Suharto’s legacy: Mass grave Indonesia

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic,” said Joseph Stalin — and he knew what he was talking about.

These words came to my mind as I followed the news coverage and commentary about the death on 27 January 2008 of Suharto, the former Indonesian military leader, and the second President of Indonesia, who was in office from 1967 to 1998.

Many western and globalised media reports touched on Suharto regime’s alleged mass-scale corruption, and the dizzy heights that crony capitalism reached under his watch.

But few talked about the genocide of unarmed, innocent civilians that took place in the years that brought him to power, 1965-67. Another blood bath took place in 1975 when Indonesian forces invaded and took over East Timor. Even those that touched on the subject used varying estimates of how many perished.

The Guardian (UK) obituary estimated the number killed in 1965-67 to be around 600,000. Others, such as BBC News, placed it at half a million, noting that “the bloodshed which accompanied his rise to power, after a mysterious coup attempt in 1965 which he blamed on Indonesia’s then-powerful Communist Party, was on a scale matched only in Cambodia in this region”.

In all probability, no one really knows the real number of Indonesians were slaughtered as the army – cheered by anti-communist west – cracked down on members and supporters of the Communist Party of Indonesia, at that time a legal political party. Genocidists don’t like to keep detailed records.

The New York Times, a long-standing cheer-leader of the ‘smiling general’, acknowledged that Suharto’s 32-year-long dictatorship was ‘one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century’.

NYT added: “His rule was not without accomplishment; he led Indonesia to stability and nurtured economic growth. But these successes were ultimately overshadowed by pervasive and large-scale corruption; repressive, militarized rule; and a convulsion of mass bloodletting when he seized power in the late 1960s that took at least 500,000 lives.”

On the whole, however, the mainstream media has been far more preoccupied with the (admittedly important) issue of how much Suharto and family stole than how many people were killed extra-judicially during his regime.

In that respect, things haven’t changed all that much since Suharto was driven out of power by mass protests. American economist and media analyst Edward S Herman, who co-authored Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky, wrote a commentary nearly 10 years ago titled Good and Bad Genocide: Double standards in coverage of Suharto and Pol Pot.

His opening para:
“Coverage of the fall of Suharto reveals with startling clarity the ideological biases and propaganda role of the mainstream media. Suharto was a ruthless dictator, a grand larcenist and a mass killer with as many victims as Cambodia’s Pol Pot. But he served U.S. economic and geopolitical interests, was helped into power by Washington, and his dictatorial rule was warmly supported for 32 years by the U.S. economic and political establishment. The U.S. was still training the most repressive elements of Indonesia’s security forces as Suharto’s rule was collapsing in 1998, and the Clinton administration had established especially close relations with the dictator (“our kind of guy,” according to a senior administration official quoted in the New York Times, 10/31/95).”

Suharto’s demise reminded me of a powerful short documentary I saw a few years ago. Titled Mass Grave Indonesia, it was directed by courageous young Indonesian journalist Lexy Junior Rambadeta (photos below).

Lexy Rambadeta

He works as a freelance TV journalist for international news agencies, and is a key member of the Jakarta-based media collective Off-Stream. It was started Off Stream in 2001 by journalists, filmmakers, photographers and multimedia artists “who have strong commitments and creativities on catering, promoting, covering, documenting and producing multiculturalism documentary video/film, photography and multimedia products”.

OffStream lists as its mission: To give a voice to “survivors of horror”; To tear down walls of “silence”; and To denounce “injustice” and “barbarism”.

One of their first productions was Mass Grave Indonesia, whose synopsis reads:
“Approximate between from 500 000 to 3 million of people in Indonesia have been killed by Soeharto’s regimes and buried somewhere in the wood distributed. A full and frank account of what happened in the reburial of 26 victims of horror in the 1965 mass killings. This documentary film weaves its story against the tide by presenting evidence of cruelties sponsored by the military in two regions of Central Java.”

I have just tracked down the 19-minute film on YouTube, presented in two parts:

Mass Grave – Indonesia: Part 1 of 2

Mass Grave – Indonesia: Part 2 of 2

This is no western film, filmed by visiting foreign journalists who might be accused of having one agenda or another. This is a film made by Indonesia’s own journalists who found their voice and freedom after the Suharto regime ended in 1998.

