Posts Tagged ‘ Kolkata ’

Fire at Indian Hospital Kills 89, Injures Dozens

By Mark Magnier for The LA Times

At least 89 patients died and dozens were injured when a fire raced through a hospital in India’s eastern city of Kolkata early Friday amid unconfirmed reports that it started in an underground parking lot used to store oxygen cylinders and flammable material.

Most of those who died in the multistory AMRI hospital in the southern part of the city died of suffocation, fire officials said. Hundreds of angry relatives, distraught at the lack of information and the idea that such a tragedy had occurred in a place dedicated to healing, reportedly went on a rampage, smashing glass in the reception area and looting hospital registers.

This was the second fire at that hospital in three years and one of the worst in Indian history. Mamata Banerjee, the top elected official in West Bengal state, where Kolkata is located, called it an “unforgivable crime,” adding that the private hospital’s license had been revoked. She promised a full investigation and harsh punishment for those found guilty of wrongdoing. Five fire engines brought the fire under control a few hours after the 3 a.m. blaze broke out, their arrival delayed by the narrow, congested streets surrounding the site.

Neighbors and passersby helped rescue stranded occupants of the 160-bed facility. Some told local television reporters that hospital staff had abandoned patients and fled for safety. Among the 73 people confirmed dead in the conflagration, three were hospital workers, said Satyabrata Upadhyay, a senior vice president of the AMRI hospital company.

Indian television showed dead bodies being removed from the building wrapped in sheets, with some of the living and dead lowered from windows by rope.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note- We are saddened by this loss of life in neighboring India and pay our condolences to the relatives of the deceased. We urge the Indian government to make an urgent inqury into the cause of this disaster and hope that better emergency plans are laid out as a result on all public buildings, especially hospitals and nursing homes.

India and Pakistan Are United by Language and History, Divided by Commerce

By Karin Brulliard for The Washington Post

In India, where it is made, Fair and Handsome men’s skin lightening cream sells for $1.25 a tube.

But by the time it hits the shelf at Sajid Khan’s shop in this city’s old marketplace, it has traversed 2,000 miles of sea and land, been smuggled over the Hindu Kush and marked up 25 percent.

Pakistan and India share language, culture, history and an 1,800-mile border; they are South Asia’s largest economies. What they barely share is trade – officially at least, because of a quasi-blockade that dates from partition in 1947, and all but chokes off commerce under a dizzying web of rules.

The hurdles have spurred off-the-books trade, much of it shipped through third parties in such places as Dubai, where products are re-labeled as imports from other lands – journeys that result in 40-to-70-percent markups. Only recently did Pakistan make its first export to India by truck: a load of gypsum rock.

But economists, business groups and U.S. officials are pushing to loosen at least the most maddening restrictions, and they are hopeful that the two nations’ decision two weeks ago to resume peace talks might help. Free trade, they say, would benefit both India and Pakistan and might help to ease tensions whose gravity is reflected in rival nuclear arsenals.

“Economics 101 dictates that countries’ major trading partners should be their neighbors,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “To change the dialogue from a zero-sum game to a positive, win-win outcome for both India and Pakistan, you need to start with the low-hanging fruit of opening trade and tourism.”

For a Pakistani economy in tatters, experts say, a freer flow of goods from India would allow cheaper access to products and raw materials, and could open up India, with its enormous population, to exports of Pakistan products such as cement.

Some research indicates that bilateral trade – currently at about $2 billion a year, less than 1 percent of each country’s total trade – could swell 20 to 50 times under more liberal policies. Estimates of illicit trade range from $2 billion to $10 billion a year.

But for now, progress creeps. India admits all Pakistani products, but Pakistani firms complain that stringent standards and paperwork make many exports unviable. Pakistan, for its part, allows a slowly expanding list of Indian products that now includes artificial kidneys, camphor, parachutes and 1,931 other items – but not Fair and Handsome cream, which is instead legally exported from Kolkata to landlocked Afghanistan, via the Pakistani port of Karachi, then smuggled back into Pakistan.

Travel restrictions are another barrier. Businessmen in both countries say they wait months for visas that allow travel only within major cities in the other country – preventing visits to rural factories or farms – where they are often tailed by intelligence agents.

Then there is the logistic muddle of land trade at the one border crossing, midway between Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar. The twice daily cargo train involves an engine switch: A train carrying Pakistani exports, for example, can enter mere miles into India, at which point the Pakistani engine and conductors are replaced by an Indian ones before continuing inland. With so few trains, exporters wait months for cargo space.

Trucks have only eight hours each day to cross, because each afternoon the two-lane road is overtaken by Indian and Pakistani border guards’ theatrical gate-closing ceremony. Even then, trucks must stop just past the frontier, where porters transfer the goods to local trucks. That is an advancement: Before 2007, trucks were barred from crossing at all, and laborers lugged all cargo across the boundary on their heads.

The little existing trade often falls victim to what look like political whims. In December, cargo trains sat idle for three weeks while Indian conductors awaited the visas that allow them to park just inside Pakistan.

That same month, spiraling onion prices prompted India to drop import tariffs and standards for the staple, triggering a surge in Pakistani onion exports. But Pakistan abruptly halted overland sales amid concerns about a domestic shortage.

“I had 400 trucks stuck on the other side,” said Rajdeep Uppal, a trader who is vice president of the Amritsar Exporters Council. “For a week these onions were standing there, and eventually they had to be sold within Pakistan for half the price. Who loses? Both the countries.”

Tensions aside, scenes of goodwill abound along the border. Pakistani and Indian train conductors sip tea and gripe about red tape together. Satanam Singh, a turbaned Indian driver – wearing a regulation yellow vest stamped “Indian Driver” – beamed as laborers unloaded his ginger on the Pakistani side. Coming to Pakistan, he gushed, was delightful compared with Mumbai, where the language is different and people hostile.

“It is a strange feeling, like I am going to a strange land,” said a smiling Mohammed Zafar, a Pakistani whose vibrantly painted truck, brimming with dates, was about to make its virgin voyage across the Indian frontier. “I am very happy.”

Here in Lahore, just 20 miles from the Indian border, Khan’s shop was the pioneer in a winding lane of stores now crammed with Indian silk and cosmetics – all smuggled into Pakistan illegally.

He said he would welcome friendlier business relations, even if they lessened the luxury value of his stock. Even his Afghan smuggler, who stopped by on a recent evening, agreed, on grounds that it would lessen the need to bribe border officials.

Among some merchants, skepticism about trade prospects remains, with Pakistanis fearing that open trade would lead to a glut of cheap Indian imports. S.M. Akhter, a top Indian customs official at the border, said national security concerns must trump market demands.

But despite the tangle of rules, some trade is quietly rising. Tahir Habib Cheema, the top Pakistani customs official at the border, said he realized last year that truck exports from Pakistan were allowed, but that “status quo” and “fear” had prevented them. He decided to change that – without notifying his bosses.

A comedy of errors ensued. By Oct. 7, Cheema had found one willing exporter and one importer. After hiccups on each side, a meeting at the frontline was arranged.

All parties agreed, Cheema said – and then the truck would not start. Someone proposed pushing it into India, an idea that was nixed by border guards who said the pushers would need visas. Finally, another vehicle nudged the truck over the line.

“This was something for the national cause,” Cheema said proudly. Since then, he added, Pakistani trucks have exported $2.5 million worth of products to India. He expects that to escalate this spring, when the two nations open a dedicated truck passage.

Correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this article from New Delhi.


Global Sufi Fest Attracts Thousands

As Reported by the Times of India

Soulful renderings of Sufi music by wandering minstrels from different parts of the world left the listeners spellbound here at the three-day ‘Sufi Sutra’ which ended on Sunday.

Besides Indians, Sufi singers and musicians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Syria and Tajikistan presented mystic Islam through songs, dance and poetry.

Notwithstanding the current political turmoil back home, an eight-member Egyptian Mawlawyiah troupe enthralled the audience by an audio-visual of music and circular dervish dance whirling around singers in a circle.

A Bangladeshi team, led by Anusheh Anadil, sang the household songs of the famous 18th century poet-philosopher Fakir Lalon Shah, on whom based the recent Golden Peacock winning Bengali film ‘Moner Manush’.

The ‘bauls’ and ‘fakirs’ of West Bengal’s Nadia and Murshidabad districts were huge hits by their spontaneous, simple and meaningful lyrics.

Another Bengal team led by Armaan Fakir presented the little-known ‘Bangla Qawwali’. Traditionally performed at the Dargahs, the devotional songs had ‘Dhol’ and ‘Khol’ as percussions replacing Tabla.

The first Sufi ensemble also included the ‘Warsi Brothers’ from Hyderabad, Delhi’s ‘Druv Sangari’ and team, ‘Mirs’ from Bikaner and ‘Haji Md Ahmed Khan Warsi’s team from Uttar Pradesh.

“It is a peace concert in times of violence. We want to bring a convergence of ideas about truth, harmony, self-belief and peace through music. It is a celebration of the quest for the divine through love,” organiser Amitava Bhattacharya said.

Besides musical performances, the festival included workshops and exhibitions to showcase the traditional culture, beliefs and music of the Sufi mystics.

“We had more than 10,000 people at the open-air concert, while more than 700 people, including young students, learnt about Sufism at the pre-concert workshops,” Bhattacharya said.

The event would also help the poor musicians, most of whom were from the rural areas, to earn a livelihood, he said.  The festival was organised by in collaboration.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s NoteIt’s a sad reality that singers from a  country rich in Sufi history and traditions like Pakistan, are  unable to attend this festival due to the 60+ year friction between the two brothers India and Pakistan. They are two halves of one nation.

Cultural exchanges like these, billions in cross border trade, Bollywood and Lollywood collaborations, sports matches, etc are just some of the things the two are missing out on due to their relations. We hope one day peace can finally come to this ancient and holy land that is the subcontinent.

Pakistanis, Indians want peace, friendship, says poll

As Reported by SANA (South Asian News Agency)

Despite a history of conflicts, mistrust and estranged relationship, an overwhelming number of Pakistanis and Indians want peace and friendship between the nuclear-armed South Asian nations, a survey conducted on both sides of the border has revealed.

The survey – conducted by independent research agencies and sponsored by the Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India on the first anniversary of their joint peace initiative ‘Aman Ki Asha’ – showed that 70 per cent of Pakistanis and 74 per cent of Indians want peaceful relations.

Although, the process of composite dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi remains stalled since the 2008 Mumbai carnage, 72 per cent Pakistanis and 66 per cent Indians hope to see ’sustainable friendly relations’ in their lifetime. Compared with last year, the number of Indians hoping to see peace in their lifetime has surged by 17 per cent.

The optimism at the people’s level appears in a stark contrast to the current bitter official positions. The Indian government accuses Pakistan of harbouring terrorists and not doing enough against the alleged sponsors of the Mumbai attack, while Islamabad says that New Delhi has been using this incident as a ‘propaganda’ tool to avoid talks on the core issue of Kashmir. Islamabad also blames India for instigating violence in Balochistan.

According to the survey, awareness of the Kashmir problem as being central to the state of relations between the two countries, particularly in India, has increased. The survey results show that 77 per cent Pakistanis and 87 per cent of Indians feel that peace can be achieved by settling the protracted Kashmir dispute.

The scientific survey covered 10 Pakistani cities and 42 villages, covering a cross-section of people from rural and urban areas. Pakistani cities where the survey was carried out were: Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Multan, Faisalabad, Hyderabad and Sukkur. In India, the survey was conducted in six cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad (Deccan) and Chennai. Adult population, both male and female, were represented in the survey.

This was the second survey on Pakistan-India relations. The first survey was conducted in December 2009; just before the Aman Ki Asha peace campaign was launched. Survey results show a consistent and marked improvement in perceptions about each other by people in both countries.

The survey showed that the issue of Pakistan-India relations featured in the thoughts of 73 per cent Pakistanis and 68 per cent Indians. The survey results said apart from settling the Kashmir dispute, 80 per cent Pakistanis and 91 per cent Indians think ’stronger relations and better defence’ would also contribute in achieving the goal of peace.

The survey tracked the impact of the Aman Ki Asha campaign in India by asking a similar set of questions to two groups of people – one aware of this peace campaign and the other not aware of it. On all four questions asked – perceiving Pakistan as a high threat to India, as a sponsor of terror, desire for peace and being hopeful for achieving sustainable peace – there was a marked difference in the responses of the two groups. The group that was aware of the Aman Ki Asha initiative had a much better perception of Pakistan.

Around 77 per cent of Pakistanis and 87 per cent Indians consider that international pressure may help in bringing peace, while 71 per cent Pakistanis and 72 per cent Indians pin hopes on greater people-to-people contact to pave the way for friendly relations. Eighty-one per cent Pakistanis and Indians see people-to-people contact as an effective ‘instrument of peace’.

An increase in business has also been tipped as a vehicle of peace by 67 per cent Pakistanis and 69 per cent Indians, the survey said. Among other steps needed to promote peace, 32 per cent Pakistanis pinned hopes on sports, 28 per cent on business, 22 per cent on tourism, 20 per cent on travel for health treatment and 13 per cent each on culture and higher education. The data from the Indian side regarding this questionnaire was not available.

For 51 per cent of Pakistanis, business can help bring peace, while 46 and 45 per cent of respondents said that it can also be done through sports and tourism respectively.

AMAN KI ASHA: The first of its kind peace drive ‘Aman Ki Asha’ was seen by a vast majority as articulating the aspirations of the people. Around 87 per cent Pakistanis and 74 per cent Indians were of the view that this sustained campaign ‘developed tremendous awareness about the Indo-Pak relationship’. Around 85 per cent Pakistanis and 61 per cent Indians said Aman Ki Asha communicated ‘peoples’ desire for peace to their governments, while 80 per cent Pakistanis and 86 per cent Indians said it ‘helped bring the people of the two countries together’.

The Jang Group and The Times of India have held a series of events over the last 12 months that involved a broad section of people, including students, intellectuals, artists, businessmen, doctors, information technology experts and ordinary citizens in an attempt to boost people-to-people ties.

In Pakistan, the recall of the ‘Aman Ki Asha’ campaign has been around an impressive 92 per cent. Shahrukh Hasan, Group Managing Director of the Jang Group, said this media-led civil society movement had made a huge contribution for peace at a time when tensions remained high between the two countries.

“The survey results should lay to rest any misgivings or apprehensions people may have had about the objectives or chances of success of the campaign,” he said. “The survey results show that Aman Ki Asha has brought about a sea change in perceptions in India about Pakistan. Every negative perception has decreased and every positive perception has improved. The Jang Group feels vindicated and is delighted that we have helped put across Pakistan’s point of view through honest dialogue, seminars, people-to-people contacts and cultural events.”

According to the survey, the terror perception in India about Pakistan is down to 42 per cent from 75 a year ago, of bomb threats to 29 per cent from 54 and awareness about the Kashmir dispute rising to 17 per cent from a mere four per cent. Hasan hoped that the Pakistani and Indian governments would continue to facilitate the Aman Ki Asha peace campaign and take advantage of the access to the hearts and minds of the people of the two countries that the Jang Group and the Times of India provided.

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