Thursday, 5 December 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, 13 October 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, 5 October 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, 4 September 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, 7 August 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, 26 July 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, 23 June 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, 16 June 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, 13 May 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, 17 April 2013

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Towards climate-smart agriculture

It is possible to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture and yet ensure that farmers are better off. ... MORE ...