Strange to say, orchids at a farm near Guwahati, the capital of Assam, are indeed swaying to bhajans. And going by their brisk growth, they seem to be enjoying every moment of it. Every morning for long hours, 100,000 orchids at the ICL Flora Exotica, a division of the India Carbon Limited, are treated to devotional music rendered by Anup Jalota, India´s top bhajan singer.
Speakers have been placed across the five-acre farm so that the plants can hear the classical crooner. The audience is made up of rare orchids belonging to species like Dendrobiums, Oncidiums, Mokaras, Aranda and Aranthera.
“It is amazing – we never thought that the orchids would be responding to the music so well,” says a jubilant Rakesh Himatsingka, the managing director of India Carbon. “We are so encouraged by the success, we are planning to expand our farm and go for exports very soon.”
The trouble-torn Northeast of India is a storehouse of rare tropical orchids specific to this region. Fully 750 of the existing 1200 orchid species in the world occur naturally in the Northeast´s dense jungles. Orchid cutflowers, especially of the tropical variety, are in heavy demand in Japan, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the Gulf countries where they sell for as much as three dollars apiece.
It is obvious that everything possible should be done to enhance the export potential of the orchid farms. And if it takes bhajans, then so be it.
“Some wonderful changes have occurred since we began to make the musical nourishment available to the orchids,” says D.K. Saikia, a botanist at the farm. “For example, their grade has improved and we have more high-quality flowers now. There is also more vegetative propagation, that is, the number of new shoots springing from the orchids have also gone up. All this has increased our turnover.”
Interestingly, musical botanical therapy, while rarely applied in the country today, traces its origin to India. It was the renowned Indian botanist, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose who in 1926 first mooted the theory that plants would respond positively to musical stimuli.
The custodians of the farm in Guwahati schedule the bhajans for the peaceful morning hours. Hindustani classical music is also turning out to be a great favourite with the plant audience. Audio cassettes of some of the top names in the country are regularly slipped into the cassette player by the farm staff.
Says Saikia, “Every day, we play instrumentals on the flute, the tabla, the sarod, or the santoor. Not to mention the old melodies, romantic songs from Hindi movies of the 1960s, which has become a regular feature in the evenings between 3 and 5 pm.”
At the end of the day, it is not just the orchids who are left happy and satisfied. The farm workforce, including its 18 gardeners, seem to be even more delighted with the entire experience. Says Gopal Das, a gardener who started working here four years ago, “Our eight-hour shifts are now so much more enjoyable. There is no more boredom.”
It might be that the Guwahati orchids have become music connoisseurs. Or, it could just be that the workers are happy. Either way, music is supporting a spurt in orchid productivity; the export market beckons. -Shankhadeep Chowdhury
Shall shear the sal
The fact is that there are too many expert quacks amongst us. And the ones representing govern¬ment are perhaps the pick of the lot. Consider this situation: An epidemic strikes the hardy sal (Shorea robusta) trees in the middle Indian state of Madhya Pradesh; the state govern¬ment, ably backed by an expert com¬mittee appointed by the Centre, is quick with its quack remedy and or¬ders the cutting of all the infested trees. The result: Some three quar¬ters of the slow-growing sal are no more.
It was the sal borer (Hoplo-cerambyx spinicornis) beetle that in¬duced the authorities to get axe-
happy. And if you were to go by the law, they were playing by the book. Written some 70 years ago, the law sanctions the felling of beetle-infested trees.
It was time then for the conservationists to get off their blocks. When the expert committee ordered the felling of the trees last December, including those in the state´s famous Kanha Tiger Reserve, environmental activists and World Wide Fund for Nature (India) cried foul. The trees got a temporary reprieve in January, with the matter taken up by a special task force and a wildlife subcommittee.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi, however, had other ideas. Without consulting the task force, it issued a notification to the state government, virtually giving a go-ahead for the tree massacre. On the crucial issue of stocking the in-ested timber, the ministry was lenient, stating that “felled material should preferably [italics added] be located at least five kilometres away from the sal forest”. Any forester would tell you that infested logs should be kept as far away (and not “preferably” so) from the forest as possible, with the stumps burned and debris disposed of, leaving nothing for the viral agent to feed on.
The matter made its way to the Supreme Court, which promptly calleda halt to the cutting. Later, however, the court allowed the felling of dead trees, while the affected ones were to be re-marked. The state government complied, but the committee in charge of the operation reported that the affected area was too large for the task to be carried out properly.
The situation recalls a similar epidemic some 70 years ago. Back then, between 1923-28, of the seven million infested trees, only about 5 percent were felled. Today, due to the government´s policy, of the three million infested trees, around 30 percent are in danger of being felled in just a year.}
The tussle is intense – between those who favour the felling on the grounds that otherwise all of the sal forest would be wiped out, and those who want nature to take its own course without any human intervention. While the former points out that scientific forestry knows no way to stop the deadly beetles, the latter believes that nature will offer its own healing touch, as proved by the partial or complete recovery of some of the infested ´dead´ trees.
Shall we leave it then to nature to decide the case, for or against the sal of Madhya Pradesh?
If it´s autumn-end in Dhaka, can bombs be far behind? The country´s bomb-making cottage industry has gone into an over-drive to respond to the winter demand. “Politics is coming. We are all stocking up on raw materials,” said Torab Ali, a bomb-maker.
As a precursor of things to come, the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by ex-PM Khaleda Zia, called for a hartal in October. Two persons died during the shutdown: one in Dhaka, whom BNP called its own, and the other, a central committee member of BNP´s student wing, was found dead in a pond the day after in the port town of Khulna, south of Dhaka.
It may have been, as the BNP accuses, that the police bashed them to death. Or it could be, as the government has stated, that the Dhaka “activist” was really a druggie who was caught snatching a bag and killed by a hostile mob, and the Khulna activist might well have been a victim of within-party conflict. Whatever, the deaths mean more mayhem and, consequently, a higher demand for bombs.
There are more than a hundred bomb factories in Dhaka, and business is booming. “We used to bring them from India before but it´s much cheaper to make bombs here. Everyone benefits. You don´t need to place orders early. I can supply any order in two days. So can others.” Bombmaker Ali´s voice was full of pride.
Here is a classic case of supply and demand interacting at the ground level. Politics means violence and that means bombs; demand and regular supply result in a booming import-substituting home-grown industry. The industry is thoroughly indigenous, with a high degree of self-employment. Most of the factory owners started as makers and then shifted to hiring others either because they lost a finger or two or because the business became too big.
Buyers are offered a choice of bombs – dibba bomb (made with Dano milk powder tins), bulb bombs, coconut bombs (empty nut shells), chocolate bombs (easy to carry though not a biggie like a dibba bomb) and at least 25 other kinds. Built with an eye on appropriate technology, the components, including petrol, nails, switches, wiring and connections, are all locally available and easily assembled. They are a genuine by-product of the industry of politics and crime.
Bomb factories are cottage industries that operate with few, if any, safety features. Children, whose nimble fingers are so useful at assembling the deadly components, find easy employment. (One of the victims this year was eight-year-old Runa who lost both her hands from the wrist down in an explosion at her manufacturing unit.) The factories are, literally, holes in the ground, so that accidental blasts can take a whole large building with them.
´ The sustainability aspect of the bomb industry is obvious. Not everyone can access guns to rob a bank or take over a university residential hall. But bombs can be used for any occasion. “Even if one has guns, one need bombs to get away by creating noise and smoke,” said Salma Begum, probably the only woman actively involved in the business.
Not that fancy weapons are not available. Automatic rifles are being used more frequently, and last year even two rocket launchers were recovered in a police raid. But easy availability and cost-benefit make bombs the more sought after tool for violence. Just about anybody can get a bomb anytime in Dhaka.
Even this reporter gingerly held a bomb in his hands, while the factory workers milling around giggled. When asked which party they supported, the reply was, “We hate politics. It´s ruining the country.”
Ruining the country, certainly, but hardly their business.
Saving Calcutta´s trams
There is good news for trams in Calcutta: whatever its detractors may have to say, the 125-year-old transport system is still a long way away from fading into oblivion. And if the West Bengal government acts upon a proposal for the Calcutta Tramways Expansion and Rehabilitation, the tram could very well don a slicker avatar. The proposal is based on a study which said the trams would do better if faster and sophisticated versions are used after elevating the existing tracks.
That will truly be a good turn since Calcutta is the only city in India to still have the tram. Bombay discarded it a long time ago; so did Madras. Even in Calcutta, it has been an ´on-now-off-next´ story since the two lobbies – for and against -are equally strong. Those wanting the trams to be withdrawn say that these monoliths unnecessarily slow down traffic, creating snarls in a city where only 6 percent of the total surface area is available for roads. Those favouring trams point out that in a city where pollution from vehicles is high, abolition of the environment-friendly trams would not be a wise decision. The space from removing the tracks wilt only be taken up by more fuming automobiles, they add.
Dipanka Chakraborty, director of the School of Environment at Jadavpur University, says that an average Calcuttan, if exposed to busy traffic crossings for eight hours a day loses 15 years in life-span due to the pollution.
In the early 90s, when the state-owned Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) had thought of phasing out the trams citing economic reasons, the opposition was intense; it even spilled outside the country. Letters were written to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as well as to the International Union of Public Transport, Brussels, for intervention. In 1994,100 non-resident Indians handed Chief Minister Jyoti Basu a petition to reconsider the issue. Many blamed the powerful automobile lobby for putting pressure on the government, which finally backtracked. The CTC, nevertheless, went on to withdraw many of the tramways, and introduced buses.
