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Uncovering Pakistan’s secret human rights abuses

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By M Ilyas Khan

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Pakistan’s long battle with militants as part of the post-9/11 “war on terror”. Evidence of murder and torture by soldiers and insurgents is emerging only now. The BBC has gained rare access to some of the victims.

It was early in 2014 when TV news networks trumpeted a major victory in the war against the Pakistani Taliban – the killing of one of the group’s most senior commanders in a night-time air raid.

 

Adnan Rasheed and up to five members of his family were reported to have died in the strikes in the North Waziristan tribal area, near the Afghan border.

Rasheed, a former Pakistan Air Force technician, was well-known. He had written an extraordinary letter to Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl and activist shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in 2012, attempting to justify why it had happened. He’d also been in prison for trying to assassinate former President Pervez Musharraf – until he broke out.

Now it appeared that his luck had run out.

Quoting security officials, news channels reported on 22 January 2014 that Adnan Rasheed’s hideout had been targeted two nights earlier in the Hamzoni area.

Waziristan and other parts of the vast mountainous tribal region have been controlled and locked-down by the Pakistani military since the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, which saw Taliban fighters, al-Qaeda jihadists and other militants flee over the porous border.

Outsiders, including journalists, cannot get in – so verifying claims from the security forces is extremely difficult. Those who have reported stories from Waziristan that don’t reflect well on the military have found themselves punished.

It turned out a year later that the jets had hit the wrong target – Rasheed confirmed this when he emerged in a video to prove he was alive.

Instead of taking out a top militant, Pakistan’s military had actually killed the family of a local man who had his home blown to pieces.

The authorities have never acknowledged they made a mistake. The BBC travelled to Dera Ismail Khan, a town on the banks of the river Indus that is the gateway to the remote and forbidding tribal areas, to meet the man whose house was hit.

“It must have been 11pm or thereabouts,” recalls Nazirullah, who was 20 at the time. He and his wife had recently married and had the rare privilege of a room to themselves. The rest of their large family slept in the only other room in their house in Khatei Kalay village.

“It was as if the house had exploded. My wife and I were shaken out of our sleep. There was a strong smell of gunpowder in the air. Both of us rushed to the door and stepped out, only to discover that the entire roof of our room had already collapsed, except a corner where our bed was.”

The roof of the second room had also collapsed, and a fire was raging across the compound. Nazirullah heard cries from the rubble and, with his wife, frantically tried to help those they could see in the glow of the fire.

Four of Nazirullah’s family died, including a three-year-old girl. His niece Sumayya, whose mother was among those killed, was then just a year old, and survived with a fractured hip. Another four members of the family were rescued from the rubble. All suffered fractures and other injuries.

Like many others in this part of Pakistan, they have had to move several times to escape an insurgency that has been raging in the tribal areas for nearly two decades.

According to authorities and independent research groups, militant violence since 2002 has forced more than five million people in Pakistan’s north-west to leave their homes to seek refuge either in government-run refugee camps or rented houses in peaceful areas.

There are no official figures of the total death toll of this war but estimates from academics, local authorities and activists put the number of civilians, militants and security forces killed at well over 50,000.

Local rights activists say scores of civilians have been killed in successive air campaigns and ground operations by the military. They have been collecting video and documentary evidence to back up their claims.

These activists are linked to a prominent new rights campaign called the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement (PTM) which emerged early last year and has since been publicising alleged rights abuses in the tribal region that victims had previously been too scared to report.

“It has taken us almost 15 years of suffering and humiliation to gather courage to speak up, and to spread awareness about how the military trampled our constitutional rights through both direct action and a policy of support for the militants,” said Manzoor Pashteen, the top leader of the PTM.

But the group is under pressure. The PTM says 13 of its activists were killed on 26 May when the army opened fire on a large group of protesters in North Waziristan. The army said at least three activists were shot dead after a military checkpoint was attacked. The PTM denies this but two of its leaders, who also serve as MPs, have been arrested.

