Sunday, December 09, 2012

Pack a 'State of Wonder' for your holidays

I recently read this book for a book club meeting and thought I'd post this short summary here as suggested reading while you lie on a beach somewhere on your December break.

The women of the Lakashi tribe living deep in the Amazon forests are having babies even in their 70’s. If this miracle of science can be cracked and marketed in a little pill, the pharmaceutical company bankrolling the research could make windfall profits. Standing in the way, however, is the very person appointed to do the research - a sinister Dr. Swenson - who refuses to report back on what progress she has made. When Dr. Anders Eckman is sent into the forests by the pharmaceutical company to investigate, the only thing that emerges is a terse letter from Dr. Swenson saying he is dead. What’s really going on down there in the jungle? Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ is the story of Dr. Marina Singh, the next person to go into the forest and the shocking discovery she makes. It’s a great holiday read and a good Christmas gift as well.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pakistan must seize the day and educate its children

15-year old Malala Yousafzai is recovering in a UK hospital.
When a Taliban fanatic’s bullet wounded 15-year old Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan was forced to make a choice. It could continue it’s dangerous drift towards the bigotry and ignorance of her attackers or decide to invest in a future where education can dispel them. Thankfully, this last week, Pakistan has shown that it is ready to reach for Malala’s dream.

A little over a month after the Taliban attack on Malala, the government announced a massive stipend programme for nearly 1.4 million poor children. And shortly after that the National Assembly voted unanimously to pass a Bill to make education free and compulsory for all kids between 5 - 16 years in the Islamabad capital area. But since 2010, education in Pakistan has been devolved entirely to the provinces and therefore it is crucial that all provincial leaders start fixing the education sector, not just with fine words but with hard action. Indeed, Pakistan can afford nothing less right now.

The overall literacy rate in Pakistan is as low as 57% while the country is projected to face a continuing youth bulge till 2050. This is not automatically a recipe for social unrest but certainly Pakistan will continue to punch below its weight if it fails to educate these young people. Failure to educate girls especially will keep fertility rates high, contributing to a growing population with declining access to education and healthcare.

Pakistan’s all-powerful and myopic Army has had a pernicious influence even over the education sector. Military dictators like Zia-ul-Haq were notoriously contemptuous of “poets and professors” seeing university campuses as hostile territory that needed to be cleansed. But even democratically elected leaders feared investing in human capital as that money competed directly with the military budget. The result today is that over 7 million children are out of school, a majority of whom are girls.

When Pakistan was born in 1947, it set out an ambitious vision of achieving universal primary education in 20 years. 1967 has long gone and the country is still shifting that goal post. But with the international outrage that followed Malala’s shooting and the hope that her recovery has inspired within Pakistan, the country can turn a corner. This is aided by a much needed recognition in the international community that Pakistan must urgently address reform in this sector.

Brave Malala has opened up the opportunity. Now Pakistan’s leaders must do the job of seizing the day and educating all it’s children.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Mamata Banerjee's Bengal - don't ask, don't yell

Shiladitya Chowdhury, arrested for asking questions.

Tilak Chowdhury has just had his worst Indian Independence Day. 

His brother Shiladitya Chowdhury was arrested last week for asking West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee a few uncomfortable questions about the rise in fertiliser prices at a public rally. In Mamata’s version of democracy that is unacceptable and the poor man is now in jail. But it looks bad to imprison someone over a few questions and perhaps even Mamata knows that, so the “Maoist” label was quickly dusted off and pinned on him. Without the words “Maoist” and “terrorist” what would our police force do?

Tilak watched his brother being led away by the police bizarrely on live television. He and his family have been Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress supporters for years but he said that this is not what he signed up for. “Is this our democracy where we’re not even allowed to speak? We didn’t want this” he said on the phone before bursting into tears.

“How can my brother be a “Maoist” when he has attended a CRPF masonry training? How would he have received a place if he was a “Maoist”? The CRPF or Central Reserve Police Force is primarily responsible for fighting insurgency in India. “They’ve said that my brother was screaming. There were 20,000 people in the crowd. He probably had to, to be heard!”

Tilak desperately needs solidarity in this struggle. When I asked him if other Trinamool workers in his village had come to offer moral support he despondently said that no one had said a thing. “I’m not asking anyone to lie. Just tell people the truth about my brother.”

The police bungling and manipulation in all this is evident again. They arrested him from the public rally but finding nothing, released him. When Shiladitya gave an interview to a TV channel that evening they probably realised he could cause them and Mamata a PR disaster so they promptly came back and re-arrested him the next day, dragging him from his field without a shirt on his back.

What is really dangerous is the way in which the state machinery, the police and the courts have lined up to carry out every one of Mamata Banerjee’s dictatorial whims. From purging libraries of critical newspapers to arresting professors for forwarding cartoons to now jailing farmers for inquiring about rising prices - the only positive element in all this is that she could be digging her own grave and faster the better.

Meanwhile Tilak wants his brother released and is hoping that people will join him in this struggle for his brother’s freedom. You can sign his petition here.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Women’s boxing makes its breakthrough at London 2012

India's M. C. Mary Kom in action at the Olympics
Another all-male bastion was broken into today with the start of the first ever women’s boxing competition at the Olympics and it was a lucky last-minute internet search that revealed two tickets for a place at this historic ringside. My interest in women’s boxing was really due to the belated discovery that an Indian woman from Manipur, Mary Kom, was a five-time world champion in the fly-weight category and a gold medal prospect for the nation.

