Hello and welcome to this edition of Notes from South Asia. You can find the previous edition here. Today, we will cover the tunnel rescue in Uttarkashi, India, repression of opposition in Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka’s road to economic recovery.
Apologies for the length. Much happening in India (some of which I could not cover in this one) and in South Asia.
As the headline says, after imported US machines threw in the towel (got stuck in rubble and broke), it was rat-hole miners—who do illegal and dangerous work and are exploited by mining companies across the world to get coal and other minerals on the cheap—who rescued the workers stuck in the collapsed tunnel in Silkyara in Uttarkashi (report from Ishita Mishra for the Hindu).
Over a 26-hour period, the team of 12 rat-hole miners, mostly hailing from U.P.’s Dalit and Muslim communities, manually bored through the last 18 metres of debris, working within an 800 mm pipe and using their chisels, shovels and gas cutters to remove the iron girders and hard rocks that had defeated the imported drilling machines. They used a small trolley to push the extracted soil out of the tunnel, tying wet towels over their noses to cope with breathlessness from the clouds of dust within the narrow pipe.
The group did not want to take a single paisa for their work at the Silkyara site, but Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami declared that each of the rat-hole miners would be paid ₹50,000. When the heroes of the hour are asked what they want, their wishes are both simple and profound: a pucca house for an elderly mother, village roads, love and human dignity that crosses religious and caste lines, life insurance and fair wages for all workers, and an assurance that such a collapse is not allowed to happen again.
A pucca house is house made from bricks and concrete instead of homes with thatched roofs or shanties made of tarpaulin.
“Insaan ko insaan samjhe aur desh mein mohabbat bani rahe, bus itni si khwaish hai (I just wish that every human being should be treated as a human being and love should remain in the country),” says 45-year-old Mohammed Irshad, when asked what is his wish from a grateful nation celebrating the successful rescue.
The miners seem to have come to help from a sense of working class solidarity. The article says they wanted to help their brother labourers. They did it at great risk to their own lives.
What caused this tunnel collapse though? Negligence of environmental considerations, writes Vimlendu Jha for the Frontline.
The Himalayan ecosystem is one of the most fragile in the world, sensitive to the slightest changes in its identity. The alterations, better described as an “invasion” by the forces of development, often devised in urban boardrooms, do not take into account how anthropogenic activities, combined with climate change, are rendering the already fragile ecology more vulnerable, prone to disasters.
Dismissing a Himalayan disaster, such as a cloudburst or a flash flood, as merely a natural occurrence overlooks the fact that the increased frequency and intensity of these climate events are due to the overall development paradigm chosen for the planet, specifically for the Himalayan region. The geology of most of the Himalaya is unstable and dynamic, and the mindless greed and aggression of planners, policymakers, and government agencies are costing us the Himalaya itself.
One glaring example of an unscientific project, singularly responsible for creating ecological havoc in the region, is the infamous Char Dham National Highway Project. Initiated in December 2016, the project aspires to enhance connectivity to the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri—the four dhams nestled in the Himalaya. Encompassing road widening, tunnel construction, flyovers, and bypasses, this Rs.12,000 crore project runs approximately 889 kilometres through the Himalaya. Despite its ambitious goals, the road project reveals critical mistakes and assumptions in its planning and implementation.
The project has navigated a legal labyrinth by manipulating and altering laws to facilitate its progress. Even the Supreme Court has played a role in this saga, allowing the bypassing of the environmental impact assessment process mandated for projects exceeding 100 km. A token environmental assessment was conducted but not the one mandated for a project of this scale, as on the books it is not a single project but 53 small ones. This reflects a systemic failure in ensuring compliance with environmental norms.
The Hindu edit on the rescue adds that the company that was constructing the tunnel has previous history of ignoring safety standards and endangering workers.
