Categories
Issue 10

New Beginning for Humanity or Anarchy?- A look into Space Laws

On the occasion of SpaceX’s Texas facility launch in 2019, CEO Elon Musk described how life on Mars would be and spoke of Mars’ city sustenance and the idea of democracy in International space —-all of which was seen as a precursor to Musk’s plan for Martian residence. While Elon Musk at the time described SpaceX’s Mars plan as part of a mission to democratise Mars, create self-sustaining cities on the planet and carry “maybe around 100k people per Earth-Mars orbital sync,” which he mentioned in his tweet. Following these claims Musk also spoke about governance on Mars and the way social structures would function on the red planet. Claiming to land humans on Mars by 2024-26, Elon Musk’s proposed Martian idea stands in conflict with the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967. While the signatories of the Treaty include the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, a closer look at the clauses makes one question whether Musk’s dream could actually turn into reality. A look at the treaty makes one question, whether a private company and its employees along with billionaires seeking to pay for Martian travel and accommodation, actually set up and sustain a city with its own government on the planet, as Musk claimed on Twitter and his speech. The Treaty states that “ the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind”, and Musk’s proposed idea for the planet does not yet describe how potential Martians will be selected. Will these be billionaires paying their way to the “fixer-upper of a planet” as Musk calls it, or will they people randomly selected on a lottery?

Further, how the society and governance have to be structured on Mars seems to be out of the hand of the technocrat billionaire, despite his plans and claims for the planet. One of the clauses of the Treaty states that “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”, which stands in contradiction to Musk’s plans wherein he claims sovereignty over the red planet and its resources. Another idea that seems to be a conundrum with regards to space travel, SpaceX’s plans as well as Musk’s aspirations is the Treaty’s explicit mention of state entities, state laws and international laws holding true even in outer space. 

An analysis of Musk’s space plans and the UN’s Space Treaty makes one question the future of Martian colonisation, the government therein and the role of private companies like SpaceX in the process. The analysis seeks to question if Musk will rule over Mars by virtue of his expedition, if the Treaty, signed in 1967 will be altered for future space travel and residence, and if governments will have to bow in front of technocrats for the future of mankind. Musk’s plans also make one question how the Earth’s future would be as a planet, who will reside on it and whether Earth would become a waste-dump for Martians if that is to be ‘fixer-upper of a planet’. 

Another significant space travel and residence news was released soon after Musk’s tweets and interviews went viral, this was the announcement of the first space hotel, expected to open in 2027. Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) recently revealed their detailed plan for Voyager Station, a luxury space station cum hotel that is expected to accommodate over 400 guests. This plan too is one that will determine the future of space travel and inter-governmental as well as private company relations. With a room for the Voyager Station costing approximately $25 million, unlike SpaceX, the OAC makes clear who will have access to space travel and how it will affect the world. 

While both of these projects are still in the making, with predictive claims for the future, the presence of these ideas makes one question how society would be structured in the future. These projects also leave room to think about climate change, the future of the earth and who will be offered an alternative planet if this one fails. Furthermore, who will have control over space and will limited laws, signed in 1967 sustain the future of space travel?

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University, who is often found sketching or reading for leisure when not immersing herself in mandatory class assignments.

Picture Credits: NASA SpaceFlight.com

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).

Categories
Issue 10

University Spaces: Where the ‘Personal’ Becomes the ‘Political’

Politics in India often termed as ‘unreasonable’ and ‘non-educational,’ restricts our perception of a successful education to that of studying science. These professional fields of study encourage students’ engagement with science and development, more than social and political advancements. Moreover, they are not primarily concerned with ensuring social justice or equality. Indian psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy refers to science and development as the two new reasons of state besides national security, that have emerged since WWII. Indian elites have treated science “as a sphere of knowledge which should be free from the constraints of day-to-day politics.” As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, confined to mere economic growth and transactional language of goods and service, the term ‘development’ leaves out the ideas of freedom, and democracy. Universities catering to these ideas of freedom and democracy act as influential spaces for student resistance movements, and motivates them to participate in national politics by upholding their liberal stances. 

Science Says, “Politics, You Stay Away”

Politics involves the establishment of an egalitarian society and requires a developing relationship with technology to ensure each other’s survival as well as their contribution towards resolving societal ills. However, the Indian middle-class have come to view technology as a “source of legitimacy for science” and as a way of tackling all complicated social and political problems. This perception of technology operating in a political vacuum is termed as technicism, according to Schuurman. It maintains the political domination of the apolitical, technocratic, modern elite upon decision-making processes. This notion of science and technology results in their promotion by Indian elites as apolitical, according to Nandy. At the same time, it marginalizes available social and political solutions, by extremizing their excesses, as well as associating credible politicians, academics, journalists, activists, and students as anti-nationals. Science and technology, therefore, serves as a sole “escape from the dirtiness of politics” for most Indian elites. 

Although science and technology are perceived in isolation from politics, the question arises –  isn’t politics everywhere – in our personal spaces as well as educational institutions? Educational spaces, especially university campuses in India have allowed for the most expressive manifestation of politics in the past as well as the present. This engagement with leadership within universities encourages students to actively participate in national politics and pursue it as a career. There have been various student leader-turned politicians in India – Arun Jaitley, Prakash Javadekar, Shashi Tharoor and Nupur Sharma, to name a few. Alongside Kanhaiya Kumar who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Bihar’s Begusarai, Aishe Ghosh, the incumbent President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union stands as a Left-Congress alliance’s candidate in the West Bengal Assembly Elections. She says, “it is a big responsibility, but my politics will remain the same. The issues we fight for in JNU are an extension of what is happening across the country … I will carry these issues that I fought for in JNU to the people of West Bengal.” These narratives of students participating in national politics make one wonder, what is it about university campuses that produce eminent politicians in a country where most families are obsessed with wanting their child to pursue professional careers in science?

