Archive for ‘India alert’

25/05/2019

India tuition class fire kills at least 19 students

Fire rips through Gujarat collegeImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption The fire ripped through tuition classes in the western state of Gujarat

At least 19 students have died in a fire at a school in India, officials said.

Students were seen jumping and falling from the building in the western city of Surat as black smoke billowed from windows.

Most of the victims were teenagers who had been studying at a tuition centre.

The initial cause of the fire was not immediately clear. Officials said the blaze spread through packed classrooms because of flammable roofing.

At least 20 others sustained serious injuries and were being treated in hospital in Gujarat.

“The students lost their life both because of the fire and jumping out of the building,” Deepak Sapthaley, a local fire official, told AFP.

All of the dead were aged below 20 years and many were trapped because the fire began near the staircase, Reuters reported.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his condolences on Twitter and called for local authorities to provide assistance.

An inquiry into the incident has been ordered and a report is expected within three days, said the spokesman for the office of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.

The fire is the latest in a long line of deadly blazes in India. In February at least 17 people died in a Delhi hotel fire.

Source: The BBC

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24/05/2019

Indian forces kill leader of al Qaeda affiliate in Kashmir – police

SRINAGAR (Reuters) – Indian forces have killed the leader of an al Qaeda affiliated militant group in Kashmir, police said on Friday, triggering protests in parts of the disputed region.

Zakir Rashid Bhat, 25, was trapped by security forces in a three-storey house in southern Kashmir late on Thursday, said a senior police officer, adding that the house was set ablaze during the operation.

“As we were clearing debris from the house, he tried to get up. Our troops fired at him and he was killed,” said the officer, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to media.

For decades, separatists have fought an armed conflict against Indian rule in Kashmir, with the majority of them wanting independence for the Himalayan region, or to join New Delhi’s arch rival Pakistan.

India has stepped up an offensive against militants in the Muslim-majority region since a suicide attack in February killed 40 Indian troopers in Kashmir and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

Pakistan denies giving material support to militants in Kashmir but says it provides moral and diplomatic backing for the self-determination of Kashmiri people.

Protests by supporters of Bhat broke out in parts of Kashmir on Thursday and there were reports of demonstrations early on Friday, the police officer said.

Fearing more unrest, authorities said schools were closed and railway services suspended in the affected areas.

Any large scale unrest in the region would be a challenge for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he prepares for a second term after winning a general election on Thursday.

Bhat, a former commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest of the militant groups fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir, founded his own group and declared its association with al Qaeda in 2017.

Also known as Zakir Musa, he was seen as a successor to Burhan Wani, a popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose death in 2016 sparked clashes that left 90 civilians dead.

Source: Reuters

23/05/2019

Ozone layer: Banned CFCs traced to China say scientists

home insulationImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Much of the CFC-11 gas has been used in home insulation

Researchers say that they have pinpointed the major sources of a mysterious recent rise in a dangerous, ozone-destroying chemical.

CFC-11 was primarily used for home insulation but global production was due to be phased out in 2010.

But scientists have seen a big slowdown in the rate of depletion over the past six years.

This new study says this is mostly being caused by new gas production in eastern provinces of China.

CFC-11 is also known as trichlorofluoromethane, and is one of a number of chloroflurocarbon (CFC) chemicals that were initially developed as refrigerants during the 1930s.

However, it took many decades for scientists to discover that when CFCs break down in the atmosphere, they release chlorine atoms that are able to rapidly destroy the ozone layer which protects us from ultraviolet light. A gaping hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was discovered in the mid 1980s.

Media caption Twenty-five years of ice loss in the Antarctic

The international community agreed the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which banned most of the offending chemicals. Recent research suggests that the hole in the Northern Hemisphere could be fully fixed by the 2030s and Antarctica by the 2060s.

When was the CFC problem discovered?

CFC-11 was the second most abundant CFCs and was initially seen to be declining as expected.

However in 2018 a team of researchers monitoring the atmosphere found that the rate of decline had slowed by about 50% after 2012.

graphic
Image caption Monitoring stations in Korea and Japan were key to detecting the mystery sources of CFC-11

That team reasoned that they were seeing new production of the gas, coming from East Asia. The authors of that paper argued that if the sources of new production weren’t shut down, it could delay the healing of the ozone layer by a decade.

