Monday, January 31, 2005


Back from a ten-day hiatus ... I'd taken a week off to prepare for and give the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) ... Did a tad better than my expectations ... Check out my experience here ...

Meanwhile, elections took place in Iraq yesterday ... I better wake up and find out what hapenned ...

Thursday, January 20, 2005


Been almost two years since the Americans rained down upon Iraq ... A long and hard journey it has been for the people of Iraq ... The toppling of a government, the death of 100,000 Iraqis, the leveling of the town Najaf, the cruel humiliation of prisoners ... And the continuous threat of death and torture around the corner ... Even though it is the international kidnappings which hog the limelight, it is estimated that over 90% of the kidnapped victims are Iraqis ... And perhaps the most glaring failure of this war is the following fact - A strong, secular (albeit authoritarian) government with no telerance for religious extremism has been converted to a haven for terrorists in the middle east ...

Two years back, when it all started, I was in a small flat in Hauz Khas, Delhi with a cable connection and plenty of free time ... All I would do after returning from office was switch on BBC or CNN and get transported to the world of the Second Gulf War ... I remember following the war to the minutest details, thanks to the "embedded journalism" concept that emerged ... After the statue of Saddam had been toppled down by the American forces, I decided to sit down and capture what I felt about the whole issue ...

Just a month before the US attack began, the 75th annual academy awards, the Oscars, were hosted in the US ... Hence it was appropriate that I name my article "War-Scars" ... It was a cynical take on the Iraqi war, and a very good indicator of my mood at that time ...

Here it is ...

And the War-Scar goes to …

Welcome to the War-Scars … The 75th Annual Hypocrisy Awards!

The War-Scar awards are held every year to acknowledge the magnificient performances in the ever entertaining field of hypocrisy. This year has seen some of the most brilliant performances of all times by the most talented people in the industry.

Let us now celebrate their vision and dreams!

For the category of …


The nominees are …

1. BBC
2. CNN
3. Al Jazeera
4. US Military Press Briefing

The invasion of Iraq added a new dimension to conventional war reporting with the concept of embedded journalists emerging. But what information do they give us? We see US troops constantly on the move through sandy deserts. We marvel at reporters with disheveled clothes and dirty faces giving us their view about the "difficulties" of war. (Honestly speaking, do they have to shout and run out of breath like that?) We see selective coverage of US soldiers waving to little giggling children.

And of course, the unending bombardment of Baghdad, which trivializes the war into a spectacle of bright fireworks. The horrors of war are sanitised and special effects glamourized to reduce war to entertainment. Viewers watch Baghdad burning forgetting that beneath those columns of smoke and mountains of rubble lie charred men, crushed women and mutilated bodies of children.

And the War-Scar goes to … The US Military Press Briefing!! For their absolutely pointless satellite visuals of Iraqi buildings being bombarded, demonstrating the wonders of "precision" bombing by the coalition forces. So named for the "precision" with which they struck down British helicopters in various incidents of friendly fire and blew up two crowded market places in Baghdad nowhere near any military targets. But the US military does everything in style. These press briefings are given from their $200,000 war-briefing studio in Doha exclusively designed by a Hollywood designer.

Let's move over to our next category …


The nominees are …

1. "The French Correction" from France
2. "Doppelganger" from Germany
3. "War and Peace" from Russia
4. "Kaho Naa … War Hai" from India

France has been cheered by many for opposing the war, yet its hypocrisy runs as deep as America's. Force is always the last resort it proclaimed in the UN. Then why is the French Army being deployed so constantly in former French colonies that leaves us wondering whether French Colonialism ever ended. If force is indeed the last resort, then why did France destroy the unarmed Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, that protested against French nuclear explosions in the Pacific?

Germany has also protested in the UN about regime change in Iraq. Yet Germany above all stoked the break-up of Yugoslavia, recognizing different segments as different countries. France and other European countries followed suit. This led to a horrible sectarian war that killed over 200,000 people. Regime change in Yugoslavia killed more than would ever die in the Iraq conflict, and France and Germany cannot escape the blame.

Russia has violated all civil rights and bombed Chechnya killing thousands. And yet they swoon at the thought of violence in Iraq. Our motherland India is not far behind. We say that the UN should sanction any war on Iraq. But did we ask for UN permission for our 1971 war with Pakistan? No! It was a purely unilateral action.

These four countries have stuck steadfastly to the theme of our Awards Ceremony - Hypocrisy. And that is why for the first time in War-Scar history we have joint winners!

And the War-Scar goes to France, Germany, Russia and India for using commendable double-talk in their diplomatic efforts.

Behind every successful man is a woman. And behind every unsuccessful man is his lackey to cushion him. The War-Scars never fail to acknowledge these brave souls. Our next category is …


And the nominees are …

1. Tony Blair in "The Blair-Bush Project"
2. Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf in "An Officer and a Spokesman"
3. Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks in "The Thin Red Line"

Nelson Mandela dismissed him as the Foreign Minister of the United States of America. Maybe Tony Blair does not deserve the title of "Lackey of the US" that is attatched to him. Maybe he is being deluded by the Americans (ever hungry for support) into joining a war they claim is being fought on moral grounds. Maybe he is just doing what he thinks is right - sending forces into Iraq for their liberation. Maybe the British are not driven by narrow self-interest, unlike the Americans. (This can be seen by their strong call for UN involvement in Iraq after the war). I guess one can never really be sure, can they?

On paper, the British would be able to handle the Iraqis better than the Americans, both on the battlefront as well as off it. Handling the terrorism in Ireland has given them enough experience at urban and guerrilla warfare. And the recent reports of embedded reporters suggest that while the Americans are going around handling civillians roughly, the British have come in after them to clean up their mess. British soldiers are more courteous and genuinely friendly (not just photo-op friendly like the Americans). I recently read reports of a football match being organised between British troops and Iraqi civillians near the town of Basra, where fighting is still going on (The British were beaten 9-3, by the way).

Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, the dynamic and energetic Information Minister of Iraq, has certainly caught everyone's eye. In a war where both the parties have recognised the role of the media as a crucial weapon, Al-Sahaf has managed to weild it to it's full potential. He makes up for Saddam's absence by addressing the media personally almost everyday. Dressed in a smart military suit and spewing propaganda in his halting English, he projects an imposing, yet grandfatherly presence.

And he is never short on rhetoric. He once projected the lengthy American supply line as a "500 km snake", which Iraq would "cut up into little pieces". Drawing a parallel with Vietnam he once stated, "People say Iraq cannot do a Vietnam because there are no trees and bushes. Then let our buildings be our trees and our streets be our bushes". And he has absolutely no qualms when it comes to using strong abusive language against the coalition.

Our last nominee for this category is Brig-Gen Vincent Brooks. A common sight at US military press briefings, Brig-Gen Brooks more often than not ends up deputising for the commander of the US forces, General Tommy Franks. These press briefings rigorously follow a well-defined pattern. First the satellite photos and visuals of Iraqi targets being bombed are shown, with little blue arrows highlighting the American military precision. Then there is a briefing about the position of the ground forces and military personnel in Iraq. This briefing is so superficial that there is almost nothing there that the journos don't already know from their embedded counterparts.

What follows in the Q&A Session is a classic example of American spin in action. All uncomfortable questions are neatly sidestepped, without any attempts of even masking the appearance that they are being sidestepped. All other questions very conveniently lead to the same statements being repeated - How close the coalition forces are to toppling Saddam … How Iraqi soldiers are not following the conventions of warfare … How civillian casualites cannot be avoided … And of course, how Saddam plans to use chemical weapons once the coaltion troops cross the "thin red line".

And the War-Scar goes to … Mohammed Al-Sahaf!! … for his outrageous claims that the coalition forces were 160 kms away from Baghdad, when they were on the outskirts of its airport … and that they were repeating what was done in the movie "Wag the Dog"!

For our next award, we have unanimously chosen the winner, as the others don't hold a candle to this guy when it comes to script-writing …


Donald Rumsfeld for his script in the movie "One flew past the Republican Guard"

It was the dream script. Shock and Awe tactics of a massive bombardment of the Iraqi capital would "decapitate" the leadership. Saddam and his sons would be killed by the very first bombs to hit Baghdad. An ultra light and sleek military unit would rush to Baghdad in a blitzkreig move to take over the city. On their way they would bypass all other cities, whose streets will be thronged with crowds with flowers cheering their liberators. Iraqi soldiers would surrender by the thousands, unwilling to engage the most technically superior military force on earth.

Within Baghdad, there would be an uprising against the Baath party leaders and the troops would enter and install their own government. The world would hail the triumph of democracy and other rogue nations would tremble in fear. And contracts galore for our firms back home (paid, of course, by the Iraqi oil).

But somewhere, something went wrong. Saddam and his sons survived and showed their resilience. There were no flowers to greet the coalition soldiers, only bullets. Stiff Iraqi resistance staged guerrilla attacks on the military supply lines. By the second week the coalition forces could not claim that even one town was totally under their control. Aid was delayed, and when it did come, it's distribution was a disaster best left forgotten. The weather went against them. And numerous cases of friendly fire and Iraqi civillians dying by the hundreds did not help the coalition cause one bit.

One crucial miscalculation by Rumsfeld was his strong belief that Iraqi troops were just waiting to surrender and civillians just dying to carry arms against their oppressors. Here he made the mistake of listening to his regional sources from Iraq's neighbouring countries, and (supposedly) overruled his generals back in Washington, who insisted on the use of heavy decisive force. Rumsfeld is a great fan of technology, and devised this new plan to override the existing "archaic" plans for warfare in Iraq.

I don't know why the American's think that patriotism is an American patent. Do they honestly think that no other country in the world can have nationalist feelings? Do they think that any country would welcome invading troops from another nation, culture and religion with open arms? Do they think that they can win the "hearts and mind battle" by pounding their hometowns with bombs and mortars? By murdering their relatives and friends by the hundreds?

And they wonder why the rest of the world despises them.

The news networks have scored big time in this year's War-Scar ceremony. Let's take a look at our next category …


1. Western News Networks for " The Good, The Bad and The Embedded"
2. Arabic News Networks for "The Sound of Rhetoric"

To say that the media is biased is a gross understatement. The mere fact journalists are so enmeshed with the military makes it difficult for them to think objectively. Obviously, if your safety is in the hands of soldiers you will be unwilling to criticise them. Moreover, the coalition military machinery now has a very convenient tool to spread "desirable" bits of information.

Consider the following statements, released by the western media (fed by military leaders), which were ultimately proven wrong.

1. Saddam Hussein was killed after the first bombs hit Baghdad
2. The town of Basra and Umm Qasr were captured and under the control of coalition forces two days into the war
3. There was an uprising against the Iraqi regime in Basra
4. An Iraqi General was captured by the coalition forces
One CNN reporter even referred to the advance of the coalition troops in the first person plural - "we". The BBC and CNN correspondents try their best to make a mockery of press statements released by the Iraqi leaders. Sometimes they deliberately repeat the same phrases in the broken English used by Iraqi leaders. And more often they put their statements in quotes, questioning their very credibility. For example - The Iraqi Government says that "large quantities" of arms were recovered.

And not very far behind is Al Jazeera television giving the pro-Iraqi angle of the war. It proudly showcases American prisoners of war and injured Iraqis. Civilians in hospitals are focussed on to arouse sympathy the world over. There are visuals of Iraqis dancing around Coalition helicopters supposedly shot down by peasants. A few days back two Kenyan truck drivers who were part of a team delivering aid to a town were captured and paraded on Iraqi television, which claimed they were British soldiers.

