Round-up of regional news

Poverty inflation?

Come November, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has announced that it will be changing the way it measures global poverty. Since 1997, its country-wise Human Development Report (HDR) has employed what is known as the Human Poverty Index, using indicators such as health, education and standard of living. But this will now be replaced by a new index, known as the Multidimensional Poverty Index or MPI.

For the past decade, criticism levelled against the old Human Poverty Index has included its failure to capture the full extent of deprivation. For instance, a household's standard of living is judged by the availability of drinking water and number of underweight children. The new MPI, on the other hand, goes a little further – for instance, including electricity, cooking fuel and access to toilets. The MPI also tries to see poverty in terms of overlapping deprivations, such as the connection between low income and malnutrition, or the education of girls and sanitation facilities in school.

Initial MPI data reveals that Southasia has the world's highest levels of poverty. According to the new indicators, some 51 percent of the population in Pakistan, 58 percent in Bangladesh, 55 percent in India and 65 percent in Nepal are categorised as poor. Compared even to Sub-Saharan Africa, which has 458 million poor, Southasia has astoundingly higher numbers: 843 million people who are poor.

Inevitably, perhaps, such figures invite criticism. In August, Nepal's Planning Commission alleged that the MPI measure asks for too much, not taking into account the limited financial resources of developing countries. Critics have also called the MPI a mere 'intellectual exercise', pointing out that although (like its predecessor) it introduces facets of poverty other than income, it could still be failing to accurately measure poverty and development.

Clean your own mess

A recent court decision could be bad news for Western countries sending their old, toxicity-laden ships for dismantling to coastal Southasia. In late August, the Bangladesh Supreme Court decreed that any ship entering the country's waters for 'breaking' must first be thoroughly decontaminated of all dangerous chemicals, such as asbestos, lead and mercury. Environmentalists from the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association had approached the court to overturn a government decision from April 2009, which had permitted ship-breaking yards to import boats with no certification that the vessel was toxin-free.

That decision was prompted by lobbying by owners of ship-breaking yards and protests by the workers. They were objecting to an earlier High Court judgement which had ordered strict environment-related regulations be put in place in the sector, including shutting down businesses operating without environmental clearance certificates. Owners of major ship-breaking yards across Southasia – in Alang (Gujarat), Gadani (Balochistan), as well as Sitakunda and Chittagong in Bangladesh – have long argued that any imposition of environmental standards would drive away foreign customers to countries with less stringent regulations.

What such arguments overlook, of course, is the human and environmental costs associated with unregulated ship-breaking. Workers frequently get injured or die due to ingestion of hazardous substances and accidents caused by explosions. Pollutants such as lead and arsenic also threaten marine life. Against this backdrop, a u-turn in the sector in Bangladesh could set a precedent for the rest of Southasia to follow. But if similar court orders in India and Pakistan are in the offing, Bangladesh may possibly lose jobs to the neighbours. The yard owners in Bangladesh will be able to contest the decision after four months as the country tries to seek a balance between environmental protection, industries and the needs of labour.

Red alert

Canada has been known to have a 'soft' policy on refugees. But when a Thai ship, the MV Sun Sea, carrying 492 Sri Lankan Tamils, entered its waters in early August, the Canadian authorities went on high alert. The public-safety minister, Vic Toews, claimed that the asylum-seekers included members of the LTTE – listed as a 'terrorist' organisation by the Canadian government and banned in 2006. 'Human smugglers', Toews alleged, were behind the operation.

The navy searched the ship as soon as it docked at a naval base in British Columbia, where the asylum seekers are currently being kept in a detention facility. In a statement issued on 16 August, the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA), the body responsible for dealing with the Tamils, stated that the ship's passengers have the right to legal aid and an interpreter, among other things, and will be allowed to contact the UN's refugee agency. Unaccompanied minors have also been put under the care of the government agencies, and the CBSA has provided a phone number (1-888-893-1300) for people who think that they might have relatives among the migrants.

