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Iranian tanker Grace 1 freed by Gibraltar

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London, Aug 15 : Gibraltar on Thursday allowed a detained Iranian supertanker Grace 1 to leave the British overseas territory despite eleventh-hour efforts by the United States to halt the move, thus potentially defusing the  tensions between London and Tehran.
The Supreme Court in the British territory of Gibraltar approved the release of the Grace 1, which was impounded off the country’s coast by authorities on July 4.

Tanker was detained by authorities in Gibraltar with the help of Royal Marines on the suspicion that it was ferrying over 2 million barrels of crude oil to Syria in violation of European sanctions.

Gibraltar said Iran has assured that its cargo would not be taken to Syria.Gibraltar is a British overseas territory on the edge of southern Spain.

Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement issued to the press, “investigations conducted around the Grace 1 are a matter for the government of Gibraltar and that it couldn’t comment further.Gibraltar’s legal proceedings and the steps Gibraltar’s authorities have taken to prevent the ship’s cargo from reaching Syria in contravention of EU Syria Sanctions.UK Government noted that  Gibraltar has received assurances from Iran that the Grace 1 will not proceed to Syria.”

Two weeks later, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz and accused it of “violating international regulations.” There have been six attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region and  the U.S. has blamed on Iran.

UK issued a statement, “There is no comparison or linkage between Iran’s unacceptable and illegal seizure of, and attacks on, commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and the enforcement of EU Syria sanctions by the Government of Gibraltar. Freedom of navigation for commercial shipping must be respected and international law upheld.”

All 24 Indian crew members who were aboard the Grace 1 have been freed, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan tweeted today.

“Spoke to our High Commission @HCI_London on VLCC Grace 1. They confirmed that all 24 Indian crew aboard VLCC Grace 1 have been released by Gibraltar authorities and are free to return to India,”  Muraleedharan tweeted.

Arti Bali

Sr Journalist 

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Chinmayanand case: Victim was to be eliminated by plotters?

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Shahjahanpur, Sep 13 (IANS) The special investigation team (SIT) probe into the alleged sexual assault case involving senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former Union Minister Swami Chinmayanand is hinting at a conspiracy to blackmail and extort money. But it’s not clear who was trying to blackmail whom.

Also, it looks, the ‘victim’ was to be eliminated after extorting money from Chinmayanand. But the FIR lodged by the former minister played spoilsport for the conspirators.

A senior UP police officer, requesting anonymity, said, “It’s possible that at some point both parties might be exposed as victim and accused. In that situation, the biggest problem will be for the SIT, which could be helped by the Allahabad High Court’s Division Bench.”

The BJP leader in an FIR on August 25 alleged that some people wanted to extort Rs 5 crore from him on the basis of an objectionable video and some photographs.

Interestingly, before Chinmayanand’s complaint there was nothing. After that, the victim’s father lodged an FIR on August 27 alleging that his daughter was missing and he feared threat to his life from the BJP leader.

The girl mysteriously went missing before suddenly appearing in a Facebook video. It was a major turn in the case. It clarified that the victim was neither in the clutches of Chinmayanand, nor had he kidnapped or eliminated her as alleged.

Amid countless concocted theories, the victim’s presence at Dausa in Rajasthan with her so-called brother Sanjay delivered a shock to the UP Police and others. Aparna Gautam, the Superintendent of Police (Rural), Shahjahanpur, found the girl. However, before that everyone was frowning at Chinmayanand.

Now the question is why did the girl disappear with her purported brother soon after the lodging of an FIR by Chinmayanand?

According to police sources, even after the SIT probe, it’s a mystery as to who was wrestling whom in this blackmailing and extortion ’bout’. But the connecting of dots points to a scenario of the girl being used as a ‘pawn’.

But why eliminate the ‘victim’? A police officer said the conspirators feared that after the loss of a few crores, an addled Chinmayanand could bust the whole game-plan or even after collecting the money, the girl could create a problem for the BJP leader.

So for them, elimination of the girl was an easy way out.

(Sanjeev Kumar Singh Chauhan can be contacted at [email protected])

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Rush to harvest ‘Himalayan Viagra’ degrading Uttarakhand’s alpine meadows

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Noida, Sep 11 (IANS/ 101Reporters) The mad rush to harvest expensive caterpillar fungus in the higher Himalayan region of Uttarakhand is taking a toll on the fragile ecosystem of the alpine meadows.

Researchers studying the harvest and trade aspects of the Cordyceps fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) say the high market price of the species in China coupled with limited manpower of the state’s forest department have resulted in the uncontrolled collection of the species. They say it is causing soil cover destruction, felling of alpine trees for fuelwood and hunting of endangered animals for food by the harvesters.

