Fasting for Bhopal

A few months ago I wrote about Indra Sinha’s Booker-nominated novel Animal’s People, a fictionalized take on the 1984 Bhopal Union Carbide gas disaster.

In Animal’s People, several of the main characters embark on a hunger strike, including Zafar, the leading activist in the fictional town of Khaufpur. Now, a new development in Indra Sinha’s story, where his fiction is meeting his life: On June 10, Sinha began an indefinite hunger strikehunger strike.jpg (from his home in France) in solidarity with 9 other Bhopal activists in New Delhi, many of whom are victims of gas or water contamination. His action is part of a global fast to finally force the Indian government into action to bring US giant Dow Chemical to justice in India.

Two days after the Worldwide Hunger Strike Relay has begun, 60 people in India, the US, Europe and South America have already signed up online to participate. Of this number, nine have committed to indefinite fasts, including Indra Sinha.

In his piece “Why I’m Going on Hunger Strike for Bhopal” in The Guardian today, Sinha writes:

I have spent much of the last five years writing a novel in which victims of a chemical disaster caused by a rogue corporation are sold out by their own politicians, triggering a desperate hunger strike. Animal’s People is set in the fictional city of Khaufpur, but whatever success it has had, it owes to the inspiring courage and spirit of the Bhopalis, and the descriptions of the hunger strike were drawn directly from the experiences of my friends. … On their small stretch of pavement in Delhi, now battered by monsoon rain, nine [people] have sat down to begin an indefinite fast for justice. Among them are my old friend Sathyu and, grown up into a fine young man … How can I not join them? How can we all not support them?

More on the strike and how to get involved, below the fold, as well as a look at Dow Chemical’s ironic “Human Element” ad campaign. Continue reading

Free Market NGOs in Bangladesh

There’s an article in the January/February issue of The Atlantic about Bangladesh. Authored by Robert D. Kaplan, it’s called “Waterworld,” and it starts out with a long, perhaps sensationalist account of what Bangladesh might have to look forward to because of global warming — a scenario which wasn’t very surprising to me at least. (This much we knew from Al Gore.) There is also a bit about the growth of Islamic extremism — and that too wasn’t at all surprising for those of us who have followed Bangladesh even off-and-on.

What was interesting, however, was Kaplan’s account of the role NGOs play in making an otherwise dysfunctional country work. To begin with, Kaplan argues, central government has always been rather weak in Bangladesh because of the geography and climate:

Yet Bangladesh is less interesting as a hydrologic horror show than as a model of how humankind copes with an extreme natural environment. Weather and geography have historically worked here to cut one village off from another. Central government arrived only with the Turkic Moguls in the 16th century, but neither they nor their British successors truly penetrated the countryside. The major roads were all built after independence in 1971. This is a society that never waited for a higher authority to provide it with anything. The isolation effected by floodwaters and monsoon rains has encouraged institutions to develop at the local level. As a result, the political culture of rural Bangladesh is more communal than hierarchical, and women play a significant role.

Four hours’ drive northwest of Dhaka, the capital, I found a village in a Muslim-Hindu area where the women had organized themselves into separate committees to produce baskets and textiles and invest the profits in new wells and latrines. They had it all figured out, showing me on a crude cardboard map where the new facilities would be installed. They received help from a local nongovernmental organization that, in turn, had a relationship with CARE. But the organizational heft was homegrown. (link)

Continue reading

Maurauding Macacas Murder Municipal Minor Mayor

By now everybody has seen the news that the Deputy Mayor for Delhi, S.S. Bajwa, died over the weekend:

The deputy mayor of the Indian capital Delhi has died a day after being attacked by a horde of wild monkeys. SS Bajwa suffered serious head injuries when he fell from the first-floor terrace of his home on Saturday morning trying to fight off the monkeys. [Link]

The coverage I’ve seen has generally been smirking, with photos like the one at right. The caption of that photo reads “Angry animal … a monkey in India”, even though it shows a monkey acting cute, and it’s above an article about Bajwa’s death.

I understand the urge to crack a joke about the matter in part because the whole story sounds implausible. That said, I want to resist the temptation to make light of this. Firstly, a person did die here. Secondly, it’s condescending, as in “Look and the wacky and quaint ways people die in India!” sort of like an Indian newspaper juxtaposing a photo of a cute puppy next to an article about Michael Vick’s Ving Rhames’ groundskeeper getting mauled to death.

Furthermore, this isn’t just about nature red in tooth and claw, it’s the actions of humans as well. Partly, this is the story, familiar in the west, about growing cities encroaching on the natural habitats of wildlife. But the bigger problem would seem to be that the monkeys are being fed by humans, which encourages their population to grow, and makes them far more aggressive:

Baiwa’s house is near a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, where hundreds of monkeys gather every day to be fed offerings by devotees…human residents of the capital have long tolerated the monkeys, whose natural habitat is the surrounding forest, and many revere and feed them, believing them to be incarnations of Hanuman. [Link]

Continue reading

Along With Al Gore, Rajendra Pachauri

As everyone has presumably heard by now, Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this morning for his work on climate change, in conjunction with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The head of that panel is an Indian scientist named Rajendra Pachauri, who formerly worked for the Tata Energy Research Institute. (As an aside, if you’re the head of a panel that wins a Nobel Prize, do you get to say “you” won the prize? Probably not, I suspect. One would have to find a nuanced way to put this kind of thing on one’s CV…)

According to the BBC, Al Gore and Pachauri had a brief conversation after the award was announced:

The two men spoke on the phone after the announcement. “This is Pachy… I am certainly looking forward to working with you. I’ll be your follower and you’ll be my leader,” Dr Pachauri said. (link)

(Pachy? Oy.)

Continue reading

Omnivores: More Dangerous Than SUVs

As someone who tries earnestly to be a better citizen of the planet (car-sharing, cloth grocery bags, no printing stuff unless it’s required, turning off faucet when brushing teeth/sudsing hands, obsessive recycling, impressive amounts of reusing, not so good on the “reducing”…sorry), I tend to fume at SUV-drivers and not bat an eyelash at my carnivorous and omnivorous peers, even though I am well aware of all the statistics which Esprit, Sting and other organizations drilled in to me in the 90s regarding how many acres or gallons of water beef requires blah blah blah.

Well, apparently I can’t give H3s dirty looks any more.

Via The New York Times:

EVER since “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore has been the darling of environmentalists, but that movie hardly endeared him to the animal rights folks. According to them, the most inconvenient truth of all is that raising animals for meat contributes more to global warming than all the sport utility vehicles combined.
The biggest animal rights groups do not always overlap in their missions, but now they have coalesced around a message that eating meat is worse for the environment than driving. They and smaller groups have started advertising campaigns that try to equate vegetarianism with curbing greenhouse gases.

Oy, I don’t see this going over well with the public at all. Amurricans love their flesh. They like to eat meat, too.

Some backlash against this position is inevitable, the groups acknowledge, but they do have scientific ammunition. In late November, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report stating that the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.

That sound you heard was my mind being blown. I knew raising animals was less than ideal, I never realized that it was worse than driving, let alone all types of transportation combined! SWEET. I can go back to having naughty dreams about the Veyron, sans shame or guilt. Anyone know how to type that sound Homer makes when he’s contemplating donuts or other yummy things? Because I’m totally doing that right now. Continue reading

Blame it on the rain

Monsoon rains come every year, but the flooding caused by this year’s downpour has been some of the worst in decades for India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

19 million people have been displaced by the deluge. That’s roughly the entire population of New York State, the 3rd largest state in the union, or around the entire population of Sri Lanka.

Put another way, these monsoon floods have already produced nineteen times as many refugees as Katrina did. Katrina scattered up to one million Americans, and that was the largest American population displacement in 150 years.

The biggest danger from the rain isn’t drowning, it’s the disease that it brings once water supplies get contaminated:

“Entire villages are days away from a health crisis if people are not reached in the coming days,” … UNICEF’s health chief in India, said in a statement.

The threat of waterborne disease is high because wells have been contaminated by floodwaters … In Bangladesh, there were 1,400 reported cases of diarrhea in the past 24 hours… [Link]

The danger is worse because floodwaters have closed the roads to many villages, so aid workers can’t easily distribute food and clean water. The Indian air force has air dropped food for 2 million people in Bihar. This is going to be a serious task, one that will require both government and civil society working together, something they are lousy at doing.

