Lighting up the subcontinent

New renewable energy schemes in India promise an end to power cuts, but only if they receive interna

It looks more like a home-made space station than the future of Indian energy. Three giant, silver golf balls direct a patchwork of mirrors towards a thick steel cube. Nearby, a white beehive sits at the top of a long, black ramp. Standing next to these futuristic objects is a smartly dressed, smiling man. "They're quite simple, really," he explains. "The parabolic mirrors concentrate the sun's rays to a single point." With a flourish, he places a plank in front of the cube and, in seconds, it begins to smoke. "The beehive is a solar dryer for food or clothing. We've got tamarind in there today, but garlic works just as well."

Father Paul Mariadass runs a renewable energy consultancy in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. His company has recently installed two parabolic mirrors on the roof of the local hospital to sterilise surgical equipment. In a city where power cuts can last a week, reliability is crucial. Father Paul develops his projects in a small workshop that no longer needs the grid for its power. "I can leave the fans on all day and still operate all the heavy machinery except the welder," he says. I ask how he feels during a blackout, when the rest of the city is immersed in darkness. "When that happens, I feel like the most powerful man in Bihar."

Around 400 million people in India - the equivalent of the entire population of the United States - live without access to electricity. This energy poverty has an impact on every aspect of rural life, from road safety and snake­bites to adult literacy and local commerce. With the rapid onset of the tropical dusk, entire communities are forced to down tools; children have to put away their books; and shops must shut before darkness closes in.

A series of government-led power schemes is beginning to have an impact but, in a country of India's size, there will always be areas that are too remote to justify an expensive grid connection. Six hours from Father Paul's workshop lies one such village, Billouiri, which is surrounded by sodden green fields. Half a dozen men sit in the shade of a fragile straw roof, discussing the state elections and spitting volleys of bright-red paan. "We only get four hours now, but we were promised six," complains Sudhir Kumar, a 36-year-old farmer who is the most forthright of the group. "Of course, we're happy that the power plant has come, but we want to watch our televisions for longer."

Caste off

Six months ago, a company called Husk Power Systems arrived in the village with a proposition. For 80 rupees a month (just over £1), the villagers could receive six hours per day of just enough electricity to power two light bulbs and a mobile-phone charger. A few extra rupees allowed them to plug in a television. Several hundred households took up the offer and a small silver plant was built on the edge of the village to convert waste rice husk to a combustible gas that drives a small turbine.

This rapid development has shifted Kumar's priorities. I ask him to name the most significant issue facing his village in the state elections. "Caste," he replies, but then quickly checks himself. "No, irrigation. It used to be caste, but other things are more pressing now." Long-time observers of Bihar's political scene have noticed a big shift in these elections - a move away from the point-scoring of the past towards real discussion of infrastructure and development. The politics of birthright still looms large, but roads, schools and electricity are slowly beginning to take precedence.

For small companies such as Husk Power Systems, India's energy crisis is a tantalising business opportunity. One of its directors, Alok Bhushan, explains: "We understand the dynamics of the rural economy and the mentality of the people. Whatever hasn't been seen, whatever hasn't been heard - it takes time for an individual to perceive it, to understand it. But once it's up and running, people are happy to pay for reliable power."

Since its inception in 2007, the company has built 60 plants in Bihar, powering 125 villages. Bhushan has bold plans to expand across the state and into the rest of India; the company's latest target is for 2,014 plants by 2014.

If there's a catch, it is that Husk Power Systems is something of a one-off. Run by a team with an array of international MBAs, the company has won support from the World Bank, a US venture capital firm and the Shell Foundation. It is now applying for funding through the much-maligned Clean Development Mechanism, a demanding UN process for generating tradable carbon credits. All these applications require time and a detailed understanding of what will satisfy the moneymen in London and New York - an elite skill.

Green light

The priority for the Indian government must be to help other, less savvy companies to benefit from the coming wave of international support. The environment ministers who are meeting in the latest round of UN climate negotiations (COP16) in Cancún, Mexico, are attempting to atone for the disastrous lack of progress at Copenhagen last year. This year's summit, held between 29 November and 10 December, is focusing on finance - specifically, how to generate around $100bn annually to tackle climate change over the next decade.

Part of this money, if it materialises, is expected to provide low-interest loans and microfinance for small energy projects. Right now, the debate is stuck. Rich countries are refusing to commit to a definite figure until developing nations show exactly how the money will be spent.

This diplomatic dance in the UN meeting rooms will have a big impact on clean energy companies around the world. Siddharth Pathak, a policy expert at Greenpeace India, believes his country has a major role to play. "Huge developing economies such as India's are at a crossroads and they need to show the international community that the world has a choice. Down one path lie fossil fuels, outdated technology and high emissions. The other promises a new approach, with innovation in clean energy and a concerted effort to leapfrog the polluting industries of the past. But for this to happen, we need to see courage on both sides. A truly global perspective is the only thing that will break the deadlock."

It can be hard to cut through the jargon of fungible carbon credits and seed-stage funding to see what's at stake in these talks. At the end of our interview, Bhushan describes a recent trip through an area where his rice-husk plants are up and running.

“These villages are being lit up in the darkness and it gives you immense satisfaction. The best part is seeing individuals just doing what they are supposed to do. That is what drives me and the whole team. Kids would otherwise be hurting themselves badly. There have been so many examples of burns and deaths through kerosene; it's highly unsafe. Once you see all that changing, it's a really great feeling."

James Turner is a campaigner for Greenpeace

A COP out? From Kyoto to Cancún

Last December, the world's media watched as the climate summit in Copenhagen collapsed amid diplomatic wrangling and point-scoring. The end product was the Copenhagen Accord, which bound members to little more than "taking note" of the need to limit global temperature increases to 2°C.

With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2012, the Cancún climate summit this month aims to lay the foundations for a binding agreement on carbon emissions that will extend beyond that year. Any deal has to be agreeable to rich and poor nations alike and, most significantly, the US and China, the world's two biggest polluters.

China - which some portray as the main obstacle to a successful deal in Copenhagen - has made positive noises over an agreement in Mexico, but
is expected to comply only if certain conditions are met.

The Copenhagen Accord contained pledges of $30bn for developing countries to fight climate change. Chinese concessions are dependent on this fund switching from pledges to reality.

A new UN plan to tax carbon emissions will be aired for the first time at the summit. Yet the chance of a binding deal is complicated by the US domestic political situation: a Republican-controlled Congress makes it unlikely such legislation will pass.
Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle