Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Death Penalty: What Exactly Are We Protesting Against?

(Published in Sify.com on 31 August, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/death-penalty-what-exactly-are-we-protesting-against-news-columns-li5kVLgfcgf.html)




“So, it looks like Gandhi’s back in vogue. First, there’s Anna, who’s, like, the twenty-first century new and improved version, tech savvy and all.”
“Does his iPad have a spinning app?”
“Are you talking about spinning wheels or media reports?”
“Never mind. You said this was the first. What’s the other Gandhian trend?”
“You know, some six decades after he last said it, people are quoting the ‘eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’ one-liner.”

“But those people are missing a point, aren’t they? Half the world would have to be poking out eyes for that scenario to occur. If no one poked someone’s eyes out in the first place, there would be no need for the whole world to go blind.”
“Yeah, it’s a logical fallacy. Actually, I think an eye for an eye would work quite well. If rapists were to be raped, and people who burn their wives and daughters-in-law over dowry were to be burnt, I’m quite sure the crime rate would drop.”
“Well, what would you do in a case where there’s...uh, collateral damage? Like someone gets assassinated in a suicide bomb attack, and everyone around him dies?”
“Well, I guess you have to settle for one eye for two then. Not like you can bomb the jail, and get their ward mates blown to bits. Or their houses.”
“So, what you’re saying is, you’re for capital punishment?”
“Umm, I think I’m in favour of an-eye-for-an-eye. Like they do in Iran, sort of.”
“Dude, in Iran, they throw photographers in jail and torture them for taking pictures of the outside of prisons. Your eye-for-an-eye would mean they just took a mug shot of the photographer and let him or her go.”
“Well, you know what I mean. Anyway, the problem with any kind of punishment is that involvement has to be proven, I guess. But if it’s proven beyond doubt, then you ought to pay for a life you’ve taken with your own life, don’t you?”
“You know, what I don’t quite get in the case of the Rajiv Gandhi killers, is this – what’s the deal with the abolition of capital punishment? Are the protesters against capital punishment for everyone, or just for Tamils? Because if it’s for everyone, they’d make Afzal Guru a very happy man.”
“Or set a precedent for Kashmir to agitate. And God knows they have bigger problems than we do.”
“Hey, hey, that’s all relative. Most people don’t even know we exist. They just call us all ‘South Indians’. When I moved to Delhi, my landlords tried to make me feel comfortable by introducing me to fellow South Indians. Turned out it was a family from Andhra who only spoke Telugu and Hindi. And I speak only Tamil and English.”
“But I thought the problem was that everyone from the South is called ‘Madrasi’. If I were a non-Tamil South Indian, I would be aggrieved.”
“Well, but at least the people of every other non-Hindi-speaking state have unique pejoratives. You know, Bongs, Mallus, Gults, Digs. We don’t have one.”
“They call us ‘Pandis’ in some crowds.”
“See, I didn’t know that. It’s not popular enough.”
“Anyway, I don’t think Kashmiris have a pejorative.”
“I think most of them believe being called ‘Indian’ is offensive enough.”
“Not Omar Abdullah. Remember that famous speech he made about being Indian and being Muslim?”
“He’s a complicated guy. He got a shoe hurled at him last year, and this year, he forgave stone throwers. Then he tweeted that he wouldn’t tweet about Anna, and then tweeted about Kiran Bedi, who’s part of the ‘I am Anna’ lot.”
“Hmm, I think we’re too far down South to figure out what goes on in his head.”
“Fine, back to the Tamil question then. What point are the people attempting and committing suicide trying to prove? And they all seem to belong to a Tamil Power outfit.”
“Yeah, and they’re all called ‘martyrs’, which is a semantic fallacy. I guess the suicidal tendencies have to do with films. People have been setting themselves on fire on our screens for decades, and I can’t remember when we had a ruling or opposition party leader who didn’t come from a filmy past.”
“Yes, but did people in films ever immolate themselves for a cause?”
“I don’t think I’ve watched enough movies to figure that out.”
“The police seem to have had a couple of rough days, stopping people from setting themselves on fire.”
“You know, they should have a suicide complex.”
“I think they already do. Though Freud may have called it a preoccupation or obsession, rather than a complex.”
“No, no, I wasn’t using complex in the psychological sense. I meant like a shopping complex. This way, people could just queue up in a single place to bring attention to their causes. It would spare the police and media a lot of running around too.”

“So they just pay for the kerosene, declare their cause, and get stopped by the police?”
“Well, unless the cops are on a break or something.”
“But imagine the traffic diversions around the place!”
“You’re right. Maybe they should allow them to go through with it, you know. No ambulances allowed in the area, free supply of kerosene and matchsticks, only come in if you’re serious about committing suicide.”
“But I think they’ll have a lot of takers for that too. The Corporation’s brought in free cremation and burial facilities too, now. How will they handle the crowd?”
“I suppose they could allot a quota, going by the standard reservation system.”
“Hey, that’s not fair. What about suicidal Brahmins?”
“Oh, they can always migrate to Silicon Valley and kill themselves.”
“Do you know how hard it is to get a visa? And it’s not like Brahmins ever stopped people from killing themselves. In fact, they’ve been aiding and abetting suicide for aeons. I mean, given that it’s Onam time and all, think of the Vamana Avatar!”
“Yeah, well, deal with it. But I think self-immolation has become a popular enough pastime to be given its own designated space. Maybe at the Collectorate? And they could issue tenders for fuel suppliers.”
“Well, with government buildings going green, they may consider using electric incinerators instead.”

Kerala's Sree Padmanabhaswamy and His Wealth

(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, dated 30 August, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/kerala%E2%80%99s-sree-padmanabhaswamy-and-his-wealth/308850.html)




