Round-up of regional news

Barbed-wire mentality

The lack of adequate travel links between (and often within) the countries of this region is no secret. But a combination of political apathy and tension between nation states has meant that the number and quality of these connections have not improved substantially in recent decades.

In July, the Indian delegation at a meeting of SAARC transport ministers in Colombo proposed connecting Pakistan and Bangladesh through India via train. In keeping with the spirit of the regional body, the team said the links were as much about uniting the "hearts and minds" of the region's people as about upgrading transport links. Following on this suggestion, in early September Indian Railways put forth plans to have tracks connecting Dhaka, New Delhi and Lahore.

The proposed link would be part of the Trans-Asian Rail (TAR) network, as envisioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. If all goes according to plan, the TAR system will include 81,000 km of tracks, running all the way from Sri Lanka to Russia.

That, at least, is the idea. At the moment, unfortunately, the response from Islamabad and Dhaka has been lacklustre and downright negative, respectively. The railway minister of the former has "technically approved" the plans, which still require a green light from the External Affairs and Commerce Ministries; the latter, meanwhile, has said that it has "no intention" of establishing trade links with Pakistan, at least according to an unnamed official with the Bangladesh High Commission quoted in late September. So much for Southasian brothers and sisters moving forward together.

Lanka consultancy

The militarist fluster in Colombo seems to just keep growing. The latest boost comes in the form of foreign governments making a beeline to learn about the defeat of the LTTE in May. As one Lankan newspaper has put it, "Against the backdrop of Sri Lanka's unparalleled military victory over LTTE terrorism, foreign powers are lining up to study Sri Lanka's modus operandi in fighting the LTTE." So impressed are the internationals, apparently, that Great Britain, India and Pakistan have all asked Colombo to share its expertise in small-boat operations. A group of US military personnel has already visited the island for joint training with the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), the elite Sri Lankan Navy unit.

The cause of all this overseas interest? The Sri Lankan military designed and built 200 small warships during the past three years, in order to match the LTTE's speed and manoeuvrability on the water. For decades, the Tigers, infamous for their use of small boats, had the navy on the run, attacking in swarming formations or carrying out suicide missions. The tide began to turn in 2006, when then-Naval Chief Admiral Wasantha Karanngoda restarted a dormant boat-building programme.

Two years later, in 2008, the navy set up a new offensive unit, the Rapid Action Boat Squadron (RABS), to support the SBS. This unit was especially effective at countering the LTTE in shallow waters, where the larger boats were unable to venture. Little wonder, then, that countries with large navies, who are concerned about threats from small explosives-laden crafts targeting major warships, are now flocking to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka

Post-war, Colombo appears to have developed a penchant for blood. Or so it would seem from the recent decision to reintroduce capital punishment. The move was unanimously agreed upon at a meeting of the High Level Joint Task Force, with, amongst others, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, Inspector-General of Police Jayantha Wickremaratne and Minister of Justice and Judicial Reforms Milinda Moragoda present. Though the practice was never officially abolished in the country, it had been suspended since 1978, with death sentences generally converted to life imprisonment.

The reason being given for the reintroduction is a need to curb the worrying increase in organised crime. Ironically, the decision was sparked by the public calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty following the murder of two youth in Angulana, on the southern coast. The two were not victims of organised crime, however. They were found dead after being in custody following their arrest by the police.

Sweet trouble

Southasians, ever fond of adulterating their food and beverages with plenty of sugar, may be setting themselves up for a bitter pill. With stocks running out worldwide, a massive sugar deficit is already plaguing India and Pakistan, causing prices to soar. In the US, too, discussions of whether or not the country is running out of sugar have featured prominently in the media. Meanwhile, global sugar prices have hit a 28-year high.

A major cause for the fall in supplies has been the failing harvest in India due to a poor monsoon. This has recently turned the worlds biggest sugar consumer (with an average of upwards of 24 million tonnes a year) and second-largest producer from an exporter into an importer. In Pakistan as well, production fell and prices have nearly doubled. The sugar crisis could not have been timed worse for Southasia, as in Pakistan it coincides with high demand around the month of Ramadan, while the festival season of Dussehra and Deepawali is soon to kick off in India as well.

The deficit could prove especially onerous for developing countries, as the high prices will put sweets entirely out of reach for many. In an attempt to keep prices in check, the Indian government has introduced strict rules to prevent the hoarding of sugar. Similarly, factory owners in Pakistan risk punishment if they do not release existing sugar stocks. On the brighter side, with the incidence of diabetes rapidly approaching epidemic proportions in the Subcontinent, one can only hope that the shortage will at least have a positive, if momentary, effect on the region's health.

Ending gridlock

Traffic jams – kilometre after kilometre of overcrowded buses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and even tangas – are no novelty for the urban-dwellers of the region. All the same, that the citizens of Dhaka have it worst is uncontested by many, with the packed roads grinding to a complete standstill on a daily basis. This has been going on for years. But it was only recently that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina realised that immediate measures were needed to relieve her harried people.

A huge part of the problem is, of course, a general disregard of the laws. With this in mind, Hasina has ordered traffic officials to enforce all existing rules strictly, including the towing away of illegally parked cars. There is also a more creative aspect to her plan: authorities have been told to stagger work hours for offices and educational institutions. The new idea is to introduce a three-category schedule in which working hours will be spread out as much as possible, with start times varying from seven to ten in the morning. Additionally, Hasina has suggested that all students use school buses as much as possible, to cut down on the use of private vehicles.

On an average day, the main arteries of the capital are already in gridlock by 9 am. This not only causes severe inconvenience to commuters but also affects public life, the functioning of businesses, institutions and even emergency services. Dhaka may have been notorious for its congested roads for years; but with the number of vehicles plying the streets increasing by about 20,000 every year, and little expansion of road networks to accommodate the rise, the problem is becoming increasingly severe. According to international standards, 25 percent of a city's infrastructure should be its roads; in Dhaka, this number is only seven.

Brewing trouble

While the east of Burma rumbles with conflict and violence between government troops and minority groups, the two-year anniversary of the 2007 Saffron Revolution has just passed, and both opposition activists and the junta have been on edge. In Rangoon, ten activists initiated a so-called 'Tuesday prayer campaign', during which, every Tuesday for a month, they will be sporting yellow symbols such as hairpins, flowers and dresses when they come to pray at the great Shwedagon pagoda.

In this way, they intend to pay tribute to the monks who took part in the 2007 uprising, and to campaign for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The activists claim the junta cannot do anything to them for wearing these symbols, and at press time there had yet to be any reports of a crackdown on the peaceable demonstrators.

Simultaneously, monks across Burma are said to be preparing another boycott of anyone related to the military junta, in protest against the ongoing abuse against Buddhism and its proponents. The clergy will be refusing alms from those who have "violated religious principles". The exiled All Burma Monks' Alliance has called on all people and organisations to participate in the boycott, though what the pubic itself is being asked to do remains somewhat unclear.

As a similar boycott (following on anger over rising food and fuel prices) sparked the uprisings of 2007, it is no surprise that the junta is keeping a keen eye on these developments. While it is whispered that spies in saffron robes are everywhere, public warnings were also issued through a website run by the junta. After claiming that the International Burmese Monks' Organisation and the Sangha League are planning another uprising, the website stated (in Burmese) that severe action would be taken against those taking part in the dissent. The site also mentioned that the Burmese people would not approve of an uprising, and urged the public not to fall 'victim' to the monks.

Abundant protection

The 26 main atolls of the Maldives have been emerging as a key hub in the quest for control of the lucrative and strategic lanes of the Indian Ocean. India and China are, of course, the two competitors in this game, which has seen a great flurry of activity recently.

First, Indian Defence Minister A K Antony jetting to Male in mid-August as the head of a high-level delegation of military leaders. The outcome of this trip was a mutual agreement to "step up defence cooperation" between the two countries. Such diplomatic noise often means little in practical terms, but Male and New Delhi did subsequently agree on a number of specific measures. The most important of these is that India will be setting up surveillance radar installations in each of the atolls, a network that will be directly linked to the Indian Coastal Command.

