It’s a question without easy or simple answers. Policy makers come in different forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables — such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.
I revisited this question this week when speaking to a group of young (early to mid-career) researchers from across South Asia who want to study many facets of global change. They were brought together at a regional workshop held in in Paro, Bhutan, by the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) and the National Environment Commission of the Royal Government of Bhutan.
Titled as the ‘Proposal Development Training Workshop (PDTW)’ and held from 14 to 16 December 2016, PDTW aimed “to raise awareness of APN among early career scientists and practitioners, and to increase the capacity to develop competitive proposals for submission to APN”.
The workshop involved two dozen researchers and half a dozen mentors. I was the sole mentor covering the important aspect of communicating research.
I urged researchers to try and better understand the imperfect, often unpredictable conditions in which South Asia’s policy makers operate.
Researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods. The policy cycle cannot run according to text book ideals when governments have to regularly cope with economic uncertainties, political upheavals and social unrest, etc.
Imagine what keeps your policy makers awake at night, I suggested. Are they worried about balance of payment, disaster responses or a Parliamentary majority? How can research findings, while being evidence based, help solve problems of economic development and governance?
I also suggested that researchers should map out the information behaviour of their policy makers: where do they get info to act on? Is there a way research findings can be channeled to policy makers through some of these sources – such as the media, professional bodies and international development partners?
I suggested two approaches to communicating research outcomes to policy makers: directly, using own publications and/or social media; and indirectly by working with and through the media.
Finally, I shared some key findings of a global study in 2012 by SciDev.Net (where I was an honorary trustee for nearly a decade) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policy makers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.
If there’s one thing (many) South Asian nations have in abundance, it’s people. Now, countries of this populous region are competing to hold the world record in an unusual phenomenon called the human national flag.
On 23 August 2014, more than 35,000 Nepalese came together in Kathmandu’s city centre to form the world’s largest “human national flag”. The feat was best seen from the air, and had a special visual significance too: the Himalayan nation has the world’s only flag which is not a quadrilateral (it’s made up of two triangles).
The exercise was billed as an effort to ‘unite the hearts of Nepal’. As seen from the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/events/1521476671414710/), it entailed plenty of preparation. Unless you’re in North Korea, getting thousands of people to perform an act of mass coordination isn’t easy.
Pakistanis beat Bangladesh to this record. A total of 27,117 volunteers, mostly students, stood up with red and green blocks to form their flag at the National Parade Ground in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar in Dhaka on 16 December 2013. They stood there for 6 minutes 16 seconds, though the requirement for setting a new world record was 5 minutes.
So here’s a chance for Sri Lanka’s patriots to literally fly their flag into a world record. Of course, coordinating the creation of the Lion Flag will be more demanding (making up Pakistani and Bangladeshi flags is relatively easier than Nepal’s).
News feature published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper, 23 January 2014
South Asian Coasts Reeling Under Pressure
By Nalaka Gunawardene in Pondicherry, India
As economic development gathers pace in South Asia, its coastal regions are coming under pressure as never before. More ports, power plants and tourist resorts are jostling with fishermen and farmers.
Balancing livelihoods, economic growth and environmental conservation is the only way to avoid a major resource crisis, acknowledged participants at the South Asia Convention on Coastal Management held in Pondicherry, India, from 19 to 21 January 2014.
Over 70 senior government officials, researchers, civil society activists and journalists from Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka came together for this event, organised by Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Pondicherry-based citizen group, PondyCAN.
They reported how a disproportionately high share of South Asia’s industrialisation, urbanisation and tourism development is concentrated along its combined 11,240 km of coastline. In total, coastal areas support livelihoods of some 400 million South Asians through fisheries, tourism and other activities.
In many parts of the region, high population density exists alongside sensitive ecosystems – such as mangroves and coral reefs and river estuaries. This intensifies the challenge of managing coastal resources. Climate change impacts, already felt as extreme weather events, add to these pressures.
Participants discussed strategies for regulating coastal development, protecting coastal habitats and coping with climate change.
They agreed on the urgent need for improving scientific understanding of coastal regions, which begins with clearly defining, demarcating and mapping such areas. Evidence based policy making and effective regulation depend on such a knowledge base, currently lacking or inadequate.
“There is a need to strengthen regulatory systems, build capacity and do more research to better manage coastal challenges in South Asia,” said Sunita Narain, Director General of CSE.
In CSE’s view, she said, the most important intervention is to strengthen existing institutions to get them to deliver with greater transparency and accountability.
She added: “We need to balance conservation with benefits to local communities. We also need partnerships between conservation, development and livelihoods without which coastal resource management is not possible in a region like South Asia”.
