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Old Tuesday, December 30, 2008
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Tuesday
Muharram 01,1430
December 30, 2008

Israeli savagery


WARS are waged for territorial gains or regime change in another country. However, where Israel is concerned, this does not seem to be the case as its violence is aimed at the killing of civilian populations. The current Israeli operations, which have already killed over 300 people and injured over 1,000 in the Gaza Strip, amply demonstrate the Jewish state’s unending thirst for Palestinian blood. Ever since Israel came into being (and even before) its leaders have made no secret of their plans to ‘cleanse’ the land of its native population. Some names will forever serve as stark reminders of this fiendish policy — Deir Yassin, Sabra-Chatila in Lebanon, Jenin and now Gaza. Land operations had not begun while these lines were being written, but the navy was shelling the coast, and Israel was massing tanks near the Strip, presumably to complete what little bit the aerial strikes had not accomplished so far — a massacre of greater ferocity

While the Israeli butchery is shocking, stunning is the reaction of western governments. None of them had the courage to rise above historical prejudices and condemn the carnage without reservation. All have called for a halt to the “violence”, thus equating the victim with the criminal. US president-elect Barack Obama chose to blame Hamas for the rivers of blood flowing in Gaza and urged it to stop rocket attacks; the European Union was “concerned”, not about the massacre but about “the events” in Gaza; while Britain, France, Italy and Russia all equivocated. Most disappointing was the lack of a worthwhile reaction from the UN, which merely passed an innocuous non-binding resolution, while Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply alarmed” by the “heavy violence”. Given America’s own attitude towards the Arab-Israeli problem it is futile to expect the world body to indict Israel for its excesses. The reaction in Arab capitals and by the toothless OIC is of no consequence. But the extent of anger among Arab masses can be seen from a slogan in Cairo streets: “Mubarak and (Israeli Foreign Minister) Livni have agreed on the massacre.”

The slaughter is likely to intensify as the chief of the Israeli armed forces said the attacks would be “continued, expanded and intensified as much as required”. Those who blame Hamas for firing rockets into Israeli territory should note that its leadership had observed an Egyptian-brokered six-month ceasefire that expired very recently. Moreover, Israel’s bloody response has been utterly disproportionate to Hamas rocket-fire. The Muslim world is powerless, while there is no countervailing power to tear up the carte blanche which America has given to Israel for its massacre of the Palestinian people and for holding on to the occupied territories in violation of UN declarations and the agreements to which Israel and America are a party.

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Buner attack


THE suicide bombing that killed over 40 people in Buner district is a gruesome reminder that the Taliban neither forgive nor forget. On Aug 13, residents of Dara Shalbandi, a village in Buner, surrounded six Taliban militants and asked them to surrender. The Taliban were accused of killing an ASI and eight constables in attacks on a police post and mobile in the area. Refusing to surrender, the Taliban hurled grenades at the villagers. A fire-fight ensued and when the dust settled the six Taliban were dead. Revenge had to be taken, and an opportunity arose on Sunday when a by-election for NA-28, a seat that fell vacant when four-time MNA Abdul Mateen Khan passed away in late October, was held.

However, the devastation at the polling station in Shalbandi goes beyond the lost lives. The Taliban have warned of further attacks, sending a chilling message across the region: those opposing the Taliban will be mercilessly attacked. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend the speed with which Buner’s security situation has collapsed. Adjacent to the militancy-infested Swat district, Buner was long known for its scenic hillsides, peaceful population and Sufi saints. In a district profile for the 2002 general election, the Herald magazine stated: “Unlike a number of its neighbouring districts, Buner is known for its peaceful atmosphere.” 290,000 people are registered to vote in the district and 70,000 exercised their franchise in the February election. The violence in Buner grimly encapsulates how militancy is eating away at different parts of Pakistan as we have long known it.

Defeating the militants, operating under the umbrella Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, in northern Pakistan is no easy task. The armed forces have been struggling to contain the TTP in Swat for over a year now and neither ceasefires nor military action has worked. In fact, the militants appear to be going from strength to strength and, as the Buner attack illustrates, are expanding their area of operation. Worryingly, the state’s consensus to fight the militants appears to be faltering. The ANP-led government has once again begun to voice its doubts about the military operation in Swat, although it has not suggested a viable alternative. The ANP’s position is admittedly difficult: its party leaders are prime targets of the Taliban and in Swat they cannot even visit their homes for fear of being attacked. But with the Taliban in the ascendant, now is not the time to back off.

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Promises to keep


KARACHI’S backwaters of Lyari may finally get a new of life with the recent announcement by the Sindh chief minister of a release of Rs500m for the development of the beleaguered suburb. Interestingly, the move is a welcome volte-face by the party which had turned its back on the gasping locality, including in times when it was immersed in a bloodbath. In September, there were myriad reports of much anger and disillusionment as, despite being a stronghold of the party in power, Lyari remained afflicted with water paucity, disposal facilities for solid waste, unemployment, lack of education and rampant encroachments. Residents and party workers demanded financial relief for their district, and criticism for the party’s local leadership’s failure to address pressing civic needs was reaching a crescendo. To make matters worse, numerous projects, initiated by the former controversial town nazim, were also suspended in September; one such project was the formation of Lyari Bagh. Meanwhile, last July, the Lyari Town council had approved a surplus budget of Rs552.606m for the fiscal year 2008-09 and the home minister had also assured compensation for losses caused by plunder and violence, but neither ‘effort’ materialised to stem Lyari’s slide into destitution.

Be it political differences or ‘insincere’ pledges, the ultimate victims are the people of the land. Without doubt, the spirit of revival can no longer be ignited by proclamations alone. The test of this government lies in the implementation of these promises. There is little doubt that the rehabilitation of the area will be half the battle won against crime. However, the foremost priority must remain compensation for those who have to rebuild their lives, followed by an overhaul of the impoverished suburb — basic amenities, respectable living conditions, education, employment and funds to create self-employment opportunities. Extracurricular distractions for its youth that range from football fields, skill training, shopping areas and parks to cinema houses are mandatory. There must also be an allocation of funds for police patrols and helplines so that Lyari does not revisit its dark past again.

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OTHER VOICES - Sindhi Press

BB murder: restore people’s faith

Kawish

PEOPLE of this country have witnessed a number of sunsets. But the sunset of Dec 27 of last year stands as a reminder of our winter of discontent. It was more painful than could be imagined. That evening, bathed in blood, will not be forgotten. Sindh received condolences for the loss of its brave daughter who was assassinated in Rawalpindi for her ‘crime’ — commitment to the people. One year has passed, but this pain and sorrow is still fresh. Sindh remains in a state of mourning. Anger and anxiety prevails.

After the passage of one year the mystery of Benazir’s murder has not been solved. The motives, killers and others behind this high-profile murder have not been traced. The killing of BB meant the loss of democracy for the people. Therefore, the people are justified in wondering why the killers haven’t been traced even after one year.

The government led by her own party has approached the UN to investigate the case. But there seems to be no progress … and the lack of commitment to any investigation is obvious…. People have the right to ask that if the UN is not going to start an investigation, would the government not probe the case….

No progress is reported about investigation by the UN. What are the hurdles and complications in this regard? If there are any hurdles, why does not … the government launch a parallel enquiry of its own?

This pain and sorrow is quite understandable and should be converted into strength. Only this strength — a motivating force can defeat anti-people and anti-democracy forces…. Agreed that anger is a negative sentiment, but when it is against the enemies of democracy, and injustice, it is important. Some anti-democratic forces are up to no good and are for diverting this strength towards violent acts. This is dangerous and should be guarded against.

The people, who are the real heirs of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto and owe a debt to her, are demanding a fresh FIR of BB’s murder. The application given to the UN should be properly pursued. If at all there are some complications, an independent committee of experts of international repute, free from all influences, should be constituted to probe this case impartially. This is necessary to restore the people’s confidence in the government. — (Dec 27)

— Selected and translated by Sohail Sangi

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Carnage in the Gaza Strip

By Mustafa Qadri


ISRAEL’S murderous bombardment of Gaza at the weekend has nothing to do with self-defence. It was about midnight last Sunday when the phone rang. “I’m not sure I will survive tonight, the Israelis are bombing us everywhere.”

It was Mahmoud, a young resident of Rafah, a city in the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. We first met when I visited the troubled coastal territory after Israel dismantled its settlements there in September 2005. On Saturday Dec 27, just before midday, Israel’s powerful air force, the fourth largest in the world, commenced a deadly air assault on over 40 separate locations in the Gaza Strip. The strikes were as calculated as they were cold — the targets almost entirely people and facilities vital to the Hamas government. In one of the areas hit body parts were strewn along a courtyard where police officers had gathered along for a parade.

Hamas may have been the target, but the vast majority of casualties have been civilians. The death toll currently is at least 300 while a further 1,000 have sustained injuries. The figure is expected to increase as Israel’s bombardment continues. Since Monday morning Israel’s navy has commenced bombing Gaza from the coast. Compounding the suffering is the fact that medical and other humanitarian supplies are in dire straits thanks to Israel’s three-year-old blockade of the territory.

The present conflict is the deadliest since Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in the Six Day War of 1967. That is an achievement of surprising distinction given the bloody history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, of 1987 and 2000.

In stark contrast to the widespread death and destruction wrought on Gaza by Israel, one Israeli man was killed and another five people have been injured by rockets fired from Gaza.

Of course the Israeli government argues that the murderous bombardment is a response to these rockets attacks. Again the mantra of self-defence has been wheeled out to justify yet further Israeli aggression. But the calls of self-defence must be understood within the broader context of the continued annexation of Palestine. It is the greatest of reverse-psychology ploys — Israel calls Hamas and other Palestinian resistance movements existential threats while, at the same time, it continues to expropriate what little land the Palestinians still possess.

The UN Security Council quickly released a non-binding statement calling for an end to hostilities. But, as is the Security Council’s wont, it was a limp document that failed to name either Israel or Hamas by name and which glibly called for a return to the ceasefire. Justice for the hundreds murdered appears to be beyond the pale.

Yet even a ceasefire is close to impossible without acknowledging that Israel is beyond reproach. It is high time that we acknowledged that the so-called international community, and particularly the ‘Middle East quartet’ consisting of the European Union, United Nations, United States and Russia, have been completely incapable of protecting those most exposed to the conflict — the Palestinians of the occupied territories who are killed, harassed and humiliated on a daily basis.

There is good reason to be critical of Hamas too. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cited Hamas’s inability to renew a ceasefire with Israel for this most recent assault. As noted earlier, Israel claims that the attack on Gaza is a response to rocket attacks. But even at the height of the ceasefire Israeli forces routinely invaded Gaza. Gaza has been blockaded so harshly that half the population, even before this most recent attack, were living below the poverty line.

If responsibility is proportional to the ability to control one’s actions then Israel has the lion’s share of culpability for the carnage presently unfolding in the occupied territories. And yet, with a compliant international community which forever hides behind statements calculated to appear balanced but which in reality enable Israel to escape punishment for its crimes, Israel has become emboldened to seek military responses to political problems.

At the apex of the international community’s complicity stands the United States. The Bush White House was quick to attribute blame for the violence to Hamas. A spokesperson for President Bush diplomatically described the movement as a bunch of “thugs”. Such statements are more than just unfortunate, they legitimate Israeli aggression.

There is little hope, however, of a shift towards a more balanced US role under president-elect Barack Obama. Ever fearful of the powerful Israel lobby, he has gone to great lengths to prove his loyalty to the Zionist state. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night,” Obama said during a visit to Israel earlier this year, “I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that.”

Sadly, that logic does not appear to apply to the Palestinians. According to the UN, 105 Palestinian children have been killed this year, thanks largely to Israeli forces armed and supported by the United States. While grand rhetoric has been a feature of Barack Obama’s political career he has opted to remain silent as Israel continues to wreak havoc on Gaza. It is becoming increasingly clear that Israel’s latest attack on Gaza was a premeditated attempt to destabilise the Hamas regime. Lately, the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper revealed that a detailed plan to destroy the Hamas government in Gaza was drawn up six months ago even while Israel was negotiating a ceasefire with it.

The exiled leader of the Hamas movement in Syria called on Palestinians to wage a third intifada or uprising in response to the wanton death and destruction. That may be nigh impossible, such is Israel’s full-spectrum dominance of the occupied Palestinian territories. One shudders, nevertheless, to think what fury the third intifada would unleash.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has covered the Israel-Palestine conflict from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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Stalin misses top spot

By Tom Parfitt



JOSEPH Stalin was edged into third place in a nationwide poll to name Russia’s greatest historical figure on Sunday amid controversy over the results. The Name of Russia project, which captivated the country for several months, ended with accusations that the final tally was rigged.

More than five million votes by telephone, text and the internet were registered in the poll, which named Alexander Nevsky, a medieval warrior prince, as the winner. Stalin had led the poll early on and narrowly missed the top spot.

The dictator took 519,071 votes compared to Nevsky’s 524,575.

Critics said the results were massaged to produce winners convenient to the Kremlin. Nevsky rallied Russian forces against foreign invaders in the 13th century and has been promoted as a national hero by the Kremlin, which hints that Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, and the president, Dmitry Medvedev, are unifying figures from the same mould.

In second place was Pyotr Stolypin, an early 20th century prime minister and noted reformer. Stolypin, who served under the last tsar, Nicholas II, has often been lauded by Putin as a role model whose attempts to achieve stability he would like to emulate.

Alexander Pushkin, the poet, came fourth while Catherine the Great, the only woman on the shortlist, was 11th. Communists said the vote had been “cunningly” manipulated to prevent Stalin or first Soviet leader Lenin (who came sixth) winning because the Kremlin was embarrassed at their popularity.

In a statement, the Communist party said it had “no faith in the organisers of the voting project”, who had decided Stalin and Lenin were “bad lads” who should not win. The results prompted the “same level of trust as in the central electoral commission”, it said, in reference to Kremlin rigging of the presidential election in Russia earlier this year. Launched in May, the project offered voters a chance to choose from 50 candidates, a number that was whittled down to the 12 most popular in September.

No living figures were included in the list. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of the gulag, was added after his death in August but attracted few votes.

Each shortlisted figure was presented by an expert in regular programmes on the state-controlled Rossiya television channel. Organisers of the project denied accusations of manipulating the vote, saying that, on the contrary, Communist sympathisers had attempted to skew results in favour of Lenin and Stalin. The project was briefly halted in July when it became clear the online polling system did not prevent lobby groups placing multiple votes.

Commentators said that, despite claims of organised voting, Stalin’s high rating reflected popular sentiment.

An estimated 1.1 million people were sentenced to death during the Soviet leader’s great terror, often on trumped-up charges. Millions more perished in labour camps or died of starvation.

