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Showing posts sorted by relevance for query Lakshadweep. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query Lakshadweep. Sort by date Show all posts

Thursday, May 02, 2013

IN LAKSHADWEEP, PETROL IS SELLING AT 200 PER LITRE!

By CJ Rajendran in Lakshdweep

At Lakshadweep Islands, which is not quite the paradise you would have imagined. Muhammad Basheer is the only and well-known Cameramen in the island of Kavarati, to whom islanders are used to reach for the video coverage of wedding ceremonies. He is roaming besides the sea by carrying his camera on the left shoulder. As all other youngster in islands he was studied in Kerala and successfully attained graduation in Arabic language.

During his Kerala days he was being dreamt about to own a Motor cycle. Five years ago his dream accomplished with unlimited pain and sorrows.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Lakshadweep's Muslim Women Conquer The Earth

By Ayaan Khan & Simi Singh

On January 29, Haseena and Tajunnisa, two young women from the beautiful Agatti island in Lakshadweep, received the 2008 Earth Heroes 'Young Naturalist' awards, given annually by 'Sanctuary' magazine in collaboration with the Royal Bank of Scotland. This unusual recognition came to these women, who are in their 20s, for their spectacular effort in mobilizing a fishing community to become the keepers of nature.

Their story began five years ago, when the Mumbai-based Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) was entrusted with the job of studying the giant clam in the waters off Lakshadweep's west coast.

Lakshadweep is India's smallest Union Territory, beginning about 250 kilometers west off the Kerala coast. It comprises 12 atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks. There are 36 tiny islands on these sub-marine banks, with a total area of just about 32 sq. kilometers.

The islands are scattered and remote, each fringed by white coral sand and shallow lagoons protected by reef walls. They are the only coral islands in India. Ten of these are home to about 60,000 people. The island group's Gross Domestic Product from coconut, tuna, tourism, and sea-faring touches almost Rs 100 million (US$1=Rs 48.8), with the tuna canning factories concentrated on the Minicoy Island, the second largest and southern-most among the islands of the Lakshadweep archipelago.

More than 40,00,000 tons of tuna is caught in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans every year. In 2004, the Federal Drug Authority (FDA) frowned upon the intake of excessive tuna by pregnant women, nursing mothers and children, as it is believed to contain a large quantity of mercury. Light tuna, low in mercury content, is found off the Lakshadweep coast and this is now a thriving industry.

Tuna, a very large fish, feeds on small bait-fish, like minnow and anchovy. The availability of bait-fish is an indicator of the concentration of tuna in an area. Giant clams, too, live in association with bait-fish. The giant clam also harvested for food and as a curio, is listed as a 'vulnerable' species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"The BNHS-lead International Marine Protected Area project (funded by the Darwin Initiative) was to study the giant clam and try and develop conservation strategies for it, as also for bait and tuna off the Agatti coast by developing a community-managed reserve," says Deepak Apte, Assistant Director, BNHS. Apte, who is associated with the project, recently addressed a gathering of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers in Chennai, which met to discuss the viability of India's marine protected areas.

The Agatti island, a small seven kilometer-long island, is highly vulnerable to ecological change. Says Apte, "When I went down to the site, I immediately realized that I had to take the local community into confidence. It is their local knowledge about the bio-diversity that would tell me where the coral, clam, bait-fish and tuna concentrations could be found."

Archaeological evidences from Agatti indicate that there were Buddhist settlements here in the sixth and seventh century and Islam was brought to the land in the eighth century. "We found that despite its remoteness and inaccessibility, the community had religious homogeneity and 100 per cent literacy," reveals Apte. "This struck us as unique, a Muslim society with 100 per cent literacy. All the women were literate and most working in the natural products post-harvest industry. There existed a Shariat law (Islamic law) but in combination with matrilineal traditions. Before finding the giant clams, we needed to build awareness among the community about conservation.

"I appointed a local team to assist me in the research and went to the madrasas (Islamic school), seeking their cooperation to create environment awareness among the community. We explained to them how the food chain worked and that the tuna catch would increase if we could conserve the bait-fish and find the giant clam associated with it.

"We told the people that conservation must be linked to development and cannot be separated from their social, economic and political contexts," informs Apte. Through the madrasas, the communities, the panchayats (village councils) and the administration were accessed. He elaborates, "We mounted audio-visual campaigns, involving 1,500 school students in lagoon clean up efforts, reef walks, and gave people issue-based environmental education study kits."

The BNHS effort encompassed livelihood earners - men's teams involved in fishing, women's groups involved in cowrie collection, and women's self-help groups. School teachers, mostly women, were drawn in large numbers to help increase awareness and talk about sustainability programmes. Local knowledge gathering and documentation was a major process for which young women and men were trained.

Concerned that the islanders would face a bleak future if their ecological heritage were ruined, young women like Haseena, who is a teacher, and Tajunnisa, became key community facilitators. "They went door to door to gather baseline data on natural resource use and the socio-economic status of households," says Apte. Through open forum community meetings and consultations, they won the unanimous approval of the conservative community, which now wholeheartedly supports the creation of the Agatti reserve.

Currently, the project has eight facilitators, four of them women. The volunteers and project staff comprises entirely locals. As many as 95 people have been trained in giant clam and bait-fish research and in monitoring the local ecological systems. Two people were sent to the UK, Belgium and Australia for leadership training. A dozen people have been trained to mind the marine protected area around Agatti, some trained as divers others as eco-tourism managers. The Agatti reserve management committee has three government representatives, eight members from Agatti's eight wards and three wildlife conservation workers from the community.

"This is the area where the best catches are found and they know, if they do not conserve the area, their livelihood will be affected," says Apte, adding that, "the community's high literacy and complete dependency on natural resources helped communicate the message of resource conservation and management." And the effort is largely driven by women. By bringing the benefits and the knowledge of science to their people through Women Self-Help Groups, Haseena and Tajunnisa have helped secure a long-term future of the resources on which their families depend. Their home, Agatti, has, now become a model in partnership between people and the authorities.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Lakshadweep Islands, Where Paradise Beckons!

Its pure sands, lush greenery and  bright sunlight make the island of Minicoy one of Lakshadweep’s most sought-after tourism hotspots. Located on the southernmost tip of the Lakshadweep, the atoll contains two islands. The main island is located on the eastern and southeastern side of the lagoon, along the reef fringe. It is about 10 km long and about 1 km wide in its southern half; the northern half is a narrow sandspit, often less than 100 m wide.

Minicoy is almost completely covered with coconut trees. From the light blue shallow waters enclosing the island to the rich cultural heritage that has been preserved for centuries, this is a perfect destination for city-slickers looking to take a break.

An important attraction here is the pristine beauty of the beaches. “It is amazing how one is able to walk in the water for kilometres at a stretch,” says a Swedish tourist. “The waters of the Arabian Sea provide a kaleidoscope of rich flora and fauna. The beauty is breathtaking.”

Tuna is one of the atoll’s key offerings, and the omnipresent food of the locals. “Whether it is a vegetable dish or even a flour snack, the essence of tuna always prevails,” says a local woman. “It is also a source of our livelihood.” The men catch tuna from the sea and bring it to the island. The women dry the fish and sell it in the market. They have also mastered the skill of preparing varieties of food with tuna, including Sweet charkara, coconut products such as Thenga Charkara, Bofathfoli (a mix of rice and Karikku), Fola (Flour and Coconut), Bonda and Keenath (a mixture of rice powder, Charkkara and coconut milk). These are popular with locals as well as tourists.

The cultural traits of Minicoy differ from those of any other island in Lakshadweep. In fact, the local customs and lifestyle are more like those seen in the Maldives than in the rest of Lakshadweep. Women play a very important role here on the island that was originally known as ‘Mahiladu’ or the ‘women’s island’. You’ll find a matrilineal society here, with men living in either their mother’s or wife’s house. “The population is predominantly female,” says Shailendran, a Navodaya Vidyalaya teacher at Minicoy, who hails from Palakkad, and has researched the island’s history. “The husbands and sons are out at sea most of the time. So all the important decisions, including money transactions and the children’s upbringing, are undertaken by the women.”

Famous for holding one of the largest varieties of corals in the country, this tiny atoll has much to offer during a snorkelling dive. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to swim, or are water phobic; you could traverse for miles holding the hand of a local tourist guide who will pinpoint the fancies that lie under the sea. Blue, green, yellow, red and white corals make up most of the underwater life at Minicoy. And if you are enthusiastic about heritage and culture, then you would not want to miss the 150-feet tall lighthouse, constructed in 1882, during the British rule. It’s not often that you find history and geography co-existing, and at their best.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Elections 2014 - Phase II: Polling Begins In 91 Lok Sabha Seats Spread Across 11 States And 3 Union Territories

INNLIVE Election Teams
Voting begins in Delhi 
Voting is being held for seven Lok Sabha seats in the country's capital, seen as test of Aam Aadmi Party's perceived erosion of support base, BJP's claim of 'Modi wave' and assertion by Congress that it was regaining lost ground after drubbing in last assembly polls.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Spotlight: More Than 10,000 Indian Companies Have Defaulted On 'Provident Fund' Payments

By M H AHSSAN | INNLIVE

The numbers of defaulting companies and institutions is growing.

It should have taken 30 days for Sanjaya Kumar, 27, from Odisha to withdraw his father’s provident fund of Rs 40,000, the post-employment rainy-day or retirement stash that companies must compulsorily deduct from salaries.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Average Deposit In Accounts Under 'Jan Dhan Yojana' Scheme Doubled In 21 Months

By NEWS KING | INNLIVE

The number of accounts opened under the Prime Minister's financial inclusion programme quadrupled between September 2014 and May 2016.

