Pen Friends Through the Years

It has been some years now since I used what we called a Fountain pen. All through my schooldays, from the time that we reached the class where we graduated from pencils to pens, the fountain pen was an essential part of our compass box. The pens had a number of accoutrements—ink bottles (think Quink!), plastic ink fillers, rags of cloth to mop up spills, and sometimes even extra nibs. The ritual of filling (and spilling) the ink was as much a part of the evening routine as packing the schoolbags. The fountain pen was an integral part of life, and being gifted a Parker pen or a Waterman pen by someone who came from abroad was a highlight of that life!

I was surprised to learn recently that until the late 1950s India did not manufacture pens; all pens were imported, as also was ink. It was only after Independence, due to the thrust by the government to encourage domestic production that Indian pen manufacturing companies were set up. By the mid-1960s there were 12 Indian manufacturers of which Ratnam and Sons, based in Rajamundry were the most famous. It is believed that the Ratnam pen was the first truly ‘swadeshi’ pen. The story goes that when Gandhi had just launched the Swadeshi movement, he met KV Ratnam in 1921, and advised him to make a product using solely Indian components. When Ratnam asked him what he should make Gandhi said that he could make anything, from a pin to a pen. And Ratnam chose the pen! After studying the intricacies of a fountain pen, Ratnam set about meeting Gandhi’s mandate to make a truly ‘Indian’ pen. After several years of experimenting with local materials and technology, he finally developed one in 1933 and sent it to Gandhiji. Gandhiji was not fully convinced. He sent one of his secretaries to the Ratnam factory to confirm that no imported element was used in the product. It was in 1935 that Gandhiji was satisfied, and he started using the Ratnam pen, which he continued to do till his death in 1948.

For years ink-stained fingertips were the sign of a prolific writer, or a leaky pen! It was to address the issue of leaking ink that in other parts of the world, the path to the invention of what came to be called the ballpoint pen were already underway. The international history of the transition from the fountain pen to the ball pen is interesting.

The first patent for this kind of pen was obtained by an American lawyer John J Loud in 1888. Loud wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather, as well as paper. He experimented with, and developed a pen with a revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket—literally a pen with a ball point. Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed. But inventors continued to experiment with variations on the ball point.

One of these was a Hungarian-Argentinian journalist named László Biro who was frustrated with the leaky pens that he had to use in large numbers. László had realised that the ink used in fountain pens was too slow to dry; what was needed was something more like the quick-drying ink used on newspapers. In his quest for a more suitable ink he turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. After a number of trials, the brothers filed a patent, in 1943, for the ballpoint pen. Their pen was originally called a ‘Birome’ but became popularly known as a biro (an example of an eponym!) The pen became an instant hit. The Biro brothers sold their patent to Bic. And Bic pens are known all over the world even today. The ballpoint pen revolutionized the act of writing. Where the fountain pen needed a fixed place for writing where the accompaniments like the inkpot could be kept, the ballpoint pen led to great mobility and flexibility; it could be carried and used anywhere and anytime..

By the time I graduated from school to college, the trend in India had also moved from fountain pens to what we then called ballpoint pens, that later became the ubiquitous ball pens. At the time relatives coming from abroad used to bring Bic pens as gifts, although Milton Reynolds an American entrepreneur had introduced ballpoint pens in India in 1947. While Rajamundari was the cradle of the indigenous fountain pen, it was in Rajkot in Gujarat that the first Indian ballpoint inks and pens were manufactured. It was only in 1962 that Dhirajlal Joshi, after a lot of struggle, got approval to make ballpoint pen ink in India. There were hiccups in terms of quality of ink, nibs etc. but by the 1970s these had been smoothened and many pen manufacturing partnerships were set up, including with countries like Japan and Germany.

From Ratnam pen to Space pen–I value them all!

In the last two decades the market has been flooded with a great variety of pens, transitioning from pens with refills, to use-and-throw gel pens. There is even a Space Pen that is able to write in zero gravity and works upside down, under water, over grease and in extreme temperatures. Today fountain pens have become collector’s items or status symbols. Ink fillers, ink bottles and ink stained rags may soon be seen only in museums. Even refills for ball point pens are not easily available at my local stationary shop, as I painfully steel myself to throw away gel pens when they run out. These are perhaps manifestations of a time, which is almost upon us, when pens themselves, in any form, become redundant in an age of digital technology.

I have, all my life, loved writing by hand, and pens have been an integral part of that process of writing; each transition in the type of pen that I have used, marking also a different phase in my life. Pens gifted with love, pens picked up as souvenirs, pens handed out at meetings and conferences, and pens chosen and bought from stationary shops, and more…I have kept them all. These are my valued pen friends even today.  

–Mamata

Low-tech Barriers to Tourism

Some months ago, I wrote a piece called High-tech Barriers to Heritage, describing how we had to have smartphones to buy tickets to get into a monument.

But my trip last week to Mysuru as a tourist reminded me that there were low-tech barriers aplenty too in our country.

To begin with, both in the Mysuru Palace (about half of which is closed to visitors due to renovation), and in the Jaganmohan Palace Art Gallery, it is necessary for visitors to take off footwear.  The reason is that in the Palace, there are sacred shaligrams which are worshipped. But the shaligrams are behind thick silver doors, and anyway not in the view of, or within shoe-shod feet of visitors. In the Jaganmohan Palace, the reason is that there is a large Ganesha idol as part of the exhibits. It would not be too difficult to move the beautiful idol to a secluded room so that visitors interested in seeing it could take off their shoes just outside that room. Both of these are largish museums and are spread over various floors. Tourists are on the road all day. It is neither comfortable, nor hygienic to go around with dirty feet. If footwear must not enter, then can cloth covers for feet be provided, which can be collected back at the exit, washed, sanitized and re-used? Or any other solution? Raghu who hates walking barefoot, and is also seriously diabetic and hence paranoid about getting his feet hurt, sat out both the visits while the rest of us went in. Sad, because he would have enjoyed seeing the exhibits, including the large collection of Ravi Varmas at the Jaganmohan Palace.

The visit to Brindavan Gardens was traumatic in a different way. We went in fairly late and were eager to catch a glimpse of the gardens before dark. We saw an electric buggy just as we entered, but the decrepit vehicle had just gathered its full load and took off for its round. We looked around for an Information Desk to check when the next buggy trip was scheduled. But there wasn’t a desk or kiosk. Nor even a schedule of buggy departures. We asked around in the shops which cluster and mess up the entrance, but no two answers coincided. We decided to have a coffee and wait for the next ride. We ordered the coffees, but didn’t get them because the electricity went off in between. We looked for loos, but as there was no Information Desk or signage, it took us quite some wandering around before we found them. At the end of 45 minutes, there was no sign of a buggy, it was quite dark, and we decided to leave.

The next day was a Tuesday. We wanted to visit the Rail Museum. But when we reached there, it was closed. So we decided to visit the Zoo, which is counted among the best in the country. But Tuesday was off for this site too!

Not that the Mysuru trip was a total disaster. The city itself is beautiful, green and stately, and driving around was a pleasure. We (some of us) did see the Palace and the Museum. We savoured the crispest dosas, the fluffiest idlies, the most flavourful of sambhars, the tangiest of chutneys—all in clean, modest, reasonably priced places.

And the highlight of the trip: the illuminations at the Palace in the evening. Lit up by 99,000 bulbs, it was a scene out of a fairytale or a dream. Apparently the Palace is lit up on Sundays and public holidays. We might have missed if we had not been told about by our Palace tour guide, for there were no signboards informing us that this was one of the evenings when the lighting was on.

It is not news that India is home to rich treasures. Indians now have the means, the time and desire to travel and see them. Can we not make life just a little easier for our tourists? Can we not treat them with respect and dignity? Can we not make the travel experience easy, pleasant, memorable, and an opportunity for learning?

To begin with, can we take a few simple steps?

  • Have information desks not only at the sites, but also prominent places in tourist cities, with helpful people who really want tourists to see and enjoy the sights?
  • Have basic informational and directional signs, as well as imaginatively conceived informational signage?
  • Not force people to trail through miles of corridor barefoot, inviting germs. If we are particular about keeping out shoes, can we come out with dignified alternatives?
  • Have some system of universally-accepted holidays for public places? After my experience, I did a bit of Google research and this is what I found:
FACILITYOFF-DAY
Delhi ZooFriday
Hyderabad ZooMonday
Mysuru ZooTuesday
Chennai ZooTuesday
National Museum, DelhiMonday
Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, MumbaiWednesday
Kelkar Museum, PuneNo off-day
National Gallery of Modern Art, DelhiMonday
Visveswaraya Science Museum, BangaloreNo off-day
Science City, KolkattaNo off-day
National Science Centre, DelhiSaturday and Sunday

               Surely there is a case for rationalization!

Let’s celebrate Amazing India! But powers-that-be, could you just make it a little more convenient for the public?

–Meena

Eponyms: When People Become Things

As I wrote last week the evolution of language involves multiple inputs and processes. ‘Clipped’ words often overtake their original abbreviations to take on their own identities. At times, the process goes the other way and words become elongated by being ‘topped’ and ‘tailed’ by other words to gain new meaning and identity.

Place names become words. So when you laugh at a ‘limerick’, drive a ‘limousine’, have a pet ‘alsatian’ or ‘labrador’, play ‘badminton’ or ‘rugby’ or run a ‘marathon’, you are in fact invoking the name of a place that has become synonymous with the object or activity.

Place names may also become easily identifiable product names; as in drinks—Martini, Cognac, Bourbon; or food as in Hamburgers and Frankfurters. 

It is not just names of places but also names of people that have become words in their own right. Today when we use the words, we immediately visualize the object, without having the faintest idea that there was a person that originally gave his or her  name to the thing.

For example the cardigan was named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British Army major general who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. The woollen garment is modelled after the close-fitting knitted wool waistcoat that British officers supposedly wore during the war. The macintosh (or the Englishman’s ubiquitous waterproof coat) was named for Charles Macintosh who invented the waterproofing process that was used in the material for these raincoats. The sandwich is named for an 18th century English aristocrat, the 4th Earl of Sandwich who, as the story goes, ordered his valet to bring him a piece of meat tucked between two slices of bread, so that he would not have to get up from the gambling table for a formal meal.

Perhaps the more commonly known eponyms are the botanical names of plants, many being named after their discoverers. An interesting double link is to be found in the word Nicotine which is named after the tobacco plant Nicotiana tabacum. The botanical name of the plant is derived from the name of the French ambassador Jean Nicot de Villemain, who when visiting Portugal, sent tobacco and seeds to Paris in 1560, presented it to the French King, as something that had medicinal value and protected against illness.

We may not be aware that many other terms in science and technology also reflect the names of their inventors. .

The diesel that powers our vehicles and machines is named after its German inventor-engineer Rudolph Diesel. The ampere is named for French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836), who studied electromagnetism and laid the foundation of electrodynamics. Celsius is named after Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius who first proposed the centigrade scale in 1742, and Fahrenheit is named for the physicist Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit. The ohm (symbol: Ω) is the SI derived unit of electrical resistance, is named after its discoverer German physicist Georg Ohm. And the more familiar term watt, a unit of electrical power, is named after the Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt.

Similarly in medicine a condition originally named after the doctor who first described it, becomes over time, a noun for the condition. Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr Alois Alzheimer a German psychiatrist and neurologist who first analysed the brain of a woman who had an unusual mental condition and studied the changes in the brain that caused the issues. Similarly Parkinson’s disease is named after Dr James Parkinson who described the condition in 1817. Today it is commonplace to describe a patient suffering from these diseases as simply having Alzheimers or Parkinsons.

All these are examples of eponyms. An eponym is a person, place, or thing after whom or which someone or something is, or is believed to be, named.

There is one other form of eponym. These are words that were initially the name of a particular brand but now are used to reference entire categories of things. One of the most popular eponyms is a band-aid. While band-aid is the name of the brand that makes adhesive bandages, most people use the term to refer to any adhesive bandage, regardless of who makes it. In India at one time Cadbury was the eponym for any chocolate!

And then there is the world of high fashion where people wear Dior, spray Chanel, carry Prada, and travel with Louis Vuitton! Bata is eponymous in India with sturdy, reasonably priced footwear, and generally thought of as a truly India brand. It is interesting that, in fact, the brand was named after Tomas Bat’a who along with his brothers started a family owned business in Czechoslovakia in 1894 to produce sturdy and affordable shoes.. However, I have not met anyone who proudly says “I am the proud owner of a Bata!”

–Mamata

Valuing Toilets

As the World Toilet Day site says: ‘Life without a toilet is dirty, dangerous and undignified. Public health depends on toilets. Toilets also drive improvements in gender equality, education, economics and the environment. There will be no sustainable future without toilets.’

3.6 billion people across the world still lack access to safe sanitation.

World Toilet Day is observed on 19 Nov every year as a way to remind ourselves of this situation. This year, the theme as declared by the UN is Valuing Toilets. World Toilet Day is an occasion to remind ourselves of a goal the world is committed to, viz, Sustainable Development Goal  6, which is about Clean Water and Sanitation. Specifically under this Goal, the sub-goals related to sanitation are:

6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

6.A By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

6.B Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

India has made some progress, but there is still a long way to go. Creating infrastructure is the easier part. Bringing about behaviour change to get people to use toilets; to ensure water supply; to ensure maintenance and functionality—these are the bigger challenges that we still have to tackle.

This is where innovations are needed. And are happening. A very interesting publication ‘ 10 Innovative Approaches To Improve The Urban Wa-S-H Sector In India’ brought out by the  USAID and the National Institute of Urban Affairs documents some of these. Here are some of the most interesting:

Creation Of A Urine Bank and Collection by A Special Vehicle and Its Utilization as Fertilizer: Society for Community Organization and People’s Education (SCOPE), a Trichy based NGO, has tried this experiment in Musiri, Tamilnadu. Basically, they separated urine and faeces at the household/institution level through the use of ECOSAN toilets. About 400 litres of urine, which is good fertilizer, were collected with the help of a special van, suitably treated, diluted and put into use in agriculture. The application increased yields and was found to be cost-effective.

Waterless Urinals to Conserve Fresh Water, Save Energy and Reduce Maintenance Costs: This IIT-Delhi incubated innovation is for urinals in public spaces. It avoids the use of water for flushing. This is a considerable amount of water saved, for each flush uses from 4 to as much as 15 litres of water. The odour control mechanism like the sealant liquid, membrane trap and biological blocks are used to substitute for flushing.

I have personally had some experience of this innovation, having installed it in one of the public toilets we built and maintained in Hyderabad, and it worked pretty well.

Vandal Proof, Easy to Maintain and Durable Toilets: Anyone, like me, who has experience of managing public toilets, knows that vandalism, breakage, and irresponsible usage of the facilities are an inevitable and unpleasant part of a difficult job. This is one reason why the recurring costs of running such toilets is high. GARV toilets, an innovation tried in Faridabad, use stainless steel for the superstructure of the toilet pan and wash basin, rather than the less durable china clay or porcelain. This not only increases the life of various utilities in, but also reduces maintenance cost and water needed for cleaning. This innovation was apparently born out of the desire of a manufacturer who wanted to use the steel lying around in his factory. If you think through it, it is the approach used by the Indian Railways for maybe over a century now, and if it can work in our trains, it can work anywhere!


The publication is over five years old, and the innovations discussed go back even a decade. Some, like waterless urinals, have found wide application. Hopefully, the others have been also diffused far and wide, picked up and improved further.

The need to scale up and innovate in the sanitation sector is urgent. There is no better way to put it than to sum it up than in Gandhiji’s words: ‘A lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room ‘.

–Meena

Stories: The Magic Wand

This week saw children making the headlines. November 14 is celebrated as Children’s Day in India, to mark the birthday of India’s first Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru. The day is marked by events that engage children in activities dear to them—of which playing and stories remain all-time favourites.

This year the Gujarat government has recognised the immense value of stories for children and has declared that 15 November will be celebrated as Children’s Stories Day or Balvarta Din.

15 November marks the birth anniversary of Gijubhai Badheka, one of Gujarat’s best known children’s storytellers and educationists, who had been called the Brahma of Children’s Literature. In Gujarat his name is synonymous with a rich treasure of stories for children. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents.

Born in 1885 Gijubhai started his professional life as a Pleader in a district court. In the early 1920s he got deeply involved in the upbringing of his own son. Under the influence of the thinking of Madam Montessori he started experiments in child-centred education, when he joined the Dakshinamurti educational institutions in Bhavnagar. His vision and passion for experimenting in his field led to the setting up of the Dakshinamurti Balmandir—a pre-primary school in 1920. It is in the early says of his interactions with the children here that he realised the importance of stories for children as a means of learning. He started collecting stories for children, writing them, and telling them. He believed that stories were the magic wand that transformed children in many ways.

There was, at that time, not much literature in Gujarati which was specifically written for children. It was Gijubhai who established the child as an individual, and created a special space, and resources for the child, in literature.

As he wrote in his seminal work in Gujarati, on the art and craft of stories titled Vaarta nu Shastra: By calling a story a children’s story does not make it one. Children’s stories are those that children get a special type of enjoyment from. Children like short and simple stories. Reflections of what happens around them, behaviour of birds and animals, small rhymes that can be easily remembered and repeated—these are the characteristics of children’s stories.

But at the time there were no stories available that would fit this bill. Gijubhai delved   into the treasure chest of folk literature. He asked all the teachers and teacher trainees of Dakshinamurti to start collecting folk stories that were still being told in homes, in villages, and in fields, and pick those that would be suitable for children.

As he wrote in Vaarta nu Shastra “If you seek folk literature you will have to leave the city and go to the villages, and from villages, move into the forests and fields. When the toothless grandmother finishes her chores, and rubbing tobacco on her gums, starts to tell stories to the gaggle of children, there springs the magic of folk tales. You will find folk literature in every village chaupal; children will be spreading it freely from galli to galli, and grandmothers will be distributing the prasad in their homes.

Gijubhai and his colleagues went out as seekers of stories and returned with a rich repertoire of tales, songs, rhymes, riddles and sayings. He then retold these for children with his characteristic short sentences, word play, rhyme and dialogues.

And so every morning he told the children a story. In the afternoon the children would enact the stories. Soon they became so adept that they did not need to memorise the words; the rhymes flowed naturally and if they forgot in between, they made up the words as they went along. As he wrote: If you collect a group of children and tell them a story, they will tell you ten more.

Gijubhai’s search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. He explored and discovered gems in the literature of different countries, and found incredible variety, as well as similarities. He localised and transformed these stories so that they were steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and over time they became not only Gujarati but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s stories’.

Gijubhai’s stories are simply told tales with a mixture of prose and rhyme. There is a lot of dialogue and reiteration. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling in  which listeners can also join in. Many stories follow a sequence of cause and effect, leading to a chain reaction which is reinforced in verse. Children love the repetitive rhymes. Several stories have improbable characters and plots. Children love the absurd, fanciful and nonsensical.

Gijubhai told delightful tales of familiar animals and birds. In many, the animals talk and act in human ways while also reflecting each animals typical characteristics. The stories reflect a deep symbiotic relationship between animals and people with the two often trying to outwit each other. With equal panache Gijubhai told stories of common folk with common trades (tailor, potter, barber, shopkeeper), as well as kings, queens and princesses.  The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, proving physical or mental prowess. Many stories follow the classic fairy tale style, opening with ‘once upon a time’ and ending with ‘happily ever after’. They capture the rustic flavour and pace of the days when travel meant walking from one village to another, and long-distance meant a bullock cart journey; and many encounters and adventures happened en route.

Several generations and a hundred years later, children today may not relate as closely to the settings and the pace of the narrative, and yet, the quirks and foibles of the characters; the silly and the absurd, the funny and the fantastic still touch a cord in the child, and indeed in the child in every one of us.

The initiative to celebrate Gijubhai and his stories by designating a Children’s Stories Day is a welcome one. In a time when children are so hooked into the digital world, perhaps even adults need to be reminded of the simple joys of storytelling. In the words of Gijubhai:

To My Fellow Storytellers

Here are the stories. Tell these to your children. They will listen with ardour and joy, over and over again. Remember, tell these stories beautifully; tell them as stories should be told—tell them with involvement. Read them out if you like. Choose a story that will suit your children’s age and interest.

Don’t tell the stories to bestow knowledge; don’t tell the stories as an objective narrator. Immerse yourself in the stories and take your children with you into the total experience.

You will discover that stories are a magic wand. If you want to build a bond with your children, start with stories.

–Mamata

Winning Words

Language is always evolving. While some words have a history that can be traced back over centuries, new terms and new uses for terms also continue to emerge, and over time find their place in dictionaries. Much of the new vocabulary in 21st century English reflects major social changes and events that have taken place in the real world. New editions of dictionaries have included expressions such as social media, congestion charge, designer baby, flash mob, toxic debt, WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and wardrobe malfunction.

The major English language dictionaries have an elaborate process of keeping track of new words and their usage, and based on the studies and statistics, announce the winning word or words of the year.

This is the time of the year when Words of the Year are declared by the leading dictionaries. This is the outcome of a process that reviews the ‘usage evidence’ of certain words during the year. The selection of the word/words reflect, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the preceding year, while also having “potential as a term of lasting cultural significance.”

It was thus no surprise that the words of the year 2020 were those that dominated the lives and pre-occupations of people around the world. These included Pandemic, Quarantine and Lockdown. These words moved beyond the English language and became part of a universal vocabulary.

A natural progression from these led to the word that has been declared as the Word of the Year 2021 by the Oxford English Dictionary. The winning word is Vax.

The word first appeared as a noun in the 1980s to mean either vaccine or vaccination. But it in this year, that the small but pithy word has been used in so many ways: to denote status—‘vaxed’ ‘double vaxed’ or not ‘vaxed’; attitude—‘vaxers’ vs ‘anti vaxers’, and events—vaxathons, and vaxxies (vaccination selfies!)

In keeping with the trend of abbreviations which pack a punch of meaning, the Merrian Webster dictionary has released its list of new words added to the dictionary in 2021 that reflects the use of language in the age of online communication. Among the words in this category are:

TBH: an abbreviation for “to be honest.” 

Amirite: slang used in writing for “am I right” to represent or imitate the use of this phrase as a tag question in informal speech. An example: “English spelling is consistently inconsistent, amirite?”

FTW: an abbreviation for “for the win” used especially to express approval or support. In social media, FTW is often used to acknowledge a clever or funny response to a question or meme.

And of course these words are the staple of the vocabulary of  the Digital Nomads—a term used to describe persons who perform their occupation entirely over the Internet while traveling; especially if such a person has no permanent fixed home address.

The acceptance of abbreviations as official words that find their place in dictionaries is not a new trend in the English language. In the late 1600s it was linguistically fashionable to shorten words. For example people said ‘pos’ or ‘pozz’ for positive, meaning ‘that’s certain’ or ‘incog’ for incognito in casual speech. Words which were reduced in size in this way were called ‘clippings’. Common examples of words where the ends were ‘clipped’ were ad, doc and prof. Among the words where the beginning was clipped were phone and burger; and words where both the beginning and the end were clipped included flu and fridge. What started as informal usage became the acceptable use, and the full forms were almost forgotten over time; think of fax, memo, exam, vet, pub and bus! And not to forget the Bots whose mechanical messages have all but replaced human voices.

Perhaps the ‘clipped’ word that has dominated the past few decades as much as the word ‘vax’ may do in this decade is ‘app’.

The idea of an ‘application’, a computer function designed to meet specific user requirement had been around since the 1960s. But it was in 1985 that a writer in a trade magazine used the abbreviation ‘apps’ to denote ‘for applications’. The short form immediately caught on. It was ‘phonetically appealing, a short, perky syllable, that seemed to suit the exciting quick fire developments in digital communication of the time.’

Following this came the idea of a ‘killer app’—a function which in the dreams of the multimedia industry, would be so appealing that people would not be able to do without it.

I am not sure if ‘app’ was ever voted the word of the year, but this is one word that has surpassed the boundaries of the English language; it continues to be on everyone’s lips, and fingertips! 

–Mamata

A Shout-out for the Environment: NEAC

India has always been a little ahead of the curve in its thinking about environmental issues. Four decades ago, it recognized that raising public awareness and educating key target groups as well the future generations on environmental issues, were key to a sustainable future. It designated a Centre of Excellence in this area way back in 1985–viz the Centre for Environment Education.

In 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (as it was then) launched another unique initiative called the National Environmental Awareness Campaign (NEAC). The unique feature of this was that it called upon various types of organizations to plan their own Environmental Awareness programmes for their own local communities or other target groups, and implement them with the support of small grants from the Ministry.

Every year, NEAC started on Nov. 19th. Nov 19 to Dec 18 was marked as Environment Month in the old days in India—Nov 19 being Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s birthday, and she certainly had a big role in setting the environmental agenda for the country, and was a voice for developing countries on these issues at global forums.

NEAC was unique that it was conceived as a pan-national programme, at a time when there were not very many such. Even in the first year of its launch, it already touched almost every state and union territory. And it was unique in its proactive involvement of a variety of agencies as implementers. NGOs, educational institutions, professional associations, scientific bodies, community-based organizations—all were welcome to put in proposals, which were scrutinized and passed. There was a degree of trust which is not often seen.

And there were few constraints on media and methods for outreach—from street plays, to seminars to drawing competitions to films to essay-writing to teacher training to door-to-door campaigns to wall-painting to bringing out booklets and posters to….. The NEAC probably saw a flowering of outreach methods which was unique. And it reached every nook and corner of the country—from women in remote forest villages, to students in the Andamans; from famers in Assam to small industries in Gujarat.

NEAC
NEAC Campaign. CUTS.

The numbers were mind-boggling. From the involvement of 120 NGOs in the first year, it went to 9784 implementing agencies in 2006-2007. A total of 13,336 campaigns are reported to have been conducted in 2014-15. And each of these reached hundreds of people.

And the administrative backbone also evolved with the growing numbers. To begin with, there was one central Committee set up by the Ministry to scrutinize and pass the proposals. Slowly, the concept of Regional Resource Agencies (RRA) took root—reputed NGOs or academic institutions which were well networked in specific areas were given the responsibility to set up their own expert-committees and pass the proposals. Within 10 years of the programme starting, there were 27 such RRAs, making for very decentralized operations.

The amount of money involved was not high. Each implementing NGO got about Rs. 30,000 to implement the programme. But the energy, creativity and outreach it gave rise to were truly remarkable.

The NEAC has been more or less been given up in the last few years. Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave in a written reply to Parliament said that the NEAC could not be conducted during 2015-16 and 2016-17 due to lack of funds.

Nov 19 is almost here. It does not seem that there is much action on this front this year either.

There were a lot of problems with NEAC, with the key ones being: Were the funds being utilized properly? Did the kind of awareness programmes being done make a difference?

Many evaluations of NEAC were done, the latest one being in around 2017. But the report of the evaluation is not exactly locatable. So has NEAC been dropped due to lack of funds? Because it was not making a difference? Because something else has taken its place? It is not clear.

The one thing that is clear is that with environmental crises looming, the need for environmental awareness and education have never been greater. OK, if the NEAC was not effective, let’s revamp it. Surely the evaluation report should tell us how to do it. But let’s not forget that building public opinion is critical to saving the world!

–Meena




COP Out?

The acronym COP has been hitting us in the face for the last few weeks. We know that there is a meeting happening at Glasgow, and that Climate Change is being discussed. And that the decisions made or not made will affect the future of the Planet and of humankind.

COP 26

But what is COP? COP stands for Conference of Parties, i.e., all the nations which have signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). This is the foundational treaty on climate change, and came into being at the landmark Rio Convention in 1992. A ‘Framework Convention’ is one wherein parties acknowledge that there is a problem, and commit, more or less in principle, to work together to solve it. However, there are no specific obligations laid out in these. The UNFCC is ‘subject to ratification, acceptance, approval or accession by States and by regional economic integration organizations’. 

Over time, as more information, knowledge and science come in, and consensus grows, a Framework is fleshed out, and specific Protocols and Agreements with clear obligations come in. From UNFCC for instance, we have the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, laying down specific obligations on the parties. Each of these has to be signed and ratified separately—and this is where the crux of it is. Easy enough to sign statements of intent, but countries baulk at signing on to specific commitments.

The UNFCC opened up for ratification at the Rio Conference on 4th June 1992. It came into force on 21st March 1994, after the 50th instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession had been deposited. India was one of the early movers, signing the Convention on June 10, 1992, and ratified it in Nov 1993.

As of now, there are there are 197 Parties (196 States and 1 regional economic integration organization). And these are the ‘parties’ referred to in COP. The COP is the highest decision-making body of the Convention and all States that are Parties to the Convention are represented here.

The COP meets every year, unless the parties agree otherwise. The first meeting was held at Bonn in 1995, the year after the Convention came into force. The COP presidency rotates among the five UN regions. COP 8 was held in New Delhi in 2002.

Apart from the Parties, COPs are attended by Observer States. Beyond this, there are two more categories of participants. The Press and Media are one category of participants. The last category is of observer organizations. These ‘observer organizations’ include the United Nations System and its Specialized Agencies; intergovernmental organizations; and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The number of people registered for COP 26 at Glasgow was close to 40,000, approximately double the numbers from COP 25 held in 2019. But there have been allegations that many delegates and participants from developing countries could not make it because COVID-related travel restrictions for their countries were lifted too late, thereby restricting the voices of the Global South.

This is not the only angle from which COP 26 has been criticized. More than half way through the event, many are concerned with the progress made. Greta Thunberg feels that it has been a “two-week long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”.

What can we do but hope? And take actions at the personal level, while the powers talk and discuss and negotiate.

Till another COP next year, at a yet-to-be announced venue.

–Meena

Spark a Match, Light a Lamp

A recent news item caught my eye. It said that the price of a matchbox is to go up after 14 years. And what is the price hike? A whole rupee more—from Rs 1/- to Rs 2/-! The last time the price was revised was in 2007 when the rate went up from 50 paise for a matchbox to Rs1/-. In a time when prices of foodstuff and fuel are in the ‘hundreds’ range, and spiralling every day, it is unbelievable that there is even an item in the market that costs as little as Rs 2/-

Yes, this is the ubiquitous, but not really noticed, little box that we need so many times a day, for so many uses—a matchbox.

The early history of the matchbox, as we know it, in India is not well documented. It appears that one of the early indigenous match manufacturers in India was the Gujarat Islam Match Factory founded in 1895 in Ahmedabad. However there was no commercially successful manufacture of matches in the country till 1921. In fact before World War 1 most of India’s matches were imported, mainly from Sweden, Austria and Japan. In the early 1900s, about half of the total imports of matches came from Japan. After World War I there was a struggle for supremacy in the Indian matchbox market between the Japanese and the Swedish who were represented by the Swedish Match Company

Around the same period some Japanese immigrants settled in Calcutta and began manufacturing matches. The locals also picked up the skills and small match factories came up in and around Calcutta. Following World War I, many manufacturers migrated to the state of Tamil Nadu where the climate was dry, labour was cheap, and raw materials were easily available. Starting as small family-based units, match-making continued as a mainly small-scale cottage industry, but over time, expanded into a booming industry. Today, the Match Kings of South India as they are called, supply the bulk of the country’s matchbox needs, employing around four lakh people, directly or indirectly, of which 90% are women. Sivakasi of the fireworks manufacturing fame is also the home of match production. Fourteen raw materials are needed to make matchsticks and matchboxes, including red phosphorus, potassium chlorate, and sulphur as well as wax, paper board, and splints.

In 1950 a matchbox cost 5 Paise, in 1980 it went up to 25 paise, in 1994 to 50 paise, and in 2008 to Rs 1/-. Considering that the cost of all the raw materials has increased manifold, the matchbox seems to have defied all laws of inflation!

While the economics of the industry is about numbers, the labels of the matchboxes reveal fascinating facets of history and culture. These are the aspects that fascinate matchbox collectors or phillumenists as they are called. It is from their collections that that many interesting stories emerge.

Some early matchbox labels which bore the sign Made in Sweden had pictures of Mughal emperors on the labels. It is believed that the royal family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat commissioned a special matchbox for their personal use during British rule.

During the freedom movement Swadeshi matchboxes appeared in the market, carrying slogans (in different Indian languages) extolling boycott of foreign goods and promoting swadeshi. These were often confiscated by the British. India’s independence was celebrated with matchbox labels carrying the tricolour, and pictures of people who had played a role in the struggle for independence. In the 1960s, popular matchbox labels included pictures of ‘matinee idols’ of the day—popular film stars, as well as a number of sports superstars. Matchbox labels have also carried pictures of brands like Pepsi, Fanta, Thums Up, Pan Parag, Frooti, Parle, Nescafe, Vat 69, Kitkat, Complan, Amul, Lux, as well as of TVs, cameras and computers (most likely not with permission from the companies, but definitely free publicity for them!) to name a few.

A souvenir of my phillumeny phase

Phillumeny or the hobby of collecting different match-related items: matchboxes, matchbox labels, matchbooks, match covers, etc. has its own band of aficionados, perhaps not as large as stamp or coin collectors. I went through a brief period of phillumeny in my college days. In the days when smoking in public places was not taboo, restaurants and hotels had interesting matchbooks, and for us these were great souvenirs of places visited, and memorable events!

Economics and commerce, history and culture–the matchbox has its little niche in many subjects. But perhaps the most innovative use of the matchbox has been in the teaching of basic science. In the words of Arvind Gupta one of India’s pioneering simple science educators who has used the matchbox in an amazing number of ways:  In the seventies a pioneering science programme in India attempted to revitalize the learning of science in village schools which had no science labs. The shift was from the chalk-and-talk method to hands-on, on making things with simple humble material available in the village. The hunt was on for low-cost, locally available very affordable things to do science.

The matchbox surprisingly emerged as a STAR. Being mass produced in a factory the matchbox confirmed to certain standard dimensions. The length of the matchbox is very close to 5-cm (2- inches) – a very good estimate of length. You could put six matchboxes back-to-back to make 30-cm (1-foot). The weight of the new matchbox was very close to 10-gms. Ten new matchsticks (not burnt) weight about 1-gm and the weight of a single matchstick is very close to 0.1-gm! Paint the matchbox drawer with some oil to make it water proof. Fill it with water and the drawer holds roughly 20-ml of water. Pour out 5 drawers of water in a bottle to make 100-ml. The humble matchbox becomes a good measure for volume. So, using a universally available matchbox, children could get a good feel of length, weight and volume – all very basic entities of any science curriculum!

How many things can you fit in a matchbox? 20…. 30…. 100? This exercise was given to children many years back. One child actually managed to pack in a whopping 250 things inside a matchbox! Just look around for small minute things – a mustard seed, hair, thread, cumin, moong dal etc. While doing this project children searched for the smallest artifacts in their vicinity and they came up with surprises which are difficult to imagine! They really had a good peep in the world of small things! Science is all about keeping our eyes open and looking at similarities, forms, patterns in the world around us. Science in short, is the discovery of order.

Source:  https://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/DH-AG-MATCHBOX.pdf

As our markets and homes get flooded with numerous new gadgets and geegaws, we tend to forget some of the simplest but most versatile household items. As we celebrate the festival of lights let us give thanks for the small things that make our life better and easier. Let us spark a match and light a lamp.

Happy Diwali!

–Mamata

Cantonments: Serene Oases

I recently came across a fascinating 2017 publication titled ‘Cantonments: A Transition from Heritage to Modernity’. This coffee table book has been brought out by the Director General of Defence Estates, which has ‘the task of Cantonment Administration and Land Management of all the defence land in the country’.

The word cantonment is derived from the French word canton, which means corner or district. Originally, it referred to temporary arrangements made for armies to stay during campaigns or for the winter. However, with colonization, the colonial powers had to set up more permanent military stations, and in India and other parts of South Asia, such permanent military stations came to be referred to as cantonments. In the US too, a cantonment is essentially ‘a permanent residential section (ie., barracks) of a fort or other military installation’. In India, the very first cantonment was set up by the British at Barrackpore about 250 years ago (though Danapur in Bihar also makes a claim to be the first!), and they grew in numbers in the 18th century.

Coffee table book on Indian Cantonments
A Coffee table book on Indian Cantonments

There are 62 cantonments in India, classified into four categories, depending on their size and population. The total cantonment land in the country totals to over 2 lakh acres. Cantonments are mixed-use areas, with both military and civil populations, unlike Military Stations which are exclusively inhabited by the Armed Forces. Cantonments are governed by the Cantonments Act, 2006, and the ultimate decision-making body is the Cantonment Board, which has equal representation of elected and nominated/ex-officio members.

Coming back to the book I started the piece with, it is a fascinating display of visuals from cantonments, and a great showcase of the diversity that cantonments are home to.

I learnt a lot of things I was not aware of. For instance, that the site of the Kumbh Mela, the Sangam, is within the Fort Cantonment of Allahabad. During the Kumbhs, the state government takes over the management of the area. Or that the Agra Fort, to which all of us troop, to get a glimpse of the Taj as Shah Jehan did a few centuries ago, is within a cantonment. Or that the Allahabad Cantonment houses an Ashokan pillar with edicts. This pillar is unique in that apart from Ashoka’s inscriptions, it contains later inscriptions attributed to the Gupta emperor, Samudragupta of the 4th century (an early case of state-sponsored graffiti?). Forts at Ahmednagar, Belgaum, Cannanore etc., are also part of cantonments.

Dr. Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, was born in Mhow Cantonment—his father Ramji Maloji Sakpal held the rank of Subedar in the British army. Mhow is in fact today officially called Dr. Ambedkar Nagar. The Cantonment houses the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Smarak, a marble structure which has an exhibition on the life of the leader.

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore spent considerable time at the Almora Cantonment Board and is said to have written a number of books, including parts of the Gitanjali, during his sojourn here. The building where he stayed is now called Tagore House.

Cantonments house excellent buildings—the Flag Staff House built in 1828 on the banks of the Hooghly is now the Barrackpore home of the Governor of Bengal. The Rashtrapathi Nilayam at Secunderabad is part of a cantonment.

Expectedly, many war memorials are also housed in various cantonments, including the Madras War Cemetery, the Kirkee War Cemetery, Delhi War Cemetery, etc.

These areas also have a number of old and revered places of worship, from churches to temples to masjids.

And of course these are biodiversity havens—especially the ones up in the hill reaches of Shillong, Ranikhet, Landsdowne etc. Migratory birds visit the Danapur Cantonment, and thousands of open-billed white storks breed here.

We have all seen/passed through/visited/lived in cantonments, and have to admit they feel like serene, clean, green, well-ordered oases.  But cantonments are not without their controversies. Not only are they criticized as Raj-era relics perpetuating colonial mindsets, but also, there have been several tussles between civilians and the Forces establishment—whether public access to roads that run through these areas, or the issues of civilians who live within them—they cannot for instance, access home loans or government housing schemes.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has been rather scathing with regard to the management of lands under Defence Control. The Army itself at some stage has wondered if it can afford the money spent on the upkeep of these areas. In a major development, at the start of 2021, the PMO has asked for views on the abolition of all cantonments.

So it seems there is some kind of a push at the top levels to do away with them. But one wonders—is that throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Would it not be better to re-conceive them to give a fair say to all stakeholders, and make the management more inclusive and responsive? And learn lessons from them on how to run our urban settlements well?

–Meena