The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, (SAARC) was created in 1985, as an expression of the region’s collective decision to evolve a regional cooperation framework. Presently, there are eight member countries in SAARC namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
India was the Chair of SAARC in 2007-2008 (since the 14th SAARC Summit held in New Delhi from 3-4 2007 upto the 15th Summit held in Colombo from 2-3 August 2008). The period was the most productive than SAARC has ever known with SAARC transforming from declaratory, to implementation. Each of PMs announcements at the 14th Summit in Delhi has been implemented, with India discharging its responsibilities in a non-reciprocal (asymmetric) manner. The landmark achievements in SAARC are as follows:
SAARC Food Bank is now operational with a total stock of 2,43,000 MT contributed by all member states. They have also identified the locations from where the requesting country could draw its requirements from the sending country based on mutually acceptable terms.
The establishment of the South Asian University is on schedule with the establishment of the Project Office, finalisation of its international legal contours by the South Asian University Act 2008, grant of privileges and immunities as per UN Immunities and Privileges Act 1947 and funding as per “Principles of Regional Centres”. Process of transfer of 100 acres of land from DDA for leasing out to SAU also is at an advanced stage.
At the 13th SAARC Summit held in Dhaka, in November 2005, Prime Minister proposed the establishment of a SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicrafts. The Museum would be an Intergovernmental Body on the lines of the other SAARC Regional Centres and will be based in Delhi Haat. Pitampura. For the establishment of the SAARC Museum of Textiles and Handicarfts, the necessary financial processing is under way.
SAARC Development Fund (SDF) is also operational out of the temporary cell of the SAARC Secretariat pending completion of its permanent premises in Bhutan. Two projects are currently under implementation out of the SDF. India has transferred its full commitment of US $ 189.9 million to the SDF, and has proposed a third project on providing bio-mass cooking stoves and solar lanterns to SAARC Member States.
Apart from above, India is also implementing the projects, in the areas of Telemedicine (Bhutan and Afghanistan), Shuttle Breeding of Pulses (Bhutan), setting up of Seed Testing Laboratories (Bhutan), Rainwater Harvesting (Bhutan and Sri Lanka) and Rural Solar Energy Electrification Project (Sri Lanka) under a hub-and spoke mechanism with India as the hub.
There is progress in full implementation of South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) in letter and spirit. Member states have appreciated India’s gesture to give zero duty access to LDCs from January 1, 2008, one year ahead of target date and unilateral reduction of its Negative List with respect to LDCs from 744 to 480. India continues to revise its Sensitive Lists and, as of now, have 744 items outside its ambit for the LDCs and 868 for the Non-LDCs. A draft Agreement on Trade in Services is in final stages of negotiation expected to be ready by the end of this year.
The signing of the SAARC Convention of Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters in Colombo and the 15th SAARC Summit, has generated momentum for signing similar agreements on security related matters in other mechanisms in SAARC. For example, the Standard Operating Protocol on Trafficking of Women & Children has also been similarly finalised at the third meeting of the Regional Task Force to implement the SAARC Conventions relating to trafficking in women & children and promotion of child welfare in South Asia held in Shimla on May 28-29, 2009.
People-to-people activities and exchange on visits have phenomenally increased through offer of training programmes, workshops within SAARC member states and arrangement of cultural activities such as handlooms and handicrafts Exhibitions from SAARC members states in Pragati Maidan, ITPO, Surajkund Mela, the South Asian Bands Festivals, SAARC Festivals of Literature, SAARC Folklore Festival, SAARC Food Festival, SAARC Fashion Show and the forthcoming 9th SAARC Trade Fair in Bhutan etc.
The dynamism infused by India into the SAARC processes is also evident by the numerous training programmes which have been hosted in India for Member states in the diverse fields of women empowerment, micro finance, security, energy, science and technology, information technology, agriculture education and commerce etc.
The above initiatives have enabled SAARC move from declaratory phase to implementation. Due to India’s dynamic commitment to SAARC, to engage neighbouring countries on core developmental aspects of health, education and infrastructure, the number of SAARC activities/meetings held per annum has made a quantum jump to 133 scheduled for the period 2009 until 2010, reflecting the new dynamic SAARC that is being increasingly seen as the premier vehicle of regional economic cooperation to bring the fruits of development to the people of South Asia.