Change in guard at 350.org as Bill Mckibben takes a step back

American environmentalist, journalist, author and co-founder of the climate movement organization 350.org, recently announced his decision to step down from his role of chairman at the organization. Mckibben has played a leading role in the climate change debate over the last two decades, initially through his first book – “The End of Nature”, published in 1988, and later through his frequent contributions to publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Harper’s and National Geographic.  A watershed moment in his campaign for climate justice came with the founding of the organization, 350.org, in March 2008. The organization drew its name from climate scientist James Hansen‘s contention that atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) above 350 parts per million was unsafe. While the call to limit carbon dioxide concentrations below an acceptable threshold has not been implemented seriously till date (considering the current atmospheric concentration of CO2 already stands at around 398 ppm growing at a rate of 2 ppm per year)[1], 350.org’s call for a global climate justice movement did find support across a wide section of the population, especially amongst the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) as well as university campuses across North America and now even Europe and Australia. The support from students across university campuses came in response to 350.org’s campaign, calling upon universities to divest their endowment fund holdings from fossil fuel industry. In no time, the movement gathered momentum with strong support from student community across universities in the US. Today, some of the biggest universities in North America, Europe and Australia, including Harvard and Stanford, face pressure from students and faculty alike, to divest their investments in fossil fuel industry.

While the divestment movement could at best be called a minor victory, its symbolic importance is not lost out on anyone, least of all the big oil companies. This movement has helped galvanise public opinion in favour of a shift to renewable and alternate forms of energy. More importantly, it has also galvanised opinion against the big oil companies, which continue to rake in huge profits from government subsidies as well as by avoiding the cost of cleaning up the negative externalities of the continued pumping of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. In other words, the absence of enforcement of the polluter pays principle, has allowed the fossil fuel industry to rake in huge profits at the expense of public welfare.  It is in this regard, that Bill Mckibben and 350.org have played a stellar role. Over the years they have also highlighted the involvement of big oil companies in funding the climate denial movement. Besides highlighting role of fossil fuel industry in blocking attempts at regulating fossil fuel production and consumption, Mckibben also laid out an insightful picture of the business plan of fossil fuel industry in an article titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, published in Rolling Stone in July 2012[2]. In his analysis based on data provided by Carbon Tracker, Mckibben lays out a clear picture of the amount of carbon dioxide the top 200 fossil fuel companies plan to pump into the atmosphere based on their current proven reserves of oil and gas. This number adds up to an astounding 5 times (2795 Gigatons) the amount of carbon dioxide scientists estimate humans can pour into the atmosphere by 2050 (565 Gigatons) and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees warming. If this business plan is allowed to succeed, it will spell disaster for future generations and a near annihilation of life and civilization on the planet.  To quote former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, it will be “Game Over for the Climate.”[3]

It is in this fight against incessant consumption and burning of fossil fuels, 350.org has won support from environmental organizations, activists and policy makers across the world. The success of the highly publicized People’s Climate March, organized at the time of the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September 2014, can largely be attributed to efforts of 350.org. Despite its visible successes, 350.org has not gained wide support from other environmental organizations, both in developed as well as developing countries. Many in the environmental movement, especially from the developing countries, disagree with the feasibility of 350 ppm as an acceptable limit, since it spells a death knell for the global economy. For the developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, it would be suicidal to abide by such a stringent number, as it effectively closes the door on the limited carbon budget available to them for alleviating poverty and uplifting large swathes of their population which continue to live in sub-human conditions. These differences aside, Bill Mckibben and 350.org, have played an important role in rallying together activists, environmentalists, policy makers, students, trade union leaders as well as political leaders in the battle to limit global warming below the agreed threshold of 2 degrees, which parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed as the target to limit global warming by the end of the century. Based on current emission trends and potential (emission) reduction targets put forward by governments at the UN Climate negotiations, the chances of keeping global average temperature rise below 2 degree appear to be as good as spotting a dinosaur running through the Amazon forest.

Mckibben’s legacy and contribution to the climate debate should be evaluated in this context. Bringing together disparate environmental groups to take on the might of entrenched political lobbies, power structures and economic interests is no mean feat. It is also in this regard, that the divestment movement launched university campuses gains importance beyond mere symbolism. It has the potential to shift the momentum away from polluting fossil fuels in favour of clean and alternate forms of energy by galvanising public opinion not only in favour of renewable energy but also against fossil fuels. The investor community has already begun to take note of the scientific assessments, changing regulatory landscape and public mood. Financial institutions, asset managers, universities, philanthropic trusts and religious institutions have begun to analyze their holdings in the fossil fuel industry. So far, more than 800 global investors including foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers, religious groups, healthcare organisations, cities and universities have pledged to withdraw a total of $50bn from fossil fuel investments over the next five years.[4] These announcements have provided a significant boost to the fledgling divestment movement.

As Mckibben steps down from his role as chairman and takes on the role of senior advisor at the organization, one hopes he continues to play an active role in engaging with universities, governments, environmental organizations, policy makers and the UNFCCC. After all, the divestment campaign has only just begun and has a long way to go if the target of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degree by the end of the century has to succeed.  Moreover, success will come not just by ensuring that carbon assets remain stranded by keeping the fossil fuels buried underground. The recently concluded Lima COP, held under the aegis of the UNFCCC, has sent out some positive signals of the possibility of a new climate deal emerging at the Paris COP to be held in December 2015. Some of the ambitious targets mooted at the Lima COP were a de-carbonized world by 2015. If governments are actually serious about achieving this target, the divestment movement launched by 350.org will indeed get a huge boost. The movement will achieve wider support from the investor community as well if the potential losses from stranded carbon assets are offset by positive returns from investment in alternate and renewable energy. Ensuring this will be key to success of the divestment movement launched by Mckibben and 350.org.

[1] Figures as per data obtained from Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii and NASA

[2] http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

[3] Hansen had mentioned this in the context of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to carry oil from the Alberta tar-sands in Canada to the southern part of US.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/22/rockefeller-heirs-divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change

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Phil Hughes: A life taken away too soon

The unfortunate death of Phillip Hughes, who was hit by a bouncer while playing a domestic match, has understandably brought an outpouring of emotion and grief. Players across the world, cricket administrators, media, fans and the sporting fraternity have condoled the sad demise of the young player. He was in all likelihood, poised to replace Michael Clarke in next week’s test match against India, if the captain were to be ruled out over fitness concerns. The heartfelt condolences, prayers and messages are only a small indication of the grave loss Phil’s family, friends and teammates feel today due to his absence. The beautiful game too is left with a void due to his tragic demise.

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Hughes, acknowledges the crowd after his century in his second test match. Picture: Hamish Blair/Getty Images

 

 

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Hughes with his treasured baggy green. Picture:Phil Hillyard/Newspix/REX

 

Such incidents unfortunately leave an unwanted image of this otherwise beautiful game. Cricket after all is a game that resembles real life to a large extent. Cricket teaches people the importance of hard work and more importantly, team work and perseverance. It brings to the fore leadership qualities of individuals. This game is a great leveller. It also is in many ways an unbiased sport which provides equal opportunities to both the sides as well as all the players involved. A game of cricket is no different from a pendulum, swinging from one side to the other. It is the players who deserve credit for ensuring that the “spirit of the game” is kept alive. Players like Hughes are testimony to the beauty of the game. The lad was in and out of the Australian team since making his debut in 2009. These repeated breaks didn’t deter him from continuing to push for a place in the team, and he had almost made it. Phil kept training hard, persevered and never stopped believing in himself. Hard work and perseverance are the two greatest lessons life can offer any individual. That is precisely what any sportsman does. A cricketer does not only that, but also contributes to a larger cause – the team’s cause. After all he is not only representing himself, but also his team and country. That is precisely what Phil had been doing since he took the cricket bat in his hands. He was already knocking on the doors of the Australian test team. Unfortunately, fate had other plans in store.

One can’t help but commend the manner in which the Australian captain Michael Clarke as well as Cricket Australia have reacted, to the developments in the aftermath of this incident. The outpouring of support for the bowler, Sean Abbott, who was involved in this freak accident, is heart-warming. The young player has a long career ahead of him and it will be unfortunate if he withers away due to the emotional trauma resulting from this incident. He deserves all possible support in this difficult phase. Phillip Hughes too would have openly wrapped his arm around him and lent him full support, if he were around at this time. A sportsman after all, would best understand the trauma, pain, frustration and helplessness of another of his ilk.

