Round-up of regional news

From Karakoram to Everest 
There are many ways to celebrate a jubilee year and one of them is to go climb Everest. A group of Pakistani mountaineers are on the mountain at this very moment, seeking to celebrate 50 years of their nation´s statehood by climbing the Mother Goddess of the Earth. It is fitting that these fine climbers from the Karakoram, many of them Balti who have earned a reputation as worthy climbers (see Mar/Apr Himal, page 68), should go climbing in a region that has been the preserve of that other famous climbing race, the Sherpas. For, while the Sherpas have climbed extensively in the Karakoram as support for Western and other expeditions, their counterparts from Baltistan and Hunza have never made it to the Central Himalaya.

It is unfortunate that there will be no Sherpa climbing with the Pakistan team, but there will be Tibetans accompanying them as they tackle the mountain from its standard North Face route.

This is not only the first Pakistani expedition to Everest, but also the first ever outside Pakistan. The ten-member team is led by Nazir Sabir, the well-known Pakistani climber (and politician). Mr Sabir, 43, himself has climbed all the four 8000-metre peaks in the Karakoram: K2, Gasherbrum I and II and Broad Peak. Another member of the team, Rajab Shah, 45, has climbed K2, Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat, the one Pakistani eight-thousander that lies in the Himalayan chain. (It is just one of those ironies that no Pakistani has yet summitted all five 8000ers in the country till now.)

At a press conference in Kathmandu before the team headed off to Lhasa, Mr Sabir said, "Many of our climbers live at the same height as the Sherpas themselves. The living conditions are the same."He hoped to attain the summit some time in the end of May, and was confident of getting everyone off the mountain safely. "Climbing is a dangerous sport and we all know the dangers, but I have a good team of able climbers," he said.

The idea of a golden jubilee expedition has been in preparation since 1994 by the Alpine Club of Pakistan, and a sponsor was found easily enough in the form of the Hubco Power Company, the multinational that built the largest thermal power generation plant in Pakistan. The China-Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA), the body that regulates mountain climbing in Tibet, then came with an exchange offer. CTMA would send a team to Nanga Parbat while the Pakistanis tried Qomolongma. Both countries would host each other´s team up to the respective base camps.

Besides India and Nepal, this Pakistani expedition is the only other expedition from a South Asian country to Everest so far. This year, the Malaysians are climbing from the Nepal side. Just goes to show that expeditions are mounted only by countries which have reached a certain level of affluence.

Cheap Is Beautiful
Given below are some brilliant ideas from India that have the potential to transform many a villager´s life. The only problem is that they have been produced by the "small press" rather than the "regional" or "mainstream" media, and hence the information has spread to only a few people, reports EEG Features. This is only a sampling of the unusual, but low cost and effective, innovations that no one seems to know about.

  • Farmers are predicting the coming of the monsoons by studying the foliage of the mahua and the pipal trees.
  • A scientist from Bangalore has discovered the simplest of pregnancy tests for cattle. All that is needed is the cow´s urine and a few grains of wheat seed.
  • Farmers from Kerala have made a mousetrap using old saw-blades and umbrella sticks.
  • Another Keralite innovation is the idea of building a whole house—floor, roof, doors, windows and furniture—from a coconut tree.
  • A Rajasthani villager has found a way to plant a tree using just one litre of water. Following his method, after the initial watering, nature takes care of the tree for the rest of its life. (We would like to know more about this one.)
  • An ingenious method to improve seed germination: feed the seed to cattle and later collected them from the dung. This from Sri Lanka.
  • Junagadh resident Amritbhai Agrawat´s invention is a four-wheeled bullock cart. This animal-friendly vehicle has a gear-driven shaft, can carry 2000 kilograms, has hand brakes, a facility to pour fertilisers (which has calibration control to regulate the fertiliser dosage) and can be drawn by a lone bull.
  • "Premjibhai" quit his Bombay lifestyle to become an "incredible  tree  planting machine". His method is simple. He has a van that sprays coated seeds wherever he goes. So far he has planted or distributed 45 billion seeds and he began only in 1987.

Princess Bhutto (and we do not mean Benazir)
Public scrutiny, never far from the Nehrus/Gandhis, has passed onto the new generation in India with Priyanka Gandhi´s every move being monitored by the press. Now, she has a counterpart across the border in Pakistan, where another political "princess" is getting ready to take her own place under the sun. She is Fatima Bhutto, the 15-year-old daughter of Murtaza Bhutto—son of Zulfikar and brother of Benazir—who was gunned down in a Karachi street last year.

If there is any political family in South Asia that can match the Nehrus/Gandhis in terms of national aura, it is the Bhuttos. The two families have much in common, in dynastic succession as in their share of tragedies. And although much of the sheen has worn off the Bhuttos and although the Gandhis are progressively losing relevance in Indian politics, their scions have begun to make news no matter what they do.

Both Priyanka Gandhi and Fatima Bhutto are the granddaughters of prime ministers. Ms Gandhi had a father and a great-grandfather as prime minister as well, while Ms Bhutto had an aunt for one and a great-grandfather as the diwan of a princely state. The former lost her father and grandmother to assassins and the latter´s father and grandfather suffered equally violent deaths.

Ms Gandhi is now ensconced in marital life and though there are those in the Congress (1) who are waiting for her to become active in politics, she has given no indication either way. For the ten years younger Fatima Bhutto, however, life is just beginning. "I have an interest in politics.Whether I would join it or not 1 can´t say right now. You´ll have to wait," she told the daily The Nation.

But that is at best a diplomatic answer and her taking up politics is not ruled out. In fact, the newspaper interview, which was overseen by Ms Bhutto´s highly political step-mother, Ghinva, can be construed to be a statement of sorts towards Ms Bhutto taking her first step towards taking up politics. That, however, is a long time away. For the moment, Ms Bhutto has yet to decide whether she wants to go to university in Harvard or Oxford.

About her father, Ms Bhutto said, "I was very close to him. He was like my best friend, even if Hooked I couldn´t have found a better parent or a better friend or a teacher." Murtaza Bhutto divorced her mother when she was still a child. However, she is very attached to her Lebanon-born step-mother. (It was through Fatima that Ghinva met Murtaza. Ghinva used to teach Arabic to Fatima when they all lived in exile in Damascus.)

About her relations with her aunt, Benazir? "How can you have a nice happy relationship with someone who arrests your father and doesn´t help him or his family?" is the forthright answer.

Personal feelings apart, however, she has followed her aunt´s footsteps: father killed and his "mission" taken up by the daughter. She campaigned in Sind during the last two general elections and her experience already shows in the way she describes the problems faced by people in Larkana, her family´s ancestral town. "They have, in Larkana at least, fountains as if to mock the people because they don´t have water in their homes but they have got these lush beautiful fountains springing all over the place."

Ms Bhutto is quite taken by her grandfather, and at the moment is researching Machiavelli, who was Zulfikar Bhutto´s favourite author. She spends a lot of time browsing through the famed Bhutto library. "There´s nothing you can´t find in there, "she said. Her reading is almost entirely devoted to non-fiction and, in that, mostly biographies. That, if nothing else, is indication enough of her affinity for her family´s destiny—politics.

Gum Tree Activism
We do not hear of the Great Eucalyptus Debate anymore, even though back in the 1970s this stately Australian import provided the grooming for a whole generation of Indian environmentalists. As Janet White reports in EEG Features, eucalyptus faded from view as ecologists have moved "on to more lucrative issues". The floodgates of environmental activism as well as pontification burst with the host of other subjects that came up, from limestone quarries to vehicular pollution, prawn fisheries and river sludge.

But the problem with eucalyptus, if it was real in the first place, is still with us. Indeed, Ms White reports that eucalyptus are as bad as ever for South Asia´s ecology, and if South Asians are not worried, the

Californians certainly are. This is because, in addition to all the other problems of eucalyptus, it has suddenly shown itself to be prone to certain kinds of pests. Three of these pest varieties have caught up with the Californian trees, and the state is engaged in a campaign to cut trees and grind their trunks and limbs—the only way to get rid of the diseases.

In California, they are going about eliminating the diseased Eucalyptus methodically, spending USD 1500 to 2000 per tree. Now that it is clear that these Eucalyptus are not only unwelcome but also malignant, what will the responsible authorities do in the Subcontinent. More likely than not, the attitude will be, "If they are diseased, then they will die. What me worry?"

Freedom To Defame

Never speak your mind on a subject as sensitive as Kashmir. This is what Ravi Nair, who runs an effective outfit known as the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre out of a New Delhi basement, found out in what has become a case of bizarre interpretation of press freedom by the Press Council.

It all began back in 4 November 1993, when the Dhirubhai Ambani-owned The Observer published a report quoting "authoritative sources" and said Pakistan intelligence agents in New Delhi "made use" of Mr Nair to prepare "a detailed document" of human rights violations in Indian Kashmir. The news report went on to say "(Indian) Government agencies suspect Mr Nair may have been paid a fee for the preparation of the report".

The reporter apparently wrote the column without talking to Mr Nair, who wrote to the newspaper denying the charges and demanding an apology. The Observer ignored the request, following which Mr Nair filed a complaint with the Press Council charging that the paper´s motives were to defame him. That was when the affair took its absurd turn.

The newspaper´s manager, rather than its editor, replied to the Press Council saying that it was willing to make "a suitable retraction as desired by the complainant in case the complainant is able to obtain and furnish to the Press Council a declaration or a clean chit from the Home Ministry (Intelligence Bureau), Cabinet Secretariat (Research and Analysis Wing) and Ministry of External Affairs. If the statement made in the report is incorrect then these agencies of the government which alone are in the possession of relevant facts and information, would be able to give a clearance to the complainant."

In effect, Mr Nair was to get a "clean chit" from the very agencies which, according to the report, had accused him of being on Pakistan´s payroll. If that was not ludicrous enough, the way the Press Council acted certainly was.

Mr Nair´s case was up for final adjudication on 9 April 1996. Five days before this date the Press Council received a request from Mr Nair´s office asking that the hearing be postponed for any day after April 15 when Mr Nair, who was attending meetings of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, would be back in Delhi.

The Press Council ignored the request for a five-day postponement by Mr Nair and went ahead with a hearing on 9 April 1996. Wrote C.R. Irani, editor of the daily The Statesman, "It is incomprehensible to me that the Press Council, under a retired judge of the Supreme Court, should pay such scant attention to the principles of natural justice….They heard the counsel for the newspaper and accepted at face value (the correspondent´s) reliance on official sources."

No less incomprehensible is how the inquiry committee of the Press Council "felt that the impugned report was based on information received by the respondent-newspaper from authentic sources and, therefore, there was no substance in the complaint. The committee decided to recommend to the council to dismiss the complaint."

Mr Nair has called the ruling "wrong in law, devoid of reason and shows a non-application of mind." Its implications on Mr Nair apart, the decisions has raised a serious question of ´legal´ defamation. "If this stand is accepted as valid in law, it would be open to these government agencies (IB, RAW, mea), and their political masters as well, to plant stories in the media levelling charges of treason, espionage, subversion or what have you against politicians, journalists or just anyone they wish to harm," wrote an indignant A.G. Noorani, the noted jurist.

Mr Nair, in the meantime, is not taking things lying down. While he has approached the World Association of Press Councils regarding the matter, he is also planning to move the courts. It seems likely to be a long haul but Mr Nair is prepared for it.

Visiting Places
The Maldives has chosen 1997 as the Visit Maldives Year, and Nepal has gone for 1998 as the Visit Nepal Year. Maldives, a country of 250,000 hosts, today hosts 350,000 Western tourists a year. Nepal, with 21 million of its own, and also relying on tourism for a large portion of its revenues, hosts a little less, and the tourist numbers are declining.

The vny ´97 is a well-funded and efficient effort, managed by the Tourism Minister Ibrahim Hussain Zaki, former Secretary General of SAARC It comes complete with super-glossy brochures displaying emerald vistas and white sands. The year´s slogan is "Sustainable Development Through Tourism".

VNY ´98, on the other hand, is managed by a government bureaucracy trying hard to be tourist-sensitive. There is not really the money, creativity or flexibility available to develop full "product diversification". And plans are already horribly askew with the inability of the national flag-carrier, Royal Nepal, to lease a wide-bodied jet even after a year´s trying. Nevertheless, entrepreneur Kama Shakya believes that Visit Nepal ´98 will leave a positive legacy, most importantly telling the world that there is much more to Nepal than what the tourists have discovered so far.

The strategy of both countries is to increase the volume of tourism and profit margins by going for a high-end clientele. The Maldives can plan on the basis of small size, political stability, and sun-loving Europeans. Nepal´s plans are hobbled by industry inertia and political uncertainty— Tourism Minister Chakra Prasad Bastola, who launched VNY ´98, departed with the change of government in March.

On the other hand, the Maldives´ plans have a limit set by the beaches, corals and multicoloured fish. Not much product diversification there, whereas Nepal is a country of immense variety and untapped possibilities. It can continue to fascinate long after the holidayer is bored of staring at the see.

Holy Day Not Holiday
"It was so nice that after many years we spent our Shab-e-Juma (Thursday night) without wasting our time watching movies, for we had to go to work the next morning. It was for the first time in so many years that we went to offer our Juma (Friday) prayers in such high spirits; otherwise we used to yawn at prayers, having slept late the night before, watching movies."

Thus wrote Karachi citizen Firdous Husain in a letter to the daily The News, thanking the Prime Minister for making Friday in Pakistan a working half-day, starting 28 February 1997.

Although Nawaz Sharif´s decision to change the weekly holiday to Sunday from Friday was based on business and economic interests rather than a desire to curb late-night movie watching on Thursdays, it has been widely hailed. Objections had been expected from the clerics, but Mian Nawaz Sharif took the wind out of their sails by stating that the decision would actually "restore the sanctity" of Fridays.

Said the Prime Minister, in his first address to the nation after taking office, "Instead of going to offer prayers on Friday, people would treat it as a holiday, a day of rest and recreation, a day to hold wedding functions. Making it a working day until noon will encourage people to offer Friday prayers." The prayers are offered around 1.00 pm.

