Monday, August 26, 2013

Chemical weapons of MASS DESTRUCTON

In the aftermath of the suspected killing of thousands of Syrians by chemical weapons, City Today does a reality check on these weapons of mass destruction that are taking the world to the brink of disaster.

While nuclear weapons dominate most discussions on modern day warfare, the threat posed by chemical weapons (CW) to the mankind is equally unnerving, given the more likelihood of these falling into the hands of rogue elements and the collateral damage they inflict.
The world has a history of the usage of chemical weapons. The suspected usage of chemical weapons in the strife-torn Syria causing death of thousands of people last week is the most recent and one of the most devastating. It is an alarming reminder of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that are in possession of rogue states, posing danger to the very existence of life on earth.
What are the chemical weapons? A wikipedia entry defines chemical weapon as a device that uses chemicals formulated to inflict death or harm to human beings. Chemical weapons can be widely dispersed in gas, liquid and solid forms and may easily afflict others than the intended targets. Nerve gas and tear gas are two modern examples.

CW usage in history

  • Interestingly, in what could be the first and the archaeologically proven instance of the usage of chemical weapons, was in Syria in third century!  Then the area was controlled by the Romans. About 20 Roman soldiers were killed by gassing in a tunnel by the Persian army, at a place called Dara-Europos, according to the University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James
  • Chemical weapons were widely used in World War-1 which came to be known as "the chemists' war. German army used deadly gases to kill French soldiers in the second battle of Ypres. About 1, 00,000 people died due to chemical weapons in World War I. 
  • In WW-2, the United States used Napalm, a sticky, gasoline-like substance that can melt the skin off its victims, in a firebomb raid on Tokyo, killing an estimated 1,00,000 people.
  • The US Army extensively used Agent Orange, a chemical weapon meant to destroy plants, during Vietnam War in 1960’s. The aim was to destroy the food-grain production. Half a century after the Vietnam War, those exposed to Agent Orange continue to suffer from its effects like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease.
  • By the 1980’s, new category of chemical weapons called the nerve agents, most lethal and quickest-acting, were discovered. Popularly called V-series which can kill a person in seconds, Iraq was the first to use against Iran in 1983. It also used nerve agents in the killing of 5,000 Kurds, an ethnic tribe massacred by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1988.

Now, Syria is suspected to have nerve agents in its chemical weapon arsenal.

Treaties banning CW

The usage of chemical weapons in WW-1 was followed by Geneva Protocol, prohibiting the use of chemical and biological warfare, signed by more than 30 nations in 1925. 
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), signed in 1993, is a comprehensive arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. As of June 2013, 189 states, including India, are party to the CWC. Syria is one of the seven countries that are not part of CWC.

Syrian Civil War

The armed conflict between forces loyal to the Ba'ath government and those seeking to oust it has resulted in Syrian uprising. The conflict which began on 15 March 2011 is part of the wider Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring with the protesters demanding the resignation of president Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in Syria since 1971. An alternative government was formed by the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition.
Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens, and its system of government is considered to be non-democratic.
The raging civil war is one of the bloodiest in the history with more than a 10, 00,000 people, half of them civilians, massacred since it began. The Syrian government has the military support from Russia and Iran, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia transfer weapons to the rebels. By July 2013, the Syrian government controls approximately 30 to 40 percent of the country's territory and 60 percent of the Syrian population. The insurgency controls large swaths of territory in the country's north and east.
There are chilling images of the innocent people killed by the suspected use of nerve gas ‘sarin’ in rebel held Ghouta, an area near Damascus, the capital of Syria, last Wednesday. Heaps of bodies, bloodless and woundless, as if killed in drowning, and the wails of the survived, were deeply disturbing.

(Published as Oped on City Today on August 26, 2013)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Metro-centric wilful blindness

Crimes on children of lesser gods in lesser places

While incidents of rapes in metropolitan cities take centre-stage on TV channels, countless such case in remote and rural places do not even get noticed, raising questions about the newsworthiness of the place of crime and the victims involved.

