Global News Blog
“My first sense as a young girl of sexual menace came from my Indian grandfather. Let me be clear: He never even remotely sexually threatened or molested me. But he made sure I knew that the world in which I, a girl, was growing up was innately perilous to women.”
So starts an illuminating first-person recollection of an American learning the rules of purdah – or concealment of women from men – on visits to relatives back in India. Her grandfather upbraided her for uppity talk and anything but simple dress, to teach her that the more invisible she was, the more safe she would be.
Mira Kamdar, writing on the Asia Society website, connects these lessons to the recent gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi: “It is clear ... that a purdah mentality still dogs Indian society. A woman who can be seen is seen as a woman available for violation.” But, at the same time, “[r]apid modernization and urbanization in India have made women, especially young women, visible as never before.”
Babies born good
Parents, it turns out that your bundles of joy could also be described as budding altruists. Writing for the Smithsonian magazine, Abigail Tucker writes on a heartwarming new area of research that’s finding babies showing preferences for “good guys” over “bad guys” and a proclivity to help and care for others.
“These findings may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has seen toddlers pull hair in a playground tunnel or pistol-whip one another with a plastic triceratops,” notes Ms. Tucker.
But a series of cleverly designed experiments at Yale and Harvard universities are seeing an orientation toward the good long before parents would seem to have had much chance to shape behavior.
The eureka moment for one researcher came while passing a ball back and forth with a toddler. The ball got away from the scientist, and rather than get it, he faked an inability to reach it. Seeing his struggle, the toddler got up to retrieve it for him. Other experiments involved puppet shows in which one color puppet is shown helping or hindering another. Eye-tracking tests found infants as young as 3 months old preferring the helper.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of meaning
Whether we are born with it, or taught it, altruism looks to be key to our well-being as adults.
Emily Esfahani Smith, writing for The Atlantic, highlights a new psychological study that suggests “a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different.” Researchers interviewing 400 Americans found meaning in life to be tied up with being a “giver,” while happiness was more linked with being a “taker.” Meaning is also found in contemplating the future and the past, while happiness is fixated on the present – and is consequently more fleeting.
From the nation’s foundational documents to the self-help aisles of bookstores, Americans are famously in pursuit of happiness. But that’s something of a mug’s game: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research,” Ms. Smith writes.
The magazine goes on to cite data that roughly 40 percent of Americans have not found a “satisfying life purpose.”
There will be no Death Star
A group of Internet pranksters raised the 25,000-plus signatures needed to get a response from the White House on their petition to have the US build a Death Star. The White House, to no one’s surprise, replied that the country would not be building the moon-shaped space station from the “Star Wars” films that could blast planets into space dust. But the wording of the response, glorious it was.
“Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars” – $850,000,000,000,000,000, according to one study – “on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?” wrote Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Budget at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and arguably the best communicator to emerge from the intersection of space science, accounting, and the federal government.
This smooth-talking Jedi then went on to highlight the gee-whiz stuff the government and the private sector are doing in space.
“[W]e’ve got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we’re building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe.”
In other news, the White House has just upped the signature threshold for a response to 100,000.
Engineers who surveyed the cantilever structure then reported that the struts supporting the girders of the bridge had already lost half of their metal casing: The corrosion was apparently caused by acids in the gutkha.
Soon the Lions Club of Howrah launched a “Save Howrah Bridge from Spit” campaign urging people not to spit on the bridge.
The campaign spread across the city of Kolkata, where reddish-brown gutkha stains are visible almost everywhere — pavements, streets, office staircases, business houses, and residential complexes. Prominent citizens of Kolkata joined the campaign in an effort to rid the city of the ugly stains.
Gutkha is a commercially produced pre-packaged mixture of crushed betel nut, tobacco, lime, paraffin, and other “secret” ingredients, many of which are carcinogenic and addictive.
Some brands of gutkha also contain lead, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and cadmium, which are as bad as nicotine. To make its shelf life longer, magnesium carbonate – which is used in fire extinguishers and is a known carcinogen – is also added to gutkha.
Activists reported about a year ago that one-third of men and one-fifth of women across India are addicted to chewing tobacco and gutkha was its most popular form.
Because of its candy-like flavor and dirt-cheap prices — 4 to 6 cents per sachet — gutkha has become increasingly popular among children, who chew and even eat it. An estimated 5 million of India’s children are addicted to gutkha, and every day another 5,000 try it for the first time, according to reports last year by the American Cancer Society.
Research indicates that tobacco kills 1 million Indians annually and that gutkha alone leads to 80,000 cases of oral cancer every year — the highest incidence in the world. In recent years an anti-gutkha campaign has picked up steam across the country with several nongovernment organizations lobbying for a ban on gutkha.
In August 2011, India’s Food Safety and Standard Authority issued a regulation declaring that no foodstuff, including gutkha, could contain tobacco. Last year some states began following the order by banning gutkha.
With Andhra Pradesh and Odisha states having banned it earlier this month, the manufacture and sale of the product has now been prohibited in 17 of India’s 28 states and 3 of the 7 union territories (UTs), including New Delhi. However, reports in many local newspapers suggest that gutkha is being smuggled from other regions and is still being sold in many states.
Kolkata-based anti-gutkha campaigner Sekharesh Ghoshal said that states and union territories should cooperate and ban the tobacco in the national interest.
“Sachets of gutkha display a warning that it’s dangerous for health. Yet gutkha users do not pay any attention to such health risks and keep on chewing it,” says Dr. Ghoshal.
“Unless gutkha is banned and actually made unavailable in the market, you cannot stop people from using it. A ban only in parts of the country is of no help.”
But in many states the gutkha companies are fighting the ban by taking the local government to court.
They argue that gutkha is a tobacco product that cannot be classified as a foodstuff, and therefore cannot be banned. Still, courts in most states have upheld the ban.
Bela Naskar, the mother of two child addicts in a slum in Kolkata, says she vehemently supports a ban on gutkha.
“My 10- and 13-year-old sons have been into gutkha for some years. They take several sachets of it every day. It’s bad for their health. But they don’t listen to my warnings.”
“We really need a ban on gutkha in our state,” Ms. Naskar says. “Otherwise I shall not be able to rid my children from this dangerous addiction.”
War and nationalist sentiment usually go hand in hand. The week-old war in Mali is no exception. As the war drums beat hotter in this landlocked former French colony in West Africa, nationalism is also on the rise.
But in this case, it is French nationalism that is rising.
Normally, Malian attitudes towards France, which once ruled the country as a colony, range from resentment to admiration. But when France launched a bombing campaign against Islamist rebels in central and northern Mali last week, French flags bloomed around the capital Bamako almost instantaneously.
Flags are waved on the street, show up on cars, motorcycles, appear in windows. Vive la France!
What might be called a panoply of pro-France merchandise is found everywhere, offering insight both into a quick shift in Malian attitudes toward France, and into the workings of Bamako’s street markets.
Moreover, the flags, like so much merchandise around the world, do not come from France – but are made, shipped, stocked and marketed through the larger Chinese vendors in Bamako.
Information about the new commodity of French flags begins downtown at the “Place d’Indépendance.” At this square, teenage boys work in groups to sell the French tricolor in the shadow of a monument to honor Mali’s independence from colonial rule. No one seems to notice the irony.
One young man, Cheickounah Koné, usually sells toys, battery-powered fly swatters, and odds and ends for about $5 a day, mostly to drivers stuck in traffic.
But two days after French jets began operations, a demand for flags made him change his product. He sells small flags on a staff with a suction cup on the end, that now adorn motor-scooters. Taxi drivers buy full-sized French flags and cover their rear windows with them.
For the last few days Mr. Kone has picked up some $25 a day in patriotic war spoils.
“Vive la France!” says one smiling customer who forks over $2 for the French colors.
Kone’s flag stash comes from a large chaotic market called “Sugu ba,” an intense zone of capitalism in this capital, where French paraphernalia is discovered finally at “Chez les Chinois,” on the edge of the market.
Rows of Chinese-owned stores sell an array of goods, ranging from plastics to electronics.
In the first shop the owner says she ran out of flags days ago, that boxes of French flags that sat on the floor for years, were now gone. But more are coming from her homeland, China, she asserts.
Along the row, nearly every shop was sold out of French goods, most in the last few days.
As I field a phone call in the halls of the House of China, my Malian guides discover with some disappointment that I am an American, not a Frenchman.
But they quickly recover: “No, no, no... it’s ok, it’s ok,” one guide, Moussa says in strained English. “Obama is still good, but [French President] Hollande saved us, he saved Mali.”
This week, Hindu ascetics in ostentatious chariots pulled by elephants and horses along with pilgrims and tourists from around the world arrived in Allahabad, about halfway between New Delhi and Kolkata, India.
Their faces smeared with ash and bodies covered in little more than marigold garlands, the religious men marked the opening of the Kumbh Mela, by rushing into the cold water to bathe at 5 a.m. on Monday.
The Hindu festival is billed as the world's largest gathering, a chance to wash away karmic debt and liberate oneself from the cycle of rebirth and death. It's also a broadly shared experience in a country where the saying goes that there are as many Indias as there are Indians.
"What is most endearing about the Kumbh festival is that all Hindus across caste and class come together. All hierarchies melt in the great river. It's unity in diversity," says Ram Naresh Tripathi, a retired journalist and Hindu astrologer in Allahabad.
This is one of four Kumbh Melas, each held in different cities over different intervals – this one comes to Allahabad every 12 years. These festivals are all miraculous, at the very least in terms of logistics.
On Monday's opening, at least 10 million people bathed in the sangam, or confluence, of three rivers, the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati. By the end of the festival on March 10, an estimated 100 million people will have bathed in the river. Feb. 10 is the day considered most auspicious by religious followers, and is therefore the busiest day.
A temporary tent city has been set up on 6,000 acres of land, and the Indian Railways is running 750 special trains to make sure people from different parts of the country can reach it.
The numbers indicate the scale of the exercise: 18 pontoon bridges, 35,000 toilets, 97 miles of new roads, 355 miles of water pipelines, 497 miles of electric wires, 48 power sub-stations, four warehouses for grains, groceries and vegetables, 22 doctors, 120 ambulances, 30 new police stations, 100 beds for local hospitals and so on, according to Mela Officer Mani Prasad Mishra.
At a press conference addressed, journalists complained about incomplete work, to which Mr. Mishra replied that the authorities had been rushing against time. "We are in control of the situation and whatever requirements are needed to conduct it successfully have been put in place," he said.
The government has taken measures to fight contagious diseases, expected stampedes and fires, and terrorist attacks. Some 30,000 policemen are patrolling the Kumbh, which is under the surveillance of 56 watchtowers and 89 CCTV cameras. A market made up of 11,000 stalls has been set up to sell everything from food to ornaments and curios.
The festival cost an estimated $290 million to organize, but a study by The Association of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India says the Uttar Pradesh state government is likely to recover most of it through revenues generated by tourism.
Tourists and pilgrims are expected from across the world. Among the expected visitors: The Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and actors Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, and his wife Catherine Zeta Jones.
Mr. Tripathi, the journalist-turned-astrologer, said the Kumbh had changed a lot since his childhood, with the gathering now catering to Hindus with newfound wealth. “The sadhus [ascetics] have all become hi-tech. They used to come on foot from hundreds of miles away but today they come in cars and carry gadgets like tablet computers,” he says.
Good Reads: Thick financial fog, unskilled workers, self-helped Americans, and a forgiveness that heals
Here’s the short answer to the question posed on the cover of the latest Atlantic Monthly, “What’s inside America’s banks?”: No one knows. Not the regulators, not sophisticated investors, and not even the bankers themselves.
“Banks today are bigger and more opaque than ever, and they continue to behave in many of the same ways they did before the crash,” write Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger, authors of the Atlantic piece.
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Complexity and opaqueness are the core of the problem, according to the authors. They cite a wide range of former bankers, investors, and regulatory officials who know the banks best and who “absolutely” don’t trust their accounting. Even the banks with the best reputations, JP Morgan or Wells Fargo, are impenetrable black boxes with annual reports that defy parsing by even the most expert readers.
