Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] India must take the lead in South Asia

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for India to fuel its national recovery by being the economic engine of the South-Asian neighbourhood.
By IASToppers
August 28, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Present dynamics of India’s relations
  • Need for reorientation
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

India must take the lead in South Asia

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India has the privilege of being the South Asian region’s largest economy. COVID-19 has presented India with an unprecedented opportunity to help restructure the South Asian economy and regional cooperation. India can act as an engine of recovery for South Asia with a robust Multi-Sectoral plan for India’s COVID-19 diplomacy in the region.

Present dynamics of India’s relations:

  • India’s is facing trouble in relations not only with Pakistan, but also with Nepal, Bangladesh, possibly Sri Lanka, and pressure from China along the Tibet border.
  • The Maldives is possibly the only relatively bright spot for India in the region at present.

1. Nepal:

  • The Nepali PM K.P. Sharma Oli released a new political map claiming a part of Indian territory.
  • The new map shows the Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh areas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand as belonging to Nepal.
  • India has rejected the claim, calling it contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue.
  • The action followed large protests in Nepal after India opened an 80-kilometre road between Dharchula and Lipulekh in Uttarakhand, part of India’s effort to improve its infrastructure along the Tibet border.

2. Pakistan:

  • Pakistan has released a new political map, containing the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as well as parts of Gujarat.
  • As per Pakistan, the political map reflects their national aspiration and supports their stance on Kashmir dispute.
  • India has dismissed it as ridiculous assertions, calling it an exercise in political absurdity.

3. Bangladesh:

  • India is facing difficulties with Bangladesh. The India Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which is seen as targeting migrants from Bangladesh, has compromised the relations.
  • Bangladesh worries about possible reverse migration because there could be an exodus of Muslim migrants, especially from the northeastern state of Assam.

4. Sri Lanka:

  • The Rajapaksa clan is back in the office in Sri Lanka, and they are seen to be close to China.
  • There are reports that China is keen for Sri Lanka to distance itself from India and its other partners such as Japan.
  • The Sri Lankan government’s recent decision to halt a Japan-funded light rail project is one indicator that all is not well.
  • India-Japan collaboration on Sri Lanka’s East Container Terminal (ECT) project in Colombo is on shaky grounds.

5. Maldives:

  • India is making its pitch in the Maldives to restrict China’s growing influence.
  • India has announced a $500 million package to the Maldives to help it deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19.
  • India has announced new connectivity measures for the Maldives, including air, sea, intra-island and telecommunications, including the Greater Male Connectivity project.

Need for reorientation:

There are three fundamental reasons why India’s Neighbourhood First policy needs reorientation:

1. Pandemic depression:

  • There are dire warnings of a pandemic depression with growth projections worldwide revised heavily downward.
  • An estimated 42 million people within South Asia out of 100 million worldwide already driven back to extreme poverty.

2. Decline in export earnings:

  • The global slowdown is projected to hit South Asia’s major export earnings that include business services, textiles, transport equipment, labour and tourism.
  • This is compounded by a 22% decline in remittances to South Asia mainly from the Gulf, serious problems of finance and capital.
  • The supply nationalism has severely disrupted the global supply chains.
  • Supply nationalism: Countries put in place export restrictions with several instances of reserving key medical supplies for national use.

3. China’s influence:

  • China is using Covid-19 diplomacy to take several strategic initiatives vis-à-vis India’s neighbours in South Asia that require a commensurate response.

Way Forward:

The critical steps that India can take to invest in a robust regional action plan:

1. Strengthen SAFTA:

  • India could leverage regional trade, connectivity and investment, and strengthen the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) as a game-changer for the region.
  • Over 70% of South Asia’s population is dependent on subsistence agriculture and allied services.
  • India should lower the barriers to intra-regional food trade and encourage regional supply chains.

2. Boost Infrastructure:

  • The trade policy measures should be expanded from national to a regional level as an extension of India’s Neighbourhood First policy.
  • This includes freer transit trade through the region, development of supply and logistic chains, digital data interchange, single-window and digitised clearance systems, risk assessment and minimisation measures, wider use of trade lines of credit, denser connectivity, smoother cross-border inspections, and reduced transaction costs, using technology as a force multiplier.

3. Lead in the health sector:

  • India can lead in the sectors of health and food security.
  • PM Modi took a laudable initiative in convening a virtual summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders on March 15 to deal with the pandemic.
  • However, its medium-term impact has fallen short of the kind of impact India made in response to the 2004 tsunami in the region.
  • It has also been overtaken by the more aggressive COVID-19 diplomacy of China that included Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Nepal.
  • China has vowed the countries with offers of sharing its under development COVID-19 vaccine as early as September and duty-free access to its market.

4. Regional food security:

  • The regional food security is another area that India could take a major initiative in with an eye to the future.
  • Measures include using its ample food reserves of 83 million MT to deal with crises by augmenting access to the SAARC Food Bank that currently stands at less than 500,000 MT.

5. Ecological blueprint for South Asia:

  • The linkage between pandemics and ecology needs to be acknowledged.
  • India can provide an ecological blueprint for South Asia with a focus on the protection of biodiversity and dealing with the climate crisis.
  • The growing risk of the transmission of zoonotic diseases such as HIV, Ebola, SARS, H5N1 and Nipah virus underline the risks posed by habitat fragmentation, degradation and wet markets.

6. Multinational partnerships:

  • India can increase the capacity of sub-regional initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • The border regions can be effective partners in shaping India’s regional engagement by steering sectoral regional dialogues on cross-border trade, transport and health.


  • PM Modi’s call for a regional response to the pandemic has been a laudable step. The opportunity to turn the crisis into an opportunity will depend on India’s willingness to co-design a collective road map for South Asia.
  • India can fuel its national recovery by being the economic engine of the neighbourhood. This is what is needed to meet the Indian aspirations of being a regional power and curb the Chinese influence in the region.
Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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