Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Science backs biodiversity policy

To make international environmental agreements work, effective political framework, farsighted policy and good science have to blend in equal measures ... MORE ...

Saturday, 3 November 2012

From behind a half-closed door

Truth as seen and heard from outside a room may not be the same as that from inside the half-closed door. The recently-released Malayalam movie Ayalum njanum thammil (between him and me) builds on this truth.

We have heard of similar stories many times over. A doctor in a corporate hospital is accused of medical negligence because a patient under his care dies. There is protest outside the hospital. The media – especially the television channels – are there in full strength. Each journalist has his own version of the story.

In Kerala with a strong socialist background, the incident takes another overtone. It brings back the oft-repeated themes of neglect of the rich for the poor and the insistence of corporate hospitals to make money above everything else.

Like Ustad Hotel that was released earlier this year, Ayalum is a story of emotional bonding between two males, of two generations. The younger one grows from a boy to a man in the process of this bonding. The hospital where the young and the old doctors meet in the hills of Munnar is appropriately called Redemption Hospital. The stone walls of the hospital redeems the two men.

Unlike in Ustad Hotel, the director does not lose his grip of the narrative. No scene is felt to be extra.

Ravi Tharakan is an ordinary medical student. So ordinary that he takes seven years to complete a five-year medical course. Forced into doing two years of rural service in the hills of Munnar, he meets Dr Samuel. Life and the senior doctor make a man out of Tharakan.

“It is not difficult to diagnose or to treat,” mentors Samuel. “It is difficult to take a decision on what is to be done.” Ayalum is about a tough decision that Tharakan had to take later.

Where does the personal become professional? Can a doctor refuse to treat someone because of personal animosities? Can a doctor’s professional judgement on the need for surgery override the wishes of close family members of the patient? Can a doctor lie to protect his colleague? Ayalum raises many questions.

Maybe these questions are as old as time and will continue for generations to come. Ayalum manages to tease out a credible story from these questions.

Actually, the promotional stills for Ayalum do not tell the truth. They call the movie a romantic story. The young characters appear on the posters. The central character – Dr Samuel – is hidden behind these promotional pictures. Maybe the elderly Pratap Pothen is not as glamorous as Prithviraj (who plays Ravi Tharakan) and his contemporaries Narain, Samvrutha Sunil, Remya Nambisan and Rima Kallingal. But Pothen plays the keystone character that gives meaning to the movie.

Pothen’s character elevates the movie from a run-of-the-mill campus romance to one dealing with the deeper philosophical questions of life. Pothen handles the character deftly, giving it space, depth and understanding. His guidance to Prithviraj’s character is not just professional, but also personal. He sees a certain strength in the young doctor which he nurtures. He overrules the wishes of a mother who does not want her son to go through a simple surgery.

There is something about Prithviraj. He evolves easily from the prank-loving, romantic medical student to a responsible, conscientious doctor. As the bearded and greying Ravi Tharakan appearing in the beginning of the movie, he gives his character a presence.

What Ayalum fails is in doing justice to the women characters. Four women play critical roles in the movie – Samvrutha the lover, Remya the doctor at Redemption, Sukumari the matron-nurse and Rima the personal assistant to the corporate hospital’s chairman. Each one has done her part well. But none of them have a long screen presence in the movie.

The songs in the movie do not interrupt the narrative and the visual sequencing is without much jumps. The mountain mist of Munnar adds visual beauty, though this is not the first Malayalam movie to have used the mountains as a location.

And that exactly is the movie’s strength. Without the pretence of setting out to do something different it touches the viewer in a very non-deliberate manner. The viewer comes out neither elated nor sad after the movie, but entertained and introspective.

Metaphorically, Ayalum takes the viewer from outside to inside. In the beginning of the movie the viewer is kept outside the half-closed door of a surgeon’s consulting room. At the end the viewer knows what happened within the room. In the two hours between this early and late shots, the viewer enters into the doings and undoings of the medical profession through the lives of doctors Ravi Tharakan and Samuel. The viewer comes in.

Ayalum is a simple story; nothing that you or I are not aware of. The beauty is in how director Lal Jose tells the story along with the scriptwriter, cinematographer and the editor to ensure that the movie does not lose steam in the process of the viewer coming into the surgeon’s consulting room.

