India: Reviving Congress

What a week where the Congress party has all but made a laughing stock of itself. Ashok Gehlot has landed himself in serious trouble. He is 71. A comeback is unlikely. He has been an active, reliable, astute leader, with


Noise Cameras

Speed Cameras have been in use, spotting former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and most recently have been in the news with the revelations on Home Secretary, Suella Braverman” creating” a rumpus and which was put a stop with P.M.Sunak not pursing further action, noting that the Home Secretary had paid the customary fine after the incident.

Noise is according to the UK Government website: “an inevitable consequence of a mature and vibrant society, but can have a negative effect on people’s quality of life, affecting their health and wellbeing.”

Noise-detecting cameras, we are told could be soon used to catch drivers who shatter the peace on roads revving up engines and exhausts. In the case of many, the use of noise cameras to catch those who disturb the sleep of residents is a matter long overdue. Sleep disturbance has been a gnawing problem which something serious had to be done,

The British Government is examining the results of detailed camera tests. Campaigners hope the technology that has been developed will help reduce noise pollution of those who deliberately modify their cars and also motorbikes, as loud as possible to attract more than attention. The Police will soon be able to use the records of noise levels and digital imaging to track and trace the culprits with fines and fixed penalties.

The question is how cheaply and reliably could technology to be used to stop this nuisance?

How does noise levels affect health?

Irresponsible and anti-social drivers are a danger to the public, because they use streets as a “race track”? We are told some night drivers use noise as a “weapon of torture”? This is unproven, but possible.

Chronic noise pollution affects people’s physical and mental health, with links to stress, disturbed sleep patterns and high blood pressure and other complaints. Night time provocation has become part of a “stress causing business” leading to peripheral neuropathy and nerve damage.

What exactly is a Noise Camera?

A Noise Camera also known as an acoustic camera is used to detect loud noises that exceed a certain set tolerable limit.

Noise cameras work in a similar way to speed cameras. Noise cameras are equipped with a microphone, just like speed cameras have sensors and an automated number plate recognition system.

Noise cameras can differentiate an engine’s sound from, say a horn or the radio, by monitoring the sound patterns. There are some drivers who must have their radio as loud as possible whilst driving, day or night to be noticed. This is a psychosis?

The legal sound limit for all new cars is 72 decibels (dB). This threshold will be further reduced to 67 dB from 2026.

It is illegal to modify exhaust systems to boost noise and power in the UK, though this seemingly has not stopped enthusiasts, among others, getting their cars modified to these ends.

Noise sensors don’t record sounds. They monitor the changes in the sound level.

The Group of Seven Should Finally Be Shut Down


During the May 2023 Group of Seven (G7) summit, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, near where the meeting was held. Not doing so would have been an act of immense discourtesy. Despite many calls for an apology from the US for dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian population in 1945, US President Joe Biden has demurred. Instead, he wrote in the Peace Memorial guest book: ‘May the stories of this museum remind us all of our obligations to build a future of peace’.

Apologies, amplified by the tensions of our time, take on interesting sociological and political roles. An apology would suggest that the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong and that the US did not end their war against Japan by taking the moral high ground. An apology would also contradict the US’s decision, backed fully by other Western powers over 70 years later, to maintain a military presence along the Asian coastline of the Pacific Ocean (a presence built on the back of the 1945 atomic bombings) and to use that military force to threaten China with weapons of mass destruction amassed in bases and ships close to China’s territorial waters. It is impossible to imagine a ‘future of peace’ if the US continues to maintain its aggressive military structure that runs from Japan to Australia, with the express intent of disciplining China.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was given the errand to warn China about its ‘economic coercion’ as he unveiled the G7 Coordination Platform on Economic Coercion to track Chinese commercial activities. ‘The platform will address the growing and pernicious use of coercive economic measures to interfere in the sovereign affairs of other states’, Sunak said. This bizarre language displayed neither self-awareness of the West’s long history of brutal colonialism nor an acknowledgement of neocolonial structures – including the permanent state of indebtedness enforced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – that are coercive by definition. Nonetheless, Sunak, Biden, and the others preened with self-righteous certainty that their moral standing remains intact and that they hold the right to attack China for its trade agreements. These leaders suggest that it is perfectly acceptable for the IMF – on behalf of the G7 states – to demand ‘conditionalities’ from debt-ridden countries while forbidding China from negotiating when it lends money.

Interestingly, the final statement from the G7 did not mention China by name, but merely echoed the concern about ‘economic coercion’. The phrase ‘all countries’ and not China, specifically, signals a lack of unity within the group. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for instance, used her speech at the G7 to put the US on notice for its use of industrial subsidies: ‘We need to provide a clear, predictable business environment to our clean tech industries. The starting point is transparency among the G7 on how we support manufacturing’.

One complaint from Western governments and think tanks alike has been that Chinese development loans contain ‘no Paris Club’ clauses. The Paris Club is a body of official bilateral creditors that was set up in 1956 to provide financing to poor countries who have been vetted by IMF processes, stipulating that they must pledge to conduct a range of political and economic reforms in order to secure any funds. In recent years, the amount of loans given through the Paris Club has declined, although the body’s influence and the esteem its strict rules garner remain. Many Chinese loans – particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative – refuse to adopt Paris Club clauses, since, as Professor Huang Meibo and Niu Dongfang argue, it would sneak IMF-Paris Club conditionalities into loan agreements. ‘All countries’, they write, ‘should respect the right of other countries to make their own choices, instead of taking the rules of the Paris Club as universal norms that must be observed by all’. The allegation of ‘economic coercion’ does not hold if the evidence points to Chinese lenders refusing to impose Paris Club clauses.

G7 leaders stand before the cameras pretending to be world representatives whose views are the views of all of humanity. Remarkably, G7 countries only contain 10 per cent of the world’s population while their combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is merely 27 per cent of global GDP. These are demographically and increasingly economically marginalised states that want to use their authority, partly derived from their military power, to control the world order. Such a small section of the human population should not be allowed to speak for all of us, since their experiences and interests are neither universal nor can they be trusted to set aside their own parochial goals in favour of humanity’s needs.

Indeed, the agenda of the G7 was plainly laid out at its origin, first as the Library Group in March 1973 and then at the first G7 summit in France in November 1975. The Library Group was created by US Treasury Secretary George Schultz, who brought together finance ministers from France (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), West Germany (Helmut Schmidt), and the UK (Anthony Barber) to hold private consultations among the Atlantic allies. At the Château de Rambouillet in 1975, the G7 met in the context of the ‘oil weapon’ wielded by the Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973 and the passage of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the United Nations in 1974. Schmidt, who was appointed German chancellor a year after the Library Group’s formation, reflected on these developments: ‘It is desirable to explicitly state, for public opinion, that the present world recession is not a particularly favourable occasion to work out a new economic order along the lines of certain UN documents’. Schmidt wanted to end ‘international dirigisme’ and states’ ability to exercise their economic sovereignty.

The NIEO had to be stopped in its tracks, Schmidt said, because to leave decisions about the world economy ‘to officials somewhere in Africa or some Asian capital is not a good idea’. Rather than allow African and Asian leaders a say in important global matters, UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson suggested that it would be better for serious decisions to be made by ‘the sort of people sitting around this table’.

