Narendra Modi brings together SAARC leaders over coronavirus: Move positions India as regional leader, garners brownie points in tough times

By calling a meeting of SAARC nations on the coronavirus pandemic, India managed to position itself once again as the leading power in the region.

Tara Kartha March 16, 2020 21:04:15 IST
Narendra Modi brings together SAARC leaders over coronavirus: Move positions India as regional leader, garners brownie points in tough times

A writer once remarked, “Every cloud has a silver lining, but it is sometimes difficult to get it to the mint.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his officials may just have proved that wrong. In an extremely shrewd move, the prime minister held a conference call among SAARC leaders to discuss cooperation, at a time when fears of a serious and uncontainable virus outbreak are rising. A meeting between heads of state was certainly called for at such a time. And apart from pushing a bit of badly-needed cooperation, Delhi may have got itself some brownie points, at a time when its global standing needs burnishing.

First off, by calling the meeting, India managed to position itself once again as the leading power in the region. During the teleconference, Delhi put its money where its mouth is, by inviting all leaders to contribute to a common fund in fighting the crisis, and putting up USD 10 million in the kitty. The prime minister also proposed a Rapid Response Team of doctors, assistants and medical kits to be placed at the disposal of any member. India has the largest number of health workers in the region – though not enough by WHO standards – and is well placed to provide immediate aid. Typical of this government, all other assistance offered was practical and immediate, which included an online training capsule for emergency teams and sharing software on integrating disease surveillance.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a video conference with SAARC leaders on chalking out a plan to combat the COVID-19 . PTI

The conference call was useful, with Modi noting down points on more than once occasion. It has become apparent that India will be required to do more later on. Almost all of the leaders present were worried about the economic impact of COVID-19 . Maldives, for instance, has lost 30 percent of its tourism. Everyone (but Pakistan) backed its suggestion for a long-term recovery plan. That will have to be planned ahead.

Second, the fact that of all the leaders, Pakistan’s Imran Khan chose not to attend is another black mark against it at a time of crisis. Worse, its representative chose to bring up the Kashmir issue at the tail end of the meeting. Nothing could have been more badly-timed, given that Pakistan has a poor health sector, with most of its skilled professionals emigrating to other countries. It also has a demonstrated inability to look after its own citizens, as apparent from its refusal to carry out an airlift from China. This exposes SAARC’s biggest weakness, which is the perpetual animosity and churlishness that characterises the Pakistan government’s response to any initiative, however well-disposed. A wiser leadership could have chosen to use COVID-19 to mend fences. Instead, Pakistan continued with its determination to sabotage SAARC due to its determination not to recognise India as a regional leader.

The third aspect is a bit of a negative. That is the inability of SAARC to pull up its sleeves and get to work even when the going was good. SAARC actually started off well in disaster management. It was far ahead of other such regional bodies in taking the lead on the need for cooperation in this area. Successive statements starting from 1987 have not just talked about this, but also commissioned regional studies and set up centres for the purpose. One of them, the SAARC Disaster Management Centre (SDM) was centred in Delhi in 2006. All that activity should have paid off. It didn’t. When an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, SAARC was apparent only in its complete absence. India was however, a first responder, activating ‘Operation Maitri’ which included relief, rescue and medical aid, including assistance from the Indian Army which coordinated with the hundreds of retired Gorkha soldiers in the area. It also provided the largest tranche of aid at some $1.4 billion. No one even remembered SAARC till later, when questions began to be asked.

Soon after, the Disaster Management Centre was moved out of Delhi to Gujarat, and a synergisation of SAARC centres followed, merging the Meteorological Centre in Dhaka, the Forestry Centre in Bhutan, and the Coastal Zone Management Centre in the Maldives. The head of the SDM had indicated that the present leadership is not content with the SDM being just another talk shop and wants it to prove its mettle. But its website is uninspiring. Neither is its Annual Report available nor any other material. Given the raft of conferences, it is assumed that there is some level of expertise and information-sharing.

A Comprehensive Framework on Disaster Management, which focussed on early warning and prevention and professionalising the disaster management system, was also created. That programme of lofty goals ended in 2015. It seems India may have to fall back upon the NDMA (National Disaster Management Agency) and its Armed Forces for the actual action, while the SDMC provides a platform for cooperation.

Ironically, the virus outbreak may actually break down the bureaucratic hurdles that have impeded SAARC's development. The suggestion for a Ministerial Group to take up the issue is likely to be taken up, and India may choose to provide direct medical assistance to Maldives to monitor its far-flung islands. It could choose to do the same to get help to Herat, which is the epicentre of the outbreak in Afghanistan.

All this is very well for taking that silver lining to the mint in terms of our international standing. But if COVID-19 pushes SAARC – even with Pakistan dragging its feet — to take public health, environment, and climate change seriously, then that’s beyond silver. That’s pure gold.

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