Cordyceps is considered a potent aphrodisiac and energy booster and deemed to cure lung, liver and kidney problems in the traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines. Every year between May and July, thousands of villagers in the state embark on an arduous journey to the higher reaches with their domesticated animals, tents and sacks of supplies and stay for two months to harvest it.

A scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India, Amit Kumar, who has carried out research on the fungus species at Nanda Devi National Park near Joshimath, informed that the harvesters sometimes kill wild animals, including endangered ones such as blue sheep and musk deer, for food during their stay in the meadows.

He said that during the course of his research when he interacted and worked with the locals who went to harvest the fungus, he found out that it’s difficult for the harvesters to survive on potatoes and wheat and thus they hunt wild animals for meat.

The alpine meadows are home to numerous rare species of flora and fauna like snow leopard, Himalayan blue sheep (bharal), Aconite (Aconitum heterophyllum), Brahmakamal (Saussurea obvallata) and Costus (Saussurea costus).

Dehradun-based environmental researcher Subhajit Saha revealed that the villagers carry firearms with them to the meadows to hunt wild animals like blue sheep, rabbits and red foxes for their meat. He noted that hunting of wild animals is not allowed in India and only the species that have been declared as vermins can be hunted and that too after getting permission from the state forest department. Bharal, which is an endangered species and comes under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, continues to be hunted, he stated.

While the officials with the forest department have strong suspicion that the villagers during their stay at the meadows hunt wild animals, the lack of evidence prevents them from taking action. A forest department official from Pithoragarh, on the condition of anonymity, told 101Reporters that while hunting cases against villagers are rare, it’s common knowledge that during their stay, they not only hunt wild animals for food but also poach them as they are well-versed with the terrain.

Topsoil affected

Cordyceps is an entomopathogenic fungus (a fungus that grows on insects) which seeks shelter in the larva of ghost moths (Family Hepialidae). It germinates inside the caterpillar, kills and mummifies it.

“The fungus attacks the larva under the soil and eventually a stalk-like body of the fungus emerges out of the caterpillar body. Harvesters crawl on the surface and dig [the] soil to collect the fungus,” says Dr Subrat Sharma, a scientist with the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment & Sustainable Development.

Environmental researcher Saha revealed that the alpine meadows are mostly rocky and have a thin layer of soil that takes hundreds of years to form. He added that the harvesters dig up the soil to collect the fungus, damaging the surface layer of the area.

The demand for the fungus reportedly shot up in 1993 when three Chinese athletes broke five world records at the Beijing National Games after regularly consuming a tonic apparently made from the fungus.

The fungus, locally known as Keeda Jadi, was introduced to the locals in Uttarakhand by migrant Nepalese labourers. It is known as Yartsagunbu in Tibet and Yarsagumba in Nepal.

Harvesting of the fungus began around Askot region in 1996-1997 from where the practice gradually spread into different valleys.

Today, most of the households in and around Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and Askot area rely on the caterpillar fungus for their livelihoods. Harvest of the fungus has transformed the lives of the people, bringing in a much-needed economic boost to the villagers of these far-flung areas, which have traditionally been reliant on herding and subsistence agriculture.

There is a well-established network of local middlemen, brokers and merchants in the border townships of Dharchula and Munsiyari in Uttarakhand. The proximity to the porous border with Nepal and Tibet makes it easier for traffickers.

A local seller usually fetches around $20,000 (over Rs14 lakh) for a kilogramme of Cordyceps, making it a lucrative business for the villagers. A family of four on an average harvests around 150 grams during a season.

Decline in numbers

In the last 10 years, researchers say, harvesting has become more intense, causing a decline in the yield. Dwindling collection of the fungus has made the harvesters prolong their stay in the meadows for a better chance of finding the elusive species. The fungus is found in the alpine meadows between 3,500 and 5,000 metres above sea level.

A portion of the land where these fungi grow fall under the van panchayat (village council) land and has been distributed amicably between the residents of the villages. Saha highlighted that the harvesters cross over to protected lands of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries regularly in their quest for the fungus.

“Prior permission is required to extract wildlife resources from restricted areas. However, the caterpillar fungus harvesters often harvest in these areas because of the unavailability of forest staff to monitor their activities,” stated Saha.

Higher anthropogenic pressure in the meadows in the form of an increased number of harvesters and the number of days they spend in search of the fungus also leads to the dumping of non-biodegradable waste like plastic bottles on the surface and open defecation, contaminating water sources of the landscape.

“Thousands of villagers go for mass-collection of the species each year, along with their tents, food, other consumables and domestic animals. These huge aggregations in the remote pastures are bound to destroy the pristine nature of the ecosystems and the threatened species that inhabit them,” Pramod Kumar Yadav, a researcher who has carried out research projects on the fungus, told 101Reporters.

