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For Signs Of Peace,
Look Out For Vultures

By Jawed Naqvi

14 March, 2007
The Dawn

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 war.

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, say.

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, Ayurvedic medicines?

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 at


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