Sunday, April 13, 2014

Finding a future from the past

There is a kind of e-mail that does its rounds of mailboxes frequently. It is a rather long one, extolling the virtues of ancient Indian science and technology, and talking about the glory of Aryabhata, Charaka and Sushruta.

From the tone and tenor of the e-mail it looks as if its author is a person who in the present is feeling slighted (for whatever reasons) and has to find strength by emphasizing the glorious past from which his/her people evolved. Perhaps he or she is a non-resident Indian in the US, for that is the community from which much cyber-nationalism emerges. 

The BJP claims that it will balance the needs of development and environment
if voted to power.

The author of the e-mail is unknown but the names of the authors for the 2014 election manifesto for the BJP(1) are known in the public domain. The preface of the manifesto starts thus: “India is the most ancient civilization of the world and has always been looked upon by the world as a land of wealth and wisdom. India has been credited to have developed, apart from philosophy and mathematics, science and technology of a very high order, which had attracted scholars from all over the world. … India was respected for its flourishing economy, trade, commerce and culture. It had an international outreach from Korea to Arabia, from Bamiyan to Borobudur and beyond.”

There are a few subtexts in the BJP manifesto. Its title – Ek Bharat shreshta Bharat: Sabka saath, sabka vikas – defines the party’s vision of grandeur. It pledges to build a “modern India” on the “best foundation” of “our own culture” using “our own hands” and the “best material” of “our own aspirations.”

“Our own aspirations” is the key phrase here. It taps the feeling of frustration of the middle class and the wannabe middle class of not being able to realise their aspirations due to poor governance of the Congress-led government. And the BJP will rectify that through an “open, transparent and systems-based government” that will provide “pro-active, pro-people good governance.”

Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) the third political entity with national ambitions, took this very argument one step forward. For them the poor governance came from “corrupt politicians.” The dampener for the BJP is the AAP focusing on the corruption angle in its campaign.

The inability of successive national governments to deliver on people’s aspirations is well articulated in the manifesto: “Even after nearly seven decades of our independence, the country has not been able to discover its innate vitality, the sense of time and the will to act. … The present crisis is the result of this confusion and disconnect from the seekings and sensibilities of the people. This is worse confounded by the weak and spineless leadership of the UPA Government.”

The problem about painting the whole of post-Independence history with one brush is that it also covers one term plus 13 months and 13 days of BJP-led governance. So the manifesto builds in this caveat: “The beginning of the 21st century showed some light under the NDA rule. India started being reckoned as an economic superpower. The six-year rule of NDA had given the Nation many firsts, building an image in the international community. However, many of the hopes, potentials and projects have not been fully realized in the subsequent years. But after 2004, UPA came into power and the situation started worsening again. We missed a historic national opportunity once more.”

Prima facie this begs the question that if India was really shining between 1999 and 2004 then why did the voters interrupt the dream run? At a deeper level, the question is what does it mean for the environmental considerations of the country if the BJP were to come to power at the Centre? The manifesto takes a two-pronged approach towards environment – direct and indirect.

The promises are direct. It promises to take the idea of sustainability and climate change mitigation initiatives seriously and work with the global community. The government will encourage cleaner production; promote cleaner fuel; launch an integrated public transport project; promote pro-active carbon credit (sic); conduct ecological audit of projects and pollution indexing of urban centres; use wastelands for social forestry; produce guidelines for constructing green buildings; promote human capacity building in environmental technologies; establish fool proof mechanisms for the protection and preservation of wildlife; encourage and incentivise innovative garbage management practices; and clean rivers starting with the Ganga.

There is mention of a National Mission on the Himalayas and the creation of a Himalayan Sustainability Fund. The BJP government “will set in place national policies on critical natural resources like coal, minerals, spectrum, etc., spelling out in black and white how much should be utilised in what time and pace.” Cultural values and thorium reserves will be considered before deciding on the Sethu Samudram project in the Palk Strait. 

In terms of sheer number of environmental promises the BJP manifesto beats the document from the Congress (even if one were to debate whether spectrum is a natural resource). But this is because the BJP has one benefit over the Congress – its statements in the manifesto cannot be immediately verified against performance. Ten years is a long time to be out of power at the Centre, and extrapolating BJP governments’ performance in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh against a national context is not exactly a valid comparison.

However, in real terms it is the indirect references to environmental concerns that are more important. Especially so since the BJP is keen to take India to its historical greatness.

“We should no longer remain a market for the global industry,” emphasises the manifesto. “Rather, we should become a global manufacturing hub.” There would a conducive and enabling environment for doing business which will cut down the red tape, simplify procedures and remove the bottlenecks. The government will ensure logistic infrastructure, including stable power.

“Our attempt will be to move towards a single-window system of clearances both at the Centre and the states through a hub-spoke model.” The Centre and the states will work in coordination for giving clearances to mega projects. “Decision making on environment clearances will be made transparent as well as time-bound.” The government will “frame the environment laws in a manner that provides no scope for confusion and will lead to speedy clearance of proposals without delay.”

The play of words is interesting. The single window of the BJP is similar to the National Enviornmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority articulated in the Congress manifesto. At least the Congress believes in creating a body specifically for looking at environmental issues, whereas the single window envisaged by the BJP is for giving clearance for the project and not necessarily to look at the environmental issues. Further, even the environment laws can be rewritten to avoid confusion and lead to speedy clearance.

Both the BJP and Congress are in a hurry. But only the BJP knows where to reach – the glorious India of the past “whose prosperity held the world in thrall.”

1.            Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat: Election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 2014.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Life beyond 7% growth

In mid 1990s, I attended an impromptu press conference addressed by Manmohan Singh at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI), Chennai. As the finance minister spoke, we huddled closer to hear him. The economic liberalisation was still in its early stages, and Singh said that once the economy starts to grow at 7% there would be enough resources to invest in the social, environment and health sectors.

A few days ago the Indian National Congress published the report card for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the party’s promissory note for the future five years. The manifesto states that it is a document drawn up after a series of consultations with different stakeholders “to get their inputs on India’s future growth, development and inclusion agenda.” Election manifestoes need lofty statements, and this one says, “We believe in a simple truth: equity and opportunity for all.”

The results of the coming elections will show what communities think of the UPA’s environmental policies
The economic growth in the past 10 years had a certain kind of inclusiveness about it. The growth of the service sector and its incessant need for manpower opened employment opportunities for young graduates in the country. However, it is not the UPA that initiated the thrust for the information, communication and entertainment sectors. At best the UPA did not negate the policies implemented by its predecessor National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

The UPA was effective with its Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and the National Food Security Act. The Congress manifesto does not miss highlighting these achievements: “At the turn of the millennium, we brought about a ‘Regime of Rights’ marking a paradigm shift in India’s politics and development.”

Whenever it comes to environmental discussions, there is a fact that every senior leader of the Congress party repeats ad nauseam. They recall that Indira Gandhi was the only visiting prime minister who participated in the 1972 United Nations Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden. This statement is repeated, once more, in the Congress manifesto.

There is certainly historicity in the statement about Indira Gandhi. But then, she was also the person who decided that conserving the rain forest in Silent Valley was more important than submerging it for hyrdro-electric power. The Project Tiger was launched during her premiership, and she had also sown the seeds of the Coastal Regulation Zone notification.

Hidden behind this near-platitudinous reference to Indira Gandhi is the state of the Congress-led UPA’s environmental record in the past 10 years. The report card part in the manifesto talks about the establishment of the National Green Tribunal and the National Action Plan on Climate Change.

The action plan for 2014-2019 states that it will put water conservation in its actions on agriculture, rural and urban development; provide clean cooking fuel across the country; launch Green National Accounts by 2016-17; conserve biodiversity; and engage tribals and forest dwelling communities in the management of forests and share with them benefits from forest produce.

Whatever be the promises, voters assess them against past performance. And this is more so for the party that has led the national government for a decade. Thus two sentences – one a promise, other an achievement – in different parts of the manifesto, sum up much of the environmental controversies that the UPA faced during its two consecutive terms.

The promise states, “We envision an India where power would have been devolved to the grassroots and the marginalised so that they can shape their own destiny.” And, the achievement states, “Today, coal production is 554 million tonnes per year. Ten years ago it was 361 million tonnes per year.”

Though not limited only to coal, the most contentious environmental disputes during the UPA period were related to mining, where the interests of the industry were strongly perceived to hurt the interests of the local and forest communities. It came to a head when 12 gram sabhas turned down the proposal by Vedanta Resources for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha.[i]

On matters related to environment the UPA has been like one of the cars they use in driver training schools that have two sets of controls – one for the student and the other for the trainer. While the political lightweight prime minister attempted to take the car in one direction, there was a reverse pull from the other set of controls handled by Sonia Gandhi.

At least two environment ministers – Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan – operated in the space created by these two pulls. Environment clearance for projects were delayed, and at times denied. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed to a group of editors in June 2011 that he has been pressurising Ramesh. Singh quoted Mahatma Gandhi, “As Gandhiji said, poverty is the biggest polluter. We need to have a balance.”[ii] Singh attempted to change this with the proposal for the establishment of a National Investment Board (NIB).[iii] The proposal did not materialise.

The idea of the NIB is not dead, though. It has resurfaced as the proposal for a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority “to conduct rigorous and time-bound environmental appraisals and recommend environmental clearances where appropriate in a time-bound and transparent manner.” It is not known if the repeated emphasis on “time-bound” is intentional or not.

Delays in getting clearances hurt investment and in turn the investment climate. True. The need for a transparent and time-bound process can also not be disputed. But the two preceding questions are: how seriously are environmental impacts of projects assessed, and how carefully does the government listen to the voice of the community during public hearings? The UPA’s record has not been very reassuring on this front. Or else there would not have been so many environmental controversies during the past 10 years.

Since the press meeting I attended at CLRI two decades ago, Manmohan Singh completed one term as finance minister and later had two full terms as prime minister. The economy too grew at above the promised 7% (the manifesto claims that the average for the last 10 years was 7.5% economic growth). So history did not deny him the opportunity to turn his words into action. The results of the coming elections, especially from the constituencies that have had environment- and livelihood-related disputes, will show what people think of his government’s action or inaction. 

[i] Saikia, S.P. Government rejects Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mining project. The Hindu Business Line, 12 January 2014
[ii] Jebaraj, P. Jairam continues no go U-turn as PM admits to pressuring him. The Hindu, 30 June 2011
[iii] Singh, S. PM’s enforcer board to clear big projects. The Hindu, 2 October 2012

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A bid to link climate change to human rights

In March 2012, President Anote Tong of Kiribati, an archipelago nation in the Pacific, informed international journalists that his Cabinet has endorsed a plan to buy 6,000 acres on Fiji's main island. This was not for real estate speculation, but for more humanitarian reasons. The land in Fiji would help Tong's government to repatriate its citizens if sea level rise due to climate change was to submerge the Kiribati islands. ...MORE ...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Will the NAPM-AAP marriage work?

The National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to fight the Indian general elections 2014. The NAPM leader and environmental activist Medha Patkar’s name was announced in the first list of the AAP candidates. She would contest from Mumbai North-East.

This is the first time that the NAPM or any well-known environmental activist group is joining electoral politics. The environmental and social activists took the decision to join the AAP at NAPM’s national meeting in January this year. While some of the NAPM leaders have agreed to be immersed in the AAP’s national election process completely, others will play a more supportive role.

Satellite image of the Sardar Sarovar dam and reservoir on the Narmada river. The NAPM grew out of the environmental movement against the construction of the dam. 

This means that a coalition of 222 environmental and grass-roots groups have aligned themselves to the youngest political party in the country that formed and dismembered the government in Delhi state and has ambitions in national elections.

The marriage also means that if AAP were to become a part of any coalition that forms the government after the national elections then the NAPM would be part of the “State establishment”. This becomes a point for comment since the environmental movements had been fighting the State and the establishment for decades.

There is a certain degree of synergy between the AAP and the NAPM – after all both came into being as a network of protestors. Both have also reached a stage in their growth where they have realised that there is a limitation to the politics of protest, and to be effective there is need to transition into the parliamentary democracy process (though in Delhi, the AAP entered and exited this process).

However, the critical difference is in the constituencies they represent.  While the AAP represents the urban middle class, the NAPM represents communities in the hinterlands such as tribals, artisanal fishermen, labourers, mineworkers, etc. The AAP’s constituents are predominantly in the consuming end of the economic spectrum, whereas those of the NAPM are in the producing end.

Though contesting within a city, Patkar’s constituency has slums and she was active earlier fighting for the rights of the urban poor from these tenements.

The AAP is a political party that, theoretically, was in the making since the launch of the economic liberalisation in 1991. When the markets were liberalised, there was an intense focus on the middle class, especially those in the urban centres, as consumers for goods and services. Higher disposable incomes, a sense of ownership in the corporate world through shares, access to foreign brands in local stores, shopping malls and food courts; for the first time since Independence, the urban middle class felt a sense of self-importance. 

They had decades of accumulated complaints against the politicians and the bureaucracy. They protested against corruption and poor governance, but did not have a political vehicle to give strength to their voice. The AAP gave the urban middle class a political voice.  

This is the political voice that the AAP used to do well in the elections in Delhi, a predominantly urban state. Aware of its limitation, AAP did not try to contest in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh. Now that the AAP has ambitions for the national elections, an alliance with the NAPM can broaden their base.

