Love, sustainability and the SAARC energy deal

In the past, South Asian leaders have not shown an inspiring example in terms of energy cooperation: we have heard of the failed India-Bangladesh natural gas deal, the stalemate between India and Pakistan on the Iran pipeline. So it was a pleasant surprise to see SAARC leaders managing to clinch an energy cooperation deal at this summit in Kathmandu. The SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity) has the ability to transform the power situation in the region, particularly with India being able to draw from the hydro-power of Nepal and Bhutan, and Pakistan accessing cheaper power from India.

Sustainable love

Sustainable development in South Asia can only be achieved when there is love: because sustainability as a concept is very much like love. It is mostly abstract, sometimes tangible and grows on us through a series of everyday events.

The abstract part in the current context is a sense of tolerance among the South Asian neighbors, who have not always seen eye to eye. A tangible action was the deal clinched in Kathmandu. However, this has to be complemented by several everyday measures like exchange of knowledge, skills across the countries of the region in areas related to energy, renewable energy development, integrated approaches for addressing sustainability.

Already, the Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India through its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme runs several three week knowledge exchange courses in which practitioners, policy and decision makers are coming from SAARC countries (excluding Pakistan) and staying in several Indian Institutes, sharing and learning knowledge in these domains. After the completion of these training programmes, the participants go back to their countries and the relationship sustains between India and these respective country representatives. This needs to be scaled up.

The importance of energy

Energy cooperation has a much more dynamic and far-reaching impact on sustainability than we think. Many countries within the region are still trying to solve the challenges of enhancing rural energy access by providing electricity for the non electrified rural households.

More than 74 percent of rural households in India still rely on firewood and biomass for cooking, kerosene for lighting and suffer from respiratory diseases owing to indoor air-pollution arising from firewood burning. If energy cooperation within the region can bring more modern forms of energy to these households for meeting their cooking and lighting needs, then it will generate health benefits for them, reduce mortality rates and contribute to larger development.

Provision of light to these households will also hold a potential to start income generation business activities (like small shops) for these people. Children in these households will be able to read and study at night. Broadly, it will impact on several developmental indicators and effect the economic (larger income generation), environmental (lesser indoor air pollution) and social (improved education, mortality, reduction of drudgery for women (as they do not have to spend lot of time for firewood collection) domains of sustainability.

South Asia and South South

>At the core of South Asian cooperation, and the larger South South cooperation, is the constant engagement of people from different countries facing similar challenges and going through the same developmental path. This engagement has to be sustained through institutional structures and programmes.

South South Cooperation started during World War II from the perspective of an international relations theory, moving to bilateral and multilateral collaboration during the 1950s. The 1970s saw the dominance of Latin American academicians and theorists putting a notion of dependency theories and self-reliance in defining South South Cooperation.

From the 1990s till now, it has become largely a developmental agenda and the intensity of that is increasing day by day. In these changing times, no country of the SAARC region can therefore deny the importance of South South Cooperation to address sustainability in this region: and yes, energy Cooperation is a central plank of that as it has far reaching developmental implications.