New on my other blogs

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

വായന

30 November, 2011

Centre seeking to control biotechnology sector

The following is a press release issued by the Environment Support Group, Bangalore:

Biotechnology is a cross cutting issue that affects food production, farming, health, environment and information technology sectors. It is to be expected then that formulation of any law governing this high risk technology would be a deeply democratic and transparent exercise. Particularly because the Constitution of India guarantees that States and Local Governments are the principal levels for engaging with debates and decisions when it matters to people’s access to food, health, a clean environment and livelihood in general. The role of the Centre is supportive, at best.

International law also strongly supports this process of bottom up decision making involving the people meaningfully. The Indian Government, however, seems to now believe that biotechnology as a sector must be under the “control” of the Union Government. Accordingly, it has proposed the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011, to establish a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) and Biotechnology Regulatory Appellate Authority (BRAT) and a host of other regulatory and appeal agencies.

There has been no discussion whatsoever during the formulation of this Bill with Local and State Governments, and it would not be wrong to say that the process by which this legislative proposal has been formulated is absolutely opaque.

The Bill is now set for debate and discussion in the winter session of Parliament. It is to be seen if this would be possible as the House has been rocked by protests from Opposition and allies of the ruling UPA coalition against the Union Government's decision to allow FDI in single brand retail, amongst other issues.

The opportunity now exists to subject BRAI Bill, 2011 to a thorough review at all levels. To assist in this process, Environment Support Group, a not-for-profit public interest research, training, campaign and advocacy initiative responsing to various environmental and social justice concerns, has prepared a critique of the Bill entitled: “Creating an Undemocratic and Unaccountable Biotechnology Regulator: A critique of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2011, with particular emphasis on environmental laws”. The same is attached.(Please go to http://www.scribd.com/doc/74232889/BRAI-Bill-2011-Critique-ESG-Nov-2011)

We do hope that our contribution helps in deeply democratizing the debate and discussion on this legislative proposal, especially considering the massive impact it has on food security, health, environment and governance, and the livelihood of millions.

Leo F. Saldanha
Bhargavi S.Rao

Environment Support Group® – Trust
1572, 36th Cross, 100 Feet Ring Road,
Banashankari II Stage,
Bangalore 560070. INDIA
Tel: 91-80-26713559-3561
Voice/Fax: 91-80-26713316
Web: www.esgindia.org

29 November, 2011

The Government's claims about corporate retail and the reality

Shankar Gopalakrishnan

In the flood of rhetoric following the government's decision to permit FDI in retail, the reality of what this will mean is being lost. For that it is necessary to look at international data and what it shows about the claims being made. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma's letter offers a good place to start. His claim can be summarized as follows:

~Corporate retail fueled by FDI will result in investment in cold chains and therefore in lower prices by “eliminating middlemen.”

~Corporate retail will not threaten small retailers, who find “innovative ways to coexist”, and will generate employment

~Corporate retail will benefit farmers and producers by ensuring a “remunerative price.”

~Corporate retailers will remain restricted to some areas and some sectors.

~There are already corporate retailers in India and there is therefore no problem in permitting FDI

None of these claims is justified by the available data.

Lower Prices and Investment in Cold Chains?

In the sector that requires cold chain infrastructure most - fruits and vegetables - data from developing countries often shows that prices in supermarkets are generally higher than from existing retailers. Certainly, there is no data that shows consistently lower prices from corporate reatilers. Thus:

In Thailand, they are estimated to be 10% higher.

In Argentina, data showed consistently higher prices for fruits and vegetables in supermarkets (the difference being about 14% through the 1990's), though this difference was falling.

In 2000, in Mexican supermarkets, prices of lemons, tomatoes and oranges were significantly higher than in traditional markets, while in all other fruits and vegetables they were identical or slightly higher.

In Vietnam, in 2002, it was found that prices in supermarkets across all categories were around 10% higher.

The concentration of power in the hands of a few companies by no means leads to lower prices. In the US, supermarkets raised tomato prices by 46% between 1994 and 2004 while real prices paid to producers fell by 25%.

In the Indian experience, the entry of corporate chains into wheat and grain procurement has coincided with increased speculation and increased prices.

Regarding investment in cold chains and reduction in wastage, it should be remembered that the international food industry – controlled by the same chains currently advertised as sources for FDI – wastes almost half of the food it procures6.

No Effect on Small Retailers or Employment in Retail?


The Minister and the government here are playing a simple verbal trick. The fact that some retailers “continue to coexist” does not in any way mean that most small retailers will not be pushed out of business.

Indeed, the data is exactly opposite to the claim that there is no evidence of harm to small retailers. Here are citations and figures:

Brazil: in fruits and vegetables, share of street markets declined by 27.8% between 1987 and 1996; in dairy sales, share of dairy stores fell by 27.8% and open air markets by 53.3%.

Argentina: Number of small stores dropped by 64,198 between 1984 and 1993 – 30% of the shops in the country8. Employment in retail sector dropped by 26% in the same period.

Chile: between 1991 and 1995, 'traditional' food and beverage retailers declined by approximately 20% in all segments.

