Indian farmers’ protest turns violent; historic fort stormed

The 16th-century Mughal fort holds significance for India. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 January 2021

Indian farmers’ protest turns violent; historic fort stormed

  • Thousands from neighboring states break police barricades to enter New Delhi

DELHI: A protest march in Delhi on Tuesday by thousands of farmers demanding the repeal of three controversial farm laws turned violent, leading to one death and several injuries.
Clashes took place between farmers and police at several places in the national capital when farmers staged a “tractor rally”  to coincide with India’s 72nd Republic Day.
Thousands of people from neighboring states stormed the heart of Delhi, breaking police barricades.
Elaborate security arrangements were planned by Delhi Police in anticipation of the march, but the rally turned aggressive, while some Sikh farmers entered the historic Red Fort and hoisted a Sikh religious flag.
“Our idea was not to disrespect India’s flag but to tell the Modi government that it should listen to our voice and repeal the three laws it has passed,” Gurmeet Singh, a protesting farmer, told Arab News.
The 16th-century Mughal fort holds significance for India. It is where the prime minister hoists the national flag on Independence Day every year on Aug. 15.
Police suspended internet access in several areas of the capital to control the chaos.
For the last two months, thousands of farmers and their families from across the country have held sit-in protests at different borders of Delhi demanding the repeal of three farm acts passed in September. They say the laws would leave them at the mercy of corporate giants and prevent the government from buying crops at guaranteed prices.
The government held 10 rounds of talks with farmers to resolve the issue and offered to suspend the new laws for 15 months in order to reach an agreement. However, farmers rejected the proposal and demanded an abrogation of the three laws before withdrawing the protest.
To intensify the rally, farmers decided to hold a tractor rally to mark India’s Republic Day.
Farmer leaders blamed the police for the chaos.
“Our protest was pre-planned and farmers were marching with their tractors, but the police created barriers at several places and used force to stop people,” Savit Malik of the Farmers’ Union told Arab News.
“The government wants to weaken the farmers’ movement by provoking violence at the protest march. But no matter what happens, farmers are not going to dilute their protests,” Malik added.
Some farmer leaders appealed to their supporters to maintain peace and stick to the predefined route of the march.
“I appeal to the people to maintain peace and not allow the protest to turn violent. This will weaken our movement,” Indian Farmers’ Union leader Rakesh Tikait told reporters in Delhi.
Media reports say that India’s Home Minister Amit Shah is holding a special meeting with security forces to take stock of the situation.
Political analysts blamed the government for the violence and chaos in the city.
Delhi-based analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told Arab News: “I believe that the government deliberately wielded this to happen this way. When they allowed the procession to come inside Delhi they knew what they were playing with and they wanted this to happen.
“The government has no other strategy except discrediting this movement which has been going on for months.”

The agitation is the biggest political crisis that the Narendra Modi led-Bharatiya Janata Party has faced in the last six years.
Mukhopadhyay said that the only way out of this logjam for the government is to call the movement anti-national, blame Sikh separatists, create problems for anybody who is supportive of it and “give a fresh task to the majoritarian
Hindu crowd.”
He said if New Delhi does not stop playing politics with the farmers’ protest, “it might have a major national security fallout.”


