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Trouble in paradise: Indian islands face ‘brazen’ new laws and Covid crisis | Global development

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According to local people, the problems for Lakshadweep, an archipelago of paradise islands in southern India, began the day the new government-appointed administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, landed on a charter flight.

The Lakshadweep islands, an Indian union territory off the coast of Kerala, have a population of just 64,000 and are renowned for their crystal-blue waters, white sands and relatively untouched way of life. They had, up to that point, also remained completely unaffected by the pandemic, due to strict controls on movement and enforced quarantine.

That day, 2 December 2020, India’s Covid-19 cases had passed 9.4 million but there was not a single incidence reported across Lakshadweep’s 36 islands.

Yet much to the anger of residents, Patel, a leader in the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) who had been appointed to run Lakshadweep by his long-term ally, prime minister Narendra Modi, decided to publicly ignore the quarantine rules imposed on everyone else.

Tensions rose further when, while on the way to his official residence, Patel saw a banner imprinted with a slogan against India’s controversial new citizenship law, which has been accused of discriminating against Muslims. He ordered it to be removed and three people on whose land the sign was placed were arrested and released on bail.

Then, without consultation and despite staunch opposition, he introduced a slew of new measures and draft laws that the people of Lakshadweep, 96% Muslim, saw as an attack on their identity, religion, culture and land, and a devastating threat to their way of life.

Shri Praful Patel, administrator of UT of Lakshadweep, India
Praful Khoda Patel, who has been administrator of Lakshadweep since December 2020. Photograph: Courtesy of Union Territory of Lakshadweep

Mandatory Covid quarantine for all arrivals to the islands was also scrapped. Lakshadweep has gone from zero coronavirus cases to being one of the worst affected areas of the country, with more than 10% of the population estimated to have been infected.

As the extent of Patel’s measures – described as “brazen”, “authoritarian” and an imposition of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda on one of India’s only majority-Muslim regions – has become widely known, some of India’s most prominent politicians have voiced robust opposition.

Dozens of MPs have written to the central government and a campaign to “Save Lakshadweep” has gained traction across India. On Monday, the state assembly of Kerala, where Patel’s measures have been met with outcry, passed a unanimous resolution for the administrator to be recalled from his post.

Priyanka Gandhi, a prominent figure in the opposition Congress party, has been a particularly vocal critic. “The people of Lakshadweep deeply understand and honour the rich natural and cultural heritage of the islands they inhabit,” she tweeted. “They have always protected and nurtured it. The BJP government and its administration have no business to destroy this heritage, to harass the people of Lakshadweep or to impose arbitrary restrictions and rules on them.”

Shashi Tharoor, a senior opposition politician, added: “One could be forgiven for reading these laws as legislation for a war-torn region facing significant civilian strife, rather than laws meant for an idyllic archipelago filled with abundant natural beauty and peace-loving fellow citizens of India.”

The most divisive laws proposed by Patel include a ban on eating beef, under the guise of animal conservation; removing a four-decade ban on the consumption of alcohol and allowing liquor stores to open; banning people from running in village elections if they have more than two children; and a proposed regulation which empowers the administration to acquire land on the islands, irrespective of its ownership, for “development” purposes.

In addition, all dairy farms were closed and a businessman from Patel’s home state of Gujarat was allowed to come in and franchise milk production and sales on the islands.

Most controversially, Patel has also proposed the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act, or “goonda act” as it is locally known, a new law that gives police powers to jail suspects without trial, and without full evidence, for up to a year.

“People are scared by these absurd laws,” says Hassan Bodumukka, chief councillor and panchayat president on the islands. “We are Muslims and have been eating beef traditionally. Banning it is an attack on our religious identity. More than that, policies are being made to dispossess us from our land and this is all happening in the guise of development.”

No one is against development, Bodumukka says, “but it cannot be done at the cost of the environment, people, their identity and faith”.

The islands have always strictly protected themselves from the often corrosive impacts of tourism and development. Though hotels exist, they are mostly small and government-run. Special permission is required for tourists to visit the islands. Fishing in the surrounding tuna-rich waters is the islanders’ main livelihood.

Lakshadweep has flourished under these protected conditions; per capita income is higher than the Indian average, the literacy rate is 92%, much higher than India’s average of 74%, and crime is negligible.

But Patel and the Modi government appear to have their sights set on developing Lakshadweep into a major tourist destination, including paving new roads and creating a designated “smart city” in the capital, Kavaratti. For islanders and former administrators, these plans signal the beginning of the end of Lakshadweep as they know it.

“Tourism development in Lakshadweep must be people-centric, not investor-centric,” says Wajahat Habibullah, former administrator of the region. “The idea is to preserve the ecology because these are very fragile ecological entities. The Maldives [which is adjacent] is already facing this problem of extinction because the reefs have been compromised, which, fortunately, has not happened in Lakshadweep to that extent. We need to preserve those reefs.”

