For a better world

November 13, 2016


When India announced it would not attend the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November, it was not the first time the summit would be affected by tensions between India and Pakistan, despite the fact that an article of the Saarc charter clearly states that “bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations”.

Over the last few months hostilities between India and Pakistan have been escalating. In early August, Indian home minister Rajnath Singh came to Pakistan to attend the Saarc interior ministers’ meeting. However, his visit ended on a sour note as both India and Pakistan used the Saarc forum to accuse each other of the ongoing violence in India-held Kashmir. Then, on Aug 24, India sent its secretary of economic affairs in place of the finance minister to attend the Saarc finance ministers’ meeting which was considered by some to be the result of growing tensions between the two countries.

While bilateral disputes are not discussed at Saarc meetings, geopolitical tension and mistrust among member nations — especially the long-prevailing atmosphere of suspicion and animosity that characterises Indo-Pak relations — among other things, is a major factor why Saarc has not been able to achieve as much as was expected.

Taking a look at what Saarc has managed to achieve in the 30 years since its inception

As pointed by Rajiv Kumar in the introduction to the book Thirty Years of Saarc: Society, Culture and Development, the open hostilities between India and Pakistan — the two largest member countries of Saarc — have not only spoiled the atmosphere of cooperation, but have also resulted “in most Saarc initiatives being marred by bureaucratic red tape and inertia”. Kumar also points out that bilateral relations between the two countries resulting in restrictions on trade and investment often affect a third country as well when its action is seen as offering preferential treatment to either India or Pakistan.

The same feelings have been expressed by many writers in various chapters in the book, blaming relations between India and Pakistan for holding back regional development and cooperation, though at some places it seems the writers are biased and putting most of the blame on Pakistan.

Thirty Years of Saarc: Society, Culture and Development is a collection of articles edited by Rajiv Kumar and Omita Goyal. It analyses Saarc’s potentials and causes of failure in achieving the goals set at its inception and traces the economic and political issues it has faced during its 30 years of existence. The collection comprises articles by eminent writers, researchers and editors from all member countries focusing on various aspects of cooperation, with some emphasising the importance of Saarc for their respective countries. The book provides a comprehensive assessment of Saarc and provides policy directives for the future, pointing out issues and constraints that have hindered regional cooperation in South Asia.

The Saarc region comprises three per cent of the world’s area, 21 per cent of its population, and 9.12 per cent of the economy. Inhabited by 40 per cent of the world’s poor, South Asia is the poorest region in the world. The countries in the region share common historical bonds, cultural and social affinities, as well as economic, political and strategic interests, with traditions, religious practices and cultures that are not restricted by national boundaries.

“While regional cooperation in general has been successfully initiated and implemented in most regions of the world, South Asia remains the ‘least integrated region in the world’. Saarc was started three decades ago, but it has achieved little so far. Meetings are held regularly, though not always; when sudden tensions crop up, cooperation with regard to trade and development slows down. Efforts to develop person-to-person contact are numerous, but limited success has been achieved in terms of developing a sense of common identity. One obvious problem has been the acute hostility between India and Pakistan, along with other rivalries over the years. We are yet to look beyond these.” — Excerpt from the book

The formation of Saarc in 1985 was based on the need for regional cooperation and closer association among South Asian countries. According to its charter, Saarc was set up “to promote peace, freedom, social justice and economic prosperity by fostering mutual understanding, good neighbourly relations and meaningful cooperation” in the region. However, even 30 years after its formation it can be said that Saarc has not been very effective, with few successes to its credit, albeit it has enormous potential for facilitating cooperation among its eight member countries.

The member countries realise that economic cooperation is the centre of all regional cooperation, and there is vast potential for trade between Saarc countries. Yet, little progress has been achieved in this, although trade agreements such as the agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta) have been in place. Safta, which was signed in 2004 and came into practice in 2006, was designed to make maximum use of the region’s potential for trade and development and calls to eliminate barriers to the cross-border flow of goods by reduction of tariff and minimising the negative list of traded items. However, 10 years later, intra-regional trade accounts for only five per cent, which, it is believed, is due to inadequate implementation of the Safta agreement.

The Saarc region faces challenges of poverty, human trafficking, exploitation of child labour and other associated social evils, food insecurity due to rising global food prices, water scarcity and issues emerging from regional migration and internally displaced persons, as well as environmental challenges and threats posed by climate change.

These problems can be tackled more effectively with deeper regional integration. It is heartening to note that progress has been made in some areas, though it is far from satisfactory. An important step was the establishment of the Saarc Energy Centre in Islamabad in 2006 for developing energy resources, and promoting conservation and energy efficiency. The setting up of a pan-South Asian electricity grid to overcome energy shortages is also under consideration; the grid is to draw its energy inputs from the hydro resources of Nepal and Bhutan and hydrocarbon resources of other South Asian countries. Similarly, establishment of rail and road links for facilitating trade are also underway.

At the 2009 United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, a common Saarc position was adopted on climate issues such as coastal erosion and the melting of Himalayan glaciers. Other measures such as efforts at achieving ecological collaboration are also being put in place. The South Asian University in New Delhi, established jointly by all eight Saarc member nations, which became functional in November 2010, is also considered a step towards the advancements of Saarc goals.

One of the reasons for the slow progress of Saarc, as pointed out in the book, is that since its inception Saarc affairs have been handled by the political and bureaucratic elite at the national capitals with no involvement even of the provincial governments. Along with meetings at the federal level, interaction at the provincial level is important as areas along the borders share a lot in common. Except for the business class which, under the banner of the Saarc Chamber of Commerce, has shown some cooperation in regional progress, there is hardly any sustained effort to spread awareness about Saarc and its benefits among the general population. Involvement of the civil society and people-to-people contact is important to make Saarc more effective.

Saarc has nine observer nations besides its eight members, whose role so far has been limited to training and capacity building; however, their expertise should be utilised for more substantive association in the region. Some countries in the region see a greater role for other countries, especially China, than as a mere observer member. There have even been talks of including China as a full member and it appears China, too, has been trying to play a bigger role in the region and has been increasing its presence through economic aid packages and investment in defence and infrastructure. Due to its comparative edge over India, many countries see China as a force to contain India in the region.

Besides economic, bilateral, political and environmental issues, the book also includes discussions on issues of human rights, gender empowerment, and civil society, as well as South Asian literature. While a lay person may not find this book very interesting, opinion makers, columnists, journalists and social and political activists will find it to be a handy tool for ready reference in regional cooperation.

The reviewer is a Dawn member of staff.

Thirty Years of Saarc: Society, Culture and Development
Edited by Rajiv Kumar and Omita Goyal
Sage Publications, India
ISBN: 978-9351508823

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2016