On social media

17 April 2008

Right To Admission Reserved

Medical students in Kolkata, India, walk in a silent rally protesting police atrocities against them during an earlier protest against quota-based programmes for Other Backward Castes
Anish Nair

The issue of OBC reservations, which has been lying dormant for a while, has been catapulted to prominence in the public by a recent Supreme Court verdict. NDTV and IBN appear to be racing with each other in hosting talk shows featuring many opinions from either side of the divide.

This issue seems to affect everyone, so there have been opinions from almost everywhere: actors, cricketers, politicians, students, bureaucrats, scholars... It seems almost everyone's had his say. When a thousand people speak, there will at least be a hundred opinions. We have heard a variety of arguments ranging from the ones that are bizzare, like "Tamil Nadu, which has 69% reservation, has the best educational standards among backward castes", to the silly ones like "they denied us oppurtunity for 1,000 years, so reservations should stay at least for 1000 years". It seems almost every view has been heard.

While it's true that we have heard many opinions and wishes, it is surprising to see that there has not been a voice for the millions who are not affected by the OBC quota. As far as I see it, the following are the people who will be affected by the OBC quota:

1. 3,000-3,500 OBC students who make it to the IITs and IIMs every year
2. Many other OBCs who will join some other colleges funded by the central government.
3. 3,000-3,500 'general category' students who would have gained admissions to IITs and IIMs if the increase in seats had happened without quotas.
4. Some SCs/STs who will benefit from the increase in seats. It hardly matters as most of their seats are not filled even now.

Therefore, the population that will bear the impact of the much hyped OBC quota is limited to 6,000-7,000 induviduals every year. Now, let's have a look at those who won't be affected by the quota. They are:

1. SCs/STs who already enjoy reservations.
2. OBCs who are in the creamy layer.
3. Everyone else who knows that they have no chance of getting admission in an IIT or IIM with or without quotas.

Of these seven types of people, the media has focussed its attention mainly on the first six types. The voice of the millions who never had any dream of getting into IITs or IIMs has been ignored. This is the voice of millions of average students, the millions who don't have access to primary education and a few who always wanted to study overseas (surely, there can't be another group which has such variety among its members). Let me refer to this section of people as ICs (Ignored Class) for convenience.

The ICs constitute a majority of India's population and are the people who hold a balanced view of the current social scenario. The ICs have their own fears and opinions about this issue of reservation. The important concerns of the ICs are the following:

1. What can be done so that the society develops the power to think? (The thought process seems to be outsourced to a few "leaders". We need to think as induviduals and act as a society.)
2. When can we stop making caste and its derivatives appear so important in our everyday lives? (In the name of ending caste, we seem to be making caste an integral part of our life.)

It's time for the society to wake up. Otherwise, we might see a day when Arjun Singh's statues replace Ambedkar's. We might even see Rahulji do a Mayawati, demanding votes in Arjun Singh's name. One thing that's sure is that the future is exciting as well as scary. I don't think many would bet against the next government taking reservations a "step forward" and introducing quota in private sector jobs. Imagine how the industry would react to demands by the government to increase the number of jobs so that the general category would not be affected. Imagine the protests that would ensue when such a quota, which affects almost every Indian, is introduced. All that we will do is imagine all the frightening things that could happen and has not happened yet.

The writer is a Thiruvananthapuram-based project executive in the Information Technology industry

16 April 2008

The Best In Four Years Of Journalism

Interviewing the Father of the Internet

25 January 2005

On 4 January, a section of the press made it appear that people would soon interact with ‘Martians’, though no life is known to exist on that planet. Two days later, Vinton Cerf, after his plenary lecture at the recent Indian Science Congress, appeared flustered by such an ornamented report. Excerpts from an interview and subsequent Internet chat with Cerf, who is known as the Father of the Internet, by Surajit Dasgupta

When you created the Internet, did you ever think it would take off as it has?

Many of us who worked on the early technology of the Internet and its predecessors knew that we were working with extremely powerful concepts. But I could not in all honesty say that we were conscious of the magnitude of the impact it would have. I think that realisation has come with time as the Internet has penetrated more and more deeply. This is truly a telecommunications revolution in the making.

Don’t you think that all this talk about Internet II will, after all, be nothing different from the Internet we know right now?

Internet II is a term that refers to a project of the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development. The participants are, by and large, research institutions and universities or colleges with an interest in computer and network-mediated applications... It is our expectation and experience that the successful technologies developed and applications explored in the Internet II initiative will transfer into the public Internet — such as UUNET operated by MCI WorldCom.

Using specific examples, what are some of the advantages of interplanetary Internet?

The principal advantage is that it will support more efficient exploration of the solar system and perhaps the commercialisation of space. The design and construction of an interplanetary Internet backbone, mission by mission, allows future missions to reduce resources spent on telecommunications and increase the focus on science and research. Moreover, as this backbone is constructed, it will become increasingly useful. We will be able to capture a larger amount of data from the planned Mars missions using parts of the backbone devoted to Marsnet, for instance, because the system will have a higher capacity than would a conventional design. The system also allows the general public to become much more involved in the exploration of space by making information widely available through the Internet and by supporting direct interaction with facilities in orbit and on the surface of the planet(s) and their satellites.

Through the Internet, isn’t America indulging in linguistic colonialism? Aren’t you leaving that lot which does not know English out?

While English is a prominent language of choice for international dialogue, the Internet is language-insensitive and can support the transport of virtually any written language. It can also transport sound, so spoken languages can also be accommodated. I am persuaded that English will become the second language of choice by most people, but the World Wide Web and other Internet applications will also support local languages.

Grammar and attention to proper composition has suffered as people ignore typos and use “smilies” and abbreviations (ASAP for “as soon as possible”). Don’t you think the Internet has caused this downfall of the language or is it just a sign of the times and there’s nothing to worry about?

I think the e-mail genre is closer in spirit to speech — it has become a kind of intermediate form of discourse like telephony (most mail is between two parties or three parties) but because it is written, it has some elements of letters. Of course, there are instances of elegant and fully grammatical discourse via e-mail, and in any event, e-mail is encouraging written communication, however colloquial. Because of the smilies and other conventions (abbreviations like ROFL — rolling on the floor laughing), it has its own vocabulary peculiar to this informal written medium. I would argue, however, that this Q&A interaction represents a more traditional written communication and I hope that you find it reasonably grammatical!

How disadvantaged is the Third World without Internet access? Do you think too much attention is being given to getting computers and/or Internet access to people when the money could be going towards other things such as health care, better water, teachers and food?

I think the access issue is a vital one and the Internet Societal Task Force of the Internet Society has made this one of its major focal points for attention and action. I believe that costs are coming down quickly for telecommunications and for equipment/software, so that most families will find it possible to afford Internet Service in the future — and even in countries where economies are still limited in scope and telecommunications infrastructure is lagging, the advent of wireless access to the Internet may help to jumpstart these economies. I do not see Third World countries as significantly disadvantaged because we are all faced with adapting to the rapidly growing Internet each day. They will catch up.

Related to the previous question, Third World and developing nations have a multitude of hurdles to cross, such as providing shelter, food, clean water, health care, education, land reform and developing a national economy without being dependent upon the economic imperialism of the First World. They must do many things with a very limited amount of resources. What incentives are there for a developing country to become “wired” when there are many other important issues a developing country must address?

The World Bank addressed this issue by pointing out that a dollar invested in telecommunications infrastructure yielded three dollars of increase in gross domestic product. Developing countries are faced with many challenges to improve their economies which will in turn allow them to improve the quality of life for their citizens. In my opinion, the Internet can help create opportunities for the generation of international trade by allowing knowledge labour to be provided and sold anywhere in the world without moving the people to the targets of the work, just moving the work itself over the Net. That is not going to supply jobs for everyone, but if it creates new wealth within a country, that wealth can be spent domestically, creating new demand and new jobs within the country.

Do you think it is ironic that uninhabited Mars will have Internet access before many Third World countries will?

Uninhabited? I was told that some of you suggested “Martians” existed and we were going to perhaps chat with them! I think this is another loaded question. You want me to say that we should not explore the solar system until all the ills of the world have been solved. Sorry, I won’t bite. I do think we can make progress on both fronts — and solving the problems of size, weight and power for the space missions can have the effect of lowering costs for communication systems here on earth, especially for mobile systems which, by the way, seem to be the fastest way to provide telecommunications infrastructure in the developing countries.


Make a cruise missile at home

Flip side of 'user-friendly' technology

10 (report) & 18 (article) October 2004

On 10 October The Statesman reported how despairingly easy it is for an enterprising mischief-maker with a modest capital outlay to manufacture a missile at home. Surajit Dasgupta explains how it can be actually done.

