Thursday, March 17, 2011

Governments, Nuclear Secrecy and People's Safety

Governments don't pay much attention to what their people want. Nor is it easy for citizens, however concerned, to really know what their governments are up to. This lack of transparency is particularly dangerous in today's nuclear climate. Apparently, the Japanese government was warned two years ago, that their plants weren't capable of withstanding earthquake shock. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had found way back in December 2008 that Japan's safety rules were out of date and that strong earthquakes would pose a "serious problem" for nuclear power stations. In response, the government pledged to upgrade safety at all of its nuclear plants. Today we hear similar assurances from the Indian government that all our plants are safe. But it's a little hard to believe that safety is priority for governments, when Jaitapur is being built in a seismic zone, and a nuclear facility planned by Jordan at the Red Sea port of Aqaba is on a major faultline.

One would've thought that the radiation disaster in Japan would prompt a rethink. But no such luck. India plans to continue operating its 20 reactors, and plans to spend an estimated $150 billion to add a few score more, beginning with the Jaitapur facility, billed to be the world’s largest nuclear energy complex. Meanwhile, China is pushing nuclear power with 11 reactors operating and plans to start constructing as many 10 per year over the next 10 years.  In fact, Zhang Lijun, Chinese deputy minister of environment, has said recently that Japan’s difficulties would not deter China's nuclear rollout. What's more, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt are all also studying nuclear energy, and even oil-rich Saudi Arabia is considering a nuclear-powered city.

With India and China steering the nuclear renaissance, and with other nations in Eastern Europe, South Asia and West Asia also embracing nuclear power, the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, says the World Nuclear Association. When governments are being driven by the nuclear industry, do citizens have a choice? India’s nuclear energy establishment has faced stiff opposition to its ambitious plans from environmentalists and villagers at plant sites. But analysts said the Japan crisis was unlikely to stir up significantly more public protest against nuclear plants here, given the pressing demand for more electricity.

Talking to the Deccan Herald, G Balachandran, a consulting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a policy research organisation in New Delhi, says Japan won't make a difference. “If one per cent of the population was against nuclear power, you might now get two per cent,” he said. “I am really not concerned about the opposition that may develop around this.”

Lina Krishnan

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Demand a Moratorium on Nuclear Reactor Construction in India

25 years since Chernobyl, and we have learnt nothing! An estimated 65,000 to 110,000 people perished in Chernobyl. The toll from the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear reactor is as yet unknown, but is likely to be high. The accident, in which unspecified quantities of radioactivity were released, highlights the grave inherent hazards of atomic power generation the world over, and confirms the scientific assessment that all nuclear reactor-types can undergo a catastrophic accident like Three Mile Island (US, 1979) and Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986), irrespective of the precautions taken and safety systems installed.

The incident calls for a thorough review and transparent audit of the safety performance of all nuclear reactors in India, as well as of evacuation and other emergency procedures, which are known to be flawed. The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) demands a moratorium on all further civilian nuclear activities in India, including the construction of reactors at Jaitapur in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, based on an untested French design, until India’s nuclear power policy is radically reviewed for safety, viability, appropriateness and costs.

Women in Egypt did not just "join" the Tahrir protests – they organised it

In one of the first analyses of the role of women in the current revolutions of the Middle East, Naomi Wolf, political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, makes some interesting observations about feminism and democracy, women's leadership and the social media. 

Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women: doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent, gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind rigid gender roles. So where were these women in Tunisia and Egypt?

In both countries, women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt's Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.

Other citizen reporters in Tahrir Square – and virtually anyone with a cell phone could become one – noted that the masses of women involved in the protests were demographically inclusive. Many wore headscarves and other signs of religious conservatism, while others reveled in the freedom to kiss a friend or smoke a cigarette in public.

But women were not serving only as support workers, the habitual role to which they are relegated in protest movements, from those of the 1960s to the recent student riots in the United Kingdom. Egyptian women also organised, strategised, and reported the events. Bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada took grave risks to keep the world informed daily of the scene in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in Egypt did not just "join" the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes - and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.

The greatest shift is educational. Two generations ago, only a small minority of the daughters of the elite received a university education. Today, women account for more than half of the students at Egyptian universities. They are being trained to use power in ways that their grandmothers could scarcely have imagined: publishing newspapers - as Sanaa el Seif did, in defiance of a government order to cease operating; campaigning for student leadership posts; fundraising for student organisations; and running meetings.

Indeed, a substantial minority of young women in Egypt and other Arab countries have now spent their formative years thinking critically in mixed-gender environments, and even publicly challenging male professors in the classroom. It is far easier to tyrannise a population when half are poorly educated and trained to be submissive. But, as Westerners should know from their own historical experience, once you educate women, democratic agitation is likely to accompany the massive cultural shift that follows.

The nature of social media, too, has helped turn women into protest leaders. Having taught leadership skills to women for more than a decade, I know how difficult it is to get them to stand up and speak out in a hierarchical organisational structure. Likewise, women tend to avoid the figurehead status that traditional protest has in the past imposed on certain activists – almost invariably a hotheaded young man with a megaphone.

In such contexts – with a stage, a spotlight, and a spokesperson – women often shy away from leadership roles. But social media, through the very nature of the technology, have changed what leadership looks and feels like today. Facebook mimics the way many women choose to experience social reality, with connections between people just as important as individual dominance or control, if not more so.

You can be a powerful leader on Facebook just by creating a really big "us". Or you can stay the same size, conceptually, as everyone else on your page – you don't have to assert your dominance or authority. The structure of Facebook's interface creates what brick-and-mortar institutions - despite 30 years of feminist pressure - have failed to provide: a context in which women's ability to forge a powerful "us" and engage in a leadership of service can advance the cause of freedom and justice worldwide.

Of course, Facebook cannot reduce the risks of protest. But, however violent the immediate future in the Middle East may be, the historical record of what happens when educated women participate in freedom movements suggests that those in the region who would like to maintain iron-fisted rule are finished.

Just when France began its rebellion in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had been caught up in witnessing it, wrote her manifesto for women's liberation. After educated women in America helped fight for the abolition of slavery, they put female suffrage on the agenda. After they were told in the 1960s that "the position of women in the movement is prone", they generated "second wave" feminism – a movement born of women's new skills and old frustrations.

Time and again, once women have fought the other battles for the freedom of their day, they have moved on to advocate for their own rights. And, since feminism is simply a logical extension of democracy, the Middle East's despots are facing a situation in which it will be almost impossible to force these awakened women to stop their fight for freedom – their own and that of their communities.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Whom do you call an Activist?

Why do you want to name yourself as an activist? By using the term “activism” we are somewhere mainstreaming the idea of concerned citizenry in a separate profession. I’m personally very much uncomfortable with the creation of a new profession “where one serves the underprivileged or deprived class”.

The lifestyle which is expected from an “activist” is not there as a part of my daily life. I’m also an individual who has minute desires and needs. May not be able to reach the limit of survival but adaptability is still there. Instances in life make me not to question that. I do belong to privileged middle class but that doesn’t stop me from aligning with the oppressed ones. In a way even I’m oppressed. Systems, structures, society, state all have defined the limits, beliefs and desires. There is a strong aspiration to decondition myself from all of them, and try to figure out a path which is my own. I’m naming it my own rebellion. A rebellion which is searching for alternative ways of surviving and grooming; which is sustainable in nature. Not harming the surroundings and living beings. How is there going to be a mass transit to those alternatives? I’m carrying no answer for it. My struggle is not only outside, there is a tussle going on inside. I do have political conscience; how to manifest it without becoming a part of mainstream party?

Read the full article by Kabir Arora. Kabir is a student leader and an active member of several groups, including the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN) and the National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movement (NAAM). 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nearly 15% of India's grain and vegetables is wasted by Big Fat Indian Weddings

The extravagant Indian wedding returned to the front pages of newspapers this week: reportedly a $55m gig with 20,000 guests, a Bell helicopter as dowry, a 100-dish menu, a dozen TV screens showing a video feed of the proceedings, and even a $5,000 tip for the groom's barber. The groom's father - a rich Congress party politician and real estate magnet, exemplifying the intersection of politics and new money in India - wryly remarked that the media reports of the wedding were speculative.

For the Congress party-led government whose credibility is battered by a tsunami of corruption scandals, the hugely ostentatious wedding by a party member should come as an embarrassment, many here feel. One minister is reported to have said recently that nearly 15 percent of India's grain and vegetables is wasted through "extravagant and luxurious functions". Party chief Sonia Gandhi has pleaded with her workers to be frugal and her MPs to fly economy class. The embattled PM, Manmohan Singh, had feebly exhorted businessmen to refrain from ostentatious displays of wealth because such "vulgarity insults the poor". But what he possibly forgets is that the poor in India are actually insulted every day by many of the men and women they vote into power. The government is apparently working on a law to curb waste at extravagant weddings and functions. No law will be able to change soon a people and society that remain deeply hierarchical, feudal and class-conscious. At one end of the scale a hapless farmer may take ruinous loans from money-lenders to host a wedding beyond his means. At the other end a billionaire unabashedly builds the world's priciest home (more than $1bn) in Mumbai where half the people live in slums. All this is symptomatic of a society which thrives on perpetuating inequity. With near double-digit growth, there's going to be more money to throw around and flaunt. So don't expect any lame law to curb India's vulgar, overblown weddings any time soon.

Source: Why India's big, fat weddings will never stop, by Soutik Biswas

Anna Hazare calls for a movement against corruption

India is preparing to fight against corruption. In a nation beset by scams, people are demanding a strong law that will not only indict the corrupt but also send them to jail and recover the stolen public money.

Anna Hazare has demanded the enactment of a Jan Lokpal bill against corruption. The bill, meant to involve public participation and not leave it up to the politicians, has been drafted by Justice Santosh Hegde, Prashant Bhushan and other civil society members who have been in the fight for probity in public life. Anna, known for his work in creating the model village of Ralegan Siddhi, has declared that he will begin an indefinite fast from April 5th, at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, and will use Gandhian methods of non violent protest, jail bharo and fasting to achieve goals.

Watch the video

Friday, March 4, 2011

Shahbaz Bhatti: words vs guns

Words, I have to continue to assume, are powerful enough for other people to feel threatened by. Words that carry truth, particularly when they touch upon the misinterpretation of religion, intimidate those whose words don’t. In our history, or rather our collective amnesia, we have often responded to words of truth and beauty with the vituperation, forcing into exile or silencing of those who utter them. But now I have to ask myself a different question, i.e. what is the value of mere words when the other side is using guns?

Like the late Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti was killed because of the words he uttered.

These words, for which he had been receiving death threats for the past month, had specifically to do with the late minister’s position on our blasphemy law. Mr. Bhatti, representing as he did some of the most disenfranchised citizens of this blighted nation, bravely and ceaselessly kept pointing out the way the law has been misused to harass and oppress his constituents. His essential argument, that a law that leads to injustice more often than it does justice merits reform if not repeal, was in direct opposition to the simplistic, ignorant stance taken by most of the participants in what passes for public discourse on the subject. For this principled stance Mr. Bhatti, like others before him, paid with his life.

Read: A Graveyard for Lunatics

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Play the Death Game: fill in the Gujarat blanks

You Fill in the Rest: Dilip D’Souza on the Godhra verdict, MARCH 1, 2011 [Link]

Here’s a crime: February 27 2002, 59 people killed when a train is set on fire in Godhra. 90+ people are arrested and accused of the slaughter. Bail is denied to them all. The trial takes nine years, the trial verdict acquits 63 of them, finds the other 31 guilty. The judge sentences 11 of those 31 to death, the other 20 to life in prison.

Here’s another crime: February 28 2002 (the next day), 69 people killed when a building called Gulberg Society is set on fire and its residents attacked in Ahmedabad. You fill in the rest. How many arrested and accused of this slaughter? How many denied bail? How long does the trail take? How many are acquitted? How many are found guilty? How many are sentenced to anything at all?

I’m not saying I agree with the verdict or the death sentence. That’s an argument for another time. What I am saying is, take a look at these two crimes, then fill in the rest. When you’re done, or when you give up, ask this question: if we can find, arrest, try and punish the men who attacked a train and killed its passengers, how is that we will not find, arrest, try and punish the men who attacked a building and killed its residents? And then try some more.

Here’s a third crime: November 1984, 3000 people killed in Delhi. You fill in the rest. How many arrested and accused of this slaughter? How many denied bail? How long does the trail take? How many are acquitted? How many are found guilty? How many are sentenced to anything at all? Here’s a fourth crime: December 1992 and January 1993, 1000 people killed in Bombay. You fill in the rest. How many arrested and accused of this slaughter? How many denied bail? How long does the trail take? How many are acquitted? How many are found guilty? How many are sentenced to anything at all?

Now tell me, how do you explain this in your own mind? How do you rationalize this? How do you persuade yourself that justice has been done?