Friday, May 23, 2014

FDI and the Export of Polluting Industries

An interesting article was posted on Academia today - "Japan's Global Environmentalism: Rhetoric and Reality".

It was a bit dated (1998) but the topic dealt with a time-period when I worked with Japanese ODA, and of how Japan deliberately advocating high-tech solutions to environmental problems in developing countries simply in order to maximize purchases of capital-intensive technology and high-tech production services from Japan.

Numerous I-wish-I-knew-that-before points turned up, for instance -

  • The disastrous and ultimately aborted Narmada Dam project of theWorld Bank was closely linked to hydroelectric facilities funded by Japanese ODA (Kuroda, 1992).
  • Japanese environmental problems have been transferred along with FDI in mining and manufacturing operations to developing countries like Malaysia and the Philippines (Harada, 1991; Kojima, 1994;Nester, 1990; Ofreneo, 1993; Ui, 1989).
  • Kawasaki’s transfer of its iron ore sintering plant to the Philippines after environmental lawsuits were filed by local citizens near the original location in ChibaCity, Japan (Yokoyama, 1992).
  • Japanese-made pollution filters do not work because the energy inputs are from low-grade coal, instead of the higher-quality fuels domestic Japanese corporations use. Therefore, dirty industries have been transferred overseas without the environmentally cleaner—but more expensive—technology which would be used if these industries were located within Japan (Harada, 1991). 
  • Japanese practice of dumping of hazardous waste in the oceans, and exports of waste to Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand (Kumamoto, 1994). 
  • Japan is the only OECD country not to adopt the decision on the Control of Trans-frontier Movements of Wastes Destined for Recovery Operations (Hopp and Olson,1994). 
  • 15% of Japan’s landmass has been slated for resort development as a consequence of the 1987 Resort Act (Beasley, 1992), and much of this land has been used for golf courses. Recently, high land prices in Japan have fueled the expansion of golf courses across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
  • In the early 1990s some of the world’s highest rates of deforestation occurred in Sarawak, Malaysia, where over 66% of logs were being exported to Japan to fuel demand for logs and pulp(Thompson, 1993).
  • In fact Japan leads the world in the importation of tropical hardwoods by a large margin (ITTO, 1995). Japan also has extensive FDI in wood chip and pulp production in Chile, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the USA.
  • Instead of banning tropical hardwood imports or urging its Southeast Asian neighbors to ban exports, Japan’s solution instead has been to offer environmental aid for reforestation. Reforestation, however, usually consists of particular species of imported trees (primarily eucalyptus) which are most profitable for export (Ui, 1989: 396).
  • In the Philippines, Japanese aid has modernized the fishing port and market facilities and most of the large commercial fishing operations are Japanese owned (Ofreneo, 1993). As a result of over-fishing and ocean pollution,small-scale Filipino fishermen’s annual catch has been reduced dramatically (Broadand Cavanagh, 1993).
  • Mitsubishi was a major contributor to Indonesian deforestation (Hurst,1990) and currently owns large shares of interests in logging companies, saw mills,and dangerously polluting industries in Malaysia (Karan and Jasparro, 1998).

The complete paper, published in Political Grography is available here.

> Taylor, Jonathan (1998): Japan's Global Environmentalism: Rhetoric and Reality, Pergamon Political Geography, 18, 1999

Monday, May 19, 2014

What is Biotechnology?

Recently, I was witness to an interesting exchange between two professors. One was using Tissue Culture to raise orchids, and sell them to farmers, while the other ran 'Biotech Park' where the latest gene-splicing technology was being used to make recombinant-DNA products. The latter insisted that Tissue Culture was merely 'agriculture' and that it did not qualify to be called Biotechnology.

So what is Biotechnology?

According to the United Nations,

"Biotechnology refers to any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use."
(Article 2 of the Convention of Biological Diversity and Article 2(d) of the Nagoya Protocol)

OECD says the same thing a bit more precisely:

Biotechnology refers to activities that apply scientific logic and technologies to organisms, parts or part of an organism, products, and product-related models in the process of modifying living organisms or non-living things with the aim of producing knowledge, goods, and services (OECD data, 2004)

Government of India has a definition colored by socialism:

"Biotechnology... refers to tools and technologies that address the problems of agriculture productivity, food production, nutrition security, health care and environmental sustainability by providing new and emerging products and services at affordable prices, generate employment opportunities and make India globally competitive in the emerging bio-economy."
(DBT - Vision)

Wikipedia prefers to keep it short and simple:

"Biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make useful products"

Whichever way you look at it, Biotechnology seems to include everything from TC to gene manipulation.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Behind that Yummy Crust

Is there a connection between Asparagus, the golden-brown crust on breads, and... cancer?

Its amazing how our understanding of organic chemistry can change the way look at the most ordinary things in life.

Among the 20 most commonly found amino-acids (the 'bricks' that make proteins) is one called Asparagine. It was the first AA to be isolated and it was originally found in - no prizes for guessing here - Asparagus juice. Since then asparagine has been found in many places - especially in starchy foods.

When starchy substances are baked or fried, asparagine undergoes a process called Maillard Reaction, responsible for giving baked/roasted/fried foods their brown color, crust and toasty flavor. Unfortunately the reaction also produces carcinogens like Acryamide and some heterocyclic amines.

How does one deal with this problem? Apparently, if you add an enzyme (Asparaginase) to break down Asparagine in the starchy substances,  the amount of Acryamide can be reduced by 90% without any change in food taste, color or 'crustiness'!

The problem is that food-grade Asparaginase does not come cheap.

Until public-awareness matches with buying power, perhaps we will all continue to consume carcinogens with each bite into a crusy morsel!


- Mannitol - sugar derivatie used to prodce medicine -
- Tumor cells too cannot make their own Asparagine, a non-essential  amino acid. L-A removes it from the blood and starves tumors to death!
- Present marketshare of for therapeutic recombinant proteins is around $200 billion
- Erythropoietin - A glycopptotein hormone / cytokine (protein signalling molecule) that controls RBC production (erythropoiesis). Mkt leader - Amgen ($2.15b)


An enzyme in India -

* Mohan, Vishwa (2014): Unique enzyme discovered by CSIR institution to increase shelf life of fruits and vegetables, ToI, 11May2014
- CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bio-resource Technology (CSIR-IHBT), Palampur has signed a MoU with its industry partner— Phyto Biotech, Kolkata, to formalize technology transfer for production of unique enzyme which may be used in developing anti-ageing cream.
- enzyme — Super Oxide Dismutase (SOD) — may also be used in food and pharmaceutical industries for end applications like extending shelf life of fruits and vegetables.
- Medicinal plant based research, discovery of APIs and related molecules
- enzyme — Super Oxide Dismutase (SOD) — may also be used in food and pharmaceutical industries for end applications like extending shelf life of fruits and vegetables.
- Source - 10,000 feet in the Western Himalayan region from Potentila astrosangunia, plant growing under snow cover
- work over the years has resulted in the isolation of the SOD gene -  a protocol was developed for cloning of the gene in E Coli.
- stability and functionality ranging from sub-zero to high temperature (above 40°C) with varying specific activity

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ashoka - Search for the Lost Emperor

Ashoka by Charles Allen.

This is the sort of book that makes you wonder what on earth Indian historians have been up to since 1947. Why is it that hardly any of them writes about our own history in a manner that is both engaging and scholarly?

We have all plodded through history in our school textbooks. We see Ashoka's royal insignia on every single coin and currency note we pass around, and yet, how many wonder about the kind of international effort that has gone in, to piece together the life and times of a king who ruled most of today's India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, 300 years before Christ was born?

Charles Allen weaves a wonderful narrative based on ancient texts recovered from Sri Lanka, China, Persia, Myanmar, and, of course, India. In the end, he notes:
‘It is striking - even downright disheartening - how the quintessentially Indian monarch still fails to be accorded a wholehearted welcome in the land of his birth more than a century after he first emerged as a subject fit for a biography... 
The nation that adores Rama - the mythical hero - but has very little time for the real thing: the man who first forged India into a single nation state, and thus the real claim to be its founding father; the first ruler with a distinctive, identifiable voice; the pre-Gandhian pioneer of non-violence, the first proponent of conquest by moral force alone, whose words remain absolutely, unequivocally unique among rulers as a statement of governing principles.
Amazing book.



* Review - Goodreads -

* Allen, Charles (2012): ASHOKA, Little Brown, UK  -- Google Books -

Friday, May 09, 2014

Eyeing Botox

Clostridium botulinum (Image source: Wikipedia)

In 1895 a Belgian bacteriologist named Ermengem took a close look at a piece of rotten ham that had poisoned thirty-four people.

Under the microscope, Ermengem discovered a bacteria that would become the center of attention for military strategists, doctors, cosmetic surgeons, and foodies: Clostridium botulinum.

C. botulinum is an anaerobic spore-forming Gram positive bacteria which produces Botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT) - one of the world's most lethal biological weapon agents. One single gram of BoNT can kill 14,285 people (ingested), 1.25m people (inhaled), or 8.3 million people (injected). Amazingly, this very same toxin is now being used to cure vision disorders like Strabismus (squint eyes), amblyopia (lazy eyes), and for the removal of facial wrinkles (botox)!

How on earth did people discover that the most lethal neuro-toxin in the world can cure eye problems and make ladies look prettier??



- Botulinum Toxin Type-A (BXTA) - First Indian manufacturer (2007) - Bio-Med, Ghaziabad - brandname "BotoGenie" -
- Allergan Inc., USA -
- Coleman & Zilinskas (2010): FAKE BOTOX, REAL THREAT, Scientific American, June 2010 --
-Talreja, Vishaka (2007): CHINESE BOTOX WON'T LET YOU LOOK YOUNG, TOI, 28Oct 2007 -- url --
- A 100 unit Botox vial is priced at Rs 16,650. On the other hand the Chinese botox is available at a price 40% less than AllergAn's Botox.
- Anti-wrinke procedure costs Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000
- 25,000 non-surgical Botox procedures in 2007 --- In USA there were 3 million such cosmetic procedures in 2006

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Kamakhya & the Ahoms

The city of Guwahati has an intriguing landscape. It sits on the flood plains of the mighty Brahmaputra river, and yet, unlike the Gangetic plains, the landscape here is dotted with little hills, poking out abruptly here and there. 

On the outskirts of the city, the river is more than 16km wide, so it is not surprising that much of the urban sprawl is spread around a few hills that constrict the river, narrowing it down to a point where bridges are relatively easy to build. On one of these hills sits the ancient Kamakhya temple.

To my untrained eye, the temple looked as though it has been transplanted from Western Himalayas. The narrow pathway to the temple resembles Kangra, the sculptures look like the handiwork of masons from Bageshwar, but the apparent absence of proportions in the temple complex leaves you a little confused.  

And then you have the animals. A large black goat nibbles at ornamental plants near the gate, sheep of various sizes amble all over the Shikara area which is home to hundreds of pigeons in white, brown and grey. These are not pets. 

Special scaffoldings are built around the temple tell you where the black goat is going next. In side the temple you need to go down a narrow, dark flight of stairs to reach the sanctum where the Devi is represented by an irregular mound. The Panda sitting here has two things by his side - a towel spread on the floor for collecting the cash offerings, and a set of decapitated animal heads - two buffalos, five sheep.

The temple may be as old as the earliest settlements in lower Assam but the present structure was mostly built by the Ahom kings (). Like the Cholas in South India, the Ahom economy was built on the agriculture surplus coming from the fertile Bahmaputra plains.

The surplus has to be carefully protected against regular raids from the hill tribes and enemies further afield. It is interesting to know that the military structure and hierarchy that evolved over the centuries is still reflected in the surnames of people in this area:
  1. Bor-fukan: Supreme commander of the armed forces
  2. Bor-baruah: Senior commander
  3. Baruah: Commander
  4. Hazarika: Leader of a 1000 men
  5. Saikia: Leader of 100 men
  6. Bora: Leader of a team of 10 men

A similar hierarchy existed for the intellectual / spiritual / political leadership. 
  1. Budha-gohain
  2. Bora-patra-gohain
  3. Bor-gohain
  4. Gohain

It is perhaps no surprise that the Kamakhya temple resembles the resembles the Himalayan shrines. This temple too has seen numerous sieges and and may have been pulled down quite a few times by the Muslim armies. The last round must have been during the Ahom-Mughal wars (1615-1682).

The temple we see today may have been a hasty, piecemeal reconstruction that has been happening over the last two centuries.


* Thekaekara, Tarsh (2014): WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, Indian Express Eye, 27Apr14

* Sanyal, Sanjeev (2014): ONCE UPON A RIVER, Indian Express Eye, 27Apr14
- 1661 - Ahom Kingdonm repulses Aurangazeb's attack
- Dec. 1667, Aurangazeb sent a huge Turkik-Rajpur army
- Ahom army heded by Lachit Borphukan defeats the Mughal army in March 1671 at Saraighat, near Guwahati
- Bharmaputra - 2900km long - originates from Mansarovar area - flows as "Tsangpo" in Tibet - enters Arunachal as "Dihang/ Siang" - enters plains at Pasighat
- Secret Surveyors - 1880 - Chinese Lama and Sikkimise surveyor called Kinthup - throwing logs into Tsangpo