The Sri Lankan high commissioner to Canada, Chitranganee Wagiswara, quickly urged the Canadian officials not to grant refugee status to the Tamils. Wagiswara branded them as 'criminals', and alleged that the money they paid for their passage had helped to fill up LTTE 'coffers'. Some in the Canadian media have also accused the asylum seekers of 'jumping the queue' in terms of trying to immigrate to the country. Meanwhile, the Tamil community in Canada is suggesting the government treat the asylum seekers like any other group of refugees trying to escape violence at home. The question of whether some of them are LTTE members will not be known until their verification process is complete.

This is not the first time that Canada has red-flagged Sri Lankan Tamils. In October 2009, a ship carrying 76 Tamils from Sri Lanka was intercepted by the Canadian authorities after a 45-day journey; the passengers, all of whom were men, were jailed for several months. Once released, all filed refugee claims to remain in Canada, which are being processed. On the other hand, when compared to some other Western countries, such as Australia, Canada has been far more open to accepting refugees. Early this year, the Australian authorities announced that it would no longer accept either Sri Lankan or Afghan refugees, as it considered both countries to be politically stable.

In contrast, the Canadian government has continued to accept Sri Lankan asylum seekers. This new case, however, may prod Canada closer to a 'hardline' border-protection policy such as that adopted by Australia.

Sources and destinations

Often criticised for its passivity in dealing with human trafficking, Bangladeshi authorities are taking serious note of an employment scam said to be worth some USD 3.6 million that came to light in early August. A Bangladeshi 'agent' is currently under investigation for allegedly trying to ship 2800 Bangladeshi workers to the Maldives. Human-rights workers are pinning the main responsibility for the matter on loopholes in migration laws of both countries, which has allowed labour transfer between the two to evolve into outright organised crime.

The Maldives is a favoured destination country for Bangladeshi migrant workers, with half of the estimated 35,000 irregular migrants in the country thought to be from Bangladesh. The Maldives has a chronic shortage of labour, required for its construction and tourist sectors as well as for service in households, and its human-resource department is said to have a soft policy on immigration, which evidently is allowing for regular abuse.

According to media reports, the scam works like this: Boys as young as 16 enter the Maldives with forged passports that indicate a higher age. On arrival, their employer confiscates their passport and, as they continue to work, their visa also expires. Having no identification papers and no income, these workers become illegal residents whose vulnerable status allows for further exploitation.

The Maldivian media has alleged that the immigration department in Male works in tandem with private agents. It sets the official quota for the number of labourers to be allowed entry into the country, but assigns a number far in excess of what is actually needed thus netting far more money (through fees, etc) for those involved. In this way, some rural Bangladeshis coming to the Maldives find themselves stranded on arrival, without employment. Those that do get employed are open to exploitation – for instance, under conditions of forced labour or debt bondage. The Bangladeshi embassy has been unable to offer assistance to all the stranded Bangladeshis, although there have been high-level talks to resolve the issue.

The UN and US, among others interested in stopping human trafficking, are currently pushing for new anti-immigration legislation to be introduced in the Maldives. Notably, the country is not currently a party to the UN's Trafficking in Person Protocol, a global initiative set up a decade ago. Signing this would immediately ensure better coordination between the Maldives and 'source' countries such as Bangladesh.


A two-decade-old proposal is back in the news again. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project now has Dhaka keenly interested to join, after it received an encouraging nod from Tehran. Meanwhile, India's petroleum minister, Jitin Prasad, confirmed to the Lok Sabha that 'India is still pursuing the import of natural gas from Iran through IPI pipeline project.' At present, India has a 25-year agreement with Qatar for its gas supply. If it materialises, however, the pipeline could supply much-needed fuel to energy-starved Bangladesh.

