Thursday, December 17, 2009

High time....

Getting business to care about civil rights

This is Sudeep Chakravarti's column in Mint.
He lists pointers for businesses as listed out by London's Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB)

Here they are: (excerpts from his column)

• Clarifying responsibilities “beyond borders”. IHRB says “pressure is mounting to lift the corporate veil”.

• Establishing universal criteria for operating in conflict zones. This will prove useful to control both violations of human rights by governments, and the contribution of business to wilfully, or inadvertently, add to, or perpetuate, violations.

• Developing standards for human rights due diligence.

• Protecting migrant workers—in global and local situations.

• Using corporate law to strengthen respect for human rights.

• “Addressing challenges relating to land acquisition and use.” This goes beyond the concept of Eminent Domain to “clearer understandings and good practices around principles such as free, prior and informed consent/consultation”.

China's south-north water diversion project

A blast from the past
By Jamil Anderlini
December 15 2009, Financial Times.

Here is a great story about the biggest construction project in China executed by The Party's top brass most of whom are engineers. It also talks about the rising discontent among the rural poor and the potential for rebellion. It beats me how thousands of people can be displaced to make way for an artificial snow park for the elite.

India had a similar bizarre project for diversion of rivers. Somehow sense prevailed on whoever it was in the water resources ministry. The plan has hopefully been shelved forever.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Power of a journo

I had the opportunity to speak with award-winning Philipino journalist Sheila S. Coronel about investigative reporting.

Read her interview here. This was a part of NYU's new media website.
Also: The Power of One

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's brewing in Iran?

Iran: The enemy within
By Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Roula Khalaf
Financial Times, December 11 2009

This article examines how the tide of protest has gone beyond Ahmadi-Nejad and is turning against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the Islamic Republic’s highest authority.

Friday, December 11, 2009

For the cause of judicial accountability


The following is a copy of the affidavit filed by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan in the contempt of court matter against him in the Supreme Court of India. He spoke out about judicial corruption and was slapped charges of contempt of court.

For The Record: Published in Outlook India
'My Honest And Bonafide Perception'

Poverty fuelling insurgency in India

Low rural poor count key to Maoist wave?

This Mint story links poverty is six states in India to Maoist insurgency in the region. The govt. of India knows that without addressing poverty and social sector spending in these areas, it cannot control Maoists and tribals.

Dangers of an ad-hoc foreign investment policy.

Foreign investment & Bhopal tragedy

Editorial by Manoj Pant, The Economic Times.

Here's an excerpt:

From the point of view of foreign investment, the first thing to remember is that in 1985 we were just opening up to foreign investment. At that time the foreign investment policy was largely ad hoc and guided by considerations of encouraging technology rather than equity flows. A well-defined policy only came in the industrial policy of 1993. The rather hasty attempts by the government in the ’80s to decide a compensation package and keep out the ‘ambulance chasers’ was probably guided by concerns of the impact on foreign investment. So keep the regulatory system weak. But is that wise?

The fact is that a weak regulatory system does not encourage foreign investment. Foreign investment is guided more by the transparency, clarity and certainty of a policy. This is why the US is still the primary destination of foreign investment. A weak regulatory environment only encourages what we now call ‘footlose’ investment: one that is guided by short-run considerations. The government response to the Bhopal tragedy may well have been the typical response of a developing nation to a big TNC. But it did nothing to encourage foreign investment.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

India's internal intolerance

Migrant workers’ protest turns violent, curfew in Ludhiana, Punjab. Indian Express. (This time, not in Thackeray's Bombay)

Indians are increasingly becoming intolerant of poor migrants. The country is no where close to become accommodating towards immigrants. So much for a 21st century emerging economy.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Land rights in Africa

Land Grab and Africa.
This short video was made for New York University. Special thanks to Dr Hamid Rashid, United Nations.

The Invisible Population

My slide show on the working class in New York City.

Music courtesy: Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring
From the album 6- And 12-String Guitar
By: Leo Kottke
Amazon Digital Services, Inc

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Globalized crackdown















Courtesy Pic: International Freedom of Expression eXchange

Journal article on how technology is helping the Iranian government to crackdown of Iranians outside Iran.

Iranian Crackdown Goes Global

This is precisely what the people who had featured in my video on Iran protests in NYC in September feared.

Excerpts from the story:
The post-election violence has turned Iran's relationship with overseas Iranians on its head. Previously, Iran generally enjoyed good relations with its diaspora. Most opposition movements were on the fringe -- for instance, royalists calling for the shah's return. But the violent suppression of street protests "showed people the true nature of Iran's regime," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

There are approximately four million Iranians abroad. The U.S. is home to the largest number, totaling at least several hundred thousand. They rank among the nation's best educated and most affluent immigrant groups.

To cut communication between Iranians inside and outside the country, Iran slowed Internet speeds so that accessing an online email account could take close to a half-hour. It blocked access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. For a while, an automated message warned people making international phone calls not to give information to outsiders.

Tracking Internet crimes -- from political dissent to pornography -- has long been a priority of the regime. Iran's local media openly report on Internet-monitoring centers inside the country's judiciary and armed forces that are staffed with English-speaking, tech-savvy young people.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

















Also read: Suketu Mehta in NYT
A Cloud Still Hangs Over Bhopal

Here's a brilliant piece but slightly dated now:
Warren Anderson’s silence: tracking down the man who presided over Bhopal
Kirk Nielsen, The Progressive Magazine, May 2006 Issue

Update: The great Bhopal whitewash
Business Standard, Dec 7

Bhopal 25 years on: Trapped in a wasteland
3 Dec 2009, The Economic Times, New Delhi
By Praveen S Thampi

BHOPAL: Shahnawaz Khan hasn’t heard of Dennis Kucinich. And it’s highly unlikely that the US Congressman — a candidate for the Democratic
nomination for President in the 2004 and 2008 elections — would have come across the name of the Bhopal lawyer. But together, they represent the story of this city, 25 years after the biggest industrial disaster in history.

In 1983, almost a year before Tank Number 610 at the Union Carbide factory leaked, spitting out 42 tonnes of the lethal methyl isocyanate into the air, Khan sent a legal notice to the management asking them to install fool-proof safety measures at the unit. “It had become impossible to sit in my office, which was just across the plant. My eyes would start burning, and the skin would constantly itch,” says Khan, now 58, and still practising in Bhopal.

On April 29, 1983, Union Carbide works manager J Mukund sent a reply to Khan, threatening legal action “to be defended at your risk and cost”.

On December 3, 1984, the disaster struck, killing thousands instantly, and compromising the health of a generation. The legal war that started afterwards to punish the culprits, compensate the victims, and remediate the environment has now taken a life of its own. Cases are still pending — from the courtroom of the Bhopal’s chief judicial magistrate to the Supreme Court to the US District Court in Manhattan.

In the latest, 24 US Congressmen, including Mr Kucinich, have written to Dow Chemicals — which later acquired the Union Carbide Corporation — asking the firm to heed the “polluter pays” principle and meet the demands of the survivors for medical and economic rehabilitation, besides cleaning up the ground water near the factory premises.

“Although Dow Chemicals set aside $2.2 billion in 2002 towards Union Carbide’s pending liabilities in the US, it has continued to evade the liabilities it inherited from Bhopal,” says the letter urging Dow to represent itself in the numerous court cases still pending in India.

Back in Bhopal, Abdul Jabbar Khan of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sansthan (BGPMUS) says it’s all about the social value of the victim. “If you are poor, then you better learn to live with it,” says Mr Jabbar, whose organisation imparts vocational training to gas-affected women, besides fighting their legal battles.

