Public Opinion

If Snooping is Scrutiny

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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A few suggestions on how surveillance may be put to good use

The PRISM surveillance programme run by the US National Security Agency since 2007 has been collecting communications data across the world on a massive scale. We have only learnt of the extent of the programme after revelations by Edward Snowden, who is now in search of refuge from the wrath of the US.

But even as the US was taking the rather remarkable position that its citizens have some legal protection, and the rest of us across the world were fair game, India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, in the wake of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to India, chose to dismiss concerns about the programme. “This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages,” said the minister, “It is only a computer study and a computer analysis of patterns of calls.”

Khurshid elaborated, “There are issues that America is looking at. We discussed it during Kerry’s visit. Kerry and Obama have clarified, there is some information that they get out of scrutiny and they use it for terrorism [combating] purposes... It is only a computer study of patterns... It is not snooping.’’

This is a strange position for a government to take. If this is not snooping, and if Khurshid considers it justifiable, then it is possible to suggest several ways in which such metadata could be used to serve the national interest:

CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta has recently alleged that Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily has gone out of his way to benefit Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. Certainly, the decision to double natural gas prices with effect from 1 April 2014 defies logic when the Government has decided to rely on market forces to determine petroleum prices. How about releasing metadata on phone calls made by Moily and his senior bureaucrats, as well as Mukesh Ambani and his senior executives, in the month preceding the decision? If the decision is not, as alleged, a blatant instance of `crony capitalism, then this metadata should clear all doubts. After all, this is not snooping, it is scrutiny.

News reports have suggested that senior IB official Rajendra Kumar, while posted in Gujarat, may have provided tailor-made intelligence inputs to facilitate the alleged murder of Ishrat Jahan and her associates by the Gujarat Police. There are even suggestions that Narendra Modi was in the loop. What could be better than to release metadata on the call details of Rajendra Kumar, Narendra Modi and the policemen accused of the murder during that period? After all, this is not snooping, it is scrutiny.

Or, even more importantly, given the scams that have dogged this government, all Cabinet ministers should make public their call details during the time they have held their posts. Who would argue that ministers should not be subject to scrutiny, as long as it is not snooping, in the interests of the nation? Perhaps Salman Khurshid should take the initiative and make his call details over the term of the UPA-II Government public.

Unfortunately, none of this will materialise. In the name of national security, such metadata will only be used by agencies within the Government to enlarge their own roles while subject to little or no accountability on how they use it. Khurshid was defending PRISM not out of some regard for an ally, but because India is in the process of setting up a new Centralised Monitoring System (CMS) system that will outdo PRISM in its capacity to monitor data on its citizens. As The Hindu reports, ‘This means that government agencies can access in real time any mobile and fixed line phone conversation, SMS, fax, website visit, social media usage, Internet search and email, including partially written emails in draft folders, of “targeted numbers”.’

At the moment, there are no less than nine government agencies—the Intelligence Bureau, Research & Analysis Wing, Central Bureau of Investigation, Narcotics Control Bureau, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, National Intelligence Agency, Central Board for Direct Taxes, Military Intelligence of Assam and J&K and the Union Home Ministry—that are allowed to monitor private communication. They would all have access to CMS data. To this list we need to add rogue operators within the establishment. After all, India’s previous Army chief was accused of tapping phones within the Government, and the National Technical Research Organisation has actually monitored the cellphones of Digvijaya Singh and Nitish Kumar at various points of time without the requisite sanctions.

As the CMS shows, the technology to intercept and monitor phone and internet communication as well as actually intrude into an email account is expanding rapidly, but the norms that govern such violations of privacy have not evolved in India. Weak to begin with, they are almost worthless today. In a country where a morphed picture of Sonia Gandhi on a website, or an uncharitable comment on any of our leaders even on Facebook, can lead to arrests, we are nearing a nightmare where even expressing such thoughts in private, saved perhaps only in your draft folder, seen by no one, could have you picked up. In any functional democracy, such powers appropriated by a government are not about scrutiny or snooping, they are criminal.


The Prodigal Son Returns

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It’s now Advani vs Modi in Karnataka too, as a section of the BJP wants Yeddyurappa to return to the party to lead the charge in 2014, while another section opposes the move

Weeks after its humiliating defeat in the Assembly polls, a section of the Karnataka Bharatiya Janata Party is working feverishly to build bridges with former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa who left to form his own outfit following the saffron party’s refusal to condone his corruption.

The urgency to bring Yeddyurappa back on board is due to the impending General Election, now less than 10 months away. Though the BJP bravely went about proclaiming that it could face the electorate without depending on the former CM, it slipped to third place in Karnataka in the state’s recent Assembly polls. And though the Karnataka Janata Paksha founded by Yeddyurappa won only six seats, it harmed the BJP’s chances in 29 constituencies. The BJP does not want a repeat.

Another factor is that the party’s |national election campaign chairman, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, also prefers Yeddyurappa to be onboard if the party is to retain the 19 Lok Sabha seats—of the total 28—that it currently holds.

But, the chorus to bring back Yeddyurappa has not gone down well with BJP patriarch LK Advani’s camp in the state, which includes former union minister and Bangalore South MP Ananth Kumar and state BJP President Prahlad Joshi, among others. “We will lose the moral high ground that the BJP currently enjoys vis-à-vis the Congress in relation to several scams the UPA-II is facing. All this will come crashing down if Yeddyurappa, who was forced to step down following corruption charges in 2011, is accepted back,” Kumar says.

Yeddyurappa was forced to step down after an adverse report by the state Lokayukta, which looked into the mining scam and alleged that he and his family members accepted favours in exchange for granting mining licences. He also has the dubious distinction of being the first former Karnataka CM to be jailed on charges of corruption. Any effort to bring him back into the party fold while the CBI is investigating his role will be doubly embarrassing for the BJP, says a source close to Ananth Kumar.

Members of the Advani camp also fear that the Congress may use the CBI as a handle to gain advantage. And although those leaders pitching for Yeddyurappa are doing so to retain numbers, others fear the former CM’s return may erode the BJP’s credibility further.

Yeddyurappa’s return is being orchestrated by another former Karnataka CM, Jagadish Shettar, under whose leadership the party contested the May polls, and by former Deputy CM KS Eshwarappa, among others. Sadananda Gowda, another former CM who was recommended by Yeddyurappa as his successor and later fell out of favour, admits the party is divided 50-50 when it comes to re-admitting his predecessor. “Yes, I am against his return. But even if the balance becomes 51-49 in favour of Yeddyurappa, we will go for it. We have to talk to the cadre and party leaders and elicit their views clearly,’’ he says, rather diplomatically.

The state BJP brass has met several times in the last few days to discuss this issue. Senior leaders feel that Yeddyurappa will help the party consolidate votes among Lingayats of Karnataka, of which he himself is one. In the most recent Assembly polls, the Lingayat vote was distributed broadly between the BJP, KJP and Congress.

Those in favour of Yeddyurappa merging his party with the BJP say it was he who first created an opportunity for the BJP in the south when he forged an alliance with the JDS to form a coalition. When the JDS’s HD Kumaraswamy reneged on his promise to hand over the CM-ship to Yeddyurappa, polls followed and he led the party to a near-working majority—110 seats—and formed a government with the help of six independents. It was the first government ever formed by the BJP in the south. Though the party lasted a full term despite being racked by infighting and rebellions, Yeddyurappa was replaced after three years in the saddle. At one time, this Lingayat leader had even boasted: “In Karnataka, Yeddyurappa is the BJP and BJP is Yeddyurappa.”

