Public hearings

Why do governments worry about public hearings? If they are confident that their actions are per law, why exempt public hearings at all?
Surely, there’s divergence from this ideal world. Public participation can produce chaotic outcomes 


When economists thought oil wasn’t scarce

As recently as the 1980s, most economists actually believed that rising prices of non-renewable resources were not a sign of their physical scarcity. In a 1984 paper in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Darwin C Hall and Jane V Hall describe how most analyses until the late ’70s attributed rising prices to reasons like environmental regulation and business cycles.

“The last decade was characterized by measurable increasing scarcity of important natural resources. This trend represents a significant departure from the results of most earlier and recent work … Barnett attributes a few years of escalating real energy prices to the consequences of environmental and safety regulation, and business cycles.”

The oil price spike in the 1970s was (conveniently) attributed to the ‘artificial scarcity’ created by the OPEC cartel.

“Most recently, Barnett et al examined data through 1979 and attributed all the observed scarcity in the 1970s to changing market structure, most notably the OPEC cartel.”

Interestingly, there was a rather solitary star:

“Fisher’s warning note of a turning point at the end of the 1960s stands as a lone harbinger of things to come.”

The reference is to AC Fisher, “Resource and Environmental Economics,” Cambridge Univ Press, Cambridge, 1981

Kalam’s Koodankulam Comments

None of the action points advocated by Dr Kalam have anything to do with nuclear energy or the safety requirements for generating it. What he seems to have failed to address is the very source of concern on nuclear energy — fear. Not the kind of probabilistic risk that scientists think is hard for our country’s fishermen and fisherwomen to understand, but a rather palpable concern following the recent catastrophe in Japan. If the developed nation, which got burnt by the same nuclear energy barely 50 years ago, did not foresee Fukushima, what assurance are Kalam’s words to Koodankulam residents?

Technology, and indeed humanity, has progressed well by conquering fear and Kalam’s words sound chauvinistic towards the poor and mostly uneducated fisherpeople, who will bear the brunt of anything that goes wrong at KNPP. The Chola emperor that he talks about was just that — an emperor, and I am not sure even he would have gambled on a dam if a similar dam had burst somewhere else just a year before. 

One mustn’t forget that Dr Kalam is a missile scientist, not a sociologist or a nuclear scientist. His mandate with the ISRO and DRDO involved developing systems that went high up in space, or hit a specified point on the earth by tracking a pre-defined projectile motion. His work in the field is exemplary and needs no elaboration. But he has never dealt with situations where his projects had any damaging threat to local communities, leave alone an ecosystem. His post-retirement lectures and writings involve the story of his own life, and his own teachings to the Indian youth. Clearly, the septuagenarian’s opinion of safety and community rehabilitation at a coastal nuclear plant can only be relied to that extent.
That these action points are all that Kalam could come up with shows that he was nothing more than a poster-boy chosen by the Atomic Energy Commission. Unless the AEC believed that Kalam’s lone comment on the actual plant — that people should not have “even a nano sized doubt” about its safety — had any scientific or social relevance.

Empty pockets, empty promises

As with Shanta Varankar, many statesmen have visited Bodhbodan, the village worst-hit by farmer suicides. Yet no state package has reached Shanta’s doorsteps

Bodhbodan (Yavatmal): The front yard of Shanta Varankar’s mud house is an empty, dusty place. The one-room hut has no windows, and she sits at the door alone, peeling raw tur daal pods into a stained container. Her hands freeze as a chaos of tripods, cameras, and microphones gather around her in the way journalists tend to do, the expression on her face remained blank as the  walls of her hut, as silent as the winter evening.

Varankar is just one among the many ‘ farmer suicide widows’ of India. In her village Bodhbodan, one of the country’s worst-hit by such suicides, children recognise journalists and run around screaming “Farmer suicides! Come here, see here!” The only impact of three years of being  splashed on front pages of newspapers is that children and villagers are camera friendly.

Indeed, suicides are now landmarks in this village of 1,000 houses. At least 35 homes here have lost husbands, fathers, sons or daughters to the toxic potion of neo-liberal policies and rampant market-led growth, causing intense deprivation in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, once known as the land with the golden plough.

