SAARC, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, was established in Dacca, Bangladesh on 8th December, 1985. The aims and objectives were enlisted as, inter alia, to improve welfare and quality of life in South Asia, promote economic growth, strengthen collective self-reliance, build mutual trust and cooperate with each other on international forums in matters of common interests. Looking at the capability of the new organization, many saw a new era coming.

Regretfully, the achievements of the organization are far below its potential thus far. At the moment, it has been on the point of being defunct for several years.

According to the World Bank, intra-regional trade accounts for 5% of the total trade in South Asia which makes it the least integrated region in the world. There are no significant cross border investments. The irony is that for most of the SAARC countries trading with member states costs more than to trade with non-members. Bilateral trade between Pakistan and India has the capacity to reach $37 billion while Bangladesh exports to India can grow by 300% subject to the condition they reduce protective trade barriers.

Although a South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) came into force in 2006 but that was only limited to goods with no place for investments and services like information technology etc. It envisioned a duty free area between members by 2016, but nothing happened on the ground. If we had acted on Vision for SAARC (1998) there would have been a Customs Union by 2015 and an Economic Union by 2020. Majority of us fancy workings of the European Union but, strangely enough, when it comes to SAARC little motivation is found for transforming it into such a cohesive entity.

There are many hurdles in expansion of this organization. The first and most difficult of which is from the so called South Asian giant that wants to secure and preserve its own hegemony in the region. Due to India’s intransigent attitude, SAARC summit has been in limbo for the last three years. To make scores vis-à-vis its bilateral disputes with Pakistan, it has been denying attending the summit scheduled to be held here. New Delhi has found other member nations like Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan on its side because of being under its significant influence or owing to their animosity with Pakistan. Thus some saboteurs have turned SAARC into nonentity.

In order to strengthen SAARC and make it an effective organization by improving its performance, politics shouldn’t be brought to its proceedings. All members should be considered as its equal and main pillars. No member should think of itself as the decision maker and powerful enough to pull the strings against rules provided by the charter. Damage to the workings of organization is caused because of Pak-India rivalry in majority of cases. To let the Organization thrive, bilateral disputes must not be allowed to affect its operations.

Moreover, the member countries should relax their visa regimes for each other and minimize or for that matter completely do away with non-tariff barriers to facilitate business communities. They also need to revise their sensitive lists with an eye to boost intra-regional trade. It is a well-established fact that economies which have adopted open-market strategies have grown faster. There are hundreds of appealing resorts in South Asia which attract tourists from all around the world. Their tourism industries would boom if all member countries come up with a joint policy where it is made easier for international tourists to visit all regional spots without going through lengthy processes. It can result in unprecedented influx of trippers and accordingly can help stabilize and rebuild ailing economies of many including that of ours. Connectivity and trade-related infrastructure is lacking and border procedures are outdated which should be heeded as well.

It is a bitter reality that differences exist between some SAARC members like irritants in Pakistan-India and Pak-Afghan relations, water disputes between India and Bangladesh, territorial claims by Nepal and India, to mention but a few. But so does have other countries all around the world. ASEAN countries have their own intra-regional conflicts to deal with, for instance ownership of disputed islands in South China Sea, territorial disputes, and unresolved borders etc. But that hasn’t stopped them from working in collaboration and reaching a mechanism which promotes trade and cooperation. Likewise, a serious split between Taiwan and China is no secret but still the former is the largest trading partner of Beijing.

SAARC countries constitute one of the most poverty stricken region in the world. The only solution to their troubles lies in cooperation and mutual understanding rather than in confrontation. To safeguard SAARC from restraining influences of hegemonic power(s), its charter should be amended in such a way that meetings and summits of the organization are held at specific time and places as scheduled come what may. No one should be given a veto over activities of the SAARC. Also, the clause regarding decisions to be taken unanimously should also be amended to make the organization effectively functioning.

If we had acted on Vision for SAARC (1998) there would have been a Customs Union by 2015 and an Economic Union by 2020.

The writer is a freelance contributor.