Targeting/Guidance: One of the key components of a cruise missile’s guidance system is a mil-spec satellite-based GPS system. Today, compact, high quality, high accuracy GPS receivers are readily available for just a few hundred dollars. The inclusion of an easily used computer interface in many of these units makes them well suited for use in a low-cost cruise missile (LCCM). While the GPS provides information necessary for tracking waypoints and identifying the final destination, smaller course corrections (for stability) can be provided by the solid-state gyro systems now readily available for use in model helicopters and aircraft. Instantaneous measurement of altitude and groundspeed can be provided by a semi-forward looking radar and doppler radar units. This allows a LCCM to fly lower than would be possible if relying solely on GPS and offers a degree of contour-hugging even when the exact nature of the terrain is not available.

Onboard Computing: As Moore’s law continues to produce a rapid rise in the speed and fall in the cost of computer chips, the affluent brats with political clout have already reached the point where obtaining sufficient number crunching capability is no longer difficult or expensive. Single-board computer systems are another readily available off the shelf component that can be recruited for use in an LCCM. Even the sophisticated realitime operating systems necessary for supporting the type of software needed to interface the guidance/targeting systems to the control servos are just a download away.

Airframe: Since an LCCM would be designed to fly at subsonic speeds (probably around 450-500 mph), the aerodynamic design of such a craft is relatively simple and there is plenty of resource material available to assist in such an undertaking. Indeed, the fact that so many very successful radio-controlled model aircraft have been designed and built from scratch by talented amateurs testifies to the viability of such an option. One needs a low heat signature and low radar profile. The use of materials such as fibre glass and kevlar composites reduces the radar profile of such a craft. Coatings containing finely ground ferrites offer a degree of radar absorption. The heat signature of a suitable engine could be significantly reduced by judicious entraining of slipstream air to dilute and cool the jet exhaust behind the craft, prior to ejection. At the cost of some thrust, the jet efflux could also be channeled so that the engine itself is not visible even from a rear view.

Powerplant: Though the German VIs used in the Second World War had pulsejet engines, traditional pulsejets wouldn’t, however, be the best choice for an LCCM as their very hot exhaust would make them an easy target for even the most primitive heat-seeking missile. A small turbojet engine with 100lb-500lb of thrust, however, would be the perfect powerplant – offering a high level of reliability and longer ranges without the need for an excessive fuel-load.

Launch Facilities: Most existing hi-tech cruise missiles are designed for launch by way of a solid-rocket booster to get them up to flying speed, or they’re dropped from an aircraft already flying at speed and a certain altitude. Such systems wouldn’t be required for an LCCM. A simple launch attachment could be fitted to the roof of an SUV or truck that would allow the takeoff speed of around 70mph to be achieved. At that point the engine could be ignited and the craft released. Using this method, a reasonable sized LCCM could be transported by road to a position within range of the desired target, unpacked, prepared; and then launched from a deserted stretch of roadway within a few minutes.

Payload cruise missiles can carry just about any payload required in the theatre of war. High explosives are the most common payload but probably the least attractive to a terrorist group – since, to be effective, these explosives do require very accurate targeting and represent a higher level of risk during the transport and launch phase. More attractive would probably be some form of biological agent (anthrax, nerve gas, poison, etc) or even some type of nuclear material. The LCCM could be programmed to disperse its payload over a large area of high population with massive potential for death and injury in a manner that would be very difficult to defend against.

Expenditure: The guidance/targeting control systems will cost less than $2,000. An airframe (a type of foam-composite construction found in a number of home-built light aircraft) would be between $1,000 and $5,000. The engine, between $500 and $150,000. The total component costs for an LCCM (less payload) could be as little as $6,000 for the smallest, simplest version, with a larger, more sophisticated design still requiring little more than $10,000 worth of parts and materials. The real costs would come from the integration of all these components and the development of the software required to link the guidance/targeting systems to the aircraft’s control systems. However, suitable resources are available in parts of Pakistan, war-ravaged Iraq and doubtless could be purchased on a “no-questions-asked” basis. This development cost is also a one-off expense. Chances are that the development costs could be quickly recovered by selling the resulting design to other outfits interested in constructing similar LCCMs. The cost of the payload carried by the LCCM would depend entirely on nature of that material.

Till now, the most effective method terrorist groups have had, at striking against military or civilian targets, has been the suicide bombing. With the massively increased levels of security and surveillance implemented after the 11 September attacks, the viability of such attacks in the US are now in question. We, Indians do not have such security apparatus. The very fact that so many people with known anti-USA, anti-Israel, anti-India and for the last few years, anti-Russia affiliations, were turning up to have flying lessons and simulator time throughout Europe and the US, is enough to ring alarm bells at the FBI. But what about India’s RAW and IB?

As someone with over 20 years experience in the design and construction of electronic control systems, Bruce Simpson, could consider the design and construction of a simple yet surprisingly effective LCCM to be well within his own capabilities. If he could do it, then you can bet that there are many others who have the ability to do the same; and almost none of them will be a friend of India.

Simpson has recently updated his own website created 2 years ago. Has our Ministry of Defence taken notice of his belligerence?The completed units of LCCMs may be loaded on trucks hired or purchased, and transported to within striking distance (100-300 miles) of a major city or military target. The LCCMs could be launched simultaneously from various locations so as to stretch the defense capabilities of the party being attacked. A small (say, five-foot long) target travelling at 500 mph, less than 200 feet above the ground while following an unknown and deliberately erratic course becomes an extremely difficult target to hit down. A truck might yet be an ineffective way of dispersing a bio or nuclear agent. Such a blast, especially in an area containing many highrises, would only provide minimal dispersal. An air-drop could cover a much wider area with resultantly greater effect. The fact that the 11 September terrorists were obviously considering just such an aerial dispersal through the use of crop-spraying aircraft is clear indication that they are very much aware of this.


When baingan turned American

Surajit Dasgupta in New Delhi April 4, 2005

Call it the fallacy of a capitalistic patents regime or the American “smartness” in laying claims over crops traditionally grown outside the USA, the good old baingan (eggplant) is no longer ours. The brinjal you get from your vegetable vendor is now a foreigner’s intellectual property.

“It is an approach to seed litigation,” Mr Frank G Basile, the American farmers’ lawyer, said. “I believe the seed crop was hybridised with the Indian crop and what we got was wild weed eggplant.” The eggplants, nurtured from the seed since March 1999 in a greenhouse, sprouted in late June, Mr Paul Earnest Jr, a Bridgeton farmer, said. But the colour was not the “deep, dark purple” that the consumers expected, but “more like something from a crayon”. Also, the eggplants were shaped like basketballs. Many around Cumberland County that summer reported disappointing results. The culprit: bad seeds sold as Special HiBush Eggplant by Harris Moran Seed Co.

In January, the eggplant growers won a settlement for the unwanted crop. Harris Moran had said the farmers were due some $5,250, the purchase price of seeds. But The Modesto, a California-based firm, agreed to pay $1.55 million after a judge issued a ruling that put Harris Moran at risk of trial. Thousands of acres of eggplants had been ploughed under and farmers claimed losses worth nearly $2.76 million. The seeds were not the expected Special HiBush Eggplant and the judge determined that New Jersey and federal truth-in-labelling laws trumped the Uniform Commercial Code, one which could have limited the company’s liability to the price of seeds. But the seed industry is yet to take notice of the case. In Delhi, Harris Moran representative, lawyer Mr Jay H Greenblatt, said he found no broad implications from the ruling. “Another judge in another county, or the same county, on another day, may very well rule a different way,” he said. This means India still has hope, only if our judiciary takes note.


Proving that River Saraswati indeed existed

21 December 2004

Satellite images taken by the Geographic Information Systems of the National Geographic Society concur with the Rig Veda. Geological records indicate that during the late Pleistocene period, the Himalayas constituted a frozen mass and there were glaciers in place of rivers. When the climate warmed, these glaciers began to break up and the frozen water trapped within surged forth in great floods to inundate the alluvial plains below. The Rig Veda refers to this first interglacial period in the Holocene era as marking the break-up of glaciers and the release of pent up waters that flowed out to form seven mighty river channels referred to as the “Sapta Sindhu” — traced from east to west.

The “Sapta Sindhu” refers to the Saraswati, Satadru (Sutlej), Vipasa (Beas), Asikni (Chenab), Parosni (Ravi), Vitasta (Jhelum) and Sindhu (Indus) rivers. Among these, the Saraswati and the Sindhu were major rivers that flowed from the mountains right down to the sea. The hymns in praise of the Saraswati are probably some of the oldest, composed more than 8,000 years ago.

