Monday, 9 May 2011

Link between fracking and flammable water, study says

Last month, I wrote about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the lives of Julie and Craig Sautner. Today public interest investigative website, ProPublica, reports that "a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire". The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "stands to shape the contentious debate over whether drilling is safe and begins to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks", reports ProPublica. Click here for the full story.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Gender bias in South Asian film industry?

Critically renowned Indian Filmmaker, Aparna Sen, was on a panel at the New York Indian Film Festival today, talking about her work and whether she has experienced "gender bias" in the industry.

Sen said: "I am often asked what it's like to be a women in a male-dominated industry and I've always said that I haven't come across any gender bias."

Sen explained: "A film unit is a bunch of very disciplined individuals and when they know that you know the job they shut up and listen and do what they are asked to. It's only when you are nonplussed that they won't take you seriously."

I have often heard women, in competitive industries who have male connections (like Sen) or who have such force-of-nature personalities that they just steamroll through to get what they want, make this kind of comment. There is an element of truth to it, but that doesn't mean there are not hurdles for women in less fortunate positions than Sen. The Bengali filmmaker did later go on to say that there was an invisible boy's club.

Others on the panel included, Vaishali Sinha talking discussing her documentary film, Made In India, about a western couple seeking an Indian woman for a surrogacy contract, and Bela Negi,  on her film, Daayen Ya Baayen, about a man trying to find his dignity in poor village.

A great antidote to mainstream Bollywood.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Sing Sing

As I went through security at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining this morning, the guard noticed my accent and asked why I wasn't watching the royal wedding. The grim correctional facility in upstate New York made famous in films like Breakfast at Tiffany's surely was a stark contrast to the feelgood occasion taking place in England, but it showed me how another part of America's population lived.

Our informed tour guide quashed rumors of the prison closing, saying it was too important for local jobs. Although the debate is still swirling and depends more on administrative and political decision-making.

I was at Sing Sing with colleagues from a human rights charity to look at the treatment of prisoners. We were shown the complete lack of privacy the prisoners had in their own cells complete with toilets, as we walked down a housing block and how they had to shower within 10 to 15 minutes in doorless cubicles before the warden turned off the water at the mains. Another housing block for which there is a waiting list, allowed inmates to walk around freely and even keep pets but the warden said it still hadn't stopped one inmate from knifing another to death a few weeks ago.

One person in the group thought the "prisoners had it pretty good", others imagined living in those conditions if they were unfairly imprisoned. An educational and eye-opening visit.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Social mobility on both sides of the Atlantic

I liked columnist and writer, Allison Pearson's view on UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg's social mobility strategy plans reported in the UK press this week. Clegg said he wanted to reverse the unpaid internship culture that favoured the wealthy and well-connected.

Pearson pointed out: "Fairness is the new buzzword for politicians, yet string-pulling is to our ruling elite what rain is to Swansea. It’s the prevailing climate, whether you’re Left or Right."

Last month a black British journalist who has been working in the US media for more than a decade told me she preferred working in America because there were more opportunities for people like her than in the UK. She told me she did not think she would have made it to a senior rank like she had in the States, in the UK. (Although, the trade-off was a general lack of intellectualism and an inappropriate amount of deference to authority figures in the US media, she added!)

Yet the U.S. has its own problems in this area. Coincidentally, last week there was debate around a new book published here called “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” by a researcher at the Himalayan Languages Project, Ross Perlin.  He writes: "Colleges and universities have become cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom, failing to inform young people of their rights or protect them from the miserly calculus of employers. In hundreds of interviews with interns over the past three years, I found dejected students resigned to working unpaid for summers, semesters and even entire academic years — and, increasingly, to paying for the privilege."

On both sides of the Atlantic, the more wealthy and well-connected are likely to be able to survive while doing these internships. But in the US the point is that interns are being exploited to weaken the leverage of existing employees trying to find work in the current economy - i.e. professionals, which others may refer to as the jilted generation.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

How much can Britain be blamed for problems in its former colonies?

So British PM, David Cameron, has said that Britain is responsible for most of the world's problems as he made a visit to Pakistan. When asked what Britain could do when it came to the dispute in Kashmir, he replied: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place.”

At home in the UK, he was criticised for being too ready to tell foreign hosts what they wanted to hear by saying Britain is responsible for everything bad that may have happened in its former colonies. The issue is too complex and cannot be simplified but I know it is a recurring and contentious one. In 2006 it came up in a different setting - when Radio 4 ran its This Sceptred Isle: Empire series and historians examined how Britain and other countries around the world have been changed by their experience of empire. Historian Niall Ferguson and academic Priya Gopal exchanged polemical blows on whether the former was a imperial apologist.

The British Empire operated differently from place to place, and any discussion of its possible benefits should take that into account and its negative impacts cannot be denied either. The whole point should be to engage less in a polemical battle of views but more on learning about the past, knowing we cannot change it. Then doing what we can to change negative situations in the present. Not easy, I know, but more mature and effective perhaps?

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Fracking up American lives?

You may have heard of fracking in the documentary film, Gasland (or maybe in Battlestar Galactica where it's used as a more polite substitute for other insults). In this blog entry I am referring to the former definition.

On Sunday, I travelled to Dimock in Pennsylvania to talk to Craig and Julie Sautner about the consequences of living near "fracking" sites. What is fracking? It's another term for hydraulic fracturing, a method of natural gas extraction employed in deep natural gas well drilling. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well.

The potential harm to health and the environment is under-researched and films like Gasland and the testimonies of those like the Sautners, provide a massive cause for concern. The Sautners have not had clean running water for almost two years and are not able to sell their home and move because of this. Instead, they have to use spring water provided to them by the barrel. In the meantime they are breathing in air that they believe is being contaminated by the drilling of gas companies.

On our trip, at least three of my colleagues felt nauseous upon arriving in Dimock. One has a sensitivity to chemicals and said she could taste metal on her tongue as soon as she entered the town.

The Sautners vow to stand firm against any continuation of the drilling as a moratorium passed last year to stop gas companies drilling for a time, comes to an end. The Sautners are calling for more research  on the health and environmental fallout of "fracking" as well as a clean water supply.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Freedom to Create

You must be in a pretty horrific situation if you perceive that setting yourself on fire is the only way to escape from it. The aftermath of attempted self-immolation by some Afghani women is documented in photographs by Lynsey Addario, showing at a new exhibit in New York.

The art on display at the Freedom to Create exhibit at the Ana Tzarev Gallery is not limited to these terrible experiences though. The exhibit which opened with a forum about empowering women through creativity showcases art by women from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan and Lebanon. Some of the work is an affirmation of being human in a society that may try to prohibit that expression. For example, Salome, a Iranian rapper and poet, is keen to point out that she is not a "feeble woman struggling to fight for her right to sing" in a country where arts and culture are heavily restricted, especially for female performers. She says she wants to be recognised for expressing herself creatively and not as a struggling woman in an oppressive society.

Freedom to Create which is a non-profit organization based in Singapore was established in 2006 to "harness the power art and culture to build more creative and prosperous societies" and since 2008 has been awarding prizes to artists, too.

Vice president, Priti Devi, told me the organization believes in building societies from the bottom up.  She says: "We want people to use their talents to express themselves and to have the right to be creative that everyone must have."  If people are able to express themselves they have the confidence to use it and do other things with it, such as using it in an entrepreneurial way and this can reap financial reward for the individual, the larger family and then society, according to Freedom to Create.

Devi says if this can happen the world's attention can become focused on their activities which can help funnel in more money to their societies. She points out the recent events in Egypt as a broad example of people being forced to live "smaller" lives and not being part of a global economy. "They realised they were left out of prosperity and they realised they wanted to be a part of that. Flourishing is not just the right of a few people."  This is Freedom to Create's role, adds Devi.