Foreign Affairs

Is SAARC losing its relevance?

(Replug: It has been almost 35 years since the south asian regional organization came into existence. But it has not made encouraging strides–be it in the area of economic cooperation or resolution of disputes. SAARC has been a victim of bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan. It has not even been able to hold the summit since 2014 due to this. While relations between India and Pakistan are at new low, I am replugging the following piece I wrote in 2015. Though written in a different context, I think this piece is still pertinent as the questions of SAARC’s relevance have again resurfaced after the fresh tensions in the region)

Some three years ago, the Economist in its critical article wrote that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) had lost its relevance. The Economist argued, ” South Asia is about the least integrated part of the world. Neighbours supply just 0.5 percentage of India’s imports, consume less than 4 percentage of its exports. India and Pakistan, mutually antagonistic, account for a fifth of all living human beings,yet their bilateral trade is puny, at less than $ 3 billion a year“ in its article titled ” India and its near abroad: The Elephant in the Region”.

In 2015 when SAARC is celebrating 31 years of its establishment, the matter raised by the Economist is still pertinent. SAARC has been notorious for its clumsiness, repeated interruptions in the the summits, slow implementation of the agreements and the list is quite long. Many commentators, analysts, intellectuals, especially inside Nepal, have begun raising question about the relevance of SAARC with the current stalemate reigning over Indo-Nepal relationship. Nepal blames India of meddling in its internal affairs and imposing an unofficial blockade on it which Delhi has been vehemently denying. India is not happy with the newly promulgated Nepali constitution and has been nudging Nepali political forces to address the demands of the parties based on the southern plains of the country, bordering India. The agitating parties which have only 11 members in the 601 strong constituent assembly feel underrepresented in the constitution and have been protesting for nearly four months now with more than three and a half month- border entry point centred agitation. The agitation is focused on Birgunj– the entry point which account more than two thirds of the total imports of Nepal from India. The obstruction of this major life line has created severe fuel shortages across the country and has increased the risk of humanitarian crisis which the UN like international agencies have been warning of. Nepal government has put the figures of economic losses much more than incurred by the devastating April earthquake.

Even in this dire situation, SAARC is keeping mum. If UN and European Union could raise the issue then why cannot SAARC, even when its one member, the current Chair itself is facing the hardship and another member India has been dragged into the controversy? The answer does not look easy. Many think the Article 10 of SAARC Charter which prohibits to raise bilateral issue in SAARC fora is the major hindrance to chip in the current controversy between India and Nepal. But others think, it’s not only the bilateral issue but going beyond that, a humanitarian crisis. Even if SAARC does not dwell upon the bilateral issues, why does not SAARC speak a word in the looming humanitarian crisis its member is posed to? This is exactly the question many are raising in Nepal.

The SAFTA, considered as one of the major achievements of SAARC, is apparently under threat. Nepal has been complaining of its transit rights as a landlocked country and the rights of free trade envisioned in SAFTA being breached by India. Obstacles have been created by the Indian authorities on the other side of border, which they blame on the unrest on Nepali side. But there are hassles even at the border entry points where there are no protests, squeezing the regular movement of trucks and oil tankers. Nepali freighters are also complaining of hassles and misbehaviour at the Kolkata port where Nepal bound third country imports drop in.

Moreover SAARC embraces the basic principle of respect for sovereignty, non interference in internal matters among others. But apparently India has been asking Nepali political actors to do this or that openly in Nepal’s constitutional matters.

Amid these recent incidents, many a people in Nepal have started demanding the review in the Article 10 of the SAARC Charter. But equally there are voices that with the insertion of bilateral issues can impinge in the very principle of regional cooperation envisioned by SAARC.  But question arises: has SAARC moved satisfactorily forward till now even when it is not dwelling on the bilateral issues? It has really been the matter to reckon with and probably it will help in shaping up the SAARC future.