Friday, 30 November 2012

The ones who pay for cheap t-shirts; or How Bangladesh's textile barons undercut their rivals

Bangladesh has about 4,000 garment factories and earns about £12.5bn a year from clothes exports, mainly to the US and Europe.

A week after Bangladesh's worst garment factory fire left at least 112 people dead, Western consumers are being asked to weigh what the true cost of a T-shirt is. Campaigners say that Bangladesh, the world's second-largest producer of clothes, has secured this position only by offering workers the lowest wages in the world and having some of the worst safety regulations in the industry. Before last week's disaster, more than 500 garment workers had died in fires and accidents since 2006, campaigners say.

"We think that the West can do more to help the workers of Bangladesh and improve the working conditions," said Kalpona Akter, a labour rights activist with the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Centre. Since last Friday's blaze at the Tazreen Fashion factory, which took 13 hours to control, a picture has emerged of an establishment where safety took a back seat, and where equipment such as fire extinguishers did not work and had apparently been put in place simply to satisfy visiting inspectors. Local media reports said the exit doors were locked.

The factory is located on the outskirts of Bangladesh's crowded and chaotic capital and is owned by the Tuba group of garment companies. Workers said the ground floor was frequently littered with cotton and other industrial supplies, making it difficult to move around the factory floor. Parveen Akter, the husband of a sewing operator, visited the factory a few weeks ago and found the ground floor hopelessly cluttered. Another employee, Amina, 30, who also jumped from the second floor and who suffered serious head injuries, said: "The ground floor was sometimes clear, but at other times full of material."

One worker said an emergency drill had taken place the day before the fire. "It took 10 minutes for me to get out," said Shohana Begum, 22, who the next day had to jump for her life from a window, with other employees. Online records revealed this week that the Tazreen factory had been given a "high risk" safety rating after an inspection in May 2011 and a "medium risk" rating in August 2011. Wal-Mart said it stopped working with the factory last year, apparently over safety concerns.

Yet many Western companies – including the Scottish-based Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Disney, Sears, the clothing line of the singer Sean Combs, Carrefour, Ikea and C&A – had contracts with the factory.. 

Read more:

Israel to build new Jewish settlement homes after UN Palestine vote

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has ordered the construction of thousands of new homes in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories in what will be widely interpreted as retaliation for theUnited Nations vote to recognise a Palestinian state on Thursday. Israeli officials said the construction would expand existing West Bank settlements and build more homes for Jews in occupied east Jerusalem, where the government is attempting to diminish the proportion of Arab residents. Netanyahu also ordered the speeding up of planning to link Jerusalem with a Jewish settlement, Ma'aleh Adumim, in a move that would cut deep into a future Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. The US and Europe have long asked the Israeli government not to build there.
Palestinian Loss Of Land 1946-2000
The announcement is a reflection of Israel's anger at the vote, and the Palestinian leadership at pushing for it. The Israeli move drew strong criticism from Europe. "If Israel confirms these decisions officially, then it is an exercise in the most cynical, self-obsessed and self destructive policy-making imaginable," said one European diplomat. He also condemned the timing, just as the Jewish sabbath began and the government shut down so that it could not be reached, as "a breathtakingly brazen attempt to dodge the bullet of international condemnation … All in all, outrageous," he said. Israel condemned the UN's recognition of a Palestinian state as damaging to peace while also, more privately, expressing concern about how many European countries backed the move.
Palestinian officials were mixed in their reactions, saying that if UN recognition is not used to renew the dormant peace process it will lead to more violence. Hamas described the vote in New York as a victory for armed resistance. The Israeli government worked hard to portray the UN decision to recognise a Palestinian state as undermining peace. The prime minister's spokesman, Mark Regev, described the move as "negative political theatre because it takes us out of a negotiating process". Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, told the BBC that the Palestinian move was a "massive violation" of the Oslo peace accords.
He said that if the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, attempted to use the new status to declare an independent state then Israel would have to act and may go so far as "annexing territory"... Read more:

The term 'nakba' banned from Arab children's textbooks in Israel

The Deir Yassin massacre of 1948

Expropriation of Palestinian lands deep in the West Bank for use in Israel's "Separation Barrier," also called The Security Wall, has emphasized Israel's transgressions on Palestinian life and property

