Sunday, December 27, 2009

Will anything change in 2010?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 27, 2009

Can we look forward to development in 2010 that will not make the poor in the country poorer?


IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS: Farmers protesting land acquisition in Maharashtra.

As the sun gets ready to set, bringing to an end another year, we are forced to pause, to consider how the past year has gone by and whether the next will be different. For millions of Indians, who continue to live in poverty and whose numbers have grown statistically, there is little cause to cheer.

As if developmental policies and environmental degradation were not enough to increase the levels of deprivation of those living at the margins, there is now an additional, and more virulent, policy that will exacerbate poverty all over this country. And that is the policy to forcibly seize thousands upon thousands of acres of land, belonging to farmers and communities, for Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Every now and then, people's resistance to this blatant land grab breaks into the news. When political parties are involved, it is dismissed as the work of a “disgruntled” opposition. When it is apolitical, it is seen as the work of the anti-development brigade who resist any form of “progress”.

Yet you only need to go to the beautiful state of Goa, where thousands of Indians and foreigners go at this time of the year, to realise the extent of the fraud that is being played out in the name of SEZ. For, in a state, where a highly literate and involved citizenry has actively questioned and opposed projects seen to be detrimental to the environment and to Goa's development, thousands of acres of land have been acquired for one purpose and without any explanation diverted to another.

Taken forcibly

The Bhootkhamb Plateau in Kerim, northeast Goa, is one such example. It is one of the many plateaus that dot Goa and that are repositories of biodiversity, the source of much of the water supply and of grazing lands that are jointly owned by the community. In 1989, 123,200 sq metres of land on the Bhootkhamb Plateau were acquired under provisions of the Land Acquisition Act by the Goa Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) for an industrial project — Dupont's Nylon 66 factory. Nylon 66 had tried to set up shop elsewhere in India but had been rejected on environmental grounds. The people of Kerim and surrounding villages realised this and decided to oppose the plant. They put up a spirited resistance and in the ensuing confrontation between the villagers and the police, one young man was killed.

Today, his memorial stands as a reminder to the struggles of the past but the villagers continue to struggle even today. The land taken then for Nylon 66, a project that was ultimately abandoned, is still cordoned off. It has now been handed over to a pharmaceutical company under provisions of the SEZ. But the villagers will have none of it.

Swati, a spirited young teacher from Kerim, stands at the site and tells us what she and her fellow villagers feel. “We don't want industrialisation in our village”, she says. “We have seen in Goa that whenever there is industrialisation, we don't get jobs and the water dries up. We want our land back. We will decide what we want. The government cannot come and force us. We want our village to remain a village.”

Swati's fears are not unfounded. Even though all work on the proposed SEZ was supposed to have stopped as the Goa government has decided not to sanction any SEZs, the villagers discovered that an illegal tube well was being sunk on the site. Over 200 of them forced their way onto the site and stopped work. They fear that such tube wells will ultimately dry up all their sources of water.

In fact, for the first time, many villagers in Goa are experiencing a shortage of water. They are also witness to piles of industrial waste being burned on other plateaus, and hillsides being gouged out by earthmovers as the red sand is indiscriminately excavated for construction activities elsewhere. In front of their eyes, they are witnessing the destruction of their environment. Not surprisingly, even the easy-going people of this verdant state are now angry and frustrated.

Tragic stories

Further north of Goa, in the state of Gujarat, the story is not very different, only more tragic in many ways. Lalit Vachani, in his arresting documentary film “The Salt Stories” captures this in many touching sequences. The film retraces Gandhiji's salt march of 1930 from Sabarmati to Dandi in the context of modern Gujarat. One of the wrenching sequences shows Rajubhai, a slum dweller living on the banks of the Sabarmati, under the historic Ellis Bridge where Gandhiji held a massive rally. He faces eviction because the Government has plans to develop the riverfront, reflecting the global vision that Chief Minister Narendra Modi constantly articulates for the state he rules. But for men like Rajubhai, there is no place in this glittering global vision. He breaks down in front of the camera as he thinks of the future. “All we want is shelter and food”, he keeps repeating. When Vachani filmed Rajubhai, his slum was under threat of demolition. By the time he completed the film the slum had been demolished and Rajubhai had died, probably a broken man.

