A distracted India ignores crisis engulfing neighbourhood

By C. Uday Bhaskar, IANS,

The firm action being taken by the militaries of Pakistan and Sri Lanka against the Taliban and the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealem (LTTE) respectively over the last week, though deemed to be purely “internal national security issues”, have resulted in the biggest humanitarian crisis since the East Pakistan exodus of millions of refugees in early 1971.

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Almost three quarters of a million people are affected. About 500,000 are fleeing the Swat Valley in Pakistan while more than 200,000 Tamil refugees are trying to seek safety in the most impoverished clusters set up by the Colombo government.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has described these two events as catastrophic and together they are unprecedented by way of macro human suffering and the loss of life will be colossal – when more accurate reports come in. Furthermore, Afghanistan is under steady attack from US and NATO forces in their single-minded focus on the war against the Taliban – which has received fresh impetus after the Obama-Zardari-Karzai tri-lateral summit in Washington last week.

More alarmingly, there have been media reports of white phosphorus having been used against Afghan citizens – the most harrowing report being that of a young girl who survived such an attack. This is reported to be the first case of such an attack and may well testify to the Hiroshima tenet that the survivors may envy the dead. Even if it is one little girl who has been so disfigured for life – in a region that is grossly insensitive to gender equity and the lives of women – the enormity of this humanitarian tragedy cannot be ignored or brushed aside.

To add to the current South Asian litany of human woe and wanton turpitude by a state apex that is entrusted with the safety of their citizens, Nepal is teetering on the brink of a complex political impasse – and if Kathmandu tips over, the lives of the disadvantaged Nepali citizens will further deteriorate.

And New Delhi is currently distracted with the last phase of the national elections and in effect has a lame duck government that now lacks both the will and the capacity to respond in an appropriate manner to this unfolding human tragedy in the neighbourhood. To compound matters, the media focus on market-driven trivia like the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket series is a veritable case of Nero and the fiddle.

Terrorism and religious radicalism have no doubt plagued both Sri Lanka and Pakistan for decades and in both cases, the powers that be, including the military, have been culpable for allowing the domestic malignancy to acquire the proportions it has now assumed.

The root causes for this tragic turn of events that cumulatively affect 750,000 people have been debated ad infinitum for the last few months and the global community that includes the more powerful members have their own cross to bear – but the scale of the human problem calls for immediate action that will mitigate the human suffering and loss of life.

Given South Asia’s distinctive demographic density and appalling lack of basic infrastructure in crisis situations – recall the tsunami of 2004 – the immediate challenge is to ensure that an epidemic does not break out in the make-shift camps and overnight tenements that have sprung up in Pakistan and Sri Lanka where squalor is rife.

The UNHCR is doing what it can but its efficacy will be predicated on the aid and relief material that is made available by the donor countries.

While images and media reports from Pakistan are still available and are deeply anguishing – the situation in Sri Lanka is exacerbated by the draconian media clampdown enforced by the Colombo government. Are 200,000 Tamil refugees displaced – or is the figure much higher? At this point we just do not know. Even the local media has little access to the plight of the Tamil refugees caught between the shrinking LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. This information void is reiterated by former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraveera who noted cynically: “A free media is virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka today.”

India must take empathetic cognizance of this humanitarian tragedy in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and provide what succour it can in a manner that would be politically acceptable to these two countries. Civil society in India could be encouraged to do its bit and raise the necessary relief material. Various provisions in the SAARC charter could be innovatively interpreted and relief provided in a collective manner with the involvement of international agencies that have the wherewithal to step in at short notice.

(10.05.2009 – C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])