The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, which dates back to the eighth century, has been in the news recently because of the enormous treasure that was found in its vaults.
After the Supreme Court appointed a committee to find out the value of the temple’s assets, five out of the six chambers in the temple’s treasury have been opened. So far, valuables worth at least Rs. 100,000 crore have been found, making this temple the richest in the world. This amount could increase once it is known how old these articles are, as antiques have special value.
 Some of these vaults have not been opened for centuries, and the Royal Family of Travancore has urged the Supreme Court to keep it that way.
History of the temple
Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which is one of the 108 divyadesams of Lord Vishnu, has been described in eighth century literature. According to legend, it was built by the sage Divakaramuni, after he had a vision of Lord Vishnu. He is believed to have made an offering of an unripe mango in a coconut shell, and today, the prasadam is still offered to the deity in a coconut shell, encased in gold.
In the fifteenth century, a group called the Ettara Yogam - Council of Eight and a Half - made up of eight powerful members and the King of Travancore - was given control of the temple. But in the eighteenth century, King Anizham Thirunal Valiya Marthanda Varma, disbanded the council. He then renovated the temple, and in 1750, symbolically surrendered his kingdom to the temple deity. Marthanda Varma is said to have vowed that he and his descendants would be dasas or slaves of Lord Padmanabha. Since then, the Kings of Travancore have been custodians of the temple.
The vaults of the temple are thought to have been sealed at the time of Marthanda Varma.
In the 1930s, a writer, Emily Gilchrist Hatch, said an attempt was made to open a vault in 1908, when the state needed money, but it was abandoned when cobras were found inside the chamber.
The vault was opened successfully in 1931, witnessed by then Maharaja of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. News reports from that time say the doors had to be broken open, and valuables from four cellars were counted in the palace treasury. These included gold and silver coins, precious jewels and pots made of gold. But there is no record of this treasure being used.
What happened in 2011?
Early this year, the Kerala High Court heard a petition by 70-year-old T P Sundararajan, who said temple affairs were not being run properly, and asked for transparency in the management of the temple’s wealth. The court said the assets and management of the temple must be handed over to the state.
But the Travancore Royal Family, headed by Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, appealed against this in the Supreme Court.
In May, the Supreme Court said the temple’s treasury should be opened, and its value determined, but ruled that the former royal family would retain control of its management.
The court formed a seven-member team to explore the six chambers, and appointed two observers. The team went to work on 27 June. Over the next week, they discovered an astonishing trove of valuables. These include a golden idol of Lord Vishnu inlaid with precious stones, golden statues of elephants, golden ropes, golden pots and gold coins, in addition to ancient jewels and antique crowns.
Most of this was found in Vault A. Vaults C to F, which are opened during important festivals, have also been checked, but a secret vault blocked by a strong steel-framed door, marked with the sign of a cobra – Vault B – has not yet been opened.
As the team’s progress and the value of the treasure has been reported in the media, security in and around the temple has been tightened to avoid theft.
The situation became tense when devotees said the audit was interfering with the traditions of the temple. Temple authorities asked the petitioner, T P Sundararajan, to vacate his office, which is owned by the temple.
On July 17, Sundararajan passed away after a cardiac arrest. Reports said he had been very ill for more than a week. While lawyers say his death will not affect the progress of the case, as it is a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), many feel his sudden demise is ominous and say it could be a curse.
Reactions
There are various opinions on whether, and how, the temple’s treasure should be used. While some people feel it should not be hoarded and must be spent on public good, others want the valuables to be stored in the temple, and some want the articles to be displayed in museums.
Some feel the treasure belongs to the state, others - including Kanchi Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi - that it belongs to the former royal family, and yet others - including the Kerala government - that it is the temple’s. 
Many are worried that opening the vaults may be inauspicious, especially after the sign of the serpent was discovered, and the death of the petitioner has fuelled this.
What next?
On July 21, the Supreme Court appointed a five-member committee to decide whether Vault B should be opened at all, as well as to make a list of all the articles in the other five vaults and estimate their value.
The committee must also choose which articles can be used in the temple and which ones can be displayed for the public. The court suggested that the articles with heritage value could be preserved, while the others may be converted into cash to fund the training of temple priests.
The court also appointed a three-member panel, which includes the former Prince of Travancore, to assist the five-member committee.
The two committees must make a report, mapping out how the valuables will be preserved and guarded. The case will be heard in the first week of September.
Meanwhile, there will be no unauthorised visits to the vault. The media has been asked to stop making guesses about the value of the jewels and ornaments in the chambers.
As the team went about its work, the temple board decided to hold a Devaprasnam – an astrological procedure they said they were carrying out to discern the will of the deity – from August 8. Three days later, astrologers who conducted the Devaprasnam said opening Vault B would be dangerous, and that the family members of those who were involved in the task would die either of snake bite of poison of another kind. On August 20, Rama Varma of the royal family moved the Supreme Court against opening of the vault, citing security concerns, cost of videography, and public sentiment.
GOD AND THE KING
Every morning, the former King of Travancore has a ten-minute ‘private meeting’ with Lord Padmanabha, inside the sanctum sanctorum
If he misses his daily temple visit, he is fined Rs. 166.35
Only the King of Travancore is allowed to prostrate before the idol, on the mandapam. This is because the ritual can only be performed by someone who has surrendered all his possessions to the deity
Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma says snakes are seen as messengers. In an interview, he said a snake once came to the palace, when the lamp had not been lit at a shrine, as if to signal that something was wrong.  Snakes are also believed to be the guardians of the treasure.


TIMELINE
31 January, 2011
Kerala High Court hands control of the assets and management of the temple to the State Government. This is challenged in the Supreme Court by the former royal family of Travancore.

2 May, 2011
Supreme Court allows inventory of temple’s treasury, but stops Kerala State from taking over the management of the temple.
27 June, 2011
The committee begins weighing and measuring the contents of the chambers. The huge amounts of valuables raise security concerns.
3 July, 2011

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy speaks to top police officials about security arrangements.
7 July, 2011
The committee says the articles found in the 5 vaults are worth more than Rs. 100,000 crore
8 July, 2011
The committee postpones the opening of Vault B, as devotees grow increasingly anxious about inviting the wrath of the deity

17 July, 2011
Sundararajan, the petitioner, dies of cardiac arrest
21 July, 2011

Supreme Court forms two committees to monitor the opening of the vaults and decide on the future of the valuables
8 August, 2011
Devaprasnam begins at the temple, to determine the will of the deity
11 August, 2011
Astrologers warn against opening Vault B
20 August, 2011
Royal family moves SC against opening Vault B

(Note: This is not opinion. This is an explanatory article for the school edition of The New Indian Express.)

What You Should Know About Food Inflation

(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, dated August 29, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/what-you-should-know-about-food-inflation/308513.html)





Inflation is the increase in the price of goods and services in a country’s economy. This is measured taking various factors into account. When we speak of food inflation, this means the price of food articles such as vegetables, oil and spices is rising. The rate of food inflation was very high at the beginning of this year, and has come down recently.
But the rate of inflation is still fluctuating, and the prices of some goods, such as sugar, have doubled over the past three years. In fact, experts say this is the first time since the early 1970s that food prices have shot up so steeply and stayed high for so long. Compared to inflation rates of non-food items, those of edible goods have soared. So the issue is a crucial one.
How is Food Inflation Calculated?
The rate of food inflation is the percentage of increase in the price of food articles, compared to the previous week, month or year. Right now, the year 2004-2005 has been taken as the base year for calculating inflation.
In India, inflation is based on the Wholesale Price Index (WPI), which would be the price of a basket containing the food items taken into consideration. But, this is not the amount you would pay for a basket of those goods - it is the amount the shopkeeper would pay the supplier for them. You’re likely to pay a higher price for the same food items.
The WPI figure is announced every Thursday, for the week ending the Saturday before the previous one. For example, the inflation rate for the week ending July 30 is announced on August 11. This announcement is very important, as it can affect the stock market.
What Causes Food Inflation?
There are many conditions under which food prices can shoot up. One of the most common is mismatch between demand and supply. When demand is more than supply, there is a shortage of goods. This can be caused naturally by a poor monsoon, which leads to low yield of crops. This also has the effect of leaving farmers in debt, forcing them to push up prices so that they can afford labour, rent and upkeep. With the cost of fuel and fertilisers going up too, maintaining a farm is expensive!
But, shortage may even be caused artificially by hoarding. Traders may store non-perishable goods in go-downs and simulate a shortage. Once the prices go up, they sell the goods and make huge profits. Though this is illegal, it has been known to happen, especially with food items that don’t spoil easily, such as onions, sugar and pulses. Worryingly, a kilogram of onion today costs four times what it did 3 years ago, and the prices of sugar, arhaar dal, moong dal and masoor dal have doubled at some point in the last three years.

Another factor that affects supply is population growth. With more people to feed, agricultural production has to increase correspondingly. But economists have said this is not much of a factor in India, as people don’t seem to be consuming more food. The cereal available per person has stayed almost the same over the past ten years, while the calorie intake per person has dropped.

Problems in distributing food can pose a major problem. The Public Distribution System (PDS) consists of ration shops, state-run consumer cooperatives and the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (NAFED). Certain economists have said India lacks modern storage facilities, and so food items – especially perishables – cannot be stored safely for long periods of time. This, again, causes a shortage in supply, as the food will spoil and be wasted if it is not distributed quickly.
Some people are worried about the entry of supermarket chains, which will affect the profits made by small shop owners, who in turn drive up the prices of their food items to make up the loss.
Stock market activity, such as futures trading, can also affect food prices. As more retail chains get into the food business, and more food items make it to the export-import list, trading in the commodity futures markets is increasing.
Now, this is how a futures contract works – a buyer and seller can strike a deal to trade in a fixed amount of a particular commodity at a particular price, at a future date. For example, the buyer may want to purchase wheat at Rs. 16 per kg in November 2011. This gives the seller some security, in case the price of wheat goes down, as he will make a profit. But, if the price of wheat goes up to Rs. 20 per kg, the buyer will still purchase it at Rs. 16 per kg, and can sell the contract for a higher price. If he were to buy and sell 100 tonnes of wheat, he would make a profit of Rs. 4 lakh.
What’s important here is that the futures market in India is exposed to fluctuation in international prices, as many of these goods are imported and exported. So, if the price of wheat goes up elsewhere in the globe, the demand for wheat contracts in India would increase, and the buyer can make a larger profit.
As there is a big risk involved, and huge gains can be made, there is a chance that speculators may manipulate the market, and hike up prices. Not only people involved in the production and trade of food, but others looking to make financial gains can speculate in these markets. In 2007, the government suspended futures trading in essential items like cereal, sugar and pulses, but has allowed it again.

How Does Food Inflation Affect You?

The problem with any kind of inflation is that as the cost of a product goes up, the value of money goes down, as each rupee buys less than it used to. When purchasing power goes down, you will spend more and save less money every month.

But food inflation has dangerous consequences. With essential items like cereal and vegetables getting more expensive, a large section of the population cannot afford to eat. According to the National Family Health Survey, almost half of India’s children under the age of 3, and about half the pregnant women are not getting enough nutrition.

What is the Government Doing?
For several months, policy makers said the food inflation was temporary, and would drop soon. Last year, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said it would take some time to step up domestic supply, and the government would try to bridge the gap by importing food items. He said opening up the market, in addition to subsidies on goods like edible oil for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) population, would have a ‘moderating effect’.
However, food inflation continued to remain high. Later, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, suggested that the supply couldn’t meet the demand because people are becoming richer and eating more. But now, the government has begun to focus more on the deficiencies of the distribution system.
An efficient PDS can tackle the problem of hoarding and keep futures trading under control by putting a check on inflationary expectations. The government plans to introduce the Food Security Act, with the aim of ensuring easy access to essential items at a reasonable cost. The Bill is likely to be discussed in December.
However, some economists are worried about the effectiveness of the Food Security Bill in its present form.


FEATURES OF THE FOOD SECURITY BILL

Subsidised food grain to be provided to nearly 90 percent of the population
Mid-day meal scheme and community kitchens to be introduced
Cooked meals for pregnant women and lactating mothers up to six months after childbirth
The Unique Identification System will be used to ascertain the identity of the individual
Increase in subsidies on various food items























CAUSES FOR CONCERN IN THE FOOD SECURITY BILL

There is a cap of 75 percent of households in rural areas and 50 percent of households in urban areas for entitlement to benefits.This may not cover all of India’s needy.
The fixed monthly quota of 35 kg of foodgrains per family has been modified to 7 kg per individual, and families with fewer people may lose out. Also, 7 kg is only half what was originally proposed in the Right to Food Bill.
Above Poverty Line (APL) families may be affected as the price of foodgrains has not been fixed. The Bill recommends that they be 50 per cent of the minimum support price (MSP) given to farmers for wheat and rice. If the MSP is increased as the farmers are demanding, it will have an adverse effect on APL families.
The prices suggested by the Centre for cereals are the same or higher than those prevailing in some states under schemes for BPL families.
The costs of distribution will be borne by the state, and this will affect poorer states, which are likely to have more BPL families to take care of too.
It deals mainly with distribution of food grains, and does not take into account other kinds of nutrition, such as protein supplements, pulses, oil and vegetables

YEAR-ON-YEAR FOOD INFLATION
YEAR
2006-07
2007-08
2008-09
2009-10
2010-11
RATE OF INFLATION
8%
5.6%
8.6%
14.5%
11:4%

FOOD INFLATION RATES THIS YEAR
WEEK ENDING
FOOD INFLATION RATE
July 30
9.90%
July 16
7.33%
July 9
7.58%
July 2
9.44%
June 25
7.61%
June 18
7.78%
June 11
9.13%
June 4
8.96%
May 28
9.01%
May 21
8.06%
May 14
8.55%
April 30
7.70%
April 23
8.53%
April 16
8.76%
April 9
8.74%
March 26
9.18%
March 12
10.05%
March 5
9.42%
February 26
9.52%
February 19
10.39%
February 12
11.49%
February 5
11.05%
January 29
13.07%
January 22
17.05%
January 15
15.57%
January 8
15.52%
January 1
16.91%

Source: Office of the Economic Adviser, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, GoI

(Note: This is not opinion. This is an explanatory article for the school edition of The New Indian Express.)


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