Indian Journalist Arrested After Covering Vigilante Attack

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins partners and affiliates in India in condemning the arrest of Naveen Soorinje, a journalist with the Kasturi TV news channel in Mangalore city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Soorinje is accused of being involved in an attack on a group of teenagers by a right-wing political group on July 28. The attack was one of a recurring series carried out by a group that has earned notoriety for its moral vigilantism.
Reports received by the IFJ indicate that Soorinje was arrested late in the night on November 7, when he was returning from a reporting assignment for his Kannada-language news channel. He has been charged under provisions of the law dealing with rioting, unlawful assembly, criminal trespass and intent to inflict violence on women. According to inquiries made by local journalists, Soorinje’s telephone records from July 28 indicate clearly that he was tipped off about the attack that day by somebody in the vicinity. He arrived at the scene of the attack, with a news crew to cover the incident a short time later.
Soorinje’s report, broadcast on Kasturi TV, created widespread outrage over the attack on the group of teenagers who had gathered to celebrate a birthday. The footage that accompanied the report was of assistance to the police in arresting those responsible. Journalists’ unions in Mangalore and the neighbouring district of Udupi have condemned Soorinje’s arrest as a direct assault on press freedom. In a memorandum submitted to local police authorities, the Udupi District Union of Working Journalists has pointed out that the incident had led to an intense debate within the profession about the manner in which a reporter should go about his job when he is aware of an illegal act being committed.
Questions have been raised about the duty of the reporter in a situation when he or she is witness to an illegal action: whether it is to first inform the authorities of the illegality or to document it. The district union has pointed out that neither was there evidence of wrongdoing on Soorinje’s part nor of any prior knowledge of the intent to carry out the attack. His reporting, on the contrary, was of direct utility to the officers of the law in bringing the culprits to account.
The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), a member unit of Indian Journalists’ Union, an IFJ-affiliate, has condemned the arrest and demanded Soorinje’s immediate release. The DUJ has called on the Press Council of India to use its authority to reprimand the police authorities in Mangalore district for what seems to be an act of vendetta. The IFJ Asia-Pacific joins these demands and calls for recognising the valuable public purpose that Soorinje’s work has served.
“We appreciate the debate that the incident has triggered among journalists about the proper and ethical response to such situations. We call on the police authorities to allow room for this debate to develop and not preempt a reasonable conclusion through harsh and vengeful actions”.
The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries
Find the IFJ on Twitter: @ifjasiapacific

Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? A beautiful article..

In recent decades, the immortal jellyfish has rapidly spread throughout the world’s oceans in what a biology professor at Notre Dame, calls “a silent invasion.” The jellyfish has been “hitchhiking” on cargo ships that use seawater for ballast. Turritopsis has now been observed not only in the Mediterranean but also off the coasts of Panama, Spain, Florida and Japan. The jellyfish seems able to proliferate in every ocean in the world. It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting...

After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again...”

Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.
Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.
Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die.
One of the paper’s authors, Ferdinando Boero, likened the Turritopsis to a butterfly that, instead of dying, turns back into a caterpillar. Another metaphor is a chicken that transforms into an egg, which gives birth to another chicken. The anthropomorphic analogy is that of an old man who grows younger and younger until he is again a fetus. For this reason Turritopsis dohrnii is often referred to as the Benjamin Button jellyfish.
Yet the publication of “Reversing the Life Cycle” barely registered outside the academic world...
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A Chinese village on the edge of time

China, Guizhou, Dong, Dimen

Untouched by modernisation, the rural Chinese village of Dimen has managed to preserve many of its thousand-year-old traditions. Situated in southwest China’s Guizhou province, Dimen is home to five clans and more than 500 households of the Dong minority, but their distinctive culture is being threatened as an increasing number of young people are leaving the community and moving into urban areas for work. The Facing the Sun bridge (pictured), one of five such structures in Dimen, is known as a flower bridge for its pleasing design. It offers shelter from the rain and seats for contemplating the scenery..

Giving new life to vultures to restore a human death ritual

Fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai's skies, the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses. Construction is scheduled to begin as soon as April, said Dinshaw Rus Mehta, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. If all goes as planned, he said, vultures may again consume the Parsi dead by January 2014. "Without the vultures, more and more Parsis are choosing to be cremated," Mehta said. "I have to bring back the vultures so the system is working again, especially during the monsoon."