To this day, Dow maintains that Bhopal is a closed matter for the company post the controversial out-of-court settlement it struck with the government of India for $470 million in 1989. Babulal Gaur, Madhya Pradesh’s minister for the department of Bhopal gas tragedy relief and rehabilitation, told ET that he has grand plans to build a Hiroshima-like monument at the 80-odd acre factory compound for Rs 116 crore.

That’s around a third of the Rs 600 crore or so that the central government has distributed thus far among Bhopal’s 5,74,367 victims. The first cheque arrived in 1992 in the form of an interim relief of Rs 200 per month, three years after Dow deposited $470 million in its account.

Each cheque, regardless of when it was distributed, was pegged to the dollar-rupee exchange rate of 1989, when a dollar was quoting at Rs 15. By
2004, when the last cheque was issued, the exchange rate had gone up to Rs 45, but the cheques were locked to the Rs 15/$ rate.

A third of Mr Gaur’s planned Rs 116-crore kitty would have been enough to close another chapter of the tragedy: the remediation of the plant, and supply of safe drinking water to the 20,000 people living in the slums around the factory. The minister claims that the polluted ground water in the area is the result of a petroleum depot nearby, but a host of studies point to the presence of mercury, lead, chromium, chloroform, hexachlorocyclohexane, chlorobenzene and Sevin, most of them not known to originate from oil.

The studies differ only in their estimates of the percentage of the toxins present, and the state is finding succour in two reports — by the National Environmental Engineering Institute, Nagpur, and the Defence Research Labs in Gwalior. “Well, that’s progress in a perverse way,” says Mr Jabbar. “Till 2000, they were not even willing to accept that the site is a toxic dump.”

The 25th year of Bhopal will be marked in 16 countries on Thursday, including the US, where the former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson, who has been declared a fugitive by Indian courts, lives in retirement.

A fresh arrest warrant was issued against him in July 2009 by the Bhopal chief judicial magistrate, the latest in a series of such efforts. At Bhopal, no one’s waiting in anticipation. Not a single person has been convicted so far, 25 years after the tragedy, though there is no dearth of trials and charges.

Shahnawaz Khan says he went himself to depose to a special team from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) which was camping in Bhopal, a month after the tragedy. “They seemed the least interested,” he says. The CBI finally made him a witness in the case in 2002, 18 years after the first chargesheet was filed.

Meanwhile, life goes on in Bhopal, in and around the six “dedicated” hospitals that the state government has built for the gas victims out of an express fund
provided by the Union Carbide, prior to its acquisition. Civil society activists like Rechna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group of Information & Action say some 6,000 people visit these hospitals every day while Dr N Banerjee, who runs the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies in Bhopal, pegs that figure at around 3,500.

“We are all like foxes howling at the government and the bureaucracy, night after night. But they go on,” says BGPMUS’ Jabbar, lifting up his hand in desperation.

Ends.

p.s. The author is a former colleague.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mine free? No hope yet.

FT: Bush landmines policy stays

Excerpts:

“This administration under­took a policy review and we decided that our landmine policy remains in effect,” a state department spokesman said. “We determined that we would not be able to meet our national defence needs, nor our security commitments to our friends and allies, if we signed this convention.”

The Obama administration has also announced that it is attending a review conference in Colombia, known as the Cartagena summit on a mine-free world, as an observer – the first time the US has taken part in such a gathering.....

But campaigners respond that no “self-deactivating” mine is 100 per cent reliable and that such munitions do not discriminate between children and combatants. By refusing to accede to the convention, they say, Washington is encouraging more than 30 other hold-outs to persist in their stance.

Left and Right














FT:
Leaders of Iran and Brazil call for UN reform

The Guardian: Brazil and Iran must talk human rights
NYT: In Welcoming Iranian President, Chavez Blasts Israel

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Agro-imperialism


















Hello People!
Working on a short video on land grab. More on that later.
Just stumbled on to this: http://farmlandgrab.org/

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chinese dissidents barred from meeting Obama

FT: China moves to quell dissidents

Also check out the press release issued by Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)

As Obama Arrives in China, Police “Tuck away” Activists for Fear of Contact

Excerpts of the letter that CHRD sent to President Obama prior to his departure for Asia. Read the full letter here. It said Obama must urge the Chinese leaders to:

1. Immediately release those environmentalists and activists, some gravely ill, who have been incarcerated or made to “disappear” for exercising their freedoms of expression and political participation;

2.Stop punishing individuals for exercising their freedom of expression using Article 105 of the Criminal Code;

3.Provide a specific timetable for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998;

4. Amend the Criminal Procedure Law so that it protects the rights of the lawyers as stipulated in the newly-revised Lawyers Law;

5. And take concrete steps towards the abolition of the Re-education through Labor (RTL) system, which has been used to incarcerate activists, dissidents and religious adherents. The government has repeatedly promised to do so at the UN Human Rights Council and during human rights dialogues with the US and the EU.

Obama presses for Suu Kyi's release

Al Jazeera: Obama tells Myanmar to free Suu Kyi
I have blogged before about Suu Kyi's condition here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The War Within

Dispossessed tribes ready to wage war with the state

Business Standard, New Delhi Pg 1 headline on a Sunday morning.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cuban dissident blogger beaten up














Image courtesy: cubajournal.blogspot.com

WSJ: Beating Rattles Cuban Bloggers
Excerpts from the story:

Yoani Sánchez, Cuba's most prominent dissident blogger, is a 34 year-old whose poignant vignettes of daily life in Cuba -- and the resulting aggravations, humiliations and suffering -- have proved to be far more effective criticisms of the Castro regime than the bluster and bravado from Cuba's exile community in Miami.

Earlier this year, she won a top journalism prize from Columbia University but was barred by the government from traveling to New York to accept the award.

A decline in tourism revenues from the global recession and damage from several hurricanes last year have prompted the island's government to clamp down even harder on dissent and freedom of speech, according to a recent report by the Inter American Press Association, a watchdog group.

The group said Cuba currently has 26 journalists in jail, and it cited 102 incidents against Cuban journalists in the past year, including beatings, arbitrary arrests and death threats.

Monday, November 9, 2009

This is how close Dalai Lama is to the Tibet border


TAWANG, Arunachal Pradesh












News from Xinhua:
China voices firm opposition to Dalai Lama's visit to China-India border region

Times of India:
It's a big day for us: Dalai Lama

FT:
Dalai Lama defends his border visit

China Clean up ACT?














China denies resource raids as it pledges $10bn in loans to Africa

Barney Jopson of the FT reports from Sharm el-Sheikh
November 9 2009

Wen Jiabao, China's premier, has pledged $10bn in new low-cost loans to Africa over the next three years and defended China's engagement against accusations it is "plundering" the continent's oil and minerals....

Friday, November 6, 2009

Dissent By Hunger










A poet from Manipur (India) celebrates nine years of trying to kill herself
The Economist.

IROM CHANU SHARMILA, 37, a poet and aspirant suicide, was this week unable to attend a cultural festival held in her honour in Imphal, capital of India’s north-eastern state of Manipur. She was in hospital, being force-fed lentil soup through a tube inserted into her nose.

.....

On November 2nd 2000 the poet, known as the “Iron Lady”, embarked on a “fast unto death”—a threat respected as an act of protest in India, often used to great effect by Mohandas Gandhi. Yet Ms Sharmila’s case, like the wretched condition of Manipur, the most violent of seven troubled north-eastern states, is a national embarrassment.

