Temple promised by BJP transforms Indian city but Muslims, some locals feel neglected

Temple promised by BJP transforms Indian city but Muslims, some locals feel neglected
A view of the construction site of Hindu Ram Temple is seen in Ayodhya, India, November 22, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 18 December 2023
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Temple promised by BJP transforms Indian city but Muslims, some locals feel neglected

Temple promised by BJP transforms Indian city but Muslims, some locals feel neglected
  • Hospitality groups and property developers see significant opportunity in Ayodhya, which is set to become a pilgrimage destination for India’s 1.1 billion Hindus

AYODHYA, India: In this northern Indian city once marred by communal tensions, laborers are finalizing a $6 billion infrastructure facelift ahead of the opening of a grand Hindu temple that is igniting an economic boom — which some of Ayodhya’s poor and its Muslim community say is passing them by. City officials expect about 4.5 million tourists a month — more than Ayodhya’s entire population of 3 million — once the first stage of Ram Mandir, as the temple is known, opens on Jan. 22 inside a sprawling complex of carved pink sandstone and white marble.
Ayodhya made international headlines in 1992 when a Hindu mob razed Babri mosque — where the Mandir will stand — saying it had been built on the site of an earlier Hindu temple. The incident spurred nationwide riots that left 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
After decades of legal contests, India’s Supreme Court in 2019 awarded the site to Hindu groups for temple construction.
While the $180 million temple project in Uttar Pradesh state is funded by donations, the state government — controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — is pulling out all the stops. The BJP — which had made construction of the temple a national campaign pledge — is in government spending billions on rebuilding Ayodhya, with a new international airport, parks, roads and bridges in the offing.
Hindu priest Rajendra Das says the temple — which believers say is built on the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of Hinduism’s most sacred deities — has boosted Ayodhya’s hospitality and real estate sectors like never before.
“Everyone will benefit by the temple,” said Das, a 64-year-old dressed in a dhoti sarong. He is spending $120,000 to rebuild his tourist lodge — which is being demolished in the city’s revamp — with bigger rooms that have more amenities.
“Foreign tourists and people from every nook and corner of India will come.”
Reuters interviewed dozens of residents and businesspeople who said the Mandir is bringing a flood of new investment and prosperity to Ayodyha, though some complain of being left behind. Locals whose property was demolished in redevelopment feel displaced by soaring land prices and scant compensation. And some from the city’s sizeable Muslim community of an estimated 350,000 said they are not reaping the benefits of the boom.
BJP spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi denied that Muslim residents were being left out: “If roads are getting widened then Muslims will also use them. If electricity supply is getting fixed, Muslims will also benefit.”
The opening comes before a national election due next year that Modi is widely favored to win, and will boost the Hindu-first agenda of the BJP.
Hospitality groups and property developers see significant opportunity in Ayodhya, which is set to become a pilgrimage destination for India’s 1.1 billion Hindus. Among many new hoteliers in Ayodhya are India’s Tata Group and US group Radisson, which is setting up an 80-room property. The House of Abhinandan Lodha is also developing a residential project with a spa and pool in a city once lined with open sewers.
“This temple is expected to stand as one of the grandest Hindu temples, much like India’s own Vatican City,” said Lodha chief executive Samujjwal Ghosh, adding that businesses were marketing Ayodyha as a premium consumer product.
Each year, millions of Hindus travel to Indian temple cities like Varanasi and Tirupati, which have become tourist hotspots with thriving hospitality sectors.
Tata’s hotel subsidiary said the Ayodhya projects were part of plans to “strengthen its presence across spiritual centers.” Radisson didn’t return a request for comment on its plans.

SOARING LAND RATES, DEVELOPMENT VICTIMS
Since the 2019 Supreme Court ruling, the cost of land in Ayodhya has soared.
The average price was about 1,600 rupees ($19) per square foot just a few years ago, but has now roughly quadrupled in many parts of the city, according to real estate consultancy Anarock. Plots of prime land in the Lodha project go for 12,000 rupees per square foot.
People “see Ayodhya as a very small town and come with a mindset of getting land parcels at prices of peanuts,” said Satyendra Singh, a top official at Ayodhya Development Authority. “They don’t come again once they hear the prices.”
Much the development has occurred on the site of demolished houses and shops in the city center, where the depth of some stores has been reduced to just 2 feet.
Roughly 4,000 shops were partly or fully demolished, but Nand Lal Gupta, an official at an association of local business owners, said the compensation offered was not sufficient.
District Magistrate Nitish Kumar said adequate compensation was offered to every landowner and that “no one in Ayodhya is feeling left out... Everyone is happy and getting benefitted.”
Grocer Arvind Kumar Gupta said his home was partly demolished in the redevelopment this year. The city gave him $1,870, which he says isn’t enough to buy a new property. He now rents accommodation with his family of six.
Authorities are also demolishing the store he has operated for 30 years. A similar new shop will cost roughly $360 a month, multiples of the $12 he has been paying, Gupta said.
“Government should have made arrangements for us. I am wondering what I will do now,” he said.

UPSET MUSLIMS
In November, thousands of devotees, many barefoot, walked in Ayodhya’s dusty streets during a festive day. Outside the Mandir complex, construction work was ongoing even after dusk.
The revamp, however, has upset many in the city’s Muslim community. In its 2019 order, the Supreme Court also said authorities must allocate the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board, which advocates for Muslim rights, “suitable” land at a “prominent” place to build a new mosque.
The board was issued land 15 miles from the temple, just next to the city border. That effectively means Muslims are excluded from the development boom downtown, said Azam Qadri, president of Ayodhya district committee of the board.
When Reuters visited the site designated for the mosque, there was no construction or infrastructure development ongoing in the quiet surrounding area. A poster on a wall showcased the proposed design and read: “A Masterpiece In Making.”
“Everyone is focused on the temple. There should have been focus on promoting mosques too,” Qadri said.
Muslims still don’t have wide acceptance in the city and even if the community tried to build hotels, Hindu religious tourists might not visit, he added.
That hasn’t stopped others trying to cash in.
Anil Agarwal’s family has run two small hotels in Ayodhya for 70 years and is now adding two bed-and-breakfasts. He is also creating holiday packages for tourists and is in talks with the city government to open an 18-hole sand golf course.
Near Ram Mandir, a 200-room palace of the local royal family is set to be converted into a hotel by India’s Oberoi Group, a person with direct knowledge of the deal said. Oberoi, famous for luxury hotels, did not respond to a request for comment.
UAE’s Lulu Group is firming up land for a 300-room, five-star property it will run with a hotel brand, said regional director Jayakumar Gangadharan.
“People from all over the world are looking to experience Ayodhya,” he said.


AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices

AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices
Updated 20 April 2024
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AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices

AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices
  • AI tools imitating human intelligence are used to transcribe sound files, summarize texts and translate
  • Columbia University teacher says collaborating with AI “tempting” in the face of increasingly right media resources

PERUGIA, Italy: The rise of artificial intelligence has forced an increasing number of journalists to grapple with the ethical and editorial challenges posed by the rapidly expanding technology.

AI’s role in assisting newsrooms or transforming them completely was among the questions raised at the International Journalism Festival in the Italian city of Perugia that closes on Sunday.

AI tools imitating human intelligence are widely used in newsrooms around the world to transcribe sound files, summarize texts and translate.

In early 2023, Germany’s Axel Springer group announced it was cutting jobs at the Bild and Die Welt newspapers, saying AI could now “replace” some of its journalists.

Generative AI — capable of producing text and images following a simple request in everyday language — has been opening new frontiers as well as raising concerns for a year and a half.

One issue is that voices and faces can now be cloned to produce a podcast or present news on television. Last year, Filipino website Rappler created a brand aimed at young audiences by converting its long articles into comics, graphics and even videos.

Media professionals agree that their trade must now focus on tasks offering the greatest “added value.”

