Archive | September 2012


It’s a classic issue of ‘development versus environment’, which has gone complex over the years due to unrelenting locals, led by highly educated activists, adamant companies, delayed justice and pliable politicians. It took 17 days for the protesters—fifty-one villagers from Goghalgaon, who raged against raising the water level in the Omkareshwar dam, by standing in neck-deep water in Narmada river—to make the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government to accept their demands—reduce water level of the dam to 189m and provide compensation for all those who lost land.

People from 250 villages in 10 districts of Madhya Pradesh had been protesting for over two decades against submergence of their land and houses. They had complained about incomplete and inadequate resettlement and rehabilitation in Omkareshwar, Indira Sagar and Maheshwar dam. The first two dams were jointly built by Narmada Hydro Development Corporation (NHDC) and state government, while Maheshwar is built by S. Kumars, a private company.

After a legal battle between Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the government in the Supreme Court, the height of Omkarasehwar dam was raised to 193m from 189m, and Indira Sagar to 262m from 260m.

This year, with sufficient monsoon, the water level was raised,  which led to sinking of additional 150 villages. The state granted compensation, and went ahead filling reservoir, expecting the villagers to leave. However, villagers did not vacate their houses as they were not properly rehabilitated.

They demanded to “implement the rehabilitation measures in the prescribed manner before letting the villages to submerge”. As the jal satyagrahis developed blisters on their feet (caused by standing continuously in water), the state agreed for talks.

Industry minister Kailash Vijayavargia told THE WEEK: “We are considerate to their demands and have full sympathy towards the displaced, but development and power requirement cannot be ignored.”

Former Union minister Arun Yadav participated in the jal satyagraha standing in the river along with other villagers, and said, “Not only did the state government violate human rights by increasing the water level, it has also defied the Supreme Court order—not to raise the water level until the displaced are rehabilitated.” After the water was released, he said that the struggle will continue.

Former chief minister Digvijaya Singh blamed the state government, and called it a complex issue. However, the plight of local people continues as “2,500 families are awaiting allotment agriculture land, while housing sites are yet to be alloted to 1,000 families”.

Fearing criticism especially from the Congress party, the chief minister took a humanist stand and agreed to the demands of then protestors. Soon after his cabinet meeting on Monday, he instructed the dam authorities to drop the water level to 189m.

He said, “We understand the problems and misery of people who are protesting, hence we agreed to bring down the water level of dam to 189m as an immediate relief, and will give land to them if they return the compensation money in next 90 days.”

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said, “Though irrigation in 20,000 hectares of land and generation of 120MW electricity would get affected in this process, we are more concerned for human beings.” The power-deficit state needs to generate additional electricity to meet the growing demand and its electoral promise of providing uninterrupted power supply.

Meantime, another set of villagers in nearby Harda upstream of Narmada did similar satyagraha to recede water to 260m from 262m.

According to Alok Agarwal, an IITian and member of NBA, “Several orders passed by Grievance Redressal Authority last week have made it clear that rehabilitation of the oustees is still pending, and the grievance handling mechanism hearing are still going on. In such case, the water level should not be increased from 189m ”. Alok said, “It is rubbish to say that land is not available for oustees, in past few years state government has proposed 2.5 lakh hectares of land to business house and companies for “inviting investment”. On the contrary, it put forward the High Court and Supreme Court of unavailability of land—its double stand is exposed”.

Interestingly, the way Madhya Pradesh government has bowed before the protestors is observed as  “compulsion of government during election mode”.Image



Politicians in Telangana were left in a state of confusion when the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) president K. Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR) left for Delhi two days before the monsoon session ended. KCR’s béte noire, the BJP, said that his interest behind the Delhi trip was not the parliamentary session, but to collect his salary. However, KCR’s decision to stay back in Delhi added fuel to fire, making many assume that there was something happening on the Telangana front.

KCR could not meet the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi due to her ill health, but it is rumoured that she appointed a 4-member committee comprising of Oscar Fernandes, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Vayalar Ravi and A.K. Antony—all of them loyal to her.

Though pro-Telangana groups were happy about Sushil Kumar Shinde taking up Home Affairs, it added more confusion to the already complicated state of affairs. It was P. Chidambaram who had on December 9, 2009, announced that the government was thinking about a separate state. He then retracted the statement creating a lot of heartburn among Telengana supporters. The four political parties—BJP, TRS, CPI, CPI(M)—had already taken a stand on the Telangana issue, but the remaining four—Congress, TDP, MIM and YSR Congress—were yet to make their stands clear. Chidambaram had been ready to call for an all-party meeting after getting opinions from all the parties.

Meanwhile, Shinde said that Telangana would take a long time, one of the factors being the presence of Naxalites, which was a deterrent to the formation of the new state. As he had just taken over the Home ministry, he asked for some more time to study the issue. Shinde had said that he would take the opinion of senior officials and check the recommendations of the Sri Krishna Committee, which apparently has a detailed intelligence report on Naxal penetration in the region. It is said that there is a fear that Maoist operations might resume if Telangana is formed.

KCR has started making his political moves, expressing willingness of his party to merge with the Congress if Telangana is formed. However, it is a fact that the TRS has no other option but to merge, which will benefit both the parties. For the Congress this would assure them of winning some seats in the Telangana region and for the TRS, such a move would make them stronger in other parts of Andhra Pradesh.

Meanwhile, all Pro-Telangana parties including the Telangana Joint Action Committee (T-JAC) have given an ultimatum to the Centre, with September 30 as the deadline, failing which they “will be forced to use violent methods”.

Though Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy’s position seems to be safe at present, there are strong rumours there would be a replacement for both the posts—the CM and the PCC president.

Knowing that Sonia Gandhi does not support formation of smaller states, the UPA government might use ‘pressures from the allies’ as an excuse to not to allow a separate state, thus leaving it open for the 2014 elections. This move might lead to pro-Telangana supporters resorting to violence.

Both the BJP and the TDP are taking advantage of the situation. The BJP defended itself saying that it had formed three separate states, but could not form Telangana, because of the tie-up it had with Chandrababu Naidu (who had been for a united Andhra). The BJP has assured the formation of Telangana if they are brought back to power. The state unit of BJP has also chalked out a series of programmes on the Telangana front.

TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu, having announced his pada yatra, is in ‘now or never’ mode as this would be the last chance for him to come back to power. Meanwhile, his party members from coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema have demanded that Naidu should come out of the party if he is pro-Telangana. Having said that the TDP has a strong cadre base in Telangana, the pro-Telangana letter to the Centre (clarifying the party’s stand) might win him the required seats in this region.Image

The world’s s…

The world’s shiniest living thing is an African fruit that looks like a pointillist bauble

In the forests of central Africa, there’s a plant that looks like it’s growing its own Christmas decorations. Shiny baubles sprout from between its leaves, shimmering in a vibrant metallic blue. Look closer, and other colours emerge – pinpricks of red, orange, green and violet. It looks as if Seurat, or some other pointillist painter, had turned their hand to sculpture.

But these spheres, of course, are no man-made creations. They’re fruit. They are the shiniest fruits in the world. Actually, they are the shiniest living materials in the world, full-stop.

They belong to a plant called Pollia condensata, a tropical metre-tall herb that sprouts its shiny berry-like fruits in clusters up to 40-strong. These little orbs are iridescent – they use special layers of cells, arranged just so, to reflect colours with extraordinary intensity. This trick relies on the microscopic physical structures of the cells, rather than on any chemical pigments. Indeed, the fruits have no blue pigment at all.

In the animal kingdom, such tricks are commonplace – you can see them at work on the wings of a butterfly, the shells of jewel beetles, or the feathers of pigeons, starlings, birds or paradise and even some dinosaurs. But in the plant world, pigments dominate and structural colours were thought to be non-existent are much rarer.

Silvia Vignolini from the University of Cambridge discovered Pollia’s secret at Kew Gardens in the UK. Her group, led by Ullrich Steiner, was scouring the plant world for species that bend light in interesting ways. Under the recommendation of the Smithsonian’s Robert Faden, Vognolini sought out Pollia, and with help from Kew’s Paula Rudall, she found a sample of the plant. It was collected from Ghana in 1974 but it’s still as vivid as ever. (Unlike pigments, structural colours don’t degrade, so the fruits will retain their sheen for decades to come. Some fossils still keep their iridescence.)

Under the microscope, Vignolini saw that the outer part of the fruit consists of three to four layers of thick-walled cells (labelled “1″ in the image below). Each cell contains yet more layers, made of cellulose fibres. The fibres all run parallel to one another, but each layer is slightly rotated against the one above it, producing an elegant spiral.

As light hits the top layer, some gets reflected and the rest passes through. The same thing happens at the next layer, and the next, and so on. Provided the layers are exactly the right distance apart, the reflected beams of light amplify each other to produce exceptionally strong colours. The technical term is “multilayer interference”. Or alternatively: “Ooh, shiny!”

Many animals use such structures to produce colour. This is why, like Pollia fruits, the wings of many butterflies and the feathers of many birds, can still look stunning after years in a fusty museum drawer. By finding the same structures in Pollia, Vignolini has uncovered a great example of convergent evolution, where species from different branches of the tree of life arrive at the same adaptations independently.

But Pollia fruits reflect more light than any bird or butterfly. Vignolini hasn’t just found the first strong iridescent colours in a plant; she’s found the strongest iridescent colours in nature. Or alternatively: “Ooh, SHINY!”

And the fruits have another unique trick. The distance between the cellulose layers varies from cell to cell. This means that the wavelength (and thus, the colour) of the light they reflect also vary from cell to cell. “Blue is the dominant one,” says Steiner, “but there’s the occasional red or green or yellow one. That’s why it looks pixellated.” Or pointillist, depending on whether you prefer your metaphors based on screens or canvas.

Why does Pollia have such bright fruit? Here’s a clue: you can’t eat them. Well, you can eat them, but there would be no point, because they provide next to no nourishment. They’re practically a dry seed-filled husk. Here’s another clue: Pollia grows in the same regions as another plant, Psychotria peduncularis, which also produces blue berries.

The team thinks that Pollia is mimicking the tasty blue fruits of its neighbour, tempting birds with the promise of tasty pulp, but rewarding them with nothing but seeds to carry. Alternatively, birds could collect the fruits to decorate their nests, or to use in mating displays. Either way, Pollia gets a free ride, and avoids having to spend energy on making sweet, nourishing tissues. It’s an evolutionary triumph of style over substance.


Discovered: An Amino-Acid Deficiency That Causes Neurological Problems


Our bodies are picky eaters when it comes to amino acids, and sometimes just a small screw-up can cause larger problems down the road. Scientists recently found an association between an amino-acid depleting mutation, and neurological problems in a small sample of humans. In mice with the same mutation, nutritional supplements reversed similar symptoms, offering the possibility of a treatment for the human disorder in the future. The results appeared in the journal Science.  The study came about as part of a collaboration between Yale, University of California San Diego, and the Broad Institute to investigate the genetics of autism and epilepsy. The researchers started by sequencing the coding regions of six patients with autism, intellectual disabilities and, in three cases, seizures. They found mutations in a gene that produces an enzyme called BCKD-kinase, which is involved in a cascade of signals that lead to the degradation of certain amino acids.

The mutated enzyme in all of these patients normally inactivates another enzyme which, in turn, breaks down branched-chain amino acids. When BCKD-kinase is mutated this way, the second enzyme goes into overdrive and breaks down the amino acids from food prematurely, before the body can use them. To investigate this mutation, the researchers tested mice in which both copies of BCKD-kinase were inactivated. These mice had tremors and epileptic seizures that went away when researchers supplemented their diets with the missing amino acids.

Could amino-acid supplements help people with this mutation? Researchers are hoping to find out by conducting a clinical trial, the study’s head, Joseph Gleeson, from University of California, San Diego, told Ewen Callaway of Nature News. It’s unknown how many people have the mutation and therefore how many people could actually be helped by a treatment to compensate for the mutation, but it’s an interesting finding nevertheless.


20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Deserts

One has been around for 40 million years, one is running into a wall, and one may soon power much of Europe.


1  Sure, our planet looks like a watery blue marble from space, but one-third of Earth’s land surface is partially or totally desert. 

The world’s largest desert is Antarctica. That’s right, an area doesn’t have to be hot to qualify—it just needs to lose more moisture than it gains.

There are parts of the Atacama Desert in Chile where no rain has ever been recorded. Scientists believe portions of the region have been in an extreme desert state for 40 million years—longer than any other place on Earth.


4  And yet more than 1 million people live in the Atacama today. Farmers extract enough water from aquifers and snowmelt streams to grow crops and raise llamas and alpacas.

5  If you get lost in the desert, you don’t have to urinate on your shirt and wear it on your head like Bear Grylls to avoid dying of thirst. You can suck water from the branches of some palms, such as buri and rattan.

6  Contrary to lore, cacti are not a sure thing. If you want a sip from a barrel cactus, you’ll need a machete to carve it open—and choosing the wrong species could give you headaches and diarrhea.

7  Then again, if you are lost in the desert, headaches and diarrhea might not be your biggest problem.

8  You’re better off with a prickly pear cactus. But wait until night so you don’t expend water sweating.

 The world record for crossing the Sahara by bicycle was set in 2011 by Reza Pakravan, 36, a market security analyst in London, who made the 1,084-mile journey in 13 days, 5 hours, 50 minutes, and 14 seconds. He started in Algeria, cycled south, then turned east through Niger and Chad to reach Sudan.

10  Pakravan’s guide hauled the 6,000 calories of food and 7 liters of water he consumed each day.

11  Next time maybe he’ll drive: The $1 billion, 2,900-mile Trans-Saharan highway will link Africa’s most populous city, Lagos, Nigeria, to Algeria and Tunisia.

12  Workers on the highway occasionally stumble across dehydrated corpses.

13  To build a stretch of road through the Mauritanian desert, engineers erected nylon curtains and planted drought-tolerant trees to hold back the dunes. Extreme temperature fluctuations killed the trees and buckled the road. A multilayered roadbed composed of seashells solved the buckling, but the shifting sand still, well, shifts.

14  About 46,000 square miles of arable land turn to desert every year due to climate change and practices such as forest clear-cutting. Desertification threatens the livelihoods of more 
than 1 billion people in 110 countries, the U.N. says.

15  About 1,000 square miles of Chinese land turns into desert every year, fueling deadly, globe-circling dust storms.

16  In northeastern China, a Green Great Wall of shrubs and trees now being planted may win back the edges of the Gobi Desert. The wall will eventually stretch 2,800 miles from outer Beijing through Inner Mongolia.

17  Combating desertification doesn’t require high tech. In Burkina Faso, one village increased crop yields 50 percent just by positioning stones to slow runoff and digging pits to collect rainwater.

18  German particle physicist Gerhard Knies calculated that in six hours, the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humans consume in a year. An 8,100-square-mile stretch of Saharan desert—an area the size of Wales—could power all of Europe.

19  That calculation inspired the 2009 formation of the Desertec Industrial Initiative, a project that aims to construct a network of solar and wind farms stretching across Africa and the Middle East. It would connect electricity to Europe via high-voltage DC cables.

20  Desertec would cost an estimated $500 billion, but by 2050 it could supply enough renewable, nonpolluting electricity to fill 15 percent of Europe’s demand.



Watch This: Super-Strong New Gel is Also Super-Stretchy

The gel doing an impersonation of a trampoline in the video above is a new synthetic material from Harvard engineers, a substance that stretches to more than 20 times its length and can withstand more force than human cartilage, the resilient tissue that cushions our joints.

This gel starts out as a powder of two different substances, whose molecules link among themselves when mixed with water. Its astounding ability to stretch without tearing comes from the two components’ different cross-linking styles. One component, seaweed extract alginate, forms cross-links using ionic bonds, in which atoms of opposite charges attract. The other component, contact lens ingredient polyacrylamide, forms cross-links using covalent bonds, in which atoms connect by sharing electrons. Ionic bonds are very flexible, while covalent bonds are very strong, and both have their roles to play: When the ball hits the gel, the alginate molecules separate, like two magnets forced apart, absorbing stress. But the gel holds together throughout the bounce thanks to the stronger covalent bonds of the polyacrylamide.

Previous exceptionally stretchy gels were one-time-use materials: they also involved two substances, but both cross-linked using covalent bonds, but one set always broke whenever the stuff was stretched. In contrast, this new gel can recover most of its strength after a period of rest, because the ionic bonds of the alginate reform, like magnets you’ve pulled apart that snap back together when you let them go.