Ms Sharmila began her protest in response to the killing of ten Manipuris by paramilitary troops. To end it, she demands the repeal of a draconian emergency law, the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), which has allowed the army to detain, and sometimes kill, north-easterners with impunity. In one possible indication of this, 286 of the 361 people killed in Manipur’s conflict this year were officially reckoned to be militants—a remarkably high number. Only 13 belonged to the security forces. Overall, this death toll makes little Manipur, home to 2.5m people and around 30 ethnically based insurgent groups, India’s most war-ravaged state, deadlier even than better-known Kashmir...

Public works never got so exciting













The rural employment wave across India:
Right to work: Seek and thou shall receive!

India’s grand experiment with public works enjoys a moment in the sun

An article in The Economist.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Letter to the Prime Minister of India: Ministry for development?














Image at Treehugger

To the PM, on Maoists
TK Arun

5 Nov 2009, The Economic Times

Dear Dr Manmohan Singh, You have identified the Maoists as India’s single most vital internal security challenge. And you have called for a nuanced approach for tackling the Maoists, given the potential for multidimensional collateral damage of a strategy that relies solely on the force of arms. Senior colleagues within the Congress party, including general secretaries Digvijay Singh and Rahul Gandhi, have articulated similar sentiments. Yet, the government’s operative policy on Maoists would appear to be combat, led by the ministry of home.

I suggest, Sir, that this failure to reflect the nuanced understanding of the problem in the operative strategy stems, to a large part, from the limitations of the government’s administrative arrangement. The security apparatus is one silo within the government, the developmental machinery, another. So even when a problem requires both verticals to work together, the normal rules of business and entrenched administrative inertia make sure that they do not.

You have used the mechanism of groups of ministers, empowered or otherwise, to get ministries to coordinate. Actually, only the ministers coordinate, while in committee. Their respective ministries go on as before, even if with a slightly altered mandate, thanks to an input from the group of ministers.

May I suggest a different strategy when it comes to tackling the Maoists? Create a new ministry of development and put Mr P Chidambaram, who heads the ministry of home, in charge of this ministry as well.

This new ministry is to be conceived quite differently from the present ministries of rural development, tribal development, etc. These latter ministries implement assorted schemes, each in its own narrow vertical. The ministry of development’s job should not be to implement yet another series of schemes, but to ensure that every single scheme and policy of the government has the desired development impact. Thus, it should have the mandate to ensure any policy proposed by the mining, commerce, agriculture, urban development, coal, steel, home, industry, roads, power or whatever ministry aids, rather than hinders, development.

But doesn’t this already happen, when the collective Cabinet clears notes prepared by individual ministries? Well, it clearly does not. The policy on Special Economic Zones did not have a clear-cut attendant policy to convert those who lose land to the new project into stakeholders in what comes up on their alienated land. Similarly, the current practice of allotting mining leases only helps create the likes of Madhu Koda and the Bellary brothers, not development of the people at large. It is entirely conceivable that a minister with perspicacity and perseverance would be able to vet all policy proposals and developmental schemes cleared by the Centre for its contribution to development, and insist on appropriate changes, if required.

A road ministry’s focus is on delivering roads, the power ministry’s on delivering power. For them, development is an ancillary goal, at best. If there is a separate ministry charged with development, its goal would be to pursue development, by modulating all policies of the government to this end. It could relate with state governments as well, on schemes that require central approval or assistance. Such a ministry could also take charge of projects like skill development, which cut across multiple ministries and the federal divide. This is the case for a new ministry of development.

Why choose Mr Chidambaram to head it? He already heads home, and leads the charge against the Maoists from a security point of view. If he also

has the mandate to tackle the development dimension of this challenge, he would modulate his combat strategy appropriately. This is the immediate rationale. But there is a more substantial reason.

Mr Chidambaram routinely dons, after putting on his white shirt and mundu in the morning, an air of patronising superiority. Yet he wins the grudging respect of even those who dislike this dress sense, with his competence, hard work, attention to detail and perseverance. We need precisely such a minister to deliver on development, liaising and negotiating with other ministries and state governments.

All this, of course, begs the question: what is development, what is it that the new ministry should seek to achieve?

Development should be understood as realising the creative potential of all individuals. Admittedly, this simple definition rests on much conceptual complexity. No one has any predetermined creative potential — it constantly expands, depending on the growth of the individual’s cognitive skills and the scale and manner of his interaction with nature and society. Conventionally, this is understood to mean that there should be more investment in education, healthcare, etc. In one of your recent speeches, you said as much. May I suggest, Sir, that such a formulation sees development as something that can and should be distributed by the government, perhaps with the aid of earnest voluntary organisations.

Development, however, cannot be dispensed, any more than democracy can be exported. It is a function and product of politics. People, particularly the deprived, must be mobilised to collectively demand their rights, secure them and thus be empowered as citizens. If mainstream political parties fail to empower them, but only seek to secure their silence, at best, by throwing them some crumbs, they will end up with the Maoists, who seek their empowerment in the overthrow of the present social order.

So the key task is political mobilisation of the deprived to realise their right to life, liberty and dignity. This can be done only by a political party — neither ministry nor an NGO can do this.

So, do I contradict myself, and negate the suggestion for a ministry of development? Not in the least. That ministry would ensure the wherewithal of political mobilisation in every sphere, such as the Forest Dwellers Act of 2008, of which you are justifiably proud. And political parties that appreciate that substantial emancipation can be achieved within the framework of a liberal democracy would use this wherewithal to mobilise the people to demand and secure their rights. An awakened, empowered people would become creative and transform the world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Statist Media in Iran?















Courtesy: Americans for Limited Government.

WSJ: Revolutionary Guards Extend Reach to Iran's Media
Planned News Agency Fits With Move to Dominate Accounts of Events; 'They Want to Control Public Opinion'

Also, Journal Opinion:
The President Snubs Iran's Democrats
Nuclear negotiations aren't worth this price.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

'What was govt doing for the last 60 years?'

















Q&A: Aruna Roy, Magsaysay award winner and activist

Development is the only way to tackle Naxalism, Magsaysay award winner and activist Aruna Roy tells Business Standard.

Excerpts:

What do you think about the use of Air Force against Naxalites in Chhattisgarh?
I am totally against it. I feel extremism is a result of failure of development. If the government does not address the issue in terms of development, it won’t be able to solve it. I have a suspicion that the government wants to clear the place for mining. What they do in the name of acting against Naxalism is to remove all opposition. People who are Gandhians are being prosecuted. Why did they put Binayak Sen in jail? He was not an extremist.

What are your views on Naxalites? Are they not opportunists who are depriving people of development for their survival?
I am not against Naxalites. I need to learn more about them. But in tribal areas, the choice for the people is between RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and Naxalites. If pushed to the wall, you do drastic things. In Chhattisgarh, how many tribals are making policy? In Jharkhand, the tribal chief minister has been cooped. When the state uses violent methods, it is unjustified. Besides, tell me, what was the government doing for the last 60 years and why did it all of a sudden wake up to Naxalites?

What is your view on terrorism?
The only solution is to make the system work, for which transparency is needed. There is failure of governance. Second, terror should not be pre-defined as a community. Judiciary should play a key role here. Violations of equality should be treated as violations of the Constitution or else there will be balkanisation of the country.

Ukraine Defies IMF Warnings













The IMF's Ukraine mission chief Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, left, chats with Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko
Image: Reuters

Wall Street Journal:
Kiev's deficit widens on social spending, IMF loan in jeopardy?
Ukraine Defies IMF Warnings

By JAMES MARSON in Kiev, Ukraine, and ALEXANDER KOLYANDR in London

Ukraine's president defied warnings of the International Monetary Fund and approved an increase in social spending that will balloon the government deficit. The move will likely lead to a suspension of IMF lending to one of Europe's most fragile economies.

In response, ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded its outlook for Ukraine, while the IMF president said he is "very worried" by Ukraine's decision, according to Reuters.

Ukraine's collision with the IMF comes amid jockeying among Ukraine politicians before presidential elections in January.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

BP faces record $87.4m US fine over Texas refinery











The image can be found at
Dawn.com

FT story:
The US government said as it issued a record $87.4m in proposed fines on the UK oil group BP since it still has "systemic safety" issues four years after an explosion at its Texas refinery killed 15 people and injured 170.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Podcast: Labor Politics in the Obama Administration

Joshua B Freeman talks about labor politics in the Obama administration and the role of immigrant workers in the future of New York City. Dr. Freeman is a professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

This is a podcast for New York University.

Mines and the Military in Congo













You can find the picture here: Developing world stories

Wanted to flag a journal article this morning:
For Congo's Military, a Mine of Difficulties
Sarah Childress reports:
"Human-rights advocates and mineral-industry groups say the military may now be trying to consolidate its own power over Congo's rich mineral mines, with little ability to improve conditions for the thousands of miners scraping a living from the trade. Some groups accusing the military of complicity in mining and trading so-called blood minerals -- those mined amid violence, sold to fund conflict, or both."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

UN to defend human rights in conflict zones











Nations join forces with UN to stamp out rights abuses in conflict zones

Leftists and left-outs: Jug Suraiya, Times of India

Everyday, the Indian State is losing headline space to Maoists. Will it adversely affect risks of investing in the country?

You can read the whole editorial by Jug Suraiya here in the Times of India here:

Excerpts:

"Prakash Karat (a left-wing leader) got it right when he said that the Indian Maoists, who are in virtual control of some 160 of the country's 600-odd districts, were not leftists. They're not. The so-called Maoists -- and the forgotten, marginalised and dispossessed people they claim to represent -- are left-outs: left out, deliberately or through sheer forgetfulness, of the purview of the Indian state. In that sense, they are stateless anarchists.".....

....."There is a fundamental mismatch not just of vocabulary but of perception. The government sees the police force as legitimate protectors of the state's legitimate rights to mineral deposits and other resources in Chhattisgarh (a state in India), or anywhere else; the killing of the four policemen is uncondonable, cold-blooded murder. In the Naxal (described as rebels) view, the government's exploitation of resources -- often after the forcible dispossession of small landowners who have no other source of livelihood and who do not believe they will in any way benefit from the activities of a government that over decades has neglected them -- is an act of violence which provokes counterviolence. Such a complete breakdown of communication, a total lack of common ground, can result only in murderous confrontation."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Old Style Unionism is not dead: FT Columnist
















Pic Courtesy: An Army Green American Apparel T with the Give Up logo

Unions need to focus on jobs of the future

By Michael Skapinker, FT, October 26, 09

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Climate Change Activism













Pic: Courtesy New York Times
Click here for a slideshow in NYT on climate change activists all over the world

Thousands gather for worldwide climate protests
(AFP) –

NEW YORK — From Asia to the Americas via Europe and the Middle East, activists around the planet have protested in an effort to mobilize public opinion against global warming 50 days ahead of a crucial UN climate summit.

Many of the thousands that gathered on the steps of Sydney's iconic Opera House to kick off the event waved placards bearing the logo 350, a figure scientists believe is the maximum parts per million of CO2 that the atmosphere can bear to avoid runaway global warming.

In New York's Times Square, a crowd of demonstrators gathered as giant screens beamed in images from around the world. Organizers told the activists that events had taken place in "more than 180 countries" at 5,200 events.

In France, politicians received a "wake up" call from several hundred Parisians who chose clocks as their symbol.

Protesters who met in a central square in Paris had set their alarm clocks and mobile phones set to ring at 12:18 pm (1018 GMT) in reference to the closing date of the UN summit in Copenhagen, which lasts from December 7-18.

The summit is considered crucial as world leaders will try to thrash out a new treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions in place of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

But senior officials from the United States and China, the world's two largest polluters, have warned the talks may fail.

There is growing concern that a treaty deal in Copenhagen could be hampered by issues that include US domestic politics and the problems of securing agreement between developed and developing countries.

In Berlin, some 350 protesters wearing masks with the face of German Chancellor Angela Merkel came together in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the city center.

In London, more than 600 people gathered beneath the London Eye Ferris wheel by the River Thames to arrange themselves into the shape of the number five, according to organisers Campaign against Climate Change.

An aerial photograph of the event will be added to pictures of a giant "three" and "zero" from around the world.

"Hundreds of thousands of people are taking part (globally) and for us that's so important, to have people out on the streets," campaign activist Abi Edgar told AFP. "We want serious action on climate change and we want it now."

Across the Thames, some 100 musicians playing trumpets, trombones, saxophones and clarinets gathered outside parliament to play the same note -- an F, made by the frequency of 350 Hz -- for 350 seconds, organizers said.

In the Lebanese capital Beirut hundreds of activists, many wearing snorkels, held demonstrations in key archaeological sites.

They gathered around the Roman ruins in central Beirut, in the ancient eastern city of Baalbek and along the coast, carrying placards bearing the 350 logo.

"It's not the first time Beirut will have gone under water," Wael Hmaidan of the IndyACT group organizing Beirut's protests told AFP, explaining the goggle-wearing, "but this time it's going down because of climate change, and not earthquakes."

Environmental activists in the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul staged their protest in a boat, unfurling a banner reading "Sun, wind, right now!" under the main bridge linking Asia and Europe over the Bosphorus Strait, Anatolia news agency reported.

They then sailed to the ancient Maiden's Tower, which sits on a tiny islet in the Bosphorus, and unfurled another banner reading "Jobs, climate, justice," the report said.

Events in Asia included demonstrators in Dhaka riding bicycles to highlight one way of cutting emissions.

In Jakarta, around 100 students from the London School of Public Relations gathered to form the symbolic number 350, coordinator Candy Tolosa said on Detik.com news website.

Naxalites and economic interests of the Indian state



More than one-fourth of India's 600 districts are under the control of Maoists. The government is trying to gain control of the mineral-rich states - an undeniable economic interest. Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy has called for unconditional talks with the Maoists. Here is a report based on her interview with a TV channel. (Why the anchors were advocating on behalf of the government, beats me)I stumbled upon this provocative headline in the Times of India.

What Muslims were to BJP, Maoists are to Congress: Arundhati Roy

Press Trust of India
October 25, 09

Supporting unconditional talks with the Maoists, Booker prize winner and activist Arundhati Roy has alleged that "economic interests" in mineral-rich states have driven the government and establishment to launch action against them.

"My fear is that because of this economic interest the government and establishment actually needs a war. It needs to militarise. For that it needs an enemy. And so in a way what the Muslims were to BJP, the Maoists are to Congress...," Roy said in an interview to a TV news channel.

When asked about the talks between the government and left wing extremists, she said, "There should be unconditional talks with the Maoists.

"If I was a person who is being dispossessed, whose wife has been raped, who is being pushed of their land and who is being faced with this 'police force', I would say that I am justified in taking up arms. If that is the only way I have to defend myself," she said when asked whether armed struggle was justified.

"We should stop thinking about who is justified...You have an army of very poor people being faced down by an army of rich that are corporate-backed. I am sorry but it is like that. So you can't extract morality from the heinous act of violence that each commits against the other," she said.

History of labor movement in New York City - NYT series


Read here: A series on the history of New York City's labor politics.

Joshua B. Freeman answers questions about the history of New York City’s unions, labor politics and changing work force. Dr. Freeman is a professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


Pic courtesy: Harrietsplace's reviews

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Employers Beware

















Employer Retaliation Claims Rise

According to this WSJ story reported by Cari Tuna: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that the claims including a retaliation charge rose 23% in the year ended Sept. 30, 2008, to 32,690 -- more than a third of all claims filed with the agency. Employers beware, for it seems retaliation is often easier to prove than discrimination, particularly since a 2006 Supreme Court decision adopted a broader definition of retaliation than some courts had used, as per the story.

p.s. Apologize that this story is slightly dated. Have been caught up with school.

At it again!



Pic: Symbol of the Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)




News reports say up to 90,000 auto workers in India have gone to strike in Delhi.
Report from the Journal.
According to the story:
Haryana the epicenter of the strike, just outside the capital, is a hub for the auto industry, with about 200 companies that account for 60% of the automotive and motorcycle parts made in India, according to industry organziation, Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rare Intervention?








Courtesy: Mining Journal


Home ministry puts off decision on Balco stake after Korba tragedy

Last month, a power-plant chimney being built at an aluminum-making unit of Vedanta Resources collapsed in the district of Korba in eastern India. This seems to have stalled the transaction between the Indian government and Vedanta. The Economic Times story above alludes to such a possibility.

Here's what had happened: Vedanta unit chimney collapse kills 20, police say

And subsequently: Chhattisgarh police question Chinese engineers in Balco mishap

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Obama prioritises Hu meeting over Dalai Lama


















No Time for the Dalai Lama: WSJ


Excerpts from the editorial:
In nearly nine months in office, President Obama has found time to meet with Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega and Vladimir Putin. But this week he won't see the Dalai Lama, a peaceful religious leader who has long been a friend to the U.S. and an advocate of human rights for China's six million Tibetans.....It's becoming clear that Mr. Obama's definition of "engagement" leaves plenty of room to meet with dictators, but less for those who challenge them.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pfizer lawsuit in Nigeria












Kano State v. Pfizer

(First published in The American Lawyer here)

On July 30 Pfizer Inc agreed to pay a Nigerian state $75 million to settle claims on behalf of dozens of children allegedly injured or killed during a clinical trial of a then-experimental drug.

The case was first filed in 2007 in Kano City, Nigeria. State officials alleged that, during a meningitis epidemic in 1996, the company tested the antibiotic Trovan (trovafloxacin mesylate) on 200 critically ill children without informed written consent from parents or approvals from government officials. Pfizer also administered a comparison drug, ceftriaxone, allegedly in insufficient doses. Some test subjects ended up brain damaged, paralyzed, or blind; 11 died. The state originally sought $5 billion.

Pfizer asserted in public statements that it had conducted the study with parental and governmental consent. The company has also said that the deaths and injuries were caused by meningitis, not its drugs. The company did not admit to or deny the allegations under the settlement, which establishes a $35 million trust for test participants, underwrites $30 million in health care initiatives in Kano, and covers $10 million in the state’s legal costs.

Pfizer’s Trovan problems are not over, however. Cases filed by Nigeria’s central government are pending. Also pending are two civil claims filed in the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act; one, filed in Connecticut, seeks $2 billion.

For plaintiff Kano State, Nigeria

In-House: Kano state attorney general and commissioner of justice Aliyu Umar.

SimmonsCooper Partners: Babatunde Irukera. (He is in Lagos, Nigeria.) Irukera was lead counsel and led settlement negotiations.

For plaintiffs Rabi Abdullahi et al.

Milberg: Peter Safirstein and associate Stephanie Hatzakos. The firm is spearheading an ATCA claim in New York.

For plaintiffs Ajudu Ismaila Adamu et al.

Altschuler & Altschuler: Donald Altschuler and Richard Altschuler. (They are in New Haven.) The firm is spearheading an ATCA claim in Connecticut.

Streamsowers & Köhn: Etigwe Uwa. (He is in Lagos, Nigeria.) Etigwe is cocounsel on the Connecticut claim.

For defendant Pfizer Inc (New York)

In-House: Senior vice president and associate general counsel Bradley Lerman and assistant general counsel Atiba Adams.

Williams & Connolly: Joseph Petrosinelli. (He is in Washington, D.C.) Petrosinelli was lead counsel in the Kano case.

Kaye Scholer: Steven Glickstein. (He is in New York.) Glickstein is handling the ATCA litigation.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom: Sheila Birnbaum. (She is in New York.) Birnbaum is handling the ATCA litigation.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges: Faith Gay and Kathleen Sullivan. (They are in New York.) The firm is advising on ATCA matters.

Madu, Edozie & Madu: John Edozie. (He is in New York.) Edozie helped defend mass torts at a previous firm.

Punuka Attorneys & Solicitors: Chief Anthony Idigbe. (He is in Lagos, Nigeria.)

India Inc.'s Labor Pains













Courtesy: Reuters blog

Read Business Standard's Shyamal Majumdar's column here about the murders of top-level management executives in India.

Update on October 5, 2009. Read Mint's series on lack of industrial safety in India.
Conspiracy of silence obscures numbers

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Air India Strike




Courtesy: Getty Images

Guinea and Bauxite













Photograph Courtesy: New York Times

Update: October 5, 2009

Mining groups victim to African uncertainty
By William MacNamara
Financial Times

A resurgence of antagonism between international mining companies and governments of some of Africa’s least developed countries is raising questions about the world’s future supply of industrial metals.

Under the jungles of countries such as Guinea, where rampaging soldiers killed 157 demonstrators last week, and Congo, struggling to recover from civil war, lie some of the richest unexploited mineral deposits. Yet exploiting those deposits poses problems that scare off most of the companies best able to develop them. Continued...


Report in the FT
.
A day after the rampage: NYT report.

Update: October 12:
China in push for resources in Guinea

Update: October 22, 2009
The Economist: Don't worry about killing people

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Protests outside the United Nations in New York




















































Was lucky to be here this morning.
Protests against Ahmadinejad in New York City.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Prisoner of conscience





Read an interview of Aung San Suu Kyi's international counsel Jared Genser of law firm DLA Piper. A story that I filed for The American Lawyer.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Queen of People Power












Courtesy: themountainsings.blogspot.com

Read the FT's contemplative article on whether Cory Aquino was an agent of social change for Philippines.

Microfinance and the financial crisis







Courtesy: The Global Development Research Center





SMALL LENDERS BEAT BIG CRISIS


I had originally done this story for a class assignment at NYU. Was carried in a new magazine on microfinance by the Financial Express.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Land grab overhaul: R & R




Check out the rehab. policy prescription by Jaideep Mishra in The Economic Times.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Price of Truth














Courtesy: johnfenzel.typepad.com

Yet another Russian activist dies. Natalya Estemirova of Russia's human rights organization Memorial, Chechnya's most outspoken human-rights activist was murdered last week. Read The Economist's moving story here.

Reproducing here a dated article in The Guardian that talks of murdered journalists.

When a journalist dies, we are all responsible


Harold Evans, March 2007

The price of truth has gone up grievously. We pay every week with the life of a reporter, a cameraman, a support worker.

Unless the life is that of a well-known Western correspondent, the world barely notices. Just four months after the horrific 2002 kidnapping and beheading of the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl, Tim Lopes of Globo TV suffered the identical fate without a similar outcry: he had been investigating drugs and under-age sex in a Rio de Janeiro slum.

The first shocking thing is just how many are dying. The International News Safety Institute, a coalition of media organisations, press freedom groups, unions and humanitarian campaigners, calculates that if we include all news media personnel - translators, fixers, office staff, drivers - no fewer than 1,000 have died in the last 10 years.

