Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Guest Post: Journey Just Begun, by Kabir Arora

Kabir Arora is well known among Delhi environmentalists for his tireless activism. He's now begun a two year Gandhi Fellowship working in village schools and communities.  Here's the first of his updates.

Last year around September-October, I was struggling with a question, “What to do after Graduation?”. Personally wanted to take a break and move away from everything. Exploring “New Time and Space” was something, I was looking forward to. Luckily came to know about Gandhi Fellowship, applied for it. Gandhi in the “fellowship programme” attracted me. Now I'm here in Udaipurvati for Learning Quality induction, Jaitpura is my school.

Gandhi said “India lives in villages” and he left to find “India”. My journey is to find him and follow his footprints on the sands of time. Got a glimpse of his in my school, where kids are all set to explore new dimensions. They are small but with big dreams of mingling with the high mountains, deep seas. Make the world a better place to live, that's what Gandhi wanted. Every day I see him smiling in my classroom!

“Every kid has an adult in him/her, and every adult has a kid in him/her”, once a statement made by someone. I observe it, with every passing day. Students help me to unlearn and see the world with innocent eyes full of curiosity. I used to love silence but my class is always chaotic--the chaos which has a silence of innocence. “Am I becoming a good teacher?”, No! Kids are creating a facilitator out of me to help them in studying the lessons of life. Life which will lay the foundation of humane society.

The words here are not mine, but the dreams of Pawan, Hansu, Pramod, Sunil, Virendar, Garima...

Journey has just began!

Rangon Ka Ek Indradhanush Le, Chale Hamara Kafila...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What Climate Refugees Look Like

Before the main post, two action alerts. First, Greenpeace is asking us to send a letter to Sonia Gandhi about the BRAI Bill; apparently, she's our best hope on this issue, at this moment. It's just like signing a petition; it won't take long, so why not do this today?

And this just in via the Indian Youth Climate Network:
The Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a new network of individuals and organizations across the country has announced that a “Kisan Swaraj Yatra” would set off from Sabarmati Ashram on October 2nd 2010, to remind all Indians of our hard-won independence and the insidious ways in which agri-business corporations, supported by the State are taking this independence and sovereignty away, especially with regard to our food and farming. This Yatra is a call for joining forces to save Indian farming and farmers mired in deep distress and to forge a sustainable path forward for Indian farming.
Please go here for more information. 

I don't watch TV much at all.  In fact our TV is not even currently hooked up to cable and reception is so bad on the ground floor of our block of flats that there's almost no point of turning it on. Don't get me wrong; I do watch an occasional film on DVD, and I get more "screen time" than I need through the computer.  I'm no purist. Still I do think that less TV means more reading and that's generally good.

But last weekend, I took an internet holiday and got out of the house.  Somehow I found myself sitting with a friend...watching TV. My friend is a rather serious fellow, so we ended up watching coverage of the flooding in Pakistan.  Of course I've read a lot about that flooding. I know the destruction is massive and Pakistan's infrastructure has been set back years, even decades.  I can even hyper link to an article that explains how many billions of dollars in damage has been done, how many thousands of miles of roads destroyed.

But in spite of an annoying team of American reporters, the TV footage I saw last weekend gave me insight I think I'd missed in the print coverage I'd seen.  There were thousands of people streaming out of villages and cities, fleeing the rising water; there were people fighting over drinking water and flour; terrified little children wandering, knee deep in water.

Here is the problem honest environmentalists have.  We know you can never say with certainty that this flood was a direct result of climate change. But we also know that most scientists believe that climate change is leading to an increase in certain kinds of extreme weather events--like severe flooding and cyclones.  And that means that in years to come, we are going to see more and more disasters like we've been seeing in Pakistan, Leh and China.  

So we're stuck: if we claim a connection, the climate deniers will question our credibility, even though many of them jump at the chance to cry "global cooling" every time it snows.  If we don't claim a connection, we lose a powerful opportunity to educate about the kind of future we are looking at if we allow climate change to go unchecked.

Politicians are trying to figure out how to talk about this issue.  Hillary Clinton recently spoke of "linkage" between the recent floods and climate change. I guess it's a start, but I'm sure we can do better than "linkage".  Scientists are also grappling with how to explain uncertain events clearly: many are looking at the connection between climate change an severe weather much more seriously than they did a decade ago, even.  My sense is that we need to get comfortable with the word "probably."  (Read this article if you want more on that.)

And then we must say clearly, and with a high level of confidence, that much of the recent flooding we've seen in Asia was probably a result of climate change, but it most certainly offers us a glimpse of what we expect to happen more and more often in the future if we don't do something soon.  And it's not a pretty picture.  

We must tell our friends and neighbors: Hey, if you are wondering what to worry about when it comes to climate change, the destruction wrought by extreme weather events and the resulting climate refugees is a good place to start.  After that, you can start considering the hunger caused when too many monsoons fail.  Or think about what suddenly happens when you reach the bottom of your bottle of Limca and then consider tube wells and falling water tables.  And if you really want a scary scenario, imagine the political destabilisation that tends to accompany these kinds of events.

