Round-up of regional news

India / Bangladesh Farakka's impending fiasco The controversial Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, which diverts waters from the Ganga into its tributary, the Bhagirathi, is in danger of being outflanked. A recent report by West Bengal geologist and activist Kalyan Rudra on the "Shifting of the Ganga and Land Erosion in West Bengal" would indicate that the entire Farakka project has been a fiasco, though no government engineer or administrator would concede the point. In the report, recently presented at a seminar in Calcutta, Rudra explores the history, geology, engineering, political neglect and social injustice behind the barrage. Farakka was built not for irrigation, as are most barrages, but with the intention of salvaging the navigational status of the Calcutta port, which had been threatened since early colonial times by heavy sedimentation. The flushing objective of Farakka was never achieved, even as it managed to divert water, much to the chagrin of downstream Bangladesh. With the Calcutta port continuing to silt up, the cargo handling has been shifted to towns down the Bay of Bengal coast – Haldia, Kalpi and Sagar. Back at Farakka, the sediment trapped in the barrage pond has caused the water level to rise alarmingly. The Ganga annually carries about 700 million tonnes of sediment at Farakka, the report states, and a lot of it is settling upstream from the barrage. With its bed rising, the river looks all set to change its course, into an older, long- abandoned channel.
The changing of the course of the Ganga and its tributaries is, of course, a natural phenomenon, particularly so on rivers that carry the largest silt load in the world, comparable only to the Hwang Ho River in China. It is the accumulation of the Himalayan silt on the riverbed that periodically changes rivers' courses. In the case of Farakka, however, the cause is manmade. And the outflanking of the barrage by the Ganga (Padma in Bangladesh) would mean that a massive project, which promised so much to Calcutta and brought such heartburn to India-Bangladesh relations, would be for naught. This would obviously mean disaster for the surrounding region, but also that the river would run free once more into Bangladesh. Scientist Rudra does not appear to have an immediate solution to what seems to be the inevitable endangerment of the Farakka project. Bank reinforcement, he writes, is very costly, at the rate of one lakh rupees per metre of levee. Even though constant strengthening of the embankment does not provide a long-term solution, this is what the state and central governments continue to do. Embankments and revetments meant to deflect the current may provide temporary relief, says Rudra, but in the long term they aggravate the situation. While seeming to write off the future of Farakka as a barrage, Rudra suggests that the only long-term solution in the place of such huge capital investments would be to focus on better preparedness for floods, and on scientific resettlement strategies to improve the lives of the thousands who have already been negatively impacted by erosion and floods. In sum, Rudra's plea is that the population – as well as the engineers and politicians – learn to live with the floods, rather than fight nature with boulders and cement. India / Burma Don't touch Moreh The Indo-Myanmar Border Traders' Union (IMBTU) recently urged the Governor of Manipur, S S Sidhu, to halt a plan by New Delhi that will divert Indo-Burmese trade from Moreh, possibly to Champhai in Mizoram or Pangsha in Nagaland. The decision to change the trading hub was taken in mid-May during the second meeting of the India-Burma Joint Trade Committee. Commerce between the two countries has actually decreased after Moreh, in Manipur, was established as the designated India-Burmese trading centre in 1995. In the decade that the Moreh crossing has been open, IMBTU officials say only INR 2 billion worth of goods has passed through this point. Rather than move the trading post, IMBTU is urging New Delhi to allow third-country trading to take place at Moreh, as well as to increase the number and range of legally tradable goods. The group also believes a crossborder bus service would be useful. Unless a foreign trade office is established on the Indian side, says one local, "it will only be one-way traffic".
Moreh has of late been a site of stepped-up tension between locals and the paramilitary 24 Assam Rifles. In mid-July, accusations against the force of harassment and arbitrary arrest caused all trade to be halted for a week. There are also renewed demands for the transfer of a controversial Assam Rifles post commander. Sri Lanka / India Crossing the strait As the conflict in Sri Lanka has escalated dramatically in recent months, the refugee exodus from the island to Tamil Nadu, which first began 23 years ago, has picked up once again. By mid-August, more than 6600 refugees had taken shelter in camps across the state. This reverses the trend of the past few years, when almost 15,000 refugees had returned home to a Sri Lanka that had attained relative peace. Since April, almost 129,000 people have been displaced within Sri Lanka. The ceasefire agreement between the Colombo government and the Tamil Tigers now exists only in name. To avoid getting caught in the crossfire, thousands of Tamils from Trincomalee and Mannar districts have crossed the choppy waters of the Palk Strait. Arriving refugees are first registered at the Mantapam camp, 15 km from Rameswaram, and then given accommodation at one of the 103 camps administered by the Madras government. The camps provide a sorry picture, often lacking basic water, sanitation and medical facilities. At Kattumannarkovil in Cuddalore District, the refugees have been given shelter in godowns, with living spaces partitioned by gunny-sacks. A judicial order issued in 2003 prohibits children of refugees admission in Tamil Nadu's higher education institutions.
