Round-up of regional news
|All Illustrations by Bilash Rai|
It has not been the greatest of months for cricket. First, fans lost out with the cancellation of the Indian squad’s scheduled Pakistan tour in early 2009, a direct consequence of the November Bombay attacks. (India’s February tour of Sri Lanka, however, went ahead despite calls from Tamil Nadu politicians that it be scrapped in protest of the “massacre of Tamils” by Colombo.) Now, just as the cricket world is once again gearing up for the second installation of the extravaganza that is the Twenty20-format Indian Premier League (IPL), it is certain that the festivities will not include everybody.
Indeed, Pakistani fans and players do not have much to look forward to this summer, as Islamabad has barred its cricketers from playing in the IPL this season. The reason? Pakistani officials cite security concerns, claiming that, in the post-Bombay atmosphere, India is not a safe place for their citizens. Pakistani players who have existing contracts with IPL teams will, evidently, have no choice but to forgo their sizeable salaries. Bidding will also not be allowed for new Pakistani players, and the names of the five Pakistani players that had been included in the auction list for the upcoming season have been withdrawn.
The logistics of the ban aside, there is inevitably much talk about how Southasian cricket is, once again, being politicised. Is Islamabad’s ban really a result of straightforward security concerns – reasonable anxieties, admittedly, as New Delhi itself says it cannot ensure the safety of Pakistanis. Or is Islamabad trying to make a larger point at this time of fragile bilateral ties, one that would come at the expense of Pakistani fans?
Either way, frustrated cricket lovers can take heart that there is currently no indication that the ban will be extended beyond the 2009 season. And for the rest, judging from the last IPL gala, the absence of a half-dozen players will not dampen the revelry – especially as the shapely cheerleaders have once again been engaged to liven up the proceedings.
Money troubles are worrying everybody these days, including the two fledgling Bhutanese political parties. The ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have both found themselves in the throes of a financial crisis. The former owes almost USD 123,000 to its workers, another USD 62,000 to its creditors, and has an overdraft of about USD 308,000 at the Bank of Bhutan.
The prospects for raising these amounts look grim. The only sources of income are the nominal membership fees that are collected, as well as voluntary contributions from members. And strong-arming the cadre is not an option, with contributions being legally capped at around USD 2050 per member. The DPT is now asking that the Election Commission review this rule.
The PDP, meanwhile, seems to be in a somewhat worse financial situation. It says that it is suffering from some USD 409,000 in debt, not including pending payments to workers. But it is arguing that the law limiting member contributions should stand. According to PDP leaders, only a very few Bhutanese citizens have the requisite disposable income to donate anywhere near USD 2050 to a political cause. And allowing these privileged few to contribute more would only serve to give them more influence over the parties – and thus the political process.
Mired in debt, the future of the two parties remain in doubt. Unfortunate as the situation is, the looming question is: How much will this affect Bhutan’s fledgling democracy?
|Photo: Edwin Koo|
The August 2008 breach of the Kosi’s eastern embankment at Kusaha, in Nepal, has brought nothing but tragedy. But those working on water-related issues were initially hopeful that something positive would come of this massive catastrophe. Namely, the hope was that policymakers, both in New Delhi and Kathmandu, would finally understand that blindly building embankments would not alleviate the problem of flooding.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that this is difficult indeed for politicians to learn. To begin with, the Kosi, which changed course after escaping from the bunds in the flooded areas, has now been set back on its old path, once again hemmed in by embankments.
As if this were not enough, embankments will now be built on three other rivers flowing through the two countries – the Bagmati, Kamala and Lalbakeya. The Indian government has even given its northern neighbour USD 2 million to begin construction on these projects. When will they learn?
|Caption: Bank of Maldives office|
Banking on banks
With growing frustration due to a scarcity of greenbacks in the atolls, Male has now opened up its entire banking sector to foreign investors. The government has decided to make space for more overseas banks, and three have immediately shown their eagerness to jump into the financial lagoon.
Currently, the Maldives hosts just one national bank, the Bank of Maldives, though a few foreign banks have traditionally had a toe in the door, including the State Bank of India, HSBC, Habib Bank and the Bank of Ceylon. Meanwhile, licenses for the yet-unnamed entities are already being processed. According to President Mohamed Nasheed, once these foreign banks begin operations in the Maldives, the current difficulties in buying US dollars by public and private companies should be eased.
