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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Experts differ on Torture Bill

A bill belatedly brought in Parliament to root out torture of persons in police custody has drawn stern opposition from law and human rights experts for the serious lapses in its draft, including lack of proper definition of torture and firm provisions to fix accountability on officers ''in command.''

The Prevention of Torture Bill, now with a select committee of Parliament for whetting, zipped past the Lok Sabha with hardly any discussion on it but hit a roadblock in the Rajya Sabha after the BJP and Left parties took stands against it. The BJP maintains the Bill will “handcuff” police officers against criminals and terrorists.

Most of the opposition from experts against the Bill hovered around the definition of torture in it. “The bill describes torture only as suffering grievous injuries,” said senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhusan. Electric shocks and water drowning might not inflict “grievous injuries” but they were still acts of torture, Bhusan pointed out.

The bill merely follows the definition of “torture” in Indian law where the act is described as “grievous injury.” This despite Indian police stations recording roughly over 1,000 custodial deaths annually.

To ratify the UN Convention against Torture of 1975, of which India was a signatory, the bill would have to do a serious relook into its definition of torture, Maja Daruwala, director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said. According to her, the definition of torture in the bill does not conform to international standards.

“It makes it difficult to bring people who use torture to book. The purpose of the bill must not be just to show on paper that India has made a law against torture, but actually to have an effective deterrent against what is a common practice,” she said.

Another loophole is the lack of provision for compensation in the bill for torture victims. The maximum punishment for the police officials responsible for torture was only 10 years. “Breaking of law by a man in uniform should invite more punishment,” Daruwala said.

She also questioned “the time-limit” of six months for filing a complaint against torture.
The “bill thus protects the police, as permission of the Central and state governments is needed to punish the police officer who may have a prima facie case of torture against him,” Bhushan said.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

Govt gives free phones to poor instead of grain

People in Phagi village in Rajasthan haven’t been lucky to get free foodgrain from the government. But these below the poverty line (BPL) card holders have been magnanimously issued BSNL mobile connections with a free connection as part of a corporate social responsibility initiative.

One among the 1,000-odd beneficiaries is Gyarasi Devi who has no idea what to do with the gift. “We could have done with some grain, or a job. What will we do with these mobiles,” she asked. Other recipients say it is more of a headache than a gift. “Mobiles will actually add to our expenses. The foodgrain in the godowns is rotting. Why can’t the government distribute foodgrain,” Govind said.

Although Minister of State for Communication and Information Technology Sachin Pilot skipped the function, he defended the decision to supply mobile phones instead of foodgrain. “It is a good start made by the BSNL to make people below the poverty line feel like they too can be part of the telecom revolution. My best wishes are with them,” the minister said.

Also conspicuous by his absence was Rajasthan Civil Supplies Minister Babulal Nagar. Babulal was recently embroiled in a controversy after television news showed how Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns were being used to stack liquor while foodgrain rotted outside.

The FCI has played a catalytic role in the distribution of grain at subsidised rates to India’s poor, partly ensuring smooth supply of grain in the open market by drawing on its stocks during high inflation, shortages and price volatility. It has also played a role in preventing grain prices from falling below the government-set minimum support price by buying grain from farmers, subject to quality specifications.

Earlier in the week, the food ministry told the Supreme Court that its suggestion on limiting food procurement to available storage facilities, if put into action, would hit the poor farmer and “drastically impact the food security of the nation”.

In a 19-page affidavit, C Vishwanath, joint secretary in the ministry, said: “If the Food Corporation of India and state government agencies that do the work of procurement were to limit procurement only to the extent of their storage capacities, it would mean that in years of peak procurement, when markets are not very favourable, many farmers may not be able to sell their produce… and… would be left… at the mercy of traders who may not pay adequate prices.”

The government said this would force it to go back on its assurance to farmers that “whatever quantity of foodgrain they wished to sell to the government at minimum support prices would be purchased by the FCI and state agencies,” provided quality specifications were met.

“Absence of adequate returns or an assured guarantee from the government procurement agencies for purchase of foodgrain would dis-incentivise farmers from sowing these crops in future.” The affidavit went on to explain how the court’s suggestion would cause a “substantial shift to other non-food crops” in agriculture. “This would then drastically impact the food security of the nation,” the government said.

It would be best to augment “production and procurement” rather than limit food purchase to storage space, the government added.

Procurement went up from 36.2 million tonnes in 2006-07 to 53.77 million tonnes as on September 4, 2010, the affidavit stated.

Meanwhile, the government is thinking about splitting the 46-year-old FCI into three entities to divide the responsibilities of procurement, storage and distribution, said a senior government official.

The Union government invited wide criticism when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rejected the Supreme Court’s suggestion to distribute rotting foodgrain to the poor.

The apex court had observed: “It is time we develop a culture of zero-tolerance towards corruption to ensure two square meals for the hungry and the poor. What will be the choice of the government -- allow foodgrain to rot, or give it free to the poor and hungry. The choice is obvious.”

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Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Niyamgiri To Bellary, Polavaram To Konkan: Stop All Destructive Projects Now

The cancellation of the Vedanta group’s ‘mining rights’ in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha’s Kalahandi district surely marks a huge victory for the growing people’s movement against corporate invasion and plunder. The brave resistance of the local people, belonging predominantly to the Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribes, had begun to find wide-ranging support beyond the borders of Odisha and India. In July, the Annual General Meeting of the UK-based Vedanta group in London attracted angry protests by a broad spectrum of activists, and on August 16, the NC Saxena committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests submitted a hard-hitting report documenting the numerous illegal activities of the Vedanta group in collusion with high-level Odisha officials.

The opposition to the Vedanta group’s mining offensive in Odisha has been growing for several years now. And till recently, the central government too had been siding with the state government to rubbish and crush the popular protests and defend and promote the project in every possible way. The UPA-I had granted environmental clearance for the project rejecting the opposition of the tribal people of Niyamgiri and flouting every tenet of the PESA Act. And when the tribal people went to the Supreme Court to challenge the environmental clearance, the apex court went out of its way to ask the government to grant forest clearance as well! And the UPA government followed suit. So what the UPA-2 is doing is nothing but selectively retracing a step or two taken by the UPA-1 without admitting its past mistakes!

The Vedanta mining saga clearly raises some fundamental questions. The group’s claim of ‘mining happiness’ for the people of Odisha has been squarely exposed – but the ministers and officials working hand in gloves with this mining giant are yet to be adequately exposed and punished. We all know that P Chidambaram was on the board of directors of Vedanta Resources till the day before he became the Finance Minister in UPA-1 and we are also aware of the group’s bonhomie with the state government of Odisha led formerly by the BJP-BJD combine and now by the BJD on its own. A similar story is going on in Karnataka with the BJP pulling out all stops to defend the mining loot of the infamous Reddy brothers. Clearly, the people’s movement will have to confront and defeat this nexus between corporate robbers and bourgeois rulers.

This nexus is armed with a policy regime that promotes corporate loot at the cost of every legitimate concern and right of the people – be it over land or livelihood,
environment or culture.
Even as one Niyamgiri has seemingly been saved, there are hundreds of Niyamgiris all over the country where state-sponsored destruction campaign is going on in full swing. The ongoing Polavaram dam project in Andhra Pradesh and the proposed nuclear power plant in the environmentally delicate Konkan region of Maharashtra are just two glaring examples from two Congress-ruled states. The same Ministry of Environment and Forests which is now being described as a ‘Green Crusader’ has actually been functioning as nothing but a ‘Green Destroyer’. The time has come to press for a complete halt to this indiscriminate state-sponsored destruction.

The people’s movement will also have to challenge the doublespeak of the Congress. On August 26, Rahul Gandhi visited Niyamgiri and projected himself as a soldier of the tribal people in the corridors of power! He was garlanded by Lado Sikaka, a tribal activist of Niyamgiri who had only the other day been badly harassed and tortured by the state as a ‘Maoist’. One hand of the Congress is busy coercing and displacing the adivasis while the other hand garners the sympathy of the people and pretends to be their soldier and saviour. The politics of the Congress revolves around this calculated combination of ‘Operation Green Hunt’ and ‘Operation Greenspeak’ and we must unmask this hypocrisy of Rahul Gandhi’s professed concern for the deprived tribal people.

Veteran journalist and Congress-watcher MJ Akbar sees Rahul Gandhi’s pro-farmer pro-tribal discourse as a sign of a clever Congress attempt to appropriate the left-of-centre agenda. “It is axiomatic that a largely impoverished nation needs a political party that the poor can identify with. The Congress has set out to be the party of the poor in daytime, and of the rich at night. ... This is an extremely clever act whose opening scenes are being played out for a new generation that is vague about Indira Gandhi and amnesiac about Nehru”, writes MJ Akbar in his recent Sunday column in the Times of India (29 August 2010). Well, when the rhetoric of Nehru and Indira could not stop the radical Left even during the heydays of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘mixed economy’, can the ‘clever lines’ of Rahul Gandhi befool a people who are bearing the brunt of the pro-corporate pro-imperialist policies of the Congress?

By Dipankar Bhattacharya
(The author is General Secretary, CPI(ML) Liberation, and the write up appeared as editorial in ML Update, Vol. 13, # 36, 31 August – 6 September)


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.