I have emailed Lexy this week asking how this film – and agitation by many human rights and democracy activists – have helped bring about belated justice to his own people. I await his reply, which will be published when received.

Engaging new media: prepare to lose control!

The development community never tires of talking about the value of participatory, two-way communication. Every workshop, report and discussion has a dose of this mantra sprinkled all over.

Yet when it comes to actually practising communication, most development agencies I know are so concerned with complete control – they want to edit endlessly, fine-tune their messages to the last letter and comma, and regulate how and where the message is disseminated.

There’s no harm in being organised and focused. But when communication officers are pushed into becoming publicity agents (or worse, spin doctors!) for their agencies, controlling the message becomes obsessive.

I’ve had more than my fair share of this. One example was when working on a documentary for a leading UN agency in Asia that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, was commissioned to produce. Now, films cannot be made by committees, but UN agencies never stop trying. At one point, over-zealous agency officials were tinkering with the post-shooting script so much that they edited even the interview clips included in the draft.

That only stopped when I pointed out that hey, those are transcribed verbatim from interviews we’d already filmed!

So imagine how hard it would be for such organisations to let go of the Complete Control over communications that they’ve aspired to perfect for so long.

And yet, as I told a small meeting convened by UNEP in Bangkok last week to plan their next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, that’s not a choice, but an imperative with today’s new media.

In the four years since we worked on the last ozone communication strategy and action plan for the Asia Pacific, we have seen the emergence of web 2.0 – which is really a catch-all term that covers many second generation, interactive platforms and opportunities that have emerged using the global Internet.

Among these are blogs, wikis, social networking sites (e.g. MySpace, Facebook), social bookmarking (e.g., video exchange platforms (e.g. YouTube), online games and mobile applications.

These and other new media tools enable development communicators to reach out to, and engage, many people – especially the youth who make up more than half of all Asians.


But that’s part of the challenge, I said, referring to what I call the ‘Other Digital Divide’ – one that separates (most members of) the development community from ‘Digital Natives’, young people who have grown up taking these digital media and tools completely for granted.

I referred to my remarks at the IUCN Asia Conservation Forum in Kathmandu in September 2007, where I stressed the urgent need for the conservation and development communities to cross this divide if they want to reach out to the dominant demographic group in our vast region, home to half of humanity.

Engaging new media is not just setting up a Facebook account, taking a YouTube channel or opening a blog that’s infrequently updated. All that’s useful, for sure, but they represent only the tentative first steps to the wide and varied new media world.

As with the more established print and broadcast media, development organisations need to have a strategy and a plan based on some research, analysis and reflection.

And willing to let go of that control – so cherished by so many development professionals – is an essential part of that adjustment to the new media reality.

Failure to adjust can result in future shocks – and in the very near future! Perhaps I should also have drawn their attention to what I wrote in October 2007: New media tsunami hits global humanitarian sector; rescue operations now on

We didn’t spend too much time talking about new media at the Bangkok meeting, but I did caution that there is a lot of digital hype out there. I’m no expert on this (is anyone, really?) but my team at TVEAP and I keep trying new ways of doing things with the new media. So here are a few quick insights I offered the UNEP meeting:

• New media lot more interactive, which means they demand a lot of time and effort to engage the audience – which in turn generates huge capacity requirements for any development organisation venturing into such media.

• You can’t always control your messages on new media! This unnerves many development agencies and professionals who are so used to exercising such control – in the new media world, they just have to learn to let go!

• A core value is user-generated content (USG). You need to find creative ways to allow your audiences to generate part of the content. Control lost again!

• Citizen journalists have now established themselves online as text and/or video bloggers. Governments and corporations have acknowledged their presence — serious bloggers have recently been granted media accreditation to the UN. What does this mean for future ozone media training and journalists engagement?

• There are many companies and agencies claiming to have cracked the new media challenge – and don’t believe them! Everyone is learning, some admittedly faster than others, but there’s no substitute to actually doing it.

• And there’s no road map to the new media world, which is being created every day and night by an army of geeks and enthusiasts. There are only a few rough guides and travellers’ tales from some like ourselves who have ventured into this realm.

Note: I am grateful to my colleagues at TVE Asia Pacific who have developed and/or tested out some ideas in this blog post: Manori Wijesekera, Indika Wanniarachchi and Nadeeja Mandawala. I stand on their shoulders, hopefully lightly!

Release Ozzy Ozone held prisoner by brand guardians!

In September 2007, I wrote about Ozzy Ozone, an energetic, cheerful little ozone molecule – part of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that prevents the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet rays from coming through and causing skin cancer, cataract and other health problems.

Ozzy Ozone is part of a global public education effort by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to tell everyone how harmful UV rays are to our health, and how Ozzy and his fellow ozone molecules are literally protecting life on earth from being zapped out.

I called Ozzy the little molecule on a big mission — to tell all humans to soon phase out using certain chemicals that, when released to the air, go up and destroy his kind.

Last week, while attending a UNEP meeting in Bangkok to plan the next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, I heard some disturbing news: little Ozzy has become a prisoner of his brand guardians. As a result, he is not as free as he could be to roam the planet, spreading the vital ozone message.

Anne Fenner, Information Officer of UNEP’s OzonAction Programme revealed how she routinely turns down requests to produce toys and other material using the popular character.

“I have had so many requests from companies, but we cannot allow commercial exploitation of this brand,” Anne said.

I was stunned. Here is one of the more popular communication products to emerge from the UN, not generally known for such successful engagement of popular culture. And there we were, brainstorming on ways to get the ozone message to large, scattered (and distracted) audiences.

Ozzy was created by a graphic artist in Barbados, as part of a government-supported campaign to raise public awareness on ozone layer thinning. This cartoon character served as a “mascot” and was very effective in raising awareness in Barbados. The cartoon series was printed in local newspapers. Additionally, promotional items produced for local public awareness and education campaigns using the Ozzy graphic include posters, key rings, rulers, erasers, refrigerator magnets, mouse pads, pens, pencils, stickers, and envelopes.

The character was so popular that UNEP struck a deal with Barbados to ‘globalize’ Ozzy. An animated video was produced, along with a dedicated website, comic strips and other media adaptations.

Ozzy has been a run-away success, giving UNEP a high profile, widely popular character — and a great deal of media coverage and interest. The kind of media engagement that is typically enjoyed by Unicef, the most media-savvy of all UN agencies.

But we now know that Ozzy’s brand guardians don’t allow him to go as far as he could. They may be playing by the rules, but do they realise that huge opportunities are being lost?

There we were, a small group of journalists, communicators, scientists and government officials discussing for three days how to get the biggest bang for our collectively limited buck where ozone messaging is concerned.

It was frustrating to know that the best brand ambassador has been locked up in brand integrity and copyright restrictions.

I suggested to Anne Fenner that protecting the brand integrity need not be so rigidly pursued. For example, careful franchising could be undertaken based on a set of guidelines — and the royalty could go into a trust fund that supports ozone communication work.

Indeed, the challenge for development communicators everywhere is to find the common ground between the public interest and the commercial interest. In this era of globalised media and CSR, the two interests are no longer mutually exclusive. Some might argue they never were.

The long-established copyright regimes themselves are being questioned, challenged and bypassed by a growing number of research, advocacy and activist groups. Many now publish their academic or artistic work under Creative Commons licenses, that enable their creators to be acknowledged and retain some control — and yet allow many types of uses without excessive restriction.

When TVE Asia Pacific recently released an Asian regional book called Communicating Disasters, our co-publisher UNDP Regional Centre in Bangkok proposed that the book be under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. We were happy to go along.

UNEP has some catching up to do. Turning the pages of lavishly illustrated Ozzy Ozone comic story books (of which 3 titles have come out so far), I found that UNEP has the standard copyright restriction. However, they add a line: “This publication may be reproduced in whole or part and in any form for educational or non-profit purposes without special permission from the copyright holder, provided acknowledgement of the source is made.”

That’s encouraging – but not good enough. What happens if a commercially operated media organisation wants to use this content for public interest? Will they qualify under ‘educational or non-profit purposes’?

Probably not. And that’s when the dreaded copyright lawyers could come marching out.

It’s the assorted lawyers and over-cautious officials who are keeping Ozzy Ozone a virtual prisoner.

And sadly, little Ozzy is not alone. Everywhere in the publishing and media world, we can find many examples of how creative works are being held back – usually by over-protective lawyers or accountants. Sometimes that’s the case even if the artistes or media professionals themselves would much rather let go of the rights.

In July 2007, I wrote a blog post called ‘The lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree’ — which revealed how lawyers working for the publicly-funded BBC had systematically blocked a multi-award winning African documentary film from being used for environmental education, awareness and advocacy. All because the BBC had partly funded its production, and therefore had a claim on its copyright.

So here’s our plea to Ozzy’s brand guardians in UNEP: let him roam free, taking the vital message to millions. And while at it, let him make some money (from franchisees) which can suppot the rest of UNEP’s ozone communication work.

And if some spoilsport of a copyright lawyer gets in the way, tell him/her to take a beach vacation — without sunblock.

Related links:
Sep 2006: Make poverty a copyright free zone

May 2007: TVEAP renews call for poverty as a copyright free zone

Race to Save the Sky…by 2010

This is the opening segment of an Asian film that we at TVE Asia Pacific produced in 2006 for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Called Return of the Ozone Layer: Are We There Yet? (30 mins, 2006), it tells the story of how the Asia Pacific – home to half of humanity – holds the key to saving the ozone layer…from man-made chemicals eating it up.

We presented it as a race…against time, and against many odds. Here’s how it opens.

You wouldn’t notice it even if you look carefully…but the Asia Pacific is running an important race.

It’s a race to phase out a group of chemicals used in industry, agriculture or consumer products.

When released to the atmosphere, these chemicals damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer. This ‘ozone shield’ protects all life from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

These chemicals are used in refrigerators, air conditioners, fire fighting equipment, farming and a range of other products and processes.

The industrialised countries have already stopped producing these chemicals. This happened thanks to an international environmental treaty called the ‘Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer’. It was adopted in 1987 in response to the thinning of the ozone layer – or the ‘Ozone Hole’ –discovered two years earlier.

The Montreal Protocol sets time-bound, measurable targets for managing nearly 100 different chemicals.

These are closely tied to economic activity, public health and safety. Therefore, developing countries and economies in transition were given more time to reduce consumption — with the same goal of eventually phasing them out.

20 years on, the Montreal Protocol’s implementation has produced tremendous benefits to our health and environment.

But it’s a bit too early to celebrate.

Many challenges remain.

Developing countries now have to show they are making good use of the extra time and resources given to them.

It is the Asia Pacific that now produces and consumes most of the world’s Ozone Depleting Substances – or ODS. .

All production and use of CFCs in developing countries must stop in 2010.

But it’s easier said than done. The region has tens of thousands of small scale industries and farms that still use ozone damaging chemicals.

To accomplish the remaining phase-out targets, all
of them need to be engaged.

In this film, we look at key challenges the Asia Pacific region faces on the road to 2010. Meeting these challenges would ensure timely compliance of phase-out targets.

Clearly, governments alone cannot win this race. Millions of ordinary citizens have to join in.

Millions like the five we feature in this film.

Making this 30-minute documentary was a challenge. For a start, we had to grapple with complex scientific, economic and political issues and present them in a non-technical, accessible manner. We knew the average viewer was not interested in the intricacies of inter-governmental negotiations or atmospheric chemical reactions.

Talking about the ozone layer – which is out of sight, lying a few kilometers above the Earth’s surface – is never easy. It’s harder to get people to pay attention that sustained action is needed to remove man-made threats to the ozone layer.

Our challenge was to tell the story in a simple, engaging way — and UNEP wanted it to be different from many ozone layer documentaries already made. That’s when we decided to focus on five ordinary Asians who were doing their bit to save the ozone layer.

As our opening narration put it:

Five ordinary people, living and working in the Asia Pacific – the world’s largest and most diverse region.