Two streams of information - One talking about the "American advance towards liberating the suppressed Iraqi people" and the other talking about the "Fierce Iraqi resistance against the infidel invaders". This war just does not permit us to get a full or real picture, mainly because the coverage looks so vulnerable to regional interests. It's true that war reporting cannot be totally objective, but it can at least be humanist.

'Factoid' was the term coined in the Vietnam War to desrcibe the phenomenon of a lie being repeated loudly and long enough to be accepted as the truth. But the audience is far more cynical than it used to be. It is no longer willing to buy the official line, all too frequently parroted by the mass media.

The Academy has decided to award this War-Scar to an un-nominated group - the Web-logs or Blogs, as they are more popularly called. People are increasingly turning to this alternative source of information on the net. 'Embedded' journalism is finding it's counter in 'embunkered' reportage.

Blogs are self-styled chroniclers who keep weblogs on the net. They can be written by one person or many, written in diary style and are complete with typos. This phenomenon started around 9/11 and has grown into the Next Big Thing during this war. Blogs could be civilians from the war zone, former mainstream journalists (now independent), aid workers, and just about anybody who has a sharp personal opinion on global events like the war.

We move to our next category, where one actor has broken all previous records by being nominated in five different movies for the same category!


George Bush Jr. in Gulf Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clown
George Bush Jr. in Exterminator II - Judgement Day
George Bush Jr. in Honey, I blew up Iraq
George Bush Jr. in West Pride Story
George Bush Jr. in Dictator and I

I had nothing against that guy. He can't take the blame for cogenital stupidity. But when that stupidity is directly responsible for creating a totally avoidable and uncalled for disaster, it's time to draw the line. HOW did someone like HIM get elected to lead the most powerful (if not moral) nation on earth? It does'nt say much about the people who voted him in. Says even lesser for the system that allowed this to happen.

I have a strong feeling that President Bush is a big fan of the movie Chicago. He too believes that you can get away with murder if you just dazzle the world enough. Most Americans remember only that which is dished out by their administration and retailed by their electronic media run by large corporations. It was precisely because Bin Laden had not been captured or killed long after the end of the Afghanistan campaign that Bush tried to sublimate Bin Laden into Saddam Hussein. This was very obvious on the first commemoration of 9/11. The spin-doctors of the White House have done such an effective job that a majority of the Americans now believe that more than half of the hijackers on September 11, 2001 were Iraqis!

What ideals of democracy are they trying to propagate? Rounding up anti-war protestors, finger printing entire communities, pressuring TV channels to take a partisan view, America under George Bush is doing all it can to curb domestic civil rights - and ironically in the name of protecting freedom and liberty. Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, and Madonna have been at the receiving end of things these last few days because of their anti-war stance. Peter Arnett has been labeled unpatriotic - just because he said out his mind on Iraqi television.

This is great material for a debate - For a citizen, which is of greater value - freedom or patriotism?

And we come to the final award for the evening …


The nominees are …

1. UN-faithful
2. Lawmakers of Arabia
3. Iraqi Pie
4. Rebels Without a Clue

1. UN-faithful

Following the US and British unilateral action in the Gulf, every organisation in the world has experienced serious rifts. Be it the NATO, the Arab League, OPEC, the European Union or the NAM. But none more than the United Nations, whose resolutions and directives US openly defied to do what it felt like doing. What purpose does a multilateral body serve if it is not able to stop an illegal war from taking place?

There are many who see this as the signal for the demise of the UN.There was a time a few decades back that the League of Nations was disbanded and the nations of the world came together to form the United Nations from it's ashes. Ironically it was the US and Britain that made this happen. Now I believe the world is ready for a third generation of league of nations to do what the UN could not. But this would only be possible in a truly multipolar world, one which is not dictated by bullies with might.

2. Lawmakers of Arabia

Bush and his pro-Israeli and power-hungry idealogues have some fancy plans for West Asia and it's people. They are the latest example of those Westerners who feel they have to carry "The White Man's Burden". They are currently focussing on the countries that have or have had nuclear weapons programmes, namely the "Axis of Evil" states - Iraq, Iran and North Korea.The fact that Israel has over 400 nuclear weapons is yet to register with Washington.

The US-British invasion of Iraq is rapidly converting Saddam Hussein into a kind of folk hero. This is what he had always wanted - to be viewed as a champion of the Arab world. Till the attack, he had very few supporters. All this had changed dramatically in the span of a two weeks. Iraqi civillians are rallying around their leader. Hundreds of civillians have been killed and injured. And not a single weapon of mass destruction has so far been found to add credibility to the US claim.

The US venture in Iraq is a major miscalculation not because US goals are incorrect, but because they are being pursued the wrong way. There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam will be removed, and the coalition forces will prevail in Baghdad. But would it really be worth the enormous cost of the war? Not just in terms of innocent lives being lost, but a whole nation of proud people being subjugated to the worst kind of humiliation. The inflammation of Arab and Muslim sentiment will lead to terrible 9/11-style terrorist attacks and more Bin Ladens being born every day that this atrocity continues. It would only result in the creation of an unbridgeable gap between the Muslim and the Non-Muslim world.

3. Iraqi Pie

The coalition partners - The US, Britain and Australia - are having a tough time deciding how to divide the post-war Iraqi pie. Those who opposed the war - France, Germany and Russia - are trying to ensure their firms are also part of the multi-billion dollar contracts. The US, however, has taken it upto itself to become the sole authority to grant work. Britain does want a larger UN participation in post-war Iraq, and they think anything else will be illegal.

But so far everything seems to be going to well connected US firms. The first contract (worth $500 million) to put out oil fires went to Kellogg Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, headed by current vice-president Dick Cheney. US oil majors Exxon-Mobil and Chevron-Texaco also stand to gain from a coalition victory. US firms have also been favoured for reconstruction work. In February, USAID secretly "invited" five US corporations to bid for eight contracts worth $900 million. They clarified that this was done since "speed is of the essence in this whole thing."

Ellis Environment Group, which clears debris and removes unexploded bombs, has an "open ended" contract worth $1.2 billion with the Pentagon, which is soon expected to double. Companies like Kraft, which sells dehydrated meals, are set to enjoy a boom as humanitarian effort gets under way. US arms exports may zoom once the war is over. Post Gulf War I, they doubled to $20 billion in 1993, compared to the previous year.

There is absolutely no doubt that the operation against Iraq was undertaken for imperialistic reasons. And they try to convince the rest of the world that they want to "liberate the Iraqi people from the terrible yoke of oppression". It does'nt matter if there are dozens of other countries in the world under similar tyrannies. Doesn't matter if other countries have more links to terrorism than a strongly secular Iraq. Does'nt matter if there exist other rogue countries possessing not just chemical and biological weapons, but nuclear capability too.

What matters is that Iraq has the second largest oil reserve in the world. And if you can't steal their oil directly, destroy their country first and then drain their resources to pay US firms in the name of "reconstruction".

4. Rebels Without a Clue

Millions of anti-war protestors the world over took to the streets on February 15th. But even this opposition to the war is laced with hypocrisy. Where were they when wars without US involvement produced massive slaughter in Africa, Asia and Yugoslavia? Why was there no political pressure on European and US governments to stop the horrendous killings in Rwanda or Yugoslavia? Many protested when Bush Sr. went into Iraq in 1991. But when he withdrew, and Saddam Hussein slaughtered 50,000 Shias in southern Iraq, they staged no protest.

The "international peace movement" is, by and large, anti-American. In theory they oppose violence by anybody, but they stage massive rallies only when the US gets violent. Journalists, academics and moralists yawn with boredom when the Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis, but explode with outrage if the US send in its marines to Iraq and kills 1000 civillians. US hypocrisy in Iraq is easily explained by narrow self interest, but what about the hypocrisy of those who oppose this war?

I've been confused about something for quite some time now. How do we determine if something is true? Does something become true if the largest number of people believe it to be true? Or is truth what the most powerful person believes? Or maybe there is no real truth in the absolute sense of the word. Maybe opinions, views and beliefs cannot be true or false in a binary fashion. Maybe everything falls somewhere in between, in a grey area with varying shades of black and white.

I harbour no love for what Saddam is doing in Iraq, and I also oppose what the US is doing to Iraq. That is why I can't say if I am "against" the war or "for it". What I can say confidently is that I am against all the hypocrisy surrounding everything related to the war.

Monday, January 17, 2005


I've found an identity in the web-world ... Just discovered a grouping of BITSian blogs on the net - Camel in the Desert ... Loads of contributors from different years, and the list is growing daily ... Very young blog, just two weeks older than mine ... Makes a lot of psenti reading ... The initial enthu for posting is there, but lets see how long it lasts ...

Somehow I find this a lot better than Orkut ... Orkut is great if you want to locate someone fast ... The scrapbook idea, however, never caught on with me ... For some serious creative reading there is nothing better than a good blog ... And BITSians are some of the most creative people I've come across! ...

Here's to the Camel in the Desert ...

Thursday, January 13, 2005


It is strange how matters of social welfare enter our conscience only when a disaster occurs ... Don't like to sound gloomy, but people are dying everyday ... More than 150,000 people died in this disaster ... But did you know that over 165,000 people die every month because of Malaria? ... The figure is 240,000 per month for AIDS ... Not that nothing is being done about it - There are millions of dollars being donated regularly for these causes too ... But the figures remain there - in the hundreds of millions ...

Something else I did'nt know till a week back ... The US spends 6 billion dollars a week in Iraq ... What they donated for the Tsunami is peanuts compared to money like that ... So the most powerful nation in the world spends more to kill people than to save them ... US hypocrisy merits a seperate blog entry by itself, and I promise I'll get back to it ...

For now, let me present to you an account of the real heroes to emerge from all this ... I'm not talking about VIPs who paralyse relief efforts by raining down upon the Tsunami hit areas ... I'm not talking about the politicians, filmstars and sportsmen lining up for a photo-op presenting a cheque to the prime minister (Did you know there actually were instances of people refusing to give cheques unless photographed) ... And I'm definitely not talking about all those countries trying desperately to win that game show "Who wants to donate a Billion dollars" ...

I'm talking about the volunteers working at ground zero, with the people ... All of those handling the logistics, the counseling, the rallying for support ... The ones who were there for them before the Tsunami, and the ones who will continue to serve them long after the Tsunam fades from people's memories ...

Balaji Sampath is just one of them ...He is the coordinator for AID Chennai Chapter ... He was IIT-JEE rank-4 ... He pursued his PhD from University of Maryland at College Park and these days works full-time with AID ... This is a report that he filed in from the field ...

From: Balaji Sampath
Tsunami Relief Work Report - 3

(A perspective report)

A Social Movement in Progress!

Venkatesh is a poor daily wage coolie labor from Chidambaram. Right from the start he has been helping with dead body removal, debris clearance and relief distribution in the villages around our Killai center.

Every 2-3 days he gets a call from home "Come back! We have not eaten for 2 days."

Venkatesh's daily earnings decides whether his family will eat that day or not. When he gets this call, Venkatesh rushes back home - to work, to earn and to feed his family.

Two days later he is back at Killai - working on the relief efforts!