Talks on the IPI were put on the backburner following disputes between New Delhi and Islamabad over cost of gas and transit fees, although some observers cite the warming relationship between India and the US as the real cause for the discontinuation. But Prasad has now proposed an Indo-Iranian joint working group on oil and gas to take up the negotiations again. Proponents have long claimed that the IPI pipeline will not only boos the economy of the receiving countries, but that it would be a confidence-building measure to bring people to Southasia, and the fact that the IPI would become the IPI-B pipeline makes the project even more attractive. However, observers do wonder why Bangladesh is not looking to the much closer Shwe gas fields, across the border in Burma.

Guns blazing

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced in early September that the government would clamp down on secessionists in Balochistan. Five organisations – the Balochistan Republican Army, Baloch Liberation Front, Balochistan Liberation United Front, Baluch Defaee Tanzeem and Lashkar-e-Balochistan – have been banned and their bank accounts frozen. 'Targeted operations' are now set to be launched against them.

The much-derided Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary force comprising mainly of Pakhtuns and Punjabis (as opposed to the indigenous Baloch) and charged with gross human rights violations, has also been given increased powers for a three-month period. This will enable it to conduct 'intelligence guided' search-and-arrest operations with the blessings of the democratically elected federal government. Another 2500 posts are now to be created in the force. Malik's justification for all this is that the police alone lacks the capacity to counter anti-state activities; he also claimed that training camps set up in Afghanistan are being used to destabilise the province. In a separate press conference, the chief minister of Balochistan, Aslam Raisani, countered by reaffirming his trust in the police.

Malik's plan has come in for criticism from a number of quarters. Balochistan National Party President Sardar Akhtar Mengal argues that Malik's decision will only deepen Baloch resentment; the Balochistan National Party senior vice-president, Senator Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, even claimed that the move is aimed at imposing emergency rule in the province. The chief minister's spokesperson claims that he has been warned that the Frontier Constabulary is exceeding its jurisdiction and violating the constitution.

Three people were killed and five injured in a bomb blast inside the compound of the province's finance minister the afternoon after Malik's announcement, which could be seen as a reaction to the latter's new plan.

National remembering

The National Museum of Afghanistan, in Kabul, held its first major exhibition in nearly two decades in early September, when it opened its doors for a collection titled 'Ghazni, Capital of Islamic Civilization: 3000 years of history'. Ghazni, 135 km southeast of Kabul, was the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire under Mahmud Ghaznavi, who ruled during the 11th century. Among the exhibits are reliefs dating back to the time of Darius I, around 550 BC, coins from the time of Alexander the Great (330 BC) and Buddhist statues from the Mauryan Empire under Emperor Ashoka.

Like most of Kabul, the museum was victim to the wars that have swept the city over the decades. First came the Soviet invasion, followed by widespread looting by the mujahedeen and, finally, the destruction of many artefacts due to the Taliban proscription against human or animal figures. Together, these have meant that almost 70 percent of the museum's collection was either destroyed or missing by the close of the century. The trade in antiques continues following the US war in Afghanistan, meaning that the artefacts, instead of ending up in the museum, go on sale in the illegal international art market.

According to law, artefacts more than 100 years old cannot be taken out of Afghanistan. The 1970 UNESCO Convention, to which Afghanistan is a signatory (although not a ratified member), also prohibits illicit import or export of cultural property. In 2003, the Afghan government, determined to stamp out the plundering from museums as well as through illegal excavations, set up a 500-member special police unit dedicated to this issue. However, media reports allege that most of the digging for artefacts has been taking place in NATO-controlled areas, a charge that the latter's leadership denies. The police do not have the authority to enter and investigate in these areas.

The National Museum held its first exhibition in 1931. Since then, its collections had grown to include artefacts from excavations throughout the country; by the 1960s, these contained extensive pieces describing the cultural history of Afghanistan, South and Central Asia. Some seven decades after that first showing, work was begun to revive the institution after successive wars, first with an attempt to rebuild the collections. Reconstruction on the museum's building, as well as the work of retrieving, cataloguing and archiving the existing collection, began in 2003. The second phase of reconstruction is now being done by a Dutch-Afghan team, which has provided exhibition spaces, upgraded storage for artefacts and renovated the museum's interior. The Kabul museum's website, also launched in September, can be visited here.

Election fever

Even as the search for an elected head of state remains elusive, Nepal's caretaker prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, recently stepped up efforts to win a different election. Kul Chandra Gautam, former United Nations assistant secretary-general and former deputy executive director of UNICEF, was nominated by the Kathmandu government for the post of president of the UN's 66th General Assembly (UNGA), starting in 2011. The chair, open to all 192 member countries, is rotated through the five geographic regions of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe; this year, it is Asia's turn. In the past all the other major Southasian countries have held the post, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. This time around, many are suggesting, it should be Nepal's turn – or, others counter, Qatar's.

Although the UNGA's presidency is considered 'ceremonial' by many, it does have wide-ranging responsibilities, including control over all General Assembly discussions and authority to suspend and adjourn debates. Recently, presidents have taken decisions over UN reforms, election of the secretary-general and the establishment of new human-rights and peace-building commissions. Some Kathmandu analysts suggest that presiding over the 'world's parliament' might also help boost the morale of the Nepali people at a time when the population is suffering from the fallout of a decade of conflict, economic loss and a never-ending peace process.

Nepal's main competitor for the post is Qatar, which started to lobby for its candidate even before Nepal announced its nominee. There are some in Kathmandu who believe that the Gautam candidacy against Qatar is risky for Nepal, which has more than 300,000 guest workers in Qatar. For Nepal's own candidacy, the fact that the Southasian countries came together to express support will be important. For now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has personally expressed support, as has the Bhutanese government. Elsewhere, the governments of China, Japan and the United States are said to be 'positive'. Gautam is possibly the best-known Nepali in international service, but some say his candidacy is challenged by the ennui within the Nepal establishment itself.

Shan showdown?

Burmese news sources recently reported a build-up of armed forces in the country's northeastern Shan state, close to the Chinese border. All government staff working in the area, including a key junta official responsible for ongoing negotiations with the separatist United Wa State Army (UWSA), were ordered out. News of the troop increase followed an official state visit by General Than Shwe to Beijing, where security, political stability and development of the common border regions were discussed.

Burma's new constitution expressed the generals' intent to disband the ethnic militias and integrate them into the national Border Security Forces by September. The recent troop build-up in Shan state is in response to the UWSA's failure to comply with the constitutional deadline to join the BSF, though most other ethnic armed groups have done so. The UWSA, with over 30,000 personnel, poses the greatest threat to the SPDC in Shan – including resisting government efforts to set up polling booths for the upcoming 7 November elections.

A ceasefire agreement was negotiated between the Shan state's ethnic armies and the Tatmadaw, the Burmese armed forces, in 1989, with Beijing wielding influence over key leaders of the ethnic groups to broker the peace treaty. Last year, however, fighting again erupted in the Kokang region of Shan, when the Tatmadaw occupied Kokang's capital, Laogai, signalling an end to the decades-long ceasefire. Around 37,000 people, mainly the Kokang ethnic-Chinese, were displaced due to the violence at the time, fleeing into Yunnan province across the border in China. Beijing subsequently criticised the Burmese government's 'hostile attitude' towards its ethnic minorities, possibly fearing another influx of refugees.


With the India-Pakistan relationship still at a low ebb, two tennis players, Rohan Bopanna (an Indian) and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi (a Pakistani) have found nothing but success in their partnership. The two made history by teaming up to compete in the men's doubles finals at the US Open in mid-September. Although defeated, they emerged as new flag-bearers for India-Pakistan solidarity.

Bopanna and Qureshi are not the only sportspersons to have come into the limelight due to their partnership. Golfer Nonita Lal and tennis star Sania Mirza have caused media frenzies for a different kind of crossborder partnership. Both married Pakistani sportsmen. Besides the crossborder element of Mirza and cricketer Shoaib Malik's marriage, it also raised 'fears' among some on the Indian side about whether Sania would now play for Pakistan, a rumour that she was quick to dispel.

