A serious criticism of SAARC is its non-implementation of decisions taken. The organisation has been criticised variously for being “ritualistic”, a “magnificent paper tiger”, a “political white elephant”, a “talk shop of no consequence”, “suffocatingly slow”, a “military convoy in a mountainous region”, “a regional pastime”, a “club of tongues”, a “bureaucratic den” and “a losing business venture, yet one you cannot close.” The list could go on.
The SAARC process had already begun to face such criticism by the early 1990s, to which the leaders started to react in the various summits. For example, in Dhaka in 1993, the leadership approved recommendations for adopting a more “business-like and functional approach in the conduct of Summit meetings.” But the slide has continued. The level of implementation and degree of commitment to decisions taken remains appallingly dismal. The so-called rhetoric-reality gap is ever widening, enough to damage the ‘SAARC spirit’ itself.
The 6th SAARC Summit, in Colombo in 1991, appointed the Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA), which submitted its report the following year. This Commission set rather formidable macro-economic targets: the eradication of poverty in Southasia by 2002, which the 7th SAARC Summit, in Dhaka in 1993, dutifully placed in its resolution. Every subsequent summit declared that it would eradicate poverty from the region by 2002. When 2002 arrived, the ISACPA was reconstituted.
The SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism came into force in 1988, and an Additional Protocol to the Convention on dealing with the issue of financing of terrorism was signed in 2004. However, the failure of several countries to enact enabling domestic legislation has made the Convention toothless. Since 1988, summits have passed the same resolution, asking the member countries to make enabling laws to operationalise the Convention. But not a single action has been taken under the Convention: member countries do not share basic information, and differences persist on the very definition of ‘terrorism’. Indeed, the tendency of member states is to keep most agreements at the ‘sublime’ level of signed document only.
Notwithstanding such serious non-performance, it has to be conceded the SAARC process has actually helped to build confidence amongst the member states. It is the only forum in Southasia that brings together the region’s leaders on a (more or less) annual basis, and this has helped to resolve a range of problems directly and indirectly as well as to move on bilateral projects.
Perhaps what is much more important than official inter-governmental agreements is the fact that the SAARC process has triggered a large number of non-official interactions and contacts among various sets of people and institutions, including NGOs, professionals, academics, media and civil society. This is an invisible but tangible gain, with the non-official SAARC process far more active and robust than the official process. Many also believe that, ultimately, it is the non-official SAARC that will lead to a ‘People’s SAARC’. This could force the official SAARC process to be active and operational, at the risk of oblivion.
Given the puny size of the Secretariat in Kathmandu, the limited human resources, constricted mandate and narrow autonomy given to it, one should not really expect too much from the already overworked staffers of SAARC. Against 59 in 2005, 82 meetings were held in 2006, including 14 ministerial meets. In addition, interactions in SAARC are becoming increasingly technical and complex, which calls for strengthening the Secretariat and the SAARC divisions in the individual foreign ministries.
Meanwhile, a new pattern of introducing and implementing programmes is emerging within the SAARC process, with a member country taking a lead in particular projects. For instance, India has taken the lead in the establishment of a South Asian University, a tele-medicine network, and a SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts. Such an approach could certainly prove more effective, and could immensely reduce the rhetoric-reality gap. The unique feature of this new set of SAARC projects is that the concerned country offered the project, prepared a blueprint, and floated it as a regional project. While the decision is taken collectively, and while the projects have a strong regional character, the accountability of their execution lies essentially with the individual host country. With national prestige involved, the activity is conducted with more seriousness. This may be the way to pull SAARC out of the morass.
~ Mahendra P Lama is Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Sikkim.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)