53 years of special powers
In late October, Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah announced that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 (AFSPA) would be removed from certain areas of J & K ‘within the next few days’, putting the move down to a ‘gradual improvement in the security situation and return to peace’. This would allow the J & K police to take over security responsibilities from the army – a longtime public demand. The announcement followed the submission of a report by a ‘group of experts’, appointed by New Delhi to study the controversial legislation, which suggested a phased removal of AFSPA from the Kashmir Valley. However, there was no immediate statement from the central government supporting the announcement, and the army commander based in Srinagar, Lieutenant General Syed Atta Hasnain, stated that no official decision had been made to remove AFSPA in any area.
Demands for a review or withdrawal of AFSPA have been made regularly in the past including across the expanse of the Subcontinent. In 2004, the brutal killing and rape of a woman named Manorama Devi led to public uproar and mass anti-AFSPA protests across Manipur. That incident prompted All Illustrations by Sworup Nhasiju New Delhi to form a committee to review the legislation; as a result, AFSPA was indeed withdrawn from certain areas of the capital Imphal, but remained in force elsewhere in Manipur as well as in the Northeast. Since then, no further action has been taken by the central government, including after requests from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, during her New Delhi visit in 2009.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has mentioned the possibility of an outright repeal of AFSPA on two occasions. In August 2010, he said he ‘understood the sentiments’ behind anti-AFSPA protest; in October this year, he said that the legislation will be replaced with something more ‘humane’. Since last year, Omar Abdullah has been working for a withdrawal of the law in J & K; his proposal has led to a meeting of the cabinet committee on security in J & K, but this concluded without consensus. Following the recent expert report, Abdullah has restarted his campaign, but what response – if any – he will receive from New Delhi remains unclear. Certainly, the army commander in Srinagar seems not to be on the same page as the chief minister.
The government of Punjab state has come up with a unique way to promote crossborder relations with Punjab province. It recently announced plans to launch an exchange programme for rare species of birds and other wildlife between zoos and sanctuaries on both sides of the frontier. According to Punjab Minister of Forest and Wildlife Protection Arunesh Shakir, the exchange will create awareness about the natural wealth shared by both countries and promote efforts to jointly protect it. The decision was taken by the Punjab State Board for Wildlife, chaired by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
The new project is not only aimed at preserving wildlife and fostering crossborder connections, but also to get rid of ‘surplus’ animals. This latter includes the blackbuck, the official animal of Punjab state. Evidently, zoos across the state have too many blackbucks, a type of antelope. According to chief wildlife warden Gurbaz Singh, though, the blackbuck would find it difficult to adapt to other wildlife in sanctuaries, and therefore he is urging that they be sent to zoos in Pakistan.
No decision has yet been made on which species of birds and wildlife will be exchanged, although Punjab state officials are reportedly hoping to receive rare species of snow leopard and antelopes. This is not the first time such an exchange has taken place. In March 2005, the Lahore-based Punjab Wildlife Department exchanged several species – urial, common peafowl and Korean ring-necked pheasant – for thamin deer, samba, leopard and barking deer from the New Delhi Zoological Park.
Let’s do business!
The World Bank’s ninth study on ‘doing business’ was recently unveiled, analysing data from small and medium businesses in 183 countries, including all of Southasia except Burma. The report’s thrust is on assessing regulations, such as how easy it is to start a new business, to get an electricity connection and to trade across borders.
Overall the report finds that Southasia has weak legal institutions, meaning that it is difficult to get credit, enforce contracts, protect investors and resolve disputes over bankrupt companies. Regulatory processes for starting a business, getting an electricity connection or registering a property are also seen as relatively expensive.
The report lauds Sri Lanka and Bhutan as the best performers in the region, for reforming their regulatory processes. Bhutan’s ranking in terms of ease of getting credit has gone up since last year, while Sri Lanka’s ranking on protecting investors has increased to 46 from 74 over the same period.
The researchers note a lack of availability of information related to cost of documents, permits and customs duty required when starting or operating a business in Southasian economies generally. In Afghanistan it takes an average of just seven days to start a business, followed by the Maldives (nine), India (29) and Sri Lanka (35). More than any other country in the region, India requires particularly extensive procedures to start a new business.
Understandably for a country with chronic power problems, Bangladesh ranks second to last in terms of ease of getting an electricity connection for a new business, requiring an average of 372 days. For as easy as it is to set up a new business, Afghanistan ranks last on protecting its investors; Bhutan ranks last on resolving bankruptcy. Interestingly, it is easiest in Nepal to register property and most difficult in Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka, meanwhile, are the most efficient with regards to crossborder trade. In Pakistan it takes 21 days to export goods and costs about USD 660 per container as port charge, while imports require 18 days and cost a little over USD 700. In Sri Lanka, exports take about three weeks but just six days to import. Afghanistan ranks worst globally in this category, requiring 74 days to export goods (at USD 3545) and 77 days at USD 3830 to import.
Patriots gone wild
In mid-October, Beijing announced plans to station 20,000 additional Chinese officials in Tibet. The move came in reaction to the increasing number of selfimmolation cases that have taken place in recent month, in protest against Beijing’s policies on Tibet. Since March, nine people, including two monks and a nun, have set themselves on fire as part of public demonstrations. The Dalai Lama however said, in an interview with the BBC in late November, that he was ‘worried’ about the growing number of self-immolation cases and that he did not endorse such actions.
The new Chinese officials will now be posted in villages throughout the plateau for up to a year at a time, tasked with imposing ‘patriotic re-education’ and, purportedly, changing perspectives in favour of China and against the Dalai Lama. While pictures of the Dalai Lama have been banned in Tibet since 1959 (though enforced on and off since 1996), protests such as the ongoing one have led to more stringent enforcement along with the imposition of new limitations on monasteries.
‘Patriotic re-education’ is not a new phenomenon in Tibet, but has been stepped up by officials since the mass demonstrations of 2008. ‘Re-education’ includes such practices as forcing monks to read patriotic literature and denouncing the Dalai Lama. The officials have been given Chinese flags and pictures of Chinese leaders to distribute among villagers. In the past, reports suggest, it has been common for villagers to put up Chinese flags and pictures of Chinese leaders when the authorities visit, and then to remove them immediately thereafter. This time, however, it seems like the officials are there to stay.
In mid-October, India launched a satellite that, for the first time, will study tropical monsoon patterns. Megha-Tropiques is a joint venture between France’s national space agency, the Centre National d’Etudes Spaciales, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Expected to be in orbit for five years, the Megha-Tropiques will look particularly at levels of water vapour, which will help get a better understanding of rainfall patterns and how global warming has affected monsoons in the tropics. In the long term, scientists hope that the data gathered by Megha-Tropiques will generate more accurate rainfall predictions.
The one-tonne satellite, costing about USD 100 million, was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre near Chennai, the country’s only launch pad for satellites. India has provided the satellite ‘bus’ and rocket, while France has provided most of the scientific instruments onboard. Megha-Tropiques will pass Southasia a dozen times a day at a height of 867 km. The project is part of a larger endeavour supported by the space agencies of the US and Japan.
Brown cloud dangers
A study published in early November by the UK-based magazine Nature discovered that air pollution generated in Southasia is causing more frequent, more intense cyclones in the Arabian Sea than ever before. The findings are based on data from 1979 to 2010.
In the past, researchers found, the Arabian Sea would be hit only by weak cyclones, due to strong winds off the western coast of the Subcontinent that would head off any strong cyclone. (This stands in stark contrast to the Bay of Bengal, which has always been prone to cyclones). In recent years, however, the strength and number of cyclones has increased alongside a simultaneous weakening of offshore wind speed.
Scientists are blaming the Asian brown cloud – a blanket of dust and air pollution that spreads across the northern part of the Subcontinent from January until March. This haze has grown sixfold since the 1930s, absorbing sunlight and leading to a cooling of the water bodies below. This prevents circulation of air in the atmosphere, the movement of which has, in the past, prevented the formation of cyclones.
The researchers also warn that Arabian Sea cyclones may cause more damage than those in the Bay of Bengal, due to a higher chance of these making landfall. The new data also appears to suggest a growing trend of stronger cyclones in pre-monsoon months. Examples include the June 1998 Gujarat cyclone, which killed about 3000 people and the Gonu cyclone in June 2007, which hit Oman and southern Iran and cost about USD 4 billion in damages.
Nepal’s Agriculture Ministry recently stated that it had not signed any agreement with Monsanto, the US-based agri-business giant, to introduce genetically modified maize seeds in Nepal. The statement came nearly a month and a half after USAID, the development arm of the US government, publicly noted that the ministry had ‘partnered’ and ‘teamed’ with USAID and Monsanto to introduce such seeds to about 20,000 farmers. Hari Dahal, the joint- ecretary at the Agriculture Ministry, has reportedly said that hybrid seeds are ‘not acceptable’, claiming that the government has already banned the use of genetically modified crops. Dahal’s clear rejection of any such deal having taken place confused many, however, given that Irrigation Ministry Secretary Umakant Jha was present at the September workshop following which USAID announced the maize partnership. During the workshop, Jha stated that he ‘appreciated the opportunity to work with USAID’.
Protest against genetically modified crops is not new in Nepal or in the region. Last year, five districts in the Tarai saw widespread demonstrations by farmers aftera failed maize harvest; in cooperation with the Swiss government, the government had previously introduced subsidised hybrid maize seeds. Activists suggest that experiences from India and Pakistan show that hybrid seeds make farmers more dependent on seeds provided by multinational corporations such as Monsanto. Both India and Pakistan have seen massive farmer-led protests in the aftermath of a yield of genetically modified cotton seeds (another Monsanto product) introduced in recent years.
Once again, Pakistan will be joining India as a non-permanent member at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), starting in January. The Pakistani delegation recently won one of the two Asia-Pacific seats at the UNSC by beating out the only other contender, Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan won two-thirds of the vote (129 out of the total 193), while Kyrgyzstan only received 55 votes. India was elected to the Security Council in 2010, for the seventh time. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been on the Security Council six times, three of these concurrently with India; but their last shared term was in 1984.
Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, and his Indian counterpart, Hardeep Singh Puri, have noted that they would focus on issues of international importance, not Southasian or bilateral problems. Some have questioned the utility of having two hostile neighbours of the Subcontinent on the high table of the Security Council, depriving other capable countries of Asia.
The cricket board of Sri Lanka announced in early November that it could no longer keep up with the costs of managing the country’s three newest stadiums located in Hambantota, Kandy and Colombo. The ministry of sports, which oversees the board, subsequently announced that it had requested the army to take over the maintenance of these three cricket stadiums to help lighten the load. The board’s debt amounts to USD 23 million, which it owes to Chinese firms China Harbour Engineering Company and Sinohydro Corporation that built the Kandy and Hambantota stadiums and renovated the one in Colombo.
The Sri Lankan navy, air force and land army will control the respective stadiums. Military spokesperson Brigadier Nihal Hapuarachchi said to the media that this is all in service of the nation. Other such services include the army taking over the selling of vegetables in January, without anyone requesting it, building roads, bridges and buildings in former war zones in northern Sri Lanka, and, last but not least, building a tourist resort in Jaffna. They are also planning to build a five-star hotel in Colombo in the near future; the brigadier announced in early November that they were looking for land.
While eyebrows have been raised mighty high over the army’s intervention, in all conceivable areas, some economists say that their vegetable selling stunt may actually have helped stabilise prices. In the post-war state, analysts argue that these measures to keep the army personnel busy are to prevent them from becoming or feeling redundant. This may be the reason why the Ministry of Defence changed its name; it is now called Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.
Within weeks of signing the Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (BIPPA) with India in late October, during Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s New Delhi visit, the Nepali government announced that it would be signing a similar agreement with China. Finance Minister Barsha Man Pun said that this would take place ‘soon’. His statement was supported by Ramrijhan Yadav, press advisor to the prime minister, who in early November said that it was ‘highly likely’ that another BIPPA would be signed during the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to Nepal, slated for 20 December.
