Faecal Attraction: There’s no such thing as a convenient flush…

Out of sight is out of mind.

That’s how it works for most of us. Especially when the subject is what we do in the privacy of our toilets and then just flush away.

But there is no such thing as a Convenient Flush — it’s all linked to how waste, including sewage, is disposed of. Or not.

And what goes around, even out of our sight, comes around — turning up in the least expected ways! Like faecal matter in our drinking water.

A new film produced by the New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) probes the link between sewage disposal and river water pollution in India — specifically, the River Yamuna, part of the massive Indo-Gangetic river system.

The film by Pradip Saha is titled Faecal Attraction: Political Economy of Defecation. It is accompanied CSE’s latest publication Sewage Canal: How to Clean the Yamuna.

The book and the film expose the political economy of defecation, where the rich are subsidised to defecate in convenience and the poor pay for pollution with their ill health because of dirty water.

It begins by asking two simple questions: Where does your water come from? What do you do with your shit?

Watch the answers – some amusing, others absurd – in this 3-min trailer on YouTube:

Backed by scientific data, CSE shows how India’s 14 major rivers, as well as 55 minor and many small rivers have all been reduced to sewers. They receive millions of litres of sewage, industrial residue and agricultural waste from the cities and towns through which they flow.

Delhi and Agra together account for 90 per cent of the pollution in the River Yamuna, a major tributary of the Ganges. Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, especially around New Delhi, the capital of India, which dumps about 57% of its waste into the river.

When Yamuna flows by Delhi, the city extracts gallons of fresh water for drinking and irrigation. What is given in return to the river is only excreta – sewage, and industrial and agricultural waste. This sewage is (supposed to be) collected, transported, and assembled for treatment (cleaning), and then flown back to the river. In reality, what goes back is far from clean… The irony is that the city has 40 per cent of the entire sewage treatment infrastructure in the country with only five per cent of the country’s population! And still, Yamuna is unclean.

Cartoon courtesy CSE India

Though numerous attempts have been made to clean it, the efforts have proven to be futile. Although the government of India has spent nearly $500 million to clean up the river, the river continues to be polluted with garbage while most sewage treatment facilities are underfunded or malfunctioning.

“As these rivers die a slow death, the sole blame for their pathetic condition lies with human beings who have always treated these water bodies as their personal dumping zones,” says CSE.

Anil Agarwal, founder director of CSE, believed that a “society is known by the water it keeps”. “The health of a river…reflects the very health of the human society, its ability to live harmoniously with its environment,”, he said.

In that sense, things are very seriously wrong with not just the Yamuna, but river systems across India.

Read CSE Director Sunita Narain’s presentation on the River Yamuna pollution and clean up options

Read CSE Press release on river pollution

A Silent Emergency: More television sets than toilets!

Read a later blog post: Faecal Attraction: There’s no such thing as a convenient flush…

It was September 2004. My daughter Dhara, eight years at the time (or ‘eight plus’ as she insisted on saying), had a complaint.

The toilets in her school were not clean enough. She was finding it squeamish to use them. So she was doing her best to avoid going to the loo: she’d drink less, and try to ‘hold back’ until she could rush home.

Like many sheltered middle class kids, she was still coming to terms with the wider world outside her home. And she attends a well endowed private school where, I am told, toilets are cleaned regularly by janitors engaged by the school.

Now we cut to eleven-year-old Susheela, a girl growing up in neighbouring India. I’ve never met her in person, but this sentence summed up her tragic story:
“I was always first in the class. I am very much interested in studies. I want to become a lawyer. But my mother stopped me from going to school after Class V as the middle school I was attending, 5 km from my house, had no toilet. Can someone help me?”

This was the opening of an article on water and sanitation written by Indian journalist Dr Asha Krishnakumar and published in the news magazine Frontline (part of The Hindu group) at the end of 2003. It was titled: A Silent Emergency.

dr-asha-krishnakumar.jpg Image courtesy WSSCC

It was several months later that I actually read Asha’s article. By coincidence, my daughter was having her own ‘toilet issue’ at the time — and the contrast was striking.

