30 August 2005
An economist dreams of a new capital outside Kabul
KABUL: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got to don his economist's hat on Monday when Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's senior economic adviser, Prof. Ishaq Nadiri, came by to discuss what India could do to help Afghanistan's economy.
A professor of economics at New York University with a specialisation in the economics of productivity and technical change, Prof. Nadiri returned to his native Afghanistan in 2003. In his meeting with Dr. Singh, he spoke of his friendship with Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen and of his ambitious plans to transform the Afghan economy. Among the ideas he discussed — and sought Indian expert advice on — were land reforms, and the proposal to build a new capital outside Kabul as a means of generating employment on a large scale. Dr. Singh listened intently and then suggested that Prof. Nadiri visit India sometime soon for more extensive discussions with Indian economists.
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Afghanistan's reintegration into the world of foreign aid, donors and non-governmental organisations has meant a large, if fluctuating, presence of foreigners in Kabul. To service the needs of the high-end migrants — international consultants, who can earn as much as $1,000 a day for the "capacity building" projects they work on — hotels and guest houses are turning to low-end migrants, importing cooks, waiters and other support staff from outside, mainly Nepal.
Many Nepalis are duped into coming by unscrupulous agents. Once here, their employers invariably keep their passports so that they cannot go home until the contract period — normally two years — ends. In one hotel, the Nepalis are forbidden to leave the premises, even on their day off. Still, many of them feel they are better off here than back home.
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After Baghdad, Kabul is the city with the heaviest — and most onerous — security. VVIP movement means entire roads are cordoned off for up to an hour, leading to a nightmarish chaos. Any event attended by President Karzai involves the presence of a large number of heavily armed men, mostly out of uniform.
Running the entire security show are burly American men in fatigues and t-shirts, many sporting goatees and tattoos, who work for the private U.S. security firm, DynCorp, which is entrusted with the job of providing security to Mr. Karzai.
Despite this apparent overkill, Indian officials involved with the Prime Minister's visit were not convinced DynCorp has got its procedures and right. "Ninety per cent of VIP security is what you do to a venue 6 hours, 12 hours, 36 hours before an event," an official told The Hindu after the inauguration of the Habibia High School by Mr. Karzai and Dr. Singh on Sunday.
Instead, there were snipers on the roof with guns trained in the general vicinity of the VVIPs and humvees patrolling around. The hall where the speeches were delivered had more than two dozen automatic rifle-toting personnel. "What we see here is an excess of heavy firepower crammed into a confined place. The deployment is intimidating but not necessarily effective in dealing with a threat or a situation," the official said.
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This may have been the first visit to Afghanistan by an Indian Prime Minister for 29 years but the Indian electronic media seemed more interested in the presence in the delegation of Rahul Gandhi, MP.
As soon as Dr. Singh finished addressing a reception thrown by Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood, the TV channels shouted out Mr. Gandhi's name, hoping for a "sound bite." When that didn't work, they decided to ask the Prime Minister about him.
"Well, he told me he has always been interested in Afghanistan," Dr. Singh said, when asked why Mr. Gandhi had been brought along. "So in a casual conversation, I mentioned I was going [there] and said I would be very happy if he came along."
The channels were still not satisfied. "Have you asked him what he thought about the trip?" The Prime Minister replied that he had not had the time.
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Apart from the electronic media, Mostapha Zahir, grandson of former King Zahir Shah and now head of Afghanistan's environmental protection agency, was also interested in meeting Rahul Gandhi. "We are planning to sit down under a `chinar' tree in the royal palace and exchange ideas about what needs to be done in our two countries," Mr. Zahir told Indian reporters.
Apparently, the rendezvous finally took place at 11.30 p.m. on Sunday night, though it is not clear what the two "crown princes" discussed.