Monday, July 25, 2011

Pedestrians get it bad every which way

Jude Sessions has been reporting on underdog causes for a while now. It's time to spotlight that most harassed species in today's motor-centric urban cultures - the Pedestrian. With hardly any sidewalks left; and struggling with potholes, speeding traffic, bikers driving on the wrong side, and roads narrowed further by flyovers and metro construction, the average pedestrian in India finds it really hard going. I'm seriously thinking of making car stickers to alert motorists to this endangered species - Save the Walkers!

That the most ordinary of daily life processes - crossing a road - can be quite tough, and downright frightening at times, became obvious through an interesting experiment yesterday in Bangalore called “Come Cross the Road” by the Hasiru Usiru. During the peak hour between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., the organisation studied the issues facing pedestrians, who were crossing the road at three different points of the city.  The event was part of the study being conducted by the organisation to collate data and present it to the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and traffic authorities to improve pedestrian safety in Bangalore.

It was seen that it takes five minutes for pedestrians to cross the busy Old Airport Road near Domlur flyover. On the suggestion of the children living in a Jayanagar slum, a similar experiment was conducted around the Sanjay Gandhi hospital and it was seen that it takes over six minutes to cross the road in front of Sanjay Gandhi hospital in Jayanagar IV Block. Volunteers found that the average waiting time before starting to cross the road was four minutes. Most pedestrians were forced to wait on the median for almost a similar time after crossing one carriageway. On the Old Airport Road, the pedestrians were stuck because of the lack of zebra crossings or traffic signals to facilitate pedestrian crossing. The absence of footpaths added to their inconvenience, according to volunteers. The signal-free corridor in front of Sophia's school near the Golf Course had a skywalk, but many pedestrians chose to run across the road. “One has to climb up the skywalk with 58 steps, and many disabled and senior citizens cannot use it,” said Vinay, a volunteer from Hasiru Usiru. “The city is made for cars and not pedestrians,” he lamented. Through the experiments, volunteers felt that skywalks are not a solution to address pedestrian woes. Instead, they advocated use of pelican lights - traffic lights operated by pedestrians when they need to cross the road. However, noting the inefficacy of these lights in places such as Chowdiah Road in Guttahalli, Shridhar Raman of the organisation, said, “Since motorists don't stop even at pelican lights, we either need a traffic constable present or even something as radical as a lever arm that comes down and forcibly stops motorists, like at a railway level crossing.”

Defensive Walking 
It's not a problem of the Third World alone though. Sustainable Streets, a nonprofit organization that encourages “active transportation” like walking and biking, feels senior citizens can especially benefit  from walking - and not just because it's the ultimate green mode of transportation. Alison Kendall, who conducts sessions with senior members of the community, feels that older people stand to gain from the increased mobility and balance walking brings them. It's also proven to increase longevity as it helps reduce depression, heart disease and diabetes. 

But disturbingly - the same population is far more likely to be victims of traffic fatalities. The American town of Santa Monica had 86 accidents involving pedestrians last year and two pedestrian fatalities since December. Of Santa Monica's 35 pedestrian fatalities from 2000 through 2010, 17 were over 65 years old, and of those, 12 were 80 or older, according to Santa Monica Police Department. The disquieting statistics have three causes: Pedestrian behavior, driver behavior, and the walking environment. While many of the same directions we all learned as children still apply to senior walkers, there are some additional caveats for them. Impaired vision and hearing, coupled with slower walking speeds and cognitive delays make it harder for seniors navigate traffic. As one senior quipped, “Streets are a lot wider than when I was younger.” A signal time that makes sense for a 30-year-old is far too short for those over 70. By the time the red flashing hand signal comes on, many seniors are just approaching the middle of the intersection, causing some to freeze and even turn around and go back, a move that's much more dangerous than continuing on. But the danger is highest before they get that far. Stepping off the curb is actually the riskiest part of the crossing.

Drivers often pay more attention to other vehicular traffic than to pedestrians, and walkers often have a hard time seeing around cars that have inched forward in hopes of a quick turn. Kendall urged seniors to look up and keep their “heads on a swivel,” hanging back until they're sure the coast is really clear. Crosswalks are no guarantee of safety, she said. People are often lulled into a false sense of security because they think they have the right-of-way.” And parked cars can't be assumed to be a safe bet. Listen for engine noises, look for parking lights and people in the drivers' seats. It's all part of “defensive walking.” Driveways are especially hazardous, as often both the pedestrian and driver can't see what's going on. It's another situation where the walker should hang back, but avoid hugging the wall, staying closer to the street where the driver has a better chance of seeing her. Be especially careful at the driveways to city parking lots downtown, where drivers “come barrelling out,” warned Principal Transportation Engineer Sam Morrissey. Wear light, bright colors, especially at night, and, it should go without saying, don't even think about jaywalking.

Getting cities to be pedestrian-friendly
There's a lot the city traffic engineers can do too. Well marked, highly visible crosswalks with median “pedestrian refuges” in the middle of wider streets help a lot. And smooth, obstruction-free sidewalks with wide buffer zones between sidewalk and street are safe and inviting to seniors who may be especially intimidated by traffic roaring by right next to them. No right turn on red intersections, slower speed zones, speed humps and countdown signals are all planning improvements that can make things a lot safer. Expanding curbs into the intersection at many corners, moving parking away from the corner could help to slow down traffic and improve visibility.

Redesigning transport systems to focus on pedestrian safety issues is also necessary. Dunu Roy, who runs the Hazard Centre in New Delhi, feels the new Bus Rapid Transport’ (BRT) system in Delhi "goes several steps further than merely designing a dedicated corridor for buses. It also provides for pedestrian and cycle paths that are obstacle-free, well-illuminated, properly-serviced, and disabled-friendly, thus catering to the primary needs of over 80 per cent of the commuters on the road. It has allocated space for utilities, rickshaws, and vendors; made it possible for Indian companies to build modern low-floor buses at a significantly lower price than foreign manufacturers; given priority to emergency vehicles to use the bus corridors", all of which have helped decrease the number of accidents on the road.

Despite these advantages, car owners now want another lane for themselves ‘to avoid congestion’, while providing over-bridges for pedestrians ‘to avoid accidents’; while pedestrians and bus commuters view the ‘indisciplined’ driver as the biggest hazard and do not think that the BRT has been able drill ‘traffic sense’ in them. This finally is the biggest problem. Pedestrians continue to be at greater risk simply because drivers of motorised transport just do not think that walkers have the right of way. And changing this attitude is the first step towards greater safety of those on foot.

The information for this post has been sourced from The Hindu, The Business Standard and the Lookout News, Santa Monica. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Snatching away farmers’ land for industries is also corruption

“In the last six years, the union government has waived corporate income tax worth Rs 3,74,937 crore, over double the 2G spectrum scam”

Social activist Medha Patkar on Saturday said that the definition of corruption should be given broader view. According to her, it ought to include not just embezzlement of money, but also corporate corruption and snatching away farmers’ land for industries. Participating in a programme organized by the National Alliance of People’s Movements, Karnataka chapter, a day after visiting Halligudi in Gadag where farmers are agitating against acquisition of land for POSCO, she stressed the need for repealing the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. She said the Act should be replaced by Development Planning Act, with a community-led development module. Successive land acquisition laws had acquired fertile agricultural lands for corporate purposes in the name of public benefit. Supporting the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, said that any people’s movement must address the fraud perpetrated upon people and their livelihoods by legitimately handing over resources to big business interests. Any anti-corruption law should also address manipulation of laws by the corporate, builder, politician and bureaucrat nexus, she said. Taking a reference from the Economic Survey of India, Ms Patkar said between 1990 and 2005 about 60 lakh hectares of agricultural land had been diverted for non-agricultural purposes, even as huge tracts of land acquired were lying unused, she added.

The battle between communities and corporates was on everywhere, she added. She said that there was a need to obey the voice of the people if democracy had to survive.

Source: Deccan Chronicle.
Also read: Agitating farmers rain stones on NICE officials near Kengeri

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Supreme Court declares Salwa Judum illegal

"The primordial value is that it is the responsibility of every organ of the State to function within the four corners of constitutional responsibility. That is the ultimate rule of law. Indeed, we recognise that the State faces many serious problems on account of Maoist/Naxalite violence.Notwithstanding the fact that there may be social and economic circumstances, and certain policies followed by the State itself, leading to emergence of extremist violence, we cannot condone it. Effectiveness of the force "ought not to be, and cannot be, the sole yardstick to judge constitutional permissibility. Whether SPOs have been effective against Maoist/Naxalite activities in Chhattisgarh would seem to be a dubious, if not a debunked, proposition given the state of affairs in Chattisgarh. Even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that indeed the SPOs were effective against Maoists/Naxalites, the doubtful gains are accruing only by the incurrence of a massive loss of fealty to the Constitution, and damage to the social order."

