Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The real radicalism of NREGA - Mihir Shah

The real radicalism of NREGA Mihir Shah

The brutal murder of young Jharkhand activist Lalit Mehta exposes the violent opposition of vested interests deeply threatened by the radical provisions of NREGA.

Lalit Kumar Mehta, full-time activist of Vikas Sahyog Kendra (VSK), was brutally murdered on the 14th of May 2008, on his way home through the Kandra forest. He was 36. Lalit leaves behind his 28-year-old Adivasi wife and their two babies, aged one and three.

The VSK is an Adivasi-led organisation whose activists have worked over the last 15 years in the Palamu district of Jharkhand for secure rights over natural resources and sustainable livelihoods. Palamu typifies the most backward Adivasi hinterlands of India, whose incredible wealth of natural resources is matched only by the deep distress of its people. Drought, poverty and hunger stalk a land where they can easily be overcome. This requires a people-centred, nature-nourishing approach to development, fine-tuned to the needs of each location. For the VSK, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) holds out precisely such a promise.

Young VSK activists like Lalit have been working hard to make NREGA realise its potential. At the time of his murder, Lalit was busy organising social audits of NREGA works. He was murdered just the day before a major audit was scheduled to take place. A CBI enquiry into the death, bringing his assailants to justice and compensation for Lalit's family are the least the government must do to compensate for this incalculable loss. Meanwhile, it would be instructive to try and understand why NREGA work can turn out to be so fraught with danger. The answer lies in the real radicalism of NREGA.

Mainstream discussions on the employment guarantee have been largely dismissive, left, right and centre. The political right views it as yet another meaningless palliative, a relief programme wasting its time on agriculture and rural development, while unnecessarily burdening the fiscal deficit. For it, the answer lies in getting people out of rural areas by focussing on urbanisation and industrialisation. Completely forgetting that these remedies have failed, despite having been tried for over 50 years now. Others, who occupy the centre of the debate, consider it important to address rural distress, especially in view of growing farmers' suicides but suggest that the much more effective way would be direct cash transfers. They argue that the NREGA needlessly complicates mechanisms of delivery. How much simpler it would be to just hand out doles.

As Lalit's tragic death has shown, these observers completely miss the wood for the trees, ignoring the much larger challenge NREGA poses to governance structures in India's hinterlands. For it is a programme based on a constitutional right to demand work, not dependent on the whimsical largesse of the state. At the extreme left of the political spectrum, there are those who suggest that the NREGA is one big conspiracy, a pain-killer so to speak, that seeks only to legitimise the dominant market-based policies of our time. What they fail to see is that the struggle to deepen democracy at the grass-roots must always imaginatively take advantage of spaces opened up by the state, whatever may or may not have been the compulsions or motivation for them to be created in the first place.

Lalit and his work, now much more eloquently before us, help shake off each of these anti-NREGA misconceptions. By revealing the heinous opposition of threatened vested interests, his ultimate sacrifice teaches us a great deal about the massive transformatory potential inherent in the Act. For NREGA programmes visualise a decisive break with the past. Ever since independence, rural development has largely been the monopoly of local contractors, who have emerged as major agents of exploitation of the rural poor, especially women. Almost every aspect of these programmes, including the schedule of rates that is used to measure and value work done, has been tailor-made for local contractors. These people invariably tend to be local power brokers. They implement programmes in a top-down manner, run roughshod over basic human rights, pay workers a pittance and use labour-displacing machinery.

NREGA is poised to change all that. It places a ban on contractors and their machines. It mandates payment of statutory minimum wages and provides various legal entitlements to workers. It visualises the involvement of local people in every decision — whether it be the selection of works and work-sites, the implementation of projects or their social audit. All of this is obviously incompatible with programmes where the main goal was, in effect, the maximisation of profits of the contractor. But even after the enactment of NREGA, things have been slow to change at the grass-roots. Displaying remarkable ingenuity, the old order is already finding ways to sidestep the radical provisions of the Act. Contractors deploy machines with impunity, even as forged muster rolls are filled up with fictitious names and thumb-marks of workers, to show as if the work was done by labour. This is especially the case in States like Jharkhand, which still do not have elected Gram Panchayats.

