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In this episode, we talk about fresh scrutiny on the Adani group in the wake of recent reporting, Pakistan’s deportation order impacting Afghan refugees, the release of two rights activists in Bangladesh on bail, China replacing the name ‘Tibet’ with the Chinese romanised name ‘Xizang’ on official documents, India’s Supreme Court declining to legalise same-sex marriage, Southasian deaths and repatriation efforts in Israel and Gaza, an air strike on a camp for the internally displaced in Myanmar’s Kachin state, and the reopening of an old sea route between Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu and Kankesanthurai in the Jaffna peninsula.
For this episode, we also interview Najibullah Sadid, an expert on water resources and the environment, to discuss the devastating recent earthquakes in Herat as well as the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
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Najibullah Sadid’s Reading list:
Devastating earthquakes hit Afghanistan – Science in Action by BBC World Service
This is a machine-generated, unedited transcript of the episode and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
Ritika Chauhan: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s fortnightly podcast on all things Southasia. Where we bring you a round-up of the five big stories in the region and speak to an expert guest for a deep dive into a major issue affecting Southasia.
RC: We’re your hosts, Ritika and Raisa. In this episode, we’ll be speaking to Najibullah Sadid on the Herat earthquakes. But first, a round-up of the big stories in the region.
This news round-up was recorded on 20 October, and covers the news from 9 to 20 October.
Raisa Wickrematunge: On 12 October, the Financial Times released an investigation supporting long-standing allegations that the Adani Group had imported billions of dollars’ worth of coal into India at inflated prices, with higher electricity costs imposed on consumers. The Adani Group has said the story is based on “old, baseless allegations”. India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence first opened an investigation into such allegations in 2014, but the case remained unresolved. More recently, India’s ministry of corporate affairs also opened an investigation into the accounts of two Mumbai airports acquired by Adani Enterprises in 2022.
On 18 October, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) approached the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), asking the investigative reporters’ network for key documents ahead of the Adani-Hindenburg case being heard in the Supreme Court of India. The OCCRP refused to comply, directing SEBI to its most recent reporting, which revealed that millions of dollars were funneled to the company through investment funds based in Mauritius, and which were later traced to people with close ties to the Adani family.
Reporters have repeatedly highlighted the nexus between Adani’s leadership and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, raising concerns about whether there will be any accountability for the revelations made in recent weeks.
RC: On 17 October, Pakistan’s interior ministry set up a committee to probe the issuance of fake passports to Afghan nationals. The announcement came days after over 12,000 false Pakistani passports were seized from Afghans in Saudi Arabia.
The crackdown is especially significant because on 3 October, the Pakistan government issued an order asking all foreigners living in the country without legal status to leave within 28 days or face deportation. The order is expected to impact around 1.7 million Afghans living in Pakistan. In the run-up to the deadline, Afghan refugees have faced heightened harassment, assault and arbitrary detention at the hands of Pakistani police. Pakistani officials have attributed increased militant attacks in recent times to “illegal migrants” and have said they would offer rewards for information leading to arrests of refugees past the 1 November deadline. Rights groups have condemned the order, which could lead to refugees being deported back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
RW: On 16 October, the rights activists Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan were released on bail in Bangladesh after being detained for just over a month in connection to a cybercrime case. Khan is the founder-secretary of Odhikar, a human rights organisation documenting thousands of killings and enforced disappearances in Bangladesh, while Elan is a director of the organisation. The arrests were in connection with a 2013 fact-finding report which said 61 people had been killed by security forces during a protest led by the far-right Islamic group Hezafat-e-Islam – figures which were contested by government officials. Both Khan and Elan were found guilty by Dhaka’s Cyber Tribunal on 14 September 2023, each receiving a two-year sentence as well as a fine of 10,000 Bangladesh takas. Khan and Elan say they are appealing their sentences. Khan told Voice of America that he and Elan were “victims of judicial injustice”.
RC: China has replaced the name “Tibet” with “Xizang” in official diplomatic documents, using a romanised form of the Chinese name for the region. The Chinese Communist Party said that the move aimed to legitimise Chinese administration of Tibet and prevent the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration from speaking about Tibet. The CCP also pointed out that “Tibet” is often used to refer to areas in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces, consistent with the “Greater Tibet” defined by the 14th Dalai Lama. As such, Chinese experts said that the name “Tibet” was “geographically misleading”.
