Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Homework Helper: How to Write a Green Poem

Every week, I get a few visitors searching for things like, “summer holiday homework help” or “Clean Delhi Green Delhi poems.”  This is not, technically speaking, a site set up to teach creative writing or study skills.  If you want a site like that, go somewhere like this.

However, once in a while, I don’t mind helping out a little bit with the homework--holiday or otherwise. A few weeks back, I explained how to do an interesting science project here and here.  Given that students all over Delhi are preparing to return to school, this week seemed like as good a time to run another academic post.

Today, I'm going to help those of you who are interested in writing green poetry, either because you care about the earth, or because your teacher is forcing you to.  And if you are a student (or a teacher) who’s just happened on this site, let me tell you two things up front: first, I’m a bit long winded.  Second, I promise you some very good advice and resources if you are patient.

Before we start, let’s get one thing straight: a poem is not the same thing as a slogan or a chant to use at a rally, just as a short story is not the same thing as a political manifesto. (By the way, I have nothing against creative slogans and chants; they can be a true joy, and their power should not be underestimated.  If you are looking to write one of these things, feel free to use predictable rhymes and rhythms; that seems to work for chants and slogans.  And if the issue is something you are passionate about, consider using humour or rage; there is always a place for calling a shameful thing shameful and for making fun of bad guys.)

But this post is about writing green poems, not green slogans. While it is true that some great political slogans and speeches sound poetic, and some great poems may sound a little like slogans, as a rule,  good literature tends to be more subtle than sloganeering.  However, this does not mean literature can't deal with political or environmental issues.  That may seem obvious, but I’ve seen brilliant writers miss this point completely as they maintained that environmental issues has no place in contemporary fictionConcerns about our environment, like concerns about race, caste, class, and gender can inform good literature, and it is silly to argue otherwise.  After all, good literature explores the issues that matter to us in ways that help us better understand the confusing and sometimes terrifying world we find ourselves in.  In fact, some argue that good literature and art play an important role in any movement for change.  As the poet  K. Satchidanandan said on the 35th anniversary of the Emergency, "Without poetry, how will people know truth, and without truth, how will they ever wake up?" 

That’s partly why Dhaba runs green poetry from time to time: it throws light from a new angle on the issues that confront those of us who are struggling to remake the world into a sustainable, just place. And more light makes it more difficult to keep sleeping.

Well, if you are a student who wants to know how to write a green poem--or a teacher who wants to learn how to teach writing in a new way--remember I warned you I can be long winded.  But you’ve been patient, and so now you will get the easy to use, first-rate homework help that I promised at the top of this post!  Let's get right down to it.  

If you are a beginner who wants to write a poem, my first advice is to avoid rhyming.  Yes, I know that many people think it’s not a poem if it doesn’t rhyme.  Those people are wrong.  Poetry is hard to define, but it does not have to rhyme, and a large share of contemporary poetry written in English does not rhyme and hasn’t for a long time. There are a lot of reasons for that; one of them is that it's harder to rhyme in English than in many other languages.  This is not to say the rhyming is bad.  I love many poems that rhyme.  It’s just that rhyming is very difficult to do well!  A good rhyme is not predictable, but neither is it awkward—in fact, it may sound so natural that you don't notice it on your first reading. (For unexpected rhymes, and other verbal music like alliteration, read this poem by Nitoo Das out loud to yourself a few times.)  

A rhyme that sounds like it is forced or unnatural is probably a bad rhyme.  And if a rhyme sounds very predictable or familiar, it’s probably because it is—and predictable, overused rhymes are nearly as bad as forced, unnatural ones. Your parents and teachers do not want to tell you this, for fear of destroying your creative drive or self esteem, but I am going to be very clear, even if it means using an over-used simile to do so: a bad rhyme is a lot like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard—it’s not just bad manners, it’s very nearly unbearable to those with sensitive ears! 

So if you are not going to rhyme, what will you do?  Well, if you feel compelled to use some sort of verbal music, consider alliteration.  But even more important is to choose a subject that you care about; if you don't care, why should your reader?!   

Now start looking for images: close your eyes and think about the sights, sounds and smells that you associate with your subject. Make a LIST.  Write whatever comes into your head for 15 minutes!  (By the way, images are like rhymes in one way: if they sound very familiar, then you are better off not using them, because they are tired and need a rest!  "The grass is always greener...two hearts beating as one...calm before the storm"-- avoid these kind of phrases! The French have a great word for them: cliches.  You can read more about them here and here.)

Take a look at how Sridala Swami's evokes thirst in "Malhar" or impossible heat in "Red Chillies."  See what a just a few striking images can do?  Anjum Hasan's "Mawlai" on the other hand, is much longer--you could almost call it a personal narrative.  What makes it a poem?  To a great degree, I would say, it's the images! 

While you are reading (all good poets read poetry, by the way), read a few of the green poems that we've run at the dhaba-- they are full of images. Some are challenging, but don't let that bother you.  I love to read poetry, and I've been doing it for a long time, but I still find many poems confusing!   That doesn't mean I'm stupid and it doesn't mean the poem is bad.  We're just not a good match.  Reading just for images, by the way, is a good way to appreciate many complex poems.

After reading, close your eyes, think about your subject, and try to find a few more great images--ones that seem new and interesting to you.  Now that you have original images to work with, you can easily avoid abstract, boring statements like, "Global warming/litter/cruelty toward animals is bad."  If you think it's bad to kick street dogs, shoot tigers, or litter, don't tell us directly; show us an image that will lead us to that understanding. Much more powerful!

