Inter Press Service » Asia-Pacific http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Sat, 31 Jan 2015 14:18:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1 Dumped, Abandoned, Abused: Women in India’s Mental Health Institutionshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/dumped-abandoned-abused-women-in-indias-mental-health-institutions/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=dumped-abandoned-abused-women-in-indias-mental-health-institutions http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/dumped-abandoned-abused-women-in-indias-mental-health-institutions/#comments Fri, 30 Jan 2015 05:08:44 +0000 Shai Venkatraman http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138927 Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

Following the birth of her third child, Delhi-based entrepreneur Smita* found herself feeling “disconnected and depressed”, often for days at a stretch. “Much later I was told it was severe post-partum depression but at the time it wasn’t properly diagnosed,” she told IPS.

“My marriage was in trouble and after my symptoms showed no signs of going away, my husband was keen on a divorce, which I was resisting.”

“The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.” -- Smita, a former resident of an Indian mental health institution
After a therapy session, Smita was diagnosed as bi-polar, a mental disorder characterised by periods of elevated highs and lows. “No one suggested seeking a second opinion and my parents and husband stuck to that label.”

One day after she suffered a particularly severe panic attack, Smita found 10 policemen outside her door. “I was taken to a prominent mental hospital in Delhi where doctors sedated me without examination. When I surfaced after a week I found that my wallet and phone had been taken away.”

All pleas to speak to her husband and parents went unheeded.

It was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted nearly two months, much of it spent in solitary confinement. “The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.”

On one occasion, when she stopped eating in protest after she was refused a phone call, she was dragged around the ward. “There were women there who told me they had been abused and molested by the staff.”

Not all the women languishing in these institutions even qualified as having mental health problems; some had simply been put there because they were having affairs, or were embroiled in property disputes with their families.

Days after she was discharged her husband filed for a divorce on the grounds that Smita was mentally unstable.

“I realised then that my husband was building up his case so he would get custody of the kids.”

Isolated and afraid, Smita did not find the strength or support to fight back. Her husband won full custody and left India with the children soon after. “My doctor says I am fine and I am not on any medication but I still carry the stigma. I have no access to my kids and I no longer trust my parents,” she told IPS.

Smita’s story points to the extent of violence women face inside mental health institutions in India. The scale was highlighted in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘Treated Worse than Animals’, which said women often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence.

Ratnaboli Ray, who has been active in the field of mental health rights in the state of West Bengal for nearly 20 years, says on average one in three women are admitted into such institutions for no reason at all. Ray is the founder of Anjali, a group that is active in three mental institutions in the state.

“Under the law all you need is a psychiatrist who is willing to certify someone as mentally ill for the person to be institutionalised,” Ray told IPS. “Many families use this as a ploy to deprive women of money, property or family life. Once they are inside those walls they become citizen-less, they lose their rights.“

Ray points to the story of Neeti who was in her early 20s when she was admitted because she said she heard voices. “When we met her she was close to 40 and fully recovered, but her family did not want her back because there were property interests involved.”

With the help of the NGO Anjali, Neeti fought for and won access to her share of family property and was able to leave the institution.

Those on the inside endure conditions that are inhumane.

“There is hardly any air or light. Unlike the male patients who are allowed some mobility within the premises, women are herded together like cattle,” says Ray. In many hospitals women are not given underclothes or sanitary pads.

Sexual abuse is rampant. “Because it is away from public space and there is an assumed lack of legitimacy in what they say, such complaints are nullified as they are ‘mad’,” adds Ray.

Unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions impact their mental or physical health. They languish for years, uncared for and unattended.

“One can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the male and female wards,” points out Vaishnavi Jaikumar, founder of The Banyan, an NGO that offers support services to the mentally ill in Chennai, capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“You will find wives and mothers coming to visit male patients with food and fresh sets of clothes, while the women’s wards are empty.” Experts also say discharge rates are much lower when it comes to women.

The indifference towards patients is evident not just in institutions, but also at the policy level, with mental health occupying a low rung on the ladder of India’s public health system.

According to a WHO report the government spends just 0.06 percent of its health budget on mental health. Health ministry figures claim that six to seven percent of Indians suffer from psychosocial disabilities, but there is just one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people.

That ratio falls even further for psychologists, with just one trained professional for every million people in India.

Furthermore, the country has just 43 state-run mental hospitals, representing a massive deficit for a population of 1.2 billion people. With the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP) present in just 123 of India’s 650 districts, according to HRW, the forecast for those living with mental conditions is bleak.

“Behind that lack of priority is the story of how policymakers themselves stigmatise,” contends Ray. “The government itself thinks [the cause] is not worthy enough to invest money in. Unless mental health is mainstreamed with the public health system it will remain in a ghetto.”

Depression is twice as common in woman as compared to men and experts say that factors like poverty, gender discrimination and sexual violence make women far more vulnerable to mental health issues and subsequent ill-treatment in poorly run institutions.

Gopikumar of The Banyan advocates for creative solutions that are scientific and humane like Housing First in Canada, which reaches out to both the homeless and mentally ill. The Banyan is presently experimenting with community-based care models funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Canadian government.

“Our model looks at housing and inclusivity as a tool for community integration,” says Gopikumar. “The poorest in the world are people with disabilities and most of them are women. They are victims of poverty on account of both caste and gender discrimination and its time we open our eyes to the problem.”

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Conflict-Related Displacement: A Huge Development Challenge for Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/conflict-related-displacement-a-huge-development-challenge-for-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=conflict-related-displacement-a-huge-development-challenge-for-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/conflict-related-displacement-a-huge-development-challenge-for-india/#comments Thu, 29 Jan 2015 09:19:53 +0000 Priyanka Borpujari http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138896 In Serfanguri relief camp in Kokrajhar, several tents were erected, but they were inadequate to properly house the roughly 2,000 people who had arrived there on Dec. 23, 2014. This single tent houses 25 women and children. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

In Serfanguri relief camp in Kokrajhar, several tents were erected, but they were inadequate to properly house the roughly 2,000 people who had arrived there on Dec. 23, 2014. This single tent houses 25 women and children. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

By Priyanka Borpujari
KOKRAJHAR, India, Jan 29 2015 (IPS)

The tarpaulin sheet, when stretched and tied to bamboo poles, is about the length and breadth of a large SUV. Yet, about 25 women and children have been sleeping beneath these makeshift shelters at several relief camps across Kokrajhar, a district in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam.

The inhabitants of these camps – about 240,000 of them across three other districts of Assam – fled from their homes after 81 people were killed in what now seems like a well-planned attack.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights says the situation is reaching a full-blown humanitarian crisis, representing one of the largest conflict-related waves of displacement in India.

It has turned a mirror on India’s inability to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and suggests that continued violence across the country will pose a major challenge to meeting the basic development needs of a massive population.

Hunger is constant in the refugee camps, with meagre rations of rice, lentils, cooking oil and salt falling short of most families’ basic needs. Women are forced to walk long distances to fetch firewood for woodstoves. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

Hunger is constant in the refugee camps, with meagre rations of rice, lentils, cooking oil and salt falling short of most families’ basic needs. Women are forced to walk long distances to fetch firewood for woodstoves. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

Appalling conditions

On the evening of Dec. 23, several villages inhabited by the Adivasi community were allegedly attacked by the armed Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which has been seeking an independent state for the Bodo people in Assam.

The attacks took place in areas already marked out as Bodoland Territorial Authority Districts (BTAD), governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).

But the Adivasi community that resides here comprises several indigenous groups who came to Assam from central India, back in 150 AD, while hundreds were also forcibly brought to the state by the British to work in tea gardens.

Clashes between the Adivasi and Bodo communities in 1996 and 1998 – during which an estimated 100 to 200 people were killed – still bring up nightmares for those who survived.

This child, a resident of the Serfanguri camp, is suffering from a skin infection. His mother says they are yet to receive medicines from the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

This child, a resident of the Serfanguri camp, is suffering from a skin infection. His mother says they are yet to receive medicines from the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

It explains why the majority of those displaced and taking shelter in some 118 camps are unwilling to return to their homes.

But while the tent cities might seem like a safer option in the short term, conditions here are deplorable, and the government is keen to relocate the temporary refugees to a more permanent location soon.

The relief camp set up at Serfanguri village in Kokrajhar lacks all basic water and sanitation facilities deemed necessary for survival. A single tent in such a camp houses 25 women and children.

“The men sleep in another tent, or stay awake at night in turns, to guard us. It is only because of the cold that we somehow manage to pull through the night in such a crowded space,” explains Maino Soren from Ulghutu village, where four houses were burned to the ground, forcing residents to run for their lives carrying whatever they could on their backs.

Now, she tells IPS, there is a serious lack of basic necessities like blankets to help them weather the winter.

Missing MDG targets

In a country that is home to 1.2 billion people, accounting for 17 percent of the world’s population, recurring violence and subsequent displacement put a huge strain on limited state resources.

Time after time both the local and the central government find themselves confronted with refugee populations that point to gaping holes in the country’s development track record.

With food in limited supply and fish being a staple part of the Assamese diet, it is common to see women and even children fishing in the marshy swamps that line the edge of the refugee camps, no matter how muddy or dirty the water might be. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

With food in limited supply and fish being a staple part of the Assamese diet, it is common to see women and even children fishing in the marshy swamps that line the edge of the refugee camps, no matter how muddy or dirty the water might be. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

Outside their hastily erected tents in Kokrajhar, underweight and visibly undernourished children trade biscuits for balls of ‘jaggery’ (palm sugar) and rice.

Girls as young as seven years old carry pots of water on their heads from tube wells to their camps, staggering under the weight of the containers. Others lend a hand to their mothers washing pots and pans.

The scenes testify to India’s stunted progress towards meeting the MDGs, a set of poverty eradication targets set by the United Nations, whose timeframe expires this year.

One of the goals – that India would reduce its portion of underweight children to 26 percent by 2015 – is unlikely to be reached. The most recent available data, gathered in 2005-2006, found the number of underweight children to be 40 percent of the child population.

Similarly, while the District Information System on Education (DISE) data shows that the country has achieved nearly 100 percent primary education for children aged six to ten years, events like the ones in Assam prevent children from continuing education, even if they might be enrolled in schools.

According to Anjuman Ara Begum, a social activist who has studied conditions in relief camps all across the country and contributed to reports by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), “Children from relief camps are allowed to take new admission into nearby public schools, but there is no provision to feed the extra mouths during the mid-day meals. So children drop out from schools altogether and their education is impacted.”

Furthermore, in the Balagaon and Jolaisuri villages, where camps have been set up to provide relief to Adivasi and Bodo people respectively, there were reports of the deaths of a few infants upon arrival.

Most people attributed their deaths to the cold, but it was clear upon visiting the camps that no special nutritional care for lactating mothers and pregnant women was available.

This little boy is one of hundreds whose schooling has been interrupted due to violence. The local administration is attempting to evict refugees from the camps, most of which are housed in school compounds, but little is being done to ensure the educational rights of displaced children. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

This little boy is one of hundreds whose schooling has been interrupted due to violence. The local administration is attempting to evict refugees from the camps, most of which are housed in school compounds, but little is being done to ensure the educational rights of displaced children. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

Bleak forecast for maternal and child health

Such a scenario is not specific to Assam. All over India, violence and conflict seriously compromise maternal and child health, issues that are high on the agenda of the MDGs.

In central and eastern India alone, some 22 million women reside in conflict-prone areas, where access to health facilities is compounded by the presence of armed groups and security personnel.

This is turn complicates India’s efforts to reduce the maternal mortality ratio from 230 deaths per 100,000 live births to its target of 100 deaths per 100,000 births.

It also means that India is likely to miss the target of lowering the infant mortality rate (IMR) by 13 points, and the under-five mortality rate by five points by 2015.

Scenes like this are not uncommon at relief camps inhabited by the Bodo community. Many families have accepted that they will have a long wait before returning to their homes, or before their children resume schooling. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

Scenes like this are not uncommon at relief camps inhabited by the Bodo community. Many families have accepted that they will have a long wait before returning to their homes, or before their children resume schooling. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari/IPS

According to a recent report by Save the Children, ‘State of the World’s Mothers 2014’, India is one of the worst performers in South Asia, reporting the world’s highest number of under-five deaths in 2012, and counting some 1.4 million deaths of under-five children.

Nutrition plays a major role in the mortality rate, a fact that gets thrown into high relief at times of violence and displacement.

IDPs from the latest wave of conflict in Assam are struggling to make do with the minimal provisions offered to them by the state.

“While only rice, lentils, cooking oil and salt are provided, there is no provision for firewood or utensils, and hence the burden of keeping the family alive falls on the woman,” says Begum, adding that women often face multiple hurdles in situations of displacement.

With an average of just four small structures with black tarpaulin sheets erected as toilets in the periphery of relief camps that house hundreds of people, the basic act of relieving oneself becomes a matter of great concern for the women.

“Men can go anywhere, any time, with just a mug of water. But for us women, it means that we have to plan ahead when we have to relieve ourselves,” said one woman at a camp in Lalachor village.

It is a microcosmic reflection of the troubles faced by 636 million people across India who lack access to toilets, despite numerous commitments on paper to improve the sanitation situation in the country.

As the international community moves towards an era of sustainable development, India will need to lay plans for tackling ethnic violence that threatens to destabilize its hard-won development gains.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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When Ignorance Is Deadly: Pacific Women Dying From Lack of Breast Cancer Awarenesshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/when-ignorance-is-deadly-pacific-women-dying-from-lack-of-breast-cancer-awareness/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=when-ignorance-is-deadly-pacific-women-dying-from-lack-of-breast-cancer-awareness http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/when-ignorance-is-deadly-pacific-women-dying-from-lack-of-breast-cancer-awareness/#comments Wed, 28 Jan 2015 04:15:08 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138872 Local women's NGO, Vois Blong Mere, campaigns for women's rights in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Local women's NGO, Vois Blong Mere, campaigns for women's rights in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

Women now face a better chance of surviving breast cancer in the Solomon Islands, a developing island state in the southwest Pacific Ocean, following the recent acquisition of the country’s first mammogram machine.

