Sunday, September 14, 2014

Cry, my beloved Srinagar!

My beloved Srinagar, the only city I have ever called home, has gone. 

The city of wealth and prosperity drowned by the worst floods in its history. I was there when our home was violated by what we held most precious: water. What wrong had we done collectively to deserve this fate? 

In 2010, there was a chilling forecast in the Srinagar-based daily, Greater Kashmir, based on interviews with officials of the state flood control ministry that a catastrophic flood awaits Kashmir. A plan was drawn up, but like much else in the state: nothing happened. Four years later, Kashmir lies devastated, and Srinagar destroyed. 

The history of Srinagar, of the last three decades or more, is the story of an urban disaster. But it was not always like this. 

Growing up in Srinagar in the 1960s and 1970s was to live a life so idyllic that in hindsight it seems unreal. Every season was special. Rivers, water, ice and snow were part of life and brought its challenges, but never overwhelmed. 

The spring, from March to May, was when school began after the long winter break. The ice melted and the fragrance of the Yemburzal and the blossoms of the almond trees enveloped the valley.We had our first excursion of the year to the almond orchards or Badam Vari, with hundreds of others, carrying portable stoves, rice and mutton. 

School was a five-km cycle ride away , passing the river Jhelum on the left, and crossing the Zero Bridge and finally arriving at Burn Hall School, in Sonwar with the wonderful chinars of the Amar Singh garden just across the road. The Jhelum was a lifeline: when we stayed at 'mata mal' (maternal grandparents' house) we took the shikara to cross the Jhelum to our first school, the Presentation Convent. 

The summer, from June to September, was when life was at its most robust. The swimming boats of the Dal lake and Nageen lake was where one learnt swimming, unless you were at the tough Biscoe School, which taught you that in "All things be men" while Burn Hall relied on "Industria Floremus" (In Toil we will flourish). But the Biscoe boys' encounter was not without tragedy. Several Biscoe boys had drowned in the great Wullar lake in the early 20th century. This was a time for night excursions in the floating houseboats: the doongas. This was the only season when it rained heavily, other than in March-April. But while in the spring the mountains were full of ice, in August-September the glaciers would melt feeding the river and threatening floods. In autumn, one prepared for winter. As the valley turned gold and rust, we dried vegetables, stored firewood, and prepared for the final exams in November. 

Winter was the time for snow and stories. We ventured for a few hours to play snow games, but the rest of the day was spent reading and finishing homework during the three-month vacation. There was no central heating, but just fireplaces, bhukharis and kangris. 

Never ever in all these years did water enter our house. There were warnings in earlier years, and my hyper-sensitive grandmother would walk several times a day to the flood channel to take a look at the water level. The flood channel was where the water was sent when the level of the Jhelum rose, and if it went alarmingly high the gates of the Dal were opened and the lake was flooded. 

But after the great flood of 1902 and then of the early 1950s, there was no flood that severely impacted on the city . As a consequence of the great flood of 1902, the flood channel behind our house was created and there were nallahs and wetlands that absorbed excess water. But by the 1980s and 1990s, every rule of urban planning had been violated. 

The Nallah Mar, an important flood channel, was filled up and made into a road. The wetlands became residential colonies, and there was encroachment on most embankments of the river Jhelum. 

Srinagar will now have to be rebuilt brick by brick, but before that thousands will have to be rescued and rehabilitated and provided the space where they can mourn in dignity. 

But after a tragedy of this enormity (corpses of babies and women are still floating in the river), will we allow the same crop of corrupt bureaucrats and inept political leaders to take charge? Or will we build Srinagar, the valley of Nund Rishi and Lal Ded, again as it once was: the abode of fresh air and pure springs, and the land of peace, compassion and prosperity? 

(Source: The Times of India)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Harrowing flight from flooded Valley