Tibetan scholars spoke out against the move, saying it is politically driven. Dawa Tsering, the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, told Radio Free Asia that apart from asserting sovereignty over the region China was adopting “divide-and rule” tactics for Tibet. At least one Chinese e-commerce service provider, Weidian, has advised its vendors to replace “Tibet” with “Xizang” on translations of product names and descriptions.
RW: India’s Supreme Court declined to grant legal recognition to same-sex marriage, saying it was up to parliament to legislate on the issue. In a split 3-2 decision, a five-judge bench also declined to provide constitutional protection for civil unions or adoption rights for same-sex couples. The decision is a setback to the country’s LGBTIQ community, which was hoping for a change in the present laws. Twenty-one petitions were heard in April and May from same-sex couples who said they felt like second-class citizens as they were not allowed to marry.
There was a silver lining as the Supreme Court said India’s states have the power to draft legislation on same-sex marriage in the absence of a central law. However, some queer-rights activists expressed scepticism that this would offer any hope as states like Rajasthan, Assam and Andhra Pradesh have already expressed opposition to passing such legislation, while several other states have asked for more time to consider the issue as it is a “sensitive topic”.
On 6 October, two lower courts in Nepal also did not grant legal recognition to a same-sex marriage, in defiance of a recent interim order from the Supreme Court to register same-sex marriages while related legal amendments hang in the balance.
RC: Repatriation efforts are ongoing to rescue Southasian citizens stranded amid the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza. On 17 October, the embassy of Nepal in Israel confirmed that 18 Nepalis had been repatriated from Israel with the help of the Indian government. Prior to this, 254 Nepalis were moved from several high-risk areas to Tel Aviv and eventually to Kathmandu. Ten Nepalis were killed in an attack on southern Israel by Hamas on 7 October, the Kathmandu Post reported.
At least two Sri Lankans were reported missing amid the violence with at least one later confirmed dead. A further 27 Sri Lankans living in northern Gaza are reportedly heading to the south of the territory after orders from Israel to evacuate ahead of a planned ground offensive by the Israeli military. The Representative Office of Sri Lanka in Palestine is assisting Sri Lankans to safely travel to Egypt along with other evacuees.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs estimated that four Indians were in Gaza, with a further 12 in the West Bank. Five flights have been chartered by India to repatriate Indian nationals from Israel.
RW: At least 29 people including children were killed, and over 50 people injured, in an air strike on the Mong Lai Khet camp for internally displaced people in Myanmar’s Kachin state on 9 October. The camp is kilometres away from the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army, an armed force battling the country’s junta government, and not far from the Chinese border. Aung Myo Min, the human rights minister of the National Unity Government, which opposes the junta from exile, condemned the attack as a “war crime”.
The strike is being described as one of the deadliest attacks in the 63-year-long conflict in Kachin state. Military officials have scaled up the violence in Kachin amid growing support for the armed groups battling the military junta. The military denied responsibility for the attack, claiming that the explosion took place where the Kachin Independence Army stored ammonium nitrate. However, Amnesty International quoted eyewitnesses who reported a large bomb exploding near the camp, followed by sustained mortar fire from near military positions.
RC: In good news for regionalism, an old sea route between Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu and Kankesanthurai in the Jaffna Peninsula has been reopened after a lapse of 40 years. A passenger ferry service was inaugurated on 14 October in a bid to boost tourism and improve bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka, as well as to benefit local traders.
Previously, The Indo-Ceylon express ran between Chennai and Colombo from the 1900s up until 1982, and passengers could also take a train from Chennai and then a steam ferry from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. These services were halted in the 1980s as Sri Lanka’s civil war escalated. There have been several attempts to resume services from Rameswaram to Talaimannar and from Karaikal to Kankesanthurai, with little success due to poor response and lack of commercial viability. Port officials have already said the relatively high ticket prices, monsoon rain and poor ticketing systems continue to pose challenges, with the service now only available on alternate days.
RW: That’s it for the news round-up. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider supporting Himal by becoming a member. We are a fully independent, non-profit media organisation, and we rely on listeners like you to sustain and grow our work. You can see our membership plans at www.himalmag.com/membership, and we’ve included a link to our membership page in the episode notes.
Najibullah Sadid Interview Transcript
RW: On the 15th of October, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit western Afghanistan, the third such earthquake in the space of a week. The tremors have already led to around 1,000 deaths in total and have flattened entire villages near Herat, with rescuers using shovels and their bare hands to rescue people. The disaster comes months before the winter in Afghanistan, and the country has also been impacted by an economic crisis after the Taliban seized power in 2021. Here to speak with us about this is Najibullah. Hello and thank you for being with us today.
Najibullah Sadid: Thank you Raisa for having me.
RW: So could you begin by giving us a rough assessment of the extent of the damage in Herat? I believe there’s been some satellite-derived damage assessments released already.
NS: Yes, exactly. There was pre and post-satellite imagery available for this incident, and based on that assessment, basically, the communities that were affected were identified. The results show that 123 settlements were affected. Among them, 92 were moderately affected and 10 were severely affected, and 21 were almost destroyed. So this was basically after the first earthquake that happened on 7 October. According to these settlements, the official data shows that 2,053 people died or were killed by this earthquake. And after that, of course, we had three other shocks. But since people were basically staying outside their homes in open areas, the damages or the casualties were much lower. The last incident that happened or the last main shock that happened on 15 October had only one person killed. So you see that as the people are leaving their homes, staying in open areas, the damage or the casualties also drastically reduced. But in general, so to say, 43,350 people were affected. And not to forget that those are the villages and the districts in remote areas of Herat province in the northwest of the country. But there are also people affected inside the Herat city. You see that a lot of people are needing tents and other food and warm blankets, for example. Because they are staying in fear of more shocks, they are staying outside in open areas. But besides the casualties, the impacts that the people were affected, there are unfortunately also damages to the historical buildings and monuments in Herat. For example, Qala Iktyaruddin is really an old and ancient historic building. Recent images circulating on social media are showing that not only Qala Iktyaruddin but also Masjid al-Jami, which is a Temurite mosque in Herat city, is also damaged. Even the recently built concrete buildings are damaged in Herat city.
RW: Thank you for that, Najibullah. And yes, those are quite staggering figures, over 43,000 affected. And clearly there is quite urgent needs as well for people on the ground. How prepared would you say that that region in Herat and the surrounding areas, how prepared was it to respond to the aftermath of the earthquake? And was rescue efforts impacted by accessibility?
NS: Unfortunately, the preparedness was very poor. You see that videos on Afghan local TVs,
that people are basically doing the rescue job themselves with bare hands and shovels. And there was no rescue team on site when the first earthquake happened. You know, the first hours after the earthquake are very critical. You have to be on site, you have to be professional, you have to have equipment, you have to have the system, but that was not in place. And that basically led to this high casualty, that they could have been saved when there was a rescue team on site. There was rescue teams, only two, as far as I know, rescue teams from Iran and Turkey, but it was already late. They may have removed some bodies of those who already died under the rubble. But unfortunately, we see that at the first hours, we lost a lot of people. And there was a woman on local Afghan TV saying that she was able to save only three of his grandsons. But three others, he could not save, they died. That’s a very unfortunate situation.
RW: You also mentioned that there have been several earthquakes in the region. So, is Herat an area that frequently sees earthquakes? And why is that?
NS: So, seismologically, Herat is lying on fault, which is called Herarat fault. Afghanistan basically has three main faults, but one of the main is Herat. So, it is not unusual that we have earthquakes in Herat or nearby the main faults. But there are several other small faults that are buried under the thick layer of sediment. So, there are small faults not reported, not studied. So, these faults may have caused earthquakes. There have been, so far, four shocks. So, these shocks, according to seismologists who have studied, they say that it’s quite rare that we have four earthquakes in sequence. There have been some sequence earthquakes, like in 2019, there were four sequence earthquakes in Mindanao in the Philippines. And there were three sequence earthquakes in Iran, with the same, more or less, in the same area or under the same condition,
probably the same fault. But some experts say that when one fault or one rupture happens or one slip happens, then, of course, this can lead to or potentially can lead to the activation or triggering of another fault. And causing another earthquake. And that may cause another earthquake. So, there could be some sequence or, so to say, some cascade of earthquakes in this region. But these are all early assessments. There must be some detailed study in order to dig more deeper into the causes of these four earthquakes. Because they are not very common.
