Sunday, June 28, 2009

The death of Charlie's Angel: Remembering Farrah Fawcett

The death of Michael Jackson and the cause of his death played out for most part of the past two days, on television and in newspapers. Only a day earlier to Jackson’s death, came the end of another sensational career, if not quite as Jackson’s – that of Farrah Fawcett-Majors as she was known in her prime in the late 1970s or thereabouts till her spilt with Lee Majors. She was only 62.

When I was an adolescent and during my growing up years, Charlie’s Angels was a rage and I used to try and tune into the television channel in Dhaka to catch the serial, as I would with Dallas later. Whether Doordarshan showed episodes of Charlies Angels I’m not quite sure, but probably it did.

Farrah Fawcett, obviously, was a great hit with men – you don’t really have to ask why. With her figure, face and golden locks, which man wouldn’t fall for her? She was, as somebody said, the perfect angel for Charlie’s Angels. According to a New York Times report, a poster of her in a red bathing suit, leonine mane flying, sold more than twice as many copies as posters of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable combined. In Charlie’s Angels, she played one of three women detectives with great verve and vitality. The Times report also mentions the popularity of the series coinciding with the burgeoning women’s movement and bringing new attention to issues of female sexuality and the influence of television.

Farrah Fawcett was no major actor by any stretch of imagination. It was her personality more than anything else, her looks and sensuality, that played a part in her career getting the boost it did. She was most remembered for her role in Charlie’s Angels, the rest, television and film appearances, was forgettable.

Terminal cancer consumed her and she obviously knew she was dying. Chemotherapy had destroyed her once golden locks even if age didn’t. After Lee Majors, she had an on-off relationship going with Ryan O’Neal; he was there for her almost till the end, and that must have been some comfort. Farrah suffered during the end; her treatment was recorded and televised to the world.

At the height of her career in the 1970s, would she ever have even thought of such an end? That’s life. They call it the greatest leveler. But surely Farrah deserved better.

(Pictures are courtesy The New York Times. The first is the famous Farrah Fawcett poster; the second shows her (extreme right) as one of Charlie's Angels, as I grew to know her on television as a kid.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

A special moment in history: the death of Michael Jackson

It’s been quite a day really, Friday, the 26th of June 2009. The untimely death of Michael Jackson, the fifth of nine children and second youngest of six brothers, came as a shock to most people across the world, India no exception. There was grief expressed everywhere – in Sweden, Moscow, the Philippines, London and Los Angeles.

It was Jackson’s brother Jermaine who disclosed the preliminary cause of death as ‘cardiac arrest’. As news about Jackson’s death and his life and times entered millions of homes across the world, through television and on Web sites, the New York Times reported later in the day that “investigators were looking into Mr. Jackson’s medical care and potential prescription drugs” and also that the car of Jackson’s personal doctor was “impounded”.

Jackson, of course, belonged to a more recent generation – Thriller, which sold an all-time high number of 51 million copies and earned him five Grammy Awards, happened in 1982. The thought of Jackson’s sudden death took me back years ago, to the death of Elvis Presley in August 1977. Presley was a singer and an actor and famously referred to as King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Jackson is now being called the King of Pop. Both died young – Presley was only 42 when he left the world; Jackson was 50. Another common thread connected both of them. While Jackson’s life bordered on the bizarre and as questions are now being asked about the possibility of an overdose of drugs, Presley had a problem with drugs, too, the cause of his death so young. And, of course, quite extraordinary as it may seem, Jackson married Lisa Marie, Presley’s only child with Priscilla from whom he separated in 1972 after 13 years together. It would be the beginning of Presley’s date with drugs and his eventual demise.

There are differences though - Presley’s career began when he was 18; Jackson began crooning with his brothers when he was only 5. So, while Presley had only about 24 years to make a mark on stage, Jackson’s career spanned 45 years. Presley also essayed roles in 30-odd films.

Jackson married Debbie Rowe in 1996; she bore two of his three children. Who the mother of his third child is, it is still unclear. The only picture people have is of Jackson dangling the child from a balcony window. As LA Times reports, “he raised the children without their mothers and had them wear elaborate masks whenever they went out with him.” Hmm…

And then, there were child molestation charges, sleeping with children in the bed etc… By then, the Thriller days were well past him, and as veteran pop music critic Robert Hilburn writes in LA Times, “As years went by, I watched with sadness as his music went from the wonderful self-affirmation and endearing spirit of ‘Thriller’ to something increasingly calculated and soulless. His impact in the marketplace dropped accordingly. It appeared that his desperate need for this ultra stardom -- the ‘King of Pop’ proclamation -- and his escalating eccentricities made it increasingly difficult for audiences to identify with him. Even some of his ‘Thriller’ fans ultimately were turned off by what struck them as megalomania. In the public mind, he went from the King of Pop to the King of Hype.
Some called Jackson their “guiding light”, others “a troubled star”, “a Mozart of the century”. The LA Times called it a “life of fantasy and tragedy”. Whatever it was, one thing was clear – Jackson’s death had an element of mystery and suddenness about it, as much as Kennedy’s and Presley’s. And judging by the response and reactions, there is no doubt that it is a big moment in history, the death of one of the world’s most popular entertainers, as much as the death of Kennedy or Presley. Finally, as the LA Times quotes Tommy Mottola, former president of Sony Music, which released Jackson's music for 16 years, as saying: “In pop history, there's a triumvirate of pop icons: Sinatra, Elvis and Michael, that define the whole culture. . . ”

For Michael, who gave the world so much, in spite of leading for most a lonely, troubled life as it appears, let me say, “Thank you. Without you, the world would have been the poorer. Rest in peace, always.”

(Michael Jackson's picture is courtesy Associated Press/LA Times)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Global warming bill up for debate in the U.S.

According to Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Dina Cappiello (in article in The Boston Globe), the biggest environmental bill in decades is all set for being debated upon. The bill obviously seeks to preserve Mother Earth for future generations. Once voted and passed, it will set “nationwide limits on the gases blamed for global warming emitted from power plants, factories and automobiles.” Driving passage of the bill is President Obama himself who the writers quote as saying that the bill will “finally spark a clean energy transformation” and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The United States is keen to get its house in order before the meeting in Copenhagen in December that is likely to see a new international agreement to curb the emissions linked to global warming. However, the Republicans are not for passage of the bill, it seems, with Minority Leader John Boehner writing to fellow republicans and stating that it will have a “disastrous impact”. It will be interesting to see the passage of the bill and what it portends not only for the U.S.A. but also for the rest of the world.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Can we save earth for humanity? Yes, we can

The understanding of what carbon emissions can do to change the climate, what global warming and greenhouse gases are all about, and what can be done to save the earth are all intricate issues. It's all very easy to talk about these things and walk away, doing as we do very little on the ground.

What is the ideal level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in terms of parts per million? Is it too much already, and is it likely to go up further? What can be done to stabilise the level at some point? Since plants consume carbon dioxide, would growing more plants, for instance, be part of the solution? What does CO2 do to climate really? Will rise in temperature by a degree or two affect the life cycle? Are the tropics doomed? Will glaciers melt? Will there be flooding even as there is likelihood of drought in many places? How does the link between CO2, microbes and carbon emissions really work? Are there ways in which carbon can be stored without microbes gnawing at it and putting it back into the atmosphere?

Well, Oliver Morton has written a wonderful article (Building a Better Biosphere) in The New York Times. A must read for all those who are keen to know what global warming and climate change are all about.

As heat drains, beach is best bet

So far in June, India has received hardly 50 per cent of the normal southwest rainfall. Experts say that this is an El Nino year, which means rainfall will be scanty. Quite scary when you come to think of it. In Chennai, there has been absolutely no respite from the heat. Temperatures still hover around the 40 degree Celsius mark. It’s turning out to be very difficult for children and the elderly.

I visited the beach last Sunday. It was packed, almost as if the whole city was outdoors. Clearly, few wished to remain at home. There was a wind, but not quite enough. It was brisk business for the many small vendors on the beach. Roasted corn, bajjis, fried fish, ice creams, there was the whole lot.

Have a look at the pictures: a view as I was walking toward the sea; families sit on the shore and watch the waves; a vendor roasts corn as a light wind blows the sparks from the stove; and one of several ‘shooting’ stalls to cater to children.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Energy conservation: A Governor shows the way

All of us talk about cutting down on carbon emission by saving electricity, using compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and behaving as responsible citizens of the world. There are discussions galore on the subject, seminars in five-star hotels, a list of dos and don’ts etc. Ever thought about the electricity consumed at such meetings, for instance? Can’t such meetings be held outdoors to save electricity? It all adds up to just one thing – we are great preachers, but we hardly practise what we preach. Unless, of course, somebody points a gun at our heads and forces us to obey.

West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi is made of different stuff, though. Perhaps it has got to do something with his surname. The grandson of Mahatma Gandhi is bringing Gandhian principles to the fore and setting an example the Gandhian way. Writing for The Times of India, Subhro Niyogi describes how the West Bengal governor has voluntarily chosen to reduce energy consumption at the Raj Bhavan. It has inspired his staff to follow suit. Niyogi says that Gopalkrishna’s initiative has led to CO2 emission at the Raj Bhavan reducing to a baseline measure of 335 tonnes, from 408 tonnes in 2005-06.

So, what has the governor done that’s remarkable? According to Niyogi, Gopalkrishna has reduced the size and even the speed of his convoy, he observes voluntary power cuts, high-wattage lamps have been replaced with CFL, old air-conditioners have been replaced, and a solar water heater has been installed. His drivers have been asked to switch off the engine at traffic signals. All this has led to electricity bills reducing by 15% and CO2 emissions by 18%. What’s more, the governor is also working on water and waste management and recharging underground aquifers.

If only we could follow even a tenth of what the West Bengal governor is doing! Wouldn’t that give us a sense of achievement? I have decided for a start to switch fans and lights off when not required, at home and elsewhere. I’m sure it’ll lead to a greater realization within me of the need to conserve resources and contribute my bit to make the world a better place to live.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blue Cross has reason to be proud

It was nice to receive an email from Dr Chinny Krishna. He was, of course, delighted to read the Times of India report that said there was no cases of rabies in Chennai for over a year. It was the Blue Cross under Captain Sundaram and Dr Chinny that vowed 45 years ago to reduce rabies and control the number of dogs on the street without killing, and in a humane manner.

Dr Chinny especially thanks the Marching Trust; Philip Wollen; WSPA, Kim Bartlett, and Alice Morgan Wright of the Edith Goode Trust, stating that a milestone has been reached.

“Some of you to whom this is being sent gave us the most sincere compliment years ago when you adopted this programme at a time when we had no hard data to back us. To all of you who made this possible, what can I really say? Warmest regards and may all that has life be free of suffering,” he writes.

Responding is Captain G. D. Rao: “It is an amazing feat not heard anywhere in the world, all due to a dedicated lot - right from Capt. Sundaram and Dr Chinny to the attendants and the immense backup support from like-minded animal lovers with improper financial aid, sweating out with the lovable, grateful community dogs, always short of veterinarians living on a day-to-day basis. Selfless service has made it possible, the objective that was started for the first time in India years ago by the Blue Cross of India – the animal birth control programme to eradicate rabies.

Anusha David from Sri Lanka wishes that her country, too, could have a similar success rate. “Though I have to say that the rabies problem here is greatly exaggerated as a result of sheer ignorance,” she adds.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Swine flu on the rise in India, no cause for alarm yet

Swine flu seems to be on the rise in India, with more cases being reported. As I write this post, there are 23 confirmed cases, with Hyderabad alone accounting for 12 cases. Bangalore has reported two cases, Jalandhar one. All suspect cases in Tamil Nadu have returned negative results so far.

The Deccan Chronicle carried an interesting article today, stating that the H1N1 virus is not deadly, according to doctors. The article quotes a respiratory physician from the Apollo Hospitals as saying that the virus is not as deadly as people are making it sound. He compares it to a mountain being built out of a mole hill; 99.9% of affected people are able to recover and resume a normal life, the doctor says, adding that there is nothing to be worried about.

With so many misconceptions about swine flu and its repercussion, it is time the state health departments came out with the correct picture, complete with the dos and don'ts. Since almost all the reported cases are connected to overseas travel, those planning trips abroad might do well to avoid going to countries that have reported swine flu cases. Prevention, as they say, is always better than cure. At the same time, there should be no attempt to blow up the issue so as to cause panic, when there is probably no need to.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Increasing cases of malaria, dengue, asthma related to climate change?

Nidhi Jamwal, writing for Down to Earth (story was published by The New Indian Express on June 13), says that according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) the climate in Indian cities like Mumbai is warming up fast and there could be natural disasters. The Mumbai office of the IMD, after analysis of 100 years of weather data, found a rise of 1.62 degree C in the average maximum temperature. It has also found that human activity-induced environmental degradation is responsible for global warming. There were more natural disasters in the 1990s than in the 1960s, Jamwal quotes the deputy director general of the Regional Meteorological Centre as saying.

Interestingly, Jamwal’s story mentions that such rise in temperature (albeit less than 2 degree C) leads to health and food problems as well. Diseases such as malaria, dengue and asthma are related to global warming, the head of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute’s Mumbai office is quoted as saying. Jamwal points out that 1,351 malaria cases were reported till April this year.

Mumbai’s example could apply to any other Indian city. The onus, therefore, is on Indian citizens as such to realise that they own responsibility to make their lives better and healthier, and for future generations, too. Awareness about the problem is simply not enough. Individuals and NGOs in the forefront of the battle against global warming must continue to din the message into the minds of as many people as they can. It is time the government also stepped in a big way to spread the message because there is nobody who can spread the message as effectively as the government can, with the entire infrastructure and machinery at its disposal.

Underwater disaster predicted

How serious are the aspects of global warming and carbon emissions? Many know that failure to reduce carbon emissions will eventually lead to a natural disaster and the possible death of our planet. However, most of these things are talked about in forums in big hotels or in classrooms or at exhibitions and seminars, but how much do we all contribute to ensuring that carbon emissions are kept to the minimum or how we can change our lifestyles to make the world a livable place for generations to come?

I was reading an article in The Guardian written by Toni O’Loughlin, about an “underwater catastrophe”. O’Loughlin refers to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report that warns of two-fifths of the planet’s most significant marine environment – coral reefs stretching across southeast Asia – being lost and the remainder likely to disappear by the end of this century. Pollution, over-fishing and climate change are destroying the area known as the Coral Triangle, which covers an area about half the size of the United States and is home to more than 30% of the world’s corals and more than 35% of the coral-reef fish (around 3,000 species), he explains. He quotes the WWF report stating that reduced food and water security and the resulting social disruption could present a potential threat to regional security. O’Loughlin adds that scientists have warned that changes to the ocean caused by carbon dioxide emissions or acidification could lead to an “underwater catastrophe”, damaging wildlife, food production and livelihoods.

The oceans absorb around 30% of CO2 released into the atmosphere by human activity.

Worst over for India, say top CEOs

Is the worst over for the Indian economy? Here are responses from some of India’s top CEOs, featured in the June 8 issue of India Today:

Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman, AV Birla Group: Things appear to be bottoming out for cyclically driven industries like automobiles.

Pawan Munjal, MD & CEO, Hero Honda Motors: Since we have a stable government at the centre, it would be safe to say that the worst is over…

Venu Srinivasan, chairman, TVS Motors & CII President: Yes, we can say we have hit the bottom, and while we may take time – till September – to get out, we could look at 6% growth at the end of the year.

Anand Mahindra, Vice-Chairman & MD, Mahindra Group: For India – the domestic economy – the worst is clearly over.

Sunil Mittal, Chairman & MD, Bharti Airtel: Yes, certainly. The issue was always about incremental growth. The economy is certainly reviving and should gather pace in the coming months.

Deepak Parekh, chairman, HDFC: Yes, the worst is over. I don’t think we will have another situation like last October.

Adi Godrej, chairman, Godrej Group: Yes, the worst is over for India.

Azim Premji, Chairman, Wipro Technologies: The trajectory is changing from downward sloping to flat.

K V Kamath, chairman, ICICI Bank: Very clearly the worst is over for India. The evidence is the feel good factor and business confidence.

Rahul Bajaj, chairman, Bajaj Auto: Probably yes, though 2009 will continue to be a difficult year for the industry.

Indian economy looks up, feel good factor is back

Finally, the Indian economy is looking up and the feel-good factor is back. According to an India Today report (June 8), the worst is over and there are signs that the Indian economy is sprouting tender shoots of recovery. This, the editor-in-chief Aroon Purie says, is because of India’s demographics, the size of its domestic economy and robust growth in the rural sector. “It is this that has given many hope that India will recover faster than the rest of the world,” he adds.

From a low of 7,000 points, the stock market index has hit the 14,000-plus levels. (activity in the private equity market picked up after a lull as early as March, a Business Line report points out). The upswing in the markets has helped ease the cash crunch for companies. Cement and auto sales have registered double-digit growth; Tata Steel sales were up 31% in April, compared to sales in the same period in 2008. For the third successive year, India’s agricultural output will hit a record – 99 million tones of rice and 77.6 million tones of wheat. The growth of rural India has led to Bharti Airtel, for instance, touching the 100-million mark in the number of mobile phone connections. Overall, as Shankkar Aiyar writes in India Today, there is intensified industrial activity and revival of domestic demand. Aiyar also mentions that the increased confidence stems from the fact that globally the worst fears of a 1939-type depression seem to be receding.

The front-page headline in Business Line (June 8) read: Industry on road to recovery; growth nearing last year’s high. It mentions cement, coal and capital goods being the first to recover. The previous day, the business daily had quoted a Labour Bureau survey to report that there has been an increase in the hiring of direct workers and that contract worker lay-offs had seen a reversal in the March quarter. There were also reports (June 6) in the paper of demat accounts swelling “on big-ticket IPO hopes” and a stable government and rising stock markets enthusing investors, and of Morgan Stanley Asia being more bullish on India than on China - its chairman Stephen Roach felt that the Congress victory had changed the outlook (June 4). The company has predicted strong market conditions for 2009 and has said the Sensex could be trading at the 19,000-levels by the end of the year. Indeed, even as early as the first fortnight of May, FIIs inflow had crossed the $1 billion mark in seven trading sessions, and according to The Economic Times, FDI inflow ($11 billion) had outstripped FII pull-out ($8.3 billion) in the third and fourth quarters. Also, high net worth individuals are entering the equity market.

On June 3, The Economic Times carried a banner headline on its front page: ‘Slump shadows fade away’. The report mentions core sectors getting back on track and six core sectors (power, crude oil, refinery products, coal, cement and finished steel) clocking a growth of 4.3% in April, the fastest in 10 months. According to a report in the paper (May 11), the State Bank of India has reported robust growth in profit and business despite the overall negative economic environment of the past six months – the bank, the report pointed out, was eying 25% growth in deposits and lending. Adding confidence was the fact that NRI remittances had risen 20-fold in 2009.

The performance of nationalised banks has been heartening. According to Business Line, Bank of Baroda’s net profit soared 172% on overall income growth; Indian Bank Q4 net was up 63%; SBI profits rose 46% in Q4 on higher income. The Economic Times reported that hotels chains like the Marriott, Accor, Hyatt and Royal Orchid were expanding in full swing in India.

Heard of Mysore Sandal, Pears?

Most Indian families would have used the Pears soap some time or the other. Manufactured by the Government Sandal Oil Factory of Mysore (managed by Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited), the Pears soap promised users a fair complexion sans blemishes. On my way back from Bangalore, I was reading the Deccan Herald (it comes in a new design now) and came across a story written by Shyam Sundar Vattam, in which he mentions that the factory, set up in 1917, once the pride of Mysore, has barely 40-50 employees today (from 400 at one time) and, that too, working only for a quarter of the year.

Call it economic downturn or what you will, but it is indeed saddening to learn of such institutions struggling to survive. The feature points out that the availability of sandalwood in abundance had prompted Mysore’s rulers to establish the factory in 56-acre premises on the Mysore-Manandawadi Road, but getting the raw material is a major problem today. As against the annual requirement of 500 tonnes of sandalwood, the availability is only 50 tonnes. KSDL now buys sandalwood from auctions conducted by the Tamil Nadu forest department. Sandalwood prices are now Rs 54 lakh a metric tonne; it was Rs 1.42 lakh once.

Vattam paints a romantic picture – of a metre gauge railway track inside the factory premises, “a reflection of the quantity of sandalwood stock that arrived in the factory in those days”, as he puts it. Incidentally, the factory was started in Bangalore in 1916, but shifted to Mysore a year later. Vattam mentions the then Dewan of Mysore Sir M Visvesvaraya taking personal interest in setting up the factory in Mysore.

Growing more sandalwood trees could address the problem in the long run. But, will the Government Sandal Oil Factory of Mysore be able to hold out in the short-term, at least till the economy really picks up? It’ll be interesting to wait and see. Let’s hope it will. Mysore Sandal and Pears are Indian brands that must survive.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Red alert for swine flu; it's a pandemic

This is my 200th blog post. Perhaps there could have been a feel-good piece. But then, this is the news people are talking about.

The New York Times calls it a global pandemic in 41 years. Well, WHO’s director general Margaret Chan has confirmed that we are at the earliest stage of a global pandemic as far as swine flu is concerned. WHO has raised the alert level to the maximum, ‘level six’. The virus started in Mexico in April. Today, the NYT report quotes Chan as saying that the pandemic is “moderate” in severity. Chan says that the majority of infections have occurred in people under 25. New cases are being reported from Hong Kong and China. In India, two persons in New Delhi and one in Goa have tested positive, according to NDTV. The Washington Post presents an even more alarming picture. It says that the arrival of the new flu strain is likely to infect up to one-third of the population in the first wave and return in later waves over the next several years. The BBC says that the swine flu virus is spreading in at least two regions of the world with rising cases being seen in the UK, Australia, Japan and Chile. It adds that there have been more than 800 cases in the UK with some areas of Scotland being particularly hard hit. According to an AP report, WHO will now ask drug makers to speed up production of a swine flu vaccine, which it said would available after September. The report adds that in the last pandemic, the Hong Kong flu of 1968, about 1 million people were killed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

KSRTC could do better with some PR

Most of my visits to Bangalore have been by train, and there have been numerous since 1983 when I first set foot in the Garden City. Bangalore may not be the Garden City it once was, but it still retains its special charms – a mixture of the old world and the new. The old is particularly visible in areas like the Cantonment, in Fraser and Cox Town, D’Costa Layout….

It was quite an interesting journey though. My travel agent had booked me on a Karnataka State Transport Corporation (KSRTC) night bus, the Airavat Volvo. I arrived at the starting point, the Koyambedu bus terminus, well before the scheduled departure at 9.30 pm. I was in for a surprise. The conductor, who spoke only in Kannada, did not let me in. Apparently, there were two seats in the bus that were usually allotted to women. Thanks to my agent, my seat number was one of them. I saw no point in arguing with him; he was as stubborn as a mule and any argument could have landed me in trouble. I tried to play soft and waited. Reluctantly, he allowed me in, but soon came inside to tell me that a woman passenger had arrived and she would occupy the next seat and, therefore, I would have to disembark and seek a refund.

I later found this hilarious – in which world did the man think he was in! I now insisted that I needed to travel and it was possibly my look because, small mercies, he put right at the back of the bus. That was where I sat throughout the journey, not uncomfortable, but denied a better seat for no fault of mine.

Ironically, past midnight, there were shrieks from a woman. The dim lights were turned on. All eyes were focused on her. She claimed that a young fellow seated before her was pawing her. The conductor did not bother to come and see what the problem was. The bus didn’t stop. Later, when it did, for a short break, the woman and the man had a heated argument. Fortunately, it did not go out of control although they threatened each other.

When the bus arrived in Bangalore and the conductor began calling out the names of the various pit stops, I looked at my watch. The time was 3.30 am, and I suddenly realised I had lost a whole night’s sleep.

When will we ever learn how to be polite and courteous? And to think that KSRTC is part of the hospitality business – without transport where’s tourism? Men like the conductor in that bus I travelled need to undergo training and must be taught the finer points of PR. But do organisations like KSRTC really care? I doubt it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Laura Ling, Euna Lee, good luck!

I’ve written about this before… some are lucky but others aren’t. Remember the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were caught by the North Koreans? According to the New York Times, the two are scheduled to go on trial on today at the Pyongyang Central Court. It’s been more than two months since they’ve been held in North Korea for illegal entry. The NYT says that the two could face five years’ imprisonment and hard labour (the Washington Post puts it as 10 years). And the prison camps in that country are notorious. The NYT report quotes Lisa Ling, Laura’s elder sister in California, as saying she hopes the N Korean government will show leniency. Indeed, the WashPost report mentions that Pyongyang had allowed Laura to call her sister; it was the first time in months that Lisa was hearing her sister’s voice. The WashPost calls this “highly unusual for one of the world's most repressive governments”. The report also quotes a ruling party lawmaker in the South Korean Assembly as saying that Pyongyang could release the women “when the timing is most favorable for North Korea's eventual purpose of engaging the United States”.

A question of credibility

Amnesty International has insisted that the United Nations immediately publicise its estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks of fighting in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, an investigation by the Times newspaper in Britain, drawing on confidential UN sources, stated that more than 20,000 civilians were killed in the last few weeks of the conflict, and suggested that most of them were killed as a result of shelling by the Sri Lankan government.

On Wednesday, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that ignored the plight of more than a quarter of a million displaced Sri Lankans now confined in internment camps by the Sri Lankan military. The resolution failed to call for a fact-finding mission to inquire into allegations of serious violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law by Sri Lankan forces and by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Amnesty International continues to receive consistent reports of widespread and serious human rights violations facing the displaced people, including enforced disappearance, extra-judicial executions, torture and other ill-treatment, forced recruitment by paramilitary groups and sexual violence. The organization feels that by not establishing a similar fact-finding mission for Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Council has demonstrated deplorable selectivity and double standards.”

Here are excerpts from an article that appeared in the Asian Tribune, by Don Wijewardana, an economist and freelance journalist.

The LTTE gave the world not only the suicide vest but also the art of
perpetuating a lie until it becomes accepted as the truth. Now the "Times"
has taken it to new heights. On 29 May the Times reported that evidence gathered by it has revealed that at least 20,000 Tamils were killed mostly by army shelling on the beach as the army closed in on the Tigers. The paper blamed the UN for
underestimating the death toll. The interesting thing is the way they arrived at that figure and how they were able to make sure the army was responsible for most of the deaths. The claim was based on what it said an average of 1,000 deaths each day up to 19 May, the day after the Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.

The rest of the media world was aghast. The Guardian and the BBC said they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks and questioned the methodology used by the Times. The New York Times reported that a coordinator for U.N. humanitarian relief, Elizabeth Byrs, had told that any estimate of the death toll must be based on extrapolation and guesswork. Ban Ki-moon himself told the UN General Assembly "I categorically reject -- repeat categorically -- any suggestion that the United Nations has deliberately underestimated any figures." The Times went on to claim its calculation was based on an analysis of "aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony," and what the paper called "confidential United Nations documents." relying on an anonymous United Nations source.

But U.N. officials had told The New York Times, that they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks of fighting and questioned the methodology. One described it as a dangerous extrapolation, multiplying by five the figures provided by three doctors who are currently under detention for providing false information. New York Times went on to say that privately, U.N. staff admitted they were puzzled by the methodology used to achieve the new death toll. "Someone has made an imaginative leap and that is at odds with what we have been saying before," one official said. "It is a very dangerous thing to do to start making extrapolations."

I am not quite sure whether the newspaper referred to here is the Times, London, or the New York Times… In any case, if the report is true, it raises serious questions about the credibility of the media and, that too, media considered respectable. Of course, all this arrived on email and sometimes I just wish that the good old days of the postmen would return - at least we knew what was genuine and what wasn't.

Welcome initiative

Thanks to Rajashree Khalap, I understand that Charu Singh has recently started an e-group to bring animal lovers together on a common platform, share information about welfare and cruelty issues, and publicise adoption and lost-pet appeals. If you would like to join, you can subscribe to- or become a member at -

Even the poor are forced to pay 'capitation fee'

Well, this is not quite capitation fee, but comes pretty close to it. Nandini Voice For the Deprived, a Chennai-based NGO provides scholarships to poor school students in Tamil Nadu studying in government-owned and government-aided schools. The NGO now finds that these schools are collecting fees under various pretexts, such as parent teacher association, fee for notebooks, building fund etc. Which is unauthorised and against the rules and regulations of the government. So, these schools are collecting much more money than the stipulated levels and insist that the payment should be made only by cash. Cheques are not accepted. Proper receipts are not provided.

Poor families wanting to see their children educated find it impossible to pay money to pay to the school authorities and often take loans at exorbitant interest rates. There is distinct threat of dropouts of poor students from the schools due to such deplorable conditions, says Venkataraman who runs Nandini. Remember he stood for the Parliamentary elections this time! Venkataraman adds that it’s sad that the government appears not to be aware of the issue. Last year, the government had issued "cosmetic warnings” and carried out raids in a few schools – “playing to the gallery”, according to him. It’s particularly sad because poor families can never really improve their plight if generations are not able to get educated.

Will the TN government do something to set right the problem?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Capitation fee: how money shows the way and merit takes a back seat

Well, the holidays are almost over and it’s time to get back to school – and college. Students might be eager, what with new uniforms, school bags, tiffin boxes and what have you, the excitement of entering a new class overtaking most of them. However, I met a few teachers for whom the excitement was all but over. The excitement for them was the start of the holidays, but to go back and get into the routine of taking classes, correcting answer papers, supervising students… an unenviable task.

This is also the time for college admissions. These days, even if students score 90% and above, there is no guarantee that they will get seats in the college of their choice, be it arts, commerce or science. I know of a bright young girl who scored 96.4% and thought she’s be able to breeze into one of Chennai’s leading colleges. It took only a few days for her to realize how wrong she was and what an uphill task it is for students like her to get admission. Reason: the quota system and reservations. She belonged to the forward community. Of course, if you have the right strings to pull, you could get a seat, but chances are you won’t have strings to pull. She managed to sneak in though, with recommendation – not from a minister or politician but from a bishop. Small mercies!

The situation is worse in engineering and medical colleges and I am talking about Tamil Nadu. Those who read The Times of India today would have been aghast at the goings-on – a sting operation showed institutions, including one run by a union minister, seeking capitation fee for the MBBS course. The amount - anything from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 40 lakh, and only in cash. Unbelievable? Not really. Many here already know about such goings-on. It’s only that the newspaper took the courage to expose what was happening. There were pictures of registrars negotiating the capitation fee. According to the reporter who broke the story (it is now being telecast on Times Now), the TN government had claimed that a system was in place to curb collection of capitation fee by private medical colleges. But the expose revealed how a state legislation as well as a Supreme Court order was being violated, the report added. The sting must have caught the minister by surprise – he was seen wringing his hands in despair and disbelief after the news broke out and the television reporter cornered him for comments. Two of the institutions involved – Sri Ramachandra University and Shree Balaji College - are well known.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the days ahead. Will the minister be asked to resign? That’s what people who responded to the story wanted him to do. This is a new cabinet and the Manmohan Singh government has just begun its second innings. The Prime Minister may not want a tainted minister. At the same time, the government may not want to be seen having inducted such a minister and may give him a clean chit. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

What is saddening is that the sting operation is reflective of a wider malaise that is affecting society. Of corruption that has seeped in everywhere. How on earth are we going to get rid of it? Or at least reduce it in some form? Many of us have no answers. I am sure the same thing (seeking bribe in the form of capitation fee) will be repeated the coming year and the next, and the next. It is up to the media to keep the heat on and continue the pursuit of truth and justice.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A garage sale for the cause of strays

Rajashree Khalap from Mumbai has sent me a mail that explains the work of the Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD), an animal welfare NGO that sterilises and immunises stray dogs. There are adoption programmes for abandoned pets and pariahs, an on-site first–aid programme and an education and awareness programme in schools, colleges, streets and slums. WSD has so far sterilised more than 35,500 stray dogs and impacted the lives of thousands more through first-aid, immunisation and adoption. The NGO spends Rs 3,00,000 a month on these activities and depends on the largesse of donors to fund them.

One of the methods of raising funds to sustain costs is the regular garage/jumble sale. WSD is organising one during June 4-7, Thursday-Sunday, at Surya Darshan Bldg, 44/50,Walkeshwar Road, Near Sital Baug Bus stop, Mumbai 400 006. On Sale would be LPs, CDs, DVDs, VCDs, artefacts, glassware, crockery, gift items, linen, clothes and electronic items at throwaway prices. For more information you can call WSD on 64222838 or e-mail

The WSD Adoption Blog:

E mail :