South Asia

SAARC COVID-19 Response Fund: After Pak’s Demand, India Rules out Secretariat Role

Pakistan's pledge of $3 million to the fund came with a rider – that the proceeds “be administered by the SAARC secretariat".

New Delhi: Dismissing Pakistan’s demand that the SAARC COVID-19 emergency response fund should be administered by the SAARC secretariat, India on Friday said that it was up to each member states to decide on the implementation of their commitments.

From 542 cases on March 20, the cumulative number of COVID-19 patients in South Asia stood at 12,050 on Friday (April 10).

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated the video conference with SAARC leaders on March 16, one of the outcomes was the setting up of a fund to fight the coronavirus pandemic in the region. India was the first one to announce a commitment of $10 million to launch the fund.

One by one, other countries also made their commitments, ranging from Bhutan’s $100,000 to $5 million from Sri Lanka. However, Pakistan had kept away till now.

On Thursday, Pakistan announced that it had pledged “$3 million to the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund to support regional efforts in the fight against Coronavirus”.

Also read: SAARC Leaders Participate in Modi-Organised Video Conference on Tackling Coronavirus

But Pakistan had also attached a rider. The Pakistan government asserted that the proceeds of the fund “should be administered by the SAARC Secretariat and that the modalities for the Fund’s utilisation should be finalised through consultations with the Member States as per the SAARC Charter”.

This was conveyed in a phone conversation between Pakistani foreign secretary Sohail Mahmood and SAARC secretary general Esala Ruwan Weerakon.

At the video-conference summit, all SAARC countries, barring Pakistan, had been represented by heads of states and heads of government.

A day later, India responded by implying that the SAARC secretariat had no role in administering the fund. “It is for each SAARC Member State to decide on the timing, manner and implementation of their SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund commitments,” said MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava.

He stated that in India’s case, the commitment made by the PM is at an “advanced stage of implementation”. “Assistance in material and services has been extended to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. These SAARC countries have also made early commitments to the Fund,” he added.

Noting that other SAARC countries had made “early” commitments to the fund, the spokesperson took a swipe at Pakistan, stating, “The degree of seriousness of each nation can be gauged by their behaviour”.

India has also put its immediate neighbours on a priority list for supply of critical medicines like hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol, which are being used as part of treatment advisory for COVID-19 patients.

While Pakistan has advocated for the SAARC secretariat to take the pole position, other member states, besides India, have not made their positions known yet.

As per Indian sources, the emergency response fund is not a traditional fund, but rather more of a “virtual” nature. There is no central pooling of money – nor is there a central administrator, who will keep track of accounts.

Also read: Amidst Global Rush, India Hopes For ‘Stable’ Supply of PPE, Ventilators From China

Rather, when the various governments have said that they are pledging a certain amount, it means that they are keeping this separate at their disposal for use by another country, explained official sources.

These requests for utilising the amount will, therefore, have to be sent to individual countries on a bilateral basis. They will decide on the utilisation based on their own procedures.

With the largest economy in the region, India has been quick to try to forge a regional consensus on fighting coronavirus – but it remains plagued by the rivalries that stalled the regional grouping.

In fact, when prime minister Modi had referred to “SAARC” leadership in his initial proposal, there had been some expectations in certain capitals in south asia that the India was going to ‘revive’ the association.

But government sources had made it clear last month itself that it was “too premature to talk” in terms of revival of the moribund regional association.

India has moved away from SAARC since 2016, when it refused to attend the scheduled summit in Islamabad over cross-border terror attacks. Since then, India has preferred to spotlight two other sub-regional groups, BBIN and BIMSTEC.