There are many DYFI volunteers like Venkatesh working in Killai and the other six centers in Cuddalore and Nagai. Extremely poor and extremely motivated volunteers. They are the backbone of our relief efforts there. They are the ones who cannot write reports, the ones who cannot discuss big ideas for long term planning. But they are the ones who went in first into the empty villages to dig out and clear and cremate dead bodies, to clean up the slush in the houses and to provide relief supplies. I would like to take this opportunity to salute these silent selfless volunteers and acknowledge their critical role.

At our Nagapatinam center a large number of "software" volunteers from Bangalore and Chennai landed up to help with the relief operations. At first, the local DYFI volunteers looked at them suspiciously "What can these well-dressed rich professionals do here in this village?" But they were in for a shock. The IT professionals promptly folded up their sleeves, put on gloves and boots and walked into the slush to lift and remove dead bodies. The local volunteers were first zapped. They had never seen software professionals doing this kind of manual labor! By the evening - at the end of a hard day's labor - a new human relationship had developed - volunteers from both groups were now great friends, sharing jokes and beedis!

Apart from a large number of individuals - "professionals who took leave from their offices" and landed up in our Chennai Office and from there to Cuddalore and Nagapatinam - helping in every way they could, we also had batches of volunteers from a number of companies like Hexaware, Ashok Leyland, TCS, Infosys, Colgate, Tirumalai Chemicals, HCL, etc. In the last 2 weeks, AID has mobilized more than 500 such volunteers who have spent varying amounts of time volunteering and helping in Cuddalore and Nagai - along with DYFI and PSF and TNSF's 500 volunteers.

The first day when I was planning with the core AID-India team and Senthil Babu of PSF and Ramesh and Kannan from DYFI about work allocation for these "software volunteers" - I had assumed these well-to-do volunteers that we were mobilizing in Chennai and Bangalore will only do things like surveys, relief distribution, etc - not manual labor. In the days that followed I was proved totally wrong - and very happily so!

We have today a social movement before us - something that has never happened before. New people from totally different backgrounds, in large numbers, breaking hierarchies and working together as equals.

First Phase Relief Efforts almost completed

In the first phase (the first 10-12 days), the focus was on ensuring people are safe in relief camps, ensuring disease outbreaks don't happen, people have food to eat and blankets and clothes, and on removing dead bodies and cleaning up the villages. There was no confusion on what needed to be done - only questions of how to reach out and organize ourselves to be effective. Overcoming the shock and getting organized and reaching basic relief was the goal. We found the government and a few organizations working in some pockets where there was a lot of destruction and a lot of media attention. We therefore focused our attention on smaller villages dotted along the coast which are harder to reach.

Our team was based out of 7 cluster centers in Cuddalore, Nagai and Karaikal area. Around each cluster center, we began working in about 5-10 villages. We started clearing dead bodies and providing relief support. We also began to identify what other groups (local business groups, merchant associations and general villagers) are providing and began to ration our supply so that things are not duplicated, but also ensuring that needs are identified and met on time. Our Chennai office was also geared to source materials based on day to day field needs and transport them to the relief cluster centers on a daily basis.

Right from the start our focus was on three issues:

1. To get people out of relief camps into a family set up as soon as possible - so that regular life can restart and serious rehab process can begin.

2. Ensuring basic relief reaches all families - identifying gaps in distribution as well as gaps in items needed and providing them.

3. Ensuring more problems are not generated - disease outbreaks, fear psychosis, fights between people at the camps, etc.

In most places this first phase of efforts is over. There are some very rare pockets where we still see some dead bodies and debris needs some clearing up, but for the most part this work is complete - and will be done in the next couple of days. Basic relief provision organization structure is also in place. Relief for a month or two more will be needed, and there are people who are donating materials towards these which will hopefully keep this going smoothly.

The first phase challenge was organization and scaling up. I shouldn't be saying this myself, but we handled this quite well. A core team planning and handling and coordinating the expanding work, Lots of volunteers - assigned to different tasks, handling a whole new range of activities. A clear structure for field level intervention and stocking up the field centers with enough volunteers and materials and a good work plan strategy. A good system for collecting and channeling donations. A good reporting structure on the work in progress, field level materials and financial and volunteer needs.

Shabnam Hashmi, a well known activist, visited the AID office and our relief centers. One point she made sums up the reason why we were able to scale up and organize so effectively. "I was very pleasantly surprised by the way totally new volunteers are given so much responsibility and are able to coordinate and plan the work in AID. In most organizations including ours, we believe only the core group can coordinate and plan important things. This openness, trust and ability to devolve responsibility is what has made so many new people so quickly take on work and manage things."

This has always been the case with AID, but until she put it across like that I never realized this was an important strength.

Before I go on to describe the second phase of relief efforts that we are entering into, I must mention the special help we have received from Mr. Parthasarathy of Tirumalai Chemicals. Through his help we have been able to connect up with a large number of industrial groups which have been directly arranging relief supplies from factories and also arranging godown space for storage, helping with organizing things by sending volunteers, working on transport issues and also on technology issues.

Relief Efforts Moving into Second Phase

Now we are moving into the second phase. In the second phase, there are many more tricky issues to handle. I will go over some of them now.

There are many other NGOs at work in the affected areas. There is almost a competition amongst these NGOs to try and identify and "adopt" villages where each group would work exclusively. Since there are more NGOs than villages, there is an auction and negotiation taking place in the collector's office on a daily basis! Since we were busy with the relief efforts in the villages, we were often unable to attend the collector's meetings. Also there was a general aversion within our group at the on-going auction of villages! But since were working in these villages right from start, we had in a different sense "adopted" these villages. When we mentioned that we are working in nearly 30 villages in Nagai and 30 villages in Cuddalore, we were told we cannot work in so many villages, as many villages had been already "adopted" by different groups! After some initial confusion, here is a clear picture of what we will be doing.

