August 22, 2013

has syria used deadly, toxic chemical gas weapons on its citizens?

Has Syria used deadly, toxic chemical gas weapons on its citizens?

Below is a newsreport from Guardian and after that is  one of many videos (at which claim to depict the horror underwent by the victims:

If all this is indeed true (my sense tells me there is no deception here and that chemical weapons has indeed been used) then it is one of the greatest criminal acts being committed by a government/regime (or whoever the perpetrators are) on its own citizens. Little children, men and women -- all gassed with toxic chemicals! I can not but not cry.


Syria conflict: chemical weapons blamed as hundreds reported killed

Death toll claimed to be as high as 1,400 as Syrian government admits launching offensive but denies using chemical weapons

Martin Chulov, Mona Mahmood and Ian Sample
The Guardian, Thursday 22 August 2013

Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in an apparent gas attack on rebel-held parts of eastern Damascus that is thought to be the most significant use of chemical weapons since thousands of Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein in Halabja 25 years ago.
Medics, as well as opposition fighters and political leaders, said the death toll had reached 1,400 and was likely to rise further with hundreds more critically wounded in districts besieged by the Syrian military. Other estimates put the current death toll at between 200 and 500. None of the figures could be independently verified. On Thursday morning rebels said new bombardments of rockets and mortars struck neighbourhoods hit by the gas attack.
The Syrian government acknowledged it had launched a major offensive in rebel-held districts in the east of the capital – described by pro-regime media as the biggest since the start of the civil war – but strongly denied using chemical weapons.
"These are lies that serve the propaganda of the terrorists," a Syrian official said, referring to the armed opposition. "We would not use such weapons."
However, George Sabra, the head of the main Syrian opposition group, laid the blame squarely at the Assad regime, saying the scenes "constitute a turning point in the regime's operations".
"This time it was for annihilation, rather than terror," he said.
Syria gas attack Location of Wednesday's attack. Credit: Guardian graphics International reaction intensified throughout the day. The UN security council called an emergency session and the White House formally requested the UN to investigate the attack. William Hague, the foreign secretary, said the UK was "deeply concerned".
The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called for "a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation" of allegations of chemical weapons use.
UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said earlier that the secretary-general was "shocked" at the alleged use of chemical weapons and is determined to ensure a "thorough investigation" of all reported incidents.
After a two-hour, closed-door meeting, the council president said there was "strong concern" about the allegations "and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened."
A UN inspection team arrived in Damascus this week to look into earlier claims of chemical weapon use, but was granted permission to enter Syria with a limited mission to investigate only three specific sites. An expanded mandate to investigate Wednesday's attack in eastern Ghouta – only 10 miles from the team's hotel – must be sought by the UN secretary general and then approved by Syria.
The US moved quickly to make the request. The White House said: "For the UN's efforts to be credible they must have immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals, and have the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government. If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team's immediate and unfettered access to this site."
Rescuers and victims said the shelling of eastern Ghouta started shortly after 2am and targeted three districts, Ein Tarma, Zermalka and Jobar, all rebel strongholds for the past year.
"It was around 2.30am Wednesday when we received calls from Zemalka and Jobar," said a Free Syria Army (FSA) officer, Captain Alla'a al-Basha, who has documented previous alleged chemical attacks in the area.
"The FSA members were asking for more forces to evacuate the civilians as the shells were coming in at around five per minute. As soon as I and my team arrived at the scene, I saw bodies scattered in the streets. I saw whole houses – none of their residents were alive. When I got there, I could smell what seemed to be burning sulphur and something like cooked eggs. The smoke was not pure white.
"Most of the victims were shivering and they turned yellow. I saw a woman who was tearing at her clothes as she could not breathe. The number of the casualties that we were able to document so far is 1,228 martyrs. The doctors think that more than 20 shells were fired with fatal gases.
"Most of the victims did not appear to be injured but died out of suffocation. I held a young boy whose body was like a piece of wood and his colour was very blue. He did not have any wound."
By Wednesday night, more than 120 videos had been uploaded to the internet, most depicting scenes of men women and children in respiratory distress, on watery floors, and doctors describing the victims' symptoms. Other videos showed scores of bodies wrapped in white shrouds, or lying on grey concrete. White foam was bubbling from the mouth and nostrils of many victims. Some writhed in distress, apparently struggling to breathe.
Doctors at makeshift clinics said they were working without oxygen and had been overrun by the number of victims, many of whom needed lifesaving treatment that they could not provide.
Treatment of victims appeared rudimentary, with water and vinegar among the means of trying to dilute the effects. "We know when we have an area targeted by fatal gases we would take plastic masks and put wet cloths on our noses and mouths," said Basha. "But most of the civilians do not know that they have to do that."
Sergeant Abu Ali, who runs a field hospital in the Nashabiya area of eastern Damascus, said he had received patients who were vomiting and had high temperatures, breathing problems, limb stiffness and were in comas. "We received 60 cases. Most of them were sent to the nearby farms after their situation was stabilised and those with acute symptoms were kept here. I have very few medicines and all the oxygen tubes I have had run out now. People need intensive care."
One witness told Reuters: "We would go into a house and everything was in its place, every person was in their place. They were lying where they had been. They looked like they were asleep. But they were dead."
Ralf Trapp, a consultant on chemical and biological weapons, said getting access to the scenes of the attacks was paramount for inspectors. "The logical thing to do would be to go in and start interviewing doctors and getting blood and urine samples.
"This is the ideal moment to collect samples because it is so shortly after the attack. They may get intact agent – in the first day or so you would still find intact sarin, for example.
"Within a few days, you would find degradation products. If you link those to clinical examinations and testimony, you can build up a very precise picture of what happened.
"They need to try to get to the site where it happened, talk to people who were on the spot when it happened, to victims and observers, to create as complete a picture of the actual attack. They want to discriminate against other types of weapons that might cause similar effects or release something by chance."
Charles Duelfer, a former US chief weapons inspector, said: "[Video] reports of doctors treating these people, that's real data." Duelfer said the scale of the attack could probably be proved by the intelligence community. "It will be pretty clear pretty quickly because various countries' intelligence apparatus will have noticed something on this scale, whether it's artillery, rockets, or shells. These are knowable things."The White House is going to be hard pressed to construct an answer to this one. It was easy to waffle a bit so long as alleged use was minor and didn't happen again, but this is really putting the administration in a corner.""


August 17, 2013

sand mining in india -- government's head buried in the sand

Here is an editorial I contributed recently in the newspaper I work for presently on the issue of sand mining in India (picture to the left is courtesy a November 2010 blogpost in 

Head in the sand

The country can ill-afford to ignore the perils of un-fettered sand mining, legal or not

Almost every state in the country which has sea coasts or rivers flowing through their territories, the issue of illegal sand mining crops every now and then with alarming frequency. The recent spotlight on sand mining in Uttar Pradesh, as a result of the sacking of an Indian Administrative Services' official most probably due to action taken by her against illegal sand miners, is only the latest incidence. For reasons, political or otherwise, the ministry of environment was quick to set up a 3-member panel on August 6 to look into the adverse environmental impact of alleged illegal sand mining. The panel was also fast enough to submit its report, late last week, less than four days after being set up, with a conclusion of a confirmation of illegal sand mining. All the panel members did was collective visit the sites by car, take photographic evidence and speak informally to some local villagers.

Given that it was quite easy and quick to arrive a conclusion of illegal sand mining, one wonders why no similar efforts can be deployed to hundreds of river banks and coastal sea-beds across the country where citizens and activists have been straining to make governments sit up and take notice of illegal sand mining happening there. An all-India audit on the issue of sand mining is long overdue.

