The BJP Wakes Up To India’s Poverty

(This is a post by Jacob Kuncheria. Cheri, as he is known to friends, works for Reuters in Delhi and is interested in development issues, Satyajit Ray films and Hindustani music.)

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has suddenly woken up to the gross underestimation of poverty in India. In Rajya Sabha on Thursday Murli Manohar Joshi asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if the current definition of poverty in India was not a joke on the poor and whether this was not a means to mask the extent of poverty. A noble sentiment indeed, but let the record also show the BJP made no effort to improve upon the faulty schema of identifying the poor when it ruled between 1999 and 2004.Worse, that government, of which Joshi was a cabinet minister, presided over a major fudging of poverty measurement, tweaking the process of data collection to falsely show poverty had fallen under its regime.

It is certainly true that the official poverty estimates in India do not indicate the true extent of deprivation in the country. The poverty line is the cost of the cheapest foods that can supply the barest minimum of energy a person needs. Currently, if a villager earns over 12.26 rupees a day, or an urban citizen earns over 18.36 rupees daily, she is above the poverty line. That sum would not buy a McDonald’s burger even at their happy price menu, to make a rather cruel comparison.

Man cannot live on calories alone, he needs proteins and vitamins and minerals too, but the standard does not see the need to incorporate that. If a person sold her cow, her pots and pans or her land to make buy food, the income increase would actually push her above the poverty line. To add pain, the norm does not concern itself with the question of whether the supposedly un-poor actually eat the food supposedly purchasable at that income.

Studies have shown that the lack of state-provided health care, housing and education lead poor households to spend an increasing amount of their income on private providers. This reduces food consumption, and invariably, the deprivation is pronounced in women, girls and children. It is no wonder India is home to 40 percent of malnourished children, and its record is worse than sub-Saharan Africa. The amount of anaemic women and girls and the ensuing high rate of maternal mortalities, among other damning health statistics clearly point to the inadequacy of the measure. Hence, the poverty line is not just a line under which one is poor. Rather, it is an indicator which says: if you earn below this, it’s a miracle you’re alive.


Now to the BJP and poverty. The estimation of how many people are poor is done by measuring household income, which is the subject of a survey conducted every five years. Households are quizzed on their spending in the month, and a rise in this indicates increased income. If more households spend more, it means the number of the poor as a percentage of the total population has fallen.

In the 59th round of this survey in 2003, when the BJP was in power and painting rosy images of India Shining, an additional question on weekly spending was asked of households. A minor change, but when posed right before the question on monthly spending, led the respondent to quadruple the weekly answer to give the monthly figure. This number was clearly incorrect, for there are weekly variations in income and consumption, given the fact most of India’s poor have no fixed jobs or wages.The data that emerged gave an inflated consumption number, indicating incomes had risen under the BJP’s rule and the government had been successful in fighting poverty.

The easiest way of ending famine, it seems, is expunging the word from the language itself! And the poor have no idea of their great fortune, they know not how many tears are being shed in their name.

Hotel Taj : icon of whose India ?

Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another
during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of
another kind. The terror of assaulting one’s mind and sensitivity with
cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have
been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called – Hotel Taj
the icon of India.

Whose India, Whose Icon ?

It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not
bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from
terrorists – the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station.
CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station
hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal
and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming
themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with
the Marathis and Kolis

But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise
the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No
Barkha dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to
show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards.
And the TV cameras did not go to the government run JJ hospital to
find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were
again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the
dead bodies of the page 3 celebrities.

In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers
from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at
CST without cell phones and pan cards to identify them. Even after 60
hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in
detail what transpired there.

