A reminiscence in textbooks in Nepal and eastern India on the 1934 Nepal earthquake mentioned about how electric bulbs came out of their holders in and around the Dharahara tower while the minaret remained intact. The ferocity of nature this time did not spare this 203-foot tower built in 1832. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proactive reaching out to Nepal indicates India’s traditional commitment on extending humanitarian assistance when the need arises. It also shows how India and other South Asian countries cannot escape the increasing wrath of trans-border environmental injuries as demonstrated in the devastating floods in Kosi (2008), Kedarnath (2013), Srinagar (2014) and the Indus in Pakistan (2010). This calls for collective regional action and strong trans-border institutional collaborations in order to manage such crises.
The devastating earthquake in Nepal has led to three crises: Food, sanitation and shelter. The Kathmandu-centric relief operations topped by inaccessibility to other affected regions in Nepal have thrown a formidable challenge to the regional and global institutions that are engaged in managing this tragedy.
At this juncture a critical regional intervention is needed to thwart the food crisis and hunger deaths in Nepal. One would ask, why is Saarc not invoking the operationalisation of the Saarc food bank? An Agreement on Establishing the Saarc Food Security Reserve was signed in Kathmandu in 1987. This agreement provides for a reserve of food grains to meet emergencies in member countAries. It has been ratified by all the members countries and came into force on August 12, 1988. The reserve stood at 241,580 tonnes in January 2002. A member country can draw the same in the event of natural and man-made calamities and inability to cope with such a state or condition by using its nation’s reserve. A member country could even make use of this reserve if it is unable to procure the food grains it requires through normal trading transactions on account of balance of payments constraints.
The Saarc Food Security Reserve Board meets once a year. It also undertakes a periodic review and assessment of the food situation and prospects in the region taking into account factors like production, consumption, trade, prices, quality and stocks of food grains. A special meeting of the Board (Kathmandu, April 2001) dwelt upon the possibility of instituting more practical measures for facilitating the use of the reserve during emergencies. This Board after 15 years in 2002 identified institutions/organisations in member states to be contacted in the case of emergency requirements for withdrawal from the Reserve.
However, nothing worked. Nowhere were the reserves used despite compelling situations in cyclones like Sidr in Bangladesh, flood in the Indus and earthquake in PoK in Pakistan and Tsunami in Sri Lanka and several such crises in India. Like other Saarc agreements, there is no timeframe, accountability clauses and independent mechanism to evaluate the implementation. There were questions across the subcontinent as to why food reserves remained dormant even when a large number of people faced food insecurity during natural calamities and other ruinous contingencies. In order to give the initiative a more realistic shape the Saarc agriculture/food ministers meeting in its Islamabad meeting in 2006 agreed to create the Saarc Regional Food Bank. It was again a full five years later in the 17th Summit held in Maldives that the regional leaders decided that the Saarc Food Bank will have 48,6000 metric tonnes of rice with contributions from all members states. India has the largest share 30,6400 MTs.
Despite this agreement signed by all states, this food bank remains notional. No one knows where it is physically located, how to draw upon it and at what cost. The terms and conditions of operationalising the reserves viz, prices, mode of payment, conditions of payment, etc are yet to be finalised. More critically no one has any idea about the institutions involved in its distribution and the transportation mechanisms. Nepal being the chair of Saarc today and India being the largest contributor (63%), why not make use of the provision of the Food Bank in dealing with unprecedented food insecurity and shattering crisis in Nepal today. Just five months ago at the 18th Summit of Saarc leaders in Kathmandu in November 2014, the leaders directed “to eliminate the threshold criteria from the Saarc Food Bank Agreement so as to enable the Member States to avail food grains, during both emergency and normal time food difficulty”.
The only way to test the efficacy of this food bank is to expeditiously implement it in a real time situation like the crisis in Nepal today. This will put to the test the design and mechanism of its implementation and machineries of its operationalisation. Could India unilaterally invoke the provisions of this agreement and start supporting Nepal earthquake victims under the provisions of this regional food bank ?
This would in fact pave the way for operationalising other numerous Saarc agreements which have been a crying regional need. This would also institutionalise the process of engaging the regional solidarity and nurture ‘regionness’ in any national and regional contingencies and exigencies that call for urgent humanitarian assistance. A desperate situation deserves a desperate solution. Nepal being a landlocked country and recovering from a protracted spell of violence and instability is deeply distressed today. It needs innovative, substantive and far-reaching assistance today. This will also add a much larger regional dimension and trigger deeper confidence and trust in the neighbourhood to Prime Minister Modi’s leading-from-the-front approach.
Mahendra P Lama is professor, South Asian Economies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed by the author are personal