Relevance of SAARC

Padmaja Murthy, Associate Fellow, IDSA


The eleventh South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit which was supposed to be held in Kathmandu, Nepal towards November end last year, had been postponed following concern expressed by some of the member states over the developments in Pakistan where the democratically elected government was overthrown. Naturally, the entire debate about SAARC and its relevance has risen again. In fact, even though it is almost 14 years since SAARC was established and in this period 10 summits had been held, almost every time a SAARC Summit was held, the regional association has had to prove its relevance and legitimacy, so to say.

The aim of this article is to examine this very question and understand the relevance, if there is any, of the South Asian regional association. If it is held that SAARC is relevant, the assumption follows that it is playing a positive and significant role. There are various ways of interpreting this positive role. Some hold that SAARC can be considered to have a positive role only if it fulfills a certain economic role and leads the association towards greater economic integration. But such a view would be very narrow, overlooking the dynamics of interactions among the member countries. Every association has to play a certain political role, social role and economic role with respect to the specific context in which it has arisen. Only after assessing these multiple roles can we say whether the association has been relevant or has not been relevant to the region concerned. Further, since the ground situation within which various regional associations work differ from region to region, comparison of SAARC's performance with other regional associations will have to be done with caution.

At another level, success or failure of the regional association can be understood with regard to the expectations of the member countries. When opinions are expressed that SAARC has failed, it surely shows that it has not measured up to the expectations. It is thus necessary to understand the kind of expectations member countries had when they joined the association to come to an objective conclusion. Were these expectations justified? Did the association not fulfill their expectations at all and if it did, to what extent did it do so? This article aims to answer these questions of expectations and multiple roles of the regional association to understand its relevance .

Expectations from SAARC

It was in 1980 that Bangladesh first proposed institutionalisation of regional co-operation. SAARC was finally established in 1985 after nearly four years of preparatory meetings among the seven concerned countries, beginning from 1981. According to the SAARC charter, the objectives of the association include promotion of the welfare of the peoples of South Asia, to accelerate economic growth, promote and strengthen collective self-reliance and contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another's problems in the region. However, an analysis of the expectations which each of the countries had from the association bring out certain important aspects. Firstly, though regional co-operation etc were the stated objectives for forming and joining the association, it is seen that each of the countries had a specific agenda—primarily political with regard to the association. This agenda was influenced by their perception of themselves, their countries' national interests and its place in the region. Thus, the countries sought to fulfil these national agendas through the regional mechanism. Secondly, therefore these motivations show that the approach was to a certain extent negative and regional co-operation was not the primary motive for joining the association. Every country had a clear cut political agenda to fulfil and a political role to gain by institutionalizing regional co-operation. It is thus imperative to briefly analyze the circumstances under which they joined the association and their expectations therefore from the regional association.


Pakistan was initially apprehensive of joining the regional association primarily for two reasons. First, that the forum would further India's hegemonistic domination over the regions' states in an institutionalised manner. Secondly, Pakistan was also wary of deeper involvement in the South Asian region since it would cast a doubt on the credibility and seriousness of its efforts to develop closer ties with the Islamic countries of West Asia. Pakistan finally decided to join the forum because it was unwilling to isolate itself regionally.1 Further, according to an observer from Pakistan, the regional advantage of participating in SAARC was that the arrangement could if the need arose, "come to deflect the weight of India" vis-a-vis its smaller South Asian partners.2 It was emphasised that Pakistan , Bangladesh, Sri Lanka , Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal had very good, if not ideal relations with each other. However none of the six states could be said to be enjoying tension free relations with New Delhi. Of all the differences, the Indo-Pak relations, it was stated, were not conducive to regional cooperation.3 It is thus evident that just as the blame for the existence of a conflictual relationship was put on India , the onus for improvement in the state of affairs was also exclusively put on New Delhi.


