(Article) 16th SAARC Summit: Towards a Green and Happy South Asia

16th SAARC Summit: Towards a Green and Happy South Asia

The 16th SAARC (South Asia association of Regional Cooperation) summit concluded in the capital of Bhutan. The theme of the summit was “Towards a green and happy south Asia”. South Asia is the home of 1.5 billion people, which comprise eight nations, namely India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. This is the silver jubilee year of SAARC. According to a World Bank report the 2/3rd people of south Asia live on less then 2 dollar per day. Certainly, it is far behind from the other regional organizations when compared about the progress and development of the region.

In the summit, the leaders of member countries rightly raised this issue. First, our Prime Minister, Man Mohan Singh called the 25-year long journey of SAARC, “a glass half empty” then Bhutan’s PM Jigmi Y Thinley said that SAARC is losing its focus from core issues, such as poverty, food security etc. In one sense these statements are true, as there are many bilateral issues between member countries which used to affect the multilateral efforts and initiatives of the developments, e.g. India-Pakistan relations have always overshadowed the SAARC summits and this time also the summit started with the huge speculations of Indo-Pak meets at the sidelines of the summit. Though, according to SAARC charter, bilateral issues cannot be raised on its forum, still the mere possibilities of Indo-Pak high level meet used to occupy a lot of space of the summit’s unofficial or official agenda. This fact is clear through the comment of Mohammad Nasheed, president of Maldives, he said, “the summit will lead to a greater dialogue between India and Pakistan”. The state heads of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan also expressed the similar views. President Nasheed also asked for the more focus on important issues which are related to SAARC nations and their problems which used to be overshadowed by the Indo-Pak stern relation.

One more issue, which has maintained gap between members, is the “India factor”. India has geographically, economically and politically a big brother image among the rest member countries of SAARC. All the nations of south Asia are connected geographically with India (Afghanistan through POK). Only Maldives, the island nation has no land connectivity with India. This big brother image has always raised negative thoughts and fears among the other members, the political parties have frequently used the anti- India card to raise the public emotions, e.g. in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and off course Pakistan. This insecurity has provided a suitable opportunity for big powers to intervene in south Asia. Besides, ethnic, language, border and water disputes between the members, it has also created set-backs among bilateral and multilateral relations.

However, some significant events took place in Thimphu. The landmark decision was the announcement of a fund by Indian PM, to meet with the challenges of climate change and to cater for the needs of effective adaptation and capacity building of small nations. Though no proper action plan for climate change was drafted, still this is an important initiative as all the nations of south Asia are facing serious threats of global warming, such as, glacial melting, frequent cyclones, floods and droughts.

The next important event of summit was the Indo- Pak meeting on 29th April, between Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh and his counter part Yusuf Raza Gilani. It was the first meeting of both leaders after the one in Sharm- el –Sheikh in July 2009. In the meeting, India insisted on Pak to take some credential action against the 26/11 perpetrates, LeT and Hafeez Saeed, the master mind of the Mumbai attack. India refused to start the conventional form of composite dialogue that is based on eight issues. Pakistan’s emphasis remained on delinking of terror from talks and an immediate return of composite dialogue. However, India rejected this offer and no joint statement took place, but the positive side of talks was that both sides agreed to keep the dialogue process open and decided to meet as soon as possible at Foreign Ministers’ level and at foreign secretary level.

Besides above developments, the 16th SAARC summit lacked behind on many issues. No progress took place on SAFTA (south Asia free trade agreement), nor the leaders of south Asia tried to find out any regional solution of Afghan problem. Though in a joint statement released by prime Minister Man Mohan Singh and President Karzai, Dr. Singh supported an “ Afghan-led , Afghan owned”  rebuilding of Afghanistan, based on the principles of national sovereignty, independence and non –interference. The rising interference of superpowers such as USA and China in south Asia too did not become an issue of concern for the leaders of subcontinent. The leaders of SAARC though felt that bilateral issues are creating hurdles in the progress of the region and its 1.5 billion people but no concrete step has been taken to overcome those issues.

However, the summit remarked the need of dialogue and conversation among the members to resolve their differences. After all, it gives an open forum to its members to exchange their views and visions regarding south Asia’s present, future and its potential role in international political and economic structure.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an economic and political organization of eight countries in Southern Asia. In terms of population, its sphere of influence is the largest of any regional organization: almost 1.5 billion people, the combined population of its member states. It was established on December 8, 1985 by Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. In April 2007, at the Association's 14th summit, Afghanistan became its eighth member.

