Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

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Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Did Slumdog Millionaire Exploit its Slum-Dwelling Child Actors?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 5:06 PM EST

Their parents seem to think so. The mother of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail—the 10-year-old who plays the lead character's brother, Salim, in the Oscar-sweeping film—still lives lives with her son in a hovel made of tarps and blankets in Mumbai's Behrampada shanty, where rats roam and sewage runs untreated. "He's supposed to be the hero in the movie, but look how he's living," she told Australia's Herald Sun. "We need money and help now. It is hard living like this. I am worried that after the Oscars are over they will forget us."

And then there's the movie's other slum star:

Rubina Ali, 9, who plays the young version of Latika, the film's heroine, lives nearby. Her shack is brightly coloured but an open sewer runs close by.
Her father, Rafiq Ali Kureshi, a carpenter, broke his leg during filming and has been out of work since.

"I am very happy the movie is doing so well but it is making so much money and so much fame, and the money they paid us is nothing. They should pay more," he said.

But British director Danny Boyle says he's trying to be smart about how he pays the child actors:

They said they paid painstaking attention to how Azharuddin and Rubina's involvement in the film could be of lasting benefit over and above the payment for their work.
The children, who have never received formal eduction, have been enrolled in school since last June at the production company's expense until they are 18.
Azharuddin and Rubina will receive a lump sum when they finish their education, and Boyle said money was in place to cover health care and emergencies.
They decided not to shower the children with cash because they could not handle it psychologically and practically.

For the most part, Boyle's approach sounds wise. But in addition, why not give the parents just enough money to move out of the slums into a half-decent apartment somewhere? They certainly deserve it now that the film has grossed $155 million. And even if the adults blow the cash, it's hard to see how that kind of modest aid would skew the kids' priorities.

UPDATE from the Daily Mail:

The filmmakers also claim they have now agreed to buy apartments for the two children and allow the families to move in, with the stipulation that they will not own the property unless the youngsters complete their education.
Tonight, however, a spokesman for the film was unable to provide further details about the apartment plans.

UPDATE #2: The Hindu reports that the Oscars have apparently shamed the Indian government into giving flats to the families.

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As U.S. Tightens Environmental Rules, Cash-Strapped States Loosen Them

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 1:41 PM EST
The stimulus package is an environmental boon, the EPA will probably regulate carbon, and Sen. Harry Reid wants to take a green pen to the Energy Bill. It looks like the best week in years for environmentalists--until, that is, you step out of the Beltway. To help close massive budget deficits, states across the country are weakening environmental rules.

Exhibit A is California, where today legislators closed a $41 billion budget gap in part by nixing air pollution rules that would have cost the housing industry millions. The measure delays requirements for builders to retrofit diesel construction equipment, slashing by 17 percent the emissions savings that the state had hoped to achieve by 2014. The move will probably prevent Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley, and other highly polluted regions from meeting federal air quality deadlines. It will also reduce the "green jobs" the state had hoped to create by retrofitting old equipment. The Sierra Club's California director told the LA Times: "With the magnitude of the forces at play here, the environmental issues have taken a back seat to taxes."

California's move follows on the heels of other states. In Oklahoma:
State agencies that protect public water supplies, manage the state's flood plains and protect Oklahomans from the dangers of hazardous waste would bear some of the biggest cuts under Gov. Brad Henry's proposed state budget for the upcoming year.
The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors the state's air and water quality as well as solid, hazardous and low-level radioactive waste, lost almost $2 million in appropriations from its current $9.7 million budget, a reduction of 20 percent.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board, responsible for setting water quality standards, enforcing dam safety regulations and managing Oklahoma's flood plains, lost more than $1.1 million from its $4.6 million budget, a 25 percent reduction.
And that's not all: Pennsylvania's proposed budget reduces funding for three state environmental agencies by 1.5 to 9 percent. The state of  Washington's panel that tracks pesticide exposure was axed. And the budget for New York State's Environmental Protection Fund, which buys open space, parks, and clean water projects, is being slashed from $300 million to $205 million.

As things get worse, Republican state legislators are likely to push for even deeper cuts. After all, enviro regs cost businesses money and slow down "shovel ready" projects. In Florida yesterday the St. Petersburg Times reported:

Florida legislative leaders want to make it easier to get permits to destroy wetlands, tap the water supply and wipe out endangered species habitat, all in the interest of building houses, stores and offices.

They say streamlining the permitting process will get the economy moving again.
All of this should be a sobering counterpoint to optimism about the stimulus bill and the new green tone in Washington. Without more direct aid to cash-strapped states, it will be hard to fix things faster than the provinces burn through the green.

Facebook's Privacy Faceoff

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 7:32 PM EST

What are you doing right now?

If you're Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, your answer is probably "backtracking." That's because many of Facebook's 175 million users, who are encouraged to answer that same question whenever they log in, have been in an uproar over how Facebook might use their replies, and any other information they post on the site. Two weeks ago, Facebook altered its privacy policy, deleting a provision that said users could remove their content from the site at any time, at which point its license would expire. Facebook's decision to retain the rights to users' posts even after they're deleted fanned fears that any leak, indiscretion, or misstatement on the popular social networking site could be immutable. The protests were so fierce that Zuckerberg reversed himself this morning, reverting to Facebook's old privacy policy until the site resolves how information posted on the site is controlled. 

"This is one more way one can be 'screwed,'" Facebook user Misty Rain wrote Tuesday on the wall of the new group, Facebook Privacy, one of several groups formed on the site to protest the change. She described the ordeal of trying to get Facebook to remove photos that had been taken from her site and used in "slanderous ways" by stalkers. "I wonder how old markie [Mark Zuckerberg] would like it if someone took his picture, altered it very slightly and posted it on extremely questionable groups," she went on. "Perhaps it is only those who can shit money who will be protected."

Bristol Palin: Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed "Not Realistic"

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 2:45 PM EST
In her first interview since giving birth, Bristol Palin told CNN Fox that enjoining young people to be abstinent is "not realistic at all." This puts her at odds with her mother but squarely on the side of reams of social science research that shows abstinence education programs don't work. The young Palin said she had decided to speak out (despite suffering through "evil" tabloid coverage) because teens need to know that having a child is "not glamorous." She could be onto something. If she can put across a nuanced approach to sex ed that embraces contraception, it could help sway some conservatives--and maybe cover her childcare costs by landing her a lucrative book deal.
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