The upheavals to come

The Pakistani government is tying itself in knots merely on account of the extremely trivial matter of having to accept that Mohammad Ajmal Amir Iman "Kasab" is a Pakistani national. They already sacked the national security advisor. Now imagine the upheaval if the matters they will have to accept are not that trivial.

The time to drop barriers to trade with Pakistan

…is now

Pakistan’s economy is in a tailspin. Since the second last thing that the international community wants in Pakistan is an economic meltdown, Friends of Pakistan are coming together to provide emergency foreign aid.

Now how Pakistan’s western and Middle Eastern ‘friends’ want to spend their money is their call. For India’s part, this is an excellent opportunity to liberalise bilateral trade, unilaterally if necessary. That’s why the Manmohan Singh-Asif Zardari meeting falls short: it just doesn’t go far enough on free trade.

Just how is Pakistan going to ‘export more’ and ‘import less’ in the medium term unless it expands trade with India? While there is some awareness in Pakistan that it will always need to rely on the charity of its ‘friends’ unless it normalises its relations with India, the fact that such charity comes rather easily creates disincentives for Pakistan to drop its self-defeating approach to bilateral trade. Perhaps some ‘friendly’ advice is in order.

West Bengal’s avian flu

A tale of two outbreaks

Avian flu first hit India in February 2006, when chickens in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district tested positive for the H5N1 virus. India’s official response was promising: it activated its contingency plan, quarantined the affected districts, improved surveillance and began culling birds (almost 900,000 birds were culled). The outbreak was contained quickly. Poultry farmers were compensated between Rs 40 and Rs 10, depending on the size of the bird.

This week’s outbreak in West Bengal shows just how different Indian states can be. Failure to contain the outbreak quickly enough now threatens wider damage. The state government has been accused of being slow to act, and for not realising ‘gravity of the situation‘. It has neither been able to cordon off the affected districts, not been able to implement culling fast enough. Well-connected cartels have been sneaking dead birds out, and farmers unwilling to allow birds to be culled unless paid in cash upfront. This, despite the compensation being closer to Rs 70 (much more than what was paid in Maharashtra in Feb 2006). Clearly, the villagers don’t trust the government to pay up.

This suggests that immediate cash compensation to affected farmers is the need of the hour even if the cash must make it through the hands of the administrative chain. Sealing off affected areas, and clamping down on ‘smuggling’ is also in order.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the key lessons—so far—from this is that educating poultry farmers must be taken more seriously; and the education initiative must be carried out in a sustained manner. Second, the Indian government’s contingency plan must take into account the problems of paying upfront cash compensation. Finally, sealing off of affected areas may be too serious an issue to be left to the state government alone. A clear escalation process—laying out the conditions for deployment of central paramilitary forces—is necessary.

In the next few days we will know how many humans have been affected by the flu virus. Coping with that will be another challenge for the West Bengal government.

From the archives: Chicken contingency (Feb 2006); a review of India’s state of preparedness (Nov 2005)

Update: Ravik Bhattacharya’s report in the Indian Express on how the state authorities didn’t act in time.

My op-ed in Mail Today: Pakistan’s food crisis

The food crisis might push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge

The headline writers at Mail Today were certainly creative. What was originally “Anger over atta” (based on this post) became “Pakistan could now be hit by a food bomb”, in yesterday’s edition. Some excerpts:

Frequent power cuts affected flour mills, disrupting the production of wheat flour. By end November 2007, queues started forming outside provision shops across many Pakistani cities. Political violence, after the attack on Benazir Bhutto’s Karachi rally in October and after her assassination in December made the supply situation worse. The government decided to import wheat from the international market, but prices had risen by this time. It has had to subsidise wheat in order to keep the prices low enough. But as is expected in such situations, traders and sellers have found ways to divert the subsidised wheat into the open market, where it sells at a almost double the price. The government now hopes that paramilitary troops will be able to prevent millers and traders from hoarding and ‘smuggling’.

The crisis also reveals why the Pakistani establishment is opposed to granting India most-favoured nation (MFN) trading status. Beyond the hang-up over Kashmir, freer trade with India is inimical to the interests of the feudal and business elite. The current arrangement suits them better: they have access to the Indian market through indirect routes which allows them to export goods if world prices are higher. Blocking imports works to their advantage by strengthening their stranglehold over the supply, even if ordinary Pakistanis have to suffer for it. Little wonder that a free-trade agreement with Pakistan remains elusive.

The Musharraf regime is mistaken in thinking that deploying troops around warehouses and flour mills will solve the problem. Yet that might be the best it can do. That is bad news, because a hungry population is an angry population. And anger, unfortunately, is one commodity that the Pakistan is not short of. While lawyers, civil society groups and opposition party supporters have led public protests over the last year, ordinary Pakistanis by and large, have refrained from taking to the streets. A persistent shortage of food and other essential commodities might just push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge. [Mail Today JPG PDF]

Thanks to Amit Varma for introducing me to Mail Today, a partnership between the India Today group and the UK’s Daily Mail.

Update: A great post by Fatima Shakeel over at Metroblogging Islamabad.

Give ’em Kashmir, for stability’s sake

To believe that an American tilt against India will stabilise Pakistan is to ignore the new realities

As expected, some commentators have begun suggesting that the way for the US to regain influence in Pakistan is to “tilt” towards its ‘national security’ interests by, you guessed it, rethinking Washington’s India policy. Never mind that much of the assistance that the US has transferred to the Pakistani military establishment is already doing exactly that. Even amid all the turmoil after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the United States found it appropriate to announce the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan.

Now Kaveh Afrasiabi cannot be ignorant of all this. So when he calls for Washington to rethink its India policy, what he really means is that the US must take Pakistan’s side over Kashmir.

Bhutto never criticized U.S. policy that seemed to elevate India in the region, thus many in the Pakistani military elite saw her in a negative light.

Bhutto’s assassination has tipped the scales in favor of the ruling politico-military elite focused on national (security) interests. The latter’s overriding concern now is to have some breathing space domestically.

The United States needs to seriously consider recasting its India policy in favor of a more balanced approach, while steering clear of Pakistan’s domestic politics. Otherwise, the United States risks further alienation of Pakistan’s political elite. [SFGate]

Dr Afrasiabi is wrong on several counts: there is no reason to believe that appeasing the politico-military elite will stabilise Pakistan. As the American media is discovering belatedly, the crisis runs deeper. And more than rethinking its India policy, American politicians, officials and commentators would do much better not to engage in loose talk about snatching Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. That worries the politico-military establishment a lot more than Kashmir.

It is amazing how Dr Afrasiabi overlooks the costs of rethinking. Surely, he doesn’t expect such a policy change to be inexpensive to Washington?

Be scared, very scared

Worries over Pakistan’s crown jewels

When B Raman says what he says, it is time to start worrying.

They have succeeded in killing her. They will now step up their efforts to eliminate Musharraf. Whoever was responsible for killing her could not have done it without inside complicity. If Al Qaeda is already having sleeper cells in the GHQ, there is an equal danger that it already has sleeper cells inside Pakistan’s nuclear establishment too. [SAAG/Outlook linkthanks Swami Iyer]

What’s next for Pakistan

Some parties favour elections, political parties might not

Despite all the nice talk of ‘restoring democracy’ in Pakistan, the general elections of January 2008 were mostly about engineering a political outcome that would be acceptable to Gen Musharraf, tolerable to the more vocal sections of Pakistani civil society and amenable to carry out the United States’ agenda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto, who was killed yesterday, was by far the one candidate who could meet most of these requirements: needing work only in the acceptability to Musharraf bit. Given her general popularity, the thrust of the Pakistani military establishment’s political engineering effort was to ensure that her party didn’t win so many seats as to make her too powerful vis-à-vis Musharraf. It was in this context that she issued the rather undemocratic-sounding warning: that the elections results would be unacceptable to her if her party didn’t end up on top of the results tally.

With her assassination the ‘returning Pakistan to democracy’ project is suddenly confronted with the need to throw up another candidate, satisfying the three conditions are before, but with an additional constraint imposed by the January 8th election date.

Cancelling the elections is of course an option, and the leading political parties might even favour it. Bhutto’s PPP needs to find a leader who could benefit from the potential sympathy wave, but it’s not clear if a party organised around Bhutto’s personality can find one and regroup in time. Nawaz Sharif himself might now find himself the leading opposition figure, but his party will fear that a combination of the sympathy wave for the PPP and rigging by the Musharraf regime will severely affect its electoral results. Little wonder that it announced an immediate boycott. That’s a clear signal yet that it wants the elections postponed. The party that Musharraf created, Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), should be weighing its options: outside a few constituencies in Punjab, its provincial stronghold, it depends on rigging for seats. It stands to gain from Nawaz Sharif’s boycott, especially in Punjab. But it stands to lose from a pro-PPP sympathy wave. If its leadership prefers to err on the side of caution, the PML(Q) too would be in favour of delaying the elections.

Does this mean that elections will be postponed? Not quite. Because powerful quarters will want them to be held as scheduled. Continue reading “What’s next for Pakistan”

Benazir Bhutto Killed

The crisis deepens

Pakistani former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been killed in a presumed suicide attack, a spokesman for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) says. [BBC]

As the Offstumped blogger said in an SMS, “this is more macabre than (even) we comforted ourselves with”.

Update: Does the United States have a Plan B? It was clear that Benazir Bhutto’s re-entry into Pakistan was on the back of an American plan to engineer a political outcome in Pakistan. Those who assassinated her succeeded in frustrating this plan. What’s the US left with? Supporting a Musharraf 2.0 is out of question, because the people won’t have it. Supporting Nawaz Sharif is not workable either, for Musharraf won’t have him.

2. The United States signals that it wants the elections to go on as scheduled. (via Jagadish)