Monday, August 31, 2009

Swine Flu resistance increasing

Swine Flu (or more correct, H1N1 flu) is now spread all over the world, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. It has been reported from countries all over the world, with people contracting the disease, and a majority of them recovering; for a small fraction of them, the disease worsens to the point that the afflicted person dies. One of the major factors that has helped prevent a higher number of deaths is the fact that the virus has not mutated into a virulent form. Currently, the virus is treated by the drug called oseltamivir or Tamiflu. However, like many other diseases, there will be a form of the virus that is resistant to this drug, and because they are more difficult to treat, this strain of the virus spreads.
Scientists are worried about a strain of the virus spreading that is resistant to the drug, and hence are tracking these cases. As an example, there are many forms of other bacteria caused diseases such as TB that have multi-drug resistant strains and which are of major concern to medical personnel the world over (link to article):

An increasing number of countries, including some in Asia, are now reporting Tamiflu resistant H1N1 virus. The worrying development, according to WHO, has seen 12 countries including China and Singapore. India has not reported the mutation in the virus so far. The changes in the virus reported in samples are making these strains of swine flu resistant to oseltamivir or Tamiflu - the antiviral of choice globally. Such cases have also been found in Japan, US, Hong Kong, Denmark and Canada.
Going by available data, majority of the resistant cases were reported where oseltamivir was given as preventive medication to people exposed to the flu but who had not tested positive themselves. Some cases were a result of treatment of mild illness as well as "immuno-compromised" patients or persons whose immune systems were working imperfectly.

This was the main worry in the case of earlier diseases where antibiotics were given for any problem, including treating the common cold. In the current case, health authorities are trying to prevent such a case by not allowing Tamilflu to be sold over the counter, and the dispensation of which has been restricted to either patients, or to those who are in high risk situations such as medical personnel, screening personnel.
Barring any mutation that causes the virus to become more virulent, the expectation would be that swine flu will be like any other flu, which spreads like the common flu, and patients recover after treatment. Initially, the media also went overboard, but now it seems like that there is some sense of responsibility and carefulness being exhibited by media all over the world.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 6:29 AM    

Saturday, August 29, 2009

3 people awarded life imprisonment in 1984 Sikh riots case

It is always said that justice delayed is justice denied, the very fact that the criminal justice system in India takes decades to wind through and deliver justice. In that time, people either give up on justice, die, or implemented their own form of justice; conversely, it becomes easier to thwart justice by either witnesses being bought or scared away, their testimony becoming hazy, or witnesses simply not being present anymore. All these reduce the effectiveness of the judicial system as a way of delivering justice to society.
India has had a history of massive riots in the past, even starting from Partition where riots between Hindus and Muslims were horrendous in terms of casualties. After partition, there were cases of riots where the police and administration either were unable to control the riots, or played a partisan role. It is the cases where the administration played a partisan role that are a blot on society, and the inability to judicially address these crimes is actually criminal.
The 2 biggest such cases were the 1984 Sikh riots, and the 2002 Gujarat riots. In both cases, the administration let the riots happen (and it is accused with a lot of testimony and circumstantial evidence) that functionaries of the ruling party played a big role. In the 1984 riots, after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards (who were Sikh), there were mobs of people (primarily in the city of Delhi) hunting down Sikhs (on the streets, and in their homes) and killing them by burning them or by cutting them down. Congress leaders (primarily HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, and Jagdish Tytler among the more well known) were accused of leading these mobs, and it was only after 2-3 days that the situation was brought under control.
By then, a community had been horrified, but this was not the only crime. The bigger crime was that this situation was never taken quickly through the criminal justice system, and the perpetrators of such a genocide were never brought to justice (even the Gujarat riots cases are having a tough time in being brought to justice, and it is many years now). It is only occasionally that you hear of a court decision in the 1984 cases, or you hear of the CBI deciding that there was no evidence against Jagdish Tytler, so that he could be rehabitilated.
Why all this ? Well, I read of a judgment where a sessions court sentenced 3 people to life imprisonment for their involvement in attempt to murder during the riots (link to article):

A Delhi court awarded life imprisonment to three people for attempting to murder members of a Sikh family here in 1984 anti-Sikh riots and came down heavily on ‘contrived inaction’ of the police and the Government of the day which led to loss of "priceless lives".
The court slammed the Delhi police and the Government for its inability to tackle the riots that followed the assassination of the then PM Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. "History would never forgive the police officials who were at the helm of affairs and the government of the day for their unprecedented slothful and quiescent role.

