Covid-19 pandemic and Sri Lanka's crisis are the best examples for all member states to try their level best to revitalize SAARC, writes Dr Shakuntala Bhabani for South Asia Monitor
Amid its worst economic crisis, Sri Lanka is pleading with its neighbors for food assistance. It has sought help from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation's (SAARC) food bank, which is meant for use during emergencies.
SAARC is currently dormant due to India-Pakistan tensions. All member countries, including Pakistan and India, must work together to resurrect it in order to maximize regional interests. India should approach the resurrection of SAARC with pragmatism. Pakistan must increase its diplomatic engagements with other countries.
Bangladesh has agreed to provide potatoes to Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made the pledge to Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, Secretary-General of SAARC. The assistance is intended to support Sri Lanka's efforts in overcoming a looming humanitarian crisis.
Sri Lanka crisis
The economic meltdown in Sri Lanka, the worst since its independence in 1948, has led to widespread shortages, including of food, fuel and medicines. Several countries, India included, have been assisting Sri Lanka.
The Bangladeshi potato relief package will be delivered to low-income families in various sections of Sri Lanka.
The Prime Minister claimed that, in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak and the Ukraine-Russia war, Bangladesh has taken initiatives to increase food output. Its scientists are working to develop saline and drought-tolerant rice.
Weerakoon pointed out to Sheikh Hasina that Sri Lanka now requires fertilizer badly because rice production has fallen by half.
Bangladesh has proposed strengthening the SAARC food bank in the wake of the global food crisis.
South Asia unity
M. Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh's State Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the idea emphasizes the need for a coordinated effort among regional countries to absorb the shock of the current crisis.
Sri Lanka expressed a desire to import potatoes from Bangladesh in March this year, preferring a barter system.
Earlier, Bangladesh provided $2.3 million in emergency medical supplies to Sri Lanka. Dhaka had previously given Colombo $250 million in the form of a currency swap.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Health Minister Zahid Maleque also presented some cartons of pharmaceutical products to Sri Lankan at a ceremony in Dhaka.
SAARC food bank
Debt-ridden Sri Lanka has defaulted on a $51 billion external loan because its usable foreign exchange reserves have fallen steeply, making it extremely difficult for the government to pay for crucial imports.
The SAARC food bank was established in 2007 to give rice and wheat to member countries in times of crisis, but it was only used for the first time in 2020 when Bhutan sought a rice shipment.
According to analysts, Sri Lanka's crisis could be an opportunity to reinvigorate SAARC.
This necessitates the SAARC countries to display the highest levels of goodwill, cooperation and harmony toward one another. SAARC as a regional forum should be revived as soon as possible. The Covid-19 pandemic and Sri Lanka's crisis should spur the move for more regional cooperation in South Asia.
(The author is a Kolkata-based educator and South Asian affairs researcher in the University of Calcutta. Views are personal. She can be contacted at email@example.com)