Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Crowds flock to monkey 'wedding'

By Sandeep Sahu

Thousands of villagers attended the marriage

Enlarge Image
Some 3,000 villagers have attended an elaborate Hindu wedding ceremony in eastern India for two monkeys.

The "bride" was dressed in a five-metre long sari and decked in flowers. The ceremony took place last Thursday in Ghanteswara village in Orissa state.

The guests were served a feast of rice, lentils, vegetables, fish and sweets.

Monkeys are revered idols in Hindu mythology. But the couples that took in and "married" off the two monkeys in Orissa say they love them as pets.

The monkey marriage took place some 200km (125 miles) from the Orissa state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The "groom", a three-year-old male monkey named Manu, was taken by procession to a temple in the company of hundreds of bemused onlookers, accompanied by loud music, dancing and fireworks.

'Unique experience'

Women welcomed the groom with loud, synchronised ululations typical in a Hindu marriage while priests chanted sacred hymns.

"It was a unique experience for me. It was the first time I conducted a marriage between two animals. But I followed all the rituals that I do in human marriages," said Daitari Dash, the priest.

Women prepared the female monkey, named Jhumuri, as they would a human bride, draping her in a red sari and smearing her with sandalwood paste.

Crowd at wedding of monkeys in Orissa - Photo: PK Ray
The monkeys were showered with gifts from the villagers

The monkeys were showered with gifts by those present. They included a gold necklace for the bride, donated by a local businessman.

"I feel as if my own daughter is getting married. I cannot bear the thought that she would not be with us anymore," Mamina, the woman who has been looking after the female monkey said.

Mamina has been looking after Jhumuri since her husband found her at a local temple.

The male monkey, Manu, was found in a mango orchard in a neighbouring village by a couple who raised it as their pet.

The two monkeys, who were kept in chains before the marriage, have now been released by their owners.

They have been spotted hanging out at the temple where the "marriage" took place.

A local villager, Mitrabhanu Dutta, said the event was a "nice way to release the monkeys from captivity".

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How to fix India's troubled north-east

Kaushik Basu

By Kaushik Basu
Professor of economics, Cornell University

Tucked away between China, Burma and Bangladesh, and linked to the rest of India by a sliver of north Bengal that arches over Bangladesh, India's north-east is a region of amazing grace - charming people, ancient cultures and bountiful nature.

Tribals in north east India
The eight states of the north-east comprise a region of diversity

As any shrewd observer of the world would deduce from this, it is a region of contested claims, strife and anarchy.

The eight states of the north-east comprise a region of diversity - multiple religions, dialects and tribes, each with its distinctive culture and history.

In Mizoram there are the Bnei Menashe, who claim to be Jews, descendants of the ancient tribe of Menasseh.

Then there are groups from as near as Bihar, such as the Adivasis who came to work in the Assam tea gardens and stayed on.

Their claim to special rights, granted to "original inhabitants", is contested by the local people, who argue that they lost that status by their move, for they are not original to Assam.

If we do not act soon, there is every possibility that the region will erupt into internecine warfare of a kind not seen in India before

Some of these contests acquire a farcical dimension, such as when China welcomed but refused to give visas to some delegates from Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that China considered parts of that state to be Chinese.

India meanwhile insisted that China must insist on visas.

Copying Kapuscinski

Of all the states of this region, the most troubled is Manipur.

I flew into Imphal, Manipur's capital, by a short Indigo flight from Guwahati on the morning of 8 January.

Ryszard Kapuscinski is known to be the great travel writer of our times, but he was more than that.

He was a philosopher, an astute and compassionate observer of the human condition.

There are few signs of the famous Indian economic boom here
When Kapuscinski journeyed to remote lands, he carried with him the greatest travel book of antiquity, Herodotus' Histories.

Out of this experience came his own masterpiece, Travels with Herodotus. I am doing what Kapuscinski did, but at one remove - I am travelling with his book.

I arrive in Imphal with a blinding headache and flop down in bed in my artlessly large room in Hotel Nirmala. I try to read, but fall asleep.

When I wake up, the winter sun is streaming in through my open windows.

From my balcony I can see the chaos of Thangal Bazar - tarless streets, unkempt roof-tops, half-cemented buildings, the anarchy of low-hanging electric wires criss-crossing in different directions and tapped from below by small shops with rusty tin roofs.

Collapsing economy

The flashes of colour come from the women, in their stunning phaneks - sarong like wrap-arounds - and shawls. They seem to be endowed with an effortless grace.

There are few signs of the famous Indian economic boom here.

This is a region of a collapsing economy, huge unemployment, and interrupted power supply. I was assured that at most times it was safe to touch those exposed wires.

At night I go for dinner to the home of an old Manipuri friend.

Rebels in Manipur
Insurgent groups routinely extort money in Manipur

It is a picturesque three-hundred year old house, with a quaint courtyard, mysterious stairways, muslin curtains and melodious wooden floors.

To get there one has to drive over a rock-strewn and dug-up road. It has been under repair for four years. When we reach the house, there is a power outage and we sit by lanterns and candles.

On the way back there is not a soul in the streets - life is too insecure for that - and my hotel has pulled down shutters from the ceiling which are bolted to the floor with padlocks.

The people of the north-east have high human capital - Mizoram's literacy rate is second only to the state of Kerala's. And it has a history that goes back 2,000 years.

Ratan Thiyam's Manipuri theatre is famous internationally.

An 11-year old boy, Honey Kenao, plays the tabla like a grand master. He is a prodigy - we will without doubt see more of him.

At various institutes and universities where I speak, the discussion is lively and engaged.

Threat of war

But beneath this, the region is simmering.

North-eastern family
The vast human potential of this region risks being wasted

Insurgent groups routinely extort money from bureaucrats, shopkeepers and professors. Kidnappings are frequent.

Trucks on highways are often stopped by competing local powers and either have their cargo confiscated or are allowed to pass after paying a "tax".

Hardly any new industry worth its name is moving into the region.

There are three immediate measures that the Indian government needs to take.

* Improve law and order

India has to clamp down on extortion and make it clear that the collection of taxes and exertion of force is a prerogative of government. As Max Weber had reminded us, the state must have a "monopoly of violence" - meaning, if anybody has the right to use force, it is the state.

* Invest in infrastructure

Roads, railways, financial services and electricity provision all need more money and all lag behind other points of India.

* Improve interaction

If the region remains cut off from the rest of India, there is every possibility that it will erupt into internecine warfare of a kind not seen in India before. And that will be extremely unfortunate for a region that has so much potential.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Peace Sign Turns 50

And finally, the peace sign turns fifty years old today. Over the past five decades the peace sign has become one of the world’s enduring icons. The original peace sign was developed in 1958 by a British textile designer and conscientious objector named Gerald Holtom. He created the symbol by combining the semaphore letters N and D, for nuclear disarmament. On Feb. 21, 1958 the symbol was accepted by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War. The symbol soon began to be used in anti-nuclear protests across Britain and then spread across the globe.

Japan’s Oldest Person Dies at 113

Tsuneyo Toyonaga, who became the oldest person in Japan last summer, died at the age of 113.

Toyonaga has been living for the last 12 years in a nursing home and had recently been moved over to a nearby hospital after losing her appetite and was unable to eat.

“She was dozing off most of the day recently but when she was awake she used to enjoy singing children’s songs. Once she started singing she wouldn’t stop until we all got tired and had to stop her,” she said.

Toyonaga, who was born on May 21, 1894, was only a year younger than the current Guinness record holder Edna Parker, of Shelbyville, Ind., who is 114 and was born on April 20, 1893.

Japan, who people have the world’s longest average life span, has seen the number of seniors over 100 years old quadruple in the past decade, and is expected to grow past 28,000 people soon. Japanese women live to an average age of 86, while men live to be an average of 79 years old. This is often attributed to lifestyle practices and diet, such as fish, rice, and green tea.

