Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Startup Ripoff!!

Late Capitalism has made it a speciality of going from one scam to another to sustain itself. It all began with the bursting of the dotcom bubble that ushered in the new millennium followed by the subprime loan catastrophe less than a decade later and now we have the startup ripoff which too is bound to bite the dust sooner or later. Companies that use software that can aggregate demand for products and services and link them to suppliers who are similarly aggregated, the whole process being facilitated by online payment systems, have become the toast of the global financial institutions and high net worth individuals. These latter are lavishly funding these companies basing their investments on the number of people using their websites regardless of the fact that in most cases these companies are running up huge operative losses.  The revenues they are earning are miniscule compared to their operating costs partly because of huge salaries that they are paying to the management staff and the deep discounts being offered on purchases. Instead of the standard metric of profit earned, a new metric called Gross Merchandise Value or the value of the total sales on the website is being used to value the company. Here is an analysis by a friend of mine of a set of companies which claim to provide customers with the services of doctors that will make clear the extent to which this is the latest con game in capitalist development.  
A company named Practo, in India, has raised $124 million over 3 rounds of investments as an aggregator of the services of doctors. Their recent investment of $90 million values the company at $525 million. Is this valuation justified. How useful is the service to users and how is it making money? To understand this let us study similar U.S. companies Zocdoc and Vitals on whose model Practo is based.
Zocdoc raised $223 million over 4 rounds of funding from reputed investors like Khosla Ventures, Goldman Sachs and Founders Fund. During its latest round of funding they were valued at $1.8 billion. To understand their application a simple test case was executed. A search was given for an orthopaedic doctor near Newport Beach, California in both Zocdoc and in Vitals. Dr. Assad M Moheimani was listed in both the websites. 
Zocdoc contained 9 reviews of Dr. Assad and gave him 5 stars. Interestingly some of the reviews do not have any date and they are not listed in any order. 2014 review is listed before 2012, which is listed before 2015. Vitals contained 7 patient reviews of Dr. Assad and gives him 2.5 stars based on 19 ratings and 7 reviews. The reviews were listed in reverse chronological order (the latest review is dated May 29, 2014 and the earliest review is dated Jan 14, 2011). Additionally, you could apply filters like Board Certified, Quality of School Attended, Years of Experience etc. to find a doctor in Vitals. Vitals has raised $86.32 million over 5 rounds of funding. In its latest round of funding (D round), Goldman Sachs has invested $41 million in the company. Goldman Sachs invested $75 million in the C round in Zocdoc along with another partner. So it appears that Goldman Sachs is betting on both the horses. The Vitals healthcare portal are as much crooks like Zocdoc. Doctor Paul S. Lee gets a rating of 4.5 on Vitals based on 90 patient reviews and 753 patient ratings. His rating on Zocdoc is 5 and on Patient Fusion is 4.5 based on 287 reviews. So how did Vitals give Dr. Paul S. Lee a rating of 4.5 stars based on 90 reviews. It incorporated 88 anonymous reviews from Patient Fusion in the score. How could Vitals incorporate ratings from Patient Fusion? And why would Vitals incorporate ratings from Patient Fusion? Patientfusion was incorporated in 2010 but it has not taken any investment till date. Further Patientfusion is owned by Practisefusion. What is going on here? PatientFusion is free for doctors and patients. Then how are they making money. It appears that PatientFusion is a front end to generate rankings that Vitals can incorporate into their website. So they don't have to face uncomfortable questions about how they ranked their doctors.
Why couldn't Vitals depend on its own system to rate doctors. Because it is difficult to generate money that way. Vitals and Zocdoc depend on subscription fees from Doctors to show their enormous valuation. Doctors will not pay them the subscription fee if they get negative reviews or if the system does not bump up their rank quickly. So the promoters develop crafty ways to fool people by having a free site like PatientFusion. Zocdoc and Vitals cannot generate revenues by taking a percentage of doctor's fee due to a U.S. law which prohibits such activities. 
Practo is modeled like Zocdoc. A search for an endocrinologist in Bangalore yielded a list in which an unknown doctor named Dr. Anantharaman got listed at the top with 772 recommendations and 88 feedback. Whereas Dr. Prasanna Kumar with 35 years of experience and an M.D. degree from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences got listed much lower down with 35 recommendations and 1 feedback. Since there is no law here in India to prevent Practo from charging a commission to a doctor from the consultancy fees earned by him from appointments routed through the website, this is a valid earning source. But to get people to opt for a doctor the website can charge a fee to the doctor for promoting him with false recommendations and feedback, this is what is most probably going on. When you're looking for a good doctor, you would check how have patients reviewed a doctor against 1) Diagnosis, 2) Time spent listening to the patient, 3) Follow-up. Additionally you would check the Doctor's Certification, Years in practice, and Educational institutionPracto does not provide any filter to identify doctors based on verified reviews, years in practice, educational qualification. Moreover they don't incorporate diagnosis, time spent with the patient and follow-up in their rating system. The patient reviews are mostly eulogistic ones saying that the treatment was good without any details and of a repetitive kind. And like in the case of Zocdoc the reviews are not in chronological order but haphazardly listed giving cause for suspicion that they have been cooked up.
How is Practo earning revenue? According to their portal, Practo charges doctors a fee of Rs. 999 - 1,999 per month for accepting patient appointments through their system. They can take a commission from every appointment accepted through their system. But that is not all. They are also probably making money by promoting doctors through their ranking system which is opaque. However, even after this it is unlikely that they are earning profits and like more famous startups like Flipkart, Ola etc they are also running up operating losses which they do not reveal. In the case of Flipkart and other popular web retailers an enterprising journalist prised out their annual reports to the Registrar of Companies and found that their subsidiaries registered in India are all running in huge losses eroding all the millions of dollars of funding that they have secured in the various rounds.
Are the funders fools then since they at least must be privy to the heavily bleeding accounts of the companies that they have funded. Well there is another part of this fraudulent eco-system that helps to keep it afloat. There are company rating agencies that continually rate these startups as great investment options and glorify their potential to become profit making ventures in the future. There have been a spate of stories in the business periodicals and dailies recently about how all these startups are soon going to become profitable. Amidst this kind of a rosy picture the investors of these companies then push them into an Initial Public Offering for listing on the Stock Markets and cash in as the gullible people buy the shares of these companies thinking that they will become profitable soon and give them good returns. However, while Facebook and Google, the two startups that have fuelled this boom, succeeded in developing a good revenue model through advertising based on their huge user base, the revenue models of these other e-commerce based websites are shaky as they depend on the users paying for the goods and services they buy. To attract users the e-commerce websites have to give heavy discounts and this burns a hole in their finances. Its not long before many of these startups will be laid low but not before their investors have made their exits through IPOs and fleeced the gullible public. The possibility of economic justice for the poor and deprived is low when such blatant fraudulent financial shenanigans are not only allowed to go on but are enthusiastically welcomed by the powers that be.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Whither the Republic

