Why in the News?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the first-ever virtual summit of SAARC leaders on March 15 2020. The deliberations reflected on the recognition of the serious menace posed by COVID-19 and the need for the robust regional cooperation to overcome it.
Why was the meeting unprecedented?
The virtual summit is the first high level SAARC meet since 2014, and comes after India’s pulling out of the 2016 summit following the Uri terrorist attack; it was to have been hosted in Islamabad. Pakistan too has made its concerns over Jammu and Kashmir a sticking point in re-engagement.
Why does SAARC need to work Together?
- Afghanistan and Pakistan have specific challenges as they share long borders with Iran.
- 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, 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 the public health services can cope.
What was the outcome /positive of the virtual meeting?
- First, all the eight member-states were represented at the video conference — all at the level of head of state or government, except Pakistan. The Secretary General of SAARC participated.
- It was proposed to launch a COVID-19 Emergency Fund. Within days, all the countries (India $10 million), except Pakistan, contributed to it voluntarily and the fund has already been operationalised.
- Post meeting India has received requests for medical equipment, medicines and other supplies from Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Many requests have already been accepted and action has been taken.
- A follow-up video-conference of senior health officials was arranged on March 26.
- Steps are now under way to nurture technical cooperation through a shared electronic platform as also to arrange exchange of all useful information among health professionals through more informal means.
What does the meeting Indicate?
- The fact that PM Modi decided to make the video conference available live indicates his desire to also reach out to and reassure the public in the SAARC region.
- Beyond this is the message sent out by deciding to engage with the more or less moribund SAARC neighborhood grouping rather than other organisations, the government has preferred to engage with recently such as BIMSTEC, BBIN and IORA.