Round-up of regional news

SAARC interrupted
The Ministry of External Affairs in South Block might get a sense of how the rest of South Asia looks at its reluctance to go to the Islamabad South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit if it read something more than the New Delhi English dailies. If Mr Yashwant Sinha were to call for the papers from 10 December, the day after Pakistan announced that it was indefinitely postponing the 12th SAARC summit because of Indian dithering, he would find coverage somewhat different.

In the Indian English dailies, amidst the confusion of the Gujarat elections and the uproar over an absconding bandit, SAARC merited barely a mention. The papers in all the other countries of South Asia, some of them resignedly, reported the story on the front page. While Mr Sinha tried smartly to lay the blame for the scuttling on Islamabad, the rest of South Asia was not buying. A poll in the Nepali Times weekly (20-26 December) revealed that 52 percent respondents believed that India was solely responsible for the postponement of the summit, nearly 20 percent more than believed that both it and Pakistan were accountable. Only 13.6 percent voted that Pakistan was to blame.

India was burnt badly in the last summit, where it lost the public relations round to Pakistan when Musharraf , unscripted, proffered his hand to a reluctant Vajpayee on stage in front of international media. Besides not wanting to offer the flamboyant general one more opportunity to strut about (with him needing the good press more now than last year, given the downturn in his image), India let it be known that the prime minister would not meet the general until and unless Pakistan stopped cross-border terrorism across the LOC.

Now there is a bit of illogic there. If India so wants to follow the SAARC charter to the letter and not discuss bilateral issues at SAARC meetings, how come it is willing to use a bilateral issue (cross-border terrorism) to not meet multilaterally? For future reference, let us use this line of argument – if we cannot meet because of a bilateral problem, then by all means let us discuss bilateral issues when we do meet.

If India will continue to shrug away SAARC summits with the uncaring attitude that is evident now, we may find the organisation losing relevance as the member states seek other richer pastures. Bangladesh is looking for a zero tariff trade agreement with China, and is committed to a road link between Dhaka and Rangoon to promote business and people to people contact. Pakistan is discussing pipelines with Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan, which will make it think more 'central' and 'west' Asian than 'south'. Sri Lanka continues to eye longingly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Nepal wants membership in the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

So what is the disconsolate staff at the secretariat to do when the hakims, the heads of state and government are unable to convene a summit? Around the time Pakistan announced the postponement, Secretary General QAMA Rahim was busy putting up a 'peace pole' at the secretariat. The 'pole' is courtesy a Japanese religious organisation that does not seem to have much to do other than put up peace poles, hoping that peace will follow.

Good wish. Now only if wishes were horses, Atalji would stride up to General sahab and at the next summit, pump his hands, and take the wind off the latter's hubris. And that would be the first indication that SAARC was back on track.

Working around war
As the possibility of a US-led war against Iraq has grown during the past four months, much attention has been paid to the concerns and opinions of Arab governments and peoples that would likely be affected, directly or indirectly, by the conflict. Considerably less concern, however, has been expressed about the fate of the millions of migrant labourers working in oil, domestic service, information technology and medical professions in West Asia.

While there are no authoritative counts, unofficial estimates of the number of South Asian migrant workers in the Persian gulf states hover around three million. In Kuwait, the South Asian population totals more than 750,000 – greater than the population of Kuwaitis. Because South Asian labour is cheap, eagerly mobile and largely without legal protection, workers from the Subcontinent form the backbone of the West Asian oil industry. And while Europe and North America remain the most coveted destinations for skilled emigrants, the Arab world is now home to tens of thousands of South Asian professionals as well. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, migrant workers (of which Indians constitute the greatest number) make up 25 percent of all teachers, 55 percent of pharmacists, 80 percent of nurses, and 84 percent of doctors.

During the 1970s and 1980s, as oil profits fuelled huge gains in wealth, many Gulf states began contracting out low-level jobs to people from the poorer countries to the east across the Indian Ocean and hiring overseas servants for their homes. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, an estimated three million migrant workers resided in those two states. Nearly all of them fled to their countries of origin, in many cases losing their possessions and savings. Not all, however, succeeded in escaping the hostilities or in gaining the protection of their host governments. A reported 35,000 Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan housemaids remained in Kuwait throughout the occupation and war. In Saudi Arabia, the government initially refused to distribute gas masks to migrant workers.

