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Category Archives: Social/Political issues

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Wildfires in US and Canada: Wake-up call for urgent action on climate change

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We’re living in a time of serious environmental catastrophes. The Maui wildfires (August 8) in Hawaii and the Canadian wildfires in May and June this year have once again brought into focus the devastating impact of climate change. Along with humans, every year we lose thousands of species, even as others slip deeper into danger.

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies published a report in the journal Climate Change recently, and they predict by the year 2050 the Western US will experience not only more wildfires, but they will start earlier in the year, and they will emit more pollutants, some of which can travel hundreds of miles away from the fire and potentially cause lung problems for anyone who breathes in these tiny particulates of soot and ash.

The Maui fires have killed more than 100 people, forced tens of thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate the island and devastated the historic resort city of Lahaina. The blaze is the deadliest U.S. wildfire since 1918, when northern Minnesota’s Cloquet Fire, which raged for more than four days, claimed 453 lives, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The deadliest wildfire in US history, Wisconsin’s Peshtigo fire in 1871, killed 1,152.

Much of Canada, like the rest of North America, has experienced record heat and drought recently as climate change continues to warm the planet. In May and June this year wildfires spread across the country, causing mass evacuations and burning through millions of acres. Even on Monday thick smoke blanketed much of the Pacific Northwest as numerous wildfires in Canada, Washington State and Oregon continued to burn, killing at least one person, destroying scores of buildings and threatening dozens more.

Wildfires are a natural part of the landscape in the West. The issue really becomes where we’ve altered the natural order of things, as is happening with climate change. There’s also a health consideration with the pollution and the particulates that come with these large fires.

We need to think about what the greenhouse gas emissions impacts are at play, and how much we can moderate the continued rise of temperature if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

Climate change is expected to worsen the frequency, intensity, and impacts of extreme weather events. For example, sea level rise increases the impacts of coastal storms and warming can place more stress on water supplies during droughts.

US is the main climate culprit

The US is by far the world’s leading historic emitter of greenhouse gases. America has produced around 400 billion tonnes of CO2 since 1751, enough to account for 25% of all anthropogenic emissions globally — and double China’s share. This fact alone, coupled with the fact that China, with a far larger population and industrial base, produces half as much CO2 per capita, demonstrates that the US bears a unique responsibility towards poorer countries.

The Biden administration announced a plan to make the US carbon neutral by 2050 but there are a few snags to consider. First of all, the current Supreme Court has made clear that regulatory agencies have limited powers and that Congress must clearly specify their scope. It means that Congress would need to pass and continually fund a carbon neutrality plan through 2050, and whoever is president would need to sign the bills. “This will never happen in a million years,” says American columnist Bradley Blankenship.

Polls indicate that a substantial majority of Americans want to take action on the climate change. According to an April poll by Pew Research, 69% of Americans are in favor of the US becoming carbon neutral by 2050. And 54% believes climate change is a major threat — though 78% of Democrats feel this way.

The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28), which will be held in Dubai, UAE, from 30 November to 12 December this year, is supposed to focus on four paradigm shifts:

  • Fast-tracking the energy transition and slashing emissions before 2030;
  • Transforming climate finance, by delivering on old promises and setting the framework for a new deal on finance;
  • Putting nature, people, lives, and livelihoods at the heart of climate action; and
  • Mobilizing for the most inclusive COP ever.

It’s time for a serious political will to take steps to save the planet.

Wordtoon by Subhendu Sarkar

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Zimbabwe world’s most ‘miserable’ country, Switzerland ‘least’

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Thomas Hardy might have resigned to pessimism when he had said: “Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” However, modern-day economists have been making painstaking efforts to find out what causes ‘misery’ and ‘unhappiness’.

According to the US economist Steve H. Hanke’s Annual Misery Index (HAMI), Zimbabwe is the most ‘miserable’ country in the world. HAMI ranks 157 nations from ‘most’ to ‘least’ miserable.

Hanke, professor of Applied Economics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, had been the advisor to several world leaders, such as Ronald Reagan, Suharto of Indonesia, and the President of Bulgaria.

“The surefire way to mitigate the misery is through economic growth. Comparing countries’ metrics can tell us a lot about where in the world people are sad or happy,” said Hanke.

Zimbabwe has snagged the first-place slot with inflation — or, “economic mismanagement,” as the contributing factor to residents’ unhappiness. According to the index, Zimbabwe experienced a skyrocketing inflation rate of 243.8 per cent in 2022. Venezuela has the second highest misery index score of any country on the planet.

