Monday, June 25, 2012

The Mau-Tam Puzzle

Facts of the case seem fairly straightforward. Every 50 years or so a bamboo species widespread in Mizoram suddenly blooms and dies. In its wake it leaves millions of seeds which trigger a population explosion of rats. Once the rats are through with the bamboo seeds, they devour crops and empty out granaries, leading - over a period of three years - to widespread famine and death by starvation.

Mizo's call this phenomenon 'Mau Tam'.

The Mau-Tam of 1959 is also noted as one of the triggers for the insurgency that gripped the hill-state, leading, at its peak, to the first and only case of the Indian Air Force bombing its own citizens (Aizwal, 1966).

An EPW paper of 1978 goes into this subject in some detail:

According to the Mizos, there are two death cycles of different in character. ..The first, the Mao Tam, is a sudden disaster - voile katha (?). The second, the Thing 'Tam, comes to wreak slowlv. The Mao Tak and Raw Thing (Melocanna Rambueoides and Bambose Hamiltonii) are the most widespread in Mizoram and the distress is very severe. But the bamboo flowers almost simultaneously and the famine passes in a year. The Thing Tam that follows begins its flowering in the eighteenth year and continues for about there years after: The three species that flower during the period are the Rawthing (Bambusa Tulda), the Rawnal (Dendrocalanus Longgispathus) and Rawngal (Caphalostachyum Capitatum). The flowering comes in batches. The distress is slow, long drawn. The invasion of the rats comes to its peak during the third or fouth year, a series of crop disasters which a peasant economy can hardly stand.

Now the puzzling this is that 2009 was supposed to mark the 50th year, and the time for the next Mau-Tam. What happened? Was there actually a disaster which was averted by human intervention?

Since there was nothing about it in the papers, I guess some reliable, first-hand info from a Mizo or a Manipuri would be required...



Rangasami, Amritha (1978): Tragedy of Our Own Making, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 13, No. 15 (Apr. 15, 1978), pp. 653-662

Bhaumik, Subir (2012): Indian army's new enemy is rats, BBC World, 3Jun2006, URL -

Mautam - The Bamboo Death -

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Forest Fires in Kumaon

Dry river beds dotted with murky pools, smoke rising from the hill slopes... The Himalayan foothills in Kumaon District presented a sad, depressing picture this summer. 
The locals complain of water shortages after most of the natural, roadside springs ran dry. The number of tourists has dwindled  - after all, why would anybody want to come to Kumaon if the hills are just as hot as the plains?

Puzzled by the large numbers of forest fires, all along the road to Ranikhet, I asked some villagers if they were caused by careless tourists tossing cigarette butts into the forests. "Its not so simple", they said, "the tourists are the least of our problems!". Then came a counter-question- "Did you see anybody doing anything to prevent the fires from spreading?". No, I didn't.

There are two sets of people who have an interest in keeping the fires burning. The first set are the nomadic herders. Hill slopes that are carpeted with pine-leaves (Pirol) prevent the grass from coming up. So the herders set fire to the resinous pine leaves, clearing the way for fresh grass, that are due to come up after the rains.

The second set, according to the villagers, are the officials from the Forest Department. These officials have annual afforestation targets and forest fires are a very handy for folks  looking for an excuse. In an area marked for afforestation, they simply set fire to entire hill-sides and claim that all the saplings got charred. The money is shared by the contractors and the state government officials who now have a vested interest in keeping the fires burning. 

The more you destroy, the more you can pilfer from the state coffers!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sweet & Sour, Heavy & Light

One has heard of tea-tasters but it is hard to believe that at one time, there were also professional crude-oil tasters.

In the 19th century workers in the fledgeling oil industry used their sense of taste and smell to classify petroleum into four categories - sweet, sour, heavy and light. These days the same classification is used to determine the cost of the petrol or diesel that goes into our motor vehicles.

Any crude with more than 2.5% sulphur is called sour. Most of it comes from the Middle East. Sweet crude, on the other hand, is what is exported out of Africa, Europe (North Seas) and also supplied by the oil wells in India. Light crudes yield the more valuable gasoline, naphtha and kerosene while heavy ones give more diesel, fuel oil and residue. So in the crude-oil business, sweet & light is anyday better than heavy & sour.

One point, however, remains unclear: Is there any such thing as heavy & sweet oil?



* Choudhury, Ranabir Ray (2006): The balancing act with trade parity oil prices, BL 09Jan06, URL -

* Types of Crude Oil -,41,538,2035,5196,5197,5199

* Description of the MC 252 Crude Oil -

* Ranjan, Amitav (2012): HOW PRICES ARE FIXED, BARREL BY BARREL, IE 07Jun12, URL -
- Sweet vs. Sour - any crude with more than 2.5% sulphur is sour
- Heavy vs. Light - Light crudes yield more gasoline, naphtha and kerosene while heavy ones give more diesel, fuel oil and residue.
- Though indigenous crudes from Assam and Mumbai High are sweet, they accounts for only 17 per cent of the total processed.
- Indian imports comprise nearly 80 per cent of sour crudes of which 82 per cent are from the Middle East. Of the 20 per cent imports that are sweet, Africa sends 99 per cent.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bi-colored Ant at the Banyan Tree

The Banyan Tree, Okhla Bird Park

"6 AM at the Banyan tree..."

For folks on DelhiBird this simply indicates a well known meeting-point at the Okhla Bird Park on the banks of Yamuna river.

during the hot season the river looks more like an open drain with black, frothy effluent gushing down the slats. This Sunday, there were not too many birds on the Yamuna flood plains. At the banyan though there was an interesting looking ant scurrying through its folds and crevices.

Unlike any I had seen before in Kerala, this one had multiple nodes on the thorax and abdomen, almost making it look like an dandy ant trying to pass off for a mini-millipede!

Turns out that this was the Arboreal Bi-colored Ant (Tetraponera rufonigra). It seems they sting so badly that even some spiders try to mimic them to escape predators!

Arboreal Bicolored Ant (Tetraponera rufonigra)

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Potty Disparity at the Planning Commission

The Planning Commission  (PC) of India is in the news again for all the wrong reasons. This time an RTI enquiry has revealed that PC has spent Rs. 3.4 million (Rs. 34 Lakhs)  to renovate two toilets at is Yojana Bhavan office. A new access-control system was installed in the toilets to ensure that only sixty officers with smart-cards could use these toilets.

This brings out a series of issues -- the absence of public hygiene even in premier government institutions; the tendency of our bureaucrats to play zero-sum games, to create solutions that seek to ensure their own comfort, and, most importantly, the ability of the middle-class to make a virtue out of hypocrisy and  apartheid. Segregation and access-control to toilets is merely an extension of a larger disconnect in our society.

A few days ago, I asked a colleague how he was coping with the ongoing shortage of power and water in suburban Delhi. "I too read about it in the papers", he said, "but I stay in a gated residential complex with 100% back-up for water and electricity...". Middle-class India lives far away from sweaty crowds waiting to fill buckets of water from water-tankers. It moves around in air-conditioned cars pretending not to see the beggars and vendors knocking on their window panes. So it is only natural that they would want to extend their comfortable cocoons to work-places, creating exclusive toilets that cannot be sullied by lesser mortals.

How have other countries dealt with similar problems?

In USA, segregation of toilet facilities by race was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "Rest-room Equity Acts" or "Potty parity Laws" were passed in many states to ensure that women are not “tethered close to home by the bladder's leash”.

In Japan the 're-booting' of social habits after the Meiji Restoration included compulsory training in toilet etiquette at the primary school level. Over the past century this training has been so deeply embedded in the social DNA that it ensures, to a large extent, that adults visiting public toilets use the towels and napkins to leave the toilets clean for those who come after them. This self-regulation minimises the work of janitors who are usually specialized workers outsourced from external contractors.

In India the problem goes beyond gender and race to the issues related to social classes. In the case of the Planning Commission, if a lady dignitary were to come for a meeting, would she have to borrow one of the 60 swipe-cards given to PC officials, to access a loo? Where would her driver go if he wanted to relieve himself?

I am waiting to hear the PC version of the story.  If the PC Dy.Chairman's previous rebuttal is anything to go by, I guess they will simply reiterate the need for officials to have cleaner toilets than their minions.

Post Script, 7 Jun 2012

The Planning Commission has come up with a defense. "the toilet expenditure was necessary", said their statement, "because PC has over 1500 meetings every year...". What about the access control? Well, that is "to make women feel more secure".  Quite an absurd explanation given the fact that the building is guarded by dozens of security guards, and is located in one of the most secure zones of Delhi.
So the fact remains that 60 toilet-access-cards were issued to officials in PC. According to the PC website there are over 150 senior officials in Yojana Bhavan, so it must house at least 300 employees in the building. Is it safe to assume that a majority of employees & visitors to PC would be barred from using the two toilets that have been refurbished with Rs.35 Lakhs of the taxpayers money?

True to form, Shekhar Gupta's Express has come up with a editorial defending PC. Predictably, it ignores  the issue of access control, and tilts at windmills by defending the Dy.Chairman. You can fool some people sometimes...


* Sainath, P (2012): THE AUSTERITY OF THE AFFLUENT, The Hindu, 21 May 2o12, URL -

* Planning Commission spends Rs. 35 lakh to renovate two toilets in Delhi (PTI/NDTC, 6 Jun 2012) -

* Planning commission renovates 2 toilets at Rs 35 lakh (PTI/ToI) -

* "Potty-Parity Laws" -

* Mary Anne Case (2005?): Why not abolish the laws of urinary segregation? Chicago University, URL -

* Clarification from PC (6 June 2012) -

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Shekhar's Express

Until recently the Indian Express was my favourite newspaper. Unlike the leading "best-selling" newspapers like HT or ToI, it actually gave priority to news over advertisements; it published good investigative reports; it had credible editor in Shekhar Gupta and it had a line-up of the most interesting columnists.

These days IE seems a sad caricature of what it used to be. The only thing IE still has going for it are a handful of its columnists and reporters.   It still puts out 'news' but much of it seems to be peddling the agenda of the powers-that-be. Its investigative reports seem shallow, lacking in any credibility and the editor's weekly column 'National Interest' seems quite the opposite.

Take for instance its strident stance on the Gen. V.K. Singh controversy, topped by that full-front-pager on an alleged coup attempt. It soon emerged that the Express was making a mountain out of a mole-hill. The paper was mocked and chided, even by fellow editors like Vinod Mehta. Instead of coming clean on coup story with some clarifications it is taking Mehta to court!  Strangely, this bit of news is published in all papers - except the Express.

On 28 April, SG's article "With Prejudice" contained a string of factual errors - especially on the role of Sikh Generals during Operation Bluestar. These errors were were pointed out in a rebuttal by M. G. Devasagayam (13 May 2012) who also went on to politely rubbish SG's notion of 'National Interest' . As in the coup-story, the newspaper made no further mention about it, confirming the suspicious that the editor was again taking through his hat, and hoping that the readers suffer from chronic amnesia.

In his latest piece, "The 24th Chief", SG tries to counter a charge made by Gen. Singh that "for journalists, nothing is off-the-record". He says first that journos too have their ethics, that they would never betray anybody's trust. Then, hiding behind a quote from another hack, he adds a veiled threat - that "if a story is good, it will come out", confirming just the point Gen. Singh had made in his interviews.

So much for the 'Journalism of Courage'.



Gupta, Shekhar (2012): With Prejudice, Indian Express, 28 April 2012, URL -

Devasagayam, M.G (2012): With No Prejudice, Indian Express, 19 May 2012, URL -

Rangaswami, Anant (2012): Express Asks for the Mother of All Embarassments, First Post, 16 May 2012 - URL -

Gupta, Shekhar (2012): The 24th Chief, IE 2 Jun 2012, URL -