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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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UK Pharmacists Warn Medicine Shortages Put Patients at Risk

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The issue first came to the fore in April, when shortages of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs resulted in an outcry, with doctors warning that some women will resort to unorthodox methods to get the medication they need.

British pharmacists have expressed concern over medicine shortages in the UK, which they believe put patients at risk, a new poll has revealed.

A survey of 1,562 UK pharmacists for the Pharmaceutical Journal found that more than 54% of respondents said that patients had been put at risk in the last six months due to drug shortages.

The outlet cited an unnamed pharmacist from a children’s hospital in England as saying that problems pertaining to variable supply of nutritional products may pose threat to patients’ health.

“We had to ration it, and this has potentially put patients at risk of vitamin deficiencies,” the pharmacist pointed out.

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They were echoed by another hospital pharmacist, who voiced alarm about drugs being unavailable at the end of a patient’s life.

“There was no alternative for one patient who had to deal with an additional symptom in his last days of life due to lack of available treatment,” the source told the Pharmaceutical Journal.

The same tone was struck by Mike Dent, director of pharmacy funding at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, who said in an interview with the journal that they are “becoming increasingly concerned about medicine supply issues and the very serious impact this is having on both community pharmacy teams and their patients.”

A spokesperson for the UK Department of Health and Social Care, in turn, stressed that they “take patient safety extremely seriously, and […] routinely share information about medicine supply issues directly with the NHS [National Health Service] so they can put plans in place to reduce the risk of any shortage impacting patients, including offering alternative medication.”

“We have well-established procedures to deal with medicine shortages and work closely with industry, the NHS and others to prevent shortages and resolve any issues as soon as possible,” the spokesperson added.

The remarks followed the UK government issuing a number of “medicine supply notifications,” which highlight shortages of a whole array of key drugs, including live­-saving ones such as antibiotics, insulin and antidepressants.

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The issue first came to light at the end of April 2022, when a shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) medication left some women in the UK sharing prescriptions and feeling suicidal. HRT is used to relieve most symptoms of menopause and it works by replacing hormones that are at a lower level.

According to the UK newspaper Express, drug shortages “are being caused by a shortage of raw ingredients used to manufacture medicines. These are often supplied by countries in the Far East. There are also rising costs set by pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers.”



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Cannabis: Canada to spend $200 million on medical marijuana for veterans | International

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The Canadian government is on track to spend CA$200 million (around $154 million) on medical marijuana for veterans, an increase of 30% compared to 2021 and 135% compared to 2019. Since 2008, Canada’s Veteran Affairs has been reimbursing former military personnel for what they spend on medically prescribed marijuana.

Canada legalized recreational cannabis in October 2018 (the second country to make such a regulatory change after Uruguay). The government of Justin Trudeau justified the measure as a move to fight organized crime and ensure the safety of consumers. Marijuana for medicinal use, however, has been legal in Canada since 2001. The Canadian Health Ministry backed its decision on the grounds that studies show it can be beneficial for patients who suffer from problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

In 2008, after overcoming various legal disputes, Veteran Affairs approved a measure to reimburse war veterans for the cost of medicinal marijuana, although reimbursements were to be decided on a case-by-case basis. In 2011, the authorities simplified the procedure to make it accessible to more candidates. That year, 37 people were reimbursed for a total amount of CA$103,400 (81,000). In November 2016, the ministry modified its compensation rules, reducing the daily limit from 10 grams a day to three. The current maximum rate for refunds is $8.50 per gram.

Veteran Affairs stated that medical cannabis is “a developing area of treatment,” and it will continue to review information and “adjust the policy as necessary to guarantee the welfare of veterans and their families.” A Canadian Senate commission called for such a review in 2019, emphasizing the positive results of cannabis for therapeutic purposes, in particular as an effective substitute for highly addictive opioids against chronic pain. Senators also said that the maximum price needs to be constantly evaluated, as costs may exceed what some veterans can afford.

According to the latest data, some 18,000 ex-combatants were reimbursed for medicinal marijuana in 2021, which equated to CA$153 million ($118 million) in federal spending. While experts largely support the plan for veterans, they say it should be accompanied by psychosocial support, especially in cases of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Campaigners call on UN Women to pull out of BlackRock partnership | Women’s rights and gender equality

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The UN agency responsible for promoting gender equality is being urged to pull out of a partnership with BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment fund manager, over the company’s “record of prioritising profits over human rights or environmental integrity”.

Hundreds of women’s organisations and activists have written to UN Women demanding it rescind the partnership.

The letter, sent on Tuesday to Sima Sami Bahous, UN Women’s executive director, and her two deputies, Åsa Regnér and Anita Bhatia, said the partnership “gives BlackRock a veneer of feminist approval that it clearly does not merit”.

While details of the collaboration have not been made public, BlackRock published a statement on its website in May saying it had signed “a memorandum of understanding” with the UN agency “agreeing to cooperate in promoting the growth of gender lens investing”.

BlackRock has faced pressure from environmental activists to improve its climate action policies, given its vast holdings in fossil fuel companies, and wide global reach.

The asset manager has investments in some of the world’s largest weapons sales companies, the letter said, noting that BlackRock is “consistently” ranked among the worst performers on corporate accountability by civil society watchdogs.

From left to right: Pam Chan of BlackRock, UN Women representative Anita Bhatia and Isabelle Mateos y Lago of BlackRock at Davos this year.
From left to right: Pam Chan of BlackRock, UN Women representative Anita Bhatia and Isabelle Mateos y Lago of BlackRock at Davos this year. Photograph: UN Photo

The letter, signed by almost 600 groups and individuals, said BlackRock also holds large amounts of debt in Zambia and Sri Lanka. It was among the private sector lenders that refused to delay debt interest payments to prevent Zambia’s finances from collapsing. The country has had to cut health and social care spending by a fifth in the past two years to balance its budget, cuts that have disproportionately affected women and marginalised groups.

Sanam Amin, a Bangladeshi academic and activist, said: “We want this agreement to be rescinded. This will not have a positive outcome for UN Women or the feminist organisations it is working with.”

She said BlackRock was using UN Women for bluewashing and pinkwashing purposes, and that it was “a fantasy” to imagine that “gender-impact investment can keep investment bankers rich and also save the world”.

“This is an illusion and relies on the labour and resources of marginalised communities in a gendered fashion, in the global south and across global supply chains.”

This is not the first time UN Women has been criticised for partnering with the private sector. In 2015, after pressure from women’s groups, the organisation backed out of a deal with Uber to encourage 1 million women to sign up as drivers.

Emilia Reyes, a feminist activist, said a lack of money was driving the UN into partnerships with the private sector. “We are calling for member states to fulfil their commitments on funding for UN departments as a whole,” she said. “In the search for extra funding, [UN bodies] are undermining their mandate and pushing conflicts of interest inside the UN.”

A spokesperson for UN Women said it “understands the concerns of its civil society partners”, which “merit consideration”. They said the partnership had been “put on hold”.

BlackRock said the money it managed belonged to its clients, many of whom made their own investment decisions. It added: “We highly value UN Women’s leadership in advancing women’s empowerment around the world and respect their decision to put the agreement on hold while they review their strategy for private sector partnerships.”

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