Next to jump into the game was Beijing, with Zhang Gaoli, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, paying a visit to the island in early September. Just over a week later, Maldivian Defence Minister Ameen Faisal travelled to China, where local officials likewise expressed their eagerness to build up bilateral military ties. This would fit with what is known (at least in anxiety-ridden halls of New Delhi) as Beijing's 'string of pearls' strategy, where China is purported to be surrounding India by building ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma. Beijing is reportedly keen to add the Maldives to this list by as early as 2010.

The latest country into this fray is the US. President Barack Obama recently signed a document saying that Washington, DC would provide the Maldives with "modest military assistance" if required, on a case-by-case basis. According to Assistant Secretary of the State for South Asia Robert Blake, the move was motivated by a desire to support Male in its fight against the "terrorists" that are thought to transit through the island.

To date, President Mohamed Nasheed's government has not asked the US for this evidently available military assistance. Indeed, considering that the president has consistently highlighted the dire state of his coffers, any purchase of hardware seems unlikely at this time. But with three of today's largest international powers eager to gain a foothold in his islands, perhaps President Nasheed should use his newfound clout to push these governments to help fund his ambitious plan to make the atolls carbon neutral.

Nut job

With its coconut industry ailing, Kerala is look at implementing a quirky solution. The state's reliably heavy harvest has, of late, not been met by an adequate workforce. In one of a number of cases where social progress has affected the economy, the unravelling of caste restrictions has led to a steep decline in coconut pickers.

Where once there existed a whole caste tied to the coconut harvest, the 'untouchable' Paravans, former pickers have increasingly shunned their socially directed pigeonhole and sought more lucrative work in the cities. In addition, with the community having been brought under the Scheduled Caste category, and subsequently granted reservation in educational institutions and government jobs, they no longer rely so greatly on coconut picking.

At the same time, the industry is one that certainly requires constant manpower, as coconuts must be gathered every 45 days, the time it takes for a nut to mature. The effects of the shortfall have been immediate and dire, with coconut production in India falling from around six billion nuts harvested in 2005 to 5.5 billion in 2008.

By way of response, Kerala's industries department has set up a competition. A prize of INR 1 million is open to any inventor, the world over, who can come up with a machine capable of picking coconuts – and thus single-handedly plugging the labour crisis. The device-to-be, operating from the ground, must be able to gather coconuts up to 30 metres up the trunk. Furthermore, it must be inexpensive to build, easy to move around and simple to use. Current machines, operating awkwardly at tree level, have been deemed too primitive.

The demand will be huge, possibly in other parts of the region and the world as well, and a successful invention would doubtless turn around Kerala's flagging coconut industry. This is a state well-versed in radical change, however, at least in education, health care and environmental policy. But industry and innovation, it seems, are the new frontier.

Pakistan/Sri Lanka
Peace missiles

In another sign of the strengthening ties between Islamabad and Colombo, Sri Lanka recently received a goodwill visit from the Pakistani naval carrier Zulfiqar, the first of four state-of-the-art frigates known as F-22Ps slated for construction. The vessel was constructed in the Hudong Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai under a project estimated to cost USD 1 billion. Two other similar frigates are still to be built in Hudong, as part of a 2006 deal between China and Pakistan. The fourth F-22P, meanwhile, will be built in Karachi.

It is puzzling that the Pakistan Navy is inducting the four F-22Ps at this time, when its force is already 50 frigates strong. And the navy has had relatively little to do since the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, outside of the conflict of 1971. If one believes Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, who calls the building of these frigates part of a plan to herald a "vision for new shipyards and development of shipbuilding industry on a grand scale", the ships have more to do with industry than actual military preparedness. Pakistan evidently aims to become the leading shipbuilding country in the region.

Islamabad also claims that the frigates are being built to promote peace and stability in Southasia, through better policing of the seas. And so the new floating weaponry represents a bid to ensure harmony in the Subcontinent. Along these lines, during the goodwill visit to Colombo, Commanding Officer Captain Zahid Ilyas claimed that Pakistan would also help Sri Lanka acquire some of the small frigates under construction. One could ask why Sri Lanka needs new and sophisticated war ships just when its three-decade-long war has just come to a decisive end.

Spanking new

Kabul is a chaotic city, an overburdened infrastructural nightmare that is home to far more people than it can support. Considering that the population of the city has shot up from one to five million since 2001, this state of affairs is hardly surprising. And with this number expected to jump to eight million by 2025, somebody really needs to get busy doing something, and soon.