Friday, 26 October 2012

North-South divide blurs at Hyderabad

Some of the world’s poorest communities live in areas richest in biological diversity and the richest live in areas poorest in diversity of life. Obviously, the frugality of these poor communities has helped the rich reach where they have ... MORE ...

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Biodiversity needs action on money front

Even before the Eleventh Conference of Parties (CoP-11) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was inaugurated at Hyderabad, the battlelines were drawn in the two pre-inaugural press meetings ... MORE ...

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Biriyani and suleimani

Anwar Rasheed’s Ustad Hotel has a unique theme. It explores the relationship between a grandfather and grandson, set within the canvas of a throbbingly popular restaurant serving biriyani and other Malayali Muslim dishes on the Kozhikode beach.  

It is a movie made for two actors – Thilakan as Uppoopa (grandfather) and Dulquar Salman as Faizie. Both give their best. Equally talented Siddique, Mamukoya, Vijayaraghavan, among others, support them.

Ustad is a male-dominated movie. It starts with shots of Faizie’s father’s desire to have a son. In the process his wife delivers four daughters and then Faizie, and dies in the fatigue of repeated childbirth. 

The only female character worth mentioning is Shahana, Faizie’s love interest. Nithya Menon as Shahana is beautiful. There is one sequence where her delightfully innocent thrill lights the screen when she prods Faizie to hitch a ride in a truck at night and then they run away from the wandering hand of the truck driver. But beyond this sequence she does not have much screen presence in the movie. Since she does not get the individual attention that is required, her talent is not drawn out. 

The motif is of Kozhikode’s biriyani and the milk-less Suleimani tea. Into these Uppoopa adds all the regular ingredients plus mohabbat (love). However, when director Anwar Rasheed cooks his biriyani in Ustad Hotel he does not get it right. Many of Rasheed’s ingredients have gone haywire. He has cooked the biriyani far too longer than needed.  

Multiple sub-plots unravel in Ustad. Many threads are left untied. There is a hint at tension of belief between Faizie’s grandfather and father. The grandfather is Sufi whereas the father is conservative. The grandfather is spartan by choice, father wants to earn more and more. 

Some sequences jar – a European chef who flies in to Kozhikode at the right moments; a tantrum-throwing fiancé; a young chef throwing a live chicken at the hotel’s top honcho; and obnoxious food inspectors and journalists who turn amiable within a week.

The last sub-plot is unnecessary and is disjointed to the movie. To teach Faizie the lesson that there is far more to food than its making, Uppoopa sends him to Madurai to his friend, who is modelled on the real-life hero Narayanan Krishnan, a five-star chef who turned into a social worker to give food to the old and homeless. Cooking biriyani for the chef’s team and serving special children, Faizie earns their loving gratitude. When Faizie returns Uppoopa has left for Ajmer and Faizie takes over the Ustad Hotel.

It is difficult to believe that Faizie, who after his bonding with Uppoopa (two hours of film time) still wants to return to Europe, has a change of heart after going to Madurai. The ending would have been more believable if Faizie had willingly taken over the hotel as Uppoopa walked out from the hospital into the Ajmer sunset, cloth bag on shoulder. 

It is difficult to understand why the director did not edit the movie into a terser narrative. Good movies tell the story directly and without distractions. Some of the movies that we remember over years – Oru CBI dairy kuruppu, Manichitrathathazhu and Meesha Madhavan – did not permit us to leave our seats because they said nothing more than was needed. 

Ustad Hotel is beautifully shot. The image of Uppoopa brewing sulaimani tea on a platform on the beach, while Faizie interrogates him on his romance, or the Sufi dervishes whirling near the waves, or the hotel team looking through the broken windshield of the nearly-dead delivery van, leave a strong impact. Stringing these visuals is the innovative storyline of a grandson changing his worldview after being forced by kismat (destiny) to spend time with his grandfather. 

However, what Ustad Hotel does not do is to exploit the potential of these ingredients and deliver a movie that will be remembered. That is the disappointment.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

‘Green economy' — a new environmentalism

The biggest environment meeting of the decade is around the corner. From June 20 to 22, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will be held at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil ... MORE ...

Sunday, 13 May 2012

No clear road map on emission cuts

Being against binding emission cuts is all very well, but a growth strategy based on frugal carbon use must be in place ... MORE ...

Monday, 26 March 2012

How green is the company?

