Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Mumbai attacks - what happens next ?

Ever since the spate of bomb attacks in the last couple of years, leading to the extraordinary spectacle of bombs across Jaipur, Delhi, Bangalore, and Surat, there has been an element of insecurity building up. One would never be sure of where the next attack would come from, and any place or mode of transport was considered insecure. There was a lot of public anger, but the Congress Government had the policy of try to calm things down, promise that this would never happen again, and then wait for people to forget the enormity of these attacks, and continue with their normal politics. Taking a stricter action against politics was fraught with risks, since a number of terrorists doing these bomb blasts were driven by a radical Islamist agenda, where these attacks were a way of retaliation, a way of terrorising the country. And making stricter laws or digging much deeper into the roots of these conspiracies could expose the Congress to the charge of "being against the Muslim community", something that causes jitters to the top leadership of the Congress, including the Madam at the head. Or maybe, the Ministers and the Cabinet were not upto the job of taking steps to make the country secure. So, when the bomb blasts in the BJP ruled states, and then Delhi took place, there was massive pressure, but quickly died away, since "the resilient country absorbed these attacks and moved on, showing their spirit".
And now this unprecedented disaster that was the terror attacks in Mumbai take place. First there were cries of intelligence failure, and then it slowly emerged that the intelligence agencies were apparently doing their job, and were reporting signs from all over about something going to happen. It was not apparently a real failure of intelligence, but a failure of the intelligence analysis system, which is commanded by the Home Ministry, and supposed to be supervised by the National Security Advisor. Both have failed beyond the wildest nightmares that anybody could have. It now turns out, as reports have started coming out, that inspite of so many reports, the Government did not take any action. It is quite obvious that no Government in the world will ever really get to know that terrorists are coming to the beach at this time, on this day - you need to be prepared to handle such an eventuality; this is not a banana republic, this is a massive economy undergoing huge development, a potential super-power.
And what was this super-power incapable of doing ? One does not fault the police or the commandos who did a great job in actually going in and fighting the terrorists, and took casualties themselves, including the head of the ATS, Hemant Karkare. However, one cannot get around the problems that are being reported, and which will dog us the next time something like this happens:
- The NSG, because of logistical reasons, took 9 hours to reach. 9 hours in a terrorist situation allows the terrorist to setup a solid base, harass the hostages, and overall make the job much more difficult. With 9 hours, the NSG cannot be called a Rapid Reaction Force. They need to be spread out over the country, and if politicians can command their own planes, surely the NSG can also have a couple for these needs.
- It has been reported again and again that the NSG and Marine commandos did not know the layout of the buildings. This is inexcusable. Before going in, commandos need to know the layout of the building they are attacking, otherwise you end up giving the terrorists a huge advantage. Given that it took the commandos some time to reach, the plans for the buildings should already have been arranged for them when they were to reach.
- It is reported from time to time that the media reported on the times of attacks, from where the commandos were going to attack, and so on. If the attackers indeed did have satellite phones (or even simple mobile phones), it would have been simple for them to get information about the goings-on from their associates watching on television. Typically a media blackout with a perimeter cordon should have been in place (with one person being the overall spokesperson for the various Government agencies, to avoid confusion). News now available seems to indicate that they used this mechanism, and used satellite phones for this purpose and normal cell phones that they took from hostages. Why are there no jammers (I am not real technical on this, but it seems logical) employed at such times ?
- There are negative reports already on the level of communication between different intelligence agencies and the armed forces, with finger-pointing and blame-evading happening at a high speed. After the Kargil War, one of the major recommendations of the post-war report was that intelligence sharing was flawed, and needs much better coordination.
- Reports from Maharashtra state that the state of police training and equipment is abysmal. They don't have modern weapons, no training, no firing range to practise, so it is hard to believe that even when motivated, they would be able to take a stand against Ak-47 armed dedicated and well trained terrorists.
So what is the way ahead ? This act of terrorism has exposed the inability of the country to have a unified security mechanism that can effectively handle such incidents. You cannot prevent terrorism, but the problem in this case is that the lack of security (and consciousness regarding security) is such that terrorists in this case felt that they could easily commit all these tasks, and even go away. There is a lot of skepticism about whether, besides changing some people, there will be any action taken. The fight against terror, as seen by policies of the US, Britain, etc, can be messy, and needs to happen on a continuous basis.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 10:57 AM    

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Carbon Dioxide levels increasing

One of the major ingredients of the emissions that cause global warming is Carbon Dioxide (CO2). The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been steadily increasing for the past many years (even decades), and except for a few naysayers, it has been accepted that global warming is here to stay. However, efforts to reduce or cap the emissions on a global scale have not been as successful as one would have expected, given the threat to our way of life. There have been many holdouts, in the form of the United States that is the number one producer of such emissions, along with developing nations such as India, China and Brazil who are powering their way to the table of largest emitters. The economic downturn has in fact turned the conversation totally away from this area, but the fact is that even with a recession, emissions will continue to grow, instead of getting capped.
Scientists are now wondering how close we are to a tipping point, when the amount of agents that cause global warming reach such a point that changes start to become more rapid (one example of a tipping point is when the rate of ice melt in the poles and in Greenland becomes so high that less light is reflected because of less ice and more water, thus increasing heat absorption and more ice loss, and so on):

