Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Anna Annals: The Compleat Glossary

These are some of the neologisms that Anna Hazare has spawned - in my mind. Blame it on the hysterically fawning electronic media; the faux but sincere Gandhian, poor man, had little to do with them. Please feel free to exercise your inalienable right to add as many more to the broth as you can cook up:

Annapolis (Headlines Today) - A megalopolis renamed because a TV channel thunk it was a good idea.

Annalila (Headlines Today) - Another take on Ramlila - I think, although they could be referring to a natak on the life and times of a new demigod. How we pine for them, adore them, fatten them, sacrifice them.

(*Headlines Today: Mad channel armed with a demagogic bullhorn, in a race up and down the TRP-mad racecourse with Times Now*)

Annaphylactic shock - What a government goes into when told that a new 'freedom struggle' is in the offing.

Annabolic steroids - Muscle power to the people in 10 days straight, with a triple bypass guaranteed a month later.

Annagrams - The secret messages that pass between the well-fed 'Team Anna' and the old man tasked with keeping the flag of revolutionary starvation aloft.

Annachronism - Future to the back.

Annaemia - The current state of the Bleeding Hearts in 'Army Anna'.

Annaesthetics - Oh, you know, like, "What happened to my head! I can't feel my head! Is my head still there?" Has nothing to do with Aesthetics.

Annagogical - Having a secondary spiritual meaning, as in, "If the police arrest me, march to Parliament. Even if they don't arrest me, march to Parliament."

Annagenesis - The evolution of a new species that replaces the old by sheer inventiveness - ie, mixing lung power and jobs that don't demand attendance.

Annal - A group of personality traits including compulsiveness and inflexibility, believed to be associated with excessive preoccupation with the anal phase as a child. Has nothing to do withannals, of which several will be written about 'Anna', 'Team Anna' and 'Army Anna'.

Annaleptic - Curative thwack on the governmental head.

Annalgesic - What Anna will administer to said government after curative thwack on the head.

Annalog - 1) Anything not dizzytal; 2) Anna's people.

Annalogue - Gandhi.

Annalysis - Parliamentary procedures are unconstitutional.

Annaphrodisiac - capable of reducing se-------. Augh. Unmentionable.

Annarchic - In this case, same as Annagogical.

Annathema - Pranab Mukherjee, Kapil Sibal.

Annatomical - 9th day of fasting going on 18.

Annatoxin - A toxoid/antitoxin. Dosage: one pretend consultation with Anna per day per 'Team Anna' member.

Annastigmat - A yet-to-be seen condition of being able to see through the self-generated bullshit - ie, not astigmatic.

Annamorphic - To morph overnight, without the help of facial or ethical reconstruction, from a Delhi lumpen to "Annabhaijisaab".

Annastrophe - When words said in one order make precisely the same sense when said in reverse: "Lao ya jao" = "Jao ya lao."

Annalphabet - 26 of them in all: Z, C, R, A, Q, M, T, etc, in this order, whatever this order is.

Annaplastic - Total disintegration. Why? Because. (Has nothing to do with a spanking new Titanium credit card issued by Citibank.)

Annaerobic - (Of an organism or tissue) living in the absence of air or free oxygen. Self-explanatory.

Annatomised - Vapourised - as in, 'discussion spritzed out of existence'.

Annapest - 1) A foot in the mouth of three syllables - ie, "Lao ya jao", etc; 2) Arvind Kejriwal.

Annangular - Containing no angles - circular, tautological, solipsistic, "Anna is India, India is Anna." Creepy.

Annabranch - "Branch around the Parliamentary crap and let's meet for dinner." Perfected by 'Team Anna'.

Annaphor - A word used to avoid repetition - eg, chor, lutere, dakait...

Annallergic - Not allergic to 'Team Anna' - eg, the government, the lower classes, Arundhati Roy. Me.

Annalgia - The government's pain in the fundament, and said pain's inability to feel any pain.

Arcanna - The mystery behind a 74-year-old's nine-day fast when 40-year-old Ramdev nearly croaked and had to be hospitalised on the seventh.

Asanna - Horizontal fasting pose.

Bananna - What Anna scarfed down for a carb infusion and tossed the peel of, which the government stepped on: as in, "The government had one foot on a bananna peel and the other in its mouth."

Bandanna - Gainda phool ki mala waiting in the wings for 'Team Anna'.

Dulcianna - The dulcet tones of 'Team Anna' when announcing that the government had mooned them - again.

Granna - Handfuls of what 'Army Anna' is eating to stave off its hunger - ie...

Channa - Food for those on pretend-fasts.

Iguanna - Pranab Mukherjee. Arvind Kejriwal. Kapil Sibal. Kiran Bedi. Manmohan Singh. Prashant Bhushan.

Ikebanna - An arrangement of gainda phool and lotus blossoms.

Jnanna - Knowledge acquired through meditation and study. Distilled by 'Team Anna' to "Standing committee, shmanding committee."

Marijuanna - Proscribed item of inhaled insight that might do everyone concerned some good if not proscribed.

Piranna - Small fish, big bite. Why the government is afraid of stepping into uncharted waters.

Tympanna - Eardrums. At Ramlila Maidan. Burst.

Pollyanna - An excessively optimistic belief in the rejuvenating power of fasting till death.

Nirvanna - One global Lokpal. No Lehman Bros. No Mugabe. No Myanmar junta. No US government. Oh, yes, no UPA either.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Gibbs sticks his foot in the American 'or else' syndrome

These past few days have seen a Niagara Falls of presidential hagiography in India, with the Indian press at its apple-polishing best with regard to President Obama and the Pres himself at his most flattering about Indians that India itself has forgotten - Gandhi, Tagore and Vivekananda. But there is one man who won't be coming out of this transnational diplomatic chroming exercise trailing less than a truckload of (his own) crap - White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The man, an opinionated brawler at White House press briefings, has a long history of "rapid-response" combativeness that has embarrassed even hardnosed Democrats. In a presidential team that typically has a low-adrenaline reaction time to Republican and media critiques - the latter however well meant - Gibbs' reflexive hostility and willingness to 'engage' hard has earned him the title of "The Enforcer".

So, according to the White House print pool reporter in attendance in New Delhi, Scott Wilson of The Washington Post, when Gibbs "announced loudly and persistently" that he would pull President Obama out of a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unless all the "White House 8" (as the eight pool mediapersons were known) were allowed in to cover the "bilat", the Indian officials crumbled. Gibbs went to the extent of jamming his foot in the massive and dangerously heavy oak doors of Hyderabad House and asking the Indian officials labouring to shut it whether they were up to breaking it. They weren't, and the White House 8 marched in for a photo-op that lasted all of a full minute of President Obama and Prime Minister Singh smiling coyly at each other. While this was media triumphalism at its best, the most delicious images to come out of that engagement were those of Gibbs at spitting boothill bully distance from an Indian official and pointing at himself as if asking, "Do you know who the f**k I am?"

What is going to be debated in the next few days is whether the Press Secretary, beloved advisor of Obama's though he might be, has the authority to actually pull the president out of any
meeting with any senior politician of any nation for any reason at all. Or whether his truculence this time was an embarrassing overdose of self-importance.

Although much of the American media reacted quite positively to Gibbs' buttheadedness (they would), Wonkette, saying that "things predictably got violent", went ballistic at the very thought of American puffery:

Rivrdog thinks that "Gibbs pulled that one out of his Blackstone Ranger ass".

And now Gibbs' ought to be on the line, if not for bucking diplomatic protocol (oh well, one can always hope for Stateside humility), then at least for overstepping the very, very thick line that Obama has permitted him marching rights inside.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Indian F1 fiasco

“We have received a letter in this regard from Bernie Ecclestone. The IOA [Indian Olympic Association] will be the promoter, the first event will be held in 2009.” With these words, IOA president Suresh Kalmadi got India’s long-held Formula 1 aspirations off the block – or into another interminable dream sequence, since Ecclestone, CEO of the Formula One Group, has been holding out the F1 carrot to India for a half-decade, at least. Ecclestone has long been one of the F1 administration’s deftest at stoking ambition and keeping it stoked just so.

Kalmadi’s ambitions are lavish but his reach has always been tethered to senior politicos who would rather float in anchorage. It must be frustrating. So when he assures us that virtually everything is settled, we know that absolutely nothing is. For instance, one of the cardinal terms of Ecclestone’s contract is that the IOA be entirely and solely responsible for financing the promotion and conduct of the race. Another condition is that the IOA must identify the land for the circuit in consultation with FOA (Formula One Administration) Ltd, with FOA partner Tilke Associates
having a final say in the matter. The letter in Kalmadi’s hand is also a disclaimer. Neither in its text nor in its brandishing does it announce that it constitutes an offer that is capable of acceptance; and it is not legally binding. (The letter also effectively negates the recent proposal by liquor baron and motorsport aficionado Vijay Mallya to host a street race around India Gate.)

Every comma and clause in the contract has to have the FOA’s Olympian approval. The IOA must meet a race promotion contract with the FOA. The IOA must settle the commercial issues, the fee, security inputs, and the costs of national and international TV organisations. Also requiring Kalmadi’s compliance will be a circuit rights agreement with APM Sport (Ireland), an FOA affiliate that is - intriguingly - a "single-member private company limited by shares", regarding trackside advertising, title sponsorship, hospitality, vending and exhibition, pouring rights, and official programme and event merchandising rights.

The upside is that if India were somehow to meet the uncompromising demands of the Formula One Management (FOM), the Indian F1 could become the fifth new venue to be added to the calendar in recent months. Valencia and Singapore have signed on for races in 2008, Abu Dhabi in 2009, and South Korea in 2010.

The downside is that in the overfull F1 calendar, India can only come in as a replacement for a retiree. Silverstone might fall off the map when its contract ends in 2009 and were Ecclestone to lose all patience with the circuit’s insufficient upgrades, but the financial stakes are so mindbendingly huge that Silverstone is still gamely trying to keep its place; if it surrenders its place, Abu Dhabi will slot into it. Whose place will India take?

Ecclestone likes to keep his options open till the last moment, which is why the diminutive 76-year-old has provisionally signed on more than 10 nations for new F1 circuits. India is just one of them, and probably the least prepared in everything but the machinery of bombast.

Furthermore, we’ll get to know for sure only in late 2008 if India is in. The F1’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), usually doesn’t publish even a provisional calendar until the October of the
year previous to a race season.

This is hardly the stuff of optimism nourishment. There’s more to F1 than watching balloon-tyred needles decked out in the motley of million-dollar advertising patches belting down straights at 300 mph; there’s the migraine of massive organisational vicissitudes, of being part of a scheme of a financial scheme so epic that it is almost mystical – none of which Indian administration has shown itself good at.

What India is great at is giving politicians with giant egos the wherewithal to trade punches in the boxing ring of national ambitions. Suresh Kalmadi and Union Minister for Sports Mani Shankar Aiyar
have long been at loggerheads; it came to a head recently when Aiyar helped deflate Kalmadi’s attempt to rope in the 2014 Asian Games for New Delhi by grousing that he would rather see the money that might be coffered for the Asian Games be spent on development. That’s not an argument the Indian government will usually cavil at, but the gripe’s mistimed cue gifted the Asian Games to Incheon.

Formula 1 for India seems to be Kalmadi’s way of getting back at Aiyar. Aiyar, who is usually headlong in his opinions, has yet to huff about Kalmadi’s F1 hand-rubbing, which is unusually good for Kalmadi. The word is that Aiyar has been asked by his seniors in the Congress party to hold his peace, at least till the storm over his Asian Games lemon fades into the rowdy harmonics of Indian politics.

The problem is that Kalmadi is pretty much a stranger to the niceties – and the not-so-niceties – of organisation on the scale of Genghis Khan’s army. Purely in terms of logistics before a race, and given that all other issues have been settled to the refractory satisfaction of Bernie Ecclestone, seven aircraft have to be cleared through customs within an hour. After a race, equipment and cars have to be shoehorned into the same aircraft within two hours. The airport bureaucracy has to be as fast on its feet as the F1 drivers are off theirs. This is probably the reason why the Sepang International F1 Circuit is part of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) project. The KLIA project, which is managed by the Malaysian airline, Berhad, owns both the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the Formula 1 racing circuit.

As Vicky Chandhok, Indian motorsports big-leaguer and father of Karun Chandhok, said on July 28, 2003 (

Mr Ecclestone was very, very clear when he sent Michael Taub as an intermediary...that it is not just a racing track that we are going to have but also various industries, industrial parks, etc, to make it commercially viable. The economics of having just a race track will not work. Today, India is looked at as a high-tech country. Several IT industries and vehicle manufacturers have come in here. And Formula One is the only sport that is technology driven. So it makes logical sense to have Formula One racing also in India

[But] Formula One is not just 20 cars. These cars arrive in seven jumbo jets carrying all the equipment. The production company comes in three large aircraft with a staff of about 300-400 people. The security staff is the same world over. They fly from one venue to the other.

After landing, the seven aircraft have to clear through the customs within an hour. Two hours after the race, all the equipment and cars are packed into the aircraft and they leave. In a country like India, this is not going to be easy. Look at what all we need. We need support from the immigration, from customs...

When asked whether he thought that Ecclestone was aware of “problems”, Chandok said:

I don't think he is aware of these Indian problems in the form of delays. He cannot afford the delays. But before he says yes, he will actually fly an aircraft with all the equipment and do a mock run. He did that in China. That is why he is so keen on a place near the airport runway. Both in Hyderabad and Bangalore, they have offered land close to the airports. I must tell you the Formula One management has so far not made any official visit to India.

This does mean that if Ecclestone jinks an eyebrow, Delhi will have to scrabble for land near the
Indira Gandhi International Airport at Palam or else build a circuit at Greater Noida, which is part of Uttar Pradesh in terms of state munificence but falls within the ambit of the National Capital Region. In any case, with the land bit yet to be settled, even Kalmadi conceded that the agreement was preliminary and conditional on a venue being approved.

And, a decade and some after Chandok Sr’s interview, Ecclestone did visit India recently to size up, of all places, Rajpath in New Delhi as a site for Formula 1 races, courtesy the ineffable persuasiveness of Vijay Mallya. It came to naught, of course – Rajpath falls under New Delhi’s stringent heritage protection laws; also, races even once a year would balls-up traffic so badly that not even the Capital’s citizenry, which is indignant but usually accepting of the imperiousness of VIP road-hogging, would have taken it.

At the bottom of the F1 pile is money, shitloads of it. India can scarce afford to pump in millions of dollars, megawatts of energy and rivers of sweat, all from a polity that will already be stripping itself of a great deal of developmental logic to feed the leviathan maw of the 2010 Commonwealth Games
. Tellingly, after Ecclestone recently patted Istanbul Park, which has been contracted for MotoGP till 2021, as being “the best race course in the world”, Istanbul’s Chamber of Commerce’s chairperson, Murat Yalcintas, confessed that the circuit, and the Turkish GP, has so far lost “millions of dollars”.

Furthermore, each track that wishes to hold an F1 MotoGP will most likely have to sign at least a half-decade contract and pay US$ 8 million (approximately Rs 32 crore, at the going rate) a race. These costs are hardly something that Kalmadi – and his political bosses – would be willing to look full on. Even if he is personally out of the woods, in that he might have long departed the political scene when cumulative losses begin to turn the government of the day purple in the face, it’s a good bet that the Congress
today will think a dozen times – which is 11 times more than it normally does – before it sends “Yes, bending over” signals to Ecclestone.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Hot as Hell - reviewing a documentary on the Dhanbad collieries

There are some things to be said about overlong films, whether they are fiction or documentaries: both in terms of for and against, they give us a long insight into the life and thinking of the director as much of the subject of their exploration. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s two-and-a-half hour documentary on the coalfields of Dhanbad was porky but detailed – on some, not all, the aspects of a region much of which has been on subterranean fire for more than a century. He touches, and sometimes reflects, on all the relevant facets that go into the congeries of an intriguing subject: the status – or lack of it – of the coalminers; the tribals disenfranchised from their land and traditional livelihood, and the consequent growth of what the government calls “illegal coalmining”; the coal mafia (one of the most brutish and enduring of all the country’s various gruppi criminali); the bureaucratic blindness of Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), the parastatal and biggest mining entity in Dhanbad.