But many Russians believe Stalin was a hero who launched industrialisation and saved the country from Nazi takeover in the second world war. He was presented on Name of Russia by Valentin Varennikov, a general, who said: “We became a great country because we were led by Stalin.”

— The Guardian, London
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  #22  
Old Wednesday, December 31, 2008
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Wednesday
Muharram 02,1430
December 31, 2008

A slight improvement


THE IMF’s balance-of-payments support and the government’s macroeconomic stabilisation policies might have mitigated the ‘sense of crisis’ seizing the nation in recent months. But these haven’t lessened anxiety among ordinary people and investors as the economy remains fragile, and vulnerable to internal and external shocks. For this very reason, the State Bank of Pakistan in its first quarterly (July to September) report has warned the government against ‘complacency’, urging it to carry on with prudent policies to regain stability and meet economic challenges.

The first IMF loan tranche of $3bn means that the risk of default on sovereign foreign loan obligations has receded and the foreign-currency stocks have improved. The sharp cut in energy and food subsidies and development spending under the stabilisation plan and improved tax revenue collection so far have helped slash fiscal deficit to one per cent of GDP during the first quarter from 1.5 per cent a year earlier. The decline in global commodity prices, particularly of oil, is expected to moderate the country’s import bill growth. It will eventually narrow down the current account gap from last year’s 8.4 per cent and curb inflationary expectations in the economy. The freefall of the rupee has stopped and the currency has regained some of the ground lost on the back of falling foreign-currency reserves and speculations of a possible sovereign default. The relatively better performance of kharif crops and the expected bumper wheat output is likely to ease supply side pressures. Together, these factors paint a much better picture of the economy now than a month ago in spite of the downward revision of GDP growth projections.

However, although any further deterioration in macroeconomic indicators appears to have been arrested, the difficult international economic and financial environment still poses many challenges to the economy. Globally, the slowdown in demand can hurt the country’s manufactured exports and neutralise the positive impact of reduced commodity prices on the current account deficit. Also, the international financial crunch can further clip Pakistan’s ability to tap international capital markets and attract foreign investment, impacting upon its foreign exchange reserves and forcing the government to borrow from commercial banks to finance the fiscal deficit. Domestically, the failure of the government to ensure the pass-through of decline in global prices to consumers, the elimination of energy subsidies and depreciation in the rupee value means that inflation will breach its target by a wide margin. Large-scale manufacturing has already shown negative growth due to slowing demand and the months-long energy crunch. So despite the easing of risks, the economy continues to be threatened by internal and external factors. The imbalances are still quite large and require sustained efforts towards resolution. Without these, the growth outlook will remain gloomy.

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Will BD change its ways?


ALTHOUGH elections in Bangladesh have produced a landslide victory for Hasina Wajed’s Awami League-led alliance, political stability in this country of 140 million is by no means assured. No doubt there have been many positive elements in how the elections were conducted. Polling was peaceful and the revised electoral rolls have not been challenged. Turnout was good — 70 per cent, as reported. The Awami League’s massive majority in parliament should lead to the formation of a strong government that is not easy to destabilise. But elections are only one of the pillars of democracy that facilitate participatory governance. They are not an end in themselves. Going by the conduct of their election campaign and the past record of the two major parties, no radical change seems to be in the offing. Although populist issues were taken up at the hustings — corruption, terrorism and inflation — the rhetoric had a familiar ring. Moreover, there were no indications that past animosities are to be bygones and the earlier pattern will not be revived of the losing party spending its entire term in the opposition trying to disrupt the ruling party. Even before the results were announced officially on Tuesday, supporters of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party had begun to warn that they would challenge the fairness of the polls. If Bangladesh were to revert to the negative pattern of politics of 1991-2006, the country would once again become ungovernable and no problems would be solved.

One hopes that this time the major parties will act with greater responsibility. The military that determined the course of events since early 2007 has mercifully stayed away from the limelight. It wielded power from behind the scenes allowing a government of technocrats to run the day-to-day administration. Of course the army was under pressure from the aid donors to return the country to democracy at the earliest. The emergency has been lifted and the corruption charges that were levelled against the two leaders and had kept them in prison for a year have not been used as a pretext to edge them out of politics altogether. But wisdom demands that the two begums of Bangladesh should not test the military’s patience at a time when the army in Third World countries is not shy of taking the reins of power. The two leaders have a political lesson before them: in 1990 they could dislodge an army strongman by joining hands and working together — the only time they did so.

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Rethinking zoos


WILD animals, if they are bred in captivity or made captive through some cruel stroke of fate, ought to be given sanctuary. They need to live in an environment that at least resembles their natural habitat. They can be a source of awe and wonderment for the onlooker but must never be treated as a means of amusement. But visit any zoo in Pakistan and you will see exotic species living — if you can call it that — in cages or concrete enclosures, listless or driven to neurosis, biting off their own tails, pacing about repetitively and plucking plumage in an involuntary frenzy. That is because they are seriously unwell, for the conditions they must endure are enough to drive any living creature insane. Animals in our zoos are poked and prodded by visitors who exemplify all that is callous about this country. Mental well-being aside, zoo animals are also neglected physically by apathetic, incompetent or resource-strapped authorities. Little surprise then that the mortality rate in Pakistan’s zoos is unacceptably high. We should hang our heads in shame because we have failed miserably in catering to the needs of the non-human animals entrusted to our care. Anyone who cages an animal should pause for a second and think how it would feel if the same were done to him or her.

Given our track record, Pakistan does not deserve zoos of any sort, public or private. If the photograph of the leopard languishing in Karachi’s Korangi-Landhi zoo that appeared in this paper a few weeks ago did not break the hearts of all right-thinking people then we have stopped being human. Cognitive skills may differ but animals feel trauma just like we do. What we have in this country are freak shows, not zoos where endangered animals are protected or bred for the propagation of the species. When animals die in our zoos we import replacements, as if they were spare parts, and the cycle of cruelty continues. The choice is clear: we should either run zoos the way they should be or not at all. There can be no middle ground.

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OTHER VOICES - European Press

Church vandalism

Irish Examiner

Human tolerance is clearly finite... The Reverend David Crooks, the rector of the Church of Ireland in Newtowncunning-ham, Co Donegal, realised the ineptness of his Christmas message when he denounced as vermin the vandals who trashed his church on the night before Christmas.

Earlier in the year, other vandals broke into the church through a rear door and stole a safe. This time they wrenched the doors off and threw them over a hedge. The culprits should “get a birch where it hurts”, the Reverend Crooks said. One senses that he would give a whole new meaning to the term ‘turning the other cheek’. The exasperation of people at such vandalism and antisocial behaviour is thoroughly understandable and it is time that society took a serious look at the whole issue. All too often people no longer even complain to An Garda Síochána about vandalism, because they consider it pointless.

The gardaí, on the other hand, are exasperated because nothing seems to happen when they apprehend the culprits. If they are brought before the courts, they are let go with a mere figurative tap on the wrists, whereas a few lashes of the birch might leave a lasting impression on their warped minds at any rate. The lives of many people are being blighted by antisocial behaviour. Recently, when some young people were vandalising the home of Aidan O’Kane in Dublin, he gave chase and ended up being shot dead.

The media has been focusing on the banks and the health service, but vandalism and other forms of antisocial behaviour are just as important, because these can have such a devastating impact on the lives of people.

Many people believe that a decline in disciplinary standards can be traced back to the ending of corporal punishment in schools. That is probably a bit simplistic because the abuse of corporal punishment led to a great many problems itself, but the figurative pendulum has now swung too far in the other direction.

In places like Singapore, where the birch is still in vogue, they don’t have these vandalism problems. All too often vandalism is simply the mindless behaviour of louts deriving vicarious pleasure from destruction. If they were rewarded with the birch and the humiliation that goes with it, they might not think their actions were quite so ‘cool’.

Of course, this should be done in a properly regulated and appropriate manner. The problem is acute and it is time such issues were considered and debated seriously. — (Dec 30)

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Plight of women in Swat

By Khurshid Khan

THE current situation in Swat is such that any sign of peace in the valley has been washed away. The people are living through the most miserable phase of its history. No doubt, the valley has witnessed invasions, turbulence and chaos from the time of Alexander’s invasion in 327 BC to the formation of Swat state in 1917.

However, at least in living memory the present chaos engendered by militancy has no parallel. It has adversely affected the physical and cultural environment, the economy, tourism, trade, governance and social life in the valley.

Unfortunately, in all this, women have been the worst sufferers. The militants’ obscurant version of Islam begins and ends with womenfolk. According to their belief, women are the source of all sins. A cleric while delivering the Friday sermon in Marghazar village was heard telling his flock, “My fellow Muslims, listen! The prices of daily commodities are rising because women abandon their homes and loiter about in the markets.”

In fact, the Fazlullah-led militants have announced a complete ban on female education from Jan 15, 2008 on FM radio. Some days ago, they announced that no government or private educational institution would be allowed to enrol girls and that all schools and colleges should stop educating them by Jan 15. Schools found violating this ban would be blown up. Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan somewhat modified the announcement saying that schools would remain closed until an Islamic curriculum was devised for imparting education to girls.

Parents and students have lost hope of schools reopening in this volatile atmosphere. The militants have usually been seen to follow up on their words and, despite the army’s presence, there have been no signs of the restoration of peace and harmony.

The militants have bombed or torched more than 100 girls’ schools and colleges to forcibly stop 80,000 girls from going to school in the district. There were 10 high schools, four higher secondary schools and four degree-awarding colleges and a network of primary schools across the district for girls and women, besides a postgraduate institution for young men and women to study at the master’s level.

Against the culture of keeping womenfolk away from development, the rulers of Swat state (1917-1969) encouraged female literacy, the first step on the way to progress, by establishing girls’ schools and colleges. The valley had the highest female literacy rate as compared to neighbouring districts.

After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, their repressive activities started getting support in the Pakhtun areas of Pakistan along the Durand Line. Swat is among the more recent victims of Talibanisation. The secular nature of Swati society is slowly and gradually leaning towards extremism.

The clergy first started speaking against girls’ and women’s education through unauthorised FM radios and at public gatherings. But as they got more emboldened, they attempted to stall female education — and eliminate the presence of girls and women in the market — through fiercer means including bomb blasts. Many schools have been destroyed in this way.

Then they turned their wrath on women doctors and the female nursing staff in hospitals warning them to observe strict purdah, confine themselves only to wards for women and not to attend calls on their cellphones. The medical superintendent of a group of hospitals complied with the order and circulated a notice to the entire female staff telling them to do as they had been told. Women patients and visitors were also advised to conform to Taliban instructions.

Militants also ordered the segregation of students at the Saidu Medical College, telling the principal to keep away women students from research labs after a certain time. Meanwhile, another college refused to take in women because of the continuous threats of the militants from 2007 onwards. Militants regularly monitor hospitals and colleges. In fact, working women and those attending school or college, or going to the doctor or in the marketplace are given a bad character by the militants.

Indiscriminate mortar shelling has hit houses and killed and injured civilians. In these, the toll for women casualties has been higher since they are more often at home, while unannounced road obstructions or curfews have made sudden medical emergencies, especially among pregnant women, difficult to be attended to. As a consequence women have lost their newborns as they have not been able to make it to the hospital in time. Besides, with their men also casualties of militancy, many of them are losing breadwinners in the family.

The threatened closure of educational institutions has proved to be the last nail in the coffin. The mindset of the militants — who routinely resort to the violation of fundamental rights in order to accomplish their goal — is clear and their misused and illegal authority has led them to establish a state within a state. Swat is not a no-man’s-land and is very much an integral part of the country. By tradition its inhabitants are not religious bigots. In fact, society in Swat is more civilised and accommodating of opinions than the rest of the Pakhtun belt. Islamabad should understand that and break its silence to take assertive action against the militants if it does not want Talibanisation to engulf the area and paralyse the entire structure of society.

Where are all the international and national human rights organisations and women rights groups? They must raise a collective voice against this victimisation of Swati women and girls. It is also time for the media to take drastic steps to highlight the current lot of Swati women whose repressive treatment should also serve as a wake-up call for women parliamentarians to take an active part in rescuing them from the spread of a venomous culture.

udyana64@yahoo.com

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Small is beautiful

By Arifa Akbar

FOR the past decade, Britain’s biggest museums have relied on blockbuster exhibitions featuring numerous well-loved masterpieces to draw in visitors and shore up attendance figures.

But now, the director of a leading art gallery is urging galleries to rethink the way in which major shows are staged by offering up a single work of art rather than the usual rooms crammed full of gilt-framed Monets, Turners and Caravaggios.

Sir Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, who has previously criticised the growth of blockbuster exhibitions that offer up major artists, is now advocating recession austerity for 2009 with major exhibitions consisting of a single work of art.

In some cases, he says, numerous images shown together, such as in some exhibitions focusing on religious works, it could be off-putting. “There’s something comical about having a line-up of the Virgin and Child. It’s not a beauty competition. These religious works of art would gain from being shown in isolation, because it re-emphasises their sacred purpose,” he said.

This policy could also be one of the ways to bypass the gloom of recession which will bring with it a reduced ability for gallery directors to buy new works or pay for expensive loans from abroad with which to stage exhibitions.

He favours new ways of staging exhibitions, especially in the present economic climate, with rising transport and insurance costs in loaning works of art. There is increasing competition for the number of exhibitions and the opportunity to have them. He would like to stage one or two picture exhibitions in the future.

Visitors, he thinks, might better appreciate a work of art if it was hung in this singular way. One example was a special exhibition currently at the gallery, consisting of two works by Titian which have been brought down from the National Galleries of Scotland as part of a fundraising campaign.

The show had not only attracted extraordinary crowds but public attendance had lasted longer, with visitors standing in front of the paintings for considerable lengths of time, sketching the works or debating their merits.

It was a ‘two picture exhibition’, just two works in one room, and it was a major event which drew incredible numbers of people. It is about learning to look at one picture and that is what people did, they stood for a long time and looked, puzzled over it, drew it, argued about it.

Next year, a single, large-scale installation by Kieholtz, Hoerengracht, will go on show alongside an exhibition of religious sculptures from Spain, called The Sacred Made Real which Sir Nicholas says would be “sparsely displayed”, as well as works by Picasso in February.

Sir Nicholas believes one of the most successful episodes in the history of the gallery had been its “single picture” shows during and after the Second World War.

“The smaller pictures were coming back from storage to the National and people had been starved of paintings. Only one masterpiece would come back at a time and be shown. This was the most famous episode for the gallery,” he said.

— The Independent
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Thursday
Muharram 03, 1430
January 01, 2009

Looking back & ahead


IT was a deeply troubling year on most counts. The euphoria surrounding the February elections proved to be short-lived as the administration in Islamabad slipped into stasis and political manoeuvring overtook governance on the list of priorities. A dismayed nation could only watch as the government of the day floundered as it tried to cope with the myriad challenges facing the country. Asif Zardari’s PPP reneged on its pledge to restore the judges ousted by Gen Musharraf and the Muslim League led by the Sharif brothers tried to play the spoiler to the best of the party’s ability. The nation was ill served by this wrangling at a time when inflation was pushing millions more into poverty and the country’s image abroad was taking a battering. The calibre of those at the helm came to be questioned when it became all too apparent that things were getting worse, not better. In many ways, 2008 encapsulated the downfall of hope in a country that had suffered dictatorship and sham democracy since 1999 but was in ecstatic mode in February. One square meal a day was taken beyond the reach of the poorest and children were pulled out of schools because their lower-middle-class parents could no longer afford the fees.

Militancy wracked the country and suicide bombers shed innocent blood along with their own. But significant gains were achieved after Mr Musharraf relinquished the office he had clung on to for far too long. Pakistan’s military under Gen Kayani became single-minded in the fight against the Taliban, perhaps because it was not distracted by politics. The government too lent sharp focus to this clear and present danger, the enemy within that is tearing Pakistan apart. The militants were hit badly, in Bajaur in particular, and seemed to be on the retreat in some areas. They still act with impunity but are hitting soft targets for the most part, possibly out of desperation. There is no doubt that this government is committed to tackling the Taliban. The army too is ready. What is needed to make the stand against militancy unified is for the opposition to come on board in unequivocal fashion. The religious right is not the only problem. At least one mainstream party also needs to make its position clear.

As the new year dawns, the primary talking point will naturally be the ongoing tension in relations with India. For the time being, however, it seems that saner voices have prevailed and the clouds of war have lifted perceptibly. The country’s economy too is doing marginally better and it can only be hoped that it will stage a major recovery sooner than later. Despair will get us nowhere at this critical stage. We need to think positively, within the realm of realism, and our leaders must act in similar fashion.

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Khyber operation


AS with operations elsewhere, Operation Here I Come in Khyber Agency raises more questions than it answers. The one answer we do have is that the state has finally decided to act against militants threatening the convoys travelling on the Peshawar-Torkham highway laden with supplies for American and allied forces in Afghanistan. Tariq Hayat, administrator of the Khyber Agency, has identified two areas of focus: Jamrud, a stamping ground for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and Landi Kotal, a den of kidnappers, criminals and militants. In doing so the government hopes to clear a highway that will remain a vital supply route even if alternatives are found in Central Asia. Now to the questions. Has the government learned any lessons from other areas in northern Pakistan where it has unsuccessfully tried to use paramilitary forces to clear and hold areas against militants? The statement by Mr Hayat that “we will arrest militants and criminals, demolish their houses and hideouts” is admirable but doesn’t explain the government’s strategy for defeating clever, battle-hardened militants. However, working in the government’s favour in Khyber are reports which suggest that the militants’ presence in Jamrud and Landi Kotal is not as strong as in, say, Swat. Let us hope that the combination of lessons learned and lighter resistance will yield more success this time. But why has action only been promised in these two parts of Khyber Agency? What about Bara, where Mangal Bagh and his cohorts terrorise the local population and practise their own brand of vigilantism in the name of Islam?

The attacks on the convoys have admittedly put enormous pressure on the government, but surely this piecemeal, selective policy of taking on the militants will not yield any meaningful long-term results. Landi Kotal is a prime example of how local criminal elements, petty warlords and the Taliban mix readily. Excluding action against militants who currently do not pose a direct threat to the Americans, such as in Bara, does not mean they will not in the near future, while attacking militants who are focusing on the Americans will ensure they turn on Pakistanis. And, finally, does the government have the appetite to see the fight through to the bitter end? Mr Hayat has vowed not to talk to the militants and to continue the operation “till we achieve our objectives”. We hope he is right and that the operation will continue until all of Khyber is secure.

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No end to confrontation

THE politics of confrontation has its uses: it helps divert attention from issues. Respect for the system before the party can take a backseat and stay there until the confrontation is fully played out. People, too, can amuse themselves with the media circus around, jockeying and jostling. But the latest bout of political wrestling in Punjab shows why confrontation defeats its purpose by hurting everyone involved.

This three-way fight is a direct result of the delicate balance of power in the province. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his team are after the city district governments and other local bodies headed by the PML-Q essentially to muster the support his government needs to survive without the PPP. The

Q-League mayors and other local representatives see their political careers coming to a premature end if they give in to official pressure, and Governor Salmaan Taseer and at least a section in the PPP view the clash between the two sides as a godsend opportunity for cobbling together some sort of an anti-Sharif alliance.

To win the argument, it appears that the three sides are not averse to indulging in half-truths and employing only partially valid legal and constitutional tools. While the Sharif camp exploits incomplete and selective audit reports to condemn local governments headed by rivals, the latter invoke a much-amended and quite loose Local Government Ordinance to protest interference and intervention by the government. Governor Taseer and his supporters, too, do not have the full force of law and constitution behind them to justify any machinations on their part. As their respective efforts to gain an upper hand intensify, the confrontation between the three parties is fast becoming a dead heat featuring desperate runners. But their competition threatens to derail democracy in the province and indeed at the centre. No matter who ends up winning, it will be a Pyrrhic victory, at the expense of the fragile democratic dispensation.

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OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press

Ceasefire in tatters

The Pennisula

Israel’s Gaza offensive is spinning out of control on many fronts. The horrific TV images of dead and wounded Gazans are inflaming Arab public opinion and weakening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. From Lebanon to Iran, Israel’s adversaries used the assault to marshal crowds out onto the streets for noisy demonstrations. And among regional allies there was also discontent: Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called the air assault a “crime against humanity”.

Hamas, which survived several past Israeli assassination sprees against its leaders and whose rule in Gaza has been absolute since it routed Abbas’ secular Fatah faction there in 2007, sounds undeterred. Hamas is in firm control and commands thousands of armed men. It is unlikely to be brought down by force, short of Israel reoccupying the territory.

The air strikes raised the prospect of an escalation of violence that could scuttle any hopes the incoming Obama administration harboured of forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. There is little doubt, however, that if the situation escalates, it could hand yet another crisis to Obama, who will already be inheriting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an unstable situation in Pakistan. The … proposal to hold an Arab summit is meeting some resistance. Judging by past summits, Arab states are unlikely to fulfil popular aspirations, especially if that would bring them into conflict with Israel and US.—(Dec 29)

A year without Benazir

Khaleej Times

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on Dec 27, last year, deprived Pakistan of a leader with a charismatic appeal at home and wide international recognition.

Rarely before in its history has the nation needed [a] leader of her calibre, vision and popular allegiance more than it does today to steer it from the gravest crises it is presently facing….

When she returned to Pakistan on Oct 18, 2007 after about eight years of exile, she received a magnificent reception from hundreds and thousands of ecstatic people … [S]he popped out of her vehicle on the fateful day to wave to the ecstatic crowd. She could not be faulted for doing that because public acclamation is the elixir that spurs charismatic leaders to pursue their mission with still greater zeal. In her death, and earlier in public speeches, Benazir has left some clear messages to her party and people in general, and in particular to her spouse who took up the gauntlet. One: the challenges posed by the dictator needed extraordinary courage, irrespective of personal risks. Two: the tide of democracy, independence of judiciary, rule of law and social justice could no longer be reversed. Three: the gravity of the problems could not be resolved by a single individual or party, and required a collective leadership to confront them squarely.

She even went to the extent of saying she would align with other national leaders, like Nawaz Sharif, to rule the country even if her party won [a] two-thirds majority in the election.—(Dec 27)

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India must fight its own war

By Muhammad Ali Siddiqi

WHAT happens when — not if — terrorists strike India again? Is the world going to see a repeat of the scenarios in 2002 and in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack? There is a terrorist attack on some Indian city; within hours New Delhi blames Pakistan; Islamabad swears it is not involved. There is war talk, especially on the Indian side. The western media seems to encourage India to ‘teach Pakistan’ a lesson; then friendly governments work behind the scenes to counsel restraint. ‘Friendly governments’ are unlikely to be friendly this time.

In 2002, following the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament building in December 2001, India massed troops on Pakistan’s border. As Pakistan also mobilised its troops, more than half a million men armed with the most lethal weapons were locked in a scary eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for months along a border that stretched from the hot and humid Rann of Kutch marshes to Siachen’s icy heights. Gradually, tempers cooled. But we know now how an Indian general deployed his division beyond the red line in violation of the Indian general headquarters’ orders, and how this was detected not by the Indian high command but by the Americans with the help of satellite imagery.

The anxiety which America showed in 2002 to end the confrontation was for obvious reasons: the Taliban had just been defeated in November 2001, and Islamabad had started re-enacting its role as a front line ally. George Bush, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and Hu Jintao were active behind the scenes and counselled restraint, and finally a thaw began. A.B. Vajpayee, the BJP leader who was then India’s prime minister and had rushed the troops to Pakistan’s borders, retraced his steps. In January 2004 he visited Islamabad and agreed to begin ‘a composite dialogue’.

The first two weeks of December this year were different, for the Americans and the world did not show the same anxiety which they did in 2002 to avoid a war. One only had to listen to the speeches made on Dec 1 when president-elect Barack Obama unveiled his cabinet team to realise the extent of anger against Pakistan among American leaders.

Obama briefly reviewed the world situation, spoke of his resolve to work for peace in the Middle East, referred to Afghanistan, but even the rhetorical and time-worn reference to America’s desire to see peaceful relations between Pakistan and India was missing. While India got full sympathy from Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Mumbai carnage, there was no mention of Pakistan at all as an ally in the war on terror. They had held Pakistan guilty.

Conclusion: when there is another terror attack in India, there will be no one to counsel restraint, and India most probably will be left to itself to think whether a military adventure against Pakistan will be worth its while. Ultimately it is Pakistan’s conventional strength, rather than nuclear deterrent, which India takes into account, for Indian generals know very well Pakistan will not give them a walkover. There will be a price to pay.

There is only one way in which Pakistan can tackle the aftermath of the next terror attack in India: Islamabad must genuinely convince the world of its innocence, because Pakistan itself is being cannibalised by terror. There is no need to do some ‘explaining’ to New Delhi because of its rigid attitude. We know, for instance, that the vast majority of the Samjhauta Express casualties were Pakistani, but New Delhi and the Indian media had begun blaming this country within hours of the attack on the train. The problem is basically with our diplomacy, for we have failed to present to the world our side of the picture — i.e. the truth.

It is Pakistan not India which has suffered hundreds of terror attacks, and the trauma suffered by the Indian people in the Mumbai attack pales in comparison with the dozens of greater tragedies the terrorists have inflicted on this country. The two attacks on Benazir’s processions, the firebombing of Islamabad Marriott and the blast at the Eid congregation to kill Sherpao come to mind immediately. The world knows this but the truth doesn’t sink in, thanks to the western media.

Asking Pakistan and India to cooperate is great naiveté. Given their adversarial relationship they are unlikely to cooperate, and the joint anti-terror mechanism agreed to at Havana between Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh is a non-starter.

The next terrorist attack on Indian soil is merely a question of time. Pakistan’s diplomatic corps must be ready to face the storm on its own. Briefly, Pakistan must tell the world that India must fight its own war on terror. Pakistan is doing this on its own; why does New Delhi shirk its responsibility and take comfort in blaming Islamabad? India is like a crying baby which wants the whole house to itself. Why can’t it fight its own war on terror, instead of going on its knees and begging the world to rush to its help? When terrorists attack, Pakistan doesn’t cry.

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Bangladesh: a vote for reform

By Tahmima Anam

SOMETHING spectacular happened in a small corner of the world on Monday. After two years of military-backed rule, a free, fair, incident-free election was held in Bangladesh, with decisive results: a record voter turnout routed the incumbent party in favour of a secular, progressive alliance.

“Two ladies” is the phrase commonly attached to the leaders of Bangladesh’s main political parties: Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League – both women, one the widow of a former president, the other the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, leader of the independence movement and first prime minister of Bangladesh.

But lumping the leaders together and calling them the “two ladies” is not just misogynistic and patronising but seriously misleading. There is a real difference between the parties, one that is not only crucial to understanding the internal politics of Bangladesh, but also sheds light on the rise and fall of religious fundamentalism in the world’s second largest Muslim nation.

The BNP were at the helm of power in the last electoral cycle. During this time, Khaleda Zia promoted cronies to high positions of power, corrupted the courts with political appointments, and oversaw the theft of government funds on an unprecedented level. In 2007, the party orchestrated a coordinated effort to rig the elections, leading to the army’s intervention and two years of military-backed rule.

In this election, which was held on Monday with the results announced on Tuesday, the BNP allied itself with the Jamaat-i-Islami and conducted a campaign of fear-mongering, with slogans decrying the corruption of religious values and predicting a threat to Islam through foreign influence. By contrast, the Awami League ran a campaign that was purposefully secular and progressive. Though no stranger to allegations of corruption, the Awami League cleansed its party of much of the old guard. In the end, it campaigned on a platform of change, promising jobs and economic regeneration. The result was not only victory for the Awami League, but a near annihilation of the Jamaat-i-Islami.

There has been a lot of speculation of late about the direction — political and economic — Bangladesh will take. Will it succumb to Islamic fundamentalism, or will it remain a moderate Islamic country? Will it ever overcome the many obstacles to progress and turn the tide in its favour, or will it remain at the bottom of the charts and development indices, a nation on the brink of failure?

When I asked a prominent journalist why the Bangladeshi stock exchange hadn’t felt the effects of the global economic downturn, he said: “In order to be drunk, you first have to be invited to the party.” In this economic cycle — luckily, it turns out — Bangladesh wasn’t invited to the party. But the election results may mean the beginning of a new era of political reform and economic growth.

Bangladesh still has a long way to go. But after all the votes have been counted, this is what remains: in this poor country, where many people cannot read or write, where women are still subject to draconian social and economic realities, where natural disasters strike with brutal regularity, corruption and religious extremism were resolutely routed out.

People came by the millions to cast their votes because they knew that on this day, they would have their say. And speak they did, against a regime that had let them down once too many; against leaders who had refused to accept the responsibilities of their offices. Against all odds, Bangladesh is on the move.

The writer is the author of A Golden Age.

— The Guardian, London
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Saturday
Muharram 05, 1430
January 03, 2009

Taking stock


GIVEN our history, and in the absence of an extradition treaty, there can be no question of Pakistan handing over suspects who India believes were connected to the assault on Mumbai. That is simply not an option for a democratic government that is answerable to the people. The futility of pursuing such a course now seems to have become apparent to the US as well, with the Bush administration signalling that any and all accused should be prosecuted within Pakistan. This change of tack has naturally disappointed India. Every passing day also reinforces the impression that New Delhi is not sharing information directly with Islamabad but is instead acting through intermediaries such as the American FBI. Why this is so has not been explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Despite the mutual distrust, however, it is heartening to note that the clouds of war have lifted to a degree and both sides are refraining from upping the ante.

