Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Media owners critical of Paid News report

By Gopal Krishna
27 Apr 2010

The Press Council Meet to discuss its report on “Paid News” remained inconclusive.
Due to the objections raised by media barons, the meeting of Press Council of India (PCI) to discuss its sub-committee’s report on the Paid News scandal ended without conclusion on April 26. The Council will convene another meeting to conclude the proceedings on the said report.

After the meeting, PCI Chairman, Justice G N Ray said, “It was inconclusive. The report will be discussed at the next meeting. The Press Council’s views on the sub-committee’s report would be concluded in the next meeting within two months.”

Owners and managers of the newspapers who are in the Press Council objected to the contents of the sub-committee’s report and said that the report was defamatory towards the whole media. However, the authors of the report denied the charge. The media owners also questioned the reason for hurry in finalizing the report.

“There was absence of consensus among the 23 members (out of 28) who were present. As of now the report has neither been accepted nor rejected. Consequently, a larger committee might be constituted by the Chairman that would work to find consensus based on this report”, said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a member of the Press Council and one of the two authors of the report.

Four members of Parliament who are members of the Press Council were not present in the meeting.

The media owners alleged that the report mentioned names of the media houses that were violating the provisions of Income Tax Act and Companies Act by not accounting for the money received from the candidates. The report is said to refer to the SEBI’s letter to the PCI on the issue of “private treaties” between media companies and other corporate entities.

This report on “paid news” tracks the incidents of newspapers demanding money from candidates for favourable coverage during the April-May 2009 Lok Sabha Elections and September-October 2009 assembly elections of Maharashtra and Haryana.

The sub-committee’s 71 page report condemns the unethical practice of Paid News and calls upon all editors of the country to desist from publishing any form of advertisements masquerading as news. The report puts the onus on media organizations to clearly distinguish between news and advertisements with proper disclosure norms.

The report is based on the testimonies of aggrieved politicians of almost all the political parties and senior journalists who have named many newspapers which asked for money and offered ‘rates and packages’ for blurring boundaries between news and advertisements or “advertorials” to help the candidates in the elections.

Seeds under siege

By Pandurang Hegde
26 Apr 2010

International Seeds Day (April 26) reminds us of concerted attempts by the large seed corporations to destroy seed diversity of the world to expand their markets and profits.

How can governments snatch growers' rights over seeds?

Following on heels of Earth Day (April 22) comes the International Seeds Day (April 26). But there is no doubt that it will not be celebrated in the United States and many countries in Europe. Neither will this be endorsed by the United Nations or Food and Agricultural Organisation. The reason is obvious; it is launched by common people, especially by the ordinary farmers in Iraq who lost the sovereignty not only of their country, but of their seeds. It was on April 26, 2004 the Order 81 was passed by the Coalition Authority that prohibits the farmers in Iraq from using their own seeds and forces them to buy the seeds from Multinational Seed Corporations from the US and Europe.

The world has witnessed innumerable wars and occupations, but the invasion of Iraq is unique because it has led to an order to terminate the life from seed, taking away farmers' freedom to grow what they want to grow. The common people in the world thought that the war was for oil, but the perpetrators of the occupation have clearly shown their meanness by attacking the life giving seed. Having failed to find any WMD (weapons of mass destruction), they attacked the seed sovereignty, backed by the sheer unethical greed of global seed giants. It is the launching of world war for the control of seeds.

The invasion of Iraq is unique because it has led to an order to terminate the life from seed, taking away farmers' freedom to grow what they want to grow.
What does the Order 81 say? It says that the farmers shall be prohibited from re-using seeds of protected varieties or any variety. The terminology might sound funny, but the intention is clear, according to the Order the genetically altered seeds are called "protected variety" and the unregistered or local seeds are referred to as "infringing variety"! The new order gives corporations complete control over farmers' seeds. Iraqi farmers have to sign an agreement to pay a "technology fee" plus an annual license fee. Plant Variety Protection (PVP) made seed saving and reusing illegal as well as "similar" seed plantings punishable by severe fines and imprisonment.

This is the ideal autocratic law the corporate seed giants would like to impose on the rest of the world. What is unfortunate is that it was backed by countries like the US and Europe who chant the mantra of democracy and human rights. By enacting Order 81 they want to erase the 8000 old farming history of Iraq, which is part of "fertile crescent", the origin of diversity of crops, especially wheat. The order gives the corporations monopoly over seeds.

The seed war in Iraq is clear indicator of how the corporates want to take control over seeds in different parts of world. They might not send coalition forces in other countries, but the silent war is on through diplomatic channels, through back door maneuverings and enticing the politicians of democratic nations through the power of money. The recent controversy on bt brinjal in India is basically another seed war being waged to cave in those age old civilizations which are the centres of diversity.

Almost fifty percent of the annual 21 billion USD seed market is dominated by just ten Seed Companies, who also own pesticide companies. By controlling the seed and inputs, they are aiming to control the entire food chain of the world. In order to deeply entrench the seed monopoly, the first thing they need is to destroy the diversity of the local seeds, especially those used and reused by the farmers. This is called seed replacement rate. In India this rate is 70 per cent, as most of the farmers re-use and exchange the seeds among themselves. Iraq had 90 percent replacement rate.

Obviously, this culture of saving and sharing seeds is the biggest threat that hinders the growth of seed corporates. By passing Order 81 they removed this threat in Iraq. But in India our elected government and the pro establishment scientists are willing to surrender control of our seeds to large Agricultural corporations. The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture Education, Research, Services and Commercial Linkages is the modem through which such controls will be exercised.

The vast majority of Indian farmers are dependent on local seed supply and exchange. This process, being low key appears to be lacking in technical know how, but has resulted in conserving the enormous diversity of crops through centuries. However, the introduction of modern technology through green revolution has led to decimation of seed diversity in crops like wheat and rice. Both the public and private seed developers are keen to breed those varieties that respond to intensive chemical and pesticide inputs. This trend of corporate seed control will ultimately destroy the remaining biodiversity in food crops.

The Corporate lobby is so influential that it can easily penetrate into the highest decision making process in any country. The lure of making windfall profits from sale of agricultural seeds in a country like India is making agri-business desperate. They have tasted success in the accelerated sales of bt cotton, where Monsanto and its associate companies reaped huge benefits over the last five years. In the process India lost 90 percent of the local cotton seed diversity.

Emboldened by the bt cotton experience, the corporations know that much more money can be earned from cereal crops like rice and wheat. This is the logic behind them launching the attack through bt brinjal to enter into the food crops.

Seed is the basis for food sovereignty. It is only through the control of our seeds that we will be able reach the goal of food security. The passing of the Food Security Act will have no meaning if we do not have the freedom over our seeds and inputs to grow our crops. But do our policymakers who daydream to remove hunger through legislation understand the severity of war over seeds?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Jairam is not so green

By Gaurav Sharma
25 Apr 2010

Under attack from his colleagues for delaying development projects, Jairam Ramesh gets unprecedented support from environment activists for his green agenda. However, the facts disclose that he is not yet willing to change the environmentally destructive development philosophy of his government.

Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Environment and Forests (E&F), who received bouquets and brickbats in equal measure from media, scientists, and fellow ministers for imposing moratorium on commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in February this year, has once again come under attack for alleged slow pace of environmental clearance of development projects proposed by other ministries.

Environment activists, who are quite impressed by the recent pronouncements of the E&F minister, have responded by mobilising support in favour of Mr Ramesh. But a detailed analysis of the data of forest clearances approved by the MoEF since Mr Ramesh has taken its charge reveals figures which could silence both the pro-Ramesh and anti-Ramesh forces.

Last month, three cabinet ministers, Road Transport Minister Kamal Nath, Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Water Resource Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal complained to the Prime Minister that Ramesh’s ministry was delaying environment clearances for key infrastructure projects.

Consequently, PM had to step in and ask the Planning Commission to formulate a procedure that will help put environment clearances on a fast-track. Although Mr Ramesh may be becoming unpopular in his cabinet, he has earned accolades from environment activists for his stand on some of the environmentally sensitive projects.

His several decisions in recent months to cancel, postpone or downsize projects perceived to be harmful to environment have made him an unlikely hero of environment activists and nature lovers. So much so that many of the activists who have been severest of critics of successive governments’ environment and development policies have recently written letters to the Prime Minister and Congress Party president showering praise on Jairam Ramesh and requesting the PM to let him work freely as the custodian of India’s environment and forests.

However, his earnest approach towards protection and conservation of forests has not always been the same. Perhaps, the minister realized the widespread scepticism among enlightened citizens towards working of E&F ministry after holding public consultations on Bt brinjal which eventually led him to put moratorium on it in February 2010. The post moratorium praise heaped on him by people probably played a crucial role in re-alignment of priorities by the articulate and sensitive minister.

If we look at the MoEF figures of forest clearances for various projects in 2009, it is evident that Jairam Ramesh was quite liberal in giving permission for clearing forests for infrastructure projects in the first 6-7 months of his tenure as E&F minister. Though, his approach is more conservative now but still he continues to take pride in clearing most of infrastructure projects coming to his ministry.

In an interview to an English newspaper few days back, Mr Ramesh himself disclosed, “Before I came here I also subscribed to the general theology that environment and forest clearances can be speeded up. If you had asked me then, I would have also said, push comes to shove, projects could have been cleared faster. But having come here and seen the system and multiple stakeholders involved and the need to look at long term issues...”

After assuming office on May 22, 2009, Jairam Ramesh cleared 13642.99 hectares of forests for various projects by 31st December 2009. In addition to that, 55339.95 hectares were removed from the list of forest areas and allotted to cultivation and habitation areas in Ropar district of Punjab. In comparison, a significantly lesser forest area of 7597.52 hectares was cleared by his predecessor during January to May 2009, before Mr Ramesh was given the task to protect India’s forests.

Out of 13642.99 hectares of cleared forests between June and December 09, Kamal Nath’s ministry (Road and Transport) received the lion’s share. Mr Ramesh allowed clearing of 2202.382 hectares of forests to construct roads and highways. It is another matter that Mr Nath’s ministry has not even been able to reach the halfway mark of his ambitious projections made in 2009.

