Friday, December 28, 2012

Tweaking our food, making us pay?

There have been some interesting developments in the tweaked food department.

Maharashtra has admitted that cotton yield is likely to reduce by nearly 40%. Bt Cotton has allegedly ‘failed’ in more than 4 million hectares of land. A report sent by the state agricultural department to the Centre says that the estimate of the net direct economic loss to cotton farmers in the state will be in the vicinity of Rs 6,000 crore, but that actual losses are much higher because with Bt. Cotton, the cultivation cost also rises.

Naturally, farmers aren’t very happy. According to Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti, about 5 million cotton farmers from Maharashtra want Rs 20,000 per hectare as compensation for the failure of Bt Cotton failure. The question of who should be coughing up the money is an interesting one. One certainly hopes it will not be the government, because that actually just means you and me – the taxpayers.

Some reports also say that a ‘consortium of farmer organizations’ is demanding the right to cultivate GM crops. Some new reports quote S Jaipal Reddy as saying that Andhra Pradesh has actually benefitted from GM crops. And Maharashtra, where such massive losses were reported, has set up a committee headed by a nuclear scientist, Anil Kakodkar, to advise the government on field trials of GM crops. It is interesting that the state already had a committee that included agricultural scientists or academics.

So far, Bt cotton has been the only GM crop allowed in India but private corporations have been lobbying to bring in GM rice, tomato, wheat and so on. Bt Brinal was attempted too, but the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had stopped the release in 2010.

A parliamentary standing panel had also released a report earlier this year where it criticizing Bt cotton and GM food tests. The panel had reportedly been sent 467 memoranda and 14,862 documents, and evidence from 50 organizations.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court does not ban open field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops even though the TEC (Technical Experts Committee) recommended a ten year moratorium on field trials. The TEC was set up after a petition was filed by Aruna Rodrigues and the NGO Gene Campaign to stop field trials until independent experts have assessed the risk of GM crops’ corrupting traditional seeds.

About a hundred scientists and several farmers groups also wrote to ask the Supreme Court to accept the TEC’s interim report. But then, the committee itself was modified to include a state-appointed person. As it is, India has been crying hoarse about the purity of its exports, after the European Commission suspected genetically modified organisms (GMO) contamination in our Basmati rice.

But the Centre has told the Supreme Court that we need GM food to feed hungry people. “India is unlikely to meet the target of cutting the proportion of hungry people by half if recourse to advanced and safe biotechnology tools are not adopted,” the government affidavit said.

This, despite the fact that the godowns are overflowing and there are farmers clamouring for the state to acquire foods – more than just wheat and rice – to ensure a minimum support price. The Supreme Court had, in fact, asked that the government open its godowns rather than allow citizens to starve. Clearly, the Court is aware that overflowing godowns exist. Perhaps, the government could look at those? 

In any case, I wish the government would decide who pays compensation to farmers if GM crops fail, or they contaminate non-modified crops, or if they damage our health. I’m hoping it will not be me.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The brutal question

