Gwadar: The Promise and Potential

I had last visited Gwadar in 1998. That was before the much heralded China Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC. Gwadar was considered strategically important even then but Government had till then taken no practical steps to benefit from it. Government of Pakistan had purchased Gwadar from the Sultanate of Oman on September 8, 1958 for 5.5 billion rupees, when Feroz Khan Noon was the prime minister. As a concession the Sultan of Oman was allowed to recruit local Baloch for his gendarme. The recruitment continues to date.

A lot has happened in the past ten years. A deep sea port has come up and Gwadar is now linked to Karachi through a two way coastal highway. Road journey of approximately 650 kilometres can take from 6 to 7 hours. There are two flights daily from Karachi. The flight time of the turbo prop ATR is 1 hour twenty minutes. Early morning flights can be delayed or cancelled due to fog. There was intense fog in the morning of 20th of February, while I was there. It cleared off at around 10 am. A five star Pearl Continental Hotel sits atop a hillock overlooking the port. A free industrial zone is coming up next to the port. The first phase of Gwadar port was inaugurated by Gen Musharraf in 2007. In June 2016 began construction on the $2 billion Gwadar Special Economic Zone, which is being modelled on the lines of the Special Economic Zones of China.

An expo was held a few weeks ago to highlight the investment potential in Gwadar.  The mega event was attended on the Government’s side by the prime minister and other high officials. The PC is fully booked to cover such events. There are plans to lay a railway line to link the port with Karachi and Quetta to move cargo either way. Gwadar being a deep sea port is the gateway to CPEC. With 57 billion dollar in Chinese investment CPEC is being touted as a game changer for Pakistan and a flagship project for the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to connect Europe with Asia. It has two components i.e. infrastructure development and energy production to overcome the yawning power deficit.  The credit for beginning the work on the port with Chinese help and the coastal highway goes to General Musharaf. After he was no longer in power the operations of the port were given to Singapore Port Authority who didn’t live up to the expectations. Now Gwadar is part of the CPEC that goes upto the Chinese province of Xingjian through the Khunjarab Pass on the Karakoram Highway. Thus reducing the 12900 kilometre sea journey to just 2000 km overland and cutting the two weeks of sea travel time to two. It is going to benefit Pakistan by creating Special Economic Zones (SEZ) along the routes and millions of jobs. The eastern route runs along M 8 (Gwadar-Turbat-Ratodero-Sukhur-DG Khan).  The port is fully equipped to handle containerised cargo handling but full shipping activity is still a few years away.

Until recently Gwadar was a small fishing village. The local economy is still dependent on fishing. A fish auction hall on the old jetty does thriving business. The fishermen build and operate wooden launches, which do not match international shipping standards. The signs of development are a host of low priced hotels and guesthouses and roadside cafes that do business till late into the night. The new two way corniche is a nice place for a stroll. A few kilometres away on the Koh-i-Batil picnickers watch the sun go down in beautiful rust colours in the Arabian Sea from the sunset point. A little short of the town is a bubbling sinkhole that turns into a geyser in summers. This little known place is known as Samandar ki Aankh or Eye of the Sea. The other driver of economy is smuggling. Launches are used to ferry illicit cargoes of liquor from Gulf countries and local smugglers bring in cheap diesel from Iran overland. To allow the locals to survive, the Government turns a blind eye to low level diesel smuggling at the individual level but cracks down on liquor and narcotics trade. The bazar are lined with shops selling Iranian fuel. The standard rates are about twenty rupees less than the Pakistani price. Absence of filters can leave sediments in the fuel tanks and block the carburettors. A lot of investment is being made by non-local Pakistanis in buying and selling land. The government sponsored Sangar housing society is a favourite land deal destination. In the market one finds a lot of offices doing business in real estate. Although lots of new development is visible as the city sprawls northwards, development activity is sluggish because of an extreme paucity of water. Natural gas connections are also rare and most of the cooking is done on LPG. Many locals have benefited from this boom in real estate and have moved on to Karachi with their moneybags.

The security situation is stable but that is because of a very heavy presence of the military. Besides the Coast Guards and Frontier Corps Balochistan, a full-fledged infantry brigade that is part of the CPEC Security Division is now based in Gwadar. Pakistan navy ships guard the entry to the port and the Maritime Security Agency patrol the coastal waters to prevent smuggling from the Sea. The local Makranis are considered to be peaceful and the cadres of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Resistance Army (BRA) are said to have been driven out. They’ve gone inland into the mountains and their activity is now mainly in Turbat, Mand and Kech. These armed secessionists are said to be no more than a few hundreds  and most of the time, they try to cause panic by posting ‘fake’ news of terrorist activities on their websites and Facebook pages.

