Monday, August 4, 2008

Rat race to nuke post

'India's strategy was to play for the day when the United States would get over its huffing and puffing, and with a sigh of exhaustion or a shrug of resignation, accept a nuclear armed India as a fully responsible and a fully entitled member of the international community', wrote Strobe Talbott, the Former US Deputy Secretary of State, on the 1998 nuclear tests undertaken by India in his book Engaging India.

And perhaps the day has now come.

On July 31, America's chief negotiator on the Indo-US nuke deal Nicolas Burns said, We had to make this an exceptional agreement for India because of India s trust, its credibility, the fact that it has promised to create a state of the art reprocessing facility monitored fully by the International Atomic Energy Agency, (IAEA) because it has an export control regime in place and because it has not proliferated its own nuclear technology. We can't say that about Pakistan.

Then on August 1, the India-specific safeguards agreement was approved by the Board of Governors of the IAEA- another crucial step towards the success of the implementation of the deal.

Personally, I think the deal will do India good. And not just for the millions of Indians who would get additional power but also to position India as a powerful player in South Asia. Concerns that India could use uranium reserves for military purposes or the United States would use access to India for building up its presence in the sub continent are perhaps legit but what cannot be ignored is how India has grown as a strong international player.

For several decades, India and the United States were not seen as natural allies. One reason was because they both were on good terms with the other s enemy. America often ignored India, but the 1998 nuclear tests undertaken by India, made America sit up and pay attention.

Few years later, America sat across the table from India and chalked out the Indo-US nuke deal. The deal created a huge uproar in India even threatening the collapse of the Manmohan Singh government. But on July 22, 2008, Singh walked out of the Parliament with an overwhelming majority in the trust vote and television channels in India used the music of the popular Bollywood song Singh is King as a background score.

Indo-US Nuke deal and Pakistan

The deal not only plays a significant role in the upcoming Indian elections but has also found its place in the run up to the US Presidential elections in November. With President George W Bush stepping down soon, Republican Senator John Mc Cain and democratic Senator Barack Obama have both pledged their support to the deal. Their growing support to India has made the new Premier of Pakistan Yousuf Raza Gilani nervous.

Like Manmohan Singh, Gilani too wants to wear the sweet crown of success. He has demanded from the US a nuclear deal on the lines of the US-Indo nuke deal. But with Pakistan s nuclear scientist AQ Khan caught transferring nuclear technology to Iran and Libya the American have always had reservations.

Now Burns clearly announced that the US cannot trust Pakistan even with Gilani assuring that the nuclear proliferation network of A Q Khan was broken and will not be repeated. This is a huge development as America has always been a close ally of Pakistan much to India s discomfort.

During my visit to the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) situated at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, a military high command that monitors conflicts in the Asia Pacific region, Chief of Staff, Major General Stephen Douglas Tom, told me that Kashmir was one of the biggest concern areas for USA and with both India and Pakistan gaining nuclear technology, this conflict could spark off a nuclear war.

We closely watched how India reacted to the bombings in Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto s assassination. Our men were monitoring the media out of India to gauge the mood in the sub continent especially since both are nuclear power states, said Major General Tom.

During our discussions, I found that while PACOM talks to India, Pakistan is directly linked to the Central Command (CENTCOM) based in Washington, giving them an edge and an easy access to the White House. As an Indian I found this biased and confusing especially since it is no secret that Pakistan has often been favoured by Washington.

But all that might change if Democratic nominee Barack Obama becomes the next President. Though Mc Cain considers Pakistan a close ally in the Afghanistan war, Obama has vowed that if elected, he would authorize military operations on Pakistani soil against extremists threatening US interests if the Islamabad government is unwilling or unable to do so.

We are not going to get Afghanistan right until we get our Pakistan policy right, Obama said to the US press. He may have softened a little after his meeting with Gilani recently but he seems still committed to annihilating terror elements out of the region and is sure to have some reservations for supporting Pakistan s nuclear programme.

Also with India s growing popularity in the United States and with the elections looming large in Uncle Sam s land, the Presidential hopefuls are doing all they can to pocket the Indian vote bank. While the Republicans have always favoured the deal, Obama earlier showed some reservations. But with most US Indians being staunch republican supporters, Obama is saying just the right things to win them on his side. In a recent interview to an Indian magazine, Obama said, I am reluctant to seek changes in the nuclear deal. His strong stance against terrorism in Pakistan has also gone well with Indians.

Third Eye: China

The power equation in South Asia between India and Pakistan has often been balanced by a very important player in the region- China. No deal in the region can be successful without gauging the mood in Beijing. Experts in China see the American support for the nuclear deal with India as a measure to curb China s growing power in the region. India, through this deal, would be a US ally and may provide USA with valuable resources should it need to use them to put China in check, say experts.

Through my travels in China, it was evident that China is distinctly not happy with the Indo-US nuke deal. After India conducted its first nuclear test in May 1974, Beijing moved quickly to help built Islamabad s nuclear weapon programme so that Pakistan came on par with India in nuclear technology.

As America favours India for a nuclear deal and may not do so with Pakistan, it would be difficult for China to publicly pledge its support to Pakistan but many fear that once again perhaps invisible China would help Islamabad maintain parity with New Delhi.

Also, a non-committal China in a statement at the IAEA very cleverly supported Pakistan s case. It said the world should treat in a balanced manner various countries aspiration for nuclear power.

China has set an ambitious target of 60 gigawatts by 2020 in its domestic nuclear expansion plans. Its current nuclear capacity is only 9 GW- less than 2 per cent of its total installed power generation capacity.

But the Chinese government is confident of reaching this target in what will be the fastest nuclear build-out the world has ever seen. Even today, China s nuclear programme is far advanced than most countries in the world and the Communist Party of China will probably not give any reason for US inspectors to set foot on its land.

In a report released by Pentagon last year, the Americans have voiced their concerns over China s deployment of mobile land and sea-based ballistic nuclear missiles that have the range to hit the US.

Also concerns about the build-up of missiles across the Taiwan Strait, China s recent anti-satellite missile test and its development of technologies to deny access in space have also left the US worried.

As a senior official at PACOM told me, 'We have no idea what China is up to and that makes us jittery'.

The finish line may be out of sight, but we do know who is leading the rat pack.


Monday, June 16, 2008

China's Olympic Spin

The perfect way to enjoy a Beijing duck is to place the wonderfully succulent shredded duck meat on paper thin pancake wrap, cover it with ample hoisin sauce, add some thinly chopped cucumber and spring onions and gulp the entire thing. "The secret to make the best Peking duck is to keep the wrap as thin as possible. The thinner the wrap is, the more you can eat," a Chinese friend once told me over lunch.

This 'famous' Chinese restaurant was located in a rather rundown part of Beijing amid tumbledown hutongs (Beijing's old neighbourhoods), the only way we could find it was by following the ducks - a series of ducks drawn with charcoal on the walls pointing us to this dilapidated restaurant that claimed to serve the best Beijing duck to 'world famous people'. Pictures of celebrities and dignitaries like former US vice president Al-Gore and ambassadors of half the European countries enjoying their Beijing duck adorned the walls. So while you admire the rather elite clientele of this place, you easily forget to take a peek in their kitchen.

In much in the same way works China's front foot PR where only the positives are obsessively publicized while the negatives are swept under the carpet. The Chinese government is using the Olympics to put on table everything positive they want the world to know through a heavy dose of information fed to the media in a manner that doesn't look like state control but pride of the Chinese people. But just like my friend says, 'the trick is to keep the wrap as thin as possible'. A trick the Chinese government has forgotten while serving propaganda.

Foreign journalists are often invited to China by the propaganda department who give out heavy doses of the 'Green' Olympics and China's efforts to curtail pollution and traffic congestion- the hybrid buses, the saplings planted, the eco-friendly Olympic models that use alternate energy resources and the list goes on - too much information, too many promises, too thick a wrap - all difficult to digest.

The worst recorded traffic jam in the capital is two and a half hours to travel 50 meters. Also, Beijing has been the world capital for air pollution for several years. A World Bank report, entitled Cost of Pollution in China, (prepared with the cooperation of the State Environmental Protection Agency) published last year, found up to 760,000 people die prematurely each year in China because of air and water pollution. Also according to the World Bank, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. What about the other cities? All we hear is the efforts and the money China has spent on controlling pollution in Beijing. Perhaps it's a start, but is it enough?

Apparently not! British sports teams will be practising in Macau, Quingdao and Hong Kong instead of Beijing before the Para Olympics and British media believes the reason is to stay away from the polluted city as long as possible. Many Beijing residents are expected to leave the city during the Olympic weeks fearing worse living conditions with the influx of half a million of visitors.

I met Sun Weidi, Deputy Director of the Olympics Games Committee at his office not too far from the venues in Beijing. A smart man with impeccable English, Weidi was quick to skirt any controversial questions on Tibet protests and yet respond to environmental concerns in no time.

"We have holidays for students in Beijing around that time. So some people will be going out on vacation. But its not because of the Olympics," he said followed by a list of government's measures to improve Beijing's environment - converting all public transports to CNG from petrol, planting trees and flower beds along the road, moving industries out of the city, demolishing old hutongs for new constructions and teaching the city not just to speak English but etiquettes important to host a global audience.

"We have taught English to over five million people in Beijing, most of them taxi drivers, hotel staff and shop keepers," Weidi proudly said. Although every cabbie I encountered spoke only Mandarin, they were really helpful and made every attempt to bridge the language divide.

Like when I had to go to the CCTV feed point to do a live report on the earthquake, the address I had was far from complete, even its Chinese translation was confusing. And while I sat in the back seat worried if I'd make it on time, my cabbie had to leave the taxi four times to ask for directions. He did it all with a smile and dropped me off at the correct address and I reached 40 minutes before schedule.

On another occasion, after taking me to my destination, the cabbie asked me to call up my friend whom he spoke to in Chinese to reconfirm the location. Then in sign language he explained which building I should enter next. So most Chinese may not know English, but I was impressed with their mannerisms and concern for a foreigner.

Visiting the Olympic venues definitely gives a high - the Bird's nest, the Aqua Cube, the Torch tower and of course the other structures like the CCTV building and the Egg - largest auditorium that takes your breath away on a beautiful starry night with its reflection in the surrounding water. Not to mention Beijing airport, the largest in the world.