The fog of financial complexity is matched by a fog of rules – as regulators parry moves by the bankers – but always a few moves behind. The famed Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 ran to 37 pages. Dodd-Frank of 2010 was 848 pages and may balloon to 30,000 in the end. By the time the law’s “Volcker Rule” is finalized, “only a handful of partners at the world’s biggest law firms will understand it.”
The authors would offer the following version instead: “Banks are not permitted to engage in proprietary trading. Period.”
That would save a lot of paper.
Maybe the Luddites had a point
Traditionally, technology has raised incomes for each generation by raising worker productivity. But ever smarter technologies are replacing the need for unskilled labor altogether, argue economists Jeffrey Sachs and Laurence Kotlikoff in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Think, for example, of the fully automated turnpike tollbooths or checkout stands at Home Depot. Investors are benefiting from these innovations, as are highly skilled programmers and technologists. (And lines are shorter.) But the jobs that are disappearing are the unskilled ones that offer young people a first few steps up the economic ladder. Without them, the authors argue, we don’t really have a ladder, and lifetime well-being slips by a generation. So what to do? For individuals, this sounds like a warning to get some skills.
“Although smart machines substitute for unskilled workers, they are designed and run by skilled workers. So it’s no surprise that the incomes of skilled workers have risen relative to those of unskilled workers.” The authors note that this is one reason the wage premium for college graduates has increased from around 40 percent in 1999 to more than 80 percent today.
From Benjamin Franklin to Oprah Winfrey, from “How to Win Friends & Influence People” to “The 4-Hour Workweek,” self-help advice is a very American phenomenon – and getting more so, according to Laura Vanderkam writing in the quarterly City Journal. More than 45,000 self-help book titles are in print, she writes, and the genre’s share of all titles published doubled from 1975 to 2000.
“There is much to mock” in this field, she notes, and she runs through its history and various critiques. But there is much that is useful as well. Socially mobile Americans construct their own notions of the good life, in DIY-style, “from what we see of the world around us – and what we find at the bookstore.”
Crime and recovery
In these weeks following the Newtown, Conn., shooting, there is something – dare we say healing? – in The New York Times Magazine story by Paul Tullis about the killing of Ann Grosmaire by her fiancé, Conor McBride, in 2010. The crime came in a moment of overwhelming emotion after an argument between the two community college students that had stretched on for 38 hours. It was not premeditated exactly, but it wasn’t an accident either.
As the father of the mortally wounded and unconscious Ann sat with her in a Tallahassee, Fla., hospital, he “felt” her say “Forgive him” so clearly that he spoke his refusal aloud. But he kept hearing that message in her voice. A devout Roman Catholic, he was praying in the hospital four days later, shortly before removing her from life support, when he “realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ.”
The journey the family went on then took them through a process called “restorative justice,” which strives for agreement among everyone involved in and affected by a crime over how to make restitution. This means that victims, offenders, and their families sooner or later end up sitting around a table and talking.
The upshot, in this story as in others, is forgiveness. Says Ann’s mother, Kate: “I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment.... Forgiveness to me was self-preservation.”
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If it weren’t for Eliezer Ben Yehuda, I wouldn’t be able to order ice cream, ask directions to the local furniture store, or discuss Gaza bombings in Hebrew.
Since I’m a new journalist in Israel who happens to love ice cream and arrived here with only one piece of furniture to my name, that would be grave indeed.
So I for one am grateful for Mr. Ben Yehuda, who was born 155 years ago today in the Russian empire.
Legend has it that the man was not only brilliant, but a little crazy. And you would have to be, if you were planning to try to resurrect an ancient language after roughly 2,000 years and expect it to become the primary spoken language of a country that didn't even exist yet.
But the Sorbonne-educated Ben Yehuda did just that – well before the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and even before Lord Balfour of Britain made his famous promise to the Zionists in 1917 to help establish a Jewish homeland.
Of course, Hebrew was the language of the Torah – the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – as well as other religious writings. So many Jews were familiar with it. But they didn’t use it to talk about things like grocery shopping or even politics.
Where to start? With your family, of course. When Ben Yehuda arrived in Israel with his family, he banned his wife and children from speaking any other language. According to tradition, his family was the first to speak exclusively Hebrew in the home.
He also helped start schools and Hebrew-language newspapers, and published the first dictionary of modern Hebrew, often drawing on biblical words to coin modern terms. Ultra-Orthodox Jews pushed back hard, arguing that Hebrew is a holy language and not to be used to discuss the mundane. Many of them still prefer to speak in Yiddish when discussing daily affairs.
But Hebrew is nevertheless the dominant language in Israel today, although Arabic is an official language as well.
But I digress.
You were wondering about how to order ice cream, right?
G'lida. That’s your ticket.
Todah (thank you), Ben Yehuda.
The image of an African shantytown does not usually conjure up hope for economic prosperity. But Kibera, one of Nairobi’s slums and arguably Africa’s largest slum, is exactly that for the Kenyans who call it home. In The Economist, a writer chronicled a day in Kibera, describing the slum’s ebbs and flows, capturing its entrepreneurial spirit. People from all over Kenya leave their towns and villages for a chance to find work in Kibera’s “thriving economic machine.”
The half-mile-by-two-mile area accommodates roughly 1 million people, wedged together in repurposed wood-and-corrugated-tin-roof structures. The alleys that wind through the slum vary in size, but there is no room for cars. Many of the residents work in nearby factories or offices. Others find economic opportunity in providing goods and services for Kibera’s residents.
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When Cecilia Achieng moved to the slum, she started a school, at first renting space from an empty church. She eventually saved enough money to build six makeshift classrooms. After school, Ms. Achieng starts her second job: catering. She caters church events, funerals, and is even trying to get into weddings. In the evening, Achieng goes door to door offering her services as a hairdresser.
“To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them,” the correspondent writes. “Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners.”
The promise of the Arab Spring
As post-Arab Spring countries struggle to establish democratic institutions, pessimism about their ultimate success misses a broader lesson: Stable democracies have historically evolved from violent uprisings, initial failures, and stumbling blocks.
“These troubles ... are not a bug but a feature – not signs of problems with democracy but evidence of the difficult, messy process of political development through which societies purge themselves of the vestiges of dictatorship and construct new and better democratic orders,” writes Sheri Berman in Foreign Affairs.
Critics who see Egypt, Libya, and other transitioning countries as democratic failures ignore the inherited social, cultural, and political dynamics in these countries, and a broader historical perspective. New democracies are not blank slates, writes Ms. Berman. In the aftermath of overthrowing dictators, countries must overcome the baggage that comes with authoritarian regimes – distrust, animosity, and lack of civil organizations to deal with people’s demands. Islamism is filling that void in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s fall as religious organizations were the only places where people could participate and express themselves.
Berman also points to history, particularly the political trials of France, Italy, and Germany on the democratization journeys. France took decades to establish a stable government, restructuring its economy in the process. Both Italy’s and Germany’s democratic experiments were interrupted by fascist takeovers.
Recall of the wild
The future of conservation may not be in saving nature from destruction, but rather creating a “new wilderness.” An ecological experiment in the Netherlands is turning traditional conservation theory on its head, and it has inspired a new movement called “rewilding,” which claims that nature can be created, not just managed or destroyed.
In the Netherland’s Flevoland Province – which used to be under water until a drainage project uncovered it in the 1950s – biologists used some of the new land to create a habitat similar to that found during Paleolithic times.
In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes how biologists convinced the Dutch government to save a 15,000-acre reserve of the drained land – known as Oostvaardersplassen – as grazing land for herbivores most closely linked to their extinct predecessors: aurochs, red deer, tarpans, and European bison. The theory is that Europe used to have a more “parklike landscape,” which was maintained by herds of animals eating the vegetation. The reserve created an opportunity to see how this ecological system operated, and to see if other animal species would return.
“What we see here is that, instead of what many nature conservationists think – that something that is lost is lost forever – you can have the conditions to have it redeveloped,” Frans Vera, an ecologist, told Ms. Kolbert. Rewilding has spread to other areas in Europe as well, including Spain, Portugal, and Siberia. The scientists say the idea represents a “proactive agenda” as opposed to waiting to see what happens in nature.