The mild protests against the Prime Minister´s action is nothing compared to the uproar which followed his predecessor Benazir Bhutto´s tentative support for a decision by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry´s to observe Sunday as the weekly holiday. The religious groups forced the government to withdraw its support, after which the business community succumbed and overturned their decision. As one trader then put it, "We can keep the markets open (on Friday), but unless the government keeps the banks open, how can we do any dealing?"

Friday as holiday was instituted by Gen Zia-ul Haq as part of his plans to consolidate his own position by appeasing the religious parties. No one missed the irony that it was the late dictator´s protege, Mr Sharif, who is now pushing through the rollback, buoyed by his massive mandate at the recent hustings: he has the support of over 180 members in a house of 209.

Some comments from ordinary people on the change:

"The week seems longer now" -Arif, a young businessman. "It feels good to be in synch with the rest of the world" -a doctor in Karachi. "I still keep thinking of Thursday as the weekend, and Saturday as the beginning of the week" -Uzma, a housewife in Lahore. Welcome to the world, Pakistan.

How Big Is Your Ecological Footprint?
How much ´nature´ do countries use, how much ´nature´ do they have? was the question foremost on the mind of Mathis Wackernagel at the Center for Sustainability Studies in Mexico. And so he developed a statistical formula to measure the "ecological footprint of nations", which shows to what extent their consumption can be supported by local ecological capacity.

In a report presented at the Rio+5 sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro in mid-March, Mr Wackernagel showed the three major countries of South Asia come at the bottom of the list of 52 largest countries—which means that they are the most ´sustainable´ of the lot.

The arrow in the chart points to 1.7 hectares per capita, the amount of biologically productive space available worldwide. Only people from nine countries use less, including the populations of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (and, obviously, the other South Asians, who did not figure in the study.)

Mr Mathis also provides calculation spreadsheets for each country showing his data and methodology, which includes analysing the consumption of over 20 main biotic resources, and the energy balance of traded goods. The researcher can be contacted by email at

Caught In The Act
The armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of India, which is in operation in six states of the country´s Northeast, has come under severe scrutiny of a watchdog body made up of lawyers, journalists and activists.

In April 1996, a fact-finding group visited Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal, where the Act is in force, as well as Meghalaya, which was included because of the "disturbing" level of military presence there. The resulting 56,000-word report released recently in New Delhi constitutes a lengthy indictment of the Acl.

The group claimed that the Act had "disrupted normal civilian life, legitimised arbitrary killings of citizens by the security forces, led to illegal detention and custodial violence, denied the citizens their legitimate right to justice from the courts, undermined the authority of the civilian administration, and exploited inter-community (both tribal and non-tribal) rivalries through a policy of divide and rule."

According to the investigators, rather than seek political solutions to the problems that beset the Northeast, the central government had resorted to extensive militarisation and repressive legislation. It was therefore distanced from the population, with the security forces treating everyone as a militant or a secessionist. Such was the level of suspicion, that even the members of the mission were sometimes regarded as "stooges" of militant groups.

About the inter-ethnic conflicts in the region, the report says there has been increasing insularity and chauvinism among some movements, often resulting in fratricidal killings. The militant groups which have taken up arms must bear the responsibility for their actions and the impact of their armed struggle on civilian populations, especially on communities other than their own, states the mission. It urges the militant groups to seek peaceful means to achieve their demands, while insisting that the government recognise the grievances being articulated by all kinds of groups in the Northeast. "As long as the government deals with the issues as law and order problems to be suppressed by military solutions, it will only cause the escalation of armed resistance," says the report.

The fact-finding mission included members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Baroda), Saheli (Delhi), Indian Peoples´ Human Rights Tribunal (Bombay), Vimochana (Bangalore), and the Naga Peoples´ Movement for Human Rights (Imphal).

Catch ´Em Young
In the Plethora of regional meetings taking place in South Asian cities these days, one misses the voice of young professionals. Such occasions mostly bring together a buddy-duddy network of veterans contribute. Which is why a gathenng that took place in the first half of March in Kandy was invigorating.

The residential workshop brought together 36 young professionals from the seven South Asian countries and 29 experts who came to take classes. The meeting was organised by the Colombo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) and its primary achievement was the creation of a network among the young generation of South Asian scholars.

Entitled "Sources of Conflict in South Asia: Ethnicity, Refugees, Environment", the workshop provided a forum to examine how non-military issues evolve into conflict. Thus, the conference took in the whole gamut of South Asian conflicts, from Sri Lanka´s "Tamil problem" to the situation in India´s Northeast and from communal riots in India to environmental damage wrought by big dams throughout the region.

RCSS´s director Iftekhar Zaman says he hopes to convert the event into a process whereby more and more young professionals will be involved in future.

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