Indian’s tax on samosas sparks row

NEW DELHI (AFP): One of India’s poorest states has said it will impose a ‘luxury tax’ on samosas - one of the country’s most popular snacks - sparking widespread outrage. The Bihar government announced plans this week for the new levy to offset an anticipated plunge in the state’s revenues when a ban on alcohol sales comes into force in April. Cosmetics, perfumes and some sweets were also among the ‘luxury’ items to be taxed at 13.5 percent, but the decision to include the much-loved pastry snack was met with bafflement on social media. ‘Weird tax alert! Ready for samosa politics?’ Twitter user Shruti Malhotra wrote, while Azeem Shaikh posted: ‘Eh? Please leave the humble #samosa alone.’

Opposition politicians in the eastern state, which is also one of India’s most populous, warned the tax would hurt ordinary people. ‘This is a foolish, anti-people idea that will hurt the masses,’ Devesh Kumar, spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar, told AFP. ‘Besides exposing the state’s precarious financial situation, a luxury tax on popular snacks like samosas and kachoris also exposes a lack of ideas,’ he said.

The row recalls the 2012 controversy over Britain’s plan to extend levies on takeaway food to Cornish pasties and other hot snacks. The government was forced to back down after a public outcry over what became known as the ‘pasty tax’.

Chilean architect wins Pritzker Prize

NEW YORK (AFP): Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena won the prestigious 2016 Pritzker Prize Wednesday, earning praise for ‘powerful’ designs that address key social and economic challenges of the 21st century. ‘Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives,’ said Tom Pritzker, chairman of The Hyatt Foundation, which awards the prize. The 48-year-old Aravena, who is based in Santiago, will receive the $100,000 award and bronze medallion at a ceremony at UN headquarters in New York on April 4. He is the 41st Pritzker laureate, and only the fourth from Latin America. The Pritzker jury highlighted Aravena’s work at ELEMENTAL, a Santiago architectural group that focuses on projects of public interest and social impact. The group calls itself a ‘do tank,’ as opposed to a ‘think tank.’ It has produced more than 2,500 units of affordable housing, including an innovative ‘half a good house’.

After Chile’s 2010 earthquake, ELEMENTAL was enlisted to help rebuild the hard-hit city of Constitucion; the firm drew up a master plan and designed a cultural center and an ‘incremental’ housing project known as Villa Verde.

Aravena also was cited for his buildings at the Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago, where he studied and now teaches after a five-year stint at Harvard; they include its schools of architecture, medicine, mathematics and most recently the UC Innovation Center - Anacleto Angelini. His design for an office building for health care company Novartis is under construction in Shanghai, China. Its office spaces are designed to accommodate different forms of work - individual, collective, formal and informal.

‘His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption and provides welcoming public space,’ Pritzker said. Lord Peter Palumbo, the chair of the jury, said jurors were ‘captivated, stunned and overwhelmed’ by what they saw when they visited Aravena’s work. ‘He understands materials and construction, but also the importance of poetry and the power of architecture to communicate on many levels,’ the jury citation read.

Most of Aravena’s work has been in Chile, but he has also designed projects in Mexico, Germany, Switzerland and the United States. Aravena, who is director of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, said he was ‘deeply thankful’ for the prize - ‘just overwhelmed, ecstatic, happy.’ ‘Architecture is a collective discipline. So we think, with gratitude, of all the people who contributed to give form to a huge diversity of forces at play,’ he said in an emailed response to his selection as the Pritzker laureate.

He said he would use the prize ‘to explore new territories, face new challenges and walk into new fields of action.’ ‘After such a peak, the path is unwritten. So our plan is not to have a plan, face the uncertain, be open to the unexpected,’ he said. In Chile, colleagues cheered Aravena and the award, the country’s first.

‘Alejandro Aravena is the first architect at the international level to be so strongly concerned with social housing in Chile,’ said the president of the Chilean College of Architects, Pilar Urrejola. ‘He had the vision and the sensibility to realize that social housing in Chile could be thought of in new ways,’ she told AFP. The dean of the architecture school at Universidad del Desarrollo, Pablo Allard, said Aravena would be remembered for his ‘conviction of the transformative role of architecture.’

Dying American fulfils dream of Asian fame

BEIJING (AFP): An eight-year-old American boy with terminal cancer has prompted thousands of Chinese Internet users to post photos online in support after he told his father he wanted to be famous in the Asian country before dying. Dorian Murray was diagnosed with the pediatric soft tissue cancer rhabdomyosarcoma at the age of four. Earlier this month, his family decided to stop treatment after discovering the disease had spread to his spinal cord and brain. ‘All the meds, everything we have to go through, it’s just a lot, it’s a lot to take,’ the boy matter-of-factly told local TV station WPRI. The Rhode Island boy told his father Chris that before he ‘goes to heaven’ he ‘would like to be famous in China... because they have that bridge’, referring to the Great Wall.

Turkmenistan takes cigarettes off shelves

ASHGABAT (AFP): Turkmenistan’s authorities have forced shops to stop selling cigarettes, traders in Ashgabat said Thursday, after its president urged citizens to kick the habit. State anti-narcotics officials ‘came to our shop recently and forced us to remove cigarettes from the shelves, threatening us with huge fines,’ said Bairam Saryev, the 34-year-old owner of a small store in the capital. Saryev’s shop was one of those targeted in a wave of raids in the isolated Central Asian country after President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov slammed the country’s anti-smoking strategy at a televised government meeting on January 5. Berdymukhamedov threatened to dismiss the chief of the anti-narcotics agency.

- called the State Service for Security of Healthy Society - calling for ‘mass measures to eradicate smoking.’

Since then, owners of kiosks and shops have only sold cigarettes under the counter and ‘only to regular customers and friends,’ said one Ashgabat kiosk trader called Vepa. The ban on cigarette sales has not been officially announced or published by the government. But 24-year-old Vepa said that the fine for violating the ban amounted to ‘10 (average) monthly salaries.’

The sweeping move has resulted in already high prices for a pack of cigarettes doubling on the street from around 25 manat to 50 manat (over $14), Vepa said. ‘Because of the high price, sales of single cigarettes are growing, for about 2 manat apiece,’ he said. Berdymukhamedov, who took the helm of the Caspian nation in 2006, has presided over a crackdown on smokers.

Turkmenistan is now the country with the lowest percentage of smokers in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. Only eight percent of the population in Turkmenistan smokes, WHO chief Margaret Chan said last year, calling it ‘the lowest national indicator in the world.’ The country’s previous president Saparmurat Niyazov was a chain smoker who quit in 2000 after heart surgery and subsequently signed an anti-smoking decree.

Gradually stricter measures have been phased in since then, including a hike in excise taxes for tobacco in 2011 and a ban on smoking in public areas in 2013. These measures had already made cigarettes in Turkmenistan more expensive than in any other country in the ex-Soviet region.

Average age of first-time moms rises to 26 in US

MIAMI (AFP): The average age of first-time mothers is rising in the United States, and reached 26.3 years of age in 2014, according to US government data out Thursday.

In 2000, women on average became mothers at the age of 24.9, said the National Center for Health Statistics. The report updates a previous version which tracked ages of mothers back to 1970, when the average age of a US woman’s first birth was 22. Researchers say changes in the age of motherhood are important because having children later in life can affect overall family size and population growth. Women’s ages at childbirth are also ‘associated with a range of birth outcomes, such as multiple births and birth defects,’ it said.

The main reason for the rise in average age at first birth is a sharp decline in teen pregnancies. First births to mothers under 20 dropped 42 percent from 2000 to 2014.

Today, about one in seven of these first births is to teenagers. In 2000, the figure was one in four. First births to mothers in their 30s are also rising, as women increasingly pursue careers before having children. ‘From 2000 to 2014, the proportion of first births to women aged 30-34 rose 28 percent (from 16.5 percent to 21.1 percent),’ said the report.

Meanwhile, first births to women 35 and over rose 23 percent in those 15 years. Still, it is relatively rare for women to have their first child when they are older than 35, making up just nine percent of all first births in the country. When the numbers were crunched according to ethnicity, Asian or Pacific Islander mothers ‘had the oldest average age at first birth in 2000 (27.8 years) and 2014 (29.5 years).’ The youngest mothers tended to be American Indian or Alaskan native, at 21.6 years in 2000 and 23.1 years in 2014.

Miami zoo mourns oldest known tree kangaroo

MIAMI (AFP): Miami is mourning the death of its beloved tree kangaroo Patty, 27, which had to be euthanized Wednesday after developing various ailments related to old age. ‘At over 27 years old, Patty was the longest living Matchie’s tree kangaroo in recorded history - a record that was celebrated this past October,’ officials at the Zoo Miami said in a statement. Patty was a top draw at the zoo, one of this city’s most popular attractions. The adorable marsupial attained a measure of fame after taking up painting, a pastime she pursued by clutching a brush in her nimble paws. ‘Unfortunately, her extremely advanced age had begun to take its toll on her and she recently began to lose her appetite as well as significant weight,’ said officials, who added that Patty also had developed mobility problems.

‘The difficult decision was made to euthanize her today,’ zoo officials said. Matchie’s tree kangaroos are considered an endangered species in their native Papua New Guinea.

Indian students walk barefoot on broken glass

AHMEDABAD (AFP): About 70 Indian students walked barefoot over broken glass in an apparent bid to overcome exam phobia and stage fright, sparking a probe into the unusual character-building exercise.

Children as young as 12 took part in the ceremony on Wednesday intended to boost their mental health at a private coaching centre in the western state of Gujarat. Video footage, picked up by TV channels, shows students slowly stepping along about a metre-long line of thick, broken glass. There were no injuries reported from the incident. ‘We have ordered a probe into the incident where a private tutor is instructing students to walk on broken glass,’ state education minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama told reporters on Wednesday.

Rakesh Patel, who runs the coaching centre in the city of Vadodara, defended the exercise, saying ‘there is a science behind it’.

‘This will remove fear and disbelief from the students’ minds,’ he told reporters. ‘This workshop was held to get rid of the problems of kids related to stage fear, exam phobia among others,’ he said. Parents were also asked to take part in the ceremony. Hitesh Panchal, who did the walk along with his 12-year-old son, said he was initially horrified at the idea.

‘But once you undergo the demonstration, your confidence level increases,’ Panchal told reporters. ‘After my son, two girls also got the courage to walk on the glass pieces.’

In 2010, a private school in Gujarat also came under fire for making students walk over burning coals and broken glass to boost their confidence. Fire-walking has existed as a religious ritual in many cultures for thousands of years. It has gained some popularity in Western countries as a team-building exercise and alternative health remedy.