The Queen’s Gambit

In late October, Netflix released its new miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit. A riveting drama that follows the rise of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (portrayed by Anna Taylor Joy), the show is set in the 1960s as Harmon battles her inner demons that stem from the trauma of her mother’s death from an accident. As she grows up in an orphanage, she learns chess from a janitor who happens to be a chess enthusiast keen on teaching her as he learns of her ability to be a skilled player. Thus begins her journey with chess. 

The plot of The Queen’s Gambit is very engrossing and coherent. As it progresses, it magnificently weaves characters from various phases of Harmon’s life as she battles addiction, loneliness and insecurities with great passion and perseverance. Anna Taylor Joy’s portrayal of the protagonist is a marvel to watch. Creators Frank and Allan Scott have done a great job weaving Harmon’s story as she makes her way to the most coveted tournaments. 

Under Scott Frank’s direction, the show has achieved some great frames with its stunning portrayal of the 50s and 60s. The aesthetic seems spot on and is visually very appealing. 

For chess aficionados, the show can be a marvel to watch. The show was received well for accurately portraying chess moves as well. Even if you are not familiar with the most basic chess rules, there is no instance where the discussing of strategies and the analyzing of the chess boards will bore you. Instead, it allows you a look at the work that has gone in the making of the adept chess players that the characters are. Get used to the rush every time you hear about the sicilian opening! 

Another highly commendable aspect of the show is its impeccable soundtrack. The songs go very well with the scenes, be it pensive, melancholic or rebellious. Most of these songs are soul and rock music from the 60s and are just perfect in the context they are used. 
The entire cast does a brilliant job of elaborating on the several tropes explored in the show. Even with so many complex storylines, it is interesting how chess always alludes to one way or the other. It’s simply brilliant writing and proficient execution. All in all The Queen’s Gambit is a must-watch.


The Shadow King

The Shadow King treads different territory, each more skillful than the last. The novel speaks of violence with a degree of care, exposing vulnerabilities, limitations but also strengths and motivations of the women who went to war. It breaks down perceived dichotomies– public and private, men and women, outside and inside.

The beginning introduces a scene of the interiority of Kidane and Aster’s home; and the orphan who is now living with them– Hirut. One realises the affective appeal of these characters as well as that of Wujira, Hirut’s rifle. Maaza Mengiste interweaves the personal narratives of war with its more public ones. She manages to humanise actors through its writing and gradual laying bare of facts. For instance, Aster, mourns the loss of her child while at the same time exhibiting sheer jealousy of Hirut. It is skilful in its lucid and thorough representation of overlooked ideas– one emotion doesn’t define a character; one aspect doesn’t define a story. This is reminiscent in the interspersed chapters which follow Hirut, the Italian colonel Fucelli and the photographer, Ettore Navarra.

Set in the context of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Mengiste does not fall into the hackneyed portrayal of women in war zones where they cease to be entities in their own right but are reduced to the tropes of mothers, monsters or whores. At the crux of it, the novel is a story of power, and power dynamics, asserted through violence, sexual and otherwise. All in all, The Shadow King has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, and rightly so.

Issue 4

OTT Platforms: What controls the content we watch?

You sit in your bed, scrolling through the internet, looking for the next series to binge-watch. You switch tabs from Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to Disney+ then to Hotstar. You’re probably still confused about what you want to watch. The entire time, however, your choices feel seemingly limitless. You acknowledge tacitly that this was not the case a couple of years back. 

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have expanded over the past 8 years. From only two platforms in 2012, India now has over 30 streaming service providers. Increasingly, television broadcast service providers have started giving customers the option to watch live TV online. A 2018 report by The Boston Consulting Group based its analysis off a consumer survey and predicted the Indian OTT market to reach $5 billion by 2023.

The reach of such platforms has been exacerbated by the pandemic as movies that would have otherwise released in theatres have now debuted on online platforms. An instance of the same is the somewhat controversial film Laxmii which is set to release on Hotstar later this month. While this doesn’t mean that theatres will shut for good, with different states opening up film theatres as early as November 2020, this does speak of the trend that the biggest platforms are racing to create libraries of content. This is indicative of an imagination where the OTT isn’t an adversary to film, rather a much-needed ally.

In this vast plethora of content, some questions remain. Do you choose what you are going to watch? Can someone influence your content choices? Netflix confirmed that it was testing a ‘shuffle play’ option for its users where the platform can suggest a title for you to watch based on your viewing preferences. One can, in light of this, think of online content as a basket of goods. While your screen time and interests may determine the exact good you choose from the basket, the entire basket differs from country to country. You’re provided with the content that will sell in your specific context as companies curate the content that you are likely to watch. 

Although companies are curating content for you, these are in themselves diverse. The bottom line is this– the singular power has gone out of the hands of big film studios’ now. At the box office, timings and screens are dependent on financial capacity. This problem shrinks in the online space. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in an interview with the Hindu, spoke of his experience of not being strapped for money and concerns of audience reaction to the work he was doing. At the same time, the online space, like everything, isn’t free of problems. 

Even though the power to determine content isn’t concentrated in a few hands, the potency of the question stands, perhaps more as a ‘what’ question– what determines the content you consume? The answer is binge-worthiness which in part, determines the type of content that is created by production houses. That is why crime and horror are popular genres. Entire seasons are released in a single go contributing to the binge-watching trend. The goal for these platforms seems to be achieving the ‘endless scroll’, a constant updating of content. Coupled with the endless scroll, it is also important to acknowledge that the goal of binge-worthiness can go hand in hand with increased freedom to the creator.

