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Context: SAARC amid COVID-19 pandemic.
Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi interacted with the leaders of the SAARC countries through video conference to chart out a common strategy in order to combat COVID-19 in the region on March 15th, 2020.
This brings us to the questions of SAARC amid COVID-19. In this article, we will explain them below:
- What are the measures taken by SAARC to fight against COVID-19?
- Why SAARC has been dormant in the recent past?
- How will such a leading move help India in long-run?
What are the measures taken by SAARC to fight against COVID-19?
This video call played a great role in triggering SAARC, which has been sluggish since 2016. Following the 2016 Uri terror attacks that year by a Pakistan-based group, India had refused to participate in the SAARC summit, which was to be held in Islamabad. The summit was finally called off as three other nations also withdrew from the summit.
India’s proposal now is a positive move toward smooth South Asian integration:
- All the eight member states were represented by head of the state or government in the video conferencing except Pakistan. They all readily agreed to work together to contain the virus, and shared their experiences and perspectives.
- India proposed the creation of a COVID-19 Emergency Fund with voluntary contributions from all Member States, and pledged an amount of US$ 10 million as an initial contribution from India.
- All the countries, except Pakistan, contributed to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund voluntarily, bringing the total contributions to $18.8 million.
- The fund has been operationalised and is neither controlled by India nor by the secretariat.
- India has taken a lead in implemention. The requestes for medical equipment, medicines and other supplies from Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been accepted and actions are being taken.
- A video conference of senior health professionals of SAARC countries held on March 26 to exchange experiences of combating the spread of COVID-19 thus far, including on specific protocols dealing with screening at entry points, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation facilities etc.
- India suggested for creation of a common Research Platform to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases within the South Asian region. The Indian Council of Medical Research can offer help coordinating such an exercise.
Why SAARC has been dormant in the recent past?
- Lack of trust among the member countries: In the many failures of SAARC, lack of trust among the member countries has been the most significant factor between India and Pakistan. In recent times, Pakistan’s non-cooperation has stalled some major initiatives under SAARC. For example, despite India’s keen interest in cooperating and strengthening intra-regional connectivity by backing the SAARC–MVA during the 18th summit of SAARC, the agreement was stalled following Pakistan’s reluctance.
- Security cooperation: SAARC has also faced obstacles in the area of security cooperation. A major hindrance in this regard has been the lack of consensus on threat perceptions, since member countries disagree on the idea of threats. For instance, while cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a major concern for India, Pakistan has failed to address these concerns.
- Big Brother attitude of India: The asymmetry between India and other member countries in terms of geography, economy, military strength and influence in the global arena make the smaller countries apprehensive. They perceive India as “Big Brother” and fear that it might use the SAARC to pursue hegemony in the region. The smaller neighbouring countries, therefore, have been reluctant to implement various agreements under SAARC.
- Resources: SAARC faces a shortage of resources, and countries have been reluctant to increase their contributions.
- Lack of Connectivity: The lack of connectivity among member states is another weakness of the SAARC. This ties in with the lack of a proper infrastructure of member states. This infrastructure deficit in turn leads to reduced connectivity among the SAARC nations. South Asia needs to invest up to $2.5 trillion to bridge its infrastructure gap over the next ten years, says a 2014 World Bank report. Women, the poor, and marginalized social groups are particularly affected by the region’s infrastructure gap.
- Agreements and Conventions: Almost all the agreements and conventions, adopted and signed by SAARC members, are concentrating on promotion of economic and social interactions and relations. There is hardly any significant development, under the banner of SAARC, to promote mutual trust and resolve mutual disputes. Dispute resolving has been, unfortunately, left out of the scope of SAARC. Even “SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism” was nothing but ratification and implementation of the UN resolutions and conventions
How will such a leading move would help India in long-run?
- India’s move can be seen as a masterstroke to assert India’s leadership in the South Asian region. India is also pushing for more clout as the world’s largest democracy.
- Recently, Modi’s campaign to portray India as a rising power seemed to be ticking along amid China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and some troubles internally in India.
- China has built inroads in almost every country in the region and promises investments as a part of the BRI, a 21st century Marshall plan to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe. Various countries have pledged their official support to the project, which is part of China’s bid for global dominance. So Modi’s move may also have the intention to maintain India’s leadership role amid China’s ambitions.
- India’s Citizenship Amendment Act is also creating unnecessary tensions with its neighbors, which in the long run may help China expand its influence in South Asian countries. The reactivation of SAARC may also have the effect of tamping down the misgivings spawned in South Asian countries over the amendment act.
India’s move to convene a video conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) states to collectively rein in the threat of COVID-19 can be seen as a thoughtful drive to respond to China’s growing influence in the region by reasserting India’s leadership. It is a good and timely initiative as COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-nCoV-2 virus, has created widespread concerns in South Asian countries. These countries are starting to suffer a widespread cessation of economic activity due to fears of this deadly virus. Follwing the mantra of “Coming together not growing apart ; Collaboration not Confusion ; Preparation not Panic”, SAARC countries can together fight the COVID-19 pandemic.