Round-up of regional news

Uttar Pradesh, the state of polio
The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) accounts for 68 percent of polio cases reported worldwide. According to data from the National Polio Surveillance Project (NPSP), India – accurate, it claims, till 18 January 2003 – 1206 of the 1529 cases of polio in India are located in UP. A very distant second is Bihar, which has 114 cases. The numbers are alarming, and there is danger that if things continue the way they are in UP, India's polio eradication programme will end up as yet another shamefully unfulfilled five-year plan.

Despite a whopping USD 96 million donated annually by various international organisations and multinational corporations for New Delhi's polio eradication programme, and the previous union health minister, CP Thakur's vow to make the nation polio-free by 2005 (the current minister, Shatrughan Sinha, wants to attack the virus "on a war footing"), India is one of the only 20 countries still afflicted by the virus; the others are either in South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan) or Africa.

In UP, where over 66 percent of the reported cases are Muslims, polio survives to afflict another generation due to suspicion, illiteracy and misinformation. In the western district of Rampur, polio-afflicted Uzma, daughter of Tehazib Jahan, exemplifies the problem at hand. The mistrust towards the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government and the follies of the Congress before it have meant that many members of the minority Muslim community of UP believe that the drugs will render their children sterile. This fear comes from memories of Sanjay Gandhi's sterilisation drive during the emergency of the late 1970s and the vicious 'hum paanch humaare pachchees' ('we five, our 25') rhetoric of the Hindu right, the mathematically flawed logic of which insinuates that a highly procreant Muslim population will swamp Hindu India.

The suspicion of the government has remained embedded in the rural Muslim psyche, and they have been reluctant to participate in the anti-polio drive despite the encouragement of Imam Bukhari of the Delhi Jama Masjid. The people are often so frightened and unwilling to trust that they answer social workers from behind closed doors saying they will not, at any cost, allow their children to be given the vaccines. 26-year-old Rustam Suleimani pedals a rickshaw in the district headquarters, Rampur, in spite of polio, with whatever strength his only good leg affords him so as to earn the month's 1000 rupees necessary to feed his wife and infant child. He might take his child to the pulse-polio programme but his neighbours are unmotivated by his state.

India has nine polio laboratories and 8500 reporting units, according to the NPSP. Yet, this large network has not been able to check the resurgence of poliovirus in India's north. Health officials are 'hopeful' that there will be a dip in the number of polio cases among children – below-fives are most prone to infection – despite the lack of medication as a result of immunity developed through mild exposure. But mass vaccination remains, as always, essential for eradicating the virus.

In a state with a population of 116 million where most homes do not have electricity, and most people neither proper housing nor sanitation (making faecal-oral transmission very probable), one wonders exactly what hope there is that the state (leave alone the country!) will be rid of the virus come 2005. Misinformation and nonchalance are as rampant in offices of government as on the street. The spirit is flagging. Says OP Vaish, chairman of Rotary International's National Polioplus Committee in India: "The union health minister knows next to nothing about the programme – my blood boils at the indifference".

Imran Mashkoor Khan, Delhi

Homeward bound
The Khyber Pass, the mountainous gateway linking Peshawar, Pakistan and Jalalabad, Afghanistan, is a portal through which millions of migrants and soldiers have passed for thousands of years. In the past few decades, it has principally had an eastbound flow, with Afghan refugees pouring into Pakistan's North West Frontier Province to wait out the violence and upheaval across the border. The past year, however, has witnessed a massive reversal, with Afghans representing the largest resettlement of humans since 1971 when two million people moved to Pakistan after the Bangladesh war.

Afghans began leaving their country in droves after the 1979 Soviet invasion, and lingering instability and conflict through the 1990s provoked even more emigration. In the autumn of 2001, during the demise of the Taliban, American bombing led thousands more to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. At the close of 2001, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 4.1 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran (Islamabad and Teheran put the number at 5.6 million), in addition to a combined 50,000 in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But the actual refugee population is considerably higher, given that many Afghans have migrated through extra-legal channels to overseas destinations. The EU, for instance, estimates that it is home to 400,000 Afghan refugees, many of whom are there illegally. The enormity of the Afghan refugee community can be seen in the fact that while Pakistan and Iran are home to millions of Afghan refugees, only three other countries – Germany, Tanzania and the US – host refugee populations in excess of 500,000.

