Almost every farmer across India's arid cotton-bearing central plateau is a hostage, in one way or another, to the profitable big business of illegal money lending.
Families have lost land, farmers have been asked to prostitute their wives to pay off debts and, when all else has failed, borrowers have killed themselves to end their misery.
An inescapable cycle of debt is fueling one of the worst agrarian crises facing India, a crisis that has seen some 150,000 farmers commit suicide since 1997.
Yet the public image of menacing debt collectors does not entirely reflect the views of the region's three million farmers. The rapacious moneylender, who plugs the gaps in rural financial services, is also the man they can turn to in times of need.
Last month, India's government announced a $15 billion loan waiver for small farmers borrowing from banks, but experts say the efficacy of the scheme is badly diluted because it leaves out those borrowing from moneylenders.
The seeds of aridity: Crops for a parched world
Scientists help farmers grow crops as water supplies grow scarce
"We are trying to allow maize to survive under conditions when just a little bit of rain would make the difference," said Thomson, a professor at the University of Cape Town. "African farmers never know where the next water shortage will strike."
Her research is just one of many thousands of projects aimed at tackling one of the world's most pressing needs: helping farmers keep their crops growing as water supplies grow scarce.
That quest is taking on new urgency at a time when the global population is expanding by roughly 75 million people each year and creating ever-greater demand for water from cities and towns, even as farmers are growing more crops for food, grain-fed livestock and fuels.
Scientists, companies and governments are responding with a variety of projects to lessen water demand, but they face a race against time.
Salts carried by groundwater used for irrigation are building up in soils, reducing productivity. In addition, many aquifers are being drained more quickly than management techniques are being implemented, sometimes leaving coastal farm land open to contamination by encroaching seawater.
"We need to realize that we don't have a silver bullet to manage water," said Pasquale Steduto, chief of the water, development and management unit of the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations agency based in Rome. "My view is that we're going to find ways of curbing overall demand."
Agriculture is the No. 1 user of water worldwide, accounting for about 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawn from lakes, rivers and aquifers around the world, according to the agency. That figure is closer to 90 percent in some developing countries.
"We're at the intersection between the goals of feeding people, taking care of the environment, and helping ensure that there's enough water for human needs," Rey said. "I think we really are moving into an age where technologies can address some these major issues."
But some environmentalists are skeptical.
Geert Ritsema, a campaigner for Greenpeace, warned that gene-altered crops could spread unpredictably, threatening other crops and animal life. Groups of farmers have complained about large biotechnology corporations charging high prices for seeds protected by patent.
Steduto, the UN agency official, also warned against relying on a single technology like genetic modification to come to the rescue of farmers.
Referring to biotechnology companies, he said: "They have been claiming they are getting close to obtaining drought-resistant crops for a few years. We still could be talking about drought-resistant crops 20 years from now."
Rising sales of bottled water trigger strong reaction from U.S. conservationists
Bottled water sales in the United States reached 8.82 billion gallons in 2007, worth $11.7 billion, making the U.S. market for bottled water the largest in the world, according to Beverage Marketing, a provider of beverage industry data. Worldwide, water bottlers sold 47 billion gallons, or 178 billion liters, in 2006, up from 43 billion gallons in 2005
The energy required to make water bottles in the United States is equivalent to 17 million barrels of oil annually, Gleick said. Globally, the bottling industry uses the equivalent of nearly 100 million barrels of oil each year, excluding transportation. Gleick said the Fiji brand of bottled water sold in Los Angeles traveled about 2,000 miles, or more than 3,000 kilometers, from the source to the store, effectively doubling its use of energy.
Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a Democrat who was chairman of the first of several House subcommittee hearings on water in December, said: "We have to make up our minds: Is water a basic right or not? If water is a privilege, based on ability to pay, then there're going to be a lot of people who can't afford that privilege."
Bottled water is often 1,000 times more expensive than tap water, and the industry subtly undercuts public faith in municipal supplies, Kellett said.
"Privatizing doesn't work," she said. "People are left without access, rates increase."
"Coke and Nestlé and Pepsi have spent tens of millions of dollars a year manufacturing a demand for water" as a commodity to be bought and sold for profit, she added.
In 2006, the industry spent $162.8 million on advertising bottled water in the United States, according to ZenithOptimedia.
Fight climate change by turning roof green
The techniques themselves have been around for thousands of years - think Roman cisterns and the hanging gardens of Babylon. Their modern incarnations were pioneered by Germany in the 1970s, when existing sewage systems where unable to cope with heavy rains. Now green roofs and rainwater harvesting systems are omnipresent there and in Austria and Switzerland, with many local authorities requiring new buildings to include one or both. In Germany alone, industry data show about 14 million square meters, or 150 million square feet, of green roofs are installed annually, and 80,000 rainwater harvesting plants are built each year.
NECKER ISLAND, British Virgin Islands
Richard Branson was lounging under the starry midnight sky on this palm-dappled speck of an island recently when he popped a sobering question.
"So, do we really think the world is on fire?" Branson, the British magnate and adventurer, asked several guests, as a manservant scurried off to fetch him another glass of pinot grigio.
What he wanted to know was whether his high-powered visitors, among them Larry Page of Google, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, thought global warming threatened the planet.
Branson does - and so did most of his guests. So on this recent weekend on his private hideaway in the crystalline waters between the islands of Tortola and Anegada, they tried to figure out what to do about it and perhaps get richer in the process.
Russian security services detained an employee of BP's Russian joint venture and are accusing that man and his brother of industrial espionage, according to a statement released Thursday by the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB.
The arrest of the brothers bodes ill for BP's work here and is quite likely also to send a chill through the community of Russian employees at Western companies, particularly those out of favor, as BP has been.
The venture, though, has been a great success for the British oil major and accounts for about a quarter of the company's total worldwide production.
French-language newspapers have unearthed a host of past comments by the new prime minister that have been taken as slights by Francophones.
In 2006 he told La Libre Belgique, that "French-speakers are not intellectually-equipped to learn Dutch."
Last year he was filmed singing La Marseillaise, France's national anthem, instead of Belgium's La Brabançonne, confusing the two in what was interpreted as an ironic dig at Francophones.
He also mistakenly referred to Belgium's national day as marking the proclamation of the Constitution instead of commemorating the inauguration of Leopold I, the country's first king, on July 21, 1831.
Tensions threaten Kosovo's tenuous peace
"Beyond choreographing Kosovo's independence, Kosovo's Western backers have shown no coherent political will," said Alexander Anderson, the Kosovo project director at the International Crisis Group, a prominent research group based in Brussels whose analyses are closely read in Washington and European capitals. "This passivity has given too much room to Serbia and its aim to wreck the new Kosovo state."
European central banks injected piles of fresh cash into the financial system Thursday in an attempt to get nervous banks through the Easter holiday weekend.
On top of adding more liquidity, the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, brought the top bankers in Britain into a closed-door session to discuss ways to restore "more orderly" market conditions.
The Bank of England described the meeting as routine, but it was only called last week - and came a day after the central bank took the unusual step of publicly slapping down rumors of a brewing disaster among British banks.
From Wall St. to Main St., an economic slump deepens
"It's not hard to construct very dark scenarios, primarily because the financial system is in disarray, and it's not clear how to get it all back together again," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
Credit Suisse said Thursday that it was likely to post its first quarterly loss since 2003 because of large write-downs related to difficult market conditions and "intentional misconduct" at its trading desk.
In a statement, the Swiss banking giant said it would write off $2.65 billion for the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first three months of 2008.
The bank originally said in February that certain asset-backed securities had been mispriced, but that it was unclear whether it had been done intentionally. On Thursday, the bank said that its internal review found that some traders had acted deliberately and suggested personal gain as a motive.
The employees had either been fired or "are in the process of being fired," Brady Dougan, the chief executive, said in a conference call. He described the misconduct as a "disappointing situation and one that we cannot and will not tolerate."
Dan Ariely: Learning to ward off those bad decisions
Ariely's book explores the varieties of nonsensical economic thinking, such as: We value things more when we pay a higher price for them. The Bayer aspirin and the Rolex watch seem valuable because of how much they cost, not because they're better in practical terms than a generic aspirin or a Timex.
Relativity distorts reality. We might be earning 10 times more money than we earned for the same work a decade ago, but we're convinced that we're underpaid if the people around us are earning more.
Easy choices make decisions difficult. The more nearly equal two alternative products, jobs, or presidential candidates are, the more agonizing the choice between them.
We're hopeless suckers for the word "free" on an item for sale, even if there's a hidden cost and the product is something we don't need or even like.
No one is claiming this is the next Facebook, the social networking phenomenon that began on the Harvard campus. But GoCrossCampus represents a new kind of gaming that unites the participants of real communities in a common online cause.
"This kind of game is a product of how people live and interact today, with the offline aspect as part of the draw," said Jonathan Rochelle, a New York product manager at Google who discovered the game as an adviser to the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and who viewed it as similar to software like Google Calendar and Google Docs - tools that enhance real-world collaboration.
Now along comes a new book picking on Slough for being a grim, cheerless wasteland, with gray buildings and gray, disheveled residents. And not just routinely miserable, but deeply miserable, a "showpiece of quiet desperation," a broader symbol of the sad British view that "life is not about happiness but muddling through, getting by," says the book, "The Geography of Bliss," a search for the happiest places on earth by Eric Weiner (an American).
Hall said that people in Slough are no more unhappy than people elsewhere in Britain. "I think people like to moan sometimes for the sake of it," he said. "I don't know why they bother, sometimes - nobody listens."
Emma Cornelius, 36, who works for an American communications company in Slough, said that geographic satisfaction was all relative.
"If you had a choice of Slough or anywhere else in the area, Slough would be the last town you'd come to," she said. "But compared to Watford, it's fabulous."
Or, as 16-year-old Diane Cotterell said: "It's not the worst place in Britain; there are worse places, like Liverpool."
Darren Hipkin, 30, a co-worker of Cornelius, said that while Slough's city center is slightly downtrodden, the atmosphere hardly joyous, its residents suffer merely from the things that other Britons do - "the economy, the taxes, this and that, you seem to be earning less and spending more."
Actually, given the realities of the world, he said, he sometimes found himself perplexed, even annoyed, by the relentless enthusiasm of his American colleagues. "They get on the phone and say, 'Hey, how's it going?' " he said, putting on a peppy voice. "You think, 'Hang on, it's Monday morning - I just got up.' "
Dorota Grzesko, 31, said she did not understand all the griping.
She works in Slough; she does not think, as Betjeman did, that it is "a mess they call a town"; she is not miserable.
"I like it here," she said. "It's got nice shops. You can buy baked potatoes on the high street!" And, she added, using the British term for an industrial park, "it has a big trading estate!"
Grzesko pronounced herself "a very happy individual." The fact that she is Polish, not British, seemed to prove the point that the problem, whatever it may be, transcends Slough.
"Brits just don't know how to be happy," said Jane Thomas-Orchard, 69, and a lifelong resident of Slough, "unless they're in a pub."