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Child Literacy in India
No matter how proud Indians are the world over of India’s blistering economic growth rate or its formidable prowess in information technology, there is something else that gets lost in the shuffle. Yet this quite distinct issue, children’s literacy, will be critical in determining whether India will transition tomorrow into a robust and prosperous nation or simply continue to be a nation of abject contrasts between oases of top-notch education and affluence amid a sea of dismal poverty populated by poorly educated masses.
This is a contradiction that continues to haunt India. As Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has noted, while India has stunned the world with world-class tertiary educational institutions like the IITs, its record on primary education, barring isolated geographical patches, continues to be abysmal.
Things appear to be changing not only in India, but also within a section of the Indian American diaspora, and not a moment too soon. Pratham, a literacy movement that has galvanized India, has drawn in its wake a committed group of expatriate Indians and friends of India all over the world who are committed to bring about a change and bring to over 70 million Indian children the critical tools for a better future: a satisfactory level of literacy and numeracy.
It’s not a talking shop, either. Pratham USA, along with other chapters all over the world, support Pratham in developing real tools in the field that actually work; they are committed to expand and disseminate those proven methods all over India with the Read India campaign.
Our cover story provides details of this exciting campaign that begins in May.
The number of authors of Indian descent writing in English, whether originally from India (Bharati Mukherjee, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and many more) or raised elsewhere (Jhumpa Lahiri, Pico Iyer) are so many that a new desi author who creates a splash in the West hardly causes any surprise.
Pakistani authors who have drawn a lot of attention in the West, on the other hand, are few and far between (Bapsi Sidhwa and expat Hanif Qureshi are the only ones who come to mind). So it’s certainly noteworthy that there’s a new kid on the block, in a manner of speaking, and he is no flash in the pan either.
U.S.-educated and England-based Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid already drew considerable critical acclaim with his first novel, “Moth Smoke.” Now his second novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is quickly climbing up the New York Times bestseller list (at press time it was fourth on the hardcover fiction bestseller list).
This popularity is encouraging, It shows there is a clear hunger out there even in the American mainstream to go beyond the stereotyped images of Pakistan as a haven for raving fundamentalists and power-hungry generals.
For an insider’s assessment of Hamid and his latest novel, we turned to Pakistani American Ras Hafiz Siddiqui, who has both read the novel and met the author at a book reading in Corte Madera, Calif.
In an article in this month’s issue, Siddiqui agrees with the author that “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a romantic story, but adds that it is not just about the romance between main protagonists Changez and Erica. Siddiqui says the novel is quite possibly a failed love story between a Pakistani and the American Dream. There is confusion, regret, malice, denial and even a strong attraction shown towards that dream here in this book.
For those who think 40s is the beginning of middle age, Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams is a revelation. This 41-year-old NASA astronaut, currently in space, has not only captured the imagination of people of Indian descent all over the world with her breathtaking exploits in space. Recently she sprang another surprise on the world by saying she would take part in the Boston Marathon while in space. Nobody had ever done this before.
She has been true to her word.
On April 16, Williams completed the marathon in four hours, 23 minutes and 10 seconds, as she circled the Earth almost three times. She ultimately ran about six miles per hour while flying more than five miles each second.
The astronaut ran the 26.2-mile race on a treadmill. Williams said the reason to run the marathon was simple. “I would like to encourage kids to start making physical fitness part of their daily lives,” she said. “I thought a big goal like a marathon would help get this message out there.”
“Suni running 26.2 miles in space on Patriots’ Day is really a tribute to the thousands of marathoners who are running here on Earth. She is pioneering new frontiers in the running world,” said Jack Fleming of the Boston Athletic Association.
We carry an article on Sunita Williams in this month’s issue.
Do drop us a line with ideas and comments about how we can make Siliconeer better serve you.
Pratham’s Massive Literacy Campaign
For tens of millions of Indian children, literacy is the crucial stepping stone to the possibility of a better future. Pratham USA starts a campaign this month to join a nationwide drive in India to create awareness, raise funds and support a massive literacy drive that is vital for the future of India. Arvind Amin presents the details.
