South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – UPSC Notes

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is an intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of eight countries in South Asia. It was established on 8 December 1985 with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka (Bangladesh). The organization seeks to promote the welfare of the people of South Asia by promoting active collaboration, mutual assistance, and cooperation with international and regional organizations.

Overview of SAARC

Establishment8 December 1985
HeadquarterKathmandu (Nepal)
Number of Member Countries8 Members
Number of Observers9 Observers
Official languageEnglish
SAARC Specialized Bodies1. South Asian Univesity (SAU) – India
2. South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) – Dhaka
3. SAARC Development Fund (SDF) – Bhutan
4. SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO) – Pakistan
South Asia Satellite (formerly known as SAARC Satellite)Launch on 5 May 2017

Historical Background of SAARC

The idea for cooperation among the South Asian nations was earlier discussed in three major conferences: the Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi in April 1947, the Baguio Conference held in the Philippines in May 1950, and the Colombo Powers Conference held in Sri Lanka in April 1954.

In the late 1970s, the seven inner South Asian countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, agreed upon the formation of a trade bloc to provide a platform for the people of South Asia to work together in a spirit of friendship, trust, and understanding.

Between 1977 and 1980, the initiative to create SAARC was first proposed by Zaiur Rahman, the former President of Bangladesh. President Rahman later addressed official letters to the leaders of the South Asian nations, presenting his vision for the future of the South Asia region. In 1977, King Birendra of Nepal also gave a call for close regional cooperation between the South Asian countries in sharing river waters.

The leaders of the governments of South Asian countries studied the proposals. Responding to Rahman and Birendra’s convention, the Foreign Secretaries of the seven inner South Asian nations met for the first time in Colombo (Sri Lanka) in April 1981.

In August 1983, the Foreign Ministers of these seven countries, at their first meeting in New Delhi, adopted the Declaration on SAARC and formally launched the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) in five key areas of cooperation: Agriculture, Rural Development, Health & Population activities, Telecommunication, and Meteorology. The other important areas of cooperation were added later.

On 8 December 1985, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded when the SAARC Charter was formally adopted, by the seven founding Member States, at the first summit in Dhaka (Bangladesh). The first summit was hosted by the President of Bangladesh Hussain Ershad.

In 2004, the agreement on the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) was signed.

In 2005, Afghanistan started negotiation for its accession to SAARC and formally applied for membership in the same year. In April 2007, at the Delhi summit of SAARC, Afghanistan was included as the 8th member.

SAARC Countries

SAARC consists of 8 Members States and 9 States with observer status.

SAARC Member StatesSAARC Observer States
1. Afghanistan1. Australia
2. Bangladesh2. China
3. Bhutan3. European Union
4. India4. Iran
5. the Maldives5. Japan
6. Nepal6. Mauritius
7. Pakistan7. Myanmar
8. Sri Lanka8. South Korea
9. the United States

Structure of SAARC

SAARC Summits

Meetings of the Heads of State or Government of Member States are held at the Summit level. The Member State hosting the Summit assumes the Chair of the Association. The Meeting of the Heads of State or Government is the highest decision-making authority under SAARC.

Article III of the SAARC Charter provides that the Heads of State or Government of Member States shall meet once a year or more often as and when considered necessary by the Member States.

During the SAARC Summit, Leaders of Member States make policy statements on regional cooperation under SAARC. The Summit considers and approves the reports of the Council of Ministers and the Ministerial Meetings. The SAARC Summit is also addressed by the Secretary-General and Heads of Observer delegations.

The key outcome of a SAARC Summit is a Declaration, which contains decisions and directives of the leaders to strengthen and consolidate regional cooperation in different areas being pursued under SAARC.

Council of Ministers

The Council of Ministers (CoM) comprises the Ministers of External/Foreign Affairs of the Member States. The Council meets preceding the SAARC Summit and between the two Summits. Article IV of the SAARC Charter laid out the functions of the Council, which are:

  • Policy formulation;
  • Review the progress of cooperation under SAARC;
  • Decision on new areas of cooperation;
  • Setting up an additional mechanism under SAARC as required;
  • Decision on other matters of general interest to SAARC.

The Council of Ministers reviews the progress of implementation of decisions taken by the Summits. The reports of the Council are submitted to the Meeting of Heads of State or Governments of Member States for consideration or approval.

Standing Committee

Standing Committee comprises the Foreign Secretaries of the Member Countries. It is mandated to meet as often as necessary. Under Article V of the SAARC Charter, the functions of the Standing Committee are:

  • Overall monitoring and coordination of programme of cooperation;
  • Approval of projects and programmes, including the modalities of their financing;
  • Determination of inter-sectoral priorities;
  • Mobilisation of regional and external resources;
  • Identification of new areas of cooperation based on appropriate studies.