The private attitudes displayed by Schmidt and Wilson continue to this day, despite dramatic changes in the world order. In the first decade of the 2000s, the US – which had begun to see itself as an unrivalled world power – overreached militarily in its War on Terror and economically with its unregulated banking system. The war on Iraq (2003) and the credit crunch (2007) threatened the vitality of the US-managed world order. During the darkest days of the credit crisis, G8 states, which then included Russia, asked surplus-holding countries of the Global South (particularly, China, India, and Indonesia) to come to their aid. In January 2008, at a meeting in New Delhi (India), French President Nicolas Sarkozy told business leaders, ‘At the G8 summit, eight countries meet for two and a half days and on the third day invite five developing nations – Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa – for discussions over lunch. This is [an] injustice to [the] 2.5 billion inhabitants of these nations. Why this third-grade treatment to them? I want that the next G8 summit be converted into a G13 summit’.

There was talk during this period of weakness in the West that the G7 would be shut down and that the G20, which held its first summit in 2008 in Washington, D.C., would become its successor. Sarkozy’s statements in Delhi made headlines, but not policy. In a more private – and truthful – assessment in October 2010, former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard told US Ambassador to France Craig R. Stapleton, ‘We need a vehicle where we can find solutions for these challenges [the growth of China and India] together – so when these monsters arrive in 10 years, we will be able to deal with them’.

The ‘monsters’ are now at the gate, and the US has assembled its available economic, diplomatic, and military arsenals, including the G7, to suffocate them. The G7 is an undemocratic body that uses its historical power to impose its narrow interests on a world that is in the grip of a range of more pressing dilemmas. It is time to shut down the G7, or at least prevent it from enforcing its will on the international order.

In his radio address on 9 August 1945, US President Harry Truman said: ‘The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians’. In reality, Hiroshima was not a ‘military base’: it was what US Secretary of War Henry Stimson called a ‘virgin target’, a place that had escaped the US firebombing of Japan so that it could be a worthwhile testing ground for the atomic bomb. In his diary, Stimson recorded a conversation with Truman in June about the reasoning behind targeting this city. When he told Truman that he was ‘a little fearful that before we could get ready the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon [the atomic bomb] would not have a fair background to show its strength’, the president ‘laughed and said he understood’.

Two-year-old Sadako Sasaki was one of 350,000 people living in Hiroshima at the time of the bombings. She died ten years later from cancers associated with radiation exposure from the bomb. The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was moved by her story and wrote a poem against war and confrontation. Hikmet’s words should be a warning even now to Biden for laughing at the possibility of renewed military conflict against China:

I come and stand at every door
But none can hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen
For I am dead for I am dead.

I’m only seven though I died
In Hiroshima long ago
I’m seven now as I was then
When children die they do not grow.

My hair was scorched by swirling flame
My eyes grew dim my eyes grew blind
Death came and turned my bones to dust
And that was scattered by the wind.

I need no fruit I need no rice
I need no sweets nor even bread
I ask for nothing for myself
For I am dead for I am dead.

All that I need is that for peace
You fight today you fight today
So that the children of this world
Can live and grow and laugh and play.

The Deplorable Work Conditions Behind Harrods’ $7,000 ‘Ambootia Snow Mist’ Darjeeling Tea


by Saurav Sarkar and Rupam Deb

In 2015, after you were done gawking at the statue of Princess Di in the world’s largest department store, Harrods in London, you could head on over to the world-famous food halls where you could buy, among other high-priced indulgences, a type of tea branded “Ambootia Snow Mist.” 

At $7,864 per kilogram—enough to make about 300 cups—Snow Mist regularly made appearances on listicles sporting headlines like “21 Gifts that Prove Harrods Has Finally Lost Its Fucking Mind.” 

Sold exclusively by London’s high-end department store for about a decade starting in the late 2000s, the tea was grown on the Happy Valley Tea Estate, a 400-plus acre plantation nestled in the Himalayan hills, near the third tallest mountain in the world and the large town of Darjeeling. 

Happy Valley is located in northern West Bengal, the same state as Bangla-speaking Kolkata, but the lingua franca in the region is Nepali. Locals known as Indian Gorkhas (to distinguish them from Nepali Gorkhas) have been agitating for almost four decades to get their own state called Gorkhaland.

The second oldest of Darjeeling’s 87 tea plantations, Happy Valley was established by a Britishman in 1854, just five years after Harrods. Happy Valley passed into the hands of an elite Bengali in the early 1900s. From there, it changed hands several times until it was abandoned, lying dormant up until the early 2000s (it is not uncommon for tea gardens to be semi-frequently abandoned by their owners, leaving workers, staff, and even managers in a lurch). 

Many tea plantations have been taken over by investors looking for short-term profits but who lack a long-term vision for the tea industry. The standard playbook for this “promoter class” of new owners goes something like this: take out a huge loan against the tea land, siphon the capital to other businesses, and drive workers to further pauperization. It is well known in and around the industry that these owners routinely fail to pay legally required pension contributions and evade land taxes.

Importantly, the land itself is owned by the state of West Bengal, not by the owners of the plantations, who lease it long term.

These promoters also tend to abandon the tea plantations during the annual bonus period, allegedly due to worker protest and discontent, while also failing to clear all back pay that is due. The annual bonus period falls at the end of the calendar year and marks a time when employers and unions negotiate a bonus that workers get for regional holidays. Although it is true that there are more workers protesting during these periods in a perennial bid to negotiate higher bonuses, the claim by owners that said protests are the primary reason they must abandon their plantations doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. 

Later, with the help of the government and even the tea workers’ own unions, these owners will often reopen the plantations and gardens under conditions that require workers to accept lower wages than what they previously earned, accept further casualization, and take lost jobs on the chin. 

In the mid-2000s, Happy Valley, along with about a dozen other Darjeeling estates, became part of a company headed by businessman Sanjay Bansal. Bansal was not supposed to be one of those guys, one of the plantation owners who games the system at the expense of workers—his initial approach led many to believe he would handle business differently. Bansal was an “incredibly successful… international player for a decade,” says Sarah Besky, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. But even major figures in the tea industry engage in unsavory practices.

Besky has spent a great deal of time studying Darjeeling’s tea industry and workers. “Anybody who knows anything about Darjeeling tea knows about Makhaibari and Ambootia,” Besky told TRNN. “The symbolic importance of Ambootia is huge.”

Ambootia, the name of another tea plantation, was the brand name behind Harrods’ Snow Mist and other teas produced by Darjeeling Organic Tea Estates Private Ltd. (DOTEPL), and it is also the informal name for Bansal’s broader company, the Ambootia Group, which owns numerous tea estates in Darjeeling, Assam, and Dooars. In 2015, DOTEPL was worth Rs. 12 billion ($187 million); in addition to Bansal, investors from Singapore and Europe also had varying stakes in the company at different points in time.

I (Saurav) visited Happy Valley on October 12 of last year, when the tea bushes were between harvests, or “flushes.” Rain was pouring down from the sky. Nevertheless, workers clad in galoshes and holding umbrellas are still expected to pluck two leaves and a bud from the bushes in such conditions. 

On that day, though, no leaves were being plucked, because the workers were on strike, continuing a months-long labor dispute over backwages, a legally required holiday bonus, and a general state of disrespect from the bosses. Workers on the plantations in the area, including at Happy Valley, had demanded—and eventually won from the state government—a 20 percent bonus marking major holidays, but the mood at Happy Valley was anything but content.

Several dozen of the workers, most of them women, were huddled along the inside walls of a structure that, judging by the sign above, was meant to be a “fair price shop” for tourists and visitors to purchase tea from the plantation. A few men, the field staff, hovered inside, standing impatiently or animatedly pacing the floor. They, too, were being denied their wages.

