Sunday, September 28, 2008

Surviving the crossfire

I spent most of Saturday evening sending out text messages to friends, ranting and railing against the inhuman cowardice of the bombers and the pathetic ineptitude of the government in a bid to vent my frustrations and fears. Come Sunday, my sense of anger and disbelief, perhaps much like yours, had waned to pity and a sense of sympathy that was withering by the hour; by Monday, I was back at my desk, sifting through more ‘regular’ concerns like page lay-outs and lead stories… my life, much like rest of Delhi’s had returned to ‘normal’. The possibility that it could be “me” next time, or “a loved one” is not lost on any of us, but in a nation of fatalists, who has the time to compute probabilities...

And what can one do? Is there a way to stop these terrorists or these bombs from going off? We know that terrorists, whether those burning churches or those planting bombs in the name of God at the hour of ifthaar, represent neither a community nor a faith and are merely serving their own twisted agendas. We know that our politicians don’t give two hoots about what happens to you or me as long as their chairs aren’t rocking. Even their rhetoric has lost fizz (perhaps the attacks are so frequent that their speech writers haven’t had the time to innovate). We know our security agencies have been desperately understaffed for more than a decade (an intelligence report had assessed that the Intelligence Bureau needs ten times its current strength in terms of personnel if it is to meet the nation’s needs. Of the 3,000 posts that should’ve been filled up since 2001, merely a thousand have so far been sanctioned.

On the other hand, against the international norm of a minimum of 250 policemen per 100, 000 citizens, with many countries investing in twice that number, India, across states ranges between 25-100 policemen per 100,000 citizens). So can we do more than just hope and pray before the blasts and follow up with tears and empty rhetoric? This time, I was bothered enough to find out, and therefore, sought out a security consultant who has been training security forces for years and has had training experience in red-flag battle zones in the Middle-East. We’ll know him as VK.

“We’re a nation under siege and we refuse to recognise that”, said the hulking giant, who reminded me of a comic book character called Juggernaut, who could walk unscathed through walls and explosions. VK looked every inch the kind of man you’d want on your side when ‘under seige’. A shaven head, a nose reshaped by flying shrapnel, meaty arms adorned by burns and scars, and quick, intelligent eyes that didn’t miss a thing, VK had been through enough mayhem around the world to know how to get out alive. “You wonder why terrorists had to plan the strike of the century to hurt the United States and without an encore, in spite of the US being on the radar of nearly every jehadi outfit in the world, while Indian cities seem to get bombed at will? Well there’s obviously a difference in levels of surveillance technology available, but most of all there is a difference in the levels of commitment and application at all levels of the security set-up. Don’t waste time thinking about it though because there’s nothing we can do about it. In that sense we’re not a nation but individuals, practically on our own.”

I asked him about his time in Israel… “There’s a lot we can learn from others, be they friends or enemies. And Israel can teach us a lot. They might seem heavy handed but no one attacks them with impunity and hopes to get away with it. Every Israeli, even a child, is aware that there are threats in their environment and they’re trained to identify and react accordingly. For instance, if the 12 year old balloon seller had been trained like his Israeli counter parts, he would’ve alerted relevant agencies well before the explosions and a tragedy could’ve been averted. The success of the ‘Eyes and Ears’ programme of the Delhi Police which led to two of the bombs being diffused and the security drill in a market-place are steps in the right direction but it can’t just stop at training rag pickers and traders. This programme has to extend to you and me, to schools, offices and colleges, to housing complexes and welfare associations. Bombs don’t discriminate between class, age or creed. A community civilian defence programme that prepares us for appropriate and prompt reactions is important because not only would it remind us not to settle into a false sense of short-lived normalcy and complacency but also builds a sense of unity of purpose which is essential in such times.”

Finally, I asked VK if there was anything one could do to survive an explosion in one’s vicinity. He nodded, “Duck! Hit the floor on your stomach, head down, ears covered; cross your ankles, clench your buttocks and close your anus.” I was a little intrigued by the last bit. “Pressurised air can enter any open orifice and rip the body apart…so close all orifices and lie low”, he explained (see slip stream for other precautions).

VK left with a parting shot. “The terrorists are one of us. And we’ve gone wrong somewhere… we need to rebuild… the rest are all temporary measures”. I couldn’t agree more. Maybe we could start undoing some of our wrongs as part of the silent moderate majority, across faiths, by insisting, forcefully if necessary, that those who assume our representation have to stop pretending to win people’s souls by burning their bodies, be it Orissa, Ayodhya, Ahmedabad or Delhi.

The slip stream

Prepare for the worst

It’s a sad but true fact of our modern lives that we’re increasingly likely to be directly affected by a bomb blast. With terrorist activities growing everyday and bombs being planted in crowded markets, it’s wise and prudent to at least know basic do’s and don’ts and be prepared for the day (may it never come)... just in case...

Ok, first things first, remain calm. Too often a stampede breaks out immediately after a bomb blast (caused by people panicking), resulting in more deaths than caused by the actual blast. Secondly, take cover under something sturdy, like a table or a low ledge to protect yourself from any follow up explosions. Thirdly, make sure that you’re safely away from anything that could fall on you, like electric poles, fans, glass, etc.

And lastly, remain where you are and wait for evacuation for there could be more bombs planted in the exit routes (a favourite terrorist trick) but this rule doesn’t apply if the explosion has caused a fire or some other hazard which threatens your life (naturally). Follow these rules and it’s a guarantee that you will have more than an average chance of making it through your worst nightmare, alive.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Valley of the immortals

The summer of 2000, somewhere between Geneva and Paris : The train is chugging past a series of European clich├ęs framed against the train-window-rolling meadows, blue lakes, and chunky piebald cows… A soft summer sun, the rolling inertia of the TGV and the constant chatter of some of my students I was travelling with had my drowsy head lolling in rhythm in no time, until…“Ram-me-ya, What’s-the way-ya, Ram-me-…” The lyrics I couldn’t vouch for, but the tune seemed vaguely familiar… this was… this was…. Oh yes, this was Lata Mangeshkar with an accent; Ramaiya Wasta… Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420. I woke up with a start to see a tall slim middle-aged lady, dark glasses on her forehead holding up a lock of thick auburn hair cropped short, crooning, hopping on and off key, to some enthusiastic support from the students… Antakshari in the Alps!

“Ketarinah Kerovpe from Armenia...here with the United Nations. I love India… and Raj Kapoor” she’d said when we sat down for coffee later in the dining car. “Raj Kapoor? That must’ve been long ago…” the words tumbled out before I could hold them back. She laughed… “It was... I must’ve been in university then… almost half a century ago”. Half a century? That would make her not a day short of seventy, at least, and here she was looking not a day older than 45, and I said so. She seemed charmed. “It’s my mother”, she said. “Although my father is Armenian, my mother is from Abkhazia, in Georgia, although my mother would tell you that Abkhazia never really was ‘in’ Georgia (did you read the papers today)… She’s in her 90s and strong enough to do her own gardening… I owe this compliment to her.” Abkhazia?! Sounded familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it... “and to the yogurt I guess”, she said, scooping out another spoonful. Yogurt?! Yogurt!… I remembered now... when I was a child, my grandfather would force feed me a lot of yogurt… so much so, that at a point I was sure that if you’d cut me up, yogurt would ooze out of my wounds instead of blood. And he did so because he’d heard the Georgians lived incredibly long lives because of their ‘yogurt’ diet.

“Not all Georgians,” Ketarinah pointed out “only those living in Abkhazia… that place is truly Shangri-la. Tall mountains and clear sweet water… but you’ll be disappointed if you go there expecting to see everybody looking like they just walked out of a Baywatch set. You’ll see a lot of ‘middle-aged’ people though… crinkly eyes, a missing tooth, or a streak of grey. But the interesting bit is that they’re all far older than they look, are incredibly active, ride horses, chop wood and work on their farms at an age where most people elsewhere would consider being able to go to the toilet on their own an accomplishment.”

Usually, I’m a sucker for such stories… but this time, I was skeptical. … could such a paradise really have remained undiscovered for so long… “Not undiscovered, just forgotten…” said Ketarinah. “In the 1970s, a popular magazine had stumbled upon Abhkazia and its super centenarians… it was said that in Abkhazia, people didn’t grow old. They just got better…”. And their secret? Yogurt? “Dunno… was a popular myth at the time,” she said. “but wasn’t very popular on our dining table…” Humph!

Baited by the conversation, I tried to find out more. After all, who wouldn’t want to live to be 150? Initially, I was disappointed. You wouldn’t find any Abkazhian in any official list of centenarians. Skepticism surrounds every longevity claim from the region. Names like Khfaf Lazuria, claiming to be 140 and Shirli Muslimov, apparently an astounding 168, couldn’t substantiate their claims because neither they nor the other super-centenarians had reliable birth certificates. To compound matters, it was discovered that the erstwhile Soviet Union’s communist propaganda machinery might’ve exaggerated these figures to prove the superiority of their socio-political setup.