ONDON, England (CNN) -- A team of international scientists led by Dr James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, say that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are already in the danger zone. Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere currently stand at 385 parts per million (ppm) and are rising at a rate of two ppm per year. This is enough, say the scientists, to encourage dangerous changes to the Earth's climate. As a result we risk expanding desertification, food shortages, increased storm intensities, loss of coral reefs and the disappearance of mountain glaciers that supply water to hundreds of millions of people.
The report, "Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?" appears in the latest edition of the Open Atmosphere Science Journal and brings together the expertise of ten scientists from the United States, the UK and France. It is a departure from the previous climate estimates which predict that perilous CO2 levels will be reached later in the century. As far as current global observations are concerned, Hansen cites both the decline of Arctic sea ice and the worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers as causes for major concern. In light of the new data the authors believe that merely stabilizing CO2 emissions might not be enough to avoid catastrophic changes. "Humanity must aim for an even lower level of greenhouse gases", the report concludes.

We are heading down a dangerous path of playing with our environment, and yet don't seem to see this as a problem. There is almost no public involvement in these areas, and leaders of a lot of nations who should be working full steam to avoid such problems are busy either passing the buck or having meetings without reaching the desired goals to avoid future catastrophes.
People in the sub-continent will be heavily affected, and yet, besides asking for the richer nations to do anything, the Indian Government is not really taking any measures to make sure that control of emissions (that hurts the health of people in the country) is happening.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:52 AM    

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Diabetes increasing in a richer society

Diabetes has been called a lifestyle disease, one that affects people who have moved onto a richer lifestyle (their food has got richer with more starch, more sugar, and lesser amount of direct physical work). As a consequence, the incidence of diabetes in countries (that are moving from a poor state to a state of rapid economic development) is increasing at a rapid pace. India is one such example - there is a huge section of the middle class and upper class that have more money than previously, have a more sedentary lifestyle, and also have aspirations to a richer living model. This would include stuff such as higher consumptions of fatty foods, colas, etc.
This increase in the number of diabetes affected people has many negative implications. Diabetes is currently a non-curable disease, and with a lot of potential complications all over the body. If the number of diabetes affected people in society increases, there will be a much higher need of diabetes treatment for all sections of society, and a much higher level of medical costs. The Government and other bodies should take a note of this trend, and try and educate society as to how to prevent this spread of diabetes from reaching alarming trends:

The fast transition of India to western lifestyle has made the country a hub for the disease and diabetes is fast emerging as one of the most common chronic ailment to affect children. Lifestyle changes and awareness of the disease can help many people to live safely with diabetes. “Obesity and inactivity among children have increased cases of diabetes among people of age 12-20 which was earlier prevalent only in those above 35 years of age,” says Dr Shailesh Lodha, senior consultant endocrinology, Fortis-Escort Hospital.
The incidence of juvenile diabetes caused due to genetic factors in children less than seven years is also rising by nearly 3%, whereas for mature patients it is rising by 5%. Meanwhile, the number of diabetes patients among grown-ups is also rising at a similar pace. Diabetes in itself causes less harm, but it can cause permanent damage to vital organs if remains undiagnosed for a long time.

Diabetes is a disease that has the potential of causing major long term harm to the health of society; and this will happen unless there are a number of measures taken to make society more aware of the need to prevent / control diabetes. The way forward should be to:
1. Educate people to reduce the current rate of people who are contracting diabetes.
2. For those who already have diabetes, they need to be properly aware of the normal safety measures to be taken, and follow them adequately.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 3:55 AM    

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Economy seemingly in bad shape

The recession word is haunting markets the world over. The US was already in recession, and given its status as the driver of the world economy, it is not a good portent for the rest of the economies all over the world. Other economies are starting to get badly affected; the collapse of an economy such as Iceland typically is of concern only to the natives, but a recession in countries such as Germany (the largest powerhouse of the European Union), slow growth in Japan, reduced growth in China, all of these are very bad portents that the situation will get much worse before it gets better.
In India, things are getting bad. Reduction in inflation to less than 9% is the only bit of good news, else the shake in consumer confidence has had a drastic effect. Entire industries such as textiles (hit by loss of exports), IT (because of reduction in IT spending in the US), Consumer Goods / Auto (because of loss in confidence and hence reduction in spending), Realty (massively hit because people are unwilling to commit), Airlines (massive losses so far), and numerous other industries are being hit.
So, in the space of a few months, the Government and the RBI are trying to reverse all the measures they took earlier, such as a tight credit scene (they were trying to cut inflation, but also cut industrial growth due to the tight credit squeeze), the Government is willing to give measures to improve the lot of airlines, banks, mutual funds, and so on; with this being an election year, the Government will also try to ensure that they will do what they can to bring back the good times. The biggest question is about whether the Government can do anything substantial, other than wait for these recession times to pass over.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 10:36 AM    