A 22-year-old photo-journalist was gang-raped in Mumbai on Thursday night and hell broke out for the national TV channels. There was a war-like situation in the newsrooms even as the netizens on social media could not stop pouring out their anguish over the disturbing incident which also became a subject of discussion during the ongoing monsoon session of the Parliament.
Next morning in Mysore, a 14-year-old minor girl from a poor family was found to have been sexually exploited for months by a 52-year old man. The girl was pregnant and so traumatised that she was unable to speak coherently. Her family was aghast at her future. This heartrending story was run as a small news scroll briefly on Kannada news channels. Obviously, the national channels were not even aware of this incident. Even if they did, it would not have made any difference. All are equal but some are more equal – applies to the mainstream media which is becoming more and more metro-centric in our country.
Do the crimes that take place in the smaller cities, towns and the darker recesses of the rural India not mean anything?
One of the famous 19th century literary critics, Mathew Arnold, in one of his essays writes - "For the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment." These lines present great flexibility to rephrase and redefine the alarming media trend: For, the victims of the crimes to be heard by the mainstream media, two things must concur, the power of the place or the power of the socio-economic class to which the victims belong.
Crime sells. Crime in big cities sells more. Crime in big cities involving big people sells much more. With burgeoning media, especially the spawning of TV channels which bank on the proven formula to garner bigger share of viewership, there has been a wide coverage of the crime. However, the inhuman incidents that take place in smaller places, even if they are located very close to the power centre, go unnoticed. That is why, “Mumbai rape incident puts a question mark on the safety of the women in the country,” becomes a debating point on a prime TV channel, as though the countless number of rapes  happening in smaller places do not raise this pertinent question.
According to statistics collated by Mrinal Satish, associate professor of law at Delhi's National Law University, around 75 percent of rape conviction happens in rural India and the rest in towns, cities and the metros, a figure that brings into sharp focus India's urban-rural divide. Given that majority of the cases go unreported, especially in villages, the actual number of rapes that happen in rural areas could be many more. But the skewed media coverage of rape and atrocities on womenfolk blinds a man like Mohan Bhagwat, RSS chief, and leads him to conclude that rapes do not happen in Bharat (meaning rural India).
However, the December 16 Nirbhaya case in New Delhi marked a shift in the media tendency to focus on the crimes involving who’s who of the society. Thanks to the rise of middle class and the proactive voices on social media, it now makes sense for the media to cover crimes connected to the middle class in big cities which form a large chunk of TV viewership.
Commenting on the media attention the case got, Vipul Mudgal of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, said, “What’s different [about Nirbhaya’s story] is that the media has given the middle-class a voice.” His observations would have been apt if they were confined to the middle class in big cities. The female population in rural India, the most vulnerable to sexual crimes, is still left out of the media attention for its lack of newsworthiness. The rape of the girl in Mysore is a case in point.

(Published as Oped in City Today on August 24, 2013)

Friday, August 23, 2013

(Un)Parliamentary Crisis

Frequent adjournments rock monsoon session

No bill has passed in the Lok Sabha since the monsoon session of the Parliament commenced more than a fortnight back. Frequent disruptions and adjournments have robbed the precious hours, and important bills, including the Food Security Bill, are yet to find the light of the day.
Adding salt to the wound, a few MPs from Andhra Pradesh resorted to unparliamentary behaviour by trying to pull down the microphone of the Speaker Meira Kumar on Thursday, when a motion was moved to suspend them for continuously disrupting the session over Telangana issue. This is only the latest in the series of such shameful acts by our elected representatives; they getting into physical fights in the Well of and throwing chairs at each other have been widely reported in media. What is wrong with our system?


Statistics show the number of days devoted for the parliament sessions is decreasing over the years.
  • 1st Lok Sabha held sessions for 3,784 days (with 677 active hours).
  • 5th Lok Sabha held sessions for highest number of days – 4,072 (613 active hours).
  • Numbers plummeted since the 10th Lok Sabha which held sessions for 2,528 days (423 hours).
  • 14th Lok Sabha which ended in 2009 spent just 1,737 days (332 hours).
  • Situation is much worse with the current Lok Sabha (15th).
  • Successive governments are showing less interest in convening the Parliament sessions. UPA reserved only 12 active days in this monsoon session to table 40 plus bills, meaning hardly three hours for each bill!
  • The monsoon session of 2007, supposed to begin in mid-July, was delayed until August 10 due to the visit of the Prime Minister of Japan.
  • In 2008, the monsoon session lasted for just 2 days and was suspended later for reasons not clear

B L Shanker, former Speaker, Karnataka Legislative Council, as told to City Today

