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SAARC and Climate Crises in South Asia

  • 04 November, 2021

  • 5 Min Read

Context: This topic is important for UPSE GS Paper 2.

SAARC can majorly play a great role in combating climate crises in South Asia, which is most vulnerable to climate change.

 SAARC History-

  • The SAARC stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is an economic and political organization of eight countries in South Asia.
  • The SAARC established in 1985 when the Heads of State of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka formally adopted the charter.
  • Afghanistan joined as the 8th member of SAARC in 2007.
  • The SAARC Headquarters and Secretariat of the Association are in Kathmandu, Nepal.

SAARC Objectives -

SAARC aims to promote economic growth, social progress and cultural development within the South Asia region. The objectives of SAARC, as defined in its charter, are as follows:

  1. Promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and improve their quality of life.
  2. Accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region by providing all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and realise their full potential.
  3. Promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia.
  4. Contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.
  5. Promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields.
  6. Strengthen co-operation with other developing countries.
  7. Strengthen co-operation among themselves in international forms on matters of common interest; and
  8. Cooperate with international and regional organisation with similar aims and purposes.

Structure and Process-

  • Cooperation in SAARC is based on respect for the five principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, non-interference in internal affairs of the Member States and mutual benefit.
  • Regional cooperation is seen as a complement to the bilateral and multilateral relations of SAARC Member States.
  • SAARC Summits are held annually and the country hosting the Summit holds the Chair of the Association.
  • Decisions are made on a unanimity basis while bilateral and contentious issues are excluded from the deliberations of SAARC.
  • In addition to the eight Member States, nine Observer States join SAARC Summits: China, the US, Myanmar, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Mauritius and the European Union.

Areas of Cooperation-

The Member States agreed on the following areas of cooperation:

  • Agriculture and rural development
  • Education and culture
  • Biotechnology
  • Economic, trade and finance
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Tourism
  • Science and Technology
  • Information, Communication and Media
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Security aspects
  • People-to-People Contacts
  • Funding mechanism
  • Social development

SAARC Specialized Bodies-

  • SAARC Development Fund (SDF)

Its primary objective is funding of project-based collaboration in social sectors such as poverty alleviation, development, etc.

  • South Asian University 

South Asian University (SAU) is an international university, located in India. Degrees and Certificates awarded by the SAU are at par with the respective Degrees and Certificates awarded by the National Universities/ Institutions.

  • South Asian Regional Standards Organization

South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) has its Secretariat in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was established to achieve and enhance coordination and cooperation among SAARC member states in the fields of standardization and conformity assessment and is aimed to develop harmonized Standards for the region to facilitate intra-regional trade and to have access in the global market.

  • SAARC Arbitration Council

It is an inter-governmental body having its office in Pakistan is mandated to provide a legal framework/forum within the region for fair and efficient settlement of commercial, industrial, trade, banking, investment and such other disputes, as may be referred to it by the member states and their people.

SAARC and its Importance-

  • SAARC comprises 3% of the world's area, 21% of the world's population and 3.8% (US$2.9 trillion) of the global economy.
  • Creating synergies: It is the world’s most densely populated region and one of the most fertile areas.
  • Common solutions: All the SAARC countries have common problems and issues like poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, natural disasters, internal conflicts, industrial and technological backwardness, low GDP and poor socio-economic condition and uplift their living standards thereby creating common areas of development and progress having common solutions.

SAARC Achievements-

  1. Free Trade Area (FTA): SAARC is comparatively a new organization in the global arena. The member countries have established a Free Trade Area (FTA) which will increase their internal trade and lessen the trade gap of some states considerably.
  2. SAPTA: South Asia Preferential Trading Agreement for promoting trade amongst the member countries came into effect in 1995.
  3. SAFTA: A Free Trade Agreement confined to goods, but excluding all services like information technology. Agreement was signed to reduce customs duties of all traded goods to zero by the year 2016.
  4. SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS): SATIS is following the GATS-plus 'positive list' approach for trade in services liberalization.
  5. SAARC University: Establish a SAARC university in India, a food bank and also an energy reserve in Pakistan.

Significance for India-

  1. Neighbourhood first: Primacy to the country’s immediate neighbours.
  2. Geostrategic significance: Can counter China (OBOR initiative) through engaging Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the development process and economic cooperation.
  3. Regional stability: SAARC can help in the creation of mutual trust and peace within the region.
  4. Global leadership role: It offers India a platform to showcase its leadership in the region by taking up extra responsibilities.
  5. Game changer for India’s Act East Policy: by linking South Asian economies with South East asian will bring further economic integration and prosperity to India mainly in the Services Sector.

Issues with SAARC-

  1. Low frequency of meetings: More engagement is required by the member states and instead of meeting biennial meetings should be held annually.
  2. Broad area of cooperation leads to the diversion of energy and resources.
  3. Limitation in SAFTA: The implementation of SAFTA has not been satisfactory a Free Trade Agreement confined to goods, excluding all services like information technology.
  4. Indo-Pak Relations: Escalated tension and conflict between India and Pakistan have severely hampered the prospects of SAARC.


 EDITORIAL- Batting for ‘One South Asia’ makes more sense

When it comes to climate change, India’s ideas would pack more punch if they have a clear road map for the region.