That should be enough to worry about for now.

What Climate Refugees Look Like:
What They Carried Away (Time-CNN photo essay)
Pakistan Flood in Pictures (The New Statesman)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thermos Technology: Waste Not, Want Not!

A joule saved is a joule not generated!

Greens all over the world get very excited by big, high-tech projects, like this one which claims to convert North African sun into European electricity. It relies on thermos technology, among other things, such as huge amounts of desert land. 

I, for one, have more faith in the power of lower tech projects, like efforts to use thermos bottle technology to produce solar hot water heaters that work in cold places.  If you really get down to it, even solar powered water heaters can seem pretty complex.  Still, I think I understand them well enough, ever since that July I spent in Uttarakhand, producing enough warm water to bathe my children and myself by placing old water bottles, wrapped in a plastic bags, on a sheet metal roof. (Mrs. Batti, who came down with a nasty bug, rightfully got most of our small allotment of wood fire-warmed water.)

In fact, I think good old fashioned thermos technology is under-rated. I love to drink coffee and tea, but I don't like to drink it all at one time.  No, the best thing to do, is to have a lot of small cups.  Before I had a thermos, I had to re-heat my coffee over and over, and that was not very fun at all--besides, it wasted a lot of cooking gas and the coffee tasted burnt after a while. Then I got a nice thermos.  I can sip coffee all day long, if that's what I want to do!  

And while we're on the subject, what would we do without that roti warmer?  Yes, I know it's tastier to eat them hot and fresh, but our warmer, which uses thermos technology, gives us that little bit of extra flexibility we sometimes need.  No need to use an oven to keep things warm, or to have someone working in the kitchen while everyone eats; you can all sit down together! And it's not just for rotis--it works for idlis and pancakes and all kinds of things!

Thermos technology may be over one hundred years old, but it has a lot going for it! You see, it's almost always better to save energy than it is to figure out how to generate unnecessary energy.  I put that in italics, because it is so important.  In fact, I think I'll write it up nice and big and nail it to the wall of the Dhaba: Hari Batti's third law of thermodynamics or something like that...Yes, thermoses are the ultimate energy saving devices. They are time tested and eco-friendly--and they keeps things tasting good!  What more could you ask for?

Sometimes low tech is the best greentech; for more examples like this, check out this page.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nuclear Liability Bill Takes Another Bizarre Turn

The UPA keeps trying to sneak major changes into the Nuclear Liability Bill.  
Do they think we are stupid? Or do they just want the US to give them extra marks for their efforts to protect negligent nuclear suppliers?

There is no other way to say this: the UPA's effort to protect foreign companies and governments from any liability in the case of a nuclear accident has taken a bizarre turn over the past few days.  If it weren't so serious, it would be funny.  Late last week, it looked like the BJP was ready to sign off on an improved, but still deeply flawed Nuclear Liability Bill.  Then someone in the government tried to sneak in the word "and" between two clauses of the Bill, and that one word would have made it almost impossible to use the Bill to hold nuclear suppliers accountable for negligence in the case of a nuclear accident.  Luckily, The Hindu caught the change and the BJP withdrew support for the amended Bill until things could be sorted out. The government made conciliatory noises.

But when the final version was released, the government had again tried to slip in a small, but very important, word: intent. According to a report in The Hindu:

'The amended version of the bill says the suppliers of any defective equipment involved in an accident can be sued by the Indian operator of a nuclear facility only if the supply in question was made “with the intent to cause nuclear damage."'

This, dear friends, is truly bizarre! "Intent to cause nuclear damage" amounts to an act of terrorism, if not all out war!  If the government is relying on a "liability bill" to respond to this kind of act, perhaps a closer look at the UPA's foreign policy is in order! And even if you were going to use the court system in a case like this, why would you want to provide liability limits in cases of nuclear terrorism?  I just wonder, does the UPA think we are all stupid?   

After a careful reading of the tea leaves floating in my cup this morning, I think the UPA will have to back down again.  They will do so having sent a strong message to the US nuclear industry and government: "We really tried to give you complete protection, but we couldn't quite manage it."  However, there is bad news in my tea leaves also: the version of the Bill that the BJP is ready to support is also deeply flawed, in part because it severely limits the amount of liability in cases of nuclear accidents.  No, it's not a free pass, but it does highly subsidize the nuclear industry by putting strict limits on liability.  This kind of thing may make nuclear power marginally cheaper, but it will also encourage cost-cutting and risk taking.

For a more thorough analysis, you can read ToxicWatch's press statement on the Bill.  Here's an excerpt from it:
British Petroleum (BP) is facing a bill of up to $34 billion from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. After US senators demanded, the oil company deposited $20 billion (about Rs 92000 crores) into a ring-fenced account to meet escalating compensation costs but the way Indian legislators are agreeing to a Rs 1500 crore cap on nuclear disaster from large nuclear power plants, Rs 300 crore cap for institutions involved in reprocessing fuel and Rs 100 crore cap for small research reactors is unacceptable and condemnable.
For now, I'm suggesting we support Greenpeace's campaign and send a letter to the PM calling for unlimited liability in the case of nuclear accidents: let the courts decide.  

And if you are looking for more resources, do check out the ToxicWatch site, linked above.  Also, Sukla Sen has a really excellent analysis of the Bill and it's history over at the Environment Press.  Read it, and while you are at it, join the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP)'s Facebook group. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bad News: Nuclear Liability Bill, BRAI Bill are better, not good enough

Apparently, the Obama administration is pressuring India to go easy on Bhopal.  Students for Bhopal tell you how you can protest this double standard here.  It's easy!
I promised my family I'd take some time off from the Dhaba this weekend, but there's a lot that needs to be said, so I'm throwing this together on Thursday and will autopost over the weekend.  If you have fresher links or ideas, please do add them in the comments.

A long time ago, it seems, I argued that the BRAI Bill and the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill were really stupid bills.  A lot of people agreed with that sentiment, and in the end, both bills were modified.  The question is, have they been modified enough? My sense is they haven't.  Of course compromise is needed in politics, and one cannot just say "no" to everything.  But if you compromise too much, you lose credibility in the long run.  A generation ago, a lot of politicians compromised again and again over the Bhopal disaster, and today we are left with the consequences of that.  If we can't learn from that situation, we are in trouble.

I'm suggesting that as a first step, people join Greenpeace's campaign against these two bills.  They are asking us to send a letter to Sonia Gandhi about the BRAI Bill and to send a letter to the PM about the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill. Both letters made sense to me when I read them, and they can't hurt.  For more information, I'd start there.

If you are looking for more analysis, it's still coming in.  It's not as easy to sort all this out as you might think, since in places these bills seem to be purposely ambiguous; the nuclear bill in particular seems to be using confusing language as a way of compromise. And the bills aren't in their final form quite yet, either. Still, here are some of the links I've been looking at:
Government letting suppliers off the hook? The Hindu reports on a major problem in the nuclear bill.
Did Congress let Modi off the hook in exchange for BJP support? The Hindu. If true, this would be corruption of the worst sort imaginable.
Elusive Benefits, tangible costs: Brahma Chellaney's editorial in The Hindu argues, among other things, that the US holds its own nuclear industry to much higher standards than it will stand for in India.  Words like hypocritical and insulting come to mind.
Sukla Sen writes about confusion in the Nuclear Bill in The Green Youth Movement google group. Also includes statement from Left parties.
Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) is a Facebook group where you can get more updates as they come.
Jairam Ramesh likes the BRAI BILL--but take that with a grain of salt for now. For problems with the current bill, see the Greenpeace letter, above.
Interesting piece on the problems with GM seeds in Mexico.  Thanks to Mira Kamdar for posting this; she's always got something interesting to say.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kosi by Sumana Roy


Like a woman who will fold and unfold her clothes
to exaggerate the shadow of her riches,
Kosi, the river of death,
stammers at bends, making all journeys longer;
Like a lover who knows not what he loves
except the scratches of stumbles between his toes,
Kosi, water-coffin,
moves without regard for direction:

The world drowns into a whisper,
cow and grass become fodder,
mirrors freckle with obituaries,
names become numbers.
sediment of history’s granary,
rises like yeast, corpses moles on its face.
Legs lose themselves to proverbs:
Kosi follows, at first like a lover,
then chases like a creditor,
until language and tongue become one
– a conch shell of sighs stuck inside Mithila’s throat

In the slaughter houses of its waters,
barbed wires turn anemic,
death blunts the pointed shadows of guns,
two countries fail to identify their dead,
all men become one,
as only Kosi and the vultures know

Everyone returns
to where they thought they had left unfinished tasks –
to sunken pillows, swollen tubers, smelly toilets –
to charpoys of dailiness, all except the river.
Kosi never returns:
like death, its home is forever new.

Sumana Roy’s first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2008. She lives in the Chicken’s Neck corridor, India, from where she hears stories about Kosi’s Great Flood in neighbouring Nepal and Bihar every year. 

To read more of the Dhaba's green poetry, go here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Loading the Dice: What Games of Chance Can Teach Us About Asian Floods and Russian Wildfires

My son has been interested in probability lately, so we've been tossing a lot of coins and dice.  You can learn a lot about how the world works from watching the way dice fall.  If you throw a pair of dice repeatedly, you will notice patterns: fewer 2's and 12's, for example; more 6's and 7's.  And it's not that difficult to see why this happens.  There are many ways you can come up with a 7 (1+6; 2+5; 3+4; 4+3; 5+2; 6+1); but there is only one way you can come up with 2 (1+1). 

But sometimes you do roll a pair of 1's.  A doctor once told a friend of mine that he shouldn't worry too, much, but according to a screening test, there was a 1 in 6 chance he'd be getting some very bad news shortly.   A week later, the doctor said there had been a mistake: the chances of bad news were only 1 in 36.  In the end, a more thorough battery of tests showed no problem whatsoever, but for a couple of weeks, my friend said he couldn't stop thinking about dice.

There has been a lot of extreme weather in the news lately. Flooding in India, Pakistan, and China has affected millions of people. Now we see a record heat wave and a severe drought in Russia leading to fires that bring to mind words like apocalyptic.  Of course, droughts and floods have always been a fact of life and the causes of any individual weather event are too complex to pin down completely. But we do know this: according to the best science we have, climate change will lead--is already leading--to an increase in extreme weather events. 

If you think I'm jumping to conclusions too hastily, consider that the UN estimates that over 150,000 people already die each year due to climate change--mostly because extreme weather events are rising.  Or go see what the good people at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune have to say about the flooding in Leh.  

We will have more floods, more droughts, more severe cyclones, etc.  Not every day.  Not everywhere, but most every year, and in more and more places.  Climate is not the same as weather.  But climate change will change the weather, just as surely as loading your dice will change the way they fall.

Update: After drafting this yesterday afternoon, I returned to find these two articles in The Hindu, both of which are worth reading:
Is Weather Chaos Linked to Warming? Probably.  (Here you will find more detailed analysis than I've gone into in this post. )
Russian nuclear centre still under threat  (Why climate change should keep you up at night worrying.)

We'll look at the power of rivers--and nature generally-- through a different lens entirely on Thursday: poetry.  Do check your feed!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Peepli [Live]: Brilliant!

Peepli [Live]
Directed by Anusha Rizvi
Co-Directed by Mahmood Farooqui
Produced by Aamir Khan
Five Green Stars (Extraordinary)

I won't give away the punchline to Peepli [Live], Anusha Rizvi's brilliant political  and social satire which opened Friday across India.  But I will say this: ending the film, as she does, with the jarring transition out of Mukhya Pradesh and the final scene which follows that journey, is one of the bravest things I have seen a filmmaker do in a long time.  The film did not end the way I wanted it to end.  It ended the way it needed to end. And because of that, I can't stop thinking about it.

Peepli [Live] is the story of two men, Natha Das Manikpuri and his elder brother Budhia, who are faced with an absurdly horrifying dilemma: the only way they can save their farm is for one of them to commit suicide.  There are government schemes to help the families of farmers who kill themselves, but there are no schemes to help help desperate farmers before they kill themselves.

Natha tells his brother that he'll take the final step in order to save the family's land.  Word spreads.  Before you know it, a media circus descends on the village and all kinds of cynical political machinations ensue.  Though this is an Aamir Khan Production, it breaks from the Aamir Khan formula in some important ways.  For one, the protagonists of this film are not superheros, as they have been in Aamir Khan's previous hits (superhero peasant-cricketer; superhero teacher; superhero idiot-genius).  Rizvi's protagonists are complex, human, and very funny.  But they are not....Aamir Khan.  And that makes all the difference.

This film is full of all kinds of humour.  Rizvi's portrayal of Natha, his family and the village is comedic, but sympathetic.  When the camera turns toward the bureaucrats, the politicians and the press, on the other hand, the word ruthless comes to mind.

Rizvi reminds us of the difference between satire and comedy.  Both make us laugh, but satire requires one more thing: it requires us to think. And that is what makes this makes this film so powerful: it not only lays bare hypocrisy, cynicism and rot, but it makes us laugh at these things.  This kind of laughter is not always nice, but it is, and always has been, an important kind of political act.

This is Rizvi's first commercial film and the film depends on actors with more experience in theatre than on the big screen.  But in spite of this--or perhaps because of it--Peepli [Live] looks nothing like an amateur production.  The reviews that I've seen so far have been positive.  (See this one by Suparna Sharma in the Asian Age, for example.) In the end, though, one is left with the impression that this film deserves a deeper reading than it is likely to get initially.  Like most good art, it works on many levels;  and there references and iconic figures that need to be decoded. There is no doubt in my mind that Peepli [Live] will be taught in universities for years to come--it deserves that level of analysis.

A film like this is bound to come under fire from all corners. Peepli [Live] will not please politicians of any party and certain members of the media will no doubt squirm.  At least one farmer organisation has already objected to it for not being "realistic" enough. Next thing you know, the media will be calling on Aamir Khan to set up a foundation to solve the farmer suicide problem.  But let's be clear about this: it is not the job of socially conscious artists to solve the problems of the world.  It is not even their job to report on those problems "realistically"--unless they choose to be documentary film makers.  It is enough that they honestly and seriously engage with those problems--and help us to engage with them.

Which brings me back to the last shot in this film.  When we watch any film--even a film like this-- we are trained to expect a conventionally satisfying ending.   Rizvi could have given us this. She could have cued the right music, tweaked the plot just so, and let us leave the cinema hall laughing or crying or just feeling uplifted.  But here again, Rizvi has refused to follow the typical script.  

Instead, of satisfying, she has given us unsettling.  I saw this film last night, and all day today, that last scene has been working at me. It's a little like the feeling you get when you have a stone stuck in your shoe and can't stop to take it out.  But it's the feeling is not in my feet, it's somewhere behind one of the middle buttons of my shirt.  