The Army has taken over the operations of the local civil hospital. There is also a Chinese hospital in the vicinity of the port, where Chinese labour force can also be seen but mostly they are confined to the port dues to security reasons.

There is an acute shortage of water in Gwadar and the dams in the vicinity of the city are drying up due to shortage of rains. Water is sometimes purchased from Iran. Summers can be hot and power outages frequent. A few years a cyclone had struck the city.

Chah Bahar the Iranian port is about 90 kilometres away. The Iranian government has recently leased the first phase of the port known as Shahid Bhesti on a 15 month lease for 85 million dollars to the Indians. Indians have used Chah Bahar as the launching pad for fifth columnists like Kulbhushan Jhadev. This nefarious activity notwithstanding, Iran will benefit if the two ports are connected through rail and road.

Gwadar has the potential to be modern day El Dorado, if its true potential is allowed to flourish. This will require courage, patience and vision.

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Pitfalls of the Social Media

There are always two sides of the coin. This is particularly true for technology. There are obvious uses and utilities of the social media. It has to a very large extent empowered the ordinary folks to send their messages across to a very large audience. This liberty in some cases is being used to spread hatred and disinformation.

I have been added by friends, relatives and colleagues to become a member of a number of Whatsapp groups. I thought these sites would provide like minded people to catch up on news about each other and be a support system, when one was down in the dumps or needed genuine help or sincere advice. Unfortunately this is not the case. Most of these places spread negativity at a lightning speed. The rumor mills works effortlessly to spread false information, once a message becomes viral on social media. Many if not most of these messages spread baseless and useless information through unwitting accomplices. The purpose of these messages is mostly to spread hatred and disharmony. Packaged in a subtle and convincing manner, these appeal to political, sectarian and moral senses to those on the social media. When these messages strike the sympathetic chord, sensible people do not even take a nanosecond to pass on second hand information without verifying the veracity or source of these messages. Most of this recycled information has been planted in the first instance with sinister motives and apparently sensible people become part of these campaigns.

I’ve tried my best to leave some of these groups but caring and sometimes concerned friends have very sympathetically added me right back thinking that I had accidentally left and did not do so on purpose. To be frank, I do not have the gumption to tell them real reason for my departure. In a final act of surrender I’ve become a silent spectator of the goings on in the morbid spaces of social media.  The most I do now is to clear chat, as soon as I find the thread become too large for the memory of my smartphone.

The Government in power is afraid of the propaganda launched on the social media to expose its wrongdoings. In desperation it threatens to prosecute those behind these campaigns under the Prevention of Cyber Crimes Act of 2015. Cyber rights activists have crusaded against the indiscriminate application of these laws and have been to a large extent been able to win some important concessions. Threats of incarceration hasn’t stopped trolling or harassment in cyberspace.

There is a need to sensitize the users of the social media to act as responsible citizens in cyberspace. The state, the people’s representatives. Opinion-makers, the clergy, the role models, teachers and parents all have a role to play. Everyone is a stakeholder. Sometimes the messages being uploaded are striking against the very vitals of the state and our family values and ethics. Rules of the game have to be defined and all concerned must be asked to abide by these. Group admins should not moderate the conversation and under no circumstances be allowed unsubstantiated information to be uploaded on groups that they’re managing.  If they are not careful in their responsibility they’re party to the crime and last but not least they should learn not to add anyone without his or her consent.

We need to act before it is too late!

 