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Hindu terrorist and current investigations

For the first time in the country, the term 'Hindu terrorist' has come into common usage. It all started with the Malegaon blasts of September 29, outside the office of SIMI where 6 people died in the explosion, and many others were injured. As it turns out, this was not a case where terrorists, inspired by the word of radical Islam, had committed the crime. While the blast is under probe, all information that has been revealed so far by the ATS, and by the press, is that this was in the nature of a retaliatory attack (retaliation for the bomb attacks carried out by terrorists inspired by radical thought). While investigation is being carried out, this incident and the investigation has already led to a huge amount of hue and cry.
For once, both the BJP and the Shiv Sena are on the defensive. One of the main accused, the Sadhavi, Pragya Singh Thakur, was apparently a fiery speaker who was capable of rousing the spirits of people; incidentally, she was also a former national executive president of the Durga Vahini, and has been shown in the same photo as Rajnath Singh and the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister. The BJP has disowned her and her actions, claiming that this was done after she left the organization (and this part may be true). However, many constituents of the Sangh Parivaar are not happy with this and are pitching for the BJP to support the accused. The Shiv Sena is in total support of the accused (one can always consider the Shiv Sena to have a sense of irrationality in their actions).
This is where the BJP should have been a party with a difference. Having a plank of National Security would mean that the party should stand firm against anyone who indulges in matters such as riots and bomb blasts. In this case, the refusal of the party to take a firm stand against the alleged bomb plotters means that the actions of the party are similar to the actions of the Congress, Samajwadi Party and are personally very disappointing. No matter what the reason, there cannot be any justification for supporting any brand of terrorists, whether they be terrorist inspired by radical Islamic theology or Hindu terrorists inspired by some concept of revenge. The bigger worry (based on current police reports) is that a senior army officer is involved, against their duty of protecting the nation:

Public prosecutor Ajay Misar said in the court that Purohit had attended most of the meetings organised by others accused at Kashmir, Pune, Bhopal, Nashik, and Deolali. "Since he is a senior army officer, he could have been the source for the RDX used in the bomb. We also have evidence that he distributed money to several people through his organisation through cheques and cash. The financial transactions are through hawala as well," said Misar, adding, "Purohit also trained several youths in bomb making."
Those arrested also include retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay and former Durga Vahini national executive president sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. The ATS completed all the formalities regarding the arrest of Lt Col Purohit — the first instance of an armyman being booked for a terror act — on Tuesday evening. Purohit came in contact with Upadhyay when he was posted at Nashik as liaison unit officer. Sources said he used the Nashik stint to fraternise with the extremists in various radical Hindu outfits and to draw them into Abhinav Bharat fold.

It is incumbent to nip such attacks and planning in the bud. The country already faces enough problems from terrorists and separatists in many corners of the country without having more people join this front (and there are terrorists who are Hindu as well - the ULFA, Naxalities, and many others). The BJP and other parties should take the lead in cutting such misguided people from getting public support and that there is no sympathy for them. Else, there is no justification in the BJP blaming people for showing support for the terrorists killed in the Jamia Nagar shootout in Delhi.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:06 PM    

Monday, November 03, 2008

The triumphant smile of the Left over the economic malaise

The Left is waxing eloquent over the current economic problems sweeping all over the globe. The Left parties, represented primarily by the CPM in India, claim credit for opposing FDI in insurance upto 49%, for preventing full capital convertibility, for banking sector reform, and so on. In addition, they claim credit for such social alleviation schemes such as the National Employment Guarantee Program, the farmer loan waiver, prevention of expansion of the SEZ Act, etc. In this, the Congress has also come to the forefront, claiming that it was the slow and measured pace of implementation of reform that led to the country being reasonably insulated from the global mayhem, and by preventing pension fund deposits into the stock market, they prevented loss of money in the pension funds (due to the stock market crash). As further proof of the re-emergence of their way of thinking, they quote the recent interest in Marx and his books.
What a lot of bull. If you compare India with other countries around the globe that were in a similar situation just 20-30 years back, many of them would have suffered much greater economic turmoil than in India, but, and mark this point, even with all this turmoil, these countries have a per capita standard of living which is much better than that afforded to a majority of Indian citizens. For decades after independence, India used a socialist state-controlled approach to growth, and ended up with a small incremental growth level of 2-4 %. Combine this with a population growth of a similar percent, and you end up with a continued high level of grinding poverty.
It is only when the state let go of some of its controls and allowed private enterprise to grow did we start seeing a higher rate of growth and a trickle down effect of the growth starting to reach lower sections of the population (by lower, I mean lower on the economic plane). What India needs is more release of the merits of private enterprise, more openness. What one needs to recognize is that the economic turmoil growing through the US is the result of the regulators failing in their duty, and not the failure of capitalism. Currently, everything seems bleak, and that is because this seems like a terrifying recession. However, every recession comes to an end, and when the next growth phase starts, we will all be enjoying the merits of free enterprise and a faster rate of growth.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:43 AM