After you've got lots and lots of images, try to boil your poem down to the fewest possible words. Unlike most of the prose here at the dhaba, good poetry is rarely long winded; more often it is compressed.  You can cut some of the images you wrote; only use the very best.  And no matter what your teachers tell you, reduce the number of adjectives you use; a good verb or noun almost always works better. For example, say, "punches" instead of "hits forcefully"; "rushed" instead of "ran hurriedly." 

If you are having difficulty getting started, you might try writing a poem that follows a pattern or uses an "invented form".  There are many, many interesting forms you can use that don't require 14 lines and a mastery of iambic pentameter. Try, for example, a "How to" poem. Jeet Thayil has a series of these in his collection, English. You can read "How to be a Leaf" here.  And you can read his "How to be a toad" here.  Take a look also at Nitoo Das' "how to cut a fish".  (All of these poems, by the way, bring us unexpected perspective or insight, which is part of what makes them different from a "how to" essay!)

If you don't care to write a "How to" poem, try putting yourself in the shoes of another kind of living thing.  For an example of this, read K. Satchidanandan's poem, "Cactus."  Or try a completely different form: read Vivek Narayanan's collaborative "I Heard It Is One of Many Possibilities" poem, and see if that sparks anything.  Copying a form or a technique, by the way, is not the same thing as copying a poem (or a part of a poem).  Being inspired by a poem is great; copying words directly from it is called plagiarism; not only is it in bad taste, but it's illegal and wrong!  Besides, teachers who have internet access and a bit of common sense may well catch you if you do it and that would be embarrassing at best. 

One word about line breaks for those serious students who have gotten this far: they can be very complicated, but they can also be simple; don't worry to much about them in the beginning.  Read your poem out loud to yourself and place the line breaks where they sound and look natural to you.  In general, it is best to break your lines on important words, and to avoid breaking on "little" words like "and" or "of". But there are exceptions to that "rule." Speaking of "rules", do use proper punctuation etc., unless you have a good reason for not doing so. 

Finally, have fun, take risks, be willing to learn.  And throw in a simile now and then to make things more interesting.  Good similes are like the chillies in an egg omelet--they don't take up a lot of room, but you'd miss them if they weren't there. Bad similes, like the one I'm about to use, are like worn-out shoes; they might be easy to slip on, but at best they will be unattractive; at worst uncomfortable and smelly.

Of course poets are a contrary lot.  It is a good bet that not one of them will agree with everything in this post.  And in their own ways they will be right--and wrong.  There is no limit to the ways poems are birthed.  But I'm standing by this advice, and I don't think it will hurt you to try some of it once.  Good luck, and have a great year at school!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bhopal Rally for Justice Update & Video Footage from Al Jazeera English

I was planning to write something on food today; I've been seeing a lot of interesting links about that lately.  But I put that post on the back burner, as they say, when Bhagwad asked for an update on Thursday's post

I confess that when I heard that the march that was to have kicked off Thursday's Bhopal rally had been canceled, I wondered if it had been done on account of low turnout.  That was very far from the truth.  The rally at Jantar Mantar was quite large, in part because 700-800 survivors came up from Bhopal for it.  The march was canceled not for lack of people, but for lack of permission.  (Getting permission to march in Delhi can be difficult, which is a problem in its own right.  I don't know the details of this incident, but I'm sure the request was given late, since all these events are happening so quickly, it would have been impossible to plan this months or even weeks ahead.  Marches and rallies are a vital part of freedom speech and expression, and in cases like this, the government should do what it can to fast track permission.  Otherwise, it looks like it is discouraging dissent, whether or not that is actually the case!)

On Friday, Bhopal survivors protested in front of Home Minister P. Chidambaram's residence.  As far as I know they did not call ahead for an appointment, but I think they made their point.  Photo here.

Thursday's rally got a lot of media attention, but since a picture is worth a thousand words, here's a news report from Al Jazeera English that shows actual footage.

To read more about how the Bhopal organizations feel about the Government proposal, read this editorial at Bhopal.net.

I managed to make it to two of the sessions of the Defense of Democracy event that I mentioned on Thursday, but I had other obligations and missed some of what I'd hoped to see.  Let me just say that what I did see gave me a lot to think about, but right now there are more pressing issues facing this writer: like how to respond to the demands being advanced by my children for a tasty breakfast. Though I will try to win some concessions in the negotiations--help with egg cracking or water boiling--I think I will need to move myself to the kitchen with haste or I'll be faced with  dharna in my own living room!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Delhi Action Alert: Rally for Justice in Bhopal (Today); In Defense of Democracy (Fri.-Sat.)

As we wrote last week, it is good to see the government finally paying some attention to Bhopal.  Unfortunately, it seems that the recommendations made in the Group of Ministers' report will fall far short of reasonable.  Most disturbingly, the proposed compensation process will leave out something like 90 percent of the people affected by the disaster, including children with disabilities caused by the poison their parents were exposed to.  And while it is nice to hear that the cabinet will be discussing renewed efforts to extradite Warren Anderson, one has to take this with a fist full of salt, given the historical reluctance of the US to extradite its citizens and the signals the Indian government has sent on this issue in the past.

There has been a lot written about Bhopal recently: new blog posts, letters to the editors, and mainstream investigative stories are published every day. Many of them are well argued and insightful, like this editorial from CSE's Sunita Narain.  All this public discussion and outcry has been healthy and has moved the issue farther forward than it has moved in years.  