The plan is the result of six years of negotiations between Parsi leaders and the Indian government to revive a centuries-old practice that seeks to protect the ancient elements - air, earth, fire and water - from being polluted by either burial or cremation. And along the way, both sides hope the effort will contribute to the revival of two species of vulture that are nearing extinction. The government would provide the initial population of birds.

The cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures is estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years, much less expensive than it would have been without the ready supply of food. "Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that's free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies - on us," Mehta said. Like the vultures on which they once relied, Parsis are disappearing. Their religion, Zoroastrianism, once dominated Iran but was largely displaced by Islam. In the 10th century, a large group of Zoroastrians fled persecution in Iran and settled in India. Fewer than 70,000 remain, most of them concentrated in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, where they collectively own prime real estate that was purchased centuries ago.

Among the most valuable of these holdings are 54 acres of trees and winding pathways on Malabar Hill, one of Mumbai's most exclusive neighbourhoods. Tucked into these acres are three Towers of Silence where Parsis have for centuries disposed of their dead. The stone towers are open-air auditoriums containing three concentric rings of marble slabs - an outer ring for dead men, middle ring for deceased women and inner ring for dead children. For centuries, bodies left on the slabs were consumed within hours by neighbourhood vultures, with the bones left in a central catchment to leach into the soil.

Modernity has impinged on this ancient practice in many ways. That includes the construction of nearby skyscrapers where non-Parsis could watch the grisly scenes unfold. But by far the greatest threat has been the ecological disaster visited in recent years on vultures.

India once had as many as 400 million vultures, a vast population that thrived because the nation has one of the largest livestock populations in the world but forbids cattle slaughter. When cows died, they were immediately set upon by flocks of vultures that left behind skin for leather merchants and bones for bone collectors. As recently as the 1980s, even the smallest villages often had thousands of vulture residents.

But then came diclofenac, a common painkiller widely used in hospitals to lessen the pain of the dying. Marketed under names like Voltaren, it is similar to the medicines found in Advil and Aleve; in 1993 its use in India was approved in cattle. Soon after, vultures began dying in huge numbers because the drug causes them to suffer irreversible kidney failure... 

Another concern is whether Parsis can be persuaded to stop using diclofenac. Nearly all of the roughly 800 bodies brought annually to the towers come from two Parsi hospitals, and doctors and family would have to certify that the deceased had not been given diclofenac in the three days before death. There is no simple test to detect the drug, and if vultures in the aviaries die from diclofenac poisoning after eating Parsi corpses the government has promised to end the effort...

Read more:

From the comments thread: When there are so many human vultures the real ones might have gone away due to competition from them. And God only knows whether the vultures are inhabitants of Maharashtra or from outside. If they are from outside Maharashtra like Bihar or UP then their fear is well founded.

Book review: Stalin's Student in Beijing by Frank Dikötter

Mao: The Real Story, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine

Alexander Pantsov, a Russian-born professor of history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the few to have gained exclusive access to the personal dossiers on Mao Zedong and other top members of the Chinese Communist Party. He teamed up with Steven Levine, a respected historian of modern China, to distill this new material in Mao: The Real Story. 

