India's nuclear battle

As George Bush urges India to push ahead with a highly controversial civil nuclear deal corruption a

US President George W Bush has urged India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push ahead with a controversial deal on nuclear power between the two countries in the wake of a key confidence vote in New Delhi.

The issue has divided opinion as supporters argue it is the only way to keep pace with the energy demands of India's fast-growing economy. But many remain deeply suspicious of a deal they fear will cede too much influence to America.

“The whole thing is not about what is best for the Indian people,” said Samil Kumar, a businessman from Calcutta. “It is about lining the pockets of politicians on both sides of this filthy covenant.”

For though India’s government may have survived this week's vote of confidence the win was marred by serious corruption allegations pouring fuel on the fire of already flaming suspicion.

The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came through by an unexpectedly high margin of 19 votes. Yet only hours before the vote took place there were scenes of high drama in the Lok Sabha parliament building when members of the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) marched up to the secretary general’s table and began pulling out large bundles of cash from a black holdall. They claimed the money, totalling 10 million rupees (£118,000) was the first installment of a 90 million rupee (£1.1 million) bribe paid to the party by government supporting politicians to ensure three BJP members would abstain from the crucial vote.

The vote was triggered after the government’s left-wing allies withdrew their support for the nuclear deal struck with the US in 2005. The pact will give India, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, access to US nuclear technology and fuel for civilian use. In return, India’s civilian nuclear facilities would be opened to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Those in favour of the deal argue it will help meet India’s escalating energy demands:

“Our economy has been growing at a rate of 8-9% over the last decade,” says Vishal Budda, an engineer from Delhi. “We simply need nuclear energy to keep the momentum running.”

Yet many Indians are suspicious of America’s interest as well as its intentions.

“This deal will just make us a junior partner of the U.S.,” says Vikram Mittal, President of the Haryana Student Federation of India. “America is trying to hijack our foreign and national policies. First it will be the nuclear deal, then it will be agricultural deals, then education- before we know it we will be another puppet of the U.S.”

India is under pressure from Washington to sign the accord before the U.S. presidential elections in November. Some think this pressure is an indication that America will be the real winners from this agreement.

“This deal will generate over 100 billion dollars worth of business for the U.S,” says Bhadra Kumar, a left-wing diplomat. “And it will also give them more power to maintain there dominance over the Muslim world if India is a close ally. But what do we get? Expensive power when our people are already going hungry.”

Many on the left suspect the deal has nothing to do with India’s energy needs.

“Nuclear power provides only 3 per cent of India’s current energy and this will not change massively in the near future,” says Mohammed Thallath, student of International Relations. “We have an abundance of natural resources here as well as energy security through the supply of gas from Iran. No, this is all about money - it may generate business for India but more importantly it will generate massive kickbacks for the politicians.”

India is indeed only too familiar with such corruption. A study by the campaign group Transparency International in 2005 found that more than 50 per cent of Indians had firsthand experience of paying a bribe or peddling influence to get a job done in public office. Even before the thick bundles of cash were waved around in the parliament building on Tuesday, there had been serious allegations of foul-play surrounding this vote. A week before, the leader of the Communist Party, A.B. Bhardan, argued it was no secret that votes were being exchanged for large amounts of money: “It is not a question of a few million but more than 250 million rupees (£3 million) for this horsetrading,” he said at a public meeting last week.

It is an indication of the importance of the deal with the US that both those in favour as well as those against the agreement have been trying desperately to woo members of parliament with promises of influence and lucrative jobs. One prominent MP, Ajit Singh, was even offered to have an airport named after his father, Charan Singh, a former prime minister. The government insisted the timing of this offer was purely coincidental.

As well as the cash, the BJP claim to have hidden camera footage of a member of the government-supporting Samajwadi Party (SP) handing them the money.

SP leader Amar Singh, one of the MP’s being accused, insists the allegations are baseless: “This is a conspiracy by the BJP. If they have such a tape why don’t they just show it?”

If the accusations are proven to be true it will prove a massive embarrassment for the government and its allies and those involved could face lengthy prison sentences under the 1988 Prevention of Corruption Act.

The BJP may be taking the high moral ground this time but the party is no stranger to corruption allegations itself. In 2001, the BJP’s president at the time, Bangaru Laxman, was caught on film casually accepting the equivalent of a £1500 bribe to give the go-ahead for the Indian military to buy hand-held thermal imaging cameras from journalists posing as arms dealers.

This high profile sting exposed an intricate web of official corruption which ran vertically to almost the very top of Indian politics. But after the initial uproar things soon returned to normal, the defence minister resigned only to be reinstated, and it became clear exposure made little difference.

The Indian government may have won its confidence vote but many Indians feel the chaotic scenes shown on Tuesday from inside the parliament, the first time a vote of this kind had been fully covered live on television, have left a permanent stain on India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy.

“It is so embarrassing,” says Monika Mehra, a shop worker from Delhi. “The whole world was watching that circus, I can only guess what they must be thinking about our country.”

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood