Pakistan now at the mercy of the IMF/WB

The loans that are being offered to Pakistan by the IMF and World Bank (as well as those on offer from individual nations) are going to compound the problems for the country.

First of all, the country is already massively in debt, some 40 to 45 billion dollars by most estimates, with 12 billion of that coming in just the last two years.  Now with the flooding and the enormous costs that the nation’s reconstruction will requires, the prospects for getting out from under that debt seem remote.

Second, the IMF and World Bank have gotten pretty ruthless (even if they are right) in critiquing the Pakistani establishment’s overreliance on foreign loans to keep the country afloat.  The problem is that the solutions that the IMF and World Bank want to impose (the VAT for instance) would target poorer Pakistanis over the elite and let the crooks in Pakistan off the hook.  Already the poor in the country have been hit pretty hard by the flooding; this will only make things worse.  (Incidentally, the rulers of Pakistan have more or less been hand picked by the global elite — so their complaints now ring more than a little hollow).  Tariq Ali gave a good account of the problems with the arguments that the IMF and World Bank are putting forward on Democracy Now.

Add to that, the problems with the flooding are getting worse, not better.  100,000 more people were displaced when Manchur lake in Sindh overflowed.  In some places, the water still hasn’t receded — this is, in part, because the floodwaters are now in the flat, agricultural parts of the country and they have no natural way of moving out.

Luckily, the Pakistani left is organizing and fighting back.  This video is from a rally that happened a few days ago — explicitly connecting the problems of the country with capitalism and international finance institutions.

Literary sexism in Hindi circles

I was struck by a piece by Anindita Sengupta that I read quite by accident today.  (Digression: There are so many things that my RSS feed aggregates together that I’m always surprised I notice the things that I do).  It is a well-composed response to a rather glib article by Gaurav Jain at Tehelka (who argues ridiculously that women should stop being offended at terms for sexual promiscuity; there’s actually a pretty smart response from a reader at Tehelka: “Going by Jain’s logic, we might as well tell Dalits not to complain about casteist remarks because they should not let the casteist person define their self-esteem”).

I found this bit of Sengupta’s rebuttal elegant:

But specific words are less significant than the attitudes they reflect. Rai’s tone is misogynistic, regressive and censoring, his contention that women must not write about the body so much is patronising and prescriptive. This can hardly be ignored considering his office.

The issue is reflective of a larger problem in the literary world, one that goes to the heart of what it means to be a woman writer – what little freedom one is allowed, and the silences which must be observed. It is cause for serious thought and, in this case, hopefully some action.

The whole row about the term “chhinal” (“adulteress” or “whore”, depending on context, in Hindi/Urdu) was sparked by a comment by Vibhuti Narain Rai, vice-chancellor at Mahatma Gandhi International Hindu University, who said in an interview to Naya Gyanodyay (one of the more prestigious literary magazines run by the Bharatiya Jnanpith) “Lekhikaon men hod lagi hai yeh sabit karne ki unse badi chhinal koi nahi hai” (roughly: there’s a contest among women writers [in Hindi] to prove that none is a bigger slut than she is).  Rai was being interviewed about the entries in this years competition for the Jnanpith (one of India’s most prestigious literary prizes) and he apparently just couldn’t help himself.  He went on to say: “feminist discourse has reduced [women’s writing] to a grand celebration of infidelity.”

Anuradha Sharma, a Hindi poet and a lecturer, summarized the audacious venom from Rai’s mouth:

Vibhuti Narain Rai can be accused for defaming every writer who has made unparallel journey on the road to equality. The words of his mouth are shocking. Mr. Vibhuti Narain Rai, the vice chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, says that women writers of today are competing to prove themselves to become the leading prostitute. He again adds that if they want to write their autobiography then HOW MANY TIMES IN HOW MANY BEDS will be the appropriate title. It is the report in At another place in the interview, he dubs the character of a famous story as “nymphomaniac kutiya”. When asked by The Sunday Express which women writers he was referring to, Rai laughed. And repeated what he had said: “It’s not fair to mention names, but you can see, this tendency to prove themselves the ‘sabse badi chhinal’ is growing among women writers. You can find the references of ‘kitne bistaron men kitani baar’ in their work.”

It’s rumored at any rate, that the Bharatiya Jnanpith’s board of directors may be sacking Rai (from his job on the selection committee for the Hindi prize, not from his job at MGIHU, though it turns out that there may be reasons for him to lose that job, too) and Ravindra Kalia (the editor of Naya Gyanodyay who praised Rai).  Perhaps the controversy will invite some discussion about not only the persistence of some rather obscurantist notions and personalities in literary circles (the same people who probably also have no problem committing the erotic bits of Kalidasa to memory) but also about some of the more interesting new work from women writers in Hindi.

