World-famous diamond inspires new and bloody history

Sat, 2016-12-24

NEW DELHI: Many precious stones have a blood-soaked history, but a new book reveals the world’s most famous diamond the Koh-i-Noor surpasses them all, with a litany of horrors that rivals “Game of Thrones.”
The Koh-i-Noor (“Mountain of Light“), now part of the British Crown Jewels, has witnessed the birth and the fall of empires across the Indian subcontinent, and remains the subject of a bitter ownership battle between Britain and India.
“It is an unbelievably violent story… Almost everyone who owns the diamond or touches it comes to a horribly sticky end,” says British historian William Dalrymple, who co-authored “Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond” with journalist Anita Anand.
“We get poisonings, bludgeonings, someone gets their head beaten with bricks, lots of torture, one person blinded by a hot needle. There is a rich variety of horrors in this book,” Dalrymple tells AFP in an interview.
In one particularly gruesome incident the book relates, molten lead is poured into the crown of a Persian prince to make him reveal the location of the diamond.
Today the diamond, which historians say was probably first discovered in India during the reign of the Mughal dynasty, is on public display in the Tower of London, part of the crown of the late Queen Mother.
The first record of the Koh-i-Noor dates back to around 1750, following Persian ruler Nader Shah’s invasion of the Mughal capital Delhi.
Shah plundered the city, taking treasures such as the mythical Peacock Throne, embellished with precious stones including the Koh-i-Noor.
“The Peacock Throne was the most lavish piece of furniture ever made. It cost four times the cost of the Taj Mahal and had all the better gems gathered by the Mughals from across India over generations,” Dalrymple says.
The diamond itself was not particularly renowned at the time — the Mughals preferred colored stones such as rubies to clear gems.
Ironically given the diplomatic headaches it has since caused, it only won fame after it was acquired by the British.
“People only know about the Koh-i-Noor because the British made so much fuss of it,” says Dalrymple.
India has tried in vain to get the stone back since winning independence in 1947, and the subject is frequently brought up when officials from the two countries meet.
Iran, Pakistan and even the Afghan Taliban have also claimed the Koh-i-Noor in the past, making it a political hot potato for the British government.
Over the course of the century that followed the Mughals’ downfall, the Koh-i-Noor was used variously as a paperweight by a Muslim religious scholar and affixed to a glittering armband worn by a Sikh king.
It only passed into British hands in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Britain gained control of the Sikh empire of Punjab, now split between Pakistan and India.
Sikh King Ranjit Singh had taken it from an Afghan ruler who had sought sanctuary in India and after he died in 1839 war broke out between the Sikhs and the British.
Singh’s 10-year-old heir handed over the diamond to the British as part of the peace treaty that ended the war and the gem was subsequently displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London — acquiring immediate celebrity status.
“It became, for the Victorians, a symbol of the conquest of India, just as today, for post-colonial Indians, it is a symbol of the colonial looting of India,” Dalrymple says.
The Koh-i-Noor, which is said to be cursed, has not been worn by a British monarch since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
It last emerged from its glass case in the Tower of London for the funeral of the Queen Mother, when it was placed on her coffin.
So might it be worn again — perhaps by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, when Prince Charles ascends to the throne?
“If that doesn’t finish the monarchy, nothing else would” laughs Dalrymple.

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A Pakistani girl is snatched away, payment for a family debt