Already, sheds along the seafront belonging to local fishers have been demolished and trees have been cut down to make way for new roads. Rumours are rife that the islands will be opened up for development by large hoteliers and corporations, leaving people fearful that their land will be grabbed from them.

“We fear losing our land,” says Mohammed Faizal, the islands’ only MP, who is from the Nationalist Congress party. “All the people living in Lakshadweep are scheduled tribes and their land is protected under the constitution. No one can come here and take our land.”

Faizal adds that the government is trying to make land grabs legal under the guise of development.

Patel served as home minister of Gujarat from 2010 until 2012. He was then appointed administrator of Daman and Diu followed by Dadra and Nagar Haveli, now merged into one union territory which includes Diu island off the coast of Gujarat. Patel was accused of imposing laws which infringed local customs by bringing major development and a tourism push to the island, which saw heritage buildings demolished to build roads.

Kavaratti, Lakshadweep, India
Kavaratti, the island capital of the union territory of Lakshadweep, India. Photograph: Bhaswaran Bhattacharya/Alamy

Many fear the same, or worse, for Lakshadweep. Abdul Salam, general secretary of the Congress party on the islands, says people “have been living here for generations and most of us are self-sufficient. We don’t want corporations to come here with the aim to dispossess us.”

Patel did not directly respond to requests for comment, but the BJP has denied all the allegations, saying Patel’s new measures were “aimed at the overall development of the island” and that his administration in Lakshadweep had fallen prey to a politically motivated “misinformation campaign”.

This week, Faizal said he had been given assurances by central government that nothing would be introduced without the consent of the islanders.

Most of the new laws are awaiting final approval from cabinet. But some decisions have already affected hundreds of people and elected bodies have been stripped of key powers.

While there have been protests on the island, Patel’s “goonda act” has left people scared to voice their opposition to the regime for fear they will be locked up without trial.

Twenty-one people, including elected representatives who resisted the change in quarantine policy, have had police cases filed against them and many others have been arrested.

“We have seen what is being done with the Muslims in India,” says Mohammad Saalim, a college student from Lakshadweep. “From Kashmir to Delhi, and other places, laws are being made by the Modi regime to make Muslims second-class citizens, and the same is happening with us now.”



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Missing child in Germany: German boy found alive after surviving eight days in sewer | International

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German police have found an eight-year-old boy who went missing from his home in Oldenburg, a city of 170,000 people in northwestern Germany. The child, named Joe, was discovered on Saturday in a sewer just 300 meters from his house. He had survived in the sewer for eight days while hundreds of officers and volunteers frantically searched the surface for clues to his whereabouts. “Eight-year-old Joe lives!” police in Oldenburg announced on Twitter.

The boy, who suffers from learning disabilities, disappeared on June 17 from the garden of his house. Police launched a large-scale search with drones, helicopters, sniffer dogs and dozens of officers, who were joined by hundreds of volunteers. As the days passed, a homicide team joined the investigation amid growing fears that Joe – who is only identified by his first name due to Germany’s privacy laws – could have been the victim of a violent crime. A witness claimed to have seen him in the company of an unidentified man and it was feared he may have been kidnapped.

“It was absolute luck,” said Stephan Klatte, the Oldenburg police spokesman, said of Joe’s discovery. A neighbor who was walking in the area raised the alarm when he heard “a whining noise” coming from the ground, just under a drain. When officers lifted the manhole cover, they found the boy, completely naked. He had no serious external injuries, but was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia, for which he was taken to hospital for treatment. According to German media, he is recovering well. “If he hadn’t made a sound, or if no one had heard him, we might never have found him,” Klatte said.

In a statement, the police reported that they believed that Joe likely entered the rainwater drainage system through a sewer on the same day of his disappearance and “lost his bearings after walking several meters.” Police have ruled out any foul play in the incident.

On Sunday, the day after Joe was discovered, police commissioned a specialized company to inspect the sewage system with a robot equipped with a camera. The robot examined the sewer between the boy’s home and the place where he was found. It recorded several items of clothing, including what he was wearing when he disappeared, in a pipe about 60 centimeters in diameter that runs under one of the streets of the neighborhood where he lives with his parents. The robot found, for example, the child’s vest, 70 meters from the point of entry.

Officers found an entrance to a three-foot-wide drainage channel near the farm where he was last seen on the day of his disappearance. Authorities believe the boy entered the channel while playing. After 23 meters, the tunnel leads to another narrower plastic pipe and police think it is likely the eight-year-old continued down this path. Joe was eventually found about 290 meters from where he entered the sewer system.

Police believe that Joe became more and more disoriented until he could no longer find a way out. “A first statement from the child confirms this assumption,” said the statement, which does not provide more details about what he told officers. Investigators say they have not been able to question the boy in detail, as he remains in hospital. Nothing has been found to suggest that the child came to the surface in the eight days in which he was missing. In the statement, police asked that no questions about his state of health be made out of respect for him and his family.



