Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Should journalists apologise?

The Hoot

Are reporters, who fall for police and IB plants and happily give chapter and verse on the lives of individuals suspected of terror links, bound to apologise if they are proved wrong?  Does anyone bother to find out what happens to those who are picked up, wonders KALPANA SHARMA

“Is the media becoming increasingly susceptible to police plants?” This is the question The Hoot has posted on this site. It will be interesting to know the results of the survey, particularly if any journalists covering the police take part in the survey.
Run these results alongside the letter of protest by Siddharth Vardarajan, National Bureau Chief of The Hindu, to the jury that gave the Indian News Broadcasting Award to Neeta Sharma of NDTV India. Vardarajan pointed out in his letter that Sharma was the reporter who wrote a false story inHindustan Times in 2002 claiming that Iftikhar Gilani, Chief of Bureau of Kashmir Times in Delhi, had admitted in court that he was an ISI agent. The story, obviously a plant, appeared even as journalists were consolidating their support for Gilani. Because of this report, and others like this, Gilani ended up in jail for nine months where he was tortured and his family suffered terrible humiliation. Although the paper for which Sharma wrote did apologise to Gilani, the reporter did not. Vardarajan states in his letter, “I hope that even at this late stage, you as jury members can either find a way to withdraw this award or at least shame Neeta Sharma into acknowledging that the basic code of a good reporter involves respecting the truth and having the decency to say sorry when you make a grave mistake.”

For those interested in this particular case, it is also worth reading Gilani's comment on Sharma getting the award and seeing his power point presentation of the media coverage during the time when he was charged and incarcerated. So are reporters, who fall for police and IB plants and happily give chapter and verse on the lives of individuals suspected of terror links, bound to apologise if they are proved wrong? I suspect if this became the norm, more than one prominent journalist would have to do this.
After every so-called terror attack, the police round up suspects and question them. Sometimes their identities are not revealed to the press and only people in the neighbourhood where these men live know that they have been picked up. At other times, publicity hungry police in some states, run to the media every time they have some incremental piece of information on a terror plot and reveal that they have caught the “mastermind”, only to backtrack a few weeks, months or even years later when another “mastermind” is caught. But has anyone bothered to find out what happens to the men who are picked up, questioned, possibly tortured and finally let off if they happen to be lucky enough to find a lawyer who will take up their case and prove their innocence or at least establish that the police does not have a case? Nine times out of ten, this does not happen. Iftikhar Gilani was based in Delhi, worked for a prominent Kashmiri newspaper and therefore got some help. But what of scores of others like him?
Take the curious case of the Mecca Masjid blast on May 18, 2007 in Hyderabad. Initially the police said they were certain it was the work of the Harkat-ul-Jihadi Islami (HuJI). Around 60 young Muslims were arrested on suspicion, one of their ostensible crimes being viewing DVDs depicting the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and scenes from the Gujarat riots. Thanks to the intervention of a human rights group and their lawyer, the men were released and the police admitted it did not have any evidence against them. Meantime, three years after the blast, with no leads, the possibility of the involvement of Hindutva groups like the ones held responsible for the Malegaon blasts is now being investigated.
But what about those 60 men who were wrongly implicated? Who will compensate for their loss of reputation at being labeled terrorist? Will the journalists and the newspapers that perpetuated this theory apologise?
The most recent such case was that of Samad Bhatkal. On May 25 this year, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) picked him up from Mangalore airport when he returned from Dubai. He was called “suspected terrorist” in the early reports and a “co-conspirator” in the Mumbai terror attack. He was also written of as a “prize catch” in the Pune blast case of February this year. Yet when the police produced him in court to get custody, only an arms seizure case of 2009 was mentioned in the remand application in which they claimed Bhatkal was involved in supplying arms to three persons in South Mumbai in 2009. Bhatkal got bail on June 15 and was finally released three weeks later when the police admitted that they had no evidence to hold him any longer.
We know Gilani's story because he is our colleague, a fellow journalist, and based in the national capital. And he has written a book, “My days in prison” that should be made compulsory reading for budding journalists so that they understand how even in a democracy laws like the Official Secrets Act can be misused and how being in the media cannot protect you. If Gilani's is the story of a man with some influence, what about those without, who are picked up for “routine” questioning? How many more Samad Bhatkal's are there in each of our cities and do we in the media bother about them, follow up on their stories when the police drops these cases without acknowledging that they made a mistake?
And now we have the Jama Masjid shooting and once again, even as the police is taking care to say they do not know, “sources” in the police and intelligence are already telling journalists that this is a “terror” attack and is the “handiwork” of the Indian Mujahideen (IM). “The modus operandi in the firing, which left two Taiwanese tourists injured, carries the signature of Indian Mujahideen, home ministry sources said,” reported DNA on September 19. Similar reports have appeared elsewhere including an edit in The Hinduthat states, “Police believe the attack was most likely carried out by one of the Lashkar-e-Taiba-linked cells that are collectively referred to as the Indian Mujahideen”.
The alleged email sent by the IM is already being accepted as genuine. Curiously, even though nowhere in the mail is there a claim that the IM carried out the shootout, many in the media seem to have jumped to that conclusion. Over the next days the drama will unfold with “highly placed sources” placing different versions of what happened, who was responsible, whether the explosion in the car was really a crude bomb etc. As in previous cases, “suspects” will be rounded up for questioning and perhaps soon a “mastermind” will be found.
The police face a difficult task cracking such cases. No one doubts that. But the question we in the media have to continue asking is how we deal with the piecemeal information we are fed? For instance, should we publish the mugshots of suspects rounded up by the police - photographs that the police provide - even though there is now a considerable record of the number of times the police have been wrong in such cases? Don't these individuals also have the right to protect their privacy? And when we are proved wrong, should we not acknowledge the mistake and issue a correction, if not an apology?
There are far too many uncomfortable questions before us in the media and we cannot overlook them. Even if this cannot form the subject of a general debate, surely within our own newsrooms the issue can be discussed and some kind of code formulated for such reportage.
The credibility of the media has already touched rock bottom with the “paid news” phenomenon. Add to that the “plant news” aspect and you wonder why readers should believe anything that appears in the media.
(Click on the link above to read the article on The Hoot website)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Making the invisible visible