The channels conveniently failed to acknowledge that the Aam Aadmis of
India surviving in Mumbai were not affected by Taj, Oberoi and Trident
closing down for a couple of weeks or months. What mattered to them
was the stoppage of BEST buses and suburban trains even for one hour.
But the channels were not covering that aspect of the terror attack.
Such information at best merited a scroll line, while the cameras have
to be dedicated for real time thriller unfolding at Taj or Nariman

The so called justification for the hype the channels built around
heritage site Taj falling down (CST is also a heritage site), is that
Hotel Taj is where the rich and the powerful of India and the globe
congregate. It is a symbol or icon of power of money and politics, not
India. It is the icon of the financiers and swindlers of India. The
Mumbai and India were built by the Aam Aadmis who passed through CST
and Taj was the oasis of peace and privacy for those who wielded power
over these mass of labouring classes. Leopold club and Taj were the
haunts of rich spoilt kids who would drive their vehicles over
sleeping Aam Aadmis on the pavement, the Mafiosi of Mumbai forever
financing the glitterati of Bollywood (and also the terrorists) ,
Political brokers and industrialists.

It is precisely because Taj is the icon of power and not people, that
the terrorists chose to strike.

The terrorists have understood after several efforts that the Aam
Aadmi will never break down even if you bomb her markets and trains.
He/she was resilient because that is the only way he/she can even

Resilience was another word that annoyed the pundits of news channels
and their patrons this time. What resilience, enough is enough, said
Pranoy Roy\\\’s channel on the left side of the channel spectrum. Same
sentiments were echoed by Arnab Goswami representing the right wing of
the broadcast media whose time is now. Can Rajdeep be far behind in
this game of one upmanship over TRPs ? They all attacked resilience
this time. They wanted firm action from the government in tackling

They will not destroy Bombay!!!

South Bombay occupies a special place in the psyche of Bombay (I was born in Bombay, not Mumbai, and Bombay is where my most cherished memories lie). If Bombay is the city of dreams then South Bombay is where the creators of those dreams used to live. South Bombay is familiar to each and every person in this sub continent who has ever watched Hindi cinema. The iconic shoreline of the Queens’ Necklace with Malabar Hills in the background has been used as a backdrop in innumerable Hindi films. This is where prince and pauper come to partake of an experience called Bombay at it most lively. Lovers sit, with their arms around each other or their heads buried in laps and bosoms, on the parapet on Marine Drive facing the sea, symbolically turning their backs on a city that does not, cannot, give them the space to express their feelings for each other. So they expressed it in the open. Not that anyone minded. In Bombay you could walk naked on the streets and no one would give a second glance. It’s that kind of a city.

On November 26 that changed, perhaps forever. On that day terrorists came and ripped the heart out of Bombay. They killed indiscriminately, wantonly, without mercy or compassion. Once again, my beloved city was trampled upon, abused and ill-treated. This time the targets were the landmarks of Bombay, especially Taj Mahal hotel and Victoria Terminus.

My old office, Exress Towers lies just behind the Oberoi-Trident Hotel.

Leopold’s café, which was sprayed with bullets, serves the best beef steak in town. I’ve been there so often with friends, sat on the same tables that were spattered with blood now.

Gokul bar (the cheapest bar in Colaba), adjacent to Bade Miyan hotel is where 8 kg of RDX was recovered from. I’ve eaten so many times at Bade Miyan after a binge with friends at Gokul.

Boarded so many trains at Victoria Terminus (now CST).

Seen so many films at Metro theatre, where Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar and Kamte were gunned down for the audacity of taking on AK 47s with service revolvers.

An 80 year old family friend lives right next to Nariman House, where the terrorists held hostages. Amazingly, she went for a walk with bullets flying all around. She wanted to see what the commotion was all about!

Been inside the Taj hotel many times…

The last one is especially poignant. Why do they target hotels? The same thing happened in Islamabad when the Marriot Hotel was blown up by a suicide bomber. I called up a dear friend in Pakistan that evening. He answered the phone with a weary hello. He sounded tired and depressed. He explained that he had been inside the Marriot many times and there were no words to describe the sense of loss he felt. My phone call cheered him up, if only to reassure him that his friends were with him.

He called me up the day the Mumbai terrorist struck. This time my voice was tinged with sadness. He provided the succor while I listened. We both discussed the futility of violence and the nihilism of terrorism, just like we had in an earlier phone conversation. The only difference was that this time I was listening while he talked.

Rage, frustration, sadness, melanholy, helplessness, anger…

This is what I feel. But they will not destroy Bombay or Mumbai. They will not be allowed to succeed. We will stand united. For ultimately, blind hatred is self defeating.


The guns have finally fallen silent. The staccato bursts of gunfire have died down. The intermittent explosions have stopped. The pigeons which flew away after every explosion have settled down. But something does not feel right. This was not like one of those bomb blasts we have been seeing with such regularity in India over the past few years. The blasts, even though extremely tragic, had a neat closure to them. But this siege was not neat. It was brutal, ugly, bloody and drawn out. To think that a dozen terrorists made the city, the country, nay even the world stand still speaks volumes both of their meticulous planning as well as of the utter failure of our security apparatus.

I’ve never liked Mumbai as a city. I’ve never lived there but while I was in college I visited it every year for four years. And every time I came away irritated by its insane (to me) rush to get somewhere, its ugly contrasts, mixed with a little envy too perhaps that Mumbai was so much more cosmopolitan than Hyderabad. I’ve always thought people made a lot of unnecessary fuss about Mumbai, its so called spirit, character and every other clichéd adjective you can think of. But this time, unlike the many tragic events before, my heart went out to Mumbai and its people. As I followed the breathless TV reporters fall over themselves to bring the rest of the world as many live images as possible of the ‘unfolding situation’ I was filled with a curious mixture of emotions. There was sadness at the needless and immense loss of life. There was multi-directional rage too, at the politicians who seem to mumble the same platitudes every time something like this happens but are soon back to their ways, of dividing this beautifully complex country to suit their narrow needs.

There was rage too at the terrorists, a helpless and hopeless sort of rage mixed with some despair. I’ve tried but I still cannot understand how someone of roughly my age can take a machine gun, walk into a hotel, into a railway station and start shooting indiscriminately. How can he look into the eyes of a woman trying to go home after visiting her relatives and shoot her in the throat? How can he separate people based on their nationality and gun them down? Try as I might I just cannot comprehend this inhumanity, this utter, deep dark hate that someone has inculcated in him. After all, he was not born with it. He was somebody’s son. He must have experienced some love. How do you go from being a human being to someone who does not blink twice before pressing the trigger and pumping bullets into fellow human beings, irrespective of whether that human being is an old man, a woman or a child? This hatred is beyond me.

And that fills me with a certain hopelessness. How do you guard against such unfathomable hatred? How do you tackle it? Will a more proactive intelligence help? Will upgrading our archaic police force into something more modern and efficient help? Perhaps those measures will help in the short term. But in the long run we have to reach out to the source of such hatred and wipe it out. Not with guns or smart bombs as so many have now begun to advocate, the ‘Israeli way’ they call it. For that will only lead to a never ending cycle of violence. But by understanding the roots of such terror and turning people away from this futile murderous orgy; through education, through alleviation of poverty, through better job prospects and through respect. For nothing blunts hatred more than happiness and peace.

Today I am Angry and Ashamed!

Today, I am angry and ashamed.

Angry about hypocritical ‘hindu’ politicians, the uncaring society we live in, the heartless middle class that inhabits this country and the fate that awaits India if the above three continue on this trajectory.

Ashamed about hypocritical ‘hindu’ politicians, the uncaring society we live in, the heartless middle class that inhabits this country and the confluence of the above three.

Yes folks…welcome to the new Hindu rashtra!!! How long will we continue to sit silent while those Muslim behenc__ds rape, pillage and explode bombs? Of course, we too are proud Hindus. We cannot sit silent. The blood of the Aryans, Europeans, Rajputs, and Huns flows in our veins. We are the descendents of Shivaji, who held the might of the Mughal empire at bay. Hindu samaj is the possessor of all the worldy truths and all the knowledge that has been invented by western science. Our sages discovered the airplane, the atom bomb, fusion and fission technology and plastic surgery long before the white man.