Switzerland has emerged as the ‘least miserable country’ in the world. “It’s hard to beat a democracy in which most major decisions can, if enough of the electorate insists, be put to a popular vote,” said Hanke.

The second-happiest country is Kuwait, followed by Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Niger, Thailand, Togo and Malta.

The US is among the least miserable countries with a rank of 134.

India has ranked 103rd. The country has fared better than countries like Brazil (rank 27), Pakistan (rank 35), Nepal (rank 63) and Sweden (rank 88).

Australia ranks 116 (Misery index 20.107% with unemployment being the major contributing factor). New Zealand’s ranking stands at 104.

While Finland has ranked 109th, it has historically reigned as the “world’s happiest country.”

The rankings are calculated using the sum of inflation, unemployment (multiplied by two), bank-lending rates, minus the annual percentage change in real gross domestic per capita.

Arthur Okun, a renowned economist who had served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during President Lyndon B.Johnson’s tenure (1963-1969), had developed the original ‘misery index’ for the US in the 1970s. His objective was to find a way to measure the overall well-being of the Americans. Okun believed that unemployment and inflation rate were the most important factors that affected people’s lives.

Later, Harvard Professor Robert Barro created what he had dubbed as the Barrow Misery Index (BMI) in 1999. He had modified the index by adding bank’s lending rate of interest. However, Prof Hanke had amended Barro’s version of the ‘misery index’ by replacing the output gap with the growth rate of real GDP per capita and replacing the 30-year government bond yield with lending rates. After all, higher lending rates mean more expensive credit, and more borrowers’ misery.

Prof Hanke’s latest misery index doubles the unemployment rate and the data is created on that basis.

One reason for Switzerland’s ranking, Prof Hanke says, is the Swiss debt brakeThe debt brake has worked like a charm for the country. Unlike most countries, Switzerland’s debt-to-GDP ratio has been on a downward trend in the last two decades, since it has enshrined its debt brake into its constitution in a 2002 national referendum.

The misery index of Zimbabwe counts 414.7 due to high inflation. The major challenge faced by the country is due to its government ZANU-PF. Prof Hanke states in his blog: “Indeed, ZANU-PF operates more like a political mafia than a political party. Its policies have resulted in massive misery.”He has been tracking Zimbabwe’s economy since 2008 when Robert Mugabe was President.

Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Argentina, Yemen, Ukraine, Cuba, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Angola, Tonga, and Ghana comprise the 15 most miserable countries in the world, according to HAMI.


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Will AI augur well for humanity?

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Science is supposed to be the pursuit of truth, but there might be decidedly something unscientific and possibly even dangerous about the commercialization of artificial intelligence (AI) over the past several months.

The era of ‘move fast and break things’, the longtime mantra of Silicon Valley giants, is now facing a severe challenge from the AI technology.

Last year’s launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which became the fastest-growing app in history when it hit 100 million users in only two months, showcased the technology’s lucrative potential and spurred companies into action.

However, leading AI experts have urged companies to take a cautious approach and warned about the risks and dangers posed by this ground-breaking technology.

Tech firms, including Google and Microsoft, are pouring billions into the AI research with Alphabet adding $115 billion in value after unveiling new AI tools. Amazon has announced the launching of its own in-house AI model known as Titan.

But where is this race leading to?

The former CEO of Twitter and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, lamented that he had committed mistakes in forming the company that became OpenAI, the originator of the game-changing ChatGPT artificial intelligence company.

He had also regretted about ChatGPT, saying he’s a ‘huge idiot’ for letting go of OpenAI.

Musk thinks the world is woefully unprepared for the impact of AI. The technology will hit people “like an asteroid”, he said revealing that he had used his only one-on-one meeting with the then President Barack Obama to push for the AI regulation. He proposed a six-month ban on artificial intelligence to ensure better planning and management.

Even though Bill Gates had said he was “scared” about the technology falling into the wrong hands, he had rejected Musk-backed plan to pause the AI research, saying the technology may already be on a runaway train.

On May 16, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman during a Senate panel hearing had urged US lawmakers to regulate the AI, describing the technology’s current boom as a potential “printing press moment” but one that required safeguards. “We think that regulatory intervention by governments will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models,” he had said in his opening remarks before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

He said the potential for AI to be used to manipulate voters and target disinformation are his “areas of greatest concern,” especially because “we’re going to face an election next year and these models are getting better.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal explained that it could just as easily have produced “an endorsement of Ukraine’s surrendering or Vladimir Putin’s leadership.” That, he said, “would’ve been really frightening.”

The new AI tools, which have been developed by several tech firms in recent months, met with backlash from their critics for their potential to disrupt millions of jobs, spread misinformation and perpetuate biases.

Former diplomat Henry Kissinger, 99, says he wants to call attention to the dangers of AI the same way he did for nuclear weapons and warns it’s a ‘totally new problem’.

Author Yuval Noah Harari argues society needs time to get artificial intelligence right.

Geoffrey Hinton, known as the “godfather of artificial intelligence”, has decided to blow the whistle on the technology, raising concerns over its use.  The 75-year-old is particularly concerned that these tools could be trained to sway elections and even to wage wars. He recently quit a high-profile job at Google specifically to share his concerns that unchecked AI development could pose danger to humanity.

Hinton has highlighted four possible dangers in the coming years: Military applications, misinformation and disinformation, jobs lost and the rise of dictators. His concerns are shared by the Center for AI Safety, an organization dedicated to reducing the societal-scale risks from artificial intelligence.

What causes alarm 

Our human brains can solve calculus equations, drive cars and keep track of the characters in ‘succession’, thanks to their native talent for organizing and storing information and reasoning out solutions to thorny problems. The roughly 86 billion neurons packed into our skulls — and, more important, the 100 trillion connections those neurons forge among themselves — make that possible.

By contrast, the technology underlying ChatGPT features between 500 billion and one trillion connections. GPT-4, the latest AI model from OpenAI, knows “hundreds of times more” than any single human.

Hinton says maybe it has “much better learning algorithm” than we do, making it more efficient at cognitive tasks.

He suggests that a global agreement similar to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention might be a good first step toward establishing international rules against weaponized AI.

In March, more than 1,000 researchers and technologists had signed a letter calling for a six month’s pause on AI development because, they said, it poses “profound risks to society and humanity.”

What would smarter-than-human AI systems do? Malicious individuals, groups or nation-states might simply co-opt them to further their own ends. What’s not clear is how anyone would stop a power like Russia from using AI technology to dominate its neighbors or its own citizens. Hinton says AI chatbots, for instance, could be the future version of election misinformation spread via Facebook and other social media platforms.

And that might just be the beginning, Hinton had said. “Don’t think for a moment that Putin wouldn’t make hyper-intelligent robots with the goal of killing Ukrainians.”

“Humans are more important than money,” says Yoshua Bengio, one of the pioneers of AI technology. He says he feels “lost” because of the direction that the AI is headed in.

Humanity now is at the mercy of a vast and uncaring universe. As I write this, I’m reminded of Byron’s terrible tale of apocalypse and despair in his poem “Darkness”.


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Mizoram India’s ‘happiest state’

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Teachers are students’ best friends in Mizoram. Parents in the north-eastern state do not put pressure on their kids. Every child in the state goes for work early and is independent and self-supported. Despite having ‘broken families’, students are determined to reach their goals and upbeat about their success in life. A study by Rajesh K Pillania of the Management Development Institute (MDI) at Gurugram, has revealed.

According to Prof Pillania’s report, Mizoram is the happiest state of India. Pillania, popularly known as India’s Happiness Professor, has made seminal contribution to the study of happiness in India.

“Mizoram’s happiness index is based on six parameters including family relationships, work-related issues, social issues and philanthropy, religion, COVID-19‘s effect on happiness, and physical and mental health,” the report said.

According to the report, Mizoram, the second Indian state to achieve 100 per cent literacy, offers students opportunities for growth even in the most difficult of circumstances.

“A student of the Government Mizo High School (GMHS) in Aizawl, Mizoram, has had to face several difficulties since his father abandoned his family when he was young. Despite this, he remains hopeful and excels in his studies. He hopes to become a chartered accountant or appear for civil services exams if his first choice does not work out,” the report said.

Similarly, a student in Class 10 at GMHS aspires to join the National Defence Academy (NDA). His father works in a milk factory and his mother is a homemaker. Both are hopeful about their prospects because of their school.

“Our teachers are our best friends, we are not scared or shy of sharing with them anything,” one student said. Teachers in Mizoram regularly meet students and their parents to address any problems they may be facing.

One of the factors contributing to the happiness of the youth is Mizoram’s social structure. “It is the upbringing that adds to youth being happy or not, we are a casteless society. Also, parental pressure for studies is less here,” said a teacher of Eben-ezer Boarding School based in Aizawl.

Every child regardless of gender in the Mizo community, goes for work early, the report further stated.

“No task is considered too small and youths typically find employment around the age of 16 or 17. This is encouraged, and there is no discrimination between girls and boys,” it said.

Mizoram has a high number of broken families, but having many peers in similar situations, working mothers, and financial independence from an early age means children are not left bereft. “When both genders are taught to earn their living, and neither is dependent on the other, why should a couple continue to live together in an unhealthy setting?” asked the teacher of Eben-ezer Boarding School.

Pillania, who taught thousands of students and executives about happiness strategy, has written 11 books and reports on Happiness such as Happiness Strategy, Happiness Diary: My Experiments with Happiness, India Happiness Report 2020, India Cities Happiness Report 2020, World Happiness 2021, India Happiness 2022 and World Happiness 2022.

Pillania’s pioneering work has earned kudos from HH Dalai Lama, and management legend Philip Kotler.


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Bullet train or upgrading basic rail infrastructure?

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At a time when the Central government is leaving no stone unturned and working overtime to introduce Bullet train (Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart late Shinzo Abe laid the foundation stone of the bullet train project in September 2017, connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad), as a rail enthusiast I’d like to raise a few points to the rail ministry to put things in perspective.

I grew up in a suburb near Kolkata, India where our house was very close to the railway tracks. As a child, I was fascinated as trains passed by our house hooting and puffing in the dead of night. I could hear the sounds of trains piercing the silence of the night and it took me to a world which words can’t express!

Every Indian, I’m sure, has an incredible romantic railway memory. Remember the scene in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), where we see the boundless joy on the faces of Apu and Durga as they are sprinting through kash fields to see the oncoming train?

A crowded local train compartment

Early this month, while coming back from Santiniketan, I had to take Ganadevata Express from Prantik station (Birbhum district, West Bengal). The station has no ramp putting elderly persons in serious trouble in carrying their luggage. The long and spacious platform was poorly lit making things hard to see in the dark. Insufficient light also made it difficult for me to locate my coach as the train pulled into the platform. Moreover, the PA system at the platform was appalling. There was just one loud speaker at the platform which was hardly audible from the spot where I was waiting for the train.

I believe the rail authorities would look into these issues before introducing high-speed trains which cater only to the affluent section of the society.

Now, let’s take a look at the deplorable state of local trains. They perennially run late. Most of the train coaches are old and decrepit. Rundown and shabby interior stare at you as you step into the compartment. Windows are mostly non-functional. About the cleanliness, hygiene and floor of the compartment, the less said the better.

On assuming power, Prime Minister Modi had promised to modernise India’s railways and build high-speed trains befitting Asia’s third-largest economy. Modi’s dogged determination to turn this slow, uncomfortable and unsafe railway network into a faster, high-tech driven and reliable transport system deserves accolades.

But, there is an urgent need to strengthen and upgrade the basic infrastructure of the Indian railways keeping in mind the safety of the millions of daily commuters. Running trains on time, keeping coaches clean and ensuring rail travel safe and comfortable should be the priority.

A typical evening scene at Sealdah station

It is estimated that the fares of the bullet train may range between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000 to make the running of trains economically viable. How many of us can afford this?

According to Amit K. Kamila, IRSSE (retd) and a rail tech expert, the Indian railways has been making untiring efforts to beef up basic infrastructure. “The Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited (DFCCIL) has been working for Line Capacity enhancement. The Eastern dedicated Freight corridor (1,856km) consists of two segments: an electrified double-track segment of 1,409 km between Dankuni in West Bengal and Khurja in UP and an electrified single-track segment of 447 km between Ludhiana (Dhandarikalan) – Khurja – Dadri in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Of which the work on the freight corridor from Ludhiana to Chiraila Pauthu has already been completed.”

More and more freight trains are taken out of existing lines to make them occupied by passenger trains, Kamila added. However, the work on the last leg (Gaya to Dankuni) is being hindered due to land acquisition problem in West Bengal, he rued.

Kamila was all praise for Sudhanshu Mani, who led the team of engineers that designed the Vande Bharat Express. “We are grateful to Mr Mani for building purely indigenous semi-high-speed Vande Bharat at a remarkably cheaper cost.”

Kamila emphasized the need for multi-modal transport system to ensure comfortable journey for the millions of commuters who travel from the suburban areas to the mega city every day. “In Bengal, we don’t have as yet any six-lane expressway to travel from, for example, Kolkata to Krishnanagar or Gobardaga,” he said.

Kamila added: “Does the Bengal government have financial power (as per central government rules) to fund the Metro rail?”

Well, there’s no silver bullet to turn India’s deplorable rail network into a top-class performer. But, if we have the will, we can turn the impossible into a reality with someone like Ashwini Vaishnaw at the helm.

Photo: Tapas Sen

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Hey, we’re ‘Special’…

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I’d like to begin with a famous quote by Stephen Hawking, one of the renowned scientists of the 20th century, who had motor neuron disease and was confined to a wheel chair and had a computer system that allowed him to communicate.

“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”

Indeed, special needs children shouldn’t feel that they’re ‘disabled in spirit as well as physically’.

Samuel Kirk, the American psychologist and special education pioneer, who first coined the term “learning disability” in 1963, said: “When youngsters in the same class room are remarkably different, it is difficult for the teacher to help them reach their educational potential without some kind of assistance. The help that the schools provide for children who differ significantly from the norm is called special education”.

Special educators are responsible for the educational needs of children with a wide range of disabilities. These children also require different services in their educational experiences. Knowledge of each type of disability and the specific needs of the children with that disability are crucial if he or she plans to be involved in the field of special education.

Unfortunately, acceptance among parents is a great deterrent to the needs of special children. Their frustration and disappointment is understandable, but they should bear in mind that every child is unique and each has hidden potential which we should ignite.

We may recall here what Einstein had said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Coming down to the local scenario, catering to the needs of these special children and awareness about this population picked up late in West Bengal and was in a nascent stage even in the first decade of the 21st century.

Fortunately, things have taken a turn for the better and many organizations have come forward to lend their helping hands. In Kolkata, IICP, Manovikas, Noble Mission, Pradeep and Julian Day New Mission School and Training College have been doing a commendable job with unwavering commitment and unflinching zeal.

Let us hope more and more organizations will step out and say to these children: “I just called to say I love you” (to remember blind American singer Stevie Wonder’s famous song).



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Where have all those Bengali ‘buddhijibis’ gone now…

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Nelson Mandela once said: “Destroying any nation does not require the use of atomic bombs or the use of long-range missiles. It only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in the examinations by the students…

“Patients die at the hands of such doctors. Buildings collapse at the hands of such engineers. Humanity dies at the hands of such religious teachers. Justice is lost at the hands of such judges. Money is lost at the hands of such economists and accountants.”

“The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation.”

The above messages are brutally true in the context of Bengal’s appalling state of education!

Bengal, which used to lead the country from the front during pre-Independence days, has now fallen into a gutter, recovery from which seems almost impossible unless the current leadership is shown the door. Well, the ‘fall’ had begun from later years of the Left regime which ruled the state for over three decades. But, at least, there was some semblance of respectability toward true academicians. Merit and unblemished experience were given preference then in matters of appointment in most cases.

Unfortunately, over the last 11 years, the education sector is neck-deep in corruption and is run by thoroughly corrupt, uneducated politicians and their lackeys aided by bumptious bureaucrats. The recent recovery of huge cash and ornaments from former education minister Partha Chatterjee’s aide’s houses speaks volumes for the extent of that filth, corruption and nepotism.

Sadly enough, the Bengali intellectuals, barring a few, have remained strangely silent and mute spectators to the current malaise afflicting the education sector. (We may recall the leadership efforts of German intellectuals– Karl Jaspers, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Meinecke, and Bertolt Brecht– and their contributions to post-war cultural reconstruction.)

The reasons for Bengal’s collapse of education, however, aren’t far to seek. From admission to colleges and universities to recruiting teachers, political influence, money and tolabaaji (extortion) are playing a major role. The faceless and shameful ‘buddhijibis” (including poets, writers, artists, theatre personalities and musicians) have been blatantly purchased by the powers-that-be: they’ve been given numerous facilities and rewarded with all kinds of “…bhushans”. Filmmaker Anik Dutta has rightly pointed out that the word “buddhijibi” now sounds like an ‘abuse’. It’s truly deplorable that the Bengali intellectuals are still keeping mum over the spate of allegations against the former education minister and have never condemned the current corrupt leadership and come out on the streets to show genuine concern for or stand by the agitating job-seekers who have been holding dharnas over the past 500 days braving police torture, sun and rain.

Ironically, these are the ‘buddhijibis’ who took to the streets during the Nandigram massacre in 2007.

The ‘buddhijibis’ have a crucial role in the fight against corruption as they can demand accountability and transparency from the government. While the masses are appalled by the deep-rooted corruption in the sphere of education in Bengal, these spineless and sycophantic intellectuals have remained silent and are waiting in the wings to jump the ship.

Bengal badly needs outspoken, upright and intrepid writers like Nabarun Bhattacharyya whose writings often brought him in conflict with the powers-that-be and who till the end remained a fearless voice against the power and corruption.

Cartoon by Suparno Chaudhuri

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