Round-up of regional news

Militant wood

Art by Bilash Rai

President Hamid Karzai's odd outburst in March, in which he threatened to quit the government and join the Taliban, was no doubt a momentary flare-up of frustration. But the Kabul government has indeed implemented policies that have, perhaps unintentionally, backed the Taliban militancy.

One example is the 2006 ban on logging and lumber sales in the country, a policy that is now being revisited because it is viewed as 'counterproductive'. The ban was meant to try to preserve what remained of the fast-diminishing Afghan forests, which have been reduced by 50 percent since 1978. Yet four years later, the smuggling of timber and lumber has continued in Kunar province of northeastern Afghanistan, where great stretches of forest still remain, and under the control of the Taliban at that.

In addition to offering a revenue stream for the militants, the routes have been used by the Taliban to transport weaponry and fighters. From their stronghold in Kunar, which borders the tribal areas of Pakistan, smuggling the valuable wood into Pakistan has proven easy for the Taliban. Kabul's Directorate of Natural Resources Management makes the accusation that the border police are involved in the process.

Considering the rewards, the scale at which the forests are being cut is hardly surprising. Just a two-yard-long piece of Deodar, a conifer that grows across Kunar, sells for 15 times its local value across the border in Pakistan, and for an astonishing 30 times in Dubai. Some eight million cubic feet of valuable logs are currently lying around on the roads of Kunar. The government seized this wood back in 2006 as the ban came into effect, but as yet has not decided what to do with it. Unsurprisingly, the pile is reported to be 'mysteriously diminishing'.

With Parliament now discussing a bill to scrap some of the provisions laid out in the 2006 ban, the forests of Afghanistan may get some reprieve. Along with legalising, with conditions, the timber trade, the bill also proposes that profits from the sales be shared with the locals. This would be a laudable effort, as many communities living in the vicinity of the forests have long depended on logging and the sale of wood for their livelihoods, and are today at loose ends. In the meanwhile, people look on helplessly as millions of dollars' worth of resources rot (or 'disappear') on the streets, the forests look thinner by the year, and the Taliban continues to get rich. Give the locals incentive to conserve, and the forests will be preserved. BANGLADESH/INDIA
Saving Sundarban

That all is not well in the Sundarban ecosystem has long been common knowledge. A world-heritage site home to the prized Royal Bengal tiger, almost half of the world's mangroves and many other forms of flora and fauna, the Sundarban cover an area of almost 10,000 square kilometres across Bangladesh and India. While non-governmental groups in both countries have long been involved in understanding and attempting to address the ecological degradation, it is only recently that New Delhi and Dhaka have finally committed to working together at the official level. Formally launched in early April, the project will now comprise a crossborder attempt to salvage the fragile ecosystem of the Sundarban.

What exactly the programme will entail, however, and even what it plans to achieve, are yet to be stated in detail. For now, the work of the inter-governmental task force looks to be influenced, at least in part, by the findings of collaborative research on Sundarban biodiversity undertaken by the four groups, the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh, the Zoological Society of London, Jahangirnagar University and Dhaka University. Collectively, these have identified 24 areas requiring attention, six of which are consid-ered critical.

Meanwhile, with the monsoon just around the corner, the four million-plus people (estimates are sketchy) who depend on the Sundarban for their living are beginning to worry. Last year's Cyclone Aila was devastating, destroying livelihoods and washing away almost 780 km of the area's 3500 km of natural embankments, and weakening many more. Further, while reconstruction efforts are underway, most of the work has been done by locals with no formal knowledge of how to build embankments. Indeed, even the high tides during full moons have reportedly breached the new barriers, which are thus unlikely to be able to withstand the fury of the coming rains. BHUTAN
25 years, old

With the 16th SAARC Summit – also marking 25 years of the regional body – slated to take place in Thimphu in late April, the city had much to keep itself busy earlier in the month. The Summit declaration and set of bilateral agreements to be presented to member countries were drafted during the second week of April, and were all ready to be adopted. As with the declaration last year, which touched on a range of topics that are matter-of-course in the region – environment, trade, women and children, 'terrorism', to name a few – this year's declaration is expected to follow suit.

The key theme at the Thimphu Summit will be climate change, with Bhutanese officials hoping to persuade SAARC countries to take a common stance on the issue. Another major point of discussion will be the establishment of the SAARC Development Fund, which will serve as the overall funding unit of the organisation once it is operationalised. With the Fund to be housed in Thimphu, Bhutanese leaders are eager to make progress on getting the project started.