“You’re the one who is doing the real stuff” and “the tools that we produce will be an assistant to you,” Google News general manager Shailesh Prakash told the festival in Perugia.

The costs of generative AI have plummeted since ChatGPT burst onto the scene in late 2022, with the tool designed by US start-up OpenAI now accessible to smaller newsrooms.

Colombian investigative outlet Cuestion Publica has harnessed engineers to develop a tool that can delve into its archives and find relevant background information in the event of breaking news.

But many media organizations are not making their language models, which are at the core of AI interfaces, said University of Amsterdam professor Natali Helberger. They are needed for “safe and trustworthy technology,” he stressed.

According to one estimate last year by Everypixel Journal, AI has created as many images in one year as photography in 150 years.

That has raised serious questions about how news can be fished out of the tidal wave of content, including deepfakes.

Media and tech organizations are teaming up to tackle the threat, notably through the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, which seeks to set common standards.

“The core of our job is news gathering, on-the-ground reporting,” said Sophie Huet, recently appointed to become global news director for editorial innovation and artificial intelligence at Agence France-Presse.

“We’ll rely for a while on human reporters,” she added, although that might be with the help of artificial intelligence.

Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which has expanded its media rights brief to defending trustworthy news, launched the Paris Charter on AI and journalism late last year.

“One of the things I really liked about the Paris Charter was the emphasis on transparency,” said Anya Schiffrin, a lecturer on global media, innovation and human rights at Columbia University in the United States.

“To what extent will publishers have to disclose when they are using generative IA?“

Olle Zachrison, head of AI and news strategy at public broadcaster Swedish Radio, said there was “a serious debate going on: should you mark out AI content or should people trust your brand?“

Regulation remains in its infancy in the face of a constantly evolving technology.

In March, the European Parliament adopted a framework law aiming to regulate AI models without holding back innovation, while guidelines and charters are increasingly common in newsrooms.

AI editorial guidelines are updated every three months at India’s Quintillion Media, said its boss Ritu Kapur.

None of the organization’s articles can be written by AI and the images it generates cannot represent real life.

AI models feed off data, but their thirst for the vital commodity has raised hackles among providers.
In December, the New York Times sued OpenAI and its main investor Microsoft for violation of copyright.

In contrast, other media organizations have struck deals with OpenAI: Axel Springer, US news agency AP, French daily Le Monde and Spanish group Prisa Media whose titles include El Pais and AS newspapers.

With resources tight in the media industry, collaborating with the new technology is tempting, explained Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school.

She senses a growing external pressure to “Get on board, don’t miss the train.”


Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops

Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops
Updated 20 April 2024
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Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops

Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops
  • Resistance fighters and ethnic minority rebels seized the key trading town of Myawaddy on the Myanmar side of the frontier on April 11

Fighting raged at Myanmar’s eastern frontier with Thailand on Saturday, witnesses, media and Thailand’s government said, forcing about 200 civilians to flee as rebels pressed to flush out junta troops holed up for days at a bridge border crossing.
Resistance fighters and ethnic minority rebels seized the key trading town of Myawaddy on the Myanmar side of the frontier on April 11, dealing a big blow to a well-equipped military that is struggling to govern and is now facing a critical test of its battlefield credibility.
Three witnesses on the Thai and Myanmar sides of the border said they heard explosions and heavy machine gun fire near a strategic bridge from late on Friday that continued into early Saturday.
Several Thai media outlets said about 200 people had crossed the border to seek temporary refuge in Thailand.
Thai broadcaster NBT in a post on social media platform X said resistance forces used 40-milimeter machine guns and dropped 20 bombs from drones to target an estimated 200 junta soldiers who had retreated from a coordinated rebel assault on Myawaddy and army posts since April 5.
Reuters could not immediately verify the reports and a Myanmar junta spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.
Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said he was closely monitoring the unrest and his country was ready to provide humanitarian assistance if necessary.
“I do not desire to see any such clashes have any impact on the territorial integrity of Thailand and we are ready to protect our borders and the safety of our people,” he said on X. He made no mention of refugees.
BIG SETBACK
Myanmar’s military is facing its biggest challenge since first taking control of the former British colony in 1962, caught up in multiple, low-intensity conflicts and grappling to stabilize an economy that has crumbled since a 2021 coup against Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
The country is locked in a civil war between the military on one side and, on the other, a loose alliance of established ethnic minority armies and a resistance movement born out of the junta’s bloody crackdown on anti-coup protests.
The capture of Myawaddy and surrounding army outposts is a significant setback for a junta that has been squeezed by Western sanctions, with the town a key tax revenue source and conduit for more than $1 billion of annual border trade.
The Khaosod newspaper in a post on X showed a video of Myanmar civilians, many of them women and children, being marshalled by Thai soldiers at an entry point to Thailand.
Thailand had on Friday said no refugees had entered the country and it was discussing with aid agencies about increasing humanitarian relief to civilians on the Myanmar side.


Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft

Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft
Updated 20 April 2024
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Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft

Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft
  • The median line bisects the Taiwan Strait, a narrow 180-kilometer waterway separating the island from mainland China

TAIPEI: Taipei’s defense ministry said it had detected 21 Chinese military aircraft around the self-ruled island since 8:15 am (0015 GMT) on Saturday, a month before Taiwan’s May 20 inauguration of incoming president Lai Ching-te.
“17 aircraft (of the 21) crossed the median line and its extension, entered our northern, central, and southwestern (air defense identification zone), and joined PLA vessels for joint combat patrol,” it said in a statement posted on X around 11:30 am.
Taiwan’s armed forces “are monitoring the activities with our joint surveillance systems, and have dispatched appropriate assets to respond accordingly.”
The median line bisects the Taiwan Strait, a narrow 180-kilometer waterway separating the island from mainland China.
Beijing does not recognize the line as it claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory. It has also never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
China sends warplanes and naval vessels around Taiwan on a near daily basis — a move experts say is a form of “grey-zone harassment,” stopping short of an outright act of war but enough to exhaust Taipei’s armed forces.
According to the defense ministry, the 21 aerial objects detected Saturday included J-16 fighter jets and Y-8 medium-range transport aircraft, as well as drones.
The highest number around Taiwan so far this year was in March, when the ministry said 36 Chinese aircraft were detected in a single 24-hour period.
Last year’s record was in September when Beijing’s military sent 103 aircraft — 40 of which crossed the median line — in a 24-hour period.
Saturday’s show of force comes a day after China activated two aviation routes that run close to Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu.
Taipei’s Civil Aviation Administration expressed “solemn protest against China’s unilateral measures without consultation” on Friday.
The new routes make the airspace separation between the two sides “very narrow,” it said, increasing flight safety risks during bad weather or abnormal flight operations.
China’s aviation authority also said Friday the airspace around Fuzhou Changle Airport — 30 kilometers from the closest outlying Taiwanese island — would be “further optimized and adjusted” on May 16, four days before the inauguration.
Under the administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, tensions between Beijing and Taipei have ramped up, as she and her government do not acknowledge China’s claim.
Her deputy, Vice President Lai, won elections in January despite warnings from Beijing that he would be the cause of “war and decline” for Taiwan.
China regards Lai — who used to be outspoken about Taiwan independence — as a “dangerous separatist,” though he has moderated his views in recent years.


Hundreds of people evacuated as volcano spews clouds of ash in Indonesia

Hundreds of people evacuated as volcano spews clouds of ash in Indonesia
Updated 20 April 2024
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Hundreds of people evacuated as volcano spews clouds of ash in Indonesia

Hundreds of people evacuated as volcano spews clouds of ash in Indonesia
  • Local authorities combed the villages surrounding the volcano and evacuated residents to safer areas by boat
  • Officials worry that part of the volcano could collapse into the sea and cause a tsunami, as happened in an eruption there in 1871

MANADO, Indonesia: More than 2,100 people living near an erupting volcano on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island were evacuated Friday due to the dangers of spreading ash, falling rocks, hot volcanic clouds and the possibility of a tsunami.
Indonesia’s Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation recorded at least three eruptions since Friday afternoon, with the maximum height of the eruption column reaching 1,200 meters (3,900 feet).
An international airport in Manado city, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the erupting Mount Ruang, is still temporarily closed as volcanic ash was spewed into the air.