India, the largest country in the region was also apprehensive in joining the regional association. First , India felt that the proposal of Bangladesh President Zia probably had an indirect Western sponsorship. This was in the context of the second cold war with the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. A South Asian regional association could be the American mechanism to counter Soviet influence. This would result in not only the incursion of external powers in the region but also an anti-Soviet and pro-US South Asian front, which would be incompatible with India's regional and broader strategic interests. Secondly , India believed that the proposed South Asian forum could be used by the smaller neighbours to put collective pressures on it (India) on matters effecting them collectively and individually in relation to India. Thus, in this manner the regional association would enable neighbours to , "gang up", against India. However, India could not reject the idea and thus proposed two principles for participation. That the organisation would not discuss bilateral issues and that all the decisions would be taken on the basis of unanimity.4 India was of the view that bilateral stresses and strains should not impinge on regional cooperation.5 Further, that the objective of India was to try to pursue regional co-operation autonomously without allowing it to be subjected to the vicissitudes of bilateral co-operation.6 India thus approached the association with a belief that bilateral relations and regional cooperation could be completely compartmentalized . By adopting such an approach the dynamics of the bilateral relations to influence the regional association or vice versa, of the association to influence bilaterally were being deliberately overlooked.7

The Smaller Member Countries-Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives

Most of the smaller member countries perceived SAARC as a platform from where, they could together extract a better deal with India regarding the bilateral differences which did not seem possible in a one to one dealing. They could bargain collectively with India with a view to securing concessions on various issues including the economic issues which were affecting them. This has to be further seen in the background that when the process towards regional co-operation began, while India had a democratic form of government, most of the South Asian countries were non democratic. To legitimize their regimes they would resort to anti India rhetoric. They looked upon India as a threat against whom security was necessary. Policies, were thus evolved that prevented them getting closer to India and linkages were established with outsiders which in many cases served as the critical element in consolidation of the political power of the elite and its support base.8

Bhutan saw the association as a mechanism through which it could expand its foreign and economic relations with other countries without antagonising India9. Similarly for Maldives too, the association of the seven countries, was an appropriate forum from where it could air views effectively. As seen, in later years the association was used to air its concerns regarding protection and security of small states.

Nepal considers itself to be one of the first countries to speak of regional co-operation, though the idea was formally suggested for the first time by Bangladesh. King Birendra had for the first time spoken of some kind of regional co-operation in 1976 while addressing the Fifth Non-Aligned Summit Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nepal was of the view that its vast water resources could be tapped through co-operation of other countries for the general benefit of the region.0 Nepal is not only a landlocked country, but has borders with India on three sides . On its north is situated the Tibet region of China . Thus it is dependent on India in many respects including having transit to the sea. By trying to expand the number of partners to exploit its resources and having a regional approach, Nepal reduces its dependence on India. SAARC was to be one of the most important aspects of its foreign policy.11 At the inaugural SAARC Summit in Dhaka, Nepal stated that a priceless resource exists (untapped water resource) waiting to be harnessed for the benefit of the people of the region.12 This enthusiasm gets clearly reflected in later years when Nepal showed its willingness to host the various meetings and the fact that the SAARC Secretariat was finally established in Katmandu.13

According to some in Nepal, the most ardent expectation (of Nepal in 1985) from the SAARC proposal was that it should be the most effective instrument for its security and its political role in the region. That since regional cooperation was to be on the basis of respect for the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence and mutual benefits—the support which Nepal presumed was coming from India to the opponents of monarchy and those championing the cause of democracy would no longer be forthcoming .14 Thus, in this manner the stability and the continuity of the monarchy could be secured.

Sri Lanka responded positively to the regional co-operation proposal.15 It was the first country to have hosted any SAARC meeting. Its enthusiasm was not in any way related. to the desire to achieve regime security because it was already an established democracy However, the country was facing a very grave problem with regard to its ethnic crisis which deepened as preparatory efforts towards regional co-operation were being made and this brought strains in Indo-Sri Lankan relations. In the initial years official meetings were disrupted by these differences. Sri Lanka considered the role which India would play as very vital to the association. This was clearly articulated in the inaugural session of the first summit in 1985, when President Jayawardene said that the member countries must first trust each other. That India being the largest country in every way, could by deeds and words create the confidence amongst the members, so necessary to make a beginning.16 This clearly indicated to the expectations Sri Lanka had from India and that the lack of trust was due to India and its actions.