The president has hinted that of the three banks that have applied for licenses, two are commercial while one is an investment bank. President Nasheed has also spoken of his plans to negotiate with the central banks of India and Sri Lanka, two countries with which Male has large dealings, asking them to accept the Maldivian rufiyaa, which is pegged to the dollar at an arbitrary MVR 12.75. The public is also getting significantly hit, with Western Union suspending operations in the country due to the dollar shortage.
The low dollar amounts currently leaking into the market are laughable in comparison to the sum of dollars some companies need to cough up in a single day to stay afloat. While the Bank of Maldives sells a maximum of USD 4000 per day, companies such as the Male-based construction outfit Apollo Holdings have to pay over USD 200,000 to suppliers. Recently, it was reported that Apollo was resorting to buying black-market dollars to the tune of USD 80,000 in order to pay back suppliers in India and China. It can be assumed that other companies in the Maldives are also being forced to purchase black-market dollars.
And it is not only private businesses that are suffering under the dollar shortage. Considering that the Maldives imports almost all essentials, dollars are crucial to the government. With Male’s dollar reserves extremely low – and with a downturn predicted in tourism due to the global recession – the shortage could have disastrous consequences for the country. Meanwhile, President Nasheed has not elaborated on how exactly he expects the presence of more banks to improve the situation.
Every 13 minutes
Over the course of 2008, Bangladeshi farmers killed an estimated 25 million rodents. That is the recorded number, at least, and the real figure is undoubtedly much higher. What is beyond dispute is the name of the man who slew the most rats: Binoy Kumar Karmakar. Using a range of techniques that evidently included traps and poison, Karmakar has killed 39,650 rodents. And there is little room to doubt his prowess, as he kept the tails of the unfortunate rats as evidence.
To have killed such a phenomenal number of rodents over the course of a year, Karmakar would have needed to have killed one rat an average of every 13 minutes, including day and night. For his feat, as per the rules of an official nationwide rat-killing competition, Karmakar has now claimed his prize: a 36 cm Sony colour television, given to him by the government.
The distaste of such a pile of rat tails aside, rodent infestation is a major problem in Bangladesh. It is said that almost 10 percent of the country’s crop – mostly wheat, rice and potatoes – are devoured by rats every year. While rat infestation is an ongoing problem throughout the country, the southern regions have had it especially bad recently.
Since 2007, there has been a simultaneous flowering of bamboo species in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region in southeastern Bangladesh. In a phenomenon as yet unexplained by science, bamboo plants in the region flower simultaneously at roughly 40-60 year intervals. The flowering also heralds an exponential increase in rodents, which thrive on the flower seeds while also devouring other crops.
And while the overall effect that he has had on Bangladesh’s rat population is impossible to gauge, Binoy Kumar Karmakar is undoubtedly a hero in his village.
|Photo: James Giambrone|
Of late, two contradictory trends have been observed in Nepal. With a global recession only strengthening, fewer unskilled jobseekers are leaving in search of work overseas. On the other hand, the country has also seen a rise of about 65 percent in remittances flowing in from abroad, according to recent reports by the central bank.
And Malaysia, the very country that has recently put a cap on the number of foreign workers for its service and manufacturing sectors, continues to be the largest source of remittances. Over the past five months, Nepali workers in Malaysia have injected a little over USD 1 million into the ailing Nepali economy. Considering that the rise in remittances from 2007-08 was about 17 percent, this year’s increase is a significant boost, especially as remittances account for nearly 20 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product.
Clearly the contradiction in high remittances amidst lowered job exports is the result of an aberration, or late reporting. Meanwhile, the trend of a massive outflow of Nepali labourers, as has been seen over the last few years and which inevitably props up the remittance rate, has begun to reverse drastically. Already, the Department of Foreign Employment is reporting that only 12,313 Nepali workers went in search of greener pastures from mid-December to mid-January. In contrast, 18,685 left from mid-November to mid-December, and 20,543 during the month before that.
