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


28 October, 2014

Hyped clean India plan

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has generated popular enthusiasm for the Mahatma Gandhi Swachh Bharat (Clean India) programme which he launched four weeks ago, but it is too narrowly focused to achieve the proclaimed goal in the stipulated five-year period.

On October 2, birth anniversary of the Mahatma, Modi wielded the broom in a sweepers’ colony in Delhi, where Gandhi had stayed in 1946, and declared, “We should aim for Swachh Bharat.”

The Congress party, while in power, had sought to keep Gandhi’s message of Clean India alive with periodic official campaigns and token street-cleaning on his birth anniversary. In 1999, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s first prime minister, AB Vajpayee, launched a Nirmal Bharat (which, too, translates as Clean India) programme. It was to run till 2019 but has now been superseded by Swachh Bharat.

Responding to Modi’s appeal, some film and sports celebrities also took up brooms, generating euphoria about the programme. The Central ministries announced various schemes to realise the Clean India dream.

The ministry dealing with drinking water and sanitation proposed increased monetary support to rural households and schools to build toilets. The Human Resources Development Ministry sought corporate funds to provide toilet facilities in schools, especially for girls.

A law enacted by the United Progressive Alliance government last year requires a company to set apart two per cent of its net profit for social responsibility projects if it has a net worth of Rs5 billion or more, a turnover of Rs10 billion or more or a net profit of Rs50 million or more.

Surprisingly, there was no word from the government-owned railways, one of the biggest polluters. Of its 50,000-odd coaches, only a little more than 2,000 have bio-toilets. The rest discharge human waste on the rail tracks.

The railways had recently told the National Human Rights Commission that it needed time till 2022 to equip all coaches with bio-toilets.

Although excavations have revealed that underground drainage system was known to the Indus Valley civilisation that flourished 4,000 years ago, much of the subcontinent has been without basic sanitary facilities throughout known history and defecation in the open is still prevalent, especially in the rural areas where two-thirds of the population lives.

With 310 million people in more than 5,000 cities and towns, India boasts of the second largest urban population in the world. However, most urban areas lack satisfactory sanitation services.

A law enacted in 1993 made employment of scavengers and construction of non-flush latrines offences punishable with imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of Rs2,000. However, no conviction under this law has been reported from anywhere.

Despite the ban manual scavenging continued. When the Supreme Court was considering a batch of petitions questioning it, several states filed affidavits claiming they had no manually serviced latrines. However, the 2011 census report revealed the existence of 2.6 million insanitary latrines, including about 800,000 manually serviced ones.

Uttar Pradesh had more than 326,000 manually serviced latrines, West Bengal more than 180,000 and Jammu and Kashmir more than 178,000.

Reports from Gujarat, of which Modi was the chief minister for 13 years before becoming the prime minister, are far from edifying. An NGO was told in reply to a query under the Right to Information Act, that 98 manual scavengers had died in the state during the past decade and that the families of 43 of them had not been paid compensation.

Official data puts the number of manually serviced latrines in Gujarat at a mere 2,566 but the state has more than 52,000 scavengers awaiting rehabilitation under the new law.

Last year the UPA government enacted a new law which provides for ending manual scavenging as well as rehabilitating those involved in the activity, who are all Dalits.

While the indifference of the general public is a serious handicap in tackling sanitation problems, the brouhaha over the Swachh Bharat programme has led to a wholly erroneous impression that if only people keep their neighbourhood clean all will be well.

The programme does not take into account industrial pollution, which is bound to see enormous growth as Modi pulls out the plugs to attract investments and make the country a manufacturing hub. The industries identified for foreign direct investment include highly polluting ones like chemicals, pharmaceuticals and leather. Dilution of pollution control clearance procedures is one of the steps contemplated to attract investors.

Modi, who was elected to Parliament from the ancient city of Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganga, has vowed to clean the river which the Hindus consider holy. He has created a separate department for Ganga rejuvenation in his government and entrusted it to the saffron-clad Uma Bharti. She recently said cremations on the river bank and dumping of half-burnt bodies in the river would be stopped. She was silent when a Hindu saint’s body was dumped in the river last week, apparently in keeping with a tradition. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 28, 2014.

25 October, 2014

Blood and Iron: a tale of environmental destruction and political corruption

Why is it that resources, which are supposed to belong to the people, do not benefit them? Why do they, instead of becoming a blessing, become a curse to them? 

These questions troubled Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an independent journalist (Picture on the right). He found the answer in a paradox: the richest lands are where the poorest live.

Since then he has been engaged in an effort to educate the public through different media about the resource curse which is afflicting the poor, especially the Adivasis. His investigations have resulted in a few well-documented short films: Hot as Hell, which focuses on Dhanbad, Blood and Iron, which deals with the damage done by extensive illegal mining in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Coal Curse, which throws light on the coal scam.

Blood and Iron, which was screened in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday as part of the Between the Lines, Beyond the Lines, a film festival organized to celebrate journalistic courage, is a powerful film which shows depredations of  the mining lobby in the mineral-rich Bellary region of Karnataka and adjoining Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.

                                                     A depressing Bellary scene

 Guha Thakurta made the one-and-a-half-hour film, at considerable risk to himself and even greater risk to persons in Karnataka who cooperated with him, when two of the Reddy brothers were ministers in the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa. After their arrest by the Central Bureau of Investigation, he revised it to include that development too.

The documentary traces the evolution of a nexus of corrupt businessmen, corrupt politicians and corrupt officials which facilitated rapacious exploitation of mineral wealth and led to ruination of the lives of the poor. It shows how the Reddy brothers backed Sushma Swaraj in her unsuccessful fight against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and later helped the BJP to gain power in the state.

Sushma Swaraj blessing the Reddy brothers
Thanks to decisive interventions by the Supreme Court, the National Human Rights Commission and Karnataka Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde, the long arm of the law eventually reached up to the Reddy brothers in Karnataka and to Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. 

The film is at once a waning against destruction of the environment as well as political corruption. With the Narendra Modi government all set to pull out the plugs to permit large-scale exploitation of mineral wealth and some of the persons whose names figure in the documentary high up in the new dispensation, it acquires added contemporary relevance.

(A Note posted in Facebook on October 25, 2014)

21 October, 2014

Modi in for a long innings

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Those who saw the Bharatiya Janata Party’s lacklustre performance in the September by-elections as a sign that the Modi wave, which swept it into power at the Centre in May, was petering out have been proved wrong.

In last week’s State Assembly elections it won an absolute majority in Haryana and secured near-majority in Maharashtra. In both states it boosted its vote share substantially — from 9.04 per cent to 33.2 per cent in Haryana and from 14.2 per cent to 27.8 per cent in Maharashtra.

Both the states will now have BJP chief ministers for the first time. The party was a junior partner of the Shiv Sena in the coalition which ruled Maharashtra between 1995 and 1999. Although the alliance continued even afterwards, power eluded the Hindutva pair. This time, as the party which holds the reins at the Centre, the BJP was unwilling to play second fiddle to the Shiv Sena. This led to breakdown of the coalition

The Congress-National Congress Party alliance, which ruled the state continuously for 15 years, also broke down before the elections, resulting in a virtual free-for-all.

The Shiv Sena and the NCP ended their partnerships thinking they will be able to improve their position and drive a better bargain after the elections. The results dashed their hopes.

Even though the Shiv Sena, which had 44 seats in the 288-member house, raised its strength to 63, the BJP confounded it by raising its strength from 46 to 122 — just 22 short of the half-way mark.

The Congress party’s strength fell from 82 to 42 and the NCP’s from 62 to 41. In a bid to make the best out of the situation, NCP leader Praful Patel offered to support a BJP government from outside. The BJP responded coolly to the unsolicited offer.

The BJP had a good case when it sought more seats from the Shiv Sena since it had a higher success rate in both the 2009 Assembly elections and the recent Lok Sabha elections. In the 2009 Assembly elections the Sena contested 160 seats and the BJP 119. The BJP won 46, but the Sena could win only 44. In this year’s Lok Sabha elections, too, as the major partner, the Sena contested more seats than the BJP but it could win only 18 seats as against the BJP’s 23.