Of late, the E&F ministry has woken up to the cause of illegal mining. Jairam Ramesh, in his new avatar as anti-mining green crusader, imposed a moratorium on mining activities in Goa. Sadly, this decision came far too late to reduce the impact of mining and was taken only after the minister came under severe criticism for failing to protect Goa.

The moratorium on mining in Goa was followed by a wider study jointly conducted by the E&F and coal ministries, which found that as much as 35% of coal mines are located in ‘no go’ zones’. Though Mr Ramesh might have expressed shock over these findings but it was under his instructions the E&F ministry divested 3812.092 hectares of forests for the purpose of mining activities within a span of seven months (June to Dec 2009). What environmentalists do not know is that during the first five months of the year 2009, his predecessor gave permission for clearing only 1133 hectares forest area for mining purposes.

The E&F ministry under Mr Ramesh, during the seven month period (Jun-Dec 09), also cleared 1250.509 hectares of forest area for the purpose of generating power, even if it led to massive deforestation.

The states which incurred maximum loss in terms of forest areas due to liberal clearances by Mr Ramesh are Orissa, Gujarat and Chattisgarh.

Orissa, abundant in natural resources and one of the dream destinations of mining giants, tops the chart where 2805.563 hectares of forests were destroyed during the first few months of environment friendly minister’s tenure.

While 1102.167 hectares of forest area was cleared in Gujarat; Chhattisgarh witnessed the diversion of 910.515 hectares for the so called development projects. Out of this figure of 910.5 hectares, 883.22 hectares of forests were sacrificed only for mining. In comparison only 323 hectares of forest area was cleared in the Maoist affected Chhattisgarh from January to May 2009 before Jairam Ramesh took the charge at MoEF. Similar figures for other states also reveal that initially Mr Ramesh was more liberal in granting environment clearances than his predecessors.

But, for the past few months, since public consultations on Bt brinjal took place, in fact from January 2010, the minister has been treading the path cautiously in giving forest clearances to the infrastructure projects.

Consequently, this sudden transformation in the approach of E&F ministry under Mr Ramesh has come under attack for stalling the infrastructure projects of different ministries lately.

However, it would be naïve to conclude that an environmentally enlightened Jairam Ramesh is reversing the trend.

From January 2010 till date, road and transportation ministry has already been allocated 438.6405 hectares of forests in comparison to 2202.382 hectares cleared between June and December 2009.

Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had also complained about Ramesh’s anti-development drive. But the forest area cleared for power projects during his tenure is much higher than the area cleared from January to May 09.

Of late, mining seems to be the utmost concern of Ramesh as he put a hold on the mining activities in Goa. But the forest area cleared for mining during the first three months of this year is not negligible either. In comparison to the 3812.092 hectares cleared between June and December 2009, the favourite minister of environmentalists has given a go-ahead to clear 471.669 hectare forests till now.

But, Jairam Ramesh, the chief strategist of ruling party during the last two parliamentary elections, knows well to impress people with big words and little actions without altering the agenda set by his leaders in the party and the government. As if overcome by guilt for being blamed for stalling development projects, he exclaimed in the recent interview, “With a rate of acceptance of over 95% for environmental clearances and 85% for forest clearance how can you say we are stopping economic growth?”

Sunday, April 25, 2010

India asleep over asbestos risks

By Krishnendu Mukherjee
23 Apr 2010

World over, for long, asbestos is known as being dangerous to human health. However, India, a dumping ground for asbestos, has no effective protection or restitution available.

Vasu Narayan Pujari worked for Hindustan Ferodo Limited for forty years. When he retired he was given a certificate commemorating his long service with the Company and asbestosis with an eighty percent disability. Asbestosis is an incurable disease affecting the lungs of people exposed to asbestos, a mineral which because of its unusual properties has widely been used globally in the manufacture of diverse materials from cement to textiles.

Exposure to asbestos can also cause malignant lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer strongly associated with asbestos exposure. Vasu Pujari is one of over a hundred ex-workers of Hindustan Ferodo Ltd, a former brake-lining company in Mumbai which closed in 2006, who are claiming compensation for asbestos-related diseases. If settled, it will be the largest asbestos claim in India's history.

Whilst this is certainly welcome news for the affected workers themselves, the figures illustrate the woeful lack of compensation provided for asbestosis-related diseases in India. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, estimated that there are nearly seven thousand workers with asbestos-related diseases in India. However, given the lack of proper monitoring by statutory authorities, the healthy worker effect (where those who have difficulty in working because of illness are simply dismissed), and the large number of undocumented workers working with asbestos, the figure is likely to be much higher.

Over one hundred thousand workers working with asbestos in India are likely to be at risk. A recent application under the Right to Information Act 2005, filed by the Corporate Accountability Desk, reveals that over the last twenty years only fifty-three workers have been compensated for asbestos-related diseases under the Employees' State Insurance Act 1948, the statutory scheme for the compensation of low-paid workers for personal injury or disease derived through employment. This clearly indicates the huge gap between the number of workers who sustain asbestos-related diseases through the negligence of their employers, and those who are ultimately compensated.

