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Water wars loom in a nation of parched fields

A Punjab Government draft water policy published last year said the state’s water resources were being polluted by industrial waste, sewage and excessive pesticide use in agriculture. “This can adversely affect the health of the populace and may cause diseases like cancer, skin diseases and miscarriage cases.”

These reports only confirm what local farmers already know.

According to Vandana Shiva, water shortages could split Indian communities along deeply entrenched divisions of caste and religion. ”What we will start seeing is localised conflicts over water,” she says. ”As livelihoods evaporate, along with water, you will see all sorts of cracks opening up in society.”

Conflict is also possible between India’s majority rural population and its bursting cities. “People with power live in cities and, as the water crisis is deepening, what remains is being increasingly delivered to the cities,” says Shiva.

She is tracking eight major river diversions under way in India to provide cities with more water.

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Into the inferno

Arundhati Roy in the New Statesman:

W­hile we’re still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By democracy I don’t mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are.

So, is there life after democracy? Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defence of democracy. It’s flawed, we say. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than everything else that’s on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: “Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia . . . is that what you would prefer?”

Whether democracy should be the utopia that all “developing” societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It isn’t meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It’s meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy – too much representation, too little democracy – needs some structural adjustment.

The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasised into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximising profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?

What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly – our nearsightedness? Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do) combined with our inability to see very far into the future makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost.

It would be conceit to pretend that my new book of essays, Listening to Grasshoppers, provides answers to these questions. It only demonstrates, in some detail, the fact that it looks as though the beacon could be failing and that democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would. All the essays were written as urgent, public interventions at critical moments in India – during the state-backed genocide of Muslims in Gujarat; just before the date set for the hanging of Mohammad Afzal, the accused in the 13 December 2001 parliament attack; during US President George Bush’s visit to India; during the mass uprising in Kashmir in the summer of 2008; and after the 26 November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Often they were not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses.

Though many of them were written in anger, at moments when keeping quiet became harder than saying something, the essays do have a common thread. They’re not about unfortunate anomalies or aberrations in the democratic pro­cess. They’re about the consequences of and the corollaries to democracy and the ways in which it is practised in the world’s largest democracy. (Or the world’s largest “demon-crazy”, as a Kashmiri protester on the streets of Srinagar once put it. His placard said: “Democracy without Justice = Demon Crazy.”)

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(Hat tip: Paul Gilroy)

Golden age of Indian writing: How a new generation of writers is making waves in South Asia

A newly buoyant middle-class, better travelled, more curious and with more disposable income, has been devouring books like never before. Almost every year now it appears that there is a new trend – pulp fiction one year, chick-lit “sari fiction” the next – as Indian publishers find new ways to tap into the market and reach out to more readers.

But more lately, this growth is spilling out across the hot and angry borders of the sub-continent. New writers from Bangladesh are finding appreciative international audiences, while the frisson surrounding the new literary scene in Pakistan that has produced a handful of exiting new authors, matches the buzz that India first experienced a decade ago.

In India, the growth seems more obviously apparent in the sheer variety of genres that now fill the shelves. There is more fiction, non-fiction and travel writing than ever before; between them, the major publishers now annually produce around 600 new titles each year. But within these broad headings there is huge diversity that would not have been imaginable a few years ago. Today’s India is producing crime novels, comic-strip books, and memoirs such as Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s seminal account of Mumbai. There are books set around the campus’s of the country’s famed technology institutes, and there are books about young Indian women smoking, drinking and falling in love with hapless, inappropriate men.

“I am not sure that publishers are just looking for young writers – after all, everyone is young at some point,” says Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, a journalist and writer of an originally anonymous Sex and the City-style blog whose first novel, You Are Here, was published last year. “But publishers seem to want new things. Ever since I can remember they have been looking for new things. So there are many new genres.”

One change that the market has noticed is that while the expanded literary market place may have been created by economic liberalism and a more globalised India, many among the new stable of Indian writers are not looking beyond their own shores. Indeed, many of the novels and non-fiction works now being produced might be a struggle for international readers to relate to.

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Kerala: mad about books

Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.

Paul Zacharia, one of the best-known contemporary writers in Malayalam, says: “In the Indian picture, Kerala’s book readers are a record. They are the product both of the literacy movement and the earlier library movement spearheaded by a one-man army called PN Paniker [the founding father of the literacy movement in Kerala]. A whole world of grassroots readers keep emerging from the villages.”

Sixth on the list of seven objectives of Kerala’s communist-led state government’s literacy mission is “provision of facilities for library and reading rooms for creating an environment conducive for literacy efforts and a learning society”.

Les industries de l’image

Monique Dagnaud (La vie des idées) sur le “bonheur cinéphile” de la France, des Etats-Unis et des Indes:

Les images ont une envergure politique. Les nations se sont constituées à travers des récits véhiculés par des langues et aussi au moyen des arts du quotidien, ainsi que le dépeint l’historienne Anne-Marie Thiesse [2]. Les films et les programmes télévisés construisent des fragments d’identités culturelles par lesquelles les entités nationales et régionales se mettent en scène et nouent des regards croisés. Par-delà leurs institutions politiques, les nations (ou les régions) s’exposent dans l’espace public mondial à travers un prisme ciselé par les industries de l’image. Certes, aucune pureté culturelle n’existe dans un monde d’échanges, et le métissage et les emprunts réciproques sont à l’œuvre dans une culture mondialisée ; le caractère national des œuvres mérite parfois discussion dans une activité économique qui recourt à des capitaux d’origines hétérogènes et qui, presque toujours, réunit pour un même projet des auteurs, des réalisateurs et des acteurs d’horizons fort divers : et pourtant, les films et téléfilms plongent leurs racines dans des identités géographiques et sociétales. Très souvent, ils « expriment » une société particulière.