COVID-19: An opportunity for the revival of SAARC


With COVID-19 virus declared as a pandemic, spreading across countries including South Asia, people are being advised to live in isolation. Claiming more than 6500 deaths worldwide and more than 1.67 lakh confirmed cases and counting, the novel virus has affected every sector and thus demands coordinated action. In the wake of this medical emergency, it is the wit of the wise to advocate for a combined approach to combat this virus. As the COVID-19 virus started jumping across boundaries, the need was first felt by the G-7 members to go for a combined mitigation strategy. Realising the same, India took the lead when its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, on last Friday, insinuated the SAARC leadership to come together and chalk out a coordinated and robust strategy to tackle the spread of Coronavirus. The proposal was welcomed by all nations barring Pakistan, which later on participated in the video-conferencing on Sunday. The initiative was also hailed by the current Secretary-General of SAARC, Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, a Sri Lankan diplomat, reiterating on devising a robust strategy to fight the Coronavirus together. The one-and-a-half-hour video conference, although not an official SAARC meeting, ended up with member states agreeing on working together and collaborate on various policy measures. Important to ruminate on was the proposal for a COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC members, to which India initially pledged to contribute 10 Million US dollars.

SAARC, an acronym for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, came into existence in the early 1980s. The group brings together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka besides India, intending to strengthen regional integration and connectivity. The region covering only 3 per cent of the total geographical area, amounts to 21 per cent of the world’s population pool. Therefore, collective action is needed to thwart the outbreak, causing minimum loss to the life of the people in the region, which stipulates for a regional stratagem. And considering here the World Bank report, South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world, with only 5 per cent of inter-regional trade out of the total trade of the South Asian nations. Therefore, there is an utmost need for the revival of SAARC, which has been in dormancy since 2016, following the conflict and tensions between two of its members—India and Pakistan. The group has a vast potential to offer people-to-people contacts, and in maintaining regional cooperation and stability in the Indian sub-continent.

The meeting held via a video conference after a tumultuous gap of five years provided an opportunity for the South Asian nations to engage in tandem. In the minutes of the meeting, apart from floating an emergency fund pool, the member states also agreed on sharing of ICT and logistics in addition to insulating inter-regional trade and development. Thus, it tacitly paved the way for SAARC to resume its functioning. With India breaking the ice, the ball is now in the court of other member states, especially Pakistan. Pakistan needs to work out a reasonable mechanism to engage in the regional grouping by keeping its bilateral issues at bay, for a coordinated and integrated development of the region as a whole. The move showcased India’s ‘big brother’ attitude by taking more significant responsibilities and working towards developing a feeling of mutual trust in the region.

Within the new multilateral world order, where uncertainties always wrap the international affairs, India has by and large an essential role in the development of the region. Although in recent years, India has shown keen interest in BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), an inter-regional organisation which connects South Asia with South-East Asia. However fruitful it may be, it is believed that BIMSTEC could only complement SAARC rather than replace it, because unlike SAARC which is a pure regional organisation, BIMSTEC merely acts as a bridge between two different regions. Moreover, inter-regional trade and cultural integration are at the core of SAARC negotiations, and its absence now has created a colossal vacuum in the socio-economic and cultural integration of South Asia. On the other hand, BIMSTEC mostly concerned with the economic and security cooperation has failed to fill this void. It also was unable to create a free trade zone following a Free Trade Agreement, which its member countries had vowed for. BIMSTEC instead provides the South Asian countries an opportunity to interlink with ASEAN countries and its success does not render the SAARC unjustified.

Further, china superposing itself in the region by overshadowing other regional powers needs a severe contemplation. So, SAARC has a geostrategic significance for India, where it could be reinforced as a common forum by the member states for opposing china’s hegemony in the region. Also, central to India’s neighbourhood first policy, it could help in devising an alternative notion of development, taking into consideration the conditions peculiar to the region. Moreover, SAARC is not only an organisation of different nation-states, rather it reflects the collective identity of the member states, both historically as well as in the contemporary world. As recently hinted by the former Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the revival of SAARC is must for the successful regional integration, which has a possibility of becoming the 4th global trading bloc.

Since India has already belled the cat, the responsibility is now on the SAARC secretariat to foster a continuous dialogue to break the barriers. The first thing the secretariat should do is, commence a meeting of foreign secretaries, who besides chalking out the roadmap for collective action against the novel COVID-19 virus will build avenues for future discourse of the organisation. Steadily and slowly it could be then expanded to Ministerial level and lastly the meeting of the Head of the Governments. The revival of SAARC could be the remedy in this hour of distress. Finally quoting Michael Laitman, who recently said that, “Most of all, Coronavirus is teaching us a lesson in mutual responsibility. It is forcing us to recognise the painful fact that we are interconnected and interdependent the world over.”

Ubaid Sidique is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.




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