What Lies Ahead for SAARC?

Chokey Namgyal Bhutia
8th May 2021

Will SAARC thrive or continue to be in a debacle has been continuously contested and discussed by various stakeholders. An outright “Yes” or “No” has less probability as history has been witness to a number of ups and downs and the future is filled with overwhelming possibilities.  Nevertheless, an analysis can be made. SAARC was formed with lots of aspiration in 1985. The organization has failed to deliver the best with less scope of renewal. The failures and challenges outweigh the achievements of SAARC. However, SAARC’s modest achievements over the decades deserves credit, particularly in the non-political realm. It has made some significant contribution towards social cohesion and economic integration. The issues of women, health, agriculture, poverty, and population issues have always been prioritized.

The minimal achievements have been weighed down by the plethora of failures due to varied reasons. Lack of cooperation among member nations, entangled regional politics, strained bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, unwanted delays, redundant SAARC summits and meetings that mostly cater to theoretical achievements rather than practical implications and lately the Chinese presence in South Asia have all contributed to the downfall. Inconsistent SAARC summits have further degenerated the organization. The last SAARC summit was held in Nepal in 2014. The 2016 SAARC summit was cancelled due to the India-Pakistan disputes and since then SAARC summits have not been held until date. The occurrence of avoidable situations has led to the mounting of innumerable problems. But, the future does not necessarily have to be bleak. If indeed the “21st century belongs to Asia”, South Asia is a lucrative region with its rich resources, human capacities and the strategic location. If the nations commit, SAARC can emerge as strong regional organization. A little bit of trust and consistency is required from the upholders of power.

India is an emerging powerhouse in Asia. Bhutan and Nepal have rich natural resources, which can be harnessed to bring prosperity. Bangladesh and Pakistan’s strategic and political location and the rich natural resources cannot be neglected. They have a bridging location, which is lucrative for the major powers of the world.  When the GDP of all the member countries of SAARC is combined, their position stands at third in the world. SAARC occupies around three per cent of the world’s area, twenty one per cent of the world’s population and around nine per cent of the world economy.

The members need to realize that unlike other regional organization, SAARC was founded not just for economic and political growth, but it is an organization woven with ties of history, culture and traditions. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the leaders to reinvigorate the problematic areas and come out with progressive solutions. India being the largest country in South Asia bears a greater amount of responsibility in keeping the organization united.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan for a SAARC satellite that can launch the space exploration dreams for all countries of the region is an encouraging idea. The Indian government has already started working with the grouping, BBIN (comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal), under the larger ambit of the eight-member SAARC. India should initiate for a SAARC summit soon. Small initiatives from a big country can go a long way in revamping the SAARC while facilitating peace.

The development of better level of cooperation requires regional connectivity. Constructions of different forms of corridor, ports will increase connectivity and provide many benefits to SAARC, like the Construction of proposed BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) corridor and building joint mega projects could be a landmark step in fostering connectivity.   People to people contacts can be further encouraged. Medical tourism can be augmented, and a more flexible visa regime can be encouraged.  Research institutes, think tanks, private companies, can play a positive role in the region.

Comparing SAARC with other organizations like the European Union or ASEAN won’t  do much help. There is a need to understand that every region has its own requirements and realities which need to be dealt according to the ethos of the region. Therefore, in context to SAARC, understanding its structures, tension, institutions, capacities, and social economic and political requirements has to be in consonance to the existing realities.  The Chinese presence in the region has to be dealt if the members want to bolster SAARC. India again bears the major responsibility in the task. Increasing economic packages and investments is the way forward.

Amidst the ongoing gloomy days, the COVID-19 pandemic shed some light of hope. A video conference of the member nations were held on 15 March 2020 to seek measures, and suggestions regarding the impact of the virus in the region. During the conference, Prime Minister Modi announced that a COVID-19 emergency fund of ten million dollar would be set up for the disposal of member nations to fight the virus. During the conference, the leaders of SAARC agreed to pool their best practices, share their experiences and coordinate their efforts to work together in fighting the pandemic. India made its message clear; to always stand strong in coping with the situation in the region, and it also amplified the willingness to make its full efforts to support her neighbors in the crisis.

Substantial suggestions was not made in the videos conference regarding the long-term future of SAARC. However, the conference and the response of the member nations manifested some hope and positivity for the coming times.  After a gap of almost five years, the member nations were meeting collectively. This projects the fact that amidst all that has happened and was happening in the region, the members are still enthusiastic for cooperation and they are ready to stand by any difficulties that arise in the region collectively. A feeling of mutual trust is still alive within SAARC. Cooperation that had been initiated due to the Covid -19 should not take a back seat. The members should have more dialogues to break the barriers of distrust. The SAARC secretariat should take advantage of this situation and call for meeting of the foreign secretaries, the heads of the states of member nations with Covid -19 pandemic theme being the highlight, which will serve as the redirection for other themes and concerns. The distress of the virus could serve as a platform to remedy the SAARC and make one realize interdependence and interconnectedness are inevitable.

South Asia is one of the fastest growing regions of the world. If there is an exponential performance, South Asia will have the potential to emerge as an attractive region of Asia in particular and the world in general. A united South Asia possesses the capability to make a mark in the world’s geopolitics and create a niche for itself in the world community. The fulfillment of this would primarily be based on the positive revival of SAARC and the challenges of Covid -19 has provided a platform for new engagements. It is a long road ahead, lest not impossible to achieve.

*The author is an Assistant Professor at Sikkim Government College, Sikkim