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Ukraine war robs India’s ‘Diamond City’ of its sparkle

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Originally founded as a port city at the mouth of the Tapi river, Surat earned its reputation as the "Diamond City of India" in the 1960s and '70s
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Yogesh Zanzamera lays out his bed on the floor of the factory where he works and lives, one of around two million Indians polishing diamonds in an industry being hit hard by the Ukraine war.

The air reeking from the only toilet for 35-40 people, conditions at workshops like this in Gujarat state leave workers at risk of lung disease, deteriorating vision and other illnesses.

But Zanzamera and others like him have other more immediate worries: the faraway war in Europe and the resulting sanctions on Russia, India’s biggest supplier of “rough” gemstones and a long-standing strategic ally.

“There are not enough diamonds. Because of that, there is not enough work,” Zanzamera, 44, told AFP at the workshop, situated up some dingy stairs in Surat where he has worked since leaving school at 13.

“The war should end. Everybody’s livelihood depends on the war ending.”

His monthly pay packet of 20,000 rupees ($260) is already down 20-30 percent, he says. 

But he is one of the lucky ones — the local trade union estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 diamond workers in Surat have lost their jobs.

– Rough times –

Originally founded as a port city at the mouth of the Tapi river, Surat earned a reputation as the “Diamond City of India” in the 1960s and ’70s.

Now, some 90 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished in the bustling industrial city and elsewhere in the western state of Gujarat.

Traders in Surat’s crowded Mahidharpura market openly trade diamonds worth millions of dollars on the streets each day, carrying the precious gems loose in paper wrappings.

“If it doesn’t go through Surat, a diamond is not a diamond,” said Chirag Patel, CEO of Chirag Gems.

Russian mining giants like Alrosa traditionally accounted for over a third of India’s rough diamonds, but supply has all but stopped because of Western sanctions.

For Chirag Gems, Russia was even more important, accounting for half the 900 “roughs” that his firm turns into dazzling gems that sell anywhere from $150 to $150,000.

Using state-of-the-art scanning and laser-cutting machines, his factory is better than most, with air-conditioning and exhaust systems protecting workers from inhaling dangerous dust.

But supply has shrunk to a tenth of what it was in the months since Western sanctions cut Russia off from the SWIFT international payments network in March.

“We are not getting goods from Russia because the payments system is stuck due to the war,” Patel, 32, told AFP, saying he is trying to bridge the gap with supplies from South Africa and Ghana.

– Demand at Tiffany’s –

The June-to-September wedding season in the United States is a crucial period for diamond exporters, Patel says.

The US accounted for more than 40 percent of India’s $24 billion exports of cut and polished diamonds in the financial year to March, data from the Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) shows.

But along with supply, traders say demand from the United States and Europe, too, has nosedived in recent months as companies like Signet, Tiffany & Co, Chopard and Pandora refuse to buy diamonds sourced from Russia.

Workers like Dipak Prajapati have suffered the consequences. In May he lost a job in May that paid $320 a month to support his family of six.

“I called the company to ask when I could resume work, but they said they don’t have any work for me and told me to stay home,” the 37-year-old told AFP.

“Sixty percent of the jobs in Surat run on diamonds. Diamonds are the biggest industry in Surat. I don’t know any work other than diamonds.”

His layoff comes close on the heels of pandemic shutdowns.

“We didn’t get any salaries for six to eight months. We had to borrow money from all sides to survive and are still paying back those loans,” Prajapati said.

The Gujarat Diamond Workers’ Union has asked Gujarat’s chief minister for a 10-billion-rupee ($128-million) relief package for workers who have lost their jobs.

“We told him that if the situation does not improve in the coming days, our workers will be compelled to commit suicide,” union vice-president Bhavesh Tank said.

“Surat has given the world so much,” Tank says. “Surat has scrubbed diamonds for the entire world but our diamond workers are now getting scrubbed.”

“We can only pray to God that the war will end. If the war does not end, we don’t know how bad things will get.”

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China launches second of three space station modules

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Beijing launched the central module of its space station Tiangong -- which means 'heavenly palace' -- in April 2021
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China on Sunday launched the second of three modules needed to complete its new space station, state media reported, the latest step in Beijing’s ambitious space programme.

The uncrewed craft, named Wentian, was propelled by a Long March 5B rocket at 2:22 pm (0622 GMT) from the Wenchang launch centre on China’s tropical island of Hainan.

A quarter of an hour later, an official from the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) confirmed the “success” of the launch.

Hundreds of people gathered on nearby beaches to take photos of the launcher rising through the air in a plume of white smoke.

After around eight minutes of flight, “the Wentian lab module successfully separated from the rocket and entered its intended orbit, making the launch a complete success,” the CMSA said.

Beijing launched the central module of its space station Tiangong — which means “heavenly palace” — in April 2021.

Almost 18 metres (60 feet) long and weighing 22 tons (48,500 pounds), the new module has three sleeping areas and space for scientific experiments.

It will dock with the existing module in space, a challenging operation that experts said will require several high-precision manipulations and the use of a robotic arm.

“This is the first time China has docked such large vehicles together, which is a delicate operation,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 

He said until the next module arrives, the space station will have a “rather unusual L-shape” which will take a lot of power to keep stable. 

“These are all technical challenges that the USSR pioneered with the Mir station in the late 1980s, but it’s new to China,” he told AFP. 

“But it will result in a much more capable station with the space and power to carry out more scientific experiments.”

Wentian will also serve as a backup platform to control the space station in the event of a failure. 

The third and final module is scheduled to dock in October, and Tiangong — which should have a lifespan of at least 10 years — is expected to become fully operational by the end of the year. 

– Fast-paced space plan –

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s plans for its heavily promoted “space dream” have been put into overdrive.

China has made large strides in catching up with the United States and Russia, where astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.

“The CSS (Chinese Space Station) will complete its construction… in one and half a year which will be the fastest in history for any modular space station,” said Chen Lan, analyst for the site Go-Taikonauts.com, which specialises in China’s space programme. 

“In comparison, the constructions of Mir and the International Space Station took 10 and 12 years respectively.”

China’s space programme has already landed a rover on Mars and sent probes to the Moon.

In addition to a space station, Beijing is also planning to build a base on the Moon and send humans there by 2030.

China has been excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country.

While China does not plan to use its space station for global cooperation on the scale of the ISS, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration.

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Google-parent Alphabet’s profit slips as growth slows

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Big tech firms, including Google's parent Alphabet, are grappling with multiple problems, from inflation to the war in Ukraine
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Google-parent Alphabet on Tuesday reported its profit in the recently ended quarter slipped to $16 billion as its long sizzling ad revenue growth cooled.

Big tech firms are grappling with multiple problems, from inflation to the war in Ukraine, and results for this quarter have not been great so far.

Alphabet’s revenue in the period grew 13 percent to $69.7 billion, with its global search and cloud computing services bringing in most of the money — but this was under analysts’ expectations.

“As we sharpen our focus, we’ll continue to invest responsibly in deep computer science for the long-term,” Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai said in the earnings release.

The internet giant’s stock was up about 2.5 percent in after-hours trading, as the market appeared relieved by the results.

Alphabet profit was some $2.5 billion higher in the same quarter a year earlier, but the flow of online ad dollars that fuels the company’s fortunes has slowed as inflation, war and other troubles vex the overall economy.

Google was also paying more to acquire online “traffic” from which it makes money, the earnings report showed.

Meanwhile, revenue from ads on video-sharing platform YouTube was up only slightly in the quarter. Google has looked to YouTube as a source of growth as people spend growing amounts of time looking at online videos.

“In the second quarter our performance was driven by Search and Cloud,” Pichai said.

Earnings season has gotten off to a rough start with less than stellar news from both Netflix and Snapchat’s parent firm, a decidedly different world than seen during the pandemic surge.

Netflix reported last week losing subscribers for the second quarter in a row as the streaming giant battles fierce competition and viewer belt tightening, but the company assured investors of better days ahead.

The loss of 970,000 paying customers in the most recent quarter was not as big as expected, and left Netflix with just shy of 221 million subscribers.

The company said in its earnings report that it had expected to gain a million paid subscribers in the current quarter.

At the same time, Snapchat’s owner announced plans last week to “substantially” slow recruitment after bleak results wiped some 30 percent off the stock price of the tech firm, which is facing difficulties on several fronts.

Snap reported that its loss in the recently ended quarter nearly tripled to $422 million despite revenue increasing 13 percent under conditions “more challenging” than expected.

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EasyJet hit by aviation disruption but slashes loss

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EasyJet said it was hit by "short-term disruption issues", but that it was experiencing "the return to flying at scale"
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British airline EasyJet on Tuesday said it took a sizeable financial hit from sector-wide disruptions, notably staff shortages, but still slashed quarterly losses as demand recovers.

As airport staff shortages spark flight cancellations, EasyJet said in a statement that it booked a one-off charge totalling £133 million ($160 million).

That saw the airline post a pre-tax loss of £114 million in the group’s third quarter, or the three months to the end of June.

However, that marked a major improvement from a loss of around £318 million for the same period of last year, as travel demand picked up from a Covid-induced downturn.

Third-quarter revenue increased more than eight-fold to £1.8 billion, while traffic rebounded close to pre-Covid levels. 

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said the carrier was hit by “short-term disruption issues”, but that it was experiencing “the return to flying at scale”.

Traffic surged more than seven-fold to 22 million passengers in the quarter after the lifting of Covid travel curbs.

That was almost 90 percent of the group’s 2019 capacity, before the pandemic ravaged the global aviation sector by grounding planes worldwide.

EasyJet said “the unprecedented ramp-up across the aviation industry, coupled with a tight labour market” had caused “widespread operational challenges culminating in higher levels of cancellations than normal”.

Despite the disruption, EasyJet operated 95 percent of its planned schedule in the quarter.

Airlines and airports are struggling to recruit staff having sacked thousands of workers as the world entered Covid pandemic lockdowns. 

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