Technical Institutions in India: Technology and Social Empowerment?

The debates preceding India’s Independence, between political and scientific players entailed an establishment of a desirable relationship between politics and technology, however, their legacy appears to have been forgotten with time. The establishment of four IITs by the American team in India considered social patterns, political and cultural traditions as mere obstacles in their way, accompanied by the lack of imagination of the era to highlight the intersections of the two fields. Even though Humanities and Social Sciences were integrated into their curriculum, their scope remained limited thus, preventing intellectual culture, and the possibility of links between technology and social empowerment. 

The perceived free-of-politics atmosphere of the sciences is not to claim that technical institutions have never participated in national protests. Protests by students of IITs caste-based and religious discrimination is not unheard of. However, the constant monitoring of these spaces by state authorities seems to act as an impediment to their action towards other national issues. The existence of this vacuum is exemplified through a recent example, where a circular released by the IIT-Bombay administration warned its hostel residents against participating in “anti-national … activities.” The director called the Institute that “of eminence, with the primary purpose of producing high-quality engineering graduates and research that could be of help to the society at large.” 

It is crucial to note that these notifications arrived when students were protesting against the controversial CAA-NRC and the violence that occurred on university campuses like JNU, AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia. Concerned about its ‘scientific temper’ coming under scrutiny, the director further asked “its staff and employees to refrain from making statements that could ‘embarrass the relations’ of the institute with the central government.” Moreover, the desperate attempt of the government to control these institutions is evidenced by the news of the HRD Ministry issuing orders to technical institutions to keep a tab on their students’ social media accounts. The point here is not to focus on the legitimacy of this notice, instead, the possibility of its occurrence in the near future, with the most recent lateral surveillance and cyber volunteer programs. This incident marks the reduction of the intellectual agenda of the IITs to that of “suppliers” to the demands of the market economy to suit the goals of development, defined in technicist terms of industry, market and state. 

University Spaces As Challenging Hegemonic Structures

Universities either promoting a culture of politics or dismissing them is a consequence of the field of study and the cause that they stand for. Central universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, DU, AMU, HCU, Osmania and many more are often under attack for their anti-governmental stances. This attack is not confined to the students alone but is an intimidation process to label them as violent. However, their rigorous curriculum on arts, humanities along with sciences, allows for critical thinking and acts as a space for imagination enables students to engage with social and political subjects perhaps more than what one witnesses in technical institutions. It is these imaginations that lead to knowledge-production, that challenge hegemonic structures and present alternate narratives beyond the binaries produced by the status quo. Universities offering engagement with political science and related branches of study as a part of their curricula cannot survive without the collective aspirations of their students. Students function as enablers of resistance movements and engage with politics beyond socially constructed ideas of the term, furthering research possibilities within academia. 

“University works as a form of mediation between theory and practice,” claims sociologist Gaurav Pathania. Additionally, the space of the university acts as an equalizer. That is, it provides equal access to tools of resistance such as technology, digital media, and brings students from diverse backgrounds together within a common physical and social space for registering protests, which also fosters empathy amongst students. Apart from classrooms acting as a formal space for expressing opinions, it is the informal spaces within university campuses where “social education happens.” Hostels, dining halls, chai/dhaba spots, and libraries allow space for both interpersonal as well as ideological conversations. The expression of collective stances through art installations in these areas encourages others to contribute towards the cause at hand. 

Pathania claims them to be spaces where “private lives of people come together as public.” That is, where the personal becomes the political. These resistance movements, therefore, necessitate academic freedom in universities. Without the freedom to read and express ideas that do not adhere to the status quo, it is nearly impossible to extend these conversations to the realm of national politics. Understanding the intersectionalities of technology, society and politics, along with interdisciplinarity within academia is crucial to resisting the dominant socio-political structures in one’s daily life. The liberating space of a university complements major global movements, adding to their students’ ability to bring significant change through their political leadership. Instances of students becoming future leaders enhances the credibility of political academia, thus, erasing the notion of commonly associated “dirt.”  

Picture Credits: PTI

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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).

Categories
Issue 10

Power, Violence and The State: Can one exist without the other?

Maintaining a power structure has historically always involved some level of violence. The British once ruled the largest empire in the world, and violently suppressed revolts and uprisings that took place in their colonies. In North America, as the Atlantic slave trade flourished, men and women who had been free citizens in Africa often rebelled against their masters. These rebellions were also met with violence and death. Today though empires have broken up into nation states and slavery has been abolished, violence is still an important tool in the arsenal of any authority.  

According to the World Health Organization, violence is the “intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”  The role and importance of violence in the political order is a long-debated subject. Some, such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, gave violence a prominent role in human affairs. More recently Foucault and Arendt argued against the idea that violence was at the essence of human nature. Realistically, nation states today still center the political order around threatened or actual violence, in keeping with Weber’s definition of the state as that which has a monopoly over legitimate violence 

The police and the army as well as any other defense forces of a country enjoy a great deal of power. Ostensibly, they are meant to protect the people of that country from external and/or internal threats. By and large, it is widely accepted that nation states need some sort of protective body with the power to use force, both at the local and national level, and that this protective body ultimately benefits the citizens. It is when the use of force becomes excessive and unjustified that the role of these bodies begins to be questioned. What leads authority figures to abuse their power? What constitutes an abuse of power, especially in places where violence is institutionalized? 

If you thought you were in danger, or you needed help, would you call the police? If you answered no, you would be in the majority in India. A survey conducted in 2018 found that only a quarter of Indians trust the police. India has a long and troubled history of police misconduct, and many police practices date back to the days of colonial rule. The Police Act of 1861 allowed police to maintain law and order through the use of brutal violence. It was a way for the foreign rulers of the time to assert their power. Though India is now ruled by a democratically elected government, police brutality continues.

