Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Literary, Political, Religious

Egregious allegations of communalism against Rabindranath

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) lived through a very turbulent phase in Indian and world history – the period when British Raj attained the peak of its colonial power and exercised most brutal authority in India, the period when Bengal (the state which allowed the first foothold of British merchants in India at the beginning of 18th century) was partitioned off and then annulled, the period of two world wars and the period which saw the rise of unstoppable swadeshi (self-rule) movement.

A poet, a novelist, a litterateur, an artist, a reformer, in short, a myriad of a man, Rabindranath Tagore lived and died in the thick of actions. He not only advanced Bengali language and culture to the world scene but also gave Bengalis – Hindus and Muslims alike – their self-esteem, identity and cultural heritage. His songs are used as national anthems in India as well as in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka’s national anthem drew inspirations from his song.

However, a large section of Bangladeshi die-hard Muslims with the mind-set of Pakistani religious antagonism towards Hindus had been sniping at Tagore ever since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The allegations ranged from Rabindranath being communal and anti-Muslims, citing that he opposed the partition of Bengal to deny the Muslims a separate homeland and he opposed setting up of Dhaka University etc. All of these allegations were egregious and conjecture of bigoted minds.

Many Bengali Muslims who lay such allegations on Rabindranath quote Major General (Retd) M A Matin’s book called ‘Amader Swadhinata Sangramer Dharabahikata ebong Prasangik kicchu Katha (Chronology of our freedom struggle and some associated discussions) published by Ahmad Publishing House, Dhaka in 2000. The Retd. Army Officer placed most of his allegations on heresy without any substantiation or corroboration and packaged such opinions as statement of facts!

The author, M A Matin, implied throughout the book that Rabindranath was an orthodox Hindu and hence anti-Muslim and that was why he opposed the partition of Bengal. As a further proof of his anti-Muslim character, he was stated to have opposed the setting up of Dacca (now Dhaka) University.

Let us look at the points whether Rabindranath was an orthodox Hindu and anti-Muslim or not and the reason for his opposition to the partition of Bengal. And then I would look into his attitude towards Dhaka University.

If one looks into Tagore’s ancestry over the last few centuries, one would find that Tagore’s Brahmin clan, who hailed from Jessore, had long and close association with Muslims. Two Brahmin Tagore brothers in Jessore were close to Mohammad Tahir Pir Ali, the wazir of the governor of Jessore, who himself was a Brahmin but converted to Islam for matrimonial and financial reasons. Tahir Pir Ali made Tagore brothers smell and eventually eat meat (probably beef) and because of that event the brothers had been expelled from the orthodox Brahmin sect. However, their whole family remained Brahmins and the brothers were ostracised as ‘Pirali Brahmins’ (Ref: Rabindranath Tagore, The myriad-minded man by Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, Bloomsbury Publishing, UK).

These two brothers (Pirali Brahmins) eventually left Jessore due possibly to social discord and moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata). One of these two brothers’ descendants – two brothers – Darpanarayan settled at Pathuriaghat (whose descendant includes Sharmila Tagore) and Nilmoni (the great-great-grandfather of Rabindranath) settled at Jorasanko. His descendant, Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, a flamboyant zamindar, and his son Debendranath, Rabindranath’s father, started the Brahmo Samaj, which was a sort of philosophical belief more akin to Buddhism and animism. Now, to allege Rabindranath Tagore, a Pirali Brahmin, was an orthodox Brahmin and anti-Muslim would be very much off the mark. Rabindranath published a book called ‘Religion of Man’ which propounded a religion embodying humanity, a religion of human consciousness merging into the limitless creation – shimar majhe ashim tumi. Rabindranath Tagore’s own description of his family as depicted in ‘The Religion of Man’ was, “The unconventional code of life for our family has been a confluence of three cultures, the Hindu, Mohammedan and British”.

In his writings, Rabindranath always showed empathy with the Muslims. In his novel called ‘Ghare Baire’ (The Home and the World), the main character, a Hindu zamindar, stated quite boldly that he would not condone Swadeshi activities if it meant hurting his Muslim subjects – those people were abject poor people, they did not have the luxury of boycotting foreign goods and lose their living. As the story goes, the zamindar gave up his own life when he went to protect his Muslim subjects in the thick of Hindu-Muslim riot. Rabindranath was roundly criticised for such narratives.

It is beyond dispute that Rabindranath opposed the partition of Bengal, not because he wanted to deny the Muslims a separate homeland but because he wanted Hindus and Muslims live together in amity and harmony, as they had been doing for centuries. Moreover, it was quite natural for the Tagore clan to oppose partition, because Tagore’s roots were in East Bengal – Tagore’s zamindari was in Shilaidaha (Kushtia), Rabindranath’s wife was from Jessore (now in the district of Khulna) (Jessore and Khulna were in one district called Jessore until 1892. Rabindranath’s wife, Mrinalini was from Khulna, Ref. Islam o Rabindranath Anyanya Prasanga, by Amitabh Chowdhury, ISBN No. 81-7293-188-3) and the Tagore family maintained close ties with their ancestral home ever since they moved to Kolkata. The partition would deprive Tagore family of its roots. The partition of Bengal was implemented on October 16, 1905. On the day of partition, Rabindranath peacefully and in a friendly gesture initiated the Rakhibandhan (the tying of Rakhi, meaning friendship). The partition was, however, annulled in December 12, 1911.

The very stipulation that the proposed partition of East Bengal would provide a homeland for the Muslims was ludicrous and bog-headed in those days. Those brain-washed Muslims who propagate this view of separate homeland for Muslims are trying to backfit 1940s events (demand for Pakistan) back into the 1900s to tarnish Rabindranath’s character for opposing the partition.

It was stated in MA Matin’s above mentioned book that on March 28, 1912 a huge meeting was organised at Garer Math, Kolkata to protest against the proposed setting-up of Dhaka University and that meeting was presided over by Rabindranath Tagore. Afterwards a delegation of top-level Hindu leaders went to meet Lord Hardinge, the then Viceroy of India, and warned him that the establishment of Dhaka University would face the similar fate to the partition of Bengal. However, there were no reference or corroboration of Rabindranath’s attendance in Garer Math meeting in MA Matin’s book; simply his unsubstantiated assertion.  AZM Abdul Ali, editorial board member of literary magazine ‘Kali o Kolom’, in an article immediately after the publication of MA Matin’s book disputed the statement that Rabindranath attended the meeting and asked MA Matin to provide reference or source of his information, but there was no reply!

An article by Asahabur Rahman in Dhaka Tribune on May 16, 2018 stated that a search in Tagore archives showed that on March 28, 1912 Rabindranath was at Shilaidaha. He left Kolkata on March 24 and stayed at Shilaidaha until April 12 recuperating from his illness. However, he composed 17 poems and songs during those days and, as he usually put the date and name of the place where he composed a piece, he put Shilaidaha as the place where those pieces were composed during that period. So, how could Rabindranath be in Kolkata on March 28, as the MA Matin asserted? 

The Dhaka University was established on the basis of recommendations made by the Nathan Commission, appointed by the government of Bengal, on May 27, 1912. However, due to the outbreak of WW1 (Aug 1914 – Nov 1918), the Commission recommendations were shelved and then nearer the end of the war, the government of India established another Commission -the Saddler Commission – in November 1917 to look into that outstanding matter. On the basis of positive recommendation by the Saddler Commission in March 1919, Dhaka University was eventually established in 1921.

Rabindranath visited Dhaka in February 1926 as a guest of Nawab of Dhaka, Khwaja Habibullah. He was given three receptions by the Dhaka University – two were organised by the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) held at the Curzon Hall and the other at Salimullah Muslim Hall (S M Hall) organised by the students of the Hall. If Tagore had been against the establishment of Dhaka University, it was highly unlikely that within five years the students of the university would forget all about his opposition and extend warm welcome and give cordial receptions by the Muslim and Hindu students alike! In addition, various institutions and organisations in Dhaka such as the Jagannath College, Dhaka Collegiate School, Hindu-Muslim Seba Sangha, Dhaka Municipality, Peoples’ Association etc organised special receptions for him.

So, where is the evidence of Tagore’s opposition to the establishment of Dhaka University? MA Matin made the allegations against Tagore without any foundation, without any evidence. Professor Rafiqul Islam of Dhaka University wrote a book entitled Dhaka Bisshobidyaloyer Ashi Bochor based on his long research. His findings didn’t support MA Matin’s assertions at all. Some of the Bengali Muslim writers, now and in the recent past, blinded by Islamic zeal tied up Tagore’s opposition to Bengal partition (which he opposed in order to maintain communal harmony) and fabricated Tagore’s opposition to the Dhaka University to make up a well-rounded story of Tagore’s anti-Muslimness! It is a classic case of joining up a lie with a truth and packaging the whole thing as truth!

 –          Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.   

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Life as it is

Economic measures we should take in response to COVID-19 in Bangladesh

The 2020-21 budget of Bangladesh, under preparation now, could have been exciting. The country was having an unbroken run of 6 percent or higher growth rate for the last nine years. In 2019, it reached 8.2 percent. Poverty declined to reach 24.3 percent in 2016 (World Bank). Export earnings and remittance income, put together, covered more than three-fourths of the country’s import bill, and the country’s debt service ratio was at a comfortable level of 5.7 percent (in 2018). The achievements in the social sectors (in child and maternal mortality, in education, and nutrition) were praiseworthy, better than many other countries at similar levels of income.  

A number of mega projects involving huge expenditures (such as the Padma Bridge, Deep Sea Port, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, Karnaphuli Tunnel, Metro Rail Project) were taken up to develop and modernise the country further. The country was looking forward to celebrating 50 years of its independence (towards the end of 2021) in style.

COVID-19 pandemic has put an end to this euphoria. The highly contagious virus, with its high toll of human lives and livelihoods, pushed the world to a recession. The IMF estimates the world GDP to shrink by 3 percent this year. With supply chains broken, factories, trades and businesses either closed or nearly so, unemployment is expected to rise. The level of unemployment has already reached 26 million in the USA and 22 million in EU. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the virus had not reached its peak yet, and that there could be multiple spells of the virus.

Bangladesh has not been spared either. Although the impact of COVID-19 in terms of infection and fatalities (going by official statistics) remains lower than some developed countries, the casualties (which do not include community deaths and deaths in hundreds of private clinics around the country) can mount in the coming months. Like in most other countries, Bangladesh also imposed lockdown measures. Educational institutions, non-essential services, offices, shops and transportation services, small, medium and large industries including the vibrant and major foreign exchange earner, the readymade garment (RMG) factories, have been closed down.  However, some are opening slowly in recent days after the relaxation of lockdown measures.

The World Bank estimates a sharp decline of Bangladesh’s growth rate to around 2-3 percent in 2020, and further to 1.2-2.9 percent in 2021 from the 2019 growth rate of 8.2 percent. These are way below the 7-8 percent growth needed to reach the middle-income status by 2024.

The lockdowns have seriously disrupted normal economic and social activities in the country. Millions of workers engaged in shops and restaurants, in transport and communication sector, working as domestic help, self-employed as traders, hawkers, day labourers, totalling anywhere between 15-20 million, are expected to lose their livelihoods. With the closure of the readymade garment (RMGs) industry, another four million employees, mostly young women and their families, are expected to face difficult economic and social condition. Their low incomes make them vulnerable even to short periods of unemployment. 

Fear of the virus as well as loss of income are driving thousands of these vulnerable low income urban people to their rural roots. Others, who do not have this option, are staying back in urban slums, where congested living can be the breeding ground of the virus.

Given this background of unprecedented economic and social circumstances, the budget of 2020-21 will have to be significantly different from what could have been an “euphoric” budget. Instead, the budget will be one of damage limitation, caused by external circumstances and rebuilding.

The emergency measures are expected to tackle the emergencies created by the COVID-19 pandemic (in terms of both halting the progress of the virus and providing medical care to those infected), and supporting people survive through their immense economic hardship. The rebuilding measures, on the other hand, will address the issues of restarting the economy with directed support, subsidies, grants, and helping to build institutions to tackle future pandemics, including resurgence of COVID-19.

