The recently concluded 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu would surely have been hawk — eyed by China due to its alleged insecurity on India’s growing clout over their common neighbours. China not only undermines India’s influence but also plays possum on India’s achievements globally. China has been bubbling to join SAARC, but with India playing the Big Daddy of the association, Chinese ambitions show little scope.
SAARC, the convergence of eight member countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, is the largest regional association in the world representing more than 1.5 billion people. Accordingly, it is expected to yield results. Albeit, SAARC has merely become a consortium for South Asian discussions, ofcourse with a solid, predetermined agenda which qualifies for the global attention, but also followed by ubiquitous inaction by the members.
This year, the centre of discourse was ‘climate change’ mostly considering the woes of two of its members; Himalayan nation Nepal, and the island country ,Maldives, both of whose existence is imperilled by the perpetual glacier melt, portending a grave future risk.
Shockingly, 7 of the 8 members of SAARC have been noted by The World Food Programme, to be grappling with hunger and food crunch, Sri Lanka being the only exception. In 2008 SAARC summit, the focus was on bringing about food security in the subcontinent by operationalising the SAARC Food Bank, which would maintain food stocks and be an effective tool for managing future food crisis situations. The idea took 20 years to be turned into reality. The Food Bank plan saw the light of the day in 2008, when its need was finally realised and worked upon.
Alarmingly, India has been noted of being home to 50% of the worlds hungry. The dichotomy here is that India has been contributing 60% of the food to the SAARC Food Bank, ofcourse maximum by any country.
Some of the typical issues dealt by SAARC includes, growing energy needs in the subcontinent, transport and trade facilitation, regional integration and the mother of all, curbing the terrorism ‘menace.
The point here is that neither has hunger been expunged out or even impacted drastically for SAARC functioning to be deservingly lauded, nor has trade made any landmark development, terrorism has found its solution only in ‘cautiousness of oneself’, as Jihad continues to breed and flourish. I wonder who the members share terrorism concern with, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Moreover who is willing to do, or has the authority to do something about it? Does Pakistan’s stance of its having nothing to do with terrorism changes when it comes to attend SAARC? What’s the purpose served? Of what use is a 40 minute cold, phlegmatic meeting between two countries when the bitterness in their relationship still lingers? Is it just a ceremonial business responsibility to meet and greet?
The political relationships both internal and external between nations will always remain the same, countless agreements and pacts can be signed and wasted time upon, but their scope of bringing some fundamental change is narrowly limited due to lack of continuous and coordinated correspondence between nations. For instance, SAFTA OR South Asian Free Trade Agreement was ratified by all the member nations in 2006, as a step towards opening their economies and reducing trade tariffs and other barriers for effective exchange of resources. Now that is merely an agreement, an obligation to lift the morale of the believers of SAARC.
In reality the countries are vary of India’s intentions. They fear India’s invasion over their markets, societies and politics through commercial ventures and a commercial presence in their country. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are especially chary of India’s economic gains through regional diplomacy.
Recently, Bangladesh banned Bollywood films due to their insecurity over growing India’s influence both culturally and economically, which was also seen to be threatening local industries.
A consortium as powerful and as mighty as this one, according to me is going more or less wasted due to its failure in writing a subcontinent integration story ,failure in sending the world a message of unity and togetherness of SAARC nations ,which could have further lead to confidence building in the region. There ought to be a list of short term goals and long term goals, so that the summit is not stagnant over years working on a single issue, and instead focuses also on quick social, cultural, and economic exchanges between countries, frequent communication between the head of the countries will only facilitate it’s functioning.
25 years have passed since its creation; the achievements are far lesser than what could have been. Countries have expressed their interests in becoming members of SAARC, including Iran, China, and Burma. To say that India is utilising SAARC to the best of her and the region’s interest will be an overstatement. The future of this association doesn’t look far different from its past or present. However there is no denying, the scope of SAARC is immense, if presided and coordinated well, it holds the potential of becoming an alternative centre of power in the years to come.