Hot as Hell is not close to Charles Urban’s canonical A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910), which is textbook study material today as a milestone in the documentary’s evolution. Nor is it meant to be From the Shadows of Power (1990), produced and directed by Jean Donohue and co-produced by Fred Johnson, an award-winning documentary set in the coalfields of Appalachia, Wales and England. Hot as Hell is, in a sense, far more ambitious: it has dauntingly wider socioeconomic, political and sub-ethnic concerns, and, indeed, the bond of impervious criminality that binds them all together in a travesty of capitalism.

The Dhanbad collieries have developed into the smoking waste they are over the course of a century; the region’s kismet was foretold when it was discovered that some of the best coking coal in India lay just under the surface. Subsequently, open-casting – which is different from strip-mining in that it leaves not gigantic conical holes in the land but hollows it out just beneath the surface, dooming it to infertility and later subsidence – stripped away the top layer of the land, denuding it over the course of almost a century. Hot as Hell is book-ended by Guha Thakurta declaring to the camera that the Dhanbad he is seeing now is very different from the Dhanbad he had seen as a much younger reporter 25 years ago, “and some things have changed but much hasn’t”.

Clearly, much hasn’t, except for Jharia township, which – going by the camera’s oft-repeated street-level night shots, has some blindingly glitzy multinational attire shops today, and even a glass-and-brass stacked-elevator mall – seems to have plenty of disposable capital. But this busy township, only differentiated from other convenience-occupancy hardscrabble townships across the nation by deep cracks on its roads leaking feathery smoke and heat from the slow-burn of the underground methane fires, feeds workers to the coalmines, is home to the bureaucrats and the mafia that run them, and sits so stolidly atop whole square kilometres of greed-making surface coal that the government and the BCCL have plans to relocate the township’s 400,000 (current figure) inhabitants to regions whose location the film intriguingly did not seek to ascertain.

How the authorities will transport what will most certainly swell to an army of one million people by the cutoff date of 2017 from one of the country’s most densely inhabited regions (Dhanbad district already has 1,167 persons per sq km) remains a mystery. If only to keep mining going at its current pace – even with the number of miners constantly decimated by new-fangled machinery – the government will have to allow thousands of miner 'wannabes' (a description tragic in this context) to pour into Dhanbad, negating the entire relocation exercise. The mafia, which has a near-monopoly over Dhanbad’s coal economy because of its chokehold on these tens of thousands of indigents, will seek to scuttle the relocation, too: people here, who’ve already been beaten under, serve its will better than the newly-arrived would.

As the film shows, Dhanbad is home to people who have land ownership records going back to 1932, and each one of them is loath to leave a land that might have lost everything to the rapacious dynamics of fossil fuel extraction but is still their land, with their generational seal on it. What is being called the “world’s biggest peacetime relocation programme” (as if it would be any different if it were a “wartime relocation programme”) is probably among the worst follies of the modern Indian developmental model – as one of the retired coal officials admitted in the film – and it might just go the way of the Narmada dam displace-deport-and-damn fiasco.

Coupled with this is the fact, which every journalist knows and a very senior one, in particular, was quoted as confirming in the film, an almost unbreakable politician-mafia-bureaucrat nexus exists to undo all law in Dhanbad. And, as a deadpan interview in the film with a senior police officer in Dhanbad shows, the klutzes in khaki posted there are seriously compromised - a cop pays other, more senior, cops lakhs of rupees for a posting in the "Coal Capital" of India. Everyone except the miners and the tribals makes a little money. “A former CMD of BCCL was nicknamed as the golden deer. He set up two multi-crore industries near Delhi,” says Gopal Agrawal of Jharia. (‘The killing mines of Dhanbad’,

The film doesn’t go as far as naming names – except for those that are dead or have providentially become politically insignificant – but, as always with independent-minded filmmakers who have to work with the deterrents (usually financial) of establishmentarian oversight, Guha Thakurta manages to express by implication that which words might have jeopardised their being articulated at all: shots of the “palatial mansion”…“where Surya Deo Singh [the late mafia boss] used to live”; a long interview take of his son dressed in a spotless, starched white mul-mul kurta while his grimy hangers-on lounge around in an antechamber as gloomy as that of any mofussil GP's; a humongous, gleaming black-and-chrome Ford Endeavour SUV parked outside; a retired coal bureaucrat, now settled in Kolkata, mouthing himself silly absenting the mafia from any of Dhanbad’s many sicknesses; the BCCL chief lathering the camera with smoothtalk claiming that much of everything is hunky-dory, and much of that which is not is, well, just smoke and ash; convoys of bicycles loaded with jute panniers, each packed with “hundreds of kilos of [stolen] coal” and pushed by straining, sweaty, stringy men for tens of kilometres to the “collection centre” run by the mafia; a bedridden miner breathing wrenchingly through lungs shot with coal miners pneumoconiosis.

This is Dhanbad today. “Prolonged exposure to coal dust causes coal miners pneumoconiosis (CMP),” wrote Stirling Smith (‘Mining: blood on coal’, Frontline, Volume 18 - Issue 13, Jun. 23-Jul. 06, 2001). “It is a very unpleasant disease. The lungs lose their natural flexibility and it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe. Simple tasks like walking up stairs become impossible. It is a slow and painful death from suffocation. There is no cure. The only steps are to remove the patient from exposure to dust in the early stages to prevent more severe damage.

“Official statistics reveal an average of 72 new cases of the disease a year between 1980 and 1994. This figure is simply not credible. Coal dust in India is no different from coal dust elsewhere in the world, nor are Indian miners’ lungs different from the lungs of other miners in the world. In the UK, in the 1980s, the annual figure for new cases of CMP was more than 300 cases and the government is now paying out hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation to sick miners. Sample surveys in India have produced estimates as high as 40 per cent of the number of miners with CMP.”

There is also a very short interview with the Tata Steel rep who, in his own words, has been in Dhanbad “for the past 30 years” and has neither seen nor heard of “corruption” or physical vulnerability beyond the usual. He says that Dhanbad is safer than “Hyderabad, where I come from”. This short take comes towards the end of the series; there is no voiceover; the camera pans the idyllic landscaping of what might be the rep’s residence and/or office. No more evidence is necessary that the private sector part of the coal industry will studiously keep its own counsel.

The rep’s tact is hardly surprising. Tata Steel plans to acquire more mining leases from the government. The company currently owns six collieries in the Jharia division, split into the Jamadoba Group and the Sijua group. The former has a lease area of 5,508 acres and a production capacity of 1.5 million tonnes of prime coking coal.

Wherever Guha Thakurta comes up short, it is because he sometimes carries an excess baggage of butterflies. “In particular, documentary, because of its claim to objectivity, seems especially susceptible to the illusion that its practice is transparent,” wrote Jane M Gaines (‘Appalshop documentaries: Inventing and preserving Appalachia’, Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 53-63). What seems all too apparent here is that because the quintology was produced for India’s government-owned television broadcaster, Doordarshan, some necessary informational opacity had to introduced to keep the vehicle of documentation from hitting any bureaucratic speedbreaker big enough to bust its axles. For instance, while section IV of the series dealt with the mafia that governs the Dhanbad coalfields, raking off between 40 and 70 per cent of mined coal, it only delves into the mafia's history: B P Sinha, who ran an oxymoron, virtually extinct today, known as a “benign dictatorship”; his Al Capone-like pupil, the late Surya Deo Singh (“Pehelwanji”), who is said to have been as ennobled in speech as he was immediate and brutal in his retributive reach, and who is reported to have had Sinha iced in his own palatial home. While the documentary tells us that two were the last of the open-pursed gangsters in Dhanbad, what it doesn’t tell us is which individual, or what cartel, is ruling the coalfields now. Even in a somewhat vapid conversation with Surya Deo Singh’s son, Guha Thakurta skirts asking the youngster, who obviously defends his father in generic sociopolitical hagiographic folderol, the all-important questions: Are you continuing your father’s good works? If not you, then who?

Then, again, Guha Thakurta’s trepidation is understandable: Dhanbad’s dons have never been amenable to outsider curiosity. The number of journalists who have emerged bruised from incursions into Dhanbad’s dark side constructs a tale of overeager folly. Another friend of mine who had gone to Dhanbad expressly to investigate its mafia takeover had had to flee in the dead of night when word got to him that various footsoldiers were scouring the city for him, guns out.

Perhaps Guha Thakurta was constrained by the fact that, this time round, he spent only five days in Dhanbad, talking up a whole range of people from journalists to politicians to BCCL authorities to a former labour contractor to – frustratingly few of these – the people most affected. He spoke to no miner and just a few locals, some of them reticent. (As a roundabout apology, perhaps, he let Manjira Dutta, who had produced Babulal Bhuiya ki Qurbani [1987], a disturbing, revelatory 70-minute short on a mine worker who was shot dead by the Central Industrial Security Force, speak for him when she said that she really had no idea of what might have befallen those who had chosen to speak in front of her camera, implying that this sort of candour could be perilous.)

Nor does Guha Thakurta adequately explain in the film the reason for the subterranean fires in the Dhanbad mines, some of which have been guttering for well over a century. The film does imply that the fires were caused by “unscientific mining” (meaning open-cast mining), but such a premise is scientifically debatable. Ideally, a geologist ought to have been spoken to, Landsat images of fires used (they are freely available), the rate of land subsidence calculated to determine how much of the region is vulnerable to subsidence and at what rate.