China’s plans for Himalayan super dam stoke fears in India

Updated 6 sec ago

China’s plans for Himalayan super dam stoke fears in India

BEIJING: China is planning a mega dam in Tibet able to produce triple the electricity generated by the Three Gorges — the world’s largest power station — stoking fears among environmentalists and in neighboring India.
The structure will span the Brahmaputra River before the waterway leaves the Himalayas and flows into India, straddling the world’s longest and deepest canyon at an altitude of more than 1,500 meters (4,900 feet).
The project in Tibet’s Medog County is expected to dwarf the record-breaking Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in central China, and is billed as able to produce 300 billion kilowatts of electricity each year.
It is mentioned in China’s strategic 14th Five-Year Plan, unveiled in March at an annual rubber-stamp congress of the country’s top lawmakers.
But the plan was short on details, a timeframe or budget.
The river, known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan, is also home to two other projects far upstream, while six others are in the pipeline or under construction.
The “super-dam” however is in a league of its own.
Last October, the Tibet local government signed a “strategic cooperation agreement” with PowerChina, a public construction company specializing in hydroelectric projects.
A month later the head of PowerChina, Yan Zhiyong, partially unveiled the project to the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of China’s ruling party.
Enthusiastic about “the world’s richest region in terms of hydroelectric resources,” Yan explained that the dam would draw its power from the huge drop of the river at this particular section.

Unique biodiversity threatened
Beijing may justify the massive project as an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but it risks provoking strong opposition from environmentalists in the same way as the Three Gorges Dam, built between 1994 and 2012.
The Three Gorges created a reservoir and displaced 1.4 million inhabitants upstream.
“Building a dam the size of the super-dam is likely a really bad idea for many reasons,” said Brian Eyler, energy, water and sustainability program director at the Stimson Center, a US think tank.
Besides being known for seismic activity, the area also contains a unique biodiversity. The dam would block the migration of fish as well as sediment flow that enriches the soil during seasonal floods downstream, said Eyler.
There are both ecological and political risks, noted Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, an environmental policy specialist at the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank linked to the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamshala, India.
“We have a very rich Tibetan cultural heritage in those areas, and any dam construction would cause ecological destruction, submergence of parts of that region,” he told AFP.
“Many local residents would be forced to leave their ancestral homes,” he said, adding that the project will encourage migration of Han Chinese workers that “gradually becomes a permanent settlement.”

Water wars
New Delhi is also worried by the project.
The Chinese Communist Party is effectively in a position to control the origins of much of South Asia’s water supply, analysts say.
“Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centered power over the most essential natural resource,” wrote political scientist Brahma Chellaney last month in the Times of India.
The risks of seismic activity would also make it a “ticking water bomb” for residents downstream, he warned.
In reaction to the dam idea, the Indian government has floated the prospect of building another dam on the Brahmaputra to shore up its own water reserves.
“There is still much time to negotiate with China about the future of the super-dam and its impacts,” said Eyler.
“A poor outcome would see India build a dam downstream.”

Indian opposition takes jab at Modi over vaccine shortage, COVID-19 crisis

Updated 11 April 2021

Indian opposition takes jab at Modi over vaccine shortage, COVID-19 crisis

  • Most Mumbai vaccine centers closed, city mayor tells Arab News

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of complacency and missteps in the handling of the pandemic by the country’s main opposition party, after six states reported a shortage of coronavirus vaccines and more than 145,000 new infections were recorded on Saturday.

The Congress Party also blamed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for prioritizing “vaccine diplomacy” by exporting vaccine doses instead of reserving them for domestic use.

“The Modi government has mismanaged the situation – exported vaccines and allowed a shortage to be created in India,” Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi said during a special meeting on Saturday to address the COVID-19 crisis.

“We must focus on India’s vaccination drive first and foremost, then only export vaccines and gift them to other countries.”

She emphasized the need for “responsible behavior” and adhering to all laws and COVID-19 regulations “without exception.”

But the government insisted there were enough vaccines in stock, accusing the opposition of “playing politics” even as India grappled with a deadly second wave of infections.

“There is no shortage of vaccines,” BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma told Arab News, adding that state governments were following the “procedure laid down by the center.”

Six opposition-ruled states said earlier this week that they were running out of vaccines and would be forced to discontinue the vaccination drive if the central government did not send supplies.

One of the worst affected states is western India’s Maharashtra, which recorded 58,993 new cases on Saturday out of the nationwide total of 145,384.

“There are 108 vaccines centers in Mumbai, but most of them have been closed due to a lack of vaccines,” Mumbai Mayor Kishori Kishore Pandekar told Arab News.

