Sunday, March 27, 2005

Look what the kids are reading...

A student who beds his professor’s daughter. Three friends who spend nights atop the institute roof smoking grass, drinking vodka and listening to Pink Floyd, while others cram voluminous textbooks. Guys between whom the four letter word flows with great gusto, together with other ingenious expletives that, at best, should be avoided here. Does not really sound like a “compulsory reading” for 12 year olds, does it?

Shocking, you think? A matter of fact, say Class VII students at Step by Step High School who have read Five Point Someone (FPS), a recent bestseller by Chetan Bhagat. The book delves into the lives of three below-average students at IIT Delhi – five pointers on a GPA of 10 – who are nearly expelled from the institute. Beyond that, the book deals with issues such as growing up as adolescents and surviving a “system”.

School authorities say the reaction from students has been “absolutely brilliant”. “In fact, some even called up late in the night to thank me for choosing the book,” adds Swati Periwal, who read the book with the children. While most elders would appear appalled at certain extracts, the students are “cool” about it.

Like Mansi Singh. “It is on page no 170,” she says, referring to the page that features the books only sexual intercourse. “Nothing in this book is untrue. It is all about what actually happens in this world,” adds Ayan Agarwal, another Class VII student. “Let us not be very prudish,” seconds Manisha Razdan, an English teacher at the school. “Why put our children in protected citadels? The world is moving very fast and we have to move at the same pace so that our children do not get a cultural shock,” she adds.

This gradual change, something many elders overlook or brush under the carpet, even “shocked” Chetan Bhagat, the writer, who was present at the school recently. “But when I met the children I realised that kids today are very different from how I was at 12. After all I was at that age around 18 years ago. That is a big generation gap, and times have changed,” wrote Bhagat in an email.

“Children today are very intelligent and have good judgement. They are exposed to promos of skin-flicks on television everyday but it does not mean they will become that way. In fact, I think FPS helps them put these things in a realistic perspective,” he added. The debate about where we could draw the line may never cease but one thing is certain – it is time to chuck the stork and baby theory out of the window. It will not save you the blushes any longer.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Monday, March 21, 2005

Israel has turned Holocaust into an "asset"

From Haaretz
By Amira Hass

... An ideology that divides the world into those who are worth more and those who are worth less, into superior and inferior beings, does not have to reach the dimensions of the German genocide to be improper and wrong - the apartheid in South Africa, for example.

Thirty-eight years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian nation have accustomed generations of Israelis to regard the Palestinians as inferior, and therefore not as deserving as we are. But hush, one must not say that out loud, because Israelis will raise an indignant cry: "How can you compare?"

In the same way, it is forbidden to demand of us - with diplomatic threats - to change our ways. Because then we will remind them of our people who were murdered.

This widely covered event shows that Israel has turned the liquidation of Europe's Jews into an asset. Our murdered relatives are being enlisted to enable Israel to continue not giving a damn about international decisions against the occupation. The suffering our parents endured in the ghettoes and concentration camps that filled Europe, the physical and mental anguish and torment that our parents were subjected to every single day since the "liberation," are used as weapons to thwart any international criticism of the society we are creating here. This is a society with built-in discrimination on the basis of nationality, and the discrimination is spreading on either side of the Green Line. This is a society that is systematically continuing to banish the Palestinian nation from its land and usurp its rights as a nation and its chances for a humane future.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Abdullah orations and research awards defunct at Jaipur's premier medical college

The SMS Medical College could not have extended a more shoddy welcome to Rajya Sabha MP Farooq Abdullah, one of its most prominent students, to a college reunion that takes place on March 27. A series of annual orations, research awards and medals for academic excellence that were initiated by him, when he was the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, have been lying defunct for years.

The last time the Sher-I-Kashmir Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah Memorial Oration took place was in 2000. On the other hand, the Sher-I-Kashmir Dr Farooq Abdullah Oration ceased in 1994 and the last awards for research excellence were handed out in 2002. In fact, his grant of Rs 5 lakh in 1988-89 when the college was celebrating four decades of its existence has been lying unused and appreciating in the bank, from Rs 5 lakh to over Rs 15 lakh as of June 10 last year.

If you thought this was the nadir, wait, for things plummet further. Not a single cash prize or medal for excellence in college academics, as envisioned by Abdullah, have been given out. These set of awards is the most prestigious and the only ones with a cash component that SMS offers, or rather, offered.

The college administration maintains that these orations have been erratic because of the lack of interest in academics from both faculty members and students. “We have issued notices calling submissions for the orations thrice this year but no one has bothered to reply,” said one of the top academic officials at the college on the condition of anonymity.

The cash prize for the orations were also increased this year from Rs 11,000 to Rs 21,000 for the Sheikh Abdullah oration and from Rs 8,000 to Rs 15,000 for the Farooq Abdullah oration with the hope it would draw some applicants. “Who has the time from clinical practice today? Teaching and research is a fulltime job,” he added.

However, the college, as one would expect, has never put out notices in newspapers. “Where do we get the money for that,” he asked. Letters are sent out to the faculty members who then “spread the word”. “This is certainly not befitting for the college. In fact, this is an indication of how things have deteriorated at the college,” the official added.

When contacted in New Delhi, Abdullah, who passed out in 1961-62, expressed anguish and amazement. “It is unfortunate for the money was not given so that it could grow in the bank. It was given so that doctors of eminence could come and lecture at the college for the benefit of the students,” he said. “I am coming to Jaipur on March 27 and I shall speak to the Principal to see what can be done about it,” he added. Time for the college now to pull up its socks rather than lay out a red carpet.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Vice President who blogs

Iranian authorities have recently clamped down on the rapidly growing popularity of weblogs, restricting access to major blogging sites from within the country. Despite this, former Iranian vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi - a reformist and current adviser to Iran's president - recently launched his own weblog.

On his site he is often highly critical of government policies, which he perceives as stifling genuine reform in the country. Here he answers questions from readers.

When did you start thinking about launching a website?

I became familiar with the internet in 1993 or 1994. At first I just used it to get information, but then I began visiting weblogs regularly and out of personal interest decided to launch a weblog of my own. I have always had many things to say which I could not say in the newspapers. I thought the best way to speak about them would be in a weblog.

Do you manage to perform all your government duties as well as blogging or do the two sometimes interfere with each other?

Many people ask me this question. I don't think a person should blog or use the internet when they have nothing to do. More importantly, I think all executive officials should spend some of their time to read people's emails. This is how they can listen to and understand people's voices directly. I don't see my blogging as a spare time hobby.

What did you think of Iran's policy of blocking political websites?

I was the first person to stand against this and sent letters about it when I was the vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs. We should remove these kinds of restrictions. I still have objections against filtering political websites. I do not think this is beneficial for the government.

What was the main reason for the failure of the reform efforts in Iran by President Mohammad Khatami?

I would differentiate between the failure of reform efforts and the progress of reform plans to the desired level. The fact that many people now think the reforms did not go very well and should have gone faster shows that the reform movement has been successful.

What will happen in the future for Iran? Why do clerics have problems in their relationships with the younger generation?

The clerics who are in power have reservations about interacting with society and that is an obstacle in understanding the realities of our world. These clerics do not hold official positions or have normal relationships with society, especially young people. We should see this problem in a wider scale, as in the gap between generations, rather than focusing on clerics only.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Ghalib and his multicultural Delhi

Reviving Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s multicultural legacy as a reflection of the 19th century Delhi he lived in, Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Milia Islamia Musirul Hasan stressed on the significance of fostering a dialogue between different faiths, especially between Islam and Hinduism.

This inter-faith dialogue, he said, played a crucial role in undermining religious violence then. “There is no reason why the revival of this dialogical element cannot achieve the same purpose in today’s society,” he added, while delivering the Professor AG Stock Memorial Lecture at the University of Rajasthan on Saturday. Especially, as he put it, when religion was being used to exacerbate violence today.

“If not as a sceptic, Ghalib comes across as someone who approached religion with quizzical reverence,” Hasan said, referring to him as someone who did not wear a “sectarian badge”. “Ghalib even referred to Kashi as the Kaba of India, something not easy for most Muslims to say today,” the noted historian added.

Hasan mentioned that many historians have an “analytical blockage” when it comes to Delhi’s intellectual discourse, which flourished in a time of “religious syncretism rather than a cultural crusade of one kind or the other”. He also questioned why this was not featuring in the contemporary debate and why textbooks continue to stay away from it. “It’s important to let the students know that such a discourse existed,” he said.

The continuing tradition of festivals such as Phool Walon Ki Sair and Pankha Festival testify to that tradition, Hasan added. Besides Ghalib, he referred to Mohammad Zakaullah and Nazir Ahmad as the other luminaries of this age. The scholar also stressed that religious boundaries need not be dissolved to create a secular society. “The secularists today would demand that, which is not wise. Religion is a matter of personal choice and disposition. So, let’s be content to let a hundred flower bloom,” he added.

Hasan, later speaking to Hindustan Times, said that the seemingly endless bout of interpretation and reinterpretation of history to suit political ideologies could end with the rise of discerning readers who would reject such moves. “This can only happen with the dissemination of a secular ideology,” he added.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Younger generations are very, very hungry to engage, says Irshad Manji

Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble With Islam Today, chats on Israel's Channel One...

Interviewer: “You’re a non-Arab. You’re a lesbian. You love Jews. You come to lecture in Israel. Your website is called muslim-refusenik. How do you expect to influence Muslims like that?”

Irshad Manji: “First of all, I AM a Jew-lover. I’ll be very blunt — I love Jews. I also love Christians. I love atheists. My point in saying that, Orin, is that I’m not running away from any of these accusations, ok? When people realize that you’re not running away, then they have only two choices. They can walk away or they can engage. And what I am finding is that younger generations are very, very hungry to engage.”

Read the full interview here. Also check Thomas Friedman's article on her.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Earthworms turn forex earners

It has always been something slimy that grovels in waste. But now earthworms could emerge as a significant foreign exchange earner for the country. For the first time in India, the MR Morarka-GDC Rural Research Foundation has managed to export 140 kilograms of the Eseinia Foetida species to Thailand, intended for developing an organic farm there.

“People at the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, at the customs and even at the airlines were stunned by the idea of exporting earthworms. It was completely out of the blue,” said Mukesh Gupta, the Executive Director of the foundation. And because export of any soil or excreta is banned from the country, the foundation had to research on an alternative habitat for the earthworms in transit.

After about six months, the team settled for a polymer-enhanced packaging with a mixture of Ayurvedic products – they did not want to specify which ones – to seal the worms. The packaging is also designed to maintain the optimum moisture level. Normally, exporters elsewhere feed cellulose but the worms can survive for only about 30 hours on that. “With our feed, which we call Rishi Krishi Mixture, they can live for as long as 15 days. Also, not a single worm died during the journey to Thailand,” said Gupta. Given that each weighs about a gram, there must have been 140,000 earthworms in the consignment that cost Rs 36,357.

Encouraged by the success, Chin Han Hoew, the Thai entrepreneur, placed a second order for 5,000 kilograms of these earthworms on Wednesday. Besides from being not easily available in Thailand, the Eseinia Foetida was demanded for being particularly suitable to generating vermicompost. It is tolerant to disturbances, has a voracious appetite and procreates fast. India, with a temperate climate condition, has a large reserve of these worms.

The foundation is also busy meeting demands from other countries such as Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and even the US, where a kilogram of these earthworms costs around Rs 2,000. “In fact, someone from Benin asked us for 35,000 kgs,” said Gupta. Instead of sending such a large amount, the foundation has offered to help in setting up a facility to rear the earthworms there.

As organic farming grows in popularity worldwide, the market for these worms can only expand. According to an estimate, Gupta said 10 per cent of the world’s cultivable land would be under organic management in 10 years from now. That is why, he stressed, it is important to set up an Export Promotion Council for vermicompost and related items to consolidate India’s strength in the international earthworm market. “If we manage to streamline the trade policy with other countries, annual exports could touch Rs 1,000 crore,” he said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times