While much of what is discussed in the Summit is sure to be repetitions from previous such gatherings, a few new ideas could be put forth this year. As was discussed in March in Delhi, SAARC is looking to launch a Government Performance Management Network, to allow leaders of the eight countries to share their experiences. There has also been talk of establishing a SAARC award for 'Innovations in Government Performance Management'. Here's hoping that at least some of our leaders do something to deserve the award. BURMA/INDIA
Getting serious

When it comes to militancy, authorities in India and Burma have had quite a seesawing relationship, with each aware that it needs the support of the other, despite frequent fallings-out. Sure enough, it was only after India angled away from the pro-democracy movement in Burma during the early 1990s that the junta made life difficult within its borders for armed groups opposed to the Indian state. And when India conferred the Jawaharlal Nehru Award on International Understanding on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1993, the junta responded by ending the then-ongoing Operation Golden Bird, a joint campaign against insurgent groups, and even freed the several rebels the Burmese military had detained.

Ever since, New Delhi has shown caution in its dealings with the generals, attempting to maintain a stable relationship with the junta and making a point to keep providing them with lucrative economic incentives. On the flip side, Burmese officials are themselves desperately in need of the support of the largest democracy in the world (not to mention the regional superpower), especially with much of the international community already questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming Burmese elections, slated for later this year. In January 2010, junta officials assured New Delhi that they would not allow anti-India insurgents to operate within Burmese borders.

As such, Naypyidaw is now set to launch new operations against anti-India insurgents, including those aligned with the United National Liberation Front and the People's Liberation Army, both of which are fighting for an independent Manipur. The junta has made an appeal for military aid from the Indian government for the upcoming operations, though the exact nature of the aid requested remains undisclosed. Burma's ambassador to India, U Kyi Thein, has stressed that as poverty and lack of education spurs insurgency in Burma, New Delhi and the junta need to work hand in hand. While New Delhi is indeed desperate to quell the disturbances in the Northeast, and would seemingly be happy to assist Burma, getting dragged into the political rumpus of Burma is not without its pitfalls.


Impacted by political transition and financial hardship caused by decades of shoddy accounting and a reduction in tourism numbers, the Maldives is without doubt the Southasian economy that has been most affected by the global economic downturn. The Male government has recently been working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to implement a recovery programme. It was in this context that President Mohamed Nasheed's government held a conference of 40 donor countries in late March.

With the atolls reeling under a worryingly large budget deficit, the gathering was an attempt to increase the flow of funds into the country. The Nasheed administration was quick to note that the conference was not a forum in which to beg for money, but rather to stress the potential for business investment. All the same, according to officials, the money resulting from the conference will be used to implement reforms in five broad areas: macro-economic stability, public reform, government and democratisation, climate-change adaptation and social development.

Details on what changes the government would actually make to ensure successful reform were sketchy, however. Some government efforts currently underway, under the guidelines set down by the IMF, have been controversial. For one, the Parliament, which is currently in recess, has been sitting on a taxation bill, and there is no guarantee that the body will pass the legislation when it reconvenes. Another contentious issue has been Male's efforts, again on the advice of the IMF, to significantly cut down on the number of government employees.

These barriers notwithstanding, at least some appear to be convinced that Male is on the right track. In early April, officials reported that donors, including those at  the conference as well as others had pledged a total of  USD 487 million, to be disbursed over the course of three years.  This number is disputed by the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), meanwhile, headed by ex-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, which put the figure at less than USD 20 million. It should be noted, however, that the World Bank has suggested that much of the Maldives' current debt crisis is due to 'reckless fiscal discipline' by Gayoom's own government. NEPAL/CHINA
Rock and Snow

It may be Sagarmatha in Nepal and Qomolangma in Tibet, but one would assume that Mount Everest by any other name would still stand as tall. Apparently, this is not so. In fact, Kathmandu and Beijing have long been at odds over how high the planet's highest peak really is. But this dissonance was finally ironed out in early April – and, incredibly, with neither party having to withdraw its claim. Somehow, the two sides came to agree that they had, purportedly, been measuring two different things all the while: while the Chinese scientists had been measuring the rock, the Nepalis had been measuring the snow on top of the rock.