Asha’s article continued:
Susheela’s anguish is shared by a large number of girls in India who drop out of school for what sounds like an absurd reason: want of a toilet in school. “Sanitation is closely linked to female literacy in India,” says a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study. According to V. Balakrishnan, convener of the Tamil Nadu Primary Schools Improvement Campaign, the lack of proper toilet facilities in schools has a definite and significant bearing on the drop-out rate of girls, particularly around the time they reach Class VIII. In 2000, barely 10 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s 40,000 government schools had usable toilets; the figure is much lower for the country as a whole.

I’d been covering development issues in the media for over 15 years, but this stark reality had not occurred to me. In some developing countries, girls face a greater struggle in enrolling in school and staying on. There are cultural, social and economic factors working against educating girls.

And as Asha’s article revealed, there are other, less known factors adding to this burden.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Indian census data had revealed in 2001 that, some parts of the country had more television sets than toilets.

Asha’s was one of three dozen excellent media articles on water and sanitation that I read that month as a judge in an international award scheme to recognise the best media reporting on the issue. Organised by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), it was meant to to encourage broader media coverage of water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues in the developing world.

The initiative, first launched in 2002, is open to journalists from developing countries, who write or broadcast original investigative reports on WASH issues. The Collaborative Council seeks to use the WASH Media Awards as part of the broader goals of fostering sustainable relations with journalists in developing nations, and increasing media coverage of WASH issues.

WASH has recently announced the next media awards, covering print and broadcast media coverage from 1 July 2007 to 30 April 2008. This time around, it also involves the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

Winning entries will be presented at the World Water Week in Stockholm , Sweden in August 2008. Deadline for the submission of entries is on or before May 15, 2008. Read the announcement

In 2004, the recipient of the first WASH Media Award was Nadia El-Awady from Egypt for her outstanding article “The Nile and its People”. It illustrated the impacts of industrial pollution, sewage and solid waste management on people’s health and dignity along the River Nile.

We evaluated a large number of high quality entries and decided to give special recognition and Certificates of Appreciation to several other journalists. Asha was one of them.

A few months later, it was my privilege to meet Asha in person at a workshop on media and sustainable development that TVE Asia Pacific organised as part of the Education for a Sustainable Future conference in Ahmedabad, India, in January 2005. The photo shows Asha addressing our workshop while Darryl D’Monte, fellow judge in WASH media awards looks on.


By another coincidence, the lady on the right is Nadia El-Awady who was overall winner of the WASH media award. At the time she was the Health and Science Page Editor of IslamOnline.net. She has since been promoted.

Either the world is smaller than we think, or our networks are larger than we imagine.

But I will always be grateful to Asha for opening my eyes on a silent emergency. One that I have since explained to my daughter. She no longer complains.

Read the WASH press release on 2004 media award winners

Read the publication on WASH Media Awards 2004

Read WASH media guide on The Biggest Scandal of the last 50 Years

Photos by Janaka Sri Jayalath, TVE Asia Pacific

Love Thy Mangrove: A Greenbelt Report from Pra Thong island, Thailand


This is Jureerat Pechsai, nicknamed Deun.

She is a member of the Moken community – indigenous people living on the coast and islands on Thailand’s southern coast. Their nomadic lifestyle has earned them the name Sea Gypsies. In Thai, they are called Chao Ley — or people of the sea.

They traditionally live on small boats and move from place to place. When the Monsoon rains make the seas rough, they set up temporary huts on islands – such as Pra Thong Island, where Deun lives.

Pra Thong is an hour’s boat ride from the mainland city of Phuket — some conservationists call it one of the “Jewels of the Andaman” for its biodiversity. It is also an important nesting beach for turtles.

It was on this island that my colleagues from TVE Asia Pacific met and filmed with her in late 2006 for our Asian TV series, The Greenbelt Reports.

The Asian Tsunami of December 2004 devastated the Moken way of life. Their temporary huts were destroyed, and many families lost loved ones. The losses would have been greater if not for the mangrove forest close to the Moken village.

“Moken loves the water, the forest and everything. And we love the mangrove forest the most. The mangrove forest is like a living creature that has helped the Moken people for years. It’s our most beloved place on the island,” says Khiab Pansuwan, an older woman who is a leader in Deun’s community.

After the Tsunami, some Moken felt that they could not return to their nomadic lives. They have chosen to live on the mainland where they feel safe from the waves. Others who remained on their island had new, permanent houses built for them. But the Moken are quick to abandon these whenever they hear rumours of more Tsunamis.