That said, there is an urgent need for Pakistan to decide on the path the country must choose from this point onwards. Reports in the US press that at least one alleged Lashkar-i-Taiba operative currently in Pakistani custody has confessed to his involvement in the Mumbai carnage have not been denied at the highest levels in Islamabad. Foot-dragging will get us nowhere, and we need to explain what headway, if any, has been made in our own investigations. Full disclosure, of course, cannot be expected in a matter as sensitive as the case in hand until every avenue of inquiry has been explored. A progress report, though, is the need of the hour. Otherwise Islamabad will not be in a position to counter criticism that facts are being withheld and we will continue to be deemed guilty until proven innocent. It is said that the US has passed on intercepts of telephone conversations between Lashkar-i-Taiba commanders and militants holed up in a hotel in Mumbai. Given Pakistan’s intelligence resources, it is within the realm of possibility to verify the authenticity or otherwise of these alleged communications. The sooner this is done, and the facts placed before the nation and the world, the better. And if any Lashkar-i-Taiba commander has admitted to his role in the carnage, that confession too should be acknowledged. New Delhi, for its part, needs to provide Islamabad with the ‘evidence’ it claims to have found linking the Lashkar-i-Taiba to the deadly assault.

There will be no loss of face if it turns out that Pakistanis were among the militants who attacked Mumbai. Egged on by India, much of the world believes that anyway. We need to act decisively against militants and terrorists operating from Pakistani soil, not on account of pressure exerted by India or America but because therein lies our own salvation. The enemy within is a far greater threat than any external foe.

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Intelligence coordination

REPORTS that a National Counter-terrorism Authority (NCA) is to be set up by the government with the express purpose of improving coordination among the various agencies dealing with counter-terrorism issues should be greeted with cautious optimism. At the level of operations, one of the obvious impediments in the business of counter-terrorism is that the different agencies do not ‘talk’ to each other in an effective way. Given that terrorists have demonstrated their presence across the length and breadth of the country and are understood to have excellent lines of communication, no one agency can be expected to be omniscient. For example, if a terrorist plot is hatched in Fata, the ‘assets’ are assembled in Punjab and the attack occurs in Karachi, the FIA, ISI, IB and provincial intelligence-gathering agencies may catch a whiff of different stages of such a plot — but individually may not have enough information to connect the dots. If the NCA can improve the likelihood of timely action against terrorists, it will mark a real turning point in the state’s fight against terrorism.

However, the NCA faces some daunting hurdles. First is the nature of governance in this country. When a problem is identified, the government of the day often responds by adding yet another layer of bureaucracy and setting up yet another organisation to deal with it. Oftentimes the government’s ‘solution’ is neither well thought out nor properly implemented. A body such as the NCA has great potential, but its best-laid plans will come to nought if the stakeholders, the various intelligence agencies, are not fully on board. The nature of counter-terrorism is such that secrecy is paramount, and the world over agencies involved in such activities are loath to share information with an ever-widening circle of professional and political stakeholders.

Then there is the problem of political interference. Ramping up Pakistan’s counter-terrorism capabilities requires a professional approach with key appointments made on the basis of merit. If the NCA is stuffed with political appointees, it may actually cause more harm than good to counter-terrorism efforts nationally. Finally, there is the issue of resources. While the NCA is being conceptualised as a coordination agency, it will nevertheless need equipment and trained personnel that are not readily available in Pakistan. This is where our allies in the war against terrorism must help. Instead of harping on the fact that Pakistan doesn’t ‘do enough’ to fight terrorism, they must help us when we do try something new.

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Three decades of Sino-US ties

ON new year’s day America and China marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, with presidents George Bush and Hu Jintao eulogising the benefits the two powers have derived from America’s recognition of the world’s most populous nation on Jan 1, 1979. Despite “twists and turns”, China’s official news agency Xinhua said, their relationship had made “steady progress” because of the “concerted efforts made by the two sides”. Here, one cannot but recall the role played by Pakistan in bringing the two Cold War adversaries together, for it was from Nathiagali that Henry Kissinger flew on a secret mission to Beijing to probe the possibility of a rapprochement between the two countries. In one of his books Richard Nixon, then in the White House, gives a detailed account of how the two Pacific Rim powers came together and how his secretary of state ran all the way from his office to give the president the glad tidings of the right response from Beijing.

“It was here” [in the White House],” Nixon wrote “that I received what Henry Kissinger described as the most important communication to an American president since the end of World War II. I had been sitting in this same chair catching on some of my reading material after a state dinner that evening. It was almost eleven o’clock. Henry [Kissinger] burst into my room. He was breathless. He must have run all the way over to the residence from his West Wing Office. He handed me a message. It was Chou En-lai’s invitation to visit China, which he had sent through President Yahya Khan of Pakistan. As Chou put it later it was a message from a head, through a head to a head.” Sino-American relations have had a positive impact on the world, especially South and Southeast Asia. China has given up the military option vis-à-vis Taiwan, while in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack the views of Beijing and Washington have converged on the need to defuse tension in South Asia.

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OTHER VOICES - Bangladesh Press

Good start to a new year

The Bangladesh Today

FOR Bangladeshis the new year of 2009 starts with a bang. We have had our elections, we have voted our candidates to parliament and we have provided a massive majority to the AL to form an effective government. The nature, the direction and tone of that parliament and government has been already set by the premier-to-be Sheikh Hasina in her press conference on Dec 31, 2007 where she spelled out the broad and general principles on how the AL intends to conduct parliament and governance for the next five years.

The issues are all contained in the AL election manifesto and have been well publicised during the election campaign and therefore, need not be gone into here but what needs to be understood is the tenor, the trend of how AL and Sheikh Hasina view Bangladesh as it is today and as they desire to see it after five years of their government. In the words of Sheikh Hasina, “This win is for good governance against misrule, peace in opposition to terrorism and secular democracy as opposed to communalism.”

If the AL can effectively mobilise national resources to achieve the goals set out by Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh would indeed have changed, for the better, beyond recognition…. If, on the other hand, these goals cannot be achieved at all because of AL’s detraction from its guiding principles … Bangladesh would be far worse off than it ever was.

As citizens it is our bounden responsibility to see to it that the AL is helped along its way to achieving these goals…. We need to support it and nurture it and we can only do that if we all together respect whatever laws we have, keep our individual desires, needs, greed and ambitions within bounds and work hard — without all these, no one, not the AL not the BNP, not the 300 MPs can make Bangladesh a prosperous nation.

But the AL, for its part, has also got to understand that our support is qualified by its adherence to its manifesto and its publicly announced guiding principles because it is on this that we have elected them to government.

If they detract, support will diminish; if they detract further, support will vanish and if they throw them overboard, there will be resistance, conflict and overthrow. The year 2009 has started with good omens; let’s all see the year end on an equally good feeling, with hope and enthusiasm. — (Jan 02)

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Alienation of the Baloch

By Murtaza Razvi

YET another official inauguration of the Gwadar seaport last month — this time by the Balochistan chief minister — will not allay the misgivings of the people of the province whose sense of deprivation runs much deeper than the deep, blue sea.

What is really needed is a truth and reconciliation commission, comprising public representatives (elected and unelected) from the province and the federation, to probe into the roots of alienation of the people of Balochistan from the national mainstream.

Balochistan is physically the largest and, ironically, the poorest and the richest of the provinces given its economic deprivation and the wealth of its natural resources, respectively. While Balochistan has been wholeheartedly sharing its wealth with the rest of the country, it has been burdened with a very unfair share of the poverty prevailing in Pakistan.

Thorny issues as to why the people of this province are so alienated from the national mainstream need to be identified, analysed and resolved with a consensus among all stakeholders. Home to significant multi-ethnic communities that include the Baloch, the Hazaras, the Pakhtuns and the Brahvis, with a sizable sprinkling of Punjabis and Urdu speakers, Balochistan in microcosm reflects the greater diversity of the macrocosm that is Pakistan. Like the rest of Pakistan, it is also dogged by decades of bad governance, tribal feuds and a clash between the old and the new. These are factors which in turn define who gets what, when, how and at whose expense. If left in its present state of unravelling, Balochistan is nothing short of a disaster waiting to happen.

The list of injustices meted out to the province and its people is long and harrowing. The state has literally waged wars on this federating unit to make it fall in line with Rawalpindi and Islamabad. There is little that trickles down to the people from whatever rental fees the federal government pays to the all-mighty sardars from whose lands the government extracts minerals, oil and gas. The royalties given to the provincial government barely meet its running expenses, with the result that there is little left for annual development programmes. In the current fiscal year the amount stands at zero. And nobody cares.

The coastal belt of Makran, as the emerging scene of the new great game owing to the location of the Gwadar seaport there, is very different from the provinces’ hinterland which has been cohabited mainly by Baloch and Pashtun tribes for centuries. The Makran region is almost entirely inhabited by the Baloch, without any history of a tribal, sardari system behind them. Society is based on egalitarianism, and respect for all, regardless of their social or economic status, is an ingrained social value. The Baloch of Makran take pride not in their history of war amongst tribesmen and conquests of one another’s territories but in sharing the high moral values of equality among all individuals, of respecting the other person’s privacy, and practising cooperation among communities as opposed to competition. This should have been a ready constituency for democratic governance, one that can take root easily without being diverted by vested and opposing feudal interests, and accountable only to the electorate. But this has not happened for several reasons, due mainly to the way the federal government has treated the province over the decades.

The traditionally ruling feudal-mullah duo at the provincial level also ensured that only a subsistence level, if any, funding reached Makran, because it had nothing to gain from the empowerment of the people there (as indeed elsewhere). The sardars meanwhile ran their personal fiefdoms in their respective domains, raising private armies and taking turns to side with or oppose successive federal governments to settle scores with rival clans. The Marris, the Mengals and the Bugtis, all have played such games over the years.

At critical junctures in the past, too, they even ganged up on Islamabad but such solidarity in their ranks pleading for the rights of the Baloch has been short-lived. What is different today is the all-pervasive feeling of a Balochistani nationalism; it has never been this widespread, shared and owned by ordinary people across the province. There is now talk among various nationalist groups of seeking justice for Balochistanis, an all-inclusive term applied to all residents of the province, and not just the Baloch. That some of the old names and faces of Baloch sardars are part of this popular new movement is not a coincidence but a coming together of disparate forces that derive their legitimacy from popular sentiment.

Thus, it can be argued that the alienation of Balochistanis is near complete. The February 2008 election results and subsequent decisions taken by elected MPs also help make the reading of the emerging picture clear. While nationalist and most Islamist parties boycotted the polls, the incumbent PML-Q (backed by Islamabad) emerged as the largest party with 17 seats out of the total 51 that were contested; the right-wing MMA got just seven because many religious-minded voters heeded the boycott call; the PPP grabbed seven, the ANP two, the BNP five, while 10 independent candidates made it into the provincial assembly.

But the public sentiment of anger and alienation was so strong that despite their respective party positions on issues concerning Balochistan, all MPAs were unanimous in condemning the killing of the nationalist leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, and demanding that President Pervez Musharraf be impeached and brought to book for initiating military action in the province. This ‘uprising’ of the elected House mirrored the province’s resolve vis-à-vis the centre. Baloch nationalists, who boycotted the election, showed only a lukewarm response to Mr Zardari’s post-election apology to the people of Balochistan, as his PPP formed a new government at the centre. They said they would judge the PPP chief on what he did as opposed to what he said.

Nearly a year down the road, kidnappings, bombings and attacks on targets seen as representing the state and its apparatus have continued. The present provincial government is as ineffective as its predecessors, and Islamabad’s promise of righting the wrongs done to Balochistan has remained just that. Democracy has changed little for the people of Balochistan in everyday terms; they cannot be expected to be happy with self-promoting and cosmetic development projects such as setting up a medical college named after Benazir Bhutto!

Unless a truth and reconciliation commission is formed and all stakeholders are brought to a negotiating table to resolve the many issues Balochistan is suffering from, the province’s integration into the national mainstream will remain a distant cry.

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Guantanamo inmates

By Patrick Wintour

THE British government is pressing other European countries to take a common position on resettling inmates from Guantanamo Bay detention centre, but will not take any more terrorist suspects released from the jail by Barack Obama’s administration.

The US president-elect has promised to close Guantanamo Bay within two years and it was reported last week that America is asking as many as 100 countries to take some of the released suspects.

Germany is considering taking some under strict conditions, and Portugal has offered to take some too, but the Spanish and Dutch have already said they will not be taking any. Germany and France have called for a common European position.

The UK’s Foreign Office said on Thursday: “We have made it clear that we think Guantanamo Bay should be closed. We recognise the legal, technical and other difficulties, and that the US will require assistance from allies and partners to make this happen.”

But a spokeswoman insisted Britain would not be taking any more suspects. “The Foreign Office is not pushing for a deal to allow other Guantanamo terror suspects into the UK,” she said, adding there had been no approach from the US. Guantanamo has held about 750 prisoners since 2002, most captured during military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. It currently holds 255 prisoners, including 50 already found “not guilty” who cannot be repatriated for fear of persecution.

It is thought as many as 150 remaining inmates will be returned to their homelands. Another 50 suspects are likely to be tried, possibly in specialist US courts.

Britain, through the Foreign Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department, put extensive private pressure on President George Bush to close Guantanamo, but had to settle for securing the release of British nationals and residents. Britain has already taken charge of nine detainees who are British nationals and four British residents. Two remaining former British residents, Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer, have yet to be released.

Obama has proposed that instead of trying to prosecute men through military commissions proposed by Bush, suspects should be taken to the US and prosecuted before terror law courts, overseen by civilian judges with specialist backgrounds.

— The Guardian, London
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Monday
Muharram 07, 1430
January 05, 2009

No time to waste


ATTACKS by militants in Balochistan continued even after the September 2008 ceasefire announced by three nationalist outfits. But the frequency of bomb blasts and rocket attacks did decrease post-September and there was less loss of life over the last four months of a particularly violent year. Earlier, in a gesture of goodwill by the new government, military operations in Balochistan were scaled down and some security checkpoints dismantled. The PPP’s February 2008 public apology for the “the atrocities and injustices committed” in Balochistan was also a welcome development. Clearly, some gains were made in the troubled province but there is a danger now that these could be reversed in the absence of a lasting political solution. The Baloch Republican Army, which along with the Balochistan Liberation Army and the Baloch Liberation Front was a party to the temporary truce, has reportedly pulled out of the ceasefire announced unilaterally by the three outlawed organisations. On Friday it claimed responsibility for an attack on a Quetta-bound train that left more than a dozen injured. Other incidents of violence also took place in the province the same day.