This photo provided by the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency shows a part of a village on Tagulandang island covered by ash from eruptions of Mount Ruang on April 19, 2024. (National Search and Rescue Agency via AP)

Satellite imagery from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency shows the ash has spread to the west, northwest, northeast and southeast, covering Manado and North Minahasa, according to a statement from Indonesia’s Transportation Ministry.
“We are still monitoring developments in the eruption of Mount Ruang and coordinating with relevant stakeholders … to anticipate the necessary actions to ensure flight safety, security and comfort,” said Ambar Suryoko, head of the regional airport authority.
More than 11,000 people were told to leave their homes that were located in the affected area. A joint team from the local authorities combed the villages surrounding the volcano and evacuated residents to safer areas by boat.
Officials worry that part of the volcano could collapse into the sea and cause a tsunami, as happened in an eruption there in 1871.
Houses, roads and other buildings were covered by gray volcanic ash, and many roofs were broken by debris spewed from the eruption.

Mount Ruang saw at least five large eruptions Wednesday, causing the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation to issue its highest level of alert. People were ordered to stay at least 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the 725-meter (2,378-foot) mountain.
The observation from the agency on Friday said white smoke was rising from the main crater with medium to thick intensity.
East of the volcano, Tagulandang Island could be at risk if a collapse occurred. Its residents were among those being told to evacuate. Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency said residents would be relocated to Manado, a journey of 6 hours by boat.
Indonesia, an archipelago of 270 million people, has 120 active volcanoes. It is prone to volcanic activity because it sits along the “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped series of seismic fault lines around the Pacific Ocean.
 


Finance firms urge ambitious action on plastic pollution

Finance firms urge ambitious action on plastic pollution
Updated 19 April 2024
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Finance firms urge ambitious action on plastic pollution

Finance firms urge ambitious action on plastic pollution
  • Curtailing the estimated 400 million metric tonnes of waste produced every year is a crucial part of efforts to protect biodiversity, with microplastics found everywhere from the mountainous Himalayas to staple foods and even human blood

LONDON: A group of 160 financial companies on Friday urged governments to agree a treaty to end plastic pollution that would help spur private sector action, ahead of the next round of global talks in Canada.
The fourth meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-4) is due to be held in Ottawa next week to lay the groundwork for an eventual deal before the end of the year.
Curtailing the estimated 400 million metric tonnes of waste produced every year is a crucial part of efforts to protect biodiversity, with microplastics found everywhere from the mountainous Himalayas to staple foods and even human blood.
To help fix the problem, the finance firms, which include Britain’s biggest investor Legal & General Investment Management and Canadian pension investor CDPQ, called for a policy framework backed up by binding rules.
Among specific steps, the group called for the treaty to set an objective for all public and private finance to be consistent with the goal of eliminating plastic pollution, similar to that in the Paris climate agreement and the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework.
It also called for companies to assess and disclose plastic-related risks and opportunities; clearer plastic-related policies and targets from governments in areas like waste creating and recycling; and for further private investment to be directed to ending plastic pollution.
“A clear transition pathway laid out in the Treaty will help leverage finance at scale for this massive task of ending plastic pollution worldwide,” said Anne-Sophie Castelnau, global head of sustainability at ING, one of the signatories.
Steve Hardman, CEO of Plastic Collective, an NGO which designed the world’s first plastic waste reduction bond alongside Citi and the World Bank, welcomed the support but called for business to provide more financial solutions.
In January, the World Bank issued the $100 million bond to finance plastic-reduction projects in Ghana and Indonesia. Investors will be paid a rate linked to plastic removal credits generated by the projects.