It is in this context that activists like Lalit become a major threat for local vested interests, all part of the long chain of recipients of sleaze-money siphoned out of NREGA. Jean Dreze, one of the architects of NREGA, who was with him just hours before he died, says that Lalit's work "revealed high levels of corruption involving people in high places." It is evident that these people were sufficiently threatened to feel compelled to silence Lalit's voice. Even as we struggle to come to terms with the immediate loss of a young life full of adventure and exciting possibilities, this is also a moment of deep reflection for all those who continue to believe in the huge change NREGA can bring to rural India.

The question Lalit's death should pose to us is: have we done enough to make it possible for NREGA to realise its enormous potential? Or will the forces of change represented by people like Lalit continue to hopelessly battle the powers-that-be who want business-as-usual in India's rural hinterlands, especially our Adivasi forest areas?

The problem NREGA faces can be stated in very simple terms. Its ostensible purpose is to overthrow the old contractor-raj but it has done little to offer an adequate replacement. Gram Panchayats have been designated the chief implementing agency but they have not been provided with the support structure required to execute the programme. A new bottom-up, people-centred approach to planning of works and social audit is spoken of but the social mobilisers and technical personnel required to make this a reality have not been supplied. The biggest employment programme ever undertaken in human history faces a huge crunch of quality human resources. This calls for a massive national campaign for capacity building of grass-roots workers. The Schedules of Rates remain the same that the contractor-raj used. They underpay labour, especially in earthen watershed works, making a mockery of statutory minimum wages, a legal entitlement under NREGA. They discriminate against women by underpaying or not even recognising specific work done by them.

Development initiative

The sooner the government realises the anachronism of "new wine in old bottles" that the NREGA has become, the better. This is not an old-style famine relief kind of welfare programme. This is a development initiative, chipping in with crucial public investments for creation of durable assets, which can provide the much-needed impetus to private investment in the most backward regions of India. The thrust is on construction of earthen dams, bunds and ponds as part of a watershed development strategy. On this foundation of water security, can be built a sustainable village development plan that includes a rejuvenated agriculture and allied rural livelihoods. For such a programme to be successful needs a new professional support structure. This structure must be mainstreamed within the government system.

Wherever possible, it can also be provided by civil society. Lalit Mehta's organisation Vikas Sahyog Kendra is part of a National Consortium of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) initiated in 2007. These CSOs, working across 34 districts in 8 States of India, have committed themselves to supporting gram panchayats (GPs) to implement NREGA. They have been formally invited by GPs to help them plan, implement and social audit NREGA work. Consortium partners have worked to create awareness among people about the Act and its provisions, built a dialogue with GP leadership, filled lacunae in the planning process and ensured greater participation of rural people in the functioning of the employment guarantee. Of course, in Jharkhand the absence of GPs is itself the real weakness. But a clear mandate from the government supporting CSOs working on NREGA would provide the much-needed protection to thousands of unsung activists like Lalit Mehta, who in their undiminished optimism about India's future, continue to risk their lives to make initiatives like NREGA a success.

(The writer is co-founder, National Consortium of Civil Society Organisations supporting Gram Panchayats in planning, implementation and social audit of NREGA works.)

The Hindu : Opinion / Editorials : Set Binayak free

The Hindu : Opinion / Editorials : Set Binayak free

Set Binayak free

It’s been a whole year since Binayak Sen was arrested on charges of conspiracy to wage war against the Indian state and commit other crimes. The general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties is being held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Chhhatisgarh Special Public Security Act, which make the grant of bail extremely difficult. The principal case stems from a ‘confession’ made by a Kolkata-based businessman named Piyush Guha relating to three unsigned letters, purportedly written by the jailed Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, recovered from his possession; the letters were allegedly handed over to Mr. Guha by Dr. Sen. This, the police say, is evidence of Dr. Sen’s deep involvement with the Maoists. Mr. Sanyal has been in jail in Raipur since 2006. Dr. Sen visited him 33 times as general secretary of the PUCL and in his capacity as a physician since the 70-year-old Maoist leader had a medical condition requiring surgery. The police accuse Dr. Sen of being a courier for Mr. Sanyal. Dr. Sen’s lawyers strenuously contest this allegation and it is surely relevant that Mr. Guha told a magistrate at the first opportunity that he made no confession and was made to sign blank papers under duress.

