Thursday, 7 June 2012

Time to support Malawi's new President

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President Joyce Banda
The new President of Malawi, Mrs Joyce Banda has wasted no time in throwing away the trappings of presidential excess by promising to sell the $13 million presidential jet and fleet of Mercedes. Britain should continue to re-engage with Malawi and re-appoint a High Commissioner in Lilongwe after the former President Muthraika expelled Fergus Cochrane-Dyet in April 2011, resulting in the suspension of most British aid. The news of £30 million of new British aid and support for stabilising the economy is to be welcomed.
Malawian family on a bicycle
Every day life for Malawians is very hard

Over the past two years, Malawi has spiralled into an economic mess with worse and worse presidential excesses as the people suffered. Maize prices shot up by 60% at the end of 2011. Anti-gay laws made the country a pariah in the West after two people were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for being gay. Only after an international outcry did President Mutharika issue a pardon and release the men. President Banda announced on 22nd May that such laws would be repealed. The recent devaluation of the kwatcha whilst pushing up prices has resulted in a wave of international relief funding being released that will medium term begin to alleviate the chronic shortage of donor funds that account for 40% of the country's income. It is vital that such donor support is given to the country to soften the impact of the devaluation to build a viable economy. Just as important is long term investment to take Malawi out of poverty and create jobs and wealth through a stable economy that private business will want to invest in.
President Banda is only the second female head of state in Africa and has got off to a flying start. After police induced riots last summer, resulted in twenty people being shot dead, the President has sacked the police chief responsible. She has appointed a rainbow coalition of Ministers from all parties. However, her enemies in parliament, who attempted an army coup after Mutharika's death, will be watching very closely to try and defeat her and she will need to continue the modernisation programme to win over the people, if she is to stand a chance of election in 2014. She has even had the backbone to try and stop the indicted war criminal President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan accused of genocide, from attending next month's African Union meeting in Malawi.
It is time to re-Joyce and for Britain to back her and Malawi to the hilt. Restore full diplomatic relations now!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sky high suicides of Indian farmers

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Over the past 16 years, more than 250,000 (yes the figure is correct) Indian farmers have taken their own lives mainly due to financial hardship. Sky News reported the startling story back in November 2011 and highlighted the relatively large debts incurred when farmers have changed to expensive modern seeds. If the crops fail the resulting debt leaves them utterly despairing and are driven to suicide.

Farming crisis in India
Cotton picking
The issue has been raised by charities and voluntary groups such as the Baba Nanak Educational Society but the Government of India has taken little serious action. Even though India is fast becoming one of the new wave of superpowers in the world, 60% of its population still eke out a living in the countryside.
I have started a new petition to lobby the Indian Prime Minister, World Health Organisation and the UK Government. Please add your voice to the campaign to end the misery of those farmers and their families left distraught and feeling alone in the rural areas of India.
A UN report, International Farmers Suicide Crisis confirms that suicide rates amongst people in rural areas is higher than in urban areas and suggests the reasons why:-

  • Financial Stress - constant financial pressure related to the “Farm Crisis” and ongoing drought and flood which add to the economic problems
  • Loss of independence and control: many of the issues are not within the farmer’s control – disease, weather, government policy, but the debts are personal
  • Sense of Loss: repeated sense of hopelessness, loss of crops, loss of land, loss of income, loss of community, loss of family farm, loss of a way of life
  • Geographical remoteness and the potential for social isolation
  • Untreated Mental Illness: Lack of access to mental health services in rural areas and the stigma attached to treatment
  • Depression arising from exposure to agricultural chemicals/pesticides may increase 
  • the risk for mood disorders and ultimately suicide

Indian Prime Minister with the widow of a farmer who took his own life
The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh admitted in 2007:

“Rates of growth of agriculture in the last decade have been poor and are a major cause of rural distress. Farming is increasingly becoming an unviable activity.”

So after five years with the suicides continuing at the rate of one every 30 minutes, it is time to act. Current and past agricultural policies have failed and the sooner the India Government takes this issue seriously the sooner real help can be given to alleviate the suffering and prevent further tragedies.

The Government of India and the State Governments should:-

a) create new emergency relief funds to alleviate immediate financial demands that are easily accessible and not means tested
b) set up a parliamentary commission to investigate the causes and propose long term solutions
c) introduce new programmes to raise awareness of the problems facing farmers and provide mental health support in local communities to eliminate the stigma of financial debt and give meaningful practical advice to farmers and their families
d) develop new agricultural policies of long term support for farmers to produce a viable agricultural sector in India