Subhadra and I spent the last weekend threshing the red gram from the small two thirds of an acre farm of Subhadra's in Pandutalav village in Dewas district about 50 kms from Indore. We beat the red gram stalk bundles on the ground that had been smeared plain with cowdung, so that the seeds fell out of their pods from the pounding and then winnowed the assorted leaves and seeds in the gentle breeze that was blowing. There were five other people who worked with us off and on, all the sons and daughters of the farmer from whom Subhadra had bought the land and who did most of the work on the land. Earlier we had spent another weekend cutting the stalks when the pods had ripened and tied them into bundles for them to dry and be hard enough for the pods to break when beaten on the ground. This small piece of land and an adjacent half acre of forested hillock had taken Subhadra's fancy when the red gram on it was still very green and bedecked with yellow flowers as shown below and so she bought it.
 The farmer sold this piece of land because he wanted money to sink an open well and install a pump so that he could irrigate the rest of his land. This need for water became clear to us soon, as with the lesser amount of rains this year the soil moisture soon dried up and the lush red gram crop and its beautiful yellow flowers did not bear as many pods. Eventually, after almost four days of labour by four people on an average for cutting, threshing and winnowing, we could get about 70 kilos of red gram seeds from two thirds acre of land which works out to about 250 kilos per hectare while the national average is about 650 kilos per hectare. At the going rate of Rs 50 per kilo the price of the output works out to Rs 3500 only and if we add the monetary value of the stalks and the leaves for use as fuel and fodder, then the total income is Rs 4000. Whereas the cost of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides was about Rs 1000 and about twenty person days of labour has gone into the cultivation and harvesting. So the daily wage works out to only Rs 150. The farmer himself got a much lesser yield of red gram and also other crops that he had sown because his other land of about one and a half hectares was even less fertile than the one he has sold to Subhadra. He and his whole family also tend to goats and chicken and some of his sons are working as daily wage earners in construction work in the city of Indore and that is how they somehow scramble through.
This is to be compared to the crop of turmeric that Subhadra has harvested from the small garden of 30 square meters in front of our house in Indore as shown below.

 About 90 kgs of raw turmeric were produced which works out to an yield of about 30000 kilos per hectare which is the upper level of yield at the national level. This huge difference in yields is because of the deep clayey soil in our garden which has been enriched with organic compost over the years and the regular watering of the plants.
This starkly underlines the deep problems that beset this country of ours on the occasion of our 67th Republic Day. While we who are not farmers have the resources to enrich our small piece of land and farm it well just to satisfy our whims of doing agriculture, those who are farmers and till the land for a living do not have the resources to make their land productive. The farmer from whom Subhadra bought the land is very enterprising and is into horticulture in addition to farming of food crops. However, he does not have the requisite resources to make his land productive enough for him to earn a decent living. Even though he has sold a small piece of his land to Subhadra, he still feels that he has gained because Subhadra will put in money into developing the water and organic manure availability of his remaining land along with her own which is abysmal at present. He has been suffering from arthritis of the knees for quite some time and has to hobble around but he just did not have the money to see a qualified and reliable orthopaedic doctor. We brought him to Indore today for a check up and the doctor became very angry with us for having brought him so late. Both the knees had degenerated to the extent that only through costly knee replacement surgery could the farmer's mobility be restored. Obviously this was beyond his means and so eventually we paid for some injections and medicines that would offer temporary relief. He is also a long time sufferer of acidity which too is now being cured by us with the use of ayurvedic medicines.
There is a deep livelihood crisis in rural areas with farmers just not earning enough to feed and care for themselves let alone invest on their farms. So the productivity of the farms is going down continuously and weather shocks like droughts and floods are further aggravating the situation. The poverty that results, prevents the farmers from bearing heavy medical expenses in the absence of a functional public health system and so in the end life in rural areas is in deep crisis. I have written so much about this intellectually over the past decade but it is only after doing work on Subhadra's farm and comparing the minimal monetary value of that with the huge monetary value of the same labour time that I spend in doing vacuous consultancies, that this vicious anomaly has got driven like iron into my soul. This Republic is not for farmers.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Law is an Ass

The generally accepted meaning of the phrase "The Law is an Ass" refers to the routine application of the law by an administrator or judge without  applying the mind  and taking into consideration the context. The phrase compares the administrator or judge with an ass or donkey, which latter is assumed rather uncharitably to be an idiot!! However, there is another meaning to this phrase also which refers to the obstinacy of donkeys and compares the refusal of centralised institutions, which are supposed to administer the law, to accede to the just demands of the ordinary citizen thus violating the basic principles of natural justice. Institutions in India routinely act in this obstinate manner and greatly inconvenience ordinary citizens. We will discuss a few such instances here to show how difficult it is to secure justice in this country.
A boy, a farmer's son, who was studying in the Keshav Vidyapeeth in Indore run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) decided not to pursue his studies there any more after passing the Class Ten examination of the Central Board of Secondary Education in May 2015 and applied for a transfer certificate (TC). The school management refused to give the TC saying that he had been automatically admitted to the higher secondary school to pursue the plus two education and so he would have to pay the fees for the first session amounting to Rs 37000 to get the TC. The father of the child, who is an active member of the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party, then approached higher level politicians in the party, including elected representatives to the legislative assembly and the parliament but to no avail. The school management remained adamant that the child would have to pay at least Rs 17000 to get the TC. Eight other boys who had also applied for their TCs succumbed to this unjust demand and paid the charge. However, the father of this boy refused to buckle under this pressure despite being a long time member of the RSS.
The man then filed a complaint with the District Collector in this regard. The Collector, after perusing all the documents, issued a notice to the school authorities asking them to show cause as to why they were not issuing the TC. However, at the next hearing the Collector, obviously having been pressurised by the RSS, passed an order that the student would have to pay the first session fees of Rs 37000 because he had already taken admission to the school without giving the man a chance to refute the arguments and evidence given by the school management. The school management then sent the man a legal notice demanding a huge sum of Rs 70,000 for having harassed them so as to brow beat him into submission.
This then prompted the man to approach advocate Anil Trivedi. Before we proceed further with the story it will be necessary to know a little bit about Anil Trivedi or Anilbhai as he is popularly known whose photo is given below.

 The law being an ass it requires equally obstinate lawyers to get it to work for the poor and oppressed. Anilbhai is the only lawyer in Madhya Pradesh who has consistently used the law to intervene in the interests of people deprived of justice by the rich and the powerful in the state. Anilbhai became a practising lawyer by chance. He is the son of the veteran Gandhian Kashinath Trivedi and so was involved in social and political activism right from his childhood. He, however, chose to follow in the footsteps of Ram Manohar Lohia and became an activist of the Socialist Party. When emergency was declared in 1975 he was arrested and sent to jail. At that time he had been pursuing post graduate studies in psychology and law simultaneously and taking part actively in the mobilisation in support of the Sampoorna Kranti movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar. Once in jail the hot topic of discussion among all the senior politicians, some of whom were lawyers, was the ease with which Indira Gandhi had subverted the Constitution because there was not enough legal awareness among the masses about their rights. The consensus was that there had not been enough legal activism on the part of lawyers who were members of the progressive parties so as to challenge the arbitrariness of the executive in its actions to repress human and civil rights. Anilbhai had earlier been studying law without any firm commitment to pursuing it as a career.  But the discussions regarding the inadequacy of legal activism made Anilbhai decide on choosing the legal profession to try and fill up this lacuna. He studied and appeared for his final examinations from inside the jail. 
Immediately after coming out of jail he became involved in electoral politics as he was chosen as the candidate of the combined opposition from one of the seats in Indore in the assembly elections that followed. However, due to the filing of nomination papers by a rebel from the erstwhile Jana Sangh the votes got divided and the Congress candidate won. This loss to the Janata party has turned out to be a gain for the mass movements in Madhya Pradesh. If he had won he would most certainly have become a full time politician and not been able to pursue a career in law. However, this loss in the elections made him concentrate seriously on becoming a lawyer and since then he has devoted most of his energies in brilliantly using the law in favour of the poor. He has stood for elections a few more times as a member of the Janata Dal, a group of former Socialist party politicians and also as a candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party recently and lost but that has been more from a conviction that the legislature and the parliament are the bodies, which should bring about social and economic justice and so more and more people with a commitment to socialist and humanist ideals must try and get themselves elected. He may not have succeeded in this, given the corrupt nature of electoral politics but he has definitely made an impact with his legal activism.
When the aggrieved man came to Anilbhai after having learnt that he was possibly the only one who could help him in his battle against the RSS against which he had revolted, the first thing he was asked was that he should not give up the battle, which was going to be a long and one of attrition, mid way after being intimidated by the RSS and leave Anilbhai in the lurch!!! Anilbhai asked him why he had taken it into his head to fight the might of the RSS after being such a dedicated member of the organisation. Most of the students in the Keshav Vidyapeeth in fact are the children of dedicated RSS members from Western and Central India as this is a school specially developed to build dedicated cadres for the organisation. The man said that the pedagogic and hostel environment in the school is not very conducive and so many students who have been studying there since their early childhood want to leave once they pass the tenth board examination to pursue careers of their choice rather than become foot soldiers of the RSS. The school management faced with an exodus had decided to clamp down by not giving TCs or charging a session's fees to do so. The local MLA of his area had even told the man that he would give him the Rs 17000 being demanded by the school but that there was no way in which he could get the TC without paying the sum. Anyway now with the latest legal notice the man was well and truly up against the wrath of the RSS for his revolt.
Anilbhai filed a petition in the High Court in Indore and in the first hearing itself secured a stay on the order of the Collector and an order directing the school to give the boy the TC within seven days. Thus, began a saga that is yet to end!! When the man went with the certified copy of the High Court order to the school, the principal refused to take it saying it was a Sunday and also gave the man a tongue lashing for proceeding legally in the High Court against the school. In the next hearing the lawyer for the school argued that the boy had been "deemed admitted" even if he did not apply for admission as per the rules of the Central Board of Secondary Admission and so he would have to pay the fees for the first session amounting to Rs 37000 even if he wished to discontinue studying in the school. The lawyer also contended that since the school was a private entity a petition could not be entertained against it in the High Court. However, the judge said that there could be nothing called deemed admission as there was no rule in this regard and it would anyway impinge on the freedom of choice of the student and since the school was imparting education regulated by the rules of the Central Board of Secondary Education, it was a public authority against which a petition could be entertained to protect the fundamental rights of the child. Once again the judge ordered that the TC should be given to the student and he should be paid Rs 25000 by the school within three days to compensate him for all the unnecessary harassment meted out to him. The school instead of complying with the order has filed an appeal in the Division Bench of the High Court. The boy is currently studying in another school but if the TC is not given by his old school soon before the end of the academic year in March, he will lose a year and it appears that the intention of the RSS is to so penalise him for daring to take it to the courts. The various departments of the Government, including the Collector, who have also been made a party in the petition have consistently said nothing instead of acting to resolve the issue in the boy's favour in accordance with the rules and regulations
Institutions in India which have clout whether in the corporate, political or government sectors know that it is difficult to get justice from the courts and so they trample on the rights of citizens with impunity. Not only does it take time but also resources to fight lengthy court battles and most citizens are not able to do so. Anilbhai has rendered yeoman service to many citizens who have picked up the courage to take on institutional Goliaths to get justice. Whether it is the case of an Adivasi activist who has been illegally externed by the administration because he was fighting for the rights of his people, or the case of an Adivasi woman who has been denied the mandated compensation when her husband was illegally killed by forest department officials, or the case of a blind person who was denied a job illegally by the administration, a case which resulted in guidelines being formulated in Madhya Pradesh for the implementation of reservation for the disabled in government jobs leading to the employment of more than 1500 blind people or the case of a Dalit woman who was denied government employment as a crafts teacher despite being qualified and having passed the selection process, a case that has dragged on for two decades and even now despite a definitive order from the High Court, has not been complied to by the government necessitating a petition for contempt of court, Anilbhai has unfailingly stood by ordinary aggrieved citizens. Today he is sixty five years of age and even after four decades of legal activism in which he as taken up more than fifty such landmark cases of human and civil rights, he is as sprightly as ever in the fight for justice.
This then brings out the difficulty of ensuring justice for citizens, especially those who are poor, in the present centralised system in which institutions are far more powerful and the courts work at a snail's pace and it requires huge resources to move them. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Women to the Fore

Possibly the most important statutory provision in India from the point of view of women is that of 50 per cent reservation in local body elections in rural and urban areas. Over the two decades since this was introduced through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, the participation of women in local governance has gone up substantially as a result and currently women who have once got a taste of political power sometimes do not hesitate to stand again for election even if their seat becomes unreserved in the next term due to the rotation policy. However, given the fact that in most cases women have little or no experience of politics and governance, they need to be trained to make the best of this opportunity. There are both Governmental and Non-Governmental organisations engaged in training elected women representatives in local governance. One such organisation is The Hunger Project (THP). This organisation has been working with elected women representatives (EWR) in the Panchayats in eight states of India for more than a decade and a half, training them to become effective change makers to bring about gender equity. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a conference of these EWRs organised by THP Madhya Pradesh in Bhopal and came away hugely thrilled by the enthusiasm and determination that they showed as they held forth on their achievements and the challenges they were facing.
The main speaker was Mangnibai a Sarpanch or panchayat president from Rewa district who has taken the Swacchh Bharat Mission for cleaning India by eradicating open defecation to heart. In the space of a year since she was elected she has had  toilets constructed in 800 households in her panchayat and then convinced people to use them. Initially she faced a lot of opposition as people did not want to give up their age old practice of open defecation in the fields. However, she mobilised a section of the women and imposed a fine of Rs 500 on those who were persisting with open defecation. Thus, she was gradually able to get everyone to use the toilets and the panchayat has become open defecation free. However, the use of toilets increases the requirement of water which has to be brought from distant sources. So there was a demand from the women, who mostly have to get the water, for a piped water supply system. Mangnibai has risen to the demand and initiated the process of getting a piped water supply system sanctioned for her panchayat. Not only has she mobilised her panchayat members and villagers but she has also got the generally lethargic bureaucracy to work. She is shown in the picture below delivering a speech on her work at the conference in Bhopal.

There were many women who came up and spoke about their work but what was more interesting was their description of the challenges they faced in their work. Invariably they found the bureaucracy to be a major hindrance. Especially the panchayat secretary who always tried to block various development works that the EWRs tried to get sanctioned and implemented. One EWR, a Sarpanch, described in detail how the panchayat secretary was refusing to do all the paper work necessary for sanctioning projects and she insisted that a resolution be passed in the meeting to remove him from his post. While others tried to explain to her that the process of removing the official would have to be initiated in her district she remained adamant that Bhopal was where she would get justice!!  The women were also very vocal about the pressure from their husbands and family who did not like their going out to do their panchayat related public work. One woman said that she has to continually fight with her husband to go out of the house to do her panchayat duties. She said that there was tremendous opposition from her husband and other family members to her coming to Bhopal to attend this conference as she had never gone out of her district earlier. She said that she told her husband that the sun might rise in the west instead of the east but she would attend the Bhopal conference!!
Hundreds of women from across Madhya Pradesh, some of whom are shown in the picture below, attended the conference which was inaugurated by the Women and Child Development Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Ms Maya Singh. The Minister said that despite the legislative assembly being in session and many of her male colleagues advising her not to be absent from the assembly, she had come to the conference because she wanted to impress on the EWRs that they must use the opportunity they have got to the hilt to enhance the situation of women in society.
Most of the women had travelled out of their districts for the first time and enthusiastically related the great achievements they had made in curbing the sale of liquor, acting against gender based violence within and without the home and in mobilising the community to get various development schemes implemented and government services delivered. They all rejoiced in the freedom, equality and political power that had become theirs as a result of becoming EWRs. Many said that without the training received from THP they would not have been able to achieve what they have. This just shows that while laws in themselves have an important role to play in the emancipation of women, without proper training women cannot avail of the huge opportunity provided by reservation of seats for them in local governance given the highly patriarchal society in which we live. The THP conducts a systematic training process involving leadership workshops and specific inputs about the rules and regulations that govern the functioning of the panchayats followed by details of the various schemes and projects of the government. Gender issues are also covered in these trainings so as to ensure that the EWRs act effectively to counter the widespread gender discrimination that is there in society.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Gap Between Law and Reality

