Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Troubling tradeoffs in the Human Development Index, Vol. 1 of 1

"Summary: The 20th Human Development Report has introduced a new version of its famous Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI aggregates country-level attainments in life expectancy, schooling and income per capita. Each year's rankings by the HDI are keenly watched in both rich and poor countries. The main change in the 2010 HDI is that it relaxes its past assumption of perfect substitutability between its three components. However, most users will probably not realize that the new HDI has also greatly reduced its implicit weight on longevity in poor countries, relative to rich ones. A poor country experiencing falling life expectancy due to (say) a collapse in its health-care system could still see its HDI improve with even a small rate of economic growth. By contrast, the new HDI's valuations of the gains from extra schooling seem unreasonably high -- many times greater than the economic returns to schooling. These troubling tradeoffs could have been largely avoided using a different aggregation function for the HDI, while still allowing imperfect substitution. While some difficult value judgments are faced in constructing and assessing the HDI, making its assumed tradeoffs more explicit would be a welcome step."

Troubling tradeoffs in the Human Development Index, Vol. 1 of 1

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Taliban Leader in Peace Talks Was an Impostor - NYTimes.com

Americans should stop embarrassing themselves and exit Afghanistan pronto. The place is a bigger mess now than it was before NATO tried to fix it. The loss of life, property, and hope in Afghanistan is too big a cost to justify the continuation of a flawed policy, which has led to sustained invasion and destruction of Afghanistan.

Why wait for 2014? Leave now and let the healing begin.
November 22, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.

But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.

“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”

American officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the Afghan was Mr. Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban leadership.

NATO and Afghan officials said they held three meetings with the man, who traveled from in Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have taken refuge.

The fake Taliban leader even met with President Hamid Karzai, having been flown to Kabul on a NATO aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace, officials said.

The episode underscores the uncertain and even bizarre nature of the atmosphere in which Afghan and American leaders search for ways to bring the nine-year-old American-led war to an end. The leaders of the Taliban are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, possibly with the assistance of the Pakistani government, which receives billions of dollars in American aid.

Many in the Taliban leadership, which is largely made up of barely literate clerics from the countryside, had not been seen in person by American, NATO or Afghan officials.

American officials say they were skeptical from the start about the identity of the man who claimed to be Mullah Mansour — who by some accounts is the second-ranking official in the Taliban, behind only the founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Serious doubts arose after the third meeting with Afghan officials, held in the southern city of Kandahar. A man who had known Mr. Mansour years ago told Afghan officials that the man at the table did not resemble him. “He said he didn’t recognize him,” said an Afghan leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Western diplomat said the Afghan man was initially given a sizable sum of money to take part in the talks — and to help persuade him to return.

While the Afghan official said he still harbored hopes that the man would return for another round of talks, American and other Western officials said they had concluded that the man in question was not Mr. Mansour. Just how the Americans reached such a definitive conclusion — whether, for instance, they were able to positively establish his identity through fingerprints or some other means — is unknown.

As recently as last month, American and Afghan officials held high hopes for the talks. Senior American officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, said the talks indicated that Taliban leaders, whose rank-and-file fighters are under extraordinary pressure from the American-led offensive, were at least willing to discuss an end to the war.

The American officials said they and officials of other NATO governments were helping to facilitate the discussions, by providing air transport and securing roadways for Taliban leaders coming from Pakistan.

Last month, White House officials asked The New York Times to withhold Mr. Mansour’s name from an article about the peace talks, expressing concern that the talks would be jeopardized — and Mr. Mansour’s life put at risk — if his involvement were publicized. The Times agreed to withhold Mr. Mansour’s name, along with the names of two other Taliban leaders said to be involved in the discussions. The status of the other two Taliban leaders said to be involved is not clear.

Since the last round of discussions, which took place within the past few weeks, Afghan and American officials have been puzzling over who the man was. Some officials say the man may simply have been a freelance fraud, posing as a Taliban leader in order to enrich himself.

Others say the man may have been a Taliban agent. “The Taliban are cleverer than the Americans and our own intelligence service,” said a senior Afghan official who is familiar with the case. “They are playing games.”

Others suspect that the fake Taliban leader, whose identity is not known, may have been dispatched by the Pakistani intelligence service, known by its initials, the ISI. Elements within the ISI have long played a “double-game” in Afghanistan, reassuring United States officials that they are pursuing the Taliban while at the same time providing support for the insurgents.

Publicly, the Taliban leadership is sticking to the line that there are no talks at all. In a recent message to his followers, Mullah Omar denied that there were any talks unfolding at any level.

“The cunning enemy which has occupied our country, is trying, on the one hand, to expand its military operations on the basis of its double-standard policy and, on the other hand, wants to throw dust into the eyes of the people by spreading the rumors of negotiation,” his message said.

Despite such statements, some senior leaders of the Taliban did show a willingness to talk peace with representatives of the Afghan government as recently as January.

At that time, Abdul Ghani Baradar, then the deputy commander of the Taliban, was arrested in a joint C.I.A.-ISI raid in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Although officials from both countries hailed the arrest as a hallmark of American-Pakistani cooperation, Pakistani officials have since indicated that they orchestrated Mr. Baradar’s arrest because he was engaging in peace discussions without the ISI’s permission.

Afghan leaders have confirmed this account.

Neither American nor Afghan leaders confronted the fake Mullah Mansour with their doubts. Indeed, some Afghan leaders are still holding out hopes that the man really is or at least represents Mr. Mansour — and that he will come back soon.

“Questions have been raised about him, but it’s still possible that it’s him,” said the Afghan leader who declined to be identified.

The Afghan leader said negotiators had urged the man claiming to be Mr. Mansour to return with colleagues, including other Taliban leaders whose identities they might also be able to verify.

The meetings were arranged by an Afghan with ties to both the Afghan government and the Taliban, officials said.

The Afghan leader said both the Americans and the Afghan leadership were initially cautious of the Afghan man’s identity and motives. But after the first meeting, both were reasonably satisfied that the man they were talking to was Mr. Mansour. Several steps were taken to establish the man’s real identity; after the first meeting, photos of him were shown to Taliban detainees who were believed to know Mr. Mansour. They signed off, the Afghan leader said.

Whatever the Afghan man’s identity, the talks that unfolded between the Americans and the man claiming to be Mr. Mansour seemed substantive, the Afghan leader said. The man claiming to be representing the Taliban laid down several surprisingly moderate conditions for a peace settlement: that the Taliban leadership be allowed to safely return to Afghanistan, that Taliban soldiers be offered jobs, and that prisoners be released.

The Afghan man did not demand, as the Taliban have in the past, a withdrawal of foreign forces or a Taliban share of the government.

Sayed Amir Muhammad Agha, a onetime Taliban commander who says he has left the Taliban but who acted as a go-between with the movement in the past, said in an interview that he did not know the tale of the impostor.

But he said the Taliban leadership had given no indications of a willingness to enter talks.

“Someone like me could come forward and say, ‘I am a Talib and a powerful person,’ ” he said. “But I can tell you, nothing is going on.”

“Whenever I talk to the Taliban, they never accept peace and they want to keep on fighting,” he said. “They are not tired.”

Ruhullah Khapalwak contributed reporting.

Taliban Leader in Peace Talks Was an Impostor - NYTimes.com

Thursday, November 18, 2010

BBC News - UK author Shadrake jailed for six weeks in Singapore

Had the British author written the same about Iran instead of Singapore, the whole world would've rushed to his rescue.

From the BBC

Alan Shadrake in Singapore (20 Oct2010)

Shadrake now faces a second trial on defamation charges

A Singapore court has sentenced the UK author Alan Shadrake to six weeks in prison for insulting the judiciary in a book he wrote about the death penalty.

The 76-year-old was found guilty last week, and faces a further trial on defamation charges.

He was also ordered to pay a S$20,000 (£9,585; $15,400) fine.

In his book, Once a Jolly Hangman - Singapore Justice in the Dock, he criticised how the death penalty is used, alleging a lack of impartiality.

Prosecution lawyers had sought a prison term of 12 weeks.

Shadrake offered an apology, which High Court Judge Quentin Loh called "nothing more than a tactical ploy in court to obtain a reduced sentence".

Shadrake's lawyer, M Ravi, said an appeal was unlikely to succeed.

He said his client was in ill health and regretted that he had received no support from the British public.

Mr Ravi added that Shadrake did not have any money and the fine could not be paid.

Judge Loh said that Shadrake would have to serve an additional two weeks in prison if he failed to pay the fine.

Malaysia-based Shadrake was arrested in July when he visited Singapore to launch his book.

The book contains interviews with human rights activists, lawyers and former police officers, as well as a profile of Darshan Singh, the former chief executioner at Singapore's Changi Prison.

It claims he executed around 1,000 men and women from 1959 until he retired in 2006.

"I think I've been given a fair hearing," Shadrake told the media after the verdict was issued last week.

US-based Human Rights Watch and other rights groups had urged Singapore to exonerate the author.

Separately, Shadrake is being investigated by the police for criminal defamation; his passport is being held by the police.

BBC News - UK author Shadrake jailed for six weeks in Singapore

India Microcredit Sector Faces Collapse From Defaults - NYTimes.com

MADOOR, India — India’s rapidly growing private microcredit industry faces imminent collapse as almost all borrowers in one of India’s largest states have stopped repaying their loans, egged on by politicians who accuse the industry of earning outsize profits on the backs of the poor.

The crisis has been building for weeks, but has now reached a critical stage. Indian banks, which put up about 80 percent of the money that the companies lent to poor consumers, are increasingly worried that after surviving the global financial crisis mostly unscathed, they could now face serious losses. Indian banks have about $4 billion tied up in the industry, banking officials say.

“We are extremely worried about our exposure to the microfinance sector,” said Sunand K. Mitra, a senior executive at Axis Bank, speaking Tuesday on a panel at the India Economic Summit.

The region’s crisis is likely to reverberate around the globe. Initially the work of nonprofit groups, the tiny loans to the poor known as microcredit once seemed a promising path out of poverty for millions. In recent years, foundations, venture capitalists and the World Bank have used India as a petri dish for similar for-profit “social enterprises” that seek to make money while filling a social need. Like-minded industries have sprung up in Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia.

But microfinance in pursuit of profits has led some microcredit companies around the world to extend loans to poor villagers at exorbitant interest rates and without enough regard for their ability to repay. Some companies have more than doubled their revenues annually.

Now some Indian officials fear that microfinance could become India’s version of the United States’ subprime mortgage debacle, in which the seemingly noble idea of extending home ownership to low-income households threatened to collapse the global banking system because of a reckless, grow-at-any-cost strategy.

Responding to public anger over abuses in the microcredit industry — and growing reports of suicides among people unable to pay mounting debts — legislators in the state of Andhra Pradesh last month passed a stringent new law restricting how the companies can lend and collect money.

Even as the new legislation was being passed, local leaders urged people to renege on their loans, and repayments on nearly $2 billion in loans in the state have virtually ceased. Lenders say that less than 10 percent of borrowers have made payments in the past couple of weeks.

If the trend continues, the industry faces collapse in a state where more than a third of its borrowers live. Lenders are also having trouble making new loans in other states, because banks have slowed lending to them as fears about defaults have grown.

Government officials in the state say they had little choice but to act, and point to women like Durgamma Dappu, a widowed laborer from this impoverished village who took a loan from a private microfinance company because she wanted to build a house.

She had never had a bank account or earned a regular salary but was given a $200 loan anyway, which she struggled to repay. So she took another from a different company, then another, until she was nearly $2,000 in debt. In September she fled her village, leaving her family little choice but to forfeit her tiny plot of land, and her dreams.

“These institutions are using quite coercive methods to collect,” said V. Vasant Kumar, the state’s minister for rural development. “They aren’t looking at sustainability or ensuring the money is going to income-generating activities. They are just making money.”

Reddy Subrahmanyam, a senior official who helped write the Andhra Pradesh legislation, accuses microfinance companies of making “hyperprofits off the poor,” and said the industry had become no better than the widely despised village loan sharks it was intended to replace.

“The money lender lives in the community,” he said. “At least you can burn down his house. With these companies, it is loot and scoot.”

Indeed, some of the anger appears to have been fueled by the recent initial public offering of shares by SKS Microfinance, India’s largest for-profit microlender, backed by famous investors like George Soros and Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

SKS and its shareholders raised more than $350 million on the stock market in August. Its revenue and profits have grown around 100 percent annually in recent years. This year, Vikram Akula, chairman of SKS Microfinance, privately sold shares worth about $13 million.

He defended the industry’s record before the India Economic Summit meeting, saying that a few rogue operators may have given improper loans, but that the industry was too important to fail. “Microfinance has made a tremendous contribution to inclusive growth,” he said. Destroying microfinance, he said, would result in “nothing less than financial apartheid.”

Indian microfinance companies have some of the world’s lowest interest rates for small loans. Mr. Akula said that his company had reduced its interest rate by six percentage points, to 24 percent, in the past several years as volume had brought down expenses.

Unlike other officials in his industry, Vijay Mahajan, the chairman of Basix, an organization that provides loans and other services to the poor, acknowledged that many lenders grew too fast and lent too aggressively. Investments by private equity firms and the prospect of a stock market listing drove firms to increase lending as fast as they could, he said.

“In their quest to grow,” he said, “they kept piling on more loans in the same geographies.” He added, “That led to more indebtedness, and in some cases it led to suicides.”

Still, he said, the number of borrowers who are struggling to pay off their debts is much smaller than officials have asserted. He estimates that 20 percent have borrowed more than they can afford and that just 1 percent are in serious trouble.

One of India’s leading social workers, Ela Bhatt, who heads the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA, said microfinance firms had lost sight of the fact that the poor needed more than loans to be successful entrepreneurs. They need business and financial advice as well, she said.

“They were more concerned about growth — not growth of the livelihoods and economic status of the clients, but only the institutions’ growth,” she said.

Mr. Mahajan, who is also the chairman of the Microfinance Institutions Network, said that the industry was now planning to create a fund to help restructure the loans of the 20 percent of borrowers in Andhra Pradesh who were struggling.

He also said the industry, which has been reluctant to accept outside help, would share its client databases with the government and was negotiating restrictions on retail lending that did not go through the nonprofit self-help lending groups.

The collapse of the industry could have severe consequences for borrowers, who may be forced to resort to money lenders once again. It is tough to find a household in this village in an impoverished district of Andhra Pradesh that is not deeply in debt to a for-profit microfinance company.

K. Shivamma, a 38-year-old farmer, said she took her first loan hoping to reverse several years of crop failure brought on by drought.

“When you take the loan they say, ‘Don’t worry, it is easy to pay back,’ ” Ms. Shivamma said.

The man from Share, the company that made her first loan, did not ask about her income, Ms. Shivamma said. She soon ran into trouble paying back the $400 loan, and took out another loan, and then another.

Now she owes nearly $2,000 and has no idea how she will repay it. The television, the mobile phone and the two buffaloes she bought with one loan were sold long ago. “I know it is a vicious circle,” she said. “But there is no choice but to go on.”

Lydia Polgreen reported from Madoor, and Vikas Bajaj from Mumbai, India. Hari Kumar contributed reporting from Madoor.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Press Release: IMF Statement on the Occasion of the 2010 Pakistan Development Forum

IMF Statement on the Occasion of the 2010 Pakistan Development Forum

Press Release No. 10/435
November 15, 2010

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff team, led by Adnan Mazarei, IMF mission chief for Pakistan, participated in the 2010 Pakistan Development Forum in Islamabad. Mr. Mazarei issued the following statement on the occasion of the forum:

“IMF staff is very happy to participate in this Pakistan Development Forum. Our statement will cover three topics: recent developments in the Pakistani economy, the current macroeconomic framework, and Pakistan’s financing needs.

“Prior to this summer’s floods, although growth was picking up, inflation was high and persistent. The 2009/10 budget deficit target was missed by a significant margin and the end-June 2010 ceiling on government borrowing from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) was also exceeded. As a result, the fifth program review could not be completed on time.1

“This summer’s floods have led to a sharp deterioration in the economic outlook. The agriculture sector—which accounts for 21 percent of GDP and nearly half of employment—has been hit particularly hard. There has also been substantial damage to infrastructure and private property. The floods will dampen economic growth significantly in 2010/11(July-June) and add to pressures on the balance of payments and public finances. Inflation, especially of food prices, has picked up, compounding the social pains of the recent floods.

“Asian Development Bank and World Bank staffs have estimated damages and losses from the floods at about US$10 billion. In 2010/11, the authorities plan to provide US$1.8 billion (1.0 percent of GDP) in cash transfers to flood victims, most of which is targeted to be spent on house reconstruction.

“The fiscal outcome in the first quarter of 2010/11 was weaker than expected, and the government continued to borrow from the SBP. With low revenues and large outlays for provinces and energy subsidies, the deficit reached about 1.6 percent of GDP. The borrowing from the SBP, together with the shock to food supplies following the floods, helped push inflation in October to 15.3 percent (year-on-year) from around 13 percent in August.

“The SBP raised interest rates in July and again in September on account of concerns about inflation, the external position, and the need to roll over government paper. Market interest rates have risen by 70–150 basis points since June 2010, reflecting both the increased policy rate and higher inflationary expectations.

“Despite the floods, the external position and the exchange rate have remained stable so far. The envisaged loss of reserves due to flood-related imports has not materialized; the external current account deficit was only 0.3 percent of GDP in the first quarter and the SBP reserves increased by US$200 million to US$13.2 billion. However, considerable risks to the external position remain.

“The authorities know that a swift and robust policy response is needed to manage the pressures existing before the floods, provide relief to flood victims, and contribute to reconstruction. They also recognize the need to manage the economy with considerable caution to preserve macroeconomic stability. Accordingly, they are adjusting economic policies.

“Public finances have been affected by lower revenue collections and higher outlays for humanitarian assistance. A revision of the 2010/11 budget will, therefore, be necessary. To this effect, the authorities have revised their fiscal deficit target for this fiscal year to 4.7 percent of GDP. Discussions of the required policy measures to attain this objective have started, but are not yet completed. Achieving the budget deficit target will be challenging, and will require an agreement with provinces on binding limits on provincial fiscal positions, consistent with the overall target.

“Structural reforms are needed to improve budgetary performance. Two areas stand out. One is the reformed general sales tax (RGST), including an effective input-crediting mechanism, reduced exemptions, and elimination of zero-rating and special rates. The other is electricity reform, where action is needed to eliminate untargeted subsidies while addressing load shedding and protecting the poor, and address the problem of circular debt. The authorities’ electricity sector reform plan will need to be reviewed by Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, which take the lead in this area.

“Adherence to the revised 2010/11 budget deficit target will be needed to bring government borrowing from the SBP down to the targeted level, which is essential for achieving a durable reduction in inflation, a major source of poverty. In this connection, the adoption of a flood tax is a welcome step.

“Financial sector reforms are also needed. Parliament has amended the SBP Act, which should help improve public financial management, and amendments to the banking and bankruptcy laws are being prepared. Nonperforming loans have increased through end-September, and are expected to increase further due to the floods. Also, several banks must increase capital to meet their statutory requirements, and there is a need to pass amendments to the banking law to strengthen the SBP’s supervisory powers.

“The balance of payments is expected to weaken in 2010/11, due in part to the impact of the floods. Imports will rise as food and other basic goods will need to be sourced from abroad and imports of capital equipment for reconstruction will increase. Although the major export plants have escaped physical damage, cotton and textiles exports may be lower. However, we expect that the higher trade deficit will be compensated in part by rising remittances from Pakistanis abroad. Even so, the current account deficit will likely widen by 0.8 percent of GDP to 2.8 percent of GDP. Overall, for 2010/11, we project an average inflation rate of 14 percent and real GDP growth of 2¾ percent. The medium-term outlook will be updated when discussions between the authorities and Fund staff have been completed.

“Given Pakistan’s large flood and development needs, additional donor financing would support the government’s efforts to finance flood relief and reconstruction as well as raise development and social spending. In this spirit, already in September, the IMF provided over $450 million in emergency assistance. This was new money (i.e., in addition to the current Stand-By Arrangement), which was made available quickly and unconditionally to help the authorities deal with the most urgent budgetary needs entailed by the floods. Additional financing would also reduce the risks to the economy, including from shortfalls in projected capital inflow. Specifically:

• Pakistan will continue to have large gross external financing requirements in the next few years. The floods have added to these needs.

• The Fund-supported program can accommodate additional foreign assistance during 2010/11. The macroeconomic effects would be generally favorable, including revived growth.

• Provision of external financing on concessional terms or, preferably, in the form of grants will reduce downside risks to debt sustainability. Reducing these risks will enhance investor confidence—and therefore increase the prospects for private external financing—and increase growth prospects for the Pakistan economy.

“The Fund has been providing Pakistan with policy advice and financial resources. We will continue to work together with the authorities toward putting the IMF-supported program back on track and completing the fifth review of the Stand-By Arrangement.”

1 See IMF Staff Report “Pakistan: Use of Fund Resources—Request for Emergency Assistance” of September 10, 2010 (http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2010/cr10295.pdf).

Press Release: IMF Statement on the Occasion of the 2010 Pakistan Development Forum

Searching Your Laptop - NYTimes.com

November 15, 2010
The New York Times editorial
Federal courts have long agreed that federal agents guarding the borders do not need a warrant or probable cause to search a traveler’s belongings. That exception to the Fourth Amendment needs updating and tightening to reflect the realities of the digital age.

The government has a sovereign right and responsibility to secure the borders. The recent discovery of two powerful package bombs being shipped to the United States is a reminder of the many dangers out there.

There is also a big difference between government agents scanning items for explosives or looking through a suitcase full of clothing, and searching through the hard drive of a laptop computer containing work papers, financial records, e-mail messages and Web site visits.

Although the number of travelers whose devices are searched is small compared with the many millions who cross American borders each year, the problem is real. Between October 2008 and June 2010, more than 6,600 travelers — nearly 3,000 of them American — were subjected to such searches, according to government records released in response to a Freedom of Information request.

The George W. Bush administration first authorized border agents to seize and view the contents of laptops, smartphones, and other devices and copy and share data with other government agencies without need for any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.

The Obama administration has tweaked the policy, requiring approval from supervisors to hold a seized device for more than five days, for example. The fundamental flaw remains: it permits the government to engage in indiscriminate and invasive fishing expeditions.

The Supreme Court has yet to confront the issue. But in a disappointing ruling in 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco said that agents at a border need not meet even the low threshold of reasonable suspicion to justify a warrantless laptop search. The ruling reversed a lower court’s finding that laptops are “an extension of our own memory” and too personal to allow government searches without some reasonable and articulable suspicion.

The American Civil Liberties Union has now filed a lawsuit challenging the policy on behalf of press photographers, criminal defense attorneys and a doctoral student in Islamic studies whose laptop was searched and confiscated this spring.

Congress should not wait for resolution of the case. It should approve legislation along the lines of the Travelers’ Privacy Protection Act proposed two years ago in the Senate.

It would have confined border laptop searches involving American citizens and residents to situations where agents have a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity and require a higher standard of probable cause and a warrant or court order when a laptop is held for more than 24 hours. The measure also set strict limits on disclosure and sharing of information from devices seized at the border and requires the Department of Homeland Security to report regularly to Congress and the public on its search policies and practices.

The Senate bill’s leading sponsor, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was defeated in this month’s election. His three Democratic co-sponsors — Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Maria Cantwell of Washington — should press the issue in the new Senate.

The challenge, as ever, is to strike a balance that grants sufficient leeway to protect the nation’s borders without allowing the intimate details of people’s lives and work to be searched, seized and copied on a whim.

Searching Your Laptop - NYTimes.com

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arundathi Roy exposes the weakling President Obama

Writing for The New York Times, Arundathi Roy exposes the weakling President Obama, who in his haste to sell Boeing plans to India, did not mention even once the human rights violations in Kashmir. Kashmiris, both Pandits and Muslims, are being ill-treated by India and Pakistan. President Obama in the beginning of his presidency expressed desire to take lead in resolving Kashmir dispute. He no longer bears any inclination to do that.

While this is indeed a sign of weakening presidency, I see it as a positive sign for Kashmir. US intervention has seldom delivered peace or justice. Not having US involved in Kashmir is a blessing for all.

Kashmir belongs to Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. Its future should be charted by the same. India and Pakistan has no business subduing Kashmiris in Srinagar, Baramulla, Chopian, Kargil, Gilgit, and Baltistan.


November 8, 2010

Kashmir’s Fruits of Discord


New Delhi

A WEEK before he was elected in 2008, President Obama said that solving the dispute over Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination — which has led to three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947 — would be among his “critical tasks.” His remarks were greeted with consternation in India, and he has said almost nothing about Kashmir since then.

But on Monday, during his visit here, he pleased his hosts immensely by saying the United States would not intervene in Kashmir and announcing his support for India’s seat on the United Nations Security Council. While he spoke eloquently about threats of terrorism, he kept quiet about human rights abuses in Kashmir.

Whether Mr. Obama decides to change his position on Kashmir again depends on several factors: how the war in Afghanistan is going, how much help the United States needs from Pakistan and whether the government of India goes aircraft shopping this winter. (An order for 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, worth $5.8 billion, among other huge business deals in the pipeline, may ensure the president’s silence.) But neither Mr. Obama’s silence nor his intervention is likely to make the people in Kashmir drop the stones in their hands.

I was in Kashmir 10 days ago, in that beautiful valley on the Pakistani border, home to three great civilizations — Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist. It’s a valley of myth and history. Some believe that Jesus died there; others that Moses went there to find the lost tribe. Millions worship at the Hazratbal shrine, where a few days a year a hair of the Prophet Muhammad is displayed to believers.

Now Kashmir, caught between the influence of militant Islam from Pakistan and Afghanistan, America’s interests in the region and Indian nationalism (which is becoming increasingly aggressive and “Hinduized”), is considered a nuclear flash point. It is patrolled by more than half a million soldiers and has become the most highly militarized zone in the world.

The atmosphere on the highway between Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, and my destination, the little apple town of Shopian in the south, was tense. Groups of soldiers were deployed along the highway, in the orchards, in the fields, on the rooftops and outside shops in the little market squares. Despite months of curfew, the “stone pelters” calling for “azadi” (freedom), inspired by the Palestinian intifada, were out again. Some stretches of the highway were covered with so many of these stones that you needed an S.U.V. to drive over them.

Fortunately the friends I was with knew alternative routes down the back lanes and village roads. The “longcut” gave me the time to listen to their stories of this year’s uprising. The youngest, still a boy, told us that when three of his friends were arrested for throwing stones, the police pulled out their fingernails — every nail, on both hands.

For three years in a row now, Kashmiris have been in the streets, protesting what they see as India’s violent occupation. But the militant uprising against the Indian government that began with the support of Pakistan 20 years ago is in retreat. The Indian Army estimates that there are fewer than 500 militants operating in the Kashmir Valley today. The war has left 70,000 dead and tens of thousands debilitated by torture. Many, many thousands have “disappeared.” More than 200,000 Kashmiri Hindus have fled the valley. Though the number of militants has come down, the number of Indian soldiers deployed remains undiminished.

But India’s military domination ought not to be confused with a political victory. Ordinary people armed with nothing but their fury have risen up against the Indian security forces. A whole generation of young people who have grown up in a grid of checkpoints, bunkers, army camps and interrogation centers, whose childhood was spent witnessing “catch and kill” operations, whose imaginations are imbued with spies, informers, “unidentified gunmen,” intelligence operatives and rigged elections, has lost its patience as well as its fear. With an almost mad courage, Kashmir’s young have faced down armed soldiers and taken back their streets.

Since April, when the army killed three civilians and then passed them off as “terrorists,” masked stone throwers, most of them students, have brought life in Kashmir to a grinding halt. The Indian government has retaliated with bullets, curfew and censorship. Just in the last few months, 111 people have been killed, most of them teenagers; more than 3,000 have been wounded and 1,000 arrested.

But still they come out, the young, and throw stones. They don’t seem to have leaders or belong to a political party. They represent themselves. And suddenly the second-largest standing army in the world doesn’t quite know what to do. The Indian government doesn’t know whom to negotiate with. And many Indians are slowly realizing they have been lied to for decades. The once solid consensus on Kashmir suddenly seems a little fragile.

I WAS in a bit of trouble the morning we drove to Shopian. A few days earlier, at a public meeting in Delhi, I said that Kashmir was disputed territory and, contrary to the Indian government’s claims, it couldn’t be called an “integral” part of India. Outraged politicians and news anchors demanded that I be arrested for sedition. The government, terrified of being seen as “soft,” issued threatening statements, and the situation escalated. Day after day, on prime-time news, I was being called a traitor, a white-collar terrorist and several other names reserved for insubordinate women. But sitting in that car on the road to Shopian, listening to my friends, I could not bring myself to regret what I had said in Delhi.

We were on our way to visit a man called Shakeel Ahmed Ahangar. The previous day he had come all the way to Srinagar, where I had been staying, to press me, with an urgency that was hard to ignore, to visit Shopian.

I first met Shakeel in June 2009, only a few weeks after the bodies of Nilofar, his 22-year-old wife, and Asiya, his 17-year-old sister, were found lying a thousand yards apart in a shallow stream in a high-security zone — a floodlit area between army and state police camps. The first postmortem report confirmed rape and murder. But then the system kicked in. New autopsy reports overturned the initial findings and, after the ugly business of exhuming the bodies, rape was ruled out. It was declared that in both cases the cause of death was drowning. Protests shut Shopian down for 47 days, and the valley was convulsed with anger for months. Eventually it looked as though the Indian government had managed to defuse the crisis. But the anger over the killings has magnified the intensity of this year’s uprising.

Shakeel wanted us to visit him in Shopian because he was being threatened by the police for speaking out, and hoped our visit would demonstrate that people even outside of Kashmir were looking out for him, that he was not alone.

It was apple season in Kashmir and as we approached Shopian we could see families in their orchards, busily packing apples into wooden crates in the slanting afternoon light. I worried that a couple of the little red-cheeked children who looked so much like apples themselves might be crated by mistake. The news of our visit had preceded us, and a small knot of people were waiting on the road.

Shakeel’s house is on the edge of the graveyard where his wife and sister are buried. It was dark by the time we arrived, and there was a power failure. We sat in a semicircle around a lantern and listened to him tell the story we all knew so well. Other people entered the room. Other terrible stories poured out, ones that are not in human rights reports, stories about what happens to women who live in remote villages where there are more soldiers than civilians. Shakeel’s young son tumbled around in the darkness, moving from lap to lap. “Soon he’ll be old enough to understand what happened to his mother,” Shakeel said more than once.

Just when we rose to leave, a messenger arrived to say that Shakeel’s father-in-law — Nilofar’s father — was expecting us at his home. We sent our regrets; it was late and if we stayed longer it would be unsafe for us to drive back.

Minutes after we said goodbye and crammed ourselves into the car, a friend’s phone rang. It was a journalist colleague of his with news for me: “The police are typing up the warrant. She’s going to be arrested tonight.” We drove in silence for a while, past truck after truck being loaded with apples. “It’s unlikely,” my friend said finally. “It’s just psy-ops.”

But then, as we picked up speed on the highway, we were overtaken by a car full of men waving us down. Two men on a motorcycle asked our driver to pull over. I steeled myself for what was coming. A man appeared at the car window. He had slanting emerald eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard that went halfway down his chest. He introduced himself as Abdul Hai, father of the murdered Nilofar.

“How could I let you go without your apples?” he said. The bikers started loading two crates of apples into the back of our car. Then Abdul Hai reached into the pockets of his worn brown cloak, and brought out an egg. He placed it in my palm and folded my fingers over it. And then he placed another in my other hand. The eggs were still warm. “God bless and keep you,” he said, and walked away into the dark. What greater reward could a writer want?

I wasn’t arrested that night. Instead, in what is becoming a common political strategy, officials outsourced their displeasure to the mob. A few days after I returned home, the women’s wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (the right-wing Hindu nationalist opposition) staged a demonstration outside my house, calling for my arrest. Television vans arrived in advance to broadcast the event live. The murderous Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu group that, in 2002, spearheaded attacks against Muslims in Gujarat in which more than a thousand people were killed, have announced that they are going to “fix” me with all the means at their disposal, including by filing criminal charges against me in different courts across the country.

Indian nationalists and the government seem to believe that they can fortify their idea of a resurgent India with a combination of bullying and Boeing airplanes. But they don’t understand the subversive strength of warm, boiled eggs.

Arundhati Roy is the author of the novel “The God of Small Things” and, most recently, the essay collection “Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

NLC in the dumps

The National Logistics Cell (NLC) was originally created in the mid eighties to carry ammunition from Karachi to the Afghan Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Many a military officers and their families became millionaires because of the military sponsored gravy train.

It turns out that the NLC is now on life support after squandering billions of tax payers money.

DAWN.COM | Pakistan | Kayani tells NLC to stop posing as defence agency