For 2,000 years, between 6,000 and 4,000 BC, the Saraswati flowed as a great river. RD Oldham (1886) was the first geologist who argued logically, pointing to the great changes in the drainage pattern of the rivers of Punjab and western Rajasthan that served to convert a once fertile region into a desert. According to geological and glaciological studies, the Saraswati was supposed to have originated in the Bandapunch massif (the Saraswati-Rupin glacier confluence at Naitwar in western Garhwal).

The river, which had originated from Kapal teerth in the Himalayas in the west of Kailash, flowed southward to Mansarovar and then took a turn towards the west. Even today, the Saraswati flows from the south of Mana pass which meets the Alaknanda river, three kilometres away in the south of Mana village. Descending through Adibadri, Bhavanipur and Balchapur in the foothills to the plains, the river took a roughly south-westerly course, passing through the plains of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat before finally debouching, it is believed, into the ancient Arabian Sea at the Great Rann of Kutch.

In its long journey, the Saraswati is believed to have had three tributaries — the Shatadru (Sutlej) originating from Mount Kailas, the Drishadwati from the Shiwalik Hills and the old Yamuna. These flowed together along a channel presently known as the Ghaggar river — also known as the Hakra River in Rajasthan and the Nara in Sindh. Some experts consider these two rivers to be a single course whereas others consider the upper stretch of the Saraswati as the Ghaggar and the lower course as the Hakra. Still others refer to the Ghaggar as the Saraswati’s weak and declining stage.

The Saraswati was obliterated within a short span in the Quaternary period of the Cenozoic era through a combination of destructive catastrophic events. Its decline appears to have started any time between 5,000 and 3,000 BC, probably precipitated by a major tectonic event in the Shiwalik Hills of Sirmur region. Geological studies reveal that the massive landslides and avalanches were caused by destabilising tectonic events that occurred around the beginning of Pleistocene period, about 1.7 million years ago in the Shivalik domain extending from Potwar in Pakistan to Assam in India. Those disturbances, linked to the uplift of the Himalayas, continued intermittently. Presumably, one of these events must have severed the glacier connection and cut off the supply of water from the melting glaciers to this river.

As a result, the Saraswati became non-perennial and dependent on monsoon rains. The diversion of its waters through the separation of its tributaries led to the Saraswati’s breaking up into disconnected lakes and pools and, ultimately, to being reduced to a dry channel bed. But the Saraswati hasn’t disappeared, it has merely dried up in some stretches.

Evidence supporting palaeochannels

To begin with, the hydro-geological evidence. Lunkaransar, Didwana and Sambhar, the Ranns of Jaisalmer and Pachpadra are a few of the notable lakes, formed as a result of the changes. Some of these are highly saline today, the only proof of their freshwater descent being occurrences of gastropod shells in their beds. Oldham accepted that there had been great changes in the hydrography of Punjab and Sind within the recent period of geology. Mention was also made about the Sotar valley where “the soil is all rich alluvial clay such as is now being annually deposited in the depressions which are specimens of those numerous pools which have given the Saraswati its name — The River of Pools; and there seems little doubt that the same action, as now goes on, has been going on for centuries”;

Archaeological evidence: Most of the archaeological sites of the erstwhile civilisation are located on the Saraswati river basin. There are four Harappan and pre-Harappan sites in Punjab, in addition to the sites in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. These sites are located at Rupar (present Ropar), Nihang Khan, Bara and Sirsa valley. Harappan culture flourished in the western part of Punjab around 2500 BC. It is believed that the Harappans entered through the Indus Valley into Kalibangan valley on the left bank of Ghaggar (erstwhile Saraswati) and spread to Punjab along the Saraswati river. Carbon dating of the material at Kalibangan suggests that Harappan culture flourished around 2500 BC in India and existed for 1,000 years. So the present day geomorphologic set-up did not exist till 1500 BC and the Indus, the Sutlej and the Beas followed independent courses to the sea;

Evidence from Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems of the National Geographic Society, USA: A remote sensing study of the Indian desert reveals numerous signatures of palaeochannels in the form of curvilinear and meandering courses, which is identified by the tonal variations. The Saraswati river could be traced through these palaeochannels as a migratory river. Its initial course flowed close to the Aravalli ranges and the successive six stages took west and north-westerly shifts till it coincides with the dry bed of the Ghaggar river.

Renowned meteorologist Yash Pal and others have found that the course of the Saraswati in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan is clearly highlighted in the Landsat imagery by the vegetation cover thriving on the rich residual loamy soil along its earlier course. Digital enhancement studies of IRS-1C data (1995), combined with Radar imagery from European Remote Sensing satellites ERS 1/2 identified subsurface features and recognised the palaeochannels beneath the sands of the Thar desert. A study by NRSA, based on satellite-derived data, has revealed no palaeochannel link between the Indus and the Saraswati, confirming that the two were independent rivers. Further, the three palaeochannels south of Ambala seen to swerve westwards to join the ancient bed of the Ghaggar and are inferred by scientists to be the tributaries of the Saraswati, Ghaggar and Drishadwati. Digital enhancement techniques using high resolution Liss-III data of IRS-1C satellite, together with pyramidal processing, identified two palaeochannels trending North-east/South-west in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district, which must be the lost Saraswati.

In a study, the NRSA used Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS-P3) Wide Field Sensor (WiFS) data covering the Indus river system to study the palaeo-drainage in north-western India. The image elements such as tone, colour, texture, pattern, association of WiFS and SIR-C/X-SAR images helped to derive information on current as well as Stone Age drainage. The WiFS image reveals a very faint trace of the Saraswati/Ghaggar while in the SIR-C/X-SAR image, the connectivity of the palaeochannel cand be easily established due to the presence of dark irregular shaped features associated with wetness.

That a prominent river is missing from the map is not a mystery; this happens because the natural phenomena evolve through environmental changes. A part of the Saraswati river exists even now as the Ghaggar in Haryana while the rest of it has disappeared in the fringes of the Marusthali or Thar desert.

The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, has made a breakthrough in its research on the existence and probable location of the mythical Saraswati. The Rajasthan Ground Water Department undertook the task to “unearth” the river with the collaboration of BARC and the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad (a wing of ISRO) in 1998. If the effort is successful, those living in the desert belt of Rajasthan will hopefully be supplied more than 3,500-year-old water derived from palaeochannels believed to be the mythical Saraswati.

But just because the project was initiated by the politically incorrect BJP-led government, should we turn a blind eye to what the geologists of the West, too, support? Unfortunately, we believe what or who we are only when the West says we are so. In this case, if it helps, so be it. The spirit of science rests in challenging every idea, no matter how established it has been. And history and geography, of all things, if held hostage by political prejudice, become the ilk of Doordarshan of the Rajiv Gandhi era, if not the Tass of the Soviet regime.


Carrot is Indian science’s stick to beat AIDS

Surajit Dasgupta in New Delhi Nov. 12, 2004

Hate carrots? Don’t. There could soon be an anti-HIV vaccine and carrots are a fundamental “ingredient” of this part-Indian research. A team of Indian and Russian scientists headed by Dr (Prof.) Asis Datta of Jawaharlal Nehru University is working on various options, one of which is an extract from tomato and carrot, for the vaccine.

This project is a part of the ILTP (Integrated Long-Term Programme). India is also collaborating with South Africa where the scourge of AIDS is alarming. Notably, “the more advanced countries are looking for cure more than prevention,” Mr Kapil Sibal, minister of state for science and technology, had said last week. India and its collaborators are pioneers of the vaccine research.

There is a good chance that Indian scientists may invent the vaccine. The various strategies involved in the research are as follows. Scientists take small parts of the HIV virus and alter them in a laboratory to create synthetic copies. The experimental vaccines do not use whole or live HIV. The vaccines cannot cause HIV or AIDS.

Types of experimental HIV vaccines

(i) Peptide vaccine: Made of tiny pieces of proteins from the HIV virus;

(ii) Recombinant sub-unit protein vaccine: Made of bigger pieces of proteins that are on the surface of the HIV virus;

(iii) Live vector vaccine: Made of HIV genes that have been taken out of the virus and altered. This type of vaccine most resembles the HIV virus but is not harmful. Many vaccines used today, like the small pox vaccine, use this approach;

(iv) DNA vaccine : Uses copies of a small number of HIV genes which are inserted into pieces of DNA called plasmids. The HIV genes will produce proteins very similar to the ones from real HIV;

(v) Vaccine combination: Uses any two vaccines to create a stronger immune response. Often called “prime-boost strategy”;

(vi) Virus-like particle vaccine (pseudovirion vaccine): A non-infectious HIV look-alike that has one or more but not all HIV proteins.

