The notion of development through integration got popular in the name of ‘regionalism’ particularly following the World War II. Regionalism in all its manifestations, including political, economic and social, was considered the most plausible option for development and progress. Since then, many regions essentially and effectively developed multilateral mechanisms — regional organizations — to achieve progress and development through increased interdependence among states. In regions like Europe and Southeast Asia, the process of integration through regional grouping has been immensely successful, but in South Asia, this process could achieve very little.
The idea of a regional grouping for South Asia was agreed upon owing to increased political consciousness and economic needs. The plan to establish an organization in South Asia on the lines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was proposed by a former President of Bangladesh, Mr Zia-ur-Rehman, who discussed it with the heads of states of South Asian nations during 1977-79. Later on, he sent a formal letter to all South Asian states proposing the formation of a South Asian regional organization in 1980.
The Charter of the Association was devised at the Delhi Conference of Foreign Ministers on 1 August 1983 and was adopted at the First Summit meeting in Dhaka on 7-8 December 1985. This marked the official formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). Keeping in view the region’s political history and the extant political environment, creation of Saarc was a major diplomatic development. The Association received positive response from the international community as well; especially the United States and China hailed this landmark development.
More than often Saarc faces the criticism of being a ‘non-functional’ or an ‘ineffective’ regional grouping; having minimal growth and weak institutional mechanism. The Association’s performance, in academic discussions and writings, has been assessed and evaluated from every possible aspect. Most of the studies have declared Saarc either a ‘still-born’ organization or a ‘moribund entity.’ The comparison is always drawn either between Saarc and the European Union (EU) or Saarc and the ASEAN. The EU and ASEAN, notwithstanding, have their own limitations and had faced several challenges during the course of their evolution and growth. The regional circumstances and experiences in both Europe and Southeast Asia differ to a great extent from the sociopolitical scenario and economic conditions in South Asia.
The growth of Saarc has been modest yet steady; keeping the ‘hope’ and ‘trust’ in its potential alive. From a rudimentary Association of seven members having a simple rather limited agenda, the Saarc — comprising of eight countries now — has expanded to plausible areas of cooperation among member states. The evolution of the Association has encompassed almost three decades in which it has passed through declaratory stage and is now completely functional; it has considerably drawn international interest; a fact manifested by the increasing number of Observers.
Having established with an aim to accelerate the process of economic development and social uplift based on the respect for sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of the member states, the Saarc has provided the member states with an opportunity to work for collective well-being and mutual benefits. The objectives of Saarc, as stipulated in its Charter are: to promote welfare of the people of South Asia; to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries; to enhance cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest; and to cooperate with international regional organizations with similar aims and purposes. Over the years, despite having a slow growth rate, some remarkably important steps have been taken from the platform of Saarc to fulfill the objectives of the Association.
One of its major achievements is the Saarc Convention on Suppression of Terrorism. The Convention, signed during the Third Saarc Summit in Kathmandu in 1987, was further consolidated with the establishment of Saarc Terrorist Offences Monitoring Desk (STOMD) in Colombo in 1995. Also, Saarc Convention on Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances was adopted in 1990.
Taking some crucial steps towards poverty alleviation, Saarc Food Security Reserve known as ‘The Saarc Food Bank’ was established. Moreover, with an aim to promote a regional dimension of cooperation in social sector, Saarc countries adopted Social Charter during the Twelfth Saarc Summit in Islamabad in 2004.
The idea of the Social Charter was floated during the Tenth Saarc Summit in 1998. Social Charter aimed to provide a practical platform for concerted, coherent and complementary action in determining social priorities, improving the structure and content of social policies and programmes, ensuring greater efficiency in the utilization of national, regional and external resources and in enhancing the equity and sustainability of social programmes and the quality of living conditions of their beneficiaries.
The steps taken towards facilitating people-to-people contacts have been successful, including Saarc Audio-Visual Exchange Programme, Saarc Chairs, Fellowships and Scholarship schemes. A major development in this regard is Saarc Visa Exemption Scheme that was launched during the 1992 Islamabad Summit. Currently, the list comprises 24 categories of entitled persons, including dignitaries, judges of higher courts, parliamentarians, senior officials, businessmen, journalists and sportsmen. The implementation is reviewed regularly by the Immigration Authorities of Saarc Member States. Other areas of cooperation cover: agriculture and rural development; health and population activities; women, youth and children; environment and forestry, science and technology and meteorology; transport and human resource development. Working groups have also been established in the areas of: Information and Communications Technology (ICT); biotechnology; intellectual property rights (IPR); tourism; and energy.
The most impressive achievement of Saarc, however, was the adoption of South Asian Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA). The decision to establish SAPTA was taken during Sixth Saarc summit in Colombo in 1991 while the agreement in this regard was signed on 11 April 1993 and it came into effect in 1995. SAPTA has been superseded by the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement which was signed during the Twelfth Saarc summit in 2004 and came into effect on 1st January 2006. Another breakthrough development for which Saarc owes accolades is the establishment of South Asian University (SAU). The idea of SAU was mooted by the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the 13th Saarc summit in 2005 and the agreement in this regard was signed during the 14th Saarc Summit in 2007. The University has a temporary campus in the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and its first session commenced in 2010.
Due credit should be given to some of the Apex Bodies of Saarc which have been instrumental in facilitating the process of integration and furthering the agenda of the Association. Particularly, Saarc Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) and the Foundation of Saarc Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) have been proactive in promoting regional cooperation and people-to-people contacts in respective domains.
Despite many remarkable achievements, the ability of Saarc to make greater headways has been hampered by some limitations. For example, the Saarc Secretariat does not enjoy greater autonomy that it should in order to take initiatives towards enhancing regional cooperation. To expand Saarc’s outreach and materialize the already-taken initiatives, the Secretariat needs to be expanded and strengthened. Although Article X of Saarc Charter clearly stipulates that bilateral disputes should be excluded from Saarc deliberations, at times activities of Saarc, especially annual summits have been hampered due to bilateral conflicts between member states, especially Pakistan and India. For instance, the Eleventh Saarc Summit scheduled to be held in November 1999, was postponed on India’s request due to the advent of military regime in Pakistan. On the other hand, India maintained robust trading relations with the military junta in Myanmar.
Naturally, the strained political ties between India and Pakistan have a dire impact on the economies of both countries which, in turn, has been an impediment to smooth implementation of SAFTA. In order to trigger the regional economic integration or speed up economic growth of the regional economies, the two countries ought to explore mutual areas of economic cooperation as until or unless they cooperate with each other the efforts towards regional economic integration would end in vain. Both India and Pakistan have poor economies. In order to provide better economic opportunities to their public and to better their economic standards they must exploit the untapped trade and investment opportunities through joint ventures with a vision of collective well-being.
Along with its limitations, Saarc has been confronted with several challenges as well. To some analysts, given the circumstances and the nature of relationship between and among Saarc countries, the creation of Saarc in itself was a challenge. There are differing views on the issues, obstacles and challenges that mar the smooth running of Saarc. Creation of South Asian identity across the region remains to be one of the challenges for the Association. In this regard, diversity in South Asian societies is considered and dubbed as one of the ‘negative’ aspect influencing the process of integration in South Asia. However, it is not diversity rather the inflexible mindsets, hard-line approaches and intolerance which are real hindrances to the sense of common identity.
While assessing Pakistan’s role in Saarc, it is evident that Pakistan has complied with Saarc Charter and its objectives in letter and spirit. Pakistan was aware of the immense potential of the regional association. It has proposed many important initiatives in the social field and was rightly proud that the Saarc 2000—Basic Needs proposal was adopted at the Islamabad summit in 1988. Pakistan has been explicit on the need to have a common stand at the international fora on economic issues. It put forward many proposals time and again regarding nuclear restraint and disarmament, and has been advocating regional solutions to the problems which India has primarily considered of global concern, requiring global non-discriminatory solutions. Although Pakistan has a firm belief in Saarc’s potential in promoting regional peace and economic cooperation, the country faces foreign policy limitations in terms of bilateral relations with other South Asian states. Mostly, critical ties with India hamper prompt action on certain proposals or projects. Pakistan also faces criticism of following Saarc’s objectives only in letter and not in spirit, mainly for not providing most favoured nation (MFN) status to India. All in all, Saarc offers shared benefits to the member countries through varied streams and areas of cooperation. It only requires collective efforts and a political will to make this grouping a success.