Monday, December 9, 2019
Video of the day

This is an election ad urging British voters to vote for the Conservative Party—set to a specially written Hindi song. The lyrics: ‘Toh vote karo Boh-ris Johnson, Vote karo Boh-ris Johnson. UK ke PM banenge, Boh-ris Johnson, Boh-ris Johnson.’ Yes, it is every bit as ROFL as it reads. Watch it here. 

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The insanely high price of pyaaz

The lowly onion is now a precious commodity. With prices soaring past Rs 200/ kilo in parts of the country, it is now three times more expensive than a gram of silver. We explain why.

India’s onion economy: Here are the basic facts of onion production in India:

  • India produces around 23.5 million tonnes of onion. But more than 50% of the crop is grown in just three states: Maharashtra (36%), Karnataka (13%) and Madhya Pradesh (16%). 

  • The onion is an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine—908 of every 1,000 Indians averagely consume 4.75 kilos of onions per month. 

  • We typically produce more onions than we consume. India exported 2.2 million tonnes of pyaaz last year.

How we grow onions: The vegetable is grown in three batches spread throughout the year. 

  • The rabi or summer harvest is sown in October-November and harvested in April-May. It accounts for 60% of the nation’s produce.

  • Early kharif crop accounts for 20% of the produce. It is sown in May-June and harvested in October-December. 

  • The late kharif is sown in August-September and harvested in January-March 

  • The onions grown during the two kharif seasons have a high moisture content, and cannot be stored for long periods. 

  • Around this time of the year, we rely on early kharif and stored rabi onions for supply. If that early kharif harvest fails, all hell breaks loose.

What happened this year: Indian monsoon went entirely awry—and it had a domino effect that drastically cut the onion harvest.

  • The monsoon season arrived late this year, exacerbating existing drought conditions in parts of Maharashtra. Many farmers planted fewer onion crops, and others switched to other crops like soya. The result: there was a 10% decline in onion production in the state.

  • The monsoon then lingered on for months, bringing torrential rains and flooding to Maharashtra and Karnataka—which destroyed the early kharif harvest. Onions were literally rotting in the fields. 

  • In both Maharashtra and Karnataka, a third of the kharif crop area was damaged by floods. The entire harvest was lost in parts of Maharashtra. Overall, 50% of the produce was affected by unseasonal rainfall.

More on that monsoon: As The Wire explains, the onset and withdrawal of monsoon is triggered by the difference in temperature between the land and sea. Rains arrive at the end of the summer when the land is warmer than the sea—driving winds from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal on to the Indian subcontinent. When the land begins to cool, the winds are driven back. The monsoon typically retreats around September 1 on the subcontinent. This year it stayed put until October 9. The reason: temperatures in Pakistan and Afghanistan remained unusually high—hovering at 31.5°C in the last week of September. The temperature that triggers the retreat of the monsoon: 27°C. Yup, this is also a story about global warming.


The consequences: The price per kilo has skyrocketed across the country, including Bangalore (Rs 200), Mumbai (Rs 160) and Kolkata (Rs 150). In Goa, restaurants have replaced onion with cabbage and carrots. In Bihar, angry groups are doing onion puja as a form of protest. As one leader put it, “These days, it is very difficult for a person belonging to a poor or middle-class family to buy onions. They can only see and offer prayers.”

Who suffers? The consumer, yes, but it is the farmers who lose the most. Rajendra Bhamre, a farmer in Nashik lays out why: “An acre of onion farming requires Rs 1.5 lakh of investment. A decent season throws up around [15,000 kilos] of harvest. The unseasonal rains post monsoon destroyed about [12,000 kilos] of it this time around... Now that our harvest is about 25% of what it should be, the prices have shot up.” But Bhamre is not making any money off this skyhigh surge. Why? He can’t afford to store his onions, and has already sold what onions he was able to salvage.

Who profits? The middlemen. On its journey from the farmer to the consumer, onions change hands at least four to five times. Each transaction pushes up the asking price. The wholesale business is controlled by a small cartel of traders who hoard vast stocks of onions—and profit the most when there is a shortfall. Retailers—who slap on an additional 20-25% to the price tag—also make a killing. 

The bottomline: The government has been scrambling to ban exports, and increase supply by importing 6,090 tonnes from Egypt and another 11,000 tonnes from Turkey. But these short-term measures don’t address the underlying problem. The real need of the hour is a targeted crackdown on an entire chain of middlemen. Also: the creation of proper storage facilities to prevent hoarding and loss. More than 6,500 tonnes of the government's 13,000 tonne-buffer of onions rotted in godowns last year.

Learn more: CNBC offers a big picture view of the onion crisis. Mumbai Mirror has a must-read report on how the farmers lose out every time—whether prices are high or low. This Hindu Business Line op-ed lays out the middleman problem. Times of India offers a quick overview of the key reasons why onion prices swing wildly year after year. The Diplomat offers a unique perspective on how onion diplomacy is rejigging relationships on the subcontinent. The Wire has the best analysis of the monsoon's effect on onion prices.

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taping slices of apple to your wall

Factory fire kills 43 in Delhi: A short circuit in an unauthorised manufacturing units triggered a massive and deadly blaze. The 100-150 factory workers who were asleep were trapped inside a “gas chamber.” There was only one narrow entrance to a five-storey building secured by an iron gate. Times of India has the most details. Indian Express describes the harrowing search for relatives at the morgue.

Yet another Unnao tragedy: A woman who was gang-raped in Unnao, UP, was set on fire by five men—including two who are accused of raping her. No, this is not the Unnao victim who was gang-raped and recently run over by a truck for accusing BJP leader Kuldeep Singh Sengar of raping her. Caravan has the best and most detailed reporting on her case. Daily Mail has her death bed statement recounting the appalling attack.

A mega-blaze chokes Sydney: A monster-sized bushfire is raging across a 60 km stretch outside Sydney. The city is enveloped in smoke and ash, and local newspapers are comparing its hazardous air quality to Delhi’s pollution emergency. As a local novelist described it: “It was this huge and terrible seam of white smoke coming up from the ground beyond which the rest of the continent — where I was headed, where my home is — was invisible. It was as if the country were being devoured by a chemical reaction.” The bad news: There is no way to put out the fires as of now—and they may get worse due to rising temperatures and little hope of rain. Firefighting officials warn, “The worst is yet to come.” New York Times (via Indian Express) has a ground report. And here’s the best round-up of photos and clips of Sydney right now.

Where in the world is Nithyananda? Here’s what we know:

  • The latest update indicates that he was denied asylum in Ecuador and then went on to Haiti. 
  • Also, India cannot issue a ‘red corner notice’ for his extradition because: “A red corner notice means somebody is absconding and he needs to be arrested. In our case, he has been arrested, bailed out and exempted from appearing in court.”
  • FYI: he appears to be recording and releasing videos from an undisclosed location. But no one knows whether these were made before or after he left India. The reason: no one knows when he left India 🙄.
  • The News Minute reports on how his empire and cult continue to grow even in his absence.

Wait, that’s not my DNA! Chris Long received a bone marrow transplant from a German donor. Genetic tests now show that Long may no longer be, er, Long. The DNA in his semen is that of his donor—and the same is true of other parts of his body. Only the DNA in the hair on his head and chest have remained entirely unchanged. Long says, “I thought that it was pretty incredible that I can disappear and someone else can appear.” (Quartz)

The $120,000 banana furore: At the Miami Art Basel, everyone was abuzz over Maurizio Cattelan’s artwork. Titled "Comedian," the artwork comprised of a banana stuck on a wall with a single piece of duct tape. There were three editions of this creation, of which two have already been sold for $120,000. It also came with a 14-page manual on how to display the work: “It should be hung about 175 centimeters (68.9 inches) from the ground, fixed to the wall at a 37-degree angle and the banana should be changed, ‘depending on its aesthetic appearance,’ about every seven or 10 days.” Ok, so far, so insane. Then it got crazier: a performance artist walked into the gallery and ate the banana. Watch the clip here.

