On issues that matter …

Indian voices in American politics August 30, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 7:15 pm
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Mumbai, India-born Dinesh D’Souza, whose name is generally preceded by titles such as ‘conservative scholar’ and ‘public intellectual’, is your every day go-to guy for American media for comments on all things Christian, evangelical and well, Republican.

His opinions, predictable and clichéd at best, suit the media which typically uses him to lend the conservative voice in its attempt to find a balance between liberal, mainstream and conservative commentators. And so, that is where his name has been – in op-ed columns, TV debates and soundbytes.

Recently, however, D’Souza has emerged to claim more than his share of 15-minutes of fame by making a controversial documentary on (or should we say, against) President Obama – essentially an extreme right wing conservative rant that degenerates into a B-grade conspiracy theory – that portrays Obama as living his father’s left-wing, anti-colonist dream.

The documentary titled ‘2016: Obama’s America’, which D’Souza made along with Schindler’s List co-producer Gerald Moren, practically went unnoticed when it was first released on limited screens in July this year.  However, a wider release in August suddenly saw the documentary grossing over $10 million, placing it among the highest grossing political documentaries after Michael Moore’s.

Box office takings notwithstanding, D’Souza is not a very popular man today. And to their credit, even some avowed conservatives have distanced themselves from him and his documentary, with one of them calling him moronic. D’Souza eminently competes here with the likes of hardcore Obama critiques like Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck and gives Michael Moore a run for his money on conspiracy theories.

One reviewer said the film:  “… is a sleepy dud, a polemic that, like D’Souza himself, is at once both outrageous and deeply boring.”

A New York Times opinionator called the film “… a long and elaborately produced campaign ad.”  And that precisely is my own conspiracy theory which suggests the timing of the wider release coincides with the Republican National Convention underway in Tampa, Florida, and is perhaps guided and manipulated by political strategists.

While my own take on D’Souza might sound like one coming from a liberal Democrat, I must assure you I have no political affiliations in the United States. I see myself as a passive observer, essentially an apolitical outsider. I must also admit that I have not seen D’Souza’s controversial documentary and am giving my comments based on dozens of reviews in a variety of media.

However, my opinion on D’Souza comes from having heard in the past, his near dogmatic views on politics and religion, which I definitely do not subscribe to.

Looking at the controversy from an Indian angle, we have known that President Obama’s association with Indians dates back to his dorm days at college. Ever since he assumed presidency, he has shown his appreciation for the skill sets of Indian Americans by appointing a number of them to key positions in the Administration and the White House. He is also the first US President to have officially visited India in his first term; as also the first US President to have invited an Indian Prime Minister as his first official state guest.

With the US Presidential elections round the corner, (November), I feel we are looking at a very peculiar situation. What with Governors Bobby Jindal (Louisiana) and Nikki Haley (North Carolina) headlining the Republican National Convention and now D’Souza going ballistic in his documentary, looks like there are more high profile conservative anti-Obama voices being heard from among the Indian American community than those of his supporters.

It does look like Indian Americans, who historically voted Democratic in American polls, are finding their calling in Republican politics.

Srirekha Chakravarty


Water Wars August 29, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 3:18 pm
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At the World Water Week currently on (Aug 26-31) in Stockholm, beverage and snack food giant Pepsico has been awarded the 2012 Stockholm Industry Water Award in recognition of its innovative and outstanding water stewardship initiatives. A Pepsico communiqué released through PR Newswire states that the award honors the business sector’s contribution to sustainable water management, improved performance in production, and innovative approaches in water process technologies.

“This prestigious award is validation of our water conservation efforts,” said Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, on receiving the award. “Reducing our water usage drives cost reduction and reduces our overall environmental footprint, and so we’re innovating to make the most of every drop of water used.”

In recognizing PepsiCo’s water stewardship efforts, the Award jury cited its water management practices in its day-to-day operations in India: Direct seeding, an agronomic practice in paddy cultivation used in India. In that, rather than growing seedlings in a nursery, planting them, and then flooding farmers’ fields, direct seeding allows the seed to be planted directly into the ground, bypassing the nursery. This removes the need for flood irrigation, reducing water use  by as much as 30 percent.

To the cynic in me, the award to Pepsico comes as a no-brainer since the company happens to be one of the major corporate sponsors of the summit.