“The number of doses we have cannot last more than two days. If this is the situation in India’s financial capital Mumbai, imagine the case in remote areas of the state.”

Pune, one of Maharashtra’s biggest cities, has also run out of vaccines.

“We have not been vaccinating since Thursday in Pune, and we don’t know when the next lot of doses will arrive in the city,” Dr. Avinash V. Bhondwe, president of the Indian Medical Association’s Maharashtra wing, told Arab News.

The eastern state of Odisha has reported a shortage in doses, leading to the closure of 700 vaccination centers, according to media reports.

Verma said the current situation was due to the “desperate” measures taken by state governments.

“People above 45 years was the target group for the vaccination (drive). Some state governments are getting desperate, and they want to give vaccines to one and all. This is not possible for a (country with a) size like India. Vaccine production and export needs have been calibrated.”

But the BJP’s explanation did not satisfy Pankaj Vohra, from the New Delhi suburb of Noida, who went to hospital on Friday for his second jab but could not get vaccinated due to a shortage.

“A day before going to the hospital, I got a confirmation that I should come for the second dose,” he told Arab News. “But when I reached the hospital, I was told that the Covishield vaccine was available and not Covaxin. If the government cannot fulfil its domestic demand, why is it exporting vaccines?”

India has allowed permission for the emergency use of Covishield – the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India – and Covaxin, directed by Bharat Biotech in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

It launched its vaccination drive on Jan. 16 and has inoculated 94 million people, far below the initial target of 300 million.

Only 12.5 percent of the 94 million have received the second dose, based on an advisory by the Health Ministry, which recommends a 28-day gap between the first and second dose.

“The government did plan the vaccination drive,” Dr. Amar Jesani, a Mumbai-based public health expert, told Arab News. “Most of the developed countries made arrangements that they get enough doses of vaccines when they need them, but the Indian government did nothing about it.”

He wondered why just two companies in India were producing vaccines, and suggested the government use a compulsory licensing policy and allow other local companies to produce them.

“That way, you could have a large number of vaccines available,” he added.

There has been increased demand for COVID-19 vaccines in the past few weeks following a leap in cases, with Saturday’s daily infections rising by a record for the fifth time this week.

Last week experts told Arab News that India was on its way to becoming the “ground zero and global epicenter” for the coronavirus outbreak.

“The rising number of cases is due to the government’s failure to implement preventive measures,” Jesani said. “Political leadership is unhindered in their political campaigns addressing huge gatherings without following any COVID-19 protocol.”

Bhondwe urged the government to allow more companies to produce vaccines in India and to allow more foreign vaccines to come to India.

“People are in a state of panic, and they see some hope in vaccines. The government should not disappoint its people.”


Explosions in two Somalia cities kill at least 5

Updated 10 April 2021

Explosions in two Somalia cities kill at least 5

  • A bomber was targeting the Bay region governor who was outside the Suez Cafeteria, officials reported
  • Another explosion went off in the Huriwa district of Mogadishu, killing one government soldier and wounding a bystander

