30 October 2010 - 5 November 2010
small world
A Bottle of Honey for Our Brother Prez

The Siddi tribals, who arrived from African shores centuries ago and now populate parts of Karnataka, have renewed efforts to send a bottle of honey they collected from the forests to US President Barack Obama. This community of forest settlers believes Obama shares their gene pool. They are thrilled to bits that he is coming to India, and don’t want to miss the opportunity this time. “We have approached both External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, who is from Karnataka, and the US consulate in Chennai to help us present a bottle of honey and a citation to the President. I hope we succeed at least this time,’’ says Diog Siddi, an elder fighting for Siddi rights.

Take Two
Poor, Lazy and Loving It
When all of Bengal celebrates Lakshmi Puja, Bengali hypocrisy would be complete

Durga Puja may be Bengal’s biggest festival, but Lakshmi Puja is the most widespread. On the first full moon evening after Durga Puja, the deity is worshipped in almost every household in the state. Herein lies a paradox, one put succinctly by a member of India’s premier business family, the Birlas. “It baffles me,” BM Birla said in the mid-1970s, when Bengal was witnessing a flight of capital, “how a community that worships the Goddess of Wealth so fervently can be so anti-capital.”

Time, liberalisation and the free market haven’t corrected this contradiction. Save urban middle and upper middle class folk who anyway migrate to other parts of India and the world, a majority of Bengalis think wealth is a dirty word. To be wealthy is not honourable, to pursue material gains is not respectable, and striving to increase one’s earnings is socially looked down upon.

This attitude is reflected in the Bengali tendency to shirk work and his lack of entrepreneurial spirit. Kolkata is perhaps the only megapolis where shops and markets (owned and operated by Bengalis) shut down every afternoon for owners and employees to take a siesta. Taxis, autorickshaws and rickshaws are hard to find after 10 pm. Only the ones driven by migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh ply.

The Bengali justifies his laziness by invoking the ‘simple living, high thinking’ credo. High thinking, however, has long ceased to be, thanks to the brain drain that started many decades ago. Aversion to wealth and the wealthy is also legitimised by works of prominent Bengali litterateurs, filmmakers and stage personas, who inevitably portray the rich as villains. There is no sense of regret in Bengal even today at the manner in which private capital was driven out of the state in the 1960s and 1970s. There is no lament over the closure of industrial units that rendered millions jobless. Few mourn the derailment of recent attempts to attract capital; in fact, those who derailed it have reaped enormous political dividends.

The quintessential Bengali is happy with his limited income, his ramshackle house and his worn kurta-pyjama. So, what in the name of God is Goddess Lakshmi supposed to do when he seeks her blessings?

signing in
Tweets from Myanmar

After 15 years in prison and house arrest, a communiqué restricted to 140 characters wouldn’t be the first choice for a major political leader. But Twitter is what Myanmarese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wants to join, if her current incarceration comes to an end on 13 November. In a report in The Guardian, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer Nyan Win says, “She told me she wants to use Twitter to get in touch with the younger generation inside and outside the country.” Without access to a phone line and the internet, one can only salute her indomitable spirit and ability to keep up with young Burma in these fast changing times. Log on to Twitter.com as Myanmar goes to the polls on 7 November.

Good fur
Do the Ratwalk

This winter, when rats hit the catwalk in New York, rodent fur is going to fly off the ramps. In November, a brand called Righteous Fur is launching bags, hats and coats made out of swamp rat pelts. Yes, you heard right, swamp rats or nutria.

These invasive semi-aquatic rodents are causing serious damage in New Orleans’ wetlands. Their only natural enemy is the alligator, but even they can’t control this highly prolific ‘marsh-muncher’. Louisiana actually offers $5 per dead swamp rat. To prevent these pelts from being discarded, Righteous Fur has ushered in rodent-recycling. They’re out to save the wetlands by designing warm, fashionable and guilt-free rat apparel. Wonder who’ll be in the front row at the upcoming Nutria-palooza?

Oops, Marx is Not the Only God

Marxists are supposed to be atheists. So says theory. But not if you have a Mamata Banerjee snapping at your heels. Abdur Rezzak Mollah, a senior cabinet minister of West Bengal’s government, recently undertook a pilgrimage to Hardwar and Rudraprayag to “seek strength” before launching preparations for the do-or-die Assembly polls in Bengal next year. Mollah, a bit of a loose cannon who has been rapped before by his party for his outspokenness, admitted to having invoked divine blessings at the Hindu holy spots. “I’ve come back reinvigorated,” he told scribes. He also admitted to asking God for help to retain his Assembly seat in South 24 Parganas district, which has become a Trinamool stronghold. Mollah stayed at ashrams, fasting, praying and having prasad during his four-day trip. Mollah’s admission has caused deep embarrassment to the CPM.  Party leaders told scribes later that Mollah’s was a sight-seeing trip and not a pilgrimage.