Bangladesh was the country which formally proposed the idea of regional co-operation and pursued it. President Zia personally took the idea of the SAARC to all the South Asian capitals during 1977-80 and discussed the proposal for an institutional framework for co-operation among these countries. Some are of the opinion that it may have been partly conditioned by President Zia's own domestic compulsions for achieving a breakthrough in foreign policy initiatives.17 It could also be that Bangladesh had unsuccessfully tried to force a solution on India on the Ganges water problem by internationalizing it. Having failed to do so, it wanted to adopt a regional mechanism.

The above discussion clearly reflects the varied aspirations and concerns of the member countries on joining the regional association—SAARC. All of them were entering into unexplored territory and were thus adopting a cautious approach. Most important , their agendas were not strictly limited to regional co-operation.

Political Relevance of SAARC

Flowing from the above is the question whether it is wrong to have the regional association fulfill the national interests and agendas of these countries. For, finally one of the aims of regional cooperation is to have stability in the region. Does such an attitude lead to stability of the region? If it does, should it not be welcomed? If the answer is in the affirmative, it clearly implies that SAARC has political relevance. Other associations also show that they started in a similar way, whereby national agendas were sought to be achieved and fears and doubts were sought to be removed through regional cooperation. Later these were to move towards developing into deeper forms of regional co-operation. Seen with reference to the European Community—it is observed that the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established in 1951 was the first step towards closer regional co-operation which had finally led to the formation of the European Union. The fears of Europe, of the possibility of a resurgent Germany led to the formation of the ECSC which resulted in the joint control of coal and steel which were considered essentials for entering into war, thus making it physically impossible for members to go to war with each other again.

The political role of SAARC comes out very clearly when it is observed with reference to the manner in which relations are structured in South Asia. They are characterised by asymmetry with the scales tilted heavily in favour of India on one side and all the others on the other side. A sense that the relations are indeed unequal, strikes one immediately . The inequalities are inbuilt with respect to the geographical dimension, demographic magnitude , economic resource base, production structures and growth potentials , and above all their armed forces and military capabilities. Relations between India and most of the member countries have been characterized by mistrust and suspicion . This was especially so during the mid eighties when the SAARC process had begun. Only India has common borders with all the member countries while none of them share borders. The smaller member countries have always looked with suspicion towards India and considered it to be a hegemonic power. Flowing from this asymmetry is that the security perceptions of India and the member countries are also divergent. As a result the policies adopted by India and the other member countries are different which only increases the mutual suspicion. However, by being members of SAARC whereby the principle of consensus and unanimity works, there is a sense of equality, which these countries have with regard to India. In this manner , the sense of asymmetry is cut down symbolically.

In a scenario where India's relations with its neighbours are strained and there is a tendency for bilateral relations to affect the overall relations, it is observed that the regional association has had a very useful role to play. The SAARC forum and especially the summit meetings provide an opportunity to all the nations to maintain continuity in their bilateral dialogue. There is a silent acknowledgement by many, including the political leaders of the member countries, that while the official bilateral meetings may face rough weather, the member countries have been regularly meeting at the various SAARC Forums.

It is very difficult to answer if the SAARC informal meetings have in any way helped in bringing the countries closer to each other and resolving their bilateral differences. One can safely say that while it might not have brought the member countries closer it has provided a useful link for the member countries. At times of crisis, it has helped to defuse the short term misunderstandings, which are only possible when the heads of the countries meet to give confidence to the people. Similarly, the meetings have helped to restart and give direction to the often-deadlocked official bilateral dialogue.

For example, the Indo-Pak relations have been given a boost time and again from the informal meetings that have been held on the sidelines. Though looking back one can say that the substantive nature of bilateral relations between these two countries have still not changed, the significant role of the informal bilateral relations cannot be overlooked.