The second shocking thing is to learn how many of them were murdered, most of them local beat reporters whose names do not resonate in the media.

The majority of journalists' deaths are not bad luck. They are planned assassinations. They have been targeted, sought out for death at home for a very simple reason: they did their jobs of seeking the truth. Rarely do these local crimes attract international attention.

The sensational murder in Moscow of Anna Politkovskaya, investigator of abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya, provoked international outrage, but most of the journalists die in anonymity.

And the price of murder has gone down. Almost eight out of 10 of the killers have never been investigated, let alone prosecuted, convicted and punished.

What can be done? The cause is not hopeless. Ireland set an example. Following the outcry in 1996 over the killing of Veronica Guerin, the government devised new laws to indict the leaders of the gang who organised her murder.

In 2005 Mexico's President Vicente Fox responded to protests by appointing a special prosecutor to investigate violence against journalists. Brazil convicted the killer of Tim Lopes on a five to four jury vote and he was sentenced to 28 and a half years in prison.

All those states that concede immunity to the wrongdoers live in the real world. They expect to be taken seriously; they ask for aid and protection for their citizens abroad. They are beneficiaries of trade agreements, of support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and UN aid organisations.

They value their membership of the United Nations. The UN should have a central register of unsolved crimes against members of the media, but the UN itself cannot be left to follow through. A journalist who works for a daily newspaper in Iran testifies that UN organisations 'are too conservative; they don't want to confront the government. They say the government is sensitive'.

The very fact a government is sensitive is, of course, the point. The nerve should be pressed hard. Effectively that will have to be done by individual states and NGOs. They must start holding immunity states responsible for their negligence and, in many cases, complicity. Any state that consistently fails to investigate and prosecute murder and violence against media personnel should forfeit access, privileges and aid. By the same token, these 'iniquity states' should face a persistent international campaign of publicity - not once a year, but every time they acquiesce or sanction the murder of a journalist.

There are two purposes here. One is to hold them up to shame. The other purpose of relentlessly focusing attention on what happens after a killing is to sustain the brave protesters, to mark out their lives as significant. Memo to every news editor: report and follow up.

This brings me to the final point: the paramount importance of how the press justifies its freedom. Protest is required, but performance is key. Ethan Bronner, deputy foreign editor of the New York Times, had it right when he said: 'Journalists have to make it clear they matter by raising the standards of their work.' It is our principal defence in sustaining public support.

We in the press need to ask why - despite the sacrifices and courage - public opinion polls in many places go along with the judgment of the maverick Senator Alan Simpson that the media enjoys a reputation 'lower than quail crap'.

On World Press Freedom Day this May, we should remind the critics, but also ourselves, of the sacrifices represented by the 1,700 journalists whose names are inscribed on the Freedom Forum memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

We should honour them by resolve and rebuke. By the resolve to keep faith ourselves with their best aspirations, and to be forthright in rebuking those who carelessly and ceaselessly do not. Every time a reporter anywhere slants the facts, writes a story to fit his preconception, allows the unclouded face of truth to suffer, he betrays Guerin as surely as she was betrayed by her society.

Every time a journalist anywhere foments factional hatred, he shames the memory of Abdi Ipekci, editor-in-chief of Milliyet, then Turkey's most influential newspaper. He was the first victim of Mehmet Ali Agca, who is currently seeking parole after attempting to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981.

Every time a news organisation puts excessive profit before excellence - is 20 per cent not enough? - it betrays all the names on the memorial. Every time a photographer grossly exploits private grief, he betrays the families of all the victims. Every time a journalist in America abuses the first amendment, he betrays all those around the world who have to struggle for half the freedom. Every time a news organisation closes its eyes to the world - and I think of the television networks shutting so many bureaux - it betrays those who gave their lives in the course of letting us see.

· Sir Harold Evans was editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981. He has written various books on history and journalism. Since 2001, Evans has served as editor-at-large of the Week magazine and is a contributor to the Guardian and BBC Radio 4. The INSI report - Killing the Messenger: the deadly price of news - was published on 6 March and is available from newssafety.com.

The brave

Sander Thoenes
Age: 30 Job: Reporter

Dutch FT reporter Thoenes was murdered in East Timor in September 1999, probably by Indonesian soldiers.

Tim Lopes
Age: 51 Job: TV reporter

Lopes, a Brazilian , was tortured, executed and set on fire in June 2002 in Rio. He was working undercover.

Anna Plitkovskaya
Age: 48 Job: Reporter

Politkovskaya was found shot dead in 2006. She was critical of the Russian authorities and the Chechen conflict.

Samir Kassir
Age: 45 Job: Columnist

Kassir, a staunch opponent of Syria's hegemony in Lebanon, was killed in Beirut in June 2005 by a car bomb.

Deida Hydara
Age: 58 Job: Reporter

Hydara, a prominent Gambian journalist, was shot in December 2004. He was sharply critical of a tough new press law passed that month.

Daniel Pearl
Age: 38 Job: Bureau chief

Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, was abducted in Karachi, Pakistan, in January 2002. He was murdered shortly afterwards.

Martin Adler
Age: 47 Job: Cameraman

Adler, a Swede, was shot in the back and killed at a rally in south Mogadishu, Somalia, in June 2006.

Veronica Guerin
Age: 36 Job: Reporter

Irish journalist Guerin was shot in Dublin in June 1996. She received death threats after covering drug deals.

Martin O'Hagan
Age: 51 Job: Reporter

O'Hagan, who worked for the Sunday World, was shot by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland in September 2001.

Paul Klebnikov
Age: 41 Job: Editor

Klebnikov, editor-in-chief of Forbes's Russian edition, was shot in July 2004. He had written stories on corruption.

Waldemar Milewicz
Age: 47 Job: TV Reporter

Polish film-maker Milewicz was killed along with his colleague Mounir Bouamrane in a drive-by shooting south of Baghdad in May 2004.

Hrant Dink
Age: 53 Job: Editor

Dink was shot in Istanbul in January this year. He campaigned for Armenian rights and founded Argos, a newspaper for Turkish Armenians.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In Intel we antitrust



Courtesy: ZDNet








Funny That!

Intel Cites Human Rights In EU Fight On Antitrust
Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Strategizing dissent




Read The New Yorker's profile of Hu Shuli, who heads Caijing. Story of a Chinese magazine's attempts to push boundaries of dissent and reform. (Have linked to the summary of this article, cannot hyperlink the whole story.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Green Protest: India dismisses emission target cuts



Courtesy: AP

I hate to say but this sounds like just another media opportunity. Most Indian scribes like Jairam Ramesh (have I spoken too soon?!). The minister for environment in the new government grabbed headlines across India in his protest to Hillary Clinton about a cut in emission targets. He also made a Page 1 splash across the Journal and the FT. I was pleasantly amused when I woke up this morning. For one, that he made this protest at this ultra-media event (it is one of the Clintons for God sake!), two that as an environment minister he has made his presence felt. One has seen several Rajasthani women dressed in colorful clothes to greet American leaders. Year after year newspapers carry the same photograph. So this was certainly a welcome change. To be fair, environment is just about getting mainstream in Indian newsrooms. At least that is the hope. (Environment was an unsexy beat for most business newspapers) Besides when was the last time an environment minister was taken seriously? Do people even know who the environment minister was in the previous UPA government? I hope Paryavaran Bhawan where the environment ministry is located gets a face lift after this.

Read a brief Mint article here on India's indecisiveness on environmental negotiations and the game theory in this context.

Comment by Neha Kohli, former environment reporter.

'Climate Change' has indeed shed light on environmental issues. The media should take this opportunity to highlight environmental and environmental related social injustice of the past that continue to plague India and that have not been covered by the media extensively. Also this needs to be seen in new light - the MoEF needs to be scrutinized and its role strengthened while building constructive capacity (that does not sell out to industry) such that all policy decisions by the center especially infrastructural related projects be properly assessed and in consultation with the ministry. Also there musn't be any exceptions to the rule - Mumbai has been an exception to the CRZ and most decisions on most developments in the city are taken on the basis of the need for business establishments. Compromises on the ecology of Mumbai have created vulnerable zones that have to bear the brunt of floods. This particular case of Mumbai demonstrates industrial development increasing the vulnerability of coastal cities which may already be vulnerable to climate related risks such as floods. Reducing the vulnerability by incorporating proper ecological assessments before undertaking any activity would qualify as adaptation to climate change. Of course changes in global climate are also to a certain extent attributed to human induced activities - taking care of this would qualify as climate change mitigation. I think it is also important that the media have proper knowledge of the terminologies in climate change literature (such as climate change even!). Often words are misused. The linkages between climate change and development also must properly be studied. There is a school of thought that change in climate and climate variability has been something people/ villagers have dealt with for centuries - that they have known how to adapt to variability in rainfall, for example and that the new methods of green revolution have left them clueless on that front. Perhaps some look into this issue is also important as there are many out there (such as tribals in island ecology) who continue to live in traditional set ups - perhaps they should be left alone?! The negotiations - all this talk about targets is a mitigation issue. We need to address the whole picture as well.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Blogger, Interrupted: IRAN.

Read the story of Iranians blogging in the face of government crackdown. This blog has granular data about the type of bloggers and their activity over the two months.

Internet & Democracy Blog

Check out this Many Eyes Visualization about the hashtags from twitter about Iranian elections:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

From Heaven's Lake



Courtesy: AP

One of the 56 ethnic groups in China. I first learnt about Uighur Muslims from Vikram Seth's book 'From Heaves Lake'.

Update: July 18th - Financial Times story
How China polices the internet

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

People’s movements and democratic processes














A CONVERSATION WITH NIKHIL DEY, MAZDOOR KISAN SHAKTI SANGATHAN (MKSS)

(You can read a shorter version of this in my story for The Economic Times.)

People’s movements and democratic processes
(Organized by Center for Culture, City University of New York – 12 May 2009)


When Nikhil Dey dropped out of the final year of his undergraduate degree at the George Mason University in the late 1980s, his parents, were far from happy. Although he cannot justify the decision, he does not entirely regret it. At a time when his father was posted at the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C., he felt he knew more about ordinary US citizens than he did about fellow Indians. He chose a curious path for himself. Dey joined Aruna Roy and Shanker Singh in Devdungri, a tiny village in Rajasthan in 1987.

Along with many others, the three of them became the founding members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in 1990; a workers’ and peasants organization. MKSS linked the Right to Information (RTI) to survival and livelihood to bring about transparency in the functioning of the government. From its small beginnings, in the MKSS area, the struggle grew into a widespread campaign that culminated in the passage of the Right to Information Act in 2005. Singh, noted for his engagement in peoples’ politics through street theatre, song and puppetry has brought issues of poverty and democratic governance to the people for more than two decades.

There were many points , when this was a lonely struggle, Dey recalls. People laughed at them because they were fighting for change against seemingly impossible odds. At the time when they started, there had been a drought for 7 years. When the team decided that they would not seek institutional funding, many people, including some of their friends thought that this model would be unsustainable. (Note that, MKSS has no office bearers.)

Everything had to be defined through the people, who had come together to fight the injustices meted out to them. The villagers, he said are very astute politically. The first problem was the practical irony and difficulty in seeking justice from the very people who had denied the people justice, namely the administration.

The group conducted two hunger strikes on minimum wages. For 10-12 days MKSS workers had gone without food. But much to their consternation, this only energized public officials and the government because they had nothing to lose. They realized that these paradigms may not work.

The people wanted documents to be used as weapons - it was such a powerful notion. They wanted to know why injustice was meted out to them. Bills, vouchers and workers lists of public works showed information about people who did not exist going to work, including those who had died but were shown as drawing wages. Public officials who had held a high moral ground could now be questioned.

This information was placed before the people in public hearings. The idea arose that these documents could be read. That created drama and a “hungama”. Many people boycotted public hearings. Those that went into hiding had to eventually come out. “Public audits have a straight demand. Ethics are crucial to Indian politics,” Dey says.

In the course of time, there were several slogans coined by the group. “You cannot have an alien form of communication to mobilize people, you will have to use their language and their symbols and to be a part of their lifestyle to forge any change,” Dey says.

The first slogan was the realization that it was not government money, but “My Money, My Wage.” This put in place the question of accountability. Why were people being denied wages and where did that money go? Another was “Humara Paisa, Humara Hisaab” – the accountability for our money. The next one was equating the right to know with the right to life. Hum Jaanegey, Hum Jeeyengey – the right to full and open information. “Yeh Paisa Humare Aapka, Nahi kisi ke Baap ka, Yeh Desh Humare Aapka, Naho Kisi ke Baap Ka.” (This is our money, our country, not somebody’s father’s!)

The slogans pointed to the changing relationship with the state. There was a conceptual change in approach. The vote was seen as a share in governance and power - the fact that the citizen can exercise their sovereign rights over the democratic system.

The ideology of MKSS is not defined by language, as much as through action Dey maintains. “Call it Marxist, Gandhian or Democratic, the language is people’s language, defined by them.” Collective action makes things possible, he says.

The group conducted a major dharna for 40 days where people who were dependent on daily wages sacrificed their pay for more than a month to spread the message of the Right to Information. They organized a sit-in in the middle of a market place in a place called Beawar in Rajasthan. Over a period of time, it reached out to the country. Activists and journalists from across India poured in to see it firsthand. It took the shape of a national campaign. In order to draft the legislation, the group needed to reach out to other campaigns across the country, it needed legal expertise to draft the law. An ex-Supreme Court judge P B Sawant who was also the chairperson of the press council did the major ground work. The campaign also tapped into a larger collective of students, media and others.

It was important for MKSS to forge connections because they found in the course of a struggle for land, that feudal landlords and rich farmers often dug up connections deep enough to go all the way to the Union Cabinet to push their case. It was then that the members decided to use their connections in political parties, bureaucracy and the media. You needed trade unions and mainstream political parties to push the legislation in the Parliament. “It has been a long journey,” Dey says.

IMPACT OF THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT

He narrated the example of a Dalit boy who sought information about how the Sarpanch (head) of the village, had spent public money meant for major repair works for the school building. The boy suspected that the Sarpanch had merely painted the building without undertaking major repairs and instead pocketed the money. So he put in a Right to Information application. In one stroke the power relationship between the Dalit student and the upper caste Sarpanch was altered. The Sarpanch threatened suicide and pleaded for the application to be withdrawn, but the boy stood resolute. By raising one question, he had brought duty upon the Sarpanch to answer it. That was a strong message. Everyone in the village knew that Sarpanch had reasons to hide the information.

There are people who have wielded this weapon of Right to Information effectively, sometimes putting in two or more RTI applications per week. Public officials have been sent to jail for messing up the state-subsidized Public Distribution System (PDS) of food, officials from the electricity department have been taken to task for not ensuring regular power supply or electrification of villages, among other such examples. Officials who stole tractors were impounded and sent to jail. Powerful government servants who misused SC/ST records were brought to book.