MOGADISHU: A suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a cafe in Somalia’s city of Baidoa on Saturday, killing at least four people and wounding more than six others, police said.
The bomber was targeting the Bay region governor, Ali Wardhere, who was outside the Suez Cafeteria, officials reported. The governor escaped the explosion unharmed, according to the official government news agency, SONNA, which reported that at least two of his bodyguards, who were also policemen, were among the wounded.
“The explosion which was heard all around the town of Baidoa has terrorized the people and had created a momentary confusion,” said Amin Maddey, who witnessed the explosion and spoke to The Associated Press by telephone.
The Al-Qaeda linked group Al-Shabab has claimed the responsibility through a report they published on their website and radio Andalus which advocates for their extremists campaigns.
“The target was a convoy accompanying Mr. Ali Wardhere, the governor of Bay region, which was hit hard,” the Al-Shabab statement said, “three of Ali Wardhere’s bodyguards have died in the attack and the target which was Ali Wardhere himself got wounded,” added the statement.
The police have cordoned off the area for investigation as many bystanders gathered around to check whether their family members or friends are among the victims.
Meanwhile, another explosion went off in the Huriwa district of Mogadishu Saturday, killing one government soldier and wounding a bystander, police said.
It is not known whether the two explosions in Baidoa and Mogadishu are related. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing in Mogadishu.
The people of Somalia are seeing major security lapses as leaders remain in deadlock over the political situation after elections were delayed earlier this year.
“The meeting between the federal government and the federal member states has ended in total failure,” said the Minister of Information, Osman Abokor Dubbe, who blamed the two leaders of Puntland and Jubbaland for that failure.
However, both leaders of Puntland and Jubbaland have denied reports of a failed meeting.
There have been fears that the Al-Qaeda-linked group would be emboldened by Somalia’s current political crisis as President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is under pressure to step aside.


Artillery guns fire across UK in solemn tribute to Prince Philip

Updated 10 April 2021

Artillery guns fire across UK in solemn tribute to Prince Philip

  • On its official Twitter feed, the royal family put up a tribute paid by the queen to her husband on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997
  • The armed forces marked Philip’s death at noon (1100 GMT) with a Death Gun Salute

WINDSOR: Gun salutes were fired across Britain on Saturday to mark the death of Prince Philip as tributes flooded in for a man who was a pillar of strength for Queen Elizabeth during her record-breaking reign.
Members of the public laid flowers outside royal residences, paying their respects to the 99-year-old prince, who died on Friday.
On its official Twitter feed, the royal family put up a tribute paid by the queen to her husband on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997.
“He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know,” she said. The queen has been on the throne for 69 years.
The armed forces marked Philip’s death at noon (1100 GMT) with a Death Gun Salute. Artillery units in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Gibraltar, and some navy warships, fired their guns.
Buckingham Palace is expected to announce details of the funeral later on Saturday.
It is likely to be a small, private affair, stripped of the grandeur of traditional royal occasions by COVID-19 restrictions and by the prince’s own dislike of people making a fuss.
Despite a request from the royal family for the public to obey pandemic social distancing rules and avoid visits to its residences, people laid cards and bouquets outside Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace through the night.
“What a life! Thank you for serving our country,” read one tribute outside Buckingham Palace.
“We’re all weeping with you, Ma’am,” read the front page of the Sun tabloid, while its rival the Daily Mail ran a 144-page tribute to Philip, who died at Windsor Castle.
The death of “her beloved husband,” announced by the queen, robs the 94-year-old monarch of her closest confidante, the one person she could trust and who was free to speak his mind to her. They had been married for 73 years and he would have turned 100 in June.
Messages of condolence have poured in from world leaders.
The Duke of Edinburgh, as Philip was officially known, was credited with helping to modernize the institution and supporting his wife as the monarchy faced repeated crises during her reign.
The tenor bell at London’s Westminster Abbey tolled 99 times, a traditional marking of the death of a royal family member.
Flags at Buckingham Palace and at government buildings across Britain were lowered to half-mast and billboard operators replaced adverts with a photo and tribute to the prince.
The BBC canceled programming across all of its television and radio channels on Friday, and aired a special program with interviews with the queen and Philip’s children, including heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles.
Philip “probably wanted to be remembered as an individual in his own right,” said Charles.
“He didn’t suffer fools gladly, so if you said anything that was in any way ambiguous, he would say: ‘Make up your mind!’ Perhaps it made one choose one’s words carefully,” Charles said.
A Greek prince, Philip married Elizabeth in 1947 and broke the news of her father’s death five years later while they were in Kenya, meaning that she was queen at the age of 25.
He went on to play a key role helping the monarchy adapt to a changing world in the post-World War Two period.
“I think he’ll be remembered as a modernizer in many ways, as someone who both inside the palace and outside the palace was a force for change,” Simon Lewis, the queen’s communications secretary from 1998 to 2001, told Reuters.
He said Philip’s loss would be a terrible blow to the queen.
“I think they were the most extraordinary partnership and that’s going to be a huge, huge, gap,” Lewis said. “I think he always saw himself partly as the eyes and the ears of the queen — that’s gone forever.”


Myanmar’s UN envoy urges action against junta as bloodshed continues

Updated 10 April 2021

Myanmar’s UN envoy urges action against junta as bloodshed continues

  • Country has been in turmoil since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February
  • More than 600 people have been killed by security forces trying to quell protesters

YANGON: Myanmar’s own ambassador to the United Nations has urged “strong action” against the junta, as reports emerged of scores killed in the military’s latest crackdown.
The country has been in turmoil since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February, with protesters refusing to submit to the junta regime and continuing to demand a return to democracy.
With more than 600 people killed by security forces trying to quell the movement, the international community has increasingly raised the alarm on the crisis.
During a UN Security Council meeting on Friday, Myanmar’s ambassador pushed for more concrete action – proposing a no-fly zone, an arms embargo and more targeted sanctions against members of the military and their families.
“Your collective, strong action is needed immediately,” Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun told the meeting.
“Time is of the essence for us,” he said. “Please, please take action.”
An independent analyst with the International Crisis Group also warned the council that Myanmar was “at the brink of state failure.”
“The vast majority of the population does not want military rule and will do whatever it takes to prevent that outcome. Yet the military seems determined to impose its will,” said Richard Horsey.
“Its actions may be creating a situation where the country becomes ungovernable. That should be of grave concern to the region and to the broader international community.”
China and Russia wield veto power at the Security Council and generally oppose international sanctions.
However, Beijing – the top ally of Myanmar’s military – has voiced growing concern about instability, and has said it is speaking to “all parties.”
There have been reports that China has opened contact with the CRPH, a group representing the ousted civilian government.
At least 618 civilians have been killed in the military’s crackdown on protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local monitoring group.
Efforts to verify deaths and confirm news of crackdowns have been greatly hindered by the junta’s throttling of mobile data within the country – effectively shunting most of the population into an information blackout.
News emerged Saturday morning of more violence in the city of Bago, 65 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Yangon – the site of a day-long crackdown that forced residents into hiding in nearby villages.
AFP-verified footage shot early Friday showed protesters hiding behind sandbag barricades wielding homemade rifles, as explosions could be heard in the background.
A resident said that the military crackdown killed at least 40 protesters, and authorities refused to let rescue workers remove the bodies.
“They piled up all the dead bodies, loaded them into their army truck and drove it away,” he said, adding that authorities then proceeded to arrest people around the community.
Local media reports have put the death toll for Bago’s crackdown at far higher.
The junta had branded the victims of anti-coup unrest “violent terrorist people,” putting the total death toll since February 1 at 248, according to a spokesman Friday.
Despite the daily bloodshed, protesters have continued to take to the streets, with dawn strikes sprouting across the country Saturday.
Demonstrators are also manifesting their discontent in pointedly creative ways.
In commercial hub Yangon, crimson paint – representing the blood already spilled – was splashed across the streets in view of the historic Shwedagon Pagoda.
“Let us unite and boldly show in red that the dictatorial regime will not be allowed to rule us at all,” a student activist announced on Facebook.
Flyers with the words “They will not rule us” were scattered across Yangon neighborhoods.
In Mandalay, activists pasted the same flyers on the statue of General Aung San.
The father of Suu Kyi, he is a national hero who is widely regarded as having wrested Myanmar from under the yoke of British colonialism.
Suu Kyi is currently facing a series of charges from the junta – including accusations of corruption and for having unregistered walkie-talkies.
The military has repeatedly justified seizing power by alleging widespread electoral fraud in November’s elections, which Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide.