New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

27 February, 2009

Gujarat: seven years on, major concerns still to be addressed

Fr. Cedric Prakash, SJ, Director of PRASHANT, Ahmedabad based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace, writes:

It’s exactly seven years since Gujarat witnessed one of the worst horrendous chapters of Indian history. The burning of the S6 compartment of the Sabarmati Express at the Godhra Railway Station and the subsequent carnage has left an indelible impact on the lives of many. Plenty has happened since 2002 and many indeed would like to move on.....even perhaps, to forget that 2002 ever existed !!! The fact however, remains, that the Gujarat Carnage was not only too traumatic for words but right from day one, there has neither been a political will nor a concerted civil society movement to address it.

Seven years down the road, there are still major concerns which have to be addressed immediately. These include:

Justice:

Thousands of victims still yearn for justice. Some of them want to get on with life but they really are unable to do so since they still know nothing about their loved ones who are “missing” since those horrific days. Many still yearn for a just compensation for the loss of life and property.

Rehabilitation:
Total rehabilitation is fundamental for normalcy. Many of the victims look forward to the possibility of going back to live and work in a place they once called “home”; they would like to live as a matter of right, anywhere in Gujarat, without fear of discrimination and / or ostracization.

Freedom from illegal detention:

Several Muslim youth were detained under the draconian POTA. In spite of POTA being repealed and Supreme Court Judgments negating these illegal confinements, they have still not been granted bail.

Access to basic amenities:

Vast sections of the minority population still live in dehumanizing conditions. In the wake of the Gujarat Carnage, many of them were provided hurriedly constructed shelters in areas which have no access to clean drinking water or primary health care.

Attitudinal change:

Our city, our State have become extremely polarized. There has to be a paradigm shift in the attitude of a large section of people. Biases and prejudices seem to be mainstreamed. Civil society is either too apathetic or too afraid to come out and take a stand for what is right. Most do not want to have a minority as neighbours. Minorities are consistently stereotyped and made the butt of ridicule.

The aura of Immunity:

In spite of being named by various Commissions (both national and international), investigation teams and others, the main perpetrators of the Gujarat Carnage still remain scot-free with an aura of immunity. They cannot be touched, and their posturings communicate this.

Political will:

Ultimately, at the heart of any change is the political will to ensure that the rights and freedoms ensured in the Constitution are guaranteed and protected for every citizen. This political will cannot be reduced to cosmetic promises and mere rhetoric, but has to be seen in a very tangible desire to address and to change what is endemic.

Seven years down the line, the situation in Gujarat is far from normal. While a good part of the violence has been institutionalized, the fact remains to be seen is whether civil society will have the courage to usher in a new dawn by addressing some of these key concerns. Gujarat needs a change for the better!

Senior Citizens struggle to survive in California

LESLIE CASIMIR
New America Media

Editor’s Note: More than half of California’s elders are struggling to make ends meet, according to a new study. NAM Editor Leslie Casimir reports on the startling findings.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Thousands of older adults are skipping rent payments to buy groceries or prescription drugs. They are cutting their pills in half to make their medications last longer because Social Security benefits are not enough.

About half of California’s seniors are struggling to survive, according to a joint study released by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

The report, released Tuesday at a public hearing in Sacramento, says that nearly 47 percent of seniors who are 65 and older cannot make ends meet and are barred from certain social service programs.

Some 3.7 million elders were in California in 2007, according to the most up-to-date Census data.

Older women living on their own fare the worst, making up the bulk of this besieged population, or 72 percent. In addition, they are likely to be persons of color: Seven out of 10 Latino and African-American elders and six out of 10 Asian seniors are facing enormous economic hurdles, the report said.

“What this data shows us is that the situation of older adults demands public attention,” said Steven Wallace, professor of public health at UCLA, who co-wrote the study with Susan Smith, executive director at the Oakland, Calif.-based Insight. “These are people who have raised families, contributed to society, played by the rules, but got left with the short end of the stick.”

The UCLA report establishes a more realistic measure of poverty, coined the Elder Index, to demonstrate that older people who are not poor by federal poverty standards still don’t have enough to make ends meet.

The federal poverty line sets an antiquated threshold of $10,000 a year for individuals to qualify for food stamps and other welfare programs. Unadjusted since the 1950s, the federal poverty line measure does not apply to counties with much higher costs of living, such as San Francisco.

“If making $11,000 a year is above the poverty level, then something is wrong with this world,” said Hussain Sayfuddiyn, 68. Blind for most of his life, he annually collects roughly that amount in Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. He had to take a payday loan to move last month. He said he is now $400 in debt.

According to the authors’ calculations, a single adult living in San Francisco who makes $27, 435 is struggling – not thriving.

“Seniors are having to make untenable choices between putting food on the table or delaying paying rent a month so that they can pay the utility bills,” Smith said. “We were able to confirm all those anecdotes we have been hearing now with actual data.”

Wallace and Smith are calling for state legislators to pass legislation that would require local agencies to accurately identify the state’s neediest, doing away with the old poverty line threshold.

Peoria Lewis of Oakland is one of the many seniors forced to make tough choices every day.

If collard greens are not on sale, Lewis, 72, doesn’t buy them, she said. She cooks large portions of cheap food so that she can stretch meals throughout the month.

“I do what I have to do,” said Lewis, who collects $1,400 a month from Social Security, or $16,800 a year. “I cook a pot of beans, bag them, and freeze them up; I make a pot of soup, bag them, and put them in the freezer.”

Like most seniors, her biggest worry has been housing. Currently, she pays $500 a month in rent, but her building was recently sold. The new landlord wants to charge her $1,200 a month.

“I said ‘Oh Lord,’” said Lewis, a retired legal secretary.

Sitting in a corner in her apartment is a box filled with hospital bills for two recent surgeries that required co-payments. She owes more than $800, but can’t afford to make any payments.

“I don’t mind paying for it, but I got to find a job,” Lewis said. “And who is going to hire a 72-year-old?”

Leslie Casimir can be reached at lcasimir@newamericamedia.org

25 February, 2009

JNU Students Union leaders rusticated

Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) says in a press release:

JNUSU’s struggle against commercialisation and fee hikes reached a crucial stage today. This morning, JNU students peacefully blocked the sale of the JNU prospectus at the JNU Ad Block counter to protest the sharp 67% increase in the price of the prospectus. Within hours, show cause notices were issued by the JNU administration, and without even waiting for responses for the “show cause” notices, massive rustications have been handed out.

JNUSU President Sandeep Singh rusticated and declared out of bounds with immediate effect for 2 years (4 semesters)

Shephalika Shekhar (JNUSU Vice-President) rusticated and declared out of bounds with immediate effect for one year (2 semesters)

Mobeen Alam (JNUSU Joint Secretary) rusticated and declared out of bounds with immediate effect for one year

Roshan Kishore rusticated and declared out of bounds with immediate effect for one year

Renu Singh rusticated and declared out of bounds with immediate effect for one year

From an administration which is hell-bent on selling out campus spaces, and destroying the socially inclusive character of JNU, this remains their only tool to fulfil their designs to destroy JNU’s character. Over the past three weeks, we have seen how the JNU administration has repeatedly tried to evade dialogue, vacillate on its own promises, and indulge in double-speak. While the massive student pressure forced them to backtrack on some issues, the administration has stubbornly done everything possible to stonewall all meaningful dialogue on the important issue of prospectus fee hike.

The administration has announced a farcical “prospectus fee waiver” for students from BPL families; it is indeed a shame that no less than the Vice Chancellor of a University like JNU has come up with such an eye-wash of a scheme as a face-saving exercise to put on a “pro-poor” image.

“The student movement will have to rise to this occasion. It is a battle to defend the democratic rights of each of us. It is a battle against crass commercialisation which the administration has unleashed to destroy the cherished character of JNU. It is a battle to defend the rights of the poor and the marginalized on this campus. It is a battle to defend the rights of all those who dream of pursuing accessible higher education. It is a battle against a draconian administration, which is neck-deep into massive wasteful expenses of public money, which has been caught flouting all democratic norms of decision-making to meet their destructive ends. This battle must be fought and won with all our strength, otherwise JNU will not remain JNU,” said Sandeep Singh, President JNUSU.

If $ falls, so does US

If incompetence in Washington, the type of incompetence that produced the current economic crisis, destroys the dollar as reserve currency, the “unipower” will overnight become a third world country, unable to pay for its imports or to sustain its standard of living, warns Paul Craig Roberts, who was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, in an article titled “How the US economy was lost”.

Roberts’s article, distributed by Countercurrents.org, can be accessed here.

24 February, 2009

Dickens meets Bollywood in Slumdog Millionaire

In a radio interview with New America Media editor Sandip Roy, Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire, spoke of the making of the film, which NAM in a note describes as “the underdog that did make it to the top with eight Oscars”.

The text of the interview appears at the NAM website: “Dickens meets Bollywood in Slumdog Millionaire”.

You can also listen to the radio interview, if you so wish.

23 February, 2009

Plachimada agitation is 2,500 days old

The agitation by residents of Plachimada in Kerala’s Palakkad district and nearby villages against the multinational giant Coca Cola is 2,500 days old. It thus becomes the longest popular struggle in the State’s history.

The MNC set up the Plachimada plant in 1999. As the factory depleted and polluted their water sources, the villagers, mainly Adivasis, began an agitation on April 22, 2002, with a symbolic blockade and continuous picketing.

When the panchayats stepped in to protect the interests of the villagers, the company dragged it into costly legal proceedings that extended all the way to the Supreme Court.
Eventually, however, the company had to shut down the plant as the State Pollution Control Board and the panchayats refused licences for continued working.

Mylamma, an Adivasi woman who emerged as the leading spokesperson of the Adivasis, has since died.

Although expert committees have upheld the villagers’ contention that the company has polluted their water sources, the government has desisted from taking any punitive action against it.

Velur Swaminathan, Secretary, Plachimada Adivasi Samrakshana Sangham (Tribal Protection Council) and R. Ajayan, Convener, Plachimada Samara Aikyadardya Samithi (Agitation Solidarity Committee) last week wrote an Open Letter to former UN Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor taking exception to his association with the company as a member of the advisory board of Coca Cola India Foundation.

They listed the following charges against the company:

Coca Cola polluted the ground water with deadly toxic and carcinogenic cadmium and lead, which it has not listed under ‘raw materials’, and refused to provide an explanation for their presence.

Coca Cola distributed and spread the deadly toxic and carcinogenic cadmium and lead through its waste sludge and slurry, passing them off as good soil nutrients.

Coca Cola did not supply piped water to the affected families as ordered by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Waste.

Coca Cola, as the single largest extractor of ground water and largest transporter of water to other centres through soft drinks, a non-essential luxury good, made the most contribution to depletion of ground water.

It’s Slumdog Millionaire’s day – and India’s

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars, including those for Best Picture and Best Director, has catapulted three Indians, A. R. Rahman, Resul Pookutty and Gulzar, into the ranks of Oscar-winning movie celebrities.

Danny Boyle, Director of Slumdog Millionaire, with Rubina, a Mumbai slum child who was cast in the film, after he received the award for Best Director


Producer Christian Colson with the cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire after he received the award for the Best Picture


Danny Boyle and the Slumdog Millinaire team, including children from Mumbai slum, in a jubilant mood at the Oscar ceremony


A. R. Rahman (left) won two awards, one for Original Score and the other for Original Song, which he shared with Gulzar.

Resul Pokutty (picture below) shared the award for Sound Mixing with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke.

As Slumdog Millionaire took the world by storm, protests arose in India. There were noises of the sour grapes variety from Bollywood and criticism based on reasons other than cinematic from elsewhere. Some argued that the movie would give India a bad image.

Slumdog is, of course, not an Indian movie, but it is a movie about India. It is based on a work of fiction by an Indian author, and it was shot in Indian with Indians figuring prominently in the cast and in the crew.

The criticism that Slumdog shows India in a bad light is misplaced. It certainly depicts poverty, police torture, prostitution etc. But, then, they are not things which Danny Boyle conjured up. They are part of the Indian reality. Politicians and bureaucrats with censorial minds may want such unpleasant facts to be kept out, but the movie-maker must have the freedom to show them if his work demands it.

Slumdog is a well-made movie, and its overall impact is bound to be beneficial. For the message it conveys is a positive one of the triumph of the human spirit. As A. R. Rahman said, while accepting his award, the film transmits optimism and hope.

This message, which comes through strongly in the film, spread to the Oscar ceremony, too, when the film’s producer, Christian Colson, led the children from Mumbai slum along with the rest of the cast and crew.

Another Oscar winner was a documentary, Smile Pinki, which is in Hindi, and highlights the work of Dr Subodh Kumar Singh whose simple surgery turns poor children born with a cleft lip into smiling faces. It was produced and directed by Megan Mylan(picture on right), a San Francisco-based documentary maker.

22 February, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire" makers and distributors refute allegations

Danny Boyle and Christian Colson, producers of the film Slumdog Millionaire, have issued the following statement in answer to criticism about handling of the slum children who figure in the picture:

From the moment that we hired them and long before the press became interested in this story, we have paid painstaking and considered attention to how the involvement of Azhar and Rubina (picture above) in the film could be of lasting benefit to them over and above the payment they received for their work.

The children had never attended school, and in consultation with their parents we agreed that this would be our priority. Since June 2008 and at our expense, both kids have been attending school and they are flourishing under the tutelage of their dedicated and committed teachers. Financial resources have been made available for their education until they are 18. We were delighted to see them progressing well when we visited their school and met with their teachers last week.

In addition to their educational requirements, a fund is in place to meet their basic living costs, health care and any other emergencies.
Furthermore, as an incentive for them to continue to attend school, a substantial lump sum will be released to each child when they complete their studies. Taking into account all of the children s circumstances, we believe, that this is the right course of action.

Since putting in place these arrangements more than 12 months ago we have never sought to publicize them, and we are doing so now only in response to the questions raised recently in the press. We trust that the matter can now be put to bed, and we would request that the media respect the children’s privacy at this formative time in their lives.

In a separate statement, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox Star Studios and Pathe International, distributors of the film, said:


The welfare of Azhar and Rubina has always been a top priority for everyone involved with Slumdog Millionaire. A plan has been in place for over 12 months to ensure that their experience working on Slumdog Millionaire would be of long term benefit. For 30 days work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary. Last year after completing filming, they were enrolled in school for the first time and a fund was established for their future welfare, which they will receive if they are still in school when they turn 18. Due to the exposure and potential jeopardy created by the unwarranted press attention, we are looking into additional measures to protect Azhar and Rubina and their families. We are extremely proud of this film, and proud of the way our
child actors have been treated.

21 February, 2009

Report on Batla House encounter rips apart police stories

MUMTAZ ALAM FALAHI
TwoCircles.net

New Delhi: Full five months since the globally much publicized Batla House encounter, the mystery over it still remains as the police just confused the public and contradicted their old versions whenever they came up to explain what happened on that day. The much-awaited report on the shootout, rigorously prepared by a dedicated team of Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Group in the inspiring leadership of Manisha Sethi, just rips apart all police stories about the encounter.

The report, based on police statements, press reports, testimonies of families and friends of the accused, both dead and detained, and other documentary evidence, highlights the numerous contradictions in the police version(s) about the encounter and the accusations.

The 65-page report, published in a book form, was made public today in a program at Jamia Millia Islamia, attended by novelist and writer Arundhati Roy, Supreme Court lawyer Collin Gonzalves, JMI V-C Prof Mushirul Hasan, Ansal Plaza encounter witness Dr Hari Kishan and ex-RSS pracharak and now full time human rights activist Jugal Kishore Shastri from Ayodhya.

In her opening remark Manisha Sethi, leading soul of the teachers' group, lambasted the government for not ordering judicial probe into the encounter even when there are deep holes in the police version of the shootout. Since September 19, 2008 – the day when the encounter took place at House No. L-18 in Batla House area in New Delhi's Jamia Nagar, killing two suspected terrorists Atif Amin and Muhammad Sajid, both from Azamgarh, Sethi's team has held various meetings, rallies, dharnas and public hearings on the encounter to highlight the discrepancies in the police theory and press the government for enquiry.

Noted writer Arundhati Roy said police atrocities, custodial killings and tortures and encounters seem to be result of a sort of collusion between police, media and judiciary. She also blamed the Bollywood – referring to films like Mukhbir and A Wednesday – for making publicly acceptable custodial atrocities and killings and encoutners. "That is the reason when I and other people questioned the Batla House encounter, we were called anti-national and gaddar," she said while reiterating her demand for judicial probe into the shootout.

Eminent Supreme Court lawyer Collin Gonzalves criticized the so-called secular government of UPA at the centre for rewarding Delhi Police Inspector M C Sharma with Ashok Chakra, as grave charges have been leveled against him in several earlier cases including Ansal Plaza encounter. While demanding judicial probe into the Batla shootout he said encounter killing is a murder which is an unnatural death, and for every such death, according to the law, an FIR has to be filed against those involved in the killing. He also said that anyone could be behind the terror attacks in the country – Muslims, Hindus or even police.

While recounting the police atrocities he had to face as he, being a witness to the Ansal Plaza encounter, stood up to say a spade a spade, Dr Hari Krishna compared today's police with Ravana who had become so notorious that he did not spare even Lord Rama's wife. He urged JMI V-C, being like father of the students, file a murder case under Article 302 against the policemen involved in the killing of the two youths, who were Jamia students.

Ex-RSS pracharak and Ayodhya ki Awaz chief Jugal Kishore Shastri said there seems to be a conspiracy behind implicating Muslim youths in all terror attacks in the country. "Following the Sachar Committee report which exposed real backwardness of the Muslim community, there was a sympathy wave for the community, but all of a sudden terror blasts began to take place and Muslims were accused from here and there," he said adding that this all was to keep the community backward and deprive them of their rights.

The report by Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Group has profile of those killed and arrested in the Batla House operation, contradictions in police version regarding the encounter operation, information about dreaded terrorists, bullet proof jacket, injuries and bullets to the suspected terrorists, evidences, escape routes and fired rounds, besides contradictions in the mastermind theory and instances of violations of NHRC guidelines for an encounter.

The teachers' group has demanded a judicial probe headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, transfer of investigations from the Delhi Police to CBI, exemplary punishment to police officers guilty of implicating innocent Muslim youth in false cases of terrorism and adequate compensation and jobs to those acquitted in the terror-related cases.

Some of the questions raised in the report are as follows:

1) Did the police have prior information about the presence of dreaded 'terrorists' in L-18 when they raided the flat? So far, conflicting versions have been provided by the police. In one version, they claim ignorance of such confirmed information, pleading that they went in only for a routine recee and were ambushed (then how did the Police Commissioner within hours declare Atif and Sajid to be the mastermind behind all blasts since 2005, when Sajid would have been 14-years-old); and in another, they claim to have put Atif under surveillance since 26th July 2008 (so how did these boys manage to plant bombs all over the city right under the Delhi Police's nose?)

2) Were the Police men wearing Bullet proof vests (BPV) or not? In some statements, the Delhi Police said that they avoided wearing the BPVs in order not to alert the 'terrorists'; in yet other statement they claim that their officer escaped all injury while firing upon an armed Sajid because he was wearing a BPV.

3) What explains the injury marks on the bodies of the deceased boys? Atif's back was sloughed off and Sajid had bullet wounds on his head as though bullets had been pumped into his head while he was made to kneel―all of which raises doubts about the genuineness of the 'shootout'.

4) The Police claim that Sajid was an expert bomb maker who used quartz clocks, detonators, ammonium nitrate, yet none of the 'recoveries' which even the police have purportedly made, comprise any of the above material that could be used for making Sajid's 'signature' bombs. So what made Dadwal and his force conclude that Sajid was the one behind the blasts in Delhi and elsewhere?

5) Why is there such rigid resistance to any independent probe on the part of the government and the Delhi Police? So much so that the Lieutenant Governor has even rejected a magisterial enquiry, which is mandatory as per NHRC guidelines on encounter killings.

6) Why are post-mortem reports of all the three killed not being made public? Is there something to hide?

The report also carries brief profiles of the accused in the case, including the two students killed. The fact that most of them were students enrolled in educational institutions, whether Jamia or elsewhere, or working gives the impression that they were regular young men in search of better opportunities in life. None of their actions puts them under suspicion: they enrolled as students, bought SIM cards in their name, signed a rent lease deed, duly verified by the police (copy in report), provided genuine address details etc. Moreover, the day after the blasts in Delhi, there were several arrests and detentions in the Jamia Nagar area, which was common knowledge. It is highly unlikely that actual terrorists would make no attempt to move away from a neighborhood which was obviously under the police scanner to a safer hideout.

Testimonies of eyewitnesses at the Jan Sunwai (12 Oct 2008, Batla House) have also been included in the report. Neighbours testified that they found nothing strange or suspicious about the boys and resented the fact that no senior local resident was taken into confidence or to crosscheck any information about suspected terrorists. The manner in which the police operated raised suspicions about their real motives. Further, they also said that while the operation was on, the policemen could be seen throwing pots etc on to the 4th floor flat of L-18, and that they heard gun shots of only one kind. This naturally raises the misgiving that the police was trying to create an impression of cross fire and struggle, where none existed.

The report is available with the following members of Jamia Teachers' Solidarity Group:
Dr. Ghazi Shahnawaz (Dept. of Psychology), Adil Mehdi (Dept. of English) and Ahmed Sohaib (Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions, Noam Chomsky Complex).

20 February, 2009

Discovering farmer suicide in Chhattisgarh

SHUBHRANSHU CHOUDHARY

Why does India need a bunch of city-dweller computerwallas to discover that farmers in its villages are committing suicide in alarmingly large numbers? Does it tell us something about the health of our other institutions as well?

The journey that led to this discovery started in a Dream Chhattisgarh meet in December 2007. Dream Chhattisgarh meet is the annual meeting of an internet based Citizen Journalism group CGnet.

Generally people connected to the internet are city dwellers and have limited understanding of the world of farming. This is true for most people in this group too.

For dreaming of a better future for the state, it is important to prioritize and understand the issues related to the profession which sustains 80% of the state’s population.

Hence for Dream Chhattisgarh meets, as a rule the first session is on Agriculture.

Last year as well, some farmers and agriculture experts were invited to inaugurate the meet at Champaran.
No it is not the Champaran of Indigo farmers where Gandhi experimented with his first Satyagraha in India in 1917.Though it may be a coincidence that the Indigo farmers in Champaran in Bihar were from Kurmi caste and many farmers in Chamapran of Chhattisgarh are also Kurmis.

This Champaran is a village in Chhattisgarh, around 60 kms from the capital Raipur.

Chhattisgarh is not Vidarbha

Farmers described their pathetic condition to the CGnet members. “The situation of the farmer is so bad today that a labourer working for me can eat a cauliflower” one of them said, “but I need to be staisfied with the stubs, which earlier we used to feed the animals”.

The issue of farmer suicides also came up.

Efforts were made to invite a specialist from Vidarbha, to speak about “What Chhattisgarh can learn from Vidarbha”.The idea behind this was to hear about the mistakes committed by the Vidarbha farmers so that the Chhattisgarhi farmer may not repeat them.

No one could join from Vidarbha but during the discussion experts told us that they had never heard of any farmer suicide in Chhattisgarh. They had read some news articles about farmer suicides in Madhya Pradesh, which spoke of Madhya Pradesh being amongst the top 5 states with respect to farmer suicides cases. And the figures for Madhya Pradesh included Chhattisgarh as well.

An article by P Sainath published a few weeks before the meet was discussed.This article spoke of a study by Prof K Nagaraj of Madras Institute of Development Studies. According to his study more than 2000 farmers are committing suicide in Madhya Pradesh( including Chhattisgarh) every year.

The meet concluded that most of these suicides must be happening in cash crop areas of Madhya Pradesh as we have never heard of any farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh.

I was not convinced and the agriculture sub committee of CGnet agreed to explore the subject.

The investigation begins

A google search with the words “farmers suicide” and “Chhattisgarh” yielded the same article of P Sainath which was discussed in the meet. This talks of joint farmer suicide figures of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

I wondered if indeed there was no separate data for farmer suicide in Chhattisgarh .

A call to Prof Nagaraj revealed that the data was available and could be obtained from National Crime Records Bureau ( NCRB).

Prof Nagaraj said “There was no Chhattisgarh when I started the study in 1997. And after 2000 when the data for 3 new states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand were made available I simply added them to the parent state of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for my convenience”.

So were the figures for Chhattisgarh never investigated on their own?

A visit to NCRB revealed that contrary to our assumption in Dream Chhattisgarh meet, out of 2000 odd farmers who committed suicide in undivided Madhya Pradesh more than 1200 were from Chhattisgarh!

Next week, I expressed my shock over this revelation, in my weekly column in a local Chhattisgarh newspaper, “4 farmers commit suicide in Chhattisgarh everyday, says NCRB. Are the figures fudged”?

The morning after, there was an article on the front page of the same paper ridiculing the figures. “Everybody loves a good fraud: The untruth of farmer suicide figures in Chhattisgarh” was the title.

The article claimed, that a survey done by the author, had come across only 6 cases of farmers suicide in the state from the year 2000, when Chhattisgarh was formed. The author observed that many farmers committed suicides but the cause had nothing to do with his livelihood issues.

Laughing at the claims of this study, P Sainath told us “if one farmer is committing suicide annually in Chhattisgarh, then the state must be a heaven. And I would advise farmers from US and Europe to shift to Chhattisgarh”.

More articles debating the issue followed.

The arguments presented claimed that Chhattisgarh is not Vidarbha. Farmers do not grow cash crop here. Paddy does not need that much investment. So farmers are committing suicide due to non farming reasons.

Jacob Nellithanam who is working with farmers for many years went on to contradict them by saying- “Paddy is cash crop for Chhattisgarh farmers”.

The Police chief of Chhattisgarh told the local press that the figures quoted by me were bogus and challenged them to prove it.

National Crime Records Bureau in Delhi responded, “If the figures are bogus then please ask Government of Chhattisgarh why are they sending bogus figures. We do not have any offices in the states, we publish what we get from the State Crimes Record Bureaus”.


Why farmer is so prone to suicide?

I found the figures too disturbing to let go off the matter.

Prof Nagaraj had gone as far as to say that according to his study, the police records would show only a landowner as farmer. So in reality the number of farmers committing suicide would be more than that reflected in the data.

The number of land owning farmers in Chhattisgarh according to the economic survey of 2008 is 32.55 lakhs, which is a little less than 15% of the total population of the state.

But farmers constitute 32.2% of total suicides in Chhattisgarh.

What is it about the livelihood of a farmer that makes him twice as vulnerable to suicide than another profession?

Does the matter not need an investigation?

CGnet decided to investigate some cases on ground.

All the 3 cases we picked up from local news papers were not recorded as farmer suicide cases in police records, but all of them were directly linked to farming distress.

This built up our resolve to investigate further.

Highest rate of farmer suicide

Dr Yuvraj Gajpal, a CGnet member and a post doctoral student in Canada calculated the farmer suicide rate per 1 lakh population for states and found to his astonishment that Chhattisgarh is on top of the list every year!

6.49 farmers commited suicide in Chhattisgarh per one lakh population in 2006. Maharashtra is distant second with 4.28. Kerala third with 3.37. After that comes Andhra third 3.24 and Karnataka 2.57.

Dr Gajpal wrote an article asking why farmer Suicide in Chhattisgarh is not getting the attention it deserves, though it has more farmer suicide deaths per 1 lakh population than all the 4 states that have received so much attention?

In the meantime, we linked up with Prof Srijit Mishra of Mumbai based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research who has been asking the same question in his research papers for quite some time.

Unlike Nagraj and Gajpal, Prof Mishra calculates the farmers suicide per 1 lakh male farmers and calls it Suicide Mortality rate.

Prof Mishra has written- “whichever way you calculate Chhattisgarh remains in the top 5 states as far as farmer suicide is concerned but it is puzzling why neither media nor the politicians have taken note of it.”

These articles convinced some leaders of the opposition Congress and they raised the issue in Vidhan Sabha.

The Chief Minister replied, “I have checked with all the collectors. No farmer have committed suicide in Chhattisgarh due to debt. Not the issue but the people writing about it need to be investigated.”


Discussing agriculture, a dangerous business

These threatening words were a beginning to an experience of suppression of the right to get to the truth.

The applications under Right to Information act to police yielded no result.

I got calls to “stop politicking in the name of journalism”.

And my column was also stopped on charges of writing “lies”, though it was not clear how the editor suddenly discovered “lies” only after 2 years while I was writing every week!

It only strentghened the resolve to get to the bottom of the matter.

We started working as detectives. A simple story was turning out to be a crash course on Investigative Journalism.

Finally we have got some figures from the State Crime Records Bureau through a circuitous route.

These figures tell us that the farmers suicide is concentrated in the paddy growing districts of Cental Chhattisgarh. Tribal districts of North and South have less than half the farmers suicides in comparison to the Central region.

Is additional income from forest saving the farmers in tribal region?

The districts with higher suicide rates were the same as the districts with highest use of fertilizer. Is there a connection? All of this needs a study.

We realised that the resistance centered around an argument which linked our claims directly to Vidarbha, and farmer suicide due to large loans taken by them for cash crops. And since the Chhattisgarhi farmer had no large loans, he could not be committing suicide.

We were not claiming that the situation in Chhattisgarh was the same as in Vidarbha.

We were only asking for a deeper investigation, and our request was getting buried in an irrelevant argument.

A loss making business

Our understanding of the seriousness of the issue is based on our exchange with the paddy farmer of Chhattisgarh.

He says, “Economic deterioration is being measured against incomes. A farmer growing paddy in Chhattisgarh has hardly got any income these days. Agriculture is a loss making business and is being sustained by sale of assets”!

Farm scientist Sanket Thakur explains “if you calculate the cost of labour at minimum wage then the production cost of paddy should be at least double the current support price”.

In most of the areas in Chhattisgarh labour rate is around Rs 30 per day. That is how the farmer saves some money. But with growing input costs the profit is reducing every year.

In the places closer to the cities, where one pays Rs 80 as labour cost, the farmer is making loss and surviving by selling his land every year.

“This continuously decreasing income creates a feeling of hopelessness”, he says. “Many times this translates in suicide. You may find random immediate causes for farmer’s suicide, but if you explore deeper, most of the time it is the farming distress which is the main cause”.

Who is lying - CM or police records?

In the meantime a CGnet member had collected police records for 24 thanas from one of the district called Durg.

We were shocked to find 11 cases of Farmer Suicide in this small list, stating the cause of suicide as “debt”!

Against the backdrop of that famous statement from the CM, that no farmer in Chhattisgarh is committing suicide due to debt, we expected the police records to match his claim.

It may be noted here that
• Durg is not the district with the highest number of suicides in the State.
• The list available with us is not complete for Durg district,
• The figures available are from 2004 only, although the State has been in existance from 2000.

If this sample were extrapolated to the entire district the figures for farmer suicide due to economic reasons would be higher.

Apart from the 12 farmers who committed suicide due to debt, in the list there are 21 additional cases where the cause of death is listed as “economic reasons”.

The economic reasons may or may not be debt, only a study can reveal the entire truth.

The list also has names of 52 labourers who committed suicide due to economic reasons. It also has 6 who have committed suicide due to debt.

It is quite likely that in the rural areas the labourers may be farm labourers who take land on lease from rich farmers, as this is a common practice in the State.

Many of the causes in this list are ambiguous and need examination from a competent agency.

Mental and physical illness, tension, fights may be actually linked to farming distress as Sanket Thakur suggests, apart from the glaringly large number of cases where the cause is listed as “unknown”.

We are trying to collect similar data for other districts, but we understand that suicide is a complex issue and may be beyond the analytical capability of a Citizen Journalism investigation team.

We need deeper methodical investigation to reach any understanding.

But who will do it?

In search of Gandhi

The 1916 Lucknow session of Indian National Congress passed a resolution demanding appointment of a committee from British government to enquire into the agrarian crisis in Champaran.

However the Congress in Chhattisgarh is satisfied with a reply from the BJP chief Minister saying “no farmer has committed suicide due to debt”.

After the Lucknow Congress, Gandhi went to Champaran to lead the first satyagraha in India which resulted in the formation of Frank Shy committee to investigate the crisis. Gandhi was a member of that committee. The recommendation of the Shy committee resulted in formation of Champaran Agrarian law of 1918.

As history tells us, what started in Champaran in Bihar resulted in the independence of India.

But whatever started in Champaran in Chhattisgarh, will it lead to a better life for Chhattisgarhi farmers?

Greenpeace campaign to save turtles threatened by Tata project

Greenpeace is seeking the help of bloggers to intensify its campaign to save the turtles threatened by Tata’s port project at Dhamra.

In September 2008, after heightened protests and nearly 100,000 dedicated Greenpeace cyberactivists called on the TATAs to relocate the port, the TATAs agreed to a dialogue with those opposing the Dhamra port. In the ensuing negotiations, TATA agreed 'in principle' to an independent assessment, yet it continues to build the port, and with every passing day, the turtles' future looks dimmer… That's why Greenpeace and other groups are calling on TATA to immediately halt construction and commission an independent assessment.

I am pasting below a message received from Norbert Lincoln of Greenpeace in this connection:

The advantages of being an organization that thinks global and acts local is that some of the best ideas -- no matter who thought of them, or where -- somehow get around and are put to use where they're needed most. Precisely two months back Jamie, my colleague from Greenpeace UK, blogged about something that we're now adapting to our campaign against the Tata's port in Dhamra.

The idea is to make the Greenpeace Turtles website appear at the top of the list any time a search is done for Tata. Anyone with a website, blog or profile on the likes of MySpace or Facebook can help out, so if you'd like to help here are the full instructions I purloined from Climate Change Action: The more links to a site, the higher it climbs in Google rankings. So, if enough people make the word 'Tata' link to the Greenpeace Turtles site, pretty soon it'll top the list of anyone searching for Tata. So a simple online action can help us get our electronic placards under Mr. Ratan Tata's nose without standing outside his Bombay House office. If you have a website, blog, myspace, bebo, forum account, etc then please place a link to http://www.greenpeace.org/turtles. Ideally you write 'Tata' as the anchor text and place a hyperlink to http://www.greenpeace.org/turtles from that text. Anyone can do this! Blog comments/forums are easiest. Good websites are most effective.

If you're wondering what else to write, you could copy this whole piece. To get a top 10 Google ranking probably won't be too hard, but to pip Tata to the top will require a lot of effort. So tell your friends, consider putting this simple action in your newsletters, spread the word online...

Notes:
1. It works best if you mention Tata several times in an article / post.

2. If you are posting the link in a blog post then put Tata in the title and the tags.

3. The more important the site, the more kick http://www.greenpeace.org/turtles gets from the link.

4. If you are really determined then consider setting up a fake site like the TATA CSR blog. That way you can link loads of times to http://www.greenpeace.org/turtles from a site that is very relevant! eg. http://tata-csr.blogspot.com/.

5. Why not take this as seriously as a real-world action and forward it to people with green blogs/campaign groups etc.

Thanks and regards,
Norbert Lincoln

Fan our Facebook page
http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/pages/Greenpeace-India/30290552843

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of
the world." ~John Muir

19 February, 2009

Food crisis under the spotlight

Countercurrents.org has circulated two informative pieces on the food crisis.

One is "Food Crisis Under The Spotlight" by Joyce Mulama.

Worldwide demand for food is expected to grow steadily over the next 40 years, but 25 per cent of the world's food production may be lost to 'environmental breakdowns' by 2050 unless urgent action is taken, says Mulama.

Over to "Food Crisis Under The Spotlight"

Thalif Deen, long-time Inter Press Service correspondent, writes on UN bid to usher in a green revolution.

The food crisis that spilled over from last year could take a turn for the worse in the next decade if there are no explicit answers to a rash of growing new problems, including declining agricultural production, a faltering distribution network and a deteriorating environment worldwide, says Thalif Deen.

Over to "UN Seeks A Green Revolution in Food"

Want to be a stalk of wheat in China? Or a cow in Texas?

It turns out that you don't want to be a former city dweller in rural parts of southernmost Australia, a stalk of wheat in China or Iraq, a soybean in Argentina, an almond or grape in northern California, a cow in Texas, or almost anything in parts of east Africa right now. Let me explain.

These are the opening lines of an article by Tom Engelhardt, appearing at TomDispatch.com

Engelhardt is co-founder of the American Empire Project and runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Engelhardt’s article, “What does economic "recovery" mean on an extreme weather planet?”, can be read at the Countercurrents.org site

18 February, 2009

A Citizen Journalism platform in Chhattisgarh

Chhattisgarh often makes headlines with unpalatable news, like the arrest and trial of Dr. Binayak Sen, medical practitioner and human rights defender.

Good things are also happening in Chhattisgarh. An example is CGnet, which has been operating for five years now.

CGnet is a Citizen Journalism platform where the subject is the development of Chhattisgarh, and the people discuss and act.

The belief is that everyone is a journalist and Information and Communication Technology can help leapfrog across many hurdles in the way. It is an effort to start a dialogue between tribal and others with the help of ICT.

CGNet is also making all efforts for the communities to have their own Community Radio.

CGNet serves as an ''E Gram Panchayat of the people of Chhattisgarh''. It is also a library and reference point. Here people can raise their issues with the help of ICT and discuss, debate and take action on them. Some literate tribals have been trained on the use of computers, in Hindi, which can be used for writing in the local languages.

Last year CGnet received the Manthan award under the e-news category. It was chosen for the award from among 14 entries from India, Sri Lanka , Bangladesh and other South Asian nations.

CGnet can be accessed here.

17 February, 2009

Manipur caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, says ALRC

The following is a written statement submitted by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong, to the UN Human Rights Council:

In July 2008, seven children were kidnapped from a public school in Manipur state, India. The school is just outside the city limits of the state capital, Imphal. Investigations by the Manipur state government revealed that about 30 children are being trained by two underground militant groups, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak) and the Prepak Cobra Task Force, operating in the state. Of the abducted children, 22 were reportedly taken from various parts of the state in a period of 45 days during June and July 2008. None of their parents had lodged a complaint with the authorities when their children went missing.

Abduction of children by militant groups operating in Manipur has become a common incident in the state. Often children are abducted while they go to school or on their way home. Militant groups justify the presence of children in their ranks, by claiming that the children joined them at their will and were neither forced nor abducted. As a measure to prevent child abduction, the Manipur state government at the behest of the national security forces operating in the state, issued a direction in August 2008, requiring children to be accompanied by their parents when they are in a public place. The authorities will detain a child found alone in a public place.

The facts stated above must raise a few questions. First, why were the security forces operating in the state not aware of the fact that the armed groups were abducting children from all over the state? Manipur, a state in the northeastern part of India has a huge presence of security forces deployed from various limbs of the Indian military and paramilitary forces since the past two decades. In fact, the number of security forces deployed in that state to maintain law and order is very high even in comparison to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Manipur also has the highest police-people ratio in the country, with 627 police officers for every 100,000 persons. Given this fact, it appears that the security forces were not acting upon information available to them to prevent the abduction of children or to rescue those who are already in the control of the underground militant groups.

Secondly, why are the parents who lost their children failing to complain to the authorities? It appears that the people, from their experience in the past, know that once they complain, there would not be any action by the security forces, and in addition, they run the risk of being accused by the security forces of having connections with the underground militants. This apart, the people also know from experience, that if they complain, they will antagonise the underground militant groups, against which in practical terms, there is no remedy in available.
The order issued by the security forces, that the parents must accompany their children in public places, illuminates the height of disregard for individual freedom by the state agencies in Manipur. It also suggests that they have no clue how to deal with the situation. Normal life has become impossible in Manipur, a state in India that fails to guarantee the least possible in terms of law and order.

This fact is apparent from the sheer number of incidents of extortion reported from the state. Places of worship, educational institutions, human rights organisations, hospitals and commercial establishments are brought systematically under the extortion net, run by almost all the militant outfits operating in the State.

On 30 March 2008, the state Chief Minister Mr. Okram Ibobi Singh, publically admitted that militant groups were extorting money. On 12 September 2008, the Kanan Devi Memorial School at Pangei in the Imphal East district was closed for an indefinite period due to a demand by the militant groups for a sum of 10,000 USD. Three days later, on 25 September, extortion demands forced the closure of two government colleges in Imphal. Hospitals have similarly been affected by the extortion networks. On 18 January 2008, two private hospitals, Langol View at Lamphel Sanakeithel and Imphal Hospital, in Imphal, were closed down due to extortion demands of 10,000 USD each, served on them by a militant group.

On 28 August 2008, hundreds of commercial establishments, including pharmacies, located on both sides of the Tiddim Road along National Highway - 150 from Keishampat to Kwakeithel in the Imphal West district remained closed to protest the unbearable monetary demands served on them by Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) cadres. The KYKL is one of the most notorious militant groups operating in Manipur. Later, the shopkeepers along the Dingku Road of Imphal West district revealed that their businesses were divided into three categories by the militants - bigger shops were asked to pay 600 USD, middle size shops 400 USD each, while the small ones were asked to pay 200 USD. In a similar incident, on 29 October 2008, pharmacies in and around the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital at Lamphel in the Imphal West district remained closed for the day in protest against extortion threats. Extortion drives are backed with widespread intimidation of, assaults on and armed attacks against target groups of the population.

There are about 18 underground militant groups operating in Manipur. Most of them do not have an established chain of command or any form of organisational structure. Many thrive on extortion money or from the income generated by illegal drug traffic between India and Burma. Most of them have their hideouts in Burma, along the Indo-Burma border. Places like Moreh, a small town along the Indo-Burma border about 110 kilometres from the state capital Imphal, have become hotspots for militant activity. Though the Moreh border outpost is manned by the security forces, owing to the corruption among its ranks, militants openly deal with contraband articles in the town.
The militant groups demonstrate their power, as has been the trend in previous years, by issuing numerous 'decrees'. On 31 January 2008, the KYKL reiterated its ‘decree’ of using Meetei Mayek language on signboards of shops, offices and institutions in the four valley districts - Imphal West, Imphal East, Bishnupur and Thoubal. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), yet another notorious underground militant group in Manipur, 'banned' the export of rice or paddy outside Manipur with effect from 12 December 2008, to discourage the growing of cash crops. With the state's ability to provide security to its citizens virtually non-existent, any refusal to fall in line with these decrees has proven fatal. On 17 March 2008, at least seven non-Manipuri traders selling tobacco products and betel leaf, which were 'banned' by the PLA, were shot dead by PLA militants at Mayang Imphal Hanglun in the capital.

The response of the Government of India to the insurgent activities has thus far remained ineffective for obvious reasons. It is virtually impossible for anyone to approach the state police to file a complaint against a threat from an underground militant group. The state police lack the basic infrastructure to properly investigate crimes. With facilities to function scarce, the alarming trend within the state police is to discourage by threat and intimidation anyone who wishes to lodge a complaint. The most commonly used tactic is to accuse the complainant of having connections with the underground groups.

In addition to discouraging the complainants through various means, the state police as well as the security forces are engaged in extrajudicial executions in the state. According to the Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, 483 persons were killed in Manipur in 2008. The Ministry however claims that 347 of them were insurgents. This is in addition to the death of 16 persons from the security forces. Of the 483 persons, an estimated 420 persons lost their life in ‘encounters’ with the state agencies. Not a single case was subjected to independent enquiry. As of now in Manipur, or for that matter in any part of India, such a process does not exist. The practice is to accept, without a question, whatever report an officer sends to the superiors after an incident of encounter killing.

In this context, instances of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, illegal detention and other forms of violation of fundamental rights is on the raise in Manipur. In fact 92.51 percent of persons detained in prisons in Manipur are those awaiting trial. Given the current pace of disposal of cases in India, these persons will stay in pre-trial detention for a period ranging from four to ten years.
The imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, a draconian law pressed to use in several parts of India, in the states of Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir in particular, provides statutory impunity to the state agencies. The vires of this law was repeatedly challenged before the Supreme Court of India. Each time the Court dismissed the petition. Caught between two equally inhuman forces, the underground militants and the state agencies, the people of Manipur live as if they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Concerns have been expressed about this situation by domestic and international agencies. For example, the National Human Rights Commission of India has repeatedly requested the Government of India and the state administration to deal with the situation of law and order in Manipur on several occasions. The annual reports of the Commission for the past four years consistently reflect this fact.

Justice B. P. Jeeven Reddy Commission, deputed to study and report to the Government of India about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 has also highlighted this fact, in addition to recommending to the Government of India an immediate withdrawal of the law from the state. The Commission filed its report to the Government in 2005. The Prime Minister of India responded by stating in a press conference that the law will be withdrawn as early as possible. Since then nothing is heard about the government’s plan to withdraw the law.

International human rights organisations have also expressed similar concerns. The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) and its sister concern the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has been reporting cases of human rights violations committed by the security forces in Manipur. In most cases the authorities have been taking cover under this draconian law. In spite of all these, there has been no substantial intervention by any UN agencies on issues concerning Manipur.

As of now, the people of Manipur are left at the mercy of two diagonally opposing forces – the state security agencies and the underground militant organisations. Time and again it has been proved that help at the domestic level is almost impossible without an external strong intervention. In this context an intervention by the UN Human Rights Council, particularly emphasising upon the Government of India’s voluntary pledge promising to protect and promote human rights, thereby bringing order and rule of law in Manipur gains importance.

The ALRC therefore requests the Council to:

1) Encourage the Government of India to immediately withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958;

2) Suggest the government to constitute an independent agency to investigate and prosecute cases of human rights violations committed by the state agencies in Manipur;

3) Recommend the government to implement the recommendations made by the Justice B. P. Jeevan Reddy Commission submitted to the government in 2005;

4) Urge the government to simultaneously find a political solution to the problems affecting the rule of law in Manipur though a process of interactive dialogue with the people and their leaders, thereby creating an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

# # #

About ALRC: The Asian Legal Resource Centre is an independent regional non-governmental organisation holding general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is the sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Hong Kong-based group seeks to strengthen and encourage positive action on legal and human rights issues at local and national levels throughout Asia.

I Facebook, Therefore I Am

CRISTINA FERNANDEZ-PEREDA
News feature
New America Media

Editor's Note: Peer pressure, curiosity, business contacts and a taste for cyber-celebrity may explain why so many people are living their lives through Facebook and other social networking sites.NAM Washington correspondent Cristina Fernandez-Pereda reports

WASHINGTON, D.C.--If you are graduating from college, and you haven’t created your profile on Facebook or Linked In or MySpace, most likely you will. Social networking sites have changed from being the place where users, mostly young people, share information about themselves to being social networks where users of all ages hunt for jobs, promote events, and even campaign for their political causes.

But what happens if you are not online?

"I've heard students use statements like 'If I'm not online, it's like I don't exist'” said Michael Stefanone assistant professor of communications at the University of Buffalo. “Sometimes they meet someone in class, they go to Facebook afterwards and if they don't have a profile online, it's abnormal, it's like raising a red flag to them."

For BJ Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University and author of the book "The Psychologies of Facebook," the social networking site is already part of people's social lives. "If you are not online, you are not part of what is going on in social life today. More and more people who have been resisting Facebook have now given in because they know it is part of social life," Fogg said.

Both Stefanone and Fogg agree that the main reason why young Internet users and, more recently, professionals are joining sites such as Facebook and MySpace is to network. But the other reason is curiosity. It is peer pressure and curiosity to learn new information about other people that push them over the threshold.

Joy McFarland, 28, an English professor in Madrid, says that she’s guilty of the former. "My best friend doesn't have Facebook and hates that we can't make it through a single sentence without mentioning it," McFarland said. “She always says that she feels so pressured because she feels she's missing out on so much by not having it.”

For Jihane Abou Chabke, 26, a communications professional in northern Virginia, peer pressure is exactly the reason she joined the network. "That's how, in my turn, I pressured other friends to create their own profiles. It is just so overwhelming--a part of our lives that you just can't ignore.”

However, the reasons people keep updating their online profiles and checking their friends' latest information might not be just peer pressure.

Through his research, Stefanone has found that young users spend a lot of time just learning new information about their friends. "This makes it easier for them to engage in casual conversations because they have references as to what they did and can start from there," said Stefanone.

Even though some of the students he has interviewed affirmed that it's "addicting" and sometimes wondered how much time they spend on these sites, there's one question that Stefanone has never considered asking: Why don't they leave the online networks?

And that's because he already knew the answer. While people can get a lot of information from these sites and benefit from it, "there's no cost for keeping their profiles, all it would take is to not pay attention to them," Stefanone said.

While experts can expect a majority of new college students starting the school year with an online profile, it's still not clear how many of them continue to actively use these social networking sites when they become professionals. But it seems like these young users are transforming the networking sites to their own advantage.

"I use them as a living Rolodex so I can keep everyone's current contact information, keep in touch with old colleagues so they don't forget me, and also as a way to find about job openings," said Sonia Checchia, an associate at a Washington, D.C.-area consulting company. "The groups are useful for contacts, information on conferences and mini-communities to share resources."

Social networks have become not just a place where people can find useful personal contact information. Stefanone's team researched the reasons Internet users post personal information in the first place, and the lure of celebrity might be behind it all.

Their findings were published in a study called, “We're all stars now: Reality Television, Web 2.0, and Mediated Identities.” They found there is a direct relationship between how much reality television people watch on the one hand, and the amount of time users spend on networking sites, the size of the their network, the proportion of friends they have and the frequency with which they share photos on the other hand.

In the end, the pressure to exist online and share who you are with other Internet users--perhaps feeling a little more famous--explains the fascination with these networks and why more and more keep joining every day.

"It's just like having an Internet connection, email address or a cell phone," said Fogg. "People feel they will pay a social price if they don't have any of those."

Indian Dream replacing American Dream

As India's economy booms, many Indians are finding the American Dream has replaced by the Indian Dream. But it's also luring many Indian-Americans whose only real connections with India up to now were family vacations, says Sandip Roy.

Here is a link to a New America Media audio slide show, India's Unlikely New Immigrants. Photos: Bishan Samaddar

16 February, 2009

AHRC: Empty rhetoric more dangerous than political bankruptcy

The following is a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:

Is there a relation between the residents of the Gaza strip and the Indians? Other than for the fact that the Government of India supports the Palestinian cause, there is no apparent connection between an ordinary Indian and a person living in Gaza. Yet, for politicians in India like Mr. Prakash Karat, the Israeli action in Gaza is an issue of importance to the Indians, one which Karat took the trouble of enlightening the inquisitive Indian public’s minds about, with his reflections on the Israeli invasion of Gaza and its implications for India.

In a statement released last week through the party media People’s Democracy, Karat shed tears for the Palestinians. He accused the political parties in India, obviously other than the party Karat himself leads, for being politically bankrupt. In the article, Karat accuses the Congress and the rightwing BJP for their alliance with the 'imperialist' western forces. When the state governments led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) forcefully evicted farmers from their lands to create special economic zones for foreign entities, Karat, the General Secretary of CPI-M, looked the other way.

The Communist spirit of the British-educated Karat is not worried about the alarming number of extrajudicial executions carried out by the Border Security Force stationed in West Bengal along the Indo-Bangladesh border. Probably, Karat is busy defending Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan, his colleague in Kerala, who is facing prosecution for bribery charges. Vijayan, the State Secretary of the CPI-M , is accused of misappropriating public money to the amount of US$7,500,000.

Indians have their own problems that keep them preoccupied. For example, an estimated 622 million Indians, which amount to 54.8 per cent of the population, earn less than $1.50 a day. For these 622 million individuals, finding a proper meal a day is their immediate concern. It is believed that 150 million Indians live in slums. They have no source for clean drinking water or any other sanitation facilities. It is estimated that 53 percent of the children in India suffer from malnutrition and malnutrition induced sicknesses.

The percentage of the population living in extreme poverty and malnutrition in the country is the highest in the world. It is even higher than the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where there are no stable governments. A democratic underperformance to such an extent, that it creates living conditions even worse than all the states in Sub-Saharan region means that there is something awfully wrong with the government in India, past and present.

The problem starts with the Indian parliament. One-third of the parliamentarians in the country are criminals, facing charges of rape, murder, corruption or other serious crimes. The seat of democracy, the parliament, has thus become a repository of criminals. For these criminals to remain in power or to return to power whenever they require, two factors are essential -- there must not be a functioning rule of law regime and the ordinary electorate must remain illiterate.

Institutions in the country contribute their share in the above process. For example, most of the Indian media are divided along religious, caste and political lines. Depending upon the picture a media would like to paint to its reader, of caste; political affinity or religion; they defend or prosecute the politicians and their policies. So much so, there is no more 'free media' in the country. It is either a BJP media or a Christian news agency or a mere party propaganda tool. The link between the reader and the journalist is reduced to the money a reader pay to watch or read the so called news.

As for the rule of law regime, it has become defunct in the country since the past few decades. Laws in India works for those who can afford to buy it. The rule of law is sold in police stations, courts, legislative houses and in brothels across the country. In a country where police officers, politicians or their henchmen run most of the brothels, it is natural for the brothels to have a status equal to that of the legislature.

Corruption in public life is so open and apparent in the country that it is no more perceived as evil. On the contrary, it is considered as an essential requirement to get things done in the country. To register birth or death; to file a complaint to the police or to get a telephone connection; to admit a child to school or to get treatment at a government hospital; to book a train ticket or to obtain bail from the court, all require the 'lubricant' to be applied at appropriate places. Corruption is the seminal cord that links the police, the politician and the ordinary person in India.

In addition to the brothels and many other similar institutions in the country where 'justice' is sold and deals are negotiated, the police stations in India play the important role of being the collection houses for bribes and the public relations office for the politicians. If, by mistake, the police act against the whims of the ruling political party, the police stations are attacked and the officers assaulted.

In the past six months there were at least seven such incidents in Kerala state alone. When the officers arrested the cadres of the CPI-M , the ruling party of the state that Karat represents, the party cadres attacked the police station and released the detainees. Courts, judicial process and the rule of law are just meaningless words when it comes to protecting political interest. It is the same throughout all of the country. In Uttar Pradesh it is the Bahujan Samaj Party, in Gujarat it is the BJP and in Assam the Congress party.

The politicians appropriately reward the police officers for their political slavery. For example, the Director General of Police in West Bengal, Mr. Anup Bhushan Vohra, in December 2008 asked his officers to assault ordinary people, whenever required, with the definite intention to break their bones. Vohra made this statement in public, addressing his subordinate officers on December 10, the International Human Rights Day. Please see the link to watch a video that showcases what policing means in India. Arrest of a doctor and a lawyer in India. The officers involved in this incident continue to 'maintain' law and order in the country.

Vohra continues as the chief of police in that state. No police officer in the western countries would continue in their post after making such a speech, instigating his subordinates to violate the law. As for Vohra, officers like him are required in West Bengal, for the state government and the politicians who run it to continue their corrupt way of life. There are obviously a few things to be learned from the imperialist side of the world. But unfortunately for India's politicians, it might not be all that welcome, since sometimes, such lessons could challenge their corrupt way of life.

For politicians in India to continue in their corrupt ways, regular Indians must remain poor, torture must be encouraged and practised in the police stations, courts must not function properly and the electorate must remain divided as Hindus, Christians, and Muslims maintaining their caste hierarchies, no matter which religion they follow. Poverty must thrive in the country so that a lesser number of Indians will have the strength to challenge the slavery imposed by the landlords and the local politicians who steal life and honour from the poor.

What is important for the Indians is that they must be aware of the Israeli actions in Gaza. They must condemn it, since anything else spoken about India by a citizen might challenge politicians like Karat. Opportunity to reflect on one's own living conditions will expose the empty rhetoric of the Indian politicians. Such voices might also challenge the corrupt bureaucracy.

Hence, it is important for the politicians in India to preoccupy the Indian public, filling their minds with irrelevant world affairs that would not fetch them a meal. And for Israel, it must continue invading its neighbor, for that will provide Indian politicians with a subject to be concerned about.

# # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

15 February, 2009

Students march against Morality Police on Valentine's Day

Kavita Krishnan, National Secretary, All India Progressive Women's Association and Rajan Pandey, Secretary, All India Students' Association, Delhi, write:

This Valentine's Day, students of Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Jawaharlal Nehru University under the banner of the All India Students' Association (AISA) and the All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA) defied the diktats of the Sangh Parivar moral police and celebrated freedom of expression and women's rights with a march in and around the DU North Campus. Cultural teams (Sangwari and Awaam) comprising of Jamia Millia Islamia students sang creative and defiant songs celebrating the "right to live and love in freedom" and performed street plays on this theme.

The students marched to various colleges in the DU campus and also to the Kamla Nagar market area where, in the past, the Sangh Parivar has indulged in vandalism on Valentine's Day. In the crowded Kamla Nagar market they raised slogans, "Love is not a crime, so why fear the Sanghi terrorists?" They demanded a ban on the Sri Ram Sene, Bajrang Dal and all other outfits that attack the freedom of expression and women's choices.

Rajan Pandey, Secretary of AISA in Delhi, leading the march, said the aim of the march was to break the atmosphere of fear created by the Sanghi Taliban. He said that the protest was part of AISA's ongoing national campaign for campus democracy against 'virtual emergency on campuses.' Gender justice was an integral part of campus democracy, he said.

Kavita Krishnan, National Secretary of AIPWA, said, "They claim to oppose Valentine's Day because it's a 'Westernised' festival that promotes obscene market culture. We ask them, isn't the custom of dowry also an instance of 'market culture'? Aren't dowry deaths obscene? Yet, the Sangh Parivar and BJP never oppose dowry because they want Indian women to remain suppressed."

Kapil Sharma of Sangwari, a cultural team, said their street plays intended to show how the morality police oppose women's equality: in one play, a woman tennis player is forced first to cover her body, then even her face, in the name of morality – and then eventually she is counseled to play the only game that is permitted for women – "chapatti-chapatti." Kapil said, "If the morality police have their way, Sania Mirza could never play with Mahesh Bhupathi and win a Grand Slam, because Muslims and Hindus are not supposed to interact with each other, and also because Sania is a woman."

Aslam of Jamia Millia Islamia who also runs Awaam, another cultural team, said his group had specially prepared songs on women's freedom and love to suit this innovative protest.

A large number of students as well as passers-by and shoppers in the Kamla Nagar market stopped to watch the plays and give a warm hand to the activists.

14 February, 2009

The Tower Of Babel of the European Left

While the European Right in power gloats, today's Left reality is indeed sad, says Gaither Stewart, Contributing Editor for Cyrano's Journal/tantmieux.

Disarray reigns in almost every party of the Left in European and in the American Left and in Socialist, Social Democrat and Communist movements. There is disarray also with regard to the Left idea. There are too many ambitious leaders in some places, and too few in others. Anarchists deny the need for leadership at all.

Stewart’s article, distributed by Countercurrents.org, can be accessed here.

Gaither Stewart, who is a novelist and journalist based in Italy, is now on a three-month stay in Paris . His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely on the Internet. His recent novel, Asheville, has been published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com).

13 February, 2009

Chomsky favours 'some form of autonomy' for Sri Lankan Tamils

Professor Naom Chomsky has said that, with the armed conflict in Sri Lanka coming to an end, it will be necessary and humane and best for all concerned to arrive at some kind of political solution that gives some form of autonomy or self-determination to the Tamils within the Sri Lankan state.

He expressed this view in an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian's Washington correspondent Eric Bailey.

The text of the interview has been circulated by Countercurrents.org

12 February, 2009

Capitalism’s self-inflicted apocalypse

MICHAEL PARENTI
Countercurrents.org

After the overthrow of communist governments in Eastern Europe, capitalism was paraded as the indomitable system that brings prosperity and democracy, the system that would prevail unto the end of history.

The present economic crisis, however, has convinced even some prominent free-marketeers that something is gravely amiss. Truth be told, capitalism has yet to come to terms with several historical forces that cause it endless trouble: democracy, prosperity, and capitalism itself, the very entities that capitalist rulers claim to be fostering.

Plutocracy vs. Democracy

Let us consider democracy first. In the United States we hear that capitalism is wedded to democracy, hence the phrase, “capitalist democracies.” In fact, throughout our history there has been a largely antagonistic relationship between democracy and capital concentration. Some eighty years ago Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis commented, “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Moneyed interests have been opponents not proponents of democracy.

The Constitution itself was fashioned by affluent gentlemen who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to repeatedly warn of the baneful and dangerous leveling effects of democracy. The document they cobbled together was far from democratic, being shackled with checks, vetoes, and requirements for artificial super majorities, a system designed to blunt the impact of popular demands.

In the early days of the Republic the rich and well-born imposed property qualifications for voting and officeholding. They opposed the direct election of candidates (note, their Electoral College is still with us). And for decades they resisted extending the franchise to less favored groups such as propertyless working men, immigrants, racial minorities, and women.

Today conservative forces continue to reject more equitable electoral features such as proportional representation, instant runoff, and publicly funded campaigns. They continue to create barriers to voting, be it through overly severe registration requirements, voter roll purges, inadequate polling accommodations, and electronic voting machines that consistently “malfunction” to the benefit of the more conservative candidates.

At times ruling interests have suppressed radical publications and public protests, resorting to police raids, arrests, and jailings—applied most recently with full force against demonstrators in St. Paul, Minnesota, during the 2008 Republican National Convention.

The conservative plutocracy also seeks to rollback democracy’s social gains, such as public education, affordable housing, health care, collective bargaining, a living wage, safe work conditions, a non-toxic sustainable environment; the right to privacy, the separation of church and state, freedom from compulsory pregnancy, and the right to marry any consenting adult of one’s own choosing.

About a century ago, US labor leader Eugene Victor Debs was thrown into jail during a strike. Sitting in his cell he could not escape the conclusion that in disputes between two private interests, capital and labor, the state was not a neutral arbiter. The force of the state--with its police, militia, courts, and laws—was unequivocally on the side of the company bosses. From this, Debs concluded that capitalism was not just an economic system but an entire social order, one that rigged the rules of democracy to favor the moneybags.

Capitalist rulers continue to pose as the progenitors of democracy even as they subvert it, not only at home but throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Any nation that is not “investor friendly,” that attempts to use its land, labor, capital, natural resources, and markets in a self-developing manner, outside the dominion of transnational corporate hegemony, runs the risk of being demonized and targeted as “a threat to U.S. national security.”

Democracy becomes a problem for corporate America not when it fails to work but when it works too well, helping the populace move toward a more equitable and livable social order, narrowing the gap, however modestly, between the superrich and the rest of us. So democracy must be diluted and subverted, smothered with disinformation, media puffery, and mountains of campaign costs; with rigged electoral contests and partially disfranchised publics, bringing faux victories to more or less politically safe major-party candidates.

Capitalism vs. Prosperity

The corporate capitalists no more encourage prosperity than do they propagate democracy. Most of the world is capitalist, and most of the world is neither prosperous nor particularly democratic. One need only think of capitalist Nigeria, capitalist Indonesia, capitalist Thailand, capitalist Haiti, capitalist Colombia, capitalist Pakistan, capitalist South Africa, capitalist Latvia, and various other members of the Free World--more accurately, the Free Market World.

A prosperous, politically literate populace with high expectations about its standard of living and a keen sense of entitlement, pushing for continually better social conditions, is not the plutocracy’s notion of an ideal workforce and a properly pliant polity. Corporate investors prefer poor populations. The poorer you are, the harder you will work—for less. The poorer you are, the less equipped you are to defend yourself against the abuses of wealth.

In the corporate world of “free-trade,” the number of billionaires is increasing faster than ever while the number of people living in poverty is growing at a faster rate than the world’s population. Poverty spreads as wealth accumulates.

Consider the United States. In the last eight years alone, while vast fortunes accrued at record rates, an additional six million Americans sank below the poverty level; median family income declined by over $2,000; consumer debt more than doubled; over seven million Americans lost their health insurance, and more than four million lost their pensions; meanwhile homelessness increased and housing foreclosures reached pandemic levels.

It is only in countries where capitalism has been reined in to some degree by social democracy that the populace has been able to secure a measure of prosperity; northern European nations such as Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark come to mind. But even in these social democracies popular gains are always at risk of being rolled back.

It is ironic to credit capitalism with the genius of economic prosperity when most attempts at material betterment have been vehemently and sometimes violently resisted by the capitalist class. The history of labor struggle provides endless illustration of this.

To the extent that life is bearable under the present U.S. economic order, it is because millions of people have waged bitter class struggles to advance their living standards and their rights as citizens, bringing some measure of humanity to an otherwise heartless politico-economic order.

A Self-devouring Beast


The capitalist state has two roles long recognized by political thinkers. First, like any state it must provide services that cannot be reliably developed through private means, such as public safety and orderly traffic. Second, the capitalist state protects the haves from the have-nots, securing the process of capital accumulation to benefit the moneyed interests, while heavily circumscribing the demands of the working populace, as Debs observed from his jail cell.

There is a third function of the capitalist state seldom mentioned. It consists of preventing the capitalist system from devouring itself. Consider the core contradiction Karl Marx pointed to: the tendency toward overproduction and market crisis. An economy dedicated to speedups and wage cuts, to making workers produce more and more for less and less, is always in danger of a crash. To maximize profits, wages must be kept down. But someone has to buy the goods and services being produced. For that, wages must be kept up. There is a chronic tendency—as we are seeing today—toward overproduction of private sector goods and services and underconsumption of necessities by the working populace.

In addition, there is the frequently overlooked self-destruction created by the moneyed players themselves. If left completely unsupervised, the more active command component of the financial system begins to devour less organized sources of wealth.

Instead of trying to make money by the arduous task of producing and marketing goods and services, the marauders tap directly into the money streams of the economy itself. During the 1990s we witnessed the collapse of an entire economy in Argentina when unchecked free marketeers stripped enterprises, pocketed vast sums, and left the country’s productive capacity in shambles. The Argentine state, gorged on a heavy diet of free-market ideology, faltered in its function of saving capitalism from the capitalists.

Some years later, in the United States, came the multi-billion-dollar plunder perpetrated by corporate conspirators at Enron, WorldCom, Harkin, Adelphia, and a dozen other major companies. Inside players like Ken Lay turned successful corporate enterprises into sheer wreckage, wiping out the jobs and life savings of thousands of employees in order to pocket billions.

These thieves were caught and convicted. Does that not show capitalism’s self-correcting capacity? Not really. The prosecution of such malfeasance— in any case coming too late—was a product of democracy’s accountability and transparency, not capitalism’s. Of itself the free market is an amoral system, with no strictures save caveat emptor.

In the meltdown of 2008-09 the mounting financial surplus created a problem for the moneyed class: there were not enough opportunities to invest. With more money than they knew what to do with, big investors poured immense sums into nonexistent housing markets and other dodgy ventures, a legerdemain of hedge funds, derivatives, high leveraging, credit default swaps, predatory lending, and whatever else.

Among the victims were other capitalists, small investors, and the many workers who lost billions of dollars in savings and pensions. Perhaps the premiere brigand was Bernard Madoff. Described as “a longstanding leader in the financial services industry,” Madoff ran a fraudulent fund that raked in $50 billion from wealthy investors, paying them back “with money that wasn’t there,” as he himself put it. The plutocracy devours its own children.

In the midst of the meltdown, at an October 2008 congressional hearing, former chair of the Federal Reserve and orthodox free-market devotee Alan Greenspan confessed that he had been mistaken to expect moneyed interests--groaning under an immense accumulation of capital that needs to be invested somewhere--to suddenly exercise self-restraint.
The classic laissez-faire theory is even more preposterous than Greenspan made it. In fact, the theory claims that everyone should pursue their own selfish interests without restraint. This unbridled competition supposedly will produce maximum benefits for all because the free market is governed by a miraculously benign “invisible hand” that optimizes collective outputs. (“Greed is good.”)

Is the crisis of 2008-09 caused by a chronic tendency toward overproduction and hyper-financial accumulation, as Marx would have it? Or is it the outcome of the personal avarice of people like Bernard Madoff? In other words, is the problem systemic or individual? In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive. Capitalism breeds the venal perpetrators, and rewards the most unscrupulous among them. The crimes and crises are not irrational departures from a rational system, but the converse: they are the rational outcomes of a basically irrational and amoral system.

Worse still, the ensuing multi-billion dollar government bailouts are themselves being turned into an opportunity for pillage. Not only does the state fail to regulate, it becomes itself a source of plunder, pulling vast sums from the federal money machine, leaving the taxpayers to bleed.

Those who scold us for “running to the government for a handout” are themselves running to the government for a handout. Corporate America has always enjoyed grants-in-aid, loan guarantees, and other state and federal subventions. But the 2008-09 “rescue operation” offered a record feed at the public trough. More than $350 billion was dished out by a right-wing lame-duck Secretary of the Treasury to the biggest banks and financial houses without oversight--not to mention the more than $4 trillion that has come from the Federal Reserve. Most of the banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon, stated that they had no intention of letting anyone know where the money was going.

The big bankers used some of the bailout, we do know, to buy up smaller banks and prop up banks overseas. CEOs and other top banking executives are spending bailout funds on fabulous bonuses and lavish corporate spa retreats. Meanwhile, big bailout beneficiaries like Citigroup and Bank of America laid off tens of thousands of employees, inviting the question: why were they given all that money in the first place?
While hundreds of billions were being doled out to the very people who had caused the catastrophe, the housing market continued to wilt, credit remained paralyzed, unemployment worsened, and consumer spending sank to record lows.

In sum, free-market corporate capitalism is by its nature a disaster waiting to happen. Its essence is the transformation of living nature into mountains of commodities and commodities into heaps of dead capital. When left entirely to its own devices, capitalism foists its diseconomies and toxicity upon the general public and upon the natural environment--and eventually begins to devour itself.

The immense inequality in economic power that exists in our capitalist society translates into a formidable inequality of political power, which makes it all the more difficult to impose democratic regulations.

If the paladins of Corporate America want to know what really threatens “our way of life,” it is their way of life, their boundless way of pilfering their own system, destroying the very foundation on which they stand, the very community on which they so lavishly feed.

Michael Parenti received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, in the United States and abroad. He is the author of twenty books: Please visit his website http://michaelparenti.org