Only such an approach can reconcile the many pressures faced by South Asia’s maritime countries including poverty, depleting resources, increasing hazards and large scale enterprises seeking quick profits from the coastal resources.
“We need to make sure these plans incorporate climate change to make them more meaningful to countries like ours,” he added.
Large scale infrastructure development projects are adding to other pressures. India – which already has 202 commercial ports and 27 thermal power plants on its coastline – is planning another 76 ports and 59 power plants. Over 70% of Sri Lanka’s tourist hotels are located in the coastal zone, with more coming up. The scramble for the coast is increasing in other countries, too.
Meanwhile, over two thirds of the world’s ship breaking takes place on open beaches in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan with little regard for worker health or environmental pollution. It is a highly hazardous industry with lucrative returns for operators.
Participants agreed on the need for the South Asian countries to share experiences and approaches and to learn from each other.
Premaratne pointed out that laws and regulations are just one strategy for better managing coastal areas. Other strategies include awareness raising and public education, and the involvement of local communities in resource management and benefit sharing.
Participants also stressed the need for placing all scientific information and maps in the public domain. Right now, these are often trapped in state agencies or research institutes, with no easy access to researchers or other citizens.
Probir Banerjee, President PondyCAN, stressed that the “worst affected are the people living at the margins and the objective has to be to enhance livelihoods, and not compromise them.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I take a look at rampant conspiracy theories in Pakistan, arguably the most conspiracy-happy country in South Asia. This is partly inspired by my recent visit to Karachi, a strong contender for the title ‘conspiracy capital of the world’.
From weather extremes to food shortages, and from political violence to maternal health, every aspect of life in Pakistan is linked to a ‘foreign conspiracy’ supposedly meant to undermine the nation.
Some of these tall tales provide harmless amusement, while others have dire consequences for public health and safety. I cite two examples: resistance to polio vaccination, and misplaced and widespread fear of iodised salt.
Deep down in our hearts, we are all Volkswagen Beetle fans: some of us have owned one (my first car was a red bug!), others dream of doing so. The world’s most enduringly popular car design has a particular appeal in South Asia.
And now, South Asian VW Beetle fans have a adorable new mascot. Move over, Disney’s Love Bug (thanks for tons of fun); welcome, Spinal Beetle!
My friend – and hero – Kanak Mani Dixit and his wife Shanta have just completed a 2,200 km (1,100 mile) journey in their nearly 40-year-old Beetle that took them from Kathmandu in Nepal to Peshawar in Pakistan. It was a 12-day, 3-country drive that was to raise funds for spinal injury treatment in Nepal.
By happy coincidence, I was in Kathmandu on 4 Nov 2011 when the President of Nepal waved off Kanak and Shanta on their journey from the President’s House. It was an informal gathering of friends and well-wishers — with none of the pomposity usually associated with heads of state.
So the photos in this post are all mine. The text that follows is from Kanak and his media team:
The ‘Great Nepal-India-Pakistan Spinal Beetle Drive’ arrived in Peshawar on 16 November, ending a 1100-mile odyssey that took the 1973 VW Beetle from Kathmandu through Lucknow, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
“It was an exhilarating journey across the friendly landmass of Southasia, and I hope a pointer towards easy land-crossings for people from all our countries,” said Dixit. “Most of our journey was along the Grand Trunk Road, built originally by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century. The 21st century demands that we open this highway for the people, commerce and ideas to flow.”
The journey of the sky-blue Beetle was conducted with three goals of promoting ‘land connectivity’ in Southasia, developing links between spinal injury institutions across the Subcontinent, and raising funds for the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre in Nepal.
“The matter of land connectivity is important because airline links can never provide the mass-level contact that our people and economies deserve. One would want to see the same cacophony at the Atari-Wagah border as at the Nepal-India border of Bhairahawa-Sunauli,” said Dixit.
The trip was helpful in developing linkages between organisations such as the Spinal Centre in Nepal, the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi (ISIC), the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, the National Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in Islamabad, the Armed Forces Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in Rawalpindi, and the Paraplegic Centre in Peshawar.
As for the goal of raising emergency funds for the Spinal Centre-Nepal in order to cope with sudden rise in demand for its services, Dixit said that a little over half of the USD 110,000 goal had been raised. “We hope to complete our goal through a retroactive campaign because the spinally injured of Nepal badly need support,” he said.
Dixit is a civil rights activist, writer and journalist who injured his spine in a trekking accident a decade ago. The Spinal Centre was started in 2002 and inaugurated by the late Sir Edmund Hillary.
In the ‘Spinal Beetle’ driven by Dixit, he was accompanied by Shanta Dixit, educator and founding member of the Spinal Centre-Nepal. The back-up car, a Mahindra Bolero, included VW Beetle specialist Naresh Nakarmi, Spinal Centre staff member Suman Khadka and Eelum Dixit, doing videography and photography. Social worker Meera Jyoti is chair of the Spinal Centre-Nepal.
The Spinal Beetle drive was flagged off on 4 November by President Ram Baran Yadav of Nepal. In New Delhi, it was received by Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia, founder of ISIC, as well as journalist Kuldip Nayar and actor Om Puri. The physicist and peace activist A.H. Nayyar received the Spinal Beetle at the Wagah-Atari border. Throughout the Southasian drive, the team was graciously hosted by members of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and other organisations, such as the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development in Agra, and Asha for Education in Lucknow.
Among the many interesting aspects of the trip, from the emotional to the historical, Dixit includes the following:
• The Spinal Beetle team responded to the request of 96-year-old Barkat Singh ‘Pahalwan’ of Jalandhar (Indian Punjab) that some earth be collected from his childhood village of Fatehgarh near Sialkot (Pakistani Punjab). Taking a detour from the GT Road, the team found the place, which had now become an urban suburb of Sialkot, and collected a jarful of agricultural earth for Barkat Singh. (for a picture of Barkat Singh and other images, go to ‘Selected Photographs’ on http://www.sirc.org.np)
• The memory of Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan sultan from present-day Bihar who ruled from Agra, followed the team through much of the route, which he had regularised in the mid-16th century as an administrative and commercial artery. His memory was revived by the ‘kos’ markers along the Delhi-Chandigarh stretch, a neglected postal station outside Wazirabad, the great roadside banyans providing shade to travellers then and now, and the Rohtas Fort on the approach to Rawalpindi.
• Having started in the Lumbini region of Nepal, where the Buddha was born more than 2,500 years ago, the Spinal Beetle ended its journey in the Gandhar region around Peshawar, a vast centre for Buddhist learning, art and architecture where the Sakyamuni was first etched in human form a few centuries later. In the Potohar Plateau near Islamabad, the Spinal Beetle visited the gigantic Buddhist stupa at the village of Manikyal.
• Arriving in Agra, the Spinal Beetle visited the Taj Mahal on the day of Eid ul-Azha. It arrived in Amritsar and visited Harminder Saheb (the Golden Temple) on the Guru Nanak’s birthday. Passing Gorkha District of Nepal (named after the Gorakhnath temple situated there), the Spinal Beetle traversed Gorakhpur, the base of the Nath sect, and ended its journey in Peshawar where the team visited the Gorakhnath Temple there, opened only a month ago after 60 years of closure. The Delhi-Amritsar leg of the journey was started with a visit to the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia.
• After watching the mock-militarist show at the Wagah-Atari border between the Indian and Pakistani goose-stepping men in khaki, that very evening the team attended a play on Bhagat Singh and his fight for independence, put on by the Ajoka Theatre of Lahore.
• The Bharatpur government hospital in Chitwan District of Nepal was the first stop of the Spinal Beetle out of Kathmandu. The Bharatpur hospital sought help for setting up a spinal injury rehabilitation unit, which is in line with the Spinal Centre’s belief in decentralising rehabilitation. As a gesture of goodwill for the Nepal-India-Pakistan drive, the hospital committee donated NRs 50,000, which was gratefully received.
• In New Delhi, Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia of ISIC suggested that Dixit work to set up a Southasian network for spinal injury rehabilitation, given the specificity of the need. There was an enthusiastic response to this idea throughout the rest of the trip all the way to the Paraplegic Centre in Peshawar.
• At the Mayo Hospital in Lahore, the Medical Superintendent Dr. Zahid Pervaiz and Head of Rehabilitation Medicine Dr. Waseem Iqbal provided information on spinal injury and trauma response that had been developed in Pakistan. They graciously offered four-year full fellowships for two doctors to be sent by the Spinal Centre-Nepal.
• In Islamabad, the Nepal team got specific information on the response to the 2005 earthquake which hit Kashmir and the Hazara division. The team invited Pakistani specialists to Kathmandu to share information on the medical, rescue, social work and humanitarian aspects, so that Nepal would be better able to tackle the mega-tremor that is projected to hit Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas before long.
• In Islamabad, activist and politician Nafisa Khattak introduced the team to the Melody Theatre, which had served as a staging ground for the sudden rush of victims from the 2005 earthquake. Poignantly, this only cinema hall of the city had been set to torch by a radical mob some years earlier.
• In Agra, members of the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development reminded the team that while there were 8-9 neurosurgeons in the city, there was no rehabilitation centre.
• The Volkswagen Club of Pakistan (VCP) took the Spinal Beetle under its wings in Islamabad and made sure that the car was made ship-shape after the climb up from the Punjab plains. Discussion was started with the club members about organising a VW Beetle rally from Islamabad all the way to Dhaka through India and via Kathmandu, as an exemplary means to develop people-to-people contact in the Subcontinent. This would require cooperation between the VCP, the Association of Nepal’s Beetle Users (ANBUG), the Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh and the Volkswagen Beetle community in India.
• At a meeting organised by the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and the Islamabad Cultural Forum, Dixit spoke on the theme of ‘land connectivity’ in Southasia. “If on an old VW Beetle can do the Kathmandu-to-Peshawar trip with ease, imagine how easy it will be for everyone else.” At this time of geopolitical rapprochement between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a special push must be made for land connectivity, he added. “Let a hundred thousand networks bloom across Southasia, in the spectrum from spinal injury to VW Beetles and beyond, to bring the people together.”
More on the Spinal Beetle drive: The sudden rise of the number of patients over the last year has forced the Spinal Centre-Nepal to raise its service from 39 beds to 51. We seek to raise USD 110,000 from the 1,100 mile journey of the Spinal Beetle, at the ‘rate’ of USD 100 per mile from friends and supporters worldwide. By the time the Spinal Beetle arrived at Peshawar on 16 November, a little over half that amount had been raised. The Spinal Beetle Rally is also an effort to raise awareness of spinal injury prevention, rescue, care and rehabilitation in the Subcontinent.
The Spinal Beetle has done the Kathmandu-Dhaka stretch twice, in 2002 and 2005, and touched base at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) in Bangladesh. The CRP would be a key institution in the networking of spinal injury rehabilitation institutions that is proposed.
Cows have been a part of South Asian cultures, economics and societies for millennia. Many among us are connected to cows in one way or another – some worship them while others feast on them. Even a secular vegetarian in South Asia – like myself – can’t avoid bumping into the occasional cow on our delightfully messy streets…
We probably gave the term ‘sacred cow’ to the English language. It means an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so. As the Wikipedia explains, “The term is based on the popular understanding of the place of cows in Indian religions as objects that have to be treated with respect, no matter how inconvenient.”
Well, some of us beg to differ on modern-day sacred cows. My latest op ed essay, just published on Groundviews.org, is all about sacred cows in rapidly modernising South Asia. It starts with my experience as a young science journalist covering the impending launch of Pakistan’s first digital communications satellite, Badr 1, in early 1990.
At the time, Pakistan had recently returned to civilian rule after many years of dictatorship, and Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister (in her first term). The political mood was generally upbeat. But I soon found out — from Pakistani journalists and independent scientists — that they weren’t allowed to ask critical questions about the country’s nuclear or space programmes.
In Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka, I write: “The message was clear: democracy or not, some sacred cows always enjoy their privileged status! This has certainly been the case with both the space and nuclear programmes in India and Pakistan: they have been shielded from public and media scrutiny for decades.
“For the past few months, it seemed as if we too were following this South Asian tradition. Plans to build Sri Lanka’s own satellites were announced and pursued with little information disclosure and no public debate. The government wanted to launch our very own ‘sacred cows’ into orbit. We the public were to just applaud on cue, and then cough up the money for it…”
The essay is a critique of Sri Lanka’s much hyped plans to build its own satellites. The project was announced in February 2009 and appeared to gain momentum during the year. Going by official statements and media reports, the plan was to launch not one but two satellites.
Suddenly, there seems to be a change of heart. In a interview on 6 June 2010 covering a range of issues, head of the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) disclosed that the government was not going ahead with the much-hyped project. At least not in its originally announced form. The reason: the very high cost, and the need to ‘explore other options such as hiring satellites’ instead of building our own.
Hmmm. Better to be wise later than never. This is the first time in over 15 months that the high costs of this high cost project have been acknowledged.
The satellite is not the only mega-science project being pursued in post-war Sri Lanka. In June 2009, the Ministry of Science and Technology directed the Atomic Energy Authority to set up a national committee to study technical and financial aspects of setting up a nuclear power plant.
Again, this mega project has not been opened up for public discussion and debate, in spite of a few citizens and activists expressing concern, highlighting safety and public health risks, high cost of construction and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal.
I end the essay arguing that as long as public safety and public funds are involved, sacred cows – whether orbital or radioactive – can’t be allowed free range.