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Swiss Banking Fraud, World's Priciest Artwork, Bloody Accents

Swiss Banking Fraud, World's Priciest Artwork, Bloody Accents

NEW HOPE FOR UKRAINE
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama later today in Washington for talks that will focus primarily on a ceasefire for eastern Ukraine. This comes after emergency meetings Friday and Saturday in Kiev and Moscow to negotiate a possible agreement ahead of a four-way meeting Wednesday in Minsk with Presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko. It’s unclear if the two sides can agree on a lasting truce. This morning, Kiev officials accused Russia of having recently sent 1,500 Russian troops and military equipment into Ukraine, which Moscow has denied in the past. Putin, meanwhile, laid blame on the West for the yearlong crisis.

  • An online video emerged of a mushroom-shaped explosion that reportedly hit a chemical plant near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk last night. Russian media are quoting a Ukrainian lawmaker as praising the army for the blast, an image of which was also caught by NATO’s satellites. There have been no reports of casualties so far.

$300 MILLION
A Qatari museum purchased a Paul Gauguin painting of two Tahitian girls for $300 million, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold.

HSBC TAX FRAUD
On its Monday front page, Geneva-based daily Le Temps features an ominous-looking photo of HSBC's Geneva headquarters with the accompanying headline, “What the Falciani files reveal.” It refers to the latest developments in the giant tax evasion scheme led by the world’s second-largest bank, HSBC via its Swiss subsidiary. Read more from our 4 Corners blog.

SNAPSHOT
NASA finally revealed what the not-so-dark side of the Moon (Photo above: NASA expand=1] Goddard) looks like. Check it out in this stunning video.

SHOTS FIRED AT FRENCH POLICE
Hooded gunmen in the southern French city of Marseille fired at the local police chief and other officers with Kalashnikovs just hours before Prime Minister Manuel Valls was expected to arrive for a one-day visit. There are no reports of injuries. Security remains tense in France a month after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, but newspaper Le Figaro believes the Marseille attack to be related to rivalry between drug-dealing gangs rather than terrorism.

ON THIS DAY

Halley’s Comet last appeared on Feb. 9, 1986. Time for your 57-second shot of history.

NIGERIAN ELECTION DELAYED
Nigeria’s election authorities have decided to postpone until March 28 a crucial presidential election initially planned for Feb. 14, citing security fears as Islamist terror group Boko Haram continues to wage war in the country’s northeastern regions, The Nigerian Tribune reports. Muhammadu Buhari, the main opponent to incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, denounced the move as “a crude and fraudulent attempt to subvert the electoral process,” Vanguard reports. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also criticized the decision, saying the international community would be “watching closely.”

  • Boko Haram fighters, meanwhile, opened a new front as they launched an attack on the town of Diffa, in neighboring Niger, in yet another sign that the fight against the Islamist sect is becoming regional.
  • Al-Shabab, a terrorist group active in Somalia, added another name to its list of murdered politicians after lawmaker Abdulahi Qayad Barre was killed in Mogadishu this morning. Last year, the group killed five Somalian lawmakers.

GREECE ON COLLISION COURSE WITH EU
Greece’s defiant new leader Alexis Tsipras told the country’s parliament yesterday that his government would not seek to extend the international bailout. But he simultaneously vowed to push ahead with his Syriza party’s pre-election promises to roll back austerity policies implemented over the last five years, Reuters reports. “The bailout failed,” the BBC quoted Tsipras as saying in what was his first major speech since his election. “The new government is not justified in asking for an extension ... because it cannot ask for an extension of mistakes.” The move is once again fueling speculation that Athens will leave the Eurozone, with former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan saying over the weekend it was “only a matter of time.” Greek stocks have lost more than 5% in early trading today.
For more on the new Berlin-Athens relationship, we offer this Süddeutsche Zeitung/Worldcrunch piece, A German Dose Of Skepticism On Tsipras And Friends.

WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO
As Francois Duchateau writes for Die Welt, a trial public work program for German drug addicts promised modest hourly wages and optional bottles of beer. The results have surprised social workers. “When this program, officially called ‘Pick up,’ began in October, people had reservations about it,” Duchateau writes. “The basic idea, taken from an Amsterdam program, is to get addicts onto a daily schedule by having them clean up street litter. For this, they are paid a little over one euro per hour plus up to three bottles of beer. The idea was criticized as being exploitive and contemptuous in its approach to people. Many thought wrongly that ‘Pick up’ was somehow associated with the drinker's scene in Essen's inner city when in fact the trial program primarily targets severe drug addicts who may also use alcohol from time to time. As testament to this, the 20 crates of beer that were bought for the program are still in the cellar, virtually untouched after more than two months.”
Read the full article, The Public Work Program For Addicts That Pays In Beer.

VERBATIM
“Beck needs to respect artistry, and he should have given his award to Beyoncé,” Kanye West said after pulling a Kanye West at yesterday’s Grammy Awards ceremony. So 2009.

ABBOTT SURVIVES NO CONFIDENCE VOTE
Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott survived a leadership challenge inside his own party brought by sharp criticism of some of his political choices. But as The Sydney Morning Herald writes, his victory with 61 votes to 39, “rather than settling anything will probably ensure another bout.”

MY GRAND-PÈRE'S WORLD


BLOODY ACCENTS
And the award for the most attractive accent goes to … Britain, according to a poll of 11,000 people in 24 cities around the world. The American accent came in second, while French placed fifth.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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