Only time will tell

2012 has been a year of ongoing conflicts, economic recessions and slowdowns. It definitely was a case of India not shining. Colin Todhunter offers a glimpse of the highlights of the year just drawing to an end.

To celebrate the end of 1971, the former Beatle member John Lennon released the song Happy Christmas, War is Over, which referred to the war in Vietnam. At that time, despite what the song implied, the US was still waging a deeply unpopular war there. The song title is based on a campaign by Lennon and Yoko Ono who, in 1969, rented billboards and posters in 11 major cities around the world that read: “War is over! (If You Want It.) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.”

It wasn’t until many years later, in 1975, that the US finally left Vietnam and the war really was over. As an idealist, Lennon demonstrated a certain optimism that mirrored the mood of the 1960s.

Fast forward to 2012, and during a year of ongoing conflicts and economic recessions and slowdowns, who could blame anyone for recalling the innocence of the 60s and yearning for the idealism and optimism of that period?

Glimmers of light

2012 did, however, offer some glimmers of light. The Olympics witnessed Britain playing host to athletes from across the world. As a showcase for international athletes, it all went according to plan, but with Dow Chemical (which acquired Union Carbide in 2001) providing the stadium ‘wrap’, controversy was always going to be waiting in the wings. Despite the media fanfare surrounding the Olympics, the bright lights of London were somewhat dimmed by the events in Bhopal 28 years ago.

If onlookers were impressed by the feats of human endeavour during the Olympics, some months later, in October, one could only gasp in amazement at Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner. He became the first person to break the sound barrier without mechanical assistance during a record space dive from a helium-filled balloon 39 km over Roswell, New Mexico in the US. That’s around five times the normal cruising height for most commercial jet airliners. It really was breathtaking, in more ways than one.

For other boundary-breaking achievements, we need look no further than ‘Curiosity’, the Mars Science Laboratory Mission’s rover which successfully landed on the red planet. Researchers also successfully performed the first implantation of an early prototype bionic eye with 24 electrodes, and Tokyo Skytree, the tallest self-supporting tower in the world at 634 m high, opened its doors to the public.

The world was also informed of the discovery of a new particle that had properties consistent with the Higgs Boson after experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. We were told that this was a monumentally groundbreaking discovery in terms of our understanding of the universe. But in what way? Based on news reports and interviews with scientists, no one seemed to be too sure.

India underachieving?

In India, 2012 was the year of a new president and a new chief minister in Karnataka. Kolkata Knight Riders won the IPL, a tournament somewhat overshadowed by a made-for-media sex abuse scandal in a hotel, and the country celebrated 65 years of independence.

Ethnic tensions were ignited in Assam, Irom Sharmila’s fast against AFSPA reached its 11th year, and a new study of more than one lakh children across six states found that as many as 42 per cent of under-fives were severely or moderately underweight and that 59 per cent of them suffered from moderate to severe stunting. The findings in the Hunger and Malnutrition (HUNGaMA) report by the Naandi Foundation were described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “national shame”.

If that news wasn’t bad enough for the PM, Time magazine put him on its cover with the headline word ‘underachiever’. After years of high economic growth, though, one could only conclude that the euphoria over the GDP figures had been glossing over underachievement on many levels, not just child poverty and nutrition. For a period in July, some 700 million people were left without power. Twenty out of 28 states were hit by power cuts, along with the capital. Three of the country’s five electricity grids failed. Hundreds of trains stalled, leaving passengers stranded along thousands of miles of track. Traffic lights went out, causing jams. Surgical operations were cancelled across the country.

It all raised serious concerns about India’s infrastructure and the government’s ability to meet the nation’s energy needs. But the debacle also drew attention to the fact that one-third of India’s households do not even have electricity to power a light bulb (according to the 2011 census). A large minority of those in the blackout zone have never been connected to any grid. For instance, just 16.4 per cent of the 100 million people who live in Bihar have access to electricity. 2012 was definitely a case of India not shining.

Europe in crisis

The crisis in the Eurozone rumbled on and saw mass unemployment in Greece and Spain and people taking to the streets to protest against cutbacks to jobs and services. Out came the rubber bullets and tear-gas and on went the blame game. Fingers were pointed towards other countries, immigrants, and in various other directions, in a search for culprits who had wrecked economies. In the meantime, the real culprits who were responsible for the economic meltdown — bankers and financiers — continued to reap the benefits by buying up various countries’ public assets on the cheap.
As the economic crisis continued to bite, research released by Tax Justice Network (TJN) indicated that globally, the super rich hold up to between $21 and $32 trillion in offshore accounts, which amounts to roughly the US and Japanese GDP combined. The TJN said that some of the world’s biggest banks are helping their clients evade taxes and shift their wealth offshore and they do it knowing fully well that their clients, more often than not, are evading and avoiding taxes.

In Greece, the country most affected by bailouts, austerity and consequent poverty, Hot Doc magazine published a list of 2,059 wealthy Greeks with secret HSBC Swiss accounts worth in total about $2 billion. It could be a lot more now because that figure was from 2007, prior to the economic crisis. The magazine’s editor, Vaxevanis, believed many on the list may be tax cheats. The benefit of getting rich is being able to break societal rules to get richer. And what happened to Vaxevanis for exposing this? He was arrested!
While the authorities continued to turn a blind eye to all of this, or were in fact complicit in it, the solution for the ‘little people’ has been more austerity, the continued stripping away of workers’ rights and welfare provision and even greater control for the bankers. Looking at Europe in 2012, it was hard not to think of the Eurozone circling the drain. The less water in the sink, the faster it swirls towards the drain in ever diminishing circles.

High stakes in South America

Two big stories concerning South America during the year were Ecuador’s decision to grant Julian Assange asylum and the re-election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Chavez won the election with 55 per cent of the vote, which was consistent with the embracing of leftist leaders and policies throughout much of South America in recent years. Although Chavez is set to continue to lead his country in a socialist direction, it will depend on how his health stands up after having been diagnosed with cancer because his personal leadership is regarded by many as being central to the cause.

Midway through 2012, WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange walked into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seeking political asylum. He feared that attending court in Sweden to face charges of sexual assault was merely part of a ploy to extradite him to the US.
The Ecuadorian government subsequently granted Assange political asylum, citing concerns that Assange might be extradited to the US, which could conceivably lead to his execution or indefinite incarceration as a result of WikiLeaks having released information, deemed sensitive by the US, into the public realm. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that the UK would not allow Assange safe passage out of the country.
The result is that Assange currently remains in limbo inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Despite immense pressure, Ecuador based its decision on strong principles and a genuine commitment to human rights. It was a case of a small nation standing up to much more powerful ones and in the face of reported threats by Britain to storm its embassy in London. Rumours exist that the Ecuadorian government has incurred the wrath of the US and may yet ultimately pay a very heavy price.

Conflicts and tensions

Africa remained a troubled continent in 2012. The aftermath of the 2011 NATO-led conflict in Libya resulted in the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi and a bloody military onslaught on the town of Bani Walid, a stronghold of the former Gaddafi regime. Libya remained in turmoil and no one knew where $150 billion of Libyan assets that were frozen by the West during the conflict had ‘disappeared’ to. Possibly, partly gone to US corporations to help rebuild the country that Uncle Sam had a hand in destroying?
A new regime was put in power in Egypt and a coup took place in Mali. From Somalia to Congo, much of Africa remained mired in conflict. The US solidified the position of its African military command structure (AFRICOM). A scramble for mineral resources gained momentum, with the US seeking to weaken Chinese influence on the continent by, among other things, planning to send 3,000 troops to various African countries in 2013.
Moving towards the Middle East and Central Asia, both China and Russia continued to resist Western pressure for direct NATO military involvement in Syria, which remains a country torn apart by war. Syria’s ally Iran remained firmly in US sights during 2012, again with China and Russia attempting to block US-Israeli attempts to topple the Iranian regime. Despite talk of humanitarian intervention and an Iranian nuclear threat, ongoing economic sanctions against Iran, wars and destabilisation across the region from Syria to Pakistan boiled down to attempts to gain access to mineral and fresh water resources and securing pipeline transit routes.

