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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ved'anta': Avatar in real life 3D!



Amidst all the 'breaking' news and despondent views on the economy coming out of India I read a piece of news that all 12 gram sabhas in the Niyamgiri hills had unanimously rejected the idea of bauxite mining. The decision of the Dong(a)ria Kondh is a big step towards a small victory of the rights of minorities and the preservation of our over the edge environment. While I was relieved to hear the news, that feeling was quickly replaced with anger. I'll specify the reason for this later in the post. Lets look at some of the points that merit discussion.

Proponents of mining may highlight the INR 50,000 crores of investment that Odisha will be deprived of and the bad precedent the incident will set to potential investors. 'What about the economic development of the region, the nation at large and of the tribes that this project will usher in?' the proponents might ask. I'll answer the questions in a minute but I feel the questions themselves warrant comments. In asking these questions, it seems to me that the proponents assume that only rapid large scale industrialization - mining in this case - will inevitably bear the fruits of economic prosperity for everyone in the region irrespective of local environment or people issues. They also at the least seem to be willing - if not completely willfully blind sided by the ramifications of such large scale rapid industrialization that I suspect is the more frequent case - to trade off ecological damage for short term profits. They have arrived at the conclusions based on a convenient route to profit and by overlooking important datasets/ issues. So lets look at some data that throws light on the impact of this project on the region and its people.

The proposed Vedanta bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri would employ a mechanized open cast mining method. Bauxite mining in Niyamgiri will come packaged with hazards of noise and air pollution, increased sodium levels in the well water, significant deforestation at the mining site and the access roads,and highly damaging consequences to not just flora and fauna but the very socio-economic existence of the Dongaria Kondha, 20% of whose total population live in the region where mining was proposed. Approx 250 jobs are estimated to be created by the mining project that is expected to last for 23 years; none of these 250 jobs I suspect will go to the illiterate and low skilled indigenous folks. The plateau on which mining was proposed is one of the main sources of water to the Vamsadhara River and per the N C Saxena panel report mining on this plateau would be a "hydrological disaster". For more on the Niyamgiri region, Dongaria Kondh and the adverse impacts of mining on them read the below reports -

Report by Center for Science and Environment - http://www.cseindia.org/userfiles/Report%20on%20Niyamgiri.pdf

N C Saxena panel report submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests
http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Saxena_Vedanta.pdf

To answer the above questions in a more direct manner - it would not be a INR 50,000 crore loss for India or Odisha if the mining project doesn't go through. There are tested means other than to approve mining in ecologically sensitive areas to raise revenue, pay for deficits, modernize the economy and uplift people from poverty. Vedanta backing off will not send the wrong signals to investors, on the contrary it will send positive ones - that while India embraces globalization and encourages businesses and investors to make a profit, India and its people shall not be easy targets for large conglomerates who disrespect local communities and whose business models don't result in a win-win situation. Businesses and investors cannot ignore a growing economy with roughly 17% of world population that is enhancing its capacity to consume. As a result India will attract investors who are genuinely vested in development of local population, and are committed to fair sharing of wealth by partnering with communities to add value.

I do not wish to imply that the Dongaria Kondh and other tribes continue to live in poverty. But mining in the face of evidence suggesting irreparable damage isn't the solution out of poverty. The solution I think lies in alternative models for inclusive growth - for example: accelerated dissemination of education through the use of technology such as wireless communication, affirmative action w.r.t education to offer equal opportunities and/ or a development of forest based economy - viz. carpentry, sale of forest produce, eco-tourism to uplift the tribes in the region. One can hardly dispute the social and economic return on investment of such programs. Incremental developments in education, healthcare and economy with long term goals of integrating the tribes with the modern economy will be more sustainable than big bang approaches veiled in the illusion of development that are more likely to exacerbate the problem of inequitable concentration of wealth.

To those who have got to their 'Aha! But what about irrationally basing policy and decision making on the tribe's belief that the hills are sacred' moment, although I generally agree with you, in this case I will ask you to interpret their beliefs with an open mind and maturity. The Dongaria Kondh are a uneducated bunch of people living in poverty isolated from conveniences of modern world and unexposed to the sciences as we've been taught. They depend on the forests not for their summer vacation in the woods but for their existence. Put the two together and you can see why believing in a supernatural being could give them an illusion of security. Again, the giant gap in their understanding can be bridged not by rapid industrialization but by education and the knowledge of the workings of the physical world. What frustrates me is the way in which some educated people harp on this sacred hills belief and conclude that since this supernatural belief is the only argument against mining, it should be discarded and the 'rational' decision of mining bauxite in Niyamgiri has to be taken. This brings me to what infuriated me.

After I read the news I watched this video on NDTV -
http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/news/fromndtv/287525
In this video Mr. Jaithirth Rao has basically just one point - the irrationality of the 'sacred hills' belief. Despite Ms. Sunita Narain putting forth the environmental and people concerns, Mr. Rao misses these points entirely and keeps barking up the rationality tree! He cites the example of a temple being moved to pave way for the KRS dam in Karnataka as an example of rational decision. If you want to go down the rationality path then why allow places of worship to spring up in cities/ towns and non hunter gatherer societies? To me the more fundamental question is how to get people especially the educated ones off their subscription to religious mass delusion. In Goa, India where I grew up rash driving is a menace. The narrow roads and the construction of places of worship at turns making the turns blind only worsen the problem. I'm not suggesting that places of worship cause accidents, but they don't remedy the situation either. I mean, if you think building places of worship at turns without bending light to enable sight of oncoming traffic is a good idea, why not go all the way and put up a sign there for the fatally wounded that says "Why wait for an ambulance when your ride to heaven is already here!" Mr. Jaithirth also went on to ramble about the exploitation of hypothetical oil reserves comparable in volume to those found in the middle east. This guy evidently sleeps through 'Climate Change 101' that is ironically accessible outside ones window nowadays. A 2007 Lehman Brothers report noted that every two degree rise in temperature would knock off five percent off of India's GDP! (source link below) For more on climate change costs to India read the article here -
http://businesstoday.intoday.in/story/india-must-brace-for-natural-disasters-economic-impact/1/196308.html

The shaky grounds for the assumption and the willingness to compromise on a fragile environment lead me to believe that the proponents of the Vedanta bauxite mining in Niyamgiri are either the some already wealthy direct and indirect beneficiaries of bauxite mining, salivating politicians/ bureaucrats whose last name could change from Das-patnaik to Das-carode given the size of investment and the ample opportunities for graft through necessary state intervention, or some lame urban folks who think 'Capitalism!   iPhone!  cool!' and 'Tribes!  jhingha la la hoo!  not cool'

This is James Cameron's Avatar playing in real life, so pick a side!

PS: To the execs who decided to go ahead with the Lanjigarh alumina refinery before identifying a stable source of raw materials my advice is this - delete Niyamgiri bauxite mining project details from your LinkedIn profile, spruce up your resume and float it around!
Also the Das-patnaik bit is not intended to offend the Das-patnaiks and I don't mean to generalize anything about the Daspatnaiks. Its just tongue in cheek humor with a little sarcasm.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

From an Agnostic to an Atheist

I come from a hindu brahmin family and have had a moderately religious upbringing. As a kid I remember praying to god daily after having a bath, and here pops up the very first question I used to ask as kid....why should I pray only after having a bath? Why can't I pray before even brushing my teeth? or immediately after I come back from play when I'm sweating and muddy? I remember doing 'sandhya vandana' after my 'upanayanam' once or twice. To this day I do not know what 'gayatri mantra' means and why women are not supposed to chant it. And if women are not supposed to chant it how is it that T-Series makes a killing out of it by making Anuradha Paudwal sing it? I'm thankful to my parents that they didn't thrust their religious beliefs on me, didn't force me to pray daily, perform pooja and other rituals which have little meaning. Not that they are atheists, they'd tell me to believe in god, ask me to say the bare minimum prayers occasionally, be present during 'aartis', perform 'abhishekhas' and other such harmless things. They also instilled in me a great sense of character, discipline, independence, morals, ethics and many other characteristics which cannot be covered even in an entire different post altogether. I love them and feel lucky to have them as my parents.

But is good upbringing tightly coupled with being religious? Do we really need religion and god to be good? As I grew into my teens, and until my engineering I should say, I used to pray rarely and respect god. It was just one of those things I could take time out for easily but I never really gave it a serious thought and the belief in god was not strong. I always thought of rituals being illogical and having no meaning but was of the opinion that religion gave us a sense of right and wrong, taught us morals and ethics through the various vedas, puranas and epics. I thought as long as religion doesn't preach intolerance and violence, its a good thing to have. I was an agnostic. But one day my cousin showed me this video called 'Root of all evil' by Richard Dawkins and that video had me thinking about the truth value of god. It made me realise that the connection of morals, ethics, values and way of life to god and religion was absurd. I could lead a perfectly healthy, guilt-free, purposeful life without god. I could do away with god and be person with good character, a person who takes responsibility for his actions, knows what is right and wrong given the circumstances, has ethics, morals, values and a sense of direction in my life.

I have started reading a little on evolution, evolutionary psychology and have been fascinated by concepts like natural selection, kin selection, reciprocal altruism and the formation of social hierarchy among humans. I can appreciate human freewill and consciousness in world without god. I think that the theory of evolution is far more convincing than the god hypothesis. It makes a lot of sense and makes me a more responsible person, instead of just accepting things the way they are because god 'wants' it that way and I deserve it because of my karma. I hope people come out of their comfort zone of belief in god and realise that the god hypothesis has no truth value.

Friday, October 17, 2008

What's Religion doing in the 21st century?

Life for us is pretty convenient nowadays. Much of this convenience could be attributed to technology that is involved in our lives to such a great extent today that we almost take it for granted. You wake up thanks to the alarm on your cell phone (even better is the snooze feature that lets you extend your sleep), travel in A/C fitted vehicles with LCD screens while listening to your favorite Floyd song on the move, run programs or generate "process related" reports on your laptop/ desktop at work. You can speak to your friend in Scotland while gyming, put him on hold and pick your girlfriend's call thanks to your cell phone (which has other less important features like GPS, GPRS, MP3 playback and a whole range of 3G features) . You can download music, movies, chat, shop, pay bills, book tickets, bank/ trade online, have virtual avtaars, network with people with the help of internet. You can travel long distances in the comfort of flights or save your company some bucks by using tele/ video conferencing facilities. The things I've mentioned above are pretty common and one would feel 'handicapped' in a sense if some of these facilities were not accessible to him. I've not even started with smashing protons, QED, Mars missions, telescopes peeking into the birth and death of stars thousands of light years away from Earth, AS50, ICBMs, F1 technology......this thing could be endless!!

The point I'm trying to make is that we have acheived remarkable progress in science and technology which would mean enhanced reasoning capability. We have ideas/ philosophies (rationalism, objectivism), concepts of democracy, constitution of a nation, economy, social justice which reflect the progress in our thinking. We even have the elegant theory of evolution (since 1859) that best explains our origin and the big bang theory that would explain the start of the universe. Why then in this scientific era do people still believe in god and follow a particular religion? Why do they still let superstitions and religious beliefs govern their daily lives? Why do they interpret simple situations as acts of god or god's intervention? Why do they let men in saffron robes, white gowns or caps on their heads instruct them on how to lead their lives?

I do not have convincing answers to questions posed above. Religious beliefs maybe because of parents who pass them onto their children from an early stage. After teaching them to say 'amma' and 'pappa' babies are taught to say "Bappa Govinda", kneel before idols in respect, chant prayers and shlokas without even getting the meaning of words being uttered. They are supposed to thank god when good things happen to them and blame their bad karma and accept 'god's punishment' when bad things happen to them. People might be greatly influenced by the words of the swamijis, bishops or imams to take the religious path and 'embrace' god. Some poeple believe in a 'higher supernatural power' who is their source of strength, inspiration and who runs the world. People are tricked into thinking that it is the belief in god and the religious scriptures that teach us to lead a 'purposeful' life. People look to scriptures for ethics and morals and find a way of living in them. These reasons are quite plausible but not totally convincing as to why god and religion have stuck around for so many centuries now.

After I started reading about evolution and evolutionary psychology, I wondered if there were any evolutionary reasons for humans' belief in god. Could it be that belief in god enhanced the survival chances of humans? Some interesting points emerge as Richard Dawkins discusses the issue of belief in god from a darwinian point of view in his book 'The God Delusion'. He tries to provide the 'ultimate' reasons for humans to believe in god by throwing light upon the dualistic nature of the human mind which separates the mind from the matter thus paving way for the concept of 'soul' which is immortal. The teleological nature of kids assigns 'purpose' to inanimate objects and as they grow up a mapping between the soul and god's purpose emerges. Evolutionary biologists also discuss the possibility of religion being a 'by-product' of the things mentioned above and some 'misfirings' between the different lobes of the brain in the course of its evolution.

Although the origins of belief in god are still being debated and we cant place our bets on any one single idea, it is fairly easy to see how the god concept came into being. I find it ironical that in this scientific era the god concept and words of 'godmen' are accepted with such ease and fierce conviction that people are driven enough to kill each other and yet some of the most knowledgeable and brightest minds are left out of breath and frustrated in their attempts to widen human thought and often have to live their lives with the scare of a 'fatwah'. That there exists no one single idea about the origins of the universe, the belief in god and other such things that theology touches open is no proof that the scientific process is faulty. In fact it is this convergence (or divergence) of various ideas that puts science much ahead of the god hypothesis in terms of logic and rational conclusions. This process ensures that ideas are constanly refined and improved upon like in a control system with a feedback loop. Even though the ideas change, the core steps of having an open mind to new ideas with better logic and evidence, having an ever inquisitive mind and reasoning do not and that makes science a reliable tool for churning out new ideas.



Saturday, August 25, 2007

Rock Music

"Stop it! lower the volume! how can you listen to this!!!" are the kind of responses one would expect from parents to their kid listening to rock music (most definitely in the Indian context!). Can't really blame the parents who have grown up on a music diet of M.Rafi, Lata, Asha and Kishore Kumar. I'm sure they would've faced a similar predicament when a 'roop tera mastana' or a 'yeh mera dil' was being aired on the most eagerly awaited 'Binaca top 20' radio show. So the whole "rock is loud, noisy and evil" notion might just be one of the many manifestations of the generation gap.



Rock music was a musical style that arose in the US in the mid-1950s. Its basic elements consist of one or more vocalists, heavily amplified guitars (rhythm, base and lead) and drums. Its roots lay in rhythm and blues (R&B) and country music. The 60s saw the emergence of Beatles and Rolling Stones as also the blending of folk music with rock by Bob Dylan. the 70s saw the rise of writers/ singers like Paul Simon, Neil Young and rock assimilated other forms of music to produce jazz rock, heavy metal and punk rock. The psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd (known for its elaborate live shows) experienced great fame and commercial success during this time with albums like Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), and The Wall (1979). The 80s experienced the disco influence of artists like Madonna and Prince while by the 90s rock had incorporated grunge, rap, techno and other forms.



Contemporary rock has been criticized for the values it portrays. However to date no valid evidence has been produced to link even the more objectional form of heavy metal music as an agent to specific patterns of anti-social behavior. So rock on!!