The Standing Committee shall submit the periodic reports to the Council of Ministers and make references to it when required for the decision on policy matters.

Programming Committee

Programming Committee comprises the senior officials of the SAARC Division of Member States. The committee generally meet before the meetings of the Standing Committee. The main functions of this committee are:

  • To consider the Calendar of Activities
  • To view the financial and administrative matters of Secretariat and Regional Centres, Technical Committees, Working Groups, and Special Bodies.

Technical Committees

Technical Committees comprise the representatives of Member States. They are responsible for the implementation, coordination, and monitoring of the programmes in their respective areas of cooperation. They shall have the following terms of reference:

  • formulation of programmes and preparation of projects;
  • determination of the scope of regional cooperation in agreed areas;
  • determination of financial implication of sectoral programmes;
  • formulation of recommendations related to apportionment of costs;
  • implementation and coordination of sectoral programmes;
  • monitoring of the progress of implementation.

Technical committees shall present the periodic reports to the Standing Committee.

Working Groups

Working Groups formulate and supervise the programmes and activities within the framework of SAARC to strengthen regional cooperation in their respective areas. In suggesting the target-bound programmes and activities, they would also propose mechanisms and sources of finance to implement them.

The Working Groups coordinate, monitor, and evaluate the programmes. They would also carry out the directives emanating from higher bodies of SAARC.

Action Committees

Standing Committee may set up Action Committees consisting of the Member States concerned with the implementation of projects involving more than two but not all Member States.

SAARC Secretariat

The SAARC Secretariat was set up in Kathmandu (Nepal) on 16 January 1987. It consists of the Secretary-General, seven Directors, and the general services staff. It is headed by the Secretary-General. The Council of Ministers appoints the Secretary-General on the principle of rotation for a non-renewable tenure of three years. The role of the SAARC Secretariat is to:

  • Coordinate and monitor the implementation of SAARC activities,
  • Monitor the SAARC meetings,
  • Serve as a communication link between SAARC and other international organizations.

SAARC Regional Centres

The SAARC Secretariat is supported by the Regional Centres. Since 1989, several Regional Centres with specific mandates have been set up in the Member States to promote regional cooperation. These Centres implement the programme’s activities.

The Regional Centres are managed by the Governing Boards, comprising representatives from all Member States, the SAARC Secretary-General and the Ministry of External/Foreign Affairs of the host government. The Director of the Centre acts as Member Secretary to the Governing Board, which reports to the Programming Committee.

Regional CentresLocationCountry
SAARC Agricuture Centre (SAC)DhakaBangladesh
SAARC Energy Centre (SEC)IslamabadPakistan
SAARC Cutlural Centre (SCC)ColomboSri Lanka
SAARC Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS Centre (STAC)KathmanduNepal
SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC)GandhinagarIndia

SAARC Specialized Bodies

SAARC has created the Specialized Bodies, which have different mandates and structures different from the Regional Centres.

Specialized BodiesEstablishmentLocationCountryObjectives
SAARC Development Fund (SDF)13th SAARC Summit in Dhaka in 2005 decided to set up SDF as a comprehensive funding mechanism with the provision of three windows (Social, Economic, and Infrastructure).

SDF Secretariat was formally commissioned in April 2010 in Thimpu during the 16th SAARC Summit.
ThimphuBhutanIts primary objective is the funding of project-based collaboration in social sectors, such as development, poverty, alleviation, etc.

It is governed by a Board, which includes representatives from the Ministry of Finance of the Member States. The Governing Council of SDF (Finance Ministers of Member countries) supervises the function of the Board.
South Asian University (SAU)During the 14th SAARC Summit in New Delhi in 2007, the Agreement was signed by the External/Foreign Affairs Ministers of SAARC Member countries for the establishment of SAU.New DelhiIndiaDegrees and Certificates awarded by the SAU are at par with the respective Degree and Certificates awarded by the National Universities/Institutions.
South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO)The 15th SAARC Summit paved the way for the setting up of SARSO. The agreement on SARSO came into effect in August 2011.DhakaBangladeshTo achieve and enhance coordination and cooperation among the SAARC Member States in the field of standardization and conformity assessment.

It aimed to develop harmonized standards for the region to facilitate intra-regional trade and have access to the global market.
SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO)The agreement was signed during the 13th SAARC Summit in 2005 but came into effect in July 2007.IslamabadPakistanTo provide a legal framework within the region for fair and efficient settlement of commercial, industrial, banking, investment, trade, and such other disputes, as may be referred to it by the Member States.

Areas of Cooperation

The member states agreed on the following areas of cooperation:

  • Agriculture and Rural Development.
  • Environment, Natural Disasters, and Biotechnology.
  • Human Resource Development and Tourism.
  • Economic, Trade, and Finance.
  • Energy, Transport, Science and Technology.
  • Social Affairs.
  • Information and Poverty Alleviation.
  • Education, Security, Culture, and others.

Principles of SAARC

The Principles mentioned in the SAARC Charter are as follows:

  • Cooperation within the framework of the SAARC shall be based on respect for the principles of sovereign equality, political independence, territorial integrity, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States, and mutual benefits.
  • Such cooperation shall not be a substitute for bilateral and multilateral cooperation but shall complement them.
  • Such cooperation shall not be inconsistent with bilateral and multilateral obligations.

Objectives of SAARC

The Objectives mentioned in the SAARC Charter are as follows:

  • To promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life.
  • To accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals with the opportunity to live in dignity and realize their full potential.
  • To promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia.
  • To contribute to mutual trust, understanding, and appreciation of one another’s problems.
  • To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical, and scientific fields.
  • To strengthen cooperation with other developing countries.
  • To strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interests.
  • To cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes.

Significance of SAARC

  • SAARC comprises 3% of the world’s area and 21% of the global population.
  • The Member Nations have mostly common traditions, dress, food, culture and political aspects, thereby synergising their actions.
  • The SAARC Member States have common problems like poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, natural disasters, internal conflicts, low GDP and poor socio-economic conditions. These countries uplift their living standards, thereby creating common areas of development.
  • South Asia Preferential Trading Agreement (SAPTA) came into effect in 1995 to promote trade among the SAARC Member States.
  • The Member countries established a Free Trade Area to increase their internal trade and lessen the trade gap of some States considerably.

Importance of SAARC for India

  • SAARC provides India with the opportunity to promote its core policies:
    • Neighbourhood First Policy – To give preference to the immediate neighbouring countries of India.
    • Act East Policy – To connect India with Southeast Asia.
  • SAARC can counter China’s OBOR Initiative by engaging Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka in economic cooperation and development process.
  • SAARC provides help in the creation of mutual trust and peace within the region.

SAARC Summits

1st7-8 December 1985DhakaBangladesh
2nd16-17 November 1986BengaluruIndia
3rd2-4 November 1987KathmanduNepal
4th29-31 December 1988IslamabadPakistan
5th21-23 November 1990MaleMaldives
6th21 December 1991ColomboSri Lanka
7th10-11 April 1993DhakaBangladesh
8th2-4 May 1995New DelhiIndia
9th12-14 May 1997MaleMaldives
10th29-31 July 1998ColomboSri Lanka
11th4-6 January 2002KathmanduNepal
12th2-6 January 2004IslamabadPakistan
13th12-13 November 2005DhakaBangladesh
14th3-4 April 2007New DelhiIndia
15th1-3 August 2008ColomboSri Lanka
16th28-29 April 2010ThimphuBhutan
17th10-11 November 2011AdduMaldives
18th26-27 November 2014KathmanduNepal


  1. What is SAFTA?

    The South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) is the free trade arrangement of SAARC. The SAFTA Agreement was signed in January 2004 during the 12th SAARC Summit held in Islamabad. The Agreement came into force in January 2006.
    SAFTA was signed to reduce the customs duties to zero by 2016.
    The Agreement was confined to goods but excluded all services like information technology.

  2. What is SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme?

    The SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme was launched in 1992.
    During the 4th SAARC Summit in 1988, the leaders of the SAARC Member countries recognized the importance of people to people contact among the people of South Asian countries. They decided to issue a Special Travel Document to specific categories of dignitaries and exempt them from visas and other travelling documents within the region.
    This Special Travel Document is known as SAARC Visa Exemption Sticker.
    The Visa Stickers are issued by the respective Member States to the entitled categories of that particular country. The validity of the Visa Sticker is generally for one year.
    Currently, the SAARC Visa Exemption Sticker is issued to 24 categories of entitled persons, which include Dignitaries, Senior Officials, Judges of higher courts, Parliamentarians, Journalists, Sportsmen, etc.

  3. What is SAARC Food Bank?

    During the 14th SAARC Summit in New Delhi in April 2007, the SAARC Member States signed an agreement to establish the SAARC Food Bank. As per this Agreement, SAARC Food Bank shall have a reserve of foodgrains to be maintained by each member country, consisting of either wheat or rice, or a combination of both as an assessed share of the country. The Food Bank will supplement national efforts to provide food security to the people of the region.

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