Monday, August 20, 2012

India, Pakistan: Working Towards Thawing the Siachen Conflict?

On April 7, 2012, a deadly avalanche hit a Pakistani military camp in the Gayatri Sector, 30km west of the Siachen glacier, killing over 130 people, most of them military personnel. The scale of the tragedy once again brought into focus a long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan over Siachen, often referred to as "the world's highest battlefield."

Pakistan Army rescue operation at the world's highest border Siachen
Pakistan Army rescue operation at the world's highest border in Siachen. Photo by Mohsin Hassan © Copyright Demotix (April 8, 2012)

The frozen conflict
Since 1984, armies of both countries have engaged in military conflicts at altitudes as high as 22,000ft above sea level, at temperatures that plunge below -60 degrees centigrade. A ceasefire was agreed upon in 2003 but the conflict continues to this day, forcing both countries to deploy troops and run manned military camps/ stations in this completely inhospitable terrain. While some critics have called this a futile war, other analysts have stressed the strategic importance of this area in the geopolitics of both nations.
Avalanche near the Siachen glacier
Avalanche near the Siachen glacier. Screenshot of a YouTube video posted by zubahan136
 Off and on, both sides have expressed desire to disengage and withdraw troops from the Siachen outposts. However, after the Kargil war of 1999, which saw infiltration from the Pakistan side into the Indian side of the LOC, India hardened its stand and decided against withdrawal of troops unless Pakistan agreed to sign off on the AGPL (Actual Ground Position Line) which would map the current positions of troops/outposts. India's worry was that unless this was done, Pakistan would perhaps commit cartographic transgressions again. Furthermore, India is also worried about becoming vulnerable to possible incursions by China and therefore hesitant to give up her tactical advantage of controlling the Saltoro Ridge.  

Stalled demilitarization talks 
In June 2005, the Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, during a visit to the Siachen base camp at Parthapur, addressed the troops and said that it was time to make Siachen 'a symbol of peace' through peaceful negotiations, though he also asserted that there would be no re-drawing of boundaries as a result. While quite a few rounds of talks have taken place between both nations since then, not much progress has been made towards conflict resolution. The recent tragedy of the avalanche has led the authorities in Pakistan to press for demilitarization of the area by pointing out the human cost and financial burden that maintaining these manned outposts were causing both countries. Rafeel Wasif, a Pakistani blogger writes:

When a bomb explodes, all we ask for is the death toll; we feel a bit of remorse, discuss it, and that more or less sums up our debate. Whatever this may be, a gift or curse of humanity – we forget all with time and move on to another day. But today, this time around, I am not going to just forget. Why were our soldiers there in the first place? Why do we continue to invest so heavily in protecting a block of snow, with no human inhabitation, except the soldiers who so precariously guard it against foreign intruders?
Once more, talks are on between both countries, though the Indian Defence Minister, A.K Antony has already cautioned against expecting any "dramatic" breakthrough unless Pakistan acquiesced to the 'authentication, delineation and demarcation' of the respective troop positions on the Saltoro Ridge. Disappointment has also been expressed from the Pakistani side regarding the futility of these talks. At, Pakistani columnist and blogger Nazia Nazar talks about what she feels is holding back both sides from reaching a workable solution:
The answer is simple. The atmosphere of propaganda and distrust being the root cause of this issue is consistently hampering its amicable resolution. Unfortunately, the people in India take it as a symbol of Indian pride and gallantry while in Pakistan it is considered the fallout of Indian aggression, which should be retaliated in equal measure.
Building trust
Nevertheless, the fact that both sides have agreed to continue the dialogue in a cordial atmosphere is seen as a step in the right direction in the realm of bilateral ties and cross-border relations. At Youth Ki Awaaz, Indian blogger Shashank Bhashkar offers some suggestions regarding what could be a possible way forward. He writes:
A border can be created along the current LOC and surveillance cameras can be set up to monitor infiltration activities. Both sides can keep their armies in such a position that they can be quickly deployed whenever the other side breaches the agreement. Having cameras will also account for documented proof for the International communities. The need of the hour is to display trust from both sides and come to a reasonable conclusion so that no more valuable human life is lost.
The next round of talks, between the Foreign Secretaries of both countries, is set for July 4th-5th. The ministerial level discussions are likely to take place in August. However, it remains to be seen if both sides continue to stick to their respective arguments - if they do, Siachen will remain a trigger for interstate conflict between India and Pakistan and the stalemate will continue. The challenge will be to find a way out of this and work towards a mutually acceptable solution to this icy conflict.