Oostvaardersplassen attracts tourists who come to see the almost safari-like setting, but there is some controversy. Because the reserve aims to represent the wild, animals are left to the elements and suffer from such things as food shortages. Mr. Vera anticipates that the reserve will eventually attract the region’s natural predators – wolves – to reduce herd overpopulations.
“On a planet increasingly dominated by people – even the deep oceans today are being altered by humans – it probably makes sense to think about wilderness, too, as a human creation,” Kolbert writes.
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Among the many anti-rape protests that have been held in Indian cities over the past few weeks, something has stood out at a demonstration this week: Protest signs that didn’t cry shame or call for the death penalty, but pledged personal action.
“I pledge to intervene when I see a woman being harassed,” read one slogan on signs held by both men and women on New Year's Day. Another sign held by a young woman read, “I pledge to stare back.”
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It is that long experience, says founder Jasmeen Patheja, that accounts for their unusual slogans. Amid the calls for better policing to prevent violent crime against women, the group wanted to also highlight how everyone contributes to – and can thus help change – a culture of sexism.
“It’s easy to blame the government and the police, but they also represent certain social mindsets, attitudes that we may be perpetuating,” Ms. Patheja says.
In recent weeks, some of those attitudes have been on display as political and civic leaders have faulted Westernization (read: sexual permissiveness) for violence against women.
On Friday, a leader from a Hindu nationalist party said that rapes “happen in India, not Bharat” (the Hindi name for the country), while another suggested that women are being punished for “crossing the line.” A survey from earlier this year showed that a fair chunk of both Indian men and women believed that wife beating was acceptable.
A younger, urban generation isn’t necessarily free from these attitudes either. “We may all contribute to the problem in invisible ways,” Patheja says. “When we say ‘Boys will be boys,’ or when we share sexist jokes or make mothers and sisters part of [curse words].”
One of the most common problems that Indian women face is harassment in public spaces.
“Eve teasing,” the lighthearted term used for everything from lewd comments to groping to stalking, is so routine that when Patheja started Blank Noise as part of a virtual project at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore in 2003, she found few of her peers wanted to talk about it.
“There was a sense that it was just part of life, that there was nothing you could do about it,” she says.
Patheja and others started a blog to provide an anonymous space for women to share their experiences. They also began organizing public events. The idea was not to be an advocacy group, says Patheja, but to “trigger a public dialogue that wasn’t didactic, through a series of approaches both blog-based and on-the-ground interventions.” Blank Noise also encouraged young women to confront street harassment in an effort to “reclaim the city.”
That approach challenges the conventional idea that women should protect themselves by staying away from the public sphere, and a recent trend among the Indian middle-class to segregate themselves from chaotic urban environments through gated communities and private transport. Signs at Tuesday’s demonstration included pledges to “use public transport even when private transport was available.”
Today, the Blank Noise project has a presence across nine cities, hundreds of volunteers and a large Facebook presence, though getting boots on the ground remains a challenge. More than 10,000 people were invited via Facebook to take part in Tuesday’s protest across the country.
In Mumbai, about 30 showed up. “It’s easier to click ‘like’ and more difficult to get out on the street,” says Patheja. “But we don’t worry much about that anymore. Even that one click means that someone has decided to engage.”
What is most important, she suggests, is the change she has seen in the past decade. Last month, the supreme court called for wide-ranging measures to curb harassment in public places. “There is now a greater willingness to talk about the issue,” she says, “and less of an inclination to trivialize it.”
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Vladimir Putin flourished his pen Thursday morning and signed what must be the oddest decree of his long years in power: an order granting a Russian passport to French actor and tax exile Gerard Depardieu.
A terse announcement posted on the Kremlin website noted that Mr. Putin acted "to satisfy an application for citizenship of the Russian Federation by Gerard Xavier Depardieu, who was born in 1948 in France."
Mr. Depardieu, star of over 170 films and possessing what is often politely referred to as a "colorful" public personality, has been locked in a high profile battle with France's new socialist government over an emergency tax that would levy a 75 percent rate on people earning more than $1.3 million. He recently renounced his French citizenship and took up residence in Belgium, which offers a friendlier tax regime for the super-rich.
