Sr. No. PARTICULARS Page No.
1 Introduction 2
2 History of SAARC 3
3 Member States 5
4 Timeline (SAARC Summits) 10
5 Need Of SAARC 16
6 Relevance of SAARC 26
7 Conclusion 35
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an organization of South
Asian nations, founded in December 1985 and dedicated to economic, technological, social, and
cultural development emphasizing collective self-reliance. Its seven founding members are
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan joined the
organization in 2007.It is an economic and geopolitical organization. The SAARC Secretariat is
based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The idea of regional political and economical 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. Since then the organization has expanded by accepting one new full member,
Afghanistan and several observer members.
The SAARC policies aim to promote welfare economics, collective self-reliance among the
countries of South Asia, and to accelerate socio-cultural development in the region. The SAARC
has developed external relations by establishing permanent diplomatic relations with the EU,
the UN (as an observer), and other multilateral entities. The official meetings of the leaders of
each nation are held annually whilst the foreign ministers meet twice annually. The 18th SAARC
Summit is scheduled to be held in Kathmandu in November 2014.
The representation of SAARC as major regional block is increasing and is rivaling the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), African Union and European Union. China
has sought to become a member of SAARC, besides four other countries – Mauritius, Iran,
Australia and Myanmar want to graduate from observer nations to permanent ones.
HISTORY OF SAARC
The idea of co-operation in South Asia was discussed initially in three conferences: the Asian
Relations Conference held in New Delhi on April 1947; the Baguio Conference in
the Philippines on May 1950; and the Colombo Powers Conference held in Sri Lanka on April
In the ending years of the 1970s, the seven inner South Asian nations that included Bangladesh,
Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka agreed upon the creation of a trade bloc
and to provide a platform for the people of South Asia to work together in a spirit of friendship,
trust and understanding. Bangladesh president Ziaur Rahman later addressed official letters to
the leaders of the countries of the South Asia, presenting his vision for the future of the region
and the compelling arguments for region. During his visit to India in December 1977, President
Ziaur Rahman discussed the issue of regional cooperation with the then Indian Prime Minister,
Morarji Desai. In the inaugural speech to the Colombo Plan Consultative Committee which met
in Kathmandu also in 1977, King Birendra of Nepal gave a call for close regional cooperation
among South Asian countries in sharing river waters. After the USSR's intervention in
Afghanistan, the efforts to established the union was accelerated in 1979 and the resulting rapid
deterioration of South Asian security situation. The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia
was first raised in November 1980.
The Bangladesh's proposal was promptly endorsed by Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the
Maldives but India and Pakistan were skeptical initially. The Indian concern was the proposal’s
reference to the security matters in South Asia and feared that President Zia Rehman's proposal
for a regional organization might provide an opportunity for new smaller neighbors to
renationalize all bilateral issues and to join with each other to gang up against India. Pakistan
assumed that it might be an Indian strategy to organize the other South Asian countries against
Pakistan and ensure a regional market for Indian products, thereby consolidating and further
strengthening India’s economic dominance in the region.
However, after a series of quiet diplomatic consultations between South Asian foreign ministers
at the UN headquarters in New York from August to September 1980, it was agreed that
Bangladesh would prepare the draft of a working paper for discussion among the foreign
secretaries of South Asian countries. The foreign secretaries of the inner seven countries again
delegated a Committee of the Whole in Colombo on September 1981, which identified five
broad areas for regional cooperation. New areas of co-operation were added in the following
In 1983, the international conference held by Indian Minister of External Affairs PVN Rao
in New Delhi, the foreign ministers of the inner seven countries adopted the Declaration on
South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and formally launched the Integrated
Program of Action (IPA) initially in five agreed areas of cooperation namely, Agriculture; Rural
Development; Telecommunications; Meteorology; and Health and Population Activities.
Officially, the union was established in Dhaka with Kathmandu being union's secretariat-
general. The first SAARC summit was held in Dhaka on 7–8 December 1985 and hosted by
the President of Bangladesh Hussain Ershad. The declaration signed by King of Bhutan Jigme
Singye, President of Pakistan Zia-ul-Haq, Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, King of
Nepal Birendra Shah, President of Sri Lanka JR Jayewardene, and President of
Maldives Maumoon Gayoom.
There are 8 member nations and 8 Observers nation of SAARC.
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are the 8
States with observer status include Australia, China, the European
Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea and the United States.
India, the largest country in the region was also apprehensive in joining the regional association.
India felt that the proposal of Bangladesh President Zia probably had an indirect Western
sponsorship. This was in the context of the second cold war with the Soviet military intervention
in Afghanistan. A South Asian regional association could be the American mechanism to counter
Soviet influence. This would result in not only the incursion of external powers in the region but
also an anti-Soviet and pro-US South Asian front, which would be incompatible with India's
regional and broader strategic interests. Also India believed that the proposed South Asian forum
could be used by the smaller neighbors to put collective pressures on it (India) on matters
affecting them collectively and individually in relation to India. Thus, in this manner the regional
association would enable neighbors to, "gang up", against India. However, India could not reject
the idea and thus proposed two principles for participation. That the organization would not
discuss bilateral issues and that all the decisions would be taken on the basis of unanimity. India
was of the view that bilateral stresses and strains should not impinge on regional cooperation.
Further, the objective of India was to try to pursue regional co-operation autonomously without
allowing it to be subjected to the vicissitudes of bilateral co-operation. India thus approached the
association with a belief that bilateral relations and regional cooperation could be completely
compartmentalized. By adopting such an approach the dynamics of the bilateral relations to
influence the regional association or vice versa, of the association to influence bilaterally were
being deliberately overlooked.
Pakistan was initially apprehensive of joining the regional association primarily for two reasons.
First, that the forum would further India's domination over the regions' states in an
institutionalized manner. Secondly, Pakistan was also wary of deeper involvement in the South
Asian region since it would cast a doubt on the credibility and seriousness of its efforts to
develop closer ties with the Islamic countries of West Asia. Pakistan finally decided to join the
forum because it was unwilling to isolate itself regionally. Further, according to an observer from
Pakistan, the regional advantage of participating in SAARC was that the arrangement could if
the need arose, "come to deflect the weight of India" vis-a-vis its smaller South Asian partners. It
was emphasised that Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal had very
good, if not ideal relations with each other. However none of the six states could be said to be
enjoying tension free relations with New Delhi. Of all the differences, the Indo-Pak relations, it
was stated, were not conducive to regional cooperation. It is thus evident that just as the blame
for the existence of a conflictual relationship was put on India, the onus for improvement in the
state of affairs was also exclusively put on New Delhi.
Bangladesh was the country which formally proposed the idea of regional co-operation and
pursued it. President Zia personally took the idea of the SAARC to all the South Asian capitals
during 1977-80 and discussed the proposal for an institutional framework for co-operation
among these countries. Some are of the opinion that it may have been partly conditioned by
President Zia's own domestic compulsions for achieving a breakthrough in foreign policy
initiatives. It could also be that Bangladesh had unsuccessfully tried to force a solution on India
on the Ganges water problem by internationalizing it. Having failed to do so, it wanted to adopt a
Nepal considers itself to be one of the first countries to speak of regional co-operation, though
the idea was formally suggested for the first time by Bangladesh. King Birendra had for the first
time spoken of some kind of regional co-operation in 1976 while addressing the Fifth Non-
Aligned Summit Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nepal was of the view that its vast water
resources could be tapped through co-operation of other countries for the general benefit of the
region. Nepal is not only a landlocked country, but has borders with India on three sides. On its
north is situated the Tibet region of China. Thus it is dependent on India in many respects
including having transit to the sea. By trying to expand the number of partners to exploit its
resources and having a regional approach, Nepal reduces its dependence on India. SAARC was
to be one of the most important aspects of its foreign policy. At the inaugural SAARC Summit in
Dhaka, Nepal stated that a priceless resource exists (untapped water resource) waiting to be
harnessed for the benefit of the people of the region. This enthusiasm gets clearly reflected in
later years when Nepal showed its willingness to host the various meetings and the fact that the
SAARC Secretariat was finally established in Katmandu. According to some in Nepal, the most
ardent expectation (of Nepal in 1985) from the SAARC proposal was that it should be the most
effective instrument for its security and its political role in the region. That since regional
cooperation was to be on the basis of respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial
integrity, political independence and mutual benefits—the support which Nepal presumed was
coming from India to the opponents of monarchy and those championing the cause of democracy
would no longer be forthcoming. Thus, in this manner the stability and the continuity of the
monarchy could be secured.