Following Kuala Lumpur’s decision, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also slashed jobs for migrant labourers by 45 percent, in addition to implementing a freeze on visas for migrant workers. One of the four major employment destinations, there are over 125,000 Nepali workers labouring in the UAE. Some 400,000 Nepalis currently find employment in Malaysia, and similarly large numbers reside in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Given these drastic reductions by host countries, however, it is only a matter of time before this counterintuitive increase in remittances likewise takes a drastic downturn.
Meanwhile, with the prospect of income-generating industries in Nepal quite poor amidst political dislocation, one can expect drastic socio-political impact down the road.
More guns, less war?
A seemingly less-than-brilliant plan will shortly be implemented in Afghanistan. As violence escalates and the Taliban regain lost ground, the NATO-led forces are now preparing to arm local militias to tackle the militants. The idea is masterminded by the US, with Washington providing the funding for equipment and training. Inspiration for the plan evidently comes from Iraq, where US-armed militias called Awakening Councils were held to be responsible, along with the ‘surge’ in troop numbers, for the reduction of violence in recent months.
Though the plan has the full backing of Kabul, many locals are sceptical. Much of the concern revolves around the potential further disruption of the fragile tribal balance. The southern part of Afghanistan, where most of these militias will be located, is largely Pashtun. That this group is to be trained in combat, and given weapons, now has other ethnic groups upset. Considering the already long history of inter-tribal conflict in the country, the plan is surely fraught.
Presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama, on different sides of the globe, both have a lot at stake in Afghanistan. For the former, it is a matter of survival. For the latter, his administration’s credibility rests on ‘winning’ the Afghan conflict. As such, both clearly must deliver or face the consequences. But arming more Afghans, particularly at a time when the UN is trying to reduce the astoundingly large number of weapons already in the country, would seem to be a terrible way to go about bringing peace. Here is a plan that, while it has no promise of working, could be disastrous.
And here is the time to express disquiet with regards to a completely different theatre. In Nepal, Maoist minister Gopal Kirati does not miss an opportunity to insist that Nepali citizens be allowed to carry private arms. This is sure to guarantee peace, he says, and his Maoist command has not shot down this madcap suggestion. Even at the cost of upsetting Afghans, it can be said, let Nepal not become another Afghanistan.
The irony is too great to ignore. This year’s Aero India mela of armament and aviation firms, held 11-15 February, faced a breakdown in security. Thousands of families, couples and single drifters broke through cordoned areas at the Yelahanka Airbase in Bangalore, and badgered soldiers to get a glimpse of the flamboyant aerobatics on display by some of the most advanced aircraft in the world. So large were the crowds that one aviator participant disparagingly said the event had devolved into a “cattle show”.
Almost 600 armament and aerospace firms from 26 countries took part in the bidding that took place at Aero India. Despite the global recession, the Indian government showed little signs of penny-pinching. It offered up multi-billion dollar deals to purchase 700 helicopters, various pieces of artillery, warships and other defence-related hardware, including a USD 12 billion deal for 126 fighter jets, transport aircraft and Airborne Warning and Control System machines.
There were enough tenders going round to make everybody happy. Defence Minister A K Antony even went so far as to say that the recession would in no way lead to a downturn in India’s defence expenditure. And these are not just empty words, with New Delhi having imported USD 28 billion worth of military hardware since 2000.
With India’s defence industry open to 100 percent investment by the Indian private sector, a resounding 289 national companies participated in the gala. In addition, with a little over a quarter of the industry open to foreign direct investment, foreign interest was extremely high. There were 31 firms from Germany and France each, 26 from the UK, 24 from Russia and 22 from the US.
In one intentional omission, Pakistani companies were not invited to the biennial party. In all likelihood, Islamabad will reciprocate the kindness when it hosts the International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS) in December 2009 in Karachi.
Burmese teak has been considered a premium wood since at least the days of the Raj, and its value has certainly not diminished over time. With Western demand for teak furniture currently seeing a boom, a milled piece of the wood can fetch upwards of five dollars per board foot. Yet this has translated into the massive, unchecked logging of Burma’s forests. Now, this thirst for teak has been given an above-the-board face: under the new rubric of ‘agro-forestry development’, loggers are devouring forests in the northern Burmese state of Kachin faster than you can say ‘Yangon’.
