• South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in 1985, with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8th December 1985.
  • SAARC is an intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of South Asian nations.
    • The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was first raised in November 1980. After consultations, the foreign secretaries of the seven founding countries—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981.
    • Afghanistan became the newest member of SAARC at the 13th annual summit in 2005.
SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation)

Membership

  • It comprises of 8 Members:
    • Afghanistan
    • Bangladesh
    • Bhutan
    • India
    • Maldives
    • Nepal
    • Pakistan
    • Sri Lanka
  • Observers:
    • Australia,
    • China,
    • The European Union,
    • Iran,
    • Japan,
    • The Republic of Korea,
    • Mauritius,
    • Myanmar,
    • The United States of America.
  • Potential future members: Myanmar has expressed interest in being upgraded from observer to a full member of the grouping.
  • The Headquarters and Secretariat of the Association are at Kathmandu, Nepal.
SAARC

Objectives

Objectives of the association as per the SAARC Charter are:

  • To promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;
  • To accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potentials;
  • To promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia;
  • To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another ‘s problems;
  • To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
  • To strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
  • To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interests; and
  • To cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes.

Principles

  • Cooperation within the association will be based on sovereign equality, territorial integrity, and non-interference in internal affairs of other states, political independence and mutual benefit.
  • Such cooperation will not substitute, rather it would complement bilateral and multilateral cooperation
  • Such cooperation should not be inconsistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations.
  • The charter stipulates that decisions would be taken unanimously.

Principal Organs of the Cooperation

  • Meeting of Heads of State or Government
    • Meetings are held at the Summit level, usually on an annual basis.
  • Standing Committee of Foreign Secretaries
    • The Committee provides overall monitoring and coordination, determines priorities, mobilizes resources, and approves projects and financing.
  • Secretariat
    • The SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu on 16 January 1987. Its role is to coordinate and monitor the implementation of SAARC activities, service the meetings of the association and serve as a channel of communication between SAARC and other international organizations.
    • The Secretariat comprises the secretary-general, seven directors, and the general services staff.
      • The secretary-general is appointed by the Council of Ministers on the principle of rotation, for a non-renewable tenure of three years.

SAARC’s Specialised Bodies

  • SAARC Development Fund (SDF):
    • Its primary objective is funding of project-based collaboration in social sectors such as poverty alleviation, development, etc.
      • SDF is governed by a Board consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Finance of the Member States. The Governing Council of SDF (Finance Ministers of MSs) oversees the functioning of the Board.
  • South Asian University
    • South Asian University (SAU) is an international university, located in India. Degrees and Certificates awarded by the SAU are at par with the respective Degrees and Certificates awarded by the National Universities/ Institutions.
  • South Asian Regional Standards Organization
    • South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) has its Secretariat at Dhaka, Bangladesh.
    • It was established to achieve and enhance coordination and cooperation among SAARC member states in the fields of standardization and conformity assessment and is aimed to develop harmonized Standards for the region to facilitate intra-regional trade and to have access in the global market.
  • SAARC Arbitration Council
    • It is an inter-governmental body having its office in Pakistan is mandated to provide a legal framework/forum within the region for fair and efficient settlement of commercial, industrial, trade, banking, investment and such other disputes, as may be referred to it by the member states and their people.

Significance

  • The region represents 3% of world’s area; 21% of world’s population and 3.8% of global economy.
  • 11 stated areas of cooperation are: agriculture; education; culture and sports; population, health and child welfare; environment; rural development; transport; tourism; science and technology; communications; prevention of drug trafficking and drug abuse; women development.
  • All the member countries share a natural boundary in the form of Himalayas and the Indian Ocean and thus are termed natural allies.
  • All the member countries have several commonalities in terms of culture and a common history. This makes the grouping more important, and also provides for many opportunities of cooperation.
  • All the countries share common problems like poverty, unemployment, ethnic and religious tensions, etc., and a common regional platform can help tackle these issues with far more vigor.
  • All the countries share borders with India, and a common market can easily be created among the members, which could give a boost to intra-region trade and lead to economic development. SAARC can develop on the lines of ASEAN, which is one of the most successful regional groupings.

Areas of Cooperation

  • Human Resource Development and Tourism
  • Agriculture and Rural Development
  • Environment, Natural Disasters and Biotechnology
  • Economic, Trade and Finance
  • Social Affairs
  • Information and Poverty Alleviation
  • Energy, Transport, Science and Technology
  • Education, Security and Culture and Others

What are its Achievements?

  • Free Trade Area (FTA): SAARC is comparatively a new organization in the global arena. The member countries have established a Free Trade Area (FTA) which will increase their internal trade and lessen the trade gap of some states considerably.
  • SAPTA: South Asia Preferential Trading Agreement for promoting trade amongst the member countries came into effect in 1995.
  • SAFTA: A Free Trade Agreement confined to goods, but excluding all services like information technology. Agreement was signed to reduce customs duties of all traded goods to zero by the year 2016.
  • SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS): SATIS is following the GATS-plus ‘positive list’ approach for trade in services liberalization.
  • SAARC University: Establish a SAARC university in India, a food bank and also an energy reserve in Pakistan.

Significance of SAARC for India

  • Neighbourhood first: Primacy to the country’s immediate neighbours.
  • Geostrategic significance: Can counter China (OBOR initiative) through engaging Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka in development process and economic cooperation.
  • Regional stability: SAARC can help in creation of mutual trust and peace within the region.
  • Global leadership role: It offers India a platform to showcase its leadership in the region by taking up extra responsibilities.
  • Game changer for India’s Act East Policy: by linking South Asian economies with South East asian will bring further economic integration and prosperity to India mainly in the Services Sector.

