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EDITORIALS

Trouble in EC
Consider selection by collegium
The stand-off between Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami and Election Commissioner Navin Chawla has raised serious questions about the constitutional office that goes far beyond the parties and personalities involved. While the timing of Mr Gopalaswami’s missive to the President seeking removal of Mr Chawla – just weeks before the announcement of the general election – causes deep suspicion, this is not the main issue. 

Cover-up attempts
Rajus must be brought to justice swiftly
There is a clear danger that the Satyam case might get lost in legal wrangles. Given the disgraced Ramalinga Raju’s political links, there appears to be efforts to cover up his crimes.


EARLIER STORIES

Terror networks intact
February 3, 2009
EC in crisis
February 2, 2009
Crisis in higher education
February 1, 2009
Ekla Chalo
January 31, 2009
Kashmir is bilateral
January 30, 2009
Outrage in Mangalore
January 29, 2009
Have autonomy talks
January 28, 2009
Pin Pakistan down
January 26, 2009
Civil services: The blunted edge
January 25, 2009
Credibility, the best asset
January 24, 2009
Obama on Pakistan
January 23, 2009
Words to remember
January 22, 2009


Unmanned danger
Railways must ensure safety
The death of three schoolchildren in an accident at Haraz, Ferozepur, when a van in which they were travelling was hit by a railway engine at an unmanned railway crossing, has again brought to the fore the danger that such intersections pose to the public. 

ARTICLE

Shame of Mangalore
Patriarchal norms are to blame
by Amulya Ganguli
The Mangalore episode has drawn attention to several faultlines in Indian society. It would be a mistake to believe that the shocking attack on women was only the handiwork of a few demented individuals. Even if this point is conceded, it is necessary to remember that these hoodlums exist in a backward-looking, taboo-ridden social milieu where women have long been regarded as second class citizens.



MIDDLE

Formula for a happy life
by Harish Dhillon
With the plethora of books published recently on the art of living and on wellbeing, there are many formulas available for leading a happy life. A friend, however, has evolved his own formula.



OPED

Atrocities in Gaza
Israel was the first to break ceasefire
by Shelley Walia
If we look back at the history of genocide in West Asia, the figures are formidable. More than 20,000 civilians died in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006. Almost 1,700 Palestinian civilians died in the Sabra-Chatila massacre.

Inside Pakistan
Sharif for mid-term elections?
by Syed Nooruzzaman
The gulf between the ruling PPP and Mr Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) continue to widen because of the former Pakistan Prime Minister’s uncompromising stance on the judges’ issue. Daily Times quoted a private TV channel on February 1 to say that the rift between the two principal parties was bound to grow if the PPP fails to honour its promises.

China plans to stem unrest
by Maureen Fan
A Chinese government official has outlined new principles to stem the growing unrest from an economic downturn that has left 26 million migrant workers looking for jobs.

 


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Trouble in EC
Consider selection by collegium

The stand-off between Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami and Election Commissioner Navin Chawla has raised serious questions about the constitutional office that goes far beyond the parties and personalities involved. While the timing of Mr Gopalaswami’s missive to the President seeking removal of Mr Chawla – just weeks before the announcement of the general election – causes deep suspicion, this is not the main issue. The main issue is upholding the integrity, independence and sanctity of a high constitutional office, and insulating it from being influenced by personal and political considerations. The Election Commission is an office of paramount importance and no less crucial than Parliament, the judiciary and the executive for the sustenance of India’s democratic health. Any dent in the image and credibility of this institution, which conducts the world’s most extensive exercise to guarantee free and fair elections, would irreparably harm democracy as much as the institution.

Therefore, now that there is a constitutional conundrum, perhaps, the very process of selection of the Chief Election Commissioner and the other members of the Commission needs to be reviewed. In this context, the recommendation of the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) headed by Mr M Veerappa Moily merits more attention than it has received hitherto. The ARC has suggested that the CEC and EC members should be selected by a five-member collegium comprising the Prime Minister, the Lok Sabha Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the Union Law Minister. At present, the President appoints the CEC and ECs on the advice of the Council of Ministers.

The ARC’s recommendation has the virtue of not only laying the ground for a bi-partisan approach but also ensuring that no one party or person would have overwhelming authority in the appointment of the CEC and ECs. The fact that the ARC is headed by a senior Congress leader and that the BJP itself has been pressing for a change of procedure in appointments to the constitutional office should make this suggestion acceptable to both the leading political parties. While this cannot be done without a constitutional amendment, moving in this direction — which can take some time — would be a good beginning to keep the office out of controversies of the kind that has erupted now. Apparently, such an amendment to the statute can be taken up only after the elections and not on the eve of the polls.

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Cover-up attempts
Rajus must be brought to justice swiftly

There is a clear danger that the Satyam case might get lost in legal wrangles. Given the disgraced Ramalinga Raju’s political links, there appears to be efforts to cover up his crimes. Ruling politicians in Andhra Pradesh, who have been instrumental in the award of major projects, including the construction of Hyderabad Metro, to companies floated by Raju’s sons, cannot be relied on for a fair investigation. Besides, the multiple agencies entrusted with the case are not cooperating with one another. This calls for a CBI inquiry. It is shocking that SEBI, which is a competent agency for undertaking financial investigations, had to waste so much time in courts just to interrogate the Rajus. Courts are notorious for judicial delays and defence counsel take advantage of technicalities to scuttle the process of justice.

The country’s biggest corporate fraud is monitored closely far and wide. How swiftly and efficiently it is handled would have a bearing on the flow of future foreign investment into this country. That is why the Prime Minister’s Office intervened and appointed a new board of credible professionals so that the misdoings of a few do not decimate a company. Satyam has a viable business model, global giants as customers and some 53,000 employees, who are at risk of losing jobs if the company collapses. SEBI is willing to amend its rules to facilitate Satyam’s takeover.

There has been speculation that Raju has confessed to fudging accounts and opted to face trial in his home state to avoid or defer his prosecution in US courts since Satyam is also listed in New York. His strategy seems to be working. The CID, which is in charge of his interrogation, is not expected to be an expert in handling financial crimes of this scale. The ruling Congress at the Centre must ensure that its government in Andhra Pradesh is not seen to be obstructing the cause of law and justice in this case. 

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Unmanned danger
Railways must ensure safety

The death of three schoolchildren in an accident at Haraz, Ferozepur, when a van in which they were travelling was hit by a railway engine at an unmanned railway crossing, has again brought to the fore the danger that such intersections pose to the public. There are 18,200 unmanned crossings in India and 72 train accidents took place at such spots in 2006-07. Most of the unmanned crossings are located in areas where road traffic is sparse and all too often for commuters it becomes a benumbing routine to negotiate the level crossing. The result is that railway authorities take a casual attitude and lives are put at risk.

When lives are lost, the Railway Minister’s allocation of Rs 7,000 crore for overhauling rail safety seems entirely inadequate, since it has not made an impact at the ground level, and even basics like proper lighting at such crossings are lacking. When a train hit a car near the Jagraon grain market on February 25, 2008, claiming six lives, local residents pointed out that their pleas for lights to be installed at the crossing had not been acted upon. Only a few days before that mishap, a similar accident had claimed four lives at Ghanauli, near Ropar.

Safety gets a short shrift too often for the sake of expediency, as was seen in the recent incident in which a photo-therapy unit fire led to the death of five infants in a Patiala hospital. We have to think about safety and act promptly to ensure that more lives are not lost because of either lack of adequate application of mind or carelessness. While framing proper rules and providing adequate funds and facilities are necessary, safety is ultimately a mindset issue, both at an institutional and individual level. 

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Thought for the Day

Power? It’s like a Dead Sea fruit. When you achieve it, there is nothing there. — Harold Macmillan

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Shame of Mangalore
Patriarchal norms are to blame
by Amulya Ganguli

The Mangalore episode has drawn attention to several faultlines in Indian society. It would be a mistake to believe that the shocking attack on women was only the handiwork of a few demented individuals. Even if this point is conceded, it is necessary to remember that these hoodlums exist in a backward-looking, taboo-ridden social milieu where women have long been regarded as second class citizens. Although this patriarchal worldview is generally associated with the saffron brotherhood, the Ram Sene - the name underlines its proximity to the Hindutva ideology - evidently draws its sustenance not only from the Sangh parivar, but also from the widely prevalent norms and customs of a male-dominated society.

As much is evident from Mr Ashok Gehlot’s comments against boys and girls holding hands before he took recourse to the ploy of being misquoted, the usual escape route of politicians. After the Rajasthan Chief Minister, Union Health Minister A. Ramadoss endorsed Karnataka Chief Minister B.S.Yeddyurappa’s views against “pub culture”. As one of the BJP’s vice-presidents, Mr Bijoya Chakravarty, has said, “it is not good for a young woman to go to a pub”. It may not be long before Gandhiji is quoted by politicians yet again to push for prohibition. It is even possible that those against the free mixing of the sexes will stress the “evil” of alcohol consumption to curb any such interaction between men and women.

It is undeniable that there is a hidden political agenda behind such posturing. Drinking and friendship between men and women still carry the stigma of Western libertinism and, therefore, perceived to be against an undefined Indian tradition although soma and sura are hoary Sanskrit words. The same taint tended to mark the speakers of English at one time although the angrezi hatao slogans have died down in recent years. The belief among politicians evidently is that such a display of patriotism is electorally useful since it is supposed to have the backing of a large section of people, especially among the middle classes.

The innate conservatism of their homes can be seen in the practice of men and women sitting separately during, say, wedding receptions. Such barriers tend to disappear among the more affluent groups. Even then, orthodoxy in the matter of dress and conduct can approximate the conservative middle class norms among people in the higher age-groups even among the well-to-do. It is also in these supposedly respectable groups that the practice of dowry deaths and female foeticide following sex determination tests is the most widespread. If legal remedies against these crimes are not very effective, the reason is that the very affluence and social influence of these groups make many of them disregard the law with impunity. Or escape the rigours of its punishment if caught.

If deaths over dowry and the killing of the girl child in the womb are more prevalent among the middle and upper classes, those lower down the social scale not infrequently resort to the murder of young men and women if they dare to marry outside their caste. That the panchayats often preside over these assassinations is one of the most shocking examples of the downside of decentralisation. The so-called honour killings are a variation of this form of panchayat “justice”. Only women are the victims in these cases and the perpetrators of the cold-blooded acts are their family members.

The reason, as in the case of the grisly panchayat diktats, is marriage or even just the intention of marriage without the permission of the elders. The recent incident in Kolkata, where a Muslim computer technician from a lower middle class background was found dead on the railway tracks after the police intervened at the behest of his rich Marwari father-in-law, showed how society still plays a dominant role in determining the lives of individuals. There is also the tragedy of female infanticide due to poverty and the abandoning of the girl child by the roadside because of her unacceptability.

Although women have held powerful positions in Indian public life and continue to do so in increasing numbers, there is little indication that these illegalities born of conservatism are on the decline. The reason can be gauged not only from the kind of statements which Mr Gehlot, Mr Yeddyurappa and others have made, but the even more from the remarks of Ms Mridula Sinha, the chief of a women’s organisation associated with the BJP, when she accused women of generally provoking their husbands to beat them. After the Mangalore incident, she advised women against trying to “imitate men (since) progress does not mean becoming males”. Staying at home and cooking should probably be the preferred vocation for women in her view.

In a way, Ms Sinha is in good company because she is only echoing the views of Annie Besant, who said that any imitation of the West with regard to the education of women would “break up the family system, drive the women out in the world to earn their living, (and) make them competitors with men”. Unfortunately, Gandhiji, too, said, while criticising Western civilisation, that European “women, who should be the queens of households, wander in the streets or they slave away in factories”.

Such an outlook is not surprising in a country where the venerable Tulsidas said: Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, nari; yeh sab tadan ke adhikari (drums, the rustic, shudras, animals and women have to be beaten). As is known among the orthodox, women are not allowed to listen to the sacred Hindu texts, a practice which was underlined at a public meeting by the Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalananda. The latter was also a supporter of sati, which was described by the late Vijayaraje Scindia as “a part of the Indian tradition”.

Arguably, much of the patriarchal bias against women may disappear as the young take the place of their elders. The opposition which was initially expressed by one of Mr Yeddyurappa’s daughters underlined this point. However, the fact that young husbands are nearly always as much responsible as their parents for the dowry deaths suggests that such an expectation may prove to be futile. On the other hand, as Mrs Sheila Dikshit’s comment that it was up to individual boys and girls and their guardians to decide on their behaviour shows, a septuagenarian may not always hold regressive views.

While the social attitudes will undoubtedly take time to change, events such as the one in Mangalore can be checked to a large extent if the commonly used phrase of the politicians about the law being allowed to take its own course is strictly observed. Once the goons realise that they will have to pay for breaking the law, more and more of them will be unwilling to indulge in vandalism, let alone attacks on women. This applies as much to the Ram Sene as to the Bajrang Dal and the Navnirman Sena. The only reason why these outfits attract lumpens to their ranks is the conviction that they can become the muscle men of some political party in course of time. Unless they are disabused of this belief, the country will continue to see acts of violence against women, minorities, north Indians and whoever is perceived to be vulnerable by the anti-social elements and their behind-the-scene political masters.

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Formula for a happy life
by Harish Dhillon

With the plethora of books published recently on the art of living and on wellbeing, there are many formulas available for leading a happy life. A friend, however, has evolved his own formula.

We were both students at the Lucknow University and came together during the production of a radio play for an inter-university youth festival – I wrote the script, he read the main part. I was impressed by his quiet
dignity and, of course, his powerful voice. We became friends and I took todropping in when he rehearsed for his many theatrical performances. In spite of being the best actor in the group, he was content with whatever role the director gave him, and brought to each a passionate dedication. We were all convinced that his great talent would soon come to be widely
recognised.

But destiny thought otherwise. He fell in love with a girl from another community and  the situation threatened to take an ugly communal turn. The
young couple eloped and he found a job with a travel agency. Things were made more difficult by the impending arrival of a baby. But through all the turmoil, he retained his calm and serenity and with his great diligence he rose steadily in the office hierarchy. There was an improvement in his lifestyle too, but with two school-going children, the financial situation remained precarious.

Then he set up a travel agency of his own. Here he created innovative opportunities for enlarging his business. A large number of Buddhist pilgrims who visited India from Thailand had language difficulties.  He sent his secretary to Thailand to learn the language: practically every Thai tourist now came through his agency. 

Contrary to the common perception, not all American tourists are huge spenders.  His specially designed economy packages for young American tourists were fully subscribed for the next 10 years, by which time he had become a multi-millionaire.

If he felt any regret at losing out on his acting, he did not show it. Then, suddenly, he sold his travel agency and moved to Bombay to try his luck in films. In four years he appeared in dozens of films but in very brief roles. He got some notice for a three-minute cameo as a suttradhar, but no larger roles. He seemed happy and content.

But he had not lost his ability to create opportunities. He invited me to a performance where, on a bare stage, with the spotlights focused on him, he launched into the story of Sohrab and Rustom. He used his powerful voice with mesmerising effect and a spell-bound hush descended on the hall. As he drew to the climax there were not many dry eyes in the audience. The end was greeted with loud and sustained applause.

His formula for a happy life lay in striking a balance between a dignified, serene acceptance of what destiny gave him, on the one hand, and a passionate search and  pursuit of opportunity on the other.

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Atrocities in Gaza
Israel was the first to break ceasefire
by Shelley Walia

If we look back at the history of genocide in West Asia, the figures are formidable. More than 20,000 civilians died in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006. Almost 1,700 Palestinian civilians died in the Sabra-Chatila massacre.

One is, therefore, not surprised at the death toll in Gaza in the last few weeks. Compliance and silence of the international community bolsters the confidence and arrogance of the Israeli military intervention.

The world looks on, India’s response is lukewarm, the EU is conspicuous by its taciturnity except for Sarkozy’s intervention and endeavour, which brought no results for over 20 days until a temporary ceasefire was declared by the two sides.

As President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France went into the summit in Sharm el Sheik on Sunday, the main agenda was to stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza and immediately begin reconstruction of Gaza, which now lies in ruins. But the prospects of any lasting peace are not clear at the moment.

We have heard various interpretations of this genocide. At this juncture the upcoming Israeli elections could be influenced by upstaging Israeli military prowess that would politically boost the ruling party. Just as the Bush administration left office and Barack Obama was ushered in on January 20, there is a feeling that the US government at this point will go along with the war.

Labour has gained 50 per cent more in the poll, namely because Ehud Barak, Minister of Defence, is the man who is mostly identified with this operation.

Another view holds that it is Hamas, the militant resistance wing of the Palestinian movement for liberation, which launched rockets at the end of the ceasefire and has been doing so for over eight years, needs to be taught a lesson.

In truth, it was Israel that first broke the ceasefire on November 1, 2008, and justified its air and ground attacks on Gaza as the final move to end the daily nuisance of missiles from across the border.

But it is a fact that in spite of the siege of the last two months no missiles were fired by Hamas.

Just about a handful of Israelis have died owing to these sporadic attacks by Hamas whereas more than a thousand Palestinians have been killed in this ongoing massacre.

Apparently the victory of Hamas in the democratic elections did not go down well with Israel, leading to the control of the borders around Gaza allowing only some humanitarian aid in order to avoid a human catastrophe.

The only democratic election in West Asia should have been given time to prove itself. The aim of the American-backed Israeli policy is to see that democracy does not succeed. The last chance for negotiations stands destroyed.

Israel has thrown to the wind the rules laid by the Fourth Geneva Convention, of the Nuremberg Principles, of all of the laws of war generated in the 20th century.

Any air attack in such densely populated area as Gaza would involve the sure death of civilians. Intentionality of the Israeli bombing itself could then be termed as an act of state terrorism.

While young children played soccer and families slept in residential neighbourhoods, the Israeli defence forces unleashed one of the severest attacks on Gaza, this time determined to enforce a military solution to the daily skirmishes on the border, thereby deterring the incorrigible Hamas belligerence.

Aerial bombardment combined with a ground military penetration into the heart of Gaza has resulted in the death of almost a thousand citizens, most of whom are innocent children and women.

The excuse for such military action is the daily Qassam rocket attacks across the border that disturb the public security within Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is of the view: “The more Hamas is hit, the greater the chances of a peace agreement. It is clear to me that the Palestinian leadership with whom we are trying to make peace understands this.”

This notion that Israel has the right to defend itself against 1.5 million people who are starved refugees and who are holed up in the world’s largest concentration camp itself is not worthy of any belief or credibility. On the other hand, the death toll in Gaza is a reminder of the dark nightmares of the Warsaw Ghetto and Guernica.

However, the will of the people of Gaza remains indomitable; they have not surrendered to years of Israeli dominance. Being kept “like animals in a zoo” or trapped in a prison, they continue to resent the onslaught of the attacks and are not prepared to buckle under any military pressure.

Forceful occupation is itself an act of violence and demands retaliation. The continuous targeting of the Hamas leadership, the blockade of the Gaza strip with a cut in the fuel and electricity supply along with chlorine that is essential for obtaining potable water; withholding insulin, chemotherapy drugs and dialysis supplies has undoubtedly made the lives of the inhabitants of this war-torn land miserable.

Islamic University in Gaza with 18,000 students of whom 60 per cent are women have not been spared by the air attacks. The fishing port is bombed daily so that no food gets into Gaza.

This cannot be called an attack on Hamas, but on the whole structure of the society of Palestinians. The enemy is not Hamas but a captive population whose mosques, universities and even hospitals are not spared.

Any disproportionate military action that kills children and civilians is a downright infringement of the International law. It has been condemned in the past by the EU and other Arab states but without any tangible effect on the Israeli leadership, which continues to adopt a hawkish policy much against the general Israeli public that dreams of a peaceful solution and an end to military deployment across the border. The ceasefire is only a breather to send in humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza that at the moment stands shattered.

Perhaps, the true subtext of this war was the deep motivation of Israel and its Washington ally to draw Iran into the conflict by a provocation of extensive destruction of life and property in Gaza. This has been on their political anvil for long.

Well, Iran has not fallen into the trap and has refused to enter the conflict. The fallout of this bloodbath is, therefore, the overall discrediting of the Israeli leadership.

This would result in a shift in the foreign policy of both the EU and the US where already a majority of the public is against such indiscriminate civilian killings.

In the long run, the present crisis could, therefore, be a catalyst towards a new solution to the West Asian problem: one, to prevent further escalation, redouble the efforts for a complete embargo on Israel, introduce complete boycott and disinvestment so that an anti-apartheid type of strategy by the international community could pressurise the Israelis to agree to come to the table and negotiate; and two, a Hamas commitment to end all attacks on Israel while Israel agrees to a ceasefire and the opening of the borders with Gaza and the opening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

The European Union and the UN forces could supervise the ceasefire. We need to act now and try to at least regard the ceasefire as an opportunity for bringing lasting peace in West Asia.

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Inside Pakistan
Sharif for mid-term elections?
by Syed Nooruzzaman

The gulf between the ruling PPP and Mr Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) continue to widen because of the former Pakistan Prime Minister’s uncompromising stance on the judges’ issue. Daily Times quoted a private TV channel on February 1 to say that the rift between the two principal parties was bound to grow if the PPP fails to honour its promises.

This is so despite the belief that President Asif Ali Zardari and Mr Sharif “have agreed to a formula to keep what is left of their ‘understanding’ intact. It is thought that the agreement may hinge around a deal that involves the PML (N) agreeing not to stage a sit-in with the lawyers in Islamabad, but at the same time supporting their long march in Punjab”, as The News has commented.

Mr Sharif is of the view that the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is a must for ensuring an “independent judiciary”. He is opposed to accept any formula that does not include allowing Justice Chaudhry to function as the Chief Justice of Pakistan again. He holds the PPP-led government’s obstinacy responsible for the “deepening of the political crisis with the passage of time”.

According to Daily Times, “Many observers will interpret Mr Sharif’s stance as a clever device to bring about a mid-term election in Pakistan and encash the high popularity graph he enjoys these days.”

Belated action

Militants in Pakistan’s Swat valley have been indulging in killings and destruction of property for a long time. They have virtually taken over the administration with the armed forces remaining as silent spectators. But now reports say that a major army operation is on to ensure that the writ of the State runs again.

According to The Frontier Post, Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani visited the valley on January 28 and declared that “We would not let these militants succeed in their designs”. But the action has come when so much damage has been caused and the militants have succeeded in enlarging their bases. Sections of the media claim that this is because of the concerted drive launched by them. This, however, cannot be the whole truth.

The News says, “Perhaps, at last, the centre is beginning to understand that what has happened in Swat is as much a result of its own negligence and incompetent management as it is a function of the efficacy of the militant groups…. The few thousand extremists who have destroyed one of the most picturesque and popular venues for local and foreign tourism are opposed by state forces of around twenty thousand.

“The failure of the writ of the state in Swat has been progressive throughout the entire tenure of this government, and for whatever reason we now face a strong and emboldened militant/ extremist force which gives every impression of being there to stay. Recent moves to challenge them on their own turf may be belated, but they may just avert a complete loss of both writ and territory. So why now, so late in the day? The answer is likely, in part, to be ‘the media’.”

Drone attacks

Despite Islamabad’s protests over US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the exercise continues unabated. There is no change in the drive against the militants with drone attacks, contrary to what the people in Pakistan believed after the change of guard in Washington.

The Frontier Post says, “…the people are sore. They had thought it would be different under an Obama administration. But when was it that Obama had said it would not happen?” The paper wants the people to understand that these attacks are part of the anti-Taliban operation launched by the US. These will go on irrespective of the large-scale collateral damage reported so far.

However, as Business Recorder points out, “If ever the Pak-US co-operative alliance against terrorism would crumble it will under the unbearable weight of drone attacks ordered by the CIA into Pakistani territory.

These attacks are intensifying anti-Americanism, but the US appears to be the least worried about it. Perhaps, there is some kind of undeclared understanding between Washington and Islamabad.

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China plans to stem unrest
by Maureen Fan

A Chinese government official has outlined new principles to stem the growing unrest from an economic downturn that has left 26 million migrant workers looking for jobs.

In the event of a mass protest, local officials should go to the “front line,” and not hide behind the police, which only triggers an escalation of conflict, said Chen Xiwen, director of the office of the central leading group on rural work, which advises the Communist Party on agricultural issues.

To lessen the threat to stability, officials must also do more to solve land disputes, environmental problems and resettlement issues before they spiral into demonstrations, Chen said at a news conference on Monday.

Party leaders have been pressed to show that they care about the countryside, where prices for agricultural products have been falling and a widening wealth gap between urban and rural incomes has reached the equivalent of $1,620, $200 more than in 2007.

Demonstrations have broken out across the country recently as citizens protest lack of compensation after factory closings or following illegal land grabs. There have also been protests about the construction of polluting factories near villages and farmland, corrupt local officials who try to cover up their misdeeds and illegal investment schemes that officials have failed to shut down.

“If mass incidents happen, all officials must go to the front line and try to persuade people face-to-face,” Chen said. “They cannot hide and push police to the front lines. The police cannot be deployed unless there are truly unfortunate situations where people are beating, attacking, robbing or burning.”

After any incident, officials must draw lessons from the conflict, punish those responsible and make new plans to improve their work, Chen said.

There are now nearly 20 million unemployed migrant workers, or 15.3 percent of the total 130 million migrant worker population, Chen said. They are competing with another 6 million who enter the migrant worker job market each year, according to figures from a Ministry of Agriculture survey of 150 villages in 15 provinces conducted before the Lunar New Year last week, when most migrant workers return home for the holiday.

Over the past 20 years, farmers have used outside income to supplement their farming income, making up as much as 50 to 60 percent of their total pay. But for many farmers “that road is blocked this year,” said Xu Yong, director of the Center for Chinese Rural Studies at Central China Normal University. “There is a saying in the countryside that to feed the mouth depends on farming but pocket money comes from outside.”

Xu could not say whether protests would increase. “During the Spring Festival, most migrant workers went home and had a rest,” he said. “After this, they will hunt for jobs. If they can’t find any jobs but stay in the cities, it will be easy to generate conflict and instability. April and May will be the most serious time.”

At least some migrant workers are taking it in stride.

“It’s unavoidable that it will be hard to find a job this year,” said Deng Hongshu, 43, from Daping village in Kaixian County near the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing. “I’m prepared for spending six months or more to find a job.”

Deng worked in a leather factory in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, until his factory sent everyone home for a long vacation in early December. A migrant worker for more than two decades, Deng made $1,000 in the second half of 2008.

But in the past two months, he has already spent half of last year’s paltry income. “I always lose one job at the end of one year and find another job in the next year, so I don’t worry about it too much.”

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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