Sri Lanka responded positively to the regional co-operation proposal. It was the first country to
have hosted any SAARC meeting. Its enthusiasm was not in any way related to the desire to
achieve regime security because it was already an established democracy However, the country
was facing a very grave problem with regard to its ethnic crisis which deepened as preparatory
efforts towards regional co-operation were being made and this brought strains in Indo-Sri
Lankan relations. In the initial years official meetings were disrupted by these differences. Sri
Lanka considered the role which India would play as very vital to the association. This was
clearly articulated in the inaugural session of the first summit in 1985, when President
Jayewardene said that the member countries must first trust each other. That India being the
largest country in every way could by deeds and words create the confidence amongst the
members, so necessary to make a beginning. This clearly indicated to the expectations Sri Lanka
had from India and that the lack of trust present.
Bhutan saw the association as a mechanism through which it could expand its foreign and
economic relations with other countries without antagonizing India.
For Maldives, the association of the seven countries was an appropriate forum from where it
could air views effectively. As seen, in later years the association was used to air its concerns
regarding protection and security of small states.
For the first time in its 22-year-old history, SAARC member states welcomed the admission of
Afghanistan into the regional grouping. The issue of Afghanistan joining SAARC generated a
great deal of debate in each member state, including concerns about the definition of South Asian
identity because Afghanistan is a Central Asian country. The SAARC member states imposed a
stipulation for Afghanistan to hold a general election; the non-partisan elections were held in late
2005. Despite initial reluctance and internal debates, Afghanistan joined SAARC as its eighth
member state in April 2007.
States with observer status include Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius,
Myanmar, South Korea and the United States. US, South Korea and the EU were granted
observer status in 2006 whereas Iran and Mauritius were granted status in 2008. ‘Since the
Fourteenth SAARC Summit, Observers have been invited to participate in the inaugural and
closing Sessions of SAARC Summits. With the admission of Observers to SAARC, a number of
proposals have been made by some Observers to engage in mutually beneficial cooperation and
some of the proposals are currently under implementation. SAARC-Australia Project on
`Developing capacity in cropping systems modelling for sustainable use of water resources to
promote food security in South Asia’, was inaugurated on August 2011 at the SAARC
Agriculture Centre, Dhaka.
Potential Future Members
Myanmar and China have expressed interest in upgrading their status from an observer to a full
member of SAARC. Russia has applied for observer status membership of SAARC.
Turkey applied for observer status membership of SAARC in 2012. South Africa has been
participated in various meetings in the past.
Above diagram shows the relationship between various Asian regional Organisations.
TIMELINE (SAARC SUMMITS)
Summits which are the highest authority in SAARC, were supposed to be held annually.
The Country hosting the Summit also holds the Chair of the Association.
1985: The Heads of State or Government at their First SAARC Summit held in Dhaka on 7-8
December adopted the Charter formally establishing the South Asian Association for Regional
Cooperation (SAARC).In the declaration of the First SAARC Summit the Member States
expressed concern at the deteriorating international political situation and the unprecedented
escalation of the arms race, particularly in its nuclear aspect. They recognized that mankind was
confronted with the threat of self-extinction arising from a massive accumulation of the most
destructive weapons ever produced and that the arms race intensified international tension and
violated the principles of the UN Charter. The Member States called upon the NWS to undertake
negotiations on a CTBT leading to the complete cessation of testing, production, and deployment
of nuclear weapons. In this connection, they welcomed the recent meeting between President
Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev in Geneva and expressed the hope that the meeting
would have a positive effect on international peace and security.
1986: In the declaration of the Second SAARC Summit in November, in Bangalore, India, the
Member States noted with deep disappointment that the promise held out by the US-Soviet
Summit in Reykjavik could not be realized. They, however, noted with satisfaction that the
proposals made at the Summit were still on the table and expressed the earnest hope that the
negotiations would be resumed without delay so that a decisive step could be taken towards
realizing the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. The Member States called
for the early conclusion of a CTBT.
1987: At the Third SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, there was disagreement over a
proposal by Pakistan for a South Asian treaty banning nuclear weapons; the final declaration
simply noted SAARC's resolve to "contribute" to nuclear disarmament. The States also called for
the early conclusion in the Geneva CD of a CTBT and a Convention to Ban Chemical Weapons,
declared their intention to continue their efforts to contribute to the implementation of the
objective of halting the nuclear arms race and eliminating nuclear weapons.
1988: In the declaration of the Fourth SAARC Summit in December, in Islamabad, Pakistan, the
Member States called for the early conclusion by the CD of a CTBT and a Convention to Ban
Chemical Weapons. They declared their intention to continue their efforts to contribute to the
realization of the objective of halting the nuclear arms race and eliminating nuclear weapons, as
well as declared their resolve to support every effort to conclude a treaty prohibiting vertical and
horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons.
1990: In the declaration of the Fifth SAARC Summit in November, in Malé, Maldives, the
Member States expressed the hope that the talks between the United States and USSR on arms
control would culminate in the conclusion of an agreement for substantial reduction in their
nuclear arsenals leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. While welcoming the
measures being considered for arms reduction at the global level, they were convinced that the
objective could be best achieved through the promotion of mutual trust and confidence among
the Member States. They underlined the inherent relationship between disarmament and
development and called upon all countries, especially those possessing the largest nuclear and
conventional arsenals, to re-channel additional financial resources, human energy, and creativity
into development. Member States expressed their support for the banning of chemical weapons
and early conclusion of a CTBT. In this context, they welcomed the convening of the UN
Conference in January 1991 to consider amendments to the Partial Test Ban Treaty to convert it
into a CTBT.
1991: In the declaration of the Sixth SAARC Summit in December, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the
Member States assessed current international developments in the political sphere particularly
those that affected the lives of the people of South Asia. They noted the changing power
structures in international relations and the reduction of confrontations and tensions, particularly
among the United States and USSR. These have contributed to the receding of the threat of
nuclear confrontation and to agreements on disarmament measures. The Member States hoped
that these developments would restrain the pursuit of military power in all areas of the world and
expressed hope that the peace dividend would be used for promoting the further development of
developing countries. They welcomed the trend towards popularly based democratic
governments in different parts of the world, including in South Asia.
1993: In the declaration of the Seventh SAARC Summit in April, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the
Member States noted a number of recent positive developments in the area of nuclear, chemical,
and conventional disarmament, including the agreements on bilateral arms reductions between
the United States and Russia. They expressed their hope that the implementation of the far-
reaching arms reduction agreed to in the Washington Agreement of June 1992 and START II
signed in Moscow in January 1993 would be successfully carried out. The Member States urged
all NWS to collectively endeavor to attain the ultimate goal of complete elimination of nuclear
arsenals in the shortest possible time.
1995: In the declaration of the Eighth SAARC Summit in May 1995, in New Delhi, India, the
Member States noted that while the international community had successfully created a norm
against chemical and biological weapons, it had, unfortunately, been unable to do the same with
regard to nuclear weapons. They expressed the conviction that more needed to be done and at a
far greater pace. They reiterated that the utmost priority was to be given to nuclear disarmament,
given the danger posed by nuclear weapons. The Member States urged the CD to negotiate an
international convention prohibiting the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons under any
circumstances and to undertake negotiations for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons
within a specified period of time.