The new state government, headed by M Karunanidhi, has expressed commitment to improve camp conditions. For its part, the Colombo government claims it has set up its own relief camps, and is seeking to discourage the refugees from going across to India. India / The Maldives Intimidated in Kerala This summer Maldivians in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital of Kerala, have feared reprisals from roving gangs after two Indian nationals suffered knife assaults in Male in mid-July. Reports surfaced in May suggesting that Indian labourers in the Maldives suffer regular abuse; this led to Maldivian families in Kerala suffering attacks on their houses and cars. Although no injuries have been reported, the attacks went on for a week in a part of town known to be populated by Maldivians, causing police to begin regular patrols in the area. The Maldives consulate in Thiruvananthapuram has prepared a leaflet to be distributed to new immigrants, to better introduce them to the area. Local police investigated members of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena, who have previously led public demonstrations in response to reports of Indians being discriminated against in the Maldives. Also suspected of involvement are a group of hotel owners, upset at Maldivian residents who were drawing away business by taking in travelers from their home country as paying guests. Although the worst of the attacks have halted, Maldives expatriates claim that they remain soft targets for criminal elements in the city. India / Pakistan The friendly enemy A recent poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan (and commissioned by Delhi-based Outlook magazine for its Independence Day issue) made for shocking headlines, revealing that 53 percent of Pakistanis consider India to be the 'enemy'. Only 19 percent would dub it a 'friend'. But that could be merely the programmed response to a leading question, for the other responses to the Gallup poll reveal a different picture altogether – one of revival of trust and camaraderie. For example, 60 percent of Pakistanis feel that relations between the two countries are better under Manmohan Singh of the Congress than under the Bharatiya Janata Party's Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Almost 55 percent believe that increased people-to-people contact, mostly provided by the new crossborder bus and train links, have improved the situation. One major shift in comparison to a similar survey taken in 2003 has been opinion on converting the Line of Control into an international border. In 2003, only 29 percent said they would accept such a move; today that number is 41 percent. Obviously, Pakistanis increasingly believe that they can live with the 'enemy'. Region BIMSTEC up, SAFTA down BIMSTEC began as an acronym of countries of the Bay of Bengal rimland that got together to integrate and energise the economies of South and Southeast Asia. As the membership grew, it was decided to keep the name but redefine the acronym – and so, today we have the 'Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation'. For some time, it has seemed as if BIMSTEC might be as moribund as its SAARC cousin. In an effort to inject some energy into the effort, the members met in New Delhi in August, and announced a stepped-up timetable for establishing a free trade agreement (FTA) between the BIMSTEC members – which at latest count includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The attending ministers agreed that final negotiations for the FTA should be completed prior to the next BIMSTEC summit, scheduled for early next year. A joint statement released after the New Delhi meeting emphasised the need to improve transportation links between the countries. A centre will be created in India to work as a focal point for strengthening cooperation in the energy sector. Member states also agreed to collaborate on better emergency preparedness in the case of natural disasters. While good atmospherics were emanating from BIMSTEC, the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) being promoted by SAARC was coming unstuck. Southasian foreign ministers who met in Dhaka in early August left unresolved the dispute between India and Pakistan that lies at the core of the SAFTA deadlock. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of having failed to implement key tariff reductions for goods imported by India, by issuing a notice in July limiting SAFTA tariff concessions. In response, Islamabad's Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri explained that while Pakistani imports from India have increased by about 400 percent, Pakistan has been unable to find entry into India's market, even in areas where Pakistan has a competitive advantage. The ministers decided to refer the problem to a forum of SAARC ministers of commerce, where the problem is expected to remain as is where is. Pakistan The flag and Bachchan Karachi authorities have ordered the removal of billboards and posters depicting Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan superimposed on the Pakistani flag. The advertisements had been put up by a local entertainment company seeking to promote its new call-in quiz show, "Aao Banain Carorpati", which is similar to the Hindi-language "Kaun Banega Crorepati" hosted by Bachchan. The superstar is not affiliated with the new Pakistani show, however, which is scheduled to begin airing on 14 August, Pakistan's Independence Day. City officials were not completely unexcited by the crossborder juxtaposition. They noted that while they did not consider Bachchan an enemy, "his picture on our national flag was an objectionable act … this place is reserved only for our own heroes." India / Pakistan IPI trouble Oil secretaries from India, Pakistan and Iran met in New Delhi in early August to discuss pricing formulae for the gas that may eventually flow through the proposed USD 7 billion Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline. Though the meeting had been slated for a final agreement on pricing, in mid-July Tehran rejected New Delhi's proposed price. Instead, Iranian officials announced that the gas would be sold at international rates, and that no concessions would be made for either Pakistan or India. This would set the price at around USD 7.20 per BTU (British Thermal Unit), far above India's offer of USD 4.25.
