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EDITORIALS

Zardari speaks
But can he tackle terrorists?
President Asif Ali Zardari has ultimately admitted that Pakistan-based terrorist outfits were “deliberately created and nurtured” by the state of Pakistan as a matter of policy to achieve “some short-term tactical objectives”. This is what India had been telling the world for a long time, but many countries came to understand this rather late in the day.

No let-up in violence
Omar comes out as hapless CM
There seems to be no end to the woes of the residents of the Kashmir valley, nor of its new Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. One violent protest leads to another, disrupting normal life in an endless cycle. After the Shopian and Baramulla incidents, the trigger in Srinagar has been provided by the discovery of the body of a missing college youth, Asrar Dar, with his throat slit.



EARLIER STORIES



Campaign funds
Small step forward on poll reforms
Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s proposal in the Union Budget to make company donations to political parties 100 per cent tax-free will help ensure some transparency in campaign funding and a step forward on electoral reforms. The Budget has proposed to provide cent per cent tax exemption to “electoral trusts” which are to be set up as “pass-through vehicles” by the government for routing the donations to political parties and are approved by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT).

ARTICLE

US, Russia make a new ‘start’
Window-dressing on nuclear issue
by Inder Malhotra
A
S was only to be expected, early during his three-day visit to Moscow, United States President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Mr Dmitry Medvedev, signed a series of agreements, most notably the one on cutting their nuclear arsenals. They have committed their countries to reduce their nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,500 on each side this year.

MIDDLE

Running for life!
by Vepa Rao
W
E caught hold of a player soon after India lost a cricket match because of horrible fielding. Here are excerpts from a special interview.
Q: How come you all dropped so many catches?
Player: The balls just failed to stick. But our hands were almost there, so now we have some hope.

OPED

Is the water pure?
Punjab villages need filtration plants
by B.S. Thaur
F
OR over two decades the availability of pure drinkable water in rural Punjab has been getting bad to worse. In 1984 53 blocks were declared as dark zones, where water was unfit for human consumption. In 1995 the number of dark zones increased to 84 and then in 2005 it rose to 108 out of total 138 development blocks in the state.

Ethnic violence worries China
by David Pierson and Barbara Demick
I
N an escalating campaign to stamp out ethnic violence, Chinese forces on Wednesday saturated the western city of Urumqi, helicopters dropped leaflets urging calm and the local Communist Party boss warned of the death penalty for rioters convicted of killings.

Secret to long life
by Michael McCarthy
A
drug originating on Easter Island, the mysterious South Pacific home of a lost statue-building people, may become the first substance to slow down ageing. Rapamycin, a pharmacological product used to prevent rejection in organ transplants, has been found to extend the lifespan of mice by up to 38 per cent, raising the possibility that it may delay ageing in people.





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Zardari speaks
But can he tackle terrorists?

President Asif Ali Zardari has ultimately admitted that Pakistan-based terrorist outfits were “deliberately created and nurtured” by the state of Pakistan as a matter of policy to achieve “some short-term tactical objectives”. This is what India had been telling the world for a long time, but many countries came to understand this rather late in the day. The attitude of the world, particularly the US, changed when 9/11 happened. The statement by Pakistan’s head of state at a meeting of retired civil servants has come about when the country has come to realise that it faces the biggest threat to its existence from the terrorist networks like the Taliban, and not from India. He has also stated in the course of an interview with The Daily Telegraph of London that the Pakistan Army has to finish off the “assets” of yesterday as these have turned into Frankensteins, threatening to devour their creators.

Mr Zardari had earlier said that the Pakistan Army would not hesitate in eliminating even the militants it once patronised and supported as part of its proxy war against India. All these indicate something bigger happening behind the scenes in Pakistan. He cannot afford to make such statements without the tacit approval of the army. Or is he trying to score brownie points against Pakistan’s most powerful institution, which is quietly backing Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to emerge as the real power centre?

These developments should be seen in the light of Mr Zadari having agreed to relinquish some of the key powers he wields as President like those relating to the dissolution of parliament and the appointment, or sacking, of the army chief. It could be that he is making such statements to please Washington which has been asking the Pakistan authorities to tackle the terrorist groups functioning from its territory. Whatever is the reality at the political front, Pakistan must continue the fight against terrorism in the interest of its own survival. Nothing should come in the way of eliminating the scourge.

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No let-up in violence
Omar comes out as hapless CM

There seems to be no end to the woes of the residents of the Kashmir valley, nor of its new Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. One violent protest leads to another, disrupting normal life in an endless cycle. After the Shopian and Baramulla incidents, the trigger in Srinagar has been provided by the discovery of the body of a missing college youth, Asrar Dar, with his throat slit. While the security agencies deny picking him up and blame criminal elements for the murder, the violent protesters have been targeting the police and government personnel. Such incidents are becoming more and more frequent. Unfortunately, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who came to power on the promise of providing “politically serious and administratively accountable government” has been finding himself to be unequal to the emerging situation and is being increasingly blamed for the deteriorating law and order situation.

His ambivalence has neither won over the nationalists nor separatists. In fact, he has been falling between the two groups contending for space. In the Shopian case, he jumped the gun while giving a clean chit to security agencies in the case involving two raped and murdered women. He showed similar kneejerk reaction in the Baramulla case also, ordering withdrawal of the CRPF, realising only later that there were not adequate state police forces to replace them.

Obviously, he is not fully alive to the ground realities. Nor does he have the grit to grapple with the situation which is particularly sensitive in Jammu and Kashmir. As a junior minister at the Centre, he managed to do rather well, thanks to his articulation. But the Chief Minister’s post requires guile and tact at the best of times – even more so while tackling elements which take orders from abroad. He rode to power with a huge bag of expectations as well as goodwill. It has been only six months since then but some of those hopes stand belied. Six months is a long time for a honeymoon in politics, which already seems to be over. He will have to reinvent himself to prove to be an able administrator.

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Campaign funds
Small step forward on poll reforms

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s proposal in the Union Budget to make company donations to political parties 100 per cent tax-free will help ensure some transparency in campaign funding and a step forward on electoral reforms. The Budget has proposed to provide cent per cent tax exemption to “electoral trusts” which are to be set up as “pass-through vehicles” by the government for routing the donations to political parties and are approved by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). The CBDT is yet to formulate the finer details of the proposal such as the bodies that are eligible to set up the trusts; the maximum ceiling of the amount that can be donated; and the amount a political party can collect through such trusts.

The proposal was long overdue because illegal and under-the-table donations by companies to political parties have been a major cause for corruption in public life since Independence. In 1985, although the Rajiv Gandhi government had restored the legitimacy of corporate donations to political parties, the companies have been shy of ensuring a transparent process of donations. In 2003, most political parties had accepted the Indrajit Gupta Committee report and supported the legislation on campaign funding. Political parties are also mandated to declare all contributions above Rs 20,000 to the Election Commission. The new proposal seems to be an improvement over the others though it is doubtful whether it will completely eliminate secret donations by companies.

Ironically, though Indian elections are known for their transparency and fairness, nobody knows how much money political parties spend on elections or the sources of funds. Moreover, these parties follow the Election Commission’s ceiling on expenditure more in its breach than in practice, with the result that most MPs and MLAs begin their legislative career by telling a lie about how much they have spent on campaigning. There is also a need for political parties to get their accounts audited every year for due submission to the Election Commission. Making the elections cleaner will make public life less tainted.

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Thought for the Day

And hell itself will pass away, / And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

— John Milton

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Corrections and clarifications

  • The headline “Fund crunch, red tape stumbling blocks” (Page 7, July 9) should have been “Funds crunch, red tape stumbling blocks”.
  • The headline “Tremors in the Left, CPI shows teeth” (Page 2, July 8) should have been “Tremors within Left, CPI bares fangs”.
  • “Villagers earn honour for killed jawan” (Page 4, July 7) is an inappropriate headline. It should have been “Villagers force guard of honour for jawan”.
  • In the report “Punjab’s hopes on food subsidy dashed” (Page 20, July 7) the sentence “Its hope that with the introduction of the Food Security Act, Punjab would enable it to pass off the Rs 400 crore Punjab spends on the atta-dal scheme to the centrally-sponsored scheme saving it this huge amount” is wrongly worded and convoluted.

Despite our earnest endeavour to keep The Tribune error-free, some errors do creep in at times. We are always eager to correct them.

We request our readers to write or e-mail to us whenever they find any error. We will carry corrections and clarifications, wherever necessary, every Tuesday & Friday.

Readers in such cases can write to Mr Kamlendra Kanwar, Senior Associate Editor, The Tribune, Chandigarh, with the word “Corrections” on the envelope. His e-mail ID is kanwar@tribunemail.com.

