After three decades of television in India, women have finally begun to enter the production arena in a big way. They are no longer just pretty faces on screen, for today Indian women are involved in every department of television production: in directing and producing shows, handling cameras, designing settings, script-writing, coordinating, you name it.
Partly, this has been helped by the unshackling of the television medium and the rise of innovative satellite and terrestrial companies. Natasha Badhwar has been with New Delhi Television for over two years now. She says, “In all honesty it never occurred to me that I was taking up a profession which was considered a male domain. It was something I found challenging and adventurous and I didn’t think particularly that professions may be ‘marked’ by gender.”
Ms Badhwar chose camera-work because she loves the outdoors and was excited about putting together what she saw in a news or feature capsule. The first year was not without tension, however, because of the attitude of her male colleagues. “I’m sure some of it was due to the fact that I was a young girl being entrusted with a big responsibility,” she says. “I used to feel alienated among the team of eleven male colleagues, but now I understand them.”
There are limits to Ms Badhwar’s expectations of her job, however. She says, “Working ten hours a day and having to travel at short notice seems nice only because I’m 26 now. I can’t imagine how people balance such working hours with a family. The job’s far from glamorous. ”
Megha Joshi, too, found it hard to gain acceptance as a freelance art director before ultimately establishing herself in the trade. Says she, referring to male colleagues, “One has to learn to relate to them and if possible even share a smoke. One has to slowly earn mutual respect so that they don’t dismiss you ‘as a woman’.”
Describing her work, Ms Joshi says, “It’s not easy work. It’s messy work, involving mud, paint, cement. But the money is good – from thirty thousand rupees to anything above, depending on the complexity of the design,” says Ms Joshi.
Traditionally, men have been preferred in production since it involves odd hours and running around. The gender preference, however, is shifting. Says P.C. Lahiri, Vice-President at Zee Telefilms, “When we recruit, the emphasis is not on gender but the freshness of the mind. We are looking for those who are adaptable, enthusiastic, alert and eager to grow.”
Not so, according to Saba Diwan. Due to in-built social bias, she says, “Women are not really encouraged to go into the technical aspects of TV production.” An established film-maker, Ms Diwan finds it amusing that such bias extends even to the equipment. Handling a camera is considered arduous work and is still associated with men.
But women have begun to brave it out in the men’s world of video film production, and what Ms Diwan calls “small humiliations” on the job are on the way out. If things are already changing in television production, perhaps it is management’s turn next.
Roop Mallik (Women’s Feature Service)
No to Mobutu
“We don’t want Mobutus here”, says an editorial in The Sunday Times of Colombo, responding to a speech made by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in which she suggested that South Korea and Malaysia have been able to develop due to authoritarian rule. Of sufficient interest, we excerpt the editorial in extensio:
The President’s open espousal of authoritarianism as a spur to economic development smacks strangely of the late President Jayawardane’s vision for Sri Lanka. Having had a taste of JR’s Executive Presidency and yet lambasting JR’s dictatorial style President Kumaratunga appears to be paradoxically haunted by the late President Jayawardane’s ghost.
It was Felix Dias Bandaranaike, then the elder Ms Bandaranaike’s super-minister, who once said “a little bit of totalitarianism” was a good thing. At least he spoke his mind. But what the people of Sri Lanka went through only those who lived through those times will know.
Are we right in seeing in President Kumaratunga’s comments the beginning of a new vision of her own veering into what we can only assume is a shift into a dictatorial mode? Dictatorships may throw up some good economics but let us not forget the darker side to their shimmering faces. Aren’t we seeing what is happening in South Korea today, with two ex-presidents in jail for corruption?
Does our President want to emulate such a corrupt system? Set against the few examples she perhaps dreams of, there are several others which have bubbled up from time to time where dictators have transformed themselves into petty kings while the people under them lived like beggars. If she tunes in to CNN or Sky News television she will see what is happening to a despot like Mobutu in Zaire (now again Congo), a man who bled the country dry before finally having to run away from his palaces at home.
