Times of Me

I write once in a while when I feel passionately about something. So here goes...

Lokpal: Batman or Joker?

 

                                

April 8th, Day 4 of Anna Hazare’s fast unto death, I think to myself, “You are in Delhi, at least go take a peek and see what all the fuss is about”. My ‘peek’ lasted 2 hours. Initially, I was lost in an ocean of patriotic Indians shouting cheers at an empty stage. I tried getting into the groove- singing along to the songs, echoing the slogans and swaying to the beat. I was enraptured by the crowd. I wanted to capture every moment of it. Antagonised  by ‘low battery’ flashing on my phone, I managed a few photographs and a video (photos and video can be viewed on previous blog entries). It was great to see how the masses had united against corruption.

The pageant at Jantar Mantar earlier this month is all very well, however what I am truly concerned about is the Lokpal Bill. The Jan Lok Pal Bill (proposed by activists) and the Lokpal Bill (proposed by the government) differ on many levels. If the Jan Lokpal Bill is passed in its entirety it has the potential to accomplish what it aims to.  But the odds are against it. Usually an optimist, I turn pessimist when it comes to issues pertaining to the Indian Government. In my opinion, at best, a tremendously diluted version of the Jan Lokpal Bill will pass. The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Bill which was meant to provide social security to workers and lay down basic working conditions, became an Act in 2009 which gave workers nothing but the right to register and get an identity card. Another example is the forthcoming Food Security Bill- widespread attempts at dilution of the NAC proposed Bill are already underway.  

I am not against the Jan Lokpal Bill. It is possible that mounting pressure from the masses will result in the passing of a comprehensive Bill and this pressure itself will ensure decent implementation. However, based on track record, it is only natural to be apprehensive about the content of the Bill that will get okay-ed by the Legislature and how the Executive will implement it. 

Let us for a moment hypothesize that a comprehensive Bill will be passed and implementation will be smooth. Is the institution of Lokpal the solution to corruption? To answer this we must first decide if corruption is a disease or a symptom. If corruption is a disease, then the Lokpal may be a solution worth trying. However, I think the system itself is a disease and corruption is a symptom of it. Thus I ask, do we need another parallel power house to disinfect the existing ones? Or do we need to cure the existing system itself?

To quote Amit Varma as he wrote in Where Anna Hazare Gets it Wrong, “Corruption is inevitable in India because the government has too much power. … And, to repeat that old cliche one more time because it is both pithy and true, power corrupts. … The Lokpal Bill does not tackle any of the root causes of corruption.” As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it in his article Of the few, by the few,”Corruption is a challenge. And public agitation is required to shame government. But it is possible to maintain, in reasonable good faith, that the Jan Lokpal Bill is not necessarily the best, or the only solution to the corruption challenge” 

Rampant corruption exists. That is a truism. Will the Lokpal combat corruption? That is debatable. 

April 8th, 2011

The spirit of the people of India as they support Anna Hazare against corruption.

8th April, 2011 (Day 4)

Anna Hazare fasts unto death for Jan Lokpal Bill

Banyan: The Indian Exception (Link)

Up until the last paragraph Banyan got it right. India is facing a huge food and nutrition problem. In the last para he says that cash transfers are better but he doesn’t say why they are better. Also, he himself points out that a study done in Maharashtra (in 1983) showed that the poor spend only two-thirds of their extra income on food. So by implementing a cash transfer scheme in India, we can not say with certainty that food expenditure will rise drastically and nor can we ensure improved nutrition for women and children.

He calls the “budgetary implications” of the PDS “awe-inspiring”. What about the budgetary implications of cash transfers? It is doubtful that they will amount to pocket change. 

Chhattisgrah and Tamil Nadu are superb examples of a well functioning PDS. The PDS can work, all we need is political will. I agree that it is an asset that India does not possess in plenty. The PDS may not be the final solution but there is a solution, and I do not think it is pure cash transfers. We want to boost consumption of nutritious food not Nokia’s sales.

Democracy Denied

 

Niyamat Ansari was a man who never blinked in the face of danger. He fought tirelessly for the rights of workers under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and for forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act. It was as if he was on a mission - to ensure that poor and disenfranchised citizens of India got what the law provided for them rightfully. He worked on empowering people by spreading awareness about their rights. Niyamat along with other local activists like Bhukhan, Shyama and Pachati have fearlessly exposed numerous cases of fraud in NREGA over the last few years.

I had the opportunity to work with Niyamat, Bhukhan, Shyama, Pachati and James (an activist from Palamau) in August last year. In the summer of 2010, along with student volunteers from Delhi University and elsewhere they documented a number of cases of delayed wage payments under NREGS in Manika block (Latehar district of Jharkhand). They had filed for compensation for delayed wages under Schedule II, Rule 30 of the NREG Act, 2005 and Section 15 of Payment of Wages Act 1936. The POWA states that a worker whose wages are pending is entitled to compensation up to Rs.3000 but not less than Rs.1500. 

