Sunday, November 01, 2009

Talking Morals

December 18. Copenhagen. After 12 days of verbal warfare, intense debates, poor nations shifting blame on the rich, and multiple attempts at cutting deals, there was no consensus arrived at regarding emission cuts agreed by members attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference, 2009. Despite allegations of moral debt against the developed nations, the G-7, led by the strong resistance from the US, stuck to their view of sharing in a larger way the burden of solving the climate change crisis.

All neutrals, the scientists and environmentalists who care about the global climate change crisis, are concerned this could be how the papers report the failure of another attempt by the United Nations to broker a deal amongst nations on an issue of global concern. All the signs during the build-up to the conference also seem to vindicate their fears.

The Haves against the Have-Nots
The climate change debate is unique in the sense that it has the potential to turn the tables on the rich and powerful nations that have decided, or at least guided, the fate of the billons across the world for decades. For once, the attributes of wealth and technological prowess don't enhance one's resume when sitting at a table debating global issues. If anything, it only puts you on the back-foot right away.

"The Haves" here are of course, the developed nations of this world, that have steamed ahead - nah, smoked ahead - on the back of the Industrial and technological revolution in terms of economic prowess, without much recourse to the costs therein, as it now emerges, of a rampant and rapacious over-use of fossil fuels.

"The Have Nots" are the nations that missed this train, either due to problems in local governance or under the clutches of colonization, and are still striving to alleviate basic problems for their citizens that the Haves have long addressed. While a few of these Have Nots are marching to the top of the emission and economic charts, the fact remains that they still belong in this latter category simply because the majority of their populace lacks access to basic needs.

Two Extremes
In the US, I have seen personally from close quarters, the total disdain toward consumption of energy. While in Pune, we would turn off monitors, and lights and computers when we left for home, I would sigh in disgust at all the lights left turned on in the offices in Austin when people left for the weekend. While 2-wheelers and bicycles and bullock-carts jostle for a share of the road in Chennai, huge mini-trucks and SUVs and sports cars with a single occupant sped across the roads of Houston. Excessive demand for energy, has maintained energy costs low in the US, leading to a more ravaging misuse of greenhouse gas emitting fuels.

The poor nations are watching themselves hit by more floods than ever, bizarrely early melting of snow, onset of droughts in places that have never witnessed one for centuries, lashing typhoons and cyclones with a higher frequency than ever. One show to watch for real-life views into how major cities in the developing world are facing a sudden incidence of such problems is the BBC's Hot Cities series.

Why is it that the profligacy of the rich, is affecting the poor on the other side of the world? Because in our nationalism and selfishness, we easily forget that the Earth is an inter-linked, living-breathing, intricate system, and no one part can be unconnected from the rest. To understand this better, one must watch the brilliant documentary-movie "Home"

Skeptics of global warming thrive on statistics showing a fall in the average global temperature. But, hard facts from the lives of people who have lived in the same place for generations speak louder than numbers to me.

Moral Obligations
Some numbers speak loud enough though. Per capita emissions of carbon dioxide show US and Australia as the large industrialised nations that have been on the top for years. A more general list of per capita emissions of greenhouse gases tells the same story. The US accounts for 20% of global emissions. Granted China is ranked first on this last list at 21%, Chinese emissions have only grown rapidly in the last decade or so.

For a nation that claims to be driven by morals, and with Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace prize winner at the helm, one that increasingly sees itself as an idol and a system to emulate, the US seems to be falling way short when it comes to the issue of climate change. Forcing democracy across the world, which is an oxymoron by the way, claiming to punish war crimes by dictators, saving people from tyrants, the world waits to see what the US will do this time, for a crisis that seemingly affects everyone we know of. All this, while the climate change bill wrangles its way through the houses of representatives in Washington, D.C. with the world hoping it makes it through in time for Copenhagen.

Time To Act
The time for negotiations and arm-twisting is gone. The only thing nations can do now is act, and act fast. It isn't easy to cut emissions and still maintain living standards, which is why efforts must start sooner rather than later. For once, when the world really needed a leader, the US doesn't seem likely to step up to the mark, instead becoming the major stumbling block with the economic crisis acting as an alibi. Developing nations, facing the brunt of the climate change problems, are forced to deal with them already. Will the rich nations be humbled and shamed by the efforts of the poorer nations? Or will status quo preside and small non-obligatory deals be the only outcome from Copenhagen?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Truths and Myths of Slumdog

Never in my living days have I seen such interest in a movie based in India. The hype is unbelievable and it would not surprise me if it nabbed the Oscar for Best Director, besides the mostly certain nod for A.R.Rehman for his brilliant musical score. But has it really rung the right bells, tickled the right feathers, fluffed the right pillows with the messages it has sent out?

It's been a month now since I saw the movie. All the blurry images and the exciting sequences should have faded, and what's left must be indelible enough for a trustworthy review of this question. I watched this movie in New Jersey with a fairly dominant Caucasian crowd, and a few Indians (besides my relatives) seated in the last few rows. The "white folk" waited until the credits rolled to a close - each one of them - and applauded to no one in particular. The "desis" sneaked out before the lights turned on, clearly embarrassed by what had been depicted!

Separating The Grain From The Chaff

  • All Indians are fluent English speakers, albeit with an accent! - Myth. The movie was made for the Western audience. Clearly an overdose of sub-titles would have ruined the experience.

  • Primary schools run by the government primarily teach Classic English literature including The Three Musketeers. Myth. Primary government-run schools are lucky to have regular attendance from teachers, let alone students, and Three Musketeers is not a staple of the curriculum. Another of those facets palatable to a Western theme.

  • Slum-dwellers practice open defecation. Truth. Sadly, most of them do not even have the odd door to hide them from public view.

  • People stop what they are doing to watch "Who wants to be a millionaire". Truth. The Indian version of WWTBM actually reported the highest TRP ratings ever, as high as an Indo-Pak cricket match, for weeks together.

  • Bad guys grab kids off the street and mutilate them, before putting them to work as beggars. Truth. It is no coincidence that 4 out of 5 child beggars I encountered in Mumbai were either blind or handicapped. The occasional girl also carried a baby "brother" for added sympathy-value.

  • A Mercedes luxury car can be unscrewed apart in a mere matter of minutes. Truth. Oh yeah, that can definitely be done with a team of skilled hands! In some parts of Mumbai, a stolen car is dismantled even before a police report has been filed.

  • A band of Hindu activists attacked pockets of Muslim population with swords. Truth. Of course, there was a tit-for-tat too.

  • Commuters don't give a damn when a bunch of bad guys drag a woman off the trains. Truth. Too often has this proved to be true in a city like Mumbai, where everyone always has something more important to do.

It's All True!

When most of what we saw in the movie was true - and most people who have lived in Mumbai will testify to that - then why are so many Indians raging at this depiction? One reason is that the upwardly mobile and social elite are now shamed because the truth is out about the slums and poverty of the country, which is embedded even in one of the biggest cities of the world like Mumbai. To add to their misery, the direction and cinematography of the movie has been so colourful and fast-paced that it has got people hooked and sold them the story a dime a dozen. The story of the "real" India.

If we keep the hollow pride of these elite aside, one can hear the voices calling for moderation, for the complete picture. Although the movie only hinted at the glowing side of a progressive nation, the focus clearly was on the poverty, and the indomitable spirit of a slum child to rise above it.

The Whole Is The Sum Of The Parts?

No one can blame these critics either. The West has always loved its cliches. 20 years ago, India was a nation of moustachioed snake charmers, "turbanised" rope tricksters and beggars. Today, it is the nation of back-office tech geeks, call center operators and beggars. The Western media has been awash with stories of the roaring Indian Tiger and the fiery Chinese Dragon. I have had numerous personal experiences of the latent exasperation in Strangeland that boils up at success stories from South Asia. In a way, stories of poverty, true as they may be, gives them a much vaunted sense of vindication, that finally their suspicions and doubts have found a base to latch on to. No wonder then that the book of the year (Arvind Adiga's Booker prize winner The White Tiger) and most likely the movie of the year, had poverty and deprivation in India as their central theme.

To the world - Do realise that no single movie can show you the complete picture. More than half of India's populace is poverty-stricken, but not everyone is miserable. Nor is every other person in tech-support. It is a country of financial extremes, visible both in big cities and the remotest villages. You have to see it to understand it!

To fellow Indians - Stop caring what the world thinks anymore. That was Mahatma Gandhi's way too. Let our actions speak for themselves. If this leads to a little complacency from the rest of the world, that wouldn't hurt now, would it?