Some attempts have been made in recent years to protect the rights of migrant labourers, although these efforts remain incomplete. In 1990, the UN General Assembly approved the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Resolution 45/158), which calls on governments to provide equitable treatment to migrants. None of the resolution's 93 articles, however, deal with the responsibility of host or home countries for migrants in the event of war, and, incidentally, no Western government or gulf state has signed or ratified the convention. Since 1990, a 'December 18 Movement' has emerged to advocate for the rights of migrants, and in 2000, it succeeded in getting the UN to declare an international day of migrants.

If a war against Iraq does begin in the coming months, the lives of millions of South Asian migrants living and working in the gulf states could be adversely affected. The lessons of 1990-91 appear not have been learned, judging from the persisting lack of international legal protections and the dearth of government or media interest in the issue back here in South Asia, in the home countries of the migrants. If the bombs do start to fall, it is clear that these migrants will have to fend for themselves to protect their savings, possessions and lives.

Cops and robbers
The competition to be the most corrupt country in South Asia in 2002 drew to an official close in December, with Transparency International awarding that tarnished trophy to Bangladesh. With a corruption perception score of 1.2 on a 0-10 scale (0 being highly corrupt, 10 being highly clean), Dhaka easily retained its 2001 crown and left Pakistan, at second place with a 2.6 score, wallowing in its relative institutional integrity.

The survey, which involved more than 16,000 interviews in five countries, named Sri Lanka (3.7) as the least corrupt country in the region, and India (2.7) pulled in almost even with its western neighbour. Nepal did not receive an overall score, and the survey did not include Bhutan or the Maldives.

According to survey data, the sector that is by far perceived as the most corrupt in South Asia is the police, with an astounding 100 percent of respondents in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who had had some interaction with the cops saying that corruption was involved. But while police problems were ubiquitous, the most frequent specific complaint varied: bribes paid to get released from false arrest (Bangladesh), political interference to subvert normal process (India), bribes paid for first information reports (Nepal and Pakistan), and bribes paid to avoid arrest (Sri Lanka).

The only country whose respondents did not place cop corruption at the top of the list was Nepal, where complaints against land administration and customs outnumbered those against the police. Even so, police bribes in the Hindu kingdom are not paltry; the average payment stands at USD 22, significantly above Sri Lanka (USD 14) and India (USD 16). But if the cost of a bribe increases with the latitude, avoid at all costs paying off policeman in the Subcon's west or east  – the average bribe in Pakistan is USD 42, and Bangladesh is home to the incredible USD 173 payoff.

As a matter of etiquette, it is important to note that while in most parts of South Asia bribes are extorted by police officers, in Sri Lanka it is more common to voluntarily offer a payment. Given that the southern island sits atop the development hierarchy in South Asia, perhaps the rest of the South Asians should aspire to one day actively participate in corruption rather than be its passive victims. Just a thought to keep in mind as the 2003 corruption season opens.

Carter cometh
Perhaps to atone for some unreported misdemeanours of his peanut-farming youth, former United States president Jimmy Carter has spent the past two decades of post-presidency on one continuous, meandering virtuous crusade. He first founded Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit that builds houses for the poor, and then decided to globalise it. And after Carter bounded onto the world stage as a president-reincarnate-altruist, he has been difficult to remove from it, materialising like a phantasm in the world's seemingly intractable conflicts that even the Pentagon is afraid of sticking its warheads into.

So it should come as no surprise that America's 39th president is now said to be heading for South Asian shores, where conflict can be relied on to be in perennial need of solving. The mission statement of the Carter Centre, based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, includes a Biblical-sounding mandate to work for the eradication of "disease, hunger, poverty, conflict, and oppression".

Given that at least two or three of those items can probably be tied into the India-Pakistan feud, Carter has announced he is heading Wagah way to broker peace and, perhaps, make a bid for a Nobel repeat. During the past few months, the Carter Centre has hosted several meetings of Indians, Pakistanis and – Kashmiris! – to lay the groundwork for a peace assault, and rumours emanating from the Georgian locale suggest that laureate James Earl himself will be arriving in South Asia sometime in early 2003.

