At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Gabrielle Gray Shifts Over to Weave A New Story in American Bluegrass Music

Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — There was a big change today in American bluegrass music here in this Ohio River city, which over the last decade has established itself as a global center of the quintessential American music born in western Kentucky. The board of trustees of the International Bluegrass Music Museum announced that Gabrielle M. Gray,  the museum’s chief executive, ends her exceptional 12-year tenure as the museum’s capable and creative leader and steps down as executive director overseeing all museum campus operations.

Gabrielle retains her position as executive producer of ROMP, the signature bluegrass music festival she founded in 2004.  Gray also remains the museum’s grant writer. These two sources of income — ROMP proceeds and grant awards — produce most of the museum’s annual revenue, making it possible for the museum to preserve, exhibit, catalog and archive the artifacts and collections of bluegrass music internationally, as well as host many ambitious programs and events throughout the year.

Carly Smith, a staff member since May 2011 and the museum’s capable assistant director since 2014, steps into a new role as interim director. The museum’s board, chaired by Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, is conducting a nationwide search for a new executive director. The new director is expected to be in place in the spring or summer of 2015.

Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider

The announcement was greeted as big news in this river city of 58,000 residents, in large part because Gabrielle, her staff, her board, and city and Daviess county officials collaborated over the last decade to establish bluegrass music as an economic and cultural priority. The city is working with the museum to build a $15.5 million Bluegrass Music Center on a choice downtown lot along the Ohio that was formerly the site of a state office building. The ROMP festival, held annually over the last weekend of June, now attracts the finest bands in bluegrass and over 20,000 attendees annually. In other words, bluegrass is as important to Owensboro as the blues are to Memphis and Chicago, country music is to Nashville, jazz is to New Orleans, and rock and roll is to Cleveland.

Ron Payne, Owensboro’s progressive Republican mayor, who’s led a $250 million downtown redevelopment campaign that includes the new Bluegrass Music Center, commended Gabrielle’s tenure. “I’m tickled to death that Gabrielle is going to stay on and help us with ROMP,” Payne told the Messenger-Inquirer, the city’s daily newspaper. “She’s done an outstanding job. Bluegrass is where it is today, partly because of the work she’s done.”
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Dream Big — Why Ohio River Valley Resurgence is Nationally and Globally Significant

After GE closed its factories, and put 6,000 people out of work in the late 20th century, Owensboro was forced to develop new economic ideas. The city is now the center of bluegrass music in the world. The 23 String Band performs at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in September 2014. Photo\Keith Schneider

After GE closed its factories, and put 6,000 people out of work in the late 20th century, Owensboro was forced to develop new economic ideas. The city is now the center of bluegrass music in the world. The 23 String Band performs at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in September 2014. Photo\Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — More than three years ago, while writing a study that suggested several new 21st century development ideas for this old river city, I discovered the mysteries of the Ohio River Valley.

The region’s natural beauty is immediately striking. The recovering economies of cities and counties, once described as the Rust Belt, impress me. The unexpected governing approaches — cities passing new taxes as a development tool, and seeking consolidation with their surrounding counties — is out of step with what I knew about a region that wholly embraces the no-new-taxes, era of austerity, big government-hating rhetoric of conservative dogma.

My thinking has evolved over the last several years and is now influenced by what I see during the global reporting I’m undertaking for Circle of Blue. What’s plain to me is that the six states of the Ohio River Valley are providing powerful lessons for the country — in local and state governance, energy use, demography, tax investments, business technology, and government\industry collaboration.

My research needs to be deeper on these points, and I’m gathering string for my first book. But my instinct is that a persuasive case can be made that the region that produced the 50-year (1940-1990) American era of industrial innovation and working man prosperity is again forming the foundations of a new and purely American era of economic well-being and ecological recovery.

The Ohio River in Newburgh, Indiana. Photo\KeithSchneider

The Ohio River in Newburgh, Indiana. Photo\KeithSchneider


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This Is India — “Maybe Tomorrow”

Much of the world's tea is raised in northeast India. Workers pick tea leaves in a tea garden in Assam. Photo/Keith Schneider

Much of the world’s tea is raised in northeast India. Workers pick tea leaves in a tea garden in Assam. Photo/Keith Schneider

GUWAHATI, India — Beggars prowl the sidewalks of every city I’ve visited — American, Scandinavian, Arabian, Australian, Asian.

Still, there may be no more organized, encompassing, creative, and pathetic beggar culture in the world today than the one that operates in New Delhi, India’s capital.

With 25 million residents, New Delhi is the world’s second largest city behind Tokyo, according to the United Nations. Seven years ago Delhi’s Social Welfare Department reported that nearly 59,000 beggars roamed the city’s streets. More recent unofficial estimates puts the number at four times that figure or more.

By day, beggars work the city’s traffic-swarmed intersections in teams delineated by age, sex, physical infirmity, dress, and territory. At one corner beautiful little girls sweep through the traffic lanes, their eyes sad pools of practiced lamentation, beseeching drivers and passengers for coins. At another it’s little boys squirting through stopped traffic. Young mothers holding infants and wearing street-soiled saris of orange chiffon are common.

So are hijras, India’s transgender third sex. They are castrated men that dress and adorn themselves like women in makeup and jewelry. They shimmy and shake, bat their eyes, and extend large thick-veined hands, the grip of theatrical desperation.

When night descends, a different choreography unfolds. Beggar groups and families recede to their camps in parks, on the medians of busy boulevards, and underneath highway bridges. Mobile shelters made of tree limbs and plastic are erected. Cooking stoves are lit. Children are bathed and fed. Then Delhi’s dark places flicker on, one after another like a ground level constellation. The stars are the blue and white hues of tablet screens. Adults and children, sitting on blankets, gather in sizable circles to watch the digitized flames of their video campfires. TII. This Is India.

Orange producers in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo/Keith Schneider

Orange producers in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo/Keith Schneider


During 17 days spent in India — my fourth trip in two years — I noted other intriguing colors and distinctive textures that describe this great banquet of bedlam and paradox. I call it TII — This Is India. Enjoy.

Much of India's highway network is constructed by hand. Workers in Meghalaya use steel bars to break up the pavement, pounding the black top like warriors with pointed lances. Photo/Keith Schneider

Much of India’s highway network is constructed by hand. Workers in Meghalaya use steel bars to break up the pavement, pounding the black top like warriors with pointed lances. Photo/Keith Schneider

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Meghalaya’s Coal Shutdown Is Leaky, Testing Authority of Law and Court

In plain view of the police and security forces, and in open defiance of a court order in April that shut down Meghalaya's dangerous and polluting coal mines, newly mined coal is unloaded along the national highway that serves as a coal transport staging area. Photo/Keith Schneider

In plain view of the police and security forces, and in open defiance of a court order in April that shut down Meghalaya’s dangerous and polluting coal mines, newly mined coal is unloaded along the national highway that serves as a coal transport staging area. Photo/Keith Schneider

JOWAI, India — On April 17, in a ruling that stunned miners, truckers, and owners in this region of black dust and rivers that run the colors of the rainbow, India’s National Green Tribunal ordered Meghalaya’s $US 650 million coal mining industry to shut down.

Nothing like it had ever happened to the coal industry in India or anywhere else. Ruling that Meghalaya’s globally unique ‘rathole’ box mines were too dangerous and too dirty to continue operating, the four-year-old court issued the first state-level closure of a fossil fuel industry in history.

Some 30,000 mine owners, 70,000 immigrant miners, and 6,000 coal truckers were forced to stop working in this heavily forested state in Northeast India. Virtually every business was affected in the state’s two big coalfields — here in the Jaintia Hills, and in the Garo Hills in the state’s southwestern region. Merchants complain of slower sales.

The shutdown generated protests and a huge march in May. The unrest grew so fierce that security forces fired into a crowd of demonstrating owners, miners, and truckers at one protest that killed two men.

Six months later, Meghalaya’s coal fields are like a dormant breathing beast — quiet for the time being, but also restive. Hundreds of empty six-wheel coal transport trucks are idle in fields, and parked behind truck repair shops. The makeshift miners’ camps that lay beside the national highway, built of scrap wood, tin, and blue plastic, are either gone or empty.

