SAARC must be revived as an intra-regional cooperation platform

Pakistan and India should work together to revive SAARC to maximize regional interests, writes Pathik Hasan for South Asia Monitor 

Pathik Hasan Nov 08, 2021
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South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

The journey of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) began in 1985 when India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives formed the platform. In 2007, Afghanistan joined SAARC. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are island states while Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan are landlocked. 

Realizing the unprecedented progress the world’s other regions have made, it was felt the same development is possible if communication and cooperation within this region can be increased to the desired level. 

The EU, ASEAN, GCC and other regional blocs have achieved prosperity by joining regional alliances. Their citizens excluding some member states are not required to obtain visas if they wish to travel from one allied country to another. They can travel from one country to another by road, rail, sea or air without hindrance. These alliances give more importance to regional trade.  

After SAARC came up, it was hoped that citizens of one country would be able to travel to another without a visa. One country would provide transit facilities to another country as required. But that goal has not yet been achieved. And the prospect of achieving that in the near future is not very bright.

The main objective of establishing SAARC was to make the region one of the most prosperous in the world by enhancing regional connectivity and cooperation. But almost 30 years later, it is clear that there is still a long way to go. 

India is the largest of SAARC countries in size and population. The second place belongs to Pakistan. Before SAARC, India and Pakistan had waged three wars. Bangladesh was born in 1971 out of Pakistan. Perhaps, this background has blocked the region from moving ahead.

Capitalizing available resources 

SAARC is home to more than a quarter of the world’s population. In recent times, the countries of the region have made great strides in agriculture. While industrial development is promising, there is a need to harness the potential for further development. The scope of regional trade within SAARC is limited. If this is expanded, SAARC member states will achieve unprecedented development. 

Nepal and Bhutan are bounded on the east, west and south by India. Although the two are bordered by China on the north, their entire border is rugged. So, communication in that direction is impenetrable. Nepal and Bhutan are dependent on India for foreign trade. Although these two have long demanded transit facilities from SAARC through Chittagong and Mongla in Bangladesh, the slow pace of implementation has tarnished SAARC’s spirit.
 
The seven states of northeastern India are called "Seven Sisters". They maintain communication with the Indian mainland through a narrow route called the Chicken's Neck. Communication through this route is time-consuming and expensive. India is interested in establishing transit by road, rail and waterways with these seven states through Bangladesh. Although the transit is open by water, it is not fruitful through the year due to the low navigability of the rivers. 

Bangladesh is on its way to developing the infrastructure required for transit by road and rail. It would like to be a transit hub between South Asia and South-East Asia. Dhaka is focusing on regional connectivity. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has always urged regional countries to be connected.  

Immediate concerns 

A platform like SAARC is needed to address problems like the Afghanistan crisis. But SAARC is inactive due to the India-Pakistan dispute. Pakistan and India should work together to revive SAARC to maximize regional interests.

Meanwhile, 54 common rivers through India flow into the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. By unilaterally withdrawing water from most rivers upstream, India is using it to maintain the navigability of inland rivers, including hydropower generation and irrigation. Bangladesh has faced an unfavourable situation due to this. New Delhi should work with Bangladesh for better regional benefits. India should complete a fair Teesta agreement with Bangladesh soon. As a big fish, it has some accountability towards others. 

From Bangladesh's perspective, India has always shown a disdainful attitude towards other SAARC members. Due to this - among other reasons - SAARC is failing to reach its goal. 

Although India has road and rail links with Bangladesh and Pakistan, trade is conducted through transhipment due to lack of transit facilities. Communication is not very easy as the citizens of these three countries need a visa to communicate. At present, trade between Nepal and Bhutan with Bangladesh is handled through transhipment in the absence of transit. As a result, the import and export expenditure of both is increasing. 

India’s economy is growing rapidly. Bangladesh’s economy is also booming. The economies of all other countries in South Asia are also developing. For regional cooperation, the following provisions should be introduced: 

• Transit facilities between SAARC countries are opened
• Visa system must be abolished
• Currency of one country must be easily exchanged in another country or a common currency must be introduced
• Travel facility from one country to another in a private car should star
• Flow of electricity, gas, oil and water from one country to another must be made easily available
• Same SIM card must be used to talk from one country to another easily and cheaply
• Scope for trade is maximized 

This requires SAARC countries to show the highest level of friendship and harmony towards each other and to make the best use of opportunities and cooperation. All member states must revive SAARC as a regional cooperation platform.

(The writer is a Bangladesh-based NGO activist and researcher-writer on international relations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at pathikhasan1141@gmail.com)