The court also criticized the role of the police, the administration, and the local Government of the day. However, the fact remains that these were all failures, but how can the court just not comment on the fact that this judgment is being delivered 25 years after the cases; where it is possible that family members of the victims may have died, where society is totally sensitized about the incidents that happened a quarter of a century back. I watched areas of Delhi burning from the top of a high rise, and can never forget the scene, but in the overall memory of society, I believe the 1984 riots are a forgotten incident.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 10:09 AM    

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Law subjugates Shia women in Afghanistan

In April, there was wide-spread international condemnation when a legislation catering to the Shia sect in Afghanistan was passed. This legislation tilted the gender balance very strongly towards men, something not uncommon in Islamic countries. However, since Afghanistan was a place where troops from many nations were fighting the Taliban, and many of these troops were losing their lives, there was more outrage. How could a country have such a law if the Government of the country was dependent on foreign aid and foreign support. At that time, the President of Afghanistan, Karzai, shook off the criticism by claiming that he had not read the legislation clearly before signing it, and he would take steps to revert. However, seems like nothing really happened after that (link to article):

Afghanistan has enacted a new legislation empowering men of Shia sect of Islam to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands, a media report said on Saturday. The new final draft of the legislation also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work, The Guardian reported.
According to the report, the new law has been backed by the hardline Shia cleric Ayatollah Mohseni, who is thought to have influence over the voting intentions of some Shias, who make up around 20 per cent of the population. Karzai has assiduously courted such minority leaders in the run up to next Thursday's election, which is likely to be close, a poll indicated.

Given that the President is now contesting for re-election as the President of Afghanistan, and Shia votes will also be important, it is doubtful whether this legislation will be so easily reversed; would be so ironic that a state supported by the West enshrines a massive gender bias.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:24 AM    

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Drought and loss to agriculture strikes India in the face

Ever since June, there has been some amount of debate over whether the monsoon will be good this year. The met department was predicting a slight shortfall in the rains, and there was also news that another El Nino effect would be in place that would impact the amount of rains. As the months of June and July progressed, it became clear that the monsoon was late, and was not adequate. At the same time, the Government did not try to press the panic button, with the Minister of Agriculture claiming that there would be a marginal impact at best, and the Met Department predicting that things were not all that bad. The one time when the Department made a statement about the rains not being good, they were ticked off by the Government about creating a fear scenario, something that could lead to panic.
And now, we are in the situation where it is clear that the rains have failed all over the country; 31 of the 36 met zones in the country have reported lower rains that expected, in some cases, the shortfall has been much lower than the normal. Now, you are starting to hear stories from the Government that they will ensure that Indians do not go hungry, that there are adequate food stocks, and that they will take whatever measures are needed to save the remaining kharif crop, and to ensure that conditions (some amount of wetness in the soil) remains for the rabi winter crop. Towards this end, the Government mentioned something about diversion of electricity, more power for pumps, more installation of pumps.
However, it is pretty clear that this Government is a big picture Government, it is not for them to dirty their hands in details. So, there is no talk about what the Government did in the last couple of months when farmer's crops were wilting in the heat, no talk about how this greater focus on ensuring power for pumps will lower the water table even more (and there was a recent NASA report about how the water levels in India has been declining at an alarming rate, and that the natural methods of water recharging cannot overcome this decline), about how the Government will ensure that the farmers will be prevented from suffering at the hands of the money-lenders from whom they have taken loans and cannot repay.
The Prime Minister promises another Green Revolution, but do they have the necessary strength to take the detail level plan and execute? This is a Government that knows that dependence on the monsoon for cultivation is risky (as is obvious in the current situation), it knows that people can help get around this through such measures as creation of small check dams and water recharging (which provides water wherever it has been implemented) but is unwilling to take the required infrastructure steps to ensure more implementation of such schemes, and so on.
Now what will happen ? The Government will push for greater extraction of water (thus pushing down the water tables and increasing the salinity of water near the seas as the sea water replaces the natural water), will push for greater use of fertilizers (and the runoff from which will pollute water systems further). What is needed is a more comprehensive plan in which the Government makes a more details oriented plan, and includes measures to reduce dependence on the monsoon.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 1:52 PM    

