India and South Asia Regional Co-operation

  • In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, leaders of South Asian nations — namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — created a regional forum.
  • The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the goal of contributing “to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems.”
  • The first SAARC meeting took place in Dhaka in 1985, and there have been 18 summits till date. However, the organisation has not had a smooth run.
  • Afghanistan was admitted as a member in 2007.
  • SAARC is aimed at promoting the welfare of the people; accelerating economic growth, social progress and culture development; and strengthening collective self-reliance. The organisation also seeks to contribute to mutual trust and understanding among the member countries.
  • Other objectives include strengthening cooperation with other developing countries, and cooperating with international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes.
  • SAARC summits are usually held biennially and hosted by member states in alphabetical order. The member state hosting the summit assumes the Chair of the Association.
  • SAARC has its headquartered in Kathmandu, Nepal. 
  • It has 10 observer states, namely, Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Mauritius, Myanmar, South Korea, and the United States.
  • The official language of the organization is
  • However, despite the framework SAARC provides for cooperation amongst South Asian nations, it has remained sidelined and dormant since its 18th summit of 2014 in Kathmandu.
  • India cancelled attendance at the last planned SAARC Summit in Islamabad in 2016, after the attack on Indian Army’s brigade headquarters in Uri.
SAARC Specialized Bodies
  1. South Asian University (SAU) – India
  2. South Asian Regional Standards Organization (SARSO) – Dhaka
  3. SAARC Development Fund (SDF) – Bhutan
  4. SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO) – Pakistan


  • As the largest regional cooperation organisation, SAARC’s importance in stabilising and effectively transforming the region is becoming increasingly self-evident.
  • There Is No alternative capable of bringing together South Asian countries for mutually beneficial diplomacy has emerged.
  • In 36 years of existence, SAARC has developed a dense network of institutions, linkages, and mechanisms.
  • SAARC Charter was signed in 1985. It made some progress in developing common cause in several fields like agriculture, education, health, climate change etc.
  • From 2010, South Asian University began in Delhi.
  • SAARC has made significant contributions to the development of civil society and track-two initiatives.
  • Though SAARC’s charter prohibits bilateral issues at formal forums, SAARC summits provide a unique, informal window — the retreat — for leaders to meet without aides and chart future courses of action.
  • The coming together of leaders, even at the height of tensions, in a region laden with congenital suspicions, misunderstandings, and hostility is a significant strength of SAARC that cannot be overlooked.
  • SAARC members are among the top troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping missions. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a joint peacekeeping force from the SAARC region under the UN aegis could be explored to fill the power vacuum that would otherwise be filled by terrorist and extremist forces.
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seized the Covid-19 crisis and utilised SAARC’s seal to convene a video conference of SAARC leaders. They underscored the need for cooperation on a regional basis for fighting the pandemic.


  • Numerous agreements have been signed and institutional mechanisms established under SAARC, but they have not been adequately implemented.
  • SAARC agreed on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) in 2004 at the SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. Each Country shall accord national treatment to the products of other Countries. It was agreed that customs duties on all goods traded would be reduced to zero by 2016. Pakistan has, thereafter, blatantly flouted the provisions of SAFTA by drastically limiting the list of items that can be imported from India.
  • Eminent Persons Group recommended in 1999 that SAARC should strive to make South Asia a Free Trade Area by 2010, a Customs Union by 2015, and an Economic Union like the EU by 2020. It remained a pipe dream.
  • The third SAARC summit in 1987 adopted a Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and updated it in 2004 with the signing of an additional protocol. These instruments demonstrate the collective commitment to rid the region of terror and promote regional peace, stability, and prosperity.
  • lack of trust among the member countries has been the most significant factor between India and Pakistan. In recent times, Pakistan’s non-cooperation has stalled some major initiatives under SAARC. For example, despite India’s keen interest in cooperating and strengthening intra-regional connectivity by backing the SAARC–MVA during the 18th summit of SAARC, the agreement was stalled following Pakistan’s reluctance.
  • Similarly, the SAARC satellite project that India proposed was abandoned following objection from Pakistan in 2016.
  • SAARC has also faced obstacles in the area of security cooperation. A major hindrance in this regard has been the lack of consensus on threat perceptions, since member countries disagree on the idea of threats. For instance, while cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan is a major concern for India, Pakistan has failed to address these concerns.
  • SAARC has hardly done anything in dealing with the corona virus pandemic. This bloc, especially right now, can do a lot. From providing each other with emergency health equipment and mobilising health workers in each other’s country to purchasing vaccines in bulk. But, they remained inactive when the countries needed each other the most.


