SAARC: Problems and Prospects in South Asia


In order to realize potentials and prospects of Asian Union, which is going to be a challenging goal, great efforts and political will by nations have to be made in all regions of Asia....

In order to realize potentials and prospects of Asian Union, which is going to be a challenging goal, great efforts and political will by nations have to be made in all regions of Asia.
To take an example of South Asia progress towards regionalism faces daunting challenges. SAARC, as a regional organization, is almost 25 years old but faces some structural weaknesses. The primary factor is number of smaller countries versus a giant country, India, which continues to still harbour hegemonistic designs in the region. Moreover, historical bitterness persists between India and Pakistan.
Due to the peculiar size and configuration of South Asia all smaller South Asian countries stand isolated with no proximity to each other. This prevents any meaningful South Asian co-operation. Unlike Indonesia in ASEAN, the biggest country i.e. India in South Asia, has not been able to resolve and harmonize its differences with small neighbours, including Pakistan. It is big in size and population but hardly large in terms of mind and attitude. All nations proximate to India have problems and grouses with their giant neighbour. The two rivals in South Asia (Pakistan and India) have not been able to sort their problems, unlike Germany and France, who have overcome their past historical hostilities through marked functionalist dynamics.
Today, the Paris-Berlin axis is the motor of Europe and despite problems in European Union there is a strong commitment for cooperation that has resulted in regional integration. In Asia, despite prevalence of Asian values no such entente is seen between Japan and China and cooperation that has resulted in regional integration. In Asia, despite prevalence of Asian values no such entente is seen between Japan and China. Moreover, the level of intra-Asian or intra-SAARC trade is nowhere in level as compared to the European Union.
While this lack of regional consciousness is generally prevalent in Asia the sentiment is more pronounced in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. There is generally lack of political awareness. Europe’s cataclysmic wars and destruction in recent history created an aversion to wars. Poverty, hunger and overpopulation are rampant in South Asia and realisation has still eluded leaderships of the region. Perhaps this is a reflection of poverty, lack of awareness and weak civil societies. For any meaningful cooperation to occur there has to be institutional cooperation. Institutional help to share information develop trust and learn to predict each other’s behaviour. The European experience of EC demonstrates that greater the institutionalisation the greater are chances of success.
SAARC is still a loose and informal organisation. Unlike Europe there is no Asian Robert Shuman to boldly declare a major project that would bind together South Asian nations and galvanize the process of regional integration, dampen chauvinistic impulses and hold the vision of a common prosperous future. Although cooperation in some sectors of education, agriculture, meteorology and communication are well-intentioned and starting it has not inspired the leaderships to make the organisation to meaning- fully take off. Poverty alleviation, free-trade area and terrorism issues are being addressed rather half heartedly.

Many pious declarations at the end of the SAARC summits are passed and a number of lower level meetings are held but the outcome is dismal. The conventions agreed upon invariably face poor implementation. There has been a reluctance and general lack of interest in SAARC by India. It has always wanted to deal with neighbours on a bilateral basis. It fears that other member states might gang up against it. There is little realisation that it cannot rise as a regional power without the neighbours’ also rising alongside.
Besides, the region is marked by starkly low levels of intra-regional trade which accounts for barely 5 per cent as compared to 62 per cent for EU and 55 per cent for NAFTA. Moreover, it accounts for less than one per cent of global trade, 1.5 per cent of global GDP (leaving 450 million as the poorest in the world) and 50 per cent of world illiterates within the seven member nations. Weak and fragile civil societies hamper the benefits of regional cooperation.
Civil societies arise from democratic set up which in turn are shaped by education, political awareness, assertive and responsible media, role of non-governmental civic bodies and institutions. Big powers can act as facilitators but also sometimes as road blocks in attaining regionalism. To the extent that regional cooperation helps maintain security of investment and businesses it is welcome but when certain countries are not on good terms with a major power the tendency is to actively discourage any such cooperation. For example, while the US and China may encourage India-Pakistan resolution of disputes and strengthening of SAARC forum, the US is averse to any cooperation with Iran in any joint venture e.g., the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.
In meeting the challenges of SAARC there is a need for political will by all, especially the leading actor, India. The SAARC Secretariat has to be revamped and strengthened with more powers. Its constitution needs to be revised. The civil society has to attain critical mass of energy to effect positive changes. All societal institutions are weak and this has to change. Where healthy inter-dependence increases chances of cooperation would correspondingly brighten and conflict decrease.
Governments have to apportion greater share to education which is the key for long-term socio-economic development. Easing of visa regimes and travel within SAARC countries could be beneficial. Culture, sports, trade and other interactions must be encouraged and should not fall victim to politicization. The governments have to take a lead role in sponsoring these activities. There is moreover a need to launch joint projects in building infrastructure in communication, energy, dams, hydel energy, joint ventures in business and other fields. Terrorism, alleviation of poverty, climate issue, energy shortages and disease are common issues faced by South Asian nations. 
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