But as much as I like clever essays--after all, that's a large part of what we do here at the Dhaba-- my reading of the tea leaves says that the best thing we can do to move things farther along on the road to a reasonably just outcome to the Bhopal tragedy is to take some more tangible action.  If you live in Delhi and are free today (Thursday, June 24), you are in luck, because there will be a Rally for Justice in Bhopal this morning, organized by a wide range of groups concerned with justice in Bhopal.  Here's the basic information:

WHERE: Mandi House to Jantar Mantar, New Delhi
WHEN: 24 JUNE, 2010. 11 a.m. TODAY
To condemn the latest betrayal of Bhopal

You can find more details at the Delhi Greens blog or at the Facebook event page. This rally promises to start on time, so don't be late.

BREAKING UPDATE: Just saw this update on the Facebook page: The Rally has been cancelled and the Bhopal people are now camping at Jantar Mantar.  Do join there ! 

(For those of you that spent over an hour in sweaty autos only to find no rally, let me just say that I empathize you, having done the same thing myself. I did finally manage to get a copy of Anindita Sengupta's new collection of poetry while I was in the Sahitya Akademi neighborhood, so there was a silver lining!)

You can still sign this petition from Avaaz.org.  For more about Bhopal and other related issues, see our Toxics & Trash page.
The BP leak, the Bhopal verdict, and the Nuclear Liability Bill have reminded environmentalists how many issues are closely related.  There are more, of course: farmers-forests-mining-Maoists are all connected to each other in important ways, as is the state's response to these things.  

A coalition of groups concerned with justice and the environment will be remembering the 35th anniversary of the Emergency this Friday and Saturday in Delhi, with a conference called In Defense of Democracy .  This agenda looks outstanding: poets, politicians, activists and all kind of other interesting people will be there.  Do attend if you can.  For more details, see the Facebook event page or look here if you don't do Facebook.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Best Dhabas in Delhi: Sanjay’s, Near Sitaram Hospital

Every week, a few people come to the Dhaba looking for the real thing—a  place where you can get good food without the price or the frills you get in more conventional restaurants. Most of these visitors leave disappointed—we are, after all, a virtual dhaba, and the “fresh green” stuff we serve is green in the idiomatic sense of the word only. 

So this summer, I thought it would be fun to review a few of Delhi’s many real-life, brick and motor (or brick and tarp) dhabas.  After all, dhabas the ultimate in low-tech greentech, and if you think about it, most of them have an environmental impact that is almost non-existent, compared to fancier eating establishments.  If dhabas aren’t sustainable, then it's hard to imagine what would be.
Our Best Delhi Dhaba series starts on the road just outside Sitaram Hospital in the Qutab Institutional Area, behind the Qutab Hotel.  Mrs. Batti and I had just emerged from the doctor’s office and a cup of tea seemed just the thing to pick us up.

As you come out of Sitaram, and turn to the left, there is a row of dhabas on the side of the road.  We sat down at the first.  It doesn’t really have a name, but it is run by a man named Sanjay, so we’ll call it Sanjay’s. 

This dhaba offers outdoor seating under the shade of large trees and a plastic tarp.  There was no electric fan and no cooler, but a light breeze made the seating comfortable enough even at 11:00 am on a June morning. 

The d├ęcor was mixed.  I didn’t care much for the large Coca Cola advertisement under the counter.  But I liked the shoe that hung from the ceiling above.  On it was written that charm, commonly found on the back of trucks: Buri Nazar Wale Tera Mooh Kaala.

On the morning we ate, the spoken menu included a number of items, including bread omelet, alu paratha, and various kinds of biscuits and namkeen. In addition to chai, cold drinks and water from a matka were also available. 

We ordered a cup of tea each (Rs. 5) and an alu paratha to share (Rs. 10).  The tea was fine—standard dhaba fare, served in a plastic cup.  We had to wait 10-15 minutes for the paratha, but it was well worth it.  It was large, steaming hot, and not too oily.   It was served on a steel plate with a generous portion of pickle.   The picture you see to the right is after we’d eaten about half of it--it was so good, we couldn't wait for me to figure out how to use the low-quality camera on my wife's phone.  

Mrs. Batti, who is not easy to please when it comes to parathas, agreed with me about the quality of this one—she declared it “excellent” and said some nice things about the heat of the pan and the variety and freshness of the fillings. 

Looking at this dhaba from an environmental point of view, it looses some points for the plastic cups and bottles it uses.  And not only are the contents of those foil packs of gutka and paan bad for you (which is why I quit buying them a long time ago in spite of their addictive qualities) the packages are, quite simply, just little pieces of litter waiting to happen.

On the positive side, this being Delhi, most of the plastic will end up getting recycled, and in the long run, it would be easy to replace those plastic cups with clay ones.  The low-tech, open air structure didn’t take much energy to build, and it takes very little energy to operate and maintain.  As for the food, most of it consists of atta, eggs, and fresh vegetables cooked over a gas stove—it’s hard to object to that!

So if you find yourself killing time at Sitaram’s and you want to have a low-tech, green tech kind of breakfast, then I’d say you will be hard pressed to find a better place to eat than this.  Convenient location, low prices, decent service—and some of the best alu parathas in South Delhi—make this one of Delhi’s Best Dhabas. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bhopal, BP, Cobalt-60: Will there be Enough Magic in this Toxic Confluence to Kill the Nuclear Bill?