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France's high court struck down the law last week as "unconstitutional," but the government announced it will soon reintroduce the measure after taking the court's concerns into account.
It's not clear whether Depardieu actually applied for residence in Russia, which has a 13 percent flat income tax for all, but in a far-ranging press conference last month Putin declared "If Gérard really wants to have a residence permit or a Russian passport, you can consider it done, the issue solved positively."
Putin also said that he has long enjoyed "kind, friendly, personal relations" with the French actor.
Come to Chechnya
Depardieu is no stranger to Russia. He has appeared in several ad campaigns and filmed the 2011 movie Rasputin in St. Petersburg. He is also rumored to be close to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and was guest of honor at the pro-Kremlin leader's birthday party in Grozny last October.
Mr. Kadyrov has said that he would happily invite Depardieu to come and live permanently in Chechnya if he wanted to. "If the country's leadership decides in favor of granting Depardieu Russian citizenship, we will be glad to create deserved conditions for the great cultural figure in our republic," Kadyrov said last week.
Russia's blogosphere erupted in derision and sarcastic comment Thursday, with some people writing painfully of their own troubles with Russia's notoriously bureaucratic passport department.
One man posted on Facebook his own tale of trying for years to repatriate his own Russian-born elderly mother from next-door Belarus, but he has so far failed to move Russian authorities because her Belarussian documents show a slightly different spelling of her name than appears on her Russian birth certificate.
Part of spat with West?
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant, says the granting of citizenship to Depardieu should be seen in context with the escalating war of words between Russia and the West. Last month President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which aims to punish corrupt Russian officials, and Moscow responded by enacting the Dima Yakovlev Act, whose main feature is a ban on US citizens adopting Russian orphans.
"Russia is very much on the defensive right now. The vindictive nature of Russia's adoption ban has shocked not only the US, but also many in Europe and here in Russia as well," Mr. Strokan says.
"We seem to be entering into a cold war-like battle of images, in which Russia is trying to show that it offers a better life, has higher ideals, and is more friendly to humanity than the West.... So this may be seen as a calculated PR move, an effort to demonstrate that we understand and care for the beloved French actor more than his own homeland does," he adds.
"I can't imagine that Depardieu would actually want to live here and experience the life of Russians, though. Let's see how it goes the first time he attempts to travel with that new Russian passport."
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The Russian Navy has announced that it will hold its biggest war games since Soviet times in the Mediterranean and Black seas later this month.
The ambitious exercises, which will involve ships from all four major Russian fleets, are a sign of growing confidence on the part of Russia's military as it begins to enjoy the benefits of President Vladimir Putin's huge budget allocations for renewing and reequipping all branches of the armed forces.
The purpose of the war games will be to strengthen integration between different types of forces and gain practice with major military deployments outside Russia's immediate neighborhood, the Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
As part of the maneuvers, naval ships will arrive at an "unprepared" coast in the Russian northern Caucasus region to take amphibious troops onto transport vessels.
"The primary goal of the exercise is to train issues regarding formation of a battle group consisting of troops of different branches outside of the Russian Federation, planning its deployment and managing a coordinated action of a joint Navy group in accordance with a common plan," the ministry's statement said.
The participating ships, it said, will be drawn from all of Russia's four major naval formations: the Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and Black Sea fleets.
About 9,000 Russians are registered with the Russian Embassy in Damascus, but some experts say the full number may be 30,000 or more. Over the nearly half a century that Moscow has enjoyed good relations with Syria, thousands of Russian women have married Syrian men and moved to the country. Many of them may urgently demand to return with their children to Russia if the situation turns critical.
This week the Russian Navy refreshed a fleet, including several huge amphibious assault ships capable of carrying thousands of people, which it had deployed to the eastern Mediterranean last summer.
Experts say the replacement fleet dispatched this week is of similar makeup, with at least five huge troop-transport ships at its core.
As part of Russia's eight-year, $659 billion rearmament program, the Navy is slated to receive 50 new warships by 2016, including new Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines – a third of which entered service last weekend – 18 major surface warships, and dozens of special purpose and support vessels.