Click me for the articles on Political Literacy

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

SAARC: Social, Economic and Regional Integration of South Asia

Dr. Shreesh
South Asia is animportant region as not only masters of geopolitics suggest but also it marks its prominent presence in the arena of global economics and global politics.Regional Integration Agreements (RIAs) have been around for hundreds of years. Most of the countries of the world are members of a bloc, and many belong to more than one. In South Asia, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an emerging trading bloc. The total trade of the bloc has improved after the creation of the agreement.Quite apart from the general opening up, the countries in the region also began to see increased cooperation and trade among themselves, as a key objective. This was reflected partially in the founding of the SAARC in 1985 by a group of seven South Asian countries, namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Later on, Afghanistan also joined as a full member of SAARC on April 3, 2007.i

Regional integration is a process in which states enter into a regional agreement in order to enhance regional cooperation through regional institutions and rules. The objectives of the agreement could range from economic to political, although it has generally become a political economy initiative where commercial purposes are the means to achieve broader socio-political and security objectives.ii It could be organized either on a supranational or an intergovernmental decision-making institutional order, or a combination of both.Past efforts at regional integration have often focused on removing barriers to free trade in the region, increasing the free movement of people, labourgoods, and capital across national borders, reducing the possibility of regional armed conflict (for example, through Confidence and Security-Building Measures), and adopting cohesive regional stances on policy issues, such as the environment, climate change and migration.

Intra-regional trade refers to trade which focuses on economic exchange primarily between countries of the same region or economic zone. In recent years countries among economic-trade regimes such as ASEAN in Southeast Asia and SAARC in South Asia for example have increased their level of trade and commodity exchange between themselves which reduces the inflation and tariff barriers associated with foreign markets resulting in growing prosperity.In short, regional integration is the joining of individual states within a region into a larger whole. The degree of integration depends upon the willingness and commitment of independent sovereign states to share their sovereignty. Deep integration that focuses on regulating the business environment in a more general sense is faced with many difficulties.

Regional integration initiatives, according to Van Langenhove, should fulfil at least eight important functions:
  • the strengthening of trade integration in the region
  • the creation of an appropriate enabling environment for private sector development
  • the development of infrastructure programmes in support of economic growth and regional integration
  • the development of strong public sector institutions and good governance;
  • the reduction of social exclusion and the development of an inclusive civil society
  • contribution to peace and security in the region
  • the building of environment programmes at the regional level
  • the strengthening of the region’s interaction with other regions of the world.iii

Regional integration agreements (RIAs)have led to major development in the international relations among many countries which has also led to the mutual understanding among many countries. There has been also increase in the overall trade in the international level due to these agreements. In the context of the Global scenario, there has been a spurt in the context of regional trading blocs. This would contribute to one of the major advances in International relations in recent years. In such context, the whole aspect of a Regional Integration Agreement has gained high importance. Not only are almost all the industrial nations part of such agreements, but it is seen that a huge number of developing nations, to are a part of at least one, in cases, more than one such agreement.

South Asia, comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is home to 1.47 billion people;iv one-fifth of the world’s population. Within this area, almost half of the population lives below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest regions of the world.v A vast majority of the people are illiterate, without access to proper health facilities and suffer from many negative social factors. Considering the region’s social, economic and political problems, the SAARC was conceived as a regional organisation which could alleviate problems and put individual states on the path to growth.
The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was first mooted in May 1980. The foreign secretaries of the seven countries met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981. This was followed by a meeting in Colombo in August – September 1981, which identified five broad areas for regional cooperation.At their first meeting in New Delhi in August 1983, the Foreign Ministers of South Asia adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation (SARC) formally launching the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) in five areas of cooperation, namely, Agriculture, Rural Development, Telecommunications, Meteorology, Health and Public Activities. At the first SAARC Summit in Dhaka in December 1985, the heads of State or Government adopted the Charter formally establishing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). 8th December every year is observed as the SAARC Charter Day in member China and Japan were granted observer status at the same. The SAARC seeks to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia, strengthen collective self-reliance, promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in various fields, and cooperate with international and regional organizations.

The objectives of the SAARC are:

(a) To promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;
(b) 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 realise their full potential;
(c) To promote and strengthen collective self- reliance among the countries of South Asia;
(d) To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems;
(e) To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
(f) To strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
(g) To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international fora on matters of common interests; and
(h) To cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.