The scenario in that part of the globe is a continuation of the ‘Tournament of Shadows’ between competing players that stretches back to the 19th century. In 2012, the losers were the ordinary people in the region who live in fear of drone attacks, instability and war. While the outcome of the 2012 US presidential election could have provided cause for hope in that part of the world, the prospects don’t look too good.

During his first term as US president, Obama’s record on the foreign policy front was seen to be no better and even worse than his predecessor Bush, with wars being stepped up and new theatres of conflict opened. Might we take some comfort from believing that Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney was a case of the lesser of two evils?

World in brief

What else happened in 2012?

* In February, at least 79 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured after a football match in Egypt. In Honduras, a fire at a prison killed 360, and during March, a series of explosions took place at a munitions dump in Brazzaville, the capital of the conflict-ridden Republic of the Congo, killing at least 250 people.

* In May, a pastel version of ‘The Scream’ by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch sold for $120 million in a New York auction, setting a new world record for an auctioned work of art.

* Also in May, more than 100 were feared dead after a ferry capsized in the Brahmaputra river, Assam. In July, further tragedy struck, this time near Nellore in Andhra, as part of the Tamil Nadu Express caught fire, killing 32 people.

* More bad news in June as 17 people were killed by paramilitary police in Chhattisgarh. Among those killed were a 12-year-old girl, a 15-year-old boy, and two 16-year-old school students.

* Ethnic tensions led to outbreaks of violence in Assam during July and August, leaving scores of people dead and leading to the displacement of lakhs. The situation spilled over into states and cities throughout India.

* During September, a series of attacks were directed against US diplomatic missions worldwide. While the US cited the screening of a YouTube trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims as the cause, it was later discovered that these events were not spontaneous protests, but premeditated attacks.

* In the same month, fire ravaged a textile factory complex in Karachi, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors, and October saw Hurricane Sandy bring devastation to the east coast of the US.

* Palestine was the wrong place to be in November. Israel first assassinated the military leader of Hamas and then proceeded to use its full military might to attack Palestinians living in Gaza. No mention of ‘humanitarian intervention’ here from the US or Britain.

* In 2012, the world lost many high profile figures, including US singers Whitney Houston and Donna Summer, former king of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk, Bal Thackeray, Surendranatha Thilakan, Ravi Shankar, Dinesh Thakur, Yash Chopra, Rajesh Khanna, and the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong.

What to make of 2012

If 2011 happened to be a year of hope brought about by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, what could we conclude about 2012? It was a year when much of the Arab world landed with a thud and experienced a nasty hangover. New regimes were installed that may not be much better than the previous ones, and certain countries in the region like Libya and Syria were plagued by violence. 2012 brought about the sober realisation that outside manipulation meant the ‘Arab Spring’ was not all it appeared to be. It also saw continued attacks on people’s rights, public services and standards of living in the US and Europe due to ‘austerity’ programmes.

But there were some positives, and two especially come to mind. The first was the courageous country of Ecuador standing up to intimidation and pressure, not least from Britain, and opting to do the right thing where Julian Assange was concerned, by upholding the principle of human rights, something which most governments pay mere lip service to. The second was the dramatic images of thousands of ordinary men and women on the beach near the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, armed only with conviction, but standing up to the stick-wielding forces of an increasingly undemocratic Indian state.

These two instances from countries on opposite sides of the globe demonstrated that conviction and courage continued to count for something. Idealism did too.
In finishing, it thus seems apt to return to the lyrics of musician-cum-idealist John Lennon. They are from the same song referred to at the beginning of this piece, and express an aspiration for 2013: “Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.”

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