Sunday, 29 September 2013

This hajj, Muslims need to ask questions about exploitation

G4S's work in Saudi Arabia has sparked controversy. But where is the outcry over human rights as a new Mecca rises to service pilgrims?
Hajj 2012 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Cranes and skyscrapers tower over Hajjis in Mecca. Photograph: Alaa Badarneh/EPA
News that the Saudi government has engaged the services of security firm G4S for this year's hajj is angering campaigners, who accuse the company of profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
G4S has not revealed details about the nature or the scale of its involvement during hajj although a 2011 publication mentions a contract with Jeddah Metro to assist with security during that year's pilgrimage.
In light of the accusations about its activities in Israel, the company told a website that although it operates there, the structure and management of its work in Saudi Arabia is entirely different. A G4S spokesman also told Middle East Monitor: "Whilst we don't provide security directly for the pilgrims, we do provide security support for clients in Saudi that will require additional support during the hajj period."
Regardless of the nature or scale of the security firm's involvement in the pilgrimage, the combination of sacred sites and occupied territories is an inflammatory one and one NGO is already calling on the Saudi ambassador to the UK for the government to immediately end its contracts with G4S.
But if Muslims feel aggrieved about human rights abuses and hajj, then perhaps they ought to take a look at what is happening under the shadow of the heavy machinery surrounding Mecca, for the skyscrapers and shopping malls of Islam's holiest city are not being built by pixies.
This week, the Guardian highlighted the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers who are preparing Qatar for the World Cup in 2022. Similar scrutiny should also be applied to the projects under way in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, although these have traditionally tended to excite more indignation over the demolition of buildings with historic and religious significance than the erosion of rights of the workers razing mountains. It is a good thing there is more awareness about Islam's heritage and the need to preserve it. A natural extension of this activism and discussion are questions about the people shaping Mecca: who are they, and what are their living and working conditions like?
Given the problems in accessing Saudi Arabia at the best of times, let alone during hajj, it is difficult to establish how many workers are involved with the Mecca projects, where they come from, how they are treated and how closely construction firms obey the country's labour laws. Saudi laws outline the responsibilities that employers have to protect their workers against occupational hazards, industrial accidents and workplace injuries as well as dealing with the employment of non-Saudis. Human Rights Watch has documented themistreatment of migrant workers and it is clear that existing employment legislation is no bar to abuse. Construction workers in Saudi Arabia face many of the same problems with working conditions, lack of mobility, lack of redress as other workers based in the Gulf. As in Qatar, Saudi Arabia operates a kafala system, which requires all unskilled labourers to have a sponsor. Migrant workers are therefore unable to enter the country, leave it or change jobs without their company's permission. In the spirit of openness the Saudi government could list the names of companies involved in the building projects and these companies could in turn make a pledge to uphold the rights of workers in a way that not only adheres to national legislation but also the spirit of hajj.
It may be that the very purpose of hajj makes it difficult for some to focus on the issues that the modern day pilgrimage raises. It reconnects Muslims with the religion's prophets; it represents purity, renewal, a reminder of the hereafter, unity, submission to Allah, piety, collective worship and humility. But hajj is also about equality, fraternity and justice.
While nobody is expecting banners to be unfurled in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque – although it would certainly liven up the annual television coverage – there is nothing to stop Muslims from at least asking deeper, difficult questions about the human cost of hajj.

Time to get cracking on fracking

S A Aiyer

After years of consideration, the government has come out with a disappointing shale gas policy. The public sector companies, ONGC and Oil India, will be allowed to drill for shale oil and gas in blocks they already have, but fresh auctions will be conducted for all other shale deposits. Private sector companies will not be allowed to exploit shale formations in their existing blocks. This means delay and unwarranted red tape. There is little reason to have separate auctions for conventional and non-conventional oil and gas.

Shale gas and oil have changed the face of the US. Huge increases in production have taken the US close to self-sufficiency in oil, and created a big gas surplus. By 2020, the US may get all its energy needs from its own fields and those of Mexico and Canada, eliminating the need for oil from the Middle East or Latin America. India’s prospects are much poorer. Yet preliminary data suggest that India has 63 trillion cu. ft of shale gas, 20 times as much as in Reliance’s offshore field. Additional prospecting could raise reserves considerably.

One good feature: the new policy mandates auctions based on simple production sharing between the explorer and government. The current cost-plus system has led to endless disputes in Reliance’s case. This new policy will apply to conventional as well as non-conventional deposits.

The question remains, why treat shale gas as different from conventional natural gas?