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Baitullah Mehsud dead in a drone attack - and his successors are now fighting

For Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud has been one of the people who have caused it the most grief. Baitullah was the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the leader of what has been called the Pakistani Taliban. He first became internationally famous when he was blamed for being behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and in an ironic revenge, he was killed by a missile fired by a US operated drone when Benazir's husband, Asif Ali Zardari is the President of Pakistan.
Baitullah was hiding in Waziristan, a rugged and difficult terrain that the Pakistani Army has always been reluctant to attack. This was even when Baitullah was blamed for a majority of the suicide attacks (including huge bomb attacks that made international news) that happened inside Pakistan, and yet he seemed to be always ahead of the Pakistani military. It was only in the recent past that the US operated drones (with their fearful missile launching capability) started striking fear in the hearts of these terrorists. The drone with their video coverage meant that these terrorist leaders always had to be on the move; and it was only recently that the drones also started tracking the Tehrik-i-Taliban; earlier the drones would be attacking the Al-Qaeda leadership hiding out in these remote areas as opposed to taking on the Pakistani Taleban. This had created a divergence between the US and Pakistan since Al-Qaeda was threatening Pakistani interest, while Baitullah was attacking Pakistani interests.
Now, the question is what are the next steps ? With recent reports of his potential successors having indulged in severe infighting and firing at each other, there is an opportunity for the Pakistani Government and military to step in and try to clean up. However, it seems much easier to try and strike a deal, since that would ensure that the hard steps of fighting in a difficult terrain can be avoided (link to article):

On an immediate basis, the Pakistan Army needs to decide whether or not to go ahead with a fully fledged military operation in South Waziristan, the headquarters of the TTP. But before that, Pakistan’s government, army and intelligence agencies will have to undergo some existential angst articulating Pakistan’s absolute stance on militancy. The outcome of that thought process will determine what happens next. The Pakistan Army should not make the mistake of sitting back and hoping that a battle of succession will lead to rampant infighting that will forever fragment the TTP.
The US, meanwhile, has expressed concern that Pakistan will try to negotiate with Baitullah’s successor. After all, reports suggest that Baitullah’s father-in-law Malik Ikramuddin had been in touch with government officials looking to strike a new peace deal. Striking now will indicate a genuine desire to rid Pakistan of militancy. Talking, on the other hand, will suggest that Pakistan is still engaged in a double game.

Past deals with terrorists have always led Pakistan into more trouble, with the terrorist seeing such deals as being reflective of the inability of Governments to fight with them (or of having the stomach to take losses), and using this time to regroup and build up into being a formidable force again. The international community also suspects the intention of the Government when it strikes such deal.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:00 AM    

Saturday, August 08, 2009

World glaciers melting at rapid rate

Part of the worries about global warming is about the loss of glaciers, with increasing melting and lower mass covered by the glaciers. Recent reports have confirmed the data, that glaciers are indeed getting impacted. Since glaciers are one of the primary source of water for the world's rivers, which are in turn are the primary sources of fresh water, water for irrigation purposes, and also energy generation through dams, such reports can only increase the alarm levels for the future of the world's population. Availability of fresh water is already problematic for huge chunks of the world's population, and these confirmation by scientists can only confirm that we are headed in for more trouble (link to article):

U.S. scientists monitoring shrinking glaciers in Washington and Alaska reported this week that a major meltdown is under way. A 50-year government study found that the world's glaciers are melting at a rapid and alarming rate. The ongoing study is the latest in a series of reports that found glaciers worldwide are melting faster than anyone had predicted they would just a few years ago. It offers a clear indication of an accelerating climate change and warming earth, according to the authors.
Since 1959, the U.S. Geological Survey, which published the study on its Web site, has been tracking the movements of the South Cascade glacier in Washington and the Wolverine and Gulcana glaciers in Alaska. The three glaciers are considered "benchmarks" for the conditions of thousands of other glaciers because they're in different climate zones and at various elevations.

The melting of the glaciers has both long term and short term problems. Along with the increase in water levels due to melting of polar caps and ice on Greenland, this melting of the glaciers will initially result in river levels going up, eventually contributing to higher sea caps; over a longer period, the glaciers will contribute lower amounts of fresh water and affect huge sections of the world's population. At the same time, the world's leaders cannot quit bickering, and take the steps required to reduce global warming.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:38 PM    

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Tasleema Nasreen back in India (most likely for a short time again)

Taslima Nasreen does not find it safe in India, nor does the Government really want her to be here in India. Every time she comes to India, the Government is stuck as to what to do with her. Given the feelings of repulsion and hatred she inspires in a section of the Muslim community and the vociferous protests that are held, the Congress Government is certainly not going to give the impression that she is a honored state guest; or even worse, that the Government supports or condones her views. Instead, in the past, various spokespersons of the Government and the Congress party have sought to convey the impression that they are only doing something that they don't like; whether it is to give her a visa or provide her security.
In this feeling, except for the BJP (which supports her actions, but would not like to encourage the equivalent of Taslima for the Hindu community, MF Hussain), all other parties are the same way. They would not like to do anything which could be meant to believe that they are supporting the author in any way.
At the same time, it is unwise for the Government to actually reveal its desires, and prevent her from coming to India for renewal of her visa. India has a tradition of being a liberal country, and the concept of not supporting a lady who is being threatened by fundamentalists would expose the Government to severe and trenchant criticism, and severe indictment by the media and large sections of the middle class, a battle that the Congress Party would rather not fight. Consider what happened when the last time she came here (link to article):

Taslima had left India on March 18 last year for Sweden after she was kept in a safe house in the national capital for more than four months. Taslima, who had not been allowed to see any visitors during the period, had described her confinement as living in "a chamber of death". She had come in February earlier this year but was asked to leave immediately after visa was granted to her till August 17 because of the general elections in the country.
Recipient of various awards, Taslima was shifted from her Kolkata residence after violent protests marred parts of the metropolis over her controversial book "Dwihondito" (divided into two). Taslima was packed off from Kolkata and shifted to Jaipur. The Rajasthan government decided to shift her to Delhi after some Muslim organisations threatened state-wide protests against her stay there. Despite the writer's wish to return to Kolkata, the Left Front government in West Bengal did not pay any heed to her request.

Let us see whether things are going to change. I am however very skeptical that there will be any change in the ground situation, and she will be encouraged to leave the country and go back to Europe. The interesting point is, in her case, there are no protests in Parliament against the treatment being meted out to her, no support by feminist organizations, and so on.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:39 AM    

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Strike, and then called off - Private airlines

In India, private airlines have a tough field. They have to pay high rates for their fuel (ATF costs in India are higher than most places in the world), the conversion to new airports run by private operators are loading user convenience charges that passengers do not like to pay, and it is a cut-throat business with high fixed charges and a variable market that has been severely affected by the economic slow-down.
So, most private airlines are in the red, owing money to fuel companies, to airports, to their debtors, and they do not see a solution in sight. The Government in the past has not provided them any solution in the form of lower taxes on ATF, or any kind of monetary hand-out.
Eventually, the Federation of Indian Airlines, comprising of 5 of the private airlines called for something unprecedented, a one day strike on August 18th where they would stop all operations, and refund all tickets. This was primarily meant as a pressure tactic, and they must have got bold after seeing Anil Ambani take on the Government and not suffer any apparent problems. However, the Government response was swift and harsh. The Government threatened to take strict action, including reviewing their licenses.
The airlines were not prepared to take on such an onslaught and have finally withdrawn this proposed strike. However, a fundamental question that is there for the operators is that this is a known business model. It was known that India has a high amount of taxes on ATF (since these are state level taxes and the Center is unwilling to take a stand on this), it is also known that the model followed by airlines of reducing costs can lead to cut-throat competition and lead to a downward spiral of costs. At the same time, at any reduction of fuel prices, the Minister applies pressure on the airlines to get them to reduce their fares. They also have to fly on routes that are not very remunerative, but are part of their license.
So where will this lead us ? If we continue in the situation where fuel prices remain high, and the economy does not improve (which means the general market remains depressed), then there will be a shakeout of airlines, and one will see ticket prices increasing, and more of them either combining or dying in the dust. Not good, but little that can be done.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 7:49 PM