The average deposit per account under Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana – a financial inclusion programme launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2014 – increased 118%, from Rs 795 in September 2014 to Rs 1,735 in May 2016, according to IndiaSpend's analysis of government data.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Indian Restaurants: The Unlikely Symbol Of Changing Balkans

By SANDEEP PUSHKAR | INNLIVE

A region in the grip of strife till 25 years ago is transforming culinarily.

Last summer, while travelling through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania, my wife and I saw the changing face of the Balkans and Indian migration in an unlikely place: the Indian restaurant. Well-patronised and Indian-owned, this establishment has sprouted in the farther-flung places of the region. We did not expect this.

Until the early 1990s, this wasn’t a region that endeared itself to potential immigrants. Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, was a virtual hermit. And across the border, Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro were employing repugnant forms of ethnic chauvinism to rip apart the Yugoslav federation.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Good Food: Fishy Tales From 'God's Own Country' Kerala

By Shanti Kutty | Kochi

If the fish on the menu of your hotel is not what you were looking for, what do you do? Complain to the chef? Change your hotel? If it is Chef Ashok Pillai, of Vivanta by Taj, Bekal, the newest of the Taj properties in northern Kerala, he will simply drive you down to the nearby Kappil Fishing Village, buy the fresh fish that you like straight off the boats as it were and have it cooked for you for lunch. And that's an experience you are unlikely to forget.

Contrary to my fears, the trip was not too early in the morning. In fact, it was after a leisurely breakfast over ragi dosas, rice kanjhi (a kind of local gruel) and rich filter-coffee that we set out for Pallikera, about 15 minutes from the resort.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

GRIM FACTS: WHAT'S BEHIND A GLASS OF MILK?

By M H Ahssan / Hyderabad

INN throws light on some grim details about the cow in India, the world’s largest producer of milk.

You know that child who throws a terrible tantrum over a glass of milk. How he kicks and screams and refuses to touch the stuff? Haven’t you wondered what the fuss is all about? After all, it’s just a glass of milk.

It turns out the child may just have the right idea. The business of producing milk — indeed, the multi-crore rupee cattle industry it’s a part of — is sustained by a process of relentless cruelty towards animals, from birth till death, with little letup. Cruelty compounded by poorly defined, poorly implemented methods and gross violations.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

WHY A POLICEMAN DOESN'T FILE AN FIR?

By Danish Raza (Guest Writer)

The Indian police often face the worst Indian justice system. The man in khaki has given up. Almost! Speaking on the wireless, he tells his bosses sitting in Delhi Police Headquarters to send another battalion of uniformed men. While his seniors contemplate the demand, he once again tries to negotiate with a group of 200 Jawarlal Nehru university students who are demanding the removal of his top boss, Delhi police commissioner Neeraj Kumar.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Now, Online 'God Will Bless' At Your Doorstep

Early morning on New Year’s Day last year, Goonjan Mall, 24, was on a bus from Gurgaon to Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan. He was on his way to Rani Sati Temple to offer sweets (prasad). Later, he would deliver prasad—edibles which devotees offer to their favorite gods—from this temple to his first customer at Online Prasad, his startup venture in the e-commerce sector.

On a similar trip to Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan, (the famous rat temple) in September 2011, where Mall waited patiently in the queue to offer prasad to the deity, it struck him that in reality visiting temples is an arduous task for many. He realized that if the process of getting prasad became easier, there would be several takers. Returning home, he talked to his friends  about it. The response he got was positive and he decided to start an online business of delivering prasad.

“I thought of easing the temple visit experience. I cannot bring a temple to people but I can bring blessings from temples in the form of sweets,” says Mall, Founder, Online Prasad. Since business was just at the initial planning level, he visited a few religious congresses to talk to people about the idea to get a first-hand understanding of people’s willingness and interest to source it online. “People got so excited that a few placed orders immediately. The company had not even started. I had not thought about the price points.”

In January 2012, he launched Online Prasad, self-funded through personal savings, which he believed would thrive on the back of religious sentiment. All this while Mall still held a job as a senior analyst at Bain & Company which he left in April last year, after starting Online Prasad.

Good deeds
When Online Prasad started taking orders, they had one temple (Rani Sati Temple) in their catalog. However, Mall’s frequent visits to temples across India brought four more to his venture by April 2012. “We have a tie-up with sweet vendors at each temple, who offer prasad to the deity and then send it by courier to the client,” Mall explains.

Currently they have a network of 16 temples across seven states in their ambit. Online Prasad also has a couple of persons posted at each temple (which are in their catalog) who, when an order is confirmed by the front team, deliver the prasad through courier after offering it to the deity. Apart from this, at a few temples, they also have a tie-up with priests to offer the sweet to the deity and then send it to the devotee who has placed the order.

Online Prasad uses the service of GharPay—another startup, which handles payment collections on behalf of the company they service before delivery of goods—to collect money from customers who confirm orders. “Ghar Pay has a transparent working style and we needed a service like this as many customers were not comfortable paying through debit card,” Mall says. Each delivery of prasad from any temple listed on their website, costs `501 for 500 grams.

In the first couple of months, delivering prasad was a challenge for the venture owing to the perishable nature of sweets. “With a little tweaking here and there in the packaging, we manage to keep sweets fresh for a longer time,” Mall explains. Uttam Dadhich, a priest at Balaji Temple in Salasar, Rajasthan and owner of a sweet shop, offers prasad at the temple once he gets an order confirmation from Online Prasad. He says sweets are packaged in a manner that they remain fresh for 15-20 days.

More than divine grace
In August 2012, Online Prasad joined The Morpheus, a Chandigarh-based accelerator that works with startups. Morpheus infused additional capital of `5 lakh of equity stake in the company. “We joined hands with Goonjan as we liked his idea and realized he was executing his plans well. The business idea made sense for The Morpheus as we thought religion is the most viral business in India,” says Sameer Guglani, Co-Founder, The Morpheus.

Guglani says he had advised Mall to go on a pilgrimage and visit as many temples, which he affirms Mall does consistently. “This resulted in gradually expanding his network of temples.”

Mall divulges little about his growth plan for Online Prasad. “This is a new business and not many people have done anything like this. So there is no road map yet and we are learning while experimenting,” he confesses.

Mall believes plans do not work in a startup and are prone to spontaneous changes given the nature of a nascent company. As of now he is happy with the customer response and the repeat orders he gets.

“We are getting known by word of mouth as this is an interesting service we are providing. People love to tell others that they ordered prasad of a particular temple from home.” Sanjay Agarwal, a resident from Bihar, has ordered prasad from seven to nine temples through Online Prasad. He says that barring the first delivery, his transactions were smooth and satisfactory.

“I placed an order after seeing their banner at one of the temples in Kodarma, Jharkhand. The order came in 10 days time but the box was open and it had only two sweets,” Agarwal remembers. However, when he informed them about the delivery, he got another package of sweets, in a couple of days.

“I can say it was from the temple I had ordered from as I have been there earlier and the sweets tasted just the same,” says Agarwal.

Growth metrics
The website sees daily traffic of 1,500-2,000 unique visitors, says Mall, and this figure goes down on some days. According to web information company Alexa, a California-based subsidiary of US-based e-commerce giant Amazon, which tracks traffic of websites globally, the portal ranks 222,176 globally and 25,219 in India.

Inevitably, the number of orders climb during festivals like Navratri, Janmashtami and New Year. “During Basant Panchami, the number of orders increase from 40 a month to more than 70,” Dadhich says.

Mall looks content when he tells us he has delivered prasad to almost all corners of India, except the Andaman and Lakshadweep islands. He has also received orders to gift prasad to relatives of customers living in Dubai and Singapore.

“This is a business which will always work in India given the number of temples we have and the opportunity it creates for us,” says Mall. Not surprising, as India is a land of religious fervor.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The India You Don’t Know

By M H Ahssan
Travellers in India usually have their itinerary all mapped out—it’s generally the tried and tested routes. The Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur) or Goa. And since unstable Kashmir is out, Kerala is in. That is an Indian holiday in a nutshell. There are a few who do special interest tours.

Lakshadweep and Andamans for the diving, Kipling Country for jungle safaris, the Buddhist pilgrim trail, the heritage train rides. But beyond these busy pockets, there is a vast treasure trove of secret places.

Talk to any Indian about a favourite childhood memory and he or she will wax poetic about their “native place.” Ponds they used to swim in, fruit eaten straight off the tree, family feasts, temple festivals. They may also speak of memorable holidays to special destinations, often very close to home but still unexplored, preserved as if in amber. Here are seven spots off the tourist map but well worth seeking out.

Lucknow, Uttar PradeshFor Mumbai-based model Ashutosh Singh, Lucknow is home. “Whenever I return, it’s as if I’ve never been away. There is an old world courtesy unique to my town.” He says that the frantic development that characterizes other Indian towns hasn’t altered Lucknow’s essential structure. The Old City still preserves the fading glories of this capital of the Nawabs of Awadh.

Towering gates, domes and arches define the cityscape. Even the Charbagh railway station looks like something out of the Arabian Nights. There are also charming havelis with intimate courtyards and interconnected rooms, just like the one where Ashutosh’s own family still stays. In the evenings people would stroll out unhurriedly to socialize over Lucknow’s famous chaat, sweets or paan.

