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COVER STORY

13-08-2004

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Briefing

Missed lessons

cover-story

Ever since Independence, accidents in buildings, mainly from fires, across the country have caused extensive loss of life and property. Yet hardly any long-term safety measures have been put in place. A look at some of the major incidents over the past four decades.

Madurai, Tamil Nadu April 4, 1964

Location: Saraswathi Vidyasala Higher Elementary School, Maninagaram, Madurai.

Casualties: 36 persons, including 35 girls killed; 139 injured seriously.

The superstructure of the two-storeyed building, which collapsed, was constructed out of brick and mortar on the granite compound wall of a samadhi (tomb).

It was a holiday. Only about 190 girls in the 11-13 age group and studying in Standards VI, VII and VIII out of a total of 500 had come for the special classes being held on all three floors of the building. At about noon, when the girls were about to disperse for lunch, a portion of the superstructure crashed. A few girls on the top floor who managed to move to the other side of the building and raised an alarm. The news of the collapse was communicated to the police control room by a constable of the city police, who was passing by.

Engineers of the Public Works Department said even the basic principles of engineering had not been followed in the construction of the building. Basic safety measures too had been ignored, and no attention was paid to the load and pressure of the walls.

Apparently, the town planning authorities had refused permission to build the school. Yet, the building was completed, and the correspondent of the school, K. Pitchiah Pillai, went in appeal against the decision.

The appeal was turned down by the Director of Town Planning (DTP) and the municipal authorities asked the correspondent to demolish the building. The correspondent appealed again to the DTP stating that he was making the necessary modifications. That appeal was pending disposal at the time of the accident.

Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu July 29, 1979

Location: Touring cinema at Lourdammalpuram, Tuticorin.

Casualties: 46 adults and 32 children were killed, of whom 73 died on the spot and five succumbed to injuries in hospital; 88 people were injured.

The fire broke out around 4-30 p.m. when the matinee show was on. The thatch-roofed cinema with wooden poles and rafters was reduced to ashes.

A sizable section of the fire victims were members of the fishing community. The fire broke out in the women's enclosure, and most of the victims were women and children.

In December 1976, the Tamil Nadu government issued a notification calling for the installation of sufficient numbers of fire extinguishers in all cinema halls. The South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce and the Tamil Nadu Exhibitors' Association resisted this on the grounds of the high cost. The government relented and reduced in February 1978 the extra number of extinguishers it wanted to be installed.

Dabwali, Haryana December 23, 1995

Location: The market town of Dabwali (Sirsa district).

Casualties: Over 500 people killed, mostly children and their parents; over 300 injured.

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The fire broke out at around 2 p.m. in Rajiv Marriage Palace, a private marriage hall, which was used for the Annual Day Function of the DAV School. Nearly 1,200 children, their parents and teachers attended the function. The blaze swept through the entire pandal, which was covered with a synthetic sheet. The casualties were higher because of the stampede and because there was only one small gate as the exit. The fire was caused by electrical malfunction.

The State government ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident. Chief Minister Bhajan Lal subsequently issued instructions that it be made mandatory for buildings holding such functions to have at least four gates, one on each side, so that people could escape in case of an emergency. He said that the government had decided to constitute two committees to suggest measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.

* * * Baripada, Orissa February 23, 1997

Location: Madhuban locality, Baripada town, 275 km from Bhubaneswar.

Casualties: 176 persons, including 26 children and 4 women, burnt to death; of these, 149 died on the spot and 27 succumbed to injuries later; 500 seriously injured.

The accident occurred at 3.30 p.m. in the Madhuban area where a large number of devotees of Swami Nigamananda had gathered for a three-day State-level religious conference. As many as 5,400 delegates, many of them from neighbouring States and Delhi, had registered along with families.

The fire started from one of the temporary sheds constructed for the devotees when most of them were resting after lunch. All the thatched sheds meant for men were gutted within minutes. The sheds meant for women devotees were saved.

The organisers had constructed 40 cottages made of straw and bamboo. Ten cottages housing a bookstall and the office were reduced to ashes within 10 minutes. At least 5,000 people were in the area when the fire began, as it was the last day of the convention and the local unit of the organisation was distributing prasaad. Most of the victims got caught in the fire at the only exit point.

The Orissa government ordered a high-level administrative inquiry into the mishap.

* * * Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu June 7, 1997 Location: Brihadeeswara temple, Thanjavur.

Casualties: 40 killed, 31 of them women and five children; 85 injured.

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A fire broke out in the yagasala (sacrificial hall) of the Brihadeeswara temple. Most of the victims died after inhaling carbon monoxide, while a few were killed in a stampede. A few died of burns.

Inflammable materials like ghee, condiments and thatched roofs helped the fire spread fast. Only one fire tender near the pandal could be pressed into service. The only entrance was on the eastern side, but because of the narrow gate and the stones at the gateway, many fell and died.

* * * Delhi June 13, 1997 Location: Uphaar Grand cinema in South Delhi. Casualties: 60 dead; many injured.

The cinema hall, with a capacity of 1,053 people, was packed when the fire broke out around 5 p.m. The fire started in the ground floor parking lot and quickly spread to the upper floors. Many in the rear and front stalls of the main hall escaped as ushers quickly opened the far exit gates. Those on the balcony and the upper lounge were trapped, and many people died of asphyxiation. The entire building, besides 20 cars and 25 scooters, were gutted.

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The fire was caused by a short circuit in a transformer in the parking area and spread to the upper floors through air conditioning ducts.

Although the licence for cinema halls is issued by the Delhi Police, it is the responsibility of the Delhi Fire Service to certify, after periodic inspections, that the premises are safe from fire hazards and that mandatory safety measures and fire alarm systems are in place. In the Uphaar incident, the fire was caused by the spilling of highly inflammable oil from a Delhi Vidyut Board transformer. Incidentally, there were complaints of the faulty functioning of the transformer earlier that day and the DVB had attended to the fault.

* * * Erwadi, Tamil Nadu August 6, 2001

Location: Moideen Badusha Mental Home, a pilgrim centre 27 km from Ramanathapuram.

Casualties: 25 mentally ill persons were charred to death. Three died subsequently.

The fire began around 5-10 a.m. when a kerosene chimney lamp fell in the shed. The mental home was thatched. The entire shed was gutted in 10 minutes, before fire tenders reached the spot.

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Charred bodies fettered in chains were all that remained. "Divine chains" were put around the feet of the mentally ill, and so they could not escape. There were 43 mentally ill people on the premises.

The owner of the asylum, Moideen Badusha, his wife Suriya Begum and relatives Rashak and Mumtaj Begum were arrested.

The N. Ramdas Commission, which inquired into the deaths, concluded that the inmates died as they had been fettered and tied to poles and immediate fire aid was absent. "The caretaker of the house concentrated on retrieving their personal belongings, without taking steps to rescue the patients by breaking their chains... Fire engines had to come from Ramanathapuram and Keelakarai... Had the Erwadi fire brigade come immediately, the death of the inmates might have been, to a certain extent, averted," it said.

Subsequent to the fire, the government imposed a ban on keeping patients in fetters.

Of the 571 people rescued, 152 were sent to the Government Institute of Mental Health in Chennai, and 11 were admitted to the Ramanathapuram General Hospital. The rest were returned to the care of their families.

* * * Agra May 24, 2002

Location: Shoe factory in the Jeoni Mandi in Agra.

Casualties: 42 people burnt alive, 10 sustained burn injuries.