Mined sand is used in construction as the main ingredient in concrete whose use is perhaps second only to the use of water in the country given the construction spree in all the cities and towns of the past two decades. Given this economic aspect, mining of sand along coastal sea-beds and river banks is not banned in the country. The fact that construction makes up for around 8 per cent of our GDP and the fervent endeavours to show higher GDP growth rates means that, barring for isolated political opportunism cases, sand mining will continue to get the short thrift from policy-makers and law-enforcers. Be that as it may, rampant, un-regulated and un-scientific sand mining does destroys sensitive ecologies and we all know about the climatic havoc and resultant economic losses which can be caused by devastated ecologies

Successive central governments and state governments have been reluctant to frame tough laws and been more than willing to look the other way in case of violations of the existing ones. Only as recently as 2006 did the central government tightened a little bit the norms pertaining to sand mining by requiring mining projects to obtain prior environmental clearance under the amendments made to environment impact assessment notification of that year. But it left a loop hole -- clearances were not required for lease areas of below 5 hectares. One had to wait for Supreme Court, hearing citizens' petitions on sand mining, to issue a direction in February last year to the government to require environmental clearances for all mining areas, regardless of size.

Un-fettered sand mining ought not to be allowed to continue. Even when state governments legally allot lease areas for sand mining these should be monitored rigorously, and not lazily, by the environment protection agencies of the government, as well as get audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General to cull out instances of fake bidders or benami allotees.

Alternatives to sand-based concrete by the construction industry ought to be seriously and quickly pursued. These do exist such as the cast-off from copper furnaces and granulated blast furnaces (in the iron and steel industry), and many more including the use of construction and demolition waste. The Indian standards on construction need to allow for these to be used as a viable substitute for sand. The government should no longer bury its head in the sand.

August 13, 2013

two contrasting ways at apply continuous asset allocation

Asset allocation is interesting but to do it on a continuous basis, year after year, requires an investor to be aware of some complex elements.

Here is a story on this subject which I contributed recently in the newspaper I work for presently:

Two contrasting ways to apply new asset allocations
Not much is understood about the application method of dynamic asset allocations. Here is a primer.

With financial planning taking firm roots among investors the concept of asset allocation is no longer an alien one. There is, however, some confusion of its actual application in the process of continuous investing. Investing is a continuous process for investors in their working years as they keep generating fresh investible surpluses from their earnings.

How to apply dynamic asset allocations. Asset allocation disciplines an investor since it compels her to think clearly and decide on how much to invest in equities, debt, gold and other asset classes. But it is not a one-time process since dynamic, age-based financial planning requires her to allocate different percentages every year or every few years.

The question facing such investors is whether the new asset allocations should be applied only to the fresh investible surplus or also to the existing, accumulated investment portfolio from the previously-allocated percentages. There are two views on this.

Applying new allocations to accumulated investments as well. One view is similar to portfolio re-balancing. Says Rahul Mantri, certified financial planner and founder of Midas Touch, a Pune-based advisory firm, "we provide new asset allocation advise to our clients after an interval of five years and we advise the new allocations to be applied to both--to the existing portfolio as well as to any new investible surplus from thereon." In Mantri's firm's asset allocation re-jig equities get lower percentages as the client's age increases. "You need to skew your entire portfolio towards debt as you approach the retirement age of 60 years. When you reach retirement we believe equities should not make up for more than 10 per cent of your accumulated portfolio," says Mantri.

Only on fresh investible surpluses. There is another view which says changing asset allocations should not be applied to earlier investments and should only apply to new investments made from new investible surpluses. So, for instance, a new investor, say 27 years old, invests Rs 50,000 for the first time and of this she deploys 60 per cent in equities, 30 per cent in debt and 10 per cent in gold. Say, she follows these same allocations every time she has fresh investible surplus from her annual salary. But when she attains 33 years of age, say, she decides to tweak her allocation ratios to 50:35:15 in equities:debt:gold.

Her current portfolio, accumulated over the previous five years, would have grown to some amount. But she will not touch this portfolio to apply the new allocations although she may want to re-jig existing securities in each asset class based on her chosen investment philosophy for each asset class from various styles such as 'buy and hold' and 'book profits in some and re-invest in other'.

She will, instead, apply her new allocations only to the investments she makes from the new investible surpluses she generates from the salary she earns in her 34th year and thereafter. After five years, when she is in her 39th year, she may decide to apply newly-changed allocations to her investible surplus from her 39th year salary onwards. This cycle will continue.

The justification her is that an equity exposure taken when she was 27 years old will fetch her far higher annualised return than any new investible surplus she deploys in equities in her 40s and 50s.