Round-up of regional news

Meena is the message

No Superhuman feats for her, no inter-galactic forays, and certainly no dishum-dishum crime-busting scenes. Ten-year-old Meena, the video cartoon character, is on a different, more arduous, mission. Perhaps an impossible one too. For she is out to change the mindset of South Asians about young girls, their rights and abilities.

Brainchild of the Kathmandu-based Unicef´s office for South Asia, and seven laborious years in the womb, Meena was launched in late September, to coincide with the Week of the Girl Child. Even at launch, which was meant to have been SAARC-wide but was only partially so, it was obvious that the little girl character has a tough fight ahead of her. This comes in the form of nationalist mindsets among politicians and civil servants, and the question of national turf.

The reluctance in some quarters to go all-out with Meena is regrettable, for she has the revolutionary potential to change attitudes towards girls in the Subcontinent. Meena is a unique public media project in the sense that her 13-part TV series about children´s lives has been crafted to a great extent by children themselves. Over 10,000 children across the region were consulted for the venture, with changes and alterations tailored to the feedback by a "focus group".

It was obviously not the easiest of tasks to come up with a generic South Asian girl, and many intense sessions went into creating Meena, her brother Raju, the pet parrot Mithu, and the other characters. Trying to simulate the South Asian terrain – made up of both mountains and plains – Unicef decided to go for a rolling landscape which could signify both. The clothing, architecture, and even the exact tint of reddish brown earth had to be geared to a "Generic South Asia".

Unicef´s reason to opt for an animated cartoon was the medium´s effectiveness in carrying across the development message, in this case, the rights of the girl. But animations are extremely expensive to produce, which was why it made sense to create a character who could be shared across linguistic and national boundaries. All you had to do was dub it in various language editions.

Besides the characters and props, there was also the challenge of coming up with a consensual South Asian point on the topics that Meena was to cover. The differing points of view on gender ! discrimination, for example, created a maze that had to be tackled before the script could even be written. In a heterogeneous region, where politics, religion and culture are so often divisive rather than unifying factors, the creators of Meena had to walk the tightrope across various cultural sensibilities.

Fortunately, the Meena episodes have succeeded in that they do not preach. There is no overkill with didactic messages, even while there is frank exposition of troubling issues. The approach is one of entertaining the viewer even while raising awareness through dialogue on diverse issues such as discrimination in education, preference for the male child, early marriage, dowry, sanitation, health care, HIV/AIDS and nutrition.

The fact that Meena took so long in incubation has to do, on the one hand, with the unwieldiness of any trans-national exercise. Even more, it has to do with the fact that it is as yet extremely difficult – other than at the level of mouthing declarations – to accomplish something concrete across the boundaries of South Asia. Regionalism, to that extent, is still a distant dream.

Little Meena´s experience, indeed, may be seen as a gauge of the challenges ahead for those who seek a regional rapprochement. Here was a ´motherhood issue´ if ever there was one – the rights of girls – and even then the countries which had met to make grandiloquent declarations on gender equality and rights of girls and young women, were not comfortable in jointly launching the project. Forget a common send-off for Meena, in one or two countries, the launch could even be considered lukewarm, according to Himal correspondents.

The expectation of those who have seen Meena´s zest and her optimism on screen, is that she will succeed not because, but in spite of, the political and bureaucratic hurdles she will encounter in the months and years ahead. The day, hopefully, will come when public demand for this spunky child will become commercially viable and come on over the radio waves and satellite channels to impress an audience across mountain and plain.

On the strength of Meena´s personality and the engaging medium of a moving cartoon, the series has the potential to chart new territory as a radical mass communications experiment.- In the end, all one can say is: Give Meena a chance!

Good marks for tolerance

Who is Madanjeet Singh, and why is a Unesco-associated prize given in his name?

The award, announced on 24 September, goes by the name "Unesco-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non- Violence", and its substantial cash certificate amounts to USD 40,000, to be given away annually on 16 November, which happens to be the International Day for Tolerance.

The first thing that was significant about this very South Asian-sounding prize was the jury, composed of hallowed personages all: Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Inder Kumar Gujral, French Rabbi Ren-Samuel Sirat, and chairman of the group, Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The second matter of significance was that this very South Asian-sounding prize was this year shared by an institution in Pakistan and an individual in India: the Joint Action Committee for People´s Rights of Pakistan and Narayan Desai of India. Archbishop Tutu announced that the two awardees had been recognised for their outstanding work in promoting peace and tolerance. He added, on behalf of the jury, "We believe it is a very powerful symbolic gesture on the part of Unesco to give the prize to laureates from two countries in a Subcontinent in which relations are tense."

The Joint Action Committee for People´s Rights is an informal coalition of over 30 non-governmental organisations and individuals founded in 1990 to fight gender inequality, religious intolerance and "social violence". The Committee also focusses on lobbying against the nuclear arms race.

Narayan Desai, born in 1924, has been an anti-nuclear activist and a tireless promoter of religious and ethnic understanding ever since the outbreak of communal violence in India shortly after Independence. He has been continuously active in trying to spread Mahatma Gandhi´s vision of Gram Swaraj for decentralised political and economic decision-making. He has also been active in education.

At a time when the Indian and Pakistani establishments are not themselves showing much of an inclination towards practising tolerance and non-violence, it is good that Unesco has opted to divide a prize across the border.

Now back to Madanjeet Singh. It turns out, according to a Unesco press release, he is an "Indian artist, writer and diplomat, who serves as Special Adviser to the Director General of Unesco". It is Singh who contributed the money for the prize, which is why it carries his name.

Sinhalese are sick of the war

Amidst the gloom in Sri Lanka about the massive bloodletting in Mankulam and Kilinochchi in late September (see page 10), a small ray of hope emerged in the form of a public opinion poll which studied the attitude of the majority Sinhalese population towards the Tamil-Sinhala conflict. The survey, carried out by anthropologists and sociologists at the University of Colombo, covered 98 locations in all provinces of the country except the north. Altogether 2000 householders were interviewed, 1915 of them Sinhalese.

There have been opinion polls before this on the same subject, but the results have been suspect because the research methodologies were kept secret and there seemed to be partisan involvement in the exercises. This latest survey represented the first scientific, and transparent, attempt at gauging public opinion about the ethnic conflict; the team led by Siri Hettige of Colombo University's Department of Sociology, explained and defended their findings before leading scholars and journalists.

The survey results came as a surprise because there is the strongly promoted view that the Sinhalese masses are in favour of continuing the war as the primary way to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. When asked, "Do you think military action alone can solve the problem?", only 21 percent said "yes". As many as 77 percent rejected the view that the ongoing war is simply a terrorist problem to which there can only be a military solution.

In response to the question, "What steps should be taken to find a lasting solution to the ethnic problem?", only 6 percent favoured the government's twin-pronged military and political strategy of a "war for peace", and a bare 7 percent were for militarily defeating the LTTE. The respondents had a strong preference for non-military means of ending the conflict. A clear majority of 65 percent preferred non-military options such as a political solution (21 percent), policies devoted to ensuring equality (20 percent), amity and harmony (19 percent), integrative actions (4 percent) and confidence building (1 percent).

When the question was worded differently giving less emphasis to a lasting solution ("How do you think the conflict can be solved?"), a higher figure opted for the military solution – 33 percent. But even here, a much larger proportion of 59 percent preferred non-military means to end the conflict.

On the government's much-vaunted devolution package, even those who were for a non-military solution doubted that it would help solve the ethnic strife. While 24 percent expressed their scepticism about the LTTE's intentions, a larger proportion of 29 percent felt that the extent of devolution granted was not adequate, and that political gamesmanship and elitist impositions stood in the way of a solution. At the same time, as many as 61 percent agreed there were more opportunities for people to solve their problems under the provincial council system (only 34 percent did not agree).

According to Hettige, the survey results indicated that a majority of the people were, in principle, in favour of devolution of power. However, he pointed out that the actual experience of politics in the provincial council system had made many people sceptical about the system in practice. A full 54 percent believed that waste of resources and corruption had undermined the effectiveness of the provincial council system.

When asked about the difference between the poll results which showed a great majority opting for non-military options and the politician's constant reminders to the contrary, Hettige observed, "The people at the grassroots have an understanding of the complexity of the situation. They have given honest answers, because they have no vested interests. They are more open-minded than those opinion makers who have vested interests. They also have no illusions about quick-fix solution."

This is the best message of peace and reconciliation that the Sinhalese can give to Tamils who are isolated in the north and east and in foreign countries. The Sinhalese masses do not want the bloody war to continue, nor do they justify its continuation. They are prepared for accommodation. If the Sinhalese masses ever wanted the war, they no longer do so. It is clear, regardless of what the political bosses say, that the Sinhala people, at least, are not the obstacle to an end to the war.

– Jehan Perera

A costly nuclear addiction

"The Chashma Nuclear Power Plant is half finished and deserves tO be left like that."

– Zia Mian, The News, 10 December 1995

This pithy bit of advice from the Pakistani physicist fell on deaf years. Almost three years down the line, having in die meantime tested nuclear weapons, Pakistan has just about completed the Chashma nuclear power plant on the banks of the Indus river. And to say the least, Chashma is in-built with all the dangers that prompted Mian to call for a stop to the project.

The Chashma reactor is a Chinese construct, and therein lies part of the fear. The Chinese are at best novices when it comes to building nuclear reactors. They have only one plant with a made-in-China patent: the prototype nuclear reactor at Qinshan (which incidentally has a computer control system that is French and key omponents manufactured in Japan). But incredibly, just 16 days after the Qinshan plant started producing nuclear power, Pakistan entered into a deal with China, instantly elevating it to the status of nuclear technology exporter.

Given this background, how safe can Chashma be? Isn´t it absurd to have trusted inexperienced hands with something as potentially deadly as a nuclear reactor? Already, there are problems at Chashma. A report (Business Recorder, 9 December 1997) from Karachi said that "serious cracks have developed in the edifice" of the plant. It went on to express fears from experts that the flaws in design and engineering might lead to "a disastrous incident like the Chernobyl tragedy".

It could be worse. Chashma is barely 30 kilometres from the city of Mianwali in central Punjab and on the banks of the river Indus. A leak would, to state the obvious, spell doom for the river and the populace dependent on it. Incredibly, as yet no environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the plant has been done. In fact, a report by the daily newspaper Dawn says that there have been concerns that the reactor site was chosen despite possible problems with earthquakes.

On economic grounds, too, the Chashma reactor fails the test. Increasingly, nuclear power plants are being seen as losing propositions, more so when compared to ordinary power plants. The World Bank and The Economist both believe that nuclear power is uncompetitive; indeed, the World Bank has not financed a single nuclear plant since the 1950s. No one is expecting any better returns from Chashma, which was reported by The News to cost an estimated USD 1 billion (the actual amount is one of those state secrets).

Chashma has a planned capacity to produce 300 MW of electricity. If it does, in fact, cost about USD 1 billion (without taking into account the money paid to China for nuclear fuel), this proves an expensive way of making electricity. For a billion dollars, it is now possible to build a natural gas burning power plant that is anywhere from three to six times bigger than the Chashma nuclear plant. Further, this comparison assumes that Chashma will actually work as efficiently as it is supposed to in theory. But predictability is hardly a trait associated with nuclear plants. Pakistan´s other nuclear power plant, a Canadian-designed and -built reactor just outside Karachi, has over its nearly 30-year life produced only about a quarter of the power it was designed to.

Worse, what happens when Chashma completes its planned 40 years of life, and has to be taken out of service? The decommissioning of a nuclear reactor is a difficult and hazardous process, and no one really knows how to do it. It may easily cost 25 percent of the plant´s original cost.

Even worse, what will be done with the intensely radioactive waste that Chashma will produce? The waste will remain dangerous for thousands of years, and there are as yet no long-term solutions. The United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year just trying to decide what to do with nuclear waste.

Even in the best of times, Pakistan´s bank balance just cannot afford this kind of spending. Now, in an economic emergency ironically brought about by nuclear tests, the country could use some saving tips. Chucking Chashma is a good place to start.

Sikkim treasure

Twenty-Three years after being dethroned by a controversial popular mandate that supported Sikkim´s merger with India, the royal family of Sikkim remains in possession of property worth millions in the 22nd Indian state. Most of the old royal buildings, game forests and grazing lands for the erstwhile royal cavalry remain the property of the Chogyal family.

Since the late Chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal, refused to sign the Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union in 1975, Delhi has not paid any compensation for the royal properties. At the same time, it has been unable to take possession of the properties legally. Successive state governments in Gangtok have asked the central government to resolve the problem amicably. Finally, under pressure from the present state Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Cham ling, the Home Ministry sent a fbur-niembcr it-am lo Sikkim in early September. Its mandate was to negotiate wilh the Chogyals son, Waiigdmk Namgyal.

Four days of negotiations later, the Home Ministry´s financial adviser Pronob Roy said that the talks "were proceeding in the right direction´", bureaucrat-speak for "no agreement". According lo Roy, the discussions hail concentrated on the modalities for settlement, rather than on "substantive issues". Apparently, the Indian government is willing to pay compensation only for buildings and arable land but not for the forests.

But what of the Instrument of Accession´ Wangchuk Namgyal let ii be known through a spokesman that he was determined not to sign the document. Unexpectedly, however, Home Ministry officials came up with (heir own interpretation: the signature on the Instrument of Accession may no longer be necessary, they said, because Sikkim´s accession to India is a jail anompii.

Six years ago. according to a slate government ollic.ial. the royal properties were assessed at INR 9oO million (USD 2"$ million). The asking price would be much higher now. whether or not Wangchuk Namgyal wants to sell.

– Subir Bhaumik

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