Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Trade Fairly: Putting Consumerism in its Place

I am on the Fair Trade bandwagon. Living in Europe made me aware of the growing fair trade movement and made me appreciate how harmful our quest for "cheap" can be. Look, I appreciate value as much as the next person. Who wouldn't like to save their money and have it all too? Hmm... but what does having it all mean? Does it mean I buy every new gadget that I am told to by the advertisers?

Fair trade is a relatively new concept in the world economy and one which while itself positive, by its very existence, denotes the negative place we have arrived at where we have to demarcate positive consumerism from blind materialism. Products that are sold "fair trade" or traded fairly, try to assure the producers a livelihood that takes into account issues of sustainability, living costs for a family which include basic amenities such as water, education for children, food and health for family. But, you ask me, isn't this implied by all wages for any job around the world? The simple answer is no. Do you think that when you buy products, say from Walmart, that the Chinese worker in some factory is assured all these things? No, they are assured back breaking work at low wages, which they are grateful to have because the wages are better than they could have got had they stayed back in the rural setting with their family.

When I bring up "fair trade" with friends and acquaintances some have expressed concern. They feel that while some rich, Birkenstock wearing people may be able to purchase useless knick knacks which are overpriced, fair trade seems quite exclusive and wasteful to someone on a budget- much as organic products do still. This is not a bad argument at all. Fairly traded products do cost more than "walmarted" goods. Currently, however, very few products are widely available as fairly traded. These are chocolate, tea, coffee, bananas and in some specialty stores, handicrafts and fabrics. People can afford to spend a bit more on these few select products but what if most products were available in "fair trade" just as now organic labels are placed right besides the regular labels? I suppose then it would be only the rich, Birkenstock wearers who could afford them- or do I suppose wrongly?

If one were to take our consumption patterns as they are and ask people to buy fair-trade, then yes, few of us could afford to buy everything we buy right now. But do we need to buy everything we buy right now? For instance, we buy and buy and buy clothes. Do we really need or even use all the clothes we buy? A look on e-bay or most consignment stores will show you that a significant proportion of clothes are NWT (new with tag in e-bayese) or NWOT (new without tag). Similarly for household appliances, furnishings, sports paraphernalia (a friend got a bargain on a used-once bicycle at a garage sale for $50 a few years ago), toys, and you-name-it. We really don't need to buy as much as we do. If we were mostly buying only those things we need then perhaps, we could afford to buy most things at fair-trade prices. We could join the Birkenstock club. ;)

If you think about it, it is simple economics. Any rational producer would price their goods and services at cost+ rather than cost- (or below cost) in order to subsist and thrive. But in this completely skewed world economy, we have strange pressures that hollow out the producers of basic resources more than secondary producers & consumers. Vandana Shiva has an amazing article in Resurgence about how even as world wealth has reached new heights, poverty has remained undiminished and even grown with it. We can change the distribution of health and happiness on earth by paying more attention to our spending habits. Fair trade is one way to do it and no, you don't need to be rich to do it.

For information on pictures, please click on them and you will be taken to the copyright page.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Far From A Free Market Enterprise

So I have an American cell phone as well as a British mobile. I had to get the American cell phone for work since my former American employers thought it "professional." So I opted for one where I could pay as I go. This seemed the least wasteful considering how little I anticipated using the phone. My cheap phone is cumbersome. Each call costs me $0.18 per minute. I have to top it off with $20 every 90 days otherwise it dies. This is regardless of whether it still has a balance from the previous top-up.

When I was in the UK, I considered getting a phone and expected the system to be either the same or worse than in the USA since I always figured the US to be at the cutting edge of consumer services and technological innovations. To my surprise, a cheap mobile was really cheap in the UK. I got a phone that really was pay-as-you-go unlike my American cell which only purported to be pay-as-you-go. So if I never made calls then I didn't need to top up my British mobile. The cash I put on it never expired. In addition, I had coverage all over Europe on various networks other than only my own. Charges for making or receiving calls in foreign countries seemed steep but I had the option of using my mobile, should I need to, in an emergency. Further, within country calls were quite cheap and even cheaper if you chose to text, which explained why so very many more people on that side of the Atlantic are consummate texters. I learned a lot about using mobiles during my stay across the pond. I learned about SIM cards and how I could take them out and put them in other phones. That the casing of the phone was less important than the SIM. Yet, in the USA, hardly anyone knows this.

I puzzled on this discrepancy for sometime. My expensive, cheap American cell had virtually no coverage in many parts of the USA. I couldn't use it anywhere abroad. Every couple months, I needed to top it up regardless of the fact that it still had money on it. And no one here even knew how to open text messages sent to them, let alone be able to text me.

From friends, from the news and reports on the web, I realized that the cheap mobile phenomena was not limited to the UK, but was even more rampant in continental Europe, sweeping through Asia and making inroads even in Africa. It brought good things in its wake in most places. While annoying loud talkers are annoying all over, at least there were some good things coming out of the cheaper phone phenomenon in other parts of the world. Young people starting out their careers did not need to pay for and maintain landlines in a permanent residence. Income did not differentiate who could or could not stay in communication with work, family and friends. New business enterprises emerged such as pay-phone systems in remote villages where women with phones could now provide a service and earn a living. The cellphone served as a business tool for farmers, cattle herders and fishermen who need to know which market is not flooded with produce and will fetch them a good price for their wares. Arranging meetings, changing venues and plans on the fly have become possible because of the ease of reaching another person on the go. In addition, studies are showing that the cellphone culture is fulfilling another primate need- that of "grooming." The number of just-keeping-in-touch types of calls expressing concern, support, and affection have gone up considerably.

I am not saying that only great things have come out of the revolution of the air-waves. On a negative note, cellphones have resulted in a lack of privacy as one is meant to be reachable anywhere, anytime. Cellphones have also been described as adult-pacifiers in that we never need to be alone or apprehensive anymore. The ubiquity of the instrument and the fact that another voice or presence is only a couple of key punches away diminishes individual introspection on phenomena and experiences. This leads to a dependency on others as well as the technology itself.

However, the imperfections of the system are more palatable when it becomes cheaper and thus, allows diverse usage thereby increasing convenience rather than imposing an expensive and burdensome system of limited uses. Yet, for some reason, those of us living on the western edge of the Atlantic do not seem to be innovating and enjoying the benefits of a cheaper communication culture. So much so that in America, the cellphone is regarded somewhat as a necessary evil and remains a communication conduit whereas it is fast becoming an indispensable lifestyle tool across the world. The reason the rest of the world has benefited from this technology while the Americans have not, has to do with free market enterprise or the lack of it with regard to the telephone industry in the nation that is the birthplace of this technology.

The airwaves are constricted in the United States by a few big phone companies which have done their utmost to choke out smaller competitors as well as name their own price for service. This prevents innovation. A landline, which should be more expensive given that it takes an employee to set up your house, wiring to be placed and connected and hardware to be installed, is cheaper in this country than purchasing a cell-phone where only the SIM has to be activated. I don't think I have seen this discrepancy anywhere else. Further, if you were to "inherit" a cell phone anywhere else but the US, you would have shops and services where they could "unlock" your phone in order for it to be used not only with the carrier you first purchased it from but with other SIM cards. This allows you the flexibility of passing on your phones or choosing different carriers when you travel without needing to own four different cell instruments. It also reduces waste. I have gone to a few different shops and kiosks since my return to see if anyone would unlock my instrument for me to continue using it with a new service without having to purchase a new instrument and contract. The results have been dismal. So my sister who was gifted a nice new NOKIA instrument with Hindi and English pad by my visiting mother, can't use it. Not only that, she can't afford (she is a graduate student) any of the "decent" cell-phone plans currently on offer by the companies. So she has decided she is going to get a landline at her new address.

There are four big cellphone carriers (Verizon, AT&T-formerly Cingular, Sprint and T-Mobile) who have currently cornered about 90% of the market in the USA. Virgin mobile, which on this side of the Atlantic is a little player, has managed to get a toehold but has been unable to expand sufficiently. If a multi-national company that large can't do it, do you think smaller companies have any chance in this market? And yet, this is considered the home ground of free enterprise and capitalism. American political representatives need to stop backing monolithic industry and start giving innovation and enterprise breathing room again.

For credits on the photos, please click on them and you shall be taken to the photographer's (Chris Jordan & Julie Ask) website/weblog. The cellphone landfill picture was found on Enviroblog and a link to original recycling article is also provided in the article. The other picture shows three Masai tribesmen. Thanks Chris, Enviroblog, Julie Ask and Jupiter Research.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What's Happening with Burma?

Just a couple weeks ago, I was so heartened by the buddhist protests that were shaking Burma and calling for a regime change. What happened? All the news that trickles out is basically about the last few remaining activists being arrested. The Web is restricted which means that another portal through which the world could catch up on what is going on through accounts of web-users is now frozen. The military regime has had a lot of experience making sure they have a choke-hold on this nation. Its resources are being slowly siphoned off to fuel international demands (well mostly Chinese) and its people are slowly being made poorer and hungrier even as the military gets richer and displays its wealth more and more ostentatiously (temple gilding, city building and weddings of family are some gaudy displays of wealth that have trickled out even as reports of people looking more needy are being made).

Nothing really happened despite newspaper editorials and the "little person" voices that were raised all over the world in solidarity with the Burmese. The Security Council made its usual ineffectual noises and ended up accomplishing nothing- but that is business as usual for the UNSC. China felt no pressure despite other nations and organizations singling it out as the single largest supporter of the military regime. An email petition arrived in my inbox asking people to sign up to ask China to change its attitude toward the military rulers or else face the consequences of the international consumer/ olympic fan. All this talk of the Olympics and the pressure China feels to look and sound humane in case it hurts tourism is bunkum. Of course, China would be very happy if many foreign tourists arrived to make China a legitimate international venue for world events. But enough people will be going anyway and in addition, there is plenty of audience within China to sell the tickets and make sure that the Olympic events don't look sparsely attended as happens when they are held in the developed world now. So no, the Chinese government is certainly not spending sleepless nights wringing its hands over the pressure(!) it is facing on the Burmese issue.

The Indian government didn't even acknowledge at any point that it had any real role to play in the Burmese revolt (this is typical of the hubris with which Indian politicians have wasted opportunities to help their own nation and another). It started out by going ahead as usual with its plans to hold talks about resource development with Burma. When Indians protested the duplicity of our government, one could almost hear the cogs spinning in the heads of the Indian politicians on how to spin this. They went with the tried and tested approach to dealing with things. Hypocrisy. On the one hand they changed their tune on the international stage by calling for political reform (too little, too late, but what is worse...) while on the other hand they finalized a deal to invest $103 m to develop the port of Sittwe for quite selfish reasons.

The north eastern states of India are beautiful and home to some unique cultures and tribes (not to mention resources as well). These people have been marginalized from the mainstream of India since Independence. No mainstream politician has ever done anything for these states other than make photo-op visits and send in the army to squelch the nascent secession movements that exist in these states (itself a result of long neglect and lack of economic development). Human rights violation are common in these states. Instead of bringing them into the mainstream by allocating resources to help the populace, the Indian government threw money into the army and developed specialized schools of counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare in the NE states. Decades of military presence in the border regions have however, still not succeeded in killing the insurgency (fueled by high unemployment and feelings of desperation and alienation in the youth of these states). Recent attempts by China to claim some of these far eastern states as part of "One-China" may have also contributed to the Indian government's sudden sense of urgency in reclamation and development efforts that are economic in nature rather than military. This is where Sittwe and Burma come into play.

The port of Sittwe allows the Indian government to transport goods and services into the NE states more easily than the narrow land corridor which restricts such movement presently. It will also cut transportation costs significantly (some claim by upto 50%). In itself, this is not a bad idea. However, India has done itself and Burma a huge disservice by dealing with the devil in its short-sighted policy of "non-interference" and mutual "self-help". India would be served well by having and supporting a democracy in Burma for a few very important reasons. One. Democratically elected leaders are more reliable partners (for trade and policy) than military ones who are answerable to no one. Two. Democracy in Burma would staunch the massive centrifugal forces acting on the population and creating refugees along all Burmese borders. India should remember that it shares a 1000 mile border with Burma. Three. Democracy in Burma would mean economic development and growing prosperity (both non-existent in the Burma we know of now) and if our neighbor does well, it bodes well for us too as its trading partner. Four. Democracy in Burma would alleviate the ethnic insurgent movements that are located in the border regions of the nation and which complement and strengthen the insurgency across the border in India. The rebel bases are located in north western parts of Burma and legitimize cross border guerrilla warfare by demonizing the military rulers and their associates who are represented by the Indian army in NE India. India would do well to reevaluate and reassess its partnership with such a regime and rethink the gains to be had were it to openly stand on the side of democracy, as it should. Supporting the Burmese people will have a positive payoff. It is no longer if, but when the regime will crack.

The Russian politicians are too preoccupied with regaining their position as the other "superpower" to be useful as a sane voice in the international arena. The paranoia and heavy handed governance of the Soviet era is making a come-back but this time hand-in-hand with a nationalism that smacks of 1930s Germany. Russia is no good to anyone, least of all its own impoverished citizens having taken on the worst of capitalism and merging it with a communist-type structure at the top levels of the government. The good things that existed under communism such as an excellent education program in the sciences, sports and arts however, are not to be seen. The Russia of today cannot stand up and speak against some of the atrocities seen around the world because it is either complicit in them or is trying its own brand of atrocities at home.

The USA with its sanctions is at best ineffectual as Burma is a cut-off country that does not rely on foreign trade. If the USA wanted to it could still have influenced the military regime by trying to strong arm those nations that support the Burmese regime but this would take a lot of political will and legitimacy- neither of which the USA has to spare under the current administration. The USA has a nuclear deal in the works with India and it should have held the Indians over the barrel. Similarly, it could have found ways to make the Chinese and Russian cooperate on the issue of Burma. When it needs to, the USA has not been afraid to go it alone or to force the world to see its way. Burma however, is small fish and one with little to offer the USA.

[Free Burma picture from REUTERS by Cheryl Ravelo. China Olympic picture found on multiple internet sites, no source listed. Map of India, China, Burma on BBC. Thanks.]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Mistake

Since I moved to America in the early 1990s, I have heard it said so often that America is a christian nation. The oft-repeated statement, not only by common citizens but also by others in prominent positions of influence, overrode the geography and civics lessons of my junior school days where I had read about the American constitution and its secular nature. It came back to me only in a slightly embarrassing way.

When I was in England for my post-doc, a bunch of us friends used to go for lunch together and we would end up talking about all kinds of things. The conversation turned to religion and from there on to the separation of church and state. I knew that India was a secular country but I stated that the USA was a christian country. I expected the UK to be secular since it seemed like I heard a message of religious freedom often. As my Scots friend, Craig, had to remind me, in the UK the Monarch is the head of the Church of England. However, the UK still functions more or less like a secular state (since practicing christians are on the decline in the country and there aren't as many foaming-at-the-mouth born-again-christians as in the US). Craig also had to correct me about the fact that he thought the US was a secular country. I couldn't reconcile what he was saying with everything I had experienced since moving to the USA. But he was right. The USA is indeed a secular country but anyone living here at this time in history may get the mistaken impression that we do indeed live in Jesus-land (a little to the right of la-la-land). And I was no exception. Americans can be overtly religious in their convictions. However, this nation's founders were not, as many claim, religious and they certainly did not intend to form a christian nation.

Pan to the present times. Recently, for the first time ever a hindu clergyman was invited to offer the morning prayers at the Senate (why a government institution even needs prayer to get down to its business in a secular country is one question I haven't been able to answer satisfactorily for myself- I will have to wait till I meet my first senator). The prayer generated protests from the galleries and three people had to be removed before the prayer commenced. They felt that the hindu prayer was an abomination to the one true god and as christians and patriots, it was their duty to stop it. This country is being overrun by religious fundamentalists who blur the line between church and state with all kinds of equivocations such as confounding nationalism with religious duties (protecting the country, and more recently the environment too, in the name of Christ), health care issues with those of murder (look at abortion and stem cell research) and education with those of personal belief systems (teaching science is seen as an attack on christianity) . This is a slippery slope and one which takes the country back to a more savage state of development.

Religion should, at best, serve as a personal salve for those who can't get by with belief in self and reality. It cannot and should not be imposed upon others and a state should certainly not take moral lessons on policy and treatment of citizens from any holey book. We have some examples of places where the religio-moral principles from old texts have been used as law. We can see how inhumane such laws are in regions of the world where the sharia is applied. And yet, many in the USA, who would decry the atrocities of another religion continue to prevaricate and hold up an archaic text as their ultimate guide. They also perhaps believe that those who wrote the constitution of this nation held this text in the same regard (which they may well have) and used it as a guide for the document they wrote (which they did not). The constitution of the USA is a document of much sophistication and superior to the bible in that it is a living document, i.e., one that can be amended. It was my mistake to let the loud voices dripping with religion drown out the centrality of this document to the American polity.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Burmese Revolution

Burma (Myanmar) has been systematically raped and its population terrorized by its military junta*. The military rulers of Burma are not stupid despots. Wait, let me rephrase that- they are despots but not stupid. They are a pretty superstitious bunch for which you would be forgiven to think them stupid. They keep the Burmese borders tightly locked. This has prevented the world from gauging the extent of Burmese suffering other than the few glimpses that are leaked out by some enterprising journalists and escaped dissidents over the years- "out of sight is out of mind" works well when it comes to oppression and misery. Aung San Suu Kyi's presence is also a factor that allows Burma to not fade entirely from the world's sight.

The current uprising by the monks of Burma is not the first uprising against the military rulers. The last such uprising was in 1988. In late 1987 the then general (Ne Win) canceled most denominations of Burmese currency other than the 45 and 90 kyat notes (he believed 9 to be his lucky number and since these denominations were divisible by 9, they were auspicious- go figure!). Overnight, a lot of people carrying currency of all other denomination were now carrying worthless paper and those whose savings were in cash, were almost wiped out.

The economic crisis- which was fast making worse what was a bad situation to begin with- lead to growing unrest and protests, many by students in Rangoon. They called for change and democracy. In March 1988, a student (Phone Maw) was killed in a clash with the military. His death intensified the protests and resulted in monks and ordinary citizens joining the struggle. On the 8th day of the 8th month of the 88th year, hundreds of thousands of Burmese took part in countrywide demonstrations calling for democracy. The mood in Burma at that time has been described as hopeful and euphoric. Monks were turning their bowls upside down and refusing alms from the military. Later that month, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had recently returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother, gave a speech rallying the demonstrators and became the public face of the movement for democracy. General Ne Win, who had resigned from his role as ruler in July, warned the populace that "when the army shoots, it shoots straight". On September 18th of that year the soldiers came out automatic rifles blazing, spraying bullets into masses gathered in protest. Many protesters were trucked away and never seen again. The estimate is that about 3000 people gave their lives in the '88 protests.

The current uprising was brought about by the government (under General Than Shwe) raising the price of petrol and diesel by double and compressed gas by five-fold on the 15th of August, 2007. That is like the U.S. government declaring that gas for private vehicles would cost $6 per gallon instead of $3 and commercial vehicles like buses would have to pay $15 for one unit of whatever fuel they used. The rise in fuel prices hit all sectors of the economy with public transport becoming more expensive (remember this is a country where car ownership isn't quite at western levels) and then rippling into the cost of staples such as rice. On August 19, 400 protesters demonstrated and many were arrested. On September 5, troops used force against peaceful demonstrators in the town of Pakokku. Three monks were hurt. The next day government officials were briefly taken hostage by the monks. They demanded an apology from the government by September 17. It is after that date and the absence of any apology that the monks really started countrywide protests.

Why is this protest any different from the previous one? The last demonstration (8-8-88) started with students and spread to monks. The military got involved and had no qualms in using force to make sure the situation did not get out of hand. Peaceful Buddhist monks are harder to justify attacking with force than students and the lay-public. The current uprising has taken the government somewhat by surprise as it is being lead by monks and instead of staying small and peaceful has swelled in just a few weeks (unlike the last one which took almost a year to reach its height). It may yet get the whole Burmese populace energized and hopefully, be harder to quell. The Buddhist clergy is much revered in Burma. By withholding their blessings from the military and its families, the monks are not only denying themselves precious resources, they are also denying the people associated with the military legitimacy in karma and after-life (a big deal for the Buddhist).
However, moves to suppress the demonstrations began on Monday when the monks called on people to join them for a peaceful protest in Rangoon (prior to this monks had asked the public not to join in because, say some, they knew that it was easier for the military to use force against the public) and Tuesday saw all-day curfews which were defied in many places. Wednesday saw troops using batons and teargas against demonstrating monks. Thursday dawned with news about the overnight raids and arrests at monasteries. As the day progressed the guns have come out and commenced firing and at least nine casualties were reported. At such a time, Burma, its monks and its people need all the support they can get. And where is the rest of the world as this happens to Burma?

The world stands by today much as it stood by in 1988. The Security Council (stumped by China and Russia) continues to make ineffectual gestures and noises. China & Russia, permanent members of the Security Council, believe that this is an internal Burmese affair and thus, has no bearing on international security. China and India are two of the Burmese governments biggest pillars of support. China relies on Burmese natural gas resources. China has been implicated in enough of its own atrocities and supports plenty of despots around the world as long as they provide natural resources to China. Its "non-interference" in internal politics of other nations has resulted in the continuation of the Sudanese genocide. With reference to the current Burmese protests, it has called on "all parties" involved to exercise "restraint". Much as it did, I am sure, in Tienanmen.

India is inconsistent depending on which democratically elected administration sets foreign policy. In fact, the hypocrisy of India's democratically elected government stands (and has often stood) in stark contrast to its intellectuals and even its common citizenry. In a speech a few weeks ago, India's foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee (modeling himself on the speak no evil ape here) said "We have strategic and economic interests to protect in Burma. It is up to the Burmese people to struggle for democracy, it is their issue."

In 1988, however, India openly supported the Burmese pro-democracy movement in the region as well as at the UN. It opened its borders to the in-pouring of Burmese refugees at the time. This started to change as India has gotten more geo-politically aware and realized that it is in a "race" with China in order to develop and be "the power" in the region. In order to extend its own sphere of influence and contain that of China's, India has taken to building "cooperation" as a central tenet of its "Look East Policy".
Starting in the 1990s the Indian government began mollycoddling the Burmese regime. And for what? In the hopes that the military regime will at some point reward them by passing natural gas and oil their way. Another equally reprehensible reason is that India wants the support of the military regime in suppressing insurgencies in Eastern India. The eastern states of India are home to some of the most unique tribal cultures of the world. India has marginalized these states and they remain under-developed. Some of these states have spawned secessionist movements that have lead to insurgencies within Indian borders. The Indian Army has been a constant presence in these states in order to maintain "law and order". Many of these insurgencies are based inside Burma.

Considering that neither the gas nor the support in fighting insurgencies have been forthcoming from Burma, India's support for the regime can only be seen as a geo-political game. Unfortunately for the Indian government, the Burmese protests have brought to light its pathetic support of the oppressive regime. Indians demonstrated this week as their minister for energy was leaving for Burma with signs that read "Deora, don't go for gas, go for democracy" and "India stop supporting Burmese military rule." Even as Indians express solidarity and wish a free society for their brethren to the east, their own government is complicit in the lives lost in Burma. The clamor to see the government do the right thing grows. Now if only the politicians would stop making like the three proverbial monkeys.

Burma needs all the help it can get in order to free itself. And as with Sudan not much, other than words, is forthcoming. The monks are again turning their bowls upside down like in 1988 but in much, much greater numbers. While the mood hasn't yet been described as euphoric, a hopeless people would not fight with the verve the Burmese are showing. They are courting injury, death and worse. Let us not sit on our hands and let this revolution go the way of the one in 1988. This could be the Revolution that frees Burma and the world needs to pay attention and participate positively rather than express helplessness in the face of a few recalcitrant members of the international community. Let us not forget Burma and leave their people to their fate.

[* I don't like using the word junta because it is identical to a Sanskrit/Hindi word. The root Jun (as in jungle) means person. The related word Junta means the public, society or the people. Thus, whenever I hear the word Junta, I don't think of a collusion of a few individuals to oppress others but rather I think of "the people".]
[Photographs courtesy of the BBC.]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Is This Happening in America????

John Kerry's talk on a Florida university campus drew an outspoken response from a student who believed there were certain things Kerry could and should have done about the election he lost, about voter suppression and about impeaching Bush for the war. Yes, the student was loud and his aim was to make some strong political statements and ask some tough questions of Kerry (ok, so he also threw in a question about the skulls and bones). As he correctly points out, Kerry spoke for a long enough time, his few minutes should not be begrudged him.

What completely amazes me is that his refusal to not give up the mike resulted in the police dragging him away bodily without response from Kerry or the other students present- other than to jeer and clap. There were enough people there so that if everyone or even a large proportion had stood up to the police, the police would have been helpless and would not have administered electric shock to the student Andrew Mayer. Even if the students could not have prevented it, I cannot imagine that except for the one female student you hear screaming "You can't do that," not one other person did anything to protest what unfolded on youtube as a horrific and extremely distressing event. Were these students somehow under the impression that this was all a game (a lot of laughter and general bedlam is heard in the background)? How is it that no one got up and overpowered the police when and after force and the taser were used upon Mayer? This is exactly what happens in oppressive states where people stand by when someone else is singled out and targeted by figures of authority.

What is even more disturbing is that John Kerry is on stage throughout this event making ineffectual noises and not preventing the travesty unfolding before his very own eyes. This harms American credibility to protest similar abuses of human rights and suppression of free speech in the world. How can America stand up and point its finger at the police brutality of citizens elsewhere when it condones such violence against its own? Kerry has sunk to a new, unrecoverable low in my opinion. This was not a violent student as one can see on the youtube clip. And Kerry's efforts at humor (he says "I'll answer his question. Unfortunately he is not available to come up here and swear me in as president..." leave one wondering whether he could hear and see what had to be unfolding in front of his eyes. Glasses and hearing aid, John? You were a counterpoint to the authority the police wielded and could really have lead by example.

On youtube and elsewhere, justifications are being provided by UF students for non-action, claiming that Mayer was a known prankster who came into the event sans ticket and cut into the line of questioners. It doesn't matter if he was rude, obnoxious and generally disruptive. None of these are crimes and deserving of the police treatment we are witness to. Not only was Mayer, forcibly removed, taken down and tasered, he was also jailed overnight. The police treatment itself was deserving of a lot more reaction than we see from anyone else present. Why are we turning into sheep that won't do anything when we see someone being tortured and taken down??

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Physician Heal Thyself

Last year, I was faced with a myomectomy for a fast-growing fibroid on my uterus. I want to use my experience to present a comparative assessment of two different health care systems. The two systems are the nationalized health care plan of the UK (the NHS) and the privatized health care plan of the USA.

I was in the UK when I started developing symptoms that indicated that something might be going on in my reproductive system. I was registered with a GP in Birmingham city center but I had moved to a different address. I went to the GP and she carried out an external examination and determined that I might need some tests but when she found out that I had moved, she told me that I really had to register with a GP where I lived because otherwise there would be lapses in my care. So off I went to find a GP near my place. A new GP carried out an internal exam and he thought I had fibroids and needed to get an ultrasound and see a GYN specialist. Since the system uses electronic medical records, the new GP could easily access my previous records without undue delay. He made these referrals for me. This was in August 2006. He said I should hear from the specialist and the ultrasound clinic about an appointment. The appointment would likely be 6 weeks away.

I did hear from the clinic in six weeks but only to say that I should call them to set up an appointment. The earliest appointment I could get was in November 2006 for an ultrasound. In the UK you are triaged for specialist appointments based on urgency and it seems there were many other people requiring or already signed up for ultrasounds. My GYN appointment was scheduled for a week before the ultrasound. As it turns out, this was not ideal but the specialist's office was accommodating and saw me, not only at the original appointment but also, a week later in order to interpret the ultrasound and answer my questions about treatment options.

I have written, in an older post, about the fact that I never saw the specialist himself but rather a nice registrar he was training. Not seeing the specialist made me feel like he was not as invested in my care as he should be and this bothered me a bit. Another thing that bothered me was that my specialist was telling me to undergo gonadotropin therapy. I would be on Prostap (known as Lupron in the US) for 3 months and be menopausal so that during and after surgery, I would have less bleeding and not need transfusion.

To begin with, I hated to think about the kinds of severe hormonal changes the therapy would induce in my otherwise healthy body. So while I was still in the UK, I called a couple of physicians in the US to find out what they thought. I was still covered by my husband's health insurance. One of the doctors I called was a female doctor and the other was a male OB-GYN recommended by an acquaintance. Both asked me whether I was anemic. I wasn't. At which, they both said that in a healthy, non-anemic patient they would not recommend the gonadotropin therapy as unshrunken uterine tissues would be easier to operate on for the surgeon and should not unduly hamper the patient's post-op recovery.

Armed with this knowledge, I got back in touch with the UK specialist's registrar to find out what their rationale was for recommending this therapy and if I could avoid the 3 month treatment and get my surgery sooner. The registrar couldn't answer my question but she passed on my question to the surgeon who wrote me a letter explaining that the gonadotropin therapy was standard and not only prevented blood loss but also made the surgery incision smaller and less obtrusive. He also said that if I chose not to undergo Prostap therapy he would still operate on me but it wouldn't change the date of the surgery as he was fully booked for the next 3 months.

At no point, did we discuss costs. Everything would be covered and I would be in a nice university based research hospital which I had visited during my consultations. However, I felt like I wasn't getting personalized attention from the surgeon and also I felt like I shouldn't have to wait 3 months for surgery. The American doctor told me that he could fit me in sooner. I told my employers that I needed medical leave. That was all it took and I went off on paid leave.

In the States, I called both the female and the male doctor. The female doctor couldn't even see me for an initial consultation for a month (waiting periods vary from doctor to doctor in the US as we know) which made my choice easier and I chose the male surgeon. I went to see him and he scheduled me for surgery about 3 weeks from initial consultation. He thought everything would go off just fine, nothing to worry about and no complications. He seemed so magical after the elusive UK surgeon.

I went into surgery and when I came out a few hours later the surgeon told me that everything had gone off well and I should be recovering quite well. I was in good spirits and decided to start walking around as per the advice given me. However, within a few steps, I'd lose all energy and wilt. My blood pressure which was being monitored every few hours, started to creep lower. The next day the same thing kept happening. I would wake up in good spirits every few hours but any movement and I'd start to wilt without energy and my BP kept getting lower till I was about 70/40. It took the doctor till the next day, i.e., 2 days after surgery to hit upon the fact that I was losing blood internally and needed a transfusion. I was put in the position of signing documents when my mental capacities were not at their sharpest. I chose the transfusion as otherwise my recovery would have been even longer and since I was being discharged from the hospital (I was already slated to stay a day longer than the doctor originally planned because of my post-op complication) and going home to be alone (my husband was going to travel the day after I got out), I felt I could use all the boost of a transfusion.

Anyone with any inkling of human physiology and medicine, let alone a trained GYN specialist, should have thought of the eventuality of a complication and the surgeon had 3 weeks before my surgery to do so and think of having me donate my own blood to be held in case I needed it. It also took the doctor well over a day and a half to think of bleeding as the cause of my sinking diastolic pressure. It seemed like once the surgeon had me signed on as a patient, he divested himself of any more special interest in me as a patient. It did not occur to him to spend a little bit of time thinking through a procedure like this and saying to the patient, let's collect some of your blood just in case; let's think about what happens in case there are any complications needing your approval. No sirree, we were signed on for an expensive procedure that was going to put a substantial amount of money in the doctor's pocket but to him I was still one of his "routine" patients.

After the fact, I have thought long and hard about the differences in the system. There were many pressures on me in the American system which I had not expected. Once I had chosen a doctor I had assumed myself to be in good hands and absolved of the need to collect my own medical information. This is not true as not all doctors in the privatized system are invested in patient care as detractors of nationalized systems would have you believe. Further, my doctor not only did not think of the possible medical consequences and complications of abdominal surgery, he also did not bother to pick other specialists who were covered by my health plan. Post-surgery, I started receiving large bills from an out-of-plan anesthesiologist and surgical assistant.

Unlike the nationalized health system, hospital stay is really expensive in the States, and the pressure was on post-surgery to get me out of the hospital. I was given one extra day past my discharge date because of my blood-loss complication. The transfusion was my only option to not go home completely weakened and try to recover alone.

The quality of a health care system is not determined solely by how much money is invested in that system. By that measure, the US ranks number 1 as more is spent and yet more is reaped in the medical system here. And yet, we are not able to provide health care for all. But we tout very loudly that the health care we do provide is top-notch. Well, no, we don't provide top-notch care across the board. As more and more studies are showing, the record is quite spotty and inconsistent. There are some centers of health care which do provide cutting-edge health care better than anywhere else in the world. But overall care and coverage are worse than most developed nations of the world.

I have presented here an objective account of the service and care I received in 2 different systems. In both cases, the surgeons were men who were not showing due diligence and were not invested properly in my care. But in one system, I had to pay for the same level of shoddiness.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Corny Economix

I did not think I'd have to follow up my last blog about Ethanol quite as soon as this. I wrote that biofuels, as they were being manufactured and utilized currently, were ill-conceived and short-sighted. I had thought that in the near to medium future I would be writing once again about the effects of ethanol farming as they became more visible and undeniable. I am compelled to address this issue again in the face of unmistakable dynamics that are already manifesting themselves and affecting various aspects of the economy.

Corn is one of the five major crops for which American farmers receive huge subsidies. This creates perverse incentives all around and is as harmful to poor farmers around the world as to the American farming culture. The recent popularity of ethanol as a fuel has seen an upsurge in corn prices as well as land prices. Since the ethanol fever shows no signs of abating in the near future, more people want to grow corn for which they can receive subsidies from the government and sell it at the rising prices to the ethanol producing facilities (see adjacent picture). This has lead to land grabs in states such as Iowa and Nebraska where land prices are at an all-time high. More and more land is coming under corn production.

This creates multiple unhealthy dynamics. It discourages the small farmer who concentrates on other crops. They don't receive subsidies and have to labor to bring fresh vegetables, fruits and other crops to the market. And this at a time of a growing obesity crisis in this country. We are telling people to eat healthier by incorporating more diverse produce, fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their diet. But we still continue subsidies to big farmers practicing corn mono-culture which is also the mainstay of the processed food industry with its reliance on fructose.

By subsidizing corn the government encourages farmers to produce a lot of it which used to get dumped on other countries at an artificially low price, thereby hurting indigenous farmers globally (this continues for the other subsidized crops). In corn's case, in addition to the creation of fructose, we now have a new internal outlet for all the excess farmers can produce- Ethanol! Subsidies make the big rich mono-culture farms richer. They do not, in general, open up the market to small farmers who are held out of the market because they cannot afford the escalating land prices or because the big farmers, who own most of the land, charge high rents for it.

On the one hand having an additional outlet within the country for all the excess corn, means it won't be dumped on the rest of the world at lower than cost. However, this may make corn everywhere more expensive as demand for corn to make ethanol continues to outstrip supply and may eventually make corn costs too much as food and feed.

A researcher at Berekely, Tom Patzek, has written a technical paper on the corn biofuel and all its implications. He quantifies the sustainability and the renewability of this resource and finds that it falls short.

I wonder if demand for corn as a biofuel source will forcibly change the processed food industry when fructose becomes scarcer. I hope at least one good thing comes of it but I fear even that one good thing won't balance out all the negative outcomes that will result if we continue down this path of converting food sources into fuel. We don't need more subsidized resource-intensive mono-culture farms. The focus should not be on creating alternative fuel sources. The focus should be on reducing consumption of fuel altogether and finding alternative, energy-efficient and cost-effective ways of accomplishing growth and progress with good health.
Copyrights associated with the pictures can be viewed by clicking on each image which will take you to the copyright page.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fueling a Corny Debate

Americans are joining the green movement in droves nowadays. Some of them because various media sources have brought to their attention that global warming, disputed and ignored by the American administration for a long time, is very much occurring all over the world and the consequences are not remote to the United States. Others have been brought to this awareness through faith groups which have spawned environmental movements asserting that the bible makes them custodians of the earth and all in it. Yet others are following the example of opinion leaders (mostly located in Hollywood) and coming to the conclusion that going green might not only pay but also make them feel better and look good to others.

Of course, as happens with all such movements in a system as highly skewed towards a capitalist mode as this one is, the big industries do their best to cash in. So we have a "green" movement in more ways than one. Rather than curbing expenditure on a simpler greener life, the greening of America takes a uniquely American approach. You buy your way to being more energy conscious. You spend on specialized products (no one has yet addressed what happens to the old energy-non-efficient replaced products in a nation as given to throwing things away as we are). What is even more disturbing is that some of the green replacements are short-sighted and could come back to haunt us. For instance, the new super fuel ethanol.

Ethanol, which is basically alcohol, is a healthier fuel option than petroleum in important ways. It is a renewable resource since ethanol can be man-made unlike petroleum. It burns quite cleanly not releasing as many effluents and pollution as petroleum. Brazil has been at the forefront of developing and using this technology and at the moment almost 50% of all cars there are able to use 100% ethanol or flex-fuel (ethanol-petroleum) as fuel. Combination or hybrid fuels reduce consumption of petroleum and our reliance on petroleum resources.

However, ethanol is produced from organic food sources such as sugar cane, corn and other grains such as sorghum. Ethanol is produced more efficiently using sugar cane than using corn and other grains. Sugar cane doesn't grow everywhere so the source of choice in the US currently is corn. However, it takes a lot of resources that are not energy neutral to grow the quantities of corn required to produce ethanol. Large swathes of land, water, fertilizers (that are generally petroleum based) and pesticides. One may argue that the left over by-product of the process would make feed for cattle and in turn cattle manure could be used as fertilizer thereby reducing some of the energy consumption in producing ethanol. However, this still remains an energy-intensive process.

The problem is twofold. Firstly, as long as petroleum remains expensive and automobile manufacturers focus on short-term fixes that modify current technology only slightly, food grain based ethanol will look attractive in comparison (despite its own high associated costs which are being subsidized by the tax payer, but that's another story). The second problem, which should trouble us even more, is that diverting food crops to other uses and driving their price up when poverty and hunger are still a problem in much of the world is just morally wrong. This solution can come back to bite us.
Copyrights associated with the pictures can be viewed by clicking on each image which will take you to the copyright page.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Women bleed

Lybrel is finally here.

This new birth control drug is being heralded as several steps above the color-coded pills that I illicitly (at least in the eyes of my Roman Catholic mother) indulged in during college. Not only does it prevent pregnancy most of the time – women will finally be relieved of menstruating altogether.

Reading Karen Houppert’s editorial about Lybrel reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend’s husband recently. I was sharing with her (and he was, at first, an unfortunate bystander) the news that my Keeper had just arrived in the mail. I was about to be a menstrual cup virgin no longer. The Keeper is essentially a little rubber “cup” that fits inside your vagina and captures the menstrual fluid as it flows.

My friend’s husband was disgusted, apparently by the possibility that I would come in contact with blood.

I tried pointing out that it was, in fact, my own blood, and I was totally okay with it. He was horrified anew. I tried explaining that the Keeper is reusable, which attracted me. But there’s another reason, too.

I had my babies at home – there was a lot of blood, though less than you might think. I also had an unassisted miscarriage at home – even more blood. Blood, my blood, was in both cases a beautiful reminder of the brutal fact that I am human. Not only that, I am a healthy woman – my body is working just like it should be. The blood is proof.

I didn’t even come close to winning him over, though. And, really, I don’t think he’s alone. This is the reason why Lybrel’s existence is so completely unsurprising. Our culture is so thoroughly anti-woman that it predictably would want to do away with everything that reminds us that we are women. And it expects us to celebrate our sexlessness with verve and gratitude. Apparently, we can now get on with life.

For me, several years into my thirties, I am experiencing what I think a lot of women do at my age. I am feeling, to my core, how my body changes throughout the course of the month. And, without a hint of new-agey mysticism, I will tell you – I think it is incredibly cool.

My moods – the ones that Lybrel’s maker, Wyeth wants to anesthesize – shape who I am as a mother and wife, as an activist, and as a writer. As I bleed every month, I do feel the cleansing process of my body – I do feel renewed. (The folks from Wyeth are snickering now, no doubt.) As I cease to menstruate, the passion I feel for life is unequaled – this is the time of the month when my most impassioned emails get sent, when my work building an ecovillage bursts into full bloom, when that damn dissertation actually gets some attention. This is the time when I savor every inch of my amazing husband. It’s when I take my children blueberry picking and dig up every tillable inch of my backyard and plant morning glories and birdhouse gourds and lettuce and beans and beautiful flowers. Sometimes I feel life so deeply it hurts.

After I ovulate, blissfully dancing without calling any new babies, I begin to feel more introspective – the world starts spinning a bit slower. This is when it becomes harder to write – and my children and I spend countless hours at the lake, playing in the sand, marking the time with quiet conversations. It’s also when, sometimes, the darker side of me takes over a little – and I mourn what we are losing. It’s when the stories about Iraq bring me to tears, when I worry most about my friends, states, sometimes countries away. It’s when I need to find the reserves of compassion that I didn’t know I had, again.

So when I menstruate, it is honored, and welcomed. It is a subtle, beautiful reminder that I am human and I am woman. That our culture continues to create drugs that define human potential by the obscene standards of a patriarchal, dominator culture is a travesty; that we women would willingly erase that piece of ourselves that is most precious is a tragedy.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Bi-Pedalism

I love how versatile the bike is in terms, not only, of uses but also in the benefits one accrues from using it on a regular basis. Here's a little known fact- the car is a highly inefficient form of transportation: it is so heavy that 95% of the energy consumed by it is used to move itself and only 5% to move the person. Think about it and this should make sense to you. How heavy are you? How heavy is your car? How much energy would it take to move you? Makes you wonder which genius came up with the SUV.

The bike on the other hand is one of the most efficient forms of transportation. You pedal and it gets you to your destination. And you get there in a much better frame of mind than sitting in those rush-hour snarl-ups. You get to enjoy the wind in your hair more cheaply than buying a convertible. You save on gas and you help the environment stay green. You have the independence to go where you want to go; even to car-free zones. And you end up healthier every time you pedal. What's not to like?

Countries in Asia, like India and China, have traditionally had many bicyclists as it was the most practical and cheap form of transportation available to the common man. But it is seen as the poor person's means of conveyance at this point and everyone is hankering to get to a place where they can own a car or two now. Parts of north-western Europe on the other hand have been moving in the opposite direction. I loved seeing everyone going about their daily life on their bicycles on this trip to Europe. It did not matter if you were dressed special or had your big dog or all five of your kids with you. You could do whatever you needed to do with your bike. Oh, you need to get to work and its far away? Ok, get on the bike, get to the commuter train or tram or bus, load up your bike and go. Oh your work involves carrying heavy stuff? There are attachments for bikes which will allow you to move things around. I loved how much a part of their life the Europeans had made the bike - especially in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands and some of the other Northern European countries have made riding bikes very much easier for their citizens by providing specials lanes for bikers on all roads. These are clearly marked and do not just meander off into nowhere. Even alongside highways, special bike paths exist for those who want to go longer distances on their two-wheels. Children are taught bike-safety and road rules for traffic at school as part of their mandatory class-work. This leads not only to safer traffic all around but also to a lot more children who are independent and can bike to where they want to go.
Imagine how much we would gain in terms of cleaner environment, less expenditure and use of gas, the (mental and physical) health benefits of a physically active lifestyle if we chose to replace our car with the bike as our main mode of transportation.

[I have provided a link to a private website extolling the virtues and weirdness of biking in Amsterdam with some really cool and funny images. Enjoy]

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Power of One

A young woman in India, Pooja Chauhan, took the unusual step of stripping down to her underwear and marching to the police station to demand action and justice. She had previously registered complaints against her in-laws that they harassed and abused her for not bring dowry and for giving birth to a daughter. Her march resulted in a lot of gawkers and some slow traffic in the little town where she lived but it got her results. The police immediately arrested the in-laws and two neighbors (no explanations have been given for how the neighbors were complicit).

Police say a case may be registered against her for indecent behavior however, they will wait till an examination of her mental state has been conducted. One would like to ask that a case also be registered at the same time against the police for the dereliction of their duty that drove this young woman to the extreme measures she had to resort to in order to bring attention to her plight.

Time and again, the forty year old anti-dowry laws have been flouted in India. Every once in a while a particular young woman's courageous protest focuses attention on this social evil. Nisha Sharma was the last such lightning rod. She called the police on her bridegroom even as last minute demands for dowry were being made. The groundswell of admiration and protest she generated is a testament to how many Indians hate this part of Indian culture and yet, we must be a cowardly nation because we allow this heinous practice to continue, we turn a blind eye when others around us make demands and torture their daughter-in-laws and we also ask for dowry ourselves when we have sons. While the Pooja's and Nisha's are few and far between, we have been inured to the more common reports of young brides burnt and killed by in-laws and husbands.

Neither of these young women were from a particularly privileged or remarkable background. They were not surrounded by supporters or well-wishers who egged them on to rebel. They had nothing to gain and quite a bit to lose. And yet, others in their position have submitted to the violence and injustice perpetrated upon them without raising their voices. It takes a lot of courage to be a Pooja or a Nisha. Some may think it futile since social and cultural mores are slow to change. But each Pooja is a beacon of light, a call to arms in the fight for justice and against tyranny.

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something I can do.
- Edward Everett Hale

[Photographs courtesy of the Times of India and the BBC. Thanks]

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Heading in the Wrong Direction

Governments exist to deal with the complexity that arise from a large number of humans living together. When societies of people arise, the need for a structure for the provision of common goods and services and the need for a system whereby activities may be organized in order to benefit people also arises. Governments exist to serve this need. The primary purpose of a government is to serve the people by monitoring law and order so public and private goods and benefits are secure and the individual can continue to flourish in a societal setting. It can also expand to serve other needs such as providing common minimum standards, education, health and other such services as societies get more complex. The point still remains that governments exist to serve the individual and the society formed by individuals coming together. Governments do not exist for themselves and to flourish at the expense of the individual and the society. And yet, that is what governments across the world can be seen to do today and I am not talking only about the banana republics.

The Supreme Court of the US, always served as a crucial arbiter in the checks and balance system that reined in the powers of the government and in many cases protected the rights of the individual as enshrined in the constitution of the USA. During Bush Jr.'s administration two SC justices were appointed. This has resulted in the court definitively swinging towards the conservative end of the spectrum. Before this point, some justices were swingers on certain issues. Now on many of the issues that are central in the political arena, there is almost no swinging allowing the neo-conservatives to hold sway.

It is with a heavy heart that one watches the co-opting of this institution which in its recent decisions has become less an arbiter and more a tool of the ruling government. Individual rights have received some of the heaviest blows seen in decades at the expense of institutions of power. The government's "rights" have been protected at the expense of the individual. Freedom of speech, expectation of due process, equal rights- these are but some of the areas where the SC has dealt a severe blow to the individual and shamed itself by breaking with precedent and siding with the state and industry.

Any person who serves in the highest court in the land should be able set aside politics, to think for themselves and think back to the final authority- the Constitution. They should think about what it was the constitution enshrined and protected. If even the SC turns partisan, what hope is there for the people? An omnipotent government only serves itself, not the people.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Inevitable" Deaths in Immigration Custody

Over 60 human beings have died in immigration custody in the last couple of years. Immigration officials claim that some deaths are inevitable! Guantanamo already made it clear to us that human liberty and rights mean little to this administration. But to hear of the same callous disregard for life, in addition, only reiterates the erosion of democracy that this nation is and has been undergoing. Of course, the easy answer to this is that holding non-Americans and not treating them humanely, to the extent of participating in their untimely death, does not affect the democratic status of this country. However, I believe that no democratic nation state can flout its own principles of the dignity of human life and rights thereof.

We live in a time when the most developed nations have set the example of fighting for the rights of their citizens only. This is a shame. A citizen of the United States is in no way a more worthy human being than any other. Everyone is deserving of the same respect and rights. Some of those dead might not have been citizens but they were in many cases permanent residents. Permanent residency is the step before one is granted citizenship in this country. Having attended a ceremony where they spouted a few words and pledged allegiance to a flag would not have morphed these people into better human beings but in the eyes of this nation, it would have made them more deserving of a humane treatment.

Why is it that only those who were related to these people who died are crying and feeling the pain? We should all feel it. Is this too far-removed from you because you are an American? It shouldn't be because there, but for the grace of fate, go you.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

Israel continues its war against Palestinians relentlessly. When I was growing up in India, we learned that the Palestinian people were struggling for freedom and independence under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Having itself borne the brunt of Colonial demarcations foisted on local populations, perhaps India saw in the mid-east situation- where a militarily strong group (the Israelis) supported by the west had not only wrested land from the inhabitants of the land but were continuing to subjugate them- a repeat of the might is right argument. All I remember is the feeling that there were still groups around the world fighting for independence as India had done decades before I was born.

Moving to America resulted in a change in my view-point. I read about the history of discrimination faced by the Jewish diaspora (pogroms in Russia, pre Soviet as well as Soviet; and ghettos all over Europe) eventually culminating in the holocaust. How enterprising as a people the Jews were and how this often lead to their being persecuted and restrained (this from a dear Jewish friend from long ago). And now, here were these same people at last in the place they could call Israel, which is where they originated from millenia ago. They were hemmed in all sides by vicious and opposing Islamic forces and had to fight for their very existence.

It has taken me many years again to see that the colonials tore out a chunk of land where lives were being lived and gave it as their "gift" to a people who were owed compensation for the mistreatment meted out to them collectively by the west (I include Russia here since it does want so badly to be counted in Europe than Asia and aspires to be G8). So how come the Palestinian people, who were at the time the indigenous population of present day Israel, ended up being the bad guys? Palestine has been a festering wound in the middle east that has served as a focal rallying cry. If you were to meet your average Palestinian, they are not fundamentalist. In fact, Palestineans were and are considered more progressive than many other Islamic people in the mid-east.

Palestine has been under siege for a very long time and in all that time, Israel has only kept creeping out of its borders, and restricting Palestinian lives. Palestinians who go abroad to find a livelihood are severely restricted from returning and even lose their residency rights. But what is there to stay in Palestine for? Israel has done its best to try and settle Israeli families and drive Palestinians out through economic, geographical and financial restrictions. The fabric of a whole society torn asunder! Families separated, hospitals destroyed, self-esteems destroyed, checkposts created, children scattered, schools destroyed, guns distributed. You would think the one people who would have learned the meaning of compassion based on their own horrific past would know better than to visit such pain on others.

I don't condone violence. It was wrong for it to have been used against the Jews in the first place. But their historic suffering does not give them a free pass to do violence unto others in the name of protecting themselves. Israel's actions have been egregiously violent and we have not had enough leaders stand up and call it to task for it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Healthy, Wealthy & Wise

My daily commute from home to work in Birmingham (the original city in the UK) was about 5 miles alongside canals. I would run or bike. When I started out, I was mostly walking or running to work. I bought a car for work since I was expected to eventually carry equipment to GP offices to gather data for the study we would be running. But I did not need the car for well over a year. Frank brought me my bicycle from the States after I had found a place. So some days I would bike and others I would run. It was a form of exercise when I started out, so I'd gear up and then at work, I'd shower change and get to work. Same routine back in the evenings.

On the few occasions that I took the car to work I realized how amazingly pleasant my bike commute was compared to my auto-commute. No stopping and going. My jams were at worst a gaggle of geese who decided to cross the path and were being hissy to protect the goslings. It was beautiful. I slowly changed from seeing the bike ride as exercise to seeing it more as my transportation system. And while that may not seem like a great change to most, it was something that I had to learn from Jurriaan who came from Amsterdam.

To Jurriaan, the bike is a very practical and efficient form of transport for any journey that was about 10 miles or less. And if one did not treat it as a workout, then biking at a leisurely pace not only got you where you were going, but you didn't really have to gear up and change before and after since you would not be sweating like crazy. I decided to give it a try. Wow! To integrate a bicycle into your everyday life is a very liberating experience in more ways than one.

I am in Europe again, this time in Netherlands & Belgium. These two countries are awash in bicycles and cyclists. Everybody hops on a bicycle and pedals off to daily life. To work, to grocery stores, with children to the park, to schools, to pubs... I think the bike-culture is at least one factor in the consistently high ranks north western European nations receive in the best-place-to-live polls. More on how I think this plays out in future blogs. Also pictures! :)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Man the Borders - the Huns are Coming!

In April, I saw a news report where Bush (jr.) was visiting some border patrols facing southern borders and congratulating them on amassing arsenal, building fences and beefing up security. He made a speech about how more needed to be done to prevent others from "sneaking in." I have a serious issue with the tone and manner in which the immigration debate (more like propaganda) has been conducted. This nation stands for freedom and self-determination. Immigrants flock to it to be free of their domestic persecutions and for new opportunities to hew a better life. One could argue that many of these south of the border immigrants have more legitimate rights to be here, given the historically contiguous nature of this region as well as perhaps closer blood-ties to the original inhabitants of the Americas.

Early arriving Europeans wrested this nation from its original inhabitants. Many European Americans feel sad about their history and feel that were mass European migration to the Americas to happen today, perhaps everyone would be treated differently. And yet, this nation's leader seeks to demonize immigrants who might, had the US not been colonized, be moving across this landscape quite legitimately. Where's the hope for redress of historic ills when present day politics continue to make some people the blessed and the others the invaders?

Cross-border immigration is even tied to the war on terror in order to motivate the security forces further. Such rhetoric and propaganda has resulted in spawning vigilante justice along the border where man attacks man in the name of land and law.

Human migrations have existed since humans existed. To me it seems a very basic right that the movement of living beings not be curtailed. There are natural self-correcting mechanisms affected by environmental, ecological and individual conditions to name but a few. In fact, it is these forces that are driving current day migrations just as they did in the past. But today, we have stopped up borders on one side of which lies starvation and on the other side waste.

Here's a fact that is not as well known as it should be. You know that fight against poverty that everyone is talking about? Money being sent by migrant workers to their families exceeds all foreign aid put together. $110bn annually! And remember that most of these guys often work the lowest paid jobs. And in case you are thinking that the transfer of money comes at the expense of the rich nations, think again. I have one quote from a World Bank report on migration and development here: "...free migration could double world income..." (See links.) It takes a different tone from the political vitriol being spewed at migrants in most of the developed, benevolent, western nations.

It seems to me that we like to pat ourselves on the back too much for being civilized and enlightened in the 21st century. As long as national borders exist and people treat each other unequally based on differences, we cannot claim to have moved into a compassionate era of mutual and beneficial co-existence.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Chinese Juggernaut (not economics but politics)

The Chinese regime has shown itself to be one of the least humane and continues to roll over other nations and people with complete disregard. In March, China proclaimed that any movement by Taiwan to declare itself independent will be seen as a criminal act. The Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in his speech to the Chinese Congress said, "We firmly believe that with the efforts of all Chinese people, including our Taiwan compatriots, complete reunification of China will definitely be realised." China has also increased its defence expenditure for 2007 by 17%. Looks like the plans for world domination continue apace.

One cannot dismiss China's regular spats with Taiwan as internal politics. The one-China principle which China has consistently pushed is a very scary notion for the world because China does not seem to stop aggresive incursions on its neighbors. Its boundaries keep expanding and one has to wonder whether one-China will eventually lead to world domination, especially keeping in mind the emphasis on military expansion.

A few examples of China's designs. Tibet was invaded in 1959 by China. Tibet is a peaceful Buddhist nation that presented no threats to anyone. This nation has suffered tremendously under China's military boot. There is systematic negation of the Tibetan psyche and culture. Over a million Tibetans have died or disappeared since China decided that Tibet was part of one-China. Tibetan leaders have either been killed or have fled and sought refuge in other countries.

In 2005 Chinese soldiers entered the independent kingdom of Bhutan under the pretext of bad weather and they were granted permission by the kingdom on humanitarian grounds. Since then infrastructure for transportation is being built by the Chinese on Bhutan's territory. When Bhutan raised the issue with the Chinese, it was told that it was "over-reacting" and that the border remains disputed.

China has another land dispute on the borders of Tibet. India's eastern-most state of Arunachal Pradesh is claimed by China as, in their words, "Chinese territory." While no overt hostilities have resulted, army presence of the respective nations is heavy in this area. In my opinion, China has put this issue on a back burner till it has more resources to free up after having absorbed some other more key areas such as those mentioned previously. It is futile at this point to bring up another region of northern India that China usurped in the 1950s claiming it was Chinese.The sad fact is that China does not believe in dialog or respecting people. It only cares about territory. And it is a creeping giant whose boundary lies just outside its boundary.

I am a big admirer of Chinese history and the former Chinese culture. The latter was annihilated by the communists. I can be persuaded that most of the troubles of the region have their basis in short-sighted and, in some cases, malicious policies of colonizing nations. However, at least at this juncture, nations who in ancient texts referred to each other as brother and sister cultures, should find common ground and work together. China's need for an ever-expanding border is not one that bodes well for the South-east and South Asian region. The next major world conflict could have its roots here and we need to work to forestall it.