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 known popularly as the Right to Education Act (RTE) has a provision that private schools which charge fees will enrol 25 per cent of their student intake from among socio-economically deprived sections and not charge any fees from them. The Government will compensate these private schools for the cost of this education. Thus, the Rani Kajal School in Kakrana run by the Kalpantar Shikshan Samiti too provides free education to about 5 children in each class since the class strength of fees paying children is about 20. The girls in the school are anyway provided with free residential education funded by various donors. In the city of Indore too all private schools have to enrol free students and the Government Education Department conducts an elaborate exercise each year at the time of admission to get applicants from deprived backgrounds into private schools. The elite private schools with charge exorbitant fees are much sought after and that is why the admission process has to be regulated by the Government to try and ensure transparency.
The Vishisht Jyoti Samajik Sanstha (VJSS) is an NGO founded by Dalit and Adivasi residents of the slums in Indore city who have been fighting for their rights for a long time. One of the great victories that this organisation has won is that they have secured rehabilitation for many of their members who were displaced from their slums in well constructed multi storied buildings built under the Rajiv Gandhi Ashray Yojana. They also regularly organise a campaign every year to get children from these slums enrolled in the elite private schools of the city under the provisions of the RTE. Over the past few years they have succeeded in getting close to a hundred children enrolled in elite schools in Indore.
However, there are many problems that these children are facing. The first and foremost problem is that they are not able to cope with the studies in school. The teachers prescribe homework to be done at home and also give the children projects of various kinds. This requires supportive help at home but these children come from families that can neither afford private tutors nor are the parents capable themselves of teaching the children. Thus, just getting enrolled in a good private school is proving to be a bane rather than a boon for these slum children as they are falling back in class and in some cases have even had to leave these schools and return to the near defunct government school system.
The VJSS and the Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (DGVK) have worked together on many issues that affect the slum residents of Indore. So the VJSS came to DGVK with a proposal for starting a coaching institute in one of the resettlement complexes in Ahirkheri to help the girl children enrolled in elite schools with additional help in their studies and it was decided to run it with funds that the DGVK garners from various donors. This coaching institute has now begun functioning from Monday 15th December 2015 and the picture of the inauguration is shown below.
 One of the students lit the lamp to inaugurate the coaching institute which has been named Savitribai Phule Adhyayan Samooh or Study Group. Savitribai Phule hailed from the Other Backward Classes and was one of the first women from the socio-economically deprived sections of the country to be educated in the nineteenth century because of the efforts of her husband Jyotiba Phule and they together initiated a very successful campaign to educate girls from deprived sections. A dedicated lady teacher who is seen sitting in the picture above, who is a post graduate in science and a graduate in education and has left her well paid job in a private school, will conduct the classes in the evening for a very modest salary, while the premises themselves will be used for other intellectual activities also during the day. There are ten girl students who are attending these coaching classes currently as shown in the picture below but the numbers are likely to go up very soon as word spreads.
Education has become expensive like everything else in this inflationary world. The Government is not prepared to run a proper public primary education system with adequately paid teachers in sufficient number and with proper teaching aids and infrastructure. It is also not prepared to implement the RTE properly as it does not compensate the private schools adequately and on time for the free education that they provide to the socio-economically deprived children. Consequently they do not pay good attention to these children and their parents do not have the wherewithal to provide them with additional coaching. Thus, there is a huge gap between the law and its implementation and in reality free and compulsory education of a good quality for socio-economically deprived children is a distant dream. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Land Rights as the most important Human Rights

International Human Rights Day is celebrated on 10th December every year to mark the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on this day in 1948. For peasants and especially Adivasis, land rights are possibly the most important human rights because their livelihoods depend on it without which no other rights are possible. Therefore, the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, celebrated IHR this year by bringing out a rally in Alirajpur focused on land rights as shown below in the news report in Hindi.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forestdwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act 2006, popularly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), has powerful provisions for providing title deeds to land that the Adivasis have been traditionally cultivating in the Reserved Forest Areas before the cut off date of 13th December 2005 and also rights to the community to conserve and use the forests land that they have been traditionally using for their other livelihood and cultural needs. However, as is the case with most progressive laws and especially land laws like the distribution of ceiling excess land to the landless, the FRA too has not been implemented properly primarily because the administration and especially the Forest Department is not interested in providing the benefits of this law to the Adivasis.
The KMCS has waged a long battle for land rights of Adivasis in Alirajpur since 1982 and was part of the nationwide movement that brought about the enactment of this historic legislation. So the organisation has actively campaigned for the implementation of the FRA in Alirajpur. Nevertheless, the administration has stalled as much as possible. Many people have not been given title deeds and those who have been given these deeds have got them without the necessary demarcation of the land through a map. Community title deeds have not been given at all. So the KMCS is now running a campaign of using Geographical Positioning System instruments to map the land of the people and also the forests of the communities and then synchronising them with the satellite imagery of 2005 to establish the verity of their claims and so push the State through legal action to grant proper title deeds to them.
As part of this an awareness rally was taken out through the villages for one whole week in which apart from the lack of implementation of the FRA, the sorry implementation of other welfare laws and programmes like the Right to Education Act, Right to Food Act, Integrated Child Development Scheme and the National Rural Health Mission were also documented. Demands for rectification of these lacunae based on this documentation were submitted to the district administration on International Human Rights Day thus fleshing out in concrete the slogan of all human rights for all. Thousands of members of the KMCS marched through the streets of Alirajpur registering their organised strength in search of their rights.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Great Fighter for Adivasi Rights is No More