Our seers invented 0, chess, algebra, arithmetic, geology, psychology, philosophy and zoology thousands of years ago.

Our ancestors dabbled into the depths of ontology and the heights of epistemology. Our Vedas, Shastras, Purans, Gita and Upanishads contain all the knowledge that is needed for this world.

We were the masters of dance, drama, art, literature, erotics, and aesthetics when the barbarians of Europe and the Middle east were foraging around in bear skins and loin cloths.

We are the inheritors of the proud Hindu culture….

How can we produce TERRORISTS?

Impossible, incredulous, lies, conspiracy, out to malign Hindus.

Of course, what ‘Sadhvi’ Pragya Singh and Armyman Purohit did is not retaliation or Hindu terrorism (gasp!!!)

They were just reacting to those vile Muslim terrorists. So what if a few explosions kill some people in Muslim ghettos? So what if some more explosions kill some random other people? SO WHAT

Hindus cannot be terrorists, That’s only for Muslims.

Today I hang my head in shame and stew in my own anger.

because yesterday I asked liberal Muslims to stand up and take a stand against terrorism, because the day before that I did believe that all the bomb blasts in this country were caused by ‘Muslim’ terrorist organisations.

because today my ‘Hindu’ neighbours tell me callously, so what? so what if ‘our people’ exploded a few bombs. After all, we are paying them back in the same coin..

Where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah…Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said that about shooting innocent people in Nandigram.

Narendra Modi said that about the Gujarat genocide.

Raj Thackeray is saying that about ‘bhayyas’.

So what’s wrong if we say it. After all, they are only *!*@*%# Muslims…

(fill in your own abuses in the space provided)

Looking back at Amarnath

At a time when commentators were talking of the end of the insurgency and life was returning to normal in the Kashmir valley, the Amarnath crisis and the associated violence this summer of 2008, came as a rude shock to many. The separatist tone of the protests in the valley created a furore in Indian media. If we were to put the facts of the crisis itself aside, the accompanying protests provided a fascinating opportunity to observe the change sweeping the Kashmir valley. Indeed, the Amarnath crisis may have inadvertently acted as a window of opportunity to bring peace back to Kashmir. Policymakers in Delhi cannot therefore afford to miss the positive outcomes generated by the crisis.

Firstly, it is worth analyzing why the protests in the valley against the government’s decision about transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board started with pro-independence overtones, then acquired religious hues and thereafter a pro-Pakistani tint. The ISI hand if any, was seemingly minimal in these protests. Officials in Islamabad were apparently as surprised as New Delhi to see the pro-Pakistani tenor. In fact, it is entirely possible that the Pakistani flags placed by some elements at Lal chowk in Srinagar on India’s Independence Day were only a ploy to keep the nation’s attention riveted on Kashmir. To get the attention of the Indian mainstream, nothing works better than a Pakistani flag. One only needs to look at how interest in the Bodo-Muslim clashes in Assam in early October rapidly rose after some Pakistani flags were sighted. The Pakistan card is a bogey that separatists have used in the past as well to put pressure on New Delhi. While some Pro-Pakistani groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba tried to piggy-back on the protests and gain propaganda mileage with motorcycle riders shouting anti-India slogans, they were soon drowned out by the pro-independence voices.

Therefore, whatever mix of aspirations drove the Kashmiris, one thing became clear from the protests. There is definitely an indigenous opinion within the valley about the future of Kashmir, one that is not driven by external entities like Pakistan. In that sense, these protests were reminiscent of the protests of 1963-64 after the theft of the Hazratbal relic, which were entirely indigenously spurred (before Pakistan began its decades-long covert intervention in the valley with Operation Gibraltar of 1965).

