Monday, December 29, 2014

Recent Editorials

(Some of my recent editorials in The Gulf Today-posted for my records)

Global economy struggles

under weighty challenge

Latest figures depict a weighty challenge for humanity. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, more than 2.1 billion people globally - or nearly 30 per cent of the world's population - are now overweight or obese. The prediction is that almost half of the world's adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030.

Obesity is now blamed for around 5 per cent of all deaths worldwide and has a similar negative effect on the global economy to smoking and armed conflict. Obesity also now costs the global economy $2 trillion ($2.32 trillion) in healthcare and lost productivity - or 2.8 per cent of global GDP - $100 billion less than both smoking and armed conflict.

The World Health Organisation defines overweight and obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health. Body mass index (BMI) is a simple index of weight-for-height that is commonly used to classify overweight and obesity in adults. It is defined as a person's weight in kilogrammes divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2).

The cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. Globally, there has been an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and an increase in physical inactivity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanisation.

Incidentally, Britain is found to have three per cent of its GDP wiped off each year due to obesity, the biggest drag on the country's economy after smoking. The combined annual cost of obesity-linked healthcare and lost output in Britain has reached $85.64 billion.

Once considered a problem only in high-income countries, overweight and obesity are now said to be dramatically on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.

It is not that all is lost. Experts insist that targeted action could bring 20 per cent of obese people back to normal weight within a decade. What is needed is a coordinated response from governments, retailers and food and drink manufacturers.

Recommendations include limiting the size of portions in packaged fast food, parental education and introducing healthy meals in schools and workplaces.

At the individual level, people can limit energy intake from total fats and sugars and increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts.

After all, where there's a will, there's a way.

Defining moment in

Pak anti-terror fight

With the unveiling of a comprehensive 20-point plan of action, the fight against terrorism has reached an important moment in Pakistan.

As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared on Wednesday, the Dec.16 Peshawar school massacre has drawn a line between coward terrorists and the Pakistani nation.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was absolutely right when he earlier stated, “no cause could justify such brutality.” The international community is bound to support the government of Pakistan in its fight against terror and extremism.

It may be recalled that there were 78 attacks against schools, teachers and schoolchildren reported to the United Nations in Pakistan last year, most of which were carried out by the Tehrik-i-Taliban and aligned local groups in Khyber Pakhtunkhw province, of which Peshawar is the capital.

Sharif has asserted that the days of terrorists are numbered and that all funding sources of terrorists will also be eliminated.

The action plan indicates sternness on the part of the authorities to take on the terrorists.

The key elements of the plan include: Setting up of military courts for two years to try terrorists; crackdown on militias in the country and continued execution of terrorists; Madrassas will not be allowed to operate without proper registration and banned outfits will not be allowed to operate under new names.

The plan also envisages strengthening and activation of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA); countering hate speech and extremist material; choking financing for terrorists and terrorist organisations; taking effective steps against religious persecution; registration and regulation of religious seminaries and a ban on glorification of terrorism and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media.

That’s not all. The government plans tangible measures against abuse of Internet and social media for terrorism; zero tolerance for militancy in Punjab; taking the ongoing operation in Karachi to its logical conclusion and empowering the Balochistan government for political reconciliation with complete ownership by all stakeholders.

Malala Yousafzai had stated during her recent speech on receipt of her Nobel peace Prize in Oslo that she wished her generation would be “the last that sees empty class rooms, lost childhoods and wasted potentials.” She had mentioned that her home village does not yet have a secondary school for girls.

The Peshawar school massacre is largely seen as Pakistan's “9/11". The horrendous attack has not only shaken the nation of Pakistan, but also the entire world. The attack on defenseless children is too dastardly an act to be erased from memory that easily.

Waves of empathy
for tsunami victims

A decade after more than 220,000 people died in a tsunami, which was triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island, doubts linger about how ready countries on the Indian Ocean really are for another giant wave.
The quake opened a fault line deep beneath the ocean on Dec.26, 2004 triggering a wave as high as 17.4 metres that crashed ashore in more than a dozen countries, wiping some communities off the map in seconds.
Ten years on, the world remembers the victims with a heavy heart and the outpouring of compassion from countries and people across the globe does come as a balm for the survivors.
Measured in lives lost, this is termed as one of the ten worst earthquakes in recorded history, as well as the single worst tsunami in history. Indonesia was the worst affected area, with most death toll estimates at around 170,000.
According to United Nations experts, some of the worst-affected countries are now better prepared for such disasters and better positioned to respond. However, there is definitely room for improvement.
A recent Food and Agriculture Organisation-sponsored workshop with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also stressed additional actions are needed to further increase resilience to disasters, largely due to the effects of rapid population increases and urbanisation, together with eroded natural resource bases and climate change.
The past decade has seen more than $400 million spent across 28 countries on an early-warning system comprising 101 sea-level gauges, 148 seismometers and nine buoys. While such preparations offer comfort, the effectiveness and maintenance of the system need serious attention.
The tsunami caused serious damage and deaths as far as the east coast of Africa, with the farthest recorded death due to the tsunami occurring at Rooi Els in South Africa, 8,000 km away from the epicentre. The livelihoods of some 1.4 million survivors were left in tatters as it destroyed entire food production systems on which the populations depended.
UN experts say with 200 million people in Asia and the Pacific affected each year by a broad range of natural disasters between 2003 and 2013, and with the cost of those disasters averaging $34 billion each year between 2001 and 2010, a change in approach is essential.
There is a dire need to continue to invest in preparedness and early warning systems. After all, prevention is anytime better than cure.