We stayed up, maintaining a vigil, while the night echoed to cries of ‘bachao’
I have returned from the hell that Srinagar and much of the Kashmir Valley is today. I have returned with my parents only because of the Indian Army and the kindness of strangers. Everything else has collapsed in most of Srinagar.
I went to Srinagar on Saturday alarmed by reports of floods in the Kashmir Valley to reassure my parents who lived there, but not very concerned about their safety. Four generations of Mattoos had lived in our family home, in one of the most pleasant neighbourhoods of Srinagar: Gogji Bagh. My grandfather liked to tell his grandchildren that they should ensure that their spine was as strong as the foundations of our house! It had survived every vicissitude in the ups and downs of the Mattoo family and Kashmir: earthquakes, militancy (a bullet in my great grandfather’s portrait is a reminder of the violent 1990s), deaths and personal grief.
On Saturday evening, there was the first ominous sign: there was a power outage. We slept, however, comforted by the prediction of the local meteorology chief, Sonam Lotus, who has become a popular icon for the accuracy of his forecasts, that Sunday would be sunny. And indeed I woke to a radiant blue sky with not a cloud in sight. But the power outage had continued through the night, and I got a frightened phone call from a neighbour at about 9.30 a.m. that the bund on the bank of the Jhelum (near Lal Ded hospital, about a kilometre from our house) had been breached!
Within minutes the water was streaming ferociously into our garden. I calculated we had about an hour before our ground floor was submerged; actually we had just about 30 minutes.
In that frenzy, we could only really clear the kitchen: food and water to feed a staff of 12 — and moved to the upper storeys. The water had risen one- and-a-half storeys by the afternoon and we stayed up that night maintaining a vigil, not entirely sure what we would do if the water rose to the upper floors: we had no power, no phones (mobile or landline), no contact with anyone, and just a couple of messages that we were not sure had been delivered. The night echoed with cries of ‘bachao bachao’ from the nearby Gujjar and Bakerwal hostel in Amar Singh college and other places!
On Monday morning, we were finally rescued by the brave jawans of the Indian Army in a paddle boat and taken to a safer point at the bund – with just one small bag each.
There was no sign of relief or help.
The only option was to rush to the airport. We did so with the kindness of good Samaritans, and after walking kilometres in waist-deep water. Many who helped had never met us, some were friends from Facebook, including Ashraf Bhat – a distinguished lawyer, who walked with us and dropped us near the airport, young Suhail who helped us find a short cut and helped my parents traverse the wall that led us to a dryer route. And Dr. Khan and Sherwani Sahib for finally dropping us to the airport!
We are back in Delhi’s safety, but deeply concerned about those in the valley who are still marooned. Today, Prime Minister, rescue Kashmir, and Kashmiris will respect you forever!

 (Source: The Hindu)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The discovery of Australia

With PM Tony Abbott’s visit to India, the bilateral relationship is starting to mature
After six decades characterized by misperception, lack of trust, neglect, missed opportunities and even hostility, a new chapter in India’s relations with Australia has well and truly begun.
Consider this: in 1955, Prime Minister Robert Menzies decided that Australia should not take part in the Bandung Afro-Asian conference. By distancing Australia from the ‘new world’, Menzies (who would later confess that Occidentals did not understand India) alienated Indians, offended Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and left Australia unsure, for decades, about its Asian identity.
Sixty years later the visit of another Liberal Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to India — also the first stand-alone state visit to be hosted by the Narendra Modi government — has well and truly brought the past to a closure. When asked why Australia had agreed to export uranium to India (a non-NPT signatory country), Abbott was unequivocal in his statement: “We trust you!”

No other declaration could reflect the new Australian belief in the promise and potential of this relationship, for it was this deficit of understanding and faith that severely undermined the relationship in the past. Abbott was not alone: he had brought with him some of the most influential Australian businessmen, including Anthony Pratt, who runs the world’s largest paper and paper packaging company, Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh and Lindsey Fox who has one of the most extensive logistics and transport companies in Asia.
Unfortunately, for most of the 20th century, India and Australia rarely had a meaningful conversation. The reasons are not difficult to identify: the white Australia policy, the Cold War, the Nehru-Menzies discord, India’s autarkic economic policies, Canberra’s strident res-ponse to New Delhi’s nuclear tests and attacks on Indian students in Victoria.

Indeed, even after the white Australia policy became history and Australia became one of the most multicultural of nations, opinion surveys reveal most Indians are unaware of this fundamental change. At the popu-lar level the only real exposure most Indians had to Australia was to the Australian cricket team — the least multicultural of institutions.
Even three years ago when — disgusted with the politics of the higher education sector in India — i decided to be the inaugural director of the Australia India Institute at Melbourne, it was seen as a giant leap of faith. I had not visited Australia before and had little knowledge of the country.
My friends warned me that i was literally going “Down Under”, soon to become irrelevant and marginal to all policy issues in India. At school, my teenage daughters were told they risked being bashed up in school and college and my extended family was astounded.
But today i have no doubt that it was one of the best decisions of my life. With not one unpleasant experience in the country, as a family we have found Australians open, friendly, fair, accepting and generous, and the country a model of good governance.
Today there are few countries in the Indo-Pacific which share so much in common in both values and interest than India and Australia, and this is reflected in the 36-para joint statement. From water management to clean energy, to trauma research, to skills and higher education, to maritime and cyber security and counter terrorism, there is a world of opportunities that awaits the two countries if they work in close coordination with each other.

Take just one example: The Economist Intelligence Unit recently voted Australia, after Switzerland, the best country to be born, based on a variety of factors that include access to quality health and education, level of crime, gender equality, resources and political freedom.
Melbourne has been consistently selected as the most livable city and most other Australian cities (including Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth) are in the top 20 in the world. Even given the differences in scale, there are huge lessons in urban planning and living that Australia can offer India.
In November Prime Minister Modi will visit Australia for the G-20 summit. This will be the first bilateral visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years. It is critical that the political leadership remain in charge of the relationship until it acquires real momentum.

The success of Abbott’s visit was because of the triumvirate in his office — chief of staff Petra Aldrin, senior adviser Andrew Shearer and Joshua Frydenbirg, rising star of the Liberal Party. They helped translate Abbott’s vision into reality. Sections of the Canberra bureaucracy can be niggardly transactional when strong bilateral relations are cemented as much by the world of ideas as they are by the world of commerce.
Similarly, India’s ministry of external affairs, despite the presence of an incisive and thoughtful secretary (East) — Anil Wadhwa — lacks the capacity to give the relationship the attention it deserves. It is critical that the PM creates an Australia Plus cell similarly to the one on Japan in his office.

For the Australia-India bilateral relationship could, handled well, become the most formidable Asian partnership of the 21st century.

(Source: The Times of India)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The new promise of India-Australia relations

As the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits India for the first standalone bilateral visit (on September 4 and 5), hosted by the new Bharatiya Janata Party-led Narendra Modi government, it is becoming obvious that the relationship between the two countries is poised to transform itself.
In an Asia marked by instability and uncertainty, the new India-Australia concord - rooted in both geo-strategy as well as economics - will have wider consequences for stability and balance in the region. In November, Prime Minister Modi will visit Australia for a bilateral visit and for the G20 summit - the first time an Indian prime minister has visited Australia in 28 years. The times, as they say, are clearly changing.
Consider this. During Prime Minister Abbott's visit, the two countries are expected to sign a path-breaking agreement that will allow for the transfer of Australian uranium to India, making India the first non-Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty signatory country to get Australian uranium.
The Australian prime minister is travelling to India with a delegation of top businessmen, who are expected to - with their Indian counterparts - chalk out a road map for collaboration in sectors as diverse as mining, agriculture and clean energy. In addition, on the table are agreements that will provide for much greater collaboration in the education sector.
Historically, the relationship between Canberra and New Delhi has been characterised by missed opportunities. The long shadow of the Cold War, India's autarkic economic policies, the white Australia policy, and Canberra's decision not to transfer uranium to India, have kept the two countries apart for several decades. 
But this is now history. Today, there are few countries in the region with which Australia has as much in common, both in values and interests, as India. Apart from being two English-speaking, multicultural, federal democracies that believe in and respect the rule of law, both have a strategic interest in ensuring a balance in the Indo-Pacific and in ensuring that the region is not dominated by any one hegemonic power. In addition, Indians are today the largest source of skilled migrants in Australia.
Late last year, the Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne, in partnership with the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, commissioned one of the most comprehensive surveys of Indian public opinion on key foreign policy issues and critical challenges of governance. Indians ranked Australia in the top four nations towards which they feel most warmly. Only the United States, Japan and Singapore ranked more highly. Today, Indians feel warmer towards Australia than towards countries in Europe, including Britain or India's fellow so-called BRICS.
No less importantly, Australia is seen as a country that functions well and is worth emulating. Sixty percent of Indians think it would be better if India's government and society worked more like Australia's. Japan and Singapore rank roughly equal to Australia. Only the United States ranks better at 78 percent. Other countries, including Britain, China and Germany, do not fare as well as governance models for India.
A majority of Indians also see many good qualities in Australia and appreciate Australian values. 
Relations between India and Australia have deepened dramatically over the past decade. India's economic growth and its burgeoning demand for energy, resources and education have propelled India to become one of Australia's largest export markets.
It is, however, the economic opportunities that the Modi government promises to bring that could provide the real cement to bind Australia and India closer together. Two sectors stand out: mining and higher education, including vocation educational and skills development. Both are at the centre of Modi's policy radar.
For decades, the mining sector in India has been poorly governed and badly regulated. According to a 2012 McKinsey report, India's mining sector has the potential to contribute $40bn annually to government revenue and create, directly or indirectly, an additional 2.3 million jobs. As the report points out, despite having the top five or six reserves globally in many commodities such as iron ore and thermal coal, the mining industry is small and contributes only 1.2 percent of gross domestic product. Modi has emphasised that he wants urgently to reform the mining sector.
In Australia, the end of the mining boom presents challenges in particular for the mining services sector, and it could benefit from the opening up of India's mining sector. With investment in mining falling in Australia as India's need for investment, technology and skills is growing more pressing, we could soon see Australian mining services companies replacing local demand by working in India, and India using Australian skills to unlock its mineral resources.
Similarly, reform in higher education, particularly vocational education, is vital for the Modi government as it attempts to realise the country's so-called demographic dividend from its 500 million young people aged fewer than 25. The state of the higher education sector in particular is an abiding reminder of the deadening effect of India's planned economy up until 1990, the so-called license-permit Raj, which stunted India's global ambitions.
The previous government introduced several bills to reform the sector but, with insufficient support and political will, all were stalled in parliament. The Modi government will make sure these reforms are carried out. This will present an opportunity for Australian universities, which are faced domestically with several challenges, to take advantage of the biggest market in the world.
Beyond economics, is the mutual concern in Canberra and New Delhi about security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Both India and Australia have deep economic relations with China, but are equally concerned about Beijing's aggressive behaviour, in the recent past, and would ideally want a region that is not dominated by any one hegemonic power. In the past Canberra has shied away from an explicit military partnership with India, Japan and the US.