  • The asymmetry between India and other member countries in terms of geography, economy, military strength and influence in the global arena make the smaller countries apprehensive. They perceive India as “Big Brother” and fear that it might use the SAARC to pursue hegemony in the region. The smaller neighbouring countries, therefore, have been reluctant to implement various agreements under SAARC.
  • SAARC does not have any arrangement for resolving disputes or mediating conflicts. Disputes among the member countries often hamper consensus building, thus slowing down the decision-making process. SAARC’s inability in this regard has been detrimental to its growth.
  • Given SAARC’s failures, member countries have turned to bilateralism, which in turn has adversely affected the organisation. Bilateralism is an easier option since it calls for dealings between only two countries, whereas SAARC—at a regional level—requires one country to deal with seven countries. Thus, bilateralism decreases the countries’ dependence on SAARC to achieve their objectives, making them less interested in pursuing initiatives at a regional level.
  • SAARC faces a shortage of resources, and countries have been reluctant to increase their contributions.
  • Terrorism emanating from Pakistan is the biggest stumbling block as stated by India. But contradictions in ASEAN never derailed the Group.
  • SAARC’s biggest failure comes from the political sphere, mainly due to India-Pakistan tensions. Heads of State met only 18 times in 34 years. It is five years, since the last Summit in Kathmandu.
  • Importance being given to BIMSTEC instead of SAARC
  • Entry of china into south Asian geopolitics for various reasons


  • The organisation must be reformed and member countries must reach a consensus regarding the changes required. However, considering the differences that exist among the members, particularly between India and Pakistan, such a consensus will be difficult to reach. Until the member countries resolve their issues, the future of SAARC remains uncertain.
  • Allowing SAARC to become dysfunctional and irrelevant greatly distorts our ability to address the realities and mounting challenges facing SAARC nations.
  • SAARC could adopt the “ASEAN minus X” formula, where members who are unwilling to join the consensus can be allowed to join at a future date, while members who wish to go ahead with connectivity, trade or technology cooperation agreements are not impeded.
  • In a region increasingly targeted by Chinese investment and loans, SAARC could be a common platform to demand more sustainable alternatives for development. Together they can fight for common cause like opposing trade tariffs or demanding better terms for South Asian labour around the World.
  • SAARC is needed to allow for the diplomacy and coordination that is needed between member-states in order to adequately address the numerous threats and challenges the region faces.
  • In a meeting of SAARC health ministers, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had talked about free entry to health workers from SAARC nations and an air ambulance service which would be helpful as it would help each other in times of need. But, the talk need to be materialized.


If the geopolitical dynamics following World War II could allow die-hard enemies France and Germany to interface effectively enough to create the European Union, there is no reason why India and Pakistan cannot come together.

SAARC has the capacity to bring nations together. As Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Threat of china in south Asia

China has recently launching

  • China-South Asia Emergency Supplies Reserve- The emergency reserve aims to devise a common strategy for combating the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccine development and distribution & to create an emergency reserve to combat contingencies caused by climate change.
  • Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center- The Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center aims to pool strength and integrate resourcesto assist South Asian countries’ economic development, livelihood improvement, and poverty reduction.

The project carries a symbolic meaning.

  • It is a message to India about its position against China’s membership to SAARC and also an exhibition of China’s power to form a parallel organization in India’s immediate neighborhood.
  • it is a demonstrative message from China to the Western powers that it still enjoys confidence from many South Asian countries

China’s Interest in South Asia

South Asia is of vital strategic importance for China for many reasons, especially in current times.

  • Geographically, South Asia lies between East Asia and the oil-rich Middle East.
  • many South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) have become party to China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI)
  • Since the violent border skirmishin the Galwan Valley and the diplomatic row over India’s targeting of Chinese business interests in India, China-India political relations have further degenerated in 2021.
  • China became an observer state in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 2005, and since then, it has been pushing to be a full member of the regional organization.
  • China has also contributed$300,000 to the SAARC Development Fund. However, India’s long and continuous objection to Chinese membership in the South Asian regional forum has prevented China from becoming a full member.
  • Other than SAARC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation(BIMSTEC) is another regional organization
  • Even though it was created as an “alternative” to the failing SAARC, BIMSTEC too has not made any significant mark in promoting regionalism in South Asia.
  • There is a probability that the China-led “minus-India” initiative would undermine the existing regional process in South Asia.
  • At a time when the SAARC and BIMSTEC processes are suffering an uncertain future, these regional organizations might see China’s new platforms as direct competition to their regional integration agenda.

