Selected writing: Other

The New Face of Tibet

6th August, 2011

Next week the Dalai Lama steps down as political leader of Tibet-in-exile. His successor is an energetic Harvard lawyer who is also the son of a Buddhist monk and is a former “hardcore activist”. So will Lobsang Sangay be a tough operator in his country’s conflict with China? By Christine Toomey.

Lobsang Sangay doesn’t know the exact day on which he was born. Nor did most of the small boys and girls who turned up with him for their first day of school, clutching the hands of parents too traumatised to truly mark such things as birthdays. But were it not for the bloodshed his father had witnessed, Sangay would not have been born at all. For more than twenty years before his son’s birth in 1968 his father had been a Buddhist monk in a remote monastery in Tibet.

When it came to entering Sangay’s details in the school register his parents nominated the day of his birth as March 10th. So did the parents of a third of his classmates. To Tibetans March 10th is known as National Uprising Day, marking the height of the 1959 armed rebellion against Chinese domination of their ancient homeland.

“The story of my life as a refugee is all there in not even knowing my own birthday,” Sangay reflects with the air of a man well acquainted with hardship.

Out of the window of the small plane in which we are flying towards the North Indian hill station of Dharamshala, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas loom into view. None of the other passengers on the plane give Sangay a second glance. But while he may still be a complete unknown, in a matter of days he will step into the shoes of one of the most instantly recognisable figures on the planet.

On August 8th this towering, talkative and engaging 43-year-old will take over the temporal duties of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who stunned his devotees last March when he announced that he would be retiring this summer from his role as political leader of the exiled Tibetan movement he has spearheaded for the past five decades.

The story of how this has come about unfolds as our plane follows the line of the Himalayas north. Sangay talks in painful detail of the events that forced his parents to trek across these mountains when resistance to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army proved futile. For years before this the PLA had been brutalising Tibet, especially targeting monasteries and nunneries in an attempt to break the people’s deep Buddhist faith and bring the strategically critical territory within the communist fold.

As a boy Sangay recalls his father talking of a river close to his monastery in eastern Tibet running red with the blood of slaughtered monks. It was in the face of such savagery that his father abandoned monastic orders and briefly became a resistance fighter before joining the tens of thousands of Tibetans who fled across the Himalayas into Nepal, following their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama into exile.

Thousands of exiled Tibetans endured backbreaking work as hard labourers or scraped a living from small plots of land surrounding makeshift refugee camps. Children were born in haphazard conditions. Sangay and his two younger siblings were raised close to one of these camps in Darjeeling, West Bengal, where his father had met and married his mother after she was abandoned as a teenager because she had broken a leg while fleeing across the Himalayas.

Despite such harsh origins Sangay fought his way out poverty through academic graft. When he excelled at school his parents sold one of the family’s three cows to pay for his education. After a stint at university in Delhi, he won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, remaining there as a senior research fellow, living a privileged western lifestyle, for the past fifteen years. Then his life took an extraordinary turn when the Dalai Lama made his surprise announcement on March 10th – Sangay’s 43rd “birthday”.

Sangay was in Dharamshala at the time. For months he had been campaigning for a post called the Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister, of the Tibetan government-in-exile, a role that has traditionally been little more than an administrative post within an organisation largely subordinate to the Dalai Lama himself. Sangay had been encouraged to put himself forward by those who wanted to see a younger layperson in the role that had previously been held only by senior Buddhist priests.

In recent years Tibet has been rocked by demonstrations against the discrimination suffered by the six million Tibetans who now find themselves living within China. Two thirds of them live far beyond the borders of what the Chinese euphemistically call the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which covers only half of what Tibetans claim as their ancient territory.

Since the violent crackdown on protestors on the streets of Llasa in 2008, human rights groups report there are now more Tibetan political prisoners in Chinese jails than at any time in recent history. According to GuChuSum, an organisation which helps former political prisoners who have escaped from Tibet, there were at least 824 named political prisoners in detention in March 2011. The whereabouts of many more is unknown.

In the face of such unrest and tensions amongst those in the 145,000 strong exile community around the world, Sangay was seen as a much-needed, dynamic, and highly qualified shot in the arm for the exile leadership. At Harvard he specialised in international human rights law and much of his energy has been devoted to bringing Tibetan and Chinese academics together.

Yet little had prepared Sangay for the Dalai Lama’s retirement announcement. For the past three hundred years, successive Dalai Lamas have fulfilled the dual role of supreme spiritual guide and political figurehead. But as the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has slipped further into old age, the 76-year-old has made it increasingly clear he wants to end the “culture of dependency” that has grown around him.

“As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect,” he announced on March 10th. In future, he declared, political leadership will rest with whoever is elected Kalon Tripa.

When Sangay heard these words he sank into “denial mode”. “That day was the start of a real emotional roller coaster, many anxious moments and a lot of introspection,” he says. “I realised, if what His Holiness was saying went through it could be me stepping into his shoes.” Several weeks later his anxiety proved well founded. On April 26th the results of a poll conducted over several months within the exile community elected Sangay as the next Kalon Tripa.

When I ask Sangay how he now feels about taking over the temporal duties of a man regarded by his followers as a living god at a time when Tibet stands at such a critical crossroads Sangay replies that it is his “leh”, or karmic destiny.

Despite this self-effacing manner, those who know Sangay describe him as “extremely ambitious”, an unusual trait in Tibetan culture, which values humility as one of the highest virtues. Married to a descendent of one of the founding kings of Tibet, he and his wife, also born in exile, have a three-year-old daughter. He plans to move his family to Dharamsala once he takes up his new position.

Sangay tells a touching story of how hard it had been, given his impoverished background, to win the approval of his wife’s parents for her hand in marriage. “I told my wife’s father “I am nothing now and maybe I don’t deserve your daughter. But one day I’ll show you I will be someone.” Fortunately he took me at my word,” he says, a broad smile spreading across his handsome features.

As our plane touches down Sangay slips on a pair of aviator sunglasses and emerges onto the tarmac swinging his finely cut suit jacket over his towering, athletic frame – he has become an avid American baseball fan. A starker contrast to the balding, be-robed holy man whose political role he is about to assume would be harder to imagine.

While to the Chinese authorities who rule Tibet with an iron fist the Dalai Lama is “a wolf wrapped in robes, a monster with a human face and an animal’s heart”, to millions of Buddhists around the world he is the 14th reincarnation of the supreme Buddha of Compassion. Globally he is regarded as an icon for peace; in 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his consistent opposition to violence in his quest for Tibetan self-rule. These are large shoes to fill.

Despite Sangay’s insistence that he will continue to support the Dalai Lama’s long-held stance for peaceful negotiations – the so-called “Middle Way” – some point to his praise for the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Arab world as an indication this could change in future. “The new leader (of Tibet) will have to take advantage of the changes in the Muslim world. When the opportunity presents itself, one must take advantage,” he said while campaigning, leading some to speculate whether Tibet could also face its equivalent of the “Arab Spring”.

Until now the moral weight the Dalai Lama has carried has kept a lid on the situation becoming more volatile. One sign of the concern many feel at the prospect of this restraining influence diminishing are the pleas, culminating in a formal petition by the government-in-exile, that he change his mind about ceding his temporal power. When the Dalai Lama refused, he was asked to consider continuing as a “ceremonial head of state” with a constitutional role similar to that of the British monarchy. “If you give me a queen, maybe I will reconsider,” the aging monk quipped before firmly declining the request.

While his supporters laud the Dalai Lama’s decision to democratise his people’s leadership, at a time when autocrats around the world are brutally clinging onto power, a few outspoken critics believe now is not the time for him to go. “I see nothing wonderful in a shepherd abandoning his flock mid-way through the desert,” says Llasang Tsering, a former president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, who refers to himself as “the resident devil” of Dharamshala because he dares voice a different view from the Dalai Lama’s.

Tsering believes it is time for Tibetans to admit that the Middle Way has not worked and change to more confrontational tactics. “China has no need to negotiate with a bunch of poor refugees,” he argues. “People are dying for true freedom in Tibet and they need international support. They need it now before it is too late. Tibet is not just about the fate of 6 million people it is about control of the roof of the world, an area two-thirds the size of Europe with vast mineral reserves, where all the major rivers of Asia have their source and where China has untold numbers of strategic missile bases.” From the point of view of Beijing, which has just celebrated its 60th anniversary of “the peaceful liberation of Tibet”, China brought “democracy” to a benighted and backward nation of serfs, while today providing the region with modernity and development through huge amounts of investment.

But given China’s economic clout and the fact that Beijing threatens ill-defined consequences for any country that agrees to formal contact with the Dalai Lama, a sudden wave of official support for Tibet by the international community seems a forlorn hope. Despite being feted as a man of peace, not least by adoring Hollywood stars, most of the Dalai Lama’s contact with foreign leaders is in an informal capacity as a religious figurehead. This spiritual back door will not be open to Sangay.

In addition to battling international indifference Sangay will also have to contend with increasing tensions between older and younger Tibetans. Growing numbers of the younger generation – increasingly frustrated, tech-savvy and radical – now support full independence. “Tibetan youngsters are increasingly educated and aware of their rights. They are fed up of Tibetans being depicted as some kind of exotic tribe,” says Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan writer and freedom activist.

Within Tibet the young are resorting to desperate measures. On March 16th a 20-year-old monk at Kirti monastery in the far north set himself alight, later dying of his injuries, in protest at growing Chinese repression. This led to 300 monks from this one institution alone being arrested and taken to an unknown location. “According to our Buddhist faith we should cause neither others nor ourselves harm, so suicide is considered gravely wrong. But the situation in Tibet is now so critical people are feeling desperate,” says Kanyag Tsering a senior monk at an affiliated monastery in Dharamshala.

The treatment those arrested can expect is graphically illustrated by one former nun who escaped from Tibet via Nepal in 2004. She is still so traumatised she requests to meet on a remote hillside in Dharamshala where no-one can overhear us. After being arrested when she was 16, Nyima, now 32, describes how she was tortured in prison for five years. In summer she was forced to stand all day outside on a box with sheets of newspaper stuck under her armpits and between her legs – if the newspapers slipped she was savagely beaten. In winter she had to stand barefoot on blocks of ice until her skin peeled away from the bone. When she substituted the words of a song in praise of Chairman Mao for her own version paying tribute to the Dalai Lama she was locked in solitary confinement for twenty one months. “I want people to know what is happening inside Tibet. If people know this how can they not help,” she says in a voice barely louder than a whisper.  “It’s true we need urgent help. Time is running out. Very soon Tibet will be nothing more than a giant museum, our culture will effectively be dead,” concludes Kanyag Tsering.

Despite such desperation Sangay insists he will stick to pacifist principles in tackling the leadership challenge he now faces. “Look what Gandhi achieved with his non-violent movement! I do believe eventually Tibet can succeed too. If it does, this will be the most beautiful story of the twenty first century,” he says throwing his arms in the air as if in supplication. Shifting geo-politics, he argues, will eventually lead to a break-through in the impasse in Chinese-Tibetan relations.

It is a cautious and conciliatory argument. But Sangay gives the impression of a man who plays his cards close to his chest. He is clearly a shrewd operator. In a culture that frowns on self-promotion he delights in describing how he campaigned for the post of Kalon Tripa by “not campaigning”, instead touring refugee communities throughout India giving lectures so that his face was more instantly recognisable than his rivals at the polls.

In his youth Sangay admits he was a “hard-core activist”, his early student days frequently interrupted by short spells in jail for protesting in favour of Tibetan independence. He claims he has mellowed with age, quoting Churchill’s adage that if you’re not liberal when you are young you have no heart and if you’re are not conservative by 40 you have no head.

The only flicker of what Sangay really feels about the Chinese regime comes in an anecdote about how he requested permission to travel to Llasa several years ago – like most exiles below the age of 50 he has never set foot inside Tibet. Following the death of his father, he wanted to travel to the Tibetan capital to light a traditional butter lamp in his memory. He was refused. “That was very painful,” says Sangay. “I realised then what sort of people I was dealing with.”

Sangay does go on to admit, however, that if the stalemate in negotiations with the Chinese continues “and the people want me to change policy I will.” “That doesn’t mean I’m advocating official policy should change. But wherever there is repression there is resistance,” he concludes, drawing on another well-worn quote – this time from Tibet’s former nemesis Mao Zedong.

Given this possibility that the Dalai Lama’s political successor could adopt a much tougher position in future the question of who will one day take over as Tibet’s spiritual leader becomes ever more pressing. Few doubt Beijing will attempt to install its own handpicked spiritual successor. Flying in the face of centuries of tradition, during which successive Dalai Lamas have been recognised through a mysterious process of prayer and divination, the officially atheist Chinese government saw no irony in announcing in 2007 that it alone has the right to determine who will succeed Tenzin Gyatso.

Meanwhile the Dalai Lama himself is said to be considering alternative scenarios for his spiritual succession. According to his nephew and official spokesman, Tenzin Takhla, his uncle will be convening the latest of several meetings of senior lamas to discuss this in Dharamshala in September. “Right now there is no urgency and most Tibetans don’t even want to think about it. The important thing now is to let everything surrounding the change in political leadership settle down,” says Takhla, seated in a sunlit antechamber of the Dalai Lama’s private residence. “But this is something that His Holiness has been thinking about for some time.”

* * * * *

Twenty kilometres along a deeply rutted road from Dharamshala, one possible successor to the Dalai Lama sits under virtual house arrest. Ever since his dramatic escape from Tibet in January 2000 at the age of fourteen, after days of treacherous driving through mountain passes, trekking around checkpoints and a spell on horseback, Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been treated with deep suspicion by the Indian authorities. Security agents are permanently posted outside his private quarters at the Gyuto monastery in Sidhbara.

As head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, Dorje is one of two claimants to the title of the 17th Karmapa, a reincarnation of Buddha pre-dating that of the Dalai Lama by more than two hundred years. After the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama – the second highest-ranking lama of the Gelug order – the Karmapa is widely regarded as third in line in the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy, in as much as such an esoteric order exists.

The position of Karmapa took on greater significance, however, after the mysterious disappearance in Tibet of five-year-old Gendun Choekyi Nyima, identified by the Dalai Lama through traditional divination as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995. Shortly after his selection the boy was detained by the Chinese authorities and has not been seen since; despite Chinese claims that he is now living quietly with his family somewhere in Tibet. The five-year-old son of two Communist Party members subsequently appointed by the Chinese as their choice for Panchen Lama is rejected by devout Tibetans.

Following Dorje’s escape from Tibet, the Indian authorities threw doubt on whether China would have allowed such a senior religious figure to flee. Rumours started circulating that he was a Chinese spy. Indian courts have since recognised a Tibetan exile two years older than Dorje as the legal heir to the role of Karmapa, although the Dalai Lama recognises Dorje as the true holder of the title.

Dorje’s position was further complicated earlier this year when more than $1million in foreign currencies, much of it in Chinese yuan, was found stashed in trunks at Gyuto monastery. Sensational headlines in the Indian press questioning whether he was a Chinese “mole” brought calls from the Dalai Lama and others in the exile community for the money to be properly accounted for.

According to the Karmapa’s entourage the money came from unsolicited donations from devotees trying to help him build a new monastery. The money had not been deposited in bank accounts, they explained, because of the bureaucratic nightmare Tibetans face conducting any transactions in a country where, as refugees, they have little legal status. Even though this explanation was widely accepted, Dorje is still treated with suspicion by the Indian administration, which closely controls public access to him.

Against this background I expect the Karmapa to be extremely guarded. On the contrary he seems relieved to have the opportunity to address the allegations. On a brief visit to the United States in 2008, Dorje, 25, was introduced at one event as “His Hotness” because of his youthful good looks. Much has been made of his reported penchant for video games and X-Men comics.

But on the morning we meet he appears serious and studious in his monk’s robes and rimless glasses, the only nod to worldliness immaculately manicured nails. Seated in a small airy room at the apex of Gyuto monastery, an interpreter at his feet, Dorje is quick to answer the allegation that he is a Chinese spy, describing it as “hurtful to the core”.

“I am a full blooded Tibetan and for any Tibetan to be accused of being a Chinese spy there can be nothing worse. As a practitioner of Buddhist Dharma I have trained not to harm others. So to say that I came here to harm India and threaten national security, nothing can make a deeper wound,” he says. “When I escaped Tibet I was prepared that I could be killed at any moment so I was prepared for feelings of concern and fear and doubt. But I was not prepared for what I have had to face here. For anyone this would be difficult to forget.”

When I ask the Karmapa what he thinks of one of the possibilities suggested to me by Tenzin Takhla, that he could one day become the next Dalai Lama, Dorje dismisses it saying “No-one can be the Dalai Lama except the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. He is the one and only.” He has heard nothing, he says, of the imminent discussions to consider the Dalai Lama’s eventual spiritual succession. In the past the Dalai Lama has also raised the prospect that the role could die with him if the Tibetan people felt they had no use for another Dalai Lama after his death. He has also spoken of the possibility of a female successor, adding that if this were to happen he hoped the woman would be beautiful.