Possible Outcomes

Scientists are still learning how vaccines might work. An HIV vaccine may be totally successful in preventing infection, known as “sterilising immunity”. This may be possible in 100% of the population, or perhaps only in certain groups. In another scenario, a preventive vaccine may not prevent primary infection, but decrease the possibility of HIV transmission from an infected individual to another person. Yet another possibility is that a vaccine may slow the process of infection.

Once the tests are over, scientists will appeal to the masses to volunteer for trials.


First ever FAQ on HIV vaccine in any Indian newspaper

15 February 2005

On 7 February, India launched human clinical trials of the anti HIV-vaccine in Pune. As medical agencies approach you, please volunteer for a noble cause. Just in case you fear you might acquire HIV as the vaccine's effects are tested on you, the National AIDS Research Institute tries to assure you that such fears are baseless. But contrary to what the scientists promised, the NARI website answers no serious questions and harps on the technicalities only. Surajit Dasgupta seeks to clear the confusion

Can I get HIV/AIDS from the investigational vaccine?

No. You cannot get an HIV infection from the vaccine. In this investigational vaccine, scientists created synthetic (man-made) genes. These synthetic genes are designed to make proteins that resemble those present in a real virus. They do not contain the ‘information’ the HIV virus uses to infect humans. Proteins in the vaccine are present for a short while before being broken down by the body. These proteins are lookalikes, are not live, so they cannot cause HIV. There is no virus or infected material in the investigational vaccine, so there is no way that it can cause HIV/AIDS.

How does this investigational HIV vaccine work?

In adenovirus specific language: This vaccine is part of a generation of vaccines called ‘vaccine vectors’. It’s a packaging system that helps deliver vaccines more effectively into the right part of the body or into the right cell to produce the best possible immune responses. In this study, an adenovirus vector carries synthetic genes into human cells. The adenovirus shell protects the vaccine genes until they are in a cell that can produce the vaccine protein. The adenovirus cannot reproduce, cause infection, or damage the immune system, and the HIV genes cannot produce infection or reassemble to make a virus.

How can I know if I’m eligible for the study?

You may call any vaccine research centre. The local health centre, too, can guide you to the researchers who are looking for healthy HIV negative volunteers between the ages of 18 and 50. When you contact them, you will have a brief phone conversation. If you meet certain criteria, a screening visit will be arranged. At this visit, a complete physical examination and blood work will be done to determine if you are eligible.

How long is the study and how much time will I have to commit?

Depending on the study, most trials have 7-14 visits over 6-12 months and include 1-4 injections. Screening and vaccination visits can take up to four hours. All other visits are under an hour.

Where and when can I go for appointments?

Study visits are conducted on campuses, the addresses of which will soon be relayed to medical headquarters across the country. Regular clinic hours are Monday to Friday. Laboratory staff may schedule clinic visits at other times to meet individual needs. Visits are not conducted on holidays or weekends.

What if I move out of town?

If you move out of the area within the first few months of starting a study, you cannot be monitored adequately. When you contact a staff member, please tell him/her of any relocation or extended travel plans.

Will I be paid for my participation?

You should be reimbursed for your visits. But the government has yet to finalise the ‘package’. Paying the volunteers, as such, is a worldwide practice.

What if I test ‘false-positive’ for HIV?

To be eligible for a study you must be HIV negative. Some investigational vaccines may be strong enough to cause an antibody response detectable on standard HIV tests. These tests measure the body's antibody response to HIV and do not directly measure HIV itself. So, having a false-positive antibody test for HIV after vaccination is not unexpected. It does not mean you are infected. At every visit, we perform specialised testing to prove that you are not HIV-infected. No medical side-effects or problems are associated with having a false-positive antibody test. Remember this vaccine contains no live virus, so you cannot be infected with HIV or develop AIDS from this vaccine.

Can I donate blood during or after the study?

You cannot donate blood or blood products such as platelets or even bone marrow during the study. In addition, the Red Cross does not accept donations for one year after the last dose of an investigational vaccine. Also, please do not donate blood six weeks before starting a study because we cannot draw blood required for screening.

What side-effects can I expect from the investigational vaccine?

You might have short-term side-effects similar to those from any vaccination such as arm soreness. Since this vaccine has not been given to people, there may be risks or side-effects that are not known. Prior to the study, a medical provider will describe all possible side-effects.

Will this vaccine protect me from HIV?

No. There is no evidence that this investigational vaccine will protect you from getting HIV infection. The main purpose of this study is to test whether the investigational vaccine is safe. You should avoid ‘high-risk behaviour’ (having multiple sex partners) that would put you at risk of HIV infection.

Will the vaccine cause me to transmit HIV?

No. This vaccine is not made of live virus or HIV-infected cells. There is no possibility that it contains live or killed HIV. So, it is impossible to be infected with HIV or develop AIDS from the vaccine.

How do I know if this vaccine works?

At times after receiving each injection, specialised laboratory testing will be done on your blood to see if your immune system responds to the vaccine. The results of these tests will be evaluated and compared to what we have learned about vaccine-induced protective responses in animal studies. We will not expose you to the virus at any time and ask that you avoid any risk that may cause you to be exposed to the virus. Specific counselling will be available to help you stay HIV uninfected during the trial. This vaccine is part of a global effort to create a safe, effective vaccine for HIV. After trials are completed at this site, our vaccine will be placed into expanded clinical trials in the USA and around the world. Eventually, large trials will be done to see if the vaccine can reduce the rate of HIV infection.


Challenging the popular myth that Hindi and Urdu are two different languages

(Edit page article)

Surajit Dasgupta 12 November 2004

The first jolt your preconception receives on getting enrolled for a beginner’s course in Urdu, comes from the preface of the text book. It says Hindi and Urdu are in fact two names of the same language. It elaborates further, saying Urdu may alternatively be called Hindi as it is the language of Hind (India). People who refer to the country as Hindustan, may call it Hindustani as well.

Our misconception is largely based on our brainwashing by politics. And the politicians are the visible scapegoats. If the nation stands divided, our ire should rather be directed at the community we have forever considered credible — the teachers’.

An unassuming child writes zaroorat in his Hindi-notebook; and finds it replaced with awashyakta, accompanied by a puritanical remark: shuddha bhasha ka prayog karen (Use the language in its pure form). Would these puritans dare carry out a survey in the country to ascertain which of the two words is more popular? If Sanskrit is the reference manual of “purity”, on what ground do we choose awashyakta and not prayojan? All languages of India, except Tamil, have descended from Sanskrit. Yet, different tatsama (Sanskrit) words are used in Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Telugu, etc. to convey a certain given idea. How do the Indians from states other than UP, MP, Bihar and Rajasthan decide which tatsama-word is preferred by the Hindi-speaking masses?

The hypersensitivity of the Hindi teachers also shows an ignorance of the history of the very language they teach. But the chauvinism that surrounds a culture, and hence, its vehicle — the language, is nothing more than gloating, if a sound knowledge of history does not support it. The fact is: today’s Hindi is not even 150 years old. The era of Goswami Tulsidas, the one who rejuvenated the Ramayana with his own version, the Ramcharitmanas; may be centuries behind us. Even if Bharatendu Harishchandra of the 19th century were to travel by a time-machine and arrive in 2004, he wouldn’t understand half the expressions used in Hindi by us today.

The other party to the dispute isn’t enlightened enough either. The advocates of the Nastaaleeq-version of Urdu just refuse to accept the Indian reality. Speaking of orthography, the existence of say, seen and saad (all representing the sound ‘s’); of two hey’s; of four z’s — zaal, zey, zaad and zoay; and two t’s — tay and toay — makes no sense to an Indian. Each of these letters are pronounced differently by the Arabs and the Persians. This explains the existence of these letters in the said languages. So what? Few Urdu teachers in India can mimic the Arab accent and diction, let alone the students. How would an Indian know why zaroorat should start with zaad and not zay?

With an experience of growing up with Hindi-speaking people for 20 years, I found myself as an interface between Mohammad Rafeeq Shibli, the Urdu-Persian- and Arabic-teacher and the Bengali, Marwari, Punjabi and Gujarati students at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture’s School of Languages in Kolkata. A peculiar problem cropped up during a dictation session. The students had to write “Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri”. Since the vowels ‘i’ and ‘ee’ are pronounced with no difference in stress in Bangla, the others couldn’t quite figure out the problem. (Even the non-Bengalis present had been brought up in Kolkata). I requested Mr Shibli for an alternative word as writing ‘Raghupati’ was impossible in the Nastaaleeq script — a compromise between ‘Raghupat’ and ‘Raghupatee’ had to be made — both of which were wrong spellings according to Hindi etymology.

