The SAARC was formed in 1985, headquartered at Kathmandu, Nepal. There are eight countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Its observer States are Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea and the United States. Behind its formation, the first initiative came from the then 7th prime minister of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rahman. The memorable aspects of SAARC have been to tackle some important areas like maintaining its social charter, development agreements and more importantly fighting terrorism. Other areas include efforts for establishing the food and development banks, agreement on transportation, energy which are really important steps in the right direction. But almost in all respects its success is very limited. In its about 30 years after formation as many as 11 annual Summits have failed to be held due to various reasons. It is thought that the SAARC could be a very effective organization if the original idea could have been materialized. After Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India in 2014, India gave a boost to vitalizing the organization. In his oath taking ceremony as a prime minister, Modi invited all SAARC leaders. His special interest to rejuvenate SAARC was one of the main reasons behind its Kathmandu Summit in 2014 after 3 years of omission of annual Summits of SAARC.
South Asian University- a case of SAARC status analysis
At the 13th SAARC Summit held in Dhaka, in November 2005, Manmohan Singh, then prime minister of India, proposed the establishment of a Universityto provide world-class facilities and professional faculty to students and researchers from SAARC member countries. The “Inter-governmental Agreement for the Establishment of the South Asian University” was signed at the 14th SAARC Summit. SAARC member states decided to establish the University in India. But the participation of the SAARC countries is not at the desired level. The students’ enrolment of the member countries is not sufficient. An ex-South Asian University faculty member, now in a famous national academic institute, told the reporter that disheartened with the prospect of the university, a section of qualified faculty members have left the university, in spite of its better salary structure. The government of India alone has spent about 80% of the cost, that is, around 239.930 million USD, for the foundation of the University until 2014. One can guess from this case study how desperately we need active participation of all SAARC members in running the organization.
A decade after the formation of SAARC in 1985, the South Asian Free Preferential Trading Agreement (SAPTA) was formed. It was declared that 2001 was the deadline to finalize a treaty for the South Asian Free Trade Association (SAFTA). The SAARC seven countries signed a treaty that would lead to free trade and movement of goods paving the way for South Asian Economic Union along the lines of EU in future. The SAFTA in the treatyseeks to remove trade barriers, phased elimination of tariffs and establishment of a ministerial level mechanism for administering the treaty and dispute settlement among members. This treaty was to come into operation by January 1, 2006. The exchange ofmutual experience among the countries is more relevant, cheap and cost effective and can provide a vast scope for mutual cooperation in various areas.
Problems responsible for failure of SAARC
A section of analysts consider that SAARC has achieved very little over the last three decades. Deteriorating regional security environment and rising terrorismin Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere are some of the main reasons behind the slow movement of SAARC as a form of regional cooperation. Moreover inter-state disputes are also responsible for involving different power groups in the region. As a resultthere has been dismal progress of social and economic sectors and intra-regional trade.
India and other member states in SAARC need to collectively tackle challenges such as poverty, energy crisis, and terrorism among others.
India is said to havelost its position as a leader of SAARC. A section of observers, like Rajesh Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, IIM, Calcutta, think that India has become a big brother but failed to be an impressive neighbour. There are some reasons behind this. Bhattacharya thinks that relations between India and Pakistan have hit rockbottom. Relations with Bangladesh turned bitter due to water sharing problems and Nepal is displeased with India’s big brotherly attitude. Another big problem is the relationshipwith China. China’s activism with neighborhood countries has emerged as a problem.
Can BIMSTEC and BBIN replace SAARC?
It is known that presently two organizations are now given greater importance. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) has been emerging as an organization for regional cooperation. There are 7 countries in it. They are Nepal, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. It is thought that as the prospect of SAARC is not so impressive, so can these two organizations BIMSTEC and BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) be the future successful organizations for regional cooperation.
It is reported however thatmore stress on BIMSTEC and BBIN instead of SAARC could even prove counter-productive. The China Factor is too predominant here, with almost every country except Bhutan being under China's influence. China is eying for further consolidation of its position through its ambitious “One belt one Road” and “21st century maritime silk road” initiatives. But it is very doubtful to form organizations for regional cooperation in this area if Pakistan is not there. This is because Pakistan is one of the biggest economies in this region. If Pakistan is kept out of any organization there is a possibility of making the political atmosphere of the region worse.
Can there be a possibility of SAARC branding of goods or a SAARC bank to be set up?
There are some commodities like tea, textile and garments or handicraft and cultural itemswhich are special in the SAARC region. The problem is that the political situation is such that any initiatives from a country are not likely to be smooth sailing. For example,
one can consider the tea industry. It is known that Nepal is selling its tea in the international market branding that as Darjeeling tea. As Darjeeling tea is unique and it can fetch high price in the market Nepaltea traders have been gaining huge profit. On query the representative of the Tea Association of India (TAI) told BE this has been a growing problem. It is known that Nepal has been selling as much tea in this way which is over and above its total production. Actually a portion of Chinese tea is being sold in the market through Nepal. The TAI thinks branding of the item cannot solve the problem. Mistrust among countries is still continuing.
Regarding a SAARC bank one can only consider the case ofthe South Asian University. Actually the SAARC sentiment is still weak. Thenwho would contribute money to run a Banking system efficiently?
The main idea behind the formation of SAARC was to lower bilateral tensions in the subcontinent, especially between its two biggest members, India and Pakistan and to make space for discussion on common issues such as trade, infrastructure, sustainable development and poverty alleviation. If every country in this setup is really willing to move SAARC forward each has to take responsibility for this. If this is possible then only the setting up of SAARC can be meaningful. Actually many believe that the running of SAARC in a proper way can really develop these regional countries. At the present moment there is no alternative to SAARC.