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1

In 1865, a child was born in Madras, India. Her parents named her Lucy Deane. As destiny would have it, in 1893, Kensington Vestry (UK) wanted to hire women Inspectors where, at that time all inspectors were men. Lucy Deane was hired and was a factory inspector. In 1898, she cautioned the authorities that asbestos was causing lung disease. The report collected dust. It took a century and in 1998, EU and France banned all forms of asbestos. (1)

As we stand today, Government of India has approved the use of GM Mustard for use in India. Like all throughout the world, there is a pro-GM and anti-GM groups in India. There have been spate of articles and influential voices who are supporting GM Mustard and its widespread use, without knowing the ramifications. Those who are against it are being labelled Luddites, risk averse, unscientific, elites and hypocrites. With government approving this, we know where the government stands.

Comparing the incomparable:

In a recent article in Indian Express(2), an author compares Viagra, Insulin and cell-phone towers and makes a point whether the elites sought zero risk proof for these products. First it pitches the GM crop as pro-poor and pro-farmer and insinuates all others as elites who swallow Viagra and go out to protest. Let me not rebut on this clever ploy of making this about one man versus the other.

The larger stupidity of this is the comparison of risks of Viagra against the risks arising out of a GM Crop. Though it is appealing to the common sense and immediately identifiable, its conceptually flawed from the first word. Viagra is a thin tailed risk and GM is a fat tailed risk. Thin tailed risks are common sense probabilistic and form the majority of Risk Management. The world as we see, revolves around with the use of such risk.

Insurance, the business which completely relies on risk had a seminal paper by Filip Lundberg in 1903 which formed the basis of what risk managers and many insurance actuaries know as Ruin Theory. Ruin is “the physical destruction or disintegration” which has no chance of recovery. There cannot be an un-ruin. Rebuilding is not bringing back the same structure which was there. By ruin, in this context, we mean the ruin of the complete system. This is not fear mongering and is grounded on sound logic and evidence.

The system here is the nature. This system is so complex that we cannot predict the weather pattern for the next month. The complexity of the system also makes the impact of GM crops unquantifiable. In 2005, UNESCO with its advisory body World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), released a paper called as “The Precautionary Principle.”(8) It states:

“The emergence of increasingly unpredictable, uncertain, and unquantifiable but possibly catastrophic risks such as those associated with Genetically Modified Organisms, climate change etc., has confronted societies with the need to develop a third, anticipatory model to protect humans and the environment against uncertain risks of human action: The Precautionary Principle (PP).”

What it states is essentially this: lets protect before something bad occurs and not get into the damage control where we may not have any chance. This paper also puts forth when we need to apply this principle. Just by quoting this, we cannot stop the human progress.

Conditions to satisfy are:

  1. Complexity of the system
  2. Unquantifiable scientific uncertainty

If we look at GM Crops, it is a tailor case to apply this principle.

One, interaction of GM Crops with nature cannot be ascertained because nature is highly complex system and it is non-localised. Two, the impact is unquantifiable. Applying the risk of ruin, which essentially states that the impact cost will be infinity, and any non-zero probability will make the overall risk as infinity.

This is not same as one crore road accidents nor losing Titanic nor losing MH370. These are localised risks. Or the aforementioned opinion item provocatively mentions – Viagra.

Anyone who states that GM is completely safe is fooling us and fooling themselves. A recent study has revealed unintended mutations were induced in mice by a genome editing technique. And we are not sure how that will affect GM Crops.(3)

Thus we can safely conclude, that this is a system which must be seen from the Precautionary Principle and Ruin Theory view.

For detailed study of these risks, please read the books The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nicholas Taleb.  Also, he, along with many has authored a paper on GMO based on Precautionary Principle.(7)

Anti GM is essentially anti-corporates:

This is another lie that is being spread against the principled, theory and research oriented stand against GM Crops. What this essentially states are that since the anti-GM group, doesn’t like profits, are somehow socialists or communists and hence hate corporate profits. The same author(2)chides us for being perfectly fine with the duopoly of only Boeing and Airbus for travel and iOS and Android for mobile. Be that as it may, let me not address the trap again but the logic why this is wrong.

Nature provides biodiversity. What we essentially see in GM crops are close to monoculture. The single minded approach to GM crops as espoused by the pro-GM side is productivity. More, for less. More, for less land. More, for less water. More, for less pesticide. More for less, insecticide. More, for less fertilizer. Even our love of our own mother has some negatives but nowhere will you find any negatives that the pro-GM lobby presents with us. This is logical.

Let me present you another evidentiary proof. Between, 1845 and 1852, more than 10 lakh people died of famine in Ireland, also known as Great Famine of Ireland or Potato Famine. The root cause of this is a blight had wiped out the entire crop in Ireland.  What is also said and repeated many times, which we tend to forget is that the entire population was dependent on just one or two varieties of potato.

Now, you can see that why one loss of MH370 is not as same as a crop failure.

Now, you can see why the risk is unquantifiable and the losses in this case is near infinity or what we call as ruin.

With our single minded aim to improve productivity, we are laying the foundation for the unknown. Again, this is not fear mongering to be ignored, this is rooted in risk theories and in history.

Recent studies have also shown that GM crops may not be as insect resistance as we might have thought.(4)(5) This states that there is an evolutionary resistance to the GM crop. Again, we do not understand the nature as much as we think we do. And as stated above, nature is complex.

Mankind has always tampered with crops:

This is another half-truth that is being peddled by the lobby. For example, we are shown a black rose which is not available in nature but has been modified by the influence of mankind.

In 1865, Gregor Mendel, gave a speech on his experiments on peapods. The translated title of that speech stands “Experiments in Plant Hybridisation.”(6) This is essentially wrong comparison, again. Methodologies, processes and techniques were human but the ‘law of selection’ was left to nature. But, in present GM crops, we tend to select on behalf of nature. And herein lies the greatest issue we have.

Mankind have played with crops and animals. All the dogs that we see are examples. The interracial kids that we see are examples. We, you and I are examples of this selection. But nowhere but in GM crops have we altered at this micro level, the DNA.

The march of technology is inevitable. The advancement of science is unstoppable. But what can be and must be done is to make these crops into more and more trials till we are near certain that there won’t be any systemic impact of ruin.

The Precautionary Principle also states that the burden of proof does lies with the entity which brings into the system the GM crops.

To borrow Sun Tzu, “it’s a matter of life and death. A road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry, which can on no account be neglected.”

  1. http://www.wilpf.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Streatfeild-Lucy-Deane.pdf
  2. http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/gm-mustard-us-them-the-farmers-4683373/
  3. http://www.gmwatch.org/en/news/latest-news/17657-crispr-induced-mutations-what-do-they-mean-for-food-safety
  4. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-gillam/new-research-shows-failin_b_14003604.html
  5. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0169115
  6. https://archive.org/details/mendelsprinciple00bate – Page 317.
  7. http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2
  8. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001395/139578e.pdf

This post was originally published here.

2

Suicide is a taboo subject for conversation. Particularly what makes a person want to commit suicide or what to say in the face of their pain.

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.

I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.

Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?

Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.

What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.

I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.

Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.

So how has contemplating suicide helped me?

By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail.  Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.

And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.

“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.

Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.

In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.

Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.”
― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories

Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.

How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath

My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.

What do you think?

2

I have been writing on women's rights for a long time, and lately the flood of increasing incidents of physical and sexual threat to women are so overwhelming, that is seems naive to even write about stereotypes or attitudes, though of course, they are at the foundation.

I often wonder what the way out is, how we can move toward a more dignified existence for women, and keep thinking in circles. Everything is interdependent, interrelated, and prevents other aspects from transforming safely. For example, women asserting themselves more or fighting back puts them in the way of a social and possibly sexual and physical backlash, expecting society to support their freedom depends on the risk to them, the risk to them depends on policing, politicng depends on resources, resource allocation depends on government priorities... it goes on and on and on into paralysis.

As violence against women continues unabated, it is quite clear that the safety measures are failing. It is quite clear that the half-hearted government efforts are going nowhere or even being sustained. It is quite clear that writing articles, debates on television after major incidents are going nowhere. For all the media attention, media still doesn't even have a proper beat to keep the spotlight on. Regular crime reporters make brief forays into crimes against women if something is scandalous enough. There is no page that focuses relentless on one of the most crucial aspects of the country. There is no deeper analysis or strategy or think tank interested in this unprofitable but massive zone.

Short version. It is not working. It is time to take apart and rebuild what is not working.

I have come to the conclusion that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is insanity. Time to do something different. In my view, it is discarding this defunct concept of safety. To experiment with greater or lesser risk. Lesser risk, I don't speak, because it is possible only for those with greater safety available, or in cultures like Saudi Arabia. Of course, that doesn't mean completely safe either.

Increasingly, it is apparent that there is no such thing as safety. Women are not even safe inside their own homes. An astonishing incident posted on Maidumji's blog begins with this woman traveling in the Delhi metro who tries to get space from a person leaning in invasively close on her, and gets victimized by the entire compartment at the end of it. It is fairly clear that even in full public sight, simply asking a sexual aggressor to back off can't be expected to work either. Let us just say... safety is lip service. There is no safety.

It is time to create something else in its place, and my inclination is to create freedom. To deliberately break all those safety barriers, because they are one way. You are not supposed to exit the barrier, because it is not safe, but staying within it isn't safe either. It is time to call the bluff and forget about safety altogether and make decisions based on other things. Things that really matter to us for their own sake, rather than some vague bribe to survival.

Want to eat ice cream at 2am, go out and do it. Want to wear skimpy clothers everywhere? Do  it. Want to challenge people getting aggressive with you? Do it. Will you be safe? Maybe. Maybe not. The same as if you didn't do it.

If we do this, are we likely to get hurt more often? Yes. How much more often? I don't know.

Will this mean increased crimes against women? possibly. In my view, it is a price we are paying whether we want or not. If we pay more of it, but get something precious in return, it is worth it.

But I bet we are likely to become more confident people too. As long as we are apologetically taking space demarcated for us "for our own good", no matter what the words say, we are second class citizens with no particular purpose being served for the reduced rights.

It is time to see the world like an exotic wildlife tour, which is an exciting adventure and sure, there is the risk of an animal mauling you to death, but that isn't the key point of the tour.

It is time to live our dreams regardless of dangers. To embrace that dangers are a fact of life. To pick ourselves up after accidents, dust ourselves off and keep walking. And to be extinguished maybe or reach a better world.

Won't that mean more women may also die? Sure, yes. But it isn't like women aren't dying at the moment. There is no particular advantage to be stuck at this level of risk. Higher levels of risk bring more freedoms, lower levels of risk bring more security in a cage. It is time to explore the options and pick ones that bring us results we want, rather than ones assigned to us based on someone else's estimation that is rooted in their guilt over harm to us, rather than their willingness to set us free.

In doing this, I think we will also break several delusions. The first delusion is that "women need to live". Unless a society wants itself reduced largely to men, they have to confront the fact that men need women to live too! Another delusion to break is that we are a relatively safe society for women - astonishingly there are many who still parrot this. We are a safe society for women while we hide the women - then too, not always. With women in the open, are we really a safe society? Let us find out. A third delusion to break is also that women cannot survive without the protection of men. Let us find that out too.

What will happen? I don't know, but my guess is if enough women do this and keep doing this, in my view, they will transform into a mirror for the world.

Do you not care that you are recommending danger? Yes, I do. Danger scares me too. But more than danger, I am scared of spending my life waiting for safe opportunities. One moment may be safe, another may not be. Safety can be reduced, increased, built. A moment spent is gone. Forever. A part of my life lived in fear. I suspect that if you take a long lived woman's life and calculate the time she lived following her own desires, it may not be all that different from that of the reckless thirty year old who died too early for it. I choose the freedom, because it is a gamble, and if I survive it, I will LIVE more in a year than I would in a decade.

The next time you avoid going late because no one can escort you, the next time you cringe from a lewd comment on the street, the next time you are not taken seriously because of your gender, the next time you are the unwilling recipient of sexual greed... think about what you would do if you didn't fear consequences. Then do it.

A moment of glorious time is worth an eternity without name.