Bank Accounts for Afghan Refugees

Sher Khan (not his real name) is an Afghan, who was born in Pakistan and has known no other country. He is in his late twenties and already has three children. These children are technically Afghans but like their father have never known any other country but Pakistan – the adopted homeland of their grandparents. Sher Khan is an honest and hardworking man and performs his job as a watchman with vigilance and rare commitment. I have found him to be thoroughly dependable and better than those holding genuine Pakistani CNICs. I want to keep him for the long term and would like to deposit his pay check directly into his bank account on a monthly basis. The online payment is hassle free and can save me a lot of botheration. I can’t do it because banks have very strict instructions about not opening accounts for aliens without proper documentation. Sher is registered with NADRA as a refugee and has an alien card. The card expired last year and the renewal is pending because Government is yet to decide how long they would be letting Afghans stay in Pakistan. As per instructions received by the local banks, an Afghan residing in Pakistan should have an Afghan passport and work visa to open an account. Even this is problematic because the account holder has to frequently get the visa renewed to let his account remain valid. A bank account is a good way of keeping track of a monetary trail and brings the grey economy into the fold of the mainstream. Not allowing the Afghans to open a bank account is to encourage them to make financial transactions outside the tax net. This by extension denies the authorities to check the money trail and prevent it being used in any illicit activity. In my opinion the approach of excluding the Afghans from opening bank accounts is extremely counterproductive. They should be allowed to open bank accounts and be made part of the normal economic activity. Most Afghan refugees, like most Pakistanis are honest, hardworking and decent people. They should be integrated and not segregated. Most of us are apprehensive about the perceived harsh immigration policies that become part of the Donald Trump Presidency. The why should we be adopting patently bad policies to marginalize and antagonize Afghan refugees. These people have been in Pakistan for a number of generations now and therefore we must be careful in crafting our Afghan refugee policies. Better sense and prudence should be our leitmotif.


Wollaton Park – the Manor of the Dark Knight

Nottingham is known for Robin Hood and his band of merry men, who lived in the Sherwood Forest and robbed the rich to pay the poor. No one knows if he was a real person or a fictional character but Nottingham proudly uses him as a brand name. Legend has it that he was a heroic outlaw in English folklore, who was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. Traditionally depicted as being dressed in Lincoln green, Robin Hood became a popular folk figure in the late-medieval period, and continues to be widely represented in literature, films and television.  References to Robin Hood are found in the ballads of the fourteenth century.

Another character made Nottingham his abode in the twenty first century. In 2011, key scenes from the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises were filmed in Wollaton Park. Wollaton Hall was featured as the latest Wayne Manor. Movie was released in 2012. The location was well chosen by Christopher Nolan for the final instalment of his Batman film trilogy, and the sequel to Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). The film grossed over $1 billion worldwide at the box office, making it the second film in the Batman film series to earn $1 billion. It is currently the 16th highest grossing film of all time, the third-highest-grossing film of 2012, and the fourth-highest-grossing superhero film of all time.

Wollaton Park is actually a deer park and home of Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Natural History Museum and Nottingham Industrial Museum in the heart of Nottingham. The Park is enclosed by a red brick wall at the start of the nineteenth century. Originally spread 790 acres (3.2 km2), land sales have reduced the park to 500 acres (2.0 km2). The park is home to a herd of red deer and fallow deer. At most times you can see them sitting in front of the Hall. You can go quite near without offending them. Other wildlife of note at the park includes a large corvid roost made up of rook, jackdaw, and carrion crow. Other notable species present at the site are populations of jay, nuthatch and sparrow hawk. Migrating wildfowl grace the lake in the winter and species of note include gadwall, northern shoveller, Eurasian wigeon and tufted duck. There is a good diversity of fungi present, especially in the winter months, mainly found near the wooded areas and the lake. A walk around the lake is most enjoyable.

In this park, during World War II American troops of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, were billeted here, waiting to be parachuted into Europe, which they did in June 1944. A small plaque commemorates this event.  Subsequently German prisoners of war were billeted here for employment in the locality between 1945 and 1947.

Wollaton Park is often used for events such as cross country races and music festivals. The park is often visited by physical fitness buffs and I saw a military style boot camp in progress, while I was there.


What if the West had lost Cold War?

Berlin has the distinction of being the final battleground of two wars – the Second World War and the Cold War. National Socialism was defeated here in 1945 and communism in 1989. The Berlin Wall has been torn down and the only vestige of the terrible barrier that separated the two German nations is a symbolic line of stones etched on the floor of Berlin. It is discernible at a number of places and is quite visible if you visit Berlin’s iconic landmark, the Brandenberger Tor. As a visitor to reunified Berlin, I often wonder what if the West had lost the Cold War.  Whenever I wonder aloud, I’m told quite authoritatively that it wouldn’t have been possible. The reasons that are quoted are as follows: The communist system was too controlled. People were oppressed and wanted freedom. The capitalist system despite its flaws gives people more choices and a way of life according to one’s own liking. True, but what if the West had lost and the communists would have won? The counter narrative is missing because history is often written by the victors. I was particularly moved, when I saw two monuments each celebrating a different memory, one in Berlin and the other in Budapest. The memorial to the fallen Soviet soldiers of World War II at Treptower in Berlin is massive and is spread over acres of land. It is embellished by statutes and stones carrying patriotic slogans. The memorial to the fallen Hungarian patriots of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet intervention is smaller and is restricted to a house called the House of Terror in Budapest.

The Soviet War Memorial and military cemetery in Berlin’s Treptower Park commemorates 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April–May 1945. It was opened on May 8, 1949 and served as the central war memorial of East Germany. Three more Soviet memorials were built in Berlin. One in the Tiergarten memorial became part of West Berlin and the other is in Schönholzer Heide. The focus of the Treptower ensemble is a 12-m tall statue of a Soviet soldier with a sword holding a German child, standing over a broken swastika. It marks the deeds of Sergeant of Guards Nikolai Masalov, who during the final storming of the center of Berlin risked his life under heavy machine-gun fire to rescue a three-year-old German girl whose mother had apparently disappeared.

Before the monument is a central area lined on both sides by 16 stone sarcophagi, one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics with relief carvings of military scenes and quotations from Joseph Stalin, on one side in Russian, on the other side the same text in German: “Now all recognize that the Soviet people with their selfless fight saved the civilization of Europe from fascist thugs. This was a great achievement of the Soviet people to the history of mankind.” At the opposite end of the central area from the statue is a portal consisting of a pair of stylized Soviet flags built of red granite. These are flanked by two statues of kneeling soldiers. Beyond the flag monuments is a further sculpture, along the axis formed by the soldier monument, the main area, and the flags, is another figure, of the Motherland weeping at the loss of her sons. As a poignant reminder of their heroic deeds of their countrymen, the Russian citizens of Berlin still come to lay flowers and burn candles at the main sarcophagus and offer a silent prayer and wonder if the course of history would have been different.

House of Terror museum located at Andrássy út 60 in Budapest, Hungary contains exhibits related to in 20th century history of the country under the communist regimes. It also serves a memorial to those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. Built after the collapse of the Soviet Union and opening up of Eastern Europe to capitalist ideology it is meant to castigate communism and fascism and contains material on the nation’s relationships to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On the roadside is a display of the fallen heroes of the 23 October 1956 uprising against the Russian intervention. Imre Nagy, the country’s prime minister’s defiant address in the face of the Soviet takeover is emblazoned in bold letters. The exhibit inside is related to Hungarian organisations such as the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist ÁVH (which was similar to the Soviet Union KGB secret police). Part of the exhibition takes visitors to the basement, where they can see examples of the torture chambers. There are of course critics to this exhibition, historians, journalists, and political scientists, who argue that the museum revolves plays too much upon the victim-hood of Hungary under foreign occupation and ignores the contribution of the Hungarians themselves towards the perpetuation of the communist rule.

For someone growing up in the Cold War era and experiencing it first-hand these memorials serve as important reference point and reinforce the question, what if the West had lost the Cold War?

 

 

 

 


Pakistani Street Vendors on Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin is a very happening place. On a warm summer day it is thronged by dozens of tourists out to enjoy the square abuzz with a lot of bohemian music and art activity. Artists with chalk or coal are drawing masterpieces that may last only so long as the next rain or cleaning up by the municipal authorities. Budding musicians are playing conventional instruments or just creating music by banging at pots and pans. Punks with needles piercing their lips and nose and hair garishly colored laze around, while lovers cling to each other in varying degrees of passion. Shirtless men with tattoos and pet dogs on the leash have cardboard signs declaring that they are shelterless and would you please kindly spare a penny, so that they can no doubt meet their quota of booze. Kiosks sell ice cream, while men carrying trays around their waist do brisk business selling cheaply priced wurst. Among this riot of color, song and music, you can see vendors selling peak caps, leather tank men caps, fur hats and gas masks belonging to the Soviet and East German armies. The newness of the caps is a fair indicator that these are not relics of a bygone era but newly made to attract the fancy of the tourist or the curious collector. By their appearance, the men selling the trinkets of the communist era seem to be from South Asian descent.

