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 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:35 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
11/26/2014 11:43 AM

Swing Sets and Death in Syria: A Visit to an Aleppo Playground

By Christoph Reuter in Aleppo, Syria

Every day, children from the Salaheddin district of Aleppo meet at the local playground. They play war as the real one rages just a few meters away. But the graves are slowly encroaching.

Majid, what are you doing? "I'm watering mommy." Majid drags a large, blue bucket -- so full that he can hardly carry it -- across the withered grass. But why are you watering your mother?

The 13-year-old looks puzzled, as though it were the kind of idiotic question that only outsiders might ask. "Because she's right here," he says and pours the water onto a mound surrounded by a few stones meant to mark the site as a grave. An old pine tree offers a bit of shade, but so far, nothing seems to have taken root at the place where Majid's mother is buried. "I have to water it. Then something will grow for sure," he says with a steady voice as he heads back to refill his bucket.

Majid's mother died in the summer, but nobody in the family had enough money for a proper gravestone or even a border for the site. She died "because of her heart," Majid says "in her mid-30s." He can't be more precise than that; nobody in Aleppo really asks anymore why someone is dead. Majid drags a third bucket-full to the grave, as though seeking to atone for something he played no part in, as if he could score a tiny victory against all the dying.

He then returns to the other children playing in the sand nearby. The playground has a swing set, a teeter-totter, a slide and a small pile of sand, and it is the last one remaining in the Salaheddin district in the heart of Aleppo. They come every day, sometimes a dozen, sometimes 15 kids from the neighborhood. The younger ones fill up plastic bottle-halves with sand on the pile. "We're cooking!" yells the five-year-old Juju. The older children play war. Together, they swing on the bars and race down the slide.

Nearby, shots can be heard, sometimes isolated, other times entire salvos. Periodic explosions shake the surrounding buildings. But Majid, Juju and the others don't pay any attention. Not because they underestimate the danger, but because they know it so well. "Mortar," 11-year-old Emad says in response to a muffled boom. "Tank rounds sound different." They have a higher pitch, he says.

Peculiar Rules for Survival

The children of Aleppo have ears trained for the noises that accompany death, especially those who play in Salaheddin's last playground. It lies directly on the front. The next street over is in the firing line of regime snipers, which is why a barrier has been erected at the intersection next to the playground. The playground wall facing that side of the city is like a borderline between life and death. The odor of decomposing bodies sometimes hangs in the air nearby.

Peculiar rules for survival have been established in Syria. One of those is that the closer you are to the front, the lower the risk is from "barrel bombs," those steel containers full of explosives and metal balls that can weigh up to one ton. These bombs are thrown out of helicopters flying at an altitude of thousands of meters and are frequently blown off course by the wind. The helicopters avoid places where government troops and rebel fighters are separated by only 100 meters. And here, a place separated from the other side by just a single housing block, not even tank shells are a risk.

Everywhere else in the eastern half of this metropolis, a city that once had over 2 million residents, death rains down from the sky more often than ever before. The number of barrel bombs has doubled since October and even tripled in other cities in northern Syria. And once again, the Syrian army is on the cusp of surrounding the rebels in Aleppo.

On the playground, however, the situation is strangely normal. Within view of the war, children are sliding, swinging and teeter-tottering -- and one of the words they use most is "adi," meaning normal. The fact that they are playing directly adjacent to the snipers' line of fire: "adi." The fact that the burial sites are coming ever closer: "adi." The fact that many of their fathers, brothers or cousins have disappeared or been killed: "adi." That they themselves have often seen death: "adi."

Emad, Majid and their friend Ahmed, 13, don't play in the sand anymore. That's for babies, they say. "We play Assad's army and rebels," Ahmed says in his high-pitched voice. Puberty still lies ahead of him. "We fight, stage ambushes and take prisoners!" Sometimes they sneak out from behind the shack, he says, other times they stay close to the wall for protection, but they never leave the playground premises. And they don't venture into the ruins of the neighborhood. "Mommy says we're not allowed," he says.

Shrinking Playground

He says that his parents have been able to easily see the playground since their building was bombed: "The wall with the windows is now gone," he says. And he says that he and his friends play fair. "Sometimes one side wins, sometimes the other -- depending on who has the better ambush!" Only one child in the group has a real toy Kalashnikov. The others are left to assemble weapons out of sticks, twine and bits of plastic.

Thousands of people in Aleppo, many of them children, have been blown up, shot or crushed under the rubble of their collapsing homes. But for those who have managed to survive, kids who have experienced nothing but war for much of their lives, the surrounding inferno has become a prosaic fact of life. They just keep on playing. Here, at least.

But the space available for their games gets a bit smaller each week. The once idyllic park with the old pine trees is one of the last remaining open spaces in the area -- and the dead have to be buried somewhere. Now, they have found a final resting place here. And when Ahmed and the others aren't in the middle of a game, they water the methodically arranged graves, many of which don't even have a name plate. The martyrs, the fallen rebels and district residents can be found right near the entrance. In the back right, near the wall separating the park from the snipers' firing lines, are the regime soldiers and the "shabiha," the militia predominantly recruited from among the district's petty criminals.

Underneath the pile of sand where the younger children play are the remains of three jihadists who detonated themselves nearby at the beginning of January. "There might have been four. There were so many parts, it was hard to tell," says Emad. "The guys from the revolution poured sand on them." They didn't like the jihadists anyway, the others say. "They always hit us and constantly wanted to push us into the mosque to pray. But we wanted to play."

