Where the Bangladeshi government fails in supplying power to its people, it does not quite make up for in its attempt to find a solution to the problem. Having recently made electricity more expensive by up to nearly eight percent, the Sheikh Hasina administration is not exactly basking in the glow of popular approval. In addition to increasing the financial pressure on individuals and families, the move has also served a blow to numerous industries already crippled by gas shortages. Yet despite the weight of the problem, the government’s current approach towards a way out appears lackadaisical at best. Back in September 2009, the Bangladesh Oil, Gas and Mineral Corporation, the government set-up better known as Petrobangla, made a maiden appeal to foreign companies to explore and study the country’s uncharted gas fields. But the project seems to have hit a stumbling block before it even got started. Reportedly, Petrobangla and the Energy Ministry have not been able to coordinate with each other to take the project forward on time, hence leaving the domestic industrial sector scrambling to fulfil its fuel needs.
Nearly a half-year has now passed since 44 global firms submitted expressions of interest, while the task of short-listing the bidders was to have been finished by mid-December. Also at hand under this project is the drilling of six wells in state-owned gas fields. It is expected that once the drilling is complete, each of these wells will supply 25 million cubic feet of gas every day, tentatively levelling supply and demand by 2012. But now, this timeline looks increasingly like a pipedream. The Dhaka government needs to realise that a plan needs to be worked on just as much as work needs to be planned out.
The Maldivian Ministry of Fisheries has recently been eating its own words on shark-fishing. Only in January, the state minister of fisheries, Hussain Rasheed Hassan, said shark-fishing was “not a livelihood as such”, and that “nothing drastic” would result from disallowing it in the atolls. But the following month, as the proposed date to implementing the ban loomed, the ministry wanted an extension – evidently, because Male first needed to figure out an alternative means of sustenance for the many who make their living hauling sharks from the water.
Top-end predators of the food chain, sharks have long been understood as being very valuable to the marine ecosystem as a whole. Yet in the Maldives, their role goes beyond ‘merely’ keeping the natural system in balance. Sharks are also a primary pull for tourists, who dole out tens of millions of dollars in the atolls each year to catch a glimpse of reef, tiger and whale sharks. Indeed, the Maldivian government had labelled the protection of sharks in the country’s waters to be a matter of national responsibility.
As Male officials were rolling back the rhetoric, noting that they have more than just these marine beings to worry about, suggestions came pouring in from environment-focused NGOs. These advised the government to approach the many backers who would happily contribute to help fisher-folk find alternative jobs – resorts, dive schools and the like.
Sure enough, by mid-March, the government had unveiled a whole new plan: to set aside 90,000 kilometres as only the second ‘shark sanctuary’ in the world. In addition, Fisheries Minister Ibrahim Didi announced “a total ban” on shark exports by 1 July, while the government would be providing fishermen with financial support and retraining. The economics for such a trade-off certainly make sense: Australian researchers have estimated that a single gray reef shark is worth some USD 3300 per year to the Maldivian tourism industry, while for the same animal a fisherman would only get a one-time payment of around USD 32.
Bhutanese traffic is looking to move mountains – cut through them, rather – as a possible solution to overcrowding and long travel times. The Thimphu government has recently unveiled plans to build passageways through mountains in order to connect major valleys in the country, thereby reducing distances and also serving to decentralise the population. Foremost on the list of these tunnels-to-be, each of which will cost over USD 4.2 million, is one that will connect Thimphu to either the administrative capital Punakha or Wangdue Phodrang District, in the centre of the country.
With the large costs a major deterrent, however, Bhutan needs to pool a significant amount of funds if the intended plan is to translate into action. Another major concern in the construction of these tunnels, of course, will be keeping them safe enough for locomotion. The government is expecting financial and technical assistance from the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute for the project, a team from which was to visit in March to look into workability.
At the same time, Thimphu is saying the country can benefit in more ways than one in the aftermath of this new mountain-boring venture. As the mountains are tunnelled into, goes the argument, large deposits of marble will be gathered, which can replenish the stock for cement factories in southern Bhutan.
