Hides and Roses

I have been India for the past month researching a planned film on the energy crisis in India (more on that later). While visiting Kanpur, India’s most polluted city, as well as the center of it’s leather export trade, I came across the story of a village on the outskirts of the city that I think reflects the complexity of resolving pressing environmental challenges in India.

Pyondi village is located barely a few kilometers east of Jajmau. Most of it’s residents were farmers who cultivated flowers, which they eventually sold outside temples, or at festivals or weddings. Their income came chiefly from the cultivation of roses, which are in high demand in North India, especially in weddings.

Over the past four  years, however, not a single rose has bloomed in their fields. This is largely because of the 400 odd leather tanneries that are located a few kilometers from the village, in Jajmau. The tanneries, many of which supply to international luxury brands, use a particular tanning technique called chrome tanning. While chrome tanning makes the leather supple and flexible, ideal for handbags and as furniture upholstery, both of which are produced and exported from here, it produces an effluence that on reaching the water, makes it unfit for use for any living organism, least of all for growing roses.

Now, the rose farmers look for work in these tanneries. Lalla Singh, who showed me his failed rose crops tells me that many have left the village to live in the squalor of Jajmau. Lalla Singh himself has taken to cultivating much less profitable marigolds. The wheat grown in this area produces flour dark grey in colour.

On the way from the village to the city, the smell of marigolds and open fields gives way to the stench of hides and smoke from a hundred coal fires.

The government does run a water treatment plant nearby. All tanneries are also required to treat their waste before releasing it. Many comply with the regulations, however many others simply grease some palms and get away with inspections. Eventually this rewards defaulters and penalizes the tanneries that comply.

Added to this is the states apathy towards villages like Pyondi. The village has never had 24 hour electricity. Recent incentives by the government have reduced the power cuts in villages to ‘only’ eight hours a day. Many in the village are not able to install pumps required to pump clean groundwater that could be found deep in the earth.

A project to separate sewage and drinking water has been running for a number of months. As a result the road to Pyondi is dug up and barely drivable.

As I see it the chief problem here is really the lack of any political will to solve the energy and environmental problems affecting the area. A drive to ‘save the Ganga’, the river that flows through the area, has taken on shades of religious identity politics which has strong influence in this region. The tanneries are largely Muslim owned, while the group that runs the campaign is a Hindu charity organization. This keeps the discourse around the issue to grandstanding, rather than really look for solutions to the problem.

It almost seems that corruption, apathy and lack of robust implementation of law have doomed the Kanpur area to environmental disaster, a feeling shared by many residents. The resulting malaise has now spread beyond the city to have wither Pyondi’s roses.

PS: My browser is acting all weird. Pics will be coming soon.

“Certainly Not The Ballet We Learned In School”

A few very interesting videos  of ‘belly dancing’ from the turn of the 19th-20th century have recently turned up on YouTube.

Belly dancing was, according to most reports, first seen in Europe during the Paris Exposition Universale in 1889 (the same where the Eiffel Tower was presented).

See this very interesting dramatized video of the Paris Exposition.

Although it is not clearly state, the women in these videos look western. The ‘Princess Rajah’ video is apparently from the 1904 St. Louis Exposition.

They set up an intriguing case of spread of cultural practices in that era. This was the same period when the exotic Orient was presented by Gerome to the European public in his paintings about nautsch girls and bazaars.

Surely there is an interesting history of eastern dance in Europe out there, or waiting to be written. How did these dance form gain popularity in a European and American public life? What was the role of the expositions and world fairs in spreading cultural forms? Does anyone have more information about this?

Ghosts of the Year Past

I don’t want to be cynical about the new year, but there is too much from last year that 2011 needs to live down. Over the past week, when I was nursing a fever and recovering from year end events, I looked back at the news and realized that Globalistanis had little to cheer about in 2010.

The last year saw two rather ugly specters gaining ground in public life: xenophobia and protectionism. Browsing through year end lists, this became even more clear.