Their actions will impact the future of life on our planet.

And there are millions more like them.

This is their story.

Watch the entire film (in several parts) on TVEAP’s YouTube channel.

September 2007 blog post: Ozzy Ozone: The Little molecule on a big mission

Rule of the Gun in Sugarland: A film by Joey R B Lozano

In June 2007, I did a belated tribute to Joey R B Lozano, a courageous Filipino journalist who crusaded for human rights and social justice. Armed with his video camera and laptop, he was one of the early citizen journalists long before that term – and practice – became fashionable.

From Seeing is Believing

As I wrote:
Joey used his personal video camera to assert indigenous land rights, and to investigate corruption and environmental degradation in his native Philippines. Joey was an independent human rights activist and also one of the country’s leading investigative reporters.

He freelanced for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, covering Indigenous peoples’ rights and the environment, considered the two most dangerous beats in the Philippines. But years earlier, he had moved out of the capital Manila, and committed his life and career to stories and issues at the grassroots that many of his city-based colleagues had no time or patience in covering on an on-going basis.

Trained as a print journalist, Joey mastered new media and technologies whose potential he quickly realised. He moved into television and video media with ease, and later became an active blogger.

I have just tracked down on YouTube one of his documentaries, Rule of the Gun in Sugarland (2001; 9 minutes; English). It’s a powerful documentary that tells the story of Manobo villagers’ efforts to claim their ancestral land in the Philippines, and the abuse they endured because of their claim. It contains both graphic and heart wrenching scenes.

Here’s some background on indigenous people’s rights in the Philippines, as compiled by Witness – the human rights activist group with which Joey worked closely.

Source: Witness nomination of Joey R B Lozano as a Hero on

The history of the Philippines is a history of colonization, resettlement and battles over who will rule the land.

First the Spanish, then the Americans, then the Japanese, and now multinational corporations have at one time or another dominated the Filipino landscape. Each wave of colonization has forced people off more land, creating a domino effect across the 7,000 islands. Resettlement in turn, has created even more pressure on successive islands as settlers move in, pushing even more people out.

Today, despite continued widespread poverty across the Philippines, Indigenous tribe members remain the most marginalized sector of Philippine society.

In a country of 76.5 million people, almost 20 per cent are Indigenous peoples. They belong to at least 32 different ethnolinguistic groups. More than half are on Mindanao, the largest southern island.

Over the last century, Indigenous peoples have lost their traditional lands, as the logging industry, ranchers and large plantations have forcibly taken over lands, piece by piece.

Much like in other parts of the world, the land was won parcel by parcel. Original verbal agreements were made and often respected between individual ranchers and Tribe leaders to “borrow” land from the Tribe. But the agreements were quickly forgotten when the rancher died. Over the years, the land was then resold without the Tribes’ consent.

From Rule of the Gun in Sugarland

And then, under the Marcos regime, Indigenous people suffered along with farmers, as massive tracts of land were appropriated for the dictator and his cronies. When Marcos was finally thrown out by a people’s revolt, and flown out on a U.S. helicopter, successive democratic governments introduced multiple land reforms intended to redistribute the land justly, but none of these reforms ever really worked.

On the ground level, corruption and misuse of power prevented the land from being rationed and made accessible to the people the reforms were intended to help.

Meanwhile, the land reforms were intended to help the peasants and the fact that many of the lands in question were Indigenous Ancestral domains was never addressed.

Mindanao is rich in natural resources – some of the world’s last ancient rainforests, fertile soils, underground treasures of gold, an abundancy of fish — all now under the threat of overdevelopment.

In 1997, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act was signed into law. The law is explicit on the Indigenous peoples’ right to ancestral lands. But this has not become operational to date. This fact is exacerbated by the present government’s industrialization thrust and commitment to globalization. Tribal lands, thus, are being continually opened for extractive business.

For more information, check Seeing is Believing website

Can Your Film Change the World? Find out on Pangea Day!

Here’s an extraordinary invitation to all who love to watch, create or critique moving images.

