Round-up of regional news

Bus sans passengers

The Nepal state-owned Sajha Yatayat resumed its Kathmandu-Lhasa bus service from 1 January, though the passengers were less than excited. In fact there were no passengers, and an empty bus was finally forced to leave Kathmandu for Lhasa. This was not because no one bought tickets, which dozens of Nepali and foreign tourists had reportedly done, shelling out the USD 70 necessary for the 955-km-long trip. The problem was that the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu refused to grant visas to a single one of them.      

Despite some easing in recent years, Chinese visas to Tibet are still generally issued to tourists travelling in groups, and that too after stringent scrutiny. In the end, Sajha was forced to send a bus with only two people aboard – a driver and a helper – in order to demonstrate respect for the agreement that had been reached between the two countries.      

The shuttle first became operational in May 2005, based on an agreement signed in 1994 to promote tourism in Nepal and China. The service was short-lived, however, and was eventually suspended in 2006. Last November, an exchange of road permits between Sajha representatives and Himalayan Transportation, on behalf of Tibet/China, led to the theoretical revival of the service – though no one appears to have told the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In all this, it appears to be a matter of the Tibetan authorities enthusiastically wanting something the Chinese authorities are more than willing to thwart.      

Neighbour's direct investment

New Delhi has finally lifted the longstanding ban on foreign direct investment (FDI) from Bangladesh – though with some rigorous safeguards. Despite the abolishment of the ban, investments from Bangladesh will still need to be approved on a case-by-case basis – even in sectors where 100-percent FDI is usually allowed without condition for others.      

While the Indian government opened its markets to foreign investment during the 1990s, other Southasian countries – particularly Bangladesh – have long been denied the opportunity to invest in Indian markets. And enforcement of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) has, thus far anyway, proven unsuccessful in improving the situation. Meanwhile, India enjoys a trade surplus of more than USD 2 billion a year with Bangladesh, an issue that has long been a major bugbear in bilateral relations.      

The decision to lift the Bangladesh ban was part of a significantly larger package that was passed at the beginning of the New Year. New Delhi has now formally removed all import duties on 4800 items importable from four Southasian neighbours, while also reducing the duty on these goods from Pakistan and Sri Lanka.      

Which way Gorkhaland?

India may just get itself another state based along linguistic lines – Gorkhaland. After the agitation of the 1980s, led by Subhas Ghising, was defused by the creation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) within West Bengal, it has taken more than two decades for the demand to build up steam once again.      

As protests by the Nepali-speaking population of the Darjeeling Hills have continued to gain momentum, New Delhi has decided to act, forming a State Restructuring Commission to investigate the demands. Bimal Gurung, chairman of the agitating Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), an umbrella group consisting of a half-dozen political parties, welcomed the move. "Now the need is to fight at an intellectual level for establishing a separate Gorkhaland state," Gurung said. Gurung also noted that the push for Gorkhaland has been ongoing since 1907, and warned that GJM would consider calling back the Gorkha soldiers serving in the Indian security forces, estimated to number about 60,000, should the government act to suppress the struggle.      

While the India government acts, the West Bengal government remains sullen about the plans. As does Ghising, who has never liked his authority questioned. Both Ghising and the West Bengal government want the Centre to confer tribal-area status on the Darjeeling Hills. Such a designation would result in greater autonomy and power for the DGHC. In the meantime, the GJM continues to undermine Ghising by calling for a separate state.      

Unhealthy outsourcing

A new report suggests that the Indian outsourcing sector could stand to lose out on massive revenue over the coming decade, due to health problems arising from the nature of most outsourced work. Researchers with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations have noted that heart disease, diabetes and strokes have already cost the Indian health-care system roughly USD 9 billion in 2005 alone. But this number is projected to jump to USD 200 billion over the next ten years, and researchers warn that the outsourcing industry could be a significant source of the problem.      

While the sector, which employs around 1.6 million young Indians, has been credited with energising India's current economic boom, negative ramifications in workers' health have also been becoming increasingly apparent. Much of this is related to the fact that most call-centre labourers are forced to work overnight to keep in-sync with the Western schedule. This, along with the nature of the work, has led to sleep disorders, weight gain and heart disease, as well as general depression and strained relations with families and friends.       Indian Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss recently acknowledged the looming crisis, and suggested that special health policies be drafted for IT workers. "We don't want these young people to burn out," Ramadoss noted.

No arms for Burma

New Delhi, long one of Rangoon's closest trading partners, has finally decided to stop all sale and transfer of arms to Burma. Observers claim that the move could prove to be an important step towards increasing international pressure on the Burmese junta. Although no official statement regarding the halt has been made, New Delhi officials appear to have privately confirmed the suspension to their US counterparts.      

In recent years, military contacts between India and Burma have become increasingly significant, and include joint operations to defuse separatist groups in the Indian Northeast. In December, a letter signed by 48 US Senators was sent to George W Bush, urging him to support an international arms embargo in the form of a UN Security Council resolution against Burma. Many are now hoping that New Delhi's new decision will prove a vital element in pressuring China, a crucial trading partner of Burma, to support the embargo.

Pillars and posts

Tit-for-tat vituperation has again started up along the porous India-Nepal border. In December, an estimated 200 Nepali Maoists attempted to stake claim to a section of the no-man's land along the border with Uttarakhand, near the town of Banbasa in Champavat District. The group crossed over the unguarded frontier and raised red flags belonging to the Maoists' youth wing, the Young Communist League (YCL).      

The local police superintendent noted that border pillars have long been missing from the area, although locals maintain that everyone in the area is familiar with the boundaries. A bilateral task force is current moving along the 300-kilometre stretch of land to identify and rebuild missing pillars.      

Observers noted that the YCL activists appeared to be attempting to goad the Indian security forces to fire into the crowd, evidently in the hopes of creating what would have been a complicated international incident. However, with no shots fired, Indian security personnel were able to simply push the YCL members out of the no-man's land.      

In a separate incident later that week, the YCL hoisted Nepali and party flags in the disputed Susta area of Nawalparasi District. Reacting to this move, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), set up its own demonstration against the YCL's actions and continued 'monitoring' of the border area. The subsequent demonstration saw Indian and Nepali protestors chanting slogans against each other, and some stone-throwing, but the demonstration lasted for little more than an hour. Fortunately, the seniors in government have decided not to get dragged into the melee, and the two governments are said to be relying on talks to resolve the issue.      

Moving the fences

More than 2000 Punjabi farmers recently received a welcome surprise: the finalisation of plans by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs and the Border Security Force to realign the electric fence that runs along the Punjab-Punjab frontier. Though the fence largely runs along the international border between the two countries, due to geopolitical realities the fence was built between 50 meters to several kilometres away from the official border. The realignment will now give the farmers vastly easier access to more than 4000 acres of fertile land, from which they have been cut off since the fence was built in 1988.      

Constructed as a counter-infiltration measure during the height of the Khalistan secessionist movement, the fence spans 462 km of the 553-km-long India-Pakistan frontier in Punjab. "Lack of access has reduced farm income in the border villages to less than half that in the inland regions," said farmer Tarsem Singh, of Kasel village on the Indian side.      

Many farmers are subsequently forced to move across the fence every day in order to reach their lands – necessitating their search by the BSF every time they pass through the heavy steel gates. Officials are now drawing up new alignments for 23 km of fencing across eight 'bulges' in the Jalalabad and Fazilka sectors. Work is expected to be completed by early 2008.      

Rice crisis

The head of the Bangladesh Army, General Moeed U Ahmed, has warned that the country is facing a "crisis" with regards to its rice stocks, which were severely depleted last year by the ravages of flooding and Cyclone Sidr. In many ports, the prices of almost all staple foodstuffs (wheat, edible oil, vegetables) have doubled, including a rise of BDT 2 per kilogram of rice within just 48 hours in early January. That put coarse rice at an all-time high of BDT 30 per kg.      

The price hikes were attributed to New Delhi's decision to increase India's minimum price – from USD 425 to USD 500 per tonne – for rice exported to Bangladesh. The sudden price changes caught shoppers by surprise, and thousands rushed off to buy rice before the new prices were imposed, thus leading to the spike. Dhaka has approximately 600,000 tonnes of food grains in store, but its requirements stand at well over a million.      

Thing took another downward turn, at least on the bilateral front, the following week. At that time, Indian customs authorities at Petrapole halted the export of 4000 tonnes of rice, which had been sold to Bangladeshi traders at the previous rate. "It's bad tactics, a conspiracy of the Indian authorities to put us in trouble," said one angry importer. "Exporters will now compel us to pay an additional 75 to 80 dollars per tonne on the plea that the government raised the price."