So, she is in hospital in critical condition. There are injuries mainly on her face and stomach. The men who attacked her were armed with iron rods. And we are talking about the need for closed circuit TV cameras.
We are not asking what part of hitting a woman on her face is about sexual desire? What part of a woman’s body deserves to be damaged, ever? And we are not asking, because we are not allowed to talk about sex or desire. We are especially not allowed to talk as children and teenagers, when our values are being formed.
We are, however, allowed to talk about how much the victim of the assault is to blame.We are even allowed to shout at the police: Why can they not prevent rape? Even a court makes unthinking remarks like, “We are at a loss to understand as to how the bus could evade surveillance for 40 minutes.”
Why is this so difficult to understand? If you saw a bus move on the roads for 40 minutes, would you be surprised? Why would the police suspect a moving bus? What about cars? There have been cases of women being dragged into moving cars. There have been cases of men kidnapping women, locking them up in homes and repeatedly raping them. Should the police barge into every house, looking for rape victims?
And how many places can we afford to do this? It is easy to focus our outrage on Delhi, because it does have one of the highest number of reported rapes, or Haryana, where the report card for gender violence is abysmal too. But Jabalpur has a higher number of rapes as a percentage of the population. What does that tell us?
There are four major parts to the problem. One, women do not feel safe reporting the crime because they are not sure if the police will treat them with respect. Two, most rapists do not go to jail and they don’t stay there long enough. The National Crime Records Bureau records that rape convictions are down to 36 per cent. A murderer is much more likely to get convicted than a rapist.
It is true that very few rapes are investigated properly and even fewer are reported. It is also true that police personnel often treat thefts – or even public protests – with a greater sense of urgency than sexual violence. It is also true that the police is grossly understaffed and that many rapists are men who are acquainted with the victim. Therefore it becomes impossible for the police to ‘prevent’ a situation where rape might occur.
The only thing the police can ensure is that if a rape has occurred, the victim doesn’t hesitate to rush to the nearest police station or hospital.
The third part of the problem is that we discriminate between the kinds of women who get raped or molested, as if their clothes, or sexual habits, or the time of day was the criminal, instead of the men who attack them.
The fourth and most significant aspect of the rape crisis is that our male population is trained to think of sex as an experience that is divorced from the body and mind of another human being. 
We direct our outrage at the police, or the government, because we like to shift the blame. We do not like to acknowledge the fact that a large part of our population is potentially criminal in their thinking about sex.
The first two problems are fixable to the extent that we can introduce a new module in police training, with some basic counselling built in, so every cop – including constables – is taught to deal with rape correctly. We can insist that hospitals be located near police stations, and every hospital, including PHCs (primary health centres) have an emergency rape kit. We can get our home ministry to approve these measures.
But none of these changes will prevent rape unless we fix ourselves as a society. It is idiotic to expect that policemen, or lawyers, or judges can prevent rape if we cannot prevent people from thinking that any kind of sexual violence is justified or forgivable.
Can we fix people’s thinking? I believe we can. There are communities in this world where rape is almost unheard of. How do they manage it? They manage by ensuring gender justice as far as possible. Men and women both work and have equal access to property or natural resources. They have sex when they want it. They marry when they can afford to. They have children. They walk away (or run away) from a relationship if it is making them unhappy.
No man claims a right to a woman’s body indefinitely just because a ceremony has been conducted. No woman is so poor or so afraid of many men inflicting violence upon her body that she tolerates violence from one man. Nobody is ostracised or penalized for wanting to have sex. 
Can we hope to build such a society? I want to believe that we can. The alternative is too brutal to believe.
First published here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Imagine this procedure

Imagine this situation. You go to work. In the evening, you say goodbye to colleagues. You come home. And you find someone waiting for you.

This someone wears khaki. This someone says he’s a cop. This someone begins to ask you questions about where you’ve been, who your friends are, do you know so-and-so? You say, no. He says you must come to the police station. You ask, why? He does not tell you. He makes you get into his car.

You still don’t know who this someone is. He wears no name tag. He does not volunteer any information about which police station he’s attached to, and when you will be coming back.

Now, imagine you’re a woman and you have a small child in your arms. You catch a train to attend a conference. Next thing you know, some people come into the compartment,claiming to be railway policemen in plainclothes. So far, you have no clue you’ve been arrested. But you find yourself at the local CBI branch office.

You are questioned for links to armed rebel outfits. You say you have no links.

They take you to the women’s police station for the night. The lock-up room is guarded by a man. You’re prevented from using the toilet. You still have your child and colleagues with you. The next morning, you are questioned alone. You are pressurized to sign a document. Then you’re taken to court and your ‘confession’ produced as evidence.

It could happen so easily. If you’re an activist talking about land rights or forest rights or water rights, this imaginary scenario must look frighteningly real.
On the December 8, 2012, something like this happened in Ranchi, leading to the incarceration of Aparna Marandi, according to Baby Turi, head of Jitpur panchayat in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district. Baby says she was picked up along with Aparna and her four-year-old son, and Sushila Ekka. Baby and Sushila had not signed confessions and were released on the 10th. Aparna, fearing for her life, signed a confession and went to jail.

What Baby and Aparna have in common was that both their husbands — Damodar Turi and Jiten Marandi — were arrested in 2008 and accused of Maoist activities. According to a statement by Damodar, who is the state convenor of the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan (Peoples’ Campaign against Displacement), when he was arrested, no FIR was filed. He was tortured and made to sign a statement. At a press conference, Maoist pamphlets were put on show, along with the allegation that these were recovered from the NGO’s office. As for Jiten Marandi, he is still in jail. He was acquitted by the High Court, but is still kept in jail through the Jharkhand Crime Control Act (2002).

Whether Jiten or Damodar or Aparna are guilty of a crime, or have Maoist links is a separate question. A far greater danger to ordinary Indians is posed by the police contempt of procedure.

The police needs to do its job, but it seems as if increasingly, the police needs policing. There are reports of such gross violations from every state, and surely, we can’t afford to send human rights’ defenders chasing after every cop in India. And yet, we have to know who is arresting whom and for what. A citizen deserves access to a lawyer before s/he signs anything.

Perhaps, this it is even possible with newer technologies to start monitoring police activity. Perhaps that is the only way to make the police comply with procedure. Because if we cannot trust our own police force, where does that leave us?

First published here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

what price, shopping?

I hear it’s the wedding season. Which means a lot of people are shopping without dropping. In any case, the new Indian middle class no longer waits for festivals or weddings. Shopping is weekend entertainment.

This is possible partly because of an abundance of low-priced readymade garments. Another big change is that we now shop for labels. We no longer pick out our own style. It is enough now to know that we’re buying into a name that is internationally known. Hence, streets offer ‘reject maal’ or copied samples of fashion trends in Europe or the USA. Malls are packed with ‘labels’ and most are not frightfully expensive.

Ever wondered why? Of course, labour is cheap and plentiful in India. But still, ever wondered — how cheap exactly?

The average monthly wage for garment workers in Bangalore is Rs4,472. And it’s not like the owners of the factories are proudly publicising these wages. We only know because of the National People’s Tribunal, organised as part of a campaign by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. According to the report, Rs4,472 is only 43% of what the worker’s family actually needs, given that they pay for rent, food, water, children’s education and healthcare.

India’s textile industry is supposed to be worth USD 55 billion. Reports say that two million people are employed in readymade garment units; 80% are women. Now, testimonies from 250 garment workers reveal low wages, overlong work hours, sexual harassment and work conditions that amount to “bonded and forced labour practices”.

As for safety, most units are a disaster waiting to happen. One such disaster happened recently in Bangladesh , the second largest exporter of readymade garments. A fire broke out in a factory near Dhaka, and this certainly wasn’t the first such incident. This time, 112 people died. Some tried to jump out from the eight-storey building. The guards did not open the main gate even after smoke emerged from the building.

After the latest fire incident, garment workers in Bangalore staged a candle light vigil, demanding safer working conditions. News reports quote workers as saying that buildings pose a safety threat; there’s only one door and no emergency exit.

Part of the responsibility lies with international brands who buy from such factories, but it is a telling fact that at the Tribunal hearing in Bangalore, with the exception of Swedish firm H&M, no other global brand showed up. Nor did the India suppliers.

And we shouldn’t be surprised. If they can’t fix fire hazards in Bangladesh, what makes us think they care to invest in safety in India? It is India’s responsibility to ensure that the rules are followed.

But then, workers say the Karnataka Labour department doesn’t even recognise their trade unions. In any case, the department doesn’t have a good track record of intervening on behalf of labour. Take the Bangalore metro project. Some accidents led to a group of students asking a question in 2010: who is responsible for safety at Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) sites? The BMRCL did not reply. In 2011, the students approached the Karnataka Labour department, which shifted responsibility onto the Ministry of Urban Development. In September 2012, the Ministry just asked the BMRCL to respond.

So, what kind of faith do we expect garment workers to have in the department that’s supposed to protect their rights? Will the state do its job?

And what about us, the shopping hordes? Through their testimonies, the women who create our inexpensive pleasures are talking to us, telling us what really goes into these clothes. Are we listening?

This piece appeared here.

After I sent it off, I found another update on the Bangladesh fire incident. Apparently, Wal-Mart chose not to invest in upgrading infrastructure at factories to make work conditions more bearable and safer.

According to the news report, "At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.The comments from a Wal-Mart sourcing director appear in minutes of the meeting, which was attended by more than a dozen retailers including Gap Inc., Target Corp. and JC Penney Co. At the April 2011 meeting in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, retailers discussed a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories prices high enough to cover costs of safety improvements. Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Wal-Mart director of ethical sourcing, told attendees the company wouldn’t share the cost,"

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Book Review: My dear Bapu

There are some things we know about modern India — that Mahatma Gandhi, or Bapu as he was fondly called, was the largest wave in the great tide of freedom sweeping across India between 1920 and 1947 and his chosen tools were civil disobedience and non-violent satyagraha. We know of leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, and C Rajagopalachari. What most of us don’t know is that freedom fighters — even those who agreed with Bapu — were not a monolith. They did not think or act cohesively. They even worked at cross-purposes.
It is difficult to get a full sense of the past, the pushes and pulls and shoves that won us independence; the immense struggle against splintering; the fine muslin of emotional appeal and inclusion of dissident voices that was woven into khadi.This is one of the precious reveals of My Dear Bapu, a collection of letters, mainly between C Rajagopalachari (CR) and Bapu, but also including letters to Devadas Gandhi, who married CR’s daughter Lakshmi, and grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who has edited this book.
CR and Bapu discussed khadi, temple entry for dalits, prohibition and dietary experiments. CR agrees with Bapu on abolishing untouchability, but doesn’t agree on separate electorates based on religion. Malviya seems to be aligned with orthodox priests and actually opposes Bapu’s fight against untouchability. Satyamurti wants CR thrown out of the Congress. CR doesn’t agree with CR Das. The Swarajists are a problem. There are pro-changers and no-changers and slow-changers.
It is oddly reassuring to know they were wrangling even in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Common ground had to be renegotiated on a daily basis, and this is deeply relevant to present-day readers who are disenchanted with politics itself. Through post and telegraph, friendships and rivalries and the freedom struggle is revealed. Bapu and CR explain themselves, argue about whether to fast or not, whether to drink milk or not, and with each letter, they grow more tangible to the imagination.
The first few letters are formal, but later exchanges are full of affection. They include details of how much cotton yarn is needed, but also accounts of grief. One of the most poignant threads is CR’s updates about his elder daughter, Namagiri (Papa), who fought off a long spell of illness and before she could her recover, lost her husband. Only a tiny glimpse of grief is afforded, and the reader is left to imagine how CR, a single parent, juggled family with constant travel, fund-raising, and jail stints.
The book is also charming for its literary asides — CR spending jail time translating epics, CR raving about Shakespeare and Morley; an 84-year-old CR refusing to visit the 90-year-old Bertrand Russell on the grounds that Russell was ‘too old’.
Another small joy lies in reading the footnotes, which introduce us to people who were part of CR or Bapu’s life, such as Thiru Vi Ka, Nageswar Rao Pantulu, Shankerlal Banker and Sadhu Surendra. A generation that barely knows Bapu is not likely to know Kelappan. It is easy to forget that it took many to implant the idea of Gandhi across the subcontinent.
It is also good to remember that men like Bapu and CR had a broad vision. Freedom was not just about hartals and burning foreign cloth. Freedom meant caring for your people. It meant taking responsibility for flood relief in Malabar even if it meant cooperating with the very government that had jailed them. In one letter, CR endorses Bapu’s statement to Reuters in 1931, wherein he seeks an India “where there shall be no high class and low class”, and does not distinguish being indigenous and foreign, as long as they don’t hurt the interests of “the dumb millions”.
We learn little of CR’s feelings post independence. Devadas died young and Gopalkrishna was too young to be burdened with disillusionment and systemic rot. But in his fine introduction, Gandhi writes of the time when CR fought the Congress electorally through a new political outfit, the Swatantra Party. It won most of the seats in Madras along with its ally, the DMK in the 1962 elections. “His newly elected MPs were to take their seats in the Lok Sabha. I asked him if he would not like to watch the proceedings from the visitors’ gallery. ‘It will be a sensation, Anna,’ I ventured. CR thought awhile and said, ‘It will be sensationalism.’ He went that year on a brief political Sabbath.”
CR’s erudition and Bapu’s keen, contesting mind are in fine display throughout, as is CR’s empathy and gentle reaching out to younger minds. The content of the letters alone make for an interesting read, but add the weight of history, and the new India’s aggressive polity, this book assumes greater significance.
First published here

