Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Reality of Reality Shows


Television is an influential medium of entertainment reaching out to millions. It is, therefore, necessary to utilize its potential as a positive influence while serving that purpose.

The importance of entertainment as a central cultural phenomenon cannot be overlooked since it serves as an indicator of larger cultural trends. Media is considered to be one of the most influential entertainment tools effectively utilizing its many genres. It is interesting to note that while particular entertainment preferences guide our choices influenced by cultural conditioning, appeal of some entertainment genre transcends cultural barriers. Reality television is one such genre of entertainment that has claimed universal appeal in the global media.

Reality television is characterized by programming in which ordinary people are featured encountering dramatic or unusual situations, supposedly while performing actual everyday tasks. The genre is not new and has existed of long in the form of game shows, but in the last decade it has been expanded to include a variety of topics, including drama, talent hunt, search for love, adventurE, celebrity lifestyles, highlighting a cause, and crime etc. Reality television is not very ‘real’ in the sense that it employs sensationalism to attract viewership and boost ratings. Sometimes, reality shows are scripted but an illusion of reality is created through editing. Shows based on lives of showbiz celebrities are mostly popular because of the element of glamour.

In India, the more popular reality shows entice viewers with gossip masala. In some Indian reality shows, a heightened sense of sensational drama is achieved by having the participants behave in an exaggerated manner often considered scandalous and challenging to social etiquette. Some other reality shows are based on contests for the purpose of talent hunt, especially in music-related fields which has a huge market in India. To better understand the popularity of this genre in India, an introduction of some Indian reality show might be helpful.

Many Indian reality shows are inspired by shows from abroad, again highlighting the universal appeal of the topics explored. Big Brother inspired the production of the Indian version, Big Boss; Sach Ka Saamna from Moment Of Truth, and Indian Idol and Chotay Utaad – which features child singer and performers – from the UK Pop Idol and American Idol. Among music programmes, Indian Idol has served as a big platform for many budding singers. India’s Got Talent, is the Indian version of the ‘Got Talent’ series. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, a competition of standup comedians, is a very successful comedy reality show on Indian television, inspired by the American programme, ‘Who’s Line is it, Anyway’? Another ‘hunt for love’ show MTVsplitvilla, is based on the concept of the American dating game show, The Bachelor, in which a rich bachelor finds the ultimate girl of his dreams by choosing from a group of girls through a process of grueling tests and elimination. Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa is the Indian version of BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ABC’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’; Kaun Banega Crorepati’ is the Indian version of the UK game show ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ This show combines the celebrity aspect of reality genre featuring the legendary star, Amitabh Bachhan. This is also the show on which the 2009 blockbuster film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire” was based, creating a unique and highly successful reality film. Another important reality show called Haath se Haath Mila, (Let’s Join Hands) is an influential show highlighting the importance of community service by creating awareness about HIV/AIDS in India and features celebrities from Bollywood. .

A quick glance on reality show format and their focus shows that their popularity stems from their perceived relation to our own dreams and aspirations. The common thread that runs through most reality shows is their popular appeal in terms of sharing achievements, heartbreak, joys and tears in a quest for success. While the talent-hunt shows provide a useful platform for showcasing unexplored talent and to give opportunities, their greater appeal also lies in the public’s own desire to see ordinary people change their destinies and achieve their dreams. In others, where contests strive to find their dream partner, heartbreak and high drama entails through much of the series. However, the concept of making the contestants go through sometimes humiliating experiences to avoid elimination teaches values that the society does not approve of at large. At the same time, the viewers and men in these Indian reality shows have a fun time at the expense of the participants, while the girls end up demeaning themselves through catfights and obscenity. Feminists have been up in arms against reality shows that show women as sex objects, to no avail.

Another trend in the West which is still under consideration in India, is the reality show production of political figures as stars. Sarah Palin's Alaska has faced strong criticism in the US media, and a Time Magazine report questioned the motive of the show as being “the world's most expensive political ad” at $1 million for each episode, produced free of charge. In India, though no reality show has been made exclusively for a politician as yet, people with political links have occasionally appeared on such shows; Sanjay Nirupam was a participant in Bigg Boss, and Rahul Mahajan has featured in several reality shows.

Another important aspect of reality show production is its strong marketing value. Since people tend to identify and relate with participants of reality shows on some level, there is a greater chance of being influenced by their preferences. Sometimes reality shows feature use of popular brands to boost their own profits. These brands pay high rates for advertisement. This is known as product placement. It is a form of advertisement where branded goods are casually placed in the story line. An advertisement is accepted as having a great impact on minors too, whether it is the decision of purchasing toys or imitating their favorite character’s actions. That makes it a big responsibility for the marketing agencies. The negative influence of smoking by lead actors in the past is known to have influenced minors and adults alike.

In the US, an example of embedded marketing includes ‘Extreme Makeover’, which promotes sponsors like Sears and Ford. The designers of the programme executing the makeovers are often shown shopping at Sears and fitting Kenmore appliances in the homes undergoing makeovers. The Indian show Haath se Haath Mila also uses placement ads to promote its message. Film clips of the stars supporting the cause and appearing on the show are used as embedded marketing tools to draw viewership and enhance profits. A few examples of product placement in Indian movies include Coke in Taal, Maruti Swift in Bunty Aur Babli and Calvin Klein in Salaam Namaste.

Most reality shows focus on profits and don’t mind promoting negative messages to boost their viewership.  It is important to realize that reality television is an indispensible and influential tool of entertainment today. Instead of providing meaningless or detrimental entertainment, we can utilize its potential as a positive influence on the viewership alongside its real purpose.


PUBLISHED: SouthAsia Magazine, Jan 2011.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The AIDS Challenge


Each year December 01 is celebrated around the world as International AIDS Day to renew the commitment of the world community to spread awareness and find ways to combat this disease. There are an estimated 36 million people currently living with HIV and AIDS worldwide, of which at least half are women and 98% of these women live in developing countries.

AIDS (Acquired immunodeficiency Syndrome) is a disease that weakens the immune system and  makes the victim vulnerable to infections and cancers that may result in death if left untreated. AIDS is caused by the HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), and is spread through contact with infected blood or secretions. Since the HIV epidemic is largely connected to behaviours that expose individuals to the virus, studies have focused strongly on awareness and promotion of safe sex as being at the center of HIV prevention strategies. Risk factors that encourage the spread of disease in developing countries, especially in Asia which houses 60% of the world’s population, include low literacy rates, crippling poverty, high fertility combined with low contraception usage and topped by poor access to health and education facilities.

Pakistan is the second largest country in South Asia, and WHO and UNAIDS estimate the number of HIV/AIDS cases in Pakistan to be around 90,000, while national statistics report them to be at a modest 5,000 – the discrepancy points to the fact that a vast majority of cases go unreported due to social taboos about sex and victims’ fears of discrimination. Pakistan has been a low HIV prevalence country with only 0.1% afflicted among its general adult population, but is increasingly faced with a threat from a high number of injecting drug users (IUDs) and has now moved into what is known as the transition phase.

To respond effectively to this threat, Pakistan started its National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) in 1986, which has shown productive outcome in line with its objectives of “prevention of HIV transmission, safe blood transfusions, reduction of STD transmission, establishment of surveillance, training of health staff, research and behavioral studies, and development of programme management.” NACP program partners include World Bank, WHO, DFID, CIDA, GFATM, GTZ, UNAIDS, UNODC, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNIFEM, CDC Atlanta, Clinton Foundation and the GFA Consulting Group. The NACP through its centers across the country has made possible access to treatment and information to many victims, while maintaining data and providing research opportunities towards the larger goal of prevention and eradication despite facing challenges. The NACP is also providing free treatment to patients in its 20 centers across the country.

The modes of HIV/AIDS transmission in Pakistan relies largely on heterosexual transmission and contaminated blood or blood products as the most commonly reported vehicles. Other transmission methods include injecting drug use, male-to-male or bisexual relations and mother-to-child transmission, while HIV prevalence is 1% to 2% in high-risk populations such as female sex workers and long-route truck drivers.

Pakistan’s general population finds itself at potential risk through an general attitude of low compliance with infection control procedures including handling of blood transfusion and use of unsterilized medical instruments. Studies indicate that a high percentage of injections are administered with used injection equipment due to shortage of funds. According to WHO estimates, unsafe injections account for three percent of new HIV cases in Pakistan. It is also estimated that 40 percent of the 1.5 million annual blood transfusions in Pakistan are not screened for HIV. Moreover, in 1998, the AIDS Surveillance Centre in Karachi conducted a study of professional blood donors and found that 1% of them were infected with HIV.

