As the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the entire world, leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) stepped up last Sunday to review the situation and preparations to fight the virus in South Asia. Initiated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the call for collaborative action was received promptly and enthusiastically by leaders of most SAARC countries.
The web conference saw SAARC leaders discuss several measures, including setting up an emergency fund to which India would make an initial contribution of USD 10 million.
This rare display of solidarity by SAARC leaders, especially when SAARC has lost its teeth and holds no relevance for the common South Asian, makes a compelling statement.
Optimists and those who believe in the possibility of an integrated South Asia are tempted to take this as a signal that there might be some hope for reviving SAARC after all.
Especially, the idea of “a common research platform, to coordinate research on controlling epidemic diseases” within South Asia can be perceived as a spark that ignites the integration of South Asia in healthcare to begin with, followed by other spheres of society and economy.
The hope is not unreasonable. South Asia occupies just 3% of the total global land mass but is home to about a quarter of the global population. The region is located strategically in the heart of Asia, connecting West Asia to South East Asia, and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Russia to the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean.
These factors make it an extremely important region in terms of economy, geopolitics and even climate change, yet lack in intra-regional connectivity means South Asia stops short of leveraging its inherent advantages.
It is no wonder then that discussions on an (un)integrated South Asia have found considerable traction globally. The World Bank is at the forefront with its “One South Asia” initiative promoting greater regional integration in trade and transport, water management, energy and combating climate change. Yet what has been lacking is a sincere initiative sustained with proactive consistency from the inside.
The SAARC was an attempt on these lines. However, the initiative quickly lost steam due to chronic mutual distrust among member nations, non-implementation of numerous agreements, including the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and enduring hostilities between India and Pakistan.
Especially, Pakistan has not been able to overcome its enmity with India for the interest of the region. This has been evident during initiatives such as the SAARC satellite project in 2017 or the transregional road connectivity project in 2014.
Unsurprisingly, in the case of this web conference as well, Pakistan was the last to respond and quick to clarify that its Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Health, and not the Prime Minister, would be joining in. While Pakistan backed some of the proposals made in the web conference, it also tried to use the platform to speak about Jammu & Kashmir, which simply underlined what has persisted all along: that friction with India ultimately makes Pakistan blind to the bigger picture of South Asian integration, even when it has the highest number of positive coronavirus cases in the entire SAARC region.
Yet, SAARC must move ahead. It must seize the opportunity which crises such as these present – the opportunity to unite over a common challenge which transcends our borders and geopolitical equations – but it must also go one step further, to sustain the collaborative spirit and diffuse it into other crucial, equally pressing challenges the region continues to grapple with.
The current surge in the collaborative spirit of South Asian nations is rooted in the primal yet temporary fears created by the magnitude and exponentiality of the coronavirus pandemic, however, it also contains seeds of potential integrative action on more persisting, long term issues. President Solih of Maldives and President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka highlighted the economic setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic, asking SAARC to unite for economic recovery of the region as well.
These are hopeful signs of SAARC. The fact that despite its ineffectiveness, some of its members are still looking at it for solutions and support, shows that it still retains some of its original mandate. That South Asian nations are still willing to unite as promptly under SAARC, as they perhaps would have under an alternate multilateral mechanism such as BIMSTEC which sidesteps Pakistan and its paranoia about India, shows that the idea of ‘One South Asia’ retains strength internally.
Of course, the strengthening of this spirit does not make decades-old political, policy and systemic hurdles disappear, but it points to the very real possibility that they can be overcome.
Unexpected crises such as the coronavirus pandemic are temporary, but the positive shifts they bring can last longer and can have a cascading effect on other sectors of economy and society. In the context of the pandemic, these shifts are likely to be developments in medical research and technology, reforms in public healthcare systems, changes in lifestyles, and invigorated multilateral cooperation among affected countries, such as in SAARC.
With the right kind of planning, implementation and persistence, they can even cascade into economy, environment and political stability, and hold the potential to transform South Asia for the better.
However, for this to happen, what is most required is will that is backed by actions, not only political, but also of non-state actors such as academia, civil society, businesses and media. The SAARC leaders’ web conference, no matter how positively one interprets it, is but a seed that can sprout and grow into an integrated South Asia, only if watered and nourished adequately and consistently. India has seized the opportunity presented by the crisis to unite SAARC in sickness, and other nations have responded well.
There is a strong and genuine hope that this unity continues well into times of health and leads to a cohesive South Asia. Whether that actually happens and to what extent remains to be seen.
 Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also a co-founder of The Tilak Chronicle and tweets @curiousriparian.