But wait, there is hope…

While it’s undeniable that most Abkhazians don’t have reliable birth documents, visitors to this region have confirmed that many of these golden oldies were actually exceptionally sprightly great-great grand parents. Muslimov himself (died 1973), was one such great-great grand father who was busy riding miles and tilling fields till his last days. Though exact life-spans are difficult to ascertain, most Abkazhains have very low incidences of cardio-vascular diseases or cancer compared to the rest of the world, maintain a slim profile and actually live long, and very healthy, lives.

Still interested in their secrets? Okay, here goes… they eat right – lots of organic, home grown tomatoes (anti – cancer) and citrus fruits, cheeses and nuts; they shun stressful deadlines (hope my editor’s reading this) and walk a lot in the high mountains. But that isn’t the real secret of their vigour and vitality. In Abkhazian society, senior citizens are valued like national treasures. The older they get, the more sought after is their advice and families take pride in taking care of their elders… good conversations, social utility and strong family bonds seem to be the real secret of the Abkazhians. And yes, ahem…there’s one more thing… Abkhazians marry late (30s and 40s). Since pre-marital sex is frowned upon, these people are late bloomers in more ways than one. As a consequence perhaps, they can keep at it for far longer and till much later in life; ‘experts’ feel that here too might lie yet another key to the secrets of Abkhazia.

So, there you go, give what you can a shot, and don’t bother about the rest… later, we’ll explore some other regions which are home to super centenarians … meanwhile, don’t hold your breath.

Long live life!

Did you know there existed careers in ageing? Gerontology is the science that deals with the stage of life that women fear and men refuse to acknowledge. The social, biological and psychological aspects of ageing have for long been subjects of scientific study, mainly with aims of extending the youth phase infinitely or conversely, adjourning the greying blues sine die.

According to the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), there are 78 living supercentenarians (individuals who have lived to 110 or beyond) as on August 29, 2008. While the GRG roster lists persons from USA and Japan to be among the longest living, Italy, England and Canada also make their appearances (some of which will be subjects of future columns in this series). Claims to validated demographic data on supercentenarians are however as many to be found as there are possibly the ‘wizened’ folks around, thanks to un-standardized data collection methods and poor record-keeping. It can be one reason to explain the absence of Abkhazia, even with its assertions to be a romantic Shangri-La, on the GRG list. At the same time, Abkhazia’s claims, although unsubstantiated could not altogether be rejected, for its inconspicousness may have to do with its very remoteness.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Neuter ‘em, now!

Read an article in yesterday’s paper… something about the extreme reactions that sections of our society have towards stray dogs… It talked about how Bengalooru’s municipality was up in arms last year after two children were bitten to death. Apparently, in a bid to free the city of its canine conundrum, over zealous officials slaughtered thousands of dogs from various neighbourhoods. And yet, the strays are back, and in greater numbers. And this has been the story of every city in the country which has tried to thus exterminate these ever-barking, tail-wagging, mangy-limpy denizens of our streets.

Now, depending on which side of the great dog divide you happen to be, I can pretty much predict your line of thought… “Serves them mutts right! Filthy savage beasts… they should be boiled alive in oil if you ask me”, or my uncle, who hates them and fears them, and therefore hates them even more; conversely, if you happen to be like one of those really sweet, slightly loony neighbourhood aunties who religiously feed every stray dog within a 50km radius, you’re sure to say “Oh, how horrible… how could we allow such barbaric cruelty… Just because these mute innocents don’t have a voice, they’re made into scapegoats for administrative failure and brutalised… this canine holocaust must stop!” At this stage, if you’re wondering which side of the alley, I might be barking from, I must confess I’m inclined to back the latter… and if my uncle and those who agree with him refuse to read more in protest, I’ll understand and maybe accost their sensibilities some other day… some other way…And that ought to leave me with kindred spirits – souls sympathetic to our four legged friends; those of us who share our lives with a pet dog. And in truth, it is you I hope to reach out to today, because more than anybody else, it’s dog owners like you and me who are a) primarily responsible for India’s stray population and b) who understand the subject (stray dogs) and are not clouded by fear or prejudice and therefore can do the most to solve what unquestionably is a problem.

Stray dogs are a definitely a problem and no one wants them on the streets, least of all the stray dogs themselves. While those dogs that do survive a few years on our streets are unquestionably canine survival geniuses, having survived sibling rivalry, lived on toxic waste and scurried under and around enough wheels to know a screeching Dunlop radial from a smoking MRF; and to get this far, they’d have to be brilliant at canine diplomacy, whining and wagging at the right people, dogs and cats and growling at the wrong ones, but the end is always painful, lonely and horrible. And then of course, if they’ve survived all that and happen to end up near the right hostel room, they might still get bludgeoned and butchered for the plate like Kali, the friendly JNU dog. Nobody wants that life, least of all, the dog.

And while the dogs are most affected by the fact that they’re strays, there are also people like my uncle who fear them, believe them to be carriers of deadly diseases like rabies which they might well be, to be considered. And then there are those who’ve been chased on their two wheelers by stray packs, often to death or serious injury and the rare but tragic cases of children being killed like in Bengalooru.

Animal rights groups, and people like you and me have (rightly) condemned attempts to electrocute, poison, relocate, confine or shoot strays in an attempt to exterminate them and (mistakenly) believed that the ABC (Animal birth Control - read slip stream) programme for strays alone would solve the problem. The unfortunate truth though is that while most strays in our locality might get vaccinated against disease and get sterilised, we hardly ever bother with neutering or spaying our own pets. And the reason why strays always return to our streets is because people like you and me look down our polished noses and ‘pooh-pooh’ at the idea of a castrated pet. (Guess we take the idea of our pets being an extension of ourselves a little too seriously. If you ask your dog though, he’ll tell you he’ll be happier neutered than with forced celibacy.) Dogs can smell a bitch in heat a continent away and if your pet is ‘whole’, it will (do what you may to prevent it) contribute to a litter (more if it’s a male) every season; a litter, that in all probability will find itself on the streets before long to perpetuate the cycle all over again. So if you care about your pet’s peace of mind, and really care about animals and don’t want to inflict a short but terribly painful and traumatic life on its progeny, and most importantly, care about your fellow man who might not share your love for that wagging tail and who, sometimes with good reason, might only be familiar with and traumatised about that mouth full of teeth at the other end, do everybody a favour and invest in some birth control… for your pet, to begin with, and make it a point to clamour about the rest of the nighbourhood (dogs) right after…

PS Don’t leave it to the administration though… try this for comic relief – An article in HT mentioned Delhi MCD councillors suggesting in all seriousness “shipping dogs to Korea (where they’re eaten)”!, drugging them “so they sleep all day”!!, and relocating them to “a neighbouring state”!!!, as possible solutions to the ‘stray problem’. Don’t laugh, we elected them… and call your vet now!

ABC of a problem

The Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme is the single most comprehensive programme to control the forever rising stray dog population. For example, in Delhi alone the free roaming dog population is over 250,000 and the programme aims to spay/neuter these dogs to gradually slow and eventually arrest the indiscriminate breeding amongst the dogs. This is important because with a rise in their population survival becomes a struggle for these dogs leading to diseases (read rabies) that can be transferred to humans. The Animal India Trust alone sterilises 550 dogs every month. The dogs are caught in the most humane manner possible and all it takes for the entire process is three days, including surgery, post which, the dogs are released back to where they were captured.

However, 11 years (since the Animal Birth Control programme was initiated and several NGOs working for the cause) later, the stray dog menace refuses to die down and the reason is not stray dogs alone but the pet dogs that come into contact with street dogs. In the absence of a mandatory breeding license for back-yard breeders, dog owners don’t bother with neutering their pets even though the entire cost of such a procedure is a mere Rs. 2,000-3,000 for a dog and 3,000-4,000 for a bitch. Therein lies the problem.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lambs to the slaughter

Many rains have come and gone since the last tiger was baited and butchered in Sariska. Some say it was a one-eyed male called Rana Sanga. Proud and strong, Rana frequented water holes near the forest temple of Pandu Pol. His battles with other males had left him scarred, but he was a champion nevertheless. A mascot of sorts, Rana Sanga was popular with both tourists and forest guards. But come 2004, Rana would roar no more. “When I got transferred here, Rana must’ve been far away, maybe in a soup bowl in China. But I could feel his presence while walking back to my post from the temple. But today…” Ghewar Chand’s steel grey eyes narrowed into slits and he clenched his jaws. I could feel the magma of impotent emotions well and ebb and tear at his insides before subsiding without expression. “Aaz toh uska bhut bhi bhag zayega”, he said, and closed his eyes. Looking at him, I wondered if he was tired or sleepy, or were his eyes too burning like mine.

I was in Sariska to see if her newest denizens, a pair of airlifted Ranthambore tigers, had even a sliver of a chance to survive what their predecessors could not… greed, corruption and apathy. After driving for a while, I met Ghewar Chand, a forest guard. Since he was heading towards Pandu Pol, I offered him a ride. We hadn’t gone far when our jeep got stuck… not in a bog or a ditch, mind you, but a traffic jam in the middle of the forest - between scores of buses, jeeps and vans belching dark grey clouds and a platoon on a pilgrimage; hundreds of men women and children… a haggling gaggle of pain. The smoke burned into my eyes and lungs and I too closed my eyes as we waited for the road to open up.

