Saarc Covid fund: No Indian money for Pakistan; Nepal biggest beneficiary

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a video conference with South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders on chalking out a plan to combat the Covid-19 pandemic
In the nine months since India claimed it had disbursed the first round of its assistance under the voluntary Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Saarc countries, there seems to have been no change in the amount disbursed from its total contribution. While India has contributed more than 50 per cent of the total fund meant for Saarc countries, it has so far released less than 20 per cent of that, reveals the response to a Right to Information (RTI) plea reviewed by Business Standard.

The RTI, filed by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative lawyer Shikha Chhibbar and responded to by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), also reveals that Pakistan is the only member of the grouping that has not been provided any assistance. The eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) comprises, apart from India and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lank.

India spent a total of Rs 13.9 crore till October on aid and assistance, and the biggest beneficiary of this aid was Nepal, according to the RTI response. Medical supplies — testing kits and other equipment — were provided to that country at a total cost of Rs 6.12 crore. The next biggest beneficiary of India’s aid was Bangladesh, which received Rs 3.64 crore worth of medical equipment. Bhutan received Rs 1.69 crore worth of such supplies, Sri Lanka Rs 1.55 crore, Maldives over Rs 60 lakh, and Afghanistan Rs 29.3 lakh. The amounts include all transportation charges and other similar charges that were incurred.

The Saarc emergency fund constitutes a total of $17.8 million, of which India pledged $10 million when the fund proposal was made in March. The total excludes Pakistan’s contribution. The other member countries’ voluntary contribution to the corpus is as follows: Afghanistan ($1 million), Bangladesh ($1.5 million), Bhutan ($100,000), Maldives ($200,000), Nepal ($831,393), and Sri Lanka ($5 million).

To avail of any assistance under the Saarc fund, member countries have to send their requests through the Indian government missions. For its part, Pakistan has pledged $3 million on the condition that the Saarc Secretariat in Kathmandu manage the fund. However, since the exercise is voluntary, the Secretariat had kept itself out of the exercise.

This had earlier become a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. Being the largest economy in the region, India wanted to take the lead by initiating the fund, but rivalry between the two nations came in the way of a collective regional strategy to fight one of the worst crises facing the world. "It is for each Saarc member state to decide on the timing, manner, and implementation of its Saarc Fund commitment. Where India is concerned, the commitment made by the prime minister is in an advanced stage of implementation. Assistance in material and services has been extended to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. These countries have also made early commitments to the fund. The degree of seriousness of each nation can be gauged by their behaviour," Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson of the external affairs ministry, had said in March.

The Saarc region, accounting for over 21 per cent of the world population, has been battling with the pandemic for months now. So far, over 10.3 million cases have been reported in the region. Of those, over 9 million have recovered, while 151,546 have died. India has been the most affected, with over 9.43 million cases. Bangladesh, the second-most-affected country in the region, has over 440,000 cases. In Pakistan, the number of cases recorded to date is over 380,000. Nepal follows with over 222,288 cases. Afghanistan has reported 44,988 cases and Sri Lanka 20,508. Maldives and Bhutan are the least affected in the region, with over 12,000 and 386 cases, respectively.

India’s worsening relationship with some of its neighbouring countries, coupled with China’s growing influence in the region, has kept the Indian government on its guard. India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla was on a two-day visit to Kathmandu recently to bring the nation's relationship with Nepal back on track. Some experts believe that the amount pledged to the fund should have been used in other ways to strengthen bilateral relationships.

"Saarc is a moribund organisation. India should give assistance to its neighbours bilaterally and not go through Saarc," says Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. "Saarc is an artificial framework made to tie down India to the Indian subcontinent. India needs to look beyond Saarc."


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