Uddhav Thackeray, who became head of the Shiv Sena on the death of his father Bal Thackeray, the founder of the party, was not ready to give up its primacy in the coalition as he was keen to become the chief minister. When he rejected a suggestion that the two parties share seats equally, the BJP decided to go it alone.

Modi, who was the BJP’s main campaigner, concentrated his attacks on the Congress and the NCP. He tactfully refrained from attacking the Shiv Sena. “This is the first election in the absence of Bal Thackeray, for whom I have great respect,” he said. “I have decided not to utter a single word against the Shiv Sena. That is my tribute to Balasaheb Thackeray.”

Once Uddhav Thackeray gets over the frustration over his party’s loss of primacy in the state to the BJP he is sure to realise that his best option now lies in coming to terms with its reduced status and reviving the alliance with the BJP as the senior partner. That will spare the BJP the awkward situation of having to accept the NCP’s support to form the government.

The Congress had hoped to do well in these elections as both Maharashtra and Haryana prospered under the coalition governments led by it. However, the urban middle classes’ fascination for the Modi brand and the double burden of corruption charges and anti-incumbency, did it in. It ended up in the third place in both the states.

Having lost power in two more states, the Congress party’s stature as a national party has shrunk further. Of the 18 states which have 10 or more seats in the Lok Sabha, only two, Assam and Karnataka, are now under Congress rule. In a third, Kerala, it heads the ruling coalition. The BJP is in control of seven states and is a part of the ruling coalition in one. The remaining seven states are under as many different parties.

It needs to be noted that all the BJP’s gains are not at the expense of the Congress. The decline of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana indicates that it is weaning away people from the regional parties too.

The election results have buttressed the position of Modi and his lieutenant and party president Amit Shah in the BJP. With the battered Congress yet to refloat itself and the non-Congress opposition parties unable to put their act together, the BJP under Modi’s captaincy is well set for a long innings. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 21, 2014.

14 October, 2014

Nobel Prize as a message?

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Of the Nobel prizes, the one for peace has been the most controversial. It has always carried with it the irony of rewarding peace efforts with profits from dynamite.

This year’s prize, shared by Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and Indian child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, produced rich irony on its own. Some critics asked what contribution did the two make towards peace and understanding.

Malala, 17, is the youngest person to win the prize. She was nominated for the prize along with Pope Francis and US whistleblower Edward Snowden. If there were certain political calculations behind her choice it is neither unusual nor unprecedented.

Kailash Satyarthi, who has been working quietly for rescue and rehabilitation of child workers in India, was not a widely known figure in his own country. There were a few references to him and his work in the Indian media in the recent past but there was no mention that he was a contender for the prize. His choice therefore came as a surprise.

Unesco has noted that since war begins in the minds of men it is in their minds that defence of peace must be constructed. Freeing children from bondage and ensuring that they are educated are, in a real sense, activities amounting to construction of defence of peace. However, educationally advanced countries are also known to start wars. Therefore, the question whether the right kind of education is being imparted is relevant.

There was heavy irony in the announcement of the award even as Indian and Pakistani security personnel were engaged in the fiercest clashes in a decade along the border in Jammu and Kashmir, over which the two countries have fought four times in their 67 years as separate nations.

Thorbjoern Jagland, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the committee “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism”. Leaders of the two countries made feeble efforts to rise to the occasion.

While congratulating Malala Yousafzai, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, “She has made her countrymen proud. Her achievement is unparalleled and unequalled.” He did not dwell on the fact that, unable to return home because of extremist threats, she is now living and studying in Britain, where she had gone for medical treatment after the failed murder attempt by Taliban.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Satyarthi had devoted his life to a cause that is extremely relevant to humankind and the entire nation was proud of his momentous achievement. He congratulated Malala too, saying her life is a journey of immense grit and courage.

In the exchange of fire at 15 points along the international border and the Line of Control (LoC), about 30 civilian casualties were reported. Officials of the two sides feigned ignorance about each other’s motive. An Indian newspaper quoted the chief of the Border Security Force as saying, “We have inflicted heavy damage on them, but they keep firing. I do not understand why.” BBC quoted Major General Javed Khan of Pakistan as saying, “I just want to know the reason from the other side. We are not finding the answer.”

Political pundits offered familiar explanations. Pakistani experts related the border incidents to the elections in the states of Maharashtra and Haryana. They pointed out that Modi and his defence minister have been talking of change in times and imposing unaffordable costs. Indian analysts attributed the incidents to the Pakistan army’s effort to reassert its authority vis-à-vis the civilian government.

Since India called off the secretary-level talks in protest against the Pakistan envoy’s confabulation with Kashmiri secessionists, Islamabad has been trying hard to break out of the bilateral framework in which it had been confined by the Shimla Pact. It sees the border incidents as an opportunity to bring back into the picture the UN whose role was extinguished by India after the 1972 war.

There is scope to speculate that Modi and Sharif have a chance to win a Nobel for themselves through a patch-up, as Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973), Anwat Al Sadat and Menachem Begin (1978) and Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (1994) did. However, they are caught in a high-stake game in which others are also involved. -- Gulf Today, October 14, 2014.

13 October, 2014

Lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms

To what extent does an Indian newsroom reflect the composition of the society which it seeks to serve?

In "India's Newspaper Revolution", Robin Jeffrey wrote that in the 1990s woemn and Dalits were almost absent from the reporting and editing sides of daily newspapers. He quoted a journalist in New Delhi, B.N. Uniyal, as stating in 1999 that "in all the thirty years I had worked as a journalist I had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit; no, not one... it had never occurred to me that there was something so seriously amiss in the profession.".

After going trough the names of nearly 700 journalists accredited to the Press Information Bureau in New Delhi, Uniyal was unable to identify a single Dalit."

Fifteen years have passed since then. How different is the situation today? Women's presence in the newspapers appears to have improved, and the electronic media which has come up in the last two decades have offered them greater opportunities than the print.

What about Dalits? Media owners generall plug line that they don't ask for the caste and religion of candidates, and so they have no information about the caste and religious affiliation of their employees.

Writing in a recent issue of Swadesi Janata, a Dalit periodical, K. Viswanathan said there was no accredited journalist belonging to the Schedules Castes of Scheduled Tribes in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala, a state which boasts of total literacy and a large number of newspapers and news channels.
In sharp contrast to the total insensitivity of Indian media institutions and organizations of media persons is the deep commitment with which the American Society of Newspaper Editors has been trying to improve minority representation in US newsrooms.

The number of minority journalists in daily-newspaper newsrooms in the United States increased by a couple of hundred in 2013 even as newsroom employment declined by 3.2 percent, according to the annual census released by ASNE and the Center for Advanced Social Research. 
This year's census also found that 63 percent of the news organizations surveyed have at least one woman among their top three editors. The percent of minority leaders is lower, with 15 percent of participating organizations saying at least one of their top three editors is a person of color. This was the first year the questions about women and minorities in leadership were asked.
Overall, the survey found, there are about 36,700 full-time daily newspaper journalists at nearly 1,400 newspapers in the country. That's a 1,300-person decrease from 38,000 in 2012. Of those employees, about 4,900, or 13.34 percent, are racial and ethnic minorities. That's up about 200 people, or 1 percentage point, from last year's 4,700 and 12.37 percent. It is nearly as high as the record of 13.73 percent in 2006.
"Producing the employment census each year is a significant effort on the part of ASNE, but as the leaders of America's newsrooms, we feel it's essential to keep this data front and center," said ASNE President David Boardman, dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, while releasing the report at Columbia, Missouri on July 29. "We remain committed to doing all we can to help our newsrooms, and our news reports, better reflect the diverse nature of the communities we cover."

ASNE, which believes that diverse newsrooms better cover America’s communities, has been committed to diversity for more than three decades.
In 1978, it challenged the newspaper industry to achieve racial parity by 2000 or sooner and released the results of its first annual newsroom employment census. Over three decades, the annual survey has shown that while there has been progress, the racial diversity of newsrooms does not come close to the fast-growing diversity in the US population as a whole.
While ASNE is a voluntary, nonprofit organization with no hiring authority in individual newsrooms, the group is a steadfast leader in calling for newsroom diversity.

In 2000, the ASNE board reaffirmed its diversity goals. The board also approved adding women to its annual census on newsroom employment. Diversity initiatives remain focused on the hiring, promotion and retention of people of color in the newsroom.

