Friday, 16 April, 2021

Possibility Of SAARC Revival

Uttam Maharjan


On March 15, a video conference was held among the SAARC member states at the initiative of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in the South Asian region. The conference was held at a time when the coronavirus infection has been spreading across the globe, shifting its epicentre from China to Europe, where Italy, Spain and France are hard hit.
At the video conference, India announced the establishment of a SAARC emergency fund, pledging itself to contribute USD 10 million. Other member states can make voluntary contributions to the fund. Even non-SAARC countries can contribute their mite to the fund. The fund is intended to be used by any member state for action on combating the coronavirus infection. India is assembling a rapid response team of doctors and specialists equipped with testing kits and other equipment, which will be readily available to any member state. India has set up an integrated disease surveillance portal to detect virus vectors and the people affected by them, and is willing to share disease surveillance software with the rest of the member states. India has also proposed a common research platform for controlling COVID-19 and other epidemics in the South Asian region.

On the part of Nepal, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has hinted at the need for developing a SAARC-level mechanism to cope with health problems and establishing a SAARC emergency medical centre with adequate funds in the South Asian region. The synergy shown by the SAARC at this difficult juncture is commendable and can go a long way in coping with not only COVID-19 but also other diseases in the South Asian region.
The recent virtual gathering of the SAARC member states has generated hope that the SAARC may be revived. The SAARC has lied fallow since the 19th SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad in 2016 was postponed sine die due to India refusing to send its delegation to the Pakistani capital. The SAARC summit was last held in Kathmandu in 2014.
The 19th SAARC summit was stalled when India refused to take part in it in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Uri on September 18, 2016, in which 19 military personnel were killed and 30 military personnel were injured. India held Pakistan responsible for the attacks. In fact, the simmering dispute between India and Pakistan has overshadowed the prospects of the SAARC. Although the SAARC Charter does not allow bilateral issues to affect the SAARC, the SAARC has remained dormant due to the Indo-Pakistani differences.
India is the strongest country in the SAARC region. It wants to wield its hegemony among other member states. It considers Pakistan its archrival. So it wants to form or join regional groupings without Pakistan. That is why it has given preference to the BIMSTEC over the SAARC. It is trying to beef up the BBIN initiative, which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, to boost trade in the South Asian region and to build strategic partnership with its neighbours. It may be recalled that when Pakistan objected to the Motor Vehicle Agreement proposed by India at the 18th SAARC summit, India went ahead with the agreement through the BBIN initiative.
On the other hand, Pakistan is not happy with India. When India proposed the aforesaid video conference, it was in a dilemma of whether to take part in it or not. However, considering the gravity of the situation obtaining all over the world, including in the South Asian region, Pakistan represented the video conference at a state minister level rather than at a head of government level.
The SAARC came into being in the 1980s. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. But the regional body has not been able to fare well. The sacrosanct objective of the SAARC is to uplift the socio-economic conditions of the teeming populations in the South Asian region. One of the major achievements of the SAARC is the establishment of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) signed in 2004 for the promotion of trade, especially exports. However, the intra-regional trade among the SAARC member states is very dismal at 5 per cent, while other regional blocs have such trade at over 30 per cent.

The social and economic sectors have taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic across the world. And the South Asian region has also been badly hit by the pandemic. The South Asian region is one of the impoverished regions in the world. And the COVID-19 mayhem has made the socio-economic conditions in the region even worse. At such a critical juncture, cooperation among the SAARC member states has been acutely felt. The gathering of the SAARC member states via video conference should set the stage for enhanced cooperation not only in the health sector but also in other sectors as well. The revival of the SAARC is a sine qua non in this regard. It is high time the SAARC were lifted out of dormancy by holding the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad at the appropriate time.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.