This is a film you must see.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Activists Win Against Pesticide Industry in Supreme Court Free Speech Case

Large and powerful corporations don't typically take criticism well. In places where the military rules, there are often fairly straightforward ways to muzzle opposition-- I'm not going to go into those here, but if you want to read an interesting book on the subject, try The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Of course there are times when the Indian state intervenes directly on behalf of big companies--sometimes for it's own reasons, sometimes under pressure from powerful "allies".  This may involve the forcible displacement of poor people or forest dwellers. It may involve the protection of corporations, like Union Carbide/Dow, from paying the true cost of the crimes they've committed.  Sometimes the state even goes so far as to save corporations from having to worry about the crimes they may commit someday--the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is an example of this.

At times, corporations also try to use the legal system to punish people who criticise them.  This strikes at the heart of freedom of expression.  The BRAI Bill is a particularly stark example of this. More common is the practice of censorship through Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPP involves the use of lawsuits to punish and intimidate people for what they say. Imagine having to get legal help, go to court, etc. because of a frivolous lawsuit.  Not something most of us want to do.  

Given all this, it was very nice to hear that a group of environmentalists (including Ravi Agarwal, who we've featured here at the Dhaba) recently beat a SLAPP suit brought by an association of pesticide manufacturers. Here's an excerpt from the press release: 
A two Judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, on 20th July, 2010, quashed the case criminal defamation case against 11 activists initiated by the Crop Care Federation (a consortium of pesticide manufacturing companies earlier known as Pesticides Associations of India) in the Magistrate Court of Warangal for publishing a report titled "The Killing Fields of Warangal" in 2002. The report which was a preliminary investigation of pesticides caused deaths in the cotton belt of Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh (India) was termed defamatory by the largest and most powerful pesticide companies in the country. In its judgement on 20th July 2010, the Honourable Court observes that, "The general tenor of the report indicates that the report meant to focus the harmful effects of exposure to pesticides. It is quite evident from the report that it was not meant to harm, hurt or defame any individual or the manufacturing company." The ruling marks a landmark judgment favouring freedom of speech and transparency and was fought for by the very well known Indian environmental lawyer, Mr. Raj Panjwani.

This SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) type litigation, brought upon by one section of pesticide industries, was filed in Warangal and would have resulted in a long and expensive trial lasting for years, which had begun over 5 years ago. The Warangal court had also issued non-bailable arrest warrants against some of the accused, in 2007, after Andhra Pradesh High Court had dismissed the appeal to quash the proceedings.

This is one of the first times that the Pesticide manufacturers, who have been filing many civil and criminal defamation cases against environmentalists, for speaking or writing on pesticides, have lost.
This is very good news, and we should celebrate.  But it should make us aware of a deeper problem.  If activists who write a good faith report about the affects of poison on people end up having to prove their innocence by taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court, then we are in trouble.  Many people will not be able or willing to speak up if that is the price they have to pay.  I'm not sure what the answer is, but it seems to me that there should be some penalty for corporations and people who bring lawsuits that are obviously frivolous.  

One penalty we might hope to make corporations pay for this kind of suit is bad publicity.   I'd love to see a major paper look at the SLAPP issue and how it works in India. It's an important story in itself.  And the very act of shining the light on this kind of misuse of corporate power could be an important deterrent against this kind of behavior in the future. That's the kind of thing we would all benefit from.

For more information please contact:
New Delhi: Ravi Agarwal 9810037355
Warangal: P. Damoder: 9849346491 
Hyderabad: Dr.D. Narasimha Reddy: 9010205742 
Chennai: Madhumita Dutta: & Rajesh Rangarajan: 9840113028

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Commonwealth Games Corruption Scandal: The Lessons We Should Be Learning

It is clear that the Commonwealth Games have become a "political issue."  Why even the Queen of England is reported to be in a "cold fury" over the scandal!  It is not surprising that opposition parties from the left and the right are doing their best to inflict damage on the government for the corruption and incompetence it tolerated and/or encouraged. With the news coming that the NDMC has given up even trying to complete work at CP in time, and will simply cover up much of it with tonnes of loose earth and pavement until after the Games are over, the noise is bound to get louder.

Of course much of the opposition has its crooked fingers in many other jars of ghee, so it's easy to feel just a little cynical about the outrage we are hearing from some quarters.  But let's not forget that this is how democracy is supposed to work; if you are in power and you or your friends allow or participate in evil deeds, then it is the job of the opposition (and the press, of course) to make you pay a price!  Without the fear of paying that price, things would almost certainly be a lot worse than they are, which is why even flawed democracy is usually better than dictatorship. 

Let's hope Congress has learned this lesson well enough to go after the people responsible for this mess, starting as high up as the rot goes.  Resignations and suspensions of members of the CWG Organising Committee are a fine place to start, but more action will undoubtedly be required.  

Speaking of lessons learned, I'm glad most people in Delhi are taking a hard look at the Games.  But I'm concerned about how many of these conversations go.

What I hear too much of:
  1. "It's so embarrassing that the whole world is going to see what a messy city Delhi is."
  2. "It is terrible that my tax money has been wasted on corruption."
  3. "This was a good idea that was poorly executed."
It's not that these ideas are necessarily wrong.  It's just that they lack depth--and they don't do much to move us forward.  I'd much rather hear more of this:
  1. It is shameful that the contractors charged with undertaking World Class projects were not required to pay even minimum wages or to meet minimum labour standards. Haven't you seen all those children of workers spending their days on the side of the road?  Why couldn't someone have set up a few mobile creches?  And it's criminal that so many workers died as a result of this negligence.
  2. In a city where so many people lack decent housing and clean water,  isn't it terrible that public money that should have been used for the public good was stolen by corrupt officials and contractors? That is the worst kind of theft!
  3. This was a bad idea from the start because we put false ideas of national pride before things that matter more, like schools, housing, food security and water.  The corruption and incompetence only made the situation worse.
Try talking to the people you meet every day about this.  Most of these arguments don't require statistics, just common sense, so I didn't include as many hyper links as I usually do.   We just need to learn how to frame the issues in a way that leads to more honest and productive results.  (If you do want some statistics to back up your arguments, go to our special CWG page. )

And if you want to do something, take a look at ACORN International's Commonwealth Games Campaign.  If you are a student, why not work to fight the evictions at Delhi UniversityAnd whoever you are, why not write a letter to the editor of your newspaper or your local government official?

    Saturday, August 7, 2010

    Solidarity Alert: Mining Abuse; Forest Rights; Coporations Quit India Movement

    When we step back from the Commonwealth Games fiasco--which is not easy to do when you live in Delhi--it is hard to deny how important mining is to people who care about the environment and justice.  All those new cars you see on the road, those new shopping malls and the expensive stuff you see inside them?  A large part of all that is made from metals that were mined from places that used to be forests. And those forests were places that supported animals, plants, and people!  
    Mining is a dirty, ugly business. We probably can't stop doing it completely--a modern sustainable, just society will require some metal, even if we use much less and recycle like we should.  But destroying forests, mining metal and running factories just to produce throw-away consumer goods for the richest of the rich not a smart strategy.  It will result in jobs for a few years, maybe even decades, but in the end that road leads to nowhere but disaster--when oil prices spike, when wells and rivers run dry and the monsoons don't come, malls and big cars won't power our homes, they won't irrigate our fields!  Better to put people to work in industries that build things we really need: efficient, affordable housing, solar and wind power plants, water harvesting projects, etc.  

    The good news is that there is a growing awareness about how much damage the mining industry does--not just to forests, but to communities and workers, as well. This awareness is in large part thanks to the fact that the people who depend on forests have begun to resist their displacement in a variety of ways.
    For people concerned about this issue there are several events happening that you should know about: 

    August 9:Corporations Quit India Movement (nationwide)
    On the 9th of August 2010, peoples movements across the country will come together for true freedom in the ‘Corporations Quit India Movement'. The goal is to build a national movement to stop the violation of peoples' rights and land grab by anti-people laws. Public demonstration and actions are planned in 6 regions in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh each, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Orissa, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. Delhi Solidarity Group invites you to two simultaneous actions in Delhi, 1) taking place in Kanjhawala organized by Bhoomi Bachao Andolan (11am-1pm) and 2) facilitated by DSG at Jantar Mantar (3-5pm), both on the 9th August.
    For information in Delhi, contact:
    Bhupendra Rawat: 20506929
    Vimal bhai: 9891814707 
    Tarini: 9350163480

    August 12: Conference on Niyamgiri a Test Case for Forest Rights (Delhi)
    The Dongrai Kondh and other tribes inhabiting the Niyamgiri  forests have been resisting the threat of Mining of Bauxite in their sacred mountain. This one day event looks at legal, social, political issues around this.  There are some interesting people on the agenda.  More information on Navdanya's site.  For background on this struggle, try reading this in-depth piece on by M Rajshekhar.

    Ongoing, On-line Actions
    Forests.org have taken on the Dongrai Kondh--Vedanta struggle and are running an international campaign on the issue.  You can help out by going here.

    If you are on Facebook, you can join Support India's indigenous peoples' rights to natural & cultural resources.  They will keep you up to date on various struggles nationwide. Sometimes, it's good news; the Environment ministry recently halted a major project in Orissa due to environmental and human rights issues. Read more here.

    Things to read:
    If you want to learn more about this issue, there is a lot to read. In addition to the links mentioned above, try starting with two articles fromTehelka: in April, they ran an excellent piece on corruption in the mining industry in Karnataka ; last month, they ran an extraordinary piece on the 70,000 child miners at work in Meghalaya.  For a look at the big picture, try reading Sabitha T P's guest post: Some Uncommon Thoughts About the Commons.

    And if there are more things going on that you know about, put them in the comments below!

    Thursday, August 5, 2010

    The Power of Denial: Lessons from the CWG Corruption Scandal and the Climate Change Debate

    Last week, Suresh Kalmadi, chair of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, tried to distract the country from the Commonwealth Games corruption scandal by playing the "anti-national" card. When that didn't work, he tried the next trick many politicians like to use when faced with bad news: denial.  Kalmadi repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying things like "We have nothing to hide...there is total transparency in OC and our conscience is clear" and "Every pie is accounted for." Claims like that sound a little like his now-famous promise that "the games won't cost the country a penny."

