If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dr. Binayak Sen

The Christmas this year brought the shocking news that Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “sedition”. The prosecution case is that he passed on three letters from a Maoist leader to someone. Sometime in 2007, he had gone to a Raipur jail as a physician to examine the Maoist leader. Naturally, he met the latter under the supervision of jailors. While returning from the jail, he was arrested at a railway station. Two other persons too were handed down life sentences along with Dr. Sen by a Raipur court on 24th December 2010. 

You would certainly have read about Dr. Binayak Sen, but let me jot down some essential facts here. A brilliant student and an alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Binayak Sen is a paediatrician. Instead of practising in the comforts of a city and making money, he chose to provide medical assistance to the poor and marginalised adivasis of Chhattisgarh. He has been working there since the early 1980s. The impact of his work has been recognised by many and he has been awarded several international honours.

Mineral rich Chhattisgarh is one of the poorest states of India and is also a major centre of Maoist activities. In 2005, the state (BJP) government set up a vigilante army Salwa Judum to fight Maoists. According to historian Ram Chandra Guha, Salwa Judum “spread terror through the districts of Dantewada, Bijapur and Bastar. In the name of combating Naxalism, it burned homes (and occasionally, whole villages), violated tribal women, attacked (and sometimes killed) tribal men who refused to join its ranks. As a result of its depredations almost a hundred thousand adivasis with no connection to Maoism were rendered homeless.”[i] Activists like Arundhati Roy and Gautam Naulakha put the figure close to three hundred thousand.

Dr. Sen has neither been a part of a Maoist organisation, nor their sympathiser. On the contrary, he has condemned Maoist activities as “an invalid and unsustainable movement.” But as a national vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he was also amongst the first to document the human rights violations committed by Salwa Judum and police.

That indeed was crime enough to send a 60-year-old internationally respected social worker and doctor to prison for the rest of his life. The verdict looks even more grotesque if you consider that in India many parliamentarians are mafia dons, and the major political debate of the day is how much a central minister cheated the exchequer in a single deal – fifty thousand crore or one hundred and seventy thousand crore!  

The Raipur verdict has been condemned by a wide cross-section of informed voices, from the Amnesty International to Amartya Sen. Retired high court judge and the president of PUCL Rajinder Sachar called the judgment as “ridiculous and unacceptable”. [ii] In an uncharacteristically strong reaction, Professor Sen says, “To turn the dedicated service of someone who drops everything to serve the cause of neglected people into a story of the seditious use of something — in this case, it appears to be the passing of a letter, when sedition usually takes the form of inciting people to violence or actually committing some violence and asking others to follow, none of which had happened — the whole thing seems a ridiculous use of the laws of democratic India.”[iii]

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 was taken away from his home sometime in 2009. But it was not until nearly one month later that the Chinese authorities confirmed his arrest. He had a one-day trial in December 2009 and was sentenced to 11 years a few days later – on Christmas Day. Some suspected the Chinese authorities had chosen that day because most people in the West would be on holiday, and not notice.[iv]

Binayak Sen’s trial dragged on for three years and during the period, many, including 22 Nobel laureates, condemned the politically motivated and patently fake prosecution that was not backed by a shred of material evidence. But in the end, Binayak Sen got life imprisonment, compared to 11 years that Liu Xiaobo got. The other similarity is disturbing too. The verdict against Binayak Sen was announced on the Christmas Eve.

No, I am not insane enough – not yet, anyway – to compare our judicial system with that of China. But surely, there are many people in power in India who would love to have the kind of unfettered powers that the Chinese authorities enjoy. It is significant that for several days after the verdict, none of the mainstream political parties except the Communist Party of India (CPI) have spared one word to condemn the verdict, nay, even question the validity of the monstrous judgment. Some of them might, sooner or later, if they perceive the political cost of silence unacceptably high!

Considering the facts, it would be reasonable to demand that Dr. Sen is set free. Hopefully, that will happen once the case goes to higher courts. But what has happened to our justice delivery system? If this can be done to an eminent person despite international protests, what chance do ordinary citizens (like the two convicted alongside Dr. Sen) have against mighty governments in our law courts? Doesn’t this verdict reinforce the extremists’ claim that India is not a democracy?

Paraphrasing Shakespeare, the Supreme Court has recently stated: something is rotten in the High Court of Allahabad. The former Chief Justice of India (CJI), who is now the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission is involved in a public spat with a sitting high court judge. One of them is lying. There have been reports that the same former CJI’s daughter and son-in-law amassed Rs.7 crore while he was the CJI.[v]

Politicians have failed us and bureaucrats have largely proved themselves to be spineless yes-men. The judiciary may be the last hope for the Indian democracy. After the Raipur verdict, one wonders if it’s much of a hope.

Postscript: I think every Indian who cares for the future of this country should do something now. You can do something easily, almost without any effort. Please cut and paste the essential facts about the case either from here, or from a better source, onto an email and send it across to whoever would care to open and read a mail from you. Let this message reach every Indian who uses the Internet. Let us inform others; let us register our protest.

[The photograph of Dr. Binayak Sen is from Wikipedia; Liu Xiaobo's picture is from BBC.co.uk]

[i] Hindustan Times, 27 December 2010

Kolkata, 29 December 2010

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Where have all the pavements gone?

In the government school I studied at, fans were not switched on from November to February, or maybe, March. This was as per some government regulation, and those days, fans were not used in any government office in Kolkata during these months. Air-conditioners were rare, and were savoured by the hoi polloi only in cinemas.

Although I can recall some warm November days, we didn’t need fans in November. Compared to that, the November this year was unusually hot and humid. Global warming is no longer a matter of academic discussions. We are living it and making it happen. Last month, we read weather forecasts in the morning, fumed and fretted through the day, and switched on our ACs at night.

But it all changed yesterday, the first day of December. The morning was ushered in by a cool breeze blowing in from the north. There was a real nip in the air; as darkness gave away to light, a haze hung over the lake in front of our house. The park around it – a place packed with morning-walkers every day – was almost empty. Only a few brave men and women had come out, swathed in sweaters and scarves. Being highly susceptible to cold, I take pride in the fact that I am the first person in the city to put on a sweater every winter. That pride got dented.

Many things about this city you may not like, but it indeed has a glorious winter. Kolkata is perhaps one of the best places to be in during its brief winter. The sun is bright and crisp, one doesn’t smell sweat in buses and the metro; people are less aggressive on the roads. In The Summer of Forty-two, it was said, “When there is love in the air, no burden seems heavy.”  When there is winter in the Kolkata air, life seems fun!  

In my childhood too, winter was the happy season. It meant visits to the Botanical Garden and the Zoo, a picnic at Baruipur, circus shows at Park Circus. The icing on the cake was the annual cricket test match at Eden Gardens.

After we outgrew zoological and botanical gardens, for some of us, afternoons were reserved for long walks through quiet, spotlessly clean neighbourhoods in Alipore or Ballygunge. Some of the lanes had exotic names like Lovelock Place, a narrow alley with quaint bungalows on either side, where I smoked my first cigarette under the expert guidance of my friend D. D in fact had voluntarily taken up the task of mentoring me in those difficult days of early adolescence. It was he who handed over the first girlie magazine to me on a deserted road.

However, our walks ended at a less carnal destination. We would spend hours in the National Library reading room, which had a lovely section for young readers. The other favourite haunts were the Indian Museum and the Birla Technological Museum in Gurusaday Road that had lots of working models to fascinate us. If we felt lazy, we just stretched our legs and watched cricket matches on the CCFC ground or Deshapriya Park. 

We went to all these places on Bus No. 11, as we were fond of saying. Walking ten kilometres was considered perfectly normal. And there were roads on which you could walk.

Sadly, footpaths have been stolen from the city dwellers of a “shining” India. Whether it is Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Kolkata, walkways have been hacked down mercilessly to widen roads for the ever-increasing number of vehicles. The footpaths are so narrow and badly paved that even for a short distance, one has to take a taxi or auto rickshaw. In Bengal, It’s been a double whammy. Thanks to competitive populism of political parties, hawkers have taken over our pavements completely. The situation is worse in small towns, where roads and railway platforms have been turned into bazaars.