In June 2020, two men were arrested in Tamil Nadu for violating Covid-19 lockdown rules and tortured in custody. They both died a few days later. The incident sparked outrage and led to protests against police brutality, with many likening the incident to the death of George Floyd in the United States. While the episode was deeply disturbing, suspects dying in police custody is by no means a recent phenomenon.  According to the National Human Rights Commission, 194 people died in police custody in 2019. It is rare for police in India to be tried and convicted for these deaths, or even questioned. According to the Bureau of Police Research and Development, a body under the Ministry of Home Affairs, no police officers have been convicted of a crime since 2011, while there have been almost 900 deaths in police custody during the same period.

 The Indian army, controlled by the central government, has also been accused of undue violence. In 2016, a plea was filed by two NGOs in Manipur, stating that there had been apathy on the part of the central and state governments in investigating the deaths of 1528 people who died at the hands of the Indian army and Manipur police. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been in force in several parts of  North East India since 1958. It was enforced in Manipur in 1980. Under this act, security forces cannot be prosecuted for any action undertaken or said to be undertaken under the powers of the Act, while in service in conflict regions, unless the prosecution is sanctioned by the central government. This exemption from punishment for actions, even those involving lethal force, can create a culture of impunity in areas where the Act is in force. In the 2012 PIL case, the government argued in the Supreme Court that a lack of immunity from prosecution would have a demoralizing effect on the armed forces. Violence is used to reify the state’s sovereignty and allows it to assert its dominance. 

Cases of excessive violence, where victims are tortured or killed in especially brutal and violent ways, are what necessitate an investigation into the relationship between power and violence. Thangjam Manorama was killed by the 17th Assam Rifles (a unit of the Indian army) in 2004. A report that was made public a decade after her death describes how she was tortured on her front porch and had 16 bullet wounds on her body when she was found. The original argument for AFSPA, which was meant to be a temporary act, was that state forces needed sweeping powers to deal with terrorism in disturbed areas. While this argument can justify shoot-on-sight orders or arrests without warrants, it does not explain torture and extremely brutal killings. Explanations of this abuse of power must delve into the human psyche, cultures of impunity, and power structures in the modern nation state. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

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).

Categories
Issue 10

Women in STEM: Nipped in the Bud.

The gender imbalance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related jobs in India is apparent even without examining statistics. A quick look at historical leadership positions in organizations allied with STEM such as CEOs of Biotech companies, Chairman of the Indian Space research Organization (ISRO), Director General of the Indian Council of Medical research (ICMR), Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Presidents of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), Aeronautics Society of India (AeSI) and Indian Mathematical Society (IMS)  to name a few, additionally highlights how stark this gap is among the higher ranks. 40% STEM graduates are women but they share only 14% STEM-associated jobs (PIB, January 2021) and this begs the question of why there is a disproportion between women choosing STEM education but not employment.

Government programs supporting the education of the girl child have had a substantial impact in increasing the numbers of primary and middle school educated girls. Incentives at the level of higher education in the form of reservations or financial support have vastly improved but not equalized the gender imbalance. Studying the gender composition of various disciplines in STEM education reveals intrinsic biases and perceptions of what constitutes a suitable job for a woman. Women receive tacit signals to condition their career choices not based on their own aptitude or interest but the convenience of a work schedule that allows them to fulfil their obligatory duties as care-givers. Thus, teaching-focused careers which usually have fixed and predictable hours are encouraged by parents over research-oriented careers within science. With respect to engineering, computer science is considered eminently more ‘suitable’ and only a few women graduate with degrees in fields like aeronautics, mechanical engineering or civil engineering with this number reducing even further when representation in core engineering jobs is considered.

Are we raising future daughters, sisters, or mothers and not future individuals?

Higher STEM education is often seen as an additional qualification to increase marriage prospects for girls rather than a means to make them financially secure individuals with the ability to make independent, informed choices. Learned behavioral traits that are important for developing STEM career goals in children such as decision making, critical thinking, curiosity and making independent choices outside of care-giving duties are either neglected or actively discouraged in a girl child from a young age. Family chores and activities such as assisting adults with minor electrical repairs, finance-associated tasks, playing computer games, household science experiments, help in the kitchen, cleaning and sewing are segregated based on gender. This fails to nurture interest and even leads to lack of awareness of certain STEM career options in young women. Preconceived notions, archaic attitudes (“girls are bad at mathematics”; “boys are better at engineering”, “biology needs a lot of memorization which suits girls”, “girls are caring so should become nurses”, “women can’t be surgeons, they are too delicate/emotional”) condition and limit a certain STEM expertise or profession with a gender. This conditioning may not always be obvious even to the most educated among us and may unintentionally trickle down to those we have influence over.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and not diamonds are a girl’s best friend!

Encouraging gender equity in STEM careers needs diverse approaches at various levels but the foundation has to be laid early on. The thinking that gender is not a limiting factor for a career choice should be encouraged from a young age in all children using real-life role models and literature centered on the idea. Awareness about the current existence of implicit or obvious situations of gender bias and discussions about specific situations should be a part of education at all levels. Women from all socio-economic backgrounds should have free, accessible avenues to learn about the various career options in STEM through workshops, community initiatives and CSR endeavors. The latter will ensure that they themselves can either be inspired, bring awareness to people under their influence, not participate in gender bias themselves and help create a support system that bridges the gender gap in STEM careers.  

Rama Akondy is an Associate professor of Biology in the Trivedi school of Biosciences. She received her PhD from the National Institute of Immunology (New Delhi, India) and worked at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) first as a post-doctoral researcher and then as junior faculty. Her primary area of interest is understanding immunological memory in humans by observing how our immune system reacts to viruses, vaccines and tutors. Her proudest moment has been when a figure from her paper made it to a textbook! (Plotkin’s Vaccines). 

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).

Categories
Issue 10

Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations

This book written by comedian, actor and former host of The Late Late Show Craig Ferguson features some of his most witty and thoughtful writing till datenarrated in a Scottish accent no less. If you’re a huge fan of his hilarious yet poignant late night show stint, with his trusty skeleton robot sidekick Geoff, then this book is the natural next step. If you’re unaware of The Late Late Show then do yourself a favour and jump down your nearest Youtube rabbit-hole of old interview clips from the show for a good laugh. I’m biased towards his interview with the late Robin Williams, which features just two good friends, who also happen to be incredible comedians, catching up. 

That’s what most interviews on his show felt like: just fun conversations without any of the glamour, pretence or hyperactive games in late night TV today but plenty of self-awareness and just a hint of self-loathing. This book is also like a conversation with an old friend: about his childhood crush and the huge pimple he sported one school-day, his brush with alcoholism and his sobering experience of rehab alongside tidbits from his comedy career and a brutally honest tell-all of certain American television networks. There’s an emphasis on the audiobook because there’s something oddly calming about a Scottish American cursing and recounting his past experiences to you as you run errands, do some laundry, or peacefully fall asleep.

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).

Categories
Issue 10

The Scramble For Mars: Why Are We So Obsessed With the Red Planet?

The mysterious disappearance of Mars’ ocean witnessed a major breakthrough in the past week – it might have never been lost at all. A recent NASA-backed study found that between 30 to 99 percent of the planet’s water is likely held within its crust in the form of hydrated minerals. While the extraction of water from these minerals may not be an easy feat, the study has gathered substantial traction at a time when humanity is looking to Mars like never before. Why are human beings obsessed with colonizing Mars – and what does this obsession represent?

The desire to explore Mars initially stemmed from a curiosity to enhance knowledge about the conditions that lead to life on a planet. It is also studied to understand how critical shifts in climate fundamentally alter planets. Recently, though, the paramount motivation to explore the planet is rooted in the objective of establishing an interplanetary human civilization – as a crucial safeguard against mass-extinction.  

The obsession with colonizing Mars is a product of several factors. One argument holds that only a space-faring human civilization faces the best odds of survival. This perspective is closely linked to the fear of death and the desire for “immortality” which motivates sending humans to other worlds. Moreover, a “biological motive(s)” with respect to the innate human desire for migration has been repeatedly suggested to substantiate extra-terrestrial prospects for the human race. Additionally, the romanticization of establishing an interplanetary existence for human beings also arises from optimistic perspectives of establishing a “utopia”. Setting up a space-faring civilization is expected to unify humanity and positively impact perspectives on socio-political and economic systems to finally create an “ideal” society. 

As alluring as these reasons may be, they are not grounded in reality – especially given the glaring gaps in scientific knowledge about how to establish self-sustaining human life on Mars. The argument that only colonizing Mars, and other planets will significantly improve the chance of human survival can be countered by arguing that sending humans to other worlds may not prove to be safer beyond a probability analysis. Attempting to address crises on Earth – such as the climate emergency – may increase the probability of human survival as well. The prospect of reaching Mars can disrupt efforts to find possible solutions to problems on Earth.  

Secondly, it is important to acknowledge that the idea of human progression is one that is culturally propagated. Just as human beings have historically shown tendencies to migrate, they have also displayed the desire to settle down. Justifying colonization of other planets on this basis ignores the fetishization of space travel, that equates space exploration with technological advancement and national power. 

 Thirdly, notions of a utopian human existence on faraway planets are naïve. The connotations of the usage of the word “colonization” elicits references to intergenerational torture unleashed at the cost of building “moral” and “civilized” societies. The modern interaction between “colonization” of planets and the advent of large-scale capitalism is bound to have similar consequences. Though human activities in space are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which posits that international law applies in outer space, the moon and other celestial bodies, the ambiguities in its laws allows corporate entities to circumvent its clauses.

This came to life in the case of SpaceX, a private company based in the United States that designs and manufactures rockets and spacecrafts. The company has declared that the services of one of its products will not fall under the jurisdiction of any Earth-based government; in addition, Earth-based governments will also agree to recognize Mars as a free planet. This position becomes more dubious when analyzing SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk’s, claim that “loans” and “jobs” will be made available for those unable to pay for the exorbitant trip across space to sustain their life on Mars; essentially representing an interplanetary repackaging of indentured servitude. Hence, given the current state of space legislation, it will not be anytime soon that economic and social equality will be ensured for a space-faring civilization – completely shattering any possibility of “utopia” on Mars. 

The colonization of Mars, consequently, also raises important moral questions – particularly about how a Martian society would operate. A new approach suggests that once human beings arrive at Mars, they should disconnect from their Earthly relatives. This “liberation” perspective implies that once permanent human settlers arrive at Mars, they should relinquish their planetary citizenship for Earth – instead adopting Martian citizenship. From that point on, the Martians should be left to their own devices. Any entities – governmental, non-governmental – must not engage with the economics, politics, or culture of this society. While scientific exploration by Earth’s citizens can continue on Mars, sharing research and information should only take place to achieve medical or educational goals. Most importantly, the citizens of Earth must not make any demands for Martian resources. 

The idea behind this position is simple – in order to develop a Martian extension of human civilization, it must be allowed to freely determine its fate, just as human beings did on Earth. Often the mission to establish human existence on Mars is projected as a “moral” position by governments and businessmen, in which case the liberation approach is the most principled execution of this goal. The reason why this idea doesn’t sit well with human society – and probably never will – is because colonizing Mars is, inherently, a selfish, human fantasy. This fantasy emerges from the desire to possess and profit – either in the form of capital or nationalist feats, or both. It is impossible to isolate the race to establish human settlements on different planets from geopolitical, social and economic processes existing on Earth; the maniacal pursuit of Mars is about scientific triumph as much as it is about a show of power.

