Jhankruti Badani elucidates about SAARC , its evolution and its significance in the present day scenario. She explains as to how it is relevant with respect to its objective of establishing peace and cooperation among member nations, and the possible position of India as a hegemon within the bloc.
SOUTH ASIAN ASSOCIATION FOR REGIONAL COOPERATION (SAARC) is a regional intergovernmental organisation between 8 countries namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This organisation is a geopolitical union of the nations who decided to come together to strengthen cooperation among themselves. The genesis of SAARC goes back in 1980 when the then Bangladeshi President Zaiur Rehman floated the proposal for formation of a South Asian Regional Cooperation, and after series of meetings, SAARC was launched formally in its first summit in December, 1985 at Dhaka. The charter for SAARC was adopted by the Head of States or government, henceforth setting a foundation of a new beginning- an era of South Asian diplomatic interaction
The SAARC aims in promotion of cooperation and bringing in the measures to build peace and confidence among the member nations. SAARC charter laid down objective to ‘promote the welfare of the people of South Asia and to improve their quality of life, to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region… and to promote and strengthen collective self reliance among the countries of South Asia’. The Charter also emphasized that cooperation should be based on ‘respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit’. The member countries are expected to avoid the bilateral and contentious issues and to come into conclusion through unanimous decisions.
The institutional mechanism of SAARC has a four tier set up where the functions of various committees are well demarcated. At the top most level there is an annual summit meeting where the head of States come together and discuss the issues. At second, third and fourth tier are the council of ministers, standing committee and technical committee respectively which look after various objects of cooperation of members states. The headquarters of the SAARC is situated at Kathmandu, Nepal. SAARC deals in 11 areas of cooperation ranging from general issues like agriculture; education, culture and sports; tourism; transport; to social issues like health, population and child welfare; women in development; prevention of drug abuse, etc. The SAARC arrangement is an extension of the diplomatic interaction in the world. This regional arrangement has 6 apex bodies namely SCCI (commerce and industry), SAARCLAW (law), SAFA (federation of accountants), SAF (foundation), SAIEVAC (institution to end violence against children), and FOSWAL (foundation of writers and literature) which deal in their specialised areas.
With increase in rate of the globalisation, the need arose for establishing a regional tie among the South Asian states. Just like its other regional counterparts like EU, ASEAN, NAFTA, AU, etc, SAARC aimed to strengthen its welfare financial matters, social advancement and mutual cooperation. The history, culture, diversity, geography, economy, etc were important factors in formation of this regional bloc.
The need for establishing SAARC arose due to several important factors. The conflicting neighbourhoods after the colonial independence; problems of political and internal instability; social, cultural, ethnic and religious differences of the people surpassing national boundaries; etc, created a predicament of distrust , suspicion and mutual confidence. The need to resolve bilateral disputes, economic development, welfare of people, counter the terrorism, etc led to the regional cooperation among the South Asian nations.
The SAARC was based on three main principles as envisaged in Article II of the Charter-
i. To respect the internal affairs of other states and mutual benefit;
ii. not to substitute regional cooperation with bilateral or multilateral cooperation;
iii. Cooperation shall not be inconsistent with bilateral or multilateral cooperation obligation.
Thus, the SAARC started working within the assigned framework and through a serious of pacts and conventions, brought an accommodative diplomacy into the scenario. SAARC countries altogether have a stronghold in bringing the economic and social upliftment. En number of multilateral trade arrangements between the South Asian nations has led to economic development and welfare of the countries.
SAARC : ITS SUCCESS
The question that still remains is whether the SAARC was effective in promotion of cooperation or not :
Firstly, any regional bloc is established to promote peace and cooperation among its equal partners. Amongst all the 8 member countries, India holds more than 70% of the region and populace. India is the only country which holds the common border with 7 of the countries which is not in case of others. So, as a result of this dominant position, there is a bigger scope that India can play a hegemonic role among the nations. This insecurity has put a huge amount of negative impact in working of SAARC.
Secondly, the bilateral problems among the nations like issue of river sharing, issue related to Kashmir, terrorism, illegal trading, etc disrupts the peace, healthy relations and stability among the member nations.
Thirdly, when we bring a comparative analysis between the SAARC and all the other regional blocs, the evolution of regional arrangements was based on different grounds. The other blocs like EU, AU, ASEAN etc evolved because of similar political and social ideologies whereas the South Asian regional bloc was based on religious, ethnic, cultural divergence, the hard-line political postures, etc. This base of evolution somewhere or the other always affected the unity of the region in a negative manner.
Fourthly, the differences in political wills and ideologies of the nations, severely impacts the mutual cooperation. SAARC mainly emphasizes on socio-economic development, but irrespective of this, the bilateral issues between India and Pakistan has always been the topic of dialogue, further dividing the members into different viewpoints. This political pressure was main reason for failure of SAARC in some aspects.
Despite of all the loopholes, in the three decades from its inception, SAARC has played a major game changing role in the South Asian regional scenario. The SAARC has been welcomed on account of its initiatives to strengthen the ties among the member nations with respect to trade, environment, economy, etc. The formation of SAARC has brought about a sovereign equality among all the South Asian states irrespective of their size or capacity. India being the most powerful state in this arrangement should go an extra mile to engage in positive dialogues with member states. (Gujral Doctrine). With few changes in the institutional framework and by restricting the external interference in SAARC, in no time it will be one of the leading regional blocs.