The whole thing has gotten me thinking about the long tradition of this kind of abuse against women writers from South Asia: the obscenity charges against Ismat Chughtai for “Lihaaf“; the attacks on Rashid Jahan after Angare; the continuing harassment of Taslima Nasreen.  In the 1930s, when Angare was proscribed by the British for attacking conservative elements within South Asian Islam, there was an outcry among literary circles and it led to the formation of the All India Progressive Writers Association.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this row led to the consolidation of a new generation of brave writing, too?

New from Arundhati Roy on politics in India

Dawn Newspaper has the latest from Arundhati Roy, a damning indictment of Indian democracy (and an interesting critique of Maoist politics, too):

The Trickledown Revolution

Arundhati Roy

The law locks up the hapless felon
who steals the goose from off the common,
but lets the greater felon loose
who steals the common from the goose.
Anonymous, England, 1821

In the early morning hours of the 2nd of July 2010, in the remote forests of Adilabad, the Andhra Pradesh State Police fired a bullet into the chest of a man called Cherukuri Rajkumar, known to his comrades as Azad. Azad was a member of the Polit Bureau of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and had been nominated by his party as its chief negotiator for the proposed peace talks with the Government of India. Why did the police fire at point-blank range and leave those telltale burn marks, when they could so easily have covered their tracks? Was it a mistake or was it a message?
They killed a second person that morning—Hem Chandra Pandey, a young journalist who was traveling with Azad when he was apprehended. Why did they kill him? Was it to make sure no eyewitness remained alive to tell the tale? Or was it just whimsy?
In the course of a war, if, in the preliminary stages of a peace negotiation, one side executes the envoy of the other side, it’s reasonable to assume that the side that did the killing does not want peace. It looks very much as though Azad was killed because someone decided that the stakes were too high to allow him to remain alive. That decision could turn out to be a serious error of judgment. Not just because of who he was, but because of the political climate in India today.

The law locks up the hapless felonwho steals the goose from off the common,but lets the greater felon loosewho steals the common from the goose.
Anonymous, England, 1821 In the early morning hours of the 2nd of July 2010, in the remote forests of Adilabad, the Andhra Pradesh State Police fired a bullet into the chest of a man called Cherukuri Rajkumar, known to his comrades as Azad. Azad was a member of the Polit Bureau of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and had been nominated by his party as its chief negotiator for the proposed peace talks with the Government of India. Why did the police fire at point-blank range and leave those telltale burn marks, when they could so easily have covered their tracks? Was it a mistake or was it a message?
They killed a second person that morning—Hem Chandra Pandey, a young journalist who was traveling with Azad when he was apprehended. Why did they kill him? Was it to make sure no eyewitness remained alive to tell the tale? Or was it just whimsy?
In the course of a war, if, in the preliminary stages of a peace negotiation, one side executes the envoy of the other side, it’s reasonable to assume that the side that did the killing does not want peace. It looks very much as though Azad was killed because someone decided that the stakes were too high to allow him to remain alive. That decision could turn out to be a serious error of judgment. Not just because of who he was, but because of the political climate in India today.

Bangladeshi garment workers — up from the ashes

The refusal of some factory owners to pay the traditional Eid bonuses has resulted in factory workers at two major garment factories to go on strike and block two highways (in what is becoming a standard tactic of the garment workers).  The factory owners at Zirani (one of the factories) have reported that they will now pay bonuses.  At Monno Attire Ltd. on the other hand, workers went out on strike over being forced to work for 24 straight hours without a break so that the bosses could fill orders on time.  (It’s also problem since many of the workers are fasting for Ramadan and are forced to eat the low-quality food that bosses provide).  Owners of that factory were also forced to make concessions as soon as the strike occurred.

The Financial Express of Bangladesh, at least, thinks that this may be the beginning of a new wave of combativity in the garment districts near Dhaka:

The fresh wave of protests in Manikganj and Gazipur signals the recurrence of violent unrest in the apparel industry ahead of Eid.

Police said thousands of workers of two garment factories in Manikganj and Gazipur blockaded Dhaka-Aricha and Dhaka-Tangail highways as authorities of the units are yet to settle workers’ wages, dues and bonuses.

What seems to be at the heart of this new round of protests is the breakdown (tacit or organized) of relations between the bosses federations (BGMEA and BKMEA) and individual factory owners.  While the federations are at least publicly mouthing support for paying bonuses on time, individual owners have been reluctant to comply (one feels a need to turn this into an object lesson about what Marx called capitalists: “a band of hostile brothers”).  And so workers are forced to take matters into their own hands and win some concessions.  Labor groups have been warning for some time that the bosses would renege on promises to pay bonuses and wages on time.  Should the practice of reneging continue, it will spark some fightback from the workers:

“We will gherao the houses of apparel manufacturers if they fail to provide workers with the dues, bonuses and overtime bill by tomorrow,” federation president Abul Hossain said.

