Objectives of Saarc
(a) to promote the welfare of the peoples of SOUTH ASIA and to improve their quality of life;
(b) 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 realise their full potentials;
(c) to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of SOUTH ASIA; d) to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems;
(e) to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
(f) to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
(g) to strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interests; and
(h) to cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.
Awe-inspiring mountains, sweeping plains, fast-flowing rivers, fertile farmlands, expansive deserts, lush-green valleys, gorgeous gardens, glaciers of indescribable beauty, and what not; this is what the piece of land we call South Asia is all about. Be it the natural or human resources, a congeries of weathers or civilizational diversity, South Asia abounds in allure and exquisiteness. Keeping in view this enormous wealth, and its potential benefits to change the lives of the citizens of their countries, leaders of the South Asian region developed a view that through mutual cooperation, they can not only eliminate their countries’ deprivations and backwardness but can also reap maximum benefits of these efforts in order to drive the region to an illustrious future. The stepping stone on their way to turning this dream into reality was the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) on mutually agreed areas of cooperation which was launched at the meeting of Foreign Ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in New Delhi in August 1983 where the dignitaries also adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation.
Later, in the first SAARC Summit, which was held on 7-8 December 1985 in Dhaka, the Heads of State or Government of these seven South Asian countries adopted the Charter that formally established the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The first expansion of the bloc came on 3rd April 2007 when Afghanistan was accepted as its 8th member during the 14th Saarc Summit held in New Delhi. Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea and the United States participate as observers in the summits, beginning from New Delhi Summit.
Among all the objectives of the organization, the one of pivotal importance is “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 realise their full potentials,” in order to exploit those for the benefit of their countries and the region as well.
However, it is quite unfortunate that after more than three decades into its existence, the Saarc had failed to make significant progress in achieving these coveted objectives. Unfortunately, the biggest impediment to this has been India’s quest for hegemony on other member states, her so-called differences with ‘other countries,’ an irrational desire to keep the bloc under its overwhelming influence and its manoeuvrings to postpone Saarc summits which it had done twice.
During all Saarc summits, from the first one in Dhaka to the 18th in Nepalese capital Kathmandu, many potentially big decisions were taken, but their implementation is still a distant dream. And, the social and economic landscape of the South Asian region still longs for the development and growth that other countries of the world have successfully achieved.
A look at the history of meetings of Saarc reveals that during the past three decades, from 1986 to 2016, 37 meetings of ministers of Saarc countries in 17 different sectors have been held, besides 42 sessions of standing committees and 53 of programming committees. In addition, from 1987 to 2007, 14 years and 3 decades have been celebrated under different themes. However, despite all these commemorations, Saarc nations have miserably failed in putting the wheel of economic progress into motion as was expected by the people living in this region. Nearly 1.74 billion people of Saarc member states — 23.72% of world’s population as per United Nations’ World Population Prospectus 2015 — had attached hopes to see the real cooperation among the member states with every summit. They wanted their leaders to work for solving their problems and to lead them to a better, prosperous life. But, regretfully, the biggest member state of the 8-nation bloc has been pursuing its nefarious agenda of creating its economic, political, geographical and military hegemony, with an utter disregard to the fact that it was to the detriment of the common South Asians. A deleterious impact of India’s policies has been that every country in the region ranks very low on human development indices. All Saarc member states rank between 73 and 171 on the UNDP’s Human Development Index 2015. It is to be kept in mind that the lower the rank of a country, the dimmer the prospects of human development in it. A country-wise breakup of the figures shows that on this measure of human development, the highest ranked Saarc country is Sri Lanka which occupied 73rd position. The Maldives was ranked 104th, followed by India (130th), Bhutan (132nd), Bangladesh (142nd), Nepal (146th), Pakistan (146th) and Afghanistan (171st).
Among many reasons of these persistent low rankings in terms of human development, the foremost is India’s obsession to increase its military prowess and the policy of interfering in internal affairs of other countries. It makes other countries, out of a necessity to counter challenges to their internal as well as external security, allocate a major chunk of their budgets for defence purposes. In 2015, under the market exchange rate formula, India was ranked sixth on the list of countries with highest military expenditure with a spending of US$51.3 billion — nearly 78% of total military expenditures of the entire South Asian region. Such huge spending compels other countries also to increase their defence budgets.
The World Bank in its “World Development Indicators 2016” has reported that Saarc countries, on average, spend 2.4% of their GDPs on defence sector. Such massive expenditures speak volumes about the prevailing strife in the region. They not only impede the socioeconomic growth of Saarc countries but also hinder the foreign investment. Foreign investors remain shy of investing in the region because of the belief that some conflicts in the region, especially the flashpoint Kashmir issue, can rattle the peaceful environment anytime and their investments won’t be safe, let alone the matter of good returns on them. A manifestation of this can found in the fact that total foreign direct investment (FDI) in the world during 2015 was US$1,762,155 out of which only US$48,434 million, or merely 2.74%, was routed to South Asia.
If these India-created, so-called differences are impeding the way of foreign investment in the region, then the local investors too are hesitant to invest here and many of them are even shifting their monies to other destinations. An Asian Development Bank report “Development of Capital Markets in Member Countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation,” calculates that the total value of equity markets in the region was US$1,346,523 million whereas according to World Federation of Exchange, in 2015, that of the world’s stock markets was nearly US$67 trillion. Thus, it was only 0.2% of the world’s.
This low investment has been detrimental to the already-dim prospects of employment in the region. As per World Bank’s “World Development Indicators 2016,” 4% of South Asia’s labour force is unemployed whereas 77% of those employed are faced with an uncertain future. And, this ratio in India is 81%.
Moreover, in spite of being blessed with picturesque tourism spots, only 10.83 million tourists i.e. 1.5% of global tourist count, came to South Asia in 2015, adding only US$31.4 billion — 2.5% of world’s revenues from tourism — to the revenues of the countries in the region, as reported by World Tourism Organization.
All these factors are the dark clouds of poverty which keep hovering on this region. The World Bank reports that nearly 362 million people of this region — 36.8% of global population of the poor — are reeling under abject poverty making it the second biggest ratio after only Sub-Saharan Africa.
Moreover as per a Unicef report “The State of the World’s Children 2016,” nearly 22% South Asians earn less than 1.90 dollars a day — the international poverty line (IPL) developed by the World Bank. Bangladesh’s 44% population earns below the IPL. Although Bangladesh’s economy has been flourishing in the recent past, the Bangladeshi government’s policy of tiptoeing India has made it falter. With a poverty rate of 21% India is at second place; followed by Nepal (15%), Pakistan (8%), the Maldives (6%) and Sri Lanka (2%).
Nearly 1.75 billion people of Saarc countries are yet to benefit from intra-region trade which has been hampered by a sheer lack of serious, concerted efforts by all countries, especially India. As per data, in 2014, Saarc countries’ global trade volume was US$898,618 billion in which intra-region trade was valued at US$41,292 billion — only 4.5% of the total volume.
If we analyse the economic conditions of the Saarc countries in terms of GDP, we find that as per UNDP’s Human Development Report 2015, the GDP of Saarc countries in 2013, with a total of US$9,305.80 billion, was only 4.5% of the world’s total GDP of US$97140.40 billion. This, indeed, is a worrying aspect that in spite of hosting 23.72% of world’s total population, Saarc’s share in global GDP is only 9.75%.
Although these negative, worrying indicators suggest otherwise, yet the rulers of Saarc countries have burdened their respective populations with huge foreign debts which they acquire to meet their countries’ needs and to maintain their own royal lifestyles. The situation is so precarious that these debts are increasingly becoming unbearable as a major chunk of national budgets is spent on retiring these debts and interest thereupon.
Due to the cancerous, rampant corruption, a major portion of these debts, instead of being spent on public, ends up in rulers’ personal coffers. What could be a big proof than the fact that many of the Saarc countries are ranked among the most corrupt by the Transparency International? If, on the one hand, prolonged conflicts and foreign debts have stalled the economic development in Saarc countries, then the menace of corruption, on the other, has also been an impediment to human development and due to these factors, South Asia is still among the world’s least developed regions.
Education, undoubtedly, is the key to a nation’s socioeconomic development but despite it, the sector is still underdeveloped in South Asia. Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 says that in this part of the world, literacy rate of population aged 15 years or above is only 68% which is far less than that in developing countries where it was, on average, recorded at 82%. Moreover, the number of out-of-school children and adults is more than 388 million which is 47.5% of the world’s total. The biggest cause of Saarc’s backwardness in education is India’s huge population of illiterates which is the world’s largest.
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently released a report entitled “State of Food Insecurity in the World”. It reports that nearly 15.7% population of the Saarc region is food insecure, a ratio which is far more than that in the developing countries where it is only 12.9%. The state of food insecurity in children is even more distressing as nearly 30% children in South Asia are underweight; the highest ratio in the world.
The reproductive health of mothers in South Asia is also far from satisfactory as the ratio of maternal deaths is nearly 182 out of 100,000. The state regarding the provision of medical facilities to mothers is exposed by the fact that only 49% childbirths are handled by trained medical staff as the ratio of physicians in this region is only 6.8 for every 10,000 which is again lower only than that in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The region’s deprivation and backwardness has also spurred the migration of skilled workers to other parts of the world. This brain drain is yet another big challenge for the Saarc countries. According to UNHCR figures, during 2014, 113,397 people from 5 Saarc states i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, filed asylum applications in 44 industrialized countries (13.53% of the total applications). And, these figures represent only those who wanted to go legally; who knows how many thousands of talented, skilled people, in an effort to enter these countries illegally, fall prey to the menace of human trafficking and smuggling and end up in jails or even lose their precious lives.
With all this backwardness of the Saarc region, we have failed in achieving the Millennium Development Goals which called for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.
However, it’s high time we showed maturity not only in resolving our mutual differences for the betterment of the people of the region but also to achieve the objectives laid down in Article I of the Saarc Charter.
A serious effort to achieve these goals, and a firm resolve that we have to do it to reap the fruit of real development for our people, should have been the outcome of the 19th Saarc Summit, which was to be held in Islamabad on November 9-10, but Indian hegemonic attitude, as always, sabotaged all these efforts and Summit was postponed.