These monolithic gigantic structures that boast of some of the best architectural designs and work on renewable energy principals symbolize Beijing's Green Olympics and should be appreciated but one can't ignore the heavy smog that engulfs these structures because of high air pollution.

When such issues are written about in the foreign press, China calls it an attempt to sabotage the Olympics. Interestingly the authorities in China have always told me that they welcome the foreign media with open arms. "Foreign media is free to report here. You should have no problems," said Zhu Yinghua, Director, All China Journalist Association during our discussions over traditional Chinese dinner one evening. True enough, I had no problems reporting on the Sichuan earthquake from Beijing without Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) permits.

But some foreign journalists reporting from Sichuan said their tapes were taken away by the Peoples Liberation Army and their FAO permits seized. Nevertheless the earthquake saw the government give more access to the foreign media than ever before. Yet, we know the foreign press will be closely monitored during the Olympics and every word we say or write may have repercussions.

During my recent travels in the United States and China, it was highly evident that China is extremely nervous on the Tibet issue and the Dafur controversy and the world is nervous about China building its navy in the South China Sea- a relationship that is based on mutual distrust and suspicion. Experts expect more to happen off field than in the stadiums during the Olympics.

Why else is the ratio of security personnel to expected foreign visitors 1:1? Visas have been tightened and the latest restrictions come in the form of a rulebook for foreigners attending the Olympics. The 57-point Q&A format booklet, so far issued only in Chinese, shows how China plans to rein the foreigners.

The rulebook prohibits entry of 'those who are believed to potentially engage in other activities that may harm the national security and interests' and explicitly says that 'not all parts of China are presently open to foreigners'. This could keep most Indians and Nepalis out of Beijing. A journalist friend from Nepal had to undergo rigorous checks at the airport immigration while his laptop was scrutinized for any content on Tibet before he was let off. With Dalai Lama living in India, China expects trouble from his Indian supporters too. During the Olympics such checks would take longer and dig deeper.

Another rule says that 'to hold a rally, demonstration, or protest, one must apply to do so at the Public Security Office in accordance with law,' - A permit from the government to protest against the government? Good luck with that! And according to an article in Time magazine, broadcasters have been denied permits to film advance aerials of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. So much for press freedom!

Also among the rules is a ban on 'display and use of insulting slogans, religious, political or ethnic slogans and banners', obviously to prevent any political activism but its ambiguity could pose a real challenge to free speech.

Interestingly, the Beijing Etiquette Academy has designed a series of hand gestures and appreciative slogans for spectators - all duly approved by the ruling Communist party and Olympic Games organisers, and recently unveiled in the state media.

A four step procedure, it involves clapping twice, giving the thumbs-up, clapping twice more and then punching the air with both arms accompanied by chants of "Olympics", "Go", "China" and "Go".
The Beijing Olympic Organising Committee has hired 30 cheering squads and Ministry of Education is training 800,000 school students who will show spectators how to do it in a 'smooth civilized manner'.

No doubt, these rules have been written to curb free speech and free media in China but will it succeed? International media is now too intelligent with a wider global reach, and loves to dig up deep and perhaps too desperate for an objective and balanced content. China needs to understand that the international press is not out to get them. I saw China's efforts post Sichuan earthquake up close and was very impressed with the government's response. So were many other foreign journalists. China was applauded by the international press.

China just needs to accept the reality, admit to its shortcomings and be more open to discuss its policies in conflict areas for the international community to acknowledge its efforts today and appreciate them. It needs to remove restrictions, be transparent, respond to queries and have free flow of information like it did during the Sichuan quake.

Until China loses its holier-than-thou attitude for the Olympics, it will be a battle between China's propaganda machine and the International free press.

So grab the front row seats and enjoy Beijing Olympics 2008 the state defined way!


Friday, June 6, 2008

From the earthquake debris, will a new China rise?

Democracy is probably a better form of government than a dictatorship. But as Dilbert says, democracy plus punching is the best government of all. And it’s perhaps called ‘socialism’ in China.

For years China’s socialism has been under attack from democracies all over the world. Having lived in India and the United Kingdom, I saw China in red much the same way as most democracies do. But a study tour to China- its booming cities and beyond the boomtown was an eye-opener. On my itinerary was the Sichuan province marked as the ‘epicentre’ of China’s development. On May 12, just days before the scheduled visit, the earthquake struck. The choice of the word ‘epicentre’ back then left an eerie feeling.

Sichuan earthquake changed my perception of the government in China. I felt my scepticism dissolve and in its place grew a renewed respect for those in power in China (though I may still not completely agree with all their policies).

Leading from Ground Zero

Sichuan earthquake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale(1) and was one of the most devastating earthquakes in three decades to hit China. According to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the death toll by May end was 68,858 with an additional 366,596 injured and 18,618 missing. At least 9,000 of the dead or missing are school children and teachers according to state media reports. A total of 45.61 million people have been affected, including 15 million evacuated from their homes; of these, 5 million are living in temporary shelters.(2)

Interestingly, while the details of the earthquake were still pouring in, Premier Wen Jiabao had already flown in to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province, to set up the rescue command. The People Liberation Army and the paramilitary forces were immediately mobilized for rescue operations and the state news agency was regularly giving updates on the earthquake situation - the deaths and devastation. A remarkable response from a country that earlier took three years to reveal the casualty figures in the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan in north China, which many still believe was two to three times lower than actual casualties.(3)

Contrary to the traditional methods practised by the Chinese political system, where decision were taken at the top behind closed doors and information flow would be tightly regulated, this time the government led from ground zero.

Unlike Myanmar that stubbornly put ‘security issues’ above safety of its citizens by refusing international assistance after cyclone Nargis, China welcomed support from international agencies. In fact it even wholeheartedly appreciated Japan and Taiwan who were first to send in relief, which many believe could be the beginning of a new relationship. Both Japan and Taiwan share a strained relationship with Mainland China which got especially worse after China began to build up its navy in the South China Sea.

By May end, rescuers saved and evacuated 782,004 people to safe places; hospitals took in a total of 89,818 injured people, 59,877 of whom recovered and were discharged. A total of 678,900 tents, 4,371,500 quilts and 10,754,000 garments had been sent to quake hit regions.(4)

Premier Wen Jiabao’s presence in Chengdu gave an impetus to the entire operation and President Hu Jintao’s declaration that no efforts would be spared to save those trapped boosted the morale of rescue workers and those affected. This is particularly important in a country like China where citizens look upon the leadership for support and empathy during these trying times. In China I saw that most citizens believe their leader’s words to be gospel truth and derive tremendous solace and hope from them.

Also, when Premier Wen Jiabao promised to construct new and better villages, most people seemed confident that the government will do so.

New constructions… New beginnings

Just when the rescue operations were coming to an end, fears of dams bursting and quake lakes over flooding rocked China. But the government quickly set into motion the evacuation of 1.3 million people who live downstream of the Tangjiashan ‘quake lake’, the largest of the 34 bodies of water formed after the earthquake due to landslides. On June 5, Premier Wen Jiabao was at Tangjiashan personally supervising the evacuation efforts. Over 250,000 people have been evacuated with many more to follow with rising water levels.

With so many homes, villages and livelihoods destroyed, many wonder how the people will survive when this is all over. The Ministry of Commerce announced that up to 10 million additional people are now living below the poverty line as a result of the earthquake.

Perhaps this is where the villages that are newly constructed to rehabilitate those displaced by the Three Gorges Dam (5) can serve as a model. One such village I visited is called Muhe (which means Harmony) in neighbouring Chongqing municipality, that was a part of Sichuan until 1997 and is today one of China's four provincial-level municipalities with Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.

Muhe village in Nantuo town is 33 km from the district of Fuling on the banks of the Changjiang river and has an area of 5.9 sq km with 545 households and 2063 villagers.(6) Concrete roads lead to this village on top of the mountain where nicely painted brick houses line the streets. Most houses have solar heaters and biogas. Families I spoke to said that life only got better with relocation- they make more money by growing cash crops, their produce sells at higher rates, better connectivity with other parts of the state means they can tap more market and transport their produce. Also with a fast growing town nearby, their children can get university education and work in factories there. What many missed however was the beautiful view of the river that their old homes provided.(7)

But rehabilitating hundred thousands of villagers hit by the earthquake will be far from easy. It will put a huge pressure on the region in terms of not just construction but also employment. Villagers displaced due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam recently rehabilitated in Kaixan, another village in Chongqing have found themselves with homes but without jobs forcing the government to offer subsides for industries to move to the region, says an expert on the region.

The Mayor of Chongqing, Wang Hongju (8), told me during our meeting at Wu Du Hotel (Wu Du means Foggy city that best describe Chongqing) that efforts were being made to develop the province in such a way that at least 5 million additional people could be accommodated. “I want to create prosperous rural towns so that fewer people move to big cities and slums are not created,” the Mayor said emphatically.

The Mayor believes this can be done by upgradation and modernization of agriculture, investment in research to increase productivity and to improve the service sector in rural areas. Also in the pipeline are huge infrastructure projects - a train line that will link Chongqing to Shanghai in six hours, nine expressways and a 100,000 km optical fibre system. “Our urbanization rate is higher than the national average,” he proudly claims.

But rapid industrialization also leads to environmental degradation. I met the Director of Chongqing Environmental Protection Bureau, Cao Guanghui (9) for some answers on the issue. “In Chongqing, 12% of the GDP is invested in environment protection- 85% of all water in city homes and 65% of household water in rural areas of the province is treated. Besides 90% of city’s garbage is also treated,” says Guanghui. The figures could be inflated but during the course of my travel within the province I saw the efforts the government has put in to make this municipality stand up against Beijing and Shanghai to compete for foreign direct investment.

In Yunnan, one of the poorest provinces in China, several houses were destroyed by earthquakes in the past few years, but now they have been rebuilt with better construction and amenities. According to Luchan He, Project Assistant of The Nature Conservancy, an NGO that works with the local government to protect the environment, 96% of the villages have biogas and solar heaters and the other 4% are in the process of installing them.(10)

Also cash crop plantations have helped the village income grow. Mr. Chang, a farmer in a hamlet not too far from Li Jiang, said his income increased by 300% to 30,000 RMB per year (USD 4300) since he adopted the new methods of cultivation. “The use of biogas has saved me 110 man-hours per year used to chop firewood, allowing my children to pursue university education,” said Chang.(11)

One hopes to see a similar rehabilitation project in Sichuan. With the local government under tremendous pressure to cover its mistake in Sichuan’s shoddy construction, one would assume that they would go all out to invest in better infrastructure and environmental projects.

