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India’s ‘pencil village’ counts the cost of Covid school closures | Global development

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School closures in India during the pandemic have left their mark on more than the children who have seen delays to their learning. In one Kashmiri village the impact has been catastrophic on employment.

Pick up a pencil anywhere across India and it is likely to come from the poplar trees of Ukhoo.

This village, with an abundance of trees, about 10 miles south of Srinagar city in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, supplies more than 90% of the wood used by India’s pencil manufacturers, which export to more than 150 countries.

Before Covid, more than 2,500 people worked in the village’s 17 pencil factories and the industry supported about 250 families.

But, after nearly two years of school closures and a dramatic drop in demand for the village’s products, factory owners reduced their workforce by more than half.

Workers were dismissed without pay, while many of those who kept their jobs had migrated from other parts of India, and were cheaper to employ. Now the village and its workforce are waiting eagerly for the market to revive.

Rajesh Kumar, 26, from Bihar, has worked in Ukhoo for seven years. Like other migrant workers, he lives in a room on the factory premises and works 10- to 12-hour shifts. During lockdown last year, the factory owner provided food and accommodation when production shutdown for about three months. He is one of the luckier ones to be back working now.

“I hope the pencil demand increases and these factories are full of workers again, as many of our friends and people from our villages find work [here] and are able to make a living,” says Kumar.

Poplar logs outside a pencil slate factory, Ukhoo
Factory owners have had to lay off half of their workers during the pandemic. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Farooq Ahmed Wani, 27, from the city of Jammu, has worked as a machine operator in Ukhoo for the past five years.

“We are hoping that schools reopen throughout the country so that there is more demand for pencils in the market,” he says in an optimistic tone. “Then these factories can employ more young people and more migrants can also get some work here.”

Pencil wala Gaon, or “pencil village”, attracted the attention of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In his monthly radio programme, Mann Ki Baat, last year he said the district was an example of how to reduce the country’s dependency on imports. “Once upon a time we used to import wood for pencils from abroad but now our Pulwama is making the country self-sufficient in the field of pencil making,” Modi said.

90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India comes from Ukhoo.
Ukhoo supplies 90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India. Photograph: Vincent Lecomte/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

A recent ministry of home affairs report said that the village would be developed as a “special zone” for manufacturing. “Now the whole country would be supplied finished pencils, manufactured completely in Pulwama,” the report noted. But the pandemic has shown how overreliance on one product in a region brings its own problems.

A migrant worker trims a plank of poplar wood at a pencil slate factory
A migrant worker trims timber at a pencil factory. The factories attract workers from several states. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Abrar Ahmed, a unit supervisor at one of Ukhoo’s factories, says everyone has suffered. “Even the sawdust from woodcutting machines is usually taken by the local villagers who then sell it to poultry farms and for other purposes in the village.”

Manzoor Ahmad Allaie owns one of the biggest factories in Ukhoo.

“We are only doing about 30% to 40% [of normal levels of] business now because of the Covid lockdown impact from last year, which means we produce about only 80 bags of pencil slats a day,” says Allaie. “Earlier we could produce about 300 pencil slat bags [a day] in the factory, which were transported out of Kashmir.”

He is eagerly looking forward to India’s schools fully reopening. It has been a hard two years for the pencil villagers, he says.

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Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion

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Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.

Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.

On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.

A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.

The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.

After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.

Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.

Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.

Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.

While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.

“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.

The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.

According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.

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Italy welcoming back EU tourists from February

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Italy will remove all Covid-linked restrictions on international visitors from the EU from 1 February, except the requirement to carry a “Green Pass” – a certificate of vaccination, negative test result, or immunity through having had the virus. Roberto Speranza, the health minister, also gave Italians the go-ahead to travel once again to Cuba, Singapore, Turkey, Thailand (the island of Phuket), Oman, and French Polynesia, Reuters reports.

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Polish state has ‘blood on its hands’ after death of woman refused an abortion | Abortion

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The family of a Polish woman who died on Tuesday after doctors refused to perform an abortion when the foetus’s heart stopped beating have accused the government of having “blood on their hands”.

The woman, identified only as Agnieszka T, was said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she was admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa on 21 December. Her death comes a year after Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

According to a statement released by relatives, the 37-year-old was experiencing pain when she arrived at the hospital but was “fully conscious and in good physical shape”.

The first foetus died in the womb on 23 December, but doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation, and Agnieszka’s family claim “her state quickly deteriorated”. The hospital waited until the heartbeat of the second twin also stopped a week later, and then waited a further two days before terminating the pregnancy on 31 December.

Agnieszka died on 25 January after weeks of deteriorating health. Her family suspect that she died as a result of septic shock, but the hospital did not identify the cause of her death in statement issued on Wednesday.

“This is proof of the fact that the current government has blood on their hands,” the woman’s family said in a statement on Facebook. The family also uploaded distressing footage of Agnieszka in poor health shortly before she died.

After the termination of the pregnancy a priest was summoned by the hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, Agnieszka’s family said.

Her death follows that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was denied an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined.

Agnieszka’s family claim that contact with the hospital was very poor and that the hospital refused to share the results of Agnieszka’s medical tests citing confidentiality guidelines. They say the doctors “insinuated” that Agnieszka’s rapidly deteriorating state could be caused by BSE, commonly known as “mad cow disease”, or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) and suggested she ate raw meat. The hospital did not reference this claim in their statement.

According to the statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. It is not clear whether an autopsy has been ordered.

Agnieszka is survived by her husband and three children.

The Guardian has contacted the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital for comment.

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