Science and Security in South Asia

by and

U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to India has been received with aplomb on economic terms by the international community. However, the regional political dimensions of the visit remain shrouded in secrecy. There was no obvious signal that the U.S. had exerted any pressure on India regarding rapprochement with Pakistan, nor was there a clear sign of how India’s role in Afghanistan might be better aligned with U.S. interests. Perhaps the missing link in all these conversations is science — an underutilized means of diplomacy worldwide, but particularly in South Asia. This is especially ironic since the subcontinent is perhaps the most “geek-friendly” place on Earth. Science and engineering are deeply ingrained in South Asian culture as the primrose path to success.

Unfortunately, the context of science in South Asian relations is overwhelmed by competitive defense technologies. While art and music groups are frequently allowed to cross borders between India and Pakistan for performances, scientists have a much more difficult time. In 2007, the U.S. National Science Foundation supported a series of collaborative workshops between Pakistani and Indian environmental scientists, but both sides were resistant to granting visas and the organizers were forced to arrange separate meetings and one joint meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, where neither side needed a visa. However, the goal of collaborative fieldwork still eludes us.

Even though environmental scientists have little interest in nuclear secrets, the perception of scientists as a security risk remains strong on both sides. The United States could and should play a more active role in building trust between India and Pakistan as a nonpolitical issue.

Collaboration on climate change science in the glaciated headwaters of the Indus River basin system, following last summer’s devastating floods, makes practical and political sense. It is understandable that India will once again be reluctant to accept any “outside interference” on this, but the argument can be cogently made that the threats of climate change are a global concern and the Karakoram glaciers are a pivotal natural laboratory for understanding these dynamics. Scientists from Pakistan and India have a clear and present interest in collaborating on this matter as part of their obligations to international environmental agreements as well.

Forums such as the recent climate change meeting in Mexico offer excellent opportunities for the use of science in diplomacy to overcome stalled negotiations. Another aspect of scientific issues playing a role in diplomacy could encompass a dialogue between scientists on how Earth observation and remote sensing can be effectively used to address environmental security challenges. For example, in the India-Pakistan scenario, currently there is the eight-satellite Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) system, which comprises some of the best satellites in the world for generating information on natural resources. Data from the IRS satellites are used for a variety of applications such as drought monitoring, flood risk zone mapping, urban planning, forestry survey, environmental impact analysis and coastal studies. Of course security concerns accompany any data-sharing agreement. A working engagement on sharing these resources could very well serve as a starting point for engagement. However, in order to address shared concerns and future challenges in South Asia, meaningful facilitation from a major interlocutor such as the United States would be essential.

It is high time that the United States and all interested international players consider novel strategies for securing peace in South Asia. Science and ecology hold much promise as a tool of diplomacy in this region and should be given priority as tools of sustainable conflict resolution.

Saleem H. Ali, a Pakistani-American, is a professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010. Bharath Gopalaswamy, an Indian-American, is a senior research scholar at Cornell University and a researcher for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.