The earthquake relief headquarters of the Sichuan State Council promised to set up a dedicated team for rehabilitation work. The team will start evaluating local geological conditions and selecting new locations. The government will offer various schemes, subsidies and preferential policies to rebuild the economy of the province. The government has also promised to protect cultural heritage sites and quake ruins with research significance as well as investigate the damaged public buildings.

‘Harmonious society’ and Media gag

The local papers in China focussed only on stories of hope and rescue efforts. As a journalist I had my reservations with such one-sided reports and wondered on the state control on the media. Why were their no reports on the threats to dams and what about the nuclear facilities? Why did no one write about the contamination of water resources and the low quality construction material used to build the schools that fell like a pack of cards killing thousands of children?

China stayed quiet on these rather important and glaring issues for the first couple of weeks. And for the foreign media that reported these things, they were considered biased and ‘enemy of China’.

A friend from a leading Chinese newspaper explained this. “The government is not stupid. It has a panel of experts and they know what went wrong and will take corrective measures,” he calmly said. “By writing about all this at a time of grief and devastation, we will only stir up emotions that will take attention away from rescue and relief work and destroy this harmonious society.”

‘Harmonious society’ is a phrase I’ve heard often and have always dismissed it as government rhetoric. Yet as I followed the reports in the Chinese media over the next few days, I could see his point. The government did speak about the suspected shoddy construction; it did send experts to the region to examine the construction material and also promised to punish those found at fault. And in China those found guilty of corruption have often been put behind bars or executed.

China and democracy

The idea of Democracy was introduced in China in 1890s by an exiled Chinese writer named Liang Qichao. Liang was involved in the 1895 Beijing protests that called for increased participation in government by the Chinese people. After his exile he moved to Japan and translated the works of several western political thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Bentham which were smuggled into China.

Liang believed that in democracy there was no difference between the individual interests and public interests; individual citizens were granted rights in order to better strengthen the state.(12)

Mao Zedong and the Chinese communist were also, in some ways, for democracy and like Liang, Mao believed that the state must draw on the energies of the people in order to be strong and unified. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was, in part, a radical attempt to achieve Mao’s “Great Democracy”.

In 1970s Deng Xiaoping came to power and advocated a kind of democracy that would be played within four parameters - socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the combination of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and party leadership.

Today, the Communist Party of China (CPC) believes that China is in the primary stages of building socialism. When CPC won state power in 1949, China had been ravaged by civil war and invasion. Also Mao’s Cultural Revolution saw political upheavals that dealt a severe blow to development. But in 1980s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the policies of reform and opening of China to the outside world led to today’s massive development. Xiaoping asserted that opening up to private domestic and foreign capital was necessary to jump-start a developing economy.

A New China?

Sichuan earthquake saw a China never seen before. The whole nation stood strong including the government and the citizens. The consciousness of the citizens was highly evident - their expectations high and their demands loud. The government did not disappoint them either. It stood with them through moments of grief lending a helping hand and a shoulder to lean on. It cried for their loss and shared their anger against suspected corruption. It worked ceaselessly to move them to safety and keep them away from diseases and harm. The rescue efforts created a strong bond of shared compassion and empathy between the government and citizens and saw a solidarity never seen before.

But with citizens demanding justice against the unscrupulous builders and local government officials, threatening to even file law suits, this consciousness will bring about activism that could challenge the supreme authority of the government. Hence, sowing the seeds of democracy we know in the world today.

But this change did not happen overnight. It is a result of three decades of reforms following Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of the economy. Now the government too knows that any attempts to ignore and contain citizen’s demands could only lead to confrontations. Days of Tiananmen Square massacre are long gone where hundreds of students died when the army opened fire on them to crush pro-democracy protests in 1989. Human Rights Watch has been demanding release of the Tiananmen detainees before the Olympics. If China abides, it could be a new dawn. Because for China to prosper, the government needs conscious citizens as much as the citizens need a responsive government.

Sichuan earthquake changed China forever. It showed the world that socialist China has the heart of a democracy.

1. US Geological Survey put the earthquake on 7.9 Richter scale whereas the Chinese government puts it at 8.0 on Richter scale.
2. Sichuan Province, China: Earthquake OCHA Situation Report No. 10 by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on May 30, 2008
3. The death toll figure of 242,419 in Tangshan earthquake came from the Chinese Seismological Service in 1988. The initial estimates of 655,000 dead and 779,000 injured were released by Hebei Revolutionary Committee.
4. Figures obtained through Xinhua news agency
5. The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydro-electricity project situated in China’s Hubei province. During the planning stages in the 1990s it was estimated that 1.13 million residents would be forced to relocate; new developments have doubled that number to 2.3 million. On October 11, 2007 Chinese state media announced that an additional 4 million affected people will be relocated in the Chongqing metropolitan area by the year 2020.
6. Statistics obtained from Wen Tianping, Deputy Director General of Information Office of Chongqing Municipal People’s Government on May 15, 2008
7. Interview with residents of Muhe village in Chongqing on May 19, 2008
8. Interview with Wang Hongju, Mayor of Chongqing, at the Wu Du Hotel in Chongqing on May 15, 2008.
9. Interview with Cao Guanghui, Director of Chongqing Environment Protection Bureau at the Wu Du Hotel on May 15, 2008
10.Interview with Lushan He, Project Assistant, Visitor Centre, The Nature Conservancy at TNC Li Jiang office in Yunnan on May 21, 2008
11.Interview with a villager Mr Chang at his home in a village in Yunnan on May 21, 2008
12.“Chinese Democracy” by Andew J Nathan in chapter Liang Qichao and the Chinese Democratic Tradition. Published in 1986 by University of California Press

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The 'Real' Shangri - La?

A perfect paradise on earth, a permanently happy place isolated from the outside world, thats how British author James Hilton’s in his novel The Lost Horizon, describes the mythical and mystical Shangri-La.
While there is a town called Shangri- La in China's south west province Yunnan, Helen, our local contact was quick to point that 'real' Shangri- La lies far from its namesake town and much closer to a town called Lijiang in northeast of Yunnan.

A sublime isolation of beauty, colour and rhythm of nature at its best with an almost 800 year old culture now near extinction, the ancient Lijiang county was officially declared a world cultural legacy by the UNESCO in 1997.

Surrounded by mountains and endless green fields, a mile high above sea level, the peace and tranquilty of the countryside is overwhelmingly 'Shangri- La'.

Helen was adamant at proving her point. So our first trip was a three hours drive from Lijiang to Liming district, known for its spectacular red sandstone cliffs. A journey that took us through the first bend of the mighty Yangtze river. There is something quite spiritual about the Yangtze (its like the Ganga for the locals) and you can feel it touch your soul if you just stop and listen. This is where the river curves and heads back north, a rarity, Helen adds excitedly.

Not too far from here is the gorgeous Thousand Turtle mountain (Qiangui Shan). But when you trek up to its peak, lie on the turtle back rocks and take a deep breath - you can literally taste peace. A happy Helen shouts Shangri-La!

But while this mountain is perfect for losing yourself in meditation and soul searching, It has a 'wild' companion just 20 km from Lijiang. The mighty Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong mountain). This southernmost glacier in the Northern Hemisphere is called the 'Natural Glacier Museum' and is a sanctuary for rare animals and wild plants. Just take the cable car ride up the over 4500m, skii the slopes of this magnificient mountain with 13 peaks and enjoy its cascading pools, let the locals fill you in on its various legends.

There's a lot you can do on ground level too. Enjoy the streets of Lijiang's ancient town and the absolutely celestial view of the Black Dragon pool. My Chinese friend Rui Lui spent a good twenty minutes waiting for the clouds to move so that he could spot a glimpse of the Jade Dragon Snow mountain peak from behind the white clouds. It was worth the wait.

Lijiang ancient town is full of small streams meandering into the city with rows and rows of colourful shops and eateries abuzz with laughter and frolic. An ancient port in the Southern Silk Road between Yunnan and Tibet from 1250s, Lijiang's markets have been a kaliedoscope of cultures influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam. All assimiliated and preserved beautifully by the local Naxi community and visible through their traditions.

With a population less than 300,000, the Naxis mainly live in what is called Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County, a mountainous terrian that has still kept agriculture and cattle rearing their main occupation. Some of them own shops selling traditional crafts, silver jewellery, fabrics and tea. Yunnan Tuocha Tea is highly reputed for slimming, beauty and health. A word of advice when you shop - bargain!

One thing a must on your shopping list would be anything that has the Naxi script 'Dongba' - only found here and on the verge of extinction, so rare a collectible. Created over 1000 years ago, it uses pictographic characters - so it also looks pretty.

Many fear that after the few surviving Dongbas (wise men who know the script) this would be lost forever. But you can go to the local Naxi museum and while you enjoy Naxi history, make sure you get a Dongba to write you a beautiful message on a parchment in the 'Dongba' script.

This Dongba drew me a mountain and a meangering river which meant 'May you live long like the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and live your life to the fullest like the mighty Yangtze river' (both sacred to Naxi people). Symbols of health, wealth, happiness and peace.

Also along the streets are giant 'fortune' wheels that bring you luck and joy. So when you see one, dont forget to make a wish. Helen, a proud Naxi herself introduced us to the mesmerizing Naxi music that can be heard while you stroll the streets of Lijiang. A confluence of musical styles from the Tang (618-907) and Song dynasties (960-1279), as well as some Tibetan influences, making it a 'living fossil of music'.

Any journey to Lijiang is incomplete if you dont pay homage to Joseph Rock, an Austrian-born American botanist, photojournalist and explorer who lived between 1922 and 1949. He wrote for the National Geographic and studied the Naxi culture to soon become the father of Naxilogy.

