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Wednesday: April 2, 2014 

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Tuesday
Jul302013

Reunion Island bans surfing, plans massive shark kill (REPORT) 

(PHOTO: Extreme, controversial measures enacted at popular tourist destination after 2nd fatal attack in 3 months & 5th since 2011; surfers are livid/SURFER MAGAZINE)

(HN, 7/30/13) - Reunion Island, located in the Indian Ocean, is known for its world-class waves, pristine swimming beaches and, in recent years, shark attacks that are tarnishing the image of this idyllic tropical paradise. Surfing lineups are empty now that the government has banned surfing in the wake of deadly shark attacks.

Now, in the aftermath of a fatal attack on a 15-year-old girl earlier this month (the second deadly attack in three months and fifth since 2011), the French-controlled island has embarked on an extreme plan in the hope of ending the bloodshed—or at least making locals and visitors feel safer.

Surfer magazine reported Monday that the government has banned swimming and surfing in all but the island’s shallow lagoon through October 1. Anyone violating the ban will be fined $50.

Perhaps bigger news, though, is that between now and October 1, the government plans to kill 90 sharks (45 bull sharks and 45 tiger sharks).

This plan was announced Friday and the news is so fresh that an outcry among environmental groups has yet to materialize.

They’ll argue, rightly, that removing apex predators will harm the marine environment, and that the threat of shark attacks will exist regardless of how many sharks the government might kill.

Meanwhile, surfers are livid - but mostly because they’re being ordered to stay out of the water.

“I think it’s stupid. I’m shocked that they banned surfing in the area,” resident Damien Ferrere, 16, told Surfer. “If we want to surf, we risk [the fine] and possible prison time. If I want to surf, I will.”

Reunion Island, which is located east of Madagascar, remains a popular tourist destination despite 11 shark attacks, five of them fatal, since 2011.

Nobody is sure why so many attacks occurred in such a short span, but some speculate that the sprawling new marine reserve is growing fish populations, which in turn are attracting more sharks.

(MAP: Reunion Island, Indian Ocean)Last year, after a fatal attack on a popular bodyboarder, about 300 surfers demonstrated outside the local police station, demanding a shark cull. The government ended up removing 20 sharks from the reserve.

The two most recent fatal attacks involved the teen earlier this month, in very shallow water, and a honeymooner, while his wife was watching from the beach, in May.

The three-pronged plan was announced Friday during a press conference, at which the prefect Jean-Luc Marx outlined the elements:

- The ban on swimming and surfing in all but the shallow lagoon and supervised areas as determined by the Prefecture.

- The shark kill “as part of the scientific Ciguatera-Program to assess the marketing objectives of sharks in Reunion Island.”

- And a new website dedicated to inform the public about shark risks on Reunion Island, to be launched in October.

The Ciguatera-Program is a shark-fishing program that was launched last August in what was said to represent an evaluation of the island’s food safety policy. The sale of most shark meat is banned in local markets because it might contain a toxin known to cause a food poisoning called Ciguatera.

But the program could also be perceived as an attempt to mask an ongoing shark cull by using the science label to justify the removal of sharks.

(VIDEO of Surfer Julian Wilson doing his `air wave' moves off Reunion Island/RedBull)

Shark-culling efforts are controversial because sharks help maintain balance in the ecosystem, and because while killing lots of sharks might reduce the likelihood of attacks in the short-term, it does not eliminate the threat.

When October 1 rolls around and Reunion Island’s shores are cleared for surfing and swimming, for example, there’s no guarantee that a fatal shark attack will not occur the same day. But the perception will be that the waters are safer, and perhaps that’s what Reunion Island is striving for.

Surfers, meanwhile, are going to be seriously tempted to paddle out after the arrival of each new swell. It’d be interesting to learn how much the government collects in fines.

- This article, written by Pete Thomas, originally appeared in Surfer Magazine. Find Pete Thomas on Facebook and Twitter. 

 

Tuesday
Jul092013

Great Lakes women leaders meet in Burundi (NEWS) 

(PHOTO: A woman with her baby leaves Ngululu, 80km NW of Goma, DR Congo after the village & others nearby were attacked & burnt by members of the Congo Defence Front./NATION MEDIA GROUP)

(HN, 7/9/2013) - A three-day conference bringing together 100 women leaders from across the Great Lakes region is set to start in Bujumbura on Tuesday.  The Burundi meeting aims to develop a road map for the engagement of women in peace processes.

The conference, which has been organized by the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region in Africa, Mary Robinson, in partnership with Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS) and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).

It is also expected to look at ways of implementing the “Peace, Security and Cooperation” (PSC) Framework and the United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in the Great Lakes Region.

The PSC Framework is a milestone in national, regional and international efforts to bring peace in the Great Lakes region and in particular in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where sexual violence continues at appalling levels and is regularly used as a weapon of war.

The framework was signed on February 24 by 11 African countries and was the fruit of a concerted effort between the UN, ICGLR, the South African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union.

(PHOTO: Mary Robinson at the WEF, 2013)The conference will also consolidate an integrated regional approach for the effective participation of women in conflict resolution and peace building through the implementation of a Regional Action Plan on UNSCR 1325 in the Great Lakes region.

“A common plan will help to ensure that women’s voices are heard “from the bottom up and adhered to and implemented by Governments from the top down,” Ms. Mary Robinson, the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region in Africa, said in a statement.

- This article was originally published in the Africa Review and was written by Sandra Chao in Nairobi, Kenya.

Monday
Jun242013

Blame game over haze in Southeast Asia (REPORT) 

(Video via TODAYdigital)

As Indonesia steps up efforts to extinguish forest fires that have choked the region in thick haze, criticism from neighboring countries is mounting. Environmental lawyers accuse Jakarta of breaching international law.

As images of the thick haze shrouding Singapore were beamed around the world last week, a diplomatic tussle got underway between the leaders of Singapore and Indonesia, where hundreds of illegal forest fires continue to rage.

(PHOTO: Singapore on June 18, 2013/Edward Su)Singapore demanded "definitive action" from Jakarta to put out the fires, only to be chided for its reaction to the haze. The Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono claimed the small island city-state had behaved "like a child" as it bore the brunt of the smog.

Economic impact

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) crossed the 400 mark on Friday (June 21, 2013) a record reading that is deemed "hazardous" to human health.

Apart from the health implications, Singapore's reputation as a major business hub and one of the world's largest offshore financial centers is at stake. If the haze continues, as expected over the next few weeks, it could put off international investors.

But the haze issue across Southeast Asia is nothing new. Since 1997, air quality in Singapore and Malaysia has regularly suffered, due to Indonesian plantation fires that occur during the June to September dry season. The problem was even addressed at the regional grouping ASEAN a decade ago.

Failed haze treaty

The 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was meant to ensure nations prevented, monitored and tried to combat deforestation activities. But observers say the way the pact was negotiated effectively "watered down" Indonesia's commitments. Despite being weakened, Jakarta has still not ratified the agreement.

"As the principal cause of the fires and smoke - the elephant in the room if you like - Indonesia's staying out completely undermines the agreement," said law professor Alan Khee-Jin Tan from the National University of Singapore. "Jakarta's refusal is linked to the view that if Indonesia were to accept it, it would constitute an admission of guilt for the fires," he stressed.

'Indonesia has little to fear'

(PHOTO: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; June 17, 2013/picture-alliance)Tan, who sits on the Executive Committee of the Asia Pacific Centre for Environmental Law, told DW that the agreement is largely technical, with few onerous demands on states. "It has nothing, for instance, that would make Indonesia liable to pay compensation to injured states," he added. "So in that sense, there is little for Indonesia to fear."

Other experts think Singapore and Malaysia could have done more to pull their weight in negotiations over the agreement, especially as they are the main victims of the haze.

Jakarta says that despite not ratifying the agreement, it is still meeting its obligations under the treaty, a claim one environmental group described as "highly superficial and lacking in regional accountability."

"Ratification would essentially mean that a country acknowledges the terms and conditions of the treaty, abides by them and is fully aware of the implications if it contravenes the terms of the treaty," said Jose Raymond, Executive Director of the Singapore Environment Council.

Firms face fines

While the Indonesian government may not face compensation claims, local agricultural companies might.

Ironically, some of the firms allegedly responsible for the illegal fires are either headquartered in Singapore or are owned by Singaporeans. On Sunday and Monday, the thick smog moved northwards towards the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur compelling a more assertive response from the Malaysian government.

That in turn led to accusations from Indonesia that eight Malaysian firms were contributing to the pollution. Both Singapore and Malaysia have promised to go after any local companies responsible for the fires where farmers use traditional "slash and burn" methods to prepare large areas of land for plantation.

Concerted efforts

(MAP: Satellite data show over 800 fires burning in Indonesia, many in former peat forests near Pekanbaru. Many hotspots are in concession areas of some of the world's largest palm oil & pulp & paper companies/GoogleEarth)"We're fully supportive of the government's intentions to name and shame the companies involved. In fact, it was us who made the call to name and shame. Moreover, guilty companies should be made to face severe financial penalties and redress the environmental damage caused,” Jose Raymond, the SEC's Executive Director told DW.

The NGO thinks that while intergovernmental efforts should continue, ministers and environmental groups should engage the businesses affected and those who own large plots of farmland in Indonesia. "The real impact will be made when we work with the landowners, farmers and even provincial governments. They are the people who will make the difference over the long term. But it will take time and investment," said Raymond.

Facing corruption

While some experts say Indonesia's laws against burnings are effective and the threat of substantial penalties is in place, many think corruption is preventing firm action from being taken.

Observers say local politicians allow deforestation to continue at an increasing rate for their own gains. Environment lawyer Tan said he had no doubt that by not taking the necessary steps against illegal fires, Indonesia had breached international law.

He said "customary international law," not necessarily found in treaties, still obliged states to make commitments to one another about activities in each others' territories. "But the reality is that it cannot be compelled to appear before an international court or tribunal without its consent - such is the nature of international law," he said.

Singapore and Malaysia, he added, could go after their own companies; but without Indonesia going against all the other plantations, there would be little overall effect.

Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said the government had been dealing with the problem for years and claimed that "improvements have been made." Officials say they have been educating locals about alternatives to 'slash and burn' methods and that large companies subcontract a lot of the work out to small impoverished farmers.

Cloud seeding operations - to chemically induce rainfall - were postponed on Monday due to a lack of cloud cover in the affected areas. However, water bombing operations continued to quell several hotspots in Riau province.

- This article by Nik Martin originally appeared in Deutsche Welle

Wednesday
Jun052013

Brazil tries to defuse conflicts with Indigenous people over land (REPORT) 

(VIDEO:  This is a visit to the Kaingang people in the Paraná state. By rcazangi, 12/1/12)

(HN, 6/5/13) - Lawmakers from the Brazilian farm state of Mato Grosso do Sul asked President Dilma Rousseff's government to send troops to end land invasions by indigenous people claiming their ancestral territory.

Justice Minister Jose Cardozo said a request for troops would have to come from the state governor and announced he will meet with the indigenous people on Thursday in a bid to reach a settlement. The government is seeking to defuse mounting conflicts with indigenous tribes over farm land and hydroelectric dams in the Amazon.

(PHOTO: Brazil Justice Minister, Jose Cardozo/BrazilPortal) troops MERCOPRESSAir Force planes flew 144 Munduruku Indians to Brasilia for talks to end a week-long occupation of the controversial Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, a huge project aimed at feeding Brazil's fast-growing demand for electricity.

Tensions escalated last week on a farm in Mato Grosso do Sul that was invaded last week for a second time by Terena Indians angered by the fatal shooting of one of their tribe's members.

"We must avoid radicalizing a situation that goes back a long way in Brazilian history. We're not going to put out the flames by throwing alcohol on the bonfire," Cardozo told reporters after meeting the lawmakers.

In Rio Grande do Sul state some 2,000 Kaingang and Guarani Indians were blocking roads to protest the government's decision to put on hold the granting of ancestral lands to indigenous communities, a concession to Brazil's powerful farm lobby.

"The government has abandoned us. Dilma isn't supporting indigenous peoples," Indian chief Deoclides de Paula said by telephone from a blocked highway.

(PHOTO: Panoramic view of Curitiba, Brazil/Wikipedia)In Curitiba, the Parana state capital, 30 Kaingang Indians invaded the offices of the ruling Workers' Party on Monday and only agreed to leave 10 hours later when they were promised a meeting with Rousseff's chief of staff, Gleisi Hoffmann.

Hoffmann, who will run for governor of Parana next year, said May 8 the role of the government's Indian affairs office, Funai, in land decisions would be restricted.

Cardozo, however, stressed on Tuesday that Funai will not be gutted and would continue to play a central role as the main institution that defends Indian rights, though others will be brought in to improve the process of deciding ancestral lands.

(PHOTO: Munduruku Indians, many of who are flying for the 1st time, board a Brazilian Air Force plane to fly to Brasilia for talks with the government, in Altamira June 4, 2013/Lunae ParrachoThe policy change has fueled protests across Brazil and the government is scrambling to avert more violence after a 35-year-old Indian man was shot as police evicted 200 Terena from the disputed cattle ranch of a former congressman.

Angry Terena Indians armed with sticks, bows and arrows reoccupied the property on Friday and set fire to fields.

Late on Monday, a local judge extended for 36 hours the eviction order, allowing more time for a peaceful resolution.

Brazil's indigenous land policy, established in the country's constitution, is considered one of the most progressive in the world, with about 13 percent of the huge South American nation's territory already set aside for Indians.

Farmers say Funai is trying to create reservations on land that has belonged to European-descended settlers for 150 years.

In another move to ease tensions with the indigenous population, one of Rousseff's ministers, Gilberto Carvalho, met in Brasilia with Munduruku Indians, who are from the Tapajos, the only major river in the Amazon basin with no dams. They want the government to shelve plans to build a dozen dams there.

Last week they paralyzed work at one of three building sites at Belo Monte, slated to become the world's third-largest dam capable of producing 11,233 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to about 10 percent of Brazil's current generating capacity.

(PHOTO: CGI rendition of the main dam, Belo Monte/Wikipedia)Belo Monte, a pet project of Rousseff that was the target of international criticism by environmental groups, has become a stage for Indians from other parts of the Amazon.

"We went to see for ourselves what a hydroelectric dam is and we saw that it has nothing good in store for us," a Munduruku leader told Carvalho, adding that promised development had not benefited the Indians of the Xingu. "We saw Indians being humiliated and we do not want that for our region."

 - This article originally appeared in the Buenos Aires Herald.

Tuesday
May212013

The World Health Organization's `World Health Assembly' - Takes Place in Geneva this Week (REPORT) 

Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly:  daily notes on proceedings  

Notes: Monday, 20 May 2013

World Health Assembly opens with focus on the Post Millennium Development Goals Agenda 

The Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly opened this morning with the election of Dr.  Shigeru Omi, Special Assistant for International Affairs, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan, as its new president. Five vice-presidents were also appointed from Angola, Haiti, Oman, Ukraine, and Nepal, representing their respective regions.

Last 1,000 days for MDGs and the path forward 

In his message, which was read by Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon drew attention to the positive effect the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have had on the global health agenda. He noted that the Health Assembly will discuss a number of MDG-related issues, such as implementation of the Global Vaccine Action Plan and recommendations from the UN Commission on life-saving commodities for women and children. He described the pressing challenge presented by the rise in non-communicable diseases, highlighting the role of universal health coverage in ensuring equitable access to health services. He emphasized the continuing need for WHO to handle unforeseen global health events, such as newly emerging viruses.

Dr. Omi observed that reform of WHO, the topic of tomorrow’s plenary discussion, aims to make the Organization more relevant, more effective and more dynamic.

Watch the President’s speech on video

Opening address of the WHO Director-General

In her opening address, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan reiterated the importance of transparent reporting and vigilance in disease outbreaks, including recent cases of novel coronavirus and influenza H7N9, whilst at the same time maintaining the momentum made in addressing long-standing health issues such as tuberculosis, HIV, malaria; the emerging problem of non-communicable diseases; and eradication of polio.

Dr. Chan reiterated WHO’s refusal to work with the tobacco industry. However, she did not exclude the opportunity for cooperation with the food and beverage industry to address non-communicable diseases, while supporting existing safeguards which ensure no conflicts of interest.

Read the Director-General’s address to the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly

Watch the Director-General’s address

Health in the post-2015 global development agenda

Member States then moved into a plenary discussion about health in the post-2015 global development agenda, noting the critical links between health and sustainable development. Delegates spoke of the need to both build on existing progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals and to address evolving health challenges, notably non-communicable diseases. Many focused on the need to better address equity issues, echoing the UN Secretary General and WHO Director-General’s comments about the potential for universal health coverage to reduce inequities. Many also referred to the importance of measuring for both quality and quantity when monitoring progress.

Delegates began discussions on a draft global action plan for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (A66/9). The action plan comprises a set of actions which, when performed collectively by Member States, UN organizations and other international partners, and WHO, will set the world on a new course to achieve nine globally agreed targets for NCDs (A66/8), including a reduction in premature mortality from NCDs by 25% in 2025. The action plan also contains a monitoring framework, including 25 indicators to track mortality and morbidity; assess progress in addressing risk factors, and evaluate the implementation of national strategies and plans.

A drafting group, co-chaired by Pakistan and the United States of America, will negotiate the final text of a resolution and discuss outstanding issues of the draft action plan. The Assembly will resume discussions on this issue later in the week.

----For more visit the World Health Organization website.

 

Tuesday
Mar052013

Dengue Fever: 200,000 cases confirmed in triple frontier = Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil (REPORT)

 

(Video DengueInfo)

(HN, 3/5/13) - Paraguay, north Argentina & Brazil are in dengue fever alert following the confirmation of over 200,000 cases of the mosquito transmitted viral disease so far this year. The situation is considered worse than in previous years because of a deep rise in the confirmed cases, the circulation of all four sero-types (strains) of dengue (1, 2, 3 and 4) having been detected - and this also means the disease keeps expanding.

Paraguay has admitted 14,987 confirmed cases and at least 17 deaths in the first two months of the year with the tendency to increase. The situation is similar in Argentina particularly in the northern provinces of Salta, Jujuy, Cordoba, Santa Fe, Chaco and Formosa, plus the confirmation of the four serotypes. There are no official figures in Argentina since local officials are reluctant to release them fearing a panic situation.

Brazilian figures suggest that more than 200,000 people were infected in the first seven weeks of 2013 compared to 70,000 in the same period last year with the southern state of Matto Grosso do Sul the hardest hit.

Officials said the cases were likely to increase as the rainy season advances the risk of reproduction of the mosquito which transmits the disease, Aedes Aegypti.

However Brazilian Health Minister Alexandre Padilha revealed that despite the higher incidence, the cases had been less severe than those recorded last year. He said 33 people had died from the flu-like disease in the first seven weeks of 2013 compared to 41 last year.

According to Mr. Padilha, these figures showed that the authorities were following the right strategies in their fight against the fever. He said extra training given to health care professionals and improvements to the network of basic care providers had clearly paid off.

But Mr. Padilha warned state authorities not to let down their guard as the rainy season could exacerbate the situation, with standing water providing an ideal breeding ground for the mosquitoes carrying the disease.

(MAP: World Health Organization) Apart from Mato Grosso do Sul, seven other states across southern and central Brazil have been affected by the epidemic. More than half of the cases have been caused by the Den-4 strain of the virus, which was first detected in Brazil in 2011.

Mr. Padilha said that because the strain was still relatively new to the country, more people were susceptible to infection. There are four known types of dengue fever (strain). Once people are infected by one type, they become immune to that variation, but not to other strains.

Dengue causes a flu-like illness, occasionally lethal and is the leading cause of serious illness and death among children in some Asian and Latin American countries. There is not specific treatment, but early detection, medical care reduces fatality rates of dengue/severe dengue to below 1%.

The disease is spread in tropical and sub-tropical climates, mostly urban and semi-urban areas. The global incidence has grown dramatically and now about half the of the world's population is now at risk.

(Read more at Mercopress)

Monday
Jan142013

Millions of Hindu's take to the Ganges for Maha Kumbh Mela (REPORT) 

(Video, IndiaTV)

(Allahabad, India - The Maha Kumbh Mela began this morning with lakhs of devotees as well as ascetics and religious leaders of various orders converging on the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati in Allahabad for a holy dip on the occasion of Makar Sankranti.

The inaugural day of the two-month-long congregation, often described as the “greatest show on earth”, was marked by the first “Shahi Snan” of 13 “akharas” wherein Naga Sadhus - a martial order of ascetics who move about either naked or scantily clad with matted hair and ash smeared bodies - marched to Sangam in processions with their leaders perched atop ornately decorated elephants, horses and chariots and musical bands in attendance in a unique blend of austerity and opulence.

PHOTO: 'Nirvani Akhara' participates in the Shahi Snan/Indian Express)The first to move out were Mahanirvani and Atal Akharas, followed by Niranjani and Anand and then Joona, Awahan and Agni.

They are to be followed by Nirvani Ani, Digambar Ani and Nirmohi and Naya Udasin, Bara Udasin and Nirmal akharas in the same order fixed during the British period following a violent clash among ascetics of different akharas at a Kumbh congregation.

The akharas have been allotted fixed time, ranging from 30 minutes to about an hour depending upon the size of their respective procession, for bathing with routes for going to and returning from Sangam so separated as to ward off possibility of members of rival akharas coming in contact with each other.

Devotees from across the country had started pouring in since last evening and the influx continues despite cold weather and elaborate security arrangements on account of which devotees are being made to park their vehicles several kilometres away from the holy confluence and reach the Sangam on foot.

Vehicular traffic has been banned on most of the roads in the city from yesterday till tomorrow to facilitate movement of people.

(PHOTO: A group of the Alakh sadhus making way towards Akhara for taking alms at Sangam arriving for Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad/Brijesh Jaiswal)The “Shahi Snan”, which is a star attraction of the event, began at around 6 AM as curious, awestruck onlookers gathered on both sides of the over-a-kilometre-long road of metallic chequered plates on which the processions of “akharas” proceeded towards the Sangam.

The crowds were separated from the procession with the help of barriers.

Security personnel kept a steady, though anxious, watch on the movement of the “Naga sadhus” along the route, from watch towers and by monitoring CCTVs as their processions have sparked off violent clashes in the past.

The Mela, held every 12 years, will go on for next two months and will conclude on Maha Shivaratri on March 10.

The administration is expecting a nearly 10 per cent rise in pilgrims attending the mass Hindu pilgrimage this year compared to the previous Maha Kumbh held here in 2001.

Exceptionally large crowds are also expected on Mauni Amavasya (February 10, 3 crore) and Basant Panchmi (February 15, 1.9 crore).

Besides, spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev and Asaram Bapu, also have planned their visits.

The huge turnout of people, visits of high-profile gurus in addition to the presence of naga sanyasis have increased the pressure on police and administration for smooth functioning of the Kumbh Mela.

A lurking fear of a terrorist strike has further heightened the challenges in recent years.

(PHOTO: Devotees in boats as they gather at Sangam for taking baths on the auspicious occasion of Makar Sankaranti & the start of Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad/Brijesh Jaiswal)“More than 7,000 personnel of central paramilitary forces, including companies of the Rapid Action Force and the National Disaster Response Force, have been pressed into service,”  IGP (Allahabad) Alok Sharma, designated as the nodal officer for security arrangements during the Maha Kumbh, had said.

--- This article first appeared in The Hindu

Wednesday
Jan022013

As attacks on aid workers continue, Pakistan progress jeopardized (REPORT) 

(Video: UTubeMaill)

(HN, 1/2/13) - Thousands of villagers on Wednesday held a mass burial for seven health workers - five of them women, who were gunned down by militants, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's Swabi district, Pakistan, on Tuesday. The killings are the latest in a series of persecution of aid workers in the contentious tribal area.

The dead had been working for the private Pakistani aid group Support With Working Solution, in the northwestern district Swabi, at an immunization centre where children are given anti-polio vaccination. The police said two men on a motorbike followed a van taking the workers home, intercepted it near the village of Sher Afzal Banda where militants opened fire with assault rifles. One child, aged 7 to 8 years, miraculously survived.

Nobody has owned responsibility for the attack, though its suspected that Pakistani Taliban could be behind the strike, since they oppose the vaccination campaigns and Taliban militants affiliated to the Al Qaeda global terror network have been attacking charity and aid workers across the country in recent weeks.

Last year, 15 health and aid workers were killed in Pakistan, making the country one of the most dangerous in the world for aid workers, according to the British-based group Humanitarian Outcomes. Most were women. Development sector experts now express concerns that those working on the ground will shy away from assignments. 

MAP: Swabi district, Pakistan/Wikipedia)“In the past, local volunteers, be they teachers, medical workers or social mobilizers, considered themselves safe and worked hand in hand with foreign aid workers and paramilitary personnel in even the most dire of circumstances,” says Hassan Belal Zaidi, a development and communication specialist, based in Islamabad. “But now, it would not be unreasonable for them to think twice and even refuse to travel to remote parts of the country if they know there is a chance they may get shot.”

Support With Working Solution has suspended its activities. The organization runs dozens of health and education projects, including polio vaccinations, in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Health and education programs, particularly those for girls, are seen as being at particular risk.

Fazal Dad, whose daughter was among the dead, said she always proclaimed, 'Father, if I am not guilty no one can harm me'.

The attack comes days after nine people working on an anti-polio vaccination campaign were shot dead in a series of attacks and forced the United Nations to temporarily recall staff and suspend an immunization campaign from Pakistan, one of just three countries in the world in which polio remains endemic - at least 57 cases were registered in 2012, and there are now concerns about a record number of deaths from measles in the south.

The World Health Organization last year warned Pakistan that it could face travel and visa restrictions and sanctions imposed by other countries if polio continues to spread.

An umbrella organization of 200 aid groups Wednesday demanded greater protection in Pakistan, and they vowed to continue working in order not to encourage “those who are opposed to progress”.

“We have to stand up and foil the nefarious designs of anti-state elements who are bent upon destroying the fabric of civil society,” said the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network; asking for government protection for charity workers “vulnerable to the menace of terrorism”.

(Video: No stranger to tragedy, on July 11, 2012 the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network buried another.)

Additionally, on December 22, Bashir Bilour, a senior minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and eight others were killed in a suicide attack on a political meeting claimed by the Taliban. More than 35,000 people have been killed as a result of terrorism in the country in the last twelve years.  

Imtiaz Iltaf, police chief of Peshawar, said officers were preparing a strategy to protect aid workers.  “We are in a state of war. The whole country is facing an insurgency, so we are revising the present security steps and working on a new strategy,” he said.

The recent attacks are likely to further frighten people from working with foreign and Pakistani aid and development organizations, says Bushra Arain, chairwoman for the All Pakistan Lady Health Workers Welfare Association, which counts more than 100,000 registered members.

“We are the backbone of Pakistani health sector. If the attacks continue, with the state showing the inability it currently is demonstrating in stopping us from being targeted, we will stop working,” Ms. Arain says.

“If the attacks by the Taliban continue, there will be widespread de-motivation amongst aid workers, which I am already witnessing,” Mr. Hussain of the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network says.

--- Reporting based on sources, agencies, HUMNEWS.

Saturday
Dec222012

"Pointing the Finger" - (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: Newsxlive)

By Karan Thapar

(December 22, 2012) - Last week’s protests on the streets of Delhi against the despicable gang rape of a young 23-year-old girl were, no doubt, impressive but they missed the point. Rape doesn’t happen because the police permit it or are absent and unable to prevent it. Rape doesn’t happen because politicians won’t strengthen the law and are insensitive to the victims. Rape doesn’t happen because the courts are slow in meting out justice or the legal process humiliates the victims.  Rape happens because men rape.

That’s the key point the protests forgot.

Rape happens because Indian men don’t respect women and treat them as play-things. And let’s face it, this is a direct result of the way we bring up our men and the way we encourage them to think of women.

The problem begins with parenting. We treat boys like little Gods and daughters as a curse. And when I say we, I really mean mothers who spoil their sons whilst disregarding their daughters. Attitudes inculcated in childhood lead to adolescents, young men and, finally, adults treating women with disrespect and even violence. So the fault begins at home. It begins with our mums and dads. In fact, hurtful as it may sound, it begins with mum.

Saturday’s protestors, courageously facing teargas and water-cannons, should have first ventilated their anger on Indian men. When you hear of elderly women of 80, or baby girls of 3, who have been raped you have to ask: have Indian men become barbarians?

But the anger needs to go further. We need to focus on the way our families bring us up. We need to question the attitudes society encourages. In fact, we need to ask why do so many, who are capable of thinking for themselves, unthinkingly follow suit.

Pause and consider this: why do the police blame the victims before they start to prosecute the rapists? Why do they believe the way a woman is dressed, or the fact that she is out at night, invites rape? The answer is simple. It’s because we as a society do.

Here women are as much to blame as men. After all, it’s mothers and aunts who conclude from a young girl’s dress she’s behaving like a tart. They are the ones who claim that to be seen with a single man is to suggest you are available.

No doubt they’re like this because their mothers before them were the same. The danger is their daughters may not be different.

So I say to the tens of thousands, in fact tens of millions, demanding justice that you are perfectly right to do so but if you really want it question your brothers, uncles, fathers — indeed, question every male you know.

Then, question the society we live in but are also creatures of. We look upon the victims of rape as women who have been shamed. Actually, it’s the rapist who is shameful. But how do we move to a position where women who have been raped are treated with special care and honour whilst the rapist is made an outcast?

Our politicians and the police can’t provide the answers. They can’t show the way. We have to find it ourselves. By changing our thinking and attitudes. By changing the way we are.

So whilst I applaud the protestors, their dedication, energy and anger, I can’t help feel these should be better directed.

Views expressed by the author are personal and first appeared in the Hindustan Times.

Monday
Dec172012

Philippines Passes Controversial Reproductive Health Bill - (REPORT) 

(Video: Kabayan LA)

(HN, December 17, 2012) - Today in the Philippines both the Senate and the House of Representatives backed a bill that has been debated for 13 years, and defied the powerful Roman Catholic Church to vote in favor of state-funded contraception.  Many women and supporters celebrated as news of the bill became known, though the two chambers passed slightly different versions of the bill, and they need to agree on a common version to put before President Benigno Aquino, who hopes to sign it into law by the end of the year.

This was the fourth attempt to pass a bill dealing with family planning issues in the heavily Catholic island nation with more than 80% of the population, 'religious'.  The last three bills were blocked by the Church and its political allies - including revered boxer-turned-congressman Manny Pacquiao - who say the law could corrupt `moral values'. They say they will continue to oppose the new bill.  

Supporters say it is a vital human rights measure in the impoverished country with one of the highest mortality rates in the region.  Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a key backer of the law, said that, despite the Church's opposition, "there is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come".

Opposers such as Bishop Gabriel Reyes say, "What the Church will do is to continue instructing our people, telling them the evils of contraceptives".  "They should not accept it because contraceptives are not pro-poor. It's not pro-children or pro-family. It is harmful against women, children and family."

A government health survey in 2011 found that the maternal mortality rate had risen by 36% between 2006 and 2010. Many maternity hospitals are struggling to cope with the number of births - and the UN appealed to the Philippines earlier this year to pass the bill.

"An idea whose time has come" - (PERSPECTIVE)

 (PHOTO: Mothers stay with their babies at a ward of Jose Fabella maternity hospital in Manila, Sept 12, 2012/NewStraitsTimes)By Manila Times Today

What transpired in Congress on Monday showed us that our lawmakers can get something done if they really want to.

At the House of Representatives, the reproductive health bill was passed on third reading through a vote of 133 in favor, 79 against, with seven abstentions.

The Catholic bishops had vowed to put up a strong fight after their defeat - by a slimmer margin - last week, when 113 House members said yes to the RH bill and 104 said no. Over the weekend, letters were read to the Catholic faithful from their Church leaders who reiterated that the measure was intrinsically evil.  But no, the margin got even wider.

The bishops also hoped that the rabid opponents of the bill at the Senate would be able to sway their colleagues to block it upon second reading, also on Monday.  The public was treated to a last-ditch showcase of tired arguments, the usual  sanctimony and silly hairsplitting about sex having to be safe but not satisfying. There were also funny moments – like when a senator claimed to be the voice of the unborn child.

Nonetheless, the bill passed both second and third reading by a vote of  13-8.

Those belonging to the losing bloc insist that President Aquino dangled incentives to those who would vote in favor of the bill, or that the lawmakers who said yes to it were motivated by political gains.

They refused to acknowledge that support for the bill grew because of its own merit, not because of politics. Lawmakers crossed party lines in expressing their support or opposition to the bill.

Even the President was hesitant to show full support for the measure at the onset.  He tried to change its name to responsible parenthood and to forge a dialogue with the Catholic bishops.  He was not sure he could afford to alienate the men in robes who were his late mother’s staunchest allies.

(PHOTO: People rally outside congress in Manila on August 6, 2012 to press for the passage of the bill/Jay Directo)The battle has been noisy.  It has been put on the table and discussed in the public sphere. Filipinos listened, thought for themselves, formed their own opinion and made their voices heard by the lawmakers they elected to represent them.

The Catholic leaders say it is not over and they will bring the fight to other fora.  Their arrogance and self-righteousness have doomed them to downfall.

In the end, Senator Miriam Santiago, author of the Senate version of the measure, summed it up well when she quoted Victor Hugo, who said: “There is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

The struggle has been long. Monday’s vote is as historic as it has been overdue. Next on the agenda is making sure the RH Law’s lofty objectives are not frustrated by bungled implementation.

"Church unfazed, will fight up to Supreme Court" - (PERSPECTIVE)

(PHOTO: There has been angry campaigning from the Catholic church in the nation of 100 million, where 80% of the population are followers/AFP)By Vito Barcelo with Maricel V. Cruz

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines on Monday said its fight against the Reproductive Health bill was not yet over despite the bill’s approval on third and final reading in the House of Representatives on a vote of 133-79 with seven abstentions.

And voting 13-8, the Senators also approved the same bill, which had been certified as urgent by President Benigno Aquino III, on third and final reading. The RH bill aims to guarantee universal access to the methods of contraception, fertility control, sexual education and maternal health care.

“We will continue the fight in other fora, to the Supreme Court and in the level of individual conscience,” Malolos Bishop Jose Oliveros said.  “We have many allies at the Senate and we believe that their conscience will be their guiding principle in rejecting the RH bill”. He said they would be issuing a pastoral letter on Tuesday to be read in all the parishes nationwide.

“The RH bill is a major attack on authentic human values and on Filipino cultural values regarding human life that all of us have cherished since time immemorial,” Olivers said.

“Our position stands firmly on two of the core principles commonly shared by all who believe in God. As religious leaders we must proclaim this truth fearlessly in season and out of season.”

House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez and Batangas Rep. Mark Leandro Mendoza, both critics of the RH bill, said many of their colleagues “had succumbed to the pressure by Malacañang.”

(PHOTO: Nuns protesting in Manila/CatholicTimes)Legazpi Bishop Joel Baylon said the 104 congressmen who initially voted No to the RH bill on December 12 during its second reading were “witnesses in This Year of Faith.” 

“They voted according to the dictate of their faith; we can verily recognize them as witnesses in this Year of Faith.”  Pope Benedict XVI declared Oct. 11, 2012 to Nov. 24, 2013 as the Year of Faith.

Saranggani Rep. Manny Pacquiao said his crushing boxing defeat to Juan Manuel Marquez two days before the vote on the RH bill strengthened his opposition to it.

On Monday, Catholic youth groups questioned President Benigno Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign because of his support for the RH bill. “The bill contains excellent provisions, but it is rather like a cold soft drink with a drop of poison,” the groups said. “That poison is its provision on contraception. The RH bill seeks to subsidize the enjoyment of sex without the corresponding responsibilities that it entails.”

- These reports are assembled from The Straits Times, The Manila Standard, Catholic News and the BBC.

Wednesday
Dec052012

Human rights commission demands urgent investigation into killing of Paraguayan peasant leader - (REPORT)

(Video: Activists in Paraguay demand justice for Vidal Vega's killing/Parvatiipy,Youtube)

(Asuncion, HN, 12/5/12) - Vidal Vega was a key witness into the investigation of the massacre that led to the removal of Fernando Lugo as Paraguayan president earlier this year.  He was murdered on December 1.

Now the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has condemned the murder of human rights defender Vidal Vega, leader of the Campesinos sin Tierra movement (Landless Campesinos) and president of the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the Curuguaty Massacre and urges the State of Paraguay to investigate and clear up these crimes, and punish those who perpetrated and masterminded them.

(PHOTO: Vidal Vega/MercoSurPress)According to IACHR information, on December 1, 2012, two individuals arrived aboard a motorcycle at the home of Vidal Vega. Police information quoted in news reports indicates the victim's spouse, María Cristina Argüello, answered the door: the two unknown men asked for Vidal Vega and shot him with 12-caliber rifles, in the presence of his family.

The information received also indicates that Vidal Vega was a key witness in an investigation into the Curuguaty massacre, which happened on June 15, 2012, and where 11 peasants and 6 policemen died. The massacre took place during a raid on Campos Morombí, Marina Cue, lands in litigation between the State and private parties.

These events led to the impeachment of former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who ended up being removed from office. It was also reported that Vidal Vega was the person responsible for the safekeeping of the documents related to proceedings by the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the Curuguaty Massacre before the National Institute of Rural Development and Land for the adjudication of the “Marina Cue” lands.

The IACHR calls to mind that it is the State's obligation to proactively investigate acts of this nature and punish those responsible. The Commission also urges the State of Paraguay to immediately and urgently adopt all necessary measures to guarantee the right to life, integrity, and safety of human rights defenders in the country, particularly those who work in the Campesinos sin Tierra movement and on the Committee of Relatives of Victims of the Curuguaty Massacre.

(PHOTO: Members of Campesinos sin Tierra protesting/FILE) As the Commission has stated previously, the acts of violence and other attacks perpetrated against human rights defenders not only affect the guarantees that belong to every human being, but undermine the fundamental role that human rights defenders play in society and leave all those for whom they fight defenceless.

The IACHR also calls to mind that the work of human rights defenders is essential to the construction of a solid and lasting democratic society, and that they play a leading role in the process of pursuing the full attainment of the rule of law and the strengthening of democracy.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

- This article originally appeared in MercoSur Press

Tuesday
Dec042012

Palau typhoon aftermath: Power out, waves inundate low-lying areas - (REPORT) 

(Video: Raw footage from Palau, 12.3.12/TyphoonHunter)

(South Pacific, HN, 12/4/12) - Palau President Johnson Toribiong said this morning the island nation's capital, Koror, escaped major damage from Typhoon Bopha, but he's waiting for an assessment of eastern atolls and islands where waves went inland.

An initial assessment in Koror shows the damage was not extensive, except for downed trees and power disruption since yesterday afternoon, Toribiong said by phone from Koror.

"We've been blessed," Toribiong said, that Koror was spared from major damage.

Koror's TV and radio services are down and flights have been suspended, the president said. Making phone calls to Palau has been challenging as well.

Toribiong said initial reports showed seawater went inland in areas including Kayangel, Angaur and Babeldaob, where residents evacuated to higher ground.

The president said there has been no report of any casualties on the islands.

David Tevid, with the Palau community on Guam, said he heard some homes may have been swept, but that information could not be independently verified by the Pacific Daily News.

Babeldaob is the largest island in Palau with about 6,000 people. Kayangel is the northernmost state of Palau, with a population of less than 200. Angaur, also with a population of less than 200, was inundated with waves that were whipped inland as well, the president said.

(MAP: Track of Typhoon Bopha-Pablo/National Weather Service)He said an assessment of the damage would begin today as Palau is officially declared out of the damaging typhoon’s reach.

Bopha is moving west at 17 mph but is expected to resume a west-northwest motion, according to the National Weather Service.

Maximum sustained winds have decreased to 130 mph. The Weather Service said Bopha is expected to continue to weaken through this evening. As it moves to the Philippines, typhoon-force winds extend outward up to 35 miles from the center of the storm and tropical-force winds extend outward up to 105 miles from the storm's center.

- This report first appeared in the Guam, Pacific Daily News

Monday
Nov262012

The International Community Needs a Better Understanding of the Congo Problem - (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: DR Congo Crisis Creates Refugee Crisis/Al Jazeera)

By Frank Kagabo 

(Goma, 11/26/12) - Within one week of the capture of the Congolese city of Goma by the M23 rebels, many things have happened. Kinshasa now seems to be taking a different route in dealing with the issue. But the process or attack that led to the capture of the eastern DRC city speaks volumes about what is wrong with the DRC.

(MAP: Lerucher.org) Without doubt, something is fundamentally wrong with the geographical entity known as DRC. The current leadership in Kinshasa cannot wash its hands free of any blame. In addition to that, there is something deeply flawed about how the process of nation building, if at all we should call it that, has been undertaken in Congo over the years. Many Sub-Saharan countries are characterized as fragile states in almost all academic studies and publications, especially by western scholars and Africa area experts.

These states are seen as lacking all the basic tenets of a modern legitimate state. For DRC, as of now it is beyond a fragile state. It is on the path to a failed state in whole. Currently, in many places of the DRC, the state is simply absent.

When this is coupled with competing interests, both of local elites and many others serving foreign interests, it all becomes confusion. The centre in Kinshasa should always be able to make decisions that are of strategic value. But with a new beginning; through regional mediation, there is hope for a better outcome.

The best hope for Congo cannot be in the current noises that the 'international community', mainly influenced by interests in the West, are making. The fact that international institutions and Western governments have come to a conclusion that the current insurrection in eastern DRC is a creation of Rwanda, says much about why they should keep away.

Either they know the source of the problem and seek to callously blame a neighboring country, or they simply do not understand the underlying problems of DRC in particular and the wider Great Lakes region in general.

(PHOTO: Flags at the UN office in Geneva/UNOG)Many Western people with passing interest of Africa believe that conflicts in most of Africa are simply a symptom of the nature of the black man. That Africans have not evolved enough to be able to live harmoniously together. That such conflict is just "how they are". No need for further explanation or study!

These are people who never think that there can be just causes worth fighting for by Africans.

The kind of treatment that follows, like the heaping of blame on a neighbor etc, is all about that perception that is reserved for the African. To explain such perceptions, some Africans have bluntly said it is racism. But others fear to speak out lest they be accused of being "angry black people."

On the particular issue of the Congo conflict, it is important that the United Nations and other Western controlled international organizations seek a better understanding of this conflict before coming up with simplistic reports containing allegations that cannot stand.

They should be helped to get a clear understanding of the region. Again, there is also a need to pause and ask why missions by the UN in this region have always failed. Let's leave aside the issue of what their mandate is: The sheer size of their budgets should ideally be a reason for success. The fact that failure is always what follows such deployments or interventions calls for a radical shift in the nature of such UN operations.

(MAP: US State.gov)The best the UN and other Western-dominated international institutions can do is to support regional initiatives to resolve regional problems. And regional efforts should also be a mechanism for supporting internal process in the affected country, not coming in as an alternative foreign force, because that is also most likely to fail.

Also, the simple fact that the DR Congo army has scattered without putting up a meaningful fight is evidence enough that state institutions in Congo require an overhaul because they are largely dysfunctional.

To solve the current crisis in the DRC will require more than dealing with the original grievances of the mutiny that has now become a major rebel movement. Instead of intervening to complicate the situation, focus should only be in providing meaningful and necessary assistance to jumpstart internal mechanisms for a lasting solution to wider problems that afflict the vast DRC.

- This opinion piece first appeared at AllAfrica.com. Frank Kagabo has worked as a print journalist for four years. He currently works for The New Times Daily in Kigali.

Monday
Nov122012

This Diwali let's do small things with great love - (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: Diwali 101/National Geographic)

DIWALI FACTS:

- From darkness unto light is the message of Diwali (also known Deepavali); `The Festival of Lights'.

-  During Diwali, “light an oil lamp, sit quietly, shut your eyes, withdraw the senses, concentrate on this supreme light and illuminate the soul,” the message goes.

- The time of year is auspicious. Tradition sees practitioners buying gold and starting new bank accounts.

- The actual day of Diwali, calculated by the luni-solar Hindu calendar, falls this year on Tuesday, November 13. Each of the four days comprising the festival of Diwali is distinguished by a different tradition, but what remains true and constant is the celebration of life, its enjoyment and goodness.

- The illumination of homes with lights and the skies with firecrackers is an expression of obedience to the heavens for the attainment of health, wealth, knowledge, peace and prosperity.

- The festival holiday is celebrated in India, but also in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Malaysia, Singapore and Fiji.

-The day is usually celebrated with a `Ganga Snan' (a good shower) in the morning, prayers, donning new clothes, preparing good vegetarian food, sweets, cultural events at which a number of artists perform, house visits and exchanges of gifts.

By Rahul Verma

(November 13, 2012) - Diwali, the festival of lights and warmth, has different meanings for different people. It is a celebration full of festivities, illumination and lots and lots of sweets. It could be a long-awaited get-together for some friends and families, exchanging of gifts with relatives, friends or business interest to please them. While you are busy celebrating Diwali with sweets and lights, remember that festivals are not only about enjoying or partying with your friends or near and dear ones but also about spreading joy and warmth around and thinking about the deprived and make some contribution towards society according to your capabilities.

(PHOTO: An Indian girl tries to reach a lantern displayed for sale at roadside stalls, in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012/Rajesh Kumar SinghWhen everyone is in a festive mood there are some children in hospitals who wake up every morning with a hope that they will soon go home, but sometimes the days become months or years. When the whole world is busy in celebrating the festival of lights there are intravenous tubes that are running to their tiny bodies keeping them bound to the beds of the hospitals.

When we are planning lavish parties or buying white goods, children in hospitals dream of riding a bicycle or playing with friends in a playground and enjoying the festivities with their families.

Unfortunately it becomes a more heart-rending experience for children admitted to government hospitals as when their siblings and friends are enjoying at home they are required to live in hospitals which are in filthy conditions and grossly neglected and one can imagine how difficult it is for a child to come out of the mentality and trauma of being sick. When our children are busy in celebrating Diwali, there are some children who are sharing the same bed with two or three other kids, when every house is decorated with charming rangoli paintings with diyas, and colourful electric bulbs, they are left with a common sight of untidy bed sheets, general waste lying here and there in the corridors with disastrous toilet facilities. More worse is the attitude of the doctors and the sisters, who sometimes showers frustration of being working on a holiday in the hospital. In fact doctors are the most educated person in our society but in majority of the cases in Government hospitals their behavior with the patients is totally ignorant.

(PHOTO: Rangoli decorations, made using coloured powder, are popular during Diwali/Wikipedia)Parents are already in deep shock asking the same question again and again, `God why my child'? They hardly find any friend or a relative visiting them in the hospital when the duration of stay becomes a little longer, yes but for the courtesy sake they will surely call you some time with a message that please let them know if anything required. Also on weekends when they are going to a mall or to watch a movie they will definitely spare some time to meet you with the condition that the hospital `is on the way.

In this era of smart phones, and gadgets it is true that we are progressing, getting sophisticated but perhaps our society is also loosing morality and ethics, there is are very few who are really concerned about destitute section of the society.

While we are busy celebrating Diwali with sweets and lights, we should remember that festivals are about spreading joy around and can always make some contribution towards the society according to our capabilities.

Diwali is an excellent time to start thinking about helping other people, especially who are in urgent need of support and care. This could include providing food, clothing and toys for families to enable them to experience the joys of the Diwali festival. Giving warmth, love and hope. That's what Diwali should be all about.

(PHOTO: Hindu holy men, sit in tractors as they arrive ahead of the Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad, India, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012/Rajesh Kumar Singh)Perhaps we are living in this misconception that spending hundreds thousands on God shall make him happy. Little children battling with life threatening diseases does not require too much but your smile along with few sweets or packets of crayons or a drawing book can bring instant smile on their face, it also boost the morale of the parents, some kind words of yours work as miracle to them.

So let's celebrate this Diwali as a festival of kindness and spread smiles and happiness around by visiting some children in hospitals with, remember what Mother Teresa said "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

- This opinion piece first appeared in The Times of India. Rahul Verma is co-founder of Uday Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to children with birth defects.

Thursday
Nov082012

World leaders praise Julia Gillard's sexism speech at ASEM - (REPORT) 

(Video ABCNEWS Australia)

(HN, November 8, 2012) - Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s now famous misogyny speech in parliament last month is still creating waves abroad, with the prime minister congratulated by other world leaders during an international summit.

Ms. Gillard says French President Francois Hollande and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, among other leaders, approached her at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Laos to commend the speech, in which she branded Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a misogynist.

The prime minister’s fiery 15-minute address to the Australian parliament early last month went viral worldwide, making news headlines and dominating social media.

“The president of France congratulated me on the speech, as did the prime minister of Denmark, and some other leaders, just casually as I’ve moved around, have also mentioned it to me,” Ms. Gillard told ABC radio on Wednesday.

Video of Ms Gillard’s outburst was watched more than 300,000 times on YouTube in just one day, and it made headlines in the US, India, Canada, UK and South Africa.

On one prominent American website, Jezebel, Ms. Gillard was described as a “badass motherf****r”.

Interviewed for the latest edition of Marie Claire magazine, the prime minister said her office had been besieged with emails and phone calls after the speech went viral on the internet.

“I’m taking it all with a bit of a wry smile,” she said.

“I’m certainly taking `badass’ as a compliment. I think that’s how it was meant.”

Ms. Gillard said she had heard that a Melbourne all-girls school had watched the speech during a class and “spontaneously broke into cheers and applause at the end of it”.

“So that touched me,” she said.

Ms. Gillard said what motivated her to make the speech was the “double standards and the lecturing” from Mr. Abbott.

-- This article first appeared on the Australian Times website via the AAP.