In a remarkable display of faith in regional cooperation, the new Prime Minister in Delhi invited all the heads of governments and their representatives of SAARC and Mauritius to his swearing-in. Interestingly, except for a common dinner hosted by the President of India, the SAARC leaders never met as a group. Are we looking forward to a robust, frequent, effective, and efficient regional dialogue on a myriad of issues regarding South Asia, especially on the environment front? Too early to predict, but we shall be hopeful.
The responses from India’s neighbours are surprisingly warm, felicitating the occasion. The attendance points towards the previous government’s dilly-dallying of bilateral as well as regional foreign policies. While officially pronounced as a gesture to SAARC members, a series of bilateral talks occurred without emphasising on obvious Indo-Pak talks.
The first day, first show of the new government has given sufficient pointers for reading future prospects. From hosting leaders and preparing the timing and sequences of bilateral meetings to press briefing, the Indian foreign office did it with a compact strategy for re-energising SAARC. It is too early to judge the SAARC leaders’ presence and the success of the regional bloc in coming days. However, it is clear that the new right-wing government is interested in developing the region as a whole, providing mutual dividends to India and others.
Revitalising SAARC is a better foreign policy option than inept awkward unaddressed perpetual bilateral relations at least in this part of poverty stricken world. The bucket lists of bilateral contentious issues are much larger than domestic fissures. We have seen flip flops for a decade with rise and fall of a neighbour-hood doctrine.
The potential of mutual dividends is huge but untapped. There are plenty of issues that should trigger regional cooperation, but they are left unattended. Can the countries pull their socks up and address these common but serious issues?
Water resource management, especially for transboundary rivers, must be addressed. “Harnessing” transboundary rivers is exploitative and a narrow view in itself, which is a wrong basis for formulating a resource management agenda. So far, all the bilateral water treaties are project-specific and bereft of addressing comprehensive river ecology. Prominent among others is the Inter Basin Water Transfer (IBWT), famously known as river-linking project, which is set to be revived under this government, despite one of its cabinet minister’s opposition to the project.
To begin with, India must put the river-linking project on the SAARC platform to get “consent” from its neighbouring countries where transboundary rivers are to be linked. It will be hard for India to depart from bilateralism followed so far in rivers water, the new leadership should demonstrate its rationality towards multilateralism. The secretaries of the water ministries of SAARC governments must meet in regular intervals to move forward on discussing transboundary rivers.
Energy would be the next priority to attract definitive concerns. The South Asian rivers are attractive to investors, both public and private, for hydropower. The Indian government has promised Bhutan 2120 megawatts of power generation. International financial institutions like World Bank and ADB, and countries like the US, China, Russia, and Japan are standing by to support this financially.
Coal power projects have already been exported to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka by the previous government, and internal talks are ongoing for the transfer of thermal power to Pakistan. The South Asian governments must discuss the cost effectiveness of such hydropower or coal power projects in the interest of the environment and the South Asian population before sealing the projects.
The threat of climate change has shifted the so-called talks of 'hard' and 'soft' security discourse. The SAARC countries have the opportunity and momentum to move out of such traditional security thinking which fuelling military expenditures rather than focusing on human development.
Interestingly, the first SAARC regional study was commissioned on greenhouse gases and natural disasters in the early 90s to send a common South Asian stand at the Earth Summit. The next common stand emerged only in 2009 at Copenhagen. The Colombo Declaration and Thimpu Declaration are examples of the right step in standing together on climate change. As SAARC got the status of an observer at the UN-sponsored climate negotiation, countries must maximise this space effectively.
While South Asian countries are facing similar threats and challenges, they shy away from pulling together as a unit. Bilateral skirmishes should not overshadow larger regional goals. Each South Asian country participated with their own bag of problems and opportunities in the numerous international environmental negotiations. For example, under endangered species treaties, most South Asian countries are signatory, but there is hardly any agreement between the countries. The countries have never shown an interest in striking a common approach prior to these international global platforms. That might be the reason India has been taking away most of the opportunities provided by such international forums like the number of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects under UNFCCC, financial support from Global Environment Facilities (GEF), and Clean Investment Fund (CIF).
Protecting Sundarbans and its tigers under the India-Bangladesh Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) since 2011 came late, but it is a way forward to accommodate other pressing environmental issues. South Asian countries have the momentum to help each other in addressing grave environmental threats such as climate refugee, cross border movement of displaced people, the increasing pace of natural disasters, illegal wildlife trade, protecting coastal areas, and so on. The increased frequency of regional environmental diplomacy can bring people together for respectful and mutually beneficial solutions.
South Asian countries should give environmental diplomacy a chance under SAARC in the coming days.