25 days ago

Making SAARC functional

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It was 40 years ago when the foreign ministers of the seven South Asian countries met in New Delhi to adopt the declaration of 'South Asian Regional Cooperation' (SARC). At the meeting held in August 1983, they also adopted the 'Integrated Programme of Action' (IPA) to define the areas for cooperation among the countries. Two years later, in Dhaka, the seven countries of the region joined hands together, although with some hesitations, to form a formal regional forum for greater cooperation. Named the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the charter of the regional forum was signed by the seven countries on December 8, 1985. It was the first SAARC summit where leaders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka assembled to start their journey under the shadow of mistrust. Earlier, a series of background work had been done by the countries. The role of Bangladesh was critical in this regard with the help of Nepal. 

Four decades later, the region still struggles to extend cooperation for desired integration. The SAARC is almost defunct, and there has been no summit since the eighteenth SAARC Summit in Nepal in 2014. Progress toward fully implementing the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) deal has also stalled after significantly reducing tariffs. Tension among the member countries has increased for various reasons. The non-ending India-Pakistan conflict on geopolitical strategic interest has intensified in the last decade, making regional cooperation through SAARC much more difficult. Member countries are now moving with bilateral and sub-regional approaches to extend partnerships. 

India, the region's biggest country covering around 80 per cent of the South Asian geographical map, shares a land and/or maritime boundary with all other SAARC countries except Afghanistan, which joined the regional platform as the eighth member in 2007. Thus, in one sense, SAARC is an India-centric forum, so any success of the forum largely depends on India's move. But India  ignores the SAARC platform and encourages bilateral or sub-regional cooperation. It even promotes the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as an alternative regional platform that helps to eliminate Pakistan's participation. SAARC and BIMSTEC have five common members: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Thailand and Myanmar are two other members of BIMSTEC, and the organisation is also struggling to move ahead of various obstacles. If Pakistan is a big barrier to making the SAARC a success, from India's perspective, to be precise, then Myanmar can be looked upon as a similar issue challenging BIMSTEC's progress.   

Nevertheless, it would be unfair to nullify the modest achievements of SAARC entirely. SAARC, at least, helps to project  South Asian identity on the global stage. And, today, South Asia is a well-recognised regional entity internationally, thanks to continuous work under the umbrella of SAARC. The trade among the countries increased gradually in the last four decades. The value of intra-regional trade was only $256 million in 1993, which stood at $16.32 billion in 2010 and increased further to $39.55 billion in 2022. However, the intra-regional trade is around 6 per cent of the region's international trade. 

The SAARC initiative has already established ten specialised bodies and regional centres. These include SAARC Development Fund (SDF), South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO), SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO), South Asian University (in New Delhi), SAARC Agriculture Centre (SAC), SAARC Energy Centre (SEC), SAARC Cultural Centre (SCC), SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre (STAC), and SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC). The SAARC Finance is also there. The success of these bodies and institutions is limited for obvious reasons.

During the last four decades, South Asian countries have achieved significant success in reducing poverty and hunger and achieving economic growth. Measured by the World Bank Atlas Method, per capita income stood at $2278 in 2022 from $280 in 1983. The role of the regional cooperation contributed to these achievements to some extent. The region, however, still needs to go a long way to eliminate poverty and hunger. 

Indeed, political leaders in the region have yet to put their optimal effort regarding regional partnership. The non-government and civil society organisations are working tirelessly to push regional cooperation on various fronts. Private sectors also joined hands with them. Popularly known as 'track-two diplomacy', it is generally intended to provide a bridge official or formal 'track-one' diplomacy. As a part of the track-two diplomacy, the fourteenth South Asian Economic Summit (SAES XIV) was organised in Dhaka in the first week of this month. SAES is an initiative taken by several leading regional think tanks that organised the first summit in 2008 in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. For the last one and half decades, the annual summit has become one of the important landmark events in the region to keep the hope of cooperation in various areas, including the economy. It has created a platform to amass people of different professions and outlooks of the region to boost people-to-people connectivity. 

In the latest South Asian Economic Summit (SAES) gathering, participants strongly opined that SAARC should not be held hostage to intergovernmental differences. Instead, they stressed learning from ASEAN to revive the SAARC process. Despite bilateral tensions among ASEAN member countries, they continue collaborating and moving forward with their activities towards their goals. It is not impossible for SAARC or South Asia. The summit also highlighted the new challenges that emerged from the changes in the global geopolitical landscape and urged the region's leaders to address the issues altogether. The ultimate goal is to attain shared prosperity through regional integration, so more effort is required to enhance trade and economic cooperation. This scribe will focus on the subject next week.


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