Questions are being raised over the possibility of the first test of the Gavaskar-Border series, beginning as per schedule. It sure will be difficult for the Australian team to be mentally prepared to take the field after the last few harrowing days. Hughes’ fellow teammates – Warner, Watson and Haddin, who were there on the field at the time this incident took place, would be completely distraught. One can perfectly understand if they choose to excuse themselves from playing the match in such a situation. In such extraordinary circumstances it sure becomes tough to prioritize and take a call on what is more important – the game or the unfortunate loss of a life? Perhaps, this is not the right question to ask. The right thing to ask is what was the most important thing for the young bloke who is sadly is no more amongst us? If we were to put our hand on our hearts, we would certainly get the answer. Cancelling the next few scheduled matches in the domestic league was the right thing to do. The Pakistan – New Zealand test match too was rightly called off for a day. Hughes left this world while doing what he loved doing most – playing cricket. It was the most important thing to him besides his family and friends. Former Australian skipper, Ian Chappell, has very bravely said “Phillip Hughes would want the game to go on”. Phil desperately wanted to play the next test match. The greatest tribute to him would be to play the test as per schedule with the flags flying at half mast. Cricket, just like life, has to go on. RIP Phil Hughes. The game and fans will miss you terribly.

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Himalayan Adventures – Gliding through the skies in Bir-Billing

This article was also published in the Indian Express, Bangalore edition and can be accessed on the link here – http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/388411/The-New-Indian-Express-Bangalore/04-December-2014#page/21/2

 

Bir-Billing, located in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, is an adventure destination for paragliding. Bir-Billing is roughly a 2-3 hours drive from Mcleodganj – another tourist destination also famous for housing the monastery where His Holiness, The Dalai Lama resides. Bir-Billing is a well known destination among paragliders the world over and it also hosts annual pre-World Cup paragliding events with support from the Himachal Tourism Development Corporation, Government of Himachal Pradesh.

The nearest station to Bir-Billing is Patahankot, a drive of around 4-4.5 hours. In case of a bus journey, the Volvo bus from Delhi to Baijnath is the most convenient. Baijnath is a 10 km drive from Bir which is the landing point for paragliding. Billing, located a further 13 kms above Bir is the take-off point for the same. Either ways, Bir-Billing is an overnight journey from Delhi and takes roughly 12 hours to reach.

On the way to from Baijnath by road, one would be greeted by the sight of many paragliders flying in the clear skies as you come close to Bir. It is a rare sight in India. In fact it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it is a lot easier to spot para-gliders floating through the skies in Bir-Billing than spotting birds.

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Upon reaching Bir, the sight of lush green tea estates on either side of the road will greet you. In the months of April – May, the weather is quite sunny and hot during daytime. The temperatures however go down after 4 in the evening and by night it becomes considerably cool and pleasant. It is better to spend the night in Billing than in Bir as Billing is at a height of 2400 metres above the sea level and enjoys a much cooler climate. Moreover, the aerial view that Billing offers of the entire landscape down below is a sight to behold. To watch the early morning sunrise in Billing is nothing short of a magical experience. Billing not only offers beautiful sights of lush green landscape, but also boasts of a splendid aerial view and is a beginning point into the forest which leads to Barabhangal village after a 5 days trek. There is no other approach road to this village, located in a remote region in Himachal Pradesh, except through the mountains.

There are two options of going to Billing from Bir – either by trekking through the hills/walking up the road or by car through the motorable road made for vehicles. Those who are keen on burning some calories can opt for either the trek through the hills (a steeper but shorter route) or use the motorable road for walking up (longer but less stressful and tiring). If you wish to enjoy the lovely sights on the way to Billing, it is advisable to opt for the trek/walk instead of the easier option of car.

Our joy knew no bounds when we saw the campsite which was our place to shack up for the night. A line of five colourful tents greeted us as soon as we reached our destination. The tents were pitched right under the clear skies and on the steep slopes which looked down upon the lush green mountains. Each tent can comfortably occupy two persons with their bags. If you wish to take a dump or pee, there is another tent created especially for that a few yards below the slope.

