Friday, November 09, 2018

Herat - City of Spires and Pines




Ancient cities have a life of their own. We read stories about them and build a certain picture in our imagination. Ground realities however turn out to be something else.

Herat is no different. To a visitor coming from Kabul it gives you a glimpse of what cities in Afghanistan could be. Relaxed, dignified, and aware of its own stature and place in history at the crossroads of civilizations.

This was once a city of fire-worshipping Zoroastrians, an area famous for its great wines until the Arabs took over after 650AD. Here ruled the Macedonians led by Alexander, the Turks, Chinese, Mongols and, of course, the Persians. It was also one of the few cities of the Islamic world to be ruled for an extended period by a woman- Queen Gawhershad - remembered today as the builder of the grand towers of the Musalla Complex.

In present day Herat, the first thing that struck me is the pine trees. Almost all the roads are lined with towering old pines. Having seen these trees only above the "pine-line" in the Himlayas, I always thought they needed steep slopes to grow big and strong, so it was bit surprising to see them all lined up in a city that was as flat as a chappati

Unlike Kabul which is sectioned by 2000m high 'hills', and urban settlements that have grown along a meandering river, Herat has a clear grid-like layout. A straight road brings you from the airport, right into the city centre. The security footprint here is more subtle - fewer warplanes in the airport, hardly any buildings barricaded  with T-walls and barbed wire. There are no military blimps watching you from the skies or  helicopters constantly buzzing overhead, rattling the window-panes.

The streets and markets are bustling with men and women. Fruits seem larger, jucier and more colorful; the saboos naan a lot tastier; streets are less cluttered and far less dustier, the air crisp and clean. Children crowd around street vendors; strange looking, colorful three-wheelers fashioned out of motorcycles trundle on the streets, looking as though they are going to take off any minute into the skies.


And yet you are constantly reminded that this city is not peaceful as it looks. Violence and robbery on the streets is not rare. A colleague was recently coming out of a restaurant, chatting on his mobile when a car stopped in front of him. He thought the driver needed directions, until he saw a pistol aimed at his head. Within seconds, his mobile was snatched, his purse taken out of his pocket and car was gone.

Things may not be what they seem, but I would like to think that the people of Herat hold one of the keys to peace and prosperity in this war-torn country.


Friday, November 02, 2018

Hindukush Mountains


"When we were children we used to play here and drink water straight from the river - it was so clean!"

The best years of Kabul are often described in past-tense. People talk of the glory days of the kings, of a city that was once a hub of trade and commerce across Asia, of dogged resistance to 'foreign invaders' who could never ever conquer Afghanistan..

The elderly in Kabul have happy memories of the city in the 1950s - those wonderful days when water was clean, when the country was peaceful and winters were what they ought to be - freezing cold. It is amazing to think that this country, proud its aversion to foreign invaders, was also the home of invaders who left an indelible mark on the history of Northern India.

Driven by the zeal of a new religion, Mahmud of Gazni was the first plunderer to make a career out of invading infidels in India. He systematically raided and plundered kingdoms in east of the Indus river to west of Yamuna river, no less than seventeen times between CE 997 and 1030. After a brief pause of two centuries, another ruler emerged from Ghor, nested in the Hindukush mountains. The Ghurid empire led by Mu'izz al-Din was influential in creating the Delhi Sultanate.

Then came Timur-the-lame and his army as they crossed the Hindkush range, to launch the 1398 invasion of northern Indian subcontinent, plundering and killing all the way. Such was the number of slaves who were forced to cross the freezing cold of the Afghan mountains that Ibn Battutta refers to them as the "Killer of Hindus", or Hindukush.



Inspired by stories of Timur, one of his descendants, Zahir-ud-din Mohammed - aka Babur ('tiger') - decided to follow suit. As a young man of 21 years, he had taken control of Kabul in 1504. Having failed time and again to regain control over the Ferghana Valley, he turned his attention south-eastwards. In 1526, he made his move into north India, won the Battle of Panipat, ending the last Delhi Sultanate dynasty, and starting the era of the Mughals.

The slave trading operations continued during the Delhi Sultanate and through the Mughal era. It became a standard practicee to send thousands of slaves every year to Central Asia to pay for horses and other goods.

Looking at the condition of Afghanistan today you wonder... all those centuries of plunder and slave-trading: Where has all the wealth gone? 


Friday, October 19, 2018

Afghanistan - An Election of Independents


Tomorrow is Election Day in Afghanistan. 

This is going to be the culmination of a long process of institution building in one of the most trying circumstances. It has a process that has also seen the creation of an independent election commission to oversee a process to bring in 249 representatives from 34 provinces to the Lower House of the Afghan Parliament.

Last week when I landed at Kabul the city presented a familiar, festive sight - colorful stickers, posters, placards and banners filled every possible public space. Posters carried its own logos and numbers, and it took me a while to realise that most of the prospective Members of Parliament were competing as independent candidates. 

According to a WaPo report, there are 2,565 candidates vying for 249 seats, including 417 women candidates. The IEC aims to set up more than 19,000 polling stations in 33 provinces. Out of Afghanistan's estimated total population of 30 million, 8.8 million people have registered to vote. Kabul city alone has more thans 800 candidates competing for 33 seats! 
An overview from AFP

Unlike in India, the system here is that of a single non-transferable vote valid in one constituency. Each voter casts just one vote for one candidate in a multi-candidate race. Posts are filled by the candidates with the most votes, and so in this case, candiates who get the maximum number of votes get to become MPs. 

Voters in cities like Kabul would be extra careful tomorrow - they would have to sift through a ballot 'paper' that looks more like a newspaper centrespread, and choose one candidate out of hundreds.

While most of the posters feature men in sharp suits or in traditional attire, it is interesting to note that there are a significant number of women candidates in the fray. This is not surprising given the fact that the Afghan constitution guarantees 68 seats - or 27% of the total - for women MPs, regardless of their vote share.

A lot of hopes and aspirations are hinged on this elections process, and everybody hopes that it passes off peacefully.



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LINKS & REFERENCES

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan- http://www.iec.org.af/

Report by Washington Post - https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/a-look-at-afghanistans-parliamentary-elections-on-saturday/2018/10/19/354e4b0c-d367-11e8-a4db-184311d27129_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ff58f1765639

BBC - https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45836521

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/the-taliban-has-vowed-to-disrupt-the-afghan-elections-candidates-are-out-in-force-anyway/2018/10/16/d57bf1a4-ccf7-11e8-ad0a-0e01efba3cc1_story.html?utm_term=.9e059fd98606

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Apostille of Fake Degrees



Last week I signed up for a UN assignment in Afghanistan. It was the culmination of a long drawn out selection process - online applications, verification of credentials and interviews. I need to be in Kabul for two months for the independent evaluation of an FAO project.

Having visited, worked and stayed in a few countries over the past 23 years, I thought I was familiar with the formalities involved in international travel. In this case, instructions from FAO were quite clear: "Approach Embassy with all relevant documents - Passport, photographs, degree certificate photocopy and original , signed contract document, MOFA reference number. Ticket is not necessary for visa".  

At the Afghan Embassy visa counter however, the officer flipped through my documents and asked me a question that left me quite stunned. "How do we know", she asked with genuine concern, "That your degree certificates are not fake?"

I tried telling her that, in the first place, I would not be selected by the UN for an assignment if I had fake degrees. I had two Master's degrees - the first from IRMA and the other from Tsukuba University, Japan. Both could easily be verified online on the official alumni pages. Also, I had got the second degree on a full scholarship from the World Bank - a fact that could be easily verified on a Google search since my entire Master's thesis was available online. 

The visa officer was unmoved. "Rules are rules", she insisted, "If your highest degree is from Japan, it has to be endorsed by the Japanese Embassy in India. All Indian degrees have to be verified by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)". She also added helpfully that applicants got it done at Patiala Courts where extra fees was charged for 'fast service'.

One of the lessons I had learnt is that there is no point arguing with with a Visa Officer. I walked out of the Afghan Embassy, crossed the road, and checked at the Embassy of Japan. They did not have any facility for "endorsing" certificates from Japanese universities. All they could do was to check with their registry and give me a letter saying that the university seal was genuine. This process would take at least three working days, and cost Rs. 2300. 

