Namaste SAARC
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

In the wake of Corona Pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the lead to sensitize the world about the need to use digital technology to strategize for cooperating and controlling this viral existential threat. As such the leaders need to stay home to contend with the threat unless you are the Pakistani President who could go to any length to stand by and show solidarity with their all-weather friend China- the original architect of this human tragedy. They even refused to evacuate their students even after India was ready to do that along with their own and others from South Asia and elsewhere. Misplaced bravado often blends with stupidity. Hence, Video Conferencing became the natural conduit of communication since social distancing and closing borders have become the norm to contain the unusually severe pandemic that has become a global challenge with its epicentre shifting from China to Europe to US and back to Asia. This interactive story for joint efforts began with PM Modi inviting his counterparts from SAARC countries for pooling resources, sharing expertise, man and material and above all to work together to contain the deadly virus and resultant destruction. His suggestion to Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, host of this year’s G20, to consult with world leaders in the virtual domain through video conferencing was also welcomed.

Later leaders of China and India had online discussions with 10 countries from South and Central Asia to discuss modalities to counter the gaping Corona challenge. Even though China had borne the biggest brunt of the deadly disease, and had been largely responsible for withholding vital information for months that led to the global epidemic, it has been successful in containing it to a great extent.

On March 15, PM Modi held a video conference of SAARC leaders to work on a common strategy to jointly fight Covid-19. It was after years that the leaders under the virtual aegis of SAARC got together to confer on the ferocious threat facing the region. While all other member countries were represented by Heads of State or Government Pakistan was represented by PM Imran Khan’s Special Assistant on Health Dr Zafar Mirza which indicated the continued Pakistani distrust of Indian initiatives.This was further evident when contrary to Protocol and agenda of the SAARC mechanisms the Pakistani representative was last minute handed a paper to bring up Kashmir issue even if in the context of a Corona case in J&K. India’s magnanimity was evident when the snide was totally ignored by PM. Typically, Pak leader also did not forget to praise and learn from the Chinese experience in countering the epidemic without mentioning the conduct of an irresponsible Corona epicentre. He also mentioned that SAARC Secretariat would be the correct forum for such initiatives while lamenting the fact that SAARC Summit had not been held for years. Although a doctor himself, he boasted a great deal of Pakistan’s good practices and preparedness as the number of cases increased manifold in days to come.

All the leaders appreciated PM Modi’s leadership and initiative to counter Corona threat that is likely to impact the region in a very big way while underlying the need for joint efforts. Newer mechanisms were suggested within the ambit of SAARC especially that of Health Ministers and other experts to regularly remain in touch. Leaders made workable suggestions and those largely dependent on tourism like Sri Lanka and Maldives wanted budgetary support and assistance to tide over the adverse impact. PM Modi assured them of India’s fullest support reiterating that this pandemic can only be overcome by “Coming together and nor growing apart”. However, in few days thereafter the infected cases unfortunately increased manifold.

India agreed to send her teams of doctors, medicine and equipment wherever needed. PM Modi also proposed a “Covid-19 Emergency Fund” with an initial contribution of US$ 10 mn which was welcomed by the SAARC leaders. As on date all other countries but for Pakistan have committed funds per their capabilities bringing it to US$18.8 mn to meet the cost of immediate actions. This included US $ 5mn from Sri Lanka; $1.5 mn by Bangladesh; $1mn by Nepal; $ 1mn by Afghanistan; $20,000 by Maldives; and $ 100,000 by Bhutan confirming the resolve of the member countries to fight the epidemic. A website has been set up by SAARC Disaster Management Centre, Gandhinagar to share the relevant and reliable information and efforts including best practices being introduced to counter the pandemic.

A video conference of health professionals was set for March 26 and per MEA website will “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. The discussions in the conference are also proposed to include practical joint action on online training capsules for emergency response teams, setting up of an Integrated Disease Surveillance Portal, creation of a Common Research Platform and coordination of research on controlling epidemics within the South Asian region.” As such every country has become an island with communications and borders being closed.

India obviously, being the largest neighbour with much greater capacity and capabilities, assumes much greater responsibility to help her neighbours in the context of her “Neighbourhood First Policy”. India as such has emerged as the first responder in case of any natural disasters or calamities in the region and is duly regarded for that. Misplaced notions about India being the “bully “or “Big Brother Syndrome” etcetera have been replaced by greater trust and expectations of the regional partners in our neighbourhood.

The hope that SAARC could see a revival with this initiative is not misplaced. This appears to be the second lifeline PM Modi has thrown to the regional organisation even though sick of Pakistan’s continued and malicious support to terrorism against India and its illegal and misplaced tirade on Kashmir. First time, it was in May 2014 when PM Modi had invited all SAARC leaders to his swearing in ceremony and launched his “Neighbourhood First Policy” in action. India, meanwhile, has invested a great deal in sub-regional organisations like BBIN and BIMSTEC connecting her Neighbourhood Policy with the East Asia pivot even though it has not given up on SAARC as is clearly evident from its continued commitment and initiatives.

India has consistently followed a policy that an economically stronger neighbour is an asset for her own security. But it has had its share of difficulties in maintaining the relationships at a comfortable level with her neighbours at one time or the other. Since neighbourhood is no choice and a stronger neighbour with a balanced outlook is a perquisite for one’s own growth India follows a non-reciprocal policy providing maximum possible assistance especially through preferential market access, capacity building and investments and security and counter terrorism matrix. India also emerged as a first responder and often a security provider be it water shortages and coup attempts in Maldives, devastating earthquakes in Nepal or recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka or the recurring floods in Bangladesh, special assistance to Afghanistan or for that matter immediate assistance in the wake of Corona pandemic. It is high time all members of the 35 years old SAARC recognise that their fate lies in the growth and development of the region. It goes without saying that negativity and support to terrorism will be self-destructive.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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