H.K. Dua
Editor-in-Chief

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US, Russia make a new ‘start’
Window-dressing on nuclear issue
by Inder Malhotra

AS was only to be expected, early during his three-day visit to Moscow, United States President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Mr Dmitry Medvedev, signed a series of agreements, most notably the one on cutting their nuclear arsenals. They have committed their countries to reduce their nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,500 on each side this year. Their agreed framework would lead to a treaty that will replace the 1991 START- I that is due to expire in December.

A 2002 accord on “strategic nuclear arsenals” that President George Bush and Mr. Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s President and now Prime Minister, had signed in Moscow proved to be a dead letter. The new agreement removes all its deficiencies, especially by committing both countries to reducing the number of their nuclear-capable missiles to between 500 and 1,100 in seven years. It also contains mutually acceptable verification measures, as the White House was quick to announce well before the two leaders addressed a joint Press conference.

In the context of the Moscow summit, the word START has more meaning than one. For, Mr Obama’s avowed objective is to make a new “start” in the US-Russian relationship that had “sunk to a post-Cold War low” during the eight years of the Bush presidency. A year ago the two mighty countries were on the verge of going to war over the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia. In his most important speech in Moscow, Mr Obama declared that the relationship between Russia and America that were allies in the greatest war of the last century was that of “collaboration, not confrontation”.

On the other hand, Mr. Medvedev iterated Russia’s long-standing demand that reduction in strategic arsenals should be linked to America’s global missile defence programme. Mr Bush had resolutely refused to do so. Mr Obama promised to “review” this policy, which is encouraging but not a guarantee that the policy would be changed to Russia’s satisfaction. Mr Obama’s assurance that this programme was not directed against Russia cannot satisfy Russia, determined to safeguard its backyard in Central Asia. Even stronger is the Russian opposition to NATO expansion, especially to Ukraine and Georgia, because this brings the western military alliance to Russia’s borders. Mr. Obama’s remarks on this score were cautious but ambiguous. America’s objection to Russian recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is also strong. What Washington fails to see is that this could be Russia’s riposte to Kosovo.

In short, while some progress has been made in improving US-Russian relations, several major difficulties remain. The fundamental problem is that Russia is not yet persuaded that America is prepared to treat it as an equal.

One faux pas the US President made was loudly to proclaim his preference for Mr Medvedev over Mr Putin, describing the former as a “forward- looking liberal” and the later as “a Cold Warrior”. Even before his arrival Mr Obama got a withering answer from Mr Putin. After the hour-long meeting between the two, Mr Obama changed his opinion of Mr Putin. He must have realised that on all crucial issues Russia’s former president matters more than the present one.

The Russians are pleased that the new US President chose to come to Moscow before going to Beijing or Tokyo. They know that in the US there is a strong lobby advocating that Russia should continue to be “squeezed” while the growing warmth towards China should be maintained. The reason for this is obvious: China’s formidable financial and economic clout in the midst of global economic recession.

For all the importance of the agreement on nuclear arms reduction, Mr Obama’s greater concern during his Russian sojourn was Afghanistan. On this issue the Russians have gone an extra mile to give comfort to the US. Obviously, neither Russia nor America wants the Taliban to prevail. Both want that war-ravaged country to be stabilised.

No wonder then that under another agreement Russia has allowed massive air and land transit of both military supplies and troops for the US-led operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Shipments of non-lethal supplies had been going on since March. Even before his arrival in Moscow, Mr Obama had received another “gift” on this score. Krygzstan, with

Russian consent, if not at Russian instance, relaxed on its earlier decision to shut down the US airbase at Manas and agreed to transform it into a “transit centre”.

All this clearly means that despite serious differences overall, there are certain issues on which Russia and the US are on the same wavelength. Iran, despite its close relations with Russia, falls in this category. Evidently, Moscow does not want Iran to go nuclear any more than does Washington. In any case, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has gone along with all the resolutions on Iran’s nuclear quest. By contrast, America is peeved that Russia has been somewhat supportive of North Korea.

To be candid, Russia and America are at one also in another respect that has a bearing on the global nuclear issue. Their much-applauded agreement on the reduction of nuclear warheads is really no more than window- dressing in preparation for the NPT review conference next year. The previous review conference in 2005 was a fiasco because the recognised nuclear weapon powers had done precious little to fulfil their commitments to nuclear disarmament. The two now want to convince the non-nuclear powers that they are advancing towards disarmament and that total nuclear elimination is their goal, as Mr Obama emphasised in his Moscow oration. The point, however, is that the promise to abolish all nuclear weapons is no more than proverbial pie in the sky. On the other hand, 1500 warheads and 1100 delivery vehicles in the possession of each of the two nuclear big boys are enough to blow up the planet earth many times over.

Against this backdrop, India and other countries, genuinely interested in total nuclear disarmament, must take notice of the great emphasis Mr Obama put on nuclear nonproliferation in terms of the NPT. It is also noteworthy that he mentioned India, Pakistan and North Korea as the three countries that have “conducted nuclear tests” since the NPT came into force. He mentioned only testing, not manufacture of nuclear weapons. Had he adopted the second criterion he would have to include Israel among the countries possessing nuclear weapons. This he cannot do for reasons too obvious to be mentioned.

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Running for life!
by Vepa Rao

WE caught hold of a player soon after India lost a cricket match because of horrible fielding. Here are excerpts from a special interview.

Q: How come you all dropped so many catches?

Player: The balls just failed to stick. But our hands were almost there, so now we have some hope.

Q: What steps are you taking?

Player: There will be glue in our pant pockets. Just dip the fingers in, before running for the catch.

Q: Or, maybe basket-like big handkerchiefs? The balls can fall safely into them and stay put…

Player: Great! We need such ideas. You see, we can’t afford to hurt our hands while fielding. It will be difficult to bat or bowl with a hurt hand. In fact, that’s the reason….

Q: When the bowler starts running in, we notice all your fielders’ lips move vigorously. Is it sledging?

Player: No. Everybody prays that the batsman should not send the ball in his direction. It’s both risky and boring, you see, to chase the ball, bend, pick it up and throw at the stumps. Or God forbid, if it comes in the air!

Q: But sir, your throws seldom hit the stumps, or come near them anyway.

Player: That’s part of our ethics. We want to win but not by running out opponents. Not fair. We want to clean bowl them or out-bat them. Runouts are cheap stuff — no mazaa!

Q: You start off late, and dive only after the ball has crossed you.

Player: Part of our overall marketing strategy. You see, crowds love seeing the ball cross the ropes — otherwise, cricket will suffer. But they also want to see dramatic efforts. We provide both, in the best interests of the game. We dive at once, immediately after the ball has passed us. No delay at all!

Q: But sir, most of you are accused of being lazy bones and heavy bottoms.

Player: Ok, ok. We have plans to play into each fielder’s ears his mother-in-law’s taped voice — during practice sessions. Then he will run, as though for his life. Also, we have requested some politicians to motivate us — all their lives, they run doggedly after some power, position etc. Our fielders can learn from them.

Q: Most fielders, it is believed, don’t want to stand at close-in positions.

Player: Apart from abdomen guards and helmets, we need covering for every other part of the body. Even legs and hands should not be exposed to hard-hitting. We will wait for such things to improve safety during our close-in fielding.

Q: Sir how about taking sharp singles? Your batsmen are run out usually…

Player: Remember, again, our loving crowds! They don’t mind if I get out after hitting a couple of boundaries, thereby losing the match. But they must watch boundaries – not those silly singles.

And, by the way, here is a piece of news for you. We are importing fielding coaches — one each for ground-fielding in a particular position. Ten more coaches for catching the balls in the air in different postures. Ten more specialists for aiming at the wickets, and…

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Is the water pure?
Punjab villages need filtration plants
by B.S. Thaur

FOR over two decades the availability of pure drinkable water in rural Punjab has been getting bad to worse. In 1984 53 blocks were declared as dark zones, where water was unfit for human consumption. In 1995 the number of dark zones increased to 84 and then in 2005 it rose to 108 out of total 138 development blocks in the state.

The ground water level has been falling much faster than expected. In 1973 only 3 per cent area of Punjab had water table below 10 meters. It went up to 14.9 per cent in 1989, 20 per cent in 1992, 28 per cent in 1997, 53 per cent in 2000, 76 per cent in 2002, and in 2004 as much as 90 per cent area of Punjab was drawing water from a depth of more than 10 meters, including more than 30 per cent area having water at a depth of 20 meters or more.

The lower level of water has aggravated the problems of drinking water in villages. In 1980 there were 712 villages with drinking water problem. Their number rose to 6,287 in 1990, and in 2000 it went up to 8,518. Now, as many as 11,849 village or habitations out of total 12,423 are facing drinking water problems.

According to a government funded survey, in Punjab, where farmers use huge quantities of fertilisers and pesticides, drinking water contains high levels of heavy metals and pesticides which is wreaking havoc to the environment and human health. The impure drinking water, the survey concludes causes, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, joint pains, skin diseases, asthma, cancer and also mental retardation in parts of Punjab that were surveyed by a Committee headed by J.S. Bajaj Vice-Chairman of Punjab State Planning Board.

An earlier study by the Department of Community Medicine, Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Chandigarh found high levels of pesticides residue in food and water in several blocks while a centre for science and environment study reported pesticides residue in human blood samples collected across villages in the state. In Punjab, the quality of ground water available in 15 out of 17 districts has become unfit for human consumption because of various types of contamination and hardness.

The irony, is that people are not scared of this impure water. They are satisfied so long the water looks apparently clean. They are not aware that so looking ‘clean’ is contaminated water and is causing various diseases. The problem is therefore two fold, first to make the rural populace aware of the dangers of impure water being used by them second to provide pure water.

The old methods of purifying are not effective in purifying water with such a heavy order of contamination even in towns, leave aside villages. More so, in villages, most of the houses do not have water supply connections. Water is drawn from hand pumps, community wells, bore wells, shallow water tanks, ponds and also streams which accumulate hardness and impurities from the surroundings and strata of the soil.

Experts say that in villages people are not aware that the apparently clean water consumed by them contains impurities of organic nature like worms, bacteria, viruses of various kinds, totally dissolved salts like carbonates, chlorides, sulphates, nitrates and poisonous and harmful minerals like arsenic, antimony lead, ferrous mercury and other chemicals which are disastrous to the human body.

Making the available water drinkable and potable with purification and filtration processes needs huge capital investment and it can be commercially viable only in towns to install water supply system. It is not cost-effective in villages.

As per a rough estimate, in order to make drinkable water accessible to every family in the village would cost 35,000 crores with an yearly maintenance cost of 3,800 crore. Such a whopping investment by the state government, taking into account its depleted coffers, is just not possible. For such welfare measures, state governments always look to the Central Government and the other World Bank agencies for financial inputs, a long process.

The problem, however, can be solved by using the Reverse Osmosis Technology, a process of removing dissolved minerals, organic molecules, bacteria and other toxic impurities from water. The installation of centralised water purification system using the RO process may not be economical due to its high maintenance cost. Similarly, the individual small domestic models for every household may also not be economically affordable in villages. However, small purification plants, installed in a cluster for a group of 25 to 30 families each, may be the answer.

The installation of RO units can also provide some employment. The system has been devices, to make the new RO system work in spite of erratic power supply in the villages. These can be run on solar energy, battery cells and also be switched to electric power.

It is imperative that a sustained and vigorous awakening campaign, highlighting the hazards of drinking hard water and the consequences thereof, should be launched in the rural areas, especially among the women folk who mostly carry the drinking water job for the family. The women organizations, NGO’s and the Social Welfare Department should join hands in the campaign to awaken the people to dangers of contaminated water. Its aim should be that the man in the village himself becomes so aware that he clamours for pure drinking water, and demands that his basic need must be met.

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Ethnic violence worries China
by David Pierson and Barbara Demick

Police assemble at Urumqi
Police assemble at Urumqi. — Reuters

IN an escalating campaign to stamp out ethnic violence, Chinese forces on Wednesday saturated the western city of Urumqi, helicopters dropped leaflets urging calm and the local Communist Party boss warned of the death penalty for rioters convicted of killings.

“We’re determined to maintain social stability,” said Urumqi’s party chief, Li Zhi, at a news conference. “To those who committed crimes with cruel means, we will execute them.”

Despite the massive show of force, Han Chinese and the Turkic minority Uighurs continued to fight in the city streets, showing how difficult it will be to restore order.

Since Sunday, violence virtually has paralyzed Urumqi, a city of 2.3 million, and authorities fear it could easily spread to other parts of the Xinjiang region, particularly the southern cities of Hotan and Kashgar, which have Uighur majorities.

“Many people think it has calmed down, but we worry it is just the beginning,” said a public security official, who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity. “This is a huge threat to national harmony. It is the most serious violence we have seen since the 1980s.”

The Chinese government has not reported any casualty figures since Monday, when it said 156 were dead. Security officials said it had been decided to hold off further reporting for fear of inflaming the violence.

The seriousness of the crisis was highlighted by Chinese President Hu Jintao’s abrupt return to Beijing on Wednesday, cancelling his appearance with other world leaders at a summit of the Group of 8 industrial nations in Italy.

With bands of Han Chinese vigilantes roving the streets carrying crude weapons, swearing revenge against attacks on their people over the weekend, Chinese authorities are not taking any chances.

Thousands of police—some in full body armour, some carrying machine guns and shotguns, others crossbows—guarded main thoroughfares, city squares and alleyways leading to Uighur enclaves.

Still, one man believed to be Uighur was attacked on a street by an angry mob outside a shuttered store. The victim was punched and kicked repeatedly, his head bashed against the curb.

Within minutes, authorities arrived on the scene and pushed back the crowd. Officers formed a phalanx to arrest a man who appeared to be one of the attackers. A large group of young Chinese men chanted, “Release him, release him.” It was unclear what happened to the suspect.

A police truck with loudspeakers arrived behind the crowd and played a looped recording that told the crowd to go home.

“Xinjiang is a place for all ethnic groups,” the recording said.

A helicopter then flew over dropping bundles of leaflets onto the crowd—copies of a speech made by the provincial Communist Party chief calling for calm and ethnic unity.

In an incident earlier in the day, three Uighurs were chased by Chinese at an intersection. Two got away, but one was beaten for 30 seconds by a crowd, some of whom shouted “strike, strike, strike,” before being rescued by police, according to Agence France-Presse.

The agency also reported that about 200 Uighurs armed with sticks, pipes and rocks demonstrated in front of a police cordon after trading insults with Hans on the opposite side.

The rioting broke out Sunday after what was supposed to be a peaceful march by Uighurs protesting the killing last month of two Uighur men at a factory in Guangdong province. It is unclear how many of the 156 reported to be killed that day were Han; Chinese authorities have not released names of the victims.

In many neighbourhoods of Urumqi, there was evidence of the violence—shops and restaurants destroyed, a brand-new supermarket with all its windows shattered. The remains of two Han-owned car dealerships, charred black with overturned sedans, faced a desperately poor, traditional Uighur neighbourhood.

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Secret to long life
by Michael McCarthy

A drug originating on Easter Island, the mysterious South Pacific home of a lost statue-building people, may become the first substance to slow down ageing. Rapamycin, a pharmacological product used to prevent rejection in organ transplants, has been found to extend the lifespan of mice by up to 38 per cent, raising the possibility that it may delay ageing in people.

Hitherto a matter for science fiction, the idea of an anti-ageing drug which would allow people to prolong their natural lifespan and also to avoid age-related diseases is now being seriously considered for the first time as a result of the findings by American researchers.

Rapamycin is a bacterial product originally found in a soil sample from Easter Island, the Polynesian extinct volcano famous for its monumental statues erected hundreds of years ago by the island people, and known in the region as Rapa Nui — hence the drug's name. Originally developed as an anti-fungal agent, rapamycin was soon found to have powerful immuno-suppressant properties and thus be valuable for preventing rejection of transplanted organs. It was also found to delay the ageing process when used experimentally with three sets of lower organisms: yeast, nematode worms and fruit flies.

Now, however, it has been shown to affect the ageing of mice — the first time that this has ever been shown with a mammal.

A team of 14 researchers from three institutions, led by David Harrison from the Jackson Laboratory at Bar Harbor in Maine, fed rapamycin to mice late in their life n at 600 days of age — and showed that both the median and maximal lifespan of treated animals were considerably extended. Currently, the only way to extend the life of a rodent is by severely restricting its diet, so this marks the first report of a pharmacological intervention that lengthens the life of mammals — with clear implications for humans.

The results, published today in an online paper on the website of the journal Nature, are attracting considerable excitement, and an accompanying article in Nature by two of the world's leading experts on the ageing process, Matt Kaeberlein and Brian K Kennedy from the University of Washington, Seattle, headed “A Midlife Longevity Drug?” openly asks the question: “Is this the first step towards an anti-ageing drug for people?” Their answer is that it may well be. Dr Kaeberlein and Dr Kennedy first issued a warning to people not to start taking rapamycin at once in the hope of prolonging their lives: “the potential immuno-suppressive effects of this compound alone are sufficient to caution against this,” they advised.

But they added: “On the basis of animal models, however, it is interesting to consider that rapamycin ... might prove useful in combating many age-associated disorders. Also ... it may be possible to develop pharmacological strategies that provide the health and longevity benefits without unwanted side-effects.

“So, although extending human lifespan with a pill remains the purview of science fiction writers for now, the results of Harrison et al provide a reason for optimism that even during middle age, there's still time to change the road you're on.” Rapamycin was known to have an influence on ageing in the lower organisms by disrupting the influence of an enzyme known as TOR, which regulates cell growth. Dr Harrison and colleagues found that this was also the case with mice, and found that rapamycin feeding could extend mouse lifespan even when started late in life.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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