India has become the seventh country to sign such agreement with Nepal after Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Mauritius and Qatar. BIPPA lays out the framework for investment in Nepal, with Indian companies ostensibly on an equal footing with their domestic counterparts. In case of a national emergency, armed conflict or riots, foreign companies will have to be compensated.
Soon after the deal was signed with New Delhi, many in Nepal began arguing that the deal was not in Nepal’s favour, and even possibly ‘anti-national’. A petition was also registered in the country’s Supreme Court, demanding that the agreement be scrapped in part because it violated the existing Labour Act of Nepal – because BIPPA allows companies to bring in their own workforce. This, the petitioner claimed, would not create job opportunities, one of the gains claimed by those in favour of the new agreement.
As the SAARC Summit concluded in the Maldives in mid-November, heads of Southasian countries drafted a 20-point Addu Declaration and signed four major agreements. The Implementation of Regional Standards and Multilateral Arrangements on Recognition of Conformity Assessment will help in the implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) by developing workable standards for trade and focusing on quality control. Other agreements include a Rapid Response to Natural Disasters, which proposes the establishment of a regional disaster-management body; and another to create a SAARC seed bank.
In the Addu Declaration, countries pledged to ‘intensify efforts’ to implement SAFTA, to finalise an agreement on regional railways and begin work on a feasibility study for Indian Ocean Cargo and Passenger Ferry Service, that among others, would transport goods and people between Kochi, in Kerala, and Male.
Prime Ministers Yousuf Raza Gillani and Manmohan Singh also met on the Summit’s sidelines. In light of Pakistan granting India ‘most favoured nation’ status by the end of the year, the two discussed Pakistan switching from a positive to a negative list of items by February 2012. This would mean that rather than listing items that can be traded, Pakistan would open trade for all items except for those that come under a negative list, thus substantially increasing the amount of goods traded. The two also discussed developing
infrastructure along the Attari-Wagah border, as well as liberalising visa regimes, especially for business people.
Lure of dolphins
For the first time, the Bangladeshi Forest Department is planning to declare river channels in the eastern Sundarban as sanctuaries for dolphins, in an attempt to protect these endangered mammals. The Sundarban are home to around 451 Irrawaddy dolphins and around 134 Ganges river dolphins, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature; the decision to establish these sanctuaries was based on studies conducted by the Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project.
Dolphin numbers have been decreasing for decades, for a variety of reasons. These include fishermen who accidentally capture dolphins in their nets, unintentionally killing them; increased salinity of water in the Sundarban, as a result of rising sea levels and reduced fresh water from upstream, also caused by an irrigation canal built in 1960 on the Karnaphuli River.
The Irrawaddy dolphin found in Bangladesh besides Burma, is currently listed as vulnerable, while the Ganges river dolphin, found in the Ganga-Brahmaputra river system, is considered endangered. According to a Forest Department official, the Dhaka government plans to bar fishermen from the proposed sanctuaries, although no date has been specified.
China in Male
Two days before the start of the 17th SAARC Summit in the Maldives, China opened its embassy in the capital, Male. At the inauguration, Ibrahim Hussein Zaki, special envoy to President Mohammed Nasheed, stated that the Maldives appreciated China’s support towards development in the atolls. Soon after, Indian Defence Minister A K Antony said that India was not worried about the move, but was indeed concerned about the increase in Chinese military presence along its borders.
China’s increasing influence in Southasia was a matter of concern for the Indian Parliament when it met in September. MPs asked the government for details about Chinese development projects in the region, particularly in Nepal, and whether India planned to counter Chinese ‘influence’ in its neighbourhood, ‘particularly in Nepal’. The New Delhi government acknowledged that the Chinese were involved with construction projects in Southasia, but hastened to add that so too was India.
China has observer status at SAARC, which it received in 2005. At the recent SAARC Summit, the Chinese delegated noted that it wanted its observer status to be upgraded to ‘first dialogue partner’, meaning that it would be able to be increasingly active in official SAARC discussions. To this, though, President Nasheed – in his capacity as SAARC chair – was quick to respond that there was ‘no hurry’.