That these tunnels will ensure a significant reduction in travel time, thus facilitating greater connectivity within the country, is certainly laudable. Nonetheless, the improvement of transportation infrastructure should include assessments of its environmental impacts, and how these can be best minimised. For instance, while these planned tunnels will make travel easier, Bhutan lacks a reliable and well-connected public transportation system. Consequently, it will be private vehicles – and the number of cars in the country is increasing by about 17 percent each year, with the growth rate certain to increase in the near future – that will ply these tunnels.
For a country that prides itself on its pristine natural surroundings, and depends to a large extent on these environs to drive its tourism-fuelled economy, this would seem an odd oversight on the part of the government. Just because tunnels do not affect the vistas, does not mean they do not affect the mountains. And public transport cannot be regarded as a second cousin.
Although often labelled ‘victimless’ because users purportedly put only themselves at risk, drugs-related crimes are surging, if somewhat underreported, in India. A decade back, a national survey of narcotics use found that the Indian population was, on the whole, outdoing both the Asian and global average in the consumption of several illegal opiates. Even today, the figures are far from comforting. More worryingly, however, India is also becoming a drug hub for supplying its neighbours, and has been held primarily responsible for the mounting flood of drugs into surrounding Southasian countries, notably Bangladesh.
In 2008, a record-high seizure of nearly 14,800 vials of Indian buprenorphine – a pain reliever and antidepressant – was made in Bangladesh. Also notable was the abuse of injectable narcotics such as morphine and codeine. These made their way into Bangladesh through the porous Indo-Bangla border, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the UN’s narcotics scrutiniser, said in a February 2009 report. India is also said to be the source of the drugs currently rife in Bhutan. Meanwhile, Burma too is said to be the origin of methamphetamine tablets in the drugs bazaar in Bangladesh.
More to the point, drug dealers in India seem to be taking more than the customary smuggler’s routes. Drugs trade through unlawful ‘Internet pharmacies’, replete with courier and postal services, has come into vogue as well. Apparently, drugs shipments have even been sent to Australia, North America and Europe. For that, the INCB has called for the Indian authorities to stay wary of national dispatch services being used for nefarious purposes. As of now, India needs to hold the reins to curb substance abuse – and export.
United we stand?
Recycling is quite a catchphrase these days, with the environment increasingly becoming a priority for many. Sadly, recycling is not as obviously synonymous with environmental conservation as is commonly understood. Ship-recycling by ‘beaching’ – which is to say, a ship is brought ashore to be disassembled – and the scrapping of ships containing myriad environmentally hazardous material has been increasingly bothering ‘go-green’ groups, in addition to the longstanding complaints about the industry’s infamously unsafe working conditions.
So, in May 2009, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) convened to draw out an arrangement to attempt to make ship-scrapping easier on the natural environment. The nitty-gritty of this arrangement is proving hard to take for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, however. Following a recent internal meeting, the trio decided to cooperate to confront an impending endorsement of the IMO-directed Convention in their respective countries.
For all the criticism that is certain to be hurled at these shipyards, a unified boycott from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan would have a significant impact on the global ‘shipbreaking’ industry. Indeed, the town of Alang, in Gujarat, recycles almost half of the ships salvaged across the world. Along with Karachi and Chittagong, almost all the ship recycling in the world happens in Southasia.
The Southasians are now united in arguing that this new arrangement is overly intrusive. The Iron Steel Scrap & Shipbreakers’ Association of India has submitted a memorandum to the country’s Shipping Ministry, demanding refutation of the “totally one sided” Convention. If need be, regulations implemented by conventions closer to home can be followed, the memorandum states, adding that the only thing that India will gain from the Convention is “international interference”. The association has also warned of the possible closure of several shipbreaking units in India if New Delhi agrees to the IMO guidelines.