Of course, sceptics of the Carter peace drive point out that the former White House resident is at least partially responsible for much of the past and continuing bellicosity in South Asia, given that it was his administration that first poured weapons into Afghanistan to tie down Moscow in a Soviet Vietnam war. And, given that a Nobel repeat is highly unlikely, perhaps Carter's peace hopping is one step in a Machiavellian power play to gain other lofty honours, that friendly, teethy smile notwithstanding.

Khumbu's Sherpa: community and coping
The opportunities generated by the tourism industry in Nepal have not gone unnoticed by the Sherpa's former trading partners. While earlier Sherpas used to cross the 19,000-foot Nangpa La pass to Tibet, now Tibetan traders, driven by the financial opportunities tourists bring to the Khumbu region, come to Namche in droves bearing Chinese manufactured goods.

With this influx of merchants has come a number of problems. Yaks carrying Tibetan goods compete with the local livestock for fodder, and the Khumbu pastures are beginning to show the effects of overgrazing. The increase in traffic has also led to the damage of trekking trails and bridges, the expense and burden of repair falling on the local population. Unlike the previous trading relationship where food, animals and other valuable products were brought into the Khumbu region, the Tibetan merchants now bring trinkets to sell to tourists.

The overall Sherpa economy benefits little from this new trade run by Tibetans who come down from Nangpa La. However, sherpas who are not part of the tourism industry are interested in cultivating mutually supportive cross-border trade relationships with Tibet. Wary of the vagaries of tourism, they are also beginning to see the benefits of a more diverse economy. To countervail some of the negative trends, the sherpas suggest the establishment of a trading post/camping site for Tibetan traders, charging reciprocal grazing fees, and charging a tax on yak brought into the area.

The Sherpas are an ethnic group that lives in the high-altitude valleys of eastern Nepal. The Khumbu region is said to have been settled by the ancestors of today's sherpas around 1540 CE. Sherpas man the gateway to the southern approach to Mount Everest, or Chomolongma.

The upper belt of Khumbu valley includes the Namche, Khumjung, Khunde, Thame, Phortse and Pangboche villages, and is inhabited by a population of about 3500 sherpas. However, although the Khumbu region is recognised as the original Sherpa home – certainly it is the most famous due to the fame of Everest – there are more than 250,000 sherpas living in the eastern mountain rimland of Nepal, including the regions of Rolwaling and Helambu northeast of Kathmandu valley.

Sherpas are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingma sect. They were probably nomadic herders before the British introduced the potato (a native of the Andes, that other great mountain chain) in the early 1800s. Even today, the sherpas mostly farm potatoes and agriculture is at subsistence level; they herd yaks and naks (male yaks). Potatoes, which grow at altitudes of up to 14,000 feet, constitute a significant portion of the sherpa diet. Traditionally, yaks and naks provide dairy products, meat, hide for leather, wool for clothing, dung for fuel and fertiliser, and were used to carry products from village to village.

Trade is a historically significant aspect of sherpa economic life. Straddling one of the main trade routes across the central Himalaya, the Nangpa La pass to Tibet, sherpas were for centuries middlemen in the trade between Tibet and the lower regions of Nepal. Accustomed to living at high altitude, the high pass was not difficult for sherpas with their yak trains. Sherpas would transport grain, clarified butter, dried potatoes, unrefined sugar, vegetable dyes, incense, handmade paper, buffalo hides and cotton cloth to Tibet. In exchange, they would return with tea, salt, sheepskin, fur, woollen clothes, carpets, Chinese silk, hats and boots, silver ornaments, porcelain cups, hand-printed religious books and various ritual objects. Livestock were also exchanged, with hybrid cattle known as zopkios going up and the nak coming down from Tibet.

Thus, successful business between Nepal and Tibet brought much wealth to the Khumbu region. But the Nepal-Tibet trading system broke down with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, and it hit the sherpas hard. Eventually, the Chinese authorities reopened the frontier and allowed limited trade of a few basic commodities. The Sherpa, however, were not permitted to trade directly with Tibetans and were required instead to turn over their wares at the Chinese trade depot in Dingri where prices were unpredictable and bargaining non-existent.

When 'forbidden Nepal' opened to the outside world in the 1950s, the Khumbu populace found a new niche for economic activity in the rapid development of tourism and Himalayan mountaineering. With unmatched prowess at high altitudes, they had been the backbone of climbing expeditions since the first British expedition in 1921, at which time sherpas who had gone to seek work in Darjeeling were picked up by British climbers. Over the last 50 years, climbing and trekking have become the twin pillars of the Sherpa economy.

