Friday, March 30, 2007

an "old" one refurbished

Here's one that was finally published after an editor returned from a long vacation....

Indian state gets ready for an onslaught of rats
Rare species of flowering bamboo puts rodents in a feeding and breeding frenzy


From Friday's Globe and Mail

NEW DELHI — At nightfall in the remote state of Mizoram in northeast India, villagers listen with apprehension to the rustling of thousands of rats foraging and breeding in the jungle. For now, the rodents are gorging themselves on flowering bamboo. But when the bamboo dies and the rice harvesting season begins, a scurrying plague will descend on their paddy fields.

An unusual species of bamboo blankets Mizoram, a remote state with an ethnically distinct tribal population. Melocanna baccifera flowers only once every 50 years or so, generating millions of high-protein seeds that turn the local rats into incredibly prolific breeders. But when the seeds disappear, the huge number of rats left over invade the rice paddies of the area's farmers, destroying the crops the villagers depend on for survival.

In a single night, the legion of rodents can clip the ears from every rice stalk in a field, says James Lalsiamliana, the Mizoram Agriculture Department official who heads the state's rodent control cell. During last year's harvest -- when the bamboo flowering began in the eastern part of the state -- more than 40 villages lost their entire crop. And this year, the flowering has peaked across all of Mizoram.

"They depend on this paddy for subsistence," Mr. Lalsiamliana said. "The state will now have to arrange financial support for these areas."

Local villagers call the once-in-50-years phenomenon mautam, or "bamboo death." And the last time it hit, in 1959, it was indeed deadly. The central government dismissed local forecasts as superstitious raving, and was unprepared to fight off the rodents or provide adequate relief for the massive food shortages that followed. The famine spawned a revolt against Indian rule by the Mizo National Front that lasted until 1986 and took more than 3,000 lives. Now, one of the movement's leaders, Pu Zoramthanga, is Mizoram's chief minister.

This time around, the government has released more than $125-million to fight the problem. And as much as five years back, Mizoram began tapping experts to develop a co-ordinated plan to limit the effects of the flowering and control the rodent population. The Ministry of Environment and Forests drew on experts from the International Bamboo and Rattan Network (INBAR) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to help find new ways to utilize the bamboo and thus encourage local villagers to harvest it before it flowers. The ministry also called in Canada's John Bourne, a 30-year veteran of Alberta's rat patrol who helped make the Canadian province rat free, to study the local rodents and develop a plan for killing rats. Last season, the program Mr. Bourne helped develop allowed villagers to kill hundreds of thousands of rodents using homemade traps and poison supplied by the state.

Mr. Lalsiamliana says the state paid villagers 100 rupees (about $2.50) for every 50 traps they set and distributed more than 15,000 kilograms of rodenticide.

T.P. Subramony, head of INBAR's Delhi office, says India now has a comprehensive plan that covers extraction and management of the bamboo, how to regenerate the forest cover, controlling the rodent population and dealing with health hazards that may arise with the proliferation of the vermin. But he says the key to a solution lies in realizing the value of the bamboo itself.

Although locals cut down and burn bamboo to collect ash that they use as fertilizer, experts from the state's Bamboo Development Agency estimate that less than 1 per cent of the 850,000 hectares of bamboo gets harvested, which is why a panel of researchers from UNIDO and India's Rain Forest Research Institute has recommended the promotion of cottage industries such as the manufacture of tooth picks and bamboo mats and a temporary ban on harvesting bamboo in other parts of the country for the paper industry, along with a host of other economic stimuli.

"One issue is the dying bamboo," Mr. Subramony said. "Then there is the question of how to utilize it. There is a threat, but there is an opportunity also."

Nevertheless, this flowering season, averting a food shortage depends on killing rats. And that may not be enough.

"There will likely be a food shortage, and that may lead to famine," said S.N. Kalita, formerly the principal secretary of forests and head of the environment and forest department of Mizoram. "But the situation cannot be compared with 1959. Now our communication by road and air transport are improved, so transporting in food will not be a problem. Already, some reserve stock has been created. All I can say is that the state government and the government of India is fully prepared."

Special to The Globe and Mail

the us attorney snafu

This is a story that most readers abroad--like me--probably ignored. It sounds like so much American arcana. All that checks and balances rubbish that we yanks are always yanking on about. Of course Bush wanted his own ringers in the office, you probably figured, that's the way of the world.

