New on my other blogs

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


27 January, 2015

Scourge of child labour

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Just as the long-drawn nationwide campaign against child labour showed signs of success, a new problem has surfaced: organised trafficking of children from the backward states to distant cities.

While conducting a cordon-and-search operation in the southern city of Hyderabad last week, as part of the effort to make sure that nothing untoward happens during the three-day visit of US President Barack Obama, who was in New Delhi as guest at the Republic Day parade, police stumbled upon a colony of about 250 child workers from northern states.

The children, aged 6 to 13 years, were kept in rooms in a place under the control of rowdy elements, the police said. They included 10 girls. They had been brought from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to work in hazardous industries in which child labour is prohibited.

Also last week, labour officials in Tamil Nadu found three children from Uttar Pradesh working in a fishing village near Colachel in Kanyakumari district. They were living with local families, and were involved in fishing and in cotton cotton candy making.

A newspaper quoted a labour inspector as saying several fishermen’s families in the area have given up their traditional occupations after the December 2004 tsunami. Young people from other states have taken their place. Tamil Nadu appeals to people from West Bengal and Odisha and refugees from Bangladesh, whose staple diet is rice and fish, because of the similarity in food habits, he added.

Over the years, the Central and state governments have undertaken several schemes to eliminate child labour and draw the children into the school system. The most important initiative in this regard was the National Child Labour Project launched in 1988. Its focus was on rehabilitation of children working in hazardous occupations and processes. Over a million students are said to have been weaned away from the labour market under the scheme and put in about 6,000 schools set up especially for them.

The Indian government and UNICEF have been working together on promotion of children’s right to education, viewing access to and retention in schools as a major strategy to eliminate child labour. Since children belonging to the marginalised sections of the society are the ones most affected, they have accorded high priority to capacity building of such communities and enlisting the services of non-government organisations and community-based organisations at village level in the child labour intervention programme.

The 2011 census report testifies to the success of the programme. It showed that the number of child labourers had fallen dramatically to 4.35 million from the 2001 figure of 12.67 million.

In 2001, there were five states with more than a million child labourers. In 2011, there was none. Uttar Pradesh brought down the number from 1.93 million to 896,000, Andhra Pradesh from 1.36 million to 405,000, Rajasthan from 1.26 million to 252,000, Bihar from 1.12 million to 452,000 and Madhya Pradesh from 1.07 million to 286,000.

Child labour is most prevalent among Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and other backward classes. Its most horrendous form is  bonded child labour, which is widespread in the informal sector.  It is a form of slavery since it obliges children to work in repayment of loans taken by the parents.

The Centre was slow in responding to calls to ban child labour because of a long-standing tradition ot of allowing children to work in agriculture and cottage industries. Under continuous prodding by civil society organisations, it enacted a law in 1986 to regulate child labour. The law did not ban on child labour. It only prohibited employment of children below the age of 14 in hazardous occupations notified by the government.

After the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 the government came under further pressure to move forward. Accordingly, it enacted in 2005 a new law providing for the appointment of commissions at national and state levels to ensure that laws, policies and administrative mechanisms are in consonance with the Constitution and the UN Convention. It brought all those who are under 18 years within the definition of children.

Three years ago the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government brought forward a bill to amend the Child Labour Act to impose a total ban on employment of children. It did not push the measure through Parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is more employer-friendly than his predecessor, has not indicated what his government plans to do in the matter. -- Gulf Today, January 27, 2015.

20 January, 2015

Confrontation with obscurantism

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Across India battle lines are being drawn as forces of modernisation face forces of obscurantism. Two spectacular manifestations of the developing confrontation took place last week.

Led by Leela Samson, the chairperson, the members of the Central Board of Film Certification walked out, alleging corruption and governmental interference in the working of the institution.

The immediate provocation for their action was the government’s role in granting clearance to a film which did not meet with the board’s approval. Embarrassed, the Minister who oversees the board’s working dubbed them rebels without a case.

The film at the centre of the controversy is “MSG – the Messenger of God”, a self-glorification project of Punjab godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, who has financed it and acts as himself in it. A tribunal which has the power to review the board’s decisions granted it clearance.

The Central government claimed it did not interfere in the matter. However, two circumstances cast doubts on the claim. One is that the tribunal was reconstituted just before “MSG” was referred to it.

The other is that the tribunal, which ordinarily takes months to conduct a review, cleared this one in 24 hours with record speed.

Samson and her associates, who were appointed by the Manmohan Singh government, had completed their term in May last year.

The Narendra Modi government asked them to stay on until a new board is constituted. There has been no explanation for the inordinate delay in the appointment of new members.  

