Exploring the flood situation in Bhutan, the India ferry system in Maldives and other news in South Asia.
Come monsoon, rivers of Bhutan trigger floods, landslides and road-blockades, wrecking life and property downstream within the country and the bordering areas in India. Reportedly, this year too, the rise in water levels in the trans-boundary rivers of Pagladia and Borolia affected southern parts of Bhutan and flooded a few districts of India’s north-eastern State of Assam.
Many rivers, either originating in Tibet or Bhutan, that flow into India and Bangladesh are flood-prone, inundating large parts of the downstream and causing damage to life and property. There is a need for strengthening inter-governmental flood forecasting and disaster management mechanisms for mitigating losses.
It is humanly impossible to stop rivers from flooding. Flooding of river is a natural phenomena caused as part of its natural fluvial regime. Climate change induced erratic rainfall patterns, causing cloud bursts and flash floods, are making flood forecasting and disaster management difficult within Bhutan and lower riparian India.
The southern belt of Bhutan received a heavy rainfall on 25 and 26 June, affecting the lives of people living in southern part of the country and in adjoining districts of India. A forecast about heavy to very heavy rainfall for the next 48-hours from June 26 onwards triggered flood alerts in at least five districts in western Assam, situated in the downstream of Bhutan.
The local media reported that more than 2,000 people were affected in the State of Assam by floods in eight villages under the Bijni circle in Chirang district and about 550 people had taken shelter in a relief camp in Bijni. One bridge and a stretch of road were damaged by flood waters in Bijni.
There is a joint mechanism in place for hydro-meteorological and flood forecasting network for rivers common to India and Bhutan, consisting of 32 stations located in Bhutan with support from India. In order to address the problem of floods, a Joint Group of Experts (JGE) on Flood Management has also been constituted. However, many believe that the institutions are insufficient to address floods that inundate large areas downstream.
In June this year, if reports are to be believed, early warnings passed on through community social media networks on the Bhutan-India border saved many lives when official channels took far too long.
According to a report in the website www.thirdpole.net, a series of WhatsApp messages sent from Bhutan to India to warn “cross-border friends” downstream of the Aai, Saralbhanga and Manas rivers about cloud-bursts, swollen rivers and possible flash floods affecting people, saved lives of their cross-border friends.
Though originating from officials, these messages were not sent via official channels. The report claimed that in most cases, the circuitous channel involving district, State and Central officials takes too long, with information either critically delayed or unclear, and of little use to most river bank communities in downstream Assam.
Lower riparian Indian States of West Bengal and Assam have called for Indo-Bhutan joint river commissions for mitigating floods. Jaldhaka, Diana, Kaljani, Torsha, Leesh, Geesh and Raidak are some of the major rivers from Bhutan that flow through Bengal while Manas is a major flood-prone river of Assam.
The State government of West Bengal, in the wake of the devastating floods in parts of North Bengal in 2016, had demanded that the Union Government form a commission similar to that India has with Bangladesh for the Brahmaputra and Teesta rivers.
The Indo-Bangladesh Joint Commission on rivers was signed in 1972 to work for common interests and sharing of water resources, irrigation, floods and cyclones control. The reports and work done by the commission led to the signing of bilateral agreements between the two sides on the sharing of the Ganges waters.
Attempts at bringing together all stakeholders for the joint management of Indo-Bhutan trans-boundary rivers gained momentum after the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced a project for the joint management of the Manas river in 2018. The four-year project is aimed at addressing the increasing trans-boundary flood risk to life, property and livelihoods of people living in eastern Bhutan and Assam.
The project note explains that despite a strong record of bilateral cooperation, none of the current cooperative mechanisms between the two governments are in direct support of trans-boundary Manas river basin. Instead, a mosaic of piecemeal agreements, dialogues and committees manage aspects of the Manas.
Hence, the project hopes to engage concerned departments from both countries, the ones in Assam being the water resources department, Bodoland Territorial Council, Central Water Commission, Assam State Disaster Management Authority and others. In India, the project is expected to have the Union Ministry of Environment and Climate Change as the focal point.
Despite the excellent ties between India and Bhutan, addressing issues of trans-boundary rivers have been a contentious task, particularly in the region that the two share. The two governments can take a leaf out from the already successful hydropower cooperation to strengthen existing mechanisms and build institutions for addressing floods in trans-boundary rivers.
With the Government of India formally clearing the Kochi-Kulhuddhufushi-Male ferry service earlier this month, the question remains how much of patronage will it have, when it hit the waters – or, would it run aground, instead. There are twin concerns -- of public response and security.
The former arises because of the failure of the much-trumpeted revival of the Thoothukudy-Colombo India-Sri Lanka shipping service, post-LTTE. The latter flows from the increasing regional concerns about maritime terrorism and attendant mechanisms that need to be put in place, especially now after the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’ in Sri Lanka.
According to a statement by the Government of India’s Press Information Burreau (PIB), the Union Cabinet has since approved the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second Male visit, on 8 June. As the PIB release pointed out, the MoU was signed “with a view to harness the potential opportunity that lies in passenger and cargo transportation by sea between the two countries”. It is also expected to boost the ‘untapped tourism potential’ of the northern Haa Dhaalu Atoll, where Kulhuddhufushi is the main destination now, Maldivian web newspaper, The Edition said, quoting the PIB Press release.
“The current means of travel between Maldives and India are flights, which are an expensive option. This ferry service would also enable Maldivians cheaper access to the country,” The Edition said further. While it is true that flights are an expensive proposition, already private ferry services connect Thoothukudy and Male, but only for cargo-handling, especially of essentials like food and medicine, stationery and other items of daily use in Maldives.
First mooted by Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih’s party boss Mohammed Nasheed when in office (2008-12) with infectious enthusiasm, there was nothing to show the anticipated traction with prospective users, either trade or passengers. There were also inherent security concerns on both sides, though not all of them found adequate expression at a time.
On the passenger front, emergency medical and student-travellers to India would want speed, and diversion from Thoothukudy to make it both profitable for private operators. Tourism promotion is another area, but Indian beaches have nothing much to offer high-end travellers from Maldives – and even more for the latter’s high-spending European tourists, at present.
The GenX Indians, including honeymooners, are mostly long-weekend, budget travellers. Their itinerary can include a cruise-leg, as in South-East Asia packages, with relatively low-cost bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Maldivian resort-promoters and their European regulars are high-enders. The post-tsunami Maldivian experience with high-volume, low-spending Chinese tourists was/is nothing much to go by, in terms of earnings and governmental revenues.
On the cargo-ferrying front, there was near-nil response when the Indian side promoted the revival of the Thoothukudy-Colombo shipping service at the end of the LTTE-Sea Tigers. UPA-2 Shipping Minister G K Vasan’s Tamil Nadu background was a motivating factor, but soon it became clear no contemporary studies might have been done before the re-launch after decades.
The private operator identified by the Indian Government bowed out in double quick-time after it became clear that the 21st century passenger-essentials traders did not want to move away from higher-cost airline travel, especially for the time saved. Given the experience, the planned revival of the much-celebrated, British era ‘Boat Mail’ on the half-rail-half-ferry on the British era Chennai-Dhanushkodi/Rameswaram-Thalaimannar-Colombo route has not been mentioned since. This was despite the Indian restoration of the last-leg, Thalaimannar-Jaffna rail-link, which was blown up by the LTTE.
There are also increasing security concerns in both countries, over the past several years, centred on indigenous Islamic orthodoxy. Such orthodoxy, confined either to the individual or a clannish community, has since taken fundamentalist hues first, and then ‘international extremist/militant’ flavour, with targeted and/or ‘catastrophic’ terrorism as a tool.
The LTTE-Sea Tigers about a decade ago meant quieter waters in these parts. But the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’ in neighbouring Sri Lanka have only revived apprehensions in Maldives, too. Of course, the blasts were not centred on the shared, tri-nation seas. But the tri-nation security concerns are now centred as much on the shared seas as much on their respective land territories, calling for unprecedented cooperation among the three nations and their security agencies.
In Male earlier this month, the deputy chief of Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Abduh Raheem Abduh Latheef, addressing a news conference in Male earlier this month, “refused to rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack in Maldives... The threat to the Maldives has increased since the Sri Lankan attacks. No country, at this time, can completely rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack, including Maldives.”
According to the Maldives Independent, MNDF boss, Maj-Gen Abdulla Shamal, at the same news conference, said that they were “doing everything in our capacity to prevent a terrorist attack in the Maldives. In the meantime, we are also
In Delhi, the Maldivian delegation called on Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal B S Dhona, the current chair of the Chiefs of Staff (CoS) Committee. They also visited Coimbatore, Wellington and Thiruvananthapuram, where they held extensive discussions on bilateral security cooperation and exercises.
It is in the context of maritime terrorist possibilities that the forgotten proposal of President Nasheed, now Maldives Parliament Speaker, needs to be viewed/reviewed. Nasheed had proposed the joint development of Indian islets in the shared seas for resort tourism. It did not meet with much response, as Maldivian investors had their eyes on other uninhabited islets in their country, without the infamous Indian red-tape to bother with.
More importantly, the Maldivian proposal at the time would have required greater security clearances than already. It is even more, post-blasts in Sri Lanka. From the Indian angle and security perception for the region, there are enough and more reasons and justification for such concerns. Thankfully, they are also shared in the two neighbouring capitals, their security agencies and analysts.
The Indian security concerns have only increased post-26/11 ‘Mumbai serial blasts’ in 2008 and now the ‘Colombo blasts’, April 2019. The ‘Mumbai blasts’ was a typical case of ‘maritime terrorism’ and involved Pakistani ISI. The alleged links of Colombo blasts’ perpetrators to like-minded groups in India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala, is an additional concern, not that Maldives has been sleeping in peace, since.
Simultaneously, there is now sudden enthusiasm for reviving trilateral NSA-level meetings, involving the National Security Advisors of the two countries, alongside Sri Lanka. Initiated under the Nasheed Government’s proposal, the NSA meetings were discontinued, especially after regime-changes in Maldives (2013) and Sri Lanka (2015). While there is thus a need to de-politicise security consultations at the highest levels between the three Indian Ocean neighbours, the post-Easter blasts concerns are even more real.
All of it does not necessarily mean that the India-Maldives ferry service is doomed failure even before the real-start. It only means that the two governments have to take a realistic, closer look at the commercial aspects, and also address security concerns, real and otherwise, before going on stream.
According to reports from the Afghan Ministry of Interior, the Afghan Security Forces have thwarted a deadly plot of a bomb blast in Kabul. The forces discovered a car fitted with bomb in the Paghman district of Kabul. This comes as the security forces shot down a suicide bomber in who was aiming to target the sit-in protestors who were supposed to gather in Zanbag Square of the city. No insurgent group has yet commented in this matter.
The US Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass recently stated that Afghanistan must be willing to make a few compromises in the coming months as there will be opportunities to enter into a peace settlement and also to select a new leader. Furthermore he committed the support of his country to Afghanistan’s cause and added that only the people of Afghanistan could bring an end to this conflict that has kept the country divided for so long.
Nine activists of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were sentenced to death for attacking a train in which Sheikh Hasina, was on board 24 years ago. Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina, also the leader of Awami League, was the leader of the opposition then and her arch rival Begum Khaleda Zia was the Prime Minister. BNP has rejected the verdict and termed it politically motivated.
Bangladesh’s rivers have been granted the rights and status of "living entities" by the High Court. The order is in response to a 2016 petition filed by a Dhaka-based rights group. Following the verdict, all the rivers will be treated as legal persons. The move is expected to play a key role in the conservation of the rivers. It is worthy to note that Bangladesh has to be riverine country rivers have a major role in the socio-economic life of the country.
Masud Bin Momen, the Permanent Representative (PR) of Bangladesh to the United Nations (UN), accused the UN of being a failure to prevent atrocities in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. His comment followed the reference to the recent report "Independent Inquiry into the Involvement of the UN in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018" by Gert Rosenthal, the former Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister. Momen claimed that in spite of the availability of resources and technology, UN mechanisms in Myanmar did not provide early warning. Around a six hundred thousand Rohingyas have fled to in Bangladesh from the trouble-prone Rakhine province of Myanmar on August 2016 to avoid persecution.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Bhutan in mid-August. Foreign Minister Dr. Tandi Dorji shared the information after meeting the Indian Ambassador on 2 July. The itinerary of the two-day visit would be finalised after next week when an advance party would be in the country.
The Second Session of the Third Parliament of Bhutan approved the annual budget for 2019-2020 of Nu 64,826.725 million, out of which recurrent expenditure is Nu 34,652.765 mn, and the capital expenditure Nu 30,173.960 mn. The house during the second session ratified the Air Service Agreement with United Arab Emirates and deliberated on the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill and the Civil and Criminal Procedural Code (Amendment) Bill and forwarded the Bills to the National Council.
The Department of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Regional Organisations (DSOR) of the Foreign Ministry commended Bhutan for faring well in the region amid recent tensions among the member states of the regional organisation. Rinchen Keuntsyl, the Director of DSOR, speaking on the sidelines of a multi-sectoral coordination meeting of SAARC and Regional Organisations held in Bumthang said that Bhutan is known for its “commitment and dedication” to the SAARC process and that Bhutan has a very “good standing” among the member states.
Presenting Modi 2.0 Government’s maiden Budget (FY: 2019-20), Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that it aimed at making India a $5 trillion economy by 2025, and that steps are being taken in key sectors to initiate the same. Citing the divide between rural and urban India, the budget sees a massive emphasis on providing greater infrastructure and connectivity with approximately Rs. 49 lakh crore being pumped into the railway industry and by raising the income tax rate for those earning between Rs. 2 and Rs. 5 crore a year by three percent, while levying an ‘infra surcharge’ on petrol and diesel.
A woman Forest Department Officer, Chole Anitha, was attacked by goons in the village of Sarasala in the Kumram Bheem Asifabad district of Telangana. The officer was present along with 40 other Forest Department personnel and 30 policemen to start the reforestation of a plot measuring 20 hectares, when they were attacked by villagers led by Zilla Parishad Vice-President Koneru Krishna, opposing these reforestation efforts and also claiming the land belonged to them. Officer Anitha and another forest Beat Officer were injured and are being treated in a private hospital.
Acting on a specific information about the presence of terrorists in Narwani area of Shopian district of south Kashmir, security forces had launched a cordon and search operation, which led to the suspected terrorists firing upon them. The exchange of fire saw the death of one of the terrorists, whose identity and affiliation is still being ascertained. Post-firing, a search operation of the area led to the seizure of a cache of arms and ammunition.
In India on a four-day visit, Chief of Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), Maj-Gen Abdulla Shamaal, said that there was no Chinese military presence in his country despite the country's strong economic cooperation with Beijing. "Maldives must work in collaboration with other countries for several purposes. We cannot stay isolated,” denying rumours about the existence of a Chinese military base, pointing out how many other countries too received economic aid to many other countries. While in India, Shamaal, heading a high-level MNDF delegation, called on Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal B C Danoha, and also visited Coimbatore, Wellington and Thiruvanathapuram.
After the police confirmed that Abdulla Luthufee, the mastermind of the aborted 1988 coup against the Government of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had surrendered at the Maldivian Embassy in Colombo, Opposition parliamentarians have since raised the issue in the People’s Majlis, asking for his early extradition, to serve out the remaining part of his life-term. Luthufee had escaped from custody when on ‘medical leave’ in India in 2010, under the regime of President Mohammed Nasheed, now Parliament Speaker. While agreeing with the Opposition that Luthufee, who is on an Interpol ‘Red-Corner List’, should be brought back and made to serve out his term, ruling MDP parliamentarians, however, added that the Government should also think about what should be done when his jail-term ended.
The nation expects to receive more tourists this year after eased visa restrictions for Australia, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain and Switzerland take effect in October. Aung Aye Han, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism on 3 July stated that the authorities see a bright outlook for Myanmar's tourism. As of May, Myanmar received 1.84 million visitors, up 24% from the same period of last year. More than 3.55 million visited the nation last year.
The second day of repatriation of the fourth batch of Myanmar nationals from Thailand on 2 July 2019 saw 32 verified Myanmar nationals from Ban Nai Soi welcomed by the Chief Minister of Kayah State Government at the Maese Gate in Kayah State. In addition, two Myanmar nationals from Tham Hin camp were welcomed by the repatriation committee members from the Taninthayi Regional Government at Hteekhee Gate in Taninthayi Region. The relevant Ministries and the Repatriation Committees of State and Regional Governments arranged transportation for the returnees to reach their homes and provided them with humanitarian and financial assistance.
The primary opposition, Nepali Congress (NC), has been contemplating a change in leadership to garner back its strength. Senior leader of the party, Ram Chandra Poudel, was recently heard making this comment. If successfully implemented, the party can come back to power, given the recent dissatisfaction expressed by the people.
With a total of 47 unfilled seats having been at the local, provincial and federal levels of the government, the Election Commission (EC) of Nepal has been urging the voters to register themselves with the local election office. The entire process will be conducted within the month of November of this year.
Grant assistance of Euro 2.4 million has been received by Nepal from the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany. The money has been primarily directed towards issues like solar energy, mother and child care from the perspective of health and other economic developments.
Two days after the US State Department designated the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a global terrorist group, a meeting has been fixed between the heads of state of US and Pakistan. The interaction is scheduled to be held on 22 July and at the invitation of the US President Donald Trump. This will be Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first visit to Pakistan after becoming the Prime Minister. Focus of the meeting will be on improving ties between the two countries.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) to undertake a major crackdown on the holders of the ‘benami asset’. Furthermore while presiding over a meeting with the Chief Minister of Punjab Usman Buzdar he has asked the Chairman of the FBR Shabbar Zaidi to consult the chambers of commerce of Lahore and Faisalabad and take the business community into confidence regarding the government’s reform ideas to be rid of the financial crunch.
In a none-too-unexpected declaration, President Maithripala Sirisena has said that he would not allow the signing of the proposed ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA) with the US armed forces. “Although there are discussions in the society about agreements such as SOFA and Millennium Challenge (MCC) and a land act which is not suitable to the country, I will leave no room to sign such detrimental agreements,” he said at a function in the districts. As the Opposition has pointed out, SOFA provides freedom for US forces on an R&R landing, to wear uniforms, carry their personal weapons and not be subjected to Sri Lankan criminal laws, for offences committed on Sri Lankan territory. MCC is a development-funding agency akin to the Hambantota port project with Chinese agencies, where the Sirisena-led Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has already given away land in an ‘debt-to-equity’ swap-deal, blaming it all on the debt-trap, set by previous Rajapaksa regime.
The first Model Village built with Indian assistance under the Model Villages Programme has been inaugurated at Ranidugama in Gampaha, with Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa handing over the completed houses to the beneficiaries. Formerr President Chandrika Bandaranayke- Kumaratunga and Acting High Commissioner of India Dr. Shilpak Ambule were present. India is providing SL-Rs 1,200 m to build 100 model villages consisting of a total of 2,400 houses all across the country. These 2,400 houses are in addition to the 60,000 houses built under the Indian Housing Project meant for war-affected people in the North and East and the estate workers in the plantation areas, apart from 70 other people-oriented development projects in various fields including health, education, housing, skill development, infrastructure, vocational training all across the country, including the largest University Auditorium in Ruhuna University in Matara. About, 20 such projects are currently under progress. The overall development portfolio of Government of India in Sri Lanka is close to $ 3 billion out of which $ 560 million are in grants, the Indian High Commission has said.
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N Sathiya Moorthy, “Executions under the Executive Presidency”, Colombo Gazette, 1 July 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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