South Asia Studies

The resurrection of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and hope for further cooperation amidst covid-19

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SAARC Development Fund office in Thimphu city, July 2016 03.jpg
Image by Arif Arifin, CC BY-SA 4.0

The genesis of the novel coronavirus was found in China and from there it began to engulf the entire world in an unprecedented manner. Within a short span of time it was infecting and killing people around the world and brought many activities to a standstill. The virus has not recognized the natural or political boundaries and continues to spread at an alarming rate, leading to global crisis.

The geographical region of South Asia is very close to China where the virus originated and also close to Iran, one of the countries with the highest level of infection. As a region, South Asia has one of the highest populations in the world and is, furthermore, still a developing region.

To protect the entire region from the impact and to limit the spread of the novel pandemic virus, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated a video conference with all the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on 15th March, 2020.

The establishment of the regional organisation was first proposed by Bangladesh and then supported by Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Its establishment was not smooth, facing initial hurdles as both India and Pakistan were not at all supportive of forming or joining a regional organisation. Despite this the SAARC finally materialised in 1985.

The main objective of the SAARC was to collectively accelerate the process of social and economic development in the South Asian region. Since its formation SAARC has held a total of 18 Summits. The 19th Summit was schedule to take place in Pakistan (Islamabad) in 2016, but was cancelled when India decided to boycott the summit on the grounds of a terrorist attack on the Indian army camp at Uri (Jammu& Kashmir) by a terrorist organisation based in Pakistan. This decision was backed by other members, and consequently the 19th Summit was cancelled without further information as to when members would meet again.

The last time all the members met was in 2014 at Kathmandu (Nepal) for the 18th Summit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to hold a video conference to discuss novel coronavirus was a breakthrough in the context of SAARC. After almost 6 years all eight members came together, albeit on a virtual platform, for a common humanitarian cause.

The main objective of the conference was to collectively outline a strong strategy to limit the spread of the virus in the South Asian region. First and foremost the task was to be alert and to take precautionary measures, strengthen existing infrastructure, and create new infrastructure to handle infected cases.

Various proposals were forwarded by India, the most important was setting up a Covid-19 Emergency Fund to which funds would be contributed by members on a voluntary basis. To start with, India declared its initial contribution of US$10 million.

India also committed to set up a rapid response team of doctors and specialists, online training centres for emergency staff and the arrangement of testing equipment. Further, a video conference with doctors and specialists from various member countries was planned for a week or 10 days later, to seek the best methods and practices to combat the virus. This information was to be shared among the members. The above-mentioned proposal and many others were put forward.

The outcome of the conference was that all the members provided a quick helping hand to deal with the pandemic by contributing to the proposed Covid-19 Emergency Fund. Afghanistan pledged to contribute USD1,000,000, Bangladesh USD1,500,000, Bhutan USD100,000, Maldives USD200,000, Nepal USD831,393.41, Pakistan USD3,000,000 and Sri Lanka USD5,000,000. This positive response in such a short span of time may be first of its kind within the SAARC.

Additionally, a follow up video conference was held in which all members shared information about the present condition in their respective countries. As the number of infections and deaths was increasing, member states decided respond to meet the needs of its constituents. India handed medical supplies comprising surgical masks, gloves, and other PPE to Bhutan. India also assisted in transporting medicines to the Maldives, gifted a 10-tonne medical consignment to Sri Lanka, organised video conferences with senior health officials and trade officials to discuss impediments to the trade due to Covid-19.

SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDMC-IU) Gandhinagar set up a website for all members to share and access information about the situations in their respective countries, and to exchange information about practices followed to combat the virus.

Further, the India PM has been in continuous touch with the heads of other members countries to exchange information of the current situation. Most important has been the member-state’s Health Ministers video conference, hosted by Pakistan on 23rd April, 2020. During the video conference members discussed sharing real-time information and clinical data, training of medical staff, the supply of medical equipment and medicines and also enhancing cooperation with the international organisation like WHO.

In nutshell it can be said that although no official summit has taken place since 2014, and the video conference initiated by India cannot be called an official summit, it has led to the resurrection of the SAARC. Further, the quick response from members in terms of contribution to the emergency fund, and the proactive role of India, among the biggest and most developed countries in South Asia, should act as a confidence booster for the SAARC as a whole. This will also help build other member state’s confidence in India.

Thus, this temporary and impromptu cooperation can be seen as a positive step during abnormal times, opening the door for permanent cooperation towards the well-being and development of the South Asian Region.

About Pravhat Lama and Chokey Namgyal Bhutia

Pravhat Lama, Assistant Professor at Raja Peary Mohan College, Uttarpara, Hooghly, West Bengal. Completed Ph.D from Centre For East Asian Studies, SIS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Can be contacted at lamapravhat@gmail.com

Chokey Namgyal Bhutia, Assistant Professor at Burtuk College, Gangtok, Sikkim. Ph.D Research Scholar, Centre for South Asian Studies, SIS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Can be contacted at chokeynamgyal@gmail.com

Published:
16th July, 2020