Sunday, January 30, 2005

Mercy bears richer fruits

Deadline Microphone

I just attended a screening of the excellent movie Deadline at Boardman's Art Theatre. It's about the death penalty and how George Ryan , the republican governor of Illinois, decided to enforce a moratorium on executions after it was found that the system was deeply flawed. He made this decision after appointing a panel to study death-penalty cases in the state. The whole process was sparked by some students (some still in high school!) who, in a Northwestern class on investigative jounalism, proved the innocence of a person on death row. This lead to a series in the Chicago Tribune with a more comprehensive study of all death penalty cases in the state.

One of the memorable moments of the film is hearing Richard Nixon (of all people) railing against crime and pledging to be tough on it. "Anti-crime" legislation that he signed lead to the supreme court reversing it's 1972 ruling, and reintroducing the death penalty in 1976. Also, we find out that the mentally-ill man that Bill Clinton signed away to death in 1992 actually told his jailors at his last meal that he would save his dessert for after his execution. And finally there was a clip of Pres.Bush in an electoral debate during the 2000 elections speaking of how certain he was that every one of the many (about 150?) people that were put to death by his state under his governorship was guilty as they had access to the texas justice system. I suspect that his favourite philosopher, with all that talk of forgiveness and not casting the first stone and turning the other cheek, also might disagree. Perhaps he'd change his mind if he watched this movie.

Despite the examples i just cited, the movie was extremely restrained. Scott Turow, one of the people on the governor's investigative panel, reflects that very reasonable tone. He talks of how through the process his views on the death penalty moved from favouring it to opposing it.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with Kirsten Johnson (one of the film-makers), a member of Murder Victims Families For Human Rights, and Gov.Ryan himself. I think I recognized one of the Trib reporters who appeared in the movie, in the row ahead of us. If the questioners accurately reflected the audience, it seemed like they were preaching to the choir. One of the last was an imposing looking man who talked of how he was in prison for a couple of years, and his interactions with people on death-row lead him to the deep conviction that the death penalty should go. He said that he was at this screening to find out for himself if Gov.Ryan really shared his convictions, and ended by urging Ryan not to lose a night of sleep thinking about his decision as he had done the right thing. In the movie Ryan quotes this other Illinois Republican who said "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice". Amen to that.

I know the Indian justice system is deeply flawed (for eg. 75% of indian prisoners have not been convicted of crimes ---- they're either on trial or awaiting trial), but I'm glad that they very rarely put people to death.


Monday, January 24, 2005

Expanding the debate

I caught a commentary on Morning Edition this morning. I think she's right : there are probably many who are "anti-capital-punishment", "anti-war", "pro-environment", "pro-public-spending-on-social-programs" AND "anti-abortion", who therefore don't feel comfortable with the available political options.

Along similar lines, I'm glad this guy is making himself heard and seen.


Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Hill-top Fort, Vellore

On Dec 26th I visited an old hill-top fort with my father and some of his friends. This fort is located about 17Km from Vellore. Getting to it requires driving past Bagayam on the Arni Road, turning left about 10Km past Bagayam, and driving all the way to the village closest to the Fort. (I forgot to write down the name of the village. I think it's something-Kottai. 'Kottai' meaning fort.). According to my GPS, the village is at 12deg46.358'N and 79deg10.150'E, and the Fort is located at 12deg46.651'N and 79deg9.766'E. The fort is not easily seen from the main road.

These friends of my father's have been visiting local historical sites for many years now, and my father has joined them on a few. They acted as our guides for this trip and told us that this is only one of about 25 forts in the Vellore area. I was aware, of course, of the main Vellore Fort (built by the Vijayanagaras in the mid 1500s), and the hill-top fort (built by Shivaji ?) on that nameless hill east of Vellore, but was completely unaware of the other ones.

They lead us from the village, through the fields, presumably towards the top of the hill. Suddenly, at the base of the hill, there appeared a stone structure covered in greenery. It appeared exactly like you'd imagine the ruins of a long-abandoned building would. Except it was in very good condition. It was a little pillared hall (mandapam). The pillars were carved with floral,religious and other imagery. Also notable was the apparent absence of cement or other kinds of bonding material, and how the extremely straight edges of the stones fit perfectly against each other.

The path up the hill is very thorny. Ezhumalai (guy from the local village) who very generously lead us up the hill clearing the way with his sickle, told us that until recently the face of the mountain was fairly bare. The forest service planted these thorn bushes to make it look more green. Closer to the top of the hill are man-made steps and walls --- presumably built to improve access to the fort.

The fort at the top of the hill has a few concentric layers of walls, most of which are in great condition. Along the walls of the fort are a few doorways. Though they're missing the actual doors, the cavities for the door-posts still exist. We made our way through one of these door-less doorways into the fort. Inside the fort are a few surviving structures - a pillared hall and entrance-way, and a storage room (occupied by bats) with almost no light (known, appropriately, as 'irrutu(darkness)-mandapam'. Other examples of the carvings within the fort are this carving of Hanuman (?), two figures on a pillar, and this carving above a doorway showing two battling warriors --- one on a horse and another on an unidentified animal.

The builders came up with ingenious ways to use wind and water to beat the heat. Dug through one fort-wall, is a narrow curved passage leading from the inside of the fort to the rock-face outside. Standing inside the passage is like standing in front of an air-conditioner. Similarly in the middle of the fort are steps leading down to a partially hidden cavernous room. This room with a pool of water at the bottom, is shaded by the branches of a banyan tree above and is also very cool. There were a few other man-made pools of water around the fort. In this arid region having access to a source of water makes much strategic sense to a fort-builder.

Our (amateur) guides weren't certain of the age of the fort ---- if it was from the time of the Pallavas (who ruled from Kanchipuram from the 4th to 9th centuries), Cholas (who ruled from Thanjavur until the 13th century) or the Vijayanagaras (who ruled from Karnataka starting in the 14th century). They pointed to signs indicating that it might be more than a thousand years old --- such as certain distinctive engravings on the wall, and the presence of these flat long bricks (supposedly used by the Pallavas). I'm not convinced that it's that old. I'd be curious to get a dating from a more authorative source (leave a comment if you are one).

Other things I heard on this trip were how a chinese traveller (Huen Tsang ?) visited this part of the country and described the widespread prevalance of jainism and buddhism at the time. We also heard the rumour that the nearby hindu shrine of Tirupati, might have originally been a Buddhist shrine. They say that the ears of the idol are long like in statues of Buddha. Also, the rumour is that the reason the crown of the idol is never removed is because under the crown is the distinctive hair-style that would give it away as being of the Buddha. What is a blog if not a place to spread rumours ? In that context, here is a picture of jain carvings on a rock-face that my father took on a previous such historical excursions. None of these places are maintained by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). With India's overwhelming historical legacy they probably have tough choices to make regarding which ones to support and which ones not to.

All of these photos can be seen here or here as a slideshow.


Sunday, January 09, 2005

More Tsunami

I volunteered at the AID-India office in chennai for a couple of days at the beginning of last week (Jan 3rd-5th). I had heard about them from several sources --- emails from friends, the big tsunami-help blog SEA-EAT and the papers. I was unsure if they could really use my services. But the page of daily updates on their web-site kept mentioning their need for volunteers, and when i called their office they were quite welcoming of short-term volunteers like myself. I showed up at their office (on the third-floor of a building in a residential area in the heart of chennai ) at 10:30AM on sunday (they start slightly late on sundays) to find scores of volunteers milling around the gates. Not long after signing my name up on the sheet at the front gate, I was put to work loading a truck with sacks of drinking-water-pouches. I was impressed with how quickly and smoothly AID was able to incorporate new volunteers into their system, even quickly giving them higher-level responsibilities like managing other teams of volunteers.

