February 28, 2008

Frequent fliers

This is one high-flying government. In this globalised world, it is now in the nature of official business to travel to different parts of the earth making new friends, lesser enemies and influencing people.

As a rising economic power, it is perhaps more necessary than ever before to make your presence felt at global high tables and international conference podiums.

But even by that yardstick, the UPA Government would seem to be in an overdrive or rather turbo-charged, its ministerial representatives raking up frequent-flier miles at a frenetic pace, this, despite the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) supposedly cracking down on bureaucrats and ministers travelling abroad at the drop of a Gandhi topi.

Whether it's a case of Democracy on the Move or the New World Order, the perks of foreign travel have never been so widely utilised.

Consider this. In the 1,287 days of the UPA Government till November 30 last year, its ministers travelled an incredible 1 crore km (10 million km)-plus on trips abroad, official and personal, but mostly official.

It means that the ministers made more than 256 trips around the globe, considering the earth's circumference of 40,008 km. Among the 71 ministers (excluding the prime minister) who went on foreign trips during their tenure, 47 ministers spent over Rs 27 crore.

The bill would be much higher, taking into account the fact that the other ministers did not provide details of their expenditure. This, of course, does not include the expenses incurred by Indian embassies abroad which run up substantial bills hiring limousines and providing other services to visiting ministers.

At least 12 of the total 78 ministers travelled more than 2.5 lakh km each in the last three-and-a-half years.

Not that they did anything illegal or shady: none of the trips (we hope!) involved wives, mistresses or family shopping on Fifth Avenue at government (read public) expense.

They do, however, show that some ministers are literally higher than others. In fact, some spent more time abroad on personal trips than on official visits.

Using the Right To Information (RTI) procedure, India Today has obtained a detailed list of ministerial travel abroad during the UPA Government's tenure and it makes for fascinating reading.

It would have made better reading and comparative assessment if we had access to similar trips during the NDA regime too, but the almost 10 years that have passed since then meant that it was a far more laborious and timeconsuming process.

In any event, it took over four months and 59 RTI applications to various ministries apart from PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat, before the information could be compiled and made available. The air distances have been calculated in approximation.

Where the city was not mentioned, the distance from Delhi to the capital city of the destination country was considered. Expenses incurred were calculated on the basis of the per diem allowance that ministers are entitled to, since the RTI provided us information only about the number of trips and the number of days that each minister spent abroad.

Here are some highlights of foreign travel by the UPA ministers.

It may come as no great surprise but Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath, last spotted in Davos, logged the maximum mileage on foreign trips and created some sort of a record in the bargain. (See graphic: Kamal Nath's trips abroad)

He spent 424 days on 72 trips outside the country, of which 27 days were spent on six personal visits. A cool 14 months spent outside India.

He covered 10,08,162 km up to November 30, 2007 (enough to earn frequent flier miles to make 20 free trips to the US and back, assuming he flew first class) and the Government spent Rs 1.81 crore on his official visits.

As commerce minister and head negotiator for India in the World Trade Organisation deliberations, he is obliged to travel abroad fairly frequently. And with trade and economic relations assuming far greater importance, he is more visible than the external affairs minister when the prime minister goes abroad as was the case recently in Beijing.

The cities he has visited most frequently, whether privately or on official work, are London, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, New York, Paris and Brussels. In comparison, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram spent a mere 118 days on overseas visits, for which the Government picked up a tab of Rs 1.45 crore.

High fliers I

  • Vayalar Ravi
    Minister for overseas Indian affairs
    Number of trips: 18
    Km travelled: 2,83,036
    Official expenses: Rs 1.14 crore
  • Mani Shankar Aiyar
    Minister for panchayati raj
    Number of trips: 17
    Km travelled: 2,09,239
    Official expenses*: Rs 40 lakh
    *Some bills yet to be submitted 
  • A. Raja
    Minister for communications and IT
    Number of trips: 12
    Km travelled: 1,89,994
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Vilas Muttemwar
    MoS for new and renewable energy (I.C)*
    Number of trips: 9
    Km travelled: 1,56,025
    Official expenses: Rs 87.4 lakh
    *Independent Charge
  • Saif-ud-Din Soz
    Minister for water resources
    Number of trips: 9
    Km travelled: 65,704
    Official expenses: Rs 14.2 lakh
  • Prithviraj Chavan
    MoS in PMO
    Number of trips: 9
    Km travelled: 92,400
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Panabaka Lakshmi
    MoS for health and family welfare
    Number of trips: 8
    Km travelled: 1,23,811
    Official expenses: Rs 28.6 lakh
  • Kantilal Bhuria
    MoS for agriculture & consumer affairs
    Number of trips: 8
    Km travelled: 1,18,769
    Official expenses: Rs 80.8 lakh
  • Santosh Mohan Dev
    Minister for heavy ind & public enterprises
    Number of trips: 8
    Km travelled: 1,03,645
    Official expenses: Rs 52 lakh
  • Shankersinh Vaghela
    Minister for textiles
    Number of trips: 8
    Km travelled: 1,37,494
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Prem Chand Gupta
    Minister for corporate affairs
    Number of trips: 7
    Km travelled: 57,388
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • S. Regupathy
    MoS for environment and forests
    Number of trips: 7
    Km travelled: 70,416
    Official expenses:
    Rs 67,000*
    *Only for one trip
  • Sushil Kumar Shinde
    Minister for power
    Number of trips: 6
    Km travelled: 1,47,297
    Official expenses*: Rs 29.2 lakh
    *Some bills yet to be submitted
  • Suresh Pachauri
    MoS for personnel, public grievances
    Number of trips: 6
    Km travelled: 85,932
    Official expenses: Rs 28.2 lakh
  • Kanti Singh
    MoS for heavy industries
    Number of trips: 6
    Km travelled: 54,756
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Ram Vilas Paswan
    Minister for chemicals, fertilisers and steel
    Number of trips: 5
    Km travelled: 58,640
    Official expenses*: Rs 25.3 lakh
    *For fertiliser ministry only
  • Murli Deora
    Minister for petroleum and natural gas
    Number of trips: 5
    Km travelled: 41,242
    Official expenses: Rs 12.6 lakh
  • B.K. Handique
    MoS for chemicals, fertilisers and
    parliamentary affairs
    Number of trips: 5
    Km travelled: 51,819
    Official expenses*: Rs 69,000
    *Borne by parl. affairs ministry
  • Akhilesh Prasad Singh
    MoS for agriculture, consumer affairs, food
    Number of trips: 5
    Km travelled: 79,663
    Official expenses: Rs 30.5 lakh
  • Shivraj V. Patil
    Minister for home affairs
    Number of trips: 4
    Km travelled: 24,736
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • T.R. Baalu
    Minister for shipping, road transport
    Number of trips: 4
    Km travelled: 73,429
    Official expenses: Rs 14.1 lakh
  • Mahavir Prasad
    Minister for small and medium enterprises
    Number of trips: 4
    Km travelled: 60,706
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Raghuvansh P. Singh
    Minister for rural development
    Number of trips: 4
    Km travelled: 42,078
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Dinsha J. Patel
    MoS for petroleum and natural gas
    Number of trips: 4
    Km travelled: 93,512
    Official expenses: Rs 15.7 lakh
  • S. Jaipal Reddy
    Minister for urban development
    Number of trips: 4
    Km travelled: 59,180
    Official expenses: Rs 43 lakh
  • M.M. Pallam Raju
    MoS for defence
    Number of trips: 4
    Km travelled: 58,630
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • H.R. Bhardwaj
    Minister for law and justice
    Number of trips: 3
    Km travelled: 47,189
    Official expenses*: Rs 20 lakh
    *Some bills yet to be submitted
  • Sis Ram Ola
    Minister for mines
    Number of trips: 3
    Km travelled: 57,486
    Official expenses: Rs 1.17 crore
  • R. Velu
    MoS for railways
    Number of trips: 3
    Km travelled: 54,529
    Official expenses: Rs 11.2 lakh
  • Meira Kumar
    Minister for social justice and
    Number of trips: 3
    Km travelled: 39,296
    Official expenses: Rs 8.1 lakh

Minister of State (MOS) for Civil Aviation (independent charge) Praful Patel made 41 trips abroad of which 16 were official. He chose to visit the US six times and the UK five times, besides France and Belgium. (See graphic: Praful Patel's trips abroad)

Records show that the cities Patel visited most frequently in his personal capacity are London, Paris, New York, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Dubai.

However, being a businessman of some standing would explain why he spent more time abroad on personal visits in comparison to official—he spent 125 days on personal visits and 57 days on official visits.

Patel, MOS for Human Resource Development M.A.A Fatmi and D. Purandeswari, Minister for Information and Broadcasting Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, Minister for Mines Sis Ram Ola, MOS for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dinsha J. Patel, Minister for Corporate Affairs Prem Chand Gupta and MOS for Steel Akhilesh Das were the ministers to have recorded more days outside the country on personal visits in comparison to official visits.

Fatmi travelled 14 days on official visits but clocked 181 days on personal visits. In total, he travelled 2,36,605 km (his ministry did not provide details of the expenses), and countries he visited most frequently on his personal expense were Malaysia, Singapore, the UK, France and China.

Fatmi is from Railway Minister Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal. The latter, incidentally, despite his new-found demand as a speaker following the Railways success story, does not belong to the club of frequent fliers.

Dasmunshi took 38 days travelling abroad on personal visits, as against the 20 days he spent overseas on official trips. He travelled 1,59,676 km in total and spent Rs 17 lakh on his official tours. His cities of preference included Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles, London, Switzerland and Paris.

MOS for External Affairs E. Ahmad spent more time abroad than his senior minister, Pranab Mukherjee. Ahmad spent a total of 232 days on his foreign travels. He covered 6,13,277 km of which 14,262 km were on personal visits. (See graphic: E. Ahmad's trips abroad)

However, Ahmad's travels and the cities most visited are in direct proportion to his official charge. His travels took him frequently to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Singapore and the Rs 1.37 crore spent on his official visits are explained by the fact that Middle-East comes under his ministerial jurisdiction.

The UPA regime has steadfastly refused to reform the education sector by opening it to foreign direct investment. Yet that has not prevented the ministers and the mandarins from catching flights to various corners of the world.

Purandeswari in her 670 days in office made eight trips while her Cabinet Minister Arjun Singh went abroad nine times including an eight-day trip to the Middle-East. The ministry sources say that Purandeswari "presents the case of India very well at the international fora".

In many instances, the connection between the destination and the portfolio is difficult to decipher. Why would an MOS for commerce and textiles visit Uzbekistan thrice?

Or what is the attraction of Serbia for ministers? Although there are entitlement norms for a minister travelling abroad, they are known to demand that they be lodged at the best suites and travel in the most expensive wheels.

Simply because there is the peculiar political fig leaf called convention whereby ministers can justify expenditure with the profligacy of a previous regime.

While official work is a very useful alibi, it is interesting to note that certain destinations are visited by ministers regardless of their portfolio. Information reveals that 17 ministers visited Thailand and 14 ministers went to Malaysia at least once, either on official or on personal visits.

Interestingly, junior ministers (read MOS), who more often fret about not getting enough to do, managed to show up on foreign shores. As many as 33 of the total 40 made 311 trips in total and spent 1,388 days abroad.

Surprisingly, there are seven among them who did not step out of the country at all. They include M.H. Ambarish, MOS for information and broadcasting; J.P.N. Yadav, MOS for water resources; M.V. Rajasekharan, MOS for planning; Manik Rao Gavit, MOS for home; Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan, MOS for social justice; Taslimuddin, MOS for civil supplies and V. Radhika Selvi, MOS for home.

Here's another interesting detail. Italy, Congress President Sonia Gandhi's country of birth, attracted the largest number of ministerial visits, private and official.

No less than 20 ministers visited Italy, and they include Prasad, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Nath, Kantilal Bhuria, R. Velu, Santosh Mohan Dev, Ambika Soni, Subodh Kant Sahay, Shankersinh Vaghela, Vilas Muttemwar, S. Jaipal Reddy, Oscar Fernandes, P.R. Kyndiah, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, Ashwani Kumar, Sriprakash Jaiswal and Renuka Chowdhury. (See graphic: Renuka Chowdhury's trips abroad)

Other ministers who travelled abroad fairly frequently include Mukherjee, Anand Sharma, Sharad Pawar (more on BCCI work than representing the Agriculture Ministry), Anbumani Ramadoss, Chowdhury, Kapil Sibal, Vayalar Ravi, Rao Inderjit Singh and Ashwani Kumar. (See graphic: Anand Sharma's trips abroad)

 High fliers II

  • Suryakanta Patil
    MoS for rural development
    Number of trips: 3
    Km travelled: 30,656
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Shriprakash Jaiswal
    MoS for home affairs
    Number of trips: 3
    Km travelled: 18,481
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Pavan Kumar Bansal
    MoS for finance
    Number of trips: 2
    Km travelled: 25,528
    Official expenses: Rs 4.3 lakh
  • Dasari Narayan Rao
    MoS for coal
    Number of trips: 2
    Km travelled: 32,382
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Naranbhai Rathwa
    MoS for railways
    Number of trips: 2
    Km travelled: 36,955
    Official expenses: Rs 20.3 lakh
  • A.K. Antony
    Minister for defence
    Number of trips: 2
    Km travelled: 17,004
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • Shakeel Ahmed
    MoS for communications and IT
    Number of trips: 2
    Km travelled: 15,388
    Official expenses: Rs 2.5 lakh
  • Akhilesh Das
    Minister of state for steel
    Number of trips: 2
    Km travelled: 31,266
    Official expenses: Not borne by ministry
  • Lalu Prasad
    Minister for railways
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled: 15,826
    Official expenses: Rs 40 lakh
  • Chandra Sekhar Sahu
    MoS for rural development
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled: 12,712
    Official expenses: Rs 1.18 crore*
    * As per official allotment
  • P.R. Kyndiah
    Minister of tribal affairs
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled: 11,846
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • K.H. Muniappa
    MoS for shipping, road transport
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled: 10,540
    Official expenses: Rs 1.4 lakh
  • A.R. Antulay
    Minister of minority affairs
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled (personal visit): 6,112
    Official expenses: Nil
  • G.K. Vasan
    MoS (I.C.) for statistics and programme
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled: 9,387
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • K. Venkatapathy
    MoS for law an justice
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled: 11,572
    Official expenses: Not provided
  • S.S. Palanimanickam
    MoS for finance
    Number of trips: 1
    Km travelled: 1,370
    Official expenses: Rs 2.7 lakh

Pawar spent 97 days abroad, out of which 49 days were devoted to BCCI work and 37 days were spent on ministerial duty. Sharma, as MOS for external affairs, spent 114 days abroad on his 30 trips and his expenses totalled over Rs 1.33 crore while Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Ravi spent 125 days on his 18 visits. Both Sharma and Ravi put an equal 670 days in their tenure.(See graphic: Sharad Pawar's trips abroad)

Chowdhury totalled 112 days abroad during her terms in the ministries of tourism and culture, and women and child development. (See graphic: Renuka Chowdhury's trips abroad)

She made three personal trips to Cambodia, Chicago and Singapore, after being moved to Women and Child Development Ministry. While MOS for Labour and Employment Fernandes spent a fairly substantial amount of over Rs 2.26 crore on the 46 days he spent outside the country on official visits.

The reason lies in the fact that he has to take a huge delegation that includes trade union representatives with him. After all, the Government is supported by the Left and the Left-supported trade unions add to the number of his delegates.

Securing access to so much information would have been impossible—considering the thickness of red tapes—had there not been the RTI Act in place. When India Today filed an RTI application in PMO on September 27 last year requesting the details of foreign visits of ministers since the UPA Government was formed, along with the approximate expenditure incurred by each of them, the PMO provided all the details except that bit on the expenditure incurred.

The response said, "The culled information does not include expenditure involved in each trip which this office does not maintain and may be obtained from individual ministries/departments."

Subsequently, the magazine got in touch with every ministry and requested the details of foreign visits made by cabinet ministers and ministers of state along with the names of delegates and the approximate expenditure by them for each trip.

Sibal's Ministry of Science and Technology came up with the expenditure incurred on the cash allowances of the minister and other officials on foreign trips but not the airfare. (See graphic: Kapil Sibal's trips abroad)

For airfare alone, a request was forwarded to the Pay and Account Office (PAO), Cabinet Affairs, asking it to "furnish the expenditure incurred towards airfare etc on the visits indicated in the enclosed list of the Hon'ble Minister for Science & Technology".

Responses from some other ministries were at best elusive. The Ministry of Steel said, "Expenditures on the visits of ministers are met from the budget of Cabinet Secretariat or met by the PSU concerned."

The Ministry of Power replied: "The figures indicate expenditure in respect of minister of power alone on airfare. The expenditure incurred for minister of power on daily allowance, hotel accommodation, transportation etc on foreign visit is not available with the ministry as the same is met by the concerned Indian missions abroad and debit claimed directly from PAO, Cabinet Secretariat."

The Ministry of Environment and Forest's reply was comparatively detailed, but on expenditure, it said, "The exact expenditure incurred on these heads is met on actual basis by PAO, Cabinet Secretariat. The final claims are submitted to it after the tours.

The same may be collected from there directly." Similarly, the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises provided all information except for expenses on the basis that "expenditure on the cabinet minister's tour is booked under head 'Council of Minister Tour Expenses maintained by Cabinet Secretariat'".

The response of the Department of Higher Education under the Ministry of HRD was a masterpiece of obfuscation. It said the expenditure "information is compiled after complete information from the Embassy concerned is received in the Ministry, which takes considerable time".

However, the ministry has provided the expenditure details for only three visits out of the nine made by the cabinet minister.

Finally, India Today approached the Cabinet Secretariat for details of ministerial expenses, only to reach a dead-end.

The reply said, "Cabinet Secretariat is in no way the public authority concerned with the information relating to expenditure incurred on the salaries and allowances of ministers of Union Cabinet and the bills are settled between the ministries concerned and the Pay & Account Officer, Cabinet Affairs, and the CABSEC has no role in this regard."

Significantly, ministries like railways, labour, tourism, external affairs, civil aviation, agriculture, urban development, finance and water resources parted with full and detailed information as requested. In cases where responses are still awaited, like the ministries of defence and textiles, information provided by PMO has been used. (See graphic: P. Chidambaram's trips abroad)

Opaque procedures have daunted efforts to get a complete lowdown on the expenses. In a sense, the magnitude of the bill for official tourism is yet a bit of a mystery.

So many peripatetic ministers spending so much of public money seems surprising considering that the PMO ostensibly scrutinises every request for official travel abroad and has been trying to be tightfisted in its clearances.

Sources in the PMO suggest that the expenditure and travel itinerary would have been longer, had the PMO not stalled some habitual travellers. Apparently, the PMO cannot do much when faced with ministers from the coalition allies. (See graphic: Pranab Mukherjee's trips abroad)

The cynical view would be that this too is a coalition expenditure but the facts reveal that the big travellers in the UPA are seasoned Congressmen. (See graphic: Rao Inderjit Singh's trips abroad)

It was Rajiv Gandhi who had coined the phrase "Government on the move". Even he would have been surprised at the distance the UPA Government has travelled—abroad, that is.


Insatiable extremism

Roni Yihye, 47, a father of four, was murdered on Wednesday in the latest rocket assault from the Gaza Strip.

His death came a day after the 80th birthday of Ariel Sharon, the general and politician who ended a long career of outmaneuvering hostile Arab forces by withdrawing completely from the Gaza Strip. And it followed the latest anti-Israel broadside from the UN's Human Rights Council, whose rapporteur John Dugard wrote earlier this week that "a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by al-Qaida, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or military occupation... As long as there is occupation, there will be terrorism."

The combination of Yihye's murder, Sharon's birthday and Dugard's misguided report brings the current untenable reality apropos Gaza into sharp focus.

Led by Sharon, more than two years ago, Israel wrenched its settlers and withdrew its soldiers from the Gaza Strip. It left behind an unprecedented opportunity for Palestinian state-building and an international commitment to create a Singapore in the impoverished Strip, not to mention millions of dollars in farming equipment, including a world-famous complex of greenhouses. All these were wasted.


February 24, 2008

Toughest outpost Korengal Valley Afghanisthan

WE TUMBLED OUT of two Black Hawks onto a shrub-dusted mountainside. It was a windy, cold October evening. A half-moon illuminated the tall pines and peaks. Through night-vision goggles the soldiers and landscape glowed in a blurry green-and-white static. Just across the valley, lights flickered from a few homes nestled in the terraced farmlands of Yaka China, a notorious village in the Korengal River valley in Afghanistan's northeastern province of Kunar. Yaka China was just a few villages south and around a bend in the river from the Americans' small mountain outposts, but the area's reputation among the soldiers was mythic. It was a known safe haven for insurgents. American troops have tended to avoid the place since a nasty fight a year or so earlier. And as Halloween approached, the soldiers I was with, under the command of 26-year-old Capt. Dan Kearney, were predicting their own Yaka China doom.

The Korengal Valley is a lonely outpost of regress: most of the valley's people practice Wahhabism, a more rigid variety of Islam than that followed by most Afghans, and about half of the fighters confronting the U.S. there are homegrown. The rest are Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks; the area is close to Pakistan's frontier regions where Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda figures are often said to be hiding out. The Korengal fighters are fierce, know the terrain and watch the Americans' every move. On their hand-held radios, the old jihadis call the Americans "monkeys," "infidels," ''bastards" and "the kids." It's psychological warfare; they know the Americans monitor their radio chatter.


February 18, 2008

Rebuilding Bryan Anderson

Two years ago, a bomb in Iraq took his legs and an arm. Now Bryan Anderson needs a hand that won't break all the time when he's skateboarding or, someday, holding his kids. And is it too much to ask that wheelchairs start looking a little cooler? As Anderson and other veterans push the technology, the technology responds.

Bryan Anderson's legs keep falling off.

Thin and wiry, he started his second tour in Iraq weighing 135 pounds, carried on a five-foot-seven-inch frame. He came home from the yearlong deployment two months early, thirty-five pounds lighter and about two feet shorter, missing both legs across the thigh, his left arm below the elbow, and his right index fingertip. He learned to walk again, to live his life, one of roughly 750 amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are young men in a hurry. They ride bicycles and run marathons and pick up their children, satisfying our desire for speedy results and neat resolutions. Their demands for artificial limbs that perform closer to the flesh and bone they lost are driving dollars into far-out technologies like robotic limbs that move by thought control. But normalcy remains elusive, which brings Anderson, twenty-six years old, to Oklahoma City on a cool fall day for an appointment with his pit crew at the Hanger Orthopedic Group. The legs keep falling off, he says. And he keeps getting these sores.

Anderson had been living on his prosthetic legs, hadn't touched the wheelchair in months. But last summer a red spot the size of a pimple appeared on the tip of his left leg. The area grew more swollen and tender, so painful that he couldn't wear his legs. The freedom he'd gained was gone. Emergency-room doctors drained fluid from the infected area and loaded him with antibiotics. The infection subsided, but other pains emerged as his legs rubbed against the sockets, causing the skin to break down. And pain aside, his stumps were slipping out of their sockets. The body changes every day -- salty food expands it, sweating shrinks it -- a problem made worse for Anderson. His left leg is about eight inches long, and his right leg half that, which makes a good fit difficult.

February 16, 2008

Italy: Beppe's Inferno

On September 8th, two million people in two hundred and twenty cities across Italy celebrated V-Day, an unofficial new national holiday, the "V" signifying victory, vendetta, and, especially, "Vaffanculo" ("Fuck off"). The event had been organized by Beppe Grillo, Italy's most popular comedian, to protest endemic corruption in the national government. Grillo, a bearlike, trumpet-voiced man of fifty-nine with a pile of graying curls, is a distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert: an activist and vulgarian with a deft ear for political satire. Grillo led the demonstration in Bologna, appearing in the Piazza Maggiore, the city's largest public space, before a crowd of about a hundred thousand—more than had congregated there when Italy's soccer team won the World Cup the year before. He wore jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved black polo shirt, and stood on a stage flanked by tall black panels decorated with blood-red "V"s. Behind him, against a cloudless sky, rose the crenellated Renaissance city hall with its squat clock tower. A large screen had been erected there, projecting the names of twenty-four convicted criminals currently serving as senators and representatives in the Italian parliament, or as Italian representatives in the European Parliament. Grillo read the names aloud, in alphabetical order, together with their crimes, which ranged from corruption, perjury, and tax evasion to more inventive infractions, such as fabricating explosive ordnance and aiding and abetting a murder. The crowd booed and jeered, raising their index and middle fingers in a V, for victory, or, whenever Grillo cried "Vaffanculo," their middle fingers alone.

"Paolo Cirino Pomicino!" Grillo shouted, citing a representative from Naples. "Corruption and illegal campaign financing—for which he was promoted to the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission! One day, Cirino Pomicino wrote me a letter, and I called him. He said, 'Mr. Grillo, you are making a fundamental mistake. You are confusing justice with politics.' " (Cirino Pomicino denied that this conversation took place.) Grillo paused. His face took on a look of wide-eyed surprise that gradually sagged into a mask of shock and sadness, then darkened into a scowl of disgust. "And I said to him, 'Va-fan-culo!' "

Playing the odds:prostate cancer

This year in the U.S., more than 230,000 men will learn they have prostate cancer. Doctors disagree about how to treat them. Here's what five men chose to do.

By Anthony Effinger Bloomberg Markets September 2006

One day in Chicago, Dave Bigg is aboutto drink a few beers with his buddies and divvy up Cubs baseball tickets when his cell phone rings. It's the doctor, and he doesn't like what he sees. Bigg's biopsy looks bad. The cells from his prostate are warped and buckled. It's cancer.

Bigg can't believe what he's hearing. He's 46 years old. He doesn't look sick. He doesn't feel sick. Hell, he feels great -- he's training for a triathlon. ``It was like a punch in the stomach,'' Bigg recalls.

Bigg phones his wife, Melissa. She's about to have lunch with friends at the Cherry Pit Café, near their home in Deerfield, Illinois. She sits in her car and screams. Cancer? How can my husband have cancer?

``You can't wrap your mind around it,'' she says. ``You look at this healthy, energetic guy, and you can't believe it.''

This year, more than 230,000 men in the U.S. will get bad news like Bigg's, according to the American Cancer Society. And, like him, these men will face difficult choices about what to do next. Out of the blue, a diagnosis of prostate cancer will throw them into the middle of a raging medical debate over how to treat this disease -- or whether to treat it at all.

For some, the decisions they make will determine whether they live or die. For others, their choices will mean the difference between an active sex life and impotence.

One man in six in the U.S. will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, the ACS says. After age 40, the danger grows with each passing year. If you live long enough, the question becomes when, not if, you're likely to get this cancer. Autopsies show that 30 percent of U.S. men over 50 have at least some malignant cells in the gland. For men older than 80, that figure climbs to 80 percent, according to the ACS.