The South Asia Channel

Pakistan Tops Infant Mortality List; Afghan Candidates Discuss Coalitions; India’s Navy Chief Resigns

Bonus Read: "Politics, and Media, Go Local in Pakistan," Huma Yusuf (SouthAsia).

Wonk Watch: "Indians Want Political Change: Modi Viewed More Favorably than Gandhi," Pew Research Global Attitudes Project (Pew Research Center). 


Report: Pakistan has world's highest infant mortality rate

International advocacy organization Save the Children stated in a new report released on Wednesday that Pakistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world (RFE/RL, VOA). According to their findings, Pakistan's rate of first-day deaths and stillbirths was at 40.7 per 1,000 births in 2012, and fewer than half of the women had a skilled health worker present at the time of birth. With nearly 1 million newborn children dying within their first 24 hours of life each year and 6.6 million children dying before their fifth birthdays, mostly from preventable causes, the report calls child mortality "one of the great shames of our modern world." 

The NGO's findings echoed those in the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey 2012-2013, also released on Wednesday, which found that one in every 14 children in Pakistan die before age 1, and one in 11 don't make it to their fifth birthday (Dawn). 

Court ruling ends NATO blockade

The Peshawar High Court provided a boost to the U.S. military on Tuesday, especially as it now makes contingency plans for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, by ordering protestors to end their blockade of the main NATO supply route in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (LAT). A two-member bench ruled that the protestors' ad hoc inspections of container trucks traveling to and from Afghanistan, and blocking trucks carrying NATO equipment, were illegal and unconstitutional. The route has been blocked since Nov. 24 by supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, which controls the provincial government, in protest U.S. drone strikes in the country's tribal regions. 

Shireen Mazari, a party spokesman, commented briefly on the judges' ruling, saying only that leaders would discuss next steps at a party meeting on Thursday. 


Presidential contenders discuss forming coalitions

With the Afghan presidential elections just five weeks away and no clear front-runner, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that many of the top candidates "are holding backroom discussions about forming coalitions in a bid to court the country's largest ethnic group," Pashtuns (WSJ). While Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun majority has traditionally dominated the country's political circles, this year, it lacks a single leading candidate: Ten of the 11 presidential candidates are Pashtuns; former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who has a mixed Pashtun/Tajik background, is seen largely as a Tajik candidate. But though the candidates have met to discuss whether one candidate or another should step aside in favor of someone else, no one has yet agreed to yield. Bonus read: "Warlords With Dark Pasts Battle in Afghan Election," Rod Nordland (NYT). 

Dempsey: Grim future with no security pact

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attempted to manage the after-effects of President Obama's announcement on Tuesday that he has ordered the Pentagon to prepare for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops should a security agreement between Kabul and Washington not be finalized, urging troops to focus on the "considerable military work" they still have to do this year (AP). Speaking to reporters at Bagram Airfield on Wednesday, Dempsey said that the possible exit of all U.S. troops when the NATO combat mission ends in December was making Afghan military leaders increasingly anxious and affecting the morale of their troops. He added that the impasse over the pact -- which would determine the size and scope of any post-2014 U.S. presence -- was also "having an effect on the enemy and in some ways I think encourages them, and intelligence supports that" (BBC, Pajhwok). 

While Western officials have all but given up hope that Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the agreement, the New York Times notes that few people -- including the Pentagon -- want to "cut and run" after nearly 13 years of war (NYT). This belief was reflected at NATO's annual meeting of defense ministers on Wednesday, where both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said they expected Karzai's successor to sign the pact in time for coalition partners to plan for post-2014 deployments (AFP, RFE/RL). Presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for Saturday, April 5. 

Afghanistan faces serious health concerns, report says

In a new report released on Tuesday, French medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders noted that while Afghanistan has several well-stocked hospitals "that maintain international standards with high-quality free care," medical care throughout the country remains severely limited (NYT, BBC). Interviewing 800 patients at Doctors' hospitals in Helmand, Kabul, Khost, and Kunduz provinces over six months in 2013, the group found that nearly one in five (18.4 percent) of the patients knew a close friend or relative who had died due to an inability to access adequate medical care. In some places, this was because they couldn't afford the care -- though health care in Afghanistan is supposed to be free -- in others, conflicts forced people to travel at least 50 miles, through multiple roadblocks and checkpoints, to find a facility that could take them.

However, Benoit de Gryse, the organization's representative in Afghanistan, told TOLO News that: "This report is not to accuse anybody, what we want to do is to show the full picture, and actually we are very clear that there has been a lot of improvements in the health sector" (TOLO News). 

Elsewhere, Muhammad Salim Taraki, the mayor of Herat, was removed from office following accusations that he beat a local pediatrician for not providing immediate assistance to a female relative (RFE/RL). According to reports, Mirwais Atai was beaten on Feb. 22 after he told a female member of Taraki's family that she would have to wait her turn to vaccinate her child. Taraki and his son are accused of attacking Atai at the hospital, abducting him, and then beating him again once they arrived at the mayor's house. The incident caused other doctors in the city to go on a four-day strike (RFE/RL). While it is unclear if Taraki and his son will be prosecuted, the former mayor called the decision to remove him "appropriate."

-- Bailey Cahall 


Navy chief resigns following deaths

India's naval chief, Adm. D.K. Joshi, resigned on Wednesday after a submarine caught fire off the coast of Mumbai, injuring seven officers and killing two (NYT, BBC, WSJ). The INS Sindhuratna was being tested at sea when smoke triggered the automatic closure of its hatches on Wednesday. Seven crew members were airlifted from the submarine and admitted to a hospital in Mumbai, where they are in stable condition. Two other crew members were thought to be missing, but the navy later confirmed that they were dead (BBC). 

It was the tenth accident involving an Indian navy ship in seven months. Last year, 18 sailors died in one of the navy's worst disasters, when a submarine sank after a fire at a Mumbai dockyard.

Indian media praised the admiral for taking responsibility for the accident, though the government's quick acceptance of his resignation sparked suggestions that the action had been prompted by the defense ministry (Times of India, IBN Live).

Moily clears controversial crop trials 

Minister for Environment and Forests Veerappa Moily cleared a March 2013 decision of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee on Thursday, allowing more than 200 successful gene modification trials for rice, wheat, maize, castor, and cotton to proceed (Mint). 

Moily continues to adopt policies rejected by his predecessor Jayathi Natarajan, who told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that field trials were not tenable and that the matter was pending with the Supreme Court, which then issued a moratorium on them. The environment ministry had also previously been at loggerheads with the agriculture and science ministries about allowing field trials of genetically modified crops (The Hindu).

Some of the trials approved include those by Bayer Bioscience, which will test genetically-modified rice in all four zones in the country, and Monsanto, which had previously faced opposition in several states for testing genetically-modified wheat. In an interview with the Indian Express, Moily said: "If we want to prevent research and science, no modern country will be born. We are using science everywhere, in every sector. Why do you prevent in agriculture sector?" (Indian Express).

Another study reveals mass corruption in food distribution

A government investigation has revealed massive corruption in the public food distribution system, with 57 percent of subsidized food grains not reaching the intended beneficiaries (Times of India). Findings by the Independent Evaluation Office show that the government spends Rs. 3.65 for every Rs. 1 of food delivered to recipients.

Ineffective spending on big-ticket government social sector schemes has had a negative effect on the economy, said Ajay Chhibber, the agency's director general. Chhibber also argued that the incentive structure of social sector projects should be reexamined. Ration shop owners fail to make enough money selling grains, he said, so they are tempted to sell them on the gray market.

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson 

Edited by Peter Bergen. 

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