Mary Kom is from a conflict-ridden and economically depressed part of India that barely registers on the national consciousness. I am embarrassed to admit, I hadn’t heard of her till this wonderful cover story in the Intelligent Life magazine. That’s why when she stepped into the ring and a chant of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” went up amongst her hundreds of Indian supporters, I felt some immediate irritation. Bharat has been screwing around with the 7 eastern states of which Manipur is a part and official Bharat has given Magnificent Mary all but half-hearted support over the years.

So I was much happier just to chant her name “Mary Kom, Mary Kom, Mary Kom.” She had hundreds of supporters in the crowd and the atmosphere was electric. Why the IOC took so long to deny spectators good, solid sporting action in women’s boxing is a mystery.

Mary was shorter than her Polish opponent Karolina Michalczuk, and although she slipped a few times she appeared more agile around the ring. The pair drew equal on the first round, but after that Mary started landing the punches and at the end of round four she won with a final score at 19 - 14 and is now through to the next stage.

The other really exciting match of the day was between the US and UK in the middle-weight category.  

The guitar riffs of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Are you gonna go my way’ blasted through giant speakers inside the boxing arena accompanying the entry of Quanitta Underwood of the USA. Like the thousands in the crowd, she was pumped up by the music and punched the air with her red gloves.

Then the camera panned to Britain’s Natasha Jonas in blue coming out of the vomitory with the crazy guitar riffs continuing to electrify the crowd. But she was cooler than ice, seeming to embody the “Keep calm and carry on” approach.

Underwood won the first round 4 - 3 and the crowd realised they needed to get their vocal chords behind Jonas. The “Team GB” chants through the next two-minute round, along with some confident jabs from Jonas, produced a win with 7 points to her and Underwood, one short. The momentum continued and the match ended with the referee holding up Jonas’s hand at the final score of 21 - 13.

Day 9, was just yet another fabulous day at the London Olympics

Saturday, May 26, 2012

London boys, keep your hands to yourself

Courtesy: The Guardian
At the Charing Cross station last night, a tall gangly teenager had the audacity to squeeze my bum on a crowded platform and walk on calmly. He probably looked like a hero to his friends because the girl in the group was giggling. I glowered at her and she quickly said, “It wasn’t me, it was him.”

Since she confirmed that and since a police officer descended the steps to the platform at that fortuitous moment I complained to him about the incident.

I had just finished telling him what happened when another young woman approached the officer to ask, “Was she telling you about that group?”, and proceeded to make a complaint of her own.

The police officer asked me, “Do you want me to give him a stiff warning or arrest him?”

An arrest seemed too harsh (although I had second thoughts about it during the entire train ride back home) so I just said that I just wanted him given a very severe warning. The other woman concurred.

Ironically on the same morning the Guardian carried a report on the findings of a YouGov survey in London commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW). In the last year 43% of women in London between the ages of 18 – 34 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces.

That sounds like an epidemic of harassment ranging from staring to more severe forms of violence. I was very happy to see that cop last night and he was also quite sensitive. London needs that kind of policing at night at a massive scale along with a huge public awareness campaign.

I’ve blogged about street sexual harassment in Southall, London before. You can read it here. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

TIME magazine should pull Narendra Modi off the list

Reuters' Arko Dutta's iconic image of Qutubuddin Ansari begging for mercy during the riots.
TIME magazine has shown extremely poor editorial judgement by including Narendra Modi in a voting list of 2012’s “influential” people who are “leaders, artists, innovators, icons and heroes.”

As Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi is an elected leader - a sad outcome of India’s flawed democracy without law and order - but he is no innovator, no artist, no icon and certainly no hero. India and the world must be rescued from people like him.

If you don’t know much about him, here’s one really good reason he should be off that TIME list. Once you’ve read it, remember to vote against his inclusion.

In 2002, over 1,000 people were butchered on the streets of Gujarat by frenzied Hindu mobs while Narendra Modi was at the helm. An investigative magazine carried out a sting operation interviewing Hindu fundamentalists who all revealed Modi’s complicity in the riots.

According to the magazine Tehelka, “Several rioters, senior Sangh Parivar functionaries and the state government’s special prosecutor were caught on camera revealing in detail the role played by Modi in the carnage.” You can read more here.

Sadly, Narendra Modi has not yet been prosecuted for his role in the murderous violence and he has used his time since 2002 to destroy evidence against him, silence his critics and set up an aggressive PR machinery to whitewash his image.

How nicely TIME has fallen into the trap.

The magazine cops out by saying that Modi is “associated” with the ugly legacy of the 2002 Gujarat riots while featuring him under a list looking to short-list heroes, icons and others.

So heres what you can do about it.

Join this campaign to vote against his inclusion in the list. Click ‘No Way.’ Please do it now because there are only 3 days left and his legions of blind supporters are also at it.

You can also send @TIME a tweet to tell them that his inclusion was a dumb choice to begin with.

(I have voted and now I’m going to brace for the hate-filled comments to this post.)