The case throws up a number of disturbing issues. First, given Dr. Sen’s impeccable record of working for and defending the health and human rights of the poor, especially adivasis, and the nature of the evidence tying him to a banned organisation, the authorities certainly abused their powers under a draconian law to object to the grant of bail.There was neither risk of flight nor any question of Dr. Sen using his freedom to interfere with the investigation. Secondly, while the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Chhattisgarh might have its reasons for wanting Dr. Sen behind bars, the reluctance of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court — the principal institutional guarantor of citizens’ fundamental rights — to grant bail in this case has been disappointing. Thirdly, the arrest under the PSA of another PUCL activist in Chhattisgarh, the filmmaker Ajay T.G., suggests that the local authorities are gunning for those opposed to Salwa Judum, the brutal counter-insurgency campaign run by the authorities. The manifest injustice in Dr. Sen’s case has triggered an international campaign demanding his release and also that he be allowed to travel to Washington to receive the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights on May 29. The Chhattisgarh authorities should abandon their shameful vendetta and the central government should do whatever is in its power to ensure that Dr. Sen and Ajay T.G. are set free immediately.

The Hindu : Opinion / Leader Page Articles - by P. Sainath: Of loan waivers and tax waivers

The Hindu : Opinion / Leader Page Articles : Of loan waivers and tax waivers

Of loan waivers and tax waivers P. Sainath
An overwhelming majority of Vidharbha’s farmers do not gain from the farm loan waiver because they are too “big.” But the IPL waiver goes to some of India’s richest millionaires and billionaires. They aren’t too big.

In Maharashtra, where the nation’s most distressed farmers have been denied the benefit of the ‘farm loan waiver,’ the government is said to waive crores in entertainment tax that the Indian Premier League cricket matches would normally attract. Media reports in Mumbai on this score reckon that means a loss of up to Rs.10 crore in revenue. As even the pro-corporate newspapers of the city point out, the direct beneficiaries would be Mumbai’s millionaires and billionaires. Film stars and corporate bosses who did not find it difficult to spend crores on buying teams and players. That too, for what the media are fond of calling “the world’s richest cricket tournament.” Simply put, if it goes through, they’ll be getting tax waivers on the hiring of cheerleaders, among other things.

True, this is not the first time that entertainment tax has been waived on cricket matches in Mumbai or elsewhere. The BCCI and its affiliates have always enjoyed political patronage. The difference, which has got even members of the ruling front worked up, is that those raking in the crores in exemptions are for-profit-only groups and individuals. By law, any event, musical or cultural, performance or other, staged for profit must pay entertainment tax. But not the IPL, which will have held 10 matches in Mumbai including the Final.

It’s an odd situation. The overwhelming majority of Vidharbha’s farmers do not gain from the farm loan waiver — because they are too “big.” That is, they hold more than two hectares of land. But the IPL waiver goes to some of India’s richest millionaires and billionaires. They aren’t too big. And the only reason Vidharbha’s farmers have holdings that exceed the loan waiver’s two-hectare cut-off is because they are dry-land farmers. Their fields are poor, un-irrigated and less productive.

The IPL waiver reports come within three weeks of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on “Farmer’s Packages” in the State. A performance audit the government of Maharashtra chose to present to the Assembly on April 27, the last day of the session. A day on which, as MLAs say, “there isn’t enough time to count the pages, let alone read the many documents they push at that time.” Clearly, they were not eager on a discussion of the contents.

The very first page of the CAG report tells us why. Despite the State government’s Rs.1075-crore “package” for farmers “the suicides, however, continued unabated and the number increased to 1414 during 2006-07.” The Prime Minister’s visit in mid-2006 and the Centre’s Rs.3750-crore package that followed in July also came the year the suicides increased. As we know from earlier reports, including some in this newspaper, they actually went up in the second half of that year.