Many of Lucknow’s iconic landmarks have made their presence felt in films like Umrao Jaan and Shatranj ke Khilari:

The Bara and Chota Imambaras, Rumi Darwaza, the labyrinthine Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Chattar Manzil and Jama Masjid. The Bara Imambara complex, which also houses the famous maze, is essentially a Shia Muslim shrine. This grand project was undertaken by 18th-century Nawab Asaf ud Daula to generate employment during a time of famine. While the common people worked during the day, the equally impoverished but unskilled nobility were secretly hired to destroy what was constructed during the night, so that the task would continue till the crisis was over. He was the general architect of much of what we see today. “The magnificent Lucknow University buildings are an architectural marvel, with a vast campus,” says Ashutosh, “I’m proud to have studied there.”
Delhi-based writer and filmmaker Vandana Natu Ghana fell in love with Lucknow while she was a student there. She recommends the old markets of Chowk and Aminabad for delicate shadow embroidery (chikan), rich zardozi and badla work in silver and gold threads. This bustling area also houses the legendary Tunde ke Kebab shop, over a century old. “You can base yourself in Lucknow and do some fascinating day trips out of the city. Barabanki, with its ancient Mahabharat connections, and Malihabad, famous for its mango orchards, are redolent of a bygone era and only 25 kilometres away from the city centre,” she suggests.

There is also the village of Kakori, which has given its name to silken smooth kebabs, created to indulge a toothless nawab. Lucknow is also very much a gourmet destination. Vandana, who has an Army background, advises that I not miss the British Residency, said to be haunted by ghosts of the 1857 Mutiny and siege, and the long drive through the cantonment area to the War Memorial, fringed by laburnum and gulmohar trees. “In summer, the road becomes a carpet of red and yellow flowers. People tend to visit Delhi, Agra and Varanasi and bypass Lucknow altogether. They don’t realize what they’re missing,” she sighs.

Kasauli and other cantonment townsI have always liked cantonments. They stave off rampant development, preserve heritage structures and are often in beautiful locations. If you’re interested in old churches, military graveyards and history, you will definitely have a sense of stepping back in time.

Married to officers of the Indian Army’s Gurkha Regiment, Naji Sudarshan and Daphne Chauhan live in Delhi, but have had homes in cantonment towns all over the country. “It is a world all its own,” says Naji. “We are a stone’s throw away from chaotic towns and crowded metros, but the instant you enter Army territory, everything is disciplined and beautifully maintained.” A cantonment town is a time machine. And still properly British. You need a dinner jacket to dine at clubs where the menus have been the same for generations. Gardeners maintain seasonal flowerbeds with military precision and since wooded areas are protected, you find an astounding variety of birdlife.

Self-contained cantonment towns like Ranikhet, Lansdowne and Deolali have a quaint character all their own. Foreigners are not permitted to visit Chakrata in Uttarakhand, which is a restricted access area while Mhow, near Indore, is actually an acronym for Military Headquarters of War. There are artillery and combat schools, sanatoriums, military colleges and regimental headquarters scattered through all of these.

Army families keep getting posted to far-flung stations, but everything remains reassuringly familiar within the cantonment. “So while you get to discover a different place every time you are transferred, the set-up never really changes. Cocooned within the Army, you couldn’t be more secure,” adds Naji.

Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh is one of Naji’s favourites, a flower basket of a hill station with its typical upper and lower mall roads, a delightful bazaar and Victorian cottages with roses around the door. It is also across the hill from Subathu, where the Gurkha regiment has its headquarters. Daphne returned recently to Wellington, home of the Madras Regimental Centre in the Nilgiri Hills, where they had been posted 20 years ago. “Nothing has changed. It is still the same sleepy town, with perfect weather. Yet it is close enough to the social whirl of Ooty,” says Daphne. “A good place to base yourself for treks and tea gardens. Not many hotels, but there are home stays and farms in Wellington as well as in nearby Coonoor.”
Ashtamudi, KeralaAshtamudi is a sprawling expanse of water, the second largest and deepest wetland ecosystem in Kerala.

Like an octopus, it is eight-armed (ashtamudi literally means eight locks of hair). Vembanad (which includes Kumarakom) is larger and much promoted by Kerala Tourism, but lesser known Ashtamudi has much to offer. All the canals and creeks of these backwaters converge at Neendakara, a hub of the state’s fishing industry.

For Naresh Narendran, a rubber businessman in nearby Kollam (formerly Quilon), Ashtamudi is home territory. “Unlike the other backwaters, you see dense stands of coconut trees, rather than the usual scene of rice paddies,” he says. “There are also sand bars in the estuary which fishermen use. From a distance, it looks like the man is actually walking on water.”

I remember visiting an uncle whose backyard extended to the water’s edge. We could buy karimeen (pearl spot fish) and river mussels straight off the fishing boats. For fresh coconut water or toddy, a man would be immediately despatched up a coconut palm. Much of what we ate was picked from the kitchen garden. Naresh himself is proud of his own “little farm” not far from here, where he experiments with varieties of banana, yam, fruit, and vegetables. This is quintessential, picture-postcard Kerala with palm-fringed lagoons and dense tropical vistas in a hundred shades of green. “You could rent a boat and go around,” suggests Naresh. “But there are commuter ferry services to Alleppey at a fraction of the cost, which will give you much the same views.”

The much-photographed Chinese-style fishing nets of Cochin are seen around Ashtamudi as well. You could use the ferries to visit neighbouring islands, villages and lesser-known towns in and around the backwaters, much as the locals do. There are temples, sacred groves and churches to discover. Water birds like cormorants and herons abound. “I love photographing the backwaters in its many moods. In the monsoon it is quite spectacular,” says Naresh. “A few resorts are coming up here but it is still largely unspoilt.”

Kollam itself is a historic port town worth exploring. The coir and cashew industries made it prosperous but it was well known on ancient trade routes. Marco Polo came here, as did Ibn Battuta, the famed Islamic scholar and traveller. Not far from Kollam town is Thangassery, a little Anglo-Indian enclave that was once settled by both Dutch and Portuguese colonizers. It has a layout reminiscent of towns in Goa, beaches and a stately lighthouse. But the Anglo Indian community which gave it much of its character has largely emigrated.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Telemedicine in Rural India

By M H Ahssan

In a developing country such as India, there is huge inequality in health-care distribution. Although nearly 75% of Indians live in rural villages, more than 75% of Indian doctors are based in cities. Most of the 620 million rural Indians lack access to basic health care facilities. The Indian government spends just 0.9% of the country's annual gross domestic product on health, and little of this spending reaches remote rural areas. The poor infrastructure of rural health centers makes it impossible to retain doctors in villages, who feel that they become professionally isolated and outdated if stationed in remote areas.

In addition, poor Indian villagers spend most of their out-of-pocket health expenses on travel to the specialty hospitals in the city and for staying in the city along with their escorts. A recent study conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion found that 89% of rural Indian patients have to travel about 8 km to access basic medical treatment, and the rest have to travel even farther.

Can Telemedicine Bridge the Divide?
Telemedicine may turn out to be the cheapest, as well as the fastest, way to bridge the rural–urban health divide. Taking into account India's huge strides in the field of information and communication technology, telemedicine could help to bring specialized healthcare to the remotest corners of the country.

The efficacy of telemedicine has already been shown through the network established by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which has connected 22 super-specialty hospitals with 78 rural and remote hospitals across the country through its geo-stationary satellites. This network has enabled thousands of patients in remote places such as Jammu and Kashmir, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Lakshadweep Islands, and tribal areas of the central and northeastern regions of India to gain access to consultations with experts in super-specialty medical institutions. ISRO has also provided connectivity for mobile telemedicine units in villages, particularly in the areas of community health and ophthalmology.

This encouraging early success in reaching patients—together with recent technological advances in India, such as the proliferation of fiber optic cables, the expanding bandwidth, and the licensing of private Internet service providers—has encouraged ISRO to set up an exclusive satellite, called HealthSAT, to bring telemedicine to the poor on a larger scale. The proposed satellite would not only serve remote areas of India but also those in other poor countries in Asia and Africa. In the government of India's current budget, INR102.8 billion has been allocated for health. HealthSAT is expected to cost only about 1% of this budget, that is, between INR600 million to INR1 billion. Each receiving terminal (where patients and rural doctors are present for audiovisual conferences) in the villages is expected to cost only about INR0.5 million. This telemedicine service will save some costs, for example the money that patients would have spent on travel and accommodation.

A telemedicine system in a small health centre consists of a personal computer with customized medical software connected to a few medical diagnostic instruments, such as an ECG or X-ray machine or an X-ray scanner for scanning X-ray photos. Through this computer, digitized versions of patients' medical images and diagnostic details (such as X-ray images and blood test reports) are dispatched to specialist doctors through the satellite-based communication link. The information, in turn, is received at the specialist centre where experienced doctors examine the reports, diagnose, interact with the patients (along with local doctors), and suggest appropriate treatment through video-conferencing. The entire system is relatively user-friendly, and only a short period of training is needed for doctors at super-specialty centres and rural health centres to handle the system. And hospital technicians can take care of the operation and maintenance of the equipment.

M. N. Sathyanarayan, Executive Director of Space Industries Development, and organising secretary of the 2005 International Telemedicine Conference, said: “In the pilot phase of the telemedicine project, ISRO is providing telemedicine equipment as well as making available the required bandwidth on INSAT satellites. The main criteria for funding by ISRO are that the hospitals have to be government-run—state or central—or belong to public sector industries. The hospitals have to provide infrastructure as well as doctors and technicians for operating the system.”