Along Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, about half a mile north of Red Square in Moscow, an austere, cavernous building houses the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History. The premises were originally occupied by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. In the 1930s it was renamed the Institute of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, but—following Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech, which acknowledged some of the dictator's crimes—Stalin's name was dropped. Above the entrance, portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin cast in concrete peer into the distance. Inside the building, an air of abandon prevails. When I was there two years ago, several discarded statues of Lenin were gathering dust underneath the staircase. But even though much is still locked away from the prying eyes of historians, in the archives on the third floor a wealth of information on the Soviet Union and its global empire can be found.
Alexander Pantsov, a Russian-born professor of history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the few to have gained exclusive access to the personal dossiers on Mao Zedong and other top members of the Chinese Communist Party. He teamed up with Steven Levine, a respected historian of modern China, to distill this new material in Mao: The Real Story. An earlier version appeared in Russian some five years ago, but this edition is much more ambitious in scope and content.
The first third of their book follows a rather conventional path, piecing together a history of Mao’s early years from standard secondary sources. The authors claim that they tried to present their narrative "unmarred by political considerations," but they are decidedly sympathetic to their subject—and to the early years of communism in China. They seem in no doubt that revolution was a necessary step in republican China, an extraordinarily thriving era they dismissively characterize as "semi-colonial." Their writing is lively, following the tribulations of Mao's career and his relationships with his wives and children with an eye for the telling detail. Yet somehow, despite their attempts to depict his youthful pride and stubborn obstinacy, Mao the person remains strangely abstract.
The heart of this book is Mao's relationship with Stalin. Here the authors break new ground. The files from the archives amply demonstrate that Mao was a faithful follower of his master in Moscow. He had a good reason: From the start, the Chinese Communist Party was dependent on the Soviets' financial help and political guidance. Stalin personally assisted Mao's rise to power. The relationship between the two was often tumultuous, but once the red flag fluttered over Beijing in 1949, Mao wasted no time in imposing a harsh communist order modeled on the USSR. As the authors point out, "he looked upon Stalin as his teacher and the Soviet Union, which inspired fear throughout the world, as a model to imitate." Mao was a Stalinist attracted to the elimination of private property, all-pervasive controls on the lives of ordinary people, an unlimited cult of the leader, and huge expenditures on the military. Ironically, it was Stalin who constrained the Stalinisation of China by forcing Mao to slow down the pace of collectivisation, fearful as he was of the emergence of a powerful neighbour who might threaten his dominance.
So committed to Stalinism was Mao that he never forgave Khrushchev for his Secret Speech. His dislike of what the Chairman called "revisionism"—that is, de-Stalinisation and a less belligerent attitude toward noncommunist countries—eventually culminated in the Sino-Soviet split, and tensions between both countries became so bad in the late 1960s that Moscow even contemplated an atomic attack against its rival's industrial centres. Yet Stalin’s memory survived unstained. While the Soviets took down their portraits and statues of Stalin, in China he remained officially in favor for decades after his death in 1953. Until a few years ago the tyrant's face could still be seen on the walls of bookshops and classrooms, painted in warm tones. He is revered in China to this day, his reputation defended by an army of fierce censors... Read more:

see also

Supreme Court asks Maharashtra to explain Facebook arrests

The Supreme Court has asked the Maharashtra government to explain why two young women there were arrested for their posts on Facebook last week. The arrests were made under a contentious internet law whose vague wording makes it easy to misuse -  it allows for up to three years in jail for "annoying" and  "offensive" messages sent electronically.  

The law - Section 66 (A) of the IT Act - has been challenged by a law student named Shreya Singhal in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and violates freedom of speech.  Attorney General GE Vahanvati told the judges today that the law is "well-intended."  They disagreed.  "No, the wording is not well-intended. It can be abused," said Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir, who yesterday shared fierce criticism of "the Facebook arrests." Outside court, Ms Singhal said today, "You don't get arrested if you air your views on TV or write in newspapers. Why should it be any different if you post your views on the Net? I do not want to be live in fear of being punished for expressing my views on a public forum as a citizen of a democratic nation...I am not doing this for me, I am doing this for the citizens of this country."

Earlier this month, Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan had on Facebook questioned the shutdown of Mumbai for the funeral of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. The women were released on bail after a few hours; they had been charged with spreading hatred under the contentious section 66(A) of the IT Act; the case against them was dropped yesterday.
In April, a professor in West Bengal, Ambikesh Mahapatra, was arrested for posting a cartoon on social networks of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister. 

The Supreme Court has today issued notice to the West Bengal government too, making it a party in the case. It also issued notices to the governments of Puducherry and Delhi for similar incidents and has sought all responses within four weeks. The massive public backlash against the arrests in Maharashtra has forced a new scrutiny of internet laws. Yesterday, the government said it has issued new guidelines to control the misuse of Section 66(A), which is widely criticised for its vague wording.  A senior police officer has to sanction any action taken citing this law.

