Is there a future for Saarc?
However, in doing so, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is effectively contradicting his own call to fight poverty in the region and is closing the doors to so many other avenues of cooperation that Saarc has opened over the three decades since it has been in existence. On the whole, the performance record of Saarc has not been very satisfactory, as it is. Though a regional grouping of eight countries, it has failed to give South Asia the sort of unified image that was originally envisaged. Most importantly, while bilateralism was never a part of the Saarc objectives and disputes between any two member countries were never to be brought to the table, India's behaviour is very much out of place and the fact that four other nations are following the decision is even worse.
The Saarc grouping comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives. It represents 3% of the world's area, 21% of the world's population and over 9 percent of the global economy. It was established in 1985 as a regional cooperation platform that would help member countries solve their problems of poverty, unemployment, inflation and low rate of growth by cooperating among themselves. The model that it emulated was that of the ASEAN, EU, the Gulf Cooperation Council, SCO and many other regional forums. Self-reliance is a common quest for peace and development for all the countries that comprise Saarc. The grouping champions the spirit of mutual trust, understanding and a sympathetic appreciation of the political ethos that exists among the member countries. It promotes cooperation that should be based on respect of the principles of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations.
It was in this spirit that the South Asian Free Trade Association (SAFTA) treaty was signed so that trade barriers could be removed between the Saarc countries. The treaty involved a phased elimination of tariffs and establishment of a mechanism for dispute settlement among members. In other important areas too, the primary focus of Saarc was to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity by realizing their full potential. In specific terms, these objectives covered agriculture, health and rural development, meteorology, telecommunication, postal services, transport, scientific and technological development, sports, art and culture, prevention of drug trafficking and abuse, women's development and education.
It is true that some progress has been made in many areas but a lot more needs to be done. Saarc was created for promoting regional cooperation yet South Asia is one of the most illiterate and poorest regions of the world even now. Problems such as illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and low productivity continue to plague the region. Numerous summits, meetings and agreements have been conducted and concluded and yet there are no tangible improvements in South Asia. In fact, there is the view that Saarc has created more problems than it has solved. It now seems India has lost interest in Saarc and in achieving the aims and objectives for which it was created. Perhaps, the one single factor that pulls India back from going ahead with further developing Saarc and helping make a success of it is the fact that it cannot digest Pakistan's reality as the region's second biggest power.
That is perhaps the reason why, much in contravention of the spirit of Saarc, it allows its bilateral disputes with Pakistan to adversely affect the grouping. Perhaps India is more interested in giving a forward heave to Sasec (South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation), which consists of all the Saarc countries except Pakistan and Afghanistan. Emerging as a more successful sub-grouping in the past 15 years, it has implemented 33 projects worth more than US $6 billion. At the same time, Saarc has been allowed to become a tragic travesty of how Jawaharlal Nehru wanted South Asia to show Europe its place. Is there a future for Saarc?