A number of cases highlighted by the PTM – and which the BBC investigated independently – were shared with a Pakistani military spokesman but he declined to respond, calling such allegations “highly judgmental”.

There was no response to BBC requests for comment from the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, even though Mr Khan raised the issue of rights abuses in the tribal areas when he was an opposition politician.

When the US attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, the Taliban forces that had sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden melted away without a fight.

Pakistan, which was one of only three countries to have recognised the Taliban when they seized power in Kabul in 1996, had an interest in keeping the movement alive as part of its efforts to prevent Indian influence from spreading in Afghanistan.

So while Pakistan had been dependent on US military aid for decades and the then military regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf had joined the US “war on terror”, it also allowed the Taliban to carve out sanctuaries in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas, notably the districts of North and South Waziristan.

But the Afghan Taliban did not cross the border alone. Militants from a complex array of different groups poured into the tribal region and some were far more hostile to the Pakistani state.

Jihadists with global ambitions also began plotting attacks from Waziristan, prompting demands from Washington that Pakistan do more to crush Islamist militancy.

As violence spread, Pakistan was caught “between an inclination to fight militant forces and yet having to partner with some to strengthen its future bargaining position”, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst and author of the book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.

In 2014, Pakistan launched a new operation in North Waziristan that increased pressure on militant groups and their safe havens and was credited with reducing attacks elsewhere in the country.

When the Taliban arrived in the tribal areas in 2001, they were given a cautious welcome by the local people. But this quickly turned into disillusionment when they started to take over tribal society by enforcing their strict religious codes.

During the first phase of that relationship, local youths joined the militants’ ranks in their hundreds, thereby causing tribal rivalries to seep into the militant network. This was reflected in subsequent factional wars.

In the second stage, the Taliban embarked on a campaign to eliminate officially recognised tribal elders who were a hurdle in the way of the insurgents’ drive to subjugate the tribes. At least 1,000 tribal elders have been killed by militants since 2002 and some estimates from non-governmental organisations put the figure at nearly 2,000.

“When they kidnapped and killed my brother, the tribe in our region was still strong, but because the military allowed [the militants] the freedom to move against our people, it broke our back,” says Mohammad Amin, a Wazir tribesman from Razmak area of North Waziristan.

His brother’s body was found dumped in an abandoned truck the day after he was kidnapped by militants. Mohammad Amin and other tribesmen were able to trace the attackers and confronted them. The ensuing gunfight left Mr Amin’s son, Asadullah, a cousin and all four Taliban fighters dead.

The tribe’s subsequent calls on military officials in the garrison town of Razmak to curb Taliban violence were frustrated when militant leaders based in that very town threatened reprisal.

A decade on, Mr Amin is in no doubt that “despite occasional clashes with each other, the Taliban and the military are doing the same thing”.

PTM activists have also documented several cases in which the security forces appear to have treated the local population brutally.

In May 2016, for example, an attack on a military post in the Teti Madakhel area of North Waziristan triggered a manhunt by troops who rounded up the entire population of a village.

An eyewitness who watched the operation from a wheat field nearby and whose brother was among those detained told the BBC that the soldiers beat everyone with batons and threw mud in children’s mouths when they cried.

A pregnant woman was one of two people who died during torture, her son said in video testimony. At least one man remains missing.

The stories of survivors are painful too. I met Satarjan Mahsud in the town of Ramak, 100km (60 miles) further south down the Indus river from Dera Ismail Khan.

We sat inside a white tent and he told me his story over tea, with two young children at his side

One evening in April 2015 militants fired at a military post in Shaktoi, South Waziristan. Satarjan says troops responded by capturing suspects from a nearby village and shooting two of them dead.

Early the next morning, on 21 April, they extended their search across the valley to Satarjan’s village where they found weapons stashed on a hill behind his house.

“The only people present in the house at that time were my brother Idarjan, his wife and two daughters-in-law,” Satarjan says.

The soldiers knocked at the door. His brother answered and was immediately overpowered, tied up and blindfolded. The troops asked where other male members of the family were and rounded up Idarjan’s four sons from elsewhere in the valley.

Witnesses later told Satarjan that the boys had been beaten, and his eldest nephew, Rezwarjan, received a lethal blow to the head.

All of them were thrown in the back of a pick-up truck which the soldiers had commandeered, and driven away to the army camp in the area.

The driver of the truck later told Satarjan that Rezwarjan was “already half dead and couldn’t hold himself in a sitting position, so the soldiers decided not to take him to the camp”.

He told Satarjan: “They asked me to stop the truck, shot Rezwarjan in the head and threw his body on the road.”

Satarjan was working at a factory in Dubai at the time. He heard about what had happened and began the journey home. He took a flight, a bus and then walked for 15 hours to reach the village where Rezwarjan’s body was found on 23 April.

Locals there told him they hadn’t been able to take the body across the valley to his family home because of a curfew, so they had buried it there on the hill.

He then walked across to his own village where he found his house deserted. The wives of Satarjan’s brother and nephews had been taken in by relatives.

Satarjan knew the women wouldn’t know the whole story because the curfew forbade travel between villages and there was no mobile network in the area.

When he met his sister-in-law, she told him what she knew: that her husband had been taken away by the army and that the younger men were missing.

“I was in two minds about whether to tell her. But then I thought it would be easier to give her the bad news about Rezwarjan once my brother and the boys had returned. I knew the army had nothing against them and would let them go soon.”

So he made up a story, telling her that when the army raided their house, the boys got away to safety in Karachi, far away in southern Pakistan. He assured her that her husband would soon be released.

On 26 April 2015, he moved the family to Ramak. Since then he’s had no word from the military on the fate of his brother and three nephews. Weeks have turned into months, and months into years.

He is not alone. Local activists say more than 8,000 people picked up by the army since 2002 remain unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, Satarjan has been dodging questions from the women about why they can’t visit their village.

“I tell them our house in Shaktoi has been demolished by the army, which is partly true. But the real reason is that if they go there, neighbours will come for condolences and they will find out.”

He says it would be better if he knew his brother and nephews had been jailed, or even killed. But not knowing anything is agony.

“I can’t tell my sister-in-law her sons are missing, or dead. I can’t tell the two young wives that they have been widowed,” he says.

These individual stories are shocking but they are not unique. The PTM alleges that hundreds of people from the tribal areas could tell similar stories.

They are the consequences of a war Pakistan has gone to great lengths to hide from the world. This conflict on the Afghan border has for years been an information black hole.

And when the PTM broke through this chokehold last year, its media coverage was put under a comprehensive ban. Those in the media who have not heeded the ban have faced physical threats and financial pressure.

The military has openly called the PTM’s patriotic credentials into question, accusing it of links to “hostile” intelligence agencies in Afghanistan and India.

And some PTM activists who were documenting cases of abuse and running the group’s social media campaign have been jailed.

The treatment of the activists who are finally, after years of silence, raising the alarm on the abuses of a long and secret war suggests that those who have suffered in the conflict face an uphill battle for justice.

(BBC News)


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Opinion

Theology of Presence

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Amir Suhail Wani

“O you who believe! Remember Allah With much remembrance”: Al Quran

To believe is to be in a state of presence. Presence, though not the climax, but is, one of the most cherished states and authentic manifestations of belief. To let God stay far away in the realm of abstraction and beyond-ness not only dilutes the spirit of worship, but it brings under scrutiny the very notion of belief. Religion, in its finest form, aims at invoking in man the spirit of presence, so that the believer may feel and experience the himself in presence of divine and may thus be able to envision a living and existential relationship with his creator and his object of devotion. Religion, even in its basic etymological connotation invokes the sense of “connectedness and attachment” with the object of devotion. It is in the very essence of man that he wants to be greater than what he is and when submitting before the divine, the individual, finite and subjective ego undergoes an existential, psychological and spiritual transformation of unique nature which expands its contours beyond those of physical perimeters. In any act of worship, the subject envisages the object of devotion as infinite and it not only pays homage to that infinite by bowing to it, but it very much desires to expand its own finitude under the radiance of that eternal infinite. This is what is meant by the philosophical benediction that “make me Thou, not an it”.

 

This human urge of finding means of self expansion by submitting before the divine is the greatest expression of human will and self sacrifice. But this spirit is rendered meaningless and antithetical when religion, in its state of decline, reduces to mere theology. In this reductionism, God remains no longer a living reality in the life of believer. He is rather replaced by a set of axioms and statements which fail to stimulate and satisfy the deepest spiritual yearnings of man and this deepest spiritual yearning is nothing but an aspiration to come in living contact with the divine and transcendental. Islam and for that matter most of the religions strongly condemn the deistic notions about God for it leaves absolutely no scope for religious indoctrination and creates an unimaginable void in the realm of Transcendence. It is in response to nuances like these that the notion of presence assumes multifold importance. It is not only prayer but our entire life that demands, by virtue of its spiritual dimension, that we live perpetually under the spell of divine. Thus religions teach us not merely to pray and thus make prayer a part of our life, but they come to turn our entire life into a sort of prayer. This transformation of life itself into prayer is what has best been embodied by Islamic teachings which reiterate time and again that all acts shall be done according to the law/s prescribed by God and at the beginning and end of each of our activity, the name of God shall be invoked. Not only this, the orations we recite at various instances from entering a washroom to starting our prayer are nothing but a beautiful way of making God a perpetual and living presence in our lives. None of our activities shall be divorced from Transcendent and while we are bodily constantly engaged in acts of world and matter, our heads, hearts and souls shall be perpetually turned to the divine. This act of remembering God in world of forgetting paves the way for “discovering God through material representations”. The highest form of this discovery is prayer and within prayer itself it is dua that marks the height of living relationship between God and believer. The purpose of prayer, as has been narrowly appropriated lately is not merely to make God change his mind and to bring our naive desires to fruition. Prayer is in fact the testimony of our living and real time relationship of servitude and dependency on God. Thus when God asserts “If My servants ask you regarding Me, I am indeed Near. I answer the call of those who call upon Me when they call. So let them answer My call and let them believe in believe in Me–in order that they be truly guided.”, he makes us understand in most emphatic and explicit way that he is very much existentially related to us and responds to our prayers. This response to prayer shall not be seen as the fulfilment of our prayers in material realm (which is true on its own), but it shall invoke in us the existential quest and inspire us to awaken our slumbering spiritual sensibility so that we may truly feel that God is indeed responding to us as our creator and as an object truly worthy of our devotion and worship.

This notion of presence has been subjected to double irony. The religious centric people lost sight of this appeal and dedicated their energies in confining and codifying God in their formulae of logical atomism. They rigidly tried to fix God in their self made definitions made out of untenable language as if trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. While as the role of this intellectual cum theological process can’t be belittled, but their overemphasis on making God comply to their abstractions and creating an unsurpassable chasm between the creator and creation surely set them on too rigid a path. The aftermath of this theorization of God not only created uncompromising hostility among different religions, but within the same religion it gave birth to unending clashes, unforseen intolerance and created such shameful examples that served the purpose of latter day anti religious forces. The second threat, and that is more dangerous, to this “theology of presence” has come from movements like new age spirituality, occult practices and pseudo spiritual shopping malls. Whereas traditional religion and traditional metaphysics taught us to see this world as a reflection and reverberation of transcendental realm, the new age spirituality has tragically represented the divine realm as an “extended expression” of human realm and this immanent universe. This has been sort of shifting the frame of reference and with this shifting of frames, the meaning of spirituality and metaphysics is inverted on its head. This misplaced mysticism and consumerist spirituality is far dangerous than no spirituality at all. In absence of spirituality, one may set out to discover the genuine and true spiritual traditions, but the presence of fake and pseudo spirituality creates a halo effect around man and his genuine thirst and quest is buried under the garb of this “materialistic spirituality”.

There are no palatable solutions to this malice that has invaded our religious obligation of perpetual presence and taught us to be satisfied with rituals without knowing their meaning. What one can do is to read, if one can, the religious scriptures and try to get to the roots of these scriptures. Look out for commonalities among scriptures and try to make a sense out of these commonalities. Another suggestion is to read the authors like Rene Guneon, Frithjof Schoun, Martin Lings, William Chittick and others of their class. What is special about these authors is that they speak about traditional metaphysics in contemporary idiom with an insight that is both inspiring as well as awakening. Finally we must note and note it seriously that life is not a profane activity sprinkled with events of sacred prayers, rather life is sacred as a whole and the existential realisation of this axiom is fundamental postulate on which all religions stand.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: amirkas2016@gmail.com)

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Kathua verdict: fact, fable and fiction

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Shabbir Aariz                                   

Finally some relief has been accorded to the family of the victim, Asifa by the trial judge Mr Tejwinder Singh by convicting and punishing the guilty. But it is too little if not too late. The investigating agency has undoubtedly done a commendable job in piecing together the evidence against the odds and succeeded in obtaining conviction for criminal conspiracy, gang rape, poisoning and murder of 8year old Asifa on 17th of January 2018 in Rasana village near Kathua in Jammu. Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. The National Crime Records Bureau of India suggests a reported rape rate of 2 per 100,000 people, much lower than reported rape incidence rate in the local Indian media. However, Times of India reported the data by National Crime Records Bureau unveiling that 93 women are being raped in India every day. Every year 7,200 minors are raped as the statistics suggest without unreported ones. Rape is, surprisingly a weapon of punishment in India. In 2014, in Jharkhand village elders ordered the rape of a 14year old. The husband of the woman who was assaulted sexually was told to carry out the rape. As the woman’s husband dragged the girl to a nearby forest, villagers only looked on. Earlier West Bengal village reportedly ordered the gang rape of a 20 year old woman for falling in love with a man from another community. Even in case of Kathua, two BJP ministers stood in favor of the accused. Sexual crimes being committed with impunity not even sparing foreign tourists led to issuance of rape advisories like women travelling should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group, avoid hailing taxis from streets or using public transport at night. India feels like it is going through an upsurge of sexual violence against children and after several incidents including Asifa’s, received widespread media attention and triggered public protest. The Prime Minister condemned it and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guiterres said “guilty must be held responsible” describing the incident “horrific”. This led the Government of India to reform its penal code for crimes of rape and sexual assault. As such India’s cabinet approved the introduction of death penalty for those who rape children. The executive order was cleared at a special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi. It allowed capital punishment for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. India’s poor record of dealing with sexual violence came to fore after 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus. The four men involved were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court maintained the death sentence of the convicts; Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh. Rejecting their appeal Justice R Banumathi said the men committed “a barbaric crime” that had “shaken society’s conscience”. It is worthwhile to mention that the death penalty to the said persons was given in the year 2013 while as the executive ordinance came in April 2018 after Asifa’s incident and of a 16year old girl in northern Uttar Pradesh by a member of BJP, Kuldeep Sengar (ironically, victim’s father was arrested and thereafter killed by the Kuldeep’s supporters.) Prior to 2012, there was no single law specifically dealing with children as victims of sexual offences. Then came Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012, India’s first comprehensive law to deal specifically with child sex abuse and surprisingly the number of reported cases of child abuse rose by nearly 45% the next year.

The new amendments enable a court to hand out a death penalty to someone convicted of raping a child under 12, even if it does not result in death. In countries like China, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, rape is punishable with nothing short of death by hanging, beheading or firing squad. Despite the changes to the law and arming Indian courts, there is reluctance to carry out the death penalty. Is there anything wrong with the collective Indian psyche that deters even courts from putting curbs on sexual crimes against even minors? One feels disgusted for the punishment not being exemplary in Asifa’s case when on trial crimes like gang rape and murder were proved. The court was saddled with the law and verdicts of Supreme Court where death penalty awarded was not interfered with and also its observations emphasizing the gravity of such crime with its impact on the society. Do the laws also have a fiction value? When do we really implement them? Is something more needed to shake society’s conscience? It is more likely that the convicts in this case will go in appeal to the higher court against the judgement. The verdict of the lower court also calls for a counter appeal by the prosecution seeking enhancement of punishment to death of the convicts.

