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SAARC: 25 years of existence but little to show

india Updated: Apr 28, 2010 16:56 IST
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On December 8, 1985, when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) bloc was formed, the seven countries in the region that traditionally viewed one another with suspicion pledged to boost development, eradicate poverty and meet its vast challenges jointly.

But 25 years later, as the grouping holds its 16th summit in this scenic Bhutan capital Wednesday, little has changed in the populous region of 1.5 billion people that now includes an eight member, Afghanistan.

Poverty, illiteracy and adverse effects of climate change remain big challenges. This is a failure experts largely attribute to the missing concept of regionalism in South Asia whose concept was the brainchild of former Bangladesh president Ziaur Rahman.

And uncertain relations between India and Pakistan, the region's two dominant powers, also prevents the SAARC from achieving its full potential of regional cooperation, say experts.

The other members of the grouping are Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

“SAARC has the potential,” former foreign secretary Shyam Saran told IANS. But he admitted that the desired goal was still awaited.

If the grouping has achieved anything, it is its expansion.

War-torn Afghanistan was given the entry into SAARC in 2007. China, Japan, Iran, Mauritius, South Korea, Australia, the US and European Union have observer status, underlining SAARC's strategic and economic importance.

Saran said this was indeed the “biggest achievement” of the bloc.

“You see this is the only forum where South Asian leaders still meet, shake hands, talk in spite of their mutual disagreements,” he said, citing the example of then Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf “pleasantly surprising” then Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the SAARC summit of 2002.

Maj Gen (retd) Dipankar Banerjee was more upfront in admitting SAARC's failures.
“India-Pakistan tension is stopping SAARC from fulfilling the aspirations the grouping had aimed at. It has the potential but has not achieved that,” Banerjee said.

“If it has to fulfill its objective to be an effective vehicle for regional growth, bilateral trade needs to be encouraged… closer cooperation in other spheres will follow naturally,” said the former army commander who now heads the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.

In terms of trade, India and Sri Lanka are the only countries having free trade agreement. A similar initiative to facilitate free commerce between India and Bangladesh is under way.

New Delhi had taken the unilateral step of reducing tariff barriers vis-à-vis least-developed-country members - an initiative that won no praise.

“The best that could have been achieved is free SAARC trade,” said Commodore Uday Bhaskar, a known strategic expert.

“But India and Pakistan issue, their speculated talks have a tendency to overshadow the Thimphu SAARC summit as has been the case earlier,” he said.

Kalim Bahadur, a former professor of South Asian Studies in New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, feels that people in South Asia share a great deal of affinity with each other.

“But state-level problems have made it impossible to translate that desire into a reality,” Bahadur told IANS.