Sunday, December 23, 2012

Maldives - a Plummeting Economy

The beautiful island nation of Maldives is in the news constantly for its climate-related troubles, but concerns regarding business challenges for foreign investors are no less important.

It is not surprising that any perceived threats to foreign investment in a country automatically plummets investor confidence and the economy suffers a heavy blow. The Maldivian economy thrives on tourism mainly, but also relies heavily on foreign investment. Some Indian companies seem to be at loggerheads with the new Maldivian government over contracts awarded by the previous regime. Although the present regime has assured Indian investors of support, recent events seem to point otherwise.
Maldives is the smallest Asian country located at just 1.5 meters above sea level, and suffers severe effects of global warming. Politically, it has not seen much stability since it gained independence from the British in 1965, and has been ruled by successive authoritarian governments, each bringing a new set of issues like increasing debts etc. The last government of President Mohamed Nasheed faced many challenges, both natural – like the 2004 tsunami – and man-made – such as unfriendly parliament Opposition majority. President Nasheed was forced to resign in February 2012 following country-wide streets protests, and his vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, was sworn in as the new President.
Not surprisingly, this long time trend of upheavals has affected the economy adversely, although many countries are lending support to the Maldivian government. According to the U.S. State Department, the Government of Maldives (GoM) “receives help from the US as a beneficiary country under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program for duty-free exports entry to the United States”, providing ease of access for businesses to the rich American market. Up until 2007, the Maldivian economy managed a growth rate of 6.6%. However, the recent political changeover, and the new regime’s subsequent efforts to dissociate itself from actions of the last one, is not doing any favors to the country’s economic situation.
Recently, two major Indian investment projects of GMR Infrastructure Ltd. and Tata Housing Group have been in the media limelight for facing onslaught of false charges and roadblocks in their efforts to complete their projects by the present regime. Since the contracts with these groups were awarded during the regime of former President Nasheed, popular consensus is that the opposition by most of the current coalition partners of the new government is based solely on political motivations.
As widely reported in the media, GMR group's largest private investment in South Asia, the over $500-million Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Male, has run into rough waters, while a realty project being co-developed by Tata group subsidiary, Tata Housing, is also facing land-related issues in the country.

Not only is employee safety threatened, the political groups are demanding scrapping the whole GMR deal and awarding the project to local firms, even seeking to discredit the Indian High Commissioner Dnyaneshwar Mulay, and calling for the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s help in annulling the deal. Allegations of corruption are being levelled against GMR to make a strong case.
A GMR spokesperson has reportedly denied all allegations and accused the government of going back on its word, strongly condemning “Public statements and press conferences of some government ministers and coalition party leaders” which are “clearly aimed at arousing public sentiments against GMR and creating undue challenges…,”. The spokesperson clarified that, “GMR was granted required approvals and licenses to operate…made huge investments in development of arrival duty free area. However, the government later revoked the license citing that earlier the license was given in error. Similarly, the GoM passed an amendment to Business Registration Bill to restrict any foreigner to carry on Duty Free business, cargo clearance business, and bonded warehouse business at the airport. This step is clearly directed against GMR.” It would be interesting to see how the government resolves this issue since GMR made it clear it was willing to work with the GoM “within the framework of the concession agreement” having invested $200 million already but not losing its credibility to false allegations.
In the case of the $200 million Apex Realty project of Tata Group, despite signing a contract, the Maldivian government seeks to take over the site for its own use. Apex Realty was contracted to build 10,000 housing units to resolve severe housing shortage issues in Maldives owing to high population density and lack of basic infrastructure. The GoM has offered Apex Realty an alternate site, but other problems still persist in settling the issue amicably, not to mention discouraging future investment by this first time foreign investing firm.
Although the President Press Secretary Masood Imad was quoted in various media sources as saying, "This government will not target any investment, Indian or otherwise, unduly. The assurances given by the President securing foreign investments in Maldives are valid and stand true,", actions speak louder than words.
The Maldivian government is projected by some sources to be close to an economic collapse, but unable to appreciate the importance of investor confidence. Some media reports have quoted an official asserting that Maldives badly needs the promised $25 million bailout from India to be able to hold up its various commitments to its own people, and cannot afford to lose major Indian investors it is currently harassing due to politically motivated decisions. Perhaps the saving grace for Maldivian economy so far has been the flourishing tourism industry. The political situation notwithstanding, most resorts reportedly remain fully booked throughout the tourism season.
For long term gains, however, the GoM needs to carefully assess its options and resolve disagreements between the corporate and the political sectors to secure a stable investment future. Not just the Indian companies, but other investors may start looking for alternate partners in the region or even relocating existing businesses before long, and with the huge climate crisis looming in the background as it is, Maldives needs all the help it can get. It is time to rise above petty politics and encourage steady progress.  
SouthAsia, Dec 2012