Beyond the smoke screen though, the forest looked lush and verdant. Ghewar Chand (he requested I conceal his real name, and I have) claimed to have seen the tigress that very morning. Every move of the radio-collared tigers is being monitored by a team of ‘experts’. There’s a company from the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary that has been brought in to bolster the park’s security. And every official I met assured me that all who’d contributed towards the tiger’s extinction had been taken to task. Poachers like Kallya Bawaria had been apprehended; villagers living inside the park area have been, or are being rehabilitated and corrupt guards and officials have been transferred.

That seemed too good to be true, and it was. Some forest guards, like Ghewar, under conditions of anonymity, revealed that poachers that have been caught are nothing more than the proverbial tip of the ice berg. Many are still living in villages adjoining the park and will strike at the first opportunity. Some of the villagers I spoke to reluctantly agreed that they “might have given shelter to the poachers” but they “didn’t really know what they’d been up to until it was too late”, and no, they weren’t going to leave their ancestral forest lands unless the government increased compensation from 10 to 15 lakhs. The guards and even the ‘Armed’ Constabulary hadn’t been issued any weapons and only have sticks with which to protect what might yet be the last of Sariska’s tigers. Worst of all, many corrupt officials and guards that had been transferred out have allegedly ‘bought’ back their transfers and returned to Sariska, “some with promotions”, said Ghewar, shaking his head. Ghewar, incidentally, hasn’t been promoted in more than 30 years of service... he says it doesn’t matter anymore.

“See this,” he asked, pointing at a scar that ran along the bridge of his nose. “I was out patrolling with two colleagues, after dusk. Not too far from the temple, I saw a band of villagers, perhaps from Khareda, moving through the forest. We challenged them, but they were too many. They had rifles, spears and axes. I managed to catch one but his accomplice turned and attacked me with an axe. I ducked but it caught my nose… they all ran away… what could I do with this stick…”

Finally, the road opened and the convoy drove up to the temple. Plastic bags and bottles floated on a brook gurgling nearby. Ghewar had the look of a man whose quarters had been snatched away and none offered in return. He was disgruntled, too long of tooth and weak of bone to protect anything… least of all, a tiger. But that is all Sariska’s tigers have; a bunch of ageing, dispirited guards (no fresh recruitments in 20 years), surrounded by a baying mob of grumpy villagers (who’ve lost homes, cattle, crops to the reserve and gained little in return), managed by a corrupt and immeasurably negligent set of officials (almost none of whom have been punished). And if the poachers don’t get them, the tigers risk being run over on the highway that runs through the park (which has already claimed many a big cat). Given the circumstances, I wouldn’t bet on the tigers lasting too long. In fact, it’s surprising the tigers survived here for as long as they did.

Despair must’ve been writ large on my face for Ghewar waved as I left and said “there’s hope sahab… if we get a bit of encouragement, and some guns, we might yet save face, and the tiger…”

Ah well, too many ifs, too many buts… and before long, the tigers of Sariska might yet again become lambs led to the slaughter.

Too little, too late?

The fact that the recent relocation of two tigers from Ranthambore to Sariska Tiger Reserve is the first time such an exercise in the wild has been successfully undertaken is hardly comforting. With plans to bring in another of these striped cats into Sariska after the monsoons, weather is not the biggest impediment in the path to resuscitating the tiger population in Sariska.

The tiger’s cup of woes had runneth over in 2004 after poachers wiped out the last of these royal predators using metal traps and guns. There is however little to condone the irresponsibility of forest officials who, in addition to giving exaggerated tiger numbers, over the years leading to the wipe-out, took no notice of warnings that came their way either. The State Empowered Committee (SEC) Report mentions a letter that was addressed to the Sariska Field Director cautioning against the activities of poachers in Sariska, to which there was no action until after the SEC visited the Park! One can imagine the ignorance and apathy when it is recorded that it was Wildlife Institute of India and a private individual, and not Sariska management, who notified that the tigers had vanished from Sariska.

Recommendations by the SEC ordain rehabilitation of human population a top priority. Management shake-up includes demarcating the roles of the Field Director and Scientific Officer as against that of the DFO and protection staff, so that research studies in the 881 sq km Park do not interfere with protection roles. And even then, it might still be a case of too little too late

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