(Clockwise from top, left): The cover of the Annual Status of Education Report that Pratham has helped produce, which takes stock of the state of primary education in India; A Pratham teacher with school kids conducting an open air learning session; Yesteryear film star Waheeda Rehman (r), seen with a child, has been a passionate promoter of Pratham’s programs; and the Pratham logo depiciting a blackboard with a smiling face. [All photos including cover photograph by Pratham]
Sarandeep Kaur, 6, is a small, shy girl with a huge smile. Dressed in an oversized blue salwar-kameez, she turns a deep shade of pink as she reads out two stories, and does three formidable additions and subtractions.
Yet this second-grade student of the Govt. Primary School at Kamalu village could not even recognize the alphabet, and the less said the better about arithmetic until Pratham intervention. Today, she is the poster girl for the Learning to Read program spearheaded by Pratham in 100 schools of Punjab’s Bhatinda district.
Daughter of dairy farmer Harsha Singh, Sarandeep is among the 4,262 children who’ve lapped up the three Rs under this program that got rolling in April 2006. For the twin villages of Kamalu-Siwach tucked away in the depressing boondocks of Talwandi Sabo, miles away from bright city lights and prosperity, Pratham’s program spells hope for the future.
As village sarpanch Shanti Kaur puts it: “Thank God, our children have finally begun to read and write. Maybe one day they will be freed from this drudgery of farming.’’
Pratham’s Learning to Read program has been so successful in Madhya Pradesh that it is reflected in a nationwide survey that has propelled Madhya Pradesh from the bottom five to the top five of India’s 26 states in terms of children’s learning.
Pratham is now making the Learning to Read program part of a nationwide, comprehensive Read India campaign and Pratham USA, a registered U.S. nonprofit run by volunteers here, is joining in.
Pratham USA will launch the Read India campaign in late May 2007 to raise awareness amongst the Indian American community and the community at large about the problems of child illiteracy in India, and to raise funds for the efforts. This effort will support the Read India campaign by Pratham in India, which was formally announced in New Delhi on Jan 4, in response to ASER, a citizens’ initiative to understand the status of elementary education in India.
The findings of ASER Annual Status of Education Report 2006 released by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of India, provide grim evidence that elementary education in India is in perilous shape and over 70 million children are not learning well. While the enrollment of children in school is 91 percent to 95 percent (depending on age group), nearly 47 percent of children in Std 5 (equivalent to fifth grade) cannot read even Std 2 text correctly and 55 percent of them cannot do basic math like a simple division.
ASER, which was facilitated by Pratham, was conducted nationwide for the second year in a row. The report involved more than 20,000 volunteers, and covered 318,761 households and 758,028 children in the age groups 3 to 16.
UNICEF representative Eimer Bar remarked: “Given the critical role of the civil society in the EFA (Education For All) movement, UNICEF welcomes ASER 2006 as an important contribution to assessing the state of elementary education in India. Pratham is to be commended for spearheading this, by now, annual exercise which is an important input to the discourse on the current and future directions of this important sector.”
ASER 2006 had one silver lining. Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest state by geographical area, showed a quantum improvement of 50 percent in learning levels. For a state which featured in the bottom five in ASER 2005, it has jumped ahead to the top five amongst the 26 states of India. This improvement was possible due to the “Learning to Read” campaign led by Pratham in 2006.
Pratham wants to take its proven solution nationwide. At the same press conference in New Delhi which revealed the dismal state of primary education in India, Pratham announced plans for a two-year campaign to replicate its Madhya Pradesh success all across India. In fact, Pratham has taken its plans to the next level by striving to ensure that every child in India can read and do math at a basic level by 2009.
The Read India Campaign will address the issue by involving state governments of India in phased programs that will focus on four major components: introducing “learning to read” activities in all schools, creating and supplying reading and learning materials to teachers, involving mothers in their children’s learning and evaluating this project consistently.
Pratham USA will work closely with Pratham during this period to support the process in many ways, with fundraising being the most critical need. Pratham USA estimates that the Read India campaign over the two-year period will cost $18 million. Given the impact it has on over 60 million children, this is a low-cost approach to breaking the cycle of illiteracy amongst the children in India, with most of them coming from illiterate families and poor backgrounds.
Responding to the announcement regarding the Read India campaign, Vijay Goradia, chairman of Pratham USA, said: “ Twelve years ago, when Pratham was founded, the goal of having every child in school learning well seemed like an impossible dream. While the latest ASER study shows that major problems continue in the Indian educational system, successes like that in Madhya Pradesh show that a partnership with Pratham can make a huge difference.”
Pratham is a grassroots literacy movement that helps underprivileged children in India with pre-school and early education. Initiated by UNICEF in 1994 and now independently financed with no direct governmental ties, Pratham has been growing from city to city, and state to state, and now reaches over 13 states in India. The children reached by Pratham are being prepared to take their place as an integral part of the revolution that is taking place in India in terms of technological, industrial, and economic development.
A part of an international network dedicated to supporting the successful programs being implemented by Pratham in India, Pratham USA educates Americans about the tremendous educational challenges in India and raises funds to support Pratham’s important work in India.
Headquartered in Houston, Pratham USA has a committed and dedicated group of supporters and volunteers with fund-raising chapters in Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Chicago, North Carolina and Boston.
The author gratefully acknowledges the substantial and valuable contributions made by various Pratham USA volunteers to this article.
A Pakistani Voice: Author Mohsin Hamid
Ras Hafiz Siddiqui, who attended a book reading by New York Times bestselling Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid and has read his bestseller “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” offers his impressions.
New York Times bestselling author Mohsin Hamid talking about his novel at a book store in Corte Madera, Calif. [Ras Hafiz Siddiqui photo]
At the time of this writing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid is fourth on the New York Times weekly list of hardcover fiction bestsellers and will in all likelihood move up further towards the top. Mohsin has recently been on a whirlwind tour promoting his new book in the United States during which he visited northern California, specifically Stanford, San Francisco and the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Corte Madera, where I caught up with him. He is a Pakistani English language novel writer from Lahore, currently residing in London. He has also spent quite a number of years in the U.S., attended Princeton University and Harvard, and worked in New York.
There are reasons why Mohsin Hamid attracts immediate attention. The first is his only other novel “Moth Smoke,” which won critical acclaim and launched him as the leader of a handful of writers from Pakistan who write fiction in English. Senior Pakistani writers like Bapsi Sidhwa are better known, and several Indian-origin novelists have already become quite famous in the United States. But here comes a Pakistani who is making an impact. That fact alone should be enough to attract interest in his direction, but in the end it his unique delivery and storytelling talent that will impress the global reader.
Most of what America sees from Pakistan today is men with beards denouncing its actions. The fact is that lines at the American embassy and consulates in Pakistan are always long and populated by “clean cut” men and unveiled women wanting to visit or immigrate, but that reality just does not sell on American TV. The many “moderates” there do absolutely nothing for viewer ratings but that subject is for another time.
When I walked in, fashionably late (I do not deny my own Pakistani roots) to become the 31st member of the group listening to Mohsin Hamid at the B&N in Corte Madera, he was engrossed in explaining that his narrator and lead character Changez exhibits an ethnic sense of being a Muslim and not a religious one. He added that his book was not meant to be a boring political dissertation. “At the end of the day, it is really a love story,” he said. It is a tale of lovers, the Pakistani male Changez and the American female Erica. But after having read the book, I ask if it is really that love that we should focus on? We will return to this point later.
The beautiful Erica bares a great deal to Changez on a Greek island. But this has to be one of the strangest one-sided courtships ever. Changez shows a level of patience and sensitivity with Erica that would make Pakistani males both proud and in demand here in the American heartland. But there is that one unspoken elephant in the living room called 9/11 that acts as the spoiler of all things.
