Anything that moves

Even Indian liberals don't really support truly free expression

Many questioned the need to publish cartoons of prophet Muhammad.

In the course of its long history, India has supported free speech for precisely 17 months. The brief burst of freedom began with the coming into effect of India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950, and ended with the enactment on June 18, 1951, of the first amendment, which placed several restrictions on expression.

In the succeeding decades, we have developed into one of the most illiberal parliamentary democracies in the world. There is little appetite even among the intelligentsia to support truly free expression. Two examples stand out in my mind in this regard: the poet Nissim Ezekiel’s support for a ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, though PEN International, whose Indian chapter Ezekiel headed, includes among its major goals the fight for free speech. And Arundhati Roy’s effort to prevent the release in India of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. Even Supreme Court justices in India betray an arbitrariness about basic principles of freedom. Everything Indians say about the Charlie Hebdo affair, then, is purely academic, with no conceivable application to our own situation.

A number of liberals, even as they condemned the Paris massacre, questioned Charlie Hebdo’s publications of cartoons of Muhammad. Among this group was Joe Sacco, a cartoonist himself, and one I greatly admire. He made his argument in the form of a comic strip, which sets out the position of the group very precisely.

Sacco’s critique of Charlie Hebdo is based on two ideas. First, that the pictures are prejudiced, and second that supporters of the weekly ignore the larger international political context. Sacco sketches a monkey-like black man and a money-grubbing Jew to illustrate his point about bias, and uses the infamous photograph of a hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib as shorthand for atrocities committed by the West in the Muslim world. This, he indicates, provides a framework within which to “think about why the world is the way it is, and what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image”.

Roots of intolerance

Let me deal first with the idea that Muslim outrage results from the contemporary political context. I would believe it if a counter-example were given of similar images being created somewhere in the world at some other point in history without giving rise to protest. If no such example can be provided, and I have seen no indication that it can, it is difficult to explain the violent reaction to the Charlie Hebdo pictures, and to the Danish cartoons of a decade ago, solely in terms of modern-day politics.

Of course, contemporary context matters: the undermining of the idea of the nation-state in the age of globalisation, and changes in the dissemination of information brought about by the Web are crucially important. But globalisation and the internet could only spur the growth of pan-Islamism because the idea of the ummah has been persistent within Islam for 1,400 years. Globalisation hasn’t inspired Indian Hindus to make common cause with their co-religionists in Fiji, Guyana and Bali, after all. Even the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka has remained an ethno-linguistic one, and never become a religious issue in which non-Tamil Indians took sides as Hindus against Sinhalese Buddhists. If men of Pakistani origin in Britain, or Caucasian origin in the United States, or Algerian origin in France, turn against civilians in their own countries because of events in Palestine, Iraq, or Afghanistan, that tells us something crucial about the nature of Islam itself.

I disagree also with the idea that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons display anti-Muslim prejudice, or Islamophobia. To understand why, one must first make a distinction between race and religion. Race, or ethnicity, is something people are born with, and is unalterable. It is, in other words, part of a person’s being. Religion, on the other hand, is a set of ideas and practices, which are learned, and can be rejected and discarded. Satirising or criticising an ethnic group is fundamentally different from satirising a religion or any practice associated with a religion. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons deemed most offensive had nothing to do with Muslims in the way Joe Sacco’s two images have to do with Africans and Jews. They had everything to do with the religion of Islam. As this series of covers shows, the magazine lampooned Christianity as brutally as it did Islam, or even more so if you consider cover number 5 which depicts Jesus sodomising God.

Questioning and even mocking deeply held beliefs is the very essence of liberal society. As such, Charlie Hebdo was and is a beacon for freedom, and not in any way an exemplar of racist prejudice. Commentators have pointed to the sacking of a Charlie Hebdo employee who made anti-semitic remarks as an indicator of double-standards, but it just shows the magazine made a distinction between critiquing Judaism, and Israel (both of which it did), and demonstrating prejudice against Jews as an ethnic group.

Breaking a taboo

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons caused outrage because they broke the taboo against depictions of Islam’s prophet. There is nothing in the Quran that proscribes such images. It is a tradition that emerged from the actions and words of Muhammad himself. The fundamental idea behind the taboo is that images tend to become idols, detracting from the worship of Allah, who is the only true god, and whose form is unknowable. Islam’s dislike of idols is at the root of an iconoclastic tradition that stretches from the destruction of pagan figurines in the Kaaba by Muhammad himself to contemporary acts of vandalism by the Saudi regime, and the Taliban government’s dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas (it is worth remembering that those monumental statues were damaged and defaced in the course of at least four separate assaults in previous centuries, so any contemporary political context is insufficient explanation in itself for the Taliban’s dreadful act).

The prophet of the Quran is a special but fallible human being. The Muhammad who has become central to Islam over the centuries is an infallible, sinless, man who experiences miracles like journeying to heaven on a horse-like steed. His sayings and deeds, compiled decades after his death, are central to Islamic jurisprudence.  Relics of Muhammad are treated very much like relics of the Buddha or of Christ. The Hazratbal mosque in Kashmir is famous for holding a strand of the prophet’s hair, and the Shrine of the Cloak in Kandahar is a pilgrimage site because it possesses a garment supposedly worn by him. This cloak was donned by Mullah Omar, chief of the iconoclastic Taliban, in front of a hysterical crowd which then proclaimed him Commander of the Faithful. It is difficult to reconcile all these facts with the picture of Muhammad as a mere human being. Certainly, he is a dearer and more sacred figure for Muslims than most gods are for Hindus.

The irony contained in the response to the Charlie Hebdo images is that the cartoons do not transgress the original impulse behind the taboo against depictions of Muhammad. Far from being potential idols, they serve an opposite function: they desacralise a figure who has become for all intents and purposes an object of worship, idolised without physical idols. Today, the taboo on portraying the prophet serves to preserve his aura, while making cartoons of him removes it, and deconsecrates him.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.