Although member states, realising the benefits gained from regional cooperation, have been meeting regularly at various levels, the SAARC is seen as a failure by many analysts.vii During this 25 year period there have been no notable SAARC achievements, although marginal progress has been made in a few fields.viiiDr. Christopher Snedden, of Deakin University, states that, ‘the fact that SAARC has existed since 1985 is an achievement in itself.’ix The regional security environment has deteriorated due to the growth of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the non-resolution of inter-state disputes. Growth in the social and economic sectors has also been dismal.x The SAARC accounts for less than one per cent of the world trade.xi Intra-regional trade has also been an insignificant four per cent of its total trade. Most of the conventions and summits become photo opportunities for attendees. In the words of BishwaPradhan, former Foreign Secretary of Nepal, ‘many of the decisions are just in papers in the form of protocols, conventions, reports and studies’.xii

The SAARC Charter states that the Heads of States/Governments must meet once a year, however, they have met only 16 times in the past 25 years.xiii Postponement or failure to conduct summits has been attributed to Indo-Pakistan tensionsxiv and other reasons, some of which are insignificant.xv However; irregular conduct of summits is not the only reason for the lacklustre performance of SAARC.

In South Asia, India accounts for 72 per cent of the total area, 77 per cent of the population and 78 per cent of the regional Gross National Product.xvi India, given its size and centrality in the region, shares a land or maritime boundary with all the SAARC countries, thus making it the pre-eminent power in the region and able to influence the conduct of other member states.xvii The other member states, with the exception of Pakistan and Afghanistan, do not share boundaries with each other, or have India as their only neighbour.xviii The geographical uniqueness and its rapid economic growth makes India stand out as a logical driver for the success of the SAARC.xix However, the influence of India on the region has been described as hegemonic and has led to a sense of insecurity amongst smaller nations.xx
India is also a constant factor in most of the inter-state disputes within the region, some attributable to the colonial past.xxi India has a range of issues with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka including sharing of waters and borders, illegal migration, trade and transit relations, and perceptions of inappropriate Indian interference in the internal affairs of others.xxii There are other inter-state conflicts too which do not involve India, but these are less significant compared to those involving India.xxiii
Strained Indo-Pakistan relations are, ‘the most severe obstacle to regional cooperation within the framework of SAARC’.xxiv The Kashmir issue and Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism continue to underscore the brittle relationship between India and Pakistan which seriously impedes the SAARC growth.xxv Pakistan has consistent involvement in undermining India’s leadership role in the region. Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, while addressing the last Summit, in a direct reference, blamed India and Pakistan for making the SAARC non-functional.xxvi Similarly, JigmeThinley, Bhutan’s Prime Minister, in his opening address at the same Summit stated that, ‘fractious and quarrelsome neighbours do not make a prosperous community’.xxvii

India considers that the SAARC provides an opportunity to the smaller nations to collectively oppose its interests.xxviii Some nations of the region have forged ties with China to balance the influence of India.xxix Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan’s initiative in campaigning for China’s entry into the SAARC, as an observer, is viewed by India as an attempt to marginalise its influence in the region. The indifferent attitude of the smaller nations towards India, besides dampening the spirit of SAARC, vitiates the environment for India and makes it reluctant to take on leadership within the Suspicion and mistrust amongst the member states, ‘serve as a stumbling block in the way of moving towards substantive areas of cooperation within the framework of SAARC’.xxxi

Though the SAARC has granted observer status to the European Union and eight other countries,xxxii the West still looks at South Asia as two entities: ‘Western South Asia’, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and ‘Eastern South Asia’ which includes the other countries. The West attaches significant importance to the former due to the US-led involvement in the ‘Global War on Terrorism’ (GWOT) and its relationship with India, considered a rising power. On the other hand ‘Eastern South Asia’, is considered as a less significant region for the West, as it offers very little of economic or strategic interest. After the defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the process of Maoist soldiers being re-integrated into Nepalese society, there are no major political issues of concern to the West. The SAARC, therefore, does not enjoy the same level of Western support as ASEAN and other regional organisations.

Being the biggest and most influential member nation, India must appreciate that by its not taking the lead, the SAARC will never achieve its full potential. India also needs to recognise the benefits of maintaining good relations with its neighbours and resolving contentious issues with them. The Indian government needs to display magnanimity, without compromising its national interests, to settle all issues with its neighbours on terms that smaller nations will find attractive.xxxiii India needs to take positive steps to change the hegemonic attitude it is seen as having in the region.

