SAARC: Distant Dreams
Like other regions, the people of South Asia created SAARC in 1985 to futher friendship, trust and understanding. Have these objectives been achieved?
Formed in 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is now in its 30th year. Its membership has increased from the original seven ‘truly’ South Asian countries - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - to eight after Afghanistan’s inclusion in 2007. Myanmar is also flapping its wings to be a part of SAARC.
Great expectations were associated with the new organization. Former Bangladesh President, General Ziaur Rahman who was the motivating force behind the formation of SAARC, had dreams of making it a prototype of the European Union with free trade, visafree travel, common currency and, perhaps, even common defense as some of its features.
But the realities are different in the South Asian region. In the EU, for example, there is no behemoth country as India. Moreover, India and Pakistan are eternal adversaries. Suspicions have therefore always dogged the organization. Smaller countries, led mainly by Pakistan, are apprehensive of India's hegemony, while India is wary of its smaller neighbors ganging up against it.
However, despite apprehensions, SAARC was launched with great expectations with the aim "to promote welfare economics, collective selfreliance among the countries of South Asia and to accelerate socio-cultural development in the region." In other words it hoped to undo the damage done by splitting India and heal the rift.
Trade being the backbone of economic development, a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was envisaged as the first step towards the ultimate goals of a customs union, a common market and an economic union.
The SAFTA Agreement was signed on January 6, 2004 during the Twelfth SAARC Summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan. The agreement entered into force on January 1, 2006 and the Trade Liberalization Program commenced from July 1, 2006. The agreement required the member countries to "bring their duties down to 20 percent by 2009." But it is not known whether this condition has been implemented. Meanwhile, the SAFTA Ministerial Council has been established and it comprises the commerce ministers of the member states.
But it has yet to deliver on its promise as there is very little sign of any concrete steps by the member countries to liberalize trade among themselves. Pakistan has not even reciprocated India's grant of MFN status to it. Exports from Nepal to Afghanistan are still not possible by the land route through India and Pakistan. In fact, because transport by the overland route does not freely ply among Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the aims of SAFTA are difficult to realize. Moreover, trade between India and Pakistan remains hostage to the Kashmir dispute.
Another tangible step was the
Suspicions have dogged SAARC since its formation. Smaller countries, led mainly by Pakistan, are apprehensive of India’s hegemony, while India is wary of its smaller neighbors ganging up against it.
SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme. It was launched in 1992, after the leaders at the Fourth Summit (Islamabad, December 1988) decided to issue a special travel document to certain categories of dignitaries which would exempt them from visas within the region. But this is a far cry from the visa free travel model practiced in the European Union where the citizen of one country could freely travel to another member country or where a tourist from outside the EU can freely travel to all member countries if he obtains the visa to enter one EU country.
The rigor of travel restriction is more glaring in the case of India and Pakistan. Visitors from both countries are required to report to the police station, while a traveler must return through the same point from where he enters the other country and use the same means of transport. If a Pakistani visitor enters India through the Delhi airport, he must return via Delhi and only by air. He cannot even return by the land route. Proceeding to Bangladesh or Nepal is simply out of the question. So in practical terms SAARC has failed even to provide visa-free travel to facilitate people to people contact which is vital for the promotion of goodwill and peace.
SAARC has established 11 centers in some of the member countries that cover various sectors, such as agriculture, meteorology, tuberculosis and HIV, documentation, human resources development, coastal zone
management, information technology, energy, forestry, culture and disaster management. Each centre promotes activities in its own sphere through seminars and publication.
The cultural centre holds monthly events including festivals such as the traditional dance and music festival, representing all SAARC members. There also are seminars on photography, development of museums and discussion on children's literature in South Asia. But it has not made any headway in the field of sports. Organizing an annual SAARC sports festival could be a good initiative. There is also a SAARC information centre but newspapers and periodicals are not yet freely exchanged among member countries.
A number of factors bedevil SAARC, preventing it from achieving its ambitious goals. In addition to the Indo-Pakistan hostility, there is the unstable situation in Afghanistan. How it shapes up after the drawdown of U.S. troops remains to be seen. According to the Bilateral Security Agreement, about 10,000 troops are going to stay in Afghanistan. This can attract Taliban attacks. Besides, a clash of Indo-Pakistan interests is also apprehended as both sides are vying for influence in Afghanistan. India has already invested a sizeable amount of money on development in Afghanistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, relies on the Taliban support. All these factors have the potential to affect SAARC's growth.
No less crucial is the role of Bangladesh. It is no more as enthusiastic as it was when the organization was founded.The reason is that Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina bears a seething enmity towards SAARC's founder Gen. Ziaur Rahman. She has systematically removed his name from many institutions, including the Dhaka Airport whose name she changed to the Shah Jalal Airport. Zia's name being indelibly associated with SAARC is an anathema to her.
However, Narendra Modi has generated new hopes for SAARC's rejuvenation. His first action as prime minister was to invite all SAARC members at his oath-taking ceremony. In fact, India being the largest and the most advanced among SAARC countries is uniquely qualified to take the organization to new heights. How things move from this point towards the achievement of SAARC’s objectives is a puzzling equation.
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