016.
- Education: Establishment of South Asian University in New Delhi and “Delhi Declaration” on education has charted out new course of cooperation.
- 18th Summit: There were three proposed regional agreements for connectivity and integration: motor vehicles, rail and energy cooperation. Tensions between India and Pakistan, once again, grappled the SAARC summit. Islamabad expressed concerns over all three but later agreed to SAARC Market of Electricity (SAME) Agreement. SAME aims to setup a “SAARC energy grid” which will open up new era of cooperation.
Relevance of SAARC
- SAARC has tremendous potential for mutual benefit of all the countries and the objectives are well achievable.
- Indo-Pak relations have hampered the progress of SAARC.
- SAARC countries seem to be connected more to the outside world than to each other. They give more importance to other cooperation forums like ASEAN. The challenges faced by SAARC nations are similar. These challenges include poverty, unemployment, environment, globalization and issues related to national securities like terrorism and drug trafficking and provide reasons to cooperate.
- SAARC meets have at times helped diffuse tensions.
- The membership is due to increase and thus also the relevance of the organization.
Prognosis: “SAARC minus Pakistan”
With India’s foreign policy being guided by improving national as well as regional economy and generating employment and improving infrastructure, SAARC nations, apart from Pakistan have shown interest to move ahead on mutual cooperation as was apparent from the 18th summit. The unwritten dictum which the countries have begun to follow is to continue cooperation among SAARC nations minus Pakistan. Thus “SAARC minus Pakistan” is poised to progress faster and share mutual benefits.