Indonesia: between 2002 and 2003 – just one year – number of 'traditional' grocery stores fell by 154,148 stores, or 9%

Latin America: supermarkets now control 60% of food retail.

East Asia other than China: 63% of processed/packaged foods controlled by supermarkets, estimated 30% of fresh foods.

The oft-cited example of China is irrelevant, as Chinese food retail is entirely different (good citation is this):

From 1959 till late 1980's, private retail trade essentially banned in cities, all retail was taken over by public/state owned enterprises.

In 1992 (rise of supermarkets just beginning), state owned large networks accounted for 41.3%, cooperatives/collectives 27.9% and private enterprises (i.e. Small retailers mostly) 20% of market – hence completely incomparable to Indian situation

In all situations big retailers begin with rich population but do not remain confined to them – always attempt to expand into smaller towns, reaching poorer segments etc. As in this quote, describing Latin America, Asia and Africa in general: “there has been a trend from supermarkets occupying only a small niche in capital cities serving only the rich and middle class to spread well beyond the middle class in order to penetrate deeply into the food markets of the poor.” (Reardon, Thomas; Timmer, C. Peter; Barrett, Christopher B.; Berdegue, Julio (2003). “The Rise of Supermarkets in Africa, Asia and Latin America”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Vol. 85:5).

Benefits to Farmers?


Most purchase for corporate retailers occurs through contract farming. This actually has negative impacts on most farmers.

All studies of contract farming and corporate food retail state that small and marginal farmers are unable to sell to the corporate supply chain because of the high investment and high risk associated with contract farming. More than 90% of India's rural population has less than 2 hectares of land and 79% are either landless or own less than 1 hectare. Practically all of these people will be excluded from the corporate supply chain.

Those left out of corporate sourcing may find themselves competing for a much smaller market and essentially being driven out of existence. Thus, in Argentina, the number of dairy farms fell from 40,000 in 1983 – around the time when corporate transformation of the supply chain began - to 15,000 in 2001.

There is no reason that purchases by a small number of companies is going to lead to higher prices for producers. An Oxfam study shows that real export prices for South African apples fell by 33% from 1994 – 2004, and Florida tomato growers found their real prices falling by 25% over the same period – while consumer prices in the US rose by 46% at the same time. Data currently says that four or five companies control 40% of the international trade in several types of produce, including grains, edible oils, coffee, cocoa and bananas.

The same study by Oxfam shows that conditions for agricultural workers in supermarket suppliers is very bad, because of the intense pressure placed on farmers to reduce prices, guarantee 'quality standards', handle last minute changes in contracts and absorb discounts, promotions, etc. passed on to them.

Abuses of power by corporate retailers include:

delayed payments (example from Argentina here)

arbitrary quality standards (Oxfam 2004 study cited above has very good examples including, for instance, sudden demands that apples should be exactly 65 mm rather than 63 mm),

passing on of costs for discounts and promotions to producers (Vietnam23, for instance),

and simple default on contracts, as has happened in India (several studies, some with a lot of data; a summary reference is Jayati Ghosh and CP Chandrasekhar here)

Global sourcing of fruits and vegetables puts intense pressure on producers to reduce prices to compete and to satisfy the requirements of the corporate retailers (FAO 2005 study)


Corporate Retailers Already Exist, So FDI Will Not Cause Additional Damage?

This is simply an irrelevant argument. The small presence of corporate retailers in India's markets today is a reflection of the fact that in themselves, corporate retailers offer nothing in the sense of retailers that allows them to outcompete the existing system. This is why the entry of FDI has been shown to be the single determining factor that permits large-scale expansion of corporate retail in developing countries.

The large quantities of money that FDI provides permit retailers to displace existing suppliers and establish monopolies or oligopolies when purchasing produce; to absorb losses and hence fix lower prices until the competition is wiped out, whereupon prices will be raised (i.e. predatory pricing); and to pressure governments into bending regulations and subsidizing their activities (the latter is already visible among existing corporate retailers).

The simple reality is that, if corporate retailers were simply going to grow alongside the existing system without displacing anyone and purely because of their better results, they would have done so already to a great extent. Why have they failed?

Ignored Issues

Most of the debate ignores the structural requirements of corporate retail and what this will mean. Inherently, in order to make profits, corporate retailers need massive economies of scale to offset their very high overhead costs (in contrast to the low overhead, decentralized existing system). Some of the resulting impacts include:

Privileging good looks and long durability over taste and nutritional value, so as to permit price hunting and delayed sale of produce: The result is that, as is widely known, fruits and vegetables in supermarkets tend to have less taste, are lower in nutritional value, and are often picked when unripe. This is one reason for rapid growth of the “organic food” market in the industrial countries.

Massive increase in use of energy and water for processing, packaging, and transport: The international food industry is now recognized as a major contributor to climate change. Better storage is certainly necessary, but the requirements of corporate retailers far outstrip the actual need. They are not interested merely in storing of food but in being able to source from very long distances and in storing as long as necessary (in order to speculate on prices). The rsult is that the energy spent on production and sale of one kilogram of rice in the US is 80 times the energy spent by a farmer in the Phillippines25. One fifth of all energy spent on transport in the US is spent on transport of food26. Can India afford this kind of expenditure of energy and water?