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 19, 2010

The Other Half

If women are getting more visibility today, it is partly because of the changes initiated by the UN conferences of the 1990s…
Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar 
Going unacknowledged: Women farmers...

The most striking photograph of the farmers' agitation against the Yamuna Expressway last month was that of a 45-year-old woman, Rajkumari Devi ( Indian Express, August 29, 2010). Captioned “Protesting Farmer, Zikarpur Village, Aligarh”, the story that accompanied the photograph described how Rajkumari, holding a lathi in her hands, sat in protest for days on end with other men and women, demanding more compensation for their lands that had been acquired for the Yamuna Expressway.

Her life was her land. “My day would start at four in the morning, feeding the cattle and then tilling the land. I would take a brief lunch break and get back to the field. It was during the evening that I finished my household chores and spent some time with my family and neighbours.” She told the reporter that she knew no other life than working in her fields, something she had done even as a child as her father was a farmer. “A farmer has no holidays. One is supposed to work everyday and all the time”, she said.

I was struck by Rajkumari's photograph and testimony for more than one reason. Her story is that of every farmer, man or woman, but her story is also that of women farmers, who are rarely acknowledged when one discusses any matter related to agriculture. Indeed, women as farmers continue to be invisible in India even though millions of them are as directly involved with agriculture as the men.

A reader wrote to me a few weeks ago and asked why I find this “women's” angle in every story. It is precisely because of stories like Rajkumari's, the invisible women who are an important part of our economy, our lives and yet their contribution is so routinely overlooked.

