South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders held a summit via video-conference to discuss the way forward to fight thecoronaviruspandemic. The idea of holding a summit via video-conference was initiated by the Prime Minister of India.
● The SAARC was established with the signing of the SAARC Charter in Dhaka on 8 December 1985. SAARC comprises eight member states: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Secretariat of the Association was set up in Kathmandu on 17 January 1987.
● Decisions at all levels are to be taken on the basis of unanimity; and bilateral and contentious issues are excluded from the deliberations of the Association.
● Following the2016 Uri terror attack, India cancelled its participation in the 19th SAARC summit, alleging Pakistan's involvement in the terror attack.
The video-conferencing was joined by the heads/official representatives of the SAARC Countries. During the hour-and-a-half-long summit, many of the leaders expressed concern over the economic impact and called for a strategy to deal with the aftermath.
Prime Minister’s decision to convene a video conference of leaders of theeight-member SAARC on Sunday represents a much-needed “out-of-the-box” thinking as the world faces theCOVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The hour-long discussion with the leaders of Afghanistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Special Assistant on Health to the Pakistan PM, came up with shared and unique perspectives in dealing with the virus.
India pledged $10 million toward a COVID-19 emergency fund and it also announced that it would be putting together a team of specialists for the SAARC states.
Specific Challenges faced by the SAARC countries
Afghanistan and Pakistan have specific challenges as they share long borders with Iran, which has emerged one of the major hubs of the virus.
Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka worry about the impact on tourism, which is a mainstay of their economies.
Another concern is of an escalation in the virus’s spread in the subcontinent. Though, South Asia has seen a much lower incidence globally, but given its much higher population density, it is clear that any outbreak will lead to far more casualties.
Other concerns are about under-reporting, as fewer people are being tested in much of South Asia, and whether public health services can cope.
The move to convene a video conference of the SAARC states to collectively rein in the threat of COVID-19 can be seen as a thoughtful drive to respond to China’s growing influence in the region by reasserting India’s leadership.
This move has played a great role in triggering SAARC, which has been sluggish since 2016. Following the 2016 Uri terror attacks, the summit was finally called off.
It is a positive move toward smooth South Asian integration. Such a grouping is a helpful way for regional nations to show solidarity with countries that face disaster or crisis.
The move is seen as a masterstroke to assert India’s leadership in the South Asian region. India is also pushing for more clout as the world’s largest democracy.
Pandemics do not recognize political borders, and in times of trouble, reaching out to neighboring countries is the most obvious course of action. Clearly, reviving the SAARC initiative, will not be easy, given poor ties between SAARC’s two largest members, India and Pakistan. But it is significant that New Delhi seems to be willing to try to put politics aside when dealing with the pandemic that confronts all. It remains to be seen how closely the SAARC countries will cooperate to deal with the virus.
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