We and Our Neighbourhood: Security and Regional Cooperation

I thank Vice Admiral Srikant, and the Senior Directing Staff of the College for inviting me today to share some thought on a matter of continuing relevance in situations where humans find themselves living in proximity to each other.

This College, like similar entities elsewhere, is an institution where men and women refine their ability to walk on the razor’s edge of acute analysis of facts and situations to ascertain their significance and implications.

The conceptual framework of our discourse today is premised on the meaning and implications of ‘neighbourhood.’ In its simplest sense it is a locality or an area, the place of habitation of some people, bounded by physical features and demographic and socio-economic characteristics.

Geographically speaking, our region and the surrounding and adjourning seas are depicted as South or Southern Asia. It is inhabited by humans who number around 1.8 billion. They are citizens or residents of a number of political entities, are not homogenous and have multiple identities amongst them and within them. In socio-economic terms, they are depicted as ‘developing countries’ and (with the exception of Sri Lanka) figure in the Medium Human Development category of the HD indices of the UNDP.

The countries of the region are characterized by disparities of size and population and dis-similarities of economic structures, levels of development and political systems. Together they propel both positive and negative impulses on human, instrumentalist and conceptual dimensions of neighbourhood; these are not frozen and monolithic concepts and have to be probed empirically.

The human impulses are evident enough. It emanates from the relationship of living environment and its social shape emanating from the family unit and developing into larger groups and societies.

The instrumentalist compulsions naturally follow since sheer necessity compels social groups and societies to organize themselves for common good. To do so, they need rules of the game for common good. Thus justice becomes the first virtue of social institutions.

By the same logic, the idea of neighbourhood implies physical proximity. So social groupings including political entities or states so situated require rules of engagement and develop codes of conduct for seeking common good and avoiding or minimizing conflicts.

Thus neighbours on the one hand seek security from each other and on the other avenues of cooperation for mutual benefit. The two are not exclusive and are used interchangeably in a variety of ways that have been written about down the ages. Similarly, the concept of comprehensive security covers physical, economic and environmental security as well security of resources.

It is truism that while friends and enemies can be chosen, neighbours are a gift or a curse of the Maker or of human folly; neither can be undone easily and therefore have to be lived with.

It is evident that possible patterns of interaction between neighbours cover the entire range of human relationships. These range from situations of conflict to those of peaceful coexistence and active cooperation.

Historically the best known cases of interaction relate to wars or warlike situations. These could be conventional or non conventional and continue to be studied for insights.

Change is a rule of life and adaptability a necessity. Some of you may have come across Prof. Sean McFate’s recently published work on The New Rules of War and his contention that the future would be a period of ‘Durable Disorder’ in which world will not collapse into anarchy but rule-based order will crumble to be replaced by armed conflicts fought mostly by covert means. In it, plausible deniability will be more effective than firepower, traditional battles will not prove decisive, and victory will be won or lost in the information space, not on the physical battlefield. His effort to update Sun Tzu’s maxims makes interesting reading.


Be that as it may, my purpose today is to share some thought on a more relevant aspect of security. I refer to human security, meaning comprehensive, prevention-oriented security of people, defined in a UN resolution as ‘survival, livelihood and dignity’ for those who inhabit the states for whom we seek security in military terms. Thus military security becomes one – albeit very important – aspect of the overall comprehensive human security that we seek individually and collectively.

What then are the dimensions of human security in South Asia and its implications for regional cooperation in our neighbourhood?

The UNDP’s Human Development Report for 2018 notes that on the basis of our environmental indicators, ‘today’s progress is coming at the expense of our children.’ A changing climate, massive declines in biodiversity, and the depletion of land and freshwater resources pose serious threats to humankind. They require an immediate and ambitious change in production and consumption patterns since environmental degradation puts human development gains at risk and coupled with significant declines in biodiversity, is linked to other development concerns ranging from declining food and water supplies to losses of livelihood and to losses of life from extreme weather events.

This profoundly serious crisis, according to the Report, threatens the human development of current and future generations. It asserts that business-as-usual approaches must change, with countries at different levels of human development exposed to and contributing to environmental degradation in different ways.

Linked to climate change and biodiversity loss, deforestation also degrades land and reduces the quantity and quality of freshwater. The overall pace of forest loss has slowed in recent years, but the planet still lost 3.2 percent of its forests between 1990 and 2015. And low human development countries, many of them reservoirs of global biodiversity, lost 14.5 percent.

Freshwater withdrawals stand at 7.2 percent of the global supply, with vast differences across countries and regions. In South Asia annual withdrawals stand at 23.8 percent of total renewable supplies. Unsustainable water withdrawals and inadequate treatment of waste contaminate drinking water, with cascading impacts on health, employment and gender inequality.