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If you are lucky, it might even rain and make the weather quite chilly. We did get lucky. We had come with our stock of booze for the night that actually helped keep us warm for the night. The same place which was hot in the afternoon had suddenly become very chilly at night due to the rainfall. It however was a night to remember for many reasons. It was after all a night out at a campsite in the Himalayas, lovely weather, and booze to keep us warm along with food cooked in a shack by the camp manager’s team. Most importantly it was a night spent under the open skies with thousands of stars shining brightly. It seemed like every star was trying to outshine the other stars. Thankfully, we were one of the few people present there in Billing that night to admire that beautiful sight where heavens seemed to be shining upon us. It seemed like the heavens had suddenly spread out its long black blanket with hundreds and thousands of stars stuck on it. Never before had I ever seen so many stars shine so brightly all at once in the skies. Thankfully, we had our share of booze to admire the lovely night. Thankfully, we were present on top of those hills to admire that beautiful sight.

The next day was the day of reckoning for us. As we got up in the morning, we were greeted by the sight of horses grazing around the hills. There is something really special about waking up in the middle of the mountains in the Himalayan range. The sight of this gigantic range which spans thousands of kilometres across multiple countries can make one feel insignificant and small. One look at these beautiful hills and snow covered mountains makes us realise that “our world” is just so small and there is so much more to explore.

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The weather on that morning was just perfect and we got ready for the ride with assistance from the organizers and our fellow pilots. Our introduction to the activity was quite simple. We walked up to the take-off point in Billing which was just 5 minutes from our campsite. The kits were already there and we were told that the instructions were very simple. The organisers told us, “You have to run as fast as you can and jump off the cliff. The faster your speed while running, the better your take off will be.” Very simple instructions indeed! Run down the cliff, jump off without a parachute and then hope that the glider opens up in time! That is certainly a perfect start to the day. But thankfully our fears were unfounded. Thankfully, gravity always does its bit and thanks to Newton’s laws of motion, the take-off was scary but safe. The entire thrill ride lasts for around 20-25 minutes with the pilot, who thankfully sits right behind you, controlling everything including the manoeuvring, speed and height. Our job is to sit there, scream and feel like a bird. At certain points we were flying high above the mountains from where I was gazing down on the planes below a few minutes back. The first 10minutes of the ride were quite scary as it took a while for the whole experience to sink in. The first 10 minutes of the ride were spent worrying about the consequences of an accident if anything went wrong. There was after all no chance of survival as we were flying way up in the sky without the comfort of a parachute. Thankfully, these fears were unfounded as the kits used for paragliding are tested and approved by competent authorities. The pilots too are skilled and well trained pilots who are equally concerned and cautious about safety.

The next 15 minutes were spent admiring the beauty of the landscape from a bird’s eye view. The whole experiences was simply mind numbing as we flew high over the mountain tops and tried spotting some of the prominent landmarks below. The goosebumps gave way to renewed excitement as we quikcly flew over the forests covering the mountains and the open plains right below these mountains. The landing spot for the activity too is a well maintained site. The landing can be a bit tricky if not done as per the instructions of the pilot. However if you pay heed to his advice a comfortable and smooth landing is easy to achieve. Our joy knew no bounds as we landed one at a time within a span of 10 minutes. We were literally jumping like mad-hatters and pounced on each other in a super-hyper and excited phase as we completed our rides. The entire experience was truly memorable and the flight towards the skies was surreal.

The Himalayas have always had a magical pull on me and this time it was no different. It was a new destination, a new adventure and a different experience altogether. Highly recommended for those who yearn for a high-flying experience.

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Weekend destination – Rishikesh

The temple city of Rishikesh is around 250 kms away from Delhi. It is a famous weekend destination spot for the city folk from the National Capital Region (NCR). Rishikesh is a melting pot of spirituality, adventure and home to numerous well known temples. It is also a favourite tourist destination for foreigners who visit it for few months for a spiritual and religious experience and live in the city’s many famous ashrams. Rishikesh has many well known Yoga centres which are frequented by travellers from across the world.

Situated on the foothills of the might Himalayas, Rishikesh is a gateway to the many picturesque hill stations in Uttarakhand. The majestic Ganga flows through Rishikesh on its way to the holy pilgrimage city of Haridwar. While the Ganga today is a highly polluted water body, the water in Rishikesh is relatively unaffected by the pollution as the major polluting points are down the course of the river in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. The flowing river water with its strong currents at certain points and a shade of green colour due to the natural vegetation underneath is a visual treat. The water in summers is in fact quite cold as the melting ice from the mountain tops mixes with the river.