On Sept 3 last year the federal information minister told the media that “Our government has repeatedly stressed that violence is not the answer to the problems of Balochistan, which are essentially political in nature.” This assessment is spot on but pacific words alone will not deliver the goods. True, some federal funds have been released to Balochistan and the province’s overdraft with the State Bank has been converted into a soft loan, a move that will result in significant annual savings. But a lot more needs to be done. For instance, the government has failed to deliver on its promise to promote provincial autonomy and give the federating units greater control over their resources by abolishing the concurrent legislative list. Then there is the lingering question mark over the National Finance Commission award, which Balochistan feels should take into account factors other than population. Among other common grievances is the allegation that questionable domiciles allow individuals from other provinces to secure jobs that, in accordance with the provincial quotas in state-run organisations, should go to people who are genuinely from Balochistan.

Development work on a large scale remains the most pressing need, however. Balochistan cannot be pulled out of backwardness and grinding poverty without job creation and widespread infrastructure development. A more prosperous Balochistan could also keep outside forces at bay. The province needs schools, vocational training institutes, hospitals and basic healthcare facilities. Such investment is required on an urgent basis if the general discontent in the province, and the menace of militancy, is to be addressed meaningfully. Development projects were naturally difficult to initiate when the insurgency was raging but Balochistan is far more stable now. There is no time to waste.

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Wrong politics

ON Friday, as Mian Nawaz Sharif was in Faisalabad to get political mileage out of protest demonstrations taking place there against electricity shutdowns, President Asif Zardari was hosting Sheikh Rashid Ahmed in Islamabad. The two events give us some idea of how politics in the country has moved since the PPP came to power after the February 2008 elections. The PPP has in these 10 months concentrated much of its energies on wooing the so-called power players. Meanwhile, the PML-N has ‘appeared’ to be a party that has taken up causes that link it directly or more strongly to the common man’s everyday aspirations. It is not difficult to predict that a pat on the back from Sheikh Rashid will not boost President Zardari’s and his party’s standing among Pakistanis at the moment. To the contrary, the frustration with the government is likely to grow.

Until recently, the PML-N was considered to be a party of the so-called establishment. The party may be on its way to reclaiming its old position as a safer option for the establishment. In the meantime, it is missing no opportunity to side with the people on the streets, especially in the all-important Punjab province. Industrial workers in Faisalabad and lawyers marching in Lahore were once the PPP’s strength. We don’t need a poll to find out that they are disappointed with the performance of the government under Mr Zardari. If anything, the support base this time is narrowing much faster than was the case during the last two PPP governments. So entangled is the party in its effort to consolidate its hold on power and so unable is it to shrug off the legacy of Gen Pervez Musharraf that it appears to have totally run out of ideas of how to keep its pro-people image intact, or to react effectively to the doings of Mian Nawaz Sharif and his supporters. It may learn to its horror that securing a majority in the Senate is no guarantee for a firm hold on power once the battle for hearts and minds is lost. Mr Sharif’s declaration of an all-out war on the PPP, something which could well be in the offing, would be another matter altogether. A crowd may be applauding him for his clever approach to politics. However, the din is drowning those voices that are advocating the current incumbents be allowed their full term in Islamabad if democracy is to be made strong and resilient.

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The human factor

PERHAPS in the absence of a transplant of the soul the next best thing would be impenetrable honesty in charity vis-à-vis impoverished renal patients. The federal health minister’s recent claim of supporting cadaver transplantation initiatives with the establishment of a fund that will provide aid for transplant and post-transplant care to needy patients and help root out the ‘kidney bazaar’ heralds a new beginning for many beleaguered lives. If examples are in order then few can deny that the Karachi-based Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation is a model of altruism — the evidence lies in its efforts that have made the organ trade practically negligible in the city. The government would do well to emulate the SIUT’s efforts in other parts of the country, especially in Punjab which is the hub of this nefarious trade.

While the proposal to set up a fund for impoverished renal patients is more than welcome, the government must also have in place monitoring mechanisms that curtail bribery and employ discreet means to judge the neediness of a candidate as human dignity must be held supreme. So far the mantra of philanthropy that binds health institutions and the government to the human condition and its tender trappings has, perhaps inadvertently, done little to protect a person’s dignity. How precisely does an individual ‘prove’ his destitution without stripping himself of all sense of integrity? Secondly, will the proposed fund take care of hidden charges, such as the bed fee, that exist despite pledges of free-of-cost, state-of-the-art treatment? This is where ‘charity’-based institutions should be forced to take a softer line — provide free treatment, ban all hidden costs to prevent corruption in their staff and refrain from demanding ‘proof’ as a prerequisite for treatment. This is not to pour scorn on the intentions of the government and charity organisations but to emphasise that more than any law, it is aggressive campaigns that instil the idea of cadaver transfers, the promotion of voluntary donations and sensitive treatment of renal patients in our collective psyche. These will go a long way in making the organ trade a thing of the past.

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OTHER VOICES - North American Press

Bush’s healthcare legacy

The New York Times

THIS page has criticised the Bush administration’s weak performance on many important healthcare matters: its failure to address the problem of millions of uninsured Americans or stem the rising costs of healthcare, its refusal to expand eligibility for the State Children’s Health Insurance Programme, its devious manoeuvres to cut Medicaid spending, its support of unjustified subsidies for private health plans, to name a few.

It is only fair to note that President Bush can also lay claim to some signal achievements in healthcare — achievements that we urge president-elect Barack Obama to continue and develop further.

As we have argued in the past, Mr Bush deserves high praise for significantly increasing American support for the global effort to control Aids. We were pleased that Congress has now authorised even more money than Mr Bush proposed: almost $50bn to fight Aids, malaria and tuberculosis around the world over the next five years. But there is little doubt that the president has played a key role in providing drug treatments or supportive care to millions of patients who would otherwise have gone untended.

It is a remarkable record for the leader of a party that had been reluctant in the Reagan era to deal with a disease whose victims at the time in this country were primarily gay men and injection drug users.

Equally remarkable was Mr Bush’s decision to push through a costly new prescription drug benefit under the Medicare programme for older Americans despite stout opposition in his party to government-run healthcare. It was the largest expansion of Medicare in decades and it dragged the programme, at long last, into the modern medical era, in which drugs are a cornerstone of treatment.

… Less heralded was the Bush administration’s willingness to grant Massachusetts a Medicaid waiver to redeploy federal funds to help start a universal health insurance programme. The programme took the controversial step of requiring all citizens to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, precisely the sort of government mandate that drives many conservatives wild. By many measures it is off to a promising start and could become a model for other states or the federal government.

Another substantial health achievement came in the form of bricks and mortar, through the president’s vigorous support of community health clinics…. [But] Mr Bush has done almost nothing to shore up the public insurance programmes, notably Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Programme, that provide the bulk of the clinics’ funding through the patients they cover.

That is another reminder that despite these solid achievements, the country needs to do a lot more. It needs full-fledged healthcare reform that will improve the quality of medical care, reduce its overall cost and provide insurance for everyone, at affordable prices. — (Jan 3)

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The shoe is on the other foot

By Zafar Masud

CALL them Ducati 271 or Bush shoes, the choice is yours. What is really
interesting is that ever since an Iraqi journalist hurled them at the American president during his press conference in Baghdad on Dec 14, the incident has caught the fancy of the European and American media with unprecedented passion for what would otherwise have simply been brushed aside as a mishap owing to ill humour, or bad manners if you will.

Whether that turns Muntazer al-Zaidi into a hero remains arguable and many people, including ordinary folks like this writer, tend to believe that the now shoeless journalist had, during that gathering, needed neither to express the one nor the other in full public view and before television cameras.

The venerable New York Times was so thrilled at what it qualifies as the humiliation of its favourite enemy George W. Bush that it has run columns and columns since the incident, analysing the psychological, historical, religious and intellectual significance of shoe-throwing in the Arab and Muslim cultures. In a separate story the paper even suggested the occurrence could have inadvertently helped a flagging footwear industry in Turkey take the great leap forward to international commercial success.

According to NYT again the Turkish firm has employed an additional staff of 100 workers to cope with surging demands and sales are soaring with 95,000 pairs ordered by a European importer alone. The owner, the paper makes it a point to drive home the ponderous scientific detail, was amazed by the aerodynamics of his wares, albeit they failed to attain their objective. Which brings us to the intended target once again.

Footage (no pun, honest!) run again and again on important TV networks essentially shows a bemused and surprisingly agile President Bush, to give him credit, ducking twice and deftly, successfully avoiding the projectiles each time. Then he has the sense of humour to remark, “All I can report is that it is a size 10.”

European and American intellectuals and journalists, those who are convinced shoe-throwing is a grave, though highly eloquent, affront in the eastern tradition, are not desisting from repeating the point in their writings and utterances ever since, and seem to believe the American president deserved this.

What on earth can explain, you wonder, the West’s fascination with an alien phenomenon that totally escapes its comprehension?

Our infallibly trustworthy sage, Count André de la Roche, happens to be in Paris at the moment. All that remains to be done in his beloved Sancerrois countryside these bleak, brief winter days, he complains, is sit before a roaring fire and read, while listening to Haydn’s string compositions. This is something he can do with greater pleasure in his Parisian flat with a view of the Eiffel Tower from his library window as bonus. He was glad to wax eloquent on this cothurnus tragi-comedy for the benefit of Dawn’s readers:

“If you ask these people whether they themselves would throw shoes at someone they do not like, they won’t answer you. But look deeper into their eyes and you have the answer all written large there. ‘Throw my shows at someone? Are you crazy? I am a civilised person for heaven’s sake! But if the Iraqi journalist did that, I understand him and I sympathise with him’.

“There you are! This sort of condescending is the key to the entire enigma. The western intellectual who is denying you the eye contact is, deep down, a neo-imperialist, although he doesn’t know it. He has this paternalistic approach towards the people from the Middle East and Africa. Not towards the Asians, by the way, whom he considers his rivals and whom he fears.

“If two people are having an argument whether it is day or night and this same intellectual is asked to arbitrate, he will pull a curtain over the window to block the blazing sunshine from view and check out first which one of the adversaries is in his eye socially, economically and ethnically disadvantaged. Truth belongs to him and not to the other guy who thinks it is daytime, according to the lights of our arbitrator.

“This is called relativism. When the Americans turned this nonsense into their religion in the 1970s, we the Europeans, in our arrogance of being the inheritors of the legacies of Newton, Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Kant and Goethe, had made fun of them. Truth has no relatives, we had said, and two plus two makes four … always has and always will.

“But then, we had rejected junk food, gay parades, baggy jeans, graffiti and rap music too. Today we are great consumers of all that as well as of relativism. The American tsunami will drown us all, until it runs down the gutter-hole where it belongs. For the moment, what Muntazer al-Zaidi did would be qualified as bad manners if we did that but from our US-imported relativist, patronising point of view, it is alright for an Iraqi to behave that way.

“The shoe is literally on the other foot!”

The writer is a journalist based in Paris.

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Getting ‘Bangalored’

By Keya Acharya

THE term ‘getting Bangalored,’ or having jobs outsourced from the West to this international IT hub, looks set to acquire another connotation — this time of professionals being fired right there.

The Union of Information Technology Enabled Services (UNITES) Professionals, India anticipates at least 50,000 job losses in the first half of the new year, owing to the global recession.

Ever since United States majors like General Electric and American Express shifted their back office processing operations to India in 1994-96, the world’s major corporations, from the airlines to banking industries, resorted to business process outsourcing (BPO) to this country, raising jobs from 553,000 in 2007 to the current 1.6 million jobs.

Tight labour markets in the US and Europe, linguistic capabilities, reliable and cheaper telephonic communication and operational costs together with a government setup that encouraged foreign direct investment with tax sops, have been major factors in the growth of India’s BPO sector.

India’s information technology enabled services (ITES) sector has been growing at a steady 30 percent rate over the past few years and overall sales in 2007-2008 stood at $52bn. But the slowdown in the US and European markets has led to sudden job losses that have raised new labour issues.

UNITES, created in 2005 with active support from the global Switzerland-based Union Network International (UNI), grew with this new and huge workforce and has been raising important questions about working conditions, gender discrimination, sexual harassment and employee rights.

Fifty per cent of UNITES members are from Bangalore, pointing to the city’s large concentration of India’s entire BPO sector, higher than the world’s emerging BPO centres in South Africa, Philippines, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

But the industry’s economic links to the US and Britain’s recessions have played havoc on the local scene, with at least 10,000 jobs in the industry being lost between September 2008 and December 2008. Others, mostly junior level executives, have taken salary cuts ranging from 25 per cent to as high as 75 per cent.

UNITES general secretary, Karthik Shekhar, a computer engineer, says the prediction of another 50,000 job losses has been estimated from the uncertainty of US president-elect Barack Obama’s new policy on outsourcing, the bail packages by the British government and financial institutions which may result in conditions being imposed on local jobs.

Shekhar also says the country’s lax laws and “the red carpet treatment extended by our government to foreign companies” are aiding these institutions to lay off workers without due benefits, and with insensitive handling.

UNITES members, Shekhar illustrates as example, have in some cases, discovered they had been ‘sacked’ when their entry-swipe cards stopped working abruptly or were given two hours’ notice to leave their workplaces.

India lacks laws on severance rights for workers in the IT sector. “There is no talking between parties here in India... companies, including multinationals who behave differently elsewhere, just refuse here,’’ says Shekhar.

UNITES faces opposition from the IT-industry’s National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) which represents only the companies or ‘employers’ and sees UNITES as a potential threat, given India’s history of confrontation between trade-unions and employer-companies.

A NASSCOM statement says that the association, after “research and interaction is not in favour” of the prediction of huge job losses in the wake of the downturn in the United States and other developed countries.

— IPS News
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Tuesday
Muharram 08, 1430
January 06, 2009

The Indian conundrum

By Shahid Javed Burki

FOR the past several decades, in fact going back to the early days of its existence as an independent state, Pakistan has not used trade and economic relations with the world outside as determinants of economic change and development.

This is unfortunate. As several countries in East Asia demonstrated so vividly, trade can play an important role in producing growth and in changing the structure of the economy.

Other types of economic relations with the world also matter. Among them are foreign capital flows and the involvement of diasporas in the development of the homeland. All three aspects of international economic relations are important for Pakistan if it is to emerge from the difficult economic situation it faces today and if it is to set the economy on the trajectory of long-term growth. If economics is to be the main reason for international relations, Pakistan must begin with the countries in its immediate neighbourhood. Of all the countries with which Pakistan shares borders, India matters the most.

This approach of not building strong economic relations with neighbouring countries was adopted soon after Pakistan gained independence. It has remained that way for more than six decades, and it once again threatens to affect how the country develops its economy. If Islamabad is to concentrate on economic development as the main focus of the government’s attention, it should adopt a very different approach towards India, its neighbour, compared to the one into which it is drifting because of the force of long-established habits.

There is a default position into which Pakistan retreats whenever relations with India become difficult. This needs to change. The change must also come in India which has its own default position of blaming Pakistan for many of its problems.

Pakistan has allowed its international economic relations to be determined by its strategic imperatives, the foremost of which was to protect itself from the perceived Indian threat. That initially the Indians and their government wished Pakistan ill was demonstrated by a number of measures adopted by New Delhi as Pakistan, a new political state, was struggling.

The government of Jawaharlal Nehru blocked the release of the funds owed to Pakistan by Britain in return for the war effort mounted by British India. The series of agreements that led to the creation of Pakistan, an independent state for the Muslims of British India, included apportioning British funds between the successor states of India and Pakistan. Once India and Pakistan became independent, New Delhi, that controlled the funds, refused to disburse them and give Pakistan its share. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s intervention did not persuade Nehru to adopt a gentler approach towards its sister state.

The authorities in Karachi, Pakistan’s first capital, drew the obvious conclusion: that the government headed by Nehru in India wished to strangle its neighbour at birth. This was in 1947-48 when Pakistan needed a great deal of support to establish an independent and functioning economy.

The impression that that may have been the Indian intention was further strengthened when two years later, in 1949, New Delhi suspended all trade with Pakistan. The reason for that move was the decision taken by Pakistan not to devalue its currency with respect to the US dollar. That was done by all countries that belonged to the British Commonwealth, including India. Pakistan refused to follow, believing (I think correctly) that given the demand for jute, its most important export, a lowering of its price through devaluation would not help the economy.

In retrospect it seems odd that a decision with respect to the rate of exchange for the domestic economy would be resented so much by a neighbouring country as to bring to a complete halt all trade. But that is what happened.

The Indian decision to apply such severe sanctions on Pakistan was to have significant consequences for the development of the country’s economy. For decades a succession of governments neglected the sector of agriculture in order to concentrate on the development of an industrial base. The policymakers in Karachi felt that they needed to have the new economy of Pakistan self-sufficient in most items of everyday consumption. Previously these were imported from India. With the need to move quickly, Pakistan, unlike India, gave space to the private initiative to develop the industrial sector. India had put the public sector on the commanding heights of the economy.

The Indians also took an aggressive approach towards the use of the waters of the Indus River system in the two Punjabs. Since they controlled a number of canal headworks, they could block the flow of water to the irrigation system that served Pakistan. In the early 1950s when the Indians threatened to divert water for their own use, Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, threatened war.

This problem was resolved a decade later when President Ayub Khan signed the Indus Waters Treaty with Prime Minister Nehru in 1960. The treaty resulted in the division of the tributaries of the Indus between India and Pakistan, with the Indians given the use of the eastern rivers (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej), while Pakistan was left with the Indus itself as well as Jhelum and Chenab.

One important consequence of the preoccupation with India and the perceived existential threat from the neighbour was to bring the military centre-stage of Pakistani politics. As President Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military leader maintained, only the military could take care of the country’s strategic interests. This perception was to be the basis of the military’s repeated intervention in the political system.

The military’s involvement in politics had a number of consequences for the development of the economy. Two of these are worth underscoring. First, it diverted a significant amount of the government’s resources towards defence. With the military claiming such a large share in public funds, not enough was left for economic and social development. Second, with the military intervening regularly, Pakistan opted for extreme centralisation in the style of governance it adopted. This put Islamabad in a commanding situation. The interests of the provinces were often neglected. This slowed economic progress.

Poor relations with India, therefore, pushed Pakistan in the direction in which it should not have gone. Looking at India from the prism of economics rather than that of national security would introduce a different set of dynamics to economic decision-making. Bringing about this reorientation requires both the exercise of political will and the education of the citizenry. n

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Cuban revolution at fifty

By Gwynne Dyer

I HAVE learned one thing from my various visits to Cuba over the years, and that is not to predict the demise of the regime. I did that sometimes in the past, if only to offer a bit of hope to various despairing individuals who thought that a visiting foreigner might know more about their future than they did themselves. But the brothers Castro are still there and they have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of their revolution.

Nevertheless, change may be lurking around the corner at last, for Barack Obama represents the greatest danger that the regime has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies 17 years ago. The survival of the regime is due in large part to the unremitting hostility of the United States, which lets it appeal to Cubans’ patriotism, and to the trade embargo that gives it an excuse for its economic failures.

Obama is clever enough to understand that the best way to kill the communist regime in Cuba is with kindness, and he has no domestic political debts that would keep him from acting on that insight. In particular, he owes nothing to the Cuban exile establishment in Florida, which mostly voted for Bush.

He could start right away by ending the rule that allows Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island only once every three years, and limits their remittances to $300 every four months. Even within the Cuban exile community in the United States those restrictions are controversial, as it is hard to see how they hurt the Cuban regime.

Once the question of where to send the remaining Guantanamo detainees has been resolved, Obama could close the base down entirely. Indeed, he could give the land back to Cuba as a free gesture, since it has no economic or strategic value to the United States. That would seriously undermine the communist regime’s argument that the United States is an implacable enemy that Cubans must confront with discipline and solidarity.

Then he could get to work on the ridiculous embargo on trade and travel to Cuba. The sanctions have been written into law in recent years, so he would need Congress’s assent to remove them. But if he got it, all the mechanisms of control built up by Fidel Castro over the past fifty years would probably begin to crumble.

The real question is: what happens then? The last time the fall of the Castro regime seemed likely, a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, I went to Cuba in the guise of a tourist (there’s nothing like having a baby along to make you look innocent) and talked to a great many people informally.

Most of them expected the regime to fall soon, and a majority (though not an overwhelming majority) welcomed the prospect. However, they were all frightened of what might come next, for two reasons. One was the fact that at least 10 per cent of the Cuban population — over a million people — were true communist believers, and they were armed to the teeth. Would they let their dream die without fighting to save it?

The other was that the exiles would come back from Miami and take over. Their money would let them buy up everything of value, and those who had endured decades of poverty under Castro would stay poor and marginalised. Even the few good things about “socialist” Cuba, like the healthcare system, would be destroyed.

Well, my last trip to Cuba was less than two years ago, and things had changed. The poverty, the oppression and the despair were the same, but the true believers who would kill and die to save the revolution were noticeably scarcer.

This visit was part of a project in which various western embassies, thinking that Fidel Castro’s illness might mean that big changes were on the way, brought in “experts” to talk to the Cuban elite about how things were done in democratic countries. It was pretty pointless work, frankly, but it did offer unusual access to the apparatchiks who really run the show in Cuba.

Most of the officials were about what you’d expect: loyal, fully institutionalised servants of the regime. But very few of them were passionate ideologues who would launch and fight a civil war to save it. Generational turnover had done its work, and these were just people who were glad to have their jobs and the few privileges that came with them.

Generational turnover has been at work in Miami, too. Fifty years on, the original generation of Cuban refugees is gradually giving way to an American-born generation who still care about the country, of course, but are much less interested in going back and re-creating the Cuba of the 1950s. n

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Let the buyer beware

By Amber Darr

IN the 17th century in England a man named Chandelor purchased from a man named Lopus a certain stone for the princely sum of one hundred pounds. The stone was reputed to have magical healing powers.

Soon after the purchase, however, Chandelor discovered that the stone had no powers whatsoever, let alone magical healing ones. Outraged, Chandelor took Lopus to court.

Before the court, Lopus dispassionately explained that although he had affirmed that the stone had healing powers, he had not warranted that it did. The court accepted Lopus’ argument. And while Lopus was allowed to keep the money, Chandelor was left merely with a stern warning: caveat emptor — let the buyer beware!

This warning resounded in the ears of consumers throughout Britain and the Empire until Britain enacted the Sale of Goods Act, 1893. This law provided some respite to consumers: a buyer could now examine goods supplied to him by the seller and reject these if they were not in accordance with the contract between them.

In certain circumstances, the buyer could cancel the contract and in others sue the seller for damages. Britain’s colonies and dominions welcomed this law and adopted it without much variation. In 1930, the Government of India followed suit and enacted the Sale of Goods Act, 1930. Post independence, Pakistan enacted the Federal Laws (Revision and Declaration) Act, 1951, under which it adopted a number of Indian laws. The Sale of Goods Act, 1930 was one of these.

For the next several decades, even as the nature of goods and services evolved, the rights of the Pakistani consumer remained dormant at 1950 levels. There was a ray of hope in 1985, when Pakistan adopted the newly formulated UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection. Adoption of the guidelines however did not automatically translate into progress in consumer rights within the country. It took Pakistan another 10 years to enact the first consumer protection law. Since then several more laws have been enacted on this subject. Has the enactment of these laws improved the lot of the Pakistani consumer compared to that of the hapless Chandelor?

The first consumer protection law enacted in Pakistan was the Islamabad Consumer Protection Act 1995. This was followed by the NWFP Consumer Protection Act 1997, the Balochistan Consumer Protection Act 2003 and the Punjab Consumer Protection Act 2005. Ironically, Sindh, home to Karachi, the economic hub of the country, to date remains without a consumer protection law. In 2004, Sindh had experimented with consumer rights by promulgating a Consumer Protection Ordinance, which would lapse in four months unless it was re-promulgated or converted into an act. The Sindh ordinance has since lapsed. From then onwards, other than paying occasional lip service to the protection of consumer rights, Sindh has allowed this matter to slide.

The striking feature of the Pakistani consumer protection laws is that these are provincial rather than federal laws. The reason for this is constitutional: according to Article 142 of the Constitution, for an item listed on the Federal Legislative List, only parliament has the power to legislate, for an item listed in the Concurrent Legislative List either parliament or the provincial assemblies may legislate and for an item not listed in either list, only the provincial assemblies may legislate.

Consumer protection is not listed in either list, therefore only the provincial assemblies are competent to legislate on this topic. While this has the advantage of enabling the provinces to make laws more suited to their specific conditions it has the inherent disadvantage of allowing the possibility of disparity on this issue across the country.

True to Murphy’s Law, the consumer protection laws are disparate: while the Islamabad, NWFP and Balochistan laws condemn “unfair trade practices”, the Punjab law allows claims on the basis of “deficiencies” and “defects”; while the Punjab law allows claims to be brought in respect of medical and legal services, the Islamabad, NWFP and Balochistan laws leave these out of their ambit; while the NWFP, Balochistan and Punjab laws place explicit and specific obligations on manufacturers the Islamabad law does not.

Consequently, the protection provided to consumers in Pakistan is, at best, uneven and a consumer travelling from one province to another does not know what protection he is likely to be entitled to should he purchase a product or avail of a service.

More disturbing than this disparity is the incompatibility of these laws with universally recognised principles of consumer protection detailed in the UN Guidelines. The most glaring instance of this is in the key area of availability of effective consumer redress. The NWFP, Balochistan and Punjab laws in Pakistan prove extremely inadequate on this count firstly because they presume a literate and sophisticated consumer who is aware of his rights, secondly because they mire him in procedural rules and thirdly because they purport to penalise him for bringing a vexatious claim.

The Islamabad Act had stipulated a simpler mechanism, which utilised the existing courts rather than setting up parallel ones. None of the later laws however followed this model.

The guidelines also mandate the protection of the economic interests of consumers by controlling restrictive and abusive trade practices. The Competition Ordinance, 2007 addresses some of these issues by seeking to check the creation of monopolies and cartels, prohibiting agreements that lessen market competition, and preventing deceptive market practices. The Competition Commission established in pursuance of this ordinance has already taken steps to check market abuses in a number of areas.

Given however that the actions of the commission have been challenged in the courts and that the ordinance itself is beset with constitutional as well as economic anomalies, it is too early to comment on their effectiveness.

The examination of these laws underscores Pakistan’s failure to foster a strong, coherent and uniform consumer protection policy. As a result, the Pakistani consumer, despite being made the subject of multiple laws, remains little better off than the unfortunate Chandelor.

Successive governments have relegated consumer rights to the backburner, not realising—or perhaps realising only well—that in promoting these rights they will be securing the welfare of the common man and strengthening the nascent foothold of democracy in the country. The PPP in its election manifesto had vowed that if elected it would reverse the order of priorities so that social policy objectives drive economic policy. It may consider taking the first step in this direction by setting out to provide meaningful protection to consumers. n

The writer is a barrister.

amber.darr@gmail.com

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OTHER VOICES : Sindhi Press

Generation capacity or funds?

Ibrat

A MEETING presided over by President Asif Ali Zardari has sanctioned the release of Rs7.5bn for power generation. It is claimed that by the end of January 2,700 MW of electricity will be generated. This decision … will help overcome the power crisis … to some extent…. But the … solution would be a temporary one and the power crisis could resurface.

It has become crystal clear that the power shortage in the country is not accidental. In fact power plants were not generating sufficient electricity and this led to the crisis. If they were generating 11,000 MW of electricity, the power needs of the country could be easily met. The meeting observed that the problem was not of generation capacity but the shortage of funds.

The implications of the energy crisis for the economy are huge. Owing to the acute shortage of electricity, the industrial sector particularly the textile industry, has suffered a lot.

The situation demands a review of independent power plants. … Despite being a private sector company, the KESC depends on the government. When such organisations run on a profit they continue production without sharing any profit with the government. But when there are outstanding dues, they suspend supply or stop production. … These private companies indulge in blackmailing the people and government and cause heavy losses to the economy….

The people have every right to know how the willfulness of a company is causing heavy losses to the public and the overall economy, and creating a crisis. In the process of considering the interests of all stakeholders, particularly the people and industry, all national resources should be galvanised on a war footing. — (Jan 3)

— Selected and translated by Sohail Sangi
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Thursday
Muharram 10, 1430
January 08, 2009

A new start


GIVEN the enormity of the problem, the road ahead is bound to be rocky and fraught with danger. But a new start seems to have been made in Pakistan’s tenuous and often stormy relationship with Afghanistan, and that is a huge positive in itself. The civilian set-up in Islamabad has managed to open up new lines of communication with Kabul, a move that bodes well for the fight against militancy which needs coordinated effort if it is to be successful. The acrimony that marred relations with our neighbour to the west started dissipating soon after Mr Musharraf vacated the presidency, a confirmation perhaps of reports that the bad blood between him and Mr Karzai may have been rooted more in a clash of personalities rather than national interests. That may be so, but the turning point came when the army started showing greater honesty of purpose under a new chief of staff who was quick to distance himself from politics. Unlike Gen Musharraf, Gen Kayani did not need to keep the bogey of terrorism alive to win favours from the West. Instead, acting on the directives of the government, the army became single-minded in its pursuit of the Taliban. This change of tack naturally went down well with Kabul. Mr Musharraf’s double-game of ‘tackling’ militancy and letting it flourish at the same time was obvious to all: to civil society in Pakistan as well as the leadership in Afghanistan. Things are different now.

Presidents Asif Zardari and Hamid Karzai took the changed relationship to a higher plane on Tuesday when they committed themselves and their countries to full cooperation in the fight against the mutual enemy, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers also signed a declaration calling for a “new visionary chapter” in relations between the two countries. That said, rapprochement between Islamabad and Kabul may not go down well with some other regional actors who could make it a point to try and derail the peace train.

The danger is self-evident and Kabul would do well not to play into the hands of third parties.

The Karzai-Zardari talks came on the heels of a visit to Kabul by Gen Parvez Kayani. A top US commander in Afghanistan has since confirmed that Pakistani and Nato troops are sharing intelligence in Operation Lionheart, which aims to quell insurgency on both sides of the Durand Line through action in Bajaur and Kunar. Cross-border infiltration from Pakistan is also on the decline, he said, as are Taliban attacks on allied troops. Whether this is on account of a winter lull or because the Taliban’s capacity has taken a hit in recent months remains to be seen. In any case, Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to have realised that they cannot go it alone.

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Political intrigue in AJK

FOR a region that figures so prominently in Pakistan’s national imagination, the goings-on in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly barely registered on the national radar. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan was unseated by a forward bloc of his ruling Muslim Conference that linked up with opposition parties, including the People’s Party of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (the local PPP). The vote in the 49-seat assembly was denounced by Sardar Attique, who accused the federal government in Islamabad of orchestrating his ouster. However, the truth is more complex. The prime minister’s downfall began when he alienated a faction of the MC supported by Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan, former prime minister and president of AJK. The complaints of the MC rebels read like a typical political chargesheet: corruption, inefficiency, arbitrary decision-making, sidelining the cabinet, spending too much time away from the capital, etc. Were it not for the rebel group, Sardar Attique’s government, which had a comfortable majority in the AJK assembly, would have faced no threat.

Yet it is also apparent that the no-confidence vote succeeded because the PPAJK, which has seven seats, supported it. In the end, the 25 votes (32 including the PPAJK) mustered by Mr Attique’s opponents were numerically enough in the 49-seat assembly, but it was the PPAJK’s addition that had a galvanising effect on the opposition. Aware of the PPAJK’s role, the pro-Attique camp lashed out on Jan 4 against unnamed federal ministers for attempting to “topple the elected Muslim Conference government through horse trading, coercion and inducement”. The rivalry between the

MC and the PPAJK, the two largest parties in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, is old, but intensified in 2006 when the Musharraf regime supported the MC and helped it capture a majority in the July election.

The regime is also believed to have encouraged a split in the PPAJK, which came to pass when Barrister Sultan Mahmood set up the People’s Muslim League and won four seats in the election. Since the election the PPAJK regularly vowed to bring down the ‘corrupt regime’ of the MC, something it has now helped achieve — although another faction of the MC will still head the government. All of this may seem par for the course in Pakistani politics. But with a democratic dispensation in Islamabad, the extent of the federal government’s influence on AJK politics needs to be questioned as well as whether or not this is aiding liberal politics in Kashmir.

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ISI speaks up

THE head of the Inter-Services Intelligence appears to have said all the right things in a rather candid interview with a German magazine. What Gen Pasha divulged should come as music to anyone interested in democracy in Pakistan and peace in South Asia. His remarks showed a clear understanding of the issues involved. That he took his orders from the president; that terrorism was the real enemy; and that there should be no war in the region are the right noises that were made. Given this nation’s history and scepticism with the army’s role in politics, on the face of it, what the ISI chief has said is refreshing. His stated willingness to go to India to help out with the Mumbai siege probe, if the government so decides, is also welcome. It is an indication that the army, for now, is only interested in its professional duties and not playing backdoor politics.

There will be some who may find faults with the ISI chief talking to the media or saying that he reported to the president as opposed to the prime minister, as the law of the land prescribes, but that’s nitpicking, really. Who else but the ISI should at all times have a good sense of reality? As the constitution stands today after Gen Musharraf’s tinkering with it the president is the pinnacle of state power for all practical purposes. That both the president and the prime minister represent the same governing party is a blessing that must be counted; there are no differences between the head of state and the head of government which in the past has been the cause of derailing the democratic process. Nothing that Gen Pasha said in his interview contradicts the government’s stated policy. Perhaps the exercise was meant to put a human face to the much maligned institution that he heads. Whether one interview where he sometimes used “accent-free” German to articulate his position is enough, or more will be needed, will become clearer in the days to come.

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OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press

Reckless war

The Jordan Times

BESIDES the unprecedented scale of death and destruction, the ruthless Israeli aggression on Gaza has triggered a massive humanitarian crisis. The rate of civilians killed by the Israeli air, sea and land bombardments is 40 to 50 per cent of the total number of the casualties.

This high level of civilian fatalities proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Israeli war machine is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

When this high figure of dead civilians is added to the picture of starvation, lack of water, medicine, bombardment of hospitals, schools, houses and other civilian infrastructure, the picture that emerges is one of a large-scale humanitarian crisis that, despite its size, seems to go unnoticed by the outside world.

... Effective international intervention is desperately needed. Killing 40 people sheltering in a school, or tens of worshippers praying in a mosque is no attack on “military” objectives. It is heinous crime, genocide, pure and simple.... — (Jan 7)

Wise budget

Oman Tribune

…THE Sultanate’s 2009 budget has been presented after a necessary revision owing to the wild fluctuation of oil prices internationally. What is remarkable about the functioning of those charged with implementing the budget is that they are willing to go back to the drawing board in the event of a major upheaval.…

... [T]he would-be critic should look around Oman and begin counting the ... projects ... launched and ... downsized or abandoned over the past five months ... [he] would find none. ... [A] number of [Oman’s] neighbouring countries… have been hit hard.... Oman is at times described as “laid back” but this criticism is not justified because it is due to this very cautious approach ... that Oman can claim that it would be able to minimise the impact of the global financial meltdown on itself. It is a matter of record that most countries ... are not able to meet the budgetary targets.... It is a matter of record too that Oman has consistently been able to meet its budgetary commitments.... — (Jan 5)

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Karbala and the spirit of unity

By Asha’ar Rehman

HUSAIN’S example keeps the spirits and heads high and the battles running. Pakistani newspapers stand testament to the Imam’s presence in all spheres of life and to his quality of uniting people around a cause that may initially have had the support of a few dozen souls.

For the crowd has grown in size and spread all over ever since a handful of committed souls took on the regime in the battle at Karbala, providing us with the most powerful metaphor against oppression.

There are more mentions of Karbala in the Pakistani discourse than any other event in history and the metaphor is used to describe all kinds of struggles — from a campaign against unreasonable or oppressive local authorities to a fight with national and international despots. The president of the country takes solace in the Husaini ideal as he presses his credentials as the heir to a legacy that is founded on the ultimate human sacrifice, of life. The lawyers’ movement is described by someone as the Husaini Qafela or caravan, the distress a Pakistani is faced with in everyday life is sought to be relieved by calling to mind the hardships the most revered of all came across in Karbala around 1,400 years ago, the reports about the alleged efforts to stop the flow of water to Pakistan are greeted with calls for invoking a Karbala-like spirit to fight these designs.

If this is not universal enough, we have rallying cries that woo the faithful to throw their weight behind the biggest identified cause of today: that of defeating the world power that has dared to undertake a conquest of land in and around Karbala on charges as flimsy as flimsy can be.

This is a selection of only a few random allusions to the Imam and the grand precedent he set at Karbala. A more detailed study would show innumerable other instances from present-day life where we lean on Imam Husain whenever we are pitted against the odds. Yet, the tendency is to long nostalgically about a past of greater harmony, a past of greater tolerance in society… a past free of television debates of now that boast one scholar each from ‘either school of thought’. The lament about the present is not without reason and even people not so old routinely talk about times that were so much better.

The old-timers are particularly perturbed by the brand of harmony being flaunted at public forums these days. Invariably, the narrative takes us to the period before this type of tokenism took such deep root in society that finding an anti-thesis to it became difficult. The youngsters who have grown up in times of rampant sectarianism listen to these repeated reminders about how things once had been with wonder, as if it was another country.

It is not that joint ceremonies have gone totally out of vogue. There are still gatherings, specially in Muharram, which draw people from all ‘schools’, but surely, the cultural lines are becoming more pronounced with the passage of time. Obviously, the need is for someone to emerge and speak for everyone around, relying on a common charter that brings people closer.

When, some 78 years ago, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the famous translator of the Holy Quran into English, addressed a Yaum-i-Ashur majlis in London, his topic was the universal acceptance of Hazrat Imam Husain’s sacrifice. The observations he made on May 31, 1931 are still valid for those laying a claim to the common legacy.Mr Ali began by speaking of “sorrow as a bond of union” and concluded his speech by highlighting that Husain’s example not only brought Muslims together but also held special attraction for non-Muslims. He said: “The martyr bears witness, and the witness redeems what would otherwise be called failure. It so happened with Husain. For all were touched by the story of his martyrdom... And Muharram has still the power to unite the different schools of thought in Islam, and make a powerful appeal to non-Muslims also.”

The need is to go beyond the officially-convened meetings of ulema of “all shades” for ensuring peace in Muharram. This is a moment of reflection for all those who can and who must preach unity over and above the duty they may feel towards representing their school.

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Gazprom turns tables on West

By Mark Almond

RUSSIA’S energy giant, Gazprom, is at the heart of a new cold war pitting the Kremlin against Washington. In the old Cold War, Soviet gas still flowed west at the height of rows between Reagan and Brezhnev — but post-communist Russia is proving less pliant than the “evil empire”.

Gazprom is at the heart of modern Russia. Its former chairman is the country’s president, and many key executives work part-time in the Kremlin. It is, above all, not only Russia’s biggest company but the world’s biggest energy supplier. Back in the sleepy Brezhnev days it was run like your local gas board with as much geopolitical significance. Now the West’s fear is that Gazprom is beginning to play a role like that of America’s oil companies or BP in the days when the West’s energy interests determined who ran countries such as Iran.

Gazprom’s dispute with Ukraine is multilayered. The West prefers to focus on the strategic significance of Russia’s desolate neighbour, while the Russians put money first. It makes sense for Washington to see the issue solely in great power terms because America doesn’t depend on Gazprom like the EU.

Last month, in the dying days of the Bush administration, Kiev signed a “strategic partnership” with Washington. Keeping Russia hemmed in is why Ukraine matters to America. Apart from its status as a geopolitical pawn, Ukraine is little more than a pipeline route for Gazprom’s exports.Washington’s indignation about a Russian energy oligarch sitting in the Kremlin does not extend to Ukraine’s energy oligarch, Yulia Tymoshenko, sitting as prime minister in Kiev. Qualifying as a market economy used to be about buying cheap and selling dear, but now politics trumps economics in western estimations.

Although its EU allies pay around $500 per unit, Washington wants Gazprom to subsidise the anti-Russian coalition government in Kiev by charging the poor Ukrainians only $175. Gazprom’s response is market economics red in tooth and claw.

The West wanted Russia to be a market economy, but Russia never asked how countries become market economies. Is a political-economic juggernaut like Gazprom just a relic of the Soviet days? Didn’t so-called chartered companies — monopolies in effect — like the East India or Hudson Bay companies play a huge role in the development of Britain’s model market economy? Without their protected profits and ability to call on the government in London to back up their trading practices with power, would Britain’s economy have taken off 300 years ago?

This spat at the gas tap has hit Western Europe, but the region is yesterday’s growth market so far as Gazprom is concerned. Apart from Britain, where the blinkered market-makers set free by Tony Blair failed to anticipate demand, let alone invest to meet it, there are no new importers from Russia in the EU.

New pipelines via the Baltic to Germany and through the Balkans to Italy are primarily to cut out the risk of destitute ex-communist states “doing a Ukraine” and siphoning off unpaid gas while demanding their rich EU partners stick up for them in Moscow.

Gazprom is looking for new clients, and US policy helps. American sanctions on Iran suit Russia well; Washington has pressed Turkey not to buy gas from Iran, so Gazprom offers the alternative. Chaos in Afghanistan has hit the prospect of a pipeline from Turkmenistan to India — which, with Japan and above all China, is tomorrow’s market for Gazprom. While Western Europe sweats over whether to pressure Ukraine to pay so Russian gas can flow, or to fight Washington’s new cold war by proxy, Moscow is building new routes east and south. Medvedev announced a new pipeline to China on entering the Kremlin.

Western triumphalists marked Russia down for inevitable decline. Certainly so long as Yeltsin let his crony capitalists plunder the country and deposit the loot in London and New York, pessimism was justified. Now, however, Russia’s capitalist crew are not fly-by-night asset-strippers but ruthless capitalist politician-businessmen of the sort Britain used to produce.

Gazprom’s executives are the 21st-century equivalent of Britain’s 18th-century pioneers of unscrupulous national power and wealth. Suddenly, yesterday’s proponents of the unbridled free market have discovered a distaste for the brute realities of supply and demand. Rather like poker players who have won all the chips on the table, western states recognise that the odds will turn sharply against them, so they insist on the economic equivalent of a whist drive. But will the hard young men running Gazprom take up this granny’s game?

The writer is a history lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford University.

— The Guardian, London
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Dear, thats good, we will be looking for material on global trade linkages from ur part.
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Saturday
Muharram 12, 1430
January 10, 2009

Belated resolution


THE Security Council has finally acted — and that hardly deserves three cheers. With the US, that under the circumstances deserves to be called Israel’s patron saint, abstaining, the world body’s executive arm passed on Thursday a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. This came 13 days after Israel launched its blitz. By the time the vote was taken, the number of dead, mostly Palestinian civilians, had climbed to 800, with over 3,000 wounded. Calling for a “full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza”, the resolution took note of the humanitarian disaster in the Strip and called for the opening of all border crossings. At the time of writing, neither Hamas nor Tel Aviv had accepted it. The US helped draft the resolution, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained why her country had abstained, saying it was waiting to see the outcome of Egyptian mediation. The diplomats at the UN council were disappointed because the American abstention meant less pressure on Israel to heed the call. It is interesting to note that Rice talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert four to five times, and diplomatic circles say President Bush changed his mind at the last minute and decided to abstain.

