News and Gossip!

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Heavy rush to view Mars

By Our Staff Reporter

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM Aug. 27. City residents turned out in large numbers at the University Observatory and the Science and Technology Museum here late on Wednesday night to observe the rare celestial event of the planet, Mars, drawing close to Earth than it has ever been in the past 73,000 years.

For many citizens, who shunned sleep to watch the event with their families, the occasion proved to be a once in a life time chance to be around with their loved ones when Mars came closer to Earth. Earth and Mars will come this close, again, only on August 28, 2287.

Hermaphrodite embryo triggers row

New York Aug. 25. Scientists have been condemned for creating a ``shemale'' embryo by combining human cells of both sexes.

The resulting hermaphrodite embryo was not allowed to develop beyond six days.

But the fact that the experiment went ahead at all provoked an angry reaction from pro-life campaigners and strong disapproval from fellow experts.

Norbert Gleicher, who works for a private fertility clinic group in the United States, presented the research at an embryology meeting in Spain.

The purpose of the experiment was to discover whether cells from a healthy human embryo could be used to treat a defective one.

Dr Gleicher's team, from the Centres for Human Reproduction in New York and Chicago, transplanted cells from a developing male embryo into a three-day-old female embryo.

The cells integrated themselves to produce a ``chimaera'' — a hybrid embryo made up of components, or blastomeres from both sources.

Creating an embryo with male and female parts made it possible to identify the amalgamated cells by checking their chromosomes.

In his presentation at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology meeting in Madrid, Dr Gleicher said it might be possible to use the technique to treat genetic diseases at the embryo stage.

``Since the treatment of single gene diseases does not require successful treatment of all cells, blastomere transplantation could be explored as a possible treatment option,'' he said.

Because the donor cells also tended to be distributed differently in abnormally developing embryos, it meant the method could also be used to spot genetic problems. But other experts at the meeting claimed the research was flawed and pointless. Francoise Shenfield, co-ordinator of the ESHRE Special Interest Group on Ethics and Law, said: ``The aim is to create a chimaera to correct a defect, but it seems a little illogical because nobody has any idea how much of the embryo would be normal. This research happened in America but I can't imagine it being accepted anywhere in Europe, I'm happy to say.''

She said there was a lot of discussion among experts vetting submissions to the meeting about whether or not Dr Gleicher's research abstract should be accepted.

In the end, the presentation was allowed to go ahead so that it could be debated in the open.

Patrick Cusworth, spokesman for the pro-life charity, Life, said: ``The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology has hardly covered itself with glory in the past few days, considering that only yesterday proposals were heard to use eggs from aborted babies for infertility treatments. We asked the question yesterday as to whether researchers could sink any lower in their lack of respect for human life — here is our answer: the creation of a `shemale'. This report that a human embryo — a new living and unique individual — has been created to such Mengelian standards is shocking. These scientists claim that their research is for the good of humankind, yet how is the creation and destruction of such a freak of nature intended to benefit anyone? Such a callous abuse of early human life, where a human embryo is deliberately created, abused and destroyed with such contempt, must surely send shivers down the spines of the general public.''


Escotel ties up with Yahoo to offer value adds in Kerala

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New Delhi: Escotel Mobile Communications on Monday announced its tie-up with Yahoo to offer a host of value added services, initially in the Kerala circle, targetted at 70 per cent of the country's population below the age of 30.

Value adds, provided through the Escotel Youth card, inlude internet downloads, chat mails, playwin lotteries, fun games, friends online, fun messaging and information on games.

The service will be rolled out in other Escotel circles soon, Escotel Mobile Executive Director and CEO Rajan Swaroop said at the launch.

The card is aimed at leveraging the huge market potential in category B circles like Kerala, ''It is the first genuine segmentation in the mobile industry,'' he said.

The card offers an outgoing tariff of Rs 1.20 per minute between 8 pm and 7 am. The subscribers can also avail of SMS services at just 50 paise per message. The card also offers recharging option at Rs 250 with a 30 day validity.

''Our mobile property at Yahoo India is key player in the mobile value added business in India and we are looking at launching some unique products with Escotel to maximise revenue opportunities from the Indian mobile business in the territories they operate,'' Yahoo India Director Sales and Business Development Neville Taraporewalla said.

Escotel provides cellular services in Uttar Pradesh (West), Uttaranchal, Haryana and Kerala circles and has a combined customer base of 6,25,000.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Sludge given by Coke plant to farmers toxic: Govt.

New Delhi Aug. 22. The Government today said the sludge supplied by the bottling unit of the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Limited at Plachimada, Palakkad district, to farmers for use as fertilizers contains dangerous levels of cadmium and lead.

In a written reply to the Rajya Sabha, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Dilip Singh Ju Dev, said the sludge generated by this factory was being used by farmers as manure and landfill. However, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) which had analysed the sludge and effluent generated has now instructed the factory not to let the sludge out of their premises and not use it as manure even within the premises.

Replying to a question, the Minister said out of the 10 lakes identified for cleaning in 1994, projects had been approved for Powai lake (Maharashtra), Udhagamandalam and Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu), Rabindra Sarovar (West Bengal) and Nainital (Uttaranchal). ``Works in respect of Powai have been completed and for others they are in various stages of implementation."

The Minister said out of the remaining lakes, conservation of the Hussain Sagar Lake (Andhra Pradesh) has been taken up by the Andhra Government under the World Bank assistance and some works for Dal Lake conservation.

The proposals for the projects on conservation of Udaipur (Rajasthan), Sukhna (Chandigarh) and Sagar (Madhya Pradesh) had not been submitted by the respective State Governments. — UNI

Paes unwell

Kolkata Aug. 20. Leander Paes will not be able to take part in the upcoming U.S. Open as he has been diagnosed with a cyst in the brain.

The shocking news was causing anxiety but his condition was not alarming, his father, Vece Paes, said here today.

The 30-year-old Leander has been admitted in the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre at Orlando where an expert medical team has been assembled. — PTI

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Music therapy to be launched in hospitals

THRISSUR: Noted poet, lyricist and musician Kaithapram Damodaran Namboodiri has reached an understanding with the Westfort Hospital Group to constitute a troupe for undertaking music therapy in various hospitals in the State.

Kaithapram and managing director of the Westfort Hospital Group K M Mohandas told reporters here on Thursday that although music therapy was accepted world over as an effective method in speeding up the process of recovery, it had not been given due consideration in the State so far.

They said as per the agreement a troupe of selected artistes of Swathi Kalakendram, led by Kaithapram, would start the application of the therapy in various hospitals in the presence of doctors.

Initially the project would be implemented on an experimental basis and necessary modifications would be made after analysing the impact of the therapy on patients, they said.

Giving the details of the therapy Kaithapram said it would be a ‘raga chikilsa’ with emphasis on melody songs.

The project will be formally inaugurated at a function to be held at the Westfort Hospital here on Sunday.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Google goes half-way `desi'

By Anand Parthasarathy

Bangalore Aug. 7 . The world's most widely-used Internet search engine, Google, appeared this week in Indian garb — interfaces in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil. Surfers trying to access the global search site from India are being directed automatically to an

India-specific site: which in turn offers buttons that lead to the five language interfaces.

However, the Indian language feature is presently restricted to a translation of the clickable and selectable tools on the page: The search and the results are still English-based. PC owners whose operating system is Windows XP will have no difficulty in reading these buttons in one of the five selectable languages.However, those who are still using the earlier versions, such as Windows 98, will be faced with some junk characters and a limited transliteration of the Hindi, Bengali or other words in Roman script.

Cybernews India On Line (CIOL) reports that this is because Windows XP supports some Indian language fonts — a feature that is not available with the earlier language versions. However such users can download the required fonts which are part of the "Brahmi" font set developed by the

Indian Language Technology Solutions group of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The fonts (Mangal for Devanagiri, Latha for Tamil and Gautam for Telugu) are available for free download at the website of ILTS

It is not very clear, what real advantage the Google Indian language initiative brings, for those surfers who presumably do not have a command of English since there is as yet no way to search for Indian language documents or enter search terms in one of the languages. However, the work of an M.Tech student, now ongoing, at the Indian Institute of Information Technology, may facilitate the search for Indian language documents using Indian language keywords (see accompanying box).

In recent days Google has strengthened the `advanced' features in its search engine and Indian users can now restrict search to pages generated in the country.Meanwhile, the Google news website launched last year — the world's first computer selected and continuously updated online newspaper — has also spawned an India-specific service.The bottom of the page now features links to a choice of country-specific news pages for Australia, Canada, Germany, France, New Zealand, U.K., U.S. and India.The India news site, concentrates on general, technology, business and entertainment news from the country and draws heavily on the web content of leading Indian newspapers, including The Hindu.

A useful feature available among the "advanced features" allows one to search for news items that have appeared in a particular publication.

The Google all-computer-generated news site is the brainchild of Krishna Bharat, who began work on a special algorithm for the purpose while he was with the Palo Alto Research Centre of what was then Compaq, and then refined it after joining Google last year as Principal Scientist.

IIT students trounce U.K.'s best

Chennai Aug. 7. The opening episode of `University Challenge' — the Indian version of a university-popular TV quiz show in the U.K. aired tonight — saw a quartet from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, trouncing the reigning British team from the London University.

The programme aired by BBC World and compered by India's quiz king, Siddhartha Basu, was a special curtain raiser: Future instalments will be `desi' affairs, involving teams from Indian universities and colleges..

Tonight's episode (the programme is telecast on Thursdays at 10 p.m.) can be viewed for the second time on Sunday at 10 a.m. The Indian students — Ajit Narayanan, Swaroop Venkatesh, Sreeraaman Subramanium and Mohan Ravichandran — can be seen beating the British lads 150 points to 85.

Tests confirm toxicity in sludge from coke plant

By P. Venugopal

A quantity of the sludge dumped at a spot about 4 km from the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Plachimada.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM Aug. 6. Tests conducted by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) have confirmed recent media reports about the toxic nature of the sludge generated by Coca-Cola's bottling plant at Plachimada, in Kerala's Palakkad district.

The KSPCB undertook the tests following a report put out by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) last month that the sludge and drinking water samples collected from Plachimada contained "dangerous" levels of cadmium, a known carcinogen, besides lead, which can damage the human central nervous system.

Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited had been distributing the sludge to the farmers of the area free of cost to be used as fertilizer, terming it a "humanitarian gesture to the local community". Thousands of tonnes of this waste material were off-loaded in the fields of the region over the last three years.Announcing the results of the analysis at a press conference here today, the Chairman of the KSPCB, Paul Thachil, said that the concentration of cadmium was found to be 201.8 mg in a kg of dry sludge.

This level is, in fact, far greater than that reported by the BBC after tests done at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. These tests had shown the concentration of cadmium as 100 mg a kg of dry sludge."A solid is classified as hazardous material if it contains over 50 mg of cadmium a kg. There is no doubt that the sludge is extremely hazardous. We have ordered the company to stop supplying it as manure to the farmers," Mr. Thachil said.

He said that in the analysis done at the KSPCB's Central Laboratory in Ernakulam, the presence of lead was found to be below the threshold limit. Lead concentration was found to be 319 mg a kg of dry sludge against a threshold level of 500 mg a kg as per standards prescribed in India.

The tests conducted at Exeter University had shown a lead concentration of 1,100 mg a kg."Results can vary from sample to sample. But the important point is that we have proof about the hazardous nature of the waste material. We have ordered the company to keep the sludge in leech-free tanks so that it does not contaminate the soil and water sources in the area. There should be a mechanism for proper disposal of this highly hazardous material," Mr. Thachil said.

Asked what the KSPCB proposed to do in the light of its findings, Mr. Thachil said: "We have already got the company to stop the dangerous practice of distributing the toxic sludge to the farmers.

A detailed probe is on to determine the source of the cadmium contamination."

He said the Health Department had been alerted about the findings. "We have subsequently collected water samples from the open wells in the colonies adjoining the bottling plant for analysis. The results are awaited. The question whether the soft drinks manufactured at the bottling plant are safe does not come under our purview. It is to be looked into by the Health Department," he said.

The bottling plant has been in the eye of a storm following complaints that it was exploiting the scarce water in the area, extracting it through borewells and open wells, leading to the depletion of the water table.The local panchayat recently withdrew permission for the plant to operate there.There have been complaints about contamination of well water in the area, but the company has stridently denied this.

Greenpeace demands action

Meanwhile, the global environmental action group, Greenpeace, asked the Kerala Government to direct Coca-Cola to collect back the entire hazardous waste it had distributed. It should be stored with proper precautions, the corporate campaign coordinator of Greenpeace, Ameer Shahul, said in a statement faxed to Thiruvananthapuram . No longer should the unsuspecting people of the region be exposed to the dangers of this waste, he added.Mr. Shahul said the Government should persuade the company to dispose of the sludge in a safe manner. "Coca-Cola has no right to defile this beautiful land with its hazardous waste.

The company should be forced to ship the sludge back to the U.S., its home country", he said.He urged the Government to convene a meeting of the affected people, representatives of non-governmental organisations and officials of the KSPCB and departments such as Health and Local Administration in order to formulate a plan to tackle the damage the company had done to the region.

UNI reports:

The issue figured in Parliament today in the context of charges regarding the presence of pesticide residue in a number of soft drinks, including Coca-Cola, when N. Krishna Das and A.K. Premajam (both MPs belonging to the CPI-M) highlighted the harm caused to crops in the area in Palakkad district following the dumping of waste on cultivable land.

Residues of toxic pesticides in 12 soft drink brands: CSE

By Our Staff Reporter

NEW DELHI AUG. 5. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) today announced that 12 soft drink brands collected for testing from in and around Delhi contained residues of four extremely toxic pesticides and insecticides — lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos. The multinational companies Coca-Cola and PepsiCo immediately challenged the report and indicated that they might consider legal action.

Presenting the findings at a press conference here today, the Director, CSE, Sunita Narain, said that in all the samples, the levels of pesticide residues far exceeded the maximum residue limit for pesticides in water used as "food'' as set down by the European Economic Commission (EEC).

She said that each sample had enough poison to cause long-term cancer, damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, birth defects and severe disruption of the immune system.

The tested soft drinks include Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, Mirinda Orange, Mirinda Lemon, Blue Pepsi, 7Up, Fanta, Limca, Sprite and Thums Up.

Ms. Narain said that according to the findings, Coca-Cola and Pepsi had almost similar concentration of pesticide residues. While contaminants in Pepsi were 37 times higher than the EEC limit, Coca-Cola overstepped the norm having 45 times the prescribed limit of pesticide contamination.

Faring the worst in the "health test'', according to her, was Mirinda Lemon followed by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Fanta, Mirinda Orange, 7Up, Mountain Dew, Limca, Thums Up and Sprite. It was also found that pesticides in soft drinks were similar to bottled water, which the CSE had tested earlier this year.

Releasing the report, Ms. Narain said: "The inference drawn from the tests is that groundwater used for making soft drinks is infested with pesticides. Another interesting find was the fact that the same brands found and tested abroad did not contain these pesticides.''

``Why these companies are never booked in India is simply because one cannot take them to court since the norms that regulate manufacture of cold (soft) drinks here are not well defined. The `food' sector is virtually unregulated,'' she said.

Reacting to the CSE report, both the multinational companies — Coca-Cola and Pepsi — described it as "unreliable'' and indicated that they might resort to legal action.

The chairman of PepsiCo, Rajiv Bakshi, said, "Our company is well within the limits of the pesticide residue norms set by the European Union for water used in products within public domain. We conform to all norms and are open to all testing by an internationally-accredited independent laboratory and by experienced people.''

The chief executive officer of Coke, Sanjiv Gupta, said, "Our product is world class and is the same we sell in Europe and the U.S. These are tested by top grade labs like Vimta in Hyderabad and TNO in the Netherlands.'' Claiming that this was a "bigger'' controversy than the previous drinking water report, Mr. Gupta said his company had not moved the court previously because it thought "the controversy did not directly threaten the reputation of the company''.

Indian origin doctor settles discrimination suit

Washington Aug 3. An Indian origin doctor has won $ 50,000 in damages and a written apology from a wing of the formidable U.S. Homland Security Department over his lawsuit alleging that armed air marshals detained him solely because of his dark skin.

The Transportation Security Administration, a wing of the Homeland Security Department, has agreed to change its procedures and pay $ 50,000 as part of a settlement of a lawsuit by Bob Rajcoomar, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves. Dr. Rajcoomar, a naturalised American who was born in Guyana, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Government in April after he was detained by air marshals in a flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia on August 31, 2002. — PTI