Thursday, April 28, 2005

Movies, changing villages, and linked rivers....

I try hard to keep abreast of the latest in Indian cinema, particularly Hindi and Tamil cinema (and the regional cinema of a few select directors). So, as always, I read the latest movie news on Rediff, and came across this page on the costliest Tamil film ever. Nothing remarkable in this of course, except for the fact that a little one liner in the post set off a train of thought in my mind. The one line saying "Noted art director Sabu Cyril has created the sets for Anniyan. He painted 350 houses in Thenkasi for a single song! "

This mostly happened later in the day, when I was telling AR about the upcoming release of the blockbuster. It struck us that many movies have rural themes. This obviously requires villages. Villages in the movies are always unbelievably picturesque, with well built pucca houses, neat roads, nice street lighting (essential for that song in the street), with a perfect central square. Invariably, the filmmakers opt to create such villages by building massive sets. But could not this same money be spent by the same film makers, for the same purpose (shooting the movie), but in a village itself? This would mean instead of creating a set, they could shoot on location in a village, but in order to make the shot "celluloid friendly" they could actually paint and repair the houses of the village, or install some street lights, or repair a road in the village (all of course ostensibly the duties of our governments). One can just imagine the publicity the movie would get. And this would be an effortless solution to improve villages suffering from poverty. I was (for just a brief moment) in awe of my own idea.

But one of the good things about talking to AR is that the serious flaws in the idea usually always come out. For example, would the movie makers only restore one side of the village (the side they need for shooting)? Which side will that be? Who gets to choose? Do the villagers have a say in it? Do they get what they really need, or just something thrust on them? What are the legal issues involved? Will the movie makers end up being high handed (very likely)? The list of flaws in this master plan is more than just endless. Clearly, the film makers erect huge utopian sets for a reason. Many reasons.

That being said, does anyone want to think about the proposal to Link India's rivers, and in one single master-stroke solve all of India's water problems?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Energy, and alternative energy

Energy, energy needs, oil guzzling, pollution and socially responsible energy consumption are all areas I'm fairly passionate about. And I'm one of "those" who think democracy and respect for people's rights in the Middle East can only come when the region is free from its dependency on oil. But that's digressing from this mini-post, on progress with biofuels (a blog on energy is for sometime later).

In spite of the constantly depressing stories about oil companies, and talk of opening up the Arctic national wildlife refuge for oil drilling in the US, much progress has been made on alternative energy sources from natural, renewable sources. The various "bio-fuels" discussed come from various sources (ethanol, plant oils etc). Here is an excellent recent post from Outlook on alternative fuels. Well over a year ago, the outstanding site Good news India carried an article on some progress in India on biofuels. Last heard, the railways was considering planting Jatropa trees on its unused land by railway tracks (a good way to increase tree cover in India), and increasing its "biofuel" consumption to 15% of its fuel consumption. That amounts to a few thousand gallons of diesel saved. The IOC is also starting its biofuel field trials with jatropa oil. To learn more about this humble tree (which many of us have seen growing in dry areas all across India as we made our trips on trains) you can visit the jatropa website that I found.

For some superb blogs on energy (with an emphasis on India), read The Indic View.

shock and outrage....

I'm still numb with shock, after reading the news about the Mumbai cop, Sunil (the bastard shares my first name) More who raped a 17 year old teenager who was just walking with her friends on Marine Drive. Here's a link to Amit Verma's posts on the incident, and more, as well as Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta's thoughtful outburst. Sometimes incidents such as these make me almost completely lose my faith in humanity.

In my earlier post I'd mentioned public apathy. Add a morally bankrupt policeforce, and and overworked and archaic judiciary to that.

People have forgotten (or perhaps they never came across) Tagore's Geetanjali.

"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free........
...........Where words come out from the depth of truth....
.........Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way....
.....Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."

We all need to remember these words, and remind each other of it. And awaken ourselves from our apathy.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Indian railways: the good, the bad and the ugly

I have to admit that the Railways, for all its deficiencies, has done a tremendous job in linking every corner of the country, and has provided largely reliable travel at extremely affordable rates for India's masses (do we thank the British for this?). It is pretty much possible to reach even the most remote corner of the country by train (except J&K, and parts of the North East). The railway coaches are Spartan but sufficient (while travelling second class), and are quite comfortable while travelling in a second A/C or first class coach. The prices are always affordable even to the common man, and sometimes ridiculously cheap. Amtrak trains in the United States cost nearly as much as air travel, and even in Europe (which has exceptional train services) the prices cannot be called "cheap". A simple train ride from Florence to Venice or Rome costs about 40 Euro, and that's half the distance from Bangalore to Chennai, which costs some 150 rupees, or 2-3 Euro. In addition, I have loved travelling by train, enjoying observing the different types of people who travel, the commotion, the food on railway stations, the card games and conversations with co-passengers......a complete package deal, so to speak. For a country as populous as India, trains really are the only viable mass transit option.

However, amongst other things, the Railways has an atrocious safety record. There are way too many reports and statistics on this for me to link to, but just in this year there were two major accidents (including the Sabarmati express derailment, which the media seems to have already forgotten about!). Authorities blame most of these accidents on "human error", which range from alcoholism among field staff to sheer negligence. How much longer should such callousness be tolerated? A lack of accountability allows senior railway officials to remain unpunished for their negligence. When the Island Express plunged into the Quilon river in 1989, officials said it was due to a "freak typhoon". Over the years, many of us have heard many such priceless excuses. Modernization efforts are buried in red-tape, and probes for the causes of accidents remain confined to paper. The public continues to tolerate such nonsense. Stringent action, accountability of ALL railway employees and rapid modernization of the railways is absolutely essential. All this can happen only with strong public action. How an apathetic public can be mobilized, however, remains a topic for a different post. I just felt I had to vent some of my feelings after the latest train accident.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The death of a lake, and Bangalore's soul

I grew up in Jayanagar, not far from Yediyur tank. About 12-13 years ago, we moved elsewhere in Jayanagar, and I didn't revisit Yediyur tank until recently. However, just a few weeks ago (on my last visit to India) we drove past the lake, and I was horrified by what I saw. Instead of a beautiful and living lake, there stood a cess pool of stagnant and foul smelling water, with a swarm of mosquitos hovering over the lake.

As a teenager, I had spent many evenings walking with our dog (Linda) on the paths in the park by the lake. The lake then was an amateur ornithologist's paradise. There were egrets, coots, brahminny kites, common kingfishers, the occational cormorant and the rarer herons. I was actually able to put my Salim Ali's handbook of Indian birds to good use here! Over the years, I've learnt more about Bangalore's avian life (which now seems to exclusively comprise of crows, pariah kites, sparrows and pigeons). Apparently, some years ago, even endangered birds such as the Great Indian bustard and the Lesser Florican were found here. Even in my school days I was astounded that city "planners" had thought it fit to reclaim tanks that ancient rulers (like the Kempegowdas, Marathas, Wodeyars, Tipu Sultan and the British) had painstakingly planned. The present Majestic bus terminus, the Kanteerava stadium and many other such well known venues were once famous tanks.

Even twelve years ago there was a channel on the other side of Yediyur tank, which let in sewage water from the houses on that side. But (apparently) the lake had sufficient inlets of fresh water/ rainwater to keep it alive. However, the construction boom of the past decade and the creation of unplanned sewage outlets (leading into tanks) have destroyed this and other lakes in the city. In the guise of "development" many beautiful tanks have been reclaimed for apartment complexes. Those that survive have all their water inlet channels clogged (and so cannot be replenished by rainwater), and also serve as dumping grounds for untreated sewage and effluents. Even tanks in the far outskirts of Bangalore (such as the tank at Hulimavu village, off Bannerghatta road, which is now being surrounded by rapidly expanding residential suburbs) are under extreme threat. Apart from destroying biodiversity and becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes, not surprisingly the water tables in Bangalore have reached alarming levels. It is common to see people dig borewells over 400 feet deep in search of water.

But the lakes can be saved. Preventing untreated sewage discharge in to the lakes is an obvious first step, along with restoring rainwater inlets into the lakes. What is missing is a strong political will, but if the residents of this "showpiece city" demand it, the rulers cannot sit still. Awareness must start at the school and college level, and instead of engineering students (I was one of them once) wasting their time on theoretical or impractical projects, they could involve themselves in monitoring pollution levels in lakes, or designing simple, low cost treatment plants. It will be a tragic loss if the condition of Bangalore's wetlands does not improve. Bangalore will have lost its soul.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Carnatic Summer

I was recently presented with a copy of Sriram. V's Carnatic Summer, and having just read it, I've decided that it is a most wonderful addition to the numerous books on Carnatic music. Sriram V. needs no introduction to the Carnatic music aficionado. He (along with Vocalist Sanjay Subramaniam) started Sangeetam, which is perhaps the best available website on Carnatic classical music.

In this book, in his own delightful writing style (made familiar to us by his editorials on Sangeetam and writings in S. Muthaiah's Madras musings) he brings out the lives of twenty great exponents of Carnatic music (of the past century). What makes it so readable is that the short biographies are filled with humorous anecdotes and little known incidents in the lives of the (often eccentric) greats. Here's a little excerpt from the chapter on the legendary violinist Mysore T. Chowdiah (and his passion for vintage cars).

"Chowdiah's cars were invariably of a sound vintage. He would insist on driving himself and invariably drive to all his performances, even as far away as Kumbhakonam, Madras and Tanjore. The cars that broke down en route necessitated considerable probing into their innards and Chowdiah often landed up late for his performances with a liberal dose of grease on his person! All this gave organizers tense moments, but all was forgotten and forgiven once he got on to the stage.

Once when Maharajah Krishnarajendra Wodeyar IV of Mysore was camping in Bandipur, he happened to notice a ramshackle Austin making its way often on that lonely road at all kinds of odd hours. On getting to know that it was Chowdiah's, he sent for him. On being gently enquired as to why he frequented that path in such a jalopy of a car, Chowdiah replied that it was because he had many concert engagements in Coimbatore. He also praised his car sky high, and painted a rosy picture of its roadworthiness. Later he came to know that the Maharajah had planned to gift him a car, but had changed his mind on coming to know that Chowdiah was so happy with the vehicle he owned!"

Good stuff this, for either the Carnatic music fan, or the history buff (or both!). An excellent choice for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Change......slow but sure.

In all my years in India, I was always struck by the difference between my upper "middle class" lifestyle, and the lives of those less fortunate. And I always thought about it when I looked at the domestic help, maidservants and security guards in my apartment complex. They all spent a good part of their day (and lives) amidst modest affluence, worked amongst it, and then had to go back to their own homes and families and live with so much less. I've often wondered if their lives will ever change, and if subsequent generations will live better lives.

But perhaps it will.

My own family employs a housekeeper/maid, Lakshmi. She's always smiling and cheerful, and works at an exceedingly rapid pace (much to the annoyance of my mother, who thinks she cuts corners while sweeping the floor). She's also polite and respectful (calls me "Anna", though I've told her not to, and I don't think I'm much older than her anyway), and more importantly, "half educated". I say "half educated" because she had the opportunity to go to school (something her parents did not), but flunked 9th grade and dropped out. Still, she is very literate, reads an occational Kannada newspaper, and is quite aware of the world and understands issues very well. She's also able to find other odd jobs to supplement her family income, and is well liked by most of her employers. A small step up in her world. But what's more important is that she values that little education she had. And has dreams for her daughter, Sushmita.

Sushmita is an adorable (now six year old?) kid. She goes to school ("English medium", emphasizes Lakshmi), and gets 90% or more in all her exams (whatever that means for a first grader). She sometimes comes to our house with her mom (on holidays, when she can't be left alone at home), and watches TV. She doesn't like cricket (which is what I mostly watch on visits to India), and demands that Kannada film songs be shown. Always neat and clean, with ribbons matching her outfit for the day, she seems just like any other little girl going to school. And is. And I think her future is going to be much better than her parents. I think the future is not too bad. Perhaps the lives of subsequent generations will indeed change for the better.

Biotech education hotspots in India....

This link on India's top "biotech" schools was recently sent to me by a friend. Amongst other things, it stated that my old alma mater, Anna University's Industrial Biotechnology program was ranked second in India. Yeehaw and good for me. However, that being said, I do believe that almost all these schools still have a lot to be desired.

The areas they lack most in are (1) Infrastructure (2) faculty and faculty encouragement (3) opportunities for research and (4) sufficient exposure to the various areas of research in the field. It has to be remembered that this is an extremely expensive field since it involves costly equipment, reagents, media and cell culture facilities. Computational biology/informatics is just one small area in this field (though Indian media goes gaga over it), and even in this area (India's strength) the infrastructure is poor (with student:computer rations in the range of 20:1 or something like that). And an even greater absence of dedicated clusters/servers for this purpose. In addition, a majority of the faculty members sink into a comfort zone with their positions, and there is insufficient incentive for them (and a shortage of funds) to pursue meaningful research, or publish their work. Most students are also not seriously encouraged to take up higher impact projects, but can "wing" their way through a thesis. Finally, the industry-academia interaction (atleast in most schools) is very limited, with only limited opportunities for long internships or research projects in R&D labs.

As far as research goes, only a few premier Institutes in India (IISc, NCBS, TIFR to name a few) carry out world class research in the biological sciences. Small innovative biotech companies are yet to come up, and most larger pharma companies are only slowly emerging out of their "reverse engineering/process patent" mindset. Their investments in R&D remain stunningly low, and students have little opportunity to make use of industry resources or facilities.

So, there's still a long way to go before "biotech" education in India becomes truely competitive.