The Security Council’s procrastination in passing a resolution has enabled Israel to continue killing a large number of civilians. On Friday, Israel attacked 30 targets in Gaza, and flattened a five-storey building, killing seven people, including an infant. Earlier, once again with a view to hitting a large group of Palestinian civilians, Israel shelled a UN school where refugees had sheltered, slaughtering 42 civilians, and on Thursday it fired on people fleeing their homes, leaving 24 dead. The Red Cross has also complained that Israel has been firing at ambulances and aid workers. This is in keeping with the Israeli government’s lust for Palestinian blood — Deir Yassin, Jenin and, in Lebanon, Sabra-Chatila, Qana I and Qana II.

Rice now wants the Palestinian Authority to govern the Gaza Strip. This view is open to debate since the Hamas dispensation was voted to power in both Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Ismail Haniye as prime minister, even though he enjoyed the assembly’s majority, and nominated Salam Fayyad, an independent, in his place. By a decree, Abbas did away with the need for the prime minister to obtain a vote of confidence from the House. A ceasefire is only a step towards halting the present slaughter. A durable peace in the land will be possible only when Israel accepts UN resolutions 242 and 338 and follows up on the Oslo process. Without the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state, the region will continue to see bloodshed and turmoil.

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Kasab and Durrani

MAKING a mountain out of every molehill appears to be the federal government’s speciality. The confirmation that Ajmal Kasab is Pakistani should not have created a controversy; Kasab’s nationality was an open secret and as early as Dec 12 this paper published a detailed account of a meeting with an elderly man in Faridkot who claimed to be Kasab’s father. But the bungled announcement, subsequent denials and then confirmations, and the sacking of National Security Adviser Mehmud Durrani shone a spotlight on the disarray at the apex of decision-making. What can be gleaned from the news thus far is this: the intelligence agencies confirmed to the government that Kasab is a Pakistani; the decision about when and how to announce Kasab’s nationality was left to the government; and the government was preparing to make an announcement when Dawn News broke the story of official confirmation of Kasab’s nationality. What happened next is a classic tale of bumbling officialdom, culminating in Prime Minister Gilani summarily firing Gen (retd) Durrani.

The incident has raised fresh questions about the government’s ability to keep its top officials on the same page at the same time. Once Kasab’s nationality had been determined, why did the government not chalk out a clear plan for making an announcement and share it with every official likely to face questions from the media? And once Mehmud Durrani pre-empted the government and shared the information on Kasab with the media, what was to be gained by dismissing him on the spot? In principle, the prime minister has every right to dismiss anyone in his government who has lost his confidence. But it is odd to fire the national security adviser for causing ‘embarrassment’ to the PM by stating the truth. In doing so, Mr Gilani has sent an unfortunate signal that the messenger is more important than the message. Surely the focus should have been on demonstrating Pakistan’s seriousness to the outside world in investigating local links to the Mumbai attacks. Instead, the big story became petty score-settling at the expense of the national interest. The sensible thing to have done was to quickly arrange a press conference on the Kasab information and punish the national security adviser for his indiscretion at a later date. Unfortunately, the failure of good sense has led to the inevitable: frenzied speculation about rifts between the president and the PM and between the security establishment and the government.

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Yet another inferno

THE new year in Karachi has begun on a tragic note as approximately 40 people — a large number of them children — have died in a blaze that ripped through a North Karachi slum in the wee hours of Friday morning. More than 25 have been injured and dozens of hutments, home to over 200 people, were engulfed by the raging flames. The death toll could rise as hospital sources claim that more than half of the wounded are critical. As scores writhe in pain and grief, the provincial health minister has served up a familiar excuse — he believes that the fire was sparked by a power wire that fell on the huts. Regardless of the fact that more than half of the metropolis’s population lives in slums, government officials are surprisingly unmindful of the planning hazards that surround such shanty towns. This particular settlement, for example, is enclosed by three larger buildings; therefore, police officials believe that the number of casualties mounted because the sole escape route was blocked by the inferno.

The past is, regrettably, always another country as once again relevant departments seem to have paid negligible heed to the dismal figures of frequent fires in 2008 when over 200 major and minor incidents were reported. Meanwhile, what is even more lamentable is the fact that unless an incident involves a high-profile life or area, investigations throw up very little by way of identifying the triggers and then providing adequate compensation to both survivors and bereaved families. Perhaps, this catastrophe can become the catalyst for the elected dispensation to activate health and safety bodies to implement stringent measures that prevent fires, supervise relevant inquiries and make town planners and nazims accountable for such large-scale destruction. Last but not least, it is imperative that such a body oversee emergency services such as fire brigades, bomb disposal squads and ambulances as their abysmal performance and lack of expertise often turns a minor incident into a widespread calamity. Unless a definite accountability mechanism is put in place, Karachi will remain besieged by tragedies that can be prevented.

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OTHER VOICES - Sri Lankan Press

Dissent is an act of faith

Daily Mirror

THE elements that raised their weapons [at] Lasantha Wickrematunge last morning, belie all interpretations of democracy that we as a society believed in.

The bullets that were fired on him not only deny us the faith we had [in] democracy in general and personal freedoms in particular, but also play with our ability to relate to simple truths we held as sacred.

For a country that has gone through the worst in human history, yesterday’s brutal attack is ... a sad reflection of our society’s inability to tolerate political dissent. Lasantha’s journalism was such that he made many enemies from all divides of society.

He knew the danger to his life in his attempt to uphold truth and justice but was determined to carry out what he believed was his duty towards both journalism and the country. He believed in the strength of an aware society to fight social injustice and dedicated his life to such. He just didn’t bargain for the weaknesses of that same society....

No country that lays siege to its media can hope to progress or ever hold its head high in dignity. Coming barely days following the attack on an electronic media institution, Lasantha’s killing poses a serious threat to society as a whole, and raises ... question[s] [about] how secure it is for any of us anymore.

His killing must deserve our condemnation not merely because it denied a journalist his right to an opinion, but more because it denied the people their right to know. These are not the workings of a society even close to democracy, leave alone [on the] path to progress.

It is an undeniable truth that Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous locations for journalists to operate in. The level of killings, abductions, threats and intimidations to journalists is a sad manifestation of how intolerable we have become, as a society, to opposing views. The long-term consequences of such intolerance cannot be condoned by any right thinking people, because therein lies the degradation of society as a whole, and the threat to every citizen.

No amount of condemnation, official or otherwise, can compensate for the inhumanity that made this killing possible. And it is not only the cruelty of the killing and the inhumanity of the process that led to the death that we must condemn. It is the very elements of a social system that allows for such deaths to take place and also provides refuge to the culprits of such heinous crimes that we must find a means to end.

The government must be mindful of the danger that such insecure societies provide to its own profile in the international arena. Unless and until the government launches an investigation and provides answers to the questions raised, its own ability to govern would be left open to debate. Such a scenario is ... undesirable....

If dissent, as they say, is an act of faith in a democracy then it failed both Lasantha the journalist and us as a people, miserably yesterday. The cowardly act lay bare the fragility of the democracy we believed we could find refuge in and the vulnerability of anyone attempting change.

Ironically, nothing will contribute to the threat to all our freedoms more than our apathy towards such a system and provide strength for it to prevail. Every society that watches in mere disdain and the political or social entities that refuse to remedy this great injustice to humanity take upon themselves the responsibility of removing the very faith ... place[d] on truth and justice; both elements that Lasantha Wickrematunge attempted very hard to uphold and paid a heavy price for… — (Jan 9)

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Citizens, Sepa and sewage

By Naeem Sadiq

“KARACHI’s sewage disposal problem is a reality which cuts across sectors, affecting the whole city’s health, environmental quality and development,” — Arif Hasan

Imagine for a moment that each time you pull the lever of your toilet flush, the contents flow down and spread around the periphery of your house.

In a few months, you are likely to end up with a large, nauseating sewage pond that is home to germs and deadly disease. How many of us are aware that we are, perhaps inadvertently, guilty of such misconduct? Each time we use the flush, and the untreated sewage waste makes its way to the Indian Ocean, we become party to the crime of creating a sprawling gutter around our city.

Karachi dumps over 370 million gallons of raw untreated sewage daily into the sea, turning its coasts into cesspools of rancid water and latent pandemics. Laden with E.coli and harmful chemicals, the toxic waste is destroying coastal and marine habitats. It also causes skin ailments, gastroenteritis and urinary tract infections to the general public especially those living near the seaside, besides posing a serious threat to the livelihood of fisherfolk and to tourism.

Connecting people’s homes to clean piped water and to sewers for environment-friendly waste disposal — often referred to as ‘the sanitary revolution’ — is seen as the most important medical milestone since 1840. Many considered it to be more significant than the invention of antibiotics, vaccinations or the discovery of the structure of DNA. However, after over 60 long years, we have neither clean water in our pipes nor a safe disposal mechanism for our sewage. How far are we from achieving the ‘sanitary revolution’ and what are we doing to make it happen?

The three available sewage treatment plants — STP, 1, 2 and 3 — intended to treat Karachi’s 430 million gallons of sewage, have the limited capacity to treat just about 150 million gallons per day. With STP 2 no longer working and STPs 1 and 3 handling only 60 MGD, we are left with over 370 million gallons of homegrown, untreated waste that makes its way into the Indian Ocean every day. A new treatment plant, STP 4, has been under discussion and in the pipeline for many years.

However, there is a bright chance that, like thousands of our ghost schools, this project too might become yet another ghost initiative and fail to see the light of the day. The reason is simple: 365 acres of the 465 acres of land allocated for this project have already been granted to private parties and that too on a 30-year lease, leaving about 100 acres, which is not adequate for a new treatment plant.Thus, a crucial need of the city and its first step in the journey to a ‘sanitary revolution’ may have been pushed back by another 30 years. Clearly, the government’s mafia-like desire to acquire and distribute land far exceeds its concerns for the fundamental development needs of the city.

Needless to say, the Sindh government is blessed with an agency called the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and a provincial minister for environment. The agency has been established to ensure protection of the environment and to take action against those who violate prescribed environmental rules and standards.

Meanwhile, the treatment of the city sewage is the responsibility of the city government. To dump it in the ocean is unlawful and a violation of the government’s national environmental quality standards (NEQS). It is therefore mandatory that Sepa not remain silent and use its authority to put an end to the crime of 370 million gallons of daily environmental pollution.

If Sepa is perceived as exercising firm authority over state-sponsored pollution, it stands a far stronger chance to control hundreds of lethal, pollutant-producing industries that do not meet the NEQS. Therefore, the time to think more seriously about the final destination of our flushed contents is, undoubtedly now.

naeemsadiq@gmail.com

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Recycling chain collapses

By Tania Branigan

THE scrap trader was immovable, despite Wu Wenxiu’s pleas. She would pay one yuan — roughly 10 GB pence — for a kilogram of plastic. Around the corner in Shi Yuhai’s yard, the offer was no better. Wu shrugged his shoulders and began to heave bags from his tricycle on to the scales. “One kuai [yuan] here, one kuai there — everywhere’s the same these days. This industry has broken down,” he grumbled.

Wu is one of 160,000 collectors in Beijing who make a living from the detritus of urban life — plastic sheeting, office printouts, bottles, radiators and scraps of cardboard. Recycling has become a global industry and China is the largest importer of the world’s waste materials. Then came the slump.

“It’s a canary in the coalmine: it’s the front and back end of industry,” said Adam Minter, who runs the Shanghai Scrap blog and specialises in the metal trade. “Until about eight weeks ago, for example, the entire [US] west coast paper market was sent to China and most of it was sent south. It was processed and made into packaging for products that then shipped back to the US ... But when US consumer demand dropped off, that broke the cycle.”

Across the scrap trade, prices have halved or worse in a matter of months. Each link in the chain is disintegrating, from factories to scrapyards to collectors such as Wu, 56, a former farmer who now plans to return to Hubei province.

Official media reported that four-fifths of China’s recycling units had closed and that millions will eventually be left without employment.

Dongxiaokou, on the outskirts of Beijing, is a village composed of scrap: blocks of crushed metal are stacked in a tower, heaps of plastic bottles glint in the sunshine and piles of newspapers and rags fill yards. But the merchants all have the same story — they have lost tens of thousands of pounds in a few months, wiping out years of hard work.

Shi puffed on a cigarette as he counted out notes for Wu. “I’ve been in this business for 15 years and it’s been bad before, but never this severe. Everyone’s lost a huge amount of money and some can’t sell their stock,” he said. “Usually we sell to factories and they recycle them into plastic chips. But the price of chips has dropped so it’s had a knock-on effect on us.”

This area deals in domestic waste rather than imports, but Shi said every part of the industry had been affected.

Beijing dealers have taken a particularly hard hit. They stockpiled large quantities of recyclables because prices were soaring, but as the market began to soften, the Olympic security clampdown prevented trucks from entering the capital. The merchants could only watch as the value of their holdings plummeted.

“In a good year we can earn about 50,000 yuan but this year we lost 200,000,” said Gong Rongchuan, 45, whose yard lies across the rutted alley from Shi’s. “We came here more than 10 years ago and at the beginning we collected ourselves. Then we managed to start the business. We were too poor to get loans but we managed to borrow 100,000-200,000 from friends and relatives and we work from morning to night every day. But we haven’t paid them all back because of our losses.”

Minter says the predicament is typical. “People would borrow money from relatives and buy a container of scrap and then throw all that money back in and reinvest it. Great if it goes up — but the moment it starts slipping, especially if it’s slipping 20-30 per cent, you’re finished,” he said.

Gong said: “Once we have sold all this stock we’ll leave. My son’s sorting it because we can’t afford workers any more. We haven’t figured out what to do next. We have seven people in the family and only 2.5-3 mu [roughly 0.2 hectares] of farmland. It’s too many people and too little land, so even if we go home there’s not much we can do. We have both old and young to support.”

Like 80 per cent of the merchants in this area, she comes from a single county, Gushi, in impoverished Henan province. “One of the officials came up here and cried when he saw how bad business was,” said another trader from Gushi.

The effects can be felt across China. Most of Gong’s customers were plastics recyclers in Wen’an, Hebei, where by one estimate 93 per cent of income depends on the trade. Some are already bankrupt. Wen’an Dongdu Jiacheng Recycling Resources is clinging on.

But Miss Han, a materials buyer, said all but three of the 26 production line workers had been sent home for the new year holiday more than a month early. There is no longer demand for plastic granules from nearby companies such as Hongkai Plastic Products, which made items such as bicycle handlebars. Its owner, Mr Zheng, has sent 20 workers home. “My factory was hit by the economic crisis — it’s been closed for two months already,” he said. “We usually sell our products to a dealer and most of his business is exports. He didn’t give us any more orders.”

At a factory down the road, the response to queries was more brusque. “We’ve already gone bust,” said a man, and hung up.

— The Guardian, London
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