These initiatives, no doubt a statement of Pepsico’s corporate social responsibility, somehow fall short owing to the greater damage that is caused to local communities and the environment at large, by the world beverage industry.

An undergrad thesis on ‘Bottled Water’ cites World Bank estimates which peg the world bottled water market alone at $800 billion. The United States, the biggest market for bottled water and beverages, accounts of more than 30 billion bottled water bottles a year, according to the same researcher.

Imagine then, the effect of such mammoth corporatization of water, on emerging economies like India where more and more people are aping Western lifestyles owing to mass media influence.

Imagine the implications of rampant water harvesting on groundwater reserves, especially in countries like India where water is already a scarce commodity.

Remember the widespread protests in India about a decade ago against Coca-Cola for causing pollution and depletion of ground water, particularly in Kerala? That is what commercial bottling of water will lead to – scarcity in vast geographic regions.

At the same World Water Week summit, a major issue of discussion was water scarcity and its effects on food security. According to a Yahoo! News blog, the Stockholm International Water Institute has said that there would not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if people follow food trends common to western nations.

The blogger cites scientists at the summit who offered vegetarianism as an option to combat world water shortage in future. That sure would be drastic for many, I’d bet.

If you thought the next big calamity on earth would be a nuclear war, you are wrong of course. It would be a water war preceded by food riots.

Governments in general and consumers in particular should therefore understand that long before reserves of precious commodities like the yellow metal (gold) and black gold (oil) get exhausted, the most basic necessity for human survival, blue gold (water) will get depleted, and believe me, then, the bottled water industry would be to blame.

{Aquafina logo courtesy: Pepsico website}

Srirekha Chakravarty


The Dark side of Coal August 28, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 9:54 pm
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The word ‘scam’ (short for scandal) and highly irritating use of the postfix ‘gate’ (a la Watergate) to describe a scandal have become so commonplace in Indian media parlance that I wouldn’t be surprised if Oxford or Webster’s dictionary compilers pick them up for their next edition.

‘Scams’ seem to be breaking out in the country faster than the rabble rousing television news channels can flash their ‘Breaking News’ banners across the screen. The latest scam consuming the 24-hour news channels as well as precious news print is what has been termed ‘Coalgate’.  For all the accusations, justifications, denials, debates and discussions on these channels over the past few weeks, not many of us ordinary media consuming mortals know what exactly the problem is.

So for all those shunted out by the general cacophony in the news, here’s a ‘dumbed’ down attempt at explaining what the coal scam is all about:

  1. In 2004, the Prime Minister expressed publicly his government’s intent to auction coal blocks to the private sector. However, till date the legislation to the effect is yet to be implemented.
  2. In this intervening eight years, the same government allocated coal mines to several private companies on a discretionary basis, under dubious circumstances.
  3. The Controller Audit General (CAG), a constitutional body which audits all government activities, revealed two weeks ago that the government has helped private companies to gain an estimated Rs. 1.86 lakh crores, which would have possibly accrued to the exchequer had the same been auctioned, instead of making discretionary allocations to private miners.

Taking it up a notch, I’d say coal mining is a complex activity, and has several classifications like captive coal mining for steel industries, captive coal mining for power companies, open market mining etc.  The government itself is the largest consumer of coal, as most of the power generated in this country is by government or public sector companies. Besides, even if power is generated by private companies, the power tariffs are government regulated. So the input coal cost is important in order to fix the power tariff.

Similarly steel prices also fluctuate based on coal prices, and the government prefers to keep its prices under control as it is an important raw material for many industries.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s explanation that his government had wanted to go the auction route, but that the concerned state chief ministers did not want it, does not hold much water. Sure, the chief ministers concerned may have preferred discretionary allocation as against auctioning of the mines on grounds that it would drive up the price of power. But it is hard to believe that the UPA government at the Center would have succumbed to pressure from state governments, especially since these particular states happen to have BJP-led governments!

Srirekha Chakravarty


US Senators want Sikhs brought under purview of religious hate crime August 27, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 8:35 pm
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As one who has lived in post-9/11 America, I have been witness to the inconceivable systemic changes that have occurred in the country in the name of Homeland Security and changed the way Americans live their everyday lives. While living with an obsessively security conscious State has been more or less a lifestyle challenge, it is the dramatic change in the perceptions of a section of ordinary Americans towards “outsiders” that has become an existential hazard for many immigrants in that country.

Over the past decade, American Sikhs, bearing the brunt of violent hate crime, obviously being mistaken for Arabs, have been crying hoarse to bring to the Administration’s attention their plight. They have been meticulously fighting for their civil rights over being unfairly profiled at American airports, for instituting sensitivity training for local and national security agencies while dealing with innocent Sikhs by respecting their articles of faith and also to generally raise awareness among other communities about the peace-loving nature of their religion.

I haven’t really understood why they distinctly identify themselves as Sikh American rather than Sikh Indian American – to the extent of wanting to be separately categorized in the US Census and not be clubbed under South Asian or Asian India. But incidents such as the Wisconsin shooting perhaps explain their concern.

Anyway, despite all efforts the Sikh American community had to suffer the tragic shooting at a Gurdwara in Wisconsin on August 5, in which six Sikhs were killed.

Even if it were only through a tragedy, American lawmakers seem to be waking up to the Sikh community now. A bipartisan group of US Senators last week called for the US Justice Department to allow the collection and tracking of hate crimes committed against Sikh Americans. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Senators have said: “This tragic shooting is the latest hate crime committed against Sikhs in the United States. Until we have a more comprehensive understanding of the number and type of hate crimes committed against Sikhs, our law enforcement agencies will not be able to allocate the appropriate level of personnel and other resources to prevent and respond to these crimes.”

According to a press release from Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez – both of New Jersey – the Justice Department, through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), tracks crimes committed against Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, atheists, as well as those with “other religion” or “multiple religions,” but does not currently track crimes against Sikhs.

Approximately 500,000 Sikhs live in the US, including a large Sikh community in New Jersey that has been estimated to include 25,000 members.

Over the past two years, two Sikhs in California were murdered, a Sikh temple in Michigan was desecrated, a Sikh transit worker in New York City was assaulted, and a Sikh taxi driver in California was severely beaten.  According to a recent survey of 1,370 Sikhs living in the California Bay Area, 10% reported being the victim of a hate crime.  Sixty-eight percent of those crimes were in the form of physical attacks.

The Senators further said in the letter that although the limited data available suggests that a disproportionately high rate of violence and other crimes are committed against Sikhs, it is difficult to understand the true scope of the problem because the Department of Justice does not specifically track hate crimes against Sikhs.

The Hate Crime Statistics Act requires the Department to maintain data on crimes committed on the basis of religion.  Pursuant to this law, the Department publishes the Hate Crime Incident Report for law enforcement agencies to complete when they investigate a suspected hate crime.  That form allows a law enforcement officer to denote that a crime was motivated by a bias against Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, or atheists, among others.  The form does not allow an officer to denote that a crime was motivated by a bias against Sikhs.

“It is important to collect data on hate crimes committed against Sikhs because this data can identify trends and help federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies properly allocate resources.  Until we have a more comprehensive understanding of the number and type of hate crimes committed against Sikhs, our law enforcement agencies will not be able to allocate the appropriate level of personnel and other resources to prevent and respond to these crimes.  Moreover, the collection of this information will likely encourage members of the Sikh community to report hate crimes to law enforcement officials,” the letter concluded.

First Lady Michelle Obama visits Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin
The morale of the grieving Sikhs of Oak Creek, Wisconsin where six of their community were shot dead in a Gurdwara on Aug 5, was boosted when First Lady Michelle Obama visited with them last week.

As Joshua DuBois, a Special Assistant to President Obama and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships wrote on the White House blog, that as the First Lady hugged grieving husbands and wives, comforted granddaughters and grandsons, and embraced sons and daughters, the First Lady lifted up the Sikh American story yesterday. She not only expressed her condolences but also underscored how strong those who died were, and how strong the Sikh community continues to be. Since the first Sikhs arrived at Angel Island in California almost 100 years ago, they have been woven into the fabric of our country. Doctors, artists and lawyers, politicians and priests, Sikh Americans have strengthened the United States in innumerable ways.

I know this means a lot to the Sikh Americans.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Srirekha Chakravarty


100 years of world history August 25, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 11:41 pm

I had to share this with everyone. For all of us who were born in and lived through the past century, this video is a reminder of all that we have survived and hopefully not an indication of what can be expected in future!

A 100 years in 10 minutes …


Freedoms and Responsibilities August 24, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 5:46 pm
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They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But poor little royal rich kid Prince Harry is realizing otherwise what with pictures of him cavorting butt naked with a similarly undressed woman in a Vegas hotel room have made it to the front page of Britain’s most circulated tabloid, The Sun, before already going viral on the Internet.

Requests from his royal representatives to can the pictures and spare Prince Harry the embarrassment were honored by many of the other publications, but fell on deaf ears at The Sun, which cited ‘Freedom of the Press’ to print them. Editors at The Sun said their readers had a right to see the pictures. Right to see, maybe yes, but do they really want to? Or do they really need to?

Ah, ok, I’m not going to waste my breath sermonizing to a successful tabloid like the Sun on voyeuristic journalism. Its readership should shut me up, if nothing else.

In the other instance, a more serious one, the Indian government is trying to get Facebook and Twitter to ban some of its users who have been identified as being responsible for spreading hate filled messages that incited violence in Mumbai two weeks ago as also caused panic among North-East origin students in other parts of the country.

A totally legitimate move. However, it is being debated by the Indian intelligentsia, and criticized by Western media, especially the US, as a move to curb freedom of expression.

The all pervasiveness of mass media and increasing popularity of social media is making the discussion and debate on freedom of expression and freedom of the Press commonplace and clichéd with hardly any voices trying to analyze the causes and implications of such access and freedoms, on society.

Such discussion is not new since historically news media and writers in general considered their largely anti-establishment views to be sacrosanct and above reproach so long as they served the public good and hence fiercely defended their freedom of expression.

Changing times notwithstanding, such freedoms should ideally remain etched in stone. But technology, easy access and indiscriminate proliferation of mass media has given rise to new dilemmas for governments and other regulators as they struggle to keep up with mass aspirations while safeguarding their wellbeing from those misusing their freedoms.

I would say we might as well brace ourselves to a future where the very concept of privacy will die, primarily because of communications technology that will leave mass media consumers overwhelmed by that they see, hear, feel of others and also are compelled to share of themselves as they face issues of privacy, decency, criminality and crucial necessity. We may also very well be prepared to face outright curbs of certain freedoms as issues of defense and national security assume prominence.

Of course it is not enough to say that with constitutionally granted freedoms come morally imposed responsibilities. So I would say we simply bide this tide of technology-driven information tsunami by making sane choices. Like all things considered, this phase too will correct itself and fade. Until the dawn of a new era that is!

Srirekha Chakravarty


Woman’s right over her body August 22, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 10:29 pm
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Alright, this issue is too universal to pass up without comment. It’s not an made-for-feminists issue and I don’t intend to jump on the let’s-bash-up-Todd Akin-while-everyone-else-is-doing bandwagon, but I want to understand the roots where from spring attitudes such as his even in this day and age.

I am talking about comments made by US Senator Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri, United States. In an interview on a local television channel, in the context of banning abortions, Akin said that in cases of “legitimate rape” a woman’s body shuts down to prevent a pregnancy – meaning, women who have “legitimately” been raped, do not get pregnant.

His apology later that he meant to say “forcible rape”, and acknowledgment that women “do become pregnant” in cases of rape, was not soon enough for a nationwide furor to erupt. So much so that Republicans including Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney have cast him off as a pariah despite the fact that the Republican manifesto itself calls for a ban on abortions under all circumstances.

For me, Senator Akin’s spontaneous comments in his original interview are symptomatic of a patriarchal society that is still rooted in chauvinism and condescension towards women in general.

This has nothing to do with Christianity or the right to life of an unborn child as professed by American Conservatives, or even about women’s rights over their own body, but simply manifests attitudes of regressive males who are in denial of the real world.

It’s laughable seeing Republicans distancing themselves from Akin because more than 200 Republican Congressmen have co-sponsored the ‘No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act’ in the House that calls for stopping federally funded abortions even in cases of forcible rape or incest.

Such sentiments against women are not limited to any one part of the world, and as is obvious, not even in the so called advanced and progressive Western nations. In India, Hindu texts like Manusmriti equate women with farm laborers, slaves and cattle that need to be taken care of by the men of the world.

With such indoctrination of discrimination against women, I doubt if attitudes towards women will ever change.

Nations will collapse, societies will change, but men, I guess, will remain men… I mean, chauvinistic men.

Srirekha Chakravarty