European governments banned the burqa and minarets, and public individuals speculated about the ‘intellect’ of the immigrants. ‘Tea Parties’ put people in Congress on the back of a xenophobic campaign. Asian powers stuck to antagonistic behaviour, willing to pull their new-found weight around.  Populist politics milked the fear of the foreigner. Worryingly, this seems to be becoming a staple of politics around the globe.

The upheaval and chaos that the world has been seeing since the beginning of the recession seem to reinforce this trend. Governments, already stressed by high unemployment rates, have shown protectionist impulses that would easily scupper away the hard won mutual gains of the past decade. China, the worlds largest, most important economy hinted that it might not care, devaluing its currency, triggering  further panic.

Both these specters are persistent and can easily take root in public life. They dramatically came fore in 2010, and stand out in contrast to relatively more optimistic developments in 2009. Put together they pose a serious challenge to globalization processes.

2010 was also the year when the realignment of global power became most evident. It becomes difficult to look at the two dominant political trends of last year as separate from this context.

Hence this blogger is a little unsure of 2011. The two dominant political trends of 2010 shall no doubt cast a shadow over this year. The question is if there is enough political will to push it back. In times of crisis and chaos, 2010 has demonstrated, we tend to retrench and reassert boundaries.

On that happy note, I bid you a happy new year. Perhaps my judgment of the last years dominant trends is clouded a little too much by sickness and inactivity, and perhaps you saw 2010 in a more positive light. If so do let me know if I am missing something, or am overly anxious. I have a healthy appetite for my words.

FC Chechnya- how it happened


Last week we called wraps on a film project, after six grueling months of production. Aside from all the things mentioned in the previous post, this film occupied my life in the last few months, and it gives me immense satisfaction to say that we are at the end.

‘ FC Chechnya’ began as a short video profile of a couple of Chechen refugees whom I met in Vienna while writing this story for an Indian periodical.  I talked about this to my friend Maria Trieb, and we thought it would be a good idea to film some of these interviews, maybe for online broadcast.  What began out of that conversation was a 15 minute series of interviews on the asylum procedure in Europe, and the impact of it on one of the biggest refugee communities here, and is now a 70 minute feature-documentary.

Within a few weeks of shooting, it became clear to us that it would simply not be possible to explore the range of issues that bedevil asylum in Europe. This was not least because our interview partners were very reluctant to share details about their life and struggle for asylum in front of the camera, something which they had been very candid about earlier during conversations. This was understandable: any information that would not corroborate with the version that they had told the asylum authorities could jeopardize their asylum bid.

However, their greatest fear was that members of their family still living in Chechnya would be targeted if these interviews were seen by the Chechen government. Many also feared the impact such interviews would have on their lives here. The Chechen diaspora in Vienna is quite divided, and terrified after Umar Israilov, a Chechen dissident, was shot dead in Vienna a couple of years ago, allegedly by agents of the Chechen government.

It is at this stage that we heard about a group of young asylum seekers who had set up a football club in Carinthia. This immediately caught our attention since Carinthia is not known for its openness to immigrants and refugees. The late Joerg Haider, a former governor of Carinthia, had in his tenure initiated a  campaign for a Chechen free Carinthia and in 2008 deported three families, without a clear legal basis.

So we drove down to Klagenfurt to find out more. On our many trips down their we were able to connect with youngsters who had incredible stories, and incredible positivity in the face of dire circumstances. They played their football with a passion, it seemed almost to reclaim some sense of self-hood that the war in Chechnya and the overdrawn, emotionally exhausting asylum procedure had denied them. Their families were hospitable, and seemed to open up their lives in front of us almost immediately. Football provided a ready peg to their life-stories, although they were still reluctant to speak in front of the camera.

This time the bigger problem was luck. The first three times the shoot in Klagenfurt  ended in disaster. Malfunctioning equipment, absent interviewees and crew breakdowns meant doom for our moneyless production and crew.

Other problems were more basic. Most of our interview partners spoke Russian and German, both languages that I am not fluent in (I am barely comfortable in German, and have no idea about Russian).  Here the production owes a big thanks to Xenia Penko, who made this problem seem irrelevant. Xenia told us when to laugh, and when to eat and when to remain silent in the awkward social situations that we often found ourselves in.

And then there was life. I had to give up a job offer in Delhi, where I had been wanting to move for the past year. Others in the crew juggled jobs, and some gave up other (better paying) projects to work on this film.

But somehow, the right people came together at the right time. My friend Poldi Koegler was able to find us some funding to (literally) keep us alive. The indefatigable Maria Trieb was always on top of the situation when it came to equipment and making sure that we had a post-production schedule that allowed us some flexibility. And Deepti Kakkar, who was so instrumental in organization during our Vienna shoots, came back from India last month to support us in the last stages of post production.

So here we are, to announce the screening of our film at the This Human World Human Rights Film Festival in Vienna. The film premieres on World Human Rights Day, 10th December, and the screening at the TopKino in Vienna would be followed by a panel discussion with top UN and EU asylum experts, as well the members of team FC Chechnya.

So if you are in Vienna, we would be very happy to have you at the premiere of the film. We would try and bring the film to as many screens as possible, although we would still need to figure out how.

Here is the trailer:


Visa issues have once again thrown this blogger into a deep mess. Dealing with bureaucracy everyday for the past few weeks has led to a sort of mind-paralysis that makes any writing impossible. That’s the reason for this hiatus, and it looks like it shall continue for another week or so. Big ranting post on visas and embassies coming up soon..

Why the Auto-Rickshaws of Delhi Should Stay

(Guest post by Simon Harding)

As every Delhite knows, taking an auto journey in the capital is not a pleasant experience. Drivers speed off at the very mention of your home or office, leaving you stranded on the roadside. When an auto-wallah finally agrees to go where you want, he steadfastly refuses to run by the meter and instigates a minute or so of stressful haggling. You arrive at your destination frazzled, irritated and over-charged. This situation has not gone unnoticed. Chief Minister, Sheila Dixshit recently announced plans to phase out the auto-rickshaw after five decades of service. Auto-rickshaws are “not a good option”, she complained, auto-wallahs “harass” passengers and up to half are plying the streets “illegally”. With the Commonwealth Games fast approaching, the eyes of the world will soon turn to Delhi. Auto-rickshaws do not fit with the CM’s desire to see visitors return home “with the impression that they have been to a truly civilised city”. She promised futuristic battery powered taxis, which thrilled middle class Delhi.

But before the auto-rickshaw and the much-maligned auto-wallah can be condemned, we must look at how the auto-rickshaw sector in Delhi operates: at the rules, regulations and policies, which govern the livelihoods of the city’s 80000 or so auto-drivers. Some questions need to be answered: why are Delhi’s auto-wallahs so greedy and grumpy? Why won’t they switch on the meter? Why do so many ply “illegally”?

There are two types of auto-driver: Renter-drivers rent their vehicles from contractors (who own multiple autos). They pay Rs.250-300 for 10-12 hours and expect to take home the same amount in profit: half their passenger fares go on rent and CNG. Today around 80% of auto-wallahs rent their rides. Owner-drivers own their autos, although ‘owner’ is somewhat of a misnomer as most are repaying huge loans to auto-financiers from whom they purchased both the auto-rickshaw and the all-important auto-permit, without which the auto cannot legally ply the streets. Owner-drivers pay what they can upfront and then take a loan for the outstanding amount from the auto-financier. Once the loan is repaid, the auto-financier transfers the auto-permit into the new owner’s name. Monthly loan repayments are typically Rs.9000-15000.

In 1997 the Supreme Court froze the number of autos in a bid to cut emissions from vehicles. No new auto-permits would be issued. No auto-permits could be sold either. The supply of auto-rickshaws was capped whilst the demand for public transport surged as Delhi’s population grew. Consequently, the price of an auto-permit rocketed and a burgeoning black market for permits emerged. Auto-financiers found themselves in a lucrative position as their existing stock of auto-permits suddenly became a very precious commodity indeed. In the late 90s, a new auto-rickshaw with permit cost Rs.1-1.5 lakhs from an auto-financier. Today, after a decade of inflation on the black market, the auto and permit package costs Rs.4-4.5 lakhs: Rs.1.45 lakhs for the new auto, Rs.3 lakh for the permit.

The cap was also good news for contractors. No new auto-rickshaws coming onto the streets, but the number of willing drivers was increasing as migrants continued to arrive from Bihar and UP in search of employment. Demand for rented autos rose but supply froze, allowing contractors to hike rents.

A second policy shifted the balance of power in favour of financiers once again. In 1998 the Supreme Court ordered that all public transport vehicles should convert to CNG. Owner-drivers were faced with a Rs.25-30000 bill for a CNG conversion kit and the threat of having their precious permits canceled if they did not comply. In 2000, just before the switch, there were 83000 auto-rickshaws on the roads, but just eighteen months later there were 55000. Where did these autos go?

How to reconcile radical sentiments with everyday reality in the West?

Daniel Cooper writes in on the dilemmas of radicalism, LA and post-post-graduate life.

Nearly six months have passed since I returned from my two years in the Erasmus Mundus program in London and Leipzig to the comforts and luxuries of my home city of Los Angeles, a sprawling, coastal metropolis in the most powerful economy in the world. Blessed with unfathomable material wealth and environmental beauty, Los Angeles to a middle-class young man can be paradise; a gentle and seemingly constant sea breeze swirls overhead as beautiful tanned women walk leisurely down sunny city streets. One can go surfing in the morning in Malibu, enjoy an afternoon hike through the Santa Monica Mountains alongside rattle snakes and deer—in January—and enjoy dinner at a delicious Ethiopian or Armenian or Peruvian restaurant all in the same day in this city. But for as much wealth and beauty, Los Angeles offers equal amounts of poverty and ugliness. Latino and Black Angelinos (the term for residents of Los Angeles) remain cramped in dilapidated housing projects, the results of racist city planning and zoning regulations from a time not too far in the city’s past. The maze of Los Angeles’ freeways and streets are congested with bulky gas-guzzling machines that inch slowly along, wearing away at the humanity of the people who sit passively behind their steering wheels. While the air quality in Los Angeles has improved, every once in a while an oppressive smog looms over the city, turning an otherwise green paradise full of trees into what looks like a nuclear waste zone, an ominous reminder of human fallibility. Basically, Los Angeles offers all that is to be expected in one of the major cities of the Western world. I have come to appreciate this city, and by extension the larger Western world, the only world I really know. But my journey to this appreciation has not been without tears and much painful soul-searching.

Spiritual & Financial Guidance for the Penniless but Pure at Heart

The beginning of the New Year can be a time of changes and a time of re-assessment of life’s decisions. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, BB tells his daughter:

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

While the movie was a tad longer than necessary, what was nice and sincere about it was that that it makes you look at the concept of time differently, because instead of getting older like everybody else,  Benjamin keeps getting younger. For most of us, as we get older we get a vaguely uncomfortable feeling that somehow, time is running out. Actually, time is just the way it always has been. What’s really running out is you. And with this comes that inevitable realisation that you want to do something meaningful before you get run out or run over.

Winter School 2009 & the Buttered Cat Paradox

Winter School 2009 took place last weekend in the national park of the Karkonosze Mountains, Poland. The First Years and anybody else who chose to attend, were put up in two huts, Samotnia and Strzecha, located 500 metres from each other, with the nearest city of Karpacz situated a good 1.5 hour walk through the snow-covered mountains. Given the circumstance, making a quick and painless get-away from the place is near impossible. The logic then for the remote choice of location, as explained by Poldi, is somewhat tautological: Making a quick and painless get away from the Winter School is near impossible. The resulting corollary is that everyone must spend all their time with each other. If you have any doubts about such a model of integration, of forced companionship amongst poor, unsuspecting students from all possible backgrounds, the Winter School is the place to be. Surprisingly enough, the model works.

Walking in Karkonosze

Successfully into its Second Year, the School continues to be a place of great learning alongside intellectual and physical stimulation for its participants. Informally however, it has has been in existence for a much longer time. A strong indicator of its continuing popularity is the fact that students and teachers alike have unabashedly fallen in love with the place, expressing ardent wishes for a continued association with it: these range widely from wanting to be buried there to wanting to be married in the hallowed precincts of Samotnia. Although wry bystanders have marked there might not be much difference between the two.