Her story reminded me that this month marks 15 years since the UN fourth World Conference on Women that was held in Beijing from September 4-15, 1995. It was the largest of the series of UN conferences held through the 1990s, bringing together thousands of official and non-governmental representatives from 189 countries to discuss women's rights, how to make them more visible and to strategise ways to ensure that governments legislate and formulate policies that ensure that women have the same rights as all other citizens in their countries.

I know that these days the United Nations does not have much currency. But through the 1990s, some of the important conferences that the UN convened saw the emergence of an international consensus on a number of important issues.

Significant conferences

Of these, as far as women worldwide are concerned, the two really significant meetings were the 1994 Cairo meeting on population and the Beijing conference. Cynics sometimes wonder what is achieved by these huge jamborees. But there was a time and place for them and in some respects the fruits of those efforts can be seen in the decades that followed.

The Cairo conference, for instance, established the link between population and development and between women's rights and population policies. As one of the signatories of the document that emerged from the conference, the Indian government had to look again at its reproductive health policies and discard the earlier system of incentives and disincentives that resulted in fudged data and women being penalised for being the ones who can procreate. The change in policy has, of course, not been uniformly implemented and every now and then we still hear stories about coercion. But 16 years after the conference, there is already enough evidence to show that developmental policies that deal with illiteracy, health and women's rights are a far more effective strategy to limit population growth than coercive policies such as forced sterilisation or limits on the number of children you can have.

Women's rights are a trickier issue. One of the star attractions in Beijing was Hillary Clinton, then the First Lady of the United States. She got the world's attention when she stated unequivocally that “it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.” She said, “It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls, when women and girls are sold into slavery or prostitution for human greed. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small, when thousands of women are raped in their own communities and when thousands of women are subjected to rape as a tactic or prize of war.”

Uneven results

Of course, not all the countries present carried forward the philosophy behind this slogan in their policies post-Beijing. Women continue to be denied basic rights in many societies including India. Violence against women in the home and outside continues in all our societies. While we hear little today about violence at home, including dowry torture and deaths, statistics establish that women are far more prone to assault within the home than outside it.

So was the rhetoric, the declarations, the Platform for Action adopted at Beijing worth anything more than the paper on which they were written?

I personally think they were. What Beijing did was to reiterate standards that are universal within the rights context. It laid out violations of women's rights that were unacceptable. And it urged governments to legislate and enact policies that would make these rights a reality. It also gave civil society actors around the world a handle that was useful for advocacy for change of policy within their countries.
What does any of this have to do with Rajkumari from Zikarpur village? A great deal. Conferences like the one in Beijing set in motion campaigns and changes that were aimed at ending the invisibility of women like Rajkumari. If today we can see her proud face in our newspapers, and recognise that she too is an Indian farmer, then a small step towards ending her invisibility has been taken.

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

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Dying of indifference

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 5, 2010

The Other Half

Every eight minutes a woman dies in our country due to pregnancy-related complications. Why aren't we able to devise an accessible healthcare system?
Photo: A.M. Faruqui 