What did investigators find on the ground?

Further detective work in China by the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2018 seemed to indicate that the country was indeed the source. They found that the illegal chemical was used in the majority of the polyurethane insulation produced by firms they contacted.

One seller of CFC-11 estimated that 70% of China’s domestic sales used the illegal gas. The reason was quite simple – CFC-11 is better quality and much cheaper than the alternatives.

So what does this latest study show?

This new paper seems to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that some 40-60% of the increase in emissions is coming from provinces in eastern China.

Using what are termed “top-down” measurements from air monitoring stations in South Korea and Japan, the researchers were able to show that since 2012 CFC-11 has increased from production sites in eastern China.

home insulationImage copyright GETTY IMAGES

They calculated that there was a 110% rise in emissions from these parts of China for the years 2014-2017 compared to the period between 2008-2012.

“This new study is based on spikes in the data on air that comes from China,” lead author Dr Matt Rigby, a reader at the University of Bristol, told BBC Inside Science.

“Using computer simulations of the transport of these gases through the atmosphere we can start to put numbers on emissions from different regions and that’s where we come up with this number of around 7,000 tonnes of extra CFC-11 emissions coming out of China compared to before 2012.

“But from the data, all we just see are the ultimate releases to the atmosphere, we don’t have any information on how that CFC-11 was used or where it was produced, it is entirely possible that it was manufactured in some other region, some other part of China or even some other country and was transported to the place where they are making insulating foams at which point some of it could have been emitted to the atmosphere.”

Where are the rest of the emissions coming from?

The researchers are not sure. It’s possible that the missing emissions are coming from other parts of China, as the monitoring stations just can’t see them. They could also be coming from India, Africa or South America as again there is very little monitoring in these regions.

Does this have implications for climate change?

Yes – the authors say that these CFCs are also very potent greenhouse gases. One tonne of CFC-11 is equivalent to around 5,000 tonnes of CO2.

“If we look at these extra emissions that we’ve identified from eastern China, it equates to about 35 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere every year, that’s equivalent to about 10% of UK emissions, or similar to the whole of London.”

Will China clampdown on the production?

The Chinese say they have already started to clamp down on production by what they term “rogue manufacturers”. Last November, several suspects were arrested in Henan province, in possession of 30 tonnes of CFC-11.

Clare Perry from the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) said that the new findings re-affirmed the need to stamp out production.

“I think with this study, it is beyond doubt that China is the source of these unexpected emissions, and we would hope that China is leaving no stone unturned to discover the source of the CFC-11 production.

“Unless the production of the chemical is shut down it will be near impossible to end the use and emissions in the foam companies.”

The study has been published in the journal Nature.

Source: The BBC

21/05/2019

EVM allegations: India poll officials deny ‘vote fraud’

EVMsImage copyright AFP
Image caption More than 1.5 million e-voting machines will be used in the summer elections

India’s election is nearly over: voting began on 11 April, and the final ballot was cast on 19 May with results out on 23 May. Every day, the BBC will be bringing you all the latest updates on the twists and turns of the world’s largest democracy.

What happened?

India’s Election Commission has denied allegations that voting machines had been tampered with in parts of India.

India’s opposition parties are meeting the election watchdog on Tuesday to demand more transparency in counting of votes on 23 May (Thursday).

Opposition leaders said the EC had to ensure that there was no possibility of anybody manipulating the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) which were used to record votes in the general election that concluded on Sunday.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur constituency, a candidate belonging to the opposition Bahujan Samaj Party held a protest outside a room where the machines have been stored ahead of the counting. The candidate alleged that attempts were being made to take out the machines from the storage room.

Local officials have said the allegations are baseless.

Electronic Voting Machine

The Supreme Court has ordered the EC to tally the results from five EVMs with VVPAT receipts in at least five polling stations in every assembly seat. A parliamentary constituency comprises several assembly seats.

But opposition parties say that the tally should done for the entire constituency in case of a mismatch.