Pakistan's envoy to the UN, Abdullah H Haroon, and his Indian counterpart, Hardeep Singh Puri, thus recently found themselves cheering for the same side at the US Open. Haroon stated that the players' partnership could be seen as a symbolic facilitator towards the two countries achieving a resolution to longstanding conflicts. He also pointed out that, though many might perceive this to be a 'romantic vision', if the Bopanna-Qureshi partnership could change the mindset of just a small percentage of people in India and Pakistan, the pairing would be well worth it. (The two lost in the US Open finals, 7-6, 7-6.)

Bopanna and Qureshi won the Wimbledon quarterfinals earlier this year (then their best finish), during which they wore sweatshirts stating, Stop war, start tennis. Top diplomats take note: crossborder cooperation can bring mutual benefits.

Foreigner, foe

Officials in the southern Bhutanese district of Sarpang, bordering Assam, appear determined to take action against foreign workers. The district's so-called anti-fronting committee, which works to stop Bhutanese citizens from renting out their business license to non-Bhutanese, passed a notification in September that gave traders both small and large mere weeks to expel all non-Bhutanese workers in the district. The edict includes foreign workers with valid permits.

District representatives justify the move by stressing that ensuring employment for citizens is their main goal. The statistics reinforce their concerns. Bhutan's unemployment rate has been steadily increasing, according to the latest 2009 Labour Force Survey Report, with four percent currently as compared to 3.7 percent in 2007. Most impacted seem to be the youth (15 to 24 years of age), 28.7 percent of whom were unemployed as of 2009.

Interestingly, the Labour Force Survey website lists zero as the number of 'non-national' workers employed in Bhutan. Whether this is a technical glitch or a political one is up for interpretation; but Sarpang officials see a direct link between the rising unemployment and the influx of foreign workers. The government tried to check this by enacting the Labour and Employment Act in 2007, which required businesses to get the approval of their areas' chief labour administrator for each foreign worker hired. Meanwhile, the government also has a cap of 30,000 as the number of foreign workers allowed to work in the country at any given time.

The gap between law and reality has been significant, however, with traders continuing to hire migrant workers, especially from India, Bangladesh and Nepal, without the necessary approval. According to some of Sarpang's businesspeople, it is difficult to find 'reliable' Bhutanese employees – most of whom expect special treatment and quit at the slightest dissatisfaction. According to Kuensel, about 48 businesses in Sarpang, which employ up to as many as 15 foreign workers each, will be effected by this notification.

On to Agartala

Dhaka and New Delhi have long proclaimed their desire for greater economic and political cooperation, but with few tangible results until recently, when there has been a flurry of agreements. One area that has seen a spurt is agreements on rail links. In early September, the two governments finalised plans for a railway network that will link Agartala, Tripura's capital, to Akhaurah, a border town in the Chittagong division of Bangladesh. Trains coming from India will use Akhaurah as a transit point, the first to link the Northeast to India via Bangladesh.

With the new 13 km rail transit, the journey from Kolkata to Agartala will be reduced from 1200 km to 519 km. Three rail links between India and Bangladesh are currently operational, but none connect India to the Northeast through Bangladesh; as such, the new network will increase connectivity not only between Bangladesh and India but also between the Northeast, Bangladesh and mainland India.

The project is part of a USD 1 billion credit package from New Delhi, the largest provided by New Delhi to any country in Southasia or elsewhere. It now has the aim of developing a broad spectrum of Bangladeshi infrastructure, including ports, railways and roads. In addition, both sides have agreed to cooperate on security issues, including combating drugs trafficking and organised crime. This development is seen as significant by some in light of media reports alleging that arms smugglers are commonly using the corridor between Tripura and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

New Delhi is now also keen on developing a second rail link from Akhaurah to Sabroom, in south Tripura, the completion date for which has been set for 2014. This would only be 75 km away from the Chittagong seaport, the largest in Bangladesh, which the states of the Northeast have long eyed to bring them closer to the sea – and the rest of the region and world at large.

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