The news that the Obama administration has gotten BP to pay $20 billion into an independently administered fund charged with compensating victims of the Gulf oil spill has gotten mixed reactions in the US. Many give Obama credit for wresting such a big "down payment" from BP, while others emphasize the fact that BP could--and may have to--pay much more in the long run.  And some are actually outraged because they think BP has been treated unfairly; this blogger has posted a clip of a US representative apologizing to BP for what he calls an illegal "shake down." This be-nice-to corporations approach may seem hard believe, until you read that the representative in question has received very, very large campaign contributions from BP and other oil and natural gas companies involved in the Deepwater disaster.  (He later woke up to political reality and took it all back.)

There is room to be critical of the BP-Obama agreement, but the plan does accomplish some important things: BP has had to put on hold plans to pay out dividends to shareholders this year, and many of the victims of the disaster will receive substantial relief without having to wait  years for a court settlement. Importantly, the agreement does not preclude the imposition of further fines or settlements against BP.

Now contrast this to India's approach to disaster management.  As we argued here last week, for many years that approach has been concerned, first and foremost, with sending an "appropriate signal" to foreign investors.  As we all know by now, Bhopal is the clearest example of this. After 26 years, very little has happened: the original settlement against Union Carbide was completely inadequate;people thus far tried for their role in the disaster have received ridiculously small sentences; and successive governments have failed to extradite Warren Anderson in large part because the signal they sent to the US were that extradition was not a priority

Oh, and one more small detail: the disaster at Bhopal continues, thanks to left over toxins at the old Union Carbide plant that neither Dow/Union Carbide nor the GOI have bothered to clean up. (For more on this story, read this piece in the Economic Times.)

Though it's taken a very long time, it is good to see the Bhopal issue getting some of the attention it should have gotten years ago. In fact there are new and important revelations being made every day.  And The Hindu reports that, after doing nothing for a very long time, the Bhopal Group of Ministers is actually meeting over the weekend.  The article states that "the mood at the meeting, sources said, was that something should be done, and done quickly.” It is hard to resist the temptation to make fun of this sudden change in "mood," but I'm going to sit on my hands and do so.  Instead I'll make three short, serious points:
  1. Anything good that comes out of all this will be thanks to political pressure made possible by the insulting nature of last week's Bhopal verdict and the many organizations, both here and abroad, who have been working on this issue for years. The government is only acting because it feels it has to; otherwise it would have done so years ago. 
  2. Congress/UPA governments and leaders deserve a large share of blame for this fiasco over the last quarter century; and their responsibility goes far beyond letting Warren Anderson escape in 1984. (In fairness, the BJP should be careful about what they say until they can explain why they did little or nothing to take care of this problem when they were in office.)
  3. This is not a problem without a solution! A broad coalition of groups working on this issue has put together a remarkably sensible and clear "Roadmap for Justice and Dignity."  Let's hope the Group of Ministers take heed of these demands.
It is eerie the way the uproar around the Bhopal verdict, the BP oil disaster, and the radioactive Cobalt-60 incident in Mayapuri have all happened so close together.  One speaker at last week's No More Bhopals rally in Delhi called this coincidence of toxic events, "magic."  And maybe it is magic: if nothing else, all these events are making it more difficult for the government to justify its be-nice-to-foreign-companies-even-if-they-cause-disasters attitude!

Last week, for example, the government withdrew an amendment to the Nuclear Liability Bill which would have further weakened the already ridiculously weak bill.  The revised bill wold have offered further protection to US nuclear equipment suppliers from liability in the case of a nuclear incident that “has resulted from the wilful act or gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment, or his employee.” It's just a bit difficult to justify that kind of language, given the current climate, no matter what message you want to send to corporations!

But let's not forget the really stupid part of the Nuclear Liability Bill is its ridiculously low liability caps.The bill limits the overall amount of liability for each nuclear accident in India to about US $450 million or Rs 2100 crore.  This happens to be less than the courts awarded in the Bhopal disaster way back in 1989 But that's not all; the bill limits the liability of the private companies who would operate nuclear plants in India to mere 500 crores--(about $110 million). In the case of a big accident, the Government of India would generously make up the difference between the 500 crore that the responsible company would be liable to pay and the 2100 crore overall limit--a very nice gift to the operators of faulty nuclear power plants.

The government wants this Nuclear Liability Bill very badly; after all, it is part of the Nuclear Deal that UPA I was willing to risk a no-confidence vote over.  If I'm right, even if we kill it once it will return in a new form. And though the magic seems to be going our way this week, we're going to need more than magic to kill this bad bill!  Spread the word; let's stop it while we can!  Sign this online petition, if you haven't already. And while you are at it, sign this one from Greenpeace!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Green Poetry by Janice Pariat

margherita june

summer afternoon,

languorous heat,
the monsoon a shift
of wind away.
ranjit mali says he can
smell it in the earth,
damp, rich and sweet,
sense it by pekoe birds
that fall suddenly quiet.
life here is wholesome
and lonely.

under the lichee tree

is where the world
first formed – watching
small green clusters
in upturned silence, grass
behind my neck. a tilted
view of patchy sky
through crazy tangle
of twig and leaf.

soon, tainted blush

and growing heaviness,
rain drums the earth
to time the season.
bats in their blindness
know when fruit is ripe,
ready to be torn from
papery shell. what’s left
is mine to peel and cradle.
life here drips quietly
from branch to soil.

army stops

driving through assam
meant check points.

obsolete barricades, sand bag
piles heavy as sin.

a slowing down of journeys,
and tightening of air. terse
dialogue in hushed voices.

sometimes they came upon
us suddenly, those clusters
of brown-uniformed men,
waiting like a lazy hunting party.

and we would have no time,
before we stopped, to rearrange
our travelling lives – blankets,
pillows, food basket, slipped-off
shoes. just our faces.

mixture of drowsiness,
and surprise, a steady gaze when
torchlight sweeps across the seats
– hard, brisk and piercing.

sometimes, seeing me (I was eleven)
they’d wave us on without checking
the luggage, beneath the seats, front
or back.

they always inspected the booth.

shadows fell like trees across
the windscreen, glint of barrel
in the queer moonlight,
metallic taste in my mouth.

always that moment of silence
before the engine came to life.
the slow shudder of movement,
suddenly the wind in my face,
an inexplicable feeling of escape.

forest without end

How to explain the forest
behind my house,
the one edged by trees
I climbed to sail
mad march winds
and pluck guavas,
hard, sour as the end
of childhood.

Yet then, it was day
after day of exploring
the stories in my head
In the midst of tall pine
- those undefeated soldiers -
and willows by the water,
fishermen searching for
a girl who drowned.

The moss, a springy carpet
from which to jump on
gnarled root and ancient
rock, fleeing from creatures
I imagined alone, in bed,
watching the stars
or the moon hang
at the edge of night.

How to explain the forest
behind my house,
the one where I avoided
crystal-clear portals
to an upside-down world,
and slipped past the storm-
wrecked cedar, damp, decaying,
smell of age and end of life.

Yet then, it was evening
after evening of chasing
fireflies that died in bottles
- I never understood why -
and searching for crickets
in bamboo thickets, until
light faded and left me
with sound and shadow.
the forest in my head.

Janice Pariat is a freelance writer currently based in her hometown Shillong, Meghalaya after many years of being away in Delhi and elsewhere. She is inspired by her mixed Portuguese, British and Khasi ancestry, literature, Shillong's troubled history, her childhood in Assam, everyday things, travel. Her writing has been published in Soundzine,Tongues of the Ocean, The Smoking Poet, Barnwood International Poetry Mag, Poetry Friends, Tehelka, The Caravan, Art India, Ultra Violet and Literati among others.  Janice has been awarded a 2011 Swiss Arts Council grant for a research residency in Lucerne to work on a short graphic novel. She blogs at http://janicepariat.blogspot.com/
For more green poetry, interviews and guest posts, see the Dhaba's Voices page.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hari Batti--Agony Uncle: Green Book Giving Advice

Dear Mr. Batti,

I have a lot of books in not-bad-at-all condition that I would like to give away. It would be a shame to recycle them, but as it is they are just taking up room in my small flat. Where do you suggest I give them?

Ms. P 

Dear Ms. P,

I love to hear from book lovers like yourself.  I often hang on to books longer than I should, but space is always a concern, and the more times a book is read, the better, from a green point of view! Still, your question is more difficult than it appears, which is why it took me so long to answer it.  Books are a little bit like sweets.  Just as some people love jalebi but are allergic to barfi, some readers love history but cannot tolerate mysteries, even good ones!  And some will recycle anything you give them anyway!  Of course the opposite is also true in many cases; there is simply no accounting for taste. 

Books are, however, superior to sweets in two important respects; they are not bad for your health, and they have a much longer shelf life!  This is why I have been known to give poetry at Diwali.  I reason that even if the gift does not find a reader right away, it may someday.  And it won’t give anyone gas or contribute to heart problems.

I am not suggesting you give away your used books at Diwali, although now that I think of it, that might actually work if your friends are book lovers and you choose your gifts well.  Wrap them up in some recycled paper, make cards to go with them, and you’ve got some super green gifts, suitable for any occasion!

You could also hold an informal book swap.  Invite a dozen book lovers over for food and refreshments.  Ask them to bring anywhere between one and six good used books to trade.  (What makes a book good depends on who is reading it, of course.  But for the purposes of a book swap, good books do not include your friend’s uncle’s volume of self-published poetry or your friend’s father’s self-published business memoirs. It certainly does not include manuals for decade-old software. If you have to, give those books away to someone you don’t like at Diwali. Or give them to the kabadi wallah; he’ll put them to good use!) 

In a book swap, everyone puts their books on a table and can take away as many books as they bring. The point of a book swap is to get books into the hands of people who want to read them.  If you are hosting the swap, you should make sure you contribute a few really good books; if people have enough fun, someone might offer to host the next one.

Friends of Books, a Delhi-based book rental agency, held two book swaps earlier this year in Delhi, and both were a lot of fun.  I’m not sure if they’ll do another one, but it wouldn’t hurt to get on their mailing list, just in case.  And while you are at it, why not check out their service?  Though free public libraries are best, it's almost always better to rent than to buy new from a green perspective.  Friends of Books also sells books, by the way, and I have heard they do a good job of that, as well.

Speaking of selling books, you could try selling yours to a used book dealer.  There are used book sellers in Lajpat Nagar, Saket, and of course there’s the big market in Daryagang.  Used book markets are great because, from a green point of view, the more people that read a book, the better, and there's no harm in making a bit of money out of the deal!

If you have children’s books, it is tempting to want to give them to needy children. But used book are not like used clothes, because it is much more difficult to find the right fit when it comes to books. First, and most obvious, there is language. It makes little sense to give books to children who cannot read them. Even if language is not a problem, it is difficult for students who have no experience reading outside of what is required in school to pick up a book and read for the joy of it. 

One solution is to find a school, an NGO or a family that already values reading and give the books to them. This is not always as easy to do as you might think.  Even elite schools in Delhi often pay only lip service to reading for pleasure.  The same is true for most schools that serve working class and poor children.  Many schools will take your books, but won’t know what to do with them, since they haven't taught children how to read from anything except a text book.

If you have time to give and experience reading aloud to children, there are a lot of NGO’s out there who would welcome volunteers who like to read aloud to young people.  Or you could set up an informal reading hour (start with 30 minutes!) with the children in your own colony.  Once children learn to love hearing stories, it is much easier to convince them to read themselves.  Do this, and you’ll have no problem finding a home—either temporary or permanent—for your old story books, because you’ll have created readers—and readers crave good books!  This is a good thing to do, but don't do it out of charity.  Reading improves many things, including thinking.  And we will need a lot more good thinkers if we are ever going to solve the problems we’ve all collectively created!

Well, Ms. P, that's a long answer for a short question.  I do hope some of it helps.  And if anyone else out there has a question for the dhaba regarding green stuff, why not send it our way?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

UPA II: Who’s Fooling Who?

Before you read any further, if you are outraged about the Bhopal verdict, and the government’s response to it, there will be a rally today (Saturday) in Delhi at Jantar Mantar from 4-7pm.  Details are on Facebook event page, here, or call Kabir Arora at 9911879675. A list of more things you can do follows this post.
On Thursday, I outlined, in simple terms, four things governments can do to keep corporations from behaving unsafely: regulate them strictly; punish unsafe corporations financially; punish the people who run corporations unsafely; and insure that corporations account for their long term liabilities before distributing profits to their shareholders.

Recent events, however, clearly demonstrate the unwillingness of the current government to take any of these simple steps.  In fact, in the last week, we’ve seen three examples of the UPA doing the kinds of things governments do when they want to make corporations happy, whatever the cost.  In this case, the cost may well be the health and safety of millions of people.

First, on Monday, a quarter century after what was by some measures the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world, we saw the guilty parties getting the kind of sentence a reckless driver might expect to receive after causing a traffic accident—two years in prison (with bail already granted) and a small fine.  Though the government has acknowledged that the case against Warren Anderson (the head of Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster) is not closed, they gave no reason to believe his extradition from the US would be pursued in any serious way.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the day after the verdict, the government announced it was further weakening the already ridiculously weak Nuclear Liability Bill.  The revised bill offers further protection to US nuclear equipment suppliers from liability in the case of a nuclear incident that “has resulted from the wilful act or gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment, or his employee.”  As bad as the bill was, and it was very bad indeed, it just got worse!

Then just yesterday, The Hindu revealed internal government memos that show that Home Minister Chidambaram and Kamal Nath, both of whom are members of the Group of Ministers on Bhopal, have been pushing a behind-the-scenes plan to let Dow Chemical, the owner of Union Carbide, escape from its liability for ongoing costs related to the Bhopal disaster. Not surprisingly, the plan originated with...Dow Chemical! The Hindu reports:
Documents released by the Prime Minister's Office under the RTI Act show that in 2006-2007, both Ministers recommended that a Site Remediation Trust be set up to let Indian corporates fund and implement remediation activities, leaving Dow free of any responsibility. This would send “an appropriate signal to Dow Chemicals, which is exploring investing substantially in India and to the American business community,” Mr. Nath said, in a memo dated February 2007. Mr. Chidambaram's recommendation came in the wake of the Indo-U.S. CEOs Forum meeting in October 2006, where Dow CEO Andrew Liveris wanted to discuss the issue. “I think we should accept this offer and constitute a Site Remediation Trust,” he said in his memo.
Coming all together as they have, it is natural to conclude these developments would be an embarrassment to the UPA II government.  But that’s only true if one assumes the government cares about what the general public thinks.  With the next election still years away, the UPA obviously feels free to say what it thinks its most important constituents want to hear.  And these days it seems that this government feels that its most important constituents are large corporations—India Inc. or “the American business community”, it hardly seems to matter anymore.  Viewed from that perspective, this week’s developments are far from embarrassing; rather, they send “an appropriate signal” to those the government is most eager to please.

There is only one remedy for that, of course, and that is to send “an appropriate signal” to our current leaders reminding them that in a democracy, it is the consent and support of the people, not the corporations, that give them the right to govern. Otherwise, they may think they’ve got us all fooled!  But as Abraham Lincoln once famously said:“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” 

It’s true that some of the people actually believe that pleasing corporations should be a government’s first priority, and they will support the government’s recent actions on that principle alone.  But I’m confident that a very large majority of the people believe that a government’s first responsibility is always to the health and welfare of the people it governs.  And if this government is counting on fooling those people for very much longer, it might find itself in trouble sooner than it thinks!
  • Watch Greenpeace video about the Bhopal--Nuclear Liability Bill connection and sign their petition against the bill here.
  • Lots of information; a good place to give money: bhopal.org 
  • Students for Bhopal explain how to Dump Your Dow!
  • I'm a Bhopali--bloggers bring the attention back to December 3, 1984 
  • Join one of the many Bhopal-related  Facebook groups here
  • See the Dhaba's Toxics  & Trash page for more on Bhopal.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lessons from the Bhopal Verdict: Four Simple Ways to Hold Corporations Accountable

Speaking to media after the court announced it's decision in the Bhopal gas case, Robert Blake, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia said  he hopes "this verdict helps to bring some closure to the victims and their families." Given the ridiculously small sentences awarded--a maximum of two years in prison with bail already granted--it is hard to imagine Bhopal victims using the word "closure" anytime soon.  Especially since Warren Anderson, the former Union Carbide chairman, is still absconding and will likely never face justice.  The government is promising a tough new law to deal with man-made disasters, but it's difficult to have much faith in that effort, given the government has so little to enforce the laws that already exist.

The Bhopal verdict is very bad news not only because it is a case of justice denied.  It's also bad news because it teaches corporations the wrong lesson.  And that's not a safe thing to do!

The problem is that corporations are not, in fact, people, though you might not know that, given the rights they are often accorded under the lawCorporations are legal entities, charged with making money for their shareholders. It's important to be clear about this fact, because it has real implications for how we understand corporate behavior--and what we should do to keep corporations behaving well.  

Because corporations are not people, it makes little sense to appeal to their sense of right and wrong.  After all, corporations did not grow up learning to look out for their brothers, sisters, classmates.  They were not taught to be polite to the Auntie upstairs. No one explained to them when they were young that when they grow up they will be expected to take care of the generations that preceded them or the ones that will follow.

To be fair, some corporations are run by people who want to do good things in the world.  But we can't protect ourselves from dangerous corporate behavior by assuming all corporations will be "responsible corporate citizens".  And we mustn't forget that at the end of the day, even a corporation run by good people is still judged by the profits it delivers to it's investors. If it doesn't deliver, chances are it will either go out of business or undergo a change of management.

I'm not an economist, but from what I can tell there are basically four ways you can keep corporations from doing dangerous things:  

1. Pass and enforce laws to make sure corporations don't engage in unsafe behavior in the first place.  This requires having strict safety laws and agencies that can enforce them.  The recent incident involving radioactive material finding it's way into a Delhi scrap market is an example of what happens when these mechanisms don't work.

2. Punish corporations financially when they do unsafe things that result in death or damages. Corporations understand financial consequences, because they cut into profits, so they will do what it takes to avoid them.  On the other hand, if you limit corporate liability, as the government is trying to do with the nuclear liability bill, you tell corporations it makes sense to take risks, since you haven't got much to lose!  After all, you can save a lot of money by cutting corners!  This is just common sense and the same principle operates in gambling, because successful gamblers are actually rational.  They know that if they have little to lose and much to gain it makes sense to take chances.  On the other hand, if they have a lot to lose, they won't make risky bets as often.

3. Punish the people responsible for unsafe corporate behavior.  Corporations are not people, but they are run by people.  And if those people think that there is a chance they might end up behind bars for negligence, then they are less likely to do unsafe things.  This is why the Bhopal verdict is such bad news.  It tells corporate leaders not to worry; after all, if your company causes the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world (not including NAZI gas chambers and acts of war like the atomic bombs dropped on Japan), at most you will be treated like an unsafe driver. 

4.  Insure that corporations account for long term environmental and environmental and health costs that may result from their work. Writing in The Guardian this week, George Monbiot uses the example of oil companies to suggest a way to do this:
"...the governments in whose territories oil companies work should force them to pay into a decommissioning fund. The levy should reflect the costs that economists are able to calculate, plus a contingency for those we can't yet foresee."
The problem with not doing this is that you allow big corporations to take their short term profits and give them to their shareholders, ignoring their long term liabilities.  Then when a corporation does something really stupid, it can claim it doesn't have the money to pay for what it's done; it's given it all away to their shareholders.  Monbiot says it better than I can--read his explanation here.

Back to Bhopal.  If you want to get involved in the fight to hold Dow Chemicals, the current owner of Union Carbide, accountable, here are some places you can go:
  • Lots of information; a good place to give money: bhopal.org 
  • Students for Bhopal explain how to Dump Your Dow!
  • I'm a Bhopali--bloggers bring the attention back to December 3, 1984 
  • Join one of the many Bhopal-related  Facebook groups here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Excuses, Excuses: Lessons from the Commonwealth Games--Pollution Story

Two more lessons from the Commonwealth Games
1. We are worried about the wrong athletes
2. If you lack a convincing argument, look for a good excuse.

This year, for the first time in 44 years, the Queen will not be attending the Commonwealth Games.  The papers say it is due to her heavy workload, but one has to wonder if other factors could have been involved; the announcement did, after all, come on the heals of news that several Canadian athletes are pulling out of the games due to Delhi's unsafe levels of air pollution.

The CWG-Pollution story hit the papers back in May, when the good people at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) announced the results their study of Delhi pollution to a meeting of experts from various government agencies.  According to the CSE's assessment, Delhi's levels of air pollution are very high and this may cause problems for athletes during the Commonwealth Games.  The CSE makes some very good points, and their plan calls for both long term and short term pollution reduction steps.

In the weeks since the CSE report, the CWG-Pollution story got a lot of attention. The Times of India quoted a doctor as saying, "Athletes, who breathe deeper and longer, can find themselves very uncomfortable. Higher level of suspended material could increase their stress level, and in turn affect their performance."  A leading sports scientist urged athletes from New Zealand to avoid training in Delhi as much as possibleThe UN praised the high-tech pollution monitoring system that will be used during the Games.  Following the CSE report, the Delhi government quickly announced a list of measures aimed at cutting pollution in time for the CWG.

I agree with the CSE: Delhi's air is a mess and it needs to be cleaned up.  The dust from all the construction, coupled with the stuff coming out of the tailpipes of millions of vehicles, is quite literally, deadly.  You don't need a hyperlink, or a quote from a doctor, or a report from an NGO to tell you that.

But the way this story is being told is making my blood boil.  First of all, with all this talk about how hard our air will be on athletes, you could almost forget that Delhi is a city that is being built and run, to a great extent, by people who use their bodies as machines: women who carry pots of water or stacks of bricks on their heads daily; cycle rickshaw wallas who haul heavy loads;  the workers who dig trenches by hand.   Do these people not breathe deep and long? Are they not athletes in every relevant sense of the word?  Are they not being caused "discomfort" every day?  Do they not die of cancer by the thousands?

And what of all of our children?  Who doesn't know at least one child not suffering from asthma?  I'm sorry about those Canadian marathoners.  But whether they run in October or not is really a small matter compared to the health of the millions of people who live here year round.

When you look at the Delhi government's plans to reduce pollution during the Games, most of what they plan to do will have a short term impact: temporary closure of power plants and traffic reduction, though a variety of means, including mandatory closure of schools.

These measures will make a difference, but their affect won't last long: no matter how tempting it may be, you can't solve the pollution problem by closing schools forever!  And unless you install a lot more solar power, it's hard to imagine power plants closing for very long. A few solar powered cycle rickshaws or light bulbs won't be enough, I'm sorry to say!

It is true that construction will probably slow naturally after the Games. But nobody can seriously believe that the Delhi government is going to do anything long term to reduce traffic; after all, they've spent most of the last five years building roads and flyovers!   In fact, it was not even three years ago that The Hindu ran an article titled, "Pollution-free by 2010, says Sheila."  Part of the CM's pollution reduction strategy? Flyovers!  Yes, flyovers were supposed to make our city more beautiful and while at the same time cutting idle time and thus reducing pollution.  Of course, that's not how the world works.  There is plenty of research that says when when you build more roads, you get more traffic!  And more traffic means more pollution!

This brings us to the second thing that's been bothering me about the Commonwealth Games-pollution story.  You see, for years, we've had massive transportation budgets justified in the name of the Commonwealth Games.  In fact, roads and transportation got 38 percent of the most recent Delhi budget. Now I'm not saying that all that was wasted; certainly the investment in public transportation is important. But overall, it seems terribly strange that we've built so many flyovers and widened so many roads in the name of the games, especially since, as we now learn, we could have solved the CWG-related traffic problems by reducing traffic in other ways!  In fact, that's what we are going to have to do anyway, because of our levels of pollution have gotten so out of hand!

Which just goes to show that the massive investment in roads and flyovers never really had much to do with the Commonwealth Games.  The games were just an excuse to do something that would have been politically impossible, otherwise.  And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. 

In a city where millions of people don't have adequate housing or water, you'd have a hard time convincing people that transportation should be the top priority for government spending. Lacking a convincing argument, our leadership turned to the next best thing: a good excuse.  Call it what you will--old-fashioned politics or sleight of hand--but you have to admit Sheila Dikshit has played this game--these Games--brilliantly.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

World Environment Day 2010: Celebrate, Mourn...Organize!

If you are in or near Delhi, there are plenty of things you can to to celebrate World Environment Day, which is happening today itself.  The Times of India tells us how to "Go Green: Shop Eat Watch Gift".  Their list of weekend events is here. Or try this list of events from around India.

However, if you are like me, you might not feel like shopping or celebrating.  You may feel tempted to stay home and mourn insteadAfter all, staying home would help you avoid inhaling (or contributing to) the unusually hight levels of air pollution that we are experiencing this year in Delhi. And there is plenty to mourn.  In spite of what “climate skeptics” would have us believe, the latest data from scientists at NASA suggests the world is continuing to warm at an alarming rate.  And it’s not just the heat wave in North India; the data points to other things that are hard to deny—like melting ice caps and warmer oceans.  Closer to home, scientists see a clear correlation between strengthening cyclones and warmer ocean water. (For more on how this works, see this article in The Hindu.)

Those who profess undying faith in the power of technology to save us from our follies might want to ignore how utterly helpless BP and the US government have been to plug just one underwater leak.  Problem is, that leak is getting harder to ignore, because it’s spreading oil over such a large and sensitive area.  Sensitive environmentally, sensitive economically and, most of all, sensitive politically.  To see just how large the spill is, take a look at this graphic. (Thanks Amruta). Or this interactive map from the NY Times.

But as bad as that looks, there’s another story that we aren’t getting.  You see, in the eyes of large corporations, powerful countries and the mainstream media, not all the wold’s regions are assensitive as the US coast.   Last week, the Guardian's John Vidal reminded us that in many less “important” places, such as the Niger delta, oil spills are a regular occurrence(In this article, he looks at the issue in more depth. You won't find an interactive map there, but it's worth reading.)

These spills are ignored, because they affect only poor countries and/or poor people.  Of course this is part of what makes oil as cheap as it is; if we enforced the same safety standards world wide that are enforced in the richer countries, oil prices would rise dramatically and alternative sources of energy would become more attractive.  A lot of people don’t want that to happen, for a lot of reasons.

Among all the bad news last week, I did see one heartening story.  Writing in the Economic Times, M.   Rajshekhar reports on a government health care initiative that seems to be making a real difference in Chhattisgarh, of all places.  It seems that the program, which depends on an army of 60,000 volunteer healthcare workers who also function as advocates and activists, has resulted in more responsive doctors and more functioning health centers.  Infant mortality in the state is down from 95 per 1000 in 2000 to 44 per 1000 in 2009. Rajshekhar reminds us that health care programs alone will not make people healthy; for that, you need to do things like reduce poverty and improve nutrition.  But this story does remind us that government can make a difference in the lives of people and that progress is not impossible, even in these difficult times.  It takes leadership and some honest officials, of course, but most of all it takes the involvement of everyday people. 

So maybe the message this World Environment Day should be something like this: whether you celebrate or mourn is up to you.  But whatever you do, don’t forget to organize. With as big a mess as the world is in these days, it's going to take a lot of us to clean it up!