Sat, 2016-12-24

MIRPUR KHAS, Pakistan: The mother rummages through a large metal trunk, searching for a picture of her young daughter taken away in the night to be the bride of a man who says the family owed him $1,000.
Beneath the blankets, clothes and silver ornaments that she wears with her sari, Ameri Kashi Kohli finds two photos, carefully wrapped in plastic, of her smiling daughters.
Ameri tries to remember her daughter Jeevti’s age; few of this country’s desperately poor have birth certificates. With a grin at a sudden recollection she says, “I remember her sister, my youngest, was born when there was a big earthquake in Pakistan.”
That was 2005. Jeevti was 3 years old at the time, Ameri says. That means the girl was just 14 when she disappeared into the hands of the land manager her parents were beholden to.
Her mother is sure that Jeevti paid the price for a never-ending debt.
Ameri says she and her husband borrowed roughly $500 when they first began to work on the land, but she throws up her hands and says the debt was repaid. “We started with a loan, and every time they said they were taking money for our loan, but no one gave us anything to show we paid.” Instead, the debt doubled.
It’s a familiar story here in southern Pakistan: Small loans balloon into impossible debts, bills multiply, payments are never deducted.
In this world, women like Ameri and her young daughter are treated as property: taken as payment for a debt, to settle disputes, or as revenge if a landowner wants to punish his worker. Sometimes parents, burdened by an unforgiving debt, even offer their daughters as payment.
The women are like trophies to the men. They choose the prettiest and the young and pliable. Sometimes they take them as second wives to look after their homes. Sometimes they use them as prostitutes to earn money. Sometimes they take them simply because they can.
Ameri says she has heard stories of other workers whose daughters disappeared, in a country that sees an estimated 1,000 girls like them taken each year. Now, even though she and her family live elsewhere after being tossed out of their home, she’s afraid that her 11-year-old could be taken too.
And like everything else in her life, as a Hindu in a Muslim country, as a woman who is among the poorest of the poor, she knows she will be powerless to stop it from happening.
“I went to the police and to the court. But no one is listening to us,” Ameri says. She says the land manager made her daughter convert to Islam and took the girl as his second wife. “They told us, ‘Your daughter has committed to Islam and you can’t get her back.’”
More than 2 million Pakistanis live as “modern slaves,” according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, which ranks Pakistan in the top three offending countries that still enslave people, some as farm workers, others at brick kilns or as household staff. Sometimes the workers are beaten or chained to keep them from fleeing.
“They have no rights, and their women and girls are the most vulnerable,” says Ghulam Hayder whose Green Rural Development Organization works to free Pakistan’s bonded laborers.
Employers sexually assault the women and girls, marry them, force them to convert, and rarely will the police intervene, he says. He recalls a case in which a husband accused a landowner of sexually assaulting his wife. The landowner held him for three days, beat him and released him with a warning to tell no one.
An estimated 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls, most of them underage and impoverished, are taken from their homes each year, converted to Islam and married, said a report by the South Asia Partnership organization.

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China reports first 2 deaths from bird flu this winter

Sat, 2016-12-24

BEIJING: Two people in China’s Anhui province have died from H7N9 bird flu, the first fatalities in China among this winter’s cases, while Macau reported its first human infection of the strain since the former Portuguese colony returned to China in 1999.
Anhui has reported five cases of H7N9 avian flu since Dec. 8, including the two people who died, the eastern province’s health authority said in a statement dated Dec. 21, posted on its website.
It did not say whether the other three people had recovered or not.
The Anhui cases bring the total number of people infected with the H7N9 virus in mainland China this month to at least seven.
The Health Ministry said it was taking the reports of the cases seriously.
“Currently experts’ judgment is that it is a small number of individuals, but if we discover that it’s on a large scale, it would be a different (response),” Mao Qunan, a spokesman for the ministry, told reporters in Beijing.
He did not comment on specific measures in response to the outbreak.
H7N9 had not been detected in either humans or animals in China until March 2013.
The strain does not seem to transmit easily from person to person, and sustained human-to-human infection has not been reported, according to the World Health Organization.
The danger with any such virus is that it mutates and acquires genetic changes that might increase its pandemic potential.
The last major bird flu outbreak in mainland China — from late 2013 to early 2014 — killed 36 people and led to more than $6 billion in losses for the agricultural sector.
In Anhui, which has a population of almost 60 million, authorities shut some livestock markets and stepped up sterilization to prevent the virus spreading, a spokesman for the provincial health authority’s emergency department said, adding “a few” chickens had been culled.
Authorities in Shanghai, China’s biggest city with more than 24 million residents, said on Wednesday a man diagnosed with the H7N9 strain was being treated there, after traveling from the neighboring province of Jiangsu.
The government in Jiangsu was looking into the origin of the infection, the provincial health authority said.
In Xiamen, a city in Fujian province also in the east, authorities ordered a halt to poultry sales from Thursday in the Siming district, after a 44-year-old man was diagnosed with H7N9 flu, state news agency Xinhua reported on Wednesday.
The patient was in hospital and was stable, Xinhua said then. The city has a population of about 3.5 million.
Hong Kong this week reported its first human bird flu infection for this season.
In Macau, health authorities will soon discharge a patient who contracted H7N9, following a quarantine period of about 10 days, said an official at the Macau Heath Bureau Services who only gave his surname Yang.
The patient, a man, had been in close contact with infected poultry, Yang told Reuters. He will be discharged on either Friday or Saturday.
Bird flu is most likely to strike in winter and spring.