 This post was first published on the ISN blog, cross-posted on Global Voices Online.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

India, Bangladesh: Water Disputes and Teesta River Diplomacy

India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers between them. Despite setting up a Joint River Commission for water management as early as 1972, tensions between the countries on how to share resources recently came to a head in a dispute over the Teesta River. At stake are the lives of countless people from West Bengal and Bangladesh who depend upon the river for survival. To date, only one comprehensive river pact has been signed by India and Bangladesh – a 1996 bilateral treaty that established a 30-year water-sharing arrangement between the two countries. This was set to change in September 2011 when India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was due to sign a pact with his Bangladeshi counterpart regarding access and use of the Teesta River. 
Aerial View of Teesta River 
Aerial View of the Teesta River. Flickr photo by Prato9x (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Teesta - which has its source in Sikkim - flows through the northern part of West Bengal in India before entering Bangladesh, where after coursing through about 45km of irrigable land, merges with the Brahmaputra River (or Jamuna when it enters Bangladesh). In 1983, an ad-hoc water sharing agreement was reached between India and Bangladesh, whereby both countries were allocated 39% and 36% of the water flow respectively. The new bilateral treaty expands upon this agreement by proposing an equal allocation of the Teesta River.

However, the deal fell through when the then newly elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, refused to approve the treaty, fearing that the loss of higher volume of water to the lower riparian would cause problems in the northern region of state, especially during drier months.
 Ganges Hrishikesh 
The river Ganges, flowing through Hrishikesh, India. Flickr Photo by Sanj@y (CC-BY-2.0)

Given that water is a state issue in India, and that Banerjee’s political party, the All India Trinamool Congress, is a key coalition partner of the ruling central government, the deal could not go through without her approval. While a large section of the Bangladeshi populace as well as the Indian media vilified her rigid stance, her opposition to the terms of the treaty was not without its share of support.

In May 2012, during a visit to India, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Ms. Dipu Moni, warned that bilateral relations would be complicated if India fails to deliver on the Teesta water-sharing agreement. Despite this pressure tactic, the treaty remains a slow burner as India continues its efforts of domestic political consensus building. However, the Indian Minister for External Affairs, S.M. Krishna tried to diffuse tensions and assured Bangladesh that India remains committed to an early solution on the issue of sharing Teesta waters. 
Jamuna (Brahmaputra) river in Bangladesh. Flickr photo by bengal*foam (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Bangladesh also wants a quick resolution to the issue, and may even be willing to soften their stance because of mounting pressure at home to get the deal done. Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Farid Ahmed writes:
It is apparently quite clear now that…Bangladesh for now has failed to ensure that India inks a deal…to share water of common rivers, mainly Teesta … Now it is Bangladesh which has to do what it should have started long ago. Apart from traditional diplomacy, they should have transmitted the feelings of its public to those on the other side of the border. The sky is locked for Dhaka as no Bangladeshi channels are broadcasted by Indian cable operators… Most Indian newspapers were supportive for Bangladesh’s cause on Teesta. That’s a positive side. What about engaging with West Bengal’s public?
Nevertheless, looking beyond the political rhetoric, West Bengal’s concerns about water security for its northern region cannot be overlooked and need to be allayed. India is already beginning to feel the strain on its water security given the ever rising demands for more water for its burgeoning population. According to a 2010 report ‘Water Security for India: The External Dynamics’ published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA):
India is facing a serious water resource problem and as trends suggest, it is expected to become ‘water stressed’ by 2025 and ‘water scarce’ by 2050
Both countries, therefore, need to develop a well thought out, balanced treaty that will enable equitable sharing of the waters of the Teesta, thereby enhancing bilateral ties and reducing the possibility of water conflict.

This post was first published on the ISN blog, cross-posted on Global Voices Online.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Commons Champion Elinor Ostrom Passes Away

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom passed away on 12th June, 2012. A tireless advocate of the Commons, she was a woman of exceptional energy. Am glad that I got the opportunity to meet and talk to her at the IASC 2011 Conference, which was held in Hyderabad, India.

RIP Elinor. The Commons cause has lost a true champion.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

India: Renewing The Solar Energy Pledge On World Environment Day

Today, June 5th is World Environment Day and this year's theme is Green Economy: Does it include you? According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), green economy is described as:
one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In other words, we can think of a green economy as an economic environment that achieves low carbon emissions, resource efficiency and at the same time is socially inclusive.
World Environment Day 2012
World Environment Day 2012 Logo. Image Courtesy UNEP
Renewable Energy is one of the key sectors of a green economy. In India, growing concerns about energy security have led the government to commit to the development of renewable energy, with special focus on harnessing the abundantly available solar energy. In 2008, during the launch of India's National Action Plan on Climate Change, the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had stated:
Our vision is to make India’s economic development energy-efficient. Over a period of time, we must pioneer a graduated shift from economic activity based on fossil fuels to one based on non-fossil fuels and from reliance on non-renewable and depleting sources of energy to renewable sources of energy. In this strategy, the sun occupies centre-stage, as it should, being literally the original source of all energy. We will pool our scientific, technical and managerial talents, with sufficient financial resources, to develop solar energy as a source of abundant energy to power our economy and to transform the lives of our people.
In line with this aim, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, which was launched on the 11th January, 2010 by the Prime Minister, has set an ambitious target of deploying 20,000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2022. Given that high cost is a key challenge in implementing solar projects, the solar mission aims to "reduce cost of solar power generation in the country through (i) long term policy; (ii) large scale deployment goals; (iii) aggressive R&D; and (iv) domestic production of critical raw materials, components and products, as a result to achieve grid tariff parity by 2022".
Solar panels in Uttaranchal
Solar Panels in Uttaranchal, India. Image by Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia. Used Under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
On 24th May 2012, the Union Minister of New & Renewable Energy Dr. Farooq Abdullah, while addressing the first meeting of the Solar Energy Industry Advisory Council (SEIAC) in New Delhi, called upon the industry leaders to invest in Solar Energy Projects in the country. He assured them of the full support of the Government in setting up solar projects based on both grid connected as well as off grid applications. At the same time, he asked industry leaders to respond favourably and positively to the incentives offered by the Government in this direction. The Minister said that India has a vast scope for developing solar energy applications as still many parts of rural India do not have access to grid connected electricity. He cited the example of high altitude places in Ladakh where solar energy has changed people’s lives.
Solar panels on the old walls of Thiksay Monastery
Solar panels on the walls of Thiksay Monastery, Ladakh. Image by Jessie Hey. Used under CC BY2.0.
Mr. Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, blogged on the occasion of the World Environment Day. He wrote:
Despite being a power surplus state, Gujarat made great advances in solar energy. Our state was the earliest to come up with a solar policy. Just a few months ago, Gujarat dedicated to the nation 600 MW solar power to the nation along with Asia’s largest solar park at Charanka. Today, Gujarat produces 2/3rd of the solar power in India.
One grassroot initiative that has been focusing on popularizing solar electrification in remote, rural areas since 1984, is the Barefoot College of Tilonia, the brainchild of Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy. In this TED video, Mr. Roy talks bout the Barefoot methodology. The Barefoot College essentially "trains a few members of the community to be ‘Barefoot Solar Engineers’ (BSEs)". These BSEs in turn install, repair and maintain solar lighting units within the community as well as train other community members.  The video below tells the story of the first women Barefoot Solar Engineers of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Today, the Barefoot Solar Engineers are growing in numbers and can be found not only in India but in many countries around the world as can be seen on this map - truly a global movement.

On this World Environment Day, India is renewing its solar energy pledge - to bring down costs, scale up solar infrastructure, train more solar evangelists and perhaps spark a solar revolution.

This post was first published in Global Voices Online

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

India: Gearing Up for Better E-Waste Management

Today, E-waste, electronic waste or electronic scrap is ‘one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world' and environmentalists everywhere are justifiably concerned about their ‘end of life' disposal.

In India too, the concern about E-waste management has been rising steadily over the years, especially given the huge leap in the quantum of E-waste in the country over the last 7 years. According to a recent report (pdf) by a committee formed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF):
Dumping of E-waste poses a major challenge in India. Imports are one of the major sources of E-waste in the country, most of it coming illegally. This adds to the huge volume of waste being dumped and processed within the country. The accurate data on such imports is not available largely owing to the nature of the trade. However, estimates suggest that imports account for an almost equal amount to what is being generated in the country. Improper disposal of E-waste causes huge hazards to health as well as the environment and hence is a matter of grave concern.
 E-waste - Leftovers of an irresponsible technological advance. Image by Keren Chernizon. Copyright Demotix.

It is not as if India is new to ‘improper' disposal and recycling  of E-waste. Rather, as Amit Ganguly of Sustainable Sphere points out
Major recycling of e-waste is carried out in the non-formal sector using primitive and hazardous methods.
That this form of recycling is hazardous is undoubted, since the release of toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins from burnt plastic/PVC etc., can pose serious health risks. Nevertheless, till date, about 90% of India's E-waste is being recycled informally. The E-waste  management market in India is around half a billion dollars and growing at 25 per cent.

This short documentary, uploaded on YouTube by Greenpeace on Feb 22, 2008, shows how E-waste is handled by the non-formal sector in India, with complete disregard and more often complete ignorance about the potential environmental and health hazards posed by this day-t0-day activity, through which they earn their living.

Realizing the need to tackle this growing problem, the aforementioned committee formed by the Ministry of Environment & Forests, has recommended that the management of E-waste be taken up at three levels, viz. Legislative, Administrative and Technological measures. The new E-waste legislation that comes into effect from May 2012 onwards includes legal provisions for Extended Producers' Responsibility (EPR) for recycling, reduction of hazardous substances in electronics and setting up of collection centres. 

Vineet at elaborates on the new, upcoming legislation. He writes:
These rules will be applicable to every producer, consumer and bulk consumer involved in the manufacture, sale, purchase and processing of electronic equipment or components. The Central Pollution Control Board will be an active participant in the whole process in the capacity of a monitoring and watchdog agency – and will be required to submit an annual report (state wise) with regards to the implementation of these rules.
However, environmental activists feel that much more needs to be done, not only towards strengthening the mechanism to check illegal import of E-waste, but also towards acknowledging and integrating the non-formal sector in the ambit of proper E-waste management.

In a post on, blogger Jubin Mehta points out  some of the initiatives which have been launched in India to increase awareness about E-waste disposal and recycling of E-waste in a proper, scientific manner. He writes:
There are startups entering into this field and trying to make a difference but the numbers depicting the rate of production of eWaste are disturbing. Companies like Attero, Recycle Trade India and Ecocentric in India have started activities on this front and should do well because the size of the opportunity here would possibly outstrip any other barrier
Way back in 2008, on the blog Inhabitat, Mahesh Basantani had spoken about another such initiative in Mumbai:
Several efforts have been made, by NGOs and the Government, to make the process of recycling safer and more eco-friendly. In continuation to these efforts a newly launched company, Eco Reco (Eco Recycling Limited), looks promising. It is the first of its kind in the state of Maharashtra and fourth in the country.
Some other similar ventures operating  in the area of reverse logistics in the organized sector are Greendust, Reverse Logistics Company, Future Supply Chain etc. These companies have by and large welcomed the legislation, expecting opportunity growth in their line of business.

E-Waste. Image Copyright Richard Dorrell. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Manufacturers of electronics on the other hand have reacted cautiously to the law which aims to lay a large part of the responsibility and accountability for reverse logistics at their door. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard have stressed on shared responsibility where the end consumers are equally responsible for the way they dispose electronic items and the government for providing proper infrastructure for the same.

With India's not-so successful record of implementing environmental laws, it remains to be seen how sincerely the various stakeholders work towards generating awareness about the issue  as well as tackling the growing E-waste menace effectively.

This post was first published on Global Voices Online.

Monday, March 19, 2012

WOW - Wealth Off Waste: An Encouraging Initiative

Here is an encouraging video about how a group in Bangalore is working with local residents to enable better waste management. Waste segregation is indeed the need of the hour. Let's watch and learn.