The Green Company (Greenco) rating initiative of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) got rolling in early March, with the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) getting its certification ... MORE ...

Friday, 16 March 2012

Selling dreams in God's Own Country

A hoarding on a highway has to be bold, strategically located and has to have a quick-to-read message. That hoarding along the highway in Kerala had all three qualities. "Take a quick gold loan for your child's school admission," it said in bold type. At the bottom was the name of the company offering the facility.

I thought I had read wrong. I confirmed from Raji. She confirmed from me.

For us - born in the 1960s and schooled in the 1970s - the message did not gel. Access to education was every child's right and pawning the family gold was the last resort for any parent.

Neither is Kerala going through an economic depression nor is there a shortage of low-cost schools. Obviously there are parents who would stretch beyond their means to admit their child in an expensive private school. The hoarding was meant to attract them.

One evening in 1987, I had got into the cushion-less Kochi-Hyderabad compartment attached to the Chennai express and left the state to earn a living. I continue to return on holidays and to handle family emergencies. Kerala has surprised me every time I return.

Riding a bus between Thrissur and Thriprayar, I noticed posters on flex fabric in many bus stops announcing that a student from their community had reached a certain stage in a television program competition. Congratulations! TV channels are many and so are reality shows, competitive rounds, winners and advertisers.

Together they weave a dream that is Kerala. While the tourism department sells the dream of God's own country, the advertisers sell dreams to God's own children.

Kerala has three kinds of consumerism. The first is spawned by those who live in the state and have gained in affluence with the economic liberalization. The second is by those who live on remittances from abroad. And the third is by those who come to the city on holidays or pass through as tourists.

I have seen in faraway Cotonou in Benin, West Africa, Malayalis toiling to send money to their families. They choose to live a frugal life to send that extra dollar; somebody back home uses that money to buy the branded shirt.

Consumerism drives economies. But for it to be sustainable it is better if the money used for buying the goods and services is also generated from within the region. Remittance-based consumerism unfortunately plays the most significant role in Kerala.

The Malayali in Cotonou, like many of his counterparts in Dubai, Riyadh and Singapore, sends home eight out of the ten dollars he earns. The Malayali doctor in the USA spends one dollar out of his 10 during his holiday in Kumarakom and represents one out of 10 non-resident Malayalis. The doctor guides the discussions at the Parvasi Divas functions.

Kerala's consumerism is mostly disembodied. The ones spending usually do not know the tears and sweat of their fathers, brothers and children working under the desert sun to send the money home. 

Riding the Thrissur-Thriprayar bus, I noticed more than half-a-dozen young men speaking Bengali across seats. Presumably they were traveling to take up assignment in a restaurant as waiters, cooks and cleaners. An indication of microcosmic globalization - Kerala is drawing cheaper labor from other parts of the country. I wonder what happened to the Malayalis whose jobs were replaced. 

Job insecurity in Kerala is not something that my generation can understand. Getting a job in the state was next to impossible in my time. Otherwise I would not have caught the train traveling north from Thrissur station. But getting a job and losing it was improbable then. The trade unions would not have permitted that (even though their alacrity would have forced many a companies to shut shop). 

Forget not having money, even the threat of not having money can be disastrous in Kerala. You cannot keep your poverty to yourself. What do you tell your neighbors? How would you buy the gifts for weddings, childbirths, birthdays, Christmas, etc., etc.? Even if you are poor you cannot be seen to be poor.

Raji often recounts memories from her tharvad where extra rice was cooked for every meal to serve the wandering mendicant. These ancestral homes, where the joint family lived, do not exist anymore. Along with them vanished the social security for the poor and the needy, within the family and outside.

Little wonder that Kerala has the most established system of lottery ticket sales and prize draws. The population density of lottery-ticket vendors increases closer to a place of worship. 

The demands are many, and the resources not always unlimited. Even if not for the school admission, the gold loan will come in handy for buying clothes for the child participating in the reality show.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Biodiversity not adequately understood

It is the lesser known of the two framework conventions that emerged at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992; it also deals with a concept more difficult to comprehend … MORE …

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Soil organic carbon could soon be key part of climate change talks

The top metre of the world's soil contains more than three times the carbon that is stored in the atmosphere. This carbon bank holds the future to global environment sustainability and could play an increasingly significant role in future climate change discussions and carbon trading ... MORE ...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Divide and sell

One Wednesday afternoon the fixed line telephone in my Chennai home died. Suddenly. The broadband internet connected through the same cable was working.

I called the customer relations number. "This is Madhav, how can I help you sir?" asked the voice on the other end politely. The human voice came after 5 minutes of computer-talk that took me through the significance of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4. I explained the problem. I heard him typing into his computer. He gave me a request number and assured that the engineer will come on Thursday morning.

"We are collecting feedback from our customers, sir," said Madhav. "Can I take a minute?" I assured him that I will give feedback as soon as my phone is repaired.

Thursday afternoon I called again. It was Sheela at the call center. "What's the problem, sir?" I repeated the problem, I gave her my service request number. She assured somebody will come next morning. "We are collecting feedback ..." My response was the same.

Friday afternoon and Saturday morning we spoke with Raghav and Kumar. "Server linkage problem", "outage", were among the many reasons that they gave us. The problem, I felt, was affecting more than our line and the engineers at some end, somewhere, were working overtime to sort out this major issue. I felt bad for being impatient while the company's engineers were finding the solution to a larger telecom problem affecting thousands of customers.

On Saturday evening my wife Raji and I went to the relationship center. At 7.30 in the evening Lakshmi was visibly harassed. She must have been answering many like me. She took down my complaint again. I said that our complaint has been recorded innumerable times before; our phone is still dead. She said, "now that you have come to us we will send an engineer tomorrow." To pacify us she asked us to use the house phone and call somebody, somewhere. Raji went to the phone booth and I could hear her having a not-so-pleasant conversation with somebody at the other end.

Flash back to 1986. The television boom after the 1982 Asian Games had reached Thrissur in Kerala and my father, after much market research, bought a television from Mr Thomas's shop. To catch the airwaves it was necessary to hoist the ladder-like antenna from a 40-foot iron pipe harnessed to the wooden rafters of our house with tiled roof. Though secured with stay wires to all the coconut palms in the vicinity, the slightest breeze would shift the antenna's alignment and the spots that appeared on our TV screen would grow to become ever-bouncing tennis balls and obscure Neethi Ravindran's face and voice.

This was not all. Unlike the robust units of today, the television sets of the mid-1980s were temperamental and had frequent breakdowns. Suffice to say, my father made innumerable phone calls and Thomas made as many visits to our house on his Vijay Super scooter to repair the delicate contraption.

Though the transaction ended when my father carried out the television from Thomas's shop the relationship had only begun. And in the then small town of Thrissur, Thomas did not want to annoy an existing customer and put off future customers (asking the opinion of friends and neighbors was part of the pre-purchase ritual those days). The transaction had a name, face and person associated with it.

I don't remember to whom I spoke when I ordered my fixed line and broadband connection in my Chennai home 30 months ago. Neither do I remember who came to install the connection. My link with them was severed as soon as the transaction was completed.

Perhaps the two of them representing the same brand may not know each other and may be working for two companies that have contracted from the main company - one company marketing the product and the other installing and servicing it.

The call center which took my complaint calls (located in Bengaluru to service the requests from all over the country) would possibly be owned by an entirely different contractor company, with no power over the doings or undoings of the sales or servicing companies.

Poor Madhav, Sheela, Raghav and Kumar at the call center or Lakshmi at the relationship center, who are at the receiving end of the customers' ire may have no way of coaxing, cajoling or threatening the engineers employed by the servicing contractor company to visit my apartment to rectify my problem. Their domain is as large as the computer screen in front of them - typing messages such as "customer called again, wants the fault to be repaired by this evening." This is as unfair to them as it is to me, the customer.

Epilogue: On Sunday forenoon the engineer came to our house, checked the telephone, went down to the main junction box for our apartments, fixed the line that had jumped off the point and presto our phone was working. His investment: 10 minutes of his time. Our cost: 100 hours of down time, more than a dozen phone calls navigating through a maze of recorded instructions, a trip to the relationship center costing three hours and fuel, and increased adrenalin flow.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Colonial cousins

In August 1999, I attended a workshop for environmental journalists at FOJO, the journalism school of Kalmar University in Sweden. There were 20 of us, mid-career practicing environmental journalists from developing countries across the world. We talked much about how it is to be an environmental journalist in our countries.

What struck us more than environmental discussions was the fact that all of our countries had gone through a colonial past. It showed me, graphically, how a handful of West European countries had controlled the lives and destinies of almost the entire world.

“Colonialism” is a rather academic word for Indians of our generation. Maybe for our parents it would have been a palpable, tangible concept. But for us it was in textbooks. I remember it being repeated in the rallies of the Students' Federation of India at my college in Thrissur. You would know how "seriously" colonialism was referred to if I told you that we even had a strike, then, in Sree Kerala Varma College, Thrissur, to demand that the South African Government release Nelson Mandela from prison.

I felt colonialism in my bones when I lived in West Africa. Like how “Gulf” money hangs in Kerala, colonialism hangs over the air of many of these countries.

West Africa is predominantly Francophone – Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Chad and Senegal. The Anglophone countries (those that were former British colonies) are like islands in a sea of French-speaking world – Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the tongue-shaped The Gambia. The two former Portuguese enclaves are Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde.

A lazy afternoon at a roadside eatery in Kpalime, Togo.
Almost all the countries in the region got their independence between 1955 and 1960. Ghana was among the earliest – in 1957. Benin, Nigeria and many other countries celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2010.

Half a century is a long time for any nation-state to take charge of its own destiny. Driving through Ghana, and through the streets of Accra, one can see a country that has taken stock of its own needs. Ghana is far more self-reliant in agricultural and industrial production than its neighbors. The markets sell domestically-produced products at competitive rates. Arterial roads are world-class. As the national football team climbed through the ranks in the 2010 World Cup matches, proud Ghanaians drove their cars with flags fluttering. When Asamoah Gyan stood to take the penalty against Uruguay, an emergent nation cheered and prayed silently.

When I landed at the Abidjan airport in Ghana’s western neighbor Côte d’Ivoire in early 2010, I saw French soldiers guarding the hangar.  The French are still involved in the politics and economy of Togo, Niger, Benin and most of the other Francophone countries.

The British left when they left; the French stayed back. And that essentially marks the difference between the Anglophone and Francophone countries of West Africa.

Ghana has its own currency – the cedi. You needed a few thousand cedis to buy a US dollar. When this value touched 10,000 in 2007, Ghana issued the Ghanaian new cedi, which was US$ 1 to cedi 1. Currently the value of the new cedi has fallen to around 1:1.62. At this realistic exchange rate, which reflects the size of the Ghanaian economy vis-à-vis the US economy, the country is regulating its imports, exports and domestic production.

With the exception of Guinea, all Francophone countries use the Communauté Financière d’Afrique (CFA) Franc as the common currency. Since this currency has the support of the French treasury, each of these countries have to deposit 80% of their foreign currency with the French treasury. In other words, sovereign governments have control over only 20% of their forex earnings. The return – French backing ensures convertibility across the globe and stability that a common currency can give in comparison to the volatility that multiple national currencies could have created in the region.

The flip side is rather severe. The CFA is locked to the Euro at a fixed conversion rate of CFA 655.96 to a Euro. This means that it can swing anywhere between 450 and 520 to a US dollar, depending on the greenback’s health vis-à-vis the Euro.

Let’s put this graphically. US$1 = 1.62 new Ghanaian cedis = 16,200 cedis. Benin, whose economy is a fragment of the Ghanaian economy, the rate is US$1 = CFA 497. You get my point?

No wonder that my Indian friends in Cotonou are predominantly importers – bringing in rice, oil, commodities and FMCG products. They do export cashew nuts in which Benin has quality advantage. But predominantly the Francophone countries are importers with absolutely no competitive advantage with exports, given the artificially overvalued CFA.

During the period we were in Benin, Raji and I have a standard repartee. “Is product X available in Cotonou?” one of us asks. “If it is available in France it will be available here,” comes the reply.
What did this mean to us? Blowing up US$ 100 while shopping is as easy as snapping one’s fingers. The smallest currency note is CFA 1,000, the equivalent of Rs 100 but in real terms worth Rs 10. When I got air filled into the tyres of my car I paid CFA 500, the equivalent of Rs 50. I earned in dollars, lived in a good part of the city. Half of Benin lives on less than two dollars a day.

If only Sahir Ludhianvi’s words could be translated to French, Fon, Adja and many other West African languages – “Wo subaha kabhi to aayegi.”