Round-up of regional news

16,000 and Counting…

A fact sheet on the status of victims of the Bhopal Gas Disaster of December 1996 reminds one of the continuing horror of that singular event. The information circular, put out by the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udhyog Sanghatan and Bhopal Group for Information and Action, provides an account of the long-lasting effects of the industrial disaster when over 40 tonnes of deadly Methyl Isocyanate, Hydrogen Cyanide and other gases leaked from "a hazardously designed and recklessly managed" pesticide factory of the multinational Union Carbide. Over half a million adults and children were exposed to the poison clouds, and over six thousand died within the first week of the disaster. According to the fact sheet, the current death toll is well over 16,000 and counting. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) states that nearly one-fourth of the exposed population is chronically ill with diseases of the respiratory, gastro-intestinal, reproductive, musculo-skeletal, neurological and other systems.

There is evidence of a high incidence of cancer, and of genetic defects among the newborn. Medical care has been wholly inadequate for the roughly 4,000 patients who make daily visits to nearby government hospitals, while at the same time there is indiscriminate use of antibiotics, steroids and psychotropic drugs. Because of inadequate public health care, expensive private medical clinics are flourishing. Longterm health monitoring of the Bhopal survivors was abandoned in December 1994.

An estimated 50,000 have been so incapacitated that they have not been able to pursue their regular jobs, says the fact sheet. The government has spent INR 600 million for rehabilitation, but less than 100 people have found jobs through official initiatives. Meanwhile, 380,000 personal injury claims have been awarded an average compensation of INR 23,684, but nearly INR 10,000 of this amount has been routinely deducted against interim monetary relief paid earlier. The remaining money does not cover even half of the medical expenses borne by the claimants in the last several years, let alone provide for future expenses.

Out of the 14,775 death claims adjudicated, 65 percent have been rejected or converted into personal injury cases. Judges at the claims courts are "thoroughly ignorant" of the medical consequences of the toxic exposure, says the fact sheet, and the administration of compensation is riddled with corruption. A claimant´s inability to pay bribes often results in denial of compensation.

Those who were minors at the time of the accident have not been allowed to claim compensation, and they make up most of the 150,000 whose claims have not been registered. There is also no means to register a claim related to continuing exposure-related deaths. Meanwhile, claims are not being heard either on behalf of children suffering from exposure-related mental and physical retardation, as identified by the ICMR.

On 13 September 1996, in response to an appeal by the accused officials of Union Carbide India, the Supreme Court passed an order diluting the charge of culpable homicide to death caused by negligence, thereby reducing the maximum sentence from 10 years to 2 years. There is now a possibility that the Carbide officials as well as the prime accused Warren Anderson, ex-Chairman of Union Carbide USA, may evade criminal liability altogether. It has now been more than four years since the Bhopal District Court issued non-bailable arrest warrant against Mr Anderson. Says the fact sheet: "Absconding from trial, he currently resides at 111, Catalina Court, Vero Beach, Florida, United States."

Gnats and Gnationalism

The day India signed an INR 60 million defence deal with Russia to buy 40 Sukhoi-30 warplanes, they were gussying up a new display in downtown Bangalore. It was the fighter jet Ajeet, or Gnat, produced by the city´s own Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), and it was put on display with a fine sense of juxtaposition by the road named after M.K. Gandhi. More military hardware was on display all over a couple of weeks later on "Vijay Diwas", the victory day to celebrate the thrashing of Pakistan during the 1971 war.

We also wonder how the Mahatma himself would have reacted to all this heady glorification of militarisation in South Asia´s premier democracy. Or would he, too, have turned apologist for the militarised state? After all, Nelson Mandela does not flinch when he exports guns and armoured vehicles, does he?

Nature Has No Frontier

In September 1996, Nepali and Tibetan specialists sipped green tea in Lhasa and discussed a green issue: how to collaborate across the lofty Himalayan frontier in order to preserve the ecosystem around Mount Everest. This was only the second meeting of the Transboundary Conservation Exchange, but the need to work together to protect the region surrounding the world´s highest mountain was keenly felt.

On the Tibet side is the massive Qomolongma Nature Reserve which runs along the full length of eastern Nepal north of the border. Under the collaboration programme, the QNP would be linked up with three national parks in Nepal in the regions of Makalu-Barun and Sagarmatha (Everest) in the east, and Langtang, north of Kathmandu.

Says Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, Nepali coordinator of the project: "This transboundary collaboration is a ´bottom-up´ project which is bound to gain strength over the years. Conservation workers on both sides are determined to link hands around Mount Everest despite the language barrier, the political boundaries and archaic bureaucracies."

This transfrontier idea has been pushed by The Mountain Institute, a US-based environmental support agency which has projects in both Tibet and Nepal. Rather than start at the topmost levels of bureaucracy, says Mr Lhakpa Norbu, the project has concentrated on bringing workers at ground-level together to discuss what kind of collaboration they require. "We concretised the concept, and now it is time for the higher-ups to get involved," he says.