The mound, and the sand which is so good for playing, is only there because fanatics from Islamic State preferred to blow themselves up than to retreat when Syrian rebels sought to drive them out of the city at the beginning of the year. But because people didn't know which arm belonged to which led, they couldn't be buried in proper graves. So the bloody body parts were buried under sand, and then more sand, until eventually, a mound was formed.

The Whole Story

"But we only water the martyrs!" the kids say. It is an important detail and Emad repeats it several times. Just as Majid carries bucket after bucket of water to his mother's grave, the others care for the graves of their family members as well. It is as though the small gesture gives them a sense of stability amid the chaos surrounding them: "Don't water the wrong graves!" It isn't their war. But it is their fathers, brothers, cousins and mothers who die. They lie here, only a stone's throw from those who fought alongside the murderers. Those graves don't get any water from the children.

Ahmed's older brother went off in search of bread once when the local bakery was unable to bake more. That was two years ago. He never came back. Ahmed's cousin wanted to have his hair cut. He too disappeared, as did Emad's brother. They could have gone looking for them; there is even a center in Aleppo where pictures of anonymous corpses are collected. A retired policeman at the center collects their possessions in small bags and enters the date and place they were found in a notebook. But such a search costs money, time and energy, valuable resources that most in Aleppo need for survival.

Does he believe that his brother might someday return? Emad clicks his tongue and tosses his head back. He is silent for a moment before clearing his throat. "My brother went away and didn't come back. That is the whole story."

It isn't a taboo to speak of such things. It is just hopeless to expect an answer. Majid's father was arrested and never came back. The fathers of two other children were likewise simply taken away at checkpoints.

'I Just Want My Daddy Back'

Only five-year-old Hassan doesn't want to say why his father was taken away, or even admit that he is gone. He is close to tears when another boy says quietly: "But he's been dead for a long time now." Hassan hears him and becomes furious, cocks his fist and then lets his arm fall to his side in resignation. "I just want my daddy back."

Even as the growing number of graves eats away at the playground from two sides, a lush vegetable garden approaches from a third. One of the neighbors planted the garden in the spring, which angered local rebel leaders, who had declared the entire site as a cemetery.

"They want me to go away," complains Bakri Mahsoum, "but I have been watering the park here for years and take care of the garden every day. The zucchini, tomatoes and okra are for everybody in the district." The fact that his garden grew over two graves a while back, with the zucchini plants winding around the steles, hasn't made things any easier.

Death and gardens, graves and zucchini, sandboxes atop body parts, this small place has everything that has characterized Aleppo for months: unfathomable lunacy beneath a thin veneer of normalcy.

A shot rings out. A cat had climbed up onto the roof of a damaged shed near the dangerous side and a boy who is new to the area climbed up after him. He was briefly in view of the other side. Luckily, nobody was hurt and the cat jumped back down. The gardener yells from behind his shrubs that they shouldn't climb up there, it's dangerous.

Not even a minute later, though, the incident is forgotten. Ahmed says that his friend Samir had been shot in the arm the day before when he was trying to help his father -- who had been trying to pull a wounded neighbor out of the field of fire. They used to go out with their families on Fridays, they say. They would go to the countryside to visit their grandparents or maybe just down the street for an ice cream. "Yeah, that was nice," Majid says quietly. He is almost whispering, as though it was somehow dangerous to revisit the old memories.

Missing School

School too has faded into the past. Early on, two-and-a-half long years ago, classes continued despite the fighting, Majid remembers. "But then the rockets came and we moved from one school to the next, and then into the cellar." But at some point, fewer and fewer children showed up. Their families had fled or been killed, or they were simply too scared to allow their children out of the house any more. Majid says he misses school. More than that, though, he misses the 16- and 17-year-old sisters Nur and Riim who used to teach them reading, writing and English here on the playground. "They were nice to us!"

Now, the two sisters are lying beneath them, in the nicest grave in the playground. It is marked by a marble slab engraved with the names of all those family members killed by a bomb last spring. Their mother comes every day, sometimes bringing along a friend, as she has today. The two talk about what is worse: losing children, as she as, or losing a husband, like her friend. They haven't reached a consensus by the time they depart, leaving the marble to the children. They like to sit there in the afternoon autumn sun.

Where will you go when the whole place is filled with graves or if you have to flee from Assad's troops?

"Then we'll go play somewhere else," they shout, almost in unison. But they'll have to come back periodically, Majid insists, and the others nod as though they had just remembered something that had momentarily slipped their minds. "I have to bring water for mommy," Majid says.

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:32 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Civil Liberties in Peril Down Under

NOV. 27, 2014

Australia and New Zealand are not among the usual suspects when it comes to state suppression of civil liberties. But both countries, stung by Edward J. Snowden’s revelations last year about their intelligence-gathering efforts, have been cracking down on the press: Australia has passed sweeping secrecy laws, while police officers in New Zealand recently raided the home of a reporter who had published information regarding a government scandal.

There has been little international outcry, and Washington is hardly likely to be upset: The two countries harbor the only major intelligence gathering facilities for the National Security Agency in the Southern Hemisphere, and, along with Britain, Canada and the United States, are members of the intelligence-sharing arrangement known as the “Five Eyes.”

In New Zealand, the journalist targeted in the raid is the country’s top investigative reporter, Nicky Hager, who has been working with Mr. Snowden and the journalist Glenn Greenwald. Mr. Hager has “long been a pain in the establishment’s neck,” a former prime minister of New Zealand, David Lange, once said, admiringly.