While every ingredient of the emerging scenario has disturbing implications, perhaps the latter – water – is the most critical and has relevance for our discussion today.

A scholar who wrote a tome some years back on the geopolitics of water in Asia analyzed the problems in four dimensions: water shortage, water stress, water scarcity and water insecurity. Citing a UN report, he concluded that “Asia seems to live beyond its means.’ The reason for this he attributed partly to lesser fresh water per capita available compared to other regions of the globe and partly to unsustainable practices that have upset hydrological cycles.

In an Asia-wide perspective, the study brought out ‘the unique triple role of Tibet as Asia’s water repository, water supplier and rainmaker, and thereby underscores the centrality of the Tibetan Plateau on the Asian water map.’

What is true of the Asian continent as a whole is particularly true of South Asia both on account of its large population – 1.9 billion in 2019, expected to go up to 2.1 billion in 2030 – and due to its much greater percentage of cultivated land under irrigation. The same holds for the exploitation of ground water resources. Two of the largest countries of the region, India and Pakistan, are already in the water stress category.

One visible consequence of this is the presence of both intrastate and interstate conflicts relating to water. Most of us are familiar with some aspects of river water disputes within our own country, disputes that have defied solutions for decades.

The irony is that compared to these, the resolution of interstate river water disputes have had a much better success record. I refer to the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, the Ganges Treaty between India and Bangladesh and the Mahakali Treaty between India and Nepal. None of these could have been possible without bilateral cooperation balancing mutual gains and concessions. They are premised on volumetric allocation of river flows, contain but do not eliminate tensions, and stop short of basin-wide river management regime.

A longer term holistic approach has been suggested but remains to be implemented. It requires regional cooperation in greater measure since the present arrangement is unlikely to be sustained in perpetuity given the rising populations and the pressures on land and water resources. It is thus inevitable that renewable resources will be depleted and the prospects of new battle lines over trans-boundary water resources may not be far fetched and requires imaginative thinking about the future. Thus four questions need to be addressed:

• Can water resources be enhanced?
• Can water usage be rationalized?
• Can domestic policies on water utilization and depletion of trans-border aquifers be coordinated in the region?
• Can wider water cooperation that would include river basins beyond South Asia be visualized?

The conclusion I draw from this is that there is an imperative need for seeking security through regional cooperation on water resource in our neighbourhood. Given the inter-linkages with other environment-related matters, this cooperation cannot be confined to water only and has to extend to all related matters affecting environmental security. None of this, however, can materialize unless there is a realization of the urgency of the matter.

How is this to be initiated? As in the case of conventional security and warfare in this new age, the traditional approach to human security – of proceeding principally through political coordination – may not suffice and the experience of recent decades does not encourage it. The obvious example is SAARC wherein disagreements between two important members have resulted to an impasse and the virtual abandonment of the political leadership of this organization. Yet, almost the entire region is an integrated environmental unit in which the environmental and ecological issues are interlinked and cannot be addressed piecemeal. They also transcend political borders.

Some observers, basing themselves on the reported retreat of Himalayan glaciers and the deforestation that has taken place, have opined that ‘it is a disaster waiting to happen.’ In one projection, with a 2°C rise in global temperature, net cereal production in South Asian countries is projected to decline by 4 to 10% by the end of this century. We should also see this in the context of the global warming for which sufficient evidence is now available the world over.

Here there is scope for looking at the experience of other regions. A good example is what we now know as the European Union. Given the long history of wars between France and Germany, the then French foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed in 1950 ‘a way to make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible’ by creating a community of interests in the shape of the European Coal and Steel Community to help the economy of Europe rebuild itself. An American impulse in the shape of the Marshal Plan assisted the process. Overtime it developed into the EEC and then into the EU. Its current mechanisms for economic, defence and political cooperation including that relating to climate change.

Thus political cooperation can move in tandem with a basic understanding on matters that are of mutual benefit.

The question to be addressed is this: if a commonality of interests can be identified beginning with economic interest, and result in benefits to all concerned, why can it not be developed on matters of human survival relating to water, environment and ecology? The scholar cited above had suggested some approaches of preventive diplomacy to forestall water wars by building cooperative institutional mechanism like Asian norms and rules that cover trans-border water resources and manage water competition. Little progress however has been made in implementing them.

I am realist enough to admit that such an exercise in futurology relating to human survival goes beyond the responsibilities of soldiers and diplomats and rests squarely with those entrusted with the destiny of nations. Yet both soldiers and diplomats can contribute to the effort by delineating what Alan Kay, a scientist in a computer research laboratory said in 1971: ‘the best way to predict the future is to invent it.’

Can I be bold enough to imagine that we in India, with our civilization’s heritage of cosmic insight, contribute to this venture?

Jai Hind.