“On VVPATs and the EVM tally, the EC is yet to come out with a procedure in case there is a mismatch. Even if there is one mismatch in the EVMs or VVPAT samples picked for counting, to maintain the integrity of the electoral process, all VVPATs in that Assembly segment must be counted. This is important to maintain integrity of the electoral process,” Mr Yechury said.

If this were to happen however, it would considerably slow down the counting process and declaration of results.

Presentational grey line

PM Modi tweets tribute to former PM Rajiv Gandhi

What happened?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tweeted on the occasion of the death anniversary of former PM Rajiv Gandhi.

Mr Modi has repeatedly attacked Mr Gandhi on the campaign trail and his slurs have prompted widespread criticism.

He called Mr Gandhi the “number one corrupt man in the country” at a rally earlier this month in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. A few days later, he went after Mr Gandhi again – accusing him of using a naval aircraft carrier to take him and his family to an island for a “family holiday”.

Mr Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991 during a campaign rally.

Why does this matter?

Mr Modi’s tweet marking Mr Gandhi’s death anniversary is customary – but it has garnered attention because he attacked the former prime minister repeatedly while campaigning and didn’t back down when challenged.

Many were taken aback by Mr Modi’s criticism of Mr Gandhi. It elicited condemnation not just from the main opposition Congress party, but other regional opposition leaders, political commentators and even former political opponents of Mr Gandhi.

Analysts said the comments were a sign of “desperation” and showed that Mr Modi “knew” his party was not going to perform as well as expected in the election.

Now that campaigning is over and the election is nearly at an end, Mr Modi seems to be abandoning acerbic rhetoric for something more conciliatory.

Presentational grey line

On Monday, opposition rejects exit poll results

BJP supportersImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

What happened?

Opposition leaders have dismissed the exit polls, which suggest that the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on course to win the general election.

19/05/2019

China’s ban on scrap imports revitalises US recycling industry

  • US paper mills are expanding capacity to take advantage of a glut of cheap waste materials
  • Some facilities that previously exported plastic or metal to China have retooled so they can process it themselves
China phased in import restrictions on scrap paper and plastics in January last year. Photo: AP
China phased in import restrictions on scrap paper and plastics in January last year. Photo: AP
The halt on China’s imports of waste paper and plastic that has disrupted US recycling programmes has also spurred investment in American plants that process recyclables.

US paper mills are expanding capacity to take advantage of a glut of cheap scrap. Some facilities that previously exported plastic or metal to China have retooled so they can process it themselves.

And in a twist, the investors include Chinese companies that are still interested in having access to waste paper or flattened bottles as raw material for manufacturing.

“It’s a very good moment for recycling in the United States,” said Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington-based organisation that helps cities improve recycling programmes.
Global scrap prices plummeted in the wake of China’s ban. Photo: AP
Global scrap prices plummeted in the wake of China’s ban. Photo: AP

China, which had long been the world’s largest destination for paper, plastic and other recyclables, phased in import restrictions in January last year.

Global scrap prices plummeted, prompting waste-hauling companies to pass the cost of sorting and baling recyclables on to municipalities. With no market for the waste paper and plastic in their blue bins, some communities scaled back or suspended kerbside recycling programmes. But new domestic markets offer a glimmer of hope.

How China’s ban on plastic waste imports became an ‘earthquake’

About US$1 billion in investment in US paper processing plants has been announced in the past six months, according to Dylan de Thomas, a vice-president at The Recycling Partnership, a non-profit organisation that tracks and works with the industry.

Hong Kong-based Nine Dragons, one of the world’s largest producers of cardboard boxes, has invested US$500 million over the past year to buy and expand or restart production at paper mills in Maine, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Brian Boland, vice-president of government affairs and corporate initiatives for ND Paper, Nine Dragons’ US affiliate, said that as well as making paper from wood fibre, the mills would add production lines turning more than a million tonnes of scrap into pulp to make boxes.

“The paper industry has been in contraction since the early 2000s,” he said. “To see this kind of change is frankly amazing. Even though it’s a Chinese-owned company, it’s creating US jobs and revitalising communities like Old Town, Maine, where the old mill was shuttered.”