“We don’t want any violence. We just want workers’ legitimate demand to be met within the deadline. Otherwise the consequences will not be good for the owners,” he added.

Also, Bangladesh is coming under some pressure internationally to improve the conditions for garment workers.  Aside from celebrities visiting the garment district, several major multinational garment importers (like the American Apparel and Footwear Importers Association) have called on Bangladesh to resolve the conflict by paying better wages and improving working conditions for garment workers.  Undoubtedly the split between importers and exporters on the issue is because importers have to deal with PR issues but none of the shop floor issues.

The Global Post did a moving piece on the lives of women garment workers that is definitely worth taking a look at:

Workers in Pakistan combative despite flooding

More than 25,000 telecommunications workers have been out on strike in Pakistan since the middle of August. They are striking because they were promised 50% wage increases by the government, but the semi-privatized Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL) has refused to abide by the government’s promise. The management of PTCL has argued that since they are semi-private they are not bound by the promises that the government makes. The company initially announced that it would raise wages, hoping to head off protests, but the wage increases were lower than what was promised (20% as opposed to 50%).

At the same time, management at PTCL is accusing workers of sabotaging its efforts at helping out the country in a time of need (and simultaneously saying that it has also taken a hit because of the flooding). This appears to also be having an impact on the UAE-Pakistan relationship as well, though reports are vague on what this will mean.

On Thursday, striking workers stormed the PTCL headquarters and faced off with police who charged them with batons. A few workers were injured, but the workers were able to get past the cops and storm the building. On Friday, PTCL workers blockaded three of the main roads in Islamabad. They held the road for 6 hours and shut down traffic. The police faced off with them on the main Kashmir avenue but they didn’t make a move against the workers for the duration of the protest. As the rally broke up, the police charged (apparently at the request of management) and arrested 40 and injured several more. It’s a sign of the determination and combativity of the workers that they are able to stand up to the ideological and physical onslaught that they are up against (many of them are also Muslim and fasting during Ramadan!).

PTCL is run by Etisalat, a UAE-based telecommunications firm. They tried, from the outset, to have the strike declared illegal and to get the police to intervene decisively against the union. Management even went to the Lahore High Court to try and have the strike action declared violent, but the High Court refused and ordered PTCL back to the bargaining table. In response, PTCL is withholding wages. Meanwhile, PTCL announced higher profits for FY2010 than they originally anticipated.

But the strike action is having a very serious effect as phone service has been affected throughout the country, and it’s also beginning to have an impact on other industries in Pakistan, too. PTCL is losing clients as capitalists are switching to other communications providers. There seems to be an overall loss of confidence in PTCL’s ability to get its service running (the biggest complaint is that service requests are going unanswered) and effectively handle the labor unrest (other industrialists are accusing PTCL of using the strike as an excuse not to make repairs).

The first month of Labour Relief Campaign Pakistan

I’ve been advocating that people contribute to the efforts of the Labor Party of Pakistan when they are donating to give aid to Pakistan in response to devastating effects of the flood. I’m reposting in full a report from the LPP on their efforts, which have been fantastic.  You should be able to click on the link below to donate.

The first month of Labour Relief Campaign Pakistan

The Labour Relief Camp first camp was organized in Lahore on 1st August 2010 at Regal Chouck Lahore. Earlier on 25th July 2010, we decided to launch a Baluchistan appeal.

It stated,

“Torrential rains have unleashed flash floods in different parts of Baluchistan over the few days.  Water levies broke leaving the people exposed to flood water. At least three villages in district Sibi have been destroyed. Houses, live-stock such as cattle’s and goats, household goods, clothes, shoes and other items have been destroyed. Residents of villages are currently without drinkable water, food, shelter and in need of clothes.  In particular, the situation is dire for children and women and they are in desperate need of food and clothing. Disease is spreading fast in the areas affected due to lack of drinkable water. In particular, flu, fever, diarrhea, cholera have been noted and are spreading.  The government’s response has made matters worse. They failed to act immediately, leaving tens of thousands of people unaided.  They came after twenty four hours to the make-shift camps with paltry amount of food bags to distribute. The gap between the food being distributed and the large number of people desperate to eat led to fighting breaking out making matters even worse for these desperate people. Rubina Baluch, Women Secretary LPP Baluchistan, who is a resident of one of the affected villages said, ‘there is absolutely nothing left here – food, water, and clothing – and we are in desperate need of these’.  At least, 10, 000 people are said to be in suffering in these grave conditions”.

Perhaps this was the first appeal by any political group in Pakistan to ask people to help the victims of torrential rains in Baluchistan.

After an informal consultation with several social and political groups in Lahore, we decided to set up the first camp. Already a group of 42 activists including 35 women belonging to Labour Education Foundation were trapped in Kalam, Swat valley. The flood in river Swat had flooded away all the bridges and the road links were delinked from the rest of the country. They were eventually evacuated by a military helicopter after 8 days of ordeal.

The camp in Lahore was supported by many activists and on the first day, we collected nearly 18,000 Rupees within two hours. Next day, it went up to nearly 50,000.

A LRC committee was reestablished with 8 members from eight different organizations. They included, Cindy Kariaper, Pakistan for Palestine, Farooq Tariq Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, Qalandar Memon Labour Party Pakistan, Bushra Khaliq Women Workers Help Line, Khalid Malik Labour Education Foundation, Ammar Jan Progressive Youth Front, Khaliq Shah CADTM Pakistan and Niaz Khan National Trade Union Federation. The committee decided to meet at least twice in a week to discuss all aspect of the campaign.

The LRC committee agreed to campaign on two fronts, collecting funds for the immediate relief and to change the priorities of the national budget demanding a total no to repayment of foreign debts and reduce the military budget, no cuts in development budget and no new taxes, no new loan, but grants and aid.

On 7th August, we issued a new appeal and here is a part that we wrote,

“Please donate to Labour Relief Campaign to help people of Pakistan is facing worst ever floods of its history. Torrential rains have unleashed flash floods in different parts of the country since last three weeks. Water levies broke leaving the people exposed to flood water. More than 12 million people have suffered due to these floods. More than 650,000 houses have collapsed, mainly in villages. Thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed due to flood water. Houses, live-stock such as cattle’s and goats, household goods, clothes, shoes and other items have been destroyed.  Residents of villages are currently without drinkable water, food, shelter and in need of clothes”.

Five days later, the situation has even more worsened and it was estimated that over 20 million people are affected by the flood by then,

We wrote on 12 August,

“The flood is still on dangerous levels in several parts of Pakistan. The numbers of people affected by the flood have crossed 20 million. More torrential rains are forecast by the weather department. This is been considered one of the most devastating flood in world history. The UN has once again appealed for donations for Pakistan. But there has been a very slow response internationally to help Pakistan in this period of great devastation. After destroying most of Khaiber Pukhtoonkhawa and Southern Punjab, the water has now washed down the Indus River Valley, causing a deluge in Sindh. The water has been powered by unusually fierce monsoon rains that began in country’s northern areas some three weeks ago. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure have given way, overwhelming the government’s ability to cope. At this point an estimated 1,600 have been killed with another 5 million left homeless”.

Camps were set up in different parts of Pakistan including Rawalpindi, Mardan, Hyderabad, Moro, Karachi, Sanghar, Layya and Sibbi.

We send the appeal to all our international friends and by then, the world was awakening to the most catastrophic incident of Pakistan history.

In one month, we have raised the following

Lahore Rs. 654587 (cash)

Lahore Rs. 45000 (goods)

Rawalpindi Rs. 5000 (cash)

Hyderabad Rs. 184100 (cash)

Hyderabad Rs. 299550 Goods and medicine

Moro Rs. 766,190 (cash)

Karachi Rs. 450,000 (cash)

Karachi Rs. 250,000 (goods)

Mardan Rs. 70,000 (cash)

Sibbi did not have information

Sanghar no information yet

Layya no information yet

International appeal Rs. 371784

Confirmed commitments and information received

SAP Netherlands Euro 5000 (Rs. 550,000)

Olof Palme International Center Sweden SEK 50,000 (Rs. 589,500)

Cultural Life Buoy campaign NOK 10,000 (Rs. 138,000)

Yasmeen USA US$ 2000 (Rs.172,000)

Pakistanis in Denmark US $ 1000 (Rs. 85000)

A total in cash raised from Pakistan: Rs. 2,129,877

International Rs. 371,784

Commitments Rs. 1,534,500

Goods: Rs. 594550

Total cash, goods and commitments on 3 September 2010, 4,630,711 (US$ 54478)

Apart from the relief campaign, we have also launched a political campaign for non-payment of foreign debts of Pakistan. We held our first press conference in first week of August in Lahore and we said, “Pakistan must refuse to pay the foreign debts and divert the amount into the relief and rehabilitation of the flood affectees. It is high time to change the priorities of the national budget and all those suggestions to cut the development budget and spend on flood affectees be stopped. There is an easy way out. Stop paying the debts owed to International Finance Institutions, donor countries and clubs.

The press conference was the first voice in Pakistan on the issue. We contacted like-minded groups and parties to raise the issue and the idea was well received. Social and political groups in Islamabad met and decided to take on the issue. In Lahore, on 29th August, LRC organized a multi-party conference to oppose the debt retirement and 28 political parties, trade unions and social movements agreed to participate in this campaign. On second September several hundreds marched to Islamabad to demand non payment of foreign debts. One of the largest private television channel Dunia took up the issue on a prime time talk show, “Dunia Mery Aaghey” and invited one of the organizer of the demonstration to put up the case. There is now a beginning of the awakening of some main stream political parties to take up the issue.

Three more rallies will be organized to press for this demand. One such rally will be held in Lahore on 19th September from GPO Chouck to Punjab Assembly demanding an end of payments of debts while people are in danger of dying in the aftermath of the flood. In this campaign, we have got the material support of OXFAM.

Where the money spent?

We had decided to spend the amount on flood victims on selected areas where we have local teams to deal the question of distribution in more organized manner and also to the most needy ones. The initial three areas selected were Union Council Tully in Sibbi district of Baluchistan, Pir Sabaq union council of district Noshehra of Khaber Pukhtoonkhawa and Southern part of Punjab. We held in food items, kitchen items and construction material in two areas, while we were unable to do anything in Saraiki area. Lately, LRC has send amount to Hyderabad jamshoro, Moro and Thatha area of Sindh through Sindh Labour Relief Committee. The local teams in Baluchistan reported wide spread disruption in food item distribution and they had to take special measures to avoid that. they issue tokens of particular food basket after conducting surveys of three villages and then asked them to collect food from a special place designated for collection the food items. Same process was carried out in Pir Sabaq area where distribution of food items and construction material was done with a very disciplined manner. The main reason of smooth distribution was our local committees which included political and trade unions activists.

In Hyderabad jamshoro, we set up medical camps and distributed medicines through our doctors association. Here in Hyderabad, we were jointly working with Communist Party Pakistan, Aadersh, A Sindhi literary magazine. In Moro, our local relief committee was formed in association with local traders and trade unions. There were the most successful in collecting amount and good from an area which was itself affected. Through joint effort, they have won the sympathies of many in the city and are the main distribution group of the area. Several other organizations have contacted and asked help in distribution to the flood affectees of Moro and Dadu district. In Karachi, SRLC set up four camps and sent four trucks of good to Moro and at present busy in Thatha district to help the flood victims who are sleeping on roads and schools.

The International Response to LRC appeal

This was to give you some idea of our activity during the first month of our relief work. Most of the amount collected in Pakistan are from ordinary people. They have donated us generously. BY setting up camps and distributing aid to flood victims in some selected areas, we have tried to counter the influence of the right wing forces particularly the religious fundamentalists groups. Several hundreds activists of LRC are busy in collecting funds locally and we are also encouraged by different responses from abroad. Political groups associated with Fourth International in several countries particularly in Netherlands and England have send us amount already, while several individual and Left groups efforts in US have brought some cash to the relief. From Sweden, we have already received information of 50,000 Swedish SKR and in Norway, an initiative by actor Toni Usman for a theater show on 19 September has already won support of Norway artist association with leading actors of Norway taking part voluntarily to help the campaign. In Australia, Socialist Alliance is helping to collect funds and APHEDA, the official Australian trade unions international assistance is collecting funds for LRC.

We had the great arrival of South Asians at Lahore relief camp to collect funds from Pakistanis. Social and peace activists from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka came to Lahore and brought some amount from their own countries and contributed to LRC funds. They have brought with this a consciousness of South Asian solidarity in real terms.

We appeal to all our international friends to continue collecting funds for our future planned aid and political activities. Apart from the campaign on debts, we have decided to organize peasant rallies in Sindh and Punjab to demand land rights and end of feudalism.

Bangladeshi industries facing fights with labor


On August 31, workers at Biman Bangladesh Airlines demonstrated at the national headquarters of the air carrier and demanded that the airline stop its attacks on their wages.  When the managing director Zakiul Islam refused to meet with them, his staff locked him inside his office.  They protested for most of the day and agreed to leave and reconvene at the Board of Director’s meeting that was taking place the following day.  They did also threaten to strike and bring the airline to a standstill if their demands were not met.

At the heart of the conflict between managers and workers are the new pay scale that the airline is implementing in order to boost profits and the elimination of the pension scheme.  Some 3,000 workers will lose their pensions if the restructuring goes forward.  The airline company, incidentally, also just recently went public, making it the country’s largest public limited company.  The workers were demanding a return to the government pay scale that they had in place before.  The new pay structure would mean that workers would not see their wages rise as much as they had been promised.  And since they are government employees, they had been counting on see their wages rise as much as their counterparts in other public industries.

According to the Financial Express, “The demonstrating workers and employees’ unions are the Biman Sramik League, Biman Sramik Dal, Society of Aircraft Engineers of Bangladesh (SAEB), Biman Sramik Union, Biman Employees Union (CBA) and Biman Officers Association.”