“ISRO also provides the equipment and bandwidth to private specialty hospitals and hospitals run by Trusts, if these hospitals provide free service, including specialty consultation to rural hospitals that have been connected in the telemedicine network of ISRO. These hospitals have to provide follow-up treatment to teleconsulted patients at government rates.”

In its telemedicine initiative, ISRO intends to connect different types of Indian health care centers in a series of phases. L. S. Sathyamurthy, Programme Director of Telemedicine at ISRO said: “There are 650 district hospitals, 3,000 taluk [subdistrict] hospitals, and more than 23,000 primary health centers in the country. We must aim to connect all these in phases—first the district hospital connected to speciality hospitals in major cities, then the taluk-level hospitals, and finally the primary health centers, so that nobody, irrespective of his location, is deprived of lifesaving specialty consultation.” When the network grows, it may even include private hospitals as well as hospitals in Asia and Africa. Although the network will initially be used for teleconsultation and postoperative consultation, in the future it may accommodate even telesurgery and telerobotics.

The Impact So Far
Starting with pilot projects in the year 2001, together with a “proof-of-concept” technology demonstration, ISRO has established the facility in nearly 60 remote hospitals, which have been connected with 20 super-specialty city hospitals. A report presented at the Rajya Sabha (the House of States, or Upper House) of the Parliament of India suggested that the initial results of India's telemedicine initiative are encouraging. The report states that several telemedicine projects in India have been successfully interlinked—for example, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands telemedicine project links the G. B. Pant Hospital at Port Blair with Shri Ramachandra Medical College and Research Institute, Chennai, while in Karnataka, Narayana Hrudayalaya is connected to District Hospital, Chamarajnagar and Vivekananda Memorial Hospital, Saragur.

Adding to these early reports of successful linkage, there are also reports that telemedicine has helped to save lives in crowded pilgrimage centres and military outposts connected with mobile telemedicine units. For example, the Amrita Telemedicine Programme reports that on 13 January 2003, the programme's first remote telesurgery procedure was performed. The Amrita Emergency Care Unit at Pampa was able to save the life of a pilgrim by a telesurgical procedure using the local telemedicine facility. The cardiothoracic surgeon guided the procedure remotely, and the pediatric cardiologist at Pampa performed the procedure. Mobile telemedicine units were also rushed to the coasts and islands of India after the 2004 tsunami to provide medical consultation and relief to the affected people.

There are other indications that the telemedicine initiative may have had a positive impact. ISRO's annual report for 2004–2005 states: “More than 25,000 patients have so far been provided with teleconsultation and treatment. An impact study conducted on a thousand patients has revealed that there is a significant cost saving in the system since the patients avoid expenses towards travel, stay, and for treatment at the hospitals in the cities”. Dr. Devi Shetty, a cardiac surgeon and the Chairman of Narayan Hrudayalya, a hospital that has served thousands through telemedicine, said: “We have treated 17,400 patients using telemedicine connectivity in various parts of India, mainly from rural India, and [a] few patients from outside India. We use both satellite as well as ISDN connectivity. Now, with the Indian Space Research Organisation, which is our associate in this project giving us the satellite connection free of cost, we have a [larger] game plan of offering health care to African and other Asian countries.”

The Challenges and Controversies
The telemedicine initiative in India has not been free of challenges and controversies. “There are inevitable difficulties associated with the introduction of new systems and technologies,” according to Sathyamurthy. “There are some who needlessly fear that they will lose their jobs. Although the systems are user-friendly, there are others who are affected by the fear of the unknown in handling computers and other equipment. There is a feeling that the initial investment is high and hence financially not viable.” In addition, there may be technical hitches, such as low bandwidth and lack of interoperability standards for software.

Discussing HealthSAT, Dr. D. Lavanian, an Indian expert in telemedicine affiliated with the Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation, Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad, India, said: “[HealthSAT] is excellent, but some questions remain. Presently HealthSAT connectivity is expected to be given free of charge to certain government entities. This is unsatisfactory as a large percentage of health care in India is by private entities.” Dr. Lavanian added: “On my requesting to ISRO to open up the same to the private health industry, of course for a fee, I have not received any positive answer. This means that a large percentage of the population of India will be denied healthcare via telemedicine.”

These difficulties can probably be surmounted. In the late 1980s, when computers came to India, similar kinds of problems were seen in different parts of the country. That is, people showed technophobia and expressed their fears that computers would cause unemployment and would also be prohibitively expensive. But the country overcame these challenges and fears, and eventually became a superpower in the field of knowledge and information technology.

With the aid of HealthSAT, India's telemedicine initiative has the potential to provide specialized health care to millions of poor Indians. This potential was well summed up by Dr. Devi Shetty: “In terms of disease management, there is [a] 99% possibility that the person who is unwell does not require [an] operation. If you don't operate you don't need to touch the patient. And if you don't need to touch the patient, you don't need to be there. You can be anywhere, since the decision on healthcare management is based on history and interpretation of images and chemistry … so technically speaking, 99% of health-care problems can be managed by the doctors staying at a remote place—linked by telemedicine.”

Monday, June 01, 2009

INDIA TOURISM: Going Beyond Borders

By M H Ahssan

As the overcrowded plains of India wither in the heat of a merciless summer, the nation’s annual season of travel is ready with irresistible temptations. It is not so much stymied by the ongoing global economic slowdown as it is aided and abetted by superb discounts and better value for the same money. “We are at a very unique point in time,” says Rakshit Desai, executive director for travel at Thomas Cook India, in Delhi. “Holidays are cheaper than they were last year and they are cheaper than they will be next year.”

The trends are already clear. While traditional hotspots in Europe (France, Switzerland and the UK) continue to attract significant numbers of Indian tourists, the South-East Asia (Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore) segment heads the charts, thanks to its proximity, affordability and diversity. Anyone wanting a quick getaway can just buy a tour package from a local travel agent and get a visa on arrival at, say, Thailand. “We are promoting Thailand’s excellent value for money under the Amazing Thailand, Amazing Value theme,” says Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, director of Tourism Authority of Thailand, in New Delhi. In 2009, Thailand expects to receive 550,000 visitors from India.

The top picks are culture trails to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Macau, the fabulous beaches of Pengang and Langkawi in Malaysia and Krabi in Thailand, and the exotic appeal of New Zealand, Scandinavia (Finland, Denmark, Sweden), Ireland and Scotland. On the value-for-money front, Philippines, Hong Kong and Dubai are scoring well. The US is back in the reckoning as a very desirable destination because of the exceptional value the dollar is able to fetch now. Surprisingly, as opposed to the attractions of America’s big cities (New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles), it is Florida’s Miami that has emerged recently as a well-liked hub for tours of the US.

As the overcrowded plains of India wither in the heat of a merciless summer, the nation’s annual season of travel is ready with irresistible temptations. It is not so much stymied by the ongoing global economic slowdown as it is aided and abetted by superb discounts and better value for the same money. “We are at a very unique point in time,” says Rakshit Desai, executive director for travel at Thomas Cook India, in Delhi. “Holidays are cheaper than they were last year and they are cheaper than they will be next year.”

The trends are already clear. While traditional hotspots in Europe (France, Switzerland and the UK) continue to attract significant numbers of Indian tourists, the South-East Asia (Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore) segment heads the charts, thanks to its proximity, affordability and diversity. Anyone wanting a quick getaway can just buy a tour package from a local travel agent and get a visa on arrival at, say, Thailand. “We are promoting Thailand’s excellent value for money under the Amazing Thailand, Amazing Value theme,” says Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, director of Tourism Authority of Thailand, in New Delhi. In 2009, Thailand expects to receive 550,000 visitors from India.

The top picks are culture trails to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Macau, the fabulous beaches of Pengang and Langkawi in Malaysia and Krabi in Thailand, and the exotic appeal of New Zealand, Scandinavia (Finland, Denmark, Sweden), Ireland and Scotland. On the value-for-money front, Philippines, Hong Kong and Dubai are scoring well. The US is back in the reckoning as a very desirable destination because of the exceptional value the dollar is able to fetch now. Surprisingly, as opposed to the attractions of America’s big cities (New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles), it is Florida’s Miami that has emerged recently as a well-liked hub for tours of the US.

Shore Leave
Beaches would probably win the most laid-back destinations award, if ever there was such a thing. Indians, these days, are bestowing the best beach holidays title on the Key West in the US, the nearby Maldives and Mauritius, and Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia. “They are off-beat destinations and more experience-centred,” says Thottathil of Cox & Kings. For instance, Langkawi showcases some of the prettiest beaches, mangrove tours, island cruises and stunning experiences such as the Pantai Cenang, a walk-through oceanarium with over 5,000 marine and freshwater species.
The really well-heeled, though, favour the Mediterranean, with its trendy hotspots in south of France (Nice, Provence, Toulon, Saint Tropez, Cote d’ Azur), Greece and even the nouveau chic Italian Riviera. Down Under, it’s the Bondi beach outside Sydney and the Surfer’s Paradise on the Gold Coast that are most loved. Honeymooners, on the other hand, favour places such as Tasmania.

“Indian tourists have graduated from sight-seeing and shopping to more novel experiences such as snorkelling, self-driving and adventure sports,” says Jain of Tourism Australia.

In Thailand, since many Indians have already been to Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya, they are actively seeking the less-unexplored charms of Koh Samui, Krabi and Koh Chang. “We are also receiving more high-end visitors who want exclusive services such as chauffeur-driven limos and pool villas,” says TAT’s Ayudhya.

Another name that keeps popping up this season is Macau. Sitting on the western edge of the Pearl Estuary, this unlikely part of the People’s Republic of China is a beguiling mix of east and west, rich with ancient Chinese culture and Portuguese colonial influences.