Dr Brahmadev Sharma, administrator, philosopher and most importantly a scholar and activist rooting vociferously for social, economic and environmental justice, passed away yesterday, 6th of December, 2015, after a long illness at the ripe age of eighty five in his residence at Gwalior. This multi-faceted personality will be long regarded by the fighters on the environmentalist fringe in this country as one of their great visionaries and warriors. I had the good fortune of being closely associated with him for some time.
We were holding a meeting of people from all the villages coming under submergence in Alirajpur district in the reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the village of Anjanbara on the banks of the Narmada in the searing heat of a summer afternoon in 1986. Suddenly we saw a towering old man, dressed in a dhoti and kurta, huffing and puffing his way to our meeting spot, barely able to walk, supported by two men. This was Dr Brahmadev Sharma who was at the time the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of the Government of India, a constitutionally mandated post for the protection of the rights of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which has since been replaced by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. He had heard that this meeting was to be held and had made his way to it walking up hill and down dale for the last five kilometers where there were no motorable roads despite also suffering from glaucoma which had impaired his sight. Sharmaji was a legend and had done much to ensure that activists like I retained some relevance in a milieu that has becoming increasingly hostile to the mass mobilisation of Adivasis for the control of their habitats. After obtaining a Ph.D. in mathematics he joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1956 and soon made a name for himself for his strict actions as the District Magistrate against the government functionaries and traders who were exploiting the adivasis of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. His tenure in government service up to 1981, when he resigned due to differences with the government over the way in which the welfare of Adivasis should be ensured, was a single-minded pursuit of justice for the children of nature.

Following a five-year stint after this as the Vice Chancellor of the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong in the State of Meghalaya he had assumed the post of Commissioner Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in 1986 and at once done away with all protocol to hit the dusty trails in his insatiable quest for justice for the Adivasis. His activist outlook resulted in his producing scathing critiques of government policy regarding the Adivasis in his statutory reports to the President of India. Dissatisfied with the disregard shown by the government and the parliament to the sordid facts revealed and recommendations made in these reports, Sharmaji filed a petition in the Supreme Court to demand action from the government and got it to acknowledge that all was not well with its tribal development policies and programmes.  After retiring from his post in 1991 he went back to the villages of Bastar from where he had begun his crusade for the Adivasis to start a grassroots movement of the people there for village self rule. This is the phase in which he came up with the famous anarchist slogan - "Hamara gaon mein hamara raj" - our rule in our village which has now become common currency in Adivasi areas. It was at this time that there was the proposal for setting up a steel plant in the villages in which he was working and so he launched a movement against this. The result was that he was stripped by goons of the company proposing to set up the steel plant and paraded in the streets of Jagdalpur creating a furore all over the country. As a result of the furore the Government of the day, which happened to be a Bharatiya Janata Party one, relented somewhat and asked him to file a complaint to the police so that action could be taken. Sharmaji, however, refused and said that the Government should instead scrap the steel plant. Eventually the steel plant was indeed scrapped.
My association with Sharmaji, which began with that meeting in Anjanbara continued well after that and throughout his term as Commissioner he continually helped our organisation the KMCS and the Narmada Bachao Andolan in their mass actions by mediating with the administration to adopt a more positive approach. Afterwards as a free individual bereft of state privileges he was the prime mover behind the formation of the Bharat Jan Andolan, a forum of mass movements fighting for a just and sustainable form of development and governance. He not only led this forum from the front but also wwrote copiously on the problems of rural and especially Adivasi development and their solution. He too like our other mentors realised the great value of young activists like myself fighting for the rights of the poor and downtrodden and was equally aware of the problems that we faced. So he set in place a fairly efficient system for the mobilisation of resources from society at large to help out young activists in their work and struggles called "Sahayog" or assistance.  
After the passage of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment in 1992 making Panchayati Raj or village self rule mandatory as the third tier of democratic politics in the country, he busied himself with ensuring that the Act for the setting up of a special Panchayati system to accord with Adivasi specificities in the scheduled Adivasi areas as provided for in the Constitutional Amendment was also enacted. As a member of the Parliamentary Committee set up to draft the bill for this purpose under the Chairmanship of the then MP from Jhabua the late Shri Dilip Singh Bhuria, he was instrumental in bringing out a set of radical recommendations for the establishment of true democratic control by adivasis of their lives and habitats. Later it was through his persistent efforts as the Chairman of the Bharat Jan Andolan that finally the Panchayat Provisions Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) was passed in 1996. Even though in its final form the provisions have been diluted as compared to the recommendations of the Bhuria Committee, nevertheless this Act is a very powerful instrument for assertion of Adivasi supremacy in Scheduled Areas. Unlike the equally commendable provisions of the Fifth Schedule whose implementation is left to the discretion of the State Governments, this Act gives the Adivasis themselves powers to act and secure their rights and entitlements. Many later battles like that of the Adivasis in Andhra Pradesh and in Niyamgiri in Odisha against displacement due to mining have been won by fighting to implement the provisions of the this act. We in Alirajpur were able to use these provisions to block the creation of a wild life sanctuary that would have displaced Adivasis from around thirty villages.
Sharmaji also wrote copiously on the problems of agriculture and rural development in India. Even though he could not do much on the ground to address the serious crisis that faces farmers today, nevertheless he engaged with this problem wholeheartedly and developed an alternative decentralised system of agriculture and rural development.
There are criticisms of Sharmaji's stress on the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and his advocacy of PESA Act despite these being flawed in many respects and in essence being just adjuncts to the dominant centralised paradigm without any power of establishing an alternative decentralised one. However, given the dominance of the current paradigm, Sharmaji's undying efforts to get even this limited legal framework to work for the Adivasis will remain a great contribution. The environmentalist fringe in this country has lost a great fighter.
Sharmaji came to meet me after the Mehendikhera massacre in Dewas district in 2001, where we had been trying to implement the PESA Act to the chagrin of the Government which came down hard to crush the movement with armed police force. I was in jail on the usual false charges trumped up by the police and he commended me on having so purposefully fleshed out on the ground what he had conceived on paper regarding Adivasi Self Rule. When I asked him about whether my wife Subhadra and our small seven month old child were safe because there was a possibility of her being arrested too, he said - "Fikr mat karo, kuch dinon ki hi to baat hai, ham tumhare saath hai - don't worry, its just a matter of a few days, we are with you!!"

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Was Our First Constitution Such a Big Deal?

Today, 26th November, is being celebrated as the Constitution Day because it was on this day that the first Constitution of independent India was adopted by the Constituent Assembly in 1949. Prior to that even after independence in 1947, India was being governed by the colonial Government of India Act of 1935 enacted by the British Parliament. However, the first Constitution instead of being a radical new statute in tune with the aspirations of the masses was actually a continuation of the Government of India Act of 1935 with 250 of the 395 articles being verbatim copies of the same articles in the former. Therefore, contrary to the eulogies being mouthed about the greatness of this Constitution there is a need to critically review it.
The Constituent Assembly that adopted the Constitution after debating the draft articles which were prepared by a team of bureaucrats led by Sir Benegal Rau of the Indian Civil Service was itself not a truly representative body. It had been constituted under the Government of India Act of 1935 through indirect election of the representatives in 1946 from among the elected representatives of the provincial assemblies in British India and the representatives of the princely states and consisted mostly of people from the richer sections of society as instead of universal suffrage there was only limited voting rights given to the propertied classes.
Even though the chapter on fundamental rights was included to give the citizens rights and the assurance of rule of law, which are two of the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, nevertheless this was only of a partial nature because of the following lacunae -
1. The right to education and health were not included in fundamental rights and were relegated to the non-justiciable Directive Principles of State Policy. This absolved the State from providing free education and health services to the population which was largely without education and health services in the colonial period. An educated and healthy population leads to huge dividends in terms of development of a country and so India has missed out on development in a big way due to this initial blunder.
2. The right to employment with a living wage too was denied as a fundamental right and put in the Directive Principles of State Policy. Thus, a huge population that had been reeling under the depredations of the British, which had gone up especially in the last years of their rule when they funded their war efforts across the world by extracting more and more from the Indian masses, were denied a decent livelihood and instead they were subjected to more depredations as the Indian State and the ruling classes that controlled it embarked on a policy of primitive accumulation to extract their labour for building up a capitalist economy.
3. The right to property was included in the fundamental rights sections and this created serious problems for development as the landed and propertied classes resisted legally in the courts the attempts of the Government to initiate land reforms.
4. The colonial centralised bureaucratic system of governance was retained and local self governance was relegated to the Directive Principles of State Policy thus stifling the political aspirations of the masses to govern themselves.
5. The bureaucracy was given protection from legal prosecution ostensibly to prevent frivolous litigation against them but in reality this led to impunity on the part of the bureaucracy and especially the police who have used this protection to engage in repressive and corrupt governance that has vitiated the human rights of the masses.
6. Even though affirmative reservations in political representation, education and government employment were provided to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, these were not extended to the far more numerous Other Backward Classes and so for a considerable time after independence, India continued to be dominated by the numerically miniscule upper castes who have largely worked for their own benefit and continued the millennia old oppression of the lower castes.
7. The grossly anti-people colonial statutes like the Indian Forest Act, Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Land Acquisition Act, etc, were provided legal currency in the post independence era by the Constitution and they have collectively contributed to the oppression and dispossession of the masses in pursuit of capitalist development for the benefit of the ruling classes.
8. The electoral system that was adopted was the first past the post one for each constituency where the candidate who got the most number of valid votes polled won the elections regardless of the proportion of the votes polled. This resulted in the Indian National Congress gaining huge majorities in terms of seats won in parliament and the state legislative assemblies despite it never getting more than 40 per cent or so of the votes polled and this enabled it to rule unhindered for about two decades without much opposition and push through anti-people and capitalist friendly development. More importantly, it marginalised localised people's movements which could not aspire to political representation through elections because they had small mass bases in pockets. The socialist and communist parties which initially had a fairly good mass bases, slowly lost these as they could not attain power and implement their people friendly policies.
9. The exercise of power has been tilted overly towards the central government at the expense of the state governments and so initially there was a weak federal structure which further undermined the political autonomy of the masses.
10. Reservations were not provided to women in political power, education and government jobs and there was no specific mention of the huge gender imbalance of power or provisions to correct it.
All these lacunae have over the years been addressed to a greater or lesser extent through over a hundred amendments but the betrayal of the aspirations of the people was so great in the initial decades that the socio-economic scenario currently is a very unjust and oppressive one as far as the majority of the population is concerned and the far right has been able to exploit the frustrations of the masses to come to power as a result of a fractured mandate by winning seats far in excess of its vote share and even threaten what limited provisions for plurality there are in the Constitution.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Between the Devil and the The Deep Blue Sea

The recent Bihar assembly elections have shown the deep extent to which politics in this country has moved to the right of the political spectrum. The parliamentary left parties, which fought as a united front, could manage only 3 of the 240 seats and 4 per cent of the total votes polled. A situation that leaves the masses between the devil of the far right and the deep blue sea of the centre right. Even though the centre right is certainly much better than the scary domination of the far right, which latter has gone overboard with its sectarian agenda since coming to power at the centre, it does not have any solution for the problems of the masses arising from a destructive capitalist development model that is devastating both the population and the environment and especially agriculture which still is the mainstay of the livelihoods of close to 65 per cent of the people of this country. This is because the left in this country, whether parliamentary, revolutionary or new in nature and including people like us who are part of the anarcho-environmentalist fringe, has not distinguished itself in recent years and has failed to project any alternative that seems meaningful and viable to the masses.
While the parliamentary left, which by far has had and still has the biggest mass support among all left entities, has contented itself to play the game by the rules determined by the capitalists, the revolutionary left has followed the obsolete and impractical Maoist path, the new left has remained confined to theoretical debate and the anarcho-environmentalist left has concentrated on mainly opposing displacement in isolated project affected areas in a fire fighting mode with larger alliance building processes of only a rudimentary nature. Even though the anarcho-environmentalists have a vision of an alternative developmental model and society, they do not have the resources to carry out pilot implementation of this model so as to convince a large enough section of the masses to join them in the fight to pose a credible challenge to the current development model.
There are many aspects of this domination of capitalism, which has made the left irrelevant in this country, that have to be considered if a viable challenge has to emerge to it in the future. But what seems to me to be the major problem is the reality of the huge casualisation of employment and seasonal or circular migration. Today, Bhil adivasis from Alirajpur can be found as far afield as Chennai and Kashmir as labourers in industry, services and agriculture, while the dalits from Chennai and Muslims from Kashmir can be found similarly labouring in Madhya Pradesh. The only rigorous econometric estimate based on data from government surveys done in 2009 by Deshingkar and Akter on circular migration, puts the number of such migrants at the national level at 100 million people and their contribution to the GDP at 10 per cent. The authors say that this is a conservative estimate and the actual numbers are more but even if we were to take this number it would mean that around 15 per cent of the population in the working age group of 15 to 59 years is engaged in circular migration. Given that the work participation rate is less than 100 per cent mainly due to many women not being part of the workforce the proportion of circular migrants to the active labour force is likely to be close to 25 per cent. Along with this casualisation of employment has increased and about 95 per cent of the workforce are either daily wage workers or in insecure employment. Thus, trade unionism which constitutes the basic institutional framework for mobilising the workers has been severely affected because it is difficult to get workers in sufficient numbers in any work place and due to insecurity of livelihoods they are unable to make any contributions from their earnings to sustain this institutional framework for securing their rights as labourers. In fact trade unions of workers with secure employment in the organised sector too are continually threatened with irrelevance because managements are outsourcing more and more functions to contractors and also using automation and computerisation to reduce the number of permanent workers.
Thus, conscious mass bases supported by robust autonomous resource bases are difficult to build up. How will the full time activists of such organisations sustain themselves at a time when both the costs of living and of organisation and especially the cost of legal battles have become astronomical. The parliamentary left, which had the most militant trade unions, has been attenuated by this situation and even more so due to the stoppage of the funds it used to receive from the erstwhile Soviet Union. The revolutionary left has found it difficult to withstand the increased armed actions of the State against it and has lost much of its rural base and is equally strapped for numbers and resources. The new left who are mostly academics in government universities are finding that their secure jobs may come on the line if they become overly radical. That leaves us in the anarcho-environmentalist fringe who have always struggled for resources and have had to rely on funding from NGOs and institutional donors, often of a dubious nature. So not only is there an attrition in the number of the older generation of activists or their effectiveness has been reduced but a newer generation of activists is not coming forward in sufficient numbers to carry on the fight at the ground level. There doesn't seem to be any solution in sight and those of us who are still in the field are mostly marking time.   

Thursday, November 19, 2015

In Search of the Roots of Violence

The very perceptive William Shakespeare had tellingly said that the "Devil can cite scripture for his purpose". Even though he was pointing out the use of scripture by unscrupulous people to justify their evil acts, this quote also underlines the fact that scriptures of various religions throughout the world except possibly Buddhism and Jainism, mostly written in the ancient or medieval ages, are a mixed bag containing both high spiritual and ethical advice and also gross materially harmful and even murderous pronouncements. There is justification for mayhem and murder in these scriptures and so throughout history wars have been fought and people have been killed for material gains and these black deeds have been justified by quoting scripture. In fact killings have also been justified on the authority of secular ideologies like Marxism!! However, it must be emphasised that the root cause behind wars and murders are material interests of one kind or other and scriptures or ideologies are there for justifying them only!!!
Thus, it is not surprising that Islamic scripture too has its fair share of murderous advice which has been relied on by Muslims to both wage war and kill people throughout history in tandem with the followers of other religions who have quoted their own violent scripture. Buddhists too have engaged in war and murder despite not having scriptures justifying them. So it is rather sad that Islam is being singled out as being a religion that promotes violence just because some Muslims are waging war and resorting to violence against civilians presently, when the roots of violence lie elsewhere.
Yet another English literary great, Samuel Johnson, famously said that "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels". While religious fervour is an age old phenomenon, patriotism is a product of the industrial revolution and the evolution of the nation state to secure local markets for capitalists from foreign competition in the seventeenth century. Since Johnson was a conservative and a proponent of capitalism, he must have been hinting like Shakespeare at the misuse of patriotism for ulterior motives and not questioning the concept itself. Thus, nationalism and patriotism like religious scriptures and secular ideologies have been used frequently to wage wars, commit genocides and in the modern world, undertake terrorism against civilians to mask the real purpose of such violence which is to make material gains of one kind or another.
Wars and violence have been a significant part and parcel of history and from the sixteenth century onwards the mainstay of colonialism and later capitalism. Post the World War II, the military industrial complex has been the biggest sector of the global economy and the production of arms and ammunitions and the expenditure on the armed forces and police, which are all subsidies to the rich to power their control of the economy, far exceed spending on the social sector. Indeed, widespread hunger and disease, which are a direct result of this cynical increase in the expenditure on arms and wars leading to lesser and lesser expenditure on food and health for the masses, are the biggest killers in the world today and so an even worse form of violence than wars. When there is so much State and Corporate sponsored violence, it is a little naive to expect that there will not be any non-state or rogue state violence!! As terrorists and rogue states cannot match up to the violence of the neo-imperialist states led by the USA, which incidentally has been the biggest killer of people since its inception beginning with the decimation of the indigenous people of the Americas, these bit players have resorted to violence against civilians who are a much softer target. The emergence of the financial sector as the dominant sector in the global economy has only aggravated matters further by forcing austerity on the one hand and casualisation of employment on the other on the masses and pushing some of the youth towards terrorism. Indeed terrorism is in the final analysis funded by some state agency or other so that there is ostensibly a reason for greater funding of the mainstream military and police even further!!! Its a vicious circle of spiralling violence and injustice from which there is not likely to be any let up.
Finally one can't get to the bottom of this whole business of violence without dwelling on the role of the media and academia. These too are controlled by the capitalists and are dens of scoundrels hysterically mouthing xenophobic and religiophobic balderdash that only fuels further violence. The capitalist thrust for never ending profits has made the ruling classes insane and since they control the minds of the masses through the media and academia, we are all going mad!!!