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Mini Europe by the Hooghly

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Kolkata, Sep 12 (IANSlife) Across the River Hooghly – a tributary of the River Ganges – one can still see signs of various European countries that had created their own unique areas, to facilitate trade through Calcuttas Port. For those not too familiar with Bengals early history, a visit to the area is a real treat as one can see signs of the settlements of various European countries, along the banks of the Hooghly River.

The countries that settled here, creating their own spaces were Denmark, France, Holland and Portugal. As one drives along the riverside road, it is fascinating to see the structures that have survived over the years. The area occupied by the European settlement is the present Hooghly District. Fortunately these countries have begun to appreciate the historical value of these old ruins. Denmark has recently restored a Tavern at Serampore and tourists now have a splendid place for a meal.

It was almost a century after the Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama landed on the western coast of India in 1498, that other European countries realized that they were losing out on trade with India. Soon the European settlements began inroads into Bengal, with the Hooghly being their main source of navigation. The first to create a settlement were the Portuguese who settled down at Bandel, long before the British made Calcutta their stronghold. They were soon followed by the Dutch in Chinsurah, the Danish in Serampore and the French in Chandannagar.

The Portuguese also built the first Christian church in Bengal in 1599. In 1632, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan attacked the Portuguese settlement and demolished their small fort and their church. The head of the Church Father Joan De Cruz was taken prisoner to Agra, where he was thrown in front of a ferocious elephant, who instead of trampling the priest, lifted him up and seated him on his back. Shah Jahan was so impressed that he freed the priest and provided free land for a new church.

Interestingly the miracles continued. During another siege, Taigo, a local Christian in a desperate bid to save the statue of Mary dived into the Hooghly with it and was never seen again. However on the day of the inauguration of the church, it was found on the river bank. Re-established, the statue came to be known as “Our Lady of the Happy Voyage”.

There is also a splendid Imambara worth seeing in Bandel. Designed by architect Keramtulla Khan, the two storied building is centred round a rectangular courtyard, decorated with fountains and pools and has a sundial that is a great attraction. The structure has two 85-feet high towers with 152 stairs in each – one for men and the other for women. Built in the memory of the philanthropist Hazi Muhammad Mohsin, the structure took 20 years to build. The three storied structure connecting the towers contains a clock at the top story. The lower rooms are said to contain splendid chandeliers, but are unfortunately out of bounds to the public.

The Dutch settlement ended in 1825, the Dutch fort of Gustava was demolished by the British and very little remains of the Dutch rule in Chinsura. The Dutch church was demolished in the 1980s, but the Dutch cemetery still stands containing an assortment of graves under the shade of ancient trees, with the oldest dating back to 1743.

It was after receiving Mughal Subedar Ibrahim Khan’s permission in 1673, that the French colony Chandannagar was established as a trading post on the right bank of the Hooghly River. Bengal was then a province of the Mughal Empire. The colony became a permanent French settlement in 1688 and in 1730, when Joseph Francis Dupleix was appointed governor of the city, its development included 2,000 new houses and a considerable amount of trade and commerce. For a short while, Chandannagar also became the main centre for European trade in Bengal.

Today, Chandannagar still boasts considerable French heritage. The Strand is considered the most beautiful stretch of the Hooghly River. The tree-shaded promenade along the river is about 1 km in length and 7 meters in width, and the area houses a number of French mansions. The Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat on the Strand is also an interesting mix of Indo- French architecture.

Also on the Strand is the Dupleix Palace Museum – one of the oldest museums of the region housing French antiques and period furniture. Just off the Strand is the Sacred Heart Church, dating back to 1884. It was designed by French architect Jacques Duchatz and has beautiful stained glass windows. A French colony till 1950, French is still taught as a third language in many of Chandannagore’s schools.

To make you aware that you are in French surroundings, there is the Chandannagar Gate constructed in 1937 to mark the Fall of the Bastille. Etched on stone is the slogan �Liberte, egalite, fraternite’ (Liberty Equality and Fraternity).

Serampore , the Danish Settlement, remained under Danish rule till 1845, after which the Danish Governor decided to sell it to the British East India Company. The Serampore college, remains well maintained with its grand facade. Danish missionary Carey along with Ward and Marshman, began the Serampore Mission Press and published the first Bengali translation of the Bible. They also launched the “Friends of India” newspaper. Another outstanding contribution was the installation of India’s first paper mill at Battala, set up by Marshman, which was powered by a steam engine.

The Baptist Mission Cemetery in Serampore contains the family graves of Carey, Ward and Marshman – three personalities whose immense contribution to literacy, cannot be disregarded. Between 1801 and 1832, the Serampore Mission Press printed 212,000 copies of books in 40 different languages.

(Shona Adhikari is a lifestyle and travel columnist)

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