“Modiji clearly has a soft corner for Yeddyurappa. There is a perception that unless Yeddyurappa is brought back, the BJP will find it tough to retain the Lok Sabha seats it won in 2009,’’ says a former minister who is undecided about supporting the move.

Meanwhile, new BJP Karnataka in-charge Thawar Singh Gehlot created ripples of laughter when he told newsmen in Bangalore that he wants Yeddyurappa to formally apply for party membership to be readmitted to the BJP.

Yeddyurappa himself has been enjoying the debate within the BJP. He is believed to be making backroom manoeuvres to make sure he is in a strong position when he takes that all important decision.

Another reason some BJP leaders oppose his re-entry is a fear that they will lose their leverage, as the former CM is unlikely to come back without the incentive of an important post. One such leader is concerned that Yeddyurappa will be vengeful unless he is given the post of state party president and a say in election candidate selection.

That matters are gaining momentum can be gauged from the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, too, has jumped headlong into the debate by sending informal emissaries to get an understanding of the mood on both sides.

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On the Contrary


Lessons about ourselves from the story of Narayan Pergaein

Lessons about ourselves from the story of Narayan Pergaein

arindam Wed, 2013-07-03 23:57
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The War of Words over Blood Diamonds

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As India, China and Dubai become the world’s biggest markets for these stones, African countries like Angola are resisting attempts by the West to stigmatise their products as conflict diamonds

LUANDA, ANGOLA ~ It was Angola’s centenary celebration of diamond mining at Epic Sana, the most expensive hotel in the country’s dusty capital Luanda. Guests filling the expansive banquet hall suddenly saw an old man walk through a space reserved for cameramen. He was singing a hauntingly melodious song. Wearing dark glasses and a crumpled suit, the singer was Elias Francisco, Luanda’s oldest singer (known to many as Elias Dia Kimuezo). Unmindful of the virtual stampede he had triggered among the excited cameramen, he continued his song.

Titled Nzala—Portuguese for ‘hunger’—the song was about his land of diamonds, copper and oil, all in abundance. Considered the king of Angolan music, Francisco wanted everyone to follow the seven words that formed the central theme of his song. He kept repeating them: ‘Work with me, not steal from Africa.’ For him, the continent, his home for generations, was the last best place on earth. As he finished his song, he was greeted with thunderous applause. Some rushed to put wads of Kwanza, the local currency, into his pocket. To many at the conference, it seemed Francisco had conveyed what generations of African governments could not explain to the world.

Diamonds were once an integral part of Africa’s harshest civil wars, but are now scripting the continent’s story of economic growth. At the heart of this change is demand from China, India and Dubai, the Asian troika playing a key part in African empowerment. With the world’s biggest markets, these three are now the eventual destination for most African diamonds.

It has been just over a decade since coastal Angola emerged from a bloody civil war. The country has an estimated $20 billion worth of oil reserves and sells diamonds worth $1.2 billion every year. By value, it is the world’s fifth largest diamond producer. Angola now wants to trade its minerals on its own terms, and the rest of the world is paying attention.

Helped along by investment inflows from China, India, Dubai and even Russia, Africa has steadily been changing its broad strategy to market its minerals, especially diamonds. The image of boy soldiers prodded by rebel leaders is slowly being replaced by men working in Angola’s Catoca mines—the country’s largest—on a monthly salary of $1,000 and with benefits like food at work, medical insurance and free education for children. Africa, to its people and the world, wants to be seen as part of the era’s globalisation story.

Everyone at the conference agreed. “One of the overriding consequences of the diamond sourcing process is the empowerment of African nations and African people. For them to obtain the full benefits [of] their natural resources, it is imperative that both diamonds and the diamond industry [stay clear] of any reputation threat,” said Elli Izhakoff, chairman of the Dubai-based World Diamond Council, one of the most powerful bodies of the global diamond trade.

Izhakoff was alluding to Western reports on—and allegations of—the sustained supply of blood diamonds to world markets, and how India, China and Dubai ignore what Western NGOs claim is the ‘grim reality’ of the business in African countries such as Angola. Recently, a 17-page report by the Bonn-based International Center for Conversion blamed Angola’s armed forces for dominating the diamond trade and encouraging human rights violations at mines bordering Congo. African leaders see all this as a Western conspiracy to control the business of solitaires, currently witnessing an Asian boom.

India is the world’s second largest buyer of diamonds, tied with China. The US, which accounts for 40 per cent of the world market in dollar terms, remains the biggest for now. However, with demand bustling in Asia’s big two—China’s domestic market leapt 13 per cent in 2011-12; India’s figures are unavailable but could be similar—the world’s top diamond marketer De Beers has forecast that the two will surpass the US by 2020.

African exporters see this as good news and are pleased to realign their strategy accordingly. “The growth of African nations is directly proportional to the growth of its minerals, especially diamonds. Sustained mining is the only answer to strong GDP [growth] in African countries, all of which comply with Kimberley Process regulations [a certification scheme to filter blood diamonds],” said Antonia Carlos Sambula, chairman of Luanda-based Endiama that controls the country’s Cataoca mines, the world’s fourth largest, through a joint venture with Russia and Brazil. Sambula also said the time had come to decide whether the West would like to endorse and go by negative portrayals of Africa, or accept the Kimberley Process as a valid certifier of ethically obtained diamonds from African mines. Africa, it seemed clear, was fast losing patience with Western diktats on the ethics of business practices. “If there are new markets,” said Sambula, “Africa will look at those and sell its solitaires [there].”

The chairman of Endiama also took delegates on a guided tour of the Catoca mines, walking them around for hours while expounding on what his company does for its 4,000 plus miners. “Their salaries are one of the best in the world, at $1,000 a month,” he said, “Food, housing, education and medical care are free for their families. We are [open] to inspections. Come here and see for yourself. Do not paint us black by saying our mines are controlled by child soldiers. The war is long over.”

Diamond markets in the US, Canada, Germany and the UK have shown a rapid decline in the last three years because of the West’s economic recession. In comparison, Asian markets have grown dramatically in the same period. “Africa knows what is best for Africa,” said South Africa’s Welile Nhlapo, current chairman of the Kimberley Process, “Africa produces nearly half of the world’s rough diamonds [49 per cent]. And the Kimberley Process is the final authority on diamonds. If the Kimberley Process says ‘the diamonds are clean’, then the diamonds are clean. If a country wants to dictate the diamond market, it must have the capacity to consume. No threats will work here.”

Nhlapo reminded the audience how the US had last year wanted to push through a new rule that would have sabotaged trade with India, which polishes nearly 95 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds. Under this proposed rule, any violence in diamond trading centres would automatically label the stones as ‘blood diamonds’. The move fell through after vociferous protests from India, China and other African countries.

Delegates from India at the conference agreed with their African counterparts. “If we had not protested, the US would have pushed it as a law,” said Anup Zaveri, a senior official of the Mumbai-based Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council, “We don’t have riots in Surat? And when the Kimberley Process is certifying that less than one per cent of diamonds traded in the world are blood diamonds, why would anyone be worried about the very existence of blood diamonds? Where are blood diamonds now? I think this is a figment of the West’s imagination—seeing all African mines as producers of blood diamonds.”

Traders from India, Dubai and China spoke in one voice to reject such ‘high-handedness’ by the US and other Western countries. “The West is afraid of losing [market clout] to India and China and Dubai,” said Dr Minesh Shah of AS Exports, a diamond firm based in Mumbai, “But if Asia is showing growth and Western markets are down, can anyone go against market sentiment? India and China have a huge population base that is keen to buy diamonds. Dubai is growing as one of the world’s biggest diamond hubs.”

According to Peter Meeus, an industry veteran and chairman of the Dubai Diamond Exchange, misinformation on the diamond trade was being spread by NGOs. “There was a time when we enjoyed working together as an industry with NGOs,” he said, “They were fighting for a right and just cause, especially in Africa, so they had the support of Africans and it worked.” Meeus noted that while diamonds have emerged as the world’s most controlled commodity despite less than 0.2 per cent of their supply being ‘conflict diamonds’, the industry’s relations with NGOs had fallen ‘below zero’.

“Why are they so dissatisfied with the accomplishments of the Kimberley Process and diamond industry?” Meeus asked, suggesting that these NGOs were in competition for funds to tell a story that had become greater than the cause. “I think the NGOs are fighting for their own relevance.” However, to reinforce the credentials of African diamonds, Meeus called for third-party verification by financially independent institutions that had the wherewithal to judge any abuse of ethical norms. “If there are human rights violations, they need to be judged by independent institutions that are really independent, and are respected as such and do not cook up stories for the sake of their own existence,” Meeus said. “That is what we proposed last year to the then Kimberley Process chair—a message clearly not understood. So it’s time to repeat it. Let the Kimberley Process be a certification scheme and not a human rights violation checker.”

With China set to take over the Kimberley Process chair next year, the focus of the diamond business is expected to turn even more decisively towards Asia’s boom markets. African exporters are loving every moment of it, hailing this new trade pattern as their ‘Silk Route to Freedom’.

Outside the Epic Sana hotel, Elias Francisco says he need not sing Nzala for much longer. Under the new dispensation, no one will steal minerals from his land. His next song is titled Uniao—Portuguese for togetherness. It goes with the new mood, a celebration of sorts as Africa reorients its globalisation thrust from the West to Asia.

The singer has read the headline of the day’s leading newspaper that says China Petrochemical Corp, also known as Sinopec, has agreed to a $1.52 billion deal to buy the US-based Marathon Oil Corp’s 10 per cent stake in an Angolan oil and gas field. The second headline spoke of the Russian diamond giant Al-Rosa signing a deal with Endiama for diamond exploration in Angola.

Youngsters crowd the campus of Luanda’s biggest private university, Universidade Metodista De Angola, for admission to courses as diversified as financial markets, and information and communication technology. Outside the campus, there are a handful of hawkers selling ice-cream and stick jaws. Sorry, no meat, at least not for sale on African streets. That is only in pulp fiction.


The Frogman of India

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A scientist attempts to save amphibians by getting people to join his campaign

Sometime in 2002, Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju got a call on his phone from a friend. Biju was working with Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Trivandrum. He was trying quit plant research to enter the little-frequented field of amphibian research in India. His friend told him that while digging for a well, they had chanced upon a strange creature. “It looks like a tortoise,” Biju remembers him as saying, “But I think it is a frog.”

When Biju visited the spot, he found the creature in two pieces. A labourer had accidentally hit the animal while digging. Of its remains, one part was the front of its face, including the nose, and the other, the rest of its body. Biju was sure he had stumbled upon something rare. It was a frog unlike any he had ever seen. The creature had a slimy and bloated body. It had tiny eyes and stubby limbs, and strangely, a snout-like nose. What followed was a long and tiresome search for a living specimen that lasted over six months. “It was a foolish hunt,” he says. Because, as he later learnt from the discovery of two frogs of this species, this particular frog lives underground. And the only time it emerges is when the monsoon’s first showers hit the earth, and that too, just for about ten days—to mate.

A year later, Biju and another researcher, Franky Bossuyt, published their findings in the science journal Nature. Not only was this an entirely new species, it was found to belong to a hitherto unknown family of frogs. Since new families of frogs are extremely rare discoveries—only 29 such have so far been identified, mostly in the 1800s, the last discovery having been made in 1926—the journal dubbed Biju’s work a ‘once-in-a century find’.

The new species was named Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, and popularly came to be called the Purple Frog. Interestingly, the frog’s closest relatives are located nowhere in or around India, but about 2,400 km from mainland Africa on the archipelago of Seychelles: Seychellean frogs. In terms of evolutionary descent, it was found that this newly-discovered frog had split from Seychellean frogs at least 130 million years ago. This had important implications for the field of palaeogeography as well, and could throw fresh light on how species migrated in prehistoric times.

“That discovery probably gave me everything,” Biju says, referring to his academic career boost. After he completed his second PhD (in Amphibian Systematics) from the Amphibian Evolution Lab of Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, he delved deeper into the world of amphibians, especially frogs.

Now, a little more than a decade later, at 50, Biju is considered India’s foremost amphibian researcher. Often referred to as the ‘Frogman of India’, he has discovered over 100 new species in various parts of India (58 of which have formally been described in various journals). Apart from the Purple Frog find, his work has yielded another hitherto unknown family of amphibians. In 2012, along with a team of researchers, Biju discovered a new family of caecilians (legless amphibians) in the Northeast. Termed Chikilidae, it was described as a ‘giant scientific discovery’ by Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the journal that published the finding. It was just the 10th caecilian family ever identified, and, interestingly again, the Chikilidae split from their closest African relatives more than 140 million years ago.

Before Biju became an amphibian researcher, he had spent 10 years studying plants. His interest in frogs was aroused once he focused on one through the viewfinder of his camera during a field trip studying the flora of the Western Ghats. “Have you ever taken a photograph of a frog?” Biju asks. “When you focus on a frog, you realise how beautiful it is. Its various colours, the eyes, the expression… very few in the animal world can give you that experience.”

Biju continued to take pictures of frogs. In 2002, he even sold some of his images to National Geographic and bought his first computer with the Rs 2 lakh he earned. His love of frogs increased as he pursued them with his lens, and he soon knew he had to shift academic focus. “Don’t get me wrong, I like plants,” he says, dressed in a shirt with red checks. “But they are boring compared to frogs.”

His answers are terse and formal and he delivers them sitting with a straight back and square shoulders. However, on occasions that he recollects a fond moment, his tone changes and his back stoops and shoulders get rounded, as if cosying up to the memory.

Biju is also an amphibian conservationist. The Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature claims that amphibians are the most threatened vertebrate group in the animal kingdom, with 41 per cent of their species at risk of extinction. The cloud of gloom is perhaps darkest over India, 60 per cent of whose amphibians are unique to the Subcontinent. According to records, around 57 species of Indian amphibians are considered lost—which means they have not been sighted for over 10 years. Globally, several factors have combined to threaten the amphibian world, from climate change and habitat loss to the appearance of diseases like chytrid fungus. But, according to Biju, the chief threat in India is habitat destruction. “People find frogs and amphibians cute or even weird, but no one was really interested in saving them. All our interest and conservation efforts, from the Government’s to [those of] lay individuals, were and still are for the country’s sexy animals—tigers, elephants, etcetera. But what about our frogs and lesser animals, which are equally if not more threatened?” he asks.