  • Over the course of four days, at the G-20 in Rome and COP26 (the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at nearly a dozen events, expanding on India’s plans to counter climate change.
  • India’s record since the 2015 Paris Accord and initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), as a part of which Mr. Modi (along with other leaders) launched the ‘Infrastructure for Resilient Island States (IRIS)’ at the World Leaders Summit at COP26, was widely welcomed.
  • The announcement of India’s new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and the “Panchamrit” or five goals for the future elicited applause from across the audience.
  • Missing, however, was any reference to India’s own region, the subcontinent, South Asia, without which India’s multiple forays on fighting climate change could well prove fruitless.

South Asia’s feeble voice

  • The absence of a South Asian initiative on climate change led by India, accrues to a number of obvious reasons:
  • India-Pakistan tensions that have led to the degradation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) process, especially since 2014, when the last SAARC summit was held;
  • Events in Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover which will bring it closer to its Central Asian rather than South Asian neighbours;
  • The differences over pollution issues within the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping that has held up its initiatives like the common Motor Vehicle Agreement (due mainly to Bhutan’s opposition);
  • And slow movement amongst the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries along the Bay of Bengal that have yet to bring about a common charter at the global level despite adding climate change as an area of cooperation a decade ago.

Impact of climate change

Why does this matter?

  • To begin with, regardless of relations between any of the countries in South Asia (India-Pakistan being the only notable rivalry), there is no question that this is a cohesive geographical unit that is sheltered by the Himalayas to the north, fed by its many glaciers in an intricate network of rivers that fall into the ocean, and buffeted by the same climate and monsoon conditions.
  • Second, South Asia is slowly becoming the world’s biggest area of concern when it comes to climate change. According to this year’s Global Climate Risk Index, India and Afghanistan are among the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of vulnerability, but South Asia classifies for the overall lowest values.
  • By one estimate, 20 out of 23 major cyclone disasters in the world in the past have occurred around the Bay of Bengal region, and global warming, coastal degradation and soil salinity, as well as water scarcities, cause the deaths of thousands in South Asia each year.
  • The Asian Development Bank now predicts a decrease of 11% in South Asian GDPs by 2100 if “Business-As-Usual (BAU) Emissions” are maintained.
  • With global warming and sea levels rising, other estimates predict there will be nearly 63 million climate migrants in South Asia by 2050 (“Costs of Climate Inaction: Displacement and Distress Migration”.

Green potential

  • When New Delhi speaks of the need for climate justice, global funding and climate adaptation technology transfer, India’s voice would only be strengthened multiple times if it speaks for South Asia as a whole.
  • According to the World Bank’s newly launched South Asia road map, climate-smart investment opportunities in South Asia total a whopping $3.4 trillion, with “energy-efficient green buildings” alone representing an investment potential of more than $1.5 trillion.
  • Green transport connectivity and infrastructure, electric vehicles could represent another $950 billion in investment opportunities by 2030.
  • This does not include the vast sums of funding available for cross-regional solar grids, windfarms and run-of-river energy projects.

Other drawbacks: China

  • However, while India and other countries in the region access global banks, including the BRICS-led New Development Bank (NDB), the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Asian Development Bank for projects individually, there is no single South Asian entity the banks could work with for a more targeted focus and more concessional financing for the problem that faces the region.
  • Third, growing carbon footprints, as well as post-COVID-19 economic compulsions, are driving countries into closer regional coalitions, looking for solutions closer home, than those provided by globalisation and long-distance supply chains.
  • South Asia has remained an exception, persistently showing lower inter-regional trade and connectivity, and lower levels of cooperation on migrant labour issues, inter-state tourism and cross-border employment than other regions.
  • Finally, New Delhi has often warned of the pernicious influence of ‘Chinese solutions’ to problems in the subcontinent, ranging from unsustainable infrastructure financing to environmentally harmful projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but it has been unable to proffer a viable alternative, with or without its Quad partners.
  • On certain issues, where India has failed, South Asian neighbours have learned to seek help from other international partners or even each other: when India stopped COVID-19 vaccine exports this year for example, Bhutan, which received vaccines from Denmark and a number of other countries including the United States and China after a desperate global appeal, in turn helped Nepal with stocks of AstraZeneca.
  • When New Delhi failed to respond to Sri Lanka’s request for assistance with its currency and debt crisis last year, the Rajapaksa government turned to Bangladesh for a currency swap arrangement.
  • The problems between India and Pakistan that have multiplied manifold in the past few years are no doubt a major obstacle, but not one that cannot be surmounted in the face of a common challenge, as the special SAARC conference on COVID-19 in March 2020 showed.

Way Forward 

New Delhi can show the way

  • When it comes to climate change, there is a chance to turn this trend, and for India, the largest country in the region sharing the most boundaries with other South Asian neighbours, to lead the way to find holistic solutions: accessing funding, tapping the latest climate adaptation technology, and finding cross-border markets for renewable energy networks.
  • India’s “One Sun One World One Grid” and ‘Panchamrit plans’ would clearly pack more punch if they contain a clear road map for the region, and strive for a common South Asian task force to tackle the enormous challenge that lies ahead for India and its neighbourhood this century.



Source: The Hindu

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