Developments

  • SAFTA: South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was launched in 2006. It was envisaged as a first step towards a Customs Union, Common market and Economic Union. As per the agreement, SAARC members brought their duties down to 20% by 2009. SAARC exports increased from $ 206.7 billion in 2009 to $ 354.6 billion in 2012.
  • SAARC Satellite: India launched the SAARC satellite for use by SAARC members. It is a navigation satellite, and the total cost of launching the satellite was met by the Indian Government.
  • Beneficiaries of the satellite will be: Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives (all SAARC members except Pakistan). The satellite has a mission life of 12 years. PM Modi hailed the satellite as an invaluable gift from India to South Asia, and that it would help address South Asia’s economic and developmental priorities. The launch of the satellite has been hailed as a great step in making SAARC grouping functional again.
  • 2nd SAARC Anti-Terrorism Mechanism was held in New Delhi in 2016: Delegates from all 8 members participated in the conference. The discussion involved key issues of terrorism and measures needed to strengthen SAARC antiterrorism mechanism. The members agreed towards operationalizing SAARC Terrorist Offences Monitoring Desk (STOMD) and SAARC Drugs Offences Monitoring Desk (SDOMD) – in order to strengthen the combat efforts against terrorism.
  • Mahashangarh, a 3rd century BC site in Bangladesh was declared the SAARC cultural capital for 2016- 17. Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan has been declared as the cultural capital for the year 2017-18. As a cultural capital, the historic place held festivals on films, food, literature and dances for a year.
  • BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement: BBIN consists of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. The subgrouping aims to promote safe, environmentally sound and economically efficient road transport in the sub-region. Except Bhutan, the other 3 countries have signed the agreement. SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) was not signed during the 18th SAARC Summit due to reservations from Pakistan. But the SAARC Declaration of the 18th summit encouraged member states to initiate sub-regional measures to enhance connectivity, and thus the BBIN MVA was pursued among these four SAARC members.
  • Disaster Mitigation: SAADMEx (South Asian Annual Disaster Management Exercise): It is a simulation exercise on disaster management in the SAARC region, which is being led by India. It aimed at augmenting current levels of preparedness (individual as well as joint) of member countries in rescue, relief and response operation during disasters.

Analysis

  • In more than 30 years of its formation, as compared to other regional organizations like EU and ASEAN, SAARC remains far behind. Multiple factors have led to this state, and SAARC is largely seen as a non-functional body.
  • It has not yet delivered on its promises. Though SAFTA was signed, it has had limited impact on intra-region trade and has not been able to achieve its potential.
  • Failure of SAARC can be clearly highlighted by the fact that in spite of being more than 30 years old, the grouping has failed to come up with transport linkages among its members. This should be treated as a priority, as it could give immense boost to trade in the region.
  • The reasons for SAARC being retarded are:
    • Fear psychosis among SAARC members’ viz-a-viz India’s achievements in many spheres (military strength, economic growth, technology, nuclear strength, etc.). Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc. feel dwarfed by the Indo centricity of the region.
    • The success of SAARC has remained a prisoner of Indo-Pakistan rivalry.
    • The security and political deviations among member countries over-shadow the prospects of economic and socio-cultural convergences. Conflicting issues among the members operate as a stumbling block in the way of their cooperation.
    • Failure of civil society organization, present in the region to act as a link between the member states has also led to slow growth and cooperation among the member countries.
      Inter-regional trade among SAARC members is very low as compared to ASEAN. The reasons for this are:
  • Most South Asian countries are primary producers and tend to export similar items and thus compete with each other.
  • South Asian countries (except Sri Lanka) have high rates of tariff and non-tariff barriers, which constraints expansion of intra-regional trade.
  • The region lacks transport and information linkages among the members, which poses a serious problem for expansion of trade in the region.
  • There are political differences and a lack of willingness to create trade complementarities among the leaders of the member countries, which is contributing to low level of intra-regional trade.

Way Forward

  • A functional SAARC can act as a bridge between East Asia which is rich in human resources and technology; and the West and Central Asian countries which are rich in natural resources and finance. SAARC’s massive population and educated population could complement the needs of both the areas (East and West).
  • India should address the genuine concerns of the member countries, as it is the leading and the largest country of the region. It should try to address the power differentials and gain trust of other member countries.
  • SAARC Charter should be amended, and the clause of bilateral and conflictual issue not being discussed on the forum should be removed. An effective dispute resolution mechanism could help shrink areas of conflict and expand areas of trust and cooperation.
  • Member countries should change their security perceptions, and aim to tackle the common issues they face like: poverty, unemployment, economic slowdown, decreasing sex ratio, corruption, environmental threats, etc.
  • Moving forward with other members of the SAARC by signing the agreements in a sub-regional format can lead to greater success of the organization.
  • If SAARC members make sincere efforts to make the grouping a strong dispute settlement forum, it can help make SAARC a very successful regional organization. SAARC countries should come out of the ‘state-centric model’ and move towards regional mindset to bring about development of the entire region.
  • The potential of organisation to maintain peace and stability in the region should be explored by all the member countries.
  • SAARC should be allowed to progress naturally and the people of South Asia, who make up a quarter of the world’s population should be offered more people-to-people contact.

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