Erratic spending

Here is the CAG on the official response: “No evaluation of the implementation of the packages, in terms of reduction in agrarian distress, was made.” We also learn that tens of crores of rupees aimed at reducing farmer distress were, in fact, never spent. The value of the packages themselves was exaggerated by over Rs.200 crore. Crores were released under some heads with no reference at all to the actual requirement of funds.

Other funds, such as those meant “for increase in production,” were released late. Cheques given to some ‘beneficiaries’ “were dishonoured for want of cash in the bank.” The “self-help groups were paid subsidies in excess of admissible norms.” Parts of other funds were not released at all. In head after head, funds were underutilised. This is how lackadaisical the governments were with packages worth a total of Rs.4,825 crore. So what’s Rs.10 crore for the IPL?

But the CAG report, which is devastating from start to finish, does not stop at that. It has a clear premonition of things to come. On the “interest waiver” that followed the Prime Minister’s visit, it says: “While reimbursing banks for interest waived on loans, sanction of fresh loans was not ensured.”

That is exactly where most farmers now find themselves again after the “massive farm loan waiver.” Fresh credit is very hard to come by. Distress has not come down. There have been over 360 farm suicides since January this year, about 200 of them post-loan waiver. In the official count, there were 153 in January and February. And of these, only 18 were considered “eligible suicides.” That is, only 18 families had any hope of being compensated for losing a breadwinner. The figures for March and April will turn out to be much worse.

There was a hope, after Rahul Gandhi’s plea in Parliament, that the two-hectare cut-off point would not be imposed on dry-land farmers in places such as Vidharbha and Anantapur. But it was. The very places whose misery had sparked the idea of a loan waiver now stand mostly excluded from it.

There is a very important point the CAG report brings out that tends to get glossed over most of the time. That the farmer’s world is not driven by agriculture alone. Farmers, whose incomes have been plummeting, have been hammered by education and health costs. The commercialisation of those sectors has hurt them, as it has countless millions of other Indians, very badly. That is on top of the stick they’ve taken in agriculture.

“Distress amongst farmers on account of cost of education was not measured.” The “allocation of funds (Rs.3 crore at Rs.50 lakh per district) for health was meagre ...” It mentions the government’s own survey showing that the health issues were huge and required much larger action.

One of the most important things the CAG points to is the State government evading its own findings. In mid-2006, the government organised what was the biggest door-to-door survey of farm households ever done. It covered over 17 lakh households, that is, all farming households in the six “crisis districts” of Washim, Akola, Yavatmal, Buldhana, Wardha and Amravati. Over a fourth of those families — that is, more than two million people — were found to be in “maximum distress.” And more than three quarters of the rest were in what the report called medium distress.

In other words, close to seven million people were in distress in just six districts. That was the finding of the most massive study, powered by over 10,000 field workers. And a report of the State government itself, at that. (See: The Hindu, November 22, 2006)

Yet, says the CAG, “the selection of beneficiaries … had no relation to the departmental survey conducted for the assessment of distress. As a result, the prioritisation of relief and rehabilitation works considering the distress level of farmers could not be ensured.” Why did the State government ignore its own study? Because the results of that huge survey are, to this day, explosive. Also, de-linking the distress survey from the packages meant you could reward your friends who might never have been in crisis.

Catalogue of failure

One line recurs in different ways through the CAG report: “Authenticity of reported expenditure was doubtful in the absence of proper classification of accounts.” Throughout, the report is a catalogue of failure too serious to be written off as “error.” On inputs, which farmers were desperate to get at reasonable prices, there was poor assistance. Farmers were hit hard by a poor supply of seed when they needed it most. Seed requirements for several crops, suggests the CAG, were simply not taken seriously. “The estimates were not realistic as these were made based on the amount allocated to this component and not based on actual requirement.”

The CAG report captures at the top end, the state of things on the ground. Being a performance audit, it confines itself to that task. It is not a field report. However, the portrait it presents of the government’s performance is a sharply accurate one. A picture that sits perfectly with the chaos at the receiving end below.