Filled to the brim: The state of our maternity hospitals, where they are available.
“She gave birth, died. Delhi walked by”. This was the headline of a six column news item on the top of an inside page in Hindustan Times (August 29, 2010). Illustrated with four telling photographs, the story was about a pregnant destitute woman, who lay on the footpath of Delhi's busy and well-frequented Shankar Market, which is adjacent to the iconic Connaught Place. Thousands of people must have passed her, but no one spared a glance at what appeared a bundle of rags covered in a red cloth.
On July 26, this woman gave birth, unaided by anyone. The cries of the newborn infant caught the attention of some of the shopkeepers and one of them, the owner of a garment shop, picked up the baby. The mother apparently refused help and died on that same spot where she had given birth, four days later. The police came and removed her body and took the child, who had been in the care of the Good Samaritan until then, to a foster home.
This is an item that should have been on the front page of all our newspapers because it illustrates two things. One, the increasing indifference of people who live in our metro cities, who are so absorbed with their own lives that they don't even look around to see how other people survive or die. We have lost our ability to see, to feel. No one wants to get involved. There is a fear that you might be asked to commit more of your time, your resources, your emotions than you are willing to do. So our eyes glaze over, we look the other way and we walk away.
And two, it brings home the reality of maternal mortality in this country where even as we boast of becoming an economic super power and the media celebrates the few Indians who are joining the list of the richest in the world, millions of our women are dying in the process of giving birth to a child.
Of course the story of this woman, whose name we do not know, is one extreme. But it should remind us that this is the reality that we have to address in this country.
Countless more
One can just imagine with rains and the floods that have taken place in the last months how many more such nameless women there must be on the streets of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, a part of the thousands who have no shelter, who have to sleep out in the open. All our cities, particularly Delhi but other cities too, are in the midst of a huge construction boom. This is bringing in thousands upon thousands of people from the surrounding areas. Those who have a skill and find regular work in these construction sites are possibly provided temporary shelter by the contractors. But many more do causal work, as and when it is available. The rest of the time they do what they can to earn a few rupees everyday, sometimes send their children out to beg and find whatever place they can to sleep.
In Mumbai, for instance, the fancy new skywalks that have been built connecting railway stations to business hubs have become temporary homes for these homeless people. It is an eerie spectacle to see these bodies laid out in a row, all ages, men, women and children, some sleeping under mosquito nets strung to the side of the skywalk, somehow catching a few hours rest under the relentless yellow light that shines all night. By morning the skywalk reverts to being what it is meant to be, a pedestrian walkway. No one can complain or say anything because there is no solution. But what happens to the children, especially the small babies, what happens to the women, some of them fairly young who become pregnant and have no recourse to any healthcare?
For the other side of this tragic story from a busy street in our national capital is that one woman dies every eight minutes due to complications arising due to pregnancy such as sepsis, haemorrhage or obstructed labour. These deaths could be avoided if there is timely medical intervention. But such help is hard to come by if you live in a remote area or if you are poor woman in city or village. Even if you get some help, it is often too late to make a difference between life and death.
India's current Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) is 254 in 100,000 live births. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), half of all maternal deaths in South Asia occur in five Indian states — Rajasthan, MP, UP, Bihar and Orissa. We have committed ourselves as part of the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to bring the MMR down to 109 by 2015, in just five years. Is that possible?
The central government has launched the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) to specifically address the problem. It provides cash incentives to women who choose institutional delivery in the belief that this will reduce maternal mortality. If we believe official data, then it would appear that many poor women are benefitting from the scheme. For instance, according to one report, two months before the destitute died in Delhi's Shankar Market, another poor woman living in an open park near the Nizamuddin Dargah was lucky enough to be found by an NGO that helped her get the benefits under this scheme. As a result, the baby girl she delivered in the park has a chance to live, she has a birth certificate unlike others like her, and the mother too is receiving healthcare.
Different reality
Sadly, just as the exception in the case of the woman who died on the street does not make the rule, neither does the woman who survived in the park. Cash incentives in this country have usually led to corruption and fudging of data. This is already evident from reports from Bihar and Jharkhand. Also, the media often remains content with reporting official figures without investing in investigating what is actually happening on the ground. The few investigative stories that do appear on healthcare — on websites like indiatogether.org or infochangeindia.org — tell a very different story. They inform us of the struggle poor women face to reach a hospital, how they are either turned away or have to wait as there are no trained personnel around. As a result, regardless of new schemes or incentives, they are either too weak to survive childbirth or die because the promised help never turns up.
Maternal mortality means women are dying of causes not related to diseases or epidemics. Their ability to survive something like childbirth is inextricably linked to poverty, malnutrition and the absence of basic healthcare. We can set ourselves all kinds of targets but a realistic plan to improve the survival chances of millions of Indian women is to ensure that our systems of healthcare actually cater to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, women like that poor, nameless destitute in Delhi.
(To read the original, click on the link above) 

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Public transport vs personalised transport

The JNNURM initiative, under which the central government funds a substantial part of the costs of city public transport systems, has begun to show some results. The most talked about examples are the Bus Rapid Transport System in Ahmedabad and the public-private partnership in Indore, writes Kalpana Sharma

When you arrive at Geneva airport in Switzerland, a sign just before the exit urges all visitors to collect a free bus pass take them into the city.  If you do that, you find yourself riding in a pleasant low-floored bus to the heart of this relatively small, but nonetheless important Swiss city.

Once you check in to your lodging, irrespective of whether it is a youth hostel, budget hotel or a more luxurious one, the check-in clerk will hand you a free pass to be used on public transportation – trams and buses – to cover the entire duration of your stay.  And the day you leave, all you need to do is wave your plane ticket at the bus driver and you get to ride free back to the airport.

It was not always like that in Geneva, I am told.  But at some point, alarmed at the growth of private vehicles that had begun to crowd the roads and foul the air, the government decided it was worth its while to invest in efficient public transport.  And as the city attracts many visitors – tourists and people attending scores of international conferences through the year – it also made sense to make the public transport system irresistible even for a short-stay visitor.
Unfortunately, given the trajectory of urban development in India, it is highly unlikely that we will see a replication of this kind of model in this country in the foreseeable future.
No one will argue anymore that one of the most important components of a liveable and environmentally sustainable city is a properly designed, efficient and affordable public transport system.  The National Urban Transport Policy, launched in 2006, does lay down some guidelines and accepts that “public transport occupies less road space and causes less pollution per passenger kilometer than personal vehicles”.  Recognising that public transport is a much more sustainable form of transport for cities, the central government has decided to push for greater investment in “high capacity public transport systems” in state capitals and other million-plus cities.  Such an intervention from the centre is essential as otherwise public transport is handled by state governments and municipalities, many of which either have no funds, or no expertise, to undertake such a task.  The result is already evident in the majority of Indian cities.
As part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the central government has offered 50% of the cost for preparing comprehensive city transport plans, equity participation and/or viability gap funding up to 20% of the capital cost of any public transport system and 50% of the cost of projects that are public-private partnership.  The rest would need to come from the state government, city development authority -- if there is one -- and the project developer (as stated in the NUTP).
This intervention has already begun to show some results. The most talked about example of this is the BRTS (Bus Rapid Transport System) in Ahmedabad.  Although still at a nascent stage, it seems to have been accepted even by those who never travelled by bus in the past. On a recent visit to Ahmedabad, when some of us travelled on the BRTS over a considerable distance, two men I spoke to said that in the past they always took their motorbikes to work. Now they take the BRTS to the  point nearest their workplace and then an auto-rickshaw to reach their destination.  They found this not just cost-effective but also a much more agreeable way to travel.  One of the passengers, a middle-aged Muslim gentleman, told me that one of the main benefits of taking the bus was not just a break from breathing in polluted air but also freedom from constant harassment from traffic police who haul up people on motorbikes, check their papers and fine them for even minor discrepancies. Creating a system that is attractive to those who have got used to personalised transport is a very big plus point and is a model that is being followed by several cities.
The BRTS has not been a uniform success in all cities where it has been implemented.  In Delhi, for instance, where BRTS has been tried out in limited areas, the story is a mixed one.  Those who backed the BRTS argue that it could have worked well but for the negative media campaign which seemed to take up only the issues of car owners and the kinds of problems they faced rather than doing an objective assessment of how many people it actually benefitted. 
By way of contrast, the Ahmedabad BRTS has had very positive media coverage. However, it is already evident that it has not made a dent on the number of cars on the city’s roads.  As one passenger ruefully commented, “It will take a lot to get these car-wallahs to take a bus!” Of course transport experts do point out that the BRTS’ success in Ahmedabad is partly due to the specificity of the city. It is one of the cities that has remained compact and dense even though its population has grown.  This is unlike Delhi, or Mumbai, where typically the people who depend on public transport are either the very poor, who have been forcibly relocated in distant suburbs or the lower middle class who cannot afford housing closer to their places of work because of high real estate prices. The BRTS may not be the best way of transporting them into the city where their jobs are located.  These cities would clearly need to pursue other options.  Mumbai already has its suburban rail network that is stretched to the limit and Delhi now has a metro system that seems to be functioning well. Interestingly, as with the BRTS in Ahmedabad, those who use the Delhi Metro the most are owners of two-wheelers (284,433) according to 2005-06 estimates.  The number would be higher now.
Another success story of investment in public transport that has yielded dividends is the case of Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Writing about it in The Indian Express (August 25, 2010), Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Ranesh Nair suggest that this is a good example of public-private partnership (PPP).  In the past, the only form of so-called ‘public’ transport, if you did not own your own vehicle, was a choice between privately-owned mini buses (550), or tempos (500) or one of 10,000 or so auto-rickshaws.  Today, the city’s transport system is managed by a single agency – Indore City Transport Services Limited (ICTSL) – which has a PPP with private bus operators and marketing agents.  Starting in January 2006, ICTSL contracted six private bus operators, worked out routes and schedules they had to follow, insisted on proper maintenance of buses, worked out a uniform fare structure and monitored the entire system through an expensive but effective GPS tracking system.  The city now has 104 buses, with another 124 soon to be added, and 24 routes benefitting around 100,000 passengers every day.
Mumbai poses a difficult challenge.  In the 1960s, the city had a good functioning public transport system with a combination of trams, buses and the commuter railway.  The BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) is often cited as an excellent example of an autonomous body tasked with managing bus transport in the city.  Although it is part of the municipal corporation, it functions independent of it.
Today Mumbai is a victim of a hotch-potch uncoordinated policy where all kinds of things are being tried out such as BRTS along the Eastern and Western Express highways, metro rail corridors initially linking the eastern and western suburbs, strengthening of the existing commuter rail system, adding more buses, and a monorail in one part of the city. Perhaps all these are needed but somehow one does not get the impression that this has been thought through as a comprehensive policy.  What is missing in both Delhi and Mumbai is a determined policy to reduce the number of personalised vehicles, and particularly cars.
In Mumbai, for instance, fortunately the idea of granting builders additional FSI to build multi-storied car parks has been set aside for the moment.  If it had been pursued, we would have encouraged even more cars to enter the city, bringing movement on the packed roads to a virtual standstill.  Instead of making car parks, there should be a limit on cars entering the city through a system of high parking fees or congestion tax as has been tried in cities around the world.
If higher taxes on personalised transport coincided with better public transport, we might make a dent on the number of cars driving into the city, sometimes with no more than the driver and one passenger and hogging a disproportionate amount of the limited road space.  This is the kind of proactive strategy that needs to be followed in cities like Mumbai and Delhi.  There’s no point investing in multiple forms of public transport while at the same time facilitating private cars by building flyovers and sea links for smoother travel for this minority.
Creating sustainable cities – or rather reversing the trend of unsustainability in all Indian cities – is a daunting challenge. Plans to enhance or introduce public transport in our cities should have been put in place decades ago.  Today, some cities have almost reached the point of no return. 
But it is still not too late.  What we need are more citizens’ lobbies that will push for environmentally benign and cost-effective public transport systems that benefit the greatest number of people.  This would mean scrutinising and questioning the plans that the government doles out, and working on alternatives.  Apart from additional funding and planning, such citizen awareness and participation are an essential component for the future, especially in India where the tendency to go for capital-intensive big ticket projects without considering the views and needs of the majority of people has virtually become an accepted norm.
Infochange News & Features, August 2010