Namche Bazaar, nestled high up in the Himalaya en-route to Everest, is a major Sherpa village as well as a centre of economic activity in the Khumbu region. When the trade with Tibet was no longer viable, the experience and business acumen of Sherpa merchants enabled them to reorient their trading activities to Kathmandu. Manufactured goods were flown to Lukla and then carried by porters or zopkios to Namche Bazaar. Gradually, Namche merchants expanded their commercial contacts in Kathmandu, filling the void left by the abandoning of trade relations with Tibet.

The Namche Youth Group is an activist group based in Namche Bazaar which, in collaboration with the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, collects taxes from Tibetan traders to help support the maintenance of the area's infrastructure and resources, and to bring environmental awareness to local and Tibetan merchants.  A portion of this tax is to be invested in long-term programmes that are committed to environmental protection, cultural preservation and cross-boundary trade.

Ang Rita Sherpa

It does not make any difference to Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) who has been elevated to be the new Pakistani prime minister: nobody is going to give him state honour for that has been reserved for the mediocre. While all the worthy think-tanks were trying to keep a tab on Islamabad's horse traders, over at the American University in Washington DC, Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the renowned social scientist organised a seminar on Manto under the auspices of the South Asia Project. The featured speaker was Khalid Hasan, who translated Manto into English for Penguin's five collections. He gave a passionate account of Manto's life and the miseries and insults the great writer had to bear, moving the newly initiated audience with passages from Manto's short stories.

Manto, born on 11 May in the Punjabi village of Papraudi on the Samrala-Chawa-Payal road, in Ludhiana district, did not have a happy childhood. Considered an under-achiever in school, particularly in Urdu, in MAO College, he was in Faiz Ahmad Faiz's English class. He did not complete college though, choosing instead to get on with the business of experimenting with life. In Bombay, he made a good living from the film industry, scripting over a dozen films, and film magazines for which he wrote – this was probably the most comfortable period of his life. In Lahore post-partition, he never found a regular job, spent his time drinking and lived impoverished.

From all accounts, Manto lived in abject poverty in Lahore. He wrote short stories for 10-20 rupees to buy liquor, and liquor was all that he bought. It was not long before Manto's mind, like his liver, gave way. At one point, he was interned at the mental hospital only to be released when he demanded improvements in the hospital infrastructure. His masterpiece, Toba Tek Singh, which describes the exchange of mental asylum inmates between two countries, was written after this episode.

Manto's close friends claim that his wife, the late Safia Begum, and his in-laws constantly mistreated the writer. The literary magazine, Nairang-i-Khial, published the transcript of a dialogue between Urdu critics Muzaffar Ali Syed, Munir Ahmad Sheikh and Professor GM Asar, a close friend and a neighbour of Manto, in which Asar asserted that Mrs Manto was fed up with her husband and wished him dead.

Great creative personalities often burn themselves to illuminate the world. Shiv Kumar Batalvi is reported to have said, "We don't do PhDs; other people will do PhDs on us". Such great artists come as a blessing to the world. But, not for themselves or their families, and one can hardly blame their families or the monotonous world for making their lives difficult.

However, sometimes individuals try to ease the artist's pain. Qudarat-Ullah Hahab gave Manto an ice factory for his bread and butter earning. And, often Manto would walk away from the dock with some unnamed admirer having paid the 300-rupee fine for him. Many admirers of Manto lament his untimely death at the age of 42-43. But, one should focus on what he created in that short period. Short stories, a novel, radio plays, essays, personal sketches and film scripts, Manto was as prolific as he was gifted.

Manto had a unique insight into the world. He looked at society with a consciousness uncoloured by nationalism, religion or other institutional societal biases. Challenging the most sacrosanct norms that impinge on human creativity, he negated narrow definitions of nationalism, exposing hypocrisy and morbid sexuality in masterpieces such as Toba Tek Singh, Totwal ka Kutta, Khol do and Dhuwan.

Manto was fortunate to have escaped heavy persecution for writing what his heart desired. Had he been born in today's Pakistan, he might have had a difficult time. Just as well that the bigots and the hypocrites do not honour him.

Manzur Ejaz
Washington DC


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