Watch The Greenbelt Reports: Love Thy Mangrove on YouTube:

The mangrove replanting work on Pra Thong island is led by two women, Khiab and Deun.

Deun has been a volunteer with conservation organisations. She learnt about ecosystems and how to protect mangroves and endangered species like sea turtles. She can see many changes in her environment after the tsunami.

“After the tsunami, there are a lot of changes. We didn’t have much grass before, but now weeds are everywhere. The weeds are now more than grass,” says Deun. “In the past, we used to have more and more beach every year. But now the sea has come so close…”


The Tsunami’s impact is not the only factor affecting the mangroves here. Dynamite fishing, oil from boats, foam from fish and oyster nets are all damaging this life-saving greenbelt. Some people also cut down mangrove trees.

But Khiab and Deun are determined to rally everyone around to replant and regenerate their mangroves.

Says Khiab: “The community forest is part of the Moken people. We don’t want to cut the trees or clear it. We want to replant the trees so the forest is like before. We don’t want anyone to cut down trees because the mangrove forest saved many Moken lives.”

The two women are determined to rally everyone around to replant and regenerate their mangroves.

Replanted mangroves will ensure not only protection from the waves, but also a continued supply of shell fish and crabs – the main source of income and food for the Moken.

The Moken have traditionally managed the mangroves sustainably. They fish in different areas of the forest during the year, giving time for fish stocks to regenerate. Logging for firewood is done only in moderation, in designated areas.

But these mangroves are now under threat from outsiders who see it as a source of firewood and shell fish. Only a few Moken are left in the village to protect the forest from these intrusions.

Khiab and Deun have much work to do.

NOTE: We are now looking for more stories like this to be featured in the second Asian TV series of The Greenbelt Reports. See TVEAP website news story calling for story ideas.

All images and video courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

How short is short today? Packaging Nature for today’s television viewers

On 15 July 2007, I wrote about the award-winning natural history film-maker Neil Curry, based in South Africa, whom I last met during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival in Toyama in the summer of 2005.

Most recently, Neil made The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, which has won several of the industry’s top awards.

I’ve since heard from him, and want to share some of his views on how best to package Nature and wildlife for today’s easily-distracted, attention-challenged audiences. He is responding to my post on 13 July 2007 titled Mine is shorter than yours, yipee!


He says:

‘Mine is shorter than yours….’ is one of the issues I’ve been going on about for years and I’m delighted that Friends of the Earth has now come up with a competition for one-minute films. This ridiculous thing of the ‘standard’ broadcast slot for bluechip wildlife programmes being 52-minute is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why the public’s view of Nature has become so ‘warped’.

You can’t sustain a 52-minute wildlife film without drama – so we end up with this on-going emphasis on killing, sex, things that are supposedly deadly to humans (everything from snakes and great white sharks to mosquitoes), and dramatic confrontations between macho men – and women – and animals. By insisting on these long films, television itself has actually ‘created’ the audience for wildlife violence – and I’ve been told by more than one commissioning editor that audiences aren’t interested in “place” and “habitat” films any more, they want to see big animals doing exciting things.

In short, Dallas with animals – wildlife “reality-TV”.

Based on my own experience, that’s rubbish. Yes, audiences want a well-told story but they can be equally fascinated by quite prosaic things in the complex inter-relationships of nature, provided the story is told properly. They don’t need all this ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff. The superb, The Queen of Trees that is currently doing the rounds is a good example – as is the on-going popularity of Attenborough and some of the BBC’s mega-series.

In fact, the over-dramatised programmes often give a quite distorted view of what wildlife is really like. Most creatures don’t spend all their time fighting and killing one another, or looking for human beings to threaten and attack. But if film makers, no matter how serious they are about telling the truth, want to eat, have somewhere to live, educate their kids and so on, they simply have to comply with what the programmers want – and thus, the cycle continues. Of course, it sometimes backfires. Some years ago – unfortunately I can’t remember the exact details now – research in the UK found that school children on field trips into the countryside were bored, because “nothing was happening”. Wildlife programmes on television had led them to expect nature to be full of continuous action and excitement. If children find real nature and the countryside “boring”, imagine how that will influence them when they grow up and find themselves in positions of authority where they may have to make decisions about siting roads, factories, quarries and so on in otherwise unspoilt but “boring” countryside.


If television would just take some of their hour-long wildlife slots and break of them into shorter segments of 30 or even 15 minutes, they would open up the screens to hundreds, perhaps even thousands of fascinating stories about some of the wonders of nature that are astonishing and intriguing, and that would grab audience attention – without any of the drama that is needed to sustain 52 minutes. In my own files I have dozens of stories like that – and so probably, do most other wildlife film makers – but we just never get the chance to tell them because there’s almost no market for short wildlife films on television.

Lord Reith, father of the BBC, said the job of broadcasting was to inform, educate and entertain – but nowadays unfortunately, much of wildlife programming seems to have got itself stuck solely in the entertainment category. It’s a pity because it means a lot of stuff that could give audiences a better understanding of the other life we share this planet with, is largely kept off our screens.

In the circumstances, it’s a miracle that The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree ever got made. It says a lot for the courage and acumen of Mike Gunton, who was commissioning editor on The Natural World at the time, that he was prepared to buck the trend and take it on. There’s no sex, no killing, no violent confrontations – just a boring old tree and a lot of small-scale interactions going on around it, plus a few examples of the dreaded Homo sapiens (who doesn’t even exist in Nature if lots of the wildlife TV programmes are to be believed).

Himal – 20 years of celebrating South Asian diversity


This is a map of South Asia, the sub-region where I live — along with over 1.5 billion other people, a quarter of humanity.

For sure it’s different: things look as if they have been turned upside down. But are they?

This map was published by Himal Southasian, our region’s one and only publication that really thinks and acts in genuinely South Asian terms.

Himal is celebrating 20 years of publication this month, and I join its many friends worldwide in congratulating and saluting this courageous, persistent citizen effort to evolve a regional mentality and identity for the currently divided and fragmented South Asia.

A note on their website reads:
“A friend just told us we had turned twenty. And so we counted the years and indeed it has been two decades since Himal began in 1987. That was the start of our Himalayan phase, and it has been ten years since Himal went Southasian. During the period, some of us have gone from black to grey, others grey to silver.”

That sounds characteristic of Himal’s founder, editor in chief and publisher, Kanak Mani Dixit — one of the most senior journalists in South Asia. He and his journalist brother Kunda Dixit have kept Himal going for two decades.

Kanak Mani Dixit

As with the map, Himal has offered a different, sometimes defiant, perspective on issues of public and topical interest. Staying within the basic principles of journalism, it has challenged assorted tyrants and monopolies; questioned middle class complacency and lampooned South Asian idiosyncrasies.

Except for a short period when its soul was (temporarily) possessed by crusty intellectuals (my favourite definition: people educated beyond their intelligence), Himal has remained readable, passionate and credible — virtues that are not that common in a region that has an abundance of periodicals in English and many other local languages.

Before I get carried away, let me declare that:
1. I’m privileged to count Kanak and Kunda among my friends
2. I occasionally contribute articles to Himal that they are kind enough to print. In that respect, I’m part of the ‘Himal mafia’ and my praise is anything but objective!

But hey, who wants to peddle that cold and clinically detached objectivity that journalism schools continue to advocate? Himal is living proof that one can take a stand, vehemently if needed, and still do good journalism.

As Himal comes of age, I hope it will continue to kick ass, puncture inflated egos and remain outside the ‘mainstream’ for a long time to come. Never give up, guys — too much is at stake!

PS: On the ‘right side map’ itself, Himal explained:
This map of South Asia may seem upside down to some, but that is because we are programmed to think of north as top of page. This rotation is an attempt by the editors of Himal (the only South Asian magazine) to reconceptualise ‘regionalism’ in a way that the focus is on the people rather than the nation-states. This requires nothing less than turning our minds downside-up.

Read greetings to Himal from friends and fans all over the world!

Channel South Asia? Yes and No!

I wrote a few days ago about Ujala TV, a fledgling and entirely private, modest effort to operate a satellite TV channel carrying education and information for South Asian audiences — a quarter of the world’s total population.

This reminds me of discussions that have been around for years about setting up a South Asian TV network.

It’s one of those good ideas too dangerous to be mentioned frequently in public — in case our South Asian governments actually take it up! And that, as all South Asians know, will be the death of another good idea.

Two years ago, Himal Southasian, the only publication that truly thinks and acts at South Asian level (even if they spell it as one word: Southasian!) ran an interesting analysis on the prospects for a South Asian channel. It was written by Indian journalist Aman Malik.