On Thursday, September 2, the Board of Directors announced that it would meet all of the demands of the protesting workers.  I’m providing a link to a video of the victorious workers:


A new study from Dr. Sanchita Banerjee Saxena and Véronique Salze-Lozac’h entitled “Competitiveness in the Garment and Textiles Industry: Creating a supportive environment” argues that countries like Bangladesh which are dependent on textile exports have to cultivate other competitive advantages other than cheap labor inputs.  This may be part of an attempt of reforming capitalism from within, by showing (as many liberals have) that better working conditions improve productivity and quality and that infrastructure improvements can offset attempts to squeeze workers:

As indicated in this study, the main actors in the sector are convinced that there is more to competitiveness and productivity than just low labor costs. If investment in infrastructure to improve lead times and facilitate trade is key to Bangladesh’s competitiveness, developing and implementing supportive policies, and improving governance at the national and factory levels is also crucial. International buyers are not simply focusing on cost and the bottom line. Because buyers are looking for “more,” it is in the interest of government officials to enact policies that will increase worker benefits (wages, health care, etc.). It is also in the interest of factory owners to implement these policies, so that they will gain a workforce that is better skilled and more productive. Bangladeshi factories are no longer sweatshops with minimal labor standards and workers toiling away for 20 hours a day. Many factories are now focusing on becoming more efficient, with a happier and healthier workforce. Labor awareness, compliance issues, an improved public image, and changes in the conditions of global competition have all led to these improvements.  Further positive developments in this area will compel the developed nations to look on the country more favorably.

One of the problems that a study like this one overlooks is that there are structural impediments to reform in the garment industry, including the deep connections between the factory owners and the government which means that they are both inclined to use their power to extract concessions from workers rather than from themselves whenever possible.  Here’s how Jeremy Seabrook puts it:

More than 30 MPs of the ruling Awami League are factory owners. This is reflected in the government’s response to unrest. After the April disturbances, the Home Minister said: “No one will be spared if found to be involved in creating unrest in the garments sector.” Government said it had “information that outsiders often fuel trouble in this sector.” The ruling elite cannot imagine that poverty, and not malice, drives people, although owners spend as much on a night out as their workers earn in a year. In any case, they prefer to see in the unrest evidence of conspiracy or sabotage by their political opponents.

As a result (and as I’ve argued previously), the workers in the garment industry are compelled to fight back.  As Bangladesh News reported, some of the more militant unions are focusing on the non-payment of Eid bonuses this year to organize workers in a more combative posture.  In fact, the organizing seems to have reached a substantial enough pitch that the Bangladeshi police are encouraging factory owners to pay the Eid bonuses on time to avoid another round of labor unrest.  They have collected reports that there is substantial organizing activity in more than 110 factories (there are more than 6500 garment factories in Bangladesh).

In other news, India is attempting to reorganize its garment exports to become more competitive with Bangladesh and China.


In response to the environmental problems produced by Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry (an industry which it needs to provide steel for national industries since there are few iron deposits in Bangladesh), a Dutch company is proposing building the world’s first “green dock wharf” in Bangladesh.  It would be equipped with the necessary technology to deal with the hazardous chemicals on board these ships and safely recycle them.  I’m interested in seeing how this develops.

Social crisis stalks Pakistan

My piece in Socialist Worker on the flooding in Pakistan:


The catastrophe is being shaped by powerful political and economic forces–and the most vulnerable have been left to fend for themselves, reports Snehal Shingavi.

September 3, 2010

People fleeing rising floodwaters with what possessions they can carry

People fleeing rising floodwaters with what possessions they can carry

IT HAS been nearly a month since the floods tore through the Swat valley in the northern part of Pakistan. The water has begun flowing into the ocean, and water levels have begun to fall in most places, but the sheer magnitude of the devastation left in its wake is overwhelming.

Even as the water recedes, new towns in the southern part of Pakistan are at risk of being submerged. Already, the floods are recognized by UN officials as worse–in terms of the number of people suffering–than the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami that hit India and the earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005 combined.

The Pakistani state’s reports about the extent of the damage barely do justice to the human toll. Some 1,650 people are dead, and another 2,450 are injured. Upwards of 20 million people are homeless and have been forced to flee to relief camps, where shortages in food, medicine and clean drinking water have produced new problems.

Children especially are at risk since the cramped quarters in the relief camps mean that communicable diseases like chicken pox and the measles are spreading rapidly, while the lank of sanitation and nutrition mean that dysentery, diarrhea and skin lesions are very common.

The World Food Program is warning that Pakistan now suffers from the triple threat of “hunger, homelessness and desperation” as a consequence of the flooding and the impact it has had on the Pakistani economy.

The loss of farmland, livestock (the primary savings of most families), seeds and the entirety of the winter crop will not only mean that thousands will go hungry for the next several months, but also that it will be a very long time before they will be able to return to meaningful lives. Already, there are estimates that it may take six months until farmland is suitable for planting crops, putting next year’s crop in jeopardy as well.