My job was to help them ensure the workers got the compensation due to them. Working with the team in Manika was an enriching experience. They had meticulously organised all the required documents and had taken every measure possible to ensure that compensation payments were only sanctioned to genuine workers. It was thanks to their dedication and hard work that the Assistant Labour Commissioner sanctioned compensation up to Rs.2000 each to 92 workers.

Niyamat’s knowledge of the law, his understanding of the people of Latehar and his dedication and ability to overcome obstacles that came his way made him the man Manika will never forget. His continuous fight for people’s rights brought him in the line of fire of corrupt local contractors. Niyamat’s activism threatened a powerful nexus of corrupt contractors and other criminal elements active in that area. Earlier in October 2008, an attempt had been made on his life, when he narrowly escaped a gang of armed goons. Nothing stopped Niyamat. His crusade continued. 

Niyamat addressing a group of villagers in summer 2010.

The next day his sister filed an FIR naming eight people in the murder of her brother. Now all but one of the accused have surrendered and are in judicial custody.

What is most unfortunate is that this is the fate of Indians who care about the state of this country, and actually do something about it. Another shocking fact: Niyamat had made a desperate plea to the government for help only days before he died, however it fell on deaf ears. 

Why?

What I fail to understand is why Niyamat had to suffer for trying to make the government do its job. Why could the government not be bothered to protect Niyamat when he reached out for help? Why doies it not have the gumption to punish his murderers?

Niyamat is not the first to be murdered for demanding rights under the law. On 14 May 2008, Lalit Mehta was murdered for revealing irregularities in NREGS through a social audit in Palamau. Less than a month later, Kameshwar Yadav of Giridih was shot dead by unidentified gunmen for exposing scams in NREGS. In July 2010, RTI activist Amit Jethwa was killed for filing petitions against the forest department and a PIL against illegal mining in Gir forest. Dr. Binayak Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment on count of “sedition” because he exercised his right to free speech. Is this the reward for speaking up in the world’s largest democracy?

For every step forward we government take with legislation like NREGA and the RTI Act, we take three steps back by turning a blind eye to incidents like Niyamat’s murder and imprisoning activists like Binayak Sen. How far we have fallen from the inspiration days of Independence.

Bhookan and Niyamat

Heroes, each of them

Having spent my childhood in Mumbai and my college days in Delhi, the realities of rural India were unknown to me. Urban notions of how government schemes work in rural areas are quite different from the real story. 

Living in Ranchi, I travelled 4 times a week to Khunti where I was working at a help centre for NREGA workers. Working on a compensation case in Khunti, I realised how difficult it is to get what is rightfully yours according to the law. A year prior to my arrival in Khunti, the centre had begun work on these compensation cases. Despite having all the required documents in place, it took over a month of hounding district and state officials and being passed around various offices like a parcel at a 5-year-old’s birthday party to get the workers the compensation that was rightfully due to them. 

Khunti has recently been a hotspot of Naxal activity, yet one feels safe there. The same cannot be said for Latehar. Just the stories I had heard about the Maoists and middlemen were enough to send shivers down my spine. Fellow passengers on the Ranchi-Latehar bus were rather concerned for me, Mumbai se akeli ladki Latehar ja rahi hai? Hai ram!" Latehar is not a safe place, and not just for a lone girl. Even Niyamat, who has relentlessly worked for the betterment of Latehar could be killed by its own people. 

An area where the middlemen reign almighty requires men of mettle who will combat them. Niyamat and Bhukhan have been that for Latehar. Today Niyamat is no more and Bhukhan’s life is in danger. Heroes like Niyamat should be supported and celebrated, not ignored and left in the hands of local predators.
 

Photographs courtesy  Rohit Sinha

Conditional Cash Transfers (Link)

I have always wondered if conditional cash transfers is the way to go in India. I too have my reservations about CCTs replacing the PDS. 35kgs of grain is 35kgs of grain irrespective of time and space. CCTs are vulnerable to local price hikes. A universal PDS not limited to cereals in Tamil Nadu is working wonders; Chhattisgarh has implemented serious reforms in the PDS making it one of the best performing states in the country with regard to the PDS. We have proof of a smoothly functioning PDS right in front of us. CCTs need not be experimented with when all we need is a little political will to make the PDS work. 

Students for Right to Food (Link)

We are a group of students who care deeply about the Right to Food in India and have been meeting with MPs in Delhi and Mumbai to discuss the issue of Food Security and the urgency of enacting a comprehensive Food Security Bill. 

