In what seems to be a new trend in New Delhi, Kapil Sibal, the minister of human-resource development, recently launched a new budget-priced electronic gadget. The device, which comes with a pricetag of USD 35, appears to be an indigenous version of Apple’s iPad – a tablet computer to help spread the digital revolution in India. Although the exact details about the device are yet to be announced, a lofty list of rumoured capabilities has been circulating, including a touch screen and wireless-Internet facilities. It is, however, questionable whether Sibal’s gizmo will have the global appeal of its Apple forbear.
Project Sakshat (‘Embodiment’), as it is known, is reported to be a ‘personal dream’ of Minister Sibal. One of the reasons the price of the device is so low is that it uses the free Linux operating system. But the minister wants to bring the cost of the device down to just USD 10 as he advances the government’s agenda of ‘inclusive education’, which hopes to bridge the in-country digital divide while bolstering the national economy. Media reports claim that the first recipients of the Sakshat tablet will be schoolchildren.
The Sakshat project is the latest in a series of gadgets supported by the central government aimed at low-income consumers. Other well-publicised launches include the Simputer, a personal computer costing about USD 200. However, the government’s entrepreneurial efforts have flopped time and again, leaving private investors profitless, red-faced and subject to widespread criticism.
Similarly, some technology experts have already dismissed Project Sakshat as a wasted effort, accusing Sibal of squandering tax money and making ‘a laughing stock of Indian technological prowess’. Criticism has also been levelled generally at the government’s quick-fix attitude and lack of long-term planning in launching such products.
Rumours abound that the Maldives will be underwater in a century if global climate change continues at its present rate. Recently, Male claimed that the sea might already be tucking into some of its maritime territories – 168,000 square km of continental shelf, in fact.
Every coastal country holds rights to 200 nautical miles of the continental shelf bordering its shore, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). After the Maldives ratified UNCLOS in 2000, it received a 10-year deadline during which to appeal to extend those limits. A little over a month before its 7 September deadline this year, the country’s Coast Guard declared that the Maldivian continental shelf, as designated by UNCLOS as per this measurement, leaves out 148,000 square km in the east and 20,000 square km in the west. A claim to extend the continental shelf was subsequently filed, based on a study conducted by a presidential committee, including officials from the fisheries, transport and foreign ministries.
Continental shelves hold great economic importance for sea-dependent countries such as the Maldives. This particular stretch of seabed is famed as a reserve of oil, gas and minerals. The downside to this potentially major turn in the Maldivian economy is that the area of the continental shelf likely overlaps with a portion that Sri Lanka claimed just a year ago. Colombo has already appointed a technical team to investigate. This point of contention between the typically close governments of Sri Lanka and the Maldives only adds to the maritime disputes currently piling up in the region, but the Maldivian government has assured that it will be resolved amicably.
Vestiges of war
The work of de-mining – started after the conclusion of the civil war in Sri Lanka – has been accelerated in Jaffna in the hopes that the area could become mine-free by September. So says the Sri Lankan Army. The commanding officer for Jaffna, Major-General Mahinda Hathursinghe, recently stated that many areas of the Jaffna peninsula had already been de-mined, and that efforts to resettle families and develop necessary infrastructure were underway. His announcement came on the back of a humanitarian pledge made by the United States to donate USD 5 million to bolster the Sri Lankan Army’s de-mining efforts.
Government estimates of ‘contaminated’ land in the north range from 400 sq km to over 500 sq km; many international NGOs and others report that the exact figure is impossible to state. The international agency Mine Action has announced that the total number of mine casualties also needs to be determined. Meanwhile, international agencies and governments have called for an independent inquiry of the last days of the war, fearing that the government-appointed war commission might be biased.
The Lankan government has rejected calls for an international war commission, claiming that the panel it has appointed will be factual and impartial. Foreign minister G L Peiris announced that China has pledged its support to Sri Lanka in resisting international pressure, thus helping Colombo to counter UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s calls for an independent, three-person expert panel look into the matter.
Battling with budgetary constraints and under pressure to usher in fast reforms, the Bangladesh Election Commission has added 15 new job titles to the earlier 25, for electoral roll data as well as national ID cards. The new list notably includes professions ranging from Religious Cleric to Journalist to Prostitute, which were earlier missing.
Somewhat predictably, it is the addition of latter that has become the subject of heated debate. While the decision to recognise ‘one of the oldest professions in the world’, in the words of Election Commissioner Sakhawat Hossain, has raised the hackles of some, the move has been appreciated by NGOs working with the approximately 200,000 sex workers spread across the country. Bangladesh legalised prostitution about a decade ago, but activists see the new move as a step towards actually legitimising the status of sex workers.
Earlier, any sex worker could register herself as a prostitute through a district magistrate. Once the new amendment is implemented, they will be able to mention prostitution as their profession in their national ID cards, as well. This could now help sex workers in their interactions with government and other institutions.
Some caution is needed, though. The legalisation of prostitution has not stopped the harassment and isolation of sex workers in Bangladesh or other countries, and there are regular reports about prostitutes being treated harshly in government offices in Dhaka. Legal experts view the measure as one aimed at accreditation of citizenship status – rather than one intended to fight the social stigma associated with prostitution, or to help in the struggle against sexually transmitted diseases.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force worldwide on 1 August, obliging its 38 international signatories to cease from using and producing cluster bombs and to ‘dispose of stockpiles and clear contaminated areas’. A cluster bomb contains thousands of tiny ‘bomblets’ that, when released either from air or land, spread over a large area and can remain active over a long period of time. No statement was forthcoming from any Southasian country the day the treaty came into effect, despite the fact that the weapons are prevalent in the region.
Afghanistan, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, is the only Southasian signatory to the Convention, which it did despite pressure from the US against such a move. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are known to ‘produce, stockpile, import’ and export cluster bombs, according to a 2009 report by Landmine Monitor. Both argue that cluster munitions are a cheaper, effectual alternative to other weapons – if used ‘taking into account international humanitarian law’.
That, critics have long pointed out, is a big ‘if’. Some 98 percent of cluster-bomb casualties are civilians, while the international rights watchdog Amnesty International has highlighted unverified accounts suggesting that cluster bombs have been used in Kashmir and Pakistan. Amnesty also alleges that the Sri Lankan government used cluster bombs during its war against the Tamil Tigers – an accusation that Colombo vehemently denies.
INDIA / BANGLADESH
In whose interest?
In August, India approved a USD 1 billion credit package for Bangladesh, the largest it has ever offered to a foreign country. The loan is to fund infrastructure projects, especially targeted at upgrading Bangladesh’s rail, road and port infrastructure. This will allow India a cheaper and more accessible route to the Northeast through Bangladeshi territory, as opposed to the narrow, 22-km-wide corridor that it currently uses.
The credit agreement is part of a range of bilateral agreements that the two entered into following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi in January. For New Delhi, the agreement could be a watershed moment in Indo-Bangladesh relations, but Sheikh Hasina faces opposition to the agreement within her country. In particular this is led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which charges Hasina and her party, the Awami League, with making concessions that are not equitably reciprocated by New Delhi.
Of course, the Dhaka-New Delhi relationship has for decades been mired in distrust and, occasionally, outright hostility. In particular, the Indian government’s failure to prevent border killings of Bangladeshi civilians, a USD 4 billion trade deficit perceived to be caused by Indian trade barriers, and water-sharing disputes arising out of dam construction on the Indian side continue to hinder rapprochement between the two countries. Money talks, however, and New Delhi’s massive new ‘sweetener’ could well be the magic ingredient.
Laws forbidding religious conversion are a common phenomenon in this region. Now, Bhutan is mulling over enacting an anti-conversion bill, potentially as soon as the Parliament reviews it in November. The National Council, the upper house, is also considering adding to the bill that religious conversion will be categorised as a ‘misdemeanour, punishable by one to less than three years in prison’, Kuenlay Tshering, an MP, recently stated.
Religious conversion is already prohibited under the Bhutanese Constitution, which states: ‘No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.’ But minorities and rights workers fear that the new legislation could make it more difficult for people to convert of their own volition. More worrisome is that it could be used as a pretext to harass religious minorities, as has happened in India, where anti-conversion bills have been enacted in some states, and Nepal, where the Interim Constitution disallows conversion.
Bhutanese officials have justified this bill as upholding the country’s cultural integrity. Lyonpo Minjur Dorji, the home and culture minister, was even quoted as saying that there was no need for religions other than Buddhism – Dorji specified Christianity – in such a small country as Bhutan. Supporters of the move say that proselytising is yet another way of suppressing Bhutan’s multicultural heritage.
In fact, less than one percent of the population in Bhutan is registered as Christian. Most are converts from the Nepali-speaking and predominantly Hindu Lhotshampa community, an ethnic minority in Bhutan. Tens of thousands of Lhotshampa were kicked out of Bhutan in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of their ethnic minority status, and lived until recently as refugees in Nepal.
The governments of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, as well as BRAC, the Bangladesh-based development agency, have pledged to assist Pakistan following the devastating floods in Pakistan. In the early stages of the devastating aftermath, the UN criticised countries’ hesitation in providing aid to Pakistan, declaring the tragedy to be worse than the 2004 tsunami and the Haitian earthquake this year. Subsequently, governments did begin to pledge donations, however, eventually enabling the UN to raise more than half of its target of USD 460 million in aid for Pakistan.
Among Southasian aid efforts, BRAC, through its Pakistan office, provided emergency relief such as food packets and water-purification tablets. It has pledged to send medical teams into affected communities to assess their health needs. Dhaka pledged USD 2 million worth of assistance, while both the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan authorities sent medical teams to the country. In addition, the Nepal government pledged to donate around USD 135,000. India has been heavily criticised for only pledging USD 5 million out of its total USD 362 million foreign-aid budget for 2010-11.
Aid from these countries came during President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to Europe, where there was anger against the Pakistan government’s slow recovery efforts. The floods, meanwhile, show no signs of abating.
In July, Chinese infrastructure-development efforts in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) saw the opening of the Ngari Gunsa airport, in the far west of the plateau. Situated at an altitude of 4272 metres, the airport is part of a push by the Chinese authorities to develop the far-western region surrounding Mount Kailash and the Manasarovar Lake – venerated for centuries by Southasian pilgrims – into a tourist destination.
Started in 2007, the construction of the airport is said to have cost some USD 250.7 million. Outfitted with a runway of 4500 metres, the airport is designed to handle 120,000 passengers and 350 tonnes of cargo a year – a target that it will purportedly reach by 2020. The airport is the fourth of its kind in Tibet, and plans are already underway to build yet another – the world’s highest – in Nagqu, by 2014.
The inauguration of the Ngari airport coincided with the unveiling of Beijing-sponsored roads, looking to ensure year-round connectivity between the remote Ngari prefecture, central Tibet and mainland China. While the Ngari airport might increase the influx of Western and Chinese tourists to western Tibet, it is also likely to have a profound effect on a separate demographic –that of the Indian visitor. Kailash and Manasarovar are not only sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, but also to Hindus, Sikhs and Jains of the Indian Subcontinent. With the arduousness taken out of the pilgrimage, surely the number of Indians willing to make the journey every year will jump substantially.
Cheapest in the world
Bangladeshi garment labourers resumed work in early August after months of unrest, despite their demand to increase the minimum wage to BDT 5000 (USD 72) per month having gone unmet. Following protests, the government did agree to increase the minimum wage from USD 24 to USD 43 per month. Iktedar Ahmed, head of the government’s regulatory board on wages, announced that the raise would be effective from 1 November. This decision – which also makes some provisions for medical care and housing – will affect some 2.5 million workers, many of them women, in what is the first government-sanctioned pay rise since 2006.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, worth USD 12 billion annually, is the cornerstone of the country’s economy, making up almost 80 percent of its exports. Offering among the cheapest rates for garments in the world, around 4000 factories supply clothing to some of the most well-known companies in the West. Those companies have specifically requested that Dhaka re-evaluate the country’s minimum wage after reports were published earlier this year about the exploitation of Bangladeshi labour.
Months of unrest in the sector saw garment workers clash with police, forcing factories to close in some of Dhaka’s major manufacturing districts in July. Although garment-related strife is nothing new in Bangladesh, the fresh indignation came following reports from the International Trade Union (a Vienna-based labour-rights group) that the country’s workers are among the worst-paid in the world.
Although salaries will now be almost doubled, labour leaders say that the new minimum wage still falls far short of need. The representatives of two major unions accepted the new salary line, but only after the government gave assurances of an additional increase in the near future. When exactly that will take place is unclear, as officials are concerned that the wage increase could force smaller companies to close.
Thereafter, fresh clashes took place between garment workers and the police, leaving 100 labourers and 17 policemen injured. This time, the former were demanding a reduction in work hours from 15 to 11 hours per day.
A regional conference on the disabled concluded in Islamabad in August with an agreement to establish the South Asian Disability Forum (SADF), the first initiative of its kind. Prioritising a regional approach to disability issues, the forum will network with different government departments and civil-society groups working towards the inclusion of the disabled in society. It will also help to highlight disability issues in the development agendas of the region’s countries.
Such a coordinated approach is important, as Southasia has disparate definitions of disability. Afghanistan and Bhutan, for instance, use the World Health Organisation’s definition of disability, which covers ‘impairments, activity limitations and participation limitations’. India, on the other hand, prefers a narrow definition of a person who is ‘suffering from not less than 40 percent of any disability as certified by a medical authority’. Poorly maintained data-collection systems and uncoordinated policy responses to the inclusion of disabled people in the workforce and education system also remain a problem.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimate that there are over 40 million people with disability in Southasia, although activists claim that disability is underreported in the national censuses of all countries. Figures also show that fewer than four percent of children living with disabilities in Bangladesh have access to schooling; while in Afghanistan, 70 percent of disabled individuals age 15 or over remain unemployed.
One way of addressing these issues would be to ensure that all member countries sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – including Pakistan, where the SADF secretariat will be based but which is yet to ratify the treaty. The greatest challenge for SADF will be to change the deeply ingrained policy approach to disability in Southasia, which views a person with disability as passive and in need of charity, medical assistance or state protection. Instead, what is required is for government to see the person as an active citizen who has a right to full participation
Beyond 15 minutes
In July, Bangladesh and Nepal smoothed out the chinks and finally moved forward to implement a three-decade-old transit agreement. Nepal will now be exempted from transit fees and ‘get 50 percent concession on storage, warehousing and landing charges’, as per the agreement. Only 25 Nepali ‘transports’, be they vehicles or shipments, will be allowed into Bangladesh at any given time, and can stay in the country for a limited period. These are restrictive, but any movement on this decades-old sticking point should be applauded – and it sounds as though significant movement is indeed in the offing.
Nepal and Bangladesh established diplomatic relations in 1972, almost immediately after the formation of the latter. But since that time, there has been no active economic cooperation between the two, until recently. This partly has to do with the fact that any transaction needs a green signal from India – the country’s ‘chicken’s neck’, after all, cuts a thin line between the two territories. During the 1990s, for instance, the Banglabandh land port, at the shortest distance between Nepal and Bangladesh, was used as a transit point to offload goods – for a grand total of 15 minutes. At that point, the Indian authorities shut it down due to ‘security’ concerns.
In early August, however, New Delhi appeared to have an official change of heart. The Indian government has agreed to allow both Nepal and Bhutan access to the Mongla seaport, in southwestern Bangladesh, by using its territory to get there. India is also said to be thinking of financing a rail link into Mongla from Dhaka. This would not only allow speedier transactions, but could revive a currently under-utilised port.
In August, Tata Motors announced that production at their new heavy-truck facility in Magwe, 480 km north of Rangoon, will begin in January next year. The factory has a production capacity of 1000 trucks a year, mainly for domestic use in Burma, with the potential of increasing to 5000 in
The announcement came on the back of an official visit by the head of government, General Than Shwe, to India for high-level talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others. The two governments signed a series of pacts reinforcing crossborder security measures and a credit package of around USD 140 million. The latter is earmarked to fund infrastructure projects in Burma, including the Magwe factory. The extension of this credit signals a strengthening of economic ties between the two countries, and continues the upward trend of bilateral trade – which increased by 26 percent in the past fiscal year. India is now Burma’s fourth-largest trading partner.
India has faced growing criticism from international rights organisations over Than Shwe’s visit, with many increasingly frustrated that New Delhi is not using its influence to help reinstitute democratic processes ahead of Burma’s first election in two decades, slated for 7 November. But with one eye firmly set on Burma’s oil and gas reserves, and another set on countering China’s growing influence in the country, it seems that New Delhi will continue to prioritise pragmatism over principle in its dealings with the junta.
NEPAL / CHINA
Ensnared between its need to appease China on Tibet-related issues and its fear of subsequent international condemnation, the Nepali government recently appeared to succumb to pressure from the former by detaining and forcibly returning a group of Tibetans to the Chinese authorities. In a covert mission, Nepali security personnel apprehended three Tibetans – two monks and a 22-year-old woman (believed to be a Tibetan government official) – and flew them across the border into Chinese territory. There, two of the three, including the woman, were thrown into prison, sparking widespread criticism of what is ostensibly an illegal act under international law.
Although Nepal is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and has not accorded Tibetans refugee status since 1989, it is party to an informal agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that makes provisos for the safe passage of Tibetans through Nepali territory and on to India. Yet the number of Tibetans undertaking the journey through the Himalaya has dwindled substantially since the March 2008 demonstrations on the Tibetan plateau – and supportive rallies in Kathmandu, which went on for months. Thereafter, Beijing stepped up border security and increased pressure on Kathmandu officials to curb the flow of Tibetan refugees.
The last known incident of Tibetan expatriation from Nepal took place in 2003, when 18 refugees were handed over to the Chinese authorities, eliciting international outrage and resulting in US trade bans on Nepal. Fearing a similar backlash, Kathmandu has been evasive about its recent actions, with a representative for the Home Office telling the Nepali media that he had no knowledge of the occurrence. Nonetheless, in late August the US government did again call on Kathmandu officials to honour its previous unofficial commitments not to interfere with Tibetans fleeing the plateau.