The September meeting set up a Transboundary Conservation Action Committee, which will start by helping in the sharing of information across the frontier. In time, the collaboration will move into areas such as opening up cross-frontier tourism, conducting joint scientific studies, cooperating in conservation education and training, preventing cross-border poaching and contraband trade, and controlling the spread of forest fires and livestock diseases The two sides are also keen on improving the economic condition of the Nepali and Tibetan populations in the park and reserve areas.

Says Mr Lhakpa Norbu, "The progress made with our Tibetan counterparts has encouraged Nepal´s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Department to propose a similar transboundary meeting with neighbouring India, in order to try and protect better the rhinos, tigers and elephants of the tarai."

Mr Norbu has a point: transboundary collaboration is probably even more necessary in the plains.

Undignified Dignitaries

The news from the mid-December SAARC foreign ministers´ meeting in New Delhi was heartening. Led by India, the countries of the region agreed on the need to accelerate the regional opening up of trade. The pictures, however, deserve some comment.

Every other day, Indian party politicians are seen in the papers, hands held high in a show of unity. Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda is a past master at the forcible hand-clasp, but he might have thought twice before leading the foreign ministers of SAARC in a school-boy display in which they were visibly uncomfortable.

Not that South Asians are the only ones given to gimmickry. Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hold hands high at photo-ops. And at this year´s summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, leaders even experimented with a football stadium-style "wave".

Speaking of photo-opportunities, New Delhi´s Pioneer daily chose to highlight Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral´s meeting in his South Block office with his Pakistani counterpart, Sahibzada Yakub Khan. Other papers in Delhi printed photographs of the same session, but none had the Pakistani visitor looking like he was about to kiss Gujral´s hands. Photo selection can expose a mindset.

Speaking up for the Displaced

South Asia has the fourth largest refugee population in the world.

There are Afghans in India and Pakistan, Tibetans in India and Nepal, Bhutanese in India and Nepal, Rohingyas in Bangladesh, Tamils in India, etc, etc. Then there are the internally displaced people by the million, who do not qualify for ´refugee´ status and deprived of assistance, internationally and nationally.

Governments adopt different standards when dealing with different groups of displaced people. For instance, India has separate policies when dealing with Afghans, Chakmas and Bhutanese. Afghans are accepted as refugees and allowed to receive ´ UNHCR assistance, Ghakmas are allowed to live in India but blocked from accepting help of international organisations, while the Lhotshampa refugees emerging from Bhutan are actively pushed out of the country into Nepal.

As far as Nepal is concerned, it has been welcoming to the Lhotshampa, but continues with the practice of accosting and sending back Tibetans fleeing across over the high passes, on their way to the Dalai Lama´s Dharamsala.

In order to force states to be more accountable for displaced populations and to encourage regional burden-sharing on what is often a trans-national problem, a gathering South Asian scholars, jurists and activists in late November called for a South Asian regional charter and protocol "on refugees, migrants, displaced and stateless persons".

The seminar, organised in Kathmandu by the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, made a number of recommendations for realising such a regional charter. The meeting asked that "all such persons who have been displaced by natural and/or man-made disasters and the denial of land, food and water security" be recognised as "Persons of Concern".

The participants recognised that some South Asian governments were creating statelessness by arbitrarily changing citizenship laws. Also, while governments do have the right to refuse permanent asylum, they are obliged to take care of persons seeking refuge until a third country is prepared to accept them. Unfortunately, this principle was being widely flouted in the region. The seminar also cautioned against classifying refugees and displaced persons as "economic refugees and migrants´, as this all-too-often provide but an excuse to neglect the needs of such people.

Clearly, if the proposed protocol were to be enacted by the governments of South Asia, it would come to the assistance of millions of the presently neglected. The only hitch is that the governments who have actually created mass exodus from their countries can be expected to do all within their powers to diplomatically scuttle any move towards such a binding document.

Granddad and Granddaughter

With a string of hits over the last two years (Bombay, Agnisakshi, Hindustani), Manisha Koirala is the number one female film star of the moment in Bollywood. This is the first time that a non-Indian actress or actor has made it to those rarified heights. At a time when the ability to shake a leg and a hip, in either the modern or classical mode, is de rigueur for a Bollywood actress, Ms Koirala´s success is more than amazing—for dancing is certainly not her forte.

One little-known aspect of Ms Koirala´s stardom, and hence her fame, is that it puts her nearly at par with her grandfather, the late Bisweswor Prasad Koirala. Undoubtedly grandfather and granddaughter make up Nepal´s most famous citizens. ´B.P.´ was Nepal´s best-known democrat, whose all-too-brief prime ministership back in 1959-60 may be considered Nepal´s ´Camelot´. Ousted by a royal coup at the hands of King Birendra´s father, Mahendra, Mr Koirala spent years in jail and in exile in India. He stands tallest among the public figures of modern-day Nepal, a person who  stood  shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En Lai.

A statistical long shot, then, that B.P. Koirala´s eldest son´s eldest daughter, Ms Koirala, happens to be the one other Nepali to have achieved true international fame together with her grandfather. Granted, one was a politician, and the other is a star. "I am intrigued when you put it that way," Ms Koirala told Himal. "I am proud of my grandfather and what he did for Nepal. I remember he liked playing badminton with us when I was a child."