In 1996 Mr. Hager published his book “Secret Power,” which revealed the relationship between the N.S.A. and New Zealand. Mr. Lange said that he learned more about what the N.S.A. was doing in his country from reading Mr. Hager’s reporting than he did as prime minister.

Across the Tasman Sea, the Australian government recently amended the country’s national security laws so that journalists and whistle-blowers who publish details of “special intelligence operations” may be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

The measures are part of a groundswell of terrorism hysteria. September brought the largest counterterrorism raids in Australian history, in which some 800 state and federal police officers raided homes in several Sydney suburbs with large Muslim populations, acting on what officials said was an intercepted phone call about possible activity by allies of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

For all the forces deployed in the raids, only one person was arrested and charged with a terrorism-related crime; in a court appearance in mid-November, his lawyer said the telephone conversation had been mistranslated.

The press has added to the hysteria, spreading a story that Islamic State followers were plotting a public beheading in a square in downtown Sydney — a claim no public official has made, and a claim for which there is virtually no evidence.

A week after the raids, the ruling center-right Liberal Party proposed the national security amendments aimed at the press and leaks; the opposition Labor Party supported them, and the changes passed with little debate.

Tellingly, one of the few votes against the bill came from a former intelligence official. “This is disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful,” said Andrew Wilkie, an independent member of Parliament from Tasmania. Mr. Wilkie had resigned from the country’s intelligence service in early 2003 in protest against the lack of evidence in the claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

But it seems the Australian government is motivated by more than just terrorism fears. A year ago, based on information provided by Mr. Snowden, The Guardian Australia newspaper and the Australian Broadcasting Company, the public broadcaster, reported that Australian intelligence had bugged the mobile telephones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, his wife and eight of his top aides.

This was far more serious than just an embarrassment to the Australian government. It caused a serious rupture in diplomatic relations — Indonesia recalled its ambassador, and he didn’t return for six months. Indonesia looms large in Australia’s foreign policy constellation, along with the United States, and its major trading partners China and Japan. Cooperation with Indonesia is considered vital in the fight against human trafficking and terrorism.

In New Zealand, the fallout from Mr. Snowden’s leaks has been domestic. At a conference in Auckland in September, Mr. Snowden said, via a video hookup from Moscow, that the New Zealand government and the National Security Agency of the United States were engaged in vast domestic surveillance.

The country’s prime minister, John Key, vigorously denied the charges, but then backtracked after Mr. Snowden released supporting documents, saying that he “may well be right.” Mr. Key added, “I don’t run the N.S.A.”

It came as no surprise to many when, last month, five detectives and a computer engineer raided the home of Mr. Hager, the journalist who has been working with Mr. Snowden. Over a 10-hour period, they took computers, phones, papers, an iPod and a camera.

The raid may also have arisen out of Mr. Hager’s most recent book, “Dirty Politics,” in which he revealed that officials in the prime minister’s center-right National Party government had been supplying derogatory information about opposition politicians to a right-wing blogger. The justice minister was forced to resign.

Whatever the motivation, the raid, like the Australian anti-whistle-blower laws and President Obama’s anti-leak investigations, is certain to have a chilling effect. Of course, such steps are always explained as a result of a careful balancing between national security and civil liberties. What is becoming increasingly clear is that political self-interest — which serves no one except the powers that be — is just as important a factor.

Raymond Bonner is a former New York Times reporter and the author, most recently, of “Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.”

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:31 AM 
Started by Linda - Last post by Shawn Rollins
Gotta digest all that.  It makes a lot of sense.  Looking back in hindsight...The relationship was filled with illusions followed by delusions and flawed thinking.  There was a lot of Pisces\Neptune energy there.   

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:31 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Mayor’s Race Could Alter Balance of Political Power in Taiwan

NOV. 27, 2014

TAIPEI, Taiwan — A doctor and political novice is favored to win Taipei’s mayoral election on Saturday, one of many races in which Taiwan’s governing party faces the prospect of its most serious setback in years.

A victory for the blunt-talking, 55-year-old physician, Ko Wen-je, would be a sharp defeat for the governing party in a city long considered its stronghold, and in a job that often becomes a springboard to the presidency.

The local elections come halfway through President Ma Ying-jeou’s final term as president, during a year in which his governing Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, has faced large-scale protests over its pursuit of closer ties with China, and food-safety scandals that have inflamed antigovernment anger.

In the race for Taipei mayor, the governing party’s candidate is Sean Lien, a 44-year-old former investment banker whose father, Lien Chan, served as Taiwan’s premier and vice president. While his connections helped him win the party’s nomination, they have done little to bolster his standing against

Mr. Ko is running as an independent, though his political views generally align with the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition party. The D.P.P. is not fielding a candidate in the race and has thrown its support behind him. His campaign has focused on encouraging civic participation and trying to transcend the divide between the Kuomintang and those who favor closer ties with China, and the D.P.P. and others who support an independent Taiwan.

Accentuating his image as an outsider, Mr. Ko eschews a suit and tie for a collared shirt in most campaign appearances. His inexperience in government led many to believe that his lead in opinion polls would eventually evaporate in the face of the Kuomintang’s well-developed party apparatus.

But Mr. Lien, who also lacks government experience, has failed to capitalize on his opponent’s weaknesses, despite his political pedigree.

He has emphasized economic themes, touting his investment experience and work as chairman of the company that manages Taipei’s smartcard system for public transit and other services. But his family connections and personal wealth have hurt him at a time when the public is increasingly concerned about the gap between rich and poor, said Lin Jih-wen, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, a state-funded research institute in Taipei.

“He’s too young, too inexperienced and doesn’t seem to understand the ordinary lives of people in Taipei,” Mr. Lin said.

Elections in Taiwan can be difficult to predict, with opinion polls sometimes overstating the support for the D.P.P. and other pro-independence parties. Nonetheless, Mr. Ko has consistently maintained a double-digit lead.

The race has implications beyond Taipei, Taiwan’s capital and largest city. Each of the last three presidents has previously served as mayor of Taipei, and the election has included national concerns, especially Taiwan’s relationship with China, which claims Taiwan as its own.

This spring, demonstrators opposed to the Kuomintang’s support of a free-trade deal with China, which critics said would have given China greater influence over Taiwan’s economy, took to the streets and occupied the national legislature for more than three weeks.

Mr. Lien, who met the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing last year, has been attacked by the opposition for favoring stronger ties with China.

“Lien is simply unable to convince that he is anything but what he is, a privileged princeling from one of Taiwan’s richest and politically powerful families,” said Jonathan Sullivan, a China scholar at the University of Nottingham. “Lien’s halfhearted attempts to appear down to earth have been followed by gaffes revealing his status and thinking.”

After coming under repeated attack for his family’s wealth, Mr. Lien responded in a campaign brochure that the Buddha “was a prince who enlightened people.” While his point was that family background did not predetermine policy, his comparing himself to the Buddha was seen as grandiose.

Mr. Ko is not immune to similar criticism. As chairman of National Taiwan University Hospital’s traumatology department, he too is a member of Taiwan’s elite. And he has been gaffe-prone in campaign appearances, notably when he said one young female candidate’s appearance made her better suited to working as a receptionist. He later apologized for the comment.

“Although he is not a seasoned politician, Ko has deftly rolled with the punches and has shown an innate skill in turning Lien’s attacks against himself,” Mr. Sullivan said.

During a televised debate, when asked whether a candidate who had pro-independence leanings could serve as a high-level state official, Mr. Ko responded that it was the “cross-strait compradors,” the Kuomintang officials pursuing closer ties with China, whose patriotism should be questioned.

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:28 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Malaysian Premier Says Sedition Act Will Stand

NOV. 27, 2014
BANGKOK — Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday backed away from his promise to abolish a sweeping law that in recent years has been used against the government’s opponents.

Najib Razak, the prime minister, said in a speech to his political party that the country’s Sedition Act would instead be reinforced with new provisions, including one “to protect the sanctity of Islam and other religions.”

Mr. Najib vowed to jettison the law in 2012, when his political party, which has governed Malaysia for more than five decades, appeared to be courting ethnic minorities and young, urban voters who in recent elections have abandoned the governing coalition.

But since opposition parties won the popular vote in elections last year, nearly ousting Mr. Najib from power, the government appears to have become less tolerant of dissent. This year alone, about a dozen prominent people have been charged with violating the Sedition Act, which was enacted in 1948 when Malaysia was still a British colony and was facing a Communist insurgency.

Government prosecutors have also pursued a case against the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, accusing him of sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia but very rarely prosecuted. Mr. Anwar is awaiting judgment on that case; a guilty verdict would bar him from politics.

“This is a government that has been in power for 57 years,” said Azmi Sharom, a law professor at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, who is one of the people recently charged with sedition. “The writing is on the wall.”

He described the Sedition Act as “clearly the government using a law to stifle dissent.”

Mr. Najib’s announcement on Thursday came during a speech at his political party’s convention, an annual event meant to display the cohesiveness and power of the majority Malay ethnic group, which dominates the country’s politics. The convention in recent years has featured fiery speeches and, in one instance, a prominent politician brandishing a sword on stage.

Mr. Najib, the scion of one of the country’s leading political families, has sought to project a modern and moderate image both at home and during his many trips abroad. He is active on social media, frequently posting on Twitter the selfies he takes with other leaders.

In April, he hosted President Obama in the first visit by a head of the United States in nearly half a century. The meeting led to what the White House described as a decision to “elevate” relations between the two countries to a “comprehensive partnership” of political and economic ties.

Mr. Najib’s critics say his party, the United Malays National Organization, and its allies have radicalized Malaysia’s Muslims and are sacrificing the country’s delicate ethnic and religious balance to maintain their political hegemony. The federal government has banned the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, and a member of Mr. Najib’s party called for Christian Bibles to be burned.

“Najib has convinced the outside world that he is a moderate and a reformer,” said Bridget Welsh, one of the foremost experts on Malaysian politics. “But there is a major gap between what he says and what he does. Many people feel that the international community is being duped.”

Among its numerous provisions, the Sedition Act makes it illegal “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection” against the government or the country’s royalty.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director for Asia of the activist group Human Rights Watch, said the law gives the government “the discretion to declare almost anything seditious.”

“Social activists and political opposition figures are likely to face a renewed crackdown,” he said. “This is a major reversal on human rights.”

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:26 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Open Mumbai: how PK Das set out to map the city's slums

The 2014-34 Mumbai Development Plan shows, for the first time, a recognition of the needs of slum dwellers in the city’s planning processes. This shift was inspired by the groundbreaking work of Mumbai-based architect PK Das

Jeroen van der Heijden
The Guardian
Friday 28 November 2014 12.15 GMT   

For a long time, it was unknown how many urban poor were living in Mumbai, and how much of the city’s land was taken up by informal housing and slums. The Mumbai Development Plan, the statutory document that lays out land use and development control in the city, did not adequately represent the urban poor.

This provided the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, Mumbai’s primary agency responsible for urban governance in the city, with a unique opportunity to “play with the data” on the urban poor, and thus take away their power to represent themselves. By not being appropriately represented on the plan, the city’s urban poor lacked the opportunity to empower themselves. From an administrative point of view, the plan simply denied that urban poverty was a serious problem in Mumbai.

Of course, the reality of Mumbai is different. When flying into the city, one can already see its slums spilling over on to the airport grounds. When taking a rickshaw, taxi or a train from the airport to the city centre, you begin to get an idea of the amount of informal housing there is in the city. It appears to line every train track, border every highway, and take up almost all public space in the city.

For years, many activist groups have therefore sought to empower the urban poor by having them adequately represented on the Mumbai Development Plan. The current (draft) 2014-34 plan indicates that they have succeeded in doing so. Or at least partly. The 2014-34 plan clearly signifies slum clusters and gives, what may be considered, a rather accurate estimation of slum dwellers in Mumbai. This plan is developed as a part of Mumbai’s reforms within the scope of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

The 2014-34 plan has unmistakably been influenced by the “Open Mumbai” exhibition that was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai in 2012. Open Mumbai is a project that seeks to focus the attention of policymakers and citizens on the opportunities and constraints of Mumbai to urbanise further, keeping in mind the concerns of slum dwellers as well as environmental sustainability of the city.

In particular it has a focus on open spaces in the city that may be lost due to rapid urbanisation, particularly through ever growing slums and commercial development. Open Mumbai is a result of over 15 years of activism and civil society to government collaboration led by the Mumbai-based architect PK Das.

Through his work, Das seeks to organise slum dwellers and support them in achieving betterliving conditions. In particularly he is involved in developing affordable housing models and urban renewal. He states on his website: “With an extremely strong emphasis on participatory planning, [I hope] to integrate architecture and democracy to bring about desired social and physical regeneration in the country.”

One of the key aspects of Open Mumbai is that it has made the slums of Mumbai visible. It has produced a number of maps that with much detail identify slum areas in Mumbai. In doing so, Open Mumbai has been able to clearly point out the living conditions of the urban poor: it concludes that more than 50% of Mumbai’s population, close to 6.5 million people (as per the 2011 census) live in slums.

Open Mumbai estimates that slums take up close to 9% of land in Mumbai, whilst the total land area reserved for housing in Mumbai is about 21%. Less than half of Mumbai’s slums are built on land reserved for housing (taking up a mere 20% of this land), the other half of its slums is built on commercial and industrial land, on natural assets, on public open spaces, on railways, the airport, ports and so on.

These “Mumbai Slums Maps” envision that not only is there a need for a comprehensive masterplan for slum redevelopment and affordable housing in Mumbai, but that it is also possible to house the urban poor in affordable housing if all currently slum occupied land will be earmarked for this. One of the major achievements of Open Mumbai is that through the maps MCGM] to alert them where urgent attention is required.” He sent 75 of his staff to the exhibition to learn from the various maps it presented.

The inclusion of slum clusters on the 2014-34 Mumbai Development Plan may very well be the biggest achievement of the various individuals involved in Open Mumbai. After 15 years of activism, the JNNURM finally provided a background for sustained discussion on the problem of slums and informal housing in the city. The Mumbai Slum Maps in their turn provided the MCMG with a wealth of information for developing and implementing policies.

After a king period of muddling through, the two one-way streets – bottom-up activism and top-down law and policy implementation – have finally met.


Row over Hamlet remake Haider shines light on India’s culture wars

Contemporary version of Shakespeare play has become focus of battle between religious conservatives and creative artists

Jason Burke in Mumbai
The Guardian, Friday 28 November 2014          

The tone is uncompromising. The language is harsh. The sovereignty and integrity of India has been attacked with impunity, the court documents claim. The unity of the nation has been undermined.

But the source of the alleged threat to the world’s largest democracy is a somewhat surprising one: a cinematic remake of Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s great tragedy has always provoked strong emotion but it is rare that anyone seeks to ban productions of it on the grounds of national security.

On Friday, a court in a northern Indian state will hear that a recently released film of the play in a contemporary local setting should be banned to preserve the emerging economic powerhouse and its 1.25 billion inhabitants from further harm. The lawyers bringing the case are from a group calling itself “Hindus for Justice” and claim to be acting on behalf of the 80% of citizens who follow the faith.

The film has now finished its run, so the move to ban it is largely symbolic. But the case in Uttar Pradesh is being closely watched, seen as yet another skirmish in a long-running cultural war pitting conservatives who say they are defending India’s culture, security and identity against creative artists who argue that they should be free to express themselves.

The film – called Haider – is set in Kashmir, the former Himalayan princedom where separatist insurgents have fought Indian security forces for 25 years. Scenes showing the Indian army committing human rights abuses and the use of a temple for the “play within a play” sequence performed by dancers wearing shoes, are “anti-Indian … divisive [and] hurt the sentiments of Hindus”, the legal petition says.
Official trailer for Haider, the remake of Hamlet

“Every artist has the right to express whatever they want but … without hurting the sentiments of any community,” said Ranjana Agnihotri, secretary-general of the group bringing the case. “We definitely represent the Hindu community and we feel confident and strong.”