But just a week ahead of World Cancer Day, celebrated globally on Feb. 4, many say that the benefit of having advanced medical technology, in a country where mortality occurs in 59 percent of women diagnosed with cancer, depends on improving the serious knowledge deficit of the disease in the country.

"While cancer is included on the NCD [non-communicable diseases] list, very little attention and resources are specifically addressing women and breast cancer awareness." -- Dr. Sylvia Defensor, senior radiologist at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services in Fiji
“Breast cancer is a health issue that women are concerned about in the Solomon Islands, but adequate awareness of it among women is not really prioritised,” Bernadette Usua, who works for the local non-governmental organisation, Vois Blong Mere (Voice of Women), in the capital, Honiara, told IPS.

Rachel, a young 24-year-old woman living with her two children, aged three and five years, in one of the country’s many rural villages, did not know what breast cancer was when she detected a lump in her breast in August 2013.

But the lump grew larger prompting her to travel to Honiara several months later to see a doctor.

“She went to the central hospital and was advised to have her left breast removed, but due to the little knowledge that she and her husband had about what it would be like, both were afraid of the surgery,” Bernadette Usua, who is Rachel’s cousin, recounted.

“So they just left the hospital without any medication or other assistance, and went home,” she continued.

Rachel tried traditional medicine available in her village, but the cancer and pain became more aggressive. Usua remembers next seeing her cousin in July of last year.

“She was sitting on her bed night and day with extreme pain, unable to lie down and sleep. But she was still brave as she nursed herself, washed herself and cooked for her children. She cried and prayed until she passed away in September,” Usua recalled.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and in the Solomon Islands, where it accounted for 92 of more than 200 diagnosed cases in 2012. But its incidence in the developing world, where 50 percent of cases and 58 percent of fatalities occur, is rapidly rising.

Low survival rates of around 40 percent in low-income countries, compared to more than 80 percent in North America, are due mainly to late discovery of the disease in patients and limited diagnosis and treatment offered by under-resourced health centres.

Last year Annals of Global Health revealed that of 281 cancer cases identified in women in the Solomon Islands in 2012, 165 did not survive, while in Papua New Guinea and Fiji fatalities occurred in 2,889 of 4,457, and 418 of 795 diagnosed cases, respectively.

Insufficient public knowledge about the disease is an issue across the region.

“Currently public health education and promotion is focussing heavily on the control of NCDs [non-communicable diseases] as a whole. While cancer is included on the NCD list, very little attention and resources are specifically addressing women and breast cancer awareness,” said Dr. Sylvia Defensor, senior radiologist at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services in Fiji, a Pacific Island state home to over 880,000 people.

In the Solomon Islands, mammograms, or x-rays of the breast, will now be free to all female citizens who comprise about 49 percent of the population of more than 550,000. This is after installation of digital mammography equipment, funded by the national First Lady’s Charity, in Honiara’s National Referral Hospital.

Dr. Douglas Pikacha, general surgeon at the hospital, explained that mammograms were vital to early detection of breast disease and the saving of women’s lives through early treatment, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

Mammography is considered the most effective form of breast cancer screening by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with some evidence that it can reduce subsequent loss of life by an estimated 20 percent, especially in women aged 50-70 years.

But with more than 80 percent of the population residing in rural areas and spread over more than 900 different islands, Josephine Teakeni, president of Vois Blong Mere, is deeply concerned about the fate of many women who are located far from the main health facilities in the capital. An estimated 73 percent of doctors and all medical specialists in the country are based at the National Referral Hospital.

She says that reliable breast cancer screening and diagnosis is urgently needed in provincial hospitals if the mortality rate is to be reduced. Most patients must travel an average of 240 kilometres to reach the National Referral Hospital, commonly by ferry or motorised canoe, given the prohibitive expense of internal air services.

There is also a critical shortage of health care workers in the country with 0.21 doctors per 1,000 people and Teakeni claims that “while waiting for an operation the delay can result in full advancement of the cancer and death.”

However, there is a further challenge with almost half of all women diagnosed with breast cancer refusing a mastectomy, which involves the partial or entire surgical removal of affected breasts, even though it may result in the patient’s recovery, the Ministry of Health reports.

“Many prefer traditional treatment to mastectomy because they believe it is more womanly to have their breast than to live without it,” Pikacha said.

The high risk of cancer mortality is another factor impacting gender inequality in the Pacific Island state where entrenched cultural attitudes and widespread gender violence, experienced by 64 percent of women and girls, hinders improvement of their social and economic status.

Teakeni believes that an urgent priority is dramatically improving “awareness among women about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and even simple tests that women can do themselves, such as checking the breast for lumps while having a shower,” as well as the importance and impact of medical treatment.

Still, the installation of the new mammogram machine gives women on this island something, however small, to celebrate.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.S.-India Partnership a Step Forward for Low-Carbon Growthhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/u-s-india-partnership-a-step-forward-for-low-carbon-growth/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-india-partnership-a-step-forward-for-low-carbon-growth http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/u-s-india-partnership-a-step-forward-for-low-carbon-growth/#comments Tue, 27 Jan 2015 20:44:06 +0000 David Waskow and Manish Bapna http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138861 President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India travel by motorcade en-route to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India travel by motorcade en-route to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By David Waskow and Manish Bapna
WASHINGTON, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

India garnered international attention this week for its climate action.

As President Barack Obama visited the country at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation, the two leaders announced a new U.S.-India agreement on clean energy and climate change.With the U.S.-India partnership, the world’s three-largest emitters—China, the United States and India—have all made strong commitments to curbing climate change and scaling up clean energy.

The agreement will help turn India’s bold renewable energy targets into reality.

Rather than relying on one major plank, the collaboration is a comprehensive set of actions that, taken together, represent a substantial step in advancing low-carbon development in India while also promoting economic growth and expanding energy access.

This agreement comes just two months after the U.S-China climate agreement.

While expectations for the two agreements were quite different — India’s per capita emissions are a fraction of those from China and the United States, and India is in a very different phase of economic development— Modi’s commitments are significant steps that will help build even further momentum for a new international climate agreement.

Prime Minister Modi’s new government has made a significant commitment to sustainable growth in the past several months, setting a goal of 100 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity by 2022 and considering a new target of 60 GW in wind energy capacity.

The Indian government has also created a new initiative to develop 100 “smart cities” across the country, aimed at building more sustainable, livable urban areas.

The U.S.-India collaboration takes a multi-pronged approach to turn these promising pledges into concrete results. For example:

Setting a renewable energy goal

Building on India’s 100 GW solar capacity goal, Modi announced India’s intention to increase the overall share of renewable energy in the nation’s electricity supply.

Setting a percentage of overall energy consumption that will come from renewables can not only help India reduce emissions, it can also play a key role in expanding energy access.

Roughly 300 million Indians—nearly 25 percent of the country’s population—lack access to electricity.

Solar power—which is already cheaper than diesel in some parts of the country and may soon be as cheap as conventional energy—can put affordable, clean power within reach.

Accelerating clean energy finance

Given that the entire world’s installed solar capacity in 2013 was 140 GW, India’s plan to reach 100 GW by 2022 is nothing short of ambitious.

The Modi government estimates that scaling up its 2022 solar target from 20 GW to 100 GW will save 165 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent emissions of about 23 million American households’ annual electricity use.

The U.S.-India announcement reveals a clear commitment from both countries to stimulate the public and private investment needed to achieve this bold target.

Improving air quality

Of the 20 cities with the worst air pollution, India houses 13 of them.

The cost of premature deaths from air pollution in the country is already 6 percent of GDP, and it’s poised to worsen as the urban population increases from 380 million to 600 million over the next 15 years.

The U.S.-India plan to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AIR Now-International Program can help cut back on harmful urban air pollution, improve human health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Modi’s plan to establish 100 “smart cities” can support this initiative by designing compact and connected rather than sprawled urban areas, which are associated with a heavy transportation-related emissions footprint.

Boosting climate resilience

India is already one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change: rising sea level threatens 8,000 kilometers of coastline and nearly half of its 28 states.

The U.S.-India deal builds on both countries’ previous commitment to climate adaptation, outlining a plan to better assess risks, build capacity and engage local communities.

With the U.S.-India partnership, the world’s three-largest emitters—China, the United States and India—have all made strong commitments to curbing climate change and scaling up clean energy.

This action is not only important for reducing emissions in the three nations, but also for building momentum internationally. Obama and Modi have created a direct line of communication, a relationship that will be important for securing a strong international climate agreement in Paris later this year.

Prime Minister Modi made it clear that he sees it as incumbent on all countries to take action on climate change.

Rather than being motivated by international pressure, he said what counts is “the pressure of what kind of legacy we want to leave for our future generations. Global warming is a pressure… We understand this pressure and we are responding to it.”

Modi is tasked with confronting not just global warming, but a number of immediate threats—alleviating poverty, improving air quality, expanding electricity access and enhancing agricultural productivity, just to name a few.

Many of the actions under the U.S.-India agreement will not only reduce emissions, but will also help address these development challenges.

With the new agreement, India is positioning itself as a global leader on pairing climate action with economic development.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Not Without Our Daughters: Lambada Women Fight Infanticide and Child Traffickinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/not-without-our-daughters-lambada-women-fight-infanticide-and-child-trafficking/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=not-without-our-daughters-lambada-women-fight-infanticide-and-child-trafficking http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/not-without-our-daughters-lambada-women-fight-infanticide-and-child-trafficking/#comments Mon, 26 Jan 2015 08:30:46 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138819 Lambada women, who never went to school, now keep vigil over young girls in the community. When a child stays away from the classroom for too long, they sound the alarm against possible child labour or trafficking. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Lambada women, who never went to school, now keep vigil over young girls in the community. When a child stays away from the classroom for too long, they sound the alarm against possible child labour or trafficking. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
CHANDAMPET, India, Jan 26 2015 (IPS)

At 11 years of age, Banawat Gangotri already has four years of work experience as a farm labourer. The child, a member of the nomadic Lambada community from the village of Bugga Thanda in India’s southern Telangana state, plucked cotton and chillies from nine a.m. until 5 p.m. for about a dollar daily.

Every day, her father collected her earnings, and spent it on alcohol.

“If there is nothing to eat and no land to grow food, what options do we have but to send our children out to earn?” -- Khetawat Jamku, a 50-year-old Lambada woman from the south Indian state of Telangana
In mid-January, however, the cycle was broken. Hours before her father took her to Guntur, a chilli-producing district 168 km away, Gangotri was rescued and brought to a residential school in the neighbouring block of Devarakonda, where she is now enrolled in the fourth grade.

A local non-profit called the Gramya Resource Centre for Women (Gramya) runs the school. It also mobilizes the Lambada people against child trafficking, child abuse and infanticide, all frequent occurrences in the community.

The school currently has 65 children like Gangotri – rescued either from child employers or human traffickers.

“I like school,” Gangotri tells IPS. “When I grow up I’ll be a teacher.”

It is a simple dream, but it is more than most girls from her background can hope for: Gangotri’s is one of just 40 villages across the country to have a Child Protection Committee, a 12-member community vigilante group that acts against trafficking and forced child labour.

Trained by Gramya in children and women’s rights, this committee keeps a hawkish eye on school-aged girls in the village. If a child doesn’t attend school for a few weeks, they sound the alarm: a long absence usually means the girl has either been employed, or married off.

Still, some manage to slip away. The day Gangotri was rescued, Banawat Nirosha, a 12-year-old girl from the Mausanngadda village, went missing. Villagers soon find out that her landless farm-worker parents had left to work as chilli pickers in Guntur, taking along Nirosha – an extra pair of earning hands.

Though the parents are expected to return after March, when the chilli-harvesting season is over, there is a possibility that Nirosha could be married off in Guntur, villagers tell IPS.

Curbing the killing and sale of daughters

While stories like these are common, the vigilante group tells IPS that things have significantly improved in the village, where female infanticide and trafficking of young girls was rampant just 20 years ago.

In March 1999, following the rescue of 57 Lambada infants from a trafficking ring in Telangana’s capital city Hyderabad, police investigations revealed that between 1991 and 2000, some 400 babies from the region were bought and sold under the banner of adoption, though activists fear they most likely ended up as labourers, or entered India’s thriving commercial sex trade.

And in a country where three million girl children are thought to be “missing” each year due to sex-selective abortions and infanticide, children from the Lambada community face a double risk.

In an interview with IPS, Hyderabad-based social activist Rukmini Rao, who founded Gramya in 1997, recalls some of the horrors she has faced in her work, including preventing infant twins from being killed by a family already struggling to support four daughters in a village in Telangana.

Stunned, she and a colleague undertook a study, which found the male-female ratio in the village in question to be 835 female children to every 1,000 males.

Today, thanks to rising awareness and strict community vigil, the sex ratio in the district stands at 983, well above India’s national average of 941 girls for every 1,000 boys.

But activists have a long way to go. In a country where 50 percent of the tribal population lives below the poverty line, surviving on less than a dollar a day, preventing Lambada families from killing or selling their children is an uphill battle.

Suma Latha, a coordinator of Gramya with 14 years of experience in training Lambada women as child rights’ activists, tells IPS that expecting mothers often travel to Hyderabad where they sell their day-old infants for a few thousand rupees, later explaining to the village that the child had died at birth.

“The sale is always against the will of the mother, arranged by the father and the mother-in-law,” Latha says, adding that when Gangotri was rescued, her father had offered to “give away” the girl for 15,000 rupees (about 250 dollars).

With their light-skinned complexions and hazel eyes, Lambada children are very much in demand to fill a growing adoption market, with childless couples hailing mostly from the cities willing to pay handsomely for a beautiful baby.

While some of these children may in fact end up in caring homes, others almost certainly fall into the hands of sex traffickers.

“The middle men who buy babies […] are moved by money not morality,” says Lynette Dumble, a Melbourne-based medical scientist who has studied female infanticide across India for over two decades. “So if the sex traffickers are offering more […] the girls will be sold to them.”

Statistics and records gathered by numerous organisations reveal that Hyderabad, the city closest to the Lambada villages, is a growing hub of sex trafficking.

According to B. Prasada Rao, the director-general of police for the state of Andhra Pradesh, which border Telangana, in 2013 the police had arrested 778 traffickers and rescued 558 victims including minors.

