Signposts 2019

Big judgements, bigger slowdown, collapsing values and furious protests made it a truly restless year

By   |  Published: 29th Dec 2019  12:49 am

Swelling Streets                      

Angry citizens swelled the streets of cities across the globe this year, pushing back against a disparate range of policies but often expressing a common grievance — the establishment’s failure to heed their demands for a more equitable future.

In India, it was students who spilled on to the streets against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. In Hong Kong and Algeria, calls for greater political freedom have become a potent rallying force. In Chile, it was a metro ticket increase, in Iran and France, it was higher fuel costs, in Lebanon a ‘WhatsApp tax’ — that ballooned into a wider revolt demanding better living standards. In Iraq, fury over corruption and unemployment boiled over into fiery clashes, forcing the Prime Minister to resign.

“The belief in democracy’s capacity to change people’s lives is undoubtedly eroding,” said Erik Neveu, a sociologist at the Sciences Po political science university in Rennes, western France. And reflecting the distrust of top-down democracy, most movements have rejected leadership, embracing instead a “horizontal” organisation facilitated by social media.

In some countries like India, Iran and Egypt, authorities tried to curtain the social movements by cutting off the internet. These are not only “Facebook revolutions”, says Geoffrey Pleyers, a sociology professor in Belgium and France, adding that “these are profound movements where young people often take the lead, but then become intergenerational, making it harder for authorities to single out someone to negotiate with, or to arrest, in a bid to quell protesters’ anger.”

Climate Emergency

Schoolchildren skipping class to strike, protests bringing city centres to a standstill: armed with dire warnings from scientists, people around the world dragged the climate emergency into the mainstream in 2019.

Like harbingers of the apocalypse, the Extinction Rebellion movement embarked on a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience that spread worldwide, armed with little more than superglue and the nihilistic motto: “When hope dies, action begins.”

Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, typhoon Hagibis in Japan, a deadly, record-breaking heatwave across much of Europe, wildfires in California and eastern Australia, floods in Venice… the list goes on. The threat posed by climate change became so stark in 2019 that Indonesia, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, decided to move its capital to somewhere that wasn’t sinking.

Faced with mounting pressure from the streets, governments in 2019 started, slowly, to mobilise — 66 nations now have plans to be carbon-neutral by 2050. The cities of London and Paris declared official ecological and climate emergencies. Yet, there are fears meagre progress could be undermined as developing economies appear no closer to ditching fossil fuels and the United States — the largest historic emitter — looks poised to complete its Paris pullout.

Economic Turmoil

US political clouds coupled with wider climate and digital transformations point to a tricky 2020 for the world economy, although experts say a lurch back to crisis is improbable.

The OECD expects global growth to dip in the coming year to 2.9% per cent, its lowest level since the world recession of 2009. The International Monetary Fund was a little more optimistic in its latest World Economic Outlook, forecasting 2020 growth of 3.4% but warning nevertheless of a “synchronised slowdown and uncertain recovery”. The Indian economy too is staring down the barrel.

Unforeseen History-makers  

  • Although huge efforts have been made to expose him, the person whose complaint threatens to bring down the President of the United States is still known only as ‘The Whistleblower’. Reliably reported to be a mid-level, male CIA analyst in his early 30s, who specialises in Eastern European issues and previously worked in the White House, he filed an anonymous complaint in August charging that Donald Trump pressured Ukraine counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky to help find dirt on his Democratic rivals — a violation of US laws against seeking foreign help in US elections. By sending his complaint to the inspector general for the US intelligence community, The Whistleblower set in motion a series of reviews and then news articles that quickly snowballed into the House impeachment probe. Trump is impeached in a historic rebuke by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on two counts of abuse of office and obstruction of Congress, but conviction is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate in a trial expected to begin in January.


  • What started as humble protest has turned Greta Thunberg into the world’s green conscience and the voice of a generation’s frustration with inaction on climate change. Time magazine named her 2019 Person of the Year. Her struggle gained worldwide attention and the shy 16-year-old found herself addressing world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the European Parliament. Young people from around the world began staging their own school strikes, and the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement was born.


  • Brandishing Molotov cocktails, black-clad Hong Kong students cast off their bookish, meek image in 2019 to become a global symbol of democratic resistance in the face of unyielding authoritarian power. What started as a popular protest over a proposed bill allowing extraditions to mainland China morphed into a popular anti-Beijing revolt. Gas masks with bright pink filters — dubbed ‘pig snouts’ in Cantonese — became ubiquitous as people sought to conceal their identities. Embracing the slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time’, protesters have battled with riot police, stormed the local legislature and spray-painted their core issues and demands across the city, shredding the notion of a peaceful transition to complete Chinese control in 2047 envisaged in the 50-year ‘one country, two systems’ deal.


  • For a long time, he didn’t distinguish himself as an outspoken critic of President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, but when he proclaimed himself president in January, Juan Guaido suddenly emerged as the socialist leader’s main opponent. When he burst on the scene in January, the 36-year-old lawmaker initially energised a weakened opposition whose key leaders were imprisoned, exiled or in hiding. On January 23, a few days after taking the helm as speaker of parliament, the only state institution controlled by the opposition, Guaido proclaimed himself acting president, declaring Maduro’s re-election illegitimate. He was swiftly recognised by the United States and about 50 other countries.


  • Ala Saleh, dressed in traditional white Sudanese garb and standing atop a car, became the symbol of Sudan’s uprising as she led chants against the now-ousted autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April. An engineering student, she has become a voice for women’s rights in the northeast African country, where centuries of patriarchal traditions and decades of strict laws under the former regime have severely restricted the role of women in Sudanese society.


  • US computer scientist Katie Bouman became an overnight sensation in April for her role in developing a computer algorithm that allowed researchers to take the world’s first image of a black hole. The 30-year-old, currently an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, was a member of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration when the team captured the image.

Hotter, Faster, Pricier

  • Temperatures in July 2019 were the hottest ever recorded globally at an average of 16.75 degrees Celsius
  • A heatwave in Europe the same month reset several record highs: 42.6 degrees for Paris; 41.5 degrees for Germany; and 38.7 degrees in Britain
  • Fires ravaged Brazil’s Amazon and Australia, while Venice was swamped by flooding not seen in decades
  • Facebook was in July slapped with the largest-ever fine — $5 billion — imposed on any company for violating consumers’ privacy.
  • Chinese consumers spent a record $38.3 billion on Alibaba platforms in the annual 24-hour ‘Singles’ Day’ buying spree in November
  • Banksy’s ‘Devolved Parliament’ painting depicting lawmakers as chimps was sold at an auction in October for 11.1 million euros, a record for the British artist. A new auction record for a work by a living artist was set in May when Jeff Koons’ stainless steel ‘Rabbit’ fetched $91.1 million
  • Qantas completed the longest non-stop passenger flight in October, taking 19 hours and 16 minutes to test a direct route from New York to Sydney. Just 49 people travelled on the Boeing 787-9 to minimise the weight on board and give the plane sufficient fuel range to travel more than 16,000 km
  • Around the weight of a large apple when she was born, Saybie was announced in May by a California hospital to be the world’s smallest baby ever to survive
  • A parking space in Hong Kong’s The Center skyscraper sold in October for a whopping $970,000
  • After a five-year offensive to seize vast Islamic State (IS) territory in Iraq and Syria, the jihadists were driven out of their last bastion in March by Kurdish-led forces. On October 27, President Donald Trump announced that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed
  • A March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash leads to the global grounding of Boeing 737 MAX planes. It follows a Lion Air crash involving the same model six months earlier, with 346 lives lost in the two incidents. Boeing faces investigations and lawsuits, and is forced to upgrade its systems, in a crisis that costs it billions of dollars. In mid-December, production of the plane is suspended. On December 23, Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg resigns
  • On April 10, astronomers unveil the first photograph of a black hole, a phenomenon they were convinced existed even if it had never been seen before. Drawn from mountains of data captured two years earlier by telescopes across the world, it shows a supermassive black hole 50 million light years away
  • On May 8, Tehran announces its first step back from the 2015 nuclear accord — exactly a year after the United States quit the deal and reimposed sanctions.
  • On August 2, the US officially quits the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia. Trump’s ‘America First’ regime also strikes out alone by pursuing trade wars with China and the EU. It also withdraw its troops from northeastern Syria

Dispute Over, in India

Ayodhya Verdict

In November, the country waited with a bated breath to know whether the disputed site in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya belonged to Hindus or Muslims. On November 9, a five-judge bench unanimously ruled in favour of Ram Lalla and handed over the entire disputed land, spread over 2.7 acres to a trust, to be formed by the government. The trust is now tasked to monitor the construction of a temple at the site. Calling the demolition of Babri Masjid an “egregious violation of the rule of law”, the top court gave alternative five acres of land for the construction of a mosque at a prominent location in the same city.

Rafale Verdict

A three-judge bench dismissed a batch of review petitions filed against the court’s December 14, 2018, verdict which had upheld purchase of 36 Rafale jets by the Modi-led government from France.

Sabarimala Case

In a 3:2 split verdict, the Supreme Court referred to a larger constitution bench a batch of review petitions against its September 2018 verdict allowing entry of women of all age groups into the Sabarimala temple.

CJI under RTI

Observing that transparency strengthens judicial independence, the Supreme Court ruled that the Chief Justice of India’s Office is a “public authority” and comes under the ambit of the RTI Act.

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