It was sometime in 2005 that Biju began to realise the scale of the crisis. “Academics and experts can go about their jobs of studying various species and speak about the importance of conservation,” he says, “But none of this means a thing if you don’t involve lay people.” In late 2010, Biju came up with a project to generate awareness of amphibians. Called Lost! Amphibians of India (LAI), the project put out a public notice listing the 57 lost species and asked people to join him and other researchers in looking for them. The response was overwhelming; LAI currently has over 500 members, mostly non-researchers, and has undertaken as many as 59 expeditions so far in various parts of the country, including the biodiversity hotspots of the Western Ghats and Northeast.

The effort has led to the finding of five lost species. These include the remarkably colourful Chalazodes Bubble-Nest Frog (fluorescent green body with bluish-black pupils and yellow iris), which had not been seen for 136 years and is a critically endangered species, apart from the Anamalai Dot-Frog that was spotted after 73 years, the Elegant Torrent Frog after 73 years, the Stream Frog after 25 years, and the Silent Valley Tropical Frog after 30 years. There are many more species that have been discovered, according to Biju, but these will be announced only after the finds are peer-reviewed and published in a journal.

LAI’s expeditions can last four days to a month or more. The researchers, both amateur and expert, set out with sleeping bags, supplies of dry fruits and knee-length leather boots to protect them from snake bite. Sometimes, they get decent shelter. But they usually have to make do with sleeping bags in tents.

Finding frogs is never easy. “Amphibians are only found in swamps and forests,” says Sonali Garg, a member of LAI, “They only come out at night and usually camouflage themselves very well with their surroundings.” Garg has been part of several LAI frog hunts, and was a member of one of the teams that rediscovered the Dehradun Stream Frog near Tiger Falls in Uttarakhand’s Chakrata area. It was a memorable expedition. They would trek up to the point of the falls, wait for sunset and strap on their headlights to look for the frog. They finally spotted not just one but several—perched on a rock close to the rapids, glowing light green in the glare of their lights. That was the easy part, as it turned out. Capturing them proved tough. “Even if our endeavours had proved unsuccessful,” she says, “the delight of exploring such a place was worth it.” Later tests of the specimens in Delhi showed that it was indeed the lost Dehradun Stream Frog.

Biju was born to a family of farmers in a rural part of Kerala in Kollam district. As a child, he would have to bathe and graze cattle and feed the chicken that his parents owned. They were not well off, he says, but he believes his childhood taught him more about nature than any schoolbook could. “I would often go fishing in a nearby river,” he says, “But I would not eat [my catch], I would bring it home to illustrate.”

Eco-sensitivity, he believes, requires a sustained effort at all levels, urban and rural. During his expeditions in the Northeast, he found that many frogs were under threat because locals consumed them as part of their diet without thinking twice about it. “The marketplace would be filled with baskets and jars of frogs,” he says, “I would try to explain to them why one should not eat them. But in the beginning, this was not taken to very kindly.” Locals often got into altercations with him. And sometimes the police also turned up to have a word with him for making a nuisance of himself.

Biju had an especially difficult time in Manipur, where his forest excursions were viewed with suspicion by both Indian Army soldiers and militants. “To both, I was an outsider wading into their space.” On one expedition, he was even held captive by some militants for about six days. “I kept explaining that ‘My interest is not in you or the Army, or politics, I am here for the frogs’.” He was eventually let off.

In time, he was also able to recruit a few locals to his cause in Manipur, asking students for help explain the need to conserve frogs. “Some of them stopped hunting and selling baby frogs and mothers that come out to mate during the monsoon.” According to Biju, there is a ‘nameless extinction’ underway in India: “Many species remain undiscovered and several of them are becoming extinct before they are found.” But something can still be done. In a recent talk he delivered in Mumbai, he said that LAI members would now visit schools and colleges in an effort to involve even more individuals by asking them to take pictures of amphibians for project members to sift through and identify.

“Amphibians once lived in habitats throbbing with life,” Biju says, “Today they are mostly seen only in the silent and sterile unchanging world of spirit jars. We need to change that.”


In Turkey, Silence Speaks

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A prime minister once jailed for dissent can’t tolerate those who won’t sacrifice a park for ‘development’

Once, a man, the mayor of a city, recited a poem in public praising his religion. That man was arrested because the law of the land interpreted his reading of the poem as religious incitement and hatred. A semi-professional soccer player turned politician, the man spent four months in prison.

Four years later, he led his party to a landslide victory in the country’s election. He could not become the leader of the country immediately as the old laws still barred him from assuming any public office because of his earlier conviction. The following year, lawmakers of his party changed the rules for him to become prime minister.

Now the same man, as prime minister, is faced with a major crisis. Citizens of his country are standing in silence out in the streets to protest his intolerant and brash ways of governance. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoan is sending his police force to arrest the protestors who dare challenge his authority.

The protests were sparked by the proposed development of Taksim Square, the only green space in that part of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest, most vibrant city. The government planned to destroy it and replace it with a shopping mall. Locals protested by camping in the park and attempting to stop bulldozers coming in to uproot trees. Calling the protestors ‘anti-development’, the government sent in a large police contingent armed with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and batons. The protestors stayed put.

The local media, either out of loyalty to the government or fear of persecution, chose not to report the high-handed police action on unarmed civilians; CNN Turk broadcast a documentary on penguins while the police action was taking place. But social media was abuzz with reports, photos and videos of the excessive use of force by the police. And like a torrent, sympathisers from all walks of life started pouring into Taksim Square to stand against the government’s actions.

“How can he say this?” a young Turkish friend of mine screamed as Prime Minister Erdoan was delivering a televised speech, threatening the protestors. The gist of what he said is: “I’ve decided, and I’ll build this shopping mall in spite of all your protests.” My friend was livid and loud: “Isn’t that the language of a dictator?” While translating every line of the speech for me, she vented her anger at the arrogance of the leader of her country.

This friend of mine, in her late twenties, is steeped in the ideas of civil rights and personal choice that go with being a citizen of a modern society. There are tens of thousands of young Turks like her who are vocal, articulate and well aware of their rights. They are the ones who first swarmed into the streets and were then joined by an unprecedented number of citizens from everywhere in the city. Tens of thousands of residents from the Asian side of the city came marching over the massive Bosphorus Bridge in solidarity with the Taksim protestors. Artists, musicians and performers came round to add a carnival feel to the protests. Housewives banged pots and pans from their rooftops and balconies to register their disapproval of police action.

Taksim Square is perhaps the most interesting and vibrant space in Istanbul, dotted with hotels, cafes and restaurants. The residents and businesses around Taksim not only extended moral support, they opened their doors to protestors fleeing the tear gas and pepper spray, and let doctors and medics use their lounges as makeshift medical rooms.

While this wave of sympathy and active support was being watched by the world, the prime minister, in his usual aggressive manner, was saying he too could rally his supporters to prove he had a mandate to implement the project.

Within days, ripples of the Taksim protest reached the capital Ankara and other major cities like Izmer and Antalya.

Professionals, trade unions, teachers, students and housewives came out in droves to protest against the government. For the first time, the government relented and withdrew the police from Taksim—only to send the force back after a couple of weeks to clear the square.

The ‘moderate Islamist’ AK Party led by Prime Minister Erdoan has been in power for a little over a decade. It has won three consecutive elections; another is due next year. During this past decade, Turkey has registered impressive growth. Massive infrastructure projects have been undertaken and many have been completed. Its per capita income has risen significantly. So what explains the anger against the government?

Following the demise of the old Ottoman Empire during World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey in the 1920s by expelling occupying European powers. Secular democracy became the cornerstone of the new constitution. The constitution ensured total separation of Islam and the State in a Muslim majority country. In his project of modernising Turkey, Atatürk had the full support of a well-formed military, which continued to retain huge influence in the country in the decades after. The powerful military became the self-appointed keeper of the secular constitution and continued to interfere in the country’s democratic process, carrying out four coups between 1960 and 1997. That was a period of great repression, with no voices of dissent allowed. Various centrist secular parties often worked hand-in-glove with the military—they were the ones who jailed Erdoan for reciting the poem praising the ‘sword of Islam’.

These regimes created a vacuum. Erdoan, an able administrator with ambition, filled the void by bringing together Islamist parties of various shades together to form the AK Party in 2001, and swept the 2002 election.

Erdoan’s model of development is clearly based on a free market economy and private enterprise, yet he and his party also harbour ambitions of turning Turkey into a socially conservative society. As a Muslim majority country with a secular democratic foundation, Turkey has always been an interesting case study compared to other Muslim states that have endured deep conservatism and dictatorships. But in the last decade, a project of Islamisation has progressed under the aegis of the AK Party.

One week before the police crackdown on Taksim, the government issued new restrictions on the sale of alcohol. A bill seeking to declare abortion illegal is in parliament. Restrictions are also being brought in to limit physical closeness between men and women in public.

Erdoan is said to see himself as a restorer of the old glories of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, an idea that alarms Turkey’s secular citizens. He wants to rebuild the old Ottoman military barracks in Taksim by demolishing a cultural centre named after Atatürk. He has also named the new third bridge over the Bosphorus channel after the Ottoman Emperor Salim said to have inflicted gross atrocities on such minority groups as Alevis.

Even though Erdoan has benefitted from the system of secular democracy, he has not shied away from using the most draconian terrorism laws put in place by previous regimes to gag any voice of dissent. It is said that Turkey is Europe’s biggest prison for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, close to 400 journalists are in prison—many of them minority Kurds. The publisher Ragep Zarakolou, my friend, has lost count of how many times he has been to prison for publishing books on the Armenian genocide or Kurdish issues that are taboo subjects in Turkey.

Educated urban Turkish youth like my friend are connected with the outside world and have a developed sense of personal choice and civil rights. They do not want the State or prime minister to decide how they live their lives. They have posed a huge challenge to Erdoan, and he is yet to grasp the causes of their resentment. Hence, he is still talking tough. He and his party leaders are spitting venom against social media avenues, and threatening to shut them down. He thinks his constituency—the rural poor—will keep him in power. But 15 million of Turkey’s population of 80 million live in Istanbul. So events in the city are bound to have a ripple effect on the rest of the country.

Another important shift Erdoan has failed to notice is that educated urban Turks have crossed their old line of fear. After police flushed protestors out of Taksim with tear gas and water cannons, renowned performance artist Erdem Gündüz began a standing man protest. What began as a lone man standing silently, is now an iconic countrywide movement, piling ever more pressure on the man who once went to prison for reciting a poem in public.


Sexuality and the State

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Why India’s LGBTQI movement has a headstart over the West’s

Mangesh Karande is 26, unmarried, and drives an autorickshaw in Mumbai. He prefers the late night shift because of the higher fares he can charge.

He prefers the late night shift for another reason: Mangesh is intimately familiar with the ‘ladies’ who loiter around the dark corners of Linking Road after midnight. He has his favourites.

Like the thousands of other autorickshaw drivers who also frequent these spots, Mangesh knows that these ladies are actually men dressed as women—some are transsexuals, some are not. This fact does not seem of much consequence to their clientele.

For men like Mangesh, sex happens between bodies, not genders. For them, sex is unabashed, uncomplicated, and, in a way, liberated. In their world, sex comes within the ambit of either pleasure or purpose. The former can be enjoyed with anybody; the latter, with their wives.

Mangesh poses a unique challenge to the dominant queer rights movement in India. He is not easy to slot within the queer alphabet milieu. The Indian LGBTQI movement has largely adopted—for better or worse—a Western character in its approach. We look towards the West, specifically Western Europe and America, for trends and strategies in fighting our own battles. We gladly adopt the Human Rights Campaign’s ‘equal’ sign in solidarity with the equal marriage cause. Our terminologies—queer, intersex, gender-curious—are picked up from Western post-modernist academic discourse. We would classify men like Mangesh as ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’, labels whose implications would surprise them if they knew what they meant.

The recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevented gay and lesbian couples from marrying and enjoying full and equal State recognition, was celebrated with as much gusto within Indian queer circles as American ones. Meanwhile, there are also anti-equal-marriage voices within the Indian queer movement, almost exclusively coinciding with the left of the political spectrum, which sees this recent US apex court decision as undesirable, as a reflection of the continued hegemony of the heteronormative marriage paradigm. Paradoxically, this contrarian movement in India also looks to the West’s post-modernist vocabulary for inspiration despite its anti-Americanism.

In the midst of all these Westernised constructs, the fluidity of sexual expression in India is often ignored for the expedience of fighting for the rights of well-defined communities. The fear is that such facts muddle the mind more than clarify, and can pose a threat to the march of equality for self-identified LGBTQI individuals.

In a sense, these fears are not entirely unfounded. India’s Supreme Court is yet to decide on the matter of decriminalising homosexual acts; and pushing a pedantic nuance on the diversity of sexual behaviour in India is hardly going to make the whole affair more palatable to Indians at large. Often, big victories require broad and bold brush strokes.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to point out that by adopting Western templates for LGBTQI rights advocacy, we may have overlooked one of the unique strengths of our own culture, which could have formed the bedrock of our argument for equality: namely, Indian culture’s historic character of decentralised authority.

The Western template seeks the endorsement of the State—a dominant power centre—by agitating for strong legislative and executive-level action. This is because the State is accepted as an authority over matters of human nature and personhood, a view that has roots in Hegelian and monotheistic thought. First, the State, in all its wisdom, presumed to know what ‘acts against the order of nature’ are, and then chose to outlaw them; now, the State is being asked to reverse its decision.

Indian pantheistic traditions are hardly amenable to such centralised authority. Nature is not thought of as something humans can preside over. As a result, the products of nature are accepted as is—sometimes, as in the case of traditional hijra culture, begrudgingly so. Indian thought allows for varying and competing power centres across different contexts that result in organic synergies and trade-offs.

The Indian approach is to be left alone. It typically likes to circumvent the power of the State to get about its functions. The State is seen—often rightfully so—as inept and, at best, an annoying interference in the daily flow of organic human events. In this sense, LGBTQI individuals in India have a common cause with almost every other fellow Indian in that our ultimate goal is the sexual emancipation of all citizens from intrusions of the State. Our struggle for freedom and equality under the law, then, would be a sexual liberation movement for all Indians—including Mangesh.


No Country for Cyclists

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Most developed countries go out of their way to promote a cycling culture, but in India, it can be a really dangerous hobby

It was late in the evening when Mohan Raman, a 38-year-old who works for Siemens, left his office in Gurgaon for his home in Dwarka. Raman is a family man, and like a lot of others on the roads speeding home to dinner, television and children, he too was in a hurry to get back to his two kids. The only difference being, his ride was a bicycle worth Rs 24,500. He decided to speed up to about 25 kmph. As he was cruising on Old Gurgaon Highway, he passed a Santro parked on the extreme left of the road. Without any warning, the driver’s door opened and he rode straight into it. The plastic inner surface of the door cracked and his front wheel twisted in response.

“They didn’t even have the decency to say sorry,” Raman recalls, “They just said ki tumko dikhta nahi hai (‘can’t you see’)?” The driver, a youngster, seemed to be on his way back from work with friends. Raman told them to shut up and get lost.

After Ruma Chatterjee, coach of the women’s national cycling team, was killed in an accident on the Delhi-Noida-Direct (DND) flyway on 18 June, the overriding thought in the minds of cyclists like Raman is how easy it is to get killed on Indian roads. Chatterjee was not on a bicycle. She was riding a motorcycle behind her team, all of whom were on cycles. She had been in the left-most lane when a speeding cab went out of control and smashed into her. If she hadn’t been there, it could have been one of the cyclists in her place.

Onkar Singh, secretary general of the Cycling Federation of India and a colleague of Chatterjee, says that the standards that Chatterjee set, not just as a coach but as a mentor to her students, will be tough to match: “There are hardly any women coaches in India, and the few we have are not of her level. In India, once a woman gets married, her sporting career is over.” He had once asked her why she hadn’t thought of marrying. She replied that she was already married to cycling. “Ten months in a year, she used to be with her cyclists,” he says.

MOST CYCLISTS IN India face the question of what they must do, over and above wearing protective gear, following traffic rules and sticking to the extreme left, to ensure their safety on Indian roads. The answer is not much. “People in autos and on motorbikes think you are a mosquito—machchhar,” Raman says. Eight years of experience as a cyclist in India have taught him that it is important to be cool and patient. There is no other way.

Gaali-waali hote rehta hai (you keep getting cursed at), but you can’t keep getting worked up,” he says.

That it is a cultural problem is a sentiment shared by riders across the country. Drivers of motor vehicles find it difficult to comprehend that they aren’t the only ones on the road. “People don’t like it when they see a cyclist joining the traffic stream all of a sudden. They are like ‘Ye saala kahan se aa gaya’ (where did this idiot come from),” says Hari Menon, a 47-year-old amateur racer from Bangalore. Menon recalls how he was almost thrown off the road into a khat—a stretch of earth sloping down about 10 metres—by a speeding truck. He was on National Highway 17, just south of Kochi. “I must have been clocking 40-45 kmph. The truckwala, driving in parallel, saw a cycle and decided to come too close, even though he had plenty of space on the road to drive on. He didn’t hit me, but the forceful stream of air that did almost knocked me off my path.”

Jose George, founder of Lakecity Pedalers, a cycling group in Mumbai, says, “The guy in the car makes an opinion of you in a fleeting second, which is often not very flattering. You need to ensure that you don’t get in their crosshairs if you want to stay safe.” Drivers of big cars are more dangerous than those of trucks and buses. “They are so arrogant, they don’t care who they crush under their wheels, especially in Delhi,” says Shubho Sengupta, a Delhi-based cyclist who has been on the roads for more than 20 years. “Mehrauli Road is probably the most dangerous stretch of road for cycling in Delhi. They can just come and hit you and go. No cops, nothing.”

Cyclists suffer the effects of a bias by many motorists that stems from a belief that not being powered by an engine, the cycle is slow. That is not always true, and is, in fact, one of the major reasons for accidents on city roads. “We often drive at 30-60 kmph,” says Menon, “and it’s difficult for people to judge how fast we actually are driving. You see the guy on a cycle in your peripheral vision and assume that you have around 7-10 seconds to turn or make a move, whereas you don’t. We are already there in about a second. The reaction time required to avoid collision in such a situation is difficult to achieve for both the cyclist and the driver.”

According to a recent article in The Hindu Business Line by Pankaj Munjal, chairman of the All India Cycle Manufacturers Association and managing director of Hero Cycles, there are approximately 100 million cycles in India, and annual production is around 15 million units. A 2008 study on traffic and transportation policies and strategies in urban India, conducted by Wilbur Smith Associates and India’s Ministry of Urban Development, places the proportion of people using non-motorised transport in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore at 30 per cent, cars at 10 per cent and public transport at 44 per cent.

  But most Indian cities don’t have space enough for cars, let alone bicycles. Once upon a time, a high density of people and mixed land use made Indian cities friendly for cyclists and pedestrians, but they have increasingly been designed and redesigned for the convenience of motorised traffic. For example, cycles are now banned in busy areas of Kolkata such as Esplanade, Park Street and MG Road from 9 am to 7 pm, to make way for motorised traffic. Amateur racers and professional athletes have greater demands than just space. “We have to have tracks as well as roads for training, because we train for both speed and endurance,” says Onkar Singh. “For endurance, you have to do up to 500 km a week, for which you need good roads. Where we have tracks—in places like Amritsar, Delhi, Hyderabad, Ludhiana, Pune and Patiala—the roads are very congested. Where we have roads, there are no tracks.

This is the basic problem we are facing at the moment.” Singh stresses the fact that amateur and professional racers have no option but to move out of such cities. Ruma Chatterjee and her cyclists had been using the DND flyway for the past two years.

Female cyclists face at least one more major issue on Indian roads. And that, because they are female. Vicki Nicholson, an Irish national who currently lives in Bangalore, talks excitedly about cycling communities in the city. She feels that active participation and strong intra-community bonding makes Bangalore’s cycling culture particularly encouraging. And then she mentions the flipside. “On Nandi Hills, I have had guys on motobikes patting me on the backside a few times,” she says. “It’s intrusive, but I have consciously decided not to get upset by it.”

Also, Indian women often have to wear more clothing than is comfortable while cycling in order to avoid being stared at and hassled. “When I cycle alone, I don’t wear shorts,” Nicholson says. “Proper cycling clothing is tight-fitting lycra. In India, if you get stuck in the countryside wearing that, [you’re] asking for trouble.” She feels North India, especially Delhi, is hazardous for a lone woman cyclist.

Government response to demands for dedicated cycling lanes, tight regulation of traffic and safe parking for bicycles—which can cost anything between a few thousand rupees to a couple of lakh—has been mixed. Members of a Gurgaon-based cycling group, Pedal Yatri, say they had organised a ride to Vice President Hamid Ansari’s residence last year and handed him their report on the plight of cyclists, but nothing came of it.

On the other hand, Chennai-based cyclist Satish Narayanan, who runs an online bike information portal called ChooseMyBicycle, says the Government has been supportive. “They have promised to create dedicated cycling lanes and have also been present during [the] annual cycling events that cycling groups conduct.” Onkar Singh agrees. “We have asked around 10-12 chief ministers to build dedicated cycling tracks. In Noida and New Raipur city, we have seen positive responses. Shivraj Singh Chouhan also responded positively,” he says.

Developed countries go out of their way to nurture a cycling culture as an environmentally sagacious practice. The mayor of London sanctioned £1 billion last month for cycling lanes. New York City has developed hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes over the past few years. But even in these places, there is a conflict between cyclists and motorists.

This gave rise to the now famous Critical Mass, an informally organised cycling event typically held on the last Friday of every month in cities across the world. Cyclists from all over a given city meet at a pre-set time and place, and then ride around town to raise awareness about cycling and urge city administrators to provide suitable solutions to their problems. The event, which cyclists see as social and authorities often see as political, first took place in San Francisco in 1992.

In India where urban spaces are overcrowded, the feasibility of creating and maintaining separate lanes for cyclists is a big question mark. Jose George is of the opinion that motorists should be given first preference as far as roads and support infrastructure are concerned, or else they will keep spilling over onto pavements and sidelanes. Mumbai, incidentally, is infamous among cyclists for the simple reason that it already caters to more people than its infrastructure can handle. Every inch of road is fought over.

Even in cities that have designated cycling lanes, encroachment is common. Pedal Yatri co-founder Jasbeer Singh says, “Whatever lanes we do have in Gurgaon are routinely used by bikes, autos, tempos and sometimes even police jeeps. If not, you will find them littered with hawkers.” Just setting up cycling lanes does not solve anything.

Ruma Chatterjee’s death has led to a peculiar anxiety among some cyclists. Because she was a high-profile victim, they think the Government’s response will be to ban or curtail cycling instead of making it safer. Hari Menon compares the scenario to the death of Mohammad Azharuddin’s son in a motorcycle accident two years ago, when authorities reacted by banning all two-wheelers on certain roads. “What are the odds they won’t do the same thing this time? And the cyclists who need such roads to practise, what will they do then?” Many expressways are off limits for cyclists already. “In Hyderabad, for instance, the guys at the toll booths jump out of their cabins and come and tell you that, ‘Boss idhar mat chalana cycle’ (don’t ride your cycle here),” says Menon.

After Chatterjee’s death, Onkar Singh says he is too scared to let his cyclists ride on the DND. “We are trying to find a road outside Delhi. But there’s no way in Delhi you will find a road suitable for this. We must move out.” Singh accepts that incidents such as the one on the DND flyway happen everywhere in the world. In 2005, the famous Australian cyclist Amy Gillett was training with her team in Germany when a drunk female driver lost control of her car and drove into her, killing her. Closer home, Menon was cycling with his partner early one morning on Hennur road when a middle-aged lady, who was being taught how to ride a scooter by her husband, drove straight into them. Luckily, nothing happened.

Raman’s wife has always found it hard to understand why he needs to cycle to work even though they own a Maruti Suzuki Swift. He must start from home at 7 am sharp every morning, if he is to avoid traffic, and must leave work late enough to avoid the evening rush. Altogether, he rides almost 35-40 km a day, and has been doing so for eight years. “She has stopped arguing with me these days,” he says. “She is resigned to the fact that I am probably just not interested in taking the Swift to work.” He says he does it to stay fit. To Raman, Chatterjee’s death is troubling. “I know people who use that stretch to cycle to work. This incident has scared me,” he says. But for people like him, there is no choice. They just have to live with the risks that come with their passion.


The Cost of Looking Good

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And the toll it takes on aspiring models and actors

Prabh Uppal arrived in Mumbai from Ludhiana two years ago with Rs 1.5 lakh in his bank account. His lecturer mother had given him this money to help him settle comfortably in the city while he tried his chances as a model. He started by living with friends as a house guest, but soon realised that no money was coming in to replace what he was spending.

Male models get much less work than their female counterparts, and even now, Uppal says, sometimes a month goes by before he gets an assignment. He is engaged by a modelling agency whose foreign models get priority over him. “The agency is paying for their stay and expenses,” he says, “So they get them jobs because they need to get their money back. [In contrast], male models like me work maybe five days a month, sometimes none. But when we do get work [for print advertisements or on the fashion ramp], it’s good money.”

A large chunk of that money must be spent on keeping up appearances. That is the nature of the modelling scene. Uppal spends Rs 15,000 on rent for a house in Versova that is shared with two others. Just a day ago, he spent Rs 50,000 buying clothes at Zara. He also bought a couple of perfumes because how one smells is also important. “We have to sell products, so we need to look good,” he reasons, “That’s why you are a model.” He got a haircut recently for Rs 2,500. He trains at a crossfit—a mix of aerobics, body-weight exercises, gymnastics and weightlifting—gymnasium in his neighbourhood that takes a monthly Rs 5,000 off him. “My trainer says that if you can’t spend at least that much on your workout, you can’t be a model.” He attends Bollywood dance classes to loosen limbs stiffened by all the gymming; that’s another Rs 2,500 per month. Uppal also socialises a lot, which soaks up anything from Rs 1,500 to Rs 4,000 every night out. At home, he has a high-protein diet and says he spends Rs 20,000 per month just on daily purchases of chicken, which the three roommates share. “If you add other groceries, it’s Rs 10,000 more.” Add auto and taxi commutes, and that is another Rs 10,000. Plus there are expenses like phone and electricity bills.

All in all, Uppal’s monthly appearance maintenance bill stands at about Rs 1 lakh. But it is money he does not begrudge spending. “Obviously I want to be an actor too,” he says, “But it’s hard surviving as a model or an aspiring actor. But what can you do? Anyone can become a model these days, but to do well, you need luck and looks. At least I can control the looks part.”

He contemplates going back to Ludhiana almost every morning. “I have three cars at home,” he says. Once, he even left the city, only to return a few days later. “This glamour world, it’s hard but addictive,” he says, “You just can’t give it up. It’s not possible.”

Like Uppal, 27-year-old Debrah Marian came to Mumbai from Pune three years ago and hasn’t been able to go back. She got selected for Anupam Kher’s acting school and has nursed dreams of becoming an actress ever since. She did get a role in a movie that is stuck in post-production and also hosted a show on cricket for Sahara. Now, as she doesn’t have much work, she assists a director to make some money and keep busy. Three years ago, she broke up with her boyfriend because being married would have hurt her chances as an actress. She now regrets giving up love. Nothing is worth doing that, she feels.

Marian likens the struggle to look good to taking a daily test. “Everyone thinks that the next meeting will change everything and so ‘always be prepared’. It’s like you are going to buy a lottery ticket every day. You are pushing your optimism to the limit and that’s emotionally draining. You have to repair your self-image every single day.”

The recent suicide of Jiah Khan had a profound impact on Marian. “I have decided that if I get work the way I am, that’s well and good,” she says, “I can’t be plagued by bad thoughts anymore.”

She is aware of the perils of the field. She knows of many models and aspiring actresses who have got used to a certain kind of lifestyle and will do anything to keep it going. “I have heard of friends of mine who were simple girls from small towns who are now high-class escorts just so they can keep up their lavish lifestyles—with the clothes, bags and socialising,” she says.

At the start of her career, there were times that money was short and Marian took loans from her parents. She used to spend big bucks on dance classes, the gym and salon, and even hired a dietician to keep her food habits in control. “You have this immense pressure to look good even if you are out with your friends,” she says, “There is just so much competition.” Now she stops herself when she wants to buy something expensive. “It’s not worth it. When you study to be a lawyer, you become one. In modelling, there is no guarantee you will ever make it, despite what you put in—be it money or emotion.”

Such stories are not new to Mumbai, which attracts young men and women from across India to be the next Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif or Milind Soman. But only a few ever succeed. A few years ago, any journalist who interviewed Jiah Khan (including this writer) came away with a sense of her youthful, innocent vibe. Her optimism was palpable—as if the world were at her feet. But, as media reports suggest, the actress soon sank into the depression of failing to make it big and attendant financial difficulties.

To most models and actors, Mumbai is a relentless emotional and financial struggle. Like Sharmistha, who came from Kolkata a few years ago. “Jo dikhta hai, woh bikta hai (What shows is what sells),” she says. “You can’t just walk to a meeting looking like a normal person. Why will people give you a job or expect you to sell something if you don’t look half decent? Clothes are very important.” She has just spent Rs 5 lakh on a trip to Dubai, where she walked the ramp at a fashion show. “They gave me Rs 2 lakh and I had three in my savings. I came back with no money made.”

She loves good shoes and only wears Jimmy Choos. She has a watch fetish and her collection includes a couple of Diors. She is aware modelling cannot sustain such a lifestyle and now does it only part-time, having got another job managing a resort in Goa. “I go to Mumbai when I get work. I can’t live like that anymore… waiting everyday for that movie or role.”

One of Hollywood’s latest offerings, The Bling Ring, directed by Sofia Coppola, is based on the true story of a bunch of teens so taken in by the lifestyle of the rich and famous that they steal just to look the part. That is not the norm in Mumbai, but is not beyond imagination either.

The irony of the world of aspiring models is the idea of spending huge amounts on looking good while struggling to survive. Supermodel Candice Pinto feels that there is no way around it. “Models are looked at all the time, so you have to maintain appearances.” Back when she started modelling, she remembers, it was much tougher than it is now. “There were few established models and to break into that clique was very hard. You had to work very hard.”

Modelling agencies have made it easier for newcomers to get breaks now, but Candice observes that competition has also multiplied—with every second person looking to be a model. “Many girls go and do shady things to make money because you obviously need money, and there are so many people doing this,” she says. “Getting noticed is very tough,” she advises, “but just work hard and play your cards right, and money does come.”

Pransh Chopra, 29, who worked at a multinational corporation before deciding to become an actor, came from Delhi to Mumbai with a fair sum of savings. In two years, he had exhausted his money and found that good work was scarce. “I had to borrow from my parents and that really hurt me. I didn’t even have the money to pay my bills.” His perseverance, however, has paid off. He has done ads and short films that have topped up his bank balance. “Now I am very careful,” he says, referring to expenses.

There are other survival tactics too. Many models splurge on their lifestyle as a professional necessity but cut costs elsewhere. In the words of Nirmala Shrimal, who won a reality show called Beauty and the Geek on Channel [V] a few years ago: “You have to strike a balance. Just because I pay a high rent in Juhu [a posh residential locality], I make sure I curb all my other expenses. I only eat at home and don’t even go to the parlour. I use kitchen ingredients to make myself look pretty.”

Shrimal had used her prize money of Rs 5 lakh to get to Mumbai from Chennai and lived the first few months at the local YWCA to keep costs low. She doesn’t shop much. “I have a mantra: if I have a good body, I will look good. So I just spend on the gym.” She is conscious, too, about doing what she can to keep her spirits high. “I don’t meet people who judge me on how I look,” she says, “If I go out all dressed up to meet someone, I balance it out by going out in my most casual clothes to make sure it’s my personality that shines through.”


A Modest Proposal

Sonali Khan was holding on to her virtue, and then she fell in love... with several men. She drinks whisky, not Cosmopolitan
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Want to make the world a better place? Take it up the butt

Last week, an ardent hater announced that I didn’t deserve to call myself a writer because what I write about doesn’t help to make the world a better place. It got me thinking about the things we can do to make the world we live in a wee bit better. First on my list is not being an asshole by resisting the urge to honk while stuck in a traffic jam. We’re all being middle-fingered every day on our country’s 4,236,000 kilometres of road. We could give each other a break and make the world a better place. We could use less plastic, spray (CFC-free) air freshener after letting a really smelly one rip, not stick our chewing gum under the seat while using public transport, and generally not being a douche to the environment. All these things would make the world a better place. Undoubtedly so.

But there’s one more thing I truly believe has unrealised potential to improve the world. We would be a better species if we took a leaf out of the bear community’s book and took it like a man. That is, up the butt. For those not in the know, by ‘bear community’ I don’t mean Goldilocks’ mama, papa and baby bears; I mean the male gay subculture.

Here’s why I think the world would benefit if more men took it up the ass:

Why headaches matter

Sexual nomenclature is a minefield of misogynistic attitudes, only packaged better. To resort to a cliché as old as our wonderful Prime Minister: girls like foreplay and men think of it as the price they pay for the real thing. The word ‘foreplay’ itself assumes that the goal is intercourse, that the getting there is not as important. I believe this assumption arises from the physical way that sex works for men—it happens outside their bodies. Something that’s external is a lot easier to do with a headache or if you’re in the mood for a quickie or simply want to fuck. But when sex happens inside your body, whether vaginally or anally, warming up and taking things slowly starts to feel like a really good idea. Men may understand this intellectually, but learning it physically is a game-changer. A man who takes it up the butt is far more likely to be mindful of a woman’s need for more prep-time before hard, pounding sex than one who doesn’t. Imagine a world where men aren’t trying to skip ahead in their excitement. I call it the ‘Hogwarts of the sexual world.’

Feminism says thank you

Continuing on the topic of misogyny and the language of sex—the dents made by the gay pride movement notwithstanding—being penetrated is largely considered the woman’s role. And it’s not a coveted part. When we fling ‘I’m so fucked’ or ‘fuck you’ or ‘suck my dick’ or ‘screw you’ as profanities, we’re reinforcing the belief that being penetrated is demeaning—a great way to alienate women and at least half a dozen subcultures involving alternate sexuality. That middle-finger joke I made in the first paragraph? Not cool. More men opening up to the idea of anal sex would not only open up multiple avenues to enjoy sex differently, it would redefine what I consider the performance of masculinity. Sex and masculinity would not be an all-or-nothing experience, and penetration would become simply another way to experience pleasure, not a marker of somehow being less-than. I’ve known men who pretend to be feminists because ‘feminist chicks are easy’. I know men who support gay rights because their girlfriends do, and life is easier when girlfriends are happy. I know men who support equal rights because it looks good on their essays for college applications abroad. They’re mushrooming in households of all income groups. Harder to find are men so confident in their masculinity that they don’t have to cling to outdated ideas of what the male gender should act, think and feel like. A healthy amount of butt action could loosen up some of those tight-ass ideas.

Do it for selfish reasons

Even if we had the inclination, standing up for anything in this country is a tough task. So let’s focus on the most important reason for doing anything: what’s in it for me? Think of it like this: if we could only let go of the definition of sex as vaginal penetration and expand it to include other ways in which pleasure can be given and received, imagine the room we could make for experimentation and sexual diversity. There’s a lot in it for you, if you allow yourself to try it.

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