In a blow to both the Chhattisgarh government and the Centre, the Supreme Court has declared as illegal and unconstitutional the deployment of tribal youths as Special Police Officers - either as 'Koya Commandos', Salwa Judum or any other force - in the fight against the Maoist insurgency and ordered their immediate disarming. The ruling - issued on Tuesday by Justice B. Sudershan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjar on the writ petition filed by social anthropologist Prof. Nandini Sundar and others - strongly indicted the State for violating Constitutional principles in arming youth who had passed only fifth standard and conferring on them the powers of police.

The Bench said “the State of Chhattisgarh shall forthwith make every effort to recall all firearms issued to any of the SPOs, whether current or former, along with any and all accoutrements and accessories issued to use such firearms. The word firearm as used shall include any and all forms of guns, rifles, launchers etc., of whatever calibre.” Writing the order, Justice Reddy directed the State of Chhattisgarh to immediately cease and desist from using SPOs in any manner or form in any activities, directly or indirectly, aimed at controlling, countering, mitigating or otherwise eliminating Maoist/Naxalite activities in the State of Chhattisgarh.

The court directed the Centre and the State of Chhattisgarh to provide appropriate security forthwith, and undertake such measures “as are necessary, and within bounds of constitutional permissibility, to protect the lives of those who had been employed as SPOs previously, or who had been given any initial orders of selection or appointment, from any and all forces, including but not limited to Maoists/Naxalites.”

The Bench made it clear that the State of Chhattisgarh should take all appropriate measures to prevent the operation of any group, including but not limited to Salwa Judum and Koya commandos, that in any manner or form seek to take law into private hands, act unconstitutionally or otherwise violate the human rights of any person. The Bench said “the measures to be taken by the State of Chhattisgarh shall include, but not be limited to, investigation of all previously inappropriately or incompletely investigated instances of alleged criminal activities of Salwa Judum, or those popularly known as Koya Commandos.”

The Bench held that the policy of the State violated the rights under Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of those being employed as SPOs in Chattisgarh and used in counter-insurgency measures against Maoists/Naxalites, as well as of citizens living in those areas.

Source: The Hindu. Also Read:
BBC: A key question is how effectively the Supreme Court ruling will be implemented. Monitoring the process will not be easy in the state's remote forests.
Lawrence Liang: A beacon of light in the heart of darkness.
Full Text of the Court's decree

We never thought that our work could kill us

Yesterday, India's health minister created a furore at an HIV/AIDS conference with his remarks on MSMs as a vulnerable group. Though he clarified his stance later, the uproar shows no signs of ceasing. In response, Anjali Gopalan, from the HIV/AIDS campaign group Naz Foundation, pointed out that "It's women who are in marriage who are more at risk because they cannot negotiate safer behaviour from their husbands who are infecting them". She added that as it was much easier for a man to infect a woman than a woman a man, and as it was common practice among female sex workers to use condoms, they were not the group most vulnerable to infection. It seems appropriate at this point for us to look at this story by Priyanka Borpujaria, about a community of sex workers that has shown remarkable courage in negotiating safe behaviour from their clients. 

Sangli is clean. It begins with the railway station, which has been awarded the second cleanest station’s title in Maharashtra. A five-minute auto-rickshaw ride takes you to Dusshera Chowk. Through clean roads canopied by huge trees, you arrive at a small junction. A clean swept road from there leads to Sangli’s red light area. Pink doors on pink walls flank the street. There are no open drains with floating condoms in them. A decorative rangoli adorns the doorstep of every house. A few young girls stand next to a door, waiting for customers. Most others are busy with the chores that keep any housewife busy every morning—washing utensils and clothes, running after children, cooking meals, and taking dried clothes off the clothesline.

Two decades ago, when Madam was just 18, she eloped with a boy, but he was too scared to marry her. She couldn’t go back to her parents and so she decided to stay on in Dusshera Chowk, doing sundry jobs. Eventually, she became a sex worker. Seven years into the business, she saw contemporaries suddenly falling ill, developing blisters in their mouth and on their tongue, and then becoming just a memory sooner than expected. “The fat girls suddenly became sticks. Then someone said it was AIDS. We had never heard of it before. We never thought that our work could kill us,” she says.

She began to work with Sangram, an organisation in Sangli promoting awareness about HIV and AIDS. That’s where she first encountered the condom. “I thought ‘What kind of weird sticky rubber is this?’ But then, since we were getting it free, I decided to try it,” she says, “I eventually understood that it was for my protection as a sex worker.” She took it upon herself to teach other girls how to use condoms. And also the customers who strode in. “Sex workers saw condoms as a hurdle not just to the sexual act, but to their business,” she says, “The girls would argue that asking the man to wear a condom was as good as showing him the door and not earning anything. They thought that the pleasure of sex would be lost if a condom was worn.”

Since most of the girls were from next-door Karnataka, they spoke only Kannada. Talking about condoms in Marathi or broken-Kannada was not really helping her get the message across to other sex workers. So she had an innovative idea. “I bought two huge plastic buckets and put them in an intersection of the lanes. I told the girls to throw used condoms into the buckets. Around midnight, I would ask the girls about the number of customers they’d had. Then, I would thrust my hand into the bins, pull out the used condoms, and count them. If it did not tally with the number the girls had told me, it meant someone did not get her customer to use a condom. I just had to call out once, and the errant girl would apologise. If they address me as ‘Maa’, then I have every right to scold them.” She is the boss of about 200 girls now, most of whom are from Karnataka’s Devdasi tradition, with tiny white beads on a red cord around their necks identifying their lineage.

Madam’s efforts took three years to come good. Today, none of the women will ‘bithao’ (seat—for sex) a customer who refuses to wear a condom. But are the men willing to oblige? “Not if they are very drunk,” says Madam. So she does what a good mother will do for her daughters—she screens the customers. By 6 pm, Madam settles herself under a big tree at the entrance of her territory. Every prospective customer has to pass her screening—essentially, an assessment of his level of inebriation. “No man comes to a brothel unless he has had some alcohol,” she says, “I look at a man and I can tell how drunk he is. If he is too drunk, then obviously he won’t be able to wear the condom. Then I send him back, even if that means shouting and pushing him away. For the rest, I ask if they are carrying condoms, though my girls are well stocked in any case.”

Many a times, girls have had to show the door to rich customers who try offering more money for condomless sex. “My man asks me, ‘Why do I have to wear the condom even after being with you for so many years? Don’t you trust me?’ I say that this is the way it needs to be, because I do not want him to bring in diseases from his wife,” she says.

Source: Open Magazine

UID is problematic

Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was created as an attached office under the Planning Commission, with a mandate to develop and implement the necessary institutional, technical and legal infrastructure to issue unique identity (UID) numbers to Indian residents.

Aadhaar, or the Unique Identification Project, is today expected and ‘loosely’ positioned to be the sole panacea that will transform governance, make Bharat part of the growth process, plug leakages and slippages into welfare schemes and bring about prosperity all around. What is essentially an identity number has been over-romanticized as an ‘enabler’ to put India on a fast-track growth path by virtue of becoming a pivot around which all anti-poverty measures will rotate and also deliver. From poverty alleviation to education, it seems to be holding answers to all problems that have plagued India since independence. While (Chairman UIDAI) Nandan Nilekani's contention is that he has not promised any such thing, the fact is that he has also never denied the frenzied media reports on UID as a fix all solution.

It is feared that UID is attempting to impose technology to foster centralisation rather than promote de-centralisation and coming up with magical remedies in technology for problems that perhaps have solutions only in governance reform and institutional regeneration. Sometimes, technology can even be used as a quick bypass to constitutional provisions. Panchayati Raj Institutions being deprived of their right to 'identify' its people as the main UID registrars is a case in point. Focus is instead on 'identifying the already identified' who open bank accounts or have ration cards or even PAN cards. Arguments for conditional fund transfers instead of unconditional fund transfers and technology duplication efforts like the Aadhar enabled RuPay card to do exactly what all cards do anyway are some of the cases in point. There is also little clarity as to how the government will integrate the UID with the National Population Registrar (NPR). Considering the multifarious agencies and the issues involved in the work of capturing biometrics and digitizing the demographic information it certainly is a gigantic task. Is does not seem to have happened at least in Tembhli where the information captured by private enrolment agency for the card is not quite at par with the details earlier collected by the census enumerators.