Children on the Podium

A seminar on Child Labour in South Asia was held in New Delhi from 30 November to 2 December. If the participants, which included child labourers from Delhi, had ever wondered why they were thus gathered, their misgivings were immediately put to rest by Indian Labour Minister M. Arunachalam. Mr Arunachalam, delivering his inaugural speech at the Bandhua Mukti Morcha-organised meet, said that the Indian Constitution safeguards the right of all children below the age of 14 to study and that any child denied that right can appeal to a court of law. Oh yeah?

No One Asked Us

Talking to Nepali sex workers in Bombay recently about the ´rescue´ of Nepali girls and women from the brothels of Kamathipura and Falkland Road brought forth views totally at variance with what some of the NGOs in Kathmandu would have everyone believe (see Himal/May 1996). In the majority, they are angry with the NGOs who want to rescue them. They are more afraid of the police than before, and they want to be left alone to their work—although all said that children should not be there, they should not come, they should go home. One got similar impressions while talking about the rescue with Nepali prostitutes in Calcutta, and with street social workers and health workers in Kamathipura and Falkland Road.

Their words, reported below, were not recorded and are paraphrased from interviews.

From Nepali sex workers in Bombay:

"We don´t know. Maybe the police will come any time."

"I don´t want to go back. I live here, these are my friends. After girls are here a few years, most of them don´t want to go back."

"They should take the children out of here. This is not good. But you have to take them out within six months, before they get used to this life."

"When they ask, we all say we´ve been trafficked. None of us is going to say we came here because we wanted to."

"Some girls and women want to go back to Nepal. If they want to go, it´s good if organisations can help them."

"Already, some of the women are coming back to Bombay. I think most will come back."

Nepali sex workers in Sonagachi and Khidirpur, Calcutta, said:

"Now they are rescuing women in Calcutta, too. Not as much as in Bombay. Police have been raiding places here. Some women were taken away and put in ´security houses´."

"We don´t like police, we don´t like lawyers."

From social workers and health workers on the streets of Bombay brothel districts:

"They didn´t talk to us before they took the women away. They only talked to the human rights NGOs."

"No one asked the sex workers what they thought."

"Since the raids, the community has been very nervous. Many of the women are afraid that at any moment the police will take them away."

"What are these women going to do in Nepal? In this community they are accepted. Nobody bothers them."

"Children can return to their villages, but if they´ve been here too long, it´s difficult".

"They don´t want to do this work. But many think it´s better than the life they left."

"Those who know they are HIV-positive are very afraid of being taken away to Nepal. In the village, they have no health care, no friends. They may be excluded. They will have to work even when they are sick. They want to die here. With their friends, in the city, with clinics nearby."

John Frederick

Fear of Bangladeshis

In November, the Indian embassy in Dhaka announced its decision to allow double-entry visas to Bangladeshi tourists headed for Nepal. This resolved a longstanding problem that Dhakans faced in their efforts to travel overland to Kathmandu and back. The earlier single-entry visa did not allow them to re-enter India on the return leg.

The news was loudly welcomed by Nepal´s travel trade in the name of South Asian solidarity and expanded tourism, right? Wrong.

In a carefully worded press release, the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN) expressed its concern that "this new procedure can have negative as well as positive impact".

Said HAN: "The Government of Nepal has announced its intention of increasing the number of quality tourists visiting the country , whereas the dual-entry system will most likely lead to a flood of low-budget Bangladeshi travellers to Nepal. It is also likely that many will come to Nepal for lengthy stays, which can lead to unwanted situations."

The hoteliers demanded that "His Majesty´s Government proceed only after forming a policy to provide short-term visas and confirming its ability to control the spread of unwelcome tourism."

Wonder what Bangladeshi commentators would have to say about these ever-so xenophobic fears of a fraternal neighbour.

Who´s Afraid of Free Media?

There is a document languishing somewhere in the lowest drawers of the foreign ministries of South Asian countries. It is the draft for a Media Charter for South Asia, which was proposed to the SAARC leaders at their last summit in 1995, in New Delhi. The document was proposed by journalists Enayetullah Khan of Bangladesh, Nikhil Chakravarty of India, and Javed Jabbar of Pakistan (now a minister in the interim government there).

Although the officials in each of the three countries made encouraging noises, when the time came for the Summit, they all looked the other way. The proposed Media Charter was not even discussed in the New Delhi summit, much less adopted.

As the time now draws near for the next summit (scheduled for May in Male), let us see what was so objectionable in that document that it could not be placed before the SAARC summiteers.
The Media Charter would have had the SAARC leaders support:

the free and unfettered flow of information between the member states of SAARC the exchange of newspapers, journals books, films, TV programmes and other media material through the removal of procedural obstacles, unrestricted travel across frontiers by journalists and media specialists of the region the establishment and growth of regional media organisations, representative bodies, research centres and collaborative processes.

the formation of an Independent Com mission on the Media in South Asia to undertake a study and to make recommendations for action.

That´s all. But obviously it was too much for the leaders to chew all at once back in 1995 Could we hope that this time in Male, the Heads of State and Government of South Asia take time off from their onerous duties to approve this small and simple matter?

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian