South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity  

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985

  • An economic & geopolitical organization of 8 countries that are primarily located  in South Asia 
  • Secretariat – Kathmandu, Nepal;  
  • Official language – English 
  • Members – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Srilanka, Maldives, Afghanistan
  • 1st summit at Dhaka, only 1 new member added since birth i.e. Afghanistan
  • SAARC comprises 3% of the world's area, 21% of the world's population

Evolution of SAARC 

  • The idea of regional political and economic cooperation in South Asia was first raised in 1980 and the first summit was held in Dhaka on 8 December 1985, when the organization was established by the governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri  Lanka.
  • There are currently nine Observers to SAARC, namely: (i) Australia; (ii) China; (iii) the European  Union; (iv) Iran; (v) Japan; (vi) the Republic of Korea; (vii) Mauritius; (viii) Myanmar; and (ix) the  United States of America. 
  • Since then the organization has expanded by accepting one new full member, Afghanistan, and several observer members. 
  • Myanmar has requested its status up-gradation from Observer to a unified member state. Similarly, Turkey and Russia have also applied for membership. 
  • The official meetings of the leaders of each nation are held annually whilst the foreign ministers meet twice annually. 

Principles  

  • Respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence,  non-interference in the internal affairs of other States and mutual benefit. 
  • Such cooperation shall not be a substitute for bilateral and multilateral cooperation but shall  complement them. 
  • Such cooperation shall not be inconsistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations. 

Objectives of the SAARC  

  • 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 provide all individuals with the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential.
  • To promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia. 
  • To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another are 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. 

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.

Principal Organs  

SAARC has the following structure: 

1. Council – It is the apex policy-making body. The council is represented by government heads of the respective member countries. 

2. Council of Ministers – The Council of Ministers comprises the foreign ministers and they meet generally two times annually. 

Functions of the Council of Ministers 

∙ Policy formulation 

∙ Reviewing the progress of regional cooperation 

∙ Identifying newer areas of cooperation, and 

∙ Setting up additional mechanisms as required 

3. Standing Committee – It comprises the foreign secretariat of the member countries. The major functions of the standing committee are stated below: 

∙ To monitor and coordinate the programs 

∙ To deal with modalities of financing 

∙ To mobilize cooperation within and outside the region 

4. Programming Committee – It comprises senior officials of the member governments. The major functions of this committee are as follows: 

∙ Finalizing the annual meet schedule 

∙ Budget scrutinization 

∙ External activities assigned by the standing committee 

5. Technical Committee- It consists of representatives of the member nations. The major functions of the committee are as follows: 

∙ To formulate projects and monitor the same 

∙ To submit reports 

6. Secretariat – It is headed by the Secretary-general appointed by the Council of Ministers. The main functions of the Secretariat are as follows: 

∙ Coordination and execution of activities conducted by SAARC 

∙ Monitoring the SAARC meetings

∙ Work as a communication link between SAARC and other international summits and forums. 

SAARC Specialized Bodies  

  • SAARC Development Fund (SDF): Its primary objective is funding of project-based collaboration  in social sectors such as poverty alleviation, development, etc. 

o 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 

o 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 

o South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) has its Secretariat at Dhaka,  Bangladesh

o 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 

o 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 by the member states and their people. 

SAARC 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. The 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 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 the 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. 
  • All the SAARC countries have common problems and issues like poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, natural disasters, internal conflicts, industrial and technological backwardness, low GDP and poor socio-economic condition and uplift their living standards thereby creating common areas of development and progress having common solutions. 

Challenges  

  • Low frequency of meetings: More engagement is required by the member states and instead of meeting biennial meetings should be held annually. 
  • Broad areas of cooperation leads to diversion of energy and resources. 
  • Limitation in SAFTA: The implementation of SAFTA has not been satisfactory, a Free Trade  Agreement confined to goods, excluding all services like information technology. 
  • Indo-Pak Relations: Escalated tension and conflict between India and Pakistan have severely hampered the prospects of SAARC. 

Way Forward  

  • In a region increasingly targeted by Chinese investment and loans, SAARC could be a common platform to demand more sustainable alternatives for development, or to oppose trade tariffs together, or to demand better terms for South Asian labour around the world. 
  • SAARC, as an organisation, reflects the South Asian identity of the countries, historically and  contemporarily. This is a naturally made geographical identity. Equally, there is a cultural, linguistic, religious and culinary affinity that defines South Asia. 
  • The potential of the 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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Blog Post written by:
Anurag Trivedi
UPSC Mentor