The crisis in SAU is a symbol of the crisis of SAARC
The future of SAARC and specialised bodies such as SAU is directly proportional to India’s political interest. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s recalcitrant attitude, SAARC serves India’s interests
On December 8, 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The objective of SAARC is to promote economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in South Asia — one of the world’s poorest regions marred by conflicts and political differences.
Inspired by the successes of regional integration in Europe and East Asia, a 1997 report prepared by a group of eminent persons (GEP) of SAARC envisioned that South Asia will become a free trade area by 2010, a customs union by 2015, and an economic union by 2020. Today, 36 years after SAARC came into existence, and 24 years after the GEP report, SAARC’s lofty goals of economic integration remain a pipedream.
The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement that came about in 2004 has been a spectacular failure. According to the World Bank, intra-regional trade in South Asia accounts for 5% of South Asia’s total trade, which makes South Asia the least integrated region.
The roots of this economic debacle lie in the political dysfunctionality of SAARC, especially in the last five years. Pakistan has often played the role of an obstructionist in SAARC, blocking key proposals such as the motor vehicles agreement — aimed at bolstering regional connectivity — at the 2014 SAARC summit. However, the biggest damage to SAARC was caused by the deepening hostility between India and Pakistan. Pakistan has failed to act against terrorism emanating from its soil, one of India’s key demands. Since 2014, despite its potential, no SAARC summit has taken place, leaving the organisation rudderless.
An institution that best captures the debilitating nature of SAARC despite its tremendous potential is the New Delhi-based South Asian University (SAU). SAU was set up in 2010 by SAARC as an international university with the ambition of becoming a centre for excellence. The university has brought together South Asians from the remotest corners to excel under one roof.
In just one decade, SAU alumni have proved successful. Some teach in leading universities in the region, others are pursuing higher studies in prestigious universities, and some are serving their governments and judiciary. SAU’s faculty have been trained in leading universities. They are pushing the frontiers of knowledge by publishing cutting-edge research in top-ranked academic journals and winning plaudits for academic excellence.
Yet, today, the university is going through an arduous phase due to several disconcerting developments that have imperilled the prospects of a promising future. SAU has been operating without a full-time president for the last two years. Several other key administrative and academic positions are vacant. The governing body — the highest decision-making body of the university that has representatives from all SAARC countries — has not met for the last several years. The university has frozen the salaries of faculty members and slashed the emoluments of the already lowly-paid outsourced staff. Research grants have dried up, adversely impacting research. All this indicates that a financial crisis is brewing.
In short, the bureaucratic inertia and differences that have plagued SAARC for long, are chipping away at one of the most audacious experiments in South Asian regional cooperation. The future of SAARC and specialised bodies such as SAU is directly proportional to India’s political interest in this project. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s recalcitrant attitude, India should remember that SAARC is still best suited to serve its strategic interests in the region.
In this regard, SAU can be an extremely important instrument to boost India’s soft power. The students who graduate from SAU can become brand ambassadors for India, positively influencing India’s diplomatic relations with its neighbours in the long-run. As former Prime Minister, AB Vajpayee, famously said, “You can change friends, not neighbours.”
Thus, as part of the Narendra Modi government’s “neighbourhood first” policy, it is in India’s national interest to resurrect SAARC and its specialist bodies, and not let its equation with Pakistan undermine an important international organisation.
Prabhash Ranjan is professor and vice dean, Jindal Global Law School, O P Jindal Global University
The views expressed are personal