You can visit Rock's home in the neighbouring Yuhu village guarded by an old woman who would watch you like a hawk while you explore Rock's chambers and study ensuring that the cameras dont click. Or simply visit the Nature Conservancy office which displays some of the photographs he took during his expeditions in Yunnan. I suggest do the latter first. It will give you an idea of the magnanimity of his work. After all, it was his writings that went on to inspire Hilton’s novel which gave us the mythical Shangri La.

On your last night, just follow the sound of festivities - they are loudest on the street lined with clubs and pubs, playing loud music with patrons singing even loudly and drinks flowing like water. Make sure you pick the loudest diner on the block. And heres a little trick, if you sing and dance to the Chinese numbers (act like you love it), they will play you an English chartbuster of the 90s.

Wine lovers should never leave without sampling the delicious Yunan red wine and if you are adventurous try the local alcoholic concoctions. Just dont ask whats in them, gulp one shot after another. You won't know what hit you.

But when you take the flight back home the next day, you know you touched heaven and also met the devil.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Transforming Mumbai to Shanghai: Is the Dharavi Makeover- A Plan Or A Pipedream?

"When we talk of a resurgent Asia, people think of the great changes that have come about in Shanghai. I share this aspiration to transform Mumbai in the next five years in such a manner that people would forget about Shanghai and Mumbai will become a talking point,"
-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (October 2004)

Shanghai dreams in Mumbai’s eyes

It’s a race between the tiger and the dragon and while some economists believe that the gap is fast closing in, for Mumbai to take the Shanghai route is an uphill task, its biggest road block being the vibrant democracy.

"I have a dream that we can do it," the Prime Minister said in 2004. And the Congress-led state government in Maharashtra drew up $ 6.5 billion plan to make this dream a reality.

Shanghai skyscrapers on Dharavi debris

Dharavi, Asia’s second largest slum, is the government’s most ambitious and controversial project towards turning Mumbai into its Chinese counterpart. Construction firms- both Indian and global[1]- are bidding to get a slice of this Rs 9300 crore ($2.3bn) Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) that promises to build Shanghai skyscrapers on Dharavi’s debris.

Dharavi’s underground business

According to the state government[2], eight out of the fourteen million people in Mumbai live in slums with 600,000 to a million living in Dharavi, a world of massive, sprawling slums, heart wrenching poverty and squalor. In its twisted lanes and back alleys runs a conglomerate of cottage industries of export quality garments, leather, pottery, ceramics, artefacts, electronics, savoury snacks among others. The annual turnover is estimated to be Rs 3,000 crore ($750m) a year.

On an average each of them earns Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 15,000 ($75-370) monthly, with major exporters making as much as Rs. 300,000 to Rs. 400,000 ($7500-10000) a month. At its lowest, Dharavi generates Rs. 4 crore ($1m) a day[3].  Dharavi is one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia but most of its businesses are illegal. No taxes are paid and the government gets no revenue.

Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP)

The DRP proposes that slum dwellers with names in the 1995 electoral roll  and with existing structures, which are about 57000 families, will be rehabilitated for free in a self contained tenement with a carpet area of 225 sq ft through developers appointed by the state government.

For all slum rehabilitation schemes in the city, the consent of 70 per cent residents has been mandatory to make them transparent and democratic. But as per a government notification, the state said no consent from Dharavi residents is required. “The argument is that the state is the guarantor that people will get homes, so consent is not required,” said the then Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA)[4] executive officer on special duty, I S Chahal. [i] 

It's a stance which has seen the birth of the Dharavi Bachao Andolan (Save Dharavi Movement)[5]. “There is no transparency in the process. At least another 35,000 families should be rehabilitated,” said Jockin Arputham[ii], Magsaysay award winner and the president of India’s National Slum Dwellers Federation.

Dharavi Inc and Concerns

Watch video: Dharavi Inc - NDTV

With the implementation of DRP, several cottage industries will shut down. The Khandares, owners of a leather processing unit have lived in Dharavi for generations. “In 1920 my grandfather came to Dharavi and built on this marshy land from scratch,” Madhukar Khandare[iii] says proudly.  Over four generations, the Khandares have seen Dharavi grow into the hub of export-quality leather- a Rs 3 crore ($7.5m) industry employing over 200,000 people.

“Development is very important as the living conditions are pathetic. But it is equally important to protect the industries,” says Khandare.

As we walk through Dharavi’s 90 feet road, named for obvious reasons, we meet Zainab Sheikh[iv] who invites us for tea and conversation. An offer we couldn’t pass. Zainab’s story is all about numbers. Her husband works in a recycling plant earning Rs 3000 ($750) a month while she earns half of that through odd tailoring jobs. Zainab’s family of eight lives in a 15x10 room. “The nearest municipal tap is 50 feet away and we need to stand in queue for two hours for water that is often contaminated,” she says.

Zainab estimates her room would sell for Rs 10-12 lakh ($25000-30000). “If we stay, we will get new homes, bigger ones,” she says. “But the workshops will all go. A home with water and electricity would mean higher maintenance costs but with no jobs, how will we pay the bills?”

The DRP wants all polluting and hazardous processes to go. And the recycling plants in Dharavi’s 13th compound are on the road to closure.

Abu Khalid Anjum[v], a bespectacled man in his late forties, is the owner of a plastic recycling plant and the chairman of Dharavi Business Welfare Association representing 20,000 warehouses. His position gives us easy access to many units, otherwise away from public scrutiny.

