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India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy

In late August, I filed an RTI application seeking various details of the charitable trust under which the PM-CARES Fund had been registered, and which state regulatory authority was monitoring the trust. But I was refused information on the grounds that the fund was not a public authority.

Vidya Venkat, SOAS, University of London

Since India overtook Brazil in September to become the country with the second largest number of coronavirus cases in the world (after the US), the response of the government of Narendra Modi has come under even tighter scrutiny.

In late March, Prime Minister Modi announced the formation of a special fund to address the emergency situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Called the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM-CARES Fund), it has attracted controversy right from the start.

According to its official website, the fund was set up to collect donations from India and abroad to “undertake and support relief or assistance of any kind relating to a public health emergency or any other kind of emergency”. The website says the fund will provide financial assistance and grants to affected populations.

But the prime minister’s office has refused to provide exact details of donations made to the fund or make public decisions about how the donations are being used.

Several information seekers, including me, have tried to use India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, which facilitates access to government files and records, to find out more details about the fund. We have been blocked, with a number of requests for information turned down by Modi’s office on the grounds that the fund is a public charitable trust and not a “public authority” as defined under the RTI act.

Outstanding questions

The fund’s website claims that in the financial year ending March 2020, 20 billion rupees (£210 million) was spent on supplying 50,000 ventilators manufactured by Indian firms to government hospitals. It also says that 10 billion rupees was given to state governments to assist migrant labourers, and that another 1 billion rupees was allocated to support COVID-19 vaccine development efforts.

But when the transparency activist Anjali Bhardwaj sent an RTI request to the ministry of health about the ventilators, the response showed that only 17,100 were eventually allocated or dispatched to states and union territories by July 20. Bhardwaj’s response also revealed that two of the firms received funding even though they hadn’t been recommended by a technical committee.

So far, it’s also been impossible to verify through RTI queries what other money was spent giving assistance to migrant labourers, or which of India’s 25 vaccine development initiatives the PM-CARES fund has supported.

In late August, Modi’s office announced the fund would finance two 500-bed hospitals in Bihar. But this has further fuelled controversy, with the announcement seen by some opposition figures as a political move ahead of assembly elections due in the state in October given that other states have higher numbers of cases.

And in September, the Supreme Court struck down a petition demanding that money from the fund be transferred to the National Disaster Response Fund to finance COVID-19 relief work.

Government secrecy

The union minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, has hit out at political opponents who were demanding accountability for the PM-CARES Fund. While he claimed that “transparency was writ large” in the way the fund functions, it’s curious that the prime minister’s office continues to block legitimate queries about it.

In late August, I filed an RTI application seeking various details of the charitable trust under which the PM-CARES Fund had been registered, and which state regulatory authority was monitoring the trust. But I was refused information on the grounds that the fund was not a public authority.

However, this assertion does not pass muster. Back in 2007, a similar situation arose with regards to a request for information about the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF), which has received public contributions since it was set up in 1948 by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Central Information Commission, which adjudicates information appeals, made it clear that the prime minister’s office had to comply with requests for information about the PMNRF.

As transparency campaigner Lokesh Batra told me, the entire credibility of the new PM-CARES Fund relies upon Modi making appeals for donations. Its website uses a gov.in domain which is reserved for government bodies. The fund is housed in the prime minister’s office and uses its address. Several of Batra’s right for information queries on the fund have also been denied since April.

Politics of transparency

Those holding high office are often reluctant to be transparent about government affairs, fearing political consequences. During my PhD fieldwork on the right to information movement in India, I’ve been observing how information received under the act influences public perception about government performance. This information can be used by political opponents to delegitimise those in power. Such competitive politics, however, helps to deepen democracy and keep the misuse of power in check.

When Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a majority in India’s 2014 election, it was helped by the previous Congress coalition falling prey to two major corruption scandals. Both these scandals, surrounding the allocation of 2G spectrum and the Commonwealth Games, were brought to light through the use of the RTI act.

Now that the heat of public scrutiny is on the current BJP government in the middle of the pandemic, it’s their turn to demonstrate that donations to the PM-CARES Fund are being put to proper use.

Vidya Venkat, PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology, SOAS, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Green Revolution architect M.S. Swaminathan talks about the crisis in Indian agriculture

Unfortunately, all policies today are related to corporate powers. What about food security and 50 crore farmers?

 

MSSWAMINATHAN
M.S. Swaminathan. Photo: The Hindu

First published in The Hindu dated August 16, 2017 

It is 11 years since agronomist M.S. Swaminathan handed over his recommendations for improving the state of agriculture in India to the former United Progressive Alliance government, at the height of the Vidarbha farmer suicides crisis, but they are still to be implemented. To address the agrarian crisis and farmers’ unrest across the country, he urged the government to take steps to secure farmers’ income. As India marks 50 years of the Green Revolution this year, the architect of the movement tells VIDYA VENKAT sustainability is the greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture. Excerpts:

The greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture 50 years back was achieving self-sufficiency in food grain production. What is the greatest challenge today?

