Saturday, January 27, 2007

Needs, abuses, options(?)

So, are we spending 12 paise per child per day?

Not really. The vast majority of the 35 million kids get zero paise per day.

About 10 percent, i.e., about 36,500 children are lucky enough to find their way into various facilities like juvenile institutions, homes, shelters, or other state-supported infrastructure. There is zero guarantee that they will be safe and happy here. But their chances of suvival, of not being isolated, and not being physically, sexually or economically abused are higher, as compared to their chances on the streets.

Those who don't live in families or in state-run facilities end up in private institutions where, thanks to a poor monitoring mechanism, they sometimes find themselves abused.

Something like this happened at the Swami Balnath Ashram in Ghaziabad. Happened to dozens of girls over decades, while nobody heard a whisper of protest, until some foreign altruists smelt a rat and called in local activists, who called in the media, who called the national commission for women, who called the cops, who raided the place.

I first heard of the ashram through Project Why, and decided to check out the place.

Ghaziabad is less than an hour's drive out of Delhi, and Balnath Ashram was one of the few places (perhaps the only one) where orphans or abandoned girl-children - especially those with disabilities - could be taken.

We (me and a collegue) visited the ashram, which has been running since 1979, without prior intimation.

A makeshift school was in progress, with three teachers leading a jumbled chorus of voices crying out 'ka-ba-kab...ta-ba-tab'.

A large signboard proclaimed that a special school for children with disabilities existed, but there was no teacher in sight. There used to be one but was missing at the moment. Balnath claimed she was sick for 15 days. The other teachers said that she has been gone so long that they don't even remember her name.

There was one male caretaker, but no female attendant or teacher living within the ashram although nearly all the 70-odd inmates were girls.

The girls with disabilities (and there were only girls there) were isolated and uncared for. They seemed to live in a separate wing of the building, and though Balnath denied their being isolated from the other girls, it was evident that the other girls were given rooms elsewhere.

Some of them were severely malnourished but it was hard to say whether that is neglect or whether that is because they have recently arrived and they came from poor homes. Some girls had injuries and scars, which they refused to explain. A few seemed very sick and in urgent need of medical attention. Balnath, the saffron-clad swami, claimed that one girl had been in and out of hospital. That she'd needed a saline drip. To me, she looked very much like she still needed to be in hospital and still needed a saline drip. Probably a lot more.

The older ones managed the kitchen themselves, and bathed the little ones. There are piles of clothes and mattresses lying locked up in store-rooms. However, many of the girls seem to be sleeping on bare, hard beds, without mattresses.

Without being asked a question, Balnath had complained, "These girls are forming a non-cooperation movement against me. They keep saying they're not taken care of. I'm sick of them."

The girls did not say a word against him. Not to me. But after a few hours there, some of them had begun to clutch at my hands, my kurta. Some wanted to leave right away. One howled, calling for her mummy.

This ashram once used to be a co-gendered one. There were both boys and girls. Balnath claimed he got rid of the boys (transferred them to another similar home in another location) because "the boys were leading the girls into bad activities... introducing them to strangers outside".

The girls said they missed the boys they'd grown up with. They were like their brothers.

The school running inside the premises was not recognized and was only upto class 8; the only option for taking the secondary exam was to do so privately. However, so far, none of the girls had cleared this exam. Not since 1979. No vocational courses were taught either. Balnath claimed that the girls were simply not interested, and that they did learn something, anyway: bhajans and harmonium practise.

"We get them married off, as soon as they turn 18, to poor boys from Haryana and Punjab. They only are in a hurry to be married."

Incidentally, he admitted that there was a bit of a conflict situation. A local muslim woman had been claiming that her daughter was being held in that ashram and had been fighting in court to get her back. Balnath refused to let the child go. Because of "legal complications... these muslims are not allowed to adopt Hindu children, and what if this baby is a Hindu?"

Although he had been running the ashram since 1979, he claimed to have received state funding only once. "Rs 40-45,000 from the UP government. But now, we get private donations. There is so much food and material that there is no need for government money."

The Balnath Ashram is not a special home or a shelter in the legal sense. Balnath admitted that he did not have a licence to run an orphanage; it is simply a registered charity that doubles up as a dump for unwanted children. The result is that it does not show up in government records as a children's shelter or home, and is not subject to routine inspections by the authorities.

On the same visit, we also paid a visit to the Ghaziabad probation office, and found that there was no government sanctioned child institution or shelter in the block. Not one.

The probation officer himself was unavailable (doing election duty because, clearly, some by-election or the other was more important than protecting children in non-existent shelters) but one of the clerks agreed to speak to us, anonmously, of course. He said that the closest children's home was the Rajkiya Bal Griha in Meerut.

Another interesting fact. There is only one inspector for one mandal, who sits at Meerut. The mandal includes Ghaziabad, Muzzafarnagar, Saharanpur, Rampur, Moradabad, Bijnaur and Meerut districts.

Seven districts. One inspector.

"In 2004, the UP government cancelled children's homes in all except 17 districts. It is true that this state order violated the Juvenile Justice (care and protection of children) Act, 2000. It is imperative that orphans or abandoned children be produced before a juvenile justice board. If the local police find them, they have to send them to Meerut. Else, they are just left at the Balnath Ashram. We know it doesn't have a license, but where's the option?"

When I asked why they didn't intervene, he said, "What can we do if we don't have an alternative? Take them out of the ashram, but take them where?"

For children with disabilities this is true many times over. Where does one take them?

While it is difficult to look after children with disabilities, it is a responsibility that, once assumed, must be discharged with persistence and grace. Unfortunately, there are few homes with special facilities. Besides, when it comes to abuse, it is hard to ascertain levels of ability, activists say, since traumatized children often refuse to respond, or display behavioural problems until they can be counselled.

Inu Annie Stephen, a strategy alliance coordinator for the Childline India Foundation, knows that the resource crunch is frustrating and limiting, especially when it comes to special services attuned to needs.

"One of the major challenges is differently abled children. Even government homes sometimes refuse to keep them. We have emergency services and organisations like the Missionaries of Charity, but even NGOs get fed up of our requests. The government is supposed to take in all kinds of children with whatever level of ability, but there are no special homes and there are no skilled staff to cater to special children."

Project Why is one of the few organisations that does have a special section. The founder, Anouradha Bakshi believes that families must be made to assume primary responsibility for children, including those with special needs. Her daughter, Shamika works as a special educator and has helped bathe and groom her students, but she also has to argue with parents' on the child's behalf, since families often send a special child to school dirtier than other siblings. Sometimes, no lunch is given, or rotten leftovers are set aside.

But teachers like Bakshi are a rarity. In places like the Balnath Ashram, the teachers were probably silent witnesses to the misery and squalor of girls who may or may not have been disabled. May or may not have been abused.

When activists began to prod and probe the ashram, they tracked down one of the women who had once lived on the premises. She admitted to one of the social workers that she suspected some of the girls were being abuses. But she did not call the cops. She did not blow the whistle. She did not insist that Balnath (or his male cohorts) not have access to the girls' rooms after a certain time of day. She did not insist that the girls be taught something that might make them independent. She simply lived there until matters soured between her and her husband (who worked there), and then she upped and left.

I don't know what will happen to the girls. I don't know where they are and I don't know if, when they turn 18, they will simply be turned out of the government-run shelter - without a clue about how they can make a living, without being taught the most rudimentary laws under which they can seek protection, without the tools of citizenry and dignity.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A twelve-paise investment

So, 35 million children need to be provided for. And what can we do but provide?

Provide shelters. Provide uniforms, food, exercise. Provide skills, training, and a little laughter. Surely, we will provide all this, won't we?

Yet, feeding 35 million citizens is not a joke. Feeding, clothing, educating, sheltering, protecting 35 million is the sort of thing that makes economists and financial planners pull out their beards. Even so, they scrimp a little here, save a little there; make a fund here; make an allotment there. They scratch the bottom of the taxpayers' barrel and come up with Rs 1077 crores to be spent on children.

Mind you, ALL children. To be precise, in the 10th five-year plan, the total allocation for child-related programmes was about Rs 1077.08 crores. This would include the money spent on feeding kids in anganwadi centres and at mid-day meals in school.

Of the total amount we decide to spend on children, only 1% goes towards protection. The allocation for children in need of protection is no more than Rs 71.66 per child per year. Of this, 60 percent goes towards administrative costs. Running offices, shelters etc, paying salaries, etc.

What's left? In effect, per day, the state allows each child 12 paise per day.

That's right. Twelve paise.

The ministry of women and child development defines child protection as "protecting children from or against any perceived or real danger or risk to their life, their personhood and childhood. It is about reducing their vulnerability... ensuring that no child falls out of the social security and safety net and those who do, receive necessary care, protection and support so as to bring them back into the safety net".

It goes on to say that child protection ought to encompass prevention, care and recovery, and that "once victimized, (children) are entitled to services, which hasten their recovery and reduce further trauma."

It is said that children are a nation's investment in the future. What sort of return our nation's planners expect on a 12-paise investment is a question worth asking. However, I have another question for the planning commission: when was the last time they bought anything worth twelve paise?

A fistful of rice?
A bowl of grain?
The chaff of the grain?
A blanket? Socks? A piece of coal?
A notebook? A pencil?
A toy? A pill? A joyride?
Mud? Dung?
A visit to the shrink?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Before the numbers fade

When somebody asked me about my politics (was I right, left, liberal, anarchist?), without thinking much about why, I responded by saying, "My politics is children".

Part of this was rooted in the fact that I'd been trying to write about child protection for nearly three months, and was at the moment trying to determine whether it was 17 skulls and 22 dismembered skeletons they're found in that drain in my city's backyard, or was it 18, or was it 38?

In our country - a young country, we proudly say - there is too much of everything. Too many babies. Too much crime. Too much bureaucracy. Too many religions and castes. Too many languages. Too much abuse. Too much poverty. Too much filth. Too much to bear, almost.

When children, one by one, disappear, and the police does not bother, it is too much to forgive. It took, at the very least, 22 children and the finding of their hacked-up bodies to jumpstart an investigation. It may have taken 38.

But, you see, children do go missing. They run away; they're kidnapped; they lose their way home; they go looking for adventure, or better food. And there are so many of them that we don't pay attention. On our street signals. Selling papers, books, flowers, pens, balloons, art. In our restaurants, waiting on us. And in our homes. On our streets, begging. In our red-light districts, being raped. In our disaster-struck villages, orphaned. They're everywhere. Millions of them, with about 45,000 being added to the 'missing' lists every year.

That's right. Forty-five thousand.

These are the ones that fall off our collective maps, because their skeletons are not found, stuffed into drains. They just vanish into the dark hole that is our streets, the fortress of our homes, the war-zone that is our international human trafficking rings. And melt into a pool of 35 million.

That's right. Thirty-five million.

These millions are, what the government of India collectively calls, 'children in need of protection'. Defined by the ministry of social justice and empowerment as children in 'extremely difficult circumstances', they include children in conflict with the law, victims of crime or natural disasters, orphaned, abandoned or runaway children, rescued child labourers, trafficked children, amongst others.

Children who, however briefly, are nobody's; and therefore, ours. To be cared for by the state, or state-supported institutions/organisations.

The next few posts will take a look at how we deal with these numbers. Our children.

The gentleman finds leisure to blog

The Jesustan Diaries, ladies and gentlemen, is back.

If you were wondering where the fine gentleman of leisure has been all this time, perhaps this might offer a clue:

"Patriotic Duty, which is much the same in any land, was like that only. I cannot tell you how miserable it was: hour after hour after hour of ceaseless in-out, in-out, in-out with Memsahibs who had been reared for years on extra-large size packets of aloo chips in sour cream dip, and having all the while to listen to the strange squeaking sounds made by the springs the natives insist on nailing under their manjis.

Oh, the horror, the horror. That spoiled so-and-so Joseph Conrad had no idea what the heart of darkness looks like, and this I can tell you, it most certainly isn't in Africa.

Now, though, I am free, to write (and to nurse what was once my proud manhood, but resembles nothing so much as a gajar as it is being shredded to be turned into halwa .)"

He goes on to delight you with an account of how wives of Jesustani soldiers have found a solution for, er, loneliness, and averted a major social crisis. With Create-a-Mate.

'Zindabad!' he says.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The GM sequence

Recent developments related to GM technology in India.

(Most of what you see below comes from news items or is extracted from press releases by environment groups lobbying for stringent norms to control, if not ban, GM crops)

February, 2006

Recent ruling by WTO panel upholding the complaints of USA and other countries on Europe's precautionary approach to GMOs as illegal under WTO trade rules. Centre for Sustainable Agriculture reacts by saying that this ruling seriously undermines the sovereignty of nation-states in deciding upon appropriate environmental and food safety.

Widespread criticism, especially from Europe, on the incapability of WTO to rule on issues like genetic modification, allegations of non-transparent functioning, and disputes about whether trade agreements should supercede international environmental agreements like the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol .

[A complaint had been filed by the USA and other nations like Canada, Argentina, Mexico and Egypt, in May 2003, in the WTO, as the Biosafety Protocol began shaping up. Europe was charged with imposing a defacto ban on GM products, in violation of trade rules. On September 11, 2003, the Cartagena Protocol came into effect, with fifty countries including India ratifying the protocol]

'Civil society groups' (activists) prepared a critique based on monitoring of GM crops in five states in India. They allege - "Even though we have been assured of a presentation slot in this [February] GEAC meeting, we have now been told that we will be called for the meeting in March and that our representation would be discussed in this meeting, without us!"

They also point out the absolute failure of regulation: "unapproved GM soy imports continue to surge in India in violation of EPA rules... gross irregularities in the field trials of Bollgard II and Fusion Bt Cotton... this failure of regulation is now being carried into food crop field trials too, as the case of GM Okra demonstrates."

July 2006

Mahyco seed company granted permission on July 11 by the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) under the Department of Biotechnology to conduct multi-location limited field trials in GM paddy (rice).

July, 2006

A fact-finding team reports on 'Sheep mortality after feeding on Bt cotton leaves in Warangal dist' by ANTHRA, (AP Goatherds and Shepherds' Union and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture) generates debate on the biosafety of the bt cotton. GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), governments and the companies and their 'advisors/consultants' discount the report.

The team later sent a letter to the GEAC protesting the objectionable manner in which it conducted its investigations. The letter was based on the activists' access to the postmortem register and on the findings of the Veterinary Biological Research Institute, Hyderabad. According to them, "The reports clearly indicate that there seems to be many different possibilities about how Bt Cotton grazing could have affected the animals in a manner that was not witnessed in those years when animals were grazed on non-Bt Cotton...the correlation and tentative diagnosis (was) drawn by the veterinary department official, connecting Bt-cotton grazing with the poisoning symptoms... the postem mortem records in the warangal dist hospital are tampered to show that pesticides were responsible while the investigations by CSA shows that the farmers/shepherds have not reported any such spraying of pesticides on the cotton fields prior to feeding.... Reports from VBRI and agriculture/veterinary university raise newer issues - that nitrates/nitrates were found in excessive levels in the plants. This could possibly have a connection with the higher use of chemical fertilisers on Bt Cotton and subsequent accumulation of nitrates in the plant. What is clear however is that the GEAC and other regulators governing our biosafety regime do not even know what to test for during so-called biosafety testing before approvals are provided."

September 2006

An Independent Expert Commitee, on Bt Brinjal, submits full report, wherein it found that research guidelines evolved by DBT (department of biotechnology), related to biosafety assessment of transgenic crops, have not been adhered to by the developers of Bt Brinjal.

"The Committee notes that with the existing data, "it is not possible to arrive at any meaningful conclusions regarding the safety of the product" or "its efficacy".... some tests as laid down by the DBT were not taken up in the safety evaluation or test protocols were not as per the specifications laid down in the guidelines.... Bt Brinjal is not compared with the best agronomic and pest management practices available nor have trials been taken up for at least three years."
October, 2006

Village Eenabavi in Warangal district declared itself GM-Free on October 11 th, 2006. Supported by organizations like CROPS, Centre for World Solidarity and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, this small village in the heartland of farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh is into its third year of chemical-free agriculture and is proving to the world that food security can indeed be secured without any chemical or GM solutions.

The farmers took an oath to remain GM-Free and organic. They grow a variety of crops without the use of chemicals including paddy, chilli, vegetables, cotton, tobacco, maize etc. The village is also experimenting with the System of Rice Intensification [SRI]. A Farmer Resource Centre, run by the farmers of Eenabavi, was also inaugurated.

October-November, 2006

Irate members of the Bharathiya Kisan Union (BKU), under the leadership of Mr Rakesh Tikait, uprooted and burnt a trial field of genetically modified (GM) rice of the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO) near Karnal in Haryana, followed by similar burning of Bt rice fields in Tamil Nadu, by The Tamil Nadu Farmers Association.

November, 2006

After the Uttar Pradesh government, the Chattisgarh state government orders an inquiry into a Bt Rice trial, near Raipur. State officials were not informed about the trial even though the company is required to inform the local panchayat, the concerned authorities in the district and the state administration.

"State agriculture minister Mr Nankiram Kawar visited the Bt Rice trial plot in the field of a farmer called Jagdishlal Arora in Purara village close to Raipur city (a village that has been annexed into the city) after receiving reports from media and activists that trial has been conducted without information to state authorities and worse, that crop remains have been allowed to lie around including some grain, without being destroyed as per biosafety guidelines. He ordered the immediate destruction of the remaining crop in the field by burning."

This trial happened at a distance of only around one kilometer from the world's richest collection of rice germplasm, at the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vidyalaya, the state agriculture university.

Trials for GM rice are against the Cartagena biosafety framework, given that India is a Centre of Origin and diversity for rice.