Amidst the solidarity, however, some discordant noise is coming from Dhaka. The government there has recently labelled ships to be toxic waste – thus, vessels are now being denied entry for breaking, unless the exporting countries declare them to be harmless. For now, all the better for Indian and Pakistani ship-breakers – for their pocketbooks, anyway, if not for their health.
As Jaffna nurses its war wounds and awaits recovery, India is looking to help. Although it had held off doing so during the years of the war, New Delhi is set to open a consulate in Jaffna. This will be only the second Indian consulate on the island, after Kandy. Though protocols and conditions regarding the planned consulate are yet to be discussed officially, New Delhi is dubbing its decision an attempt both to help the people of the peninsula and to reconnect the island to South India across the straits.
Along the same lines, India has already offered Sri Lanka a credit line of USD 425 million, to re-build railway tracks to the northern tip of the island. Considering the dire state of the Tamil north, New Delhi has also extended support to build and re-build shelters for displaced peoples in the war-hit districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu, with USD 110 million allocated for the ongoing rehabilitation process. Likewise, India is supplying a fleet of 55 buses to educational, social and cultural organisations across central, northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Indian officials also hope to be of help to Sri Lanka culture-wise, having offered to help build an International Buddhist Museum in Kandy, and to restore the Thiruketheshwaram Temple in the northern town of Mannar.
Meanwhile, even as these projects remain pending, tongues are already wagging about the motivation behind this generosity. One much-bandied explanation is that the regional behemoth’s keenness is a result of its desire to counterbalance the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka – and, indeed, across the rest of the region – in the form of monetary, infrastructural and even military assistance.
Stateless and friendless
For over three decades now, the world has been witness to the plight of the Rohingya, rejected by both the Burmese and Bangladeshi states and thus officially stateless. A Muslim ethnic minority of Burma long facing violent discrimination by the junta government, a wave of Rohingya refugees first fled to Bangladesh in 1978, and then again in 1991. But their lives in exile have not been much better than they were back home.
Adding to the long list of reports on the harassment of the Rohingya, it was brought to light in February that scores of refugees who had been peacefully living in Bangladesh for three decades had recently become victims of a crackdown by Dhaka. Their homes have been demolished, and increasingly severe attempts made to force them out of the country.
Bangladeshi authorities have denied such reports, stating that only those without the required identification had been detained, and maintaining that even this amounts to no more than two or three individuals a month. Dhaka has also stated that its actions are meant only to keep aid from coming to ‘terrorist’ groups operating in the country.
Yet if a recent assertion by Physicians for Human Rights, a US medical charity, is to be believed, these refugees are being maltreated and kept without food in ostensible detention in Bangladesh. Further, any help extended to them has purportedly been blocked by the authorities. Earlier this year, similar accusations were made by the international medical association, Medecins Sans Frontieres. If the current situation is allowed to continue, many are now warning that the children at these refugee camps – which house some 200,000 exiles – will soon face starvation.
The old maxim ‘As you sow so shall you reap’ certainly holds true when it comes to agriculture, even in today’s agro-business context: if the seed planted is of poor quality, no amount of care will yield healthy, nutritious crops. It was with this in mind that a three-day Seed Conference was organised in Dhaka in mid-March by a consortium of private Bangladeshi seed companies.
A notable outcome of the gathering was the establishment of a body to be known as the SAARC Seed Forum, launched to specifically focus on seed development for effective, region-specific farming. In addition to Bangladeshi officials, representatives of the national seed associations from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka were also present. The Forum is an attempt to transform a situation that is currently marked by low quality and deficient seeds, thus endangering millions of people.
The first assembly of the newly established Forum is to be held in February 2011, in Dhaka. Among other things, the Forum will be tasked with making the agricultural innovations of one country available to the others in the region. Moreover, the group will be made up of more than just government officials, also including businesspeople, trading houses and researchers. Indeed, public and private research organisations interested in joining the Forum can become founder-members for a mere USD 300 fee.
Commendable as this effort at concerted research and greater cooperation is, it is important to point out a few likely stumbling blocks right at the outset. The most evident is the global trend of recent decades to emphasise a quick rise in productivity at the cost of all else. In this context, governments are quick to distribute homogeneous seeds classified as ‘high-yield’, ‘drought-resistant’ or even genetically modified. In this process, the traditional genetic diversity of crops is quickly being lost, something that will serve the world badly in the long run. A SAARC Seed Forum could be a great asset to the region – and, indeed, the world – but only if it keeps these factors in mind while pushing for greater yield.
Tackling the numerous extremist groups holding the Pakistani tribal areas of the country hostage has not been easy for government officials, and in recent months attempts to stop the insurgency have become increasingly violent. The aftermath of the massive offensives launched in areas such as South Waziristan and Swat, among others, has seen record numbers of displaced communities. In turn, this has created an unprecedented wave of movement within the country, reportedly the largest seen since 1947.
Considering the huge number of displaced, and the fact that militancy has yet to vanish in their home districts, re-settling these families will be far from easy. But Pakistani officials do appear to be attempting to ensure that a return is eventually possible. In South Waziristan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the local Mehsud tribes have recently received a seven-point list of demands from Pakistani officials, which are supposed to pave the way for an eventual return.
The list demands that over 300 ‘wanted’ extremists in the area be handed over to the authorities. This includes the chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud, who is now thought to be have survived last year’s US drone attacks despite earlier claims to the contrary. The government is also demanding that the Mehsud tribes stop sheltering ‘non-locals’.
The list was handed over to the tribesmen at a jirga in the capital of Tank District in the NWPF. A 12-member committee has now been formed to look into the specifics of the list and facilitate discussion among the Mehsud leaders and the administration.
In a bind
If the world was not already sceptical enough about the legitimacy of the upcoming Burmese elections, slated for this autumn, the junta government’s recent unveiling of the long-awaited election bylaws will certainly clinch the deal. The new laws set out procedures and rules for political party registration, legislation that looks, perhaps unsurprisingly, near-watertight in terms of preventing any chance of a fair contest.
In a not-so-subtle attempt to bar its political opponents from participating in the elections, the regime has decided not to allow ‘prisoners’ or even those currently appealing on court cases to form or join a political party. There are nearly 2100 politicians currently serving sentences in Burmese jails. The new law also bars acquaintances of ‘outlawed organisations’ from participating, which means several pro-democracy parties of Burma will likely be kept out. Also shut out are armed organisations currently fighting the junta, as well as monks and religious workers; while the use of state-owned property and funds, and assistance from outside of Burma, are all outlawed.
These laws are proving to be particularly problematic for the National Democratic League (NLD), the primary opposition group, causing frisson among senior leaders on whether the party should participate in the polls. To being with, the NLD has been critical of the 2008 Constitution, which was pushed through by the junta even as the country was reeling from Cyclone Nargis; NLD representatives argue that the document was promulgated without the people’s consent. If it were to contest the polls, however, the party would implicitly be accepting what it sees as a flawed document.
Perhaps more significantly, the party will have to make some very difficult choices about the status of its iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. As things stand, Suu Kyi is already barred from participating in the elections, for two reasons: she has a court case pending against her, and she was married to a non-Burmese citizen, which automatically does not allow her to hold office under the 2008 Constitution. As if these barriers were not problematic enough, however, under the new laws the NLD will not be able to register for the polls – which they must do within 60 days from 17 March – unless they expel Suu Kyi from the party, given her pending court case.
The junta must be gleeful in seeing the impact these rules are having on the NLD, where there is now much infighting over how to proceed. With the party’s Central Executive Committee – many members of which are in prison – unable to reach a consensus, the party has called a meeting of its 100-member Central Committee on 29 March, in the hopes of making a decision at that time. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s lawyer has publicly stated that the detained leader feels her party should “not even think” of participating considering the unjust nature of the laws.