Cyclone Amphan: Post-disaster recovery remains a distant dream in the disaster-prone Bay of Bengal
In the news
On 20 May the category-3 (hurricane equivalent) super cyclone Amphan left a trail of destruction, nothing that the eastern states of India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal region have witnessed in the past 20 years. The trajectory of the cyclone lasted for two days, first bracing the coastal districts in Odisha followed by the largest impact in the Sunderban districts of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
With 88 people dead, the coastal villages in West Bengal and Bangladesh remain battered, hampered by torn down power lines, flooding of farmlands and uprooted trees and lives. Assessing the impact West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee put the loss to Rs 100 crore with an impact on a million people. In Bangladesh, the official death toll was at 16 and an estimated loss of Tk 400 crore in the coastal district of Bagerhat alone.
Five million people are currently without electricity, and with more than 5,000 houses damaged, the number of people displaced (post evacuation) stands at two million.
Issues at large
Faced with repeated cyclones while states like Odisha have been able to mitigate with a zero-loss of life approach, the other states within the same political geography like West Bengal have failed. In attempting the post-disaster rehabilitation, the issue of absent grassroots institutions, relief politics and forced displacement figure significantly.
First, unlike Odisha, West Bengal has taken little lessons from its past experiences with cyclone Aila and Bulbul. In Odisha, the lessons on early warning systems, efficient decentralized panchayat institutions and strong leadership under the State Disaster Management Authority were learnt from the super cyclone of 1999. When faced with Aila, West Bengal remained marred in political factionalism between the local Revolutionary Socialist Party and the CPM leadership creating space for the opposition to legitimize it power. Similarly, in 2007, when Bangladesh faced Cyclone Sidr, the politicization of the relief estranged any rehabilitation process.
Second, a difference in policy approach towards its coast also hinders post-disaster rehabilitation. While for Odisha, its coast serves as its core economic ground, West Bengal and Bangladesh have given a peripheral treatment to its coastal communities in the Sunderbans mangrove delta.
Third, with each cyclone forced displacement compounded with relief politics are becoming a norm. Even before the Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal, the state government was tackling allegations of mismanagement of COVID-19 crisis. The delayed response, preventing the opposition from distributing relief and diversion of free food grain offered through PDS have fraught the rehabilitation process in West Bengal. The relief politics received a new fervour with each political party playing to particular constituency and blocks keeping the local elections of 2021 in the background.
Last, India’s advancement in the early warning system has made mitigating the disaster much faster, but saving lives have not been complemented with saving of livelihoods. Accurate and advance forecasts of cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh proved the success of multi-hazard early warning systems. However, as more than 5 million remain displaced with no livelihood, the question of post-disaster recovery and a need for long-term climate resilience remain alluded.
First, along with cooperative federalism, there is a need to look beyond the relief and rehabilitation approach to disaster risk management. The long-term recovery with dignity addressing the collective memory of loss and reconciliation of the affected community is often ignored while building community resilience to disasters. The disaster-prone South Asia has passed the phase of risk management and needs to delve into what comes after the risk.
Second, cyclone Amphan has also brought with it the need for resilient ecosystem conservation with an equal role for the coastal communities. While one counts the loss of life, the loss to the Sundarbans ecosystem and the uprooted trees remains to be ascertained. The Sundarbans delta in West Bengal and Bangladesh have always been an amphibious terrain where the land meets the water and water seeps into the land. In this cyclone, the realities of coastal inundation, advancing sea level, saltwater intrusion into the groundwater table and seawater seepage into farmlands have become more pronounced. Returning to traditional farming or fishing will be distant for many, thereby pushing the rural to urban labour-migration complex in the region.
Taliban announces a three days ceasefire, Ghani agrees to share power with Abdullah, and Trump wants the Pentagon to prepare a plan to withdraw
In the news
Last week witnessed three significant developments in Afghanistan at three different levels, but all are linked with each other. The success in one is directly and indirectly linked with the outcomes of the other two developments.
In Kabul, President Ghani agreed to share power with his main rival – Abdullah Abdullah, who rejected the result of the previous election held in Afghanistan in 2019. According to the terms of the agreement between the two, Abdullah will lead the negotiations with the Taliban and will have a say in the appointment of crucial appointments in the government.
Outside Kabul, the Taliban has announced a three days ceasefire in the eve of the Eid, which was reciprocated by the government.
Outside Afghanistan, in the US, President Trump has asked the Pentagon to prepare a for a withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan during the course of 2020 itself.
Issues in the background
There are multiple issues relating to the above three developments.
First is the Kabul consensus. After a bitter fight during and after the Presidential elections, the political polarization between the two rival leaders – Ghani and Abdullah was threatening the stability in Kabul, and also the larger plans that the US have planned for – in terms of an intra-Afghan dialogue, leading towards facilitating the American withdrawal.
Second, the American pressure over Kabul. The US should have pressurized both the leaders to come to a consensus. On their own, they would not have reached any compromise. It was President Ghani who should have yielded more than Abdullah.
Third, is the ceasefire announcement by the Taliban. There is adequate data to prove that the Taliban increased its attacks on the government troops, after signing a deal with the US in Doha in February 2020. Though the Taliban did not target the American troops, it continued its violence against the government troops and innocent civilians.
The American should have pressurized the Taliban also to announce the ceasefire. After the attack on the maternity clinic in Kabul two weeks earlier, which killed mothers, pregnant women and babies, there was visible anger against the Taliban and also the US. Though the US tried to divert the attention by blaming it on the Islamic State in Afghanistan (which could have been true), there was also a public pressure on the Taliban. On its own, the Taliban would not have agreed for a ceasefire.
Fourth is the order from Trump to Pentagon to prepare a plan to withdraw from Afghanistan. Though the US-Taliban deal envisages the American withdrawal at a later date, Trump wants to bring the American troops back to the US before the next Presidential elections. For him, winning the election in the US is more important than long term peace in Afghanistan.
Three questions on those three developments last week. Will the Kabul consensus hold? Will the Taliban extend its ceasefire and stop targeting government troops and innocent civilians? Will the American withdraw completely?
The first may hold. Both Ghani and Abdullah will look at political expediency, resulting in an unstable, but a functional arrangement. The second may not. Taliban would look for another pretext to start the violence. The third would take place, perhaps in phases. However, the US would leave a residue force in Afghanistan. It provides the US with physical proximity to watch Iran and Pakistan.
Indo-Nepal differences over Kalapani dispute heats up, as Kathmandu publishes a new map
In the news
India inaugurated the 80 km newly-constructed road in Uttarakhand to Lipu Lekh Pass in early May. Nepal protested immediately and has asked India first to resolve the border dispute through negotiation and then complete the road. Nepal has termed it a ‘unilateral act’ with potentials to jeopardize the bilateral understanding. Subsequently, Nepal has released its new map including Kalapani as part of its territory.
Issues in the background
First is the long-standing border dispute between the two countries. India has a border dispute with Nepal in two areas: 372-sq km Kalapani and 148.6 sq km Susta. The road to Lipu Lekh is a part of Kalapani dispute. India has been showing Kalapani as part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand state. Nepal has been objecting since 1998, claiming it a part of its Dharchula district including the Lipu Lekh, marked by Kalapani river, one of the headwaters of Kali River in the Himalayas.
India regards east of the pass as Nepalese territory and Lipu Lekh as trijunction. China considers it as part of India, allowing it as a route to Tibet. Earlier Nepal first disputed it when on May 15, 2015, India-China joint statement included Lipu Lekh pass as a bilateral trade route.
Second is the failure of the two countries to resolve the issue during recent years. The dispute came into prominence in November 2019 when India released a new map after bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Nepal objected claiming that Indian map has wrongly included Nepal’s territory. India rejected and said that it had not done any alteration of an old boundary in the map. Subsequently, Nepal released a new map in May 2020 including Kalapani as part of its territory which has been rejected and objected by India.
Third is the religious significance of the road that India wants to build in the region that Nepal disputes. It is one of the three arduous routes to Kailash Mansarovar in China which is revered as Lord Siva’s abode by Hindus in India. Other two routes are through Sikkim and Kathmandu in Nepal. The route through Uttarakhand consists of three stretches: first, 107.6 km long road from Pithoragarh to Tawaghat; second, 19.5-km single lane road from Tawaghat to Ghatiabgarh; and third, 80 km from Ghatiabgarh to Lipu Lekh Pass at the China border, negotiable only on foot. The third stretch takes nearly five days to traverse. Government of India is converting the second stretch into a two-lane road. 80-km third stretch is being converted to facilitate commutation through vehicle to shorten the time taken to travel. 76-km stands completed, and last 4-km is expected to be completed by this year. Most of the pilgrimage journey through this route ensure on Indian territory, unlike other two routes.
Fourth is the economic and strategic significance. It is also a trade route; Indians and Tibetans have been holding border trade at the Lipu Lekh Pass. Lipu Lekh was closed by India in the wake of Indo-Chinese war in 1962 which continued till 1991, creating hardships for local’s trade with Tibet.
Situated at over 17,000 feet altitude, Lipu Lekh runs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, thus of great strategic significance. The area falls at the trijunction of India, China and Nepal. China also threatened to enter Kalapani when Dokalam stand-off took place.
Oli’s Left government in Nepal is pro-China and given their relationship the protest may have been more at the behest of China, which has been pro-active to enhance its influence in India’s neighbourhood. It could also be Chinese pressure tactics to force India to soften its stand and support China when the global majority is castigating it on COVID-19.
Pakistan: Killing in the name of honour continues; this time in Waziristan
In the news
On 17 May, North Waziristan police arrested two suspects who were involved in the honour killing of two teenage girls. Both are relatives of the victims, one being the father and the other is a cousin of the girls. The two of the three girls were killed on 14 May, after an ‘objectionable’ short video of them with a young man in a secluded area outdoors surfaced on social media.
Issues at large
First, the belief of women as property and thereby a source of honour is deeply rooted in society. For many within Pakistan, women and girls are seen to embody family honour, their identity, existence and social respects are derived or measured by their obedience to family demands. This is even more prominent in tribal societies, where anything a woman does can compromise the honour of the family. Thus, honour crimes are committed as a way of policing or disciplining women and girls who are seen to be violating the social code.
Hundreds of women and girls are killed in the name of “honour” in Pakistan every year. Clapping, dancing, enjoying at weddings, living life independently or even desiring to be educated are crimes that are believed to put in stake the honour of the family and society, thereby sanctifying their killings.
Second, tribal practices and customs possess a higher status than the federal law. Given the geographical context of this incident, women in tribal areas like in North Waziristan, have little freedom, and local customs often hold greater influence than federal laws. In many regions, honour killing is not considered as a crime by the jirga (tribal council) but a legitimate action of the man whose family was dishonoured.
Third, successive governments have failed to govern mainstream legislations. The lack of governance in tribal areas has left conservative and archaic practices to continue. The federal government has not been able to implement legislation in these regions. Thus, the government of Pakistan has failed to exercise due diligence in protecting the rights of women. Further, the rise of militancy in tribal areas has not been efficiently tackled by the government, leaving women a target of violence.
Fourth, the limited reach of the judiciary in tribal areas until recently, has made fighting a legal battle inaccessible for these women. Seeking justice is extremely problematic in Pakistan where many legal loopholes currently exist which allow perpetrators of honour killings to escape any punishment. Under Pakistani law in cases of murder, the victim’s family is allowed to pardon the perpetrators. The culprits are then free from prosecution and sentencing.
First, crimes against women seem to be a private matter in Pakistan where the law or state authorities are unable to ‘break the glass ceiling’. Despite the government’s legislative initiative and achievement, the law has not prevented the murder of women for honour, and the number of victims who have been prone to violence has only increased.
Second, ‘honour killings’ are an extreme expression of patriarchal violence, and this practice needs to be strongly condemned and timely justice must be delivered. However, killing in the name of honour is not driven by customs and traditions only but also by the local gender system, a feudal structure that upholds the conceptions and sanctity of manhood, and the complicit role of state institutions and law enforcement agencies. More leaders will have to speak about the issue and initiatives to change attitudes.
Third, from a larger perspective honour killing are not an exclusively Pakistan’s problem. Cases emerge routinely from countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and even Muslim diasporas in Western countries. Nor are honour killings an exclusively Muslim problem. Thus, a major key in tacking this issue is starting from the bottom; it is only when communities see these crimes as unethical can transformation and change occur.
Hong Kong: Protests flare up again against the passing of a National Security bill
In the news
On 22 May, at the National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced a security law “intended to prevent, stop and punish acts in Hong Kong that threaten national security, and encompass secessionist and subversive activity as well as foreign interference and terrorism.” To this, the student activist Joshua Wong stated that he would continue lobbying to gain support from the other countries and said, “When Beijing announced the law, it was time to fight back.” Prominent Democrat legislator Claudia Mo said the current political climate has driven opposition saying, “we have reached a point of no return in not trusting the government.”
By 24 May, the call for ‘Hong Kong independence’ as ‘the only way out’ echoed through the streets filled with protesters at the Causeway Bay shopping area. The riot police were seen firing tear gas and water cannons at the crowd whose protests were planned between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai neighbourhoods, leading to more than seven hours of scattershot confrontations. The police have revealed that they have arrested at least 180 people for unlawful assembly and four officers were injured. Major protests are expected from 27 May, when the bill will be tabled for second hearing at the legislative council.
Issues at large
This is the first major demonstration in Hong Kong after mainland China announced its plans to tighten controls over the territory with new security legislation and two issues can be seen:
First, the protests in Hong Kong have sustained strongly in the past 12 months in the absence of government action, with “five demands, not one less,” as their goal. These months’ long protests helped elect pro-democracy candidates in the legislative elections. The leadership in Hong Kong or from mainland China did not take strong measures to put a stop to the protests. Though the extradition bill was shelved, only a handful of efforts were made by the Hong Kong administration to engage in negotiations with the protesters. The year-long protests have made a very strong impact on the status, economy, and security of Hong Kong and has drawn a lot of attention.
Second, the introduction of the Security Bill have created an opportune space for the revival of protest. Carrie Lam in her statement on 26 May said that Beijing’s proposed bill is not intended to trample the rights and freedoms and, “the best thing is to see the legislation in front of us and to understand why at this point in time Hong Kong needs this piece of legislation.” The sense of urgency from China to table the bill in all likelihood seems that Beijing wants to ensure that the other regions do not follow the Hong Kong model. This is especially true for the case of Taiwan where the US is seen showing keen interest in its affairs.
First, while, the government is seen well prepared to take stronger measures this time, the crowds seem underprepared with the announcement of the anthem bill or the security bill. The focus of the protesters has moved towards the shopping centres because it is easy to gather despite restrictions on movement. Though the number of protesters is less and the public response seems weak, many of the supporters have stated that they prefer to express their discontent by boycotting businesses that are pro-Beijing.
Second, the leadership understands that it is difficult for the protesters to retain the aggressiveness that was seen in 2019 and might be using the instability in the world to their advantage. The international response, on the other hand, has been minimal. Trump stated that he would take strong measures against China if the bill is passed, and the UK, Canada, and Australia have issued a joint statement saying they are “deeply concerned” about the proposed legislation.
As Europe reopens, far-right driven anti-lockdown protests emerge in Germany and Spain
In the news
On 23 May, people took to the streets of Germany and Spain to protest against the lockdown measures. The protesters criticized the government for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, holding them responsible for the rise in unemployment and argued that the lockdown measures violated their constitutional rights to individual movement.
In Spain, Madrid, saw protesters travelling in cars and motorbikes waving the Spanish flags while calling for the resignation of their Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, and deputy PM Pablo Iglesias. The protests were conducted on 23 May despite the Prime Minister’s announcement to open the borders for tourists from July and to recommence the football league from 8 June.
In Germany, thousands of people protested against the restriction, flouting social distancing rules, and not wearing face masks. The protests also saw new groups such as Resistance 2020 and COMPACT which questions the official COVID statistics and helps the “information offensive” respectively. The German government raised concerns about the protests being hijacked by the far-right and conspiracy theorists.
Issues at large
First, the anti-lockdown protests have provided a political space for the far-right. The demonstrations against the governments’ lockdown measures involved the right-wing parties such as the Vox party in Spain and Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany. The far-right political parties have blamed the government of using the pandemic to curb individual freedoms, thereby politicizing the issue and influencing the people to garner support.
Second, the countries face economic fallout due to the pandemic. The pandemic has forced people into unemployment, apart from its blow on the health sector and accruing loss to self-employed workers. Spain’s economy is expected to contract by 12 per cent and Germany with 6.6 per cent. Hence, there is a call for bold measures away from the strict lockdown and steer the countries from the impending recession.
Third, both countries imposed stringent measures to ensure that the virus is contained. The measures were intended to benefit the entire society, but it affected certain pockets of the population more than others. Further extension of the state of emergency in Spain instigated protesters to blame the government for trying to gain power. The high death rate despite stringent measures in Spain leads to disappointment among the population.
First, the protest can be seen as an unwise step during the pandemic, especially when there is a possibility of a second wave. Given the possibility of economic instability in the near future, a second wave of the virus will be devastating for both the countries and it will in turn, affected the region severely.
Second, even if the second wave does not happen, the protests can lead to political instability due to polarisation between the political parties. The pandemic calls for political unity, but the far-right party is unwilling to come to a common ground to cooperate during the pandemic. To avoid political and economic instability, it is important for individuals to have a greater sense of responsibility.