Rescuers, including Army and Air Force personnel, retrieved the charred bodies from the two-storey building that collapsed following the fire. Over 100 workers were at the premises when the fire broke out. A fact-finding team of the National Campaign on Labour indicted the owner of the factory, saying that he had ignored safety norms and violated labour laws.

The factory area was like a "tinder box" with hardly any fire or other safety equipment in place, it said.

* * * Srirangam, Tamil Nadu January 23, 2004

Location: Padmapriya Marriage Hall at Srirangam near Tiruchi.

Casualties: 62 killed, including the bridegroom, 23 women and four children; 45 injured.

The fire broke out in the thatched structure put up on the roof of the marriage hall. The hastily assembled structure served as a make-shift venue for the wedding as the main hall downstairs was not felt to be big enough to accommodate all the guests. The fire was fed by the thatch, plastic chairs and clothing materials and spread within minutes, engulfing the entire hall.

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There was also a stampede as guests tried to flee through a narrow staircase in a corner of the hall. Many of the dead could only be identified by the jewellery they wore. The fire broke out owing to the intense heat generated by the video flashgun, which set on fire the decorative materials on the thatched roof of the pandal. Temporary power lines were also drawn from downstairs in a shoddy manner.

The police arrested the owner of the marriage hall, the videographer, the hall manager, the video lightboy, the electrician and the pandal contractor.

Subsequent to the tragedy, fire safety measures were made compulsory in marriage and community halls, with periodic inspections by fire service personnel and the local administration.

Compiled by Mandira Moddie

Safety and rules

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN cover-story

Strict enforcement of the building rules for schools and colleges and training teachers and other personnel in the basics of civil defence will go a long way in saving lives in the event of fire accidents.

THE fire at the Kumbakonam school has once again brought to the fore the question of safety in public buildings, especially those housing schools and colleges. In Tamil Nadu schools and colleges are categorised as public buildings - understood as places where people gather - and clubbed with cinema halls, auditoria and exhibition halls.

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While school or college buildings in Chennai come under the purview of the Development Control Rules for Chennai Metropolitan Area as prescribed by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), outside Chennai they come under the Tami Nadu Public Buildings Rules. Both sets of Rules were framed under the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act.

Structural engineers suggest that there should be separate building rules for schools and colleges and the rules should insist on considerable open space all round the buildings. Currently, a school or college building in Chennai comes under the category of multi-storeyed building if it has a height of 15 metres to 30 m above the ground level. Rule 3 of Annexure-IX, called Special Rules for multi-storeyed buildings under the Development Control Rules of the CMDA, stipulates that such multi-storeyed buildings should have a minimum setback (open) space of 7 m all round. The space between apartment blocks in the complex should also be 7 m. Rule 3 adds: "For every increase in height of six metres or part thereof above 30 metres, minimum extent of setback space to be left additionally shall be one metre."

It insists that "the space specified above shall be kept open to the sky and free from any erection/projection (such as sunshade and balcony) of any building other than a fence or compound wall provided that these open yards may be used for the provision of access ways to the building's parking facilities." Another rule prescribes that "the vehicular access-way within the site shall have a minimum width of 7.2 metres and such vehicular access shall be available for every building block within the site". These rules were framed in accordance with the National Building Code of India, 1970. In fact, the code prescribes 12 m of open space for a multi-storeyed building with a height of 15 m.

"The purpose of this rule [prescribing 7.2 m of vehicular access] is to facilitate the movement of the snorkel (fire-fighting truck) so that its trunk with a length of 5.3 m can unfold easily and the water jet can reach the top floors," a CMDA engineer said. The CMDA insists on 6 m of open space all round if the school building has a height less than 15 m. According to the CMDA's Development Control Rules, the setback space all round for all public buildings "such as theatres, kalyana mantaps, exhibition halls, automobile garages and service workshops shall be not less than six metres". Six metres is enough for an ordinary fire-fighting truck to manoeuvre around these structures to fight fires.

The Development Control Rules also insist that the minimum plot area for a primary school or high school in a continuously built up area, say like George Town in Chennai, should be minimum 5,00 to 1,000 square metres.

Rule 10 in Annexure-IX titled "Fire safety, detection and extinguishing systems" notes how all buildings should, in their design and construction, ensure "the safety of life from fire, smoke, fumes and also panic arising from these or similar other causes". It deals with the provision of facilities to detect fires and warn occupants about the outbreak of fires "so that they may escape, or to facilitate the orderly conduct of fire exit drills". It insists on the installation of systems to protect buildings from fire or to extinguish fires. These installations should be in accordance with the National Building Code and "to the satisfaction of the Director of Fire Services by obtaining a no-objection certificate from them". The CMDA Rules prescribe two staircases for every flat in a multi-storeyed building. Fire and Rescue Service Department personnel would advise the occupants of these multi-storeyed buildings where to install smoke detection systems, sprinklers and extinguishers. They would train the occupants in fire drills every six months so that evacuation would be quick.

"But factors of security undermine all these rules," regretted a CMDA engineer. He said that even if a flat or an apartment complex had two staircases, the residents blocked one because of increasing burglaries and robberies. If there were two entrances to the complex, one would be blocked. All these impeded quick exit of people when a fire erupted, he pointed out. Fire escape routes, which are shown in the building plan, are not provided when the construction is done, he said. Even if the escape route is built, it is converted into rooms later.

The CMDA's counterpart in places outside Chennai is the Directorate of Town and Country Planning. "If it is a public building having a height of 10 m, there should be 3 m of open space all round," an official at the Directorate said. If the height is more, the setback space prescribed is more. Elementary schools up to Class V are allowed to come in what are called primary residential zones because these schools cater to children, and the schools should be close to their homes. If it is a high school, it can come up in what is categorised as an educational use zone.

The tahsildars should issue licences, under the Tamil Nadu Public Building Licence Act, to schools every three years, certifying that the buildings are fit for occupation. Moreover, while an engineer should give a certificate that the buildings are structurally stable, the local bodies should give another certifying that the sanitary facilities available in schools are satisfactory. The rule that tahsildars and local bodies should give certificates led to corruption, alleged private school managements.

At the Sri Krishna School in Kumbakonam, a door in front of the first floor in the thatched portion leading to the staircase was reportedly converted into a wall for accommodating an extra classroom. When the fire started from the kitchen in the rear end, the children were unable to use the opening at the back that led to a separate staircase. Thus, there was only one staircase available for escape. So a section of children at the rear was trapped and burnt to death.

The fire prompted the Jayalalithaa government to issue a fiat that all schools in the State should replace classrooms with thatched roof with non-flammable material before July 30. This has led to school authorities scrambling for asbestos or "lite-roof" material to be used as roofing material. It has also triggered a debate on the wisdom of this omnibus order. School officials point out that thatched roofs are ideal for the tropical climate of India, and they suggest that the government could allow thatched roofs when the building only has the ground floor. Besides, classrooms with thatched roof should have no electrical wiring. The government also ordered that there should be fire drills in all schools every six months. Fire and Rescue Services Department personnel are to conduct these drills and instruct students and teachers in handling equipment to put out fires, quick evacuation and so on.

The Department already has a Fire Prevention Wing, created in 1995, in 12 districts. The personnel of this wing visit apartment complexes, cinema halls, kalyana mantaps and so on and advise their managers where and at what space interval they should install fire-fighting equipment. These men conduct drills. The Fire Prevention Wing should be set up in all the districts in the State, and its men could conduct drills on fire safety in all schools every six months, an official of the department said.

ACCORDING to V. Vaikunth, former Tamil Nadu Director-General of Police, who was also the State's Director of Fire Service and Director of Civil Defence, the Kumbakonam tragedy highlighted the need for training teachers of schools and colleges and personnel working in factories, cinema halls and auditoria in civil defence, especially in the techniques of fire prevention, fire-fighting, handling various fire-fighting equipment and rescue operations. "At Kumbakonam, if at least 10 teachers of the school had been trained in fighting fires, handling fire fighting equipment, quick evacuation of people and first aid, they could have saved so many children," Vaikunth said. He suggested that the personnel of every organisation be trained in the National Civil Defence College, Nagpur, in search and rescue, setting up communication systems, administering first aid, organising relief and so on during floods, earthquakes and fire. The school headmaster could be the Civil Defence Warden.

Vaikunth said that while inspections, rules and norms formed only one side of the picture, what really helped the occupants of a building in an emergency was their preparedness. "Here comes the concept of civil defence," he said. Civil defence means citizens organising themselves to defend themselves. The concept came into vogue in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. During air raids by enemy aircraft, people themselves organised their protection by digging trenches, evacuating injured persons, transporting them to hospitals, setting up communication systems and ensuring the availability of essential commodities. Thus people were mobilised into various groups to do different tasks and in all these the government acted only as a catalyst.

Vaikunth, who was trained in civil defence at the National Civil Defence College, Nagpur, when he was Deputy Commissioner of Police (Law and Order), Chennai, from 1969 to 1971, applied the concept of civil defence in rescue and relief operations when he was Deputy Inspector-General (DIG), Tiruchi range, in 1977 when the four districts in the range were hit by a cyclone and floods. The National Civil Defence Collge, run by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, has many programmes to train personnel of any department in the concepts of modern warfare, search and rescue, first aid; in setting up communication facilities during natural disasters; in the science of fighting fires including in handling equipment to put out fire and in ensuring orderly evacuation of people; in disaster mitigation during nuclear, chemical or biological warfare; and in detecting and disposing of unexploded bombs. Vaikunth said that when he was the State's Director of Civil Defence and Inspector-General of Home Guards, he sent home guards from the State to Nagpur for training in rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations during natural calamities. He used those trained in civil defence when a train accident took place in Tiruchi.

Vaikunth prepared a comprehensive "Manual of Instructions on the Role of Police in Natural Calamities" in 1982 when he was the Director of Civil Defence. It was published by the Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu.

TRAGEDY AT SCHOOL

The fire in a school in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, in which 93 children died, raises serious questions about the state of basic education, including safety in schools.

in Kumbakonam

JULY 16, 10 a.m. Classes are on as usual at the Sri Krishna High School in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. In the school kitchen preparations are on to cook the mass noon meal - rice, sambar, a side dish and a boiled egg per child. A small fire in one corner of the kitchen did not seem to worry those present as they got down to the task of dousing the flames. Surya, a Class VII student who inquired about the smoke and smell, was told that the fire was being put out. But a strong wind, normal in the month of Aadi (July-August) in the State, seemed to breathe new life into the flames as they leapt to catch the thatched roof. Some 40 minutes had passed when the people fighting the blaze realised that the situation was going out of control.

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Surya was asked to run away by her teacher, but no one seemed to spare a thought for the 193 primary schoolchildren who were locked inside the long room, partitioned for the five classrooms, on the first floor even as the flames leapt to its thatched roof. Soon smoke filled the rooms and the children ran to the door screaming for help. There was no other escape route as the flames spread. And then the burning thatch fell. Seventy-five children were burnt alive. Of the 30 who suffered severe burns, 18 died in hospital.

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Sandwiched between two residential buildings, the school, which is just 40 feet (12 metres) wide and 120 feet (36 m) long, had a total strength of 740 students and was a virtual death trap. The only entrance, and exit, was a narrow door, which was closed during working hours, even when a fire burned in the kitchen on the ground floor. It is said that a fire broke out in the same kitchen some years ago but it was put out before it caused much damage. "They thought they would be able to put out this fire too, but the story turned out to be different," said a senior resident of Kumbakonam.

No lessons were learnt from the first accident. It is said that once when Education Department officials refused permission to run the school, the management went to court and got the permission.

The school, as it turns out now, had violated several rules and regulations governing the building and safety. The entrance and the exit to the three-storey, partly thatched building on Kasiraman street was a narrow door that led to a narrower stairway. The school was started in 1950 as a Tamil-medium aided school, but in the 1990s two more schools were started in the same building, against the rules. At the time of the tragedy three schools were operating from the same building - the Sri Krishna Girls High School, an aided Tamil-medium school; the Sri Krishna Middle School, with a Tamil-medium aided section and an English-medium unaided one; and the unrecognised Saraswati Vidyalaya, with classes from LKG to Standard V.

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On the day of the tragedy, an Additional Education Officer was to inspect the Tamil section. And, as is the normal practice of the school - to inflate the number of students in the Tamil section during inspections in order to secure a higher grant from the government - students from the English-medium section on the ground floor were sent to the Tamil-medium section on the first floor.

Seventeen persons have been arrested in connection with the fire. Among them five belong to the school, including the correspondent, Pulavar Palanisamy, and the staff of the noon-meal scheme. The others who have been arrested are: Muthu Palaniswamy, Chief Educational Officer; Naraynaswamy, District Educational Officer; P. Palaniswamy, District Elementary Education Officer; Madhavan, former Additional Education Officer; J. Radhakrishnan, Assistant Education Officer; Paramasivam, former Tahsildar; Jayachandran, an engineer from Salem; Balakrishnan, Assistant Education Officer; Balaji, Assistant Education officer; and Thandavam, superintendent, Sivaprakasam, office assistant and Durairaj, personal assistant - all three working at the District Elementary Education office. They were produced in court and remanded to custody.

This was small consolation for the parents. They were pained more by the attitude of the teachers. "Not one of them visited the children in hospital, be it on the day of the tragedy or subsequently," said a parent, who demanded that they be punished. The school had 24 teachers, all women except one, and by most accounts they failed to fulfil their responsibilities as role models.

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The teachers apparently told the police that they saved the rest of the children who were in the pucca building and that they had to flee as the people were agitated and they feared that they would be assaulted. Only 13 teachers were present in the school on July 16, the others having gone on leave apparently to visit temples on the auspicious occasion of Aadi Velli (Aadi Friday). There were three teachers in the primary section, and one account has it that they came down after locking the only door to the section, to help put out the fire. Another version has it that the school authorities locked the door on the assumption that the children would be safe in the classrooms.

THE screams of the children and the sound of nails and bamboo bursting in the blaze alerted the local people, who launched a rescue operation. Rajendran, who has a welding shop near the school, climbed on to the first floor of the school building from the adjoining Ganesha temple and broke the concrete grills on the wall and pulled out a few children. "But when I came down I found that I had not been able to save my daughter Divya, studying in the third standard," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Eight fire tenders arrived from Kumbakonam, Thiruvaiyaru, Thiruvidaimaruthur, Papanasam, Thanjavur, Nannilam and Needamangalam and put out the fire in about an hour. The firemen broke the concrete grills to save the children. A ladder-lorry of the Kumbakonam municipality was also used to rescue the children.

V. Murugan, Revenue Divisional Commissioner of Kumbakonam, was soon on the scene and joined the rescue operation along with revenue officials. "I have not seen such a gory scene in my life. We immediately arranged for ambulances and vehicles to carry the injured to hospital," he said. District Collector J. Radhakrishnan was quickly on the spot, cutting short a grievances day meeting of farmers in Thanjavur and running the last 200 metres to the school through the crowd gathered there. Realising the gravity of the situation, he asked his officials to procure white cloth from wherever it was available to cover the bodies.

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In the Kumbakonam Government Hospital, a large hall was got ready to keep the bodies and help parents identify their children. Plantain leaves were procured, on which to place the injured children, as were air-conditioners. It was an effort in crisis management that earned praise for the Collector and all the officials concerned (see box).

But not even their best efforts could save all the injured children. The toll rose to 80 by evening and another 10 died the next day. Four of the injured were shifted to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital, one to the Raja Mirasudhar Hospital in Thanjavur, two to the Apollo Hospital in Chennai and one to the Apollo Hospital in Madurai. Twelve children remained at the Kumbakonam Government Hospital and were treated by plastic surgeons headed by V. Jayaraman from the Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai, besides doctors of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Pondicherry and the Christian Medical College in Vellore. By July 22 the toll rose to 93.

The Kumbakonam Government Hospital had virtually turned into a morgue and parents, shocked and in tears, came looking for their children, hoping not to find them there. Their emotions burst forth when they spotted their dear one. Identifying the charred bodies proved a harrowing experience and in many cases bodies were identified by the polish on the nails. The extent of the tragedy left many of the mothers mental wrecks and they required professional counselling to come to grips with the situation. "Mothers of seven children who died are in a very bad state and need continuous counselling," said M. Sarala, a social worker who counselled them.

Some parents who had two children studying in the school lost both, some their only child and some others one of their two children.

Natham village near Kumbakonam lost 13 children. Their bodies, each in a thuli (cradle made of cloth tied to a bamboo pole), were carried to the burial ground near the village on July 17 for a mass burial. On the directions of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the village will now have a school under the Education Guarantee Programme.

On the evening of the incident the Chief Minister saw for herself the burnt-down school and visited the injured children in hospital. She held the management of the school and the officials of the Education Department responsible for the fire and ordered criminal action against the management. She cited several instances of violation of rules, including the use of thatched roofs for the kitchen and the classrooms and the presence of such a kitchen close to the classrooms. A single narrow staircase leading up to the first floor from the only entrance to the school was another factor that she pointed out as a reason for the tragedy. She announced a solatium of Rs.1 lakh to the parents of the dead children, Rs.25,000 to the severely injured children, and Rs.10,000 to those with minor injuries. She also cancelled the permission given to the school and ordered its closure.

The van run by the Sri Krishna High School was a big attraction for families living in villages such as Natham and a reason why they sent their children to the private school in Kumbakonam, 4 km away from Natham. Most of the earning members of the village are drivers, vegetable vendors, welders or daily-wage workers, and the van fee of Rs.30 a month was affordable. The school was also liberal when it came to collecting the fees - it would wait for up to a year. And it did not collect donations, said some parents.

Anthonidoss, a loadman from Sandanalpura Karuppur, lost both his sons - Aravind, who was in the fifth standard, and Aniskumar, who was in the third - in the mishap. Inbaraj too lost his two sons, Ananthan and Praveenraj. Palaniammal lost both her daughters, Sonia and Priyanka, named after Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka because of her admiration for the Indira Gandhi family.

Ramakrishnan, a vegetable vendor of Natham village, lost his daughter Aishwarya, who was in the third standard. She was one of five girls. "We never bothered that we have five daughters. We brought them up cheerfully," said Selvi, their mother. One of her daughters, Seetha, a ninth standard student of the school, said so many children died because the classrooms in the first floor were locked.

The reasons for the tragedy will have to wait for the report of the State government-appointed commission of inquiry headed by K. Sampath, a retired Judge of the Madras High Court. Meanwhile, the government has arranged for free admission of the students of Sri Krishna High School in other schools in the town. It will also supply them uniforms and books free.

The situation in Kumbakonam was still to return to normal a week after the incident. People from all walks of life take out processions condoling the deaths and place wreaths in front of the school. Posters in Tamil have come up all over the town on the tragedy and expressing anger against schools that do not follow the norms. "At Kumbakonam parents became orphans," reads one. "School, here we give death certificates," said another.

On July 23 another fire broke out in the school, this time on the second floor. Alert neighbours informed the fire service, who put it out. The fire seemingly emanated from an almirah in which books were kept and it led to speculation that this was an act of sabotage meant to destroy records.

However, officials maintained that important records had been taken away from the school after the fire and that only some books were burnt. Following this incident, the Collector appealed to people not to take out processions and place wreaths or light lamps in front of the school.

Parents who lost their children have demanded that the school be converted into a memorial so that they can pay homage to their dear ones on July 16 every year. A memorial for their dreams.

`Removing thatched roofs is not the solution'

cover-story

Interview with Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan, educationist.

Dr. S.S. Rajagopalan, an educationist who has been a witness to the progressive deterioration of school education in Tamil Nadu over the last 55 years, believes that "removing thatched roofs of schools is no solution to the pitiable condition of the state of education in the State".

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A teacher who quickly became headmaster - of Sarvajana School in Coimbatore - and remained one for 34 years (a record of sorts), Rajagopalan has been a member of several panels on school education including the S.V. Chittibabu Committee on Matriculation Education and the Children Load Committee of the State government. He prepared guidelines for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) project "Education for All" and drafted a new mathematics syllabus for the State School Education Department.

Having served in the District Board Services for 16 years, Rajagopalan is familiar with the state of public schools in the State's rural areas. For this "Best Teacher Award" winner in 1982, the primary concern, of which he talks with passion, is the dichotomy in school education - good quality one for the rich and a sub-standard fare for the low-income groups.

Rajagopalan, who is distressed at the government's apathy over the mushrooming of unrecognised English medium schools that have scant regard for student safety, spoke to Asha Krishnakumar on why the "teaching shops" came up in such large numbers. Excerpts from the interview:

Can you trace the history of English medium matriculation school education in Tamil Nadu? How did "teaching shops" proliferate in the State without any control?

Tamil Nadu had a history of providing good education to all. But not any longer. After Independence, Tamil Nadu had several programmes to bring education to all children; no other State had anything close to these. The idea was to make education available in the remotest areas. During British rule, education was completely free only for Scheduled Caste children, and that too only on the basis of income; for the backward classes, there was a 50 per cent fee concession also on the basis of income. Slowly, these concessions were extended; every year a concession was added and in every Budget some group of people were added to the list of people eligible for concessions. Thus, on April 1, 1964, education became totally tuition fee-free [not totally free, as there were other costs].

Thus, Tamil Nadu was the first State to provide tuition fee-free education to all up to the SSLC [Secondary School Leaving Certificate] level. In 1978, this was extended to higher secondary education, but restricted to Tamil-medium schools. English-medium schools were heavily subsidised; students did not even bear 10 per cent of the expenses incurred on teachers' salaries.

In 1978, there were only 34 matriculation schools under the control of Madras University and Madurai Kamaraj University. But in 1978, the then Madras University Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Malcolm Adiseshaiah, decided that the university could not bear the responsibility of school education; that it had to focus on higher education and research. He felt that recognising, running, monitoring and conducting examinations for schools could not be the function of universities. Thus, he intimated all matriculation schools that from 1979 the university would not conduct the matriculation examination. He gave them the option of either affiliating themselves to the State or Central Boards, or to any other body such as the ICSE. And, if they are not willing to affiliate themselves to any of these boards, then they had the option of converting the schools into charitable institutions such as hospitals.