In order to remove deep rooted mistrust, smaller nations will also need to play their part in the resolution of all contentious issues, thereby bringing stability in the region. Pakistan and India, in particular, should seek to resolve their differences, if the SAARC is to be effective. Smaller nations must be accommodative of India’s regional and global aspirations, and they must view India as an opportunity for economic growth, and development of their human resource capabilities, in particular in the field of information technology. Improving bilateral relations with China may be acceptable to India; however any attempt to balance or reduce Indian influence in the region will not be welcomed by India. An environment, free of mutual mistrust and suspicion; conducive to cooperation, and with India as leading member, would help the SAARC to grow.

By improving inter-state relations and adopting a multilateral approach, the SAARC can project itself as a united entity, thus improving its international image. Active engagement with the observer countries will attract foreign investment and other support which will boost development within the region.xxxiv India, having established itself in the world, should take the lead in showcasing the SAARC achievements while engaging with the West. Initiatives such as laying a network of gas pipelines in the region can help project the SAARC as the ‘Asian Gas Grid’, thus promoting itself as a useful organisation. Greater interaction with ASEAN and the adoption of relevant lessons from its success will go a long way in helping SAARC’s cause and put it on the path of progress. xxxv

The SAARC has been in existence for 25 years. However, it has yet to make a mark as a viable regional organisation and achieve its true potential. Insecurity on the part of smaller nations regarding India; mistrust among the member nations; unpleasant Indo-Pakistan relations; the self-centred attitude of member states; and feeble Western support are the major barriers to the SAARC’s progress. The need for India and other member states to work for a relevant role for the SAARC in the development of South Asia is beyond debate. India, given its size and influence, must play a more meaningful role in injecting life into the SAARC. Resolving contentious issues amongst member states will help remove mistrust and create an environment conducive to growth. All member states must shun a bilateral approach in favour of a regional outlook to maximise gains. The SAARC projecting itself as a united and an effective organisation will cause the world to take notice and help it grow like other regional organisations.

SAARC Summits: (table is given below)

Host Leader
Brief Outlines


7–8 December 1985
Ataur Rahman Khan
Development of social, economic, cultural, technical cooperation among the member countries was accepted as the objective and the principles of sovereign equality, independence, integrity and non-interference were accepted as the guiding principles.


16-17 November 1986
Rajiv Gandhi
Summit took a major step towards institutionalising the SAARC by establishing a permanent secretariat to coordinate the implementation of SAARC programmes.


2-4 November 1987
Marich Man Singh Shrestha
Recognising the shared aspirations of the peoples of South Asia to communicate and cooperate with each other at people to people level, the Summit declaration called upon the SAARC to be increasingly oriented to the people’s needs and aspirations with a view to bring about a qualitative improvement in the general atmosphere of the region and for strengthening of peace, friendship and cooperation in the area.


29–31 December 1988
Benazir Bhutto
The SAARC sumit pledged to stamp out terrorism and adopted the Pakistani sponsored initiative for a regional basic needs perspective plan ‘SAARC 2000’. The leaders decided to put in an all-out war against the drug menace which was posting a grave threat to political and social stability of the region.


21–23 November 1990
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
In this Summit the SAARC leaders expressed their concern at the drug smuggling, terrorist activities and international weapon trade. The leaders entered into an agreement for curbing illicit drug trade and smuggling in South Asia.


21 December 1991
Sri Lanka
Dingiri Banda Wijetunge
The Colombo declaration adopted after the ‘business like’ SAARC Summit welcomed the general trend towards disarmament. It was hoped that measures in this direction would restrain the pursuit of military weapons in all regions of the world.


10-11 April 1993
Khaleda Zia
SAARC leaders gave a call for gradual liberalisation of intra-regional trade and said necessary steps should be taken to begin the first round of negotiations to exchange trade preferences among member countries under the newly signed framework of SAPTA.


2–4 May 1995
New Delhi
P. V. NarasimhaRao
A call for Nuclear Disarmament was made in this Declaration. Further the member countries were called upon to enact suitable legislation and take desired steps for affecting the regional agreement on terrorism as adopted by the SAARC. Further the member countries were called upon to enact suitable legislation and take desired steps for affecting the regional agreement on terrorism as adopted by the SAARC. Further it was held that the member countries were committed to end poverty by the year 2002 and illiteracy by the end of the 20th century.


12–14 May 1997
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
The Summit accepted the fact that economic integration of the region is a developmental necessity. The decision to advance by four years the deadline for converting the member countries into a South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) reflected it fully.


29–31 July 1998
Sri Lanka
SirimavoRatwatte Dias Bandaranaike
The SAARC leaders pledges to work for raising the standards of living of the inhabitants of South Asia, to combat the menace of trafficking in women and children, to prepare a convention on child welfare, to eradicate illiteracy through mutual cooperation and to develop a social order that will focus on poverty eradication, population stabilisation and human resource development.


4–6 January 2002
The SAARC Charter clearly holds that this regional forum is not to take up bilateral issues. It recorded a clear and firm call for the urgent conclusions of a comprehensive convention on combating international terrorism and conducting international cooperation including this scourge in conformity with the UN Charter, International Law and relevant convention.

2–6 January 2004
Zafarullah Khan Jamali
The summit once again accepted and advocated the importance of SAFTA as a major milestone. The signing of SAFTA agreement, which was to come into force w.e.f. 15th January, 2006, constituted an important outcome on the 12th SAARC Summit.


12–13 November 2005
Khaleda Zia
Three agreements were made: (i) Limited multilateral agreement on avoidance of double taxation and mutual administrative assistance in tax matters, (ii) Mutual administrative assistance in customs matters, and (iii) Establishment of SAARC Arbitration Council.


3–4 April 2007
New Delhi
Manmohan Singh
Summit welcomed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a full fledged member of SAARC. The members discussed implementation strategies of the SAARC Development Fund, a SAARC food bank and the South Asia University.


1–3 August 2008

Sri Lanka


Agreements were made (a) Charter of SAARC Development Fund (b) Agreement on the Establishment of South Asian Regional Standards Organisation (SARSO) (c) SAARC convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and (d) the Protocol on Accession of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Agreement on SAFTA.


28–29 April 2010
Climate change was the central issue of the summit. Leaders signed a SAARC Convention on Cooperation on Environment to tackle the problem of climate change.


10-11 November 2011
Mohamed Nasheed
SAARC Agreement on Rapid Response to Natural Disasters SAARC Agreement on Multilateral Arrangement on Recognition of Conformity Assessment SAARC Agreement on Implementation of Regional Standards SAARC Seed Bank Agreement.


