External Affairs

What SAARC Has Done – and Failed to Do – Since its Last Summit

The Pokhara Grande, venue for the SAARC ministerial meeting. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

The Pokhara Grande, venue for the SAARC ministerial meeting. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Pokhara (Nepal): The three-decade old South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is not known for implementing its decisions. The SAARC inter-summit ministerial meeting is usually meant to take stock of the progress made since the last summit. Here’s The Wire‘s own parsing of the Kathmandu Declaration from the 2014 summit:

“The Leaders renewed their commitment to achieve South Asian Economic Union (SAEU) in a phased and planned manner through a Free Trade Area, Customs Union, a Common Market, and a Common Economic and Monetary Union”

Reality: This was the first time that SAARC leaders gave a roadmap for an eventual economic union. But to begin to move in that direction, the South Asian Free Trade agreement (SAFTA) needs to be implemented first. SAFTA requires India, the regional economic powerhouse, to do the lion’s share of work. “We have to decide whether we want it or not? Remember, that most of the manufacturing profiles of countries in the region are similar, so there may be some opposition from business lobbies to move towards such a union,” said a senior Indian official.

“…they agreed to effectively implement the existing preferential facilities under SAFTA and SATIS”

Reality: A diplomat from one of the smaller countries in South Asia explained that from their perspective, India needs to take more steps to reduce non-tariff barriers. “It was really wonderful when India reduced the sensitive list to dust, just 25 items. But, the impact is now obscured by NTBs (non-tariff barriers), some valid and some invalid,” said a Bangladeshi diplomat.

Strengthen Social Window, and operationalise Economic Window and Infrastructure Window in the SAARC Development Fund (SDF)

Reality: The SDF is hobbled by the lack of finance for the effective implementation of projects. After it was formed, only the social window has been activated. Certain projects have been identified in the infrastructure window, which were presented by the SDF director in his report to the Programming Committee on Monday. The economic window, which is for non-physical connectivity projects, has still not seen much progress.

SAARC transport ministers to meet in three months to finalise the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement and SAARC Regional Railways Agreement

Reality: Pakistan had put its foot down at the last minute on the signing of the two connectivity agreements, claiming that internal processes had not been completed. The meeting of the transport ministers did not take place within three months as the SAARC leaders had instructed. In fact, it was repeatedly postponed due to the Nepal earthquake and scheduling problems. The failure to get the SAARC pact accelerated the cooperation of the sub-regional Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement, signed in June 2015, and the first truck was flagged off within six months.

There is renewed hope that Pakistan may remove its hold in time, such that there may be some progress at the upcoming November summit. “Pakistan would also like to show some deliverables,” said a SAARC diplomat.

“The Leaders welcomed the signing of the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity)”

Reality: This was the only regional agreement that was signed at Nepal. But, a more detailed agreement will have to be signed to sort out issues of pricing mechanism, grid harmonisation and regulatory maters.

“…eliminate threshold criteria from the SAARC Food Bank agreements to enable member states to avail food grains during both emergency and normal time food difficulty”

Reality: The agreement to set up a SAARC food bank was signed in 1987. In the two decades since, South Asia has seen its quota of both man-made and natural disasters. “But, not even a single grain has been withdrawn from the bank in all these years,” said a regional diplomat.

Last year, there was an initiative to prod Nepal into being the first country to dip into the bank in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, but it came to naught. The Nepal government reportedly told their SAARC interlocutors that they were too overwhelmed in coping with the tragedy to start the bureaucratic process.

“…urged for early ratification of SAARC Seed Bank Agreement and directed to constitute a Seed Bank Board…”

Reality: A proposal to mitigate the impact of climate change by protecting disappearing food crop species, and the ratification of the seed bank agreement could take place at the November summit in Pakistan.

“…The Leaders also directed the relevant SAARC bodies to finalise the establishment of Regional Vaccine Bank and Regional Livestock Gene Bank”

Reality: When a senior Indian diplomat was asked about the status of these two commitments, he gave a simple answer: “We didn’t even talk about it at any of our meeting since then,” he said. 

“They welcomed the decision to establish the SAARC Environment and Disaster Management Centre”

Reality: This new institution was envisaged as the entity formed after merging four other regional centres:  the SAARC Forestry Centre (Bhutan), SAARC Disaster Management Centre (India), SAARC Coastal Zones Management Centre (Maldives) and SAARC Meteorological Centre (Bangladesh). For the last one and half years, SAARC member states are trying to decide its location, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh having thrown their hat in the ring.

“They also directed to complete all necessary processes for upgrading the SAARC TB Reference Laboratory at SAARC TB and HIV/AIDS Centre (STAC), Kathmandu to Supra-national Reference Laboratory with necessary funding from SDF.”

Reality: The $1 million project would have only been the second reference laboratory in South Asia, after the one in India. Nepal and Bangladesh had already sent in their contribution, while India had offered to pick up the rest of the cost. Currently, India has hired a consultant to draw up the operational plan for the project.

“…they welcomed the offer of India to develop and launch a satellite dedicated to SAARC countries.”

Reality: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the “satellite for SAARC” in August 2015, with plans to launch it in time for SAARC charter day this year on December 8. Indian officials were surprised by the lukewarm response from South Asia countries, with only Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka demonstrating unconditional enthusiasm. With Bangladesh and Afghanistan both launching their own satellites, there had been some concern whether there would be an overlap in their functionality due to the Indian satellite. Pakistan has still not given its response, while India plans to soon register with the International Telecommunications Union for allocation of orbital slots.

“…lower telephone tariff rates for facilitating greater contacts among the people of the region and called for rationalisation of the tariff structures”

Reality: Phone call rates from South Asian countries to India are much higher than calls made from India to those countries. “When we spoke to other SAARC members, they told us that a rationalisation would mean a loss in revenue,” said a senior foreign ministry official

“.. restitute South Asian cultural property and create a SAARC heritage list together with the operational guidelines”

Reality: A South Asian diplomat said there is now a conscious effort to work on “non-contentious” like culture, tourism and coordinate new areas such as the blue economy and overseas worker issues.

“…They also agreed to establish a cyber crime monitoring desk” 

Reality: With lack of trust being a reality among South Asians, real-time sharing of information is still a long way off, despite the setting up of pan-regional organisations to monitor drug offences, transnational, weapon smuggling, fake currency and terrorism.

“Security cooperation within the region is still clearly a bilateral construct, with officials between countries who are comfortable with each other having worked together,” said another Indian official.

“…They also agreed to make the Programming Committee a Charter body of SAARC”

Reality: The Programming Committee is currently holding their first meeting as a charter body. This effectively empowers the committee to take decisions, rather than just passing it to the higher political levels.

“…the Leaders appreciated the Study undertaken by the SAARC Secretariat to review and analyse the engagement with the existing Observers to establish dialogue partnership. The Leaders directed the Programming Committee to engage the SAARC Observers into productive, demand-driven and objective project based cooperation in priority areas as identified by the Member States”

Reality: Observer membership to SAARC has been frozen for five years on India’s insistence. A proposal for observers to be upgraded to dialogue partners is also a non-starter at this stage, according to a senior Indian official.

“…directed rationalisation of the work of the SAARC mechanisms, which could be reviewed inter-governmentally every three years by a regular session of the Standing Committee with a view to evaluate performance, achievements and constraints

“…enhance the role of the Secretariat, commensurate with the objectives of SAARC, its areas of cooperation as well as the decisions and agreements reached in the past.”

Reality: There are over 120 SAARC meetings of various hues and levels held every year. There has lately been a move to cut down the cost of travelling to these sessions. “That’s why at the last programming committee, we introduced video conferencing. This is something that most of us are really keen to promote,” said a Nepali diplomat.

Meanwhile, the quorum system has been in force since 2014. “It was decided that six out of eight members have to be present for any SAARC meeting to go ahead. We may revise it later, after seeing how it works out,” he said.

The SAARC secretariat consists of the secretary general, eight directors, who are diplomats from the member states, and their assistants. “I don’t think any regional body is this thinly staffed,” said a secretariat official.

The SAARC leadership has tried to go into new areas of cooperation, but it then creates new bureaucratic hurdles as there are discussions on which secretariat director should handle it as all of them are in-charge of specific subjects such as economics or security. “There was a lot of confusion for a long time about which category ‘blue economy’ should fall into. Is it about environment or about the economy, which are issues looked after by different directors,” said an official.

Another problem with SAARC is that it is rather summit-oriented, noted the secretariat official. “For the last one and half years, we have been working on the Kathmandu declaration. Within a few months, this will be forgotten and we will working on the goals of the summit declaration in Pakistan”