The article’s premise was this:
Isn’t it time for a regional television network that ‘thinks Southasian’ and broadcasts via satellite and cable throughout the region? While Latin America’s incipient Telesur and West Asia’s energetic Al Jazeera might provide models, it is clear that we will have to go our own way.

Read Channel Southasia by Aman Malik in Himal Southasian, Nov – Dec 2005

Himal Southasian Cartoon courtesy Himal Southasian

It looked at the experience of Al Jazeera Arabic channel in the Middle East (launched in 1996), and the more recent initiative of Telesur, the pan Latin American television network founded by the Chavez administration of Venezuela in 2005.

Aman’s article was based on this premise:
“Regionalism in Southasia, which got a boost with the official sanction of the establishment of SAARC two decades ago, has been an increasingly important theme for civil society in each of the region’s countries. Over time, such groups have felt the need for print and electronic media that cover the region as a whole; the overwhelming presence of western satellite news has made analysts call for native channels. The spread of Indian channels, in particular the satellite footprints of Hindi and English broadcasts emanating from India, has again led people in other countries to call for a satellite channel that is uniquely Southasian, without allegiance to any national sensibility.”

Map courtesy www.safeer.info copy-of-southasian-map-by-himal.jpg

He also analysed the prevailing media mix accurately when he wrote:
Coverage of the Southasian neighbourhood is hampered by the fact that no television channels, beyond the few big Indian channels, keep correspondents (or even stringers) in the neighbouring countries. As a result, the news that is used is filtered through the medium of Western wire services and television channels. A region the size of the Subcontinent generates an enormous volume of news, but you would not know that ‘there is a region out there’ if you watched television in any of the countries of Southasia. The Indian channels that are able do so send camera units parachuting into nearby countries – if there is a bombing spree in Dhaka, for instance, a state of emergency in Kathmandu, or a tsunami disaster in Colombo. But they themselves have neither the wherewithal nor the interest to stay with a story to do follow-up.”

He then summed up the divided opinion on the timing for such a channel:
“Some believe that now is the perfect time for a Southasian channel; they tend to be the idealists who hanker for ‘soft borders’, Southasian camaraderie, peace and the prosperity that comes from peace. There are others who believe that the time is not right for such a channel; they tend to be the realists who point out, first, that the audiences are currently not present for a channel that tries to be all things to all audiences across seven nation states. They also point to the enormous costs of running a satellite channel in Southasia. Such an investment would be unlikely to be backed by bankers and investors – at least, not until the movement for Southasian regionalism evolves into a revolution.”

Among the key issues such a venture will have to address is language. There is no one South Asian language spoken and understood by all people — between Hindu and Urdu, a few hundred million may be covered but it still leaves out a sizeable number who don’t understand these. English, for the time being, is the language that cuts across political borders, even if it has its own cultural barriers: only a numerical minority speaks English, even if they are among the more influential in societies.

Other challenges for a Channel South Asia include:
* Given the enormous diversity among South Asian peoples, societies and economies, how would audience be defined for such a channel (no channel can be all things to all people).
* How to rise above the interests and perspective of a single country
* How to recruit and nurture staff who can think beyond and above their own nationalities
* Where in geographical terms can such a broadcaster be anchored, and yet stay beyond the crushing bureaucracy and political pressures of the physical location?
* Where to find the investors with deep enough pockets yet honourable enough not to meddle with the editorial aspects of such an operation

I agree fully with Aman when he writes:
The governments of Southasia clearly cannot be expected to back a Southasian television channel — neither by themselves, nor due to their lack of trust in each other. Such a channel would be an expensive project, from the hardware and satellite hook-ups, to region-wide networks of correspondence and marketing reach. But if not the government, then who would have the required cash to promote it? While a sense of regionalism may be developing, it is still incipient as far as the marketplace is concerned; investors are hardly going to come up at this time with the multimillion dollars that the project would need.

I, for one, am relieved that South Asian governments are unlikely to come together in such a venture – we’ve suffered long enough and hard enough with our state-owned, government-controlled, ruling party mouthpieces (both radio and TV) that pollute our airwaves (a public commons) every day and night. Euphemistically called ‘national television’, these conduits of governmental propaganda have progressively lost audience share — and influence — since private channels started operating in the early 1990s. They are today reduced to vanity channels for vane politicians and bureaucrats. The mass audience has long ago abandoned them.

I’d rather take chances with a South Asian Murdoch, than with our unaccountable, selfish governments.

Read the full article on Channel Southasia in Himal Southasian, Nov-Dec 2005
Enriching South Asian airwaves: Ujala TV is one year old – and counting

Satellites and South Asia: An overview by David Page and William Crawley published in Himal South Asian magazone, August 2000

Arthur C Clarke on ‘Satellites and Saris – 25 years later’ in Frontline Magazine, 28 April – 11 May 2001

Bill Moyers and the Yes Men: The ultimate media merger?

On 20 July 2007, the Bill Moyers Journal on PBS opened with these words by the inimitable Bill Moyers:

“Here with me now are two partners of Triglyceride Investments, a private equity fund that recently announced its intention of combining the assets of all the hedge funds on Wall Street in order to bring under a single canopy of ownership every media outlet in America. Their prospectus contends that the handful of big media companies that control most of what you see, hear, and read cannot possibly produce maximum return on investment as long as each has to field its own army of lobbyists in Washington.

“If only one holding company instead of four or five controlled all the country’s radio and television stations and all of its cable, newspaper, and Internet outlets, eliminating the need for the competitive purchase of politicians, the savings on campaign contributions alone would increase the bottom line tenfold.

“Not the least of their argument is that since our present media system and Washington so closely mirror each others’ interests, it could even be possible to close down the government altogether and have the country run by Wall Street, saving huge sums of money now spent on perpetuating an impression to the contrary. Joining me are Andy Bichlbaum, the chairman of Triglyceride Investments, and his partner, Mike Bonanno, chief executive of their offshore subsidiary, Tsetse Media Inc., with headquarters in the Marianas Islands.

Bill talks with the two ‘money men’ very seriously for a couple of minutes — before letting on that it’s all a big joke. The two men are not from Wall Street – they’re the ‘Yes Men’ and “they serve up satirical humor laced with lunacy to call the media’s attention to serious issues”.

Read the full transcript of the 21-minute interview

Watch the full interview on PBS Online

The Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, two impersonators who use satire to bring media attention to issues that otherwise might be overlooked.

Their premise, from their website, is:
Small-time criminals impersonate honest people in order to steal their money. Targets are ordinary folks whose ID numbers fell into the wrong hands. Honest people impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.

It all started some years ago when they set up a parody of the World Trade Organization’s website. Somebody mistook it for the real thing and they got a serious invitation to speak as experts at an international conference in Austria.

“We actually see this as a form of journalism. Or perhaps more precisely, the form of collaboration of journalists,” explains Bichlbaum in his interview with Bill Moyers.

“A lot of the issues that we address journalists want to cover. But…in many situations, editorial control won’t let them unless there’s a good little hook behind it. And so, we’ve found a way to create funny spectacles that give journalists the excuse to cover issues.”

To me, their best prank was when they managed to fool BBC World TV in front of a global audience. In December 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, “Dow representative” “Jude Finisterra” went on BBC World TV to announce that the company was finally going to compensate the victims with US$ 12 billion, and clean up the mess in Bhopal. The story shot around the world, much to the chagrin of Dow, who briefly disavowed any responsibility. And the BBC was left with egg all over its smug face.

Watch how the mighty news giant fell for a prank by two determined men:

After this, would you ever trust BBC World when it claims to give us the bigger picture?

And here’s the UK Channel Four’s gleeful documentation of how the BBC and other news media fell for the Yes Men:

The Yes Men have also impersonated representatives from Halliburton, Exxon and others, giving public presentations aimed at exposing what they believe to be discrepancies between how these groups want to be seen and how they really act. They call this process, “identity correction.”

While some criticize them for deception and call their hijinx unethical, they argue “these kinds of [corporate and political] wrongdoings are at such a scale – they’re so vast compared to our white lies that we think it’s ethical.”

Take the PBS Online Poll: Do you think the Yes Men’s methods are an acceptable form of social activism?

Mike and Andy released their first film in 2004 entitled, “The Yes Men,” as well as a book, The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organisation. They are planning on releasing a new film shortly.

If I ever meet them, I’ll have just one question: just how do you suppress the giggles as you fool the gullible?

Enriching South Asian airwaves: Ujala TV is one year and counting…

Some of us dream about doing great things. Other agitate for reform. A few among us just go ahead and do it.