Some commentators say the new Indian government, in power since May and led by a prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose political origins lie in a hardline Hindu revivalist organisation, has inadvertently encouraged an intolerant atmosphere. Others argue the new administration is simply caught in the middle.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if certain elements misappropriated the [new government’s] mandate … for their virulent ways of living and thinking … but they will be disappointed,” said Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based thinktank.

Liberal commentators and writers were targeted through social media during the heated atmosphere of the election campaign and some say they have detected a new edge in recent months.

Sonia Faleiro, a prize-winning Indian journalist, said that abuse was becoming more direct and more overt.

“It is the most startling thing. Some are not even trying to hide their identity. I think there is a sense of empowerment. It is as if there is no reason to pretend any more.”

Ramachandra Guha, a liberal commentator and historian who is himself regularly the target of abuse, said most was aimed at people who were seen as both influential and a threat.

“I’m seen as an apostate, a Hindu who should know better. But the most debased and vulgar abuse is directed at women, particularly liberal and secular women, and especially women who are not Hindu,” Guha said.

The abuse – and attempts to ban the Hamlet film – appear part of an upsurge of efforts to protect what a hardline fringe deem to be “Indian values”.

Pramod Muthalik, leader of a group based in the southern state of Karnataka calling itself the Shri Ram Sena, the Army of (the deity) Ram, said the film “encourages terrorism”.

The organisation also mounts expeditions against what Muthalik and other extremists call “love jihad”, the alleged systematic seduction of Hindu women by Muslim men.

“It is a serious problem. There are 30,000 cases in Karnataka alone,” Muthalik said. His members regularly launch “operations” in parks, one of the few spaces in conservative India where unmarried couples can spend time together, usually sitting chastely together on a bench or walking holding hands.

“Sexual activities in public places may be all right in America or Germany or UK but this is [India],” Muthalik said.

Though lacking broad popular support, such groups are a challenge for the government. The BJP has its origins in the nationalist and religious revivalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Association, but has tried to distance itself from the more hardline elements in recent months. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, has said allegations of love jihad are baseless. Modi said last week that terrorism has no religion.

“That many ministers are from the RSS is reality, but that does not mean [the organisation] has an undue influence on policy … We are simply following up on our electoral pledges to bring development, prosperity to all Indians and to fulfil all Indians’ aspirations,” said Nalin Kohli, a spokesman for the BJP.

Singh last week described the relationship rather differently, explaining that because so many members of the government were from the RSS, there was no need for the organisation to interfere. “When we ourselves are from the RSS, then what influence will it have to wield? One could have understood the argument of any organisation influencing the government if it had a different identity, a different ideology,” the home minister said.

Observers point to evidence of a careful balancing act as Modi, who spent decades as an RSS organiser, looks to convince hardliners within the Hindu nationalist movement that he is protecting local industries and agriculture and taking a strong stand against neighbouring powers.

Guha said: “It’s yet to settle. There’s an ambivalence. Modi wants to present himself as a reconciler and a moderniser but has to give his pound of flesh to the RSS because they won him the election. He’s made clear that on economics and foreign policy he will not listen to the Hindu right but has been less clear on cultural issues.”

In recent elections in the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, Modi campaigned on the same platform of governance and economic development that won him the national polls in May while a longstanding alliance with the local hardline rightwing Shiv Sena party was broken.

Saran said Modi, 64, was “steering towards a centre-right position. He is not an agnostic prime minister. He is a Hindu prime minister and will follow his belief system … But he knows that if he wants to be a 10-year prime minister he needs to reach out.”

Clashes over culture have long been part of India’s raucous democracy. In February, conservatives forced a book on Hinduism by well-known US academic Wendy Doniger off the shelves, claiming it was insulting to the faith. An editorial in the Times of India at the time condemned “the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors” displaying “a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament”.

In the same month, a press conference held in Mumbai by a band from Pakistan which plays rock influenced by traditional Islamic devotional music was disrupted by Shiv Sena members. The group regularly targets such events.

A spokesman for the group last week said their protest was justified. “We’ve plenty of bands here in India. Why bring one from Pakistan when they are cutting off the heads of our [soldiers],” he told the Guardian.

Other faith communities have also sought to limit freedom of expression. Sale of the Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, remains proscribed and its author was unable to appear at the Jaipur literary festival in 2012 after Muslim organisations protested.

Politicians too have sought to ban or restrict the sale or production of books. In 2010, MPs loyal to Sonia Gandhi threatened legal action to stop the sale of a “fictionalised biography” of the Congress party leader.

Last year, the government of the southern state of Tamil Nadu blocked the release of a film after complaints that it portrayed the Tamil Tigers, the violent Sri Lankan separatist group, as “terrorists”.

Many of the recent efforts of the Hindu groups appear prompted by rapidly-evolving social behaviour in a fast-changing nation. Some of the conservatives’ objections to Haider, the Hamlet remake, might have been familiar to contemporaries of the author of the original. In the play, one of the hero’s principal grievances is his mother’s hasty marriage to his recently deceased father’s brother.

Ranjani Agnihotri, of Hindus for Justice, said the film gave a bad impression of local women, portraying them as lacking modesty. “That a widow should remarry so quickly is really very shocking,” she said.

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:21 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Iran’s Supreme Leader Backs Further Nuclear Talks

NOV. 27, 2014

TEHRAN — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, expressed support on Thursday for the extension of talks with Western powers on the country’s nuclear program.

