Catastrophe at Lampedusa

THE pilgrimage to a better life has met a horrifying end. The boat capsizal that has killed an estimated 300 African asylum-seekers off the island of Lampedusa in Italy is the worst refugee disaster in the Mediterranean or indeed the world. Beyond the coffins that have started being despatched since Friday lies the emotive issue of immigration and asylum that Europe and Africa must address. Italy&’s appeal  to Europe to stem the influx of migrants can at best be a short-term prescription, at worst a reflection of the almost inhuman indifference towards refugees. In the midst of the shock and awe, if not accusations as well, no leader has summed up the catastrophe as succinctly as Pope Francis ~ “It was a day of tragedy in a savage world that has ignored refugees.” That “savage system” drives the dispossessed to leave their homes for a better life, yet doesn’t care if they die in the process. Lampedusa showcases that tragedy. The influx to Europe has ended in the waters ~ as choppy as horrifying ~ after the migrants set aflame a blanket to signal coast guards when their boat began taking in water. Death knows no timing and a rescue worker&’s rather cold-blooded lament mirrors the horrendous disaster ~ “The lucky ones are those who died first.”  The vessel from Eritrea via Ghana, Somalia and Libya is now a ghostly wreck, and lies on the seabed at a depth of around 40 metres in Lampedusa, now recognised as the new Checkpoint Charlie between the northern and southern hemispheres. Lampedusa has been the centre of wave after wave of illegal immigration, with the refugees fleeing conflict and repression in the African countries. An estimated 30,000 migrants have arrived in Italy this year ~ more than four times the number from last year but still less than in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.
The crisis calls for financial support from the rest of Europe, indeed humanitarian intervention. The responsibility to tackle the refugee issue rests as much on the Italian government and the European Union in the larger context. And also, of course, on the repressive African leaders, chiefly to ensure a humane and agreeable quality of life. More than a boat disaster, it is an existential crisis.

Chidambaram makes a point

INTROSPECTION and course-corrections are signs of a transparent and democratic government~ that is the message presently being flashed by spokespersons of the Congress party in their campaign to project Rahul Gandhi as the nation&’s political saviour. The finance minister has avoided getting embroiled in the ordinance controversy but appears to be falling in line with the recommended emphasis on openness. Not on any of the economic woes with which he is grappling, but in lamenting a failure to deliver on one aspect of his functioning when handling the home ministry ~ a relaxation of the hated Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Jammu and Kashmir. “I wish I and the chief minister could have succeeded in persuading some colleagues to amend the AFSPA as far as it could be done,” he has been quoted as saying at a bank function in Srinagar a few days back. Which is no untruth: he had tried but failed to get the defence ministry on board. He further admitted the need to reduce the presence of uniformed forces on the ground. And he went on to also regret the non-implementation of the recommendations of the panel headed by Dilip Padgaonkar that had sought to assuage hurt feelings after the unrest three summers ago.
Whether or not that confession actually points accusing fingers at the Prime Minister, his successor in the MHA or the defence minister might offer scope for those who see intrigue everywhere. More importantly, it confirms the perception that Jammu and Kashmir figures on the national radar only when some parts of the state are in turmoil. And that it is never far from turmoil because the people have lost faith in New Delhi being sincere about resolving core issues to which “force” can never be an answer. Yet can a senior member of the cabinet so easily wash his hands off a problem as serious as it is persistent? Is Manmohan Singh&’s style of functioning so compartmentalised that his key ministers are unable to take comprehensive evaluations of complex situations? Perhaps the people of J&K must await Rahul Gandhi barging into a cabinet meeting to bring some focus to their troubles.

Familiarity breeds contempt

IT is wildlife protection of another kind. Most zoological parks caution visitors not to feed the animals, some in India also warn of strict action against those teasing the inmates. Now the authorities of a zoo run by Chessington World of Adventures near London have decided to crack down on a perhaps inadvertent version  of “monkey-see, monkey-do”: it has prohibited visitors from literally aping the animals by donning clothing resembling their skins. No more black-and-yellow or black-and-white stripes a la tigers, giraffes and zebras; or yellow with black spots like leopards/cheetahs ~ though Jim Corbett&’s legion of admirers will recall he described the leopards’ markings as rosettes, not spots. One of the theme park&’s new features is a trip off the regular trail that takes visitors somewhat up close and personal to the animals, and it was noted that the latter often got confused during contact with humans in animal-like clothing. The reactions ranged from aggression to fear, or excitement (attraction?) and there was a risk to both visitor and animal. So now a dress code will be enforced, grey boiler-suits for those who thought they would feel at home in “animal prints”. Apparently the avian community doesn’t confuse easily, so milady can continue to sport feathers in her hat ~ so much for that “bird-brained” insult.
Mercifully furs are no longer prime fashion, a crushing bear-hug could have been on the cards.  Animal prints have long fascinated: could it be confirmation of the theory of evolution, humans’ relishing a flashback to their past, or just that Mother Nature was the original fashion designer. The fashion-fascination with the jungle has another manifestation: military forces came up with camouflage-patterned clothing so that they fitted in with their surroundings (Shakespeare had one army march carrying branches of foliage), now such patterns have celebrity-designers drooling. Back to the dress-code in the zoo near London (not London Zoo, please note): were we not told that animals in the wild relied on their highly-developed sense of smell as much as their vision? Perhaps the animals are zoo-bred, “domesticated” from birth, with their natural instincts negated. Tigers ingloriously reduced to pussy-cats.