Last quarter of the twentieth century was the era of regional integration. It was during this period that regional organizations, which according to Dr Kheffens are shaped by “voluntary association of sovereign states within a certain area or having common interest in that area for a joint purpose,” were created. Most important of them are Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), European Economic Area, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), etc. Being the most populous region of the world, there was a dire need to forge such an alliance among the South Asian nations that could help them cooperate and collectively play an active part in the world affairs. Hence the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established on 08 December 1985.
South Asia is home to about one and half billion people or 23% of the world population. The inhabitants of the region had historical legacies like heterogeneous cultures, lingual and religious diversities and intra-religious disparities and to bridge these gaps a platform was needed and hence the SAARC was created. The basic aim behind the establishment of SAARC was the promotion of regionalism and economic cooperation.
The origin of SAARC in its present form can be traced to the proposals presented by the late Bangladeshi president, Zia-ur-Rehman. He had been preparing the ground for South Asian summit level meeting during his bilateral contacts with regional leaders since 1977. In May 1980, he sent a formal letter to all the South Asian countries wherein the formation of a regional grouping was proposed. Later, on 25 November 1980, a document by the name of “Bangladesh Working Paper” was sent to all countries of the region. The Foreign Secretaries met in 1981 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Foreign Ministers met in 1983 in New Delhi and identified areas of regional cooperation.
Afghanistan ― unitary presidential republic (became a member on 03 April 2007)
Bangladesh ― constitutional republic
Bhutan ― constitutional monarchy
India ― federal democracy
Maldives ― unitary presidential republic
Nepal ― federal parliamentary republic
Pakistan ― federal parliamentary republic
Sri Lanka ― unitary-semi presidential republic
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 realize 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 organizations with similar aims and purposes.
1. Increased Cooperation
The level of cooperation among the member countries has increased substantially. During the recent years, SAARC members have created a sense of accelerating regional economic development. This cooperation can be witnessed in the establishment and initiation of various programmes and forums for mutual benefits.
South Asian University, New Delhi
SAARC International College, Bangladesh
Agreement on Judicial Cooperation on Counter-terrorism
Establishment of Food Bank
Establishment of Development Funds
SAARC Writers and Literature Foundation
South Asia Foundation
South Asia Olympic Council (South Asian Games)
2. Dialogues on Economy & Trade
For the success of SAARC, economic and trade cooperation is very much important and in fact the first thing to be focused on for the development of South Asia. Many years of discussions have culminated in, at least, the establishment of the bases for cooperation in this particular area. Agreements like South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and South Asian Preferential Trading Area (SAPTA) are pertinent examples in this regard.
3. Social Cohesiveness
One of the most significant objectives of SAARC is to enhance people-to-people contacts. During the recent years, the member countries have realized the importance of this aspect of cooperation and as a result of this, SAARC has tried to undertake a programme of well-connected South Asia. Following are some important initiatives in this realm:
SAARC Fellowship and Scholarship Schemes
SAARC Youth Volunteer Program
SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme
SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange Program
South Asian Festivals
Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians
SAARC Law (Association of legal communities of the member countries)
Cooperation of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry
4. Integrated Program of Action (IPA)
The IPA is an important program of the SAARC process and includes numerous areas of cooperation; each being covered by a designated Technical Committee. The Secretary-General reports to the Standing Committee on the progress in the enforcement of IPA. The Standing Committee also reviews the institutional mechanisms and the functioning of the Technical Committees, their mandate and also evaluating the role of the Secretariat.
1. Intra-state Disputes
India-Pakistan: issues like territorial conflicts, water dispute, cross-border terrorism, etc., have always haunted the relationship between both states. This has also adversely impacted the atmosphere of SAARC as the Association failed to conciliate between two countries.
India-Bangladesh: the point of contention between India and Bangladesh are the disagreements over territories; border and water distribution.
India-Sri Lanka: Indian support for LTTE in Sri Lanka has been the point of distrust between two nations. Although, LTTE has been eliminated, an inhibition still persists.
Pakistan-Afghanistan: Cross-border terrorism, drug smuggling etc., are the hindrances or restraints behind the apathetic association.
2. India’s Hegemonic Designs
India has always tried to dominate or overshadow the matters of SAARC to wield her influence over the region. In South Asia Security, Manan Dwivedi writes: “The first and foremost reason for the failure of the SAARC to achieve the desired results in the Indo-centric nature of the region … 76% area of the total region of the South Asia belongs to India. Its population is 77% of the total population of the South Asia and its GDP is 71% of the total GDP of South Asia. It shares borders with all the member countries.”
Indian desire to participate in the decision-making process of the region as a leader has caused concerns among the neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
3. Socioeconomic Issues
South Asian region contains 23.4% of the world’s population but accounts for only 6.66 per cent of the world’s GDP (at PPP). Vices like poverty, illiteracy, inequality, unemployment, terrorism, ethnic hues, violation of human rights, etc., have wreaked havoc with the region. But, still the member states are not able to strengthen their economic ties to work together towards the development of the region.
4. Failed to Implement SAFTA and NAPTA
In 2004, the member states signed a framework agreement on SAFTA to reduce customs duties of all traded goods to zero by the year 2016. The SAFTA agreement came into force on 1 January 2006 and is operational following the ratification of the agreement by the seven governments. Though an advance over SAPTA, SAFTA has not been able to improve the trade relations among SAARC members significantly.
5. Lack of Cooperation on Security and Terrorism
The SAARC Convention on Suppression of Terrorism was signed in 1987 and later the Additional Protocol on Terrorism was also signed taking into account the terrorist financing structure. This was in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1373. In spite of these two important documents, there has not been much enthusiasm to cooperate on issues of terrorism.
Suggestions for the Development of SAARC
i. Intra-state conflicts must be resolved with mutual cooperation. There is more need of conflict resolution than conflict management.
ii. India should create an atmosphere to build trust among the wary nations and should abandon the dream to dominate South Asia.
iii. Mutual conflicts should be set aside and concentration must be laid on socioeconomic development on the pattern of the European nations which have surrendered their conflicts for the welfare of the region.
iv. Member states should make mutual policies for the enhancement of education, research and in the fields of agriculture, industry, science and technology.
v. Free trade agreement should be implemented with full vigour.
vi. South Asian financial bank or a consortium should be established to minimize the dependence on international monetary associations.
vii. An effective policy or strategy for counter-terrorism should be drawn up and implemented.
viii. Cultural diplomacy would be an effective way to increase mutual coordination
ix. Role of media is of utmost importance to spread the awareness among the people of member states in order to cooperate and collaborate. Moreover, a single media cooperation of SAARC nations could be made.