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Hundreds resist eviction from Delhi slum as new housing falls short

Sat, 2016-12-24

MUMBAI: Hundreds of residents in a New Delhi slum are resisting eviction by city officials and police in the third such protest this month in India’s capital city, as anger mounts over a shortfall in housing for the urban poor, campaigners said.
Evictions began this week in Kathputli Colony, home to 3,500 families of street performers and puppeteers, after authorities marked it for development as part of a plan to upgrade the city.
City officials say residents were notified of the plan which involves moving them to a temporary location while a private builder constructs modest high-rise homes for a nominal sum.
They say more than 500 families have already moved to temporary accommodation.
“Residents were given sufficient notice. The police are on hand to maintain law and order,” said J.P. Agrawal, a principal commissioner with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).
But some residents said they were not given the option of relocation, and that they received no notice of the eviction.
“No one told us it would be this week. Suddenly one morning we woke up and found hundreds of policemen in the colony,” said Dilip Bhatt, head of an artistes’ cooperative in the settlement.
“We are surrounded by the police like we are criminals, and they have cut off water and power,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Television images showed police in riot gear, holding assault rifles and shields as residents gathered around them.
About a third of India’s 1.25 billion population lives in cities, with numbers rising every year as tens of thousands of people leave villages to seek better prospects. Many end up in overcrowded urban slums.
A government plan to provide housing for all by 2022 is meant to create 20 million new urban housing units and 30 million rural homes.
But the slow pace of implementation is leaving thousands homeless, according to advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN).
More than 33,000 families living in urban areas across India were forcefully evicted since January 2015 to make way for redevelopment projects, HLRN said on Thursday. In rural areas, more than 75,000 people were displaced.
Only 2,776 houses were built in urban areas under the housing plan from June 2015 to August 2016, HLRN said.
In several evictions, violence and arbitrary detentions have been reported, and there has been little or no consultation, advance notice, consent or compensation, HLRN said.
“It is a sad irony that despite claims of providing ‘housing for all’, the government has destroyed many more homes than it has built over the last two years,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of HLRN.

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Strong typhoon set to wallop Philippines over Christmas

Sat, 2016-12-24

MANILA: A strong typhoon was set to wallop the Philippines on Christmas Day, officials warned Friday, as millions of people criss-cross the mostly Catholic nation to celebrate one of the most important dates on the religious calendar.
Nock-Ten was expected to be packing winds of up to 194 kilometers (120 miles) an hour and gusts of nearly 241 kilometers an hour when it hit the eastern tip of the archipelago’s main island of Luzon on Sunday, the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center said.
The Philippine’s weather bureau is predicting more modest wind speeds.
“Our people are being made aware that we could get hit on Christmas Day,” Romina Marasigan, spokeswoman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, told AFP.
“The highest levels of preparedness are being undertaken,” she said, including stocking up designated evacuation centers with food and other provisions.
Millions of Filipinos are traveling by land, sea or air to their hometowns for the festive holiday.
Local weather authorities said the storm could brush past Manila after Christmas Day if it maintained its current path.
The main threats were landslides and flash floods from heavy rains, as well as potentially large waves known as storm surges smashing through coastal communities, they said.
The Philippine islands are often the first major landmass to be hit by storms that generate over the Pacific. The Southeast Asian country endures about 20 major storms each year, many of them deadly.
The most powerful and deadliest was Haiyan, which left 7,350 people dead or missing and destroyed entire towns in heavily populated areas of the central Philippines in November 2013.

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No more delays: Riyadh pledges to pay remaining dues to private sector

Hani Hazaimeh
Sat, 2016-12-24

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia plans to settle all dues owed to the private sector within two months, after a period of financial turmoil that left many business unpaid, forcing some to lay off staff.
The crash in oil prices from mid-2014 forced the government to slash projects and delay payments to some private sector companies.
But the government has been working to clear the outstanding payments, Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan told reporters in Riyadh on Thursday.
The minister said that the all dues to the private sector had been paid up until the beginning of December. Any documents submitted in the last three weeks will be paid within two months, he added.
During the past two months, the state has spent more than SR100 billion accrued to the private sector, especially the construction sector, the minister said.
The government promised several months ago to pay private sector entitlements and has fulfilled this promise, the minister added.
The ministry is now studying the rest of applications, which will be paid over the next two months.

Enabling private sector growth
The government’s “Fiscal Balance Program – Balanced Budget 2020” document details how Saudi Arabia plans to support and enable the private sector to grow in line with its Vision 2030 reform plan.
It identified four main headwinds faced by the economy at large: slower economic growth — particularly in the utilities, construction, non-oil manufacturing, wholesale and retail sectors — a worsening balance of payments, declining confidence in the economy, and a drop in private sector employment.
The Kingdom established the Local Content & Private Sector Development Unit to help address three key objectives for unlocking the full potential of the Saudi economy. These are: To grow the non-oil private sector, to become less dependent on oil; to develop local content and build up a competitive local industry; and to improve the balance of payments supported by higher non-oil exports.
The country plans to launch a private sector stimulus packages, with a proposed size of SR200 billion, to help boost economic growth.
It also plans “high impact structural reform” to further boost the private sector, in areas like encouraging the ease of doing business, attracting more foreign direct investment, increasing labor market efficiency, reducing barriers to growth in areas like tourism, and cutting bureaucracy.

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