At the same time, the protests in the valley do not signify a boost for the armed separatist movement. In fact, the Amarnath crisis represents a decisive shift in the nature of political protest the valley – from one of armed violence to one of non-violent protests. It will take some time before the valley rediscovers completely the power of non-violent dissent, but the process has begun. Yasin Malik, the former Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front militant turned separatist leader, was quoted by The Economist recently as saying: “[today’s Kashmiri youngsters] are even more angry than my generation, yet committed to non-violence”. Why this shift has happened amongst the youth is worthy of an entire sociological treatise. In short, the collective failure of insurgency to achieve political goals, the progressive marginalization of Kashmiris in Pakistan-backed militant outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the emergence of regional parties other than the National Conference, could have all contributed to it. The latter is particularly noteworthy. Although non- National Conference forces have been active in the valley before, never were they able to influence decision making at the Center as they did during the Amarnath crisis. The triangular struggle to win over public opinion between the National Conference, People Democratic Party and All Party Hurriyat Conference during the crisis represents the coming of age of Kashmiri politics and the end of political monopoly.

Another positive outcome of the protest was that they triggered a debate in the Indian hinterland about the future of Kashmir, something that 18 years of insurgency was unable to do. The Times of India actually ran a poll during the crisis asking if Indians want Kashmir to be retained at all costs. To most Indians, such a question would not have arisen even a year ago.

Even at the Centre, the protests saw a departure in the way New Delhi has handled the Valley at times in the past. The Central government neither enforced a media blackout nor denied the content of the protests as Pakistani propaganda, seeking instead a negotiated settlement. While this is in part due to the realities of coalition politics at the Centre, it is nonetheless significant.

The protests in Jammu were equally worthy of attention. While a section of the media sought to cast the protests purely in religious terms, the participation of Gujjars and Dogri Muslims indicates there was a “regional” factor also involved. This in turn may have forced Kashmiri separatist leaders to rethink the costs of secession from India. The Jammu protests hastened the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway for trade. Not only will this move help build better ties between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and J & K, the resultant economic prosperity could transform opinions about the future of Kashmir. This has happened before. Peace returned to Northern Ireland essentially after Britain promoted private sector investment and trade in the province, and paved the way for the Good Friday accord. In the case of Kashmir, Article 370 and the law and order situation have prohibited private investment in the past. The alternative therefore, clearly lies in promoting trade across the border. This also creates the possibility of exposing people in PoK to the possibilities of democratic, non-violent solutions to the Kashmir dispute.

One cannot say that the Amarnath crisis was the best thing that ever happened for Kashmir. In fact, one of the most worrisome fallouts of the crisis is the potential of it being exploited by radical groups in the hinterland. (The Indian Mujahideen had cited the blockade of the valley during the Jammu protests as one of their justifications for the Delhi blasts in September.) But the Amarnath crisis has certainly served to put Kashmir as one of the key issues on the 2009 election agenda. Given the importance of the Kashmir dispute to national security concerns, this would not be an unwelcome development.

(This article was originally published in The Indian National Interest Review, Nov 2008 issue)

US and Indo-Pak relations: the Obama view

While Pakistan came up all too frequently during the recently concluded US Presidential campaign, South Asia watchers sat up when Barack Obama spoke of working with India to deal with Pakistan’s concerns about its security, a prerequisite to bring peace to Afghanistan. This triangular dynamic seems common sense in the subcontinent but attracts only peripheral attention in Washington where Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are seen only from the angle of bilateral relations.

Obama’s statement made many wonder if it implied US was going to step into the role of mediator between India and Pakistan. Although this suggestion was dismissed by both Presidential candidates in the light of the progress of the Indo-Pak peace process, some of the commentary that went with suggestions of mediation hinted at it as being necessary to resolve the schism between the two neighbors.

At least one of the problems with a suggestion of US mediation is that it presumes that the conflicting parties are not rational actors – a notion that subcontinentals find repelling. Of course the US has a long and fairly successful history of conflict mediation from the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel to the Good Friday process that brought peace to Ireland, and the Dayton accords that negotiated peace settlement in Yugoslavia.

