Southasiasphere is our monthly roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get it for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we talk about travel bubbles after COVID-19 in the region. We also break down the assembly election results in India, look at dubious delays in medicine and vaccine procurement, and the increased risk of violence in Afghanistan, among other topics. Plus our culture section Bookmarked.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha. Hi guys!
Shubhanga Pandey: Hi
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi
RW: So our big stories in this edition include an overview on this new phenomenon of travel bubbles after COVID-19. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’ll be breaking down the assembly election results in India and dubious delays in medicine and vaccine procurement, among other topics. And of course there’s our new culture section, Bookmarked.
Let’s start off with travel bubbles, which made the news here in Sri Lanka recently.
MA: That’s right Raisa. Now travel bubbles across the world were initiated last year as a result of the pandemic hampering air travel. Basically, it’s a temporary, reciprocal agreement between two countries aimed at restarting commercial passenger flights. And Raisa, you referred to Sri Lanka – I think you are talking about William Dalrymple’s ‘great escape’. And it was Shubhanga who actually saw Dalrymple’s post before any of us and alerted us to it.
SP: Right yeah, so there was this Instagram post by the author William Dalrymple who made news a few weeks back. This was basically a post about him escaping from his farmhouse in Delhi to the coasts of Sri Lanka, thanks to the air bubble between India and Sri Lanka. And a lot of people found the post insensitive. He deleted it pretty quickly and the apologised.
And of course, we’ve also read reports of affluent Indians taking these really expensive charter planes out of the country, just as the cases were skyrocketing and flights were starting to be suspended.
But I think all of this raised a larger question about what these special, highly restricted travel arrangements are – both the issue of how these travel bubbles have been organised, and also who really are the beneficiaries of these arrangements. And I guess the picture is somewhat mixed in the region. Shwetha, you were looking at some of these around the region?
SS: Yeah, that’s right. So it appears that most of these air bubble agreements are centred around India’s pact with 28 countries (including 6 Southasian countries). For example, In Sri Lanka, with the surge in infections and state hospitals experiencing a shortage of ICUs beds, the Ministry of Tourism has postponed the launch of this proposed air bubble arrangement with India, in light of all the criticism aimed at this.
RW: Right, and as a result of generally rising cases across the region, some countries have already moved to suspend the agreements that they have with India. So, apart from Sri Lanka, there’s Bangladesh as well, which is another example. And in Bangladesh’s case, suspending the agreement has actually left some Kashmiri medical students stranded after they returned home, and they’ve been appealing to their government for help as their colleges have suddenly announced the date of their exams. But apart from Bangladesh, a number of countries outside Southasia have already restricted flights from India, and some of them include Hong Kong, UK, Dubai, and New Zealand, while other countries like the US and Singapore have issued travel advisories.
SP: And I think one exception to this trend, so far at least, has been Nepal. Now the Nepal government has suspended all international air travel, but with the notable exception of flights operating under the air travel bubble agreement between India and Nepal. So there are still two flights per week between Kathmandu and Delhi run by the national flag carriers. Some people have commented that this does seem a bit odd, given that both Kathmandu and Delhi have now emerged as COVID hotspots in Southasia. And you know, the cargo flights and charter flights are still operational, so I think that’s an interesting case.
MA: Yeah, and I guess one of the main problems with these bubbles is, how do you ensure that these tourists stay within them? There are also other issues like laxed quarantine regulations, fake documentation when it comes to PCR results and vaccine passports. There have also been reports of the conditions of the agreements being violated by travel companies, where travellers used the bubbles to fly to a third country.
RW: Right exactly, Marlon. So in Sri Lanka, we can see that ensuring cases of COVID-19 don’t leak into the community has proved difficult in practice. And part of this has been because the government has been so eager to accommodate tourists due to the much-needed income that they provide.
We actually saw this from a much-lampooned pilot project with Ukraine. Right from the very beginning, rules were bent to accommodate these tourists who were coming in. There were certain guidelines in place – for instance, there was a mandatory quarantine period and certain designated areas people could visit from within that bubble. But from the start, the quarantine period was reduced for these tourists, and the tourists deviated from the planned vehicles they were allotted, and as a result, drivers were forced into quarantine and had to face losing income, and things like that. The pilot project actually ended up showing the difficulties involved in making these bubbles airtight, so to speak.
More recently of course, it’s been recently reported that some Indian tourists who took advantage of this air bubble agreement with Sri Lanka have also tested positive subsequently. And it’s not clear how fast they were detected and where they have been sent for treatment.
SS: And another story to note would be that, while Maldives is implementing strict travel measures including a temporary suspension of Indian tourists (for all but a handful of resort-only islands), last week the Indian Premier League’s Australian cohort headed for the Maldives after the tournament was suspended.
MA: Right. And didn’t some players test positive for Covid before the suspension?
SS: Yeah, that’s right. Back in April when India’s cricket board went ahead with the IPL, defying all the social media criticism for having the tournament amid the crisis in India. But the IPL had to be postponed on May 4 after multiple players tested positive for COVID-19 after the IPL bubble was breached.
SP: Thanks, Shwetha. So shall we move on to our Around Southasia in 5 minutes section.
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
SS: So, I’ll start with a quick overview on India’s assembly elections. In West Bengal, despite the BJP’s aggressive campaigns, TMC won in West Bengal with Mamata Banerjee returning as Chief Minister for the third time. In Assam, BJP retains power, defeating a fragmented opposition. In Puducherry as well, they elected a new government led by the BJP. The LDF won a historic second term in Kerala – historic because in a state that had not had an incumbent government to power in over four decades. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK led by Stalin overthrew the ruling AIADMK, forming a government after 10 years.
SP: Of course, the biggest political news from Nepal at the moment is Prime Minister Oli’s defeat at his confidence motion this week, and now there’s a scramble for the formation of a new government. But there’s also this major revelation regarding vaccine procurement which is worth mentioning. It seems that over the past three months, efforts to procure millions of new doses of Covishield from the Serum Institute of India was scuttled by their local agents in Nepal, who actually wanted a 10 percent commission for each dose, but also what seems like the government’s inability to directly deal with the manufacturers. So it seems, given that vaccines from India will not be available soon, China and Russia could be the main sources of vaccines, not just for Nepal, maybe for much of the region in near future.
RW: Meanwhile in India, countries around the world were sending equipment, oxygen and ventilators to the country, responding to the crisis that has been making headlines around the world. And as many as 300 tonnes of supplies from 25 flights reached Delhi airport alone. But the newest story, or the most recent story, has revealed that it ended up taking over a week for the government to begin deploying them to states, despite the crisis situation in the country and despite hospitals calling for support. What’s more, states have complained that they have no information on how these much-needed resources are being allocated, and some states are saying they have no idea when they’ll receive supplies.
SS: In Afghanistan, violence has been flaring across the country, the latest attack was a series of blasts outside a school on Saturday killing more than 50 female students and members of the Hazara community. The attack took place a week after the May 1 deadline for US and NATO forces to drawdown. But with Joe Biden extending this deadline until September 11 – the Taliban states that American military presence after May 1 would represent a violation of the Doha agreement, and has threatened to attack US forces in response.
MA: Now over in the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president and current speaker of parliament was wounded in a bomb attack on the 6th of May. As of today, he is doing okay and the police has arrested two individuals in connection with the attack. Also, 23rd of April marked the fourth year since the murder of Maldivian Blogger, Yameen Rasheed. You can read our recently-published piece by Aisha Rasheed, Yameen’s sister, who recounts the family’s ongoing, protracted struggle to bring the perpetrators to justice.
SP: And meanwhile in Sri Lanka, the Colombo Port City continues to be in the headlines. Now the Port City is this new financial hub being built on reclaimed land just off Colombo, with Chinese capital. Most recently, there was this bill that provided legal and economic structure to this special economic zone, and that has come under a lot of criticism both for its economics and also for what critics claim would risk Sri Lanka’s sovereign claims over it. The draft bill is now at the Supreme Court, and currently awaiting its clearance, after which the Parliament will vote on it.
Moving on to our culture section, Bookmarked.
MA: So, if you are sick of browsing through sub-par Netflix shows, I’ve got a treat of a TV show for you guys coming out of Pakistan. Churails directed by Asim Abbasi. It’s been called the female Justice league. Now, I came across this while working on a piece about the Pakistani entertainment industry, which will be published soon. And I think Shwetha you’ve also watched it, last year I think?
SS: Yes, I came across the show back in October when Pakistan’s Media Regulatory Authority restricted the show for its depiction of sexuality. The show was restored later but this incident really did expose some of the hypocrisy and systemic misogyny that’s addressed within the show itself.
MA: There are lots of reviews on it that talk about what a groundbreaking show it was. I’ll tell you what struck me the most. I liked how the director used a lot of theatrical elements, like certain scenes, you had interior monologues, and changes of lighting sequences – which I felt, it seemed straight out of the stage. Also, the use of the burqa, as armour, even like a superhero costume – it was very intriguing. There is actually this scene, I think you might remember, where the churails clad in burqas and armed with hockey sticks clash with protestors.
SS: Yes, I thought that was really clever. And there’s also a not-so-subtle nod to Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the slaughter’ in a particularly gruesome scene! (Not a spoiler). Through this show, Abbasi has started an important conversation, where it breaks away from the formulaically written Southasian female character we see in most television shows from the region. I would say this is a must-watch and I hope there’s a second season.
MA: Yeah, I hope so too. And my favourite character is Jugnu played by the brilliant Yasra Rizvi. She’s a wedding planner in the show and I haven’t told you guys, but at one point I was seriously considering being a wedding planner in Colombo, you know – milking the rich, selling destination weddings.
So, what about you Shwetha? Who’s your favourite Churail?
SS: Mine would be Meher Bano’s character Zubaida, the after-school boxer, because she’s attuned to the class hierarchies within the group and she questions why they’re helping rich housewives when the goal was to empower all women.
MA: And Raisa, you have also started watching Churails, right? Now it’s only Shubhanga who has not succumbed to our peer pressure. Who’s your favourite character so far?
RW: I really did like Zubaida too, but I also like the character Batool, who’s cast as a villain right from the beginning. But the more you watch the show, the more you realise that she’s somebody who’s been wronged by the system, and the kind of person that people would write stories celebrating her resilience, which covers up the fact that she’s gone through some systemic injustice. And there’s this really interesting confrontation – similar to what Zubaida does – at a point in the show where she also questions the more privileged people. In this particular scene she’s questioning what justice looks like, and whilst her reasoning might be flawed, I think she also brought up some of those really interesting tensions within the group.
Apart from that, I’ve really been enjoying Churails. But I also recently watched After Sabeen, which is a documentary about the activist Sabeen Mahmud and the aftermath of her death. It’s a very personal take on Sabeen’s life and it features interviews with her family and friends and explores her legacy. It also tackles themes of grief and constraints on freedom of expression and women’s freedom of movement in Pakistan.
SP: So while you guys have been watching Churails, I recently watched this Marathi film called The Disciple, it’s on Netflix and that’s my recommendation for this month. It’s basically this story of a young man training to be a vocalist in the Hindustani classical tradition, and it’s about his relationship with his teacher, and the kind of oppressive nature of that relationship. I should also mention that the filmmaker, Chaitanya Tamhane, made this brilliant film called Court a few years back – I think 2014, and this was about this really absurd and Kafkaesque trial of a Dalit folk singer/activist in Mumbai. So I would actually recommend both of these films.
RW: That’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see the cartoons illustrating this episode by Gihan de Chickera, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support our work!
Thanks everyone. Bye!