Saturday, December 19, 2009

Yellow rice people

We have had fried rice culture in Kashmir much before the Chinese became rich. Taeher is rice, sprinkled with mustard oil and freckled with a lot of turmeric. Kashmiri women have forever distributed Taeher to the faithful, outside countless Astans [shrines/reliquaries] and graveyards. I remember running as fast as I could in my childhood to collect a handful of the sticky yellow rice, generously strewn with golden brown onions. There would be a million random reasons why Taeher was offered to neighbours, friends and bystanders: A birth in the family, someone getting a job or simply Dastageer Sahib’s day [Abdul Qadir Jilani, lovingly called Dastageer Sahib, lived from 1077-1166, was a Persian saint who never visited Kashmir and yet we adore him].

We are a very natural people. We have these large barns of rice that we devour in decent amounts. Rice is well stocked in every Kashmiri family by fall. Crops when mowed down are collated beautifully in small hut like formations. Thea-per. Our meal. Threshing completed and husking done, the rice grains, heart like, light, crisp and razzmatazz, are barreled. And then it may snow over and the ever-leaking Jawahar tunnel may close on us and the only airport in Kashmir may appear deserted, we don’t give a damn. As long as there are endless degchis [cauldrons] of Taeher.

[Makhdoom Sahib, courtyard corner]

On rough-hewn stone stairs leading to the mausoleum of Makhdoom Sahib, also called Sultan-ul-Arifeen [king of knowledge], people can be seen divvying up Taeher to the pilgrims. The trek to the top of southern side of Kastoor pind is about 90 stone stairs from the north [Bashi Darwaza end] and about 127 from south [Kathi Darwaza end]. Makhdoom Sahib, for the uninitiated, was born to a Rajput landlord family some 500 years ago in Tujar, near Sopore. They say no one goes hungry from the mystic’s abode in Srinagar. Cinnamon color sparrows can be seen feeding on Taeher crumbs along the flight of stairs.

We are a hugely exuberant people also. In the decade of 90s we suddenly rebelled. Like March of the penguins, we poured out on the alleys, in the countryside and in the hills. Hundred thousand, two-hundred thousand. Hollering loud. Singing songs of the revolution. Women would pack Taeher in polythene bags and throw it into the crowds. People partook of the offering, readily. Azadi [Freedom] hovered above, like tumble-weed clouds. We were told later that it was mass hallucination.

As 2009 fades, serious things continue to happen to us. We handle them with such lightness that evokes Chaplin. The conflict years have seared the collective consciousness of a generation and as we try to emerge out of it, the scars remain. Yet there is laughter shining in people’s eyes. I met this very chirpy boatman in Srinagar, this time around, paddling at the putrid waters of Dal, singing in atmospheric, whisper style Kashmiri. ‘What do you do Chacha, I asked, when there are strong currents in the lake?’ He raised his oar high in the air and held it in both his hands above his head. ‘Ya Peer Dastageer’, he replied in a soul-baring way.

We continue to be such simple Taeher people.


Monday, December 14, 2009

A week in Srinagar

Text and images: Sameer

It was cold as St Andrews Day winds. From inside the plane the cops on the tarmac appeared pink-nosed. They had condensed necks. The paramilitary men, who quickly take positions along the aircraft as soon as it taxies, shriveled. The outside temperature was barely 6 degrees centigrade, which without any heating systems in Kashmir – barring Hamams that the well-heeled have -- is darn cold. As I deplaned, a light icy feeling of abandonment crossed me. There is always something bittersweet about home coming.

As a rule night comes early to Kashmir. I woke up to a nippy Eid morning. It gladdened me that Geelani was in town, and he, like me, had chosen home [read Sopore] for Eid. I mostly get to read his reactionary stuff in the online variants of Srinagar-based English dailies. Nothing beats the thrill of listening to him in person – all shrill and sound and fury. I know most of what he is says sounds dated and obsolete now but I love the finality with which he says it. Mirwaiz doesn’t even come close. Omar will take a lifetime to get there.

Our political leadership [separatist/mainstream], much on the lines of the Pakistani ruling class – and so unlike Indian politicians – are extremely well turned out. They dress smartly, like film stars. Geelani wears long chesterfield overcoats, paired with chequered mufflers, usually contrasted and a nice felt cap. His beard is nicely clipped and grey. Mirwaiz has a stunning collection of designer Pathani dresses and rug caps. Trendy eye-glasses often compliment his jaw line beard. Yasin, our homemade socialist, has a weakness for dark Kurta-pajamas. Embroidered shawls usually drape his frail frame. Not to be left behind most adjuncts and second rung leadership follows the fashion quotient.

And November welded into December and newspapers were suddenly replete with ads and stories in the run up to Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah’s birth anniversary. The Sheikh’s grandson – cover boy for December in the men’s fashion mag GQ – had promised government jobs and other fringe benefits to the natives on the occasion and everyone was eagerly expectant. In Srinagar, the old patriarch Sheikh smiled to his people from the life-size billboards patched across the city. Nearly three decades after his death, nothing much has changed.

[The patriarch laughs]

The night before Omar was to make the grand announcement, flanked by his party confreres [their highnesses, the ubiquitous duo Ali Sagar and Nasir Sogami], someone decided to attack a very fine gentleman, one who always wears a Pheran. Fazal Haq Quereshi, the original rebel and Al-Fatah founder in Kashmir [who made ‘underground’ a household term in the 1960’s] was hit/shot at/clubbed. I was sitting with a bunch of journalists amidst coffee and smoke when texts started to pour in. Suddenly everyone was animated. It was news-night.

On a balmy, cold morning NC workers were chart-wheeled to the tomb of Sheikh Abdullah at Hazratbal. The place looked like a Communist International, with the distinctly red NC flags strung on everything from iron grilling to lamp posts. There was much jostling. In other part of the city – Rajouri Kadal – protestors gathered outside the Mirwaiz manzil [old home of the Mirwaiz] to burn, yes you guessed it right, old bus tyres. Only God knows how many tyres have we burnt in the last two decades? Imagine the CO2 emission. In an era of intense global warming debate.

[Gangs assemble for Kani-jung]

I had Harisa with pals – at a stone's throw from the stone throwers. The intrepid Harisa-seller had very cleverly downed the greasy shutters and we had to literally slither into the mutton-fume-filled shop for a bite. Harisa is like Marijuana. The spices in the meat porridge come together [It tastes heaven] and explode in your head. You feel giddily replete. People speculate who shot Fazal Sahib. There are claps by the Dal bank, near the Sheikh’s concertina insulated mausoleum. Old city is sore. The contrasts stay. Have stayed forever.

[Concertina to protect the Sheikh's last abode]

[The dope den: Harisa shop]

Friends had invited Terra Naomi, an Alternative and rock star to perform in Srinagar. I sat through some of the ideation process. ‘Let’s print car bumper stickers, I opined’. She was to sing to draw the attention of world leaders towards the fast melting glaciers of Kashmir, a source of water to most of the sub-continent. Newspapers [Urdu as well as English] continued to call her YouTube sensation, irking me a great deal. An old man, with Chinese ear-muffs, clearly confused, was heard asking a passerby:

Ye Kahaz Gov you toop. [What’s you tube?]
He thought the government is asking people to switch over to tube-lights.

You killed the joke, tube light.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

The great climate debate

Even as the United Nations Climate Change Conference gets underway at Copenhagen, Climate Change Deniers are losing their sleep. Expectedly so. The well-heeled Climate Change Denier Industry – also called Global Warming Skeptics -- has a history of insomnia. One such influential band is the Global Climate Coalition, which represents ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and several big motor manufacturers. In 1995 the GCC’s own panel of scientists turned renegade and stated that ‘the scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.’ Expectedly GCC worked overtime to hush the matter up. They didn’t stop at that and spent millions to convince people that just the opposite was right.

The most credible body tasked by the UN to evaluate the risk of climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The panel elucidates in its last major environment report that ‘it is more than 90% likely that humankind is largely responsible for the modern-day climate change’. Notwithstanding the fact that the Earth's climate has always changed naturally over a period of time the main cause of anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is burning fossil fuels – that produces carbon dioxide (CO2). The carbon dioxide in turn compliments the CO2 already present in the Earth's atmosphere, trapping more of the Sun's energy, thereby warming the Earth's crest. IPCC bases its assessment majorly on peer reviewed and published scientific literature.

Back in Copenhagen, much has been made out of the nearly 1200 limos and 100 private planes used to ferry the delegates. The very premise of this argument is silly. The expenses for transportation for more than 20,000 people coming in from all over the world, if compared to the consumption of a densely packed urban center of 140,000 people -- who aren't traveling -- is simple: 5% of those dignitaries from 120 nations will make use of the limos while 95% of the visiting dignitaries WON’T be riding in limos? And how many cars they use at the Climate Change Conference is going to be absolutely inconsequential in comparison to any final binding agreement they might make. This is painfully obvious.


The ongoing din (suddenly ratcheted up) is a very clever ploy employed by the Deniers to belittle any possible outcome at Copenhagen. They cherry-pick personal e-mails, misrepresent data and cut off graphs before their curves become inconvenient. There are special interest groups at work with marked financial interests who pay to misrepresent the scientific consensus on climate change. And they sound increasingly like the Tobacco lobby. In 2006, The Guardian reported:

‘There are clear similarities between the language used and the approaches adopted by Philip Morris and by the organisations funded by Exxon. The two lobbies use the same terms, which appear to have been invented by Philip Morris's consultants. "Junk science" meant peer-reviewed studies showing that smoking was linked to cancer and other diseases. "Sound science" meant studies sponsored by the tobacco industry suggesting that the link was inconclusive. Both lobbies recognized that their best chance of avoiding regulation was to challenge the scientific consensus. As a memo from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson noted, "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.’

When the evidence doesn’t fit, the skeptics go, the scientists edit the evidence. This is a typical anti-science stance. As a matter of fact scientists correct their results from time to time when new evidence comes to light. The recently hacked emails should be a case in point. With no interest in establishing the truth about global warming, the Deniers insist that one or two odd lines of personal correspondence are just enough to destroy the entire canon of climate science. That is a far cry from truth. The emails in question cannot be de-contextualized and presented as the Final Judgment. Here’s why:

One of the supposedly most damning quotes from the CRU Hack “scandal” is:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Phil Jones

Before the laity is drowned in lengthy denunciation of the ‘rouge’ scientist’ and his gall to HIDE stuff to prove his point, let it be known that every profession evolves a specialized vocabulary. Two medicos exchanging correspondence will understand much more about what is being said and meant than someone else, even if that other person knows all of the vocabulary. Top reason why most scientists are spectacularly unimpressed with the emails’ leak. As a thrown in, Trick here means technique. (For example trick of the trade).


The scientific conclusion behind the climate change debate is very clear: What drives climate change is a variation in the earth’s orbit around the sun over thousands of years. In a normal warming cycle the sun heats the earth, the earth gets hotter. The ocean warms up resulting huge amounts of CO2. This creates a greenhouse effect that makes warming much more intense. That is why humankind’s release of CO2 is so perilous. We are out of step with the natural cycle.

Jeff Severinghaus, Professor of Geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California lucidly explains what the lag of CO2 behind temperature (a charge Deniers often invoke) in ice cores tell us about global warming.

‘At least three careful ice core studies have shown that CO2 starts to rise about 800 years (600-1000 years) after Antarctic temperature during glacial terminations. These terminations are pronounced warming periods that mark the ends of the ice ages that happen every 100,000 years or so. Does this prove that CO2 doesn't cause global warming? The answer is no. The reason has to do with the fact that the warmings take about 5000 years to be complete. The lag is only 800 years. All that the lag shows is that CO2 did not cause the first 800 years of warming, out of the 5000 year trend. The other 4200 years of warming could in fact have been caused by CO2, as far as we can tell from this ice core data. The 4200 years of warming make up about 5/6 of the total warming. So CO2 could have caused the last 5/6 of the warming, but could not have caused the first 1/6 of the warming.’

CO2 does not initiate the warmings, but acts as an amplifier. From model estimates, CO2 (along with other greenhouse gases CH4 and N2O) causes about half of the full glacial-to-interglacial warming. In modern industrial times, there is so much CO2 being independently emitted by human activity that the amplifying effect might simply overwhelm the other factors that otherwise cause the earth's temperature to fluctuate up or down.

There is talk now of imposition of a carbon tax to protect the environment by reducing emissions, helping to mitigate climate change. An alternative policy is a cap on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [Cap-and-trade]. It is an endeavor to cap emission levels of GHGs and issue/auction permits (grandfathering) freely to polluters. Market may be allowed for these emission permits so that polluters can trade some or all of their permits with others. Infact both cap-and-trade and carbon taxes are intended to give polluters a financial incentive to reduce their GHG emissions. The main difference between them is that carbon taxes provide price certainty on emissions, while a cap provides quantity certainty on emissions.

Interestingly there is no evidence till date that the European carbon price affected their trade competitiveness. It has been more than 18 years since the Swedes established a carbon tax on energy consumption. Whenever skeptics claim the tax kills growth, its proponents whip out its track record: since the tax was introduced, Swedish greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by 9%, while the economy has grown by a whopping 48% since then. So this tax doesn’t slow growth in the least. It is not regressive.

The carbon tax has to be made revenue-neutral (for every dollar raised by a tax, an equivalent dollar is returned to consumers) to be effective. To illustrate this, in 2005, America’s richest 20% spent an average of $3,182 on gasoline, or 3.6 times as much as the $882 spent by the poorest 20%. So, although the poorest 20% of Americans spend a greater percentage of their income on carbon, they pay less overall and thus would receive more money back than they paid in carbon taxes. Except for those industries the tax is intended to raise prices for anyway, the effect is relatively small. A revenue-neutral carbon tax minimizes the effect even further because overall tax burdens would not rise. Unaccounted for in these figures are the costs companies would incur to shift away from carbon-intensive inputs. These costs can be passed forward to consumers. Those extra costs, however, will create jobs in new industries aimed at carbon reductions.