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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 26, New Delhi, June 12, 2021

Relevance of SAARC in The age of new normal | Santhosh Mathew

Saturday 12 June 2021

by Santhosh Mathew

The South Asian Regional Cooperation also known as SAARC, is a regional cooperation comprising of eight countries i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. When SAARC was initially constituted in 1985, there were only seven member states however in 2007 Afghanistan was added to this regional grouping. The following countries have taken up observer status at the SAARC, they are China, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritius, United States of America and the European Union. The SARC was set up in order to ensure that economic, social and cultural development occurred in the region. However, over the last few years, we have seen a decline in any kind of engagement on these fronts. Further the major objective of ensuring that the living standards of the people has gone down hill and there have been blatant human rights violations in the region which has caused individuals to lose their dignity in a myriad of ways. Regional integrity which was the founding idea behind SAARC has faced a serious blow with the skirmishes and stand off between India and Pakistan. These conflicts have spilled over into other avenues as well, which has effectively brought the SAARC functionalities to a grinding halt. Thus, also putting the peace and harmony of the region in jeopardy. As the conflicts has prevented states from being able to build sustainable cooperation to promote economic, social or cultural development as a regional block. However, one must note that despite the fact that the regional block is not functioning as it was envisioned, states do continue to have individual interactions with each other on various fronts of cooperation.

Thus, with the various pitfalls that SAARC has faced and continues to face it becomes imperative to understand why SAARC has to potential to steer the international affairs of the South Asian region. I will build my arguments in the following manner: how trade can strengthen the region, the need for security enhancement in the region to combat terrorism and human trafficking, youth interaction to ensure sustained cooperation amongst the member states and how it is imperative for India’s foreign policy that we revitalize SAARC.

The major driving factor behind the creation of SAARC was the acceleration of the process of economic growth. Further in order to realize this the SAARC states created an institutionalized regional economic cooperation through the Committee on Economic Cooperation. The agenda for this committee was to promote various methods and ways through which economic and trade relations could be intensified. The biggest step undertaken by the committee towards helping realize this goal was the creation of the SAARC Preferential Trading Agreement (SAPTA) in 1993. The SAPTA came into force in 1995 with the sole goal of promoting free trade amongst the member states in the region. To a large extent this Agreement can be credited for reducing the trade barriers in the region to a large extent and for kindling the fire of free trade in the region. The SAPTA was replaced by the South Asian Free Trade Area at the twelfth SAARC meeting which was held in Islamabad. The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) though signed in 2004 was operationalized in 2006 and for a while it was able to promote trade in the region but has fallen flat at the present due to political conflicts that exist between the two nuclear power states of the South Asian region. Over the years both the SAPTA and the SAFTA have failed to achieve their goals of accelerated economic growth in the region. Further the incapacitation of Afghanistan to act as a state by the Taliban has ruined the economy of the state.

However, there is a need to strengthen the SAFTA and create a more durable structure like that of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Drawing a parallel with recreating the same possibilities through SAFTA that the AfCFTA is set to bring to the region. According to a recent World Bank report the AfCFTA is set to boost the regional income by 7% which when converted to dollars amounts to $450bn. Thus, impacting the quality of life of women, daily wage laborer’s and unskilled. This in turn enables the region to lift around 30 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035. The AfCFTA will be able to achieve this goal by diversifying exports, accelerating growth, competitively integrating into the global economy and increasing foreign direct investment. These steps ensure an increase in employment opportunities and incomes enabling for a wholistic economic inclusion of the African region. If the SAARC could implement the SAFTA in a much more aggressive manner it would aid in the upliftment of around 736 million people living in extreme poverty in the South Asian Region. The AfCFTA has understood that women are vulnerable to various kinds of direct and indirect injustices and to this end they have made them an integral part of the Trade and Commerce. According to a survey conducted by the Economic Commission for Africa, they were able to ascertain that around 70% of the informal cross-border trade that occurs in Africa is attributable to the involvement of women. The Commission whilst doing this survey realized that women who engage in this informal cross-border trade are susceptible to various forms of harassment, violence, imprisonment and also the confiscation of their good. This is predominantly due to the fact that these women trade through informal channels. Thus in order to address this issue the AfCFTA implements tariff reductions which enables these women to operate through formal channels of trade which is regulated and thus affording them more protection. It is my hope for the SAARC region to realize the importance that women have in trade and to afford them some kind of safety and protection.

Terrorism is not something that is new to the region and is however something that is overlooked to a large extent. States in the region tend to engage and counter-terrorism as individual actors rather than work together collectively as a block to prevent this from escalating in the region. Terrorism and politically instigated violence is not something that is new to the region and has persisted from before the inception of the SAARC. The major reason for the region to fall into this dire state is directly linked to limited state capabilities and overlapping tensions due to geopolitical factors in the region. This has in turn lead to rampant corruption, underdevelopment, socioeconomic marginalization and has spilled over in the form of terrorism and violence. There is a need for SAARC to contribute to the strengthening of practical and implementable counter-terrorism cooperation. India has always been a champion for counter-terrorism and has used its position in various platforms to not only rise awareness on the issue but to also create various counter-terrorism bodies in the groupings it is a part of e.g.: the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, which is a part of the Shanghai Corporation Organization. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is a permanent organ of the Shanghai Corporation Organization (SCO) and it aims at the promotion of cooperation between member states against three identified tents of counter-terrorism i.e terrorism, separatism and extremism. If the SAARC could create something similar to the RATS it would greatly benefit their current individualistic fight against terrorism. Currently, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are actively combating terrorism in their respective states. If the SAARC had an institutionalized organization to combat against terrorism it would be more efficient as Afghanistan is a failed state and does not have the resources or the ability to effectively combat terrorist activities within its borders. Further it is also important to note that cyber terrorism is on the rise and most of the SAARC member states do not possess the technological know-how to combat these kinds of non-traditional terrorism. Should there exist an institutionalized body it would enable states to share the workable best practices, technological know-how and identify terrorist activities and work collectively towards preventing it.

The Youth in the South Asian region make up roughly around 19% of the overall population of the region. According to a note released by UNICEF on 29th October 2019, they state that more than half of the youth in South Asia are not on track to have to education nor the skill set necessary for their employability in 2030. This is remarkably astonishing as South Asia has the largest youth labor force in the world. This is due to the extremely high number of young people entering the labor market each day. The number is so high that it is roughly 100,000 young people who join the labor market every single day from the South Asian region. Education in the region has always been something that they have struggled with. It has always been a disproportionate balance between the quality and the number of children enrolled in schools. Further, there is a need to focus on the education of girls and women as the region has the largest gender gap in literacy. Most of the youth in the region feel that their education systems are outdated and do not adequately prepare them for employment. Further it is also important to not that women in this region are more likely to be unemployed as compared to men and this can be gauged from the fact that female labor force participation is barely 23% in the overall labor force participation. The overall importance given to the health of the youth has taken a back seat, with negligible importance being given to sexual and reproductive health and mental health. A significant number of girls are married before 18 years of age in South Asia which is also a testament to the significant maternal mortality in the region. Further, South Asia is estimated to have 320,000 young people aged 15-24 who are living with HIV and the overall comprehensive knowledge and understanding of HIV is lacking in the region. Despite these numerous problems faced by the youth in the region, they have created numerous initiatives to tackle corruption, engage on climate change, increase awareness and access to mental and sexual health etc. These initiatives undertaken have had an impact on the lives of the youth who engage with these organizations and they are slowly getting the chance to portray their ideas of international platforms. However, the youth currently face a huge dilemma at these international platforms which tend to band together common experiences and solutions of the region. Since, the SAARC regional grouping is inactive we get overlooked. South Asia is not really given much priority. Further there is yet another struggle with this as youth try to fit into other regional groupings, when this happens their voices are not really given much importance. Thus, I would say that SAARC due to their political mishaps and internal strife they are doing a grave disservice to their youth, who are the future foundation for their states. Hence it is imperative to at least operationalize the youth wing of SAARC as the youth are capable of going beyond political boundaries created and maintained by states and engage in meaningful solutions that can make an impact.

From the perspective of India, why SAARC plays an important role in the foreign policy of India. If the SAFTA is properly operationalized it would be able to achieve its goal which is to reduce the custom duties to zero in the region. Thus, enabling India to boost her economic growth not just in the region but internationally as well. Further the framework agreement on energy cooperation in the South Asian Region would enable India to mitigate the shortage faced in electricity production. Further, it would allow all member states achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Accord as the electricity created under this Agreement leans towards green energy sourced from renewable sources. SAARC as an organization had come up with a Visa exemption scheme wherein certain categories of dignitaries were exempted from Visas. If this idea is to see fruition there is a need for states to set aside their differences and work together. India has always been the forerunner of Space development initiatives and it would be an added feather to the cap of India if we could launch the SAARC regional satellite. It would also help boost the amity between the respective member states.

Thus, I strongly feel that SAARC as a regional grouping is still of incredible importance. It is true that SAARC as a regional grouping is completely dormant and is becoming irrelevant as time passes. However, we must not lose hope as the revitalization of SAARC is in our best interest and could change the way we are perceived at international platforms.

Bibliography:

“6 Reasons Why Africa’s New Free Trade Area Is a Global Game Changer | World Economic Forum.” Accessed May 30, 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/02/afcfta-africa- free-trade-global-game-changer/.
“Chapter 3 Poverty Measures in South Asia | South Asia Regional Micro Database (SARMD) User Guidelines.” Accessed May 30, 2021.
https://worldbank.github.io/SARMD_guidelines/poverty-measures.html.
“More than Half of South Asian Youth Are Not on Track to Have the Education and Skills Necessary for Employment in 2030.” Accessed May 30, 2021.
https://www.unicef.org/rosa/press-releases/more-half-south-asian-youth-are-not-track-have- education-and-skills-necessary.
“Youth Bulge in South Asia: Challenges & Opportunities | Greater Kashmir.” Accessed May 30, 2021. https://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/youth-bulge-in-south-asia- challenges-opportunities/.

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