Monday, December 03, 2012

Yohoho and an armful of force

A friend posted a note online saying how proud he was that India has never attacked another nation. It made me puff up with pride too. But I also wondered why – Is it because a billion people are pacifist, content human beings with no awful greed driving them? Or is it because most of our aggression is turned inward?

Consider recent news. Eight houses in a Dalit colony were set on fire by a mob in Tamil Nadu. But the attackers remembered to force open the steel almirahs and steal the gold jewellery before torching the houses.

Meanwhile, Mahendra Karma, a Congress leader in Chhattisgarh, survived a landmine attack. There have been reports of other explosive attacks on CRPF and police convoys. The Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh has been quoted as saying that, since 2001, Maoists have killed 5,745 civilians and 2,062 security personnel.

Other reports estimate that 1,00,000 people have been displaced because of the conflict between Maoists and the state armed forces and civilian militia like Salwa Judum, propped up by the state and encouraged by politicians like Karma. Which means that they moved to refugee camps and their homes were burnt down.
But still, business must go on. So the state government as well as the Centre continues to push projects in ‘Naxal-affected’ areas. Their development plans include airports (not likely to be used by forest-dwelling communities), factories (which will employ locals only in the lowest-paid jobs and probably on a temporary basis), and mining.

Perhaps you’re wondering what’s being done to offset the negative impact of such projects. It seems the Bhilai Steel Plant does have a plan to counter Maoists through its Corporate Social Responsibility wing. They plan to sponsor sporting and cultural events. I suppose, the assumption is that people will sing and dance and play games, even as their lives are being destroyed.

In any case, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) plans to build new airports at Raigarh and Bilaspur. The state-run Coal India also wants to double its production capacity in Chhattisgarh by 2017. But to do this, it needs a railway line to be established over the next few years. And a railway line also needs security. Almost every venture needs security. So Bhilai Steel Plant is reportedly funding the ‘construction of barracks’ for paramilitary forces. The existing mines have been depleted and there is more iron ore to be found in the Raoghat mines, but the CPI-Maoist is opposed to the project. Bhilai also needs a railway line to transport ore. If reports are to be believed, “more than 4,000 personnel, of elite paramilitary forces will be deployed to guard the railway construction site”.

Besides, there are other countries willing to jump in for a piece of the action. At a recent ‘global’ business meet in Naya Raipur, which the Chhattisgarh government had organized to bring in more investors, there was a remark made by a senior Russian diplomat. Alexey Mzarevlov reportedly said, “We can co-operate with the state government on security if they want. Russia has several years of experience in anti-terrorism measures.”

There was a Land Rights Cycle Yatra around Madya Pradesh recently. The activists went to Rewa district, Sangi village, and found that dalit and adivasi families have not had a ration card for twenty years. The elderly do not get pension. Land deeds have been drawn up but land has not been distributed.

I’m wondering if we need the paramilitary forces. After all, they get so much done – mines, railway lines, dams. Maybe they could also ensure that pensions arrive and mid-day meals get served in school.

First published here.

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