Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Prescription For A Healthy Democracy

I have been mulling this for awhile now. Anyway I look at it, a democratic nation cannot sustain its central ideals of equality and citizen participation without every person in the land having access to affordable health care. Let me elaborate. It is not that the democratic principles and ideals are less important than health care- though one might argue that indeed life and limb are more important than the idea of free speech and equal rights. But that is a false dichotomy in that while health care is important to physical existence, democracy (when it works) meets a higher need to self-determine. Both are essential to the human condition in their own complementary ways.

The idea of democracy sets a vision of self-governance, fairness and justice that nations, which believe in dignity and rights for all, aspire to. A nation that pursues this democratic ideal, however, needs other accouterments to ensure that not only do all people within its boundaries have dignity and rights but that other factors, such as poverty, ill-health and illiteracy, do not keep them from participating in the democratic process. If a nation has fabulous health technology but only a certain proportion of the people residing within its borders can avail themselves of it without going into debt or otherwise bearing financial hardship, then what good is the existence of the most sophisticated democratic apparatus or even health apparatus? Most of those who cannot afford health care will either die early or be poorer and unhealthier and thus, less likely to exercise their right to vote. How do I know this? I know that when I am suffering from something as innocuous as a bad headache, I am not prone to thinking intellectually about the things that I could be doing. I only do those that I absolutely must do to keep going or rely on family for help. Most of us humans are like that. When we feel a threat to our health or that of our kin, we do go into something of a survival mode.

My point is that without universal health care, over time a nation skews its democratic process to favor those who can maintain better health. If in that nation health care is expensive and employment related, then these are generally the employed and the wealthy. So even though Lady Liberty might welcome the "tired, poor, homeless and the tempest-tost," she cannot guarantee them the basic right to good health which will ensure that they are as able as anyone else to participate in the democratic process throughout their lives which are no shorter or unhealthier than anyone elses.

Check out this powerful poster I found on the web. Makes the point nicely.

Addendum 31 Dec., 2009 - Lest people think this blog is only about the US, let me clarify that this applies also to other democratic experiments such as in India. There, while all citizens are supposed to have free public health provisions, one has but to look at the state of public-funded clinics and hospitals to know that corruption has way-laid the resources. The Indian democratic experiment while vibrant in some ways, weighs oppressively on the poor who do suffer from ill-health and early demise. All democratic nations NEED to provide universal health coverage for all people (not just in name either) in order to be a fully-functioning and true democracy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Animal Rights Organizations

While growing up (in India) I was part of a family that included dogs. However, I have never had a pet here in the States till recently. I always wanted one but I also always had excuses for why I couldn't have one right then. At last, recently, we were selected by a little cat at the Humane Society Shelter and we brought home Neobe. It has been a revelation in many ways. Not least of which has been an introduction to the health care system and issues facing non-humans in the United States.

I have always believed in and supported organizations that fight for animal rights such as PETA, HSUS, ASPCA and WWF. I thought that by supporting organizations like these, I was helping to make the life of pets and other animals better. I just never realized how they worked. While most of these organizations lobby for and advocate better treatment of animals, this doesn't translate into better care for the household pet in most cases. A recent example is that of the HSUS rescuing many dogs from a puppy mill in Tennessee. The HSUS is doing its best to provide all the animals care and to try and place them in homes and it has shut down the puppy mill. However, if you walk into any HSUS shelter across the nation, you will realize that they are mostly "kill" shelters. This means that animals that don't get adopted are euthanized within a set period of time. Contrast this with many local no-kill shelters that don't receive the kind of money and support and even recognition that the HSUS might receive but that still manage to care for all animals received. Two of these in the Denver area are the MaxFund and the Animal Rescue and Adoption Society. Another wonderful example is D.E.L.T.A. run by Leo Grillo out in California.

Here's another strange fact. Despite the proliferation of all these wonderful high-profile, animal-rights organizations, the United States continues to suffer from overcrowded shelters. I did not see a problem on this scale in other developed nations. Despite all these years of advocacy for pet sterilization, shelters swim in puppies and kittens come a certain time of year. And it is very much a hidden problem unlike the developing world where strays end up on streets to live miserable and brutishly short lives. Here we like to keep them out of sight and mind- in shelters where they can live cramped, anxious and short lives generally.

Despite the presence of this many wonderful animal-rights organizations, the United States also suffers the ignominy of being perhaps the only developed nation where you can take your cat to your vet and have her/him declawed. This is a practice labeled unethical and inhumane in most developed nations. Why aren't we fighting harder to prevent something known to be cruel every where else? How did the other nations ensure that this doesn't happen to innocent cats?

Another revelation is that you cannot find charitable veterinary organizations in communities. Veterinary offices charge a lot of money every time you visit their offices. This ensures that the poor and those with financial challenges (such as students, the unemployed, the elderly) are unable to afford pets or if they are still determined to have pets, then they are generally unable to provide the pets with good health care from a veterinarian without digging themselves deeper into the hole. This also means that if you find an animal in distress, you may hesitate to pick it up and walk into a vet's clinic if you know that every visit will cost you about $50 not including the medications or any treatment.

The cost might also explain why many people won't get sick pets treated. What, you are surprised that there are sick and untreated pets in many households? You can read about sick and untreated pets in most animal care organization reports and veterinary reports (Case in point: It is recognized that owners will often ignore and not treat cat illnesses, and so research into cat illnesses and treatments for them lags behind that for dogs).

Normal household pets need advocates too. Just because a pet is adopted doesn't mean our societal responsibility to it is at an end. This is nowhere more obvious than in this time of foreclosures in the United States when so many former pets are now abandoned or surrendered to shelters with no guarantees to life.

I had thought that the animal care situation in this country would look rosier after so many years of active work by so many wonderfully committed organizations. Yes, let's fight against veal crating and battery farming and puppy mills and seal clubbing and KFC. But let's also educate and make shelters a place of warmth and life and change our philosophies towards pets and their care. Let's not make having pets a luxury only few can afford. I still support these organizations but now I am also finding myself appreciating local and no-kill shelters that try to better the quality of life of so many domesticated and feral animals.

Click on the photos of kittens and puppy to see where they were found. The cat sleeping is Neobe. :)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Woeful Waste

For years now when I print a document I stand by the printer with paper in my hand and feed it in one sheet at a time. When the printer spits out a page, I flip it and re-insert it in order to make double sided documents. I was puzzled that American photocopiers had the ability to turn documents of all kinds into double-sided copies but American printers somehow never developed the technology to make double-sided prints.

I will happily admit that this is as much an indictment of my gullibility as of the manufacturers of printers in America who like to keep consumers in the dark. I was disabused of the seeming backwardness of printer technology when I got the opportunity to work at a university in the U.K. where all printers were capable of printing double-sided documents with no extra trouble. You just made the appropriate selection on the print set-up screen on your computer. It seems that the regulations for recycling etc., being more stringent across the pond, the very same manufacturers were indeed able to surmount this problem of printers that could print on both sides of a sheet of paper.

Even today, I am unable to find double-sided printing as a feature on common household American printers. If you search you can find some 'special' printers marketed for having this 'fabulous' money and paper saving feature!! Paying extra for such printers is something a few corporate companies may do. But most small businesses as well as academia and those of us regular folks at home often get by with the state-of-the-art for home printers which hasn't changed for the last decade or more. So folks like me have to stand by the printer and feed it one page at a time and take about 10 times as long to print a document as a double-sided printer would take.

Here's a guy, who missing his corporate double-sided printer figured out another way to overcome his lack of double sided printing. Again, you will note the convoluted steps one has to go through to do something that is good for all of us- i.e., use less paper and save some trees. What is it about being located in the world's number one economy and a place where a lot of new research and technology is developed that we can't get manufacturers to take us seriously as consumers? What would it take to get broad access to something as simple as a cheap double-sided printer?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Progress Report On The Dongria Kondh Story

In a tragic fait accompli, the Indian Supreme Court has approved mining by Vedanta and Posco (a South Korean company) in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa. There were many strenuous campaigns against mining in this eco-system by the indigenous dwellers of Niyamgiri, forestry officials and farmers to name a few. The Norwegian government went so far as to divest itself of Vedanta stock in order not to be tainted by a project that has and would continue to adversely affect human rights and the environment. (You may read the whole story in a previous blog I wrote.)

The Supreme Court has mandated that a certain sum be spent on tribal development and welfare. But this sum is a pittance and not something desired by the tribals. And leaving the welfare of Indian citizens in the hands of some multi-national seems a very shoddy road-plan for human rights and economic development.

The rush to development claims new victims. The gap between those who are benefiting from the economic development and those who are not continues to grow. India continues to feel the pressure to be counted as one of the two emerging economic giants even as China has left it far behind in developing infrastructure and education. Indian corruption continues to siphon off funds directed towards the poorest and the most disadvantaged. Indian politicians need to consider new ways of achieving goals as the old ones never worked. We need to be smart and develop in such a way that we don't spend decades recovering from the damage done by the rush to develop. And we certainly shouldn't victimize the citizens of India in order to meet development goals. Otherwise, how can we claim the democratic high ground?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Celebrity Circus

We had been lulled into complacency in a post-Hilton world. No longer did we have to have inane heiress famous for being famous thrust at us instead of world news and events. The serious business of the U.S. choosing its next president was beginning to heat up. And then Mr. McCain had to go and bring back Inanity to primetime. Grrroan. What was he thinking? Who is advising the septuagenarian? In an ad aimed at making people think of Obama's "celebrity" status, he uses footage of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Ms. Hilton, never one to miss an opportunity for self-promotion, has now made a faux campaign ad thanking McCain for his endorsement. One has to admit though, that the ad is funny.

But Mr. McCain, who has not been doing too badly- considering that Obama has the novelty factor and has attracted tons of younger blood to the election campaigns- does not have my thanks for bring Ms. Hilton back into the public eye. Mr. McCain could easily have focused on other aspects of the Obama campaign, which has been far from perfect. Mr. Obama has been frittering away the passionate support from the liberal and younger end of the spectrum instead of securing it and expanding into the other demographics. Soon after being endorsed the Democratic nominee, Mr. Obama has been moving to the center and those who had so hopefully supported him as the agent of change saw him backtrack and espouse ideas which seem antithetical to one who claims not to be adept at playing politics. Obama should have taken the high ground and stuck to his campaign finance promises. He should have not given in to pressure from big business and said that phone companies should not be penalized for supporting wrong-headed policies on wire-tapping, etc. etc. He should not try to be loved by everyone all the time. Clinton (the president) was good at that and even convincing.

There are other policy issues that Mr. McCain could challenge Mr. Obama on. To pick on him for his celebrity status just seems like a cheap shot. And one that has inflicted Paris on us again!

[Click on picture of Paris Hilton to view original ad at funnyordie.com.]

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Tribal David V. A Multi-National Goliath

This is a story about a tribal group in India. The Dongria Kondh live in eastern India. There are fewer than 8000 of them left and they live in the forests in a hilly part of the state of Orissa. It is one of the more backward states in terms of education, income, economic growth, etc. And the tribals being more remotely located are considered even more backward in India because they have little or no education, few economic means, poor access to modern health care, etc, etc. However, the answer to tribal well-being is not, as most developing nations seem to think, assimilation. Many tribes are unique and practice a way of life that is very much in tune with their natural surroundings.

The Dongria Kondh live in the hills of Niyamgiri in a place called Golgola. They live in little villages and live on produce from the forests- fruits, medicines, animals- and a little bit of subsistence agriculture. They sell some of their foraged bounty in the towns to buy things they need like clothes or cooking utensils. But on the whole they keep to themselves. They belong to the world's oldest religion- animism. They pray to things in nature.

It turns out that the hills they call home are full of bauxite (which is the ore from which aluminum is made) and other minerals. The government of Orissa has awarded the contract for mining and processing the minerals and ore to a multinational out of UK called Vedanta. The Dongria Kondh know that if Vedanta begins to mine their hills, it will be the end of them and their lifestyle. This has prompted some of them to say that they will kill or be killed to protect their home. But knowing how the world works today, we know that a mere tribe, even if it is willing to lay down its life, doesn't have the kind of pull needed to sway a government and a multinational.

Fortunately for the Dongria Kondh, there are other players who also believe that mining in Niyamgiri is not a good idea. The Wildlife Institute of India is one such organization. They believe the mining operations will irreversibly damage the eco-system unique to the hills. A Supreme Court committee found that Vedanta violated the Forest Conservation Act when it built its refinery on the bottom of the hill and recommends that its environmental clearance be withdrawn. The Committee also noted that people were coerced and forcefully driven out of their homes to make way for the refinery. In addition, Norway's government (an investor in Vedanta) has divested itself of all Vedanta shares (about $14 million) after its Council on Ethics -a department which monitors state pension investments- warned that investing in the company would make Norway complicit in all current and future ecological damage and human rights violations.

The case is now winding its way through the Supreme Court and Vedanta is fighting hard to bolster its claims that it will bring technology, electricity, wealth, health, employment and education to this part of the world; that environmental damage will be minimal as Vedanta will only dig about 10 to 15 meters(!) down and then fill in holes when done; that people claiming environmental damage and human rights violation are all lying.

India needs resources to develop. But the major use of the aluminum produced by this factory is for food wrapping (bars of chocolate, potato chips...). Resource exploitation and utilization must be done with a long term view. Norway, a country which is arguably the world's most developed (in terms of how healthy and happy its citizens are), has come to realize this and has appointed a state philosopher to oversee its investments. The idea would be laughable elsewhere but is actually extremely smart. Of course, there are still problems (as I will talk about in another post), but thinking of ethics, environmental good, human rights, and other such value-laden principles, is not a peculiarly Norwegian luxury. Developing countries should at least be considering these very same principles in their quest to leave behind hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease..., if they don't want to come to a point where the quest to develop rapidly has wiped out sub-populations, rich eco-systems, faith in government and a healthy life.

Meantime, the fate of the Dongria Kondh hangs on a Supreme Court decision.

[The picture is taken from the BBC. To see this and more pictures of the Dongria Kondh, please click on the photo.]

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Racism Yeah! Sexism Nah!

Something about this campaign season has been striking. With the democrats yielding two "firsts" - the first woman who could have been president or the first not-only-white person to be president - the battle pitch was set. There were plenty of things to talk about but most issues never got center-stage quite as much as personal differences between the candidates.
Here is the bit that was striking and bothered me. Ad hominems against the Clinton camp were never seen as sexist except by a small group of women and were even nationally acceptable and deemed humorous. She is much reviled in the news media and so attacks on her about her cleavage and sexuality and dressing and person and voice and words... were not seen as attacks against womynkind but rather against a deserving, obnoxious target. On the other hand, stood America's first not-all-white contender to the throne. Anytime he was criticized, it was as if all black-Americans were attacked and Americans had to prove their credentials as race-inclusive. (We won't even cover how America's oldest candidate to the office fared.)

How is it that in this day and age an anti-Clinton group called Citizens United Not Timid could exist and its founder not be prosecuted for a hate-crime? What if someone had made an anti-Obama group called Not In God's Green EaRth? What if someone made an anti-McCain group called People Revolt in Collective Knumbers? (Ok, I know I won't make a good living as an acronym designer but you get my drift.) Would we react differently? I think we would react differently. Check out the poster above by the anti-Clinton group. It wants to teach people what Hillary Clinton "is." Check out its flag- if this is not an attack on all women, then what is?

The environment in which this election is taking place us gives us a clue to the zeitgeist. It was entirely acceptable to have a Clinton nutcracker but no doll of Obama was made or will be made. I wish the respect extended to Obama had been extended to Clinton as well. I am not asking for equal opportunity nastiness and tearing down. I don't want Obama or McCain to be attacked and name called but I would like to see some recognition and outrage when Clinton is attacked in a way that is psychically damaging to all women. I would like more people to express an outrage when a woman's campaign to aspire to the president's office is asked to shut itself down over and over again. If America was ready to accept a person across the color divide (at last) then surely, it must have already accepted someone who was representative of at least 50% of the populace in terms of her gender before now. Apparently not. And apparently not now.

Whether Obama was the candidate or not, Clinton would still have gotten treated poorly. We all love to pay respect to god and country. Let's start by paying our respects to mother, sister, wife and daughter.