Context: Intra-regional trade amid the pandemic, technology, innovation and finalizing of  the BIMSTEC free trade agreement is likely to be on the agenda, nearly two years after the body’s last meet in Kathmandu.

  • BIMSTEC Secretariat was opened in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
  • The BIMSTEC region is hometo roughly 22 per cent of the global population with a combined GDP of over $2.7 trillion.
  • It aims to accelerate economic growth and social progress among members across multiplesectors — trade, technology, energy, transport, tourism and fisheries, agriculture, public health, poverty alleviation, counter-terrorism, environment, culture, people to people contact and climate change.
  • The grouping holdsannual meetings hosted by member states based on alphabetical rotation. Sri Lanka is the host nation this time.
  • Initially, the economic bloc was formed with four countries with the acronym ‘BIST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation). With the entrance of Myanmar in 1997, the grouping was renamed ‘BIMST-EC’ (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation).
  • Finally, with the entrance of Nepal and Bhutan at the 6th Ministerial Meeting in 2004, the grouping was named Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
  • BIMSTEC includes the countries of the Bay of Bengal region: five countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN. The organisation is a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia.
  • It includes all the major countries of South Asia, except Maldives, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given this composition, BIMSTEC has emerged as a natural platform to test regional cooperation in the South Asian region.
  • BIMSTEC’s primary focus is on economic and technical cooperation among the countries of South Asia and South East Asia. So far, 14 sectors have been identified for enhancing regional cooperation among the member countries. Each sector has a lead country responsible for it.
  • BIMSTEC’s major strength comes from the fact that it includes two influential regional powers: Thailand and India. This adds to the comfort of smaller neighbors by reducing the fear of dominance by one big power.
  • Not much headway after the formation of BIMSTEC and literally it is on paper for all practical purposes. Only three summits were held in the first 20 years.
  • However, in 2016, BIMSTEC received considerable international limelight because of BIMSTEC Leaders Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with BRICS leaders in Goa in 2016.
  • The renewed focus and enthusiasm of the regional leaders to rejuvenate BIMSTEC, after two decades of its existence, is a welcome opportunity to boost effective cooperation.
  • Founding Principles of BIMSTEC
    • Cooperation within BIMSTEC will constitute an addition to and not be a substitute for bilateral, regional or multilateral cooperation involving the Member States.
    • It is a bridge between South and South East Asia and a platform for intra-regional cooperation between SAARC and ASEAN Members.


  • In the Kathmandu Summit, it took the important decision to craft a Charter to provide BIMSTEC with a more formal and stronger foundation. The Foreign Ministers cleared the draft for the BIMSTEC Charter, recommending its early adoption.
  • The shared goal is now to head towards “a Peaceful, Prosperous and Sustainable Bay of Bengal Region”.
  • At the swearing-in of the Prime Minister during May 2019, the leaders of BIMSTEC, not SAARC, were invited as honoured guests.
  • Members also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity.
  • Three agreements are also on there way:
  • Mutual legal assistance in criminal matters
  • Cooperation between diplomatic academies, and
  • The establishment of a technology transfer facility in Colombo.
  • Permanent Working Committee will be setup to provide direction during the period between the two Summits and also to prepare the rules of procedure.
  • Secretariat has been promised additional financial and human resources and enhancing its role to coordinate, monitor and facilitate the grouping’s activities
  • The decision to establish BIMSTEC Development Fund is one positive development.
  • It recognised that 16 areas of cooperation represents too wide a spectrum and the BIMSTEC Govts will make a serious endeavour to review, restructure and rationalise various sectors, identifying a few core areas.
  • Plans to revitalize the Business Forum and the Economic Forum.
  • A meeting of Home Ministers is planned; this will be in addition to the annual meetings of NSAs & meeting of army chiefs.
  • It also planned to establish forums for parliamentarians, universities, cultural organisations and the media community.