 

(A leading lawyer and eminent poet, author contributes a weekly column. He can be reached at:  vaklishabir@gmail.com)     

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Let’s Become Environmental Protectionists!

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Dr. Shahid Amin Trali

It’s very alarming to find the unending disturbances to our environment. Man’s foul play with the nature is not going well with the present as well as our future. The environmental problems are mounting towards a bigger trouble in future but we are yet to recover from deep hibernation/sleep mode. This menace of pollution has existed for centuries but increased at an alarming rate after industrial revolution in the 19th century. Pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people. The world’s population is ever increasing and the treasures of the resources are getting overexploited.

 

There is greater need that we must promote better and efficient use of resources. Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated very rapidly—most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. If business goes on as usual, plastic pollution will double over the next thirty years. That would mean there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastics have several health hazards, both for humans and animals. Not just that, it is detrimental for the environment too. We must encourage the reduction, recycling and re-use of wastes as raw material for new products. Our younger generation is highly creative and all they must be given is ample support and opportunities. We must promote ‘Jugaad’ creation, the idea of using the waste to make something novel and save resources. We need to set examples from our home places and re-use what we would easily throw away and conserve for a future.  What we cannot recycle let us try not use them. Let’s promote paper products as they break down better in the environment and don’t affect our nature as much.

Learning to be more environmentally friendly is not that difficult task than we think. We must start by living with a greater awareness of the resources that we use in our daily life.  For example we must turn off the lights as soon as we leave a room in our homes and offices or even schools and colleges.  We must be environmental friendly when it comes to building our homes and buildings. Trees are necessary for us to survive. We must plant small trees around our home, don’t cut them unless it’s necessary, work with local environmental groups to plant more trees and educate others about the beauty and benefits of trees.

Water needs to be conserved. Few ways to conserve water are – take short showers, keep the running tap close while we brush our teeth, recycle water in our home, use water saving appliances etc. More good ways to contribute will be consume less energy, buy recycled products, and create less waste and many more. We must refrain from open burning as backyard trash and leaf burning releases high levels of toxic compounds. We must use public transit as much as possible. Let us walk more and drive less to conserve fuel and prevent auto-emission. Let’s use bicycles and scooters for shorter distances to save resources.

Cleanliness leads to cleanliness. We can easily find that a dirty place adds to its dirtiness. When we come across a fresh place, we think twice before turning it bad and dirty. It is sad when we think for our clean homes and hardly care for the roads, hospitals, educational institutions, offices, markets etc. Our mindset has to undergo a big overhaul that our public property is our own property.

India is one of the three worst offending countries when it comes to environmental performance. Corporate leaders have started joining the race to save the planet. Being environment-friendly, eco-friendly, going green are huge claims referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and policies that inflict reduced, minimal, or no harm at all, upon ecosystems or the environment. But the attempts need to be strong and concrete. Small and medium sized companies in particular generate a lot of pollution and need awareness and support policies to safeguard the environment.

Individuals, organizations and governments need to join hands to protect our environment.  Let’s educate others about the significance of living an environmentally friendly life. The more we will share an awareness of the richness of the environment, the more we can do together to protect it. Environmental love and care must receive an all time attention and priority. Let’s go beyond the model building exercises for safer environment and turn them into reality. Organizations must appreciate and reward the employees for their environmental care.

The Philippines recently has taken a unique and wonderful initiative. The island country passed a law under which every student there has to mandatorily plant ten trees in order to get their graduation degree. The law if it is implemented properly will ensure that over 175 million trees will be planted every year. The law will be applicable for college, elementary, and high school students as well. Our education system must owe greater responsibility towards environment and find some unique strategies to safeguard it. Let’s go green and pledge to protect our environment. (The author is Assistant Professor, ITM University Gwalior, Youth Ambassador, International Youth Society. He can be mailed on: dr.shahidamin15@gmail.com)

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