A similar problem exists in the Dewanagari script. The Urdu equivalent of ‘love’ is mahabbat. In Dewanagari, it is spelt as muhabbat or mohabbat. Both are inacceptable as the sound with ‘m’ is definitely not that of ‘u’. But ‘o’ of Hindi takes double the time to pronounce than that of say, Bangla, or pesh of Urdu. Thus, the first spelling is completely wrong. The second leads to a wrong phonetic stress.

Anyway, a government policy should not be held hostage to erratic linguistics. Every government that has been, has feigned its dedication to the promotion of culture of the minorities, thereby ‘marking’ a given culture with an exclusiveness. This is like calling the backward classes Dalits or Harijans; and thus, branding them as untouchables. The very act of naming a class is tantamount to keeping it away from the mainstream of progress.

The annual report of the HRD-ministry mentions 325 blocks/districts which the government found to have a significant population of minorities who were ‘educationally backward’. Urdu teachers have been provided to these ‘backwards’ and an adequate number of madrassahs have been set up. The nomenclature ‘backward’ and the State policy are the ones that are backward.

How can a madrassah eradicate backwardness? Say, a Muslim village lad harbours the ambition of becoming an electrical engineer some day. Pray, how on earth would he express ‘permeability of vacuum’, ‘electric intensity’, ‘inductance’, etc. in Arabic?

The report later speaks of inducting the above people into the mainstream by teaching them computer applications. Doesn’t this mean that the government concedes the madrassahs are not mainstream? What, if not political correctness, dictates the State policy? Why are Hindus neither being forced nor encouraged to join Sanskrit pathshalas to remove their ‘backwardness’ ? To confront hard facts, this correspondent has interacted with hundreds of Muslims — from those residing in the shanty pockets of Park Circus, Kolkata and squalid slums of Tughlaqabad, Delhi; to the English-medium school and college graduates; to the alumni of Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia. All, except the third mentioned class, could read Dewanagari faster and write it better than Nastaaleeq.

Some slumdwellers could not even read ‘Allah’ written in Arabic. This last category recalled having seen the ‘design’ in holy places and books; and were sure it had a profound relation with their faith. When told it was nothing other than ‘Allah’, they seemed very ashamed of their ignorance.

Let us look for the roots of Urdu to call the bluff of those who divide the people. The name, Urdu has been derived from Lashkar-e-Urdu, a term that referred to a pilot-army, sent to assess the strategic enemy-positions before the actual assault began. Thus, Urdu means ‘pilot’. Urdu was supposed to become an interface between the Persian-speaking central Asian ruling class of the medieval era and the Indian subjects speaking Braj, Awadhi and other dialects. Mechanisms started evolving to represent various Indian sounds, as the Nastaaleeq script did not have enough consonants. Ameer Khusro, a brilliant intellectual of the times, contributed immensely to developing Urdu. The language, as it eventually took shape, began being written in both Dewanagari and Nastaaleeq scripts — depending on the form that the writer was more proficient in. Neither of the lingoes of the right-wing Hindu and Muslim organisations has ever been the language of the common Indian.

The idea of Urdu being Muslim and Hindi being Hindu, received a fillip from the British Divide and Rule policy. Fundamentalists tried to carve a niche for themselves in the respective exclusive education-circles by promoting and exploiting the idea further. Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’ refused to kowtow to the line and was hence denied his pension in the 1850s.

The final solution: (1) The Hindi intelligentsia must accept the usage of all Persian/ Arabic words common in India. (2) Their Urdu counterparts must promote dewanagari as the script for Urdu. (3) One with a shallow knowledge of any of the two versions, must shun the attempts at using it to ‘impress’ the listeners. A foolhardy impresses nobody. (4) Indian Muslims, even in Tamil Nadu which is averse to Hindi, know Hindi better than their Hindu brethren. Use the Muslim knowledge of Hindi to spin a fabric of national integration.

Some well known non-Muslim littérateurs who wrote/write in Nastaaleeq, not Dewanaagari: (Clockwise) Dhanpat Rai Srivastava (Munshi Premchand), Raghupati Sahay (Firaq Gorakhpuri), Khushwant Singh and Sampooran Singh Kalra (Gulzar)

First article in any Indian newspaper on Windows Vista

Hasta la Vista, XP?

Surajit Dasgupta Friday December, 29 2006

Microsoft wants to change the way you use your computer. The first major overhaul of its Windows operating system in five years, Vista, when it was released initially in the US, the software giant asked PC users to adopt new ways of working, and probably pay a pretty penny for the privilege.

In return, it promised big improvements in security and ease of use. Big business users were able to start buying Vista on November 30. Beginning January 30, it will come preloaded on virtually every new PC, and consumers who want to upgrade existing machines can buy off-the-shelf copies. As for the Indian market, Satyam Computer Services was selected by Microsoft in the second week this month to participate in the Windows Vista Application Compatibility Factory.

Microsoft spent millions of dollars advertising Windows Vista in China. It threw up the biggest Vista ad on the 421 m high Jin Mao tower in Shanghai China. However, after two weeks (Jan 19 to Feb 2) from launch, Microsoft managed to sell a mere 244 copies of Vista. Software piracy is rampant in the middle kingdom and a pirated version of Vista sells for a mere $1 on the streets

With Microsoft running a vast majority of the world's computers, the potential impact of Vista is huge for users and suppliers alike. It was predicted last month that most PCs of the world would run Vista within a few years or will need to run Vista in order to access the latest programmes or Web services.

Sooner or later, if you use a Windows PC, you will probably have to figure out how Vista works - like it or not. While analysts aren't calling the new system revolutionary, there are still some major changes from Windows XP.

What will happen to the ingenious filing system you mastered with difficulty to save and store documents, photos and music? Forget it. A new user interface replaces those little beige folders with snapshots of your data or tiny images of your photos. Don't worry, though. An improved integrated search function makes locating any document or file, e-mail message or calendar entry as easy as finding a website with Google or Yahoo.

All those security software you bought to rid your machine of spam, spyware and viruses are now redundant. Vista's new security features should eliminate much of the viruses and other "malware" that are the scourge of anybody who uses the Internet.

You will of course have to change the way you log on to the machine and might bump into new limits on how much of the core operating system you can access.

Staying on the cutting edge of computing will cost you - unless you recently bought a specially marked "Vista-capable" PC that comes with a free or deeply discounted upgrade - Rs 4,500 for the most basic version to Rs 32,000 for an "ultimate" edition (ATI Radeon X1950 XTX, 512 MB GDDR 4 memory) that combines business and home entertainment features, such as the ability to record television programming. Further, expect to pay more - especially compared with the throwaway prices manufacturers are offering now to get rid of inventory based on Windows XP - for a desktop or a laptop.

You will also have to buy some more memory and maybe upgrade your hard drive even if your new machine has a "Vista capable" sticker on it. Vista is a hardware hog, and to run it properly, you will probably need to double the minimum 1 GB of memory and 40 GB of hard disk space that Microsoft recommends for its premium editions.

So is Vista really worth all that? Depends on whom you ask. Indian IT personnel who have been in the profession since the 1980s would say that Vista's user friendly interface and security features make it the best version of Windows ever. It's going to be easy even for people who are not computer-literate at all.

Oh yes! Censorship freak parents will like Vista's new controls that let them monitor what websites their children visit and when, and even let them read their children's e-mails and instant messages!

Business users will like the new mobility features for laptops, including easier connections to corporate networks and wireless internet access points as well as the new search function that can find old documents, business contacts or appointments with just a mouse click or two.

Beyond the new bells and whistles though, there is really nothing so ground breaking in Vista that it will result in monumental changes in computing, like what Windows 95 and its graphic interface did, or like what Apple Computer did when it rolled out its iTunes and iPod players.

Using a given company's software for hardly a month may make you not only accustomed but also addicted to it. But there are those who insisted a decade ago that they would use software only of that company that does not monopolise the market. I am not sure how much they benefited by rowing upstream but today they are saying this about Vista: "It's just more of the same."Computer users can already get the same look and feel of Vista with Apple's OS X operating system. "It's just a more refined version of Windows XP," opine those who are not 'addicted' to Microsoft.

There is no doubt Microsoft made security a priority in Vista. Almost five years ago, amid a crescendo of customer complaints over viruses and bugs that exploited flaws in Windows, Bill Gates wrote a now famous inter-department memo demanding a safer software. Vista is Microsoft's first operating system since that memo and the overhaul in code-writing practices it sparked. The new emphasis on security is one of the biggest reasons that programmers missed deadlines that would have put Vista on retail shelves before Christmas in Europe and the Americas.

Yet, Vista has already been hacked. This underscores the fact that computer security is a never-ending fight. In August, a Polish researcher showed to a congregation of hackers how to get around Vista's security features. Authentium Inc., a computer security vendor, said it had figured a way out to circumvent Vista safeguards to make sure that its own security software worked like it was meant to. Using virtualisation technology, a hacker bypasses such security measures in Vista that should prevent unsigned code from running, by making his malicious code undetectable.

It's impossible to make hack-proof software. There might well be other exploits after Vista floods all markets. Microsoft is a huge target. That's the flip side of being a market leader.


It took my colleagues by surprise that the 1969 'giant leap for mankind' was a hoax

Another giant leap

Surajit Dasgupta Wednesday January, 24 2007

Preparations for India's moon mission are in full swing. We had to know, if we can dare to send humans to space in a vehicle made of such an artificial material that can withstand the degree of heat caused by air resistance during its re-entry to earth's atmosphere - lest the ill-fated episode of Kalpana Chawla should be repeated (NASA denies space shuttle Columbia's material was flawed, though no astronomer worth his salt is convinced).

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has not disappointed the countrymen. Its Space-capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1) has returned as programmed successfully without burnout (literally), besides launching CARTOSAT-2, an Indonesian and an Argentinian satellite in a 637 km polar orbit at 97.9 degrees with respect to the equator.

But much as the international community of scientists pose faith in India's space programmes, the remaining West's indignation of Indian scientific endeavour and our homegrown socialists' cynical questioning of the economics of space programme at the "cost" of teeming millions of poor people continues, unfortunately.

While announcing our moon mission in 2003, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said a moon flight would showcase India's scientific capabilities. Former Science & Technology Minister and physicist MGK Menon had said Chandrayan-1 would "excite the younger generation". Is the Indian leadership mixing nationalism with astronomy?

The answer to such cynical questions is a resounding "No". Most critics of the Indian space programmes get starry-eyed when NASA is mentioned. Few of them, however, know that NASA's claim in 1969 to have reached the moon is disputed. Many students of optics questioned why the shadows in the photographs of the Apollo Mission went in all directions if the sun were the only source of light on moon and challenged Neil Armstrong's claim of a "giant leap for mankind". On its integrity being questioned, NASA has never come clean. Nevertheless, the US astronomical body will spend $100 billion in the next 12 years to attempt another flight (of fancy?) to the moon.

One of the reasons NASA is forwarding for going back to the moon in 2018 is to demonstrate that astronauts can essentially "live off the land" by using lunar resources to produce potable water, fuel and other valuable commodities. This may be an important prelude to a human expedition to Mars. But there is little explanation from NASA as to how the humankind will benefit from its explorations. Transferring potable water from the moon, after all, would make water more expensive than a scotch seasoned for 12 years!

ISRO, however, has enumerated its clear-cut goals. Chandrayan-1 has the primary aim of high-resolution remote sensing of the lunar surface features in visible, near infrared, X-ray and low energy gamma ray regions. This will be accomplished using several payloads already selected for the mission. In addition, a total of about 10 kg payload weight and 10w power are earmarked for proposals, which are now solicited from private equipment suppliers. The mission is proposed to be a lunar polar orbiter at an altitude of about 100 km and is planned for launch in 2008 using indigenous spacecraft and launch vehicle of ISRO. The mission is expected to have an operational life of about two years.

With Chandrayan-1, ISRO aims to "carry out high resolution mapping of topographic features in three dimension, distribution of various minerals and elemental chemical species including radioactive nuclides covering the entire lunar surface using a set of remote sensing payloads. The new set of data would help in unravelling mysteries about the origin and evolution of solar system in general and that of the moon in particular". More importantly, unlike our expeditions to Antarctica, a continent that international law prohibits from being exploited for any given country's own interests, we may get for India whatever we lay our hands on, when we are on the moon!

What the above means is that Indian foreign exchange earning, if the moon mission is successful, will be world's envy. Chandrayan-1 will provide high-resolution mineralogical and chemical imaging of the moon's permanently shadowed polar regions. No other country has achieved this feat so far.

The Indian mission will also search for surface or sub-surface "water-ice" (water that transformed into solid ice due to sub-zero temperature) on the moon, especially at the lunar pole. A new chapter in physical and inorganic chemistry might be written after Indians identify chemical end members of lunar highland rocks. The chemical stratigraphy of lunar crust by remote sensing of central upland of large lunar craters, South Pole Aitken Region, etc, where interior material may be expected, will open new vistas for metallurgy.

If our scientists are able to map the height variation of the lunar surface features along the satellite track, explain comprehensively X-ray spectrum greater than 10 keV and stereographic coverage of most of the moon's surface with 5 m resolution (to provide new insights in understanding the moon's origin and evolution) next year, writers of science history may have to rethink the conjecture of the Big Bang Theory that no scientist has, till date, been able to prove authoritatively as right or wrong. It would certainly be more than merely massaging our nationalistic pride next year if, post-2008, students the world over start referring to books on astronomical physics by Indian authors.

What is curious, scientists from the very European and American communities - whose commoners come to India as tourists to photograph the filthiest of our locales - find their Indian peers highly credible. Otherwise, the European Space Agency (ESA) would not have agreed to support India's plan to send a probe to the moon by providing three science instruments for Chandrayan-1.

Yes, it is a matter of pride that NASA's chosen Moon Mineralogy Mapper, designed to create a mineral-resource map of the moon, will fly as part of the scientific payload for the Chandrayan-1 mission only if selected by ISRO in an independent competition.Look, for once India is dictating terms to the US. Now, will half-baked social scientists please shut up?


What happens in a govt bank after public hours

Bank on the Government

Surajit Dasgupta Friday February, 23 2007

The interiors of front offices in private sector and foreign banks and saccharine sweet voice of their tele-marketing executives have long replaced rude clerks. Far more importantly, your fixed deposits have partly become as liquid as a savings bank account. Sounds good?

The problem is that it only sounds good. The scheme explained above was pioneered by a multinational bank in the mid-1990s. Having explained a host of USPs of the bank to the new recruits, however, the marketing manager had sighed, "All said, an Indian Government bank is still better!" That was 1996. That day, we had disagreed vehemently as any layman would. But in the field, we realised what a 'better' bank meant.

So what if a teller of a Government bank struggles with his 386-chip run computer? The manual entries are perfect, and it is difficult for even the most litigious of customers to drag any public sector bank to court. On the other hand, private sector banks struggle to meet the non-honourable promises that their marketing executives make in the field to meet sales targets that are unachievable if scruples are adhered to.

Further, the glitz in the private bank's front office is a façade of the retail section. For exporters availing corporate banking, getting a simple letter of credit for shipments rotting in docks overseas could be nightmarish. But the actual reason why public sector banks are perceived as 'better' is shady.Hypothetically, if all customers of a given bank arrive on a particular day at one of its branches to withdraw their money, no bank can entertain all. As a measure to handle such an eventuality, the cash-reserve ratio determined by the Reserve Bank, dictates all banks what minimum reserves each must hold to customer deposits and notes. But many Government banks that have countless clients having businesses involving large cash transactions couldn't care less.

When a customer arrives, demanding, say, Rs 10 lakh, the bank manager simply walks down to the office of one of his friendly customers, takes the money from him and hands it over to the withdrawer. There are no documents to prove such a transaction has ever taken place. In return, the bank would go out of its way to favour the benevolent donor when his turn comes. No questions asked, once again.

Can a sethji be still expected to be enamoured with the smile of a private bank's receptionist?


This is how people actually moved and evolved

Leftist and Rightist historians may take a hike!

Quite a monkey chain

Surajit Dasgupta Thursday April, 12 2007

We did not become human beings from 'monkeys' step by step, as was believed until recently. Rather, many species with part-human-part-ape-like features kept evolving in different geographical conditions, with nature discarding the models that, it thought, wouldn't sustain.

For example, the species Paranthropus robustus, a unit in the chain of human evolution, seems to have died out leaving no descendants. We, the Homo sapiens, have descended from one branch that did not perish. And that branch, too, isn't from a straight chain. The following is a brief account of the complex chain of human evolution that scientists agreed upon last month, cancelling all previous conjectures.

Human beings did not originate in Asia. The 1924 discovery of an ancient African fossil - known as the Taung Child - annulled that notion.

Sometime around six or seven million years ago, the first members of our human family, Hominidae, evolved in Africa. They spent much of their time in trees like today's chimpanzees and gorillas. But unlike other primates, these early hominids could walk on two feet when on ground.

Between the time of the first hominids and the period when we, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa more than 150,000 years ago, our planet was home to a wide range of early human beings. Between about 3.5 and 1.5 million years ago, at least 11 hominid species lived in Africa. Many of them were members of the genus Australopithecus. By the time the entire 'australopith' group went extinct about 1.4 million years ago, the earliest members of our genus, Homo, had arrived.

Now most scientists think the first members of our genus, Homo, evolved from Australopithecus anamensis. Some of the oldest evidence we have for this pre-hominid dates back some four million years and was found in Kenya in eastern Africa.

Over the course of human evolution, new hominid species continued to emerge and thrive on the African plains, whose fossils date to between one and two million years ago, found at widely dispersed sites, from Eritrea in the north to Lake Turkana in the east to the cave of Swartkrans in South Africa.

In the myriad branches of evolution that finally led to our creation, one would find Homo habilis. A hominid with a relatively large brain, this species got its name (meaning "handy man") from its association with stone tools. There were also Homo rudolfensis, large-brained hominids, which some researchers do not classify as Homo, placing it instead in the genus Kenyanthropus.

Around 10 million years ago, the climate in Africa began to change with profound consequences for human evolution. As regions that had been home to lush tropical forests dried out, our ancestors had to adapt to woodland environments. They became less dependent on trees for food and shelter and more accustomed to moving about upright on the ground.

Modern human beings were the first hominids to populate the globe, after leaving Africa about 100,000 years ago. But we were not the first hominids to exit Africa. Some of our relatives began leaving that continent at least 1.8 million years ago - long before Homo sapiens evolved.

Who were the first hominids to leave Africa? One leading contender is Homo ergaster. The tall body form of Homo ergaster allowed for tireless walking in the open sun. And a slender build ensured efficient cooling.

Once hominids set out from Africa, they first moved into Asia. One East Asian species, Homo erectus, seems to have enjoyed an extraordinarily long existence, surviving for well over 1.5 million years. This species also had a large range, extending from northern China through Indonesia. Much of our knowledge of Homo erectus in China comes from fragmentary remains found at Zhoukoudian near Beijing. Known as the "Peking Man" fossils, these bones offer a record of up to 40 members of a species that lived in China for at least several hundred thousand years.

But did our species evolve from populations of Homo erectus in many regions of the world between one and two million years ago? Or did we evolve from an African ancestor less than 200,000 years ago, then expanded out of Africa, replacing Homo erectus and other species?Recent studies of DNA from living humans have helped resolve this debate. The common ancestral population of all humans alive today lived roughly 150,000 years ago, a date that favours the "out of Africa" model.

Homo erectus, one of the world's most successful hominids, appears to have evolved in eastern Asia and lived there for perhaps as long as 1.5 million years - 10 times longer than modern human beings have been around. Some of the oldest, and youngest, fossils of Homo erectus have been found in the island of Java in Indonesia. This region being far from Africa, suggests that once our ancient relatives moved out of that continent, they spread east. The first early human beings to penetrate the rugged terrain and harsh climates of western Europe arrived, perhaps, well over one million years ago.Hominids lived near the Mediterranean, so it might seem logical that our ancient relatives crossed the sea from Africa to Europe. But there is no evidence that hominids of this era had the watercraft to make such a voyage. Although the least distance between Europe and Africa is only 13 kilometres, the trip would have required a difficult swim through very strong currents. So hominids must have reached Europe over land through what is now Egypt.

Between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago, long after the first groups of hominids left Africa, a variety of early human species arose and flourished in Europe. Researchers have discovered the remains of one such species at a site in Spain dating back some 400,000 years. The unnamed hominid was probably an early relative of Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals. They were outstanding toolmakers, but apparently not artists, nor did they think symbolically like modern human beings. It is estimated that our last common ancestor lived roughly 500,000 years ago.

When did we, Homo sapiens, evolve? The exact time is still not known, nor are our immediate ancestors.

Faith apart, science is reason enough

Conserve Ram Setu

Channel to disaster

Surajit Dasgupta Monday September, 17 2007

The Government agencies entrusted with this work (project viability research on the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project) show an extraordinary enthusiasm to brush aside the uncomfortable questions, and keep the public at large in the dark..." wrote CP Rajendran of the Centre for Earth Science Studies, Akkulam, Thiruvananthapuram, in September 2005. Little further research has taken place in the past two years to assure people of the project managers' bona fides.

However, Government-run website sethusamudram.gov.in, obviously in a bid to redress 'misgivings' of science-oriented people, gives some details of how the project's viability was assessed. It says -- the text ridden with typos had to be thoroughly corrected -- "The channel alignment has been selected as to ensure that there is no dredging in the Gulf of Mannar except in the southern reaches north of Adam's Bridge for a length of approximately 6 km and width of 300 m. No dredging will be required in the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve (which is along the Indian Coast) or in its north of Adam's Bridge (sic) is a safe 20 km from the nearest island (shingle) forming part of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park."

Really? Engineers and ecologists who have challenged the project's viability say that the total quantum of materials that will be dredged from two different sectors in the SSCP stretch (as per the so far unchanged plan) amounts to 82.5 million cu m (mcm) of which the Adam's Bridge sector will generate 48 mcm, while the Palk Bay sector will generate 34.5 mcm of sediments.

The materials dredged from Ram Setu area will be dumped in the Gulf of Mannar region at 20 km to 30 km water depth within the Indian territorial waters about 30 km away from Ram Setu. Sediments dredged from Palk Bay will be dumped in the Indian Ocean at about 25-30 m water depth.

Dredging Corporation of India is assigned to carry out the first phase of dredging in the Palk Bay to the tune of about 13 mcm of sediments. During dredging, several environmental management laws will have to be observed including cessation of dredging during the fish breeding and spawning period.

Dumping 82.5 mcm in the turbulent open sea either in the Gulf of Mannar or in the Bay of Bengal east of Kodiyakkarai will generate turbidity in the water column and submerge large bottom community by the sand contained in the dredged sediments. Such environmental effect over vast areas for a considerably long span will have a long-term impact. (Source: Current Science, Vol 90, No 2, January 25, 2006)

The SSCP site is not convincing on the safeguards against cyclones and tsunami. The coast of Tamil Nadu overlapping the project area is the most vulnerable to tropical cyclones, research by PS Pant, AR Ramakrishnan, and R Jambunathan, "Cyclones and depressions over the Indian seas," in 1977, showed. This makes one recall dreadfully the cyclone that occurred on December 23, 1964, when a storm surge washed away the Pamban Bridge and the Dhanushkodi Island.

As for tsunami, a PMO note dated March 9, 2005, had voiced the concern about the sustainability of this canal in the event of a cyclonic storm or tsunami. This was a valid query from more than a purely hazard point of view. However, a statement by the Union Minister for Shipping, Ports and Highways later, stated that the canal would have a 'dissipating effect' on tsunamis if they strike the east coast!

A review of the post-2004 tsunami simulation models by Steven Ward, University of California; and Aditya Riyadi, the Pusat Penelitian Kelautan Institut Teknologi, Bandung, Indonesia, says that the central portions of the Palk Bay and those located to the northeast and the east of Palk Bay received waves of higher energy. On the fateful day of December 26, 2004, this part of the bay received higher amount of sediments, rendering it more turbid than other parts. Waves entered the Palk Bay from the north and south, corresponding with the canal alignment. Therefore, it is likely that the deepening activities create a new deep water route for a future tsunami to reach the west coast with a devastating impact.

A known expert in tsunami studies, oceanographer Tadepalli Satyanarayana Murty thinks that the Bay of Bengal entrance of the present orientation of the canal will funnel tsunami energy into the channel. Constructive interference with the tsunami propagating from the south of Sri Lanka at the southern part of Kerala will amplify the tsunami waves, which will impact the Kerala coast.

As for ecology, in the "Proceedings of the Regional Workshop on the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Coral Reefs," Chennai, 1997, A Ramesh and T Kannupandi were apprehensive that SSCP would adversely affect the Palk Strait which is about 75 km-wide between India and Sri Lanka, with a water depth of 9 m to 13 m, except where local coral reefs rise above the sea level. A total of 61 species of algae are distributed among the three major groups - green algae (14 genera and 28 species), brown algae (eight genera and 13 species), and red algae (17 genera and 20 species). Of the 14 species of seagrasses under six genera known from Indian seas, 11 species are known to occur in the Palk Bay, according to K Venkataraman and M Waffar (Indian Journal of Marine Sciences, 2005).

S Bhupathy has, while writing in the Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter, identified five species of sea turtles that live in the region - green turtles, hawksbills, olive ridleys, leatherbacks and loggerheads. He says this important feeding ground for the green turtles and olive ridleys will be badly disturbed by the SSCP.

A report by the Global Environment Facility, 1999, says the region has 3,600 species of plants and animals. A study by G Kelleher, C Bleakley, and S Wells of World Bank and the World Conservation Union identified 117 species of corals belonging to 37 genera inhabiting the region.

In 2004, the National Environmental and Engineering Research Institute instituted an Environmental Impact Assessment study. The EIA report stated that "the corals along the proposed channel alignment in Adam's Bridge do not exist though major groups of biological resources like sea fans, sponges, pearl oysters, chanks and holothuroids at various sampling points have been recorded."

At another place, however, it admits, "Due to dredging, the bottom flora and fauna on an area of about 6 sq km along the channel alignment in Adam's Bridge and about 16-17 sq km in Palk Bay/Palk Strait area will be lost permanently." L&T Ramboll, the private assessee, also mentions the same in its Detailed Project Report.

The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, mandates that the SSCP seek permission and clearance of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (if the species were in Schedule I and from Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu for species other than those under Schedule I). There is no evidence that the project authorities took measures to inform the State Board for Wildlife, or the Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu, or the Central Government of the loss of these species by the project activities.All of the above leads to one unquestionable conclusion: The project's feasibility analysis is superficial. It skips significant aspects of sub-surface geology, bathymetry, sedimentation process, effect of transport, impacts of monsoon, cyclones, storm surges, consequences of dredged disposal and impacts on biodiversity and fisheries, untouched.


A critical look at hypochondria

What's wrong with my body?

Surajit Dasgupta | 1 October 2007

A British employer sacks an Indian employee for wearing a nose stud at the workplace, citing reasons of hygiene. And a survey suggests a substantial percentage of Britons suffer from delusionary diseases. Back home, we have many hypochondriacs, too. Surajit Dasgupta studies a global fear psychosis

Ever since The Pioneer published the story, "Indian woman stripped of her job for wearing nose stud in UK" (September 19), I have been trying to eat with my nose and figure out how it could possibly affect my hygiene and that of the people whose company I keep.

Jokes apart, what raises hackles is that the firm Eurest, while trying to justify the sacking of Amrit Lalji, stated that "jewellery can harbour bacteria, create a hazard when working with machinery and find its way into food..." So was a nose-studded Lalji, if not eating, cooking or serving food with her nose, handling machinery with that organ of her body? Howsoever funny this may sound, it is a very valid scientific question.

And the question is a pointer to a psychological disorder called hypochondriasis, a preoccupying fear of having, or acquiring from others, serious diseases. It happens to two classes of people: One, who are not able to engage themselves enough in constructive work and, two, amateurs in medical science.

The first class of people while idling around indulge in various useless thoughts, one of which is a compulsive niggling notion that something must be wrong in their body. It is, therefore, a major problem in those regions of the world where unemployment is a widespread phenomenon: Erstwhile socialist countries in Europe, a major part of Latin America and the State of West Bengal in India.

But hypochondria does not spare the prosperous people either. There, the victims are casual students of medical science. While being initiated into physiology, these amateurs read about various diseases and tend to take the reverse route to analyse their health. That is, they first read the symptoms, then recall their environment and physiological history, tally the third with the second and the first, and infer, wrongly, that one of the diseases mentioned in the books must have afflicted them. It is this reason that turns many Americans, Britons and Germans hypochondriacs.

As consumer awareness is high in these countries, and medical service falls in the ambit of consumer rights, lay citizens are given an elementary idea of various common diseases, their causes, symptoms and treatments. While this makes some people health conscious, others turn hypersensitive to possibilities of ailments. Employer Eurest, which sacked Lalji, probably suffers from this category of the psychological disorder.

But out of the two kinds of hypochondriacs, Bengalis are the worst hit. For them, it is a vicious circle where the first reason (decades of recession in West Bengal) augments the second (health consciousness). It is a rare phenomenon to come across a Bengali from the State -- probashi or non-residents are a breed apart -- who does not complain of ambol (indigestion). If the listener is unlucky enough to be caught unawares by a Bengali hypochondriac, a larger health bulletin will follow, and a gamut of gastro-enterological ailments will be listed.

Regular visits to the local physician, right from his childhood, gives a Bengali a fair idea of names of a plethora of diseases and drugs. This, rather than keeping him alert of impending health crises, keeps him preoccupied with a phobia of diseases. He is obsessed with bodily functions and interprets normal sensations (heart beats, sweating, bowel movements, etc) or minor abnormalities (a runny nose, a small sore, slightly swollen lymph nodes, etc) as symptoms of serious medical conditions.

A similar social condition makes Americans and Britons suffer despite their much better economies. Unlike in India, in the US and the UK, physicians' prescriptions are like packaged products. The recommended doses are legibly typewritten and pasted on the lid of a box containing the medicines. The other labels on the cuboidal box include the patient's medical history and side effects, if any, of the prescribed drugs.

A regular study of such medical kits turns the patient into a quack who thinks he can now afford to treat himself as and when he falls ill in future. Last week, a survey by food diagnostic company YorkTest found that of 12 million Britons who claimed to be food intolerant, less than a quarter had been formally diagnosed; 39 per cent of those polled believe it is trendy to declare themselves food intolerant.

The report suggests that the Brits have deceived themselves into becoming a nation of hypochondriacs with at least three million having wrongly convinced themselves that they are sufferers.

Hypochondria can be treated, but it takes time. And the tendency to have exaggerated health anxiety may not vanish completely. The patient should be first made to acknowledge the fact that he has anxiety, and not a serious physical disease. Then is the need to reduce his anxiety.

Hypochondria is often triggered by a major life event. For example, parents who have a single child after the mother had had several miscarriages, or the first one or two babies died, may rush to the doctor to get the surviving child checked even if he has an innocuous common cold.

Cognitive-behavioural treatment combined with medication, if needed, is perhaps the best approach. First, the patient explains his symptoms and the doctor makes an evaluation whether he has been examined well enough. Of course, the healers should not discuss whether the patient has his symptoms (pain, nausea, numbness, etc) or not, which are always subjective, and hence 'accepted'.

However, interpretation of the symptoms should be accurate. A hypochondriac believes something serious must have happened to him. He cannot imagine that his 'symptoms' can be caused by, say, anxiety.

During the treatment, the patient registers what he thinks when he notices his 'symptoms'. Hypochondriacs choose the most serious, but often least probable, explanation: Headache is not migraine or stress but brain tumour; chest pain is not caused by tense muscles but is a serious heart attack! They may believe, "It is normal to feel okay; that does not mean I'm fine... doctors may mis-diagnose even cancer!" So, the healers must first win their trust. Behavioural (checking the body less) and cognitive work (registering situations, thoughts, feelings and behaviour) therapies follow.

Are you a hypochondriac? Test for yourself. Below is a list of questions about your health. For each one, circle the number indicating how much this is true for you: 1. not at all, 2. a little bit, 3. moderately, 4. quite a bit, 5. a great deal.

Do you worry a lot about your health? Do you think there is something seriously wrong with your body? Is it hard for you to forget about yourself and think about other things? If you feel ill and someone tells you that you are fine, does it annoy you? Are you often aware of various things happening in your body? Are you bothered by aches and pains? Are you afraid of illness? Do you worry about your health more than most people? Do you get the feeling that people are not taking your illnesses seriously enough? Is it hard for you to believe the doctor when he/ she tells you there is nothing for you to worry about? Do you often worry about the possibility that you have a serious illness? If a disease is brought to your attention (through the radio, TV, newspapers, or someone you know), do you worry about getting it yourself? Do you find that you are bothered by may different symptoms? Do you often have the symptoms of a very serious disease?

You arrive at what is known as the "Whiteley Index score", found by summing the responses to each question. The higher the score the more hypochondriacal you are. There is no set cut-off score, but healthy people without health anxiety generally have a score of 21 ± 7 (14 to 28). Patients with hypochondria are found to have a score of 44 ± 11 (32 to 55). If your score is high, you must seek professional help. Notice that if you are depressed, you might get a high score, and your hypochondriacal ideas might be secondary to your depression. The same is true if you have a specific or general anxiety disorder. In both instances, you must talk to your doctor.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.