The emergency measures will have to focus on expanding the capacity of public healthcare institutions, through infrastructure development, procurement of equipment (PPE, masks, ventilators) and medicines (both anti-COVID-19 and for curing COVID-19 infection), and of course providing due support to all medical care staff, most importantly to the frontline care staff. And it will also have to beef up the country’s poor social protection initiatives (which is lowest in the Asia Pacific Region: UN Asia Pacific Region Report April 13, 2020). Part of the prime minister’s cash incentive of about 95.6 thousand crores taka could give the social protection initiative a boost, as well as provide cash incentives to medical workers.

The rebuilding measures, on the other hand, will focus on those sectors which are the main drivers of the economy, i.e. restarting RMGs, facilitating the repatriation of those who might have gotten stuck in Bangladesh. The measures could also include working capital support to small and medium industries, and small loans to traders. Low interest loans could also be provided to small businesses and industries who would like to configure their factory floors and work spaces to conform to the need for social distancing, to avoid further spread of COVID-19.

Beyond these, it will be immensely worthwhile to support agriculture, especially the smallholder farmers, through small loans to farmers, subsidised inputs, water and uninterrupted electricity supply during the dry season (now) and through ensuring availability of seasonal labour for harvesting. Microfinance institutions (MFIs), refinanced by Bangladesh Bank, could play an effective role in this area.

RMG sector, a major foreign exchange earner of the country, and employer of nearly four million workers (mostly for women), will need to be beefed up as early as possible. There could be a special fund to provide subsidised loans to the RMG industries on a case by case basis, judged by their ability to restart production, export and re-employment of staff laid off during the COVID crisis.

All these measures, detailed out and costed, will be a very tall order. The critical issue is how to get the budget financed.

The pandemic related crisis will severely restrict the growth of Bangladesh, and also imports, through reduction of economic activities. Both of these will severely reduce the government’s ability to raise revenue; the latter through reduction of revenue from import duties. The country will have to borrow: from external sources to the extent they are available, but also from domestic sources. These will create inflationary pressure, both because of reduced supply response and lower imports. The challenge will be to channel support to activities which could quickly respond through increased production.

 Dr Atiqur Rahman, economist and former lead strategist of IFAD, Rome, Italy.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Why should we care about the air we breathe in?

If you live in Dhaka, a city that is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, you may think that a scarlet sunrise or sunset blazing across the horizon is a sight to behold. However, there is an ugly story behind this pretty picture. It is air pollution. Indeed, pollutants of any kind in the air will make sunrise and sunset colourful.

A dusty road in Dhaka

Pollutants in the air arise from two major sources: natural and anthropogenic. Globally, the largest sources are natural events: dust storms, forest fires, volcanoes, earthquakes, biological decay and the like. In sheer quantity, natural pollutants often outweigh the anthropogenic pollutants that generally create the most significant long-term threat to the biosphere. Why? Natural pollutants come from widely dispersed sources or infrequent events. As such, they do not substantially raise the ambient pollutant concentration, and thus have little effect on the environment.

Some of the major anthropogenic pollutants in an urban setting are effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. They emit large quantities of harmful pollutants—carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates, hydrocarbons and photochemical oxidants—in restricted areas, making a significant contribution to local air pollution levels. Other sources of pollution are municipal and agricultural waste sites, brick fields, foundries, metal smelters and waste incineration facilities. Refineries, which emit several pollutants, also make a huge impact on the quality of air. All these pollutants are precursors to the formation of smog, a term coined to describe a mixture of smoke and fog. It is the worst form of air pollution.

Smog is produced through a complex set of photochemical reactions involving the above-mentioned pollutants. They react in the presence of sunlight to produce a witch’s brew of virulent chemicals. Among some of the worst are formaldehyde, peroxyacyl nitrate (PAN) and acrolein. Furthermore, ozone is formed at the ground-level through chemical reactions involving unburned hydrocarbons in gasoline, volatile organic compounds, various oxides of nitrogen and sunlight. Problematic ozone levels occur often on hot summer afternoons when there is little wind and temperatures soar above 30 degrees Celsius. The net result is a brownish orange shroud called photochemical smog, occurring more frequently in large cities with high rise buildings where there is less air circulation and more accumulation of pollutants in the lower atmosphere.

