Monday, October 31, 2011

An article about the recent Grand Prix here in India

Sorry that I haven't been blogging lately: I've been on holidays & then had a trip back to Australia. Will be posting photos from our recent adventures in the next week or so.

In the meantime, here's an article about the recent Indian Grand Prix (from "The Diplomat" website):

Formula 1 Meets Poverty

By Sanjay Kumar
October 31, 2011

India is a complex country beset with contradictions. This was no clearer in evidence than with the country’s hosting of its first Formula One race at the weekend, an event that divided opinion here.

Greater Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, falls under the state of Uttar Pradesh. UP, as it’s commonly known, is one of the poorest parts of India. Hundreds of people have already died from an outbreak of encephalitis this year, while many hundreds more are struggling for their lives in poorly funded hospitals without access to adequate medication. Yet despite the failure to allocate sufficient funds to medical care, the other side of the state has just played host to an event that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to put together.

The Buddh International Circuit, which was built for this event, sits on land that was acquired under controversial circumstances. In 2007, the state government bought the land from local farmers, supposedly for the development of roads and industry. However, it sold the land to a private developer, Jaypee Group, at a hefty profit.

UP Chief Minister Mayawati is a Dalit (once known as the untouchable caste) and claims to represent the interests of a community that has historically been marginalized in both economic and political terms. Yet for some reason she exempted Jaypee Group, which was responsible for the Formula One track, from paying entertainment tax.

During my visit to the circuit this month, I spoke to Mohan Singh, who was watering parts of the track. He told me that his village, which is just five kilometers from the circuit, doesn’t have a proper water supply. He added that his wife walks at least two kilometers a day to fetch drinking water.

Such stories beg the question of what kind of message we are sending to the outside world. In a country where malnutrition rates are in some areas comparable with those in sub-Saharan Africa, and where millions of poor children can’t get a good education, why are we holding an event that the average Indian simply can’t afford?

The founding chairman of the Jaypee Group, Jaiprakash Gaur, has said the event is about national pride. ‘The world's perception of India is going to change after the Grand Prix,’ he is quoted by Reuters as saying. ‘People will forget what happened because of the Commonwealth Games.’

But as political commentator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta also told Reuters, this event, in many ways, actually epitomizes what is wrong with this country.

In a way, the whole F1 debate shouldn’t come as a surprise – it’s all part of India’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality. On the one hand, India is happy to receive poverty aid from countries such as Japan. Yet it also has one of the highest number of billionaires in the world.

One of the most famous of these is Mukesh Ambani, who reportedly spent billions of dollars building a house in Mumbai not far from a cluster of slums. Yet it’s now being said that he has decided he doesn’t want to move into the 27-story building, with some reports suggesting it's because the structure doesn’t conform to Vastu Shastra (a belief that a dwelling’s architectural alignment should create spiritual harmony).

India undoubtedly needs its billionaires. But at the same time, it’s troubling that so many of India’s wealthy businessmen are forsaking their social responsibilities. The laborers that build their mansions and work for their firms need more than meager wages – they need a genuine chance to realize their aspirations.

F1 events shouldn’t exist side-by-side with abject poverty.

Image credit: Carol Mitchell

Monday, October 10, 2011

An article about Delhi Traffic

Found this article in "The Guardian" (UK) newspaper:

Delhi's traffic chaos has a character of its own'Lane driving' is seen as an odd foreign practice. The result is gridlock

Jason Burke The Guardian, Tuesday 11 October 2011

Continuing economic growth has led to even more vehicles on Delhi's already overcrowded roads. Photograph: © B Mathur/Reuters

The best time to drive in Delhi is at dawn or, even better, around 7am. By then the last of the trucks that cross the city during the night are halted at roadside restaurants with the drivers sipping scalding tea and eating fried parathas and eggs, and there is a short period before the traffic builds up.

Delhi's urban sprawl is now so extensive that entire satellite cities, where several million people live, have disappeared into the mass of the metropolis. Gurgaon, the new town to the south, is still separated by a thin belt of scrubby grassland, but Noida, the vast development to the east, is, to all intents and purposes, part of the city. If these satellites are included, the city's population probably touches 25 million. This is set to increase further as economic growth sucks in villagers from across the country.

Girdling the city's old core is a ring road – an unplanned set of linked chunks of carriageway widened over three decades. Over nearly two years, I have learned to respect, if not necessarily appreciate, its rhythms. Like the city itself, it changes character through the day and night.

At 7am, in the cooler, clearer morning, driving over the crumbling flyovers, there is relative calm. You can look in one direction and see the pristine marble-tiled dome of the tomb of the Muslim Mughal emperor Humayun. In the other, the modern forms of a Bahá'í temple marks the horizon. Kites and crows wheel overhead. Dogs forage in the rubbish at the roadside. A few auto-rickshaws putter straight down the centre of the three- or four-lane carriageway, not much faster than the bicycles ridden by the night-watchmen returning from their shift.

By 9am this (relatively) bucolic vision is long gone. In 2008, a government report announced that the ring road had reached capacity with 110,000 vehicles a day and predicted the total would reach 150,000 cars, trucks, buses and bikes by the end of the decade. In fact, continuing economic growth, the new middle class's demand for cars and the parlous, if improving, public transport system has meant even more vehicles than feared. Some estimates are as high as 200,000. As "lane driving" is seen as an odd, foreign practice, the result is gridlock.

This gridlock evolves, however. The buses are slightly less empty mid-morning, then refill with schoolchildren and students. The dreaded privately owned Blueline buses, badly maintained and driven as fast as possible to maximise profits, have gone. Those that have replaced them are marginally better, but still often flatten small cars and motorbikes. There is an opening around 2pm when the traffic eases, but by 5pm, the ring road is a strip of snarling, grinding vehicles. The buses, now with passengers packed against doors and windows, loom like ships full of refugees above a choppy sea of jerking cars. The air is black with fumes. The new cars – Audis, BMWs, huge imported SUVs – sit bumper to bumper. Labour is so cheap in India that a minor retired bureaucrat is likely to have a driver, even if the vehicle is a tiny, battered Suzuki. The really wealthy have a uniformed chauffeur.

Vestiges of another India occasionally surface. Over by the badly built, badly designed complex used as athletes' accommodation in last year's Commonwealth Games I saw a bullock cart negotiating traffic around one of the new metro stations. Yesterday there were two tractors hauling trailers full of fodder – for the elephants, which the authorities use for tree-pruning? For the zoo? — stuck at the busy crossroad, Ashram Chowk. On the central reservation, entire families sleep.

After rush hour, there is a lull. The day workers have gone home. The buses even have empty seats. There is a new peril however: the minivans used by call centres. They race to get their passengers to their offices as fast as possible, hurtling up inside lanes, jinking between slower vehicles like a footballer dribbling his way through a pack of defenders. Part of their haste is explained by the approaching deadline that heralds the next phase in the life of the road: the trucks.

At 10pm, the police allow the heavy goods vehicles that need to traverse Delhi into the city. With no proper bypass, a small army of honking, overloaded, low-geared, multicoloured road behemoths gathers during the afternoon on all approach roads. These now clank forward, filling two of three available lanes with an apparently inexhaustible convoy carrying construction materials, foodstuffs, manufactured goods, from Udaipur to Chandigarh, from Agra to Amritsar, from Bareilly to Jammu.

By 1am most of the trucks are through and the final phase begins. Road deaths in India reach 140,000 a year. This means that every two years, more people died in accidents in the country than were killed in total in the 2004 tsunami. Most fatal accidents in Delhi occur in the small hours, when fast cars driven by young, wealthy and often drunk men hurtle across the city. These regularly career out of control to hit families sleeping on the pavement, insomniacs, nightshift workers, even traffic policemen. Hit and runs are the rule, not the exception. Those with the means bribe their way out of trouble. The casualties or their families may get some compensation, if the culprit can be traced.

At 5am and 6am, in that small moment of calm, you can hear the horns of the trains leaving the main stations, hauling their packed carriages out into another India and another day.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Nigerian Cannibals

A couple at the embassy were recently re-negotiating the contract with their maid. The sticking point has been (amongst other things) work hours. This particular maid wanted to work 9am – 3.30pm. The couple wanted her to work until about 5pm.

When pressed about this, the maid responded (in all seriousness) with the following: the maid has a daughter who catches the bus & it's a 20min walk from the bus stop to the house. The husband is working as well. They don't like the idea of their daughter walking alone because there are Nigerians in the neighbourhood, and she reckons that about a month or two ago there were a couple of "accidents" whereby a young girl was killed and eaten by cannibals!

Nigerian Cannibals ?? W.T.F ???

A Google of the terms “nigerian cannibals in new delhi” found this:

Now, before you write this off completely, there are legitimate concerns for child safety in Delhi (particularly girls). There have been horrific stories in the papers here about kids being kidnapped, raped, murdered & mutilated so a parent has every reason to be concerned about their kids walking home alone from school.

Saying that......Nigerian Cannibals ?? Seriously ??

A trip to Tamil Nadu

Early this week, I found myself in Tamil Nadu (the very south-eastern province of India). I was at a place called Coonoor. It’s a bit of an effort to get to: you fly down to Coimbatore (the nearest airport) & then it’s a 2.5hrs drive to Coonoor: 1.5hrs of that up a mountain road with LOTS of switchbacks.

You can see the landscape change as you get up into the mountains: palm & banana plantations, & farms make way to lush forests which then make way, at the very top, tea plantations. The animals you see around the place changes too: from cows to goats & donkeys to (at the top), monkeys.

The monkeys are quite fascinating to watch: they may be just sitting there, watching you drive past, there may be a pack of them, all grooming each other or there will be the younger monkeys, playing amongst themselves.

The area is quite beautiful & seeing the tea plantations, clinging to the side of the mountains is an amazing sight.

Here’s some photos for your viewing pleasure:

Along the way to Coonoor, we stopped at this roadside diner serving tasty, southern Indian food. No forks or spoons use your hands & the bread as a spoon.

A delivery run in one of the towns we passed through

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The chandelier

The apartment has this huge, f***-off chandelier in the lounge room.

There is a running joke that whenever we turn it on, half the suburb of Vasant Vihar loses power!! There are other running joke is that it needs its own nuclear reactor.

The last few days, they’ve been doing maintenance work on the main runway at Delhi airport so they’ve got the planes flying over the suburb. We joked that our chandelier would divert the planes to try to land on our apartment. Here’s a video of just how powerful the thing is.

Middle Eastern Dinner

Tania & I hosted a dinner party last night. The theme was Middle Eastern, using the yummy ingredients that Tania recently picked up on a breif visit to Jordan.

We started off with some sun-dried tomato coated cashew nuts, bbq'd almond nuts & a selection of green & black olive (all brought over from Jordan).

Mezze consisted of hummus, babaganoush, muhmarra (capsicum dip), tobbouleh, fattush (Syrian bread salad) & falafels (all made by Tania with a bit of help from me in the chopping department).

The main course consisted of 2 x legs of lamb with a red pepper & pomegranite glaze, served with green beans (in a tomato & onion sauce) plus corriander & chili potatoes.

Dessert was date & (Iranian) saffron creme brulee. Can I just say it was yum !!

We then served a selection of baklavas as a post-dessert dish.

We had the sheesha going as well (bubble gum in one & watermelon & mint in the other).

A good night was had by all. Here are some photos for your drooling pleasure:

The nibbles we started off with

This is the hummus, tobbouleh & the labneh (bought from the store)

The falafels (the nicer shaped ones are frozen ones we'd fried up - quite tasty just the same)

The fattush

The muhmarra & the tobbouleh

The Mezze all plated up (breads were store bought)

Enjoying the dinner (1)

Enjoying the dinner (2)

The mains all plated up

The yummy creme brulee