Changez is affected by 9-11 in many curious ways. While Erica is in love with another man, or in reality his memory, Changez is living his American Dream (where hard work and dedication can pay big dividends). But then why is his reaction to 9/11 so distastefully confusing? Here, if one reads between the lines, Mohsin Hamid has given the American reader a controversial slice of what he/she already believes. Pakistani Americans especially will not be happy with that slice. But then again we need to remind ourselves that this is fiction.
“A lot that happens in the novel is meant to be discovered as it happens,” said Mohsin. He described this as a continuing “internal conversation.” He said that he started this novel in the year 2000. He also pointed towards the curious style of English which is used by his narrator in this novel, one that is taught in certain private English schools in Pakistan and is supposed to show a superior upbringing. Changez incorporates some of that language style to show off his superior upbringing, making up for the lack of wealth.
Mohsin Hamid describes his work as “half a conversation.” “I do half the work and the reader does the other half,” he said. “I come from a place (Pakistan) where people don’t read novels very much.” He pointed towards praise that he received from one reader in Pakistan, on his first novel “Moth Smoke.” The reader said that it was his favorite novel and the only one he had ever finished reading!
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is easy reading (I finished it in one evening). Mohsin mentioned that he actually wrote a 1,000 page manuscript which resulted in a 184-page publication. “Novel writing is like a marathon,” he said. He added that everyone has a story to tell, but few people spend seven years banging their heads on telling their story (making them true writers). “The title is many things,” he said. “This guy Changez is not very religious. He is not a religious fundamentalist,” said Mohsin.
In an answer to my question on how his work will be viewed in Pakistan he said that the book would be released there the following week. He added that his first work “Moth Smoke” actually was made into a TV series there.
The writer said that failed love affairs often result in anger. He said his novel has sought some inspiration from “The Fall” by Albert Camus. You may pick up some of that flavor here. But there is a great deal more that will puzzle readers as this “half a conversation” reaches them. For starters, curiously, the American that the narrator Changez tells his story to, never seems to talk back.
There are streaks of great writing that one encounters in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” One example that I liked was from Changez and his one-way conversation with the shadowy American: “I hope you will not mind my saying so, but the frequency and purposefulness with which you glance about a steady tick-tick-tick seeming to beat in your head as you move your gaze from one point to the next brings to mind the behavior of an animal that has ventured too far from his lair and is now, in unfamiliar surroundings, uncertain whether it is predator or prey!”
Describing his feelings for New York, Changez waxes eloquent: “I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker. What? My voice is rising? You are right; I tend to become sentimental when I think of that city. It still occupies a place of great fondness in my heart, which is quite something, I must say, given the circumstances under which, after only eight months of residence, I would later depart.” This is a far cry from the uncharitable response Changez had shown on 9/11.
Describing Pakistan today through the lens of Lahore: “Perhaps we currently lack wealth, power or even sporting glory the occasional brilliance of our temperamental cricket team notwithstanding commensurate with our status as the world’s sixth most populous country, we Pakistanis take an inordinate pride in our food. Here in Old Anarkali, that pride is visible in the purity of the fare on offer; not one of these worthy restaurants would consider placing a western dish on his menu.”
The reception that Changez receives at the airport in America is not without its fallout. “For despite my mother’s request, and my knowledge of the difficulties it could well present me at immigration, I had not shaved my two-week-old beard.” Changez adds: “It is remarkable, given its physical insignificance it is only a hairstyle, after all the impact a beard worn by a man of my complexion has on your fellow countrymen.”
The ending of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is almost too hurried, as if written to meet a writer’s deadline. The trauma 9/11 and the over-reaction to possible India-Pakistan war shape a quick change of personality and direction within Changez, whose reluctance is directed more towards the fundamentals of capitalism than religion. As in any review, one just does no give away the ending, especially one which readers will certainly have differing opinions on. The love story with Erica does drag on a bit long. But as mentioned earlier during this review, let us hazard a guess as to what the writer may be embarked on in this novel.
Whether it was planned or not, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a romantic story, but not just about the romance between Changez and Erica. This is quite possibly a failed love story between a Pakistani and the American Dream. There is confusion, regret, malice, denial and even a strong attraction shown towards that dream here in this book. It is the Pakistani talking for a change, engaged in his half-conversation with the American. And that Pakistani is trying to communicate his displeasure at being branded a fundamentalist. The question here is whether America is going to listen, or is it too busy expressing its love for another? That speculative take on this novel might add to the appeal of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” and launch Mohsin Hamid as a long term literary presence here in America. The essential ingredient, the writing talent, is already there, so he is off to a great start.
NEWS DIARY: April 2007 Roundup
Mouthwatering Mangoes for Macho Motorcycles | Hasina to Return after Exile Threat Lifted | Is That Your Wife? | Burqa Play Ban | ‘Lokatantra Day’ | Famine by Rats | Shaky Nuke Deal | Buddhist Tourist Circuit
Mouthwatering Mangoes for Macho Motorcycles
(Above): A Harley Davidson motorbike and (right): Alphonso mangoes
Indian mangoes will hit U.S. shelves for the first time in 18 years, while Harley Davidson motorcycles will soon be cruising India’s roads, senior Indian and U.S. officials.
“The good news is that our mangoes are going to America and Harley Davidson is coming here,” Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath said at a meeting on Indo-U.S. trade ties in New Delhi.
The U.S. banned mango imports from India 18 years ago over concerns that Indian farmers used too many pesticides.
Now, Indian farmers will instead irradiate the fruit to kill any pests, making the mangoes fit for consumption in the eyes of U.S. agriculture officials.
Lifting the ban was first agreed on during President George W. Bush’s visit to India last year.
Final details were worked out in a meeting Friday of the bilateral trade forum, chaired by Nath and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.
“In a few short weeks, Indian mangoes will enter the U.S. market,” Schwab said.
In return, the way has been cleared for the Milwaukee-based Harley Davidson to enter the Indian market one the world’s largest for motorbikes.
Their entry had been hampered by stringent emissions standards and tariffs of more than 90 percent.
“We have received indications that the Indian government will accept Euro 3 (emission) standards for heavy motorcycles, creating an opportunity for a niche in the market,” Schwab said.
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Hasina to Return after Exile Threat Lifted
Bangladeshi political leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed intends to return home soon, after the military-backed government appeared to back away from efforts to keep her in exile, a spokesman said.
“Sheikh Hasina will come back in the first week of May,” her press secretary, Saber Hossain Chowdhury, said.
(Above): Khaleda Zia
(Left): Sheikh Hasina
Bangladesh's emergency government barred Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister and leader of the Awami League, from returning from holiday in the United States earlier this month.
Authorities had also been trying to force out Sheikh Hasina's main rival, Khaleda Zia, the country's last Prime Minister and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Both Sheikh Hasina and Zia are accused of corruption, political violence and misrule that led to a major political crisis in January which saw elections cancelled and a state of emergency imposed.
But the army-backed interim government appeared to drop its exile plans for the two women, while at the same time maintaining murder and extortion charges against Sheikh Hasina and bringing up the possibility of corruption charges against Zia.
Recently it ordered banks to supply details of the two leaders' bank accounts.
“Madam (Khaleda Zia) is still in doubt whether the authorities have totally abandoned the plan to send her into exile or they have suspended the plan temporarily,” a BNP leader speaking on condition of anonymity was quoted as saying by the Daily Star newspaper.
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Is That Your Wife?
(Right): Babubhai Katara
An Indian MP is facing charges of forgery and fraud after being arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle a woman and her son to Canada.
Babubhai Katara was stopped by immigration authorities at Delhi airport after apparently trying to pass off the woman as his wife.
Babubhai Katara is an MP for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
He was stopped at Delhi's Indira Gandhi international airport before boarding a flight to Toronto.
His arrest comes at a time when questions have been about the personal integrity of many MPs.
Last year 11 MPs were allegedly caught on camera asking for money to ask questions in parliament.
Officials say Katara was stopped along with Paramjit Kaur, 30, and a 14-year-old boy identified as Amarjeet Singh.
“He tried to pass them off as his wife and child,” police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told the Reuters news agency.
All three were taken into custody.
The authorities say that Kaur was traveling on a diplomatic passport made out in the name of the MP's wife.
Officials became suspicious after they realized that the photographs in the passport did not match.
Katara has been suspended from his party.
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Burqa Play Ban
(Right): Burqa-clad women are seen in Islamabad in this file photo. Irate Islamist lawmakers persuaded the Pakistan government to stop a theatre group staging a satirical play about the burqa.
The head of a Pakistani theatre company whose play about burqas was banned by the government has said that she is hurt and astonished by the decision.
The government banned the play because it said that it made “unacceptable fun” out of Pakistani culture.
Madeeha Gauhar, head of the Ajoka Theatre group, said that there was nothing offensive in the production against Islam or any other religion.
She said that she was being pulled up for “promoting moderation.”
Complaints about the issue came to light after Islamist MPs raised the issue in parliament. They complained that the play was against “Koranic injunctions on the veil.”
“The veil has long been part of local culture and nobody is allowed to make fun of these values,” Minister for Culture Ghazi Gulab Jamal said.
The satirical play Burqavaganza was staged this month by Ajoka Theatre group in Lahore.
The government announced an immediate ban, and stopped it from being staged in other cities following the end of its run in Lahore.
Pakistan has stringent laws for blasphemy against Islam or the Prophet Mohammed with a maximum penalty of death.
“They have committed blasphemy against the Holy Prophet,” Razia Aziz, a conservative female parliamentarian told the assembly.
But the Ajoka Theatre group has said that it has not received any official notification of the ban.
“We have just heard the news from the press... the government has not contacted us so far,” Gauhar said.
She said told the BBC that while she was not surprised that hardline Islamists had raised the issue, she was “astonished at how the government has reacted.”
“These are ominous signs for Pakistan,” she added.
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(Right): A Communist Party flag over Kathmandu. Nepal marked the first anniversary of the end of King Gyanendra's absolute rule.
Nepal April 24 celebrated the first anniversary of the end of King Gyanendra's absolute rule and restoration of democracy as the “Loktantra Day” with thousands of people marking the event by thronging the streets and singing patriotic songs.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala attended the Democratic Day function at the Nepal Army pavilion, witnessed by ministers, lawmakers, government officials, diplomatic mission chiefs, political party leaders, civil society leaders and a large number of people.
“No one can deny Nepalese people this day, which marks the success of the struggle launched by people for their rights. The dreams and aspirations of the martyrs can only be fulfilled through national unity and mutual understanding,” Koirala said paying tribute to the martyrs.
“This day has given us the responsibility to build a peaceful, prosperous and new Nepal by ending all sorts of problems and conflicts,” he said.
King Gyanendra, on April 24, 2006, bowing to the 19-day agitation transferred powers to the people and reinstated the Parliament.
After the successful movement, Girija Prasad Koirala was elected as the prime minister as a common candidate of the seven major political parties. Maoists also came to the mainstream by ending their decade long armed struggle that claimed over 13,000 lives.
Nepal today declared a public holiday and the Loktantra Day celebrations will continue till April 25.
Various programs, cultural processions, sport events and bands were displayed during the occasion.
In the afternoon, Koirala hosted a grand reception at Shital Niwas, in the premises of the ministry of foreign affairs, where top political leaders, ministers, heads of diplomatic missions, journalists, businessmen, civil society leaders were invited.
Earlier in the afternoon, civil society members organized a rally from Kalanki, the place where five people were killed in April last year, and marched toward Basantapur Durbar square.
Meanwhile, the United States, extending congratulations to the Nepalese people on their first anniversary of Lokatantra (Democracy) Day, has urged all the parties of the popular uprising to meet their commitment to peace and democracy.
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Famine by Rats
(Above): Flowering bamboo
(Right): The rat population grows on the bamboo and then turns to human food.
Tribesmen in Mizoram, bordering Burma and Bangladesh, are shuddering at the sight of the heavy flowering of the ubiquitous bamboo.
It attracts hordes of rats, a phenomenon known locally as Mautam, the Mizos' worst nightmare.
Not only do the rats thrive on the bamboo flowers, they also then go on to destroy the farmers' crops.
Mizo oral tradition suggests this deadly ecological cycle is repeated every 48 years.
Most Mizo farmers are now not even sowing rice or corn, so worried are they by the rats.
“It is no use planting anything. The hordes of rats have already destroyed the standing crop in some areas and will destroy all the rest,” says Thangthiauva of Pangzawl village.
Officials in Mizoram's agriculture department share his gloom.
Plant Protection Officer James Lalsiamliana says the Mautam, that struck the Mizo Hills in 1910-11 and again in 1958-59 is back with a vengeance.
“It will affect more than 30 percent of Mizoram's land area and much of the area under some crop or other. It cannot be stopped, we can only do damage control,” said Lalsiamliana.
He told the BBC that some parts of Champhai, Aizawl and Serchhip districts had already witnessed crop destruction by hordes of rats in the winter of 2006-2007.
“But the worse is still to come.”
A report by India's forest and environment ministry predicts that at least 5,100 sq km of Mizoram's forest area (out of a total of 6,446 sq km of forest) will be affected by the Mautam in 2007.
More than half of Mizoram's population of nearly 900,000 are farmers.
The Mizoram agriculture department anticipates a crop shortfall of at least 75 percent in 2007-2008 because of farmers not planting.
Desperate to control the rising rat population, the state government announced a reward of one rupee for every rat killed.
During 2006 alone more than 221,636 rats were killed. The killing continues but the rats keep coming in hordes.
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Shaky Nuke Deal
The United States and India are making another attempt at salvaging their controversial nuclear cooperation agreement but U.S. officials, with little room to maneuver, are cautious about the likelihood of progress.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who will hold talks in Washington with Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, told Reuters, “We think the Indian government wants to achieve the agreement,” but the two sides had not found a way to bridge serious differences.
Recent technical-level negotiations did not make substantial progress, so “our intention is to make progress during these talks and accelerate our joint efforts towards a full agreement,” Burns said of next week's talks.
The much-heralded deal would give India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors for the first time in 30 years, despite the fact that New Delhi tested nuclear weapons and has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But disputes over India's intentions on nuclear testing and reprocessing have not been resolved and both U.S. President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are under political constraints that limit their ability to compromise.
The Indian ambassador in Washington has told U.S. congressional aides that “nothing is insurmountable.” But some U.S. experts say differences are so profound, it is increasingly unlikely the deal can be done before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Philip Zelikow, a former State Department official who helped craft the deal first announced in 2005, said the agreement has “veered toward the precipice at every stage” and is again unraveling because of ambivalence in both countries' bureaucracies.
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Buddhist Tourist Circuit
Following a consensus at the SAARC summit on developing tourism among member countries, India is looking up to its neighbors to develop Buddhism as a big time spiritual tourism in the region, official sources said in New Delhi.
As a part of a common promotional program planned by the Ministry of Tourism, the Buddhist destinations in Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have also been included along with those in India, the sources said.
The need to develop Buddhist circuits in India was further endorsed by a recent study which said tourist arrivals will go up by 400 per cent and India stands to earn over Rs. 47 billion if only the sites were refurbished and better connected.
Following the report, the ministry launched a major campaign “Come to India - Walk with the Buddha” in the South Asian market and domestic market for promotion of Buddhist circuits.
The government has also sanctioned Rs. 570 billion for development of tourism infrastructure and 14 major Buddhist sites.
Japan has already offered an assistance of Rs. 2.99 billion for refurbishing Ajanta Ellora caves which have famous but fragile Buddhist paintings and artwork.
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