IDUs remain at a considerably higher risk of contracting HIV infection in Pakistan because they often indulge in high risk practices of sharing syringes. Since Pakistan neighbours a major opium producing country, Afghanistan, a percentage of its vulnerable young-adult population has been addicted over the years. With a growing number of drug abusers, in 1999 the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) had conducted studies in Lahore on changing methods of drug ingestion from inhaling to injecting, and warned of a rise in HIV cases. As predicted, the country saw an increase from 9% in 2005 to 21% HIV prevalence among injecting drug-users by 2009.

While there is little documentation about homosexual relations in men in Pakistan due to religious and cultural taboos, evidence from various studies suggests it is prevalent throughout the country. According to WHO, "Asia is believed to have the world's largest number of [MSM], estimated at 10 million.” Sexual activity between men is likely present in boys’ hostels and jails, and in the groups of transvestites, transsexuals and eunuchs who are known to engage in unsafe sexual practices due to their disadvantaged socioeconomic and educational status.

Gender inequalities are also known to facilitate the further spread of HIV/AIDS among women in male dominated cultures in Asia in general. The status of women in Asia makes them especially vulnerable to HIV, and they suffer from a lack of access to support systems for HIV too. The number of women infected with HIV in Asia rose to 20 percent between 2003 and 2005, compared with a 17 percent increase for the region's total population, (UNAIDS 2005).

Pakistani women in general have less socio-economic independence and have less decision-making power than men. Gender disparities are rampant in many fields, e.g. female literacy rate in Pakistan is at 35% for women and 59% for men. Despite social stigma, commercial sex is also prevalent in all major cities of Pakistan. Owing to their low social status, female sex workers (FSWs) are often exploited and abused, and have little legal recourse or protection. Many behavioral studies indicate that female sex workers have little or no understanding of safe practices which makes them more vulnerable to STIs and HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, these sex workers often lack the power to negotiate safe sex or seek treatment for STIs and one study indicated that only 2% of female sex workers said they used any form of contraception with clients.

A big hurdle in treatment options for women is, however, the stigma attached to being related to an AIDS patient. Many women are shunned by not only their neighbours, but also close family members for the crime of association. Sometimes, after losing the husband to AIDS, women become more vulnerable to abuse. They face open hostility, and their children also suffer social isolation. Many women are excluded from inheriting property, cast out of their homes by in-laws and end up with severe food insecurity and lack of long-term sustainable livelihood as well as lack of support and care systems for treatment and life-saving drugs. Children of these women, or those born to HIV positive mothers, suffer widespread discrimination too. UNICEF sources claim only 38% of children under 15 living with HIV in the developing world received antiretroviral treatment which is considered extremely important for sustainability of victims.

The epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the developing world requires a consistent focus of respective governments and constant support of the world community in employing effective strategies based on timely prevention of HIV transmission, safe blood transfusions, training of health staff, continuing research and development of program management on a large scale, supported by an enabling environment. Hopefully, the World AIDS Day will serve to keep the focus on this important issue alive.

SOUTHASIA, 'The AIDS Challenge, Dec 2010.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winning Hearts and Minds, the Right Way


He might not have much influence on his country’s foreign policy, but he is surely the best ambassador any country could hope for

Pick up any newspaper, and you find Pakistan in the news more often than any other country – and usually not for the best of reasons. Fortunately, however, these days the news of corruption, bombs, beards and burkas is outshined by the hospitality and love ordinary Pakistanis shower upon an American helicopter pilot, John Bockman. His blog in a Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune, has been widely shared by his host country’s readers and is still drawing comments four weeks hence. He is part of a US humanitarian mission in Pakistan, delivering aid to the flood-ravaged areas.

Although the US remains the single largest donor of aid to Pakistan’s latest calamity-hit population, it still suffers from a huge public relations nightmare as far as its image among the majority of Pakistan’s population, or even the Muslim world, is concerned. Struggling to contain the negative fallout of some of their aggressive policies in this War on Terror, the US policy-makers and practitioners are hard-pressed to find effective measures to win hearts and minds of ordinary Pakistanis, and thereby curtail recruitment for terrorists. Although there are a variety of reasons quoted for this image deficit, including the oft quoted Bushism, ‘They hate us for our freedoms’, yet few believe that to be true because the bombs that drones drop with relentless frequency in the north-western areas of Pakistan drown out all other explanations and far outweigh aid and care packages.

The drone technology has been extensively used in the Northern areas of Pakistan to target militants in the last decade. It is a cause of serious concern for human rights activists around the world due to its high rate of failure, spilling more innocent blood than getting intended targets. A recent article by Johann Hari in the British newspaper, The Independent reported that the year 2009 alone saw 900 civilian lives in the tribal areas lost to this fearsome technological tool, and that according to David Kilcullen, who is a counter-insurgency expert and an adviser in the State Department, only two percent of those killed in Pakistan by drones are terrorists while 98% are " as innocent as the victims of 9/11".

These aggressive policies do not seem to have helped in curbing terrorism other than inducing some temporary setbacks to terrorists. They have also failed completely in winning hearts and minds in Pakistan for one big reason: ordinary Pakistanis are still struggling to differentiate between their benefactors and enemies. When terrorists blow up government buildings, hospitals, girls’ schools or markets killing innocent men, women and children, they claim victory against forces of evil while dismissing innocent blood as a necessary sacrifice in the path to their glorious goals. When drones unleash their unmanned power, often based on faulty intelligence on houses where families are sitting down to supper and blowing them to a million pieces, the Intelligence Agencies declare victory promptly if their target dies, and not a word of regret is uttered for other lives lost in collateral. Since there is no official acknowledgement of drone strikes by the US Government, no apology or sense of responsibility, nor modification of existing strategies is deemed necessary. Boosting recruitment and winning hearts and minds of terrorists? Absolutely. Ordinary people, not so much.

It was to such a backdrop that John Bockmann landed at Chaklala Base in Pakistan more than a month ago. He received much warmth from Pakistanis, despite being part of a system that represents, for many of them, blatant aggression. Why he draws such a response, one may be forgiven for wondering. Is it because he brings care packages for them, instead of bombs? Smiles and shakes hands; hugs and thanks them when he receives offers of chai? Makes an effort to learn Urdu so he may converse with his gracious hosts? Recounts his experiences without bias, thereby challenging stereotypes about them? Acknowledges that their everyday concerns for peace are similar to his own or those of his people back home? Pledges to do all in his capacity as an individual for the cause of peace? Or, all of the above? The answer is really quite obvious. John Bockmann might not have much influence on his country’s foreign policy, but he is surely the best ambassador any country could hope for.

I want to tell him, and I am sure I speak for many when I say, “ John, you are a beacon of hope, a source of strength and an inspiration for all those who believe in building a fair and just world. Your experiences are unique in that they represent the best of what humanity has to offer in the worst of circumstances. You are also the face of America Pakistanis need to see more of in order to pull through the chaos that is their constant companion. Please don't forget this hospitality when you return home. Cherish this experience as a constant reminder of what you have accomplished that people in higher positions can aspire for but not achieve – making ‘brothers’ among strangers by respecting their culture, acknowledging their kind hospitality and returning their warmth with your own. Thank you, John.”

Wars are built on propaganda and shielding of truth so that neither side gets to see the humane aspect of the other – it makes the taking of innocent lives lighter on the conscience. Pursuing long term goals of peace takes patience, and understanding. Brute force can only result in temporary gains while fuelling the fires we need to quench. There has to be another way to defeat the evil of violence. We must find it. After all, a decade of hate hasn’t done us much favour.

Published: ASIA! THROUGH ASIAN EYES Nov10, 2010.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Investing in Healthcare


Access to healthcare is a basic human right. The World Bank is playing an important role in helping South Asian countries to provide this right to their citizens.

Developed countries of the world have in place a robust infrastructure and institutions that see to the provision of these rights, while developing countries struggle with funds and weak healthcare systems. When resources fail to meet demand, various world aid agencies help bridge the gap with financial and technical assistance. The World Bank has been a consistent supporter of South Asian governments in tackling serious health issues like HIV/AIDS and Polio mellitus.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) weakens the immune system and exposes the body to infections. Although AIDS was first recognized by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 1981, in its third decade it still eludes a cure, there is no vaccine and preventive measures involving practices of safe sex and Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs) have been advocated as the best approach. In 2007, roughly 33.2 million people lived with AIDS worldwide. An estimated 2.1 million people have also died of it.

Epidemiologists have conducted extensive studies to understand and identify high risk groups and formulate effective management strategies. However, South Asian countries present a unique challenge because of their population diversity which hampers effective management. The World Bank’s report, AIDS in SA: Understanding and responding shares the scope and dynamic of this infection in South Asia. It points out the most vulnerable groups as being Sex Workers (SWs), their clients, homosexual men (MSM), and Injecting Drug Users (IDUs). Once infected, these groups are more likely to transmit infection to large numbers of contacts.

These high-risk groups are present in significant numbers in some South Asian countries. In 2004, India harbored more than 60 percent of the HIV infections in Asia (UNAIDS). In 1998, Prime Minister Vajpayee declared HIV/AIDS as “India’s most important public health problem.” India has a legalized sex industry and at least 500,000 female sex workers (SWs). These SWs are receiving help and information regarding safe sex practices to control the pace and spread of infection. In countries where sex is not a legalized industry, most SWs operate from homes dissemination of information becomes a challenge. Sri Lanka, which has an estimated 30,000 female SWs, is also estimated to have 40,000 to 50,000 drug users. Pakistan has about 500,000 chronic heroin users (UNODC 2002). Figures from neighboring Afghanistan show that, of an estimated 920,000 illicit drug users, 120,000 are women and 60,000 are children (UNODC 2005).

The Detailed Implementation Review (DIR), a World Bank, document gives information on WB contribution in this regard: The World Bank had been a consistent supporter of initiatives in South Asia and has financed HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs extensively. In 1992, a World Bank (Bank) assessment revealed that India could “follow in the footsteps of some of the worst affected countries in Africa, resulting in the erosion of many of the past gains in human development.” WB sponsored the Indian government’s National AIDS Control Projects (NACPI, NACPII) and in 1998 the Bank was acknowledged to be its single largest donor. The positive results of the project have now been acknowledged widely.

The World Bank has also conducted studies to help governments understand the best approaches. For South Asia, the costs of treatment to the disease-afflicted populations and consequently, the economy of the country is a serious concern. Mariam Claeson, WB's HIV/AIDS Coordinator for South Asia explored the impact on economic growth in South Asia in the report,’ HIV and AIDS in South Asia’ as a regional development issues: “Although HIV prevalence in South Asia is comparatively low, the region faces a number of challenges including the risk of escalation of concentrated epidemics, the economic welfare costs, and the fiscal costs of scaling up treatment for AIDS. If HIV infections are distributed across the range of South Asian living standards, then only 30 percent of the cases would be above the more generous poverty line of US$2.15. And the poorest 10 percent of these would be pushed down into poverty by AIDS treatment expenditures.” Preventive strategies have thus been propagated as the best approach.


The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in1988; polio was endemic in 125 countries around the world at the time, and 350,000 children a year became paralyzed because of it (WHO). Thanks to the successful global polio vaccine campaign over the past 20 years, it exists only in four countries including three Asian nations (India, Pakistan and Afghanistan) and one in Africa (Nigeria). These countries remain a cause of grave concern as travel to and from these countries challenges containment, and eradication continues to be an elusive goal despite an expenditure of more than $6billion so far.

For Pakistan and Afghanistan, war and instability seems to be a contributor in the spread of polio. In the latter half of 2008, large scale movement of populations from the Northern areas of Pakistan took place due to militant violence and resulting military action. The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from war-affected areas took up residence in camps or with relatives in other parts of the country and the virus moved into areas previously considered free of it. The recent floods have again rendered almost 20 million homeless and forced them into camps. Although updated assessment of spread of disease among them is not currently avialable but it is predicted to be a helathcare nightmare unfolding slowly but surely. In Afghanistan, ongoing decades old war continues to hamper administration of OPVs to affected areas.

The Director of Polio Eradication Initiative at WHO, Dr. Bruce Aylward, in his report to the World Health Assembly said that 2008 was “a very difficult year for the eradication programme." in Nigeria because there was” "a simple failure to reach and vaccinate children,” According to the disease surveillance unit of the WHO, Nigeria accounts for 61 per cent of global polio cases and 95 per cent of cases in Africa. Although southern Nigeria has been polio-free for a couple of years, northern Nigeria, in 2003, stopped immunizing its children against polio when hard-line Nigerian clerics called for the boycott. The result was the spread of polio virus from Nigeria to 23 polio-free countries around the world, including nations as far away as Indonesia and Yemen, effecting nearly 1500 children. The reason for persistence of disease in the Pakistan and Afghanistan rests on similar misconceptions regarding the contamination of polio vaccine with infertility drugs and AIDS virus. This has resulted in stiff resistance against polio eradication campaigns and threats to government and aid officials, challenging containment efforts in these countries

The governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are trying to reach people through media and religious leaders to remove misconceptions. The campaigns are not likely to meet with success despite support form World community unless religious and cultural concerns are addressed. The number of reported cases in 2009 clearly show more needs to be done – 57 in Pakistan, 22 in Afghanistan, 327 in India and 379 in Nigeria (Global Polio Eradication Initiative) The World Bank is part of the ‘Partnerships for Polio Eradication Project’, and its IDA is providing additional financing of $50million would finance the increased resources required for the procurement of Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) in support of Nigerian government’s efforts. In Pakistan, the World Bank has supported all initiatives for Polio Eradication. The combined World Bank financing for Polio eradication in Pakistan during 2003-2007 amounts to US $110.78 million. The Bank also approved the credit of US$74.68 million to Pakistan for a Third Partnership for Polio Eradication Project.

While the work done in the health sector of the South Asian countries has been universally recognized and appreciated, some strong criticism has also been noted of the WB policies setting strict financial pre-requisites and asking countries to raise interest loans and reduce government spending in order to get bailout loans during periods of economic decline. Mark Levinson wrote in The Cracking Washington Consensus, how “International financial institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), pressed developing countries to conform to the formula as a condition of their loans.” He also quoted a study from the Center for Economic Policy research which states that , “there is no region of the world that the Bank or Fund can point to as having succeeded through adopting the policies that they promote—or in many cases—impose on borrowing countries.”

There may be truth in that criticism, but it is also a fact that many critical healthcare initiatives in South Asian countries may not have come about without the active support and engagement of World Bank. For this reason, South Asia continues to partner closely with the World Bank to achieve its goals.

SouthAsia Magazine "A Healthy Future" October 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tears in the Rain


"Open the door!" He bellows and keeps on banging. She moves quickly and pulls at the bolt. He barges in, knocking her down. He shoves her out of the way. He goes to the corner where she has kept his roti wrapped in the greasy cloth. She drags herself to the other side, pulling her knees against her chest.

Fixing her with his piercing gaze he gobbles his food, washing it down with large gulps of water from the earthen pot. She watches the water dribble from the corner of his mouth and disappear into his thick, wet beard...


This story is being this space!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Park 51 - to be or not to be?


Learning to live together peacefully again

The first time I heard about the plans for building a mosque at Ground Zero, I had immediately questioned the wisdom of such a move. However, since then, I have had a chance to ponder the deeper implications of this proposal as more details come to light, not the least of which is the fact that the mosque is actually a community center with prayer rooms for Muslims, Christians and Jews, and it is not at Ground Zero but two blocks away from it.

September 11, 2001 will be forever etched in our memories as the day when the world changed forever. The morning of 9/11 began for many like any ordinary Tuesday. For others, who left home with hasty goodbyes hoping to make it up later, it turned out to be a nightmare. A horrified world struggled to make sense of it as confusion, debris and death rained from the sky, while a group of bloodthirsty fanatics applauded. Sadly, as the twin towers collapsed, so did the world view as we knew it. Islam was suddenly thrust into the glare of international spotlight and scrutiny, and a new world order dominated by raw emotion took shape within hours that still continues to color our perceptions nine years hence.

The events that have ensued since 9/11 have also caused us to make many difficult choices, unfortunately many of which have resulted in more death, and fueled terrorism around the world. Consider this: if the little girl who had to grow up with a picture in the frame instead of a warm parental embrace in one part of the world questions her right to that protection, a little boy also mourns a family he lost in the middle of the night to the roaring sound of an unseen enemy that calls itself a freind. Who is responsible for their tragic share and the resulting changed perceptions? Meanwhile, a breed of fanatics swells their ranks around the world taking advantage of actions which reaffirm their stand of a world pitted against their religion.

The serious consequences of this linking of isolated radical phenomenon to mainstream Islam have resulted in detrimental effects evident on several societal levels in the US. On one hand, the American society has become increasingly insecure despite investing heavily in internal and external security, while on the other; alienation of huge sections of its own population is causing a systematic breakdown of societal cohesion – neither of which can help the cause of peace. On the global level, this means fuelling of further hatred and increasing acts of violence against innocent people, Muslim and non-Muslim, deemed guilty through perceived association.

What many patriotic non-Muslim Americans have failed to realize is that 9/11 has done more damage to mainstream Muslims across the world, and especially in the US, than any other single event in recent history. Not only have they not been allowed to grieve the deaths of beloved family members, friends and mentors, and fellow citizens whom they lost on 9/11, American Muslims are also urged to choose between their national identity and their religious preference – a choice no one should have to make in a land that prides itself for freedoms many in other countries can only dream about. Muslims and non-Muslims together must do their share to change this dangerous situation.

For their part, non-Muslim Americans need to stand with the majority of peaceful Muslim Americans - who are being isolated by the rhetoric of hate-mongers - in their endeavors aimed at promoting respectful engagement between different religious groups. They have to acknowledge that the true symbols of American power are the patriotic citizens of this country who have upheld the values their forefathers sacrificed their lives for. The constitution itself would be a useless piece of paper but for the willingness of Americans of all faiths, and no faith, to abide by it. If Americans were to lose that one value, there would be a Pandora’s Box of issues waiting in the wings to challenge everything their country stands for.

Muslims are not confused. They know who they are. Yet, they have not been able to help non-Muslims distinguish clearly between themselves and those seeking violence in the name of their religion. Judging from opposition to Park 51, even the second and third generations of Muslim Americans would seem to have failed to assimilate in their society since any perceived provocation from their community calls for their immediate ouster by their own countrymen. Or could it be because the hate-mongers in this society have been more successful in their manipulation of the psyche of post 9/11 non-Muslim Americans? Why does the average American not recognize that the revival of the ‘us vs. them’ politics and mass hysteria is merely a replay of previously applied strategies fulfilling selfish agendas, and can only result in undermining their strength as one people? Would closer contact between Muslims and non-Muslims remove misconceptions and bring some relief? If yes, can we turn this conflict into a teachable opportunity?

Park 51 may turn out to be the litmus test future generations would evaluate the strength of the American nation on. There is every probability the proposed community center would turn out to be everything Imam Rauf proposes it will be – a center fully devoted to promoting moderate Islam to bring interfaith harmony in a society widely fractured by suspicion and hatred. However, the proponents and opponents of this proposal are well within their constitutional rights to express their views. They must respond to each other with patience till they are able to address and acknowledge each other’s legitimate concerns and rights as citizens of this country.

Whatever effort and time is put into resolving this issue peacefully would be well worth it simply because Park 51 is not about revenge; it is about learning to live together peacefully again.

A version of this article was published in the Radical Middle Way Sept 14, 2010.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Click 'n Connect!

Online social networking is changing our lives in more ways than we realize.

“Online social networking is not just about contact; it is a way of life,” remarked my friend. “Absolutely!” I managed to say between mouthfuls of Hareesa, as we sat enjoying our lunch in the quiet corner of the restaurant I like to frequent for gup-shup or serious discussions. While I savor face-to-face contact with the people in my life, it is sadly becoming something increasingly absent from the lives of a large number of internet users.

Online networking phenomenon took the world by storm in the last decade or so. Real life interactions which required bringing like-minded people together has now been replaced largely by online networking due to the popularity of online websites like Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, FriendFinder, Friendster, Classmates, and networking services like Twitter etc. While previously it was only possible to interact with like-minded people within a certain geographical location, it is now quite easy to live parallel lives in the cyber world and have access to individuals from around the world, shifting the boundaries of what personal information should be shared with the public. Contrary to popular belief, nothing online is ever private!

Online networking is helpful in bringing together friends and family members living in distant places, but also dissemination of information through live updates from newspapers and television pages on sites like Facebook, which allow users to share their opinion about the issue being discussed by posting comments. Posters are exposed to a diverse set of opinions that s/he would otherwise never come across. This also provides an advantage where one can enrich one’s outlook and take a trip into a foreign culture, literally, in the blink of an eye!

However, as with most things, there is a flipside to instant connections. The tangible dangers include identity theft and from predators who befriend unsuspecting users by pretending to be someone else, using pictures and personal information from other people’s profiles. Most online users are not careful when adding friends as the number of friends might matters more than the quality of a relationship. Online harassment can result in psychological and emotional strain. Some incidences reported in newspapers included murders and suicides due to cyber-stalking and bullying. One important tip that police and responsible adults impart are to not befriend individuals whom one doesn’t know in real life and never to meet online ‘friends’ in isolated places.

Social networking is taking up important marketing and business roles as well. Facebook has gained recognition as a business-related site. It is not uncommon for prospective employers and college admissions counselors to look into profiles of applicants to make their decision-making process easier. Sites like LinkedIn provide professional business networking opportunities. Businesses are increasingly applying online portals to promote themselves and to target consumer interests. Job applicants can also use online networking for finding suitable jobs or to share thoughts with co-workers. The importance of portraying a suitable professional image online cannot be stressed enough. The Wall street Journal recently reported in an interview with, Eric Schmidt , the CEO of Google, commenting on how the “young may want to change names in future to escape public record of youthful indiscretions” because "I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time…", adding that, based on the information that Google collects, “we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are." That is not a very comforting thought!

For Asian populations, the more popular online websites and services include Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter which have a huge following. However, the numbers would be much higher than what they are projected to be now if economic reasons did not prevent huge sections of populations from purchasing personal computers and accessing online portals. According to the advertising page of Facebook, the total number of Facebook users in Asia is 59.6 million, which is about 15% of the global Facebook population. The two main age groups are between 18 – 24 and 25 – 34. The young 18 – 24 year olds dominate in Indonesia, Philippines, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh, this age group constitutes more than half of the Facebook users in their respective country. Similarly, according to a Toronto-based social media analytics company, Sysomos’s latest report on Twitter, Asian countries constitute about 7.74% of the Twitter users worldwide.

Another important function that online websites have taken up is that of matchmaking, which was previously done by family or friends or professional matrimonial services. Now, finding romantic interests online has become the craze for the very young as well as the lonely older age group. Sites like eHarmony,, etc. have gained huge popularity. There are many matchmaking sites now catering to specific groups as well, like Senior FriendFinder, Catholic Match, etc. The online dating websites advertise their services through online search engines and act as social networking sites too. When people join these websites they may add relevant information on their profiles and then are matched with people of similar interests. They boast of a high success rate and attract a huge following, though, just like real life interactions utmost care should be taken when imparting personal information to anyone.

One advantage of online dating is that one can focus on the common aim of getting to know the other person. Eastern populations of South Asia are taking advantage of online networking through websites like Asia, Asian Singles Connect, Indian FriendFinder, etc. In societies where arranged marriage is the norm and is considered more of a union of families rather than just two people, various criteria set by the matchmakers might not necessarily coincide with that of the couple. Yet, there is no data so far to support the success of online interaction versus traditional matchmaking in Asia. Nothing compares to meeting and knowing someone personally. We can click to connect instantly, but forming long lasting and fulfilling relationships demands much more than the superficial bonds formed through social media, which also undermine social skills and the ability to read body language.

Surprisingly, despite the high number of hours spent each day online, young adults remain dissatisfied and lonelier than ever. A recent report called The Lonely Society? Published by a New York based charity called the Mental health Foundation describes that almost 53% of 18-34 year olds had felt lonely compared to just 32% over 55. The report found the reason to be linked to the admission of 1/3rd of these young people who admitted to spending too much time online and not enough in person. Mark Vernon, the author of The Meaning Of Friendship aptly remarks, "For older generations, who have come to it when their friendships are already well established, social networking just makes up for the fact that you can't be physically present all the time," and that, "You've spent plenty of time together in the past, and can understand the nuances of a short email or message. If you've mostly conducted your friendship online, you don't have that resource to draw on."