The ASNE mission statement says:

To cover communities fully, to carry out their role in a democracy, and to succeed in the marketplace, the nation’s newsrooms must reflect the racial diversity of American society by 2025 or sooner. At a minimum, all newspapers should employ journalists of color and every newspaper should reflect the diversity of its community.

The newsroom must be a place in which all employees contribute their full potential, regardless of race, ethnicity, color, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability or other defining characteristic.
The ASNE board in 2000 reaffirmed strategies, “which may be expanded or amended periodically”:
  • Conduct an annual census of employment of Asian Americans, blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and women in the newsroom.
  • Encourage and assist editors in recruiting, hiring and managing diverse newsrooms.
  • Expand ASNE efforts to foster newsroom diversity.
  • Establish three-year benchmarks for measuring progress.
 Click here for ASNE's 2014 Diversity report.
(A Note posted in Facebook on October 13, 2014).

07 October, 2014

Modi's American conquest

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

More than 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar wrote to the Roman Senate from the city of Zela: veni, vidi, vici, meaning I came, I saw, I conquered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to evoke the same triumphal note when he said at the end of five hectic days in the US that his visit had been a great success.

Modi, who led his Bharatiya Janata Party to a sensational victory in the national elections last May, had met leaders of several countries, including China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, before going to the US to address the UN General Assembly in New York and hold talks with President Barack Obama. 

He had been to the US previously to spread the Hindutva gospel among the rich and powerful Indian Americans but this visit was special not only because he was now the Prime Minister but also because he had been denied entry into the US since 2005 on account of the communal riots which occurred in Gujarat while he was the Chief Minister.

The highlight of the visit was a spectacular rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden which demonstrated yet again the event management skills he and his team had displayed during the parliamentary elections. The Indian community, a sizable section of which has found in the Hindutva ideology a psychological ballast, turned out in large numbers to greet Modi. Outside the rally venue, another section of the community staged a protest against the 2002 riots.

Officials of the two countries worked hard to project the Modi visit as a landmark in Indo-US relations. Ahead of his arrival, they produced a newspaper article which the Washington Post published on its Op-Ed page under a joint Modi-Obama byline. This was followed by a vision statement in which the two countries committed to expand and deepen their strategic partnership and march forward shoulder to shoulder. After the leaders’ meeting came a long joint statement. No one can wade through these documents without being impressed by the uncanny ability of officials of the world’s largest democracies to say so little in so many words.

The 3,490-word joint statement opened with the leaders’ extolling of the broad strategic and global partnership between the US and India which, it said, would continue to generate greater prosperity and security for their citizens and the world. For the most part, it reiterated past commitments. It also mentioned reinvigoration or extension of some existing programmes.

The term ‘strategic partnership,’ which recurs in all the documents, is comparatively new to the Indian public since the country had avoided such relationships in the heyday of Non-Alignment. India started entering into such relationships only after the turn of the century. It now has about 30 strategic partners, including the US, Russia, China and Japan. China has about 50 of them, including the US and Russia. The US has still more.

Beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru most Indian prime ministers undertook pilgrimages to the US but the platitudes over shared democratic values did not translate into technology transfers which India was looking for. As the US failed to respond India turned to the former Soviet Union and to Europe for assistance to set up steel mills and the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Obama’s endorsement of India’s claim for membership of the missile control and nuclear regimes and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s offer to work with the Indian Space Research Organisation are a result not of love for Modi’s India but of grudging appreciation of the progress the country has achieved without US help. What concrete steps will follow remains to be seen.

Modi made no commitment on the Indian nuclear liability law which US equipment suppliers dread but Obama got him to accept a reference to the South China Sea while mentioning threats to freedom of navigation. Obama agreed with Modi on the need for joint and concerted efforts to dismantle the safe havens of terrorist groups.

The Wall Street Journal said the Modi show was “long on pageantry and short on substance”. But the national media went the whole hog on the veni, vedi, vici theme, enabling Modi to claim on Sunday in a campaign speech in Maharashtra, where Assembly elections are due, that the world was now listening to India. His conquest, however, was limited to the pro-Hindutva NRIs. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 7, 2014.