Gas and oil have been formed by the decay under great pressure and heat of marine life trapped in sands millions of years ago. Conventional oil and gas are produced by drilling into rock formations that are porous (lots of holes in the rock) and permeable (the holes are interconnected, letting the oil/gas to flow out under its own pressure). Limestone and sandstone are rocks with good flow rates. But other rock formations can be “tight”, having low porosity and permeability, in which oil does not flow easily.

This is true of shale and some other rock formations. These formations have long been known to contain enormous deposits, but extracting them was earlier not economically viable. Then a new technology, fracking, was devised in the 1990s. It used horizontal drilling and highpressure water with sand to crack open tight formations. This improved the flow enough to make drilling viable.

Now, many oil and gas deposits lie in multiple layers of different rocks. Thick sandstone and limestone formations may be interspersed with shale layers. The oil and gas lie trapped in all the layers, but conventionally were extracted only from the easy-flowing ones. Now they can be extracted from the tight layers too.

Does it make sense to decree that an explorer can touch only conventional strata and not tight layers, which should be auctioned to a separate company? Is it logical to have two companies drilling in the same block, one in the limestone strata and another in the shale? Apart from the duplication in cost and effort, it could lead to endless disputes and litigation. It could jeopardize safe field development too.

The US makes no distinctions. An explorer strikes deals with landowners, and can extract any gas or oil from any sort of rock. After all, nobody knows in advance whether oil or gas will be discovered, and if so in what sort of rock.

Exploration policy in India should similarly have no distinctions in exploration policy. However, fracking will need separate environmental clearance, because it poses special challenges.

Fracking needs very large quantities of water, mixed with chemicals, for blasting open tight formations. Waste water after fracking could contain toxic chemicals, and so must not be dumped.

To begin with, fracking in India can be limited to areas with abundant water. Only deep aquifers should be tapped for fracking, avoiding shallow aquifers used for irrigation or drinking water. Maybe sea water can be used in coastal locations.

Second, waste water after fracking must be recycled for use in new wells, not dumped. This will not only check toxic hazards but reduce the water needed for additional wells. Only certified safe chemicals should be used for fracking.

If surplus fracked water is pumped underground for disposal, it can cause small tremors (misleadingly reported as “earthquakes” by activists). This can be managed by gradual, deep disposal.

Activists will undoubtedly ask the courts to ban fracking, even though not a single case of contamination has been established after two decades in the US. The government should get an advance ruling on this from the Supreme Court, clarifying conditions under which fracking can take place. This may take a few years, so we need to start forthwith.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