Kaku Yamanaka, born on Dec. 11, 1894, is now Japan’s oldest person. She lives in a nursing home in Aichi, central Japan.

Monday, February 25, 2008

India's big population challenge

By Nils Blythe
Business correspondent, BBC News, Mumbai, India

Crowd in India

India's population has soared largely due to people living longer
The world's population is growing at remarkable speed.

In 2000 it was around 6 billion. In 2050, based on estimates from the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, it will be 9 billion.

An already crowded planet will have half as many people again.

Few countries face as big a challenge as India.

It is already the world's second most populated country with over 1.1 billion people, not far behind China which has 1.3 billion.

But China's population is expected to level off in the coming decades because of the government's one-child per family policy.

India's population will keep on rising and the UN expects it to reach around 1.6 billion by 2050, by which time it will have overtaken China to become the world's most populated country.

Living longer

Visiting Mumbai, India's biggest city, it already feels like the most crowded place in the world.

Mumbai railway station in rush hour
Mumbai is India's most populated city

At the railways stations trains arrive with packed carriages and passengers hanging perilously outside the doors.

Outside, the traffic is permanently jammed in a mass of hooting taxis.

And perhaps none of this is surprising.

In 1975 Mumbai's population was 7 million. Now it is one of the biggest cities on earth with around 19 million inhabitants and a transport infrastructure which cannot keep pace with the increase.

The rises in population in India have largely been caused by people living longer.

In 1947, when India became independent from British rule, average life expectancy was just 33 years. Improved living standards and healthcare have raised that figure to the mid-60s.

At the same time birth rates have been falling. But the reduction has not been fast enough to prevent the overall population rising rapidly. And it is often the poorest families which have the most children.

Family planning

Asha Rane is well qualified to understand why poverty breeds big families. She was a professor at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences and now runs the Hamara Club, a project which helps children living on the streets of Mumbai.

She explains the growth in terms of "one mouth and two hands". A child is another mouth to feed but will provide two hands to help work and bring in money for the family, especially as the parents grow older.

Professor Asha Rane and her street children project 'The Hamara Club'
Asha Rane says children are seen in terms of extra labour

India was the first country in the world to introduce a national family planning programme.

In the 1970s there was huge controversy over accusations that men had been coerced into having vasectomies.

But the work of persuading people of the benefits of planned pregnancies has been carried on in recent decades by people like Dr Suhas Pophale.

He describes the efforts to promote family planning as "a drop in the ocean" and goes on to explain the reasons to do with culture, religion and lack of education which have created a big divide between the high birth rate among India's poor families and the much lower birth rate for middle class women.

Natural resources

So, for a complex set of reasons, India's population will rise inexorably over the next fifty years.

Will the country be able to cope with another 500 million citizens by the middle of the century? There will certainly be difficulties, according to Professor Tim Dyson, co-author of Twenty-first Century India.

The scope for increased efficiency is very large. That's the nature of the development challenge that India faces
Montek Singh Ahluwali, deputy chairman, India's Planning Commission

One of the biggest challenges will be the supply of water.

Agriculture uses most of India's fresh water. If India is to feed a population of 1.6 billion it will need to dramatically increase its agricultural production.

But there will be no more available fresh water in 2050 than there is now. Indeed there may be less because of the effects of industrial pollution.

Montek Singh Ahluwali, deputy chairman of India's influential Planning Commission, argues that India can eventually provide for a population of 1.6 billion.

"Resources at the moment are very sub-optimally used," he says.

"I think it's possible to manage that kind of population provided there is a systemic change in how we deal with resources which are becoming scarce. The scope for increased efficiency is very large. That's the nature of the development challenge that India faces."

Nils Blythe's report from Mumbai is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 25 February at 1700 GMT.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The chance to see in Bangladesh

By Claudia Hammond
BBC News, Bangladesh

Four million people live on the banks and islands of the Brahmaputra river in Bangladesh. The only substantial medical facility is a floating hospital providing healthcare for local people.

A line of elderly people with pieces of masking tape stuck on one eyebrow queued up in the narrow corridor on board the old French barge.

A child waiting for cataract surgery
The operation takes just seven minutes

They were here for cataract surgery to restore their sight and the masking tape marked the eye needing attention.

"In the excitement people forget which eye it is," the surgeon told me.

There was not exactly time for tender loving care here. It was more of a production line.

After queuing in the corridor each patient was quickly taken into a side room and without a word given an injection in the eye.

Then, as soon as the anaesthetic had time to work, they were led into the operating cabin. Seven minutes later the surgery was done.

It was so fast that while I was interviewing the surgeon, I glanced down at the bed and already a different patient was lying there.

Not a moment was lost, allowing the surgeon to do more than 100 a day.

Floating healthcare

The red, white, and blue barge was sailed all the way from France by a charity called Friendship.

In this part of Bangladesh it is not possible to build a permanent hospital because every time the river floods the sandy islands crumble and disappear, often reappearing somewhere else. So most of the people are nomadic, moving to new land each time their island sinks.

The floating hospital at the side of the river
Inside it does feel more like a boat than a hospital

They live in small thatched huts without electricity and in some islands there is not a single boat, but however remote the island, word gets round when the floating hospital is in town.

After spending the night on a nearby houseboat, we wake to find that fishing trawlers are already dropping off hundreds of people from nearby islands.

They sit in lines on the brown, sandy shore in the shade of black umbrellas, each person holding a referral form from the mobile paramedic team.

Then comes the tricky bit. Getting onto the hospital ship.

This means negotiating 20ft (6m) of narrow gangplank, supported high above the water by rickety bamboo scaffolding.

The crowd are entertained by my attempts to balance with my recording equipment and trailing wires. It reminds me of the high beam at school.

A surgeon carrying out the cataract procedure

A surgeon can carry out more than 100 operations per day

But somehow relatives manage to carry elderly, disabled people along this precarious gangway.

Inside it does feel more like a boat than a hospital. It is very cramped and certainly not hi-tech.

But the European doctors told me the biggest shock for them was the lack of privacy.

They have to get used to consultations accompanied by a couple of faces looking through the window and three or four more people watching from the doorway.

I found myself squeezing past a young man in the corridor and he was keen to show me his hand.

He had been burnt so badly by boiling rice water as a baby that with no treatment available his hand had curled into a permanent fist.

More than 20 years later, he had finally just had surgery to open it up again, and this he told me would change his whole life.

It was not just that he could not use his hand before. Because of cultural strictures against eating with his left hand he had never before shared a meal in another person's home.

After this one operation he could socialise publicly and even get married.

In a tent on the bank the previous day's cataract patients waited to have their bandages removed, after spending the night in a temporary hospital ward in a tent on the shore.

Thirty wooden beds were lined up with no space between them.

In the past so many family members would accompany patients and share the bed at night that the wooden bed frames often snapped - so now it is strictly patients only after nightfall.

First sight

The doctor eased off the cotton wool pad and we waited to see her reaction to her first ever glimpse of the world

A little girl of seven, who had had cataracts in both eyes, was first to find out whether the surgery had been a success.

She sat cross-legged on the floor telling me, "When I can see I will be able to do everything."

The doctor eased off the cotton wool pad and we waited to see her reaction to her first-ever glimpse of the world.

I can only describe her expression as slightly confused and overwhelmed.

Maybe that is not so surprising if the first thing you have ever seen in your life is a doctor and two BBC staff with large microphones.

The local paramedics told me that they ensure that any new doctors see this moment of first sight because it inspires them to stay on to do what they can.

I can understand why.

But not everyone was so lucky.

Near the entrance to the tent a mother was sobbing loudly because her six-year-old blind son was too frightened to get on the boat for his eye surgery.

The clinic was now over and after spending all morning trying, and failing, to coax him on board she was now inconsolable.

He clung to her miserably. She knew this might have been his one chance in life to see.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 23 February, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.