Parliament is a sacred platform to discuss and debate pressing issues of the country. The members of the House, if they have a strong case, can use it judiciously to contribute for the policy decisions and to drive home important messages to the countrymen.
Sadly, the members of the House are forcing frequent adjournments and resorting to unparliamentarily behaviour. Those who are resorting to such behaviour and causing wastage of public money do not have any strong points to make in the Parliament. It is a desperate act by them to hog the limelight by occupying more space on television channels.
I think the advent of television channels is the prime reason for the increase in unparliamentary behaviour of our immature leaders. The proceedings in the Rajya Sabha are happening smoothly when compared to Lok Sabha because the members of the Upper House do not need to keep their popularity high by appearing on TV channels.
The members of the House should understand that all issues – small and big – cannot be discussed in the Parliament. Some MPs from Andhra Pradesh have been disrupting the monsoon session since it started. What they are going to achieve by this except wasting taxpayers’ money? There should be a method even in madness.
The members resorting unparliamentary behaviour should be severely dealt with irrespective of the party they belong to. There should not be any politics over discipline and the decorum needed to be maintained inside the House. Otherwise, it spawns anarchy in the House and sends a wrong message to the people.
Continuous disruption of the parliamentary proceedings prompts the citizens of the country to believe that the Legislature does not protect the country’s interest but the Judiciary and the Executive. The latter two pillars of democracy will have a moral upper hand in the day-today running of the government and it is not a good development.
These days, no debate happens even during the Question Hour and one should know that a lot of money is spent to prepare for the details to be presented during this hour. We have a Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) which deliberates over major issues with due diligence and submits to the Parliament for further debate. But these days, the political parties are not ready to wait for the PAC report. Then why do we need something like PAC?
Both the Government and the Opposition should not hesitate to discuss any issue of importance during the Parliament sessions. We should formulate rules to penalise the members of the House by way of withdrawing various benefits they enjoy for being in the privileged position. Also, it should be the case that the Parliament sessions are continued as long as the debate does not happen on important agendas.

(Published as Oped on City Today on August 23, 2013)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Internet minus Google? Well, google it!

The internet democratised the knowledge world by breaking all sorts of barriers– geographic, linguistic, social and economic – that restricted one’s access to the best books, magazines, libraries, people and what not. Search engine giant Google led this democratising process with its innovative and user-friendly search engine, maps, mail service and many more for the general user community, and various types of analytics for enterprise requirements.

Last Saturday before the day broke in India, when we were yet to wake up from slumber, panic gripped the people in the United States where the Friday’s sun was yet to set. Reason: Google went down for four minutes!

Disruption of Google’s services brought down the internet traffic by 40 percent. It means nearly half of all internet traffic was affected because something happened to Google.

Netizens who had never heard Google blackout for over a decade were shocked and the panic spread in waves on Twitter and Facebook. “Did u srvive d gr8 blackout of 2013?”, “Wil u alwys rmembr whr u wre wen Goog went dwn?”  - people poured out on social media. When Google was finally back, they heaved, “please don’t leave me again.”

The enterprises that utilise various applications like Google Analytics, AdSense, AdWords as core of their business model too were greatly alarmed. The companies and website users went numb, because when Google goes down, it is like not being able to breathe oxygen.

Outage is not an issue in terms of revenue loss. According to a calculation, the outage cost Google around $545,000. The company generates around $100,000 in revenue each minute when it is online and functioning correctly. To the average person, losing half a million is losing a fortune but to a multi-billion dollar company, it is a penny.

The idea that Google could go down is unsettling to the people. Most people think it is impossible. But it is just like any other web-based service company.

Those four minutes revealed the vulnerability of the internet world as well as the web-based business houses that largely depend upon the internet giant. The fact that the search engines like Yahoo! and Bing were not able to capitalise on Google’s outage only highlights the dependence on services Google provides. Google enjoys a whopping 67% market share and continues to grow.

Not just that. Not just the huge cash reserves, the genius company is sitting on a massive repository of user-generated knowledge that no other company in the world can even dream at the moment. The company that played a prominent role in democratising the generation, dissemination and consumption of information has monopolised the internet world.

It shows how great ideas can enslave the world. Also, the fact that one company can become so massive and affect our lives is unsettling. Concentration of power in the hands of a few, only one in this case, weakens the integrity of the entire system.

(Published in my column As It Happens in City Today on August 22, 2013)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rupee slides too fast and steep

The panic triggered by the decision of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to curb capital outflows has further put pressure on the already weakened rupee (INR) that touched an all-time low of 62.03 against dollar in intra-day trade on Friday.

The RBI, on the eve of India’s 67th Independence Day, announced curbs on Overseas Direct Investments (ODI), reducing from 400 percent of net worth to 100 percent of net worth, through the automatic route. The central bank is effectively curtailing Indians from investing abroad and has gone one step further to ban the purchase of property abroad.  The import of gold in the form of coins and medallions has been banned by the government.

This cap on ODI limit, however, does not apply to ODI by Navratna PSUs, ONGC Videsh Ltd and Oil India in overseas unincorporated entities and incorporated entities, in the oil sector.
The move on capital controls by the RBI is by far the most damaging for the INR.  Though the capital controls are confined to the resident Indians, it has left the foreign investors worried as they fear some form of controls on their investments in the days to come.
The RBI should have realised that capital controls are a retrograde step which take us back to pre-1991 era of closed economy.  The world is replete with countries that have failed to prevent currency depreciation through capital controls. Malaysia in the late 1990s, Argentina in the 2000s and Iceland imposed capital controls post its crisis in 2008 are examples of capital controls that never worked.
The decision to curb capital outflows is a pre-1991 era solution to a problem in the post-liberalised era. Curb on capital movement was the bulwark of the country’s economic policies during the pre-liberalised era when it very frequently faced balance of payment crisis.

Panic-driven move

Efficacy of the move to curb capital outflows looks unnecessary and panic-driven given the outflows have already been declining this year. Instead, traders fear the capital restrictions could adversely impact company profits and could lead to stronger capital restrictions that would scare off foreign investors. The measures to restrict capital outflows come as overseas investments from India had already been on the wane, averaging a monthly $400 million in the first half of the year from $710 million in 2012.
The central bank should have realised the simple fact that the money will not come in if it is not allowed to move out.

What the curbs mean?

If this curbs on capital outflow had been in place a decade back, the Tatas would have thought thrice about buying Corus or Jaguar Land Rover, the Birlas would have found it tough to buy Novelis and Bharti Airtel may not have dared to buy Zain.
In short, Indian companies that want to invest abroad cannot do so easily now without going through the bureaucratic hassles. While the public sector oil companies, already enfeebled by having to dole out subsidies, are allowed to do what they find difficult.


The RBI move has affected the confidence among the participants in the market and has raised questions about the country’s financial fundamentals at a time when the country’s GDP is revised to lower levels and the current account deficit is widening.
The foreign investors are worried that more capital controls could be introduced to limit the movement of their capital.
NRIs are worried about their ability to move in and out of Indian bank deposits. They are discouraged to deposit any money in their home country for the fear of curbs on its movement.
If the Indian companies do not want to invest in the country and cannot invest abroad, they would not like to take risks and would want to wait till the crisis blows over.

Assuring words

Realising the negative impact of the RBI move on the markets, the Finance Minister P Chidambaram sought to clarify that these measures should not be viewed as retrograde. However, the damage has already been done and it takes herculean efforts on the government and the RBI to restore confidence and to stop rupee volatility.

(Published in Oped in City Today on August 17, 2013)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Modi’s onslaught breaks the tradition

Narendra Modi's unbridled attack on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his Independence Day speech has shocked the traditionalists angered the Congress and created unease within the BJP which is still to come to terms with Modi's brand of politics. The traditional thinking has been that occasions like the Independence Day was an opportunity to showcase national unity to the outside world and not internal rifts and differences.
Seen as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the forthcoming general elections yet without any official declaration by the party which is still trying to come to a consensus on the issue, Modi seemed to have seized the opportunity provided to him by the Independence Day to force his entry into the national stage by hinting that he was ‘the man’ to take on the prime minister, symbolizing his unofficial status in his own party, the BJP.
Criticising Modi for this choice of time and venue for assault on PM, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh said Modi’s lust for becoming the Prime Minister had crossed all limits.
Congress slammed the Gujarat chief minister for indulging in "petty politics" for personal projection. Foreign minister Salman Khurshid said Modi was "so restless to become something big in the country" that he forgot it was a day when parties sink political differences.
In the BJP camp, L K Advani too felt that the leaders should not be critical of other leaders in the country the occasion like Independence Day. “I heard the Prime Minister today...Today on Independence Day, without criticising anybody, we all should realise that India has unlimited potential for the future,” he said.

Clear intentions
 Modi has clearly stated his intentions with his frontal attack on PM. He indicated that he is a rank outsider challenging Delhi’s misrule. This way, he is challenging not only the Congress, but also the coterie in the BJP’s own Delhi headquarters. By posing as the outsider to Delhi’s power elite, Modi is saying if the people wanted change, they have to choose him. He has clearly abandoned the old style of submission, humility and compromise – a style that usually leads nowhere. He seems confident that large sections of the urban middle class, at least, want to abandon excess humility and to sit down to do serious business. Modi has shown his liking for the US-style presidential campaign where the candidates themselves are the issues as much as the parties’ manifestos. Modi has managed to make himself the issue.

Modi’s points
1. Challenged PM to a debate over the country’s development. "Come let us have a competition on development between Gujarat and Delhi. Our shortcomings will come forward and so will your good deeds."

2. Criticized PM for not talking about Pakistan’s aggression on LoC. "Today we never got to hear anything from the Prime Minister about this (the attack along the LoC). I don't believe that the Red Fort is a place to target Pakistan but it is a place where we can boost the morale of our troops."

3. Lambasted the PM for not talking about India’s freedom fighters but about one family (Nehru-Gandhi family) in his address from the Red Fort.

4. Said Congress has not done anything much since Independence: "The PM in his speech mentioned the same problems thatPandit Jawaharlal Nehru mentioned in 1947. So what have they been doing for all these years?"

5. Hinted at the recent charges levelled against Congress president Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra. "Pehlemaama-bhaanjeke serial aate they, aabsaas, bahuaurdamaadkeserials bhiaanelagehai (Earlier soaps involved uncle and nephew but now they involve mother-in-law, daughter-in-law and son-in-law)"

6. Opposed Food Security Bill saying the PM would not like to discuss shortcomings of the bill. 7. Took a personal dig at Manmohan Singh. Referring the PM’s words that he had miles to go, Modi said “Which rocket does he intend to take to cover these miles?", he wondered (in the context of the general perception that this year’s address from Red Fort was his last)

(Oped story in City Today on August 16, 2013)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Development Journalism: Antithetical to development?

Media activism with respect to developmental issues carries an inherent contradiction: Activism in favor of development or against the developmental schemes/projects which are always wedded to conflicts with Nature/natural resources. This confusion which is so dominant even among the most knowledgeable media persons was echoed by Krishna Prasad, Editor of The Outlook , during a book launch program in Bangalore today morning.
One of his many questions with regard to development journalism was the risk of it becoming antithetical to development without which we could not have seen a KRS and the neighboring affluent regions like Srirangapattinam, Nanjangud and other regions around Mysore which now reap the benefit of the construction project.
Of course, the issue takes back to the old argument over what is development; building big dams at the cost of ecology OR the micro/organic development which many say is the most suitable for country like India. The issue also centers around similar debate over if it is justifiable to 'affect' certain number of people (like the displaced who lose their land and homes to pave way for dam and highway construction, etc.) in order to benefit certain other number of people, who generally form the majority.
These very fundamental debates over 'development' apart, the lack of understanding/confusion among the members of the media fraternity over the role the media ought to play when it comes to developmental issues is misguiding their coverage wrt development. Somehow the readers/viewers feel that there is a tendency among majority of journalists, especially young ones, for hyper-activism in issues relating to development. The readers/viewers can confidently say that if there is a report on say, a newly proposed dam in some part of the state, it is definitely against the proposed project.
And this activism sounds very similar to that of NGOs spearheaded by activists like Arundhati Roys and Medha Patkers and the motto is to oppose, oppose everything that talks about development, because it hurts ecology and the natives. One can not just jettison these arguments, of course they are really valid and are the essential questions for the human race. But, it is essential for the media to have clarity with these questions. Instead of just echoing reflecting/repeating the views of firebrand activists, the media fraternity should do some do some "limb-work" and study the issues "personally and professionally" (as Krishna Prasad put it) to see the things by themselves. Maybe, such exercises bring clarity for the arguments over perennially debated question of 'what is development'