“Fires in coal seams of Jharia coalfield have been originated basically from spontaneous combustion [italics mine] occurring either underground or along the outcrops, and are restricted in Barakar formations with shallow depth of less than 40 m. Mainly top seams which are thick and therefore more prone to spontaneous heating fires have also been caused due to burning of bantulsi, dumping of hot ash in goafed [sic] out areas, illicit distillation in abandoned working, etc.” (‘Application of Landsat-TM Thermal Band and IRS-1A LISS II Imagery in Delineation of Coal Mine Fire in Jharia Coal Field’, V K Srivastava, Remote Sensing Unit, Department of Applied Geophysics, Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad)

The film does mention that the fires are of methane gas origin, but goes no further than that cursory explanation. If methane were that incendiary, the country’s cattle should be combusting every time they become flatulent, which is all the time. The explanation came from another source. On the deaths of 50 miners during underground explosions on September 6, 2006 at the Nagda mine of the Bhatdih colliery in Western Jharia, People’s Democracy, the weekly organ of the CPI (M), wrote: “Methanometre for measurement of methane gas accumulation was defunct. After extraction of coal, it is mandatory to pack the holes with sand so that methane does not get accumulated in these holes. Contractors were appointed to supply sands. Due to high level corruption, on paper full quantity of sand was supplied by the contractors, but in actuality, the supply was less than half. As a result, many holes were not sand-packed allowing methane gas accumulation.” (

While there were shots of cupric miners walking bent through caverns, of mines that the BCCL had ostensibly “abandoned” but that were still being scoped by “illegal” miners (read: mostly tribals made destitute by the mafia and the authorities) for leftovers, of mines where workers had drowned, asphyxiated, been buried or incinerated – what was missing were statistics to buttress the narrative. Stats can lie in the hands of those who have something to hide; but in the proper hands, they can help rip the curtain apart.

The irony about Dhanbad is that it should have been the centre of mining-related safety regulations and R&D in the country. After all, as a Government of India Website says, “For administering the provisions of the Indian Mines Act, the mine Inspectorate was first created as Bureau of Mines Inspection on June 7, 1902 forming a part of the GSI (Geological Survey of India) in Calcutta. Later the name of the organisation was changed to Department of Mines in 1904 and its headquarters shifted to Dhanbad [italics mine] in 1908.” From then to now, this centralisation of coal administration in Dhanbad hasn’t made a whit of a difference to the area’s inhabitants. Except after the Chasnala disaster in 1975, in which 375 workers were drowned to death, not a single official has been pulled up for culpability in the absence of mining safety.

There are today more than 594 coal mines in India, a vast majority of them open-cast. The death rate for every 1,000 miners in 1894 was 3.04. According to a government Website, “The fatality rate in respect of per thousand persons employed in coal mines fell from a high of 1.33 on a ten-yearly average during 1931-40 to 0.33 during 1991-99. Unfortunately, however, there has been no appreciable reduction in fatal accident rates in coal mines during the last two decades.”

This appalling lack of "appreciable reduction" is why it is so important that this film be seen. That it was the government that admitted its laxity and has supported the documentary could be either a sign of its acceptance of some culpability - or of its realisation that swallowing some criticism gamely can cushion the really hard bits yet to come.

For bookings to see Hot as Hell: A Profile of Dhanbad, please contact Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta at or at 09810170435

Sunday, October 23, 2005

On matrimony - mine (or ours)

I guess I could begin this blog by quoting Anthony Burgess' first line in his Earthly Powers: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me." But there would be problems: First, the line would fit not I but, say, the venerable Arthur C Clarke; I have no ganymede since I am, unlike Burgess' Toomey, unrepentantly heterosexual. Second, I am a bit more than half of Toomey's age. Third, the archbishop isn't going to come bustling to see me - I'm going to go meet a purohit, a priest.

That's what one does when one's getting married. And I am, later today.

But Toomey's apprehension and anticipation and petulance at having had his accustomed life disturbed are no less mine. All of it comes from about two decades of being (repentantly) single and a certain insensate, intangible and often exclusionary of people lebensraum that is the lot of men who thought (and think) that they aren't good enough for permanent partnerships and, so, keep expanding their "space" - and then when all hope of populating that space is nearly, but not entirely, lost, embark on a dreamboat. (Is that word "dreamboat" used for women alone? If it is, I wonder why. Would someone kindly provide me the etymology?)

Ah, crud, I've digressed again. In point of fact, the woman I am to marry has been my dearest friend for five long years, and I hers, and it is only three months ago that we discovered that what we felt for each other was more than a sharing of daily personal chronicles of office political Olympiads and books - hers on sociology and fantasy fiction, mine on everything and thus, consequently, nothing - and films and gender issues. Impecunious as I am, I have never had a more resurrective benediction in my life: her beauty - and she is sublime - is held together, as if by a centripetal force, by her mind. She is physically younger by a generation than I am, but emotionally and intellectually older by a generation than hers, and so we are united by an attraction in which chronospatiality can go roll a hoop. (Just goes to show that one of Einstein's many brains was working like clockwork - even before the goo was bunged into a jar of formalin.)

As the days to the halcyon D-Day - if there be such a thing - rolled closer, both of us understood, for the first time, the absolute juggernaut implacability of that anachronism called Hindu tradition. We're both atheists (although I sometimes catch glimpses of that absoluteness being deflated in her by insidious intervention), but the Indian registered marriage system is fossilised enough to be palaeontological and wouldn't accept the latest government-issued identification papers as proof of anything at all. So, in came the Arya Samaj, which is a lot more liberal and trusting - and the purohit seems to be more amenable to skipping a heartbeat or two when I intend to threaten him with kneecapping if he doesn't keep the interminable Hindu Vedic rituals - fire, ghee, scads of smoke and all - down to a half hour or so. There's ethical hypocrisy lurking around in the shadows like one of Lucifer's minions here, of course: What are two atheists doing having a Hindu wedding? But, I tell thee all, use the system to crumble its crenellations.