1.. We are not in this business of adopting villages and keeping it exclusive. If others want to come in and do things in a village - let them. We are and will continue working with the people and ensure that all their needs are met. We don't need to meet all needs ourselves - government, other NGOs and other businesses can also provide it.

2.. Our focus is therefore on the gaps in delivery. No one is working on toy centers and crèches for children, education support for 10th and 12th students, preventive health, counseling, etc - and so we are working on these issues. We are also monitoring what the other groups are providing and will mobilize people to demand their rights whenever necessary.

3.. We also oppose this shirking of duty by the government. The responsibility for rehabilitation cannot be given over to NGOs and private organizations. Today an NGO can work in a village, tomorrow they may decide to leave. They are not accountable institutions. Only the government can be held responsible for rehabilitation. And the current moves and actions suggest that the government is using this overwhelming support from the public to shirk its responsibility. What we are proposing as an alternative is that Govt and NGO partner together with NGO providing community mobilization and implementation support.

a. Funds must go to the local elected community structures (like panchayat system or water users groups).

b. Within this structure govt is responsible ultimately for rehab - no one else can be held that responsible.

c. Govt gets help from other orgn - NGOs - for community mobilization, donor agencies and industries for financial and material support and sourcing, groups of technical people (mobilized by organizations like Pondicherry Science Forum, CERD, DST, AID-India) for technical support in different areas like housing, livelihood, education and health.

d. NGOs and Community Organization apart from helping in implementation will also act as monitoring agencies - this must be accepted for transparency and to ensure smooth functioning. The Govt should not be overly touchy about some limited responsible criticism and should accept it in the interest of larger good.

The Government may not accept our proposal. In which case we will continue our work - identifying gaps that others miss out and fulfilling them and organizing people to get their rights and also pushing the government and other organizations to improve effectiveness of relief delivery.

The thrust of our work is two fold:

I. Towards Equality

An older society has broken down. This was not an ideal society - there were inequities within. There were people with 2 floor houses and people with huts, people with speed boats and people with catamarams and even people without any of these. What does reconstruction mean?

1.. Does it mean giving back to each what they have lost ? A 2-floor house for a 2-floor house and a hut for a hut? A boat for a boat and a catamaram for a catamaram?

2.. Or does it mean proportional loss coverage - a 75% coverage of assets lost. Will this mean that the rich (who have more voice) will get their boats first and then with whatever money is left some catamarams will be provided ? Or will this mean first the poorest will get what they have lost and only then the more well to do will get their losses covered?

3.. Or does reconstruction mean a move towards equality - trying to build a new society where the new assets are more equally shared and owned?

These are not easy questions to answer. One might want equity, but the people have organized under local panchayats (not the govt elected ones - traditional panchayats). They have a perception of how things should be distributed. In many villages even if you distribute nets equally to all, they plan to collect the nets back and distribute it only to those who had lost boats and catamarams earlier. Of course the poorer sections would like things to be more egalitarian - but they have little say in the matter. At this stage a debate on equity with the well-to-do who have lost their assets also brings out an emotional reaction. Even practically, pushing for equity in livelihood assets is ruled out in the current context with so many people in the game trying to help. If you are bargaining for equity with the powerful in the village and are the only one bringing in resources, it is possible. But now with so much "competition to help", this becomes impossible.

But just a simple "return to old life" is also not possible. Villages did not have toilets or libraries. Does that mean we won't construct toilets and libraries? Clearly a more complex approach is needed. Out of a lot of debate the following approach has emerged.

1.. We will ensure that basic relief - shelter, food, education, health is ensured for all the people. Today there are lots of people focusing on this - but we will work to ensure that this continues at least for 3 more months.

2.. We will work to ensure that the poorest get their due first.

3.. On livelihood we will have to go with the larger "dominant" current consensus now. We will try to ensure as much of this is done by other organizations - and will try to push for equity wherever possible. At a later stage we can look at mobilizing the poorer sections into co-operatives and provide better livelihood options. We will also focus on non-fishing villages and the livelihood options there.

4.. On housing we will try to push for more equal structures.

5.. We will focus efforts on building up community assets - like water supply, sanitation (toilet complex), health care facilities, children's activity centers, community cyclone shelters, libraries, etc.

6.. We will work continuously in these villages and work on small budget things like education, health, women's empowerment, children's support programmes. These are issues others don't want to work on very much.

7.. We will work on providing alternative technology solutions - to our own groups, to other NGOs and to the Government. (Already a number of our recommendations - though not all - have been adopted by the government in provisioning temporary structures).

II. Gap Filling Function

There are many groups working on the field (and in "competition"). Most of them will stay on only for a short period of time - they have specific agendas like building temporary shelters, or houses or giving boats and nets, etc. They have not so far (nor do many intend) to stay on for a year or two to rebuild the social fabric that was shattered. Since that is exactly what we will be doing, we feel it will be better for us to work in a sustained manner and optimize our resources. We can afford to wait. We feel our donors and supporters trust us enough and will realize that even if we spend the money slowly, we will do a good job. So we need not spend funds in a hurry. Let other organizations spend their resources on what they identify as specific needs. We will even help them in the process (as we are doing in some villages already with our volunteers helping other groups construct temporary shelters). We will continue our work and interaction with the community, understand their needs better and then help them on things that are not covered - a gap filling role. Even this gap filling role requires a lot of funds and we need to conserve our resources to ensure that we can do this effectively because we are working in more than 70 affected villages already.

The above is one kind of gap filing role - identifying specific issues that are not covered and addressing them. The other kind of gap filing is location based. There are places that are being neglected. Cuddalore-Nagai (and Kanyakumari) have been affected the most and so most organizations are putting their energies there. We also put in a lot of effort there in the early days. More recently we started expanding to areas that are also affected - obviously less affected than Cuddalore-Nagai, but whether there has been no help so far either. For example around Koovathur area in Kanchipuram, we have started working in 4-5 villages. These villages have about 30-40 houses destroyed, no lives lost, but boats and nets have been damaged. Very little help comes into these villages. Similarly even in Nagai and Cuddalore areas, there are non-fishing villages that are affected by the Tsunami. Villages which depended on selling fish and villages where water came into the fields and made it salty. There are relief effort gaps here that we will be addressing.