Well, consider this article in Salon that explains how Bush's moves brought Christian fundamentalists into the Department of Justice to stymie civil rights cases that protect black voters, instead setting the dogs on supposedly thornier issues like allowing Bible-thumpers to proselytize in schools and setting up the whole "intelligent design" thing.

election preview

I don't know, guys. I'm no future White House correspondent. But I can't help thinking that it's going to come down to Hillary & Obama (or Obama & Hillary) vs. Giuliani and Condi Rice. Black and female vs. White and black female. History vs. history. And that's a showdown that scares me, no matter how much Bush has managed to alienate my fellow Americans. I like to recall the days when Giuliani was the guy Wyclef sang about as "the beast"--who "cleaned up" NYC by issuing poorly trained, inexperienced cops with rapid-fire weapons.... Sounds like just the guy to appeal to America's frightened heartland, even if he does come from the big city.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

the worst lede i've read in a long time

The "color lede" sinks to new lows. Check out this badly overwritten bit of weepy Orientalism from Canada's Walrus magazine:

"The trees are almost all gone, cut for fuel long ago, and Kabul, once described by the Mughal Emperor Babur as a city of gardens and promenades, is, like its occupants, the dull, dun colour of dust. Christopher Alexander watches as men in shalwar kameez jostle through the crowds or drink sweet tea sold from roadside stands as they chatter with friends, adding their voices to the endless din. Street vendors hawk fried pastries, cellphone plans, and Pringles chips, while limbless children and destitute women in sky-blue burkas beg for coins."

Aghgah ahh ack. Whoops. Sorry. The sound of vomiting is hard to spell.

Friday, March 23, 2007

i don't know about you, but i could use a raise

When did the media become so uniformly anti-union, free-trade, and pro-business? Maybe I'm waxing nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was a day when at least a few of the world's magazines didn't read like dumbed down, slapdash versions of The Economist. Anyway, if that day ever existed, it's gone now. The irony is that journalists are among the worst paid white collar workers in the world, and their jobs are under as great a threat as any. Look at me: I'm working for Newsweek and other magazines without a contract, so they don't have to pay any health benefits or a salary, instead paying only for my work product. And despite the wide-eyed statements on various freelancers web sites and in "Writers' Market" type publications, there's no way to extort pay rates that cover extras like insurance and your equipment & utilities (e.g. Internet fees). The guys who have a full-time job are getting paid a little better, but the more people that newspapers and magazines fire, the more freelancers they create, making the guys on staff more and more superfluous. Does that give editors any sympathy for organized labor? Hell, no. Unions are still demonized for demanding $50 an hour to pull levers and refusing to work during breaktime. And even for a country like India, where perhaps 1 in 10 workers is even employed in the "organized sector" (which as I understand it does not necessarily mean a union shop, simply, more or less, an outfit that operates on the books), where the minimum wage is shockingly low and rarely enforced, and where working conditions range from lax to frighteningly inhumane and dangerous, unions are still trotted out as one of the biggest forces holding back so-called "development." It wasn't the good will of the Carnegies and Rockefellers that brought America's workers along for the ride during the great rise of the 20th Century. On the same lines, I find it hard to believe that the "voluntary efforts" to erase caste discrimination and provide decent wages and working conditions often touted by India's leading capitalists will be enough to do the job here.

Folks, you can have it one way or the other. Either India has a huge, unskilled, unorganized labor force. Or it has a small, skilled, unionized labor force. But Goldman Sachs and company--i.e. those of the "India's demographics will make it the world's second largest economy by 2050 blah de blah" school--can't have it both ways. Can they?

i'm not THAT stupid

At an SEZ protest yesterday a fat, light-skinned bloke in white kurta pajamas, about 5 foot 8 inches tall and wearing two gold rings, tried to pass himself off in an interview as a landless laborer. "We make 100 rupees per day, plus we're allowed to take vegetables from the fields and we get a portion of the grain at harvest time," he told me, throwing in a few English phrases of his owne, via an interpreter. I'm pretty sure that the substance of what he told me was true, but how the heck did he think he was going to fool me into believing he was a landless agricultural laborer? I think I'd have been skeptical even on my first day in India! And having seen a few landless folks--usually, because of poor nutrition, less than 5 foot tall and so slight that they seem part of some lost tribe of pygmies--there was just no way. I almost busted out laughing. I'd have sooner believe that the guy had just swallowed a landless laborer.

remember dinesh d'souza? he's back

Back in the nineties, when I was in college, Dinesh D'Souza became something of a literary star--at least among policy wonks--with his book Illiberal Education, one of the big cultural documents in the era of obsession with political correctness. I fortunately managed to avoid reading it, but all the crap I read about it may have been worse. Now it looks like history may be set to repeat itself, if The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan is right. Shudder.

Here's an excerpt from Sullivan's review:

What is that path? At its core is a deepening rejection of cultural and philosophical modernity. D'Souza believes that the defining new distinction in American politics is no longer between the economic right and the economic left. The size of government and its role as a guardian of the public welfare are increasingly dead issues, or issues where no vital energy crackles. D'Souza rightly holds that the real divide in the new century is between authority and autonomy, between faith-based politics and individual freedom. And in this struggle at the level of first principles, D'Souza chooses his own side. He is at war with the modern West. If forced to choose between a theocratic order that upheld traditional morality and a secular order that saw such morality marginalized, D'Souza is with the former. He puts it more graphically himself: "Yes, I would rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Michael Moore than with the grand mufti of Egypt. But when it comes to core beliefs, I'd have to confess that I'm closer to the dignified fellow in the long robe and prayer beads than to the slovenly fellow with the baseball cap."
The Enemy at Home is essentially an unpacking of that extraordinary confession. D'Souza argues that there are only two choices for a human being to make in the twenty-first century with respect to "core beliefs": "traditional morality" and what he calls "liberal morality." Traditional morality, in D'Souza's view, "is based on the notion that there is a moral order in the universe, which establishes an enduring standard of right and wrong. All the major religions of the world agree on the existence of this moral order. There is also a surprising degree of unanimity about the content of this moral order." Liberal morality, by contrast, consists first of all in the right of the individual to choose for him- or herself what morality is. It is about "autonomy, individuality, and self-fulfillment as moral ideals." Its essence is the notion that "each person must decide for himself or herself what is right in a particular situation." D'Souza argues that the shift in America over the past few decades from traditional morality to liberal morality is "the most important fact of the past half-century."

don king drapes the pope with title belts

In a rare audience, Don King presented Pope Benedict XVI specially made championship boxing belts from the WBC, WBA, IBF, Italian Boxing Federation and French Boxing Federation this week, occasioning the following comment from's Bernard Fernandez:

"Will the WBA pronounce [Benedict] a “super” pope, and mandate a box-off of the two highest-ranked cardinals for designation as the “regular” pope? Will he have to sign a promotional contract (no expiration date, of course) with King to remain in the eternal good graces of WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who has a similar lifetime gig? And is the IBF even now plotting to strip him of his papacy for refusal to throw down with some Middle Eastern ayatollah ranked No. 1 by that dubious organization’s ratings committee?"

We'll have to wait and see. But if the Vatican does hold a box-off, I for one am hoping that the competitors keep on their robes and pointy hats.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

blast from the past - the homestead strike

I ran across an interesting Wikipedia entry today as I was thinking about parallels in American history with India's current developmental phase. Check out this article on the 1892 Homestead Strike for some interesting parallels with what's going on in India today.

Friday, March 16, 2007

metro chief rues lack of 'passenger etiquette'

Welcome to delhibelly, E. Sreedharan.

"I would like to appeal to the citizens of Delhi to allow passengers to first alight from trains before boarding," says the Metro chief in a public appeal quoted in the Express. "I assure you that the trains will not leave before all those on the platforms are aboard or the trains become full."

The appeal comes within days of the Metro experimenting with a brilliant new crowd management scheme that apparently works wonderfully in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. They painted yellow lines on the floor that indicate where boarding passengers should queue up, and more yellow lines where space should be left for passengers to get off the train. Says the Express: "The plan, however, was not very successful."

Up next: An appeal from cinema halls, elevator operators, traffic policemen, subzi wallahs, cashiers, bouncers, and parking lot attendants.

shoot to kill

As India investigates the police firing in Nandigram, New York has indicted three police officers for firing 50 rounds into a carful of unarmed men. Naturally, the police spokesman tells the press that the indictment sends a dangerous message to policeman, saying, “The message that’s being sent now is that even though you’re acting in good faith, in pursuit of your lawful duties, there is no room, no margin for error.”

But consider the facts of the case. After a black officer fired the first shot, a white officer emptied his magazine into the car, reloaded, and emptied another magazine, firing a total of 31 bullets at the unarmed "suspects"--all of whom were black. Fortunately, only one of them was killed. Three shots is a margin of error. But 31 from one guy, and 50 in all? I don't think so.

This goes to an important aspect of policing that is all too often ignored. The job of the police is to maintain law and order, yes, but too often the struggle to do so becomes an ego trip. You don't get out of the car when I say, you must be made to submit--whether that means being frightened, humiliated, beaten down, or, in this case shot. A whole lot of stupid policies are enacted in support of this attitude. For instance, the police are issued semi-automatic weapons (allowing them to fire 50 shots in the course of a minute or two) because they supposedly should not be outgunned by criminals. But why is that the case, when a firefight in an open street endangers far more people than would letting the criminals escape? Even more egregious are the high-speed chases (a favorite on those awful real-life video shows) in which the cops put ten or fifteen careening vehicles on the road supposedly to stop one reckless driver--making him drive much more recklessly, and for a much longer time. Meanwhile, they have the guy's description and license number, through which they can get his address. Why not just let him drive off and pick him up at six in the morning when he's sleeping off his hangover? Because that would be a blow to the ego.

Sometimes, you have to think with your brain and not your balls, folks. Let 'em go, if it's smarter and safer. Pick 'em up later. England has the right idea, with its unarmed police. That way, if the coppers are scared of black folks, their mistakes are less costly and they have to get really close to bludgeon somebody to death.

Monday, March 12, 2007

religious bias made beer man target gays: cops

What a headline! Too bad the article is about a Mumbai serial killer, rather than the waiter at the Bombay Cricket Club.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

news from the usa

Since I've been banging on about reservations (or quotas) in higher education here in India, I ought to point to a recent New York Review of Books article that has exposed the fallacy of equal access to great colleges in the good ole US of A. Some tidbits:

Ninety percent of Harvard students come from families earning more than the median national income of $55,000, and Harvard's dean of admissions was quoted in the Crimson a few months earlier defining "middle-income" Harvard families as those earning between $110,000 and $200,000.

It is hardly surprising that lots of rich kids go to America's richest colleges. It has always been so. But today's students are richer on average than their predecessors. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, in a sample of eleven prestigious colleges, the percentage of students from families in the bottom quartile of national family income remained roughly steady— around 10 percent. During the same period the percentage of students from the top quartile rose sharply, from a little more than one third to fully half. If the upscale shops and restaurants near campus are any indication, the trend has continued if not accelerated. And if the sample is broadened to include the top 150 colleges, the percentage of students from the bottom quartile drops to 3 percent.[2] In short, there are very few poor students at America's top colleges, and a large and growing number of rich ones.

In addition to the main point here, one other fact came starkly home. Whatever my background, as a (non)householder and breadwinner, I am poor by US standards. Very poor indeed.

how terrible can cnn get?

CNN International has its moments, and it's certainly improved since the days when it was the "all Oklahoma cyclones, all the time" network---wait! really? Has it? Last night we nearly pissed ourselves laughing over a program called the World 360 degrees or some such rubbish, hosted by a desi bloke in Atlanta (Ram Ramgopal, I think, which to get the full effect of course must be pronounced as though the nickname "Battering" preceded it). Battering Ram delivered the "news" as though he were the English instructor for a classful of mentally challenged three year olds.
weight....... He...weighed...five...hun-dred...pounds...... ARRRGH! Apart from that torture, the stories they chose to pimp to sister network CNN/IBN were the lamest items of tripe they could find, and they'd pumped up the "awwww, how sweet" quotient to exponential proportions. Apparently, now every story has to end with one of those incredibly stupid kickers or it doesn't make the air. You know what I'm talking about. We're getting them in print journalism, too, these days.

I say bring back the cyclones. They were frustrating. (You know the story: Three Americans were killed in a devastating tornado that swept through Oklahoma today!) But at least they weren't "cute."

in the outback

In a series of longish posts, Slate writer Rolf Potts describes a car journey through the Australian outback, where finding "the real Australia" is easier said than done. Generally, I can't make it past the first couple paragraphs of the items that appear on Slate--too snarky, the politics guff reads like it's part of a sit-com about a debate team of something, and the travel stuff is usually as exciting as reading somebody's laundry list. This one's worth a look, though, for folks like me who are becoming obsessed with Australia after Dirt Music, Three Dog Night, the Secret River, et al. One of the best moments: "You think this is odd, you shoulda been here last month," Sal tells me. "We had a Mad Max party and a Priscilla Queen of the Desert party at the same time. What can you say? Some people come here to learn our history and see how we live. Others just want to have a good time."

how i gentrified ghaziabad

A few months ago I ran across an advertisement for Ghaziabad that was stamped with the bold claim, "Newsweek rates Ghaziabad as the sixth most dynamic city in the world!" Knowing myself in a way responsible, I wondered if this campaign would continue. Today I ran across the same ad. Oops.

To be honest, I had serious reservations about writing of Ghaziabad as India's fastest-growing city, based on UN figures. For one thing, the UN numbers appeared to be generated from a synthesis of Indian figures, yet the local experts were somewhat stunned to learn of the once crime-ridden city's supposed "dynamism." It also seemed a bit absurd to focus on population growth as such an important measure, since in India anyway that often means more poverty rather than a rapid climb up the economic ladder. Gurgaon and Noida, though they were growing faster by population, as well as economic indicators, were too small for our ceiling (I forget what it was offhand). But why not Chennai, I suggested? At the time, it, too, was experiencing phenomenal growth, though not by population, with factories arising seemingly overnight, property prices doubling year-on-year, and so on. Nope. We had to go with the UN. Why? Well, we needed a measurement that could be applied to all the countries that we'd feature.

So, owners of property in Ghaziabad, rejoice. You've got yourself a genuine dynamo. Hell, after reading what I'd written, even I contemplated picking up a luxury flat on one of the construction sites in Indirapuram.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

yardley saved me 50 pounds

If there's one book whose price should be listed in pounds, it's Vikram Chandra's new tome, Sacred Games. Whenever a new Indian novel comes out--especially one that receives heavy praise--I grumble and vacillate over whether to read it. Is it really good? Wouldn't I rather be reading something else? Won't I confront the same old storylines and oft repeated formulas (filtered through Bollywood)? As the list of questions suggests, I usually let discretion be the better part of valor, save my money and (very often) the two or three trees used to print a book that no editor felt inclined to prune, however rambling, repetitive or baggy it became. Fortunately, Jonathan Yardley has saved me the trouble and the inevitable backache of reading Sacred Games.

One sentence did it for me: "The enthusiasm with which the venerable firm of HarperCollins is promoting this massive deadweight of a novel, and the money that it's putting where its mouth is, leaves one to ponder once again the eternally mysterious ways of the book-publishing industry."

Negative reviews are so rare that when comes along, one does well to pay heed. No pondering needed for me. Not now.


The New Republic paid tribute to one of my favorite novels, Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov. I daresay this is the best least-read Russian novel, and deserves to stand alongside Tolstoy's fatties and Chehov's pamphlets as one of the best examples of what can be done with the written word. In the review, Joseph Frank points out that the book was one of the few works of Russian literature to contribute a new word to the language--oblomovshchina--which gets its origin from the eponymous hero of the novel. What does it mean? Well, you have to read the book to REALLY understand, but the dictionary says "carelessness, want of energy, laziness, negligence." Add to that a candidate for the best love letter of all time and some of the best laughs since Lucky Jim, and you can see why this is on my "must read" list. I think I saw a copy at Om Book Shop awhile back.


A recent IHT editorial posits that high-population, high-growth economies like India and China will "just say no" to America's culture of fast food and trashy entertainment. The writer's theory? Basically, he says these nations have their own fish to fry, while low-population centers like Scandinavia are starved for US cultural product. Would that it were so! I think a casual visit to the Saket Community Center and many other venues in Delhi suggests otherwise--it sure looks like to me that consuming "American" trash is a major aspiration for Indians, and lack of means is the main reason for low consumption. Which means more bad food, bad movies and bad music on the horizon.

This sounds like one of those "I can refute that argument in two words" kindof essays. The two words? Ben Stiller. Somebody stop that guy.