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 -

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A Moth Reappears

"What a lovely butterfly!" said our neighbour Goel-ji, pointing to this large moth sitting on the park wall.

Set against red-sandstone chips in the early morning sunlight, this was indeed a stunningly beautiful creature. Two pairs of translucent 'eyes' set in iridescent yellow, underlined in red and white, stared back at you blankly. No wonder it caught the attention of Goel-ji who knows everything there is to know about the sugar-trade and Hindustani Classical Music, but usually cared little for the difference between butterflies and moths. Yet the sight moved him enough to insist that I take a photo and share it with him on WhatsApp - "This is the first time I am noticing something like this in our park!"

As I continued my way, I wondered what is this moth called. It looked vary familiar but I could not recall its name. Was it the Atlas Moth? Or was it a new entrant into our monsoon-soaked neighbourhood?

Later, I kicked myself for not remembering. No, it was not the Atlas Moth but a species that had been attracted to the Arjuna trees (Terminalia arjuna) in hordes three years ago. It was the Tussar Silk Moth!

Three years ago the caterpillars of this moth (Antheraea mylitta) had made a dramatic appearance on the young Arjuna trees. Hundreds of them had suddenly appeared on the trees, clinging to every available branch, leaving them almost bereft of leaves, and then growing into enormous creatures built like bright green trailer trucks fitted with psychedelic lights.

A few days later many of them had fallen off the crowded trees, and lay helplessly on the grass - too large to crawl, and too numerous - or too distasteful -  to be eaten by birds and cats. The ones that remained on the trees soon turned into lovely oval cocoons and hung there like thousands of fruit, swaying in the breeze. We had seen only a few moths that emerged from these cocoons. Some were larger, and looked haggard after getting drenched in the monsoon rains but none of them had a bright golden sheen like this one.

The Arjuna trees are now 20 feet higher and far less vulnerable than they were three years ago. How may eggs are these Tussar Moths going to lay this year?  How many caterpillars are going to fall off the swaying branches?  Let's see.


Paper - Checklist of Moths in Delhi (2017) -

Tussar Silk - Utsavpedia -

Tussar Silk Moth -

Life-cycle -

What's that bug? -

Flikr - Moths of India -

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

History - Fitting in the Genes

How old are we Indians?

This might be a silly question to ask in the age of light-speed internet. However, once you start thinking about it, you begin to realise that the question is not so silly after all. It is important precisely because half-baked analysis does indeed travel at light-speed, colouring the way we differentiate ourselves from 'others'. It becomes the basis for identity-based politics on the basis of which political power is being consolidated in our times.

Tony Joseph's book "EARLY INDIANS - The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From" (Juggernaut 2018) is a bit like a probing needle that seeks to burst some of these inflated balloons of identity-based politics. Tony is a journalist makes no pretence of being a neutral observer and reporter. Scroll down his tweets (@tjoseph0010) and you realise that he has his axe to grind against the 'Hindutva Brigade' of India's right wing. But fact is that he is also a good story teller.

One generation ago, school history books told us that Radio Carbon Dating was one of the scientific tools used to unravel the story of human origins and migrations. From what we can see, despite all the scientific progress that has been made over the past 30 years, the narrative in text-books remains unchanged. Tony gathers up all the latest available scientific data, not only from RCDating but also genetics, linguistics, geology and biochemistry to tell us the story of our origins.

The main protagonists in his story are -

  • mtDNA - Mitochondrial DNA which remains outsider the nucleus, and is inherited exclusively from the mother. "If you go back 10 generations you will have 1024 people who you can call your ancestor, but your mtDNA  or Y-chromosome would have any connection with only 10 of them"
  • Y-chromosome / Y-DNA - inherited exclusively from the father.  Oldest branches in Y-chromosome are 0 A, B, CT and D
  • Gene Mutations - to create genetic family trees, and to work out the approximate time that has passed since two branches of a tree diverged
  • Haplogroups (Gk Haplo=single) - branches of the mtDNA and Y-DNa family trees -- parent branch is called 'macro-haplogroup', sub-haplogroups or "clades" refer to sub-branches. Oldest branches in mtDNA are haplogroups L0, L1, L2 and M7

The story that emerges from this wide range of sources is that even though the earliest evidence of humans habitation in India dates back to 1.5 million years, from Palaeolithic tools found at Attirampakkam in Tamil Nadu (69km from Chennai), modern humans (Homo sapiens) came in much, much later.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA from females) haplogroup M2 is the most ancient one in the Indian subcontinent. This group arose around 60,200 years ago and is rarely found outside South Asia.  70-90% of mtDNA haplogroups in India can trace their origins to the First Indians who arrived in India around 65,000 years ago, while only 10-30% of remaining mtDNA lineages is from later migrations. However when it comes to paternal ancestry the tables turn. Only 10-40% of Y-chromosome haplogroups is from the First Indians while the remaining 60% came from males coming in later migrations.

Connect the dots with archeological evidence and the following timeline merges -

  • 300,000 years - remains of the modern human - Homo aspens - found in a cave in Jebel Irhoud, 50km from the city of Safi in Morocco
  • 180,000 yrs - Rock shelter in Misliya north Israel - first human fossil outside Africa
  • 70,000 yrs - Geneticists calculate Out of Africa (OoA) migration
  • 7000 BCE - Mehrgarh, agricultural settlement found at the foothills of the Bolan hills in Baluchistan
  • 7000 BCE - evidence of rice harvesting at Lahuradewa in the Sant Kabir Nagar dish of Uttar Pradesh in the Upper Ganga plain
  • 5500 - 2600 BCE - the Early Harappan era
  • 2600 - 1900 BCE - the Mature Harappan period
  • 2300-1700 BCE - the Bactria-Margiana Archaelogical Complex (BMAC) centred on the Oxus river (Amu Darya)
  • 2100 BCE - a southward migration of pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe towards the central Asian regions...and then to South Asia

It is amazing to think that at the time of the earliest Harappan settlements in 5500 BCE, the Indian subcontinent modern humans who had been living across the country for over 60,000 years. Not only did these early settlers spread across the peninsula (at least in coastal areas), but also migrated all the way across South East Asia to Australia!

In other words, long before the Vedic Aryans migrated to India from the steppes of Central Asia, with their horses and numerous Gods, this region had been home to people who had their own unique languages and belief systems. It is the blending of all these diverse streams that makes India what it is today.

On the whole Tony Joseph's narrative is interesting but not quite convincing. It is not clear if adequate samples of mtDNA and Y-DNA were collected during the studies citied in the book. One also wonders why a book citing research papers in 2018 fails to mention the recent finding of an ancient chariot in Sanauli (Uttar Pradesh) from the Bronze-Copper Age, dating back to 2000 BCE - 1800 BCE.

How do we reconcile the absence of horse-drawn vehicles in Indus Valley civilization with their presence in the Gangetic Plains? I hope to see many more books like 'Early Indians' that unravel the mysteries in this part of the world.


Book - Joseph, Tony (2018): EARLY INDIANS - The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From, Juggernaut, New Delhi 2018

The Sanauli Charriot -