I walk up to one of them to find who he is. Ali can be between somewhere between mid-thirties to early forties. He is dressed smartly and is wearing sandals. We make small talk. How is business doing? Not bad given that there is an economic crisis. He can’t really complain and can make upto a thousand euros but then how much is enough? He wonders philosophically. He has been in the business for the past 5 years. Previously the Germans would buy stuff from him but now it is mostly tourists looking for souvenirs or students wanting a fancy headgear for a party. On a good day he can sell upto ten caps and knows how to get their price worth. He is from Mundi Bahauddin in the Punjab and so are all the other ‘colleagues’ of his on the square. They come from Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and even one from Bhai Phero. He has been in Germany for seven years. He is married to a cousin, who has been in Germany before. One can only make out that he got his legal status by marrying her. He has children and they visit Pakistan every year. You can’t say anything to the children in this country because they can call the police and they can take them away and put them in the custody of the government. This is not his only grouse. People in Germany consider Pakistan very poorly. They even rank them below the Afghans. What a shame, after all we brought the Berlin Wall down. This place that is humming with activity wouldn’t have been there, if it hadn’t been for us. Our leaders are bad. They cannot stand up for their people and make a case for them. The Afghans are also an ungrateful lot. We did so much for them and now they speak ill of us. Isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle? Yes, the Germans are very hardworking people. They are very well organized. They can do their work quickly. They only keep the minimum staff to get their work done. They work for five days and for the remaining two days they party. But you work seven days? Our case is different, he says with a twinkle in his eyes. Of course you can take a photograph of my caps but please keep me out of the frame. Would I like a cup of coffee? No thanks I say. He smiles broadly and I move on wishing him and my other countrymen working on Alexanderplatz well.

 


Why there will be no coup in Pakistan?

We have just witnessed high drama in Turkey. A segment of the military tried to briefly takeover the government but failed to do so. The elected government asked the people to come out on the streets in their favor and the rebellious soldiers fled in the face of street power that they hadn’t reckoned with. Pakistan and Turkey have a common history of coups. In both countries the military considers itself the custodian of the nation’s physical and ideological borders. In both countries the military has the licence to give a course correction, whenever it is felt that the system is going awry. This right – a constitutional one in case of Turkey and legal one under the doctrine of necessity in Pakistan – has produced long periods of military rule. Turkey has been free of martial laws since the end of 1980s, while Pakistan saw off its last military ruler in 2008. Counting out the recent attempt to disrupt democracy, Turkey has made considerable progress as a stable democracy. In Pakistan democratic traditions are still fragile, there is a skewered civil-military relations and each instance of political turbulence makes the rumor mill run amok predicting that a military putsch is around the corner.

I am no sage but in my opinion there is no imminent possibility of any political coup taking place in Pakistan like Turkey. The reason is quite simple. The Army in Pakistan is strong and doesn’t need to remove a weak and pliant civilian government. From experience it has learnt that it is better to pull the strings from behind the curtains instead of being in the front and be cursed by the common man for his daily miseries like power outages and corruption. Each military dictator had to relinquish power in face of popular unrest after having failed to resolve the country’s multifarious problems. After the return to civil rule it has been fairly smooth sailing for the military. The previous civilian government simply did not interfere in their affairs and gave the powerful army chief and the intelligent head extensions in their tenures of service to keep them happy and out of their hair. The present government lost its political clout when it was jolted by street power demonstrations in 2014. Thereafter it ceded so much space that it simply could not recover. Army occupied the vacuum created and the civilian government just did their bidding. The Army chief became extremely popular and the prime minister plagued by financial scandals just took a long leave of absence on medical grounds and nobody missed him for more than a month.

In Turkey as well in Egypt military coups were launched after extensive foreign propaganda against the elected government. In Egypt the government of Muhammad Morsi was kicked out after merely a year in power because his Islamic credentials and method of governance became repugnant for the people and world at large. The Egyptian military gladly rebounded and resumed from where the previous military strong man Hosni Mubarak had left. In case of Turkey, President Erdogan was also becoming increasingly autocratic and there were reports in the international media condemning him for his strong arm tactics against his political opponents. There are also allegations of foreign sponsorship of the coup makers by the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gülen. In case of Pakistan there is a lot of domestic bad press against the current political leadership but neither the international media is hostile nor are there any known foreign sponsors. At most international leadership is dismissive about the present prime minister but there is no suggestion or encouragement of military interference.

So why should the Army to interfere with a political government that hardly poses a threat to it and creates no problems in its working? In any case it has its hands full with Operation Zarb-i-Azab launched over two years ago to root out terrorism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The present Army chief wants to leave behind the successful completion of this counter insurgency campaign as his legacy.  Seen from this perspective, the civilian rule under the watchful gaze of the military is likely to continue in the foreseeable future without recourse to martial law.