Either watch the above video, linked to PangeaDay YouTube channel, or (if your bandwidth does not allow easy playing of online video) read the text I have just transcribed off the video:

In this age
Images are powerful.
Powerful enough to divide…
…to spread fear…
…to remove hope.

Powerful enough to unite
to build trust, to inspire action.

Until now, images of the many
have been held in the hands of the few.

Finally, that is changing.

Millions of people around the world
are telling their own stories.

For the first time in history
we have a chance to see the world differently.
To see it through the eyes of each other.

Imagine if we could get inside
each other’s heads for a day!
What would we see?

We are about to find out.
A worldwide search has begun
to find films of unique power.

Films that provoke…

Films made by the world
for the world.

On May 10, 2008
millions of people across the globe
will gather to witness these films
in a spectacular event
broadcast live to the entire world.

…and musicians
will join the celebration.

And it will continue afterwards in cyberspace
as a newly connected global community.

You can be part of it.

Pangea Day.

Here’s the blurb from the official website:

Pangea Day taps the power of film to strengthen tolerance and compassion while uniting millions of people to build a better future.

In a world where people are often divided by borders, difference, and conflict, it’s easy to lose sight of what we all have in common. Pangea Day seeks to overcome that – to help people see themselves in others – through the power of film.

On May 10, 2008 – Pangea Day – sites in Cairo, Dharamsala, Kigali, London, New York City, Ramallah, Rio de Janeiro, and Tel Aviv will be videoconferenced live to produce a 4-hour program of powerful films, visionary speakers, and uplifting music.

Lakshmi and Me: Filming an invisible superwoman

Seen but never noticed?
Seen but never noticed?
It’s so clichéd to say that behind every successful man stands a woman. With so many women being successful in so many spheres of activity on their own terms, this assertion is not particularly relevant or sensitive any longer.

But who stands behind some of these successful women? Writing in her regular Sunday column in The Hindu newspaper, my friend Kalpana Sharma suggests an answer: the unsung, unappreciated and often poorly paid housemaids or domestic workers.

Here’s how Kalpana opens her column, aptly titled ‘Invisible women’:

“They flit in and out of our homes like ghosts in the night. They sweep and swab, wash and cook, look after our children, care for the elderly. Yet we know little about them. Most of us just about know their first names. We don’t know where they ’re from, where they live, whether they are married, how many children they have, how many other homes they work in, what they earn — how they survive. They are virtually invisible.

“We usually wake up to their existence when they don’t turn up for work. And the first response is annoyance, because of the inconvenience caused to us. Many professional women don the title of being superwomen because they manage jobs and homes — work life balance. But in fact the real superwomen are these silent workers, without whom few professional women in India would be able to function. Yet, while those in formal employment get sick leave, casual leave, privileged leave and weekends, our domestic help is not entitled to any of this. If she rests too long, she’s lazy. If she doesn’t turn up for work, she’s a shirker. It would appear that these women don’t have the right to relax, to fall sick, to have some fun. And of course, no one acknowledges that when they’re done with our homes, they still have their own homes where they have to do the very same jobs, sweep and swab, wash clothes, cook and take care of children and elderly.

With this, Kalpana introduces a recently made Indian documentary, Lakshmi and Me (Nishtha Jain 59′, India, USA, Finland, Denmark, 2007), where the middle class film maker turns her camera on her 21-year-old part-time maid Lakshmi.

Superwoman at work...but who can see her?
Superwoman at work...but who can see her?
As Kalpana says: “Nishtha Jain, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker has done what all of us need to do. She has not just acknowledged that this silent worker in her home has a name, but she’s followed her life so that we see the person behind the name — a person just like any of us. And instead of viewing the woman from a distance, the filmmaker has bravely placed herself in the frame, honestly dissecting her own relationship as an employer. “Lakshmi and Me” is a remarkably honest documentary about 21-year-old Lakshmi and the filmmaker, Nishtha.”

I haven’t yet seen the film, and after reading Kalpana’s review, I quite look forward to catching it. I hope it goes beyond the clichéd approach of offering glimpses of how the other half lives, which afflicts many documentaries of this kind made by well-meaning middle class film-makers who can’t quite break free from their own social framework.