NDA v UPA: Close encounters with facts

Minhaz Merchant in Times of India

Which government – UPA or NDA – has been better for India’s economic and social indicators? Dismiss the rhetoric and stick to the facts. In this analysis, I’ve chosen 10 key parameters. They cover both economic and social criteria.
1.GDP growth: Average GDP growth in 1998-2004 (NDA) was 6% a year. Average annual GDP growth in 2004-13 (UPA), up to June 30, 2013, was 7.9%.
Caveat 1: The Vajpayee-led NDA battled US-led economic sanctions following the Pokhran-II nuclear test in May 1998. It faced a short but expensive Kargil war in 1999 and the dotcom bust in 2000. When it took office, it had the lag effect of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 to contend with.
Caveat 2: The UPA government, in contrast, benefitted from the economic momentum of the high (8.1%) GDP growth rate of 2003-04 – the NDA government’s final year – and rode that wave. The global liquidity bubble in 2004-08 bouyed foreign mflows, helping UPA-I achieve a high GDP growth rate in its first term. The Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008 did hurt the Indian economy but the ensuing US Federal Reserve asset buying programme attracted a steady flow of near-zero interest dollars into India from 2009.
Despite these caveats, the UPA government’s average annual GDP growth rate of 7.9% in 2004-13 clearly scores over the NDA government’s average annual growth rate of 6% (though high inflation boosted the former significantly). First strike to UPA.
2. Current Account Deficit:
2004:  (+) $7.36 billion (surplus).
2013: (-) $80 billion.
The winner here is clearly NDA. It ran a current account surplus in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Under UPA this dipped into deficit from 2006 and has spun downwards since.
3. Trade deficit:
2004: (-) $13.16 billion.
2013: (-) $180 billion.
Again, advantage NDA.
4. Fiscal deficit:
2004: 4.7% of GDP.
2013: 4.8% of GDP.
Not much to choose between the two.
Caveat: This extract from the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) report, published in 2010, explains why and when the UPA government’s fiscal defict began to spiral out of control.
“The central budget in 2008–2009, announced in February 2008, seemed to continue the progress towards FRBM targets by showing a low fiscal deficit of 2.5% of GDP. However, the 2008–2009 budget quite clearly made inadequate allowances for rural schemes like the farm loan waiver and the expansion of social security schemes under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the Sixth Pay Commission award and subsidies for food, fertilizer, and petroleum.”
“These together pushed up the fiscal deficit sharply to higher levels. There were also off-budget items like the issue of oil and fertilizer bonds, which should be added to give a true picture of fiscal deficit in 2008–2009. The fiscal deficit shot up to 8.9% of GDP (10.7% including off-budget bonds) against 5.0% in 2007–2008 and the primary surplus turned into a deficit of 3.5% of GDP.
“The huge increase in public expenditure in 2008–2009 of 31.2% that followed a 27.4% increase in 2007–2008 was driven by the electoral cycle with parliamentary elections scheduled within a year of the announcement of the budget.”
The recent announcement of the Seventh Pay Commission comes again, not unexpectedly, at the end of an electoral cycle.
5. Inflation:
1998-2004: 5%.
2004-2013: 9% (Both figures are averaged out over their respective tenures).
Advantage again to NDA. Inflation under NDA was on average half that under UPA, leading to the RBI’s controversial tight money policy, high interest rates and rising EMIs.
6. External Debt:
March 2004: $111.6 billion.
March 2013: $390 billion.
The UPA suffers badly in this comparision, a result of lack of confidence in India’s economy and currency following retrospective tax legislation and other regressive policies, especially during UPA-2.
7. Jobs:
1999-2004:  60 million new jobs created.
2004-11: 14.6 million jobs created.
Clearly, the UPA’s big failure has been jobless growth – a bad electoral omen.
8. Rupee:
1998-2004: Variation: Rs. 39 to 49 per $.
2004-13: Variation: Rs. 39 to 68 per $.
(Rupee rose from 40-plus to 39 between October 2007 and April 2008.)
The NDA government’s economic and fiscal policies, despite the various crises of 1998-2000 pointed out earlier, evoked more  global confidence, leading to a relatively stable rupee (Rs. 10 variation) compared to the Rs. 29 variation during UPA’s tenure.
9. HDI:
2004: India was ranked 123rd globally on the human development index (HDI) in 2004, with a score of 0.453.
2013: India has slipped 13 places to 136th globally on the HDI in 2013 with a score of 0.554.
10. Subsidies:
2004: Rs. 44,327 crore.
2013: Rs. 2,31,584 crore.
Here again, profligate welfarism, as the ADBI report quoted earlier shows, has led to a rising subsidy bill. Worse, a significant amount is siphoned off by a corrupt nexus of politicians, officials and middlemen.
Conclusion: UPA scores above NDA on one of the 10 parameters (GDP growth), is level on one other parameter (fiscal deficit) while NDA does better than UPA on the remaining eight parameters.
The next time Finance Minister P. Chidambaram wishes to stage an encounter with facts, he would do well to be aware of those facts.
Sources: Economic Survey of India, UNDP, IMF, Planning Commission of India.


