A Region Of Hope And Despair: India Needs To Lead South Asian Integration – Analysis


Needless to say, one of the most overstated pessimistic phrases about South Asia is that it is one of the least integrated regions of the world. Formally the process of South Asian integration was started in 1985 with the establishment of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Such regional initiatives in other parts of the world normally generate great excitement, but in the case of South Asia, SAARC has been viewed with suspicion even by its own member states.

The biggest and most powerful South Asian country, India, initially even hesitated to support the idea of regional integration. In the 1980’s New Delhi viewed the idea for regional integration promoted by Bangladesh as motivated; as a balance-of-power approach of all the small countries. Notably, it was President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh who dedicatedly made sincere efforts to promote the idea of South Asian integration.

Not only India but even Pakistan, another important member of the SAARC, too had its own apprehensions about the South Asian integration. For Pakistan a plan mooted by Bangladesh (formally which was East Pakistan till 1971) could not be simply endorsed by it. Although, with the active involvement of both Nepal and Sri Lanka, the efforts of Bangladesh to establish SAARC finally materialized, but it was not wholeheartedly welcomed by all the other members.

This was the real tragedy of its origin. In brief, it was ‘not so happy a tale’ of evolution for SAARC. Unfortunately, even after three decades of its formation, the storyline is the same as it still signifies that some amount of trust deficit remains between the member states. While acknowledging the lack of integration, in this article there is an emphasis on the role of India in promoting regional integration, explaining why it is essential and how promoting regional consciousness will help the cause of South Asian integration.

Role of India

South Asia has a peculiar geopolitics scenario. In this, one of the member states, namely India, controls more than 80 percent of the region’s economy, 70 percent of the area and also has 70 percent share of the region’s population. Even if we ignore the strategic depth of India, there is no denying the fact that it is a regional hegemon in a true geopolitical and economic sense.

Europe and Southeast Asian regions have the advantage of being home to countries that have almost similar economic, geographic and political capabilities. Such an equitable power balance is certainly missing within South Asia. Thus, though it might appear as politically incorrect but the hard reality is that South Asia is an India centric region.

Even though India’s hegemony in South Asia is generally referred as being part of the problem, but there is much more to it. It is also related to the attitude of New Delhi primarily because its foreign policy establishment has failed to realise the true strategic relevance of South Asia.

Within the official corridors of the Indian foreign policy, South Asia is generally regarded as being part of India’s backyard. This dominating and erroneous attitude eclipses India’s potential and creative role in this region. While looking up towards the West for recognition, New Delhi remained ignorant of the fact that its actual international respect is largely dependent on its regional image.

If the other SAARC countries challenge India regionally, then its international ambition would not be fulfilled. New Delhi should mend its policy and approach towards South Asia. In this regard, Gujaral’s doctrine could make a difference. To be frank, South Asian integration cannot meet its desired objectives without a pro-active role by India and this role cannot be one of an arrogant hegemon.

South Asia: A Promising Region

The late Mahbub ul Haq, a prominent South Asian economist, had termed South Asia as a region of hope and despair. Evidently, a dismal record of human development and the exact opposite story, one of economic growth, authenticates Haq’s analysis about the region. Not only is it the least integrated, South Asia is also known as one of the poorly performing regions with regard to the human development index scale.

Only 62 percent of young women and 77 percent of young men are able to read and write in South Asia. This is also a region where almost half of the unemployed people are young adults, in the area of gender index South Asia is the third lowest performing regions of the world. If the global hunger index of South Asia is taken, then it figures as the second worst performing regions of the world. In the list of despairs or failures, South Asia also has 399 millions poor people of the world (that is 40 percent of the world’s poor) who are living on less than $1.25 a day.

Contrary to this gloomy picture, there is no denying the fact that, South Asia is also one of the fastest growing regions of the world. According to a World Bank report the economic growth in South Asia averages 6 percent a year for over the last 20 years. This growth rate is projected to touch 7.6 percent by 2017 according to the continuing trends, which reflects some strong consumption and investments. Interestingly this economic growth does not get reflected in the intra-regional trade of South Asia, which was around 5.31 percent in 2014. Even though South Asian economies opted for global integration but they never showed similar concerns for their regional economic integration.

Now the experts are of the view that future economic growth of South Asian countries are largely dependent on regional integration. Their improved regional infrastructure, cooperation in energy sectors, regional common markets, and product standardization are some of the essential factors required for sustaining their regional economic growth. Thus, these are some of the obligatory economic reasons in support of regional integration of South Asia. Lack of regional integration at this juncture will affect the prospect of both economic growth and development of all the South Asian countries and particularly of India.

Regional Consciousness

It may not have been a pleasant start and geopolitically this region might not fit the perfect idea of regional integration, but presently, regional integration is essential for South Asia in every sphere. The question is how to go about it or should we concede defeat because things have barely moved in the right direction for the last three decades.

We have already discussed that regional economic growth opens up new prospects for better cooperation amongst the members of the SAARC. Yet maintaining it is not an easy task given the past history of regional integration within South Asia. It is indeed regrettable that, in the last three decades we have failed to locate at least one functional area of cooperation that could boost regional integration in South Asia.

Unlike the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) we are still clueless about our own ‘coal and steel’ but have to quickly identify it before it becomes too late to rectify the deteriorating situation. In this it is important to understand as to why in the last three decades we are consistently struggling to discover and locate our own ‘coal and steel’. There might be several reasons for this but one of the most important reasons is the lack of regional consciousness in South Asia.

Most of the discussions academic or otherwise on South Asia are full of negative connotations. Often ‘over-repeated’ policy suggestions are discussed that are mostly prescribed by the international organizations. These international organizations have their own political economic interest and their medicines as an international formula might not be suitable for regional ailments. Such internationally coated remedies will have limited effect and cannot be regarded as a permanent solution. South Asia requires regional solution for most of its problems.

Some Suggestions

In such a gloomy scenario there is a need for radical change in South Asia and it requires strong political will. The ‘missing South Asia’ in the general perception of the people should be a matter of serious concern if we are interested in promoting regional integration.

For rectification we have to start from the school stage by including one compulsory chapter on South Asia at the primary and secondary level in the syllabi of all the South Asian countries. The chapter should be prepared by involving experts from all the SAARC countries. SAARC as a regional organisation should also promote more cultural and youth activities throughout the year. South Asian University (SAU) could be one of the ideal places for such activities. Serious academic research on South Asia should be promoted and endorsed by the SAARC.

There is an urgent need to expand SAU, which has been an excellent achievement of SAARC in the past three decades. Travel throughout South Asia should be encouraged and the business community should also be given incentives to invest at the regional level. This list is long but before we conclude it is important to underline that Indian foreign policy needs regional orientation. The current `neighbourhood policy’ of India with an overdose of bilateralism is one of the main roadblocks for South Asian integration. Even India-Pakistan relations could be improved and can witness a positive shift in case the regional approach is adopted. India has a very important role to play in South Asia and the sooner it understands and recognizes it the better it will be for the region*.

*Figures used in this article are from World Bank and Asian Development Bank research and data section.

*Dr. Dhananjay Tripathi is an Assistant Professor of International Relations in the South Asian University. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Dr. Dhananjay Tripathi

Dr. Dhananjay Tripathi is an Assistant Professor at South Asian University, New Delhi.

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