Monday, February 20, 2012

Revisiting my documentary on China's Sky Train

In 2006 I had the opportunity to travel on the Train to Lhasa--a technological marvel. On the web these days there is a lot of discussions on the train and its importance to China's hold over Tibet. That's why thought I will post my write up and the link to the film I made on the Train in August 2006.

Enjoy the film here:


Read here

AUGUST10, 2007

Exactly a year ago, an NDTV team had an opportunity to travel to the roof of the world, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet on the spanking new train which can be only be described as a modern day wonder. Both of us-- me and cameraperson colleague Thulashreedharan -- were on the train just a month after the train started its commercial operations.

Now, as I recall that journey, one realises what a stupendous effort the Chinese have put in and how the train will change several strategic theories that the Indian security establishment has held dear for a long time. But security considerations apart, the journey itself is worth recounting.

Till June last year, getting to Lhasa meant either a long and hard road journey or an expensive air one. But now more and more westerners as well as ordinary Chinese are increasingly using the train to discover Tibet.

Take Chinese army officer, Lt Peter Chang, for instance. Ordinarily, he would have spent his three-week leave somewhere near his post in north-eastern China but this time, Chang could not resist taking a ride on the spanking new train to Lhasa. " Earlier it was very expensive to fly to Tibet but now with the train having started its operations, it has become possible to see this distant part of China," he was telling me as the train hurtled across the vast plains of Tibet.

Lt Chang was not alone in grabbing the first available opportunity to take the train ride to Tibet. Jessie Wang, like Chang, was a long way off from south-eastern China's Fujian province. This was the young entrepreneur's first trip to Tibet -- again made possible by the Qinghai-Tibet railway--- also known as the sky train since most of its journey is above 4,000 metre --allowing curious tourists like Chang and Jessie to make their first journey to the mysterious, spiritual land that is Tibet.

As Jessie, who surprisingly spoke fluent English, said: "I had always dreamt of visiting Lhasa...coming on this train is a dream come true but since this is the first time, I have come in a group. I want to understand and study Tibetan culture."

It's a long, 30-hour journey even from Lanzhou (where we boarded) in western China's Gansu province to Lhasa but the train is comfortable and equipped with state of the art facilities like pressurised cabins fitted with special oxygen kits. After Golmud, the capital of the Qinghai province, at 3,800 m or over 11,000 feet, the air begins to thin perceptibly and oxygen is released throughout the train making it easier for passengers to breathe normally.

And through the journey there are constant announcements asking passengers to contact rail staff if they felt uncomfortable. The coach attendants are quick and responsive, even though few of them speak English.

There are three kinds of tickets you can buy. A standard coach ticket from Beijing to Lhasa called a hard seat, sells for $48. A hard sleeper or bunk is $106 and a shared compartment or soft sleeper is pegged at $148. The soft sleeper coach also has folding seats, which allow you to sit and gaze at the awe inspiring and stark Tibetan plateau.

There's no fear of going hungry on the long journey since the dining car is well stocked with freshly cooked food. The menu is Chinese and Tibetan, noodles, momos, steaks, grilled fish, the works. But vegetarians would find the going tough. Beer lovers, on the other hand, will be pleased to discover that a can of Chinese beer is just a dollar--and even cheaper than a bottle of mineral water.

The train slows down from 120 to 100 kilometers per hour in the frozen earth areas where the permafrost stretches across the endless expanse of the Tibetan plateau. Through the window the bewitching beauty of the landscape packs an almost physical punch.

Wild donkeys, horses and yaks are framed dramatically against the snow-capped mountains. At Golmud, the capital of Qinghai province, the final stretch of the railway line to Lhasa begins. This train is culmination of a long-held Chinese desire.

Old dream

The Chinese had dreamt of easy access and communication to Tibet for at least half a century. And one of the first to articulate this desire was Ying Fatang, who was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Tibet Autonomous Region.

He came to Tibet in 1951 when he was 34 and worked here for over 20 years. His legendary life is interwoven with the mountains of Tibet. Yin Fatang's experience and knowledge told him that China needed to build the Qinghai-Tibet Railway urgently if it wanted to ensure total control over Tibet. And with this proposal he went to meet Deng Xiaoping, then China's supreme leader in the early 1980s. Deng was equally enthusiastic.

And thus began what Deng called the "dream of the century." Work on the world's highest railway line began in 2001 and in less than six years after the project began, train services began operating. The first train rolled into Lhasa on July 1, 2006. We made the historic journey in the first week of August last year.

Like us, most passengers are first time travellers to Tibet. Cameras clicked furiously as the train, pulled by two specially designed diesel locomotives, made its way up the mountains. At precisely 2.50 pm, there was much excitement as we reached the highest point in this journey--the 5072 metre or 16,640 feet high Tanggula Pass.

No railway track has been built at such an altitude before. And no track is likely to be built at such an altitude again since no other plateau in the world rises as high as Tibet. The pass is part of the formidable Kunlun range, long considered impenetrable. These mountains form the northern flank of a huge area of permafrost that stretches for hundreds of kilometers across the Tibetan plateau toward the Himalayas. Above the permafrost is a layer of ice that melts and refreezes every day--as the sun rises and sets.

After years of research, Chinese engineers solved the problem by developing a technique that enabled them to permanently freeze the top level of ice and prevent the daily pattern of melting and refreezing. Also, coolants are pumped into the earth to ensure the ground near the tunnels and pillars remains frozen.

At these altitudes the other tricky issue was the lack of oxygen. When humans live above an altitude of over 4000 meters the strain on the body is like walking in the plains with 25 kilograms on your back. Sustained work over long stretches here can damage internal organs as well as cause high altitude sickness.

But despite these huge problems construction began and workers had to carry a 2.5 kg air tank with them. Even this was inadequate and they were forced to take a break every two hours. When that did not help it was decided to set up oxygen stations all along the way. Once the oxygen shortage and frozen land problems were cracked, the workers were able to finish ten meters of work each day. And they worked inwards from each end towards the centre.

But the project has its critics who say the railway will not benefit the Tibetans as much as the Chinese from other parts of the country. They are descending on Lhasa in droves to set up business. These new migrants are better educated and also have access to lines of credit that most Tibetans lack.

Chinese businessmen are seeking a fortune in new business opportunities in Tibet. Every day there are new hotels and restaurants opening up in Lhasa, in anticipation of the coming tourist boom. But local Tibetans have very little stake in the economic upturn.

Most new enterprises are owned by Chinese traders streaming into Tibet from other parts of China. Tibetans get to do only low-end jobs.

Within the next three-four years, the trains will bring in irreversible changes to the Tibet the world has known so far. Many poor Tibetans from rural areas still throng to monasteries like Jokhang for pilgrimage but soon they will be outnumbered by curious tourists and Han Chinese entrepreneurs.

Wa Ming, who manages an upmarket restaurant in Lhasa, for instance, has come all the way from north-east China, some 4,000 km away. She employs more than half-a-dozen Tibetans. Even at Barkhor street, famous for hawking Tibetan knick-knacks, Chinese rock and pop albums out-sale Tibetan music.

On the train itself, none of these concerns are apparent. Many Han Chinese are simply happy to be able to travel to Tibet, which has remained inaccessible to most of them so far. The Potala Palace, once the winter palace of the Dalai lama, is in fact so popular that the curator has put a daily ceiling of 2,300 visitors, to ensure the largely clay and wood structure does not crumble under the weight of eager tourists.

The influx of tourists after the opening of the railway has led the palace management to admit an additional 500 visitors per day. But the price of an entry ticket will be tripled to scare away the budget-conscious and reduce the burden of human weight on the fragile building.

With four trains steaming into Lhasa everyday, more than 2,500 passengers, most of them tourists, have begun arriving in the Tibetan capital creating additional pressure on the civic facilities But for the Tibetans, the tourists are not the problem. The influx of the Han Chinese from mainland China is the long term concern.

More prosperous, better connected and definitely more enterprising, the Han Chinese have already begun controlling major enterprises in Tibet. Because of the train, more and more Chinese are making a bee-line to the new Eldarado. With time, many Tibetans fear they will be reduced to a minority in their own land. And Tibetan activists point out that Beijing will now be able to send in more troops to the area with greater ease.

That this railway will bind the region both economically and politically more closely to the mainland is a fact that supporters and critics of the project agree on. It is on the implications of this new link that opinions differ dramatically. But how exactly this train will transform Tibet and how it will impact a way of life which has been slow to change will only emerge with time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Army HQ restructuring gets under way

Amid the unfortunate controversy over the current Army Chief Gen VK Singh's age issue, the restructuring process of the Indian Army Headquarters under the new transformation plan has quietly begun to roll out at South Block.

Under the new plan, the two Deputy Chiefs of Army Staff (DCOAS) have been given new and specific responsibilities to lessen the burden of the Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS), the man who virtually runs the 1.3 million-strong Army on a day-to-day basis.

The implementation of the first phase of this transformation has gathered speed with the appointment of Lt. Gen Ramesh Halgali as the new Deputy Chief of Army Staff (Information Systems & Training) on Monday.

 The other Deputy Chief of Army Staff (Policy and Services), Lt. Gen. Narinder Singh had taken over late last year.

Although the Army HQ has had two Deputy Chiefs looking after various functions for some years, a new and clear demarcation of responsibilities entrusted to them is aimed at streamlining the functioning and speed up decision-making processes at the apex level.

So while Lt. Gen Halgali will be responsible for Military Training, Signals (communication), Information Systems (automation), Staff duties (UN Missions etc), Rashtriya Rifles, Territorial Army and Defence Service Corps (the security guards at select military installations and campuses), Lt. Gen Narinder Singh will look after Procurement, Financial Planning, Perspective Planning and various ‘line’ directorates like Armoured Corps, Artillery, Mech Infantry etc.

This arrangement is designed to somewhat ease the burden on the Vice Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen SK Singh. The Vice Chief of Army Staff has to not only give crucial decisions relating to day-today operational matters, but has to also liaise with the Defence Ministry and attend several high-level meetings with other functionaries from different ministries. 

The streamlined hierarchy is likely to give little more time and space for the Vice Chief of Army Staff to function more efficiently.  

In the Indian system, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) has traditionally been giving broad policy direction for others to implement his ideas and concepts.

Lt. Gen Halgali, who came into limelight after he blew the whistle on the Sukna land issue when he was Chief of Staff at HQ 33 Corps as a Major General, was scheduled to take over as Deputy Chief last November but an adverse administrative remark on his record during the Sukna issue delayed his taking over the post by three months. Gen Halgali was Director General, Military Training before taking over as Deputy Chief on Monday.

As Chief of Staff at 33 Corps HQ in North Bengal, he had resisted attempts by the then Corps Commander Lt. Gen. PK Rath and the then Military Secretary, Lt. Gen Avadesh Prakash to issue a no-objection certificate for a transferring a piece of land adjacent to the Corps HQ to a business consortium for establishing a branch of the famous Mayo College.

Both PK Rath and Avadesh Prakash have been indicted in the case by an Army Court Martial. Gen. Halgali had got initially received an administrative rap for not reporting the matter expeditiously but has now been cleared of all charges since it later emerged that he had prevented the illegal attempt by his seniors to allow the group of businessman and the two generals to take advantage of loopholes in the system.

As Deputy Chief, Gen. Halgali will be in chair for nearly a year and three months to take forward the process of transformation both at the Army HQ level and down the line. Conceptualised in 2010 after a two-year study by a group of top generals under the current army chief, Gen VK Singh when he was the Eastern Army commander, the transformation aims to turn the lumbering Army into "an agile, lethal, versatile and networked force, which is capability-based to meet future challenges". In a couple of interviews with me, Gen VK Singh has said the transformation must be 360 degrees and "enhance operational capability through reorganisation, restructuring, force development and relocation".

The concept is based on 13 transformation studies. These range from ways to consolidate strike capabilities and "flatten" HQs, to "synergising" all resources. Some of the Army's new transformative concepts are already being "test-bedded".

Monday, February 13, 2012

A peep in the past to understand the present

What I reported on the Assembly elections in Manipur exactly a decade ago!
Former Congress CM Rishang Keishing (left) and Radhabinod Koijam (right)
Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers
Politicians keep the campaign low-key fearing the people's ire. And it looks like a hung assembly.

The public anger against them and their parties, as displayed in Imphal on June 18, 2001, when the state assembly building was burnt down by a rampaging crowd, refuses to go away from the collective memories of the politicians in the northeastern state of Manipur. As a result, most contestants in the upcoming state assembly polls slated for February 14 and 21 are keeping a low profile, lest the people's wrath boil over again.

Public anger had come to the fore on two counts: the insensitive handling of the extension of the Naga ceasefire to Manipur and the continuous squabbling the politicians indulged in to grab power after President's rule was imposed less than two years after the state assembly was elected in February 2000. 
Now former friends are fighting as foes in an election that comes at a time when the state is completely bankrupt and the people's confidence in the political class at an all-time low.

Two key NDA constituents at the Centre—the BJP and the Samata Party—are ranged against each other while the Congress, still led by former chief minister Rishang Keishing, is looking desperately to make a new beginning. Since no party is confident of getting a majority on its own, power equations in the state will become clear only in the post-election phase.

Indeed, change of loyalties overnight has been part and parcel of Manipur politics for some time now. Allies become enemies and sworn rivals join hands merely to share power. As one Congress politician puts it, "Ideology has no place in Manipur. As long as the ends (of achieving power) are met, all means are justified." Take the case of Radhabinod Koijam, the last chief minister before the assembly was dissolved. He was a Congressman all his life before he along with 11 of the 12 Congress MLAs defected and joined the Samata Party. Koijam enjoyed the outside support of 23 BJP MLAs but in less than three months, the BJP pulled the plug and the Koijam ministry fell.

To gauge the extent of the flip-flop defections, one has to only compare party positions immediately after the assembly elections and when it was dissolved. After the elections in February 2000, the BJP and Samata had seven MLAs between them. The Congress had 12 legislators and the single-largest party in the 60-seat assembly was the Manipur State Congress Party (MSCP), led by W. Nipamacha Singh, with 23 MLAs. Nipamacha Singh duly formed a government with the support of smaller parties like the Federal Party of Manipur and independents. In less than a year, he was ousted by Koijam, who crossed over with 11 of the 12 Congress MLAs to the Samata. Simultaneously, the MSCP split and 20 MLAs joined the BJP, taking the party's strength to 26.

Koijam himself did not last more than three months. Now he's hoping to once again stitch together another coalition, this time sans the BJP, and come back to power. Meanwhile, the latter, largerly seen as the villain of the piece on both counts (pulling down the Koijam ministry as well as extending the ceasefire with the Naga rebels without taking the sensitivities of the Manipuris into account), is in a shambles. A new regional political formation, the Democratic People's Party (DPP), has come to the fore but most anaylysts once again expect a hung assembly.

Public anger has made the politicians wary. So there have been no major political rallies. Campaigning has been largely limited to door-to-door contact programmes. Even here, the candidates in the fray have had to face a volley of sharp questions from the angry electorate. 

All the political parties, aware of the groundswell of resentment over the ceasefire issue, have vowed to protect the territorial integrity of the state, at any cost. The fear among the Meiteis (majority of the Manipuris) is that the Centre may give away a part of Manipur to the Naga rebels as a sop to remain within the Indian union.Meanwhile, while the political parties are concerned about public anger, the administration, led by Governor Ved Marwah, is concerned over the security scenario. With nearly 18 militant groups active in the state and less than 30 paramilitary companies at his disposal against a requirement of 294 companies, Marwah and his advisors have a big task ahead ensuring a violence-free poll.

Says chief electoral officer D.S. Poonia: "We are very concerned over the lack of adequate troops for the election. With the existing level of troops, it will be difficult to conduct the polls in a safe and effective manner." Already several of the candidates have been attacked and their houses torched in the very low-key run-up to the polls. Even so, as D-day approaches, senior security officials can do little but keep their fingers crossed. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Bangladesh Army rises to the occasion

That secular, liberal democratic forces in Bangladesh are far from well-entrenched was once again proved in the past two months when a small group of mid-level officers in the Bangladesh Army with extreme religious views tried to instigate a coup against the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina.

In a rare occurrence, the Bangladesh Army came out with a public statement on the abortive attempt. Making the announcement, its spokesman, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Mashud Razzak, said 14-16 mid-level army officers might have been involved in the bid.
The spokesman said retired officers Lt. Col. Ehsan Yusuf and Major Zakir had been arrested.

The main plotter of the coup was identified as one Major Zia (Syed Mohammad Ziaul Huq), now on the run, had been actively engaged in plotting and executing of the conspiracy through social media networks and mobile phones.

A day after the announcement , Bangladesh's elite counter-terrorist force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) arrested five members of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir from Dhaka, after the army said it had foiled a coup attempt. Sources said Major Zia-ul-Haq was linked to the extremist religious group.

A detective of the RAB was injured during the arrests, some media reports said.

The Bangladesh army had said in its announcement that Major Haq's links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir are proved, as the extremist outfit distributed leaflets reading the 'Tale of Major Zia-ul-Haq' soon after his remarks about his 'detention' were posted on Facebook. 

Major Haq was posted at the Mirpur Cantonment, near the capital Dhaka. Sources say plotters belong to an anti-India group, and felt Dhaka was getting too close to New Delhi.

According to the Bangladesh army, Major Haq met a senior officer on December 22 and tried to provoke him into using the army against the state. The officer immediately informed the appropriate authorities, and his leave and transfer orders were cancelled.  

Major Haq sent an email late last month alleging, among other charges, an Indian plot to turn Bangladesh into a client state.Maj Haq and his fellow plotters have been against the recent growing closeness between Dhaka and New Delhi.
And email and Facebook posting circulated n Bangladesh by this group of disgruntled and fanatic officers is both scary and revealing for its anti-India stance. It said in part: The BDR carnage was a planned massacre on the Army to  eliminate many of the bright, upright and capable officers to render it unable to defend the independence of Bangladesh anymore. Some of the corrupt political leaders including few of the Generals and Senior Officers were the local players beside the neighboring foreign Intelligence Agency, RAW. This is an open secret to all ranks of Bangladesh Military Forces and the mass population by this time. The collaborators of BDR massacre are now trying to save its key planners by hiding the real issues, launching mass cases against BDR soldiers, killing those who know the facts. The whole massacre was about a step ahead to make the country a surrogate state of India like ‘Sikkim’. These patriotic martyred officers were one of the major obstacles of this vice (sic) plan.

"Some of the top brass of Bangladesh Army e.g. present CGS, General Moinul, DG DGFI, Maj General Mamun Khaled, Logistic Area Commander Maj General Reza Noor, Brigadier General  Motiur, ADG, DGFI and many others have sold their loyalty to RAW to serve their purpose in this country. DGFI has become, by this time, an active tool of neighboring Intelligence Organization, RAW to achieve this objective of making this country a surrogate state. Some of the senior officials of DGFI are in fact receiving regular salaries and benefits from RAW for doing the job on their behalf.”
The coup attempt was in fact unravelled by the combined efforts of Indian operatives and Bangladesh intelligence, highly-placed sources in both countries said.
The Facebook rant was in fact prompted by the fact that top RAW officials were in Bangladesh helping their counterparts to solve the mystery and get to the root of the conspiracy.
The email and facebook entry had this to say: “Every week 2/3 officers are being arrested / abducted by DGFI with different plea. Recently, Maj Zia …was arrested and now he is fleeing with his life here and there. On the other hand, some of the serving officers are interviewed by joint team of RAW and DGFI in Chittagong and elsewhere. Nobody knows, how many officers are arrested and abducted in different divisions till now as they have successfully created a mistrust among the officers to not to share these kinds of information."

Investigators said the coup plotters believed that Indian agents and their collaborators were bent upon erasing the Muslim identity in Bangladesh. “…They have a plan to erase the Muslim identity of this Army and the mass population at large. Specially, within Army, the Generals and senior officers who are with the ‘RAW controlled group’ have demonstrated unbecoming attitude towards many of the Muslim practices. Some of those Generals forcefully made young officers to shave their beards,” the plotters said in the email.
The conspirators cited recent Indo-Bangladesh agreements to enhance their mutual cooperation to point towards an Indian conspiracy to subsume Bangladesh’s identity.
“ The signs and symptoms of this vice plan of turning this country into another ‘Sikkim’ at national level are: giving away transit facilities to India without any financial benefits by destroying many of the river channels and road systems, reducing the presence of the Army at the Chittagong Hill Tracts, erasing ‘bismillah’ and ‘reliance upon Allah’ from the constitution, security operations of Indian security forces in Sylhet and elsewhere inside the country denying the rights of an independent state, formulating women and education policies against the religious customs and norms of mass population, saving the culprits of share market scandals, zero resistance against illegal ‘Tipaimukh’ dam, no resistance against regular killing of innocent Bangladeshi population by Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) and destroying the whole economic system of the country…”
Therefore, the plotters said: “The mid-level officers (Lt Col and below) have decided to rise up in this grave situation of the Army and the motherland itself. Otherwise, the Bangladesh Army and the independence of this country are at a stake.”  
Clearly, resentment against India and the decision of the Awami League government to return to secular, democratic norms in governing the country, have a section of middle-level Army officers up in arms.
As Haroon Habib, veteran journalist and a Mukti Yodha, wrote in The Hindu: “Bangladesh is no stranger to military interference in state affairs. It has endured many coups and mutinies in its 40 years of existence, as well as long spells of military rule. Ambitious generals have used the army to implement their designs. As it was part of Pakistan for 24 years, Bangladesh also has the passed-on legacy of the military meddling in politics.
In the first such intrusion, the founding father of the country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with most of his family members, was assassinated in August 1975. The tragedy reverted the nation's normal course from secular democracy, which was the guiding force of the 1971 War of Liberation. The coups and counter-coups following the 1975 bloody changeover for two decades were instrumental in the destruction of democratic institutions and the rehabilitation of the fundamentalist elements that were defeated in the historic national war.”
That the coup attempt was ‘nipped in the bud,’ as a senior Awami League functionary described it, has come as a big relief to both New Delhi and Dhaka. But what is more significant is the stand taken by the Bangladesh Army. In a statement announcing the abortive coup, the Army said in a rare statement: “In the past, different evil forces banked on [the] Bangladesh Army which grew out of victory in the Liberation War to create disorder and gain political advantage. Sometimes, they succeeded and, on some occasions, they failed. Even so, as an organisation, the Bangladesh Army has been carrying the burden of the disrepute such forces have earned in the past. The professionally efficient and well disciplined members of [the] Bangladesh Army would like to say, ‘We do not want to bear this liability on the shoulders of our organization'.”
Cleary, unlike in Pakistan, India’s Western neighbour, the Army in Bangladesh is not interested in reversing the democratisation of its country’s polity.