Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Raj Dharma,Democracy or Governance ?

In his interview with Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express in NDTV's program "Walk the Talk", Bal Thackeray, on his eightieth birthday espouses his familiar opinions on governance. He denounces Gandhi and his ideology, though he grudgingly accepts that the one piece of sane advice that Gandhi gave and which was never heeded was the Congress Party should be disbanded after the attainment of independence and that politicians should realign and form different political parties to attain their political ends. Gandhi had felt that it was unfair that any one group of people should benefit from the collective goodwill that the Congress, a movement rather than a political party had managed to garner over decades. Of course, no one listened.

Thackeray also goes on to express his disdain for democracy and expounds that what India needs is not democracy but a benevolent form of dictatorship which he calls Shiv Shahi. Now in the words that Balasaheb talks about dictatorship and given the image that his party, the Shiv Sena has, it is not unusual that such a concept only invites loathing. But this thinking that democracy is not for India, not even for Asia perhaps is not new. Ayub Khan talked about it in the Indian sub continent when he introduced the idea of "Basic Democracy" and then Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahatir Muhammad in Malaysia in different terminologies talked about "Guided Democracy"

How has democracy actually fared in India? undoubtedly better if our immediate neighbors are taken as the benchmark. But it is also true, that there was a time when the elements of insurgency were confined to pockets in the North East and a few pockets where Maoists held sway. This is no longer the case. as the quality of governance declines, the levels of insurgency and discontent keep rising and simply deploying more and more para military forces will never be the answer. times are such that even mainstream figures are beginning to say that they see some meaning and purpose in the cause that the Maoists are fighting for. Reacting to the policy of forcible or coercive acquisition of land for the SEZs , particularly the acquiring of fertile agricultural land , former Prime Minister , V.P.Singh says that if this is development , then he himself world like to become a Maoist. Similar views are echoed by Prakash Singh , a retired IPS officer , a former Director General of the Border Security Force has this to say about the quality of our democracy “They are far better than the criminals who have managed to infiltrate assemblies and Parliament and even become ministers”.

Is Bal Thackeray right? May be yes, may be not. Obviously all is not right with our democracy if large swathes of India are riddled with the bane of violence and if democracy in India has today become a largely middle class doctrine benefiting mostly them and those who are even richer. The daily news of the suicides of the hapless farmer caught in debt traps, food insecurity and policy indifference is a good sign of hoe democracy is or is not benefiting the poor irrespective of who is in power – be it the NDA or the UPA or even the Left Parties. Although the one man - one vote doctrine which we recognize to be democracy has given the right of suffrage to the common man, he has no say in the selection of candidates, no say in who become ministers and no right to recall, without which the right to adult suffrage looks some what hollow. We do not know what Shiv Shahi might look like and if the Shiv Sena cadres are its foot soldiers, then most of us would probably prefer our flawed democracy with all its warts and wrinkles. But even so, Bal Thackeray’s point has still to be taken – democracy without inclusive governance will make little difference to the station of the India nation, no matter how many Republic Days we celebrate and whatever be the scale of its pomp and outward grandeur.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Power of the Godman

The influence that god men can and do exert on society became apparent through two separate incidents over the last week through the newspapers and television channels which have been reporting about them first and the more constructive report was in the Indian Express where the famous Ram Katha preacher , Morari Bapu was reported as having got involved in the saving of the whale shark , an endangered species that comes to the Saurashtra coast for breeding. Invoking the imagery of a daughter coming home to her parents for confinement, he was able to persuade the poor fishermen of the coast, many of whom are his followers to desist from hunting these sharks.

Moving beyond preaching from sheltered stages and mandaps, Morari Bapu walked to a stretch of the coast where a whale shark had got trapped in a fisherman’s net and set it free with a blessing. That one gesture conveyed to the fishermen that the preacher’s concern and involvement to safeguard the whales was serious and newspaper reports indicate that levels of hunting of these whales has decreased dramatically. Although some sceptics claim that the phenomenon of Morari Bapu’s charisma is temporary and that the lure of money will ultimately prevail, the fact that even some progress is achieved is an indicator of how much can be achieved when people with a following, particularly a spiritual following choose to walk their talk.

The other god man in the news was Sri Sathya Sai Baba. He didn’t get accolades of course for his remarks on Telengana and his opinion that those who talk in terms of the division of the country are actually committing a sin. His remarks led to a huge agitation and even violence. The TRS president , K Chandrasekhara Rao commenting on the Sai Baba’s remarks suggested that the Baba stick to singing Bhajans and other dharmic activities. Apparently that statement indicates that in the political mind there is a big disconnect between the teachings and thoughts shared in discourses and the course of action that naturally follows as a consequence.

The situation of god men and their spheres of influence has never been adequately defined and perhaps never will be ? Should they merely preach abstract religious discourses but scrupulously avoid any references to real life situations and societal contexts where the moral and ethical principles can be applied practically. That seems to be the thought of the TRS president , who feels that the Sai Baba’s job is to run schools, hospitals and sing religious songs but carefully avoid making any comment that can be interpreted as political , even though of course there is no politics without a social milieu where issues emerge and ripen. Apart from the Sai Baba , there was also the recent instance of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar , who claimed to have provided a formula for solving the vexed Ayodhya dispute though in saying that both the Hindu and Muslim religious leaders should sit together and resolve the dispute through negotiations, he has not said any thing new that has been said before.

Although the temptation and the environment will always be there for religious figures to speak out on issues of a political nature and what they will say will often have repercussions given their mass following, there is a definite need to connect abstract religious teaching to hard social reality. But in this , I would admire the grit and purpose of Sant Morari Bapu , who has chosen to advocate for a largely unheeded cause and made a difference than join the ranks of those who speak on emotive and media highlighted issues without making any visible difference to the situation. God men in India - make a difference but if only we could ask that they choose their issues in a way that matters often glossed over and marginalized would get advocated....

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mariya - The Dalit Christian Woman

Vinodini is a Telegu writer who has written short stories, poems and plays and given an identity to the situation of Dalit Christian women. In her short story Mariya, she portrays the story of two sisters, of whom Mariya the elder is the principal character. The story illustrates how the two sisters face discrimination because of their Dalit origins in school, even as they are the pawns in a lust and power and control game played out by their Brahmin landlord, Venkateswara Rao at home. Their father, a petty official finds his solace and comfort in drink and has little to offer to his daughters.

The story underlines the social hypocrisy of the upper castes, which make much of their high caste, their purity and their separateness from the Dalits in public by practising covert untouchability and yet in private exploit the same people sexually and otherwise. Vinodini connects fact with fiction by making references to the gut-wrenching Banwaridevi case, where she was gang-raped in front of her husband by the village supremos, the Rajasthan High Court, while acquitting the accused, noted that Banwaridevi was from a lower caste. The men indicted were from a higher caste. It was not possible for men from the higher caste to rape a woman from the lower caste!

In Mariya, a similar situation occurs. Mariya is raped by her Brahmin landlord Venkateswara Rao and is scrumptiously observed by her younger sister, who has already been raped by Venkateswara’s son, Malli. After Mariya commits suicide in shame and her body is discovered, her sister does the unthinkable and confronts the upper caste landlord but of course to no avail. Venkateaswara Rao’s elder brother who comes into the crisis eulogizes the stain free ancestry of his family and how they have through the generations, scrupulously adhered to the ceremonies of ritual purity and how they had disowned their own younger sister because she happened to marry a shudra.

Vinodini has described the situation of the Dalit Christian sandwiched between the contempt of the upper caste Hindu and the apathy of the church and has depicted even better the situation of the Dalit Christian woman. As a Dalit Christian website expressively puts it “Rape is a common phenomenon in rural areas. Women are raped as part of caste custom or village tradition. Dalit girls have been forced to have sex with the village landlord. In rural areas, "women are induced into prostitution (Devadasi system)..., which [is] forced on them in the name of religion." The prevalence of rape in villages contributes to the greater incidence of child marriage in those areas. Early marriage between the ages of ten years and sixteen years persists in large part because of Dalit girls’ vulnerability to sexual assault by upper-caste men; once a girl is raped, she becomes unmarriageable. An early marriage also gives parents greater control over the caste into which their children are married.

Dalit women face the triple burden of caste, class, and gender. Dalit girls have been forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests. Sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women are used by landlords and the police to inflict political "lessons" and crush dissent within the community.

"No one practices untouchability when it comes to sex."

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Where Are Our Nurses ?

Recently, I was in conversation with a friend who is in the business of preparing Indian Nurses to go abroad and work – brush up their English, sharpen their professional skills, assist them with their visas and placements and so on. She told me that business was booming and in spite of tightening immigration laws in many places, nurses, particularly Indian nurses were always in demand. She further told me that in places like the Philippines, there was actually a shortage of doctors and many health facilities were closing down as doctors were choosing to work as nurses. Last year, The Asian Pacific Post lately reported that about 6,000 doctors in the Philippines are studying to become nurses so they can find higher-paying jobs abroad. A doctor working in a government hospital in the Philippines earns only about 25,000 pesos (446 dollars) a month. A doctor could earn around 8,000 dollars a month while working as nurse overseas. Apparently, the phenomenon is slowing beginning to happen in India too.

If people migrate overseas for economic benefit alone, it is possible some times to sit back on our moral high horse and berate those who if they had stayed back might have contributed to the nation’s development. After all, the annual NRI jamboree, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, has just gone by and the Prime Minister has called upon overseas Indians to invest in their country of origin, not just financially, but intellectually, socially, culturally and emotionally as well. But the surprising thing is that it would seem that India’s nurses do not migrate, just because they want to be richer than you or me.

Although financial remuneration is an issue , dissatisfaction with working conditions and unhappiness with prevalent social attitudes towards nurses have been identified as being of crucial importance for the international migration of Indian nurses. It was found that nurses working in the private sector and from some linguistic and religious groups were particularly prone to migration. Nurses working in the government sector seemed to be more worried about being unable to adjust to working conditions abroad and therefore less keen to migrate. The fact that they enjoyed better pay scales, a more relaxed work atmosphere and more facilities may have also played a part here. What seemed to be vital to the decision to migrate for a large number of government sector nurses belonging to the so-called `Forward' and `Middle' Castes was that they were being crowded out of promotional avenues as a result of the government's policy of Reservations in Promotions for Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

Although the migration of nurses from India and the reasons for the same are relatively well documented, it may be safe to say that India has not just a social caste system but also a professional caste system where some professions are praised to the skies and some are berated. For instance, although the medical profession is rife with unethical practices and graft eating away at its very vitals, doctors are held in high regard. Nurses on the other hand, work longer hours for measly pay and emoluments and with hardly any social recognition and stature. A lot of effort and activism is going on in fighting social inequities and rightly so. But a lot still needs to be done to correct professional imbalances and reduce the gap in the pecking order. Only then can we afford to criticize nurses and others who are looked upon with professional and social disdain when they quit our shores and look for financially and occupationally lucrative pastures.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Sibu Soren:The Cardinal's Friend

The response of the Catholic Church to the conviction of Sibu Soren, the first cabinet minister to be convicted for murder while still in office is intriguing.Cardinal Telesphore Placidus Toppo of Ranchi and other Church leaders expressed sadness over the verdict . The conviction is one "of the biggest tragedies for the tribal communities of Jharkhand state," the cardinal told reporters. His archdiocese is based in the state capital of Ranchi, some 1,160 kilometres southeast of New Delhi. Cardinal Toppo later told UCA News the Church would always support Soren "spiritually," because "we love him as deeply as ever." According to the prelate, who heads India's Catholic Church as president of the national bishops' conference, only "God knows the truth and he will take his own course."

No one knows why the Catholic Church feels free to defend some one who has been convicted after due process of law and whose crime is not trivial and more so when Sibu Soren held public office. True, he has a large measure of contribution to the Jharkhand struggle as the founder of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and still retains a large measure of public support. Sibu , known as “Guruji” among his followers is not a member of Cardinal Toppo’s flock and tribal solidarity not withstanding , what is expected of the church is that it will set a moral and ethical example by speaking out when public figures misuse the trust that is vested in them. This is not the first time that Sibu Soren has been involved in controversy and he does not enjoy the squeaky clean reputation that say A.K.Antony enjoys to warrant this sort of support from the church and its leadership.

The Catholic Church has always had political ambitions, usually but not always hidden under the garb of concern for the poor and the marginalized. In Latin America , the history of the Catholic Church has been till recently to support repressive right wing regimes who would distribute largesse to the clergy and church institutions. In most instances, while there are many who do work selflessly for the poor, a large section of the church hierarchy is more comfortable cosying up to the powers that be so that the vast church property and institutions and the money they bring in is not threatened.

And although it is often the right wing BJP that is mouthed , if its turf is threatened , it will not hesitate to take on even avowedly secular Marxist government in Kerala. “ Church leadership in Kerala says the Marxists-led state government is using the language of threat to somehow implement its controversial new education law to rein in professional institutions run by Church and other minority groups. Archbishop Joseph Powathil, Chairman of Inter Church Council for Education in Kerala said that dialogues to resolve the impasse on the self-financing professional colleges, would come to naught, if government is using the language of threat.”

But it is not only the Catholic Church that is to blame. Bishop P.D.S. Tirkey of North West Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church assuming prophetic powers has claimed that “News that Soren's fate would have a "great impact" on Jharkhand Christians. Church people do not know "party politics" or the case's details, "but he is not guilty and will be cleared in higher courts." How the Bishop knows what verdict will be delivered by the higher courts is a sublime mystery but what is abundantly clear is that even in matters of faith, belief and religion , tribal and ethnic bonds are thicker than the commandments of scripture.

The State of India's Mind

On a quiet September morning in the criminal ward of the Psychiatric Centre Jaipur, Ramesh caught hold of 70-year-old Muhammad Janaad by his hair, yanked him out of his bed and threw him on the floor. Then he dragged him under one leg of the bed, climbed on to it and kept jumping till Janaad was killed. No patient is supposed to be treated like a prisoner at the Psychiatric Centre Jaipur but those housed in the criminal ward might as well be in jail. Covering the incident, Tehelka informs that in a country of more than a billion people, there are 36 state-run mental hospitals in India and only 500 qualified psychiatrists manning them. This too in an age when mental illnesses and particularly stress related and induced disorders are increasingly blipping on the radar screens. Unlike other areas of health care, our procedures and systems in the area of mental health continue to be governed by antiquated procedures and rules. Though in theory, the mental health scenario in India is governed by the provisions of the Mental Health Act of 1987 which repealed the Indian Lunacy Acts of 1912, many of the procedures have not changed much.

As the term “lunacy” in legal usage itself indicates, the evolution of the mental health law in India has interesting origins. In the early 19th century, experts and administrators believed that the tropical climate was one of the causes of mental disorders among the Europeans living in India. Accordingly European patients, who did not improve within six months after their admission in a mental hospital in India, were sent to England for treatment. The passage money and other expenses were paid by the East India Company as loan to be repaid by the recovered patient. The practice began in 1818. In course of time the cost-effectiveness of this exercise was called into question. In order to regulate the selection of such patients the need for enactment of a law became apparent. In 1851 the “Lunatics Removal Act” was passed. This Act has the dubious distinction of being the first mental health legislation in British India. In pursuance of this Act and the rules framed there under, the flow of patients gradually dwindled, till it came to an end in 1891.

The enactment of India Lunacy Act, 1912 had a far-reaching consequence and impact on the whole system of mental health services and administration in India. Under this new legislation the central supervision of all mental hospitals became a reality. This is a fundamental change in the management of mental hospitals. These hospitals were thus removed from the grip of the Inspector General of Prisons. The next most important change was the recognition of the role of specialists in the treatment of mental patients. Psychiatrists were appointed as full time officers in mental hospitals

However, the mood and climate that faces the mentally ill is that of the eternally doomed. The winds that blow through the mental health ward are not those of concern, love and compassion but of regimentation, confinement and callous indifference. The over all management of many psychiatric institutions is still quasi judicial. The judiciary can order hospitalization of prisoners when it might not be required and in these cases professional psychiatrist expertise is essential. There is little hope for patients in a custodial environment which breeds isolation and exclusion. They are deprived of any skills for daily living and social interaction. There is no counseling to prepare patients for adjustment problems, relapses, re-admission or abandonment.

Less than one per cent of India’s total health budget is spent on mental health, with a large chunk being devoted to communicable diseases. A national mental health programme has been in place since 1982, but its implementation has been hindered by a greater focus on illness rather than on comprehensive mental well being. Even the Mental Health Act of 1987 is narrow in focus relating to severe illnesses and disability and the The Indian experience on institutionalized mental help as well institutionalization of patients itself has not been civilizing.

A report prepared for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 1999 after an empirical study of mental hospitals in the country made a condemnation of the state of mental health institutions. Clearly in the years gone by since then, not much has changed and a lot of attention and resources is needed to shake the state out of its state of apathetic lethargy