During the last quarter of the previous century, international relations witnessed a strong surge towards regionalism. The underlying idea was to promote peace and economic progress through multilateral partnership of states in the region by pooling the available resources. Further impetus was provided by the emergence of new issues that threatened the fabric of international norms, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, extremism, and economic crisis. It was realised that these problems could not be solved at bilateral level and required joint efforts and close coordination. Accordingly regional groupings such as ECO, GCC, Asean and Saarc emerged.
Now that the excitement, euphoria, and anxiety of the Saarc Summit have passed, more comprehensive reviews and stocktaking of the Summit achievements seems necessary.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) was created in 1985 with an objective to promote welfare economics and collectivity among the South Asian nations in order to accelerate socioeconomic and socio-cultural development in the region. The bloc consists of eight nations namely India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — which joined it in 2007. Although in its infancy, Saarc saw some success, but over the years, it has become what we can call an agonizing tale of failure.
There have been drawbacks and failures that have raised questions on the functioning of the organization. Let us first name the objectives that were behind the creation of Saarc which shall make it easier to point out its failures:
- To promote the welfare of the people of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;
- To accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential ;
- To promote and strengthen selective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia;
- To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems;
- To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
- To strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
- To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest; and
- To cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes.
- To maintain peace in the region.
But, it is unfortunate that the bloc has failed almost all its objectives. Unfortunately, it could not bring any major clangs in the economic conditions of the member states or for improving the quality of lives of more than 1.5 billion population of the region. Majority of the population in its member nations are still living below the poverty line and nothing has been done from the organization towards their benefit.
Recently the 18th edition of the Saarc Summit was organized at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The Summit, normally an annual event, was the first session since 2011 due to compelling circumstances. The acrimony and bad blood between Pakistan and India over Kashmir and other trifling issues remained the biggest hurdle to Saarc’s success. Enmity of both rival countries also breeds so many hindrances in the development of whole region. Afghanistan is the biggest example where both the countries are proving this notion.
Before the Summit, some sceptics believed that Saarc’s march towards a common customs union and an economic union would continue to remain a distant possibility for times to come. The outcome of the Kathmandu Summit has strengthened their belief. The leaders were slated to sign three agreements, namely on motor vehicle cooperation, railway connectivity and cooperation in electricity trade. None of these was signed at the Summit venue. However, the agreement on electricity cooperation was signed with the intervention of the host, Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala at the Retreat of Leaders at Dhulikhel. The signing of the two other agreements is slated to be resolved at the ministerial level.
This has once again proved the fact that India’s hegemonic attitude is responsible for thwarting all efforts of achieving economic and societal growth in Saarc countries. The nations of this region have remained underdeveloped and are facing serious crises. Neither the states nor the organization seem enthusiastic in working together to improve the socioeconomic status of the countries. To retain its credibility and relevance Saarc should eschew unrealistic economic and social goals; instead it should be effectively used as a medium to discuss issues of peace, security and development with international organisations and agencies to promote interests of the member countries.
The fundamental weakness that Saarc suffers from is trust deficit among the member states. The political differences had deep negative impact on the political will to realise the economic cooperation and integration. Besides political differences and conflict, economic factors have also played an unhelpful role.
The people of South Asia desire to have a peaceful, prosperous and secure future. The security can be obtained through sincere and sustained efforts to narrow the political differences. Saarc is the appropriate tool not only to build trust but also to solve disputes and create conducive climate for realisation of Saarc charter.