A sinking feeling: Owners of Kashmir's iconic houseboats fret over 'ailing heritage'

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 19 September 2021

A sinking feeling: Owners of Kashmir's iconic houseboats fret over 'ailing heritage'

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
  • A 2005 building and repair ban restricted owners from houseboat maintenance, causing many to sink
  • Experts urge authorities to ease policies and preserve the 'identity of Kashmir' after COVID-19 related travel curbs upended industry

NEW DELHI: Manzoor Kundroo wistfully traces his fingers over the intricate woodwork that lines the interiors of the King’s Ring, his family-owned heritage houseboat and one of many stationed on the iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir.
It’s been the pride of his family for more than 80 years and their main source of revenue but fell into disrepair after a 2009 Kashmir High Court directive banned construction work in the area as part of an environmental policy to protect Dal.
Authorities were also asked to reduce houseboat numbers and not to renew licenses. The order proved devastating for Kundroo and hundreds like him – with owners banned from repairing them, many houseboats began to sink.
A part of King’s Ring sank a few months ago. Today, its woodwork is rotting, and the carpets stink, but Kundroo says he has no money to keep it afloat.
“The boat needs urgent repair work for it to be used, but I have a family to take care of. The money we used to earn from the houseboat was more than enough for us and the boat’s maintenance. Now, it’s not possible,” Kundroo, 39, told Arab News.
A houseboat is a redesigned boat that serves as a home for tourists with amenities on offer; charges vary based on the facilities provided.
They were first built on Dal Lake in the late 19th century as a place for Europeans – banned by the Kashmir king from owning land in the region – to reside in.
Over a century later, houseboats rose to over 3,000 and were often featured in Bollywood films, becoming a tourism mainstay in the disputed Kashmir region.
Before they hit rock bottom, the Kundroo family used to earn $800 a month by renting the facility to local and foreign tourists who visited the picturesque valley and its must-see attractions.
Nowadays, however, he and his extended family of 11 reside in an area adjacent to the houseboat, struggling to make ends meet.
There are over 950 houseboats in Srinagar that are part of an industry that has been an intrinsic part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage for over 150 years, despite decades of conflict in the hotly contested region that India and Pakistan claim in entirety but rule in part.
But the aftermath of political unrest in the past two years and loss of tourism to the valley due to the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown hundreds of houseboat owners like Kundroo into the deep end.
Driven by the industry’s plight, in April, the government said it would allow owners to repair houseboats if they cleared their dues, such as power and water bills, and acquired a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for repair work, which often takes months to process.
But Kundroo, who has switched to a desk job at a tourism company to make ends meet, says it’s a vicious circle – without the houseboat, he cannot earn money to repair it, and without repairs, he cannot rent the facility.
“We could not get the NOC from the government to repair it, and it sank. For the past year, we haven’t paid electricity bills as we don’t have money. We are willing to pay if we are allowed to earn,” he said.
He added that a dearth of tourists to the valley had compounded the issue.
“Despite all the difficulties that the tourism in Kashmir used to face, we somehow used to survive on the income from the houseboat, but that certainty is gone,” Kundroo said.
In August 2019, New Delhi stripped Kashmir of its special semi-autonomous status, placing the region under a heavily militarised curfew, with Internet cut for more than six months.
Tourists turned away, and the numbers reduced to zero a few months later when the pandemic hit and India closed its borders to international visitors to curb the outbreak.
Much before that, Kundroo says King’s Ring had seen better days. It featured in the Kashmir shooting for the 1962 Hindi hit film, Aarzoo and had been “home,” for a few days, to the acclaimed late comedian, Mehmood Ali, father of renowned singer Lucky Ali.
Activists, for their part, said they are concerned about the future of the industry.
“Over 20,000 people are directly dependent on earnings from houseboats,” Yakub Dunoo, president of the Houseboat Association of Kashmir, told Arab News.
Dunoo has been running the “voice of the voiceless people” campaign for the past two years to highlight the issue of boat owners who “are surviving on basic minimum with tourism since 2019 almost down.”
“We have asked the government to waive off all the charges and allow the repair to take place. The conditions are too harsh to fulfil,” he added.
Officials from the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.
But houseboat owners such as Abdul Qadir Gasi said they are waiting for the government to “improve conditions.”
“My situation is such that if the government waives off thousands of rupees that houseboat owners owe to the electricity department, I will still not have money to repair the boat,” Gasi, 49, told Arab News.
Dunoo is hopeful of better days ahead, citing an uptick in tourism after the removal of COVID-19 travel curbs.
“If the situation continues like this, there might be some recovery,” he said.
Manzoor Wangoo, president of the Negin Lake Boat Association, agrees but is particularly concerned about Kashmir’s “loss of heritage.”
“Houseboats are an ailing heritage of Kashmir, and we want to preserve it. They need expensive repairs every year so that water does not seep in, but the financial situation of owners is so grim that they can’t do anything,” he told Arab News.
“They are the identity of Kashmir, and if we continue apathy toward houseboats, the next generation will only read about it in their textbooks,” he added.
Wangoo further implored the government to devise a “comprehensive policy” for owners who are already “on the verge of extinction” to preserve the heritage.
Kundroo says that’s all he’s asking for.
“Our main worry is not about money. It’s about losing heritage and history. If the government does not want us to survive as houseboats owners, it should rehabilitate us and give us royalty instead.”

