Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Anaaj to anaaj, bora bhi durlabh

I don’t know much about Latehar, a district in Jharkhand, and what’s been happening there. When I ran a search online, I found one news item about how there are fewer wolves in the wolf sanctuary in Latehar, and a few items about Naxal violence. For instance, an attack on an independent Member of Parliament, Inder Singh Namdhari.
There’s also an item about how a village called Sarju — or Sarayu — that used to be a Maoist ‘hotbed’ is on its way to development. A special development programme has been initiated to bring about political mobilisation, social justice and security. Security forces are camping out there already. There is now talk of education and drinking water and sanitation and even building a stadium. There isn’t much talk of food, though.
The reason I was interested in Latehar was that there was some mention of a recent protest in Manika block, where activists were demanding that the government’s grain godowns be opened and food distributed to the hungry. This was barely a day or two after Independence day, when the chief minister Arjun Munda made a speech promising food security.
Perhaps, there is reason to worry. The public distribution system is very important in Jharkhand, which doesn’t grow enough food to meet its needs, and has a very high incidence of poverty (official poverty, which means not enough calories) compared to the all-India average. The ‘poor’ constitute nearly 50% of the rural population. Besides, state scientists also fear a 40% reduction in rice harvests this year, thanks to the delayed monsoon.
Forty percent is a lot less than usual, and even the usual picture isn’t pretty. A June 2012 video on Videovolunteers, filmed by a community correspondent, suggests that people don’t get food grains every month at the local PDS shop and certainly not their full quota of 35 kilos. Most get only about 30 kilos. Meanwhile, a block official explained that about five kilos might have been shaved off to account for the weight of the jute sack.
This business of jute sacks is also quite strange. Apparently, last year India’s food production went up to 250 million tonne. This should be a cause for joy. But in Raisen, farmers were protesting — and the police was opening fire — because the state wasn’t buying their grain. Meanwhile, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh was blaming the central government, and threatening to go on hunger strike. The reason was a shortage of jute sacks.
Because if there are no sacks, then farmers cannot transport their harvest. There was a similar problem in Uttar Pradesh. Reports say, some farmers in Punjab have committed suicide because of this. Oddly enough, reports also say that jute farmers in Bengal are burning their own crops because the prices of jute have crashed. Which is strange, given that there is such a great demand, and considering that India and Bangadesh produce most of the world’s jute.
Perhaps farmers in Jharkhand should try growing jute, or some organic substitute. The state also has high rates of unemployment, although the state’s per capita income is on par with the rest of India. Which means there are many more poor people who desperately need work, and a few people who have a lot of money. Which reminds me of activist Niyamat Ansari, who was killed days after he helped expose fraud in an NREGA scheme in Latehar district. Which means that some local officials were stealing our money by creating fake documents using the names of really poor — and hungry — citizens. I would like to know if these officials are in jail. I hope they are.
First published here

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

the rape sketch

When the latest rape-related story came to us via the morning papers, it came with some form of visuals attached. An attempted rape leading to the murder of Pallavi Purkayastha. Since her life is no longer under threat, pictures could be published. We know that she was an attractive, confident woman who appeared to be living on her own terms. And now she’s gone.
Since then, there have been other sexual assault crimes — what our much-celebrated Kiran Bedi might describe as ‘small rape’ cases — most of which feature as briefs. A seven-year-old; a schoolgirl-babysitter; a teenager looking for a hostel room. I have to confess I’m relieved they are no more than brief items because often, when news of sexual assault is given larger space in the papers, they come with illustrations – bent heads, hair covering the face, silent screams.
Murder or burglary cases are also illustrated (for the lack of photos) because newspapers seem to like ‘storyboarding’ events. The unstated assumption is that newspaper readers actually don’t want to read. When it comes to rape, perhaps imaginations fail. And yet, editors feel that we are unable to feel the impact of these horrific stories without accompanying sketches.
Therefore, every few days a generic sort of sketch or downloaded photo is tossed in, and it nauseates me. I am infuriated by photos of blurry silhouettes, palm prints, or broken dolls with their clothes torn off. I wish they’d stop showing us eyes wide with fear. Stop those sketches of girls huddled in corners, sitting on the floor with their knees drawn up, heads buried in their own arms. Stop those sketches of female faces screaming. Stop those trite, predictable little graphics done in shades of red or black. Also stop black-and-white grainy images of beautiful young women, a hand covering their mouths.
What is it about rape that needs to be visually represented? The actual crime? Probably editors feel — and rightly so — that rape is not the sort of crime that can be sketched, that it could only be invasive, inaccurate and hurtful to the victim, not to mention the psyches of children and young adults.
But if they must illustrate rape stories, I wish they’d find the courage to show the truth. Depict accurately. Depict a baby rape victim as a baby, and the toddler as a toddler. Show a maternal victim as herself, wearing the loose, shapeless kurta she usually wears. Why use sleeveless blouses and curvy backs and high heeled shoes? Show flab or wrinkled skin or malnourished ribs. Show school uniforms if you must. Don’t show us pictures of bare limbs and flimsy slips that have been modeled by some model (usually foreign) and taken off the internet.
In an environment where the rape victim’s age, clothing, profession, class, colour, and the time and location of the crime are constantly being referred to, how dare anyone misrepresent any of the facts in their sketches? Editors can’t remain oblivious to the importance of cracking stereotypes about rape victims when every other report of molestation or rape is ridden with insidious attempts at pigeonholing victims into a particular category of woman who had it coming anyway.
And if the argument is that the graphics intend to represent pain and humiliation, then perhaps illustrators and designers must be made to interview some victims of sexual assault. Surely anger is also an emotion they feel? At the very least, I wish media would refrain from publishing convenient graphics that suggest that the victim’s state of mind is a sort of generic shame and loneliness. I wish they’d just stop doing that.
First published here

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What face, free citizens?

So, Independence Day is around the corner. I thought it would be interesting to take a very literal look at freedom. In the sense of who is technically a free man/woman, and who isn’t.
One woman who was recently freed is — rather ironically — called ‘Azad’ (the free one). Seema Azad is a human rights activist and a journalist who spent over two years in prison. She and her husband, Vishwavijay had been convicted by a sessions court in Uttar Pradesh of sedition.
The laws under which Azad was convicted refer to a ‘conspiracy to commit a terrorist act’, supporting a terrorist organisation, and waging war against the state. What it actually translates into is the possession of a few pamphlets or books.
Therefore, on the basis of some hearsay evidence, and the fact that Azad and her husband read all kinds of literature, they were sentenced to life imprisonment. Thankfully, the Allahabad High Court has suspended the sentence, and granted them bail. The judges observed that there could see no evidence that the duo had been waging war against India.
But, of course, the case hasn’t been entirely dismissed. The couple is only out on bail. As is Dr Binayak Sen, who also spent over two years in jail on similar charges.
Also, 78-year-old Narayan Sanyal, who was supposed to be a CPI (Maoist) activist, was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court. He had already spent six years in jail.
But some Indians have not done any time in jail. These include at least a few men who assault other young Indian citizens for wanting to celebrate. Nor has anyone initiated serious legal action against colleges that refuse to let victims of such assault sit for exams.
If there is some legal action in the future, nobody will go to jail for holding the view that female students who get assaulted need to be punished further. Jail, clearly, is reserved for people who possess pamphlets.
And for people like Soni Sori, the adivasi school teacher in Chhattisgarh. She is still in jail. Although she alleged torture, although a subsequent medical exam in Kolkata proved her claim (scans showed that stones had been shoved into her rectum), although the Supreme Court expressed some anguish at this state of affairs, she was sent back to her home state.
Recent reports quote Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh as saying that naxalism can be ‘solved’ through dialogue. If the state truly believes that Sori is a Naxalite, or even a Naxal sympathiser, then she is the first person he should be talking to. And it should be easy, because she’s right there. Still in Raipur jail.
Since dialogue implies two parties talking and listening to each other, Raman Singh could begin by listening to Soni Sori. But clearly, he is not listening. If he was, she would not need to write letters to the Supreme Court.
She’s written one recently, alleging that she continues to be tortured and humiliated. She says she is stripped naked. She is starved. She is touched repeatedly under the pretext of being searched.
I’m waiting to hear what the Supreme Court does next. SP Ankit Garg, who allegedly conspired to get Sori arrested, was conferred a medal for gallantry. Now I’m waiting to see how the state treats the policemen who are in charge of Sori’s custody currently.
As for Raman Singh, I’m wondering if he’s read Sori’s letter. If he has, and refuses to react to it, with what face will he hoist the national flag this year? And what will our face look like as we turn to salute our flag?
First published here

Monday, August 06, 2012

Fraud kism ke log

What do you call a man who promises you a job if you agree to part with a portion of your wealth in exchange? A man you should be wary of. Correct?

And what would you call a man who takes your wealth — possibly the only wealth you have — and then fails to keep that promise of suitable employment? A fraudster. Correct?
We read about such ‘job scams’ in the newspapers. When victims of such fraud approach the police with a complaint, the cops swing into action. They raid premises and arrest the cheats. But when was the last time you heard about an industrialist or businessman getting arrested for failing to provide jobs, after taking away land? Land and water are the only real wealth a farming family has. These two elements ensure food, work, self-respect, and an inheritance. If someone takes away your livelihood, he better give you a darn good alternative.
That was the general idea in Yavatmal, a region that has seen too many tragic suicides in recent years. In 2001, former BJP MLA Uttam Ingle, on behalf of Chintamani Agrotech, acquired over a hundred acres of land.
Chintamani Agrotech walked in on powerful legs; there was Nitin Gadkari on board, apart from Ingle and other BJP politicians. It had promised to set up a sugar factory apparently. A decade passed. No factory. So the villagers demanded that their land be returned, or that their children be given jobs. Some people reportedly attacked the firm’s local office.
Chintamani said that it would set up a biogas plant instead, and use sugarcane residue to generate electricity. Whether this is true, or whether it will end up being a coal-based plant, as activists fear, I don’t know. But there is no definite declaration about how many jobs will be generated and whether those jobs will definitely be given to farmers.
The odd thing is that the state is supposed to have cleared 85 power projects across the Vidarbha region, where farmer suicides have long been a cause for concern. But power plants also need a whole lot of water. Finally, it will have to be drawn from “irrigation” projects.
Meanwhile, there is a similar land and power-plant situation in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. Apparently, Moserbaer had acquired large tracts of land (including forest land) in Anuppur district. Reports quote farmers as saying that their land was valued at rates as low as Rs16 per square meter.
Others say that they had been assured of land in exchange for land. But the ‘letter of agreement’ did not specify whether or not the firm would follow the state’s rehabilitation and resettlement norms. It mentioned certain commitments as decided by the state revenue department, but the farmers were not told what these “commitments” would translate into.
Allegedly, bore-wells have been sunk and villagers assume that water will be drawn to feed the power project. Which means that even those who do not want to sell land will have less groundwater for their own use. And the loss of water is neither accounted for nor compensated.
When they protested earlier this year in Anuppur, farmers were faced with laathis, bullets, and a stint in prison. So, I imagine they have no warm fuzzy feelings for power plants these days. But the question is — what do you call a man who takes away your most prized possession, then claims it isn’t worth a lot, refuses to tell you how he intends to pay you back, and when you show up with your friends to demand that he return your valuables, he gets the cops to arrest you?
First published here

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