India’s mega Hindu Kumbh Mela festival begins under cloud of toxic air

A thick layer of dust covers the tent city set up for the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, India. (AP)
Updated 15 January 2019
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India’s mega Hindu Kumbh Mela festival begins under cloud of toxic air

  • The hazardous air may the government’s drive to make the Kumbh Mela a global tourism event
  • India’s cities are among the world’s smoggiest

PRAYAGRAJ, India: Thousands of portable toilets line roads constantly swept clean, drinking water flows from newly installed taps, electric substations power a massive tent city and billboards encourage a “clean Kumbh,” an extension of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s huge push to improve sanitation across the country.
But the skies over the confluence of sacred rivers in northern India where millions of Hindu priests and pilgrims have come to wash away their sins at the ancient Kumbh Mela festival are thick with toxic dust, a sign that government officials are struggling to grapple with the country’s worsening air pollution.
The hazardous air may also hinder the government’s drive to make the Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, a global tourism event.
Four sites in India rotate every three years hosting the Kumbh, the world’s largest pilgrimage. The river baths, prayer, meditation and yoga sessions and other religious rituals are organized by sadhus, Hinduism’s holy men, and financially supported with public funds.
Tens of millions throng to the sites for a holy dip, many with little money, few provisions and nowhere to sleep.
The first of a series of royal baths took place before dawn on Tuesday, led by a procession of sadhus on tractor chariots and on foot, singing, drumming and blowing horns. The first to bathe were the naked, naga sadhus, whose bodies were covered with ash. Huge crowds followed them into the river, including Mili Mishra, a teacher from Prayagraj with her husband and two sons.
“We are not earning a livelihood. We think that if we bathe here, God can change our life,” she said.
The exact dates and times of the baths, as well as the Kumbh itself, are determined by the cosmic alignment of the sun, moon and Jupiter.
The Indian government has for years provided security and free food and shelter for the poorest pilgrims.
For this year’s Kumbh — though less religiously significant than the Kumbh that happens every 12 years, and still less than the one that occurs every 144 years — the government shelled out an estimated 4.3 billion rupees ($650 million), hoping to impress India’s largely Hindu population ahead of general elections this year and draw visitors from around the world.
The budget supplied thousands of toilets and urinals, public dormitories, and hundreds of water stations, as well as police, hospitals, 24-hour pharmacies and fire and ambulance services.
And like elsewhere in India, a person’s comfort is determined by wealth and social standing.
The expansive campgrounds hosted everything from luxury “glamping” options that cost up to 35,000 rupees ($494) per night — private, tent “suites” with plush bedding and flush toilets — to a cot with a thin foam mattress in a public dormitory in a high-top tent that costs 200 rupees ($2.83) per night.
“I go to holy sites very often, but I’m used to them being very dirty. I have never seen this level of cleanliness measures at any other holy city,” said Gita Mishra, 58, one of the guests at a public tent near the banks of the river.
When people waiting for a spot outside the tent learned it was full, they laid blankets around the periphery to sleep in the hazy open air.
Still others, including about 500 sanitation workers, pitched pup tents near a row of some of the toilets they are paid 300 rupees ($7) per day to clean.
The production of any Kumbh is a gargantuan task, particularly in the low-lying Indian army parade grounds in Prayagraj where the ritual baths take place. Regular summertime floods leave organizers only 40 to 50 days to erect the temporary city, according to city commissioner Ashish Goel.
But this year’s public provisions are unprecedented.
“It’s a very aspirational Kumbh Mela,” Goel said.
The dust plumes encompassing the camp come from the sandy riverbanks, Goel said, and not from construction, which is banned during the 55-day festival. Still, in the city center outside of the fairgrounds, brick kilns send up clouds of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that can dangerously clog lungs.
Even with the construction ban, PM 2.5 levels in Prayagraj on Tuesday were more than six times what the World Health Organization considers safe, according to AQI India, an online air quality monitor.
India’s cities are among the world’s smoggiest.
The Indian government has announced a five-year program to cut air pollution by up to 30 percent from 2017 levels in the country’s 102 worst-affected cities, including Prayagraj.
Key targets include reducing burning of field waste, firewood and charcoal, cleaning up thermal power and auto emissions and heavily polluting brick production and controlling dust from construction.
Critics say the plan lacks details on enforcement and funding.


Russia pioneering return of ‘Daesh children’

Updated 18 min 58 sec ago
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Russia pioneering return of ‘Daesh children’

  • Earlier this month, 27 children, from four to 13 years old, were flown from Iraq to the Moscow region
  • The children themselves face a difficult reintegration process into life in Russia, a country they barely know

MOSCOW: As the end nears for the Daesh enclave in Syria and the fate of militants’ family members becomes a prescient issue, Russia can be seen as a pioneer in systematically returning children of extremist fighters home.
A potential homecoming of the many foreign women who have gone to live in the Daesh “caliphate” and their children, many of whom were born there, has been a subject of debate in Russia, with some security chiefs seeing them as potential threats.
Earlier this month, 27 children, from four to 13 years old, were flown from Iraq to the Moscow region.
Clutching stuffed toys and bundled in winter jackets, the children were carried off the cargo plane to face the Russian winter after years in the desert.
After health exams, they would be given into the care of their uncles, aunts, and grandparents in the Russian North Caucasus, the majority-Muslim territory in the south of Russia that is home to most of the Russians that had joined the Daesh group.
Another 30 children were brought back in late December.
“They attend school and kindergarten. Volunteers work with them and talk to them about what they have been through, explaining how they have been indoctrinated,” said Kheda Saratova, an adviser to Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has assumed a central role in the process of repatriating extremists’ relatives.
Russian authorities have given sometimes conflicting figures of returnees. Saratova said that about 200 children have been brought to Russia, but nearly 1,400 are still stuck in Iraq and Syria.
Kadyrov, a longtime Kremlin protege with vast resources, began efforts to bring back fighters’ children in 2017. Diplomatic negotiations are often led by Aleppo-born Chechnya senator Ziyad Sabsabi.
Endorsing Kadyrov’s efforts, President Vladimir Putin in late 2017 called the drive to return the children “a very honorable and correct deed” and promised to help.
“It’s very good for the image of Kadyrov. He seems somebody who doesn’t just use violence against terrorists but who builds mosques and hands out humanitarian aid,” said Grigory Shvedov, who edits a Caucasus-focused news website Caucasian Knot.
When he began Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, Putin justified it by the need to kill extremists before they come to Russia.
Although some regions have tried rehabilitation programs for extremists, these have failed to catch on at the national level. Young men who returned from Syria or Iraq and turned themselves in have faced harsh punishment.
This month Russia’s Supreme Court confirmed a 16-year-term for a young man who went to Syria as a 19-year-old student and worked as a cook and driver on Daesh-controlled territory for six months.
Returning the wives of jihadists is also complicated by the absence of an extradition agreement between Russia and Iraq, where many have been sentenced, sometimes to life, in prison.
But there is also reluctance by Russia’s powerful security services to bring home adult civilians.
FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov in November noted that many women with children exiting conflict zones have been used by militants as suicide bombers or recruiters.
“The FSB sees them as dangerous, even though many of these wives purchase their freedom from the Kurds and will eventually return one way or another,” said Saratova.
Any affiliation with Daesh terrorists is a crime, since the group is banned under Russian law.
“Some sort of amnesty has been promised to many, but it doesn’t actually happen,” said Shvedov. “They are put on trial, (charges) sometimes trumped up and sometimes real.”
Last year, two women returned from Syria to their native Dagestan and were swiftly convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. The court eventually ruled to delay their time in prison until their children are older.
The children themselves face a difficult reintegration process into life in Russia, a country they barely know, after spending formative years in the “caliphate.”
Russian authorities hope that bringing them back into their extended families can minimize risks of radicalization once they reach adulthood in the Caucasus, a region with a history of extremism.