This story is about one such group, and its inspirational leader, who took on the formidable challenge of setting up an educational television channel for South Asia.

Just thinking about it can scare away most people. Home to over 1.5 billion people, including the largest concentration of poor anywhere in the world, South Asia is in a region full of disparities, divisions and desperation. It is not only the most militarised region in the world, but also one of the most highly bureaucratised (the British invented bureaucracy and we in South Asia perfected it!). Starting a new venture of any kind is fraught with endless permissions and paperwork.

None of this deterred Rashid Latif from launching Ujala TV in mid 2006 as a free, 24-hour satellite television channel dedicated to education and information with focus on South Asia.

Ujala TV Ujala TV Ujala TV

Ujala TV is wholly owned and operated by a non-profit entity called the People’s Education Network (PEN) that Rashid founded.

As the channel’s website says: ”A refreshing new television alternative, Ujala does not belong to any nation – it belongs to South Asia. Showcasing both local and international programs our goal is to help ease the barriers placed between us and within our own minds.”

Ujala TV’s test transmissions started on 2 July 2006 from Dubai, where Latif assembled his small team of hard-working professionals at the Dubai Media City. This was a smart move: not to be anchored in any single country in South Asia itself when broadcasting to the region.


Photo shows (L to R) Rashid Latif, Nalaka Gunawardene and Sohail Khan in Dubai, May 2006

As Sohail Khan, Director Operations of Ujala TV, recalled recently: “I still cherish the excitement when I was at Samacom (the Uplink Earth Station at Dubai) at around 2 am Dubai Time to press the button to air Ujala for the very first time at 00:00 GMT on 2 July 2007 (4 am Dubai Time) to start the Test Transmission.”

They had worked long and hard to get to that point. A few weeks earlier, in mid May 2006, I stopped over in Dubai specifically to meet Rashid and his team who were busy preparing to launch. At that time, they were working out of their office for 16 – 18 hours a day, every day, and sleeping a few hours at the office itself.

This was no multi-million dollar start up channel. The entire operation was being financed by Rashid Latif from personal funds. Although the channel’s aims were entirely in the public interest, he declined to seek funding from development donors or philanthropic foundations.

A Pakistan-born Canadian citizen, Rashid worked in the Pakistan government as a senior broadcast manager before heading west to work in the corporate sector. He started Ujala TV after formal retirement.

“I started working on ‘Ujala’ project (at the age of 75) when most of my contemporaries had either played their innings or were about to pack up and leave for the pavilion,” Rashid said in a recent letter.

Until this letter, I had no idea that Rashid was 75. He has the energy and drive of someone in his late 50s or early 60s!

Sohail looks back on the first year: “During this first year, we came across many difficulties, including, changing laws in India and Pakistan for Landing Rights with huge financial requirements, and increase in running costs due to change in different rentals here in Dubai. These problems, however, do not have any effect on our determination, and we are still trying to eliminate the darkness from our part of the world, and to spread Ujala.


The new channel still struggles to establish its brand identity and distribution networks — it’s not easy to compete with big corporations with their deep pockets.

But a modest start has been made. Now we need to sustain the momentum.

Meanwhile, Rashid is looking for a dynamic South Asian national to take over from him, so that he can fully retire. Now that’s going to be a tall order.

Declaration of interests:
1. I am on the honorary Board of Governors of People’s Education Network along with over a dozen academics, journalists and film-makers who share Rashid’s ideal for a South Asian public interest TV channel.
2. TVE Asia Pacific has supplied many development films to Ujala TV over the past few months.

Read Aman Malik’s article in Himal Southasian on Channel Southasia

All Online Data Lost after Internet Crash…

This report has just come in, from my favourite news source, Onion News Network….enjoy!

I wonder what I would do if all my blog posts were suddenly lost….irrevocably? Agh — perish the thought!

And this reliable news report confirms something I’ve suspected all along — when it comes to e-commerce, Nigeria’s is the southern economy that is best developed: I receive evidence of that in my email practically everyday…

UNESCO playing spoil-sport in new Seven Wonders

UNESCO is playing spoil-sport again…this time about the new Seven Wonders of the world.

The crusty, officious UN agency — not my favourite, as regular readers know — is sadly trapped in its own ideological rhetoric of the 1980s. Somebody should kick them hard to enter the 21st century!

