[Analysis] SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and its Relevance

None of the nation has sufficient power to choose its geographical neighbors. Its boundaries, priorities, ideologies, governments etc. may change over the time but it cannot simply ignore its neighbors. In this
modern world, the phenomena of regional cooperation have grappled the whole world. In the era of globalization, the formation of regional groupings is being recognized as a step towards global integration.Regional groupings are, most commonly, based upon the principles of shared histories, geographical contiguity, core competencies, advantages associated with economy of scale etc. We can see few non-overlapping regional groupings. 



Now the trend of many overlapping cooperation are opening up space for cooperation on multiple fora. Thus the nations are trying to utilise even the slightest of opening opportunities. South Asia could not remain isolated with this phenomenon. 

The concept of political and economical cooperation in South Asia was first envisaged by Bangladeshi President Late Zia-Ur-Rahman in 1980. SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) came into being in 1985 with Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka as founding members. Afghanistan joined SAARC in 2007.
Presence of observer members has increased group's legitimacy. They are Australia, China, European Union (EU), Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea, and United States (USA).

South Asia constitutes the world’s second least developed region after Sub-Saharan Africa. It has more poor people than the rest of the world. It is generally said that even after 30 years of its establishment, SAARC has remained merely a talk shop. We will discuss this issue in detail but let us first understand Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats associated with this grouping.

Strength :-
Economic:
  • Rising economies (So provides large consumption market too.)
  • Huge natural resources: Common rivers, a mountain system, an ocean (these open opportunities for regional trade, hydro-power generations etc.)
Overall:
  • Demographic Dividend(Youthful population)
  • So many agreed areas of cooperation, institutional mechanism and a Permanent Secretariat for SAARC
  • Challenges faced by member countries are of very similar nature. (Solutions lie in convergence of efforts to contain them.)
Opportunity:
Economic:
  • Possibility of benefits accruing to nations through economy of scale because of rising consumption
  • Economic cooperation will raise the threshold below which bilateral relations will not fall
Overall:
  • Social benefits by promoting growth (improving public health, education etc.)
  • Regional cooperation can also attenuate inter-state and intra-state conflicts and helps to stabilize the region.
Weakness :-
Economic:
  • Very less regional connectivity(Among member countries)
  • Huge deficit of skilled manpower
  • Lacking in infrastructure development(Within national boundaries)
  • Trade barriers and less integration have made trade costly.
  • Scarcity of capital to invest in productive infrastructure
Overall :
  • Political history still dominates the national consciousness. It has become one of the biggest hurdles in regional integration. 
  • Low level of HDI(Human Development Index) ranking
  • Very low status of women
Threat:
Economic:
  • Countries will either miss the opportunity or will be late in improving quality of lives of people due to non-cooperation
Overall:
  • Due to changing climate, the vulnerability to disasters has increased. Not having cooperation among regional neighbors will make its management difficult.
Thus we can see that the opportunity cost of not having good relation is huge. Over the years, areas of cooperation have diversified to engage political, economic, social, cultural and other aspects. The SAARC Summits have created a platform for closed-door bilateral talks among members. These meetings have pushed for progress in regional cooperation. SAARC has moved ahead but the level of cooperation is much below its potential. We will first look into the steps taken by SAARC then question of its relevance and then the way forward.

Steps taken :
  • 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. Afghanistan as the 8th member state of the SAARC ratified the SAFTA protocol in 2011.As of 20 September 2013, the total free on board value of exportsby Member States under SAFTA has reached about US$ 3 billion. This amount is far below the potential.
Most important hurdles :- 
  1. Huge size of Sensitive lists (These contain goods that are exempted from low SAFTA tariffs. The use of sensitive lists allows countries to protect growing domestic industries or important sources of custom revenue. However, its overuse can make goods more expensive for consumers and reduce trade.) Realising its negative consequence, members are now making effort to reduce this. 
  2. Reasons mentioned in Weakness section in the table above. 
  3. Liberalization in service and investment is due, only goods portion have been taken care yet. Sooner it is done
  • Expansion of grouping: It is hoped that Afghanistan will become a land bridge between Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. It will also become a trade, transportation, energy and minerals hub in the region. This seems mere aspiration at present but time will test its importance.
  • Culture: Bamiyan (Buddhist site in Afghanistan) was declared as the SAARC CULTURAL CAPITAL for 2015. This is the unique step taken by the SAARC Cultural Centre. A series of year-long cultural events with a national but with an overall South Asian dimension will be organized at Bamiyan to celebrate its status as the First SAARC CULTURAL CAPITAL (DHAKA will be the second.) for the whole of South Asian region. It is an important step in the direction of cherishing shared culture which has got mired in the narrow identities and national boundaries.
  • Education: Establishment of South Asian University in New Delhi and "Delhi Declaration" on education has charted out new course of cooperation.
  • Recent summit (18th Summit in NOV, 2014):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. Finally all agreed to SAARC transport Ministers hammering out an agreement on motor vehicles and railway services within three months. SAME aims to setup a “SAARC energy grid” which will open up new era of cooperation.
Question of SAARC's relevance :
  • It is seen that SAARC countries are connected more to the outside world than to each other. They are also giving more importance to other cooperation fora like ASEAN, BIMSTEC etc. But beyond shared history the challenges faced by SAARC nation are of almost similar nature. These challenges include poverty, unemployment, environment, globalization and issues related to national securities like terrorism, drug trafficking etc. Challenges should bring members closer to cooperate not far apart.
  • It is generally said that SAARC has merely remained a talk shop. But looking at the steps taken we can understand that this view is not entirely true. We should see the process and stages of development of European Union.

India's role:

Question of SAARC's relevance :
  • It is seen that SAARC countries are connected more to the outside world than to each other. They are also giving more importance to other cooperation fora like ASEAN, BIMSTEC etc. But beyond shared history the challenges faced by SAARC nation are of almost similar nature. These challenges include poverty, unemployment, environment, globalization and issues related to national securities like terrorism, drug trafficking etc. Challenges should bring members closer to cooperate not far apart.
  • It is generally said that SAARC has merely remained a talk shop. But looking at the steps taken we can understand that this view is not entirely true. We should see the process and stages of development of European Union.

Following will be the key in SAARC's success:
(a) Building Trust 

(b) Putting economics before politics 

(c) Boosting up cultural cooperation and regional tourism 

(d) Joint effort to deter cross-border illegal migration, terrorism, narcotics and drug trafficking.

  • Besides these bilateral and sub-regional initiatives (Nepal-India-Bangladesh etc.) could significantly spur regional cooperation. After the experience of two terrible world wars, European nations sank their differences and came together. They are now enjoying the fruits of shared prosperity. 2010-20 is the SAARC Decade of Intra-regional Connectivity. With the great focus of Prime Minister Modi's govt. in the neighborhood, let us hope this becomes a ground reality.

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