Friday, May 20, 2011

Struggles to save a mountain

Here is a documentary on the Niyamgiri hills in Orissa where Vedanta is mining for Bauxite against the wishes of the people.

Sunita Narain has rightly said that the anti-Vedanta movement here, is not spearheaded by urban green lobbies, but by indigenous people who are willing to lay down their lives to preserve their livelihood and the mountain - that they see as their God. Can people with bows and arrows, take on this British company that has blessings of the state government? For the record, central environment ministry has in August 2010 cancelled the environmental clearance given to the $1.7 billion bauxite mining project. But who knows if the ministry will reverse the decision, as it did in the case of POSCO.

p.s. Cannot follow the language in the documentary entirely, because it is not mainstream Oriya. But became sentimental listening to my mother tongue! Barring the completely unnecessary background score in English towards the end, it is a fairly decent introduction to the resistance of the tribals to the mining company.

There was more trouble for Vedanta earlier this month, when there was a red mud-spill at the Lanjigarh Alumina refinery. Some villagers caught the spill pouring into a pond on their mobile phones. Here is a video clip.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Are people and companies the same?

The Economist's Schumpeter column analyzes if corporates and people should have the same rights and obligations. Me thinks, it is a bad idea.

You can read it here:
Peculiar people
How far should one push the idea that companies have the same rights as ordinary people?

Amusing that the corporation behaves like a psychopath, with callous disregard for others, the article says quoting a film by the same name!

Taking this argument to India, the Tata's would insist on privacy! And Dow Chemicals USA will continue to defend that it was technically not present in India during the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984. But that's the thing. It can cut both ways.

The article raises these relevant concerns: "Aren’t they likely to use their collective muscle to trample over the little people? And won’t they invoke the rights of ordinary people without burdening themselves with the responsibilities?"
And of course, mighty corporations can have personal political affiliations that can directly counter interests of the people. We surely know the direction that governments will take, when faced with huge Goldman Sachsesque contributions as against our friend John Smith who teaches in a school.

Friday, March 11, 2011

No right to life?

People fighting for the rights of the excluded, seem to have no right to life of their own.

The murder of Niyamat Ansari, an activist for the National Rural Employment Guarantee program, who helped labourers file applications related to right to information, right to work, is another failure of the state of Jharkhand. He was also working on the right to food campaign.

This only adds to the long list of contemporary unsung Indians who are giving up life to restore institutions and people’s right to good governance.

Tehelka had a column in late February on the dangers of doing good in India. It takes off from Binayak Sen. I quote journalist Shoma Chaudhary, the author of this article:

“Doing one’s duty is no longer an imperative in India. Nothing governs us as a society now except the miracle of individual choice. We are secured by the fact that some people choose to be good, no matter what. But there are myriad dangers in that. There is not just the might of the State to confront. There is also the temptation at every turn to just give up, part the skin and slip over into the silken side where one half of India is living a charmed life. If you don’t fight the ugliness of the State, it will behave in benign ways with you. That is one of the hardest lessons being good in India teaches you.”

A whistleblower in Russia

In the age of Assange, whistle blowers are in vogue.

The Guardian had a story on Russian blogger Alexey Navalny and his efforts to jail the corrupt!

The article describes him as "Russia's chief whistleblower – a one-man WikiLeaks" who has made a career of going after Russia's untouchables. He uses publicly available information - an audit report in this case to get after Transneft - the state pipeline monopoly. How cool is that!

The story concludes on his quote - "But Navalny says he has no fear. "Any person who undertakes independent action in Russia – in journalism, business, anything – takes on risk," he said. "I can understand they can do whatever they want, but that won't stop me."" May force be with him.

Technology and capitalism

The cover story in the Wired magazine this month, certainly made me sit up and take notice. Not that poor labor conditions for the manufacture of iPhones was new, the fact that the cult magazine gave it cover story status was something.

You can read it here:
1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?

People will not stop buying iPhones or numerous other products, they may not boycott Apple and other companies, but hopefully they will take notice. There is a great cost to our conveniences that somebody else far away, in another part of the world, is paying for.

Of course, many believe that 17 is a small number. But that there is a number at all is worrying.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why businesses buckle under pressure?

The Institute for Human Rights and Business has analyzed the decision of why internet service providers and telecom companies gave in to Mobarak's pressure too easily.

Seriously, why do companies have "to leave" before they "actually" have to leave? They seem all too powerful when dealing with customers and people in general, but where does the corporate bravado and muscle go when it comes to facing up to the State in the eye? Barring Google's stance in China, I can't recall too many instances. In this case, will the companies compensate Egyptians for plugging out services when they needed it the most? One can only shudder to think about families of victims of police brutality struggling without communication services.

By turning up at Tahrir Square today, more than a million Egyptians, have stolen the thunder from the symbols of new media - namely twitter and facebook. A reporter on Al Jazeera rightly said, that tweets or no tweets this revolution has festered.

I really hope the winds of change blow in India too. To take back democracy from the people who have made a mockery of it. And this should not be limited to fighting for the murder of a model in the capital city.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Editorial: Access to justice for the poor

Poor justice
Harsh Sethi / January 19, 2011, 0:37 IST
Business Standard, India

It is somewhat intriguing that in the intense discussions about strategies to ensure inclusive growth and development, both our politicians and policymakers have consistently sidestepped, if not neglected, the problem of the numerous barriers to accessing basic legal services within the justice system. Despite our Constitution incorporating civil and political rights, and the directive principles underscoring respect for human rights and human dignity, it is uncontestable that in our laissez-faire system, justice, like any other commodity, is something that can be bought by those who can afford the cost. Abstract statements about “equality in and before law” cannot hide the ugly reality that the poor and the underprivileged are doubly penalised by our legal system — first on account of the costs of access, poor knowledge of the archaic court procedures, and so on, and because the legal system differentially favours those with greater resources and better social networks. No surprise, then, that in every scheme and programme, the poor feel that they are being squeezed out, often through the working of law. It is, thus, critical that all discussions of development must necessarily contend with the vexed questions of both equality before law and justice if we want to avoid the abuse of power and lawlessness that have become a part of the lot of the poor.

For too often the discussions about access to and equality before law have focused on supply-side constraints — the insufficiency of courts, judges and lawyers — as also procedural innovations to make the legal system cheaper, faster, more transparent and fair. Unfortunately, we have spent insufficient energy on understanding and deconstructing the relationships between law, justice and fairness, concepts that are deeply influenced by history, ideology and culture. In a multi-cultural and plural society such as India, with a multiplicity of legal cultures, with different social segments incorporating different notions of right and wrong, it is hardly surprising that judgments rarely produce any sense of satisfaction. Moreover, as Upendra Baxi so convincingly points out, improving access to law should not be conflated with access to justice. “Further, because law is not exhausted by adjudication and crucially entails law as legislation, implementation and enforcement, a primarily court-centric talk eludes a fine regard for considerations of political justice, that is, critical engagement with the impunity of holders of public power” (p. 75). Nothing exemplifies this better than the fate of riot victims or those displaced by development projects as they struggle to resume “normal” life in the face of continuous opposition from those who had victimised them, and this includes the state.

All of this has only become more vexed in the context of globalisation as now we have to contend with multiple national contexts and a (severely contested) body of international law. Remember Bhopal and the inability to bring the Union Carbide Corporation to justice.

The book under review, a product of the UNDP programme on Access to Justice, a subset of the work of its Democratic Governance Group, brings together a range of essays, both conceptual and empirical, on efforts to improve access to justice in the developing world. There is great merit to such collections, for not only do we learn that our situations and problems are not unique (arguments about Indian exceptionalism) but also because it becomes possible to learn from the experience of others. Most importantly, we learn that issues of law and justice cannot be left to the internal deliberations of lawyers and judges, and to courts, and need to involve other elements in civil society if we are to move towards a more fair and just system.

Of particular interest are the essays on access to justice in plural legal systems, more specifically the role of community justice systems (shades of our khap panchayats) as also communitarian and religious laws and how they undermine the rights and dignity of women (Hudood Ordinances in Pakistan). Equally instructive is the discussion on how public interest litigation or social action litigation, which India can claim as its contribution, has travelled to other countries as diverse as South Africa and Nigeria, and countries in Central and Eastern Europe. R Sudarshan’s overview of the evolution of legal understanding from our initial encounter with western law through colonialism, which resulted in an “individualisation without rights and bureaucratisation without the rule of law” as also the disjunction between state law and the role of non-state legal institutions, deserves a close reading. Equally, the discussion on the limits of both legal liberalism and legal radicalism, particularly in contemporary climes of neo-liberalism, proves once again that even as we may have normatively internalised the new language of human rights, larger economic and social processes continue to disempower the weak and the poor.

It is indeed unfortunate that despite a recognition of the centrality of law and legal processes, so much of our discussion of development choices seems oblivious to the rich literature produced by legal scholars. Equally, it is instructive that in none of our Planning Commissions have we ever thought it necessary to induct a jurist.

For a government never shy of claiming its orientation towards the aam admi, maybe this is a move that might help.

Perspectives on Accelerating Access
Edited by Ayesha Kidwai Dias and Gita Honwana Welch
Oxford University Press
xxii + 678 pages; Rs 895

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The killings of India's information warriors

This has been flagged by Tehelka before, but NYT continues its focus on India. The very prolific Lydia Polgreen narrates the death of an information activist - unfortunately a trend in India.

Read it here

How about some protection mandated by law for these information activists? Else, it becomes meaningless. These activists are laying down their lives to protect people from the tyranny of opacity within the country's borders. No recognition when they die. They are modern day soldiers, fighting enemies within. But they are too ill-equipped to counter armies of well-funded politician-businessman mafias. May force be with them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Peruvian villagers want more from Chinalco

FT: Peru village seeks better deal from China mine

This is a multimedia story from the FT.
"The Aluminium Corporation of China, or Chinalco, bought the mining rights for Toromocho, Peru, back in 2007. But as the FT's Andes correspondent Naomi Mapstone found out when she travelled to the mining community Morococha, located in the mountains of central Peru, not all the villagers feel their needs are being met."