At the chennai office i was involved, at various times, in accepting new donations (from varied private individuals and companies who either ship material to the office, or deliver it at the door), sorting the donations (food, water, clothes, medicines, bedding, cooking utensils, stoves etc), loading them onto trucks (see picture above), and delivering them in the field (at a village in the Tiruvanmiyur area called Chennadipakkam(?)). [more pictures here]

Most of the volunteers were local college students. The number of volunteers dropped a little on monday when many from the previous day had to report for their first day of classes. Those that remained included those who were visiting family for the winter break (like me) --- including some who were part of AID chapters in the US, assorted foreign tourists, people who had travelled from other indian cities specifically to help out with the relief effort, and others who volunteered during hours when they were not working or in class. In order to come here many of us had to overcome the protests of our concerned parents, worried that their children might catch horrible diseases in the disaster-zones shown on their tv-screens. I was told that the previous week there were over 50 volunteers a day (the week of the tsunami, and the last week of the holidays for most people). If the tsunami had been a week later it would probably have been harder for them to find volunteers. There was something heart-warming about this motley bunch working together.

The chennai AID office does not normally do disaster relief. The long-term volunteers who I spoke to were involved, for example, in creating supplementary educational materials for the children of the chennai slums. But in their week of providing relief to Tsunami victims, they were learning how to stream-line the process. As donations arrived at the gate, they needed to be sorted. This was especially painful when the donations were not well-labelled and organized, or in an unacceptable shape. Many houses in the neighbourhood of the AID office offered space to store materials. But keeping track of the material over the various locations, with a daily-changing group of volunteers, can be complicated. By the time i left on wednesday, they were talking of outsourcing those duties to professional warehouse managers, and storing all material at godowns.

On sunday i was a part of a van-load of volunteers delivering material to a coastal village a little south of Chennai (Chennadipakkam (?)). The village lost no lives to the Tsunami --- i think this was true for most villages along the northern-half of the TN coast. But there seemed to be fairly significant material loss. Rubble and thatch from the destroyed huts was strewn all over the beach. A team from the electricity board (TNEB) was erecting telephone poles. Those structures that weren't destroyed suffered damage and flooding. The floors of the surviving structures was covered with assorted debris. One surviving (brick) house I saw belonged to the village puppeteer. The door of his hut was broken in half. He had lost his puppets, money and papers that he had stored in his house. In a striking image of the force of the Tsunami, there was a fishing boat that was incongruously present about 200 metres inland, deposited there by the sea past the row of surviving brick houses. I didn't think it was appropriate to take photographs.

The material distribution process involved first counting the number of family members in each hut in the village. Representatives (mostly women) of all the families in the village lined up and were each given a card indicating the number of people (men,women,boys,girls) in their family. Then each person in line was given a set of clothes and bedding depending on the information on their card. We volunteers set up a distribution line at the mouth of the open truck, each pair of us responsible for one item in the set. There were minor hiccups in our method though. For example not every woman in line got the same number of sarees as we overestimated the number in the truck at the beginning. This was partly because some of the sorted bags that were labelled "sarees" contained womens' clothes other than sarees (the fault of those that had previously sorted and bagged them). The whole process took about 3 hours and by the time we were done the sun had set and we had to use a make-shift light from an electricity pole.

All those in line were eager to recieve the clothes we handed out, and they thanked us at the end. But close to where we were handing out clothes was a room overflowing with clothes discarded by the villagers (presumably a donation made by a previous visiting group). As has been said in many other places before, though the villagers might not be rich they don't appreciate getting rags.

In addition to being excited by the way AID used the web to get the word out (including the lists of things that they most urgently need), I was pleasantly surprised to run into a blogger Rahul (they're everywhere!) at the AID office. He told me about IndiaUncut --- the blog of his friend Amit Varma. Amit has a series of about 45 despatches from the field --- from harder hit areas close to Nagapattinam and Cuddalore, starting here and ending here. Here's a link to a sober analysis by an experienced aid-worker Nityanand Jayaraman about the dynamics of aid-givers and recievers in this situation. Also from Balaji Sampath's report I've got a better idea of how little a cog in the wheel I was at AID. I think AID's greatest strength is the way they so enthusiastically mobilize volunteers into their operation, and I'm grateful to have got an opportunity to work with them. I hope the positive fallout of middle-class indian kids working to clear nameless, casteless corpses, a job that's been traditionally forced onto people at the bottom of the caste ladder, lasts longer than this present event.