Gujarat vs Bihar: settling the development debate

Minhaz Merchant in Times of India
02 August 2013,

A rational analysis of the “Gujarat and Bihar models” of development must not mix apples with oranges. Critics put India’s 35 states and union territories – big and tiny – in the same empirical basket. 
But comparing, for example, Goa’s indices with Uttar Pradesh’s is misleading on account of size, population and demographics.    
A more logical way to address the Gujarat vs. Bihar development model debate is to compare the indices of India’s 10 largest states (by population) and rank them accordingly.   
All data is from the Planning Commission of India except population data which is from the 2011 census, education data which is collated from published sources, and city GDP data which is drawn from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 
In this study, I have chosen the following indices:
  1. Per capita income;
  2. Human Development Index (HDI);
  3. Poverty levels;
  4. Education.  
Taken together, ranking India’s 10 largest states by population across these four parameters will give us a good idea of where each state stands on income, malnutrition and social infrastructure.   
Start with the 10 largest states in descending order of population: 
State               Population (2011 census)
  1. Uttar Pradesh: 199 million
  2. Maharashtra: 112 million
  3. Bihar: 104 million
  4. West Bengal: 91 million
  5. Andhra Pradesh: 85 million
  6. Madhya Pradesh: 73 million
  7. Tamil Nadu: 72 million
  8. Rajasthan: 69 million
  9. Karnataka: 61 million
  10. Gujarat: 60 million 
Now rank these 10 states by per capita income – a critical indicator of prosperity.  
State            Per capita income (FY 2012)
  1. Maharashtra: Rs. 1,01,314
  2. Gujarat: Rs. 89,668
  3. Tamil Nadu: Rs. 84,496
  4. Karnataka: Rs. 69,055
  5. Andhra Pradesh: Rs. 68,970
  6. West Bengal: Rs. 55,222
  7. Rajasthan: Rs. 53,735
  8. Madhya Pradesh: Rs. 37,994
  9. Uttar Pradesh: Rs. 30,051
  10. Bihar: Rs. 22,691
All-India: Rs. 61,564  
Maharashtra ranks no. 1, Gujarat no. 2 and Tamil Nadu no. 3. But Maharashtra has an unfair advantage because Mumbai, India’s wealthiest city, increases its average per capita income significantly. Let’s compute the precise impact.  
The GDPs of India’s richest cities are: 
City GDPs (PPP)                                  
  1. Mumbai: $209 billion                          
  2. Delhi: $167 billion
  3. Kolkata: $150 billion                           
  4. Bangalore: $84 billion
  5. Hyderabad: $74 billion                                   
  6. Chennai: $66 billion
  7. Ahmedabad: $52 billion                      
  8. Pune: $47 billion                         
 (PPP: Purchasing Power Parity)  
If we exclude Mumbai’s $209 billion GDP from Maharashtra’s GDP (adjusting PPP GDP for exchange rate nominal GDP to align with Planning Commission figures) but keep Pune (whose $47-billion GDP is not dissimilar to the GDP of the capitals of other key states), Maharashtra’s per capita income falls from Rs. 1,01,314 to around Rs. 78,000.  
So without Mumbai (but including Pune), Maharashtra would slip to no. 3 in our per capita income chart. Gujarat would move up to no. 1, Tamil Nadu to no. 2. Bihar, with per capita income of Rs. 22,691, would stay at no. 10.  
As Rahul Sachitanand wrote in The Economic Times on August 1, 2013: “In the five years before Modi took charge, (Gujarat's) average growth in GDP was 2.8%. Under him, between 2002-03 and 2011-12, it was 10.3%. Only three small states – Sikkim, Uttarakhand  and Delhi – have grown faster. Gujarat is ahead of the national average (7.9%), as well as the two states it is pitted against in today’s discourse, Bihar (8.4%) and Madhya Pradesh (7.1%). It has leapfrogged Maharashtra to lead in factory output, grown well in agriculture, and been a leader in electricity reform and the spread of irrigation.”  
Sachitanand goes on to point out, rightly, that Gujarat "has struggled to engineer similar breakouts in its social indicators – women, health, education, poverty, wages." 
Turn now, therefore, to our second criterion – Human Development Index (HDI). 
State             HDI (2011)
  1. Maharashtra: .572
  2. Tamil Nadu: .570
  3. Gujarat: .527
  4. Karnataka: .519
  5. West Bengal: .492
  6. Andhra Pradesh: .473 
  7. Rajasthan: .434
  8. Uttar Pradesh: .380
  9. Madhya Pradesh: .375
  10. Bihar: .367
All-India HDI: .467 
HDI is a composite of life expectancy, education and income indices. It was created in 1990 by Amartya Sen and Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq. Life expectancy is correlated to social indicators such as healthcare, malnutrition, infant mortality, etc.  
Maharashtra emerges as no. 1, Tamil Nadu no. 2 and Gujarat no. 3. HDI is also correlated (though not linearly) to prosperity. Not surprisingly, therefore, these three states top the per capita income charts as well. Clearly, however, despite being ranked third among India’s 10 largest states on HDI, Gujarat needs to improve further. Bihar though is ranked last again and needs to do a lot more.
                                                          * * *
Gujarat also needs to increase its expenditure on education. It currently spends only 13.9% of total expenditure on education and is ranked a low eighth among India’s 10 largest states. In comparison, Bihar spends a higher proportion (18%) of its overall expenditure on education. Of course, Gujarat’s outlays are larger in absolute terms because of its larger overall budget but it hasn’t paid enough attention to education – and that could hurt growth in the long term unless corrected quickly.  
Education expense as a ratio of total expenditure  
  1. Maharashtra: 21.0%
  2. Rajasthan: 19.1%
  3. West Bengal: 18.3%
  4. Bihar: 18.0%
  5. Uttar Pradesh: 15.9%
  6. Karnataka: 15.6%
  7. Tamil Nadu: 14.7%
  8. Gujarat: 13.9%
  9. Madhya Pradesh: 13.1%
  10. Andhra Pradesh: 11.5%  
Gujarat has also been criticised for neglecting healthcare and malnutrition. While HDI, where Gujarat is ranked no. 3, captures some social indicators like infant mortality, healthcare and malnutrition, poverty levels are another important pointer to the overall quality of social infrastructure.  
Here Gujarat, while better than the all-India average, fares poorly in comparison with a state like Rajasthan. Bihar though continues to suffer twice the level of poverty of Gujarat.  
Poverty ratio (2011-12)
  1. Bihar: 33.5%
  2. Madhya Pradesh: 31.7%
  3. Uttar Pradesh: 29.4%
  4. Gujarat: 16.6%%
  5. Rajasthan: 14.7% 
All-India: 21.9%
                                                                        * * *
The overall verdict:
  1. Gujarat has the highest per capita income among India’s 10 largest states (when Mumbai is excluded from Maharashtra).
  2. It has the third best HDI score among these large states. This is contrary to the popular belief that Gujarat favours manufacturing, industry and infrastructure at the cost of the social sector.
  3. Bihar does abysmally on all criteria – per capita income, HDI, poverty levels – except education where it spends more as a ratio of its small overall expenditure than Gujarat. 
Going forward, Gujarat needs to focus on education and healthcare and further improve its HDI score. And it must focus on more equable income distribution to bring poverty levels down even faster from 16.6%, even though this is significantly better than the all-India level of 21.9% and half Bihar’s poverty level of 33.5%.  
Gujarat’s annual agricultural growth over the past decade has averaged more than 10% – triple India’s average – and it still has the country’s highest manufacturing/industry ratio-to-GDP.  
Bihar’s task is tougher. It needs to improve on all fronts. Its per capita income is one-fourth Gujarat’s and its poverty levels twice Gujarat’s. Though its annual GDP growth rate is roughly similar to Gujarat's, its low base will make it hard for it to bridge the gap for decades. It is ranked last on HDI. Its only silver lining is education – but here too, as the Chapra midday meal tragedy demonstrated, much more needs to be done to improve school infrastructure despite eight years of Nitish Kumar’s chief ministership.  
In conclusion, the Gujarat vs Bihar development model debate is a sterile one. Both states should be aiming at meeting absolute standards on economic and social criteria, not engaging in political one-upmanship.  

Cricket Commentary - What do they know of cliches...

Russell Jackson 

Ishant Sharma: exactly the bowler his average suggests  © Getty Images
As is the case with most of the sports we love and talk about, cricket long ago fell victim to a variety of enduring and evolving clichés. We're all guilty of indulging in them from time to time if we're honest with ourselves.
I guess you should consider this a kind of warning shot or manifesto for my appearances on the Cordon. Maybe it can even act as a warning to myself. "Is that really something you think or is it just something that everyone says?" Feel free to give me a nudge when I lapse.
Cricket clichés find their most obvious and oft-parodied home in the various commentary boxes of the game's major broadcasters. Often they fall into the category of "groupthink", where one ex-player's prattling or agenda comes to be accepted as the prevailing wisdom. A great example of this is the popular theory that, "Ishant Sharma is a better bowler than his figures suggest." Sorry to spoil the party, but aside from a couple of spells to one RT Ponting, Ishant is exactly the bowler his average suggests. A Test bowling average approaching 38 is a bit unlucky if you're a freewheeling rookie on the receiving end of some bad slips fielding, not if you're a 51-Test veteran. We have enough of a statistical sample size now; enough of this nonsense.
There are clichés to be found in the way we think about cricket, the way we talk about it, but most irksome of all in the way we write about it. If only I had a pre-war Wisden for every time some so-called cricket appreciator in the op-ed columns of a broadsheet newspaper has sprinkled that one CLR James quote (we all know the one, don't even say it) into a piece as though that in itself were persuasion enough that the writer does indeed have a thorough, beard-stroking understanding of the game's intricacies.
These James-referencing articles normally fall into one of two categories: ones that provide a ham-fisted or erroneous interpretation of the famous line and others again that present it completely devoid of context; just a bobbling boat of misguided self-importance. It's an attempt at adding a dash of intellectual heft to otherwise pedestrian observations and it usually sticks out like a wicketkeeper's thumb. Have any of these people actually read the damned book? It's great obviously, but please give us something that's not in the Amazon summary or the back-cover blurb.
To borrow the words of James' biographer Dave Renton, in coming to a genuine and considered appraisal of the Trinidadian writer's output and philosophy, "we must scrape through a muck of encrusted cliché". Renton also takes accurate aim at Wisden cliché-peddlers, sagely adding that "usually and lazily termed cricket's bible: more accurately it is the game's hadith: its tradition". Corollary to this is the equally hackneyed concept of the "cricket tragic", a self-description abused with regularity by boasting politicians and celebrity cricket frauds alike. Besides anything, there's actually very little about loving cricket, or any sport, that veers into tragedy. I guess Australians might now pause longer to consider that one.
When the cliché purveyors aren't telling you all about the "wristy" batsman of the subcontinent, they're banging on about the WACA being "a fast bowler's dream"
When the cliché purveyors aren't telling you all about the "wristy" batsman of the subcontinent, they're banging on about the WACA being "a fast bowler's dream". They should really have a word with AB de Villiers about the latter; he has made hundreds in his last two Tests there; or Hashim Amla, who belted 196 at near enough to a run a ball at the other end last November. Their South Africa team piled on 569 in their second innings.
On the topic of pitch-based clichés, Australians most famously view Indian pitches as untamable minefields perfectly curated to expose their side's deficiencies against spin. In actual fact they're not all that bad to bat on once you get yourself in and establish a tempo. Just ask the recently victorious England squad, who found the going far easier than the Aussies. Bad batting is bad batting.
Let's not allow players off the cliché hook either. A month or so back, Matthew Hayden took aim at recently displaced Aussie coach Mickey Arthur, decrying Arthur's leaked utterances about Shane Watson and painting the coach as an unwelcome interloper in his "old boy's club", an irony-gasm of epic proportions to those following the story at even the most superficial level. The former Test opener bellowed, "Correct Mick, we're an old boy's club. We're 450-plus players that have played for our country.
"We're proud of our culture, we're proud of our community of cricketers and one thing we actually can't stand is being interrogated on our watch in terms of criticising the fabric of the baggy green."
It's a sensational sound bite, but as with many evocations on the aura of the baggy green, it doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny. Was Hayden referring to the same tight-knit brethren that teased Scott Muller out of Test cricket? The ones who immediately turned on Bryce McGain the minute he bowled his first Cape Town long hop, or watched on as his spinning colleague Beau Casson rolled himself up into a foetal position and disappeared off the face of the earth?
I myself recently likened the Australian Test team of its recent glory years to the Cosa Nostra, and that's probably more accurate in terms of a family metaphor; if you step out of line or make a false move, you might get whacked.
And as for the present cricket cliché du jour? Well, the BCCI clearly isn't responsible for all of cricket's woes, just a decent heaping of them.