    But even I was surprised to read that he based a large part of his defense on faked emails! Fake emails, my friends, is not a very smart strategy.  Simple, straightforward denial is almost always more effective, unless you are really desperate.  Is it any surprise that even his own party is no longer willing to defend him?

    Kalmadi may be on the way out, but one has to admit the power of denial.  It doesn't usually solve problems, but it can be remarkably good at covering up the truth!  

    If the press continues to do the job it has been doing, I am cautiously optimistic that the worst of the Commonwealth Games corruption will be addressed in time, though I suspect the really big fish will slip through the net as usual--in that way, politics does not resemble fishing!

    In a strange way, the Commonwealth Games corruption scandal reminds me of the climate change debate, although there, I am not so optimistic. Let's look at the weather for a moment.  Things have been hot, not just in Delhi, but worldwide.  In fact, four of the first six months of 2010 were the hottest on record according to American scientists; this puts 2010 on track to be the warmest year since 1880. Along with that, Arctic sea ice is at record lows and new photos of Everest remind us that Himalayan ice is also rapidly disappearing.

    One warm year is no proof of climate change--it's the long term trends that show that.  But climate deniers, like the ones who wrote the hack job that Open Magazine ran back in February, have never figured this out.  US economist Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, put it this way:
    Of course, you can’t infer trends in global temperatures from one year’s experience. But ignoring that fact has long been one of the favorite tricks of climate-change deniers: they point to an unusually warm year in the past, and say “See, the planet has been cooling, not warming, since 1998!” Actually, 2005, not 1998, was the warmest year to date — but the point is that the record-breaking temperatures we’re currently experiencing have made a nonsense argument even more nonsensical; at this point it doesn’t work even on its own terms.
    Unfortunately, the US senate didn't listen to Krugman, or any other rational voices for that matter, and it appears that serious action on climate change is dead in the US for the foreseeable future.  (And to think that officials were lecturing India and China on their need to do more during Copenhagen.) 

    It's easy to get angry about all this, and I don't blame you if you do.  But it's probably better to do something.  If you are concerned about how the Commonwealth Games are taking money and resources from people who need it and transferring them to people who don't, go check out out ACORN International's Commonwealth Games Campaign.  If you are a student, why not work to fight the evictions at Delhi UniversityAnd whoever you are, why not write a letter to the editor of your newspaper or your local government official?
    If climate is your main concern now, the Indian Youth Climate Network has some good resources on their web page, and of course you can check out the sidebar of the Dhaba for more links.  For something quick and easy to do, you can sign this petition against BP that someone sent me this morning--but this is a long term issue that will require a lot more than on-line petitions!
    To read more about the CWG, go see our special CWG page.
    To read more about Climate, go see our special Climate page.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    Commonwealth Games Fail? Is Corruption Killing more than the CWG?

    Allegations of high level corruption and rumours of even darker things suggest there may be more at stake here than embarrassment. And pretending these problems don't exist will only make them worse!

    Mani Shankar Aiyar stirred up the pot last week when he told reporters, "Personally, I will be unhappy if the Commonwealth Games are successful."   Suresh Kalmadi, the head of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee promptly labeled Aiyar "anti-national." 

    Lost in the smoke of the Aiyar-Kalmadi tamasha was Aiyar's central point: the Games were a mistake from the start, and it might take an obvious failure--one that could not be glossed over or denied-- to prevent us from having to undergo a repeat of this fiasco in years to come.  Kalmadi has made no secret of his desire to see India get the Olympics some day, but he seemed to understand that this would be a bad week to highlight that ambition; instead, he responded to Aiyar’s attack by attempting to change the subject.

    Usually, people use labels like "anit-national" in order to discredit and dehumanize their opponents. Labels like this are also commonly used to distract people from real and pressing problems on the ground; that's why, during times of rapid change or uncertainty, ultra-nationalist and communal forces often do their worst work.

    If one has been following Kalmadi over the past few months, as I have, one might assume he was just trying to divert attention from some of the many silly pronouncements he’s regularly taken to making.  Like how the Games village is "going to be the best in the world," in spite of the fact that it is so far behind that the government has had to displace 3,000 Delhi University students  in order to accommodate athletes and officials who would not otherwise have housing during the Games…  or how just a few months back he was still promising  "The Games won't cost the country a penny."

    As it turns out, Kalmadi was almost certainly (and rather desperately) trying to distract us from two much bigger stories.  First, preparations for the Games are much further behind schedule than we’ve been led to believe. Second, it appears that corruption--not the monsoon rains—is largely responsible for the sorry state of affairs we all find ourselves in.

    CWG Fail?
    A recent cover story in India Today suggests that in spite of all the brave talk we are hearing from officials, failure of the Games in obvious and embarrassing variety is indeed an option: major sports venues are incomplete, and some of the venues that have been completed are falling apart before they have even been used. Housing and food arrangements for delegates and athletes are still up in the air.  As disturbing as they are, plans to  banish 75,000 beggars from Delhi's streets are totally compatible with the ideology behind the drive to make Delhi a "World Class City."  But evicting thousands of students in order to find housing for athletes?  That smells of desperation. We probably have no idea how bad things really are, because Chief Minister Dikshit recently ordered her ministers to keep their mouths shut as they go on inspections of Games facilities.  But it seems obvious that the overall situation is very bad indeed.

    Of course if you think about it, this should come as no surprise.  Delhi is one big construction zone, and most of what we are seeing on major roads and markets is a far cry from “finishing work.” Connaught Place is still a mess.  Officials conceded on Friday that much important work there, including the subways, will not be finished in time for the Games.  Crossing the outer circle will apparently continue to be a real adventure for months to come. 

    The failure at CP is particularly worrisome, because we can only assume that if the city cannot finish renovating this flagship market in time for the Games, it will fail elsewhere as well.  My advice: officials should invest in rolls of bright blue plastic tarp right now; if all else fails, they can use that to cover last minute leaks in markets and Games facilities.
    Now that failure seems a real possibility, much of middle and upper class Delhi seems almost titillated by the story. You hear this all over: "Oh, dear, how embarrassing it will be...nothing ever gets done right around here...such a mess..."
    Corruption, Damn Corruption, and Commonwealth Games Contracts!
    The problem, unfortunately, is that there is something much more serious going on than embarrassing incompetence—it’s called corruption—and it’s not just embarrassing, it’s criminal, it’s unsafe, and it strikes at the heart of this country’s democratic institutions.

    In different ways, I’ve long argued that the Games are flawed because they have provided an excuse to divert money from things that all people need-- like housing and clean  water—to unsustainable things that benefit only a few, like infrastructure for cars and airplanes. 

    Metaphorically, rhetorically and even morally speaking, one might call this theft.  But in reality, it’s not illegal, and it’s not even always been ill-intentioned—a lot of good people thought the Games were a good idea.
    Rampant corruption, on the other hand, is a completely different matter.
    It is becoming increasingly clear that these are the most expensive Commonwealth Games in
    history not because we are building the highest quality stadiums.  And of course we can’t say the Games have cost so much because of the lavish accommodations or wages given to the workers labouring day and night on Games-related projects.  

    In fact, the government has known for a long time that its contractors have been violating wage, safety and labour standards, and what has it done?  Children of Games workers, when they haven't been working, have been denied their rights as well--you don't need a hyper link for this if you live in Delhi, it's out in the open.  But here's one anyway.  With all that money, why couldn't the Government insist that contractors put up some mobile creche facilities for these kids? 

    It wasn’t just a reckless driver who was responsible for the death of a fourteen year old and three of his co-workers last week; it was also the contractors who hired him to work illegally in unsafe conditions-- and the government which failed to seriously enforce their own labour standards.  And these workers are not alone; so far, dozens have died in Games-related projects. Violating labour laws is a way for contractors save money; it is a kind of corruption, a kind of theft.  And far too often, it has deadly consequences, which makes it a kind of homicide, if you think about it.
    Of course, there are other kinds of corruption at work, as well.  Most importantly, there are the "irregularities" or "overpricing" in the contracts that have been awarded that we've all been hearing about.  The more you read about this interrelated set of scandals, the more you realize it is probably much bigger than any of us can imagine, and it really amounts to massive theft—if things turn out to be as bad as they currently appear to be, people should go to jail for this for many years.  NDTV took an in-depth look at one very small part of this problem and what they found some mind-boggling: many medical products have been bought by the government for many times their actual priceIBN reports that in addition to over charging, contractors have regularly saved money by cutting corners on construction materials--which, in addition to being dishonest, is unsafe.
    Every day, there is a new revelation; it increasingly appears that the people awarding contracts did everything they could to rig the system so as to limit the number of companies qualified to bid—as a result, we’ve ended up with low quality work done at criminally high prices.  A lot of money is being made by a very few companies—and presumably by some of the people who have helped to “facilitate” this process.
    Of course this could just be disorganized, random greed.  But rumours are beginning to circulate that there are darker games afoot, that you just have to follow the money trail to see that vast amounts of wealth are being concentrated in very few, very ambitious hands.  Some say new political dynasties are being built through this unsavory process and ask if it is possible for rulers who rise out of corruption to be anything but corrupt.
    I don’t know about that—though it doesn’t seem hard to believe.  What I do know is that putting on a happy face and pretending there are no problems is the last thing we need to be doing. 

    Yes, corruption is embarrassing. But it’s not nearly as embarrassing—or poisonous—as letting corruption go unchecked. The press, along with honest officials and all people who care about democracy and justice need to make sure this is not swept under the rug.  This may be painful, but if we learn from our mistakes and move forward in an honest and fair way, we will have nothing at all to be ashamed of. The only shame here is in letting the bad guys profit from this mess!

    There's a lot to be done, even for those of us who aren't reporters, officials or lawyers.  Why not write a letter to the editor of your newspaper or local government official; let them feel the heat. If you are a student, why not work to fight the evictions at Delhi University?  :
    Also, go check out out ACORN International's Commonwealth Games Campaign.  I've heard good things about this campaign.  This site tells you how to sign a petition and get involved.  

    To read more about the CWG, go see our special page, here.