from Asia Unbound

Friday Asia Update: Five Stories From the Week of April 1, 2016

Kolkata-collapse

April 1, 2016

Kolkata-collapse
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Ashlyn Anderson, Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Gabriella Meltzer, Gabriel Walker, and Pei-Yu Wei look at five stories from Asia this week.

1. Anger, grief, and questions linger over debris of collapsed overpass in Kolkata. The collapse of the a major overpass under construction in Kolkata, India, has left officials and citizens scrambling for answers. Located in a densely populated market area, more than one hundred people were crushed by falling debris, and at least twenty-five deaths have been confirmed. The National Disaster Response Force and the Indian Army responded to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble, and the Kolkata police appointed a special investigation team to determine the cause of the collapse. One official of IVRCL, the company charged with building the Vivekananda Road overpass, called it “a god’s act,” while another denied that the collapse was a result of poor construction quality. Three officials of the company have been arrested. West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was quick to promise that those responsible for the collapse would be held accountable, but some have turned her statement around and questioned Banerjee’s responsibility. Pressure had been mounting to complete the project after it missed the first five deadlines. Others have viewed the overpass collapse as emblematic of the challenges India faces to meet its grand infrastructure needs.

2. TEPCO activates underground “ice wall” to contain Fukushima waste. On Thursday, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) fired up a massive underground cooling system designed to prevent radioactive groundwater from leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific. Nearly 800,000 tons of radioactive water has already been captured and stored on-site. The “ice wall,” which was first proposed in 2013 and cost the government around $300 million, will operate something like a giant ice rink: refrigerant will be pumped through approximately 1,550 pipes sunk more than a mile into the ground around the plant, freezing the soil and theoretically preventing any further groundwater from entering the contaminated basement of the plant. Whether the method, which has been used before on much smaller scales, will be effective remains to be seen. The “wall” will take several months to form, and officials project that if successful, it will allow the plant basements to be dried by 2020. Chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority Shunichi Tanaka cautioned against high expectations, stating that “It would be best to think that natural phenomena don’t work the way you would expect.”

3. Mongolians protest loss of mineral wealth. More than two thousand people demonstrated in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, this week in opposition to what they see as overly concessionary mineral rights deals the government has struck with foreign mining conglomerates. They also criticized connections between lawmakers and firms that have a stake in the country’s mines. Their concerns have deeper roots than shady deals by politicians, however: as recently as 2011, Mongolia’s economy was growing at 17 percent annually as investors rushed to dig into some of the world’s largest untapped mines. But as global demand for commodities dropped, the economy stagnated, a challenge natural resource–driven boomtowns around the world have faced as commodity prices have declined. Mongolia’s unemployment rate is now at 8.3 percent, and with no end to the commodity glut in sight, the situation looks grim.

4. Vietnam teeters on the brink of TB resurgence. Despite its stunning success thus far in curing its tuberculosis (TB) epidemic, Vietnam’s healthcare system is currently in a fragile position to tackle the airborne disease due to a lack of funding and changing demographics. Between 1990 and 2014, prevalence of the disease dropped from 600 to 200 out of 100,000 residents, placing the country on a strong trajectory to reach its goal of twenty cases per 100,000. This success is largely due to Vietnam’s socialist policies, by which the government has invested vast resources into primary care and doctors in local clinics, who strictly follow WHO’s DOTS guidelines through close monitoring of patient compliance to treatment regimens. However, the Vietnamese government currently faces a 72 percent funding gap, as $19 million out of its current $26 million budget is derived from foreign donors such as USAID and the Global Fund. As incomes rise in metropolitan areas, greater numbers of Vietnamese citizens are turning to private physicians for care, many of whom are less compliant with traditionally successful, yet harsh treatment procedures. These fiscal and social strains on Vietnam’s healthcare system make it far more difficult to treat hard-to-reach patients who carry highly virulent and lethal MDR (multiple drug-resistant) or XDR (extensively drug-resistant) TB, such as drug addicts and individuals from non-Vietnamese-speaking indigenous populations who are not bound by any quarantine laws.

5. Foxconn finalizes Sharp takeover. The Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn purchased a 66 percent stake in the Japanese electronics firm for approximately $3.5 billion this week, completing a turbulent acquisition. The takeover was seen as a strategic play for Foxconn, best known for producing iPhones, to move into providing screens for the phones as well. Though nearly one-quarter of iPhone screens already come from Sharp, the deal could prove risky. A previous Foxconn acquisition of the screen maker Chimei Innolux has not been as successful as initially hoped and Sharp’s profits have flagged in recent years. The final price paid by Foxconn was almost $2.5 billion less than what had been proposed in earlier negotiations before Sharp disclosed additional financial liabilities that threatened to derail the acquisition. It is rumored that Foxconn will quickly shake up Sharp’s leadership, including selecting a majority of board positions and potentially a new CEO.

Bonus: Murder of four-year-old sparks capital punishment debate in Taiwan. A four-year-old girl was murdered on the streets of Taipei this Monday morning, while she and her mother were about to pick up her younger siblings from a subway station. The suspect is a thirty-three-year-old man surnamed Wang who was brought down by bystanders and is currently in custody. It is reported that he has had a history of mental illness. Wang said that he was under the influence of narcotics, though an examination at the hospital found otherwise. Debates over the death penalty, which Taiwan still practices, reignited in the aftermath of the tragedy, the third random killing of a child in five years on the usually safe island that enjoys a very low crime rate.  At the latest polling, 84 percent of the respondents supports the retention of capital punishment, and only 8 percent wish to see it abolished, a result in line with the past trend of majority popular support for the death penalty. The Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s highest lawmaking institution, is debating an addition to the Criminal Code that would automatically sentence people who are found guilty of killing children under the age of twelve to the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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