But the human flow has begun to reverse. Since the fall of the Taliban and the cessation of (most) American bombing, an estimated two million Afghans have returned to their country, principally from Pakistan. Returns from Iran have been significantly lower, in large part because Afghans there tend to be settled in urban areas and enjoy a greater degree of independence, unlike in Pakistan where most refugees live in camps. Nonetheless, UNHCR, in cooperation with the Iranian government, is keen to return Afghans and launched a repatriation programme in April 2002. As of last October, about 300,000 Afghans had departed from Iran for their homeland.

The human rights community is concerned about the wisdom of so many repatriations so soon. Last summer, after more than 1 million Afghans had already returned, Human Rights Watch cast doubt on official encouragement of repatriation, citing persisting instability in the home country. Amnesty International has criticised a EU plan to repatriate 1500 Afghans every month, possibly even through forced repatriation, on the grounds that the plan "does not include appropriate safeguards regarding the security of returnees".

Irrespective of concerns about legal protection and security in Afghanistan, the massive wave of repatriation is already a reality. What is also a fact is the continuing climate of uncertainty in the country. Among other problems, returnees cite sporadic warfare, the absence of institutionalised human rights, unemployment and a dearth of affordable housing.

In late January, reports surfaced that Padsha Khan Zadran, a pro-American, anti-Hamid Karzai local military commander in Paktia and Khost, might be willing to reach a power-sharing arrangement with the Kabul government, paving the way for the extension of a unified political structure into parts of eastern Afghanistan. But the operational authority of Karzai's interim government throughout Afghanistan remains wanting, and Kabul complains that it has received little of the USD 4.5 billion thus far promised for development and reconstruction. Just as they fled without help during times of conflict and crisis, it seems the returning Afghans will have to make do by relying principally on themselves.

Behind closed doors
The village of Kalyani Koppal in Karnataka's Mandya district is well known for two reasons. It is located in the home district of the state's chief minister, SM Krishna. And it has no adolescent girls.

The village, one of the poorest in the district, lacks basic facilities such as health care, roads or buses. This is why it banishes its teenaged girls to big cities to work as domestic labourers, or worse, as prostitutes. "At least she will get three meals instead of eating fried mud in the village", is how Raje Gowde justifies sending his 14-year-old daughter Rajamma to Bangalore to work as a domestic servant in a doctor's household.

But Rajamma's story is a chilling account of physical abuse and mental anguish at the hands of insensitive employers who burdened her with all manner of physical chores and exploited her services as an ayah (nursemaid) to their one-year-old child. "I found the work physically impossible to cope with and my employers, fearing I would run away, locked me up whenever they went out", she explains. On one such occasion, Rajamma's clothes caught on fire but her screams went unanswered. "I had to quell the fire on my own. The incident shook me up completely", she recalls.

One day after her desperate hopes of escape had faded, her mother and uncle came to visit. Shocked at Rajamma's stories, her mother informed the employers that the girl would be coming home. In response, the doctor called the police and accused Rajamma of theft. "Terrified by the turn of events, my mother and uncle agreed to the demand of the couple to leave them only after they agreed not to come and see me ever again", Rajamma says.

Overwork, lack of proper food and inhuman treatment transformed the girl into a ghost-like figure. But fortunately her plight caught the attention of a Mysore-based NGO, Odanadi Seva Samsthe, which assists commercial sex workers and children in distressed circumstances. Tragically, however, despite being rescued from the doctor's home, Rajamma could not return to her village. When Odanadi activists visited Kalyani Koppal a week after her release, they discovered that she was employed as a maid in a different household in Bangalore.