It may well be, but the scale and the fervour with which it was undertaken also casts an unfavourable spotlight on the Char Dham highway project and on the unsafe working environments of those expected to build such infrastructure. In both this incident and one in July, when a crane collapsed on and killed 20 workers working on the Nagpur-Mumbai Samruddhi Expressway, in Thane, the contractor was Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd. The government must investigate the specific causes of both incidents, take steps to prevent recurrence of similar situations and ensure on-site working conditions include safety features. Then again, if unsafe environments are the issue, ongoing work on the Char Dham highway itself may need to be reconsidered, since experts have repeatedly raised concerns about the carrying capacity of the local terrain and slope-cutting activities defying geological wisdom. The rescue was certainly laudable, but if adequate attention is paid to workers’ — and the highway’s future users’ — safety, such operations may not be needed altogether.
The rich and the powerful are the perpetrators and the poor and the underprivileged the victims. The poor and the underprivileged are the rescuers and the rich and powerful the ones who steal the credit and the wealth(the Chief Minister of Uttarkhand held a roadshow to celebrate the rescue). The poor and the underprivileged the one with largeheartedness and the rich and the powerful (with middle class) the ones who ask them for more and more while giving them less and less.
Freedom of the Press: Threatened in Kashmir (and Elsewhere)
That Kashmir is under severe repression under the current regime is hopefully not news to you. Since August 2019, when the state’s special autonomous status granted by the Indian constitution was abrogated in an unconstitutional manner and the state was degraded and split into Union Territories (with less autonomy), internet has been blocked for months at a time, laws protecting Kashmiris and their landownership have been diluted, and journalists trying to report truth have been persecuted. Betwa Sharma reports for Article-14 about the current state of the freedom of the press and right to free expression in Jammu and Kashmir.
The government of Narendra Modi rammed the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution through Parliament in August 2019, rescinding the semi-autonomous status of India’s only Muslim-majority State and intensifying the crackdown on the media in one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world.
Critical coverage from the region that has long been mired in bloodshed, separatism and human rights violations came to an end as journalists were summoned to police stations, interrogated, and arrested. Homes were raided. Some were accused of grave crimes against the State and jailed under draconian laws. Others were stopped from flying out of the country. A new media policy was seen as a veiled threat against critical coverage. Long-running dailies dependent on government advertisements were also defanged.
In the climate of fear that built up after the abrogation of Article 370, The Kashmir Walla, which was running on an international grant while making urgent appeals for people to subscribe, was one of the last few independent publications providing critical reportage from the region.
Shah was one of the journalists accused of being part of the MeToo movement that exploded in India near the end of 2018. He denied the allegations. Over the next few years, as many journalists censored themselves and he grew more and more vocal, the police began interrogating him and registering cases against the stories being published in The Kashmir Walla. With his arrest in February 2022, the media landscape was more or less silenced.
While he was languishing in the Kot Balwal prison, a few reporters remaining at The Kashmir Walla said their website was blocked by the ministry of electronics and information technology and its social media accounts were shut down in August 2023.
Please read the whole piece. There is no paywall.
The unwanted brethren of Parsis of Mumbai
And here is some inconvenient truths about Parsis of Mumbai: Mumbai’s Parsi sahibs have an inconvenient secret—tribal cousins in distant Gujarat villages.
Parsis are Zoroastrians who fled Iran during the Arab invasions of the eighth century.
Navsari/Dang: Royenton Kunwarji Jila, a devoted Zoroastrian, carries the weight of a painful truth—within his own Parsi community, he is considered lesser.
Taunts about his appearance cut him to the bone when he worked in Mumbai’s fire temples as a young man. “The sahib log would often tell me that I don’t look like a Parsi. And that I am not fair enough and things like that,” he said, sitting on a typical Gujarati porch swing in Navsari district’s Vasya Talav village. “It hurts.”
Hidden in densely forested stretches of Dang, Valsad, and Navsari districts in southern Gujarat, around 200 Parsi families lead a marginalised existence that is completely different from the world of the wealthy, English-speaking Parsis of Mumbai.
These communities, often referred to as ‘tribal Parsis’, are descendants of tribal people who converted to Zoroastrianism. These descendants are the children of pre-independent India’s Parsi landlords, and are the community’s best-kept secret.