To end on a lighter note, a close associate of mine who hails from Kumaon hills was recently given an Aadhaar card. His biometrics, photo and other details were captured at the time of application. The person who delivered the card demanded a photo identity to match the photo on the Aadhaar card and handed over the card on seeing his PAN Card ! So much for biometric technology.

Source: Sameer Kochhar in Inclusion 

Middle Class Nationalism and the Censorship Question

Democracy has created a middle class, most of whom are not adequately socialised to norms vital to creativity and innovativeness in an open society, says Ashis Nandy.

It is the hearts and minds of the new middle class—those who have come up in the last two decades from almost nowhere and are middle class by virtue of having money rather than middle-class values—that both parties are after. This new middle class wants to give meaning to their hollow life through a violent, nineteenth-century version of European-style ‘nationalism’. They want to prove—to others as well as to themselves—that they have a stake in the system, that they have arrived. They are afraid that the slightest erosion in the legitimacy of their particularly nasty version of nationalism will jeopardise their new-found social status and political clout. They are willing to fight to the last Indian for the glory of Mother India as long as they themselves are not conscripted to do so and they can see, safely and comfortably in their drawing rooms, Indian nationalism unfolding the way a violent Bombay film unfolds on their television screens. Hence the bitterness and intolerance, not only towards Arundhati Roy (read her defence), but also towards all other spoilsports who defy the mainstream imagination of India and its nationalism.

The trend of harassing political dissenters for their “seditious” writings and actions started early. It started with the breakdown of consensus on national interest in the mid-’70s. Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency and introduced serious censorship and surveillance, she claimed, to protect national interest, democracy and development. The difference between the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century is that millions are now acting out their dissent and speaking out of their radical differences with mainstream public opinion. The whole tribal movement—wrongly called the Naxal movement, because the Naxals have taken advantage of the tribal problem—is an example of this. Even Gandhians fighting for their cause non-violently are not spared. Himangshu Kumar’s ashram at Dantewada has been destroyed not by the Maoists but by the police. I would have thought that writers and artists would be exempt from censorship in an open society. As we well know, they are not. The CPI(M) and the Congress ganged up to shut up Taslima Nasreen by saying she was not an Indian. As though if you are a non-Indian in India, your rights don’t have to be governed by the Constitution of India!

There are times when a national consensus is neither possible nor desirable. The best one can do is to contain the violence and negotiate with those who act out their dissent. That may not be easy in the case of the Kashmiris because their trust in us is now close to zero. Psychologically speaking, the Kashmiris are already outside India and will remain there for at least two generations. The random killings, rapes, torture and the other innovative atrocities have brutalised their society and turned them into a traumatised lot. If you think this is too harsh, read between the lines of psychotherapist Shobhna Sonpar’s report on Kashmir.

What is it about the culture of Indian politics today that it allows us to opt for a version of nationalism that is so brutal, self-certain and chauvinist? Have we been so brutalised ourselves that we have become totally numb to the suffering around us? What is this concept of Indian unity that forces us to support police atrocities and torture? How can a democratic government, knowing fully what its police, paramilitary and army is capable of doing, resist signing the international covenant on torture? How can we, sixty years after independence, countenance encounter deaths? Could these practices have survived so long and become institutionalised if we had a large enough section of India’s much-vaunted middle class fully sensitive to the demands of democracy?

The answers to these questions are not pleasant. We know things could not have come to this pass if those who are or should be alert to these issues in the intelligentsia, media, artistic community had done their job. Here I think the changing nature of the Indian middle class has not been a help.

We are proud of our democracy—the consensus on democracy still survives in India—but unaware of a crucial paradox in which we are caught. The democratic process has created a new middle class, a large section of which is not adequately socialised to democratic norms in sectors not vital to the survival of democratic politics but vital to creativity and innovativeness in an open society. The thoughtless, non-self-critical ultra-nationalism, intolerant of anyone opposed to the mainstream public opinion, is shared neither by the poor nor the more settled middle class. Ordinary Indians, accustomed as they are to living with mind-boggling diversity, social and cultural, have no problem with political diversity. Neither does the settled middle class. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, for instance, wrote an essay savaging the middle class in mid-nineteenth century. We had to study this in our school and it has remained a prescribed text in Bengal for more than a century. Today you cannot introduce such a text in much of India without probably precipitating a political controversy and demands for censorship.

Recently, at a lecture organised by the Information Commission of India, I claimed that the future of censorship and surveillance in India was very bright. It’s not only the government that loves it but a very large section of middle-class India too would like to silence writers, artists, playwrights, scholars and thinkers they do not like. In their attempt to become a globalised middle class, they are willing to change their dress, food habits and language but not their love for censorship. We should thank our stars that there still are people in our midst—editors, political activists, NGOs, lawyers and judges—to whom freedom of speech is neither a value peripheral to the real concerns of Indian democracy nor a bourgeois virtue but a clue to our survival as a civilised society.

Source: Democracy’s new torchbearers would brook no lenience to ‘sedition’

Should only politicians have the right to express political opinions?

Recalling the Nehru-JP debate in the late 1950's brings back some interesting points that could be relevant to the current brouhaha around the proposed LokPal Bill

Jayaprakash Narayan, known more familiarly as JP, had been an active Congressman, and a hero of the Quit India movement of 1942, when he eluded the police for months on end and then, when captured, endured solitary confinement and torture in jail. A staunch critic of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies, JP helped form a new Socialist Party in 1948 as a Left-wing alternative to the party in power. He served as the president of all-India unions of railway, postal and defence workers, thus being, in effect, the leader of more than a million men. After the Congress defeated all comers in the 1952 elections, Nehru called JP for talks to explore the possibility of the socialists rejoining the Congress. The talks failed, but by this time JP was losing interest in organised politics altogether. He had become increasingly attracted to the programmes of the Gandhian Vinoba Bhave, who was campaigning for rich landlords to donate, to the poor, excess land ( bhoodan) and, where possible, entire villages (gramdan). JP was inspired to do a jivandan, namely, to offer his own life to the service of this social movement.

In 1957, when India held its second general elections, Jayaprakash Narayan was not formally associated with any political party. However, he retained a strong interest in the present and future of democratic institutions. While the campaigning for the elections was on, JP wrote an extraordinary letter to Nehru, who was both the serving prime minister and the chief vote-getter of the ruling Congress party. In this letter, JP suggested that the prime minister function as a “national rather than a party leader”; that, even while he ran the government, he should “encourage the growth of an Opposition” so as to “soundly lay the foundations of parliamentary democracy” in India. During the elections, JP had tried, and failed, to get Opposition parties to avoid three-cornered contests in individual constituencies, since a division of the vote would benefit only the Congress. “In doing so,” JP told Nehru he was: not guided by dislike of or hostility to the Congress as you have repeatedly been suggesting but merely by certain dispassionate political principles. According to parliamentary democracy theory it is not necessary for the opposition to be better than the ruling party. Equally bad parties in opposition are a check on one another and keep the democratic machine on the track… [A]s a Socialist my sympathies are all with the British Labour Party, but I concede that when Labour is in power the Conservatives perform a valuable democratic function without which the Labour government might become a menace to the people. So, I realise that if my advice had been followed by the opposition parties, it would have led to some undesirable parties gaining somewhat in strength. I was prepared, however, to take that risk on the ground (a) that between the two evils of absoluteness of power and a little increase in the strength of certain undesirable parties, the former was the greater evil and (b) that there would be five years after the election in which a sound opposition party could be created. 

In one of his speeches, Nehru had chastised JP for “playing hide-and-seek” between the pillars of politics and social service. The younger man, he said, “claim[ed] to have given up politics” but “continue[d] to dabble in it.” JP replied that he did “not see why only active party and power politicians should express political opinions and no others. Politics would then be reduced to a sordid party game with which the citizen would have no concern.” There was a particular responsibility for Gandhian “constructive workers” to speak out. These workers, insisted JP, would: betray their ideals if they did not boldly play a corrective role, offering friendly, constructive, non-partisan advice and criticism and, if need be, even opposition in the form of non-cooperation and the like. Nor can eschewing of party politics mean indifference to the manner and outcome of elections. True, those who have eschewed party politics are not expected to take any partisan stand, but they may, with complete consistency, raise general political and ideological issues for the guidance of the electorate, the parties and the candidates.

