New on my other blogs

"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
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


30 April, 2009

Stop South Asia’s Talibanisation, protect women


Think of the devil, they say, and the devil appears. Just when Ram Sena earned the obloquy of ‘Mangalore’s Taliban’, the Taliban fighters actually appeared on the centre stage of our television screens and global geo-politics. This time, they came with a peace deal which instead of providing relief has sent jitters across the world. Peace in exchange of Sharia, as interpreted and imposed by Taliban, sounds like a no-win bargain. Though the Taliban has always attracted attention from the international community, their signature-style barbaric treatment of women has somehow not received the share of alarm and response it deserves. The world is witness to how women under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan became mere war booties only to be subjugated and exploited under draconian laws. Though Taliban’s ‘gender apartheid’ may sadly have gained more territory in Pakistan, women in other beleaguered states of South Asia have been facing a backlash from the growing influence of fundamentalist groups in the region. It is time to do more than just gape at the horror.

The region of South Asia has shades of democracy but women’s rights have been jeopardized more or less by all. In most South Asian countries, the biggest culprit has been fundamentalist ideology, especially of the religious variety. History is replete with examples where in the wake of religious fundamentalism, women’s rights have been the first to be squashed. Religious fundamentalism, stemming from not one but many different religions, essentially emphasizes a unique and specific interpretation of a religious text. Such an ideology claims to be the only true interpretation, and thus vehemently opposes any other, especially one with plural interpretation. Religious fundamentalists often use propaganda to impose their version on other members of their religion. Yet, at the heart of all varieties of religious fundamentalism is the patriarch as the central agent of ultimate control and decision-making in the family and outside. Among all these, women are made to follow strict codes of behaviour that essentially reduce her to a slave at home yet also elevate her to the moral guardian of honour.

Taliban is the best illustration of such hard line religious bigotry. With their overt display of brute misogyny that almost places women under house arrest, Taliban has come to be seen as the flag-bearer of women’s oppression. Soon after their 1996 take-over of Afghanistan, Taliban deprived women of their identity, voice and mobility through strict edicts such as their banishment from schools, colleges and the work force. Women were prohibited from leaving their houses unless accompanied by a male relative. The burqa or chador with a small air grille by the eyes was the only permissible clothing a woman could wear. Girls and women could not be examined by male doctors, while female doctors were anyway not being allowed to work! Public flogging and execution for violation of Taliban decrees ensured most women, and men, toe their line. Taliban justifies its policing of women in the name of a pure, fundamentalist Islamic ideology. However, many religious scholars have stressed that Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia has no basis in Islam which actually allows women’s participation in public life. Apparently, the 55-member Organization of Islamic Conference refused to recognize the Taliban. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, known for their ultraconservative views, too condemned Taliban's decrees.

Other countries in South Asia too have their share of tryst with zealots. Besides several incidents of young women being stoned to death or publicly flogged for ‘crimes’ such as re-marrying, the one that became Bangladesh’s shame was the Taslima Nasreen affair. She invoked the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists with the publication of her book Lajja where she exposed the persecution of religious minorities in Bangladesh as well as the oppression women face in the name of religion. They issued a fatwa against Nasreen, promising to reward anyone who got them her head! Under pressure from the fundamentalists, the Bangladeshi government issued an arrest warrant for her, citing ‘religious sentiments offended’ as the reason. She was even threatened and attacked in India by Indian Islamic groups that claimed to have been hurt by her views. Talking of India, the country has seen many Hindu right-wing groups display their fascist behaviour towards women. The attack on women in a Mangalore pub is the most recent and vivid example. Apparently, these women were attacked because they were found in the company of men, drinking alcohol and dressed in western clothes, all signs of ‘wanton women’ who deserve punishment. That they were compared to the Taliban is only an apt parallel.

Yet, outside the ambit of religious doctrines there exists a much larger cultural narrative that controls women in South Asia—patriarchy. Patriarchal violence against women is common among countries and cultures in the region. For centuries now, different customs, traditions and religious sources have been cited as reasons to create deep-rooted biases against women, along with marginalized roles and lowly identities. Despite the wave of globalization and multiculturalism that has swept the region, the grip of patriarchy has not loosened. Cultural biases against women continue to flourish across varying class, caste and ethnic groups. Simultaneously, domestic violence, rape, dowry, sexual harassment in the workplace and other forms of sexual violence are all well prevalent. In fact, these are but overt manifestations of retrograde perceptions about women. South Asia is also notorious for sex trafficking of girls and women and for human rights violations of women. The South Asia Human Rights Index 2008 finds that though Sri Lanka is the worst human rights violator in South Asia, Pakistan has the most unfavourable record for ‘violence against women’. Honour killings and rape of women at the order of the jirga (traditional courts comprising village elders) continue till this day for offences such as Zina (extramarital sex). According to the Index, between January and December 2007, at least 1,305 people including 792 women and 34 minor girls were victims of honour killings. (The Mukhtaran Mai case was just one that made it to international headlines). Even though civil rights of women may be legally guaranteed by democratic or quasi-democratic governments, the gap between the ideal and reality is clearly quite wide. Inherent cultural discrimination has managed to made inroads into the delivery of justice to women and protection of their rights.

Across the globe, women’s rights have been gained after years of political and social struggles. Various international blueprints such as the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women have been prepared to protect women from violence, ensure their right to life and liberty, and freedom from violence. Yet these treaties are easily disregarded by the State as well as fundamentalists, both invoking local customs and religion, which really are the founts of patriarchal norms. South Asia is fast emerging as the global epicentre of a backlash against women’s rights and liberties. It will be a real tragedy if millions of women across South Asia continue to lose their identities because of creeping fundamentalism. We need to check the tide before it causes havoc.

Amrita Nandy-Joshi is the Coordinator of the South Asian Women’s Network

Rotary Fellowships

The Rotary Foundation is now accepting applications for the 2010 Rotary World Peace Fellowship. Receive a full scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in international studies, sustainable development, peace, and conflict resolution or professional development certificate in peace and conflict studies at one of the six Rotary Centers at: University of Bradford (UK); Duke University (USA); University of North Carolina (USA); International Christian University (JAPAN); University of Queensland
(AUSTRALIA); Universidad Del Salvador (ARGENTINA); and Chulalongkorn
University (THAILAND).

Applicants must be committed to peace and have a minimum of three to five years professional experience and have demonstrated a commitment to world peace and conflict resolution.

See videos about the program on Rotary's nonprofit channel on Youtube at

More information and application materials are available at

29 April, 2009

Media kept on tight leash in Sri Lanka

As the latest round of Asia’s longest-running guerrilla war winds down, scores of journalists in Sri Lanka are experiencing intimidation and harassment for being critical of the military campaign against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), according to correspondents of the Inter Press Service (IPS).

The issues currently in focus are the rising number of civilian casualties, repeated calls for a ‘ceasefire’ by the U.N. and the international community, and a government plea for international humanitarian assistance to tackle a mounting crisis.

"Maybe journalists don’t want to talk about these things given the fear psychosis that has engulfed the media," noted a veteran journalist, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal. Some journalists have even opted to leave the country.

To read the rest of the story please go to the Countercurrents site

Adverse Supreme Court ruling unlikely to end affirmative action in US

New America Media

Editor's Note: In June, the US Supreme Court almost certainly will rule that the city of New Haven, Conn. discriminated against white firefighters on its promotional test. But that won’t end affirmative action because repeated polling of Americans has indicated that they favor it, argues NAM contributing writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

The U.S. Supreme Court will vote in June whether New Haven, Connecticut discriminated against white firefighters on its promotional test. It’s hardly the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on race related employment and education cases. In each instance the rulings have done much to fuel the notion that a majority of Americans oppose affirmative action.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In countless polls and surveys, a solid majority of Americans do vehemently oppose the use of quotas, preferences, set asides and what’s deceptively labeled “reverse discrimination.” They have also backed anti-affirmative action initiatives that have cannily and deceptively played on words to stir outrage and indignation that affirmative action subverts the cherished American values of equality, fair play, and reward for merit.

The same polls, however, show that when the pollsters avoid an all-or-none choice between affirmative action as it currently exists and no affirmative action whatsoever a majority of Americans support affirmative action at some level. Title VII of the civil rights law explicitly gives employers the right to ban tests that have a “disparate impact” on racial groups.

Sample polls that ask respondents if they favor programs "requiring businesses to hire a specific number or quota of minorities and women," are near-textbook examples of how wording can color public attitudes toward affirmative action. The majority always says no. But when asked, “Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs for minorities and women for job hiring in the workplace?” -- a decisive majority says yes.

In 1996 anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly cloaked his anti-affirmative action ballot initiative as the "California Civil Rights Initiative." Connerly also managed to win a few victories for his anti-affirmative action measures in some states. However, less well known is that Connerly also scotched plans to dump his anti-affirmative action initiatives on dozens of state ballots nationally. The resources, political sentiment, and public support to mount a big freewheeling all out national assault on affirmative action were just not there.

Congress has also repeatedly backed away from totally dismantling affirmative action programs, beginning a decade ago when lawmakers shelved anti-affirmative action legislation. President Bill Clinton followed suit. He drew much heat for his plan to modify some aspects of affirmative action programs, but eventually dropped his administration’s talk about further watering down affirmative action programs.

The anti-affirmative action crusade hasn’t fared any better in state legislatures. No state legislature even in the Deep South has pushed for an outright ban on all affirmative action programs.

The other pillar of the Supreme Court’s anti-affirmative argument – and it cropped up again in the New Haven case – is that qualified white males are getting kicked to the curb and are losing ground to unqualified blacks, minorities and women. That myth has been repeatedly debunked. According to census figures, if every unemployed black worker in the country were to displace a white worker, only a tiny fraction of whites would be affected. Furthermore, affirmative action pertains only to job-qualified applicants, so the actual percentage of affected whites would be minuscule. In New Haven, the number of firefighters allegedly affected was 20. The main sources of job loss among white workers have to do with factory relocations and labor contracting outside the United States, computerization and automation, and corporate downsizing.

During the presidential campaign, affirmative action was not an issue. John McCain and Barack Obama made only the barest mention of it. And that came only in response to when Connerly plopped his anti-affirmative action measure on ballots in three states, one of which was McCain’s home state of Arizona. McCain backed the Connerly measure. He insisted that he backed equal opportunity and opposed discrimination. Obama opposed the initiatives. Connerly quickly pounced on Obama for it, noting that he cut radio ads in 2006 that hammered his Michigan anti-affirmative action initiative. Obama unabashedly said that if the measure passed it would hurt women and minorities in getting jobs and in education. Connerly tried to use Obama’s opposition to his initiative as a foil. But it did not diminish voter support for Obama.

The Supreme Court almost certainly will rule in favor of the white firefighters in New Haven. But it won’t end affirmative action. And that’s still fine with most Americans.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on blogtalkradio.

28 April, 2009

Myths about reservation

Nearly six decades after the Constitution of India came into effect, its proclaimed goal of equality and equal opportunity remains a distant dream.

Measures taken in furtherance of the constitutional provisions have not borne fruit primarily because those charged with the task of implementing them have not acted with due diligence.

Lately, provisions designed to help Dalits and other backward classes to catch up with the rest have come under attack on the ground that they work against the interests of the advanced sections.

The arguments against these provisions run as follows:
--The only way to create a casteless society is to adopt casteless policies.
--Reservation tends to undermine the self-esteem of the backward classes
--Support for reservation means support for procedures that favour unqualified candidates over qualified candidates.

The affirmative action policy in the United States, designed to help the non-white peoples, has also attracted similar criticism.

At the root of such criticism are bias and intolerance resulting from deep-rooted prejudice., established in 2002 with funding from the National Science Foundation and McGraw-Hill Higher Education, has been offering educational resources and information on prejudice, discrimination, multiculturalism, and diversity, with a view to reducing the level of intolerance and bias in the society.

It provides more than 2,000 links to prejudice-related resources, as well as searchable databases with hundreds of prejudice researchers and social justice organizations.

One of the documents featured at the website, titled “Ten Myths About Affirmative Action”, although produced in the US context, is quite relevant in the Indian context too.

A quiz on our judgment of Right and Wrong

We need to subject state functionaries to the same standards that they reserve for us citizens. Our judgment of truth and falsehood, right and wrong has suffered enormous reverses since the days of globalization and 24/7 entertainment began. If you think I am exaggerating consider taking a little quiz.

What is common to the following group of people? Socrates, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkrumah, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Binayak Sen, Irom Sharmila, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Leon Trotsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin.

Write your answer down.

Now consider a second group of people and try to see what they have in common: Mullah Omar, Osama Bin Laden, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, H.K.L Bhagat, Narendra Modi, Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjea, Bal Thackeray, George Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, John Howard, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Write your answer.

The above lines are extracted from an article “Dr. Binayak Sen’s Unjust Imprisonment” by Asseem Shrivastava, an independent writer.

The article is available at the Countercurrents website.

Aseem Shrivastava can be reached at

26 April, 2009

Nepal coup threat passes

Kathmandu newspapers report that Nepal’s army has backed out from the collision course. They give credit to India and other donor governments for this development.

In front-page reports, Kantipur, Nepal's largest circulated daily, and its sister publication, the Kathmandu Post, gave details of a “soft coup” which was to have taken place on Wednesday.

They said Maoist leaders, ministers and other selected individuals were to be arrested and former king Gyanendra was to be put in "line arrest" in the Nagarjuna Palace, where he has been staying since he left the Narayanhity palace last June.

The plotters also planned to "cut off" Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda, opposition leader Girija Prasad Koirala and a number of other leaders from the public and encircle Singhadurbar, Nepal's cluster of ministries, Baluwatar, the official residence of Prachanda, offices of the Maoists' Young Communist League and other associations, and the 28 cantonments where the Maoists' People's Liberation Army combatants have been confined since the signing of the peace pact in November 2006.

They claimed there was no plan to harm the PLA fighters. They were to be allowed to go home or abroad while the UN officers monitoring the camps were to be escorted to Kathmandu.

Kantipur and the Kathmandu Post said they had decided to break this story to show the profound threat to democracy posed by the unreformed Nepalese army, which is a proxy for foreign interests and not a patriotic army to defend Nepal and democracy.

The newspapers claimed their sources were senior officers of the Nepal army who put the interests of democracy and nation ahead of those of proxy foreign interests.

The Nepal army headquarters in Kathmandu rebutted the reports, calling them "a well-planned conspiracy to create a rift between the government and the army". The army statement said, "The army remains united, disciplined and under a chain of command. It is dedicated to protecting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the motherland and national unity."

23 April, 2009

Dr. Binayak Sen in danger: an SOS from his wife

The following is a letter from Ilina Sen, wife of Dr. Binayak Sen, who is in a jail in Chhattisgarh, facing trumped-up charges of aiding Naxalites.


Dear friends,

I am writing to share some extremely distressing information that has just now come to light. We now have clear proof that the police in Chhattisgarh are actively interfering with Binayak Sen's need for health care. I will just go over the facts with you.

Binayak, hypertensive for many years, was diagnosed in 2003 with angina upon stress after he underwent cardiac assessment tests with Dr Ashish Malhotra, Raipur’s only doctor with a DM in cardiology, who practices in a private facility. The drug regime that he was on in 2007 and later was suggested by this doctor. He began to feel chest pain upon exercise, tingling in the left arm etc. sometime in Decembr of 2008 and in January-February of this year, when in prison. He informed the prison authorities of this, and when nothing concrete was done about it (the jail hospital anyway has no facilities), he informed the court about this. An application was filed in court on his behalf on 17.2.09, requesting that he be allowed to go for treatment to a properly equipped hospital of his choice, preferably the Christian Medical College, Vellore, citing section 39A of the Prisoners Act of 1894, according to which the Jail Superintendent is empowered to send him for treatment to a facility of his choice, subject to the the prisoner or his family executing a bond and abiding by such conditions as the Superintendent may prescribe. On 20.2.09 the judge (11th additional district and sessions judge BS Saluja who is trying the case) ordered the jail authorities to get the opinion of a medical board on Dr Sen’s cardiac condition so that an appropriate decision on his application could be taken.

Binayak was taken to the Raipur district hospital at some time between 20.2 09 and 17.3.09, where the doctors who saw him suggested that he needed an ECG and echocardiography.

On 17.3.09 Binayak complained to the court that no action had been taken on his request for treatment, and was quite emotional when he said that it did not seem to matter to the court whether he lived or died. The judge who had built up this impressive correspondence was equally upset, and I personally met him after the evidence was over and the accused taken back to jail to convince him that a medical situation demanded something more than just creating records. The judge seemed mollified and on the 18th of March, asked Binayak in court which doctor he wished to see in Raipur who could determine whether or not he needed an onward referral to Vellore , and upon Binayak naming Dr Ashish Malhotra, passed an order asking the jail to have Binayak shown to Dr Malhotra in order to obtain a clear opinion about whether such referral for further investigation was needed.

Binayak was shown to Dr Ashish Malhotra on March 25. On the basis of the court order of March 18 the jail superintendent requested the police for providing security guards to take Binayak to see the doctor. Accordingly, an impressive busload of armed police took Binayak to see Dr Malhotra around 10 am, and I got a call from Dr M around 10.30 asking me to go there along with the old records. I proceeded to do this, and thus was present for most of the consultation. On the basis of the letter from the jail superintendent asking for a clear opinion on whether onward referral to CMC Vellore was needed, and on the basis of an ECG, Echocardiograph and treadmill test, he concluded that Binayak had Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), and referred him to VMC Vellore for Angiography for further assessment, to be followed by Angioplasty/ Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery (CABS). I kept a photocopy of the prescription for my own records, since I was asked to pay for the procedure.

I went to see Binayak in prison on the 26th, and to discuss what the modalities of travel to south India would be. I was shocked when the Jail Superintendent said categorically that Binayak would not be investigated/treated in Vellore but in Raipur. Sensing that something was amiss, I put in an application under the RTI act asking to see all the correspondence between the jail and the doctors regarding Binayak’s treatment. It is this last lot of documents that has just come into my hands.

To conclude the treatment story before I come to this, the jail tried on the 31st of March, to take him to Escorts hospital in Raipur , and according to what we had discussed on my last jail visit, Binayak refused in writing to go there, saying that he did not wish to be treated in any facility in Chhattisgarh as directed by the jail superintendent , as he feared that his life might be in danger. This reply of his with a covering note that Binayak was refusing treatment was presented to the court on the 31st itself, seeking further directions. The court referred this to the public prosecutor asking him to file a reply within seven days. To the best of my knowledge, no such reply has been filed so far. Binayak has started on the new medication prescribed by Dr Malhotra (Atorva Statin) and reports some symptomatic relief.
To come now to the results of the RTI, I have now received Dr Malhotra’s original referral letter of the 25th, but also a second letter addresses to the Jail Superintendent, quoting a query from him and dated 26th March, in which he gives his opinion that the facilities for angiography are available in Chhattisgarh in Escorts, Apollo, Bhilai Main hospital, Ramkrishna hospital and two other places. He also writes that he referred Dr Sen to Vellore because the latter asked him for it.

The problems with this are as follows:

Why was this second query sent from the jail to Dr Malhotra? If the jail superintendent sent such a letter, who was breathing down his neck to do so?

This clearly constitutes total disregard for the court. The mandate to Dr M as specified by the court was to give a clear opinion about whether referral to Vellore was needed or not. The court did not ask Dr M about the length and breadth of medical facilities in Chhattisgarh.

Dr M lied when he said that he had referred Binayak to Vellore because the latter asked him to do so. In any case, what conversation he may or may not have had with his patient is supposed to be privileged information.

If a doctor not in the public sector payroll in anyway can be intimidated to this extent, what is one to say of doctors in Escorts, Apollo etc which are private medical franchises set up in the medical college (great examples of public private partnership, in which all human resources are public, the brand name and the option of onward referral are private)?

Under these circumstances, Binayak is absolutely right to fear that his life may be in danger in any facility controlled by the state in Chhattisgarh.

In fact I am now worried that as Plan A of the police / prosecution (discredit Binayak and convict him in the legal case) shows signs of coming apart, they are now trying to resort to Plan B ( bump him off while in hospital in Chhattisgarh by just asking someone to inject air into an IV drip, for example).

I would like to appeal to all friends to ensure Binayak’s physical safety, publicize this matter, write about it, perhaps appeal to higher courts/political leaders. It is urgent.

I want to end by saying that what we are asking for - treatment at a hospital of choice - is not unknown in Indian judicial history. In fact even from Raipur Central Jail, the Shivsena leader Dhananjay Singh Parihar, in jail on a charge of murder, was sent at state expense to KEM hospital Mumbai, Shankar Netralaya, Chennai and three other hospitals for an assortment of ailments in 2003 . The police would like to portray Binayak as the biggest internal security threat they perceive. Are we going to let them get away with this?

Ilina Sen is Dr. Binayak Sen's wife and co founder with Dr. Sen of Rupantar, a community-based nongovernmental organization that has trained, deployed and monitored the work of community health workers spread throughout 20 villages. Rupantar's activities include initiatives to counter alcohol abuse and violence against women, and to promote food security.

To know more about Binayak Sen and his work visit his wikipedia page.

22 April, 2009

Nepal’s ruling Maoist party and army on collision course

Trouble is brewing in Nepal with the Maoist party, which emerged as the largest party in the constituent assembly in the elections held a year ago and heads the coalition government, and the country’s army on a collision course.

“The Maoists’ leadership is gratuitously poking its nose in each and every activity of the Nepal Army”, the Army Brigadier Generals said after a two-day meeting at the army headquarters on April 12. They asked the army high command to remain ever vigilant and watch carefully the Maoists inner intent.

Kosh Raj Koirala, Asian Tribune Correspondent in Nepal, reported that the generals also stated that in the fluid political situation prevailing in the country, the Army should be ever ready to take on “serious responsibility”. They charged the Maoist-led government with inciting the militias in the cantonment clandestinely in order to demoralize the army and cause the institution to fail summarily.

On Monday, the government sought clarifications from Army chief General Rookmangud Katawal (picture on left) on three issues and indicated that it was ready to dismiss him if his response was not satisfactory. The three issues include: the army going ahead with fresh recruitment despite government orders not to do so, keeping eight Generals at work even after they were retired by the government, and not sending army men to participate in national games in which the Maoist’s People’s Liberation Army had participated. .

A meeting of political parties, convened on the initiative of main opposition party, the Nepali Congress, on Tuesday concluded that the government´s bid to seek clarifications from army chief was against the peace process. They submitted a memorandum on the subject to President Ram Baran Yadav, who is supreme commander of the army.

President’s Office sources said Dr Yadav had written to Prime Minister Pushp Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) not to take any decision on the fate of army chief.

Out of the 24 parties represented in the constituent assembly, 17 including the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), a key partner of the ruling coalition, decided to oppose the Maoists´ reported plan to ask the army chief to offer a clarification in the parliament. They accused the Maoists of "attacking all state agencies to destabilize democracy".

The largest party in the constituent assembly, the Unified CPN (Maoist), which heads the government, was not invited to the meeting. Two other ruling parties, the Madhesi Peoples Rights Forum and the Sadbhwana Party, did not attend the meeting.

The central secretariat of the Unified CPN (Maoist), which met at the Prime Minister’s residence, advised the government to suspend Gen. Katawal if his clarification is not deemed convincing.

21 April, 2009

Capitalism putting an end to humanity and the planet, says ALBA

The following is a statement issued by the heads of state and governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela – the group known as Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our Americas (ALBA):

The heads of state and governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela -- member countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) -- consider the proposed Declaration of the fifth Summit of the Americas insufficient and unacceptable for the following reasons:

• It offers no answers to the issue of the global economic crisis, despite the fact that this constitutes the largest challenge faced by humanity in decades and the most serious threat in the current epoch to the wellbeing of our peoples.

• Unjustifiably excludes Cuba in a criminal manner, without mentioning the general consensus that exists in the region in favour of condemning the blockade and the isolation attempts, which its people and government have incessantly objected to.

For these reasons, the member countries of ALBA consider that consensus does not exist in favour of adopting this proposed declaration and in light of the above; we propose to have a thoroughgoing debate over the following issues:

1) Capitalism is putting an end to humanity and the planet. What we are living through is a global economic crisis of a systemic and structural character and not just one more cyclical crisis. Those who think that this crisis will be resolved with an injection of fiscal money and with some regulatory measures are very mistaken.
The financial system is in crisis because it is quoting the value of papers at six times the real value of goods and services being produced in the world. This is not a “failure of the regulation of the system” but rather a constitutive part of the capitalist system that speculates with all goods and values in the pursuit of obtaining the maximum amount of profit possible. Until now, the economic crisis has created 100 million more starving people and more than 50 million new unemployed people, and these figures are tending to increasing.

2) Capitalism has provoked an ecological crisis by subordinating the necessary conditions for life on this planet to the dominance of the market and profit. Each year, the world consumes a third more than what the planet is capable of regenerating. At this rate of wastage by the capitalist system, we are going to need two planets by the year 2030.

3) The global economic, climate change, food and energy crises are products of the decadence of capitalism that threatens to put an end to the existence of life and the planet. To avoid this outcome it is necessary to develop an alternative model to that of the capitalist system. A system based on:

Solidarity and complementarity and not competition;
• A system in harmony with our mother earth rather than the looting of our natural resources;
• A system based on cultural diversity and not the crushing of cultures and impositions of cultural values and lifestyles alien to the realities of our countries:
• A system of peace based on social justice and not on imperialist wars and policies;
• In synthesis, a system that recuperates the human condition of our societies and peoples rather than reducing them to simple consumers or commodities.

4) As a concrete expression of the new reality on the continent, Latin American and Caribbean countries have begun to construct their own institutions, whose roots lie in the common history that goes back to our independence revolution, and which constitutes a concrete instrument for deepening the processes of social, economic and cultural transformation that will consolidate our sovereignty. The ALBA-TCP [TCP = Peoples Trade Agreement], Petrocaribe and UNASUR [Union of South American Nations], to only cite the most recently created ones, are mechanisms for solidarity-based union forged in the heat of these transformations, with the manifest intention of strengthening the efforts of our peoples to reach their own liberation.
In order to confront the grave effects of the global economic crisis, the ALBA-TCP countries have taken innovative and transformational measures that seek real alternatives to the deficient international economic order rather than strengthen these failed institutions. That is why we have put in [place] a Single System of Regional Compensation, the SUCRE, that includes a Common Accounting Unit, a Chamber of Compensations of Payments and a Single System of Reserves.

At the same time, we have promoted the constitution of grand national companies in order to satisfy the fundamental necessities of our peoples, establishing mechanisms of just and complementary trade, that leave to one side the absurd logic of unrestrained competition.

5) We question the G20’s decision to triple the amount of resources going to the International Monetary Fund, when what is really necessary is the establishment of a new world economic order that includes the total transformation of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO [World Trade Organisation], which with their neoliberal conditions have contributed to this global economic crisis.

6) The solutions to the global economic crisis and the definition of a new international financial architecture should be adopted with the participation of the 192 countries that between June 1 and 3, 2009, will meet at a United Nations conference about the international financial crisis, in order to propose the creation of a new international economic order.

7) In regards to the climate change crisis, the developed countries have an ecological debt with the world given that they are responsible for 70% of historic emissions of carbon accumulated in the atmosphere since 1750.

The developed countries, debtors with humanity and the planet, should contribute significant resources towards a fund so that the countries on the path towards development can undertake a model of growth that does not repeat the grave impacts of capitalist industrialisation.

8) The solutions to the energy, food and climate change crises have to be integral and interdependent. We cannot resolve a problem creating others in the areas fundamental to life. For example, generalising the use of agro-fuels can only impact negatively on the price of food and in the utilisation of essential resources such as water, land and forests.

9) We condemn discrimination against migrants in all its forms. Migration is a human right, not a crime. Therefore, we demand an urgent reform to the migration policies of the United States government, with the objective of detaining deportations and mass raids, allowing the reunification of families, and we demand the elimination of the wall that divides and separates us, rather than uniting us.
In this sense, we demand the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the elimination of the policies of ``wetbacks-drybacks'', which has a discriminatory and selective character, and is the cause of loss of human lives.

Those that are truly to blame for the financial crisis are the bankers who steal money and the resources of our countries, not migrant workers. Human rights come first, particularly the human rights of the most unprotected and marginalised sectors of our society, as undocumented workers are.

For there to be integration there has to be free circulation of people, and equal human rights for all regardless of migratory status. Brain drain constitutes a form of looting of qualified human resources by the rich countries.
10) Basic services such as education, health, water, energy and telecommunications have to be declared human rights and cannot be the objects of private business nor be commodified by the World Trade Organisation. These services are and should be essential, universally accessible public services.

11) We want a world where all countries, big and small, have the same rights and where empires do not exist. We advocate against intervention. Strengthen, as the only legitimate channel for discussion and analysis of bilateral and multilateral agendas of the continent, the base of mutual respect between states and governments, under the principle of non-interference of one state over another and the inviolability of the sovereignty and self-determination of the peoples.

We demand that the new government of the United States, whose inauguration has generated some expectations in the region and the world, put an end to the long and nefarious tradition of interventionism and aggression that has characterised the actions of the governments of this country throughout its history, especially brutal during the government of George W. Bush.

In the same way, eliminate interventionist practices such as covert operations, parallel diplomacy, media wars aimed at destabilising states and governments, and the financing of destabilising groups. It is fundamental that we construct a world in which a diversity of economic, political, social and cultural approaches are recognised and respected.

12) Regarding the United States' blockade against Cuba and the exclusion of this country from the Summit of the Americas, the countries of the Bolivarian Alternatives for the People of Our Americas reiterates the position that all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean adopted last December 16, 2008, regarding the necessity of putting an end to the economic, trade and financial blockade imposed by the government of the United States of America against Cuba, including the application of the denominated Helms-Burton law, and that among its paragraphs notes:

“CONSIDERING the resolutions approved by the United Nations General Assembly on the need to put an end to the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba and the decisions on the latter approved at several international meetings,

“DECLARE that in defence of free trade and the transparent practice of international trade, it is unacceptable to apply unilateral coercive measures that will affect the wellbeing of nations and obstruct the processes of integration.

“WE REJECT the implementation of laws and measures that contradict International Law such as the Helms-Burton law and urge the US Government to put an end to its implementation.

"WE ASK the US Government to comply with the 17 successive resolutions approved at the United Nations General Assembly and put an end to the economic, commercial and financial embargo it has imposed on Cuba.”

Moreover, we believe that the attempts to impose isolation on Cuba, which today is an integral part of the Latin American and Caribbean region, is a member of the Rio Group and other organisations and regional mechanisms, that carries out a policy of cooperation and solidarity with the people of the region, that promotes the full integration of the Latin American and Caribbean peoples, has failed, and that, therefore, no reason exists to justify Cuba's exclusion from the Summit of the Americas.

13) The developed countries have destined no less than US$8 trillion towards rescuing the financial structure that has collapsed. They are the same ones that do not comply with spending a small sum to reach the Millennium Goals or 0.7% of GDP for Official Development Aid. Never before have we seen so nakedly the hypocrisy of the discourse of the rich countries. Cooperation has to be established without conditions and adjusted to the agendas of the receiving countries, simplifying the procedures, making resources accessible and privileging issues of social inclusion.

14) The legitimate struggle against narco-trafficking and organised crime, and any other manifestation of the denominated “new threats,” should not be utilised as excuses for carrying out acts of interference or intervention against our countries.

15) We are firmly convinced that change, which all the world is hoping for, can only come about through the organisation, mobilisation and unity of our peoples.

As the Liberator Simón Bolívar well stated: “The unity of our peoples is not simply the chimera of men, but an inexorable fate.”

(The statement was translated from Spanish into English by Federico Fuentes and first appeared at Bolivia Rising, edited by him.

NGOs urge election of Rights-respecting states to Human Rights Council

In a letter to UN member states, the NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council expressed concern that the human rights records of Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, all of which are running for re-election, fall far short of the required "highest" standards of human rights. The coalition urged UN member states not to vote for these countries as they have not made real progress to address human rights violations and to cooperate fully with the council ahead of the election.

"These five countries stood out as rights violators in 2006 and sadly still do today," said Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "They have made many promises but taken few steps to make them convincing candidates for a human rights body."

Member nations of the UN General Assembly in New York will elect 18 new members to the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN’s leading human rights body. Council members are required to "uphold the highest standards" of human rights and "fully cooperate" with the council.

The make-up of the Human Rights Council reflects the UN’s geographic composition, and seats are allotted by regional group. In four out of five regions, the number of candidates is expected to equal the number of seats allotted to the region, thus eliminating any meaningful competition and comparative scrutiny of candidates. Even so, each candidate must secure an absolute majority of the General Assembly -- 97 votes -- in order to obtain a seat.

"The old practice of regional endorsements and rubber-stamping was supposed to go out with the Human Rights Commission," said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), referring to the Human Rights Council's predecessor. "But the lack of real choice in so many regions suggests that many countries have gone back to putting politics and vote trading ahead of human rights and an effective Human Rights Council.”

In the African region, Cameroon, Djibouti, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, and Senegal have declared their candidacies for the five available seats, but delegates from the African region say that one of the candidates will withdraw before the election and the region plans to again present a non-competitive slate. In the Western European and Other group, Belgium, Norway, and the United States are running for the region’s three open seats. Although New Zealand was running, it withdrew from the election after the United States declared its candidacy.

"It is especially disappointing that for the first time the longstanding democracies in the Western group have chosen to run a non-competitive election for the Human Rights Council," said Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of Democracy Coalition Project. "We fear this poor decision will undermine efforts to improve the membership of the council through competitive slates."

Only in the Eastern Europe slate are member states sure to have a choice of candidates, with Hungary, Russia, and Azerbaijan vying for two seats. The coalition noted that Azerbaijan harasses and intimidates human rights defenders, continues to hold political prisoners, and uses criminal charges to silence independent media. The human rights situation in the country has deteriorated during its three years on the council. Similarly, Russia has tightened control over civil society, restricted freedom of expression and the media, and allowed harassment and violence against journalists and activists to go unpunished.

"Among Eastern European candidates, the choice is clear," said Igor Blazevic, head of the Human Rights and Democracy Department of the People in Need. "Russia and Azerbaijan simply do not uphold the highest standards of human rights."

China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba are running in non-competitive elections. Although Cuba remains the one country in the Western Hemisphere that represses nearly all forms of political dissent, it faces no competition for its seat, with only three countries (Cuba, Mexico, and Uruguay) running for the three open Latin American seats. Countries in the Asian regional group have gone so far as to endorse unconditionally all five candidates running for the Asian region’s five open seats, including China and Saudi Arabia, two countries well known for their human rights violations. Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, and Jordan are also running.

"We had hoped that the election of Azerbaijan, Cuba, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to the new council in 2006 would lead to much needed reforms to improve their rights records, but have only seen empty promises of change," said Bahey el-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). "Saudi Arabia is a prime example of failure to reform. Grave human rights abuses occur regularly there. Saudi citizens cannot form political parties or associations or peacefully assemble, religious minorities still suffer obvious discrimination, and women -- for no other reason than being female -- are denied basic rights."

The NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council urged UN member states to cast their votes only for those countries with records of human rights protection and cooperation that meet membership standards.

"Widespread, serious human rights abuses by China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia should carry a cost, even in the absence of competition," said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House. "Members of the international community should not reward failure to promote and protect human rights with their votes."

To read the letter from the NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council to UN member states, please visit:

For profiles of human rights conditions in countries running for the Human Rights Council, please visit:

Kahani Movement to document the Indian American story

The following is based on material received from SAJA Forum

The Kahani Movement, an oral history project modelled after StoryCorps, is being launched today at the opening of the seventh annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

David Isay formed StoryCorps, a cross-country oral history project, to document and capture the stories of everyday American life through conversation and dialogue. The Kahani Movement ties the concept of StoryCorps to the technology of Web 2.0 by inspiring Indian Americans to tell stories of their early days in the U.S. from the comfort of their own kitchen tables and then share this content on a newly developed social network (

Co-founded by brothers Dr. Sanjay Gupta (CNN) and Suneel Gupta (Mozilla), the Kahani Movement is a non-profit project aiming to inspire generations of Indian-Americans to capture and share stories from their ancestors that immigrated to the United States from India. The project takes a Hollywood 2.0 approach to sharing these stories by motivating young Indian Americans to pick up a camera, interview their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then post that footage to Kahani's web platform (

The eventual audience for this content is a generation of people who may never have the benefit of a real conversation with their immigrant ancestors. "These cherished stories are evaporating along with the people who lived them," Sanjay Gupta said. "It is our generation's responsibility to preserve those stories, so that they are never lost."

The short-piece featured on the website weaves together several stories, collected over the past year, of Indian-Americans who travelled to the United States in the late 1960's and early 1970's, following President Kennedy's lowering of the immigration barriers for Indians. Although each story told by these pioneers is unique, these rich tales are unified by a bond of struggle, success and sacrifice.

Kahani's platform allows storytellers to browse through stories submitted by fellow users, and submit their own in the form of video, audio, photos, and writings. With an open-source approach to film production, the Kahani Movement gives the storyteller the ability to not only share his or her stories with a network but also be able to access the content from other participants.

The Kahani movement follows on the heels of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, which was able to bring together the Indian-American community in celebrating the Indian heritage. Kahani hopes to continue to inspire generations of Indian-Americans to embrace and document the rich cultural traditions of their ancestors.

The purpose of creating the Kahani Movement is three-fold:

1. Assemble a well-organized archive of content that helps current and future generations better understand the Indian immigration experience. "Second generation immigrants reach a point in their lives when they begin to truly appreciate their parents’ struggle.” says Suneel Gupta. “When I reached that point, I wanted to sit my mom down and sincerely listen to her story. But my children, and their children, might not have that opportunity.”

2. Empower the Kahani Movement community to collaborative creatively. Simon Beaufoy was inspired to write Slumdog Millionaire after reading the novel, Q&A. Similarly, Kahani Movement inspires community members to add to and remix content on the site to tell the Indian immigration story in new, imaginative ways.

3. Inspire others outside of the Indian community to create their own Kahani Movement. Every community has powerful stories that are worth preserving. An important goal for Kahani is to lower the barrier to capturing these stories by creating a digital model that is easy to replicate.

Suneel Gupta: While working in President Clinton’s press operation, Suneel developed a
strong interest in the convergence of media and technology and pursued this interest through strategic and venture roles in various global markets. In 2004, he was recruited from the private sector to co-draft the Democratic party’s national platform (a collaborative mission statement for our nation) and later earned a JD-MBA from Northwestern University. Suneel is currently working with the Mozilla Corporation as a Director of Product Development in Mozilla Labs, the company's innovation group.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta
: Dr. Sanjay Gupta is chief medical correspondent for the health and medical unit at CNN. Based in Atlanta, Gupta also contributes health news stories to and, co-hosts “Accent Health” for Turner Private Networks, provides medical segments for the syndicated version of ER on TNT, writes a column for TIME magazine, anchors the global health program Vital Signs for CNN International and is featured in a weekly podcast on health issues called "Paging Dr. Gupta." Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon and an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University. Before joining CNN, Gupta was a fellow in neurosurgery at the University of Tennessee's Semmes-Murphy clinic, and before that, the University of Michigan Medical Center. In 1997, he was chosen as a White House Fellow — one of only 15 fellows appointed. He served as special advisor to first lady Hillary Clinton.

Citizen’s Report on Governance: Reinventing local self-government

This is the third and final post based on the Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development 2008-09, produced by the National Social Watch Coalition:

The Citizen’s Report notes that there have been both good and bad developments with regard to local self-governance.

The good is that 14 years after constitutional status was given to panchayats and municipalities, barring Jharkhand, several states have completed two or even three rounds of elections for rural and local self-government. Since 2005 the Union Minister of Panchayati Raj has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with as many as 19 states and one Union Territory for the devolution of funds, functions and functionaries.

The MoUs show a sense of urgency towards fulfilling certain issues for successful decentralization of power and can be used to hold the state governments accountable for the commitments outlined in them. People’s support for these organizations is increasing because panchayats are providing a diverse, widespread and strong foundation for inclusive and participatory growth. These institutions are gaining importance because they are implementing national programs like NREM and NREGA.

Delays in devolution

The report’s other concerns are:

Devolution of funds, functions and functionaries to local bodies continues to be tardy with state governments retaining direct control over all aspects of these bodies.

MOUs signed between the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and the different states are not being followed or implemented in their true spirit because they are not time-bound. (The Ministry has signed MOUs with 15 states for time-bound and concrete action.)

Government apathy

Transfer of functions, according to the report, leaves much to be desired where some innocuous functions such as monitoring and supervision have been transferred. Most of the functions are related to the ones handled by the line department functionaries and Panchayats have no direct control over them, in reality. Wherever the function seems to be substantial, it is in the form of rendering assistance to line departments. The solution to this problem in terms of ‘activity mapping’ done by MOPR is a welcome initiative. However, the order issued for that is incomplete. The states began with a wrong checklist because of a lackadaisical attitude or lack of understanding.

On the flip side there is concern over the fact that gram sabhas and ward sabhas in urban areas continue to be victims of government apathy and indifference from civil society.

The report suggests that different development structures that will be accountable to them be created because ongoing programs have created parallel institutions resulting in over lapping and conflicts in implementation.

The report notes that the investment patterns of Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission has a lopsided approach to urban governance and infrastructure with as much as Rs. 4430.23 crores being sanctioned for Urban Governance and Infrastructure as against Rs.1, 003.27 crores for Basic Services to Urban Poor.

Agriculture in crises

The report opines that policies formulated during the last 15 years lack strategic goals and objectives and that though the growth performance over the last decade has been impressive it has not necessarily benefited everyone equally.

This is particularly true of Indian agriculture, which has been witnessing a decline in the number of cultivators from 110.7 million in 1991 to 103,63 million. Added to this is the plight of farmers, close to 182936 across the states who have committed suicide between 1997 -2007. The irony in all this is that many of them could have been saved because as the Finance Minister admitted in his last Budget speech, "There is no dearth of schemes; there is no dearth of funds. What needs to be done is to deliver the intended outcomes." But, as he added, "Sadly, the extension system (read administration) seems to have collapsed."

Health - persisting disparities

Similarly, India's performance in reducing health inequalities has made little headway with disparities continuing to persist regionally, across socio-economic groups and between rural and urban areas. At present, health care amounts to mere 1.4 % of its GDP, which is extremely small compared to other developing countries like Cuba
(6.7),Namibia (4.7), Nepa l(3.8) and Bangladesh(2.3).

The National Rural Health Mission 2005-2012, the report notes, has had little effect because of limited awareness levels, confusion regarding the role of various agencies and the fact that health plans have remained more or less centralized. The Report feels the spirit of NRHM should be implemented thorough anganwadis and Panchayati Raj institutions to make rural health services more effective.

Centre-State fiscal relations

There is a clear connection between the fiscal consolidation targets and the changing dynamics of Centre-state fiscal relations. The Centre’s own expenditure was reduced by 2.3 percentage points to achieve the revenue deficit to GDP target of roughly the same magnitude, which indicates that there is an inherent process of centralization. The increasing control of the Centre has been reflected in the nature of grants, decline in overall transfers, increasing expenditure responsibilities of the States, increase in committed expenditures, and increase in relative command over total resources by the central government in relation to its expenditure.

In terms of the overall centre-State fiscal relations, there is accentuation of imbalances, both vertical and horizontal imbalances, especially during the period of economic reforms. Increase in these inequalities means the balancing act, which the constitutionally mandated transfer mechanism had to do, have not been achieved.

RTI-diluted in spirit

The report sees the Right to Information Act as a welcome policy initiative which can be used as a tool to seek improvement in service delivery. However, it draws attention to some critical weaknesses in its operations.

According to the report, the Central Informnation Commission had imposed penalties in only 73 out of 7,000 cases disposed of. Worse still, the information commissions have begun to reject appeals on technical and flimsy grounds. In April 2007, for instance, 57.96 % of appeals received at CIC were rejected, and by June rejections rose to 63.76%. Nearly two out of three appeals and complaints were not registered.

Several issues need to be addressed, the most important being the appointment of Information Commissioners. The Act clearly states that they must not be from the bureaucracy but most ICs are retired or serving bureaucrats. The other is the reluctance of State Information Commissions to penalize principal information officers who do not provide adequate information.

Earlier posts:
Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development 2008-09
Citizen’s Report: State of the Judiciary

20 April, 2009

Citizen’s Report on Governance: State of the Judiciary

This is the second post based on the Citizen’s Rep[ort on Governance and Development 2008-09, produced by the National Social Watch Coalition:

The review of the Indian Judiciary in the Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development 2008-09 focuses on the debate of courts venturing into the domain of the legislature and the executive.

Locating the debate on judicial self-restraint and judicial intervention within the framework of ‘separation of powers’, the report examines the issue in the context of Justice Katju’s and Justice Sinha’s

The report suggests a nuanced approach is needed to examine the question of where, why and how to draw the line between legitimate and improper judicial activism.

An analysis of judicial response through the court verdicts covers the
whole gamut of cases on constitutional governance and political
accountability. Starting with the case of ‘cash for questions’, it
closely examines the question of legal wrong vs the moral wrong.

The report cites another case of great significance, from the
standpoint of constitutional law, a question arose as to whether
legislations can be immunized from legal challenge (on the ground of
fundamental rights) by Parliament as a consequence of their insertion
into the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution.

Cases on environment, development rights and civil liberties are also
examined. The section dealing with the cases on forced land
acquisition, displacement, resettlement and rehabilitation issues
cites the example of Nandigram where Kolkata High Court upheld the
position of law and gave a range of directions to help the situation
there, on the question of safeguarding the fundamental rights of the
people of Nandigarm.

A verdict of the Supreme Court last year on a petition filed by the
Supreme Court Bar Association raised points of considerable
importance. The Bar Association pointed out that appointment of a
retired judge as chairman of the State Legal Service Authority in
different States has the effect of inhibiting the effectiveness of the State Legal Service Authorities.

The report calls for reforms that will reduce the numbers of
pending cases. At present more than 40,000 cases are pending in the Supreme Court and 3.30,689 cases in high courts for more
than ten years.

Earlier post on the subject: "Citizen's Report on Governance and Development 2008-09". Another post will follow.

19 April, 2009

Citizen's Report on Governance and Development 2008-09

The Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development 2008-09 has just been published.

This is the fifth such report brought out by the National Social Watch Coalition (NSWC), comprising civil society organizations and concerned citizens in 14 states of India.

The report examines the performance of four nodal institutions of governance -- parliament, the judiciary, policy making and institutions of local self-governance. It also looks at new policies and issues like National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM) and Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and the many contradictions and crises faced by these institutions.

What makes this report unique is that, while there are numerous studies on the specific issue of governance, this is perhaps the first one that examines governance from the point of view of the performance of the four leading institutions. NSWC feels that how they are performing is also indicative of how governance and governance accountability will take shape in the future.

Purpose of the Report

By placing their findings in the public domain through this report, NSWC hopes to draw attention to the imbalances we are witnessing andcreate a national discourse on the all-important issues of governance at a time when a downslide is all too apparent. Especially in the functioning of Parliament, which has been witnessing a decline in the quality of legislators, the quality of legislation and the time spent on legislation.

Parliament: Dismal decline

In the section on Parliament, the report looks at various institutional dimensions: the total disregard of parliamentary protocol by MPs resulting in lengthy disruptions in the functioning of the House. The conduct of business in Parliament, marked by reduced number of sittings, insufficient apportionment of time to the main functions of
deliberating and legislating. Between 2000 -2007 the average hours of working of parliament is not even 50 Percent of the total time.

Indifferent MPs

While doing so it also notes with concern the callous manner in which bills are passed. In the fourteenth Lok Sabha most bills, including some appropriation bills and the railway budget, were passed after a few minutes of discussion and at times bills were disposed of together. Even an important bill like the Special Economic Zone Act, which was viewed with considerable concern in the country, was introduced on a day that was occupied with long debates on the Right to Information Act and passed after less than two hours of discussion. In fact, non-financial business took up more than 35% of the Lok Sabha's time and over 45% of the Raj Sabha's time in during 2007-08.

The report laments the fact that only 173 MPs in the 14th Lok Sabha actually said anything on legislative issues and that the house passed nearly 40% of the Bills with less than one hour of debate. Members’ intervention in parliamentary debates is a telling indicator of their participation, the Report points that participation of younger members (in the age group of 25-45) is lower.

Disregard for decorum

Also of concern was the fact that with political parties resorting to protest politics, disruptions have become everyday affairs. Also, they and have been increasing over the years. The 11th Lok Sabha (1996-98) lost 5.28 % of its time due to pandemonium. In the 12th Lok Sabha it went up to 10.66%, in the 13th Lok Sabha to 22.4%. The 14th Lok Sabha, which commenced in June 2004, lost 22% of its time due to interruptions arising out of various political controversies. This is a shocking waste considering that each minute of Parliament costs the exchequer Rs. 26,035.

The report found that absenteeism among MPs was increasing with attendance. On examining the attendance records of the 11th and 12th Sessions of the 14th Lok Sabha, it was seen that more than 75% members are below the median point of 16 or more days of attendance. Most of the MPs attended between 11 and 15 days. The number of MPs whose attendance range from 0-5 days increased in the 12th session.

Performance of Celebrity MPs

Parliament includes some members who are well known in their respective fields/professions. They have been inducted in the houses either because they present a ‘celebrity face’ of a party or because of their popularity. None of these MP’s has attended more than 20% of the total number of days in each session.

In the Lok Sabha, celebrity MPs did not participate more than four times in the parliamentary debates in the year 2007. Five members did not participate in the debates even once. Their attendance in the committees is minimal. Seven members did not attend committee meetings at all. Five of these members did not ask even a single question.

The report draws attention to the enhanced interest of corporate bigwigs to enter Parliament. Their entry testifies to a tendency among major industrial and business houses to influence core policy directions. The report notes “conflict of interest question” which comes into play with the involvement of corporate bigwigs.

Assessing the role of the Committees

The major observations in the functioning of committee system are that in a short span of time, the standing committees produce a variety of perfunctory reports, which are not taken seriously by the government and the media. These reports are mostly based on government-supplied information, which reduces the exercise from ‘examination’ to ‘formalization’.

The analysis of the existing parliamentary committees gives some simple solutions to enrich their functioning and encounter the challenges faced by the present committee system. Firstly, there is an urgent need to rationalize the system and coordinate it better. Secondly, the select committees have been entrusted with too much of work to be done in a limited time period. Mechanism of select committees and joint select committees should be used to review the bills and the standing committees should be left with financial oversight functions.

Shabby questions

A decline was also noticed in the quantity and quality of questions raised during Question Hour, which carries 7-8,000 Starred and Unstarred questions from both Houses in a given session. Also, in terms of the time allocated to question hour, on an average the question hour gets 9-10 percent of the total time of Parliament.

The report notes that quite often Parliament conveniently bypasses or cancels the question hour. Most of the questions pertaining to the social sector sought statistical information which could have been got through administrative channels. On the one hand if some of the questions show lack of homework and understanding on the part of the parliamentarians on the other the answers shows that casual and rudimentary approach of the ministries.

Given this scenario there is an obvious need for far-reaching reforms in the workings of Parliament. But the report feels that they must come from within because these are ethical issues that parliamentarians must themselves address.

More posts dealing with other subjects covered by the report will follow.

18 April, 2009

Immigrants don’t feel safe in San Francisco

News Report
New America Media

Editor’s Note: Once a beacon for immigrants, San Francisco is no longer seen as a safe place to live for some families. Residents who spoke at a recent city hearing say they are under siege because of immigration raids on private homes that are tearing families apart.

San Francisco’s history as a sanctuary city for immigrants and pioneer in civil rights is being seriously undermined by recent policy changes by the mayor that are hurting a growing number of families. MORE

The rest of the report and video at NAM site

Obama needs to break with failed Bush policies

New America Media

Editor’s Note: President Obama needs to break with the failed policies of the Bush administration at the Summit of the Americas, writes Adam Sgrenci, an associate of the Center for the Study of the Americas.

This weekend the fifth Summit of the Americas convenes in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, bringing together 34 heads of state in the Western Hemisphere. Leading the U.S. delegation, President Obama needs to break with the failed policies of the Bush administration that alienated most of the governments of Latin America during the first decade of this century.

Obama has engaged Latin America from the start of his presidency. Even before his inauguration he held a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to discuss U.S.-Mexican border issues.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited the White House in March, telling Obama he had a "unique" chance to transform relations with Latin America. Though Lula stressed the importance of lifting the economic embargo on Cuba, his main concerns were with bilateral trade relations between the biggest nation state of the southern hemisphere and the “colossus of the North.” It is likely that Obama will concede to Lula’s requests and lower U.S. tariffs on imports of bio-fuels. This would represent a step away from the hypocrisy of U.S.-Latin American trade relations in which the United States demanded open markets throughout the region but then protected its own.

The other advance in U.S.-Latin American relations came 10 days later when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Mexico. For the first time in recent history, she explicitly acknowledged the United States’ destructive role in the rising violence around drug trafficking, especially the U.S. supply of high powered weapons for drug cartels and the virtually insatiable U.S. demand for drugs.

This week, prior to his departure for the summit, Obama made headlines with his announcement that he was lifting the draconian visitation restrictions that Bush had placed on Cuban American visits to their former homeland. Relatives are now free to visit the island as often as they wish and it is easier to send remittances. The United States even promised to lift many of the restrictions on communications with the island, meaning that the cost of telephone calls and Internet connections would be more reasonable and accessible.

But it will take more than these early steps to undo eight years of disastrous policies in the hemisphere.

Bush’s main initiative was to try to impose the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a policy that was met with resistance at the third Summit of the Americas in Argentina in November 2005. But Bush persevered with U.S. neo-liberal free trade policies during both of his terms, accentuating income disparities in a region already burdened with the largest income gap between the rich and poor in the world. According to the Inter-American Dialogue based in Washington, D.C., the positive economic growth that did take place between 2002 and 2008 was the result of Latin American “innovative social programs” and “remittances from abroad.”

It is unclear what initiatives Obama may propose in the area of trade. His main focus appears to be to address the global economic crisis and to stake out the U.S. position vis-à-vis Latin America. President Lula, like most other Latin American leaders, sees the crisis as an external problem, attributing it to "white, blue-eyed" bankers who are responsible for forcing Latin Americans to “suffer the consequences of arrogant financiers in Europe and the United States.”

Obama seems bent on resuscitating the staid international financial institutions that helped precipitate the economic crisis, turning to the International Monetary Fund and the Inter American Development Bank in particular. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa warns that throwing more funds at the IMF in order to solve the crisis is a serious mistake. The same goes for the IDB. According to Laura Carlsen at the Center for International Policy, the recent IDB loan increase estimate of $18 billion as a response to the crisis will only “generate a new wave of debt in the recipient countries.” Mega-projects financed by these institutions (the construction of dams, superhighways and electricity networks) have had the disastrous outcome of displacing the populations they were meant to benefit.

Obama needs to address what Lula stressed during his White House visit: reform the old trade agreements such as NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, CAFTA with the Central American countries, and the Peru, Colombia and Panama Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).

Many believe trade reform is simply not a top priority for the Obama administration. The recently confirmed United States Trade Representative (USTR), Ron Kirk, is a free-trade advocate who faces opposition from labor and civil liberty organizations. The AFL-CIO has been demanding that the USTR address the violations of human rights, workers’ rights and environmental regulations permitted by these agreements.

Three months of waiting for Kirk’s confirmation afforded the administration an opportunity to stall any action in addressing these demands. In the meantime, the Peru FTA was implemented to the outrage of its opponents.

There will undoubtedly be verbal fireworks at the summit. President Hugo Chavez is convening a gathering of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Known as ALBA, this institution advocates a socially-oriented trade block in direct opposition to Bush’s FTAA. Chavez has stated that he is ready for battle this weekend and preparing his “artillery.”

There will also be a clamor raised by virtually all of the Latin American nations because Cuba is the only country excluded from the summit. But Cuba expects little from the United States. As former President Fidel Castro notes in his writings from semi-retirement, Obama has said “not a word about the harshest measure: the blockade. This is what a truly genocidal measure is piously called,” Castro wrote, “one whose damage cannot be calculated only on the basis of its economic effects, for it constantly takes human lives and brings painful suffering to our people.”

17 April, 2009

Overconsumption and profiting without producing are the problems

Two articles circulated by Countercurrents today focus attention on issues that the media often overlooks in discussing the environmental and economic crises that the world is facing.

One is “Consumption dwarfs population as main environmental threat” by Fred Pearce (picture on right), London-based writer and environment and development consultant. It appeared in The Guardian today.

Overconsumption, not overpopulation is driving environmental destruction, says Pearce. It is hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world's environmental footprint because generations of poor people not yet born might one day get to be as rich and destructive as us, he argues.

The world's population quadrupled to six billion people during the 20th century. It is still rising and may reach 9 billion by 2050. Yet for at least the past century, rising per-capita incomes have outstripped the rising head count several times over. And while incomes don't translate precisely into increased resource use and pollution, the correlation is distressingly strong.

The other article is “Profiting without producing by Marcos Arruda(left), Brazilian economist and educator and Fellow of the Transnational Institute.

The world today is wealthier than ever – and more unequal, says Arruda. Something is rotten in the kingdom of Capital. Remember first that, while investors in their millions suffer the terrors of a financial crisis, the impoverished peoples of the Earth – in their billions – endure a daily routine of chronic crisis for lack of access to goods and the means of production or to the essentials of a worthwhile human life, i.e. food, energy, pleasurable work, time to develop their potential, a decent standard of living, and social and ecological relations that are friendly, secure, gratifying and lasting.

While millions face poverty and hunger, others make fortunes without producing. A sustainable alternative to financial globalisation must be based on international cooperation and solidarity - with new indicators in place to measure well-being.

Links to the articles:

“Consumption dwarfs population as main environmental threat” by Fred Pearce

“Profiting without producing” by Marcos Arruda

16 April, 2009

Anatomy of a Silicon Valley layoff

News Feature
New America Media
Video by Angel Luna

Her e-mail handle says it all – “Five_Kids98.”

At 48, Doris Rodriguez is a mother of five and a grandmother of four. Throughout the years, in order to provide for them, she has been a fruit picker on the land that became Silicon Valley, an assembly line worker when high-tech manufacturing was in its infancy, and eventually ascended to the position of lab technician supervisor after 23 years at Spansion, the largest Flash memory chip maker in the world.

Rodriguez’s long personal employment history is a timeline unto itself of the rise and fall of Silicon Valley as an economic engine. Integral to the story are the workers who fueled the region’s growth, despite in the end being betrayed by its promise.

In February, Spansion shed 3,000 employees globally, more than a third of its workforce in a self-described “restructuring” period. Even during the collapse of the nation’s financial institutions and housing market crisis, there was a hope among employment analysts that Silicon Valley was somehow insulated from the country’s financial woes because of its global reach.

But now, as unemployment rates hover above 10 percent, that theory is a bust.

Spansion was once thought to be one of those companies immune to the recession given its expansive market. The company’s Flash memory chip can be found in nearly every electronic device: in cell phones, cars, networking equipment, high-definition TVs, and other consumer electronics. Nonetheless, Spansion slashed 615 jobs at its Bay Area campuses and plants.

In a company statement John Kispert, Spansion president and CEO, said "the global recession is forcing us to make this very difficult decision in order to bring our costs in line with the current expectations for significantly reduced revenues." Yet at the same time as mass layoffs, the company maintained pay increases to its upper-level management and executives. If AIG was emblematic of Wall Street’s demise fueled by its own greed, Spansion’s controversial layoffs are the symbol in Silicon Valley that greed in the new high-tech economy looks and feels a lot like the old one.

By March 1, Spansion had filed for bankruptcy. And while the company says filing for Chapter 11, shifting market targets, and hiring a chief restructuring officer allows Spansion “to strengthen its financial position and focus its business for long-term success,” Rodriguez and her former co-workers have to simply start over.

At her daughter’s home in East San Jose, Rodriguez still is shell-shocked from the layoff, because she expected to spend the rest of her working years at Spansion.

“It’s like being on a boat, and they tell you its sinking, but don’t give you a life jacket, or the chance to find another boat,” she said.

She is playing with her granddaughter, bouncing the child on her knees, as she re-imagines herself. “I think I’d like to be a social worker, or in the medical field, something that helps young families and children,” she said. While casting her thoughts to the future, optimistic and hopeful, Rodriguez still can’t help but shake her head at the life-jarring layoff that came with no warning, apology or severance after 23 years of work.

Rodriguez began working in the high-tech sector as a teenager, before the area of Santa Clara County took on the name Silicon Valley. “I’ve spent more than half of my life working in that industry.” By 1986, she was working in thin film production, placing layers of glass on top of the wafers, back when Spansion was called Monolithic Memories Incorporated.

“I really liked the work, it was fast pace, and after a while it was like I was my own boss,” she said.

The work ethic she takes pride in, that carried her through 25 years in a fast changing and physically demanding industry, was bred into her at an early age. “As a child I picked prunes and strawberries, and as a teen cut apricots by where the airport is,” she said. “I’ve always worked hard, it’s all I’ve known.”

And, as the economy and work changed in Silicon Valley, there was a binding ethic, regardless of if the job was in the fields or in the clean rooms that kept Rodriguez grinding. “Those of us from the baby boomer generation were always taught that you have to work hard and sacrifice now, and that the easier times will come when you’re older.”

In 1997 as the rapid climb of the high-tech industry also raised housing costs in the region, Rodriguez, like many Silicon Valley workers, got priced out of the Valley she was helping to build. She bought a home in Modesto, Calif., a Central Valley town, and commuted over four hours a day round trip to work for Spansion, taking naps at a gas station along the way.

Last year, as the company’s financial outlook became less secure, Rodriguez and her co-workers did what they could to keep Spansion running.

“We did our part to make sure people didn’t get laid off, took pay cuts, did work furloughs, everything we could to help out,” she said.

It was during a work furlough that Spansion decided to not bring hundreds of workers at the Sunnyvale branch back. “I was at celebrating my granddaughter’s birthday at Chucky Cheese when my aunt who also works there called and said, ‘check your account, I got some money from Spansion, and I think we just got laid off.’”

Rodriguez checked her account, and sure enough she had an unexpected check from her employer. “I thought is was just a mistake, because I didn’t get a call from my boss, and my whole division was supposed to return to work that week,” she said.

By the start of the work week, e-mails were flying back and forth among employees, checking who was laid off, who was still just furloughed, and who was back at work. Rodriguez along with her colleagues in the Sun Micron Division got the following e-mail from management:

“Dear all:

I have no official confirmation but it almost looks like this may be the end of the line for all of us… Looking back, I must say we have had more ups than downs and we transformed ourselves many times over to achieve and deliver what the company needed while showing tremendous personal growth...”

The co-workers, what Rodriguez calls her “work family” got together at Cicero’s Pizza for a part-grieving ceremony, part-venting party, and part-strategy session.

“We knew we couldn’t just let them get away with throwing us away,” she said.

They sent up a Yahoo listserv to exchange information on unemployment coverage, job leads, and potlucks. The listserv also informs them about the class action lawsuit they collectively filed against Spansion in federal court.

Ken Sugarman, one of several lawyers representing the former Spansion workers, says Rodriguez and her co-litigators have a very strong case.

“Under the Worker Adjustment and Re-Training Act (WARN Act), employers must provide 60 days notice before they conduct a layoff of more then 50 employees at one site,” he said.

The law is intended to allow employees to make arrangements or find another lifeboat, as Rodriguez would say. The remedy, at the least, is for companies who do not give adequate warning, to pay wages and benefits for 60 days. Sugarman says his firm has been getting a steady increase of inquiries by Silicon Valley workers on their rights after they are laid off.

Spansion disputes the workers’ claims.

“We are not providing an update on the lawsuit apart from reiterating that we believe we acted within the bounds of the law,” said Courtney Brigham, a corporate public relations manager for Spansion. Rodriguez, though, is not waiting for the courts, and has been looking for other jobs and training programs.

In the meantime, in order to keep her house, Rodriguez has depleted her 401K to keep up with payments, has gotten rid of all her credit cards, and has pinched every penny in order to keep her family fed and housed, living off of unemployment, which is a third of her previous income.

Rodriguez has been a regular at the Stanislaus County Community Service Agency, looking into job opportunities. Her next line of work, he said, will most likely be in a field completely different than what she has been doing for over two decades.

But, Silicon Valley has always been a place of invention, making something out of nothing, and Rodriguez has known that for a long time.

For Video by Angel Luna please go to NAM website

15 April, 2009

Turmoil in Thailand

News Analysis
New America Media

Editor’s note: As conflicts between two political groups, the so-called “red-shirts” and “yellow-shirts,” threaten to tear Thailand apart, its ailing 81-year-old king may not be able to keep the country together. The tourist mecca of Southeast Asia is sailing into unknown and turbulent waters, writes NAM editor Andrew Lam

“It don't matter if you're black or white.” So goes an old Michael Jackson song that resonates now in American politics (and on American Idol). But in the current political crisis in Bangkok, it still matters very much, possibly to the point of civil war, if you wear red or yellow.

According to Thai police, up to 40,000 anti-government “red-shirt” protesters have scattered around the Thai capital, blocking roadways and entrances to upscale shopping malls. A few days earlier, in the nearby beach town of Pattaya, they managed to scare away leaders attending the Asian economic summit and attack Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s own convoy, causing injuries to several members. The prime minister barely got away. His declaration of a state of emergency was only met with more riots by the red shirts. They only began to break up when thousands of soldiers moved in.

Many of these red shirt protestors were trucked in from rural areas. Fierce supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawsastra, who was ousted in 2006 when he was traveling abroad, and charged with corruption in absentia, the protestors are now threatening to bring down the economy as well. Foreign investors are driven away by the unrest and tourism, already suffering from Thailand’s instability, is predicted to sink even further.

Yet, less than six months ago, it was the “yellow shirts” who owned the streets. Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they wore yellow to honor Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Representing a more urban population – in many ways the educated and bourgeois class -- the yellow shirts blocked the airport for days and stranded nearly 250,000 tourists.

The yellow shirts were incensed when a pro-Thaksin prime minister was popularly elected into office when the general election was held in December 2007. In effect, the yellow shirts disagreed with the election, claiming fraud. The constitutional court, under pressure to get the country moving again, agreed with them and disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister.

The trouble was that there was no clear evidence of fraud. In fact, Thaksin himself won the election fair and square before he was ousted by the military three years ago, with tacit support from the king. Many observers predict that he would win again were he to return and run in a fair election. A populist, the former prime minister made great strides among the rural population, provided education and jobs, and brought many out of dire poverty. Charges of corruption aside, his growing base in the countryside rivals that of the affection the people have for their king.

This leads to the issue of civil war, or something close to it. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has experienced many coups and counter-coups. Yet its monarchy holds enormous power, providing much needed constancy and balance. King Bhumibol Adulyadej played the central role in a pivotal moment in Thailand’s transition to a democratic system. In 1992, when the country came to a standstill in an unprecedented crisis due to pro-democracy protests, he summoned the leaders of the two opposing parties, and both men appeared together on their knees in front of the king in a televised event -- which soon led to a free election.

But that routine may no longer work. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 81 years old and ailing. His heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been perceived by many as the wrong choice and doesn’t carry the same gravitas and respect as his father. Whether the monarchy is relevant or even helpful in restoring balance to the current crisis is debatable.

Worse still, Thaksin is threatening from abroad that it’s time “for the people to come out in revolution."

"And when it is necessary,” he stated, “I will come back to the country.”

Those are dangerous words. Thaksin’s statement promises a political scenario that goes beyond the world of coup d’etat. What the shape of that revolution may entail is hard to envision, but it may very well lead to unending strife between the yellow and red shirts that could unravel the kingdom, forcing its citizens to choose sides, and eventually erode the monarchy itself.

Once the envy of its neighbors – Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Malaysia, which suffered under colonial rules – Thailand alone in Southeast Asia developed independently and in peace. But the tourist Mecca of Southeast Asia has lately shown its grimmer side, one that it can no longer keep under wraps.