Thursday, June 24, 2010

money on my mind

This is not a judgmental post. I do not mean to bitch about how small the hearts of our Messrs Moneybags are. I just want to understand this business of money and parting with it and how it can be done happily.

Take a look at this piece. If you believe the statistics here, we really aren't growing more generous although many of us are doing much better financially than we could have hoped to, barely two decades ago. In other words, we aren't exactly anxious for our money to trickle down. Whether this is because we are suspicious of agencies who seek donor funds or of NGOs themselves, I'm not sure.

I have rarely taken decisions motivated solely based on how much money I will make or lose, but I have slid back and forth between need and greed on the lifestyle scale. And I find it hard to understand what makes people hold on tighter to their wealth as they acquire more of it.

When I was younger I believed - I can no longer imagine why - that those who had more than enough money didn't care about it. They just spent and shared and demanded without even thinking about it. I used to think that those who had to scrounge, those who had to hang on to every four-anna bit were forced into pettiness, being fiercely protective of the little they had. This was received wisdom, I suppose, because I had neither much money nor much cause to worry, nor any truly rich or truly poor friends. Or perhaps, it was something absorbed from media. Notions like 'the middle class was 'balanced' in its approach'. There were also a few assumptions about 'class'. About how money allowed people freedom and refinement.

But once I began reporting and was exposed to society's extremities and fringes, all certainties vanished.

I found myself in the homes of millionaires and saw an obsessive approach to money. I also saw simplicity and good breeding. But not always. Often, I found tight fists and snipped corners. But work usually took me to the homes of those who would prefer to be left alone. Even in the midst of a crisis, I found the poor behaving with a measure of civility and consideration.

This had little to do with what I could offer them. Small examples: I once accompanied a police team raiding a brothel, after a tip-off about minors being held there. The frightened and irritable sex workers were unfailingly polite, and slightly apologetic. If they weren't being rounded up and hauled off to the police station, I'm sure they would have offered me some tea. And my presence certainly did not prevent them from being hauled off.

I also remember going to a struggling (but pedigreed) actress' home for an interview. It was a time when she needed to stay visible and could do with all the interviews she could get. But she kept me waiting, didn't bother to apologize, and remembered to ask whether or not I'd like some tea only when I had abandoned all hopes of getting a cup.

Over the years, I found this turning into a pattern. The richer the person, the lesser she/he seemed to care about your needs.

And even today, I find this hard to explain. What is it about money? How does it manage to change human beings in such ways? I would understand if having money lessened your insecurities and made you generous. I don't understand why it draws your empathy out into a single thread that is wrapped tightly around your immediate family and yourself.

And like I said, this is not a judgmental post. It is very likely that if I made a little more money, I would find myself changing in the same way. Perhaps, there is some in-born need to protect what you have and you always need more to protect more. I am just trying to understand why it happens.

I have been getting phone calls quite frequently, especially over the last three months, asking for donations to this or that 'sanstha'. I have always said a firm 'no' - primarily because I don't have any money left to give, but also because I don't like direct solicitations on the phone from strangers. I have not signed up on a list, nor allowed my phone number to be given out to NGOs. In fact, I have repeatedly signed up on a DND (do not disturb) list, which neither Airtel nor Reliance seems to respect. And so, when I take such calls, I am annoyed in much the same way as when I get calls from banks, insurance providers or real estate developers.

But assuming I had more than enough money, and assuming I wanted it to trickle down, would I give it to charitable organisations?

I know a lot of Indians - including many in my family - are content to help lesser privileged people in their immediate sphere of influence. Domestic workers, chauffeurs, neighbourhood sanitation workers, their extended families, and so on. 'Help' often translates into volunteering time to teach the children of such service providers, or helping organise their weddings, giving presents of money and clothes and food.

I suppose it is better than nothing. To want to help others around you is great. But there's no getting away from the fact that there is a selfish motive built into this kind of charity. You give old sarees to the cook to ensure she stays put. You put the gardener's son through school and hope he will tend to your papayas with more enthusiasm. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting your workers to stay on and work well, such 'help' seems more like work incentives, an additional family benefit or bonus.

The only people who receive money from millions of Indians, without really giving anything back but their blessings are beggars. And many of us do give money to beggars quite often, although it is not a good system to give through.

Which brings me back to what I started with. What makes us so reluctant to give to organised charities? As the article says, there is some suspicion of NGOs. I, for one, would like to have actually seen the kind of work an NGO does and if I approved and found myself able to donate something, I would.

So, is 'outreach' the solution? Should charities invite more donors over to look at where the funds are being spent? I know that there are enough NGOs out there that are well-known enough to be trusted. Which doesn't mean they spend our money better. It just means that we have heard of them so often and in such positive contexts that we don't really associate their staff with misappropriation of funds. Yet, India hardly donates.

Or is there something inherently flawed abut the structure of charity and the way it makes appeals to your conscience? And why does it work better in some countries and why not in India?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A 350 ton problem

It isn't over until it really is over.

Like this great article says, the real tragedy of Bhopal is, perhaps, that it is still unfolding. That people still fall sick and need regular treatment and lose jobs because they are sick so often. And yes, there's a hospital, where 'Everything is free. But there is a price on every treatment'.

“Twenty rupees for the bed, 50 rupees for the blood test,” says his daughter. Khan’s lungs have weakened to the point where he cannot work any more. He is entitled to a pension, which was recently increased to about Rs 300 from Rs 150. This is yet another heartbreak. To be eligible for the new pension, he has to fill out a form. And for the last two months, he says, he has been going to the local nagar nigam office only to be told that the forms have not reached.'

Nice, no? A pension of Rs 300. And it was Rs 150 until recently. Makes you proud to be Indian, eh? We give old and sick people a pension! A whole 150 rupees.

The article also goes on to cite studies that show that the land is still 'highly' contaminated with chemical like Carbyl. And "Carbaryl, says the report, damages brain and nervous system, and causes endocrine disruption and abnormal child development."

Plus, there's no money to research the illnesses associated with the tragedy - and some doctors are asking for less than Rs 2 crore to initiate research.

Plus, the houses they built for the widows are such that in the Widhwa Colony, barely two kilometers from the Carbide factory, "It is difficult to say which is the bigger disaster – that so many men died, or, that their widows now lead such a deprived existence. All the houses are shoddily built. In one home, the wall was so poorly connected to the stairway it was meant to support, that the two have pulled away altogether. Other houses had finger-thick holes in the walls, the outcome of residents trying to hammer nails in. There are sanitation issues too — the water pipe has been laid underground a foot away from the sewage pipe."

Sometimes I think Bhopal is a sign-board, a laser beam that points to the fact that we have made a mockery of ourselves, nationhood, democracy. Whatever our 'Indian values' comprise, justice doesn't seem to be on the list.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Betrayals of the faith

The real Islamic crisis, I think, is this.

"At the time I was learning to memorise the Koran from a very kind, mild-mannered teacher.

I asked him what exactly was wrong with the Ahmadis.

He explained to me that they didn't believe that the Prophet Muhammad was the last and the final messenger.

I said OK, maybe that makes them kafirs, infidels, but who says that kafirs can't sell cloth?

My teacher's response was a full-handed slap, so sudden, so unexpected that it rang in my ears for days to come.

That same year Pakistan's first elected parliament declared Ahmadis non-Muslims."

In a must-read piece, Mohammed Hanif tells us about a "former chief minister of Punjab and current federal minister didn't attend his own mother's funeral because there were rumours that she was an Ahmadi."

If ordinary Muslims cannot find the courage to look within, to look at themselves and their own hatreds with clear eyes and not face up to their own endorsements of violence, they lose the moral right to seek protection from violence and discrimination.

And this is not just about Pakistan. This is also about India. Because this is the madness on our side of the border:

"Dr. Naik recommends the death penalty for homosexuals and for apostasy from the faith, which he likens to wartime treason. He calls for India to be ruled by the medieval tenets of Shariah law. He supports a ban on the construction of non-Muslim places of worship in Muslim lands and the Taliban's bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He says revealing clothes make Western women "more susceptible to rape." Not surprisingly, Dr. Naik believes that Jews "control America" and are the "strongest in enmity to Muslims."

"Of course, every faith has its share of cranks; and, arguably, India has more than its share. But it's impossible to relegate Dr. Naik to Indian Islam's fringe. Earlier this year, the Indian Express listed him as the country's 89th most powerful person, ahead of Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen, eminent lawyer and former attorney general Soli Sorabjee, and former Indian Premier League cricket commissioner Lalit Modi. Dr. Naik's satellite TV channel, Peace TV, claims a global viewership of up to 50 million people in 125 countries.

Somebody help! I've heard from a few 'moderate' or 'modern' Muslims that This Dr Naik fellow is worth watching, that they want to learn from him, preach like him, or emulate him. And of course, if you are a fundamentalist in a suit and tie... its kind of convenient, isn't it? Nobody thinks of you as a fundamentalist. And that's half your job done. Because nobody can dismiss you, then, the way you'd dismiss a loony with an AK-47, or a woman in a burqa and elbow-high gloves, who is so clearly far out, so clearly different from your life and your faith that you don't even feel the need to disassociate yourself from him/her.

The article goes on to say that "Senior journalist and presenter Shekhar Gupta breathlessly introduced his guest last year as a "rock star of televangelism" who teaches "modern Islam" and "his own interpretation of all the faiths around the world."

Who makes that happen? Why are there no liberal Muslim intellectuals telling Mr Gupta what he doesn't know, because clearly, he doesn't?

I personally think that these incidents and contexts are the ones that must draw our attention and outrage. If Indian muslims cannot bring themselves to say 'no' to violence against homosexuals or Ahmadis, with what face can they say 'no' to violence against Kashmiri Sunnis, or Shias, or Sufis, or indeed just plain human beings?

The time for liberal muslims to speak up is not just when riots or blasts or crazy shootings happen. Nor just when some teenager gets arrested or shot dead without a fair trial. The time to speak up is primarily - and urgently - when idiots take your faith, twist it out of all recognition and then seek to control you through the voice your democratic state has allowed them. The time to speak up is before they shut you up permanently.

And it is time to say that anyone who preaches hatred does not deserve a public platform. Not Sadhvi Ritambhara. Not Babu Bajrangi. And not Dr Naik.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Morning, inbox, twitter feeds. Interesting bits:

What was the use now of the idea of Muslim specialness — the distinctiveness and separateness of Indian Muslims — in an independent, Muslim-majority country?

"Let’s get back to what happened that black Friday. I witnessed the Model Town carnage and can testify that there were three, maybe four, policemen in all who had been stationed there for many months. I saw them in their dhotis and slippers, smoking their hookahs, whenever I went to pray... Most of the security cover on the day of the attacks was comprised of unarmed volunteers from our own community. Friends and relatives who were outside tell me that the police and the Elite Force, on their arrival at the Model Town site, did not even attempt to go inside and showed signs of fear (last time I checked, weren’t all Elite Force jawans wearing shirts inscribed with ‘no fear’?). Seeing this, members of the community who were outside tried to convince them that they had to enter the premises: the clock was ticking and lives were at stake. On the law enforcers’ refusal, some Ahmadis tried to take their weapons so that at least they could go inside themselves and try to deal with the gunmen.

It was only after the worshippers inside had subdued two of the attackers that the law-enforcement personnel found the confidence to go in. The terrorists, by the way, had an easy passage of entry: they came through the cricket ground which is directly in front of what is called Bait-ul-Noor. Five gunmen. Fully armed. Two with suicide jackets." Rest here.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Emergency causing emergency?

Who knows what one swift decision might lead to? I wonder if those who grant licenses to chemical industries can even picture the possibilities contained within those factories where hazardous chemical compounds are being manufactured. I know I couldn't have imagined it - boxes of inanimate matter leading to deaths and birth defects even at a generation's remove... and all it takes is a signature on a piece of paper. A license, a clearing of bureaucratic hurdles, a dismissal of all fears about pollution.

A paper - whether in triplicate or not - got signed. And then thousands and thousands of dead mutilated bodies.

Another signature must have led to the imposition of a national emergency. Which led to an overriding of all objections to every state decision - whether from rival politicians, or bureaucrats or the press or activists. Which led to the granting of a license. Which led to...

What exactly the Emergency had to do with the Bhopal tragedy has not been investigated but according to this press release, "on 1st January 1970, Union Carbide Company had applied for industrial license... The company did not get industrial license for more than 5 years. There must have been sufficient reason to withhold permission for industrial license. After the imposition of Emergency, the company was granted the license on till (sic) 31st October, 1975".

The release is up here . It makes a few other points about state culpability. It quotes Mohan P Tiwari, Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal, whose statement says: “(z) It is worthwhile to mention here that the Government of India and the Team of Scientists admittedly was never permitted to visit the Plant at Verginia, (sic) USA. No brochure, or any other documentary evidence demonstrating the similarity between the two plants at Verginia and Bhopal has been produced before the court by the defence."

I personally think the victims of 1984 would be perfectly justified in suing the state of Madhya Pradesh and the Government of India. Dow, Union Carbide, Anderson, and the local managers are all guilty and should be punished. But so is the state - for not inspecting the factory and insisting on better safety measures, for not insisting that their scientists be allowed to visit the American plant if they felt it was necessary before granting a license, and for not investigating this whole business of who cleared the project in 1975 and who renewed that license in 1982.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nothing and nothing and nothing

I spent some time on the Bhopal website. They have a timeline tool. It shows you a page crowded with information on what happened during the gas tragedy in December 1984. On the right, there is a horizontal bar with forward/backward arrows in neon green. I clicked on the forward arrow.

There was nothing. And nothing. And nothing. And nothing.

Then there was something, a little something. In 1989. Criminal charges against Carbide. Then a little further on, in 1991, the Supreme Court review of the Carbide settlement. Then, in 1992, the reopening of the criminal liability case. Then in 1993, Union Carbide and Warren Anderson were declared 'absconders' from the law.

And then nothing. And nothing. And nothing. All the way to now, and nothing.

While keeping my finger on the click button of the mouse, arm began to hurt. I was irritated and frustrated at staring at the blank screen. I wanted to speed things up. Move on. Move on to the point where something happened. Why was 1989 taking so long to turn into 1991? Why was 2002 not moving into 2005. Why was 2005 dragging? I found myself just wanted to give up. Shut the window. Look at something else. Plenty of other ways to waste time on the internet.

And then I began to wonder - what is it like for nothing to happen if you are on the timeline?

When 1989 never ended. Where 2005 never quite began. And if it did, it looks no different from 1985, or 2009. What happened to time, if (almost) nothing was all that happened?

What must it be like to sit there and wait for something to happen, and not even be able to click a button. Not be able to shut windows. Not be able to waste time because so much of your time, your life, your patience, your body has already been wasted.

And as for what happened in 1989? This.

"...the Indian Supreme Court unilaterally, without giving the victims a chance to make their case, imposed a settlement to the amount of $470 million, with the government to make up any shortfall. The government had asked for $3 billion from Carbide. Carbide executives vere delighted; they speedily transferred the money to the government. That was in 1989. The first victim did not see the first rupee of Carbide s money until Christmas of 1992, eight years after the night of the gas. A total of 597,000 claims for compensation have been filed. As of May 1996, the government has passed rulings on only about half of them302,422-and awarded compensation for injuries to 288,000 Bhopalis...

Although the government isn’t releasing figures about the average amount of awards, the welfare commissioner’s office told me that the maximum compensation awarded for deaths is 150,000 rupees ($4286), except in a handful of cases. Mohammed Laique, a local lawyer who has been representing claimants from the beginning, gave me the standard rates of compensation. For most deaths, the amount awarded is 100,000 rupees ($2857). For personal injury cases, 90 per cent get 25,000 rupees, or $714 (the award bestowed on most of the survivors I spoke to directly)."

Read the whole piece. It talks not only of the tragedy of poison gas. It talks of the tragedy that us. India. Our courts, our bureaucracy, our people. Us.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dear Mr Obama

This is my first letter to you. I have to confess, I didn't much care when you won the election. It may have been history in the making but it was American history and I live too far away to care. I didn't wear Obama T-shirts. I didn't read the book. I didn't buy the 'Change'. Call me cynical. Goes with the job description.

But today, I feel compelled to write to you. You're having a problem with oil spills. I don't know how you're going to deal with it but you've been promising compensation and not just 'nickel and dime' stuff. Which is good. By and large, the US seems to take accidents, the disabling of human beings and monetary compensation pretty seriously.

I also read about some plans to compensate veterans, those who worked to test nuclear weapons. It says here that the compensation could be pretty generous.

But your people have always fought for proper compensation and establishment of liability. One of your worst disasters was the Texas City Disaster of 1947, in which 581 people died. I don't need to tell you why etc. But compensation claims were filed against the USA and - I'm wiki-quoting here - "the district court found the United States responsible for a litany of negligent acts of omission and commission by 168 named agencies and their representatives in the manufacture, packaging, and labeling of ammonium nitrate, further compounded by errors in transport, storage, loading, fire prevention, and fire suppression, all of which led to the explosions and the subsequent carnage. On June 10, 1952, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision, finding that the United States maintained the right to exercise its own "discretion" in vital national matters. The Supreme Court affirmed that decision."

But, "Congress acted to provide some compensation after the courts refused to do so... When the last claim had been processed in 1957, 1,394 awards, totaling nearly $17,000,000, had been made."

Are you counting the zeroes, Mr Obama? That was the year 1957.

Before that, when the South Fork dam burst in 1889, "victims suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempt to recover damages from the dam's owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted a major development in American law—state courts' move from a fault-based regime to strict liability."

More recently, the 2008 Chatsworth train collision caused 25 deaths. Wikipedia tells me "Lawyers quickly began filing claims against Metrolink, and in total, they are expected to exceed a US$200 million liability limit set in 1997... An attorney representing two of the victims agreed, saying payouts could range from $5 million to $10 million per death or serious injury."

You people are talking $5 million per death. And here, in my country, we are talking 55 cents per death.

I recognize that this is a failure of our justice system. Ours, not yours. But I pose to you a moral question. Is it okay to shield a wanted man in a case of this kind? Warren Anderson might be a US citizen. But we're talking over 22,000 lost lives. Enough zeroes, Mr Obama, what do you say?

It's a mess you've inherited, I know. But what would your legal stand be if your daughters, 26 years later, were giving birth to deformed kids, all because Anderson wanted to save a few dollars ($37.68 to be precise, on one critical process)? What would you have done with blinded babies?

Could it be that you are too busy to know that your government has not lifted a finger to extradite a certain Mr Warren Anderson even though there's a new you, heading a government of 'change'.

Take a look at this: "On 20th July official sources from the government of India announced that the May 2003 extradition request had been turned down on “technical grounds”. A month later the State Minister for External Affairs, E. Ahmed, claimed the request had been rejected because it failed to satisfy some clauses of the India-US extradition treaty... Warren bhai, who first ignored an Interpol summons to the Bhopal courts some sixteen years ago is, as ever, as silent as the gas cloud released from the factory that a ‘high standard of evidence’ shows the company he ran was at such pains to control. We examine some of the evidence and speculate on how it can be that the world’s most infamous corporate accused is still getting away with culpable homicide…"

And yes, culpable homicide it is.

"After Ashraf’s death (from a chemical poisoning accident at the factory), Union Carbide management sent a team of US engineers to conduct a ‘business confidential’ safety audit. The May 1982 report identified 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC unit. Safety measures were improved at Carbide’s MIC plant in West Virginia, but not in Bhopal, where, incredibly, Carbide responded to the death of Ashraf Khan by intensifying its cost-cutting in the most dangerous areas of the plant."

Do I need to spell it out for you, Mr Obama? Just read the bold lettering if you are short on time. US engineers conduct a safety audit. They see a dangerous situation at their chemical factory. They go about making arrangements to cut risks to American lives. They go about increasing the risk to Indian lives.

Should we just spell it out now, Mr Obama. Its called racism. R-A-C-I-S-M.

Your guys - American citizens whom your government is unwilling to arrest and hand over to my country's law system - knew what they were doing. And I want them punished, sir. Ideally, with imprisonment. But most certainly with a big, fat fine. Not nickels and dimes, sir.

Now look at this: "Dow set aside $2.2 billion to meet Carbide asbestos liabililities in the US. However it bluntly refuses to accept Carbide’s liabilities in Bhopal – or even admit that they exist."

You know, there is a famous Hindi film dialogue that I quote often. Roughly translated, it is this question: Is your blood, blood, and our blood water?

So Mr Promised Change, how much my life is worth? Is it worth as much as an American life? White, brown, black, whatever. You choose. Decide how much criminal culpability can be established, and what you - as the first representative of the the USA to the rest of the world - should do about this mess. Let Anderson negotiate his own way to freedom if he can. Let him decide how much his freedom is worth. Don't let him decide how much poor Indians are worth. Dow has said they would prefer to stand trial in India, after all. Send the officials over. They've a lot to answer for, and whole lot to pay for.

Warm regards


P.S. Separately, would you consider passing a law that forbids Dow/Union Carbide from leaving the USA? A kind of business internment? In the interest of world peace, security and human rights, it would be helpful if those guys were forbidden from doing business in developing countries. While you're at it, you could intern Monsanto too. We've got enough sh*t to deal with and would appreciate not having to deal with your sh*t. We can't afford it. If you can, you keep it.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Now I'm feeling good

Reviews. Good ones. Well, mostly.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Scary morning thoughts

The day really begins with opening your inbox. It begins with claims on time and attention. And even if time hangs heavy and even if attention is all one has, even so. It is frightening to think that all your life you might be standing somewhere with a banner screaming necessary outrage. All your life you could be marching and the drums would never fall silent because the battle never did end.

You have attended meetings for solidarity, to brainstorm about how to get one Dr Binayak Sen out of jail. You heaved a sigh of relief when he was released (only on bail). Then you heard about Avinash Kulkarni.

You didn't know Dr Sen. You don't know Avinash. You don't know Kishore either. That's what they call Srinivas Sattayya Kurapati, who migrated to Surat and grew active in the trade union movement. In 2006, he joined Darshan, an NGO in Ahmedabad. He's married a woman called Hansaben. And now he's in jail. So is Hansaben. So is her uncle Ambubhai Vaghela.

If you're on mailing lists of the unnerving sort, you'll find out that Avinash had spent years working in the Dangs, most recently helping tribal communities use the Forest Rights Act to retain some semblance of control over their own lives and resources. You might also find out that Ambubhai is a cultural activist. Had founded the Lok Kala Manch in 1980, produced plays on Dalit issues, women’s issues, communal harmony. Others will tell you that he countered the Modi brigade long before 2002 and more intensely after 2002.

You don't know any of this. This is what you read, and you read different theories about why they were arrested.

Here's one line of thought: "There are reasons to believe that the Naxal label has proved very useful for Gujarat and that the state government is going slow in implementing the FRA. In Dangs, not a single “patta” — legal papers for ownership of cultivation land in the forest area — has been handed over to any tribal claimant so far. “The Gujarat government does not like social justice movements. The arrests are aimed at stopping the legal tribal rights movements,” says Uttam Parmar, a Gandhian tribal rights activist."

And here is what some people are doing in response: "Valjibhai Vaghela, a close associate of Ambubhai, said people in Gomtipur and its neighbourhood had decided to put up boards at all houses “proclaiming themselves as Naxalites and getting ready to be arrested to flood the jails” if this was the way the Gujarat police wanted to stifle the voices of the downtrodden."

You might believe that the political and police leadership in Gujarat is imagining a Maoist presence. Or not. You might be persuaded to pay attention. You might find the energy, the voice, the courage, the time. Or perhaps not.

It took two years of lobbying and pressuring and arguing in court before Dr Sen was grated bail. It took several activists traveling to Chhattisgarh and courting arrest in Raipur. Perhaps, they will have to travel to Ahmedabad now.

For now, Avinash Kulkarni is staying put in prison. Perhaps, he counts the days. Perhaps, he counts on the larger activist and journalist fraternity to help get him out. Perhaps he counts on nothing except that the sun rise and the morning come and the free open their inboxes to plan their day.


A retired customs' officer has also been arrested in Gujarat. Apparently, he's accused of conducting training sessions for the CPI-ML Janshakti in 2000 in Kerela.

Question is, what kind of training?
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