Deforestation is nothing new to Kachin. But this new front has sped ahead under forest regulations issued in May 2008, when the Rangoon government began to permit the renting-out of forest lands to companies in order to carry out such ‘agro-forestry’ projects. Essentially, this means cutting down teak trees to grow bio-fuels (particularly castor oil) and other crops such as sugarcane, rubber and tapioca. The forest tracts are available on 30-year deeds, enough time to decimate the wild lands in the name of the environment.
The Burmese authorities have been able to depend on a wily ally to pay for the bulldozing – China. But nothing comes for free, of course. In 1998, when China banned logging in its own adjoining territory, the chopping escalated south of the border in Burma, and the process has only increased since. It is reported that banks in Yunnan provide loans to companies in Burma for the ‘farming’ projects, as well as providing other necessary support.
The road linking Yunnan to the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina is today nice and wide for careening trucks, while a rail link is also expected shortly. With the rate of deforestation exceeding the rate of timber growth in the region, trucks from China have to travel deeper and deeper into Burma – now spending almost a week on the road – in order to find the teak trunks. With the destruction proceeding without check, and large stretches of the forest barren, there will very soon be nothing left to cut down. The time may not be far off when Burmese teak is but a memory.
The youngest member of the telecommunications industry in Sri Lanka, the Delhi-based Bharti Airtel, is already beginning to grumble about unfair competition, despite an excellent initial response to its launch on the island in December 2008. Undeterred by the plaintive cry, established airwave rivals – local and foreign alike – have stoically decided not to respond to the accusations. They have unanimously agreed to abide by the Telecommunication and Regulatory Commission’s request not to comment on Airtel’s complaints.
According to Airtel Lanka managers, their customers face congestion when attempting to dial other networks during peak hours. Apparently, other telecom companies deliberately do not provide adequate so-called points of interconnect to the new competition. In fact, the anxieties are more economic than nationalist. With approximately six million subscribers, the Sri Lankan telecom market is already widely seen as saturated.
The sector saw an almost 70 percent share by foreign direct investment in 2008, up from about 55 percent in 2007. This is expected to increase further in 2009. Airtel has already invested USD 100 million in Sri Lanka, and has planned to put in another USD 100 million. Other competitors include the largest market shareholder, Dialog Telekom of Malaysia, as well as companies from Luxembourg, Hong Kong and the hometown Telecom’s Mobitel.
Voracious competition explains why call charges in Sri Lanka have over the years been reduced by some 75 percent. But these cheap prices are hardly worthwhile for Airtel customers if they cannot get a line.
Band of bhais
Hindi has long been pegged the next big language (along with Mandarin), but is it also time to brush up on Nepali, Pashto and Tamil? Doing so appears to be a good idea if one wants – as so many Southasians seem to desire – to acquire US citizenship quickly.
For the first time since the Vietnam War, the US has launched a trial programme that would allow those with temporary US visas to become citizens within as little as six months. The only catch: they have to enlist in the military. At this pilot phase, only 1000 migrants will be recruited nationwide. Ultimately, though, up to 14,000 may be accepted annually, largely for the army.
This category of immigrants is expected to be more skilled than the majority of applicants. Statistics showing that of the 80,000 recruits last year, only 82 percent had high-school diplomas. They will be recruited to fill current shortages in translation, field-intelligence analysis and health care. Language skills are thus a key part of the requirement, with Hindi, Pashto, Nepali and Tamil the most sought-after Southasian languages.
The Pentagon has had the legal authority to recruit temporary immigrants since the attacks of 11 September 2001, when the country entered a ‘state of war’. (Green-card holders have long been allowed to enlist, and about 8000 do so annually.) It has, however, moved slowly on this, wary of how the public might respond. Now, the base criteria is that applicants must have lived in the US for a minimum of two years, without having left the country for more than 90 days during this time. Beyond that, there is an extensive vetting process, emerging from the fear that ‘terrorist’ moles may try to enlist.
While the six-month carrot might entice many, in actuality language experts will have to complete four years of active duty. Likewise, medical professionals will have to do either three years of active duty or six years in the reserves. But the trickiest requirement for citizenship is the qualitative demand that immigrant must have completed service in an ‘honourable’ manner.
This is all well and good for Washington and, potentially, for those looking to be citizens. But the question remains: Why does the US so desperately need people who speak these languages?