  • Due to setbacks to the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), BIMSTEC has emerged as the “preferred platform” for regional cooperation in South Asia.
  • India was motivated to join BIMSTEC as it wanted to enhance its connectivity with ASEAN countries: a major component of its Look East Policy, now rechristened ‘Act East’ policy.
  • BIMSTEC also helps smaller countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to develop connectivity with ASEAN countries, the hub of major economic activities globally.
  • As a trade bloc, BIMSTEC provides many opportunities. The region has countries with the fastest-growing economies in the world. The combined GDP in the region is around US$2 trillion and will likely grow further. Trade among the BIMSTEC member countries reached six percent in just a decade, while in SAARC, it has remained around five percent since its inception.
  • Regional body is progressing well mainly because member countries do not have major border disputes. “Any small scuffles, like the Nepal-India map row, can be resolved bilaterally,”
  • Small nations in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean are turning to regional blocs like BIMSTEC as they gain higher economic dividends from regional blocks than fragmented multilateralism promoted by the World Trade Organization (WTO).
  • The Bay of Bengal has grown in strategic significance within the Indo-Pacific, especially due to the contest between India and China.
  • The BIMSTEC region comprises 22% of global population. It is exposed to ever increasing threats from natural disasters. Regular disasters in the sub-region continue to cause trans-boundary impacts, damaging the lives, livelihoods and assets.
  • BIMSTEC has the opportunity to enable paradigm shift from traditional approach of reactive towards a proactive holistic approach, which encompasses disaster preparedness, prevention, mitigation and risk reduction among the member countries.


  • Much has been achieved in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security including counterterrorism, cyber security and coastal security cooperation.
  • The academic and strategic community has shown ample enthusiasm through the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Think Tanks and other fora.
  • India’s initiatives have resulted in some important developments, including the setting up of the BIMSTEC Energy Centre in Bengaluru and the BIMSTEC Business Council, a forum for business organisations to promote regional trade.
  • Various committees have been formed to oversee developments in various sectors, e.g. the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group, which held its inception meeting in Bangkok in 2016.
  • Some key agreements signed by BIMSTEC members include aconvention for combating terrorism, transnational organised crime and illicit drug trafficking. However, this awaits ratification.
  • Another is the BIMSTEC Grid Interconnection, signed during the BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2018, which aimsto promote an optimal power transmission in the BIMSTEC region.
  • Later in 2016, India held a joint BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa for the latter’s regional outreach. After this, the support for BIMSTEC gained further momentum.


  • At least, six legal instruments are awaiting finalization, only one i.e. Memorandum of Understanding on grid interconnection could be signed.
  • Framework agreement on Free Trade Area was signed 16 years ago which signed in 2004 but, there is no commitment to early conclusion of FTA.
  • Energy Centre was established in 2009, but, it is still struggling for the operationalization.
  • It talked about various connectivity measures like trade connectivity, economic connectivity, transport connectivity, digital connectivity etc.
  • BIMSTEC is also one of the least integrated regions of the world. Lack of connectivity and timely availability of business information as the greater hindrance for closer economic engagement. But, Motor Vehicle Agreement and the Coastal Shipping Agreement hasn’t came to force yet.
  • There is no decision on holding the annual summits.
  • Body’s inadequate response towards issues like the Rohingya crisis which involves three of its member countries — Myanmar, India and Bangladesh.


  • BIMSTEC didn’t have an official head office and meetingswere held at the Thai foreign ministry in Bangkok until it was given headquarters in Dhaka in 2011.
  • A landmark achievement for BIMSTEC was the establishment of a permanent secretariat in Dhaka. However, the secretariat faces a severe resource crunch, both in terms of money and manpower, which has adversely affected its performance.
  • the lack of leadership as the major drawback. In the past few years, this concern has been addressed as India has shown increased interest in the grouping.
  • BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations, but this has not been the case, given the trajectory of India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years.
  • There are perceptible differences as Nepal and Sri Lanka want SAARC Summit revived, even as they cooperate within BIMSTEC, though on a low key.
  • China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space is casting dark shadows. Some argued that BIMSTEC would make progress, if China is accepted as its principal interlocutor and partner, but there are few takers for this in India.
  • Military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown on the protestors is major challenges. If at all BIMSTEC Summit is held, then the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar, may create lot of unease in the Summit.
  • BIMSTEC has been slow on the come-up because unlike bodies like the EU or ASEAN, it is based on consensus-building which takes time.
  • Other countries in the Bay of Bengal like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have not been involved even as dialogue partners have also been a point of contention.
  • In 2018, India aggressively pushed for the conclusion of a long-pending FTA among BIMSTEC nations but differencesbetween India and Thailand over market access for professionals, duty cuts on traded goods and policy relaxation stalled the process.