The film reminds us of the distance we have travelled in this country from when men and women marched alongside Gandhi to defy the Salt Tax imposed by the British, risked beatings and imprisonment but set in motion a form of non-violent resistance that is still spoken of and emulated. The villagers of Kerim in Goa, for instance, are convinced that this is the strategy they must follow today.

Lingering prejudices

But in Gandhi's own state, the message seems to have been lost, as Vachani reveals. The prejudice against Dalits and Muslims needs little provocation to be expressed. A Gandhian who remembers the struggles of the past has no hesitation in calling Muslims “demons” and insisting that they are to blame for everything. He sees no contradiction between calling himself a Gandhian and pouring venom on a community that Gandhi fought hard to protect in India. En route to Dandi, there are “temples” in the name of Gandhi that are locked and places where he stopped that lie in a state of disrepair.

The one glimmer of hope is from the village of Napa, a Muslim majority village, where even today the communities live together and carry forward the Gandhian legacy. And in Dandi itself, where Mohan Dandekar echoes something that Gandhi himself would have said had he been alive today — that development should not make the poor in this country even poorer.

2010 will be a year where this proposition will be tested yet again. In the name of progress, islands of prosperity in the form of SEZs are being created by forcibly depriving people of the one thing they call their own — their land. These islands will be foreign enclaves, not governed by the laws that apply to other Indian citizens. They promise employment but create nothing on the scale promised. And they are swallowing up land and resources at a pace that should make every Indian proud of the history of a country that fought colonial rule, wake up and think again.

(To read the original, click on the link above)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Irom Sharmila's 10-year-fast is ignored

DNA, December 14, 2009

“Isn't it ironic and smacks of the Centre's double standards? One person in AP fasts for ten days and Centre relents. Another person fasts in Manipur for nine years and more, supported by the relay fast of thousands of other women for one year now, and what does the Centre do? -- NOTHING. Wah, wah, Indian democracy!! Not proud to be Indian”.

This is a message sent to some of us by a woman journalist friend in Manipur. Indeed, if you are looking at what they call “mainland” India from the distant Northeast, it must seem strange that a 10 day fast can result in talks for a separate state for Telengana but a 10-year-fast to demand the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur results in nothing.

Irom Sharmila, that iconic 36-year-old Manipuri woman, has spent the best part of almost 10 years being force fed against her will. She has undertaken a fast-unto-death demanding the withdrawal of the AFSPA. Each year, the ritual is played out. Her period of detention for attempting suicide is one year. The authorities have to release her, usually in early March. She leaves the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal where she is incarcerated and being force fed through a tube shoved down her nose.

Earlier this year, many of us were witness to the moving moment when this pale young woman emerged from the hospital and was virtually carried by hundreds of older Manipuri woman who have been on a relay hunger strike in support, to the shamiana where they sit all day and all night in solidarity. Sharmila began speaking as she gained a little strength. But she would not give up her fast. So two days later she was rearrested and once again moved to the hospital.

And while this annual arrest and rearrest ritual continues, Manipur – and particularly Imphal – is caught in a permanent spiral of violence. For many months now, since the July 23 “encounter” killing of a young man, Chongkham Sanjit in broad daylight in Imphal’s busy market area (exposed by Tehelka through a series of photographs), the capital of Manipur has not been “normal”. People are demanding that the killers of this young man be prosecuted. But AFSPA gives the security forces impunity. Their powers to act cannot be questioned.

As a result, there has been a civil strike that has immobilised the city. For months children have not attended school or college. There is violence, curfew and an aggravation of the perennial shortages that this land-locked city not far from the border of Myanmar faces even in so-called normal times. The 25 lakh citizens of the state of Manipur have seen little or no development for years while the rest of India, apparently, marches ahead.