"When we questioned Rajamma's father, he confessed that dire poverty had forced him to send his minor daughter for housework to a stranger's house", says Odanadi co-founder Stanly. According to him, false charges of theft cases often keep girls bonded to their masters.

Exploitative conditions in cities are compounded by poverty in Kalyani Koppal. Due to its aridity and lack of irrigation, the village's agricultural output is negligible. Villagers complain that government officials never visit the village and that the postman is probably the only outsider who comes twice a week. In a village of 800-odd residents, over 60 percent of the children have migrated to Bangalore; the residual female population a mix of old women, widows and infant girls, says Stanly.

One girl who has returned to the village is Nethra, aged 16, who came home to Kalyani Koppal after suffering sexual abuse. Sent at the age of 10 to work as a domestic labourer in Bangalore, Nethra remained there for four years, drawing an annual salary of INR 2000 and a pair of old dresses. At age 15, her employers sent her home when they learned of the sexual abuse committed by their adult son.

 "He was forcing me to have sex with him, and when his parents realised what was happening they threw me out", she recalls. Nethra returned to her village, but stark poverty compelled her to return once more to the city in search of work. "I foolishly believed that I could make a decent living in the city, but I soon discovered that sexual harassment was part and parcel of every job I took", she says bitterly. Lonely and helpless, people assumed her to be a prostitute, and she gradually became one.

In response to these cases and others like them, Odanadi activists want the state government to take a proactive role in the rescue and rehabilitation of girls forced into domestic labour or prostitution. Development in the village of Kalyani Koppal and others like it must be taken up on a priority basis, they stress.

Nitin Jugran Bahuguna, Mysore
(First published in Grassroots)

Calling all poets (in A'mrica)
Overseas South Asian novelists are numerous and well known. But can you name a South Asian poet residing on foreign shores? That formidable task might become a little easier after the release of Writing the Lines of Our Hands, an anthology of South Asian-American poetry scheduled to be published in early 2004. Three South Asian expat littérateurs – Neela Banerjee, Summi Kaipa and Pireeni Sundaralingam – have teamed up with a California publisher to bring out the work. Subcontinental poets permanently resident in the United States are encouraged to send in their work, be it "slam, sonnet, limerick or lyric poetry", before the 15 March deadline.

The publisher, Creative Arts Book Company, has a history of bringing out the work of distinguished poets, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Gertrude Stein. So perhaps this is the big break that will allow poets to challenge the dominance of the Salman Rushdies and Michael Ondaatjes of the South Asian expat literary universe. The editors specifically encourage writers from the Subcon's smaller states to submit pieces, perhaps paving the way for distinctive Maldivian-, Bhutanese- and Nepali-American genres.

A hint of what is to come might be found in the work of Kaipa, who also edits Interlope, a journal of Asian-American poetics. At the moment living "among the minor rock stars of San Francisco on Albion Street, currently known for its sweet, ever-wafting aroma of piss", Kaipa has already published several collections of poetry, including The Epics, a reflection on ancient Hindu texts as seen through contemporary eyes. As Kaipa describes her work:

The epic begins in small proportions but quickly escalates. All this is written with witness – time pretends to reside over this, or our narrator, Vyasa, says he does. Nearing the end of the world, we are looking at an upcoming conflagration that may arrive as a computer virus. Please excuse my gratuitous anachronism. As in Hinduism, when the eight planets align, the apocalypse is said to arrive but doesn't. Someone purposefully avoids me because of the intelligent company I keep, or Barbarella is the greatest movie ever made. The leading antagonist in the story is Duryodhana, who is envious of Krishna's kinship to his cousins. Most of us can sympathize with blood relations. My brother, Sami, is looking for a high-paying job in the computer industry and my cousins are in medical school. Am I concerned that I will be rich? No. Someone's child, unborn, is already burping the alphabet. These are auspicious times – the Pandavas and the Kauravas and their epic pettiness will destroy our Bharat petticoats. All this is new to me and all this has occurred before in 88,000 lines of metered verse. Brahmin lineages continue as reminders of the reincarnative possibilities while saris are the Indian way of preserving a curvaceous figure. Our instinctual language, Sanskrit, though dead, will go on. We Indians are old souls. I am a journalist.