During the New Delhi meeting, Pakistan and India both publicly opposed Iran's proposal – not only for the cost itself, but also because Iran wants to link the price to the international rate for crude oil, meaning that there would be neither a price floor nor ceiling. Iran's intransigence may actually have to do with two matters quite unconnected to pricing. First, after Manmohan Singh's publicly-shared scepticism of the IPI project, Teheran may believe that the project is not going anywhere. Second, the Iranian authorities have been angered by India's willingness to go along with a West-sponsored resolution in the International Atomic Energy Agency on their nuclear power programme. Despite their inability to come to an agreement, all three sides reiterated the importance of the IPI project itself. A last-ditch effort to break the impasse is now underway, in which an international consultant will be trilaterally appointed to study the pricing issue. That report is due in mid-September, which may be the last we hear about the 'magic pipeline' – at least until India's mounting energy woes force a rethink. Pakistan Hudood stays Pervez Musharraf has long assured activists that he would act against the anti-women Hudood Ordinance, which enforces punishments as dictated by Sharia Law. He even issued an executive order, and the Ministry of Justice stated its intention to remove all "legal and procedural lacunae" from the statute. But then, in a decision handed down in late July, the Islamabad government decided that while the controversial Ordinance can be amended, its substance is acceptable "in principle". In other words, amputation and stoning-to-death will both remain officially sanctioned punishments for certain offences. Eyewitness and evidence requirements are to be modified, however. A victim of rape, for instance, will no longer be asked to produce four eyewitnesses in court. While the government decided that hadd, or Koranic punishments, will remain in effect for certain offences, repentance will now have legal implications. A guilty party who 'repents' will no longer be subjected to hadd punishments. The Hudood law was imposed by Zia ul-Haq in 1979 as part of his efforts to Islamicise the administration of Pakistan. It seems that his military successor in President Musharraf, though of a mind with the activists, is not willing to dare the conservative clergy. Nepal / Bhutan A contentious breakthrough Late July saw the first hard news story in 16 years with regard to the international community's response to the ongoing Bhutani refugee crisis. Coinciding with a visit to Nepal by a senior UNHCR official, the Kathmandu government finally agreed to allow an initial batch of "vulnerable" refugees to be resettled in Western countries, this time to Canada and the US. This group includes individuals who have been threatened, raped or trafficked, and for whom it has been deemed unsafe to remain in the refugee camps in southeast Nepal. UNHCR has never been allowed to arrange for refugee resettlement to Western countries because the Kathmandu government did not want it. Although approval has only been given for 16 individuals, it opens up greater possibilities for the future. Protests took place in both Kathmandu and the districts of Jhapa and Morang in the weeks following the announcement of UNHCR's resettlement plan, however, leading local officials to ban refugees from demonstrating outside of the refugee camps. Resettlement critics within the refugee community have blasted the plan, saying that moves towards resettlement will only give tacit approval to Thimphu's depopulation policy of the early 1990s, while at the same time putting in danger sections of the Bhutani population still living in Bhutan. They say Western governments in any case cannot be expected to take in too many individuals, the Lhotshampa not being as 'exotic' as some other refugees. Some human rights defenders believe that the interests of the refugees must come first, above considerations of culpability of the Thimphu regime and regional geopolitics. "How long are they to be allowed to fester in the refugee camps," asked one, "when we all know that there is next to no possibility of a return to Bhutan." They believe that the preference shown by interviewed refugees for an unlikely return to Bhutan rather than resettlement in a Western country is the result of coercion and peer pressure in the refugee camps. India / Tibet Just a month after the highly publicised reopening of the Nathula pass linking Tibet and Sikkim, a Lhasa official has criticised the low level of trade at the point, blaming "unilateral" restrictions put in place by New Delhi. With trade currently restricted to 15 Chinese and 29 Indian items, the Vice Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Hao Peng, complained that commerce through Tibet's Renqinggang market, 16 kilometres northeast of Nathula, is only USD 12,500 per week – "far less than we had expected". The Chinese side has not imposed any restriction on Nathula trade, except for contraband items, says Hao. Part of the problem was undoubtedly caused by bureaucratic inertia on the Indian side. While New Delhi requires international traders to possess what is referred to as an Import-Export Code (IEC), such a number is available only to those included under India's national income tax laws, which do not cover Sikkimi residents. After two weeks of impasse New Delhi