Shanta Varankar is the face of farmer suicides of this region. She is the big question mark on all the relief measures, packages and commissions constituted and instituted after news of suicides first broke out. Varankar’s husband and two sons killed themselves two years ago, each in a gap of six months, after their farm started producing lesser and lesser each year and their debt kept increasing. Belonging to the nomadic Kolam tribe, Shanta’s forefathers had migrated to this majority-tribal village situated 25 km from Yavatmal town. Locals reminisce that the Kolams were originally a rich community.

Yet, Shanta Varankar’s life today is beset with a downward spiral of poverty. Her family ekes out a living from their 4-acre rain-fed farm. Even if it was irrigated, Varankar does not have the cash needed to pay electricity bills, which could run as high as Rs 1,000 per month. As with the rest of the region, she sows Bt Cotton, and some sorghum and tur to feed the surviving members of her family — a daughter and a bed-ridden son. This year, there has been no harvest. Cost has been higher than normal as the farm had to be seeded twice after heavy rains destroyed the first crop.

Today, she gets raw tur daal pods from her farm and cooks a curry out of the seeds. Malnutrition is evident from the huge lump on her neck– goitre — caused by iodine deficiency. After her husband Chandrabhan Varankar and two sons committed suicide, she not only lost family but the extra hands required on the fields. Her third son Suresh, 24, is ill most of the time. Her daughter, now 34, is the only other help and there is no money to pay for labourers, as wages have doubled in the region in two years. Employing a pair of workers for a day could cost upwards of Rs 300. Every year she takes a loan from the local co-operative bank. This year, it was Rs 12,000.

Shanta Varankar has not yet received the Rs 1 lakh she was entitled to as relief after her husband committed suicide. Manoj Jadhav, an activist for the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti (VJS) said that this is despite the suicide fulfilling all the requirements to be an eligible farmer suicide. Why, then, has she not received her rightful compensation? There are no plausible answers to such questions. Varankar’s case reflects a deep caste- and language-prejudice in Vidarbha’s rehabilitation program. For one, the Varankars are not fluent in the state’s official language Marathi. They speak the tribal Banjara language.

Crushed by extreme poverty, the Varankar family is today a marginalised lot. Surprisingly, journalists aren’t the only ones knocking on the non-existent door of her hut. In the past few years, Rahul Gandhi, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Harshwardhan Patil — politicians holding an array of powers in the ruling party — have visited her. Yet, no state package has reached these doorsteps. Whether it will to any of Bodhbodan’s 34 other suicide landmarks as well, is an open question.

[A version of this article was published in January 2011 by the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, as part of the  Covering Deprivation special project.]

Radia tapes: Online media 1 – mainstream media 0

Not too long ago Barkha Dutt had harassed a certain blogger named Chetanya Kunte for some supposedly offensive comments he had published on his blog. She even managed to get that post removed. Well, that was one post of one blog. Today, she will lose count.

I would like to start my presentation by claiming, rather flatly, that the combination of internet, technology and journalism has never been so fruitful before in India. Alan Rusbridger had spoken to us at length, a few months ago, about new media tools and how they have changed journalism for Guardian. We listened rather sleepily for an experience like this one was yet to knock on Indian media’s doorsteps.

The only difference being, most of our mainstream media houses have shied away from something that independent blogs and media-watch sites have been extremely bold with. A Google search now will return numerous blogs that have written and analysed obsessively about what the Radia tapes mean for Indian media and governance. Some are random opinions while others are well-worked analyses. There are writers we have all heard of, and some little known.

The first such blog I would like to mention here is by a journalist called Girish Nikam. Girish Nikam on his website had written a piece on Radia’s involvement in the matters as early as May 2010 when no other mainstream media had made any such analysis. The site also contains scanned copies of correspondence between CBI and DGIT as well as DGIT’s reports of the taped conversations. Nothing of this magnitude was seen in mainstream media – TV or print. Again, technology played its role by allowing Nikam to upload all the scanned copies on the same web page.

Such usage of technology in being able to upload documents is very important in situations like these, where a large amount of documentation is required to unearth crucial evidence. Outlook, thus, put up the tapes it had on its website. Thus, the very fact that today we can play all the Radia tapes, if we so fancy, in this classroom is testimony to this fact. Downloading these tapes, and listening to them has helped make this scam highly active in online media.

This has led to a crowdsourcing initiative, taken by Shivam Vij of Tehelka magazine. He has started a blog called reading radia, where he has enlisted all the radia tapes available on the Outlook website. He has invited volunteers to listen to each of these tapes and transcribe them, put them as comments. Again, technology and journalism have again converged to unearth information. This method has involved readers into the whole debate, letting them share a piece of the big pie that the scam is.

While the above have shown activity in news gathering, websites such as The Hoot.Org have pioneered intellectual output about this issue. Just like the articles on media in the Indian sub-continent that it hosts, the hoot has been persistently posting articles and debates since the radia debate began around November 18th. There were various opinion pieces by experts such as Sevanti Ninan, and much before any mainstream media, apart from those already involved, published such things. The crescendo was an online debate, where the website invited views from readers and journalists. They have, since, being publishing these views. The Hoot had already published around three sets of debates and three articles by the time The Hindu, for e.g., got its act together and published an editorial that raised the issue of media ethics. By this I am referring to S. Varadarajan’s column that appeared on Nov 29.

Not only has online media been active in putting up ideas, it has also been active in terms of reader’s responses. This is visible almost everywhere.

The Hindu’s letters to the editor, which gets published in the print edition, has carried eight letters as of yesterday. This is much smaller than the 50-odd comments posted on a single column on the radia tapes published on its website. This reflects how online media has attracted much more outrage from the public, akin to the twitter experience, compared to mainstream media.

Where the online media took names and published matter with full, unprecedented attribution — channels such as CNN-IBN in its televised discussion on Nov 22 only mentioned a ‘a development which involves the operational head of a rival channel’ – marked difference from the online media was already going bonkers with names, pictures, and explicit details.

The online media has, also, been more liberal. It hasn’t given much heed to the age-old ethic of not reporting other media houses issues.

When internet was abuzz with so much articulation of Radia tapes, it would have only looked absurd for mainstream media to be quiet. The Hindu, which had till a few days ago only been publishing news reports and focusing more on the 2G scam, has started taking up the bigger issue as I mentioned a while ago.

Just yesterday, the Indian express gave large coverage with full-page spreads.

While many newspapers restricted to reporting the bare facts of events as they happened, few resorted to analysis or opinion in the first five days of the news.

These responses were slightly delayed, and were not a surprise. For anyone following the radia tapes on the blogosphere, there was nothing new in the lengthy analyses offered. For someone reading only newspapers, it would have looked like something very suddenly cropped up that led to these articles.

An interesting trend observed here, was that of mainstream media being more active online than on paper. And this was reflected in their online edition’s blogs section. DNA blogs is a classic example. While their opinion and editorial sections are devoid of anything on the radia case, their senior journalists’ blogs are full of their views on the issue. Seeing these on the DNA website definitely makes a reader feel that the newspaper endorses these opinions. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect that it is trying to show between what is in print and what is not.

Even in the Times of India blogs, RE of Hyd Kingshuk Nag goes at length to describe his first meeting with Niira Radia and what he thought about it. But the paper is yet to break the editorial silence in its print edition.

Mind you, there are 150 comments that follow this blog post, most of which urge him to “take the name” of Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi.

Indeed, if we come to these two protagonists of the radia tapes as we know them, online media has been extremely vibrant with their views. Especially for Dutt, since her television channel broke silence only last night in the televised inquisition of sorts. The only way she or NDTV could make any written statements was through their site. Narayan Rao, CEO of NDTV was the first to make an announcement on behalf of the channel. Then Barkha Dutt posted a lengthy and detailed explanation of why her name appears in the tapes and how she is being falsely implicated, etc etc. With these examples we see how the online media has been active not just with third parties writing about the ongoing scandal, but also for the people involved in it to reach their audience. Again there is a disconnect between what is “official” – a televised statement in this case which obviously did not happen – and what is put up online.

Dutt accompanied this statement with a long list of video clippings of her supposedly unbiased coverage of the govt formation of 2009. This just completed this entire series of opinions, blogs, and commentary in the online media. Someone following the news online was definitely more well-read so-to-say on this matter than was someone following this in the print medium, more so someone trying to watch TV to gain an informed opinion.

What really makes one think is this seeming divide between what is online and what is on print. Journalists seem to have taken liberty in expressing their opinion online rather than in print. They have written blogs, and published statements. Is it because online they are free of the pressures of the advertising and marketing mafia?

“People should be willing to spend on content. Otherwise you get what you paid for” said Manu Joseph in an editorial in Open magazine. That is precisely where online and social media took off from, where mainstream media got left behind. These bloggers and tweeple, who did not have to worry about advertisers when they clicked the ‘publish’ button, it was they and their freedom from corporations that arm-twist everytime something ‘wrong’ is published. From Nira Radias calling up and telling you what to publish in your next column.

A situation like that would point us back to the debate on revenue models controlling editorial spaces. It would urge us to think that not only is new media the media of the future, but new media is already the bigger platform for the very freedom of speech and expression that the press survives on.

[Based on a speech delivered at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, as part of ‘Radia Media‘ colloquium conducted in December 2010. Parts of this were summarized in a report subsequently published in The Hindu. Hyperlinks added specially for Free Left Turn]

Mining the moon

After Neil Armstrong’s memorable “giant leap”, mankind’s efforts at understanding our closest celestial neighbour have reached another crescendo. Various missions of NASA concluded in favour of a long-held theory that there is abundant water on the moon, apart from traces of metals like silver. This opens up research for sustaining a future manned base on the moon, while raising questions about using resources from, and effectively colonizing, outer space.

Scientists working with data from NASA’s $79-billion LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) published their findings in the October 22, 2010 edition of Science. The mission intended to study the contents of lunar craters in detail.

The LCROSS probe collected data in an experiment carried out last year in October. Instead of landing a probe on the surface of the moon, scientists engineered an explosion by crashing the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas V rocket. This was closely followed by LCROSS, which gathered data from the cloud of dust that following the impact and instantly transmitted it back to NASA, before itself crashing on the lunar surface. Another spacecraft from the mission, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), aerially studied material that was thrown up more than 15 km into sunlight. Rubbishing criticism that LCROSS was a failure, the NASA made a preliminary announcement last November that the probe has found water in the lunar crater. Interestingly, NASA announced in September this year that its Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) device, which was attached to Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan-I, also provided information about high content of water in lunar soil.

This was almost a month before a team of scientists, led by Peter Schultz of Brown University, studied LCROSS data and published their findings in six papers in the issue of Science dated Oct 22, 2010.

Schultz’s papers reveal that there is granular water present in considerable quantities in lunar craters. In fact, some scientists say that the estimated volume of water present in this particular crater, called Cabeus, makes it wetter than the Sahara desert. “The Sahara sands are 2 to 5 percent water; ice on the moon is about 5.6 percent of the mixture, and possibly as high as 8.5 percent too,” Dr. Anthony Colaprete of NASA told The New York Times.

Heat from the LCROSS explosion had kicked up some 155 kg of water-vapour. The Cabeus crater is near the moon’s South Pole; its interiors have not been exposed to sunlight for centuries. This makes it one of the coldest places on the satellite. The M3’s findings, earlier, held that the moon has a daily hydrating cycle that keeps the water level consistent on the surface.

Schultz’s research also revealed compounds like hydroxyl, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, free sodium, and, surprisingly, silver.

This means a lot of astronomers who have been hoping to use resources available in extra-terrestrial objects for space missions. For example, astronauts using water available on the moon could save on a lot of crucial launch weight. Oxygen and hydrogen – the two components of water – may also be useful as a fuel for the rockets.

This however depends on the purity of the water. The silver, for example, may be unusable due to the added presence of mercury. “Its toxicity could present a challenge for human exploration,” Kurt Retherford of the Southwest Research Institute told Reuters.

Critics have always rubbished the plan to colonize outer space, especially the moon, for resources and establishing human settlements. There are then others who say humans should, instead, colonize Mars. This argument has also been sustained by policies like Obama’s plan to scrap lunar settlements, in favour of a manned Mars mission.