Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Fast for justice in India

I want to alert people to a couple of campaigns that are happening right now. Both relate to India and both are of particular interest in that they are using the technique of fasting as a way of drawing attention to the struggle. I have pledged to support the first campaign by participating in the fast; others may be interested in how they can offer their support.

Binayak Sen

The case of Binayak Sen should provide Bristol readers with a chilling reminder of how important it is to defend our civil liberties. In recent days we have seen the House of Commons approve a Bill to allow the detention of people for 42 days without charge. In the words of David Davis, "in truth, 42 days is just one - perhaps the most salient example - of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms."

In India, the tide of civil liberties is already at a much lower ebb. The Central and State Governments have legislated to give themselves virtual impunity when it comes to the human rights of the individual. Binayak Sen is one of many Indian individuals who have been made to suffer by their own governments.

Binayak Sen is a paediatrician and public health specialist. He has devoted his life to providing health care for the poorest people in Chattisgarh state. His efforts have been recognised internationally but, more importantly, he has also earned the respect and affection of poor local people.

But Dr Sen has another role: he is the national vice-president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties. In this role he has helped to organize numerous fact finding missions into human rights violations. These have included, in particular, inquiries into extra-judicial killings, and prisoners likely to be at risk of torture. His investigations have drawn attention to police murders of unarmed civilians.

In May 2007, Dr Sen was detained for allegedly violating the provisions of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 (CSPSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. This draconian law has been criticised by a host of different people and organisations who see it as an unashamed attempt by the government to deprive citizens of their rights. But perhaps it is best to hear what Dr Sen himself said of the law, just before he was arrested:

For the past several years, we are seeing all over India - and as part of that in the state of Chhattisgarh as well - a concerted programme to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation, their access to essentials, common property resources and to natural resources including land and water... hundreds of villages have been denuded of the people living in them and hundreds of people - men and women - have been killed. Government-armed vigilantes have been deployed and the people who have been protesting against such moves and trying to bring before the world the reality of these campaigns - human rights workers like myself - have also been targeted through state action against them. At the present moment the workers of the Chhattisgarh PUCL (People's Union for Civil Liberties) the Chhattisgarh branch, of which I am General Secretary, have particularly become the target of such state action; and I, along with several of my colleagues, are being targeted by the Chhattisgarh state in the form of punitive action, illegal imprisonment. And all these measures are being taken especially under the aegis of the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act."

For more information click here.
To read about the fast in support of Binayak Sen click here.


The plight of the people of Bhopal will probably be familiar to most of you. But if not, here's a good place to start.

Since the date of the accident the people of Bhopal have been struggling for justice. They ask for the site of the accident to be cleaned, for compensation to be paid, and for those responsible to be brought to justice. Their requests have been largely ignored (some compensation was paid but it was very small, even by Indian standards). A list of their demands can be read here.

Some four months ago, a group of people walked from Bhopal to Delhi to ask, yet again, to speak to the prime minister about their complaints. The prime minister has not met with them, despite their patient requests and their evidently just complaint. Indeed after months of waiting on the pavements of Delhi, last week a number of the Bhopalis were arrested and taken to a police station. There they were savagely beaten to the point that one of them needed to be hospitalised.

In the aftermath of the police activities, nine of the Bhopalis commenced an indefinite fast. They have been joined by people around the world who wish to draw attention to the Indian prime minister's disgraceful (lack of) response to the Bhopalis' cry for help.

To join the fast click here.
To read of US congressmen and UK ministerial action click here.
Here in the UK we might not be able to influence Indian politicians, but perhaps some of us should pay a visit to Dow chemical:
2 Heathrow Boulevard, 284 Bath Road, West Drayton, Middlesex, UB7 0DQ, UK
Tel: (020) 8917 5000 Fax: (020) 8917 5400 web.

Friday, 13 June 2008

A letter to Thich Nhat Hanh

For some years I have read, and tried to practise, the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk from Vietnam. The following is an open letter to him, and to the Buddhist group with whom I practise, about some of his teachings. Specifically I talk about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Other expressions that may need explanation are Dharma and Sangha.

Dear Thich Nhat Hanh & the White Clouds Sangha,

I am not quite sure who to address this letter to. But it concerns the Dharma - one of the three legs of practising Buddhism - so it seems appropriate that I address my concerns to the other two legs - my Sangha and the Buddha. (With apologies to Thich Nhat Hanh for conflating him with the Buddha!)

There are two main issues that I wish to address. They both constitute (constructive) criticisms of the way that we practise. Let me say first that I value the practice very much and I want my criticisms to be read with this in mind. My criticism comes from a place of love and respect for the Darnha, the Sangha and the Buddha.

(1) THE FIVE MINDFULNESS TRAININGS: At our Day of Mindfulness on Saturday we ended the day, as we often do, by reciting the five mindfulness trainings. Most of the group seem to find this a good way of ending the day, strengthening our resolve to practise mindfulness in the days ahead.

Unfortunately I do not find it so. There are three reasons why not:
(a) The trainings are "the basis for a happy life". My problem here is with the "the" and the exclusiveness, dogmatism even, that it implies. I broadly endorse (with some exceptions as given below) the five mindfulness trainings as a way of life; but I would certainly shrink from asserting that they are the definitive answer to the question of how to live.

But this is easily fixed: replace "the" with "a" and I am happy (and I have seen this in other translations of the five trainings so perhaps it should be this way anyway).

(b)On drugs and alcohol: Why the injunction to forgo these pleasures?

The majority of the training on consumption revolves around the cultivation of compassion for the earth and all beings on the earth. It is therefore very natural to be mindful in our consumption: to avoid meat, to avoid polluting TV programmes etc. It is not clear to me that a compassionate outlook implies a complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

In fact it seems to me that the use of drugs can be undertaken mindfully - with a view to enhancing our understanding of consciousness and our emotions, whilst aware of the risks which such an undertaking involves. It is true that most of society does not use drugs in this way, even if they intend to. But then this is also true of TV and we do not presume to ban TV altogether - only to moderate its use.

The point is this: the practice of Buddhism should allow us to live compassionately and wisely and mindfully. If we do this then the choices which we make will be good ones. It is not necessary nor, indeed, is it in any way advantageous for our spirituality, to be arbitrarily bounded by dogma. This limits us; if nothing else it removes from us the chance to say "no" for ourselves.

(c) On sex: And, really, the same applies here. We pledge many fine things in the third training but why this: "not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment."?

Why is love not sufficient? How can it not be sufficient? I mean REAL love, MINDFUL love, a Buddha-like love. Perhaps with this love we may decide to say "no" to any sexual relations which are not long term. But, then, why are we being instructed in this way, rather than being allowed to choose for ourselves?

Humanity's relation to sexuality has long been a vexed one. Religious leaders of every ilk have tried to give guidance on this issue - sometimes in good faith. But the end result has always, it seems to me, been one of two outcomes: the wise have instructed us to LOVE and to BE LOVING in all we do. The less wise have tied themselves (and, sadly, their disciples) in knots trying to prescribe monogamy, or heterosexuality, or abstinence, or free love, or... whatever it may be.

It seems that, when it comes to our sexuality, it is very hard to see the wood for the trees, to know the best way to proceed. How much more difficult then when we try to give recipes for OTHER PEOPLE's sexuality!Let us love one another. That is enough.

Before I leave this concern, let me anticipate one defence of the five mindfulness trainings: that they are guidelines for practice, not hard and fast rules. Of course I appreciate this point; I also appreciate the responsibility of the Buddha and the Sangha for giving guidance on how to live - I take this guidance very seriously.

The key point is that, in these two instances - on sex, and on drugs and alcohol, the guidance moves from the philosophical to the specific. When I "vow to speak truthfully" there is a world of reflection open to me (and my Sangha) about what this means, and how I am to put my vow into practice. This is not the case when I say "I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant..." which is an absolute statement and admits no freedom of interpretation. Yet, if I am to practice truly and mindfully, then I must have that freedom to think and to reflect and to decide for myself.

(2) And so to my second concern: retreat vs engagement.

Unlike my first concern which was specific and concrete, my second is one of perception and balance. Or rather a perceived imbalance. Where this balance arises I am not sure - undoubtedly it is partly within myself. But perhaps it also arises within the practice of the Sangha and so I feel I should share it.

My perception is simply this: that the idea of "retreat" has become too dominant in our practice, so that it now threatens our "engagement". As a Sangha we seem to share a love of natural beauty, of stillness, of reflective peace. This is right and proper. We seek out these experiences and share them as a group together. I have benefited greatly from them.

Even more, when we come together, we share guided meditations speaking to us of the "clear mountain air" and the "sunshine" and the "cool stream". It is good that we think of these things for they are, and so we are with them.

When I return to my daily life - at work, or on the road, or wherever - I retain in me the sense of connectedness to the clear mountain air and the cool stream, and it eases me.

But sometimes I wonder about this ease: is it the ease of a being immersed in the present moment, connected to the earth and all that dwell on her? Or is it the ease of a being who escapes the present moment through a porthole to other, more beautiful places. Am I seeing my world more clearly or, rather, am I focusing my eyes on a distant horizon and refusing to acknowledge that which lies in front of my nose?

There is no answer to this but perhaps there is a pointer for my practice. i can retreat TOO MUCH. I can seek peace and tranquillity to the point that I am not able to acknowledge chaos and drama. My practice must be immersed in every aspect of my life.

And it is not just me, the practitioner: the same may be said of the Sangha, surely. If we meet together only in places of beauty and peace, are we not in danger of unbalancing our practice? Should we not share together the trials of daily life so that we can be present together there too? How is our practice, in its current form, engaged?

It is not enough to have a Dharna pot for children in Vietnam; there must be something more. Perhaps our next day of mindfulness should be at a rubbish dump, or in a shopping centre, or outside an arms factory. Perhaps our Dharma talk should be the story of a refugee or drug addict. Perhaps we should eat rice without salt...

I am committed to reflecting and discussing and trying to resolve these concerns as best I can for myself and with my Sangha. I would appreciate any feedback.

Yours sincerely,


Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Knowledge for all

The following article just appeared here.

Last month the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (IMSc) launched its new open-access repository. The repository provides open access to research articles written by members of the Institute. Anyone who has an Internet connection can access the server and can read articles about physics, mathematics and theoretical computer science written by members of IMSc.

Of course these articles are also available to anyone who subscribes to the journals in which they are published. But herein is the key point: journal prices have, in recent years, gone through the roof and many journals are now so expensive that access is restricted to universities with extremely deep pockets. For obvious reasons, universities and scientific institutes in India, with the exception of a few, cannot afford access.

The IMSc repository is part of a growing backlash from academics around the world who are angry at this state of affairs. They are seeking new and different ways to wrest back knowledge from the corporations and to open up access for all.

The current situation

The established method for an academic to circulate her work is to publish in a peer-reviewed journal of good repute. When an academic sends in a paper for publication, an editor will send it out to one or more independent and anonymous referees, chosen for their expert knowledge in the field. The referees will write a confidential report to the editor, on the basis of which the editor will take the decision to publish or not to publish. In many areas of academia (including, for instance, mathematics), the author, editor and referee all work for free. They receive no remuneration from the publisher, a fact that will be important later.

When a reader comes across an interesting article in a good journal they know it has gone through this process and so they can have some degree of trust in the veracity and quality of the work being presented. It is here that the reputation of the journal is paramount -- if a journal has a tendency to publish work which is later found to be sub-standard then the peer-review process is undermined. Journals of good standing build up their reputation by consistently publishing high-quality work, sometimes over periods of more than a century.

In the early-’90s there were several such journals, independently owned and publishing work in a vast array of areas. It was around this time that several publishing houses started to grow significantly and to buy up journals in particular fields. Perhaps the most celebrated such publishing house is Reed-Elsevier. This giant of the field was created in 1993 by the merger of Reed and Elsevier, two publishing houses of more than a century's standing. Reed-Elsevier is now a FTSE 100 company with profit before tax of around Rs 8,000 crore in 2007.

Since the merger (and independently beforehand) Reed-Elsevier has bought up academic journals from many different fields. Their health division, for instance, now publishes some 800 journals, including the most prestigious of them all, The Lancet. Science Direct, their online science platform, claims to provide access to some 2,600 scientific journals. Once again, these include some of the most prestigious journals in the field - Physics Letters B, Nuclear Physics B, Advances in Mathematics, etc etc.

Unfortunately, Reed-Elsevier's new-found dominance of the market has proved costly for students and academics around the world. A 2007 survey of mathematics journals found that over the last decade the prices of many journals had increased by more than 10% per year. Prices have reached a level of absurdity whereby many mathematics journals cost more than Rs 50 per page (some have prices as high as Rs 300 per page). Reed-Elsevier is not alone in this practice Springer also deserves a special mention) but, as the biggest scientific publishing house, it has been instrumental in setting the trend.

And it is a trend with a hugely negative impact on academic research. Consider the situation at IMSc, Chennai. The total annual budget for IMSc is around Rs 13.3 crore, of which Rs 2.55 crore is spent subscribing to academic journals. Around 55% of this Rs 2.55 crore is paid to the two largest publishing companies - Reed-Elsevier and Springer - for the privilege of receiving a selection of the journals that they publish. In other words, more than 10% of the total budget for IMSc (more than the entire budget for faculty salaries) is paid directly to these two multi-national companies.

M Paul Pandian, the IMSc librarian, estimates that journal costs for IMSc are increasing at an average of 8% per annum, far in excess of inflation these past years. In the last year, this increase has been mitigated by a weaker dollar, but in general the effect of this increase is substantial. What is more, according to Pandian, price increases appear to have no correlation with increased costs for the publisher, or with better service.

Now IMSc is in the fortunate position of being one of the premier scientific institutes in the country and, as such, it has been given a budget to accommodate the commercial publishers. But, as Professor VS Sunder of IMSc says, "barring a miniscule number of institutions (such as IMSc and TIFR), the majority of universities in India (and even some good research institutes, which do not happen to be quite so fortunate in the funding they receive) simply cannot afford to access many journals as they are priced today. This situation represents a serious handicap for many Indian students and academics who wish to do significant research."

Hope for the future

A research academic has two fundamental duties: to perform research and to share that research with others. Sharing research has traditionally been achieved through publishing, but many academics now do not consider work to have been adequately shared if it has been merely published in an over-priced journal. With this in mind, and angry at the policies of Reed-Elsevier, Springer and their fellows (such as John Wiley and Taylor & Francis), many academics are using new, non-commercial methods to undermine the corporate publishing houses.

Firstly institutions have started to set up open-access repositories (like the one that has just been launched at IMSc, Chennai); this ensures that their work is available to the public even if it ends up being published in an expensive journal. At IMSc, the mathematics group has gone one step further. They decided at an open meeting of the group to make use of the repository mandatory; in other words all members of the mathematics group are required to place a copy of all of their papers on the repository. Such a requirement is, at this stage, not all that common, but it is becoming more so.

In 2007, five leading European research institutions launched a petition that called on the European Commission to establish a new policy that would require all government-funded research to be made available to the public shortly after publication. Within weeks more than 20,000 signatories had endorsed the petition and in January 2008 the European Research Council (ERC) announced that all ERC-funded research was required to be put in an open-access repository within six months of publication. A month later, in a separate development, Harvard University announced a similar policy for all research published by academics at Harvard. More universities and institutes are expected to follow suit.

The proliferation of open-access journals is the second important development in the move away from commercial academic publishing. As I mentioned earlier, in mathematics at least, the peer-review part of academic publishing is done for free by professional academics. What is more, mathematics papers are submitted already type-set by the author. Which means there is precious little left for the publisher to do!

Recognising this fact groups of academics have started to set up new journals which are free (or, at least, low-cost). They still provide the same peer-review service and, indeed, a goodly number of the free journals already have significant renown in the academic world. For instance, the journal Geometry and Topology, a free mathematics journal set up under the auspices of the University of Warwick, has quickly become one of the premier journals in its field. The number of such journals is increasing rapidly: the online Directory of Open Access Journals now lists 3,315 journals.

More than just setting up free journals, academics are actively protesting corporate publishing policies. In 2006, in a move that sent ripples throughout the mathematical community, the entire editorial board of the prestigious journal Topology resigned in protest at Reed-Elsevier's management of the journal since they first gained control of it in 1994. In their resignation letter the board stated that "we believe that the price, in combination with Elsevier's policies for pricing mathematical journals more generally, has had a significant and damaging effect on Topology's reputation in the mathematical research community." They go on to say that Reed-Elsevier have undermined the legacy of a fine journal with their policies. In 2007 the editorial board announced the launch of a new low-cost journal, the Journal of Topology, which would not be published by Reed-Elsevier.

Corporate publishing houses, though, are not going to sit by watching their profits vanish in a mist of open-access.

In 2007 the scientific journal Nature reported that some of the big houses (including Reed-Elsevier) had hired a PR expert to help them counter the open-access revolution. The expert's advice: a smear campaign to undermine the new trend. He advised the big houses to focus on simple messages such as "public access equals government censorship"; he also suggested that they attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review. Both of these messages are, of course, factually incorrect, but this is hardly a hurdle for a PR campaign.

Other, less duplicitous, methods are also available to the big houses. On a visit to IMSc, an executive from Reed-Elsevier was challenged by academics on the issue of pricing. He freely admitted that it is not in Reed-Elsevier's interest to reduce prices (and therefore profits); rather he said that Reed-Elevier were investigating methods of "adding value" to their service. For instance, they were considering paying referees for their work, thereby establishing a commercial transaction in the heart of the peer-review process.

So the battle is on, and the consequences of who wins are important. As Professor R Balasubramanian, Director of IMSc points out, "aspiring scientists and academics in developing countries deserve a chance to fulfil their potential. For this to happen the shift to open-access publishing needs to be vigorously supported. It is vital that academics and institutes take all possible steps to open up learning and knowledge to all."