Considering that other under-planned Southasian cities seem oblivious to their impending woes, however, what is now on the drawing board could be surprising. Kabul does indeed have a plan of action. In 2006, President Hamid Karzai put together a board to envision a brand-new city in a 500 sq km space in the Dehsabz area of the city. This New City lies only 20 km northeast of Kabul proper, but will be about 1.5 times larger than its ancient neighbour.

With construction slated to begin later this year or early next, the entire city is projected to be up and running within a decade and a half. Taking into account the capital's exploding population numbers, developing Dehsabz is undoubtedly a necessary plan. Unlike many other undertakings in today's Afghanistan, however, the new project seems unique in its funding strategy. Beyond the early infrastructure-planning phases, Dehsabz is to be built entirely by private Afghan investors. Such a vision may well kick up a whole host of its own issues, but a move away from donor aid is reason enough to celebrate.


In recent months, lack of confidence in the state's ability to protect its own citizens has been spelled out in an unprecedented spike in gun licences dealt out to nervy Nepalis. Twice the number of licenses has been issued in Nepal over these past nine months than in any comparable period over the last seven years. Of course, this is an anomaly that is matched by an unchecked rise in kidnapping, extortion and violent crime, in spite of the maturing – and largely stalled – peace process over the last three years. With a culture of impunity and vigilante justice choking the mores of democratic society, this nationwide arms race is making a Wild West of the fledgling republic.

Getting a gun registered is a luxury of the relatively affluent it appears, and the craze is most frenzied in the Kathmandu Valley, which also enjoys the highest police and army presence. The Kathmandu District Administration Office (DAO) has alone approved 70 licenses in the nine-month period – the highest for any such length of time – from an office that is used to leisurely stamping around 35 a year. A similar phenomenon has been recorded in the Tarai, which in some districts competes with the Kathmandu Valley in population density – suggesting that what Nepalis fear most is each other. The majority of licenses concern newly imported firearms, the others covering the sale and exchange of guns between Nepalis. And, what with an established black market in deadly weapons, these numbers only account for part of the gun epidemic.

A similar, though less pronounced, surge was seen in Kathmandu during the worst years of the Maoist insurgency, which shook and panicked the capital – if less dramatically than the hinterland provinces, which the Maoists made their own. Between January 1999 and February 2002, the Kathmandu DAO approved 1389 licenses, a record that still holds for a three-year period, though current trends may soon challenge that. This number sunk sharply after the security situation strengthened from February 2002 to October 2008, which saw a succession of ceasefires, peace talks, the 12-point agreement that ended the conflict and the start of the peace process. During that period, a mere 250 licenses were processed, betokening a new optimism for the return of law and order. Of course, many of the guns that were legally registered ended up in the hands of the then-insurgents, who used this method initially to build their arsenal.

But this promise now seems to have been squandered in Nepal where politically affiliated thugs openly flout the law in front of spectator-policemen, and common criminals take their cue and act without fear of punishment. The result of this has been a rise in mob 'justice', carried out by otherwise law-abiding citizens. In this light, the statistic quoted by the Arms Management Section of the Home Ministry – 34,314 licensed fire-arm holders at the close of the last fiscal year – is a clear cause for alarm. Meanwhile, another alarm has been raised by the vehement suggestion by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ('Prachanda') that 'civilian supremacy' translates as the right of every citizen to bear arms.

Tense anniversary

In what seems to be a semi-annual piece of news, Beijing is once again banning foreign tourists from visiting the Tibetan Plateau. The special occasion this time is the 60-year anniversary of communist rule in China. Official celebrations are slated for three days in early October, culminating with a keynote address in Tiananmen Square by President Hu Jintao, followed by a military parade.

While the actual day of the event is 1 October, the ban is reportedly in place from 22 September to 8 October, though those foreigners and visitors already in Tibet are reportedly not being forced to leave. The government's security fears are also being felt off of the plateau, however, especially in Beijing, where the festivities will be centred. In an indicator of the regime's mindset, a number of stores across the city have even been banned from selling knives. Meanwhile, Pakistan has also been asked to rein in Islamists in the borderlands along the still-restive Xinjiang area in the run-up to the big day.

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Himal Southasian