Saturday, October 26, 2019


A bee or not a bee?

For the past two weeks I have been intrigued by this bright yellow coloured 'bee' seen here diving deep into a rose. Unlike a regular bee however it did not limit itself to flowers. 

They could be seen just about everywhere in Kabul - perched on Thuja leaves, hovering over lawn grass, and even locked in a mortal combat with a black ant!

Turns out that this is not a bee at all. According to Wiki, this is a species of social wasps called the Yellowjackets - "They can be identified by their distinctive markings, their occurrence only in colonies, and a characteristic, rapid, side-to-side flight pattern prior to landing."

Wonder why they outnumber the regular honeybees...


Friday, October 25, 2019

Farsi Friday

It's Friday today - the weekly holiday - and Farsi is on my mind.

Here is Afghanistan two languages dominate the sound-scape: Dari and Pashto. Last year, when I first landed at Kabul airport, I was amazed to hear the driver who came to pick me up, ask somebody, "Kujo ast?" - and I understood the meaning perfectly!

Then at my workplace, I heard a colleague asking for a "Kainchi" and I knew without looking up that he wanted a pair of scissors. As days went by the list of familiar words got longer and longer - Charkhi (rotate), Hal (solve), Kharid (buy), Khwaab (dream), Daan (gift), Giriftaar (arrest), Pasand (like), Mushkil (difficult), Khushi (joy)... Just about all the words I assumed to be Urdu actually belonged to Farsi!

It turns out that Dari is the same as Farsi, the language of Iran and much of the former Persian Empire which included not only Afghanistan but also Iraq, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and parts of southern Russia. It is spoken by no less than 110 million people! Countries that belonged to the former USSR stopped using the Farsi script and adopted the Russian script.

Now if the words sounded so familiar, how long would it take to make sense of the written Farsi script? The curls, dots and squiggles on banners, shops and books looked completely different from the 32 letters a friend wrote down for me. A search of lessons on YouTube followed, and I gradually learnt that the letters when written together take on completely different shapes.

I continue to be confused by letters that sound similar:
"A" can be آ or ع
"Ta" - ط  or  ت
"Se" - س or  ث
"He" - ح or ه
"Za" - 4 options (!) - ظ ض ز ذ
"Ga" - غ or  ق

It may take a while to get a hang of the written and spoken language but until then, we have music! Here is a sample of some amazing Farsi instrumentals by Mehdi Aminian -

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Banana in Afghanistan

I was stunned today - by a banana!

Just after I had finished my breakfast in Kabul, I went across to the fruit counter and found three options - mandarins, apples and bananas. Of the options available the banana seemed the most 'user-friendly' - easier carry in your bag, to peel and eat.

Surprisingly, this particular variety looked perfectly ripe, but was not so easy to peel. Curious to know the variety I turned it around to find a sticker on one side. It said "Sabastiano Premium Eduador"!

Let that sink in. Here in Kabul, Afghanistan, I was holding in my hand one of the great wonders of global supply chain logistics. Here was a fruit grown by farmers on the opposite side of the globe in South America, transported across the seas and mountains, covering a distance of more than 15,000 km before it reached its destination - a DFAC dining hall.

While writing a blog in 2014, I had learnt that three companies - Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte - controlled more than 60 percent of global banana exports. 

In  tropical South Asia which is home to dozens of varieties of bananas available at much cheaper rates, it is a wonder how commercial logic enables agricultural products to travel insane distances!


* Banana production in Ecuador -

* DW (Jan., 2018) -

* Sharbatly Fruit -

Monday, September 09, 2019

Annals of Cruelty

This post is about one article and one book, both of which dwell on cruelty, and the mind boggling capacity of people to inflict pain and suffering on others.

Both are more than a decade old -- the article "Invaders - Destroying Baghdad", by Ian Frazier is from the Annals of History series in the New Yorker magazine (April, 2005), describes the Mongol invasion of Iraq in 1257 CE, while the book, "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild (1998) is a detailed account of how one Belgian king became the 'owner' of a country that was more than 60 times the size of his own tiny European nation. 

Even though both these apocalyptic events are separated by about 500 years they have a lot in common. Firstly they are both painstakingly recreated records of how men of fairly unremarkable origins transform into leaders with a single minded determination to rule and conquer, totally unmindful of the costs involved. 

Hulagu was the grandson of Genghis Khan whose domains had been divided amongst four brothers - 
"Mongke, who outmaneuvered rivals to become khan in 1251, and who died of dysentery; Kubilai, arguably the most powerful khan ever, who occupied Peking and founded a Chinese dynasty that lasted almost a hundred years; Hulagu, an il-khan, or subsidiary khan, whose domains were in Persia and the west; and Arigh-boke, who rebelled against Kubilai and held out for years until Kubilai defeated him."
When Hulagu's horde reached the gates of Baghdad, then one of the greatest cities of the world, its leader, Caliph Mustasim, refused to surrender. Thanks to help from the Shiites whom Mustasim had insulted (eg. by tossing a poem into the Tigri river!) the mongols managed to breach the city's defences and then set out to destroy the city and slaughter most of its residents (200,000 to a million!) 
"So many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that a horse could walk across on them. The river ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs."
The Europeans did the same things differently.