  • A “paradigm-shift” is required in raising the level of cooperation and regional integration. The grouping needs to reinvent itself, possibly renaming itself as the “Bay of Bengal Community”.
  • Improving the capacity of the secretariat, both in terms of manpower and funding;
  • Ensuring tangible results/benefits, which will add to the motivation of the countries to concentrate on BIMSTEC (projects in the areas of tourism, digital connectivity, energy connectivity and humanitarian assistance in disaster relief should be considered); and
  • Empowering BIMSTEC to be a platform for dispute resolution among member countries. This will require debates and discussions among the BIMSTEC countries to reach consensus.
  • Regular annual summits should be held. Only then, its leaders convince the region about their strong commitment to the new vision.
  • There is a need for setting up of regional institutional capacity for threat assessment and designing response strategies.
  • It is also essential to address the knowledge gaps among the member countries.
  • There is a need for setting up of research task force on various climate change and environment risks, so as to create a common understanding of the threats, create standards for emergency management and come up with cost effective solutions.
  • India must make the best of this opportunity by translating the learning from the Disaster Management experiences of SAARC and ASEAN. The countries must realise that the security of the States in sub-region is contingent upon each other and therefore, ‘Environment and Natural Disaster Management’ would need to be prioritised as their common security agenda.
  • As per FICCI study, there is a need for comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. It can become a real game changer. Ideally, it should cover trade in goods, services and investment. It should eliminate non-tariff barriers.
  • IMPROVE CONNECTIVITY- Multimodal connectivity and speedy conclusion of BIMSTECFTA along with an effective energy sharing mechanism would have a multiplier effect on trade and investment.
  • There is a need to create regional value chains that could feed into Global Value Chains, which ultimately would help BIMSTEC member states take advantage of their collective capabilities.
  • The prospects of MSMEs in Global Value Chains are also colossal.
  • The process can augment MSME competitiveness, generate employment and encourage inclusive growth in BIMSTEC Countries.
  • INTEGRATION OF WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS- Integration of women entrepreneurs into supply chains and building innovative business models for women is also the need of the hour.


The two organisations—SAARC and BIMSTEC—focus on geographically overlapping regions. However, this does not make them equal alternatives. SAARC is a purely regional organisation, whereas BIMSTEC is interregional and connects both South Asia and ASEAN. SAARC and BIMSTEC complement each other in terms of functions and goals. BIMSTEC provides SAARC countries a unique opportunity to connect with ASEAN. Since the SAARC summit has only been postponed, not cancelled, the possibility of revival remains. The success of BIMSTEC does not render SAARC pointless; it only adds a new chapter in regional cooperation in South Asia.

A regional organization looking into South AsiaInterregional organization connecting South Asia and southeast Asia.
Established in 1985; a product of the Cold War eraEstablished in 1997 in the post-Cold War.
Member countries suffer for mistrust and suspicionMembers maintain reasonably friendly relations
Suffers from regional politicsCore objective is the improvement of economic cooperation among countries
Asymmetric power balanceBalancing of power with the presence of Thailand and India on the bloc.
Intra-regional trade only 5 percentIntra-regional trade has increased around 6 percent in a decade

The region is comprised of eight countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives) and inhabited by 1.8 billion people (23 percent of humanity). It falls into the category of ‘high to extremely high’ water-stressed areas, along with Middle-East Asia and Northern Africa. Pakistan and Afghanistan top the list of water-stressed states in South Asia.

South Asia’s critical water-related challenges:

  • Water scarcity in South Asia might seem like an ironic and paradoxical condition as the Himalayan and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges, which divide this region from the rest of Asia, have enormous reservoirs of freshwater.
  • The imbalance between water withdrawals and water supply in South Asia during the last few decades is the cumulative outcome of a population surge, high-growth industrialization, rapid urbanization, and a lackadaisical attitude towards environmental concerns.
  • Severe scarcity of water for drinking and agricultural purposes;
  • Uneven access to water between the rich and the poor;
  • Disparity in water availability among the various states as well as among the various sub-regions within these states;
  • Over-exploitation and fast depletion of groundwater;
  • Pollution and contamination of surface water resources and the resulting high incidence of water-borne diseases and deaths;
  • Vulnerability to frequent floods and droughts;
  • overuse of water for agricultural purposes; and
  • The potentially dire impact of climate change on the volume and pattern of rainfall, river courses, and sea level

Trans-boundary Rivers in south Asia:

  • India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan share twenty major rivers among them.
  • The Indus basin (consisting of the Indus, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Jhelum and Chenab rivers) inter-links India, Pakistan and China.
  • Brahmaputra and the Ganges basins inter-link China with India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.
  • The Kosi, Gandaki, and Mahakali rivers join Nepal with India.
  • Major rivers shared between India and Bangladesh are the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Teesta.
  • Pakistan and Afghanistan share the Kabul river basin.
  • Two of the three largest river systems of the region (viz. Indus and Brahmaputra) originate from the Tibetan plateau located in the Southwestern part of China.
  • The region’s third-largest water system, the Ganges, is also connected with the Tibetan plateau.
  • Many of the midstream tributaries of the Ganges originate there even as the main river originates from the Indian side of the Himalayas.

Various issues in transboundary river management


  • Sharing the waters of the Teesta River, For West Bengal, Teesta is equally important, considered the lifeline of half-a-dozen districts in North Bengal.
  • Bangladesh has sought an “equitable” distribution of Teesta waters from India, on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty of 1996 (an agreement to share surface waters at the Farakka Barrage near their mutual border), but to no avail.


  • Water cooperation between Nepal and India have been agreements signed on major rivers like Kosi, Gandaki, Karnali or Mahakali, essentially for large hydroelectric and irrigation projects by building dams or barrages. No project except the Kosi barrage has been completed yet.

India–Pakistan Water Dispute

  • Both countries signed an accord called the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, which clearly determined how the region’s rivers are to be divided.
  • In this treaty, control over three eastern rivers of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej was given to India, while Pakistan got the control over western rivers of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum.
  • The Indus Waters Treaty has been widely hailed as a success, having survived three post-independence wars between the two hostile neighbours.
  • In 2005, Pakistan challenged India’s 450 MW Baglihar dam project on the Chenab river before the World Bank, but lost the case in the end.
  • In 2011, both countries went head to head again at the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) over India’s 330 MW project in Kishanganga project in Jammu and Kashmir.
  • The latest dispute is over hydroelectric projects that India is building along the Chenab River. According to Pakistan, these projects violate the treaty and will impact its water supply.

China- lower riparian states

  • As an upstream riparian state, China has a clear advantage in building dams and other infrastructure to reduce or divert water flow from these river systems.
  • Its dam-building and water-diversion projects are already a matter of anxiety for its downstream neighbors.
  • Beijing will build a mega dam on the the Yarlung Zangbo river close to the Line of Actual Control in Tibet.

Trans boundary River Treaty

  • India and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and India and Nepal have entered into bilateral treaties to create a framework for sharing the water of Transboundary Rivers.
  • The Indus Water Treaty (1960) specifies the terms of sharing the water of six transboundary rivers between India and Pakistan.
  • The Ganges Treaty (1996) between India and Bangladesh brought an end to their longstanding bilateral dispute.
  • India and Nepal signed treaties in 1954, 1959, and 1996 for water-sharing and project-development concerning the Kosi, Gandaki and Mahakali rivers respectively.
  • Interestingly, there is no formal treaty that regulates the distribution of water from the Kabul River between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Challenges of transboundary water management in South Asia

  • Geopolitical tensions caused by the absence of such consensus – The enduring tensions in India-Pakistan relations surrounding the intractable issues of Kashmir and cross-border terrorism account for the absence of a comprehensive, multilateral regional agreement on trans-boundary Rivers and aquifers in South Asia.
  • The socio-environmental impact of big dams and hydroelectric power projects has emerged.
  • Emerging risks like climate change, extreme events, landslides, forest fires and many other ecological threats pose new governance challenges.
  • The glaciers and snowlines of the Himalayas are retreating. If the current warming continues, there is a projection that the waterways of the Tibetan Plateau could first flood and then dry up gradually, turning the vast landscape into a desert
  • Also, the existing bilateral water treaties are not structured to address the emerging water management challenges in South Asia caused by climate change, demographic transition, and technological advances.
  • No South Asian country has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse (1997) which codifies customary international water law to protect, preserve, and manage transboundary water resources effectively, and encourages their equitable and reasonable utilization.
  • Bilateral treaties are not based on uniform and fair principles; nor are they mutually consistent in their operational terms.
  • As a middle riparian state, India has adopted different upstream and downstream distributive principles depending on the river and the country it is dealing with. Several provisions of these bilateral treaties vary with the accepted international legal instruments, standards, and precedents.
  • India’s insistence on pursuing a bilateral approach towards its neighbors and its deep aversion to engaging in multilateral diplomacy on South Asian issues is another important reason.
  • as an upper riparian state and a great power, China has a very little strategic incentive to enter into or push for a multilateral agreement involving its South Asian neighbors, some of whom are too small or highly dependent upon it to influence China’s long-term geopolitical interests.
  • Most upper riparian states in South Asia tend to suppress the real data on water flows during the lean summer months in order to keep the greater share of river water for themselves (in clear violation of bilateral agreements and international conventions).
  • As water is a state subject, states assume exclusive powers over water governance. The cumulative outcomes at the national level do not inspire optimism about long-term security and sustainability. This is partly attributed to the poor devolution by states and weak institutions.
  • The ambitious plans for river rejuvenation, inter-basin water transfer, inland navigation and irrigation development suffer from challenges of interstate coordination.
  • The River Boards Act of 1956 that was made to enable inter-state river water cooperation is almost defunct now.  The Act was designed to provide a dispute resolution process in the form of a tribunal.


  • South Asia can only address these changes effectively by adopting an integrated water management approach at the regional level and multilateral regional agreement. Such an agreement would also help mitigate problems of soil erosion, unsustainable agricultural practices, overexploitation of natural resources, and unfair distribution of water resources.
  • The formation of a working group of ministers belonging to all South Asian states for purposive dialogues on pertinent aspects of trans-boundary water resources and their sustainable use.
  • South Asian countries also need to create and regularly update a regional database of freshwater resources. This would assist in rational policy-making and contingency measures for tackling water scarcity.
  • All participating South Asian governments must commit themselves to providing credible and transparent data on transboundary river water flows.
  • There is a vital need for joint action on the impact of climate change factors on the Himalayan ecosystem and glacial reservoirs of freshwater in the region.
  • The civil society organizations and international bodies concerned with climate change issues, including the UN agencies, should also get involved.
  • The alarming rise in the level of pollutants in freshwater resources and the impact of such pollution on agriculture, health, and soil quality requires serious attention from South Asian policy-makers.
  • The region’s governments and civil society organizations should implement projects for sensitizing all stake-holders, including common citizens, about grave threats of water stress and climate change looming over South Asia.
  • Legal frameworks determine the norms and functional aspects of managing water resources at the local, national, regional, and global levels. Those frameworks lay down the rights and obligations of contracting parties about their share and use of water.
  • The consortia of seven Indian Institutes of Technology made a basin management plan for the Ganga — but it should have been made some 30 years ago. Now we need a different sort of retrofitting.


Tangible steps towards a regional agreement for management of transboundary water resources would prove valuable in achieving the goals of sustainable development, socio-economic justice, and human security in South Asia. Whether the South Asian states would show enough political maturity to set aside their narrow interests at least for this purpose and the well-being of the people and ecosystem of the region is, of course, unknown.

Recent context: The government has set up a high-level group headed by former Union power secretary and tasked it with helping build a South Asia-focused energy security architecture and also the India-Nepal petroleum products pipeline and the India-Bhutan joint venture hydroelectric project have revived conversations on energy cooperation in the region.

South Asia energy situation

  • In terms of energy supply, the countries in the region are endowed with coal reserves, renewable energy, and hydropower resources.
  • While they also have oil and natural gas reserves, the demand for these resources exceeds the indigenous supply. Regional countries are thus heavily dependent on imports for energy security.
  • Electricity production in South Asia has increased rapidly. However, around 20% of the region’s total population is still without electricity access, and around 35% is without clean cooking access. However, the entire region is suffering from an acute energy crisis.

Some major concerns with regard to the energy sector

  • Securing energy to sustain rapid economic growth and meeting the rising aspirations of the people.
  • The region is home to a huge population that lacks access to clean forms of energy.
  • With limited domestic energy sources, most South Asian countries are also highly dependent on energy imports, particularly crude oil, from other regions.
  • Regional water supplies could be threatened by the rapid retreat of thousands of glaciers in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas
  • Extreme weather events such as heat waves from rising temperatures will increase the cooling demand.

Energy diplomacy in the south Asian region

  • The mismatch between energy demand and resource endowments in individual countries builds a strong case for energy cooperation.
  • India’s energy diplomacy ranges from cross-border electricity trade to supplying petroleum products and setting up liquefied natural gas terminals.
  • Cross-border energy trade is a key part of the neighborhood-first policy, with plans to build energy links to check China’s growing influence.

India’s neighborhood energy trade & cooperation

Energy cooperation in South Asia has occurred at the bilateral as well as regional level. But bilateral energy cooperation has been more successful, particularly between India and Bhutan.


  • India has been procuring hydropower from Bhutan. Bhutan exports about 1,000-1,200 megawatts (MW) surplus power to India.
  • India has provided technical and financial assistance to Bhutan in the development of hydropower and that form of energy is Bhutan’s main export to India.

Bangladesh and Nepal

  • India is supplying electricity to Bangladesh and Nepal.
  • Recently, India and Bangladesh have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) under which 100 MW power will be exported to Bangladesh.
  • India and Nepal also have engaged in significant energy cooperation. Four hydroelectric schemes with an aggregated installed capacity of about 50 MW have been implemented in Nepal with assistance from India.
  • The two countries have also signed an agreement worth US$ 1.04 billion under which a 900 MW plant will be built on the Arun River.
  • However, tensions between Nepal and India endanger the possibility of greater energy cooperation between them.
  • Further, India has emerged as a significant source of refined petroleum for the region. India currently supplies the entire demand for petroleum products in Nepal and Bhutan. India also exports petroleum products to Bangladesh.
  • the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline, the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (MBI) Pipeline, and the Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal (BBIN) for energy cooperation,

Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline

  • It is a proposed trans-country natural gas pipeline developed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
  • The pipeline first proposed in 1995 will transport natural gas from energy rich Caspian Sea (Galkynysh gasfields: fourth largest in the world) in Turkmenistan to India through Afghanistan into Pakistan
  • The project will supply natural gas to India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • It will enhance economic engagement through regional connectivity by economically integrating region stretching from the Bay of Bengal to the Caspian Sea.
  • It will not just be a commercial project, but also help in providing peace and security in the region.
  • TAPI Project will provide an alternative supply source of gas with dependable reserves leading to enhanced energy security.

It will further diversify energy sources of Indian economy. it would be used mainly in power, fertilizer and city gas sectors.

Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (MBI) Pipeline

As part of Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 for north-eastern region, 6,900 km pipelines would be laid connecting Sitwe (Myanmar), Chittagong (Bangladesh), most north-eastern states, Siliguri and Durgapur.

The Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 envisions doubling the production of oil and natural gas in the north-east and promoting trade in the region and the neighbouring Saarc countries.

Joint venture company will be established that will construct and operate the pipeline.

Thirteen routes with a total length of about 6,900 km of pipelines have been proposed for the purpose.

Measures to improve energy security in the region

  • The high-level group, named the South Asia Group for Energy (SAGE), has been set up under the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)-run think tank Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) for promoting, initiating and facilitating effective policy dialogue and capacity building on bilateral, sub-regional and regional basis for energy and related issues, among South Asian countries. It will also ensure climate change concerns.
  • India is also moving ahead with its ambitious global electricity grid plan to roll out a “One Sun, One World, One Grid” (OSOWOG) to take on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
  • India has already notified cross-border trading regulations.
  • The proposed energy market, which will include Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, could aid regional peace and improve utilization of generation assets—including the stranded assets in India—and efficient price discovery.
  • India is trying to create a common pool for neighbouring countries and has an installed power generation capacity of 373.43 giga-watts.
  • There is a plan to build an overhead electricity link with Sri Lanka.

Global grid plan has been spread across three phases.

  • The first phase deals with the Middle East-South Asia-South-East Asia (MESASEA) interconnection for sharing green energy sources such as solar for meeting electricity needs, including peak demand.
  • The second phase connects MESASEA grid with African power pools;
  • The third and final phase is about global interconnection.

Pitfalls in our energy cooperation structure

  • Regional energy cooperation efforts began in 2005 when the SAARC energy centre was created. However, regional energy cooperation efforts have been less successful because of the overarching political differences between the SAARC member countries.
  • The signing of the SAARC energy agreement provides a ray of hope but continuing tensions, particularly between India and Pakistan, cast a spell of doubt with regard to its implementation.
  • Mobilizing financial resources to develop the necessary energy infrastructure is a major challenge to enhance energy security in the region.
  • Due to the volatile nature of South Asian politics, the private sectors are reluctant to invest in mega projects without the necessary legal regimes to protect investments.
  • The state-centered approach towards energy security that is based on government-to-government interactions and the use of public sector enterprises is one of the major defects of energy cooperation efforts in the South Asian region.
  • The regional cooperation efforts So far gave overemphasis on facilitating electricity trade and pipeline projects in the region have paid limited attention towards the potential of renewable energy.

Way forward

  • South Asian leaders need to look at energy cooperation as a means of achieving peace in the region.
  • South Asian countries need to develop policies that will attract investment in the region. The private sector can play an important role in this regard.
  • It is important to recognize that in South Asia, the issue of energy security goes well beyond the macro concerns to the challenge of providing the poorer sections of society with access to clean energy.
  • The scope of energy cooperation in South Asia must be widened and greater emphasis must be laid on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
  • India’s advantage in solar energy needs to be exploited effectively. Indian institutions are already engaged in providing solar-powered lighting, water and space heating, and water pumping in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. These initiatives need to be scaled up to meet the development needs in the region.