Write a short note on the role and the limitations of SAARC as a forum for facilitating economic cooperation among the South Asian countries.

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Since 1985, SAARC has emerged as a major initiative on the part of South Asian countries to encourage regional cooperation and to promote peace and stability in the region. It also aims to promote collective welfare of the region, bring about greater social and cultural contact among the people of South Asia and to build up self-reliance among the member states. Since its inception, SAARC members have had annual summits with the 18th summit to be held in Nepal in 2014.

Role of SAARC:
1) Cultural links- The SAARC Audio Visual Exchange (SAVE) Programme was initiated in November, 1987. A regular monthly programme is held on radio and television, in which each member contributes its items to encourage cultural intermingling among the members.
2) Combating terrorism- The SAARC Regional Convention on suppression of terrorism came into force in 1998. During the 12th and 13th SAARC summits, emphasis was laid upon greater cooperation between the SAARC members to fight terrorism.
3) Travel and tourism- Under the ‘People-to-People Contact Programme’, a Visa Exemption Sticker (commonly called SAARC Travel Document) came into operation on March 1, 1992. This enabled visa-free travel within the region to MPs and Supreme Court judges.
4) Preferential Trade Area- South Asian Preferential Trading Agreement (SAPTA) was signed by the member states at Dhaka in April 1993. It came into force in December 1995. Accordingly, the SAARC Trade Fair was held in New Delhi in January 1996. The theme of the fair was ‘Cooperation for Growth’. It provided opportunities for joint ventures in trade and investment.
5) SAFTA was also signed among the member states to create a free-trade zone for the entire South Asian region. It came into effect in 2006 and aimed at lowering trade tariffs.
6) Eradication of poverty- The year 1995 was declared as the ‘SAARC Year of Poverty Eradication’. The SAARC leaders were firm in their resolution to eradicate poverty in South Asia.
7) Through informal meetings among the members, opportunity was provided for bilateral talks to remove irritants impeding regional stability. At a trilateral level in Dhaka, summit talks were held on Ganga water issue among India, Bangladesh and Nepal. It resulted in Indo-Bangladesh accord on Ganga water in December 1996.
8) Through SAARC, genuine efforts have been made to create mutual confidence and understanding for regional stability.
9) The decision in principle to admit the US, South Korea and the European Union (EU) as ‘observers’ in the forum is recognition of the growing acceptance of SAARC at the international level. Its membership has also risen from seven to eight, after Afghanistan joined the organisation in 2007.

The SAARC now appears to be more pronounced and action-oriented in its efforts to encourage regional cooperation.

However, there have been certain issues among the SAARC members, which hinder the process of real and genuine cooperation among the member states.

There are many causes for the slow progress of regional cooperation:
a. The politically volatile climate in the region, for instance, ethnic tensions between the Assamese and Bangladeshis, Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and Mohajirs and Sindhis in Pakistan, hampers the stability of the region.
b. Bilateral issues between India and Bangladesh and issue of Tamils between India and Sri Lanka have been major deterrents in attaining full regional cooperation.
c. Indo-Pak conflicts, whether in regard to Kashmir or alleged support to international terrorism, have been dominating the South Asian politics.
d. India is also looked with suspicion by other members of the SAARC because of its size and power.
e. The South Asian Preferential Trading Agreement (SAPTA), signed in the 7th summit at Dhaka in April 1993, has not yet been operationalised.
f. Similarly, with regard to South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA), member states have different opinions. While some feel it is an attempt to invade their markets and influence their societies, countries like India believe that SAFTA is a genuine attempt to bring about closer cooperation.
g. It is primarily the lack of trust among the member states and the political differences among them that act as major hindrances in achieving real cooperation.
h. It is imperative that mutual distrust between any two countries, for example, India and Pakistan with regard to Kashmir issue, India and Sri Lanka with regard to the Tamil problem or between any other two countries, must be replaced by mutual understanding and cooperation.

There is ample scope for regional cooperation in South Asia which, if achieved, can go a long way in promoting peace and progress in the entire world. The people of South Asia desire to have a peaceful, prosperous and secure future. This security can be obtained through sincere and sustained efforts to narrow the political differences.

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