finally exempted regional traders from IEC requirements, but capped the volume of trade they could engage in at just INR 25,000 per individual per day – prompting new complaints that the restriction continues to drag down Nathula's performance. Once the bureaucratic glitches are ironed out, there is still the hope that Renqinggang will be boomtown. China / Tibet Come one, come all Beijing appears set to relax the longstanding restrictive visa regime for foreign visitors to Tibet. While foreigners are currently required to apply for a special permit to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region, the new plans could allow tourists into the sensitive area with just a standard Chinese visa. Beijing explains the move as part of its larger emphasis on opening up and improving the economy of Tibet. Observers, however, have noted that this move, along with the July re-opening of the Nathula pass and the Golmud-Lhasa train line, reveals Beijing's growing confidence in its hold over Tibet. Currently, Lhasa sees about 5000 tourists a day, most of them Han Chinese. There is still only one international flight to Lhasa's spanking new Gonggar airport, a seasonal one from Kathmandu that flies past Mount Everest – Chomolungma to the Tibetans. With the easing of restrictions and likely rise of non-Han tourists, it is expected that Lhasa will be linked by air to Bangkok and Hong Kong, to begin with. Kathmandu's near-monopoly as an entry point would then be a thing of the past. India / Bangladesh Frontier flare-up What is incongruous about India-Bangladesh border clashes is how little news they make, even though it is the official security forces of two members of SAARC having a go at each other. And it seems to happen all the time. But one of the most severe border clashes in years took place in early August, and it had more than 20,000 people on both sides evacuating to makeshift refugee camps. At least eight deaths were reported. Few agree on who initiated the skirmish, but the fighting between the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) started over the matter of ownership of a large borderland rice paddy in Sylhet, on the Assam border. The firefight lasted all of 14 hours, with several hundred mortars and thousands of bullets fired. Both sides subsequently reinforced their troop levels. Days later, at a "fruitful" meeting between the opposing commanders – the second such 'flag meeting' in a little over a month – the two sides agreed to pull back their additional troops, abide by a 1974 border agreement, and generally pretend that nothing amiss had taken place. When asked why the guns had spoken, and for so long, one BSF representative noted it was "accidental fire, whoever had done it first". Everyone seemed willing to accept the explanation, and calm returned to the India-Bangladesh frontier.
Eight dead. 20,000 displaced. Hundreds of mortars. Thousands of bullets expended. Only on the India-Bangladesh frontier would you still call this peace! India Cola troubles, again What tele-guru Ramdev started, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) seems intent on taking to its logical conclusion. While Ramdev suggested that the multinational colas were good as toilet cleaners, the Delhi-based CSE (publisher also of Down to Earth magazine) reported that in at least 12 states, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo soft drinks contained traces of pesticides up to 50 times higher than acceptable levels. CSE said this confirmed the results of a similar study conducted three years ago, at which time the Indian Parliament had suggested that the government pass standards for the sodas in question. This has not yet taken place, nor has the government had an official response to the new findings. But in other corners, reactions have been flying. Several Indian states passed complete or partial bans on the production and sale of soft drinks marketed by the Coca-Cola and PepsiCo companies, which control 80 percent of the USD 80 billion Indian soft drink market. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the leftist parties called for a national ban, reviving memories of 1977 when, right after the Emergency, the Janata Dal government banned Coca-Cola (and promoted a 'desi' soda brand known as '77). The Indian Supreme Court ordered Coca-Cola to divulge its century-old secret formula – long an integral part of the myth surrounding Coke. Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan, hired to promote Pepsi's brand through advertisements, has expressed his pique by noting simply that India is "a filthy country" – apparently for having gone after his sponsors. Things were evidently serious enough for George W Bush over in the White House to go to bat for the conglomerates. At its New York headquarters, PepsiCo suddenly promoted India-born and -educated Indra Nooyi to be its CEO. Oddly, the CSE findings have yet to cause a stir in India's neighbouring countries, even though the possibility of pesticide residue would seem to be as much of a probability there as in India. At last count, Pakistanis were continuing to down the colas at quite a clip, as were Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Sri Lankans. For once, the worldwide competitors PepsiCo and Coca-Cola must be comparing notes on how to tackle the volatile Indian market – and its nemesis, the CSE!

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