So my Manipuri friends have a right to ask why some fasts in the “mainland” yield results while their protests are never heard. Or if they are, then the result is promises that are never kept. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised some hopes in 2004 when he went to Imphal and promised that the withdrawal of AFSPA would be considered. He set up a committee headed by Supreme Court Judge B. P. Jeevan Reddy to look into the issue. The committee strongly recommended that the Act be withdrawn pointing out that the Act, “for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness”. But nothing happened. The promise was forgotten, the recommendation ignored.

The Telangana issue has triggered a series of demands for separate states. The people of Gorkhaland have begun fasts, others are threatening to do so. But in the midst of all this fasting, we would do well to pause and think why only the demands of our “mainland” matter while the “periphery” – places like Manipur – are ignored, forgotten and rendered virtually invisible.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An aniversary of violence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 13, 2009


December 6, 1992 will not be forgotten for a long time. Even if the memory of that fateful day, when the 400-year-old Babri Masjid was demolished, had begun to dim, it has been brought alive again by the passionate debate in Parliament over the much-delayed Liberhan Commission report and the scenes played out on our television screens of those terrible hours when the structure was brought down. That day the Hindutva proponents destroyed not just a Masjid but shook the secular core of this country. The emotional wounds caused by the riots that followed December 6 have never fully healed.

But December 6 has another meaning — for women the world over. On that day, exactly 20 years ago, a young man called Marc Lepine entered the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada. He walked into a classroom where he separated the men from the women. And then he proceeded to shoot the women engineering students, shouting as he killed them, “I hate feminists”. In the 45 minutes that he spent on that campus, he also wounded 27 students — 23 women and four men. After this he shot himself. It was presumed that he was angry with women because he failed to gain entry to the polytechnic that had a policy of affirmative action encouraging women.

The Montreal Massacre, as it came to be known, was the trigger for what has now become an annual feature observed around the world — Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, from November 25, International Day Against Violence Against Women to December 10, World Human Rights Day.

Violence against women has become so pervasive — not just in the public space but within the household, in situations where a woman might believe she is safe — that the issue has to be kept in the public eye. Thus campaigns like this, that link violence to human rights, are essential.

The latest reports from Afghanistan are an illustration of why such gender-based violence and human rights have to be seen within the same frame. Every other day there are reports from Afghanistan, not just of the never-ending war, but also of women being raped, assaulted and killed. Women who have accepted public office, women journalists, developmental workers — basically any woman who ventures into the public space is a target.

Poverty as violence

Women in Afghanistan face another kind of violence. Poverty and the absence of development is like a permanent blanket of violence that shrouds the majority of women in many parts of the world. In Afghanistan, a woman dies every 27 minutes during childbirth. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan is the highest in the world — 1,600 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births.

War is another killer, of men and women. But in the war-torn countries of Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the stories we hear of what the women go through are blood curdling. Rape has long been established as a weapon of war by all sides. Literally thousands of women have been raped and assaulted. How will these women reconstruct their lives after the fighting ends?

The examples from other countries, horrifying as they are, do not diminish the disturbing reality in our own country. These 16 days should make us in India think whether “development” has reduced the extent of violence Indian women encounter. Ask the women in Kashmir, or in Manipur, or those caught in the fighting between security forces and Maoists in Chhatisgarh. Are their lives safer and more secure?

Poverty continues to kill and maim millions of Indian women. Like their Afghan sisters, an unconscionably high number of them die during childbirth. One reason is the continued practice of child marriage. An estimated 40 per cent of the world's child marriages take place in India. Despite laws prohibiting this, millions of young girls not yet ready for marriage or child bearing are forced into it as pointed out by a recent report titled “Gender Violence in India” by the Chennai-based Prajnya Trust ( The document makes sober reading and looks at six kinds of violence: pre-natal sex selection, child marriage and forced marriage, honour killings, dowry death, domestic violence and rape.

Statistics of the National Crimes Research Bureau tell us that the incidence of reported rapes is steadily moving up. These are only the reported rapes. For every rape that shows up as a statistic, we know there are many more that remain hidden.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)