They are rare. As I said, we had only one incident in 2019 in the Philippines.
RW: And you’ve also spoken online a little bit about how the earthquake is also already causing shifts in the landscape with the surfacing of groundwater. So, how do you think these shifts might impact the surrounding terrain in Herat in the long term?
NS: Yes, there has been some shifts. There has been studies on how the earthquake has changed the land surface in terms of elevation using satellite imageries. For example, the University of Leeds has recently studied that. And it shows that some parts of the area has an uplift of maximum 30 centimetres. And there was some areas which has declined in terms of elevation as much as 13 centimetres. So, there is some changes on the land surface in terms of elevation. Which is, of course, quite usual when there is an earthquake happening. There were also cracks appearing on the surface. We see that cracks orienting or directing east to west. Which is quite agreeing with the way the earthquakes happened. And what else we see that there are some areas in Asiabad near the epicentre of the earthquakes. That we have springs or so to say groundwater emerging or exfiltrating on the surface. And these are the basically moving dry river into a normal river. But the amount of discharge of this river is not so big that would cause a flood or inundate a village. So, this is an old dry river that now has water from the earthquake. But this is not unusual. Earthquakes may open some cracks. And when the groundwater is under pressure, they may emerge on the surface. So, this is happening also in other areas. For example, the last earthquake in Turkey also had some experiences of groundwater overflowing onto the surface.
RW: And coming back to the needs of the people. You know, this is also significant because it’s coming just ahead of the winter months. Which can be difficult in Afghanistan. And what were the kind of humanitarian issues that needed to be addressed even before the earthquake?
NS: Well, in a country, in a normal country or a normal situation. There should have been rescue teams on site. There should have been volunteers on site. That they could have reached the site very quickly. And they could have done the life-saving mission. So, that was failing or that was missing in Afghanistan. And this is the lesson here that we have to invest in this direction. Because earthquakes are not very unusual in Afghanistan. It happens often in parts of the country. But the other issue is here with the response that after the earthquakes. We see that there are some responses by the international organizations who are based in Afghanistan. They are basically supplying people with tents, with medical equipments, with food, shelter. But what is now required, because winter is approaching, with tents they cannot survive in the winter. Because winter not with Afghanistan is becoming very cold. Even nowadays, which is not winter. We have near zero temperatures during the night. So, we would have, according to forecasts, by next week we will have precipitation and rainfalls there. So, that would certainly make the life tougher for the people in this region. What is needed at the moment is that these people should be somehow relocated to the other regions. Or to temporary shelters such as gymnasiums. Sports gymnasiums can be used for this purpose, for example. But the other issue is the rebuilding of their homes. This should be speeded up because we don’t have time. Only three months is left before the harsh winter is coming. And we know that it’s coming earlier. Even we may have only two months for the winter.
RW: And what about in terms of food security? Before these earthquakes, were people prepared for the winter months? Or what was the situation in terms of that?
NS: You know, Afghanistan is basically impacted by what happens in the Pacific Ocean. You know, we had La Niña. This was the third year of La Niña. And when there is La Niña, Afghanistan is hitting by a drought. And we had severe drought in northwest of the country where now the earthquake has happened. So, the region was really suffering from this third year, third consecutive years of drought. And now, adding to that, this disaster, this was really, really tough for the people. The people were already in dire condition, needing help, needing food. And we know that for the last two years there was campaigns by international community in distributing emergency help and assistance such as food and some other supplies. And for the third year, we know that the aid or the international community drastically reduced their contribution to the budgets of Afghanistan when it came to the emergency response or emergency such as aid, food distribution and other supplies. So, the region was already in dire condition and the earthquake made it worse for them. And now, basically, as I said, their agriculture, their main source of income was impacted. The situation now, of course, after the earthquake is much, much worse compared to the normal year. In Afghanistan, generally, 33% of GDP is coming from agriculture. So, if the agricultural sector is impacted by a drought, then the whole gross economy of the country is impacted. And this is what we see in northwest Afghanistan, not only Herat where it’s impacted, but also nearby provinces such as Badghis, Farah, Zabul, but also further north, Faryab, even up to Balkh provinces, the drought was very severe.