Times of Trouble

A phone call. Sometime on the 26th of November. “Dude, there’s been firing at Leos and the Taj in Bombay”. In the moment that I had to answer a call waiting from my brother I tried to digest what I had just heard. Everyone at home is okay. Family and friends. I breathed a sigh of relief. Put down the phone. Hit the play button and reverted to the animated world of ‘Po’ the Panda learning Kung Fu. The news seemed to have flown over my head. Sitting miles away in Delhi it seemed impossible that my Bombay was being ravaged by a bunch of terrorists firing bullets. It hadn’t hit me quite yet. A very close friend called. Tears. Her father was being held at the Taj along with all the others who had felt like a good expensive meal that night. The reality of the terror began to come alive. She put the phone down. Play. Kung Fu Panda. I didn’t want to believe what I was hearing. Cowardice. Escapism. A few more phone calls. Panda saves the day. The End. I slept, thinking the sun will rise again tomorrow, like it usually does, and Bombay will awaken, shocked, but ticking as always. I awoke. Nothing changed. The sun did rise, but to see the great city fighting the smoking windows of the Taj and the sounds of guns firing, grenades killing the innocent and people screaming. My school biology teacher. Shot dead. May you and the others, whose identity is unknown to me, rest in peace. It’s becoming more real. But the auditions continue. The Shakespeare Society Mid-Term Production 2008. The clock ticks.
Sitting in front of the television. It’s ‘24’ live. Our Jack Bauer dead. Why? So we can be safe. Young reporters re-telling the story over and over. Incomplete information. Policemen. Commandos. Officers. Etc. Etc. Risking their lives. Saving ours. Saving the day. Heroes. On the other hand- politicians. Sitting in Kerala scratching their heads. Let’s not go there. Abysmal examples for a fear stricken city. Everyone at home is okay. A cousin of my dad’s cousin and his wife. Dead. Their two children, both under the age of 5, awaiting their arrival at home. Loss. A friend’s father. Dead after much struggle. His son miles away in America. Helpless. A friend’s neighbour, another’s colleague’s aunt. It doesn’t end. “172 dead, including 18 foreigners. 239 injured, including 20 foreigners”. Numbers. Indians. Non-Indians. Poor. Rich. Managers. Hotel staff. A food critic. Policemen. Commandos. Officers. The ATS chief. My school biology teacher. Numbers. Lots of numbers, few names. But all in the same blood bath. The same dilapidated, once 5-star hotels soaked in innocent blood. Fate. Our fate is one. It finally hit me today, the terror- it pricked me. But that doesn’t change the fact that our fate is one. Someday we will all be lying in that same blood bath. A bomb blast. A terror attack. A heart attack. A tsunami. An earthquake. An accident. Drunk driving or an overdose. Or just because our time has come. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that it was their time and that they would have died come bullet shower or storm. What I am saying is, is that this is the only way we can console ourselves. It happens to everyone. Prince or pauper. If not today then tomorrow. Or it could be the decisions we make. The Butterfly Effect. Or if could be sheer bad luck. Honestly, I don’t know why them. Why anyone for that matter?
Unfortunately our world has reached a stage where such days do exist, where anyone, due to no fault of their own can be held at gunpoint. He will pull the trigger without a second thought and no feeling of guilt. We can fight it and yes, we will fight it. But why should we have to?
Our lives will resume. After all, the clock never stops ticking. No amount of RDX can bring Bombay to a standstill. We will keep fighting. We will stand up to terror. We will keep walking. But, where to? Yes, we will unite and walk as one. We will revisit the affected areas. We will show them we aren’t afraid. We will show them the ‘Spirit of Bombay’. We will show them that this is a city and not a battleground; that their gunpowder cannot stop us; that their attack was a test and we passed with flying colours; that they tried to shake our confidence but only strengthened our fervour. We will keep walking. I ask again, but where to?
No number of panel discussions, blogs, Facebook notes/ groups, peace marches, wear-white days, light-a-candle-at-7:30pm evenings, politicians’ condemning speeches is going to stop them. Once again do not get me wrong, we must mourn and honour our heroes. Respect their brave sacrifice and admire their courage. But what after?
What can we do to ensure this doesn’t happen again? Firstly, can anything we do ensure it won’t happen again? Will voting help? Will strengthened security checks help? To an extent, yes. But the new not-so-able bodies in power will do the same thing (or nothing) and those who thrive on instilling terror will most definitely find a way around our heightened security. They won’t crack it, but they will.
And in our process of walking on, fearless, we will once again be shocked as we fall into their next trap. Intelligence will be brushed away as a passing meaningless threat and our guards will be down. Once again we will be forced to witness pools of innocent blood and terror spray painted all over the walls of the world, smirking at us, because once again they have got the better of us. And once again we will hide our shuddering souls and walk the streets pretending to be marching against terror, fearless. This time it was bullets and RDX, god knows what they’ll come up with next. We can prepare ourselves, but be warned, they will attack again. And that too when we least expect it.
I’ll admit it. Every time I am in a public place and the news flashes in my head, a part of me trembles with fear. I visualise young men walking in with guns and terrorising all in the vicinity. But I hide this fear. I hope for the best. I keep walking. The second hand ticks and life moves on. I keep walking. Don’t know where to, but that doesn’t stop me. What will happen tomorrow can be dealt with when the time comes. I live for now. For today. For the moment. Smile. Smile for what is left because what is gone cannot be brought back. Smile, for there is still hope, because in all our happily ever afters good triumphs over evil. Darkness will descend but light will prevail.
Or maybe not.

Written after the 26/11 Mumbai attack.