Meghalaya’s coal fields, though, also are astir with resentment and smoldering readiness to defy the court’s order. Regional government officials purse their lips and snarl about the Green Tribunal and its surprising power. The roadside coal loading transfer areas, like great parade grounds of packed dirt, are not nearly as busy as they were before the court order. Yet here and there, in plain view of the police and security forces, mined coal is unloaded into big black piles. At night, authorities told me, coal is loaded by hand into six-wheel trucks and transported to steel and paper factories in neighboring Assam or taken down the road to Meghalaya’s seven cement factories.

Defiance and independence from authority is a cultural virtue in Northeast India, a seven state region of indigenous tribes granted special autonomous authority by India’s constitution. Insurgent groups are active and well armed. They regularly confront the police and Indian military, and shake down business owners and truck drivers for bribes.

Meghalaya’s rathole box mines are a manifestation of the tradition of lawlessness. Cut from rock in neat squares measuring roughly 30 meters by 30 meters, the mines are typically 40 meters to 70 meters deep. At the bottom miners work on their knees in tunnels about one meter tall. Sweating in the focused light of small flashlights taped to their heads, they scratch at the coal face with picks and steel bars.

Deaths and injuries are common, and occur without penalty to mine owners. Pollution from acid mine drainage has ruined the state’s fisheries, and turns Meghalaya’s rivers red, blue, green, and orange.

Enforcement of the NGT’S shutdown order is largely the responsibility of district police. Mining and transporting coal is illegal under the court order and punishable as a felony with potentially long sentences and hefty fines.

Police resolve, though, to halt outlaw mining and trucking is episodic. Meghalaya, after all, is a region where mine owners and government authorities are close friends, and so many residents are dependent on coal sales for their living.

The April shutdown order affected virtually every business in Meghalaya's two big coalfields -- the  Jaintia Hills to the east, and the Garo Hills in the state's southwestern region. In Jowai's crowded market, merchants complained of slower sales. Photo/Keith Schneider

The April shutdown order affected virtually every business in Meghalaya’s two big coalfields — the Jaintia Hills to the east, and the Garo Hills in the state’s southwestern region. In Jowai’s crowded market, merchants complained of slower sales. Photo/Keith Schneider

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India’s National Green Tribunal Challenges Government and Industry To Follow The Law

The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world's important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India's economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Hon. Swatanter Kumar, chairman of the National Green Tribunal. Under his watch the four-year-old court has emerged as one of the world’s important centers for the idea that enforcing the law to secure clean air and water and to protect resources is the soundest path to India’s economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHILLONG, India — India’s National Green Tribunal, a judicial body with legal authority that ranks just below India’s Supreme Court, is quickly emerging as one of the world’s most important forums for the idea that economic advancement is tightly wired to public safety, and the security of water, air, and land.

Established by India’s Supreme Court and legislated into existence and a source of funding by Parliament in 2010, the new court gained a formidable home office eleven months ago. The NGT’s building, constructed over a century ago as the residence of a regional prince, and formerly the national office of India’s Human Rights Commission, sits prominently near the center of the capital district that also houses the President’s Estate and the Supreme Court.

Prior to the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May, India’s leadership took pains to recruit great jurists and technical specialists to serve on the bench. The government invested in decorating the Tribunal’s main Courtroom Number 1 with green carpet, green curtains, green upholstered chairs, gold filagree on decorative cornices, and a gold seal above the judicial bench. The ornamentation, poorly lit in an Indian government sort of way, is authentically earnest and more than enough to convey institutional significance, and sound and independent legal judgment.

Yet even with all the green and gold serving as glitter on the symbolic robe of impartial justice, the colors aren’t sufficient to hide the doggedness that really drives the spirit of India’s newest court. Just a few days of attending NGT hearings this month reveals a 17-member bench, comprised of seven judges and ten of India’s top science, engineering, and technical experts, driven by righteous zeal.

There is, in fact, an undercurrent of spiritual fervor in the poorly ventilated courtroom, illumiinated by harsh fluorescence, and jammed with lawyers in spotless white shirts and pitch black suits. They huddle like penguins, straining to hear the unamplified back and forth between the grey-bearded judges and the much younger lawyers. The scene feels a lot like the heated, crowded, airless, determined Rosh Hashanah stir of a Brooklyn synagogue. Read More