“The tribal Parsis have not been fully accepted in the community and are looked down upon by affluent and orthodox families,” said Dinshaw Tamboly, president of the World Zoroastrian Organisation (WZO), which also works for the welfare of tribal Parsis.
There’s a subtle caste system in place. Most Mumbai Parsis don’t want to discuss their tribal brethren, even if some do acknowledge distant village cousins. Priests refuse to live in the secluded villages and no fire temples have been built. When tribal Parsis come to cities like Mumbai or Surat, they’re handed jobs that no one else wants to do, like cleaning the Towers of Silence.
Towers of Silence are the enclosed wells were Zoroastrians leave their dead exposed to the elements as per their custom. If you don’t know much about Parsis, you may need to read more. Here is a story from the Guardian by Shaun Walker that introduces them.
While I could not find the specific report in the Bangladesh newspapers I follow (perhaps because it is an ongoing thing since late Oct), I read a news report from AFP in the Hindu about nearly a thousand opposition politicians being arrested in Bangladesh. It is based on this report by Human Rights Watch.
(Bangkok) – Bangladesh authorities are targeting opposition leaders and supporters ahead of the general elections slated for January 7, 2024, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should impartially investigate all instances of violence, including cases in which each side has blamed the other.
Almost 10,000 opposition activists have been arrested since a planned rally by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on October 28. At least 16 people have been killed during ongoing violence, including 2 police officers. Over 5,500 people have been injured.
“The government is claiming to commit to free and fair elections with diplomatic partners while the state authorities are simultaneously filling prisons with the ruling Awami League’s political opponents,” said Julia Bleckner, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Diplomatic partners should make clear that the government’s autocratic crackdown will jeopardize future economic cooperation.”
Based on interviews with 13 witnesses and analysis of videos and police reports, Human Rights Watch has found evidence that security forces are responsible for using excessive force, mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in a recent spate of election-related violence.
Following the October 28 violence, the BNP called for a general strike from October 31-November 2, during and after which clashes broke out between police, opposition members, and ruling party supporters. While there has been violence on all sides, in some instances police used excessive force in responding to protests.
Bangladesh authorities accused the opposition of “creating chaos,” and have sealed the BNP party offices describing it as a crime scene.
Senior government leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have fueled ongoing violence through public statements encouraging attacks on opposition protesters. On November 3, she told her Awami League party supporters that if they catch anyone committing arson to “throw [them] into the same fire. The hand that sets fire to anything will have to be burnt … tit for tat. If so, they would learn lessons.”
With that as background, please read this report from a Bangladeshi Civil Right Group’s press conference, as reported on Daily Star: ‘State power being misused to suppress opposition’ (it is from today)
The role of law enforcers in using excessive force to suppress opposition parties reveals a clear bias that has caused anger and frustration among people, said Manabadhikar Shongskriti Foundation (MSF) yesterday.
Following the untoward incident centring the BNP's October 28 rally, a conflict situation has emerged through the political crisis, strikes, blockades, violence, mass arrests in lawsuits and ghost cases, and raids in the houses of opposition party leaders and activists.
This has disrupted public life immensely, MSF said in a press statement.
Alongside the police crackdown, ruling party leaders were seen flaunting firearms in public, it also read.
Masked men are coming on motorcycles and microbuses at night on deserted streets to swoop on opposition men while police say they do not know anything about these attacks.
Also, it is deplorable that the government used law enforcers to cause deaths, injuries, and arrests to suppress the movement of garment workers without paying heed to their demands for better wages, MSF said in the statement.
Custodial deaths and torture by law enforcers, abductions by men posing as law enforcers, mass arrest and imprisonment of opposition men in ghost cases, and use of excessive force by police have not stopped but are increasing in many cases, said the rights body.
The article has a table that lists the nature of political violence and people arrested, injured, killed etc at the start.
The garments worker’s strike mentioned above (against multinational companies operating in exploitative conditions in Bangladesh) was going on in parallel with all the political party rallies (Kunal Shankar explains for the Hindu). The state promised them some raise but not enough. (Their pay is extremely low.)
The story so far: Since the last week of October, one of Bangladesh’s largest labour forces — the 4.4 million-strong ready-made garment (RMG) sector workers are demanding a trebling of their legally mandated minimum wages from 8,000 Bangladeshi Taka (BDT), or about $72, to 23,000 taka ($208). Cashing in on this unrest, the country’s main Opposition — the Bangladesh Nationalists Party (BNP) began a two-day general strike on November 19, demanding the resignation of the Awami League-ruled Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed government, and the conduct of general elections under a care-taker government. Bangladesh’s Election Commission had announced January 7 next year as the date for elections but this has been rejected by all opposition parties.
It has been over five years since 2018, when Bangladesh’s Minimum Wage Board fixed a rate of BDT 8,000 for fast fashion sector workers. Unlike a universal base wage, Bangladesh follows a system of setting minimum wages for each sector of the economy, which is revised every five years. In the past four years, the country has witnessed steep inflation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently, the volatility in oil prices fuelled by the Russia-Ukraine war. The country’s apex bank, the Bangladesh Bank, has pegged inflation of a 12-month, monthly average at 9.37% in October 2023, which is a more than 2% point rise from 7.23% in the corresponding period last year. This has priced out essentials like food and fuel for a vast number of Bangladeshis.
Garment worker unions rejected a more than 50% raise in minimum wage proposed by Sheikh Hasina’s government earlier this month, saying it is too little too late. They have stuck to their demand of nothing short of BDT 23,000, which they proposed in April this year, when minimum wage negotiations began. Several economists, including the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies peg a minimum monthly living wage at BDT 33,368 ($302), for garment workers in a January 2023 report. Moreover, Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves have more than halved from a high of $48 billion in 2021 to less that $20 billion in mid-October of this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The Sheikh Hasina-led government has taken strict austerity measures such as stifling imports of luxury goods. But the import curbs have also affected the functioning of the RMG sector. The sector has cited price rise, import curbs and frequent power cuts as reasons for their inability to pay higher than what has been proposed.
It is not the state alone that is responsible for the exploitation but the big brands.
Big brands like Nike have faced intense criticism beginning in the 1990s for being responsible for driving down procurement costs and amassing super profits at the expense of workers’ rights in the Global South, as they took advantage of neo-liberalism’s ‘race to the bottom’ approach of finding the cheapest source wherever available.
These criticisms led to marginal changes, like verifying work conditions, working hours, safety gear, wages and sanitary conditions at global procurement facilities. But it did not lead to a meaningful contribution of sharing big brands’ profits, or investing in supplier SME’s infrastructure, or wages, until recently. This recent shift has been fuelled more so, by the global movement to decarbonise supply chains to tackle climate change.
The Berlin-based coalition of “19 garment brands and IndustriALL Global Union”, called Action, Collaboration, Transformation (ACT) has pledged “supporting a living wage in the RMG sector in Bangladesh through the promotion of the conditions to achieve an industry-wide collective bargaining agreement supported by Brands’ purchasing practices”. ACT said this in a September letter this year addressed to Bangladesh’s RMG minimum wage board members. But just what these changes would be with respect to “purchasing practices” have not been spelt out. ACT includes H&M, ESPIRIT, and a few other brands that procure garments from Bangladesh.
Agreement with creditors
You may know that Sri Lanka defaulted on its foreign debt in 2022 and has been in a perilous economic situation since. Help was sought from the IMF and they had provided a first tranche of money with conditions. But more financial support needs agreements with creditors. Meera Srinivasan reports for the Hindu that Sri Lanka has reached such an agreement with India and the Paris Club.
Sri Lanka has reached an “agreement in principle” with India and the Paris Club group of creditors including Japan, on a debt treatment plan that will help the crisis-hit island nation tap the next tranche of the International Monetary Fund’s nearly-$3 billion recovery package.