King Leopold started off in the guise of a philanthropist. He had no hordes at his command, and much of the known world had already been colonised by entrenched powers of the day - Spain, Portugal, France and Britain. So he started off by courting explorers like HM Stanley who was roped in to survey central Africa after he had managed to find Dr. David Livingstone.

Surveys turned to road building and proselytising and then to the collection and export of ivory. Then came the discovery something everybody needed desperately - rubber.  While the rest of Europe was wondering how to grow the South American rubber tree commercially, Leopold found that the next best source of rubber was a vine of the Landolphia genus which was growing wild in the vast forests of Congo.

Africans were now set against each other to fill Leopold's treasury. Men armed with the latest firearms from Europe raided villages to force them to collect the resin. Entire villages were burnt down, women and children kept as hostages until the men returned with the resin weeks later. Punishment for not meeting 'targets' were swift - hands and legs of men, women and children were hacked off as standard punishment. Soldiers had to account for each bullet spent with a severed hand to serve as proof.  It is estimated that Congo lost 10 million people as a direct consequence of Belgian rule.

We can draw the lessons we want from history but you cannot help wondering about massacres which may have been far worse, of all the accounts that still await a storyteller.


Monday, July 22, 2019

Facets of a Diamond

Jared Diamond in the BBCs "Desert Island Disks" is one of my favourite recordings.

About eight years ago, when I read Diamonds's acclaimed book, "Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies" , I remember being amazed at the the breadth of his scholarship. What I did not know at that point was that writing non-fiction was just one of his many talents. Apart from being a professor at University of California, he is also a musician, a linguist, an ornithologist  and evolutionary biologist!

According to him, "The more things you're interested in, and the more you learn, the richer the framework into which you can fit any new thing!".

Into this framework Diamond also fits in the imperatives of geographic determinism. For those who extoll the power of the "human spirit", he has a suggestion - "Try standing on the North Pole in a T-shirt and see where the Human Spirit can get you".

This is one Desert Island Disk you should not miss -

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Lighting up a Blind Spot in the East

Most South Indian middle-class families have a Burma connection. One that goes back a gneration of two when the country was an attractive destination for young men seeking employment, and for traders trying to make their fortunes.

Perhaps the first time I heard about the country was at the home of a family friend in Hyderabad in the mid 1970s. This gentleman had a large, framed picture of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in his drawing room, as well as intricately woven baskets made of bamboo, mementos from his frequent visits to Rangoon.

Then there were books that told you about the country's past - Amitav Ghosh's "The Glass Palace" and the Ibis Trilogy. Short stories by George Orwell, references to the World War in books by Japanese authors, Michio Takeyama and Haruki Murakami.

What about Burma after it became Mynamar? The whole country seems to have slipped into some kind of blind-spot with hardly any news coming in directly. Nothing much except for the occasional news-stories from Western magazines about of Aung Sang Suu Kyi,  and the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. It was a big blind spot waiting to be filled and I was pleased to get hold of a book by Burmese born author and diplomat, Thant Myint-U.

Myint-U's book "Where China Meets India" is bit like walking across the street to visit a reticent neighbour, and realising that you own house looks so different from the other side! You are reminded that parts of your own house belonged to them not so long ago, and vice versa. The Burmans once ruled over the Assam valley, and kings of tiny Manipur once invaded and subjugated the rulers of Mandalay.

China too looks like a completely different country when viewed through the eyes of a neighbour.  I learnt, for instance, that Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Myanmar is as ethnically diverse, with a per-capital GDP which is among the lowest in China. Over the past few decades, China's Western Development Strategy seeks to remedy this disparity by connecting its poorest, land-locked provinces to the sea, through Myanmar.

Getting all the local tribes and communities - most of them mutually hostile - was certainly not easy. The process of assimilating non-Han Chinese has been a work-in-progress for the past 1000 years or more. The Yao were brought to heel in the 1450s in a war in which the Chinese killed 7300 and took as many, or more, PoWs; The Miao lost out in the Battle of Mount Leigong in 1726 where more than 10,000 Miao had their heads chopped off  and 400,000 starved to death; Ditto for the Buyu in 1797. And then there are groups like the Naxi who owe their musical skills to a band left behind by the Mongol invader, Kublai Khan. Another community which has managed to keep its traditions is the Musuo people living north of Lijiang. Among the matrilineal Musuo,  women are strong and dominant, engaging in 'walking marriages', very similar to the "Sambandham" system practiced by Nairs of Kerala.

A lot of water has flowed down the Irrawaddy since then. Burma is now Myanmar, its capital has moved from Mandalay and Rangoon to a newly purpose-built capital city of Naypyidaw. After years of international sanctions trade is on the upswing, and the country is trying to lower its dependence on China.

Perhaps the day is not far off when we too can drive across from Guwahati to Mandalay, or just take a ferry from Kolkata to Yangon/Rangoon.


* Myint-U, Thant (2011): WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA - Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber and Faber, 2012 URL -

* Literature - Japanese connection -

* Wiki -


* Myint-U, Thant (2011): WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA - Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber and Faber, 2012


Saturday, July 13, 2019

GEF - Does it Really Work?

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) sees itself as "an international partnership of 183 countries, international institutions, civil society organisations and the private sector that addresses global environmental issues".

For those who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of International Development, GEF is an important source of funding. Since its establishment in 1991-92, the organisation has provided over $18.1 billion in grants and mobilised an additional $94.2 billion in co-financing for more than 4500 projects in 170 countries.

India is one of the 170 countries that has been implementing GEF projects. How effective has it been here?

Relative to the global figures, India's share seems to be rather modest - 102 projects worth USD 0.732  billion in GEF grants and USD 7.7 b in 'additional co-financing', which is mostly from the country's own resources.

The range of projects is quite impressive though. 73 national projects, 27 regional ones and two under the 'Special Climate Change Fund' (SCCF). Take a loser look and you get the impression that the actual output and impact of many projects is vague and nebulous.

Take for instance one of the earliest GEF projects implemented in India - Biomass Energy for Rural India (BERI) implemented during 2000 - 2012. The project was supposed to build 60 x 20kW biomass gasifier units to supply electricity for 2,500 households in 28 villages of Tumkur district in Karnataka. It was expected to replace so many million tons of carbon di-oxide equivalent (CO2e). However, after 12 years of effort, the cost of producing electricity from biomass (INR 7.8/kWh) was so high - more than double the cost of regular supply from the state grid (INR 2.85/kWh) - that the project ended up like a damp squib.

One of the most visible changes in India in terms of energy efficiency, has been the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and then LEDs. We have now reached a stage where most shops don't even stock the cheaper, inefficient bulbs. LEDs have become the first preference for the whole spectrum of users - street vendors have switched from kerosine fired lanterns to LEDs, town municipalities have switched streetlights en masse from sodium-vapour to LEDs.

Did GEF have any role to play in this sweeping change? Or was this initiative led completely by the local governments?

One of the 73 projects seems to have had an important role in this transformation - the GEF-ADB project for supporting Energy Efficiency Services Ltd (EESL). This agency was instrumental in aggregating demand, and promoting bulk production of LED bulbs which led to a sharp reduction in the cost of energy efficient bulbs. LED bulbs now command a 75% share of the lighting market in India.

Over 300 million LED bulbs and 6.35 million LED streetlights have been distributed and installed through EESLs initiatives across India. This one intervention is estimated to have reduced India's carbon footprint by no less than 60 million CO2e - a part of the country's commitment to reduce its footprint by 33-35% from its 2005 levels, by 2030.

Not all projects may work as expected, but the gains from the ones that do certainly seems to make GEF's interventions worthwhile.


- GEF Projects -

- Climate Change FAQs -

- LEDs powers India's dtive for household energy efficiency -

- Video - From Small to Big Impact -

- BERI Project 2000 -

- BERI Terminal Report (2013). -


Aukaat (Hindi / Urdu)
Worth : اوقات - قدر : (noun) the quality that renders something desirable or valuable or useful.

Aukaat is a word you hear quite often in North India. A dictionary might tell you that the word simply means 'worth', but it is much more than that. It encompasses 'standing', 'repute', 'value' and is most often used to remind people of where they stand in the social hierarchy. Now add the caste dimension to social hierarchy and you begin to understand how this word is used to insult, intimidate, bully and to 'put people in their place'.

The recently released film "Article 15" is all about Aukaat.

A young idealistic police officer is posted to a remote district of Uttar Pradesh, and on his very first day confronts the sight of two teenaged girls dangling from a gnarled old tree. His police station is staffed by mostly upper caste Hindu's who claim that this is a case of 'honour killing' - rebellious lower-caste girls killed by their own families.

Gradually the real story emerges. The girls had been working at a tannery for a daily wage of INR 24. Since this hardly amounts to anything they had asked for a raise of INR 3. The upper caste factory owner takes this as impertinence and decides to show them their aukaat. To make an example of them so that their community never ever dares to raise their voice again. The girls are abducted, raped for three days by upper caste men, and then hanged from a tree on a village crossing.


Etymology - 
With usage examples -

Wiki on the movie Article 15 -