To make a bad situation worse, smog remains under siege for days if it is accompanied by temperature inversion, a phenomenon where air temperature increases with altitude instead of decreasing, resulting in a warm-air lid over cooler air anywhere from ground level up to few thousands of feet into the atmosphere. In an area experiencing inversion, the warm-air lid prevents ground-level air from rising. Consequently, pollutants in the cool, stable and quiescent ground air become trapped below the warm layer of air, creating dirty air with dangerous concentrations of noxious pollutants.

The pollutants in the air do not respect international borders and are carried by wind to faraway places. Hence, anthropogenic air pollution is a global environmental problem instead of regional or local, continuous rather than episodic.

A measure of outdoor air pollution is the Air Quality Index, or AQI, a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. It rates air conditions across a city/country based on concentrations of five major pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. An AQI of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health. When AQI is above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy, at first for certain sensitive groups of people—sick, elderly and children, and then for everyone as AQI gets higher. If the AQI is greater than 200, the air is considered hazardous for the entire population.

Dhaka has the dubious distinction of being one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, with AQI invariably close to 200. Arguably, these cities are often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” According to The Health Effects Institutes’ State of Global Air Survey, the entire population of Bangladesh has been consistently exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air since 1990.

Over the past few decades, researchers have unearthed a wide array of health effects which are caused by exposure to air pollution, particularly smog and ozone. Among them are respiratory diseases—asthma, emphysema, coughing, shortness of breath, changes in lung function and lung cancer. Children are at a greater risk of damage to lungs because their respiratory systems are still in the developmental stage. Cardiovascular diseases, immune system impairment, adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and significant decrease in life expectancy are other health-related effects of air pollution.

Human body has very little defence against the injurious effects—burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, irritation of the skin and nasal passages—of the three pernicious constituents of smog—formaldehyde, PANs and acrolein.

Most fuel contain some toxic mineral contaminants, such as lead and mercury, both highly potent neurotoxin. These non-combustible contaminants may be carried off by hot combustion gases, escaping into the air as particulates. Exposure to these deadly particulates have serious health-related consequences too, primarily neurological disorder, severe disability and muscular tremor.

The effects of human-caused air pollution are not limited to people. Acid rain, for example, is formed when emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide combine with moisture in the air to create sulfuric and nitric acidic precipitation, thereby acidifying lakes with detrimental effects on aquatic biome. It can also cause structural damage to buildings and monuments, especially those made of limestone or marble, as well as destroy plants and crops.

Indoor pollution can be worse than outdoors pollution in some cases. Air pollution inside buildings is accelerated by the toxicity of materials like asbestos, radon, pesticides and tobacco smoke, mildew, mould, mites, dust and pet dander, together with poor ventilation and humidity. Appliances that produce combustion fumes, especially cooking stoves and water heaters, emit carbon monoxide.

Most indoor pollutants, except carbon monoxide, asbestos and radon, are responsible for irritating but non-lethal allergic reactions. Prolonged exposure to air with high levels of carbon monoxide could be lethal, while radon and asbestos can cause lung cancer.

While there is currently no proven link between air pollution and Coronavirus (COVID-19) mortality, one peer-reviewed study into the 2003 SARS outbreak showed that patients in regions with moderate air pollution levels were 80-85 percent more likely to die than those in regions with low air pollution. COVID-19 is similar to SARS and can cause respiratory failure in severe cases.

Satellite images from NASA show a surprising effect of COVID-19 outbreak in China: reduction in air pollution. A “significant decrease” in pollution over Wuhan and the rest of China is attributed in part to an “economic slowdown” resulting from the virus outbreak.

An unexpected consequence of air pollution could be cooling the climate by offsetting some of the global warming that has occurred so far. That is because certain aerosols—sulphate, for instance—can reflect part of the sunlight back into space before it reaches the Earth’s surface. Call it unwittingly geoengineering the climate. Nevertheless, even if pollutants reduce global warming, it is not desirable to have them in our lungs.

Finally, because of the vastness of the atmosphere, we felt that it could absorb any conceivable amount of abuse by us. We have, therefore, used the air, and in turn our lungs, as a receptacle for hundreds of noxious pollutants. But with clean air technologies, targeted regulations, effective laws and strict emission standards, it is still possible to go far enough back in time to a period when the air was relatively pure.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Abnormal of the past becomes normal of the future in climate change age

Sandbag embankment in Khulna, Bangladesh after the cyclone, Fani in 2019

For millions of years, we were in equilibrium with our environment. Over the past 11,500 years, a period in Earth’s history called the Holocene Epoch, there had been a global climatic stability with the average surface temperature fluctuating around one degree Celsius up or down. Our civilisation emerged and progressed against this backdrop of a relatively stable climate.

Melting glaciers

But then something happened that led to the change of whole edifice for worse. The Industrial Revolution that began around 1760 had drastically changed, indeed corrupted, our environment. Today, we live on a planet whose air is polluted, whose water is contaminated and whose soil is chemically altered. Indeed, human influence is so substantial that Earth is no longer in the Holocene Epoch, but rather in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. For comparison, the epoch before Holocene, the Pleistocene Epoch, lasted nearly 2.5 million years.

Our insatiable appetite for energy using fossil fuel to have higher and higher living standards is placing unbearable burden on the planet. Until 1970s there had been little or no concern about the detrimental effects of extraction and use of fossil fuels on an industrial scale, particularly the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.  The current concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, is about 415 parts per million. It is the highest concentration since the Pliocene Epoch, which extended from about 5.3 million to 2.5 million years ago.

We now live in a world where “abnormal” of yester-years have become “normal” of present day. Examples of present day normal that were abnormal some 50 years ago are Bombogenesis, Arctic Amplification, Hell Fire, Pyro-cumulonimbus Storms aka Fire Tornadoes, Heat Waves and Climate Refugees, Derecho, Sneaker Wave, Squall Line, Microburst, Frankenstorm, and so forth.

Under normal conditions, cold air mass sits above the poles in an area called the polar vortex. It is a large, low-pressure zone that exists at two levels of the atmosphere, one in the troposphere, where most of the weather-related phenomena occur, and the other a bit higher up, in the stratosphere, home of the ozone layer that protects us from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. The vortices are seasonal atmospheric phenomena.

However, scientists believe that the phenomenon of Arctic Amplification, which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than rest of the world, distorts the vortex in the North Pole, thereby resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle. This anomaly, a consequence of global warming, was abnormal before the 1970s, but quite normal today.

It is no longer implausible to have record snowfall and record high temperature on the same day. On November 16 of last year, Anchorage in Alaska saw its high temperature top out at plus seven degrees at 2:30 a.m. (Average November temperature in Anchorage is negative five degrees.) Before midnight that day, 21 centimetres of snow fell on the ground. This oddity, as well as 20-25 degrees swing in daytime temperature within 24 hours in the winter months—abnormal few decades ago—are normal now.

Located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions, permafrost is one of the most unique kinds of soil containing more carbon and methane than any other soil on Earth and twice as much carbon as is available in the atmosphere. But as global temperatures rise, Arctic permafrost thaws and greenhouse gases trapped in ice are released. Clearly, permafrost thawing is opening up additional pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming. Besides, ancient carcasses are emerging from the melting permafrost, and with them germs from illness long thought eradicated.

Nowadays, Australia and California are ground zero for out-of-control wildfires. As cataclysmic wildfires continue to rage across Australia, the loss of life—humans and animals—has reached staggering numbers. An estimated one billion animals have been killed so far and approximately 107,000 square kilometres—roughly 70 percent the size of Bangladesh—burned on the east coast.

Climate change is making heat waves longer and more frequent. Temperatures soaring over 50 degrees in many parts of the world are becoming the norm, while nice and comfortable weather has become the exception.

Some other wild weather phenomena due to climate change that were rare or considered abnormal in the past but not anymore are Derecho—a straight-line wind storm with hurricane-force winds; Sneaker Wave—a disproportionately large wave that suddenly appears during a wave sequence; Squall Line—a line of thunderstorms preceding a cold front; Microburst—severe downdraft caused by a thunderstorm; Frankenstorm—remnants of a super storm reinvigorated by an early winter storm and a blast of Arctic air.

Rising temperatures due to climate change is driving out oxygen from our oceans, threatening many species of aquatic life. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, around 700 ocean sites are now suffering from low oxygen, compared with 45 in the 1960s. Lest we forget, oceans are the source of most of the oxygen we breathe.

If the seas ever do rise by even a meter, our children and grandchildren may find themselves living cramped lives with other climate refugees on shrinking continents. “Humorously speaking,” they may even try to adopt the underwater lifestyle of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, provided ocean acidification caused by absorption of carbon dioxide has not already wiped him and his pineapple home from the bottom of the rising seas.

Few years ago, the sight of polar bears roaming the streets of a village or town would have been abnormal. Nowadays, it is normal because the land on which they live and hunt is under siege. As Arctic ice thins from melting, an occurrence linked to global warming, their habitat is shrinking and food supply is decreasing. As a result, they are moving out of their natural habitat and traveling hundreds of miles south of the Arctic region in search for food.

To tackle these and other new normals, every year since 1995, our leaders and/or their disciples have been meeting at various world capitals or cities, some of which are tourist hot spots―Bali, Cancun, Marrakech, Montreal, Paris―debating climate change in climate-controlled halls at the so-called Conference of Parties (COP). In order to feel what it is like living in one of the hottest places on Earth, maybe they should hold a future COP in halls without air conditioners in Jacobabad (Pakistan) during July when the average daytime temperature regularly surpasses 50 degrees.

The hype around these conferences is high, but expectations of the people are low because the proposals are not bold enough and interests of the developing countries are marginalised. Gone is the focus on establishing global “top down” approach for stabilising emissions of greenhouse gases that would be legally binding. On the contrary, focus is on voluntary “bottom up” commitments by individual nations to reduce emissions.

It has become clear that the much-touted Paris Agreement thrashed out at COP-21 for keeping the rise in global temperature this century to two degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even lower to 1.5 degrees is on life-support system. America under Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement as Donald Trump categorises global warming as “fake news!” Subsequent summits, including COP-25 in Madrid two months ago, were stuck in a rut. There is no agreement yet and none is in sight.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres roped in some world leaders, members of civil societies and corporate executives at a climate summit in New York on September 23, 2019 to highlight their plans to bring down greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. As expected, they “prioritised” a laundry list of Action Portfolios without any firm commitment to implement them.

The star of the summit was Greta Thunberg, the 17-year old Swedish activist, who delivered a blunt speech, excoriating world leaders for their inaction. And the shameless world leaders clapped and cheered every time she chastised them with phrases like “How dare you,” or “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” If they had any self-respect, they should have hung their head down in shame instead of applauding. They did not do so because they are “normal” 21st century leaders.

All said and done, what is the end game? Can pre-emptively embarking on a revolutionary change that will lead us away from dependency on fossil fuels and embracing eco-friendly renewable energies save our planet? Can we avoid the risk of a catastrophic failure of our increasingly ephemeral and tightly interlinked global civilisation as we know it? The answer to the above questions is NO, because our leaders lack the collective will to take the decisive steps required to keep our planet liveable for the future generations.

Scientists believe that if we started to cut down on emissions of carbon dioxide even by one percent in 1990, tackling climate change would have been manageable. Instead, we wasted 30 years by inaction. The inertia of the climate system is such that even if we stop introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere right now, the ones already in the atmosphere will keep on warming the Earth for another one to two hundred years before equilibrium is reached. In other words, climate change would keep on accelerating, regardless of what measures we take to mitigate its effects.

We can, however, partially solve the seemingly unsolvable problems we have created by changing the unsustainable lifestyle of many of us. More importantly, we have to work to address the problem of the world’s ever-growing population. We are probably within a few decades of a point in time where the sheer number of people on Earth will make continuing degradation of our planet irreversible. So, it is up to us whether we choose to take actions in a direction which will reduce overall global population.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Is India going to lose its soul?

As the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) risks defining Muslims as ‘infiltrators’, Tushar Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, joins the protest to save India’s heart and soul.

Protest against the CAA after Friday prayers outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi

Last week 25,000 protesters gathered in Mewat, in the Indian state of Haryana, to begin the historic five-mile walk to Ghasera village. It was here, 72 years ago, that Mahatma Gandhi made the same journey during the turmoil of partition, visiting the area with the promise of a dignified life for local Muslims.

While millions have retraced Gandhi’s steps before, this time felt different. Against the backdrop of a new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) passed by the Indian parliament last week, which many believe is openly discriminatory against Muslims and relegates them to second-class citizens, honouring Gandhi’s words of religious harmony and reconciliation felt like a powerful political statement. “Mewat has witnessed many protests, but this is the biggest in our life,” resident Shahzad Khan told local media.

As India has seen some of the biggest protests in four decades, the image and legacy of Gandhi, known as the “father of India” for his role in independence, has been omnipresent. Across India people have voiced fears that the new act, passed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s right wing, Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, risks destroying the secular, pluralistic India that Gandhi dedicated his life to building.

It was no accident that on the same day that protesters marched in Mewat last week, thousands of demonstrators gathered at August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai, the spot from which Gandhi gave his famous “Quit India” speech to the British government in 1942.

Among the millions who have taken to the streets defending Gandhi’s inclusive vision of India has been Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Arun Gandhi. “For the first time in independent India,” said Tushar Gandhi, “laws or systems are being attempted to be imposed which discriminate, which differentiate, on the basis of religion.”

Tushar Gandhi has dedicated much of his life to his great-grandfather’s legacy, establishing and running the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in Mumbai, but he said with the passing of the new citizenship law something had shifted. “Everybody has a turning point in their life. If being thrown out of the train was a turning point in my great-grandfather’s life, I think this issue of trying to change the soul of my nation is the turning point in my life,” he said. In 10 years, he added, this country “won’t be India any more. It will be a fascist dictatorship. And, mind you, it will be a dictatorship using democratic process, and that is even more dangerous”.

Under the new legislation all Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh migrants who arrived from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before 2014 will be allowed to claim Indian citizenship.

However, the same will not apply for Muslim immigrants. In conjunction with a planned initiative by the BJP government to begin a national register of citizens (NRC), where every person in India will have to present paperwork to prove their Indian lineage, the new act means that it is only Muslims in India who face the possibility of being defined as “infiltrators”, to either be deported or put into detention centres being built across the country.

Tushar spoke of his pride at seeing Gandhi’s image being brandished as thousands of protesters defied the bans on public gatherings by the authorities and turned out on to the streets in a wave of peaceful mass civil disobedience reminiscent of Gandhi’s movement 90 years ago.

“Just think of the far-sightedness of that man in 1930,” said Tushar. “When he was asked to send out a message to mankind, he wrote, ‘I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might,’ and today we are again fighting a battle of right against might, so it’s very natural that he becomes the icon of the protest.”

He was also adamant that the effects of the citizenship act would be felt far beyond India’s borders.

“There should be a debate on the ramifications of [the CAA] internationally,” says Tushar. “It concerns every democracy and it concerns everybody who believes in inclusivity and in the liberal ideology.”

While Modi has often described himself as a follower of Gandhi, Tushar said that this was meaningless in the face of the Hindu nationalist agenda being pushed by Modi’s BJP government, which aims to irreparably fracture the country down religious lines. “It’s not what you profess, but what you practise that makes the world realise who you follow,” he said of Modi.

Over a week since the passing of the citizenship act, the protests in India have showed no sign of abating and indeed have gathered even more momentum over the weekend. Like so many, Tushar Gandhi said he would keep turning out on the streets to fight for an India where religion did not determine your status as a citizen.

“We will have to keep up the momentum, we will actually have to increase the intensity of the protests if we are to bring this government to its knees,” he said. “Because you must remember this is an arrogant government. It is not going to come to its knees that easily.”

While the authorities are increasingly meeting the protests with suppression and violence, with the death toll from the demonstrations reaching 17 by Saturday, Tushar said it was more important than ever that Gandhi’s legacy remain at the heart of the protests.

“A long-drawn-out agitation can only be sustained if it is peaceful and non-violent,” he said.

This article by Zoe Osborne and Hannah Ellis-Petersen was first published in The Observer on 19 December 2019.