The team visiting the trial at the behest of the DBT also found Bt Okra on a plot next to the Bt Rice plot. It had already been harvested and the Bt Rice plot was in mid-harvest. The local Councillor had no information about the trial, nor did the district authorities in the agriculture department. They were told about the trial only towards the end of the season, when the Department of Biotechnology in the Government of India asked them to be part of A monitoring team to visit the plot.

The state agriculture department claims that the state government has not given permission to the trial and that the regulatory institutions, as laid down under the Environment Protection Act, have not been set up in the state of Chattisgarh.

December 23rd 2006 - National Farmers' Day -

Tamil Nadu farmers and traders (of seeds) join hands to reject genetic engineering in agriculture. A seminar attended by more than 1200 farmers, a rally through the city of Thanjavur (known as the Rice Bowl of South India) and a public meeting where major political parties called a halt to GM crop experimentation and cultivation.

The seminar welcomed the decision of Tamil Nadu state government to bring in a legislation to ban all GM crop trials...

January 2007

Bt Cotton companies go to town with the news that India has touched record cotton production this year with 250 lakh bales, an increase from 244 lakh bales last year. They also claimed that the increase was thanks to the use of Bt.

The claim is contested by newspapers (some said that production in 2006-07 was lower than previous years and that such false claims were being used to artificially depress prices for farmers). The Coalition for GM-Free India rejected the claims by the Bt lobby and sent forth this data -
"Growth in Indian cotton production has fluctuated even before the introduction of Bt Cotton... For instance, Indian cotton productivity showed a growth of 10.8% over the previous year, in 2001-02, when no Bt Cotton was allowed in the country. In the year 2003-04, when Bt Cotton cultivation constituted a mere 1.3% of the total cotton extent (total land under cotton), the highest increase in productivity - upto 26.3% - was seen. If increasing Bt Cotton cultivation leads to increases in productivity, there should be a steady increase in the growth rate of production and yields per hectare, given that Bt Cotton area increased 2.6 times more than previous years. Bt Cotton is projected to be around 40% of all cotton cultivation in the country in 2006-07, up from around 15% in the earlier year, (but) production has increased by only 2%, to touch 250 lakh bales from 244 lakh bales last year. This clearly shows that the reasons for increases in production and productivity, if any, should be looked for elsewhere."

January 2007

Bt Cotton tragedy strikes Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu
Dharmapuri farmers, after the total failure of Bt cotton planted this year, petitioned the Collector asking for action against the seed company. About 4000 acres are affected. The farmers plan to go to the Consumers' Court.

January 2007

According to Agencyfaqs:

"JWT, Mumbai, has won the creative duties for two products belonging to the agriculture based biotechnology company, Monsanto India. These are Bollgard 1 and Bollgard 2, two varieties of biotechnological cotton seeds. Executives from Monsanto India have confirmed this development, although they were unwilling to comment any further. No comments were withstanding from JWT executives....
For the record, Monsanto's work in India began over 50 years ago. The company applies innovation and technology to help farmers around the globe produce healthier foods, better animal feeds and more fiber, while also reducing agriculture’s impact on environment. High-yield crop varieties and hybrid crops such as corn, sunflower and cotton are vital crops that the company wishes to develop. Monsanto, through its field operations, agricultural production knowledge and search for new agricultural solutions and technologies, seeks to develop, communicate and provide sustainable solutions to Indian farmers.However, in 2005, there were some controversies around the Monsanto ads, when NGO Greenpeace and its local partner, Pasumai Thaayagam (Green Motherland), had filed a complaint with the ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) against a print campaign by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, alleging it to be misleading. In the ad, a farmer poses in front of a tractor, with the copy explaining to other farmers that if a farmer sows Bt cotton, he will be able to afford assets such as a tractor or a lorry. Allegedly, the farmer who posed was misinformed as to what his picture would be used for."

Food for thought:

"Trials conducted in UK reveal that the cultivation of GE organisms has been found to damage the wildlife. Reports are available from different countries on the threat of contamination of indigenous varieties. Throughout the world, consumer preferences are against GE in food – only 21 countries across the world have approved the planting of GM crops, almost 15 years of their initial development. Even this consists of only traits of insect and herbicide resistance in four main crops – cotton, soybean, maize and canola. 94% of the World GE crops are grown in just four countries (USA, Argentina, Canada and China). 91% of GE seed is made and owned by one company called Monsanto. 27 of 30 EU top retailers have a non-GE policy throughout the EU... no GM crop in the world which has contributed to increase in crop productivity. Evidence is in fact to the contrary, showing that yields of GM crops are actually lower than conventional crops." (From GM Watch)
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