Saturday, January 28, 2006

Bangladesh Border : Killings Continue ...

When I visited Hilli, a border town of India alongside Bangladesh back in 1992, I noticed a few points of border economy of India. People, in 'collaboration' with BSF and BDR, has established a virtual 'free trade' with the other side of the border. The main 'export' item was cattle, sugar and rice, whereas the 'import' item was petrol and diesel. The trade used to fund the local clubs and small organizations, as well as bigwigs like Adhir Chaudhury(MP, Murshidabad, WB). The business was well-structured to avoid the tarriffs between two countries. The border was as porous as it would have been in any other populous borders.

The things started to change since 2000, mainly due to political interests. Firstly, the right-wing BJP govt tried to establish a threat caused by infiltration from Bangladesh. The terrorists working out of their 'den' in the other country was a common notion in both India and Bangladesh. The relationship worsened with the border-fencing started in Bengal, and the protests along the border. The border fences left 150 yards of land to the other side of the border, in accordance to Bangladesh-India defence agreement in 1975 and various other international treaties. Secondly, the rise of Congress in the border areas to counter the CPM hegemony in West Bengal. This concern has triggered CPM to join the anti-infiltration rheotics.

The change in political climate did affect the behavior of BSF as well. They are now ordered to go 'offensive' to stop infiltration. The BSF responded with regular killings in the border. Yes, the count is 377 in 2000-2005. This 'political will' to 'stop Bangladesis at their border' did not stop, hence, the killing continues. But, the smuggling business continues its' growth, completely in accordance with common-sense economic theory.

Though the damage is significant in both sides, why none of the interested parties are inviting the other in a bilateral dialogue? The answer is in multi-party 'immature' democracies of both nations. Some of the political parties of Bangladesh will always try to portray India as evil to gain popularity in Bangladesh. Similarly in India, the prime accused was Pakistan. But, along with the peace-process with Pakistan, the Pak-card is losing its' glamour. Hence, the easy alternative, is Bangladesh. The recent rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh fuelled that anti-Bangladesh stance among Indian political parties. It's a known tactics around the world that parties amend their failure at home by pointing out towards neighbours. Indian failure to curb North-East insurgencies is guiding Indian politicians to raise fingers at Bangladesh. Similarly, their Bangladesh counterparts are pointing towards India for their trade imbalance and development roadblocks. All these people want the problem to stay for years so that they don't run into shortage of 'foreign' issues in local politics. The million-dollar question is : How long will we be playing puppet to our politicians? Looking at the current world, well, only God knows.

Some other interesting updates on this issue from Anandabazar Patrika. The report is on vilage Karimgunge, Assam, where the village young men are guarding routinelytheir properties from Dacoits of the other side of the border. They themselves have arranged a 'chowki' for BSF to protect their village. They are also collaborating with border fencing program.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Stuck in Shallow waters

In my last blog, I discussed about how non-muslims are taking part in West Bengal madrassas. In this one, I will discuss about why West Bengal muslims are still struggling to get out of 'shallow waters' - to join mainstream education. The article I would like to take as benchmark, is written by a couple of Muslim educationists of West Bengal.

The facts they pointed out are :
1) Indian literacy rate still has weaker impact among socially backward communities, like 59%(Muslims), 52% (SC/STs), females (54%) against all-India average of 65% (2001 cencus). The literacy is lower among rural areas (59%), a figures that could have got worse if slums in cities would have counted inside it.
2) Coming to West Bengal case, 30% Muslim children never really enroll in schools, whereas the overall state average 14.2%. The literacy rate for Muslims (47%) is still way behind of that of Hindus(72%).
3) In India, only 3% of Indian Muslim children in age group 7-15 enrolls in madrassas, the rate is 5% in West Bengal. There are many Bengali Muslim children who attend both mainstream education and madrassa education, similar to what is popular in Kerala. These 'maqtab's complement the secular mainstram education.
4) It is a failure of West Bengal government not to cover all sections of society. The needs are - attention to the education in Muslim majority areas, provide hostel facilities to Muslim girls and recognition of madrassas.

