South Asia


Pollution vs. Development? Hardly!

It’s clean air vs. TV in poor India village – International Herald Tribune

Across the developing world, cheap diesel generators from China and elsewhere have become a favorite way to make electricity. They power everything from irrigation pumps to television sets, allowing growing numbers of rural villages in many poor countries to grow more crops and connect to the wider world.

The headline sucks, clean air vs. TV is not really the choice here. Is the implication that third worlders somehow need to make this a “choice”? It’s not as if the rest of the world has to make this “choice”! They do seem to have both. This is a situation where poor choices are made because of poor infrastructure. Other than the headline, it is a good article because it makes all the right points:

  1. Lack of infrastructure – No centralized power to remote areas
  2. Well meaning, but poorly executed subsidies – Cheap Diesel and Kerosene
  3. Subsidy induced corruption – Diesel/Kerosene pilfering
  4. Top down approaches to development – Throw the money, pay no attention to local experts, don’t follow up, then blame the lazy villagers!
  5. Competition for scarce resources with developed countries – Germany will outpay India for photovoltaics every time.

Biomass burning as an alternative to diesel?

Given the popularity of generators, perhaps the most promising alternative is a new type like the one at the edge of the village that contributes much less to air pollution and global warming. It burns a common local weed instead of diesel, costs half as much to operate, emits less pollution and contributes less to global warming.

The main material is dhaincha, a weed commonly grown in India to restore nitrogen to depleted soils. The dhaincha grows 10 feet tall in just four months, with a three-inch-thick green stalk. Wood from shrubs and trees is used when there is not enough dhaincha.

I am not a big fan of biomass burning, but using a weed that can be replanted repeatedly seems fairly harmless, especially compared to burning diesel.

The project has succeeded partly because it has the active backing of one landlord family, the Sharans. Family members have gone on to successful business careers in big Indian cities and in Europe, and have dedicated themselves to helping their home village.

Local involvement, especially by authority figures goes a long way in rural India.
China does suggests another way forward.

China has tried another approach: supplementing an expansion of electricity from coal-fired power plants with cheap rooftop solar water heaters that channel water through thin pipes crisscrossing a shiny surface.

Close to 5,000 small Chinese companies sell these simple water heaters, and together they have made China the world’s largest market for solar water heaters, with 60 percent of the global market and more than 30 million households using the systems, said Eric Martinot, a renewable energy expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Not so hot during the monsoon, I guess! I remember a friend of mine having a solar heater in their home in the 1980’s. Their company used to make them, so it is old technology, with price being the prime barrier. It will work as a supplemental source, not as the prime source.

Clearly, the wider availability and ubiquity of consumer electronics, and electricity-dependent agriculture has outpaced India’s, and to a lesser extent, China’s power infrastructure. It is easy to make a billion television, it’s not quite so easy to keep them powered!

Violence in North East India

ULFA attack has WB, Bihar on alert : ULFA, Assam, violence, Bengal : : CNN-IBN

In a brutal backtracking, after gunning down 17 non-Assamese workers on Friday in the Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts, the ULFA went on a rampage on Saturday gunning down migrant workers from Bihar and Bengal.

Assam is a state in North East India bordering West Bengal, and Bangladesh, and there has always been a lot of tension between the ethnic Assamese and Banglas from both sides of the border. The United Liberation Front of  Asom (ULFA)  purports to  speak for the Assamese and has been waging a violent armed struggle. Unfortunately, they are not really powerful enough to take on the Indian army and usually take their frustrations out on innocent day laborers. The Assamese feel that Banglas and Biharis are coming into their state and taking their jobs and disrupting their culture. Like any other ethnic situation in India, it is complex, messy, and with no “right” or “easy” solutions. Clearly, increased development in neighboring states would keep the Banglas and Biharis from moving.  But, thanks to its oil reserves, the jobs are in Assam. The Indian army has been active in this area as a counter insurgency force since the ’80s. Complicating the matter are the mountainous  terrain and the remoteness of most of these attacks.

Condoms too big for Indian Men

This is precisely the kind of story that makes the most emailed list of the bbc news website. It’s got everything, obsession and insecurity about size, snigger potential, the chance to laugh at a whole race of not so well endowed men, etc!

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Condoms ‘too big’ for Indian men

The study found that more than half of the men measured had penises that were shorter than international standards for condoms. It has led to a call for condoms of mixed sizes to be made more widely available in India. The two-year study was carried out by the Indian Council of Medical Research. Over 1,200 volunteers from the length and breadth of the country had their penises measured precisely, down to the last millimetre.

The story does everything except tell you what the average length was and what the average condom length is, I guess they wanted to spare the blushes.

But this is the priceless part of the article…

But Indian men need not be concerned about measuring up internationally according to Sunil Mehra, the former editor of the Indian version of the men’s magazine Maxim. “It’s not size, it’s what you do with it that matters,” he said. From our population, the evidence is Indians are doing pretty well.

No, really! You don’t say!

All joking aside, an ill fitting condom is buzz kill, and a disincentive for men to use it. But isn’t girth more important than length? A condom that’s too long does not tear or slip off as long as it fits otherwise, it is a condom that is too tight that will tear. This article mentions a failure rate of 20%, but is that really length related? After all, latex is affected by heat and humidity, especially if the seals are broken. I don’t know. But vending machines are the way to go, as well as “fitted” prophylactics. After all, when you buy a pair of jeans, it is waist and length, right!


India, The Emerging (polio stricken?) Tiger

States on alert against polio – – News on States on alert against polio

India appears to be in a grip of a polio outbreak with 352 cases reported so far this year, many of them from areas that were free of the virus, and officials fear the number may increase further. Uttar Pradesh alone has reported 312 cases, the highest of all the states, and World Health Organisation officials have described it as an “exporter” of the disease.

In Uttar Pradesh, officials said 90 percent of the cases were due to ignorance in the minority Muslim community, who believed the polio vaccine could make children impotent.

From wikipedia

Only four countries in the world (Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) are reported to have endemic polio.

I remember reading about a Nigerian Province issue with Clerics claiming “that vaccines supplied by Western donors were adulterated to reduce fertility and spread AIDS as part of a general war on Islam”, which the Wikipedia Polio article verifies. But we have never seen this in India before, and I find it hard to believe. I will remain sceptical about the Muslim clerical influence on India’s polio debacle unless I hear better. News from India sometimes builds its own “truth momentum”, with speculation and hearsay morphing into bulletproof truth in a matter of hours. It is also easy in India to start rumors to deflect blame.Here’s a contrarian take from a Reuter’s Article

“Tens of thousands of children were missed by state health workers over the past year during rounds of immunization, leading to a resurgence of the virus, they said.

“We are very concerned. It raises the threat to India and is also threatening other countries,” said Jay Wenger, head of the National Polio Surveillance Project, a collaboration between the WHO and the Indian government.

One federal official said around 10 percent of children in several western districts of Uttar Pradesh, known for its ramshackle state health care and sluggish bureaucracy, could have missed immunization between late 2005 and early 2006.

“These (vaccination) rounds were of poor quality,” said the official, who did not want to be named.”

Well, sounds more logical, does it not? But why let the depressing truth of inadequacy get in the way of a juicy and self-perpetuating tale of Muslim backwardness.

India, the emerging tiger.


The NY TImes on India’s Water Issues

The New York Times starts a three part series on water issues in India.
In Teeming India, Water Crisis Means Dry Pipes and Foul Sludge – New York Times

The crisis, decades in the making, has grown as fast as India in recent years. A soaring population, the warp-speed sprawl of cities, and a vast and thirsty farm belt have all put new strains on a feeble, ill-kept public water and sanitation network. The combination has left water all too scarce in some places, contaminated in others and in cursed surfeit for millions who are flooded each year. Today the problems threaten India’s ability to fortify its sagging farms, sustain its economic growth and make its cities healthy and habitable. At stake is not only India’s economic ambition but its very image as the world’s largest democracy.

This has not changed since I was a kid, we had the exact same problems growing up, and it is not likely to get any better real soon. Depressing to read first thing in the morning.


The most important thing I read today (Indian Agriculture Edition)

Yes, I read the Times article about this subject too, but Tom Philpott and P. Sainath writer better and more eloquently.

India, food, and modernization | Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist

That “promising biotechnology” is Monsanto’s Bt cotton seed, genetically modified to ward off the cotton bollworm. Indian farmers have been desperate to get their hands on it because they think they need it to compete with their lavishly capitalized and subsidized U.S. peers.

But the Monsanto seed, which promises to enable farmers to use 25 percent less pesticide, might not be worth the premium (it goes for about twice as much as conventional seed, the Times reports). The great Indian journalist P. Sainath wrote recently that “despite all the claims made for [Bt cotton], input dealers here have seen no decline in pesticide sales as a result of its use. Some claim higher sales than before.”

As prices for seeds and other inputs rise, farmers have seen the price their goods fetch in the marketplace fall or stagnate. The result has been crushing debt burdens, mounting losses, and a stunning surge in suicides among farmers.

The Times reports that “17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003, the most recent year for which government figures are available. Anecdotal reports suggest that the high rates are continuing.”

Well, that’s one way to clear the land of “inefficient” farmers.

For the enduring scam that is BT cotton, read this.

The NYTimes Covers Cricket!

A Battle of National Pride, Fought on the Cricket Field – New York Times

On Sunday, an umpire presiding at a high-profile game between England and Pakistan ruled that in his belief, Pakistani players had been tampering with the ball, and he told Pakistani players of his suspicion, awarding England five bonus runs, or points. Cricketers consider ball tampering to be one of the most heinous forms of cheating. By way of protest, the Pakistanis refused to leave their dressing room after a scheduled break for tea. The umpire, Darrell Hair of Australia, a person known for contentious rulings against some Asian teams, then removed the bails — little wooden bits that fit horizontally across the top of the larger wooden stakes called stumps — denoting that Pakistan had forfeited the game. The Pakistani team, nonetheless, walked back onto the field. But by that time the umpires had walked off, having ruled that Pakistan’s no-show constituted a terminal offense. Game to England — the first time in 129 years of so-called Test matches between national teams that a game had been forfeited in this way.

Oh well, to explain this to someone who does not watch cricket requires a long dissertation on swing and “reverse swing” (check out this video from the Beeb, this page and wikipedia). When the ball is “new” and shiny, the ball moves laterally in the air a certain way, thanks mostly to the bowler’s skillful application of the physics of air flow around a spherical object (and spit). He keeps one side shinier than the other so that the air resistance around the rough side pushes the ball in the direction of the “rough” side. The angle of the “seam”, or the ball’s stitching also helps maintain the difference in flow velocity. Weather conditions also play a big part, it tends to swing more when it is a little cold and humid. When the ball gets older (cricket uses the same ball till it gets too worn out), the “rough” side is now so rough that the airflow around this side now has less resistance, and the ball “reverses” its swing.

So what does all this have to do with what happened on the field? Well, you’re allowed to keep one side smooth with spit and polish (well, mostly spit, because polish is not allowed!). But, you’re not allowed to artificially roughen the other side to make the ball reverse swing quicker than it normally would. The Pakistan team pretty much perfected reverse swing, and have been caught tampering before. Hair looked at the ball, decided unilaterally that the ball had been tampered with, penalized the team and expected the Pakistan team to just accept his decision and play.

This particular umpire has a long history of controversy with Asian teams, I remember his first game very well, it was a test match in 1992 between Australia and India where his decisions pretty much pushed the game in Australia’s favor (this was before “neutral” or other country umpires). I was pissed off then, and his decision making has always been suspicious. He has called a Sri Lankan bowler for “throwing” when he wasn’t supposed to. I hope he never officiates another test match involving India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka ever again, his judgment is to be considered suspect!

India Bans Child Labor

About frigging time. It’s scary when I was growing up to be “helped” by kids younger than me, I remember feeling lucky to be on the receiving side. Wonder if implementationitis will hit this as well (who will enforce? will they selectively enforce? Will this be just another extortion excuse? Will people complain if they see any child labor in their local tea shop? What will poor parents make their kids do to earn extra income for the family?)
BBC NEWS | South Asia | India bans child domestic labour

The order, which applies to children under 14, will come into effect in October, officials say.It also bans children from teashops, restaurants, hotels, motels, resorts, spas or other recreational centres.

There are estimated to be more than 12.6 million child workers in India, many of whom work as domestic helps or in small roadside restaurants.

The committee, while recommending the ban, warned that children under 14 were vulnerable to physical, mental and even sexual abuse. Mr Srivastava said that anyone found violating the ban would be penalised under the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act of 1986. Punishment range from a fine to imprisonment.


Lead in Paint, why???

1940-11_White_Lead_Paint.JPGThis makes my head explode, once again, science is helpless when faced with inertia, and greed. Lead-based paint has been banned in the US since 1978, and if this story is any indication, we’re still seeing the effects of peeling paint. But this bit of research from the University of Cincinnati suggests that not only is lead-based paint being used in more than half the world, it is actually legal.

Study Supports ‘Urgent’ Need for Worldwide Ban on Lead-Based Paint

Environmental and occupational health experts at the University of Cincinnati (UC) have found that major countries—including India, China and Malaysia—still produce and sell consumer paints with dangerously high lead levels.

Why would anyone need to use lead-based paint when alternatives have been available for the longest time, the health effects of lead, especially on children, are very well known, and there is no @#$%^&*# reason other than greed and unwillingness to change. What is the point of all these years of research if it makes no difference at all to the bulk of the world’s population? Depressing.

Guess what, even if lead-based paint was banned today, it’s still going to be on the walls forever. As the paint peels, kids will be exposed, have lowered IQ, and all other kinds of health issues for as long as that house is standing, which in India could be a 100 years.

Grassroots organizing is probably needed, and if effective, the stuff will be banned in India quickly, the government does move rapidly on these kinds of easy to legislate issues. But, enforcement will be lax, and awareness will lag, which means we are looking at (my rough guess) at least 20 years more of this issue.

Once again, the absence of a ban and its implementation affects the poor and uneducated disproportionately. The way I see it happening in India is

  1. Some grassroots awareness, media stories, etc.
  2. A furore that lasts about a week, before the next big story comes along
  3. Maybe a government action that will “ban” lead-based paint
  4. The middle class and above are now aware that they can use titania based paints, so, a quick change for them.
  5. Everyone else is still stuck with the lead-based paint.

And this does not even begin to address what the US is going through now, aging houses, peeling paint, poor people being exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

The world ain’t very fair…

Riding Trains in Mumbai

From Salon, I thought it was a nice article about riding the train in Mumbai, something I’ve done a few times, though very rarely during rush hour.

India is a ridiculously easy target because of the population, the wide open borders, the diversity of the population, the lack of any security in public places (I can’t imagine how one could add security to the Mumbai trains), and the utter chaos of living in an Indian city. Americans who worry about terrorism in their country should count themselves lucky, the continent is a large island, and all the talk of open borders is hot air. It is still incredibly difficult to enter this country as someone who means harm. This country is magnificently safe (in comparison) because of its isolation and affluence.

I hope this is not the beginning of a new uptick in terrorist attacks for India, worst thing that could happen.

Riding the train in Mumbai | Salon News

July 12, 2006 | MUMBAI, India — As a New Yorker in Bombay, or Mumbai, as it’s officially known, one of my greatest thrills has been taking the fast train downtown.

I clamber into a wide, sturdy train carriage without doors, sealed windows or comfort of any kind. The carriage, done up in stamped steel, has the Spartan appeal of a military jeep. I lean out of the open doorway watching the city slip past, skimming my shoes over the tops of the low fences that separate the downtown and uptown tracks, marveling at the perfectly manicured trackside landscaping. For maximum stylishness, I hop off while the train is still easing into the station, turning sideways to avoid the herd of office workers thundering aboard to grab a seat.

Riding Mumbai’s local trains is much more interactive than taking the L line to the Bedford stop in Brooklyn, N.Y. The lack of doors and window glass, which often leaves riders soaked during monsoon season, is partly because of the tropical heat, partly to let Mumbai’s 6 million daily commuters jam onboard at maximum speed. The city’s above-ground system handles a third more riders each day than the New York subway, where a rush hour crowd means brushing against other riders; in Mumbai, rush hour means your chest is crushed, your arms are pinned and you become intimate with your neighbor’s deodorant or lack thereof. You must plan your sweaty escape two stations before your stop arrives and advertise it loudly as you’re fighting your way off so as not to be swept back into the carriage by new passengers. It’s easier to get on and off, however, if you’re riding on the outside of the train, clinging by your fingers to the empty windowsills, as many rush hour riders do.

Despite the volume, trains run as fast as in Manhattan. Taking an express train will get you where you’re going three times faster than a taxi during rush hour for only 40 cents. Trains pause only a few seconds at each station. In order to handle this ridership and speed, Mumbai’s stations are left completely open. You can stroll onto a train from any of a number of uncontrolled entrances or even hop onboard from the tracks while the train gathers speed. There are no turnstiles. Instead, railway police conduct random, and very rare, ticket checks on the platforms. This honor system works, sort of — the lines to buy the little cardboard tickets are long, if suspiciously middle class.

By contrast, the New York subway has controlled entrances and exits, fare turnstiles and security cameras. Police aggressively pursue fare beaters. After last year’s London Underground bombings, New York added random bag searches. London has tested body scanners, and New York may one day follow suit.

I always clutch my bag a little tighter when I hurry past the bag-check tables at Manhattan’s Union Square subway station, convinced that no matter what the cops may say about the randomness of searches, suspicion falls heaviest on those who look Arab, Muslim or South Asian, as I do. But while I have been asked for a train ticket in Mumbai, I’ve never been searched by the police in New York. My turbaned Sikh friends, however, draw plenty of attention from police and street hecklers alike, perhaps because they’re thought to be Muslim, though their religion has little to do with Islam.

In Mumbai, ethnic profiling of potential terrorists is a nonstarter. The potential suspects look exactly like everyone else. I’ve seen people on Brooklyn subway platforms pay close attention to a devout Muslim wearing a beard, round cap and kurta. In Mumbai, a man with such a mundane appearance might be your doctor, fruitwallah (fruit vendor) or cabbie.

I’ve heard subway workers in Brooklyn tell passengers that large packages are more likely to be searched, though I’ve never actually seen anyone check an upright double bass case. In Mumbai, street merchants cart their entire stock between home and work every day.

There is, however, one area in which Mumbai’s open train system is somewhat safer than the New York subway. Bombers seek out enclosed spaces because of the laws of physics — an explosion loses strength rapidly with distance from its source. Bombers want closed compartments to amplify the blast. A bomb of a train carriage with open-air doors and windows is potentially less lethal to those inside because blast energy has ways to dissipate.

The trading port of Mumbai has always valued openness. Like that other long, narrow, high-rise island, Manhattan, Mumbai is a polyglot riot of immigrants. Portuguese Christian names jostle for space on the walls of the city’s apartment buildings with the names of those of Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Parsee and Buddhist descent. Bombay is also a high-speed city. The vada pav (potato chutney) sellers on the street are as brusque and efficient as New York hot dog vendors.

Space, as in New York, is a luxury. It’s worth money. On Tuesday, the bombers targeted the first-class cars. The people they killed were not paying for padded seats, for the first-class carriages have the same hard benches and missing doors as the second-class cars. For a ticket that costs nearly 10 times more, first-class passengers are buying a tiny bit of extra space. They’re renting elbow room and a sliver of air so that their commute passes a little more comfortably.

Today, the trains are running again in Mumbai. I have not ridden them yet. I will, but riding them will never again be such a simple, innocent, sweaty pleasure. I’ve heard, however, that anyone who dares to ride in the first-class coaches can now have as much air and space and comfort as he or she wants. Nobody is taking first class.