Friday, 27 September 2013

A new meaning for 'relationship support'

From Cambridge News

A day of bondage workshops at a village hall was cancelled as red-faced trustees in Cambridge said they had got the wrong end of the stick.

Officials at Trumpington Village Hall believed the venue was booked for ‘relationship support’ meetings.

But after the News exclusively revealed the High Street venue was in fact booked by a bondage group the trustees were stunned to discover the hall, which usually hosts WI meetings, bingo and Brownies, was actually going to host lessons in flogging, spanking and domination.

Community listings for the Fifty Shades of Grey-style event also promised tips on how to “truly get a bottom’s attention with canes”.

Organisers Peer Rope Cambridge also promised advice on “violence/resistance play” and the “basics of erotic hypnosis”.

Another lesson entitled ‘Kink on a budget’, said it would focus on “BDSM (Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission), without breaking the bank”

The fee for the day was £10 - which included tea, coffee, pastries and biscuits.
Hall committee members cancelled the event and said the booking was “made under false pretences”.

Outraged hall manager Barbara Fernandez, 51, said she would be seeking legal advice over the matter.

Part-time teacher Mrs Fernandez, a mother-of-two, said: “The woman who made the booking said the group would be doing one thing, but they were doing something else.
“On the forms she said it was a ‘relationship support group meeting’. But it is not. It is bondage. It did not see bondage on the booking form.

“We provide services for little old ladies and child care groups. Some of our little old ladies who come to play Bingo will be upset.

“It is not a question of what activities they are doing, it is more about lying to us. We take things in good faith when they fill out the booking form.

“We do not bang on the doors to find out what people are doing. We expect people to be honest about they are using the halls for.

“Had we known what the booking was for I would have consulted the trustees about whether we wanted to host the event. I will be seeking legal advice.”

The sex workshop was advertised to take place on October 12.

A similar event was held by the group last year and the village hall said they had several invoices from them for other ‘meetings’.

Participants were told ‘Mistress Bond’ would lead “a group discussion on how to ensure your sessions go with a bang!”.

The programme said “topless nudity (covered ladynipples please) is permitted once inside the venue” and under ‘things to bring’ the instruction leaflet states “er rope”.

The small hall was also set to host flogging lessons while a ‘maid’ would serve snacks throughout the day, including sandwiches, crisps and fruit for lunch.

The hall trustees said: “It has been brought to our attention that the premises have been hired under false pretences by PRC Cambridge.

“When the bookings were made, the activity was described as a ‘relationship support group meeting’.

“This description did not fully state the activities being undertaken. The trustees have therefore cancelled all future bookings and have no further comment to make.”

Peer Rope Cambridge said they had a policy of not commenting to the press.
Trumpinton Village Hall was founded in 1908 and owned by a charitable trust. 

India. Pakistan, Kenya - In the aftermath of trauma

Ali Khan Mahmudabad in the Times of India

In the face of unimaginable trauma there is often a desire to find something or someone to blame. Although perhaps a natural reflex, the implications of this are inevitably destructive as often stereotypes are perpetuated, prejudices are entrenched and motives are ascribed in order to try and ‘rationalise’ what has happened. In the aftermath of the tragic events of the mall bombing in Kenya, the suicide attack on a Church in Pakistan and the horrific riots in Muzaffarnagar in India, there will inevitably be the usual scramble to try and create accounts that will further the narrow interests of various political and ideological groups.
Some people will deride religion, others will blame hegemonic nation-states and domestic political parties and their factions and yet others will point to socio-economic reasons. In all this those who directly suffer as a result of these terrible events either become silent symbols of a particular ideological framework or become marginalized voices whose pain is co-opted even manipulated by others.  Our actions, therefore, as citizens and members of society will have a direct bearing on whatever the outcome will be.
A few years ago there were two deplorable attacks by suicide bombers on the International Islamic University of Islamabad in Pakistan. One of the attacks was aimed at a canteen in the faculty and the timing of it was such that about 50 or 60 girls were there on their lunch break. The cowardly attack was partially thwarted by the valiant efforts of one of the janitorial staff, Pervaiz Masih, who was a Christian. Masih, wearing only ‘the armor of light,’ intercepted the bomber and prevented him from entering the canteen. He died in the attack and thus saved a number of people.
In India there have been many instances of brave people sheltering their neighbors and friends. In Muzaffarnagar, Brijender Singh Malik gave refuge to 150 neighbors, who were Muslims, knowing that he might be putting his own family in danger. In the Kenyan mall, Satpal Singh risked his life to save other people. A month ago 70 odd Muslims came together in Kishtwar in Kashmir to escort a Hindu marriage procession through volatile areas. Dr. Wajid was a part of the escort and referred to Dr. Ashish Sharma the groom as his ‘son.’ Kishtwar has also been experiencing so called ‘Hindu-Muslim violence’ for over a month. It would of course be easy to label each of these acts, as has been done by the media, as that of a Christian, a Hindu, a Sikh or a Muslim but ultimately it is impossible to deconstruct why they did what they did without doing injustice to the act itself. It requires true courage to not impose our individuality on others.
As these recent events, like tragedies past, become part of the hazy landscape of history, those time old questions confront us yet again.  How do we learn? What do we do with the memory of these events? It is firstly important to introspect and rid ourselves of our own prejudices and preconceptions. If this does not happen then inevitably we will seek to place the burden of these on other people. We will seek to see the victims not as subjects in themselves but as part of our particular story. 
In other words it is important to decide whether we want to use these experiences constructively to help re-build the lives of those affected, be a part of the history of their future or whether we want to use these events to further our own agendas. This is a hard task because it invariably means that we have to critically scrutinise ourselves and decide on what it is that we want, what defines us and what we ultimately hold to be most precious. Of course, it is never as simple as being able to make a black and white list of what is important or not for our lives are constantly in a state of change. Therefore ideally what emerges is a context in which we are perpetually in conversation with ourselves. It is when this conversation, this self-questioning, stops that space for bigotry is created.
In a recent article, a columnist for BBC Urdu, Wusatullah Khan, wrote scathingly about the way in which certain religious and social groups have been written out of the pages of Pakistan’s history. In the article he recalled the reaction of a media person to the courageous sacrifice of Masih in which the reporter said “even though Masih was from the Christian community, he sacrificed his life for the love of the homeland.” Khan wrote that the words ‘even though’ cause him great sorrow to this day. Those two words, perhaps spoken out of no malice, reveal the way in which an entire society has been conditioned to assume that a patriotic Christian in Pakistan is an aberration, not to mention the fact that standing up to oppression is not the preserve of any religion, race or country. 
The onus of bringing about change therefore lies on us, the individuals who form society. It is well known and even well accepted that governments and political parties inevitably act out of self-interest. Therefore, the responsibility of holding governments to account lies with the citizens. If anywhere, the conscience of a country resides in its citizens. Of course, if a society chooses to advocate hate or to remain silent in the face of oppression then the government will only reflect their stance.
Whether a person is pointing the finger of blame at another, or indeed pointing a gun at someone, it is important to remember that three of the fingers of that hand are pointing back at themselves. This oft quoted aphorism of Imam Ali is perhaps particularly important as each one of us has the tremendous responsibility of being able to decide how these tragedies will be seen in the future. Will we allow them to be co-opted to fuel the myopic bigotry of some people? 
It is not Hindus who pose a threat to Muslims or Muslims who are an existential danger for Hindus. The threat to all members of society is from the cynical politics of fear that thrives on creating and encouraging bogies to distract people from the very real issues at hand. The pressing issue then is whether we allow this kind of politics to take root. At this crucial juncture it is not only important to underscore how important our actions will be in determining how we look at the past but also to highlight that the intentions behind the actions are equally, if not more, important. The following quote from the Bible (Corinthians:13) eloquently illustrates this.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Freeze energy prices and cause the Apocalypse