The NAPM, on the other hand, is an alliance of grass-roots organisations that had come into being to protect the natural resources from the villages from being hijacked for urban and commercial use. The prime mover for the NAPM was the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that fought against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the 1990s. The National Alliance was established before the 1996 general elections, when NBA wanted to give a pan-India presence to its anti-dam movement by networking with other environmental organisations.

The idea of the NAPM joining the AAP is fraught with contradictions. For instance, while contesting for the Delhi assembly elections, the AAP’s initial promise was to give water supply to all in the state, including free supply of 700 litres per day per household. Obviously, the water comes from outside the city. Also, some communities outside the city that have lost out their natural resources for the establishment of power plants are contributing to the reduction of power costs by half for consumers in Delhi.

One of the strong statements that came from the residents in the Garhwal districts who lost their lands and water resources to the Tehri dam was “why should we suffer and allow our water be taken to New Delhi to be flushed in toilets?” Tehri dam’s height was fixed at 260 metres because of its potential to generate power. This in turn submerged more land.

And this is where the catch would come. Can Delhi’s need for water be met without compromising the needs of village communities outside the state? If Delhi’s interests are protected at the cost of the hinterlands then the NAPM would be seen as moving away from its core beliefs. If the interests of the rural communities are met at the cost of Delhi, the AAP may become unpopular with its primary constituency.

It is interesting that the NAPM that steadfastly stayed away from electoral process is joining it in 2014. Moving into the political process will help the Indian environmental movement. There are two reasons for this. One, they can more effectively follow up on their demands. Two, it will also give them an understanding of the multiple pressures that the executive feels from different sections of the society. Being outside and objecting is different from being inside and ensuring that people’s concerns are built into policy and action.

The marriage with the AAP is also an opportunity for the NAPM to come back into national consciousness. While the economic, political and social processes in the past two decades led to the formation of the AAP, it also led to the marginalisation of movements such as the NAPM. The urban middle class was too busy focusing on its consumption needs to worry about environmental impacts of its actions.

This, however, is only part of the reason that the NAPM got marginalised in the national consciousness. The environmentalists also did themselves in by their shrill and unrelenting positions on many development projects and their refusal to engage in any kind of negotiations.

The NAPM had slipped out of the media radar in the recent years. The Alliance leader Medha Patkar, who was frequently interviewed by the media in the early 1990s, hardly makes a token presence in the present-day TV talk shows, grabbing a few minutes of attention sporadically. Her last appearance of significance was during the protest against the establishment of the Tata Motors plant in Singur, West Bengal, in 2007-08.

As with all good marriages, the coming together of the AAP and the NAPM has benefits for both. The question is will it last?

There can be two prognoses. It could lead to a positive engagement hitherto not seen in the Indian environmental discussions, and thereby reinvigorate the process. Or, in a matter of time the NAPM will come out of its alliance with the AAP and become its critic from outside.

The second is an easy option. The first requires work where issues of convergence have to be strengthened and personal egos kept aside. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

A change in colour

This is the season of elections in India. We are permitted a change in heart, and in our colours.

Blue blends into green in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Kerala
When I started this blog in 2006, I was working with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at its global headquarters in Patancheru, near Hyderabad in India. I handled media relations for the Institute, and thus was very sensitive to any conflict of interest that may arise when I started the blog. I named my blog midlifeblues. There could not have been any conflict with this. Going through mid-life is a certainty for all of us. And being blue is even more certain. In fact, there is no lower age limit for that mood.

Considering that my blog entries are more green than blue, I am giving it a new name – A touch of green. However, that does not mean that I would not write about anything other than green. 

India starts voting on 7 April. It is an exercise unparalleled in scale globally. In the coming weeks I hope to try and understand how environmental issues affect people’s choice. So do look out for my blog as we go along. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Climate talks headed nowhere

The international climate change negotiations have become like games set on quicksand. The more the negotiators attempt to come out with decisions, the deeper they get sucked into technicalities and jargon. ... MORE ...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The new Malayali

We were meeting Shiv and Maya for the first time in Kochi. More than a decade ago, we had met them in Bhubaneswar. Raji, Varun and I were travelling the Puri-Konarak-Bhubaneswar triangle then and had stayed with them for a couple of days.

Maya mentioned that Odisha had followed them to Kochi. Their gardener was an Odiya. Having migrated a year ago, the man had done well for himself. Shiv and Maya had a small patch of garden around their house and they felt professional support was needed to maintain it. The gardener had moved from Odisha to Kerala since he earned many times more than what he did back home. He bought a scooter, got two cell phones and sent his wife home by flight for her delivery.

“This is his Dubai,” Maya observed. The Dubai analogy was not lost on the Malayali in me.
Having captured the clientele over the past months the gardener had learnt the tricks of the trade, Maya said. He never refused an assignment, but did not always show up for work at the time committed. The day we met them, Shiv and Maya had wasted the forenoon waiting for the gardener.

There is nothing new with migration into Kerala. Tamil construction workers have been crossing the state border to support the Gulf-money-fuelled construction boom in Kerala. However, the migration into Kerala in the recent years is unprecedented. It draws its force from the increased outflow of skilled and semi-skilled labour from the state.

Denizens of Kerala have crossed the state boundaries in search of employment for generations. Good education and paucity of opportunities in the thin strip of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea has sent youngsters out in search of employment. In 1987, I boarded the cushion-less Kochi-Hyderabad compartment in Chennai Express and left. A generation earlier, my father got into a train travelling to Mumbai and from there on to central India and returned to settle in Thrissur only after he retired more than three decades later. My father-in-law boarded a ship to Malaysia with his hopes and a steel trunk.

The migration survey for 2011 by K.C. Zackariah  and S. Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies (CDS)[i] at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, states that 2.28 million from the state were living outside the country. This was an increase of 4.10% from the figure of 2.19 million registered in 2008, when the last such survey was carried out.

To which countries did the Keralites go? These figures draw no surprise. The Gulf region, comprising the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and other parts of West Asia, drew 89.4% of those migrating. The United States attracted 3%, Canada 0.4%, United Kingdom 2% and other European countries together 0.5%. Nearer home, Malaysia attracted 0.6%, Singapore 0.5%, Maldives 0.3%, and other South-East Asian countries together 0.7%. Australia and New Zealand attracted 1.1%. The large, wide continent of Africa attracted 0.6% and the countries not listed above together attracted another 1.1%.

One fact is clear – there is almost no place in the world where there are no Keralites. Even in Cotonou in Benin, West Africa, where I worked for 30 months, there were enough Malayalis to organise a full-fledged Onam sadya (feast). I had heard of similar communities in Lome in Togo and Accra in Ghana. Lagos, the metropolis in neighbouring Nigeria, has had Malayalis for generations.
There are also other migrants, who though have not gone abroad have moved to other Indian states in 2011.  The CDS study calculates that 931,000 Keralites lived in other states of India in 2011. This is a marginal increase from 914,000 in 2008.

There has been a reduction in the growth rate of people migrating to the Gulf in the first decade of this century. The growth between 2008 and 2011 is 4.96%. When this is annualised, the growth rate is 1.65%. Between 2003 and 2008 the annualised growth rate was 3.72% and 5.60% between 1998 and 2003.

According to the CDS experts, it was in the recent years that factors in the supply side affected the flow of labour from Kerala to the Gulf countries. Till now, the figures were dependent on the demand side dynamics. One of the reasons for this is that demographically the percentage of young people in the population (between 20 and 40 years) has reduced.

The second reason is that the gap in the economic benefit between working in the Gulf and in Kerala had reduced for the lower-income occupations, which constitute the stronger proportion among emigrants to the Gulf region. The survey states:

A second factor determining the emigration trend from Kerala is the wage levels in Kerala vis à vis that in the Gulf. The average wage among unskilled workers in Kerala has increased from Rs.150 to over Rs. 450 during the first decade of this century. The corresponding wage in the Gulf did not increase as fast as it did in Kerala. It could have even decreased during the depression years. Wage differentials among the unskilled labourers between Kerala and the Gulf have narrowed down considerably in the last decade. At the same time, the cost of emigration from Kerala has increased considerably. As a result, the financial benefits accruing from emigration have decreased very much.
The just concluded Centre for Development Studies survey of 1000 unskilled workers in the United Arab Emirates indicated an average monthly wage of Rs.11,869. Unskilled workers could earn more or less the same amount of money in Kerala as they could do in the Gulf.

According to the 2011 census, Kerala’s population is estimated as 33.387 million. The total number of people who have moved out of the state (abroad and in other states of the country) is 3.21 million. That is 9.61% of the population in the state. If this proportion were to remain intact, only the same percentage of each profession should have migrated out of the state. Zachariah and Rajan of CDS, however, project a different picture.

Emigration and out-migration have produced deep dents in the availability of skilled workers in the state … A large number of critical occupations in the state are severely depleted by emigration and out-migration. They include chemical engineers, fabrication workers, computer professionals, electricians, nurses, civil and electrical engineers, cooks in hotels and restaurants, and drivers and mechanics.
For example, corresponding to 100 chemical engineers in the state, there are 75 such persons among the emigrants from the state and living outside India. Similarly, corresponding to 100 persons (in the specified occupations) in the state, there are 49 fabrication workers outside, 44 computer professionals, 43 building electricians, 41 mechanical engineers, 40 child care workers, 40 crane operators, 39 nurses, 38 electric engineers, 37 barber/hair dressers, 36 civil engineers, 36 tailors, 33 cooks, 31 machinery repairing workers, 31 electricians, 30 motor vehicle mechanics, 26 plumbers and 24 motor vehicle drivers living abroad as emigrants from Kerala. The number of workers outside Kerala is 40-50 per cent of the number of such workers inside Kerala for 7 occupations, 30-40 per cent in 10 occupations, 20-30 per cent in 8 occupations, and 10-20 per cent in 21 occupations. These statistics provide a general picture of what the state is paying for the Rs 50,000 crores that it is receiving by way of remittances each year.

Kerala’s links with the other states and foreign countries through outflow and inflow of people has changed qualitatively in the past decade. As the son of parents who were working outside Kerala, I have seen the profile of those who lived outside and came to the state on holidays as a child. As a university student studying in Thrissur, I saw and met diaspora children. Then, in 1987, I joined the diaspora, returning to the state only on holidays.

Try reserving a berth or seat in a train, bus or flight connecting a Kerala city or town with Chennai or Bengaluru and you will feel the difference. In the 1990s, we were living in Chennai when my son Varun was a school student. Those days we knew that it was difficult to get train reservation during holidays, but the rest of the year it was relatively easier. Today getting reservation is next to impossible almost throughout the year.

You drive on the National Highway 47 linking the state with the outside world through the Palghat Pass, there are enough cars travelling in and out every day of the week. Ditto on the roads traversing the Waynad Plateau or other points across the state boundary. There is a steady stream of people going in and out of the state all through the year. Kerala’s acculturation is consistent and constant.

The growth of the information technology and related sectors of the economy in the South Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad in the first decade of this century triggered the qualitative change in Kerala’s relation with other states. The IT boom brought a certain egalitarianism among young people in the state, that was not there two decades ago. Graduates from any college can aspire for an entry into the IT sector. Once inside, the young person’s talent, dedication and street-smartness can power his/her progress.

The situation was not so optimistic in the 1980s when I studied for my bachelor’s and master’s in Thrissur. Educated youth were many and opportunities few. Only the best from the best colleges could hope to be selected. We did not have the same sense of purpose that the youngsters have today. Reliable opportunities combined with the social and economic upward mobility that employment provides, has given a sense of identity to the Malayali.

There is a return to the roots to Kerala culture in today’s young population. Contrast this to a generation earlier, when I was growing up in that part of Madhya Pradesh that has now become Chhattisgarh. Those days, while travelling to Kerala on holidays we met co-travelling families in the train who prided in proclaiming that their children did not know Malayalam. Years later, while studying for university in Thrissur, we met a few students who claimed hesitantly “Enikku Malayalam arriyam” (I know Malayalam). Unfortunately their untrained tongue could not lay the correct stress on the ‘rr’ in ‘arriyam’ and the end result could be translated to “I can slice Malayalam.” We laughed. But at least it was becoming less shameful for diaspora children to state that they knew their native tongue.

A few months ago, Raji and I were sitting on the amphitheatre steps in the Shirdi temple complex in Maharashtra. We were waiting for the evening arati to start. On the step behind us was a man and two women, all in their late 20s. They spoke Hindi and Malayalam amongst themselves. Both languages were handled with equal deftness, with the accent of the native. Obviously they were children from families that had settled outside Kerala during their parents’ time, but had chosen to speak Malayalam at home. Young people today love to tell the world that they can speak Malayalam, and they can speak it well.

A community’s ability to speak its language correctly is an indicator of its respect for its own identity. In the recent decades the Malayali is not only not shameful of his identity, but has shouted about it from the rooftops. Just look at the number of ‘Mallu’ jokes that are moving through cyberspace. Today, perhaps in sheer numbers the Mallu jokes circulating are more than Sardar jokes. The virtues of coconut oil, banana chips, lungi and mundu (worn “half mast” or “full mast”) have been extolled in a video that went viral on YouTube. No, this video was not been made by any Rocky or Vicky to make fun of the Malayalis, but by Kerala’s own Chacko cousins.

Satellite television channels have linked the Malayali diaspora across the globe in no way that it could have done a generation ago. In my childhood, I watched my father tune his Marconi-valve radio to catch the half hour of Malayalam music from Radio Ceylon once a week. In 2011, even in the far away Cotonou in Benin, I could have followed the progress of the competitions on Idea Star Singer if I had subscribed to the right satellite channel.