There are two major challenges before Indian agriculture today: ecological and economical. The conservation of our basic agricultural assets such as land, water, and biodiversity is a major challenge. How to make agriculture sustainable is the challenge. Increasing productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm is the need of the hour. In Punjab, and in other Green Revolution States, the water table has gone down and become saline. Further, during the Green Revolution the population was about 400-500 million; now it is 1,300 million and it is predicted to be 1.5 billion by 2030. The growing population pressure has made it pertinent to increase crop yield.

Also, the economics of farming will have to be made profitable to address the current situation. We have to devise ways to lower the cost of production and reduce the risks involved in agriculture such as pests, pathogens, and weeds. Today, the expected return in agriculture is adverse to farmers. That’s why they are unable to repay loans. Addressing the ecological challenge requires more technology while the economics requires more public policy interventions. In my 2006 report, I had recommended a formula for calculating Minimum Support Price, C2+50% (50% more than the weighted average cost of production, classified as C2 by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices). This would raise the current MSP and has now become the clamour of farmers and the nightmare of policymakers.

The NDA government has said it wants to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. But they haven’t implemented the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission Report that you submitted to the UPA government in 2006.

Yes. All kinds of excuses have been given by governments for not implementing this recommendation like food price inflation. But the question is, do the farmers of this country, who constitute nearly half of the working population, also not need to eat? The government is willing to pay Seventh Pay Commission salaries to insulate government servants from inflation, but they cannot provide a higher income for farmers to improve their lot? If you really look at what is happening now, farm loan waivers are posing a bigger burden on the government exchequer compared to what higher pay for farm produce will incur. But the government is not prepared to give the ₹20,000 crore or so for farmers by way of higher MSP. In 2009, the UPA government gave ₹72,000 crore as farm loan waiver, but no government is prepared to take long-term steps to ensure the economic viability of farming.

There are three ways to improve the incomes of farmers. MSP and procurement is one. We also need to improve productivity. The marketable surplus from agriculture has to be enhanced. We should also look at making a value addition to biomass. For example, paddy straw is a biomass product that could be used to make edible mushrooms.

The incidence of farmers committing suicides has shown no signs of abating. What needs to be done to address the crisis?

We are not really analysing the causes of farmer suicides. Instead, we are simply attributing it to the inability to pay off debts. Some serious thought needs to be given to how we could reduce the cost of farm production, minimise risks and maximise returns. The solution for ending farmer suicides is not only paying compensation. I’ve seen in Vidarbha — so many men have committed suicide and their families are left in the lurch. One of the first projects we initiated in Vidarbha at that time was to rescue children and give them education. Farming is the most important enterprise in this country and farmers are an integral part of our country. In China, farms are owned by the government, and farmers are mere contractors. In our case, land is owned by the people. How do you treat this largest group of entrepreneurs? Unfortunately, all policies today are related to corporate powers. What about food security and 50 crore farmers? We need to think about them too.

The Green Revolution of 1967-68 may have resolved the food crisis in the short run, but the heavy use of pesticides and high-yielding varieties of paddy have resulted in environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. How do we cope with these adverse effects?

After the Green Revolution, I came up with the concept of the Evergreen Revolution. In this we will see increase in farm productivity but without ecological harm. This will include integrated pest management, integrated nutrient supply, and scientific water management to avoid the kind of environmental damage witnessed during the Green Revolution. I’ve addressed these issues in my 2016 paper on Evergreen Revolution. I recommended mandatory rainwater harvesting and introduction of fodder and grain legumes as rotation crops to be adopted by wheat farmers in States like Punjab to ensure sustainability of farming. We can also declare fertile zones capable of sustaining two to three crops as Special Agricultural Zones, and provide unique facilities to farmers here to ensure food security. Soil health managers should be appointed to monitor and ameliorate the soil conditions in degraded zones and rectify defects like salinity, alkalinity, water logging, etc.

The Prime Minister recently went to Israel. We have several practices to emulate from there. They have a clear sense of where water is needed and where it’s not. The idea of more crops per drop has been implemented well in Israel. We should adopt those practices here. You should see how a water controller works in an Israeli farm. Everything is remote-controlled. They know exactly which portion of the field requires how much water and release only the exact amount. We cannot sacrifice on productivity now, because land under crop cover is shrinking. Post-harvest technologies like threshing, storage, etc. will have to be given greater attention now.

Opinion is divided on the benefits of genetic modification technology to improve yields of food crops. Can GM technology help address food security challenges?

