Commentary Pandemic-induced Regional Consensus can infuse new energy into SAARC

Dr Ashok Behuria, Senior Fellow Monohar Parikkar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis.

 

On 18 February, Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a virtual workshop focussing on “Covid-19 Management: Experience, Good Practices and Way Forward”. 

It was attended by health officials and experts from all 8 member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as well as from Mauritius and Seychelles.

It was the second attempt by the prime minister to underline the Indian desire to work with all regional countries to face unforeseen challenges like Covid-19, which necessitated inter-state collaboration and cooperation.

Earlier, in March 2020, India had organised a video conference of SAARC Heads of State and proposed a SAARC Coronavirus Emergency Fund, which sought to mitigate the risks associated with the pandemic in the region. India had contributed $10m to the fund and other countries donated according to their capacities later. While Pakistan raised some issues with the management of the fund, it had donated its share to the Fund. 

In the latest virtual meet on 18 February, PM gave another shot to regional cooperation efforts by proposing 5 measures to boost inter-state collaboration to manage the pandemic. They are: (i) create a special visa scheme for our doctors and nurses to move around in the region; (ii) a regional ambulance agreement for medical contingencies; (iii) create a regional platform for collating, compiling and studying data about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines among our populations; (iv) create a regional network for promoting technology-assisted epidemiology, for preventing future pandemics; and (v) share successful public health policies and schemes.

It goes without saying that no single country can face the pandemic challenge alone largely because it has caused worldwide economic downturns and impaired the capacities of individual states to cater to the health-care needs of their citizens. 

Even then, in the face of such unique and unprecedented vulnerabilities that characterise the ongoing pandemic situation, the health-systems of most of these states have responded to the challenges in a resilient manner. They have reflexively exchanged their views, shared their experiences and provided help to each other while the world has managed to find a way out of the crisis, it seemed to be in, by the middle of last year.

It is good to see India bringing SAARC back in through PM’s emphasis on regional solidarity through cooperative and collaborative efforts. 

India does have the moral advantage to advocate such an initiative. It has offered to fulfil and catered for the health-care needs of all SAARC neighbouring countries except Pakistan, which has not fielded any request for any help from India so far. India has gone beyond the immediate SAAARC neighbourhood to reach out to other countries in an extended maritime neighbourhood. 

It has made home-made vaccines available and donated 20 lakhs to Bangladesh, 17 lakhs to Myanmar, 10 lakhs to Nepal, 5 lakhs each to Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, 1.5 lakhs to Bhutan, 1 lakh each to Maldives and Mauritius, and 50,000 to Seychelles. It has supplied medicines, PPE, and testing equipment also. 

Collectively, PM said, “we have managed to achieve one of the lowest fatality rates in the world”, through “our openness and determination”. He identified Indian examples of a successful scheme like “Ayushman Bharat” and “Jan Arogya” as useful case-studies for the region.

Flagging India’s commitment to regional integration PM said that if 21st Century were to be an Asian Century, there has to be greater integration among the South Asian the Indian Ocean island countries. Recognising the pandemic-induced spirit of regional solidarity he said that regional “integration is possible”.

SAARC has come a long way and so has India’s approach to it. Initially, many Indians looked at it as an ‘association of the mice to bell the cat’– as a clever ploy to offset India’s regional preponderance, often misconstrued as ‘hegemony’. Today, India has approached SAARC as an agent of regional growth and prosperity and has invited regional states to participate in its growth story. Other states like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also grown considerably. 

Together, the region can pull off an economic miracle. However, Pakistan continues to stymie the process of integration by refusing to be a signatory to the regional motor vehicles agreement and disallowing the use of its territory for trade and commerce. 

India’s enthusiastic advocacy of regional cooperation and integration should be taken into account by leadership in neighbouring states and the SAARC should be made to realise its true potential.