Watch the trailer for Lakshmi and Me on IDFA festival website

About the film-makers: Nishtha Jain and Smriti Nevatia

Kalpana Sharma Column in The Hindu: 30 December 2007: Invisible Women

Director’s Note by Nishtha Jain, writer and director of Lakshmi and Me

Lakshmi and Me film website

Kalpana Sharma blog

Photos courtesy Lakshmi and Me film

Hard Times: Give us more cars and less traffic!

In July 2007, we featured an interesting new film called Faecal Attraction. It probed the link between sewage disposal and river water pollution in India — specifically, the River Yamuna, part of the massive Indo-Gangetic river system.

Now the intrepid film-maker Pradip Saha has taken on another big, messy subject that has even bigger vested interests: the auto industry and its contribution to worsening traffic congestion, air pollution and public health in metropolitan India, especially the capital Delhi.

The film couldn’t have come at a better (worse?) time. India’s Tata Motors will be unveiling their people’s car, priced at Indian Rupees 100,000 (US$ 2,600 approx) on 10 January 2008 at Auto Expo in New Delhi.

“A car priced at hundred thousand Indian Rupees means a lot in terms of urban planning, urban life,” says Pradip, who is also the editor of Down to Earth magazine on science and environment. “Roads are already clogged, winter air is thick with SOX and NOX, our cities will be swarming with small cars.”

He says a few gunfights have already taken place in Delhi between neighbours over claims on parking space. Automobile industry has made urban space pretty absurd.

Pradip Saha Courtesy CSE India
Courtesy CSE Down to Earth

Yet, he adds, any opposition to the introduction of these swarming small cars on account of increasing traffic congestion and pollution has been termed by the car maker and their friends as ‘elitist’. “This car maker has positioned itself as the agent of liberation, where we all have cars. Kink has no boundary.”

So Pradip decided to take the issue head on, making fun of a very serious situation.

Here’s the story behind the film, in Pradip Saha’s own words:

I was invited for an art residency by Khoj, an international artist’s association in Delhi. The brief was to create a public artwork with urban ecological concern.

I decided to do something on automobiles. My initial response was to respond to the way automobiles are sold, playing with desire. I also find certain policy issues related to automobile use pretty kinky. For example, when the auto bosses complain to highest financial authority about slump in auto sale, the highest financial authority calls the bank bosses to make car loans easy. Isn’t it kinky? I was thinking of pushing these kinks and business of desire a bit and create pornography that has automobiles as characters.

I made two. But wasn’t sure about putting them in public as kids will be seeing them too. I have been talking a few friends to create a website of automobile porns, mimicking standard porn site sensibilities.

So I turned to another format. I created a fake news TV channel called HARD TIMES, and went to the road interviewing drivers and riders in cars stuck in traffic jam in Delhi. The style is a take on News TV style, where they stick a microphone down your throat on any occasion, pretending a democratic format that generates peoples’ voice.

I did the same, with 2 basic questions: What is the reason of traffic jam? and How can we solve traffic jam? I edited 5.50 minutes video, and showed it as a loop in Connaught place, on the pavement on a large plasma screen. It also had an accompanying LED display board, a la, railway station information system, that went on giving out important numbers related to absurdity of automobile use in the city. This was a loop too.

Ultra low-cost small cars — such as the much-hyped models being planned by the Tatas and other carmakers — can mean big trouble for India, unless the country makes drastic policy changes. A new study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) , released in October 2007, said the influx of these cars would drive public transport and two-wheelers off the roads and greatly increase urban congestion and pollution.

Courtesy CSE Down to Earth

Read CSE’s Down to Earth cover story on 15 October 2007: Small car revolution: Who cares about congestion, pollution

Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die!


My post last week on the Maldives on the frontline of climate change reminds me that I have been covering this story for the better part of 20 years. I have just located this photo from the depths of my personal image collection.

I first visited the Maldives in 1988, which was within months of the Indian Ocean archipelago nation suffering from a massive storm surge in 1987. Although the damage was minimal, the experience was a forceful reminder of how vulnerable the Maldives can be to even a small rise in sea levels – this is what prompted the low lying nation to take up the issue internationally.