One worker—let’s call her Chenbagam Rai—told me through interpreters that she worked an eight-hour day, from 7:30AM to 4:00PM, with a break for lunch. Workers typically work six-day weeks for a total of 48 scheduled hours per week. The harvesting quotas they need to meet can range from garden to garden; in some, it might be 7kg worth of tea per day; in others, it might be 11kg. With the help of the interpreters, Chenbagam relayed that she earned the minimum wage for Darjeeling tea workers of Rs. 232 ($2.81) per day (soon to be Rs. 250), not counting minor bonuses for exceeding production goals, but including Rs. 9 per day for food. Not only are these wages insufficient for workers to make a living on, they are also on the low end for workers across the industry. In other parts of India, tea plantation workers make more—around Rs. 400 ($4.93) per day—than their counterparts in Darjeeling do.

A union official (and one of my guides on the visit), Jatan Rai, told me that a living wage would be about Rs. 500 ($6.16) per day, plus benefits (like housing, access to medical care, etc.) that management is legally mandated to provide. When I was in Darjeeling, I spent a fair amount of time talking with Jatan, who was brought up as the son of two tea workers on an estate and is now the general secretary of the Hamro Hill Terai Dooars Chiabari Shramik Sangh (Hamro Hill Terai Dooars Tea Workers Union), as well as Saakal Dewan, a retired navy officer and active poet. Both Dewan and Jatan Rai, as well as Rai’s union, are affiliated with a local political party called the Hamro Party (unions generally tend to be affiliated with political parties in India). In India, apart from the railways, tea plantations are the largest organized sector.

In other parts of India, along with higher average wages, tea workers also tend to receive more of the benefits they are legally entitled to under the Plantations Labour Act of 1951, which instituted a slate of laws meant to secure universal standards for working conditions on Indian plantations. For instance, housing, water, education, healthcare, and other basic needs—all are supposed to be provided by plantation owners. “It is there in the rules—[the] Plantations Act,” said Jatan Rai. But the problem is that there are no real nor consistent enforcement mechanisms; as a result, the reality for workers is very different from what the Act spells out. 

According to Rai, things used to be better: “workers used to get multiple benefits. About 20 years back, 30 years back, the garden owners used to provide everything… Now, these days, it is totally gone.”

A staple of the Hamro Party platform is the demand for better conditions for workers in the tea industry. Party leaders are looking for what they describe as a “win-win” situation for owners and workers: an industry that is modernized and run ethically. While such messages sound good on paper, they can only really go so far to reform the tea industry, the entire political economy of which has been built around what Besky argues are deep structural and historical factors that render meaningful reform impossible.

“Many of the people I work with find undermining the system futile because the system is a monster. It is unchallengeable,” says Besky.

“Within [the plantation system’s] kind of DNA, its internal logic [is]… cheap labor, cheap everything. That is the logic of oppression,” she says. Since its integration into the global trade market, that is, cheap, hyper-exploitable labor has been the foundation of the tea industry; any attempts to seriously and systematically address tea workers’ needs for living wages and humane treatment would threaten the structural integrity of the industry itself, as it currently exists. This, Besky explains, is why efforts to reform the industry, including the Plantations Labour Act of 1951, have only borne modest, if any, positive results. 

“What’s [most] remarkable is the lack of change… The most striking thing about the industry, whether it’s 10 years or 150 years, [is that] the mode of production is the same.”

To illustrate this point, Besky offered one story of a sick Happy Valley worker who sought urgent medical care—she estimated that it took place around the time Harrods was starting to buy from the estate.

“Every plantation operates their ambulance also as a taxi. Someone actually died waiting for the ambulance that was roaming around town,” she says.

The story of tea is a story of interconnected continents and expanding systems of capitalist and imperialist exploitation stretching their tendrils across the globe over the course of hundreds of years—and the people bearing the brunt of it all have always been the workers on the plantations.

Tea is now the second most popular beverage in the world after water, with two billion cups consumed each day globally. But it was only incorporated into the capitalist world system in the early 17th century. 

As demand grew in Britain and across Europe, there was money to be made. And boy, was it ever made, especially by the entity that would eventually emerge as the monopoly importer: the British East India Company (and its shareholders). 

There was a proverbial fly in the ointment, though: China, the world’s only significant exporter of tea, didn’t want anything that the British East India Company had to offer. As a result, the empire turned to pushing Indian farmers to grow opium, which the British merchants and the East India Company then smuggled into China to trade for tea. The British East India Company, simply put, was effectively a drug cartel. When the Chinese government attempted to crack down on its destructive trade, one consequence was the Opium Wars. 

Another was the British deciding that they would try to take over the process of tea production for themselves. In an infamous act of corporate espionage, a botanist named Robert Fortune, originally from Scotland, was sent by the British East India Company to steal tea plants and agricultural know-how from China to see if the company could grow the plant on the hills of Darjeeling and elsewhere in India.

All things considered, the experiment was successful, and as India’s tea estates proliferated in the 19th century, the colony—and then the country—replaced China as the world’s largest producer of tea for a century. Even today, it remains the second largest producer and fourth largest exporter of tea in the world.

Tea plantations became an important part of the colonial economy. From the beginning, owners separated the estates into enclaves where the law of the land barely works. And from the beginning, owners have tried to keep wages as low as possible. The estates require huge tracts of land, and cultivating and harvesting on that land is very labor intensive because the delicacy of the crop necessitates that it be picked by hand, rather than with mechanized devices.

Conditions at Happy Valley are not unique, Rai says later when I (Saurav) followed up with him from New York. “Every tea garden… in Darjeeling is having [the same] issues,” he says. 

Because of the conditions on the farms, most young people in the Darjeeling area choose to migrate out to a big city or go into a different line of work, in Darjeeling or nearby; even a construction laborer building roads in town makes Rs. 500 ($6.16) per day, almost twice that of a plucker. Many fear the tea industry in Darjeeling is on its last leg as a result.

But there are still around 55,000 workers on Darjeeling’s 87 licensed plantations for now, about 20 percent of whom are daily wage laborers, while the rest are permanent. They range in age from 18-60.

I visited another plantation with Dewan, the 950-acre Chongtong estate, which, at the time I visited, was also owned by DOTEPL. It’s only about eight miles from Darjeeling, but it takes an hour to get there due to the bendiness and low quality of the roads winding through the hills.

When the estate is up and running at full capacity, 985 workers work there, and total tea production amounts to 200,000 kg per year. But Chongtong is definitely not running at full capacity these days; more than half the workers have fled for neighboring plantations because they are not getting paid. There used to be one supervisor for every 25-30 pluckers; now, there are far fewer people to supervise.

This kind of situation, or worse, happens at gardens throughout the industry. In gardens where the bushes are not as productive or as high quality as they once were—so-called “sick gardens”—management will simply vanish without paying workers, without even processing the harvested tea. According to Dewan and Rai, this kind of sudden abandonment is sometimes part of a front operation to transition the grounds to a tourism site.

The global tea trade—and the hyper-exploitation of tea workers—has continued well into the present, worth $200 billion in 2020 and expected to rise to $318 billion by 2025. A 2019 report by Rosa Luxemberg Stiftung on tea exports from Darjeeling to Germany showed that pluckers tend to keep less than 3 percent of the money generated by the products they harvest. An Oxfam report the same year found that supermarkets and brands receive 93.8 percent of the final price of a tea bag in the United States, while workers receive 0.8 percent. The situation is only marginally better in India and European countries.

In India, the northern states of Assam and West Bengal are the largest producers of tea in the country. The states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka in the south also grow significant amounts of the crop.

As a high-end product, Darjeeling tea tends to not sell at large volumes, but the tea stands out due to attempts by the Indian government and the Darjeeling industry to market it internationally and protect its brand.

Regarding Happy Valley and Chongtong, web searches and shipping records show that several Global North companies specifically source from these two plantations, even though the working conditions described throughout this report are well known throughout the industry. These buyers include the French upscale outlet Mariages Freres, which sells Happy Valley tea for the price of €486 ($505) per kilogram. It also sells tea from Chongtong. Lipton has sold tea from Chongtong in recent years.

The century-old American tea importer GS Haly markets Happy Valley tea by the dozens of pounds. The German wholesaler The Tea Co. GmbH & Co Kg has sourced from Chongtong, while the German brand Lebensbaum has sourced from Happy Valley. In the UK, Teahouse Emporium sells Happy Valley tea.

Dozens of other Global North businesses are sourcing from the company as a whole, but we were unable to determine whether the plantations they are doing business with are Happy Valley and Chongtong or others from DOTEPL’s past or present array of tea-growing estates.

That array includes many estates that play up the “organic,” “fair trade,” and “people-friendly” practices of the plantations, like the small U.S.-owned, Darjeeling-sourced brand Alaya tea. Meanwhile, Chenbagam Rai and the 55,000 other tea plantation workers in the region are earning less than $3 a day, if they get paid at all.

Even though they weren’t on strike, the workers at Chongtong—again, mostly Indian Gorkha women—were far more up in arms that day than their counterparts at Happy Valley had been. The pluckers hadn’t been paid for four weeks, averaging around Rs. 2,000 ($24.65) of lost wages in total. The mid-level supervisory staff also haven’t been paid—for three months. The pluckers told me they had been given assurances that they would be paid their wages eventually, but they didn’t believe the owners’ promises. Workers had reached the point of selling domestic animals—pigs, hens, and other poultry—to sustain themselves and to supplement the free rations they receive from the government.

Even in the best of times at Chongtong, the average income for a household with school-age children is about Rs. 5,000 ($60.72) per month, while average expenses range between Rs. 12,000 ($147.92) and Rs. 14,000 ($172.58). Families make up the difference through remittances they receive, with one earner traveling to cities like Delhi or Mumbai to work and send money back home.

“We are helpless,” Ashima Tamang, a pseudonym for one of the women assembled outside the fields of the Chongtong garden, told me. “Those who are capable—they go to other cities. We don’t have any capacity.” This is the only way to come close to staying financially afloat, workers said, because there’s no other work available to them in the area, and the work that is there does not pay people enough to live on.

It’s not as if the workers have just sat on their hands and obediently accepted these circumstances either. When they are called to attend protests, they show up; but they feel that all their efforts have gone in vain. Speaking through Dewan, in Nepali, the pluckers told me that they want the government to act against the head figure at DOTEPL, Bansal. 

At one point, they animatedly demanded that the tea estate be sold to another owner—a wish that would be granted at the end of October.

When it comes to ensuring better wages and working conditions for tea harvesters, “fair trade” and other certifications are commonly understood as ineffectual at best. At Happy Valley, Rai and Dewan explained, fair trade fees are actually used to reimburse plantation managers for the equipment and other goods they’re supposedly, but not actually, providing workers.

“Most of the gardens… are fair trade certified,” Rai told me later. But “those guidelines of fair trade policies are not being strictly followed; there is a big gap with the reality.”

Besky’s assessment of the fair trade economy is even harsher: “Fair trade and all of these bourgeois means [by which] tea is sold fail because they don’t understand what [the] plantation is.”

There is a complaint box for workers outside the division’s management office at Chongtong, near the spot where the tea is weighed. I was told by my companions, including KS Tsapa, a retired head supervisor of 48 years, that “it is just a formality.”

We have given here a mere snapshot of the present in one corner of the tea industry, but it is worth considering the future for a moment—because the tea industry in Darjeeling may not have a future at all. In the age of finance capital, the incentive structure driving everything toward the end of making fast money has led the tea gardens to the precipice of an existential crisis. For it to prosper, a tea plantation has to go through gradual and diligent processes like replanting after 60-80 years; the bushes have to be maintained for four months during the lean period (winter season); etc. 

It is only after steps like these are carefully and painstakingly taken that planters should even consider making a profit, but today’s capitalists are not that patient.

The owners nowadays have primary interests in leveraging their assets for maximum profit, even if leveraging said assets has little to do with reinvesting in, sustaining, and improving the tea industry itself; showing tea gardens as property asset holdings, for instance, may serve the primary function of helping owners get a hold of bank loans, but the resulting money will be invested elsewhere, not back into the tea gardens themselves, after the loans are secured. This practice is one of many that have become increasingly common among tea plantation owners over the past 30 years. 

State governments have underwritten the owners’ land grabs on tea plantations by introducing “tea tourism” policies enabling them to use tea land for tourism purposes. In West Bengal, for instance, the owners can use up to 15 percent of tea garden land for tea tourism. Even before the concept of “tea tourism” became commonplace for every tea plantation, the case of Chandmoni Tea Estate in the Terai area of North Bengal bellows from the past a harbinger of what would come to pass in the industry in the name of development.

When tea plantation lands are given away for tourism and township projects, the workers are left with less or no work in their areas, and so far no one has come up with a sustainable answer to the various social and economic crises that result (unemployment, discontent, mass migration, etc.). 

So what is to be done if fair trade policies, changing modes of production, unions, lawsuits, the land rights movement, etc. aren’t improving conditions for tea workers on Darjeeling’s plantations? 

The workers on the plantations have tried everything—including selling household animals and vegetables on the side to make do—and their children are fleeing from the region.

“The global community has to build up pressure, because they don’t know the darker story,” says Rai.

This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.

Saurav Sarkar is a freelance movement writer, editor and activist living in Long Island, NY. They have also lived in New York City, New Delhi, London, and Washington, DC. Follow them on Twitter @sauravthewriter and at sauravsarkar.com.

Rupam Deb works with the tribal communities in North Bengal, India, especially in Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts, focusing on building up youth platforms with youths hailing from Tea-garden communities. He is also a freelance journalist who writes for Bengali newspapers as an advocacy mechanism. He writes issue-based articles for several regional media houses like Ananda Bazar Patrika and Uttar Banga Sambad, and also for several national media outlets such as The Telegraph, Groundxero, and The Wire. Most of his writing focuses on issues prevalent in North Bengal and the hardships faced by tea garden workers in the Dooars region.

Credit Line: This article was distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Real News Network.

Will Indian Government’s Withdrawal of 2000 Note Root Out Corruption?


After demonetisation in 2016, cash circulation in India by value came down significantly . However, subsequently , for whatever reasons , the cash circulation was gradually increased by the Government of India by printing more currency notes of various denominations . As a result, present currency circulation in the country by value is as high as Rs.32 lakh crore.

It is well known that all corrupt dealings take place by cash transactions and black money in cash which is generated by tax evasion. Such cash in the form of black money is used for several corrupt and nefarious practices, ,resulting in development and growth of parallel economy.

Government of India under Prime Minister Modi has been taking special efforts to promote digitalisation and direct transfer of funds through electronic media. It is gratifying that in the last four years or so, the digitalisation of economy have forged ahead at an impressive rate and by and large , people have responded to such digitalisation exercise favourably. These days, it is seen that even small traders and even street vendors accept payment electronically by what is popularly known as google pay or payment by card.

In such conditions, Government of India has done well to take steps to withdraw Rs.2000 currency notes, amounting to more than Rs.3 lakh crore from circulation with the deadline being 30th September,2023. This positive move will certainly bring out the hoarded money by politicians and businessmen or others and dilute the black money circulation in the country to a considerable extent.

What is very important now is that having taken steps to withdraw Rs.2000 notes amounting to the value of more than Rs.3 lakh crore, Government of India should not undo the benefit by replacing the withdrawn Rs.2000 currency by printing lower denomination notes. This will undo the benefit of withdrawing the Rs.2000 currency notes.

India has to move steadily towards cash less economy which is a gradual process and it is showing healthy signs of happening now. The emergence of cashless economy is the ultimate strategy to root out political and administrative corruption in India, which lead to business corruption.

The lesser cash in currency circulation will inevitably force or persuade people to resort to money transaction for business , trade or personal purposes by digital mode.

Of course, with the withdrawal of Rs.2000 currency notes, some critics may find fault with the move ,by stating that there would be shortage of notes of lesser denomination to be exchanged for Rs.2000 currency notes, when submitted by the people to the bank. This complaint would be largely made by the black money holders with concealed cash bundles , as they would not like to use the option of depositing the Rs.2000 currency notes in their bank account.

It is necessary that Government of India should be careful in explaining the merits of the present move to withdraw Rs.2000 currency notes , so that the gullible people would not be misled by false and motivated criticisms. . It is also necessary that enlightened and knowledgeable economists should voice their views in various forums, so that a heathy and forward looking national discussions on the subject can take place, that will contribute to prepare mindset of the people in favour of cashless economy.

Sri Lanka: Only can reveal the truth on political conspiracies


Moves for the resurrection of the Lotus Bud Party (Pohottuwa) of the Rajapaksas are already under way.

Stories about international conspiracies even involving superpowers are many to exculpate former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who abdicated his power without a word to his constituents. Gotabaya is projected as an innocent, well intentioned man who fell victim to this conspiracy.

Explanation has also not been forthcoming from the political patriarch of the Lotus Bud Party (Pohottuwa), Mahinda Rajapaksa who swept the polls in 2020, after brother Gotabaya’s victory, polling 59 percent of the votes and 145 seats in parliament and was the Prime Minister. Gotabaya, his propagandists still keep reminding us, polled 52.25 percent of the votes cast. He polled 6.9 million votes, we are told.

Before considering the international conspiracies which are as entertaining as the best-selling thrillers of well-known writers, it would be logical to call upon both brothers– President and Prime Minister–  for their reasons  on why they  quit office  without ‘even telling the mat they were sleeping on’ (Paduratawath kiyanne nethuwa) as the Sinhala aphorism goes.

The party and government spokesman for  the Ranil-Rajapaksa regime, Bandula Gunawardene  has come out with a sketchy description of  an ‘international conspiracy’ while claiming that the Sri Lanka media had failed to expose the conspiracy against his Lotus party regime hatched by the aragalaya.

Never mind if the government media spokesman arrived at ‘the truth’ one year after the event. He should also go back to the time Gotabaya was mapping out his strategy to win the presidential election. There was the much publicised manifesto under the grandiose heading: ‘Visions  of Prosperity (Saubagya Dekma)’  in which it was said that  these visions of prosperity were  formulated after detailed research conducted by his think tanks like Vyath Maga.

Whatever happened to these visions after the 19th Amendment with which he vested himself with executive powers that no Sri Lankan leader has had ? Did Gota, the former Lt.  Col of the Sri Lankan army drop proposals of his think tanks and imagined he was viewing a military parade where those in uniforms react spontaneously like zombies to commands barked out at them. Those on parade, in his vision may have appeared to be the citizens of Sri Lanka. When he told an audience of provincial administrators that they need not wait for administrative orders to come down to them through official channels but the pronouncements he made to them verbally were sufficient, he appeared to be like that  Corporal of the Kaiser’s army on becoming the leader of the Nazi Socialist Party, ranting away.

And what happened to the Lotus Bud party visionary,  Mahinda Rajapaksa with his Mahinda Chintanaya who was his Prime Minister? He went along with his brother all the way, taking along other family members who held key cabinet portfolios, till the day of reckoning.

Answers to these questions are needed from the mouths of the two horses who galloped Lanka into disaster, not  the vague theory of  Bandula Gunawardene, which is hard to discern.

Why did the former Lt.Col. who was not known to be slow on the draw, as was evident at  the Rathipaswela shooting, not order a crackdown on a group of unarmed protestors disturbing him at the Presidential Secretariat for weeks?  Why did he not retaliate when his private residence was besieged and the President’s House overrun by the masses and finally flee the country to apparently nowhere?

Was there a crack in the unity of the Rajapaksa family that led to its downfall?

Are brothers Rajapaksa now no longer united? How come they are united to keep the family party intact?

Are the brothers Rajapaksa at loggerheads and demanding that Gota be made the scapegoat?

Why did his loyal army not move to his rescue when besieged and why was the loyal ‘War Winning General’ in the Land of Hanuman and not at home at this most critical moment?

Did intervention of foreign powers result in his debacle?

These are questions which both the former President and former Prime Minister are committed to provide answers to the millions who voted for them to make real their Visions of Prosperity before  attempting to stage a political resurrection.

The Anticipations of Indians as Prime Minister Modi Embarks on His Tenth Year


The critics of India’s Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, may say various things about his administration, but the ground reality is that both Indians living across the country and observers abroad believe that India has experienced positive changes in multiple aspects during his nine-year tenure. Numerous international expert groups and even the United Nations have praised India for its robust economic growth, particularly as many other countries face recessionary trends.

Recent opinion surveys have consistently shown that Mr. Modi is the most popular and charismatic leader in India, surpassing any opposition political figures. Some global agencies have also recognized him as an important and popular world leader.

However, the recent election results in Karnataka, where Mr. Modi’s party failed to retain power and lost to the opposition, have come as a surprise. There is now intense debate across India regarding the reasons behind this outcome. While critics argue that this election signifies the beginning of the end for Mr. Modi’s leadership, discerning observers dismiss this view. One credible perspective suggests that the BJP party, which held power in Karnataka, failed to provide the expected quality of governance, potentially leading to instances of corruption within the government machinery. This disappointment could be heightened by the fact that the ultimate leader of the BJP is Mr. Modi himself.

When Mr. Modi was elected as Prime Minister nine years ago, people recognized him as a strong and dedicated political leader with unwavering convictions and a high standard of personal integrity. Naturally, they expected him to launch and implement various development projects in the industrial, commercial, and social sectors, which he has done to the satisfaction of the people. Simultaneously, the public anticipated a comprehensive eradication of corruption at all levels throughout the country.

However, the reality is that the expectation of completely rooting out corruption has not been adequately met during Mr. Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister, particularly in some state governments. Nevertheless, people believe that as a national leader with a strong mandate, it remains Mr. Modi’s responsibility to eliminate corruption even at the state level.

With only around 12 months remaining before the next parliamentary election, Mr. Modi has limited time to fulfill the people’s expectations regarding the eradication of corruption. While development projects are progressing well, and a climate of growth has been established and is likely to be sustained, Mr. Modi’s primary focus for the next twelve months should be his determined crusade against corruption. Despite anticipated resistance and attribution of ulterior motives, he must persevere in identifying and punishing corrupt forces through all possible means. This will instill confidence in the people that corruption will be eradicated soon.

The success of Mr. Modi’s anti-corruption drive will serve as a crucial test during the upcoming parliamentary election.

Many Indians believe that the root cause of political corruption and subsequent administrative corruption in the country lies in the fact that almost all political parties, except the BJP and Communist/Marxist parties, are controlled by families with vested interests. People view such family control of political parties with disdain. Perhaps, the precondition for eliminating corruption is to eradicate family control and vested interests within political parties.

As part of Mr. Modi’s anti-corruption campaign, he should also launch a strong movement to denounce dynasty politics in India. Speaking forcefully about this issue would resonate well with the people and capture their imagination.

Turkiye rallies behind Erdogan

It comes as no surprise that the United States and the European Union didn’t have the face to commend the performance of Recep Erdogan and his party in the presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkiye on Sunday. The election results do not serve the geopolitical interests of the US and its European allies. It is apparent that the entreaties and media management in the run-up fell on deaf ears. 

The western powers hoped for a weak unstable government and are instead worrying that a turbo-charged Erdogan with a commanding majority in the parliament will be presiding over a strong government and won’t be a pushover. 

Thus, pin-pricking has begun. A question mark is put on the legitimacy of Erdogan’s victory over his opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu who is backed by the West. A real time report by the OSCE election observer mission’s preliminary findings have come handy, which alleged attempts to gerrymander the election results. 

The report accuses Erdogan of enjoying “unjustified advantage” and resorting to “misuse of administrative resources”; and the election commission of “lack of transparency and communication” and independence. 

In a direct attack on Erdogan, the OSCE mission report says, “The president is not explicitly subject to the same restrictions in the campaign period” and took undue advantage of incumbency… (and) blurred the line between party and State, at odds with the 1990 Copenhagen Document” (which contains specific election-related commitments.)   

The report said the election administration, law enforcement bodies, and courts did not enjoy the confidence of the opposition in resolving electoral grievances “impartially and effectively.” The secrecy of the vote was not always guaranteed; family and group voting were frequent; and unauthorised people participated in the count, “raising concerns over its integrity.” During the vote count, “several significant procedural errors were reported.”                      

The US State Department has promptly urged the Turkish authorities to conduct “the next phase of the presidential election in line with the country’s laws and in a manner that is consistent with its commitments to the OSCE as well as a NATO Ally.” 

The state department’s principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said on Monday that the Biden Administration is “continuing to closely monitor the country’s ongoing electoral process.” He noted that “broadly we congratulate the people of Türkiye for peacefully expressing their will at the ballot box, and also congratulate the newly elected parliament.” 

Patel repeated the stated US position that “we’ll continue to work together with whatever government is chosen by the Turkish people to deepen our cooperation and our – deepen our shared priorities.” 

But he also parried that “the election process is still unfolding, as is the work of the OSCE’s election observation mission, which, as you know, released some preliminary findings… But I’m not going to predict anything additional from here.” Patel confirmed that there were US observers represented in the OSCE team. 

Taking a cue from Patel, perhaps, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was upfront in a statement issued in Brussels on Tuesday. He stated, “We note the preliminary findings and conclusions of the International Election Observation Mission of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, and call on Turkish authorities to address the shortcomings identified.”

Borrell added, “The EU attaches the utmost importance to the need for transparent, inclusive and credible elections, in a level playing field.” Borrell too welcomed the elections as such, and took note of the high turnout as a clear sign of the commitment of the Turkish people to exercising their democratic right to vote.

The salience of these remarks lies in the subtle hint by both Patel and Borrell that all is not lost yet and the jury is still out as regards Erdogan’s victory.

That said, by now, it must be sinking in that Erdogan has retained his core constituency, which has not suffered any erosion, and his charisma cannot be matched by Kilicdaroglu. In “systemic” terms, the Globalists cannot match Erdogan’s nationalistic plank, either. 

Erdogan is all but certain to win the runoff. The big question is about the third candidate Sinan Ogan who secured 5.2% votes in Sunday’s first round and now bows out of the race. Where will his supporters go in the runoff? No doubt, that will affect the “balance of power” in the runoff and tilt the scales decisively.  

The odds are in favour of Kilicdaroglu getting the bulk of the “anti-Erdogan” votes of Ogan, but will that be sufficient to win in the second round? It may not be. Put differently, Ogan will not be able to deliver his entire electorate to Kilicdaroglu. 

Clearly, if Erdogan can retain his voter base exceeding 49.5% it is and goes on to attract even a quarter of the votes Ogan secured, he is going to  be the victor in the runoff. The strong likelihood is that Erdogan will win. 

The fact that AKP secured a comfortable majority in the parliamentary elections — against all forecasts — also creates a new momentum. The AKP’s success goes to show that the Turkish voter seeks a stable government in Ankara when the external environment is becoming extremely dangerous for the country and the economic crisis demands attention. Whereas, the sort of rainbow coalition that Kilicdaroglu is heading used to be the bane of Turkish politics for many decades in the pre-Erdogan era, and a recipe for instability. Equally, it needs to be factored in that the groundswell of Turkish public opinion remains staunchly anti-western. 

If he wins, this will be Erdogan’s final term. And it is going to be a “legacy term.” Erdogan will no doubt aim to transform Turkiye as a regional hub in energy, food, connectivity and transit. There is going to be breakthrough in nuclear industry, defence industry,  infrastructure projects, etc. with Russian participation. 

It is entirely conceivable that in the highly polarised political atmosphere in the country, there could be protests staged by the opposition if Erdogan wins in the runoff on May 28. But that won’t pose a serious challenge to Erdogan. 

Turkey is not ripe for a colour revolution. The point is, unlike Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze or Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich, Erdogan is a grassroots politician with a solid mass base and the politics he practises is in sync with the zeitgeist in the region. 

Ukraine Intercepts Barrage of Hypersonic Missiles

As Russia’s troubled invasion of Ukraine limps on, and the weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s military machine are exposed, there was one weapon in Moscow’s arsenal that was supposed to be utterly unstoppable, impervious to any and all air defenses, the pride of the Kremlin: its Kinzhal or Dagger hypersonic missiles, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads.

They travel at more than five times the speed of sound, and represent the pinnacle of Russian weapon engineering. It was allegedly impregnable, a bulletproof weapon costing $10 million a piece, this fearsome blade.

However, 6 of those same missiles, launched in a ferocious barrage at Kyiv last night, alongside six Shahed drones, three Orlan drones, nine Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the Black Sea, and three other ballistic missiles, were reportedly all successfully intercepted. In other words, the attack, lasting about 20 minutes and launched at just after 3 in the morning, was a spectacular failure.

The sustained barrage is estimated to have cost Russia some $120 million, at least. The Ukrainians called the attack “exceptional,” despite what they said was a perfect record of interceptions.

Indeed, it was a stunning demonstration of Ukraine’s vastly improved air defense systems, and underscores the challenges Russia faces, as Kyiv’s partners supply Ukraine with some of their most advanced military technologies.

In the past year, the government in Kyiv has received numerous Patriot air defense batteries from the United States, alongside a slew of other sophisticated systems donated from allied Western countries. Those defenses are increasingly frustrating Moscow’s attempts to terrify and intimidate the Ukrainian population, and were targeted last night in Russia’s failed bombardment.

One of those Patriot batteries reportedly suffered an indirect hit, but remains operational, according to Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat. The vaunted American system is merely one of many layered air defense systems now operating around the Ukrainian capital; each Patriot battery costs $400 million, with $690 millon for the missiles, totaling more than a billion dollars apiece.

For those living in Kyiv, it’s surely worth every penny.

The limitations of domestic repression

In related news, three of Russia’s top weapons scientists have been arrested and charged with high treason, provoking a rare outcry from Russian academics, who published an open letter denouncing the arrests. The three men worked on issues relating to hypersonic missile technology in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, and were well regarded in Russia’s academic research community.

Valery Zvegintsev, Anatoly Maslov and Alexander Shiplyuk worked at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, and are accused of passing classified secrets related to their research on hypersonic technology to China and Iran, apparently by publishing research in foreign publications.

Colleagues are adamant that the arrests were unjustified. Still, they’re neither the first nor the last Russians to be swept into Putin’s dragnet, as the Russian police state convulses in on itself, demanding victims.

In any case, they’re facing 20 years in a grim Russian prison colony, in an attempt to put the fear of god into scientists and officials working in Putin’s Russia, even as the CIA steps up its recruiting of Russian assets with a new video encouraging espionage, and a dark web address designed to mask the identities of spies and leakers.

The Kremlin has unleashed a wave of savage domestic repression since beginning its war in Ukraine, cracking down on what little remained of the free press and political dissent in authoritarian Russia, in moves that are reminiscent of Stalinist terror in the 1930s. At this point in Russia, you can be expected to be arrested for talking out of turn on social media, calling the war in Ukraine a war, or even mentioning the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and the Nazis prior to World War II.

Nevertheless, domestic repression doesn’t win wars, and stifling Russia’s best scientists working within the military-industrial complex is hardly a winning strategy. As the Russian scientists themselves noted in their open letter to the Kremlin, these moves threaten to “collapse” weapons research in Russia, at a most inopportune moment.

A dark portent of things to come

As Ukraine gears up for its long-expected counteroffensive, and worsening fissures appear in the Russian leadership, it’s unclear how Russia might stanch the bleeding on or off the battlefield. The regime in Moscow increasingly appears to be in disarray, hamstrung and lacking initiative, and no amount of domestic repression is going to solve its problems.

Rather, it’s clear that Vladimir Putin has launched what appears to be a catastrophic and unwinnable war on Russia’s border, a merciless invasion that has claimed an estimated 200,000 casualties in the Russian military alone, and untold suffering across a battered but undefeated Ukraine. Of course, the war also remains a menacing peril for humanity at large, as the world’s largest nuclear superpower finds its conventional military options more limited by the day, even as Ukraine’s capabilities steadily improve.

Now, Moscow appears to be facing significant challenges to its wartime strategy of inflicting terror on Ukrainian civilians with long-range bombardments like the one stymied last night in Kyiv. It’s yet another grim setback for the Kremlin, in its war of imperial aggression, launched without provocation or reason. It’s unlikely to be the last, as the Ukrainian military prepares what it hopes will be a devastating counteroffensive, designed to push the Russians out of their country once and for all.

Fault Lines in the Russian Military Structure

The Ukraine will be an extremely painful problem. But we must realize that the feelings of the whole people are now at white heat.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn acted as Russia’s moral conscience during his own lifetime, crying out against the cruelty of the gulag in his literature, and shaking the rotten totalitarian system to its very core, he seems to have been something of a prophet regarding Ukraine. As a Russian nationalist, he had complicated feelings about what was for him “a painful subject.”

“Russia and the Ukraine are united in my blood, my heart, my thoughts.”

And yet he spent enough time in the godforsaken labor camps with enough Ukrainians to understand their unquenchable desire for freedom, for independence from Moscow’s suffocating authoritarian grip. It was clear to him that, “We must leave the decision to the Ukrainians themselves.”

If nothing else, Ukrainians have made their wishes abundantly clear in this war, after 15 months of brutal combat, fighting what was once considered the second most powerful army on earth to a standstill outside Kyiv, before retaking Kharkiv, Kherson, and Lyman, and finally settling in for the winter along a largely static 600-mile frontline.

Quickly dispensing with Russia’s muddling springtime offensive, Kyiv is preparing to go back on its own offensive, in a campaign fueled by sophisticated heavy weapons from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and a host of other countries, in a push designed to throw the Russians onto their backs, and out of Ukraine for good.

The stakes are high.

However, Ukrainian forces have already begun making inroads on the outskirts of Bakhmut, the shattered city that’s taken on the mythical significance of Stalingrad, swallowing tens of thousands of soldiers into its fiery maw. These recent advances have caused significant anxiety among pro-war Russian bloggers, afraid they’re witnessing the beginning of Ukraine’s offensive, something Kyiv denies.

Meanwhile, the fractures in Vladimir Putin’s forces continue to widen.

The supply shortages and catastrophic troop losses continue to poison morale, as young Russian men continue to fight and die and kill for what seems to be an utterly lost cause. And yet, Putin clearly hasn’t relinquished his desire to subdue Ukraine, at nearly any insane cost, despite having suffered an estimated 200,000 casualties in his battered military machine, and inestimable damage to Russia’s global prestige.

Incredibly, drones recently appeared to bomb the Kremlin. Four Russian aircraft, two Mi-8 helicopters and two Sukhoi fighter jets, crashed and burned just inside of Ukrainian airspace in a single day near Bryansk. Putin’s mercenary chief is savagely belittling Russian generals, blaming the Ministry of Defense for the deaths of his soldiers, even as he’s consumed by his own treasonous intrigues, apparently offering to sell Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate information on Russian troop positions.

None of this bodes well for Putin.

Still, he seems to be tolerating Yevgeny Prigozhin’s outbursts for now, being unwilling or unable to do anything to silence the man fielding what is perhaps Russia’s most effective battlefield formation in the Wagner Group. However, the problems continue to pile up and fester, and a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive can be expected to further debilitate the battered Russian ranks.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was on a whirlwind European tour last week, extracting promises of additional weapon systems and political support from governments in Berlin, Rome, London, and Paris. He finally secured critical long-range Storm Shadow missiles and drones from the British, armored vehicles and training from the French, and nearly three billion dollars in military aid from the Germans, a doubling of their commitment.

The Kremlin has already threatened “retaliation” for the long-range missiles, which are presumably causing significant anxiety in Moscow.

However, Zelensky continues to agitate for F-16 fighter jets from his most important backers in the Biden administration, who continue to resist sending them. Still, he’s gotten nearly everything else on his wish list, and analysts believe Ukraine is sufficiently armed to begin its next offensive.

“They all reek of expensive perfume”

Meanwhile, the world has been watching the war of words between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the upper echelons of Russia’s Ministry of Defense with a kind of horrified fascination. Prigozhin has posted scathing videos on social media, walking amid the bodies of his fallen fighters, calling out the Russian generals who “all reek of expensive perfume,” and who “think they will go down in history as victors while shaking their fat bellies.”

Rather, “They already went down in history as cowards,” according to him.

It’s the kind of fighting language usually reserved for one’s mortal enemies. However, as we’ve recently learned, Prigozhin has actually been consorting with Ukrainian military intelligence officers, meeting HUR agents in Africa, and offering to sell them Russian troop positions in exchange for a withdrawal from Bakhmut.

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed those allegations as a “hoax,” which surfaced in Air National Guard Jack Teixeira’s leaks of classified documents on Discord. Prigozhin called the Washington Post a prostitute, said the newspaper was trying to smear him, and suggested the information came from Russian elites attempting to sabotage him.

Nonetheless, there’s no denying his feud with Russia’s Ministry of Defense and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, which has become a fixture online, as new videos of Prigozhin hurling slurs at them and other Russian generals make the rounds on social media daily. However, the Discord documents also suggest there’s some validity to Prigozhin’s complaints about ammunition shortages, what he aptly calls “shell hunger,” as his fighters die by the thousands in Bakhmut.

At a bare minimum, all this noise is a humiliating distraction, particularly as Ukraine prepares to mount its next offensive operations. At worst, it’s the kind of growing political power struggle that could make one believe that Vladimir Putin is no longer capable of controlling his subordinates.

For his part, Putin’s stayed at a remove from the bickering between his military leaders, appearing to rise above the turmoil, projecting an air of calm confidence. As has been frequently noted, Putin allows factions underneath him to duke it out for political reasons, a tactic that’s worked well for him, keeping him at the apex of Russian power for decades.

But disunity of command is an entirely different animal on the battlefield, especially when the war is going so dismally, and factions are openly attacking each other. Still, all these theatrics may not matter as much as Putin’s ability to: field fresh troops, supply weapons and ammunition, and keep the Russian economy hobbling along.

At this point, it’s likely the Kremlin would merely like to maintain the status quo: a mostly static war of attrition, while awaiting a more favorable geopolitical situation , and a fracture in the Western alliance backing Kyiv. This requires time, something Putin believes is on his side, particularly with elections looming in the United States next year, a contest that could deliver the White House to a Republican Party skeptical of America’s commitment to Kyiv, and friendly to Moscow.

Still more important is the capacity of Ukraine to disrupt the Russian military on the battlefield, to demonstrate forward progress, and deny Putin a war of attrition. At this point, there’s every reason to believe that Kyiv’s coming offensive is going to cause significant problems for the Russians, both on the battlefield and back in the Kremlin.

Biden can be charming. But Beijing should be wary of sequels

President Vladimir Zelensky’s tour of Rome, Berlin and Paris has been a success, securing for Ukraine significant additional quantities of weaponry for the upcoming offensive against Russian forces. The high water mark was Germany’s announcement of a new package of military aid worth an estimated €2.7 billion, which will be the country’s largest delivery of arms to Ukraine. 

The German package includes 30 Leopard-1 A5 main battle tanks, four new IRIS-T SLM anti-aircraft rocket launchers, dozens of armoured personnel carriers and other combat vehicles, 18 self-propelled Howitzers and hundreds of unarmed recon drones. 

Zelensky said important decisions on “defending Ukrainian skies” were reached during talks in Italy on Saturday. In sum, Old Europe conveyed solidarity with Zelensky at a crucial juncture when all eyes are on the so-called Ukrainian offensive being the last throw of dice. 

Last week, Newsweek quoted Henry Kissinger predicting that he believes the Ukraine war is coming to a turning point and expects negotiations by the end of the year, thanks to recent efforts made by China. Kissinger said, “Now that China has entered the negotiation, it will come to a head, I think, by the end of the year. We will be talking about negotiating processes and even actual negotiations.”

Indeed, from all appearance, China has comprehensively outmanoeuvred the US over the Ukraine crisis. Last Friday, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing announced that China’s special representative on Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, will visit Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France and Germany starting May 15 aimed at discussing a “political settlement” to the Ukraine crisis. Washington was not mentioned as part of Li’s itinerary, but Beijing instead prioritised the European capitals that have urged China to play a more active role in the Ukraine situation.

Meanwhile, by extending a warm welcome to Zelensky, Rome, Berlin and Paris have completely ignored the Top Secret US intelligence documents that have been recently leaked, which smeared the Ukrainian president as a maverick who says one thing publicly and an entirely different thing privately, who poses as moderate but in reality is an inveterate hawk escalating the war right into Russian territory, and so on. Apparently, European countries do not seem to go along with  Washington’s pressure tactic against Zelensky to escalate the war despite his grave reservations regarding Ukraine’s military preparedness.        

However, on a parallel track, there are also signs of Washington also reviewing its earlier rejection of Chinese mediation. David Ignatius at the Washington Post who has been plotting the shift, exudes optimism in his latest column  that the 10-hour long “intense meetings” spread over May 10-11 in Vienna between the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s Politburo member Wang Yi “actually seemed to be creating a framework for constructive engagement.”

Ignatius estimates that “some shared space seems to have emerged during the long, detailed discussions between Sullivan and Wang… They appear to have found a language for superpower discussion, like what once existed between the United States and both Russia and China but has been lost.” 

On the other hand, Beijing has been betting that Germany, France and Italy who prioritise the recovery and growth prospects of their economies, hope to strengthen economic relations with China to bolster their economies — and are, therefore, inclined to pursue foreign policies that are different from the comparatively extreme policies of the US.

Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Friday that Chinese group XTC New Energy Materials will set up a joint venture with France’s Orano in the battery sector in the northern French port city of Dunkirk for an expected investment of $1.63 billion. The venture is expected to create around 1,700 jobs.

That said, Ignatius is an influential columnist with a long record of transmitting the US establishment’s diplomatic signalling. At its most obvious level, his column today highlights a high level of keenness on the part of the Biden administration to engage with China regarding Ukraine, which could have fallouts for the US-China relationship.  

Also, the Biden Administration seems to be pinning hopes that by engaging with China, it can create differences between Beijing and Moscow and drive a wedge into the Sino-Russian alliance. Ignatius claims that Moscow viewed with “dread” the Sullivan-Wang cogitations in Vienna. 

The Biden Administration’s revised hypothesis is that China’s objectives and priorities in the Ukraine situation are basically at variance with the Kremlin’s and, therefore,  the smart thing to do is to abandon Washington’s outright rejection of Xi Jinping’s peace initiative on Ukraine or berate China’s support to Russia but instead position the US as a cooperative interlocutor on peacemaking and nudge Beijing to put pressure on Moscow to compromise.

Fundamentally, the assumption here is that Russia can still be isolated on the geopolitical chessboard. 

But the big question remains: Is the Biden Administration in a position to overcome the influential body of opinion in the US who also happen to be in alliance with top officials in Ukraine’s corridors of power?

Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO (in the Obama administration) and currently the president of the influential Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote a hard-hitting opinion piece today in Politico after a visit to Kiev that “Putin’s strategic failure will only be complete if Moscow comes to understand that Ukraine is permanently lost — lost physically, economically, politically and strategically. And ensuring that failure should be the ultimate objective — not just for Ukraine but for the West too.”

His thesis is that the strategic case for including Ukraine in the West goes to the core of the current conflict and any alternative would only prolong the conflict and pose new security challenges for the western alliance system. Now, how is such an integration to be achieved?

Daalder proposes: “Even without a formal end to the war, let alone real peace, the US and other NATO countries need to make clear that they’re committed to Ukraine’s security and that they will explore interim arrangements — just as they did for Finland and Sweden — until it becomes a full member.” 

While the media attention is on the commencement of the so-called counteroffensive by Kiev, the locus of the Ukraine conflict is shifting to the NATO Summit on July 11-12 in Vilnius, Lithuania,  which is less than two months from now, to which Zelensky has been invited.

Zelensky’s current European tour — he has been to Finland and the Netherlands also in recent weeks — can be seen as the run-up to the Vilnius summit. Simply put, the foreplay has begun. It is not the Ukrainian counteroffensive, stupid! Russia — and China — should expect some nasty surprises. 

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