The legal provisions for compensation themselves may also shed some light on these figures. The Employees' State Insurance Act is a piece of welfare legislation which was enacted in the post-war period, on the lines of similar laws in the UK at the time, in order to provide protection to workers. Asbestosis and lung cancer were added as occupational diseases, for which compensation could be claimed, under the Act in 1985. The Government, however, failed to amend the Act so that those who had left their employment with a company, in addition to those currently employed, could also claim compensation. In the case of asbestos-related diseases this is a major injustice. Asbestosis has a normal latency period of 10-20 years, whilst mesothelioma has a latency period of 20-40 years. Therefore, many workers will have left their employment either voluntarily, or as part of the "healthy worker effect", without these diseases being diagnosed.

Further, under an alternative scheme for obtaining compensation under the Workers' Compensation Act 1923, a claimant can be embroiled in the labour courts for many years in his/her struggle for compensation against the previous employer. For instance, a case lodged in 2004 in the Bandra labour court against Hindustan Composites Limited, the successor to Hindustan Ferodo, has been blighted by delays with no end in sight. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court holding in the case of Consumer Education & Research Centre v Union of India, that companies would be strictly liable for causing asbestos-related diseases to their employees, most companies are going scot-free.

Whilst the use of asbestos has been banned in many countries, including the European Union since 2006, India is importing and using asbestos in higher quantities, with the number of factory units using asbestos rising steadily. A related issue, is the fact that there is very little monitoring being done by statutory authorities on where imported asbestos is being used, or the effects of its use on workers.

The Rotterdam Convention 2004, which India bought into force in 2005, has prescribed five forms of asbestos which should undergo the Prior Informed Consent procedure. This procedure requires Convention signatories to provide national risk evaluations and any information on regulatory actions taken. However, in reply to a Right to Information Act request filed in October 2009 to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (the regulatory Ministry from the importation of asbestos), the Ministry admitted to: "not maintaining the list of importers of asbestos, country of originator of asbestos, and manufacturer of asbestos etc". Correspondingly, it is apparent that without such information no proper risk evaluation, nor decisions on regulatory action, can be undertaken.

All this can only lead to one, rather depressing, conclusion. India has become a dumping ground for a substance which has been known to the world since the 1930's as being dangerous to human health, and there is still no effective protection or restitution available. As Vasu Pujari knows, as he gasps for air at every step, a country which ignores its "asbestos time-bomb" today, will repent at its leisure.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reduced to a ritual

By Pandurang Hegde
21 Apr 2010

The true spirit of Earth Day is to live in harmony with nature as older civilizations have lived for thousands of years.

On April 22, 2010 millions of people around the world will take pledge to protect Earth and participate in numerous activities to help rescue the wounded Earth. This massive public action is bound to raise awareness about the grave condition of the planet that gave birth to human beings and continue producing and providing for innumerable other species. While many people may get involved in personal actions to save Earth through direct actions, however, the political and business leaders would only pay lip service, like every year, towards rescuing Earth.

A long time conservationist and US senator Gaylord Nelson launched the idea of Earth Day in 1970. The main objective was to demonstrate nationwide concern for environment protection and to shake the political set up to initiate action.

The idea of Earth Day originated in a conference held in Seattle. Ironically the initiators of the idea had no clue that a representative of the original inhabitants of the United States, the Red Indian Chief from Seattle pronounced the testament to protect the Mother Earth two centuries before the idea originated. He said "Earth is our mother, not an enemy to be conquered. The white man treats his mother, Earth and his brother sky, as the things to be bought, plundered and sold like sheep. His appetite will devour Earth and leave behind only a desert."

Unfortunately, the wisdom of the Red Indian Chief has been ignored time and again and we continue to pillage Earth to meet our greed and leave behind the deserts through our unending appetite for materialistic development.

For those who are part of the ancient civilizations that survived for several thousand years, every day is an Earth Day in which the respect for the nature was the foundation for all the actions. The ones who neglected these basics could not survive for long. We have ample examples from Mohenjo-daro and Harappan civilizations to Incas. In contrast to these ancient civilizations that survived for several centuries, the industrial civilization has not even passed the test of three centuries. Within such a short lifespan it has created immense problems with global implications, threatening the existence of other life forms on Earth, including that of the human being.

Earth Day indicates the global celebrations and commitment to conserve environment. It has been able to satisfy the need to evolve a new ritual to celebrate, to elicit response from common people towards protecting nature. In the four decades of its existence, it has also been endorsed by the industry and the worldwide media. In the process, it has got reduced to a symbolic act. In reality, the political implications of decision making to destroy the natural resources take precedence over this symbolic act.

The epidemic of "affluenza" has engulfed the better off sections form both developed and developing countries. The high GDP growth, projected as a panacea for underdevelopment, is leading to unprecedented levels of material accumulation and over consumption leading to environmental and social disintegration. The overemphasis on economic growth model of development requires extracting increasing amount of natural resources. According to an estimate, it is 60 billion ton annually, or like consuming 112 Empire State Buildings every day! More than half of the extraction of the resources takes place in Asia, causing major social and environmental disruptions. The recent upheavals in the resource rich hinterland of Bastar and Odisha indicate the pillaging of natural resources for sacrifice at the altar of economic growth.