Scaled by more than 4000 mountaineers since the pioneering climb by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary in 1953, the height of Everest was first measured in 1856 as part of the Great Trigonometrical (GT) Triangulation Survey of India. Ever since, the issue has been subject to dispute. While 8848 metres has been the widely accepted figure – and the one endorsed by Nepal – Chinese officials have remained adamant that the real number is in fact 8844.43 m. In a notable example of consensual diplomacy, the official height is now 8848 m, in line with the Nepali view, while the 'rock height' is 8844 m.

In fact, there are other proposed heights out there, too. At the turn of the millennium, an American team using satellite technology came up with yet another number for the peak's height – 8850 m. Though this is accepted and used by the National Geographic Society in the US, it is as yet an 'unofficial' height. Meanwhile, even as newer figures are touted, accredited and discredited, Everest continues to gradually gain in height, as continental drift causes the Subcontinent to push its way underneath Nepal and China. It is said that the mountain is rising at the rate of two centimetres per year, but doubtless there is someone who will challenge that. NEPAL/INDIA
Tea tussle

Darjeeling and Nepal have long shared a close relationship, something akin to siblings who have grown apart due to long separation. With strong linguistic and cultural ties, Nepali children regularly attend boarding schools in Darjeeling, which in turn sends many of its youths to Kathmandu in search of work. But as with all siblings, there is also a sticking point – in this instance, tea.

Leaves from the tea gardens of Darjeeling are famous the world over, and consumed widely both in India and overseas. Meanwhile, Nepali teas, though perhaps lesser-known, are actually quite similar to the products of their more-established neighbour. Now, this too has become a problem for India, with the cheaper tea from Nepal evidently cutting into the market share of  Darjeeling brews.

To protect its market, the Tea Board of India has now vowed to set up an agency to look into the situation, and take action to halt the inflow of all Nepali tea. According to the Darjeeling Tea Association, the tea is being purchased by leaf factories in Siliguri, which then distribute the product in the domestic market, making things even more difficult for the ageing Darjeeling plantations. Indeed, it is estimated that 6.5 million kg of tea from Nepal was sold in India from January to October 2009, cutting deeply into domestic sales of Darjeeling leaves.
VAT now?

Reports of trust deficits between Islamabad and any number of other actors – the US, Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul, New Delhi, local Taliban leaders – are easy to come by these days. Now, another major international player has reportedly jumped on the bandwagon. As the Karzai government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) differ on the likely aftermath of a prospective value-added tax (VAT) system in Pakistan, speculation is rife that a USD 11.3 billion arrangement between the two might now be in peril.

The arrangement, a reinforced version of the USD 7.6 billion loan package initially agreed upon in November 2008, had been requested by Pakistan to keep its beleaguered economy afloat. Four disbursements of the loan amount were handed over to Pakistan in December 2009, with the fifth tranche slated to be approved in late March. This meeting was postponed indefinitely, leading to guesswork in the media that the loan had been jeopardised.

Among the differences that have arisen between the IMF and Islamabad officials is the former's claim that the new VAT scheme will add much to the country's revenue stream, while the latter assert that the chances of benefits are slim as tax-collection authorities are unfamiliar with the scheme. Yet the IMF has pointed out that this had in fact been under examination since 1999, and would require more effort to implement later, especially with the nearing general elections likely to build political pressure.

In fact, it has been reported that the delay is due to Islamabad's failure to submit VAT laws to its provincial assemblies on time. Originally scheduled to take place in December 2009, this was finally completed only in late March. The proposed scheme will introduce a single rate of 15 percent – a notable change, as opposed to the current system of 12 different rates ranging from 16 to 25 percent. Meanwhile, the IMF has assured Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani that it will release the last tranche of the money after its board meets on 3 May.

Even so, all is not rosy. The IMF is reportedly irked that Islamabad had lobbied the US during the recent disagreement, asking Washington to persuade the IMF to give it tariff waivers. An irate IMF leadership allegedly told Pakistani leaders that it was not an economic unit of the US, and threatened to take back the entire amount if Islamabad did not comply with its conditions. REGION
New skies

As the Kathmandu government revs up its preparations for what has been anointed Nepal Tourism Year 2011, over the course of which it hopes to attract a million visitors, attempts to improve air connectivity are in full swing. In mid-March, Buddha Air, currently a domestic carrier, and the brand-new Air Dynamic received permission to fly internationally. (The Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation is still processing the applications of two other  airlines, Shree and Unity.) While Buddha Air has been given permission to operate flights of less than three hours in duration, Air Dynamic has been cleared for much longer legs.

Buddha Air, already prominent in the Nepali market with its American Beechcrafts and French-made ATRs, is now looking to operate flights to Lucknow, Patna and Paro. The flight to Bhutan is slated to begin in mid-May, while those to the Indian cities are expected to commence later in the year. Meanwhile, newbie Air Dynamic says it will fly from Nepal to Gaya, Delhi, Karachi, Doha, Bangalore, Bagdogra and Kuala Lumpur.

The airlines do have quite a bit of work to do. Buddha will have to make new purchases to ramp-up its fleet size, while Air Dynamic does not yet even have a fleet. And all this must be done within a year of the company receiving permission to fly international routes. Costly as these investments are, much of the market remains unexplored, and many analysts feel the chance of impressive returns is high. For instance, Dynamic intends to tap into the pilgrimage market, ferrying Hindu and Buddhist devotees between Gaya and Kathmandu – the first airline to operate flights on this route.

Overall, both companies claim to be focused on bringing in larger numbers of tourists to Nepal in the next year. Considering that tourism was responsible for injecting USD 350 million into the Nepali economy last year, there appears to be plenty of potential cash floating around – though this could still be jeopardised, depending on how the country's always-unstable political situation develops.


One of the things that draws together Southasians from across the region is the shared experience of the monsoon – and the conversations that, around this time of year, start up with increasing urgency about how the rains will shape up this year. (This is about the 'summer monsoon', of course, and not the 'winter monsoon' that takes place only in South Southasia.) With last year's rains, or the lack thereof, having wreaked serious havoc on crop production around the region – rainfall in India was said to be the worst in 37 years – the increasingly anxious conversations taking place this year are undoubtedly understandable. But on this, there is some good news.

Studies have shown that El Nino, the global weather phenomenon held responsible for the late and low 2009 rainfall in Southasia, is weakening, indicating the possibility of a normal monsoon this year. This forecast surfaced in the aftermath of the South Asia Climate Outlook Forum, held in mid-April in Pune. Besides representatives from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives and Bangladesh, officials from the World Meteorological Organisation participated in the conference. In light of global climate indicators and models, they said, rainfall this year could be expected to fall within the range they would call 'normal to near-normal'. The hope has thus been that a good monsoon could allow for a 'near-normal' economic recovery, as well.

Immediately following this optimism, however, the forecast darkened slightly. Though located thousands of kilometres away, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in Iceland led some weather experts to warn that global weather patterns could be dramatically changed, potentially leading to a weak Southasian monsoon. Such analysis is based on the fact that weather patterns were similarly impacted by the immense activity of the Laki Volcano, also in Iceland, in 1783. Indeed, those eruptions are held responsible for an unbearably hot and foggy European summer that year, as well as for famine in Egypt and an extremely weak monsoon in North Africa and throughout Asia. SRI LANKA/AFGHANISTAN
One less option

It is difficult to miss the daily reports of bombings, murders and arbitrary arrests that emerge from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Even so, the Australian government appears confident that peace is being built in the two Southasian countries. Citing systemic improvements – and not simply pointing to fewer incidents of violence – in Sri Lanka and large parts of Afghanistan, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently announced that his country had suspended the processing of asylum applications from these countries.

Over the years, Australia has allowed in relatively large numbers of those fleeing these war-ravaged countries. Various provisions have been made for the 'boat people', from the allocation of temporary visas to permanent residency. Now, however, Canberra is looking to be more stringent in its criteria for asylum. Terming the recent election in Sri Lanka as "quite democratic", Rudd said that the country was doing well, with the exception of the Jaffna peninsula. The prime minister also stated that conditions had improved enough in parts of Afghanistan to suspend the processing of refugee applications from these countries. Separately but simultaneously, a report came out in mid-April forecasting that migrants would outnumber locally born Australians within the next 15 years. Meanwhile, elections in Australia loom.

And even as critics and the international community react to the government's decision, perhaps the most reliable evidence of the situation on the ground is clear in Australian boundary waters: boatloads of Sri Lankans and Afghans continue to abandon their homes, possessions and often families, arriving on Australia's shores seeking refuge.

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Himal Southasian