It’s not so much a beach holiday as it is a vacation that offers good beaches apart from a whole lot of other things including, naturally, its famous casinos.

That said, it would be remiss not to mention that some of the world’s best beaches — and resorts by which to enjoy them — are right here in India. Marari, Poovar, Kovalam, Bekal, Alappuzha and Varkala in Kerala, Alibag, Ratnagiri and Murud-Janjira in Maharashtra, Pondicherry and Tranquebar all by themselves, Goa’s fabulous coastline (Anjuna, Calangute, Dona Paula, Miramar, Bogmalo, Palolem, Majorda), the crystalline waters of Lakshadweep (Bangaram, Agatti, Kadmat, Kalpeni, Kavaratti and Minicoy) and Andaman and Nicobar (Port Blair, Havelock) islands, and the Om Beach in Karnataka’s tiny Gokarna, now also home to a couple of high-end resorts, all display the sure signs of being happening tourist destinations. They don’t necessarily come cheap but the experience can be entirely international.

Take A Hike
The adventurous are doing a great deal more than climbing every mountain. The Swiss Alps remains the Indian adventure enthusiast’s paradise. There are many picture-postcard options here that offer great local stays that enable the entire family to enjoy. One of them is to cycle from Switzerland’s Romanshorn along the Lake Constance to any town on a handy bike trail, passing by fruit orchards, ferry rides, spa towns, plentiful museums and quaint towns — all of which can be rounded off with a spot of skiing at St Moritz and a ride on the Glacier Express rail line from the world-famous resort town to Zermatt. Flyer bikes, available at Romanshorn railway station, come with a little battery that makes it easy to pedal uphill and on long stretches — anybody can do it, kids included.

With Nepal’s many easily accessible hikes invalidated by the incessant political turmoil in that country, the Indian traveller is shifting his craving for adventure to another scenic neighbouring country — Bhutan, which ends, it is said, when a stone rolling off a mountain stops. This beautiful land of steep climbs, dense forests, charming monasteries and sleepy villages is full of luxury travel experiences to its west and pristine budget travel to its east.

There are other favourites in the trip-of-a-lifetime category: the best place to bungee jump remains Australia’s varied and rugged terrain; the expression, though, is from New Zealand. The coast of Queensland has some of the world’s most celebrated bungee jumping sites — among them is the 50-metre high AJ Hackett tower, in north Cairns, which overlooks the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. Look out for full moon celebrations, and packages that range from the ‘classic’ to the ‘unlimited’ — even video filming of your adventure is handy.

And for the truly intrepid, there is nothing that quite beats a climb up an active volcano in the world’s greatest volcano country — Indonesia. Undoubtedly formidable, Mount Bromo (also nearby are Batok and Kursi) is also astonishingly accessible. Located at the centre of the Tengger Massif, an eye-popping 10-km wide sea of lava sand, Bromo straddles a national park not far from the bustling city of Jogjakarta. A trek up to its picturesque crater adds a whole new perspective to life.

Jungle Book
At Indian wildlife parks, which come with luxury resorts in the stressed-out buffer zones and rudimentary forest lodges inside the sanctuaries themselves, sighting increasingly rare species is entirely a game of chance. An African safari, though, operates at a different level altogether.

With almost their entire tourist economy tailored around their great national parks, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa are not only well-equipped to handle tourists, nowhere else in the world would you find such a diversity of animal life visible at such close quarters.

Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski provides an evocative glimpse of this in his African memoir The Shadow of the Sun, which has a chapter devoted to a journey from Dar es Salaam to Kampala. “We drove onto the enormous plain of the Serengeti, the largest concentration of wild animals on earth. Everywhere you look, huge herds of zebras, antelopes, buffalo, giraffes. And all of them are grazing, frisking, frolicking, galloping. Right by the side of the road, motionless lions; a bit farther, a group of elephants; and farther still, on the horizon, a leopard running in huge bounds. It’s all improbable, incredible.” Widlife experiences in India can never hope to match this sort of magic.

In Africa, Indian tourists appreciate the improved chances to see the Big Five (in South Africa’s Kruger National Park that would be the elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion but even here the big cats can be elusive). Other universally famous legends include the eponymous Serengeti, as well as the Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara in Tanzania, and the exceptional Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara in Kenya.

Accommodation is wide-ranging and includes caravan and tent campsites that have restaurants and shops with basic supplies, bungalows, family cottages and guest houses as well as luxury high-end properties. On some package tours, it is possible to camp, hike, cycle, river-raft and even take a hot air balloon or a chopper over the sweeping treasures of a national park.

But, “much as it is tempting to conclude that more and more Indians are re discovering nature by travelling for wildlife safaris to Africa, in truth, this sector has seen a significant rise in bookings because of the IPL Twenty20 matches — cricket fans who have travelled to catch the games live are quite willing to book a tour or two to one of Africa’s fabled national parks for a spot of wildlife watching,” says Thomas Cook’s Desai. The call of the wild rings far louder in Africa.

Discover The Deep Blue Sea
“A cruise offers everything that Indians look for in a holiday,” says Desai of Thomas Cook. “It is a predictable expenditure product, multiple destinations are covered, the entire experience is very luxurious, and there is a great variety in food and drink.” So fantastic are modern luxury liners that “a cruise typically exceeds the accommodation expectations of a traveller”, he adds.

Indeed, the largest cruise liners are veritable floating cities with something for everyone — from classical music concerts to four-deck-high water slides. Multiple restaurants ply food round the clock — most South-East Asian cruises that draw large contingents of travellers from India not only have Indian food but also vegetarian and Jain options. The day’s schedules are packed to the brim with relentless excitement. There are spas, pubs, discothèques, mahjong parlours, health clubs, casinos, live bands, swimming pools, libraries, games, costume evenings and the aforementioned restaurants. The shore excursions, which offer synopsised sight-seeing at exotic ports of call, have passengers spending their vacation in Penang on one day and Phuket the next. There are also super luxury river boats and expedition cruises to commune quietly with the sea, or even spa cruises that rejuvenate guests as they sail.

While the most number of Indian tourists cruise South-East Asia (Singapore serves as the most convenient hub), the Mediterranean (possible itineraries include Barcelona, Marseilles, Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Tunis, Palma de Mallorca), Scandinavia (Copenhagen, Kiel, Stockholm, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, or Dubrovnik, Istanbul, Izmir, Olympia, Bari and Venice), and the eastern and western Caribbean cruises also draw a discerning and dedicated clientele. The surprise winner, though, is a cruise to Alaska (ex-Seattle to Ketchikan, Tracy Arm Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Prince Rupert and British Columbia), which draws top money for its value as an exotic experience.

Keep these tips in mind while booking a cruise: a fun-filled cruising experience is best enjoyed when you are feeling energised and fit. Going direct from airport to harbour after a sleepless night flight and some jet lag is not such a good idea. If you are sailing in South-East Asia, look out for better value deals from the Singapore and Malaysia tourism boards. Examine the offer carefully: sometimes, meals and beverages at only a few of the restaurants on board are included in the ticket price and, almost always, excursions cost extra.

Falling Off The Map
The most exciting segment for tourists and industry insiders alike is that which is off the beaten path. Tour operators that BW spoke to say that Indian travellers have now also grown into two distinct segments: the seekers of exotic and novel experiences, and those who still want to travel to the tried and tested.
The new, evolved outbound Indian tourist is “internet savvy, more willing to experience local cuisines, is adventurous and ecologically sensitive, and enjoys wildernesses”, says Bharati of Finpro. The high-visibility Visit Finland and Finnair promos, which included media campaigns, seminars, road shows and freebie trips, spotlit the charms of this faraway land, drawing the second type of Indian traveller.

In surreal Finland, where the Sun does not set for almost two months, it is possible to cross the Arctic Circle and read a book by a lakeside at midnight. It helps that there is no language problem as English is commonly spoken, the atmosphere is virtually zero pollution, vast swathes of the land are inhabited by very few people, and the infrastructure is very highly developed.

On the other hand, shopping, food, wildlife parks and historical sites are the reason why Australia lures travellers every year. Festivals — such as the forthcoming Vivid Sydney, the southern hemisphere’s biggest international music and light fest, held in May-June — also attract Indian tourists. It helps that Tourism Australia’s Baz Luhremann-directed ‘Come Walkabout’ global campaign, based on the movie Australia, has attracted attention. Ireland, Scotland and Korea are other new entrants into this high-stakes arena.

Niche tailor-made itineraries include Holy Land tours that begin from Amman along the ancient King’s Highway stop by Madaba (the ‘City of Mosaics’), the Bahai shrine in Haifa, Golan Hills, Nazareth, Jericho, the sacred sites of Jerusalem city, Bethlehem and Sinai, ending with a round-up of Egypt’s historical wonders around Cairo.

The smart marketing of international destinations in a market with as vast a potential as India succeeds not only because of glamorous advertising but also because “the underlying product works”, notes Desai. “Marketing can take you only so far and no further. The Incredible India campaign, which is fabulously marketed, has inherent limitations, particularly with reference to tourist infrastructure. The sustained interest in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore is also because they maintain constant quality in the overall infrastructure, visa processes, and accommodation and transport — what they say is what you get.”