For more information on the project, access

Talking at the border
Michael Shank is a theatre artist who served as a conference facilitator at Focus on South Asia, a 'youth peace conference' organised by the Youth Initiative for Peace in Lahore in mid-December 2002. The conference was attended by 35 girls and boys from all the member countries of SAARC except India, because of visa complications.  Here, Shank describes a visit to the Wagah-Attari border on the Pakistani side.

We visited the border between Pakistan and India on the last day of the conference; a border heavily guarded by each country. In fact, every day at 1600 hours the Pakistan and Indian military 'face-off' in a show of bravado, might and resistance. Thousands of people apparently flock to the border each day to chant, cheer, yell, hold candles, weep and wave as the military stomps, frowns and celebrates the divisiveness the border has created.
We were advised to keep a low profile at the border. Our conference hosts (the human rights commission of Pakistan and two powerful women's rights organisations in Lahore) had asked us to refrain from singing, performing street theatre or chanting freedom poetry because they were already banned from the border due to similar expression and were fearful that if we became loud and unruly, our association with them might provoke more restrictive action from the government against them. 

We agreed to this request. Oddly though, after we arrived at the border and witnessed the angry nationalistic chants and slogans we were overwhelmed with silence and tears. Our willingness to keep a low profile aptly suited our quieter, visceral reaction to the militaristic fervour so pervasive at the border. The contrast was almost too much to bear. The entire week leading up to the border visit had been spent with passionate and dedicated peace workers (including organisers and participants) and now we were surrounded by the hatred of government propaganda that was dividing people with a shared history; people that enjoyed similar music, savoured similar food, delighted in similar dance and paraded on similar landscape.

Approaching the white line that divided the two countries I stopped to wave at the Indians standing far on the other side. Pakistan officials quickly ushered me down the path, not wanting me to offer such friendliness during their show of guarded nationalism.

The national press of Pakistan showed up at the border to broadcast our visit. They asked if I would be willing to speak. What was I to say? There I stood, donning the local Punjabi clothing of a salwar kameez, at the border between Pakistan and India where nationalism and machismo run high. "What do you suggest we do about this border conflict?"

I thought awhile. I thought about the food I had eaten that week – remarkably similar to my experiences with Indian food. I remembered the music of the tabla player and the singer and the dancing that reminded me of Indian friends. Such seemingly common interests were divided by a barbed-wire fence, a fence that had thoughtlessly cut through houses and property 55 years ago dividing relatives and families. 55 years later relatives are still not permitted to speak with each other at the border. And, as I found out, even waving is discouraged.

I answered the reporter with the only suggestion I could muster – that amidst this militaristic zeal we should take the risk of conversing with each other Here At The Border.   Why not provide Indians and Pakistanis the opportunity to communicate at the border?  I was not suggesting that the governments lift the travel ban between the countries, nor was I suggesting that Pakistanis be able to cross over to Indian land or that the government allow Indians to traverse the big white line to enter Pakistan's territory. (Though I think all of us believe these desperately need to happen.)  I was merely suggesting that we take a small risk and transcend boundaries by talking across borders and hopefully, in the communicating of a common and shared love for music, dance and food, a better place and a better way could exist.

I realised that a handshake, a smile or 'Assalaamu aleikum, tum kaise ho?' was not dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons, terrorism or, in this case, the controversial issue of Kashmir. But good communication does imply that both sides are speaking truthfully and respectfully while (hopefully) attempting to understand the other side's perspective. No longer is the simple recommendation that we Talk With Each Other an easy task but it is still a necessary and a very accomplishable one. Allowing Indians and Pakistanis to talk across the border at Attari/Wagah would definitely be something that could be done for peace.

Michael Shank

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian