British Colonial Authorities in India “Eased Out” Vaccine Innovator

(p. 19) The story of Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, little told in the West beyond the world of bacteriology and within the annals of Judaica, is thrilling in its nobility and verve, and it might have better served Schama’s purpose had he devoted the entire book to the tale of a man he so clearly adores.

. . .

He was born in Odessa in 1860, and as a teenager was set to defending his community from the endless Russian pogroms. In time he moved to Switzerland and then to France, where he trained at the Pasteur Institute and, after studying paramecium, threw his energies into the scourge of cholera. He treated himself with an experimental vaccine and took off to India in 1893 to see how it worked.

That it did, brilliantly, and by today’s reckoning his invention saved millions. His more remarkable eventual success came five years later with a vaccine for eradicating bubonic plague.

Schama — by his own admission no biologist — describes the painstaking method of making a plague vaccine with enthralling technical precision. He writes of the gentle and respectful means of extracting the noxious fluids from the swollen buboes that dangled in the intimate parts of the infected and the dying; of the subsequent culturation process, in ghee-covered flasks of goat broth — no cow or pig could be used, since the vaccines would be given to Hindu and Muslim alike — and then of the nurturing of the resulting silky threads that held the trove of bacilli, ready to be injected.

Notwithstanding Haffkine’s immense contribution to India’s public health, the British colonial authorities, haughty and racist by turn, eventually wearied of the man. Their own means of dealing with infection had, after all, relied on brawn and bombast — the wholesale destruction of villages, the eviction of natives, the smothering of everything with lime and carbolic acid. Such schemes had generally failed, and it irritated the burra sahibs that a foreigner, and moreover a keen adherent to an alien belief, could succeed where they had not.

And so Haffkine was eased out, first from his Calcutta laboratory across to Bombay, and then out of the empire’s crown jewel altogether. He later went to Lausanne, where he would spend his final years.

For the full review, see:

Simon Winchester. “The Vaccinator.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, November 5, 2023): 19.

(Note: ellipsis added. In the original only the words “burra sahibs” are in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Oct. 28, 2023, and has the title “Not All Heroes Wear Capes. Some Prefer Lab Coats.”)

The book under review is:

Schama, Simon. Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations. New York: Ecco Press, 2023.

Swaminathan and Borlaug Crossbred Wheat Strains to End Starvation in India

(p. B12) M.S. Swaminathan, the eminent crop geneticist who fused plant breeding science with keen administrative skills to produce bountiful harvests that ended famine and steadily transformed India into one of the world’s top growers of wheat and rice, died on Thursday [Sept. 28, 2023] in Chennai, India.

. . .

The events that set Dr. Swaminathan’s path to global renown occurred in the early 1960s. As a plant geneticist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, he learned about the exceptional yields from new and sturdier wheat varieties that were being tested in Mexico by the American scientist Norman E. Borlaug.

Dr. Swaminathan was soft-spoken and had exquisite manners, but he could be persistent. He prodded the research institute’s chief executive to invite Dr. Borlaug to India. He arrived in 1963, and Dr. Swaminathan accompanied him on a tour of small farms in Punjab and Haryana, northwestern states that now are among the nation’s largest grain producers.

The two developed a productive partnership, with Dr. Swaminathan crossbreeding the Borlaug strains with other strains from Mexico and Japan. That genetic mixing resulted in a wheat variety with a strong stalk that produced a golden-colored flour favored by Indians.

. . .

Dr. Borlaug earned the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for developing the seeds that staved off mass starvation and fed the world. On receiving the prize, he commended his Indian collaborator: “To you, Dr. Swaminathan, a great deal of the credit must go for first recognizing the potential value of the Mexican dwarfs. Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a green revolution in Asia.”