Idea Star Singer (and the programmes it cloned) helped to build and strengthen the Malayali identity. It gave space on satellite time for ordinary families in and outside Kerala who had talented youngsters at home. Ranjini Haridas, the gutsy compere of the programme pioneered the space for an English-blended-Malayalam, which created the comfort space for thousands of diaspora families where children spoke this blend. In the process of daring to go public with a broken language, she found empathy with a generation of young Malayalis who wanted to own the language as theirs, but were not comfortable using it.

This comfort in language and identity is being reflected in the Malayalam cinema of the recent years. The youngsters portrayed are comfortable straddling cultures and boundaries, and building relations. Romance between two middle-aged, plain-looking, working youngsters over a dosa in Salt N’ Pepper.
The young Shahana in Ustad Hotel has no problem stepping out of her burka and perform with a rock group. Despite living in a conservative Muslim joint family, Shahana does not hesitate in telling Feyzee that she would not want to marry a man who wants to be a chef.

Feyzee’s father in the movie is the model emigrant from Kerala of the 1970s and 1980s. Hardworking and enterprising, he wants earn more for his labour. He moves to the Gulf region, does well as a businessman and wants his son to take over his empire. Instead, the son stays back in Kerala and takes over his grandfather’s biriyani restaurant. Feyzee, the new Malayali, is comfortable with his identity.

If one were to imagine the story of the movie beyond where it ends, Feyzee would expand his successful restaurant into a chain across Kerala. Beyond the group of staff members who had loyally stayed with his grandfather he finds it difficult to find local hands. The cooks, waiters and cleaners in his restaurants are from other parts of the country.

These men and women – like Shiv and Maya’s gardener – would be coming in to fill the space created by the skilled and semi-skilled labour from Kerala moving out of the state. As Malayalis return from Dubai, there are people from other parts of India who are finding Kerala their Dubai.

[i] Zachariah K.C. and Irudaya Rajan S. Migration, remittances and inequality. Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. 2012.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Global warming is here to stay

The world imagined a 'hiatus' in global warming. Mired in economic crisis, that was simply what it wanted to hear. ... MORE ...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sunglasses, caste violence and climate change

Acting as the self-obsessed superstar Saroj Kumar in the Malayalam movie Udayananu tharam, Sreenivasan demands that his costume should include 51 sunglasses, a different one for every scene.

Sunglasses have signified upward social mobility in Indian movies. It has endeared heroes to their fans. Rajinikanth not only wore sunglasses, but also did sleight of hand with it.

That simple eye protection, with coloured glass or plastic designed to cut off harmful rays from the sun, took a rather tragic role recently with the death of Ilavarasan, the dalit boy whose marriage to Vanniyar girl resulted in caste violence in Tamil Nadu. “They wear jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses to lure girls from other communities,” S. Ramadoss, the leader of Pattali Makkal Katchi reportedly told the media months ago.

Among the three items listed by Dr Ramadoss, his anger seems to be more with the sunglasses, for he qualified it with “fancy.” With sunglasses being available from Rs 99 on the pavements of every urban centre in the country to those costing thousands of rupees in exclusive showrooms, it is difficult to know where he pegged “fancy”.

The political, social and economic churn in the country in the past two decades has ensured that more people can access aspirational products such as sunglasses. The political realignment after the anti-Mandal Commission protests in 1990 ensured that space was created for many sections that were till then unrepresented politically.

The economic liberalisation opened economic opportunities that were strengthened by the growth of the information technology sector. With the IT and IT-enabled services sector being ever-hungry for fresh graduates, students from smaller urban centres and from lesser-known colleges had access to employment. Once recruited into a reputed company, the graduate’s merit and street smartness were more important than where he/she came from.

This means that sunglasses are now accessible to anybody. What you feel about your neighbour’s son wearing sunglasses depends on your perspective – “look how well he has done for himself” or “look, he is getting too big for his boots.”

Missed out in all this is strong health and environmental angle to sunglasses. The adverse health impacts of ultra violet (UV) radiation from the sun was considered as an important point of discussion in Agenda 21, the global environmental action plan that was agreed upon at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in June 1992. It asked the global community to undertake research on increased UV radiation due to the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer and develop actions to reduce the adverse health impacts.

In the two decades since the Rio Summit the global community has taken effective action to reduce the emission of ozone-depleting substances into the atmosphere. However, even with this decrease, the recovery of the ozone layer is not predicted till the middle of the 21st Century.

The World Health Organization (WHO) established its Intersun programme in response to the Agenda 21 recommendation, to provide scientific information and practical advice and guidance to reduce health risks due to UV radiation. WHO estimates that worldwide 12 to 15 million people become blind from cataracts annually, of which up to 20% may be caused or enhanced by sun exposure.

These numbers will increase as the stratospheric ozone layer continues to thin over the next decades, unless people become aware of the hazards of UV radiation exposure, especially from the sun. With 10% decrease in the total stratospheric ozone, an additional 1.6 million to 1.75 million cases of cataract are predicted worldwide every year.

Closer a location is to the equator, higher is the UV radiation levels. More importantly, Intersun studies show that darker skin provides no protection against ultra violet light affects on the eye and the immunity system. This means that Indians, and other populations in tropical countries, have a high chance of getting cataract due to UV radiation.

Intersun harmonised a global ultraviolet index (UVI) to measure radiation, starting from low (values of 1 and 2), moderate (3 to 5), high (6 and 7), very high (8 to 10) and extreme (11+). The UVI for Chennai in the first week of July 2013 – when Ilavarsan’s death had grabbed media and public attention – was 8 and southern Tamil Nadu 9. In mid-August the UVI had moved to 10.

Similarly, higher the altitude greater is the radiation, since the atmosphere becomes thinner to absorb UV. As a result, UV levels increase by approximately 10% for every 1,000 metres in altitude. Pilots and mountaineers have to wear sunglasses, not necessarily to attract girlfriends or boyfriends.

The UV radiation is only likely to increase in the years to come with climate change. Climate change is likely to result in more frequent extreme weather events, including extremely hot periods when the radiation would be higher. With increasing urbanisation there will be greater reflection of UV radiation by concrete and asphalt.  

The increase in greenhouse gases can lead to changes in the temperature and circulation patterns in the stratosphere, leading to decrease in ozone layer in the tropics and increase in the temperate and polar regions. Since the health of the ozone layer has an indirect relation to UV levels, this would mean increase in radiation in the tropical region – in which much of peninsular India is located – in the years to come.*

Actor Sreenivasan’s intention in the popular movie – for which he wrote the script – was to encourage the audience to laugh at his character’s vanity. Having transcended from a small-time actor to a superstar in a short time, Sreenivasan’s character uses his sunglasses to declare that he has arrived. He is an aberration and thus evokes laughter.

Instead, considering the impact of UV radiation in India, which is only going to get worse with climate change, there should be far more people using protective sunglasses. If more people use sunglasses it would be treated for what it is – a protective covering for the eyes – and not a status symbol. No caste leader will then be able to invoke it as a symbol for inciting violence.

* McKenzie RL, Aucamp PJ, Bais AF, Björn LO, Ilyas M, Madronich S, (2011). Ozone depletion and climate change: impacts on UV radiation. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 10(2):182-98. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Telangana: Stone or diamond?

A couple of years before Uttarakhand was created, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, a leader of the Chipko movement, was asked by journalists in Chennai what he thought of the idea of a separate State for the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh. He said he supported the idea of the hill communities having a greater political say over their natural resources.
It was a natural statement for the elderly Gandhian who, ... MORE ...

Friday, July 26, 2013

How predictable can you get?

Imagine a situation in which the countries in South Asia continue their economic growth drawing excessively on natural resources.
Then, around 2030, a series of extreme weather events caused by climate change — drought, glacial melt and floods — pushes the region off the tipping point, leading to civil unrest, political instability and weakening of institutions. ... MORE ...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The deluge is upon us

The news reports and images coming from Germany in the last fortnight were ironic. In the city of Bonn negotiators fought over the agenda of an international climate change meeting, as floods affected other parts of the country when river Elbe overflowed its banks due to heavy rains. ... MORE ...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

You raise diesel price, they cut bus service, then who will marry Thomas?

Gavi is inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. It is hardly a settlement — two eco-tourism centre buildings and housing for a few workers. The forest department guards the narrow, winding road entering the reserve, thus vehicles need permission to pass through. ... MORE ...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Plastic water bottles: Why we stopped caring for municipal water

In the late 1980s, when I started working in New Delhi, train travel from Kerala was an exercise in national integration. We filled drinking water from the taps on the railway platforms in our green, blue, red and yellow plastic water bottles that had straws attached to the caps. We knew how water tasted across the country – in Vijaywada the water was sweet, Balharshah brackish and Nagpur not bad. MORE ...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Media needs a climate change

The media should make the link between local environmental issues and climate change. MORE ...