There are many methods of plant breeding, of which molecular breeding is one. Genetic modification has both advantages and disadvantages. One has to measure the risks and benefits before arriving at a conclusion. First, we need an efficient regulatory mechanism for GM in India. We need an all-India coordinated research project on GMOs with a bio-safety coordinator. We need to devise a way to get the technology’s benefit without its associated risks. At MSSRF (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation), we used GM technology with mangroves to create salt-tolerant varieties of rice. For this we took the genes from the mangroves and inserted them it into rice. To make the most of GM technology we must choose a problem where there is no other way to address the challenge.

Barring the U.S., most countries have reservations about adopting GM technology. Europe has banned it on grounds of health and environmental safety. I’d say GM in most cases is not necessary. Normal Mendelian breeding itself is sufficient in most cases — 99% of what is being done under GM initiatives is not justifiable. Parliament has already suggested a law based on the Norwegian model where there are considerable restrictions on GMOs.

What is the scope for organic farming when it comes to addressing food security?

Organic farming can have a good scope only under three conditions. One, farmers must possess animals for organic manure. Two, they must have the capacity to control pests and diseases. Three, they should adopt agronomical methods of sowing such as rotation of crops. Even genetic resistance to pests and diseases can help organic farmers.

If you look at the organic farms in Pillaiyarkuppam near Puducherry that were started by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, it is a good model to follow for organic farming. They have adopted the requisite crop-livestock integration.

Climate change has upset rainfall patterns and we have this cycle of droughts and floods, which has rendered farming risky. How do we address these challenges?

Both less rainfall and a higher mean temperature affect farming adversely. Currently we are witnessing drought, excess rainfall, sea-level rise… There are both adaptation and mitigation measures to follow in this regard. I’ve evolved a drought code and a flood code… some of the recommendations I’ve made in recent times include setting up a multi-disciplinary monsoon management centre in each drought-affected district, to provide timely information to rural families on the methods of mitigating the effects of drought, and maximising the benefits of good growing conditions whenever the season is normal. Animal husbandry camps could be set up to make arrangements for saving cattle and other farm animals because usually animals tend to be neglected during such crises. Special provisions could also be made to enable women to manage household food security under conditions of agrarian distress.

In the case of temperature rise, wheat yield could become a gamble. We should start breeding varieties characterised by high per day productivity than just per crop productivity. These will be able to provide higher yields in a shorter duration.

India’s ranking on the Global Hunger Index has become worse over the years and we missed out on the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger. What are the steps we should take to address the matter?

India has done well in production, but not in consumption. What we are witnessing today is grain mountains on the one side and hungry millions on the other. The Food Security Act must be implemented properly to address the situation. We should also enlarge the food basket to include nutri-millets.

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Thirty years after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Bhopal gas tragedy victims slapping a picture of Warren Anderson. Photo: The Hindu

[First published in The Hindu dated Nov. 2, 2014]

Come December, it will be 30 years since the Bhopal gas tragedy occurred. The leakage of the deadly methyl isocyanate gas from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) factory in Bhopal went down in history as one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. But after all these years, has anything changed in India with regard to adoption of environmental safeguards before promoting industries and related projects? More important, what is the fate of the victims of polluting industries?

Tragedy continues

According to a January 2013 report of the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, the soil and groundwater within 3.5 kilometres from the UCC factory site is contaminated with cancer- and birth defect-causing chemicals. “The contamination of soil and groundwater actually predates the disaster,” says activist Satinath Sarangi, who has fought for the cause of gas leak survivors.

“From 1969 to 1977, Union Carbide used to dump its toxic wastes at 21 spots, most of them unlined pits, inside the 68-acre factory premises. Despite 17 agencies, including government and non-governmental organisations, carrying out studies over the past two decades, a comprehensive plan for remediation of the soil and groundwater has not been prepared,” he says.

On Friday, October 31, when the news of Warren Anderson’s death spread across Bhopal, survivors of the tragedy got together to spit on a photograph of the former UCC CEO, the first accused in the case and a fugitive from justice. Survivors are unhappy with the court proceedings and compensation. “While over 25,000 people have died in the disaster, the government has paid compensation for only 5,295 deaths. The government acknowledged in June 2010 that the compensation it accepted from Union Carbide was indeed inadequate. Following this, both the Central and State governments have filed curative petitions in the Supreme Court seeking additional compensation of $1.2 billion,” Mr. Sarangi says.

Rashida Bee, president, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, says three generations of gas leak victims have suffered, with their children being born with disabilities but little was done by the government to help victims and to give medical assistance to their families. Through the Chingari Punarvaas Kendra, run by Ms. Bee and her survivor friends, nearly 750 children are now being treated with the money that came with the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004.

Lessons not learnt

Lessons from the tragedy have not been taken seriously. Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman says key lessons such as choosing appropriate sites for projects are violated to this day. “Take the proposed Cheyyur thermal power project in Tamil Nadu, for instance. If the power plant pollutes the land and waterbodies, who will compensate affected local communities?” he asks. “Another example is the Gorakhpur nuclear power project planned in Fatehabad. Located close to dense human habitations, the project has already raised several concerns,” he says.

Disaster response is another important lesson. “In Japan, even small children know how to respond to a disaster such as earthquake, but go to Kudankulam and the local villagers know very little about how to respond to any radiation leak,” he says.

The lack of preparedness in the face of hazardous pollution shows in the case of mercury pollution in Kodaikanal. Mahendra Babu, president, Ponds HLL Ex-Mercury Workers’ Welfare Association, said that in 2001, the Kodaikanal mercury thermometer factory of Hindustan Unilever Ltd. (then Hindustan Lever) shut down, but 36 ex-workers of the factory died from hazardous exposure to mercury. “In the past 10 years, 11 committees, including a Supreme Court-monitored committee, has been set up to redress grievances arising out of the pollution from the factory. No thorough clean-up of the factory site has been done as yet,” he says.

No prosecution

Environmental lawyer and activist T. Mohan says there are hardly any cases of prosecution of environmental crime by corporate firms in India. “In India, ex post facto clearances are being given to projects by polluting firms. Environmental Impact Assessment notifications, which are supposed to be issued prior to the undertaking of projects, are being issued after the projects are executed,” he says. Although the Supreme Court has come down heavily on some instances of violations, government authorities have been quite lax in these matters, he adds.

Mr. Mohan cites the example of the Loss of Ecology Authority (LEA), a tribunal set up to award compensation for farmers affected by polluting industries, to demonstrate how settlement of legal compensation for victims of industrial pollution has not worked out. “The chairman of the LEA resigned a few months ago. The tribunal is rudderless and dysfunctional. Even when compensation was offered to victims of industrial pollution, the sum was paltry. Farmers from Karur in Tamil Nadu were offered as low as Rs. 5-7 a hectare of damaged land,” he says.

With >Anderson dead and having escaped imprisonment, Bhopal gas leak victims continue to suffer. Ms. Bee strikes a note of caution. “The new government should think about the consequences of going head over heels to woo industry without paying sufficient attention to the poor institutional response mechanisms in the event of an environmental disaster.”

[I am republishing this story as I learned today that the article has been acknowledged in the 2020 publication Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism by David B. Sachsman & JoAnn Myer Valenti.

Also read the story ‘Dow Shalt Pay‘ published in Frontline magazine in Dec. 2007 on the subject of the aftermath of the gas tragedy, which I had co-authored with the Delhi-based legal correspondent V. Venkatesan. The author bylines aren’t showing in the website for some reason.]

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Interview: Amitav Ghosh on climate change

AMITAV.G
Amitav Ghosh. Photo: The Hindu

“We have set in motion chains of causality whose ends we cannot see”

[First published in The Hindu Books page dated July 17, 2016]

It was happening. We knew that at the back of our minds, yet we continued to ignore it, until one fine day it came to claim our lives… Climate change — the upsetting of weather patterns across the world — forms the core concern of Amitav Ghosh’s latest work of non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. It is dealt with a touch of Márquezian magical realism as Ghosh speaks about the inevitability of the very real ecological disaster unfolding in our midst, so familiar yet unfathomably fantastic in its proportions. The book, parts of which were delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015, not only raises crucial questions about our lack of intellectual engagement with this natural phenomenon but also calls for a radical dismantling of the Enlightenment-era hubris possessed by mankind, which sees “nature” as something outside of man.

In a freewheeling conversation in New Delhi, where he is a writer-in-Residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Ghosh acknowledges that within Western academia, and particularly at the University of Chicago where he delivered the lectures, there is a strong awareness and interest in climate change and the Anthropocene, the current era in which human activity has dominated the planet. How human-induced climate change affects our history, thought and consciousness are major questions they are grappling with. But this cannot make up for the conspicuous absence of discussions on climate change in works of literature and art, he points out.

Continue reading “Interview: Amitav Ghosh on climate change”

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Shadow Power

BOOK REVIEW

emergency chronicles

[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jan.-Mar. 2019]

On January 26, 2019, India observed its 70th year as a constitutional republic. The country celebrated the Constitution of India as a document that empowers Indian citizens to chart their own path to progress, in which their rights (‘Fundamental Rights’) are upheld and their development is guaranteed through the state (‘Directive Principles of State Policy’). However, historian Gyan Prakash urges us to revisit that moment in which this document came into being, compelling us to recognise its troubled legacy. While most analyses of India’s 21-month period of Emergency, starting in June 1975, attribute its occurrence to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian and strong-arm tactics as a political leader, in his latest book, Prakash makes a departure from this personality-centred analysis, arguing that Mrs. Gandhi’s “perfidy alone cannot explain the perversion of a system of law and politics” as witnessed during the Emergency, and that “historical forces were at work”. The framers of the Constitution left us with such a strong state that it could deprive citizens of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms at the slightest hint of any threat. And that is what, he argues, exactly happened during the Emergency.

