Assessing the Revival of SAARC post-March 15 Meeting

 By Alakh Ranjan
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South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), an organisation formed in 1985, with a vision to form a South-Asian unity. An organisation whose obituary has been written multiple times but it has revived itself multiples times over the years and stayed afloat. The latest revival was when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed a joint meeting with SAARC leaders to “chalk out a strong strategy to fight Coronavirus” discuss the COVID-19 pandemic. This was seen as a big move as SAARC had not held any meeting after the 2016 URI attacks and subsequent boycotting of 19th SAARC Summit by India which was to be held in Pakistan.

This step was lauded across the globe because SAARC was the first regional organisation which came forward to fight the pandemic collectively at a time when the world was moving towards protectionism with every country thinking about themselves and none of the regional organisation in any part of the world from European Union (EU) to The Association for Southeast Nations (ASEAN) had not taken any decisive step or a collective measure to fight the pandemic.

India’s role in Reactivation 

In the March 15 meeting, India announced to contribute USD 10 million to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund[1] and all the SAARC states pledged to contribute to the fund. This meeting was followed by a series of meetings and engagements in various areas such as health, economy and trade. Three months after the historic video meet among the SAARC leaders, a lot has been happening in the region to fight the pandemic.

India has taken an active role in reactivating SAARC and has been supplying the necessary medical equipment to the SAARC nations through the bilateral mechanism and SAARC Emergency Fund. Apart from this, the Ministry of External Affairs, India through its Indian Technical and Economic Program (ITEC) portal has been regularly conducting web-based short training live webinars for healthcare professionals in SAARC countries on strategies related to COVID-19 management and other aspects related to it.

The E-ITEC in last three months has conducted 10 courses on various subjects from sharing best practices of India on how to manage human resources in hospitals, mental health, prevention of infection among healthcare workers etc. during the pandemic.[2] By this E-ITEC initiative, India has been able to reach out to the SAARC nations and help them in their fight against the pandemic.

Pakistan’s Derailment 

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s old habit of creating hindrance to the functioning of SAARC has continued even during these challenging times. Apart from organising a video conference of SAARC health ministers to address the pandemic, Pakistan has not been too enthusiastic about the initiatives taken under SAARC since the video conference. PM Imran Khan did not attend the meeting and Pakistan was represented by health minister Dr Zafar Mirza who raised Kashmir’s issue during the meeting.

It was the last country that announced its contributions with a condition that all proceeds of the fund be administered by the SAARC Secretariat. As per the last update on the SAARC website, it has still not disbursed USD 3 million to the COVID-19 Emergency Fund which it announced in April.[3] It also did not participate in the video conference held between trade officials on analysing the impact of COVID-19 on intra-regional trade.

Pakistan’s participation in the SAARC has not been encouraging. It seems that it is more concerned about India’s efforts than the pandemic. Its myopic outlook might again cost the progress of SAARC and regional integration.

Benefits for India 

India is facing a tough time both domestically and in the neighbourhood. With the rising Chinese intrusion on the border and footprint in south-Asia, SAARC can be the antidote that can establish India as a regional power. If India can effectively manage to control the COVID-19 domestically and play a significant role in controlling the pandemic in the neighbourhood, this will help in several ways.

First, at the time when India is losing its influence among its neighbours, sharing its resources and expertise with other countries through SAARC will improve India’s influence in the region. Second, countries in this region such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal have echoed their support for SAARC over other regional and sub-regional organization. Therefore, the revival of SAARC by India will generate a positive image of India among these countries. Third, SAARC as a regional organisation is recognised by the outside world too, India-led revival of the organisation will also improve India’s position at the world stage.

Conclusion

The functioning of SAARC post the March 15 video conference can be termed as good as it has renewed the crucial process of dialogue at the organisational level through video conferencing. SAARC is the oldest organization in the region has established mechanisms for different functions that aid in the implementation of new initiatives compared to other regional organisations such as BIMSTEC or BBIN.

Connectivity and trade have always been an issue region as the intra-regional trade among the SAARC nation is less than five percent. The pandemic provides the opportunity for the region to enhance connectivity and trade among them. The development of regional supply chains and the seamless flow of goods through SAARC will make the region invulnerable to future global shocks.

SAARC as a region is poor and the effect of this pandemic will be felt among all the countries across the society. As this region has limited resources and bigger challenges, the pooling of resources will provide the countries with a better chance to overcome the pandemic and rebuild the countries. Cooperation is the best option available for all the countries and the revival of SAARC will be a win-win situation for all.

End-Notes

[1] South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, Press Release, Available at:  http://saarc-sec.org/press_release/details/pres-release-the-leaders-of-the-member-states-of-the-south-asian-association-for-regional-cooperation-saarc-held-a-video-conference-on-15-march-2020-to-discuss-measures-to-contain-the-spread-of-covid-19-in-the-region, Accessed on 26 June, 2020

[2] Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, E-ITEC Course, Available at: https://www.itecgoi.in/e-itec.php, Accessed on 26 June, 2020

[3]South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, COVID- 19 Emergency Fund, Available at: http://covid19-sdmc.org/covid19-emergency-fund, Accessed on 25 June, 2020