The colonial system of keeping records is one bureaucratic responsibility that the RTI campaign turned on its head. What was once used by the masters to meet their own needs, has now become a powerful tool for the people. The paper trail is strong. Numerous experts have logged into the RTI to unearth details about genetically modified crops, pollution control, SEZs, agrarian crisis among other issues, he says.

Dey discussed an interesting anecdote about the World Bank and the Delhi Water Supply. For some reason PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), was always awarded the contract to be appointed as a consultant for advising the Delhi government on water supply. Under the open bidding process, PwC failed to win it several times, even after tweaking the conditions in order to make it amenable for the audit company. Information revealed on the basis of an RTI application to the Delhi government revealed inconsistencies in the way PwC was appointed each time. The World Bank had a ready template to solve Delhi’s water problems: privatization, It was quick to deny discrepancies in the way the consultant was appointed. Further, when confronted with tough activists who wanted to scrutinize all Bank documents concerning Delhi Water supply, top officials of the bank refused to divulge information citing worldwide disclosure norms that it had to follow. These norms were far from being transparent, Dey says.

The RTI act makes it important for the officials to respond to the query in 30 days, else they stand to be fined. Dey notes, that it is the officials now, who are eager to dispense with the information before the 30 day period is over! At the same time, many have destroyed official records. (This now attracts a penalty.)

Activists at MKSS have had to go back to the grassroots to see how the law was being implemented. They have to constantly work the nuts and bolts of the system, help people file a RTI application, open a bank account, follow up with why compensation was denied.

A large part of the dialectic is to repose faith in volunteers. “If we do not acknowledge it to ourselves, we will be weakening ourselves considerably,” he says. “We have to keep at it day after day”. RTI activists are frustrated when errant officials are not penalized.

Over the years, activists have been beaten, killed and have faced innumerable dangers. Last year, an activist, Lalit Kumar Mehta, was brutally murdered in Jharkhand. During social audits, Mehta exposed irregularities in the employment guarantee scheme in the Palamau district of the state. Mehta was closely associated with Jean Dreze, a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC), a body overseeing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

The State often uses means that are more sophisticated than using the gun. The first step is to pretend to concede space to demands and then close it altogether, Dey says. In Jhalawar, the former CM’s district in Rajasthan, they attacked different teams from the MKSS simultaneously. In other parts of India the chances of finding a support group like the MKSS may not be easy, he says.

Referring to Binayak Sen, the doctor and human rights’ activist who was imprisoned in Chattisgarh under draconian state laws, for his alleged links with Maoists, Dey says, “The State wants Binayak Sen to become a symbol for the middle classes – an example to show that even if you are seen a Mao sympathizer, this is the justice which will be meted out to you.” Sen was released on bail recently after being held for 2 years.

If there is a regime change in the elections, it can be a litmus test for the RTI campaign, Dey says. “RTI is a genie that is out of the bottle. There is some degree of momentum and immunity that this people’s movement has gained that should even withstand regime change,” he says.

Time and again, people have demanded the right to know. It is a kind of passion to overcome injustice, when they have nothing else at stake but to question. “The vanguard of this change has been the poor. They have changed the discourse. The poor get on to the streets unlike the middle classes who keep debating issues from the comforts of their living rooms,” he says.

The RTI act was threatened with crippling amendments, and when it dawned on us that the Establishment that the law was actually being used

The larger question is can the Right to Information law also make the private sector accountable? There is a provision under Section 2F in the RTI act that enables any citizen to ask the government to get information from private companies that come under the jurisdiction of any other kind of a law including the Industrial Disputes Act, the Companies Law, the Pollution Control Act, Medical Practices Act. After all, we need a powerful State, to say fight a powerful corporation.

More significant than most other development is that of the Goa state government revoking the SEZ act, according to Dey. This has gone on to show that there are democratic spaces within the current system however faulty. A single state government can count and make a difference. Initially trade minister Kamal Nath had maintained no state can renege of the SEZ Act. Goa is interesting because of its non-peasant population unlike most other Indian states. “I think it is a far more powerful message than even Nandigram,” Dey says.

THE NATIONAL RURAL EMPLOYMENT GUARANTEE ACT (NREGA)

“The premise that the State cannot withdraw from basic responsibilities was worth fighting for. We must get the State to reflect our aspirations.” The formulation of “demand” has taken various forms over the years. When the group demanded for food for work, it was received with skepticism. At a time when 70 million tons of food grains were rotting in government godowns (storage) in 2001, they demanded food for work. The then Chief Minister of Rajasthan had said resignedly that the reports of starvation deaths will continue in a country as poor as India unless there is an employment guarantee act.

When the Hindu right wing party BJP, was distributing weapons including tridents called “Trishul” in Hindi, in the hope of polarizing the Hindu majority state of Rajasthan along communal lines, MKSS came up with the following formulation: Talwar Nahi, Trishul Nahi, Har Haath ko Kaam do. (Don’t give us swords or tridents, give us work.)

These are basic issues at stake here. “This is no big philosophical question. These issues are so real that you cannot debate it. It’s a question of getting that Rs 100 for wages. In that reality it is a struggle to get that Rs 100 by organizing and demonstrating,” Dey says.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that came into force in 2005 provides a legal guarantee for 100 days of employment every fiscal year to rural adults willing to do public work-related unskilled manual work at the statutory minimum wage. Under the Act, any rural citizen can demand work within 5 kilometers, and if they don’t get work,they can demand an unemployment allowance. (This is a country where unorganized labor has had little State support). Nearly 7 million people got work under the scheme, more than $1.5 billion has been spent in Rajasthan under this scheme alone, Dey says. In Rajasthan, despite having a government different from the Centre, the money came on time. More than 5 million bank accounts were opened, and 70% of the workers were women.

It is interesting that during the recent elections, it was difficult to find workers, because many of them were at NREG worksites! It is a huge opportunity for the rural working class. There definitely have been some gains made. It has stemmed the migration from the rural areas to the cities. Rich farmers, on the other hand in Punjab have complained about not enough migrant labor from Bihar.

As a result the cost of labor in the rural areas have increased, because people now have a choice between minimum wages guaranteed by the government and those offered by rich farmers to work on their land holdings. The financial crisis would have hit the rural Indian much harder without NREG. “Markets are full, people are buying things, it is relatively better. The macro effect of the NREG on the economy is undeniable,” he says. (Though a few economists gracing pink papers disagree. The scheme is predictably plagued with issues of implementation bottlenecks and corruption.) However, the NREG is politically attractive. No one can speak against it in public, he maintains. “There is an international debate around the NREG, even as a powerful international lobby supports direct cash transfers.”

Conditional Cash Transfers based on the model in Latin America is a populist one but it will simply not work in a country like India. It will put power back into those who will dispense this cash for the people, Dey feels.

FUTURE OF MKSS AND THE ROLE OF CIVIL SOCIETY

Those in the MKSS interested in electoral politics have to soon determine, if they want to work to form themselves political party. “It is a difficult decision that needs to be made sooner than later. Conventional people’s politics may not work. We can’t escape electoral politics. (The Gram Sabha is the purest form of direct democracy, he feels). A civil society cannot encompass everything. It is an amorphous definition. All kinds of people can claim to represent the civil society – including the right wing RSS! Political parties have stopped organizing on peoples issues and requiring the rank and file to work on such issues. The spaces of democratic politics, outside elections have been left to be filled by groups such as the MKSS,” Dey says.

There is plurality in method and action since we are a diverse society. MKSS would never have succeeded on its own if it had not reached out to other movements. We have the same binding Constitutional/legal framework, and although our approach may be different, it will be possible for us to work together to become a voice of subaltern resistance, he says.