However unlike in all these cases, the conflicting parties in South Asia are not inviting the US for mediation. This has to do less with issues of sovereignty and more to do with self-identity. India and Pakistan perceive themselves as rational actors who can resolve disputes bilaterally.

The United States has thus far acted sensibly and even pressed upon by Pakistan and Kashmiri expat groups to intervene, has chosen to say that it supports the Indian stand on the issue, that disputes can be adequately resolved through Indo-Pak bilateral dialog.

But should the US choose to change this policy and attempt mediation, it would have to first start by addressing the South Asians as mature, rational actors. Unfortunately this is easier said than done going by rhetoric in Washington both about Pakistan during the current debates and about India during the ratification of the nuclear deal. India and Pakistan are seen as two trigger-happy children who’ve got hold of dangerous nuclear toys.

I remember a former official in the US’ national security apparatus once mentioning that during one of the post-nuclearisation crises in South Asia, he asked an Indian official whether the nuclear option was being considered. The Indian official said that “Yes, a limited nuclear engagement is possible”. Whether or not the official meant it, the American was stunned…and told the Indian, “You have no idea what you are talking about”.

This is one of the general perceptions that clouds the less seasoned among American diplomats. While this has some roots in the American self-image and exceptionalism, it reminds subcontinentals of Kiplingesque “white man’s burden”.

For instance, doves in Washington often point out how unlike the USSR and the US, India and Pakistan are so close that there would be almost no warning time in case of a missile launch restricting any attempt at protection. Anyone who’s worked in missile defense would tell you that even for ICBMs during the cold war, neither the US nor the USSR had any means to stop or divert a missile once it was launched. Ballistic missile defense systems can hardly shoot down an incoming missile in its boost phase even with the best of technology like the still-born Star Wars program. Hence, the nuclear threat between the US and USSR was comparable and in no way more than the threat faced in the subcontinent. In fact, the Cold war arms race spawned tactical nukes like Davy Crockets and artillery shells which were more lethal than any weapon that has emerged on the subcontinent. Therefore, if the US and USSR could work over their differences without mediation during the Cold war, then so can India and Pakistan.

This is not to dismiss the value a mediator can bring to the table. Conflicts often get exacerbated due to asymmetry of information and a respected mediator can play a vital role by acting as a channel of communication between the two parties. Thus, the United States’ value as a mediator cannot be dismissed. But what is pertinent is how the US dons this role and how it treats the two parties once it dons the role – as sovereign states or quarrelling juveniles.

From The Earth To The Moon

With the successful launch of Chandrayaan-1 ISRO has joined a select league of nations that have launched missions to the moon. While the spacecraft will take a few more days to attain lunar orbit the successful launch is in itself a great first step for ISRO in space exploration.

Inevitably, amidst the euphoria, there have been voices of dissent. There are some who argue that India cannot afford to waste precious money on what they see as a grandiloquent gesture to catch up with China’s far more advanced space program. They also argue that enough is known about the moon and this mission will not advance our scientific knowledge about our nearest neighbor enough to justify the mission.

Let us look at the ‘price tag’ first. Before the USA embarked on their Apollo missions they launched a series of lunar probes to do lunar imaging and impact studies. Total expense: a neat $1 billion. Japan’s Kayuga moon mission cost a whopping $480m! Even China’s lunar probe cost them a cool $180m. Compare these sums to what the cost is for India’s moon mission: $76m! An unmanned moon mission at that price can easily be termed dirt cheap. In terms of expenditure, the Indian mission is obviously the cheapest of all known global moon missions 1 2.

Coming to the scientific ‘worth’, Chandrayaan-1 is no slouch in this regard as well. The main mission objectives are to create a 3-D atlas of the Moon, study its chemical and mineral composition, look for Helium-3 (a potential future energy source) and search for the presence of water-ice. Towards fulfilling these objectives the moon craft carries a total of 11 scientific instruments of which 5 are Indian, 2 American (NASA), 3 European (ESA) and one Bulgarian (BAS).