JP ended his letter on a somewhat despairing note. Whatever the outcome of the elections, he remarked: the verdict is inescapable that the present political system has proved a failure. Therefore, the need after the elections is for the leaders of the country to get together in order to find out if there is a better alternative. I think there is and, in the larger interest of the country, we must seek it out. It is here that your leadership is most needed, because without you this cannot be done. Narayan’s letter extended over six typed pages; Nehru’s reply was even longer. He had “quite failed to understand” what JP meant “by my becoming a national leader, rather than a party leader.” What does a national leader do?” asked Nehru.

Read on: A Dangling Conversation By Ramachandra Guha

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Development India style!

"Next time anyone talks about development and POSCO in the same breath, throw these statistics at them. Mining doesn't benefit states. Mining doesn't really generate local employment as much as they claim. Forget about resettlement too. After you've done that, ask them when can the govt come to their houses and bulldoze them to make roads? For 'development' of course."

-The Great Indian Clearance Sale

Source:  CSE’s report on mining – Rich Lands Poor People 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

That such a decision should even be news!

Among the nearly 250 students of this Tamil-medium school at Kumalankuttai, there are no children of government officials. But then, even the teachers of this school don’t send their children here. Most students there are from poor families, mostly children of dyeing unit workers, auto drivers, daily wage labourers and weavers who need the free noon meal, uniform and textbooks. Given this scenario, it's not surprising that the decision of the new Collector (senior most official of the district administration, an IAS to boot), to send his own child to the Panchayat Union primary school in Erode, has created ripples across the state.

Last Wednesday, when schools across the state reopened after the summer vacations, headmistress S Rani was poring over admission papers after the morning prayers. “It was a hectic hour. Many parents were waiting outside to enrol their children. Someone noticed the attire worn by the duffedar (attender) and informed me. To our great surprise, standing in the queue along with other parents was the Collector, his wife M Srividya and daughter.” His presence created a stir — some teachers thought he was there on an inspection.

Not that the district lacks schools; it has 1,500, including three Central institutions and several private ones. “We did not expect the Collector to admit his daughter here,” admitted Rani. But Dr. R Anandakumar, the young Collector of this backward district in west Tamil Nadu, has set an example for those in the government to patronise the services they deliver to the public.

Source: Read more

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The seasons keep a changing

A rough translation of the song:
The seasons keep changing; one's fate remains unchanged. When you're a poor farmer, every year brings more sorrow, and the barren land doesn't feed one. We have learnt the art of war and dying, we are yet to learn how to live. 

Ek ritu aaye ek ritu jaaye
mausam badale na badale nasib
kaun jatan karun kaun upaay
ek ritu aaye

tak tak suukhe patte aankhein taras gayin
baadal to na barase aankhein baras gayin
baras baras dukh badhata jaaye
ek ritu aaye

pyaasi banjar dharati kisaka pet bhare
bhukhe pyaase bachche kheti kaun kare
maan ki mamata nir bahaaye
ek ritu aaye

pyaar na karna nafarat karna seekh liya
sab logon ne ladna marna seekh liya
inko jina kaun sikhaaye
ek ritu aaye

From the 1979 Hindi film, Gautam Govinda

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bodla Noy, Bodal Chai

We want Change, not Revenge. As Mamata Banerjee - Didi to her people - becomes chief minister of West Bengal today, she has with these words, affirmed her intention to move on from the bitter politics of the past and build a new Bengal. It might, however, be a good time to revisit Singur and Nandigram, twin rockets that propelled her to power and created a total disaffection with the Left Front, despite its early successes in land reforms and its consistent track record of no communal riots - though not of non-violence. These writings by Walter Fernandez and Somnath Mukherji, both written in 2007, are a timely reminder of the perils of the development paradigm India has settled for. 

West Bengal and most states that are offering land for the SEZs do not have a rehabilitation policy. West Bengal has promised rehabilitation in Singur because its farmers agitated against displacement. Most of those to be displaced from the 2,32,167 acres it has committed to industries will be deprived of their livelihood without alternatives. The result of not rehabilitating them is impoverishment. Studies show that most farmers have become daily wage earners, their income has declined by more than half, over 50 per cent of them are jobless and have slipped below the poverty line. Many of them have pulled their children out of school in order to earn for the family. In the absence of other sources of income
many have taken to crime or prostitution. Even if the promise of rehabilitation is kept, skewed land laws will ensure that its benefits do not reach many DP/PAP. In West Bengal, the issue is sharecroppers
and elsewhere it is the common property resources (CPRs). If the sharecroppers are registered, they are to get 25 per cent of the compensation paid to the zamindar when their land is acquired. Around 250
of the sharecroppers cultivating some of the 997 acres being acquired at Singur have not been registered so they will not be compensated or resettled. Also, the 1,000 landless agricultural labourers and others
like barbers who sustain themselves by rendering services to the village as a community will lose their livelihood when that land is acquired.

Most officials treat compensation as rehabilitation. Compensation is defined as the average of the registered price in an area for three years. It is a public secret that not more than 40 per cent of the price
is registered. Thus, by using this norm the state deprives the land losers of the full price. It may not follow even this norm in some cases. Farmers deprived of their land for the bypass and the Rajarhat township in Kolkata were paid an average of Rs 3 lakh per acre when the market price in that area was Rs 20 lakh. The situation is worse in the “backward” areas where price is low. In the 1980s, some farmers in Jalpaiguri district were paid an average of Rs 1,700 per acre. By today’s standards it would be about Rs10,000. Read on: Singur and the Displacement Scenario


Democracy was just going so well for India – the Sensex had finally synchronised completely with the New York Stock Exchange, rising and falling like a shadow; finally the US had started considering it grown up enough to be playing with dangerous toys; all indices were finally climbing – growth rate, literacy, destitution, farmer suicides, FDIs, military expenditure, obesity, HIV rates; so strong was the momentum of democracy that it spread beyond its territory and was successful in luring 8 lakh NRIs to get “Overseas Indian Citizenship”; finally tomatoes could be bought with stickers on them that read “tomatoes”; finally the gnarled lathis (sticks) of the security guards were replaced by shorter machine-finished shiny batons and elastic retractables were appearing everywhere to maintain queues. And just when we were in the final stages of imitation, some “backward” people started putting up a fuss about land, agriculture, submergence and all sorts of unscientific and regressive concerns. Cartographic manipulations were an easy way out to keep the trouble making people at bay.

It is the case of a state against the nation: a nation of people that get in the way of progress and development; a nation of illiterate, ill-fed, ill-clad people springing up from within this amorphous glob called the masses. How could these people represent civil-society? Are they not engaged in their struggles of daily subsistence? Surely they have not read Marx, Weber, Foucault or the tomes on developmental economics. How then could they decide what is good for them, let alone what is good for the society?

State repression in India is climbing to a frightening crescendo both in frequency and brutality. There is a widening rift between the state and the nation. Kalinganagar, Singur, Vidharba, Bastar, Nandigram and the arrest of peaceful protesters of Action 2007 have been one instance after another of the brutality and apathy of the state. Nandigram will remain a blemish on the face of the Indian democracy for a long time to come, unless of course something more gross, inhuman and barbaric takes place. The Govt. of West Bengal rightly claimed that the incidents in Nandigram were the machinations of “outside elements” – they were referring to the people of Nandigram. What they failed to mention was that the new cartographers were redrawing the lines which made the Salim Group and their ilk the insiders and the rural and urban poor the outsiders. If people in their agricultural stupor did not wake up to such updates, who could be blamed? Read on: A State against the Nation

Monday, May 16, 2011

"I’m here until we win, or until we have nothing left to eat or drink but dry red dust, whichever comes first.”

In her past life, Cheryl and husband Tony owned an upscale furniture company, and were “happy, free, party-going coastal Goans who knew how to enjoy life”. But Tony had his heart set on farming, and although this fantasy was foreign to Cheryl (who prefers the treadmill to a walk in the woods), she agreed. Seventeen years ago, they purchased these 240 acres in the boondocks dirt cheap, with savings and a loan. Cheryl continued to work in the city (“I love to work”) and bring in the money, and Tony began to build the farm. The expert they brought in to assess their water situation had some unexpected news. “Your farm is sitting on huge deposits of first-grade iron ore!” he told them, “Sell it and become millionaires.” The couple was not interested. “It was so beautiful. We knew we couldn’t let it fall into the miners’ hands.”

In 2006, while helping a neighbour, Tony was electrocuted and killed. Their daughter, Aki Zafran, was seven years old. Cheryl grieved profoundly and felt she would never pull out of the blackness. It was during all this that the night-time phone calls began. “Tony kept them at bay,” she says, “but now the jackals smelled an easy score. ‘Do you know what can happen to a woman alone at night?’ ‘How about some acid in your face?’ whispered unnamed callers, and: ‘Your daughter is so pretty, aren’t you afraid of what might happen to her?’ Their favourite was ‘Your problem is no man has ever taught you a lesson’,” Cheryl recalls. One agent, speaking for an unnamed company, offered her Rs 70 crore for her land. “The S.O.B.S will get this land over my dead body,” she says as her elegant mother Dora beseeches her to put at least the appearance of being a lady. “My parents, true Goans, taught me that women are equal to men; that we must strive to be free, and to do what’s right. No one can threaten me and expect me to go away quietly.”

The heavy mining began in this area three years ago, in ’08. Tired of the daily confrontations with the hundreds of trucks blocking the road at all hours, the red dust settling everywhere, choking the sprouts and flowers in the fields and orchards, the alarming depletion of the water in the wells and springs, Cheryl and her small household—mother Dora (84), daughter Aki Zafran (then 9) and housekeeper Rita—chained themselves to the entrance of a mine down the road. They were arrested, their few supporters badly beaten. Many of the women from these villages, still enamoured with the imagined opportunities the mines would bring, shouted and cursed her (“and my curses are just nothing compared to theirs!” she laughs).

And so she was surprised and a bit cautious when she received a call last month from the women of Caurem to join their struggle. Disenchanted, their fields ruined and trees barren, their water drying up, they had decided to fight the mines with all their might. On the first day of the blockade, just as Cheryl got off her jeep to join them, the police arrived and in a whirl of lathis arrested them all, 97 including Cheryl. “I’m not going home until they make me go,” came Cheryl’s deep, husky chuckle when I phoned her. Her small ‘jail kit’—contact lens solution, nice-smelling soap and toothbrush—had been tucked inside her handbag; “one never knows when one might be arrested around here,” she says. “Anyway, it’s nice to be here with so much company!” In the weeks since, on daily roadblock duty, a sisterhood has developed and Cheryl, at long last, is accepted as a local. “These are wise women, ah?” she now says, “they have a great sense of humour, and with their children’s very lives on the line they have become dangerous to mess with, like me. They have a new name for me,” she adds with delight, “the wife of the tiger. Now we get on together just fine.”

Not one to admit easily to emotions like loneliness, the new-found camaraderie suits her well and these days her shoulders look softer and her eyes, once clouded with grief, twinkle when she laughs. “I have a good education,” she says as we sit in the shade of the gazebo built on the spot where Tony was cremated, “I can buy a ticket and move to New Zealand with my mom and Aki Zafran and leave this whole damn mess behind. But my neighbours, my friends, they are so poor and have zero choices and are doomed if this continues. I am not going to walk out. I’m here until we win, or until we have nothing left to eat or drink but dry red dust, whichever comes first.”


Why is it imperative to escalate nuclear activity in India against all safety logic and the declared wishes of the Indian people? Suvrat Raju and MV Ramana, physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, unpack the puzzle.

In the mid-2008, during the parliamentary debate on the trust vote, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee explained that the Nuclear Deal was essential to avoid a cataclysmic shortage of power in the future. Without the deal, he claimed, by 2050 “our energy deficit would be 412,000 megawatts”.  Mukherjee then went on to tell Parliament that, by a curious coincidence, the deal would provide India with almost exactly this amount of power and “reduce the deficit... to only 7,000 megawatts.” In other words, the deal would allow the Government to embark on a frenzy of nuclear construction amounting to roughly two-and-a-half times the country’s total current installed power generation capacity in four decades.

In fact, estimates of both the deficits and contribution of nuclear power were questionable and seemed engineered to influence the debate on the deal. In 2008, Anil Kakodkar, secretary of the DAE, presented these figures for the first time in a talk in Bangalore where he also claimed that the deal would allow India to expand its nuclear programme by more than a hundred times by 2050. The history of nuclear energy in India offers no precedent for such an increase, although it does provide many examples of grand pronouncements. The first secretary of the DAE, Homi Bhabha, predicted that India would produce 18–20,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear power by 1987; when 1987 came around, India’s nuclear power production capacity was stuck at 512 MW—less than 3 per cent of Bhabha’s projection. In the 1980s, the DAE launched a ‘profile’, claiming that it would install 10,000 MW of nuclear capacity by 2000, but the Comptroller and Auditor General’s review of this programme in 1998 found that the ‘the actual additional generation of power… was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of Rs 5,291.48 crore’.

Not only have no lessons been learnt from these past failures, but, on independent grounds, the DAE’s current projections are technically infeasible. They rely on untested technology, and are based on erroneous calculations. Given this background, there are good reasons to doubt both the projections of energy shortage for 2050 and the ability of nuclear power to meet it. However, even the process of trying to set up nuclear power capacity to the extent possible imposes many economic and non-economic costs on society that India can scarcely afford.

The key feature of the deal was that it gave India access to nuclear technology in the international market. The Government plans to use this new freedom to import several large reactors from the very countries that helped secure the deal, including of course the US but also France and Russia. France seems to be first in line. The six reactors that the Government has promised to import and install at Jaitapur are called EPRs and are being sold by a French company called Areva. Each EPR—an abbreviation for Evolutionary or European  Pressurised Reactor—will produce 1,650 MW, which is almost one-third of India’s total nuclear-power-generating capacity today, and about four times as much as that of the Fukushima-Daiichi I reactor.

The Government’s hurry to seal this deal has been puzzling because no EPR is in commercial operation anywhere in the world. Apart from two EPRs in China, where construction has not advanced particularly, there are two other EPRs under construction in Olkiluoto (Finland) and Flamanville (France). These two have already run up costs of over $7 billion apiece. In the US, the EPR is caught up in regulatory hurdles. It has not cleared the regulatory process in Britain either.

Why then would India rush to buy these exorbitant reactors from France? The answer was laid out clearly by Kakodkar. Writing for Sakaal Times, in Marathi, he candidly explained that ‘we also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there… America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects’.

In fact, the nurturing of foreign business interests has been of such importance to the Indian Government that it has often been willing to take away the rights of its own citizens. Before they sell anything to India, these companies would like to wash their hands off the consequences of any disaster at their reactors. To enable this, the Government spent the entire 2010 monsoon session of Parliament passing a nuclear liability law whose primary purpose was to prevent victims from being able to sue suppliers for compensation in the event of an accident.

Continue reading 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Land Requisition: Looking beyond compensation

Land acquisition by governments may be old hat in the story of 'development', but the pain for those who lose their homes, their land, their farms or water bodies is fresh and vivid every single time. Those who think otherwise should for a moment, consider even the notion of the home they live in, being taken away for "national interest". I believe the time has come for rethink the idea of requisition as something that must not happen without consent. Compensation can only be a matter for discussion pending such consent. 

A second point. Nobody in their right minds would condone violence in any situation, but the story below as reported by the Down To Earth magazine, on the protests against land acquisition for the Yamuna Expressway project to connect Noida with Agra, is about the violence - both of state personnel and of the people affected - that can erupt when people's wishes are not taken on board. 

Three days after violent clashes broke out between police personnel and farmers in Bhatta and Parsol villages in Greater Noida near Delhi, the residents of the villages were under virtual house arrest. The two adjoining villages in Gautam Budh Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh was cordoned off by police personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and the Rapid Action Force (RAF); media-persons were not allowed to enter the villages. Three fire-tenders lined the entrance of the villages. One tender was being used to douse flames in a charred building.

Ram Lal Nath (name changed), a priest and an eyewitness to the clashes says a lot of blood was shed in the past two days also. The clashes and exchange of gunfire began when the police went to rescue three Uttar Pradesh Roadways employees on May 7. The Roadways employees were being held hostage by farmers of these villages who have been protesting against land acquisition for the Yamuna Expressway project, which will connect Noida with Agra. The clashes on May 7 led to houses, vehicles and fields being set on fire. Two policemen and a farmer were killed that day and around 15 persons, including Deepak Aggarwal, the district magistrate of Gautam Budh Nagar, were injured. Aggarwal sustained a bullet wound on his leg. “There was exchange of fire in the past two days and must have cost lives, but no one has a count as people are not being allowed to enter the village,” says Nath. He has been living in the village for the past 11 years. He says has never seen such a situation where the villagers are not even allowed to step out of their houses.

Inderjit Kumar, a farmer from a nearby village says, the situation is tense in four villages—Bhatta, Parsol, Ashipur and Muttana. “We are keeping in touch with our fellow farmers in these villages through mobile phones and many of them are injured and hiding in their houses fearing for their lives,” he says. He alleged that the police was very brutal and beat men and women mercilessly on May 7 and 8 when there were clashes. There must be around 5,000 police personnel deployed around these villages, he adds. Nath says scores of residents are missing and no-one has a clue to their whereabouts. “In the past two days, I have heard cries, slogan shouting and exchange of abuses between farmers and police personnel. There are only children and women, men of villages are either absconding, missing or have been arrested by the police,” says Nath while hurrying away at the sight of approaching policemen.

Ascertaining the casualty at this point of time is difficult. “Nobody is allowed to enter the village and the official figures cannot be believed,” says Mahendar Singh Charoli of Charoli village nearby. The build up to the clashes began in January this year when Manveer Singh Tevatia, a resident, decided to lead the farmers of Bhatta and Parsol villages. He told the farmers that Uttar Pradesh government had paid them peanuts—Rs 800 per metre—for their fertile land under the land acquisition policy whereas the market price of their land is around Rs 16,000 per metre. This agitated farmers and they decided to protest. On January 17, a dharna was held by the farmers of these villages. The protests continued over the subsequent weeks.

The dissatisfaction over compensation is increasing by the day and all the villages have decided to unite on the matter. Mahendar Singh, who is also vice-president of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) of Uttar Pradesh-wing, announced a Mahaypanchayat would be held on May 12 to decide what course of action should be adopted by farmers of the Gautam Budh district. “Let all the panchayats come together and decide what should be our demands,” he says.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jaitapur Meets Chernobyl

Jaitapur Meets Chernobyl, by Lina Krishnan (c). 
is this what the future has in store for this verdant ecosystem

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Listen to Jaitapur

As Japan grapples with the nuclear crisis at the plant in Fukushima, apocalyptic images of death and devastation conceived in fear have prompted the people of Jaitapur, in Maharashtra, to protest against the decision of France’s Areva and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) to build a nuclear plant there. Their anxieties will perhaps be stoked further today, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which killed thousands, devastated some two lakh lives and caused widespread environmental damage. To ascribe these protests only to the machinations of a spoilsport Shiv Sena is to underestimate the fears and genuine doubts experienced by the people of Jaitapur.

For long, France has been caught in the nuclear debate. In 2002, a French government report had described the nuclear industry as a “monster without future”, engendering hopes among activists that a reversal in nuclear policy would follow. Such expectations, however, were belied as oil prices rose and the spectre of global warming prompted a clamour for clean energy. (Though nuclear power doesn’t emit carbon, nuclear waste remains radioactive for generations.) The opposite happened: France established itself as a leading exporter of nuclear power technology, which President Nikolas Sarkozy began to deploy as a diplomatic tool. However, there’s far greater transparency in France. Officials of Electricite de France, which is building two EPRS for Areva at Flamanville, Normandy, say that before they started setting up their plant, they had to secure approval from the French Public Debate Commission, which gave its nod after conducting 21 public hearings over four months. Such public hearings in India are, more often than not, farcical.

Areva, which is state-owned, hopes to sign the commercial agreement with India later this year. Till then, they expect queries from New Delhi on the safety standards of EPRS. Says a French diplomat, “We have chosen India as our key strategic partner. Jaitapur, and our cooperation in civil nuclear energy, are increasingly becoming the backbone of the two nations’ growing relationship.” India will keep its end of the bargain, not only because Paris helped New Delhi emerge out of nuclear apartheid, but also because this energy is considered vital to sustain India’s growth.

As India vets the answers to the queries about the safety of EPRS, it should perhaps emulate the French in adopting not only their technology but also their best practices. This includes taking into account the opinion of Jaitapur, allaying its fears and anxieties, and ensuring that support for the nuclear plant is won through dialogue, not by teargas, lathicharges or firing.

Source: French ‘Reactors’ [the pros & cons of Jaitapur]

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Obama's human rights record takes a notch

Laurence Tribe, Barack Obama's former teacher at Harvard University, has written to the President, along with 300 fellow professors and legal experts, condemning the United States' treatment of Bradley Manning and appealing to President Obama, as a former professor of constitutional law himself, to uphold “fundamental standards of decency”.

The 23 year-old former U.S. Army intelligence analyst held responsible for leaking government documents to Wikileaks, was charged with giving the whistleblower website documents pertaining to the U.S. military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and also a controversial cache of State Department cables. He has been in solitary confinement in Quantico, Virginia, for the last nine months. Describing the confinement as “illegal and immoral,” and under “degrading and inhumane conditions” that violate the U.S. constitution, Tribe joined numerous peers to argue that if Manning's harsh treatment was continued by the Pentagon, it may well amount to a violation of the criminal statute against torture, defined as, “the administration or application…of… procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.” Numerous other groups and prominent individuals have called on the Pentagon to end it, some controversially. Last month, the former U.S. State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, highest-profile casualty over the Manning affair thus far, resigned after calling the Pentagon's actions “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid”. Crowley argued that the manner of Manning's detention had “undermined the investigation into his role as the alleged source for Wikileaks”.

Bradley Manning's routine in the Quantico military facility confines him to his cell for 23 hours a day, the legal specialists wrote. They said during the remaining hour, he was only permitted to walk in circles in another room, with no contact with any person whatsoever. Manning was also banned from dozing or relaxing during the day, subjected to constant monitoring, and during the past week he was said to have been “forced to sleep naked and stand naked for inspection in front of his cell, and for the indefinite future must remove his clothes and wear a “smock” under claims of risk to himself that he disputes”. This is is illegal under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits punishment without trial.

The letter, written by Yale law school professor Bruce Ackerman and Harvard law school professor Yochai Benkler, said the Obama administration had supplied no evidence that Manning's treatment reflected any concern for his own safety or that of other inmates, and “Unless and until it does so, there is only one reasonable inference: this pattern of degrading treatment aims either to deter future whistleblowers, or to force Manning to implicate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a conspiracy, or both.”  The letter appears in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books and was also published online in March, where it attracted 295 signatories.

Sources: The Hindu and The Yale Daily News

Manmohan Singh's deliberate attempt to mislead the Indian people?

Julian Assange has finally discovered what the Indian people have known for some time about their prime minister. That he is really committed - to covering up corruption in his government.

Part of this effort was directed against the Indian Cables of Wikileaks, transcripts of which have been shared by The Hindu, one of our leading newspapers, for the past few weeks. Understandably, this led to a furore in the Parliament. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to react to the House by saying in the Lok Sabha, that his government “cannot confirm the veracity, contents or even the existence of such communication.”

Outraged by this, Assange in an interview to the same paper, has this to say. “We have not come across this reaction and that reaction disturbed me. Because Hillary Clinton had been involved in informing the Indian government, in December, as well as many other governments, that this was coming. There has been no question as to the credibility of any document we have ever published in the last four years, let alone the [U.S. Embassy] cables – which have been authenticated by the very aggressive action of the State Department towards us and by hundreds of journalists from the most reputable institutions across the world.

“That is why I said I find that statement a deliberate, knowing attempt to mislead the Indian population...Because it is directly from Prime Minister Singh's mouth and he knows better than to do that. While I have heard – I have no proof but the consensus seems to be that – he is not personally corrupt, here's a clear attempt to cover up for the possible corruption of other people. Rather than simply playing it straight, which he should have done, and say, ‘Look, there are allegations. They are serious and we will investigate them and come to the truth of the matter and give a full report to Parliament. I think if he had taken that approach, he would have been served a lot better. So he has acted against his own interests and acted against the interests of his party, which is odd. So I would suggest it means that he has a habit that he was following rather than thinking things through – and a habit of reactively covering up allegations of corruption.”

Wonder what Singh will say to that bit of analysis!

Read more

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gandhian Logbook: the Ides of April

Anti-graft crusaders, led by veteran Gandhian Anna Hazare, called off their fast Saturday after 96 hours after the government agreed to their demand to introduce a more stringent Lokpal Bill to fight corruption. A look at the time-line of the crusade:

Jan 30: People take out march against corruption in over 60 cities to demand an effective anti-graft Lokpal bill. Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh and lawyer Prashant Bhushan were among the key participants in the rally in Delhi.

Feb 26 : Anna Hazare calls press conference, announces that he would go on fast unto death from April 5 if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not take a decision on including civil society in drafting the Lokpal Bill. Expresses frustration on several letters written to PMO on the issue being ignored.

Feb 27 : Rally taken out from Jantar Mantar to Ramlila ground under banner of Bharat Swabhiman, for stringent Lokpal Bill and to bring back black money stashed in foreign banks.

March 3: Prime minister writes to Anna Hazare, invites him for discussion.

March 7: Anna Hazare meets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh along with Kiran Bedi, Swami Aginvesh, Prashant Bhushan, Shanti Bhushan.

March 8 : Prime minister sets up sub-committee to look into the Lokpal Bill, members include ministers A.K. Antony, M. Veerappa Moily, Kapil Sibal and Sharad Pawar.

March 28: Activists meeting with sub-committee remains inconclusive, Anna Hazare says he will go on fast as scheduled.

April 4 : Anna Hazare confirms fast from April 5, calls upon the nation to join in. Prime minister expresses his "deep disappointment" at the decision.

April 5: Anna Hazare, along with supporters pays tribute to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat, marches from India Gate to Jantar Mantar where he starts fast. Supporters join the protest from 400 cities, more than 5,000 gather at Jantar Mantar. Main opposition BJP extends support, Congress calls it premature.

April 6: Fast enters second day, government members say they are not adverse to civil society's suggestion. Sharad Pawar withdraws from a sub-committee following verbal attack from the activists.

April 7: Fast enters third day; activists meet sub-committee members, meeting remains inconclusive. Movement gathers momentum, film personalities, politicians extend support. Candle light march taken out in Delhi.

April 8 : Anna Hazare announces he will end fast Saturday morning after government agrees to notify formation of a panel, with 50 percent civil society members, to draft the anti-corruption law and introduce it in the monsoon session of parliament.

April 9 : Anna Hazare ends fast around 11 a.m. after government issues notification. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the Lokpal Bill will be introduced in the monsoon session of parliament.

Source: Timeline

Friday, April 8, 2011

Knew you were blind, PM Manmohan Singh

Dear Prime Minister

We knew you were blind when you professed undying love for George Bush from our side. We did not love him. We knew you were blind when you wanted to sign the nuclear deal when we didn’t. We knew you were blind when you let all the scams happen and did not see anything wrong with what was happening. We knew you were blind to Bhopal, to the injustice, to the suffering. We knew you were blind to the fact that Prithviraj Chavan quoted Monsanto’s leaflets to you. We know this blindness Mr. Prime Minister. You have made a sport out of it at CWG and played hockey with it along with Kalmadi. And we know you probably cannot see the great man Anna Hazare. And the rising tide of people. We know you think it must be the noise of another protest that you can safely ignore. And get back to hearing what the hotline to America says, instead.

But let us ask you this question, for once.What have you got to lose? Why not become a hero of the country and join the fight against corruption? Why not usher in a new India? We still don’t want to believe that you cannot really see that this country has had enough of corruption. For one last time, come out stand up for your country. Our country.

It's called India, in case you're wondering.

Courtesy: The Great Indian Clearance Sale

Saturday, April 2, 2011

In India, domestic helps work in an unsafe environment

The Shiney Ahuja case - the Bollywood actor convicted for raping the 20 year old maid working in his house - reflects two disturbing facts. One, that domestic help in this country work in conditions that are not always safe or harmonious. Add to this, the possibility of abuse, overwork, withholding of pay, employment of child labour and other indignities of working in middle class households. Given the social divide between the employer and the employee, the dice is already loaded. This was especially so in this case where the girl was a poor villager lately come to Mumbai for her livelihood, and who was so unlearned in self-defence that a preliminary pass made by the actor a couple of days before the rape did not alert her to the horrors in store.

The second aspect is the relentless defence of Ahuja by his wife. Ok, so he is her husband, albeit one who cheated the minute she was away, but did the unfairness of his attack - one can call it nothing else given the brutality revealed in the medical evidence - on a young girl mean nothing in the face of so called family values? Family here may also include the larger Bollywood family, who have as always, swung together to defend one of their own, spearheaded by that actor with the most 'records' in various police districts, Salman Khan himself, castigating the judge for bias against actors. Actors are as subject to the due process of law as any other citizen, yet it is they who expect special dispensation whenever they indulge in criminal activity.

The media has been largely ambivalent. An exception is today's editorial in the Deccan Herald, which talks of the way the Ahujas tried everything from threats to bribery until the victim retracted from her initial complaint. "Convictions in cases of rape are rare in this country. This is because assailants often use intimidation to silence the victims. There are social pressures too that prevent victims from going to the police and the courts. Initially, Ahuja’s maid overcame her fears and inhibitions to go to the police but relentless pressure saw her withdraw her charges." [Read more]

Kudos to the judge therefore, who ignored this 'hostile evidence' and based the sentence on the medical evidence instead to sentence Shiney Ahuja to seven years rigorous imprisonment. One hopes the higher courts will also uphold the sentence.

Lina Krishnan

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Governments, Nuclear Secrecy and People's Safety

Governments don't pay much attention to what their people want. Nor is it easy for citizens, however concerned, to really know what their governments are up to. This lack of transparency is particularly dangerous in today's nuclear climate. Apparently, the Japanese government was warned two years ago, that their plants weren't capable of withstanding earthquake shock. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had found way back in December 2008 that Japan's safety rules were out of date and that strong earthquakes would pose a "serious problem" for nuclear power stations. In response, the government pledged to upgrade safety at all of its nuclear plants. Today we hear similar assurances from the Indian government that all our plants are safe. But it's a little hard to believe that safety is priority for governments, when Jaitapur is being built in a seismic zone, and a nuclear facility planned by Jordan at the Red Sea port of Aqaba is on a major faultline.

One would've thought that the radiation disaster in Japan would prompt a rethink. But no such luck. India plans to continue operating its 20 reactors, and plans to spend an estimated $150 billion to add a few score more, beginning with the Jaitapur facility, billed to be the world’s largest nuclear energy complex. Meanwhile, China is pushing nuclear power with 11 reactors operating and plans to start constructing as many 10 per year over the next 10 years.  In fact, Zhang Lijun, Chinese deputy minister of environment, has said recently that Japan’s difficulties would not deter China's nuclear rollout. What's more, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt are all also studying nuclear energy, and even oil-rich Saudi Arabia is considering a nuclear-powered city.

With India and China steering the nuclear renaissance, and with other nations in Eastern Europe, South Asia and West Asia also embracing nuclear power, the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, says the World Nuclear Association. When governments are being driven by the nuclear industry, do citizens have a choice? India’s nuclear energy establishment has faced stiff opposition to its ambitious plans from environmentalists and villagers at plant sites. But analysts said the Japan crisis was unlikely to stir up significantly more public protest against nuclear plants here, given the pressing demand for more electricity.

Talking to the Deccan Herald, G Balachandran, a consulting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a policy research organisation in New Delhi, says Japan won't make a difference. “If one per cent of the population was against nuclear power, you might now get two per cent,” he said. “I am really not concerned about the opposition that may develop around this.”

Lina Krishnan

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Demand a Moratorium on Nuclear Reactor Construction in India

25 years since Chernobyl, and we have learnt nothing! An estimated 65,000 to 110,000 people perished in Chernobyl. The toll from the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear reactor is as yet unknown, but is likely to be high. The accident, in which unspecified quantities of radioactivity were released, highlights the grave inherent hazards of atomic power generation the world over, and confirms the scientific assessment that all nuclear reactor-types can undergo a catastrophic accident like Three Mile Island (US, 1979) and Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986), irrespective of the precautions taken and safety systems installed.

The incident calls for a thorough review and transparent audit of the safety performance of all nuclear reactors in India, as well as of evacuation and other emergency procedures, which are known to be flawed. The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) demands a moratorium on all further civilian nuclear activities in India, including the construction of reactors at Jaitapur in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, based on an untested French design, until India’s nuclear power policy is radically reviewed for safety, viability, appropriateness and costs.

Women in Egypt did not just "join" the Tahrir protests – they organised it

In one of the first analyses of the role of women in the current revolutions of the Middle East, Naomi Wolf, political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, makes some interesting observations about feminism and democracy, women's leadership and the social media. 

Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women: doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent, gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind rigid gender roles. So where were these women in Tunisia and Egypt?

In both countries, women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt's Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.

Other citizen reporters in Tahrir Square – and virtually anyone with a cell phone could become one – noted that the masses of women involved in the protests were demographically inclusive. Many wore headscarves and other signs of religious conservatism, while others reveled in the freedom to kiss a friend or smoke a cigarette in public.

But women were not serving only as support workers, the habitual role to which they are relegated in protest movements, from those of the 1960s to the recent student riots in the United Kingdom. Egyptian women also organised, strategised, and reported the events. Bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada took grave risks to keep the world informed daily of the scene in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in Egypt did not just "join" the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes - and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.

The greatest shift is educational. Two generations ago, only a small minority of the daughters of the elite received a university education. Today, women account for more than half of the students at Egyptian universities. They are being trained to use power in ways that their grandmothers could scarcely have imagined: publishing newspapers - as Sanaa el Seif did, in defiance of a government order to cease operating; campaigning for student leadership posts; fundraising for student organisations; and running meetings.

Indeed, a substantial minority of young women in Egypt and other Arab countries have now spent their formative years thinking critically in mixed-gender environments, and even publicly challenging male professors in the classroom. It is far easier to tyrannise a population when half are poorly educated and trained to be submissive. But, as Westerners should know from their own historical experience, once you educate women, democratic agitation is likely to accompany the massive cultural shift that follows.

The nature of social media, too, has helped turn women into protest leaders. Having taught leadership skills to women for more than a decade, I know how difficult it is to get them to stand up and speak out in a hierarchical organisational structure. Likewise, women tend to avoid the figurehead status that traditional protest has in the past imposed on certain activists – almost invariably a hotheaded young man with a megaphone.

In such contexts – with a stage, a spotlight, and a spokesperson – women often shy away from leadership roles. But social media, through the very nature of the technology, have changed what leadership looks and feels like today. Facebook mimics the way many women choose to experience social reality, with connections between people just as important as individual dominance or control, if not more so.

You can be a powerful leader on Facebook just by creating a really big "us". Or you can stay the same size, conceptually, as everyone else on your page – you don't have to assert your dominance or authority. The structure of Facebook's interface creates what brick-and-mortar institutions - despite 30 years of feminist pressure - have failed to provide: a context in which women's ability to forge a powerful "us" and engage in a leadership of service can advance the cause of freedom and justice worldwide.

Of course, Facebook cannot reduce the risks of protest. But, however violent the immediate future in the Middle East may be, the historical record of what happens when educated women participate in freedom movements suggests that those in the region who would like to maintain iron-fisted rule are finished.

Just when France began its rebellion in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had been caught up in witnessing it, wrote her manifesto for women's liberation. After educated women in America helped fight for the abolition of slavery, they put female suffrage on the agenda. After they were told in the 1960s that "the position of women in the movement is prone", they generated "second wave" feminism – a movement born of women's new skills and old frustrations.

Time and again, once women have fought the other battles for the freedom of their day, they have moved on to advocate for their own rights. And, since feminism is simply a logical extension of democracy, the Middle East's despots are facing a situation in which it will be almost impossible to force these awakened women to stop their fight for freedom – their own and that of their communities.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Whom do you call an Activist?

Why do you want to name yourself as an activist? By using the term “activism” we are somewhere mainstreaming the idea of concerned citizenry in a separate profession. I’m personally very much uncomfortable with the creation of a new profession “where one serves the underprivileged or deprived class”.

The lifestyle which is expected from an “activist” is not there as a part of my daily life. I’m also an individual who has minute desires and needs. May not be able to reach the limit of survival but adaptability is still there. Instances in life make me not to question that. I do belong to privileged middle class but that doesn’t stop me from aligning with the oppressed ones. In a way even I’m oppressed. Systems, structures, society, state all have defined the limits, beliefs and desires. There is a strong aspiration to decondition myself from all of them, and try to figure out a path which is my own. I’m naming it my own rebellion. A rebellion which is searching for alternative ways of surviving and grooming; which is sustainable in nature. Not harming the surroundings and living beings. How is there going to be a mass transit to those alternatives? I’m carrying no answer for it. My struggle is not only outside, there is a tussle going on inside. I do have political conscience; how to manifest it without becoming a part of mainstream party?

Read the full article by Kabir Arora. Kabir is a student leader and an active member of several groups, including the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN) and the National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movement (NAAM). 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nearly 15% of India's grain and vegetables is wasted by Big Fat Indian Weddings

The extravagant Indian wedding returned to the front pages of newspapers this week: reportedly a $55m gig with 20,000 guests, a Bell helicopter as dowry, a 100-dish menu, a dozen TV screens showing a video feed of the proceedings, and even a $5,000 tip for the groom's barber. The groom's father - a rich Congress party politician and real estate magnet, exemplifying the intersection of politics and new money in India - wryly remarked that the media reports of the wedding were speculative.

For the Congress party-led government whose credibility is battered by a tsunami of corruption scandals, the hugely ostentatious wedding by a party member should come as an embarrassment, many here feel. One minister is reported to have said recently that nearly 15 percent of India's grain and vegetables is wasted through "extravagant and luxurious functions". Party chief Sonia Gandhi has pleaded with her workers to be frugal and her MPs to fly economy class. The embattled PM, Manmohan Singh, had feebly exhorted businessmen to refrain from ostentatious displays of wealth because such "vulgarity insults the poor". But what he possibly forgets is that the poor in India are actually insulted every day by many of the men and women they vote into power. The government is apparently working on a law to curb waste at extravagant weddings and functions. No law will be able to change soon a people and society that remain deeply hierarchical, feudal and class-conscious. At one end of the scale a hapless farmer may take ruinous loans from money-lenders to host a wedding beyond his means. At the other end a billionaire unabashedly builds the world's priciest home (more than $1bn) in Mumbai where half the people live in slums. All this is symptomatic of a society which thrives on perpetuating inequity. With near double-digit growth, there's going to be more money to throw around and flaunt. So don't expect any lame law to curb India's vulgar, overblown weddings any time soon.

Source: Why India's big, fat weddings will never stop, by Soutik Biswas

Anna Hazare calls for a movement against corruption

India is preparing to fight against corruption. In a nation beset by scams, people are demanding a strong law that will not only indict the corrupt but also send them to jail and recover the stolen public money.

Anna Hazare has demanded the enactment of a Jan Lokpal bill against corruption. The bill, meant to involve public participation and not leave it up to the politicians, has been drafted by Justice Santosh Hegde, Prashant Bhushan and other civil society members who have been in the fight for probity in public life. Anna, known for his work in creating the model village of Ralegan Siddhi, has declared that he will begin an indefinite fast from April 5th, at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, and will use Gandhian methods of non violent protest, jail bharo and fasting to achieve goals.

Watch the video

Friday, March 4, 2011

Shahbaz Bhatti: words vs guns

Words, I have to continue to assume, are powerful enough for other people to feel threatened by. Words that carry truth, particularly when they touch upon the misinterpretation of religion, intimidate those whose words don’t. In our history, or rather our collective amnesia, we have often responded to words of truth and beauty with the vituperation, forcing into exile or silencing of those who utter them. But now I have to ask myself a different question, i.e. what is the value of mere words when the other side is using guns?

Like the late Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti was killed because of the words he uttered.

These words, for which he had been receiving death threats for the past month, had specifically to do with the late minister’s position on our blasphemy law. Mr. Bhatti, representing as he did some of the most disenfranchised citizens of this blighted nation, bravely and ceaselessly kept pointing out the way the law has been misused to harass and oppress his constituents. His essential argument, that a law that leads to injustice more often than it does justice merits reform if not repeal, was in direct opposition to the simplistic, ignorant stance taken by most of the participants in what passes for public discourse on the subject. For this principled stance Mr. Bhatti, like others before him, paid with his life.

Read: A Graveyard for Lunatics