This could well change in the months to come with both Modi and Abbott seen as being China sceptics , and willing to take a more candid assessment about China's rise and its consequences for the region. The Australia-India relationship is clearly an idea whose time has come, but it will require political nurturing before it acquires a momentum of its own.

(Source: Al Jazeera)

Abe + Abbott + Modi: The AAM trilateral that could stop China's rise

It's an interesting coincidence that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Japan - his first bilateral trip outside the subcontinent - is being followed so quickly by the arrival in India of Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Like Modi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Abbott represents a right-wing political constituency, has a spare, no-frills style and has made economic diplomacy and a clear-headed approach to China's ascendancy central to his foreign policy. Few countries in the region have more in common today, both in values and interests, than India, Australia and Japan.

Abbott is building on a bipartisan legacy. India and Australia have had a growing relationship since John Howard and Atal Bihari Vajpayee took the initiative a decade ago.
More recently, the UPA government sent a series of ministers Down Under. It was a Labour Party PM, Julia Gillard, who made the effort to change party and national policy and called for selling uranium to India. An agreement on nuclear commerce will probably be finalised by Abbott and Modi. 

It is not as if the relationship has been without hiccups.
Australian over-reaction to India's Pokhran II tests in 1998; Kevin Rudd's swashbuckling but ill-fated swerve to China as PM, and his initial snubbing of India; the violence against Indian students in Melbourne in 2009; India's economic decline in the past few years: all of these led to the India-Australia partnership delivering below potential.

Yet, this is an opportune moment. In November,Modi travels to Brisbane for the G-20 summit and could follow it up with a bilateral visit, the first by an Indian PM since 1986.
The tensions of 2009 are a thing of the past and India constitutes the largest source of skilled migrants to Australia, having supplanted China in 2012. The scope for business is enormous. Energy security is a key thrust of Modi's international engagements and Australia has coal and gas to offer, as well as uranium as and when India's nuclear plans firm up.

Mining, as finance minister Arun Jaitley has pointed out, is critical to the government as a driver of growth and employment. Here again, there is place for Australian expertise.
With the hope of legislation to end Coal India's monopoly and permit merchant mining, there will be room for Australian mining conglomerates. Of course, this may require a shift in orientation. Some Australian resources giants, such as BHP Billiton, have been keener to export to India, rather than get their hands dirty in actual mining operations.

In the Modi era of 'Come, Make in India', this may not go down well. To be fair, others like Rio Tinto and Hancock have demonstrated interest in collaborating with Indian partners.
Education and skill development is another vast sea waiting to be explored. The University of Melbourne, for instance, rated consistently in the top 40 in the world, got no more than 17 undergraduate students from India at the beginning of this academic year.

This should change. When it comes to skilling and vocational education, Australian institutional advantages can fit well with New Delhi's ambitions of equipping a young population for jobs, as evident from the setting up of a separate department of skill development.
Beyond economics, there is politics. Two decades ago, India's 'Look East' policy was constructed around an outreach to the Asean bloc, with Japan and Australia viewed as a second tier, to be met using Asean-centric frameworks such as the East Asia Summit.

Today, Asean is a weaker collective. The ability (and willingness) of many of its members to say 'no' to China has declined. Vietnam, the Philippines and, to a degree, Indonesia remain among the last holdouts.
Given this, India's quest for achieving regional balance - a polite, bland euphemism for addressing the China question - will inevitably see it seeking arrangements beyond the Asean combine, with individual South-east Asian countries, as well as with Japan and Australia.

In time, Abe, Abbott and Modi could emerge as the Indo-Pacific's AAM trilateral.

Co-authored with Ashok Malik

(Source: The Economic Times)