If energy companies are asked to get by on £6bn a year, they might as well not bother

By the weekend I expect we’ll have more details about the consequences of Labour’s proposed price freeze. EDF will announce that once its profits are curtailed slightly, it’ll have to sack the man who checks for bare sparking wires at the National Grid, so Devon will burn down, and the smoke from a flaming Torquay will cause planes full of especially furry puppies to crash into the Atlantic causing a tsunami that puts out the sun, making us turn the heating up even more than usual.

With no gas we’ll have to live on tinned food, but with no light we’ll cut ourselves on the jagged lids, and the smell of an entire nation bleeding will attract sharks that will evolve legs and the ability to live in dark and cold and will rule the world. So think about that before you vote Labour.

Some newspapers and politicians are suggesting this collapse into a post-electric wasteland will be inevitable. The Daily Mail listed seven steps toward “blackouts, pensions hit and years of uncertainty”. Tomorrow it’ll explain the next seven, starting: “Step 1 – with no gas fires, Britain will turn into a glacier, and Ranulph Fiennes will be appointed Prime Minister as he’ll be the only person who can travel to work.” And: “Step 2 – as our blood turns to ice some of us will be drained and used as a venue in the Winter Olympics.”

The proposal is “insane”, it says, and an assortment of experts have made comments such as: “Not putting up gas all the time is clearly PSYCHOTIC and DERANGED. It’s also emerged that Harold Shipman started out by not wanting to put up the price of gas, and only when he got away with that did he take it one stage further and murder everyone.”

Neil Woodford, the largest shareholder in the energy company Centrica, has already said: “If Centrica can’t make money supplying electricity then they won’t supply it. The lights will go off, the economy will shut down.”

That sounds a little like a threat, the sort of thing The Joker’s spokesperson might say, having rephrased the original statement of “everyone must pay me what I demand or I will plunge the city into darkness and steal their economy mwaaaaa ha ha haaaaa”. Still, at least he’s not holding the country to ransom, like teachers who vote for a half-day strike.

A spokesman for Centrica said the catastrophe would happen because “it would not be economically viable to continue supplying energy if prices were capped”. And you can sympathise, because last year the six main energy companies were only able to pay dividends of £7bn. So if they’re asked for one year to get by on only £6bn, they might as well not bother and plunge the country into an apocalyptic arena of death instead.

The energy companies also state that falling dividends will make us worse off, because this will hit pension funds. And we can be sure that’s their main concern. Sam Laidlaw, the chief executive of Centrica with a salary of £5m, and the five British Gas executives who took a total of £11m in bonuses, will be distraught at the effect on pensioners, and won’t for a moment have considered the impact on their own pay. Hopefully, they’ll receive counselling, from someone who can explain they must think of themselves occasionally, as they can’t just worry about the needs of old people ALL the time.

What we’re asked to understand by critics of this proposal, is that if the energy companies have to keep their prices down, that makes the majority of us worse off. So if you’re sensible, when you receive your gas bill you’ll say: “Oh no, is that all it is? I hope next time I have to pay much more, otherwise I’ll be short of money.”

If those who insist lower energy bills make us worse off are right, instead of freezing their prices, the Government needs to make us take a second job delivering pizzas and send all the money to npower, ensuring we’re much better off. If pensioners are too old to ride a moped, they should be forced to sell their pets as food and send in the cash, for their own good.

Despite this logic, Ed Miliband’s promise to restrain detested companies seems popular, as even the Daily Mail admits. So Peter Mandelson has condemned it, his argument being: “He mustn’t suggest a policy that most people like, can’t he see that makes him unelectable.”

I suppose the unease is due to the uncertain electoral outcome of this proposal, which depends on the arithmetic. Chief executives of energy companies are now less likely to vote Labour, whereas everyone else is more likely, so someone will have to work out which of these two categories is bigger.

It could also be argued, that as Centrica executives have stated a brief marginal reduction in their gargantuan profits will mean it won’t be worthwhile continuing to supply electricity at all, in which case they will merrily turn off the entire supply, they are the people least worthy of being in charge of it, and it ought to be taken off them altogether and given to any random person in the street rather than left in the hands of such a bunch of psychos.

Maybe Ed can fill in that detail in the manifesto