“The OCC [Official Creditor Committee] and Sri Lanka agreed on the main parameters of a debt treatment consistent with those of the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) arrangement between Sri Lanka and the IMF,” the Paris Club said in a statement on Wednesday. While the statement did not spell out the parameters, the OCC said it “stands ready and looks forward to formalising” the agreement in the coming weeks in a Memorandum of Understanding with Sri Lanka.
At the height of last year’s crippling economic crisis, Sri Lanka decided to default on its nearly $51 billion foreign debt. A comprehensive restructuring of loans became necessary to begin an economic recovery programme backed by the IMF. Major lenders formed the OCC in May 2023 in response to Colombo’s request for debt treatment. It is co-chaired by India, Japan, and France, as chair of the Paris Club. The Committee has held several discussions with Sri Lankan authorities over the last few months, evaluating possible options in recasting Colombo’s outstanding debt, such as altering the interest payments or the terms of the loans. China, Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, has opted to stay out of the platform, but has attended the meetings as an observer.
Japan and India, Sri Lanka’s other two major lenders, have repeatedly emphasised the need for creditor parity and transparency. In an apparent reference to China, the OCC on Wednesday noted that it expects “other bilateral creditors” to consent to “sharing, in a transparent manner, the information necessary for the OCC to evaluate comparability of treatment regarding their own bilateral agreement.”
And oppressive care facilities prevail in child care facilities in Sri Lanka; story from Nadia Faizulhaq for Sunday Times Sri Lanka (not an affiliate of London Times as far as I know): Children fleeing oppressive conditions at probation and child care facilities (report from early November)
Lack of security within premises, inadequate training for staff handling adolescents from troubled backgrounds, and financial restraints are driving young inmates away from homes for children.
Eight girls, between the ages of 13 and 17, from a children’s home in Meetiyagoda, Galle, left the facility last week. Some of them were found at a nearby reserve, while others reported to the nearest police station two days later, stating that they ran away following an argument with the warden.
Three girls, aged 13, 14, and 16, who escaped a girl’s home in Panadura, Walana area, were found a day later. Panadura South police began investigations after the warden complained. According to the police, the possession of a mobile phone had resulted in a heated argument with the warden.
Police this week sought assistance to trace two 15-year-old boys who went missing from the Ambanwatte boys’ home in Mirigama. A photograph of one boy was released. Police said both were in school uniforms at the time.
“The Probation Department and child care authorities should ensure the safety of children at both state-run and voluntary children’s homes. The inspections should be frequent, and the causes should be investigated. The premises should be well secured, and security officers should be deployed if necessary,” police spokesman SSP Nihal Thalduwa said.
Children who flee are at risk of being exposed to illegal activities and becoming victims of trafficking, he said.
National Child Protection Authority Chairman Udayakumara Amarasinghe said about 10,000 children are housed in 350 registered child development centres across the country, a majority run by voluntary and religious organisations.
“A majority of the children are referred from courts, and these homes function as care and protection centres. Therefore, it is essential for staff in both state and non-state children’s homes to undergo frequent training on adolescent psychology and the handling of teenagers from troubled households,” he said.
Mr. Amarasinghe said provincial probation departments need to be strengthened, while minimum standards should be implemented strictly. The support centres also lack funds and facilities.
“Lack of funds can lead to fewer meals and other facilities. This can trigger tension between the heads of the centres and teenage inmates,” he said.
The Probations and Child Care Services Department a few months ago came under heavy criticism at the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) for not using the UNCRC data system provided to the department in 2018 at a cost of Rs. 2.3 million to submit timely reports to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
This thread gives from activist and scholar Ambika Satkunanathan provides context:
That is about it for this week. Until Friday next, have a good week, everyone.
Stay safe. Be well. Take care. And may just peace and kindness be a possibility for everyone across the globe one day soon. Until then, and ever after, be kind to each other, especially those with differences of opinion. If we have empathy only for our own kind that is not justice, nor radical empathy, nor the path to lasting and just peace.