What next? I had no idea that MEA had anything to do with certification of education documents. Outside the Japanese Embassy, I set my files on a concrete blast-barrier and googled "India MEA education certificate endorsement". I got this page and learnt a new word: apostille.

It was a two-step procedure. First, the degree certificate had to be endorsed by a state government authority, and under Step-2 "MEA legalises the documents on the basis of the signature of the designated...authorities. Hence it does not take responsibility of the contents of the documents". MEA charged Rs.50 per document for this service. As expected, there was no mention of the time-frame involved.

Strapped for time, I now headed towards Patiala House Courts Complex, into the den of brokers, middlemen and lawyers dressed in 50 shades of black. In one of the many hole-in-the-wall offices, I presented by predicament to one of the broker-lawyers.  He feigned deep concern, quickly gauged my desperation level, and quoted his fees: Rs. 3000. 

So, for a government service worth Rs.50, I had to shell out Rs. 3000. Within this margin lies the thriving new economy of the apostilles. An education certificate from IRMA, an automomous education institution in Gujarat, is endorsed by a Sub-Divisional Magistrate in another state, Delhi, who proclaims it as genuine. Based on this, MEA legalises it 'without taking any responsibility of the contents of the documents'.



Come to think of it, this is a racket no different from that of the Public Notaries who blindly attest any document with a Government of India seal. The only difference is that you get a fancy sticker with a flurry of seals and signatures behind an education certificate.

Why would any Embassy encourage this kind of daylight robbery? Is this merely the game of passing-the-buck between bureaucrats of different countries?  A friend who has worked in Afghanistan for over a decade said this rule was introduced in 2013 to avoid fake people with fake degrees from getting posh jobs in Afghanistan. It seems there are many such guys already in the country.  Also, it seems Afghan nationals too have been using fake certificates to enter the job market. He also added that brokers charged anything from Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 for a one-day service.

The latter was confirmed by a lawyer at Patiala Courts. There are thousands of Afghans studying in India, and it seems their government does not accept any education certificate from India unless it is attested by by MEA and the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD)! 

No wonder the brokers at Patiala Courts are laughing all the way to the bank.

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REFERENCES & LINKS



* Afghan Embassy - Visa Rules - http://newdelhi.mfa.af/consular-services-4/visa/visa-information-indians/working-entry-visa-wev

* MEA, India - Procedure for Attestation of Education Degrees - https://www.mea.gov.in/apostille.htm

Apostille Convention - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostille_Convention

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Oil Wars




It takes humor to make truth palatable.

What is it that actually triggered the first World War? What lies behind USAs grand plans to "bring Democracy to the Middle East"?

Robert Newman uses the stand-up comedian's routine to teach us a thing or two about history and realpolitik.

Clearly worth 45 minutes of your time.

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Books Mentioned:

* Knight, Ian (1999): MARCHING TO THE DRUMS - https://www.amazon.com/Marching-Drums-Eyewitness-Accounts-Massacre/dp/1853673722

* Heinberg, Richard (): THE PARTY'S OVER - Oi, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies - https://www.amazon.com/Partys-Over-Fate-Industrial-Societies/dp/0865715297

* Brow, Lester (): WHO WILL FEED CHINA? -- https://www.amazon.com/Who-Will-Feed-China-Environmental/dp/039331409X

Friday, September 07, 2018

ERR_INTERNET_DISCONNECTED

Sitting in our metro cities it is difficult to imagine a world of alternate realities. The internet and our access to it, is perhaps one such world. One where screens suddenly blank out and you end up with a digi-dinosaur hopping over cactus.

At a panel discussion organised by the Indian Express yesterday, a group of experts sat on the stage to discuss what seemed like a rather vague and tenuous topic - "Is Internet Shutdown a New Order for Law and Order"? The fact that this event - IE Thinc - was sponsored by Facebook made me all the more skeptical about its relevance. 

The panel had an interesting mix:  a young bureaucrat responsible for an internet shutdown at Ranchi; a representative from the Intenet Freedom Foundation, one from the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), and an economist. Except for the last one, who seemed long winded and disconnected like most economists, the other three made sense. 

