Monday, 2 October, 2023

Need To Reactivate SAARC

Uttam Maharjan

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has been in limbo since 2016, when the 19th SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan had to be cancelled after India, together with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, boycotted it over the terrorist attack on the Indian army camp in Uri. India blamed Pakistan for the attack. The future of SAARC has since remained uncertain. The last SAARC summit was held in Kathmandu in 2014.
India and Pakistan are regional rivals. India often blames Pakistan for cross-border terrorism, which the latter denies. Both are nuclear powers. India is trying to isolate Pakistan internationally but in vain. But for the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, there would have relatively been peace in the South Asian region.

No notable progress
India, the most powerful member of SAARC, seems to have lost its interest in this regional bloc. Despite many efforts at holding the stalled summit, no progress has been achieved so far. It seems as long as India does not take the initiative to make the summit take place, nothing will come out of it. India is, instead, showing interest in BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC. But as BIMSTEC directs its efforts at developing the Bay of Bengal region, the scope of the regional body falls short of assimilating the SAARC region.
After its establishment in Dhaka in 1985, SAARC showed promising results in the initial years. Its summits were also regularly from 1985 to 1988. However, no summit was held in 1989. Since then, the holding of summits has been irregular. In the history of 35 years, only 18 summits have been held till now.
The motive behind the establishment of SAARC was to develop the South Asian region through concerted efforts of the member states. The SAARC Charter expresses the desire of the nations and peoples of the South Asian region to work collectively to promote mutual understanding, good-neighbour relations and meaningful cooperation. The Charter stresses on cooperation in economic, social, cultural, technological and scientific fields and attaches importance to sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, political independence and non-interference in the internal affairs of other member countries.
South Asia is one of the poor regions in the world. The region lacks economic integration. So, it is necessary to re-energise SAARC. There are trade treaties among the SAARC member countries but political will and trust are grossly lacking. That the intra-SAARC trade accounts for just five per cent of the total South Asian trade speaks volumes for the dismal status of trade in the region. As a comparison, the ASEAN has an intra-regional trade of 25 per cent of the total regional trade. Economic and regional integration is one of the lofty goals of SAARC. Still, SAARC has remained one of the least integrated regional groups in the world.
The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was launched in 2006. Fifteen years have passed since the SAFTA came into being. But the SAARC member countries have not been able to fully utilise the regional instrument for their collective benefit. When it comes to intra-SAARC investment, the scenario is even more dismal. The volume of such investments is very low. Moreover, there does not exist any instrument promoting investment in the South Asian region.
There is no denying the fact that peace is a prerequisite for development. There is no question of the South Asian region remaining undeveloped if synergic efforts are made by the member countries. But the incidents of conflict that crop up occasionally between India and Pakistan have marred the SAARC prospects for marching ahead on the path of overall prosperity of the South Asian region. The SAARC Charter prohibits bilateral issues from affecting the SAARC process but it is the very bilateral issues (between India and Pakistan) that have held the SAARC hostage since 2016.
Nepal is the current Chair of SAARC. The country has tried to create an environment conducive to holding the stalled summit in Pakistan but the dogged attitude of India towards the regional bloc has foiled all efforts. As such, everlasting peace has been elusive in the South Asian region.

COVID-19 fund
Last year, India took the initiative to set up a COVID-19 emergency fund to collectively face coronavirus. The contributions from the SAARC member countries were made voluntary. The funds can be used by any member country to bear the cost incurred on fighting the disease. India contributed US$ 10 million, whereas Nepal chipped in Rs. 100 million. All other member countries also contributed to the fund.
This gesture on the part of India seemingly showed at the time that it was willing to enhance cooperation in the SAARC region again. But nothing of that sort has happened. Rather, the SAARC fund seems to have sunk into oblivion. However, India has supported Nepal during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing coronavirus vaccines. The first one million doses were made available in grant and another one million doses were provided as per the purchase agreement.
SAARC is essential for making the South Asian region vibrant. It should not be paralysed by the state of conflict in the two member countries, India and Pakistan. It is home to eight countries. When other regional bodies like ASEAN are faring well, SAARC has been bogged down in the quagmire of inaction due to the rivalry between India and Pakistan. It is up to India to reactivate SAARC. Leaving SAARC in the lurch means undoing decades of efforts at making the South Asian region prosperous. So there is not even an iota of doubt that reactivating and reinvigorating the SAARC is the need of the hour.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.