Although this represents only a small part of India’s estimated 30-43 billion-dollar child sex trade, it has activists here seriously concerned about young girls in the community.

Sustainable solutions

Keeping vigil is important, but so too are longer-term solutions designed to tackle the problem at its root.

Many Lambada women believe the key lies in education, urging families to take advantage of free schooling and government stipends aimed at boosting female enrolment rates in rural areas.

But this alone will be insufficient to completely stop the practice of infanticide or the sale of children.

Equally important, researchers say, is providing marginalised communities with alternatives.

Government data indicates that 90 percent of India’s tribal population is landless. In the Nalgonda district of Telangana state, where Gangotri’s father scratches out a living on the margins of existence, 87 percent of all tribal communities are landless.

If the land does not yield enough for subsistence, families will inevitably look elsewhere for their livelihoods.

“If there is nothing to eat and no land to grow food, what options do we have but to send our children to earn?” demands Khetawat Jamku, a 50-year-old Lambada woman.

Experts like Rao say that proper implementation of programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Scheme – designed to provide 100 days of work for 147 rupees (about three dollars) a day to the rural poor – could act as an important deterrent to child labour or trafficking.

But such schemes are weighed down by corruption and mismanagement, leaving a gap that NGOs and civil society are forced to fill, through self-help and community mobilization efforts.

Until Lambada women are given equal rights to land, she contends, it will be very difficult to end the cycle of poverty and violence that puts children at grave risk.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Aboriginal Businesses Stimulate Positive Change in Australiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/aboriginal-businesses-stimulate-positive-change-in-australia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=aboriginal-businesses-stimulate-positive-change-in-australia http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/aboriginal-businesses-stimulate-positive-change-in-australia/#comments Mon, 26 Jan 2015 07:51:12 +0000 Neena Bhandari http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138815 Roy Roger Gibson, an indigenous Kuku Yalanji elder, had to wait 20 years for his dream of being part of a native-owned sustainable ecotourism venture to become a reality. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

Roy Roger Gibson, an indigenous Kuku Yalanji elder, had to wait 20 years for his dream of being part of a native-owned sustainable ecotourism venture to become a reality. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

By Neena Bhandari
MOSSMAN, Queensland, Australia, Jan 26 2015 (IPS)

Roy Roger Gibson, an indigenous Kuku Yalanji elder, would watch thousands of tourists and vehicles trampling his pristine land while working on the sugarcane fields in Far North Queensland. His people were suffering and their culture was being eroded. The native wildlife was disappearing. He dreamt of turning this around.

It took 20 years to bring his vision to fruition, but today the Mossman Gorge Centre is a successful indigenous ecotourism business in the world heritage-listed Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia.

Indigenous people are three times less likely to own and run their own business than non-indigenous people.
With more people travelling the world and seeking authentic experiences, tourism has acted as a catalyst for preserving indigenous culture, providing employment, education and training opportunities and protecting the environment – especially in remote locations such as the Mossman Gorge, the ancestral home of the Kuku Yalanji people in the southern tip of the Daintree National Park.

Roy and the Mossman Gorge Aboriginal Community worked in collaboration with the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), to build the Centre, which has a 90-percent indigenous workforce – 61 employees and 21 trainees.

Roberta Stanley, 18, who joined the Centre as a trainee along with her twin sibling, says, “Every morning, when I step out of home in my work uniform, I can’t stop smiling. It has helped me reconnect with our history, legends, languages, music and the arts. I feel a sense of immense pride and have the confidence to pursue my dream of becoming an artist and dancer.”

This was something young people like her couldn’t do before the Centre began providing accredited skills training in tourism, hospitality, retail and administration. Both her parents also work at the Centre. With four members of the Stanley family employed, it has made life easier.

In 2011, an estimated 207,600 indigenous people were in the labour force. About two in five (42 percent) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over were employed, compared with about three in five non-indigenous people (61 percent).

With limited employment opportunities, pursuing their dreams is not something every native Australian is free to do.

Pamela Salt, 41, used to be a cleaner and paint in colours representing the rainforest and sea during her spare time. Since she began working at the Mossman Gorge Centre, she feels a sense of ownership with the place.

“Physically, mentally and emotionally, it has given our people the confidence that we can do it. One of my daughters is also employed here,” Pamela told IPS. A self-taught artist with no formal training, today her work is on display in the Centre’s gallery and bought by national and international visitors.

Since July last year, 250,000 tourists, 40 percent of them international, have visited the Centre. As Mossman Gorge Centre’s General Manager Greg Erwin told IPS, “Indigenous tourism is gaining momentum. It will add a cultural depth to the experiences that visitors have in any destination. The Kuku Yalanji people, like other Aboriginal communities, have been nurturing and looking after the environment for thousands of years. It is their supermarket and their pharmacy.”

Eighteen-year-old Roberta Stanley joined the Mossman Gorge Centre as a trainee. Now she, along with four other members of her family, works there full time. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

Eighteen-year-old Roberta Stanley joined the Mossman Gorge Centre as a trainee. Now she, along with four other members of her family, works there full time. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

In the next 10 to 15 years, the business will be totally owned by the aboriginal people of the Gorge – a long way from the ‘Stolen Generation’: the tens of thousands of children who were forcibly removed from their families between 1900 and 1970 under Australian government assimilation policies to “breed out” their Aborigine blood and supposedly give them a better life.

Roy, 58, who also belongs to the ‘Stolen Generation’, doesn’t want his people to ever experience that psychological trauma again.

“This Centre is a role model for our younger generation dreaming of a better life.” He, along with other indigenous guides, takes visitors on “dreamtime walks” highlighting the nuances of the world’s oldest rainforest, relating stories spun around creation, food sources, flora and fauna, the caves and Manjal Dimbi (Mt. Demi), a mountain with spiritual significance for the indigenous people.

“Now we are able to protect our ecosystem and at the same time provide visitors an insight into the lives, culture and beliefs of the Kuku Yalanji people and their connection to the natural environment. Our emphasis is on sustainability,” Roy told IPS.

Stimulating positive change

Sustainable indigenous businesses like the Mossman Gorge Centre are not only helping protect and preserve the ecosystem, but lifting out of poverty some of the most disadvantaged communities that suffer from alcohol abuse, domestic violence, chronic diseases, unemployment and high suicide rates.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous Australians; about half of the young people in juvenile detention are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Meanwhile, indigenous women are hospitalised for family violence-related assaults at 31 times the rate of non-indigenous women, according to the 2014 Social Justice and Native Title Report.

Indigenous people are three times less likely to own and run their own business than non-indigenous people. The remoteness of places where many indigenous people reside plays a large part in this.

Still, Tourism Research Australia’s 2014 figures show 14 percent of international visitors enjoy an indigenous experience and these visitors spent 5.2 billion dollars in Australia, highlighting a huge demand for authentic experiences in out-of-the-way locations.

ILC subsidiary, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, offers unique experiences in iconic locations around Australia. Besides the Mossman Gorge Centre, it manages the Ayers Rock Resort and Longitude 131° in the Northern Territory, Home Valley Station in The Kimberley in Western Australia.

While the ILC is focused on acquiring land and assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders manage that land to provide sustainable benefits, Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) is a commercially focused organisation providing sustainable economic development opportunities for indigenous Australians.

As IBA’s CEO Chris Fry said, “Our Business Development and Assistance Programme (BDAP) assists indigenous entrepreneurs to start and grow their own enterprises, and indigenous-owned businesses to be strong employers of indigenous peoples.”

Jo Donovan, a beneficiary of the programme, turned her hobby into a business after attending IBA’s BDAP. She formed Bandu Catering with her son Aaron Devine and daughter Jessica, both chefs. Bandu (‘food’ in the Dhanggati language) provides quality food, blending native ingredients and flavours with innovative, contemporary Australian cuisine.

The BDAP, which has partnered with the banking sector, has provided over 90 loans valued at 55 million dollars during the last financial year.

“Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners currently hold more than 68 million dollars in equity across a range of commercial businesses and assets through IBA’s Equity and Investment Programme and the IBA purchased over 2.4 million dollars [of] goods and services from approximately 30 indigenous businesses,” Fry told IPS.

IBA also has a scholarship programme for mature-age, full-time indigenous students to complete tertiary qualifications in business, financial, commercial or economic management disciplines.

As the international community prepares for a new era of development, one that puts sustainability at the heart of poverty-eradication, initiatives like these can provide a blueprint for inclusive and equal growth.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Obama-Congress Iran Sanctions Battle Goes Internationalhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/obama-congress-iran-sanctions-battle-goes-international/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obama-congress-iran-sanctions-battle-goes-international http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/obama-congress-iran-sanctions-battle-goes-international/#comments Fri, 23 Jan 2015 01:25:57 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138790 President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Jan 23 2015 (IPS)

While it’s anyone’s guess whether a final deal will be reached over Iran’s nuclear programme this year, a number of key international actors have forcefully weighed in on calls from within the U.S. congress to impose more sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

President Barack Obama reiterated his threat to veto new Iran-related sanctions bills while talks are in progress during his State of the Union (SOTU) address this week.There’s no guarantee at this point whether the bills at the centre of the battle will garner the veto-proof majority necessary to become legislation.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said Jan. 20 in his second to last SOTU. “New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails—alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear programme again.”

The administration’s call to “give diplomacy with Iran a chance” was echoed a day later by key members of the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China plus Germany), which is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme, through an op-ed in the Washington Post.

“…[I]ntroducing new hurdles at this critical stage of the negotiations, including through additional nuclear-related sanctions legislation on Iran, would jeopardize our efforts at a critical juncture,” wrote Laurent Fabius (France), Philip Hammond (U.K.), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany) and Federica Mogherini (EU) on Jan. 21.

“New sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far,” they continued. “Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.”

Last week, during a joint press conference with Obama at the White House, the U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron admitted he had contacted members of the U.S. Senate to urge against more sanctions on Iran at this time.

“[Y]es, I have contacted a couple of senators this morning and I may speak to one or two more this afternoon,” he told reporters on Jan. 16.

“[I]t’s the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or further threat of sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion and they could fracture the international unity that there’s been, which has been so valuable in presenting a united front to Iran,” said Cameron.

In what has been widely perceived by analysts as a rebuff to Obama’s Iran policy, reports surfaced the day after Obama’s SOTU that the House of Representatives Speaker John A. Boehner had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who has made no secret of his opposition to Obama’s approach to Iran—to address a joint session of Congress on Feb. 11.

Netanyahu accepted the invitation, but changed the date to Mar. 3, when he would be visiting Washington for a conference hosted by the prominent Israel lobby group, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The invite, which was not coordinated with the White House, clearly surprised the Obama administration, which said it would not be receiving the Israeli prime minister while he is in town, citing a policy against receiving foreign leaders close to election dates (the Israeli election will be in March).

While Netanyahu has long recommended hard-line positions on what a final deal over nuclear program should entail—including “non-starters” such as zero-percent uranium enrichment on Iranian soil—he cannot be faulted for accepting the speaker’s invitation, according to the U.S.’s former ambassador to NATO, Robert E. Hunter, who told IPS: “If there is fault, it lies with the Speaker of the House.”

“If the Netanyahu visit, with its underscoring of the political potency of the Israeli lobby on Capitol Hill, is successful in ensuring veto-proof support in the Senate for overriding the threatened Obama veto of sanctions legislation, that would saddle Boehner and company with shared responsibility not only for the possible collapse of the nuclear talks…but also for the increased chances of war with Iran,” he said.

But there’s no guarantee at this point whether the bills at the centre of the battle—authored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Bob Menendez, and another by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker—will garner the veto-proof majority necessary to become legislation.

With the support of the Democratic leadership in Congress, the administration has so far successfully prevented the Kirk-Menendez bill from coming to the floor since it was introduced in 2013.

A growing number of current and former high-level officials have also voiced opposition to more sanctions at this time.

“Israeli intelligence has told the U.S. that rolling out new sanctions against Iran would amount to ‘throwing a grenade’ into the negotiations process,” Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS News on Jan. 21.

“Why would we want to be the catalyst for the collapse of negotiations before we really know whether there is something we can get out of them?” asked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week after opposing new sanctions during a forum in Winnipeg, Canada.

“We believe that new sanctions are not needed at this time,” the Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen told the Wall Street Journal this week.

“To the contrary, new sanctions at this time, even with a delayed trigger, are more likely to undermine, rather than enhance, the chances of achieving a comprehensive agreement,” he said.

While the battle isn’t over yet, in the wake of Obama’s veto threat and Boehner’s invitation to Bibi, even some of the Democratic co-sponsors of the original Kirk-Menendez bill appear to be moving in the White House’s direction.

“I’m considering very seriously the very cogent points that [Obama’s] made in favour of delaying any congressional action,” Senator Richard Blumenthal told Politico.

“I’m talking to colleagues on both sides of the aisle. And I think they are thinking, and rethinking, their positions in light of the points that the president and his team are making to us,” he said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Fighting Extremism with Schools, Not Gunshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/fighting-extremism-with-schools-not-guns/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fighting-extremism-with-schools-not-guns http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/fighting-extremism-with-schools-not-guns/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 17:23:15 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138760 The Pakistan Taliban has destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012. Credit: Kulsum Ebrahim/IPS

The Pakistan Taliban has destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012. Credit: Kulsum Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jan 21 2015 (IPS)

As a wave of outrage, crossing Pakistan’s national borders, continues a month after the Dec. 16 attack on a school in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, some citizens are turning away from collective expressions of anger, and beginning the hard work of building grassroots alternatives to terrorism and militancy.

While many millions of people are lashing out at the Taliban for going on a bloody rampage in a school in the province’s capital, Peshawar, killing 141 people including 132 uniformed children in what is being billed as the group’s single deadliest attack to date, The Citizens Foundation (TFC), a local non-profit, has reacted quite differently.

"With the formidable challenges facing the nation, we passionately believe that only education has the power to enlighten minds, instil citizenship and unleash the potential of every Pakistani." -- Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, CEO of The Citizens Foundation (TCF)
Rather than join the chorus calling for stiff penalties for the attackers, it busied itself with a pledge to build 141 Schools for Peace, one in the name of each person who lost their life on that terrible day.