There are many other dictators of the Mobutu-kind who have unleashed untold suffering and damage. Let President Kumaratunga take a lesson from such happenings and quickly erase from her mind any thought she may harbour of moving away from the democratic path, whatever its shortcomings – stepping away into an abyss of no return.
History may judge her in whatever way she deserves – that is yet a matter to be seen. But let her not be judged as a despot.
Fast Track Energy
Let there be light. But there wasn’t. Alas, it was realised, for there to be light there must be power. So it was sought from near and far, and forward they came with promise of power.
As advancing technology and development take a hold of Bangladesh, the country begins to feel the thirst for electricity. Already, there is a 1400 MW power deficit nationwide, and various parts are facing brownouts every day. Man-hours are lost, industrial productivity plummets.
To respond to the growing crisis, the previous government of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party opened up the power sector for private investment. Before long, multinational bidders homed in. Three years and a change of government later, the first two private power sector deals have been signed.
Enron International & Associates, having already made some sparks fly in Maharastra and Nepal, signed the first agreement with the Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB) in the third week of May. Under the agreement, Enron and its associates – Wartsila Diesel and the New England Power Company of the US and Bangladesh’s Fortune Limited – will set up a 100 MW barge-mounted power plant on a build-own-operate basis at Haripur in Sylhet, and begin to supply power to the national grid within 10 months. Under the agreement, the government will buy all the power generated for at least 15 years.
This is the first private power development venture by a consortium of international producers under the private power policy enunciated by Begum Zia in October 1996. Enron says that it will import naphtha petroleum to drive the Haripur power plant initially but will switch to Bangla natural gas by the end of 1998 to reduce generation costs. A PDB spokesperson said that of the 15 companies that had responded to the tender call for three barge-mounted power plants, Enron’s bid was the most “competent”.
Enron will supply power at BDT 2.45 per KW-hour (USD 0.06), which compares favourably with PDB’s oil-based generation costs of over BDT 4 per KW-hour (USD 0.09). The government has opted for barge-mounted power units because of quicker setup possible and what is called “power augmentation transferability” by the experts.Enron’s 10-month countdown started in June. As per the agreement, the government will absorb any loss incurred from delays that are due to political or social disturbances beyond the control of the private developers. On the other hand, the foreign associates will have to pay damages if they fail to fulfil their contractual obligations.
Enron has provided a USD 10 million bank security which the government can encash if the developers fail to honour the agreement. Initially, the developers will mobilise their funds through commercial credit but they will also have the option to tap the local capital market.
Meanwhile, another agreement has been signed for a 100 MW power plant for Sitakunda, Chittagong, with Smith Cogenerations, and negotiations are underway for a third 100 MW power plant, to be based in Khulna. Both contracts will use the 15-year Enron agreement as a model. Beyond these projects, the government plans to set up two more plants, one a 300-450 MW plant at Meghna Ghat and another a 200 MW plant at Haripur.
The ‘fast-track approach’ in closing the deals on the first two plants has been impressive, for the negotiations began only in April, at the initiative of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources. While some might worry about the hurry, one thing is clear: those who want to avoid load-shedding in the years ahead, head for Dhaka.
The UN Security Council is all set to be expanded, which leaves Pakistan’s foreign policy managers in a bind. The United States has given what seems to be a nod to the inclusion of India as a permanent member in the Council, and this is being viewed as a nightmare for Pakistani foreign policy. The whole fabric of geo-political realities in the South Asian region would be disturbed. India, in the Pakistani view, remains a flagrant violator of Security Council’s own resolutions on Kashmir.
The US announcement to enlarge the Council with Germany, Japan and one member state each from Asia, Africa and South America came in the wake of a meeting between the US chief delegate Bill Richardson and the Indian Ambassador Prakash Shah in New York on 15 July. A deal is said to have been struck at that meeting, with India having bartered its signature on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) for a permanent seat. This has complicated the issue for Islamabad because it has always made its own accession to the CTBT or NPT conditional on India’s own signature.
Commenting upon the US proposal, Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) says that it does not construe it as endorsement of India’s bid for a permanent station at the Security Council round table. The FO spokesman says, “As yet there is no consensus on the expansion in the category which is regarded by NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement) as an anachronism. We share the view of the non-aligned states that proliferation of the centre of privileges is contrary to democratisation.”
Pakistan, he says, favours expansion in the non-permanent category only, with 10 more members included by rotation on a regional basis.
This, however, is only the latest presentation of a meandering policy. It is true that Benazir Bhutto in an address to the General Assembly once said that Pakistan did not favour the induction of more permanent members into the Council. But a few months later at an official banquet in Tokyo, she reversed her stand and said Pakistan would be happy to see Japan occupying a permanent seat.
At the recent non-aligned summit in Delhi, Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan pleaded for the sovereign equality of nations in the United Nations, while back home in the National Assembly he said he favoured Japan and Germany becoming permanent members. But then again, later, the Foreign Minister chewed no words in opposing the Indian bid for a Council seat. Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed has maintained a similar stance, and it is expected that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will put up a big fight against Indian inclusion when he addresses the forthcoming session of the General Assembly in the fall.
Independent analysts in Pakistan say that since different aspirant regions and nations of the world will be involved in a bruising battle to decide who has the better claim to the regional permanent slots that are to open, Pakistan should stand firmly by the principles that all the 21 Council members – or at least 16 of them barring the present Permanent Five – ought to be elected by the 185 member states. Any betrayal of this principle, they warn, would consign the United Nations to the dustbin of history a la the League of Nations.
The Islamabad analysts are of the opinion that criticising India on Kashmir – the mainstay of Pakistani diplomacy – will not be enough to prevent India from achieving its current objective. What, therefore, could be Pakistan’s bargaining chip?
If barter is the name of the game, say some, the answer may lie in recognition of Israel by Pakistan. And strangely enough, only last month the religious parties in Pakistan started to discuss the merits and demerits of recognising Israel. But will it be enough to deny India the coveted chair at the Security Council roundtable in New York? Some think not.
Chicken vs Pizza
A couple of years ago, an overseas businessman was stunned to be escorted by his local host to a Pizza Hut in Karachi. The fast food eatery is marketed in Pakistan as a place for fine cuisine. And with prices to match, that is what it has become, at least for many fast-track executives and the younger set.
The dozens of homegrown pizza parlours of Karachi and Lahore are being given a run for their money by the multinational food franchise. The first branch, which opened in Karachi a few years ago, had Lahoris feeling left out. But the franchise has spread out its corporate tentacles since then, and today there are two aforementioned huts in Karachi, and two in Lahore, one of which is touted as “South Asia’s biggest Pizza Hut”.
The rush when a new Hut opens in the Pakistani cities makes one wonder if this is the same country that is home to the venerable naan and tandoor. Lines stretch for blocks, and the rush of customers forces the traffic police to deploy extra cops.
But now the pizza novelty is fading, and so are the crowds. They’re rushing across the street to Kentucky Fried, a more recent entrant, and one that caters more to local tastes, for less money. Pizza, after all, does not excite the Pakistani taste buds with the same energy as chicken. “Pizza is no more than a local naan with some topping,” says a young mother who swears by Kentucky Fried.
Says an upcoming young architect, “At Pizza Hut you have to eat with a knife and fork, which is a drag.” At KFC, its hands-on, recalling its “finger lickin’ good” campaign. With a branch each in Karachi and Lahore, and more set to open, KFC is clucking contentedly, having pulled many customers from the pizza shack over into its coop.
All this would surely have made the long-dead Colonel Sanders stroke his goatee in merriment – or twirl his moustache, keeping in view the country he has just colonised.