Journalists deserve

better protection

It is highly disturbing to note that over 60 journalists around the world were killed in 2014 while on the job or because of their work.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that the past three years have proved the deadliest for journalists since it began keeping track more than two decades ago.

What is even more disgusting is the fact that attacks on professional journalists have grown more barbaric and kidnappings have soared.

Shockingly, almost half of the journalists killed this year died in the Middle East. Syria was the deadliest country for journalists for the third year in a row, with at least 17 killed there amid a civil war. Seventy-nine journalists have been killed in Syria since fighting started in 2011.

Syria was connected to two of the more horrifying killings of journalists this year, the beheadings by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group of American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

While the CPJ’s count of journalists killed in Syria this year is down from 29 last year, the increasing threats faced are causing local journalists to flee and international journalists to stay away, while the country itself has become “an information black hole.”

United Nations reports say that in the past 10 years, more than 600 journalists and media workers have been killed. The majority of them are not war correspondents.

Attacks on media professionals are often also perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organised crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police, making local journalists among the most vulnerable.

These attacks include murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation and the illegal arrest and detention.

What adds to the anguish is that abuses against media professionals remain uninvestigated and unpunished. This impunity, as UN officials point out, perpetuates the cycle of violence against journalists, media workers and citizen journalists. The resulting self-censorship deprives society of information and further impacts press freedom.

Professional journalists literally play with lives while on duty to share news and information that so many rely on. Journalists have the right to work free from any threat of violence. It is the duty of various governments to ensure the right to freedom of opinion and expression for all.

The killing of journalists directly impacts international efforts to promote peace, security, and sustainable development. Every single journalist should be protected while on duty, as they are involved in a noble task of disseminating information, which is crucial to any rational society.

Devastating year for

millions of children

There can be little doubt that 2014 has been a devastating year for millions of children caught up in violent conflicts around the world.

As the United Nations Children’s Fund declared recently, never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.

Human cruelty against our own children revealed its ugly face this week in Pakistan and Yemen. The cold-blooded gunning down of several children at a school in Peshawar by Taliban terrorists and the merciless killing of at least 15 school girls in a car bombing in Yemen added to the grim toll of child victims of violence in the closing weeks of the year.

UN statistics reveal a dismal scenario. As many as 15 million children are caught up in violent conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and in the Occupied Palestinian territories – including those displaced in their own countries or living as refugees outside their homeland. And an estimated 230 million children live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts.

In the Central African Republic, 2.3 million children are affected by the conflict, up to 10,000 children are believed to have been recruited by armed groups, and more than 430 children have been killed and maimed – three times as many as in 2013.

In Gaza, 54,000 children were left homeless as a result of the 50-day conflict during the summer that also saw 538 children killed, and more than 3,370 injured.

In Syria, with more than 7.3 million children affected by the conflict including 1.7 million child refugees, the United Nations verified at least 35 attacks on schools in the first nine months of the year, which killed 105 children and injured nearly 300 others.

In Iraq, where an estimated 2.7 million children are affected by conflict, at least 700 children are believed to have been maimed, killed or even executed this year.

There is no justification for such unspeakable savagery against children. Each life plucked away young is a future lost forever. Children have been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds; they have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves.
If at all there can be a plea that emerges from the hearts of all good human beings, it would be: “For God’s sake, please spare innocent children from bloodshed. They are like flowers, completely innocent, utterly lovable and absolutely precious.”

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas bond breaks all barriers

(My article in The Gulf Today)
SHARJAH: Enthusiastic expatriates in the UAE on Thursday joined the rest of the world in ushering in jubilant Christmas festivities with prayers, presents and joyful exchange of greetings.
Thousands thronged churches across the Emirates on Wednesday night to attend midnight masses.
Colourful decorations and shopping frenzy at malls had already set the mood ecstatic across the country during the past few days.
What added more glitter to the celebrations is the bond and spirit of camaraderie that transcended all divisions among various communities – a trait unique to the vibrant nation called the UAE, which hosts nationals from over 200 countries.
An Irish national in Dubai choked with emotion. “The excitement and build up to the big day has a magical feeling. I am happy to be celebrating here.”
Another solid example of the country’s spirit of unity was underscored by a perfumer from Europe, who informed this newspaper that more locals and Muslim expatriates wished him “Merry Christmas” than any others.
That’s not all. He was celebrating the festival with a Christmas lunch with his closest friend in the UAE, a Hindu.
“Where else in the world would one get it?” His question answers it all about the country’s strength of solidarity.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

UAE, UK relationship on the upswing

(My article in The Gulf Today)
ABU DHABI: Increased co-operation in various fields and Expo 2020 are likely to push the already vibrant UAE-UK ties to a much higher level, according to British Ambassador to the UAE, Philip Parham. 
Addressing a select group of journalists at the British embassy in Abu Dhabi on Monday as part of a “press huddle,” the envoy touched on different subjects ranging from bilateral relations, trade, Palestinian issue and terrorism, among others. 
He noted that the bilateral trade between the UAE and UK had crossed Dhs72 billion in 2013 itself, surpassing the set target of Dhs70 billion for 2015. 
“This means that we have to set a new target and we are in the process of analysing that,” he told The Gulf Today in reply to a specific question.
The ambassador also expressed optimism that the two countries will reach a deal on elimination of double taxation soon. 
With over 100,000 British citizens resident in the UAE and around 50,000 Emiratis visiting the UK each year, the two countries are known to share cordial relationship. 
There are approximately 170 flights each week between the UAE and the UK, operated by British Airways, Etihad Airways, and Emirates. Also, over one million British visitors travel to the UAE annually.
Philip Pharam said that a super priority fast-track visa service for Emiratis visiting the UK will also help boost investment and tourism between the two countries. “We are continuously also looking for ways to improve such services and value feedback.”
On the issue of Palestine, the ambassador said that his country favoured a sustainable peace process. “We are for a negotiated two-state solution.”
Asked about stand on terrorism, the envoy stated that Britain had initiated tough new measures and would never ever go soft on such a serious issue. 
“Tough new anti-terrorism legislation is being put in place. Among the steps will be counter-radicalisation measures and greater powers to stop people heading abroad to fight — including cancelling their passports.”
He indicated that the UAE and Britain were closely involved in helping displaced Syrians. 
To a specific question, the ambassador replied that the United Kingdom supports a peaceful settlement of the dispute between the United Arab Emirates and the Islamic Republic of Iran over the Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb islands, “by any means which are acceptable to both parties.”
Asked about cultural exchange activities between the UAE and UK, he said through the British Council, the UK supports many of the major UAE Arts festivals including Abu Dhabi Art, Art Dubai, the Sharjah March meeting and the Sharjah Biennial. “This enables the UK to showcase its Art and Creativity to UAE-based audiences.”
In 2015, as part of the “Gulf in the UK” programme, the British Council will be enabling UAE Artists to showcase their work at the Shubbak festival in London as well as the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
In addition, in partnership with ADMAF (Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation), the British Council has launched the Cultural Excellence Fellowships, a programme aimed at developing the next generation of UAE cultural leaders and creative entrepreneurs, through mentorship from leading UAE and UK Artists.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Recent Editorials

(Some of my recent editorials for The Gulf Today-posted for my records)

Ballot bruise for
Barack Obama

On November 6, 2012, Barack Obama won 332 electoral votes, exceeding the 270 required for him to be re-elected as president. Obama became the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to twice win the majority of the popular vote.
Two years down the line, the voters’ mood has changed dramatically. Republicans rode a wave of discontent to sweeping midterm election wins on Tuesday, seizing control of the US Senate and gaining new muscle to check Obama. The implicit indications are that America is turning right and Obama magic is on the wane.
The Republicans have also strengthened their grip on the US House of Representatives. When the new Congress takes power in January, they will be in charge of both chambers for the first time since elections in 2006.
The Republican victory had been widely predicted ahead of voting to elect 36 senators, 36 state governors and all 435 members of the House of Representatives.
According to a Reuters-Ipsos poll in late October, just 38 per cent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of his job as president, compared to 56 per cent who disapprove. Meanwhile, just 24 per cent think the country is headed in the right direction, and 61 per cent believe it is on the wrong track.
The Republican takeover in the Senate will force Obama to scale back his ambitions to either executive actions that do not require legislative approval, or items that might gain bipartisan support, such as trade agreements and tax reform.
It also will test his ability to compromise with newly empowered political opponents who have been resisting his legislative agenda since he was first elected in 2008.
Interestingly, in Tuesday's comprehensive rout, Republicans won in places where Democrats were favoured, taking a Senate race in North Carolina, pulled out victories where the going was tough, like a Senate battle in Kansas, and swept a number of governors' races in states where Democrats were favoured, including Obama's home state of Illinois.
Obama’s low job approval rating reflects a lack of confidence in his leadership. The ballot punch will automatically limit his political influence and curb his legislative agenda in his last two years in office.
The election results also alter the political dynamic on immigration reform, budget matters, presidential nominations and much more. Obama has now been left with no choice but to recalibrate his approach.

World of words to
sparkle in Sharjah

If there is one clear indication that technology cannot easily wipe away the power of the print, it is the growing popularity of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).
To cultivate the love for literature among people by enriching their experience of the written word is the mission of the event. And, it is leaving a deep imprint year after year in the hearts of visitors.
Interestingly, the 33rd edition of the 11-day fair, which takes off on Wednesday, will be the largest to date, with 1,256 publishers from 59 countries, presenting over 1.4 million titles in 210 languages.
The parallel programme will include 780 cultural activities, which will see participation from tens of internationally renowned figures in the worlds of culture, art, and media.
This year's edition will celebrate the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) as a guest of honor, and will also witness the first American Library Association conference in the Arab World and the Middle East.
What makes the fair rewarding for the visitors is the participation by a number of renowned authors, poets, intellectuals, artists, and journalists from worldwide, beside the Arab World.
The presence of Dan Brown, the leading thriller writer in the world today, as a guest of honour will surely add vibrancy to the event. Dan Brown’s books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide and translated into 55 languages.
There are other big names too like former Pakistan ambassador at the US Husain Haqqani, former Indian minister of state for foreign affairs Shashi Tharoor, award winning American author G. Willow Wilson, American author and journalist Douglas Briston.
From Arab countries, renowned actor Adil Imam, novelist and poet Ahlam Mustaghanmi, former president of Azhar University Dr. Ahmed Omar Hashim, Dr Ahmed Amara, Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, Princess Amira  Al Taweel are all slated to grace the occasion, reinforcing the fact that the region will never ever give up its love of the written word.
What can sum up the goal of the SIBF better than the very own words of Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi: “We are very keen to create a reading community and promote the benefits of reading among our children in addition to the provision of the best suitable books for all the family. Books must be available for all to benefit from and through this conception we could turn book fairs into an oasis of knowledge and light.”

A breath of
fresh air

Just last week, UN secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned that if the world maintained its “business as usual” attitude about climate change, the opportunity to keep temperature rise below the internationally target of 2 degrees Celsius would slip away within the next decade.
There is now a pleasant coincidental surprise for environmentalists. A groundbreaking agreement struck by the United States and China has put the world's two worst polluters on a faster track to curbing the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming.
With the clock ticking on a worldwide climate treaty, the two countries have sought to move beyond their troubled history as environmental adversaries and spur other nations.
Under the agreement, Obama set a goal to cut US emissions between 26 and 28 per cent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels.
It is said that the US is already on track to meet Obama's earlier goal to lower emissions 17 per cent by 2020, and that the revised goal meant the US would be cutting pollution roughly twice as fast during a five-year period starting in 2020.
China, whose emissions are growing as it builds new coal plants, set a target for its emissions to peak by about 2030 — earlier if possible — with the idea being that its emissions would then start falling.
Although that goal still allows China to keep pumping more carbon dioxide for the next 16 years, it marks an unprecedented step for Beijing, which has been reluctant to be boxed in on climate by the global community.
UN officials insist that climate change is being registered around the world and warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Since the 1950s many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.
A budding global climate treaty, intended to be finalised next year in Paris, is undoubtedly a final opportunity to get emissions in check before the worst effects of climate change become unavoidable.
Last month, the European Union said it would cut its emissions 40 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The US, China and the EU account for more than half of global emissions, and there are indications that the world's next-biggest emitter — India — might feel the pressure.
As Ban Ki-Moon puts it, climate change is not just a matter for environmentalists and scientists. It is a major development challenge that can also lead to serious security threats. Mobilising for climate change is also mobilising for sustainable development.
All said and done, the Beijing treaty does offer a breath of fresh air.

Palestinian state is
the ultimate goal

What Israel repeatedly forgets is the fact that the world has been watching its misdeeds for years. Its repeated attempts to place barriers in the peace process are simply not acceptable. Palestinian refugees have been waiting for 65 years for a just and lasting solution to their plight.
It is in this context that a fervent call by Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s new foreign affairs chief, for the establishment of a Palestinian state comes as a welcome signal for the world peace-loving community.
The recent 51-day conflict between Gaza and Israel saw entire neighbourhoods in the Strip flattened, and almost one-third of its population uprooted.
According to a recent UN assessment, as it stands now, over 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, affecting more than 600,000 people. Many people still lack access to the municipal water network. Blackouts of up to 18 hours per day are common.
In addition, the violence killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, and more than 70 Israelis.
The volatile situation has pushed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to such a situation where a draft resolution is being prepared to be submitted to the UN Security Council this month calling for an end date for Israeli occupation.
According to UN officials, an estimated 120,000 Palestinians whose homes were entirely destroyed in the conflict were now waiting for funds promised at the recent Cairo conference to trickle in so that they could finally return home.
Palestinian estimates say that as much as $6 billion is needed to repair the damage. The international community needs to urgently translate its pledges into actual cash.
Nevertheless, it is comforting to note that the world is waking up to the fact that Israeli aggression should come to an end.
Sweden last month became the first EU member in Western Europe to officially recognise the state of Palestine. It would be better for other EU states to follow suit. That would send a stern message to occupation forces.
Palestinians are victims of routine discrimination, particularly in housing, land access and employment, and anger has risen in recent months over Israel’s senseless assault on Gaza.
Mogherini’s statement is categorical and one hopes that the same sentiment echoes in Washington. As she put it, “We need a Palestinian state — that is the ultimate goal and this is the position of all the European Union.” In fact, that is the position of the international community.

Bitter truth about
sweet killer

It is not a sweet issue to write about, but the bitter fact is that approximately 350 million people are currently living with diabetes, and the number is expected to double between 2005 and 2030, according to projections by the UN World Health Organisation (WHO).
What is shocking is that in 2012, diabetes was the direct cause of 1.5 million deaths. More than 80 per cent of diabetes deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon points out, while the world copes with infectious diseases such as influenza, malaria and the Ebola virus, World Diabetes Day, which is observed annually on Nov.14, is a reminder that non-communicable diseases pose an even greater threat to human health.
Started by WHO and the International Diabetes Federation, the Day is celebrated on Nov.14 to mark the birthday of Frederick Banting who, along with Charles Best, was instrumental in the discovery of insulin in 1922, a life-saving treatment for diabetes patients.
Diabetes is a chronic disease, which occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. This leads to an increased concentration of glucose in the blood (hyperglycaemia).
Type 1 diabetes (previously known as insulin-dependent or childhood-onset diabetes) is characterised by a lack of insulin production.
Type 2 diabetes (formerly called non-insulin-dependent or adult-onset diabetes) is caused by the body’s ineffective use of insulin.
A recent report compiled by the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease and the World Diabetes Foundation has also cautioned that having diabetes triples a person’s risk of contracting TB, which killed about 1.5 million people last year.
By 2030, India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Brazil together are projected to have half of the world’s people living with diabetes, and are also high-TB burden countries.
The issue is too serious to be ignored. WHO has projected that diabetes will be the 7th leading cause of death in 2030.
The message is loud and clear: Governments must step up their response against diabetes, including by protecting people against risk factors such as unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.
One must not forget that there are many cost-effective ways to address diabetes. By monitoring blood pressure, improving diet and engaging in exercise, people can significantly cut their risk.
Governments as well as the private sector and civil society should also unite in producing and promoting more food products consistent with a healthy diet that are affordable, accessible and available to all.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

It’s back to books for young minds

Sharjah: The unprecedented participation by students and youngsters at the 33rd Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) sends an unambiguous message: the GenNext is hanging on to the book-reading habit, and in fact, even more enthusiastically.
A talk with a cross-section of participants at the fair more than reinforced this viewpoint.
Ahmad Bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Director of SIBF, has revealed that the number of visitors during the first three days of the fair itself exceeded 465,000, a number that is exceptional in the history of the event. According to indications, youngsters formed a major portion of the crowd. 
The number of participating publishing houses has reached 1,256 and cuts across 59 countries.
The enthusiasm at the venue looks overwhelming. 
Jason Mathew of DC Books said he was happy with the extremely good response, especially from children. “Among those in much demand were children’s books, cookery, fiction, non-fiction and motivation. There is also a good demand for Malayalam books,” he noted.
Asked whether his stall had enough stock of books, he replied, “We have brought enough to cater during the entire event period. Wherever books are already sold out, we are airlifting from India.”
The most interesting observation, according to him, is the response of the young readers. “In spite of talks that the reading habits have been declining worldwide, we found that young readers are turning out in huge numbers and showing great interest.”
A group of teachers of Al Amal English High School, Sharjah, told this reporter that they had brought along 174 students with them. “The children are mostly looking for story books, with some searching for the English translation of the Holy Quran. Overall, the prices are reasonable. If there is one request from us, it is that the visit timings from schools should be scattered as crowds become unwieldy.”
Teacher Asma Siddique suggested that prices should be a little more affordable as children buy mostly from their pocket money. 
Akhil Ibrahim, a Sharjah Indian School student, said he was thrilled to be at the venue. He noted he was looking for encyclopaedias and books on space. 
Another stall that attracted a large number of kids had a special book on “Greatest” boxer Muhammad Ali. 
“It is a heavy volume limited edition, signed by the great boxer himself. It is an amazing book which is so heavy that children may not be even able to lift,” joked a volunteer at the stall, who did not want to reveal his name. The book is being sold at Dhs28,700. Children could be seen perusing photos at a stall displaying Russian books. 
“We have books about the UAE and Middle East in the Russian language. Lots of people say they like the books. Even if they do not understand the language, they want to see pictures. Kids especially are happy to see the pictures in the books,” said Vierra Barnett, who was at the stall. 
She added, “Many Russians who visited our stall wanted to buy some books, but unfortunately, we only display here, not sell.”
There is the British connection too. A volunteer who referred her name only as Kathy, explained: “We are a Britain-based publication group focusing on English language teaching books. We have a variety of novels for kids from 3 years to teens. We also have a new series focused on adults, combining language and career.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