This is true not just for the multinational names like Netflix, Amazon’s and Disney. Indian platforms like ALTBalaji, Voot and ZEE5 operate according to the same logic where the quest is to find content that appeals to the largest possible audience. These are also more pocket-friendly for different demographics. For instance, the Basic subscription for Netflix for a month is Rs. 499 as compared to ALTBalaji which costs Rs. 300 for a year.

Whatever be the cost, OTTs are often seen as competitors or add ons to film and television. There is a distinction in the entertainment content they provide. This difference or rather diversity of perspectives is perhaps seen most vividly in the comparison between one subsidiary of a TV company and the network itself– Balaji Telefilms. The ALT or alternative seems to have become a recourse from the regurgitated material we see on TV. A prime (pun intended) example of this is Balaji and ALTBalaji. While the former, meant for TV reproduces stereotypes; the latter, a mobile app and website sets out to challenge them. It pushes boundaries in showing queer romance, and central woman characters among others. While it does have its limitations, this content is far from Indian TV soaps, as mentioned by the Chief Marketing Officer himself.

A factor contributing to the success of ALTBalaji is its employment of erotic content. OTTs are free from the Central Board of Film Certification and hence several censorship rules. However, the formation of an adjudicatory body, the Digital Content Complaint Council (DCCC) was announced in February this year. This is coupled with a push for self-regulation. This is a salient distinction as it comes hand in hand with the individuation of the viewer experience. Some scholars see censorship as the adoption of a patronising attitude by the state. Online viewing is highly individualised with its focus on the smartphone and hence the assumption is of maturity on the part of the viewer, provided that details around appropriateness are provided. So the effect doesn’t start and end at erotic content but in general more freedom to the creator, as mentioned earlier. According to Kashyap, the topics “that matter to me: sexuality, religion and politics. These are the three big nos for the cinema experience. But Netflix doesn’t shy away from that.”

It would seem that the OTT platform provides more space for experimentation–both to the content creator and the receiver. That being said, it might not be the time to junk the TV completely, or at least junk it with the understanding that consumption of online content comes, at least in the Indian subcontinent, with a class dimension. While the idea of ‘selling content’ may work for entertainment channels, it is somewhat tricky territory when considering another category of content such as news which in itself is a public good. The question to ask then is who has the resources to invest in what essential are additional sources of entertainment? While data is a cheap commodity, with companies like Jio entering the market with highly affordable plans, viewing online content comes with the ability to pay for a subscription as well as pay for an uninterrupted internet experience. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 4

The 5G Conundrum: Can we achieve carbon neutrality?

On 13th October 2020, Apple unveiled its new lineup of iPhone 12 phones in its virtual Special Event. Like other Apple release events, this too garnered great attention. But this time, fans were divided over Apple’s decision to not include the charging brick and earphones from further on. 

Apple’s website claims that the company’s decision to revamp its packaging and not include the charging block and earphone is one step among many towards their goal of making all products carbon neutral by 2030. But the introduction of 5G into its devices raises an important question. Is the company really contributing to offset carbon emissions, even beyond its sale to the consumer?

These new iPhones will be the first smartphones from Apple that feature 5G connectivity. Samsung released its first all-5G smartphone in March this year. Companies like Google and Nokia followed suit. As technology continues to rapidly progress, in the next few years or maybe even sooner, mid-range and low-end smartphones from other companies will surely include 5G.  Like Apple, these companies will also advertise their phones’ 5G feature. Assuming that the use of 5G will be widespread, it is pivotal that we look at how sustainable it is.

According to an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report, 53.6% of the global population or more than 4 billion people use the internet. From sending emails to searching, all of our actions on the internet result in carbon emissions. To allow data transmission on such a large scale, enormous amounts of energy is required to operate servers, cloud services and run data centers. The carbon footprint of this, along with what results from the usage of our devices, results in colossal units of greenhouse gas emissions. BBC reports this amount to be almost 1.7 billion tonnes every year. 

Conversations around carbon emissions rarely examine the effects of internet data centres. According to a 2019 Greenpeace report, the internet conglomerate, Amazon, backtracked from its commitment to using 100% clean energy to operate its data centres as it expanded. It was found that Amazon’s data centres in Virginia were powered by only 12% of renewable energy. When WIRED reached out to Amazon for comments, it received no reply from the web service giant. 

Events like these create anxieties for a world that has been ravaged by several disasters due to global warming which has been a direct consequence of exorbitant levels of carbon emissions. 

The dilemma posed by the need to have more technologies is concerning not just for big companies and environmental organizations but also to the average person. In June 2018, CBS reported that wireless companies in the US would have to install 300,000 new transmission antennas for the rollout of 5G connectivity. The reason for this is because the higher frequency requires antennas to be closer for optimum usage. This was alarming to some residents in Maryland, as they were concerned that increasing the number of transmission towers would drive down the property values in their neighborhoods. While this was the prime concern, residents were reluctant to have these towers installed in front of their homes also because of possible health risks these towers posed due to radiation, although most studies found no correlation. 

It would not be pragmatic for us to look at only one end of the internet consumption chain. Much of the onus to create a sustainable internet also falls on the consumer. 

Our addiction to social media, video streaming, tending to notifications and other habits online necessitate faster connections. For instance, in the last decade, online video streaming has shifted from a standard 480p quality format to much higher resolutions. These require considerable bandwidth. A study found out that online video altogether spawns 60% of the world’s data flow and emits more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. 

Important stakeholders in terms of video streaming are Over-the-top (OTT) media services like Netflix. Such streaming platforms have revolutionized the way we have been consuming media. The releasing of television shows at one go allows for people to binge-view content. Much like social media, it is incredibly easy to get addicted to Netflix. 

Such consumption has impacts on the politics of everyday life. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken’s research on the nature of spoilers of TV shows suggests that spoiling shows by revealing plots has shifted from being a faux pas to giving one social power. It can be deduced from this that people would not want to miss out on popular TV shows because of the cultural capital it allows one to have, and also, they would want to consume it as soon as possible so that they have the upper hand when it comes to spoilers. 

Since OTT platforms have supplanted itself as a prominent cultural fixture in these past few years, it is not surprising that 5G connectivity will provide greater convenience for the consumer to access a multitude of shows anytime, in high resolutions, across several kinds of devices including Apple’s new 5G iPhones. The demand will be fueled by more popular content and people will want to get in on it. The ramifications will include a much greater carbon footprint. 

Along with our subsequent shift to virtual reality, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated our internet habits. The carbon emissions from our internet use have skyrocketed due to this. It would be incredibly ignorant to overlook the implications of our internet use on the environment. The consumer is responsible to cultivate green internet habits and reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible. With companies like Apple pledging to be carbon neutral, governments and environmental organizations need to check whether they are actually achieving these agendas. As the 5G technology expands its reach, all stakeholders must assess whether it would really make a difference before signing up for new subscriptions. While Apple’s new packaging might be a step in the right decision, the company, along with other manufacturers, still have work to do in order to reduce carbon emissions. 

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 4

How a Jailed Activist Continues to Influence Assam’s Politics: Conversations Regarding Akhil Gogoi

Akhil Gogoi continues to languish in jail. He was arrested on December 12 last year from Assam’s Jorhat district amid protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Even though the year 2019 witnessed the state boiling, the leader of the peasant organization Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) continues to remain one of the most relevant figures in Assam’s politics till today. In a state where emotions rise fast and fall faster, the public reaction to Gogoi’s incarceration is no exception. With the Legislative Assembly elections scheduled for April 2021, discussions about an alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government and Gogoi’s role in it, are gaining momentum.

On October 2, 2020, KMSS, led by its president Bhasco De Saikia, announced a new political party. Raijor Dol (meaning People’s Party), launched at a hotel in Guwahati in the presence of leaders from civil society, youth organizations and dignitaries like Jahnu Barua, Zerifa Wahid and Arup Borbora, is the second political party launched in the state in less than a month. On September 14, leaders from the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) came together to form the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP). Like Raijor Dol, AJP is also hoping to turn the anti-CAA sentiments into votes in the upcoming elections.

As these developments were unfolding, Akhil Gogoi remained fairly silent. I spoke to a few academics and political commentators working on Assam, intending to understand the continued importance of the man in the scheme of things. “Akhil Gogoi, through the KMSS, brought about a substantive change to the politics that we are used to. He brought the people at the margins, i.e., the peasantry and the forest dwellers, to the centre-stage of politics. We did not see it either during the Assam Agitation or in the armed movements in the region. He did it through popular mobilization. Thereby, he provided a critic of the system from the perspective of structural inequalities. He keeps on trying to use all available means within a liberal democratic system to expose the limitations of the system itself,” says Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor and head of the Department of Political Science at Gauhati University and a well-known political pundit from the region. 

Kaustubh Deka, who teaches the same discipline in eastern Assam’s Dibrugarh University noted that it is because of Gogoi’s multiple roles that he has assumed a unique importance in Assam’s politics. “AG’s importance in Assam politics needs to be understood in a threefold manner: as an efficient mobiliser of masses, as an ideological anchor to many and as a polarising force for some,” opines Deka, who was associated with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai and the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, before moving home to Assam. 

Admitting that Akhil Gogoi is “certainly and undeniably a pivotal figure in Assam’s politics today”, Angshuman Choudhury, a Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the South East Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, also alludes to the “peculiar” space in Assamese politics that Gogoi occupies. Choudhury, who also holds an MSc in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, calls this space “both primordially progressive and conservative at the same time”.

“He offers a template of resistance that appears radically modern and unrelenting at the outset, but is ultimately couched in the divisive orthodoxy of jati-mati-bheti. Let me state this in somewhat different terms. Akhil’s politics has a compelling duality to it – he reminds people of the agitational, deeply romanticised Assam Movement tradition, and also refracts the post-movement popular disenchantment with mainstream politics (think AGP, Congress) and civil society (think AASU, AJYCP). Perhaps many others have occupied that space, but Akhil brought it out into the streets through both grassroots-level and performative activism. Sadly, however, he remains locked in that duality, which prevents him from being a full-throated progressive. Akhil has constantly anchored his activism in the khilonjiya political vocabulary of insider-vs-outsider, which sustains his popular appeal amongst the dominant Assamese-speaking groups but also renders him no different from past political figures in Assam. Sure, he has persistently led movements that speak to both hyper-local issues (like displacement, farmer rights, bus fares, etc.) and larger structural ailments (like ecological destruction through centralised development), but largely within the ambit of the traditional indigeneity framework that foregrounds a certain ethno-territorial identity over others. By doing so, Akhil has consistently thwarted the possibility of a truly plural and anti-fascist Assamese society. I see his support to BJP candidates in the 2014 national election, NRC and the detention process in that context. So in more ways than one, Akhil, to me, represents the immovability of Assamese politics and civil society. He reflects the uncontested dominance of the anti-immigrant discourse in the politics of Brahmaputra Valley. Yet, at a time when a culturally supremacist regime in New Delhi is steamrolling controversial policies in Assam without broader consultations and cracking down on dissenters, he fulfills an in-built need within the Assamese nationalist paradigm to resist the politics of New Delhi and Dispur.”

When I was writing a profile of Akhil Gogoi soon after his arrest, one of the people I spoke to had asked, rhetorically, why people would side with the KMSS and not with the AASU if they wanted to support Assamese nationalism, since the latter has unapologetically and staunchly represented jatiyotabaad – the Assamese word for (sub)nationalism. The balancing act that the peasant leader has been trying to perform after realizing that the middle-class was treating him as a troublemaker has seen him aligning more with jatiyotabaadi causes in recent years. 

“As far as his political journeys goes, in his long stint, AG has achieved something without much parallel in Assam. From the days of his Dayang Tengani ‘long march’, AG has been an ardent practitioner of mass politics and to his credit, he has not only retained his mass base but also expanded it over the years. He has done it without holding any important office (winning elections) or deviating from his core ideological positions (maintaining a level of consistency). This makes his case comparatively unique. Another feature of his journey is his own growth as a writer-ideologue cum ‘activist’. For the middle class, the image has been that of a ‘professional agitationist’, which seems to have begun to change as he is seen to have moved closer to the cause of ‘Axomiya jatiyotabaad’,” says Deka, when asked about Gogoi’s political journey. 

Prof Dutta believes that journey has been “full of meaningful engagements”. “The issue of environment in the development projects of the state came to the forefront through the popular mobilizations against the Lower Subansiri hydroelectric power project. The notion of ‘cumulative impact assessment on the environment’ was something that Akhil Gogoi made very popular. He has the capacity to read and understand the issues in minute details. He also provided an alternative understanding of land relations and land ownership in the state. On the water issue too, he brought to the forefront quite a number of significant and relevant issues. Most importantly, Akhil Gogoi understood the economy at the grassroots very well. It was not something based only on academic research. He definitely studied them, but he penetrated into the dynamics through direct contact with the people. His other important contribution is about understanding the economy of lower Assam. This has not been discussed by any other political leader at length. During the anti-CAA movement he played an important role towards making it inclusive by bridging the gap between Upper Assam and Lower Assam,” says the chairperson of the Brahmaputra Institute of Research and Development (BIRD) in Guwahati.

Choudhury too feels that the hope that Gogoi would forge a new left-progressive discourse did not last long and, he did not “depart from the ethnonationalist ecosystem”. “For instance, by lending support to candidates belonging to a right-wing, Hindu supremacist party like the BJP in 2014 just to defeat the Congress, Akhil revealed his ideological dubiousness. Then, by not speaking up for the rights and dignity of Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam during the NRC process, Akhil made it clear that he would keep one foot in the Assamese nationalist hearth. But the CAB protests proved to be the peak of his political career. It gave him the opportunity to gain greater visibility in Assam’s core urban spaces while fulfilling a two-fold objective: placating Assamese nationalists who oppose the CAB because it’s seemingly ‘anti-indigenous’ in nature, while also appealing to mainland progressives who oppose the CAB because its un-secular,” adds Choudhury who was recently a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The forming of the student wing of the KMSS, Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti (SMSS) is a decision that “unleashed a new chapter in youth politics in Assam – something with deep consequences for later years, as we witnessed in the times of anti-CAA protests”, feels Dr Deka. A lot of SMSS cadres now find themselves in leadership roles in Raijor Dol.

None of the scholars I spoke to, however, was gung-ho about Akhil’s immediate electoral possibilities. “I am very skeptical about it. Electoral politics is a different game plan altogether. In a situation like Assam’s, the middle class is an important component in deciding the electoral dynamics and outcomes. Akhil Gogoi has not been careful enough to make them a part of his movement. In the initial phases, Gogoi and the KMSS were supported by a larger section of the middle class. However, his antagonistic approach towards the middle class has gradually drifted them away to a great extent. Therefore, he became more vulnerable to the state machinery. Besides, his approach to electoral politics has been both casual and at times very difficult for the common masses to understand. If Akhil Gogoi seriously wants to be in electoral politics, he must be in a position to ally with the mainstream left political and the progressive regional forces. He has been very critical of the mainstream left political forces. My understanding is that without a broad federal unity among the left-regional and progressive liberal democratic forces, it will be very difficult to be in electoral politics,” observes Akhil Ranjan Dutta.

“This buzz around Akhil Gogoi joining the electoral fray is very interesting as it centres around a lot of expectations and estimations”, responds Kaustubh Deka to the same question, before adding, “Personally speaking, I don’t share an equally zestful outlook on this matter. Akhil Gogoi as a mass mobiliser and Akhil Gogoi as an electoral force are two different scenarios. Voters in India are adept at donning multiple hats and there’s every possibility that the same people who have been filling the KMSS rallies are also joining another one by the BJP on the next day. AG knows this too perhaps and therefore, he knows the challenges he faces in entering a politics based on entitlements and dole-outs, without having anything similar to offer. Yes, he has powerful critique and a stellar track record. Because of these, I, however, wish to see him enter electoral politics. It will add a vibrancy to the debates. However, there is a paradox here which AG and his organisation faces, which is what in social science literature called as ‘social movement organisations’ (SMO), organisations built and sustained primarily around protests and social mobilisations. Their network chains and sub-culture thus fundamentally differ from a traditional political party. Yet, if they approach the election, the challenge will be to turn their disadvantages into advantages.”

Choudhury feels that Akhil Gogoi will lose his popular appeal if he enters mainstream politics in Assam. “Such is the nature of electoral politics that it mediates and moderates radicalism. So he might ultimately go the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) way, and we all know what way that went in Assam. But to me, it doesn’t make much of a difference if he stays in or out of the electoral political structure. His core political ideologies (or non-ideologies) will remain the same. In fact, once he enters the vote game, he will only dig his feet deeper into the jati-mati-bheti ecosystem and speak a stronger ethnonationalist tongue. Right now, he still has some space to extend limited support to certain historically marginalised groups, like the Bengal-origin Muslims, but once he becomes a politician, that space will disappear rapidly. So my best guess is Akhil will only become a more orthodox version of himself once he enters electoral politics, if he isn’t dabbling in outright political opportunism, that is,” remarks Choudhury.

This lack of ideology that Choudhury suggests is, in fact, well-thought ‘tactical moves’, believes Deka. When asked to evaluate Akhil Gogoi’s recent comments to the media that all ‘anchalik‘ (regional) forces should be united, Deka told me, “Interestingly, Akhil Gogoi himself is the missing link here, with the chorus of the need to anyhow bring him to the ‘ancholikotabaadi’ fold increasing by the day. His is almost being considered by many as the Midas touch in Assam politics now. His comment is a sure indication that he wouldn’t mind joining forces with others including the AJP. The ball is in their court. Gogoi believes in tactical moves and for that, he sees it fine to take positions which might seem contrary to his ideological positions. This explains his call to support the BJP (as against the ruling Congress) in previous elections. I believe if he can somehow take everyone onboard in his tactical moves and all the ‘anchalik’ forces do unite, it might be a force to reckon with, given the collective organisational prowess. But the larger challenge would still, however, remain in my opinion, to convert the emotional/ideological support to votes.”

In other words, “the challenge will be to change the terms of politics itself”, the political scientist signs off.

Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a Senior Writing Fellow (English Language Teaching) at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University. He is also a freelance journalist regularly contributing to HuffPost India, The Wire and various Assamese dailies.

Image Credit: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 4

The Infamous Smog: Crop burning and much more

It’s that time of the year when the infamous smog once again chokes the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), reigniting old debates on crop-burning and its alternatives. Year after year, almost every newspaper prints scathing columns condemning the smog that settles in the region due to the burning of crop residue. Why do farmers continue to burn crops?

Crop burning occurs during the short period between the harvest of Kharif season and the sowing of Rabi season. This leaves the farmers with around 15 days to harvest their crop and get the field ready for the sowing of seeds. Innovations implemented as a result of the Green Revolution changed agricultural practices. Technological innovations brought in the new mechanized style of harvesting which uses the combined harvester—primarily aimed for rice and wheat—to harvest crops. After running this harvester through the field, the short and stiff residue is leftover.

Upon harvesting the grains, the leftover stubble is cleared. This was cleared manually or by having cattle graze on the field in the earlier days. The leftover residue then provided fuel and fodder for cattle and was used as a source of compost for the fields. Now, as labour costs continue to increase, the work done manually takes more time. Thus, stubble burning, which is a cheap and accessible method of clearing fields for the next season, has become the norm. This has been a major reason for the smog.

But is the smog caused solely due to crop burning by farmers? While there is some truth to the statement made by these columns that condemn crop burning, it remains somewhat simplistic. Unfortunately, this season also happens to collide with Diwali. The already polluted Delhi air is overburdened with the added pressure of multiple field fires, adding insult to injury. But Diwali isn’t the only contributing factor for the decline in air quality. 

As we get closer to winter, the temperature around this time is just starting to drop. We know that hot air, now filled with pollutants, rises. However, as elevation increases, the atmospheric temperature begins to drop due to the thinner atmosphere. At this point, where the temperature starts dropping in the atmosphere, the pollutants remain trapped, creating a shield that prevents the polluted air from rising any further. This causes the pollutants to remain in the air that we breathe, creating smog. The lack of strong winds in the region during this time of the year is also a significant contributing factor and results in the pollutants being suspended in the air.

One can interpret the smog to be the result of the intersection of various unfavourable factors including geography, climatic conditions, industrial and capitalist processes, technology, illiteracy, need, desperation and perhaps, the lack of adequate alternatives.

As a solution, governments have gone from levying heavy taxes on farmers and passing an ordinance for a 20-member committee to tackle air pollution in the NCR. However, stringent laws and harsh punishments rarely, if ever, act as preventive measures. In our present situation, creating committees is simply a redundant act of pushing the burden of accountability on a different set of shoulders.

The recurring smog is battled with feeble water spray machines, air purifiers and masks. In reality, these are all but preventive, and we may have misunderstood the problem at its root for a significantly long time. The introduction of specialized agricultural machines, subsidies and loans along with strict laws are but mitigating factors. None of which consider the long-term health of agriculturists, consumers, soil health, accessibility and soil toxicity—all which are significant and yet not spoken about. To battle pollution arising out of crop residue burning, we must first arrive at a clear understanding of the problem. Dedicated research, trials and increase in government support in agriculture are key to arriving at a robust solution for this problem.

Given these “solutions”, our future seems but a foggier rendition of the present and the past. Policies aimed at diversification of crops grown will help us take a step towards a long-term solution to the adverse effect of the pollution arising from crop burning. However, battling smog does not end here, industrial pollutants demand a more complex approach which is beyond the scope of this article.

A possible solution could be to replace monocultures in favour of polycultures. Diversification of the regions where these crops are grown could also help. Creating policies favouring state-sponsored labour, or perhaps changing the kind of seeds we use. 

Various complexities drive the problem of pollution in India. One may trace the roots back to the green revolution, maybe even condemn it. But the truth of the matter is that we must rethink the industrial model of agriculture that is rampantly in practice today. We must rethink agriculture.

Hiteshi Ajmera is a student of Political Science and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Photograph by Neil Palmer, distributed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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Should India’s environment laws give the State so much power?

By Mansi Ranka

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) rolled out the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in March 2020 and introduced changes to environmental governance for the country. These changes focus on making environmental clearance a swift and easy process while giving public consultation a backseat.

The draft has led to widespread public concern. About 100 environmental groups and individuals have opposed draft EIA 2020, calling it anti-environment and anti-people. One of the main causes for distress in the new draft is an exemption from prior environmental clearance to about 40 different industries like clay and sand extraction, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants. This ex post facto environmental clearance puts aside the primary goal of environmental protection to focus on achieving ease of business. In April, the Supreme Court held that such practice would be detrimental to the environment and that development must be approached through an “ecologically rational outlook”.

The other main cause of concern is the dilution of public consultation. The new draft exempts projects from the public hearing, an important opportunity for local communities to learn about the project and demand social obligations from them. This gives the corporations power to officially evade local development needs, which were anyway rarely met. environmentalists have accused the government of using EIA to expand their own political control by favouring corporations by legitimising environmentally degrading projects.

The new EIA draft incorporates systemic weakness into the law, making environmental violations the norm for corporations. The Ministry does not even pretend to see EIA as anything more than a bureaucratic instrument to make environmental clearance (EC) easier. 

Environmentalists have been arguing for the need to strengthen environmental law more than ever, as we are already experiencing climate change in the havoc wreaked by floods nationwide. The letter sent to the MOEFCC also proposes that we go back to the EIA 2006 notification. But in reality, that is not all that better either.

The MOEFCC is currently reviewing the public comments that they have received on the draft. Right now, it is important to think about what it is that will really help strengthen the environmental law in our country. How can the law ensure that big corporate profit does not override people’s welfare and environmental protection?

The state controls the distribution of state-owned natural resources. What is the safeguard against the exploitation of this power? What if the government allocates natural resources in a way that contradicts public welfare?

A similar question was brought up before the Supreme Court, in the 2011 public interest litigation after the 2G scam. The PIL raised questions about the State’s ownership of natural resources and their fair distribution. The judgement clarified the Supreme Court’s position on who distributes natural resources by saying, “Natural resources belong to the people but the State legally owns them on behalf of its people and …  is empowered to distribute natural resources.” So, the State has the power to decide what happens to natural resources. But on what basis does the state decide? The judgement goes on to say, “while distributing natural resources, the State is bound to act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust and ensure that no action is taken which may be detrimental to the public interest.”

Thus, as long as we trust the Indian State to “act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust”, we can be certain that it will distribute natural resources for the “common good”. The judgement concludes that the State should be the trustee or guardian of the people in general, and hence be responsible for natural assets.

Trusteeship is a Gandhian socio-economic idea, which holds that wealthy people should be the trustees and ensure the general welfare of the poor people. The theory relies on Gandhi’s conviction that capitalists aren’t beyond redemption and the wealthy could be persuaded to help the poor by becoming more egalitarian.

Now, the Indian State is supposed to act as this trustee and ensure common good. How does the state define this ‘common good’? Historically, the state has not acted in ways that can foster this kind of trust. The state has often wished to ascertain huge profits through corporations by allowing them to monopolise. This is obvious in the draft EIA 2020. The “common” good then becomes economic development by few big players. This is excluding the very people it was supposed to act as trustee for. And yet, the State can claim to handover natural resources for exploitation to a few players in the name of common good and public trust.

Furthermore, the draft EIA is pushing for people to be excluded from participating in this process, making the idea of common good paternalistic. The tilting of the scale to give the trustee unchecked power is possible under this idea of trusteeship. This is because in Gandhi’s theory it heavily relies on subjective goodness in the capitalist, the trustee, to act for general welfare. It is necessary to question this of trusteeship. Can the state function as a true trustee without mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency?

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

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The Most Powerful Response to Any Situation: Love

By Raja Rosenhagen

The topic of love seemed like an obvious choice. I just taught two classes on it over the summer—one for graduate level students,one as part of the summer semester offerings for our undergraduates. It was deeply rewarding to be with these students, to reflect with them on what love and friendship are (or should be), on how various kinds of love relate to our reasons, and on how the quality of our attention profoundly shapes our everyday ways of interacting with others. Many students took these reflections as invitations to self-examine, to apply the conceptual tools they had acquired throughout the course to their lives and ask: How doI relate to others? Can I live up to the various ideals we had tried to articulate? In what ways am I falling short, and why? Some students wrote to me afterwards and said that for them, the class had served as a safe space in which to reflect upon things that matter, on issues, moreover, that do come to the fore even more forcefully than otherwise now, i.e. in a time in which humans across the globe are going through a pandemic and are thus either confined to being with their loved ones a lot more than usual or are separated from or even at the risk of losing them. 

Not every philosophy class is or must be an exercise of earnest self-examination. However, a class that stimulates one to reflect upon how to live well can be a source of personal growth, and serve to sow, one hopes, the seeds for a better society. That we need one is obvious to everyone who looks—and opportunities abound—at the suffering of the diseased, the poor, the marginalized, and all those who have nobody to lobby for them. Many of us prefer to look away or focus on issues we can manage, things we feel we can cope with. This can be healthy. After all, our capacity to look at the various kinds of suffering that our ways of life create or help sustain is limited. There may only be so much we can take, of the sadness, the anger, and the despair that looking outward empathetically must reveal, and of the emotional exhaustion that ensues. 

But we must look somewhere. And even if we can’t, given the pandemic, go out, travel, and explore it, the world doesn’t halt at our doorstep. Numerous media outlets and social media platforms provide a permanent influx of news and entertainment that vie for our attention, approval, or emotional responses. Of course, the virtual world allows us to be selective. We can choose where we look and can easily look away if things get under our skins. But the satisfaction virtual escapism provides is short-lived. After hours of watching Netflix or chasing down various debates on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, most of us are left exhausted, left with a stale aftertaste, the feeling that real life is shallow, too complicated or burdensome, or with the nagging thought that a lot of precious time was just wasted. Even if after spending time on consuming various news items, one may well be in a better position to understand certain issues, through such consumption, nothing of substance changes. More distracted, more polarized, or overwhelmed, we find ourselves where we left as we begin to direct our selective gaze into the virtual outward. We remain saddled with the real pain around us, confronted with those who have legitimate demands on us, with urgent emails to respond to and many other tasks to complete. It is a change for the better that we vaguely imagine and strongly desire. But as we resurface from the virtual, we must concede that nothing has changed, nothing has been achieved.

Ultimately, trying to mask out the real world is futile. For the pain and suffering we try to escape, are anyway, not just out there. They live in our own homes and families (think of the uncle, cousin, or unresolved conflict that everyone knows but nobody talks about), in our relationships, in how we handle ourselves in them. So we cannot escape, or not for long. So where should we look? How can we deal? What must happen for things to become better?

Once we raise these questions and make time to be with them, we realize that the most powerful responses turn on love. Giving time and attention to others, Simone Weil thinks, is not just a way of showing empathy, it is a way to love. Iris Murdoch concurs, adding that love is a quality of attachment, that directing our attention at what is good and valuable in the world and in others is a source of tremendous energy, and that love, construed as just attention, enables us to act well. 

So we can ask: whom or what do I love? Do I pay attention to it? Do I love what I pay attention to? How do I nourish my love, how can I refine it? What have I done today to expand it? Is there someone who needs my compassionate kindness? How is my neighbour, my grandmother, a friend that I haven’t heard from in a long time, how are things for the istrivala, the kachravala, or the shopkeeper of the corner store? What would happen if I asked them?

It is an old mistake to think that we cannot solve large or systemic societal problems by making small steps. Everyone can make small steps and many such steps jointly give rise to powerful movements. We must not think that believing this, and acting on it, is naïve, or that it can’t be that simple. Such a response-apart from being one of the biggest obstacles to change—is itself naïve. For how can it be reasonable to hope that things will change for the better while we do not? Surely, changing our ways by seeking to expand our ability to love nudges us out of our comfort zone. We may be afraid as such expansion it may seem to make us vulnerable. But it makes us stronger. It helps us turn into the best version of who we are. It serves to build community, to create structures of responsibility, compassion, and human connection, it implements life-affirming values and thus strengthens the various connections we form with those around us. This, I believe, is by far the best response to the pain we face. And it is available to us always. We need not wait. We can start today, and it barely costs anything. Love NOW!

Rosenhagen is the Associate Professor Philosophy and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka University. He specializes in Philosophy of Perception, Science, Mind, & Epistemology.

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When the World is No Longer a Stage: The Music Industry in a Socially Distanced World

By Nirvik Thapa

For the first time ever, the MTV Video Music Awards were held this year without an audience present. With the coronavirus pandemic and physical distancing mandates, the event was filmed in various outdoor venues and was later streamed worldwide. Live music and events, two of the most profitable revenue streams in music, have had to recalibrate as the world adjusts to the ‘new normal’. As WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, major artists started postponing their world tours. Popular music festivals world over like Coachella in the US and Reading and Leeds in the UK were cancelled for the year. Despite such limitations, several attempts have been made to shift live experiences to online platforms and have prompted major changes in the world of music. 

With the moribund state of live music— an essential tool for an artists’ marketing and revenue— the disconnect between fans and artists has never before necessitated such a novel response. efficient engagement and captivating content are key things for an artists’ success. Without physical contact, the only way these can be pursued is online and almost all entertainers are now performing from their homes. However, the experience is not the same. The ambience of a concert venue; bustling crowds, rapturous cheering and constant movement are virtually unreplicable. All of this fosters a collective experience: a rapport among the audience captured by the performance. 

With all such experiences having become a thing of the past, record labels can no longer bank on the live experience economy they have been cultivating for decades. But fan demand for such experience still persists. So the collective experience has taken a new form in the digital world through social media platforms.

This digital recourse has allowed newer opportunities for both artists and fans to interact in place of their physical interactions

For her latest album, created entirely in quarantine, popstar Charli XCX enlisted the help of her fans, asking for suggestions through her Instagram Live sessions and zoom calls. Through these, she kept updating fans on what she was up to daily. She would share if she had written a new song, had photos taken for the cover art by her boyfriend, recorded vocals or received new beats from her producers. Fans would be ecstatic listening to a new snippet. “Should I include this one?” she’d ask. The chat would overflow with heart emojis and incessant praises which the artist would use to gague which tracks received the best engagement. The album, how i’m feeling now, was publicized as a fan-artist collaboration and was released to great critical reception, eventually being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. 

In another instance, rock legend Jon Bon Jovi surprised an online kindergarten class (and parents who were understandably more excited) by popping in and serenading them with songs about quarantine. 

Bon Jovi’s and Charli XCX’s interaction with fans show how the new online status quo has ushered new scopes for celebrity-fan interactions. While face to face interactions were previously limited to costly meet & greets, the pandemic has allowed celebrities greater leeway to cheer fans up. 

With opportunities to be continually involved, avid fans can build a connection with an artist’s lives through their accounts. Artists are also looking for ways to keep connecting with fans. In this sense, keeping up with an entertainer isn’t too arduous for fans as they receive updates instantly. With lockdown, artists are showcasing themselves doing activities they might not have documented before. There has been a conspicuous change in Hozier’s Instagram page since late March. Previously filled with pictures of the singer performing in front of huge crowds, his latest posts are videos of him reciting poetry from home. Each video has several thousand comments from fans saying how happy it makes them. 

The music industry was already reimagining itself with digitization. During the pandemic, these changes became more palpable. The song Old Town Road by rapper Lil Nas X first gained traction on TikTok, the popular video sharing service. A remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus helped make the song a worldwide hit. In the US, Old Town Road reigned the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 19 weeks, breaking a 23 year old record for most weeks at No.1. 

Over the summer, rapper Curtis Waters’ became famous on the app with his track Stunnin’. Legions of TikTok users danced to it following Waters’ own video featuring simple, easy-to-follow dance moves. Creators used this song to make clips of themselves dressing up as characters from popular TV shows. The trend caught on internationally with the song being certified gold in Canada. In the US, it has peaked at no.11 in the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart so far. This signals a change in how stars are launched today. Big labels are no longer a prerequisite for an artist’s success. Rolling Stone reported how the rise of Stunnin’ is “a threat to the major label system.” 

With studies showing that Gen Z has been consuming more online video content during the global lockdown, the success of new artists through digital platforms like TikTok seems very plausible. This also brings a new generation of content consumers, different from others based on their digital habits, parlance and the common keenness with which they follow pop culture. 

According to media scholar John Fiske, being cognizant of such information is fundamental to the accumulation of fans’ cultural capital. Knowing particulars about an artist and interacting online about it builds virtual rapport between fans. This is evident if you look at ardent fan groups on the internet. Not only do they discuss and speculate about artists’ upcoming projects and personal lives, they also contribute to supporting an artist’s work, from making it trend on Twitter to creating fake Starbucks’ promotions that get more streams for songs. Korean boy band BTS’ VMA performance – filmed with green screens in South Korea – remains the most streamed performance from the event. Post the VMAs, it continued its chart topping streak in the US.  

Since it doesn’t seem like live music will be resuscitated anytime soon, online support is pivotal for the music industry. Newer fan bases are born as unknown artists become popular. What ensues is an active community with great potential to rope in more fans. The absence of live performances is economically debilitating to the global industry. However, through alternate technological mediums, stakeholders in music have tried achieving online what live music provided. The convergence of music, social media and formats like virtual reality for gigs allows for transposition of the relatedness observed between audience members in a concert. It shows how the pandemic has been a catalyst for digital synergies that have changed the music business. With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, this online substitute for live venue camaraderie will probably sustain for a very long time. And the consumption changes the pandemic has induced — probably even long after the pandemic is over.  

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

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Myth Theory – Dum Maro Dum

By Devdutt Pattanaik

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 24, 2011.

Cannabis is an illegal narcotic in most parts of the world, even India. Its more deadly form is called Marijuana. From it comes some of the most lethal addictive organic drugs that ruled the party circuit until the arrival of even more lethal, even more potent, even more addictive chemical drugs.

But still, it is amazing to see Indian television soap operas directed at women showing Bhang being prepared from leaves of the Cannabis plant and consumed by the family during Holi. We have Bollywood songs where heroes and heroines run around trees consuming Bhang and singing “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” and then we have the famous “Dum Maro Dum” with a very young and very beautiful Zeenat Aman surrounded by hippies smoking pot, hoping it will destroy all sorrow. No one is upset or outraged. An acknowledgement that Cannabis is sacred in India — it is sold in the temple markets of Varanasi, Puri and Nathdvara. Every sadhu smokes this potent drug.

Shiva, the hermit, smokes Cannabis. He is described as always being on a high. There are miniature paintings showing Parvati making Bhang for her husband. She berates him for always being in a hemp trance and never doing household chores. Krishna’s elder brother, Balaram, is known for his fondness for Bhang. Bhang drinking is a common part of rituals in Vaishnav temples. It is called a coolant to calm the short-tempered Shiva and Balarama.

Not just cannabis, many stimulants and depressants, including alcohol are part of sacred and social traditions all over the world. Vedic priests kept referring to Soma which enabled the mind to take flight! Homer’s Odyssey refers to lotus-eaters who lie around all day doing nothing. Across Arabia and Africa chewing narcotic leaves known as Khat is a part of the tradition. Ancient Egyptians called it divine food. Betel nut is an alkaloid that gives a chemical high when chewed and is famously consumed in every household in South Asia in the form of paan. In tribes, shamans have used chemicals to transport themselves to the world of spirits. Alcohol is served to Kala-Bhairav and other fierce deities. Wine is a sacrament in Christianity.

In modern times, most of these have been deemed as substance abuse agents and are banned in different capacities in different parts of the world. We want to create a world where no one takes any chemical stimulant. We want to force people to be good. And so now, people who smoke cigarettes which contain tobacco, have to stand outside buildings and smoke like criminals. Tobacco is deemed evil because it causes cancer. Even fatty and starchy food are being slowly treated as evil as they also cause disease. The worst sin of the 21st century is to eat a high-calorie meal.

This use of law to control human behavior did not exist in ancient times. There was a tendency to trust the human will, human intelligence and the human ability to self-regulate. Modern society seems to have lost faith in human beings. Modern society does not want to allow humans to take responsibility for their own lives. It therefore uses laws to control human behavior, domesticate them into perfection. Invariably it fails. Prohibition simply spawns a booming black market. And I realize this when I hear — much to my disquiet — well-educated and affluent boys and girls describing how they snort lines of cocaine in the toilet cubicles and how it makes them feel ‘cool and dangerous’.

This article was first published at Republished with the author’s permission.

Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical professional by training and writes on relevance of mythology in modern times. He has authored 41 books and over a 1000 columns and has also appeared on television.

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