News Wrap


Gold is an intrinsic part of rural Sonakhan, in Balodabazar district of Chattisgarh state in India. Part of the local economy and even folklore, Sonakhan’s Baghmara mines has an estimated reserve of 2700 kilograms of gold metal. Villagers collect the dirt from any stream or ‘nullah’, or the Jog river, that runs nearby, by means of a large wooden saucer shaped vessel. Water in the vessel is drained out, and the muddy earth is sifted, in the search for tiny flakes of gold at the bottom of the vessel. Traders from Pithora or Kasdol visit Sonakhan, and buy gold pieces from the villagers. On 26 February 2016, the state government of Chattisgarh announced that Vedanta Resources Incorporated had won the rights to mine for gold in an area of 608 hectares, in the Baghmara mines of Sonakhan, which is in a forested area of the district. Before the allotment of the area to Vedanta Resources, villagers in Baghmara and Sonakhan were never informed that the government was going to allow mining in the area. Officials have stated that no houses in Baghmara will be removed, and mining will be done in the hills at the back. Since the government announcement, there have been lots of demonstrations and meetings in Sonakhan. Baghmara and Sonakhan villages consist of a ‘tola’ of 24 small villages. Water sources in the Bailadila mines are all contaminated, and hills of Dalli Rajhara have no trees. Dirt from the mines will pollute the water, and dust and pollutants will contaminate the air. The jungles will be destroyed. Villagers stand divided. The Patels, with 30 families in the villages, are not tribal, but hold sway. Mahua produce of the tribals, and everything else, comes from the forests in the hills. Owing the differences within the village communities, no applications have been made under the Forest Rights Act.

Unmarried Couples
‘Stay Uncle’, an on-line start-up in India, has come to the aid of unmarried couples, trying to find some privacy. Hotel rooms are being offered to lovers seeking to evade the prying eyes of social conservatives. The app has formed a partnership with hotels to enable couples to rent rooms for eight hours at a time, rather than a full day or night. India has no law against renting rooms to unmarried couples, but many hotels refuse to do so. Even in big cities, unmarried lovers are commonly harassed by police, religious vigilantes, and other self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morality. Thanks to app-based service such as Tinder, the demand for privacy is greater than ever. ‘Stay Uncle’ was originally conceived as a website for travellers who do not need to stay in a hotel for a full 24 hours. The company soon picked up on complaints from unmarried couples about the difficulty of finding a room. By booking through the site, couples are assured they will not be interrogated, and turned away at check-in. The small team at ‘Stay Uncle’ negotiates with global hotel chains and private hoteliers alike to find sympathetic partners.

Illegal Ivory
China is the biggest market for illegal Ivory. It has promised to safeguard elephants in Africa. The helmeted hornbill, a rarebird in Southeast Asia is in danger, because its skull is being sold in China, as an ivory alternative. The bird is already threatened by habitat loss in the lowland forests of Malaysia and western Indonesia, but now poaching is rising sharply. More than 2000 helmeted hornbill skills, or casques, were seized by the authorities in Indonesia and China in the past five years. In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Switzerland has classified the helmeted hornbill as ‘‘critically endangered’’. Bans on commercial trade have not slowed the decline of the bird’s population. Once inside China, traders transport casques to distributors or workshops for processing.

China-Taiwan Relations
After being elected to a government that is much less friendly to mainland China, Tsai Ing-wen took office as President of Taiwan in May 2016. In a choreographed gesture designed to smooth cross-strait ties, the head of a Buddha statue of 6th century, stolen from northern China, twenty years ago, was given back to Beijing by a religious leader from Taiwan, in March 2016. The Buddha head is now displayed in Beijing. Under outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, and China’s President, Hu Jintao, relations between Beijing and Taipei improved markedly. Close economic ties between the mainland and Taiwans business elite alienated many of the island’s younger voters. Beijing regards Taiwan, which has governed itself since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1948, as a renegade province that should be reunited with the mainland, by force, if necessary. Ms Tsai is maintaining a delicate balance between her own, pro-independence sympathies, and the need to avoid provoking a hostile response from the mainland, whose economy, population and military all far outweigh Taiwan’s. Beijing is pressing Ms Tsai for a clearer statement on whether she supports the ‘‘1992 consensus‘‘ of only ‘‘one China’’, while differing in their interpretation of what that means.

India and Japan
India and Japan are collaborating on upgrading civilian infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, an Indian archipelago seen as a critical asset to counter China’s efforts to expand its maritime reach into the Indian Ocean. A 15-megawatt diesel power plant on South Andaman Island will be built by Japan. India has not previously accepted offers of foreign investment on the archipelago. Andaman and Nicobar Islands are north-west of the Strait of Malacca, offering control of a so-called choke point, that is one of China’s greatest maritime vulnerabilities. The Andaman and Nicobar chain is made up of 572 islands, a vast majority of them uninhabited, stretching around 470 miles north to south. Almost all the undeveloped land is set aside for indigenous tribes and wildlife. The island chain’s location makes it an ideal base for tracking naval movements in the Strait of Malacca, a long narrow tunnel between Malaysia and Indonesia. The strait provides passage for China’s fuel imports from Africa and the Middle east, which is around 80% of its total fuel imports. Until 2015, no flights landed on Andaman and Nicobar islands, after dark because there were no lights at Port Blair Runway Airport. In recent years Chinese submarines have been present in Indian Ocean, in Andaman waters. Japan is also funding a $744 million road building project in the north-eastern Indian border regions of Mizoram, Assam and Meghalaya.

Vol. 48, No. 51, Jun 26 - Jul 2, 2016