Following the Chinese government’s decree that only it can decide who will succeed the Dalai Lama, however, the prospect of a “duel of the Dalai Lamas” in future looms. Dorje says he is confident the Dalai Lama will make a very clear statement about his spiritual succession when the time is right “so there will be no opportunity for manipulation.” Sangay too is adamant that if the Chinese authorities appoint their own Dalai Lama they will fail “just as they are failing with their Panchen Lama,” who he describes as “a parrot in a golden cage in Beijing.”

For a culture based on Buddhist principles of tolerance, compassion and non-violence, however, all this uncertainty over the future direction of both spiritual and political leadership augurs gathering storm clouds over Tibet. For all the Dalai Lama’s messages of peace in evidence there is now a more forceful mantra pinned up everywhere in Dharamshala. “No matter what is happening. No matter what is going on around you,” it reads. “Never give up! Never give up!”

Photographs by Daniel Berehulak

Rites of passage

May 7, 2009

From birth to gap years, says Christine Toomey, it’s vital to mark key events in a child’s life

There are times in our lives and the lives of our children that change us for ever; the moment of their birth being the most profound and widely recognised by society. Regardless of religious faith, or lack of it, both private celebrations and public formalities surrounding the birth of a child are universal.

So I was struck by the recent heated debate surrounding the proposal — in the wake of a damning report by the Children’s Society on the state of Britain’s youth — that parents in this country undertake a civil birth ceremony when their child is born at which they formally acknowledge and accept the full responsibilities of parenthood. Perhaps the furore hit a personal chord because I found myself grappling with how to mark another milestone at the opposite end of the parenting spectrum — that of my daughter flying the coop.

Following a well-worn gap-year tradition, she and her boyfriend had just set off for six months, journeying through Latin America from Buenos Aires north to Havana, moving as the spirit takes them, and as their small pot of earnings and Foreign Office travel advisories allow. In my daughter’s case, you could argue that such extended wandering has some educational focus, given she will embark on a degree in Hispanic studies in the autumn. But the real intention of their trip is far more fundamental to human nature.

Throughout the ages the restless young have ventured abroad in search not only of adventure but also a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. It is the urge that lies at the core of centuries of mythology. There is also the underlying desire to make a leap from the parental nest and spread wings of independence.

As one wise observer remarked before my daughter and her boyfriend left, just how far they fly could be interpreted as a mark of how deeply this desire is felt. So, as they hop on and off buses the length of South America and we stay in touch almost daily by text message, e-mail and the occasional video linkup via Skype, I find myself wondering if this wealth of new technology is, to an extent, undermining the purpose of their travels.

Nevertheless, in advance of their return, I find myself yearning to recognise their having made this break with some symbolic gesture. I have always been keen to mark rites of passage in my daughter’s life. As a foreign correspondent for this newspaper for more than 20 years, it is little surprise I have chosen travel to commemorate such memorable transitions.

When my daughter reached puberty, for instance, in order to celebrate her growing maturity, rather than have her see it as the beginning of “the curse”, we paid a visit to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And in the summer she truly seemed to be turning into a young woman, we shared a rare time of peace and reflection sleeping under the stars at a Bedouin camp in the Sinai desert. At other important moments in my daughter’s life I have written her letters, which I know she treasures and rereads, as talismans for the future.

But still I find myself longing to be able to place some of these private celebrations within a more formal framework, and wonder what we have lost as a society by failing to recognise more publicly significant events in both our own life cycles and those of our children.

More traditional societies, and many religions, are still rich with rituals marking an individual’s passage from one stage of life to another. But in the absence of many substantial rites of passage in the West, particularly regarding transition from childhood to adulthood, kids make up their own — like flying thousands of miles to trek through the jungles of South and Central America.

The scholar Arnold van Gennep, whose book Les Rites de Passage, published a hundred years ago, formed the backdrop for much anthropological work on the subject, envisaged life in society as a house with many rooms in which an individual needs to be moved from one to another by formal ceremony.

Perhaps, in addition to a civil birth ceremony — where, using van Gennep’s analogy, an infant is conveyed from the metaphorical bedroom into the kitchen for nurturing — there could be some sort of “cutting the apron strings” rite where a grown child is ushered from the kitchen into the garden of life, in full knowledge that this transition does not preclude them returning regularly with bags full of washing.

The vows could include one where a parent formally acknowledges that their job is, in many ways but financial, largely done and promises to let go. Another could involve the child accepting responsibility for his or her own life from then on. It could also, if they wished, include forgiveness for parental mistakes and offer thanks for help given along the way, as my daughter has done in sweet terms as she travels. All this on the understanding that the latter, at least, is unnecessary, since that help was part of a spoken, or unspoken, parental promise when they were born.

The Maldives: Trouble in paradise

February 1, 2009

Rising seas are threatening to engulf the Maldives, so the president wants to buy a new homeland for his people. But should he instead be looking to build a new one on the grave of the old?

It is 1990 and a young writer sits in solitary confinement, his hands and feet shackled inside a metal tube, known as the “hot cell”. It is designed to heat up like an oven in the tropical sun. His food is deliberately laced with broken glass and laxatives, and he is repeatedly beaten — he has dared to openly criticise his country’s political elite. Through a slit in the metal walls he can see a sliver of ocean on the horizon. This is his only comfort. It is, he says, what opened his imagination, led him to think about a better future for his country.

Just a short distance from the small prison island where he is held, a paradise is being carefully crafted. The small knots of low-lying islands and coral-reef atolls that make up the Maldives are being engineered into one of the world’s most romantic tourist destinations.

Exclusive resorts are taking over many of the 1,200 tiny isles grouped in 26 coral atolls. Stilted luxury villas snake across translucent waters teeming with exotic marine life; glass floor panels have been installed underfoot in many. The trademark of these tourist oases is that no visitor’s request for pampering is considered too onerous. And the guest books will fill with the signatures of world-famous leaders and celebrities in the years to come. The daily grind for most Maldivians — prohibited from visiting these resorts to prevent what the government calls “cultural contamination” — was different. Little tourist revenue filtered down, and all dissent was brutally quashed. Those who criticised the country’s president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — who ruled his country with an iron fist from 1978, and became Asia’s longest-serving leader — were beaten and thrown in jail.

The number of inmates on prison islands like Dhoonidhoo, where the young writer was held, burgeoned. Corruption was rife, and drugs, with their related crime and violence, were allowed to flow into the country virtually unchecked.

Islanders in the more remote atolls still led the traditional life, living in single-storey homes built of coral fragments on streets made of sand with the sea never far away. Most survived from fishing and trading, taking advantage of the strategic position of their small nation, once a British protectorate, at an important shipping crossroads 400 miles off the southwest tip of Sri Lanka.

But as the population expanded, more and more people moved to the capital, Male, an island of less than a square mile, where overcrowding in low-quality apartment blocks became so acute that families were forced to sleep in shifts. Mountains of garbage accumulated in the streets and raw sewage was pumped into the sea.

In 1989, Gayoom’s government hosted the first-ever conference of small island states threatened by sea-level rises. The serious threat of global warming was only just coming onto the public radar, but Gayoom paid little attention. His priority was promoting tourist development. Now, 20 years later, Gayoom has gone, and a new menace threatens the Maldives. The battle for democracy has been won — but the battle against the force of nature is just beginning.

The young writer repeatedly tortured and imprisoned 20 years ago is strapped into the seat beside me as our plane lifts away from Male. His name is Mohamed Nasheed and he has only recently been elected president of the Maldives. Pointing out of the window at a seemingly uninhabited teardrop of green below, he shows me the prison island of Dhoonidhoo, where he was held the first of 13 times he was jailed for dissent. It is then that he begins talking about the effect his incarceration there had on his determination to “think big”.

“All you have to do when you are in prison is think, and even then I knew we were going to need dramatic solutions to the problems my country faces,” says Nasheed, a slightly built man of 41 with a high-pitched voice.

In 2004 the former dissident was granted political asylum in the UK, and it was here that he consolidated his opposition movement, finally overthrowing Gayoom in elections in October 2008. When we meet, the man his countrymen call “Anni” has had little time to introduce many changes. But one of his “big ideas” has grabbed global attention. Shortly after taking office, Nasheed made the dramatic announcement that he intends to start banking enough tourist pounds and dollars to buy a new safe homeland in which to relocate his 386,000 citizens when — not if — rising sea levels make the Maldives uninhabitable. Tracts of land in Australia, India and Sri Lanka are said to be under consideration for purchase. Nasheed’s plan caught the attention of the world’s media and led to a flurry of doomsday headlines painting a picture of a nation packing their bags and decamping en masse, waves lapping at their ankles. The truth, as always, is more complex.

According to the latest scientific estimates, sea levels are expected to rise worldwide by up to 60 centimetres by the end of this century as a result of climbing temperatures and shifting weather patterns associated with the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And this does not even take into account how much further sea levels could rise if the ice sheets of Greenland and west Antarctica start melting at ever more rapid rates.

But is it really feasible for an entire country to relocate itself to higher land? If so, how long would it be before it became necessary, and how do its people feel about such a prospect?

Nasheed leads me to his modest office at the back of the presidential complex. He refuses to use the opulent rooms Gayoom once occupied and plans to turn the sumptuous presidential palace into his country’s first university; one reason he thinks the Maldives has so many environmental problems is that Gayoom actively discouraged academic research and scientific inquiry among his countrymen, on the grounds that too much critical thinking could threaten his hold on power.

Nasheed explains that he has just received a visitor from Dubai. The businessman from the global investment company Dubai World — the company responsible for such futuristic land-reclamation projects in the United Arab Emirates as the Palm Islands and the World — had come to discuss the possibility of building underwater resorts for well-heeled tourists in the Maldives.

The president is reluctant to discuss the details. But one thing is clear: for those with money, whatever problems climate change brings will be regarded as little more than a financial challenge to be overcome with elaborate solutions. This is not the case for the majority of Maldivians. The country’s reputation as the richest nation in South Asia is misleading: its £3,100 GDP per head is unevenly spread; 42% of the population still live close to the poverty line.

“Every evil you think a society could have has found a home here in the Maldives,” Nasheed says. “We have inherited beautiful buildings from the previous regime, but almost empty coffers. There is an acute shortage of housing, sanitation, water, health, education, transport and basic infrastructures for a decent life.”

In addition, 30% of the country’s youth (and 75% of the population is below 35 years old) are now heroin addicts. Faced with such pressing social concerns, it seems surprising that Nasheed should give any thought to the long-term problems his country faces. “We’re in the front line of rising sea levels and we have to be prepared. I don’t want my grandchildren to end up as environmental refugees,” explains the president, who has two daughters aged 6 and 11.

The Maldives faced their first serious environmental wake-up call in 1998 when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño caused sea temperatures to rise to such a degree that normally vibrantly coloured tropical coral reefs around the globe suffered extensive bleaching, which causes the algae they feed on to migrate or die. Nowhere was this more dramatic than in the Maldives. Between 70% and 90% of all coral reefs surrounding the country’s 26 atolls are estimated to have died as a result. One diver swimming the length of reefs in North Male atoll at the time described it as an underwater equivalent of the snowcapped Alps.

Once the reefs died, coastal erosion escalated and the islands were left more exposed to the elements of nature than ever. Their vulnerability was graphically illustrated in December 2004, when the Maldives offered the tsunami of that Christmas scant resistance — it simply swept over them. With little of the damaging backwash that caused so much destruction in other Indian Ocean countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, the death toll in the Maldives — where 82 died and 15,000 were displaced — was low. But the tragedy led to a deep shift in the national psyche. The event was widely interpreted by the largely Sunni Muslim population as the act of an angry God. In the wake of the disaster, the proportion of women wearing religious head coverings in the country soared.

In an effort to win political favour – Nasheed’s opposition movement was by then gaining momentum – Gayoom went ahead with a rapid programme of artificial-harbour construction. More than three dozen additional harbours were built on the country’s 200 inhabited islands in less than three years.

Just as the destruction of coral reefs had a disastrous effect on the islands’ natural defences, so too did this construction programme, which drastically altered sea currents surrounding the affected islands, leading to more coastal erosion.

As I trail Nasheed and his environment minister, Mohamed Aslam, on a visit to one of the Maldives’ southernmost atolls and then travel to islands in the north to see such damage first-hand, the prospect of the Maldives one day disappearing beneath the waves becomes a lot more believable. It is already happening to part of Maduvvaree island in the northern Raa atoll, and the fear and disbelief are written on the face of the 45-year-old fisherman Abdullah Kamal.

Two years ago there were more than 50 metres of grass and sandy beach between the sea and the home where Kamal lives with his wife and eight children. Now the beach has vanished, the result of changing sea currents caused by a harbour built on the opposite side of the island. Some of Kamal’s neighbours’ houses have already collapsed into the sea.

“At night I lie awake and listen to the water lapping against the back wall of our house. The children cry. They’re very afraid, but we have nowhere else to go,” says Kamal. He has heard about the president’s plan to start saving money to buy a new homeland if the Maldives are one day inundated. But he does not believe his countrymen would want to move so far away. “We’re a nation of fishermen, and if they try to change that, our wings would be broken.”

Just how quickly sea levels will rise as a result of global warming is uncertain. But, as Aslam says, the effect of even a moderate rise in such a low-lying country as his will be quick and drastic. “If the predictions are right, in less than 50 years we could be in a really bad situation,” he says.

With only a 10-centimetre rise in sea levels Aslam paints a scenario in which coral reefs will begin to permanently lose their breakwater function. Not only will this lead to even more rapid coastal erosion, but the freshwater reserves that islands store in subterranean water tables will become saline and vegetation will die, leading to further soil erosion.

More than 100,000 people now live in Male, making it one of the most densely populated towns on Earth. The neighbouring island of Hulhumale, or New Male, has been designated to accommodate the overflow. A massive land-reclamation project to build an artificial island with an elevation of three metres is nearing completion. This project is cited by some as the way forward for constructing “contingency islands” to which the population could be moved when climate change makes the rest of the lower-lying islands uninhabitable.

The country’s influential environmental group Bluepeace proposes that seven such safe islands be developed in different areas of the archipelago to give Maldivians the chance of continuing to live there as sea levels rise.

“Most wouldn’t choose to leave and live thousands of miles from here,” says one of the group’s founders, Ali Rilwan. “We’re a very old civilisation. We wouldn’t want to be second- or third-class citizens somewhere else.”

Neither Nasheed nor Aslam rules out the construction of such safe islands, yet the president is in no mood for discussing such compromises. “People are either blissfully unaware of what climate change will bring, or are fed up with hearing about doomsday scenarios. So we must have imagination to make positive proposals.”

That is where Nasheed’s plan to establish a sovereign fund comes in. He believes it is essential that his countrymen also eventually have a “dry-land option”, a place where they can move within a bigger landmass. “It has to be there, as an anchor, to give confidence,” he says, as if talking about buying a simple insurance policy.

Of the $45m the government currently earns annually from tourism, Nasheed plans to start putting aside at least $2m a year into a fund, with contributions increasing substantially over time. This seems unlikely to be enough to buy a sizable chunk of land in the near future in such mooted destinations as Australia. But the government’s intention, he says, is that this fund be supplemented by donations from the richer nations that bear the brunt of responsibility for global warming.

Charity organisations are also calling for rich countries, such as the UK, to do more to help the developing world adapt to the effects of climate change, storms, famines and droughts. Oxfam, for instance, has called for at least $50 billion a year to be released from international carbon-trading programmes to help poor countries introduce adaptation schemes, such as upgraded early-warning systems for flooding.

When pressed, however, Nasheed says he only mentioned Australia as a possible destination out of solidarity with other small island states in the South Pacific such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, for which the rising oceans are also a ticking time bomb. Regional think-tanks are already urging the Australian government to draw up plans to relocate the small populations of these atoll states through staged migration as land becomes increasingly uninhabitable. A more realistic destination for Maldivians, says their president, would be a tract of land in one of the southern states in India, such as Kerala, where the relocation of 386,000 in a country with a population of 1.14 billion might be more feasible. “No country has said they will not have us,” says Nasheed. “We are going into unknown territory, so we have to have the vision to believe a new future is possible. If the Maldives is going to be underwater, for instance, who owns it? And if we move to another country, are we still a sovereign nation?”

While some may dismiss Nasheed as a dreamer, the questions he poses about his tiny island state will be multiplied by the vast areas of much more populous countries such as Bangladesh, China, Vietnam and Egypt that will also be inundated by rising sea levels. In Bangladesh alone, 17% of the country’s landmass is expected to be submerged in the next 40 years, making at least 20m homeless.

The spacious concrete-block houses lined up in the sand on the island of Dhuvaafaru in the northern Raa atoll have a very different feel from the traditional cramped dwellings of coral fragments on other remote islands in the Maldives. Little wonder, since these houses have only just been built by the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent to rehouse the entire population of the nearby island of Kandholhudhoo, whose houses were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami.

It is only two weeks since the 4,000 islanders moved into their new homes. For the past four years, most have been living in sweltering tents in scattered refugee camps on other islands. Here, at least, you might imagine that the population would be aware of the dangers future generations face from climate change. But there is little sign of it. “I do not believe that the climate will change and the sea will rise,” says Fauziyya Mahir, a 43-year-old mother of seven, as her fisherman husband sits in silence close by. “No matter what happens, I believe God will take care of us. I don’t think our new president should be talking about such things. We have enough other problems that need solving, like crime and drug addiction.”

Her view is typical, explains Dr Ahmed Razi, one of the community’s leaders. “It has taken scientists decades to accept that climate change is happening, so it is quite understandable that lay people don’t believe it. Fishermen are fatalistic by nature, and as a nation we are a religious people, so many people’s attitude will be to leave whatever will happen to fate.”

But fishermen in the capital, Male, say that they have already noticed significant changes in the local weather patterns. For more than 1,000 years a traditional calendar of sea-and-wind patterns known as the nakaiy existed in the Maldives, its frequent changes so reliable that its patterns were passed from father to son.

Ahmed Waheed shakes his head when talking of the nakaiy now. Resting in the shade of the cabin of his boat with his crew, the 53-year-old says the traditional period of calmer weather between December and April is now much more changeable, with higher winds and rougher seas. “But why should we be afraid of the sea level rising when our life is the sea?” he says, to which the rest of his crew nods.

“One of the biggest problems we face is a lack of understanding of how our islands are changing,” concedes Aslam, the country’s environment minister, who was recently held hostage for several hours by islanders in the south demanding he set a date for providing their community with a new harbour. He refused to bow to such pressure and eventually had to be set free by police.

As we sit talking, Aslam laughs off the incident, but sympathises with the frustration of his countrymen. “We welcome the international scientific community to come to the Maldives and use us as a laboratory for understanding the dynamics of our islands and the global implications of climate change,” he concludes.

When Nasheed joins us for supper, I am reminded of something that the young president said earlier: “The Maldives is the canary in the world’s carbon coal mine.”

A ten-day tour of Vietnam

January 27, 2008

Christine Toomey and her daughter take some R and R in France’s former colony

Shrouded in mist and half-hidden in a pine forest, the villas look like they are nestled in Normandy. Even the smell of fresh croissants trick the senses into thinking we are in some corner of rural France – until the sun begins to burn away the haze and slim figures in traditional ao dai pantaloons and conical straw hats can be seen slipping from door to door.

As the sun rises higher and the mists clear completely, spectacular views open up over the steep slopes of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. A 1935 Citroen convertible is waiting to drive us through the nearby town of Dalat and through the countryside to the Lake of Sighs.

Throughout our 10-day trip to Vietnam our hosts gently remind us that the country wants to look forward now, not back. For somewhere that has gone through so much pain to want to draw a veil over the past is understandable.

After decades of isolation imposed by the country’s communist regime – following what is referred to here as the “American War” – Vietnam is now opening its doors to visitors to boost its position as one of southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies. But reminders of the country’s history, from its ancient civilisation through to colonialism and that 1965-75 war, are everywhere.

The Ana Mandara villas nestled in the pine forests of Dalat provide visitors with a glimpse of a bygone era. All are meticulously restored summer homes originally developed in the 1930s as a “Bellevue Quarter” for well-heeled Vietnamese and French colonialists seeking to escape the lowland heat. Each villa mimics a different architectural style from France.

Taking the winding road away from the highlands down to the coast, it is impossible not to think how much of the tropical jungle, though green now, once had Agent Orange rained upon it. A short trip through some of the coastal villages to watch local craftsmen making traditional goods dredges up further relics of conflict. Stooped low on a stool making straw hats, a toothless old woman threads cane through a metal frame. Take a closer look and it turns out to be a recycled GI meal tray.

Even place names here seem haunted by ghosts. Nha Trang, the town from which we are to take a boat ride to our next destination, was once a strategic US airbase.

Set back from the coast road in Nha Trang are remnants of more ancient times: magnificent red brick Cham towers exuding incense and covered in carvings from the Hindu Champa kingdom that ruled central and south Vietnam for 14 centuries.

On a hill close by is a nine-metre-high Buddha commemorating the nuns and monks who set themselves alight to protest at the rule of the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, in the 1960s.

But only 20 minutes by power launch from Nha Trang lies a corner of Vietnam untouched by any such bloody history. A lost Robinson Crusoe paradise tucked in a bay surrounded by such dense vegetation, it can only be reached by sea. In contrast to the villas in Dalat, the appeal of the Evason Hideaway – owned by the same Evason group of Six Senses resorts and spas – is peaceful luxury in more traditionally Vietnamese surroundings.

Perched in among the rocks that surround Ninh Van Bay are a cluster of villas built entirely of local timber according to traditional design. Here, you can enjoy spa treatments with the call of exotic birds and gently lapping waves in the background.

Rising early to catch the pink dawn washing across the South China Sea is made easier since the Hideaway is run according to “island time”, ie, one hour ahead. Though this is not an island, it feels like one. The Crusoe effect is completed by providing each villa with its own Man Friday. Our butler was named Huy. He’d just finished reading Bill Clinton’s autobiography. Clinton, he reminded us, was the first US president to visit Vietnam since the “American War”. So, even in paradise, there is history to discuss.

Gender genocide

August 26, 2007

In India, nearly a million baby girls are aborted each year. And it’s not just an Asian phenomenon — female foeticide’ is taking place worldwide. . Photographs: Heidi Levine

Dera Mir Miran is a village rich in buffaloes and boys. This small, prosperous farming community close to the foothills of the Himalayas saw the birth of four babies in the first six months of this year. Three were boys, just one a girl. The baby girl’s parents named her Navnoor, meaning “New Light”. But her mother wept because she was not a son.

Most of the families in this area of the Indian Punjab belong to the high-caste, landed Jat Sikhs. The family into which Navnoor was born manage a 37-acre plot of land growing mainly wheat and rice. Their house is spacious, built around an inner courtyard, shielded behind large steel gates and flowering bushes.

Navnoor’s mother, Jasmit Blaggan, moved in with her husband’s family when she married, as is the norm in India. She gave birth to her first daughter, Bhavneet, five years ago. When she became pregnant a second time, she did not, as many women do, come under pressure from his family to have an ultrasound scan to determine whether it was a girl or a boy. Her mother-in-law, who, like most mother-in-laws in India, wields considerable influence in the house, believes all children, boys and girls, are a blessing. But Jasmit, 30, took some convincing.

When her mother-in-law visited her in hospital after giving birth to Navnoor, she found Jasmit crying. “I was not happy that I had a second daughter. I thought about the cost of dowry and I knew a second girl was not needed,” says Jasmit, her broad smile softening the harshness of her words. “But then my mother-in-law said families used to have many more children, more daughters, and were happier then. I became calmer, but I do worry about what is to come.”

Jasmit is not alone in her concern for the future. Although sex-selection tests have been illegal in India since 1994, unwanted female babies are now being aborted on such a staggering scale that it is estimated India has lost 6 to 10m girls in the past 20 years, a large proportion of the abortions being carried out at five- to six-month term. While abortions have long been legal in India, choosing to terminate pregnancy because of the child’s sex is not. But such practice is now so widespread that some experts estimate the figure could soon rise to nearly 1m girls lost every year as a result of this “female foeticide”.

One recent Unicef report estimated that that figure had already been far surpassed, with 7,000 fewer girls born in India every day because of sex-selective abortion – though this calculation has since been questioned – amounting to more than 2m “missing girls” a year.

Not that those who choose to terminate a pregnancy for such reasons ever admit it. To do so would be tantamount to confessing a criminal offence, even though laws banning the use of ultrasounds to reveal the baby’s gender and sex-selective abortions are rarely enforced. Many doctors skirt the law forbidding disclosure of the sex of a foetus by using signals such as handing out pink or blue sweets or candles after an examination. Some families talk instead of “miscarriages”. Given the demographics of villages like Dera Mir Miran, it seems many such “miscarriages” must have occurred. Dera Mir Miran – population around 790 – is situated in a district called Fatehgarh Sahib, which in India’s last census in 2001 had the lowest ratio of girls to boys at birth of any district in the country. This census revealed that nationally the number of girls born per 1,000 boys was 927 (figures gleaned from a sample of 1.3m households in 2004 suggest this number had fallen in three years to 882). The natural birth rate globally is around 950; in China it is 832. But in Fatehgarh Sahib in 2001 it was 754, and in some villages less than 500. In Dera Mir Miran it was just 361.

Yet the word “miscarriage” only slips into conversation after I’ve been talking for some time with another extended Jat Sikh family in the village, that of Balvir Kaur and Joginder Singh, both now in their seventies. With a gaggle of girls and boys playing in their courtyard and several women gathered around, it is not immediately apparent that females are in short supply in this household. But it becomes clear that one branch, that which lives in the house – the rest are visiting – is overwhelmingly male.

This is the branch of Joginder Singh’s only son, Sukhpal; his four daughters moved away from home when they got married. Sukhpal had three sons, now in their twenties, and those sons also only had sons, four of them. “It is the will of God that only sons are born in this household now,” says Balvir Kaur, as her husband hovers in the background. “We don’t feel disturbed by this. The main reason is to keep property in the family. We have learnt how to cope. Earlier there was infanticide, now there is foeticide,” she says, quickly adding that this has not happened in her family. Only when Balvir moves away and leaves me briefly with her daughter-in-law Kulwinder, does a hint of sadness enter the conversation.

“I wish I had a daughter,” she says. “A woman feels awful without a daughter. Daughters help their mothers. I still feel sad about it,” she says, looking away. “But there were miscarriages.”

India is not alone in aborting a huge number of baby girls. The backlash to China’s long-term one-child policy, and determination of parents that this one child be a boy, have already led to such wildly skewed sex ratios that it is estimated 30 to 40m Chinese men – called “bare branches” – could fail to find brides by the end of the next decade, which some predict could lead to considerable social and political unrest Other affected countries in Asia include Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and South Korea. But in India, where population growth now far outstrips that of China, with an estimated 25m births annually compared to China’s 17m – together these two countries account for about one-third of all births globally – the consequences of such distorted demographics could be even more dire.

While the Indian Medical Association and some anti-sex-selection activists claim the figure of India having “lost” 10m girls in the past 20 years – as published in the UK’s Lancet medical journal last year – is exaggerated, India’s government now admits it is a matter of great national shame. There are even those who, though not disputing a woman’s right to have an abortion, believe the extent to which female babies are now being eliminated on the basis of their gender amounts to genocide. Among them is Dr Puneet Bedi, a respected obstetrician specialising in foetal medicine and adviser to the Indian government, who likens what is happening in his country to a modern holocaust.

“Just as throughout history euphemisms have been used to mask mass killings, terms like ‘female foeticide’, ‘son preference’ and ‘sex selection’ are now being used to cover up what amount to illegal contract killings on a massive scale, with the contracts being between parents and doctors somehow justified as a form of consumer choice,” says Bedi, surrounded by photographs of his own two daughters in his surgery in New Delhi. He and others blame an unscrupulous sector of the medical profession along with multinational companies for flooding India with ultrasound machines over the past

20 years to exploit India’s traditional patriarchal culture, turning sex determination and selective abortion into a multi-million-pound business. In a country where paying dowries when daughters get married can be financially crippling, such tests and abortions, costing as little as a few pounds each, have been openly advertised in the past as “spend now to save later”.

That the West is beginning to pay more attention to such distorted demographics in Asia because of the potential security risk millions of testosterone-charged, frustrated bachelors could pose is deeply offensive, say activists. Yet the publication of a book by the political scientists Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer entitled Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population, three years ago, led to a flurry of news headlines and alarmist predictions of the “chilling” increased threat of war, crime and social unrest in China and India as a result. The book talks of the possibility that ever-increasing numbers of unmarried men in both countries will push Chinese leaders towards more authoritarian rule to control a marauding “bare branch” generation, and could threaten the stability of India’s democracy through a swelling population of rootless and marginalised males.

“For a long time the rest of the world condemned us as hyper-breeding, and pumped a fortune into family planning. So the West must now accept some responsibility for this situation,” says Bedi. But he and others believe fewer and fewer girls will be born in India and elsewhere until what is happening is recognised, on both a national and international level, as the most fundamental breach of human rights: that of a female child’s equal chance of being born.

Far from the shortage of women increasing their worth and standing in society, as some might imagine, the result is the opposite. Women are now being trafficked in increasing numbers from Indian states where sex ratios have declined less rapidly. Some are sold into marriage. Others are forced to engage in polyandry – becoming wife to more than one man, often brothers. Those that fail to produce sons are often abandoned, sometimes killed. This further perpetuates the cycle of prejudice and injustice, ensuring many women themselves prefer to give birth to a son to ensure no child of theirs suffers a similar fate.

Unicef recently concluded that “the alarming decline in the child sex-ratio [in India] is likely to result in more girls being married at a younger age, more girls dropping out of education, increased mortality as a result of early child-bearing and an associated increase in acts of violence against girls and women such as rape, abduction, trafficking and forced polyandry”.

While some might excuse what is happening as a result of poverty and ignorance in a country where, last year, gross national income per capita was less than £400 and an estimated 40% of the adult population is illiterate, again the opposite is true. It is not the country’s poorest but its richest who are eliminating baby girls at the highest rate, regardless of religion or caste. Delhi’s leafiest suburbs have among the lowest ratio of girls to boys in India, while the two states with the absolute lowest ratio are those with the highest per capita income: Punjab and Haryana. The joint capital of both states is Chandigarh – Dera Mir Miran is less than an hour’s drive away.

As we walk along the lanes of Dera Mir Miran, we pass a group of young men. Do they worry about the shortage of girls, I ask them. Most shrug and walk on. Only one turns to reply. “I’m not worried because I share five acres of land with my brother, so there are already two girls who want to marry me,” he says with a grin. “Only those without land or with personal problems will be left without wives.” An old woman passing by shakes her head and mutters: “I think most of the boys around here will be bachelors soon. It is very, very bad.”

By “personal problems” he means the increase in alcoholism, drug addiction and violent crimes against women that has accompanied the serious skewing of the sex ratio. In those areas where the sex ratio is worst, violent crime is increasing. It is a problem mothers such as Jasmit are intensely aware of. “I worry about my daughters’ future,” she says. “I know there will be more violence and rape as they are growing up.” Jasmit is unlikely to have more children owing to health reasons, so she is determined to ensure her daughters get a good education: “I want them to become teachers or doctors, then no one will pity me for having no sons.” Jasmit’s brother-in-law Manmeet, 22, says he wants only one child and would prefer a boy “because only sons inherit family property”. While Indian law bans dowry payments and gives equal-inheritance rights to daughters and sons, both laws are widely ignored. So parents want sons to keep wealth in the family; also, because sons traditionally remain in the family home to care for parents in their old age.

As India’s economy has strengthened and the country’s middle class expands, growing consumerism has increased dowry expectations to an average cost of between three and five years’ wages – sometimes 10 – according to Tulsi Patel, a Delhi university professor specialising in gender and fertility issues. “The higher the status of the boy, the higher the dowry. And it is not a one-off affair: the girl’s family continues to give gifts to her husband’s family throughout her life. It is very humbling to be the parents of a girl,” says Patel.

Despite the Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act banning sex-selective ultrasounds since 1994, it was not until last March that a doctor was jailed for flouting it. More than a dozen are now under investigation for similar offences. Others have been charged with carrying out illegal abortions under the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, following such grim discoveries as that made recently in Pataudi, a town southwest of New Delhi. Acting on a tip-off, police raided a clinic there on June 13 and found eight half-burnt female foetuses five to six months old.

Female foetuses are often aborted relatively late in pregnancy because ultrasounds are rarely able to reveal the sex of a child before the end of the third month. Many parents, fearing they might abort a son by mistake, will deliberate for weeks, and sometimes go for a second ultrasound before seeking to abort a baby girl. The procedure commonly used to carry out the abortions involves injecting either a disinfectant, ethacridine, into the uterus or potassium chloride directly into the vital organs of the foetus, before premature labour is induced with prostaglandins.

Veena Kumari is all too familiar with the problems associated with violent discrimination against women in India. As a lawyer for the Voluntary Health Association of the Punjab, a nongovernmental organisation working with women and families on health issues in Chandigarh, she has a stack of files cataloguing brutality against women, including wives who refused to subject themselves to sex-selective ultrasound testing and then gave birth to girls. “Sex-selection tests are considered a status symbol,” she fumes, as she picks up a file detailing the alleged murder of a university graduate by her husband and mother-in-law – both now in jail awaiting trial – because she refused to have the test and gave birth to two daughters.

In the Shakti Shalini women’s shelter in Delhi we meet two other mothers whose husbands beat them and then abandoned them for not giving birth to sons. “My husband subjected me to much verbal abuse and torture, then left me because he said he was too ashamed to admit to his family that we had two daughters,” says 23-year-old Seema, as her two daughters, aged two and five, play outside. “My eldest girl talks about her father all the time. She says he is a good man. When she is older I will tell her he died.”

Low-cost, mobile ultrasound machines transported, even to villages without reliable electricity or running water, mean only the very poorest cannot afford sex-selection tests. This is why Kumari believes a baby girl abandoned at the Mother Teresa orphanage in Chandigarh, who we find fighting for her life in the city’s municipal hospital, probably came from an impoverished family.

The newborn girl had barely weighed enough to trigger the alarm as she was put into the basket set into the wall of the orphanage 10 days earlier. But the vibration of her cries had tripped a wire connected to a bell inside. By the time one of the Sisters of Charity reached the cradle, whoever had left the baby had disappeared.

Within hours the frail infant was transferred to the city hospital’s neonatal unit. Standing at the foot of her bed, a sour-looking guard is posted. When I ask why, the woman says she is part of a round-the-clock security detail making sure nobody steals the child. Had temperatures outside not been nudging 112F, and the atmosphere on the ward not been equally oppressive, I might have found the energy to argue how ludicrously unlikely that seemed. Instead, I simply ask if the little girl has been given a name. “No,” the guard snaps, folding her stout arms. “She’s just called No-Name baby.”

It is hard to say if this little scrap of life is lucky or not. If she survives, she will be returned to the nuns. From there, they hope she will be adopted by a local family, though this too seems unlikely.

“Most families would rather eliminate their girl child in the womb or neglect her once she is born, slowly starve her, poison her or ignore it when she gets sick, than abandon a child, as that is considered dishonourable,” says Kumari, noting that female infanticide has existed for thousands of years in India.

For this reason, she and many others dismissed as a publicity stunt a declaration made earlier this year by India’s minister for women and child development, Renuka Chowdhury, that every town should have a cradle such as that outside the Chandigarh orphanage, where parents can abandon baby girls to the state rather than abort them. But if there is little substance to this proposal, what is the Indian government doing to tackle this crisis?

A poster hanging outside the office of India’s health minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, reads: “A daughter brings complete happiness in your life.” It is part of the government’s campaign to crack down on female foeticide and, as the minister later tells me, he is the father of three daughters. But it is late in the evening when I am finally ushered into his office, and Dr Ramadoss looks intensely weary, rather than happy.

“I am responsible for the health concerns of a sixth of the world’s population. It is a big job,” he says. “India is not in denial about this issue. We are really ashamed of what is happening here. Child sex ratios are something we are very, very concerned about. My prime minister is very concerned. So is parliament. I love my daughters very much and this issue agitates me greatly.”

For the next hour he outlines a series of government initiatives, including requiring a woman to register her pregnancy, not just the birth of a child; funding MPs to raise social awareness of the problem; enlisting the help of religious leaders of all denominations in preaching against such practices; and increasing penalties for both doctors and families engaging in sex selection to between two and five years’ imprisonment and impressing on the judiciary the need to prosecute such cases. There are also moves to recruit more police officers onto local committees responsible for enforcing the PNDT Act. Currently they are often headed by doctors, meaning, in effect, that doctors are policing other doctors engaged in illegal practice.

When I ask if India is learning any lessons from China, Ramadoss bridles. “India is not China,” he says, pointing out that the problems of changing social attitudes and enforcing laws in the world’s largest democracy are far more complex than bringing about change in a one-party Communist state. Yet when I meet Deepa Jain Singh, of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, I learn that India, similar to China, will shortly be piloting a project to make cash payments to couples when they register the birth of a daughter and later when they immunise her and enrol her in school. In recent months, laws governing the adoption, both by Indian and foreign families, of abandoned children, have been relaxed. A campaign stressing that religious ceremonies, such as last rites traditionally performed only by sons in the Hindu faith, can be carried out by daughters too has also been launched.

“There is no magic wand to solve all these problems,” says Jain Singh. “Nothing can be done by diktat. No one can legislate for decisions made behind the doors of a bedroom.”

Others strongly disagree. Among them, Sabu George, one of India’s leading activists against female foeticide. He believes the key is to crack down on the sale of ultrasound machines to unlicensed practitioners so that couples can’t seek illegal sex-selection tests. While there are around 30,000 registered ultrasound clinics in India, it is estimated there could be two to three times as many in operation, using machines ranging from sophisticated £50,000 models to refurbished and portable ones costing less than £5,000.

In April this year, a criminal case was brought against General Electric – by far the largest seller of ultrasound machines in India – for supplying machines to unregistered clinics carrying out sex-selection tests. But the company says it is not to blame for unethical practice, likening such accusations to car manufacturers being blamed for reckless drivers. But George, who condemns multinationals for also helping doctors purchase ultrasound machines with bank loans, labels the machines “weapons of mass destruction”. “The Nazis’ extermination programme was only halted because of international intervention. I believe it is high time there was international outrage at what is going on here now,” he says.

While in the past families would allow the birth of at least one girl, now they are choosing to terminate even that pregnancy, says George, who also talks of British Asian families going to India for sex-selection tests and terminations after being effectively barred from NHS treatment after repeated abortions. Yet many have been reluctant to speak out on the issue, he says, for fear of being labelled anti-abortion.

“The time for academic debate on who is to blame for this has long gone. Time is not running out. It has run out. The situation is dire. We need immediate firefighting teams to put a stop to this catastrophe,” says Puneet Bedi, stressing however that the financial and political clout of the corrupt clique of doctors engaged in illegal practice should not be underestimated. One measure of such clout is the bribe of £16m allegedly offered by a group of doctors to stop an undercover documentary on female foeticide being aired on Indian television last summer.

“We are not talking about a few black sheep here. If close to 1m girls are being aborted every year, that means between 2 and 3m illegal acts are being performed, if you consider that only one in two sex-selection tests will reveal a baby is female, and that test leads to an abortion.”

Bedi believes the most effective way of exposing corrupt medical practitioners is to meticulously comply with the PNDT Act, which mandates that the records of anyone under suspicion be carefully audited, comparing tamper-proof birth-record data with other medical forms every doctor is obliged to register. As Bedi sits hunched over his laptop computer drawing up one computerised public record after another, to illustrate this, his tenacity reminds me of the American legal clerk Erin Brockovich and her hunt for the devil in the detail in bringing down corrupt giants in the US corporate world.

When I ask Bedi where his zeal comes from, his reply sends a shiver down the spine. “As a fourth-year medical student, I was on a hospital ward and witnessed a cat dragging a female foetus along the floor,” he says, lowering his voice as his two daughters sit nearby. “What appalled me was that nobody was appalled. That scene has stayed with me for 20 years.”

The scene from this investigation that stays with me is that of standing in the crushing heat of an operating room at the Bawa Nursing Home in Fatehgarh Sahib, as Dr Ravinder Kaur lays out on a red plastic operating table the instruments with which she carries out abortions. As she carefully lines them up, she describes how the resulting “products” are then disposed of; collected by a contractor every few days along with other bio-waste, to be incinerated.

All abortions she carries out, Dr Kaur stresses, fall within the medical guidelines of the MTP Act, which allows pregnancies to be terminated under a number of conditions, including failure of contraception. The nursing home is run by her husband, Dr Navindar Singh Bawa, who, for the past three years has been chairman of the local committee responsible for enforcing the PNDT Act. One room tucked behind his garage is full of posters and pamphlets he is proud to show he has designed denouncing female foeticide.

Yet when Dr Bawa starts to discuss the reasons for it happening, the fact that this district has the lowest ratio of girls to boys anywhere in India seems less surprising. Initially he says the ratio is probably not as low as it seems, since parents immediately register the birth of a son but sometimes fail to register the birth of a daughter “because they are unsure she will survive”. This undoubtedly happens, though what it says about the care of infant girls is another matter. Then Bawa changes tack and says the low ratio is happening naturally.

“Naturewise,” he says, it is happening “just by chance, not related to female foeticide”. This may be due, he says, to “diet” or “behaviour and genetics” or “climate change”.

Sitting later in a nearby Hindu temple to discuss the view of religious leaders on the dearth of baby girls in this district, one worshipper suddenly starts talking about Bawa, saying he was the first doctor in the area to have an ultrasound machine. “He did thousands, laakhs, [hundreds of thousands] of tests,” the man says. “Every girl used to go there and he’d say, ‘Come on, lie down, we’ll take a picture.’ Now he is on the other side.” The atmosphere in the room stiffens. Even though his comment may have been no more than a rumour, out of the corner of my eye I see the priest signalling the worshipper to stop talking. “He didn’t mean to harm anybody, of course,” the man says quickly, adding that the “tests” must mostly have been for knee problems.

As we drive away from the temple, I pull out one of the postcards Bawa had designed and thrust into my hand. On the front is a graphic drawing of a foetus in the womb pierced by a knife and dripping blood under the words “Female Foeticide – A Crime”. Turning the card over, I read the words printed there and shudder. Addressed as an “Appeal to dear medical professionals”, it reads, “Whoever has been negligent, but later becomes vigilant… Whoever has done harmful actions, but later covers them with good, is like the moon which, freed from the clouds, lights up the world.”

Some names have been changed to protect identities

The barefaced cheek of Boris Mikhailov

June 3, 2007

His photographs of naked women in the Soviet Union were banned by the KGB, and he was persecuted for his ideals. But, as his secret body of work shows, this audacious artist could not be silenced

Boris Mikhailov, the artist the KGB tried to silence, slouches in a low armchair in his sparsely furnished apartment in west Berlin. As his second wife, Vita, huddles close to him, wearing shocking-pink tights and black clogs, helping him find the right words in English with an electronic translating device held together with an elastic band, he smiles at her with obvious affection.

Dressed in a dark sweater and trousers, Mikhailov, 69, whose hangdog expression and walrus moustache have led some to compare him to Kurt Vonnegut, is hailed as one of the most important artists to have emerged from the former USSR. Western collectors pay well in excess of £100,000 for his work, and in 2001 he won the prestigious Citibank prize. But for years he was only able to take pictures as a dangerous hobby, under the watchful eye of the Russian secret police. Twice they nearly imprisoned him for taking forbidden photographs.

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the restrictions that regime placed on everyday life seem almost inconceivable. Any images perceived as portraying life in the USSR as anything but ideal were forbidden. This included images of people smoking, drinking, poor, ill or nude. One photographer who took pictures of people holding cigarettes “in western poses”, for instance, was jailed for three years.

The prohibition of nudity had more to do with social control than moral censorship, Mikhailov believes. “For a totalitarian regime that did not have religion as a means of controlling people, fear and guilt were used instead,” he says. “Guilt was linked with nakedness. Since everyone was naked, everyone was guilty. We were made to feel ashamed of our bodies.” But he was interested in recording reality, not reflecting an officially sanitised view of the world. So some of the earliest photographs he took were of his wife and female friends in the nude. “I was interested in showing beauty, not pornography,” he says. Such arguments carried no weight with the KGB. He was arrested, interrogated and eventually sacked from his job as an engineer in a factory making electrical components for spacecraft. Most factories then had a darkroom where propaganda photographs of production facilities could be developed. Such labs were regularly inspected by the KGB, but Mikhailov, who acted as the factory’s official photographer, had developed and printed his own pictures there as well.

Next he found work as an engineer and official photographer in a water-treatment plant. But again he used the darkroom there for his own work, and again the KGB seized his pictures. This time, they tried to persuade him to become an informer. “To refuse was dangerous. It was considered unpatriotic. When I stayed silent, they lost interest in me and eventually left me alone,” he says. The censorship and the loss of his job incensed him, fuelling his passion for photography further. In the years that followed he continued to take pictures, and themes began to emerge. Underlying everything was a questioning of reality. Born in 1938, he had come of age in the Khrushchev era, when many of the myths propagated by Stalin about the might of the Soviet Union exploded on a shocked nation and the brutality of his regime was slowly exposed. “We began to see the Soviet Union was not so clean. We started looking for other sources of information, comparing the official version with what we saw. This was very important for the way my work developed.”

He concentrated on everyday life, people he saw around him, what others might consider mundane. “I wanted to make masterpieces out of photographs that could belong in any family album,” he says. In the beginning this entailed hand-colouring photographs that, through the black market, people paid him to enlarge from negatives. Another early technique was superimposing images to provoke viewers to question their coded meanings. These early “Sandwich” pictures, made between 1960 and 1970, have now been published under the title of Yesterday’s Sandwich. “There was a time when surrealism was seen as kitsch,” he says, to explain why it is only now they are attaining recognition. “I made these compositions at a time when people were more used to interpreting coded messages and signs, when people were on the lookout for any new information and studied images closely in search of their truth and meaning.” So a couple in overcoats staring out over a waterfront have a bare plate and a spoon superimposed on them, to convey the emptiness and boredom of their lives. In another image, an old man’s piercing eyes are formed by the buttons on a military overcoat. The old man, Mikhailov explains, is his father, a former military officer and engineer in Kharkov’s tank factory. In another, a hand wields a giant salami on top of a crane under a dark cloud. This, he says, conveyed the impotence of the state in meeting the basic food needs of its people. “The Soviet Union always boasted about its ability to construct and produce, yet having salami to eat was rare.”

The dual nature of the images reflects the two aspects of his own identity: Jewish and Ukrainian. They also draw on the language of cinema and the idea of a “dissolve” between two shots, he explains. At the factory, he was commissioned to make a short film about its history – which made him certain that it was photography he wanted to pursue. “A film might take a year to make and be seen in a few minutes, while a photograph takes just a second and can have as much impact,” he says with a laugh.

Walking into his apartment, you come face to face with two giant photographs that, for most of us, would be intimidating company to keep. Both are lifesize portraits of homeless people he describes as “living out their last moments”, part of a series of more than 400 searing portraits he shot in the late 1990s called Case History. The series, showing people barely existing on the margins of society after the collapse of the Soviet Union, brought him acclaim but also charges of exploitation. In one, behind a half-naked man with a tattoo of Lenin on his chest, a middle-aged woman with callused hands stands in a ragged overcoat. Thick snow covers the ground, and they look resigned to their fate, beaten down by a life on the streets. In another, a man and woman stand naked, facing each other. The woman’s belly, disfigured by an apparent growth in her intestines, is in the middle of the frame. All four were invited by Mikhailov for a hot meal and a bath at his home in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov – where he was born and still lives half the year – before he paid them to pose for him. “I believe they might be dead now,” he says. “All the homeless I photographed were like the walking dead. I was recording a modern holocaust.”

For someone whose work is so shockingly brutal, he smiles often, frequently gesticulating furiously and, on occasion, leaping up to illustrate a posture or pose. But he also tends to leave the end of his sentences trailing, as if there are things he would rather not talk about, such as his troubled early life. To delve into such a frightening and forgotten underworld is not the work of the timid. Yet what drove him to take up photography seems to have been fear. He was a frightened child who desperately needed a means of self-expression. At first he downplays his early trauma as “just a small thing”. But then he describes being gripped with such dread at the prospect of death as a young boy that he would tear through the streets of Kharkov, trembling and drenched with sweat. Only the exhaustion of running would calm his nerves. Growing up under Stalin’s reign, with a father absent at war, in the Red Army fighting the Germans, might have nurtured anxiety in any seven-year-old. But he believes this terror came from a more general feeling “that the world might end at any moment”. This precocious sense of hopelessness left him with a feeling that he “did not fit in”, was somehow “different” and could not communicate easily with other people.

Given the violent anti-semitism rife in the USSR as he was growing up, the fact that his mother was Jewish but his father was Ukrainian gave him an identity crisis. Then, in his mid-twenties, the best friend with whom he had “shared everything in life” committed suicide. “He was such a strong person, but he could not cope with the sense of smallness of his existence. He imagined something more heroic than the reality of our everyday lives. This was the moment I knew something had to change, that I had to find a way to reach out to other people. For me the way of reaching out was through photography,” he explains. One of his first sexual experiences was with a homeless woman. “I did not see her as homeless, I just saw her as a woman,” he says, the point his Case History series sought to drive home.

Criticism of the series centred on the raw nakedness of some of the subjects he photographed on the streets of Kharkov. Prostitutes pull down their pants, women defecate on the floor, children sniff glue, men expose their cankered penises and other scars – a metaphor, he explains, for the sickness of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “By asking them to remove their clothes I tried to show them as people, tried to look beyond their filthy exterior.” The fact that the people were sometimes paid the equivalent of a month’s wages to pose for him outraged many, who accused him of exploiting misery for artistic purposes. But he dismisses the charges, saying it made no difference to their lives whether he photographed them or not. It didn’t harm them, and the money at least helped them a little.

Spread across the wooden floor of his airy Berlin apartment are dozens of photographs of Kharkov’s youth culture, from which he is trying to make a selection for a possible exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale. “It is even more difficult taking photographs of people now than it was in Soviet times,” he claims. Despite the restrictions then, he says, people were less self-conscious, and less litigious. Taking street photographs has become so problematic in Germany that he has a certificate from the police giving him permission to take pictures wherever he wants, on the grounds that they are art.

There can’t be many people who would want to display lifesize images of the naked and diseased homeless of Kharkov on their walls in the way Mikhailov has done in his flat. But when I talk to him about this, his view is clear: “Before, we would hang historical paintings on our walls. Now I think it is up to photographers to take historical photographs and to give public space to what is happening around us. It is important to make art of this, to make people reflect.” s