In November 1989, the Maldives hosted the first ever small states conference on sea level rise, held at the Kurumba island resort.

It was also one of the earliest international gatherings on this issue, which was to gain public interest and momentum in the years that followed. Among the participants were delegates from practically all the small states in different parts of the world (defined as those with less than 1 million population), and scientists from disciplines such as oceanography, climatology, meteorology and geology.

This was one of the first international scientific events that I covered as an eager young science journalist. I was then a roving South Asian correspondent for Asia Technology, a popular monthly on Asian science and technology published from Hong Kong (which, alas, folded up in 1991) – there’s nothing online as it was in the pre-web era!

The conference had technical sessions where experts debated scenarios and implications, and a political segment where delegations made their official statements. In the end, they issued the Malé Declaration on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise, which urged for inter-governmental action on the issue.

small-states-conference-on-sea-level-rise-logo.jpg small-states-conference-on-sea-level-rise-logo.jpg

Some 18 years later, I’m still eager but not so young – and I’ve covered more than my share of international environmental conferences to know that they can’t save the world. At least not on their own.

But many serve a useful function in rallying around concerned parties, helping them to agree on advocacy positions. Progress at inter-governmental level can be painfully slow and incremental. Sustaining public and media interest is one way to keep pressure on the endlessly bickering governments.

Following the November 1989 conference, small island states played a key role in negotiations that led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in 1992. This is the precursor to Kyoto, Bali and other processes that are now very much in the news.

The Maldivian hosts knew that scientists and officials alone could not send out a powerful message to the world on what climate change means to low lying islands of the world – many of them no more than a few feet above sea level.

So on the last day evening, we were all taken to the Maldivian capital of Male, where we saw a demonstration and meeting held by the school children and ordinary people. To me, at least, this was the most striking moment of the whole week.

Leading up to this, I had been listening to competent experts and concerned officials talk about impacts, scenarios and mitigation measures for several days. Based on my notes and interviews, I filed several stories that captured highlights.

But unless I go back to my personal archives and look up those stories, I can no longer remember what I wrote. My lingering memories of this event are in these images, showing school children telling delegates – and the world – what it means to be living on the front lines of climate change impact.



Then newly formed Maldivian environmental organisation Bluepeace was also part of the demonstration:


I worked for several years as a science and technology reporter. I was trained to gather, process and present facts and, preferably, expert opinion. But over the years I have realised that while hard facts and expert opinions are necessary, these tell only one part of complex stories we cover.

We need to bring in the human face of our stories — how ordinary children, women and men feel about issues and how they react to situations. This is why I now argue that we should not allow the human face of climate change to be lost in our well-meaning technical and economic discussions about climate change mitigation and adaptation.

We can cover carbon neutrality, zero emissions and common but differentiated responsibilities for all we like, but if we don’t pause to listen to these little voices from the waves – from the frontlines that are already feeling the heat – we will miss the bigger picture of what climate change is all about.

Dec 2007: Road to Bali – Beware of ‘Bad Weather Friends’

Photos by Nalaka Gunawardene, Male island, November 1989

Creating news needlessly – or covering news needlessly?


This came in a few days ago – as part of my daily diet of emailed Calvin and Hobbes comic strips sent free by Go Comics.

It reminded me of our South Asian governments and many 24/7 news channels who sound just like Calvin.

Governments – at least in popularity-conscious democracies – are constantly trying to create news, even when there is nothing new, true or interesting (the triple test for news). There’s a lot more rhetoric, plans and claims than actual accomplishments.

TV news channels, having to fill 24 hours of the day, cover news needlessly and in endless repetitions and detail. (By the way, covering news needlessly is an irreverent expansion of the abbreviation CNN!).

Actually, I shouldn’t compare either entity with the smart six-year-old Calvin. He is a great deal more interesting on an on-going basis than most of our governments and much of our news media.

I’m a long-standing fan of the comic – and followed it while Bill Watterson was still drawing them from 1985 to 1995. It was a sad day indeed when he decided on 31 December 1995 not to draw any more Calvin and Hobbes.