Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Return of the "Darkness"



Looking around one comes across a kind of darkness that seems to be descending on the country. It is somewhat like what the Nobel Laureate, VS Naipaul, described in his travelogue, “An Area of Darkness”, but, perhaps is more forbidding as it is occurring in the second decade of the 21st Century.  Ominous, as it seems, the thought processes of our people seem to be consciously and unrelentingly heading towards the medieval ages. Although it cannot be reckoned as the sign of the times when serious efforts are under way to achieve material progress, yet many societal aberrations strongly suggest that regressive tendencies are getting free play.

Suppression of women’s freedom and their abuse appears to be gathering strength. The “Khaps”, a sort of socio-political village grouping, have become active again and are issuing dictat that are reactionary to the core in the prevailing atmosphere of freedom in a modern democratic society. The “Khaps” and their agglomerations, “Sarv Khaps”, were, for ages, instruments of administration in the village republics of north-western India comprising the modern northern Indian states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. From time immemorial the Indian society has been organised around the village unit and the republican fabric of the village administration did not die out despite the emergence of subsequent systems of administrations. However, with the establishment of panchayats (village councils)Khaps” lost much of their significance.

Yet, these seem to be functioning in some pockets and from time to time are issuing uncompromising dictat, mostly on norms of marriages and against women. Though archaic, their power and influence continues to be formidable. A young couple of Kaithal district in Haryana was done to death in 2007 for marrying for love. They happened to be from the same gotra (clan), and were from the same village. Unacceptable to the “Khap”, the couple was murdered despite an order from the state high court for provision of police protection for them. Recently, in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh (UP), in a Taliban-like fatwa, the “Khap” of Asara village banned love marriages, prohibited women below 40 from shopping and from using cell phones outside their respective homes. Appallingly, some local political parties came out in support of the “Khap”. Even the new young and well-educated chief Minister of the province parried questions and avoided condemning the fatwa, thus indirectly turning a blind eye to the sinister system that could take the community back to the dark, medieval ages of patriarchy.

Women, generally, are at the receiving end all around the country. Earlier this month a 20-year old girl was molested and stripped by a gang of around fifty hoodlums as she came out of a bar with friends in the eastern city of Guwahati in Assam. A Hindu extreme right wing outfit, Sri Ram Sene (Army of Lord Ram) had organised an assault in 2009 on girls in a pub in Mangalore. One couldn’t believe the visuals as the rowdies physically attacked girls injuring some of them, whose fault was that they had gone to the pub – something the Sene, apparently, consider being against the tenets of Hinduism. Its aim is to bring back the traditional Hindu society in which women were properly wrapped up in yards of cloth and confined to the kitchen, obediently serving every need of the husbands and their families. 

A similar tradition-bound society is what Naipaul encountered during his travels through the country that he undertook to discover his roots. He put down his observations, in his travelogue “An area of darkness” published in 1964. That was more than fifty years ago, only about a decade and a half after the country’s independence when it was emerging out of centuries of imperial rule and was still in search of an identity. Highly religious, caste-ridden and tradition-bound, he found India stagnating and bogged down. Gloating over its ancient glory, it was indifferent to material progress. Guided by the theory of Karma, the country wallowed in poverty, squalor and filth. Its leaders were disinterested in progress and oblivious of the economic revival taking place apace in the war-ravaged countries. Contented with the “Hindu rate of growth” of around 3.5%, they appeared to be blind to the human misery that surrounded them. For a Trinidad-Indian living in England, brought up on the staple of Indian folk-lore that were laid on with layers and layers of romanticism, the actuality of the physical, social and spiritual visuals of his mother-country that Naipaul got hit with was a big let-down.

That very same construct appears to be making a re-appearance. The society seems to be getting radicalised and religious bigotry is striving to occupy centre stage. Radicalised fringe elements of both the major religious groupings have had successes in brow-beating the government into submission. While, the same Sri Ram Sene goons raided in 2008 an exhibition of the paintings of internationally famous Indian artist MF Hussain and vandalised them, some Hindu extremist groups, by way of threats to his life, ensured that the artist lived out the rest of his life in exile.

Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi doctor-turned-author, exiled from her country for authoring an allegedly undesirable literary work was forced out of India – her country of refuge – in 2008. After having come under physical attack from a Muslim political group in Hyderabad in 2007 she was forced out of Kolkata by radical Muslims under the threat of death. Kept under what she described as “unendurable” (virtual) house-arrest in New Delhi for months by the Centre, Nasreen later thought it best to leave the country. India-born Booker-prize winning author Salman Rushdie came in for somewhat similar treatment in 2012 for authoring Satanic Verses 24 years ago that allegedly mocked Prophet Mohammed. Under pressure of Islamic fundamentalists he was prevented from attending the “Jaipur Lit Fest”. In all these instances the weak-kneed governments of the states and the Centre deliberately did not adopt their avowed secular stand and played along with the fundamentalists for reasons that were patently political. 

Apart from competitive radicalism pervasive corruption is overwhelming the country; it has spread like a virus infecting every segment of the society – from industrialists to businessmen, from traders to tradesmen, from politicians to the bureaucracy right across their various levels. Billions from public funds have been siphoned off by politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists, throwing cold water on the much-acclaimed sizzling “GDP growth”. Ethical values had, probably, never plumbed such depths. With hardly any sign of governance law and order are on a long holiday. Loots, abductions, thefts, molestations and rape are routine. Dalits are tormented, even murdered; their women are humiliated and frequently raped.

 The country seems to have hit a dark, portentous patch. The future appears to be menacing and sinister and foretells a kind of darkness much worse than what Naipaul happened to observe. 

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

World War II - Kohima War Cemetery



Prince Andrew, Duke of York, recently visited Kohima War Cemetery to pay homage to hundreds of soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the Allied Forces in the Battle of Kohima in 1944 during World War II. Prince Andrew is the first member of the British Royal Family to have visited the Cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission of which India is one of the seven members.

Many perhaps do not know the importance of that distant town, Kohima, nestling in the misty hills of Nagaland in the North East. The Battle of Kohima was fought for around three months by the Allied Forces who defended India against a determined Japanese offensive. It was a turning point in the War. Aiming at the railhead at Dimapur the Japanese made a resolute attempt to break through the defences into the Brahmaputra Valley and then into India, only to be resisted with strength and pushed back by the Allied forces. The decisive Battle was fought mostly around the Kohima collector’s bungalow and his tennis court. Towards the end of the battle the two enemies happened to face each other from across the two side-lines of the court, eventually ending up fighting hand-to-hand with huge number of casualties on both sides. Once Kohima was secured, the Japanese were pushed back down the Kohima-Imphal Road into Burma, and later from the entire South East Asia.

The Kohima War Cemetery is beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Cemetery has a lovely garden that overlooks Kohima. The structure, design, horticulture, etc. are all on the basis of the standards prescribed by the Commission. At Kohima the Stone of Remembrance, a feature of all War Graves taken care of by the Commission, has an evocative epitaph which says,

“When you go home tell them of us and say
That for their tomorrow we gave our today”.

During my tenure in the North East in 1988-1990 I had the good fortune of visiting Kohima on a few occasions and visit the War Cemetery. A photograph (now faded) taken then is being uploaded. I also happened to travel down the historic Kohima-Imphal Road on which several tough battles were fought to dislodge the Japanese. The highways authorities, showing an unusual sense of history, have put up signage ndicating sites of various significant battles, for example, “the Battle of Zakhama”.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Planet Earth near tipping point

http://bagchiblog.blogspot.in/7/2012/planet earth near tipping point
Despite a dire warning issued by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) about the catastrophe that Planet Earth was headed for, the recent United Nations Rio+20 Conference at Rio de Janeiro on sustainable development proved to be a damp squib. 

Branding the current era as the “Age of Irresponsibility”, the UNEP, in a 525-page report, warned that “the earth’s environmental systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits beyond which loom sudden, irreversible and potentially catastrophic changes.” Painting a grim picture, the report indicated melting of the polar ice caps, desertification in Africa, deforestation of tropical jungles, spiralling use of chemicals and the emptying out of the world's seas of fish as some of the myriad environmental disasters that pose a threat to life as we know it. The report adds that “several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded... Once these have been passed, abrupt and possibly irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet are likely to occur, with significant adverse implications for human well-being." 

One such threshold was crossed only recently. Monitoring stations across the Arctic this spring detected more than 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Readings of 400ppm and higher have been recorded in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia. Currently, only the Arctic has attained the 400 level, but the unrestrained way the things are going there is no reason why the rest of the world will not follow soon. The number isn't quite a surprise, because it's been rising apace for some decades. It is a disconcerting new milestone. Years ago, it passed the 350ppm mark that many scientists consider the highest safe level for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for restricting the rise of global surface temperature below 20 C (over pre-industrial level) to save the planet from catastrophic changes. But, globally it now stands at 395 and already rising seas and extreme weather patterns are much in evidence.

Indicating the gravity of the problem, climate scientists say it's been at least 800,000 years since the Earth saw carbon dioxide levels in the 400s. Before the industrial age the level was around 275-280 ppm. It has been in 300s during the last sixty years. Scientists say that increasing use of fossil fuels like coal and oil caused the alarming rise in the levels of CO2. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high of 34.8 billion tonnes in 2011, up 3.2%, the International Energy Agency announced the other day.

Those who are committed to 350ppm say that it was the upper limit for the planet if we wished to have it "similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted." The figure is virtually irrefutable as a constant flow of additional evidence from many directions supports it. They claim that though the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was around 390 parts per million and the temperature increase is still a shade below 10 C yet it would be prudent to restrict it to 350 ppm to completely obviate the risk of surface temperature rising to and beyond 20 C. Already, they claim, the world has witnessed rapid melt of the Arctic ice, high-altitude glacial systems and perennial snowpack in Asia, Europe, South America and North America, the rapid and unexpected acidification of seawater, warming of seas and rise in their levels, excessive intense short-spell rains, frequent violent storms and damage to coral reefs disrupting the marine eco-system and depriving numerous fish of their habitat.

Many scientists feel that since the CO2 level has reached the 400 mark it would be impossible to immediately arrest its further rise. One cannot shut down all thermal power plants and stop use of gasoline all at once. Over 80% of world’s energy sources emit large amounts of CO2. During the last few decades the rate of emissions has gone up, particularly since the 1970s as a result of increased consumption and growth in population. High economic growth rate in the emerging economies has further boosted up the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. None of these countries would like to cutback on its developmental effort as uplift of millions of poor is involved.
                                                             
The CO2 level is, therefore, set to rise. Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist, feels that avoiding dangerous climate change is no longer possible because the temperature rise is already close to 10 Celsius “with effects formerly assumed for 2°C”. According to him, temperature rise of 40 C by 2060 is very likely “given the level of action taken so far on climate, world’s economic realities and the short window of time remaining for limiting the average surface temperature rise to 2°C or even 3°C” – a frightful scenario. If a rise of 10 C is causing such havoc, widespread death and destruction that is likely to occur on the rise of 40 C just cannot be imagined. It will be Apocalypse itself. 

Some climate researchers, however, offer consolation. They feel that that 2 °C was likely to be exceeded at the level of 550 ppm, at 450 ppm there would be a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2 °C and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high degree of certainty of not exceeding 2 °C. With the global CO2 level pushing 400ppm restricting its rise to 450 seems to be an impossibility. Perhaps, 475 or 500ppm would be a better target (with all the risks involved) from where humanity, with a concerted effort, could try and bring CO2 concentrations back to 350. But that would require significant reduction in emissions.

Unfortunately, that concerted effort of world leaders is not quite visible. The much-heralded Rio+20 proved to be a fiasco. Martin Khor, executive director of the Geneva-based South Centre, said "We've sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success". "Everything has been kicked down the lane a few years”, said another participant from G 77. Nothing was agreed upon; what was agreed upon is to have a few more conferences even if, in the mean time the planet gets saturated with CO2 .

World leaders having failed them, many in Rio believed that progress on environmental issues must be made locally without the help of international accords. That probably is the only way ahead to avoid the approaching catastrophe. The time has come when every country, every state, every local body, every individual and every organisation – public or private – needs to work towards a greener and safer world.

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