Sunday, February 24, 2013

Neck deep, and out of their depth

Do you remember them — standing neck-deep in water for 17 days? Did you understand what the farmers were trying to say to the state and to other citizens who might benefit from their dislocation?
They were saying that it wasn’t so much about land; their very lives were at stake. The Madhya Pradesh government had agreed to some of their demands, like lowering the height of the Omkareshwar dam across the Narmada (but when another group protested, asking that the height of Indira Sagar dam be lowered, the police forced them out of the water).
In recent weeks, while the Kumbh Mela was on in Allahabad, a ‘Jal Sansad’ was underway on the riverbank, discussing a crisis in the trans-Yamuna area. The organisers believe that upto 10 lakh people will be affected by three proposed thermal power plants. In summer, this could mean the Yamuna running dry, which will lead to a stop in sand-mining, river-bed farming, fishing, ferrying, not to mention extensive pollution due to burning coal.
Also, in recent weeks, a workshop on development projects was organised by a media advocacy group, Vikas Samvad (disclosure: I prepared a report for this organisation as an independent journalist in 2010). The workshop report points out that, between 2007 to 2010, about 395 MoUs (memoranda of understanding) were signed between the state and investors, of which 21 firms gave no addresses; 22 firms did not mention how much money they’d invest; 87 firms either changed their minds about investing or the government cancelled their projects. Anyway, the state went about procuring land for firms, regardless of how many livelihoods would be gained or lost. An RTI query revealed that over 2, 43,787 hectares of land had been acquired for 130 companies.
Other activists remarked on how gramsabhas — integral to the process of community consultation — were held. In one Chhattisgarh village, the meeting had 1,500 policemen in attendance.
For water, the battle is larger because once rivers are dammed, local climate change is inevitable. The price is always paid by those who live nearby. One workshop participant spoke of how there are no major chemical factories near his village and yet, the Narmada water stank. Malaria was rare in the Tawa valley; now it rages freely.
When dams are proposed, the stated purpose is often ‘providing drinking water’ to urban areas and irrigating fields. But despite dams, parts of Madhya Pradesh remain thirsty. Fields in the vicinity remain parched in summer while Bargi dam feeds cement factories.
Since 1992, there’s been little addition to the net area irrigated by large and medium irrigation projects. Yet, the new Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests reportedly considered 262 hydropower and irrigation projects since 2007, and rejected almost none.
They also allege that the EAC relies on fake Environment Impact Assessment reports and sometimes violate the law. The Himachal HC had appointed a committee that recommended at least 5km of flowing river water between any two projects. However, activists say that the EAC has been following a norm of just 1 km, and sometimes, zero.
In recent decades, the USA has also ‘decommissioned’ some dams to save certain species of fish. Indians who live by rivers, who make a living off rivers, must be wondering if their lives are worth less than that of American salmon or eel.
First published here

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Not just love stories

I was at a bookstore recently, trying to figure out if my new book was in stock and where it was placed. The staff was kind. They let me sign a few copies. Then, trying to be helpful, the manager’s assistant asked if I would like them to move the book from the overcrowded ‘Indian Writing’ shelf to ‘Romance’, where it would find a focused readership.

I said ‘No’ quickly and my voice was sharper than I intended it to be. I felt I had to squash the faintest notion that my book, although it is about love, was romantic. Partly because it isn’t romantic. But also because I was terrified of being genre-ized, trivialized, un-serioused.

Much as I want to be read by millions, I’m not afraid of being ghettoized if it means being considered a more ‘serious’ writer. Like most women writers I know, I do write stories about relationships. But I’m damned if I’m going to be ushered into the corner – admittedly a better-paid corner – currently occupied by writers of romance novels or ‘chick-lit’.

It could be that I am only imagining this, but it seems to me that few women writers who get stuck with the ‘chick’ tag have been taken seriously as, say, informers of public opinion or social commentators.

Read the rest of the piece here:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bans on truth

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one book that I feel should be compulsory reading for students above 15. It is a fabulous way of introducing young people to the dangers of any political system where individuals fail to question their leaders. I think of it as an aide to democracy and so was surprised to see the book on a list of banned books.

Apparently, Animal Farm was found guilty of being critical of the USSR (which was an ally of the USA and UK at the time) so they didn’t want it published until the war ended. But even as late as 2002, the novel was disallowed in the United Arab Emirates, because it had talking pigs in it.

For curiosity’s sake, look up the list ( It includes classics like Catch 22, Frankenstein, and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. You will note that most bans were imposed for political reasons, or to control religious sentiments. Some books were banned by communists, some by Islamic ones, capitalist and/or democratic ones, or by states within nations. Common to all is a terror of ‘obscenity’ or explicit sexual content, which rejected Ginsberg’s Howl for the same reasons as Jackie Collins’ The World Is Full Of Married Men.

Many historical eras are represented on the list — ancient Romans to modern fundamentalists of different denominations. But what is more interesting to me is the way religion, sex and politics are mashed in, the fear of one idea feeding off another.

For instance, I read that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned by the Czars in Russia for fear of undermining religious ideals. Religion wasn’t the issue, slavery was. But it is a very powerful idea after all — that people are equal. This means that everyone deserves justice in equal measure. It means that those who are in power must extend to everyone the same rights. 

It isn’t just about books, of course. A recent RTI query revealed that, between 2001 and 2011, the censor board denied certification (an effective ban, since a film cannot be screened without a certificate) to 256 films. These reportedly included odd titles like 'Jija Teen Taang Ka' and 'Frivolous Lola'.

But it also includes Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania, a film about the Gujarat riots of 2002. Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution was initially banned too. Both films were screened eventually and there is absolutely nothing in either film that would damage India. If anything, they strengthen us. Documentaries are especially important for they speak the truth, which is key to human justice. 

Years pass, but people remain terrified of such truths. Anand Patwardhan had made a film called Ram Ke Naam over 20 years ago. Made before the demolition of the Babri mosque, it was cleared by the censor board, and won national awards. The film explains how the controversy started in 1949, and interviews both Hindus and Muslims residents, and a priest who mentioned corruption viz the proposed Ram temple, and who was murdered after the 1992 demolition.

This documentary was screened in recent weeks at a film festival in Ayodhya, and it is still being protested by the student wing of the BJP. The protest in turn was condemned by a group of citizens and NGOs. But it is still frightening to see how some of our citizens are so scared of the simplest truths about our own culture and history. It is frightening to think of how hard it is to stop people from inflicting violence, and how easy it is to get away with violence, if only the bogey of sex or religion is raised.

First published here

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I Miei Luoghi

My first collection of essays, 'Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales' was translated into Italian last year and published by Metropoli d'Asia as I miei luoghi. It has been well received by the Italian press. Here are some (rough) translations of bits excerpted from the reviews.

"We are far from the trivial triangle of poverty-spirituality-impetuous economic growth that is commonly used while writing about India... Against all stereotypes, Annie Zaidi wrote a book that can be read with pleasure"
- Sunday Literary Supplement

"A book so compelling that your mind registers it as a personal experience... After reading I Miei Luoghi, Annie Zaidi's will be the only conceivable India"
- Il Foglio

"Annie Zaidi is never neutral. Central to this books are her reactions, her dislikes, her passions, and her awareness of the fact that she is a privileged and fragile woman in a country where the birth of a female is still considered a disgrace. Thus her reportage turns into a coming of age story" 
- Rolling Stone

"Annie Zaidi tells India by telling her life. And she shows how a book can become the starting point of the relation ship between a writer and herself."
- La Lettura, Corriere della Sera 

Saving money, spending health

Ever lost someone dear to cancer? Heard of young friends and family members battling a disease at great personal and financial cost?

Oh, what we’d not do to prevent cancer, right? We debate radiation from phones. The government makes us watch gruesome videos showing oral and lung cancers in theatres.

Oddly, the state isn’t reminding us of another health risk — toxic pesticides. No warning hoardings for farm workers. No cinema slides about contaminated water. For years, we’ve known about the ‘Cancer belt’ in Punjab. In 2008, the state, well aware of the link between pesticides and cancer, started a cancer registry programme.

A recent door-to-door survey in Punjab has confirmed a higher incidence of cancer compared to the national average. It reports 33,318 cancer deaths over five years. The survey covered over 97 % percent of the population, found 23,874 patients and over 84,000 people with cancer-like symptoms. Greater numbers lay in Malwa, a region of southern Punjab that was reasonably dry, but after the Green Revolution, was irrigated heavily — often using groundwater — and pumped full of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Result?

Unsafe water, not nearly enough for drinking and bathing. Rivers and wells were found contaminated with heavy metals, chemicals or uranium. Carcinogenic residue was found in blood samples. A report from Punjab University in Patiala mentioned a high rate of DNA damage among farmers using pesticides. Those who worked with cotton, paddy and wheat suffered the most damage. A lawyer, Jagmohan Singh Bhatti, has reportedly filed a PIL against the state for not safeguarding the lives of Punjabis.

This isn’t, however, about Punjabis. There are concerns that water and food pollution will lead to more cancers of the bladder, prostrate and kidneys in other states. In Gandhinagar, Gujarat, a survey showed a worrying rise in the number of children diagnosed with cancer. Doctors from the Gujarat Cancer Research Institute were quoted as saying that child patients have nearly doubled. These findings have to be researched and double-checked, but pollution and pesticides were hinted at as possible causes.

In Karnataka, a Lok Adalat bench stated that the use of banned pesticides was leading to cervical and breast cancer among women farm workers. The court asked the department of health and agriculture to conduct a survey and also to affix responsibility – ask pesticide manufacturers to cut back on toxicity levels, reduce the hundreds of crore worth of subsidies for pesticides and fertilisers, encourage organic alternatives.

This isn’t even about farmers. Contamination goes from soil to plant to food and water. This is about all of us who live here. And yet, how great is our resistance to our own well-being!
Kerela and Karnataka are the only states to ban Endosulfan, a pesticide linked to birth defects, brain damage and reproductive toxicity. Yet, a nationwide ban did not follow. The Supreme Court finally imposed a ban in 2011, but now the government is asking the court to reconsider, because existing ‘live stock’ is due to expire, that safe disposal would cost a ‘huge amount’, that other states are willing to be Endosulfan-ned for another few months.

This ‘huge amount’ is reportedly Rs210.82 crore. I doubt the government can build and run a good multi-specialty hospital for that much money. So I’m not going to express my horror at the evil of this bargain. I’m just going to ask — do you think any baby deserves the risk of birth defects, does any farm worker in any state deserve DNA damage, just so Rs210.82 crore might be saved?

First published here

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Good Indian Girl

is now an ebook too! Those who have not possessed this delight yet, go possess at once! It used to have a much longer title before, and was rather nicely received. 

Reviews of 'The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl (or The Good Indian Girl's Guide to Living Loving and Having Fun)'

"At quite a few instances, it felt like reading my own experiences on print, replete with all the thrill and anguish. It was heartening. Feminist, and subtly so. I’m not given to cliches like these, but I think I’ll risk it for this particular book – this is one book that’s gonna stay with me for the rest of my life" - The Pensieve

" is certainly a guidebook to the interlacing lives of a group of young girls and women, the Rashomon-like dappled truths they tell about their betrayal, longing, rebellion, temptation and that minefield hopscotch of right and wrong, good and bad, in matters of friendship, status, sex, desire and occasional aspiration that makes up the lives of many Indian girls." - Paromita Vohra in Tehelka

"The GIG is full of casual mischief, surreptitious acts and carefully kept secrets... Zaidi and Ravindra’s storytelling and commentaries suffer bouts of laboured poetry but by and large, there’s a lightness in their tone that ensures The Good Indian Girl reads engagingly" - Deepanjana Pal in Mumbai Boss Recommends.

"... a book of surprisingly subversive tales in which girls interact with men, climb down rope ladders (“BIG Girls”), flirt and draw back (“Strangers”), cut themselves (“Out of Here”), are nervous and afraid around men but simultaneously willing to play along (“Finger Play”) and manipulate their perceived goodness for their own ends (“Daddy’s Girls”). They are less about emphasizing the restrictions placed on Indian women than they are about how women use and test them" - Aishwarya Subramanian in Mint 

"... unlike the more annoying fractured narratives that found currency in Hollywood movies like Crash and Mexican ones like Amores Perros, these stories grow organically, branching out and reaching heights of joy or digging roots deep down to the darker side of being a young woman in India" - Saudha Kasim

"Good Indian Girls does provide important insights into why many Indian women do the things they do, sometimes even without knowing it." - Anjana Basu in Women's Web 

"If I were asked to name this book, I would have called it “Splendid Stories of Good Indian Girls, Which Can Be Enjoyed By All.” And man, what classy stories they are. Some of them are not more than two pages long and some run to ten pages or more. Each of them is about an Indian girl, mostly good, a few bad and many who are not so good, but manage to get away with it. Zaidi and Ravindra write in excellent unobtrusive prose which is akin to high quality corn flour used in good chicken soup. You don’t really get to taste the corn flour and don’t even think of it much as you gulp down the soup, but without the quality corn flour, the soup wouldn’t be half as enjoyable." - Blog review by Vinod Joseph 

More reviews: At Justfemme

About the Good Indian Girl in The Hindu, Bangalore MetroPlus.
Desperately Seeking Savitri in Mid-Day

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