RW: You were also talking about aid, including earlier on as well. How have the sanctions that have been imposed impacted the aid received in the aftermath of the earthquakes if at all?
NS: So, I see at the beginning, it seemed that everything was very fluent and people received some aid, but the concentration was only on the settlements that were damaged, not on Herat city. But after this third and fourth earthquake, Herat city was also impacted. Population of Herat city is over 700,000 people. Most of them are living in open areas and now you have to respond to a large number of people in terms of aid, in terms of providing temporary shelters. The first assistance on the undamaged villages were quite good because the number of population was not a lot in these small districts and settlements where the epicenter of the earthquake was located. But now we see that it’s not very easy because the Taliban government, they said that the private fundraising campaigns in Afghanistan, but also outside Afghanistan, they cannot directly reach out to the people. They have to channel their help through us and this is making things worse because it’s not possible to manage all these things in a very short period of time. You see a number of people across the world but also inside Afghanistan are collecting money, fundraising to help those affected. But when you channel them, now you have to do a lot of paper works. You have to go through some steps and that means that you need more time and this paper works and this red tape of course will not facilitate the rapid response that the people are requiring. So that’s why I am hearing from the people in Herat that people in Herat city themselves, they are needing tents and shelters because they are staying in open areas, but they are not receiving it. They say that even in Herat city the price of tents are tripled and even they cannot find tents in the market. So they are buying it from nearby provinces and even in the nearby provinces you cannot find tents for the people. So this situation has to change and I think there is potential that international organizations somehow intervene and facilitate the response that the people are voluntarily wanting to help. And let’s also talk about the economic situation in the country.
RW: You’ve spoken about how economically Afghanistan had kind of reached a fragile state of equilibrium. Can you speak more about that and also about what the economic pressures are that Afghans are continuing to face?
NS: Yes, as I mentioned before, Afghanistan was very aid dependent in the last two decades.
So the sector which the majority of Afghans were getting their incomes from was agriculture.
And as I said, more than 60% of people are earning their bread from agriculture and 33% of GDP is coming from agriculture. So this sector was largely ignored. And now you see that if the aid is basically cutting or reducing after the regime change in Afghanistan, people become more reliant on what they can earn and that’s agriculture. And when agriculture is impacted by climate change and as I mentioned the drought, then of course the economy is even more dependent on the foreign aid. Luckily in the last two years there was some aid and the aid was not fully cut or fully reduced to the Afghan people. But now this year, the third year, we see a strong reduction in aid. I don’t have the numbers, but the international organization says that they have not reached the target budget for addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and they will not be able to deliver to those vulnerable communities in Afghanistan. And if the economy is largely dependent on agriculture and you don’t have agriculture or your agriculture sector is impacted, of course the income of the people are now much lower compared to the past two years. And you see that a lot of people are jobless. I hear news from the villages that the younger generation are leaving the country because of the dire economic situation in the country. Joblessness is everywhere. Even in Kabul city you see people are jobless, people are leaving the country. A lot of educated people who have in the last 20 years who have earned degrees abroad, who are the bright brain of the country, are now hopeless and they are leaving the country.
RW: Thank you for that Najibullah. And one last question for the benefit of our listeners as well.
Is there a book or a podcast or a show you can recommend to our listeners who want to learn more about Afghanistan’s landscape or natural disasters or just about the situation in Afghanistan?
NS: Yes, there are plenty of books, podcasts. For example, The Natural Resources in Afghanistan, Geographic and Geologic Perspective on Centuries of Conflict by John F. Schroeder. This is one book I recommend. There is recently a podcast on the recent earthquakes with the Science in Action from the 12th of October, the BBC World Service. That’s really interesting and talking about the details of the earthquake. But there are also natural disaster dashboards supported by the United Nations where all the natural disasters are recorded with details. This is also available on Relief Web International. So I recommend to get more information on Afghanistan and the vulnerability of communities in Afghanistan, natural disasters and climate change and as a whole, the geographic landscape of Afghanistan.
RW: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and unpacking all of this for us Najibullah. Thank you very much for having me. I hope the information that I provided was beneficial to those who are interested in the Afghanistan situation and also on the recent earthquakes that hit Afghanistan.
NS: Thank you very much for having me.