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Bereaved then evicted by in-laws: Kenya’s widows fight disinheritance | Global development

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Within months of the death of her husband in 2014, Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, from Meru, eastern Kenya, was told that his bank accounts had been frozen, and she had been forced out of her home by her in-laws.

The pregnant 37-year-old was left with no resources to fight back, and returned to her parents’ home. “It was traumatising, and I went into depression for five years,” says Kimathi.

Doreen Kajuju Kimathi
Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, who now volunteers for a widows’ support group. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

Her experience is far from unique. While Kenya protects widows’ inheritance in theory, the patriarchal culture and the influence of colonial legislation that restricted married women’s property rights means the law is often not enforced.

“There is an entire parallel system operating outside succession laws,” says Roseline Njogu, a Kenyan lawyer. “Years of law reform have led us to formal equality, but equality of law doesn’t mean equality of power, and that’s where we get tripped up.”

Human rights groups report that discriminatory practices in marriage limit women’s capacity to own land. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, only 1% of land titles are registered to women, and another 6% are registered jointly with a man.

While children have equal inheritance rights, land is more often passed on to sons, leaving daughters with fewer assets, and making a future wife vulnerable to eviction if her spouse’s family regard the property as theirs.

For young widows such as Kimathi, it can be even harder to hold on to marital property. “You’re considered less entitled to it because you’re expected to remarry,” she says.

But a fightback is under way. Grassroots organisations are emerging all around the country to build community awareness of women’s legal rights. One group, the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization (CTWOO), has offered legal advice and support to nearly 500,000 widows since 2013.

The NGO is trying to address disinheritance at its roots. It works with other groups to increase financial and legal literacy across the country, especially among married couples, encouraging them to discuss finances openly, and to write wills.

Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization.
Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization. Photograph: Courtesy of CTWOO

The founder, Dianah Kamande, says that – contrary to popular belief – most dispossessed widows are middle-class, like Kimathi, not poor. The poor usually have less property, and the rich have access to lawyers.

Kamande says death and estate planning are still taboo topics for many married couples, and that some people obscure their wealth. “Men keep lots of secrets about money from their wives, and trust their mothers and siblings more – who in turn disinherit the wife and children,” she says.

Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa logo
Grassroots groups are emerging to build awareness of widows’ rights. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

The country’s Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority says it has 50bn Kenyan shillings (£347m) in unclaimed assets, and about 40% is money left by people after they die. Concerned by the rising number of unclaimed assets, research by the authority found roughly 43% of Kenyan respondents said they would not disclose their financial assets to anyone – even people they trusted.

“There’s secrecy around financial investments. For many of the people who find out about the assets left by their spouse, it’s a eureka moment,” says Paul Muya, of the UFAA.

Five years after being widowed, Kimathi’s life was still on hold. She had looked into hiring a lawyer but could not afford it. Without access to the family property, it was difficult for her and her son to get by, and she had to rely on help from her parents and sister.

But through the CTWOO, she found out that she did not need a lawyer to access the courts. She filed a claim, and within a year had gained access to almost all of her dead husband’s property. Last year, Kimathi opened a bar and restaurant in Kitui, 110 miles east of Nairobi.

“It was a huge relief to get the money. Being a widow in Kenya is financially and socially isolating, and knowing what that’s like pushed me to help others in the same situation,” says Kimathi, who now volunteers with a widows’ support group.

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WHO concerned about first cases of monkeypox in children | Science & Tech

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Reports of young children infected by monkeypox in Europe – there were at least four in recent days, with a fifth one recorded a few weeks ago – have raised concern about the progress of an outbreak now affecting more than 5,500 people in 51 countries.

The health organization’s Europe chief, Hans Kluge, also warned on Friday that overall cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks. “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” said Kluge.

The WHO has not yet declared the outbreak a global health emergency, however. At a meeting last Saturday, the agency ruled it out but said it could change its views if certain scenarios come to pass, such as a spike in cases among vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people. Available data shows that children, especially younger ones, are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.

The last known case of a child contracting monkeypox was reported on Tuesday in Spain, where a three-year-old was confirmed to have the disease. Cases in Spain are now in excess of 1,500 according to health reports filed by regional governments.

Also on Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that a primary school student had become infected and that contact tracing had been initiated to rule out more cases within the child’s close circle of contacts. On Saturday, France reported one confirmed case and one suspected case among elementary school students.

The UK has so far recorded at least two infections in minors. The first case, reported in May, involved a baby who had to be taken to intensive care for treatment with the antiviral Tecovirimat, of which few doses are available but which has already begun to be distributed in several countries. British authorities this week reported a second case of a child with monkeypox. The UK currently has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa.

The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox. The European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.

Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.

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