The week’s updates from South Asia.
India-Bangladesh relations got a major boost with the visit of Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen in February this year. Momen visited India on 6-8 February, primarily to participate in the 5th Joint Consultative Meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries, a routine consultative mechanism that reviews the implementation of the various initiatives taken by the two countries. This overseas visit was the first by Abdul Momen as the foreign minister.
The visit was the first by a high-level official or minister of the newly formed Awami League government. The Awami League formed the government in January this year after it scored a landslide victory in the December 2018 election. The visit provided an opportunity for the leadership of the two countries to not only review the bilateral relationship but also set up new pathways for cooperation. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj termed the visit to be one for scripting a forward-looking agenda for the cooperation between the two countries.
Momen described the visit successful and effective. The Foreign Minister held meetings with top Indian leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, besides his counterpart Sushma Swaraj. He discussed various issues of bilateral interests with Indian leaders.
The highlight of the visit was the joint consultative meeting between him and Swaraj. They had detailed discussions on issues of mutual interest in the meeting. They also took stock of progress in areas of security, defence, trade and connectivity, development partnership, water, power and energy sectors and consular and cultural cooperation.
The visit also marked the signing of four MoUs/ Agreements between the two countries — (i) MoU on mid-career training of 1,800 Bangladesh Civil Servants; (ii)MoU between AYUSH and the Ministry of Health of Bangladesh on cooperation in the field of the medicinal plant; (iii) MoU between Anti-Corruption Commission of Bangladesh and Central Bureau of Investigation of India; (iv) MoU signed between the Hiranandani Group and Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority to facilitate investments in the Indian Economic Zones in Mongla.
The visit was largely considered a goodwill trip, but it attained prominence for Bangladesh’s call for help from India in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. Momen requested top Indian leadership to help resolve the Rohingya crisis. Around 700,000 Rohingyas, an ethnic community from the Rakhine province of Myanmar, have been living in Bangladesh as refugees since August 2017, following a military crackdown on the community in retaliation for a militant attack on the camps of Myanmar security forces.
Bangladesh has repeatedly urged Myanmar to accept the return of the refugees, but it has not yielded much result. Bangladesh has also been seeking help from the international community, including India, to help resolve the crisis. Bangladesh fears that delay in the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees might lead to a rise in radicalism and smuggling of illegal substances like narcotics and arms which will have a ramification for the stability in the region.
Responding to the Foreign Minister’s request, India reiterated its promise to help resolve the crisis. Further, India was categorical about its stance that the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees must be under the condition of a safe and sustainable atmosphere. Thus Momen’s visit became yet another occasion for the display of bilateral bonhomie between the two nations.
The low-profile, soft launch of the joint project for supplying deep-sea vessels in mid-February may have denied yet another occasion for the Government of India and of the southern Tamil Nadu to adequately highlight the continuing efforts at easing ‘Palk Bay tensions’ involving the State’s fishers in Sri Lankan waters. Apart from ‘marketing’ the scheme more effectively to the affected Rameswaram fishers, a high-profile project-launch would have also sent a message across to Tamil fishers in Sri Lanka and also to their Government and Navy, on what is being attempted in the matter.
If much of the local media and all of the national media missed out on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami handing over the first four deep-sea fishing vessels to the enrolled beneficiaries, they could not be blamed. He did so through video-conferencing from the State Government Secretariat in distant Chennai, the capital city – that too along with other projects, all costing upwards of Rs 500 cr. Not many, barring possibly the district officials who were at the other end of the VC facility and the immediate beneficiaries even possibly got to know about it.
Given the context and content, a high-profile, on-site ceremony, possibly involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Palaniswami at Rameswaram could have done the trick. Nearer home, it would have taken the message to more fishers in the affected neighbourhood, for them to feel convinced about the seriousness that the governments in the country attached to their long-term welfare and prosperity as much as to their immediate safety-at-sea.
Given the history of fishers’ tensions between the two nations, the national and international media would have extensively covered a VVIP launch of the ‘deep-sea vessels’ scheme, but it was not to be. A celebratory function would have taken the message even more across the Palk Strait, to their Tamil fisher-brethren in Sri Lanka, the latter’s polity, bureaucracy and Navy, that Governments and fishers in India are serious about sorting out the issue as much as possible and as fast as possible.
‘Deep-sea fishing’ project has been on cards for more than a decade, though the Tamil Nadu Government was reportedly slow in acting on the proposal. It offered multiple advantages, but individual fishers as also the local industry needed to prepare themselves for the eventual shift from their current fishing methods. The make-over is yet to be completed, and in some cases even taken up — but a start has now been made.
Deep-sea fishing comes under the Centre’s ‘Blue Revolution scheme’, modelling the earlier successes of ‘Green Revolution’ and ‘White Revolution’ on the agriculture and animal husbandry fronts. Under the scheme, the Centre now provides 50-percent funding in the total cost of Rs 80 lakhs, and the state grants another 20 percent. Of the balance 30 per cent, the beneficiary contributes just has to contribute only 10 percent with the rest of it coming from banks, as loans. The Centre and the state government have facilitated bank loans for the purpose and the remaining 20 per cent is funded by banks.
When completed over a five-year period, over 2,000 deep-sea vessels would have hit the waters off Rameswaram and neighbouring fishing hamlets, at a total cost of Rs 1,600. At present, the public sector Cochin Shipyard has been entrusted with building the deep-sea vessels to specifications. It is not unlikely that the private sector too may be encouraged to enter the sector, depending on demand in the coming years and based on strict quality-control.
According to state government officials, the state-of-the-art boats, called 'Tuna long lining and gillnetting fishing vessels,' are equipped with modern navigation and communication equipment, besides advanced net hauling and liner winches. Other facilities include galleys, bio-toilet, refrigerated seawater system and stainless steel-clad PUF (polyurethane foam) insulated fish-hold, to preserve the catch.
Two fishing harbours, Kunthukkal and Mookaiyur, both in Ramanathapuram district, are also being readied exclusively for the deep-sea fishing boats. Priority would be given to fishermen whose boats have been apprehended by Sri Lanka and those damaged in their custody, among other categories, a government order said. Public sector Cochin Shipyard is building a total of 16 such boats, besides other shipyards.
Much of the off-shore fishing in southern Tamil Nadu is controlled by private sector canning industry in and from neighbouring Kerala. They have their refrigerated vehicles transferring the catch from the TN shores, where individual fishers in groups have been selling their catch, to canning factories in Kerala.
At the level of the individual, Rameswaram fishers in particular and many, if not most, of the rest of the community elsewhere in the state are not culturally conditioned to stay in the seas for long periods, as required in deep-sea fishing. For generations and centuries, the Rameswaram fishers in particular have been out at sea only overnight. In the era before motor-boats, they used to spend days together on the other side of the Palk Strait, in northern Sri Lanka, before embarking on their return journey.
However, there have been fishing communities in the southern coastal neighbourhood in the state where individuals and groups have been at sea on board deep-sea vessels for days and weeks together. The Thoothoor fishers in southern-most Kanyakumari district are a case in point. The state government has been encouraging the latter to work with the Rameswaram fishers and others, to prepare them in the matter.
However, the ‘Ockhi cyclone’ that hit southern Tamil and adjoining south Kerala seas and coasts alike in November 2017, led to panic among fishers not only in the region but also in the extended neighbourhood. Many fishers lives were lost in mid-sea, owing to inadequate communication. The state government has since come up with solutions to such problems, though the motivation for more fishers to sign in for deep-sea fishing needs to return in full measure.
To address fishing community’s concerns regarding deep-sea human losses, Chief Minister Palaniswami also handed over five VHF communication sets to fishermen while inaugurating the deep-sea vessels. It is part of a scheme under the Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction project. However, much work needs to be done on this score, as well.
The erstwhile Jayalalithaa Government began well by announcing the setting up of a chain of 20 cold-storage facilities across the TN shores, end-to-end, for fishing communities to be able to hold on to their stocks, and sell it to the highest bidder when the prices are relatively favourable. This project itself has not taken off in a big way. Nor has the accompanying marketing mechanism and fishers’ education on international pricing put in place, for the state’s fishing community to benefit from.
The education should involve identifying new markets for tuna and other species caught in the deeper waters off the TN coast without competing with those of Sri Lankan fishers, thus leading to a price-crash for both. Over time, the government should also design plans and schemes for ‘mother-ships’ and ‘factory-ships’, like those being used by fishers from distant Taiwan, who are encouraged to fish off the Indian waters, in the absence of local competition.
In the immediate context, deep-sea fishing could provide an alternative, longer lasting, bountiful fishing fields for the Tamil Nadu fishers than the risky Sri Lankan waters. If successful, it could provide an alternative to destructive bottom-trawling, which Rameswaram and most other TN fishers have got used to. Three, it could help reduce recurring coastal tensions also within the State, as traditional, artisanal fishers too have been resisting invasion into their limited-reach waters by bottom trawlers and other motorised vessels.
The Chairperson of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan Hawa Alam Nuristani has recently announced that the presidential elections will be held on 28 July this year. The district council elections and the parliamentary elections in the Ghazni province will consequently be organised on 28 September. But the elections can only be organised once sufficient funds have been received from the involved stakeholders which include not only the government but the international community as well.
Recently, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has proposed a programme to assassinate Taliban leaders in Qatar amidst the ongoing confusion surrounding the Afghan peace talks. Al Nahyan has apparently told the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that America has risked allowing Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of the “backward bearded guys”. He proposed hiring mercenaries to kill Taliban leaders in Qatar which in effect would weaken the group’s negotiating position.
Seven people died and another 29 injured as gunmen opened fire on the officials who were returning from the poll duties in the remote tribal district Rangamati. The officials were returning with the ballot boxes to the upa-zilla(sub-districts) headquarters in Baghaichhari upa-zilaa fter the second phase of the Upa-zila Parishad Election.
Bangladesh’s economy is expected to cross the record eight-percent growth mark in this fiscal year (July-June). High performance in manufacturing and service sectors is touted as primary reason behind the growth. According to provisional figures from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the GDP growth in 2018-19 is likely to be 8.13 percent, up from 7.86 percent the previous year. Finance Minister A.H.M. Mostafa Kamal released the data following a meeting of the National Economic Council.
About 230 Bhutanese youth placed in Japan under the learn and earn scheme have applied for grace period for repayment of loan as of 18 March. Informing this, Labour Minister Ugyen Dorji said that the number of youth placed in Japan applying for newly introduced loan deferment scheme has significantly increased after the government signed a loan deferment order on 1 March, to the relief of youth under the scheme and their parents.
The Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited (FCBL) is all set to buy cardamom from farmers across the country and the government has approved Nu 50 million for it. With Nu 50 million approved, FCBL would now have a total of Nu 150M to buy cardamom from farmers. FCBL has also been instructed to use the Nu 100M overdraft (OD) facility that was granted last year for potatoes.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering’s will undertake a state visit to Bangladesh in April where he is expected to forge new bilateral partnerships in the field of trade, health, agriculture, tourism and human resource development. Also, likely to be discussed during this visit is the cooperation on inland waterways for cargo transportation.
Businessman Nirav Modi, accused of defrauding the Punjab National Bank of Rs 13,000 crore in 2018, has been arrested while trying to open a bank account in London. However, he was to be arrested five days later in more quiet circumstances at a police station. The Westminster Magistrate’s Court, terming him a flight risk, has also rejected his bail application, despite his lawyers arguing that since he possessed a National Insurance Number and pays the required council taxes, he is the exact opposite of a flight risk. His arrest will now kick-start the process of extradition to India, where he is expected to face trial for his role in the PNB scam.
The Congress party has refused to enter into an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the upcoming 2019 general elections. This move comes amidst talks between the AAP and the Congress to form an alliance in the states of Punjab and Haryana and the city-state of Delhi. This refusal to form an alliance also comes at the heels of the ‘Mahagathbandhan’, a mega alliance of opposition parties headed by the Congress to contest the BJP in the upcoming elections.
Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, is stated to contest the upcoming Lok Sabha elections from Gandhinagar, replacing long-time BJP senior leader L.K. Advani. This decision is part of numerous changes the BJP is making to its election roster, given that many prominent figures such as SushmaSwaraj and Uma Bharati have decided not to contest the 2019 general elections. L.K. Advani’s replacement has drawn sharp criticism from the Congress, stating the party is sidelining those veterans who brought the party to prominence.
Following up on the bilateral agreement for $ 800-m Indian aid when President Ibrahim Solih made his first post-poll overseas visit to India and meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two sides signed specific pact during External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Male last week. The pact was one of several signed ahead of parliamentary polls in the two nations, and provides concessional credit for providing water and sewerage services in many Maldivian islands, and also for re-location of Male’s commercial port to the neighbouring Thilafushi industrial island, among other projects.
Campaigning for his ruling MDP in the 6 April parliamentary polls, President Ibrahim Solih has said that the nation might be faced with another post-poll coup, as in 2012, if his party did not win an absolute majority. Party chief and former President Mohammed Nasheed too aired the views in a separate public appearance. Their caution to the nation’s voters came even as the MDP was faced as much with avoidable pre-poll embarrassment like the rest of the polity, what with Speaker Gasim Ibrahim’s JP, striking a poll-pact with Opposition PPM-led combine of jailed former President Abdulla Yameen.
The 45-member constitution amendment joint committee will suspend their meetings for about one month to return back to their constituencies. The committee has finished their deliberations on provisions in the Chapter 1 (Basic Principles), Chapter 2 (State Structure), Chapter 3 (Head of State) and Chapter 4 (Legislature). The committee members will continue their deliberations on Chapter 5 (Executive) when the meeting resumes on 22 April. The joint committee is reportedly scheduled to submit their report to union parliament tentatively by 1 July.
The meeting at the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) in Naypyidaw marked the first time that the government invited the groups to attend collective discussions in a bid to make headway on Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s goal of ending seven decades of warfare and creating a federal democratic union in the country. Members of Myanmar’s peace team and delegates from eight ethnic armed organisations that have not signed the country’s nationwide cease-fire accord have agreed to continue meeting frequently to work towards resolving their political differences and ending armed conflicts.
The Buddha International Airport at Bhairahawa of Rupandehi is under construction. Prime Minister K. P Sharma Oli recently paid a visit to the site and was quite satisfied about its progress. The country is all set to welcome further international networks through the new airport which is reflective of its upward moving developmental trajectory.
The second High-Level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation in Buenos Aires, Argentin,a was attended and represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal, Pradeep Kumar Gyawali. In the confederation, he spoke about international cooperative frameworks that must respect national ownership and leadership. Aiming at sustainable development, all countries must believe in inclusive development.
Malaysia and Pakistan have signed a memorandum of understanding for five “big projects”. On a three-day visit to Pakistan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad is accompanied by a business delegation. Malaysia wants to purchase JF-17 Thunder fighter jets, halal meat and rice. Both countries have also agreed to open branches of their respective banks in each other’s territory. Islamabad has promised to fulfil Malaysia’s requirements.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has indicated that Pakistan is on the verge of hitting an ‘oil jackpot’. He hopes that the offshore drilling being carried out by Exxon-Mobil-led consortium will lead to the discovery of huge reserves of oil and gas. He further proclaimed that if these promises that the companies have made do come true Pakistan will be all-together in a ‘different league’. Other details of the drilling process have not been revealed as yet.
In a not-so-expected move, Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana almost countered and contested every point in the 2015 co-authored UNHRC resolution 30/1 on ‘war crimes’ in the country and governmental commitment on addressing them to the satisfaction of the international community. In particular, Marapana, a former attorney-general, contested the UN Secretary-General’s Darusman Report putting the last-phased of Tamil civilian deaths at 40,000 and said that there was no evidence to either prove the figure or link it to the armed forces. The Council then passed another co-authored resolution unanimously, giving the nation two more years to put the past commitments into full force.
Susan Chira, “‘Women Here Are Very, Very Worried”, The New York Times, 22 March 2019.
Huang Dekai,Zhu Like and Jiang Maoxia, “The Present Situation and Prospect of Anti-drug Cooperation between China and Afghanistan”, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 18 March 2019.
Daily Outlook Afghanistan, “Peaceful Co-Existence: A Tool for Sustainable Development”, 20 March 2019.
Afghanistan Times, “Irresponsible remark could derail peace efforts”, 15 March 2019.
Azeem Ibrahim, “The Rohingya are not going home to Myanmar. Can Bangladesh cope?”, The Washington Post, 20 March 2019.
M.A. Taslim, “Is the export-led growth model passé?”, bdnews24.com, 20 March 2019.
Humayun Kabir Bhuiyan, Interview with Dr Samir Saran, President of Observer Research Foundation (ORF), “'Nations make choices based on self-interest, it is true for India and Bangladesh as well'”, Dhaka Tribune, 19 March 2019.
Sanjeev Mehta, “Trade not Aid or Aid for Trade”, Kuensel, 16 March 2019.
Kuensel, “Reviewing state-owned enterprises”, 21 March 2019.
Sidharth Bhatia, “Hasan Minhaj’s Take on ‘Indian Elections' Is Simple yet Subversive”, The Wire, 22 March 2019.
Anuradha Raman, “The Phenomenon of Ghost Newspapers”, The Hindu, 21 March 2019.
Wei Yan Aung, “Colonial Era Champion of Burmese Language and Literature”, The Irrawaddy, 22 March 2019.
Nan Lwin, “Kachin Gov’t Set to Reject Mongolian Mining Proposal”, The Irrawaddy, 21 March 2019.
San Yamin Aung, “Two Tanintharyi Ministers Resign in Wake of Chief Minister's Arrest”, The Irrawaddy, 21 March 2019.
Ananta Bhandari, “Undervalued forests”, Republica, 21 March 2019.
Deepak Thapa, “Rebels without a cause”, The Kathmandu Post, 21 March 2019.
The Kathmandu Post, “Disgusting bureaucrats”, 22 March 2019.
The Himalayan Times, “Ambitious plan”, 22 March 2019.
Faisal Bari, “Austerity and education”, Dawn, 22 March 2019.
Zamir Akram, “Razor’s edge”, The Express Tribune, 22 March 2019.
Dawn, “Samjhauta ruling”, 22 March 2019.
The Express Tribune, “Travesty of justice”, 22 March 2019.
Ajit Nivard Cabral, ex-Governor, Central Bank, “Sri Lanka’s Public Debt would have soared past Rs.12,000 Billion by end of December 2018”, The Island, 24 March 2019.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj, “Rajapaksas close ranks behind Gota as presidential candidate”, Daily Mirror Online, 23 March 2019.
M.S.M. Ayub, “SLFP, SLPP play hide and seek”, Daily Mirror Online, 22 March 2019.
Kusal Perera, “US arrogance and Resolution 40-1 on Sri Lanka”, Daily Mirror Online, 22 March 2019.
Gomini Dayasiri, “Eccentric electioneering: Why only a Rajapaksa?”, Daily Mirror Online, 21 March 2019.
Neville Ladduwahetty, “Accountability: Addressing alleged human rights violations”, The Island, 21 March 2019.
N. Sathiya Moorthy, “JVP’s concerns about Tamil livelihood”, Ceylon Today, 19 March 2018.
N. Sathiya Moorthy, “To be or not to be, the Gota question”, Colombo Gazette, 18 March 2019.
Afghanistan & Pakistan: Sohini Bose
Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale
India: Ameya Kelkar
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy
Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee
Nepal: Sohini Nayak
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