The obsession to populate Mars, hence, represents the manifestation of the worst in humanity – never-ending curiosity coupled with little regard for ethical, sociopolitical, or economic consequences of the same. Instead of addressing the glaring issues that currently exist on Earth, there are strong desires to “advance” to the perceived next stage of human existence. While it can be debated whether occupying other planets will objectively be beneficial, the only thing that becomes painfully clear is that humanity is preparing to leap from one ill-fated land to the next – with little awareness or regard for the problems it will inevitably carry to the new worlds it explores. 

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

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).

Categories
Issue 10

Covid-19 Vaccines: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The number of times a day that you encounter the word ‘vaccine’ has probably gone up a lot in the last five months. There is a barrage of news articles, viral videos and unverifiable claims from our family Whatsapp groups coming our way each day. In this moment, understanding how vaccines work and getting rid of misconceptions has a huge impact on our personal lives but can be frustratingly difficult. What are the differences between all the Covid-19 vaccines out there? Why does the Pfizer vaccine have to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius? Is it true that Covaxin can give you Covid? What are vaccines, anyway? This article explains how the immune system actually works, how vaccines confer immunity and why the new mRNA vaccine technology is important. 

The Immune System is a Mad Genius

High school biology tells us of this supernatural-sounding, sophisticated defense mechanism residing in the body of each human being –– the immune system. Indeed, your immune system can fight against millions of pathogenic microorganisms that you constantly come in contact with. But how does it accomplish this feat? The immune system has two crucial abilities that protect you from diseases. First, it can recognize substances that are unwelcome in your body: pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. This is more complicated than it sounds, because our bodies are made up of cells that are similar in many respects to bacteria and viruses, and there are no well-defined rules that neatly separate healthy cells from pathogens. Second, the immune system can use biological pathways to destroy the recognized pathogens. The immune system can also recognize toxins such as dust particles –– the reason we sneeze and have a runny nose if it’s dusty or polluted. However, in this article we will focus on the interaction between the immune system and biological pathogens.

The first function of the immune system is like a text editor that recognizes incorrect grammar. We’ve all been caught red-handed while typing grammatically incorrect sentences in MS Word (quite literally –– MS Word informs us of this with a frustrating squiggly red underline). MS Word does this by using pre-defined grammar rules and checking whether sentences satisfy these rules. Now consider this. If the text editor in question operated like the immune system, it would literally construct every possible grammatically incorrect sentence, and then check each new sentence it encountered against this enormous library of incorrect sentences. Well, naturally, this  system is much less efficient than verifying a few grammar rules. But remember, there aren’t any analogous rules that the immune system can use to distinguish pathogens from healthy tissue. So, it does what it can…

Right now, floating around in your body, are approximately one trillion immune cells, each sporting a unique ‘antibody’ (for context, the human body has roughly 30 trillion cells). These antibodies are made of small bits of protein, combined in arbitrary ways (the way our inefficient text editor would make up wrong sentences by combining random words). Each of these antibodies ‘fits’ a particular molecule that your body might encounter on a pathogen. If that pathogen molecule happens to enter your body and encounter the corresponding antibody, the antibody will lock into place and trigger an immune system cascade that will either neutralize (i.e., make unable to function) or destroy the pathogen. If you’re paying attention, you would have guessed by now that everyone in the world is currently walking around with a Covid-19 antibody in their system. 

The natural question that follows is, why does anybody ever get sick? The answer is that it’s a numbers game. The likelihood that a single pathogen molecule will come into contact with its matching antibody in your body is very, very low. This likelihood gets higher as the pathogen replicates and produces copies of itself. Once the antibody-pathogen match occurs, your immune system starts producing many more of that particular antibody and starts destroying the pathogen copies. From there, it’s a race to see which group of cells (the pathogen or the antibody-containing immune cell) can replicate faster and conquer the other. 

Vaccines: Leveraging the Fantastic Memory of the Mad Genius

Once your immune system has recognized a pathogen and raised antibodies against it, it does something amazing –– it memorizes the pathogen by always keeping a bunch of the relevant antibodies handy. So the next time you encounter that pathogen, the likelihood of it matching up with its antibody is much higher, the process of triggering the destructive immune system cascade is much faster and you are much less likely to fall sick. This is where vaccines come in. Vaccines are modified pathogens that don’t cause disease but are still recognized by the immune system as a foreign object. When the vaccine is injected into the body, the immune system generates and maintains an army of the relevant antibody; when the real pathogen shows up, these antibodies fight for you and you are immune to the disease. The commonly held notion that vaccines ‘trick’ the immune system into raising antibodies is subtly incorrect. The immune system is functioning as intended when it produces antibodies against a vaccine, but it’s simply getting a leg up because the vaccine can’t actually cause the disease. 

How does one modify a virus to make a vaccine? The most commonly used and well-established technique is to inactivate it by heating it or exposing it to chemicals that denature the proteins that make up the virus (similar to what happens when you boil an egg). Covaxin, produced by Bharat Biotech, is an example of a whole-virion inactivated virus. Another common method is to take a different virus that is harmless to humans, and genetically modify it to produce a few proteins from the virus you want to vaccinate against. The harmless virus, when injected into the body, replicates and produces many copies of the proteins that were introduced into its genome. The immune system raises antibodies against these proteins that confer immunity against the harmful virus. Examples of such ‘viral vector’ vaccines are the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. The advantage of viral-vector vaccines over inactivated virus vaccines is that there is no chance of the vaccinated person contracting the disease due to incorrect inactivation of the virus. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has fueled advances in a new type of vaccine that does not require a virus at all. You may remember from high school biology that proteins are made from mRNA, which is made from DNA (the genetic code in your body’s cells). These non-viral vaccine delivery systems make use of DNA or mRNA fragments that encode proteins from the virus that you want to vaccinate against. The DNA or mRNA fragments are packaged in such a way that makes them appear non-foreign (basically, they are coated with the same oily molecules – lipids – that form the surface of our healthy cells). When the lipid-coated genetic material is injected into the body, it is taken up by immune cells which use it to produce the virus’ proteins. In this case, you actually are tricking the immune system into doing something it ordinarily isn’t supposed to. Once there are enough of the virus’ proteins floating around, the normal function of the immune system kicks in and it starts making antibodies against the virus. 

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines. Their advantages are that they are more amenable to quality control and can be designed and manufactured in a short time scale. However, mRNA is much more chemically unstable than protein or whole virus, and so it needs to be stored at much lower temperatures. Another disadvantage is that since these mRNA vaccines have not been around for long, there is no data on potential long-term side effects. 

There are currently 12 different Covid-19 vaccines that have been approved, with loads more in the pipeline. As we race to get enough people vaccinated in time to achieve herd immunity, it is vital that we all participate in the effort by getting vaccinated ourselves and encouraging our close friends and family to do the same. I hope this article will help you navigate the debates and discussions with more confidence. 

Amrita Singh has a B. Tech in Biological Sciences and Bio-Engineering. She is currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, USA.

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).

Categories
Issue 10

The Viability of Utopia Today

In a world experiencing a pandemic, ongoing economic recessions, political upheaval, and impending ecological collapse, what does it mean to think about utopia? Projects focused on outer space by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to think that humanity can find its way out the hole it has dug for itself by founding utopian societies on other planets. Politicians have longed promised utopian programs of social renewal. As a researcher of utopia as a genre and a theory, the question I have in reading about such hopes is not can we achieve utopia on earth or in space—such questions are well beyond my capacity and training to answer. Instead, I’m interested in whether it is useful to think about utopia at all. Does imagining perfect worlds serve our present or our future, or do utopias simply set us up for disappointment and failure? 

To think about the viability of utopian thought today, it is useful to return to utopia’s origins. The idea of a perfect place has existed for as long as humans have been thinking and writing. Works like Plato’s Republic and Ravidas’s “Begumpura” offer visions of worlds that improve upon the ones in which their authors lived. The term utopia, however, was not coined until the early sixteenth century by English humanist Thomas More. Formed by combining the Greek “ou” (no) with “topas” (place) and punning on “eu” (good), utopia etymologically means “a good place that is nowhere.” This should tell us something. Utopia, as it was originally conceived, was not understood as a real place. It was, by its very definition, a contradiction. 

More’s Utopia (1516) itself is full of puns and paradoxes. Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have discovered an ideal island where people’s needs are met and all live in peace and harmony, seems honest enough in his narration. However, his name, Hythloday, means “speaker of nonsense” in Greek. This name itself calls into question the veracity of his narrative. The world that Hythloday describes is equally replete with contradiction: though it has a democratic government in which everyone is free, the island also has slaves and is quick to colonize other lands. Indeed, the birth of utopia as an early modern literary genre is closely tied to the beginnings of European colonization. The justifications for colonization used by Europeans eerily echo those of the Utopia when Hythloday says that many of the Utopians’ independent neighbors, who were “liberated by them from tyranny,” admired Utopian virtues so much that they “requested” magistrates from Utopia to come to their lands and govern them. Giving these colonizing impulses, this seemingly perfect island is not as idyllic as it seems. 

The difference between dystopia and utopia is a matter of perspective. As students in my class last spring used to say, “whose utopia is it?” For the rulers of Utopia, the island’s life may have appeared equitable and democratic, but not so for its slaves. This same ambiguity pervades many other works in the genre. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella Herland (1915), for instance, depicts a feminist world run by women that also has racist undertones. Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) dramatizes the contradiction inherent to utopia by portraying the city Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the misery of a child in the basement. The effort to achieve perfect harmony, it seems, often necessities homogenization, which, in turn, leads to the oppression and erasure of those who are different. 

So where does this inevitable failure of the utopian leave us? Do we throw up our hands and forsake the hope that things might get better? To answer this question, we need first to reframe our notions of the utopian itself. I suggest (as do many scholars of utopia) that utopias were never meant to be read as templates or blueprints. To understand literary utopias or utopian political visions in this way is bound to lead us astray.

If we don’t see them as guides to the perfect life, what use might utopias have? Instead of understanding utopia as a perfect homogenous society, we might more usefully read it as a mode of cognitive estrangement. Utopia helps us view the world critically, producing wonder and disorientation, not as ends unto themselves but rather to unsettle the assumptions of the here-and-now with the suggestion that things could be different. Hence, Paul Ricouer aptly describes utopia as “a progressive counterblast to the essential conservatism of ideology.” If we understand utopia in this more capacious way—as a mechanism of transformation rather than as a perfect place—, we can more clearly see its value. Utopian visions, despite or even because of their flaws, promote reform in self-critical ways that foreground the tensions and contradictions inherent in reform itself.

A practical example of this type of utopian thinking is Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonism, a philosophical outlook that emphasizes the importance of conflicting positions. Taking issue with John Rawl’s notion of liberal pluralism, Mouffe argues that in place of a morality that seeks to neutralize difference, we should understand politics as based in conflict between adversaries who may disagree but who respect each other. Agonism might seem a far cry from utopia, but I argue that it is a vital example of utopianism as it can be exercised today: this is a form of thought that unsettles what we take for granted—that the end goal of a liberal democracy should be agreement—and helps us see that there might be different ways of envisioning the political. 

Mouffe’s political theory is one example of contemporary utopianism, but utopia does not need to be confined to the ‘real’ world. Fiction is a valuable and often unrecognized bridge between the utopian and the political. Whether a Netflix series that unsettles our assumptions about the future or a novel that gives glimpses of a world that could be different, narrative fiction offers pathways for critique, a mode as vital to our world as to More’s. It’s tempting as a literature professor to use this as a chance to make a case for the value of the humanities, but this is not so much my point, at least not here. Rather, fiction is one of many possible vehicles for a utopianism that charts lines of flight to other worlds of possibility. These worlds do not have to be on Mars but instead can consist of smaller acts of reimagining what we take for granted and efforts towards change with the understanding that perfection will never be possible.

References: 

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. London: Verso Books, 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Alexandra Verini is a professor of medieval literature at Ashoka University. Her research interests include medieval and early modern gender, religion and utopia. She is currently completing a book that explores utopian thought developed in women’s devotional communities.

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).

Categories
Issue 10

Decimating the Ego: Exploring the Discourse Around Dreams, Drugs and the ‘Trip’ to Scientific Discovery

In his address for the German Chemical Society in 1890, renowned chemist August Kekule recounted how the idea of linking atoms came to him one day when he fell asleep by his window and dreamt of gambolling atoms. Twinning and twisting, the atoms morphed into a snake seizing its own tail and this image inspired Kekule’s structure of the Benzene molecule. 

Seen as divine instructions, spiritual communication and an expression of our innate desires and fears, dreams and the unconscious mind have always fascinated human civilizations. With advanced technologies in the field of neurobiology and Oneirology (i.e. the scientific study of dreams) at our disposal, modern scientists have been able to stray away from mere theories and get an actual glimpse into our dreams. A study published in the journal Science Direct On 18th February 2021, illustrated how for the first time, scientists were able to communicate with participants while they were lucid dreaming (a form of dreaming wherein the dreamer is aware that they are in a dream state and can actively participate in their dreams, interact and engage with and even modify their environment). Using electrophysiological signals, people were able to perceive questions from an experimenter and provide answers to basic yes-and-no questions and even solve elementary math problems. 

This is a major breakthrough for the scientific community as we have finally been able to get an insight into the dream state, a state of unconsciousness that has inspired many scientific discoveries like The Theory of Relativity, Theory of Evolution, The Periodic Table, etc. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the eminent, self-taught Mathematician, claimed that his formulas were presented to him in his dreams by the Hindu Goddess Namakkal. He would see visions of flowing blood (the symbolic mark of the Goddess), followed by a hand that would write various elliptic integrals. He dedicated his work to proving these theorems which led to the discovery of the infinite series, elliptical functions, the analytical theory of numbers, continued fractions, and more than 3000 mathematical theorems. 

In her book, The Committee of Sleep, Deirdre Barrett arrives at a simple explanation for why so many scientific and artistic discoveries have been inspired by dreams. It turns out when the mind intakes data while awake, it can later synthesize it and process it in an extremely efficient way while it is in an unconscious state. That’s why sometimes the best solution when facing a difficult problem is to just sleep on it

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the Id-Ego-Superego also helps substantiate Barrett’s theory. Although Freud’s theories have been widely contested, his ideas can still help us conceptualise the complex aspects of our conscious mind. In his essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud established that our conscious mind is made up of three elements – namely id (which is the primitive, instinctual part of the mind), ego (which is the realistic part that mediates and controls the desires of id) and the superego (which is our moral conscience). In an unconscious state, the id comes to life in the form of dreams, expressing our innate desires and primal fears, while the ego and superego are suppressed. Since there is less concern about social and moral values, dreams can often feel irrational and nonsensical, bizarre. But at the same time, this state of unconsciousness, allows us to freely explore our ideas in a new reality unbound by conventional logic and reasoning and unconstrained by rational, realistic thinking. Thus, enabling us to come up with creative solutions to complex real-life problems by providing us with the necessary conditions to look at our problems from an entirely new angle. 

Operating on the same principle as the Committee of Sleep theory, the use of psychedelic drugs have also shown a similar increase in creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin, Peyote, etc. dissolve our ego and help us create new neural networks (by establishing new pathways and increasing  connectivity throughout the brain). This phenomenon, known as “ego death”, is an experience that changes the way we perceive ourselves, our personalities and how we look at the world around us. As people tend to lose their sense of self-identity they can dissociate themselves from worldly concerns and events. 

Research conducted by International Foundation for Advanced Study has shown that with the use of LSD, an astonishing number of subjects were able to achieve significant breakthroughs in their work and showed a significant improvement in three conventional creativity tests. Although there are risks associated with consuming these drugs (such as suffering from hallucinations or having a bad trip), these risks can be minimised if the drugs are taken in a controlled setting and administered under the supervision of an expert. 

Inspired by Aldous Huxley (the English writer English and philosopher), who noted his experience with psychedelic drugs in his book, The Doors of Perception, many scientists began micro-dosing on psychedelic drugs to enhance their thinking. Nobel laureate Dr Kary Banks Mullis claimed that he ‘seriously doubted’ if he would have been able to invent the PCR (i.e. a technique that facilitated easier isolation and testing of DNA) without using LSD. Other prominent scientists such as Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA and Physicist Richard Feynman have also been known to use psychedelic drugs. Even Steve Jobs said that using LSD was “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” 

Hence it is evident that there seems to be some correlation between the exhibition of higher levels of problem-solving and creative thinking skills, and our unconscious mind in the absence of ego, rationality and the laws of our reality. Although, it may take us a while before we are able to gather new and advanced empirical evidence. Psychedelic drugs defined the 1970’s era, and later, became integrated with the anti-Vietnam War movement. This led to the demonisation and stigmatization of psychedelic drugs and resulted in an immediate drop in funding for research related to psychedelic drugs. 

However, in 2020, 5 states in the U.S. legalized marijuana and this change in attitudes is credited to multiple reasons such as a decline in religious affiliation, punitiveness, and a shift in media coverage for the same. Today, organisations such as the Beckley Foundation are actively working towards conducting more research in order to understand the implications of psychedelic drugs on our minds and integrate their use in modern society. The new research projects in the field of neuroscience and the effects of psychedelic drugs, coupled with the recent breakthroughs in Oneirology, thus, hold tremendous potential for expanding our understanding of the unconscious mind and our ability to induce creative thinking.  

Ashana Mathur is a student of Economics, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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).

Categories
Issue 10

Menstrual Health in Rural India

The nationwide lockdown that was declared in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, had a number of social and economic consequences. India faced a massive crisis of reverse migration of labour from urban to rural areas, rise in unemployment and a massive economic slowdown. Amidst this, another setback that became visible only much later was the rapid deterioration of menstrual hygiene, especially in rural and peri-urban regions of the country. Articles published in the first few months of 2021 highlight  how the pandemic has influenced menstrual hygiene, particularly with regards to reduced accessibility and affordability of hygiene products and hence an increase in health problems associated with it. 

The main issue that these articles describe is lack of access to sanitary pads. Government schemes that provide sanitary pads were disrupted at different points along the supply chain, ranging from the unavailability of pads to the closure of schools, which earlier acted as distribution points for these products . Other sources of sanitary pads, namely ASHA and Anganwadi workers, also faced similar shortages  and hence were unable to distribute them as they usually did. Finally, the loss of employment especially in the informal sector left many families with very limited, if any, income to make ends meet , which resulted in sanitary pads becoming a “luxury item” that were abandoned in favour of “essentials”

The  mainstream discourse in India, claims that the main hindrance to menstrual hygiene in India is either the unavailability or the unaffordability of sanitary products by  women in rural areas. This assumption is based on a study conducted by Plan India in 2010 which states that only 12% of all women in India use sanitary pads and the remaining 88% use unsanitary means of managing menstruation. However, not only are these numbers highly contested by multiple studies that have followed, but the assumption that any method apart from the use of sanitary pads is unhygienic is also deeply flawed. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data finds that 58% of women use hygienic means of managing menstruation, and a large proportion of these depend on the use of cloth. 

While the need to improve affordability and availability definitely does exist, this is far from being the main barrier to menstrual hygiene in the country. Rather, there are multiple pressing challenges that are far more prevalent and damaging. To begin with, most women do not have access to clean toilets and changing spaces, which is one of the most common reasons for infections to fester. In addition to the lack of infrastructure, social taboos also indirectly contribute to the spread of infection. For cloth to be a hygienic method of managing menstruation, it requires frequent washing and drying in sunlight. However, due to the taboo associated with these clothes being visible to others, many women are either not allowed to or are themselves ashamed to dry them in the open. Instead, they resort to drying them in small hidden spaces that tend to be damp and dark, which rapidly increases the chances of infection due to bacteria build up. 

Government schemes too are based on the assumption that menstrual hygiene can only be ensured through the provision of sanitary pads. Central government schemes such as a the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme and the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), while in theory aim to promote menstrual hygiene as a whole, in practice only promote interventions that “increase awareness of access to sanitary pads”. State government schemes also follow the same trajectory, either by distributing pads or providing funds to buy pads. However, these programs are quite inadequate as data shows that women only receive 5 or 6 pads every month, which is simply not enough as 12 to 20 pads are required to manage a single menstrual cycle. 

The state’s emphasis on sanitary pads above all other forms of menstrual hygiene, without the ability to provide enough, is not only economically expensive and environmentally unsustainable but also weans women away from traditional methods such as cloth without providing a viable alternative. Further, the solution is also ineffective as it does not address larger issues such as lack of infrastructure or restrictive social stigmas, both of which are systemic problems in ensuring menstrual hygiene in India. Any solution that hopes to be effective must take into account and attempt to combat these issues in order to improve menstrual hygiene as a whole should be made. 

While acknowledging the flaws in the social system that we operate within, namely the taboos and stigmas that drive people, it is also equally imperative that one acknowledges and leverages the strengths of the same social system to improve the existing conditions. This could be done in a number of ways. For instance, there are festivals in multiple different cultures across the country that celebrate the start of menstruation for a girl child, such as Mithuna Sankranti in Orissa or Ritushuddhi in Karnataka. Instead of depending solely on logic or scientific rationale to combat existing taboos that view menstruation as shameful or unimportant, drawing on existing cultural traditions that celebrate the process would be an effective method as it is rooted in people’s sentiments and beliefs. 

This process of addressing wider issues of physical infrastructure as well as cultural mindsets rather than limiting the scope of menstrual hygiene to simply promoting the use of sanitary pads can also be extremely beneficial to the environment. If women are provided with clean and private changing spaces and the acceptance to wash and dry their menstrual products, cloth pads can become a safe, hygienic, inexpensive and sustainable method of managing menstruation. 

Further, to make its implementation more successful, environmentally sustainable solutions can be propagated without framing it as such. Cloth pads, for instance, are preferred by women in rural areas due to their low cost, comfort, and familiarity. Studies show that concern for the environment is not a major reason for women preferring cloth. Therefore, if it is propagated as a method of sanitary hygiene in a way that appeals to the users, without necessarily presenting it merely as a sustainable solution, the chances of its uptake increase significantly. 

It must be recognized that both the hindrance as well as the solution to improving menstrual health in India is not limited to access to and affordability of sanitary pads. The problem is a far more systemic one that calls for seeing menstrual health not as a women’s issue but as a public health issue. A solution that employs a multi-pronged approach involving financial, infrastructural, and cultural interventions that are mindful of current social structures can be economically and environmentally sustainable as well as produce better health outcomes. 

Ananya Rao is a fourth year student at Ashoka University studying anthropology, environment studies, and political science. In her free time you’ll find her either painting, writing, or exploring the outdoors

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).