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Archive for February 2010

Images of Niyamgiri

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Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

The news agency Reuters has posted a superb picture slideshow on Niyamgiri and the Dongria Kondh, with reference to their struggle against the mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources (please see my earlier post on the subject, ‘The last stand of the Dongria Kondh’). The pressure on the mining conglomerate is growing, for one of Britain’s biggest charitable trusts has dumped its holdings of Vedanta stock. Here is its statement:

“The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has sold its £1.9 million stake in UK-listed mining company, Vedanta, due to serious concerns about its approach to human rights and the environment, particularly in the Indian state of Orissa. Other investors which follow the Trust’s ethical policy, including the Marlborough Ethical Fund and Millfield House Foundation, have also sold their shares, taking the total divested to £2.2M. The 77,600 Rowntree shares were sold following nine months’ engagement over the company’s actions.”

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust“Vedanta plans to mine bauxite from a mountain in Lanjigarh and the Niyamgiri Hills, in the state of Orissa, which are sacred to the Kondh tribal people who live in the area. The company has already built a refinery at the foot of the mountain and the bauxite project is reported to be causing severe environmental damage at the expense of the local people.”

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

A woman from the Dongria Kondh tribe attends a gathering on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain.

Susan Seymour, Chair of the Investment Committee at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, said: “As a responsible shareholder we have serious concerns about Vedanta. We have heard first-hand about Vedanta’s environmental and human rights abuses in Orissa and believe Vedanta is pushing industrialisation to the detriment of the lives and lands of local people and at great risk to its own reputation. This behaviour may be legal but it is morally indefensible. We have therefore decided to sell our entire stock in Vedanta.”

“Although the company defends itself as an Indian company and talks of the importance of development in India, with which we would not disagree, it has chosen to raise capital in the UK and this implies being expected to meet the standards applied to all companies listed in the London market. We were not convinced Vedanta was addressing shareholder concerns quickly enough to avoid destroying people’s lives and creating irreversible damage to the environment. The company must realise that unless it makes significant changes soon, shareholders will continue to lose confidence in the company.”

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Written by makanaka

February 23, 2010 at 11:55

The ‘Religion of Capital’ revisited

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“We need religion to curb the masses. But what religion? It must be a new religion. Now, then, the only religion that answers the requirements of our days is the Religion of Capital. Capital is the true, only and omnipotent God.”

Those were the words, prophetic and terrible, uttered by the “notorious” Statistician Mallock, in Paul Lafargue’s remarkable satirical work, ‘Religion of Capital‘. Mallock has just risen from a “group of capitalists” – Vanderbilts, Goulds, Rothschilds among them – and lets loose with brutal simplicity to stop short the wranglings between the theologians, free-thinkers and philosophers. This is what he went on to say:

Cover of Religion of Capital, by Paul Lafargue (1916)

Cover of Religion of Capital, by Paul Lafargue (1916)

“He manifests Himself in everything. He is found in glittering gold and in stinking guano; in a herd of cattle and in a cargo of coffee; in brilliant stores that offer sacred literature for sale and in obscure booths of lewd pictures: in gigantic machines, made of hardest steel, and in elegant rubber goods. He is everywhere. Capital is the God whom the whole world knows, sees, smells, tastes. He is sensible to all our senses. He is the only God that has not yet run against an atheist.”

Lafargue tells us how the group of Capitalists rejoiced at hearing this, how they cheered and applauded loud and long at this clear and cold definition of the new creed.

“When Capital visits a country, it is as if a hurricane had broken loose, that tears down and destroys everything that stands in His way — men, animals, the quick and the dead. Capital seizes upon free and healthy, strong and happy people and immures them by the hundreds of thousands in the mills, the factories and the mines. There He pumps out their blood; when He lets them go again, they are prematurely old, scrofulous, anaemic, consumptive. The imagination of man has never yet been able to conceive a more fearful, cruel and pitiless God when enraged.”

Lafargue goes on to describe the Catechism of the new religion as an interrogation of a humble worker.

Q. What is your name?
A. Wageworker.
Q. Who are thy parents?
A. My father was called Wageworker; my mother’s name is Poverty.
Q. Where wast thou born?
A. In a garret under the roof of a tenement house which my father and his comrades built.
Q. What is thy religion?
A. The Religion of Capital.

