The idea of regional cooperation in South Asia was first mooted in May 1980. The Foreign Secretaries of the seven countries met for the first time in Colombo in April 1981. The Committee of the Whole, which met in Colombo in August 1981, identified five broad areas for regional cooperation. New areas of cooperation were added in the following years. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was set up when its Charter was formally adopted on 8 December 1985 by the Heads of State or Government of India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The organisation offers an arena for the peoples of South Asia to work with one another in a spirit of friendship, trust and understanding. Its objective is to advance the welfare of the people of the region, to enhance the quality of life via faster economic growth, cultural development and social progress. In SAARC, cooperation is based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, political independence, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and non-interference in the internal affairs of the member states. Regional cooperation is seen as a complement to the bilateral and multilateral relations of SAARC Member States.
Decisions are taken on the basis of unanimity. Disputable and bilateral issues are not taken up for discussions in SAARC. Before the first summit was held at Dhaka, Bangladesh, preparatory meetings were conducted. In 1981, Colombo, the foreign secretaries of the nations met. The foreign ministers met in New Delhi in 1983 and identified areas for cooperation.
Objectives of SAARC
The areas of cooperation under the reconstituted Regional Integrated Programme of Action which is pursued through the Technical Committees now cover the following:
- Agriculture and Rural Development
- Women, Youth and Children
- Health and Population Activities
- Science and Technology and Meteorology
- Environment and Forestry
- Human Resource Development, and
Working Groups have also been established in the following areas:
- Information and Communications Technology
- Intellectual Property Rights
The highest authority in the SAARC are the summits and they are held yearly once. The Chair of the Association would be the host country where the summit is held in a particular year. The Council of Ministers comprises of the foreign ministers and they meet generally two times annually.
Functions of the Council of Ministers
- Policy formulation
- Reviewing the progress of regional cooperation
- Identifying newer areas of cooperation, and
- Setting up additional mechanisms as required
The Standing Committee is composed of the foreign secretaries. It monitors and coordinates the programmes of cooperation, approves various projects including their funds, and gathers regional as well as external resources. This committee meets as and when required and reports to the Council of Ministers. SAARC also calls for meetings at the ministerial level on special issues or themes. There is also a Committee on Economic Cooperation which comprises of the Secretaries of Commerce. This Committee supervises regional cooperation in the economic domain.
SAARC Regional Centres
The SAARC Secretariat is supported by Regional Centres established in Member Countries to promote regional cooperation. These Centres are managed by Governing Boards comprising representatives from Member States, SAARC Secretary-General and the Ministry of Foreign/External Affairs of the host government. The Director of the Centre acts as Member Secretary to the Governing Board which reports to the Standing Committee.