Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the futility of peace talks

It's hard to speak out against peace. So when Manmohan Singh defended himself Wednesday over a foreign policy snafu in Egypt that everybody from the opposition to backstabbers within Singh's own Congress party had been calling a “sellout” to Pakistan, I was prepared to be convinced. Singh is a good guy. He's smart. And he's not the sort who shouts and carries on to gain political mileage.

For those of you outside India, the snafu resulted over a joint statement that was issued after Singh met his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, where Singh agreed to resume so-called peace talks with Pakistan and appeared to agree to discuss the borders of Kashmir and admit to Pakistan's charges that India foments unrest in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

Most people read the blunder as more evidence that India's foreign policy department—despite lots of talk that the US wants to offer India a bigger role on the world stage—simply isn't ready for prime time.

Some of the things that Singh told Parliament in his defense made sense, but I'm still wondering about India's decision to resume the so-called “peace process” with Pakistan. And I'm still completely positive that the wonks in charge of Indian foreign policy are groping blindly in the dark—knowing neither what India's role in foreign affairs should be, nor what stance they will take on the US, China, Russia, Pakistan, etc, nor how they might achieve their goals if they managed to define them.

The essence of the PM's speech was twofold. One, Pakistan had provided him a dossier outlining the evidence against the Pakistani terrorists involved in the Mumbai attacks which was more extensive and damning than any proof India's old enemy has offered before in this slow-and-tired dance around the issue of the “proxy war” Islamabad has waged against India for decades. This, Singh says, was enough to convince him that Pakistan is sincere in its efforts to rein in groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which strike India from bases on Pakistani soil. So India's attitude must be “trust but verify.” Two, there is really no alternative to dialogue, because it's a question of resuming peace talks or moving inexorably toward war.

Sound convincing? Maybe.

But I'm not sure either point is valid. To Singh's first point, Pakistan's arrests so far have not been too impressive, and some of Islamabad's actions and public statements have appeared to be obfuscations and excuses for inaction, rather than progress reports. To his second point, the opposition of resuming the peace talks and returning to war is a false dichotomy. In fact, India was not at war with Pakistan between 1999 and 2003, when the so-called peace process began, and the two nations have not been at war since India halted the process after the Mumbai attacks. Nor, quite frankly, has it seemed that they are slipping ever closer to shots fired in anger. It appears more likely to me that both nations have concluded that full-scale war is not an option.

And that begs a peculiar question: What are the India-Pakistan peace talks meant to achieve?

Neither side is shooting at the other. From the Indian side, negotiations of the borders of Kashmir aren't on the table, and never will be. And from the Pakistan side, giving up claims to India-administered Kashmir is also an impossibility.

Is the sole purpose of the talks, then, to induce Pakistan to stop supporting terrorists that attack India?

In that case, they seem more like peace begging than peace negotiations. There's no carrot, and there's no stick. All that's under discussion are a few meaningless bus routes across the border and a useless cross-border trade that a senior Kashmiri journalist told me recently “benefits no one.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

a heaven on earth? not so much

With the tourists frightened away by Kashmir's separatist struggle, the famous Dal Lake is slowly succumbing to pollution.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: July 28, 2009 07:36 ET

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — From the shores of Srinagar's Dal Lake, once described as heaven on earth, the water looks dull and brackish. The storied houseboats that were the summer playgrounds of India's British colonizers are lined up across what from this vantage appears to be a weed-choked pond, no larger than a football field.

The boats' garish decorations and cheery names — “New Australia,” “Sansouci,” “Young Dreams,” “The Golden Fleece” — hint at a Gatsbyish heyday of long, lazy afternoons and parties that echoed across the water through the night. But packed chock-a-block, in all their faded grandeur, most of the boats lie empty.
Dal Lake is dying, and along with it a remarkable culture.

“If you had seen Kashmir 20 years back, 30 years back, then half of the population lived in boats,” Rashid Dangola, owner of a houseboat named “Hilton Kashmir” tells me. “In the next 20 years, day by day, this culture will go.”

In fact, the football field-sized parcel where the Hilton Kashmir lies moored is only a tiny portion of the real Dal Lake, which spreads over six square miles but which over the last 30 years has shrunk to half its original size. It has been reclaimed by weeds and eventually land, paved over by the government in an effort to improve roadways and accommodate Srinagar's growing population, or simply converted to real estate and farmland by people in need of a place to live.

Only a small part of the remaining lake can be seen from the shore, because at its heart it is a sort of floating, rural Venice — a maze of canals, vegetable gardens and lotus-root farms where houseboats have been converted into souvenir stores and papier mache factories, and islands have been reclaimed to erect towering colonial brick houses.
These islands, and the “floating land” that an estimated 40,000 farmers use to grow eggplant, squash and tomatoes, multiplies every year. So do the people. And so does the waste they create. Garbage spills into the water from the Dal's banks, and a thick green scum covers canals that 20 years ago were splashing playgrounds for local children.
“[The] Dal has become a vegetable garden; where is the water body?” an exasperated high court Chief Justice Bashir Ahmad Khan reflected recently, as he issued a stern warning to the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) and the Srinagar Development Authority (SDA), which have failed to arrest the lake's decline despite investments of some $125 million over the years.

As a rented shikhara — India's version of the gondola — ferries us through the lake's floating villages, Dangola tells me: “I was proud to bring people to this side, so they would understand how we live. But now it is all spoiled.”

Conventional wisdom once blamed the pollution problem on the lake's 1,200 houseboats, but in reality these boats account for only about 3 percent of the waste released into the lake. The real culprits are a succession of poor planners and the city of Srinagar itself — with a population of about a million — which releases tons of raw sewage into the waters of the Dal through 15 different drains along the shore. Moreover, due to a poorly thought out decision to pave over the network of canals that once linked the Dal Lake to several other bodies of water surrounding Srinagar and the fast-flowing River Jhellum, the waters here are now stagnant.

In June, Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh committed another $225 million — $60 million of which the central government has already rubber stamped — to build sewage treatment plants, purchase de-weeding machines and resettle nearly 10,000 families who live on the lakes network of islands. But Kashmir has been throwing money at the problem for years, and resettling the families who live in the lake would be tantamount to destroying it.

A two-hour shikhara ride along the shore and through the winding canals reveals that while claims of the lake's great beauty are somewhat exaggerated — it is by no means a crystal clear, glacial teardrop like Lake Tahoe — it boasts a unique and vibrant culture.

The enormity of the task at hand is also clear. Everywhere, clawing weeds choke the passages, and the water is covered with tiny specks of green algae, massing like something out of B-grade science fiction. The reason the plant life is so prolific — excessive fertilizer in the water — is evident, too.
From secluded pipes that are easy to spot from inside the lake, the coffee brown sewage of the city of Srinagar glugs untreated into the water. Though some years ago 6,000 families deemed to be “encroachers” without legitimate claim to houses in the lake were pushed out, the cleanup effort now appears to be limited to half-a-dozen dredging and weeding platforms — which patrol the waters, belching smoke, when the whim strikes their operators.

According to locals, it's a haphazard, rearguard action with little hope of success. The 6,000 displaced families have been replaced by some 20,000. The city's much discussed sewage system shows no signs of building itself. And even the dubiously expensive deweeding machines, parked in convenient proximity to shore while I was in town, seem to remain idle most of the day.