It is a catechism whose tremendous power is found now (Lafargue would no doubt observe, were he amongst us today) in the financial skulduggery that has entrapped millions of families in the North and South alike and driven them to penury. His Statistician Mallock has made tens of thousands of converts in the banking system of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Q. What does thy religion order thee to do with thy savings ?
A. To entrust them to the savings banks and such other institutions that have been established by philanthropic financiers, to the end that they may loan them out to our bosses. We are commanded to place our earnings at all times at the disposal of our masters.
Q. Does thy religion allow thee to touch thy savings?
A. As rarely as possible; but it recommends to us not to insist too strongly upon receiving our funds back; we are told we should patiently submit to our fate if the philanthropic financiers are unable to meet our demands, and inform us that our savings have gone up in smoke.

Who was Paul Lafargue? Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Lafargue (1841-1911) was a leading member of the French socialist movement and played an important rôle in the development of the Spanish socialist movement. A close friend of Friedrich Engels in his later years, he wrote and spoke from a fairly orthodox Marxist perspective on a wide-range of topics including women’s rights, anthropology, ethnology, reformism and economics.

‘Do or die’ year for agriculture

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“If we don’t take steps to address the serious ecological, economic and social crises facing our farm families, we will be forced to support foreign farmers, through extensive food imports.”
“This will result in a rise in food inflation, increase the rural-urban and rich-poor divides and allow the era of farmers’ suicides to persist.”
“On the other hand, we have a unique opportunity for ensuring food for all by mobilizing the power of Yuva and Mahila Kisans and by harnessing the vast untapped yield reservoir existing in most farming systems through synergy between technology and public policy.”
“2010 is a do or die year for Indian agriculture.”

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

So says Prof M S Swaminathan, India’s best-known agriculture scientist, who established the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in 1988. Chastened by the limitations of the ‘green revolution’, the MSSRF’s mission is the conservation and enhancement of natural resources, and generation of agricultural, rural and off-farm employment with a particular emphasis on the poor and the women.

Swaminathan made these points in a blunt, hard-hitting and no-nonsense convocation address at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana on 10 February 2010. The content of his address should have attracted national attention, because of the urgency of his tone and also because of the specific, very feasible institutional transformations his suggestions will need. He talked about adaptation to climate change and explained that a group of scientists led by the MSSRF have undertaken studies during the last five years in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh on climate change adaptation measures. The districts chosen were Udaipur in Rajasthan and Mehabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh. The approach adopted was to bring about a blend of traditional wisdom and modern science through farmer participatory research.

MSS mentioned five particular points of adaptation:
1. Water conservation and sustainable and equitable use
2. Promoting fodder security
3. More crop and income per drop of water
4. Weather information for all and climate literacy
5. Strengthening community institutions

He said these interventions were supported by training and skill development and education and social mobilization. A training manual was prepared by MSSRF for training one woman and one male member of every Panchayat as Climate Risk Managers. Such local level Climate Risk Managers will be well trained in the art and science of managing weather abnormalities. The work has highlighted the need for location specific adaptation measures and for participatory research and knowledge management.

“The adaptation interventions have also highlighted the need for mainstreaming gender considerations in all interventions. Women will suffer more from Climate Change, since they have been traditionally in charge of collecting water, fodder and fuel wood, and have been shouldering the responsibility for farm animal care and post-harvest technology. All interventions should therefore be pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women.”

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

“It is clear that to promote location specific and farmer-centric adaptation measures; India will need a Climate Risk Management Research and Extension Centre at each of the 127 agro-ecological regions in the country. Such centres should prepare Drought, Flood and Good Weather Codes what can help to minimize the adverse impact of abnormal weather and to maximize the benefits of favourable monsoons and temperature. Risk surveillance and early warning should be the other responsibilities of such centres. Thus the work done so far has laid the foundation for a Climate Resilient Agriculture Movement in India. The importance of such a Movement will be obvious considering the fact that 60% of India’s population of 1.1 billion depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. In addition, India has to produce food, feed and fodder for over 1.1 billion human, and over a billion farm animal population.”

It is a shared responsibility, said MSS, and one that the non-farming, urban population must recognise and help bear. “Urban and non-farming members of the human family should realize that we live on this planet as the guests of sunlight and green plants, and of the farm women and men who toil in sun and rain, and day and night, to produce food for over 6 billion people, by bringing about synergy between green plants and sunlight. Let us salute the farmers of the world and help them to help in achieving the goal of a hunger free world, the first among the U N Millennium Development Goals.”

These points are made at a time when India (or rather the central government and key ministries) still places economic growth as a priority rather than ecologically sustainable existence which is mindful of cultural traditions and which builds on extensive systems of traditional knowledge to take a human development route that is climate neutral. From 2007 onwards, there have been major intergovernmental and international studies on the impacts of climate change (including on agriculture). Several of these have shown that in South and East Asia, rice yields are affected. For most crops and regions, carbon fertilisation accentuates the positive impacts and mitigates the negative ones. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the true impact of carbon fertilisation. Among developing countries, the number of countries which ‘lose’ exceed the number of countries that ‘gain’, and their decrease in cereal production was greater than gains elsewhere.

Developing countries are worse off, where agriculture is concerned, said an OECD study in 2008 titled ‘Costs of Inaction on Key Environmental Challenges’. For example, the scenario with the highest CO2 concentration showed a 7% decline for developing countries. For developed countries, yields actually increased under all scenarios, but the global effect was always negative, or (at best) neutral. Not only was there significant variation across countries; the implications for the risk of hunger also varied greatly, depending on assumptions made about the fertilising effects of increasing CO2 concentrations.

“Assuming ‘no action’ is taken with respect to emissions, positive changes in yields (due to warming, precipitation, and crop fertilisation) in mid and high latitudes were predicted to be more than compensated by reductions in the lower latitudes, particularly in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Changing crop yields (and demands) will affect market prices for agricultural output, as well as land prices. Decreases in agricultural yields in developing countries are likely to have significant implications for risk of hunger.”

Moreover, there has been evidence enough of the links between reducing poverty and strengthening agriculture. A paper produced by DFID (the British official aid agency, in 2004) emphasises the historically close correlation between different rates of poverty reduction over the past 40 years and differences in agricultural performance – particularly the rate of growth of agricultural productivity. There are links described between agriculture and poverty reduction through four ‘transmission mechanisms’: 1) direct impact of improved agricultural performance on rural incomes; 2) impact of cheaper food for both urban and rural poor; 3) agriculture’s contribution to growth and the generation of economic opportunity in the non-farm sector; and 4) agriculture’s fundamental role in stimulating and sustaining economic transition, as countries (and poor people’s livelihoods) shift away from being primarily agricultural towards a broader base of manufacturing and services.

Why is this so important to India and so important now? An ADB paper explains (‘A General Equilibrium Analysis of the Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture in the People’s Republic of China’, by Fan Zhai, Tun Lin, and Enerelt Byambadorj, Asian Development Bank, 2010). Despite rapid growth in recent decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no exception to the effects of climate change. It also faces a great challenge to meet increasing demand for agricultural products due to increasing population and income level in the coming years. In the PRC, agriculture accounted for 11.7% of the national gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 and agricultural crop land occupied 157 million hectares. Agricultural production has enabled the country to feed a population of 1.3 billion people, more than a fifth of the world’s population, of whom 900 million live in rural areas, from an eighth of the world’s arable land.

“Global climate change could cause rises in temperature, redistribution of rainfall, and more frequent flooding and droughts, and do considerable damage to crop production and the agricultural sector in general,” says the ADB paper. “At the national level, overall impact on crop production, assuming there is no carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilisation, is an estimated 7 to 14% reduction in rice, 9 to 10% reduction in maize, and 2 to 9% reduction in wheat. Assuming an average drop of 7%, this means a reduction of almost 40 million metric tons of food grain, and 20% of the global grain trade. Such a loss would undermine food security in the PRC, with particular health consequences for the poor and women, as females are primarily responsible for feeding the family.”

The last stand of the Dongria Kondh

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Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International

Dongria Kondh youth at a protest meeting. Picture courtesy Amnesty International report, 'Don't Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India' .

It’s a measure of the desperation of people that they must be compared to a fictional community in a film – no matter how good the film – in an attempt to be heard. The Dongria Kondh have been represented by Survival International as the real-world analogy of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned indigenous folk of the box office hit film Avatar.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry says, “Just as the Na’vi describe the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything’, for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected. The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa, India.”

And so Survival International, an international organisation supporting tribal peoples worldwide, set up inspired piece of campaigning. The organisation has filmed and produced a short and stirring video on the lives of the Dongria Kondh, who with other local Kondh people are resisting Vedanta Resources, a Britain-registered company determined to mine their sacred mountain’s rich seam of bauxite (aluminium ore). The Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-strong adivasi (indigenous) community spread over 90 villages in and around the hills, are determined to save Niyamgiri from becoming an industrial wasteland.

Other Kondh groups are already suffering from a bauxite refinery, built and operated by Vedanta, at the base of the Niyamgiri Hills. These hills are home to the Dongria Kondh, who consider the Niyamgiri Hills as sacred and do not cut trees or practice cultivation on top of the Hill as they worship Niyam Raja Penu, who they believe lives on top of the Niyamgiri Hills. Their identity is closely tied to the Niyamgiri Hills, which they believe are essential to their culture, traditions, and physical and economic survival.

“The Dongria Kondh are at risk, as their lands are set to be mined by Vedanta Resources who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims,” said Corry. “The mine will destroy the forests on which the Dongria Kondh depend and wreck the lives of thousands of other Kondh tribal people living in the area. I do hope that (Avatar director) James Cameron will join the Dongria’s struggle to save their sacred mountain and secure their future.”

The outcry over mining and mineral ore extraction in Orissa has been growing steadily for over four years, with Indian and transnational mineral resources companies getting permissions to mine and build refineries. The victims have been small farming hosueholds and indigenous communities like the Dongria Kondh, who have lived on and around the hills for centuries. The Dongria Kondh depend entirely on the hills for their food, water, livelihoods and cultural identity.

Late in 2009, Amnesty International placed the matter squarely on top of its global agenda with a first report. “The proposed mine could have grave repercussions for their human rights to water, food, health, work and other rights as an indigenous community in respect of their traditional lands,” said the Amnesty International report. “International law requires that governments seek their free, prior informed consent before beginning such projects. Vedanta Resources and its subsidiaries have failed to take action to adequately remedy the problems identified above. The companies involved have also failed to abide by internationally-accepted standards in relation to the impact of business on human rights – to provide information, consult with people and refine plans to ensure rights are not harmed.”

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Video on the Dongria Kondh by Survival International

Alarmed by the scale of the outcry – and possibly by the growing evidence of the mercenary destruction of land and peoples being carried out jointly by the Indian state and mining companies – the Church of England decided to take some action. It has decided to sell the shares it held (as the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board) in Vedanta Resources on the advice of the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG). “We are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the Church investing bodies hold shares,” was part of the Church’s reason for dropping its Vedanta investment.

For its miserable part, Vedanta Resources has no qualms about using the typical corporate ‘responsibility’ jargon in vogue today in a sickening effort to explain how it works: “We believe that businesses will increasingly play a significant role in tackling and driving the sustainability challenge. Our focus on sustainability drives our conviction to pursue value creating projects and at the same time achieve positive environmental, social and health and safety outcomes.”

Its bauxite mining project will cover 700 hectares of land on top of the north-western part of the Niyamgiri Hills and involve excavation of a large section of the hill to a depth of about 30 metres. In May 2009, some members of these communities submitted an appeal to the National Environmental Appellate Authority within India’s central Ministry of Environment and Forests, to challenge the environmental clearance granted by the ministry for the proposed mining project. This appeal is now pending.

“Communities living in south-west Orissa in eastern India – already one of the poorest areas of the country – are at threat from the expansion of an alumina refinery and plans for a new bauxite mining project,” says Amnesty International’s hard-hitting report on the matter, ‘Don’t Mine Us Out Of Existence: Bauxite Mine And Refinery Devastate Lives In India’ (Amnesty International, 2010). “They have been effectively excluded from the decision-making process, and the land these people live on is or will soon be used to make profit for others.”

“The people living next to the refinery have already suffered violations of their human rights to water and health, including a healthy environment, because of pollution and poor management of waste produced by the refinery. The mining project will be located on the traditional lands of the Dongria Kondh, an indigenous community, which is considered endangered. They now live under the fear of losing their way of life and their sacred hills, as well as having their rights to water, food, livelihoods and cultural identity undermined.”

The advance guard of climate change

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Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

Winter sky over the Deccan plateau, India

From late 2003 to early 2005 I was part of a small group in south Nagaland (in India’s north-east region) conducting a study on natural resource management and the prospects for tourism in the region. The study was funded by a Indian central government ministry, was ‘supervised’ by the state government and was made possible by the village community of Khonoma, in the Naga hills.

At around the mid-point of our study, when the time had come for the paddy seedlings to be transplanted, that the convergence of climate change and scarce labour resources became obvious. The seedlings were not ready to be moved at the time of year they were usually expected to be. By the time they were, the extra labour each rice farming family had mobilised in preparation for the hard work ahead, had their regular jobs and occupations to return to. The hill villages were in turmoil. Practically every single family that had a plot of terraced rice field to attend to was caught in a dilemma.

If they insisted that those who had come to the villages to help them – daughters, sons, cousins or aunts – stay back to complete the work, those helpful souls would certainly lose salaries and wages. If they let them return, they would have to look for very scarce hired labour, whose per day wage was high and which would certainly rise given the scarcity of hands available and time. It was for most families a Hobson’s choice, and by either reckoning only made the socio-economic cost of rice cultivation dearer. This was the most dramatic impact of climate change that I saw at the time, for the shift in transplanting season was considered very odd indeed by the villages, almost unprecedented.

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

Extracting riverbed sand in North Goa, India

We know now that local observations of direct effects of climate change by tribal populations and indigenous peoples corroborate scientific predictions. In a very real sense, indigenous peoples are the advance guard of climate change. They observe and experience climate and environmental changes first-hand, and are already using their traditional knowledge and survival skills – the heart of their cultural resilience – to respond. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when their cultures and livelihoods are already undergoing significant stresses not only due to the environmental changes from climate change, but from the localised pressures and economic impulses of global trade and movement of capital.

The United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Study has just released an advance copy of what promises to be a goldmine of such observation. The volume is entitled ‘Advance Guard: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples – A Compendium of Case Studies’. The 402 case studies summarised in this densely packed volume mention a host of specific vulnerabilities and early effects of climate change being reported by indigenous peoples (and these include cultural and spiritual impacts): demographic changes, including displacement from their traditional lands and territories; economic impacts and loss of livelihoods; land and natural resource degradation; impacts on food security and food sovereignty; health issues; water shortages; and loss of traditional knowledge.

: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples

The cover graphic of the UNU-IAS compilation 'Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, Mitigation and Indigenous Peoples'

Impacts are felt across all sectors, including agriculture and food security; biodiversity and natural ecosystems; animal husbandry (particularly pastoralist lifestyles); housing, infrastructure and human settlements; forests; transport; energy consumption and production; and human rights. The entire range of effects on habitats and their biomes are supplied: temperature and precipitation changes; coastal erosion; permafrost degradation; changes in wildlife, pest and vector-borne disease distribution; sea-level rise; increasing soil erosion, avalanches and landslides; more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense storms; changing weather patterns, including increasing aridity and drought, fire and flood patterns; and increased melting of sea-ice and ice-capped mountains.

“In spite of these impacts,” states the UNU-IAS compilation, “indigenous peoples also have a variety of successful adaptive and mitigation strategies to share. The majority of these are based in some way on their traditional ecological knowledge, whether they involve modifying existing practices or restructuring their relationships with the environment. Their strategies include application and modification of traditional knowledge; shifting resource bases; altering land use and settlement patterns; blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies; fire management practices; changes in hunting and gathering periods and crop diversification; management of ecosystem services; awareness raising and education, including use of multimedia and social networks; and policy, planning and strategy development.”

From Asia, I’ve picked out three cases which illustrate just how important it is to observe and learn from these responses:

BANGLADESH | Indigenous forecasting in Maheshkhali, using meteorological indicators and animal behaviour to predict cyclones. Maheshkhali Island is situated off the Bay of Bengal coast with an area of approximately 60 square km. Cyclones are the greatest disaster threat of coastal people. Research has revealed that certain indigenous prediction capacity possessed by the local people always helped them to anticipate cyclones and take necessary precautions. The indigenous cyclone prediction is even more important as it was revealed during interviews with the Maheskhali islanders that they do not understand the modern warning system with its different numerical codes (1-10) and elaboration on wind direction, as explained in the warning bulletins.

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

Buffalo at work, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, India

INDIA | Indigenous forecasting in India using meteorological indicators, plant features and animal behaviour. Researchers from Gujarat Agricultural University have evaluated eight indigenous forecasting beliefs between 1990 to 1998. For each year, the data was tabulated and analysed on the basis of Bhadli’s criteria. Based on the findings the researchers concluded that many of the beliefs are reliable indicators of monsoon. The study has helped to restore the people’s confidence in their own traditional knowledge and skills. As climate change occurs, these traditional forecasting indicators may change. Locals have to continue their observations and adjust their predictions accordingly to ensure that correct coping mechanisms will be applied.

INDONESIA | Customary Iban Community. This study examines the social and institutional practices of a sedentary Iban sub-tribe in the upstream part of the Kapuas system in governing their life. In 2008, the Sungai Utik community acquired a formal, recognition of their institutional capacity to live at the center of one of the most complex ecosystems that is the tropical rainforest of Kalimantan. The Indonesian Eco-label Institute provided the community logging practice of the Sungai Utik Ibans its “seal of ecological appropriateness”. The Sungai Utik life-space is part of the bigger climatic zone just north of the Equator that has been predicted to experience higher precipitation over the course of climate change in this century, particularly in comparison with the last three decades of the last century. It means that the community should learn to adapt to a transformed rainy season—the duration of which and the timing of its start and ending are also subject to change—for the crucial nugal (planting) rituals.

Billions of euros, and the zero-rupee note

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The German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, is easily among the best designed papers in the world. It is also consistently critical in its investigations and reporting, and just as consistently innovative in the manner in which it presents subjects. Visually, Die Zeit’s pages have few peers worldwide, if at all.

Billions swallowed up (Die Zeit, Deutschland)This is a typical example of how Die Zeit is able to hold its readers’ interest, dramatically present numeric data and at the same time make a strong political statement about state spending.

The title of this arresting full page graphic is ‘Seid verschlungen, Milliarden!’, which means ‘Billions swallowed up’. The graphic purports to be an aid to politicians who notoriously have no idea, says Die Zeit, how many zeros there are in a billion but who blithely continue to agree to spend billions (of public money).

There are some eye-popping numbers represented by the coloured squares on this page. The German healthcare system is 245 billion euro, the income of the church in Germany is 330 billion euro, Germany’s federal budget for ‘Bildung und Forschung’ (education and research) is 11 billion euro, Germany must reserve 283 billion euro for pensions (which is separate from the 36 billion euro to be spent on pensions for its government officials).

Billions swallowed up (Die Zeit, Deutschland)The cost of sending all children in developing countries to school for five years is reckoned to be 321 billion euro, the development aid of the richest developed/industrialised countries is 72 billion euro, the cost of halving the incidence of poverty in developed countries (as under the UN’s Millennium Development Goals) is 32 billion euro, the cost to the USA of the 2003 Iraq war was 40 billion euro, and the cost to date of the Iraq and Afghanistan war to the USA is 1,242 billion euro.

While on the subject of money and public spending, The Economist has reported the issue of the zero rupee currency note. The surprising note looks like the typical 50-rupee note, except it is for ‘zero rupees’. In place of ‘Reserve Bank of India’ it says ‘Eliminate Corruption at all Levels’ and in the same vein has replaced the usual “I promise to pay the bearer…” with “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe”. This excellent public campaign has been launched by a Chennai-based NGO called 5th Pillar (P O Box No 5338, Chennai 600024, phone +91 44 65273056).

The zero rupee noteVijay Anand is president of the NGO and is also, according to the Economist report, an expatriate Indian physics professor from the University of Maryland “who, travelling back home, found himself harassed by endless extortion demands. He gave the (zero rupee) notes to the importuning officials as a polite way of saying no.” 5th Pillar reportedly had 25,000 zero rupee notes printed and publicised to mobilise opposition to corruption. The idea caught on and the NGO says it has distributed a million zero rupee notes since 2007. Haven’t seen any in Mumbai though – although in Mumbai it’s at least a hundred that the most junior traffic policeman will settle for and for municipal jobs one starts with 500 rupees, so 5th Pillar will need to do a Mumbai and Delhi set of zero-rupee notes in those colours, not 50-rupee colours.