“I do not disagree with the extension of the negotiations, as I have not disagreed with negotiations in the first place,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech published on his personal website.

On Monday, hours before the deadline for the talks was to expire, negotiators in Vienna announced that the talks had been extended for seven months.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s opinion is crucial because he will have the final say over any potential deal on Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but which the West suspects is a ruse to obscure a bomb-making effort.

His remarks are almost certain to mean that Iranian hard-liners opposed to the talks, who had stepped up their criticism in recent weeks, will have to moderate their stance, and they assure that politicians will not question the extension.

Nonetheless, the Iranian leader attacked the United States, describing its polices as wavering and unclear.

“America is a chameleon, and every day makes new statements,” he said in comments that were to be delivered to an audience of paramilitary Basij forces, according to his website, “It also says different things in public and in private.”

Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated his support for the Iranian negotiators, who in the past he has called “children of the revolution.” “They have been firm, have not caved in and are seriously trying hard,” he said.

Ayatollah Khamenei said he was not worried about whether the negotiations would lead to a deal. “If there is no agreement, we will not lose,” he said.

While the Iranian economy has been battered by sanctions and, in recent months, a plunge in oil prices, Ayatollah Khamenei expressed confidence that Iran could withstand the pressures.

“If the negotiations do not yield results, it is America that will be the loser, as they need these talks to solve their domestic problems,” he said.

The ayatollah also made reference to the riots this week in Ferguson, Mo. The unrest in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, shows “the gap between the American people and their administration.”

Ayatollah Khamenei also emphasized Iran’s view that it draws a distinction between the United States government and its people. “We do not have any issues with the U.S. nation or country,” he said. “In fact, our problem is with the U.S. government’s bullying and excessive demands.”

In particular, he was critical of American support for Israel and issued a warning to leaders there. “They should know that whether a nuclear agreement is achieved or not,” he said, “Israel will be more insecure each day.”

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:16 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Turkey is standing up to Isis oil smugglers
The Guardian, Wednesday 26 November 2014 19.31 GMT   

Your article (Inside Islamic State’s oil empire: how captured oilfields fuel Isis insurgency, 19 November, puts forward claims about Turkey that are mutually exclusive with the facts about the fight of Turkish security forces against smuggler groups that are in the Turkish headlines almost daily. In response to the advance of Daesh [Islamic State] towards towns along our Syrian border, additional army units were deployed to combat illegal border crossings as well as armed Syrian or Iraqi smuggler groups. Thanks to the efforts of the Turkish forces, 78m litres of oil was captured in 2013 before it could be smuggled. The figure is 62m litres for the first eight months of 2014. Members of the Turkish security forces lost their lives during the fight against smuggling.

Turkey has been vocal on establishing a comprehensive strategy against clearing the Daesh threat. Turkey and the UK have an outstanding level of cooperation against terrorism and we call on the international community to get together and start implementing this strategy to bring peace to the war-torn region.
Abdurrahman Bilgiç
Turkish ambassador in London

• The Turkish prime minister, Recep Erdoğan, is wrong to claim that the feminist movement rejects motherhood or that Islam defines the role of women as motherhood only (Report, 25 November). Feminism is about the empowerment of women and establishing and defending equal rights in society. The early history of Islam provides examples of the central role women played in agriculture, business and trade and war. Often characterised as a devout Muslim, Mr Erdogan shows a distinct lack of knowledge of the history of Islam which, at the time of its advent, provided radical ideas regarding the rights of women in Arab society in marriage, divorce, education and inheritance – centuries before other cultures adopted these ideas. This at a time when it was not uncommon in some tribes to kill daughters at birth. The teachings of early Islam aimed to instigate a revolution that its modern interpreters, in their quest for powerful, patriarchal structures, conveniently forget.

Mr Erdoğan uses tired and discredited millennia-old arguments, wrapped in faux reverence about the place of motherhood in Islam, to undermine the hard-fought and as yet incomplete struggle for equality for women in modern societies. He may do better to implement Turkey’s constitution, which provides equal rights to men and women.
Aamir Ahmed

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:14 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad

Russia puts ‘Putin’s banker’ Sergei Pugachev on Interpol wanted list

Ally turned critic of Russian president is believed to be London and is accused of siphoning money from bank for personal use

Shaun Walker in Moscow
The Guardian, Thursday 27 November 2014 14.12 GMT

An exiled Russian oligarch who was once so close to the Kremlin he was known as “Putin’s banker” has been put on the Interpol wanted list by Moscow after falling out with his former associates.

Sergei Pugachev – whose riches Forbes magazine estimated at more than $2bn (£1.3bn) at the peak of his wealth – fled Russia after claiming hostile interests were trying to seize his businesses. In recent weeks he has given interviews critical of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian political system. He is believed to be living in London.

In July, Pugachev had his assets frozen by a court in London as part of a dispute with a Russian liquidator, and was given a spending limit of £10,000 a week.

He was an associate of the former president Boris Yeltsin, and later became close to Putin, with a portfolio of interests across construction, banking and shipbuilding. He was also a senator, but his fortunes changed in 2010 when his bank defaulted on its debts and lost its licence.

Russian prosecutors accuse him of siphoning money from the bank for personal use. Pugachev denies the allegation, and says the charges against him were an excuse to seize his assets. “Today in Russia there is no private property. There are only serfs who belong to Putin,” he told the Financial Times last month.
Vladimir Putin and Sergei Pugachev in 2000 Vladimir Putin and Sergei Pugachev in 2000. Photograph: Reuters

In an interview with Time magazine, he said: “If Putin says he wants to buy something, you cannot say you do not want to sell. If he says, ‘I want to buy something,’ then you say, ‘Thanks for saying you want to buy it, and not just taking it.’”

This month, Pugachev’s lawyers told the high court in London that he was worth “no more than $70m” after his assets were frozen.

The notice on Interpol’s website says Pugachev is wanted by Russian authorities for misappropriation or embezzlement. But the UK authorities are unlikely to act on the Interpol request or on any extradition request from Russia. British courts have previously turned down such requests , suggesting they are often politically motivated.

Russia repeatedly tried in vain to have Putin’s original political backer turned arch-enemy, Boris Berezovsky, extradited from London. Berezovsky was found hanged at his Surrey estate last year. It also lost a battle to extradite Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a mobile phone magnate who fled the country after he said corrupt officials seized his business. Chichvarkin now runs a luxury wine shop in Mayfair.

Pugachev was very close to power in Russia, and until recently he remained an elusive, media-shy figure. He was known for his Orthodox Christian views and his relationship with Alexandra Tolstoy, a former BBC presenter and descendant of the novelist. The pair met when Pugachev was still married to his first wife and Tolstoy was married to a Cossack horse trainer, who has since attempted to sue her for trying to evict him from their Moscow flat.

But since Pugachev’s fall from grace, he has become an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and Putin, speaking in scathing terms about the Russian president’s intellectual capacity and grasp of economics.

“Vladimir Putin does not understand economics. He does not like it. It is dry. It’s boring to hear these reports, to read them. He likes clear things: Russia’s moving ahead; how great everything is. He does not have a deep understanding of what is happening,” Pugachev told Time. “Putin’s close circle understands he likes good news, so they always bring him good news. Whatever is happening, it’s good. For him, it’s enough to be in a good mood.”

Pugachev knew Putin from the Russian leader’s first days in the capital, after he was taken to Moscow from his home town of St Petersburg in 1996 to work in the presidential administration. Pugachev recalled a nondescript bureaucrat who gave little clue that he would rise to become Russia’s leader for the foreseeable future.

“He’d always have well-sharpened pencils, a clean sheet of paper and a newspaper,” Pugachev remembered. “There were no documents, nothing. I had been in politics about 10 years and seen everyone. They’d have tons of documents. They’d always be doing something. But with him it was just quiet, no one there, no meetings, everything quiet. He’d sit there, or watch TV. He really likes watching TV.”

 on: Nov 28, 2014, 07:11 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Jean-Claude Juncker saved from censure over Luxembourg tax schemes

Centrist parties vote down European parliament motion criticising commission president’s role in tax avoidance schemes

Ian Traynor in Brussels
The Guardian, Thursday 27 November 2014 14.25 GMT   

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European commission, has survived a motion of censure in the European parliament brought because of his role in tax avoidance schemes.

The motion brought by Britain’s Ukip, France’s Front National, and Italy’s 5 Star movement in the parliament described Juncker as unfit to lead the EU executive because he is seen to have presided over huge tax avoidance schemes for hundreds of multinational firms during his 18 years as prime minister of Luxembourg. His tenure ended last year. The scale of the tax avoidance was revealed this month by the Guardian and other news organisations around the world.

The censure motion was easily defeated by 461 votes, with 101 voting in favour and 88 abstaining, as Juncker’s centrist allies saved him from humiliation at the hands of anti-EU parties of the extreme right. However, support for the censure signalled an unusual alliance between far-right politicians ranged against the EU leadership.

Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, the Ukip and Front National leaders, loathe one another and have pledged not to co-operate, but joined forces on this occasion. Perhaps more unusually, they were also joined by Germany’s new anti-euro party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which sits with the British Conservative party in the parliament.

On the hard left in the parliament there is also anti-Juncker sentiment, but it was unable to muster the 10% of MEPs needed to bring a motion and refused to vote with the far right.

The two biggest groups – the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – as well as the Liberals, lined up behind Juncker. An alternative attempt to launch a parliamentary inquiry into the Luxembourg tax schemes also ran into trouble.

The Greens, who also refused to censure Juncker, called for a “robust” parliamentary investigation. But a meeting of parliamentary leaders on Wednesday put any decision off, with sources saying that Martin Schulz, the German social democrat and parliament speaker, was behind the decision to play for time. Schulz ran against Juncker for the commission presidency.

“Eurosceptics voted down. Full trust in Team Juncker,” tweeted Manfred Weber, leader of the Christian Democrats in the parliament.

Ukip MEP Stephen Woolfe said: “The European parliament has voted to protect the scandal-soaked commission president rather than to protect their own people whose national tax revenues have been bled by Juncker’s big business tax avoidance schemes.”.”

Farage, one of the main drivers behind the censure motion, failed to attend the vote. “Nigel Farage has failed to turn up and vote on his own motion,” said Catherine Bearder, the Liberal Democrat MEP. “This shows that this proposal was never anything more than a shameless media stunt.”

Centrist leaders made clear that their priorities were not to deal with the allegations against Juncker but to shore up the EU’s new leadership while also denying the extreme right a big victory.

Juncker came into office as the head of the commission at the beginning of the month only to be hit within three days by media disclosures of the scale of tax avoidance schemes arranged by the Luxembourg authorities when he was prime minister.

He then disappeared for a week before ordering the drafting of new rules on exchange of information between EU countries on corporate taxation arrangements, an initiative that was suddenly added to his legislative agenda.

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