In the late 1970s, Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman proposed the creation of a trade bloc consisting of South Asian countries. The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was again mooted in May 1980. The foreign secretaries of the seven countries met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981. The Committee of the Whole, which met in Colombo in August 1981, identified five broad areas for regional cooperation. New areas of cooperation were added in the following years.

The objectives of the Association as defined in the Charter are:

  • To promote the welfare of the people of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;
  • To accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential;
  • To promote and strengthen collective self reliance among the countries of South Asia;
  • To contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another's problems;
  • To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
  • To strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
  • To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest; and
  • To cooperate with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.

The Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation was adopted by the Foreign Ministers in 1983 in New Delhi. During the meeting, the Ministers also launched the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) in nine agreed areas, namely, Agriculture; Rural Development; Telecommunications; Meteorology; Health and Population Activities; Transport; Postal Services; Science and Technology; and Sports, Arts and Culture. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established when its Charter was formally adopted on 8 December 1985 by the Heads of State or Government of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. ‘

Afghanistan was added to the regional grouping at the behest of India on 13 November 2005, and became a member on 3 April 2007. With the addition of Afghanistan, the total number of member states were raised to eight (8). In April 2006, the United States of America and South Korea made formal requests to be granted observer status. The European Union has also indicated interest in being given observer status, and made a formal request for the same to the SAARC Council of Ministers meeting in July 2006. On 2 August 2006 the foreign ministers of the SAARC countries agreed in principle to grant observer status to the US, South Korea and the European Union. On 4March 2007, Iran requested observer status. Followed shortly by the entrance of Mauritius.

SAARC Secretariat

The SAARC Secretariat was established in Kathmandu on 16 January 1987 and was inaugurated by Late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal. It is headed by a Secretary General appointed by the Council of Ministers from Member Countries in alphabetical order for a three-year term. He is assisted by the Professional and the General Services Staff, and also an appropriate number of functional units called Divisions assigned to Directors on deputation from Member States. The Secretariat coordinates and monitors implementation of activities, prepares for and services meetings, and serves as a channel of communication between the Association and its Member States as well as other regional organizations.

The Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of the Secretariat which was signed by Foreign Ministers of member countries on 17 November 1986 at Bangalore, India contains various clauses concerning the role, structure and administration of the SAARC Secretariat as well as the powers of the Secretary-General.

In several recent meetings the heads of state or government of member states of SAARC have taken some important decisions and bold initiatives to strengthen the organisation and to widen and deepen regional co-operation.

The SAARC Secretariat and Member States observe 8 December as the SAARC Charter Day1.

Free Trade Agreement

Over the years, the SAARC members have expressed their unwillingness on signing a free trade agreement. Though India has several trade pacts with Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, similar trade agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh have been stalled due to political and economic concerns on both sides. India has been constructing a barrier across its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 1993, SAARC countries signed an agreement to gradually lower tariffs within the region, in Dhaka. Eleven years later, at the 12th SAARC Summit at Islamabad, SAARC countries devised the South Asia Free Trade Agreement which created a framework for the establishment of a free trade area covering 1.4 billion people. This agreement went into force on January 1, 2006. Under this agreement, SAARC members will bring their duties down to 20 per cent by 2007.

SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement

The Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement (SAPTA) was signed on 11April 1993 and entered into force on 7 December 1995, with the desire of the Member States of SAARC (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives) to promote and sustain mutual trade and economic cooperation within the SAARC region through the exchange of concessions. The establishment of an Inter- overnmental Group (IGG) to formulate an agreement to establish a SAPTA by 1997 was approved in the Sixth Summit of SAARC held in Colombo in December 1991.

South Asian Free Trade Area

The Agreement on the South Asian Free Trade Area is an agreement reached at the 12th SAARC summit at Islamabad, capital of Pakistan on 6 January 2004. It creates a framework for the creation of a free trade area covering 1.4 billion people in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives. The seven foreign ministers of the region signed a framework agreement on SAFTA with zero customs duty on the trade of practically all products in the region by end 2016. The new agreement i.e. SAFTA, came into being on 1 January 2006 and will be operational following the ratification of the agreement by the seven governments.

SAFTA requires the developing countries in South Asia, that is, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to bring their duties down to 20 percent in the first phase of the two year period ending in 2007. In the final five year phase ending 2012, the 20 percent duty will be reduced to zero in a series of annual cuts.

The least developed nations in South Asia consisting of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Maldives have an additional three years to reduce tariffs to zero. India and Pakistan have signed but not ratified the treaty.

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