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Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal
Updated 09 December 2021

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal
  • 1MDB scandal brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government in 2018
  • Investigators allege at least $4.5bn was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered by Najib’s associates

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Court of Appeal upheld on Wednesday former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 12-year jail sentence for his role in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund.

Najib was sentenced by a high court in July 2020 and fined $50 million on charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power relating to illegally receiving RM42 million ($10 million) from SRC International, a former subsidiary of the now-defunct 1MDB.

Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered by Najib’s associates. Najib has pleaded not guilty and consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying he had been misled by Malaysian fugitive financier Low Taek Jho. The scandal brought down Najib’s government in 2018.

As the Court of Appeal upheld the 2020 verdict, lead judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil said the case was a “national embarrassment.”

“This is not something that can be said to have been done in the national interest,” he said while reading the decision. “There is no national interest here, just national embarrassment.”

The court had agreed to the defense’s request to stay the jail term pending a final appeal. Until then, Najib will remain out on bail.

The former prime minister and his legal counsel, Mohammed Shafee Abdullah, attended the court proceedings via a video call, as they had reportedly been in touch with contacts who tested positive for COVID-19.

In an online press conference afterward, Najib said he was “very disappointed” with the judgment.

“I would like to reiterate and say I didn’t know, nor did I ask or …direct anyone for RM42 million to my account,” he said.

Lead prosecutor V. Sithambaram told reporters that a decision in Najib’s final appeal will be made by the federal court, the country’s top court, within the next six to nine months, but the appeal court’s verdict showed the conviction “according to law and facts.”

The 68-year-old politician remains a key figure in the ruling United Malays National Organization party, which has led coalition governments since independence from Britain in 1957.

Toppled in 2018 over the 1MDB scandal, the party returned to power in August.

While the Court of Appeal verdict may not dent Najib’s popularity, it deals a blow to his possible comeback to the country’s top office in the next general election scheduled to take place by 2023.

“In terms of popularity, I don’t think there will be any effect, as the supporters will support Najib regardless of his conviction,” Dr. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Arab News.

“However, if his conviction is not reversed by the time of the next general election, he might not be able to run. If he cannot run, he cannot become prime minister again.” Dozens of Najib’s supporters turned up at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya as the verdict was announced.

One of them, Amaruddin, 67, who goes by one name, said he had traveled 200 km from Terengganu to stand in solidarity with Najib, whom he believes has fallen prey to political persecution.

“Najib is innocent and has been charged because he was vilified by the previous government,” Amaruddin said. “He will get out of this unscathed.”


Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm
Updated 09 December 2021

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm
  • Born without a right arm, Momina Aamir became the youngest person in the world to receive a prosthetic limb

KARACHI: Three-year-old Momina Aamir’s father was overwhelmed with emotion in August when his daughter, who was born without a right arm, asked her father if she could borrow his hand so she could prostrate properly while performing the Muslim ritual of prayer.

After that moment, Aamir Abbas said he was more determined than ever to find a solution, which turned out to be a blue multigrip bionic arm customized to the exact wishes of Momina, a huge fan of Princess Elsa in the Walt Disney animated film, “Frozen.”

“I had just finished praying when Momina came to me and said: ‘Baba, give me your hand so I may pray like you as well’,” Abbas told Arab News. “It is hard for me to put my feelings in words. I had never felt or made her feel that she was missing something. But this pushed me to think hard and look for solutions.”

According to the World Health Organization, about 30 million people around the world require prosthetic limbs, but fewer than 20 percent have them and these tend to be costly and heavy, with limited to no movement. According to Karachi’s Aga Khan University Hospital, one in every 20 children in Pakistan is born with some kind of a hand deformity.

But with the help of the Karachi-based startup BIONIKS, which provides orthotics and prosthetics services, Abbas has been able to make his daughter’s dream come true.

Earlier this year, the firm achieved a world record when they fitted four-year-old Muhammad Sideeq with a multigrip bionic arm. The story was covered by Arab News, and Abbas said that the media coverage was instrumental in connecting the family to BIONIKS.

“That story gave me hope and made me visit BIONIKS,” said Saadia Aamir, Momina’s mother.

After receiving her new arm last week, Momina, at three years and four months of age, is the youngest recipient to have an advanced prosthetic limb.

Among treatment options for children born with hand or arm deformities — based on the nature and severity of the problem — are limb manipulation and stretching, tendon transfer, attaching a splint to stretch the finger to its original position or repairing the constrictions in muscles, ligaments and skin.

In some cases, skin grafts can be used to address the deformity. Surgery is also sometimes performed to cure the condition.

Unfortunately, not all children are able to get the right treatment in Pakistan due to a lack of expertise as well as the high cost of procedures.

And even though Momina is among a handful of fortunate children, it was not easy to design the required limb for her due to her age and congenital situation, as the design is fitted with sensors that enable users to move the prosthetic limbs by thinking about making the movements.

“It was far more difficult to integrate all the things in her case since she never had a hand,” Ovais Hussain Qureshi, co-founder of BIONIKS, told Arab News. “She had not experienced those senses in her mind that allow us to use our right hand.”

For example, he said, when Momina was first asked to close the fingers of her right hand, she would move the entire artificial arm.

But the girl was intelligent and the team did not find it difficult to communicate with her and quickly teach her how to use the limb.

“She is very friendly and talkative,” Qureshi said with a smile. “She used to freely roam around in our office, visit the research and development room, sit with our designers and talk to them: ‘I don’t like this or that part. Can you make the shade of blue a little light? How about adding diamonds or crystals to the arm?’“

“It will not be wrong to say,” Qureshi said, “that she got a truly customized arm. In fact, she almost made it herself!”

Momina’s mother said that her daughter decided she wanted a blue arm because of Princess Elsa in “Frozen.”

“The day she got her arm, we left our home late at night and she slept in the car,” she said. “While I was removing her arm, she woke up and asked me not to. When she went into deep sleep, I took it off and was surprised to see her restlessness in the morning. She looked impatiently for the arm but was happy when I brought it back.”

Momina’s mother said that her daughter was so deeply attached to her “magical” arm that she was upset when it was taken back to the firm for minor changes and adjustments.

Her parents said that most people wanted their children to get skin-colored prosthetic limbs, but they decided to let their daughter have the arm she truly wanted.

“She is happy with the color,” her mother said. “Sometimes she even makes fun of our ordinary arms and says she has a more beautiful one! We want her to grow with it.”

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Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR

Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR
Updated 09 December 2021

Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR

Mixing vaccines boosts immune response; experimental saliva test nearly as accurate as PCR
  • A mix-and-match approach to COVID-19 vaccines is safe and effective, and some combinations even improve upon immune responses, UK researchers found
  • There were no adverse effects from mixing the vaccines, the research team reported on Monday

DUBAI: The following is a summary of some recent studies on COVID-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that has yet to be certified by peer review.
A mix-and-match approach to COVID-19 vaccines is safe and effective, and some combinations even improve upon immune responses, UK researchers found.
They studied 1,079 volunteers whose first shot was either the adenoviral vector vaccine from AstraZeneca or the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech.
Participants were then randomly assigned to receive either the same vaccine or a shot of Moderna’s higher-dose mRNA vaccine or the experimental Novavax vaccine, which uses a different technology than the others.
There were no adverse effects from mixing the vaccines, the research team reported on Monday in The Lancet.
Regardless of which shot people received first, getting the Moderna as the second dose induced a stronger antibody response than a second dose of the original vaccine, lab experiments suggested.
An important second-line response from the immune system — the activation of T-cells — was greatest with the AstraZeneca vaccine followed by the Novavax vaccine, the researchers found. Given that neither of these requires special freezer storage, this finding — and the fact that mixing any of the other tested vaccines is safe — could be “extremely relevant to the 94 percent of people in low-income countries who are yet to receive any doses,” they concluded.
Experimental saliva test nearly matches PCR for accuracy
An experimental saliva test can diagnose SARS-CoV-2 infection in minutes, nearly as accurately as gold-standard PCR tests, researchers believe.
Typical saliva tests are unreliable unless done immediately after an overnight fast, because the concentration of virus particles in saliva drops steeply after eating or drinking. Like other rapid antigen tests, this one, called PASPORT, binds the virus to nanoparticles. But PASPORT adds a second type of nanoparticle that binds to the first set, yielding a stronger signal and making the test more sensitive at finding the virus at any time of day, the researchers reported on Monday in Microchimica Acta.
When tested on non-fasting samples from 139 volunteers — 35 with known COVID-19 infections and 19 with other respiratory infections — and compared to PCR tests of swab samples from the back of the nose and throat, PASPORT was 97 percent accurate at identifying SARS-CoV-2 and 91 percent accurate at ruling it out.
“Although PCR has been the gold standard, it requires trained personnel and laboratory infrastructure,” study leader Dr. Danny Jian Hang Tng of Singapore General Hospital and Duke-NUS Medical School, said in a statement. A reliable, painless, affordable and convenient saliva test “would encourage more to be tested, and more frequent testing.”
The omicron variant of the coronavirus can partially evade protection from two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, preliminary data indicate.
Researchers in South Africa exposed omicron to antibodies in blood samples from 12 people who had each received two doses of the vaccine. The antibodies’ ability to neutralize omicron was 41 times lower than their ability to neutralize a version of the virus that circulated early in the pandemic, Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban and colleagues reported on Tuesday in a paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Among volunteers who also had antibodies from prior coronavirus infection, the researchers saw “relatively high” neutralization of omicron, suggesting that raising antibody levels with booster doses will be helpful, other researchers said. Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham in the UK who was not involved in the study, said in a statement that the group that was vaccinated and previously infected “mimics what we would expect in people who had had two doses of vaccine plus a boost... The data should give us reassurance that the vaccine will still offer protection.” Vaccines also induce second-line defenses, including T cell immunity. “We think that this will be less impacted” by omicron’s mutations, he said. On Wednesday, BioNTech and Pfizer said that while two doses of their vaccine have a low neutralizing effect on omicron, a lab test showed that a third dose boosted protection levels back to about what was seen against the original virus.


UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again

UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again
Updated 08 December 2021

UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again

UK: omicron spreading quickly; time to work from home again
  • Johnson said beginning next Monday, people should work from home if possible

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tighter restrictions Wednesday to stem the spread of the omicron variant, urging people in England to again work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes for entrance into nightclubs and large events.
Johnson said it was time to impose stricter measures to prevent a spike of hospitalizations and deaths as the new coronavirus variant spreads rapidly in the community.
“It has become increasingly clear that omicron is growing much faster than the previous delta variant and is spreading rapidly all around the world,” he said in a press conference. “Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of omicron could currently be between two and three days.”
Johnson said 568 cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed so far across the UK, and “the true number is certain to be much higher.”
He said while there wasn’t yet comprehensive data on how dangerous omicron is, rising hospitalization rates in South Africa, where the variant was first detected, suggested it has the potential to cause harm.
Scientists at the UK Health Security Agency said they expected the omicron variant to become the dominant strain in Britain in the next two to four weeks. The agency said so far most cases were located in London and southeast England.
The tighter restrictions will buy the government time to put booster jabs into more arms. Officials have set the target of offering booster shots to all adults by the end of January.
Johnson said beginning next Monday, people should work from home if possible. Starting on Friday, the legal requirement to wear a face mask will be widened to most indoor public places in England, including cinemas. Next week, having a COVID-19 pass showing a person has had both vaccine doses will be mandatory to enter nightclubs and places with large crowds.
Live music venues and nightclubs, which have long resisted vaccine passports, called the news devastating for an industry that’s just finding its feet again after prolonged periods of closure and restrictions. The blow is particularly hard ahead of the crucial Christmas and New Year period, they said.
The British government reported another 51,342 confirmed daily cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with 161 more people dying. Overall Britain has seen over 146,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-worst death toll in Europe after Russia.
The announcement came as Johnson and his government faced increasing pressure to explain reports that Downing Street staff enjoyed a Christmas party that breached the country’s coronavirus rules last winter, when cases of the delta variant soared and people were banned from holding most social gatherings. Johnson on Wednesday ordered an inquiry and said he was “furious” about the situation.
The revelations have angered many in Britain, with critics saying they heavily undermine the authority of Johnson’s Conservative government in imposing virus restrictions.


French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school

French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school
Updated 08 December 2021

French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school

French police probe alleged Islamophobia by teacher at Catholic school
  • He allegedly told student Muslims in Catholic schools are a problem and suggested he change his religion
  • 20% of students at Joseph-Wresinski d’Angers Catholic School are Muslim

LONDON: A teacher at a school in France has been suspended from his job and is being investigated by police following accusations made by a Muslim student of bigotry relating to his religion.

A student at the Joseph-Wresinski d’Angers Catholic School in the city of Angers lodged a formal complaint with local police, claiming that a teacher said Muslim students are a problem and suggested he “change his religion” during a discussion about French history, the Daily Mail reported. Police have launched an investigation into the student’s complaint, a local prosecutor said.

The teacher, who has not yet been named, lodged a complaint a day after the student, alleging “physical and verbal violence.”

According to the student, the incident began when the teacher digressed during a discussion about Catholic schools of the past.

He allegedly said: “Catholic schools should have continued to only accept Catholic students.” A student pointed at a Muslim classmate and responded: “But Catholic schools aren’t just reserved for Catholics.”

According to the Muslim student’s testimony, the teacher then said “that’s the problem,” adding: “Well, he could always change his religion.”

The student was said to be angry at the teacher’s response and stormed out of the room while shouting “racist.” For this the teacher lodged his complaint, saying the student pushed past him and yelled.

The teacher admitted to “inviting Muslims to join us and become Catholic,” but said the remark was intended as humor but “did not go down well with the class.”

Anthony Bélangé, director of the school, said 20 percent of his students are Muslim, and normally everyone at the school lives together “very peacefully.”

He added: “Conflicts between staff and students can happen, but the complaints have taken this to a new level.

“This is quite an emotionally charged situation and I’ve asked the students in the class to write a factual testimony of the events, which will be sent to the investigation team.”

France is home to around 5 million Muslims, the largest such population of any EU member state.