SIBF stall tags antique for Euro 2.5 million

(My article in The Gulf Today)
SHARJAH: Tucked among the crowds of thousands of people that throng the 33rd Sharjah International Book Fair is a “world of treasure” that many people fail to take notice of.
A most attractive pair of library globes, Terrestrial and Celestial, which are the largest ever made in the 17th century by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, is up for grabs for, hold your breath — 2.5 million euros.
This is just one among the several precious Islamic-based manuscripts, rare books from 15 to 19th century, and other antiques, including old knives, that have been displayed and put on sale jointly by two Europe-based companies, Inlibris and Forum.
“Some of our collections go back all the way to 1500s. We are looking at private collectors, universities and libraries and others who are interested in purchasing these extraordinary collections,” say Laurens R. Hesselink of Forum and Hugo Wetscherek of Inlibris, who are based in the Netherlands and Vienna.
Interestingly, among the collections is also a book that gives a rare glimpse about the United Arab Emirates.
“Pliny’s celebrated Natural History gives us by far the most detailed account of the coast of the UAE,” says Laurens.
Chapter 32 of Book 6 vividly describes the Emirates islands, tribes and coast, right up the Musandam peninsula, before continuing on south along the coast of Oman.
Pliny is reported to have completed his Natural History in 77 AD and to judge from his account of the people and places of south-eastern Arabia, the area of the UAE was full of settlements, tribes and physical features, the names of which he recorded for posterity.
That’s not all. The exhibitors have also displayed  Alphabet, the first book ever printed in Egypt, said to be the rarest and most important of the early books printed in the Middle East, published in the very year when modern printing was introduced to the Arab World.
According to the promoters, the unique pair of globes has been well preserved over time and still show the original patina and have been handled with great care.
The Terrestrial globe is made up of 36 hand-coloured engraved half gores and two polar calottes. The prime meridian of Tenerife is used, with California shown as an island and the Great Wall of China represented pictorially.
On the other hand, the Celestrial globe is made up of 24 hand-coloured engraved half gores and two polar calottes. The constellations are in three languages, Latin, Greek and Arabic.
Asked about the response from visitors, Laurens replied, “There are a lot of enquiries and we know that not everyone can afford such expensive pieces that are meant for specific audience. We are happy we have sold a few books already.”glimpse of the other collections leaves one amazed. The list includes one of the earliest descriptions of Arabia, the first printed travel report of the Middle East, 10 watercolours of falcons and the opening of the Suez Canal with 37 large lithographs.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014

Newsman’s nightmare

I have a long way to go when it comes to use of even basic technology.
I was recently attending a press conference in Dubai and wanted to record the speech of a chief executive officer (CEO).
When the meeting started, I pressed the recorder key on my mobile phone, only to hear the blaring sound of my previously-recorded interview.
As the CEO stopped his speech and looked at me like an eagle ready to pounce on a frog, I struggled to shut my phone down and ended up pressing the wrong keys.
After the apologies, the meeting continued, but I was restless.
I quietly hid the phone under the table and tried again.
“La, la, la…” went another song that I had recorded.
As the annoyed CEO looked at me, I shut the phone and acted innocent.
The CEO saved the situation remarking, “But that’s a good song.”
This is not the first time that technology ditched me.
Once I was interviewing a Bollywood actor.
I tried to click his photograph with my outdated camera of those days.
When I reached home, I realised the camera had just flashed and there was no print.
Fortunately, a journalist colleague who had accompanied me had also clicked photos.
That saved the situation.
Funnily, the celebrity was praising my camera saying it was a good model.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fun, feast and films

(My coverage of Diwali in The Gulf Today. Posted for my records)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Recent Editorials

(Some recent editorials I wrote for The Gulf Today- posted for my records)

Many Britons
feel the pinch
Affordability is not an issue confined to the underdeveloped world alone. More and more Britons are feeling the pinch.
For the first time since 1982, thousands of workers in England’s state-run National Health Service went on strike on Monday following the government’s rejection of an across-the-board pay rise.
The action is intended to put pressure on Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who rejected the recommendations of an independent pay panel for a below-inflation, one-per cent wage increase for all health service staff.
Hunt has only agreed to implement the one-per cent rise for the four in 10 workers who do not already receive an incremental salary increase linked to their professional development.
They say health is wealth, but many Britons find they do not have the wealth to fix their health. A cursory glance at a household fridge would reveal the reality. If there are fresh fruit and vegetables in the salad drawer, then congratulations - you’re posh. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that healthy food now costs three times as much as junk food.
Cooking fresh meals was once a chore rich people delegated to servants, but it’s fast becoming a leisure pastime which only the rich can afford to indulge in.
A thousand calories’ worth of healthy foods such as tomatoes, broccoli and tuna increased in price from an average of £5.65 to £7.49 between 2002 and 2012, whereas unhealthy food with equivalent calories costs just £2.50.
The situation is indeed serious and a recent study by the StepChange Debt Charity should serve as a wake-up call for leaders to initiate corrective measures. According to the study, nearly one in seven Britons lies awake in bed at night worrying about money.
Those whose sleep patterns are being disrupted are typically losing 11 nights’ worth of sleep a year. Some 15% of more than 2,000 adults surveyed for StepChange said that being plagued by late-night thoughts of their financial difficulties is preventing them from sleeping properly. This equates to 7.4 million people across the country.
Money worries can have a serious impact on every aspect of a person’s life, from mental health problems, to relationship difficulties and to being able to do a good job at work. It is the duty of the government to see that a balance is maintained and that major economic policies have a positive impact on all sections of people.

A Nobel moment for
deprived children

The message from Oslo is both laudable and symbolic:  Child slavery is a crime against humanity. The conferring of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014 on Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay, an Indian and a Pakistani, is a vindication of the duo’s tireless struggle for education and against extremism.
As nuclear powers India and Pakistan engage in heavy shelling across the border, the peace prize for their national should be an eye-opener for both the countries to shun the gun and embrace peace.
Seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai is the youngest Nobel Laureate ever. She is also the third Laureate born in Pakistan. Kailash Satyarthi, 60, is the eighth Laureate born in India.
Showing great personal courage, Kailash Satyarthi, maintaining Gandhi’s tradition, has headed various forms of protests and demonstrations, all peaceful, focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain.
The 60-year-old founded Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or the Save the Childhood Movement, which campaigns for child rights and an end to human trafficking.
Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman two years ago for insisting that girls as well as boys have the right to an education. Surviving several operations with the help of British medical care, she continued both her activism and her studies.
Appropriately, Malala was at school in the central English city of Birmingham when the Nobel was announced and remained with her classmates at the Edgbaston High School for girls.
The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism. It has been calculated that there are 168 million child labourers around the world today. In 2000 the figure was 78 million higher. The world has come closer to the goal of eliminating child labour.
Satyarthi estimates that 60 million children in India, or 6 per cent of the population, are forced into work. This, he believes, has nothing to do with parental poverty, illiteracy or ignorance.
The struggle against suppression and for the rights of children and adolescents contributes to the realisation of the “fraternity between nations” that Alfred Nobel mentions in his will as one of the criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Going by that norm, both Kailash and Malala are personalities who very well deserve the award. Indeed, it is a great moment for millions of children across the world who are deprived of their childhood, health, education and fundamental right to freedom.

Refugee children
deserve basic rights
Available figures present a grim scenario: In the Arab world, every single minute, another child is forced to flee his or her country. In fact, every second refugee in the Middle East is a child.
Based on this background, the organising of the first regional conference dedicated to the protection of refugee children and adolescents in Sharjah, inaugurated on Wednesday by His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, could not have come at a better time.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in partnership with The Big Heart at the invitation of Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the Ruler of Sharjah and UNHCR Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children, hosted the two-day conference, “Investing in the Future: Protecting Refugee Children in the Middle East and North Africa,” in recognition of the increasing number of refugee children in the region.
As indicated by Sheikh Sultan, the primary focus of the conference is to protect and offer all kinds of support to refugee children and women.
Children are often the most neglected refugees. The United Nations has indicated five major issues of importance concerning refugee children: Separation, exploitation and abuse, military recruitment, education, and adolescent-specific concerns.
Separation of children from their families is a common issue that has very serious negative consequences for the children.
Experts on child protection have stressed the need to revise the legal framework for refugee children to ensure proper protection and fruitful funding as a significantly major part of the world is suffering from refugee problems.
There is indeed a dire need for the setting up an Arab strategy to protect refugee children and enhancing efficiency of national organisations to deal with emergencies as suggested by Dr Nabil Elaraby, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States.
Sheikha Jawaher Bint Sultan Al Qasimi deserves praise for her commendable efforts through the Big Heart Campaign to protect Syrian refugee children and youth, and the provision of healthcare, basic relief materials, shelter and food.
Nothing can highlight the issue better than Sheikh Sultan’s own words: “We have to find means to protect and empower children and I believe that partnerships on a local and global scale can assist in this issue. Refugee children must be provided with basic rights such as food, shelter, and education and are facing serious challenges that can be tackled through the cooperation of various countries to encourage initiatives supporting refugees.”
Protect children
from violence
A report released by the UN children’s agency, Unicef, makes grim reading: One child dies every five minutes as a result of violence. No, not a majority, but only a minority die in war zones.
Add to this the shocking news that about 75 per cent of the estimated 345 violent deaths that occur daily happen in countries at peace.
According to Unicef, 6 out of 10 children globally are subjected to physical punishment. Almost ¼ of 15 to 19 year old girls have been victims of physical violence. It is said that 4 out of 5 children aged 2 to 14 are subjected to some kind of violent discipline in their homes.
Millions of children are vulnerable to physical, sexual and emotional abuse in their homes, schools and communities.
Children who witness domestic violence in the home often believe that they are to blame, live in a constant state of fear and are 15 times more likely to be victims of child abuse.
Depression is a common problem for children who experience domestic violence. The child often feels helpless and powerless. More girls internalise their emotions and show signs of depression than boys. Boys act out with aggression and hostility.
One should not forget the fact that witnessing violence in the home can give the child the idea that nothing is safe in the world which adds to their feelings of low self-worth and depression.
Susan Bissell, global head of child protection for Unicef informed Thomson Reuters Foundation, “We are uncovering the fact that children experience extreme violence in everyday life, everywhere."
There are ways to handle the problem. Education can help protect children in many conflicts. It gives children a sense of normality, but also can protect them from being recruited by armed groups.
Other ways suggested by experts to help children who have witnessed domestic abuse include: Counseling from professionals at school, providing a safe environment that does not include violence in any form, finding ways to discipline that do not involve hitting, yelling or any form of verbal abuse.
It is unfortunate that people and leaders turn a blind eye to such a serious problem. It should be noted that all children have the right to live free from violence, which harms their physical and mental growth.
What one should also not forget is that violence against children is entirely preventable. People need to say it is just not acceptable and act accordingly.
Dengue: Small bite,
big challenge
With the world attention focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has spread to Spain and the United States, another deadly disease that is posing a greater challenge and puts at risk 40 per cent of the world's population has been largely ignored.
It is true that more than 3,400 people have been killed by the outbreak in West Africa, which has hit Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia hardest.
However, a study published online in the                     American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene has highlighted that India alone has nearly six million more dengue cases than the official annual tally and costs the nation $1.11 billion, roughly the same India spends on its national space programme.
What is petrifying is that the American and Indian researchers have calculated that the number of those suffering from the mosquito-borne disease is about 282 times higher than officially reported.
According to WHO, dengue is a mosquito-borne infection found in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. In recent years, transmission has increased predominantly in urban and semi-urban areas and has become a major international public health concern.
Severe dengue (also known as Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever) was first recognised in the 1950s during dengue epidemics in the Philippines and Thailand.
It is not just India alone. China too is facing its worst outbreak of dengue fever in two decades. A total of 27,219 dengue fever cases have been reported in China with six people dead. This year witnessed an apparent increase of dengue cases with 99 per cent found in south China regions, such as Guangdong, Fujian, Yunnan and Guangxi.
Over 2.5 billion people – over 40% of the world's population – are now at risk from dengue. WHO currently estimates there may be 50–100 million dengue infections worldwide every year.
The disease is now endemic in more than 100 countries in Africa, the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean, South-east Asia and the Western Pacific.
Among the suggestions by experts for prevention are: Preventing mosquitoes from accessing egg-laying habitats by environmental management and modification; disposing of solid waste properly and removing artificial man-made habitats; covering, emptying and cleaning of domestic water storage containers on a weekly basis and applying appropriate insecticides to water storage outdoor containers.
Dengue also extracts a significant social and economic toll on affected countries. Failure to act now will prove expensive for the world.

Power of hope stronger
than destructive ideas
There is no place for hatred and cruelty in a sane society. Allowing a barbaric organisation to spread an atmosphere of fear and terror will tantamount to sloppily letting ideological cancer take a toll on human sanity.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is one such oraganisation that thrives on violence and brutality. It represents neither Islam nor humanity’s most basic values.
UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has hit the nail right on the head when he says ISIS certainly can - and will - be defeated militarily by the international coalition that is now assembling and which the UAE is actively supporting.
Being a statesman with adorable wisdom, Sheikh Mohammed has rightly stated that military containment is only a partial solution. Lasting peace requires three bigger ingredients: winning the intellectual battle; upgrading weak governance; and grassroots human development.
As he points out, what is most worrying is that a decade ago, such an ideology was all that Al Qaeda needed to destabilise the world, even from a primitive base in the caves of Afghanistan. Today, under ISIS, adherents have access to technology, finance, a huge land base, and an international jihadist network. Far from being defeated, their ideology of rage and hate has become stricter, more pernicious, and more widespread.
It is also tragic that ISIS has been able to spread and resist those who oppose it. The group has been described by the United Nations and the media as a terrorist group, and has been designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The United Nations and Amnesty International have accused the group of grave human rights abuses.
The danger posed by ISIS to humanity is too obvious to be ignored. Its seeds are growing in Europe, the United States, Asia, and elsewhere. With its twisted religious overtones, this pre-packaged franchise of hate is available for any terrorist group to adopt. It carries the power to mobilise thousands of desperate, vindictive, or angry young people and use them to strike at the foundations of civilisation.
Yes. As Sheikh Mohammed mentions, there is no power stronger than that of hope for a better life. The people of the Middle East possess a power of hope and a desire for stability and prosperity that are stronger and more enduring than opportunistic and destructive ideas.

the red tape
India has ushered in a breath of fresh air with Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing a series of labour reforms aimed at transforming Asia’s third-largest economy into an international manufacturing hub.
The idea is to end “Inspector Raj” with a system that is expected to sharply curb the element of discretion with labour inspectors and a single window compliance process for companies on labour-related issues.
Factory inspection reports will be loaded on a government website within 72 hours of the scrutiny and cannot be modified thereafter.
Interestingly, the number of forms that companies have to fill on labour-related issues has been reduced from as many as 16 to just one now.
In what comes as a big relief for the beneficiaries, the new rules also include changes that would make it easier for employees to link their Provident Fund savings — a payroll-funded government savings scheme — to their bank accounts and allow them to transfer the funds as they move jobs.
The payroll-funded programme has 80 million members. So far, as the transfers are difficult, more than Rs270 billion ($4.4 billion) lie idle in such accounts.
It is stated that just eight per cent of Indian workers have formal jobs with any security and benefits, such as the Provident Fund, while the vast majority work in the informal sector.
Experts have long cautioned that the laws have constrained the growth of the formal manufacturing sector. A World Bank report in 2008 indicated that heavy reform would be desirable.
Its executive summary stated, “India's labour regulations - among the most restrictive in the world - have constrained the growth of the formal manufacturing sector where these laws have their widest application. Better designed labour regulations can attract more labour- intensive investment and create jobs for India's unemployed millions and those trapped in poor quality jobs.”
Another World Bank report specified this year that India has one of the most rigid labor markets in the world and "although the regulations are meant to enhance the welfare of workers, they often have the opposite effect by encouraging firms to stay small and thus circumvent labour laws."
Successive governments have agreed labour reform is critical to absorb 200 million Indians reaching working age over the next two decades.
Ease of business is the first and foremost requirement if India has to succeed as an economic power. The new steps are path breaking, considering that fears of union backlash and partisan politics prevented such changes earlier.