During the time of protest, Calcuttans were startled to find a fullpage ad by a Dane, Troels Holch Porlsen, in leading English dailies pleading for the tram. As interesting has been the “Save the Calcutta Tram” campaign by Roberto N. D´Andrea of Melbourne, a city which shares with Calcutta the oldest tramways in the world. D´Andrea visits Calcutta every year to raise funds, alerting citizens and authorities in the process. He even goes about working as a conductor, and has decorated the inside of one coach with scenes from the trams back home in Melbourne.
Environmental reasons apart, the tram makes good sense as it can carry more people than a bus. This comes handy to a city where about 4.5 million people commute daily by public transport during rush hour. Moreover, in the long run, trams are more cost effective: a bus has an average life span of 10 years compared to the 50 years of a tram.
There is also the nostalgic element. Horse-drawn trams were introduced in Calcutta in 1873 to transport goods to and from Howrah station and the river ghats (docks). The electric versions have been around since 1902. They are as much part of the 300-year-old Calcutta city as are its Victoria Memorial and the Howrah Bridge. Indeed, Satyajit Ray´s Mahanagar, a paean to the changing city, opened with a scene of a tram ´clang-clanging´ its way through the city streets.
When the British left India, the agreement between CTC and the state government was that the latter would take over management of the company whenever it felt the need to do so. Anticipating a takeover, CTC, then headquartered in London, stopped providing money for infrastructure improvements. In the 60s and 70s, the left-led labour militancy further triggered the trams´ decline. In 1978, CTC became a government concern. By then rot had already set in. Now on a possible track to recovery, India´s only tramway needs all the help it can get.
Triggered by The Wall Street Journals expose of the lethal effects of Quinacrine, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States in October banned the steriliser, which was primarily meant for Third World women. The FDA noted that, among other things, Quinacrine could induce cancer in the reproductive tract, and block the menstrual cycle.
The 18 June 1998 Journal report was a thourought. documentation of the fatal consequences of Quinacrine, providing statistics of the countries where” it was in use the highest: Vietnam (50,000 cases), India (26,000), Pakistan (15,000) and Chile (5,000).
In Vietnam, the Quinacrine programme was called off in 1983 under pressure from the World Health Organisation. Investigating the situation there, Journal reporters found out that in a remote rubber plantation, scores of woman workers had been sterilised without their permission in hasty operations which had later led to deadly infections. Their attempts to interview angry workers ended when the security forces threw the reporters out of the plantation.
Quinacrine is banned in Bangladesh, but the newspaper reported that one defiant Dr Naseem Rahman had used it to sterilise 2900 women. When informed of the potential side-effects of the pellets, this was her response: “First, let these women be accepted as humans and then let´s talk about human rights. As it is, they´re going to die, so what do the long-term complications of Quinacrine matter?”
At a rural outpost in India, the local doctor was under the impression that the drug was accepted in the US. When told that this was untrue and that the drug may contain a carcinogen, the doctor said in fear, “People might come and kill the doctor.”
They might as well go for the US-based researchers and* sole distributors of the steriliser worldwide, Dr Elton Kessel and Stephen Mumford. It turns out that the two are pursuing a sinister anti-immigrant agenda. According to the Wall Street Journal, both are strongly opposed to immigration from the Third World to America. In the battle against immigration, Mumford sees Quinacrine as a powerful ally: reducing the Third World population will reduce the sup-ply of hungry immigrants. Mumford talked in apocalyptic terms to a Journal reporter about the increase in immigration: “This explosion in human numbers, which after 2050 will come entirely from immigrants and the offspring of immigrants, will dominate our lives. There will be chaos and anarchy.” In the same report, Dr Kessel said, “The present rate of illegal immigration isn´t healthy.”
It is no surprise, therefore, that Mumford´s North Carolina-based Centre for Research on Population and Security receives financial support from the Scaife Family Foundation, the Dallas oil magnate family, Fikes, and two individuals, Donald Collins and Sally Epstein. All four are big contributors to, and board members of, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), long regarded by human rights activists as a racist, xenophobic organisation strongly opposed to immigration from Third World countries.
But the problem is that even the FDA ban may not stop Kessel and Mumford. The FDA has jurisdiction only over drug manufacture inside the US and its export (in fact, the FDA often allows drugs to be exported even when they are not legal in America), and can do nothing about its manufacture abroad. Consequently, Mumford will most likely get away with his statement that “arrangements have already been made to manufacture and distribute Quinacrine overseas”.
Where does all this leave people like Nguyen Thi of Vietnam – one of the 100,000 women in 20 countries who was sterilised without being informed about the deadly effects? Talking angrily about the Thai doctor who gave her Quinacrine and the two American suppliers, Thi asked: “Did they consider us lab rats so that they could do whatever they wanted with our bodies?”