Running all along this labyrinthine are scavengers- mainly children bringing in the treasures found in municipal dumps. Piles of tin cans, plastic bags, computer parts, car batteries, oil cans are then segregated for recycling.

Sound of grinding, hammering, drilling echoes loudly on our way to Anjum’s unit where two men sort plastic waste into multicoloured bins. These will then get grinded and melted to be made into toys.

‘My imported machines emit no toxins,’ explains Anjum. “People think Dharavi is a dirty place. But if you stop recycling, entire Mumbai will become Dharavi,” he says.
Anjum continues, ‘Here old is recycled into new. Similarly Dharavi’s old homes and businesses will have to go and new ones come in its place. But how do we operate our business from the fifth floor?’ asks Anjum.

We move to Kumbharwada, the paradise of potters. Raju Chouhan[vi] shows us his workshop- a 3000 sq ft two storey structure with a brick oven in the backyard where red mud is made into clay. A rickety wooden ladder links the floors where men churn pots at breathtaking speed, and women paint designs on diyas (earthen candles) that are shipped to Europe and America.

“I need a 3000 sq ft workshop. How can I operate out of 225 sq ft? I can’t even fit my family of twelve in it,” argues Chouhan.

Smaller homes, sky high prices

A few kilometres away lies Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), one of Mumbai's gleaming business districts. Real estate prices in BKC are Rs. 40,000 a square foot, four times of Dharavi.

The DRP will release 7 crore square feet for construction of which the developers can sell at least 4 crore square feet in the open market. That's twice the size of Mumbai’s premier business districts Nariman Point and BKC together.

Mukesh Mehta[vii], the architect behind DRP says this will turn Dharavi- an encroached land- into a valuable resource. Residents will get a free 225 sq ft self contained tenement with township amenities like school, colleges, hospitals and parks. Employment will be generated through a special economic zone[6] having gems and jewellery, ceramic, and other industries.

On the demand for bigger homes, Mehta says, “A practical solution for residents with larger house would be for the government to give 225 sq ft for free and 50% to 70% additional area at discounted rate.”

But Raju Korde[viii] who leads the Dharavi Bachao Andolan from an office of the Communist Party of India (Marxists) says, “No slum dweller will be able to pay market rates for additional area.” Korde believes it is all a political game influenced by powerful builders. “The residents are poor victims caught in this political battle,” he says.

A reason to celebrate

On April 4, the Supreme Court allowed the state to extend the eligibility criteria to January 1, 2000 (from 1995). “The figure has gone up to 87,200 families from the initial 57,000 families” says Ravindra Adsure[ix], standing counsel for Maharashtra in the Supreme Court.

Also the government recently promised to review the resident’s biggest problem with DRP – Space. A proposal to extend the area from 225 sq ft studio flat to a bigger 275 sq ft apartment is in the pipeline.

But in India, democracy means that one has to take the staircase to economic development, not the elevator, as in China.

And as Jockin says, “A battle may have been won, but the war is far from over.”

[1] Bidding criteria excludes companies whose net worth is less than $700 mn and whose annual turnover in the past three years was under $600 mn. They must also have experience developing seven million square feet in at least one 100 acre township.

[2] Slum Rehabilitation Authority is the state’s special cell to look into redevelopment of slums. Its chairman is the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Vilasrao Deshmukh.
[3] Sources: UN Habitat, National Slum Dwellers Federation, Indian Government.
[4] SRA is the Project Implementation Agency for DRP. Its Executive officer on Special duty monitors all aspects related to project planning and implementation of DRP.
[5] Dharavi Bachao Andolan (Save Dharavi Movement) is a coalition of over 20 groups opposing the DRP.
[6] A special economic zone is proposed in Dharavi to increase the present contribution of Dharavi businesses/industries to the GDP of the nation. This SEZ will house gems and jewellery factories, leather industry, InfoTech and other non-polluting industries. This together will generate a turnover of approx Rs 7000 crore and employment opportunities for 150,000 people.

List of Interviews:
[i] Interview with Iqbal Singh Chahal, Officer on Special Duty, Slum Rehabilitation Authority for Dharavi Redevelopment Project at SRA office, Griha Nirman Bhavan, Bandra East, Mumbai.
[ii] Interview with Jockin Arputham, President, National Slum Dwellers Federation at NSDF office, Mahim, Mumbai
[iii] Interview with Madhukar Khandare, owner of leather processing unit, Apna Street in Dharavi
[iv] Interview with Zainab Sheikh, tailor, 90 Feet road, Dharavi
[v] Interview with Abu Khalid Anjum, Chairman, Dharavi Business Welfare Association, owner  of plastic recycling plant, 13th compound, Dharavi
[vi] Interview with Raju Chouhan, owner of pottery unit, Kumbharwada, Dharavi
[vii] Telephonic interview with Mukesh Mehta, architect and urban planner for Dharavi Redevelopment Project.
[viii] Interview with Raju Korde, leader of Communist Party of India (Marxists) and President, Dharavi Bachao Andolan (Save Dharavi Movement), Dharavi
[ix]  Telephonic Interview with Ravindra Adsure, standing counsel for Maharashtra state in the Supreme Court.