Hong Kong-based Nine Dragons has invested US$500 million in paper mills in Maine, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Photo: Handout
Hong Kong-based Nine Dragons has invested US$500 million in paper mills in Maine, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Photo: Handout

The Northeast Recycling Council said in a report last autumn that 17 North American paper mills had announced increased capacity to handle recyclable paper since the Chinese cut-off.

Another Chinese company, Global Win Wickliffe, is reopening a closed paper mill in Kentucky. Georgia-based Pratt Industries is constructing a mill in Wapakoneta, Ohio that will turn 425,000 tonnes of recycled paper per year into shipping boxes.

Plastics also had a lot of capacity coming online, de Thomas said, noting new or expanded plants in Texas, Pennsylvania, California and North Carolina that turned recycled plastic bottles into new bottles.

Chinese companies were investing in plastic and scrap metal recycling plants in Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina to make feedstocks for manufacturers in China, he said.

GDB International processes bales of scrap plastic film into pellets to make garbage bags and plastic pipe. Photo: AP
GDB International processes bales of scrap plastic film into pellets to make garbage bags and plastic pipe. Photo: AP

In New Brunswick, New Jersey, the recycling company GDB International exported bales of scrap plastic film such as pallet wrap and grocery bags for years. But when China started restricting imports, company president Sunil Bagaria installed new machinery to process it into pellets he sells profitably to manufacturers of garbage bags and plastic pipe.

The imports cut-off that China called “National Sword” was a much-needed wake-up call to his industry, he said.

“The export of plastic scrap played a big role in easing recycling in our country,” Bagaria said. “The downside is that infrastructure to do our own domestic recycling didn’t develop.”

China to suspend checks on US scrap metal shipments, halting imports

That was now changing, but he said far more domestic processing capacity would be needed as a growing number of countries restricted scrap imports.

“Ultimately, sooner or later, the society that produces plastic scrap will become responsible for recycling it,” he said.

It has also yet to be seen whether the new plants coming on line can quickly fix the problems for municipal recycling programmes that relied heavily on sales to China to get rid of piles of scrap.

About US$1 billion in investment in US paper processing plants has been announced in the past six months, according to a non-profit group that tracks the industry. Photo: AP
About US$1 billion in investment in US paper processing plants has been announced in the past six months, according to a non-profit group that tracks the industry. Photo: AP

“Chinese companies are investing in mills, but until we see what the demand is going to be at those mills, we’re stuck in this rut,” said Ben Harvey, whose company in Westborough, Massachusetts, collects trash and recyclables for about 30 communities.

He had a car park filled with stockpiled paper a year ago after China closed its doors, but eventually found buyers in India, Korea and Indonesia.

China to collect applications for scrap metal import licences from May

Keith Ristau, chief executive of Far West Recycling in Portland, Oregon, said most of the recyclable plastic his company collected used to go to China but now most of it went to processors in Canada or California.

To meet their standards, Far West invested in better equipment and more workers at its material recovery facility to reduce contamination.

In Sarepta, Louisiana, IntegriCo Composites is turning bales of hard-to-recycle mixed plastics into railroad ties. It expanded operations in 2017 with funding from New York-based Closed Loop Partners.

“As investors in domestic recycling and circular economy infrastructure in the US, we see what China has decided to do as very positive,” said Closed Loop founder Ron Gonen.

Source: SCMP

19/05/2019

Brazil’s vice-president Hamilton Mourao heads to China to mend relations

  • General will spend five days meeting top Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping
  • Mission seeks to patch up wounds caused by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-China rhetoric
Hamilton Mourao favours maximising engagement with China. Photo: EPA-EFE
Hamilton Mourao favours maximising engagement with China. Photo: EPA-EFE
Brazil’s vice-president is expected to land in Beijing on Sunday on a mission to patch up wounds caused by President Jair Bolsonaro’s lacerating anti-China rhetoric.
General Hamilton Mourao will spend five days in China rubbing shoulders with some of the country’s most powerful leaders, culminating in an audience with President Xi Jinping, in an effort to shore up the relationship between the two emerging market giants. Bolsonaro himself is due to visit later this year, while Xi is due to visit Brasilia in November for the BRICS summit.
China – Brazil’s most important trading partner for the past decade – remains a sensitive subject in the Bolsonaro administration. While Mourao and the other business-oriented members of government favour maximising engagement with the Asian giant, Bolsonaro and his more radical appointees view China with a high degree of suspicion, as a predatory economy that wishes not merely to invest in Brazil, but to own it.