Kryptonite to the Rescue

Most people associate kryptonite with Superman: it’s his weak point. For heart patients and doctors, the name could be a strong point. A surgical procedure that uses a state-of-the-art superglue, dubbed Kryptonite, can greatly improve the recovery of heart patients who undergo open heart surgery, says the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.

The superglue is used to speed up the closure of the breastbone after surgery, and in future, may be used to replace the steel wire used to seal up the bone. Dr Paul Fedak, a cardiac surgeon at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta at Foothills Hospital Medical Centre, says the superglue is like natural bone and allows for new bone growth. The recovery process using a steel wire takes about eight weeks. The superglue halves the time taken for the bone to heal. There are also less side effects. “Patients had significantly less pain in the post-operative period. They required less strong narcotic painkillers,” says Dr Fedak.


Grey matter
Give Birth, Get Smart

It probably won’t work as an incentive for having babies, but a study conducted by neuroscientists at Yale University found that having a baby may make women more intelligent. They found that a woman’s grey matter—cells that process information—expands in quantity in the weeks and months after she gives birth.

It is thought that hormonal activities during pregnancy and especially childbirth ‘supercharge’ the brain. The areas that grow in the brain are associated with motivation, reasoning, judgement, the processing of emotions and feelings of satisfaction. All these are critical to a mother-child relationship. Interestingly, mothers who gushed most about their babies experienced the biggest increase in grey matter.

Who Shrunk the Tiger?

The Royal Bengal Tiger has shrunk. It has become smaller and lighter, and experts think it’s because of adverse conditions in the Sunderbans. In recent months, tigers that strayed into inhabited islands of the Sunderbans were found to weigh much less and were smaller than regular Royal Bengal Tigers. An adult female tiger caught last week weighed about 98 kg, while the standard weight is 140 to 150 kg. Adult male tigers have been found to weigh about 180 to 190 kg, less than the standard weight of 220 kg. Also, while an adult male measures about 300 cm (from head to tail) and females measure 250 cm, an adult male Sunderbans tiger measures about 180 cm and a female 235 cm. “The terrain, lack of big prey like bisons and acute salinity could be probable causes,” says tiger expert Pranabesh Sanyal. 

Open up India’s Coal Sector

On 26 October, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee described the Government’s sale of shares in Coal India Ltd (CIL), a Navratna, as an ‘unqualified success’. The Centre’s coffers sure look better. But more interesting is how coal has transformed itself in popular consciousness. Not long ago, it was always part of some exploitation story, be it Yash Chopra’s 1979 film Kaala Patthar or Rakesh Roshan’s 1997 film Koyla, whose only allowance to globalisation was in the form of a tune lifted from Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us.

Now, suddenly, it’s all about power generation. Coal-fired plants will account for over half the additional electricity generated in India over the next decade or so. It is the most cost-effective, as made clear by the supercheap bid (Rs 1.19 per unit) made in 2007 by Reliance to grab the Sasan mega-project, which comes along with its own coal pithead. For power projects that do not have captive mines, though, the cost of hauling coal across India is so high that it makes better sense to import it. Tata’s plant at Mundra, Reliance’s at Krishnapatnam and Essar’s at Salaya are all coastal projects, with ports, for this reason. “Domestic production, growing at a rate of 5-6 per cent per annum, cannot support the requirements of coal based power producers,” says Arvind Mahajan, an energy expert at KPMG. 

CIL is a monopoly seller of coal, and its annual output of 431 million tonnes, while 80 per cent of India’s overall figure for 2009-10, was not enough to meet Indian market demand. Some 65 million tonnes needed to be shipped in. Foreign coal is of better quality too, allowing the use of supercritical technology that yields more electricity per tonne (with fewer emissions). No wonder producers have been busy buying coalmines abroad lately—mostly in Indonesia. “Besides getting long term supply security,” says Mahajan, “acquisition of coal assets abroad also gives them a hedge against volatility of coal prices when their power tariffs are fixed.”

India’s own coal reserves, estimated at 276 billion tonnes, of course, are temptingly vast. And if coal is to complete its transformation in Indian consciousness—as something that illuminates rather than exploits—the Government should give the sector a boost: open it up to private competition.