The whole article missed an important point that I would like to take into account, is the poverty of Muslims in West Bengal. The people in South Bengal still dominates the rest in all fields, and they're really way ahead of others. This is partly because of they were the first among the country to adopt science and social reforms. They were the first in India to adopt to knowledge based jobs under the British govt. Hence, the edge they have, both economically and socially, is unlikely to disappear. At the same time, the Muslims are still mostly rural, stuck in poverty. To bring them to mainstram jobs, major education reforms are to be introduced, the sooner the better, at least before this 'class difference' translates into a 'class hatred'.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Hindus in Bengal Madrassa

While Madrassas are blamed across the world for preaching 'radical Islam', here's a new story to think twice. The country known for its' tolerance and secular views, has come up once more with what it should be the way to achive religeous harmony. Yes, the non-muslims are to be integrated in Madrassa education system. Non-muslims students and teachers are to be part of Islamic studies. This is not only can boost religeous tolerance, but also smashes the wall between the communities. The report from Outlook did not only amazed myself on the extent of secularism India practises, but also made me proud of Bengali culture.

There are some facts quoted in the report :
1) 12% of total 329,000 Madrassa students are Hindus. Some cases, the figure goes upto 33%(Elmenoor Barkatia High Madrassa in North 24 Parganas).
2) The syllabus is same as regular schools and the certificates are recognized by everyone. The cost of study is nominal. There are no discrimination between muslims and non-muslims on fees.
3) They are co-educational, in fact there are more girls than boys. Both girls and boys sit and study in the same classroom, without any veils.
4) The schools/Madrassas are equally eqipped with science labs and computers.
5) Islamic studies are taught not by 'mullah's, but by teachers appointed through West Bengal School Service Comission.
6) Madrassas cater to extremely poors and mostly first-generation learners.
7) Madrassas in Bengal took part in Polio eradication program, in collaboration with UNICEF.
8) Madrassa teachers enjoy same pay-scale of regular teachers.
9) 85% of those who take secondary exams through Madrassas, go onto study in regular courses afterwards.

While the whole of India is still fighting to get people out of illiteracy, adoption of this alternative but existing infrastructure of education will not only wipe out illiteracy from India, but also, promote tolerance among Indians. On the other hand, the Madrassas should not stop at this point, they should carry on with Vocational training and technical educations as well. The world would come to know, that the best way to eradicate extremists from religion, is to modernise religeous education.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Free Media in Pakistan : A Distant Dream

Of late, I came across a news in BBC on human rights report of South Asia. The US-based Human Rights Watch, has published a report on human rights abuses in South Asia. The picture drawn is more or less gloomy, but reportedly there are some ray of hopes for India. The report slammed all South Asian nations for being non-commital to peoples' rights.

A day later, I came across a report on HRW publication in a Pakistani newspaper. It was a real surprise to me. The entire edition of the newspaper did not talk about Pakistani record mentioned in HRW reports, but it covered the Indian fault lines under the heading "Indian human rights record faulted by HRW". The news did not only distorted the truth, but also presented the news in an exactly opposite note of what it should have been. Moreover, the main concern for a nation, its' own human rights record, published at the same time under the same report, has not been mentioned at all.

While it was known to me that The Daily Times is one of the progressive newspapers, the condition of the overall news Industry can be well-estimated from this little incident. The Army ruler is promoting Nationalism (or Fascism) through his censored newspapers. Unfortunately, the best way to promote Nationalism, is again to rebuke India. Although, there are claims from my Pakistani friends in orkut, that Pakistani media is 'free' under the current regime, it is hard to digest after this shocking proof of anti-India report. The same attitude was reflected late last year, when Pakistan banned broadcast of BBC Urdu news service, as it was severely critical on Army for the delay in relief operations in earth-quake devastated areas.

Why Pakistani Military rulers need the onslaught on India? The intention is clear from this report - to hide their own poor performance. And the unelected leader stays in power, till the people has a feeling of better days with him. So, freedom of media - is still a distant dream in Pakistan.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Asian Highway Through Bangladesh : The Role Of Myanmar

In my past article, I have discussed the implications of Bangladesh refusing transit to India. However, Bangladesh didn't totally objected the Asian Highway plan, but they want Asian Highway - 1 to be re-routed through Mynamer. In this article, I will discuss the feasability of that alternative plan.

Equation of Trade
Myanmar runs trade surplus against both Bangladesh and India. India is their second largest exporter and third largest business partner. US imposed a sanction on import and investment on Myanmar from 1997. Since then, China, India and the Asean became the major revenue earner for Myanmar. In this unipolar world, facing a US sanction, Myanmar therefore needs support from both India and China to survive.

Political Power
Myanmar is ruled by their Military 'junta' from 1962. Though the Army ruler Ne-win gave up power in 1988, the democracy never really came back to the country. As the nations Nobel winner leader Aung San Suu Ki remains arrested, the junta pile up money at the cost of common people. The junta are actively involved in several human rights abuse cases, most of them to suppress peoples' right.

Asian Highway and Myanmar
Given the above political and economical background, it is obvious that Myanmar will like to get linked to India, China and ASEAN countries through this Asian Highway. Next question is, what is about the link with Bangladesh?

The Asian Highway proposed route by Bangladesh runs through Tenkaf in Chittagong to Arakan province in Myanmar. Rakhine (Arakan) province has been troublesome for Yangon (Myanmar capital) for some years. It is reported that 40 percent of its population is Muslim, known as Rohingya, derived from "Rohang", ancient name of the Rakhine province. Hence, the route from Myanmar to Bangladesh was consistently objected to by Myanmar from late 70s during ESCAP meetings. The objection is believed to be for reasons of national security. It continues to remain the same. All is not well in that province because thousands of Rohingyas have occasionally fled from Myanmar and taken refuge in Bangladesh, first in 1978 and then in 1991 and in 1997. The net result - Myanmar does not agree on transnational route through Arakan province to Bangladesh and has been comfortable to re-route the Highway through India's northeastern states.

Geo-political reality
Bangladesh and India are neighbours. This geographical reality cannot be changed. Bangladesh has to develop a range and pattern of economic relations with India that will help Bangladesh to achieve a high rate of economic growth. Because of the economic size and strength of India, the distribution of gains from economic cooperation will not always be equal between the two countries. But the bottomline should be - whether Bangladesh has gains or not. Bangladesh may not compare its gains with that for India on each sector. To evaluate differential gains for each country is a challenge for Bangladesh policy makers. It is a delicate balancing act and does not correspond to a neat mathematical formula.

As I concluded earlier, Bangladesh government may seriously reconsider its position in respect of signing the Asian Highway network for long-term interest. The public have the right to know from the government how refusal to sign the Asian Highway agreement serves the national interest. Let there be a public debate on this important issue, if it does not take place in the Parliament.

Courtesy : The Daily Star

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Why What’s Good for India Is Good for US

In this article in Yahoo! Finance, Charles Wheelan has tried to draw the need for greater US-India cooperation. Unlike others, he has pointed out how US will gain out of it, both morally and economically. At the end, he tried to adress the problems arised out of growing India, and a optimistic conclusion to it.

I spent two weeks last month in India, one of the most fascinating places on the planet. Where else can you stroll through the gleaming high-tech Bangalore campus of Infosys only hours after getting stuck in a traffic jam on a major highway caused by a collision between a tractor and an ox cart?

So far, India has attracted mainstream attention mostly as the place where the guy booking your airline ticket -- or transcribing your medical records or even preparing your taxes -- happens to be sitting. That’s true enough. But India is far more than a telemarketing curiosity, and "outsourcing" is only a tiny piece of the economic transformation going on there. Having grown at roughly 6 percent a year for the past decade with the potential to do even better, India is likely to be one of the most important economic stories of the next decade.

America has a huge stake in that success -- even as some jobs migrate across the Indian Ocean. Indeed, here are four reasons we should hope that the next decade in India is at least as good as the last decade has been.

Because it's world's largest democracy

If we’re going to promote democracy around the globe, particularly as a solution for what ails the Middle East, then we ought to wish success upon the world’s largest and most vibrant democracy. India has a billion people, 22 official languages, and so many ethnicities that everyone is a minority. If democracy can work here, it can work anywhere.

And it is working. Indians vote in far higher numbers than Americans, even when it means trekking for hours to the closest polling place. India’s government is plodding, fractious, and permeated by corruption. But it has also brought stability, the rule of law, and respect for individual rights to a place that looks ungovernable on the surface. And did I mention that India has the world’s third largest Muslim population?

Because it's where large number of starving people live

If you don’t care about starving people, then skip to number three. If you do, then India matters a lot.

It’s just basic math; roughly a third of the world’s poor live in India. Robust economic growth will help these people far more than any check you might mail to one of those places that sends you free return address labels.

It’s already started. India’s growth over the past several decades has lifted some 100 million people out of dire poverty.

Economic gains for US by a richer India

How can a place that "competes" with American companies and replaces American workers make us better off by growing wealthier?

First, a growing Indian middle class will buy our products. The guy in Bangalore who answers questions about your Dell computer probably drinks Coke, uses Microsoft Word, and reads my column on Yahoo! Finance. (Okay, I can’t prove that last one, but you get the point.) It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, having 300 million new middle class consumers in India is good for you.

Second, Indian firms will design and sell products that make our lives better. That’s what happens when you unleash new human potential. Imagine the following scenario: Your child has just been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The doctor sits you down and says, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the disease can now be treated successfully. The bad news is that the treatment was discovered by an Indian scientist, and the drugs are produced by a leading Indian pharmaceutical company." Actually, that’s not really bad news, is it?

Third, at a minimum, Indian competition and outsourcing by American companies will lower the cost and improve the quality of all kinds of goods and services. Do you remember the crap that Detroit produced before Honda and Toyota became serious players in the American market? (True, Detroit still produces a shocking amount of crap, but now we don’t have to buy it, as GM shareholders and bondholders have learned.)

Cheaper imports from places like India or China are just like a tax cut; there is more money left in your wallet at the end of the month. And they create American jobs, too, which is less intuitive and therefore often overlooked. If you save money on cheaper cotton towels, much of that extra cash is likely to be spent on American goods and services. A Canadian trade minister made this point to me once when he asked rhetorically, "Look, a DVD player used to cost $500. Now it costs $40. What are you doing with the other $460?"

Because it's not China

China has an economy that’s growing even faster than India’s. But China still has some major issues -- like the whole autocracy and repression thing.

I speak from experience on this one. In 1989, my wife and I were in Lhasa, Tibet, for several weeks that coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight. The Tibetans held huge protests, and the Chinese responded with a warm-up exercise for Tiananmen Square: Encircling the city with tanks, shooting protesters, arresting journalists -- the whole totalitarian starter kit.

China is a geopolitical problem waiting to happen, whether it’s Tibet, Taiwan, encroachment in the South China Sea, selling weapons to nasty regimes, or any number of other problems that stem from being an autocracy on the move. Which brings us back to our new ally in that part of the world: India.

If China is the bad drunk at a party where a lot of liquor is being served, then India is the muscular guy in the corner quaffing mineral water. He looks like a good person to get to know. When the U.S. Ambassador to India David Mulford spoke in Chicago not long ago, he predicted that the U.S.-India relationship will become America’s most important strategic partnership.

Challenges and Conclusion

I fully understand that an ascendant India, like any other economic change, creates problems. The first is energy. On the fossil fuel front, the whole world is locked in a zero-sum game. Every newly prosperous high-tech worker in Bangalore (or Beijing or Bangkok) wants a car or at least a "two wheeler." That new demand for oil is a key reason prices are skyrocketing. The only long-term answer is far more investment in alternative energy -- but that’s another column.

The second challenge will be taking care of those who are "outsourced." Capitalism does a great job of rewarding those who build a better (or cheaper) mousetrap. It’s not so good at taking care of those who produced the old mousetrap. I’ve pointed out in an earlier column that technology displaces more American workers than trade -- with India or anywhere else -- but that’s a semantic point to anyone who gets a pink slip. The long-term solution is upgrading skills.

I know that there are lots of things to hope for in 2006. Add one to your list: Continued growth for the 1-billion-plus people in the world’s most vibrant democracy. You won’t regret it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Refusing Transit to India : Is Bangladesh missing something?

In part one of this series of blogs covering Bangladesh refusal of UNESCAP to join under their plans, I would like to put my view on the contensious transit issue.

What is this transit issue altogether?
The transit for a country is mainly access through a country to the third one. For example, India has a transit to Afghanistan through Iran. So, Indian goods can board from Iranian ports and go through to Afghanistan. However, due to geographical complexity, in this case, the transit refers to connectivity between North-East Indian seven states with mainland India, especially West Bengal. The goods carried from North East, comes to mainland India through a strip of Assam and North Bengal, taking a route miles longer than what could have been a shortest through Bangladesh. Bangladesh govt. never allowed India to have a transit in return of a hefty transit fee offerred by India. The transit, that could have been a win-win situation, has been refused as a threat to National security. The other point of interest here could be the transhipment. Here, Transit refers to the passage across Bangladesh territory of Indian goods to and from the north Eastern states of India using Indian owned surface transport, while transhipment refers to the same movement using Bangladesh-owned transport.

The transit was used by India till 1965 war, since then it got stopped. The war was between India and Pakistan. In the mean time, Pakistan broke, Bangladesh was born, but situation remained unchanged. Though after independence, Bangladesh allowed India the transit in air-routes and river, the major issue of road-transit is still not tackled. The river-transit is almost abandoned for being incompetitive, the mutual air-transit is still in use.

Transit - How India gains out of it
The main gainer of this whole process would be the people of North-East of India. Right now, anything produced in that region can not be marketed in the rest of India, due to the distance from port (Kolkata). From past decade, India is becoming more dependent on foreign and private investments in growth picture. But, no company will want to invest in this remote corner of the Northeast, because of the logistical problems of Sevens Sisters linking in with the rest of India. So the only real economic future of Northeast lies in reopening its route through Bangladesh to its West and with Myanmar and South-East Asia to the East. For additional benefit, if they are allowed to use a Bangladesh port, the export oriented business can also come up in this region. The region is rich in energy resources, like natural gas and hydro-electricity. The economic progress in this region can stop a long-standing grievence and insurgency resulted.

Transit - How Bangladesh gains out of it
The gain of Bangladesh can be manyfolds.

1. How Bangladesh can become a regional transport hub, was described by ADB Country Director Hua Du in a seminar recently. She mentioned - "You can benefit tremendously through opening up transit and great opportunities for crossing from east to west and giving the land-locked neighbours access to the sea".The Chittagong port can become a modern busy port like Singapore serving the SAARC countries and even China. Huge foreign investment may be attracted to Bangladesh and finally a throbbing service sector like banks, insurance, hotels, rest houses, petrol pumps etc. may develop around the Trans continental roads and railways.
2. There is an estimate of direct economic gain from transit fees. It ranges from 500 crore taka to 4,666 crore taka.
3. The last but not the least, is the mutual transit. Bangladesh, in return, will get a much shorter route to China, which already is its second largest trading partner. Unfortunately, most of the trading nowadays takes place through sea-route. The cost of import increases, as well as Bangladeshi goods loose competitiveness in Chinese market. If Bangladesh wants to access South Chinese underdeveloped market, they must go through India. This was a point of concern for the Chinese delegates during Kunming initiative in 1999, an initiative to link Chinese province of Yunan with Seven Sisters of India, Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh. See reference map to link Kunming in China with Bangladesh.

The potential damages Bangladesh could suffer

1. The corridor through Bangladesh could increase Indian Intelligence Service activities in Bangladesh.
2. It could lead to spreading of AIDS and could become a potential route for drug-trafficing.
3. The road and ports of Bangladesh could get overcrowded, thus resulting in poor efficiency in domestic industries.

Keeping in view the benefits, it seems the above mentioned risks are too small, from economic perspective. But, a country is not made up of its economy only, it has its political, ideological and popular faces also. To sum up the whole condition, Bangladesh currently does not allow India the transit because of non-economic reasons.


The entire article views the issue of transit as a bilateral matter, not a multilateral one. The problem complicates when the same issue becomes a multilateral one, crops up as a part of a multilateral development program. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has refused to join Asian Highway project fearing it would allow transit to India. The anti-India bias of the Bangladesh foreign policy has come out once more.

The future of the economy of a country depends on how the policies remain focused on economy overcoming the political pressure. This is a proven truth in case of China, Japan and might be India in near future. Hence, giving up economic advantages to some non-economic causes will never help a poor country in a poorest region to grow out of its poverty. Hope, the leaders of Bangladesh will understand these, the sooner the better.

Another article on the same topic can be found here, but that is in Bengali.