Using these instruments ISRO will undertake a high resolution remote sensing of the moon in visible, near infrared, low-energy and high-energy X-ray spectra. This will help create a high resolution 3-dimensional map of the near and far side regions of the moon. In addition, questions about the origins of the moon (whether it was created by a collision with earth of another heavenly body or was an alien body captured by earth’s gravity) might be answered through this mission. On top of this a chemical and mineralogical mapping of the moon’s surface will reveal the distribution of various elements (such as Titanium, Magnesium, Aluminum for example) on the lunar surface and help in determining the nature of the lunar crust. These data will lead to greater understanding of the moon’s evolutionary origin, mineral composition (for potential energy sources) as well as potential sites for a human moon base if water-ice is found on the moon 3 4.

After reading all this you might wonder how does this benefit the common man? How will these questions help anyone apart from satisfying the curiosity of a few scientists? These are valid questions especially from an Indian point of view where $76m might be used for schemes that benefit the common man more directly. But as I’ve argued in a post before when ISRO began taking tentative steps in starting a modest space program in the early 80s many termed it as a waste of valuable money. Now, the many satellites developed and launched by ISRO over the years have helped an average Indian in many ways, from early cyclone warning to something as mundane as satellite TV. With ISRO also becoming a small but important player in the lucrative global satellite launch business and high quality remote sensing it is earning valuable foreign exchange for the country.

When you look at the history of science it can be observed that the potential benefits from basic science research were not always immediately apparent. Bacteria were initially considered curious but useless creatures, flying a heavier than air object was considered a fool’s fancy while DNA was thought to be scaffold for the more important proteins. It is only when the fundamentals of basic science were properly understood and tested out did they result in applications that later helped humanity.

ISRO’s moon mission while not having immediate benefits for the common man might lead to many such ancillary benefits. Even now, the building of the Deep Space Network (necessary for monitoring the moon missions) is generating local employment. There will be an increased demand for science graduates to work for future missions. ISRO plans to launch another mission to the moon in the near future, Chandrayaan-2, which intends to land a rover on the moon to collect and test lunar samples. And ultimately, experience from these missions will benefit future planned missions such the project to put an Indian in space in the next decade as well as send a probe to Mars.

It is a pity that the enthusiasm there was for space exploration in the 60s has diminished over time. From looking out towards the universe and wanting to explore different worlds we have turned insular and limited ourselves to this planet. I hope the recent revival in interest for space exploration, in which Chandrayaan is playing its part, will spark a new space era with humans finally establishing a bridge head on the moon to serve as a base for an eventual manned mission to Mars.

The Kanchanjunga Trail

India has tourist destinations that are picturesque and off tourist itineraries. Sikkim is one such. Apart from the regular Gangtok-Rumtek-Nathula circuit, one of the most challenging treks in India lies in West Sikkim. Called the Yuksom-Dzongri-Goechala Trek, this 100 km, 7 day trek through rhododendron forests in the Kanchanjunga National Park (KNP) offers stunning views of the Kanchanjunga range.

The base for the trek is the village of Yuksom, which is the entrance to KNP. The park covers the area from Yuksom (1780 m) to Mt Kanchanjunga (8586 m), the third tallest peak in the world. The KNP covers an area of 2192 sq km and was notified by the Sikkim government in 1977.

Arriving in Yuksom is like taking a train ride back in time. Yuksom means ‘meeting place of three monks’ in the local Lepcha language and it is here that the history of modern Sikkim began. In 1642 AD the first king of Sikkim, Chogyal Phuntsok Namgyal, was consecrated by three Tibetan monks. The stone throne where the consecration took place still exists in Norbugang, near Yuksom. Soon after, the first Buddhist monastary in Sikkim was built in Dubdi to establish the Nyingmapa sect prevelant in Sikkim. Yuksom is also the hometown of Bollywood baddie, Danny Denzongpa.

It is with this sense of history that I began the trek on a warm May morning last year after having shopped for groceries for the trek. A word of caution here: it is risky to attempt the trek without guides or porters because there are no villages on the way to buy food. In my case, the guide doubled as cook.

The first day consists of a 16 km trek through dense temperate forests from Yuksom to the small village of Bakhim (2750 m). There is a spacious trekkers hut for the night’s stay. Day two is easy, just 2 km to a small Buddhist settlement called Tsokha (3050 m). The families here are refugees from Tibet and when offered a choice of places to settle down, they opted for a high altitude village. The trail goes through rhododendron forests. These plants reach 10-15 feet in height and bloom in April-May. The landscape is a riotous display of red, yellow, pink and purple rhododendrons. There are stunning views of Mt. Pandhim, Tenzingkhang, Lama Lamini, Narsing and Jophnu. I spent the rest of the day at Tsokha acclimatizing.

In the eighth century AD, guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Sikkim, flew over Sikkim on his way to Tibet. He was invited by the first king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, to rid his kingdom of the many evil spirits who terrorized his people. On the way he hid many treasures in the Kanchanjunga region. According to legend the treasures are still here, safe from prying eyes. As a result, the entire area around Kanchanjunga is considered sacred. In fact, Kanchanjunga means the five sacred treasures of snow in Lepcha, the local language. The mountain has five peaks which contain the Guru’s treasures: sacred books, gold, silver, gems and grain. As I begin trekking on the third day I cannot help feeling that one of the Guru’s treasures must have been the beautiful landscape. The early morning mist parts to reveal snow-capped peaks reflecting the golden sunlight.

DD Kosambi’s Contributions 1

July 2007 – June 2008 was celebrated as the birth centenary of Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi. DD was a multi-disciplinary scholar who made original contributions in the fields of mathematics, statistics, indology, ancient Indian history, Sanskrit literature, numismatics and archeology. Though he was a mathematician by training and profession he is best known for his contributions to Indology.

DD studied history as a product of the socio-economic and cultural influences of times past rather than merely looking at it as a chronological ordering of ‘events’. Although DD used Marxism as his basic historic framework he didn’t follow it blindly, or blandly. His disdain for the ‘official Marxists’ (OM) is well known. According to DD ‘Marxism is not a substitute for thinking but a tool for analysis’. DD’s scathing review of Dange’s (CPI general secretary) ‘painfully disappointing book’, India from Primitive Communism to Slavery, based on ‘facile pseudo Marxism’ shows his rejection of mechanical application of Marxism.

I will highlight a few of DD’s most though provoking contributions.

Indra and Vritra

DD argued that the tools of violence were curiously absent in the prosperous Indus Valley civilization. The weapons were flimsy and nothing like the sword was found. In the absence of police or an army the unequal distribution of surplus was maintained by deploying religion. According to DD the Mohenjodaro citadel was identical in its function to the Mesopotamian ziggurats while the great bath was a sacred bathing tank dedicated to a mother goddess. Consorting with the temple slaves may have been part of a fertility cult. The picture that emerges is of a fixed class of traders worshipping a feminine deity. The monopoly of the ruling class of traders was secured by the deployment of religion.

This static tradition was broken by the coming of the Aryans. The Rig Veda’s chief war-god is Indra who looted the stored treasures of the godless. DD believed that this was a reference to the Indus Valley people who were defeated by the invading Aryans. The Aryans also destroyed their agricultural system which was the basis of their food production which might explain why the cities went into decline soon after the Aryans arrived. The pre-Aryan system of agriculture depended on damming small rivers and flooding their banks so that silt was deposited which could be ploughed. The Rig Veda mentions that Indra freed the rivers from a demon called Vritra. DD interprets the term Vritra as ‘obstacle’ or ‘barrage’. The Rig Veda says that Vritra lay across slopes like a dark snake obstructing the flow of rivers. When he was struck by Indra’s thunderbolt the ground buckled and the stones rolled away, a good description of breaking up dams.

Flooding would have made the land too marshy for the Aryan’s cattle herds thus leading to conflict between the two groups.