Dr. Dinesh Bhattarai
THE outbreak of coronavirus starting from the Hubei province of the People’s Republic of China has introduced a disruption in the scope, speed and scale of globalisation, shrinking economic and social activities and forcing the humanity to stay indoors across the world. At the same time, it has also demonstrated the need for unwavering solidarity, and coordination of efforts not only within nations but among nations also to control the spread of virus and protect health of the people.
Virus is a global crisis and global health emergency. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi truly seized the moment of coronavirus crisis to show his “leadership.” On March 13, Modi tweeted proposing “that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight coronavirus. We could discuss, via video conferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet.” On March 15, he reached the doorstep of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to discuss the challenges of COVID-19.
SAARC was created in 1985 “to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life.” The video conference was the first of its kind since 1985 and, the first coming together of SAARC leaders since the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014. Heads of governments/states of member states namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka came together to discuss fighting the COVID-19. Prime Minister K.P. Oli attended the conference. Nowhere Nepal was recognised as the current SAARC Chair. As an incoming chair, Pakistan’s prime minister should have led his country at the conference and expressed Islamabad’s unwavering commitment to the SAARC process instead of deputing health minister.
SAARC doors remain shutting down. In 35 years of its existence, SAARC has met in 18 formal summits, though its Charter required it to meet annually. During this period, it has put in place a network of institutions and contacts. Most worrying is SAARC stands short of dialogues, debates and consultations. At a time when the collective fight against COVID-19 pandemic has to be intensified, if leaders fail to open the SAARC doors for meaningful discussions on issues of common concerns and threats, the region will be worse off.
During the videoconference, Prime Minister Modi proposed to create a COVID-19 Emergency Fund with a contribution of US$10 million. Member countries have contributed to the fund according to their ability. The operationalisation of fund should be done through SAARC secretariat to make the fight effective. The ability to fight the COVID-19 will be much greater if they find a way to rebuild and strengthen the SAARC process and Secretariat around a common framework and strategy.
When SAARC decides, it decides for the region, not for a country. SAARC is bigger than any single member state. There is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the SAARC which goes throughout the region. SAARC cannot be blamed for its structural shortcomings and performance deficiencies. SAARC would be as effective as its member states want and allow it to be. Much more needs to be done than doing more of the same to make it relevant to the day-to-day problems of the people of South Asia.
Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in which five SAARC members-- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka-- are associated with, can be no substitute to SAARC. They have different geographical orientations and objectives are different. The argument that SAARC has become irrelevant overlooks the message in Prime Minister Modi invoking the SAARC to convene a videoconference of the leaders. Despite its known disdain, India needed SAARC seal to convene the conference at pandemic emergency. Without SAARC seal, leaders of eight countries would not have come together so readily. This establishes the premise of SAARC and abandoning it is dangerous for the future of the region.
SAARC is an opportunity, not a problem. SAARC being the largest regional cooperation organisation with endless possibilities has its importance in stabilising and effectively transforming the region is increasingly becoming self-evident. Making SAARC dysfunctional and irrelevant is to greatly distort the picture of mounting challenges South Asia faces. Terrorism troubles South Asia badly. Failures to work and act together will descend South Asia into a hot theatre with jihadi militias continuing their activities to make South Asia a region of turmoil.
Though SAARC Charter prohibits bilateral issues at the formal forums, SAARC summit provides a unique informal window-retreat- for leaders to meet without aides and give direction to officials to chart a future course. Coming together of leaders even at the height of tensions in a region laden with congenital suspicions, misunderstandings and hostility is no insignificant strength of SAARC. Engagement is not appeasement. George Kennan, the architect of the Cold War containment strategy, said, “We should be prepared to talk to the devil himself, if he controls enough of the world to make it worth our while.”
South Asia has 22 per cent of the world population, but just 2 per cent of the world income. The region has comparative advantage not only in natural endowments but also in demographic dividend. However, the region remains the most militarised, least gender sensitive and most deprived in terms of providing human security. According to the latest data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India’s military expenditure grew by 37 per cent over the decade 2010-19, and Pakistan’s by 70 per cent during the same period. This has significantly constrained South Asians’ access to healthcare facilities and made them defenseless amidst the pile up of lethal arms. This denies South Asia a decisive role in providing a leadership in the emerging global order.
The region is among the poorest. The ‘creativity and efficiency of the poor’ has been grossly overlooked. The Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA) laid emphasis on social mobilisation in the eradication of poverty in South Asia. It is important that role of people-individuals and communities- in social mobilisation process comes to the centre in shaping the agenda. Human security alone frees them from “want” and “fear.” Only when peoples of South Asia are protected and empowered, then only South Asia will be able “to set an example to the world.”
(Dr. Bhattarai is a faculty member, Institute of Crisis Management Studies (ICMS)Tribhuvan University. He can be reached at email@example.com)