1997: In the declaration of the Ninth SAARC Summit in May, in Malé, Maldives, the Member
States recognized the need for the international community to pursue nuclear disarmament as a
matter of highest priority. In this regard, they recognized the need to start negotiations through
the CD and to establish a phased program for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons
within a specified framework of time, including a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
1998: In the declaration of the 10th SAARC Summit in July, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the
Member States were of the view that stability, peace, and security in South Asia could not be
considered in isolation from global security environment. They noted that the great power
rivalry, which the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had consistently opposed, no longer posed a
serious threat and the danger of a global nuclear conflagration had abated. However, some States
still sought to maintain huge arsenals of nuclear weapons and the NPT and the Comprehensive
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), to which some SAARC Members were signatories, had not led
to any progress towards nuclear disarmament nor prevented proliferation. The Member States
underscored their commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and the need for
promoting nuclear disarmament on a universal basis, under effective international control. They
recognized that global nonproliferation goals could not be achieved in the absence of progress
towards nuclear disarmament and in this context called upon all NWS, whether party or non-
party to the NPT, to engage constructively through a transparent and credible process of
negotiations at the CD. The Member States urged the CD to commence negotiations on a
comprehensive, universal, and non-discriminatory international instrument prohibiting the use or
the threat of nuclear weapons as well as eliminating such weapons in existing arsenals.
2002: The 11th SAARC Summit was convened in Kathmandu on 4-6 January. In the Summit
declaration, the Heads of State or Government were of the view that stability, peace, and security
in South Asia should be promoted together with efforts to improve the global security
environment. They underscored their commitment to general and complete disarmament
including nuclear disarmament on a universal basis, under effective international control. They
agreed that global nonproliferation goals could not be achieved in the absence of progress
towards nuclear disarmament and in this context called upon all nuclear weapon States (NWS),
whether party or non-party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to engage constructively
through a transparent and credible process of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament
(CD). The leaders also recognized the linkage between disarmament and development.
2004: Twelfth SAARC Summit of the Heads of State and Government was convened in
Islamabad, from 4-6 January. At the Summit, leaders addressed means of increasing regional
cooperation in the areas of economics; poverty alleviation; science and technology development;
social, cultural and environmental issues; and terrorism prevention. They signed the Additional
Protocol to the SAARC Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism approved days
earlier by the Council of Ministers. Furthermore, counter- terrorism was a major topic addressed
in the Summit Declaration. Heads of State and Government condemned terrorist violence in all
forms and stated that terrorism continues to be a major threat in South Asia, as well as a
challenge to all States worldwide. They also stressed that terrorism violates the United Nations
and SAARC charters and reaffirmed their commitment to the SAARC Regional Convention on
Suppression on Terrorism in addition to other relevant international conventions to which they
are party. Members decided to implement practical measures and adapt domestic legislation to
prevent and suppress terrorist financing. The Ministers also adopted several other documents,
including the final draft of a document establishing a South Asian Free Trade Area and a Social
2005: On 22 February, Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi indicated Iran's interest in joining
SAARC, stating that the country's borders with South Asia could provide the region with "East-
West connectivity." The 13th Annual SAARC Summit was held in Dhaka from 12-13
November. The summit dealt specifically with areas such as poverty alleviation, economic
cooperation, counter-terrorism, disaster management, and the 'implementation of SAFTA. The
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was welcomed as the eighth member of SAARC. China and
Japan were accorded observer status. Member countries adopted the 53-point Dhaka declaration
aimed at focusing regional cooperation in South Asia to accelerate growth and progress. They
expressed their determination to unite in their efforts to prevent and combat terrorism, noting
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 in this regard. They also emphasized the need
for an early conclusion of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. Member
states agreed to strengthen their cooperation in important areas such as exchange of information,
coordination, and cooperation among their relevant agencies. Leaders expressed satisfaction at
the ratification of the Additional Protocol to the SAARC Convention on Suppression of
Terrorism by all member states and called for establishing effective mechanisms for its
implementation. Recognizing the specific vulnerability of the sovereignty and independence of
small states, they resolutely committed to protect the interest and security of these states through
the pursuit of appropriate policies and actions. Other key events included endorsement of the
SDGs and establishment of the SAARC Poverty Alleviation Fund. Member states also
participated in bilateral talks on the sidelines of the summit.
2006: The first SAARC Conference of Home Ministers convened in Dhaka on 11 May. The
agenda was dominated by issues of terrorism and the trafficking of humans and drugs. Ministers
adopted a nine point resolution to fight terrorism and drug trafficking in the region by expediting
the existing SAARC mechanism and sharing information and experiences among member states.
A proposal to establish a regional law enforcement agency—SAARCPOL—was referred to
ministers for further study.
2007: The Fourteenth Summit held on 3 — 4 April, welcomed the Islamic Republic of
Afghanistan as a full fledged member of SAARC. China, Japan, European Union, Republic of
Korea United States of America, and Iran were welcomed as observers. At the summit, the
members also discussed implementation strategies of the SAARC development fund, a SAARC
food bank and the South Asia University. The Heads of State or Government again underscored
the importance of controlling terrorism in the region, calling on deepened cooperation and
improvements on implementing the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism
and the Additional Protocol to the SAARC Regional Convention. Member states continued to
stress the importance of achieving a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
2008: The fifteenth summit of SAARC was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 1–3 August 2008.
The issues discussed were regional cooperation, partnership for growth for the peoples of South
Asia, connectivity, energy, the environment, water resources, poverty alleviation, the SAARC
Development Fund, transport, information and communications technology development,
science and technology, tourism, culture, the South Asian Free Trade Area, the SAARC Social
Charter, women and children, education, combating terrorism, and the admission of Australia
and Myanmar as observers.
2010: The sixteenth summit was held in Thimpu, Bhutan on 28–29 April 2010. Bhutan hosted
the SAARC summit for the first time. This was marked the silver jubilee celebration of SAARC
that was formed in Bangladesh in December 1985. Climate change was the central issue of the
summit with summit's theme "Towards a Green and Happy South Asia".
2011: The Seventeenth Summit was held from 10-11 of November 2011 in Addu City, Maldives.
Three areas of cooperation were highlighted; trade, transport and economic integration; security
issues such piracy and climate change; and good governance were also discussed.
The 18th SAARC Summit will be held at Nepal (Kathmandu) in November 2014
Following table shows the Summit dates along with respective Host City and Host Leader
No Date Country Host Host leader
1st 7–8 December 1985 Bangladesh Dhaka Ataur Rahman Khan
2nd 16–17 November 1986 India Bangalore Jayanth M Gowda
3rd 2–4 November 1987 Nepal Kathmandu
Marich Man Singh
4th 29–31 December 1988 Pakistan Islamabad Benazir Bhutto
5th 21–23 November 1990 Maldives Malé Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
6th 21-December 1991 Sri Lanka Colombo Ranasinghe Premadasa
7th 10–11 April 1993 Bangladesh Dhaka Khaleda Zia
8th 2–4 May 1995 India New Delhi P. V. Narasimha Rao
9th 12–14 May 1997 Maldives Malé Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
10th 29–31 July 1998 Sri Lanka Colombo Chandrika Kumaratunga
11th 4–6 January 2002 Nepal Kathmandu Sher Bahadur Deuba
12th 2–6 January 2004 Pakistan Islamabad Zafarullah Khan Jamali
13th 12–13 November 2005 Bangladesh Dhaka Khaleda Zia
14th 3–4 April 2007 India New Delhi Manmohan Singh
15th 1–3 August 2008 Sri Lanka Colombo Mahinda Rajapaksa
16th 28–29 April 2010 Bhutan Thimphu Jigme Thinley
17th 10–11 November 2011 Maldives Addu Mohammed Nasheed
18th Planned November 2014 Nepal Kathmandu Sushil Koirala
NEED OF SAARC
Regional integration was traditionally seen as a harmonization of trade policies leading to deeper
economic integration, with political integration as a possible future result. The concept of
regionalism refers to a transformation of a particular region from relative heterogeneity to
increased homogeneity with regard to a number of dimensions, the most important being culture,
security, economic policies and political regimes. A certain level of sameness is necessary but
not a sufficient condition. On the level of interregional relations the behaviour of one region
affects the behaviour of other regions.
South Asia, comprising Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and
Sri Lanka is home to 1.47 billion people; one-fifth of the world’s population. Within this area,
almost half of the population lives below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest regions of
the world. Vast majorities of the people are illiterate, without access to proper health facilities
and suffers from many negative social factors. Considering the region’s social, economic and
political problems, the SAARC was conceived as a regional organisation which could alleviate
problems and put individual states on the path to growth.
Below table shows the population and demography of the region.
Below is the Poverty and HDI index of the region, Sri Lanka being the only country with High
South Asia is one of the least economically integrated regions of the world. Intra-regional trade
is just about five per cent of total official trade. The contrast with other sub-regions of Asia — let
alone other parts of the world — is sobering. For instance, intra-regional trade in East Asia
accounts for over 50 per cent of total trade. The current situation in South Asia seems all the
more stark when we set it against its past record as well as its future potential. Before 1947, this
region boasted of more or less open borders, allowing for easy movement of goods and services.
Furthermore, the subcontinent also enjoyed close economic ties with other parts of Asia. The
regional arc stretching from Kolkata to Singapore was a vibrant network of trade, finance and
entrepreneurs that formed the economic heartland of the British empire in Asia. South Asia does
not have to rest on its history. It continues to have tremendous potential to grow through trade.
The region has the highest population density in the world. It has a large number of cities close
to the borders. And there is considerable cultural, ethnic and linguistic overlap of populations
across the borders.
The experience of colonialism led the newly independent countries with the notable exception of
Sri Lanka to regard the idea of an open trading system with some suspicion and to pursue more
economic policies and plans.
India and Pakistan also struggled to come to terms not only with the political consequences of
Partition but also with its economic implications. The two countries were at odds on economic
issues ranging from division of assets to exchange rates differences that put paid to the idea of
free trade between them. The problem was compounded by India’s propensity to treat its borders
as fences to keep others out rather than using them as gateways for the movement of goods,
people and ideas. The under-development of India’s own border areas, which were wont to be
seen as buffer zones, undermined India’s ability to promote regional trade.
These economic issues have been overlaid by political differences. Reconciling the two is not all
that simple. Economic affairs tend to have win-win logic. It is easy to see how cooperative
exchange could work to the material benefit of all parties. But in politics moral considerations
such as identity and honour can outweigh material interests. What’s more, if political differences
have a national security angle to them, it becomes all the more difficult for the logic of economic
integration to assume primacy. Economic affairs are about absolute advantages accruing from
interchange, but security affairs are about relative advantages gained by one side or another.
The issues will not go away any time soon. But there are some indications that South Asian
countries are willing to try according greater importance to economic linkages as opposed to
political and security considerations. India’s neighbors are slowly realizing the tremendous
opportunity that India presents for their growth prospects. India’s free trade agreements with Sri
Lanka and Bhutan, and the trade and transit agreement with Nepal have highlighted the potential
benefits of regional economic integration. India too has understood the fact that allowing its
neighbors to partake of its growth is essential both to draw the sting from political differences
and to enable India to play a role on the global stage.
Afghanistan which joined the group in 2007 can reap benefits from entre-port trade between
Central Asian countries and the rest of SAARC. Moreover, even today, Afghanistan is seen as a
viable doorway for South Asian countries for access to the oil and gas of Central Asian
Republics like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Thus, in order to promote economic
growth and reduce poverty in Afghanistan, enhancing its cross-border and transit trade with
neighboring countries is a must. Road and railway connectivity must be promoted on a burden-
sharing basis wherein neighbours share the costs.
SAARC provides a platform for the peoples of South Asia to work together in a spirit of
friendship, trust and understanding. It aims to accelerate the process of economic and social
development in Member States.
The objectives of the association as defined in the SAARC Charter are:
• To promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia
• To contribute to develop mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s
• 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 interest; and
• To cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and
Cooperation in the SAARC is based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality,
territorial integrity, political independence, noninterference in internal affairs of the member
states and mutual benefit. Regional cooperation is seen as a complement to the bilateral and
multilateral relations of SAARC members. Decisions are taken on the basis of unanimity.
Bilateral and contentious issues are excluded from the deliberations of SAARC.
Though economic cooperation among South Asian nations was not a new phenomenon yet the
quest for economic integration remained inhibited by the colonial heritage of these countries.
Members of SAARC have agreed on below 5 areas of co-operation
• Agriculture and Rural Development
• Telecommunications, Science, Technology and Meteorology
• Health and Population Activities
• Human Resource Development
Recently, high level Working Groups have also been established to strengthen cooperation in the
areas of Information and Communications Technology, Biotechnology, Intellectual Property
Rights, Tourism, and Energy. Given the emphasis laid down at successive Summits on the need
to expand the areas of cooperation and strengthen the regional cooperation, a number of other
areas have been included in the SAARC agenda.
Over the years, the SAARC members have expressed their unwillingness to sign a free trade
agreement. Though India has several trade pacts with the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri
Lanka, similar trade agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh have been stalled due to political
and economic concerns on both sides. India has been constructing a barrier across its borders
with Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In 1993, SAARC countries signed an agreement to gradually lower tariffs within the region, in
Dhaka. Eleven years later, at the 12th SAARC Summit at Islamabad, SAARC countries devised
the South Asia Free Trade Agreement which created a framework for the establishment of a free
trade area covering 1.6 billion people. This agreement went into force on January 1, 2008. Under
this agreement, SAARC members will bring their duties down to 20 per cent by 2009.
South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was envisaged primarily as the first step towards the
transition to a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) leading subsequently towards a Customs
Union, Common Market and Economic Union. In 1995, the Sixteenth session of the Council of
Ministers agreed on the need to strive for the realization of SAFTA and to this end an Inter-
Governmental Expert Group (IGEG) was set up in 1996 to identify the necessary steps for
progressing to a free trade area. The Tenth SAARC Summit decided to set up a Committee of
Experts (COE) to draft a comprehensive treaty framework for creating a free trade area within
the region, taking into consideration the asymmetries in development within the region and
bearing in mind the need to fix realistic and achievable targets. The SAFTA Agreement was
signed on 6 January 2004 during Twelfth SAARC Summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan. The
Agreement entered into force on 1 January 2006, and the Trade Liberalization Program
commenced from 1 July 2006. Under this agreement, SAARC members will bring their duties
down to 20 per cent by 2009 and to reduce customs duties of all traded goods to zero by the year
2016. Following the Agreement coming into force the SAFTA Ministerial Council (SMC) has
been established comprising the Commerce Ministers of the Member States.
Trade between the majority of SAARC nations is still negligible, and the day-to-day operations
of businesses in South Asia are still hampered by non-tariff barriers, transport problems and visa
complications. It is hardly surprising that many local businesspeople prefer to engage in projects
with South East Asia, China, America and Europe rather than in investments and trade with their
neighbours. Also the member state are afraid that their domestic markets will be flooded with
Indian goods, resulting in the collapse of their local manufacturing industries.
There is a need to promote and facilitate trade within the SAARC region in order to lower
production costs, transportation costs and eventually benefit the consumer. Trade in agricultural
commodities could help bridge short term supply gaps.
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are among the five largest contributors to the UN
peacekeeping operations. There is no reason why they cannot contribute to peace and
reconstruction in their own region. Following the American withdrawal, an idea of a South Asian
peacekeeping contingent can also be mulled over but only after a certain degree of stability has
been established and after receiving the mandate from the UN. Internal security challenges
stemming from ethno-linguistic or religious zeal, prevalence of small arms and narcotic
smuggling, ambiguous power relationships, and weak political structures will discourage
SAARC member states to commit ground troops. However, in the longer term, the idea of a
regional solution cannot be taken forward without having the rest of South Asia on board.
People must be given employment opportunities, schools need to re-opened, focus must be given
to women empowerment, and corruption needs to be controlled urgently. Instead of major
powers wasting time and resources on framing strategic equations inside the country, they need
to see what Afghanistan has to offer to the region and vice versa, and try and capitalize on that.
With the current economic scenario the context in the subcontinent is changing in a manner that
augurs well for closer regional economic linkages. Taken together, these trends could provide an
opportunity to infuse a much needed sense of purpose to SAARC. India should take the lead in
re-programming SAARC for the next decade and ahead.