We have made a list of different issues on which we need to focus - it is listed at the end of this note. One must understand that we won't be doing all the things ourselves - our job is to ensure all this gets done and gets done on time. We might have to do some things ourselves, we might need to get people to demand other things from the government and we might be able to get other NGOs to do a few things. But it important to keep all the issues in mind and to work on whatever is needed in each village.

Report of Progress

This is not a report of work done - it is a report of the evolving perspective amongst people who are working on the problem. There have been very interesting things happening on the field in many directions which will be reported separately in detail. We are trying to get together a village by village report of work done - but in this short time and with so much activity this is hard. We have been working on Counseling, Preventive Health and Games for children which have thrown up interesting new perspectives like the fear of the Tsunami and the Sea. We are working on a video and booklets to address this fear, apart from direct counseling efforts. We have had water experts visit the areas to do studies on what can be done to provide drinking water. We have had people looking at ways to regenerate the wasted agricultural fields. We have done detailed village level PRA exercises and prepared overall reconstruction proposals for each village. We have had people looking at alternate boat design and construction design for housing and children's activity centers. In each area of intervention listed below there have been a number of interesting activities - but too detailed to mention here. Since this is merely a perspectives report, I will stop with this with a promise of a more detailed work report to follow sometime soon!

What is needed ?

At this stage things are getting into the tricky phase - so the most important thing that is needed on all fronts is PATIENCE and TRUST! We need to work carefully, stretch our resources and have the ability to wait and work patiently. Hurrying will only worsen things at this stage in terms of our long term ability to bring about a better life for all.

There has been a huge response from volunteers, donors and supporters. This support needs to continue for a much longer time. We will need volunteers to work on issues over at least a year. Gearing ourselves up for working over such a long time is critical. It is important not to fizzle out at this stage. It is important to understand our overall strategy and to go along with it. The pressure to see immediate results should not cloud the need to work slowly but steadily.

Having said this let me go on to list the four key areas for support:

1. Volunteers who can stay on for a longer period of time - and are staggered in time - spread out over a year. I understand this is harder than getting a rush of motivated volunteers now. But we are trying to address a harder problem - so we must be able to do the harder things. Also we need volunteers who will work in the office and also go to the field. It is this back and forth interaction which is critical at this stage.

2. Funds that are raised to be spent slowly over a year or even two years. Even people who have collected funds to buy and give things must conserve their resources to buy and give things more slowly over a year or at least over 3 months. Is this possible? This is something people who are collecting and raising such support must decide. Is it needed? Yes!

3. Material Support - Different kinds of materials are needed and we have been getting support from a large group of people for this. Some people have been sourcing materials directly from factories.

4. Technical Assistance - Please look at the range of issues that we are trying to work on. Clearly we don't have the expertise to handle all of this! But as you probably know that never stops us from trying - and so far we have found teams of architects, doctors, community health workers, water experts, and lots of others coming forward to help us in different ways. We need this to continue.

A Non-Tsunami Perspective

There has been an amazing response to the Tsunami disaster. Yes - the people there need this help. But the people in other villages nearby are asking "What sin did we do? We are also poor - how come no one comes to help us like this?" At this stage it may seem insensitive to ask for such help. But looking at it from their perspective, they are also poor and need help if it can be provided. Is it possible to channel this energy, hope and resources that have been released by the Tsunami relief efforts into other areas as well? There is a lot to do there as well and if we approach the problems there with the same level of interest, there is a lot we can do in these areas as well.

Slowly as we are recovering from the shock of the Tsunami and the immediate relief efforts that followed, this question keeps coming up again and again. A hope lingers on that the human spirit the Tsunami has released will sustain and in time will extend to other areas as well.

- Balaji Sampath

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


- 11 countries affected by the Tsunami
- 150,000 victims mourned
- 1.8 million people in need of food
- 2 Billion USD promised as aid

These are the figures that the media is throwing at our face ... We're all numb at the magnitude of the tragedy ... It's not always that we see so many zeroes at the end of a casualty list ...

We talk about what could have been done to warn people ... About who is giving how much ... About the effectiveness of the relief efforts ... About the benefit concert being performed ... or cricket match being played ... About the origins of the word Tsunami ...

And we don't just talk ... We donate a part of out earnings to a relief fund. Our conscience thus appeased, we forget about the tragedy and carry on with our daily lives - Going out for movies, dinners and even celebrating the New Year with undiluted noise and pomp ...

How many of us have bothered to look beyond the numbers? ... At the pain and suffereing that people have actually undergone? ... The numbers given by the papers mislead us all ... And I'm not just talking about accounting for missing people ...

An estimated one third of those killed in this tragedy were children ... When even a single child dies, it's not just the parents and relations who are affected ... The pain is felt by many more people ... The child's close friends, their parents, classmates, school teachers and more or less all members of the community ... They all share the grief ... Hundreds mourn for a single little flower taken before its time ... Now take the agony of all these people and multiply it by a hundred and fifty thousand ... THAT would be a closer figure of those affected by the disaster ...

90% of the people killed in India were fisherman, sole bread-earners for their large families ... Go and tell their orphaned children and their aging parents that they are not counted as the "victims" of the tragedy ...

Millions of others in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand lost their homes, shops, boats and only means of earning their livelihood ... Everything that was familiar to them vanishes in a few hours ... Refugees in their own countries, with nowhere to go ... Are they any less affected than those who lost a loved one? ... Numbers are indeed misleading ...

Among the many tales of grief and heroism that are emerging in the papers, there was one which touched me ...

A mother in Thailand was caught in the swirling waters and held onto her two little sons ... One was aged five and the other two ... She knew that they could not survive if she held onto both of them ... She had to choose between her sons ... Ultimately she chose to let the elder one adrift, and held onto the younger one ... Luckily the elder boy survived , and was found two hours later ...

But just think of what could have been going on in the mother's mind when she was forced to choose ... The decision to give your own flesh and blood up willingly is a painful one ... Even more painful for her would be facing her elder son and living with the fact that he knows she left him to die ...

A policeman in South India was approached by a couple for help ... Their son had been missing for days ... They were not ready to accept the inevitable, and were hopeful of finding him ... The policeman later told the media, "How can you tell a parent to give up hope?" ...

Indeed ... How can you tell a mother that she'll never cook her son's favourite dish for him again? ... How can you tell a father that he'll never attend his daughter's marraige? ... How can parents be asked to bury their own child? ... What fate could be more cruel? ...

Individual stories like these bring out a true picture of the magnitude of the disaster ... Huge numbers merely trivialise the value of individual lives ...

As a tourist in Phuket put it ...

"I would like express my extreme sorrow for all affected. I arrived on Phuket three days ago and am impressed to see how the island has recovered. Isn't it time to show some good news? Phuket is a miracle island with only a few hundred casualties, not to be confused with other locations on the mainland who were less fortunate. Phuket's infrastructure is 100% intact. The best way of helping the local people is by spreading the good news instead of repeatedly showing week-old video clips."

Only a few hundred casualties? ... Good news? ... How can you use the word "only" when you're talking about human lives? ... Even a single life taken is one too many ...

The Tsunami has been a disaster of enormous magnitude ... But the bigger disaster lies in the fact that humanity has become desensitized to the horrors of the loss of life ... When a tragedy is reduced to an opportunity for news channels to improve their ratings ... When gory pictures of death and destruction simply make interesting forwards ... When US Congressman view the disaster as an "opportunity" to show the Muslim world they care ... And when human life is just reduced to numbers on a piece of paper ...

Monday, January 03, 2005


Baba Yaga ... This alias is not new for me ... I've had it around for as long as I've been playing multi-player games with my buddies ...

What, or rather who, exactly is the Baba Yaga? ... And why have I chosen it to be my alias? ...

A Google search on Baba Yaga would result in the following information ...

"In Russian folklore there are many stories of Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch with iron teeth.
She is also known as Baba Yaga Boney Legs, because, in spite of a ferocious appetite, she is as thin as a skeleton. In Russian that's: 'Baba Yaga Kostianaya Noga'.

Her nose is so long that it rattles against the ceiling of her hut when she snores, stretched out in all directions upon her ancient brick oven. Not being a boringly-conventional witch, she does not wear a hat, and has never been seen on a broomstick. She travels perched in a large mortar with her knees almost touching her chin, and pushes herself across the forest floor with a pestle.
Whenever she appears on the scene, a wild wind begins to blow, the trees around creak and groan and leaves whirl through the air. Shrieking and wailing, a host of spirits often accompany her on her way.

Being a somewhat secretive lady, (in spite of all the din she makes,) she sweeps away all traces of herself with a broom made of silver birch (what are brooms for anyway?). She can also fly through the air in the same manner.

Baba Yaga lives in a hut deep in the forest. Her hut seems to have a personality of its own and can move about on its extra-large chicken legs. Usually the hut is either spinning around as it moves through the forest or stands at rest with its back to the visitor. The windows of the hut seem to serve as eyes. All the while it is spinning round, it emits blood-curdling screeches and will only come to a halt, amid much creaking and groaning, when a secret incantation is said. When it stops, it turns to face the visitor and lowers itself down on its chicken legs, throwing open the door with a loud crash.

The hut is sometimes surrounded by a fence made of bones, which helps to keep out intruders! The fence is topped with skulls whose blazing eye sockets illuminate the darkness.
When a visitor enters her hut, (not too often) Baba Yaga asks them whether they came of their own free will, or whether they were sent. (One answer is the right one!) Thankfully, she appears to have no power over the pure of heart, such as Vasilisa and those of us who are 'blessed' (protected by the power of love, virtue, or a mother's blessing.)

Baba Yaga rules over the elements. Her faithful servants are the White Horseman, the Red Horseman and the Black Horseman. When Vasilissa asks her who these mysterious horsemen are, she replies: 'My Bright Dawn, my Red Sun and my Dark Midnight.' Amongst her other servants, are three bodiless and somewhat menacing pairs of hands, which appear out of thin air to do her bidding. She calls them "my soul friends" or "friends of my bosom" and she is more than a little reticent about discussing them with Vasilisa.

Although she is mostly portrayed as a terrifying old crone, Baba Yaga can also play the role of a helper and wise woman. The Earth Mother, like all forces of nature, though often wild and untamed, can also be kind. In her guise as wise hag, she sometimes gives advice and magical gifts to heroes and the pure of heart. The hero or heroine of the story often enters the crone's domain searching for wisdom, knowledge and truth. She is all-knowing, all seeing and all-revealing to those who would dare to ask. She is said to be a guardian spirit of the fountain of the Waters of Life and of Death.

Baba Yaga is the Arch-Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death, the Bone Mother. Wild and untamable, she is a nature spirit bringing wisdom and death of ego, and through death, rebirth."

That pretty much sums up the Baba Yaga ... And, apart from gender and age, I would say that the Baba Yaga pretty much sums up my character as well ... No, I don't fly around with a mortar and broomstick ... And I don't have three colourful hitmen in my pay ... I'm talking about the concept of a being who can be viewed as cold and yet be warm at the same time ... That's what I feel, at least ... You'll have to get to know me to decide whether you agree with me! ...