This is kind of funny. On one hand the government lecture us to reduce carbon emission to arrest global warming, and on the other, they make it impossible for people to walk or use bicycles in cities. I don’t know of an Indian metropolis that has earmarked some space as pedestrian zones or cycling zones. The likely-to-be chief minister of Bengal promises to turn Kolkata into London. Even if one ignores the colonial hangover implicit in the promise, one must tell her that we don’t aspire so much, Madam. Give us back our pavements, and Kolkata will be happy to be Kolkata.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Ahimsa in the time of madness

[I posted this story some time ago. I am posting it again for my new readers.]

In a sweltering summer afternoon, I was on my way to the Sanchi Stupa from Bhopal, alone.  

The public bus I boarded stopped minutes after leaving the bus stand. The driver killed the engine and got off, along with the conductor. After a while, the conductor reappeared, issued tickets, and vanished again. The next time he showed up, I asked him what time the bus would start. He didn’t seem to understand. So I asked him, in the finest Hindi that I could muster, what the scheduled time for departure was. He gaped at me blankly. I realised there was no schedule. A bus starts when it is full. Period. Salman Rushdie once wrote: The people who use the same word for yesterday and tomorrow cannot be said to have a good grip on time. He had a point.

Emperor Ashoka, one of the greatest rulers of India, embraced Buddhism circa 258 BCE. His dharma was non-violence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for religious teachers, bigheartedness towards friends, humane treatment of servants (there were no slaves in his time), and generosity towards all. He built thousands of stupas, the most distinctive monuments of Buddhist India. The Great Stupa of Sanchi was one of them.

The bus driver obviously believed that the journey was more important than the destination. The bus crawled slowly through deserted plains past sleepy hamlets in simmering heat. Hot air blowing in from the arid fields singed the passengers, most of whom covered their faces with the multipurpose piece of cloth that our village folk often carry.

I got off at an open ground flanked by some tiny eateries and shops. Ignoring the importunate skinny tonga-wallas and their skinnier horses, I started walking towards the Stupa, which was atop a hillock about a kilometre away.

But I underestimated the odds. Even a short walk in that heat could kill if you are going uphill, particularly if you are foolhardy enough not to carry even a hat or a water bottle! When I reached the top, I felt I was going to have a cardiac arrest soon. Fortunately, there were rows of taps dispensing ice-cold drinking water. I drank to my heart’s content and splashed water all over myself. Then I lay down on a concrete bench in the pleasant shade of a tall tree with thick foliage. The relief was immense. I drifted into a happy slumber. …

In the battlefield of Kalinga, Emperor Ashoka, riding an elephant, is surrounded by enemy horsemen. They are aiming their spears at the emperor. But he is smarter. He pulls out a pistol from his holster and starts shooting. As bursts of staccato gunshots rend the air, I get up. The place is as peaceful as ever, but I did hear gunshots! … Suddenly, the penny dropped in the shape of a bel, the common Indian fruit with a hard shell. One such fell nearby and exploded with a thud.

I was in an orchard of bel trees with thousands of ripe fruits ready to fall. Looking up, I saw one poised above my head, gently swaying in the afternoon breeze. Had it fallen while I was asleep, you wouldn’t have read this wonderful story! I ran to the safety of the open sky and then to the Stupa.

The return journey was infinitely more pleasant. The bus started after sundown. A pleasant breeze and a full moon greeted us as we went past immense fields. There was a forest in the background. The vast flat tract of land seemed submerged in tranquillity and peace you would expect in the Buddha’s land. I also saw a small tent far away; two people were cooking something over a fire.

Two days later, I saw this in a local newspaper: “A French couple camping on a field near Sanchi were lynched by villagers. They were … (27) and … (23). A mob had taken them to be dacoits. The young woman was gang-raped before she was killed.” 

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Compensating the riff-raff

Soumya Sankar Mitra

On the night of 2nd / 3rd December in 1984, water leaked into a tank containing methyl isocyanate gas at a pesticide plant of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal. UCIL was a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), one of the biggest multinationals at the time. The chemical reaction that followed raised the temperature of the gas to above 200° centigrade (392° F). The concomitant rise in pressure forced the valves open and methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases spread over the city of Bhopal.

Over the next week, around sixteen thousand people, including two thousand children and a similar number of expectant mothers, lost their lives. Later, sixteen thousand more died. Almost an equal number of animals perished too. In a vast area around the plant, the soil and the drinking water sources have been permanently contaminated. Several other tanks containing toxic chemicals are still lying unattended in the factory premises.

It was the worst industrial disaster in recent history. The Canadian government hadn’t permitted this plant to be set up anywhere in Canada, a sparsely populated country with millions of acres of uninhabited land. But in 1969, the government of India allowed to set up the same plant at Sanand, almost at the heart of the city of Bhopal.

Although we were intermittently agitated after the tragedy, with time, our indignation died out and the issue forgotten because those who died in the catastrophe, the survivors whose lives were devastated, and the deformed babies that were born afterwards generally belonged to the riff-raff, the dispensable stratum of the humankind. It was not an attack on a symbol of global wealth, the World Trade Centre, by some traders in terror. It was the death of the helpless poor in a transnational game in which rich businessmen try to become richer. Consequently, no war has been fought over the incident; what has happened can be called an international farce. Although many in the US and elsewhere consider the recent judgment delivered by one of the lowest Indian criminal courts in Bhopal after twenty-five years of procrastination as “just”, the dispensable people of this country think it was a monstrous joke. This article is an attempt to briefly record what followed the disaster.

How did it happen?

Till this day, the UCC hasn’t clearly revealed how exactly the gases escaped. None of their excuses, namely, sabotage by disgruntled employees, mistakes committed by inexperienced workers, etc. have been proved in subsequent enquiries. On the contrary, every investigation has shown that the preventive systems that had been put in place in similar plants in the US by the same company did not exist at Bhopal. Time and again experts had pointed out that the process of manufacturing the pesticide Sevin in the plant, which required production of methyl isocyanate at an intermediate stage, was dangerous. But the company had steadfastly refused to introduce safer but costlier processes. It has also been established that the principal causes behind the disaster were poor maintenance of tanks and pipelines and reduction of staff.

The curious case of the prosecutor and the accused

Immediately after the incident, the American chief of the UCC, Warren Andersen visited Bhopal. He was arrested by Madhya Pradesh government. But thanks to some invisible hands that we know so well, he was released on a bail of two thousand dollars and sent to New Delhi by the state chief minister’s private aircraft, accompanied by a senior bureaucrat. The same evening, he boarded a flight to his fatherland and hasn’t been troubled in the next twenty-five years. Although the Indian court hearing the case issued several arrest warrants against Andersen, the governments of both India and the USA did nothing to enforce the warrants. The helpless court declared him as an “absconder”. After the recent judgment by the court on 7th June 2010 stirred up public conscience and the media, attempts have been made to make the invisible hand even more invisible by setting up a core group of central ministers. These worthy gentlemen have begun thinking about new steps!

The government swings into action

On 29th March, 1985, i.e., in less than four months after the incident, the Indian Parliament passed The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, which conferred on the government of India the “sole right” to represent Bhopal victims. The Act took away the rights of individuals to sue the company in India or abroad.

At first, the UCC agreed to pay US $ 350 million, that is, the amount for which the factory had been insured, although the Indian government had demanded hundred times more. The UCC claimed that the mishap had occurred due to sabotage by disgruntled workers and the company was not responsible for such acts. As mentioned above, the company was unable to produce a shred of evidence in support of the “sabotage” hypothesis and what they suggested as possible modus operendi of the so called sabotage was proved untenable in an experiment subsequently conducted by experts. After haggling for fifteen years, in 1999, the Indian government and the UCC arrived at an out-of-court settlement for US $ 47o million (insured amount plus nominal interest). Immediately thereafter, when the UCC wanted to dispose of their shares in the UCIL, the Supreme Court allowed it to do so with the proviso that the company set up a 500-bed hospital in Bhopal to treat the gas leak victims. The hospital was set up in 2003, but what relief it has provided to the survivors is debatable.

Therefore, after allowing the boss to flee, steps were taken to let the capital flee too. In the mean time, the UCC had sold its Indian subsidiary to Eveready Limited. Before Dow bought the UCC, the Indian government publicly stated: “UCC has no liabilities in India any more”. Till now, neither Dow nor the UCC has accepted their liability to remove the hundreds of tonnes of toxic materials still lying in the factory premises, or to detoxify the area. However, “the doyen of Indian industries”, Ratan Tata offered to clean the premises by setting up an Indian consortium, although that proposal too hasn’t fructified.

The compensation

If we leave out the small amounts of cash support, primary healthcare, and some interim relief, the quantum of compensation provided by the Indian government to the disabled as “final settlement” was Rs.25,000 ($ 830). The heirs of the deceased got Rs.62,000 ($ 2,058) each. Till 2007, ten lakh (1 million) compensation applications were submitted. Half of them were rejected because the applicants couldn’t prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that they were indeed victims of the gas leak. Calculations show that even out of the pittance received by the Indian government from UCC, Rs. 100 crore (1 billion) still remains in their coffers.

Miscarriage of justice

After consideration for twenty-five years, a trial court at Bhopal sentenced the Indian Chairman of the UCIL and six of his senior Indian colleagues to two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs.1,00,000 each. They were promptly released on bail, paving the way for possibly twenty-five years of further consideration by higher courts. One cannot blame the trial court for this bizarre verdict. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India changed the Section under which the case had originally been filed, and instructed the investigating agency (CBI) to file a charge for “causing death due to negligence” against these officials and Anderson. The trial court has awarded the maximum penalty stipulated for the offence. Let’s recall that within the country, for deaths caused by a fire in a cinema at New Delhi and later in Stephen Court at Kolkata – although the magnitudes of these tragedies were smaller – the state governments have filed cases against the owners for murder, and the Supreme Court has not objected to this

The prognosis

The trial court’s verdict suddenly stirred up things in India. Many people began saying that the injustice that had been happening for twenty-five years was indeed injustice. As a result, the ruling party, the Supreme Court, and the CBI started talking about new steps to douse public anger. The central ministry, after setting up a core group of ministers, started spinning yarns about a Rs.1,000 crore (10 billion) compensation. Who will get it and how are “under consideration”. The Indian foreign minister tried to meet with Dow Chemical officials but failed. The company couldn’t spare the time because of their prior commitments.

In response to demands made on Dow to accept their liability, the company stated that although they were prepared to foot the bill for the acts of UCC, they were not obliged to do so for UCIL since that company had been purchased by Eveready. Significantly, although Dow hasn’t agreed to compensate Bhopal victims, they have compensated the victims in a case that had been filed against the UCC in the US for asbestos poisoning, in which 75,000 people were affected. They have already paid $ 687 million, and have undertaken to pay $ 839 million more. That means human life in the third world is less valuable. The arrogant transnational company, the government of India and the Indian judiciary have joined hands to stifle the cry for justice by the third world’s riff-raff. After this, everyone will recall the famous statement by George Orwell, All are equal before the law, but some are more equal than others.

What can the victims hope for and what lessons have our rulers learnt from Bhopal? Please decide after considering two facts: (A) In a week’s time, the lower court’s verdict will have been six months old. What the group of ministers set up with so much fanfare has done for the victims during the period is a closely guarded secret. (B) In Nandigram, West Bengal, there was murder and mayhem in 2007 when the ruling party desperately tried to set up a chemical hub in collaboration with the same Dow Chemicals and its even more notorious sidekick, Salems of Indonesia. Although Nandigram has been thwarted, the plan to set up a chemical hub on the geologically unstable Nayachar (literally, The New Sandbank) at the mouth of the Haldi River has gone far ahead through the joint efforts of Bengal and central governments, ignoring opinions of geologists and environmental scientists. One such opinion is: This chemical hub “is in essence a declaration of war against coastal resources and livelihood, spelling disaster for marine life, food, and nutrition security.”

[This is a slightly abridged translation of a Bengali article by my friend Soumya Sankar Mitra. I decided to translate this piece and share it with the readers of my blog primarily because I felt it was necessary that we knew the details. Secondly, I think my friend has told the sad story of Bhopal with rare clarity and comprehensiveness. Soumya teaches physics at a Kolkata college.]