'Southasia U' still far off

Although it has been almost a year since it was first officially proposed (and over three years since Manmohan Singh first publicly discussed the idea), the establishment of a South Asian University in Delhi has seen next to no progress. When Delhi took over as SAARC Chair during the spring of 2007, Manmohan Singh promised to oversee the building of a regional centre of higher education. Since then, however, there has been remarkably little initiative taken towards this goal. Instead, until very recently, officials were reportedly still debating such basic issues as the appointment of a project officer, as well as the location of the campus itself.      

Much of the problem appears to stem from bureaucratic inertia within the Indian government. Last spring, a committee was created to oversee the planning process, consisting of such luminaries as University Grants Commission chair Sukhdeo Thorat, well-known scientist M S Swaminathan, Education Secretary R P Agarwal and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon. Bringing these heavy-duty personages together has proven exceedingly difficult, however, and by the end of 2007 the committee had yet to meet.      

The early days of 2008 seemed to herald some movement, howsoever slight. A few names have now been put forward to fill the slot of CEO for the proposed institution; the campus site will now be located, it is thought, in Delhi; and unnamed officials are suggesting that the SAU's building could take another two or three years to be started and completed. Certainly, bricks and mortar do not a university make, but it could be a start.      

Through the chicken's neck

Some people never tire of trying. Those who want an energised land route between Nepal and Bangladesh are of such a breed. Steps are being taken to solidify an agreement to launch a direct bus service between Kathmandu and Dhaka. There is a small problem, however – the two-score kilometres of Indian territory, the famed 'Chicken Neck', that lies in between.      

Now, the Bangladeshi Communications Ministry has recently asked the Foreign Office to send a request to New Delhi to arrange for visas on both sides of its territory. Eventually, two bilateral agreements with India, or a tripartite agreement, would be required to launch the bus service.      

In addition to facilitating around 10,000 people (including tourists, businessmen and students) who travel regularly between Nepal and Bangladesh, the land route is being heralded for potentially strengthening economic ties. Currently Bangladesh and Nepal are linked mainly by air, and the land route is little used due to the cumbersome three-time immigration procedure and the lack of a door-to-door bus service between Kathmandu and Dhaka.      

Next up…

A few months after the Dalai Lama was similarly recognised, the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the unanimous consent of United States House of Representatives. The medal is the highest award that the US Congress can give to a civilian. US officials stated that Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 of the past 17 years in detention, was to be given the award in recognition of her "courage and unwavering commitment to peace, non-violence, human rights and democracy" in Burma.

Previous recipients of the medal include Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. In a prominent move in October 2007, the medal was presented to the Dalai Lama in a ceremony attended by George W Bush – a move that continues to sour US-Chinese relations. While the award to the Dalai Lama incurred the wrath of Beijing, it is curious that no one seems interested in gauging the Burmese junta's reaction to this one.  

Partners in excess

In something of a bitter shock, Pakistan and India were recently ranked the world's fifth and the sixth largest producers and possessors of landmines, respectively. The annual Landmine Monitor Report surprised many, not only because the bilateral peace process between India and Pakistan is ongoing and the ceasefire is in place. Both countries have also repeatedly claimed to be clearing their territories of landmines.

The report further disclosed that, while an estimated four-five million antipersonnel mines exist in India, Pakistan has a staggering six million. Meanwhile, at least 1890 km in Jammu & Kashmir evidently remain mined, despite claims by New Delhi that 99 percent of the mines have been removed. In 2007, 14 incidents involving landmine explosions were reported in J & K, although more are assumed to have occurred.

Islamabad, meanwhile, declared that all of the mines on its eastern frontier have been cleared. However, the government said nothing about the large areas in Waziristan, and elsewhere in the west, that remain heavily mined. Although India and Pakistan have banned the export of landmines, the LMR report notes that these exports continue to happen. Today, India- and Pakistan-made landmines of various shapes and sizes are found in a range of countries, including Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, as well as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mauritius, Tanzania and Sudan.      

Reverse trend

How quickly things change! In the past, Afghans used to flee south and east into Pakistan. In recent weeks, however, several hundred Pakistani families have fled across the border to Afghanistan, in an attempt to escape the increasingly vicious fighting that has broken out between militants and the Pakistani security forces in the frontier area.       Taking advantage of the removal of a number of soldiers from a border post between the two countries, 300-400 refugee families have reportedly crossed into Afghanistan to escape the turmoil. Evidently, good-neighbourliness in the past has paid off: Khost Province Governor Arsallah Jamal says that the refugees are being housed with Afghan families who were themselves once refugees in Pakistan.

