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SAARC needs to look beyond India and Pakistan

To succeed Despite common problems, the policies adopted by the members are contradictory to one another.

Be it sports or foreign policy, when India and Pakistan are pitted against one another, the event is bound to make it to breaking news. So was the recent interior and home ministers’ summit of SAARC countries in Islamabad.

But more than the headlines, we need to understand the objectives and principles the association stands for and to what extent it has succeeded in achieving them.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formed in 1985 under Article 52 of the UN Charter providing existence of regional arrangements for dealing with such matters, relating to the maintenance of international peace and security with the purpose and principles of the UN Charter.

It now represents 16.5 per cent of the world’s population.

In 31 years of its existence, SAARC has evolved and achieved a lot in terms of poverty reduction, food security, energy cooperation and social welfare. But, its relevance has been more or less limited to bilateral issues.

Despite regular meetings of policy makers and seminars by specialists, SAARC is yet to emerge as a strong forum to protect the interests of its member countries, compared to regional associations like ASEAN or NAFTA.

One of the reasons for the limited success of SAARC has been a shortage of milestones that will lead to closer cooperation among the member countries.

The world is watching South Asia. It is time to walk the talk, but unless there is peace among the member countries, especially between the two big partners, India and Pakistan, SAARC shall remain an association where bilateral issues prevail over the much-desired common multilateral goals.

SAARC was formed despite many obstacles and antipathy among the member nations.

Amid the diversities, challenges faced by SAARC countries, such as poverty, unemployment, inflationary pressure, unfavourable trade balance, high budget deficits and climate change are common.

However, despite common problems, the policies adopted by the members are contradictory to one another. For the sake a unified purpose, they need to develop a uniform approach towards these problems.

As we have moved from Millennium Development Goals to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, greater cooperation among the SAARC countries will make the region stable, safe and prosperous. Therefore, complementary, not competitive policies will develop the region.

Terrorism is the most disturbing challenge for peace, security and democracy not only in South Asia, but also the rest of the world. Along with cross border drug trafficking, it has created instability and insecurity in the region.

Even though every SAARC member pledges to eliminate terrorism in all forms at every summit, back home, countries like Pakistan pursue their own agenda and policies, which are not in consonance with the SAARC Charter, and the consequence is growing insecurity and threats to the South Asian region and humanity.

Terrorism demands a coordinated approach at the international level for sustainable global peace.

If a country sees it from a different perspective and makes a distinction between good terror and bad terror, the pathway to sustainable peace would be very difficult.

If we can eliminate the menace and focus our attention, as one unit of development, on issues like improving education, health, et al, the South Asian demographic dividend will be a reality and SAARC will emerge as an effective vehicle to achieve the developmental aspirations of all South Asians.

In this context, the effective implementation of the initiatives taken by SAARC, including the Regional Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism and its additional protocol has to be ensured.

The impact of Brexit on South Asia is yet to be analysed in detail, but it affects us all. All South Asian economies will experience its ripples in terms of growth, trade and employment. The situation demands that SAARC achieves regional economic integration on a fast track basis with the optimisation of SAFTA towards South Asian Economic Union (SAEU).

Another area that needs the attention of and cooperation among SAARC countries is agriculture. In fact, SAARC’s roots lay in the IPA Declaration adopted by the foreign ministers of South Asia in 1983 calling for regional cooperation in the areas of agriculture, health, rural development and population.

The SAARC nations, at this stage, must not lose their focus on this front because they have the core competence in the sector and their economies are dominated by it. The greatest opportunity for SAARC is that India has one of the widest and best networks of agricultural education and research in the world. Other South Asian nations should take advantage of this.

One fifth of the South Asian population is younger than 24 years. Therefore, the countries as well as SAARC should step up efforts to create adequate and suitable employment opportunities for the age group.

Employment is a matter of serious concern for all SAARC economies, including India. Young Parliamentarians from SAARC nations will meet in Islamabad later this month and the annual summit is scheduled to be held in November.

It is high time SAARC prioritised the looming challenges in the region.

Strategic partnership and greater cooperation among the member countries will lead to the emergence of the SAARC as a formidable bloc, much like the ASEAN and a platform for development of the South Asian region.

It is not the problems, but the solutions that must bind SAARC nations. The commitment should be towards implementation of the resolutions on core issues.

The best way and the need of the hour is sincerity of purpose and honesty in effort.

Will the SAARC fight the challenges?