Elon Musk wins his defamation trial: British caver Vernon Unsworth criticised the Tesla CEO’s attempt to insert himself into the 2018 rescue operation to save a group of Thai boys trapped in caves. In response, Musk called him a “pedo guy,” and referred to him as a “child rapist.” Unsworth then sued him for defamation—and has now lost. The Verge explains why an LA jury decided to let Musk off the hook.

The latest sign of an economic slowdown: falling sales at microbreweries. Craft beer is having a very bad year. (Economic Times)

The ‘Four Nos’ movement in South Korea: A feminist movement that says no to dating, sex, marriage, and child-rearing is rapidly gaining popularity. The reason: women are no longer interested in playing their part as dutiful wives and daughters-in-law. A decade ago almost 47% of single and never-married Korean women viewed marriage as necessary. Last year, that number fell to 22.4%. Also not interested in getting married: Single people in Japan. (Daily Mail)

This Aladdin spin-off is making everyone mad: Mena Massoud recently confessed that he hasn’t done a single audition—despite playing the lead in Disney’s blockbuster film. Then came news that Disney is planning a spin-off focused on… Prince Anders?! That would be the one minor white character in a movie that bragged endlessly about its ‘woke’ casting. Yes, people are pissed off. (The Guardian)

NEFT that money, any time, any day: As per the Reserve Bank’s latest orders, you will now be able to transfer your money online 24X7—including holidays. (Times of India)

Everyone’s watching ‘The Irishman’: or at least some part of it. The 3.5 hour Martin Scorcese epic on Netflix is a huge hit—at least in the US where 17.1 million watched it. But here’s the catch: only 18% made it all the way through in one sitting. (The Verge)

The first trailer for Wonder Woman 2: is right here.

Weekend reads that you may have missed: include the following:

  • New York Times offers a shocking deep dive into the dark side of online gaming—which has become a hunting ground for pedophiles.

  • The Guardian’s profile of Daisy Ridley—who plays the much-adored Rey in the Star Wars trilogy—may hugely disappoint her fans. See: Ridley’s comments about privilege. 

  • Al Jazeera’s must-read on the high environmental cost of the happy, shiny Scandinavian model of economics.

  • Huffington Post’s review of ‘Panipat’—which tries to break from the anti-Muslim mold of other recent historical movies.

  • Fashionista reports on the latest eco-conscious move by high-fashion labels: using scrap fabric to craft new collections.

  • Economic Times reports on the hottest trend in Indian beauty: pollution protection.

  • Buzzfeed News carried an investigative report on the shocking presence of known rapists on dating apps.

  • Mint reports on the world’s most ambitious culinary event—Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle Stay in Tour—and the two Mumbai restaurants who took part in it. 

  • BBC News on whether the world still needs big zoos—tied to the unveiling of a new 40 km Sydney zoo.

  • William Dalrymple in Spectator UK reviews a fascinating new book that charts the powerful hybrid culture and civilisation created by Persia’s encounter with India. 

  • This Bloomberg op-ed takes a critical look at HR departments which are trying to grapple with #MeToo issues by cracking down on consensual work relationships.

Your daily quota of sunshine items: includes the following:

  • We share a lot of animal clips, but this one from BBC Earth—of a mommy tiger trying to round up her cubs—is an absolute treasure. 

  • The great news that Amna Nawaz will become the first American of South Asian descent to moderate a US presidential debate.

  • Neil Gaiman discovers Times of India. 

  • In Tamil movies, even action heroes are science nerds

  • We totally ❤️ these black & white photos of dogs—including the one featuring Marlon Brando.

  • Extremely rare photos of a pair of Sarus cranes and their newborn baby.

  • A nifty new design for airplane economy seats that actually looks like an awesome idea.

  • These candid ‘Instagram vs reality’ photos posted by social media influencers exposing the tricks of their ‘look awesome’ trade.

  • Coming soon to UP: ‘cow safaris’!!!
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The best place for the best advice

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How to deal with a nasty cold

It’s called the common cold, but it is guaranteed to make you feel uncommonly miserable. First, let’s get the bad news out of the way: there is no known cure for a cold. You can alleviate some of the discomfort, improve your resistance to catching one, but you cannot make it go away, or even reduce its duration. Now we’ve embraced that bitter truth, here’s what will help, and what most certainly will not.

A list of useless cold ‘remedies’:

Antibiotics: A cold is caused by a virus. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. To swallow one to fight the other is a bit like using a toothbrush to comb your hair. Yes, it is also a brush, just not the right kind.

Steam inhalation: This comes as a very rude surprise, especially for us Indians who rush to the nearest steamer at the first sniffle. Most scientific studies found that either the symptoms got worse or did not improve at all.

Supplements:of any kind don’t do much to cure a cold. That includes vitamin C, echinacea, or any other kind of jadi-booti. But, but, but… they can increase your resistance to catching one in the first place.

Zinc: deserves its own special category. Yes, in lozenge or syrup form, it can indeed shorten the duration of a cold. The big but: given its nasty side effects, doctors don’t like to prescribe it. The cure being worse than the disease etc.

Sweating: Sorry, sweating it out won’t cure anything, and will likely add to your already great misery.

Antihistamines:may help a little on day one of a cold, but do nada to ease the congestion once you’re in the thick of it.

Cough syrups: The scientific evidence for or against their use is ambiguous. But many have serious documented side-effects. Swallow that spoonful with caution.

A list of useful cold relief products:

Pseudoephedrine: is the most effective nasal decongestant. So look for tablets or syrups which contain it. That said, it is also the main ingredient of meth. Use in small doses and with care. Btw, it’s ‘safer’ cousin, phenylephrine, is entirely useless.

Hydration: This is the single most effective way to get some relief. Drink lots and lots of liquids, preferably warm: Water, juice, broth, lemon water with honey. Stay away from alcohol, coffee and sodas. No, that brandy toddy is doing you no good—not unless you skip the brandy.

Hot drinks: According to common cold researchers, a hot drink provides “immediate and sustained relief from symptoms of runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness and tiredness.” The home-made iterations in India include mixing methi (fenugreek) seeds + jaggery + soonth (dry ginger powder) in hot milk. Or a pot of tea brewed with freshly crushed black pepper, fresh ginger, grated raw turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom powder, whole cloves, sea salt, tulsi leaves and honey.

Hot food: Chicken soup is the go-to cold remedy and for good reason. It flushes out the nasal passages with its aromatic steaming and offers hydration and comfort. Other research shows that it has anti-viral and anti-inflammation properties, particularly if the skin is left in. Also good for your cold: a different kind of hot food, i.e. spicy ghar ka khana. The reason: “Spicy food and drink promotes salivation and airway mucus secretions that soothe coughs and sore throats.”

Humidifiers: This is just hydration by other means. If you have one, turn it on. It will make it easier to breathe.

Salt water gargles: do indeed soothe a sore throat. And a lozenge offers harmless temporary relief (unless it contains zinc, as mentioned above).

Nasal sprays: The best and safest are the saline kind. It’s kinda like gargling, but for the nose.

Sleep: Your body is fighting a virus. Give it a rest, please.

If you have faith in alternative medicine: as many of us do, here are remedies many Indians swear by:

  • The homeopathic tablet ‘Biocombination 6’ apparently does wonders, especially for kids. Recommended dose: Four tablets, four times a day for adults; two tablets, four times a day for kids.

  • Looking for an ayurvedic cure? Khadi shakkar or misri is typically prescribed to help ease a severe cough and strengthen a weak immune system.

  • Ajwain. Recent research shows that carom seeds are good for you in all sorts of ways—thanks to its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. And studies have proved that boiled extracts of ajwain help ease breathing in asthma patients. Popular grandma recipes for ajwain-based remedies include eating a teaspoon of a paste of roasted ajwain seeds in lukewarm water. Or you can roast the ajwain seeds with garlic and inhale the fumes. 

Learn more: Gizmodo has a long list of cold medicines that don’t work. Bustle takes on a number of other cold-related myths. Mayo Clinic offers the most comprehensive guide based on the latest research. The Guardian has a guide on how to treat your cold without drugs.

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