As far as exclusive international clubs go, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) must be one that does not have a very long waiting list. In fact, it probably has no seekers at all, even for observer status. It is seen as a grouping that has done precious little for the region, held hostage as it is by the squabbles between India and Pakistan. Yet, the horrific Nepal tragedy showed how much of a difference real cooperation between its member countries can make. India was quick off the mark with its assistance, the government lost no time at all in taking a decision to extend all help within hours of the devastating earthquake.
Now I am a bit sick of hearing how India is big brother and that others do not want to live in the shadow of the schoolyard bully. Size does matter and it did when India was able to race to Nepal’s assistance so quickly. This is not to crow about something that should be par for the course among neighbours. This is just to highlight how much the countries of the fragile region need each other.
We live in a geographically volatile area. Bangladesh is prone to frequent floods, the Maldives fears that climate change will push it under the sea any day, Nepal, as we have seen, is quake-prone as are many parts of India and Pakistan. These circumstances alone should be enough to push Saarc together in, if nothing else, an uneasy cooperation. Help must come quickly and from as near as possible in the event of a tragedy. No doubt the international community will come to the rescue but many precious lives could be lost before that.
There are many areas that Saarc cannot agree on, mainly how to deal with a truculent Pakistan and an angry India. But these should take the backseat and the grouping should now move to strengthen one area where no one can have a quarrel — that of disaster management. I don’t think anyone will contest the fact that India is the engine that pulls the region along. Pakistan may find it difficult to swallow the idea of cooperation with India in any field. But even it cannot be churlish enough to deny that the region needs a proper disaster management mechanism and that due to its sheer size and werewithal, India has to take the lead. There is already a disaster management outfit under the aegis of Saarc. I don’t when it last actually worked, if you know better do enlighten me.
The National Disaster Relief Force from India showed exemplary professionalism in Nepal. It could now train other such forces which could be constituted in other countries. And there could be a coordinating agency within Saarc to bring these forces together in the eventuality of a disaster. Due to sheer proximity, it makes sense for the neighbourhood to pitch in first. During times when things are calm, these forces could be active in studying the terrain and conducting mock exercises in how to spring into action when a disaster strikes. There should be a clear command and control structure much like an army if such task forces are to be perfectly coordinated.
Disaster management is not something that should kick in only when one comes upon us as in the case of Nepal. The task force should be reviewing the problem areas that could trigger a flashpoint in the Saarc countries. For example, it could work with expert agencies to study the flooding patterns of the rivers that span some of the countries. It could study the geological movements in the mountain areas that ring the landmass. It could study the hydrological patterns of the seas and ocean. All this information will come in handy not just to predict a disaster but in containing the damage once one has taken place.
The magnitude of the Nepal tragedy should be a real wake-up call for the region. The area’s geographical vulnerabilities are many and lethal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his priorities clear when he went calling on Nepal after he assumed office. His government did not hesitate for a moment in sending help. The Cassandras may say this is smart politics, to which I ask, so what? If it saves lives, all these semantics don’t matter. The Nepal crisis has been an exemplar in help being extended without the usual nonsense about this being one in the eye for China or any talk of one-upmanship. It has been just a story of shared sorrow.
If Saarc could set up such a structure, that would be a greater unifying factor than all our track two and track three diplomacy. It could evolve naturally into something more than just a disaster mechanism and perhaps encourage people-oriented cooperation in normal times as well. Nepal will take a very long time to recover from this near mortal blow. But, I really hope that the effort begun by the Modi government will not fade away once its news value is over. The task of bringing back normalcy to this country called the kingdom of the gods is not going to be quick or easy. No government, whether India or anyone other, can focus on this for too long, either.
This is where a Saarc body comes in. It can oversee the rebuilding and rehabilitation work for as long as it takes. In a sad way, the tragedy has brought together the countries of the region and for once no petty bilateral issues have been raised. This is the way forward as I see it. So much time has been lost during which Saarc has slowly moved to the bottom of the heap while other groupings like Asean have moved ahead in many areas. Saarc has had no sense of purpose so far. And so no one really takes it seriously anymore.
The contentious issues like riparian problems between India and Bangladesh, terrorism between India and Pakistan, the Tamil problem between India and Sri Lanka will not go away in a hurry. But certainly, if progress can be made in coming together to save the lives and livelihoods of millions of the region’s people, it could well be a stepping stone to greater cooperation in other areas. It is sad that I am even making such a suggestion, that a greater edifice be built on the foundations of a tragedy. But if a noble goal can be achieved, forged in the furnace of this Himalayan tragedy, the region can only benefit. It is an idea well worth putting forward to the other countries of the region by India. The message should be clear, we can swim or sink together. The choice is quite clear.
Who knows, a pan-Saarc disaster management force could be a template for a world increasingly riven by conflict and disasters. This is the way forward, the only way to rescue Saarc from the irrelevance it faces today.