Quiet cooperation

After years of fudging around the issue, it now appears that the Indian military has agreed to step up surveillance off the Indian coast in order to deal with the LTTE's maritime activity. Following lengthy cajoling by Colombo, it was recently announced that air stations are likely to be set up in Tamil Nadu and Orissa for this purpose.      

The requests for the stations were included in a 15-year prospective plan submitted recently by the Indian Coast Guard. "We will choose either Nagapattinam or Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, and Gopalpur has been chosen for Orissa," said the Commander of the Coast Guard, Eastern Region, Rajendra Singh. Negotiations are also ongoing with Air Force officials at Thanjavur and other officials at Puducherry and Tuticorin. Once established, the stations would allow the Coast Guard to operate large ships and interceptor vessels.      

Despite the high sensitivity of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict for Indian politicians, by mid-January a still more significant acknowledgement had emerged from within the Indian military's ranks. While there had been "no direct support" of the Sri Lankan military, said the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, "We support by checking our activities on their coast and their activities on ours. In this way we help ourselves by helping them." This rhetoric was immediately backed by Admiral Mehta's Sri Lankan counterpart, Vice-Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, who boasted that, "Cooperation with India has been extremely successful in countering the LTTE."

Jinnah House quiet

The tug-of-war over the Jinnah House in Bombay came to a somewhat anticlimactic end in mid-January. The house was Mohammad Ali Jinnah's residence from 1936 to 1947, when he moved to Karachi as Pakistan's first governor-general. In the lead-up to that occasion, the house had been the venue of several historical meetings between, among others, Jinnah and Mohandas K Gandhi.      

When he left, Jinnah is said to have asked Jawaharlal Nehru not to sell the property. Since then, however, the Indian government has held that the mansion comes under the category of 'evacuee property', left behind by those who went over to Pakistan after Partition.      

In the meantime, Pakistan has long tried to stake its own claim to Jinnah House, ostensibly to finally open a consulate in Bombay.       Now, Jinnah's only daughter, Dina Wadia, has challenged the Indian government's claim to be its rightful custodian; Wadia holds Indian citizenship. With that, Pakistan has graciously backed away from its claim – perhaps to the frustration of those who were hoping to use the plot for a resumed Pakistani consulate in Bombay.      

'Upgrading' the border

In late December, New Delhi confirmed that it was ready to spend upwards of INR 8.5 billion on a massive scheme to upgrade more than a dozen border checkpoints across the length of its many frontiers. The plan will convert 13 so-called Land Customs Stations, along the borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma, into Integrated Check Posts.      

Although the project was initially green-lighted during meetings in November, it had been put on hold as the Centre discussed a way to fund the venture. While the Home Ministry had been pushing for a public-private partnership, a decision has now been taken to have the central government fund the entire project.       The plan, slated to take approximately three years to complete, is aimed at boosting border trade by offering better infrastructure and providing immigration facilities. The External Affairs Ministry is currently accepting requests from neighbouring governments to construct new Land Customs Stations. Additional stations, beyond the agreed-upon 13, are currently being considered along the borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and China.      

Your hydro

Control over the Qargha and Amir Ghazi dams, near Kabul, was recently handed back to the Afghan government by New Delhi, which had overseen the rehabilitation of the infrastructure at a cost of USD 3.5 million. In a ceremony in early January, the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Rakesh Sood, formally handed over control of the hydroelectric installations to the Deputy Minister for Energy and Water Engineering, Shujauddin Ziayee.      

The multi-year project had involved extensive repair and de-silting of the dams, as well as the construction of control rooms, feeder canals and approach roads. In addition, the Indian government handed over construction equipment meant for the operation and maintenance of the dams. The installations will supply irrigation and domestic water for approximately 10,000 villagers.      

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2002, India has become one of Afghanistan's premier donors. The USD 750 million that New Delhi has promised between 2002 and 2009 makes it the fifth-largest contributor in the world, after the US, UK, Japan and Germany. (Rakesh Sood, in the meantime, has left Kabul to take up an assignment, in February, as the Indian ambassador to Nepal.)

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