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Deep Waters

The fishing row between India and Sri Lanka is not only effecting bilateral relations between the two countries but taking its toll on the poor who have no alternate means of livelihood. Finding a long term solution that benefits all has to address the humanitarian aspect of the issue soon

Fishing is a popular means of livelihood in parts of India and Sri Lanka due to rampant poverty and lack of other available skills. But many fishermen have also inherited the profession from their forefathers and proudly claim it as being in their blood and an essential part of their identity. Hence, anything that is perceived as a threat to either their survival or to their sense of self is naturally deemed personal.
This fishing dispute between India and Sri Lanka in the deep sea area has been highly charged for the past many years due to a number of factors. The main reason revolves around the ownership status of the small island in the Palk Bay area, called Katchatheevu.  According to some reports, through the 1974 agreement India and Sri Lanka had agreed on a maritime boundary in which India had ceded the Island’s rights to Sri Lanka and negotiated away fishing rights for their own fishermen. However, the Indian side argues that the wording of the agreement has been manipulated by the Sri Lankan authorities and their fishermen are being denied even their legitimate rights of fishing in the area.
Historically, Indian Tamil fishermen had faced no issues fishing near the island, and many times they would go into the Sri Lankan waters. That wasn’t appreciated by the Sri Lankan side, but no serious repercussions followed except issuance of warnings.  However, when the civil war began in 1983, it complicated things for the Sri Lankan Navy trying to keep up with the demands of the fight against the insurgents, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Any connection between the Indian Tamils and the LTTE was vehemently denied by the Indian side, but the fact that ethnically Tamils of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu have close ethnic and cultural ties to Tamils in Sri Lanka, it was easy to suspect they had a hand in providing material support and fuelling the insurgency.
It became increasingly hard for the Sri Lankan Navy to distinguish between regular fishing boats and those boats that were being used for smuggling weapons and other goods for Sri Lankan Tamil militants, and they ended up putting complete fishing restrictions on their own fishermen. The Indian boats however continued to fish in the area, and were often caught in the cross fire resulting in serious rifts and tension between the two countries. Despite humanitarian crisis rising from this situation, the Indian boats were blamed for bringing it upon themselves by illegally crossing the international boundary.  A New York Times article quoted Sugeeswara Senadhira, consul general at the Sri Lankan Embassy in New Delhi, asserting that it was inevitable because “They cannot fish around the island.”
According to some media reports, over a period of 25 to 30 years, some 100 Indian fishermen have died and many beaten and their boats and catch confiscated. However, according to the version given by the Sri Lankan side, when the numbers of those hurt are placed against those that continue to venture out to the Sri Lankan waters, the percentage remains small as the Indian trawlers have used the waters exclusively for years. The anger though has built among the Indian Tamils, and they have attacked Sri Lankan pilgrims in retaliation.
When the Sri Lankan fishermen finally resumed some fishing activities during the ceasefire from 2002-2004, they resented the threat to their livelihood from over fishing of Indian trawlers which had caused reduction of fish supply. For years the Indian side had exploited the lack of competition and opportunity to cross over and fish deep into the Lankan waters with an expanded fleet. Then, after the end of civil war in 2009, again as the small Sri Lankan fishermen returned in large numbers they found the Indian trawlers to be a hindrance to their survival.

