Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Monday, January 09, 2017

One Last Look at 2016

(This was published in Deccan Herald)

As we welcome a new year, let’s look back on the year gone by. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, with sensations, surprises and shrill reactions being the norm. We hope that in the New Year, these storms too, shall pass, and more positive things will happen.
The Rio Olympics, the US presidential elections, and Pokemon Go, the new real world mobile game, got the whole world, or at least the world of Twitter, most excited in 2016. At Rio Olympics, records were broken and new sport stars emerged. India’s women athletes’ stellar performances did the country proud. American swimming legend Michael Phelps won his 23rd Gold Medal and a career total of 28 medals to retire as the world’s most decorated Olympian.

Defying widespread expectations, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, defeating Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. The US saw protests and talks of a rigged election, while several expressed loss of faith in America’s political system. Donald Trump is expected to withdraw military support to countries in Europe and Asia, unless adequate compensation is provided. Trump has indicated a desire to ease tensions with Russia, praising President Putin’s leadership, Trump has threatened to scrap several existing free trade agreements with other countries, which he blames for American job losses. Trump has said that he will “cancel” the Paris Climate Agreement within 100 days of taking office and will strive to reverse climate change regulations introduced by President Obama. On December 8th, Trump sent a sealed letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, through the US Secretary of Defence. The significance of this gesture will emerge in the days to come.

On June 23rd, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in their "Brexit" referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned immediately, and Conservative Party MPs elected Theresa May as Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Modi dominated the news by boldly ordering cross-border surgical strikes against terror camps in Pakistan. On January 2, seven bravehearts died thwarting a terrorist infiltration into Pathankot Air Force station. In June, a CRPF convoy was attacked in Pampore, killing eight Indian officers. In a dastardly attack in Uri on September 18th, militants threw grenades on a brigade of sleeping Indian soldiers, killing 19. Pakistan faced international censure. Eleven days later, Indian forces carried out ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist camps across the border. They worked on intelligence that these camps were planning terror attacks in Indian metros.
The strikes drew unequivocal public support. Even staunch detractors, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress and Arvind Kejriwal, calmed after demanding “proof” of the strikes. Modi dedicated Diwali to the Indian soldier, whose courage and sacrifice allowed the country to celebrate the festival in security and peace.

On November 8, Modi made a surprise announcement demonetising existing 500 and 1000 rupee notes in a bid to remove black money and counterfeit cash for funding terrorists. But even after a month, many ATMs and banks didn’t have adequate cash. Long queues were frequent, and people were disappointed with packets of ten rupee coins or 2000 Rs notes, when they wanted some other denomination. The general public, and daily business suffered. When The RBI is supplying over thrice the normal amount of cash, how could this happen? Hoarders diverting cash with the connivance of corrupt officials and money launderers, are a key. Such a tremendous exercise has never been undertaken anywhere. With no past guideposts, the government is tackling difficulties as they arise. The planning is imperfect. At this stage, we cannot condemn demonetisation as an utter failure. Nor can we expect a magic wand to instantly end all corruption. Nobody doubts the good intentions of this measure. Let us pray that issues are soon sorted out, and that demonetisation, combined with other measures like tracking gold and real estate, yields the desired long-term dividends in the war against corruption.

Demonetisation has brought more money transactions under the scanner, and huge cases are already being investigated. Hundreds of crores of rupees in cash, and gold bars weighing hundreds of kilos have already been seized. The list of post demonetisation seizures is growing.
Meanwhile, 7,900 tribals of Attapady hills in Kerala and residents of Ibrahimpur village, Siddipet Dist, Telangana, are among the success stories of cashless transactions.

Are these news items evidence of a larger plan to effectively battle corruption and black money? Are we ourselves ready to change our time-honoured corruption-tolerant ways, and accept that we are the ultimate sufferers? Will our elected representatives heed President Pranab Mukherjee’s call and work constructively? “Disruption is totally unacceptable in Parliamentary system,” the President said. “For God’s sake, do your job,” he added, upbraiding the Opposition, and telling them that their disruptive strategy amounted to “gagging of the majority” by the minority. 

Corruption is deeply ingrained in India. The high and mighty set an example with mega scams through the years, inspiring ordinary people to resort to bribery and cheating wherever possible. It’s smart to flout rules. Indians proved their ingenuity in a multi-million dollar scam relating to India based call centres which cheated thousands of American citizens. Unfortunately, their party ended in October when several Indians were charged by the US Department of Justice for that scam. Will our own lawmakers and enforcers have the same will and the public support to ensure justice?

On December 9th the CBI arrested former Air Force chief SP Tyagi and two others for alleged corruption in the Rs 3,600 crore Augusta Westland VVIP choppers deal, which was scrapped on January 1, 2014, over charges of kickbacks of Rs 423 crore. We hope the truth will come out, and justice will prevail in this, and other past mega-scams.

In 2016, War and terrorism continued to trouble our planet. On March 5th, an US air strike killed 150 Al-Shabaab militants near Mogadishu, Somalia. As refugees continued to pour out from war torn West Asia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia closed their borders from March 9th. ISIS suicide bombings in Brussels killed nearly 30 and injured over 200. Taliban connected Jamaat-ul-Ahrar suicide bombers killed over 70 in a park in Lahore on 27th March. ISIS backed Suicide bombings at Brussels killed 28 and injured 260.
April brought hope, when an UN-backed cease-fire eased conflict in Yemen between government forces and Houthis rebels supported by Iran. However, in May, three ships carrying refugees across the Mediterranean, sank killing over 700. On June 12th, a gunman claiming loyalty to the Islamic State went on a rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Nearly 50 people were killed and an equal number wounded.
In June, suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. 42 people were killed and over 200 wounded. In July, Islamic militants attacked a cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 20 hostages and 2 police officials were killed. In July, a lorry bomb killed over 125 and wounded 150 in Baghdad. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

2016 saw welcome strides in gender parity. Indian women excelled in the Rio Olympics. Sakshi Malik fought valiantly for a bronze medal in wrestling. P V Sindhu earned a sparkling badminton silver. Dipa Karmakar won the nation’s heart by finishing 4th, missing a medal by a whisker. She became the first Indian female gymnast, and the first Indian in 52 years, to compete in the Olympics. Woman wrestler Vinesh Phogat reached the quarterfinals, but an injury made her miss a medal. In another first, the CRPF deployed a team of 135 women commandos to tackle Naxalite insurgents in Jharkhand. Meanwhile, the BMJ Open Report tracking four million people around the world for ever a century, showed that women were now almost as likely to drink alcohol as men. In June, US Defence Secretary Ashton B. Carter lifted the ban on transgendered people serving in the US military.

Technology continued to amaze. The first flower in space, a zinnia, was grown aboard the International Space Station using NASA Veggie system. In April, the first baby with DNA from three parents was born in Mexico, facilitated by mitochondrial transfer. In October, researchers in Madrid developed a robot teacher that can sense when children are distracted in class, and respond by encouraging them. A driverless truck built by Uber’s unit Otto used cameras, radars and sensors, to travel 200 kilometres in the USA with a cargo of beer. Will humans be outsmarted and rendered obsolete by superior machines? That possibility loomed as Google's DeepMind artificial intelligence won Go challenge against Lee Se-dol.

Environmental degradation remained a burning issue. Climate change and increased acidity in the oceans, has brought the 25 million years old Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific Ocean on the brink of extinction. This UNESCO designated World Heritage site is the world’s oldest and largest living structure, and the only one visible from space. Much of the corals forming the reef are now dead or dying. UNESCO has listed 55 of the world’s 1,052 heritage sites as under risk from wars, natural disasters, poaching, pollution and uncontrolled tourism.

A report by World Wide Fund and other organisations indicate that half of India’s wildlife is on the verge of extinction. The Living Planet Index shows a dramatic decline of 58% between 1970 and 2012. The big picture pieced together from small news items, is chilling. In August Anthrax, caused by global warming, broke out in Siberia killing one person and infecting several others. 2,300 reindeer also died. The Royal Society Open Science journal published the chilling findings of 15 top conservational scientists. 300 odd wild mammal species in Asia, Africa and Latin America are dying out thanks to humanity’s greed for bush meat.

Closer home, our government declared the unprecedented levels of air pollution in Delhi an emergency situation in November.  Schools and construction sites were temporarily shut down. The dramatic increase in toxic particles in the air, was due to increase in construction, toxic fume emitting vehicles, noisy and polluting crackers during Diwali, and burning of leaves and crop wastes.
 As individuals, we can make a difference by switching to public transport or car pools. Composting and reducing non-bio-degradable wastes will definitely help. Let’s strive to use less plastics and generate less waste during all celebrations.  On April 10th, firecrackers caused a deadly explosion at Puttingal Temple in Kerala.  In memory of the over 100 who died, and the 400 injured in this tragedy, we hope firecrackers will be banned.

Eminent theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking rightly observed that this is the most dangerous time for our planet. We cannot go on ignoring inequality, because we have the means to destroy our world, but not to escape it. Technology is making many labour intensive jobs, and even some traditional industries obsolete. This will increase the rich-poor divide, as large populations migrate to other cities and countries to eke out a living.

In the year gone by, astronomers announced the discovery of an earth-like planet named Proxima B, orbiting star Proxima Centauri. An eminent group of international scientists and entrepreneurs, including Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerburg, announced a project to send robot spacecraft to our nearest star, Alpha Centauri. If we insist upon fighting among ourselves and destroying our planet, at least the survivors can hope to find and reach new worlds to exploit and lay waste.
BOX:                      obituaries
Many prominent people passed away in 2016. May their souls rest in peace.
J Jayalalithaa, Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Fidel Castro, founder of the Western hemisphere’s first communist state in Cuba.
Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand.
Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister of Israel. Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Science, Arts, Literature, Sports :
Leonard Cohen, American music icon.
Prince, pop music megastar. Purple Rain, Little Red Corvette.
David Bowie, British rock superstar.
Veteran Carnatic Music exponent Balamuralikrishna.
Eminent Author and social activist Mahasweta Devi. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Padma Shree, the Jnanpith, the Magsaysay Award, and Deshikottam Award.
Writer and futurist Alvin Toffler. The Third Wave, Future Shock, Revolutionary Wealth.
Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight world champion.

Manohar Aich, India’s first Mr Universe.