All said however, like everything else, online networking has its advantages and disadvantages, but the technology of instant contact is here to stay and we might as well learn to use it responsibly and to our benefit. Do you agree? Let me know… I’m just a click away!

SouthAsia, Sept 2010.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Food for Thought!

Introducing Interfaith Action Inc.'s cookbook, Food for Thought. The cookbook cover - designed by Rachel Finklestein especially for the IFA - and the introduction that I wrote, reflect the sentiments of all those associated with this project in some way. This cookbook is a celebration of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of Sharon that the IFA is proud to support.

One of the major inspirations behind writing or compiling a book is to serve as a source of recorded history. Whether it is a work of fiction or non-fictional narrative, the reach and impact of the written word transcends geographical boundaries and challenges the mind. Writing a cookbook is one such endeavor that aims to connect generations by passing on their recipes to the realm of timelessness.

All cultures have their own cuisine and etiquette, and sharing their favorite traditional foods enriches one’s outlook. As revealed in Food in Global History, by Raymond Grew, “Historians find in foods’ ties to economics, technology, commerce, and re¬ligion particularly satisfying evidence of how ordinary, daily activities are re¬lated to larger historical trends.” Cookbooks from different cultures have addressed this finding in a variety of ways.

Grew discovered that the first cookbook, called Kuchenmeisterey, was published as early as 1485, in Nuremberg. Moreover, early English cookbooks largely targeted a female audience, while the French encouraged “the culinary arts for the elitist male chef domain”. American cookbooks centered upon a married woman’s life revolving around cooking and serving meals to her family. Eastern cultures have also primarily focused on domesticity as a feminine trait, and cookbooks address the housewife who is skilled in the art of cooking as a ‘valued’ wife. A favorite saying in the East is: “The way to a man’s heart goes through the kitchen door”. However, financial concerns and the increasing role of the educated woman in the work environment have resulted in men becoming more actively involved in mealtime preparation.

Inside the covers of cookbooks, one discovers food and eating preferences of cultures from all regions of the world. Cooking and eating is not as simple an affair as one might think. Reflecting family preferences and cultural traditions, the home cook chooses vegetables or meat and selects grains, fruit or eggs spiced with hot or bland flavors. These foods undergo a variety of cooking techniques such as frying, boiling, grilling or steaming; or they may be preserved by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying, or soaking. A lot goes into the accomplishment of the end result we so eagerly consume! It is also interesting to note that many dishes made in different parts of the world have much in common, e.g. a rice dish which is a favorite in many countries is known by many different names, such as Biryani or Pulao (Pakistan, India), Jambalaya (US South), Bocumbop (Korea), Paella (Spain), Chau Fan (China), Pilaf (some countries of Middle East, Central Asia), Pilafi (Greece) Qabli Palau (Afganistan) and Risotto (Italy). All these dishes feature local produce and spices to give each their own flavorful characteristics.

Cultural etiquette also varies with region. Cultures may require that meals be eaten at a table, sitting around a floor mat, or standing at a counter. Some may recite a prayer of thanks at the beginning of a meal, others at the end. Diners may use cutlery, chopsticks or hands as implements. All signify adherence to preferred cultural or religious custom and provide a window into the heart of cultural history.

Since food has enormous potential for serving as an indicator of cultural trends, we spend hours researching online to find ways to enrich our eating experiences with a variety of ethnic foods. Living in Sharon, we have a wonderful advantage where we can take a trip into a foreign food culture without leaving our small town! To make this experience even more meaningful, a committee of volunteers from an organization in our town called Interfaith Action Inc. (IFA) has compiled this cookbook, Food for Thought. It consists of a rich blend of traditions and treats in the form of family favorite recipes from different cultures along with their anecdotal notes.

The IFA is known for encouraging Sharon’s cultural diversity to play an important role in weaving a sense of cohesion into our town and urging us to come together in many wonderful ways. We hope this cookbook will be another source of connection for a community that truly owns its diversity. The recipes included in this cookbook are followed by home cooks in not only the United States but also Cambodia, China, England, Greece, India, Iran, Ireland, Pakistan Portugal Russia, South Africa and Spain, to name a few.

Why the cookbook title, Food for Thought, you may wonder! This is not just a book. We chose this title so that as you prepare a dish for family or friends from our collection, you may reflect on the diversity represented by each recipe. Think of the tradition and the full range of cultural associations connected with every dish served to prior generations of the related culture. We hope you come out sated and enriched. Enjoy your meal!

The cookbook is now available for sale! Price for one book is $18 and for two or more, 15 $/book. Out of town shipping and handling charge, an additional $2. To order a copy, please contact Janet Penn at Interfaith Action Inc., P.O. Box 200, Sharon, MA 02067.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Future of Our Youth


What future do the youth in developing countries have where opportunities are few and challenges numerous?

Youth participation in world affairs is an investment into the future. The UN General Assembly in recognition of this important fact, in 1999 endorsed the recommendation of the World Conference of Ministers responsible for Youth to declare 12 August as International Youth Day.

Through this forum, the UN has invited youth participation in the past on development issues like poverty alleviation, health and unemployment, climate change etc. employing print and electronic media to organize public meetings and debates, concerts and exhibitions to make a commitment for stronger and better communities around the world. This year 2010 has also been declared as the International Youth Year, and this year’s theme is ‘Mutual Dialogue and Understanding’.

The issues faced by the young living in today’s world are numerous and challenging, especially in the underdeveloped countries. Generally speaking, the youth in the developed world have moved beyond the three-square-meals-a-day concerns, while their counterparts in some of the developing countries live with uncertainty and fear, battling survival issues on multiple levels.

South Asia lags behind in many important development indicators, including healthcare, education, food, water and energy. These concerns are inter-related and interdependent. Studies have indicated that between 1960 and 2000, the number of young adults more than doubled in most Asian countries, putting enormous pressure on governments to invest in health and education and to create employment.

Unfortunately, widespread corruption and mounting foreign debt consume the budgets of developing countries while these important issues continue to suffer. According to some estimates, Pakistan is expected to have over 170 million potential workers by 2030. It is widely acknowledged by development planners and practitioners that the stability of any country depends on how well the balance is created between demand with supply. Unfortunately, the Pakistan economy does not appear in any way ready to accommodate the influx of such a huge number of workers. The fallout of low employment is already evident in the corresponding high rate of crime.

According to the International Labor organization (ILO), Asia represents the largest concentration of the urban poor in the world, and the South Asian market is distinguished by the unemployed and the underemployed. The unemployment levels in South Asia increased from 2.9 % in 1995 to 3.4% in 2001. The unemployment rate of Pakistan was estimated to be at a staggering 7.8% in 2003 by the Labor Force Survey of Pakistan. However, data from the Asian Development bank (ADP) showed that whereas unemployment increased in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives, Sri Lanka showed a different trend with low level of population growth and high levels of human development. The reason is widely accepted to be the comparatively higher female literacy rate in Sri Lanka, as young educated women chose to enter the job market and delayed marriage or childbearing.

The education sector is a major area of concern in all developing countries of South Asia, where the existing educational infrastructure is not only inadequate, but also ill-equipped to impart skills needed for an increasingly competitive world. E.g. a struggling, outdated, public education system in Pakistan has failed to train a force of working adults capable of fuelling the economy. Conversely, the country’s existing private education system is at par with that of the developed world, but only accessible to a small minority of the elite. This disparity is in itself a cause for internal conflict.

Many young adolescents of the poverty ridden Asian societies start their careers as child laborers when economic compulsions force them out into the labor market at a very young age. These children then remain trapped in a cycle of poverty forever. Factors identified by ILO as being conducive to an increase in the number of child laborers include parental poverty and illiteracy, social and economic attitudes and circumstances, lack of access to education, lack of awareness, and adult unemployment or underemployment. Provision of basic education along with vocational and practical skills is widely acknowledged as an effective means to break the cycle of poverty. Non-formal educational program which are relevant and easily accessible to poor families have enabled many child workers in some South Asian countries to come up to their age-appropriate grade level.

Healthcare sector in most countries of South Asia is as challenged as other sectors. The ratio of healthcare professionals versus patients is very low. Moreover, since healthcare spending is out-of-pocket, costly treatment is beyond the reach of a majority that lives below the UN defined poverty line of less than $2/day. India has the world’s 4th largest concentration of HIV-AIDS positive adults, a considerable number include young working-age adults. India also has a 500,000 strong sex workers community which, according to some studies, has had a considerable share in this area of concern. In 2007 more than 5.5 million people were estimated to be infected and a major catastrophe appeared to be in the making. However, cooperation with world aid and humanitarian agencies and through extensive hard work, training and vigilance the number of afflicted individuals has come down to 2.3 million, according to current government estimates.

Young men generally are more likely to indulge in risk behaviors as compared to young women in patriarchal societies due their limited exposure. Unemployed, poor, frustrated young men indulge in drugs to escape the grim realities of their lives. The war-torn Afghanistan is estimated to supply 90 % of world consumption of heroin. While generations of Afghanis youth continue to struggle with the instability and violence in their lives for decades, neighboring countries of South Asia remain equally plagued with this problem.

The high rate of suicide has become a serious concern for the youth of many South Asian countries due to issues of poverty, unemployment, lack of civic facilities, and poor access to healthcare. South Asia is home to a major part of the world's population and is estimated to account for up to 60% of all suicides worldwide by the World Health Organization. Statistics from the WHO on suicide in some South Asian countries seem to support the Dutch suicidologist Deikstra's trend predictions of rise in suicide cases in the developing countries in coming years. In Bangladesh, The total number of suicides reported to the Forensic Medicine Department of Dhaka Medical College indicates that suicides have increased from 12/month in 1989 to 18/month in 1998. Suicide rates in India (1988-1998) increased by 33.7%. In Sri Lanka, one study estimated that the proportion of young adults committing suicide increased from 33% in 1960 to 44% in 1980. Data from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) revealed that in 2006 most of the suicide victims were females under 30 years of age.

The Asian youth are intelligent, hardworking and as motivated, if not more, as their counterparts in the more developed parts of the world. It is unfortunate that only a very small number of these young adults get a chance to materialize their dreams or participate in global initiatives aimed at improving their situation or creating dialogue for mutual understanding. The world aid agencies would find investing in the youth though educational initiatives a more successful strategy in fighting the issues of violence and instability prevalent in these societies. Education creates awareness, discourages exploitation and improves prospects for a productive future for the collective benefit of the whole society.

SouthAsia Magazine, Future of Youth August 2010.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tools for Progress

The development of new and innovative forms of media over the years has served its purpose not only as a means of communication for social networking but also as a vital tool for development purposes.

Social interaction and communication are integral to human development. It is no surprise then that we depend to such a large extent on the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for efficient management and running of organizations and for development of our communities.

The various ICTs we employ include print, electronic and, increasingly, the more advanced new-age media of internet. Print media has a long history among the media sources, and includes newspapers, magazines, books and brochures etc. Among the electronic media, radio and television remain the more popular forms while CDs and DVDs for entertainment and educational purposes have dominated the public sphere in the past couple of decades. However, the internet outshines every other media form due to speed, ease of access and the scope of its range. It provides unlimited opportunities for mass communication through modes such as email, blogs now exceeding 60 million, social networking sites like Facebook with almost 500 million users and 70 language translations, educational research websites like Questia with over 70,000 books and 2million articles, informational search engines like Google etc.

The South Asian countries, although still more reliant on traditional sources of information due to economic limitations, have nonetheless benefitted from introduction of the new-age mass communication technology in various fields. In the field of education, for example, print media was traditionally the dominant medium of educational instruction, while radio and television have played an important role in disseminating distant learning courses. However, by incorporating online tools to enhance learning capacity of recipients, providers are offering them a whole new realm of opportunity. In Pakistan, Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) established in 1974, and the more recently set up Virtual University (VU) now provide distant learning opportunities incorporating online education to supplement their existing communication technologies. Access to latest material online in comparison to the outdated and limited resources available in local libraries has enhanced the capacity of these universities.

The merits of online learning were acknowledged in a 2009 US Department of Education study which revealed that on the average, online students in the US outperformed those receiving face-to-face instruction. Manufacturers are thus offering attractive packages and products in PCs and green laptops. The reasons may be based on numerous factors. The flexibility offered by online courses in terms of time and space constraints, in addition to full-time access to diverse perspectives and experiences offered by teachers, experts, researchers and professionals present in different geographical locations enhances global awareness which is especially important in a world increasingly in need of mutual cooperation.

Another ICT tool, the mobile phone, which ushered in a whole new the era of possibilities of instant communication in the sixties, has also proven to be a useful mass literacy agent in developing countries, while simultaneously offering quick economic rewards in the form of new job markets. Due to its simple usage and instant connectivity, and unlike the need for training in computer literacy, its advantage lies in its fairly easy functionality; as are mobile phone towers easier to install and cost effective than landlines. Pakistan leads South Asia with a mobile phone penetration of 59.60 % (PTA, 2010), Bangladesh at 34% (BTRC 2010) Nepal has15% penetration and India 49.60% (TRAI, 2010). A Group Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) 2007 study estimated that the mobile industry created 220,000 jobs in Pakistan. In 2006, 54% of the total direct foreign investment in the country was also done by mobile operators (PTA).

Mobile phones are helping countries work towards achieving MDGs for education. Significant sections of South Asian countries are illiterate. According to the CIA’s The World Factbook, 2/3rds of the world’s illiterates are concentrated in just eight countries including India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and 2/3rds of all illiterate adults are women. Sms-based literacy programs in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are being implemented to empower the marginalized, especially women. The Mobilink CEO Rashid Khan recognizing the potential of this tool had rightly observed at the inception of one successful project conducted in collaboration with UNESCO, ‘"The cell phone holds the key to social development by its very nature and we want to make sure that women are part of this revolution".

In addition to education, use of mobile phones has helped improve incomes of financially marginalized small-scale service providers in diverse fields. For agricultural economies like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the mobile phones have brought about a revolution in the lives of farmers as updated and timely access to market information through mobile phones is helping them make informed choices and hence, sound investments.

Mobile phones are also playing an increasingly important role in addressing healthcare needs of rural populations of developing countries. As observed by the World health Organization: “Information and communication technologies enable people in remote areas to have access to services and expertise otherwise unavailable to them, especially in countries with uneven distribution or chronic shortages of physicians, nurses and health technicians or where access to facilities and expert advice requires travel over long distances,”. Unfortunately, while almost 80% of physicians in these countries live and work in urban areas, the majority population lives in rural areas. A 2009 Senza Fili Consulting White paper details among other projects, the use of latest communication technologies to carry out training for healthcare workers; a trial project, called The Cisco Project, in Pakistan which combines satellite and WiMAX connectivity to provide cancer screening to rural patients; a trial in India in which Cisco and Intel used wireless connectivity to send e‐learning classes to students’ laptops, and Healthline service like the Bangladeshi telemedicine service set up by TRLA Ltd. and GrameenPhone which provides basic medical advice to patients in remote areas at negligible cost. Another estimated 10 million people have made use of GSMA’s Healthline Hotline in SouthAsia.

As a means for social change, the use of ICTs has revolutionized communication. The media is supporting people in South Asian countries plagued with massive corruption and inept governance to reinforce responsibility and transparency. In Pakistan the Lawyers Movement in 2008 was run with the help of the ICTs offering 24-hour live coverage and helped citizens mobilize support. The recent Iran election is another such example. In conflict struck regions, ordinary people have taken upon themselves to report violations of international law and to create awareness about their human rights concerns.

Social media has also brought a fundamental shift in the way we communicate in our everyday lives. Social networking sites have brought people closer by encouraging them to share perspectives on global issues. They have however, also caused rifts with clashing concepts of freedom of speech, yet opening up of dialogue between diverse nations and cultures is certainly a welcome move. However, the overexposure or intrusiveness of these social networking sites is also an element of concern for many, increasingly associated with growing crime and stress, especially among the younger, more impressionable age group.

All said, however, embracing technology is the key to development. As with any experience, responsible application is the key. The positive effect of technology on the lives of rural and urban populations in developing countries is enormous, especially where social inequality issues have been addressed. Technology alone is no guarantee of change, but can be an important part of the solution.

SouthAsia , July 2010.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

One Planet. One Future.


World Environment Day aims to create awareness and call to attention the need for the world community to come together and contribute in preserving the environment shared by all.

Since 1973, World Environment Day is held every year on June 5, hosted by a different city and celebrating a different theme each succeeding year. Previous themes have included issues of water, human settlements, ozone layer, global warming, melting ice, deserts and desertification, low carbon economy, and poverty etc. This year Rwanda has been selected to be the global host and the all-inclusive theme for 2010 is: Many Species. One Planet. One Future.

Our environment is shared by all species, plant and animal, and they have an equal stake in the future of the planet. Since humans are the dominant species on Earth, the outcomes of their actions affect not only their own survival but also of other species. Scientists generally agree that human activity is the prime cause of deterioration in biodiversity, which in turn has led to an alarming rate of species extinction believed to be at least 100-1,000 times higher than the estimated natural rate.

For the populous poverty-ridden South Asian region, expanding human settlements, logging, mining, agriculture and pollution are factors compounded by ineffective management of environmental and social development issues which cause serious existential threats. A 2001 World Bank study asserted the same, which unfortunately still holds true: “…resource depletion and ecological degradation, indoor and urban air pollution, lack of access to clean water supplies and sanitation, toxic and hazardous agro-industrial waste generation and disposal, and vulnerability to natural disasters. These problems, magnified by the inadequacy of governance structures in every country of the region and at all levels, threaten or cause losses of life and livelihoods of millions of people” The study estimates that 168,000 premature deaths annually are caused by air pollution in Pakistan, and 132,000 in Bangladesh. That’s a significant loss to just one type of environmental health risk factor.

Water pollution is another serious environmental threat for human and marine life. Studies conducted in some developing countries of South Asia have shown that rivers are highly polluted, and the microbiological quality of water is so bad that faecal coliform count in some of Asia's rivers is 50 times higher than WHO guidelines. This water is used for drinking, bathing and washing. Studies have indicated that Bangladesh has some of the most arsenic-contaminated groundwater in the world, with at least 1.2 million Bangladeshis already exposed to arsenic poisoning. A UNICEF study in 2006 revealed that 128 million people in India, 32 million in Bangladesh and 16 million in Pakistan did not use an improved drinking water source, and death due to unsafe water source, especially among small children, remains a high percentage in these countries.

Effective coastal zone management is extremely important for environment preservation. Calculated climate predictions of scientists have shown that coral reefs, which support at least a million plant and animal species, will sharply decline in the coming decades. In a paper titled: Global Trade and Consumer Choices: Coral reefs in Crisis, Barbara Best and Franklin Moore have discussed the causes and consequences, and the value of coral reef ecosystems to developing countries. It was identified that “… coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems… occur in over 100 countries, most of them developing countries without the capacity or financial resources to adequately manage these vital resources. Reef systems provide economic and environmental services to millions of people as shoreline protection from waves and storms….and as sources of food, pharmaceuticals, livelihoods, and revenues.” Hence, in these developing countries, coral reefs provide food to about 1 billion Asians by contributing about one-quarter of the total fish catch. Destruction of coral reefs would understandably have devastating effects for large sections of populations.

Similarly, the region’s high vulnerability to natural disasters also results in huge losses. These disasters are related to environmental factors such as global warming and deforestation. As the study goes on to reveal, “Over the 1965-98 period, India accounted for about 64 percent and Bangladesh for 25 percent of the damages arising from natural disasters. Floods, cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons were responsible for 86 per-cent of the damage in those countries during this period.”

Extinction of animal species is a serious concern as it effects biodiversity and hence the ecosystems. Many South Asian animal species are on the verge of extinction like the Asian rhino, the Bengal Tigers and marine turtles, to name a few. WWF has been supporting Asian elephant and rhino conservation in India and Sri Lanka for over 40 years. In 1998, the Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) was created to conserve their remaining populations and preserve their habitats. The endangered species of the Bengal Tiger, found in Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Nepal, is also surviving in difficult conditions due to illegal wildlife trade, poaching and frequent clash with the locals. All seven species of marine turtles are listed as endangered species in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Since coastal communities in developing countries use marine turtles as a source for food, and they fill an important ecological role it is important to follow the guidelines of agencies like the WWF to preserve this vital species. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is playing an important role in collaboration with local governments in these countries by creating awareness and helping to strengthening sanctuaries.

Academics from Australia's University of New South Wales and Purdue University in the United States in a recent study have predicted a grave future for Earth, stressing that global warming, which is predominantly caused by carbon emissions of developed countries, will present a serious challenge in the coming centuries, "under realistic scenarios out to 2300, we may be faced with temperature increases of 12 degrees (Celsius) or even more," and “If this happens, our current worries about sea level rise, occasional heat waves and bushfires, biodiversity loss and agricultural difficulties will pale into insignificance beside a major threat -- as much as half the currently inhabited globe may simply become too hot for people to live there."

Deforestation poses a threat to effective management of global warming. Several tree-planting projects have been initiated in developing countries, with incentives to earn carbon and ecosystem credits to trade with forest conservation efforts. Figures from a report published in 2007 by the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of leading rainforest scientists, show some revealing facts: deforestation is responsible for about 25% of global emissions of heat-trapping gases. The report concludes with a warning that calls for serious consideration, "If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change." Every effort needs to be directed towards recognizing the importance of cutting carbon emissions and checking deforestation, and complying with recommendations of relevant agencies for preservation startegies.

The World Environment Day can only serve its purpose if realistic targets are set and enough awareness and motivation is created in both developing and developed countries to willingly commit to preserving the world for the coming generations of living species. In this regard, world environment protection and preservation agencies and local governments could play a significant role in rewarding responsible practices, and creating economic incentives for those showing responsible behaviors and demonstrating a will to continue to adhere to Nature- friendly lifestyles. Unless the responsibility of establishing corrective measures is shared by all, long term goals of survival might remain an elusive dream.

Published: SouthAsia, June 2010.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Behind the Veil


Her mind drifted to the morning’s events…

“Isn’t it hot in here?” Iraj had commented pointedly looking at her headscarf, as she twisted her own hair into an elegant chignon.

“Mmm...I think the air conditioning is functioning perfectly as usual.” She had replied coolly, sorting out the reference material that had arrived the same day.

“Don’t know how you can stand it, Maheen…I’d suffocate!” Jane joined in, in her usual straight-to-the-point manner.

“You don’t have to wear it if that’s how you feel.” She had replied casually.

“What’s your hair like these days, Mahi? Straight, curly, black, blonde… er…long, short…do you have hair at all?” Jane remarked curiously, drumming her delicate fingers on the table.

“Haven’t you two got any work to do today?” Ted Miller, her boss, commented lightly as he passed by.

Iraj made a face at his receding back and they burst out laughting before moving off to their sections.

Maheen was grateful for the intervention. He was a real dear, old Ted...sure valued hardwork and hard-workers.

Read a little while!

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Time to Reflect


Is religious correctness stifling freedom of speech or free expression testing religious boundaries?

Multi-religious and multi-cultural societies have still much to learn by way of harmonious coexistence, not the least of which is finding a balance between freedom of speech and religious correctness.

Starting with the controversy aroused over two decades ago by Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’, a trend was set into motion that continues to threaten social cohesion in many societies even today. The Danish Cartoon Controversy rendered the world even more divided on the issue of freedom of speech and religious sensitivity, and now the 200th episode of South Park has sparked off the latest debate on what is seen as religious correctness vs. freedom to ridicule. This is a debate that keeps coming back to haunt us and hence worth a few moments of our consideration.

South Park, an animated comedy series production of the American television network, Comedy Central, is a social satire depicting life through the eyes of four fourth-grade boys living in a fictional town in Colorado. Intended for adult audiences only, it is known for the use of crude humor and strong profanity while spinning some spitting satire. Some previous episodes have received criticism; including one titled ‘Bloody Mary’ condemned by the Catholics, and another on Scientology caused Tom Cruise to demand further reruns of the episode be cancelled.

The contentious issue of the depiction of the Prophet of Islam in the costume of a teddy bear, though now censored, has aroused reactions in the Muslim world ranging from quiet indignation to fatwas and threats made in the murky cyber world. With political correctness getting in the way of direct communication, one ends up trusting Newspaper websites and blogs to depict the public mindset. Queries range from questioning the sense of humor – or lack thereof – of Muslims, to why Prophet Muhammad remains beyond ridicule if Jesus and Moses have been targeted in earlier episodes with no threat of violence from either religious community. But, more importantly, a heated debate rages over where the concept of freedom of speech rests in view of the decision to censor the offending episode? Valid queries, all.

With the Satanic Verses and the Cartoon issue, the voices of reason within the Muslim community were silenced by those supporting retaliation with force, ‘Are you part of the Muslim community or not?’ – a version of the infamous Bush era theme of ‘with us or against us’. At that point, many peaceful Muslims would have liked to see some understanding for their sensitivities and hear from the non-Muslim or Western community, ‘We're sorry you feel offended and can also see why, given the high respect you accord your Prophet, but we believe in freedom of speech and cannot take away that right even from offending voices.’ Instead the message that came through was, ‘We have the right to abuse anyone we like, that's our concept of freedom of speech – accept it or leave."

This lack of sensitivity for religious concerns of Muslims at that time also alienated the reasonable voices to an extent by changing their indignation against the violent lot in their own community towards those supporting the offensive words and images. Everyone lost perspective. Groups of Muslims went on the rampage in a show of resentment, and a corresponding rise of sympathy and support was seen for the offending material from the proponents of free speech. Material which was probably doomed for the dustbins of time managed to etch an eternal plaque for itself in the annals of history, and continues to color our perceptions even today.

The South Park issue and the response to it are very similar to the Cartoon Controversy. The censorship seems to have taken care of the immediate threat to violence for now, but there is no guarantee future issues will be similarly contained, and whether that is the right solution in the long term. How much censorship a society used to unrestricted freedom of expression will tolerate, is also a question that will keep on urging us to face uncomfortable realities and make some uncomfortable choices. While religious correctness need not stifle freedom of speech, targeting religious sensitivities is also not the only form of humor one needs to learn to appreciate. However, the politics of violence will have to be shunned unequivocally.

Civilized protest is a right guaranteed to all, but no legal framework or religious code of conduct encourages violence. Muslims have every right to feel offended by attempts at humor at their cost and express their displeasure, but they must learn some peaceful and effective forms of protest. That might actually win them some sympathy, since most people of all affiliations still choose civility over the right to ridicule. Overt or covert references to serious consequences only produce hatred.

In this regard, Muslims need only recall the example of their beloved Prophet in terms of his response to ridicule and scorn during his lifetime to decide their own reactions to such provocation. The authenticated records of the Prophet’s life, the books of Hadith, depict the Prophet responding with kindness to people who openly ridiculed and abused him. He neither did himself, nor asked his companions to retaliate with force, but instead chose to teach by example of forgiveness. A Hadith from Sahih Al-Bukhari, establishes the same point: "And you do not do evil to those Who do evil to you, but you deal With them with forgiveness and kindness."

The basic message imparted by all major religions is of forgiveness and kindness. Some of us either have convenient memories or tend to overlook that important message to promote our own agendas. Isn’t it time to set our perspectives and priorities in order and learn to coexist peacefully to benefit the societies we inhabit?

Published: The Radicla Middle Way on May 17, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dignity of Labour


International Worker’s Day celebrates how far we have come in terms of securing social and economic rights of workers around the world, but also a reminder of how much more needs to be done.

The United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families defines a migrant worker as, “a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.”

The Middle East has been a sought after destination for migrant workers from South Asia since the 70s. An International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate puts the number of foreign workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE, at 9.5 million, and about 7.5 million of these belong to Asia.

The multidimensional implications and reasons for migration of South Asian laborers to the Middle East are worth pondering. A research paper titled “Migrant Workers and Xenophobia in the Middle East” (UN Research Institute for Social Development) analyzes trends in migration to countries in the Middle East. The report expounds on how the development plans resulting from the oil price boom in the Gulf States in 1973 prompted the GCC countries to attract workers from abroad. Though initially there were Arab workers from the Gulf Cooperation Council states, very soon the demand could not be met without inviting more workers from Asian nations. These workers became the major contributors to the inexpensive, efficient and diligent work force over a short period of time. Their willingness to work on a temporary status also made them the preferred choice of the Arab States concerned about citizenship issues.

The report acknowledged that the Asian governments supporting their recruitment agencies were enthusiastic for their workers to take this opportunity in order to ease the pressure of unemployment and to contribute in stimulating economies of home countries. According to this research paper, “in 1999 total remittances to Sri Lanka from workers abroad totalled $1 billion, which constituted around 20 per cent of foreign goods imports for the previous year and more than the trade deficit of $0.7 billion.”

Initially, the workers were satisfied since many of them were able to enjoy a relatively higher standard of living because of better-paid jobs than they would have at home living on $2/day. However, the report acknowledged that despite being hard working and efficient, Asians ended up with the raw end of the deal because as temporary contract workers they were not protected under any UN or ILO conventions, or local labor laws. Moreover, their dangerous and difficult jobs also became associated with these migrant workers to such a degree that locals refused to accept them, despite compelling poverty and unemployment. The governments involved have often been accused of not making a serious effort to improve conditions for migrants for fear of affecting the demand, and hence their economy.

Migrant workers, whether working as gardeners, domestic workers, construction workers or porters who left their homes in search of better futures have complained to Human Rights Watch activists of shattered dreams and hopes. The plight of these workers has been highlighted in reports by the Human Rights Watch over the years. Migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, lured by recruiters with promises of easy work and good living conditions, found realities on ground to be quite different. Since workers from poor families are usually illiterate they were ignorant of the loopholes in contracts that signed over their rights to legal redress, as well as agreeing to years of hard labor. Male migrant workers mostly work in construction, manufacturing and agricultural fields, while women prefer domestic work. A day’s shift for a worker may go up to 12 hours/day in hot and humid environment for an average of $8/day.

A report titled, “Dubai in a Jagged World” by Ahmed Kanna, a post doctoral fellow at the University of Iowa, describes how the passports are confiscated and workers housed in “closely watched camps, sorted into wage categories that seem to parallel their nationalities and shipped from these ‘company accommodations’ to their work sites in cramped company buses, their only means of transportation outside the camps.” Critics claim Dubai has largely ignored recommendations of UN on the issue of migrant workers, while companies remain resistant to reform when it involves spending money.

In some companies in Sharja, workers have shared shattered dreams living without proper plumbing, electricity or food, and ultimately, work. Faced with dire choices, absconding seems like an attractive option but it is effectively checked by confiscation of passports. Absconding used to be a big problem in Bahrain where accommodations are believed to be much worse, and unpaid wage issues causing serious tension. Employers blame the global economic downturn for delays in payment or for companies going bankrupt, and simply dump the workers without passports and wages. Though it is illegal in Bahrain to withhold wages and authorizes government to prosecute employers, it is a long and costly process and the workers choose instead to leave the country with help from their embassies. Human rights organizations are active and supportive of the migrant workers difficulties in dealing with abusive employers or recovery of wages and passports, but it is not an easy task and the results are not always in their favour.

Women from South Asia constitute a huge percentage of migrant workers. Their condition is much worse as they work mostly as domestic workers, confined in homes and completely at the mercy of their employers. They suffer sexual harassment and abuse on a large scale, with no mechanisms for redress. A study supported by the UN Research Institute for Social Development described how “domestic workers in Lebanon live under conditions that have been likened to slavery. The structural arrangements, including the threat of violence, restriction of movement and exploitative employment conditions, have led to significantly widespread abuse of these women, who constitute a particularly vulnerable group, comprise the bulk of foreign workers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines.”

A major issue faced by women is testing HIV positive at the time of renewal of their contracts. A report titled, “HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: from Asia to the Arab States” released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) exposed the magnitude of the problem. This report was the result of serious concerns expressed by Pakistan at the WHO forum in 2007 regarding forced deportations of women workers from Arab countries after testing positive for HIV. It acknowledged that the women “leave for work under unsafe conditions, live in very difficult circumstances, and are often targets of sexual exploitation and violence before they depart, during their transit and stay in host countries and on return to their countries of origin”. Nothing effective has apparently been done so far to provide security from sexual abuse and violence to these women, and they continue to suffer.

To bring some hope into the lives of all those serving under difficult circumstances, strict monitoring is required at every step, starting with recruitment agencies, while regulation and monitoring by labor-sending and labor receiving countries to maintain a level of respect for the rights of the work force is essential for change. Indeed, no celebration of achievements would be complete without continued support for restoration of the dignity of labour for South Asian migrant workers.

SouthAsia, May 2010.