Site of Camp Gold Coast in Rishikesh

Site of Camp Gold Coast in Rishikesh

View of Camp Gold Coast on the trek downhill

View of Camp Gold Coast on the trek downhill

Over the last decade Rishikesh has also become a favoured destination for adventure enthusiasts. Rafting, rappling, bungee jumping, rock climbing and camping on the banks of the Ganga are some of the adventure experiences that Rishikesh now offers tourists. The place is full of tourists on every weekend almost throughout the year. Rafting is one of the most popular adventure sports that attracts tourists to Rishikesh. Many tourists now keep a stopover for a day in Rishikesh as part of their tour itinerary for Uttarakhand just to experience the thrill of rafting. A night stay at the many camps which dot the course of the Ganga river as it flows down the hills through Rishikesh is an enthralling experience. A stay at these camp sites is very different (and arguably better) from a stay at a nearby hotel in the same place. The experience of staying without electricity, by the riverside with a cool breeze gushing across at night and enjoying a good drink under the open skies is truly unbeatable. A stay at the camps is certainly recommended for those who are willing to move out of the comfort zone on a holiday.

Rafts bobbing down the river

Rafts bobbing down the river

All die-hard adventure enthusiasts who wish to experience the ultimate adventure thrill – bungee jumping, should make advance bookings with Jumping Heights – the operators who conduct bungee jumping in Rishikesh.

Like all tourist places, Rishikesh too has its fair share of eating places and is full of restaurants and cafes alongside the riverfront. The cafes around Laxman Jhula are frequented by foreigners and Indians alike. The Buddha Cafe and Freedom Cafe are two of the well known eateries close to Laxman Jhula. A walk down the Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula over the river is a must for every traveler to Rishikesh. A word of caution for the die-hard non vegetarians –  restaurants and cafes are prohibited from serving non-vegetarian food within the local municipal area in Rishikesh due to its religious importance. There however are many restaurants serving non-veg food around the bus stand and near Shivalik.

A visit to one of the cafes in the evening is highly recommended just to experience the solace, peace and calmness around the river and enjoy some good food. The view from the top of these cafes is truly a moment worth capturing in a photograph.

The summer season from April – June is the best time to visit. Rishikesh is certainly a must see place for adventure enthusiasts as well as the spiritual and religious.

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Charting a new discourse for the Aam Aadmi

The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on the political landscape has opened up a new space for political activism in India. While the Delhi assembly election results may not be a reflection of the mood across India, they certainly make a deep symbolic impact across urban India. Besides the 28 seats that it captured in the Delhi assembly elections, the AAP has also succeeded in engaging an otherwise largely “apolitical” urban, middle and lower middle class India. It has managed to attract support from diverse sections of society across cities and towns in India. Its supporters include the white collared professionals, small businessmen, auto-rickshaw drivers as well as slum dwellers. This has been the AAP’s biggest success so far and its political opponents such as the Congress, BJP and other regional parties have recognized it. Political parties have realized that the AAP has successfully tapped into the Aam Aadmi’s anger and revulsion at the deteriorating state of affairs and corruption. While the AAP’s success in Delhi does not pose any immediate threat to either the Congress, BJP or other regional parties across India, the support it is getting across India does warrant serious contemplation from them.

Whether AAP manages to deliver on its promises (some of which are very populist and impractical) or goes down the same road of corruption that it accuses other political parties remains to be seen. The AAP after all is not a movement based party unlike the Congress (which led India’s freedom struggle against the British and was the single largest political movement of the pre-indepence era in India) or the Communist Parties (which derive their strength from labour and agrarian movements as well as the fight against colonial rule in pre-independence era). The BJP too derives its core Hindutva ideology and strength from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP has generally occupied the centre-right end of the political spectrum as opposed to the Congress’ traditional centre-left stance (its change in direction in the 90s notwithstanding) or the Communist parties such as the CPI and CPM which have occupied the left-end of the spectrum. Most of the regional parties in India derive their core-strength from either caste-based movements or linguistic/regional agitations (BSP, SP, TDP, Akali Dal, DMK, AIADMK, Shiv Sena, BJD, RJD etc). The AAP on the other hand has attracted support on the basis of a single issue – corruption. Undoubtedly, corruption is a major issue in India today and affects every section of society except the elite and privileged who can manage to get things done due to their connection and collusion with the state machinery. Corruption has a strong link to the political and economic system of the country. It is directly related to the manner in which political parties raise funds to fight elections and the economic policies followed by governments. In India, there also is a third angle to corruption – bureaucracy. India’s bureaucracy has for far too long been subjected to political intervention and political pressure. The collusion of bureaucracy and political class since the 70s has led to massive leakages and an unholy nexus of sorts. The 70s and 80s were marked by siphoning off of welfare scheme funds by politicians, babus and sarkari officials. This nexus deepened over the years as political parties and governments have chosen to take undue advantage from it for their own personal gains and benefits. The liberalization of economy in 90s has added a new animal to this nexus – crony capitalism. The absence of appropriate regulatory mechanisms coupled with the absence of an appropriate means to check funding sources of political parties has allowed political parties and governments to take arbitrary decisions for the benefit of few multinationals and big corporations. The AAP is therefore not just up against political parties in its declared fight against corruption. It is also up against the unholy nexus between bureaucracy, political parties and big-business. The absence of an appropriate strategy, program or policy as of today to fight this systemic corruption would be AAP’s biggest challenge.

Only time will tell whether AAP will emerge as a truly credible secular political alternative or if it ends up as a part of the systemic rot which has set in. The AAP however needs to be credited for successfully bringing the discourse on corruption at the centre of the political debate. It also needs to be congratulated for proving that there is an alternate way of doing politics and fighting elections. It deserves kudos for walking the talk when it came to fund raising, candidate selection or empowering the Aam Aadmi (all the 28 MLAs of the AAP are the Aam Aadmi after all with no prior political experience of external backing). It has engaged the youth in a manner that none of the mainstream or regional political parties have been able to since the days of the Mandal agitation.

It now has to prove that it can also govern and deliver and not just agitate and mobilize support for protests. It also needs to come up with a strategy to ensure that it attracts like-minded people and cadre to its fold who will stay true to the party’s agenda of fighting corruption and empowering people. Developing an appropriate policy agenda, attracting experienced and like minded individuals, choosing good, clean candidates in the upcoming general elections and expectation setting/management will be some of the major challenges AAP will face in the coming months. Given the challenges it faces one may argue that forming a minority government in Delhi should have been avoided at this point of time. But then AAP’s nascent history suggests that it has been capable of springing a surprise or two. May 2014 could perhaps add another feather in its cap in case it manages to win few seats in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections as well.

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This Lunchbox offers a wonderful meal to its audience

The Lunchbox, a non-mainstream, Hindi and part English film has deservedly earned good reviews from critics. The association of UTV motion pictures and Karan Johar as its co-producers along with a host of other production houses has thankfully avoided the film being slotted as “parallel cinema” and given it a wider release in multiplexes across India.

The Lunchbox has managed to strike a chord with its audience. It tells a simple story of an average middle / lower middle class Indian. While the film’s characters are Bombayites, they tell the story of millions of Indians living in many other metropolitan or small cities of India. This has made the film connect with its audience. The film very effectively captures the monotony of life in India’s most cosmopolitan city – Mumbai. Irrfan Khan’s portrayal of the lonely and grumpy Mr Fernandes who is on the verge of retirement; Nimrat Kaur’s act of the lonely housewife Ela who craves for the love and attention of her uninterested husband or Nawazuddin Shaikh’s character of the unintentionally funny and novice accountant, tell us our own story in different ways. Mr Fernandes’ silence in his daily journey in local trains and BEST buses; Ela’s routine chores in the kitchen and the frustration which she pours over in her letters to the unknown and faceless Mr Fernandes tell us the story of an unfulfilled and empty life. Nawazuddin’s act of the eager to learn novice reflects the spirit of the average Indian who manages to find peace and happiness in the small things which life has to offer despite all the furstration.

Irrfan’s act of a lonely widower is beautifully underplayed by the actor and he does complete justice to the character. Your heart goes out to him even in the scenes when he acts rude to the newly appointed Nawaz who is set to replace him after retirement. Ela’s character tells us the story of a woman who does a thankless job everyday as a housewife. The film captures many day to day elements in the life of an average Mumbaikar (or even Indian’s in general) – right from the young boys who eke out a daily living by singing in the local trains, the funny (for the audience) yet unpleasant moments when males find their err….nuts being touched/fondled/brushed across in crowded compartments or the silence and emptiness of night as we gaze through our balconies at night staring aimlessly at objects in the vicinity.

The film loses a bit of steam towards the end especially the manner in which it ends. It could have had ended differently (not necessarily a happy note but in a different manner) instead of leaving the audience guessing. The Lunchbox may not be a classic in the real sense but it certainly comes across as sensible cinema of a different kind in times when films are made purely for commercial reasons. It may not match the scale of the junk that is sold to us in the name of “entertainment” but it certainly leaves the audience thinking and asking for more. Kudos to the team for making a lovely film which keeps its audience engaged right till the end.

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No more coffee in Madras Cafe for Tamil Nadu ?

John Abraham’s recent release – Madras Cafe, found itself in the midst of controversy even before its release. The controversy has been raked up by political parties – in this case the regional parties in Tamil Nadu, who have opposed it’s release since they believe it is “anti-Tamil”. The sole reason for their opposition to the film’s release is the portrayal of its principle anti-hero character – Anna Bhaskaran, which is modeled on former LTTE chief V Prabhakaran. The protrayal of Bhaskaran’s character as the villain and chief conspirator in the killing of India’s ex-Prime Minister (a character based on the late PM Rajiv Gandhi) is based on real facts and not fiction.

Madras Cafe’s story is part fact and part fiction, based on the backdrop of one of the worst civil-wars waged in the last few decades. The ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka’s North and North-East claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians (majority of whom were Tamil’s) and wrought havoc on Sri Lanka’s economy for decades. The film is a fine attempt to portray one of the most violent phases of the ethnic conflict. It does not take sides and nor does it make any political statement against a particular group. It in fact highlights the suffering and violence faced by the largely Tamil population in northern Sri Lanka. The film is anything but anti-Tamil. The makers of the film have in fact done justice to the story and have successfully highlighted the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil’s unlike the political parties in India which are opposing its release due to it’s portrayal of Prabhakaran as a terrorist. Wonder why we make a huge hue and cry when Pakistani politicians and government officials call the chief of the Jamaat ud Dawa – Hafeez Saeed – innocent/freedom fighter/anything but a terrorist. If one were to do a crash course on violence/ethnic strife across the world in the last 50 years, V Prabhakaran’s name would rank alongside the likes of Osama Bin Laden, Idi Amin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and many other infamous persons the world would rather not have seen.

The larger point however is not the portrayal of Prabhakaran’s character in the film. It is about the freedom to express one’s opinion and viewpoint through the medium of films. Our politicians and political parties are always proclaiming to the world about how great India’s democracy is (while making these tall claims they are basically alluding to the right to vote in elections which gives Indian citizens its first and last say in “decision making”), and yet they are always at the forefront of muzzling any sort of creative freedom or art which they deem to be incorrect, improper or unacceptable. While they openly express their opinion of Prabhakaran as the saviour of Sri Lanka’s Tamil’s, they choose to muzzle the voice of a film which portrays him in a negative light. The makers of films such as Aandhi, Fire, Midnight’s Children, Fanaa, Parzania and many others would certainly sympathize with the makers of Madras Cafe.

The trend of political opposition and agitation against films, books, and other art forms certainly does not bode well for India and its young democracy which is far from perfect. This type of vigilantism is a reflection of totalitarian and dictatorial regimes which choose what should be written, filmed or shown to the public. The manner in which political parties in Tamil Nadu have opposed the film’s release also raises questions over the maturity of our political leaders. Do they really believe they will be able to gain political mileage by such stunts or are they shrewd enough to know that people can get swayed by emotional slogans and empty sloganeering ? If these parties were really concerned about the plight of Tamil’s in Sri Lanka, they wouldn’t have supported LTTE all these years after Prabhakaran started killing leaders of all other Tamil outfits in Sri Lanka who were in favour of a peaceful political resolution to the problem.

It has now been more than 4 years since the end of the bloody conflict in Sri Lanka. The plight of Lankan Tamil’s has not improved significantly. The road to reconciliation and re-integration is a long and arduous one. Those who claim to fight for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamil’s would do better by focusing their energies on reconstruction, rehabilitation and institutional building than opposing the release of a film which highlights LTTE’s role in the killing of India’s ex PM.

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