Sharp rise in use of pesticides, additives, preservatives and other chemical agents to increase the shelf life of food, with attendant health consequences: For much the same reason as above. Contract farming in particular usually involves a sharp rise in total inputs, destroying the fertility of the land and leading to increased pollution and other problems.

The growth of corporate retail not only will not address the key problems plaguing India's economy today – it will greatly exacerbate many of them. In particular, the crisis in agriculture, environmental destruction, declines in land productivity, urban unemployment, price volatility and unequal access to resources would all be worsened by unchecked growth of corporate retail.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan is an independent researcher. He can be contacted at 09873657844. More information with regard to the points mentioned here can be found in an article by Priya Sreenivasa and Shankar Gopalakrishnan in the August 8, 2009 issue of Economic and Political Weekly, which is accessible online.

Uniform of whatever colour should not subdue legislative wisdom: AHRC

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

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) is a subject of severe criticism by human rights activists and jurists in India and across the world. The alarming number of human rights abuses committed by the security agencies deployed in regions where AFSPA is currently put to use is depressing proof to the draconian nature of this law. Many lives lost already - estimated to be more than 4000 since the Act came into force in 1958 - to this the Act underscores the non-compatibility of this law to the notion of democracy. The statutory impunity provided in the Act and the extreme nature of force, that could be used arbitrarily on mere suspicion, empowering a soldier to shoot to kill with no fear of prosecution which is used without restraint till today, proves that this law has not only failed, but would not by any stretch of imagination be of use to curb armed secessionist militancy in the country. Yet, the Indian Army is now entangled in a browbeating debacle with the civilian government in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the state's legislature concerning the withdrawal of this law from certain parts of the state. The army's attempt is to continue enjoying the despicable impunity this law provides therefore unbecomingly benefiting from it.

The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir has been running between the state and national capitals since the state legislature passed a resolution to authorise the partial withdrawal of this law from the state. The army since then has been claiming that its operative framework would be compromised should the law be withdrawn.

In this context, the Chief Minister of the state is right in opining that the army's role is primarily to protect the country's border, and not to maintain law and order, at the expense of superseding the legitimate writ of the government, and thus in essence of the people. The army and the Government of India should not have pushed the matter to such ridicule. For the army to instruct the government, India is not Pakistan.

The architecture of impunity in AFSPA negates the notion that this law is legitimate. Army's demand to continue with AFSPA against the decision of the state legislature is against its constitutional mandate, to be under civilian fiat, and opposes the supremacy of the people. That some officers in the army are applying unwarranted and inappropriate pressure upon the government not to withdraw the law from operation is in essence insult of legislative wisdom. It reiterates the universal truth that an army, if allowed to operate with impunity, would not prefer to return to be under the control of civilian authority.

The only force, to which the country's armed forces must surrender, unconditionally, is to its people. The Indian Army does not have a mandate beyond the constitutional premise that Indians decided to practice since 1950. To demand otherwise is nothing less than pushing a democratically elected civilian government to revolt against its own security forces.

There is no merit in the army's contention that the soldiers follow their code of conduct when operating in areas where the AFSPA is enforced. The AHRC has documented more than 300 cases so far where the army has openly violated every expected norm of operative justice and law, where AFSPA is in force. The conversation of the dead from hundreds of unmarked graves identified by the State Human Rights Commission of Jammu and Kashmir is gruesome proof to the fact that the Indian Army has 'done their job' as it suited them. That thus far there has been not a single prosecution or independent and transparent investigation concerning the unmarked graves in the state reiterates that the impunity is absolute.

The argument that AFSPA helped control secessionist or otherwise destructive activities is equally false. The brutalities committed by the armed forces under the protection of AFSPA against the people have deeply alienated the people from rest of the country. It has fuelled intolerance, breeds mistrust, generates and maintains fear. AFSPA is the iniquitous fountain of moral reasoning that supports militant and religiously fundamentalist organisations and helps them seek and receive support from at least three different neighbouring countries. The commendable move by the Jammu and Kashmir state government is to address this. It has to be supported, that similar actions could be initiated in other places, for instance in Manipur.

The army's dependence upon this draconian law can be interpreted, that the army is incapable of operating in a transparent and accountable environment, and is against the interest of the nation. It contradicts the highest morale the Indian Army is sworn to maintain. That the secessionist and militant forces require the cover of impunity to operate, the brute violence such entities commit and the nature of internal and external support they receive must not be the defining rationale of the operative framework of a disciplined force.

What happens in India will have an impact upon the region. That the Indian Army dictating the government about security policies will further encourage armed forces in countries like Sri Lanka where the present president is using his military might to subdue democratic debates in that country. It could discourage discussions about the accountability of the Nepal Army and that of the former armed Maoist cadres for the human rights abuses they are accountable for. It will foster the operative impunity enjoyed by state forces like the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh and allow them remain unaccountable for human rights abuses. Whenever these issues get discussed in regional or international fora, India would have no moral voice to support calls for accountability should the Indian Army enjoy despicable impunity within India.