The damage to the infrastructure has been crippling. Roads, bridges, canals and power stations have all been affected by the flooding. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, for instance, chronic illegal deforestation–caused by timber producers hiding logs in ravines in the mountainous areas–meant that when the rains hit, the water not only ran down the mountains much faster, but it also carried logs into the river, where they collided with bridges and destroyed them.

While much of the media has pointed out the connection between the Pakistani Taliban and the so-called “timber mafia” in the region as a way to blame Islamic militancy for the flooding, they have been reluctant to point out the connections between the “timber mafia” and the civilian bureaucracy, which has been largely bribed into turning a blind eye to the problem. Deforestation is not news in Pakistan.

What is striking, though, is the way that this natural disaster has been made worse by the social arrangement in Pakistan. First of all, land is unevenly owned in Pakistan–64 percent of the farmland is owned by 5 percent of the population. As a result, poorer farmers and peasants ordinarily own or work on land in areas that are ordinarily prone to flooding.

In the cities, poorer people crowded in slums found that their homes were sacrificed in order to save the homes of wealthier residents. At least one newspaper has called this perverse social organization that threatens the lives of the most vulnerable people in Pakistan a kind of “economic apartheid.”

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THE REASONS that the floods were as bad as they were in Pakistan have to do with the social interests that are connected to the irrigation network in Pakistan. The Punjab and Sindh were not always agriculturally productive regions, since many parts of those provinces didn’t have regular access to water.

When the British colonized South Asia, they set out to build a large irrigation network along the Indus basin in order to be able to create a class of agriculturists who would be dependent on the colonial government and therefore loyal to their interests. Many of the people who settled here were also soldiers in the British colonial army.

After independence, those same agriculturalists became important players in the Pakistani state and used their influence to make sure that the irrigation networks fed their lands. Even when the capacity existed, for instance, for an overhaul of the canals and dams and a rerouting of the Indus in certain places that were prone to flooding, it was deeply resisted by these same agricultural interests, which would lose out should their lands no longer be next to the canals or should the canals displace their farms.

As a result, holistic ecological planning in Pakistan has been frustrated by the very social class that relies on regular water flows through the Indus. And in the worst irony, the very system that was designed to boost the agricultural output of Pakistan has destroyed the winter crop entirely.

The irrigation network itself is unsustainable. The canals require embankments, cement and concrete walls that are dug into the land to carry water. Because of the amount of silt that the Indus carries down from the Himalayas, the embankments actually contribute to the raising of the riverbed, which then means that the embankments have to be raised even higher.

In some places, this has meant that the embankments are actually higher than the floodplain, making it impossible for the canals and rivers to drain water to the ocean, pushing water out into the lowlands along the river and making the flooding worse.

The problem is compounded in Pakistan because local lobbies try to protect their immediate interests over the interests of the ecosystem or the economy as a whole, thus preventing any real flood control mechanism from ever being built. For the last several years, for instance, there has been an intense debate inside of Pakistan about the proposed construction of the Kalabagh dam, a hydroelectric dam that would sit near the border of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Because there are chronic water shortages throughout Pakistan, the agricultural lobbies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh (the two neighboring provinces) charge that the dam would give Punjab the ability to steal water for itself and deprive the other provinces of irrigation.

There are other ecological considerations at work here, too. Agricultural interests in Sindh, for instance, require that there be a certain regular amount of water flowing through the Indus throughout the year to prevent seawater from entering into the river stream and making arable land unusable because of high rates of salinity. Dams in the Punjab, then, would mean that Sindh would have no ability to ensure the necessary flow of water in the lower riparian areas of the Indus.

Meanwhile, agriculturalists in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa charge that the construction of flood control mechanisms along the Indus will flood and submerge land upriver. Neither of these groups is wrong, since Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics would mean that development or compensation to offset the costs to losing interest groups will not be forthcoming.

Added to this is the strange manner in which geopolitical conflicts have affected the region’s rivers. After the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Indus basin was literally divided, with certain rivers originating in India and others in Pakistan. That meant that India could (and did) use control over river flows as a weapon in its rivalry with Pakistan, regulating the flow of the rivers by constructing dams on its side of the border.

This has not only meant intense bickering at any number of peace talks between the two nations, but also produces the absurd problem of trying to manage the ecology of the river basin without any real control over the infrastructure. Rumors were flying, for instance, that the flooding this year was in part due to India opening the dams on its side.

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AFTER THE UN made its appeal to the international community for $459 million in disaster aid, some 70 percent of that figure was pledged. It bears underlining, though, that this amount is only a drop in the bucket compared to what Pakistan will need to rebuild–official estimates are more than $40 billion–or what it will need to rehabilitate all those people who have been displaced.

And because aid has been trickling in slowly, people have become increasingly desperate. Riots have broken out in relief camps, and people have stormed aid vehicles in the hopes of getting what little relief they can. The problem is made worse because there are reports everywhere that entrenched political interests have secured the delivery of aid to certain regions ahead of others. The fact that much needed aid and relief has yet to arrive has compounded the corrupt practices of the Pakistani state.