In the end, this is more than just a report. It is a snapshot, or a series of snapshots, of how governments, particularly the one in Maharashtra, are responding to agrarian distress. The complete apathy, the corruption, the cover-ups, even the contempt for the farmer, that come across. This is a State where all the attention is on the brilliantly-lit, power-guzzling matches of the IPL. It is also a State where many regions face power cuts ranging from 3-16 hours each day. And countless children have completed their examinations without being able to study much. The huge power cuts meant darkness in their homes when they returned from school.

The report is about the packages in this State. But if we extend our thinking a bit, it should lead us to reflect on things much larger. On the crisis in the countryside, on those being marginalised or just driven away. On regions beyond this one and on our attitude towards those who grow our food but can less and less afford to eat it themselves.

Thursday, May 08, 2008 :: GM on trial on Bt Crops :: GM on trial
GM on trial

Sonu Jain

Posted online: Thursday, May 08, 2008 at 0006 hrs Print Email

As Bt brinjal awaits clearance in India, SONU JAIN explains the status of Bt crops in India and the nervousness over GM brinjal getting the nod

How many vegetable crops have been genetically modified?

Globally, 23 such species have been genetically engineered and are being tested. China grows tomato, papaya and sweet pepper commercially; the US grows squash (a variety of gourd) and papaya. Over a dozen biotech crops are currently being field-tested, including the three major staples (rice, maize and wheat) and potato, tomato, soybean, cabbage, peanut, melon, papaya, sweet pepper, chilli and rapeseed.

According to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), in 2007, 120 lakh farmers in 23 countries grew biotech crops on 114.3 million hectares.

What is the status of Bt crops in India?

India approved Bt cotton in 2002 and since then, has cleared 135 different hybrids. India has displaced the USA as the second largest producer of cotton in the world after China. Production of cotton rose to an all-time high in 2007—from almost 194 million bales in 2002 when Bt cotton was first planted commercially in India to over 337 million bales in 2007.

Why has brinjal been chosen for genetic modification?

The average brinjal yield in India is around 200 to 350 quintals a hectare. It is estimated that the damage caused by the Shoot and Fruit Borer in brinjal, the major pest, ranges from 50 to 70 per cent and in economic terms, the loss is estimated to be around $221 million. It is to lend tolerance to this pest that Bt Brinjal has been developed.

Why this nervousness over its clearance?

This is the first time GM brinjal has been released for an advanced stage of field trials in open conditions anywhere in the world. Activists believe India’s “poor” regulatory regime has allowed illegal Bt seeds to thrive.

What benefits does Bt brinjal claim to offer to farmers?

Farmers have to spray brinjal heavily with pesticide because of the fruit and shoot borer, the most destructive insect pest for the crop. The company claims that Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a common soil bacterium, produces a protein which, when ingested by the larva of the targeted insect, binds itself to the insect’s gut and incapacitates the insect.

What stage of regulatory clearance is it in?

Mahyco is developing Bt brinjal in India. The process started in 2002 and this April, the first phase of large scale field trials is over. The results of biosafety tests are with Genetic Engineering Approval Committee.n How many vegetable crops have been genetically modified?

Globally, 23 such species have been genetically engineered and are being tested. China grows tomato, papaya and sweet pepper commercially; the US grows squash (a variety of gourd) and papaya. Over a dozen biotech crops are currently being field-tested, including the three major staples (rice, maize and wheat) and potato, tomato, soybean, cabbage, peanut, melon, papaya, sweet pepper, chilli and rapeseed.

According to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), in 2007, 120 lakh farmers in 23 countries grew biotech crops on 114.3 million hectares.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Making peace with militants By Irfan Husain

AS cracks appear in the newly formed ruling coalition in Islamabad, there are other ominous signs on the horizon. The attempts to negotiate a truce with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have far more serious implications for Pakistan than political hiccups in the capital.

When the firebrand Maulana Mohammad Sufi was released from jail recently, he said he would not return to his terrorist ways, but would continue fighting for the imposition of the Sharia in Malakand and Swat. This, incidentally, is the same cleric whose fiery rhetoric sent thousands of young Pakistanis to Afghanistan on the eve of the American attack after 9/11. Hundreds did not return, and angry, grieving parents would have vented their fury against him had he not begged the authorities to jail him.

His son-in-law is Maulana Fazlullah, the cleric who has been waging war against the state in Swat in order to impose a Taliban-like system in that lovely valley. Hundreds have been killed, and scores of families have sought refuge elsewhere. The army has imposed an uneasy calm on the area.

On the face of it, there appears nothing wrong with making peace with these militants, and others of their ilk. After all, the argument goes, they are Pakistanis, and we should not be fighting them at America’s behest. And as recent bloody events have proved, these terrorists have the means and the motivation to strike hard and deep at targets across Pakistan.

Another reason that is advanced to justify negotiations is that force has already been tried, but to little avail. Under Musharraf, the army proved unable to defeat the militants, losing nearly 1,000 soldiers in fierce battles. Hundreds more have surrendered. Finally, this undeclared civil war has resulted in many deaths among the civilians who shelter and conceal the jihadis.

For all these reasons, the policy of confrontation, adopted by Musharraf with Washington’s prodding, has been condemned across the political spectrum. While we need to review the policy, we must understand what we are being asked to accept in exchange for a temporary truce.

Firstly, even though the militants may not hit targets within Pakistan, they will certainly launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. Secondly, while they have promised to expel foreign terrorists from the tribal areas, there is no way to ensure this has actually been done. And once the army withdraws from these lawless lands, a key TTP demand, who will monitor the movements and activities of Mehsud and his henchmen?

It should be clear that these holy warriors are driven by utopian dreams and hard cash: greater freedom of movement and a respite from army action will allow them to move arms, heroin and fighters more easily. They have already imposed their own brand of Islamic law upon the hapless tribals who live here. And the menace is spreading.

Those who advocate Sharia law should think long and hard about the implications. We saw the Taliban impose their version in Afghanistan when women were lashed for the slightest infringement of barbaric laws; ancient statues were destroyed; and music was banned. Is this the kind of Pakistan we would like to live in?

There are those who say the Taliban went too far, and advocate the Saudi model instead. Having struggled for democracy for so long, do we really want to be ruled by ignorant mullahs? In Pakistan, a number of women have distinguished themselves by excelling in their chosen fiel ds. Benazir Bhutto, Fatima Jinnah and Asma Jehangir are only some of the better-known figures. There are many more who have carved out formidable reputations in the face of heavy odds. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to even drive cars or travel without permission from their mahrams. Is this the kind of Pakistan we would like to live in?

When people speak glibly of ‘Islam being a complete way of life for all times’, they forget the crucial role of ijtihad. This concept of change and evolution through consensus is at the heart of adapting the system to new circumstances. Clearly, tribal laws from the medieval era were never intended to be applied in a period of massive social and political change. I am no Islamic scholar, but I am a student of history, a discipline that teaches us that unless systems and species adapt, they die.

The basic reason why most mullahs reject the central concept of ijtihad is that a rigid, literal interpretation of holy texts gives them an authority they would not enjoy if a modern, rational approach was taken towards understanding the spirit of religion. More learned Islamic scholars fear a multiplicity of opinions might take the faith away from its origins. But this is a risk we will have to take if we do not want the Muslim world to be left further behind. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what Muslims have contributed to world civilisation over the last 500 years.

These are some of the questions we need to pose when we talk of appeasing the militants who threaten not only Pakistan, but the region and countries far away. People like Baitullah Mehsud, Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar thrive in conditions of anarchy. Angry young men flock to their banners when they are poor and uneducated. Others see them as romantic revolutionaries who want to change the world. But what they seek is power, and unable to win it through the ballot box, they use terror to push their agenda.

Judged objectively, the wars we have fought thus far have been largely of our own making. None of them was the result of existential threats to Pakistan. But the war imposed on us by militants such as Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Fazlullah threatens our freedom and our way of life. It is not a conflict of our choosing, but it is one we will have to fight unless we want to end up like Afghanistan under the Taliban, or as a poor version of Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, we have to decide what kind of country we want to live in.

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Arise Awake Stop not till the goal is reached. - Swami Vivekananda Swami ji is my inspiration, not as a monk but as a social reformer and for his universal-ism.