Signs Of Peace,
Look Out For Vultures
By Jawed Naqvi
14 March, 2007
The opening line of the scarcely
noticed press release issued after a second meeting of the India-Pakistan
Joint Commission in New Delhi on February 21 said: The working group
on environment has discussed the decline in vulture population.
Thus we got to know that
one of six or eight working groups set up to take forward the tasks
of the joint commission would look into the recent disappearance of
the scavenger birds in India, Pakistan and possibly also in Nepal.
The news was extremely comforting
for at least two reasons. First, it was deeply reassuring that the two
countries that had on several occasions threatened to annihilate each
others human population were expressing a shared concern for the survival
of a raptor bird.
Secondly, it was good to
know that the two sides were beginning to look at life beyond their
hatred of each other, a hatred that has taken them to the brink of nuclear
The case of the disappearing
vultures is pretty interesting.
Scientists believe the phenomenon
is due to toxic residues from a veterinary drug. Vultures which feed
on the carcasses of livestock given diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory
widely used on the
subcontinent, build up such levels of the drug that they suffer kidney
failure. This is what the French scientists, who have followed the problem,
Ornithologists have for long
been baffled by the steep decline (more than 95 per cent) of the numbers
of the Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), a bird that
plays a vital link in the food chain, over the past decade. Once one
of the commonest raptors on the Indian continent, the creature is now
listed as critically endangered. The question is: If the bird is a critical
part of natures food chain, should the mystery surrounding its disappearance
be allowed to elude us till the Kashmir issue is resolved? The simple
answer is that one does not preclude the other.The veil of mutual mistrust
still hangs heavily over the neighbours despite the shared concern for
vultures. In fact, Pakistani officials say privately that the idea of
the joint commission itself is an Indian ploy to focus on what they
both believe are soft issues compared to the largely political matters
that are discussed within the composite dialogue framework, a fourth
round of which is due to be kicked off in Islamabad this week.
A cursory look at the bouquet
of issues broached at the joint commissions meeting in Delhi resembles
subjects that are more appropriate for countries in the European Union
or APEC. What is on the table are issues like environmental concerns
and education and not the tired problems of territorial disputes and
basic freedoms that are the typical concerns of South Asia, issues that
should have been resolved years ago but have lingered for decades.
Therefore, the question arises
whether the problem areas outlined under the joint commissions mandate
have an urgency of their own, or would they be taken up earnestly only
after the core issues enshrined in the composite dialogue are first
resolved. The question is tricky but the solutions are not intractable.
What does the joint commission
mandate the two countries to do?
Unfortunately, in the hurly
burly of headline-grabbing stories that followed the joint declaration
on nuclear risk reduction, which came in tandem with the press release
on the joint commission, it was natural that the so-called softer issues
got buried. So what were the issues apart from the shared concern about
missing vultures? The list is really impressive and should enthuse a
lot of people. If the leaders of the two countries are true to their
salt they should facilitate and not impede the agenda that they have
themselves agreed to pursue.
There is room for ornithologists
from both countries to get involved in joint research on migratory water
birds, for example. There is a proposal to jointly establish botanical
gardens in Pakistan, sharing of experience in desert afforestation,
general environment protection, including conservation and efficient
use of energy resources. Would anyone at all object to such concerns?
Similarly, there is a working
group on Science and Technology. Its officials have discussed the subjects
of medicinal plants, herbal medicines, biotechnology, renewable sources
of energy and popularisation of science itself. Who could quarrel with
the ideals of this group? Its interlocutors have suggested some probable
ways of cooperation. These include joint workshops, seminars, exploratory
visits, training and collaborative research.
Tourism has been taken up
as a separate issue in the joint commission.
Possible areas for cooperation
in this field were identified as human resource development, exchange
of statistics/promotional material, familiarisation tours by travel
agents and tour operators and the role of public-private partnership.
Scribes get ready for your free jaunts.
Or am I jumping the gun?
The working group on agriculture
is looking at production of quality seeds, agricultural research and
the question of quarantining livestock that is traded across the border.
This could be a serious area for any number of rights-based groups to
get involved with. After all agriculture is a globally sensitive issue
and genetically modified seeds, if that is where this proposed bilateral
cooperation heading, is an extremely volatile subject to be left to
the care of the two
For the medical fraternity
there is room for cooperation on practically everything: from control
of polio to management of avian influenza, public-private partnership
in healthcare and family welfare. The two countries have also agreed
to explore cooperation in health-related intellectual property rights,
capacity building in health sector, administrative structures relating
to drugs and pharmaceuticals in the two countries and traditional systems
of medicine. So there you go. How about joint research in Unaani, Tibbi,
The officially stated prospect
of cooperation in information technology can be converted by the people
to give us a chance to jointly shift the focus away from software to
something more durable, like hardware production of computers, which
is totally missing from the scene in both countries.
Education. Yes, there is
a joint working group on education too. Come on historians, sociologists,
philosophers. Face each other and come to terms with yourselves. Its
time we gave up the pretence of teaching partial half-baked history
to our captive audiences. Of course, the proposed working group on education
is typically bureaucratic and deals tentatively with cooperation between
institutions like University Grants Commission in India and HEC in Pakistan.
However, there is provision also for exchange of printed material relating
to educational development, sharing of experiences by the education
research institutes, as well as National Book Trust of India and National
Book Foundation of Pakistan. There is provision for exchange of expertise
in the field of elementary, secondary and adult education. Theres room
for peoples involvement here.
And finally, theres a new
forum that should interest the media in both countries. The press release
of the joint commission says that its working group on information discussed
issues concerning participation in seminars by journalists, media coverage
of historical and religious
events in the two countries, combating piracy of films, music and channel
contents and exchange of radio, television programmes and films. This
is inane, boring stuff. The medias job is not to describe events in
mosques and gurudwaras; that should be left to the saints. Journalists
on both sides need the freedom to move and report freely in each others
country. Thats the important point. Why should we grant these privileges
(thats what they are at present as opposed to core media rights) only
to the western media and not to each others scribes? Heres an opportunity
to turn our back on that lingering slavery to the West.
To sum up, remember the song
the Beatles look-alike vultures sang in the famous film based on Kiplings
Jungle Book? We are friends, the lovely vultures sang in unison. It
is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that where men are seen as frail
and failing, the quest for missing vultures may be the right way to
go if we are serious about becoming friends.
Jawed Naqvi can be reached