ii De Lombaerde, P. and Van Langenhove, L: "Regional Integration, Poverty and Social Policy." Global Social Policy 7 (3): 377-383, 2007
iii De Lombaerde, P. and Van Langenhove, L: "Regional Integration, Poverty and Social Policy." Global Social Policy 7 (3): 377-383, 2007
iv DhirendraDwivedi, SAARC: Problems and Prospects, Adhyayan Publishers & Distributers, New Delhi, 2008, p.1.
v Ved, Mahendra, ‘South Asian Cooperation –SAARC can do better’.
vii Smruti S. Pattanaik, ‘SAARC at Twenty-Five: An Incredible Idea Still in its Infancy’, Strategic Analysis (Institute for Defence Studiesand Analyses), Vol. 34, No. 5, September 2010, p. 671; Sumita Kumar, ‘Pakistan and Regionalism’, Strategic Analysis (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses), Vol. 30, No. 1, January-March 2006, p. 123; Padmaja Murthy, ‘Relevance of SAARC’, StrategicAnalysis (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses), Vol. 23, No. 10, January 2000, p. 1, Retrieved 29 March 2011,<>.
viii AKM AbdusSabur& Mohammad HumayunKabir, Conflict Management and Sub Regional Co-operation in ASEAN: Relevance for SAARC, Academic Press and Publishers Limited in Association with Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies,Dhaka, 2000, pp. 78-79.
ix Christopher Snedden, ‘Some thoughts about the South Asian region’, 12 June 2010 (no page numbers given), retrieved 10 March 2011 (copy held with the author), <>.
x Amar Nath Ram, ‘SAARC in a Globalised Era – Imperatives and Opportunities’, India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs,Vol. 65, No. 4, September 2009, pp. 448-449, retrieved 28 March 2011, <>.
xi Abhishek Raman, ‘South Asian Union Divided We Stand’, Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, New Delhi, Vol. 78, July 2008, p. 2,retrieved 28 April 2011, <>.
xii BishwaPradhan, ‘Regional Cooperation: Prospect for Energy Development’, Institute of Foreign Affairs, Nepal, p. 9, retrieved 20 March 2011, <>.
xiii Summits were not held in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, and 2009,
xiv For instance, the 11th SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in 1999 was convened after three years in 2002, due to Indianunwillingness to share a forum with Pakistan, and legitimise its military regime and General Pervez Musharraf, who mastermindedthe Kargil operation, see KripaSridharan, ‘Regional Organisations and Conflict Management: Comparing ASEAN and SAARC’, Crisis States Research Centre (Destin Development Studies Institute), Working Paper Series No. 2, No. 33, March 2008,p. 8; Snedden,‘Some thoughts about the South Asian region’.
xv ShvetaDhaliwal, Development of Regionalism in South Asia: Some Reflections on SAARC,
MD Publications Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2009, p. 32.
xvi BhartiChibber, Regional Security and Regional Cooperation: Comparative Study of ASEAN and
SAARC, New Century Publications, New Delhi, 2004, p. 96; Sabur&Kabir, p. 51.
xvii Dwivedi, p. 71; Afghanistan does not share a direct land boundary with India. However, India considers Afghanistan as a directneighbour since it considers the Pakistan occupation of Northern areas of Jammu and Kashmir, which borders Afghanistan, as illegal, see KanwalSibal, ‘India’s Relations with its Neighbours’, India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 4, 2009, p. 352, retrieved 28 March 2011, <>.
xviii Vikas Kumar, ‘Why is SAARC gridlocked and how can it be revitalized’, 19 January 2011 (no page numbers given), retrieved 30March 2011 (copy held with author), <>.
xix KV Rajan, ‘Renewing SAARC’, Institute of Foreign Affairs, Nepal, p. 1, retrieved 27 April 2011, <>; TomislavDelinic, ‘SAARC-25 Years of Regional Integration in South Asia’, KAS (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung) International Reports, New Delhi, No. 2/2011, p. 9, retrieved 03 May 2011,<>.
xx Kumar, ‘Why is SAARC gridlocked’;Murthy, p. 3; Jetly, p. 64.
xxi Sridharan, p. 8; Sabur&Kabir, pp. 75-78.
xxii Rajeev RanjanChaturvedy& David M. Malone, ‘India and its South Asian Neighbours’, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS,) National University of Singapore (NUS),Working Paper No. 100, 26 November 2009, pp. 15-23, retrieved 29 March 2011,
<>; Jetly, p. 62; Sabur&Kabir, pp.65-67; M. ManirHossain& Ronald C. Duncan, ‘The political economy of regionalism in South Asia’, National Centre for Developmental Studies, The Australian National University Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Economic Division Working Paper No. 98/1, 1998, p. 8, retrieved 01 May 2011,<>; Dwivedi, p. 106; Sridharan, p. 8.
xxiii For instance, Bhutan has a dispute with Nepal regarding the acceptance of ethnic Nepalese who fled Bhutan into Nepal in 1990; Pakistan and Bangladesh have a dispute, in relation to the sharing of common assets and repatriation of Pakistanis who were stranded in 1971 when Bangladesh was created, see Sabur&Kabir, pp. 74-76; Hossain& Duncan, p. 8; Sridharan, p. 9.
xxiv Sabur&Kabir, p. 53.
xxv Smruti S. Pattanaik, ‘Indo-Pak Relations and the SAARC Summits’, Strategic Analysis (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses), Vol. 28, No. 3, July-September 2004, p. 429; Chaturvedy& Malone, p. 13; Syeda Sana Rahman, ‘Same but Different? Comparing the ASEAN and SAARC Frameworks’, Institute of South Asian Studies (National University of Singapore), Brief No. 123, 07 March 2011, p. 10, retrieved 02 May 2011, <>.

xxvi President Mohamed Nasheed, President of Maldives, while addressing the 16th SAARC Summit, held at Bhutan, from 28 to 29 April 2011, retrieved 01 May 2011, <>; Snedden, ‘Some thoughts about the South Asian region’; Poorna Rodrigo, ‘Analysis & Opinion: President Nasheed’s no nonsense SAARC speech’,
Asian Tribune, 30 April 2010, retrieved 10 March 2011, <>.
xxvii Snedden, ‘Some thoughts about the South Asian region’.
xxviii Smruti S Pattnaik, ‘Making Sense of Regional Cooperation: SAARC at Twenty’, Strategic Analysis (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses), Vol. 30, No. 1, January-March 2006, p. 155, retrieved 09 March 2011; Chibber, p.97; Sabur&Kabir, p. 55; Chaturvedy& Malone, p. 23.
xxix Pattanaik, ‘SAARC at Twenty-Five’, p. 675.
xxx Pattnaik, ‘Making Sense of regional cooperation: SAARC at Twenty’, p. 156
xxxi Sabur&Kabir, p. 79.
xxxii Australia, China, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, USA and European Union have become observers of the SAARC, see Delinic, p. 18.
xxxiii Australia, China, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, USA and European Union have become observers of the SAARC, see Delinic, p. 18.
xxxiv MavaraInayat, ‘The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Policy Paper No. 15, February 2007, p. 24, copy held by the author.

xxxv Jetly, p. 72; Chibber, pp. 214-215; for additional reading and detailed comparison between SAARC and ASEAN, refer Sabur&Kabir, and Chibber.  

No comments:

Post a Comment