Indian Army is not above the parliamentary writ. That it has started exhibiting some of the despicable tendencies of the Pakistan Armed Forces that have repeatedly overridden democratic writs allowing democracy to make only cameo appearances in that country has to be reprimanded at its onset. That the country's army claiming that it requires an aura of impunity to operate could be interpreted as a warning that the army might be becoming incompatible to function within a democratic space.

At the very least, it is not for military generals of the country to decide administrative and security policies. Neither should a uniform, irrespective of its colour, subdue legislative wisdom.

Moratorium on death penalty: national campaign planned

A people’s convention, held at Thiruvananthapuram on Monday, demanded an immediate moratorium on capital punishment.

Well-known writer Paul Zacharia, who inaugurated the convention, examined the political, social and psychological aspects of capital punishment in a broad historical context. He also dwelt on the issue of crime and punishment in the light of new scientific findings.

The convention was organized by a group which has been campaigning against the death penalty and in favour of the rights of prisoners for several years. Its efforts have been responsible for some liberal measures taken by the Kerala government with regard to prisoners’ rights.

The convention decided to mount a national campaign on the issue of capital punishment.

It is appropriate that the initiative for a national campaign on the issue should originate in Kerala since a part of the state has had the unique historic experience of managing without the death penalty for several years.

The Maharaja of Travancore had abolished the death penalty by a proclamation shortly before India became independent. The death penalty came back to the region with the introduction of the Constitution of India.

Studies have shown that there was no spurt in crime in Travancore during the period when there was no capital punishment. This disproves the widely canvassed argument that the death penalty is necessary as a deterrent against serious crimes.

A film by R.P. Amudan, a Chennai-based film-maker, titled “Thudarum Neethikkolaikal” (Continuing judicial killings) was screened during the convention.

More than 130 countries have abolished the death penalty. Many of them have dropped it from the penal code while some are not taking recourse to it even though the law provides for it.

India, China and the United States are among the countries which are sticking to capital punishment, bucking the worldwide trend. Sixteen of the 50 states of the US have abolished the death penalty but that country still accounts for a large number of judicial killings.

28 November, 2011

Storm over dam in South

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A storm is brewing over a river water dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which has been simmering for decades, with political parties and the media playing up emotive aspects like risk of a dam burst and drying up of farmland.

In the eye of the storm is the Mullaperiyar dam, built in 1895 to divert the waters of the Periyar in the state of Travancore to irrigate parched lands in British-ruled Madras presidency. Kerala is worried as the collapse of the aged structure can endanger the lives of three million people in the state.

In 1886, under pressure from the British rulers, the Maharaja of Travancore leased 8,100 acres of land to them for 999 years. The lease agreement gave them British the right to construct irrigation works there and use the impounded waters for irrigation in the Madras presidency.

Since Travancore became part of Kerala, and the areas that benefit by the diversion of river waters are in Tamil Nadu, these states became successor parties to the agreement. Although the two states signed fresh agreements regarding use of the waters of the river after Independence, the colonial character of the lease remained unchanged: the dam located in Kerala remains under Tamil Nadu’s control.

The first dam built by British army engineers was washed away by flood waters within a year. They then built the present one, with a full reservoir level of 152 feet, using stones and surki, a mixture of sugar and calcium oxide. A reinforced concrete parapet was added later.

Concerns about the safety of the dam arose in 1979 when it developed cracks. At a meeting of Kerala and Tamil Nadu officials, convened by the Central Water Commission, it was decided to reduce the reservoir level to 136 feet immediately. Medium and long-term measures to strengthen the dam were also agreed upon.

In 1986 , the CWC proposed additional measures to strengthen the structure and said if Tamil Nadu raised the height of the concrete parapet by two feet the reservoir level could be raised again to 152 feet.

A series of mild tremors, of not more than three on the Richter scale, in the vicinity of the dam aggravated fears about its safety. Experts said a quake of magnitude 6 can bring down the structure. With Tamil Nadu pressing to raise the reservoir level and Kerala resisting it, there was no meeting ground.

In 2000, the Supreme Court, which took over a bunch of petitions filed in the high courts of the two states, asked the Centre to convene a meeting of Chief Ministers to resolve the dispute. The meeting failed to break the deadlock.

In 2006, the court allowed Tamil Nadu to raise the reservoir level to 142 feet and take up measures to strengthen the dam, after which, it said, the level could be raised to 152 feet. Kerala immediately enacted a law to place Mullaperiyar in the Schedule of Endangered Dams and prohibit raising of water level beyond 132 feet. It also announced plans to build a new dam to replace it. Tamil Nadu urged the court to strike down the law and stop Kerala from going ahead with plans to replace the existing dam.

An empowered committee, appointed by the Centre at the court’s instance, is now grappling with the problem. Meanwhile, with 26 tremors reported in four months, Kerala wants to construct the new dam early and scrap the present one.

Tamil Nadu politicians often take a jingoist position on the issue. At their instance, the state last week banned a movie, Dam 999, made by a UAE-based Keralite, Sohan Roy, under a Hollywood banner. They alleged the film, based on the collapse of the Banqiao dam in China in 1975, was made with Mullaperiyar in mind.

Lately some Kerala politicians, too, are adopting strident tones. This may be due partly to the influence of the increasingly sensationalist media and partly to the upcoming Assembly by-election at Piravom, close to the dam site, where the ruling United Democratic Front had scraped through earlier this year with a slender majority of 157 votes.

Actually there is no conflict of interest between the two states. Kerala relies upon Tamil Nadu for grains and vegetables. It is in its interest to ensure that Tamil Nadu farms get water. If the dam collapses, Tamil Nadu will go without water. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy puts it this way: “Safety for Kerala, water for Tamil Nadu.” The system’s failure to resolve the issue can only be attributed to the lack of sensitivity of those operating it. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 28, 2011.

25 November, 2011

Violence against women in Asia: AHRC calls for remedial measures

The Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, says in a statement:

Incidences of violence against women are not isolated or sporadic, but a daily occurrence in Asian countries. While women are subjected to various forms of violence in private and public domains, such as sexual assault, rape and acid throwing, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) wishes to draw attention to the increasing tendency of violations perpetrated by state agents, mostly the police and military, in the form of torture, rape, extrajudicial killing and being used as sex slaves in military torture cells.

From social and cultural norms to ineffective legal procedures, women are thwarted at every turn as they attempt to complain against their abuse, seek punishment of those responsible and improve their own circumstances. While the denial of justice is a fundamental human rights violation, it is also key in perpetuating the cycle of violence, as the perpetrators remain free to continue their abusive and illegal behaviour.

Supporting all women confronting the denial of justice, the AHRC urges states to improve their complaint making procedures and available remedies.

Complaint making procedure


Registering a complaint is the first step in speaking out against any abuse suffered by women and addressing it. Without any complaint being made, little can be done. State agencies and complaint receiving bodies are generally not conducive to registering complaints of abuse against fellow officials, or against wealthy and influential individuals. Their attitude towards women also makes them indifferent to their complaints. Furthermore, the corruption prevalent within policing institutions throughout Asia makes the police an easy target for perpetrators of violence to bribe and silence. Meanwhile, those bodies specifically meant to receive complaints from women, such as women’s commissions, tend to have limited resources, budgets and authority, which are obstacles in carrying out their functions effectively. For instance, Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women, is often not able to conduct its own investigations, or, at best, may conduct investigations and make recommendations to other state institutions for further action. However, law enforcement bodies do not always take up its recommendations. Similarly, the Commission for Women in India receives a large number of complaints and conducts its own investigations, but these, along with its recommendations, are often ignored by India’s law enforcement bodies.

The police attitude to registering complaints is manifested in their investigation procedure as well. As seen in a case of a 16-year-old girl who was kidnapped and gang-raped in Pakistan in October 2010, the police refused to record the gang-rape complaint. Her father finally filed an application in court, which then ordered the police to register a First Information Report. The police eventually arrested two persons, yet they were released within two hours after bribing members of the police. Since then, no legal action has been taken against the perpetrators or the police, whereas the girl’s family is being harassed to drop the case, including being threatened with the rape of their other two children.

The militarization of various Asian countries—or regions within countries—means there is considerable violence committed against women by the military. In Burma, not only is rape condoned as a strategy of war in conflict areas, but it is also committed widely in non-conflict areas. In 2011 itself, there have been large numbers of rapes of girls and women documented in various areas of the country. Not only do government agencies refuse to take up cases involving the military, but complaints of rape or sexual abuse could land the victim and/or her family in prison for ‘supporting rebels’.

Regardless of whom they are complaining against, it is disturbingly common for women victims to be subjected to further abuse and harassment for filing complaints. They must also deal with social stigmas and obstacles. As a result, women tend to remain silent regarding the violence against them.

Social obstacles


Aside from the procedural problems of making a complaint, women also face numerous social and cultural obstacles to speaking out against the abuse they suffer, many of which are in fact promoted by the government. In Indonesia, Jakarta governor Fauzi Bowo on September 16, 2011 stated, in response to the increase of rape and sexual harassment on public transportation, that this was the women’s own fault; “Wear sensible clothes, don’t wear ‘inviting’ clothes. You can imagine, if wears short skirt and sits next to the driver, it could be ‘inviting’.” How can women voice their complaints to public officials holding such attitudes?

Cabinet ministers in Pakistan have also been known to defend violence against women. Balochistan Senator Sardar Isarullah Zehri defended the jirga-ordered burying of three teenage girls and two of their aunts alive in his province as ‘custom’ in August 2008. “This is our centuries old traditions and customs, and we will continue it,” he said. Despite such a disavowal for rule of law, and despite the fact that the case was yet to be properly investigated, Mr. Zehri today is a federal minister.
The social stigma surrounding domestic violence is the biggest obstacle for women to complain against it. Many cases show that police and other public officials urge women to resolve the issue at home, rather than making a complaint to obtain legal remedy. Dowry related violence in India continues today, with daily media reports of women committing suicide or being killed by family members. In fact, about 20 percent of those committing suicide in India are housewives. That women would rather end their lives than speak out is the most critical assessment of the environment they find themselves in.

Remedies

If women succeed in getting their cases to court, despite all the obstacles, they are most likely to then face delays in court hearings, as well as insensitive prosecutors, lawyers and judges. The justice system also fails to protect the women from threats and harassment by the perpetrators and social ostracism, a significant aspect of remedies.

All of the above can be seen in the case of Pakistani rights activist and gang-rape victim Mukhtaran Mai, who struggled hard to secure justice and challenge the impunity of the men who raped her some nine years ago. Finally, on April 21, 2011, the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld the verdict of the Multan bench of Lahore High Court releasing five of the six men responsible on the basis of ‘insufficient evidence’ and ‘faulty investigations’. Only one perpetrator remains in prison to serve a life sentence. In upholding the legally flawed Multan bench verdict, the Supreme Court gravely disappointed all those who support justice and women’s rights. Such rulings can only serve to further dissuade victims of rape from seeking justice.
In order to ensure justice for victims, it is essential to provide them with protection and counseling, as part of the remedies available. In many cases of sexual violence, the woman victim is both the complainant and the primary witness of the crime. These women are vulnerable to harassment and abuse by the perpetrators of these crimes and it is the fundamental obligation of the state to protect them. Cases of victims in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan have been documented however, where no protection was given to victims making complaints of rape or assault.

Societal change

The incidents of violence against women are directly related to the wider society’s understanding of women and the level of respect they are accorded. The AHRC reiterates the state’s obligations to stop the perpetuation of violence against women with a holistic approach that adopts comprehensive laws not only to criminalize violence against women, but also mandates prevention measures--including awareness raising, sensitizing and the empowerment of women--aimed at changing societal attitudes and practices. National plans comprising of educational curricula as well as advocacy programmes to promote public awareness of gender stereotyping and the unacceptability of violence against women should be urgently and effectively initiated. Civil society also has an important role to play, particularly in identifying and understanding rights violations faced by women, as well as providing them the necessary support and structures to overcome these violations. Only when such a holistic approach targeting the criminal justice system as well cultural and patriarchal norms that seek to silence women is in place, can violence against women be truly eliminated.

24 November, 2011

Activists denounce G.K.Pillai’s slandering of Ishrant Jahan

The following is a statement released by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association:

Stung by the SIT report which concluded that Ishrat was executed in cold blood, former Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai -- hard-pressed to defend his affidavit to the Supreme Court that Ishrat was a Lashkar operative -- has stooped to now slandering the girl’s personal life suggesting that her checking into different hotels with “another man” was definitely suspicious. Perhaps, Mr. Pillai wishes us to believe that all those young women who travel and work independently are ‘suspicious’ and could have terrorist links.

Pillai is no doubt aware that questions will be raised about his affidavit -- and also all those journalists who were churning out whatever that was emanating from his office -- and is now rushing to hide behind sexist insinuations.

Pillai knows well that with the killing of Ishrat and three others, the case is forever closed. No court is now going to try Ishrat for her alleged links with Laskhar. And that is precisely the convenience of encounter killings -- the allegations can never be proven or disproven. Lashkar-e-Toiba’s hailing of Ishrat does not count for much. Organizations have been known to make grand claims for purposes of propaganda, Norway being a case in point.

We condemn Pillai’s insensitive sexist slandering of a girl who cannot defend herself, and demand an immediate apology.

Jyoti Punwani (Independent Journalist)
Githa Hariharan (writer)
Saba Dewan (independent filmmaker)
Sabeena Gadihoke (Associate Professor, Jamai Millia Islamia)
Shabnam Hashmi (ANHAD)
Prof. Janaki Rajan (Jamia Millia Islamia)
Prof. Anuradha Chenoy (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
Kavita Srivastava (PUCL)
Seema Mustafa (senior journalist)
Tahira Hasan (Tehrike Niswan)
Kavita Krishnan (AIPWA)
Rita Manchanda (activist)
Khaadeej Arif (journalist)
Shikha Sen (independent filmmaker)
Mansi Sharma (activist)
Seema Duhan (activist)
Mona Das (Satyawati College, University of Delhi)
Vani Subramanian, Satnam Kaur and Vinita (Saheli)
Manisha Sethi, Farah Farooqi, Azra Razak, Sanghamitra Misra and Ambarien Al Qadar (JTSA)

21 November, 2011

Media under scrutiny

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Markandey Katju, Chairman of the Press Council of India, which looks into complaints against newspapers and news agencies, has raised a hornet’s nest by stating some home truths.

Under the law only a former Supreme Court judge can head the Press Council. Katju, who has a reputation for outspokenness, retired from the apex court in September, and took over as its chairman last month. The jurisdiction of the council, first established in 1966, does not extend to private television, which made its appearance only two decades ago. Channel bosses were infuriated by Justice Katju’s suggestion that the watchdog body must be turned into a Media Council and the electronic media brought under its ambit.

He made the suggestion in a letter to the Prime Minister in which he also called for amendment of the law to give the Press Council power to punish erring mediapersons and institutions. All it can do is to admonish and censure the wrongdoer.

At one time the Press Council used to ask newspapers to publish its findings against them prominently, and they complied. Lately they have flouted such directives. In the circumstances, the suggestion to enlarge the Council’s powers is quite justified.

Some time ago, alarmed by reports that the government was thinking of a regulatory authority for the electronic media, channel owners and news television bosses declared they would enforce self-regulation. They then established a body styled as the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, with JS Verma, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as chairman and another named Indian Broadcasting Federation with AP Shah, a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, as chairman.

The NBSA, after looking into complaints against a channel which had aired a report about gays, held that it had invaded the privacy of individuals and imposed a fine of Rs 100,000. This is the only known instance of purposeful intervention by that body to enforce standards.

Justice Katju said in a series of interviews that he had a poor opinion of the media, that a majority of mediapersons were of low intellectual calibre and that they were working not in the interests of the people but in an anti-people manner. Those were indeed harsh words, and predictably there was a loud uproar.

News channels took up Justice Katju’s statements for discussion at prime time, and he came under a barrage of criticism along with channel bosses, the Indian Newspapers Society, an organisation of newspaper owners, and some journalists’ bodies also took up cudgels against him.

At the first meeting of the Press Council with Justice Katju in the chair, the INS representatives demanded an apology from him for his remarks against the media. When he refused, they walked out.

Unruffled, Justice Katju reiterated his views. He dismissed self-regulation as an oxymoron, and said, “Everybody is accountable to the people in a democracy, and so is the media.” If they did not want to come under the Press Council, would they like to be under the proposed Lokpal, he asked.

He said the media, instead of addressing the problems of 80 per cent of the people such as dire poverty, massive unemployment, skyrocketing prices, lack of medical care and educational facilities and barbaric social problems like honour killing, dowry death, caste oppression and religious bigotry, devoted 90 per cent of the coverage to entertainment such as lives of film stars, fashion parades, pop music, disco dance and cricket and superstitions like astrology.

Elaborating his point about the media’s anti-people attitude, he mentioned how whenever there was a bomb blast the channels started talking of an email or SMS from an organisation with a Muslim name owning responsibility for it. Any mischievous person can send an email or SMS, he pointed out. By playing up such messages the media demonised a whole community.

Justice Katju said the European media had played a positive role during the transition from feudalism to a modern society. India was now going through a similar transition and he wanted the Indian media to play its part in that process.

It is worth noting that those who have joined the chorus against Justice Katju were more or less silent when issues like paid news and the Radia tapes rocked the media. A Press Council inquiry committee had found that several newspapers had taken cash from political leaders for coverage at election time. The telephone conversations of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia secretly recorded by an official agency had revealed the nexus between politicians and mediapersons.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 21, 2011.

14 November, 2011

Judiciary’s growing clout

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The clout of India’s Judiciary, already considered the most powerful institution of its kind in the world, continues to rise, thanks to its successful interventions to right the wrongs of the Executive and the Legislature.

The Constitution envisages a system of mutual checks and balances by the three limbs of the state. While the Judiciary has exercised its corrective power extensively and effectively, internal weaknesses have prevented the Executive and the Legislature from playing their role well.

Over the years, the Judiciary, exercising its exclusive right to interpret the provisions of the Constitution, has enlarged its powers. Today it has the last word on the Constitution. Early Supreme Court verdicts had said Parliament’s right to amend the Constitution was unfettered. Later, the apex court said there were limits on its amending powers and ruled that constitutional amendments were subject to judicial review.

The Judiciary also has the last word now on who should be made judges of the superior courts, the apex court having appropriated to itself, through successive judgments, primacy in the consultation process that precedes judicial appointments.

It also has assumed legislative powers with a view to filling perceived gaps in the framework of laws. The Supreme Court verdicts prescribing procedures to be followed by the police in making arrests and laying down guidelines for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace are now part of the laws of the land.

The Constitution lists “justice — social, economic and political” as the first of its several objectives. The Judiciary vastly expanded the scope for its intervention to ensure justice when it gave all citizens the right to move courts for redress of grievances through public interest litigation (PIL). Earlier, only an aggrieved person had the right to seek remedy from the courts.

The first public interest litigants were social activists and voluntary organisations. Later, politicians entered the field. Some of them appear to have found the courtroom a better battleground than the legislative chamber.

The 2G scam case in which A Raja, a former Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam member of the Central government, Kanimozhi, MP and daughter of DMK chief M Karunanidhi, several top bureaucrats and a few corporate honchos figure as the accused arose out of a PIL filed in the Supreme Court by Subrahmanyam Swamy, president of the Janata Party, a relic of the collective of that name which had seized power in the 1977 elections, ousting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime. Swamy and his party are not significant entities in parliamentary politics.

Former Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s vigorous pursuit of a corruption case, which he took up as PIL, resulted in a jail term for R. Balakrishna Pillai, a former minister belonging to a rival party. He is involved in PIL cases against some other political rivals also.

Achuthanandan’s Communist Party of India-Marxist is the state’s largest party, and the Left Democratic Front which it heads has been wielding power alternately with the Congress-led United Democratic Front for three decades. But in the five years that he headed the Executive he could not register a victory comparable to what he achieved as a public interest litigant.

It was a petition filed by the pro-CPI-M Democratic Youth Federation of India that led to the Supreme Court’s order banning the use of the pesticide Endosulfan in Kerala, where its indiscriminate use had caused severe public health problems in some areas.

When a civil society group drew attention to the partisan attitude of the Gujarat police the Supreme Court appointed a special investigation team to probe cases arising from the 2002 communal riots. Last week, a trial court gave life term to 31 persons in one of the cases.

PIL has no doubt added a new dimension to democracy. However, the political parties’ increasing reliance on the Judiciary to keep the Executive and the Legislature on the straight path is a sad commentary on the quality of Indian democracy.

From time to time the Judiciary has come under criticism for its activist role. Even some distinguished retired judges have opined that it overstepped its limits on a few occasions. However, public opinion appears to favour its interventions inasmuch as they provide relief against the Executive’s acts of omission and commission. The Executive must take note of this and set its house in order.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 14, 2011.

07 November, 2011

Good turn in India-Pakistan ties

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Three years after sea-borne terrorists created mayhem in Mumbai, relations between India and Pakistan are still far from normal but there have been some developments which augur well for the future.

An Indian army helicopter, which took off from Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir and strayed across the line of control in bad weather, was forced by the Pakistani military to land but it was returned within hours. This followed immediate hotline contacts between army officials of the two countries.

A retired Indian major general, in a letter to a newspaper, said the incident vindicated his “long-held view that the Pakistan army is a professional institution, not a rogue army as some sections of the media, service colleagues, and politicians would like to suggest.” The Associated Press of Pakistan quoted the Indian general’s remarks in a report circulated to domestic subscribers.

Kuldip Nayar, veteran journalist and campaigner for India-Pakistan amity, saw the speedy and happy resolution of the helicopter incident as a sign of lessening of cussedness in the relations between the two countries. He went on to ask why the two governments were postponing an overdue meeting of Home Secretaries which would accelerate the process of normalisation of relations thrown off the rails by the Mumbai terror attack.

India recently backed Pakistan’s candidature for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, and Pakistan supported India’s bid to secure a second term for Commonwealth Secretary General Kamlesh Sharma. By far the most significant development with a bearing on the troubled ties between the two countries is the Pakistan government’s decision to accord India most favoured nation (MFN) status. India granted Pakistan MFN status way back in 1996. However, India was not among nearly 100 countries which were given MFN status by Pakistan.

When a country grants MFN status to another it undertakes to treat it on an equal footing with other countries with which it trades in keeping with the provisions of the World Trade Organisation agreement on non-discrimination. As a signatory to the South Asian Free Trade Agreement, Pakistan had an obligation to grant India MFN status but it declined to do so, linking improvement of trade relations to resolution of the Kashmir issue.

Pakistan allowed trade with India only in fewer than 2,000 items. India was resentful of Islamabad’s restrictive attitude which limited its access to the Pakistani market, South Asia’s second largest. The fact is that this attitude hurt Pakistan too.

India-Pakistan trade in the last financial year stood at $ 2.6 billion. At least thrice as much trade between the two countries is believed to have taken place through the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. In an article published in the journal of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, two years ago, Nabiha Gul of Karachi University said it was possible to achieve a tenfold increase in bilateral trade.

Pakistan’s export trade is worth $ 21 billion and import trade is worth $ 32 billion. Its top partners in export trade are the US (16%), Afghanistan and the UAE (8% each), China (7%) and the UK (4%) and in import trade China (18%), Saudi Arabia and the UAE (11% each), Kuwait (6%) and the US (5%).

Pakistan’s belated decision to grant India MFN status is unlikely to lead to dramatic increases in trade. Pakistan could not increase its exports to India significantly during the last five years in spite of the MFN status that it enjoyed. India was able to double its exports to Pakistan during the same period without MFN status.

The decision to grant MFN status to India was taken at a meeting of the Pakistan Cabinet and announced by the Information Minister. However, an official release issued later made no mention of MFN status. It merely said the Cabinet had approved measures for normalisation of trade. An official spokesman explained later that grant of MFN status was part of the normalisation process.

The flipflop suggests some forces within the Pakistani establishment are not keen on progress on this front. Pakistani businessmen are also wary of liberalisation of trade as they feel they cannot compete with their Indian counterparts on an equal footing. The Indian authorities are endeavouring to allay their fears.

The Pakistan Peace Coalition, a civil society group, and the Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research supported the Cabinet decision. In a joint statement they described it as a major breakthrough towards trade liberalisation and a step towards increased prosperity in South Asia, which has a population of 1.8 billion.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 7, 2011