Despite inhabiting a quarter of the world’s population, South Asia is a region that has often been overlooked. The South Asian Symposium, held by the St Andrews South Asian Society (Sanskriti) and in partnership with The Lafayette Club, Scores Consultancy Group, and The St Andrews Economist was one of the university’s first events talking about the region’s political and economic placement in the world. With most events of nature being Western-centric and now shifting to having a focus on China’s relationship with the West, the unique event sparks interesting conversation about one of the most densely populated regions in the world and its economic potential.
The symposium which was moderated by Satyajit Mohanan, the President of the South Asian Society, featured three prolific speakers. Dr. Harsha de Silva, a Member of Parliament from Sri Lanka, was the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Economic Reform and Public Distribution. He gave an informative viewpoint about Sri Lanka’s past and present connection within the region. Dr de Silva highlighted Sri Lanka’s history as a trading hub and the importance of utilizing its strengths in this area. The Pandemic was something that was often touched upon as well, and Dr de Silva gave an insightful suggestion that despite trading restrictions that have been brought on by the Pandemic, the best choice for the region would be to remember to look ahead and to “build bridges, not walls around the Pandemic.”
This perspective from a relatively smaller member of the South Asian Region highlights an important point of being able to integrate and effectively utilize all members of the region’s strengths to create growth, not just the larger members. Dr de Silva also addressed some of the current issues that Sri Lanka and the South Asia region are facing, particularly its current underuse of interregional trading. The lack of value that The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has produced emphasizes the lack of integration between nations in the region. This was a common view among the speakers, and again emphasized the importance of collaboration.
The symposium also featured Mr. Karti Chidambaram, a Member of Parliament of the Republic of India. As a member of India’s principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, Mr. Chidambaram gave an informative criticism of the current government’s preference of nationalism, and similarly to Dr de Silva, advocated for having a more internationalist, integrated, and liberal view of how region members can work together.
As the largest country in the region, India has great potential to contribute enormously to South Asia. Mr. Chidambaram specifically highlighted India’s very young and ambitious workforce and the potential that comes along with this demographical blessing. However, Mr. Chidambaram also addressed the factors that have caused India to struggle to tap into this potential, with many issues being applicable to the wider struggles of the region as well. These issues include a lack of universally accessible, high-quality education, as well as having a Brain Drain problem. Mr. Chidambaram’s suggested that the country would need to develop its infrastructure to create an environment that can effectively develop a skilled workforce, as well as one that entices them to stay. Bettering infrastructure not only allows India and other countries in the region to leverage its own current strengths but also would create vast opportunities for the region as a whole by improving interregional links.
The third guest, Mr. Michael Kugelman is the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and a Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre. Additionally, he is a leading specialist in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Mr. Kugelman weighed into the conversation from an outside perspective and looked at the key factors of geography, demography, and a digital revolution impacting the region as a whole.
Mr. Kugelman again pointed out the vast potential for success and growth for the region. This potential stems from the region being geographically located as a link between Asia and Europe, being demographically dominant with young people, and having a promising technology sector. However, he also points out the issues that the region faces in each of these factors, such as struggling to trade inter regionally due to poor political relationships, as well as lacking the infrastructure to link the region. There are also issues of Brain Drain and difficulties in maintaining its skilled young workforce, as well as the policy that is restricting the growth of its technology sector such as censorship regulations that could scare off foreign investors.
The conversation had between the three speakers and students during the symposium clearly showed the region’s signs of potential in becoming a dominating economic and political force, but the consensus between all speakers was that all regions must adopt a very open and cooperative mindset to tap into this potential. Currently, there lacks of infrastructure and political resolve between the nations, with political tension and insular attitudes bringing the region’s growth to a halt. What is interesting though is that the shared threat of Covid-19 has made clear that our shared threats are a much bigger issue than our individual problems, and this be a catalyst for region members to create more collaborative initiatives and to collectively combat these shared threats.
The South Asian Symposium offered a great opportunity for the students of St Andrews to gain insight into South Asia’s economic and political climate by allowing them to hear from those closest to the issues, and also by opening up the floor for students to ask questions themselves. The panel of speakers represented many relevant viewpoints, from both small and large members of the region, as well as an outside perspective that helped to develop the conversation in tangent with the region’s interaction with the rest of the world. It is clear that economic and political developments in South Asia are ones to keep an eye on, and the First South Asian Symposium in St-Andrews definitely won’t be the last.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.