The new Seven Wonders of the World is an attempt to create a modern-day alternative to historical lists of the Seven Wonders of the World. Based on a worldwide online poll organised by the private, Swiss-based, non-profit New Open World Corporation (NOWC), the final list was announced on 7 July 2007 in Lisbon, Portugal.

The winners were selected from among dozens of initial nominations. The new Seven Wonders of the world are: The Great Wall of China; Petra of Jordan; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Machu Piccu ruins of Peru; Chichen Itza archaeological site in Mexico; The Colosseum of Rome, Italy; and the Taj Mahal of India.

Read more in the NOWC description or Wikipedia description

Image from n7w image courtesy n7w image from n7wimage from n7w

This campaign was launched in 2000 as a private initiative by the Swiss philanthropist, adventurer and film-maker Bernard Weber – his idea was to encourage citizens around the world to select seven new wonders of the world by popular vote.

And he turned to the Internet as a mass medium for people to express their preferences.

This is what seems to have irked UNESCO the most — allowing ordinary people to have their say about the common heritage of humankind.

After the new Seven Wonders were announced on 7 July 2007, two UNESCO spokespersons ridiculed the whole idea. Their contempt for the (rival?) process was palpable. This is not how any media spokespersons should behave. Read a widely reproduced media report: UNESCO slams new seven wonders

Earlier, in an official statement full of pomposity and self-importance, UNESCO had distanced itself from the initiative (even if the former UNESCO director general, Frederico Mayor of Spain, is heading the expert panel advising the new Seven Wonders selection process). Here’s an extract:
“There is no comparison between Mr Weber’s mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The list of the ‘7 New Wonders of the World’ will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the internet and not the entire world. This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.”

Note the word ‘mediatised’ — which I suppose means media-based and web-driven. This piques me the most. What is wrong in using the mass media, including the web, to generate new levels of interest and enthusiasm about cultural heritage, as the New Seven Wonders initiative has succeeded in doing.

Ironically, UNESCO has an entire division on Communication and Information, which says it promotes the use of media in socio-cultural development. They claim to work with both the conventional media (TV, radio, print) as well as the new media (web, mobile devices and other ICTs).

Is it that UNESCO is such a multi-headed, mixed-up creature that its World Heritage division can publicly condemn the use of media in the public interest while another division upholds it?

Or, could it be that when UNESCO talks about media in development and democracy, it expects the poor, suffering people in the Majority World to just stick to the issues of bread and butter, livestock and water? Does UNESCO expect the ordinary people and private citizens to stay away from the lofty issues of cultural heritage? Are those only discussed by diplomats and experts, many of them as crusty and officious as UNESCO itself?

And can somebody please explain to me how a process involving 100 million online votes is less valid than the ‘scientific and educational work’ of UNESCO in selecting World Heritage sites — involving no more than a few hundred persons at the most (all government officials and academics)?

image from n7w image from n7w image from n7w

The grand old lady of Paris should realise that she can’t have it both ways. If UNESCO sincerely advocates the free flow of information, media freedom and the promotion of ICTs in development, then it must be prepared for the resulting public engagement of issues in the media — ranging from the frivolous to lofty, and everything in between. It cannot and must not set the agenda, or expect certain issues to be left aside to boffins who claim to know more than the rest of us.

Whether UNESCO likes or not, the web has truly let the genie out of the bottle. Gone — hopefully forever, and not a moment too soon! — are the days when a handful of men in suits (it’s usually graying men, with very few women involved) could decide matters of global public interest behind closed doors.

By its aloofness, UNESCO made itself irrelevant in the seven wonders selection process. The smarter option would have been to stay engaged and use the massive popular interest to draw attention to the need to invest more time, effort and resources to conserve cultural heritage everywhere. A great opportunity was missed.

But thankfully, other arms of the UN were a bit more pragmatic. For example, the United Nations Office for Partnerships recognised the value of new Seven Wonders.

The stark choice for UNESCO is to rethink its intellectual arrogance, or risk being sidelined — and seen as the biggest hypocrite in the entire UN family.

At a minimum, UNESCO must heed the timeless advice of Rabindranath Tagore:
If you can lead, lead.
If you cannot, then follow.
If you cannot lead or follow, get out of the way!

Now, nominate your natural Seven Wonders of the world — new online poll now underway! Never mind what UNESCO has to say about it!