See France The French Way
Been there and done the eiffel tower, EuroDisney, Louvre and Champs Elysees already? Don’t write off France from your travel map just yet. France-born and bred Caroline Juneja, through her website www.francedecoded.com, promises to show you her country the way only a local can. Juneja chalks out itineraries (including special ones for kids) that allow you to drive through France, stay in amazing castles, tour vineyards, and enjoy nature in luxurious comfort, if that’s what you wish. It is a France you might never see otherwise: at the Puy du Fou Historical Park, for instance, events of French history are recreated with live shows in period villages. Ordering a pizza and soft drink in a 10th century tavern can be huge fun. Shows feature Roman gladiators (a whole stadium has been recreated), the 100-year war of the Knights Templar, the legendary musketeers, and Vikings invading on their drakkars: the use of birds of prey in the Middle Ages is amazingly beautiful.

Caroline’s accrobranches, literally translated as ‘holding to branches’, an obstacle course set 50 ft high amidst the splendid oak trees of a forest, is another big hit with kids. For water lovers, Provence’s gorgeous Verdon offers another not-for-the-faint-hearted activity: canyoning down the river’s waterfalls and gorges without a raft.

Via Ferrata is for those who don’t mind heights — this mountain-and-cliff route is equipped with fixed cables, ladders and bridges. For art lovers, there is the Avignon and its astonishing Popes’ Palace, ‘just down the road’ from the perched villages of the Luberon, where one can retrace the steps of some of the greatest artists of all time — Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne. But if France can only mean romance, head for Grasse, just off the French Riviera, where you can actually visit one of many perfumeries and spend an afternoon making your very own fragrance to take home as a special souvenir — in fact, they note down all your secret ingredients, so you can order your signature perfume for the rest of your life.

Caroline’s other secret is her network of B&Bs (Bed and Breakfast) along the way. A renovated mill, a XVIIth century manor house or a traditional Provence farmhouse. And for breakfast, a taste of the best of French breads, croissants and home-made jams.

And all this ranging from E100 to E150 a night for two with breakfast. A car for five days will range between E260 and E430 depending on the car, and activities vary per person between E25 for an afternoon of Accrobranches, to E60 for Via Ferrata.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On a wing and a vote prayer

By M H Ahssan

Is it a whirly-bird or a plane? It’s the cash-rich Indian political league flying high this poll season

Forget recession, it’s boom time for helicopter and aircraft charter companies. The ongoing poll season will see top leaders of all parties criss-cross the country over the next three months and the charter industry is looking at raking in upwards of Rs 200 crore.

Chopper and small plane rentals have shot up. The costliest private planes that cost about Rs 3 lakh an hour have been hired from ‘friendly’ industrial houses for top leaders.

Helicopters, that offer unparalleled connectivity with the ease of landing anywhere including playgrounds or roads, are predictably in maximum demand. The rates for choppers, say industry sources, is upwards of Rs 60,000 per hour. They can go up to Rs 2.5 lakh for twin-engine ones, if some leader desperately wants this flying machine on a tight day.

There are two other categories of flying machines in demand: Small turboprop planes that can do up to 600km in less than two hours; but the most expensive ones are the jet aircraft hired only for top leaders like Sonia Gandhi and L K Advani. “Helicopters represent 60% of the total demand and will do several thousand hours of flying in poll season. Small turboprop and jet planes will be 30% and 10% of the total demand,” said Manav Singh of Club One Air, one of the pioneers of this field.

As a result, big, small and sarkari players are all having a field day. John Kuruvilla of Deccan Charter — a JV of Captain Gopinath and Vijay Mallya — said the company has 10 choppers. “As of now, four are on election charter and from April 1, six will be flying politicians. Four of the 10 choppers are with long-term clients and can’t be pulled out,” Kuruvilla said.

The Bell 206 can seat four passengers, fly them to a range of 500km and is going for Rs 75-80,000 an hour. Deccan’s faster Bell 407 is going for Rs 90,000 to Rs 1 lakh an hour. The five-seater twin engine ‘Squirrel’ has gone for a cool Rs 1.1 lakh per hour, he added.

Chopper operators say the demand has risen in past one month. Parties who held talks with chopper firms last month but didn’t finalise terms are now coming back with at least 20% higher offers to get these machines. Jyoti Gupta of Monarch Aviation that currently has three Enstrom-480 B choppers said: “The demand is very good and no number of choppers would be enough with any one at this moment.”

Apart from political parties, government agencies are also hiring choppers. “In areas like Lakshadweep and Andamans, ballot boxes have to be flown to islands,” said R K Tyagi, chief of state-owned Pawan Hans.

While the mid-segment of small turboprop planes is being used for flying up to 600km, the most expensive remains the jets being hired by top leaders. “Sonia and Advani will be using the latest Falcon 2000 that is being hired from a big south Indian company,” said sources. These flying castles in air cost about Rs 3 lakh an hour. All in all, the aviation industry — reeling under slowdown and high oil prices — is heaving a sigh of relief.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Exclusive: Spot The Indian!

There is a big, wide, glossy world out there benchpressing our idea of what it means to appear Indian. The writer maps its elaborate rulebook

In Delhi, Anu Thomas, a mother of three children, was horrified when her five-year-old daughter, Meenal, came home from school one day and asked her, “When I grow up, will I have to be a maid?” Meenal’s largely upmarket north Indian classmates had told her that day that someone who was her colour must be a streetchild and would grow up to work in someone’s house. Thomas knew that there was no one in these children’s lives who was dark, who was Meenal’s colour and held a position of power. Neither were there figures in popular culture that her curly-haired daughter resembled or could look up to. If you imagined a globalising India would bring Meenal a greater range of rolemodels, you are wrong. Globalisation has only amplified many of the old biases in India, such as the one that values fair skin. It has also created an army of clones.

In our electronic cocoons, increasingly, we each seek and understand reality through the media and not through our windows. Under these conditions, if all our exposure is to People Like Us, our ability to accept difference shrinks, our discomfort with those even marginally different from us increases. As it stands, in our world, those who can join the army of clones feel smug. Those who cannot, feel anxious.

This was easy enough to see in January in a Lucknow mall. While other stores in the mall stand near-deserted, in one clothing store the racks are teetering with the press of journalists, their skins grey from late nights and poor nutrition. In the centre of this mob are a dozen beautiful, young Amazons — the girls shortlisted for the Lucknow round of Miss India 2009. They are all dressed in white t-shirts and jeans. Only a couple are from Lucknow, the others are from nearby Meerut and Kanpur. Shard-sharp laughter and strangely automaton lines in careful English and rattling Hindi can be heard: “I want to rock the world! I am a perfect package of beauty and brains.” A journalist asks a stunningly pretty girl what her weaknesses are. She responds with a gesture sweeping up and down her body, “Look at me, can you see any flaws?” It is a remarkable, peacock display of confidence.

The beauty contest is a rare occasion when these girls are allowed, encouraged even, to talk about their bodies to (often hostile) strangers. While they wait for their interviews, their sidelong glances assess each other as competitors in a corporate deal might, with smiles and sharp pleasantries. A couple of hours later, the contest is over. Three girls are picked out of the dozen for the next level of the competition.

One of them is a 19-year-old from Lucknow. Manisha (name changed) is one of the tallest in the group, easily the fairest, her lipstick scarlet on her white face. She bears a striking resemblance to Kareena Kapoor. Later, in her mother’s perfectly appointed living room — replete with Jamini Roy prints, — she tells us it is this resemblance that people constantly remarked on which started her on the idea of beauty contests. She shows us pictures of herself, a few years younger and a bit rounder.

Manisha’s mother is a surprise. A senior civil servant, she urges us, “Write in your magazine that girls should think of things other than looks. They should think of their careers, of developing their minds.” While the affection between mother and daughter seems genuine and deep, Manisha comes off looking bad in comparison to her articulate, intelligent mother. Manisha, that evening, understandably could think of nothing except her first beauty contest. But she also seemed genuinely unable to stop thinking that her skin colour had conferred a special destiny upon her, that she was made for greater things. The opposite of what Meenal felt.

Beauty queens are encouraged to think of themselves as role models so it was easy to ask Manisha what she would do when she was one. What would she advise people who were short or dark? Very seriously she replied, “Not everyone can be beautiful but they should try.” Manisha clearly equated short and dark with ugliness. We waited to see if she will qualify this line of thought. She didn’t.

Watching Manisha and her fellow contestants one would imagine this is a nation of identically tall, pale women with pin-straight hair. All but one had been startlingly fair. The lone exception, a girl a half-shade darker, had been visibly unhappy, no journalist kneeling at her feet, no camera flashing in her face. She felt herself outside the magic circle, outside where existed the dark, short and hence, ordinary.

Our eyes are naturally tugged towards the beautiful and the grotesque. No political correctness can change that. Trouble is, the media is now training us to look at more and more people as grotesque, fewer as beautiful. This is one of the dangers of the clone wars.

Dr Partho Majumdar, Human Genetics Department, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata says that India has over 100 distinct genetic groups — one of the widest gene pools in the world. From Arunachal Pradesh to Lakshadweep to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Himachal Pradesh, Indians look extremely different from each other, our lives are extremely different from each other. But if you were a Martian trying to understand India through popular media you would not see this abundance, and you certainly would not believe Dr Majumdar. A Martian would assume from advertisements that Indians are a nation of tall, fair, Hindu, affluent people who live in cities. A Martian would assume that most Indians are only a hair’s breadth away in appearance from white people.

In a political climate that is increasingly intolerant of difference, a world where our selves are shaped by the image, the shiny surfaces of popular culture are important, and not just for the Martian. It is the shiny surface that is creating our understanding of who an Indian is. And it is on the shiny surface that you see the image of the Indian being homogenised. Santosh Desai, media commentator, says, “I think we are seeing two trends. One, a narrowing of the range of appearances towards a templated look. And two, a seemingly opposite trend where all those who look different are set up as deliberately funny or strange. These ‘funny’ faces are advertising’s stock of ‘real’ people. In effect, this reinforces the template.”

Last year America’s stated desire for diversity saw its biggest challenge. Would it elect a biracial president? In late 2008, when Barack Obama was in the middle of his campaign, an apocryphal story began to do the rounds. A volunteer canvassing for Obama in western Pennsylvania asks a housewife which candidate she intends to vote for. She yells to her husband to find out. From the interior of the house, he calls back, “We’re voting for the nigger!” The housewife turns to the canvasser and calmly repeats her husband’s statement. Liberal raconteurs told this story as a hair-raising but amusing one. Obviously, blatant bigots were voting for Obama. But for liberals themselves, Obama’s colour and race were unavoidably front and centre.

In India, religious and linguistic identity deeply defines political life. The idea of pretending blindness to identity is absurd. However, Indian popular culture does not reflect our wide differences and is increasingly forcing us to present a uniform formulaic face to the world. And to ourselves. Here are some basic rules to understand who the cloned Indian of popular culture is.

RULE 1: All Indians are north Indian unless proven otherwise
Filmmaker Navdeep Singh once said: “The problem for Bollywood is this. Who is its natural audience? Who speaks Hindi? Nobody does. When I had two minutes of Hindi as it’s spoken anywhere in Rajasthan in Manorama Six Feet Under, people complained that it’s a dialect they couldn’t understand. So we have movies about nowhere for people from nowhere.”

While ‘place’ is arriving at a glacial pace to Bollywood scripts, Desai points out that Hindi cinema’s default centre of the world has always lain in fair north India, and old Hindi films were always populated by people called Vicky Arora or Rahul Malhotra.

Of the 28 states and seven union territories of India, the people we see in popular culture are broadly from the Hindi-speaking states. South Indians in advertising land — that fictional universe that dominates our imagination and designs our emotions — speak Brahmin Tamil, bear lavish sandalwood paste marks and speak exclusively in a comic manner. In a country where it is a tired cliché that everyone south of the Vindhyas is Madrasi, large swathes are simply invisible. When did anyone see a character in popular culture from the Andamans or from Lakshadweep? Actor Nandita Das says, “I have met so many Oriyas who don’t tell anyone that they are Oriya because they are tired of explaining what that is. They just pretend to be Bengali until I catch some inflection or accent. When I tell them I am from Orissa, they relax. But lots of people don’t know about the state, don’t know what we speak, what we eat.”

Prahlad Kakkar, ad filmmaker, says, “In advertising the standard Indian male is tall, hulking, north Indian and laddoo-faced. There is a strongly conditioned response to that type of appearance as an ideal. So even exceptionally handsome men of another type, such as Danny Dengzongpa or Kelly Dorjee will either have shortlived careers or careers as villains. The Aryan model: the chikna gora (smooth and fair) is the only thing that is considered aspirational. Cricket is maybe the one area from which young men who look different still make it into advertising. Look at MS Dhoni for instance.”

Jaideep Sahni’s script for Chak De! India was an unprecedented act of courage in Bollywood. His gallant young female hockey players came from states across the country. His hero, a shockingly subdued Shah Rukh, only took to the soapbox to emphasise the need to bury regional squabbles for the sake of the nation. In movie halls across the country audiences applauded the scene in which the men who harassed Mary and Molly (the players from Manipur and Mizoram) were beaten up by the whole team. But this was Chak De! India’s only narrative for Mary and Molly, their eventual acceptance as ‘not foreign’ by the rest of the team.

As for Soi Moi and Rani, the players from Jharkhand, their lines were limited to saying, ‘Ho’, ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘Happy Diwali’ because ‘they were from a jungle school’. Love, pride, rivalry, parental expectations — all these possible motivations do not exist for these four characters. It would be interesting to reimagine a Chak De! India where the bulk of the narrative action is not held by girls from Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Maharashtra.

Twenty-four-year-old Sushila Lakra is a real-life hockey player from Ranchi distrct who plays fullback for India. She says she is still waiting to find her people’s faces on celluloid screens in India. “We tribal players fail to fit into contemporary ideas of glamour,” she says. After a moment, she snaps: “And I don't want to make my skin fair to be considered glamorous and counted as a mainstream Indian.” Her teammate Sarita Lakra says her childhood years were spent wondering how the movies could always be about happy and beautiful people. Sarita says, “They made me feel little and nonexistent. They still make me feel little.”

RULE 2: All Indians are Hindu unless proven otherwise
Hindi cinema has always had a bit of a tough time with its hearty representation of minorities. Christians are pious, calling out to the Lord as they drink themselves steadily into a stupor, while wearing strange frocks. Parsis, until very recently, always drove large vintage cars, and always appeared in time to save the hitchhiking heroine. But from the time it was part of the nation-building project to its current navel-gazing stage, Hindi cinema’s great wrestling match has been with the portrayal of the good/bad Muslim. Few movies have escaped falling into this steely trap, despite hugely influential stars in Bollywood being Muslim.

In advertising, these epic struggles are avoided by neatly avoiding Muslim characters. It is unimaginable that the character who is refreshed by a cup of coffee, buys a new car, insurance or diamond jewellery is anyone other than Rahul Malhotra. He cannot be Rafique, for instance. And this is taken for granted. Subaltern historian MSS Pandian points wryly to the hole you can fall in while trying to portray minorities. “When the government tried to do those national integration ads, it created new problems. How do you show a Muslim? The ads dressed the Muslim man in a fez. But Muslims in India have never worn a fez.”

Policing — official, moral and otherwise — depends largely on what looks ‘normal’. Nithin Manayath, a college lecturer in Bengaluru, talks of being accosted on the street by the police every time security is tightened. His straggly beard and long, narrow kurta has made him suspect in recent times. Last year, human rights activists and liberal circles were outraged when Muslim boys arrested as suspects for a series of blasts were paraded by the police with the kuffiyeh — Arab headgear — over their faces.

RULE 3: All Indians are fair, except when they don’t try
In the last few months, a photoshopped image of Barack Obama in a parodied Fair and Lovely ad became a popular internet meme. The milky white Obama was disorienting. While colour discrimination has been periodically debated in Indian media, the debates are getting quieter. “What about Bipasha? What about Konkona?” comes the quick response if one asks where the dark actors are. Actor Nandita Das says that 30 movies down the line, people still clumsily attempt to compliment her by saying, “I told my niece that she can also do movies. Doesn’t matter that she is dark.” Das says she has rarely been discussed in an article without a phrase addressing her colour.

Dusky is the word of choice, because dark would be pejorative. (It is similar to the American fashion business calling women curvy when they want to say fat. To have a sense of who has been called curvy lately, look up Jessica Alba.) Das is one of the few women in Bollywood who can actually be called dark. For the most part, any heroine darker than a hospital bed is called dusky. In recent times, Chitrangda Singh, Mugdha Godse, Deepika Padukone, Sonali Kulkarni have all been called dusky by the media, in gushing self-congratulatory appreciation of the sultry beauties ‘breaking conventions.’ A comparison to Smita Patil is also inevitable in most cases. If these pale girls are set up as the dark outsiders, where does it leave a young Indian girl whose inky black skin is a real and vital part of her, not a disease to be cured? She has no chance in the movies.

Baradwaj Rangan, film critic for the New Indian Express, points out, “Actors like Seema Biswas are always on the fringes simply because of their colouring. I am not saying that when I go to see a big Karan Johar film I want to see ordinary looking people. Bring on the beautiful people! But in movies where there is no such requirement, can’t we have ordinary people? That Prachi Desai who plays Farhan Akthar’s wife in Rock On!! — it is assumed that someone who looks like her would live in a penthouse. All fair people are rich and all dark people are only servants.” Desai brings up Saat Phere, the hit television show whose protagonist Saloni’s fatal flaw is that she is dark. “The idea that there is a story because she is dark is very strange in a country full of dark people,” he points out.

Ask Prahlad Kakkar a quiz question: If there are two young men of equally good looks and one is dark, the other fair, which would be picked for an ad? “The fair one for sure,” he says frankly. “I often fight with clients if I think one is a better performer, but clients are very open about not wanting to take what is seen as a risk.”

Filmmaker Paromita Vohra says it is common to hear loud discussions in the television and film world where the kaali is rejected as not heroine material. But she points to a strange twist to the colour prejudice, where dark can be acceptable if coded ‘exotic’. “Suddenly dark-skinned is being discussed as ethnic chic. So you hear about a dark, pretty girl as having a Mexican or Latin American look. Not that she is Telugu and looks Telugu.”

The fact is that in the wide spectrum of shades Indians are made in, only a tiny segment appears in popular culture as Indian. The arrival of the dark person always signals someone oppressed or villainish. The fact that the fair and green-eyed Aditya Pancholi is playing Ravan in the new Ramayan by Mani Ratnam is food for much thought. You could be comforted that, for a change, Ravan is not being played by someone dark. Or you could worry that with even the space for evil ceded to the fair, we may not see dark people on screen at all.

Rangan talks of how the obsession with fairness is played out even in contemporary Tamil cinema. “Tamil cinema sells a particular dream where someone like Ravi Krishna in 7G Rainbow Colony or Dhanush in Kadhal Kondein can have the fair, tall, thin and toned heroine.” Ravi Krishna and Dhanush are heroes who made their debuts as the unimpressive, socially awkward loser. They are dark, ravaged, hungry-looking young men. It is assumed that the male viewer would identify completely with them and applaud when they aspire for fair, strapping north Indian trophies.

Rajiv Menon’s film Kandukonden Kandukonden, a Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, starred Aishwarya Rai and Tabu. Ironically, the very first dialogue in the film is an exasperated off-screen voice cursing all Hindi film heroines who come to work in Tamil cinema. In 2009, even that fragment of exasperation is gone. South Indian cinema now strongly associates gloss, glamour and high production values with the acquisition of fair north Indian heroines for their casts.

Outside of cinema, the fairness obsession leads to some misadventures. Journalist P Sainath has some biting stories about urban scribes venturing into the hinterland. “Television journalists drive into a village and see a dark, shirtless man and assume he is the quote from the poor they are looking for. If you drive into the centre of a village, you are likely to encounter the upper castes, not the dalits consigned to the periphery of the village. But just because the man is dark, they miss the fact that he is the Thakur.”

Where there is an anxiety, there is money to be made. Or is it the other way round? In Jharkhand, among Adivasi communities, the desire for fairness is wide-spread, feeding India’s huge (Rs 950 crore) fairness creams market. This market has been growing at 15 to 20 percent per year. A major earner for FMCG companies, fairness creams are always looking for new segments. Men and older women are the newest baits, who have got their own ‘speciali sed’ fairness cream in the last few years.

RULE 4: All Indians live in cities and are rich
The world of Indians in popular culture is highly aspirational. From the breakfast counters of advertising land’s imagined kitchens to the models walking down streets with French loaves sticking attractively out of shopping bags, much of Indian advertising is hungry for a global romance.

In the last decade, this has meant that the poor and the rural have been completely sidelined in popular culture. Airbrushed by a class allergic to remembering we are still a poor nation. Nandita Das says, “People constantly ask me, why do you always play village women? As if all rural characters are the same. Nine out of 10 Hindi movies are set in south Mumbai, and we are supposed to find a world of difference there, but a story set in rural Rajasthan is the same as one in rural Andhra Pradesh.”

It is true over the last decade, the poor have only appeared before us in extremely troubling ways. As street people banging on car windows made of special glass, as women in haats (local markets) longing for the soft hands of the woman customer who uses hand-cream, the outsiders who makes us value our strange pleasures more through their envious gaze.

One of the most troubling ads in recent times was a State Bank of India (SBI) debit card campaign run in 2006. The print and television ads were both shot in documentary style. The television ad had a series of black and white sequences where a man is shown doing backbreaking, manual labour. Beautifully shot, it makes you wince first in sympathy and then gasp, when in the final shot the text explains this is Bholu — the pickpocket now forced into hard labour because people have stopped carrying cash. The utter crassness of the ad created by Mudra was only matched by the complaint that led to the ad being pulled off air. The Advertising Standards Council of India held up a complaint “that the ad by implication tends to incite people to commit crime by conveying that the advantage of being a pickpocket far outweighs the hardships of physical work.”

RULE 5: Indians look exactly like Caucasians
Many of our products and music videos today are given an instant ‘international’ look with ads featuring models from South Africa and East Europe. Over the last decade, in fact, our celebrities are being slowly transmuted into white people. Our own models and actors are being coloured, moulded, depilated and smoothed into the closest simulacrum of white people that can be created. Hence Dhoom 2, Tashan and the phenomena called Katrina Kaif. It is a mutation that other countries with complicated colonial histories have also participated in.

To see the extremely troubling direction in which India can go, one needs only to look at Brazil. According to cultural historians such as Mary del Priore, co-author of The History of Private Life in Brazil, Brazil has ‘upgraded to international standards of beauty’ in the last three decades. The bottom-heavy, guitar-shaped figure that was widely admired in its culture has been abandoned in favour of supermodel Gisele Bundchen, a tall, slender blonde whose racial heritage is shared by less than 10 per cent of her nation. Today, anorexia deaths and the world’s highest consumption of diet pills coexist in Brazil with the 8 percent of its 185 million people who are malnutritioned. After the US, home to 5,000 registered cosmetic surgeons, Brazil comes in second, with around 4,000.

Plastic surgery, coloured contact lenses, hair extensions and dye are common practice, proudly flaunted as status symbols. “In Brazil, nobody wants to be black because the mass media equates black with poor and stupid,” Cristina Rodrigues, a black cultural activist, told a magazine. The same magazine reports that the chief of an Indian tribe in the Amazon is also reported to have had plastic surgery because, “I was finding myself ugly and I wanted to be good-looking again.”

Turning once more to America, earlier this year, Chris Rock, the standup comedian with the sharpest, most unfettered commentary on race, was in the news for his documentary Good Hair. In this film Rock investigated the politics behind the African-American’s desire for soft, straight hair. Rock wanted to know why his daughter hated her hair. Why do African-American women support a $9 billion dollar industry which promises to change their hair? The timing for Rock’s documentary was perfect. A minor debate was already on about Michelle Obama, America’s newest fashion icon. What if she had had braids or weaves, a more obviously black look than the smooth coif she currently possessed?

Writers such as Bell Hooks wrote decades ago about the world of black women in which the straightening of hair was an intimate ritual. Rock tells the obvious fact that black Americans desire a cultural standard of beauty that is more European than African. For us, a country just as gripped with anxiety and self-hatred, is it amusing that Rock’s investigation led him to India? Every year tonnes of Indian hair makes its way to America, where black women use it to make extensions to their own hair. The Tirupati temple is reported to earn between $2 and $4 million a year from the proceeds of the 25,000 heads that are shaved every day and the 450 tons of hair sold each year.

Across the world, hair is one of the first (and easiest) characteristics that is being corrected to meet a global aesthetic. It is a rule of thumb for young women wanting to go to Bollywood that they must straighten their hair. Television journalism is another and rather unexpected site for the hair iron.

Other changes are more subtle. Says Santosh Desai, “There is no space for the round-faced hero any more. No Rajesh Khanna or Arvind Swami. We are now even looking at the male body as a site of the erotic. The male torso in Bollywood was like a grassy lawn, animals could have grazed on a body like Anil Kapoor’s. Now the male body has hardened, been depilated. Post-Hrithik the gaze at the male body is almost like the one directed at the female body,” says he. Desai also compares the experience of Indian models with those of South East Asian models in ads. “They are Caucasianised during filming. There is a certain pallor that comes with colour correction, almost erasing the features to look more Caucasian.”

What explains India’s abject need to look Caucasian? Desai says, “Underconfidence is a simple explanation for a complex reality. I would say we are becoming more confident but there is an impatience to be seen as peers of the First World. We want it all corrected now. We want to drink wine and not be reminded of the poor. We are constantly evaluating ourselves through the eyes of the West. Why else would we want to win the Oscars? What do 100 retired Ameircans know about our cinematic conventions? When the 26/11 attacks happened, why were people constantly asking about the damage to Brand India?”

The panic desire for sameness breeds bigotry. And while some aspects of India’s diversity debate have come up occasionally in the last few decades, these debates are increasingly muted. Often, bigotry is now passed off as pragmatism. Vohra expresses great concern about this. “I think under the guise of pragmatism what is being promoted is unkindness and huge narrow- mindedness. With this, your ability to have empathy, to comprehend a set of experiences very different from yours reduces. It makes you regressive and politically stupid. At the other end, if you are not represented in mass media, if in your entire life no one who ever looks like you is seen on television, it could generate extreme anger.”

Thomas and her daughter Meenal’s predicament is, in a sense, something particular to north India, where fairness and caste and class have a kind of simple equation. If Meenal were growing up in other parts of India, her experiences might have been different. As Shashi Tharoor once pointed out in The Great Indian Novel, in south Indian families, siblings can look so wildly different from each other in colouring and features, it is impossible to imagine they came from the same womb.

In the absence of a readymade role model, Thomas hoped that Meenal’s school would help with her crisis. “Little children ask Meenal, why are you so dark and your brothers so fair? That’s okay because they are just voicing prejudices which can be addressed. I wanted the school to start talking to the children, explaining that people and families come in all shapes and colours. But they have refused saying the children are too young for such conversations. But why should the children be protected from this as if Meenal’s skin colour is some dirty family secret?”

Meera Pillai, an education policy expert, talks of why India needs diversity education. “Let me compare this to the context of disability. It is idiotic to talk about inclusive education for a child with disabilities when the school system is not ready for such a child. Diversity education is something the government has to back with resources. I don’t think the situation in America is perfect and I’m sure a lot of people voted for Obama because of their complete disillusionment with Bush. But the old America would not have got Obama at all! For a few decades, multicultural education has been in full swing in America. At the risk of sounding clichéd or tokenistic, schools celebrate Hannukah and Kwanza, not just Christmas. Our government needs to talk about disability, homophobia, communalism — recognise it as an educational requirement, put money behind it. Otherwise where is the sense of self for a young Munda girl within a pan-Indian image?”

Vohra talks of earlier decades when India’s diversity was protected by what might now be seen as corny tropes: in the deliberate celebration of every festival, in pledging that all Indians are our brothers and sisters. “That is the difficulty of political correctness. There is always a tension between addressing our existing prejudices through political correctness and our desire to be irreverent and shirk political correctness. But that tension needs to be maintained so that we can keep fighting for politically correct ideas and oldfashioned ideals, without being suffocated by political correctness.”

In a country as complicated as ours, acceptance of difference ought to be the goal of our waking hours and dreams. Not dismissed as impossible. Not erased in image and sound. Into the realm of schmaltzy but charming ideals weighs in the genetic scientist Dr Majumdar who says, “It is the diversity which makes us beautiful. It would be so boring if we all looked alike.”

(Article Courtesy: Tehelka)