Saarc: Problems and prospects

By Shaveta Sharma

Regional Organizations have been considered as one of the most apt means to normalize the relations among the regional partners and to channelize the cooperative gestures into the right tract besides a sense of security among the members. SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) was formed in 1985 to promote the economic relations and equations among the South Asian countries. Originally, there were seven founder members of SAARC- India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives. Its strength has risen to 8 after the inclusion of Afghanistan as its new member.
Its over 26 years now since its formation but when compared with the other regional organizations like European Union, ASEAN etc on the success meter, SAARC is far behind in conflict- resolution, intra- regional trade etc as SAARC has not been able to grow as a successful regional organization. There are many factors which are retarding its success ratio. Firstly, there is a fear- psychosis among the members of SAARC viz-a-viz India due to her extraordinary achievements in all the spheres like- economic growth rate, military strength, technological advancement, nuclear strength, pluralistic- secular fabric of the society, democratic traditions so on and so forth. The countries especially Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh are not very much comfortable with the rise of India as one of the fastest growing powers to be reckoned with. These countries are dwarfed by the ‘Indo-centricity’ of the region.
Secondly, its unfortunate but true that the success of SAARC has remained a prisoner of the Indo- Pak rivalry. Pakistan is insecure and feares of Indian dominance not only in this region but also in the whole world. Pakistan feels suffocated of anything and everything dominated by India. However, some of these fears are real but most of them are pre- emptive and psychologically created. Thirdly, there is a crisis of identity among the member countries. All the members prefer to be get aligned to one or other regional organizations than identifying themselves with SAARC. For instance, Pakistan and Bangladesh are more inclined the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) and feel more secured and comfortable to be a part of ‘Muslim- solidarity regime’. Likewise, Sri Lanka, Maldives and India are more concerned to identify themselves as the members of ASEAN and East Asia.
Fourthly, there are inherent shortcomings in the working of SAARC as it is written down in its charter that no bi- lateral and conflictual issues would be discussed at its platform. Besides this, the method of taking decisions is also faulted as it is based on consensus of all the members hence, many issues remained unresolved till date. Fifthly, the security and political deviations among the members always over- shadowed the prospects of economic and socio- cultural convergences. The various conflictual issues among the members are operating as a stumbling bloc in the way of their cooperation and normalization. Each member of SAARC is having diverse security threat perception as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka consider India as the biggest threat to their security. On the other hand, India consider the growing influence and interference of outside powers like USA and China into this region as the biggest threat to her security. But, all the member states fail to articulate their common threat perceptions like poverty, unemployment, terrorism, environmental degradation etc.
Sixthly, there is a failure on the part of the civil society of the South Asian region. Although there are over one lac NGO’s operating in this region but these have remained non- effective in nature. The civil society and society- central model needs the will of the state to operate effectively but unfortunately it is still operating in the state- centric model which has limited its utility and credibility. Lastly, there is a big failure on the part of the leadership because it has failed to articulate and operationalize the process of regional cooperation. They only meet at the SAARC summits, issue formal speeches but failed to articulate and channelize the peace process into the right track.
It can be stated that SAARC has not been able to achieve the aim of being a successful regional organization rather it has remained largely dysfunctional. But still there is a ray of hope for SAARC for becoming a successful regional organization. Firstly, SAARC would get the maximum dividends from the Indo- Pak peace process and CBM’s. The need of the time is to address the complicated issues between both the countries in order to make SAARC a success in the real sense of the term.
Secondly, India should address the genuine concerns of the SAARC members. India being the leading country of the region should try to address the power differential of the region in order to gain the trust of the SAARC members. Infact India has taken some steps to lessen the power differential by solving the contentious issues of Kachathivu with Sri Lanka and of Teen Bigha with Bangladesh and by adopting the Gujral Doctrine in 1997 for increasing the trust- surplus and for accommodating the concerns of the SAARC members.
Thirdly, the SAARC charter needs to be amended. The bi-lateral conflictual issues should be discussed at the SAARC platform because only an effective dispute- redress mechanism could help in shrinking the areas of conflict and expanding the areas of trust and cooperation. Further, the operational principle of consensus voting should be replaced by extra-ordinary majority (i.e. ¾ majority).
Fourthly, the SAARC members should change their security perceptions and move on from the conventional threats to non- conventional threats which are more threatening to the existence of these SAARC members. There are crisis of governability, threats of terrorism, poverty, unemployment, economic slowdown, environmental threats, decreasing sex- ratio, corruption etc. the SAARC members should try to counter these non- conventional threats collectively from the platform of SAARC.
To conclude, it can be stated that if EU, ASEAN could become successful organizations then why not SAARC? If SAARC members initiate some sincere efforts to make SAARC a strong dispute- redress mechanism, it can become a very successful regional organization. The need of the time is that SAARC should come out of the ‘state- centric model’ and to change the negative mindsets of the SAARC members.
(The writer is PhD scholar in the Department of Political Science, University of Jammu and also working as lecturer.)