“The Chinese can buy in Brazil, but they can’t buy Brazil,” the president said at a breakfast with journalists last month.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said last month that the “Chinese can buy in Brazil, but they can’t buy Brazil”. Photo: AFP
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said last month that the “Chinese can buy in Brazil, but they can’t buy Brazil”. Photo: AFP

Still, in comparison with his pre-election criticism of China as “heartless”, Bolsonaro in office has dialled down his anti-Beijing sentiment. Mourao’s visit is part of an effort to reset that relationship.

“The Chinese understand that Mourao plays a central role in toning down Bolsonaro’s rhetoric,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a specialist on BRICS – an association of five major emerging economies, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – at the FGV business school. “They know that the Mourao-China relationship will be fundamental.”

Should China be worried about Bolsonaro’s bromance with Trump?

Speaking to reporters recently, Mourao recognised the need to balance the Bolsonaro administration’s desire to pivot towards the United States with practical considerations of China’s economic significance.

“The US are the champions of democracy and freedom and our government has left it very clear what this represents,” the vice-president said. “But on the other side we have to be sufficiently pragmatic to understand the importance of China for Brazil’s economic development.”

Chinese investment in Brazil reached almost US$134 billion between 2003 and 2018, Brazilian government figures showed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to meet the visiting Brazilain vice-president. Photo: AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to meet the visiting Brazilain vice-president. Photo: AP

While the trade war between the US and China may offer Brazil some short-term gains, particularly for its agricultural sector, the downsides outweigh the benefits, according to Renata Amaral, a foreign trade analyst at Barral MJorge consultancy.

“In truth this war is no good for anyone,” she said.

Mourao said that Brazil was monitoring the situation “critically and cautiously”.

Why US-China trade war could be good for Brazil
From the Chinese perspective, Beijing is looking for Brazil’s formal support for its “Belt and Road Initiative” – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature global infrastructure megaproject. Asked whether Brazil might sign up to the programme, Mourao said that any agreement would have to be approved by Bolsonaro in the second half of the year.
After trips to the Great Wall of China and the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Mourao will meet Xi, in a clear sign of Brazil’s importance to China. “The visit of vice-president Mourao will reinforce mutual political confidence, deepen our friendly cooperation and add new dimensions to our strategic partnership,” according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
With Beijing both uncertain about the direction of Brazilian foreign policy under Bolsonaro and eager to strike deals on infrastructure and food security, it makes sense for the Chinese to roll out the red-carpet for Mourao, according to Hussein Kalout, a specialist in foreign policy and a researcher at Harvard.
China trade vs economic growth: the dilemma for Brazil’s president
While the federal government remains ambivalent about its relationship with China, some of Brazil’s powerful state governors are seeking to develop their own relationship with the Asian country. One of them is Carlos Massa Ratinho Junior, the governor of the southern state of Parana, who travelled to China recently to discuss agriculture and railroad projects.
“We’re open to talk with any country that wants to and understands that the state of Parana is the best to place to invest in Brazil,” the governor said in an interview, adding that his actions did not conflict with the federal government’s stance towards Beijing.

But in a sign of the domestic pressure Bolsonaro is under not to abandon entirely his sceptical attitude to China, Luiz Philippe de Orleans e Braganca, the vice-president of the lower house’s foreign affairs committee and a lawmaker from Bolsonaro’s own party, said the government should set limits to the partnership.

“It’s good to talk to China, but it depends what is being discussed,” he said. “For example, the 5G network set up by China is dangerous because it will give the Chinese more information about Brazilian citizens than the Brazilian government.”

Source: SCMP

16/05/2019

Amazon faces backlash in India for selling shoes, rugs with images of Hindu gods

MUMBAI (Reuters) – Amazon.com faced a social media backlash in India on Thursday after toilet seat covers and other items emblazoned with images of Hindu gods were spotted on its website.

Thousands of Twitter users backed a call for a boycott of the U.S. retailer, making #BoycottAmazon India’s top trending topic on Twitter. Some tagged Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, urging her to take action against the company.

Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer, said it was removing the products from its online store.

“All sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who do not will be subject to action including potential removal of their account,” the company said in a statement.

The episode is reminiscent of an incident in 2017 when the Indian government took Amazon to task after its Canadian website was spotted selling doormats resembling India’s flag.

Swaraj at the time threatened to rescind visas of Amazon employees if the doormats were not removed from its site.

Reuters found several listings of toilet seat covers, yoga mats, sneakers, rugs and other items depicting Hindu gods, or sacred Hindu symbols, on Amazon’s U.S. website.

Some of the items were no longer available for purchase.

“Until you hit these Hinduphobics Business hard they will keep on insulting your gods, your beliefs & your entire civilization,” tweeted Sumit Kandel, whose profile describes him as a film trade analyst.

Source:Reuters

11/05/2019

Islamic State claims ‘province’ in India for first time after clash in Kashmir

NEW DELHI/SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Islamic State (IS) claimed for the first time that it has established a “province” in India, after a clash between militants and security forces in the contested Kashmir region killed a militant with alleged ties to the group.

IS’s Amaq News Agency late on Friday announced the new province, that it called “Wilayah of Hind”, in a statement that also claimed IS inflicted casualties on Indian army soldiers in the town of Amshipora in the Shopian district of Kashmir.

The IS statement corresponds with an Indian police statement on Friday that a militant called Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi was killed in an encounter in Shopian.

IS’s statement establishing the new province appears to be designed to bolster its standing after the group was driven from its self-styled “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria in April, where at one point it controlled thousands of miles of territory.

IS has stepped up hit-and-run raids and suicide attacks, including taking responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka that killed at least 253 people.

“The establishment of a ‘province’ in a region where it has nothing resembling actual governance is absurd, but it should not be written off,” said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intel Group that tracks Islamic extremists.

“The world may roll its eyes at these developments, but to jihadists in these vulnerable regions, these are significant gestures to help lay the groundwork in rebuilding the map of the IS ‘caliphate’.”

Sofi had been involved in several militant groups in Kashmir for more than a decade before pledging allegiance to Islamic State, according to a military official on Saturday and an interview given by Sofi to a Srinagar-based magazine sympathetic to IS.

He was suspected of several grenade attacks on security forces in the region, police and military sources said.

“It was a clean operation and no collateral damage took place during the exchange of fire,” a police spokesman said in the statement on Friday’s encounter.

The military official said it was possible that Sofi had been the only militant left in Kashmir associated with IS.

Separatists have for decades fought an armed conflict against Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir. The majority of these groups want independence for Kashmir or to join India’s arch-rival Pakistan. They have not, like Islamic State, sought to establish an empire across the Muslim world.

Nuclear powers India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, and came to the brink of a third earlier this year after a suicide attack by a Pakistan-based militant group killed at least 40 paramilitary police in the Indian-controlled portion of the region.

A spokesman for India’s home ministry, which is responsible for security in Kashmir, did not respond to a request for comment.

Source: Reuters

05/05/2019

India’s rural pain goes beyond farmers, and it may be a problem for Modi

ZADSHI VILLAGE, India (Reuters) – Three years ago, brick mason Pundlik Bhandekar was always busy as farmers in his tiny hamlet in Maharashtra commissioned new houses and nearby towns were undergoing rapid urbanisation. Now, as the rural economy sinks and the pace of construction slows, Bhandekar is struggling to get work.

“I used to get a new construction project before I could even finish one. People would come to my house to check when I would be free to work for them,” said Bhandekar, as he sat with friends under the shade of a tree on a hot afternoon.

From daily wage workers such as masons, to barbers and grocery shop owners – just about everyone in Zadshi village, some 720 km (450 miles) from India’s financial hub Mumbai, says a drop in farm incomes has dented their livelihoods.

Their woes are symptomatic of a wider problem across India, where more than half of the country’s 1.3 billion people are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, as the slowdown in the rural economy is felt in the dampening sales of consumer goods, especially the biggest such as car and motorbike sales.