Political role of SAARC
The political role of SAARC comes out very clearly when it is observed with reference to the
manner in which relations are structured in South Asia. They are characterised by asymmetry
with the scales tilted heavily in favour of India on one side and all the others on the other side. A
sense that the relations are indeed unequal, strikes one immediately. The inequalities are inbuilt
with respect to the geographical dimension, demographic magnitude, economic resource base,
production structures and growth potentials, and above all their armed forces and military
capabilities. Relations between India and most of the member countries have been characterized
by mistrust and suspicion. This was especially so during the mid eighties when the SAARC
process had begun. Only India has common borders with all the member countries while none of
them share borders. The smaller member countries have always looked with suspicion towards
India and considered it to be a hegemonic power. Flowing from this asymmetry is that the
security perceptions of India and the member countries are also divergent. As a result the policies
adopted by India and the other member countries are different which only increases the mutual
suspicion. However, by being members of SAARC whereby the principle of consensus and
unanimity works, there is a sense of equality, which these countries have with regard to India. In
this manner, the sense of asymmetry is cut down symbolically.
In a scenario where India's relations with its neighbours are strained and there is a tendency for
bilateral relations to affect the overall relations, it is observed that the regional association has
had a very useful role to play. The SAARC forum and especially the summit meetings provide
an opportunity to all the nations to maintain continuity in their bilateral dialogue. There is a
silent acknowledgement by many; including the political leaders of the member countries, that
while the official bilateral meetings may face rough weather, the member countries have been
regularly meeting at the various SAARC Forums.
It is very difficult to answer if the SAARC informal meetings have in any way helped in bringing
the countries closer to each other and resolving their bilateral differences. One can safely say that
while it might not have brought the member countries closer it has provided a useful link for the
member countries. At times of crisis, it has helped to defuse the short term misunderstandings,
which are only possible when the heads of the countries meet to give confidence to the people.
Similarly, the meetings have helped to restart and give direction to the often-deadlocked official
Some of the areas where SAARC has led to regional co-operations are
Co-operation on social issues
SAARC has from the beginning exchanged ideas on the various social issues of concern to the
member countries. In the very first summit it was reaffirmed that challenges of poverty etc could
be met only with regional co-operation. Issues concerning children, maternal and child nutrition,
provision of safe drinking water, adequate shelter, subscribing to goals of universal
immunization and primary education—all have been part of the SAARC social agenda. At the
fourth SAARC Summit in Islamabad, a regional plan, "SAARC: A Basic Needs Perspective",
was adopted. This was to spell out developmental targets of the member countries regarding
basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, education, primary health care etc. At various times,
particular years were designated either to the girl child, disabled persons, and year of shelter and
so on. In fact the Fifth SAARC Summit decided that the years 1991-2000 would be observed as
the 'SAARC Decade of the Girl Child".
Initially the Technical Committees (TC), which included all the member countries were the
primary mechanism for continuous interaction and co-operation. Presently there are eleven TC
which include agriculture; communications; education, culture and sports; environment and
meteorology; health and population activities; prevention of drug trafficking and drug abuse;
rural development; science and technology; tourism; transport; and women in development. The
workings of the TC have been examined by eminent persons and recommendations made for
improving their efficacy. These TC are considered as the backbone of the process of regional co-
Primarily co-operation in these areas has been in the form of exchanging experiences of the
member countries to address various issues, in terms of success stories as well as the problem
areas. Following the deliberations, the member countries would adopt certain goals, which would
then be incorporated in their national plans. In the post cold war period, it is seen that global
standards are being applied regarding these issues. Unless SAARC sets its own standards, the
member countries will have to face the pressure of the developed countries. Eleven TCs meeting
regularly since the past fourteen years surely reflects the manner in which interaction at the
official levels has multiplied many fold, compared to that of the pre 1985 period.
Need of SAARC was highlighted at the Male Summit in 1997, below targets were recommended
to be achieved in the social field:
• Commitment to the target of reaching a replacement level of population which translates
into birth rate of 21 per thousand before the year 2020.
• Attainment of universal primary education up to the age of 15 before the year 2010.
Elimination of gender disparities in access to education within the target date of 2010.
• Setting aside 6 per cent of GDP for education by the year 2010.
• Reduction of infant mortality below 50 per thousand live births by the year 2000.
Attainment of 100 per cent immunization by the year 2000 in targets set by the UNICEF
• Empowerment of women socially, economically and politically.
• Holding of regular biennial Ministerial meetings on Women's Development.
• Each member-State to set its own time frame for poverty eradication.
• Effective utilization of SAARC three tier mechanism on poverty alleviation to facilitate
sharing of experiences and formulation and implementation of regional policies
• Regular meetings at political and technical levels on the environment. Urgent follow up on
the SAARC Plan of Action on the environment.
These targets clearly bring out that to a great extent, as far as the social field is concerned,
implementation of decisions arrived at, requires beginning with national commitments. A failure
to do so cannot be blamed on either the bilateral or regional political environment. In this sense
there is a social agenda which is permanent in nature for SAARC.
This permanency is further reinforced by the fact that, some of the problems like those dealing
with environment (floods, soil erosion etc), drug trafficking, and trafficking in women and
children, illegal movement of people—are not national problems but regional, requiring regional
solutions. It is these problems which give rise to an exclusive SAARC agenda which has to be
addressed despite all the prevailing potential political problems.
India can use the summit as leverage to put pressures on its neighbours, such as Pakistan and
Bangladesh, to dismantle the infrastructure for terrorism, including actions to be taken against
non-state actors harbouring extremist sentiments. Nepal can push for an effective regional
mechanism to cope with climate change. Bangladesh and Maldives are likely to support Nepal’s
effort to set up a regional body, as both the countries will face the most drastic effects of climate
Co-operation on Economic issues
SAARC provides the forum whereby the member countries can discuss co-operation on various
economic issues. It took ten years before SAARC could actually take off with the
operationalization of SAPTA in 1995. Since then three rounds of tariff concessions have been
exchanged. A common complaint of course is the limited coverage of goods under SAPTA. Of
late the smaller member countries are convinced that tariff preferences for trade in itself will not
bring prosperity unless it is accompanied by investments in their countries to improve their
narrow industrial base.
Presently, it is in this regard that discussions on measures for encouraging intra SAARC
investment and joint ventures are also being focused upon and proposals for a Regional
Investment Treaty and a SAARC Arbitration Council have also been initiated. Similarly is the
case with Double Taxation Avoidance. All these are expected to accelerate the process of
economic cooperation in the region. It should be emphasized that it is the permanent SAARC
Forum which allows all these deliberations to take place in a continuous manner. That major
success has eluded the forum does not in any way diminish the utility of the forum. It indicates
the need for greater exchange of views so that fears and apprehensions can be addressed and
When SAARC was formed, it did not envisage that sub-regional co-operation will be adopted
too. Initially there was a lot of reservation among the SAARC countries not included in the
growth quadrangle proposed to be formed between Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the north
eastern parts of India. The countries concerned stressed that sub-regional co-operation would
help in evolving solutions to the development needs of that particular area. At the Ninth SAARC
Summit it was agreed that specific projects for sub regional co-operation would be encouraged
under the provision of Article 7 and Article 10 of the Charter. The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-
Nepal Growth Quadrangle (BBIN- GQ) is to follow a project led approach to co-operation in the
core economic areas of Multimodal Transportation and Communication, Energy, Trade and
Investment Facilitation and Promotion, Tourism, Optimal Utilisation of Natural Resource
Endowments and Environment. These projects are to be supportive of and complementary to the
national plans of the four concerned countries. These projects will make best use of
neighbourhood synergies and would be such that they can most productively be dealt with on a
sub regional basis. Nepal will co-ordinate the overall sub-regional co-operation efforts.
Although trucks and containers still have to be fully unloaded and reloaded at borders, causing
considerable expense and even financial losses due to the time required, in future cross-border
trade could be speeded up significantly
It was the experience of regional economic co-operation under SAARC in the form of SAPTA,
which later led to suggestions for sub regional co-operation. The permanent institutional
structure of SAARC enables deliberations to take place on developing other forms of regional
economic co-operation. In this sense, despite the low measure of success of the preferential tariff
arrangement in SAARC, the associations' economic relevance is not diminished.
The representation of SAARC as major regional block is increasing. Including India, other
countries in SAARC are wooed to trade with China which is geographically more proximate.
China has sought to become a member of SAARC, besides four other countries – Mauritius, Iran,
Australia and Myanmar wants to become from an observer nation to a permanent one.
Some commentators from the smaller SAARC nations see China’s membership as a possible
way of balancing out India’s strength within SAARC and also view China’s massive growth as a
possible way of giving impetus to the economic integration process. What is more, many people
feel the sheer size of such an alliance would raise its credibility in the eyes of the world.
Co-operation in International Forums
The leaders have repeatedly stressed the need to develop common South Asian perspective on
the issues to be discussed by the important international Conferences. In this direction, they
noted with satisfaction that collective positions of the SAARC countries were formulated which
were presented at the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction and the World Summit
for Social Development. At the Tenth SAARC Summit the leaders expressed the opinion that in
the series of meetings to be organised by the WTO regarding various issues, the member states
should endeavour to co-ordinate their decisions. In this context they welcomed the declaration
issued by the SAARC Commerce Ministers on the eve of the Second WTO Ministerial Meeting
in Geneva setting out a SAARC approach on these issues. Such interactions are only sure to
increase in the near future.
With the dawn of the twenty-first century, South Asian region has undergone a radical
transformation. It has witnessed a strong democratic sweep. Most of the South Asian economies
have registered impressive growth trajectories. Some of its countries have also emerged as hubs
for global terrorism. The international community has become far more involved in South Asian
affairs due to the nuclearisation of the region.
SAARC cannot but keep pace with the changing regional dynamics. It has moved ahead on its
economic agenda and expanded its reach not only by adding new members (Afghanistan ) but
also by opening itself to the participation of many other countries, including China , Iran and the
US, as observers.
Below is the extract of SAARC Statistic team on the contribution of SAARC countries to world
With the rise of China and other Middle Powers such as Brazil, Australia, India, Turkey and
Indonesia, the world of politics is slowly moving from the uni-polar hegemonic United States
world to a multi-polar world. In that context, the regional organisations able to understand the
sensitivity of their member countries assume political significance.
Even well-informed political observers have to admit that hardly anyone would cite SAARC,
the, as a role model for regional cooperation when examining different forms of political or
economic regional integration. Such a discussion would first of all focus on the European Union,
ASEAN in South East Asia and NAFTA in the Americas. SAARC is overshadowed by these
organisations and some observers may have never even heard of it. But although this regional
association is of many years’ standing, having existed at least as long as NAFTA, can it be
deemed to be equally successful? In the eyes of the world it has enjoyed comparatively few real
successes since it was founded in 1985. Even regional observers criticise SAARC for having
good intentions but achieving few practical results. Since it was established, there have been
scores of meetings – unlike the other organisations, held mostly at top government level – and a
host of agreements have been signed. But analysts believe there has been a shortage of concrete
successes leading to closer cooperation between the member countries. However, it is not
appropriate to measure SAARC’s development solely by the usual criteria. Any assessment
needs to take into account the difficult starting position, the regional situation and the
complicated backdrop to the organisation’s formation. Only then can the agreements be viewed
not just as an immense symbolic success for a crisis-ridden region but also as a strong
cornerstone for the challenges to come.
Though the formation of SAARC is a landmark step taken by the leaders of the region, the main
rational behind its establishment is to develop a congenial environment through summit
diplomacy where all nations may interact peacefully with each other, cultivate sustainable peace
and promote mutual economic well being by harnessing available resources in the region through
the peaceful process of economic integration. Nevertheless, after 29 years of establishment,
neither South Asian nations have been able to push the process of integration into full swing nor
the organization itself has become viable enough to promote peace, harmony and economic
integration or prevent conflicts in the region.
SAARC has evolved slowly but continuously both in terms of institutions and programmes.
However, it is true that most of the programmes and achievements of SAARC exist on paper.
The much talked about SAARC Food Security Reserve could not be utilized to meet the needs of
Bangladesh during its worst natural disaster in 1991. It is also true that most SAARC activities
are confined to the holding of seminars, workshops, and short training programmes. These
activities may be useful, but they do not address priority areas and lack visibility and regional
focus so essential for evolving a South Asian identity. Most importantly, SAARC suffers from an
acute resource crunch. Unless the organization is successful in mobilizing funds and technical
know-how from outside sources, most of its projects cannot be implemented and, thus, its
relevance will remain limited.
Every time there is a meeting Summit of SAARC, the regional association has had to prove its
relevance and legitimacy. If it is held that SAARC is relevant, the assumption follows that it is
playing a positive and significant role. There are various ways of interpreting this positive role.
Some 200 meetings take place every year among SAARC countries but these meetings are not
matched by results. SAARC over the last 3 decades has achieved very little and has been
relegated as an organisation of little value, both within and outside the region. The Association
of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), on the other hand, in a neighbouring region, has
achieved significant growth through regional cooperation between ten developing economies.
period where the world is adopting a multilateral regional approach to development, the SAARC
is yet to become effective enough to drive economic prosperity and play a meaningful role in
reducing inter-state tensions in the region.
Although member states, realising the benefits gained from regional cooperation, have
been meeting regularly at various levels, the SAARC is seen as a failure by many
analysts. During this 29 year period there have been no notable SAARC achievements, although
marginal progress has been made in a few fields. Dr. Christopher Snedden, of Deakin University,
states that, ‘the fact that SAARC has existed since 1985 is an achievement in itself.
The regional security environment has deteriorated due to the growth of terrorism in Afghanistan
and Pakistan, and the non resolution of inter-state disputes. Growth in the social and economic
sectors has also been dismal. The SAARC accounts for less than one percent of the world
trade. Intra-regional trade has also been an insignificant four percent of its total trade. Most of
the conventions and summits become photo opportunities for attendees. In the words of Bishwa
Pradhan, former Foreign Secretary of Nepal, ‘many of the decisions are just in papers in the form
of protocols, conventions, reports and studies.
Some hold that SAARC can be considered to have a positive role only if it fulfills a certain
economic role and leads the association towards greater economic integration. But such a view
would be very narrow, overlooking the dynamics of interactions among the member countries.
Every association has to play a certain political role, social role and economic role with respect
to the specific context in which it has arisen. Only after assessing these multiple roles can we say
whether the association has been relevant or has not been relevant to the region concerned.
Further, since the ground situation within which various regional associations work differ from
region to region, comparison of SAARC's performance with other regional associations will have
to be done with caution.
At another level, success or failure of the regional association can be understood with regard to
the expectations of the member countries. When opinions are expressed that SAARC has failed,
it surely shows that it has not measured up to the expectations. It is thus necessary to understand
the kind of expectations member countries had when they joined the association to come to an
objective conclusion. Were these expectations justified? Did the association not fulfill their
expectations at all and if it did, to what extent did it do so?
Expectations from SAARC
It was in 1980 that Bangladesh first proposed institutionalization of regional co-operation.
SAARC was finally established in 1985 after nearly four years of preparatory meetings among
the seven concerned countries, beginning from 1981. According to the SAARC charter, the
objectives of the association include promotion of the welfare of the peoples of South Asia, to
accelerate economic growth, promote and strengthen collective self-reliance and contribute to
mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another's problems in the region. However,
an analysis of the expectations which each of the countries had from the association bring out
certain important aspects. Firstly, though regional co-operation etc were the stated objectives for
forming and joining the association, it is seen that each of the countries had a specific agenda—
primarily political with regard to the association. This agenda was influenced by their perception
of themselves, their countries' national interests and its place in the region. Thus, the countries
sought to fulfil these national agendas through the regional mechanism. Secondly, therefore these
motivations show that the approach was to a certain extent negative and regional co-operation
was not the primary motive for joining the association. Every country had a clear cut political
agenda to fulfil and a political role to gain by institutionalizing regional co-operation.
Most of the smaller member countries perceived SAARC as a platform from where, they could
together extract a better deal with India regarding the bilateral differences which did not seem
possible in a one to one dealing. They could bargain collectively with India with a view to
securing concessions on various issues including the economic issues which were affecting them.
This has to be further seen in the background that when the process towards regional co-
operation began, while India had a democratic form of government, most of the South Asian
countries were non democratic. To legitimize their regimes they would resort to anti India
rhetoric. They looked upon India as a threat against whom security was necessary. Policies were
thus evolved that prevented them getting closer to India and linkages were established with
outsiders which in many cases served as the critical element in consolidation of the political
power of the elite and its support base.
Political Relevance of SAARC
The Indo-Pak relations have been given a boost time and again from the informal meetings that
have been held on the sidelines. Though looking back one can say that the substantive natures of
bilateral relations between these two countries have still not changed, the significant role of the
informal bilateral relations cannot be overlooked. A few examples will help to give a clearer
picture. At the very first meeting at Dhaka in 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President
Zia met informally and discussed bilateral issues. This was followed by a bilateral visit to India
by Gen .Zia where the discussions continued.
Prior to the second SAARC summit in Bangalore, India, in November 1986, the air was tense in
the sub-continent regarding some report of Indian troop movements on the western borders and
that it was preparing to attack Pakistan. At the close of his visit to India, Prime Minister Junejo
of Pakistan expressed the view that the discussions with his Indian counterpart had helped to
clear the air between the two countries and that there was no substance in the reports of unusual
troop movement. Even the media in Pakistan was almost unanimous in expressing that the
summit may have helped in clearing the air and that SAARC in the long run may be expected to
create a better climate of trust and co-operation.
India-Sri Lanka talks at the 1987 SAARC foreign ministers’ meeting led to their accord on the
Another significant summit was the fourth SAARC summit held in Islamabad. Though not
informally, yet Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did extend his stay for a few hours after the
conclusion of the summit meetings and the two countries held official bilateral meetings. The
two countries signed three agreements relating to avoidance of double taxation on mutual trade,
promotion of cultural exchanges and agreement on prohibition of attack on nuclear installations.
Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto welcomed the forum of SAARC for having made the visit of
Indian Prime Minister possible and hoped that more such visits would follow.
One of the most significant meetings on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit was the one
between Nawaz Sharif and Gujral at the Ninth Summit in Male in 1997. Following their meeting,
the foreign secretaries of both the countries met in Islamabad on June 19-23, 1997 and spelt out
outstanding issues of concern to be addressed by both the countries. The composite dialogue
continues with breaks whenever there are differences. Nevertheless, it was the Male Summit
which facilitated the deadlock to be broken.
The Tenth SAARC Summit in Colombo held against the background of the nuclear tests
conducted by both the countries received a great deal of worldwide attention for events taking
place on the sidelines of the summit rather than the main Summit proceedings itself. It was in the
SAARC Forum that the leaders of the two countries were meeting for the first time after the
tests. The opportunity provided by the SAARC summit however could not be utilised for
breaking the bilateral deadlock due to differing interpretations of the implementation of the
composite dialogue agreed upon by both the countries earlier in June 1997.
Similarly, the other countries also hold informal meetings on the sidelines . The informal
meetings at the highest level on the sidelines have played an important role with regard to
relations between India and Sri Lanka during the peak of the Tamil ethnic crisis when India was
also closely involved in finding solutions. So was the case regarding India and Bangladesh with
regard to finding a way out to the Ganges water treaty. Presently, there are reports that Nepal and
Bhutan have also met in the sidelines to discuss the issue of refugees.
The assumption that peace can be achieved through SAARC without addressing the political
problems of the region has neither been able to cultivate peace nor to invigorate the SAARC
process successfully. Though since its very inception it has been regularly able to hold Summit
meetings yet there have been interruptions in between owing mainly to intra-state conflicts
between the member countries.
SAARC Provides an Alternative Structure
The above analysis clearly shows that SAARC does provide an alternative if not an
accompanying structure within which relations can be conducted among the member countries.
This alternative structure is very significant for the smaller member countries who get a sense of
equality and a distinct identity with regard to India in issues concerning the region. It is also a
very important mechanism for India to manage and conduct her bilateral relations with the other
As spelt out, SAARC does provide continuity to relations among the member countries
especially when bilateral relations are at the nadir. Since the beginning of the nineties there has
been a conscious policy direction by India towards normalisation of relations with its neighbours,
especially the smaller neighbours. In this context, the importance of the SAARC Forum for India
is emerging more clearly. In this continuum, the Gujral Doctrine too, recognising the importance
of the neighbours (especially the smaller neighbours), is based on the assumption that the
strength and stature of India cannot be divorced from the quality of the relations which it has
with its neighbours.
However, given the tumultuous past, India's intentions are looked upon with suspicion at times.
Therefore a policy by India singularly based on bilateralism, to build new bridges with her
neighbours has certain inbuilt limitations. The SAARC Forum however, allows India to
overcome many of these limitations and provides opportunities to build positive linkages with
her neighbours through regionalism. To a certain extent it dilutes the anti-India sting which
bilateralism carries with it on certain issues. Further, a regional forum enables India to address
these member countries together and put forward policy proposals. This was specifically so at
the tenth SAARC Summit where India spelt out two specific proposals dealing with bilateral free
trade pacts in case of failure of regional free trade area and secondly, that India will unilaterally
reduce tariffs on some 2000 items. Further, it is seen that while bilaterally the issue of transit
between India and Bangladesh is met with criticism in the latter country, the same proposal as
part of the Asian Highway Project dilutes the criticism.
Similarly for the smaller member countries too, SAARC as a forum helps to develop bridges
with India, without the government in power being criticised as seeming pro-India within the
country. It therefore means that there is a political role which SAARC is playing at the national,
bilateral and regional, levels for the member countries, irrespective of the success or failures in
areas strictly considered as part of regional cooperation. This should be reason enough for not
going into and questioning the relevance of SAARC every time, though it is not denied that
criticism and suggestions for co-operation on issues concerning regional co-operation should be
SAARC thus provides an alternative structure (in addition to the established bilateral
mechanisms) not only for India, but also for the other member countries in conducting
themselves and when required building positive linkages with each other. During crisis times
too, the smaller member countries look upon it as a forum to pressurise India. The working of
SAARC has further clearly shown that it has not diluted the national interests of the member
countries. Most important is that the forum allows the smaller member countries to establish and
develop closer relations among themselves which would not have been the case in the absence of
SAARC. Not that it would have been impossible, but just that SAARC facilitates things.
Given the permanency of certain factors of asymmetry in the South Asian region, it is observed
that SAARC enables it to underplay these asymmetries. In this sense SAARC has a permanent
political relevance to these countries individually, bilaterally and regionally. The means of
defining the success of the regional association have thus to be widened.
Another positive feature has been the close linkages developed between the non-governmental
organisations (NGO's) of the member countries. On certain issues, these NGO's are setting the
agenda pressurising the political class to respond and come out with plans of action. For example
this is specifically seen with regard to issues concerning women and children and secondly, the
constructive role played by the SCCI (SAARC Chambers of Commerce and Industry) in
developing and strengthening linkages among the business class of the member countries so that
they could pressurize their respective governments to move towards closer forms of regional
Barriers to the SAARC moving forward
The SAARC Charter states that the Heads of States/Governments must meet once a year,
however, they have met only 17 times in the past 29 years. Postponement or failure to conduct
summits has been attributed to Indo-Pakistan tensions and other reasons, some of which are
insignificant. However, irregular conduct of summits is not the only reason for the lacklustre
performance of SAARC.
1. .Member Nations attitude v/s India
In South Asia, India accounts for 72 percent of the total area, 77 percent of the population and
78 percent of the regional Gross National Product.18 India, given its size and centrality in the
region, shares a land or maritime boundary with all the SAARC countries, thus making it the pre-
eminent power in the region and able to influence the conduct of other member states. However,
the influence of India on the region has been described as hegemonic and has led to a sense of
insecurity amongst smaller nations India is also a constant factor in most of the inter-state
disputes within the region, some attributable to the colonial past. India has a range of issues with
Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka including sharing of waters and borders, illegal migration,
trade and transit relations, and perceptions of inappropriate Indian interference in the internal
affairs of others. There are other inter-state conflicts too which do not involve India, but these are
less significant compared to those involving India. Strained Indo-Pakistan relations is, ‘the most
severe obstacle to regional cooperation within the framework of SAARC. The Kashmir issue and
Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism continue to underscore the brittle relationship
between India and Pakistan which seriously impedes the SAARC growth. Pakistan has consistent
involvement in undermining India’s leadership role in the region. In one of the summit,
Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, in a direct reference, blamed India and Pakistan for
making the SAARC non-functional. Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan’s initiative in campaigning
for China’s entry into the SAARC, as an observer, is viewed by India as an attempt to
marginalize its influence in the region. The indifferent attitude of the smaller nations towards
India, besides dampening the spirit of SAARC, vitiates the environment for India and makes it
reluctant to take on leadership within the region.
Self Centric view of member nation is another barrier which is hampering SAARC. Unlike the
spirit of ASEAN which has been famously encapsulated, in the, ‘ASEAN way’, the SAARC
member states hold differing views on most of the important issues, lack strong and common
political will and have very little consensus about basic norms, rules and agreements.The
SAARC member states are self-centred in their approach and have done very little to promote a
regional outlook. Most of the member countries, including India, engage more with Western
countries or inter-regional organization than they do within the region. The speeches made by
state leaders during the last Summit highlighted their achievements as individual nations and
included very little in describing their participation in regional events. Though they did
underscore the importance of regional cooperation, they did not address any specific initiative to
move the SAARC forward. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, during one of the Summit
said, ‘we often tend to provide priority to our engagements with extra-regional actors, without
devoting sufficient attention to further developing and strengthening links within our own
regional organization. It has also been observed that all member states prefer bilateral
communication rather than adopting a SAARC-led regional approach, even in those issues for
which regional provisions/declarations exist.
3. Western Outlook
Though the SAARC has granted observer status to the European Union and eight other
countries, the West still looks at South Asia as two entities: ‘Western South Asia’, comprising
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and ‘Eastern South Asia’ which includes the other countries.The
West attaches significant importance to the former due to the US-led involvement in the ‘Global
War on Terrorism’ (GWOT) and its relationship with India, considered a rising power. On the
other hand ‘Eastern South Asia’, is considered as a less significant region for the West, as it
offers very little of economic or strategic interest. After the defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka and
the process of Maoist soldiers being re-integrated into Nepalese society, there are no major
political issues of concern to the West. The SAARC, therefore, does not enjoy the same level of
Western support as ASEAN and other regional organisations.
Can the SAARC be revitalized?
1. Environment Conducive to Cooperation
Being the biggest and most influential member nation, India must appreciate that by its not
taking the lead, the SAARC will never achieve its full potential. India also needs to recognise the
benefits of maintaining good relations with its neighbours and resolving contentious issues with
them. The Indian government needs to display magnanimity, without compromising its national
interests, to settle all issues with its neighbours on terms that smaller nations will find attractive.
India needs to take positive steps to change the hegemonic attitude it is seen as having in the
region. In order to remove deep rooted mistrust, smaller nations will also need to play their part
in the resolution of all contentious issues, thereby bringing stability in the region. Pakistan and
India, in particular, should seek to resolve their differences, if the SAARC is to be effective.
Smaller nations must be accommodative of India’s regional and global aspirations,and they must
view India as an opportunity for economic growth, and development of their human resource
capabilities, in particular in the field of information technology. Improving bilateral relations
with China may be acceptable to India; however any attempt to balance or reduce Indian
influence in the region will not be welcomed by India. An environment, free of mutual mistrust
and suspicion; conducive to cooperation, and with India as leading member, would help the
SAARC to grow.
2. Sub-regional Approach
Working towards sub-regional cooperation on common themes will help develop harmonious
relations among member states, thus helping the SAARC to realise its true potential.Steps to
physically integrate the region will help increase trade and improve economic relations, which
besides increasing regional inter-dependence and bringing prosperity to the sub-region,
underscores the importance of stability and resolution of inter-state disputes. Efforts to create
social linkages at sub-regional level in the fields of education, poverty alleviation, health, science
and technology and tourism will bring direct benefits to the populace, thus spreading the SAARC
awareness and strengthening the organisation. Eric Gonsalves, a former Secretary in the
Government of India, has said, that ‘…in South Asia almost no effort is devoted to advertising
the genuine benefits that would accrue to every citizen from regionalisation, this needs to be
remedied…’The importance of communicating the potential benefits of SAARC, within and
outside the region, cannot be overstated. Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi in his
independence day speech had urged all SAARC countries to fight together against poverty, he
said “Our common forefathers fought for freedom together. If without weapons or resources we
could defeat a powerful sultanate (British rule), can’t we defeat poverty together?”
3. International Image
By improving inter-state relations and adopting a multilateral approach, the SAARC can project
itself as a united entity, thus improving its international image. Active engagement with the
observer countries will attract foreign investment and other support which will boost
development within the region. India, having established itself in the world, should take the lead
in showcasing the SAARC achievements while engaging with the West. Initiatives such as
laying a network of gas pipelines in the region can help project the SAARC as the ‘Asian Gas
Grid’, thus promoting itself as a useful organisation. Greater interaction with ASEAN and the
adoption of relevant lessons from its success will go a long way in helping SAARC’s cause and
put it on the path of progress. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken key initiative in
this regard by inviting heads of all SAARC nations in his swearing in ceremony and then
directing ISRO in developing a SAARC satellite.
Its clear that SAARC—the regional association has multiple roles to play. It should not be
assessed just with regard to what it has or has not done with regard to regional co-operation per
se, but its importance lies for the countries individually in enhancing their national prestige,
managing their bilateral relations and having a regional identity. This comes out clearly when the
expectations of the member countries at the time of joining the association are examined which
were not strictly limited to the desire of regional co-operation. Its importance comes forth
particularly with reference to a region which is characterized by asymmetry. SAARC helps in
these identities which have their own symbolic importance as well as practical utility. These
symbolic aspects help to reduce these asymmetries in terms of identities. In this sense there is a
permanent political contribution of SAARC and herein lies its relevance.
The success or failure of the regional association cannot be measured in a vacuum. It should be
done so with regard to the expectations of the member countries—their national, bilateral and
regional agendas. Secondly, it has to be done with regard to the ground situation prevailing in the
region whereby SAARC since its inception has provided an alternative structure to conduct
relations among the member states. While trying to write the report card of the regional
association—SAARC which was established around three decades back one should be very clear
that the answer cannot be either categorical 'pass' or 'fail'. That would be a very narrow way of
looking at things. For that matter any regional association in the world has a mixed bag of results
—certain areas in which they have achieved success, in others failed to take off and in still other
issues where new mechanisms of co-operation are being developed.
Moreover, SAARC (and for that matter any regional association) leads two parallel lives which
however are not completely disconnected. First is one which is deeply linked to the individual
aspirations of the member countries and how SAARC gives them identity and the means of
expression. The second is that where there is a regional agenda and SAARC stands above all the
countries put together. The above analysis has brought out the permanence of the first and the
growing importance of the second.
One thing is true of all this: SAARC should not lose its direction by getting involved in too many
areas at once. Political signals and the political will for clear progress towards economic
integration are what will tip the scales in favour of successful regional cooperation in South Asia.
Activities in hundreds of other areas cannot compensate for failure in the question of economic
In some respects SAARC’s prospects have never looked better. For the first time in its history,
the governments of its member states are being run on democratic principles.
All the SAARC countries are showing positive economic developments. And international
interest in South Asia has never been stronger: the potential for foreign investors is immense, and
South Asian integration is also coming to the forefront on a political level. The regional players
should focus on these developments and not trip themselves up by making independent bilateral
agreements. But there will not be a closer integration without achieving more stability in the
region, beginning with Afghanistan and progressing to the domestic conflicts which plague
almost all of South Asia’s young democracies. India should take a particular interest in this – if
the regional heavyweight wants to progress further on the path to growth it needs to make sure
there is stability and peace in its own back yard. Its smaller neighbours also offer interesting
potential in the area of energy production and resources. For India, a country which currently has
negligible levels of trade with other South Asian nations, the region offers immense potential for
growth. It would not be a case of reinventing the wheel if India were to invest heavily in its
neighbours in order to develop strong consumer markets.
With the emergence of a multi-polar world in which India is poised to play a major role in
international institutions such as the United Nations, it will be interesting to see how India
strengthens regional institutions such as the SAARC. With a new government in place, it has
already started taking initiative by planning to launch a SAARC satellite. On the other hand,
SAARC will also test itself against other regional institutions such as the BIMSTEC, ASEAN,
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