On the other hand a similar dilemma and humanitarian crisis unfolded on the Indian side. Sri Lankan multi-day fishing boats had been fishing deep into the Indian waters and causing similar danger to fish population, while small fishermen son the Indian side uffered. A New York Times article reported the plight of fishermen in Vellapallam, the eastern state of Tamil Nadu, India.  Fishing is practically the only livelihood available to the locals and fishermen complain of harassment by the Sri Lankan Navy and struggle with finding alternate means of livelihood. Nearly all of the village fishermen use small boats and not the big trawlers.
The previous unofficial arrangement of letting small boats go unharmed seems to have changed now and if caught, these small boat fishermen from both sides receive harsh treatment with their equipment and catch confiscated by the Indian or Sri Lankan Forces and sometimes fishermen are even kidnapped. A bilateral agreement between the two countries prohibits such treatment, but as things tense up, the small boats are not spared and face grim fates.
It is clear that grievances exist on both sides. Finding a long term solution that benefits all concerned has to be based on recognizing the humanitarian aspect of it than simply settling scores. Now that the LTTE insurgency is over and the security issue is no more, small boats managed by poor fishermen who only want to fulfill needs of their families must be given their livelihood back. What needs to be seriously looked into is the issue of trawlers and multi-day fishing boats that are depleting fish populations in the area.

It would be a good idea for the two countries to start genuine dialogue with some kind of resolution to the boundary issue in mind, and leading to a workable joint arrangement with mutual consultation for small fishermen based on managing fishing populations. A process aimed at finding a solution and not merely a political victory for either country can go a long way towards peace in the region.
SouthAsia Magazine, October, 2012.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The South Asian Question

The United States has traditionally sought long standing engagement in South Asia. However, even though the region is rich in natural resources, potential and opportunities, the unique regional politics and instability present somewhat of a challenge.

The seven countries of South Asia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, vary greatly in size and social makeup. Together they host a quarter of the world’s population, with India hosting almost 75% of it.  India’s GDP contribution is also almost 76% of the regional total. The region is rich in natural resources, however, mismanagement and intra-regional conflicts result in their poor development and distribution. Hosting the largest concentration of the world’s poor, most South Asian countries also lag behind in important social development indicators.

South Asia has been a recipient of US attention for a long time, focused more on India and Pakistan due to their size and position in the region, both geographically and politically. Traditionally, Pakistan has allied itself with the US, and India with Russia. Also relevant to the South Asian politics are Afghanistan and China that have had huge influence on the region’s politics and defense issues in the current environment.
Understandably, the US has supported any engagement based on its own interests in the region, but international interests can be well served only when local concerns are taken into consideration. The US can expect to achieve its goals of regional cooperation only by addressing the concerns of the local governments as well as their populations.

Back in the 80s, the Russian invasion engaged the United States with South Asian politics for almost a decade. Along with Pakistan, the US supported Afghan resistance through training and funding of local and foreign fighters who ultimately defeated the Russians. Right after the goal was achieved, however, Pakistan faced sanctions as a punishment for its nuclear ambitions. That followed the US tilt towards India for its growing international market appeal, until the attacks of 9/11 in New York. Pakistan chose to side with the US in the War on Terror unfolding in Afghanistan. This cooperation brought financial aid, but also the spillover of chaos from the war-torn neighbor. That, combined with its own inept governance, has crippled Pakistan’s economy, destroyed social fabric and caused institutional collapse at multiple levels.
The two allies have also learned that their modes of communication and cooperation have not worked out and created misunderstandings and friction. The US accuses Pakistan of ‘not doing enough’, while Pakistan objects to not getting due credit for its sacrifices and contributions. The Pakistani government has urged the US and NATO for introspection on its dealings with Pakistan in its own long term interest, as Pakistan fears the chaos left behind after the major withdrawal in 2014 will not be contained by the remaining 25,000 US troops, and the Afghan army may not survive its high desertion rate. Both countries need to establish transparent military and civilian cooperation to promote mutual understanding and trust that can continue to bring opportunities to serve the interests of regional security linked to global safety – which is their shared long term goal.

The United States is also seeking a long term strategic partnership with India due to many factors, including U.S. and India’s shared discomfort with China’s growing military and economic power, and India’s potential market for American business. Leon Panetta on a recent trip to India also said that the US would, “welcome India playing a more active role in Afghanistan, a more active political and economic role.” This, however, fuels Pakistan’s security concerns with a stronger Indian footprint on its western border. The historic distrust between the two neighbors is bound to cause more conflict, and the US needs to recognize that valid concern, given their history, and deal with it realistically.
 Pakistan and India have fought two conventional wars in 1965 and 1971. In 1984 India conceived plans to attack Pakistan’s nuclear capability, and both countries came to the brink of war. In 1986, India’s incursion into Siachin gave rise to a new conflict, and later in 1999 the Kargil debacle connected to the Kashmir issue introduced another serious dimension to the existing tension between them which was solved by USA’s intervention.

The China factor is also an important dimension to consider for the US in South Asia as it influences political and defense shifts in the region. India’s nuclear security perception is influenced by the much propagated ‘China threat’. The smaller countries of the region understand India’s ambition for achieving the status of a regional power and a strong global player. However, China seems to be a hurdle for India with its own ambitions of power, and longstanding support for Pakistan.

The United State’s preferential treatment of India on the nuclear issue is frustrating for Pakistan. While Pakistan receives sanctions for its nuclear ambitions, India’s pursuit of the same is not discouraged as much. Maintaining a balance of power in the region is important before resolution of conflicts can be achieved between the two countries. The United States must first acknowledge the legitimate threat perception of Pakistan in this regard before it can help both countries with technical or advisory assistance to strengthen their nuclear security. A strong, economically stable region is to global benefit.

The US’s engagement in South Asia would be incomplete without developing a positive relationship with China. The US is increasingly wary of China’s growing ability to use economic threats – since China is not interested in fighting wars that would affect its economic climb in any way – but understands that diplomacy works best between strong nations. The US defense secretary Leon Panetta said recently, “We also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military-to-military) relationships,” and, “That's the kind of mature relationship that we ultimately have to have with China.”

In short, it is clear that the United States aims to be involved in the South Asian region in the long term to achieve its various objectives ranging from global economy to security. For a long lasting relationship and to achieve these objectives, the US would have to be transparent about its own ambitions, its future role in Afghanistan, its position on Pakistan and India’s nuclear programs and their mutual relations, and its relationship with China. Peace and security boosting global stability cannot be accomplished without taking all factors into consideration.

SouthAsia, June 2012 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Changing Priorities

Today, numerous Bangladeshi women are taking charge of their personal and professional lives. However, widespread gender bias and violence continue to challenge their dreams of emancipation and empowerment. Have the two women Prime Ministers of Bangladesh made a difference in the life of an average woman?

South Asian politics is dominated by dynastic trends and the presence of women leaders at the helm of affairs. The former is an unfortunate reality but the latter should be a source of pride for developing nations that have traditionally struggled with gender issues to provide their women with some very basic human rights. Whether it is the assassinated former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Indira Gandhi of India, or the still vibrant Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, we must credit these women for their determination and persistence against the norms of their male-dominated cultures. Unfortunately, however, that is not a testament to women’s empowerment because not only do most of these women leaders have a strong male connection as primary reason for their rise to power, but also the life of an average woman has remained largely unchanged under their rule.
Bangladesh is a developing nation of 165 million with an adult literacy rate of about 55%. It has been run almost exclusively for the past two decades by Bangladesh’s two Begums – current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Awami League (AL), and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s independence hero and first prime minister murdered in 1975. Khaleda Zia is the widow of former president, Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman assassinated in a failed coup attempt in 1981.
As Prime Ministers, the Begums have been known to run corrupt regimes, and faced criminal charges. In 2007, the army tried to end their monopoly on power when it seized power by splitting their vote banks and trying to create alternate forces. However, the Begums’ parties proved resilient and Sheikh Hasina came back to power in Dec 2008 and promptly resumed business as usual by filing more corruption charges against her opponent.
It is safe to say the last two decades have seen Bangladeshi women become more visible on the social and professional scene, but the gains have fallen short of expectation, especially under successive women Prime Minsters. So while the Begums focus on each other, the majority of women fight their own battles at home and in the social sphere against harassment, assault, kidnapping, acid throwing, and murder over dowry disputes.
Amnesty International reported that in 2010 police had received more than 3,500 complaints of physical abuse of women over dowry disputes, and in 2011, violence against women topped all crimes reported to the police between January and June, and 1586 out of 7,285 complaints were of rape cases. Due to prevalent patriarchal social attitudes, women in general, but especially from low socioeconomic backgrounds, lack access to resources for protection or legal redress. Domestic violence, however, transcends class barriers and acid-throwing is a brutal favoured punishment of spurned suitors or disgruntled husbands. There is also extensive trafficking of women to other countries in Asia and Middle East, lured by job prospects but forced into prostitution.
Moreover, The Daily Star quoted United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP) on International Women’s Day 2012 asserting that much effort was still needed to improve the lives of women in Bangladesh. The report said that almost half of the female population in Bangladesh is married before reaching 16, which results in higher pregnancy rate in adolescence, and undernourished mothers then give birth to underweight babies. Many young girls are still denied schooling and face bleak futures. UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon urged the government, civil society and the private sector to work for gender equality in Bangladesh, which had not kept pace with strides in economic development.
Clearly, Bangladesh’s economic gains are not fully transferred to its women though their contribution to the economy is substantial, especially to the garment industry which is the source of 90% of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange. Institutions like Grameen Bank and BRAC have revolutionized the lives of many rural women by extending micro-credit to them, and have contributed to their economic empowerment, but unfortunately, Grameen Bank founder, the Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, has been attacked by Sheikh Hasina, ironically again, in what is seen as a political move.
Gender bias has also often surfaced through religious expression. In April 2011, CNN reported   that when the government announced its Women Development Policy 2011 about inheritance of property, protests broke out from the radical Islamic parties that considered it a violation of the Quran’s injunctions about inheritance. Ironically, the opposition party BNP of Kahleda Zia was reported to be supporting the protest, undermining the cause of women’s empowerment just to gain some political mileage.
In July 2011, Human Rights Watch reiterated its concern for Bangladeshi women who are increasingly on the receiving end of religious fatwas issued by so-called scholars, even against the rulings of civil courts, in shalishes, the traditional dispute resolution methods. These decrees have resulted in humiliating punishments resulting in death for young girls wrongly accused. The punishments include imposing fines, lashing, cutting hair or blackening faces, and ostracizing families, carried out by vigilantes. While many of these incidents go unreported, human rights groups claim at least 300 such incidents have occurred in the last decade. In 2011, one particular case in Shariatpur district highlighted the seriousness of the issue when the shalish ordered 100 lashes to Hena Akhter for an alleged affair, when she had reportedly been sexually abused. She collapsed while the punishment was being carried out, and later died. Thus, the government’s failure to effectively address such incidences and implement legislation continues to result in grievous harm to women under the watch of their woman Prime Minister.
 It should be a matter of pride for Bangladesh that in November 2010 it was elected to the board of UN Women, but to do justice to this role Bangladesh’s Begums need to shift focus from personal and political gains and use their position to aggressively to work towards emancipation and empowerment of the average woman. Only then can the Bangladeshi women be truly proud of their Begums. 

A version of this article was published in SouthAsia, April 2012, as Changing Priorities

Monday, April 9, 2012

Demystifying Shari'ah

The conference held at the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, on Saturday, March 31, was appropriately named as "Demystifying Shari'ah" - a word not many were familiar with until a few years ago, a concept so charged today that it fiercely divides communities and send chills down spines.
The aim of the conference was to educate the audience in a spirit similar to what President John F. Kennedy had famously said, "…a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."
The full-day long program ended with dinner as per tradition of the Islamic Center of New England – some of my friends find the spicy food served at the ICNE reason enough to attend any event there, so I was hoping that combined with the topic's popularity (or notoriety?) would draw a big crowd. I am thankful to those who came, though I did not see many unfamiliar faces and felt an opportunity for sharing concerns and seeking answers seemed lost. I assumed many were either held up by prior commitments or by the inability to overcome their fears – or perhaps, simply, the advertising efforts needed more work!
Read full article at  Sharon Patch

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


“Why are South Asians so fascinated with a fair complexion?” asked my American friend, Ruth.

The monthly meeting of our book club was in session. Having read Bapsi Sidhwa’s An American Brat, the members were ready to discuss the book’s contents.

“Doesn’t it look lovely?” I asked.

“Not if you are Rihaana!” Quipped Charlotte and everyone laughed.

“And not if it shows all your wrinkles more!” added Jane.

“You can’t have it both ways, can you?” I chuckled. “Actually, it’s probably a post-colonial association issue. White-skin has become synonymous with power and status for us.”

Everyone nodded, understandingly but the conversation started me thinking if our fascination with white skin was just a colonial hangover or a symptom of something deeper.

Skin-tone prejudice may be defined as giving darker-skinned people discriminatory social treatment. Anthropologists and historians believe the symbolism of white and black colours is universal and originates from the basic distinction of light and darkness. They also acknowledge its gender connection. In Fair Women, Dark Men: The forgotten Roots of Colour Prejudice, anthropologist Peter Frost says, “lighter women were preferred in medieval Japan, Aztec Mexico and Moorish Spain, even before there was significant contact with Western ideology.” Sociologist Pierre L. van den Berghe, also writes in his foreword, “Although virtually all cultures express a marked preference for fair female skin, even those with little or no exposure to European imperialism…many are indifferent to male pigmentation or even prefer men to be darker.”

This adds another dimension to the system of gender prejudice prevalent in South Asian societies of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Pakistan is ethnically very diverse, and women of the North Western areas that host fair-skinned populations are relatively free of this prejudice while other ethnic groups are more vulnerable. We all remember Junaid Jamshed’s hit song, ‘Goray-rung-ka-zamana’ that prompted an outcry from the not-so-fair maidens and resulted in, ‘Saanwli-saloni-si-mehbooba’. Though JJ obviously did not mean to be discriminatory, his choice of topics shows how deeply our society has unconsciously adopted this bias and become complicit in a gender crime that flourishes at home, at the workplace and in public spheres.

Workplace discrimination is hard to tackle since the methods are usually subtle, and many women are discouraged by fear of reprisal and lack of trust in legal recourse. This discrimination comes in the form of racial slurs in the US, but the legal system is more effective there, for example, in 2008 a black woman, Tomeika Broussard, was granted $44,000 in damages in a lawsuit because her boss repeatedly called her ‘reggin’, a racial slur spelt backwards.

Sadly, many wonderful women’s personal lives suffer because of widespread skin-tone bias when even dark-skinned Romeos pass them by for fairer maidens. However, more disturbing is when women themselves become equal participants of this cruel practice against their own kind — a case of the abused turning into abusers. When looking for bahus, mothers-in-law often act as hard-to-please prejudiced gatekeepers, thereby ruining the happiness of many girls and destroying any chance of finding compatible partners for their sons.

A friend once described her humiliating experience with the rishta aunties. As they enjoyed tea and samosas, she overheard them calling attention to her feet in case she had applied whitening creams on her face to hide her true complexion. Her intellectual accomplishments and pleasant mannerism meant nothing to them. What an unfortunate experience for any self-respecting female. On a similar note, African-American author Marita Golden writes in her memoir, “Don’t Play in the Sun”, about the colour-based bias of her mother when she tells her to stay out of the sun because, “You’re going to have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children as it is”. This admonishment is familiar to many South Asian girls and points to the universal nature of this prejudice.
In such a discriminatory atmosphere, commercial gains are not lost to the shrewd businessman. Skin lightening products are a huge and lucrative industry in India and Pakistan. A 2007 New York Times report revealed that half of India’s skincare market comprised skin whitening products because, as Ashok Venkatramani of Hindustan Lever explained, “The definition of beauty in the Western world is linked to anti-aging…In Asia, it’s all about being two shades lighter.” The advertisements of popular fairness creams show dark, lonely women transforming into fair, happy beauties with fulfilling lives, thereby belittling their achievements and connecting their happiness to meaningless superficial concerns.

Colour discrimination in the United States largely affects people of South Asian descent, African Americans and Hispanics.Some anthropologists believe that the African diaspora is as much traumatised by ‘colourism’ as by racism and colonialism.
Studies show darker-skinned people to be at a socio-economic disadvantage even in today’s politically-correct West. South Asian and African-American communities themselves prefer lighter skin, proving that the discrimination is not just brought on from outside but embraced by victim communities themselves — an African-American retailer was sued by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2008 for calling his darker-skinned employee ‘too dark’ and ‘black as charcoal’.

Perceptions of beauty among African-American women favour lighter-skinned Halle Berry over the darker Whoopi Goldberg or Oprah, and while Michelle Obama may be a celebrated dark-skinned beauty, that perception may be influenced by her position as the American First Lady. Darker Asian men have recently come to focus on their complexion encouraged by fairness creams aimed at men. Darker African-American men, by contrast, have had it tough throughout history and been assigned to fieldwork while their lighter counterparts worked indoors. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported about the former Mississippi governor’s pardon controversy — of all the pardons Barbour had granted, two-thirds were for white prisoners when the prison racial make-up is two-thirds black, thus revealing the possible reach of colour prejudice extending into the US justice system.

Though the era of political correctness discourages open expressions of prejudice in many societies, skin-based discrimination still flourishes unhindered. In order to bring down the colour collateral this bias exacts from our women, we must deny it the mental and physical space it occupies in our social-scape so that no accomplished dark maiden need summon the mirror on her wall to weigh her worth. Let us, indeed, adjust our priorities for the better.

Published in Dawn Review as "The World in Black and White" , March 18, 2012.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Futile Efforts

“We can help train an army, we can help equip an army, we can help build facilities for the army, but only the Afghan people can breathe a soul into that army.” Lt Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former Commander, Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan( CFC-A)
The decade long War on Terror in Afghanistan seems to be coming to a close – or at least scaling down to a limited presence of foreign forces from active combat to a supportive role by 2014. Understandably, there is both hope and apprehension not only for the Afghanis but also the most affected neighboring country of Pakistan, and the US whose terrorism-related pursuits have resulted in its investment of enormous manpower and material resources into the Afghan quagmire. However, a strong and independent Afghanistan is crucial to the security of the region. That requires, among other things, a successful transition of responsibility for primary security to the Afghan National Army (ANA).
Afghanistan has a long history of interruptions in political process due to tribal rivalries and violence, and external invasion and occupation, and existence of tribal militias goes back much longer than the presence of the ANA. The country’s history of resistance against foreign invaders and internal insurgencies also goes side by side with other crippling issues of gender discrimination, illiteracy – only 28% of Afghans can read and write. (UNICEF, 2008) – its ranking of174/178 countries on the global Human Development Index, and its status of a leader in illegal opium production supporting 90% of global production (UNDP, 2007). All these issues do not contribute to a promising picture. 
In 2002, realizing that bringing ANA back on its feet would be crucial to bringing any form of stability in the future of the country, the US and NATO began training and organizing the ANA. Now, having achieved some major objectives of the War on Terror (WoT), and with exit strategies of NATO and the US forces for 2014 in place, building ANA’s capacity has assumed more importance. Over the years, NATO and the US trainers faced numerous challenges due to post-Soviet era chaos and the violence and insurgency resulting from WoT,  including working with non-existent infrastructure, navigating traditional ethnic rivalries and crippling levels of illiteracy, widespread drug abuse, and ineffective role played by the central government.
Clearly, no quick solution was possible. So, work began despite these serious inadequacies. A report titled, “It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like an Army” (LA Times, 2006) quotes Commander Leppert talking about the difficulty of the job, “We are building an airplane while the airplane is flying.”  While praising the hard work of the Afghan troops, the report described how the “Afghan commanders and soldiers complain of poor pay, faulty weapons, ammunition shortages and lack of protective gear. US trainers, while praising Afghan soldiers for their bravery, complain of slovenly appearance, lack of discipline, petty theft, mistreated equipment and infiltration of the army by Taliban spies or soldiers who sell information.” Several incidents have surfaced over the years where infiltrators were caught trying to gain access to information and some officers were caught for arms trafficking. The ANP has been implicated in massacre of civilians (Matthieu Aikins, The Atlantic), and the Afghan Local Police in killings, rape, abductions and illegal raids (Human Rights Watch Sept 2011). That makes the job of preparing an effective and respected army even harder.
Despite the challenges, and while the overall perception of security has declined periodically, ANA is generally seen in a positive light by the general population. An Asia Foundation (2006) opinion poll also supports that view, stating that 87% of Afghans still support the ANA because they see it as an alternative to other more corrupt government forces. NATO trainers applaud small successes of ANA and find it satisfying that ANA is now somewhat prepared to play a significant role in actively participating in, and sometimes leading, military operations. Their participation helps NATO and US forces to carry out bigger operations. Partnering with the Afghan forces allows them to make contact with local populations while they conduct combat operations with insurgents. The importance of forming a relationship of trust with the local population through Afghan forces cannot be ignored as the exit for a major part of foreign troops draws near, while liaisons are needed for others who plan to remain behind in supportive roles for another decade. Over the years the supportive and leading role of ANA has been tested with leading combat and search/clearance operations successfully, though on a smaller scale. These successes however, do not predict a strong ANA in the near future. It is going to be a long haul.
In the post-NATO/US Afghanistan, ANA’s active participation has significant importance for Pakistan which needs that stability in its neighboring country to be able to send millions of Afghan refugees and insurgents back to their home country. With its own economic challenges growing bigger by the day, Pakistan is ill-equipped to support any longer these refugees it took in on humanitarian grounds firstly in the Soviet war of the 80s, and later amid insurgency and violence following WoT. The fallout from the WoT has crippled Pakistan’s security as well, despite international support and extensive internal efforts. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location offers economic dividends that Pakistan has not been able to utilize due to security concerns and Pakistan also needs that stability to be able to check Afghanistan’s opium production landing in Pakistan on its way to European markets, and destroying the youth of the country.
 ANA’s work in Afghanistan is not going to be easy after most of the coalition forces leave in 2014. If NATO and US make their exit without ensuring that the ANA is well-equipped and trained enough to exert a positive influence over the war-weary and traumatized population, the rewards reaped from their work so far might be lost entirely and the country might slip back into chaos as militias become more organized. While addressing ANA’s internal issues is extremely important to achieving any success with them,  it is also important to understand that unless poor governance, corruption and human rights abuses are addressed side by side, stability in Afghanistan will remain a distant dream. Ultimately, only “the Afghan people can breathe a soul into that army”.
 Published in SouthAsia as Futile Efforts, Feb 2012