Ministry of External Affairs’s inter-ministerial group to focus on South Asia

Ministry of External Affairs’s inter-ministerial group to focus on South Asia

‘Neighbourhood first’ policy to ensure quick response to border and humanitarian crises

Seeking to ensure a more efficient and “whole-of-government” approach towards crises in the South Asian neighbourhood including Pakistan, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla convened the first meeting of an “Inter-Ministerial Coordination Group (IMCG)” involving secretaries of about 10 ministries as well as senior officials from the Cabinet Secretariat and National Security Council Secretariat.

The meeting, held at the Ministry of External Affairs’s Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan, seeks to “mainstream” India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy, an MEA statement said. In addition, sources said, the inclusion of Ministries like Commerce, Finance, Fisheries and Security structures would mean quicker decision-making in the face of sudden economic crises, and flashpoints over border firing, fishing and prisoners in each other’s countries in the neighbourhood.

Bilateral ties

“The IMCG provided a comprehensive direction with a whole-of-government approach to promote better connectivity, stronger interlinkages and greater people-to-people connect with our neighbours,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in a tweet.

“The meeting deliberated upon and took important decisions on various aspects of India’s bilateral relationship with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the areas of trade and investment, connectivity, border infrastructure, immigration, development cooperation, border security, etcetera,” added the MEA statement, making it clear that all countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as well as Myanmar are included in the initiative.

Sources said the IMCG would have many purposes giving examples of the construction of border infrastructure to help trade with Nepal, sudden requirements of essential commodities for Bhutan and Maldives, as were required during the Covid lockdown, rail connectivity with Bangladesh, humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and Myanmar as well as the fisheries issue with Sri Lanka, which has led to tensions in the past. In addition, the inclusion of security and border officials indicates the IMCG could also be convened to help avoid tensions at the land borders with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Sri Lankan flashpoint

While officials say the IMCG had been planned for sometime, the timing of the initiative is significant as it comes within days of the massive protests over the economic situation in Sri Lanka, which announced it will be defaulting on international debt on Tuesday.

In February 2020, Sri Lankan Prime Minister had first raised requests for Indian support over the country’s twin crises over debt and dwindling foreign exchange with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to Delhi. In the next few months, despite an in principle nod for support, no movement was made due to legal and accounting bureaucratic wrangles over the requests for debt waivers, currency swap arrangements, and Lines of Credit to help stave off the crisis.

Sources said political relations were tense over a number of issues, and it wasn’t until end-2021, that combined meetings between EAM S. Jaishankar, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and then-Sri Lankan Finance Minister which was able to resolve the package of support that India approved worth about $2.4 Billion since January 2022, while Bangladesh helped Sri Lanka with a currency swap arrangement.

“In addition to the IMCG mechanism, Ministries and Departments have been requested to accord priority to India’s neighbours in their international activities, programmes and projects,” sources said, adding that the MEA had also organised a “training module” on India’s neighbourhood for civil service trainees this year.

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