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.

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