Sunday, May 31, 2015

Recent Editorials

Here are some editorials I wrote for The Gulf Today. (Posted for my records)

Cultural diversity

under attack

The breaching by Daesh militants of the perimetre of Palmyra in Syria, an ancient city termed by Unesco as the “birthplace of human civilisation,” puts at risk the local civilian population as well as one of the most significant sites in the Middle East.

Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi has rightly stated that Daesh's capture of this historic city is an eminent threat to one of the most important heritage sites in the world.

Top United Nations officials have also warned that continued attack from militant groups espousing virulent forms of intolerance puts global cultural diversity under attack. And, they are absolutely correct.

In fact, with the conflict engulfing both Syria and Iraq and Daesh extremists fanning across a region rich in archaeological and cultural legacy, there is increasing worry over the practice of cultural cleansing which risks destroying millennia of history.

In what should also come as a serious concern for the world community, Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museum Department in the Syrian capital Damascus, has been quoted as saying, “There are arrests and liquidations in Palmyra. Fighters are moving in residential areas, terrifying people and taking revenge.”

Known in Syria as "the pearl of the desert,” Palmyra is home to colonnaded alleys and elaborately decorated tombs. Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.

From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilisations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions.

Dating back to the Neolithic, the aesthetic city was first attested in the early second millennium as a caravan stop for travellers crossing the Syrian desert.

Any damage to such precious heritage sites would undoubtedly prove to be a colossal loss for entire humanity and the world community needs to act before it is too late.

Daesh had sparked international outrage this year when it blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed artefacts in the Mosul museum, both in Iraq.

The best way for the international community to fight back is by effectively espousing the need for openness and acceptance of the world’s diverse traditions.

Militants should not be allowed to get away with cultural cleansing. The international community should initiate rapid action to protect innocent civilians and the irreplaceable cultural heritage of Palmyra.
Job insecurity a

global concern

An observation by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that only a fourth of the global workforce have stable contracts, while 75 per cent are employed on temporary or short-term contracts in informal jobs indicates a growing job insecurity worldwide.

To add to the worry, the ILO flagship annual report, World Employment and Social Outlook 2015 representing 84 per cent of the global workforce, also notes that women are disproportionately represented among those in temporary and part-time forms of wage and salaried employment.

What is increasingly clear is that the global economy is not creating a sufficient number of jobs and the trend is indeed too scary.

ILO estimates that global unemployment figures reached 201 million in 2014, over 30 million higher than before the start of the global crisis in 2008.

The first edition of the new, annual flagship report, entitled The Changing Nature of Jobs, shows that while wage and salaried work is growing worldwide, it still accounts for only half of global employment, with wide variations across regions.

For example, in the developed economies and Central and South-Eastern Europe, around eight in ten workers are employees, where as in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa the figure is closer to two in ten.

Growing inequality is proving to be another bane. Income disparity is increasing or remains high in the majority of countries – a trend that is aggravated by the rising incidence of non-permanent forms of employment, growing unemployment and inactivity.

The income gap between permanent and non-permanent workers has increased over the past decade.

Interestingly, an estimate based on some 40 countries with available data finds that more than one in five jobs worldwide is linked to global supply chains.

This effectively highlights the increasing importance of global supply chains in shaping some of the employment and income patterns that are observed in labour markets today.

Also, despite the positive steps made towards improving pension coverage, social protection, such as unemployment benefits, is still mainly available only for regular employees.

Providing jobs to more than 40 million additional people who enter the global labour market every year will certainly prove to be a daunting challenge.

As top ILO officials point out, the only way forward is to find ways to stimulate investment opportunities and boost job creation and productivity, while ensuring adequate income security to all types of workers, not just those on stable contracts.

India feels the heat

of global warming

Meddling with nature can have a devastating effect on humanity and this has been proved several times. Scientists have vociferously stated that climate change is the reason behind various challenges like aggressive weather, prolonged droughts and intense flooding.
Now comes the news that around 800 people have died due to a major heat wave that has swept across India, melting roads in New Delhi even as temperatures neared 50 degrees Celsius.
Large parts of India have endured days of scorching heat, prompting fears of power cuts as energy-guzzling air conditioners work overtime.
It is the poorest sections of the society that pay a heavy price during such times.
Unable to stay indoors due to inevitable circumstances, several sections like labourers, farmers, slum-dwellers and the homeless are forced to endure the baking weather conditions.
Hundreds of such people die at the height of summer every year across the country, while thousands suffer power cuts from an overburdened electricity grid.
India's power industry is known to be struggling for long to meet rapidly-rising demand.
There is growing fear that the hot, dry conditions could plunge the worst-affected states into drought before monsoon rains arrive.
This climate phenomenon is not about India alone. It is a global challenge.
Last year was the warmest since records began in the 19th century and average world temperatures have already risen by about 0.85C, raising the risk of heat waves, floods and rising world sea levels as polar ice melts.
Scientists say much sharper emissions cuts are needed in coming decades to keep global warming within 2 degrees C of pre-industrial times.
This calls for a sustained, worldwide shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources to power homes, cars and industries.
UN officials had earlier expressed alarm about the high temperatures in vast areas of the ocean surface, including in the northern hemisphere.
The Indian authorities need to do more to protect lives. A massive health and safety awareness campaign should be launched targeting especially those working outdoors to help them identify the initial symptoms of heat-related illnesses.
People should also be educated on the importance of adequate hydration. Drinking water tanks should be provided at the worst-affected areas and medical facilities should be put in place.
People need to take their own precautions too. Even a simple act of wearing a cap while venturing out could go a long way in protecting one from the furnace-like conditions.
Nobel laureate’s

not-so-noble silence

The entire world knows about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The United Nations has called the Rohingya one of the most persecuted groups in the world. It is in this context that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s long silence on the subject is deafening.

It‘s not that no one is taking note of her stance.

An international gathering in Oslo to discuss the plight of Rohingya Muslims boasts a star-studded cast, with three Nobel Peace Prize laureates among those calling on the world to wake up to the unfolding tragedy. And Suu Kyi is not among them. She just is not even invited.

Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to South Africa's brutal apartheid regime, explained the situation very well when he stated, "If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

The Rohingya have faced decades of state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist. In the past three years, Rohingya were targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists, leaving hundreds dead and sparking an exodus of more than 120,000 people.

Over the past several weeks, the world has watched with horror news reports about hundreds of Rohingya drifting in over-crowded vessels in the Andaman Sea, half-starved, disease-stricken and dying.

More than seven boats carrying around 2,600 people are thought to be still at sea, according to data from UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.

The United States has cautioned that the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ends discrimination against the Rohingya, a mostly stateless minority of 1.1 million people who live in apartheid-like conditions, mostly in the western state of Rakhine.

The popular daughter of Myanmar's late independence hero, Aung San, seems to share the "anti-Rohingya" sentiment of much of the population, though she denies that.

The treatment of the Rohingya not only violates human rights norms, but complicates Myanmar’s relations with its neighbours. It is clear that the distinct ethnic group has been singled out for systematic and most severe forms of state-directed repression.

Suu Kyi’s failure so far to sternly denounce religious bigotry in Myanmar raises uneasy questions about her stature. After all, as Tutu powerfully put it, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Dawn of a new era

in UAE space quest

When it comes to goals and achievements, the UAE always sets its sights high. The launch of the Strategic Plan for the UAE Space Agency on Monday is aimed at establishing a new international standing for the nation in the space sector.

As the country’s space ambitions soar and highly-talented Emiratis are trained to become leaders in the space sector, a loud and clear message is being sent out to the world: Emiratis are willing and able to take on any challenge. The sky’s the limit, literally.

The launch and placing into orbit of Dubai Sat 1 and Dubai Sat 2 are already among the remarkable feats. The UAE then decided to enter the space race with a project to send an unmanned probe to Mars by 2021 in the Arab World’s first-ever mission to another planet.

It is not just that. The UAE Space Agency is also working on the establishment of the first Space Research Centre in the Middle East.

As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai noted, “The Hope Probe and the UAE Space Agency are milestones for the development of the UAE. Building a new space sector that is integrated and comprehensive is a value-added step for our national economy, technical knowledge, human capital, and international reputation.”

Interestingly, Chairman of the UAE Space Agency Dr Khalifa Mohammed Al Rumaithi has highlighted that the path to space dates back to 1976, when the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan met the NASA team responsible for the Apollo Moon programme.

That meeting inspired nearly three decades of efforts guiding the UAE towards space and will be realised with the arrival the Hope Probe at the red planet in the coming years.

Money spent on such projects is hugely worthwhile. As of 2012, space was a $304 billion global sector. These activities included commercial space products and services and direct-to-home television. Satellite radio and radio programming are also made available via space assets.

The UAE’s investments in space technologies already exceed Dhs20 billion. The major advancements made in the field in such a short span are indeed a great accomplishment.

The inspiration undoubtedly comes from the visionary leadership. It was Sheikh Mohammed who mentioned, “The moment we stop taking on such challenges is the moment we stop moving forward."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Expats celebrate Jayalalithaa’s acquittal

(My article in The Gulf Today)
SHARJAH: The acquittal of a powerful political leader in Tamil Nadu, south India, in a 19-year-old disproportionate assets case pushed several Tamil expatriates in the UAE into a celebratory mode on Monday.
However, there were also stray voices of disappointment over the verdict with regard to the former chief minister of the state, J. Jayalalithaa. 
“For me, it is a mixed feeling,” says P. Subramanian, an insurance professional. “Here is a popular leader who has done several good things for poor people. I am against corruption at all levels, but always felt that this case has no strong basis.” 

According to him, “Amma Vunavagam,” or popular eateries for the poor, is one great scheme that has gained the leader enormous goodwill from the people. “It is divine intervention that she has been freed as her followers have been praying for her acquittal,” he insists.
For S. Punyamurthy, advertising consultant, the news came as a huge pleasant surprise. “I have lots of friends back home who are her supporters. I have been on phone so long talking with them and celebrating this news that I forgot about an important business meeting,” he points out. 
Punyamurthy is happy that decks have now been cleared for the return of the AIADMK party supremo as Tamil Nadu chief minister. “The conditions in our state were improving when this case proved to be a distraction. Now I am sure there is good scope for development of Tamil Nadu as one of the best states in the country.”
A driver with a private construction company, Siddiq, says he became very happy when he heard the news. “My sympathies were always with Jayalalithaa as I noticed that she introduced some outstanding schemes to help the poor.”
Nevertheless, not all feel the same way. 
“The clean and clear verdict that Jayalalithaa has got from the Karnataka high court is only a reflection of the rot that has set in the judicial system of our country,” reacts Vijayalakshmi Nadar, a media professional. 
“She has only benefitted from an inefficient system wherein the high court itself finds no merit in the investigations and the trial by the lower courts that has spanned over almost two decades and summarily dismisses it off, leaving no room for even an appeal,” she points out. 
According to Vijayalakshmi, special courts to handle such high-profile cases with time-bound decisions are the need of the hour.
S. Natarajan, who works as a sales representative in foodstuff company, is also unhappy with the verdict. 
“Rules should not discriminate between rich and poor people. I am not sure whether justice has been done in this case. My only argument is that truth should prevail.” 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Recent Editorials

Here are some editorials I wrote for The Gulf Today. (Posted for my records)

When vision is clear,

‘Hope’ soars higher

A gargantuan mission calls for a superlative vision. The UAE is blessed with a leadership that believes the journey of development will always remain a race for excellence.

It is such recognition of the need to set high goals and earnest efforts to achieve results that has placed the UAE as a shining star in the eyes of the global community.

So it is that when the entire country erupts in a celebratory mode in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of its founding, the orbiter of the Emirates Mars Mission, planned and managed by a 100 per cent Emirati team, will simultaneously arrive in Mars.

The Arab mission to Mars probe has pertinently been named “Hope” and the reasons behind the name have been lucidly elucidated by none other than His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai himself.

As he puts it, “This probe represents hope for millions of young Arabs looking for a better future. There is no future, no achievement, no life without hope.”

The mission is just not about one country reaping benefits. The probe will create mankind’s first integrated model of the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The spacecraft will collect and send back to earth over 1,000 gigabytes of new Mars data. This information will be received in the Science Data Center in the UAE through different ground stations spread around the world.

These invaluable data will subsequently be catalogued and analysed in the UAE by the Emirates Mars Mission science team, and then shared freely with more than 200 institutions worldwide for the benefit of thousands of space specialists.

Also, at a time when the world is worried about climate change, the mission data will help climate scientists understand changes in earth’s atmosphere over millions of years.

One thing that is unmistakably evident in this great endeavour is the commitment of the leadership to promote scientific talent.

The support offered by the administrative machinery to projects like the mars mission reinforces the belief that the leaders leave no stone unturned when it comes to helping the scientific community pursue dreams and reach for the stars.

Future generations can reap the rewards of such investment in science and knowledge. As Sheikh Mohammed sums up perfectly, “The Emirates Mars Mission will be a great contribution to human knowledge, a milestone for Arab civilisation, and a real investment for future generations.”
Protecting planet
should be priority

While the world marked the Earth Day on Wednesday with increasing calls for global action to combat climate change, the words of UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, need to be taken very seriously: “There can be no Plan B because there is no Planet B."

The threat is real and indications are already out there. The idea is not to fear, but to take right remedial measures so as to leave the future generations in a safe and secure environment.

High sea temperatures, the UN says, have contributed to exceptionally heavy rainfall, floods in many countries and extreme drought in others. Twelve major Atlantic storms battered the United Kingdom in early months of 2014, while floods devastated much of the Balkans throughout May.

Global sea-surface temperatures reached record levels in 2014. Also, 14 of the 15 hottest years recorded have all been in the 21st century.

A group of international experts representing research institute The Earth League has stated that there is a one in 10 chance that temperatures could rise by six degrees by 2100 unless emissions are reduced.

This year will be critical for humanity ahead of a global warming summit in Paris in December. World leaders will also meet this year to discuss financing for developing countries and UN sustainable development goals are due to be adopted in September.

No country can claim to be free of climate change impact, not even the world’s superpower. Hence it is that President Barack Obama used a visit to Florida's Everglades on Wednesday to warn of the damage that climate change is already inflicting on America's environmental treasures.

In Florida, rising sea levels have allowed salt water to seep inland, threatening drinking water for Floridians and the extraordinary native species and plants that call the Everglades home.

Christy Goldfuss of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality said without stepped-up action, Joshua Tree National Park in California could soon be treeless and Glacier National Park in Montana devoid of glaciers.

According to NASA satellite calculations, water is eating away at the Antarctic ice, melting it where it hits the oceans.

As experts have pointed out, there is a need for complete phasing out of greenhouse gases by 2050 and measures to build up resilience and safeguarding of carbon absorbers, such as forests, should be initiated. Governments must stick to their promises to combat climate change and move fast towards a zero-carbon society.
The wonderful
world of words

Books shape an individual’s mind and wield tremendous power to transform lives for the better. It is the duty of every society to promote the book in order to fight illiteracy and build sustainable societies, which eventually help strengthen the foundations of peace.

While books have been targets for those who reject freedom and tolerance, it is heartening that a vast majority the world over still holds the printed word in great esteem.

This is clear from the enthusiasm with which the World Book and Copyright Day was marked around the globe on Thursday in over 100 countries by schools, public organisations and private businesses.

With 175 million adolescents in the world – mostly girls and young women – unable to read a single sentence, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation insists that it is committed to leading the fight against illiteracy.

Each year, Unesco and the international organisations representing the three major sectors of the book industry – publishers, booksellers and libraries – select the World Book Capital for a one-year period, effective April 23 each year.

This year the city of Incheon in Republic of Korea was chosen in recognition of its programme to promote reading among people and underprivileged sections.

Interestingly, no discussion on books is complete without a mention of Sharjah, where the annual international book fair welcomes everyone to a wonderful world of words.

Sharjah stands out as a perfect model for others to emulate. Just this week, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, witnessed the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) identity launch on the sidelines of the Children's Reading Festival.

What is amazing is that the authority's new identity involves the launch of Sharjah publishing city, which will be the first publishing free zone in the world that will offer professionals and stakeholders in the book and publishing industry the opportunity to benefit from package privileges to boost the publishing sector.

It is not just that. The SBA will also establish the first international distribution company in the Middle East offering services that cover both the Arab and African markets.

Sheikh Sultan’s own words on books reflect the vision: “We are 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.”
Endless anguish of
Aleppo civilians

Scenes of severely injured children and civilians are a stark reminder of the immense suffering of the Syrian people.

Rights group Amnesty International’s claim of barrel bomb attacks and other "horrendous war crimes” against civilians in Aleppo is a matter of serious concern for the international community.

Barrel bombs - containers packed with explosives and projectiles that are dropped from helicopters - killed some 3,000 civilians in the northern Aleppo governorate last year, and have killed more than 11,000 in Syria since 2012.

According to Amnesty, armed groups also used imprecise weapons such as mortars and improvised rockets fitted with gas canisters called "hell cannons" in attacks that killed at least 600 civilians in 2014.

Barrel bomb attacks can cause immeasurable pain and devastation among a helpless population. People in Aleppo have reported seeing body parts everywhere.

Last year, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the use of barrel bombs in populated areas, threatening further steps in the case of non-compliance.

It is disappointing that no major international action has been initiated to protect innocent civilians from such horrific crime.

According to UN officials, hospitals in Aleppo require generator power because the population could rely on electricity for only one to three hours each day. It is estimated that over 1.3 million people need health assistance in Aleppo alone. Owing to lack of facilities and deteriorating security situation, the health situation continues to get worse across the country.

UN officials also say that the healthcare is jeopardised by a 70 per cent d

rop-off in local production of medicines and lack of availability of many life-saving treatments, as well as by shortages of surgeons, anaesthesiologists, laboratory professionals, and female health professionals.

The total number of available healthcare workers stands at just 45 per cent of 2011 levels.

The conflict in Syria has claimed more than 220,000 people and uprooted some 7.6 million within the country. Nearly four million have fled to nearby countries.

Torture, arbitrary detention and abduction of civilians in Aleppo are said to be widespread. The endless attacks have left Aleppo civilians in dire conditions. They lack basic supplies including food, medicine, water and electricity.

Going by the current situation, Amnesty’s assertion that the international community has turned its back on Aleppo's civilians in a cold-hearted display of indifference to an escalating human tragedy sounds true.

What is needed is rapid global humanitarian action to help civilians in Aleppo.
Do not ignore plight
of displaced people

The figures are startling. By the end of 2014, a record-breaking 38 million people had been forced to flee their homes within their own country because of conflict or violence, according to a report released by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) along with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The huge numbers indicate the utter failure on the part of the international community to protect helpless civilians in troubled spots.

The figures, compiled by the NRC's the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre equal the total populations of New York, London and Beijing and represent a 4.7 million increase compared to 2013.

Internally displaced people (IDP) is a label given to those who remain in their homeland, as opposed to refugees, who flee across borders.

With internal displacement figures reaching a record high for the third year in a row, the report also shows that 11 million people were newly displaced by violent events throughout 2014, which amounts to 30,000 people forcibly displaced every day.

Surprisingly, 60 per cent of newly displaced people last year were in just five countries: Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

Syria has turned out to be the country with the largest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world with 7.6 million displaced people or at least 40 per cent of its population, and Iraq suffered the most new displacement, with at least 2.2 million people fleeing areas that fell under Daesh control.

For the first time in more than a decade, Europe had massive enforced displacement caused by the war in Ukraine, where 646,500 people fled their homes in 2014.

The 2015 Global Overview highlights how protracted displacement contributes to this alarmingly high global total. In 2014, there were people living in displacement for 10 years or more in nearly 90 per cent of the 60 countries and territories under review.

When insecurity and hopelessness set in the minds of displaced persons, it pricks the conscience of humanity.

The message is loud and clear. Peace and humanitarian efforts need to be intensified. As Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, points out, “This report should be a tremendous wake-up call."

The international community should act immediately to break the trend where millions of men, women and children are getting trapped in conflict zones around the world. Enough time has already been lost and the results are proving disastrous on the ground.