In the south, a noted Tamil novelist, Perumal Murugan, facing the fury of casteist elements who have the tacit support of the official establishment and feeling isolated, dramatically announced his literary death and the withdrawal of all his books from the market.

Murugan’s agonised response brought forth a wave of sympathy for him in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in the country. Breaking its silence on the subject, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the main opposition party of Tamil Nadu, extended support for him. Public readings from his novel were held at places as far apart as Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram.

Writers, publishers and readers attending an annual literary festival in Chennai adopted a resolution strongly condemning attempts to silence Murugan and expressing full solidarity with him.

Instead of protecting his constitutional rights, the state administration had abetted the campaign of intimidation against him, and made him sign a statement under duress, the resolution said.  

Instances of books being blocked under pressure from political, economic and social or religious groups are not rare in India.

Lately many highly respected authors and their works have come under attack from sections of the majority community, influenced by the communal propaganda of Hindutva forces. 

In 2000, the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government halted the publication of a 10-volume history of the freedom movement by eminent scholars Sumit Sarkar and KN Panikkar under a project taken up by the Indian Council of Historical Research, apparently because it showed the Hindu Mahasabha in a poor light. Publication was resumed after the change of government in 2004.

A violent agitation by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, during which a professor was manhandled, led to withdrawal of an essay, titled Three Hundred Ramayanas, written by renowned poet AK Ramanujam, from Delhi University’s BA (History) syllabus in 2008.

The ABVP, or rather its mentors, were annoyed by the reference in the essay to a version of the epic in which Ram and Sita are siblings, not man and wife. 

Mumbai University dropped Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such A Long Journey from its BA (English) syllabus after the Shiv Sena’s student wing alleged that it contained passages critical of that organisation and derogatory to Maharashtra.

In Karnataka, police arrested Yogesh Master on a charge of creating illwill among communities after Sri Ram Sena, a Hindutva outfit, lodged a complaint alleging his novel “Dhundi” contained objectionable references to Hindu god Ganesha.

In an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bhachao Andolan, another Hindutva outfit, Penguin India last year agreed to withdraw and pulp all copies of the Indian edition of US professor Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

While acts of literary and cultural vandalism have been widespread, until now there was no collective nationwide response to them.

The concerted action by Leela Samson and her colleagues and the spontaneous effusion of support across the country for Perumal Murugan who was little known outside the circle of Tamil readers are the first indications that progressive sections of society are ready to take on the forces of obscurantism. 

It is too early to conclude what forms the confrontation will take and how protracted it will be. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 20, 2015.

13 January, 2015

Gandhi assassin as Hindutva icon

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

It was this month 100 years ago that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India after two decades in South Africa and went on to become the foremost leader of the country’s freedom movement.

It was this month 68 years ago that Nathuram Vinayak Godse, editor of a little known Marathi language daily, shot Gandhi dead, having been goaded, in his own words, “by the accumulating provocation of 32 years to the conclusion that his existence should be brought to an end immediately.”

In 2003, the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee, designated January 9, the day on which Gandhi landed in Mumbai harbour in 1915, as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Indian Expatriates Day). It also started the tradition of holding a Pravasi Bharatiya convention each year to underscore Overseas Indians’ contributions to the country’s development. India, which received $70 billion from expatriates in 2013, tops the global chart of foreign remittances by migratory workforce.

As delegates from across the world gathered in Gandhinagar, capital of Gujarat, last weekend for this year’s convention, Godse, whom ascendant Hindutva elements have resurrected and are seeking to enshrine as a national icon, was once again challenging Gandhi, the putative Father of the Nation.

Godse was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, whose president, VD Savarkar, was the author of the Hindutva ideology, as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the biggest exponent of that ideology today. Members of both organisations had reportedly celebrated Gandhi’s assassination by distributing sweets.

Nathuram Godse, and his associate, Narayan Apte, were sentenced to death in the Gandhi murder case, and both were executed on November 15, 1949. Savarkar, too, was an accused in the case but was acquitted for want of evidence. He led a quiet life thereafter and courted death in 1966 by giving up food and medicine.

Efforts at glorification of Godse began when his younger brother, Gopal, another accused in the case, emerged from jail in 1964 after serving a prison term and was given a hero’s welcome. He wrote a book on the Gandhi assassination in Marathi in which he included the text of a long court statement in which Nathuram Godse explained why he killed Gandhi. It was translated into English and several Indian languages.

In the court statement, a strong indictment of Gandhi’s politics, Godse accused him of appeasing the Muslims and held him responsible for the partition of India. He said he had fired the shots as there was no legal machinery to bring such an offender to book.

While the statement is couched in terms that sound reasonable, the hatred that vitiated his thinking found expression occasionally, as when he said, “I felt that this man should not be allowed to meet a natural death so that the world may know that he had to pay the penalty of his life for his unjust, anti-national favouritism towards a fanatical section of the country.”

GD Khosla, one of the three judges before whom Godse read out the statement, wrote later that if it had been made before a jury it might have returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict.

When Vajpayee was prime minister, a portrait of Savarkar was installed in Parliament House, opposite Gandhi’s, and the airport at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, where he was imprisoned during the freedom struggle, was named after him. There was, however, no attempt to rescue Godse from political villainy.

The Hindu Mahasabha has now announced plans to make Godse a national hero. It proposes to build a temple dedicated to him at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, unveil his statues at several places across the country and release a documentary on him, all on January 30, the anniversary of the assassination.

Last week the UP government foiled the Mahasabha’s bid to take out a rally in Lucknow in support of its Godse projects. Residents of the village where the organisation has acquired land for the proposed temple have said they would not allow it. A Pune court is looking into a petition against the release of the Godse documentary.

The Hindu Mahasabha is rickety today and cannot carry out the proposed projects without the support of the BJP and the RSS. So far neither of them has reacted publicly to the Mahasabha’s plans. However, the ambivalent statements of Sakshi Maharaj, who is a BJP MP and RSS activist, suggest that there are pro-Godse elements in both. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 13, 2915.

06 January, 2015

Control over levers of economy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Months of uncertainty over the future of planning ended last week with the government deciding to set up a National Institution for Transforning India (NITI) Aayog.

Like the Planning Commission which it replaces, NITIAayog will have the Prime Minister as its chairman. Unlike it, the new body will have a governing council comprising the chief ministers of the states and the lieutenant governors of the union territories.

A brainchild of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was an admirer of both Soviet planning and post-war Japanese reconstruction, the Planning Commission was established in 1950.

Finance Minister John Mathai, who was inducted into the Cabinet from the business house of Tatas, announced the decision to set up the Commission in his budget speech. As it happened, he quit shortly afterwards saying the Commission was ill-timed and its working and set-up ill-conceived. He feared that it would take away the finance ministry’s powers.

High inflation, steep capital costs and low savings rates were factors that demanded governmental intervention to determine the course of the economy. Nehru expected the Planning Commission’s labours to result in improvement of living standards of the people through efficient exploitation of resources, stepping up of production and expansion of employment opportunities.

The Commission’s main task was to formulate five-year plans for economic development and apportion funds for implementation of plan projects. Unusual circumstances interrupted formulation of five-year plans. On both occasions planning was continued on an annual basis. The fate of the 12th five-year plan, which is due to run till 2017, now hangs in the balance.

It is wrong to suggest, as some critics have done, that planning was a failure. The public sector undertakings, the ownership of which is now being divested to find money for new projects, were the products of the first eight five-year plans. Just as Deng Ziaoping’s reforms could not have succeeded without the modest achievements of the Mao period, the accelerated development of the Indian economy in the period of globalisation would not have been possible without the limited growth of the period of five-year plans.

Centralised planning was a failure inasmuch as the fruits of development did not reach the poor. Not long after the process began it became clear that intermediaries were siphoning off benefits that should flow to those at the bottom. The administration could not fashion measures to redress the situation.

As early as the 1970s Sukhmoy Chakravarty, a leading economist who was associated with the Commission for long, said it was not functioning the way it should. He suggested that it was suffering from “plan weariness”. But Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ignored the criticism. Her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, referred to the Commission members as “a bunch of jokers.” He too made no effort to reform the body.

The globalisation project, which led to further growth of inequality, brought the Commission’s failure into sharp focus. Large-scale suicide by impoverished farmers cried for immediate action. Initially the Commission and the government remained impassive. Later they sought to mitigate the situation by laying emphasis on inclusive growth.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself an economist, started talking about the inadequacies of the Commission as he began his second term in 2009. But he too failed to act. Just before laying down office, he was still voicing doubts about the Commission’s role. “Are we using tools and approaches which were designed for a different era?” he asked at the Commission’s last meeting he addressed as its chairman.

Within days of assuming office Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a report from the Independent Evaluation Office, which the Planning Commission itself had set up to study its working and recommend measures for reform. It said, “It is clear that the Planning Commission, in its current form and function, is a hindrance and not a help to India’s development.” It proposed that a think tank be constituted in its place.

While the Planning Commission was dominated by economists, the composition of the NITIAayog indicates that control of the levers of the economy will now be fully in the hands of politicians. It remains to be seen if this will improve the quality of developmental activity. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 6, 2015