Doesn't wash, does it? Hell. But I'll rationalyse all that when my beloved's hand upon my fevered brow leads me to think that I inhabit an arbor of sweetness and gentle green instead of a bedroom toppling over with thousands of books whose solemn, inexorable lines brought me to this psychotic pass, in the first place.

More on the wedding - it's been hijacked: by relatives, relatives of relatives, relatives of relatives of...Augh!...each with some kind of affiliation to one or more, or many, many more, of India's 300 million gods and goddesses (pardon the political incorrectness, but millions of years of Hindu tradition, when the first modern human walked Earth just 100,000 years ago, is nothing to sniff about). And each with a brand new, possibly neologistic, idea of how many rituals to include in order to keep the newlyweds as far apart as possible for as long as possible. Some of the rituals are so abasing that we've decided to excise them from the "thy wedded bliss" rant altogether (which is where the unimpairment, or otherwise, of the purohit's elbows now comes into the picture), and some are chants guaranteed to induce nuptial narcolepsy and are more or less incomprehensible to the priest himself. Millions of years of tautology, etc. Rote. Mug.

Mugs, both of us. And all we wanted was a quiet, whispery affair - well no, not exactly: but an ambient veena, a mild woodwind section, clones of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa doing a mad drummers' jugalbandi (Providence alone knows how they'd weave it all together, but if the fusion group Shakti could do it, so could they) and Janis Joplin, yep, definitely Janis Joplin.

But, heavens, it's our families getting married to each other! We're just the bonfire around which they're doing their triumphal wardance.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Bumbling bibliophile in College Street in Calcutta

The mosquitoes had stopped divebombing and the frogs had stopped doing their prince act, so there were, obviously, clear portents of rain. My in-laws-to-be asked me to take along an umbrella, but since a Bengali domiciled in Delhi for more that three decades knows more about Calcutta than Calcuttans do, I, obviously, smartly didn't.

The cab drive to College Street was nighmarish - or daymarish, what you will - Baja-style roads packed with buses well past their retirement and running, inch by bloody inch, on diesel engines spiked with kerosene, the only Ambassador taxis in the country (since only those iron Vauxhall ripoffs can survive Calcutta traffic), a few foolhardy motorbikes - and, oh yes, people, so many people that one tends to forget they're there at all.

College Street is no different a proposition, except that it is home to some of the most illustrious colleges in the country. (I, as a Delhi Stephanian, have a dispute with that, but more of that in a later blog.) College Street is a f***ing hellhole, with one of the only surviving tramlines rolling in the city on girders so old that they've eaten a pit down the middle of the asphalt, like an ancient river doing its eternal erosion thing. Both sides of the road are lined with tiny shops - lean-tos, with asbestos and tarp roofs that I found, to my consternation when the rains came punching down, surprisingly waterproof.

The street, Calcutta's pride, which three decades of doctrinaire communism has deprived most of the city's Bengalis of, houses many of the city's colleges. The University of Calcutta, India's second oldest modern university, was established in 1857. On one side of CU (as it chooses to be called) is Presidency College, irrefutably one of India's best, founded in 1874. On the other is Asia's oldest medical school - the Calcutta Medical College - founded in 1835. Facing Presidency College is the famous - or infamous, depending on how you look at history - Coffee House, where God created the universe and left it to the Coffee House's insolvent intellectuals to discover the beauty of it.

But, the shops being waterproofed didn't help - I got soaked anyway. The tarp is there to protect not the pedestrians, it's there to protect the books.

And, ah, the books! Even though most of the shops have converted currency to IIT kunjis and CAT simplifiers and suchlike, if you stick your nose in deep enough, you'll smell the dust of old vellum, sometimes hear the distressing crackle of yellowed 100 gsm matt paper irredeemably cracking when the piles shift because of the temblor of the trams clanging by.

Even with my butt soaked and my head dry - creating a thermostatic difference that would have lit up the whole street - I found what I wasn't looking for but then discovered that I had been, all my life. Auslander that I was, I spent an hour at the first three shops that had various ripoffs of the Da Vinci Code and a single book on Verrier Elvin. After better sense overcame the balking and embarrassment of having to shame these shysters by not paying out a paisa, three shops down the line - of about 200 shops on either side of the road - I found a whole pile of pre-Independence published, 6" X 3", leatherbound volumes of classics that some impecunious Bengali had sold, in undoubted grief, to this particular barker. He asked Rs 60 for each, I haggled desultorily and brought him down to Rs 32 each. I'm now the proud possessor of 12 volumes - if their diminutive size will permit them that noun - from The British India Publishing Company, Calcutta, printed in Great Britain, of Lorna Doone, Adam Bede, The Innocents Abroad, The Scarlet Letter, Wuthering Heights, Ben Hur, Silas Marner, G K Chesterton-Selected Essays , Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,The Hunchback of Notredame, Edgar Allan Poe's Tales Grotesque, and Mill on the Floss. Beat that. Money's not the point here, but if it were, they'd fetch me a fortune on E-Bay.

But I was also snuffling around for other books - on fascism, Chinese communism, hard science fiction...anything that would slake a thirst for knowledge except on roaches and arachnids. The word went down the line that a sucker was looking for a punch- in that body-bruising rain, I don't know how or who did the running: cellphones certainly weren't in view and nobody was doing any yelling.

Now for an aside: India's postal system goes back three and a half millennia, when kings had an established communication system between Egyptian Pharaohs and Chinese monarchs. They used all manner of transportation - horses, elephants, men, pigeons - and inducements, primarily smidgens of gold and Medusa's heads of whips and, failing all, threats of familial decapitation.

But the latter-day - centuries later actually, 150 years ago when the Indian Postal Service came into existence - mail, or dak, "runner" was actually the world's strongest baton carrier, or extreme athlete, pelting from station to station where he passed on his satchel of letters to the next runner, who went further, and so on, braving raging rivers - often drowning - tigers, bandits, every homo sapien-hater you could name. Jim Corbett himself once"impersonated" a runner, lugging along a lantern, an utterly inadequate spear, and a wrapping of letters, trying to track the spoor of a man-eater that had scarfed many runners.

Unless the tradition of runners survives on College Street, I have no way to explain why I was getting pulled into book dumps a good 10 - and more - shops down the pavement with sellers yelling, "Dada, books on Chinese communism, books on fascism, good rates..." and a great deal more of the commercial ballyhoo that comes from people trying to squeeze a living in this age of glitzy Barnes & Noble and the Oxford Book Store giving 75 per cent discounts on books that nobody wants to buy. Which wing-footed Hermes had told all these people that a bibliophile chump was busy trying to catch pneumonia pounding the cobblestones?

Well, basking in my irrigated glory as I was, there was one bookseller who didn't give a shit. Resting fatly and benignly below a teetering pile of books was one - a horror anthology of Frankenstein - I wanted to buy for my fiance, who has a taste for bloody books that would send war veterans haring for the horizon. Young lad, callow, I would like to think, the bookseller sat torso-nude in his shack. When I asked to see the book, and offered to help him retrieve it from below the pile, he scowled at me and said, "It's raining," (which I knew) and "hobe na" (won't happen), which I didn't. I stood around like a spaniel. Nary a difference it made to him. So I slumped onwards. When the rain eased a bit, I screeched round like a motocross bike and returned and made the same offer. He relented, we bargained, I bought the book - and he suddenly realised that he had relinquished an absolute pushover.

Allow me this rummage of observations, whichever part of the world you inhabit: 1) Pushovers can be very pushy when pushed too far; 2) If you love books, do yourself a favour and make a pilgrimage to College Street in Calcutta, thundershower or no; 3) Any Bengali who refuses attendance to a bibliophile is a farceur, and deserves to be paradropped among the Amazon's headshrinkers.

And, finally - nope, the books are not for sale.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

On Hurricane Rita and 100-mile traffic snarls

The first thing I notice after I wake up this morning and pick up The Times of India's 'Times International' section - my favourite lunch wraparound since it carries the most edible part of the news, anyway - is the headline: "As Two Million Americans Try To Get Out Of Rita's Way, There's A 100-Mile Traffic Jam." Apart from being one of the longest and worst headlines I've read in years of being a journalist - didn't anyone inform the desk that it should have been a caption, for heaven's sake! - what neoned off the page was a three-column deep-shot AP photograph of a traffic snarl comprising everything from those rather large lurchers the Americans call "automobiles" and the rest of the world calls cars, humongous SUVs and semis and Mack trucks fading from Louisiana to heaven knows which collection of bivouacs and quonsets the Bush Administration would be busy misadministrating. There seemed to be something impolitic about so many four-wheeled brutes standing still and barfing out suspended particulate matter, no doubt contributing in no mean measure to the global climate imbalance that gave birth to Hurricane Rita, in the first place. But what was even more surprising was that only on the outgoing lane was there the bumper-to-bumper standstill that Hollywood loves to have its cops leap and thump and pirouette and occasionally butt-roll over. The incoming lane, on the other hand, was an absurdly empty stretch of halogen-lit aridity coloured bronze by the malignancy of the approaching storm, except for the silhouette of one truck headed the way of my breakfast.

Now, I think back to India: a single difference that makes both our democracies so contradistinctive - both lanes would have been packed, bumper-to-bumper - so to speak - with cars, buses skewed and limping on their axles, homemade contraptions with diesel-powered water pumps as engines, bullockcarts, autorickshaws with butts hanging out of every available opening, bicycles, and people walking with weights on their heads that would snap the thorax of an American quarterback. The point here is - both lanes, it was a matter of getting outta the way of Nature's natural termagancy, and damn the police and the rest of the catatonic administration.

The point also is that since India is improvident enough to suffer every year every calamity known to humankind - and a few other unknown bummers besides - there wouldn't have been this mother of all snarls. Every inch of macadam - and probably half the boggy countryside as well - would have been publicly requisitioned for evacuation. (Yes, there is public requisitioning - otherwise called "democracy" - here, distinctly different from another major 'democracy' where unquestionable government requisitioning is becoming quite the norm.)

I'm not for a moment suggesting that keeping one lane a haven of speed while locking up the other, or that keeping both lanes moving at snail's pace, is going to save more lives from ending up in messianic-government-designed distress. But I am interposing, I suppose, in the scheme of things that Hurricane Rita is hardly the last of the gyres of Gaia's distress - Nature is coming apart at the seams - and not the best laid plans of mice and men will keep single-lane discipline from saving humankind. Unless....