Contextual Elevation of SAARC

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by Dr. Rajkumar Singh 14 May 2019

One of the major policy initiatives taken by the Modi government is to focus back on its immediate neighbors in South Asia. Even before becoming the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi hinted that his foreign policy will actively focus on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbors which is being termed “neighborhood first” policy in the media and he started well by inviting all heads of state/heads of government of South Asian countries in his inauguration and on the second day of office he held bilateral talks with all of them individually which was dubbed as a mini SAARC summit. Later during a launch event at ISRO, he asked Indian scientists to take the endeavor to develop a dedicated SAARC satellite to share the fruits of the technology like telemedicine, e-learning, etc. with the people across South Asia to complement the currently operating Indian Technical and Economic Co-operation Programme in the region.

Region South Asia

The Indian subcontinent or South Asia encompasses today eight very different sovereign states of very different sizes: India, Pakistan Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, and Afghanistan. The terms South Asia and India refer, in the first instance, to a vast geographical space stretching from the Himalayan mountain ranges in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south and from the valley of the Indus in the west to the plains of the Brahmaputra in the east. It has 3 percent of the world’s area, 23 percent of its population and 2 percent of its GDP. Within that, India has 72 percent of the city, 77 percent of the population and 75 percent of the GDP. The geographical boundaries drawn by the highest mountain ranges in the world and encircling seas and oceans set the whole of the subcontinent apart from the rest of the world.

Recent Conferences

The eighteenth summit of ‘South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation’ (SAARC) was held in Kathmandu the capital of Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal during 26–27 November 2014. The theme of the summit was Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity, focused on enhancing connectivity between the member states for easier transit-transport across the region. Sushil Koirala, the then Nepalese Prime Minister, was the main host of the event which took place in Rashtriya Sabha Griha Sanandan Raj, Nepal. The summit took place after three years as the previous summit was held in 2011 in the Maldives.

Foreign Ministers of the eight member states signed an agreement on energy cooperation namely ‘SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity)’ in the presence of their heads of state and government during the concluding ceremony of the 18th SAARC Summit on 27 November. Although Pakistan stalled, citing insufficient internal preparations, signing of two other agreements on Vehicular Traffic and Railways respectively. Although Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, the current SAARC Chair, expressed his hope that the ‘Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic amongst SAARC Member States’, and ‘SAARC Regional Agreement on Railways’ would be signed later after the Transport Ministers of these countries reviewed them.

India-Pakistan Stand-off

The India-Pakistan stand-off on the first day threatened to jeopardize the entire summit process as Pakistan seemed to be in the mood to block every Indian led proposal. But the next day things have changed when the two Prime Ministers met privately at the retreat session which led to Pakistan agreeing one out of three proposed agreements and they also met and shook hands publicly during the closing ceremony and this ‘transient peace’ in the relationship was believed to brokered by the Nepalese side as a face-saving measure for the Kathmandu summit.

Apart from thwarting the Pakistani ” Negative veto and approach ” to key projects India is following on parallel sub-SAARC and broader regional initiatives like the BIMSTEC and BBIN that eventually are expected to inject synergies into the SAARC cooperation process by associating other neighbors of India like China and Myanmar along with SAARC members like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. PM Modi went an extra mile and met PM Nawaz Sharif an unprecedented five times in less than 18 months including his unscheduled visit to Lahore on December 25, 2015 to felicitate PM Sharif on his birthday and his daughter’s, marriage . But in contrast to the Indian response, Pak- based terrorists carried out the Pathankot and Uri attacks immediately after the goodwill gestures by India, while no progress in the resolution of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks was frustrating enough. India made it clear that “Talks and Terror cannot go hand in hand.” Hence India was forced to cancel participation at the November 2016, 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad citing the absence of a conducive environment and non-cooperation in combating cross border terrorism by Pakistan. Other countries followed suit, and the summit was postponed. Now, it is believed that if at all any major breakthrough with Pakistan can be achieved, it can only be done under Prime Minister Modi, who does think out of the box.

India’s Positive Roles

India has always been committed in the fulfillment of announcements made by the Prime Minister at the XVIII SAARC Summit,(i) India has contributed US$ 1.05 million for upgradation of the SAARC Tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS Centre laboratory in Kathmandu to a supranational laboratory (ii) a delegation from Afghanistan visited India in November, 2015 to participate in the polio immunization drive and learn from our best practices (iii) India organized the first-ever South Asian Annual Disaster Management Exercise (SAADMEx) from 23-26th November, 2015 in New Delhi to provide participants a practical, realistic exercise aiming to address the diverse strategic issues of a multi-national disaster relief operation and coordination (iv) The regime of Indian business and medical visas have been liberalized for SAARC nationals (v) India has set up a Special Purpose Facility(SPF) to finance infrastructure projects in the region that