These glaring facts do not move the common man to act; neither do they motivate the world leaders to find a sustainable path to development. The failure of Copenhagen is a clear indication of parochial mind of our leaders, the fixation they have to continue extracting natural resources to meet the needs of the affluent sections and nations.

Under these circumstances, it seems Earth Day launched four decades back has had very little impact at the highest political levels, both where it originated as well as in other parts of the world.

This also indicates how globalisation invents new rituals like Earth Day, to replace the culturally rooted traditional rituals like "Bhoomie Hunnimme", Earth Day celebrated in some parts of Karnataka on a full moon day in which the farmers worship Earth for bountiful harvest. Similarly in Bastar region, the tribals perform "Surhul" or "Mati Puja" means Earth Worship. As we become global netizens, we find new ways to celebrate, and with media blitz, it becomes a trend, where eliminating older rituals is a non-issue.

The true spirit of Earth Day is to live in harmony with nature, attempting to tread carefully, with the minimal ecological foot prints to leave behind. However, those indigenous societies who practice this ideology are termed and treated as "primitive" and their beliefs are getting shattered by the high consumption models of development. The first step to protect Earth is to live simply. Can we take a pledge for that on this Earth Day?

(The use of the phrase 'the earth' has been avoided so as not to give an impression that we are separate from Earth: Ed.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Portfolios of the Poor

A book review by Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma

Poor know how to survive

Else, there would be no poor in the world. The fact that there are poor and that their number is consistently growing has been systematically diagnosed in Portfolios of the Poor. From household maid to young car washer and from ubiquitous rickshaw puller to malnourished watchman, there are any number of them around us who survive on less than $2 a day and constitute about 40 per cent of the world's poor. The authors contend that if you've never had to survive on an income so small, it is hard to imagine how they do.

Over a period of six years, the authors maintained annual financial diaries of some 300 households in villages and slums in India, South Africa and Bangladesh to unravel the financial complexities of the lives of the poor. The diaries reveal that most poor households do not live hand to mouth because they rarely consume every penny of what they earn, knowing well that they don't literally earn $2 every day.

The book brings out incredible financial wisdom of the poor. Not having enough money may not be bad, not able to manage whatever money they have is worse. The hard evidence collected through diaries dispels several common notions on poverty, mocking at policy planners who do not see poverty beyond the conventional cause-effect paradigm. No wonder, the anti-poverty strategies have rarely worked to alleviate poverty.

Through painstaking research, Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch and their co-authors Staurt Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven provide fresh perspective on looking at poverty alongside new methods to fight it.

more book reviews@

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Not so well-intentioned welfare

By Sudhirendar Sharma
12 Apr 2010

In Well Done Abba, Shyam Benegal deals with the serious issue of political economy in an entertaining way and leaves the viewer thinking about the manner our welfare machinery works.

'Well Done Abba' is a satire on govt machinery and its welfare activities

The art of film making may have gone through dramatic transformation but Shyam Benegal continues to use the medium to narrate aesthetically embroidered versions of real life incidents. Since his directorial debut with Ankur in the early seventies, Benegal has used the license of fiction to reflect life's pleasures and pains on the celluloid ever since. Transforming himself into a raconteur, Benegal now applies comic capital to meaningful cinema that he has stood for all his life. The end product is Well Done Abba, his latest film that is ingeniously crafted into an authentic narrative.

If Ankur was a study of multilayered human relationships, Well Done Abba examines ruthless political hierarchies. While Ankur detailed the brutal face of the feudal system, Well Done Abba unfolds the political economy of development. There are glaring similarities in the two narratives, as both focus on power and privilege albeit their misuse. Benegal uses hard hitting satire to take on the entire government machinery - politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, cops - but avoids going overboard with hysteria. The script is paced on real life, gentle but persuasive.

Millions of poor who seek sops may have gone through what Armaan Ali (Boman Irani) experiences as he attempts to build a well on his own land under a government 'below poverty line' scheme. Sucked into the system before he even realizes, Armaan submits to its nefarious designs only to find that the 'well' exists on paper and that it's 'water' has been tasted sweet by none other than the village sarpanch who happens to be a 'woman'. Isn't this a familiar tale of the systemic malaise that precludes the percolation effects of development that are primarily targeted to woo the electorate?

Familiarity does breed contempt but not when Benegal narrates a breezy comic story on screen. The characters are indeed colorful and vibrant, be it Armaan's funky firebrand daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba) or his slithery sister-in-law Salma (Ila Arun); and be his unfunny twin-brother Rehman (Boman Irani) or a decent local mechanic Arif (Samir Dattani). The characters, troubled or shattered by their past, vibrate with life whenever they begin to relate to each other. The rest of the ensemble cast is unexpectedly drawn together in recreating a microcosm of the nation in the village.

The well, which exists in false documents and fake photographs, is reported as stolen in a bizarre sequence of events. It creates a political storm with its gutsy winds sweeping the corridors of powers. The knee-jerk reaction does get the elusive well dug overnight where none existed but not before a political capital is made out of it. As in real life, no cog in the well-oiled wheel of development is reprimanded for the stolen well. Instead, the self-perpetuating system shamelessly showers recognitions on each of its members for restoring normalcy albeit temporary.

The film is a sheer delight, a must for urban multiplex audiences who somehow believe that all is well with the poor and that the dichotomy between 'India' and 'Bharat' is a work of fertile imagination. The welfare bits of welfare pronouncements rarely if ever reach the real people. Benegal's characters go through the daily ordeal of getting their legitimate share of development, only to be confronted with all that's absurd, weird, dishonest and ironic in officialdom. However, the film stops short of being preachy; leaving the viewer to imagine the implications.

Shyam Benegal uses the potent force of symbolism to convey compelling messages. 'Today they have stolen our well, tomorrow we'll be robbed of our rivers only to survive on bottled water,' pronounces perky Muskaan. Situation like the one in Chikatpalli village alone can fuel the proverbial water war! In a contrasting sequence, the socio-psychology of materialistic aspiration is unleashed by unrelenting wife on the honest cop. Each of the characters in Well Done Abba thus confronts duality of the situation, one within and the other outside. The sub-plots and sub-themes are engrossing.

Set in rural Andhra Pradesh, the film unfolds like a gentle symphony - allowing its characters to evolve and respond to the emerging challenges. The script nurtures each character to grow up and contribute to the desired change. For revolution to occur, each individual must first rebel against self and its entrenched surroundings. The father-daughter duo of Armaan Ali and Muskaan perform their roles to perfection, combining their individual rebellion to bring about transformation. Though Well Done Abba tests the patience of its proponents, it doesn't allow pent-up frustrations to flare.

Nephew of the legendary Guru Dutt and a former Ad Filmmaker, Benegal keeps the ribs relentlessly tickling as he narrates the crises in planned development with creative finesse. Well Done Abba is wholesome entertainment, conveying contemporary challenges on the canvas of meaningful cinema. Only a master craftsman like Shyam Benegal could take a subtle pot shot at the system.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Non-alignment with violence

By S. G. Vombatkere
06 Apr 2010

As war between Maoists and government forces intensify, it is not a crime to underscore the futility of violent methods to agitate and to curb agitations.

Between the violent paths chosen by the State and the Maoists,
there lies a non-violent option

In a charge sheet against Kobad Gandhi produced by the Delhi Police in the Tees Hazari Courts, New Delhi, on 18 February 2010, besides naming few individuals, some organizations like People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) are named. It is quite strange that governments treat members of PUCL and PUDR as members, collaborators or sympathisers of Maoist, Naxalite or other militant groups.

This possibility needs to be examined in terms of whether it is possible for a socially responsible position to exist, which supports neither the militancy of certain groups of people, nor the government response to militancy with the use of police and military fire-power.

It cannot be ignored that a high-power committee set up in 2006 by the Planning Commission of India, ascribed growing Naxalism to people's discontent and failure of governance, and showed a direct relationship between extremism and poverty. It also recommended that "public purpose" for land acquisition should be limited to national security and public welfare. Clearly, that opinion and recommendation have found a place in the capacious waste bins of government, because the RR Bill and the LA Amendment Bill do not reflect those concerns.

It is well known that the lands and forests occupied peacefully by tribal people are rich in minerals and that MNCs have an eye on exploiting that mineral wealth. At the same time, that exploitation, willy-nilly combined with exploitation of the occupant tribal people through their forced displacement, adds to the nation's GDP, and puts India on a 'growth path' to become a "regional superpower". Forceful displacement and exploitation is nothing but economic violence being wrought upon hapless tribal people.

It is pertinent to note that while there are no official figures, Dr. Walter Fernandes, a noted scholar, gives some idea of the magnitude of displacement. He indicates that between 1947 and 2004, about 60 million people were displaced forcibly and 40% of them are people of the Scheduled Tribes. Compared to 50 million Africans displaced over 200 years by slave-trading Europeans, 60 million Indians displaced in 59 years and that too within and by an independent, democratic nation in the name of development, is shameful beyond description.

Violence begets violence. When governments wreak economic violence upon people by displacing them for industrial projects causing loss of land and livelihood, they cannot resist or respond with economic force since they have none. They protest, agitate, demonstrate and physically resist the occupation of their land by the industry. These protests do turn violent when their point of view is not properly considered or even heard. Whether the protesters or the police started the physical violence, the first cause is economic violence by government that has led to the situation.

The perpetrators of economic violence are primarily corporate interests which have enormous and proximate influence in the highest levels of governments. These interests ensure that they receive official go-ahead for their projects which, in almost all cases, involve the acquisition of land for a "public purpose", land on which poor and marginalized people subsist. These project-affected families (PAFs) have little or no means to argue or represent their case in the corridors of a geographically distant and corporate-favouring government. It is commonly observed that elected representatives, whether or not they are from the ruling party in government, rarely if ever take up the cause of PAFs. In recent times PAFs have been frequently led by some educated members of their group or by intellectuals motivated by notions of social justice or human rights.

However, the involvement of intellectuals is not only for PAFs, but extends to social or physical violence by "upper castes" against dalits, atrocities against women, attacks on religious communities, child-exploitation, etc., under the rubric of human rights or civil liberties. There are organizations that have been formed to uphold and protect the constitutional rights and privileges of all sections of people, especially human rights and civil liberties. These organizations have been formed under the constitutionally granted right of freedom of speech and expression and freedom to form association under Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(c) respectively, and they function under the constitutionally prescribed fundamental duties under Article 51A(e) to promote harmony and Article 51A(i) to abjure violence.

Gandhiji preached and practiced non-violence and is recognized internationally as its apostle. He demonstrated ahimsa by example in his personal life, with the conviction and courage of truth (satya), often through satyagraha. He did not restrict his idea of ahimsa to the physical plane but generalized it to other spheres including the economic and political. In today's India there are people who, though they may not be followers of Gandhiji's doctrine of ahimsa, believe that violence is wrong and counter-productive. And they speak against all forms of violence - social, economic, environmental, political, physical - since ultimately it is the weak who are the victims.

It is unfortunate that governments do not understand the oft-repeated position of human rights and other social activists, that standing against violence does not mean sympathy with or support for militant groups, that there is a third position which is equidistant from both sides of the conflict, and that the position of "if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us" is deeply flawed in the common law and social senses.

Equally unfortunate, speaking against violence and in favour of peaceful negotiations is interpreted by government as opinions of misguided peaceniks at best, or as overt or clandestine collaboration with militants. Today, governments are openly adopting policies of up-scaling police and military fire-power based on intelligence using the latest hi-tech from the military-industrial complexes of the world.

In matters such as the militancy and terrorism that are presently rife, many people fear that governments' policy that militancy (caused by decades-long neglect and misgovernance) should be crushed by the use of police and military firepower, will make presently bad situations worse. Such people take the so-called third position, standing apart from the "if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us" position, and in favour of peace and harmony.

Naturally, the third position is all about finding solutions of the problems within constitutional framework and with non-violent and peaceful negotiations. But as casualties from both sides rise in the ongoing operations, voices for peace will get obscured under the cacophony of gun battles.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Challenges increase as WSF turns ten

By d-sector Team
05 Apr 2010

Social activists all over the world are celebrating completion of ten years of the World Social Forum (WSF) that was launched in June 2000, at the Alternative Social Summit in Geneva, and had its first meeting from 25 January to 30 January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

To continue with its tradition of de-centralisation of the movement, in its tenth year the WSF will have series of events spread over 12 months, with activities being held throughout the world.

The idea for the WSF germinated out of the desire to organise a meeting of anti-globalization social movements, parallel to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, an annual meeting point for the beneficiaries of the capitalist model of economic growth and development. The WSF was conceived as providing alternatives to the guidelines of the WEF.

Since 2001, UNESCO has been a regular participant in the WSF and views it as a "prime opportunity for dialogue and a laboratory of ideas for the renewal of public policies" through "critical reflection on the future of societies we want to create and for elaborating proposals in search of solidarity, justice, peace and human rights".

In terms of popularity and participation, the WSF has been going from strength to strength since 2001. However, in the last ten years, the world and its many concerns have changed and the WSF has far greater challenges before it, but lesser political and media impact.

To read complete article follow the link.

Overhaul policies that acerbate hunger

By Devinder Sharma
31 Mar 2010

India has several programmes to fight hunger but none has been effective. Unless we change the policies responsible for poverty and spread of hunger, National Food Security Act would become another piece of legislation incapable of making any difference to those who live in hunger and penury.

Hunger is more widespread in India than its middle class believes

In 2009, IFPRI ranked India 66th in Global Hunger Index for 88 countries. Hunger multiplied at a time when we had the bogus Public Distribution System operative, made more efficient by the addition of the prefix 'targetted', and we also had the office of Food Commissioner (set up in response to a petition in Supreme Court) monitoring the food distribution supplies. Hunger and malnutrition grew at a time when we had more anganwadis set up, and more schools being provided with mid-day meals.

Now, the government is proposing a National Food Security Bill to ensure that every poor family gets a minimum of 35 kg of foodgrains at Rs 3/kg. But, can we remove hunger by distributing cheap ration among poor through PDS? The answer is a big NO.

Hunger needs more than PDS ration, and that is where we are failing to focus on. Even the Right to Food campaign has failed to see beyond the entitlements, and its approach is no different from what the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Food has been recommending. Unless we remove the structural causes that acerbate hunger, and most of these relate to agriculture and management of natural resources, India would not be able to make any significant difference in reducing hunger.

Failure of delivery system

Hunger is basically outcome of our wrong policies and our inability to accept that the delivery system is not delivering. At present more than 20 government programmes exist to fight hunger and to provide food and nutritional security. These programs run by various Ministries range from Mid-day Meal Programme to National Food Security Mission, and Antyodaya Anna Yojna to Annapoorna Yojna.

However, despite such impressive programmes already running, and increased budget allocation for these every year, the poor still go hungry. The number of hungry and impoverished has increased with every passing year. UNICEF tells us that more than 5000 children die every day in India from malnourishment.

Therefore, to add another couple of schemes to the existing lot is certainly not going to make it any better for the hungry. Nor a mere tinkering of the approach will help. Replacing the ration cards for the PDS allocations with food stamps is one such misplaced initiative. If we persist with such borrowed ideas, hunger will continue to multiply.

I am a strong supporter of the right-based approach to fight hunger. But another piece of legislation that enshrines Right to Food as the basic human right is not going to make any difference to those who live in hunger and penury, and to the millions who are added to this dreaded list year after year. Right to Food cannot be ensured by simply ensuring on paper half the food entitlements (which has even failed to reach the needy) that a human body needs for normal human activity and growth.

Knowing that the existing programmes and projects have failed to make any appreciable dent, it is high time the opportunity provided by the proposed National Food Security Act be utilised in a realistic manner. It is a great opportunity, and we will let down the nation if we fail to bring about a radical overhaul of the existing approach to fight hunger. The entire debate has to therefore shift from the hands of a few bureaucrats and self-appointed experts who have monopolised any decision-making on hunger. It has to be taken to the nation, through a series of regional deliberations.

Poverty line

First and foremost, the time has come to draw a realistic poverty line. The Tendulkar Committee has suggested that 37 per cent of our population is living in poverty. Arjun Sengupta Committee had said that 77 per cent of the population (or 836 million people) is able to spend not more than Rs 20/day. Justice D P Wadhwa Committee has now recommended that anyone earning less than Rs 100 a day should be considered below the poverty line.

Knowing that India has one of the most stringent poverty line in the world, I think the fault begins by accepting the faulty projections. During Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's tenure, Planning Commission had even lowered the poverty estimates from 37 per cent to 19 per cent. Poverty estimates were restored back when the new Planning Commission took over. I am sure if we had persisted with the same poverty line of 19 per cent (in the beginning of 1990s), India would have banished hunger in official records by now.

But the tragedy is that none of the numerous committees, economic surveys and even the Supreme Court's advisory body on Right to Food had highlighted the dire need to change the poverty line to a more meaningful figure if the issue of growing hunger has to be nipped in the bud.

It doesn't help in continuing with faulty estimates. I therefore suggest that India should have two lines demarcating the percentage of absolute hungry and malnourished from those who are not so hungry. The Suresh Tendulkar Committee suggestion of 37 per cent should be taken as the new Hunger line, which needs low-cost food grains as an emergency entitlement. In addition, the Arjun Sengupta committee's cut-off at 77 per cent should be the new Poverty line.

Once we have set these criteria, the approach for tackling absolute hunger and poverty would be different.

Zero Hunger

Like in Brazil, the time has come when India needs to formulate a Zero Hunger programme. This should aim at a differential approach. I see no reason why people should go hungry in the villages, which produce enough food for the country year after year. These villages have to be made hunger-free by adopting a community-based localised food grain bank scheme. I agree with Ela Bhatt when she says that the village needs should be met from within a 100-km radius.

In the urban centres and the food deficit areas, a universal public distribution system is required. The existing PDS system also requires to be overhauled. Also, there is a dire need to involve social and religious organisations in food distribution. They have done a remarkable job in cities like Bangalore, and there are lessons to be imbibed.

Food for all

It is often argued that the government cannot foot the bill for feeding each and every Indian. This is far from true. Estimates have shown that the country would require 60 million tonnes of foodgrains (@35 kg per family) if it follows a Universal Public Distribution System. In other words, Rs. 1.10 lakh crore is required to feed the nation for a year.

The proposed National Food Security bill actually reduced the family food intake that has to be supplied through the public distribution system (PDS) from 35 kg to 25 kg per family. To the BPL families, the 25 kg of foodgrains will be supplied at Rs. 3 per kg, which means in actual terms the government has very cleverly reduced the food subsidy.

From the projected allocation of Rs. 56,000 crore for 2010-11, the expenditure on food will come down to an estimated Rs. 25,428 crore. What a shame! In a country, which fares much worse than sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to hunger and malnutrition, the government is trying to save money instead of fighting hunger.

The government somehow gives an impression that the country does not have the money to feed the hungry. Nothing can be further away from truth. If the government could provide Rs. 3.5 lakh crore as economic stimulus to the industry (actually the industry did not need it), and also provide for Rs. 5 lakh crore as revenue foregone in the 2010-11 fiscal, which are the sops and tax concessions to the industry and business, how can the government say it has no money. The annual Budget exercise is of roughly Rs. 11 lakh crores. Which means, the government is subsidising industrialists almost 50 per cent of it by way of direct sops, in addition to the what is provided in the Budget itself. The support by way of 'revenue foregone' is basically 'under the table' payment, since it lies outside the Budget allocations.

I suggest that Rs. 3 lakh crore from the 'revenue foregone' be immediately withdrawn. This should provide resources for feeding the hungry, and also for ensuring assured supply of safe drinking water plus sanitation. In addition to wheat and rice, the food allocation should also include nutritious coarse cereals and pulses.

Policy changes

But all this is not possible, unless some other policy changes are introduced to put the emphasis on long-term sustainable farming, and to stop land acquisitions and privatisation of natural resources. We need policies that ensure food for all for all times to come. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is a great economic loss resulting from the inability of the manpower to undertake economic activities. The debate on the proposed National Food Security Bill provides us an excellent opportunity to recast the economic map of India in such a way that makes hunger history.

Are we ready?