So far, a junior officer in charge of a police station has been able to register cases for alleged violations of the law. Critics point out that this new policy is a suggestion and not binding upon state governments.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Giant black hole in tiny galaxy confounds astronomers

Astronomers have spotted an enormous black hole - the second most massive ever - but it resides in a tiny galaxy.  The galaxy NGC 1277, just a quarter the size of our own Milky Way, hosts a black hole 4,000 times larger than the one at the Milky Way's centre. A report in Nature shows it has a mass some 17 billion times that of our Sun.

The surprise finding is hard to reconcile with existing models of black hole growth, which hold that they evolve in tandem with host galaxies. Getting to grips with just how large black holes are is a tricky business - after all, since they swallow light in their vicinities, they cannot be seen.nstead, astronomers measure the black holes' "sphere of influence" - the gravitational effects they have on surrounding gas and stars.

In the Milky Way, it is possible to observe individual stars as they orbit Sagittarius A, our own local black hole, to guess its mass. But for the 100 or so far more distant black holes whose masses have been estimated, astronomers have made average measurements of associated stars' speeds - their "velocity dispersion".

On a hunt for the Universe's largest black holes, astronomers using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in the US state of Texas undertook a survey that brought in a haul of nearly 900 host galaxies. But Remco van den Bosch, then at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues were surprised to find that some of the largest black holes were to be found in small galaxies. Among them was NGC 1277, 220 million light years away in the constellation Perseus, which happens to appear also in a high-resolution Hubble Space Telescope image, helping the researchers to refine their computer models.

"We make a model of the galaxy and compute all the possible stellar orbits," Dr Van den Bosch, who is now at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, explained to BBC News... Read more:

Monday, 26 November 2012

Peru Bans Monsanto and the rest..

Peru has officially passed a law banning genetically modified ingredients anywhere within the country for the next ten years

In a massive blow to multinational agribiz corporations such as Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow, Peru has officially passed a law banning genetically modified ingredients anywhere within the country for a full decade before coming up for another review. Peru’s Plenary Session of the Congress made the decision 3 years after the decree was written despite previous governmental pushes for GM legalization due largely to the pressure from farmers that together form the Parque de la Papa in Cusco, a farming community of 6,000 people that represent six communities.

They worry the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will compromise the native species of Peru, such as the giant white corn, purple corn and, of course, the famous species of Peruvian potatoes. Anibal Huerta, President of Peru’s Agrarian Commission, said the ban was needed to prevent the ”danger that can arise from the use of biotechnology.” While the ban will curb the planting and importation of GMOs in the country, a test conducted by the Peruvian Association of Consumers and Users (ASPEC) at the time of the ban’s implementation found that 77 percent of supermarket products tested contained GM contaminants.

”Research by ASPEC confirms something that Peruvians knew all along: GM foods are on the shelves of our markets and wineries, and consumers buy them and take them into their homes to eat without knowing it. Nobody tells us, no one says anything, which involves a clear violation of our right to information,” Cáceres told Gestión. GMOs are so prevalent in the Americas that it is virtually impossible to truly and completely block them, whether through pollination or being sneaked in as processed foods.

“There is an increasing consensus among consumers that they want safe, local, organic fresh food and that they want the environment and wildlife to be protected,” wrote Walter Pengue from the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, in a recent statement concerning GMOs in South America. “South American countries must proceed with a broader evaluation of their original agricultural policies and practices using the precautionary principle.” 


Naga IAS officer builds 100-km road in Manipur without govt help

IMPHAL: Villagers of Manipur's Tousem sub-division in Tamenglong district are a busy lot these days. At least 150 of them on a daily basis are clearing away a thicket with their machetes and daos. Some are lugging away heavy branches of recently felled trees; and others are operating bulldozers and earthmovers to give themselves the "best Christmas gift ever".

Theirs is one of the remotest corners in the country, where the India shining story has not yet reached; but the villagers are part of modern India's most ambitious road project embarked upon by one man, a young Naga IAS officer, without any funding from the government.

A 2005 graduate from St Stephen's College in Delhi, Armstrong Pame is the sub-divisional magistrate of Tamenglong, his home district, and the first IAS officer from the Zeme tribe. He has, of his own volition, begun the construction of a 100-km road that would link Manipur with Nagaland and Assam. Incidentally, the Centre had sanctioned Rs 101 crore in 1982 for the construction of this road, but for some unknown reason the project never took off. "Last December, then Union home minister P Chidambaram visited Manipur and asked what happened to the road.

The state government declared that it would be 'done soon', but nothing moved on the ground. Then in June-July this year, there was an outbreak of tropical diseases like typhoid and malaria. It takes two days for anyone in the village to make it to the nearest hospital on foot in the absence of a motorable road. Hundreds of patients had to be carried on makeshift bamboo stretchers, but very few made it to the town alive. Also, town doctors were unwilling to come to the village because of its inaccessible terrain," Pame told TOI over phone from Tamenglong.

Perplexed and frustrated with the situation, the officer decided to reach out to doctors in his friend circle. A woman friend agreed, and Pame promised to sponsor her stay. "She treated over 500 patients and conducted quite a few minor surgeries. Many lives were saved in this way; but I realized how perilously poised the situation was in the absence of a road. That was the catalyst," Pame said.  To construct an all-weather, motorable road in an area untouched by the progress made by Independent India in the last six decades was an uphill task. And with no help coming from the government, Pame turned to his family and well-wishers... Read more:

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Global economic woes prompt soul-searching on capitalism

Hope springs eternal: China's manufacturing sector has perked up a bit; there are encouraging noises coming out of Washington about avoiding the fiscal cliff; the euro is still in one piece – could it be that recovery is coming at last? After all the false dawns, this could be the point at which capitalism shows its resilience and regenerative powers. Since the birth of the modern industrial age more than 250 years ago, there have been only brief deviations in the upward trend of production. The Great Depression looks like a mere blip on the upward sloping graph of UK or US GDP.
Even so, the depth and length of the crisis has led to a degree of soul searching. While policymakers insist publicly that vigorous recovery will eventually arrive, there is private concern that deep structural problems are blunting the effectiveness of a stimulus unprecedented in its scale, scope and duration. These concerns are well founded. To understand why, it is necessary to look at the basic ingredients that historically have made capitalism tick in all its many guises, be it America's free-market approach, Sweden's welfarist model, or China's state-run variant.
The first requirement is stability, without which entrepreneurs will not take risks. In the early stages of development, this means adherence to the rule of law and a system of property rights that guard against expropriation. As economies grow more sophisticated, it comes to mean additionally a degree of economic and financial stability. Those taking long-term investment decisions need to feel confident that there will be a steady stream of returns and that the banking system is robust and well-managed.
The second prerequisite is legitimacy, which is not the same as fairness or equality. Capitalism is neither fair nor equal, and never will be, but large quantities of fairness have been injected to ensure it has retained political legitimacy.
Quite early on, in the first half of the 19th century, it became clear to the more far-sighted capitalists that a method had to be found of ensuring that a rising tide lifted all boats. The observations of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the immiseration of working people in Britain's industrial revolution were accurate but, even then, steps were being taken to improve living standards.
Some of these were self-help measures by workers (trade unions, friendly societies); others were the result of pressure from social reformers and politicians (better sanitation, expansion of education). Later, starting with Bismarck in Germany, there was the development of a system of old-age pensions, stage one in the creation of welfare states. By the middle of the 20th century, an array of checks and balances were in place to ensure the fruits of growth were shared – from progressive taxation to the US's 1944 GI bill, paying extra benefits to more than 2 million returning soldiers.
Sustainability is the third ingredient needed for capitalism to work.. Read more:

Growing food in the desert: is this the solution to the world's food crisis?

The scrubby desert outside Port Augusta, three hours from Adelaide, is not the kind of countryside you see in Australian tourist brochures. The backdrop to an area of coal-fired power stations, lead smelting and mining, the coastal landscape is spiked with saltbush that can live on a trickle of brackish seawater seeping up through the arid soil. Poisonous king brown snakes, redback spiders, the odd kangaroo and emu are seen occasionally, flies constantly. When the local landowners who graze a few sheep here get a chance to sell some of this crummy real estate they jump at it, even for bottom dollar, because the only real natural resource in these parts is sunshine.
Philipp Saumweber CEO of Sundrop “perfect” produce
Which makes it all the more remarkable that a group of young brains from Europe, Asia and north America, led by a 33-year-old German former Goldman Sachs banker but inspired by a London theatre lighting engineer of 62, have bought a sizeable lump of this unpromising outback territory and built on it an experimental greenhouse which holds the seemingly realistic promise of solving the world's food problems.
Indeed, the work that Sundrop Farms, as they call themselves, are doing in South Australia, and just starting up in Qatar, is beyond the experimental stage. They appear to have pulled off the ultimate something-from-nothing agricultural feat – using the sun to desalinate seawater for irrigation and to heat and cool greenhouses as required, and thence cheaply grow high-quality, pesticide-free vegetables year-round in commercial quantities.
So far, the company has grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers by the tonne, but the same, proven technology is now almost ready to be extended to magic out, as if from thin air, unlimited quantities of many more crops – and even protein foods such as fish and chicken – but still using no fresh water and close to zero fossil fuels. Salty seawater, it hardly needs explaining, is free in every way and abundant – rather too abundant these days, as our ice caps melt away... Read more:

Also see: Seawater Greenhouse

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Vidyadhar Date: Bal Thackeray, The Capitalists And The Working Poor

Bal Thackeray was essentially a man the capitalists liked and they were very comfortable with him. That is why he was always boosted by much of the media as a larger than life figure and after his death there is more gushing praise of the man. `The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with the bones,’ said Mark Antony in his famous funeral speech in Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar. Mr Thackeray has no such problems and this is not to suggest that he did evil. In his case there is no shortage of people going out of the way to write in support of him. Mr Thackeray’s father Prabodhankar Thackeray was an avid Shakespeare fan, he spent so much from his scarce resources on books that this alarmed his mother and he devoted a lot of time researching in libraries. Mr Thackeray was so unlike his father in many many ways. Prabodhankar was a rationalist, activist, supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Ambedkar and social reformer Jotirao Phule, he wrote several books. But how many remember him today ? Mr Bal Thackeray had little use for serious books.

Liberals have often criticized Mr Thackeray for his communalism, hate speech and chauvinism and rightly too. But during his time and after there is little recognition of the fact that he was very friendly with capitalists. The system everywhere has always needed an army of people to deal with others, especially dissenters. The Shiv Sena was seen as a solid ally. 
There is justifiable and widespread anger over the arrest of two girls for their post on Facebook in the wake of Mr Thackeray’s death. But then killing someone with whom one does not agree is far more heinous. That is exactly what the Shiv Sena did and that is how it launched its foray into politics.The politics of terrorism of the Shiv Sena began in 1970 with the stabbing to death of Mr Krishna Desai, the Communist MLA, in 1970. That was the defining act of the Shiv Sena. It showed where it stood. It was a measured and well thought out attack on the Left movement which was fairly strong then. The murder aroused few protests from outside the Communist fold then .Even today few remember it today though it should serve as a warning for all times to come. Many of the political analysts writing on the Shiv Sena have often beaten about the bush, showered praises on Mr Thackeray for his ready wit and friendliness with them but most have overlooked the class affiliation of the Sena. 

When it comes to confronting the fascists and hoodlums and the wealthy and imperialists, there is noticeable timidity and inactivity on the part of intellectuals. The German activist clergy man Martin Niemoller warned against this inactivity when drawing attention to the Nazi threat in Germany through his famous lines which state that if you do not act when others are attacked, there will be no one to protect you if you are attacked. . There is conspicuous omission in the gushing obituaries of Mr Thackeray of the Shiv Sena’s role in attacking the working people’s movements . As a young journalist then I still remember veteran Bhalchandra Marathe of Free Press Journal recalling what one of the assassins of Krishna Desai talked about. He said he thrust the knife and then turned the handle because that is what really ruptures the inner parts of the body. A murder most foul. If Mr Thackeray deserves a memorial, Mr Krishna Desai deserves it even more.

Mr Thackeray’s role also has to be seen in the context of the way the cities are being reshaped the world over to serve the interests of the rich and to exclude the poor. David Harvey, one of the most eminent thinkers of urban life , economics and politics , is our best guide to understand the issues. He asserts that the ordinary people should get a right to the city, access its services, shape its development. . It should be seen as a fundamental right.In a recent book Rebel Cities he shows how cities can be a harbinger of protest and change as in the case of the Occupy Movement in the U.S.

Unfortunately, Mr Thackeray intervened little on behalf of the poor though the poor Marathi Manoos was his main plank... Read more: