December 09, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Of Diseases and Cures

India is now one month into a unique experiment: radical demonetization.

On Nov. 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly announced that the country’s 500 and 1,000 rupee notes – roughly 86 percent of its cash in circulation – would cease to be legal tender at the stroke of midnight.

Modi said the measures would curb corruption, tax evasion and counterfeiting.

But in a heavily cash-reliant society like India, the immediate impact of demonetization has been near-total disruption of most Indians’ lives.

Modi gave little advance notice of the switch to avoid tipping off counterfeiters and tax evaders hoarding cash, wrote the New York Times. That meant new bills could not be printed in preparation for the withdrawal of the old ones. Banks and ATMs have consistently run out of cash for their customers, and a month after the surprise move, people are still spending hours waiting in lines to withdraw money.

Protests, political gridlock and other chaos have become routine in India since the announcement. On Thursday, Modi’s critics compared him to the Emperor Nero fiddling as Rome burned, according to the Times of India.

At least 82 deaths have been blamed on demonetization, including those people denied medical treatment because they have only invalidated bills on hand.

Others warn that job losses could top 400,000 as business and consumer spending plummet from the cash shortage.

Frustration has been mounting over what many say is a poorly executed policy still plagued by sudden shifts. On Dec. 2, for example, the government announced that old notes were immediately invalid at gas stations, where it had previously said the cancelled denominations would remain valid until Dec. 15 in a bid to ease chaos at the nation’s banks.

Modi enacted new incentives Thursday, like online discounts on products from state-run companies, as he urged patience and promised a resolution to the troubles by year’s end.

“Please support me in curing the disease that has been afflicting this country for the last 70 years,” Modi said at a campaign rally in the state of Uttar Pradesh last weekend. “I have put you all in a queue. But this is the last queue to end all the queues.”

Others remain unconvinced. Forbes called demonetization a “cure worse than the disease” that will harm rural and low-income families while creating new dark corners for India’s black markets.

Still, though they lowered growth estimates for this fiscal year to 6.8 percent from an earlier forecast of 7.6 percent, economists at Goldman Sachs are optimistic that the Indian economy will rebound.

They predict the Indian economy will resume its place among the world’s fastest-growing economies and deliver a growth rate of 8.6 percent for the year ending in March 2018 – a feat most developed economies can only dream about.

Modi ran as a business-oriented reformer who vowed to help India find its place in the sun. Judging by demonetization, he’s a flop. But if India resumes growing, the prime minister might benefit from the forgetfulness that grips people in good times. While Uttar Pradesh will hold state assembly polls next year, national parliamentary elections aren’t scheduled until 2019.

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WANT TO KNOW

Chaos in Mosul

Iraqi troops were forced to withdraw from a Mosul hospital thought to be an improvised base for the Islamic State, even as police had to fire warning shots to restore order among desperate residents at the first distribution of UN aid in the recaptured areas of the city.

Until recently, the Iraqi forces have sought to capture and clear neighborhoods block by block, Reuters reported. But the back-and-forth attack on the hospital in the neighborhood of Wahda signals a change in tactics – the efficacy of which remains to be seen.

The Islamic State fighters apparently dispersed and hid to allow the government-allied troops to advance into Wahda, then attacked “from every corner, every street and every house near the hospital,” an officer briefed on the engagement told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the difficulty aid workers faced trying to distribute food and supplies to 45,000 Mosul residents on Thursday hinted at the desperation mounting as winter sets in, the agency said separately.

Shots Fired

Russia says the shooting has stopped in Aleppo to allow for the evacuation of civilians, but local residents say the bullets are still flying.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said Syrian troops have ceased combat operations temporarily to allow some 8,000 civilians to leave rebel-held areas of the city, the New York Times reported. However, civilians living in the contested neighborhoods said they were unable to flee because intense fighting continues a day after some 150 airstrikes killed at least 50 people.

Unable to verify either of those claims, the UN envoy for Syria called on Syrian government authorities to allow civilians to leave safely, with the protection of UN staff. Meanwhile, White House spokesman Josh Earnest cautiously welcomed Lavrov’s remarks but said “we’re going to have to wait and see” whether they’re matched on the ground.

The White Helmets organization, which rescues people from bombing sites, warned that its volunteers could face torture and execution in Syrian government detention centers if they are not evacuated.

Close, But No Cigar

Cuban business leaders fear it could be “close, but no cigar.”

More than 100 such business leaders appealed to US President-elect not to reverse President Barack Obama’s landmark strides in improving bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States on Thursday, the BBC reported.

In a letter to the incoming president, they also pitched for new measures to boost travel, trade and investment. But Trump has already threatened to walk back the agreement to restore diplomatic relations unless Havana offers a “better deal.”

For its part, Cuba met US officials in Havana on Wednesday in an effort to work out how 12 more agreements could be forged in the few weeks remaining before Trump assumes office. The accords would be in areas such as seismology and meteorology, the Cuban foreign ministry’s director of US affairs told a news conference.

The Obama administration is also pushing US companies to ink any business deals they have on the anvil in Cuba before he steps down, Reuters said.

DISCOVERIES

Oh Canada!

America’s friendly neighbor to the north has plenty of cultural icons: a catchy national anthem, a recognizable national tree and two beloved national sports.

But Canadians lay no official claim to a national bird. And strangely enough, the process of choosing an avian mascot has been more controversial than one might think, the New York Times reports.

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, a magazine publisher, conducted a two-year search for the most-Canadian of birds. The public gave its two cents through Twitter, while prominent Canadian writers and naturalists – even a poet laureate – picked favorites.

But the Society’s final choice, the gray jay, isn’t going over well, despite the bird’s classic Canadian characteristics.

The gray jay is heady and resourceful, nesting in all 13 Canadian provinces and territories year-round. But it’s a bit of a recluse and unrecognizable to most. The Americanized spelling of its name also ruffled some feathers.

“You’ve got loyal, you’ve got friendly, you’ve got smart, you’ve got hearty: That’s what Canadians think we are,” said Professor David Bird, an ornithologist at McGill University in Montreal, defending the Society’s choice.

While the government’s Department of Canadian Heritage doesn’t feel pressed to take on the suggestion any time soon, Bird is determined to raise the gray jay’s stature above other, more associable Canadian birds with a new bill in Parliament.

“Canada goose?” he said, “Over my dead body.”

Threats to Press Freedom around the World.

The following selection is part of a new, regular feature on press freedoms brought to you in conjunction with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Magnitsky’s Legacy

It’s been a difficult period recently for journalists in many corners of the globe: the ongoing crackdown in Turkey against journalists; the expulsion of Associated Press freelancer Justin Lynch from South Sudan; the beating and arrest of radio journalist, Khudayberdy Allashov, on trumped-up charges in Turkmenistan, to name a few cases.

But now, there might be a ray of hope in one of the biggest impediments to press freedoms worldwide – impunity of murderers of journalists. On Dec. 2, the US House of Representatives passed the National Defense Reauthorization Act (NDAA) and buried within it the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. If it becomes law, the US government would be able to freeze the assets of individuals worldwide who grossly violate human rights, as well as issue visa bans on them.

The legislation is an expansion of the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which applies only to Russians, and which was named after lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after having exposed large-scale official corruption. More than three dozen people are on the so-called “Magnitsky list,” including two named in connection with the 2004 murder of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov in Moscow. If it becomes law, Magnitsky sanctions could help counter entrenched impunity for murderers in countries where CPJ has recorded some of the highest rates of unsolved killings of journalists.