A few examples will help to give a clearer picture. At the very first meeting at Dhaka in 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Zia met informally and discussed bilateral issues. This was followed by a bilateral visit to India by Gen .Zia where the discussions continued. 18

Prior to the second SAARC summit in Bangalore, India, in November 1986, the air was tense in the sub-continent regarding some report of Indian troop movements on the western borders and that it was preparing to attack Pakistan. At the close of his visit to India , Prime Minister Junejo of Pakistan expressed the view that the discussions with his Indian counterpart had helped to clear the air between the two countries and that there was no substance in the reports of unusual troop movement. Even the media in Pakistan was almost unanimous in expressing that the summit may have helped in clearing the air and that SAARC in the long run may be expected to create a better climate of trust and co-operation.19

Another significant summit was the fourth SAARC summit held in Islamabad. Though not informally, yet Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did extend his stay for a few hours after the conclusion of the summit meetings and the two countries held official bilateral meetings. The two countries signed three agreements relating to avoidance of double taxation on mutual trade, promotion of cultural exchanges and agreement on prohibition of attack on nuclear installations. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto welcomed the forum of SAARC for having made the visit of Indian Prime Minister possible and hoped that more such visits would follow.20

One of the most significant meetings on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit was the one between Nawaz Sharif and Gujral at the Ninth Summit in Male in 1997. Following their meeting, the foreign secretaries of both the countries met in Islamabad on June 19-23, 1997 and spelt out outstanding issues of concern to be addressed by both the countries. The composite dialogue continues with breaks whenever there are differences. Nevertheless, it was the Male Summit which facilitated the deadlock to be broken.21

The Tenth SAARC Summit in Colombo held against the background of the nuclear tests conducted by both the countries received a great deal of worldwide attention for events taking place on the sidelines of the summit rarther than the main Summit proceedings itself. It was in the SAARC Forum that the leaders of the two countries were meeting for the first time after the tests. The opportunity provided by the SAARC summit however could not be utilised for breaking the bilateral deadlock due to differing interpretations of the implementation of the composite dialogue agreed upon by both the countries earlier in June 1997.

Similarly, the other countries also hold informal meetings on the sidelines . The informal meetings at the highest level on the sidelines have played an important role with regard to relations between India and Sri Lanka during the peak of the Tamil ethnic crisis when India was also closely involved in finding solutions. So was the case regarding India and Bangladesh with regard to finding a way out to the Ganges water treaty. Presently, there are reports that Nepal and Bhutan have also met in the sidelines to discuss the issue of refugees.

SAARC Provides an Alternative Structure

The above analysis clearly shows that SAARC does provide an alternative if not an accompanying structure within which relations can be conducted among the member countries. This alternative structure is very significant for the smaller member countries who get a sense of equality and a distinct identity with regard to India in issues concerning the region. It is also a very important mechanism for India to manage and conduct her bilateral relations with the other member countries.

As spelt out, SAARC does provide continuity to relations among the member countries especially when bilateral relations are at the nadir. Since the beginning of the nineties there has been a conscious policy direction by India towards normalisation of relations with its neighbours, especially the smaller neighbours. In this context, the importance of the SAARC Forum for India is emerging more clearly. In this continuum, the Gujral Doctrine too , recognising the importance of the neighbours (especially the smaller neighbours), is based on the assumption that the strength and stature of India cannot be divorced from the quality of the relations which it has with its neighbours.

However, given the tumultuous past, India's intentions are looked upon with suspicion at times. Therefore a policy by India singularly based on bilateralism, to build new bridges with her neighbours has certain inbuilt limitations. The SAARC Forum however, allows India to overcome many of these limitations and provides opportunities to build positive linkages with her neighbours through regionalism. To a certain extent it dilutes the anti-India sting which bilateralism carries with it on certain issues. Further, a regional forum enables India to address these member countries together and put forward policy proposals. This was specifically so at the tenth SAARC Summit where India spelt out two specific proposals dealing with bilateral free trade pacts in case of failure of regional free trade area and secondly, that India will unilaterally reduce tariffs on some 2000 items. Further, it is seen that while bilaterally the issue of transit between India and Bangladesh is met with criticism in the latter country, the same proposal as part of the Asian Highway Project dilutes the criticism.

