If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dr. Binayak Sen

The Christmas this year brought the shocking news that Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “sedition”. The prosecution case is that he passed on three letters from a Maoist leader to someone. Sometime in 2007, he had gone to a Raipur jail as a physician to examine the Maoist leader. Naturally, he met the latter under the supervision of jailors. While returning from the jail, he was arrested at a railway station. Two other persons too were handed down life sentences along with Dr. Sen by a Raipur court on 24th December 2010. 

You would certainly have read about Dr. Binayak Sen, but let me jot down some essential facts here. A brilliant student and an alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Binayak Sen is a paediatrician. Instead of practising in the comforts of a city and making money, he chose to provide medical assistance to the poor and marginalised adivasis of Chhattisgarh. He has been working there since the early 1980s. The impact of his work has been recognised by many and he has been awarded several international honours.

Mineral rich Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest states of India and is also a major centre of Maoist activities. In 2005, the state (BJP) government set up a vigilante army Salwa Judum to fight Maoists. According to historian Ram Chandra Guha, Salwa Judum “spread terror through the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Bastar. In the name of combating Naxalism, it burned homes (and occasionally, whole villages), violated tribal women, attacked (and sometimes killed) tribal men who refused to join its ranks. As a result of its depredations almost a hundred thousand adivasis with no connection to Maoism were rendered homeless.”[i] Activists like Arundhati Roy and Gautam Naulakha put the figure close to three hundred thousand.

Dr. Sen has neither been a part of a Maoist organisation, nor their sympathiser. On the contrary, he has condemned Maoist activities as “an invalid and unsustainable movement.” But as a national vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he was also amongst the first to document the human rights violations committed by Salwa Judum and police.

That indeed was crime enough to send a 60-year-old internationally respected social worker and doctor to prison for the rest of his life. The verdict looks even more grotesque if you consider that in India many parliamentarians are mafia dons, and the major political debate of the day is how much a central minister cheated the exchequer in a single deal – fifty thousand crore or one hundred and seventy thousand crore!  

The Raipur verdict has been condemned by a wide cross-section of informed voices, from the Amnesty International to Amartya Sen. Retired high court judge and the president of PUCL Rajinder Sachar called the judgment as “ridiculous and unacceptable”. [ii] In an uncharacteristically strong reaction, Professor Sen says, “To turn the dedicated service of someone who drops everything to serve the cause of neglected people into a story of the seditious use of something — in this case, it appears to be the passing of a letter, when sedition usually takes the form of inciting people to violence or actually committing some violence and asking others to follow, none of which had happened — the whole thing seems a ridiculous use of the laws of democratic India.”[iii]

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 was taken away from his home sometime in 2009. But it was not until nearly one month later that the Chinese authorities confirmed his arrest. He had a one-day trial in December 2009 and was sentenced to 11 years a few days later – on Christmas Day. Some suspected the Chinese authorities had chosen that day because most people in the West would be on holiday, and not notice.[iv]

Binayak Sen’s trial dragged on for three years and during the period, many, including 22 Nobel laureates, condemned the politically motivated and patently fake prosecution that was not backed by a shred of material evidence. But in the end, Binayak Sen got life imprisonment, compared to 11 years that Liu Xiaobo got. The other similarity is disturbing too. The verdict against Binayak Sen was announced on the Christmas Eve.

No, I am not insane enough – not yet, anyway – to compare our judicial system with that of China. But surely, there are many people in power in India who would love to have the kind of unfettered powers that the Chinese authorities enjoy. It is significant that for several days after the verdict, none of the mainstream political parties except the Communist Party of India (CPI) have spared one word to condemn the verdict, nay, even question the validity of the monstrous judgment. Some of them might, sooner or later, if they perceive the political cost of silence unacceptably high!

Considering the facts, it would be reasonable to demand that Dr. Sen is set free. Hopefully, that will happen once the case goes to higher courts. But what has happened to our justice delivery system? If this can be done to an eminent person despite international protests, what chance do ordinary citizens (like the two convicted alongside Dr. Sen) have against mighty governments in our law courts? Doesn’t this verdict reinforce the extremists’ claim that India is not a democracy?

Paraphrasing Shakespeare, the Supreme Court has recently stated: something is rotten in the High Court of Allahabad. The former Chief Justice of India (CJI), who is now the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission is involved in a public spat with a sitting high court judge. One of them is lying. There have been reports that the same former CJI’s daughter and son-in-law amassed Rs.7 crore while he was the CJI.[v]

Politicians have failed us and bureaucrats have largely proved themselves to be spineless yes-men. The judiciary may be the last hope for the Indian democracy. After the Raipur verdict, one wonders if it’s much of a hope.

Postscript: I think every Indian who cares for the future of this country should do something now. You can do something easily, almost without any effort. Please cut and paste the essential facts about the case either from here, or from a better source, onto an email and send it across to whoever would care to open and read a mail from you. Let this message reach every Indian who uses the Internet. Let us inform others; let us register our protest.

[The photograph of Dr. Binayak Sen is from Wikipedia; Liu Xiaobo's picture is from BBC.co.uk]

[i] Hindustan Times, 27 December 2010

Kolkata, 29 December 2010

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Where have all the pavements gone?

In the government school I studied at, fans were not switched on from November to February, or maybe, March. This was as per some government regulation, and those days, fans were not used in any government office in Kolkata during these months. Air-conditioners were rare, and were savoured by the hoi polloi only in cinemas.

Although I can recall some warm November days, we didn’t need fans in November. Compared to that, the November this year was unusually hot and humid. Global warming is no longer a matter of academic discussions. We are living it and making it happen. Last month, we read weather forecasts in the morning, fumed and fretted through the day, and switched on our ACs at night.

But it all changed yesterday, the first day of December. The morning was ushered in by a cool breeze blowing in from the north. There was a real nip in the air; as darkness gave away to light, a haze hung over the lake in front of our house. The park around it – a place packed with morning-walkers every day – was almost empty. Only a few brave men and women had come out, swathed in sweaters and scarves. Being highly susceptible to cold, I take pride in the fact that I am the first person in the city to put on a sweater every winter. That pride got dented.

Many things about this city you may not like, but it indeed has a glorious winter. Kolkata is perhaps one of the best places to be in during its brief winter. The sun is bright and crisp, one doesn’t smell sweat in buses and the metro; people are less aggressive on the roads. In The Summer of Forty-two, it was said, “When there is love in the air, no burden seems heavy.”  When there is winter in the Kolkata air, life seems fun!  

In my childhood too, winter was the happy season. It meant visits to the Botanical Garden and the Zoo, a picnic at Baruipur, circus shows at Park Circus. The icing on the cake was the annual cricket test match at Eden Gardens.

After we outgrew zoological and botanical gardens, for some of us, afternoons were reserved for long walks through quiet, spotlessly clean neighbourhoods in Alipore or Ballygunge. Some of the lanes had exotic names like Lovelock Place, a narrow alley with quaint bungalows on either side, where I smoked my first cigarette under the expert guidance of my friend D. D in fact had voluntarily taken up the task of mentoring me in those difficult days of early adolescence. It was he who handed over the first girlie magazine to me on a deserted road.

However, our walks ended at a less carnal destination. We would spend hours in the National Library reading room, which had a lovely section for young readers. The other favourite haunts were the Indian Museum and the Birla Technological Museum in Gurusaday Road that had lots of working models to fascinate us. If we felt lazy, we just stretched our legs and watched cricket matches on the CCFC ground or Deshapriya Park. 

We went to all these places on Bus No. 11, as we were fond of saying. Walking ten kilometres was considered perfectly normal. And there were roads on which you could walk.

Sadly, footpaths have been stolen from the city dwellers of a “shining” India. Whether it is Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Kolkata, walkways have been hacked down mercilessly to widen roads for the ever-increasing number of vehicles. The footpaths are so narrow and badly paved that even for a short distance, one has to take a taxi or auto rickshaw. In Bengal, It’s been a double whammy. Thanks to competitive populism of political parties, hawkers have taken over our pavements completely. The situation is worse in small towns, where roads and railway platforms have been turned into bazaars.

This is kind of funny. On one hand the government lecture us to reduce carbon emission to arrest global warming, and on the other, they make it impossible for people to walk or use bicycles in cities. I don’t know of an Indian metropolis that has earmarked some space as pedestrian zones or cycling zones. The likely-to-be chief minister of Bengal promises to turn Kolkata into London. Even if one ignores the colonial hangover implicit in the promise, one must tell her that we don’t aspire so much, Madam. Give us back our pavements, and Kolkata will be happy to be Kolkata.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Ahimsa in the time of madness

[I posted this story some time ago. I am posting it again for my new readers.]

In a sweltering summer afternoon, I was on my way to the Sanchi Stupa from Bhopal, alone.  

The public bus I boarded stopped minutes after leaving the bus stand. The driver killed the engine and got off, along with the conductor. After a while, the conductor reappeared, issued tickets, and vanished again. The next time he showed up, I asked him what time the bus would start. He didn’t seem to understand. So I asked him, in the finest Hindi that I could muster, what the scheduled time for departure was. He gaped at me blankly. I realised there was no schedule. A bus starts when it is full. Period. Salman Rushdie once wrote: The people who use the same word for yesterday and tomorrow cannot be said to have a good grip on time. He had a point.

Emperor Ashoka, one of the greatest rulers of India, embraced Buddhism circa 258 BCE. His dharma was non-violence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for religious teachers, bigheartedness towards friends, humane treatment of servants (there were no slaves in his time), and generosity towards all. He built thousands of stupas, the most distinctive monuments of Buddhist India. The Great Stupa of Sanchi was one of them.

The bus driver obviously believed that the journey was more important than the destination. The bus crawled slowly through deserted plains past sleepy hamlets in simmering heat. Hot air blowing in from the arid fields singed the passengers, most of whom covered their faces with the multipurpose piece of cloth that our village folk often carry.

I got off at an open ground flanked by some tiny eateries and shops. Ignoring the importunate skinny tonga-wallas and their skinnier horses, I started walking towards the Stupa, which was atop a hillock about a kilometre away.

But I underestimated the odds. Even a short walk in that heat could kill if you are going uphill, particularly if you are foolhardy enough not to carry even a hat or a water bottle! When I reached the top, I felt I was going to have a cardiac arrest soon. Fortunately, there were rows of taps dispensing ice-cold drinking water. I drank to my heart’s content and splashed water all over myself. Then I lay down on a concrete bench in the pleasant shade of a tall tree with thick foliage. The relief was immense. I drifted into a happy slumber. …

In the battlefield of Kalinga, Emperor Ashoka, riding an elephant, is surrounded by enemy horsemen. They are aiming their spears at the emperor. But he is smarter. He pulls out a pistol from his holster and starts shooting. As bursts of staccato gunshots rend the air, I get up. The place is as peaceful as ever, but I did hear gunshots! … Suddenly, the penny dropped in the shape of a bel, the common Indian fruit with a hard shell. One such fell nearby and exploded with a thud.

I was in an orchard of bel trees with thousands of ripe fruits ready to fall. Looking up, I saw one poised above my head, gently swaying in the afternoon breeze. Had it fallen while I was asleep, you wouldn’t have read this wonderful story! I ran to the safety of the open sky and then to the Stupa.

The return journey was infinitely more pleasant. The bus started after sundown. A pleasant breeze and a full moon greeted us as we went past immense fields. There was a forest in the background. The vast flat tract of land seemed submerged in tranquillity and peace you would expect in the Buddha’s land. I also saw a small tent far away; two people were cooking something over a fire.

Two days later, I saw this in a local newspaper: “A French couple camping on a field near Sanchi were lynched by villagers. They were … (27) and … (23). A mob had taken them to be dacoits. The young woman was gang-raped before she was killed.” 

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Compensating the riff-raff

Soumya Sankar Mitra

On the night of 2nd / 3rd December in 1984, water leaked into a tank containing methyl isocyanate gas at a pesticide plant of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal. UCIL was a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), one of the biggest multinationals at the time. The chemical reaction that followed raised the temperature of the gas to above 200° centigrade (392° F). The concomitant rise in pressure forced the valves open and methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases spread over the city of Bhopal.

Over the next week, around sixteen thousand people, including two thousand children and a similar number of expectant mothers, lost their lives. Later, sixteen thousand more died. Almost an equal number of animals perished too. In a vast area around the plant, the soil and the drinking water sources have been permanently contaminated. Several other tanks containing toxic chemicals are still lying unattended in the factory premises.

It was the worst industrial disaster in recent history. The Canadian government hadn’t permitted this plant to be set up anywhere in Canada, a sparsely populated country with millions of acres of uninhabited land. But in 1969, the government of India allowed to set up the same plant at Sanand, almost at the heart of the city of Bhopal.

Although we were intermittently agitated after the tragedy, with time, our indignation died out and the issue forgotten because those who died in the catastrophe, the survivors whose lives were devastated, and the deformed babies that were born afterwards generally belonged to the riff-raff, the dispensable stratum of the humankind. It was not an attack on a symbol of global wealth, the World Trade Centre, by some traders in terror. It was the death of the helpless poor in a transnational game in which rich businessmen try to become richer. Consequently, no war has been fought over the incident; what has happened can be called an international farce. Although many in the US and elsewhere consider the recent judgment delivered by one of the lowest Indian criminal courts in Bhopal after twenty-five years of procrastination as “just”, the dispensable people of this country think it was a monstrous joke. This article is an attempt to briefly record what followed the disaster.

How did it happen?

Till this day, the UCC hasn’t clearly revealed how exactly the gases escaped. None of their excuses, namely, sabotage by disgruntled employees, mistakes committed by inexperienced workers, etc. have been proved in subsequent enquiries. On the contrary, every investigation has shown that the preventive systems that had been put in place in similar plants in the US by the same company did not exist at Bhopal. Time and again experts had pointed out that the process of manufacturing the pesticide Sevin in the plant, which required production of methyl isocyanate at an intermediate stage, was dangerous. But the company had steadfastly refused to introduce safer but costlier processes. It has also been established that the principal causes behind the disaster were poor maintenance of tanks and pipelines and reduction of staff.

The curious case of the prosecutor and the accused

Immediately after the incident, the American chief of the UCC, Warren Andersen visited Bhopal. He was arrested by Madhya Pradesh government. But thanks to some invisible hands that we know so well, he was released on a bail of two thousand dollars and sent to New Delhi by the state chief minister’s private aircraft, accompanied by a senior bureaucrat. The same evening, he boarded a flight to his fatherland and hasn’t been troubled in the next twenty-five years. Although the Indian court hearing the case issued several arrest warrants against Andersen, the governments of both India and the USA did nothing to enforce the warrants. The helpless court declared him as an “absconder”. After the recent judgment by the court on 7th June 2010 stirred up public conscience and the media, attempts have been made to make the invisible hand even more invisible by setting up a core group of central ministers. These worthy gentlemen have begun thinking about new steps!

The government swings into action

On 29th March, 1985, i.e., in less than four months after the incident, the Indian Parliament passed The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, which conferred on the government of India the “sole right” to represent Bhopal victims. The Act took away the rights of individuals to sue the company in India or abroad.

At first, the UCC agreed to pay US $ 350 million, that is, the amount for which the factory had been insured, although the Indian government had demanded hundred times more. The UCC claimed that the mishap had occurred due to sabotage by disgruntled workers and the company was not responsible for such acts. As mentioned above, the company was unable to produce a shred of evidence in support of the “sabotage” hypothesis and what they suggested as possible modus operendi of the so called sabotage was proved untenable in an experiment subsequently conducted by experts. After haggling for fifteen years, in 1999, the Indian government and the UCC arrived at an out-of-court settlement for US $ 47o million (insured amount plus nominal interest). Immediately thereafter, when the UCC wanted to dispose of their shares in the UCIL, the Supreme Court allowed it to do so with the proviso that the company set up a 500-bed hospital in Bhopal to treat the gas leak victims. The hospital was set up in 2003, but what relief it has provided to the survivors is debatable.

Therefore, after allowing the boss to flee, steps were taken to let the capital flee too. In the mean time, the UCC had sold its Indian subsidiary to Eveready Limited. Before Dow bought the UCC, the Indian government publicly stated: “UCC has no liabilities in India any more”. Till now, neither Dow nor the UCC has accepted their liability to remove the hundreds of tonnes of toxic materials still lying in the factory premises, or to detoxify the area. However, “the doyen of Indian industries”, Ratan Tata offered to clean the premises by setting up an Indian consortium, although that proposal too hasn’t fructified.

The compensation

If we leave out the small amounts of cash support, primary healthcare, and some interim relief, the quantum of compensation provided by the Indian government to the disabled as “final settlement” was Rs.25,000 ($ 830). The heirs of the deceased got Rs.62,000 ($ 2,058) each. Till 2007, ten lakh (1 million) compensation applications were submitted. Half of them were rejected because the applicants couldn’t prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that they were indeed victims of the gas leak. Calculations show that even out of the pittance received by the Indian government from UCC, Rs. 100 crore (1 billion) still remains in their coffers.

Miscarriage of justice

After consideration for twenty-five years, a trial court at Bhopal sentenced the Indian Chairman of the UCIL and six of his senior Indian colleagues to two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs.1,00,000 each. They were promptly released on bail, paving the way for possibly twenty-five years of further consideration by higher courts. One cannot blame the trial court for this bizarre verdict. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India changed the Section under which the case had originally been filed, and instructed the investigating agency (CBI) to file a charge for “causing death due to negligence” against these officials and Anderson. The trial court has awarded the maximum penalty stipulated for the offence. Let’s recall that within the country, for deaths caused by a fire in a cinema at New Delhi and later in Stephen Court at Kolkata – although the magnitudes of these tragedies were smaller – the state governments have filed cases against the owners for murder, and the Supreme Court has not objected to this

The prognosis

The trial court’s verdict suddenly stirred up things in India. Many people began saying that the injustice that had been happening for twenty-five years was indeed injustice. As a result, the ruling party, the Supreme Court, and the CBI started talking about new steps to douse public anger. The central ministry, after setting up a core group of ministers, started spinning yarns about a Rs.1,000 crore (10 billion) compensation. Who will get it and how are “under consideration”. The Indian foreign minister tried to meet with Dow Chemical officials but failed. The company couldn’t spare the time because of their prior commitments.

In response to demands made on Dow to accept their liability, the company stated that although they were prepared to foot the bill for the acts of UCC, they were not obliged to do so for UCIL since that company had been purchased by Eveready. Significantly, although Dow hasn’t agreed to compensate Bhopal victims, they have compensated the victims in a case that had been filed against the UCC in the US for asbestos poisoning, in which 75,000 people were affected. They have already paid $ 687 million, and have undertaken to pay $ 839 million more. That means human life in the third world is less valuable. The arrogant transnational company, the government of India and the Indian judiciary have joined hands to stifle the cry for justice by the third world’s riff-raff. After this, everyone will recall the famous statement by George Orwell, All are equal before the law, but some are more equal than others.

What can the victims hope for and what lessons have our rulers learnt from Bhopal? Please decide after considering two facts: (A) In a week’s time, the lower court’s verdict will have been six months old. What the group of ministers set up with so much fanfare has done for the victims during the period is a closely guarded secret. (B) In Nandigram, West Bengal, there was murder and mayhem in 2007 when the ruling party desperately tried to set up a chemical hub in collaboration with the same Dow Chemicals and its even more notorious sidekick, Salems of Indonesia. Although Nandigram has been thwarted, the plan to set up a chemical hub on the geologically unstable Nayachar (literally, The New Sandbank) at the mouth of the Haldi River has gone far ahead through the joint efforts of Bengal and central governments, ignoring opinions of geologists and environmental scientists. One such opinion is: This chemical hub “is in essence a declaration of war against coastal resources and livelihood, spelling disaster for marine life, food, and nutrition security.”

[This is a slightly abridged translation of a Bengali article by my friend Soumya Sankar Mitra. I decided to translate this piece and share it with the readers of my blog primarily because I felt it was necessary that we knew the details. Secondly, I think my friend has told the sad story of Bhopal with rare clarity and comprehensiveness. Soumya teaches physics at a Kolkata college.]

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

In defence of "the mediocre"

[This essay has been written by Anindya Ghose Choudhury and me. The basic idea came from Anindya]

In the USA, there is a saying: “About everything that some Americans have achieved in life is to send a son to Harvard.” Replace Americans with Indians and Harvard with IIT, and you see that the adage holds good for us too. Come July every year one sees anxious parents pushing their children across the country in search of admission to top-notch engineering and medical colleges, which are considered magical doors that open up a dazzling future for the children of greater gods! Most of the remaining students too get absorbed into medical and engineering colleges of varying standards, some good, some indifferent, some without teachers or basic infrastructure, run purely as education factories. At the very bottom, like the dregs, remain the colleges for basic sciences and humanities. No one goes there if they have a choice. For example, in Karnataka this year (2010), no student has enrolled in dozens of such colleges. In a place like West Bengal, where there are not enough even substandard medical/engineering colleges to meet the demand, thousands flock to the “general” colleges.

We are indeed proud of the bright young Indians who, after graduating from premier Indian institutes, have proved their worth on the frontiers of technology and commerce in many parts of the world. But still, let’s stop and think: does the mad rush for the best of higher education have anything to do with pursuit of excellence or knowledge? Can we, by any stretch of imagination, claim this is a continuation of our age-old tradition of learners trudging hundreds of miles in search of a gurukul to pursue knowledge and enlightenment? Or is it a naked pursuit of lucre, a six-figure salary and the trappings of the neo-rich?

Satisfaction glows on the faces of proud parents, secure in the knowledge of having obtained a comfortable future for their offspring. The young heroes are feted and showered with accolades. Amidst the din, we not only forget those who haven’t made it, but also, brand them as “mediocre”, a patently unjust and untenable label, as most labels are!

Indeed, there are a significantly large number of bright and intelligent students who refuse to submit to parental pressures and/or societal conditioning to become doctors or engineers. It is also a fact that the few who go into the best technical and professional colleges are not necessarily the best products of the system of secondary education. On the contrary, many of them are beneficiaries of a highly commercialised mechanism of private coaching that is available only to people with deep pockets.

This article is in defence of those who prefer not to be a part of the rat race and who are courageous enough to stand up against the imposed prescriptions of dubious merit.

In the eighties and nineties, the pursuit of humanities was considered such a waste of time and effort that it simply wasn’t recognised as a worthy pursuit. Technology was making great strides and anyone with an iota of intelligence was expected to be a part if the new world. (After years of recession, the enthusiasm has ebbed a bit!) Philosophy, ethics and poetry were passé. Study of political science, geography, and even history was relegated to the backburner. Basic sciences, well, they were for either the queer folk with super intelligence or who weren’t good enough to be techies. No one spared a thought for the plight of a society fed on a diet of only bits and bytes.

In this hustle for technical education, no one questions the perpetuation of a system where on an average 40% students fail in any public examination. More importantly, the dichotomy of a country having some of the finest educational institutes (IITs, TIFR, IISc, ISI, AIIMS, and so on) and the largest population of illiterates in the world troubles none. The pathetic systems of basic and secondary education plods on backwards, unnoticed.

In this overpopulated country with scarce resources, mere survival requires a higher degree of intelligence and emotional maturity than in affluent countries that offer much wider opportunities. We have far too many problems and we badly need people who are not only intelligent and skilled, but also morally strong and intellectually honest to improve our squalid systems. And yet, we have an education system that relies more on rote learning than independent thinking; a system that in its misplaced sense of nurturing excellence, crushes even the feeblest of new ideas in their infancy. To wit, the system has the temerity to brand all those who haven't fallen in line, as failures.

To summarise, on the one hand, we have some high-cost, exclusive institutes that prepare students largely for the global commercial world, and on the other hand, there is a shamefully neglected basic, secondary, and higher education system that doesn’t equip students with the necessary skills to survive in this increasingly competitive world. It should also be mentioned that the vast majority of undergraduate colleges offering “general” courses are no better than the “general” compartments of the Indian Railways, overcrowded and stifling. In sharp contrast, the high-end colleges and institutes thrive in glorious isolation.

The fundamental facts of life don’t change, and they haven’t in India, notwithstanding the hoopla about nine percent GDP growth and the concomitant widening chasm between the rich and the poor. Education should bring out the best in every person. It should not only equip people with knowledge and skills, but also ensure that they become strong individuals with impeccable values. Our education system should ensure that individuals don’t grow into selfish creatures in pursuit of corporeal comforts alone, but contribute to the best of their ability to their respective fields of endeavour. The nation needs good agriculturists, teachers, nurses, policemen, economists, mathematicians, scientists, writers and artists, not just technocrats and managers. Nature has endowed humans with multifarious talents and aptitudes. And no society can sustain itself with uni-dimensional human resources. Therefore, we should encourage people to bring out their best in whichever fields they choose to excel in, instead of putting them in straight jackets of irrational expectations. The dubious debate on mediocrity will then stop troubling a vast multitude of our younger generation who are brave enough not to conform to imposed standards of an unthinking society.

Money makes the world go round, but it doesn’t build national character!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Good English, bad English

Anil Babu, a fine, formidable, and fearsome teacher of our school once narrated this story.

Two men got into an argument on a public bus. One of them was a dignified elderly gentleman, whom our teacher labelled as a professor. The other was an arrogant young fellow who, once again according to Anil Babu, could only have been a junior clerk in a merchant firm. Minutes after the argument began, when the professor was clearly winning the contest, the young man switched over to English. It was a common practice then, if Indians wished to sound authoritative, they spoke the king’s language. Perforce, the professor had to respond in English. And that turned the tables against him. He spoke in correct, grammatical English, but haltingly. And that was no match for the torrent of terrible English the clerk churned out. Finally, just as a drowning man clutches at straws, the professor said, ‘Have you read Wren and Martin?’

If you are an Indian over thirty and you've been in a school, you'd get the drift. For the rest of humanity, M/s P. C. Wren and H. Martin were the venerable authors of a grammar book that was a combination of the Geeta, the Koran, and the Bible for English teachers in India for generations. And it was the nub of a serious problem. Each chapter of the book contained a set of prescriptions about how to frame sentences. And the examples and exercises that followed usually had lines that no one would use in their lifetime. Indians were also taught that speaking "incorrect English" was sacrilege.

But English is such a funnily unfettered language! Speaking or writing it correctly is challenging to even educated non-native speakers. To make matters worse, out of the hundreds of hours of English classes in school in our country, not one was devoted to teaching how to speak. (Unfortunately, the situation hasn't changed in most of our schools even now.)

So, generations of educated Indians could hardly express themselves in the language, even when they needed it. And those who could treated the rest of their countrymen as dirt.

English is important in this integrated world, we can't live without it. But should we think of committing suicide if we made a few mistakes here and there while using the language? How important is it to speak/write correct, flawless English? Let me quote an authority on the language, David Crystal:

Many people now realize that labels such as ‘sub-standard’ and ‘broken English’ are just as insulting and out of order as any set of racist or sexist names. We have seen a move away from the linguistic subjugation of the prescription era, with people asserting their right to be in control of their language rather than to have it be in control of them. For many, prescriptivism has come to be seen as a bad dream from which we are only now beginning to awake. The operative word, in all these sentences, is ‘many’. We are only half way along the road, and not everyone is persuaded that it is the road that they ought to take. But … it is only a matter of time. A major step has already been taken in schools, where a renaissance in linguistic study has already begun to produce generations of school children who are aware of the importance and relevance of Standard English without seeing any need to dismiss or condemn non-standard English. – The Stories of English, Penguin Books, Page 534

Saturday, 2 October 2010

How do you gather news?

On a mysteriously named blog Pareltank, I just read a brilliant article by PJ Kochuthresiamma about the way our electronic media function. She recalls:
In 2006 January when Arjun Singh tried to raise the reservation quota in the IITs and other premier educational institutions, the coverage of the issue by Rajdeep Sardesai and his channel was dangerous and objectionable. The visual of the burning Goswami (the self immolation in protest against Mandal) was played over and over again as though to invite some misguided youth to take cue …. Sardesai was literally jumping around with excitement – like a predator which had a taste of blood and was waiting … for some prey to take the bait.

She goes on to say:
Looking back, I feel that if the media was totally banned from the precincts of Taj – nay, if there was a total ban on reporting the updates on the terror attacks in Mumbai, the NSG would have done a much more efficient job without the media taking away the surprise element from the rescue operation. Remember, Arnab Goswami got vicious and nasty at the government’s move to block the media from reporting? And the government buckled in to the ire of Times Now!

Expectedly, the article recommends that our electronic media be reined in.

TV news channels thrive on disaster news and gruesome visuals to increase their audience. To this end, they display a streak of single-minded ruthlessness that is matched perhaps only by the finest gangsters. They have cast away things like dignity, restraint, sensitivity, etc. One must hasten to add that the news channels have done wonderful things too. Let’s not forget the brilliant NDTV coverage during Gujarat riots. They presented the true picture, helped create public opinion across the country, and stopped the saffron killers before they could destroy many more families. And the same Sardesai played an important role in the campaign.

That was the age of innocence. Compare 2002 with the electronic media’s campaign against Maoist violence now. At the core of the conflict is the survival of a pitilessly exploited indigenous people against the tyranny of intruders like you and me. Should anyone brand this adversary as criminals? I heard a more loyal Barkha Dutt pleading with the king, that is, P Chidambaram, to deploy the army and air force against them. The near fanatical Times Now brands anyone who sympathises with the Adivasis as Maoist. I also heard Sagarika Ghosh (of IBN Something) tell Arundhati Roy that she was “sleeping with the enemies of the country”. Arundhati gave her back royally, but that’s beside the point.

Even in times of peace, our news channels (both English and vernacular) scavenge disaster sites until the last bit of flesh and blood are wiped clean. Let me offer a few examples. In a train accident, an unfortunate young man was squashed between two berths. He was seen through the window, gasping and screaming for help. TV journalists documented his painful journey to death for posterity. Dear Reader, Think of his old mother, wife, or little children who would most probably have seen the visual in real time. In another case, after a plane crash, a gentleman was waiting at Calcutta airport for his brother’s body. A plane carrying it had just arrived. A journalist asks him, ‘Now that the body has arrived, what do you plan to do?’

In April 2008, a fire raged in a multi-storeyed building in Kolkata, Nandaram Market for about a week. During the period, TV channels kept on predicting “The building is going to collapse any moment now.” The underlying message was: don’t switch off your TV, don’t miss the opportunity to watch live another 9/11. (And let our Target Rating Point increase!) When the building didn’t oblige and the supremely inefficient West Bengal Fire Brigade put out the fire, some reporters nearly broke down.

You might argue that the fault lies with our people, not the system. After all, many American channels and the BBC are more balanced, less strident. One feels it is so only because the Western market economies are older, more mature, and a touch complacent. They have arrived. They have even produced men like Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who now look for something more meaningful than profit maximisation. Comparatively, Indian capitalism is young, arrogant, abrasive, and dying to bag their trophies. Also, the Western media too show their fangs if required. Let’s not forget the “embedded presstitutes” of Iraq war.

Coming back to the article I began with: can the electronic media ever be “reined in”?

After declining for centuries and stagnating since independence, the Indian economy has “taken off” during the last two decades. The development model followed by our rulers has created many billionaires, and made the middleclass enormously richer. They had to be, their newfound disposable income keeps this consumerist economy going. The totally unexpected and huge increase in the government employees’ pay scales under the Sixth Pay Commission was possibly not by accident, but by design. And it had a cascading effect on other sectors too.

That’s fine, but the problem is that the new economy has made the poor poorer. We have reached a state where Pepsi is available where drinking water isn’t. There are possibly more cellphones than sanitary toilets in the country. This development has turned India into a stupendously poor country with countless rich people, an aspiring superpower with an army of underfed.

Our electronic media are an important cog in the wheel that has brought us here and they in turn are driven by advertisers, who naturally try to maximise their reach.

For this simple reason, I don’t see a ghost of a chance that the electronic media will be reined in in India. But let’s not give up. Let’s fight the battle the way we can. Let’s stop watching Indian English news channels and read newspapers instead. Let’s also look for gems like Kochuthresiamma’s article on the WWW.

Saturday, 02 October 2010

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Dubare: The elephant country

A wide river met the road at right angles and stopped us. A shopkeeper at that unusual T junction asked us to turn right. ‘The Tourist Lodge is a few hundred metres ahead ….’

After less than half a kilometre, our taxi stopped again as that road too ended. This time, a forest blocked our way. There was thick foliage in front and on our right, and on the left, the Kavery flowed on indifferently. No sign of any tourist lodge …. It was past lunch time, and after a five-hour drive from Bengaluru, we were not in a frame of mind to appreciate the shopkeeper’s practical joke. But before we could curse him, a young man in a jungle-print shirt and khakis greeted us with a broad smile.

Meet Sattar, a tourism department employee, a boatman who would take us to the other side of the river, as all boatmen do. The Elephant Camp Tourist Resort across the river is new, but the “elephant camp” is old. Elephants were trained and kept here by the Forest Department for logging. The animals lost their jobs when the government banned using elephants for manual labour. At that point, some brilliant mind thought of setting up a tourist resort at the place with a unique selling point: tourists would have the novel experience of “interacting with elephants”, like bathing and feeding them.

Despite our protests, Sattar helped us with our luggage and put us on a motor boat that had been hidden behind a tree. The place is not far off from Talakaveri, where the river begins its 765 kilometre journey. Thanks to good rains, the Kavery was full to the brim at Dubare.  

On the other side, Sattar handed us over to another smiling young man in jungle-print, Uday. The resort had ten cottages beside the river, not built on a line, but scattered randomly, just as trees grow in a forest.

Given the backdrop, the cottages were surprisingly well appointed. Although there was no electricity, the rooms had AC machines. A generator supplied electricity after sunset.

Uday in our room
Behind our cottage was a slender pathway, on the other side of which the bank sloped down to the river. A profusion of trees covered the place. Under an overcast sky, the place was dark even in the early afternoon. There was no sound except for the flowing water and chirping crickets

The dining hall begins on the river bank and goes almost into the river, standing on concrete stilts. Its thatched roof stands on beautifully carved wooden pillars. There are also a few tall trees in the dining hall, coming in through the floor and leaving out through the roof. The underside of the roof too has intricate wooden rafters. This architecture is typical in Coorg or Kodagu district of North Karnataka. The hall has no walls on the riverside and the two adjoining sides – only banisters. As we had a late lunch of lovely Kodagu food, we felt we were floating on the river.

It was raining when we boarded a jeep for a guided micro safari, which was a bit of a let down because the only wild animal that we came across during the one-hour drive in the jungle was a stray dog; we saw many elephants, foraging, accompanied by their mahouts. There were three couples and two children in the jeep besides us. Two of the women talked continuously. One of them narrated to the children how a certain uncle, when he had been a child, had peed in a bottle of coke and offered it to a particularly difficult teacher.

In the evening, as we watched a film on Karnataka wildlife in the dark dining hall, a waiter asked if we would like to have beer. Of course, we would .... He produced some chilled beer. My daughter took a few sips more to make a political statement; I enjoyed the rest. Outside, a magical darkness filled in every corner of the planet ... millions of fireflies glimmered in the bushes and in the sky. The place would have been absolutely still but for the orchestra by crickets and cicadas.

Pachyderm - a type of animal with a very thick skin, for example, an elephant.

The next morning, we understood what this really meant when the mahouts brought the elephants to the river bank one after the other. Their mahouts too were supposed to be government employees. But unlike the nattily dressed employees of the tourist lodge, they were in dirty clothes, with unkempt hair. They were tribal men who traditionally tended elephants. They laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy their work. The elephants too laughed and joked with the tourists.

The elephant skin is surprisingly tough and coarse. And the huge animals are surprisingly gentle and tolerant. They took the hundred odd overenthusiastic tourists in their stride. We had a once-in-a-life-time experience of scrubbing the elephants as they were being bathed. Each one of them had a fifteen minute bath after which they walked up to a designated place for their breakfast consisting of a ball of jaggery. An elephant needs two hundred kilograms of food every day. They were given about two by their keepers. They rest they would have to forage.


Monday, 20 September 2010

Trivia: amazing nothings!

A highly intelligent and well-read friend of mine has a serious interest in non-serious matters. He does handle solemn things too, and handles them well. But tell him about something that has no earthly value except having an unusual angle about it, my friend will lap it up like “mishti doi” (sweet curd, the technology to manufacture which is known only to Bengalis). The disease is infectious. I've got hooked to interesting trivia thanks to this friend of mine.

This morning I found a mail sent by another friend with loads of trivia. I'm going to paste some of them below. If you care for amazing nothings, please read on. And if you have a point to add to the list, please do write to me.

Although I have edited and added to the original message, and also sprinkled a bit of spices on the piece, let me add a caveat. The owner of this blog is not responsible for the authenticity or otherwise of what is below. If you want to sue anyone for misleading people with incorrect information (or for copyright violation), please tell me, I will furnish the email ID of my friend Sanat Kumar Banerjee who sent me all this.

You know that you are living in 2010 when ...
  • You accidentally enter your ATM PIN on the microwave.
  • You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years.
  • You have a list of nine phone numbers to reach your family of three.
  • If you are at a seminar, the moment a break is announced, you reach out for your mobile.
  • While returning from office, about five minutes before you reach home, you ring up your husband/wife to tell them that you are on the way.
  • Leaving the house without your cellphone, which you didn't even have the first 20, 30 or 60 years of your life, is now a cause for panic; you go back and get it.
  • You e-mail the person who works at the desk next to you.
  • Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don't have e-mail addresses.
  • Every commercial on television has a web site at the bottom of the screen.
  • You get up in the morning and go on line before you brush your teeth.
  • You start tilting your head sideways to smile. : )
Idioms are born …
  • In the 1400s a law was introduced in England that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. Hence we have “the rule of thumb”.
  • Once upon a time in Scotland, a new game was invented. It was ruled “Gentlemen only... ladies forbidden”. Thus, GOLF got into the English lexicon.
  • In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase: “Goodnight, sleep tight!”
  • It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the honey month, which we know today as the honeymoon.

The number game
  • Question: If you were to spell out numbers, how far would you have to go until you would find the letter "A"? Answer: One thousand.
  • 111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987, 654,321

Literary trivia
  • The first novel to be written on a typewriter was Tom Sawyer. (It has survived beyond the life span of the typewriter, and hopefully, will outlast computers as we know them!)
  • The great novelist of our time, Gabriel Garcia Marquez struggled for many years to become a commercially successful writer. During the period, he went through rough times and once reportedly collected bottles on the streets of Paris.

A bit of geography
  • The percentage of Africa that is wilderness: 28%. 
  • The percentage of North America that is wilderness: 38%.

  • It is impossible to lick your elbow.
  • Coca-Cola was originally green.
  • If a statue in the park of a person on a horse has both front legs in the air, the person died in battle. If the horse has one front leg in the air the person died as a result of wounds received in battle. If the horse has all four legs on the ground, the person died of natural causes.
  • Question: Half of all Americans live within 50 miles of what? Answer: Their birthplace.
  • Question: What do bullet-proof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers all have in common? Answer: All were invented by women.
  • Approximately 89.25% of people who read this will try to lick their elbow!

Friday, 3 September 2010

Niyamgiri in West Bengal?

The dispute between dismally poor Adivasis of the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa and the powerful multinational Vedanta Resources is a hugely asymmetric conflict, particularly in view of the central and state governments’ eagerness to bend over backwards to help industrialists. Scrapping of the Vedanta aluminium mine has been a rare victory for the marginalised poor. Another David has tamed for now, though certainly not killed, a Goliath.

The reasons given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in support of their decision to scrap the project has put an official stamp of approval on the concerns of the people who oppose such projects, namely, destruction of forest dwellers and irretrievable damage to ecology. The ministry and its head, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, and a section of the Congress party including Mr. Rahul Gandhi deserve to be congratulated for this.

But the question that comes to the mind is: does this one swallow make a spring? Does this mean some day in the future, our policy makers will believe development means water, food and shelter for all, instead of more highways, glitzier malls and bigger airports in a country where half the children go to bed hungry? Does this mean industries that pollute and slow-poison people will be scrapped in other parts of the country too? Let’s discuss another case.

In West Midnapore, Burdwan, and Bankura districts of West Bengal, many sponge iron factories that have sprung up during the Left rule have been causing massive damage to the environment.

A retired teacher of economics of Calcutta University, Subhendu Dasgupta has given some startling information in an article published in a Bangla newspaper today: production of 100 tonnes of sponge iron requires 1.6 lakh tonnes of water, (an equivalent amount is consumed by 80 thousand humans per day). 100 tonnes of sponge iron also produces 180 to 200 tonnes of carbon-di-oxide, 26 to 30 tonnes of waste, and 100 tonnes of dust. The fields and grazing tracts around the sponge iron plants have turned black and water in tanks has been contaminated. Agricultural productivity has reduced: from 36 to 45 sackfuls of paddy per acre to 21 to 24 sackfuls. There is also black stain on the rice and the rice mill owners refuse to buy such paddy; Mangoes fall off before ripening, saal leaves are turning black, and even fish have developed black stains, and cannot be sold. Domestic animals too are harmed; cows give birth to stillborn calves. [Ekdin, 3 September, 2010, article by Shubhendu Dasgupta on edit page]

I checked with a friend, a chemical engineer by training, who currently works on industrial pollution. My friend confirms this is actually happening and one can see buildings and roads covered with black soot in wide areas around Durgapur and Asansol where there are about forty sponge iron factories.

The government of West Bengal has reacted to the crisis by arresting the people who have been protesting against this wanton destruction of Nature and her children. Members of Jhargram Block Environmental Pollution Resistance Committee, Hemanta Mahato and Upangshu Mahato were arrested and charged with waging war against the state. Naba Datta, of Citizens’ Forum, who has been studying the effects of industrial pollution by sponge iron factories, too was arrested. Twenty cases, including waging war against the state, have been slapped against him. [Ibid.] Perhaps even the worst criminal in the state would not have received such attention and honour from the government.

Will anything be done to protect the poor villagers affected by sponge iron plants in West Bengal and elsewhere?