There are a few reasons why aid has been so slow in coming to Pakistan. While most of the media has manufactured a new psychological ailment called “donor fatigue” (which is contradicted by the remarkable generosity shown by ordinary people across the world), the more likely reason has to do with American military and political objectives in the region.

As a result of the war in Afghanistan, all discussions about aid to Pakistan are thoroughly politicized, as most U.S. establishment figures hold the country responsible for the continued success of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Added to this is a growing climate of Islamophobia in the U.S. and Europe, which has contributed to the notion that Pakistan is merely a hotbed for terrorist activity.

Both of these ideas in concert have contributed to the paranoia that Islam is on the rise in Pakistan and that providing aid to the country will simply mean that money gets channeled into the hands of unsavory people and organizations. The hypocrisy of the matter couldn’t be clearer when one remembers that the United States happily funded military dictators in Pakistan and cherry-picked the current civilian leadership in the country.

The Americans haven’t even stopped the drone attacks that have pounded the border region with Afghanistan almost every day since the flooding began. Now ordinary Pakistanis are caught between a corrupt civilian government and the American “war on terror.”

The other major problem is that much of the aid that will come into Pakistan will be in the form of loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, both of which have offered multibillion-dollar emergency loan packages. While the immediate injection of cash may help, in the long term, it has the effect of enriching the elite in Pakistan (who ensure that the aid goes into their pockets) while saddling ordinary Pakistanis with a huge debt burden that is paid either in the form of higher taxes or cuts to services.

Already, Pakistan owes some $50-55 billion to international lending institutions and pays $3 billion annually to service its debt obligation (three times more than it spends on health care, for instance).

The delayed, lackluster and sometimes even criminal response of the Pakistani civilian government in reacting to the flooding has meant that the largest beneficiary of the crisis in Pakistan has been the military. Because Pakistan has spent the last 60 years building up its armed forces and their resources at the expense of social services and infrastructure, the military is one of the few institutions capable of dealing with the scope and scale of the problem produced by the flooding.

So instead of having the capacity to manage the relief efforts effectively, the civilian bureaucracy is more or less ceding control and authority to the military forces in Pakistan, which were not only able to arrive quickly on the scene, but have also helped airlift villagers out of flood-ravaged areas.

In fact, the flooding may have entirely rehabilitated the military’s image, which had been less than positive after the reign of former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. As Newsweek reports:

Three years ago, when Kayani took over the armed forces, the institution was widely discredited and even reviled after Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s long and controversial rule. Now, says Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of parliament, Kayani’s leadership has already improved the military’s popularity substantially, and the general could soon “look so tall that a military takeover will remain just a formality.”

It doesn’t hurt that the major television channels are running a constant loop of footage, set to the national anthem, showing army personnel rescuing women and children, delivering medicine and guarding weakened dams and bridges. Some are already calling for a return to military rule.

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IT’S UNCLEAR still how this will play out in Pakistani society. A few things are likely, though.

First, anger at the current government is already apparent as flood victims have been staging protests at relief camps and in front of aid convoys demanding help immediately. Anger will only increase as the relief effort taxes the ability of the state to deliver on what is necessary. President Asif Ali Zardari’s popularity is well below 20 percent; he’s also been the victim of a rather public shoe-throwing incident.

Second, the Islamists could very well be the beneficiaries of the anger that is rising against the Americans and the civilian government. It’s unclear just how extensive their reach in the relief efforts is, but it is entirely possible that they will have an explanation for the current crisis which will speak to ordinary Pakistanis, especially since the left in Pakistan is still relatively small.

Still, there are important organizing efforts being undertaken by the Pakistani left, including an attempt to demand that the government stop paying back its international debt. Several leftist parties and NGOs held a joint press conference in Islamabad to announce an initiative against debt repayments and an end to aid in the form of loans.

Political initiatives like this will hopefully give the left in Pakistan an audience and a platform to organize the anger that exists among those most affected by the flooding.

But what the flooding reveals more than anything else is that nothing short of a total social reorganization of the region will prevent this tragedy from being repeated. It is only when all of South Asia is organized to meet the needs of the people who live there rather than the short-term interests of the rulers that cataclysmic events like the floods can be avoided.

Pakistani rock about the floods

This song has been making the rounds in Pakistan.  It’s by a rock band called LAAL, and the song is called “Doob Gaya Hain” (it/we have been drowned).  Incidentally, Laal has an explicitly political history that you can and should read about, singing songs by some of my favorite poets, like Faiz and Habib Jalib.  Spread the word if you like the song — definitely donate to one of the many organizations doing relief work.  I recommend the Labor Party of Pakistan’s efforts.