Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Living in a "second nuclear age"

Without a will, there is no way, insists Jonathan Schell. As the Peace and Disarmament Correspondent with the New York based weekly The Nation, he insists that the only way to escape a nuclear apocalypse is not have any nuclear weapons. As simple as that.

“I do not want to fool myself and say that it’s going to happen soon for no one is seriously committed to attaining the zero. But it’s the only workable goal,” said Schell, who was one of the recipients of the Nuclear-Free Future Awards on Sunday.

Concerned about George Bush’s policy to use force to achieve disarmament, he added that, if Bush had his way, the world was set to fight a series of “disarmament wars”. “The earlier administration had a diplomatic approach, even if piteously inadequate, with the NPT and Seoul talks but this one is moving energetically in the mistaken direction,” he added.

Schell also pointed out that the nuclear threat could no longer be viewed in a bipolar matrix, as during the Cold War when the US and the USSR piled up nuclear weapons. “We are living in a second nuclear age, where the points of danger are not just the two sides. It could arise anywhere where competent scientists could absorb the science published everywhere,” he said. “It is a human problem that arises when people read about how to build nuclear weapons in scientific textbooks and fall to the temptation to build them,” Schell added.

Having reported on the Vietnam War for The New Yorker, Schell said that it “wouldn’t take more than the fingers of a hand” to count the number of publications in the US who “flatly” rejected the Iraq war at its outset as illegal and wrong. “It was a real abdication of journalistic independence that left a journalistic vacuum,” he recollected, referring to the corporate influence on the mainstream press. This vacuum, Schell added, was filled by journals such as The Nation, whose circulation in the last year has gone up to around 1,70,000.

While receiving the award on Sunday, he called upon India and Pakistan to show the way to nuclear disarmament by engaging other nuclear powers in a free-ranging discussion. “Maybe you in the South can succeed where we in the North have failed,” he said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The man behind Gulf War Syndrome

Asaf Durakovic is frail. His voice carries a subtle quiver and so do his steps. But all that belies the man in him who has successfully withstood, at least so far, the joint might and even wrath of the US, British and Canadian governments. Durakovic served as a Lieutenant Colonel in a medical unit of the US Army in Gulf War I and has since then become synonymous with the still-controversial term, Gulf War Syndrome, which refers to the impact of depleted uranium on soldiers.

Having brought it to the world’s notice as the first case of “radioactive warfare”, he is now analysing soldiers who fought in the two Gulf Wars. Durakovic claims that they have shown a high ratio of depleted uranium that was used in the tank shells for higher penetration power. Independent studies, some as late as this month in UK, have testified that inhaling depleted uranium dust caused severe illnesses amongst the soldiers. “But the government still keeps the issue open,” he says.

Felicitated with the Nuclear-Free Future Award on Sunday, he even had to give up his job as the Head of the Department of Nuclear Medicine at Wilmington Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “It had to be either one of them,” Durakovic recollects. Now he heads the Washington-based Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC), the only of its kind in the world, that seeks to ascertain how and at what exact level of contamination does depleted uranium cause cancer and genetic change, among other things, in the body.

“We are working on various mathematical models but we are still really very far away,” he adds. The odds are stacked heavily against him as the “malicious” opposition to his work continues. A Canadian, he did not specify on whose behalf, had incognito moved in to UMRC to sabotage the research.

In his latest finding, he claims that civilians in various Afghan cities such as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharief have reported alarmingly high levels of non-depleted uranium because the bombs that were used to strafe Afghanistan after 9/11 came packaged with it. The levels hover around 2,500 nanograms per litre of urine sample, whereas the normal level would be around 10.

“Critics claim that it is natural uranium deposits that mixed with the dust because of the bombing. But geological studies show that the country has no such high-level of uranium deposit,” he says. Moreover, the uranium that showed up in the samples was an isotope that is enriched and not available naturally, Durakovic adds.

Someone at a press conference on Saturday described him as a “whistleblower”. Outside, in privacy, he denies that he is one. “I am just a doctor, a scientist who did not compromise his dignity, honour and integrity for a few dollars. I cannot be bought and my honour is not for sale,” Durakovic says.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Calvin Klein and India

Style guru Calvin Klein has affirmed India's potential to be a global force in the fashion market. “This country has over a billion people and we want to be a global company. We can’t be global until we address this country,” he said. But he did mention that retail marketing of CK products in India was a long way off and that the market here was not yet ready for it. “It will happen. It’s just a question of time,” Klein, however, added.

“We have just begun to get started in Europe and Asia and we are very slow in the US. Retail marketing takes a great deal of money and time to find people you can work with,” Klein said. This visit was a start, he added, in that direction. Impressed by India’s “extraordinary craftsmanship”, Klein regretted that he had not made the trip earlier.

Pressed further about when he could consider India to open a store, Klein replied that “the next five years would see a lot of change in my company in retail development” and that a store here could materialise around that time, possibly earlier.

Klein spent much of his time in Jaipur soaking in the sights, sounds and styles and, as he put it, “getting inspired”. Incidentally, it was his 62nd birthday on Friday that was celebrated at Amrapali, a local boutique store. What caught his attention the most were the colourful fabrics, especially the lehariya, bandhej and banjara ones, which he bought from the store along with gemstone jewellery. “I can see these colours in a combination of all kinds of different fabrics for use in the home, in the bedroom,” he said.

“But it’s not going to be that you see my next collection and say that it’s India. I use the inspiration in another way. It becomes assimilated in my aesthetics, which is very contemporary,” Klein added. A CK India collection, he said, would be “against our working”. “Like India, I have been inspired by African tribes,” said Klein, who in the 1980s ensured that undergarments erupted into the fashion forefront. Calvin Klein, having sold the eponymous mega brand for over $ 400 million to Phillips-Van Heusen in 2002, now spends time enhancing the contemporary nature and appeal of his products worldwide.

He also had a word of advice for Indian fashion designers struggling to find a pedestal in fashion citadels abroad. “If I were them, I would go to Paris, New York and Milan. Don’t wait for them to come here for they do not have the finances to seek out. European companies can’t afford to go to New York,” Klein said. “Fashion designers across the world have the same problems but if the work is good and valid, it would be recognised,” he added.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Landmines - a silent killer

Piggybacking on the current détente between India and Pakistan, the two countries need to actively pursue an agenda dedicated to banning the use of anti-personnel landmines, something that “does not distinguish between the foot of an enemy soldier and that of a child”.

This is what Balkrishna Kurvey, the Coordinator of the Indian Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), had to say at a meet in the city on Thursday that was held to gauge the Indian situation ahead of the UN-sponsored summit on a mine-free world in Nairobi beginning on November 29. “Landmines belong to the era of the World War II. They are not suited for modern warfare,” he added.

The ICBL claims that 758 people, including several children, have been killed because of anti-personnel mines between January 2002 and March 2004. Of these 184 deaths occurred in the border districts of Sriganganagar, Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner. These mines were laid during Operation Parakram that followed the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. Approximately 10 lakh mines were laid along the Indo-Pak border, stretching from Gujarat to Jammu & Kashmir.

“This was one of the biggest landmine-laying operations ever in recent history,” said Kurvey. Additionally, it has maimed over a thousand people, the ICBL says. Stressing that there was “no alternative to banning anti-personnel landmines”, Kurvey added that geographical factors, such as sandstorms and rodents, dislocated the mines. The demarcating fences, he informed, were often removed, either by poor villagers or storms, and not repaired later. Compensation was also inadequate and the children suffered the most, Kurvey said.

He contested the claim by the Indian army that 99 per cent of the mines had been removed. “It is safe to assume that at least five to 10 per cent of the mines are dislocated,” Kurvey said. Forty-two countries remain outside of the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, including China, Russia, and the United States, most of West Asia, most of the former Soviet republics, and many Asian states, including India and Pakistan. There are 143 countries who have signed the treaty.

On the other hand, BMVSS Founder Chairman DR Mehta said that “aspects involving the Indian Army get shrouded with non-transparency”. “This issue needs to be discussed,” he added, calling for accountability of organisations involved in fitting artificial limbs. “Somehow the focus seems to have shifted from the patient,” Mehta Said. The meet was organised with support from International Committee of the Red Cross and Paryavaran Parishad in Kota.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Churchill fan from Rajasthan

Born in a nondescript village near Pokhran, Inder Dan Ratnu never went to an English medium school. But he grew up to be possibly one of the most loyal fans that Winston Churchill could ever have. A member of the Charan community, known for its literary aptitude, he realised that Churchill’s speeches had a “certain rhythm” similar to the poems recited by Charans. He promptly breaks into a speech, reciting the premier’s famed "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" speech delivered at the House of Commons in 1940.

“The nature of his delivery is the same. It is poetic in nature, though it is prose,” says Ratnu, who was introduced to Churchill in 1974 by a book he spotted on a peanut vendor’s cart. “He inspired people on a global scale for defending freedom through literary mastery that my community members have been doing for generations,” he adds. A retired bank officer, Ratnu now lectures at schools regularly on Churchill and freedom.

His first book, Alternative to Churchill: The Eternal Bondage (1995), is a what-if account based on Adolf Hitler’s victory in World War Two. “It would have been total autocracy,” he says. The self-published book mentions, interestingly, that the Nazis choose to drop an atom bomb on New York at the World Trade Center site. Layman’s Questions About Churchill, his second book, also self-published, followed in 1998.

His later books, published by Terraplane and available on Amazon.com, shift focus to the US. The Ultimate Defense, albeit fictional, documents how Bill Clinton, then the American President, avoids being impeached over the Monica Lewinsky scandal by giving a stirring speech in the US Congress. The book was ready in November 1998, a few months before his impeachment procedure began.

Ratnu’s last book, published in May 2004, again concerns the Clintons. This time it is Beverly Hilton (Hillary Clinton in real life) who is pitted against an African American – Ratnu hints at Colin Powell – in the US presidential elections. “No lady has occupied the US presidential post so far. So, the book is again based on concept of freedom that Churchill defended,” he said.

Ratnu returned from his first visit abroad to New York on Monday where he campaigned for George Bush, whom he termed as a “defender of freedom” and more beneficial to India than John Kerry because of the way the US has changed Pakistan’s policy towards terrorism. He gave interviews to the Indian media there and lobbied with local Indians. “Like Churchill, Bush has also interwoven national interest with a global cause. He deserves a second term to finish what he started,” Ratnu said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times