Similarly for the smaller member countries too, SAARC as a forum helps to develop bridges with India, without the government in power being criticised as seeming pro-India within the country. It therefore means that there is a political role which SAARC is playing at the national, bilateral and regional, levels for the member countries, irrespective of the success or failures in areas strictly considered as part of regional cooperation. This should be reason enough for not going into and questioning the relevance of SAARC every time, though it is not denied that criticism and suggestions for co-operation on issues concerning regional co-operation should be made.

SAARC thus provides an alternative structure (in addition to the established bilateral mechanisms) not only for India, but also for the other member countries in conducting themselves and when required building positive linkages with each other. During crisis times too , the smaller member countries look upon it as a forum to pressurise India. The working of SAARC has further clearly shown that it has not diluted the national interests of the member countries. Most important is that the forum allows the smaller member countries to establish and develop closer relations among themselves which would not have been the case in the absence of SAARC. Not that it would have been impossible , but just that SAARC facilitates things.

Given the permanency of certain factors of asymmetry in the South Asian region, it is observed that SAARC enables it to underplay these asymmetries. In this sense SAARC has a permanent political relevance to these countries individually , bilaterally and regionally. The means of defining the success of the regional association have thus to be widened.

Co-operation on social issues

SAARC has from the beginning exchanged ideas on the various social issues of concern to the member countries. In the very first summit it was reaffirmed that challenges of poverty etc could be met only with regional co-operation. Issues concerning children, maternal and child nutrition, provision of safe drinking water, adequate shelter, subscribing to goals of universal immunisation and primary education—all have been part of the SAARC social agenda. At the fourth SAARC Summit in Islamabad, a regional plan, "SAARC: A Basic Needs Perspective", was adopted. This was to spell out developmental targets of the member countries regarding basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, education, primary health care etc. At various times, particular years were designated either to the girl child, disabled persons, year of shelter and so on. In fact the Fifth SAARC Summit decided that the years 1991-2000 would be observed as the 'SAARC Decade of the Girl Child".

Initially the Technical Committees (TC), which included all the member countries were the primary mechanism for continuous interaction and co-operation. Presently there are eleven TC which include agriculture; communications; education, culture and sports; environment and meteorology; health and population activities; prevention of drug trafficking and drug abuse; rural development; science and technology; tourism; transport; and women in development. The working of the TC have been examined by eminent persons and recommendations made for improving their efficacy. These TC are considered as the backbone of the process of regional co-operation.

Primarily co-operation in these areas has been in the form of exchanging experiences of the member countries to address various issues, in terms of success stories as well as the problem areas. Following the deliberations, the member countries would adopt certain goals, which would then be incorporated in their national plans. In the post cold war period, it is seen that global standards are being applied regarding these issues. Unless SAARC sets its own standards, the member countries will have to face the pressure of the developed countries. Eleven TCs meeting regularly since the past fourteen years surely reflects the manner in which interaction at the official levels has multiplied many fold, compared to that of the pre 1985 period.

Another positive feature has been the close linkages developed between the non governmental organisations (NGO's) of the member countries. On certain issues, these NGO's are setting the agenda pressurising the political class to respond and come out with plans of action. For example this is specifically seen with regard to issues concerning women and children and secondly, the constructive role played by the SCCI (SAARC Chambers of Commerce and Industry) in developing and strengthening linkages among the business class of the member countries so that they could pressurise their respective governments to move towards closer forms of regional economic integration.

The Group of Eminent Persons constituted at the Male Summit in 1997 , in its report has recommended certain targets to be achieved in the social field . They include22:

l Commitment to the target of reaching a replacement level of population which translates into a birth rate of 21 per thousand before the year 2020.

l Attainment of universal primary education upto the age of 15 before the year 2010. Elimination of gender disparities in access to education within the target date of 2010.

l Setting aside 6 per cent of GDP for education by the year 2010.

l Reduction of infant mortality below 50 per thousand live births by the year 2000. Attainment of 100 per cent immunisation by the year 2000 in targets set by the UNICEF programmes.

l Empowerment of women socially, economically and politically.

l Holding of regular biennial Ministerial meetings on Women's Development.

l Each member-State to set its own time frame for poverty eradication.

l Effective utilisation of SAARC three tier mechanism on poverty alleviation to facilitate sharing of experiences and formulation and implementation of regional policies

l Regular meetings at political and technical levels on the environment. Urgent follow up on the SAARC Plan of Action on the environment.

These targets clearly bring out that to a great extent, as far as the social field is concerned, implementation of decisions arrived at, requires to begin with national commitments. A failure to do so cannot be blamed on either the bilateral or regional political environment. In this sense there is a social agenda which is permanent in nature for SAARC.

This permanency is further reinforced by the fact that , some of the problems like those dealing with environment (floods, soil erosion etc), drug trafficking, and trafficking in women and children, illegal movement of people—are not national problems but regional, requiring regional solutions. It is these problems which give rise to an exclusive SAARC agenda which has to be addressed despite all the prevailing potential political problems.

Co-operation on Economic issues

SAARC provides the forum whereby the seven member countries can discuss co-operation on various economic issues. It took ten years before SAARC could actually take off with the operationalization of SAPTA in 1995. Since then three rounds of tariff concessions have been exchanged. A common complaint of course is the limited coverage of goods under SAPTA. Of late the smaller member countries are convinced that tariff preferences for trade in itself will not bring prosperity unless it is accompanied by investments in their countries to improve their narrow industrial base.

Presently, it is in this regard that discussions on measures for encouraging intra SAARC investment and joint ventures are also being focussed upon and proposals for a Regional Investment Treaty and a SAARC Arbitration Council have also been initiated. Similarly is the case with Double Taxation Avoidance. All these are expected to accelerate the process of economic cooperation in the region. It should be emphasized that it is the permanent SAARC Forum which allows all these deliberations to take place in a continuous manner. That major success has eluded the forum does not in any way diminish the utility of the forum. It indicates the need for greater exchange of views so that fears and apprehensions can be addressed and overcome.

When SAARC was formed, it did not envisage that sub-regional co-operation will be adopted too. Initially there was a lot of reservation among the SAARC countries not included in the growth quadrangle proposed to be formed between Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the north eastern parts of India. The countries concerned stressed that sub-regional co-operation would help in evolving solutions to the development needs of that particular area . At the Ninth SAARC Summit it was agreed that specific projects for sub regional co-operation would be encouraged under the provision of Article 7 and Article 10 of the Charter. The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Growth Quadrangle (BBIN- GQ) is to follow a project led approach to co-operation in the core economic areas of Multimodal Transportation and Communication, Energy, Trade and Investment Facilitation and Promotion, Tourism, Optimal Utilisation of Natural Resource Endowments and Environment. These projects are to be supportive of and complementary to the national plans of the four concerned countries. These projects will make best use of neighbourhood synergies and would be such that they can most productively be dealt with on a sub regional basis. Nepal will co-ordinate the overall sub-regional co-operation efforts.23

It was the experience of regional economic co-operation under SAARC in the form of SAPTA, which later led to suggestions for sub regional co-operation. The permanent institutional structure of SAARC enables deliberations to take place on developing other forms of regional economic co-operation. In this sense, despite the low measure of success of the preferential tariff arrangement in SAARC, the associations' economic relevance is not diminished.

Co-operation in International Forums

The leaders have repeatedly stressed the need to develop common South Asian perspective on the issues to be discussed by the important international Conferences.24 In this direction, they noted with satisfaction that collective positions of the SAARC countries were formulated which were presented at the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction and the World Summit for Social Development.25 At the Tenth SAARC Summit the leaders expressed the opinion that in the series of meetings to be organised by the WTO regarding various issues, the member states should endeavour to co-ordinate their decisions. In this context they welcomed the declaration issued by the SAARC Commerce Ministers on the eve of the Second WTO Ministerial Meeting in Geneva setting out a SAARC approach on these issues.26 Such interactions are only sure to increase in the near future.


The above analysis clearly brings out that SAARC—the regional association has multiple roles to play. It should not be assessed just with regard to what it has or has not done with regard to regional co-operation per se, but its importance lies for the countries individually in enhancing their national prestige, managing their bilateral relations and having a regional identity. This comes out clearly when the expectations of the member countries at the time of joining the association are examined which were not strictly limited to the desire of regional co-operation. Its importance comes forth particularly with reference to a region which is characterized by asymmetry. SAARC helps in these identities which have their own symbolic importance as well as practical utility. These symbolic aspects help to reduce these asymmetries in terms of identities. In this sense there is a permanent political contribution of SAARC and herein lies its relevance.

The analysis has also brought out that there exist areas where co-operation in social areas has taken place. Regional co-operation becomes all the more essential in a scenario where challenges in the present and the future are trans-border in nature requiring regional approach and not national solutions. The economic areas of co-operation have not shown much success but SAARC has widened its areas of interaction and presently is experimenting with sub-regional co-operation.

Thus the success or failure of the regional association cannot be measured in a vacuum. It should be done so with regard to the expectations of the member countries—their national, bilateral and regional agendas. Secondly, it has to be done with regard to the ground situation prevailing in the region whereby SAARC since its inception has provided an alternative structure to conduct relations among the member states.

While trying to write the report card of the regional association—SAARC which was established fourteen years ago—one should be very clear that the answer cannot be either categorical 'pass' or 'fail'. That would be a very narrow way of looking at things. For that matter any regional association in the world has a mixed bag of results—certain areas in which they have achieved success, in others failed to take off and in still other issues where new mechanisms of co-operation are being developed.

Moreover, SAARC (and for that matter any regional association) leads two parallel lives which however are not completely disconnected. First is one which is deeply linked to the individual aspirations of the member countries and how SAARC gives them identity and the means of expression. The second is that where there is a regional agenda and SAARC stands above all the countries put together. The above analysis has brought out the permanence of the first and the growing importance of the second.


1. "The Future of SAARC", Spotlight on Regional Affairs, vol11,no.1,January 1992. The statement of Pakistan President Gen.Zia, made prior to the first SAARC Summit brings out his views regarding SAARC and Pakistan 's relations with West Asia. He said that Pakistan's participation in the summit would not in any way affect its relations with the Muslim countries and that it would maintain its national identity at all costs and continue to play a positive role in the Middle East , since Pakistan enjoyed an important place in the South Asian region as well as Western Asia. He emphasised that Pakistan would continue its policy of friendly relations with other countries of the world without compromising its ideology , independence and integrity. For details refer, "SAARC Participation Not To Hit Ties With Muslim States", POT (Public Opinion, Trends, Analyses and News Service),Pakistan Series, vol.13, n.218, December 5, 1985, p.4305.

2. "SAARC: Three Years On, An Overview", Spotlight on Regional Affairs,vol.7, no.11,November 1988.

3. "Press Comments on SAARC Summit and Indo-Pak Ties", POT Pakistan Series , vol.13, n.217, December 2, 1985, p.4287 –93.

4. Aabha Dixit, "SAARC : Toward Greater Cooperation", Strategic Analysis, vol. 20, no. 4, July 1997,p.561-583. For details on the American motives to encourage a regional association in South Asia , refer, S.D.Muni, "Political Imperatives", in Bimal Prasad (ed) Regional Cooperation in South Asia, (New Delhi, 1989),

5. Rajiv Gandhi at the first summit in Dhaka ,1985 as referred to by Umashankar Phadnis, " India-Geopolitical , Strategic Concerns", World Focus, vol.10, no.1, January 1989, p. 7-9.

6. Special Secretary dealing with the SAARC in India (in 1985), Mr.Muchkund Dubey, as quoted by Umashankar Phadnis, Ibid.

7. It however needs to be stressed that if India had not adopted such an approach, the association would be nothing but a forum where all the bilateral relations would be aired with the aim of putting pressure on India.

8. For detailed views see Nilufar Choudhary, "Regional Approach to Security of Non Aligned States: The Case of South Asia", BIISS Journal, vol.9,no.2,July 1988, p.243-258.

9. Also note that at the concluding session of the first summit , Bhutan said that an important objective of its foreign policy was to develop closer ties of friendship and cooperation with all neighbours in the quest for regional peace and stability. Bhutan said that it sees in SAARC a process to facilitate the realisation of this aim and fulfilment of the hopes and aspirations of the people of Bhutan. For details refer to the speech of the King of Bhutan , "SAARC SUMMITS", vol. 1, SAARC Secretariat. Also refer for a detailed study, dissertation of Rajesh S. Karat, "Role of Bhutan in SAARC", Centre for South, Central, South-East Asian, South-West Pacific Studies, JNU, New Delhi, 1989.

10. Lok Raj Baral, " The Politics of Balanced Interdependence, Nepal and SAARC ", (New Delhi:1987) Lok Raj Baral adds that for Nepal, water resources have become both a symbol of national identity and an area of vast economic potential . pp. 36-43

11. The first important aspect of its foreign policy during this period was the proposal of Nepal as a "Zone of Peace." For details on the Zone of Peace Proposal refer Lok Raj Baral , Ibid.

12. For details refer , "SAARC SUMMITS", vol. 1, SAARC Secretariat. Also note that at the fourth SAARC Summit in Islamabad , Nepal said that it was willing to cooperate in any venture for the multipurpose development of her water resources bilaterally, trilaterally or multilaterally for the mutual benefit of the region. This point was reiterated at other times also.

13. Anuradhe Muni, "Sri Lanka, Nepal—Extending Full Support", World focus, vol.10, no.1, January 1989, p.17-21

14. For more details on this view point refer Narayan Khadka , "South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation : A Nepalese Perspective", The Round Table , no.309, 1989, pp.65-87.

15. Iftekharuzzaman writes in, "Bilateral Impediments to SAARC: The Indo-Sri Lanka Crisis Over IPKF Withdrawal", BIIS Journal, vol.10. no.3, 1989, p 251, "…Sri Lanka it is widely believed, has relatively less interest in SAARC. It was reported at one stage that it expressed the willingness to join ASEAN, and there is a notion that it aligns itself more to S.E.Asian region than the South Asian region."

16. "SAARC SUMMITS", vol. 1, SAARC Secretariat. Also note that at the Fourth SAARC Summit in Islamabad, President Jayawardene said that the key to progress in SAARC depends on India.

17. Nancy Jetly, "Emergence of SAARC", in Bimal Prasad (ed), "Regional Co-operation in South Asia :Problems and Prospects", (New Delhi; 1989)

18. "Zia Meets Rajiv In Delhi; Accord Against Raiding N-Plants", POT Pakistan Series, vol. 13, n.229, December 23, 1985, pp. 4559-67.

19. "Junejo Holds Talks With Rajiv Gandhi , Voices Satisfaction", POT Pakistan Series, vol .14, n.1210, November 17, 1986, p.4381-84. Also refer, "Press Comments On SAARC Summit", POT Pakistan Series, vol.14, n.213, November 20, 1986, p.4448-54. For some press comments on moves by India and the supposedly was hysteria generated , refer , " Press Comment: Reported War Threat By India", POT Pakistan Series, vol .14, n. 209, November 17, 1986, pp.4381-84.

20. "Indo-Pak Accord Not To Attack Each Others N-Facilities"' POT, Pakistan Series, vol.17, n.1, January 2, 1987, p.1-11. Adding a personal touch, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said, "this is the first agreement since 1972 when your father (Mr.Bhutto) and my mother (Mrs.Indira Gandhi) signed an agreement in Shimla". Also refer, "Press Comments: Fourth SAARC Summit", POT Pakistan Series, vol.17, n.13, January 4, 1989, pp.56-61.

21. For varied views on SAARC Summit At Male, refer POT, Pakistan series, vol.25, n.113, May 16, 1997, pp.1137-1143.

22. For details refer, Annual Report, 1998-99, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, pp.18-19.

23. Ibid p.19.

24. The view was articulated with specific reference to the Second World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the World Population Conference in 1994 and the 1995 World Conference on Women.

25. Eighth SAARC Summit, New Delhi Declaration.

26. Tenth SAARC Summit, Colombo Declaration.