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Navin's News: Asian Voice Column

Asian Voice: The Swaminarayan Museum, Amdavad

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In the last ten days from dreadful weather in London to pleasant pre-summer break in Mumbai and Amdavad has been very refreshing for me. The added bonus to this and my prime purpose of the current visit to India this time is to attend opening of a Swaminarayan Museum in my hometown of Amdavad. At the time of putting together this column the Museum has not opened formally but due to open today (Tuesday 8th March). I’ve just returned from the Museum this morning after Narendrabhai Modi the Chief Minister’s visit prior to the formal celebratory cultural programmes this evening.

 

Las week I’ve had the privilege of conversations with both Mota Maharajshri (Bapji Tejendraprasadji) and Acharya Maharajshri Koshalendraprasadji Pande. In advance of the formal opening when I was also afforded an opportunity to do some photography of the Museum. I will be compiling a further report of the museum with photographs shortly but in the meantime here are glimpses of what I’ve seen and learnt:

 

The museum has collection of the old antiques and memorabilia associated with the Swaminarayan Sampraday. It was the vision of the Mota Maharajshri to have a ‘central  collection and display place’ for a range of historic memorabilia / old historic items currently scattered throughout Gujarat and other areas of India, often neglected and requiring restoration and lacking in access to community. The concept for this Museum was first thought of by Mota Maharajshri about 7 to 8 year ago around the time when he came across a handwritten document on one rupee stamp paper dated 20th March 1825 witnessed by Sahjanand Swami himself giving power of attorney to Kuberdas. This historic document gradually started the process gradually collecting important historic items belonging to Swami Sahjanand Maharaj and other significant people plus marking key historic and important events. Acquisition of collection itself then started the process of authentification and restoration of articles. Restoration issue being a big problem it was felt at the very early stage that the Museum should have its own dedicated restoration laboratory.  

 

One might consider the process of collection of articles for Museum a mere mechanical / technical exercise but for Mota Maharajshri every article in the Museum is a ‘Prasadi’ (a divine offering) to be shared by everyone. The Museum according to Acharyashri is evolved with the idea of bringing awareness to the masses. He does not want the religion itself to be ‘cocooned’; he wants the Museum to be a focal point for humanity and be inclusive attracting the wider community. The Museum is also evolved as a ‘green project’ including measures such as rainwater-harvesting, solar energy and energy from wind turbines.

 

A brief site visit accompanied by Karsanbhai of Laxcon Construction (Builders of the project) gave the following account of the facilities and key displays:

  • Seven Halls comprising the Main Hall, an Auditorium seating 100 people, Space for Projects/Events allowing use by outside organisations and  Exhibition Halls for displays.
  • Laboratory for Restoration work.
  •  The main hall – central feature of the museum has the 5 most significant displays of items belonging to Sahjanand Swami e.g. a tooth, hair and nails.

 

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The key motto of the Museum is ‘Preserve PLUS’ which sums up the ethos behind this innovative project aimed at being inclusive and reaching out to the wider section of the community.

You can find out more about the new museum here.

Asian Voice: Multiculturalism = Harmony & Respect

 

A wide range of views have been expressed in the Asian Voice addings to the debate on multiculturalism and I’m happy to add my voice. The debate has found some strange beldfellows like the Prime Minister and Trevor Phillips portraying multicultrasim as some form of evil which in view and experience is at the best dangerous distortion of what multicultural values actually stand for. I firmly believe multicultural values and ethos have strengthened our nation by bringing closer different cultures and religions and made a valuable contribution by instilling harmony and respect. Britain has benifitteded from multicultarism and put it on the map as an example for other nations by championing the cause of diversity and cohesion. This I say as a proud British for the last 35 years.

 

I welcome the debate but find it wholly wrong and very disturbing when the Prmime Minister talking on multiculturalism links it with terrorism as though it has aided terrorism. Such comments and attitudes divide and offend the community rather than helping cohesive. No Mr Prime Minsister, the so called ‘state doctrine of multicultarism’ has not ‘encouraged different cultures to live sperate lives’. On the contrary multiculturaism has over the years nourished the diverse values and made a vital contribution in gradually establishing different communties. Trevor Phillip’s assertion that multicultural values somehow breeds ‘seperateness’ is complete nonsense becuase multicultrasim has meant integration of differrent ethnic and religious groups and developed our own brand of community that has seen us living in a spirit of harmony and respect for all. Often America, which has longer history of ‘immigrant’ community settling in the USA, is portrayed as a great example of integration. But when analysed closley all is not well on this front in America. One only needs to examine ‘ghettoes’ in America and the no go areas in places like New York and Washington to see how bad the issues of discrimination and divisions in the community  are. Lord Dolar Popat is way off the mark in his assessment when he describes multcultarism advocating division in the British Society. In my view it is the very multicultural approach which has provided a platform for assimilation and our brand of identity which I believe is very positive and unique.

 

Sadiq Khan MP has added an interesting dimension to this debate recently through the launch of a new campaign "One Society, Many Cultures” with leading politicians religious leaders, trade unionists and anti-racist campaigners pledging to stand up against division and hatred and defend the right to freedom of thought, religion and culture. Ken Livingstone, who’s been a genuine supporter of the great multicultural nation that we are, has made a passionate plea on this matter saying "The launch of One Society Many Cultures could not be more timely. Britain's history is riddled with examples of communities being vilified, from the Jewish refugees of the early 20th century being accused of bringing diseases here, to the "No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs" signs that were common place in the 1960s. We have made huge progress but there is always a backlash. All communities make a choice about the way they live their lives; that is why cities like London are socially, culturally and economically competitive on the world stage. This is a template for the future of humanity. The British identity is the biggest mixing bowl in human history. This is what makes it successful”.

Having lived in Brent and Harrow all my ‘UK life’ I say that we in these Boroughs have shining demonstration of multicultural communities cherishing our diversity and living together shoulder to shoulder, There are undeniable issues about terrorism and much work is needed to tackle this but let’s not knock multicultural values.

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22nd February 2011

Asian Voice Column: Boris' Christmas Present: Fare Hikes

 

Since Sunday 2nd January London’s commuters have been hit with huge increase in fares demonstrating yet again Mayor Boris Johnson’s lack of concern for ordinary working Londoners.

 

The Mayor is consistent when it comes to fares increases. Three years running he’s burdened London’s commuters with fare rises unprecedented since the creation of Transport for London (TfL). The rises in bus, underground and over-ground trains were described as “unacceptable” by passenger watchdog for London ‘TravelWatch’ two years ago and is true for this year too. 

 

Following last year’s 20% fare rise, single bus fares have risen by yet another ten pence to £1.30 for a pay-as-you-go journey. A weekly bus pass has gone up from £16.60 to £17.80.  Single one zone tube fares including zone 1 now costs an extra ten pence, at £1.90.

 

Once again, it’s bus passengers who are feeling the pinch of these increases. When Boris Johnson became Mayor, it cost 90p for a single pay-as-you-go Oyster bus journey – it now costs £1.30 – that’s an increase of 44%. At the same time, we know that Transport for London are reducing bus subsidy and even cutting the miles that our bus services will cover – we are quite simply paying more and getting less. TfL and the Mayor say these latest inflation-busting increases are necessary given budget pressures, but the Mayor has just scrapped the Western extension of the congestion charge zone, which was bringing in £7million a year. Instead some of London’s lowest paid workers – who tend to rely on the bus as the most affordable form of transport will be footing the bill instead – and getting a worse service for it!

 

Rail commuters will also feel the pinch this year, as the Chancellor recently announced rail fare increases of three per cent above inflation. It all adds up to a not very happy new year present from the Mayor to Londoners. The Mayor of London is hitting Londoners hard just as they are being told their services will be cut and jobs will be lost. These are the people the Mayor should be protecting - people who have to use public transport every day. Instead we have a Mayor who defends the bankers and has put bus fares up a massive forty-four per cent since he was elected.

 

Londoner’s misery is compounded by the Mayor’s decision to close a large number of ticket offices or drastically reduce opening hours and reduce staffing by at least 800 who are managing these stations. Mayor Johnson’s U turn is deplorable as this goes against his own election pledges and makes many of our stations, particularly ones in the Outer London areas, inconvenient and unsafe. For those who use Jubilee and Metropolitan lines know the misery from never ending weekend closures and often faulty trains during weekdays.  Whilst London’s commuters pay the hugely inflated fares for its poor public transport service the Mayor has also shelved projects to make stations fully accessible for families, older and disabled in our community. Key examples my constituency are Harrow On the Hill station which is a major public transport hub also a prime candidate for regeneration of the town centre and Stanmore station linked with world renown Royal National Orthopedic Hospital and Aspire.

