Can South Asia expect more?

by Amir Mohammad Sayem | Published: 00:00, May 16,2020


A screengrab of representatives of SAARC member countries holding a video-conference on March 15. — Dawn

IN MARCH, an emergency video-conference was held on the coronavirus pandemic and concerted efforts for its prevention among heads of the governments of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which was founded in 1985 to promote regional cooperation. Top leaders of all SAARC nations except Pakistan, which was represented by is health minister, joined the conference and agreed to establish a joint SAARC response mechanism with the creation of a COVID-19 emergency fund and some other initiatives to tackle and mitigate risks of the pandemic. South Asian countries have already pledged providing fund; health professionals held a follow-up video-conference on possible health response and some other progresses have already been made.

The video-conference is apparently a good step. Nations in South Asia, with a long common history, which account for about 3 per cent of the world’s area, 21 per cent of the world’s population and 4.21 per cent of the global economy, have rarely made concerted efforts to address transboundary concerns. Besides, SAARC, which has lied inactive since 2016 because of India’s refusal to attend the 2016 SAARC summit in Islamabad in Pakistan, has not yet greatly succeeded to generate desired cooperation on the mitigation of transnational challenges and regional development.

Such an initiative relevantly raises another vital expectation: Can it lead to similar steps to resolve other transnational problems among South Asian nations? In fact, South Asia, which has economic and other potential to move forward, has been facing a number of crucial problems for long such as border clashes, nuclear war tension, Jammu and Kashmir problems, transnational security threats, the sharing of international rivers, trafficking in drug substances, trafficking in humans and climate change threats. Evidently, some transnational concerns such as trafficking in drug substances are directly multilateral; some are bilateral such as the border killing.

Of course, the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic and other transnational problems are remarkably different. The threat, which has no national boundary, is collective to all in the region regardless of age, gender, religion, etc and beyond. As a result, collective national, regional and global efforts are what is called for. On the contrary, other transboundary concerns are obviously not as collective in terms of potential impact as the pandemic is. Yet, other transnational concerns are not negligible by any means as these have massive impact on the lives of many millions, on economy and the environment.

Besides the issue of border problems and Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan, there has also been tension regarding nuclear capabilities of the two countries. Any such problems may put millions in South Asia directly and indirectly at risk, along with huge economic, environmental and other impact.

Among other problems, the long-standing water-sharing dispute centring on some transboundary rivers such as the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Indus and the Teesta among Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal has negatively impacted irrigation, ecosystem, livelihood and other river-based activities in the lower riparian countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Drug trafficking and human trafficking also have enormous economic, social and other impact. Climate change, a major global concern, is projected to bring about threatening regional impact, including the submersion of vast low-lying coastal areas and displacement of millions especially in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

There are also many regional and country-to-country initiatives for solving many such concerns. Some remarkable multilateral and bilateral conventions, treaties and agreements include the 1990 SAARC convention on narcotic drugs and psychotic substances, the 2002 SAARC trafficking convention, the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, the 1996 India-Nepal Mahakali treaty, the 1996 India-Bangladesh Ganges treaty, the 1988 India-Pakistan non-attack agreement and the 2018 Bangladesh-India agreement on ending border tension. But most efforts of the leaders of South Asian countries, conventions, treaties and agreements exist mainly on paper, even if some have notable contributions. Still, a number of areas including cross-border tension lack effective bilateral and multilateral treaties. As a consequence, many resolvable transnational problems remain unattended.

Towards the mitigation of transboundary concerns, there are many external and internal challenges such as geopolitics, strained bilateral relation, rising nationalism, religious tensions, scepticism, and internal political constraints. Geopolitical challenges and strained bilateral relation have led to limited cooperation, mistrust and, sometimes, aggressive behaviour in the region. Geopolitics is well justified for the materialisation of national interests of any sovereign state in the almost anarchic international arena. Yet, it is possible to promote regional cooperation, which is in place in some regions.

South Asian nations should realise the importance of the resolution of unresolved but resolvable problems. Solution to the problems can result in prosperity for all South Asian countries, which are struggling hard to move forward on respective grounds having enormous potential and natural, human and other resources, in terms of increase in useful regional cooperation through the SAARC platform, the establishment of meaningful bilateral relations, the enhancement of regional economic ties with increased trade opportunities, improvement in social-cohesion, promotion and maintenance of regional peace and stability, strengthening the capacity to tackle various collective challenges and so on. These, as a consequence, can facilitate ways for South Asian countries to cope with the changed post-pandemic reality.

South Asian countries should materialise the regional initiative with needed plans and cooperate with collective efforts for the prevention of the COVID-19 threat, which has reduced international cooperation varyingly across the world. But giving an emphasis on the solution to other regional concerns is also desired and, instead of rivalry, South Asian leaders need to make earnest cooperation by reflecting willingness and commitment, which are more than formal conventions, treaties or agreements, to mitigate challenges including strained bilateral relation, to solve transnational problems and to make the entire region a better place for all. Unless resolved, such transnational problems can the way forward in the future, too.


Amir Mohammad Sayem writes opinion pieces on social issues, politics, environmental issues, international relations and current affairs.

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