The slowdown has also dented Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity in the hinterland that propelled him to power in 2014, and political strategists say it may mean he struggles to form a majority after voting in a staggered general election that began on April 11 concludes on May 19.

Zadshi has been almost entirely dependent on annual cotton and soybean crops that, according to farmers, have given lacklustre returns in the past few years due to a dip in prices, droughts and pest attacks.

And as incomes have dropped, farmers have cut back on big-ticket spending such as building new houses, digging wells or laying water pipelines, squeezing employment opportunities for people such as Bhandkekar.

“No one is interested in hiring us. We are ready to work even at 250 rupees ($3.60) per day,” said Bhandekar, who charged 300 rupees a day when work was steady, but now gets work only once or twice in a fortnight.

LOWER WAGES, LESS SPENDING

Economic data reflects the plight of farmers and daily wage workers.

Retail food inflation in the fiscal year ended on March 31 fell to 0.74 percent, even as core inflation stood at 5.2 percent, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch Research, eroding the spending power of farmers.

Inflation adjusted wage growth for workers involved in crop sowing was just 0.6 percent 2018/19 compared with 6.5 percent in 2013/14.

The value of farm produce at constant prices grew 15 percent in the past five years, compared with 23 percent in the previous five, while the manufacturing sector grew 40 percent, against 32.6 percent in the previous five years, government data shows.

“Lower rural wages will result in lesser spending, which in turn will reduce demand for goods and services that are part of the rural basket,” Rupa Rege Nitsure, group chief economist at L&T Finance Holdings in Mumbai, told Reuters.

The government needs to spend more in rural areas to generate employment and boost incomes, Nitsure said.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist government did introduce various support schemes in the past six months, such as a 6,000 rupees yearly handout to small farmers.

The main opposition Congress party has gone much further with its pledges though, saying it would introduce a basic minimum income, where the country’s poorest families would get 72,000 rupees annually, benefiting some 250 million people.

RISING UNEMPLOYMENT

In Zadshi, as the mercury touched a searing 40 degrees Celsius(104F), a group of villagers gathered under the trees lining a dusty road and began chatting about everything from crop prices to politics.

“What else we can do? Had work been available in urban areas, we could have moved there but even in the cities construction has slowed down,” said Amol Sontakke, an unskilled labourer who works in farms and on construction sites.

Job opportunities have slowed even in urban areas and India’s unemployment rate touched 7.2 percent in February, the highest since September 2016, according to data compiled by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Official data is unavailable for recent periods.

The mood in Zadshi was glum. While four dozen villagers interviewed by Reuters were hopeful that if there was a good monsoon this year it could improve farm incomes, they’ve been cutting back on spending in the meantime.

“People are thinking twice before buying new clothes during festivals,” said Avinash Gaurkar, a farmer currently doubling up as a part-time driver. “Buying big-ticket items such as motorcycles or refrigerators is out of the question.”

Two years ago Gaurkar began building a house, but had to give up midway as his five-acre farm could not generate the money needed, he said, pointing towards a half-finished structure without doors.

In 2018, just four villagers bought new motorbikes compared with as many as 10 a year about four years ago, said cotton farmer Raju Kohale, whose son is sitting at home unemployed after graduating as an engineer.

“Poor monsoon or lower prices, something or the other has been hurting us in the past few years,” Kohale said.

MODI AGAIN?

In the 2014 general election, most in Zadshi voted for Modi, but the farmers’ distress has swayed many towards the opposition Congress party. That was clear from Reuters’ interviews with 48 villagers, who cast their ballots last month.

Farmers are at the bottom of the Modi administration’s priority list, said labourer Sagar Bahalavi.

“They are building big roads to connect metros and calling it development. How is that useful for us?” he said.

Some, though, want to give Modi a second chance.
“Modi’s intentions are good, it’s the bureaucratic system that is not supporting him,” said Gulab Chalakh, who owns a 20-acre farm and is among the richest in the village. “We should give him another chance.”
Source: Reuters
02/05/2019

Why jobs are dominating the Indian election

As unemployment climbs in India, job creation is top of the agenda this election season.

By some estimates the country needs to create eight to ten million jobs each year to tackle the problem. But is the goal achievable?

Source: The BBC

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