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10th January 2011

Asian Voice Column - January 2011

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By Navin Shah AM

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Beauty of living in London, a multicultural – multi-faith world city, is the privilege of being able to celebrate a wide range of festivals and religious days. In this sense autumn period (October to December) is very special to us when great holy days, interwoven with cultural/social events originating from many religions such as Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Jewish and Christian are upon us. This is the period when we have opportunity to remember and respect the great values different faiths offer. Bearing this in mind – I hope all Asian Readers have enjoyable and restful Christmas period and gear up for the many challenges in the coming year. Merry Xmas and warm wishes for a happy and peaceful New Year.    

BETRAYAL OF STUDENTS

Shame that the Christmas present for students, from the Tory and LibDem government, is £9,000 Tuition fees. Whilst I’m happy to have debate about the merits or demerits of tuition fees  – I find the shear treachery and hypocrisy on this issue on the part of the LibDems disgusting. During the general election campaign Nick Clegg signed the NUS Petition against tuition fees, but after becoming Deputy Prime Minister he lent and lead his support to the Tory proposals to levy huge financial burden on aspiring University students. How appropriate Ed Miliband called Nick Clegg a ‘crypto Tory’.

Brent Central’s LibDem MP Sarah Teather has followed her Leader’s route of betrayal. Worth reminding the readers that before the last election she vowed to vote against tuition fees and in her maiden speech in 2003 Ms Teather stated “Top-up and tuition fees are serious issues of concern to my constituents. All the evidence suggests that fear of debt will deter those from lower income families and ethnic minority communities. This is particularly the case for Muslims - a large community in my constituency - where attitudes to debt are very different. Fundamentally, I believe that this is about whether we want to encourage a world class education system, or a class based education system where students choose universities according to their ability to pay, and universities are judged on the level of their fees.” The level of hypocrisy of Sarah Teather is staggering. This ‘politician of principle’ when push came to shove betrayed the students and put her party and her own career before ideals. Brent is one of the most deprived local authorities in the country and we should be actively encouraging our young people to go to university – not put them off by pricing them out. Its clear Sarah Teather cannot be trusted on the issue of both principle and her election pledges.

In the same class is the Tory MP Bob Blackman. During the election campaign, I witnessed at a Hustings at Westminster University Campus in Harrow, Bob Blackman promising to vote against any hike in tuition fees. I am astounded but not surprised that having got elected now - he too has done a complete U-Turn on this issue. You’d think that signing the NUS pledge must prove embarrassing for Bob Blackman. But, his recent comments suggest that he has no shame even after so disgracefully letting students down. It’s blatantly obvious that Mr Blackman’s pledge was motivated for election success and not driven by ideology. 

Asian Voice Column - October 2010

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By Navin Shah AM

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT BETRAYAL

Before lecturing Labour Party on its commitment to change and fairness LibDems ought to look at their own record of betrayal of voters. In the coalition government it hasn’t taken much long for LibDems to ditch their flagship pledges and policies.  Ed Miliband has been absolutely right in calling Nick Clegg a “crypto Tory” for selling out to Tories.

Since the election we have seen U-turns after U-turns from Liberal Democrats. A select list of their brain-melting volte-face include : Supporting deep and fast cuts in public services when they claimed they supported Labour’s commitment to spending in the first year after the election to boost economic growth rather than axing public services; Scrapping longstanding commitment to tuition fees – a pledge which they claimed had been ‘fully costed’; increase in VAT to 20% which they claimed  they had no plans for;; Supporting non-workable controversial Tory plan to cap non-EU immigration when they claimed they opposed this and supported Labour’s Australian style points based system and Dropping their opposition to Trident Nuclear missiles.

In the post-election period I expressed my fear that the core values held by the LibDems would be ‘watered down or even totally lost’ to enable them to hang on to power. LibDems should be concerned about how they’ve totally wrecked public trust rather than lecturing Ed Miliband and the Labour Party. 

FIRE BRIGADE STRIKE

LACK OF POLITICAL LEADERSHIP

Nearly 6000 fire-fighters of the London Fire Brigade were balloted by the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) for a strike action. On Thursday 14th October 76% firefighters returned the ballot papers and of these 76% fire-fighters have voted for a strike. At the time of dispatching this column FBU have not announced date of the strike but it can commence towards the end of this week.  

The impending strike action has resulted from the controversy about shift patterns changes of fire-fighters.  I have consistently argued that the London Fire Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) must look at a range of options for shift changes in conjunction with the FBU and both make genuine attempts to negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement. However, the biggest obstacle and the cause for rapidly deteriorating industrial relations since the start of the consultation has been the attitude and approach of the LFEPA’s Chairman and his group on the Authority. To date the Chairman has dismissed my appeal to engage with FBU. The Mayor of London too has failed to show leadership on this by failing to intervene to avert the strike. I lay blame for strike ballot on a lack of political leadership at the top. Strike action by fire-fighters is extremely bad news for Londoners and could have been averted with better leadership. No one wants this strike, least of all Londoners. It is because of the aggressive, confrontational way the Conservatives have gone about trying to force through these changes that we find ourselves in a situation that could have been avoided. Mayor Johnson and his Chairman of the Fire Authority have been spoiling for a fight with the union, rather than showing the leadership and fostering the good relations that would have best served Londoners.   

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22nd October 2010

Asian Voice Column - 1 October 2010

 

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By Navin Shah AM 

 

A BIG BLOW TO THE NATIONAL HEALTH SRVICE

The coalition government’s white paper Equity and excellence - Liberating the NHS’

published in July on alleged ‘health reform’ proposes the biggest shake up of the NHS London with its proposal to abolish the strategic health authority and London’s 32 primary care trusts.

Like many of the coalition government proposals this is yet another half baked initiative. The radical shake up was not in the Tory manifesto and the flagship concept of GP Consortia replacing PCT is a crude attempt to privatise NHS through the backdoor. At a recent consultation meeting in Brent one of the panel members suggested that eventually GP consortia may look like PCT in years to come! How true. Surely the proposals are about replacing public quangos (PCT) by privatised quangos (GP consortia). If I had to choose between the two I’d opt for PCTs with a good level of accountability than the privatised commercial GP Consortia, controlling public funds worth billions,   driven by commercial interests rather than patient care and accountability. The Financial Times commenting on the proposal said ‘The HHS faces its most radical shift of power and accountability and the largest structural upheaval in its 60 year history.’

Health and Public Services Committee of the London Assembly conducted a discussion with Ruth Carnell Chief Exec NHS London on the white paper with a focus on its impact on London.  Key aims of the meeting were how NHS London will be affected by changes  - with a particular attention on

  • Reconfiguration of community and acute services
  • Changes to commissioning and management structures (GP Consorita)
  • Achieving efficiency savings
  • Londonwide working and potential role of the GLA / Mayor.

In summary the discussion highlighted

  • The changes would affect every part of the system.
  • Given the changes how do we hang on to a significant level of improvements / achievements made in London when 54% reduction in management cost is sought through financial controls. Is this practically possible without affecting patient care?
  • With the abolition of NHS London where will the current functions go?
  • Ms Carnell expressed strong views about impact / issues related to London.

-          The strategic importance of London, the leadership it provides and significant role London plays that needs protection.

-          Research and development including training. 

-          Wide range of special services and expertise London provides which require protecting.

-          Unique diversity related health issues in London.

Mayor’s Role:

-          Extended scrutiny role.

-          Issues related to public health and Councils responsibilities. How will this fit in with Mayor’s strategic role.

-          How will local Councils work with GP Consortia?

-          Should the current status of London Ambulance Service remain unaltered?

GP Consortia:

-          Current PCTs to provide active support.

-          Accountability: Proposals for National Commissioning Board but no mention of regional monitoring regime.

-          What are the risks and how big Consortia should be? If small: they’ll require support services from elsewhere. If big inherent problems of bureaucracy.

-          How the transition will from PCT to GP commissioning will work and how much will it cost to implement the change.

NHS Finances:

-   Concerns expressed by London Assembly Members as to how PCTs and NHS         would produce major management cost savings and at the same time oversee the structural changes proposed in the white paper.

I remain wholly unconvinced about the white paper proposals and I support the legal action by Unison against the Secretary of State for Health, challenging his refusal to consult the public on proposals in his White Paper.  The union has argued that no steps should be taken to implement the changes in any way, until the public have had the opportunity to consider and comment on them.

 

 

Asian Voice Column - 17 September 2010

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By Navin Shah AM

The Right 'Choice' of meals for pupils

The issue itself about halal meat served in schools and the lack of choice (in some schools) of other non vegetarian meals is an important one and deserves consideration by schools and local authorities. I entirely agree that there is full choice of meals available so that NO community feels discriminated.  But, I strongly condemn unhelpful, strong, insensitive and even disgusting headlines and propaganda seen in the media. Request for information (under ‘Freedom of Information Act 2000) has been received by Brent and Harrow Councils seeking information about ‘how many schools ……. . serve Halal prepared meat. This would be the cases of institutions where all meat is Halal (meaning children eating meat do not have a choice)”. 

I’ve been actively lobbied on this issue by a range of people / organisations including leaders of the Sikh and Hindu religions with their complaints. Consideration of the issue deserves objective and honest approach – firstly to assess the facts and then see how the situation could be remedied provided that the choice of meals offered to pupils is inappropriate. I’m happy to share my initial findings based on my meetings with the senior politicians and officers in the two Local Authority areas, namely Brent and Harrow, I represent on the London Assembly.

As a starting point the fact I’d like everyone to recognise is that the schools, regardless of which borough they are in, are autonomous institutions and it is the governing bodies of schools who decide catering policies and award contracts for school meals. The Council’s role at the best is to advice and guide schools but the Councils cannot impose or dictate school meal policies on Schools. Schools have their own budgets and final decision on this issue rests with schools.

Brent:  I can confirm that Brent Council itself has not been involved in catering contracts for school meals in Brent Schools. The current situation being that it is up to the individual school to determine the range of meals it serves to its pupils. However, Brent Council is totally committed to promoting a full choice of meals in schools to its diverse school community and to this end the I would ask Brent Council to consider issuing a clear and firm advice to all its schools that meals served in schools are healthy, nutritional and give a full choice to cater for religious needs and practices.

Harrow: The funding for school meals in Harrow is delegated to schools and they are free to set their policies for school meals and choose their own provider for meals. This is neither a new policy nor one that Harrow Council can make let alone impose. The contract in Harrow’s high schools, in place for two years, and the decision to provide halal meat was based on a wide range of advice and in the interests of serving the diversity of dietary requirements within the Borough. Harrow Council’s only direct involvement in school meals has been linked to the development of the hub kitchens and the development of the serveries in primary schools. Recently issues have been raised in relation to the provision of hot meals to primary schools and Council has been consulting with primary schools to ascertain if they wish to provide hot schools meals and if so, whether they want these provided from one of Council’s hub kitchens. This consultation has raised a number of issues and further discussions are planned in the Autumn to see how Council should proceed. I urge Harrow Council to take into account the current concerns and put in place choice of meals available to the pupils from Sikh and all other communities of diverse religious beliefs.    

I will be undertaking further examination of school meal provision in both Brent and Harrow Councils. In the meantime I urge all sections of our diverse communities to ensure that any criticism they have on this issue is balanced and take into account very clear roles and responsibilities the Councils and Schools have with regard to school meals.

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17th September 2010

Asian Voice Column - 3 September 2010

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By Navin Shah AM

9/11 MEMORIAL

REDEVELOPMENT OF GROUND ZERO SITE

There seems to be no end to the debate about the proposals for an Islamic Centre about two blocks away from the Ground Zero Site. With President Obama somewhat back-tracking on his original support for the proposals and the Senate elections in November the controversy will become ugly and politically motivated than a rational and logical considerations about “American Values” as President Obama puts it and the core issues of religious equality and fairness.  

Since my last contribution on this hot topic I’ve visited the Ground Zero site and a nearby ‘Preview Site’ which houses an exhibition of the proposals called the ‘National September 11 Memorial and Museum’ for the Ground Zero Site itself. The following two paragraphs are quoted from display panels of the exhibition which sum up the concept of the project.

Panel 1: ‘The Memorial will remember and honour the people killed in the attacks of September 11 2001, in New York at the Pentagon in Arlington Virginia and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania and February 26 1993, WTC bombing. The Memorial design was selected through an international design competition that included more than 5200 entries from 63 Countries’.

Panel 2: Together with Memorial the Museum will complete the twin missions of commemoration and education, and will be an authorative source of both the history of 9/11 and understanding its meaning and implications in the context of world history. The Museum’s core exhibition will be located at the base of WTC site, incorporating the archaeological remnants of the original WTC and the Twins Towers.’  

As the photograph below shows the former World Trade Centre site still remains heavily guarded and fenced up but the construction work is rapidly progressing for the project which will in the main comprise a Memorial Space and a Memorial Museum. 

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The Memorial space will be dominated by massive pools, featuring 30 foot waterfalls cascading down their sides, situated within the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Around the edges of the waterfalls the names of the nearly 3000 innocent victims of September 11 attack on this site and also February 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. The area will be landscaped with groves of trees creating a special place of remembrance.  A new World Trade Centre planned to be the tallest building in the United States is also proposed on this site.

The Museum will offer visitors the opportunity to deepen their experience at the site. It will house monumental artefacts from September 11 events and tell the story of loss, compassion reckoning and recovery. And, as the literature for the proposal states the Museum will demonstrate  “the consequences of terrorism….. and affirm a commitment to the fundamental values of human life.  

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3rd September 2010