I was surprised to know that the Government of India is very secretive about sharing data on internet shutdowns. Data accessed from other sources (mainly UN) indicate that there have been at least 254 shutdowns in 19 states during the period 2012-2018. 

While the initial intent of many had been to prevent riots and loss of lives from the the rumours spread on Facebook, Whatsapp etc., internet shutdowns were now being implemented for reasons that could only be described as flippant and irresponsible. In the most recent case, in Udaipur, Rajasthan, the internet was shut down for a few days to prevent cheating in a government recruitment exam!

Considering how internet shutdowns affected the lives of millions of citizens - loss of business, access to basic services, education, payments and so on - what was the legal basis for such disruptions? Here are some of the laws/rules enumerated:

  • Article 19(2) - places "Reasonable restrictions" on freedom
  • Section 144 CPC - "Unlawful Assembly" -- used against freedom fighters during freedom struggle to confiscate Gandhi Caps, now used to shut down the net.
  • Rules for Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services, 2017 -- just requires an SP+ officer to issue order
  • Section 95 CPC - banning of books
  • Section 6.2 of Telegraph Act - used for phone/network tapping

I am glad I decided to attend this event. If not anything else, it was a sobering reminder that it takes very little to turn the smartphone in our hands into a useless lump of plastic and metal.

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LINKS:

- Rules for suspension of telecom services, 2017 - http://www.dot.gov.in/circulars/temporary-suspension-telecom-services-public-emergency-or-public-safety-rules-2017
- Internet Freedom Foundation - https://internetfreedom.in/
- Report on IE event -7 Sept., 2018 - https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/iethinc-debates-implications-of-internet-shutdowns/1305181/

Saturday, August 25, 2018

On Electoral Constituencies

"What are electoral constituencies?", asked my daughter today.

She had in her hand a copy of the Class IX Social Sciences textbook and seemed completely lost. The whole country seemed to be divided into consituencies - panchayat, assembly, Lok Sabha - and the term seemed to have overlapping meanings.

Overlap was the right word, I explained to her. We fished out a map from the net that showed all the 543 Lok Sabha parliamentary constituencies and 4120 state assembly constituencies, and then correlated it to the color-coded assembly constituencies. Each colored patch on the map showed that it had sent one member of parliament to the Lower House and each of them also sent 4-10 MLAs to the respective state assemblies.

Her cousins in Changanassery and Tiruvalla belonged to two separate parliamentary constituencies -  Mavelikkara and Pathanamthitta respectively - but the same electoral units also elected seven MLA each to the Kerala State assembly. Maps from ElectionsInIndia were particularly useful in getting the concept across.

543 Parliamentary Costituencies in India (Image source - Wikipedia Commons)

20 LS constituencies in Kerala (Image: ElectionsInIndia)


This discussion reminded me of an interaction, a few years ago, with a rather notorious MP from northern India. I was working as the Outreach Coordinator to Members of Parliament at the Centre for Policy Research , and had found myself at the home of this MP, responding to his request for inputs on the Nuclear Liability Bill.

This MPs' claim to fame was that he had one of the highest number of charge-sheeted cases in his name. In other words, he was one of the prominent thugs who had deftly gamed the electoral process, had muscled his way into the parliament. For a imposing figure with a piercing stare and an intimidating mien, he had turned out to be surprisingly sharp and genial. He already knew the Nuclear Liability Bill inside out and just wanted to sharpen his arguments with facts and figures, over a table laid out with tea and biscuits.

After our discussion he wanted to know where I was from, and the answer, 'Kerala', led him to his say something interesting. "Not many people understand", he said staring out of the window, "the pressures on an MP. People like me represent more than 3 million citizens, most of whom are illiterate, poor and volatile...It is only when I am seen participating in parliamentary debates that they feel I doing something useful".

The MP had a point. In the age of live TV and Social Media it is not easy to balance the local, ground-level expectations of those who elect you to power, with the broader, national-level perspective you are supposed to have while sitting in the parliament.

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LINKS

The Election Commission of India - http://eci.nic.in/eci/eci.html

Elections in India - https://www.electionsinindia.com/

Map showing all 543 parliamentary constituencies - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Lok_Sabha_constituencies_of_India.png