Opinion: Is India turning into ‘BAN-istan?’

A temporary ban on beef and meat has infuriated many Indians already reeling under increasingly intrusive actions by the government. DW’s Sanjiv Burman looks at what is behind India’s obsession with bans.

First there was a ban only on beef, then it was meat in general – the government machinery swung into action with a vigor and efficiency that would be much appreciated with regard to more serious issues like corruption or the safety of women.

In the last few months, states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP are increasingly imposing bans on all kinds of things in an effort to regulate people’s lives. In a broader context, one can also observe a clear attempt by Hindu nationalist organizations under the “Sangh Parivar” umbrella to dictate the way they think Indians should live.

As opposition Congress party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi remarked, Indians have been told “what to wear, celebrate, eat, watch, who to walk with in the park, if they can hold hands, what religion people should follow, how to pray and what to teach.”

DW's Sanjiv Burman. Image: DW

DW’s Sanjiv Burman. Image: DW

Apart from meat, films like the BBC’s India’s Daughter have been banned, as have adult porn sites on the Internet. Maggi has been banned as well as a number of books. What is going on? Is this really India? Of course not.

We must note that several Congress-led governments also used divisive and intrusive instruments to regulate life in the country, but they were more for opportunistic reasons rather than for ideological ones.

In a uniquely diverse country like India, various religious, ethnic and linguistic groups have been living in harmony for thousands of years. Whenever conflicts arose, they were dealt with in the spirit of consensus. The religion and culture of the majority Hindus has always had a decentralized character.

A Hindu wedding in the southern state of Kerala could wrap up in 10 minutes whereas a Bengali Hindu couple tying the knot could take hours to complete the ceremony. As the Hindu religion knows no Pope or Khalifa, there is no fixed codex based on one single holy book for all Hindus to follow.

As a result, Indian society has thrived by following its pluralistic and tolerant traditions. Even other religions let down their roots in India within the same diverse framework and helped form today’s secular India with all its flaws and shortcomings.

The concept of “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism challenges the very essence of India’s narrative. In fact, it is based on a very Western organizational structure with uncanny similarities to Christian missionaries or other religious movements with a clear command structure and agenda – therefore very “un-Indian.”

While challenging the very foundation of secular India it does not only attack minorities but tries to define and dictate the lifestyle of the majority. That’s where the real danger lies.

This “agenda” is carefully packaged so that the Indian government, led by the charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi, does not lose its appeal to a broad section of the voters who elected him to office with a comfortable majority.

The same packaging skills were applied when his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled India from 1998 to 2004. Both the leaders have been projected as statesmen above narrow party politics while the Sangh Parivar tried to consolidate its power in virtually all spheres of public life.

Whenever rightwing supremacy raised its ugly head, the otherwise articulate leader remained silent. Even with a direct platform to address the people like the weekly radio show “Mann ki Baat,” Modi chooses to carefully avoid any such controversial issues that could damage his image as the Prime Minister of all Indians.

But the very modern and strong India Modi is apparently trying to build also includes certain virtues enjoyed by most of the other industrial powers of the world – namely freedom of speech, right of self-determination and limits of state control. Are the citizens of this emerging world power really ready to sacrifice those rights for the sake of a rigid ideology and only embrace prosperity? The reactions in social media to the Hindu nationalist efforts to ban meat suggest they are not, but the jury is still out.

In: DW

Obama Nominates First Openly Gay Secretary of the Army

Image: https://foreignpolicymag.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/fanning.jpg?w=640&h=426&crop=1


Just four years after the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the Pentagon reached another milestone in its campaign to better integrate gay, lesbian, and transgender personnel into its ranks with the nomination of Eric Fanning, an openly gay official, to the Army’s top civilian post.

If confirmed to be the next secretary of the Army, Fanning he would become the first openly gay civilian to head a branch of the U.S. armed forces.

Fanning has been serving as acting undersecretary of the Army since June, after a brief three-month stint as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s chief of staff earlier this year. In a relatively short career, Fanning has amassed an impressive multiservice résumé, having served as Air Force undersecretary and acting secretary from 2013 to 2015, and deputy undersecretary of the Navy from 2009 to 2013.

“Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role,” Obama said in an announcement Friday.

Fanning has also been active in the LGBT movement, serving on the board of directors of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund from 2004 to 2007. In a May 2013 interview with the Washington Blade, Fanning said that during his first stint working for the Navy in 2009, before “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, “it was very difficult when we were getting to the end of the first two years [of the Obama administration] and it wasn’t clear if we were going to be able to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I didn’t know what I was going to do if we didn’t get the repeal through, because some people couldn’t work because they were openly gay or lesbian.”

In August, Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War vet and a Democrat who served in Congress as a representative from Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2011, was nominated to serve as undersecretary of the Army. In 2010, Murphy was instrumental in introducing the bill that would overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

If confirmed, the two would make up a new leadership team at the top of the Army, along with Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who began his post in August.

Photo credit: U.S. Defense Department photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

In: foreigpolicy

Japan Passes Bills to Allow Troops to Fight in Overseas Wars

Japan hasn’t sent military into combat since World War II. Fierce public opposition to changes undermined support for Abe

Japanese ruling and opposition lawmakers scuffle at the Upper House's ad hoc committee session for the controversial security bills at the National Diet in Tokyo on Thursday. Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Japanese ruling and opposition lawmakers scuffle at the Upper House’s ad hoc committee session for the controversial security bills at the National Diet in Tokyo on Thursday. Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed through legislation allowing Japan to send troops to fight in overseas conflicts for the first time since World War II, after facing down a summer of protests that sank his popularity.

Parliament gave final passage of bills to allow the military to defend an ally under attack and take a bigger role in international peacekeeping. Abe says the measures will improve deterrence and protect the nation from growing regional threats. For critics, the bills could end seven decades of pacifism and risk drawing Japan into U.S.-led conflicts.

Thousands of people have been demonstrating in the rain outside parliament against the bills this week and opposition lawmakers used stall tactics to delay their passage. China was quick to respond to the outcome in a statement urging Japan to learn lesson from history. South Korea said the North Asia country should contribute to regional peace and stability.

Abe prevailed, tapping his coalition’s commanding majority to force through a reinterpretation of the country’s pacifist constitution in the biggest change to defense policy in 70 years. Abe faced fierce opposition in a nation still scarred by the suffering wrought by World War II and the atomic bombings of 1945 that have left many Japanese with a deep-seated aversion to military action.

Pacifist Mindset

“Pacifism is deeply embedded in Japanese national identity as a foundation for the peace and prosperity achieved in the postwar period,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan. “They know from relatives’ experiences about the folly of war launched by reckless leaders unconstrained by the law or constitution.”

The constitution that renounces war was drafted by the U.S. during its postwar occupation of the country. Seventy years after the conflict, Japan finds itself in a changed world. The nation is in range of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, faces the growing military muscle of neighboring China and is a target of international terrorism. Abe, knowing how difficult it would be to revise the top law, pushed the legislation to reinterpret its pacifist clause to permit collective self defense.

“This legislation is necessary to defend the lives and peaceful existence of our people and to prevent war,” Abe told reporters in a live broadcast by NHK after the bill’s passing. “I will be persistent and faithful in explaining this position” to the citizens.

Summer of Protests

Demonstrators hold a banner as they stage a protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's controversial security bills in front of the National Diet in Tokyo on Thursday. Photographer: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators hold a banner as they stage a protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial security bills in front of the National Diet in Tokyo on Thursday. Photographer: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

More than 100,000 people demonstrated against the bills across Japan on Aug. 30 and thousands more returned to the streets outside parliament in Tokyo this week as the showdown over the legislation neared.

“Japan is a country that can’t say no to America,” said Misaki Takashima, a 51-year-old housewife at the protest, who braved sputtering Tokyo rain on Friday to voice her opposition. “I’m worried that because the U.S. is always fighting lots of wars and Japan may start fighting with them.”

Passing the bills would free Abe to return his focus to his plan to boost inflation and growth in Asia’s second-biggest economy, which remains on the brink of recession even after more than two years of fiscal and monetary stimulus. The fight over the security bills has dominated his agenda for months.

While public opposition was fierce, the bills have been welcomed by the U.S., which wants support from its biggest Asian ally to help balance China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Other governments in Asia are also largely supportive, apart from China and South Korea, which remain at loggerheads with Japan over territorial disputes and interpretations of history.

Japanese nationalists, who tend to support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, have longed chafed over constraints on the military. Abe took up the mantle for bolstering the defense forces from his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was accused of war crimes for his role in the colonization of parts of China and campaigned for constitutional change when he later served as prime minister.

Sliding popularity

Still, the country’s nationalists are in the minority, and the flap over the bills has pushed Abe’s popularity toward record lows. The slide doesn’t mean he’s in danger of being replaced. He was selected unopposed this month for a second three-year term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, setting him on course to become the longest-serving premier since the 1970s. Backing for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has barely nudged higher even with Abe’s slide.

A poll by public broadcaster NHK this month showed almost two-thirds of respondents didn’t believe Abe’s assertion the bills would make Japan safer. Support for the government in the poll stood at 43 percent, compared with 64 percent in January 2013, shortly after he took office.

In: bloomberg.com

The Great Debate: China’s ghost cities offer a solution to Europe’s migrant crisis?

Blogger’s opinion: I don’t think so, because ghost cities are only a a phase of the urbanization process in China. See: The “ghost towns”, the paradoxical strategy of Chinese urbanization.

These vacant apartments in the Pujiang area of Shanghai appear to be unwanted supply for non-existing demand but they’re actually new homes for residents who were evicted from the World Expo site. WADE SHEPARD FOR REUTERS

These vacant apartments in the Pujiang area of Shanghai appear to be unwanted supply for non-existing demand but they’re actually new homes for residents who were evicted from the World Expo site. WADE SHEPARD FOR REUTERS

Nearly 150,000 Syrian refugees have already claimed asylum in Europe and tens of thousands more are flooding the borders in search of places to live. Meanwhile, in China, there are millions of new apartments sitting completely empty and entire sections of freshly constructed cities that are virtually uninhabited. This disparity between unmet housing need and oversupply has not been lost on many around the world, and after writing a book about China’s ghost cities, I’ve recently found my email inbox getting flooded with suggestions such as this:

Do you think the Ghost Cities could be used, even as a temporary situation, to accommodate those displaced from Syria? It seems that many of the cities are just waiting for a community and here is a community that needs a city.

This sentiment is widespread across popular social media platforms, and on Twitter alone roughly 7 out of 10 results for searches pertaining to China’s ghost cities reveal tweets recommending the mass movement of Syrian refugees to these under-populated urban terrains.

Realistically speaking, this suggestion isn’t worth analyzing with much depth. The political quagmire of relocating masses of people across the planet — not to mention the fact that refugees need more than just housing — means that this is a far greater ordeal than simply assuaging demand with supply. It does shed light, though, on the gulf that exists between the predominant international opinion on China’s so-called ghost cities and their present reality.

Even though there are between 20 and 45 million unoccupied homes across China, which account for roughly 600 million square meters of uninhabited floor space — enough to completely cover Madrid — these places are not the urban wastelands they are often posited to be. While many of China’s new cities and urban districts are deficient in people they are not deficient in owners. Nearly every apartment that goes on the market in China is quickly purchased, often at exorbitant prices that commonly range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Far from being unwanted infrastructure that could seamlessly be doled out to refugees, those arrays of vacant high-rises are actually the proud possessions of people who paid a lot of money for them.

So why would anyone spend incredible amounts of cash on houses they do not intent to use?

All over the world, the value of property extends beyond the utilitarian function of being a place to live. Real estate is also a vital economic entity that presents an avenue for investment as well as a way of storing wealth — a use of property that is taken to the extreme in China. “Many Chinese investors are buying property based on expectations of appreciation, and that it is a solid, safe investment that they can easily understand,” said Mark Tanner, the founding director of China Skinny, a Shanghai based marketing research firm.

A full 39 percent of individual wealth in China is kept in housing, and, according to Nomura, 21 percent of China’s urban households possess more than one home. The reasons for this desire to invest in housing often results from a lack of better options. China’s banks pay negative interest and are becoming even more unattractive with the recent wave of currency devaluation. Wealth management products are not fully developed and are highly regulated by the government, and the stock market is viewed to be about as secure as a casino.

A huge portion of the homes that are purchased in China function very much like stocks or a trade-able commodity. As an incredible number of new apartments are sold as unfinished concrete cavities without any interior fit out or even windows, they are in no way immediately livable. Strange as it may seem, they are very actively bought and sold in this bare-bones form. In fact, investors often prefer them that way. In many ways they are purely economic entities, quantifiable placeholders of value that are traded on the open market akin to precious metals. Just as one doesn’t need to mold a piece of gold into something usable, like a piece of jewelry, for it to have value and an economic function, an apartment in China doesn’t need to have people living in it for it to be economically viable.

“Empty units leave flexibility for quick sales in a changing market or need to cash in quickly,” said Barry Wilson, the founding director of Barry Wilson Project Initiatives, a Hong Kong-based urban design firm.

Another reason for the sheer number of unused apartments in China is the fact that there is often little financial incentive for owners to do anything with them after purchase. There is no yearly property tax in China, so vacant properties are not a financial drain on their owners. While the potential returns that could be had from renting them out (1 percent or so) is often not worth the hassle — especially because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to construct the interiors of new apartments in preparation for tenants. This is combined with the fact that Chinese homeowners, especially investors who have multiple properties, are remarkably un-leveraged. According to Mark Tanner, over 80 percent of homes in China are owned outright. This means that most homeowners, especially the big investors with multiple properties, generally don’t have any mortgages to pay off or any other leans, so there isn’t as much financial pressure to make a profit from these homes in the short term.

Additionally many empty apartments have owners who intend to occupy them at some point. A huge number of China’s new apartments are located in new development areas, which are, by definition, new. The thinking is if you buy property in these emerging new areas early, you can get a better price. So it’s common for people to purchase homes in places that are not yet ready to support a large population with the understanding that they won’t be able to inhabit them for many years. As these new urban developments grow and evolve, more and more people eventually move into their homes. According to a report by Standard Chartered, between 2012 and 2014 the occupancy rate of Zhengzhou’s Zhengdong New District — prominently featured in a 60 Minutes segment on ghost cities — doubled, while the population in Zhenjiang’s Dantu district quadrupled, and occupancy in Changzhou’s new Wujin district increased more than twofold. As new areas develop, the facilities, institutions, infrastructure and businesses they need to be attractive to residents, vacant homes begin filling up as ghost cities come alive.

So, while China may have tens of millions of empty apartments, it doesn’t mean that they don’t serve an economic function, it doesn’t mean that they are unwanted, and it definitely doesn’t mean that they are just laying out in some urban no-mans-lands ripe for the taking.

In: reuters