Dr. Swaminathan delighted in rebuking the Malthusian projections that low yields and high population growth would produce mass starvation in India. In the 1960s, he recalled, “many books were published by doomsday experts. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the very famous population experts. They said Indians had no future unless a thermonuclear bomb kills them. Another group of experts said Indians would die like sheep going to the slaughterhouse. We decided this would not happen.”

For the full obituary, see:

Keith Schneider. “M. S. Swaminathan, 98, Scientist Who Helped End Famine in India, Is Dead.” The New York Times (Friday, September 29, 2023): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Sept. 28, 2023, and has the title “M. S. Swaminathan, Scientist Who Helped Conquer Famine in India, Dies at 98.”)

Builders of Untested Fragile R101 Airship Feared Revealing Danger to Head of British Air Ministry

The airships called “dirigibles” were sometimes also called “zeppelins” after their German inventor.

(p. 43) . . . zeppelins had fatal flaws. A single ignition source could turn one into a fireball, as British fighter pilots discovered once they started arming their planes with incendiary bullets. Explosive properties aside, dirigibles were all but uncontrollable in high winds and struggled to stay aloft when rain saturated their cloth skins, adding tons of extra weight.

. . .

That Britain persisted with its airship program owes much to the book’s main character, Lord Christopher Thomson, a retired brigadier and Labour Party politician who in 1923 was appointed to run the British Air Ministry. Witty, cultured and handsome, the India-born Thomson had a romantic vision of a “peaceful, air-linked world” that was closely tied to romance of a different sort. Thomson had for years been carrying on a long-distance affair with Marthe Bibesco, a ravishing (and married) Romanian princess and celebrated author. By 1930, during his second stint as air secretary, there was a chance he would be tapped as the next viceroy of India, a job that would take him even farther from his beloved. In Gwynne’s persuasive telling, Thomson believed that airships could save both the empire and his love life.

Thomson comes across as decent but hopelessly naïve, his faith in R101 based partly on bad information from the underlings responsible for building it. They knew the airship was too heavy, and that its gas bags — made from cow intestines — were prone to leakage. But with few exceptions they kept that knowledge to themselves, for fear of displeasing the boss.

It didn’t help that Thomson was on a tight schedule. Having claimed a berth on R101’s inaugural, round-trip voyage to India, he was determined to be back in London in time for a conference of colonial premiers, perhaps imagining a dramatic, Phileas Fogg-style entrance that would underscore the brilliance of his scheme. To accommodate him, flight tests were cut short, and the airship took off despite reports of bad weather along the route over France. There is reason to believe that the airship’s senior officer may have been drunk at the time.

For the full review, see:

John Lancaster. “Hot Air.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 4, 2023): 43.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 1, 2023, and has the title “When Ego Meets Hot Air, the Results Can Be Deadly.”)

The book under review is:

Gwynne, S. C. His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine. New York: Scribner, 2023.

The story of the competition between the privately-built R100 and the government-built R101 was earlier well-told in:

Squires, Arthur M. The Tender Ship: Government Management of Technological Change. Boston, Massachusetts: Birkhauser, 1986.

Heat Wave in India Causes Rise in Mortality

(p. A11) An unusually intense heat wave has swept across northern India in the last four days, with some hospitals in the state of Uttar Pradesh recording a higher-than-usual number of deaths. Doctors there are convinced there’s a link between the punishing temperatures and the deaths of their patients, but officials are investigating what role the dangerous combination of heat and humidity played in the rise in mortality.

For the full story, see:

Alex Travelli and Hari Kumar. “Northern India Endures a Heat Wave, and a Wave of Deaths, as a Possible Link Is Pondered.” The New York Times (Monday, June 19, 2023): A11.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 18, 2023, and has the title “Northern India Endures a Heat Wave, and a Wave of Deaths.”)

“An Inalienable Right to Sit In AC”

(p. C4) “Let’s sit in AC.” An American friend of mine, recently living in Mumbai, was wildly amused to hear this said in that steamy megalopolis, as if retreating to the tantalizing cool of an air-conditioned room were an activity in itself.

It took me a moment to see what he found so funny. I had grown up with the deprivations of socialist India in the 1980s. I was hardwired to fetishize air-conditioning. It was not an adjunct to life, sewn seamlessly into our daily routines, as it is in the U.S., where 82.7 million homes have central AC. It was, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant would say, the “thing-in-itself,” and to sit “in” AC was something of a national pastime.

. . .

Our first AC was an unbranded gimcrack contraption, jerry-built by a local electrician, but—my god!—how we loved it.

. . .

India loves to assert the demands of belonging through pacts of mutual suffering, and to be in AC was almost to be a little less Indian, as if you had decamped for the West. Even now that the country is the world’s fastest growing market for air-conditioners—projected by the International Energy Agency to be the biggest by 2050—the first line of attack from your average troll is: “What do you know of the realities of India, sitting in AC?”

. . .

. . . this summer, as newspapers report the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth and Amazon blasts me with discounts on their best-selling ACs, I cannot help feeling that our turn has come at a bad time. If nothing is done to make air-conditioning more energy-efficient, India alone is projected to use 30 times more electricity in 2030 than it did in 2010. Globally, air conditioning is projected to account for 40% of the growth in energy consumption in buildings by 2050—the equivalent of all the electricity used today in the U.S. and Germany combined. It’s enough to send a chill down the spine of the most ardent of AC evangelists.

The irony of a world made hotter by our need to be cool strikes some as proof of our rapacity. To me, having grown up in the place where so much of the new demand is coming from, I see it as part of a necessary realignment. As the global south gets richer, it will act as a frontier and laboratory. My hope is that it will achieve a miraculous breakthrough in energy efficiency, even as it asserts an inalienable right to sit in AC.

For the full commentary, see:

Aatish Taseer. “My Love Affair With Air- Conditioning.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 15, 2023): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 14, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Government Infrastructure Serves Elite More Than Ordinary Citizens

(p. A1) In a country where major industry and political fortunes alike are often tied to a vast, interwoven rail system, India has lavished public resources on new trains, but its purse strings have been much tighter when it comes to ensuring the safety of those already racing along its tracks.

Those decisions loomed large on Sunday [June 4, 2023] in the aftermath of a devastating train wreck that killed at least 275 people in eastern India.

. . .

Over the past years, India has been polishing its long-ramshackle infrastructure as never before, and its railways, which are at the heart of the world’s fifth-largest economy, have been a prime beneficiary. The government spent almost $30 billion on the rail system during the past fiscal year, up 15 percent from the year before.

But the amount spent on basic track maintenance and other safety measures has been falling. A report last year by India’s auditor general, an independent office, found that less money was being allocated for track renewal work and that officials had not even spent the full (p. A11) amount set aside.

. . .

. . . most of Mr. Modi’s initiatives have been aimed not at the basic steps needed to get trains from Point A to Point B without mishap, but at improving speed and comfort. He regularly extols higher-fare new electric Vande Bharat trains connecting bigger cities and has made an early priority of a Japanese-style bullet train, though it can do nothing to improve the lives of the country’s ordinary passengers.

For the full commentary, see:

Alex Travelli. “Rail Funding In India Put Upkeep Last.” The New York Times (Monday, June 5, 2023): A1 & A11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 18, 2023, and has the title “Money for Show Horses, Not Work Horses, on India’s Rails.”)

The Poor of Dharnai Want the Cheap Plentiful Electricity From the Coal-Powered Grid

(p. A17) Consider the experience of Dharnai, an Indian village that Greenpeace in 2014 tried to turn into the country’s first solar-powered community.

Greenpeace received glowing global media attention when it declared that Dharnai would refuse “to give into the trap of the fossil fuel industry.” But the day the village’s solar electricity was turned on, the batteries were drained within hours. One boy remembers being unable to do his homework early in the morning because there wasn’t enough power for his family’s one lamp.

Villagers were told not to use refrigerators or televisions because they would exhaust the system. They couldn’t use cookstoves and had to continue burning wood and dung, which creates air pollution as dangerous for a person’s health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, according to the World Health Organization. Across the developing world, millions die prematurely every year because of this indoor pollution.

In August 2014, Greenpeace invited one of the Indian’s state’s top politicians, who soon after become its chief minister, to admire the organization’s handiwork. He was met by a crowd waving signs and chanting that they wanted “real electricity” to replace this “fake electricity.”

When Dharnai was finally connected to the main power grid, which is overwhelmingly coal-powered, villagers quickly dropped their solar connections. An academic study found a big reason was that the grid’s electricity cost one-third of what the solar energy did. What’s more, it was plentiful enough to actually power such appliances as TV sets and stoves. Today, Dharnai’s disused solar-energy system is covered in thick dust, and the project site is a cattle shelter.

For the full commentary see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “The Rich World’s Climate Hypocrisy.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 21, 2022): A17.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 20, 2022, and has the title “Opinion: The Rich World’s Climate Hypocrisy.”)

Calcutta Commuters Avoid Slow Unreliable Trams Because “People Want to Move Fast”

(p. A4) “You get all the flavors of Calcutta here, so it’s the best way to travel,” said a medical student, Megha Roy, riding the tram with two friends. She used the Anglicized version of Kolkata, which residents deploy interchangeably with its current spelling and pronunciation.

The three friends had jumped onboard spontaneously, with no clear idea of where the tram was going, or when it was scheduled to get there. But it didn’t really matter. The ride itself was an unexpected treat.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” Ms. Roy said.

. . .

. . . the authorities say that while trams should remain a part of the transit mix, buses and the city’s metro system better serve 21st-century riders in the city of some 15 million people.

. . .

“Scientifically, economically, environmentally, there is no reason to convert the tramways for buses,” said Debasish Bhattacharyya, president of the Calcutta Tram Users’ Association.

But the scene at one tram stop suggested commuters may feel differently. Fewer than half a dozen people were waiting for the tram, while nearby, hundreds were piling onto buses that sagged under the weight of so many passengers, belching black plumes of diesel exhaust as they careened over the tram’s tracks and onto the street.

Admittedly, neither speed nor punctuality are hallmarks of the trams, which must contend with a mélange of traffic on their routes: trucks, buses, cars, vintage yellow Ambassador taxis, rickshaws manual and electric, pedestrians, herds of goats and the occasional cow.

“Nobody knows when the next car will come,” Mr. Bhattacharyya said. “They say this is the control room, but nothing is controlled, everything is scattered,” he said, gesturing to a hub of the tram system in central Kolkata.

. . .

Aboard a tram crawling along Lenin Sarani, one of central Kolkata’s main thoroughfares and named in honor of the Russian revolutionary, Sumit Chandra Banerjee, a ticket taker, said he looked forward to mandatory retirement when he turned 60 in October [2021].

. . .

Many of Kolkata’s urban landmarks — from cinemas and bookstores to museums and hospitals — were built near the tracks. One of those institutions was Das Gupta Books, founded in 1886.

Aranda Das Gupta, the shop’s fourth-generation managing director, called the tram a “beautiful journey,” while acknowledging that it takes “maximum time.”

“Nowadays,” he said, “people want to move fast.”

For the full story, see:

Emily Schmall. “INDIA DISPATCH; Kolkata Is Letting Its ‘Fairy Tale’ Trams Waste Away.” The New York Times (Friday, September 3, 2021): A4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 2, 2021, and has the title “INDIA DISPATCH; Kolkata’s ‘Fairy Tale’ Trams, Once Essential, Are Now a Neglected Relic.”)

“Old Pittsburgh Industrial Fortune” Sustained “Anti-Materialist Conceit of Auroville”

(p. C7) Utopias are not, by definition, found on this side of paradise. Yet that truth hasn’t stopped visionaries and seekers—not to mention knaves and fools—from trying to build communities on lofty principles and quixotic aspirations. One such wonderland is Auroville, a commune in India’s Tamil south whose heady origins can be traced to the incense-and-raga days of the 1960s. Akash Kapur’s “Better to Have Gone” is a haunting and elegant account of this attempt at utopia and of his family’s deep connections to it.

. . .

Mr. Kapur and his wife, Auralice—a name given to her by the Mother, who asserted the right to name all children born to her flock—both grew up in Auroville. Auralice was born in 1972, Mr. Kapur two years later. Auralice’s mother, Diane Maes, was a woman from rural Flanders who’d arrived at Auroville as an 18-year-old. Headstrong and flirtatious, she soon separated from the biological father of her daughter and took up with another Auroville man named John Walker, in many ways the book’s most compelling (and infuriating) character.

. . .

Unlike the bucolic Maes, Walker was born into privilege, his father the heir to an old Pittsburgh industrial fortune.

. . .

It’s easy to be irritated, even incensed at times, by Walker’s blithe aura of entitlement. The hardship of the early days at Auroville—when there was no running water or electricity—is mitigated in Walker’s case by his renting an air-conditioned room at a comfortable hotel in nearby Pondicherry. Whenever funds ran low, he wrote to his father for more.

Much of this money helped sustain the anti-materialist conceit of Auroville. The community depended on the bounty of rich residents like Walker, who placed their trust funds at the disposal of the Mother. Walker’s money paid for the drilling of wells, the building of roads and houses, the salaries of laborers, even Auroville’s bakery. He did not, of course, begrudge this parasitic relationship with utopia. Why would he? All he had to do was holler for dad.

For the full review, see:

Tunku Varadarajan. “Dawn of a New Humanity.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 24, 2021): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 23, 2021, and has the title “‘Better to Have Gone’ Review: Dawn of a New Humanity.”)

The book under review is:

Kapur, Akash. Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville. New York: Scribner, 2021.

India’s Tata “Paid a Harsh Price” for Keeping Distance from Government

(p. A15) Mr. Raianu, a historian at the University of Maryland, is guilty of no hype when he titles his book “Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism.”

. . .

No other company has dominated the history of its national commerce and industry quite as much as the house of Tata in India, where it is one of the few major businesses still regarded as unstained by overt corruption. Although family-run for most of its existence—the stubborn Indian norm for merchants—the Tata company was from an early date “unusual” among India’s corporate groups (Mr. Raianu says) in employing professional executives and “talented nonrelatives.” The company also “kept its distance from the state” in both colonial and postcolonial times. It gave only lukewarm support to the Indian National Congress, which meant that the Tatas had few political chips to cash when the Congress party came to govern a free India. It paid a harsh price for this aloofness when Air India—the Tatas’ thriving aviation arm—was nationalized by Prime Minister Nehru in 1953.

. . .

The Parsi character of the company has, in many ways, helped it to transcend the mud pit of Indian business. The Parsis are a minuscule community, numbering around 57,000 Indians today. Practitioners of Zoroastrianism, they fled to India in the eighth century when Persia came under the sway of Islam. They embraced Western ways more readily than other Indians and, as a result, thrived under the British. Parsis, writes Mr. Raianu, “typified the religious minority exempt from ritual restrictions of caste and guild systems, much like European Jews.” And so they were more ready to look outward—to foreign opportunities—than the hidebound Indian business castes.

For the full review, see:

Tunku Varadarajan. “BOOKSHELF; From Homestead to Hegemony.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, July 14, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 13, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Tata’ Review: From Homestead to Hegemony.”)

The book under review is:

Raianu, Mircea. Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021.

Unintended Consequences of Centralized Lockdown in India Spread Covid-19

(p. A1) SURAT, India — The crowds surged through the gates, fought their way up the stairs of the 160-year-old station, poured across the platforms and engulfed the trains.

It was May 5 [2020], around 10 a.m. Surat was beastly hot, 106 degrees. Thousands of migrant laborers were frantic to leave — loom operators, diamond polishers, mechanics, truck drivers, cooks, cleaners, the backbone of Surat’s economy. Two of them were Rabindra and Prafulla Behera, brothers and textile workers, who had arrived in Surat a decade ago in search of opportunity and were now fleeing disease and death.

. . .

They were among tens of millions of migrant workers stranded without work or food after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a national coronavirus lockdown in March. By spring and summer, these workers were so desperate that the government provided emergency trains to carry them back to their home villages. The trains were called Shramik Specials, because shramik means “laborer” in Hindi.

But they became the virus trains.

India has now reported more coronavirus cases than any country besides the United States. And it has become clear that the special trains operated by the government to ease suffering — and to counteract a disastrous lack of lockdown planning — instead played a significant role in spreading the coronavirus into almost every corner of the country.

The trains became contagion zones: Every passenger was supposed to be screened for Covid-19 before boarding but few if any were tested. Social distancing, if promised, was nonexistent, as men pressed into passenger cars for journeys that could last days. Then the trains disgorged passengers into distant villages, in regions that before had few if any coronavirus cases.

. . .

(p. A12) On March 24 [2020], at 8 p.m., Mr. Modi hit the lockdown switch. In a televised address, he ordered the entire nation to stay inside their homes for three weeks — starting in four hours.

The decision was pure Modi: sudden, dramatic and firm, like when he abruptly wiped out nearly 90 percent of India’s currency bills in 2016, a bolt-from-the-blue measure that he said was necessary to fight corruption but proved economically devastating.

Prafulla and Rabindra Behera had just finished a dinner of rice, lentils and potatoes, their usual fare. They lived in squalid, bare rooms in Surat’s industrial zone, sleeping wall to wall on the floor with a half dozen other laborers. Within minutes of Mr. Modi’s address, they started getting calls.

“Everyone was thinking the same: This will be over soon and somehow we’ll pass the days,” Rabindra said.

At the time, India had fewer than 600 known virus cases.

Many experts have criticized Mr. Modi’s government for overlooking the plight of migrant laborers, who suddenly had no work, no income and no support network in the cities. The government’s Covid-19 task force lacked migrant specialists and was hardly representative of India. Of its 21 members, only two were women and the rest were largely upper-caste men. Many of the migrant laborers came from lower castes and economically underprivileged backgrounds.

. . .

In Surat, the Behera brothers were down to their last bag of rice. They could not work — the factories were closed. But they weren’t allowed to leave the city, where virus cases were beginning to surge.

“We were trapped,” Rabindra said.

On May 1, India’s Labor Day, the railways ministry made a grand announcement: Shramik Specials. Routes were drawn up from Surat, Mumbai, Chennai, New Delhi, Ahmedabad and other cities deep into rural areas.

. . .

The Beheras were told they would quarantine for 21 days at a center and each was given a toothbrush, a slice of soap, a bucket to wash with and a thin sheet to sleep on.

But the next morning, Prafulla awoke with a splitting headache. A doctor didn’t think he had coronavirus but suggested, as a precaution, that he be moved into the courtyard, away from the other men.

The following morning, Prafulla could barely breathe and called his wife on his cellphone.

“Come and bring the girls,” he whispered. “I need to see you.”

An hour later, he was dead. A subsequent test revealed that Prafulla Behera was Ganjam’s first coronavirus death.

For the full story, see:

Jeffrey Gettleman, Suhasini Raj, Sameer Yasir, Karan Deep Singh and Atul Loke. “Rails Spread Virus as Workers Fled India’s Cities.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 16, 2020): A1 & A12-A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Feb. [sic] 2, 2021, and has the title “The Virus Trains: How Lockdown Chaos Spread Covid-19 Across India.”)