Bit of a Bother with Brothers
Anura Bandaranaike, son of two prime ministers and scion of Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike dynasty, was celebrating 20 years as a parliamentarian. He organised a tamasha for himself, and as we all know none of these back-scratching, head-patting events are complete without a visiting VIP.
Anura chose Benazir Bhutto.
Savour the scene. The politically ambitious son of an assassinated prime minister (Anura’s dad, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, was shot dead by a Buddhist monk in 1959) inviting the very political daughter of a judicially executed prime minister of a neighbouring country to be chief guest at a celebration described by the editor of the government-controlled Sunday Observer as exhibiting “the political manhood of Anura Bandaranaike”.
The parallels don’t end there. Benazir had a rival in her brother, Murtaza Bhutto. Anura’s is his sister, incumbent President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Chandrika’s relations with her brother, who for long regarded himself as the natural successor to the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) their father founded, is as strained as Benazir’s was with Murtaza before his untimely death.
Unlike the Bhutto matriarch, Nusrat, Sirima Bandaranaike, now 80 years old, is still in the political slipstream. She holds the formal position of prime minister in her daughter’s administration. She is also the de jure leader of the SLFP, although she has no real power under a constitution which has the president head both the state and the government. As far as the SLFP is concerned, Chandrika is de facto party leader who calls all the shots, hardly bothering to even consult her mother.
Like Nusrat, Mrs Bandaranaike makes no secret of her partiality for her son, who is now a frontbencher of the United National Party (UNP), which his father quit to found the SLFP when he judged he had no future in the UNP, then led by Don Stephen Senanayake.
Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, to give Anura’s father his full name, did not have to wait long to realise his ambition of becoming prime minister. In 1956, barely six years after he had quit the UNP, he was swept to power on the crest of a wave of nationalism. Old intimates of SWRD say that he firmly believed his luck changed when his son, Anura, was born.
SWRD enjoyed office for little more than three years before he was assassinated. His widow, Sirima, unwillingly thrust into politics, did much better serving two terms from 1960-65 and 1970-77 on the throne before starting her third wallflower tenure in 1994.
Like Nusrat Bhutto in Pakistan, Sirima Bandaranaike eventually tilted for Chandrika as rivalry between son and daughter took its toll of the SLFP. Just as his father had done before him, Anura read the writing on the wall and quit the SLFP to enter the cabinet of President D.B. Wijetunga at the tail-end of the UNP’s 17 years in power, which ended with the general elections of August 1994. The resulting paradox is that he now sits in the parliamentary opposition while the party of his father, mother and sister is in office after nearly two decades in the wilderness.
At her Colombo press conference, Benazir dwelt mainly on the “trauma and tragedy” of her own life. She was asked what her advice to Anura Bandaranaike was. Benazir’s response: the involvement of outsiders in family disputes always made matters worse. She would therefore prefer to keep out of the Bandaranaike squabble. But one Sunday newspaper friendly to Anura did have her saying that political families should forget their differences and unite.
Mamma Sirima would certainly like to see her son back in the SLFP, a fold he departed on two occasions. So did daughter Chandrika on one occasion. Whether the matriarch, now in her twilight years but soldiering on despite many infirmities, would be able to do that in her lifetime remains to be seen. But there are some punters placing their money on Anura Bandaranaike winning the leadership of the opposition UNP, a position that eluded their father.
Although neither Anura nor Chandrika attempt to hide their dislike for each other, mother Sirima strives manfully to serve as a buffer between her warring offsprings. That perhaps explains why Chandrika was invited for the grand finale of Anura’s twenty-years-in-Parliament celebration. The president politely told the organisers that she would be out of the country at the time – shopping for a college for daughter Yasodhara in Britain.
Bitter Twist of Arsenic
The spots appear slowly, small scabs of thickened skin on the palms and the feet that later crack open and bleed. Soon, an unshakable fatigue sets in. Some people suffer headaches, chest pain and stomach cramps. Some, like Anil Chandra Das, a once-hearty 50-year-old Bangladeshi farmer and merchant, lose their hearing.
“We would try talking to him but he wouldn’t answer,” recalls daughter Ila Rani Das, 16. “He just lay in bed all day and we looked into his eyes. Then one day he didn’t open his eyes anymore. We all began to cry.”
There has been a lot of crying recently in Naopara, a small, banyan-shaded village that has become the epicentre of Bangladesh’s latest natural disaster. This time around, though, the trouble is not dropping from the Bay of Bengal’s cyclone-churned skies, but gurgles instead from the depths of the fertile Ganga delta itself. Wells in Naopara, like thousands of other wells in eastern Bangladesh, have been found to be tainted with arsenic.
Nobody knows the extent of the evolving disaster, but some experts think that almost half of the country’s population is at risk. A study conducted in early 1997 found that water from 34 southern districts, with more than 50 million population, had dangerously high levels of arsenic. “Ninety percent of Bangladeshis drink from deep tubewells,” says Bilqis Amin Hoque, a water specialist at the Centre for Health and Population Research in Dhaka. “This development is a shock.”
“This is not a minor problem,” Bangladesh’s Health Minister Salahuddin Yusuf declared during an interview last year, in which he admitted that 15 million compatriots might be at risk from drinking tainted water. Perhaps exhibiting the governments attitude towards the growing crisis, the minister then added, “But it is not such a major problem either.”
The real magnitude of arsenosis will unfold only slowly, according to doctors. The concentrations of arsenic found in hundreds of Bangladeshi wells – the worst contain 200 times the maximum limit set by the World Health Organisation – do not kill outright. Instead, a buildup of the lethal chemical over months or years causes a wide array of increasingly debilitating diseases, from cancer to neural disorders, and, possibly, even diabetes.
“This is a staggering tragedy exactly because it is progressive, and the results are so hidden.” says Herman Gibb, an expert of the US Environmental Protection Agency who has studied similar cases of arsenic contamination across the border in West Bengal, where a million more people may be affected. The arsenosis epidemic in eastern Bangladesh and West Bengal, Gibb says, is probably the worst in the world.
The culprit behind this stealth health crisis? The conspiracy-loving press blames everything from killer chemicals oozing out of industrial fertilizers to toxic pollutants drifting down the Ganga from India. One spate of articles even blamed millions of imported electric poles coated with arsenic-based preservatives.
But the cause is more mundane, if profoundly more ironic. The arsenic percolating into hundreds of wells of eastern Bangladesh is a naturally-occurring toxic mineral. As long as the arsenic remained submerged in groundwater, it was inert, but the aquifers shrivelled with well-drilling and irrigation in the 1970s. The arsenic, exposed to the air for the first time, becomes water-soluble, and like tea in a tea-bag it now seeps out of the sediments with every monsoon flood.
The bitter twist, of course, is that having spent billions modernising its agricultural sector, Bangladesh has unwittingly been poisoning itself. Government engineers, financed largely by foreign aid, have sunk nearly 3 million tube wells since 1971.
“This is nobody’s fault because nobody knew this would happen,” says Ishak Ali, a public health engineer who has tested 300 wells in Khulna and found a third of them contaminated. “We have addressed hunger, but created another misery in the process.”
At the moment, there seems to be no easy or affordable solution to the arsenic plague. So the government has resorted to capping tainted wells and, where it can, drilling deeper ones. “They capped my well so now we are drinking from the pond,” explained Hafiz Rahman, a tough, 70-year-old farmer whose arsenic-induced lesions have healed somewhat since he began quenching his thirst from a murky pool outside his doorway. Neighbours have followed suit.
Meanwhile, his neigh-bour Anil Chandra Das did not survive the ravages of the poison. He died in March. A few months later, his son Shamol, too, perished to arsenic.