“We dedicate this effort to the children of Pakistan, their right to education and their dreams of a peaceful future,” Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, CEO of TCF, said in an email launching the campaign.

“With the formidable challenges facing the nation, we passionately believe that only education has the power to enlighten minds, instil citizenship and unleash the potential of every Pakistani,” he added.

In their war against western, secular education, which the group has denounced as “un-Islamic”, the Pakistan Taliban have destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012, claimed responsibility for the near-fatal shooting of teenaged education advocate Malala Yousafzai and issued numerous edicts against the right of women and girls to receive proper schooling.

In their latest assault on education, nine militants went on an eight-hour-long killing spree, throwing hand grenades into the teeming school premises and firing indiscriminately at any moving target. They claim the attack was a response to the military operation aimed at rooting out the Taliban currently underway in North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

While armed groups and government forces answer violence with more of the same, the active citizens who comprise TCF want to shift focus away from bloodshed and onto longer-term solutions for the future of this deeply troubled country.

The charity, which began in 1995, has completed 1,000 school ‘units’, typically a primary or secondary institution capable of accommodating up to 180 pupils, all built from scratch in the most impoverished areas of some 100 towns and cities across Pakistan.

The 7,700 teachers employed by the NGO go through a rigorous training programme before placement, and the organisation maintains a strict 50:50 male-female ratio for the 145,000 students who are now benefitting from a free education, according to TCF Vice President Zia Akhter Abbas.

In a country where 25.02 million school-aged children – of which 13.7 million (55 percent) are girls – do not receive any form of education, experts say TCF’s initiative may well act as a game changer in the years to come, especially given that the government spends just 2.1 percent of its GDP on education.

“Our job is to ensure that wherever we have our schools, there are no out-of-school children, especially girls,” Abbas told IPS. “We believe the change in society will come automatically once these educated and enlightened children grow up into responsible adults.”

Of the 25.02 million school-aged children who are not receiving a proper education, 13.7 million, or 55 percent, are girls. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Of the 25.02 million school-aged children who are not receiving a proper education, 13.7 million, or 55 percent, are girls. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

He added that the schools are designed to “serve as a beacon of light restricting the advance of extremism in our society.”

The project has received widespread support from a broad spectrum of Pakistani society. Twenty-four-year-old Usman Riaz, a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston who recently donated the proceeds of his jam-packed concerts in Karachi to TCF’s efforts, says the Schools for Peace are a “wonderful way to honor the innocent victims”.

But it will take more than one-off charitable donations to make the scheme a reality. It costs about 15 million rupees (148,000 dollars) to build and equip each new school, so the total bill for all 141 institutions stands at some 21 million dollars.

With a track record of building 40-50 schools a year, however, the NGO is confident that it will honor its pledge within three years.

Combating extremism

Besides immortalizing the victims of the Taliban’s attack, experts here say that shifting the focus away from terrorism and onto education will help combat a growing pulse of religious extremism.

The prominent Pakistani educationist and rights activist A.H. Nayyar told IPS that it is crucial for the country to begin educating children who would otherwise be turned into “fodder for extremists”.

In fact, part of the government’s 20-point National Action Plan – agreed upon by all political parties dedicated to completely eradicating terrorism – includes plans to register and regulate all seminaries, known here as madrassas, in a bid to combat extremism at its root.

With thousands of such religious institutions springing up across the country to fill a void in the school systems, policy-makers are concerned about the indoctrination of children at a young age, with distorted interpretations of religious texts and the teaching of intolerance playing a major role in these schools.

Some sources say that between two and three million students are enrolled at the nearly 20,000 madrassas spread across Pakistan; others say this is a conservative estimate.

While there is some talk about bringing these institutions under the umbrella of the public school system, experts like Nayyar believe this will do little to combat the “forcible teaching of […] false and distorted history, excessive emphasis on Islamic teachings to the extent of including them in textbooks of all the subjects, explicit teaching of jihad and militancy, hate material against other nations, peoples of other faiths, etc, [and] excessive glorification of the military and wars.”

Nayyar and other independent scholars have been at the forefront of calling for an overhaul of the public school curriculum, which they believe is at odds with the goals of a modern, progressive nation.

But until policy-makers and politicians jump on the bandwagon, independent efforts like the work of TCF will lead the way.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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From Bullets to Ballots: The Face of Sri Lanka’s Former War Zonehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/from-bullets-to-ballots-the-face-of-sri-lankas-former-war-zone/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-bullets-to-ballots-the-face-of-sri-lankas-former-war-zone http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/from-bullets-to-ballots-the-face-of-sri-lankas-former-war-zone/#comments Tue, 20 Jan 2015 19:17:06 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138736 Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka , Jan 20 2015 (IPS)

In four months’ time, Sri Lanka will mark the sixth anniversary of the end of its bloody civil conflict. Ever since government armed forces declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 19, 2009, the country has savored peace after a generation of war.

Suffocating security measures have given way to a sense of normalcy in most parts of the country, while steady growth has replaced patchy economic progress – averaging above six percent since 2009.

But these changes have largely eluded the area where the war was at its worst: the Vanni, a vast swath of land in the Northern Province that the LTTE ruled as a de facto state, together with the Jaffna Peninsular, for over a quarter of a century.

Home to over a million people, one-fourth of whom are war returnees, the Vanni has been in the doldrums since ballots replaced bullets.

“Peace should mean prosperity, but that is what we don’t have. What we have is a struggle to survive from one day to another,” Kajitha Shanmugadasan, an 18-year-old girl from the northern town of Pooneryn, told IPS.

She said youth her age were frustrated that multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects have failed to deliver decent jobs. “Look around, we have new highways, new railway lines, but no jobs, for five years people have been suffering, and it should not be [so] when there is peace,” she asserted.

Youth from the Northern Province have historically performed well at national exams, even during conflict times. That trend has held true: at the 2013 university entrance exam, 63.8 percent of those who sat their papers gained the scores required to enter the country’s top universities, a national high.

But with unemployment also at record levels here, and hardly any jobs for university graduates, those like Shanmugadasan are either staying out of universities or leaving the province in search of better prospects.

A new government, the result of presidential elections just a week into the New Year, and the Papal visit to the heart of the former battle zone on Jan. 14, have given rise to new hopes in the Vanni that life will improve for the ordinary people, who suffered during the war and have had little respite since the guns fell silent.

The 72-percent voter turnout in the Northern Province at the Jan. 8 presidential poll – an all-time high for the region – is a reminder to the new regime how desperate the people here are for real change.

During Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, life in the war zone was dominated by the fighting. Thousands of youth either joined the Tigers or were conscripted into their units. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

During Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, life in the war zone was dominated by the fighting. Thousands of youth either joined the Tigers or were conscripted into their units. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

A small child and a woman sit next to LTTE cadres training in a public playground in Kilinochchi, a district in the Northern Province, in this picture taken in June 2004. The Tigers held sway over all aspects of life in areas they controlled until their defeat in 2009. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A small child and a woman sit next to LTTE cadres training in a public playground in Kilinochchi, a district in the Northern Province, in this picture taken in June 2004. The Tigers held sway over all aspects of life in areas they controlled until their defeat in 2009. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now, young people have more freedom than they did under the Tigers, but many are frustrated by the lack of proper employment opportunities six years after being promised a peace dividend by the government in Colombo. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now, young people have more freedom than they did under the Tigers, but many are frustrated by the lack of proper employment opportunities six years after being promised a peace dividend by the government in Colombo. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A youth who lost his leg during the conflict stands by his vegetable stall in the town of Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka. He has a small family to look after and says he finds it extremely hard to provide for them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A youth who lost his leg during the conflict stands by his vegetable stall in the town of Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka. He has a small family to look after and says he finds it extremely hard to provide for them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

A quarter of a million people who were displaced during the last phase of the war, along with tens of thousands of others who fled at other stages of the conflict, have moved back to the Vanni. Many families with small children continue to live in slum-like conditions, as a funding shortfall has left many without proper houses. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A quarter of a million people who were displaced during the last phase of the war, along with tens of thousands of others who fled at other stages of the conflict, have moved back to the Vanni. Many families with small children continue to live in slum-like conditions, as a funding shortfall has left many without proper houses. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women have been forced to take up the role of breadwinner, with aid agencies suggesting that single females - either widows or women whose partners went missing during the war – now head over 40,000 households in the province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women have been forced to take up the role of breadwinner, with aid agencies suggesting that single females – either widows or women whose partners went missing during the war – now head over 40,000 households in the province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman stands in front of this small business she operates in Mullaitivu. The single mother was able to open the shop with the help of a grant she received from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman stands in front of this small business she operates in Mullaitivu. The single mother was able to open the shop with the help of a grant she received from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The war left tens of thousands disabled, but six years on there are hardly any programmes or facilities that cater to this community. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The war left tens of thousands disabled, but six years on there are hardly any programmes or facilities that cater to this community. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

This man, a former member of the LTTE who was blinded in one eye during the war, bicycles over 20 km each day in search of work. A father of one, he has found it hard to adjust to post-war life. Credit: Amantha Perer/IPS

This man, a former member of the LTTE who was blinded in one eye during the war, bicycles over 20 km each day in search of work. A father of one, he has found it hard to adjust to post-war life. Credit: Amantha Perer/IPS

Other former Tigers, like this rehabilitated cadre-turned-barber, were fortunate to benefit from government-sponsored aid programmes. Here, the one-time militant attends to a client at his barber’s shop in the village of Mallavi in Sri Lanka’s north. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Other former Tigers, like this rehabilitated cadre-turned-barber, were fortunate to benefit from government-sponsored aid programmes. Here, the one-time militant attends to a client at his barber’s shop in the village of Mallavi in Sri Lanka’s north. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Many in the Vanni struggle due to a combination of poverty, war-related injuries and untreated trauma. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The immediate aftermath of the war saw thousands of tourists flocking to the region, gawking at the remnants of a bloody past. Their numbers have since dwindled and a war tourist trail now remains mostly deserted. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The immediate aftermath of the war saw thousands of tourists flocking to the region, gawking at the remnants of a bloody past. Their numbers have since dwindled and a war tourist trail now remains mostly deserted. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The election of a new president and the visit of Pope Francis to the former war zone – two monumental events coming within five days of each other in early January – have raised hopes in the north that real, lasting change is close at hand. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The election of a new president and the visit of Pope Francis to the former war zone – two monumental events coming within five days of each other in early January – have raised hopes in the north that real, lasting change is close at hand. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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CORRECTION/Sustainable Energy Starts With the Sunhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-indias-western-gujarat-state-sustainable-energy-starts-with-the-sun/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-indias-western-gujarat-state-sustainable-energy-starts-with-the-sun http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-indias-western-gujarat-state-sustainable-energy-starts-with-the-sun/#comments Mon, 19 Jan 2015 16:38:24 +0000 Malini Shankar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138722 Sunlight pours over a break in canal-top solar panels recently installed over the Vadodara branch of the Sardar Sarovar canal project in Gujarat. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Sunlight pours over a break in canal-top solar panels recently installed over the Vadodara branch of the Sardar Sarovar canal project in Gujarat. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Malini Shankar
BARODA, India, Jan 19 2015 (IPS)

It began with an experiment to install photovoltaic cells over an irrigation canal that forms part of the Sardar Sarovar canal network – a massive hydel power project across the River Narmada that irrigates some 1.8 million hectares of arable land in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

After a successful pilot project, the Government of Gujarat has now invested some 18.3 million dollars replicating the scheme over a 3.6-km stretch of the irrigation canal in the hopes of generating 10 MW of power.

The project received endorsement from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 11, as it represents global efforts to move towards a new poverty-eradication framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the end of this year, putting sustainability at the heart of the global development agenda.

Given that no extra land had to be acquired for installation of the solar power panels, its uniqueness was lauded by the U.N. secretary-general.

“Looking out at the plant, I saw more than glittering panels—I saw the future of India and the future of our world,” Ban said, addressing the media at the site on Jan. 11.

With some 21,600 solar panels running over a length of the Vadodara branch of the canal, experts say the installation could generate power to the tune of 16.2 million units per annum, since the canal runs right over the Tropic of Cancer and receives bright sunlight for eight months out of the year.

Sceptics worry that without planning, the surplus power could be siphoned off by commercial enterprises unless there are concerted efforts to combine the sustainable energy initiative with poverty eradication.

All across India, stakeholders are taking stock of progress on the MDGs, keeping their eyes on the new era of sustainable development. Many gaps remain in the country’s efforts to improve the lives of millions, with water scarcity, lack of sanitation, and sprawling slums pointing to a need for better management of India’s human, economic and natural resources.

A view of the transformer, which transmits solar power generated at the canal-top solar power plant. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A view of the transformer, which transmits solar power generated at the canal-top solar power plant. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Such are the typical scenes in every slum area in India. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Such are the typical scenes in every slum area in India. Experts are hopeful that the post-2015 sustainable development agenda will succeed where the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did not. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Traditional systems of water harvesting and conservation have gained new-found respect in the era of sustainable development. Here, a woman uses her ox to churn a water mill in the north Indian state of Rajasthan. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Traditional systems of water harvesting and conservation have gained new-found respect in the era of sustainable development. Here, a woman uses her ox to churn a water mill in the north Indian state of Rajasthan. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Indigenous people, like this Soliga woman, all across India are in urgent need of far-reaching sustainable development plans that will improve the lives and habitats of forest-dwellers. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Indigenous people, like this Soliga woman, all across India are in urgent need of far-reaching sustainable development plans that will improve the lives and livelihoods of forest-dwellers. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A water crisis continues to plague both urban and rural areas across India. A solar power project recently inaugurated by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon promises to improve water and sanitation access for communities in the western state of Gujarat. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A water crisis continues to plague both urban and rural areas across India. As the U.N. gears up to implement a new sustainable development agenda, hopes are running high that gaps in the MDGs will now be filled. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Sunlight pours over a break in canal-top solar panels recently installed over the Vadodara branch of the Sardar Sarovar canal project in Gujarat. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Sunlight pours over a break in canal-top solar panels recently installed over the Vadodara branch of the Sardar Sarovar canal project in Gujarat. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A view of a polluted stream in Bangalore, capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, points to an urgent need for better planning and management of the country’s scarce water sources. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A view of a polluted stream in Bangalore, capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, points to an urgent need for better planning and management of the country’s scarce water sources. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Battle Heats Up Over Legalisation of Sex Work in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/battle-heats-up-over-legalisation-of-sex-work-in-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=battle-heats-up-over-legalisation-of-sex-work-in-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/battle-heats-up-over-legalisation-of-sex-work-in-india/#comments Fri, 16 Jan 2015 14:10:38 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138679 The view from a red-light district in India, where some three million sex workers are caught in the middle of a debate on legalisation. Credit: bengarrison/CC-BY-SA-2.0

The view from a red-light district in India, where some three million sex workers are caught in the middle of a debate on legalisation. Credit: bengarrison/CC-BY-SA-2.0

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jan 16 2015 (IPS)

Thirty-six-year-old Chameli Devi, a sex worker operating out of New Delhi’s G.B. Road – Asia’s largest red-light district, housing an estimated 12,000 of India’s three million sex workers – is an unhappy woman these days.

A contentious debate over the sex trade in India, following a call for legalisation by the National Commission for Women (NCW) – a state-run body that advises the government on women-related policy matters – has Devi worried.

“In wealthier countries, many women genuinely choose this trade due to better income prospects and opportunities. But in India, every woman who enters this trade has invariably been coerced into it by a trafficker, her family or her husband." -- Sarita, a 43-year-old sex worker in New Delhi
She feels that merely issuing licences or permits to people of her ilk will not lead to the improvement of the unhealthy and, at times, dangerous conditions under which commercialised prostitution functions.

According to U.N. reports, about 70 percent of sex workers in India are abused by their clients and the police. Abuse, say activists, is often under-reported by sex workers due to a lack of knowledge of their basic rights.

“Most of us don’t take to the flesh trade out of choice but are sold by criminal mafias to brothels. The move to regulate our business will only end up giving immunity to the pimps and brothels to buy or sell poor women like us while increasing trafficking of young women and children,” Devi told IPS.

A recent study conducted by the Indian philanthropic non-profit Dasra found that roughly half of trafficking victims are adolescent girls, while the average age of sex workers has dropped from 14-16, to 10-14, “because young girls are believed to have a lower risk of carrying a sexually transmitted disease”.

“Most victims come from rural areas, over 70 percent are illiterate, and almost half reported that their families earned just about one dollar [per day],” the report stated.

Other studies have found that most sex workers in India are form the lower castes, communities that are routinely subjected to violence and exploitation in a highly stratified society.

It is unsurprising, then, that scores of women trapped in the trade remain highly opposed to legalization.

Sarita, 43, another sex worker, feels that while there may be a sound argument for legalisation in richer countries like the USA, or even China, such a system is ill-suited to India.

“In wealthier countries, many women genuinely choose this trade due to better income prospects and opportunities. But in India, every woman who enters this trade has invariably been coerced into it by a trafficker, her family or her husband,” she asserted. “So the dynamics of our society are very different.”

Curbing the flourishing sex trade

A 2014 study, ‘Economics Behind Forced Labour Trafficking’, spearheaded by Indian Nobel Peace Prize-winner Kailash Satyarthi, contains some of the most up-to-date data on the flourishing sex trade.

“The figures are shocking…In India alone, the money generated through [the] sex trade so far stands at a whopping 343 billion dollars. Research confirms that several agencies such as traffickers, brothel owners, money lenders, law enforcement officials, lawyers, judiciary and to a certain level even the victims of CSE (commercial sexual exploitation) eventually receive money for participation,” Satyarthi said in the study.

According to a 2009 United Nations report, sex trafficking is the commonest form of human trafficking in the world, making it the largest slave trade; about 79 percent of all human trafficking is for sex work and it is the fastest growing criminal industry globally.

Countries that have legalised prostitution are not much better off. The Netherlands, which legalised prostitution in 2000, continues to grapple with human traffickers smuggling women into the country’s brothels, point out non-profits working in the area.

With the legalisation debate gaining traction, public opinion in India is also splintered over the issue. Those who favour the move feel that it will whittle down harassment, legal intimidation, entrapment and exploitation of sex workers.

NCW Chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam, who set the ball rolling with her suggestion that the trade be brought under state control last month, feels that such a step will ensure better living conditions for women engaged in commercial sex work.

She contends it will reducing trafficking of both girls and women and improve the health conditions of sex workers who are presently forced to serve clients in unhygienic conditions and without condoms, which has caused HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases to spread.

In fact health care experts extend some of the strongest arguments in favour of legalising prostitution, or regulating it. They feel that the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS across the world, especially in Asia and Africa, can be checked by bringing the business under the state umbrella as this will help health workers to better educate those in the trade about condom usage and basic hygiene.

Safer sex work or a massive bureaucracy?

Opponents of legalisation, however, are wary of the consequences of adding layers of regulation to India’s massive bureaucracy. They fear that government intervention could trigger harassment of the very people it seeks to protect.

“Legalising prostitution is legalising the profiteers of the sex-industry and their customers,” Ranjana Kumari, director for the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Social Research, told IPS.

“It means rape of poor, lower-caste women with impunity. Not only that, it will make India a world magnet for sex trafficking and sex tourism.”

Donna M. Hughes, professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island, writes in her essay ‘Prostitution: Causes and Solutions’ that legalisation does not reduce prostitution or trafficking.

“In fact,” she writes, “both activities increase because men can legally buy sex acts, and pimps and brothel keepers can legally sell and profit from them … In the Netherlands, since legalisation, there has been an increase in the use of children in prostitution.”

Activists working with sex workers are also deeply divided over the issue. While Dr S. Jana, who launched the 65,000-strong sex workers’ forum — Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee — based out of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, has supported the legalisation call, others fear that it will further embolden traffickers and the prostitution mafia.

“Indian law and government policies have failed to protect sex workers due to the loopholes in law which makes them vulnerable to abuse. If the trade is legalised, the situation will worsen,” Meena Seshu, a feminist activist and founder of SANGRAM, a voluntary organisation working in the field of HIV control based in Sangli, a city in the western state of Maharashtra, told IPS.

Legalisation, adds the activist, could also scupper attempts by many women’s organisations and NGOs to rehabilitate women and children forced into prostitution.

“The state should formulate policies and schemes for the rehabilitation of sex workers who are coming out of this commercial sexual exploitation. This will offer a better solution to this complex problem,” Seshu contends.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Papal Visit Rekindles Hopes in Former War Zonehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/papal-visit-rekindles-hopes-in-former-war-zone/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=papal-visit-rekindles-hopes-in-former-war-zone http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/papal-visit-rekindles-hopes-in-former-war-zone/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 17:01:57 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138660 Over 500,000 people gathered at the Madhu Shrine in Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone to hear Pope Francis talk of national reconciliation and healing after two-and-a-half decades of sectarian bloodshed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Over 500,000 people gathered at the Madhu Shrine in Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone to hear Pope Francis talk of national reconciliation and healing after two-and-a-half decades of sectarian bloodshed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
MADHU, Sri Lanka, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

Jessi Jogeswaran, a 20-year-old woman from Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna district, waited over six hours with 18 friends in the sweltering heat just to get a glimpse of Pope Francis on Jan. 14.

The much-anticipated Papal visit brought well over a million people out into the streets to hear the pontiff’s sermons, first in the capital Colombo and later on in Madhu, a village in Sri Lanka’s northwestern Mannar District.

“If we know what happened to all those who went missing, or what will happen to all those still in prison after the war, we will know that things have changed." -- Ramsiyah Pachchanlam, community empowerment officer with the Vanni Rehabilitation Organisation for the Differently Abled (VAROD)
Young and old alike congregated at designated sites, including those like Jogeswaran who traveled miles to be present for the historic occasion.

The young woman with a disarming smile hides a terrible tale: as an 11-year-old, she endured three years of death and mayhem in her native village of Addankulam in Mannar, caught between advancing government forces and military units of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who at the time controlled a vast swath of land in the north of Sri Lanka.

The six-member family’s flight began in 2007, at the tail-end of the country’s civil conflict, and would last almost two years before, in tattered clothes, they escaped the final bouts of fighting in April 2009.

“The nightmare has not ended, it has become less intense,” Jogeswaran told IPS, sitting in the compound of the Madhu Shrine, a church nestled in the jungle that is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary, which millions around the country believe to be miraculous.

Jogeswaran said that despite the war’s end, thousands of people in the north were still fighting to escape the crutches of abject poverty, recover from the traumatic events of the last days of the war and reunite with relatives lost in the chaos of prolonged battles over a period of 26 years.

“We need peace, both within and without,” she added.

Delivering a short sermon at the shrine, Pope Francis echoed her sentiments.

“No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place,” he said, referring to the attacks on the church and its use by local residents as a place of refuge during extreme bouts of fighting.

He also acknowledged that the healing process would be hard, and that sustained effort would be required “to forgive, and find peace.”

For scores of people here, however, the wounds are too many to forget. The over 225,000 who were displaced during the war have now returned to a region where some parts boast poverty rates over four times the national average of six percent.

There is an urgent need for some 138,000 houses, amidst a funding shortfall of 300 million dollars. Nearly six years after the war’s end there could be as many as 40,000 missing people, although the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has records of little above 16,000 dating back over two decades.

While the completion of several large infrastructure projects suggested rapid development of the former war zone – including reconstruction of the 252-km-long rail-line connecting the north and south at a cost of 800 million dollars – few can enjoy the perks, with 5.2 percent unemployment in the Northern Province.

A lack of job opportunities is particularly hard on war widows and female-headed households – estimated at between 40,000 and 55,000 – and the nearly 12,000 rehabilitated LTTE combatants, among whom unemployment is a soaring 11 percent.

Untreated trauma, coupled with a lifting of the LTTE’s long-standing ban on the sale and production of liquor, has pushed alcohol dependency to new heights.

With scores of people seeking solace in the bottle, the northern Mullaitivu District recently recorded the second-highest rate of alcohol consumption in the island: some 34.4 percent of the population identify as ‘habitual users of alcohol’.

Finally, despite the war’s end, there has been no progress on power devolution to the Tamil-majority Northern Province, a root cause of the war.

A new political era: A bright future for the North?

The week before the Papal visit, Sri Lanka underwent a seismic change in its political landscape, when long-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena, who campaigned with the support of a wide array of political parties including those representing Sinhala extremists and others representing the minority Tamil and Muslim populations.

Jogeswaran, who voted to elect a national leader for the first time at the Jan. 8 poll, told IPS that she felt nervously optimistic that things would change.

“We have a new president, who has promised change, now it is up to him to not deceive the voters,” she said.

Ramsiyah Pachchanlam, community empowerment officer with the Vanni Rehabilitation Organisation for the Differently Abled (VAROD), told IPS the northern population was desperate for things to improve.

“There are new roads, new electricity stations and a new train line, but no new jobs,” Pachchanlam said, commenting on the over three billion dollars worth of infrastructure investments made under the former Rajapaksa administration that has not trickled down to the people.

The Sirisena government has shown some signs that it was much more amenable to the needs of minority Tamils than its predecessor.

In his first week in office, Sirisena replaced the long-standing governor of the Northern Province, G. A. Chandrasiri – a former military officer – with G. S. Pallihakara, a career diplomat.

The appointment of a civilian officer to the post was a key demand of the Northern Provincial Council controlled by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which had previously accused the former governor of stifling the council’s independence by carrying out instructions received directly from Colombo.

Many hope that greater political autonomy will pave the way to resolution of the most burning issues plaguing the people.

“If we know what happened to all those who went missing, or what will happen to all those still in prison after the war, we will know that things have changed,” social worker Pachchanlam said.

It remains to be seen if change will happen on the ground, but for a brief moment, in that jungle shrine, thousands came together in hope and expectation of a brighter future.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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In the Shadow of Glacial Lakes, Pakistan’s Mountain Communities Look to Climate Adaptationhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-the-shadow-of-glacial-lakes-pakistans-mountain-communities-look-to-climate-adaptation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-the-shadow-of-glacial-lakes-pakistans-mountain-communities-look-to-climate-adaptation http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-the-shadow-of-glacial-lakes-pakistans-mountain-communities-look-to-climate-adaptation/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 05:13:20 +0000 Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138642 A boy grazes his cattle on farmland close to the site of a landslide in northern Pakistan’s Bagrot valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

A boy grazes his cattle on farmland close to the site of a landslide in northern Pakistan’s Bagrot valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
BINDO GOL, Pakistan, Jan 15 2015 (IPS)

Khaliq-ul-Zaman, a farmer from the remote Bindo Gol valley in northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has long lived under the shadow of disaster.

With plenty of fertile land and fresh water, this scenic mountain valley would be an ideal dwelling place – if not for the constant threat of the surrounding glacial lakes bursting their ridges and gushing down the hillside, leaving a trail of destruction behind.

“We can safely say that over 16,000 have been displaced due to [glacial lake outburst floods], and remain so even after several months.” -- Khalil Ahmed, national programme manager of a climate mitigation project in northern Pakistan
There was a time when families like Zaman’s lived in these distant valleys undisturbed, but hotter temperatures and heavier rains, which experts say are the result of global warming, have turned areas like Bindo Gol into a soup of natural hazards.

Landslides, floods and soil erosion have become increasingly frequent, disrupting channels that carry fresh water from upstream springs into farmlands, and depriving communities of their only source of fresh water.

“Things were becoming very difficult for my family,” Zaman told IPS. “I began to think that farming was no longer viable, and was considering abandoning it and migrating to nearby Chitral [a town about 60 km away] in search of labour.”

He was not alone in his desperation. Azam Mir, an elderly wheat farmer from the Drongagh village in Bindo Gol, recalled a devastating landslide in 2008 that wiped out two of the most ancient water channels in the area, forcing scores of farmers to abandon agriculture and relocate to nearby villages.

“Those who could not migrate out of the village suffered from water-borne diseases and hunger,” he told IPS.

Now, thanks to a public-private sector climate adaptation partnership aimed at reducing the risk of disasters like glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), residents of the northern valleys are gradually regaining their livelihoods and their hopes for a future in the mountains.

Bursting at the seams

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), there were some 2,400 potentially hazardous glacial lakes in the country’s remotest mountain valleys in 2010, a number that has now increased to over 3,000.

Chitral district alone is home to 549 glaciers, of which 132 have been declared ‘dangerous’.

Climatologists say that rising temperatures are threatening the delicate ecosystem here, and unless mitigation measures are taken immediately, the lives and livelihoods of millions will continue to be at risk.

One of the most successful initiatives underway is a four-year, 7.6-million-dollar project backed by the U.N. Adaptation Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government of Pakistan.

Signed into existence in 2010, its main focus, according to Field Manager Hamid Ahmed Mir, has been protection of lives, livelihoods, existing water channels and the construction of flood control infrastructure including check dams, erosion control structures and gabion walls.

Labourers construct flood-control gabion walls - structures constructed by filling large galvanized steel baskets with rock – in northern Pakistan’s remote Bindo Gol valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

Labourers construct flood-control gabion walls – structures constructed by filling large galvanized steel baskets with rock – in northern Pakistan’s remote Bindo Gol valley. Credit: Saleem Shaikh/IPS

The project has brought tremendous improvements to people here, helping to reduce damage to streams and allowing the sustained flow of water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation purposes in over 12 villages.

“We plan to extend such infrastructure in another 10 villages of the valley, where hundreds of households will benefit from the initiative,” Mir told IPS.

Further afield, in the Bagrot valley of Gilgit, a district in Gilgit-Baltistan province that borders KP, NGOs are rolling out similar programmes.

Zahid Hussain, field officer for the climate adaptation project in Bagrot, told IPS that 16,000 of the valley’s residents are vulnerable to GLOF and flash floods, while existing sanitation and irrigation infrastructure has suffered severe damage over the last years due to inclement weather.

Located some 800 km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, Bagrot is comprised of 10 scattered villages, whose population depends for almost all its needs on streams that bubble forth from the Karakoram Mountains, a sub-range of the Hindu Kush Himalayas and the world’s most heavily glaciated area outside of the Polar Regions.

Residents like Sajid Ali, also a farmer, are pinning all their hopes on infrastructure development that will preserve this vital resource, and protect his community against the onslaught of floods.

An even bigger concern, he told IPS, is the spread of water-borne diseases as floods and landslides leave behind large silt deposits upstream.

Preparing for the worst

Just as risk reduction structures are key to preventing humanitarian crises, so too is building community resilience and awareness among the local population, experts say.

So far, some two million people in the Bindo Gol and Bagrot valleys have benefitted from community mitigation schemes, not only from improved access to clean water, but also from monitoring stations, site maps and communications systems capable of alerting residents to a coming catastrophe.

Khalil Ahmed, national programme manager for the project, told IPS that early warning systems are now in place to inform communities well in advance of outbursts or flooding, giving families plenty of time to evacuate to safer grounds.

While little official data exists on the precise number of people affected by glacial lake outbursts, Ahmed says, “We can safely say that over 16,000 have been displaced, and remain so even after several months.”

Over the past 17 months alone, Pakistan has experienced seven glacial lake outbursts that not only displaced people, but also wiped out standing crops and ruined irrigation and water networks all throughout the north, according to Ghulam Rasul, a senior climatologist with the PMD in Islamabad.

The situation is only set to worsen, as temperatures rise in the mountainous areas of northern Pakistan and scientists predict more extreme weather in the coming decades, prompting an urgent need for greater preparedness at all levels of society.

Several community-based adaptation initiatives including the construction of over 15 ‘safe havens’ – temporary shelter areas – in the Bindo Gol and Bagrot valleys have already inspired confidence among the local population, while widespread vegetation plantation on the mountain slopes act as a further buffer against landslides and erosion.

Scientists and activists say that replicating similar schemes across the northern regions will prevent unnecessary loss of life and save the government millions of dollars in damages.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.N. Field Operations Deadlier Every Yearhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/u-n-field-operations-deadlier-every-year/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-field-operations-deadlier-every-year http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/u-n-field-operations-deadlier-every-year/#comments Wed, 14 Jan 2015 03:56:32 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138631 United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) peacekeepers provide security at a trial. U.N. staffers have been killed in the country in recent years. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret.

United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) peacekeepers provide security at a trial. U.N. staffers have been killed in the country in recent years. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret.

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 14 2015 (IPS)

The widespread field operations of the United Nations – primarily in conflict zones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – continue to be some of the world’s deadliest.

The hazards are so predictable that the United Nations – and its agencies – subtly encourage staffers to write their last will before leaving home.

And working for the United Nations proved especially deadly in 2014 as its personnel “continued to be subject to deliberate attacks and exposed to hazardous environments”, according to the Staff Union’s Standing Committee for the Security and Independence of the International Civil Service.“I think the most appropriate question is: should the U.N. send staff members to places where their security and safety cannot be guaranteed?” - Barbara Tavora-Jainchill, president of the U.N. Staff Union

Asked if the United Nations was doing enough to protect its staff in these overseas operations, Barbara Tavora-Jainchill, president of the U.N. Staff Union, told IPS:  “This is a tricky question, because in principle the responsibility for the protection belongs primarily to the host country, i.e., the country where the staff member is working/living”.

“I think the most appropriate question is: should the U.N. send staff members to places where their security and safety cannot be guaranteed?” she asked.

At least, 61 United Nations and associated personnel were killed in 2014, including 33 peacekeepers, 16 civilians, nine contractors and three consultants, compared to 58 in 2013, including 33 peacekeepers and 25 civilians and associated personnel.

In 2012, 37 U.N. personnel, including 20 civilians and 17 peacekeepers, two of them police officers, were killed in the line of duty.

According to the Staff Union Standing Committee, the incident with the most casualties took place in Northern Mali, where nine peacekeepers were killed last October when their convoy was
ambushed.

Northern Mali was the most deadly place for U.N. personnel: 28 peacekeepers were killed there between June and October. And Gaza was the most deadly place for civilian personnel, with 11 killed in
July and August.

The killings, some of them described as “deliberate”, took place in Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali, Cambodia, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, North Darfur, Central African Republic and Gaza.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed serious concern over the continued killings of U.N. staffers in field operations.

“I am appalled by the number of humanitarian workers and peacekeepers who have been deliberately targeted in the past year, while they were trying to help people in crisis,” he said, at a memorial ceremony last week to honour fallen staff members.

In the past year, he said, U.N. staff members were killed while relaxing over dinner in a restaurant in Kabul while two colleagues were targeted after getting off a plane in Somalia.

Speaking at the same ceremony, Ian Richards, president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions, said: “We are asked to work in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous places.”

He said the work is fulfilling and “we do it willingly.”  “But all we ask in return is that the Organisation do its best to protect us, look after our families, and hold those who attack us, including governments, responsible for their actions.”

In a statement released Tuesday, the Staff Union Standing Committee said South Sudan was the country with the highest number of national staff members detained or abducted.

In May, there were allegations that members of South Sudan’s security forces assaulted and illegally detained two staff members in separate incidents in Juba.

In August, South Sudan’s National Security Service detained two national staff.  And in October, eight armed men wearing plain clothes seized a World Food Programme staff member who was waiting in line for a flight from Malakal airport and drove him to an unknown location.

Scores of United Nations staff and associated personnel were also subject
to hostage-taking, kidnapping and abductions, the statement said.

The worst incidents took place in the Golan Heights, where 44 Fijian peacekeepers were detained by armed opposition elements between 28 August and 11 September last year.

Meanwhile, U.N. personnel were abducted in Yemen, the Sudan’s Darfur region, Pakistan and in South Sudan.

An international contractor from India working for the U.N Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was released on 12 June after 94 days of captivity.

Asked about “hazard pay” for staffers in overseas operations, Tavora-Jainchill told IPS staff members do get hazard/danger pay depending on conditions of the individual duty station.

She said, “Each duty station is a unique duty station and receives unique consideration for hazard/danger pay, so your question cannot be answered in a general manner.”

United Nations staff members participate in a Pension Fund and there are provisions in that pension related to their death and the payment of pension/indemnities to their survivors, she added.

Asked about the will, she said: “That question is very interesting because I also heard that and some time ago asked someone from the U.N. Administration if it was really the case.”

The response was that those staff members are asked to consider “putting their business and paperwork in order”.

“My understanding from the answer is that the paperwork might include a will, she added.”

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In Sri Lanka Cartoonists Aren’t Killed – They’re Disappearedhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-sri-lanka-cartoonists-arent-killed-theyre-disappeared/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-sri-lanka-cartoonists-arent-killed-theyre-disappeared http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/in-sri-lanka-cartoonists-arent-killed-theyre-disappeared/#comments Tue, 13 Jan 2015 19:00:04 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138622 Sri Lankan columnist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing for almost five years. Credit: Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA/CC-BY-2.0

Sri Lankan columnist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing for almost five years. Credit: Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
COLOMBO, Jan 13 2015 (IPS)

Scenes from the brutal shooting of 12 journalists with the French satirical weekly ‘Charlie Hebdo’ have monopolised headlines worldwide ever since two men opened fire in the magazine’s Paris office on Jan. 7.

Millions have marched in the streets against what is widely being billed as an attack on free speech, and the work of the magazine’s cartoonists has gone viral.

Several thousands miles away, in Sri Lanka, a different attack on press freedom has not received even a fraction of the attention. Perhaps because, in this particular tragedy, the leading character was not killed. He simply vanished without a trace.

“One sure way to reverse the dangerous trajectory Sri Lanka has been going down during the past decade is to seriously address the pleas of those like Sandhya Eknaligoda, whose husband Prageeth remains missing five years on [...]." -- Sumit Galhotra, Asia Researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
The last time anyone heard from Prageeth Eknaligoda was on Jan. 24, 2010. Just after 10 p.m. he called to inform his wife, Sandhya, that he was on his way home from the office. He never arrived.

From local police stations all the way to the United Nations in Geneva, she has searched for answers as to his whereabouts, but found none.

Rights groups like Amnesty International believe the authorities played a role in his disappearance, while neighbours report seeing an unmarked white van parked outside his house the day he went missing – a vehicle widely associated with enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka.

A cartoonist and columnist for Lanka eNews (LEN), Eknaligoda had long used his pen to draw attention to corruption, human rights abuses and eroding democracy in Sri Lanka.

One of his most widely shared images depicts the back of a half-naked woman facing a gang of laughing men. Scratched on the wall behind her are the words “Preference of the majority is democracy”, which some commentators claimed was a reference to the powerlessness of minorities in a largely Sinhala-Buddhist country.

He also turned his sharp pen to the issue of education, sketching out in glaring detail the impact of a weak school system on the youth, including one cartoon that depicted the tragic suicide of a student at a leading girls’ school in the capital, Colombo.

In a country that is ranked fourth – between the Philippines and Syria – on the Impunity Index compiled by the leading media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), it was perhaps only a matter of time before Eknaligoda was forced to answer to the powers that be.

But because there is no evidence to show he suffered the same fate as the 19 Sri Lankan journalists who have been killed in cold blood since 1992, Eknaligoda is not included among those who paid with their lives for their writings.

Because his body was never found, there is no gravesite around which to gather to mourn his death. In fact, former Attorney General Mohan Peiris told a United Nations Committee against Torture in 2011 that Eknaligoda was still alive and living in a foreign country – a statement he later retracted.

As far as the family is concerned, disappearance is a fate worse than death. In an interview with IPS in 2012, Sandhya Eknaligoda explained, “Not knowing where your loved one is, that is mental torture. And it is worse than physical torture, where at least the world can see the marks of your suffering.”

New government, new hopes

On Jan. 7, as news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre reached heads of state around the world, Sri Lanka’s then-president Rajapaksa was among those to immediately offer condolences to the victims’ families.

Those who have closely followed Eknaligoda’s case called the statement hypocritical, given the government’s alleged indifference to a free press in Sri Lanka.

So when Rajapaksa was ousted at the Jan. 8 presidential election, replaced by his former party secretary Maithripala Sirisena, experts and activists began, tentatively, to hope for accountability.

“Maithripala Sirisena’s stunning win marks an opportunity for Sri Lanka to improve the climate for press freedom,” Sumit Galhotra, Asia researcher for CPJ, told IPS. “While he has pledged to eradicate corruption and ensure greater transparency, we will be watching closely to see if he follows these verbal commitments with concrete steps.

“One sure way to reverse the dangerous trajectory Sri Lanka has been going down during the past decade is to seriously address the pleas of those like Sandhya Eknaligoda, whose husband Prageeth remains missing five years on and to begin combating the culture of impunity that has flourished in the country when it comes to anti-press violence,” he added.

Among a long list of atrocities that the journalistic community has suffered was the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge in broad daylight on Jan. 8, 2009. Founder-editor of the major English-language weekly, the Sunday Leader, Wickrematunge was an outspoken critic of all forms of abuse of power and human rights violations.

Addressing a crowd of some 50 people who gathered at his gravesite on the morning of the presidential poll exactly six years after Lasantha’s death, his brother Lal Wickrematunge called attention to the failure of the “numerous squads assigned to handle investigations into the murder [to make] any headway.”

Now, as the new government assumes office, activists say there will be a renewed push for justice.

It is still early days, but already there have been some positive steps.

“Some of the websites that were blocked like TamilNet and Lanka eNews are accessible now, and these are good signs,” Ruki Fernando, a prominent grassroots activist here, told IPS.

“But there are a number of cases, like Prageeth’s, Lasantha’s and many, many others – including numerous cases against the [Jaffna-based Tamil language daily newspaper] Uthayan – that need to be expedited.

“That doesn’t mean that Lal [Wickrematunge] or Sandhya [Eknaligoda] are asking for political favours,” he asserted. “All they’re asking is that the normal course of justice, which was been obstructed so far, be allowed to proceed in an independent manner without political interference.

“These are things we expect from the new regime in its first 100 days,” Fernando stated. “Until they are implemented, I don’t have much confidence – I only have hope.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Women ‘Sewing’ a Bright Future in Northern Pakistanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/women-sewing-a-bright-future-in-northern-pakistan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-sewing-a-bright-future-in-northern-pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/women-sewing-a-bright-future-in-northern-pakistan/#comments Mon, 12 Jan 2015 13:27:29 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138592 Afghan widows and orphans in Pakistan have few livelihood options, but a women’s charity is teaching them basic embroidery and sewing to help them start home-based businesses. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

Afghan widows and orphans in Pakistan have few livelihood options, but a women’s charity is teaching them basic embroidery and sewing to help them start home-based businesses. Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jan 12 2015 (IPS)

At 46, Naseema Nashad is starting her life over, not out of choice but out of necessity. The Afghan woman was just 25 years old when Taliban militants stormed Kabul and her family was forced to flee to neighbouring Pakistan to escape what they knew would be a brutal regime.

“My father stayed back to run his small business there and he would send us money on a monthly basis,” she told IPS. “We used it to feed our seven-member family, and pay rent on our house in Peshawar [capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkwa province].”

“The worst victims of the three-decade-long conflict are women, who have lost their fathers, husbands and male family members [and] are finding it hard to earn a living." -- Ahmed Rasool, professor of international relations at Kabul University
But in 1999, “for no reason” she says, the Taliban killed Nashad’s father. Since then, it has been a daily struggle for the family to survive. Aged 12, 14 and 15, her three brothers quickly found work in local hotels, though they were paid paltry salaries for their labour.

Nashad, on the other hand, could never land anything but odd jobs, which barely gave her enough to survive. What she needed was something fulltime, ideally work she could do from home, that would bring her a regular income.

It was a pipe dream at first, but thanks to the efforts of a vocational centre established by the Afghan Women Organisation, an NGO based in this border city, she is close to making it a reality.

“Now, I have learnt stitching and embroidery and will open a home-based shop very soon. Some of the women who have previously been trained at the centre are helping me,” she added.

She is one of thousands of women, all from war-affected families, who have acquired embroidery and sewing skills over the past five years.

Each woman has her own unique story. Fourteen-year-old Gul Pari, for instance, migrated to Peshawar from Afghanistan seven years ago. As a daily wage-labourer, her father could scarcely make ends meet. There was little choice but for his young daughters to go out in search of work.

Today, Gul and her younger sister Jamila are the owners of a small home-based business, where they take on clients who need garments stitched or altered. They still in a simple mud hut, but at least they now make enough money to comfortably feed the entire family.

Safoora Stanikzai, who heads the Afghan Women Organisation, says she has imparted skills to about 4,000 women since establishing the centre in 2010.

“A majority of the trained women were either widows or orphaned children who had lost their male family members in Afghanistan and were facing severe economic problems here,” Stanikzai tells IPS.

The organisation lacks space and sufficient resources but soldiers on with the little it has. After the women complete their training, they even receive a sewing machine from the centre to facilitate home-based enterprises.

Stanikzai also recruits women found begging on the streets and in marketplaces, and offers them the chance to start their lives afresh – a rare opportunity in this war-torn region, where civilians are often caught between militants and the military, and a massive number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) jostle for space with a resident population already battling a scarcity of homes, jobs and food.

Female Afghan refugees face double-dependency

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, Pakistan is home to 1.6 million ‘legal’ Afghan residents, while an estimated two to three million undocumented refugees are also believed to have crossed the 2,700-km-long border since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Passing easily through various unguarded or unchecked entry points in the mountains that form a rocky border between the two nations, Afghans fleeing the war were once welcomed by their brethren in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and what was formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, now called KP.

But when the U.S.-invasion of Afghanistan pushed former Taliban militants into the mountains, leading to a rise in armed groups operating with impunity in the tribal belt, the hand of friendship was snatched away and many Afghans now live on the margins, blamed for the rise in militancy and soaring crime in Pakistan’s northern regions.

According to Ahmed Rasool, a professor of international relations at Kabul University, poverty-stricken Afghan refugees have no choice but to remain in Pakistan since they have little to no economic opportunity back home.

“The worst victims of the three-decade-long conflict are women, who have lost their fathers, husbands and male family members [and] are finding it hard to earn a living,” he told IPS.

Some of these widows and orphans are new arrivals, joining the wave that fled Afghanistan in 2001. Others have lived here much longer, and consider Pakistan their home.

But aid that was once was abundant has dwindled. International NGOs and aid agencies followed closely on the heels of departing foreign troops, leaving Afghan refugees in the lurch.

Barely able to meet the needs of its own impoverished population in the north, the Pakistan government has offered little assistance to visitors who are now being told they have outstayed their welcome.

So initiatives like Stanikzai’s vocational centre represent a welcome oasis in an increasingly hostile desert.

Some Afghan women earn as much as 150 dollars per month by altering or stitching women’s garments. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Some Afghan women earn as much as 150 dollars per month by altering or stitching women’s garments. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Women like 49-year-old Shamin Ara, who received training at the centre five years ago, is just one of the organisation’s many success stories.

She arrived in Pakistan in 1992, and lost her father to tuberculosis six years ago. His death left the family no choice but to seek alms from their rich relatives, she tells IPS.

Now she earns about 150 dollars a month by practicing the skills she learned at the centre. It is a decent wage in a country where the average annual income is 1,250 dollars.

She says she has not yet been able to find a husband, since she still lives in abject poverty. But at least now she can feed her four siblings, and harbours dreams of expanding her business further.

Already she has helped five other Afghan women set up their own shops, and hopes to do more for those like herself, who just need a helping hand.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

 

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Bhopal Cloud Hovers Over Industrial Safety in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/bhopal-cloud-hovers-over-industrial-safety-in-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bhopal-cloud-hovers-over-industrial-safety-in-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/bhopal-cloud-hovers-over-industrial-safety-in-india/#comments Sun, 11 Jan 2015 18:53:51 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138589 Children with congenital disorders linked to the Bhopal gas leak gather at a candlelight vigil. Credit: Chingari Trust

Children with congenital disorders linked to the Bhopal gas leak gather at a candlelight vigil. Credit: Chingari Trust

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jan 11 2015 (IPS)

Three decades after 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal on Dec. 3, 1984 – killing an estimated 4,000 almost instantly and maiming and blinding hundreds of thousands of others – the world’s worst industrial disaster remains a sharp lesson on the need for greater safety regulations in Asia’s third-largest economy.

Thirty years on, thousands of children in Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, as well as in adjoining regions, are still being born with twisted limbs and other physical and mental disabilities caused by their parents’ exposure to the gas.

"Even if we have not seen […] another horrific human tragedy like on the night of Dec. 3, 1984, the country continues to have many mini-Bhopals – industrial accidents, which take lives and throw up a huge challenge of hazardous waste contamination.” -- Sunita Narain, director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)
The poisonous vapours, which leached far into the soil and groundwater over the years, are still killing those victims who are too poor to move elsewhere.

“No consolidated record exists to show how many people are still suffering. As a result, even after the government paid compensation – however little – to more than half a million victims, fresh claims are still pouring in,” the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said in a book published last month.

According to Amnesty International, about 350,000 kg of toxic waste still covers the Union Carbide factory site. In 2009, 25 years after the tragedy, CSE conducted an independent assessment and found high levels of contamination in the soil and groundwater at the Union Carbide factory site and its adjoining areas.

In 2013, the centre collaborated with experts from across the country to develop a five-year action plan aimed at remediation of soil and toxic waste inside the plant and decontamination of the groundwater in the nearby area.

Intriguingly, even as the disaster continues to spawn books, movies and debates on corporate liability and poor safety regulations in Indian industries, the country’s ability to tackle a similar fiasco is still seriously in question.

“Post-Bhopal, India improved its legislations for chemical industrial disasters and worker safety, but it is still an unfinished business,” Sunita Narain, director-general of CSE, said at the book’s launch.

“Even if we have not seen […] another horrific human tragedy like on the night of Dec. 3, 1984, the country continues to have many mini-Bhopals – industrial accidents, which take lives and throw up a huge challenge of hazardous waste contamination.”

Several experts who spoke with IPS said that while the government has displayed alacrity in setting up sundry committees to assess the damage and recommend safeguards, mishaps continue to wreak havoc in the country’s mines and factories.

The problem is compounded by a lax regulatory environment, and entrenched corruption. As a result, predict economists, exponential growth in Asia’s third largest economy, home to over 1.2 billion people, will continue to come at a significant cost to the environment and human safety.

This is ironic as corporate law experts emphasize that India has one of the most complex and comprehensive laws on industrial safety.

For instance, safety audits are now mandatory in all factories storing hazardous chemicals over a certain threshold.

The Factories Act appoints site appraisal committees to advise on the location of factories using hazardous processes and suggests emergency disaster control plans for workers and local residents.

The Chemical Accidents Rules 1996 was introduced to ensure better safety standards while the Factories Act was remodelled to appoint an “occupier”, from the company’s top management, who would be totally responsible for a mishap, according to risk management consultant B. Karthikeyan

“However, the most significant piece of legislation to be introduced in the aftermath of Bhopal was the Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, which empowers the [Central government] to issue direct orders to close, prohibit or regulate any violating industry,” explains Gita Sareen, a Mumbai-based corporate lawyer.

“The umbrella legislation also implements the mandate of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment to protect and improve the human environment and prevent hazards to human beings and other living creatures,” she told IPS.

But the gap between promises and practices is huge. Health facilities at most factories are still not up to scratch and violators are rarely punished. According to CSE’s records, in 2011 over 1,000 people lost their lives in factory accidents across India and several thousand were injured.

Contamination of land and water is also a growing problem. In 2010, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests identified 10 toxic sites housing thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste.

“The worst part is that despite so much brouhaha, the site of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal has still not been cleared of the toxic waste. Various parties are squabbling over how to clean the site, what should be done with the waste and who should pay for it even as the pollution continues to wreak havoc and engulf more areas,” Chandra Bhushan, deputy director at CSE, told IPS.

And while safety consciousness and compliance have improved somewhat in the organised sector involving large corporations due to their corporate image, the unorganised sector is still messy.

“Fire in cracker factories [and] repeated mishaps in acid factories are rampant [and] point to the need for greater surveillance in this sector,” he added. “The crux of the problem is that ‘safety’ still hasn’t become a culture in India unlike the West.”

According to Dr. Shashank Shekhar, a professor with the department of geology at Delhi University, industries continue to pollute, their rampant discharge of industrial effluents being the single biggest reason for water contamination and ill-health of millions of people in India.

In a study he co-authored, Shekhar points out how groundwater across the country is contaminated with cancer-inducing lead, and cadmium, as well as other hazardous materials such as arsenic, nitrate, manganese and iron.

“Heavy metals even in small quantities dissolved in water are highly toxic for a human body and can cause irreparable damage,” the scholar told IPS. “Yet the problem remains unchecked.”

Another problem, point out legal experts, is that in India, the processes for environmental impact assessments (EIA) are flawed.

“The country needs a thorough overhaul of these processes to ensure that there’s objectivity and due diligence involved in the exercise. Currently, industries hire independent assessors for EIA and pay for it from their own pocket. Naturally, the supervisor who is getting paid by the company for the audit will tend to favour his employer and not be impartial in his report,” explains Shekhar.

Rather than adding to the avalanche of existing laws, what will be more effective, say experts, is to have stricter execution of regulations.

Social audits by local citizens’ groups around polluting factories and a transparent remediation process involving stakeholders like the local affected community will produce far better results, suggests Bhushan.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: No Nation Wants to Be Labeled “Least Developed”http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-no-nation-wants-to-be-labeled-least-developed/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-no-nation-wants-to-be-labeled-least-developed http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/opinion-no-nation-wants-to-be-labeled-least-developed/#comments Sat, 10 Jan 2015 01:21:15 +0000 Ahmed Sareer http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138573 A dhoni in the Maldives. Credit: Nevit Dilmen/cc by 3.0

A dhoni in the Maldives. Credit: Nevit Dilmen/cc by 3.0

By Ahmed Sareer
NEW YORK, Jan 10 2015 (IPS)

Since 1971, Maldives is one of only three countries that have graduated from the ranks of the world’s “least developed countries” (LDCs) – the other two being Botswana and Cape Verde.

The Maldives graduated on Jan. 1, 2011. The review of LDCs conducted in 1997 concluded that the Maldives was ready for immediate graduation.

Ambassador Sareer. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Ambassador Sareer. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Maldives government argued that the U.N. criteria for graduation should include a “smooth transition period” in order to bring into place adequate adjustments necessary for full transition into middle-income country status.

The U.N. Resolution adopted on Dec. 20, 2004 endorsed and adopted these arguments. Under that resolution, the Maldives was set to graduate from the list of LDCs on Jan. 1, 2008.

Just six days after adoption of the resolution, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck the Maldives.

The Maldives economy, which had grown at an average of eight percent per annum for two consecutive years, was devastated by the tsunami: 62 percent of the GDP was destroyed; over seven percent of the population was internally displaced; social and economic infrastructure damaged or destroyed in over one quarter of the inhabited islands; 12 inhabited islands were turned into complete rubble.

Following the disaster, and on the request of the Maldives, the General Assembly decided to defer the graduation until 2011, with a smooth transition period until 2014.Donors often assess a country’s need by its developmental status at the U.N., which traps countries such as the Maldives in a vicious cycle being now termed as the “Middle Income Paradox”.

Graduation from LDC does not help a country to overcome the development challenges it faces. Graduation does not make a country less vulnerable to the consequences of its geography.

It is no secret that small island states being assessed for graduation, do not meet the threshold for economic vulnerability.

Small island states often achieve their high development status because of high and consistent investment in human resources, and the social sector as well as government administration.

This leaves limited financial resources for the country to prepare for natural disasters or to carry out mitigation and adaptation measures.

Countries often have to rely on multilateral and bilateral donors for assistance for environmental projects: donors that often assess a country’s need by its developmental status at the U.N., which traps countries such as the Maldives in a vicious cycle being now termed as the “Middle Income Paradox”.

However, all this is conveniently ignored or overlooked.

Graduation from LDC status need not be feared, nor does it need to be an obstacle in a country’s development path. We only fear what we don’t know.

The Maldives’ experience showed that due to the infancy of the graduation programme, the relatively low number of countries that have graduated, and the lack of coordinated commitment from bilateral partners, the graduation process has been far from smooth.

The General Assembly Resolution, which the Maldives helped to coordinate, adopted in December 2012 provided a smooth transition for countries graduated from the LDC list.

The resolution has put into place greater oversight ability for the U.N. and articulated the need for a strengthened consultative mechanism for the coordination of bilateral aid.

The Maldives has tried to make the path for subsequent graduates smoother. Yet, it is a fact that the graduation process still relies on flawed criteria.

While no country wants to be termed the “Least” on any group, it cannot be denied that inherent vulnerabilities and geo-physical realities of some of the countries that often extend beyond their national jurisdiction, need help that are specific and targeted, in order to improve the resilience of those countries.

It is for that reason that the Maldives lobbied extensively with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to extend the application of TRIPS for all LDCs.

Following graduation, the Maldives also applied to join the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences but new regulations prevented Maldives from the scheme. This posed a significant loss to our fishing industry, which is the export sector in the economy.

The Maldives has been continually exploring the viability of a “small and vulnerable economy” category at the U.N., similar to that which exists in the World Trade Organisation.

Such a category will acknowledge the particular needs of countries arising from the smallness of their economies and inherent geographical realities.

Small island states have continually argued that special consideration needs to be given to SIDS that are slated for graduation. Yet, these voices of concern have fallen largely on deaf years.

But the needs of our people, the development we desire cannot wait to be recognised.

That is why the Maldives decided to take our development path into our own hands. This can be done by consistently employing good policies.

Development is the result of a combination of bold decisions and an ability to seize the opportunities. SIDS have shown to the world that we are not short of smart ideas. Rather than relying on others, we have to develop our own economies our way!

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Sri Lanka’s Minorities Choose “Unknown Angel” Over “Known Devil”http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/sri-lankas-minorities-choose-unknown-angel-over-known-devil/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sri-lankas-minorities-choose-unknown-angel-over-known-devil http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/sri-lankas-minorities-choose-unknown-angel-over-known-devil/#comments Fri, 09 Jan 2015 17:17:47 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138568 Fed up with poverty, unemployment and broken promises on a political settlement, Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province voted overwhelmingly in support of opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena at the Jan. 9 presidential elections. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Fed up with poverty, unemployment and broken promises on a political settlement, Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province voted overwhelmingly in support of opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena at the Jan. 9 presidential elections. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
COLOMBO, Jan 9 2015 (IPS)

When the initial results started trickling in a little after midnight on Jan. 9, it still wasn’t clear exactly which way the country would swing: had Sri Lanka’s 15 million eligible voters thrown in their lot with incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa for a third term? Or would the desire for change put common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena at the helm?

It seemed close at first, with the bulk of the Sinhalase masses in the southern and central districts of Hambantota and Ratnapura polling in favour of Rajapaksa and his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

But when newscasters began reading out the final tally of votes from the Tamil and Muslim-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces, it became clear that this was no repeat of the 2010 presidential race.

“This year the Tamil people seemed to have taken an oath for change." -- Dr. Jeyasingham, a senior lecturer at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka in Batticaloa
Symbolised by a swan, the ‘rainbow coalition’ National Democratic Front (NDF) swept the 12 electoral divisions in the northern Jaffna district with 253,574 votes, roughly 74.42 percent of the largely Tamil electorate.

The Tamil-majority northern Vanni district saw a landslide win for the NDF, with majority votes in the Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya polling divisions bringing in 78.47 percent of that region’s total ballots, while the eastern Batticaloa district also voted overwhelmingly in favour of the opposition, bringing Sirisena 81.62 percent of the total.

By six a.m., as daylight crept over the island, longtime President Rajapaksa had accepted defeat, and the new leader was making plans for a swearing-in ceremony at the Independence Square in Colombo.

Despite both candidates hailing from rural Sinhala communities and campaigning largely on a platform of promises to the Sinhala masses, experts say it was the minorities who decided this election.

“This year the Tamil people seemed to have taken an oath for change,” said Dr. Jeyasingham, a senior lecturer at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka in Batticaloa. “People in the North and East voted early – always a sign that change is in the air.

“Today, one thing is clear,” he told IPS, “and that is: minority votes decided this president. Tamils and Muslims [who account for 15 and nine percent of the population, respectively] are an important part of this democratic system and they had enough grievances to vote against the existing government.”

Silent discontent

Few could predict with certainty the outcome of the polls.

Since coming to power in 2005, Rajapaksa has enjoyed widespread popular support, bolstered by his decisive defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, which brought an end to Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil conflict.

Riding on the war victory, Rajapaksa proceeded to consolidate his position by appointing his flesh and blood to prominent political posts. His three brothers serve, respectively, as the minister of economic development, the defence secretary and the speaker of parliament.

He also embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects, including the construction of major highways and reconstruction of the rail-line linking southern Sri Lanka with the north.

Still, experts say he neglected crucial issues, including delivering on promises to the minority Tamil population to allow them greater political autonomy, initiating a meaningful reconciliation process in the aftermath of the bloody conflict, and ensuring the independence of democratic institutions such as parliament and the judiciary.

Faced with a surprise challenger in the form of his one-time health minister and party secretary Sirisena, Rajapaksa fell back on his post-war rhetoric, ‘defeating terrorism’ in Sri Lanka being the regime’s greatest claim to fame.

Unfortunately for him, the public did not bite. Ironically, the lack of efforts to reconcile with the people of the north and east – who bore the brunt of the final stages of the war for which both the government and the LTTE stand accused of war crimes – proved to be the nail in his coffin.

“The last government failed with respect to any kind of meaningful reconciliation,” Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), told IPS.

“They engaged in land grabs [in the North], got the army involved in the economy, from buying and selling vegetables to running hotels, [and] engaged in human rights violations, in which they were getting away with impunity.”

Voting for change

Grassroots activists on the ground in the North and East have long called attention to wounds left untreated for too long. Many thousands still live with trauma, while others say there was never formal recognition of civilians’ suffering in a battle that claimed between 8,000 and 40,000 lives.

“[People in the North] were not even allowed to mourn their kith and kin,” Jeyasingham asserted. “Burial grounds were demolished. These are all things people have been keeping inside but they couldn’t raise their voices because of state oppression.”

And while press releases boasted of rapid rehabilitation and development in the former war zone, the majority of residents here struggled to find three square meals a day. Unemployment in the Northern Province stands at 5.2 percent, with the Kilinochchi District boasting the highest unemployment rate in the island, at 7.9 percent.

Poverty is also widespread, with government data pointing to a 28.8-percent poverty headcount in the Mullaitivu District, six times the national rate of 6.7 percent. In Mannar, the poverty rate is 20.1 percent, while Jaffna and Kilinochchi each nurse poverty headcounts of 8.3 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively.

“Even government servants struggle to survive on a 30-day basic salary,” Jeyasingham said. “This was clear from the postal votes in the North – it appears almost all public servants had voted against the government.”

Seen against this backdrop, many felt that Rajapaksa’s pre-election appeal to Tamil voters in the North to choose “the known devil” over the “unknown angel” to be in poor taste.

In Muslim-majority areas, too, it was plain where minorities stood.

A spate of violent attacks against Muslim communities in the last year – including a deadly riot in the southern town of Aluthgama that left eight people dead, 80 injured, and several shops in smoldering ruins after being torched by Sinhalese mobs – had many fearing for the future of religious and ethnic plurality in the country.

Public sentiment soured further at what many perceived to be indifference on the part of the government to attacks on Muslim shops and businesses, while tolerance towards the hard-line Buddhist monk-led Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Task Force, or BBS), widely believed to be instigators of the inter-religious tensions, pushed many Muslim communities away from the Rajapaksa regime.

It is yet to be seen how the new president will do justice to the huge voter turnout in the North and East. Sirisena’s 100-day work programme promises equality and an end to religious intolerance, Saravanamuttu said, but some political observers fear he may renege on these pledges in favour of placating the Sinhala vote-base.

As for the minorities, they have put their shoulders to the wheel of democracy and forced open the space to air their grievances. They can only hope they will be heard.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Integrated Farming: The Only Way to Survive a Rising Seahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/integrated-farming-the-only-way-to-survive-a-rising-sea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=integrated-farming-the-only-way-to-survive-a-rising-sea http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/01/integrated-farming-the-only-way-to-survive-a-rising-sea/#comments Thu, 08 Jan 2015 15:46:55 +0000 Manipadma Jena http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138561 The Mandal family lives on a half-hectare farm in the Sundarbans and uses integrated methods to ensure survival. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

The Mandal family lives on a half-hectare farm in the Sundarbans and uses integrated methods to ensure survival. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
SUNDARBANS, India, Jan 8 2015 (IPS)

When the gentle clucking grows louder, 50-year-old Sukomal Mandal calls out to his wife, who is busy grinding ingredients for a fish curry. She gets up to thrust leafy green stalks through the netting of a coop and two-dozen shiny hens rush forward for lunch.

In the Sundarbans, where the sea is slowly swallowing up the land, Mandal’s half-hectare farm is an oasis of prosperity.

The elderly couple resides in the Biswanathpur village located in what has now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site: a massive tidal mangrove forest covering some 10,000 km in the vast Bay of Bengal delta, stretching between India and Bangladesh.

“An integrated farming system virtually replicates nature." -- Debabrata Guchhait, a trainer with the Indraprastha Srijan Welfare Society (ISWS) in the Sundarbans
In this scenic biodiversity hotspot, there is no longer any doubt about the impact of sea-level rise prompted by global warming – studies show that the region lost some 5.5 square km per year between 2001 and 2009, compared to four square km annually over the previous four decades.

As a result, the population here is facing a myriad of crises, a lack of freshwater being one of the most pressing for the primarily subsistence communities who have lived and worked the network of islands that comprise the landmass of the Sundarbans for generations.

The stubborn encroachment of the sea, as well as cyclones, storm surges, eroded farmland lost on the islands’ edges, tidal river floods from concentrated rains, brackish water intruding through breached earthen embankments and increased soil salinity, have all deepened poverty in these villages.

With a population of some four million, research suggests that three out of every 10 people in the Sundarbans now live below the poverty line.

Those like Mandal and his wife have been forced to innovate to stay alive. With traditional farming faltering under the strain of climate change, new methods, such as integrated farming, have been adopted to ensure survival.

Water everywhere, but none for farming

A November 2014 study sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) pointed out that the dearth of fresh water was reaching a crisis point in the Indian portion of the Sundarbans, occupying a large part of the state of West Bengal.

According to Sugata Hazra, oceanographer and climate change expert at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, the region urgently requires an infusion of 507 cubic metres of fresh water per day to sustain its estuarine ecosystems and dependent human livelihoods.

Increased salinity now affects farmlands in 52 of the roughly 102 inhabited islands on the Indian side of the forest.

Meanwhile, an observatory on Sagar Island, the largest sea-facing island bearing the brunt of climate impacts, recorded a relative mean sea level rise (MSLR) of 17.8 mm per year from 2001-2009, remarkably higher than the 3.14 mm per year observed during the previous decade.

Making ends meet under such harsh conditions is not easy.

Several farmers’ groups in the Patharpratima administrative block of the South 24-Parganas district told IPS that every family has one or more migrant members, on whose remittances they are increasingly dependent.

Other families, like Sukomal and his wife Alpana Mandal, are turning towards integrated farming methods.

“An integrated farming system virtually replicates nature,” explained Debabrata Guchhait, a trainer with the Indraprastha Srijan Welfare Society (ISWS), which works for community food security.

The technique “brings the farm and household together” so that waste from one area of life becomes an input for another. Staple crops are mixed with other plant and vegetable varieties, while cattle, ducks and hens all form part of the self-sustaining cycle.

The process “reduces farm costs and risks by going organic and by diversifying yield and income sources, while ensuring nutrition,” Guchhait told IPS.

The hens feed on leafy greens, broken grains and maize while their litter is collected and used as organic manure with dung from Mandal’s three cows and two goats. The remaining hen waste drains into the pond, becoming fish feed.

Digging a small pond to help harvest water during the annual monsoon, which typically brings 1,700 mm of rainfall, helped his fortunes immensely.

From one ‘bigha’, a local land measurement unit equal to 0.133 hectares, Mandal now harvests 480 kg of paddy (un-husked rice) – 70 kg more than he did before, and sufficient to cover one month’s worth of household consumption.

With sufficient fresh water in his backyard he now harvests a paddy crop not once but twice annually, harvesting 900 kg in a disaster-free year. After meeting his family’s food needs, he still sells 25,000 rupees (about 400 dollars) worth of his harvest.

Vegetables grown in the tiny space fetch him double that amount, since he plants a mixed crop of over 25 varieties throughout the year. Using every inch of free space, the family has built up crucial resilience against changing climate patterns.

The overflow from the pond provides a catchment area for fish from their paddy fields.

“Our family of four consumes three kg of fish weekly and sells some,” Mandal’s wife, Alpana, tells IPS. Rice with spicy fish curry is a popular staple here.

Still, those practicing integrated farming are few and far between.

“Of our 890 household members in 17 villages, only 15 members have taken up bio-integrated farming,” Palash Sinha, who heads the ISWS in Patharpratima block, told IPS.

“A major reason for the low uptake is the high 12,000-rupee (200-dollar) cost of landscaping integrated farm plots,” he explained. Despite assistance in the form of technical training and monetary support from community organisations, many farmers are reluctant to take the required 5,000-rupee loans.

“For effective landscaping at least 0.072 hectares (720 sq metres) are needed,” Sinha added. “Many farmers do not even have this much land.”

Others associate the integrated method with harder work. “In a good year, income from integrated farms can be 200 percent higher than same-size conventional farms, but labour input is 700 percent more,” Samiran Jana, an integrated bio-farmer, told IPS in the Indrapastha village.

Government assistance for marginal farmers hoping to transform their smallholdings, meanwhile, is extremely low, experts say. For instance, the West Bengal Action Plan on Climate Change – which includes promises on stepping up assistance for integrated farming – is yet to be implemented.

In a country where 56 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture, of which some 80 percent are small and landless farmers, experts say that concerted efforts at the federal level are needed to safeguard millions whose lives and livelihoods are bound up with changing weather patterns.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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