Continue reading

World Water Day

ganga_dolphin.jpgIt’s almost over but shouldn’t go unnoticed on the Mutiny. The river Indus, or the Sindhu, lent her name to a land and a people. Now, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, she and her East-facing twin Ganga are dying:

Five of the ten rivers listed in the report are in Asia alone. They are the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges and Indus. . .Even without warmer temperatures threatening to melt Himalayan glaciers, the Indus River faces scarcity due to over-extraction for agriculture. Fish populations, the main source of protein and overall life support systems for hundreds of thousands of communities worldwide, are also being threatened.(link)

In a report issued about dangers to 10 of the world’s great rivers, the WWF. Climate changes threatens the Ganges and especially the Indus with both a decrease in supply and the hazardous instability of sudden floods. The Indus basin more than 178 million people and draws as much of 80% of it’s water from Himalayan glaciers; the Ganges basin has atleast 200 million people (See Razib’s comment below). 60% of the tributaries of the Ganges are being diverted. Both rivers are the homes to their own special populations of rare freshwater dolphins–approximately 1100 Indus river dolphins and only a couple thousand Ganges Dolphins, as well as a very rare Ganges freshwater shark. The Ganges and Brahmaputra together span 10 biomes and water the last tiger inhabited mangroves. The report is available in PDF form and is well-written and well-foot-noted–it’s a concise set of geography lessons and worth reading on its own.

One of the loveliest things I ever saw in India was while crossing a branch of the Ganges in the West Bengal countryside–half a dozen dolphins jumping in coordinated arcs across the river, their tails flipping, backlit by the afternoon sun. I stood up in my amazement, rocking the boat, but I was suddenly unafraid–they were so delightful. I want my grandchildren to see them too.

Related: Drinking Water, Melting Glaciers and Climate Change, previous WWF report on Rivers.

(Updated in light of Razib’s comment.) Continue reading

A whole lota environmentalism going on

In today’s NYT there is an article about a bobo couple’s experiment with low impact living in “an elegant prewar on Lower Fifth Avenue”. They’re eating only locally grown food stuffs and eschewing even spices, olive oil and vinegar because these come from further away. They’re buying only food, composting their trash, and they’ve stopped using paper. All paper. Writing paper, paper towel, and even … toilet paper. This last bit is supposed to let us know that they’re serious about their experiment:

A visitor avoided the bathroom because she knew she would find no toilet paper there… Toothpaste is baking soda … Nothing is a substitute for toilet paper, by the way; think of bowls of water and lots of air drying… [Link]

I’m just not impressed. Don’t get me wrong, as an ABD I like my conveniences, and I’m not willingly going give this one up. On the other hand, it just doesn’t seem like that much of a hard core thing to do. My FOB friends swear that TP is unhygienic compared to a lota; a buddy from silicon valley used to smuggle his in and out of the bathroom because he just felt … dirtier without.

For this couple, it’s all part of a stunt designed to generate a non-fiction book (he’s a writer). However, a far better place to look for hard core urban environmentalism is in the Dharavi slums of Bombay, Asia’s largest. Dharavi takes the discards of Bombay’s 19 million residents and turns it into close to $1 Billion of production a year, making it the world’s richest slum. Continue reading

Vultures At Risk

vulture_branch.jpgI’ve had a warm feeling toward vultures, buzzards and other scavenger birds since the time I attended a wedding in Burkina Faso, the arid, land-locked West African country, back in the early 1990s, and looked up to see clusters of big, bad-lookin’ buzzards hanging around on trees, waiting for the event to be over so they could swoop in for the remnants of the dozen or so sheep that had been slaughtered for the occasion. It was one of those “hey, what’s up?” moments humans can have with animals, when you realize that we’re all in this together, that each creature serves its function, and that the social and cultural practices of one species have significant effects on the well-being of others. I want to say it “humanized” the buzzards for me, which obviously isn’t the right word, but it demystified them and made me appreciate them. Nuff respect to the scavenger birds.

Today tipster Sakshi brings to our attention a fascinating article from Smithsonian magazine on vultures in the subcontinent, which not only offers an interesting glimpse into the lives of these birds but, more importantly, shows how closely we and they — and other species — lead interwoven lives and how fragile that balance can be. It turns out that scientists, picking up on the observations of cattle herders and others in the field, have noticed a substantial decline in the long-billed vulture population in the subcontinent for some years. The disappearance of the lead scavenger has resulted in the accumulation of un-scavenged cattle corpses as well as the growth of packs of feral dogs, in ways that you can read about in the article. It has also placed a new burden on secondary scavenger birds that used to only come in after the larger, more powerful vultures. Those birds in turn have become vulnerable to whatever it is that has decimated the vultures:

… across the subcontinent all three species of Gyps vultures are disappearing. Dead livestock lie uneaten and rotting. These carcasses are fueling a population boom in feral dogs and defeating the government’s efforts to combat rabies. Vultures have become so rare that the Parsi in Mumbai have resorted to placing solar reflectors atop the Towers of Silence to hasten the decomposition of bodies. International conservation groups now advocate the capture of long-billed, white-backed and slender-billed vultures for conservation breeding.

So what’s the cause? After initially speculating it was some kind of virus, scientists now have strong proof that it’s a particular medication that herders give cattle that is toxic to the vultures. This brings into the story the Indian pharmaceutical industry and its history of reverse-engineering cheap drugs, which arguably has done a lot to save human lives but has also resulted in a proliferation of drugs on the market without necessarily sufficient regulation or understanding of appropriate use. The chain of effects goes on:

Public health officials say it’s likely that India’s rat population is growing too, sharing the bounty of abandoned carcasses with feral dogs, and raising the probability of outbreaks of bubonic plague and other rodent-transmitted human diseases. Livestock diseases may increase too. Vultures are resistant to anthrax, brucellosis and other livestock diseases, and helped control them by consuming contaminated flesh, thus removing reservoirs of infectious organisms. Some municipalities are now resorting to burying or burning carcasses, expending precious land, firewood and fossil fuels to replace what Rahmani calls “the beautiful system nature gave us.”

In all, this is a powerful story of interdependence and one that, just possibly, might have a happy ending, as the governments of India, Pakistan and Nepal have grown aware of the problem and taken remedial action. Read the article for that story as well as a rich perspective on the interconnectedness of all things, one that might, at a minimum, help us step back from some of the ridiculous disputes over trivial matters that we humans, including those of us who hang out at this site, sometimes so enjoy wallowing in. There’s also a nice sidebar interview with the article’s writer, Susan McGrath:

Well, I knew that my trip to India was going to be different than most people’s trips to India. All my friends were saying, “Oh you’re so lucky! The crafts! The clothing! The wildlife!” And I spent half my time in India in carcass dumps.

Glad you did, Ms. McGrath. And to the vultures: keep ya ugly heads up, my avian brothers and sisters, stay strong! Continue reading

The Real Hard-Knock Life


Erstwhile Sepia guest blogger Saheli is amazing for many reasons, but now I have confirmation that it’s obviously genetic; her Uncle is Arunabha Ghosh, who recently accompanied rapper Jay-Z to Africa. Uncle Arunabha (do you like how I totally mooched him?) is involved with many worthy issues:

He worked on the rights of indigenous people, international migration, and the rise of culturally intolerant movements around the world. He recently delivered a lecture on the integration of immigrants at the Universal Forum of Cultures in Barcelona. [link]

What caught my attention and what Saheli just blogged about, however, is water:

Over a billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Every day–including today, Christmas Eve–over 4000 children lacking good drinking water will die of diarrhea-causing diseases.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around such astonishing statistics, or understand what causes this great gaping need, and how simple some of the solutions are. Last month MTV put up a set of videos in which Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter went on a tour of a home and a school in Africa to understand the basic issues. He was accompanied by his “homeboy,” my uncle, Arunabha Ghosh, a Policy Specialist and one of the authors of the UNDP Human Development Report. Arunabha has spent the last few years tirelessly running around the world, raising the alarm about development needs and spreading the word about development solutions. Last week he addressed an Indian Parliamentary forum on national water issues.[link]

Saheli does a fantastic job of breaking down the plight of children who spend hours fetching something which most of us shamefully take for granted, as we let the faucets run while brushing our teeth (wasting 3-7 gallons per minute). See for yourself, on her “More Fantasticness” blog, here. And if you want to know what I want for my birthday, see for yourself, here. Continue reading