 

State of exception

Drawing upon the idea of a ‘state of exception’ developed by political theorist Carl Schmitt and later, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the author explains how the paradoxical “lawful suspension of the law” was written into the Constitution of India adopted in 1950, as its chief architect B.R. Ambedkar felt that the system of constitutional democracy had to prevail over the culture of street protests. Therefore, if and when the state was faced with a threat, it could suspend the law to assume control over a situation. Now that the foreign ruler had left India, and the people were choosing their own government, it was only fair that the state was thus empowered, the framers of the Constitution thought.

Ambedkar’s exhortation that we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution after attaining Independence led him to put in place rules that in the hands of an authoritarian government could turn into a nightmare for citizens. In chapter 2, where the author discusses the framing of the Constitution in detail, he notes how once the nationalists were in power in India following the departure of the British, “they felt no qualms about incorporating the arsenal of executive powers granted by the colonial law”. Ambedkar justified copying a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935, which retained vast executive powers with the British ruling class at the time of its adoption, saying “there is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing”. The colonial-era Indian penal code of 1860 was also retained, which included section 124A on sedition, used to quell dissent in colonial India.

Continue reading “Shadow Power”

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This train runs on blood

blood-on-railway-tracks-891015
Picture is for representation purpose only.

Once upon a time, a 5 a.m. monster that would screechingly halt

By the local railway station, next to my childhood home

In Calcutta, used to be my mother’s morning alarm.

The memory of that goods train thundering past our abode,

Rocking its flimsy walls is vivid still. Who’d have thought

That a day would arrive when 16 hapless factory workers

Sleeping on the lines would meet one such monster

Never to wake up this time? Images of their bloodied bodies

Scattered on the railway track fill the morning papers.

Crushed under the merciless wheels of an unending curfew.

Homebound on foot, hungry, penniless, and confused.

Some say they might have tried to kill themselves in distress.

But why would these men, only a few hours’ walk away from the station

To catch the train home, throw themselves to death?

The truth is the train of our national economy runs on their gore –

The blood and sweat of nameless labourers sacrificing life and limb,

To keep our dipping economic graph forever chugging along.

Rumours of their recklessness are just to hide that embarrassing fact:

That we’ve got blood on our hands.

 

© Vidya Venkat (2020)

 

[I wrote this poem in response to the news of the death of 16 migrant labourers in Aurangabad, who got crushed under a goods train. The monster train is a symbol of our systemic exploitation of the labour of the migrants that keeps our economy afloat at an enormous human cost. Watch me read out this poem on Rattle Magazine’s poetry live show on May 17.]

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A divided bench

0_50255465._SY475_Taking up ten forgotten cases, a writer explains how the judiciary in India has at times been ‘more executive-minded than the executive’

[Book Review first published in The Hindu ]

At a time when faith in the independence of the judiciary in India has diminished, Chintan Chandrachud provides us with a historical perspective on the uneven legacy of the courts in his new book. He elaborates the course of decision-making in ten ‘forgotten cases’ that may have faded from public memory but left an indelible imprint on the course of justice in India, nonetheless. 

Lost opportunities

With the apex court entering its seventieth year in 2020, the book is timely in its critical assessment of the functioning of the courts. Unlike commemorative volumes, this book demonstrates how the court has not always risen to the occasion to safeguard us from the “indiscretions and misadventures of Parliament and the government”.

Continue reading “A divided bench”

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Pottery lesson

pottery

The first lesson in making pottery

Is: be willing to get your hands dirty.

‘Cos when you place that clay mound

At the centre of the spinning-wheel,

Then wet your palms to wrap them around,

The slurry splatters on you.

And at times, with fingers placed gently,

As you drag and pull inwardly,

The mound comes undone,

Collapsing into a lump.

But, if you get past this stage,

And your mound is still in place,

The task of centering can make

The clay go out of shape.

 

Three attempts and I give up.

My instructor says,

“No one’s made their perfect pot

As soon as they set out.”

In the potter’s hut, I find on display

A collection of odd pots:

Some cracked outside,

Some charred inside,

No ode-worthy Keatsian urns.

“I sell the good ones,

And keep the odd ones

In honour of the endeavour.”

 

(This poem is inspired by the memory of attending a pottery making session at DakshinaChitra museum in Chennai many years ago.)

 

© Vidya Venkat (2020)

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सूखी पाती

dryleaf

कभी सूखी पाती से पूछना उस ऊंची डाली का छोह।
बिछड़ कर पीले होने पर वो हरियाली का मोह।

तन सूखा है मन सूखा है पर जीवित उसकी आशा है।
पड़ी हुई है गुमसुम सी पर याद अभी तक ताज़ा है।

© Vidya Venkat (2006)

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Another freedom struggle

812ikVREopL

[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jul.-Sep. 2018]

It is ordinary people who often make history yet historians typically focus only on the victors and the leaders associated with popular social mobilisations. That is the reason why Magsaysay Award-winning social activist Aruna Roy decided to narrate the story of how ordinary people from the fringes of society – daily wage labourers, marginal farmers and small shopkeepers – in rural Rajasthan helped shape the demand for and saw through the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation in India. During the Chennai leg of the promotional tour of The RTI Story: Power to the People the former bureaucrat-turned-activist told me that her main purpose in putting this book together was to give credit where it was due: to celebrate the common men and women who had participated in the nearly two decade-long struggle to get the RTI law passed. It also explains why Roy has not claimed solo authorship for the book but jointly with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) Collective, the civil society organisation she co-founded with activist Nikhil Dey and trade unionist Shankar Singh in 1987. As the narrators state in their Introduction, “The RTI narrative is a celebration of ordinary people and their immense contribution to strengthening the pillars of democratic justice in modern India.”

Read the full review HERE

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Lines written on seeing a cow

india_street_cows
Picture used for representative purposes. Source: pri.org

What conspiracies are you hatching inside that big, horned head of yours?
I can see that you have been contemplating some serious issue for quite some time.
Is it the scarcity of fodder that has been bothering you or your master’s tyranny?
The having to feed on wall posters, eating out of dustbins, and getting whipped? 

I can understand your problem dear, but tell me, is this any solution?
You lift your wiggly tail upwards right when I’m about to cross you by
And splash hot, thick, yellow urine right in the middle of the road.
Now, what point is it that you are trying to get across, eh? 

I want you to use a little bit of common sense now. Is your mooing and dunging
And peeing in public gonna do you any good? You only end up messing up the streets
Our Government lays after much deliberation. You may claim your liberty to raise
Your tail as a mark of protest for all the pains that you undergo in everyday life.

But, I will not tolerate your nonsense dear. I can’t take your shit and crap!
Oh! How you remind me of these politicians who mess up civilian life for their own cause!

© Vidya Venkat (2005)

[Reproduced here from an old blog]

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Reclaiming the Republic

[Essay published on the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day in Economic & Political Weekly]

republicmain
Picture credit: EPW

On the occasion of India’s 70th Republic Day, it is worth considering how the very foundational idea of a republic, in which supreme power is held by the people, is at risk despite free and fair elections. To arrive at that argument, this article delineates the historical trajectory of India’s Right to Information movement as arising out of the need to address the unfinished agenda of democratisation since independence. It then discusses how the movement has strengthened oppositional politics by expanding the terrain for political participation and has also empowered individual citizens in their struggles to claim their entitlements from the state. By resisting scrutiny under the Right to Information Act and attempting to dilute the law’s empowering potential, political representatives and bureaucrats are subverting democracy itself. 

Read the full essay here:

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India: government continues to suppress citizens’ right to information ahead of election

conversation image
Picture credit: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

[Republished in leading Indian news sites: Scroll and Quartz]

Back in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ascended to power in India, it did so on the promise of running an open government accountable to its citizens that would eliminate corruption. But nearly five years later, and with an election due between March and May, the track record of Narendra Modi’s government on upholding citizens’ right to information has raised doubts about its commitment to accountability.

The BJP’s predecessors, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by the Indian National Congress party, were instrumental in passing the Right to Information (RTI) law in 2005. Its aim was to undo the culture of bureaucratic secrecy encouraged by the colonial Official Secrets Act of 1923.

For the first time, the law compelled government departments to provide official information in the form of records or documents to citizens when specific requests were made. This helped to expose corruption in government as state authorities could no longer hide information on the way they made decisions or spent taxpayer’s money. The exposés contributed to the UPA government’s political downfall at the 2014 elections.

Yet, ever since the RTI law was passed, successive governments have sought to suppress it one way or another. In recent years, public authorities affiliated to the central government have denied information to citizens under the law on matters of vital public interest.

Continue reading “India: government continues to suppress citizens’ right to information ahead of election”

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Fall

Picture credit: Sharath Kuchi/Flickr

The sky remains silent:
A witness to the winds growing wild.
Rain beats the suspended particles of dust to ground.
Leaves on tree tops get drenched.
Life seems to come back
As if with a sudden throb of the heart.
And two broken twigs, each in their own world,
Lie miles apart.

**

The end of a leaflet briefly touches
As it topples from the top of a tree,
And I take a look at the sovereign duchess
Who had once been so prime and so green.
There is she fallen, now yellow and rotten,
Trodden by careless feet.
There will she perish with but longing alive
As the season of summer retreats…

**

Branches of trees stand out bare
With only a leaf or two that stare.
The beat of my lone heart echoes within,
Stirring the void of the sullen self.
Moments and memories frozen like mist,
Hang above me; heavy is the air.
Summer is past, now winter’s to come
Nothing remains but for despair…

**

Look at the sky now.
Painted with shades of grey,
Even this inanimate sky mourns
The departure of innate beauty
From human hearts.
Save these precious teardrops
From heaven and drench
Your parched souls…

© Vidya Venkat (2006)

Published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata.

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Bashar al-Assad must be brought to justice, says brave Syrian journalist

(First published in The Hindu Sunday magazine dated Nov. 18, 2018)

kholoud_mag3

Her hazel eyes have witnessed utmost suffering. Yet Kholoud Waleed remains stoic as she narrates the story of how her world turned upside down in March 2011, when the Syrian people started an uprising against the country’s dictatorial regime led by Bashar al-Assad. An English teacher in a high school in Darayya, near Damascus, at that time, Waleed witnessed the school being shut down as the regime saw the children studying there as a threat.

“The boys from our school used to hold demonstrations against the government. They wrote graffiti on the school walls demanding the fall of the government. After shutting the school down, many of the children were arrested and tortured by the Army,” she recounts calmly. Her youngest brother, who was a student there, had to drop out as a result. But what happened at the same time in Dara’a, in southwestern Syria, near the Jordan border, jolted her completely. “Twelve children, all under the age of 13, were tortured and two of them killed by the regime for writing wall graffiti against the regime. One of them, 12-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, was falsely accused of raping the Army General’s wife and shot dead,” she continues, anger welling in her eyes.

This was the precise moment when public rage exploded in Syria. In the city of Hama, for instance, half a million citizens demonstrated on the streets demanding change. In May, 2012, Waleed’s brother was picked up by the Army for voicing opinions in favour of the Arab Spring in college.

“They arrested my brother-in-law as well for holding opinions against the regime. As of today, there is no way for us to confirm whether they are dead or alive…”

 Continue reading “Bashar al-Assad must be brought to justice, says brave Syrian journalist”

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Mahmood Mamdani on the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy

[First published in The Hindu dated Jan. 15, 2015]

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The Charlie Hebdo Jan 14, 2015 cartoon. Picture credit: Wikipedia

Back with a Prophet Mohammed cartoon on its cover, Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, has resolved to take on Islamic fundamentalists, after a terror attack on its office premises in Paris last Wednesday claimed the lives of 10 staff members including that of its editor, Stephane Charbonnier. In an interview to Vidya Venkat, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, author of ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror’, explained the difference between critiquing a religion and ridiculing it, and why it is one thing to oppose censorship and quite another thing to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons in solidarity. Edited excerpts:

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, there is widespread condemnation of Islam itself. George Packer, in his New Yorker article, for example, had held Islam and its tenets and those believing in them responsible for the attacks. Are we misdiagnosing the problem here?

In my view, George Packer’s is a knee-jerk response. It fails to recognise what is new about the Charlie Hebdo killings. The information we have so far suggests that it was a paramilitary operation. Though carried out by a local unit, decentralised in both planning and execution, the attack was strategised and sanctioned from headquarters. The killings need to be seen as a strategic and organised military attack. As such, it is different from the kind of grassroots demonstrations we have seen in the past, such as in responses to the Danish Cartoons.

Proponents of the Charlie Hebdo brand of humour and satire see the need to share and endorse the culture of “free speech”. Your view?

I support the right to free speech as part of a right of dissent. But that does not mean that I support every particular exercise of free speech or dissent.

Continue reading “Mahmood Mamdani on the Charlie Hebdo cartoon controversy”

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A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015

[A shorter version of this appeared in The Hindu’s op-ed pages on Jan 4, 2016]

 

The lesson from Paris 2015 is this: until world powers don’t stop digging black gold out of the bellies of Iraq, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the convoluted webs of violence, terror and climate change, will continue to keep us trapped in the times to come

 

 

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Bullet holes in the wall at Bataclan, Paris terror attack site

New Year is the time for making resolutions, for turning back on the year that went by and reflecting on what lessons could be learnt from the past so we do not repeat our mistakes. Last year, Paris witnessed one of the worst terror attacks, besides those in Beirut and Baghdad. It also saw the climate change agreement being finalised. Could the latter be an answer to the former?

The thought had originally struck me while I was standing outside the Bataclan café in Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, staring at the bullet holes on the walls of the building at the site of the November 13 terror attack by Islamic State (IS) terrorists. It was the last week of November, and I was in the city to attend the UN climate summit – the 21st Conference of Parties (CoP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – where heads of states of over a hundred UN member countries were working out a deal to save the earth from the climate catastrophe.

Continue reading “A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015”

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Trapped lives

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Picture sourced from flickr.com for representational purposes only.

(This is an account of a meeting I had back in 2009 with women trafficked from Bangladesh)

Bina* is not sure if she should be happy about the birth of her son. She sits staring at the 15-days-old child wriggling in her arms, leaning against a wall in a dimly lit room of the Government Vigilance Home in Mylapore, Chennai where she has been kept for the last eight months.

The woman, trafficked from a poverty stricken village in Bangladesh, was caught in a raid conducted by the Anti-vice squad of the police in a lodge in suburban Chennai. She says she had been brought to India by a broker in her village who promised to get her a job as a maid.

There are several others like her at this Home, who crossed the porous border between India and Bangladesh, mostly unwittingly, in the hope of finding a job that would help them survive and landed up instead in brothels and shady lodges in Indian metros.

Sheela*, the mother of two children, says an agent had convinced her family to send her to Dhaka to work as a maid. But this woman was first taken to Kolkata, then to Bangalore and finally to Chennai, where this broker, on whom she was completely dependent for everything, including food, would make her attend as many as 20 clients in a day.

Continue reading “Trapped lives”

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The birdwatcher

bar headed geese
Bar-headed geese. Picture credit: Flickr

One winter morning in 1968, on one of his weekend ‘birding’ trips, an unsuspecting Theodore Baskaran was crouching by the bund of the Devarayan Lake near Tiruchirapalli, when a skein of bar-headed geese emerged from the skies. Dropping their wings, they landed on the placid waters of the lake, a few meters from where he was.

A fledgling birdwatcher since his college days, Baskaran could recognise them immediately. They were rare visitors to South India, coming in search of food from snow-bound Ladakh. Today, at 66, after more than four decades of bird watching, the retired civil servant recalls this encounter with a feeling close to awe. “Looking at those lovely geese while I was all by myself was a spiritual experience,” he says.

Continue reading “The birdwatcher”

Leslee Udwin speaks on the ban on ‘India’s Daughter’, her documentary on rape

By filming the rapist and getting him to speak his mind, the documentary aims to reveal to us the mindset of the rapist and what got him to behave this way.

 

Leslee Udwin. Photo: The Hindu

First published in The Hindu dated August 13, 2016

Leslee Udwin , award-winning filmmaker and producer of the documentary, India’s Daughter, spoke to VIDYA VENKAT about the hypocrisy inherent in continuing the ban on it. Last week, the Delhi High Court refused to interfere with the one-and-a-half-year-old ban on the programme that was based on the December 16, 2012 Delhi gang rape case, saying the issue was pending before the trial court. In a Skype interaction from London, she challenged the claims made in favour of the ban, saying it was an open assault on freedom of expression. Excerpts:

The Delhi High Court last week dismissed the case challenging the ban on India’s Daughter. What are the hurdles before you in ensuring that the documentary is screened in India?

India’s Daughter has already been screened in well over 60 countries. Unfortunately in India, because of the ban, it has not been possible to screen the documentary at all. The documentary is about the global pandemic of violence against women and uses the case of the Delhi gang rape to illustrate the point about the mindsets that are responsible for, and even encourage such human rights violations.

I have read the High Court ruling dismissing the Public Interest litigation pleas to lift the ban, and frankly I find it hard to understand what the judges are thinking of. The High Court has argued that the trial court is still hearing “the matter” based on the judicial orders of March, 2015 (presumably the case against the ban?), so it can’t do anything. I would like to ask the learned judges: “the matter of the ban, where is it being heard?” I do not understand their reasoning. It is the matter of the sentencing and conviction of the rapists that is still being heard (in the Supreme Court, not the trial court) and this has nothing to do with the matter of the ban which was before the High Court last week. What shocks me also is that the judges refused to even consider the matter of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) advisory, arguing that since it was “an advisory” it wasn’t necessary to examine it. But don’t the learned judges know that if the TV channels showed this documentary against the advisory of the MIB, they would lose their licenses? That is why they dare not screen the documentary! I feel this whole business of the ban is like a parallel universe – it is Kafkaesque. But my problem is with the very legitimacy of the ban orders that were issued in the first place.

The only positive outcome of the ban has been that everyone has seen the documentary. But then they are seeing the wrong, leaked version of the documentary.

Continue reading “Leslee Udwin speaks on the ban on ‘India’s Daughter’, her documentary on rape”

In the storm’s eye

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata silhoutted against dark clouds (left); A street in North Kolkata went under flood waters.

Hear

The rumble of the wind,

The ominous tune it plays on roof tins.

Behold

The darkening of the sky,

The swift embrace of clouds on the sly.

Feel

The pounding of the hearts,

The rain’s sharp descent, its pointed darts.

*

This whooshing wind, this eerie sky,

This unyielding torrent in the storm’s eye,

Is a sign,

Is a sign,

Is a sign.

*

Death and destruction looms everywhere.

The mightiest of trees from their roots tear.

Yellow taxis are sinking in the flood.

Victoria Memorial is greying in the scud.

The people of Bengal scurry like ants.

There’s fear in the wake of heaven’s angry chants.

*

That Queen’s image, a symbol of colonial rule,

Stands shrouded today in a pall of gloom.

What started as Britain’s industrial greed

Has kept us trapped in the web of unending needs.

Until our fuming chimneys show any respite,

There will be no morning to end this night.

*

© Vidya Venkat (2020)

[I wrote this poem the night Cyclone Amphan hit Bengal leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.]