The South Asia Channel

Record Turnout Predicted as Voting Begins in Delhi Assembly Elections

Bonus Read: "Solving a Problem Like Hamid Karzai," Candace Rondeaux (AfPak).

India 

Voting in Delhi begins

Elections for seats in Delhi's legislative assembly began on Wednesday and early reports have indicated a record turnout. Television channels were reporting a 66 percent of the electorate had come out to vote, besting the 2008 election turnout of 57 percent (Times of India). Delhi's Election Commissioner Vijay Dev recorded a 48 percent turnout by mid-afternoon and said he expected 70-75 percent of eligible voters to have cast their ballots when the polls closed (The Hindu). Delhi is the final state to hold assembly elections, after Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Chhattisgarh, in a cycle that began on Nov. 4.

Growing demand for oil

India will be the largest source of global oil demand growth after 2020, as it takes over from China as the principal engine of global growth, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Wednesday in its annual World Energy Outlook (Economic Times). India's energy demand will double by 2035 due to economic and population growth, Maria van der Hoeven, the head of the IEA, said from the sidelines of the 8th Asia Gas Partnership Summit, which is being held in New Delhi. She add that by 2035, India will be the largest importer of coal, the second-largest importer of oil, and the fourth-largest importer of gas. Coal is now the single largest source of power generation in India, providing 68 percent of the country's electricity.  

No change in visa policy for Modi 

The Obama administration had not changed its visa policy for BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Addressing a press conference on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal said there had been no changes made to rules regarding the review of visas, and when questioned about Modi, said: "So as far as I'm concerned, there's no news there" (Economic Times, NDTV). Gujarat Chief Modi has been denied a visa to the United States since 2005 for his alleged role in communal riots in Gujarat in 2002.

Horrific conditions of communal riot victims 

Victims of the August riots in Uttar Pradesh's (UP's) Muzaffarnagar district are facing a humanitarian crisis in relief camps, according to numerous reports. The Malakpur relief camp has seen nearly one death a day, with 25 of the 28 dead under one-month old (Hindustan Times). The Jamiat Ulama Hind, a body that has been conducting several mass weddings at the camps, has recorded over 700 weddings in the Kandhla, Shahpur Loi, and Jolla relief camps, many of underage girls -- some in a bid to protect girls from sexual harassment and some for the state compensation marriages fetch (Hindustan Times). The riots saw over 500 reported cases of violence between Hindu and Muslim communities in the Muzaffarnagar district, which killed 62 people, and have been described as "the worst violence in UP in recent memory." It is estimated that 10,000 people are still living in relief camps as a result of the clashes (Times of India). The central government is likely to introduce a bill with harsher sentences for communal violence this winter session. 

India offers aid and chemical weapons experts to Syria 

India's Ministry of External Affairs released a statement on Tuesday making a bid for inclusion in next month's Geneva II talks to end the Syrian war (Times of India). According to the statement , India will offer $1 million to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at The Hague, as well as contribute chemical weapons experts, to help destroy Syrian chemical weapons and facilities. 

Service sector activity shrinks

India's service sector activity shrank for the fifth straight month in November, according to figures released by HSBC on Wednesday (WSJ). The numbers sparked concerns about slower economic growth and higher inflation, even after data released last week showed the country's GDP had rebounded in the second quarter, and figures from HSBC's Purchasing Manager Index issued earlier this week showed manufacturing activity expanded in November for the first time in four months. The service sector accounts for about 60 percent of India's GDP. 

Gold fever 

Gold smugglers in India have been using increasingly inventive tactics, some surprisingly similar to the narcotics trade, intelligence officials noted on Wednesday (Reuters). According to Mumbai's Air Intelligence Unit, travelers are showing up dressed from head to toe in gold, have disguised gold as staple pins, and have even swallowed gold nuggets in carbon-concealed wrappers to escape airport security. Mumbai customs officials are mulling the creation of "gold informants" who will receive $800 for a tip, compared to the $643 and $300 fees for information leads on cocaine and heroin smuggling. 

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson 

Afghanistan 

Any signature will do 

Speaking at the annual meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Afghanistan's defense minister or someone else in the government could sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the United States and Afghanistan, effectively bypassing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has thus far refused to sign to pact (RFE/RL). Kerry emphasized the need to move the process forward, saying: "You know, his minister of defense can sign it, the government can sign it, somebody can accept responsibility for this" (Pajhwok). The two-day conference has focused heavily on Afghanistan and the stalled BSA, especially since most NATO countries are waiting to make their post-2014 commitments to Afghanistan until after the BSA is signed. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, Afghanistan's minister of defense, has not commented on Kerry's remarks.

While Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, did not echo Kerry's stance that anyone in the Afghan government could sign the BSA, he made it clear that the military alliance cannot leave even a small contingent of forces in Afghanistan when the current combat mission ends next December without a signed legal agreement allowing them to stay (Pajhwok, VOA). After the first day of the summit, Rasmussen said: "It is clear that if there is no signature on the legal agreement, there can be no deployment, and the planned assistance will be put at risk" (Post). Though he declined to offer a specific deadline for a NATO decision on what comes next, he noted that planning for continued troop commitments in Afghanistan would take time, money, and, in some countries, parliamentary approval. 

As the negotiations over the BSA remain stalled, Iran's foreign ministry weighed in on Tuesday, asking Afghanistan not to sign the security deal (RFE/RL). Marzieh Afkham, a ministry spokeswoman, said the "Islamic Republic of Iran does not consider the signing and approval of the pact useful for the long-term expedience and interests of Afghanistan," adding that the country thought the implementation of the deal would have a negative impact on the region (AP). While Iran has long opposed any agreement that would keep U.S. forces in the country, this latest statement comes as Karzai prepares to visit Iran next week. 

$36 million headache

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Army began investigating the military's decision to build a $36 million, 64,000 sq. ft. headquarters at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan when none of the commanders in the area wanted it. As the building had never been used, it became a symbol of government waste in Afghanistan, but now, Maj. Gen. James M. Richardson, the two-star Army general who conducted the initial inquiry, is saying that commissioning the high-tech facility was appropriate and U.S. troops should move in, after more work is done on the building (Post). His comments have shocked other military officers, as the White House's long-term plans in Afghanistan do not include keeping the camp open. Richardson's recommendations are currently with Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who has not yet decided whether he should accept or reject them, a spokeswoman told the Washington Post.

Pakistan 

Shipments halted

The U.S. Department of Defense released a statement on Tuesday saying that U.S. shipments from Afghanistan through Karachi have been temporarily halted to ensure the safety of the vehicles' drivers (AFP, BBC, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, VOA). The move comes after more than a week of protests against U.S. drone strikes, which were organized by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) political party and blocked the transportation route. During the protests, trucks passing through the Torkham Gate border crossing were searched for NATO supplies and some drivers were roughed up, prompting several trucker unions to threaten going on strike. While the United States has other ways to move its equipment out of Afghanistan, they are significantly more expensive (Reuters). Though he did not provide specifics, Mark Wright, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said the military expected that it would be able to resume the shipments through Pakistan in the near future.  

While the PTI claimed a "tactical success" on Wednesday, after learning about the Pentagon's decision to suspend its shipments, the party said its protests would continue until the drone strikes are stopped (AFP). Though Islamabad signed an agreement with Washington last July allowing NATO convoys to travel through Pakistan, a spokesman for the country's interior ministry said the federal government could not intervene. According to Omer Hameed Khan, "Maintaining law and order is a provincial subject and the provincial government is responsible for the security of NATO trucks, we can't direct them in this regard." The PTI controls the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the Torkham Gate is located. 

Code of conduct

As the sectarian clashes in Karachi that began in November continued into December, the leaders of the Sunni Barelvi and Ahl-e-Hadith sects and the Shiite Ahl-e-Tashih sect issued a nine-point code of conduct on Monday, vowing to end the fighting (Business Standard). According to the code, neither sect is allowed to describe anyone as a kafir (non-believer); use loudspeakers, unless making a call to prayer and for sermons; or deliver hate speeches or publish hateful materials. It also states that the sects will host joint gatherings to promote inter-sect cooperation, and calls on members to protect the rights of non-Muslim minorities and their places of worship. 

Environmental damage

Pakistan asked India to withdraw its troops from the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir on Wednesday, claiming that their presence was damaging the surrounding area and polluting one of the country's main sources of water (ET, Hindustan Times). Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's advisor on national security and foreign affairs, called the troops presence on Siachen a "serious threat" to the environment and said that it should be resolved quickly.

***

Magazine launched

Parasto Message, a new bimonthly women's magazine, has officially hit the streets in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province (Pajhwok). The first domestic magazine to focus on women's issues is being managed by a 10-person all-female staff that includes schoolteachers, college students, and culturalists. According to Marzia Tafzuly, the deputy chief of the publication, the magazine will focus on educated and active women in the province, increasing their presence in the country's cultural, political, and social arenas. 

-- Bailey Cahall

SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images