But the matriculation schools put a lot of pressure on the university to go back on this decision. I know this well as I was then a Senate member and privy to the goings-on. But Malcolm Adiseshaiah refused and stuck to the decision of the Syndicate and asked the schools to go their way or shut down. It was then that the Director of Public Instruction agreed to give them a separate identity. That is how the Matriculation Board came into existence. And, the regulations for matriculation schools were drawn up not by the government but by the matriculation school principals themselves. And therein lies the problem.

The regulations thus drawn up were very loose. Until then all schools were governed by the Madras Education Rules [or the Tamil Nadu Education Rules, as they are now called], which clearly lay down the conditions for opening schools; giving them recognition; the minimum infrastructure required; the space needed (five acres of playground and one acre of building space); the number of lavatory seats and urinal compartments; the space between two tables and so on. It is very detailed... and gender-wise as well [girl students required more lavatory seats and so on]. These rules were drawn up after much thought, addressing every detail and requirement of the student. This was applicable for government, aided and all recognised schools.

It is important to note that the government had never taken up the responsibility of providing schooling for children, right from British days. The only exceptions were two or three schools for minority Muslim women and those attached to the teachers' training schools, which were run as models. Otherwise, neither the British nor the Indian government started schools. Schools were the responsibility of local bodies and private agencies, which were aided. There was a liberal aid provision for these private agencies, which even made profits and ploughed them back into the school.

Thus, the system was running well. Even the District Board schools maintained high standards because children of local big-wigs studied there and these influential persons took personal interest in the running of such schools; all children in the villages, rich or poor, studied in these schools. Thus, it was "their" school and not just a "government" school.

But, in 1958, when District Boards were abolished, the elementary schools were transferred to panchayat unions. But high schools were left in the lurch until 1970; they were first managed by District Collectors and, later, by the Divisional Inspector of Schools. The latter exercised the powers of the president of the District Boards.

In 1970, the government took over the District Board [High] schools [The primary schools were taken over in 1981]. That was the first blunder. In fact, the then Education Secretary, R.A. Gopalaswamy, said clearly that the department could not take over the schools. He warned that the manager and the inspector could not be one and the same. For the government would not find fault with the functioning of the schools as it would also be managing it. And, eventually, standards would deteriorate, including infrastructure. These were prophetic words.

But the then Director of Public Instruction, N.D. Sundaravadivelu, prevailed upon the government and the schools were taken over. In 1978, the 34 matriculation schools were also taken over by the government.

But after 1978, the government's thinking changed. It thought why the government should give aid to private schools and decided to let them function as matriculation schools. Thus, today there are over 4,000 private matriculation schools outside government control. And the government, in a bid to free itself from the responsibility of providing schooling for all, encouraged such private schools. In fact, from my own experience, when a Panchayat Board President came to the Director and said that he had put up 10 pucca classrooms, a mandatory requirement to set up schools then, and asked the government to run a school in his panchayat, the official said: "After spending the panchayat money to construct 10 pucca class rooms, why do you want to hand it over to the government and go through all the hassles associated with it? Run it yourself. I shall give you permission."

Thus, private schools came up in large numbers. And for them to survive, it was made sure that the government and aided schools did not function properly. Thus, the government school framework rapidly deteriorated, teacher vacancies were never filled; it took me over two years to fill the vacancy of a chemistry teacher.

But why did the government encourage private schools?

Primarily to reduce its financial commitment; it had always wanted to cut down on its commitment to education. Thus, the Budget allocation for education by the State government has come down substantially since the 1950s.

The government stopped funds for its schools. And, in the 1960s, PTAs [parent-teacher associations] were started primarily to strengthen the relationship between schools and parents and to give children better education. But, slowly, the PTAs became influential. They are being given the function of providing infrastructure for the schools, even the powers to appoint teachers, collect donations, and so on.

Now, in every government school, money [donation] is paid to the PTA president or treasurer. And, only after a "chit" of that payment is shown does the student get admission. No academic criteria or any other consideration need to be fulfilled for admission - only the PTA payment receipt. This is so in aided schools too.

But, according to a recent Government Order, no aided school shall collect donation at the time of admission. For obtaining donation, they must give a proposal to the Education Department and only after the latter's approval can it be collected. But seeing even government schools collect donations, aided schools have started doing blatantly, without any fear. The government is also looking the other way; it is happy so long as aided schools do not ask for additional teachers or funds. That seems to be the policy of the government.

What is the education policy of the State government?

The problem is that there is no perspective planning. There are several documents and reports on school education - I myself prepared a report. But nothing has happened.

What do the rules stipulate about infrastructure requirements in schools?

The problem is that there are different rules. The MER [Madras Education Rules] lays down one set of conditions. But now no one knows whether the MER is in force or has become defunct. Recently, a committee under the chairmanship of A. Muthukrishnan [former Director of School Education] was appointed to review the MER. He submitted the report in September 2003. But no one has heard about it since.

Another set of rules is in the Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act, 1975. This is the only statutory provision; all others are non-statutory and governed by executive directions with no legal sanction. Thus, if matriculation schools commit any wrong, no legal action can be taken against them.

The other set of rules are laid down by the Board of Matriculation Schools. As it was drafted by the principals themselves, the rules cleverly say "sufficient infrastructure". But "sufficient" has not been defined. Thus, matriculation schools took advantage of this and set up schools without any playground, adequate space or proper infrastructure. Schools have come up in thatched sheds, in high-rise buildings and cooped spaces.

As a member of the S.V. Chittibabu Committee on Matriculation Schools, I went to the southern districts. The schools there are in shameful conditions. At one place, two classes functioned in a 10 feet by 10 feet room with children huddled together. And, when we questioned this, the correspondent said: "Show me the authority where the dimensions of a classroom is prescribed."

From when has there been a proliferation of "teaching shops" in Tamil Nadu? Why did it happen?

Unrecognised nursery and primary schools have come up in large numbers in the past decade or so, primarily owing to the demand generated by the proliferation of matriculation schools. When matriculation schools were set up in large numbers, they needed English-medium primary schools to feed them with students. So, unrecognised nursery and primary schools were set up in large numbers, primarily as feeder schools to the matriculation schools.

The Elementary Education Act does not permit primary education in the English medium. Primary education, according to the Act, shall be only in Tamil. There is only one aided English-medium primary school in the whole of Tamil Nadu.

Since there was no need to register or get approval or recognition for these schools, they mushroomed. That is why the government set up the Chittibabu Committee a decade ago to study the mushrooming of unrecognised primary schools in the State. This committee prepared a code for nursery and primary schools, though without statutory backing. When schools were asked to register under the code, most simply refused, saying that if they did that they would be monitored. It was not even obtaining recognition, only approval. That is, they would take cognisance of the existence of the school. But even these they refused. For all this the conditions were diluted. But even that the primary schools refused to adhere to.

In the early 1990s, they were asked to register under the Directorate of Matriculation Schools. Initially, some 3,000 schools of the over 20,000 functioning at that time registered. Today, the numbers would be much more - no one knows how many.

There are different rules and different codes. But none of them seems to be applicable to these private schools that function with scant regard even for the safety of its students. What is the way out?

My answer would be to bring all schools under the Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act. For infrastructure and other basic provisions let all schools come under one system.

The Chittibabu Committee has carried forward only one provision from this Act. That is, the building should have a licence under the Tamil Nadu Public Buildings Licensing Act, 1965. This Act was passed in 1948, whereby the government had the powers to take over any building for public purposes. In 1965, the government started implementing this Act, in the wake of a tragedy in Madurai where the roof of a school collapsed and 35 children died.

The government stipulated that every school should obtain a licence issued by a Tahsildar on a certificate given by the PWD [Public Works Department] or a chartered engineer. The matriculation schools took advantage of this provision. They never approached the PWD to certify the building for two reasons: The PWD would be strict and it charged an inspection fee of 1 per cent [of the construction cost]. Thus, the schools got their buildings certified by chartered engineers. As every builder is a chartered engineer, practically the builder of the school building was himself certifying his construction.

Is there a way to impose some kind of regulations on these schools now?

The primary issue is why there should be so many streams of education - matriculation, SSLC, OSLC, ASLC, CBSE, ICSE, and now, international certifications - that makes regulation cumbersome and complex. In all other States there is only one stream of schooling up to Class X. Why should we have four types of State schools? Two of the Kothari Commission's recommendations are very valid. One, there should be a common school system with the same core curriculum, where all children get good quality education. And, two, there should be a neighbourhood school system, where every child has the right to get admission into a school close to her/his house and it is the duty of every school to admit the child first in its immediate neighbourhood. But vested interests never let this take off, though it is an excellent no-cost recommendation.

On the other hand, the City Corporations have not started a single school in the last 25 years. The government appears to have completely shed its responsibility of providing free public education to children. Government and aided schools are now patronised only by the poorest of the poor.

The government has ordered all thatched roofs removed in schools in the wake of the Kumbakonam tragedy. Will that stop similar tragedies from occurring in the future?

Removing thatched roofs is not the solution. Millions live in thatched huts. Most schools function under thatched roofs - Kalakshetra in Chennai and Santiniketan in Kolkata function under thatched roofs for better light and ventilation. But all of them are at ground level with lots of space all around; they are not on first and second floors. If the kitchen of the noon meal centre functions close to the thatched roof of a school, then one should look at the setting up of the noon meal centre there.

So many hut tenements catch fire every summer. But no casualties are reported. That is because all huts are at ground level and people are out in the open in no time.

There are a whole lot of other infrastructural parameters that ought to be looked into. The Kumbakonam accident has given the government a good opportunity to look into all these issues. But it is harping only on removing thatched roofs and sheds in order to avoid facing a whole lot of other issues.

First, how can primary classes function in the first floor? Also, there are norms that say that if the length of the building is 70 feet (21 metre), then it should have two staircases; and if the length is over 100 feet (30 m), then there should be three - two on either side and one in the centre. And, the staircases should be built in such a way that all children from the first and second floors can come down in two minutes. It was believed that the children would not be afflicted with danger within two minutes of a fire. There is no dearth of rules. Only, they need to be enforced.

American imperialism

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire by Niall Ferguson; Penguin Allen Lane; pages 366; 20.

"The language of Article 1, as to the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy, renders it desirable that I should remind your Excellency that there are certain regions of the world the welfare and integrity of which constitute a special and vital interest for our peace and safety. His Majesty's Government have been at pains to make it clear in the past that interference with these regions cannot be suffered. Their protection against attack is to the British Empire a measure of self-defence. It must be clearly understood that His Majesty's Government in Great Britain accept the new Treaty upon the distinct understanding that it does not prejudice their freedom of action in this respect. The Government of the United States have comparable interests, any disregard of which by a foreign Power they have declared that they would regard as an unfriendly act. His Majesty's Government believe, therefore, that in defining their position they are expressing the intention and meaning of the United States Government."

The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain, to the U.S. Ambassador, May 19, 1928.

IN writing thus, Britain's Foreign Secretary was reminding the U.S., whose Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg had sponsored a global no-war pact known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact after its co-sponsor Aristide Briand, Foreign Minister of France, that the United States and Britain were both imperial powers and a mere no-war pact cannot curb their freedom of action. Seventy-five years later, Britain has declined in importance while the U.S. has emerged as the sole superpower. It runs an empire of enormous dimensions with 752 military installations in more than 130 countries, with its troops based on 63 of them. New leases are being acquired, the latest being Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, and the Bishkek air base in Kyrgystan. What gains the invasion and occupation of Iraq yield remains to be seen.

A pejorative bandied about during the Cold War, the word "imperialist" has acquired a relevance of frightening significance. A senior U.S. official told The Times (London) on July 16 that "the United States would not use military force, as in Iraq, but if Bush is re-elected, there will be much more intervention in the internal affairs of Iran".

Prof. Niall Ferguson has been hailed as "the most brilliant British historian of his generation". He is not against American imperialism. Far from it. His thesis is that the U.S. has always been imperialist since its very birth; it should be conscious of its imperial role and play it for the good of the world as a "liberal empire". A careful scholar, he does not overlook its Achilles' heel nor the fact that for all its coat-trailing - which exposes Tony Blair to one humiliation after another - the U.K. has received no "tangible" gains from its much-touted "special relationship" with the U.S.

He asks whether the U.S. is "capable of being a successful liberal empire" since it has been "a surprisingly inept empire builder". He tries to explain its ineptness and why its imperial ventures "are almost always short-lived and their results ephemeral". The book is a good blend of history, international affairs and economics. The author is Professor of Financial History at the Stern School of Business, New York University.

The geographical stretch of American Empire has widened from the home ground to Latin America, to the Philippines, to West Asia, Europe and Central Asia. The author surveys American empire-building in the past and more recently after the Cold War. American intellectuals have, predictably, joined the ranks of empire builders. Americans need to "reconceive their global role from one of traditional nation-state to an imperial power", Richard Haass urges. Not one advocate of this thesis is neglected. Thoroughly sourced, the book can serve as a good work of reference on aspects of recent U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, during the election campaign in 2000, George W. Bush criticised Bill Clinton for undertaking too many "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions".

Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, told the Washington Post in August 2001, "There is not all that many people who will talk about it (empire) openly. It's discomforting to a lot of Americans. So they use code phrases like `America is the sole superpower'." In 2000 General Anthony Zinni, then commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the journalist Dana Priest that he "had become a modern-day pro-consul, descendant of the warrior-statesman who ruled the Roman Empire's outlying territory, bringing order and ideals from a legalistic Rome". This was not irony.

Which parallel in history is relevant to the American enterprise? In Ferguson's opinion, not surprisingly, it is the British Empire from the 1850s to the 1930s. But, for all its power and vastness, the British Empire had to compete with rivals. The U.S. has no rival to compete with now or in the near future. "The Pentagon's budget is equal to the combined military budgets of the next 12 or 15 nations... the U.S. accounts for 40-45 per cent of all the defence spending of the world's 189 states." Such fiscal measures, impressive though they sound, nevertheless understate the lead currently enjoyed by American armed forces. "On land the United States has 9,000 M1 Abrams tanks. The rest of the world has nothing that can compete. At sea the United States possesses nine `supercarrier' battle groups. The rest of the world has none. And in the air the United States has three different kinds of undetectable stealth aircraft. The rest of the world has none. The United States is also far ahead in the production of `smart' missiles and pilotless high-altitude `drones'."

The British exported to their colonies and dependencies their culture and their values. Administrators, missionaries, writers and teachers collaborated in this enterprise. "Together all of them continued to spread British leisure pursuits like cricket and afternoon tea." American efforts have been no less effective in the globalisation of American culture. Thirty-nine of the world's 81 largest telecommunications corporations are American, and around half of all the world's countries rely principally on the U.S. to supply their cinemas with films. However, apart from Japan, Asian countries - particularly India - import very few American productions. Most translations of American books and foreign users of American Internet web sites are to be found in Europe and Japan. "According to Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, the number of Christian missionaries to Islamic countries has almost doubled since 1982, from around 15,000 to 27,000, half of them are Americans."

Like British imperialists, "the United States reserves the right to use military force, as and when it sees its interests threatened - not merely reactively but on occasion pre-emptively. Thus President Bush's `National Security Strategy' asserts that the United States reserve the right to `act pre-emptively... to forestall or prevent... hostile acts by our adversaries... even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack'."

Arnold Toynbee told his Oxford tutorial pupils for the Indian Civil Service: "If they went to India they were to go there for the good of her people on one of the noblest missions on which an Englishman could be engaged." The author quotes this in support of his romanticised view of the British Raj. But the scholar in him obtrudes and compels him to mention facts that belie the thesis. Akhilesh Mittal is one of those whose writings establish how India, one of the richest countries of the world, was looted by the British and reduced to penury. He should really write a whole book on the subject.

The U.S. profited by the Cold War. "The new policies inspired by containment did more than prime the pump of the occupied countries' economies, thereby reducing the share of the costs of occupation the Americans themselves had to pay. By boosting Japanese and German growth under conditions of increasingly liberal trade, they created new and dynamic markets for American exports. As early as 1948 and 1949, goods sold to West Germany already accounted for close to 7 per cent of total U.S. exports. By 1957 Germany and Japan had for the first time overtaken Great Britain in their importance for American trade. There was, in short, a self-interested rationale for stimulating the recovery of America's erstwhile foes. In notes he prepared for Marshall before the announcement of the aid programme, George F. Kennan had argued that the money was needed `so that they (the Europeans) can buy from us' and so `that they will have enough self-confidence to withstand outside pressures'. Now the calculation was vindicated. The United States had `a very real economic interest in Europe' stemming `from Europe's role... as a market and as a major source of supply for a variety of products and services'.

"At last, it seemed, the elusive virtuous circle had been established. American idealism could be assuaged because an imperial policy could be pursued in the name of anti-imperialism. But American self-interest could also be satisfied because the occupation of foreign countries turned out - after a remarkably short time - to pay a dividend" (emphasis added, throughout).

Particularly perceptive are the author's comments on West Asia. "When John Foster Dulles became the first American Secretary of State to visit the Middle East in 1953, he was impressed; the oil and other mineral resources of the region would, he declared, be `vital to our welfare'. Yet if the United States had really believed that, it would surely have acted very differently in one fundamental respect. For nothing could have been better calculated to alienate the Arab peoples than the consistent support for the State of Israel. The recognition and support of the new state of Israel were in many ways Harry Truman's responsibility; he insisted on it against the advice of the State Department." The author misses the point. The U.S.' pro-Israel policy did not affect its relations with Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. Their rulers need American protection.

American policy has come a long way since 1956 when the U.S. opposed the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. "In the wake of the Arab-Israeli wars a more dangerous - or at least less predictable - threat than Soviet penetration. This was terrorism, the original sin of the modern Middle East. What Zionist extremists had once done to drive the British out of Palestine, Palestinian extremists now did to the Israelis, once their hopes of an Arab military victory had been dashed... . Terrorism has already played a decisive role in bringing down the Habsburg and Romanov empire. Since the 1860s men like the Russian anarchist Sergei Nechaev had been preaching a doctrine of terrorism in which violence - notionally to further the `revolution' - came close to becoming an end in itself."

It is a myth that terrorism is invincible. It can be defeated. "Domestic terrorism can be reduced, if not wholly eliminated, by a combination of policing and parleying. The problem of terrorism was a severe one in Western Europe during the 1970s as nationalist minorities (in Ireland and Spain) and extreme Marxists (in Italy, Germany and Greece) waged campaigns of assassination and destruction. Today, with the exception of the Basque separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), the perpetrators of these crimes have been jailed, marginalised or induced to renounce violence. The number of terrorist incidents has fallen sharply. The Provisional Irish Republican Army has effectively been split, its leadership ultimately forced to choose between the bullet and the ballot box, despite the fact that it is not even remotely close to attaining its goal of a united Ireland. The extreme Leftists of 1968 are dead, in jail or - their views miraculously moderated by the temptations of power - in government. No terrorist movement is immune from schism when confronted by both duress and dialogue." But the U.S. spurned dialogue both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

In Europe, the U.S. has no rival in the European Union (E.U.) as some fondly imagine. It is badly split. Only France and Germany opposed the U.S. on Iraq. "The United States has nothing much to fear from either the widening or the deepening of the European Union - not least because the two processes stand in contradiction to each other. Talk of a Federal Europe's emerging as a counterweight to the United States is based on a complete misreading of developments. The E.U. is populous but senescent. Its economy is large but sluggish. Its productivity is not bad but vitiated by excessive leisure. It is a successful but still insufficiently liberal customs union. It contains a monetary union that has depressed rather than enhanced its members' economic growth. It is certainly a legal union, but too much of its law emanates from an unelected and unaccountable commission for it to enjoy legitimacy. And as a political entity it seems likely to remain confederal for the foreseeable future." The Constitution of the E.U. will make no significant difference.

The challenge to U.S. hegemony is not external but internal, a point on which Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, and Niall Ferguson agree. Kennedy wrote in 1990: "The real problem, it seems, was not the force-projection capacities of the current `Number One', but its failure to recognise that the long-term wealth, health and strength of the country depends on the non-military dimensions of national power and on making hard political decisions on the home front."

Ferguson writes: "The decline and fall of America's undeclared empire may be due not to terrorists at the gates or to the rogue regimes that sponsor them but to a fiscal crisis of the welfare state at home." In his view the American empire suffers from three deficits - the economic and manpower deficits and, worst of all, its "attention deficit".

The British Empire drew on its colonies and on the Indian Army for manpower. Lord Salisbury memorably called it "an English barrack in the Oriental Seas from which we may draw any number of troops without paying for them".

The American empire has to resort to stratagems to secure cannon fodder from other states. "The question Americans must ask themselves is just how transient they wish their predominance to be. Though the barbarians have already knocked at the gates - once, spectacularly - imperial decline in this case seems more likely to come, as it came to Gibbon's Rome, from within." Not entirely. The U.S.' staying power will be tested in the countries it has ruined - Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nor is the external challenge to be underestimated. It is sad to see the new mood overcome American opinion.

Americans would do well to recall Will Durant's judgment on Sparta: "In end Sparta's narrowness of spirit overcame its strength of soul. Militarism absorbed her and made her once so honoured the hated terror of her neighbours. When at last it fell, all the nations marvelled but none mourned." All countries obsessed with "militarism" should heed this warning.

A reality check

V. VENKATESAN the-nation

The Terror of POTA and other security legislation: A report on the People's Tribunal on the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other security legislation, New Delhi, March 2004; Ed. by Preeti Verma, published by Human Rights Law Network, New Delhi, and People's Watch, Madurai.

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THE United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is committed to repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In its Common Minimum Programme (CMP), the UPA has expressed its concern about the manner in which POTA was grossly misused over the past two years. "There will be no compromise in the fight against terrorism. But given the abuse of POTA that has taken place, the UPA government will repeal it, while existing laws are enforced strictly," it has promised. The government may be close to fulfilling the promise, but a reality check on the application of the draconian legislation may help create the right political climate and mould public opinion in favour of its repeal.

In March 2002, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government pushed through the legislation at a joint sitting of Parliament, claiming that it was a national necessity in the fight against terrorism. The Opposition cautioned the government against its abuse and expressed the fear that it would be misused against the minorities and as an instrument of political vendetta. The government ignored the apprehensions.

The present report by civil society vindicates the fears. It brings together testimonies of POTA victims across 10 States through a national framework in order to contextualise the law and its selective use against the poor, the tribal people, Dalits and Muslims.

The report is prepared by a panel of eight eminent persons, namely, Ram Jethmalani, K.G. Kannabiran, Justice Hosbet Suresh, D.K. Basu, Mohini Giri, Syeda Hameed, Arundhati Roy and Praful Bidwai, and edited by Preeti Verma of the Human Rights Law Network. The report grew out of the proceedings of the People's Tribunal on POTA held in New Delhi in March year (Frontline, April 9).

According to the POTA Review Committee's database of cases and complaints, as on January 12 there were as many as 1,376 detainees in 10 States. Jharkhand registered the highest number of arrests under POTA, with 745 accused having been lodged in jail. It was followed by Jammu and Kashmir (181), Gujarat (158), Maharashtra (87), Delhi (66), Tamil Nadu (50), Uttar Pradesh (44) and Andhra Pradesh (36).

The huge number of arrests in Jharkhand would obviously require an explanation. A fact-finding team comprising 10 representatives from civil liberty groups toured several districts of Jharkhand in early 2003 to collect data on POTA-related arrests. The team found that the State government used POTA indiscriminately against ordinary citizens, mostly illiterate tribal people and those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes and that the police booked POTA cases to terrorise people. The team alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in the State used the law to terrorise and wean away people from all Opposition parties, such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and also parties and groups preaching revolution. There were 3,000-odd people booked under POTA in the State, but none among them qualified as an accused under the Act, the team found.

The team reported that the families of most POTA victims did not understand the law; nor could they arrange advocates to invoke the due process under the law to get relief. In cases where the families could arrange advocates, they were not able to meet the expenses: they sold cattle, houses or small patches of land, whatever they possessed. "The POTA is a burden unimaginable on the mere subsistence economy of Jharkhand villages," the team's report said.

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G.N. Saibaba, a member of the team, told the tribunal that they met among the detainees, children including girls, apart from government employees and journalists. A number of people, particularly contractors, had been named in First Information Reports (FIR) and arrested on allegations that they had funded Left extremists.

Some examples from Jharkhand are indeed shocking. In Pipawar, the police slapped a POTA case against people who tried to escape from a village market after the police had beaten up several of them, while seeking information about Naxalites. Those who failed to escape were arrested and booked under POTA. The present report says: "Hundreds of people continue to stay away from their families and villages for fear that the police might still arrest them under POTA." The police consider them absconders, having named them in the FIRs.

The report concludes that in Gujarat POTA was used with great precision to preserve and perpetuate the communal divide. Until March 14, over 280 persons in the State were booked under POTA. The tribunal found evidence that the law was used mostly against Muslims. Four cases in recent times, the tribunal found, had been used to book "terrorists" in Gujarat. The first relates to waging war and conspiring to do terrorist acts. However, no specific instance of commission of any terrorist act is alleged. The police booked 82 persons and arrested 44 in the case.

The second is popularly known as the "tiffin bomb" case, relating to an incident last year in which low-powered bombs in tiffin boxes exploded in different parts of Ahmedabad and injured several people. The police booked two persons and arrested 17 accused in the case. In the third case relating to the murder of former Minister Haren Pandya, which is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the police booked 19 persons and arrested 15. In the fourth case, registered towards the end of last year, it was alleged that the accused planned to kill some important leaders belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP. The police booked seven persons under the Act.

The tribunal found that the first and fourth cases did not require even an iota of proof that a terrorist act had been committed, since both dealt with `conspiracy' to wage war or kill important leaders. "All that is required is a good story of Muslim youth going to Pakistan to take arms training to take revenge for the killing of Muslims in the post-Godhra riot," the report says. It alleges that in all the four cases the accused are first detained without any authority of law and then tortured to secure confessions during the period of legal remand. The story of "conspiracy" is built up without any corroborating proof and given wide publicity in the local press in order to achieve communal polarisation, the report alleges.

The proponents of POTA had suggested that the Act was more effective than the previous law against terrorism, namely, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act or TADA, which was allowed to lapse in 1995 because it had `in-built' safeguards against misuse, compared to the latter. The banning of the Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Ekta Samaj (ABNES) under POTA in 2002, on the contrary, suggests the opposite. Section 18 of POTA, which enables the government to notify an organisation as terrorist, does not require it to justify the ban. The ABNES, which has no history of criminal, violent, or terrorist activities on Indian soil, was banned without a shred of evidence against it, apparently to appease the Nepalese government. Section 19, which deals with the procedure for the denotification of such banned organisations, envisages the setting up of a committee for the purpose so that an aggrieved organisation can approach it for remedy. The previous government ignored the ABNES' plea for the removal of the ban, as it did not constitute a committee for the purpose of hearing such a plea.

In Tamil Nadu, the "safeguards" came to the rescue of the victims only after they underwent considerable suffering. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko and Tamil Nationalist Movement leader P. Nedumaran have both been released on bail, but their freedom of speech has been curtailed by the judiciary. The application of POTA against two minors - Prabhakaran and Bhagat Singh - was reversed on an intervention by the Madras High Court, but the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act were applied in its place. Rightly, the tribunal has raised the issue of compensation to those who unjustly suffered under POTA.

The report draws its inspiration from Irom Sharmila Devi of Manipur, who has been on an indefinite fast since November 2, 2000, in protest against the abuses by the armed forces in the State and to press her demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, following an incident in which Assam Rifles personnel killed 10 civilians. Sharmila Devi is now force-fed through her nose. Her resolve is an amazing story of how an individual, without any organisational support, can offer resistance to the state.

The panel has concluded that POTA should be repealed, and it cannot be "reformed" or "improved upon". It has recommended the law's repeal retrospectively, wherein all charges framed under it will have to be deleted. The charges registered under POTA, the panel says, may continue, if the state so desires, under other laws. However, it cautioned against the use of confessions under POTA for any trial to be continued under normal laws.

We, Robot

world-affairs

The Senate Committee blames mainly the "collective groupthink" of the intelligence community, and not that of the government, for the Iraq war, quite consistent with the record of a country where consensus among the elite sections prevails, even in elections.

IN the same week as the United States Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on intelligence failures on Iraq, 20th Century Fox released its new blockbuster, I, Robot. Loosely based on Isaac Asimov's book of short stories, the movie is set in 2035, where a police investigator tracks a murder in a world that people share with their common drones, the robots. These robots are to follow three cardinal rules: 1. Robots must not injure humans or let a human be harmed; 2. robots must obey orders given by humans, except if it contradicts the first law; 3. robots must protect themselves, but not violate the first two laws. The robots revolt, and it is the duty of our policeman hero to subdue them, to remind them that they are, after all, the servants of humans.

The Senate Committee's report excoriated the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Military Intelligence, the European intelligence services, even the United Nations, for what it called "collective groupthink". The intelligence community, the Senate argued, "overstated" some data on Iraq and made analytical judgments "not supported by the underlying intelligence". The term "groupthink" comes from a 1972 monograph written by the psychologist Irving Janis, who argued that a group might make a decision based on the desire for unanimity rather than on the quality of the choice. The need to be in sync is more important than the need to have fealty to the truth or to reason. The "spooks" wanted to agree with one another rather than think carefully and analytically about the data that the field agents and informers had sent to them. Meanwhile, one tiny U.S. State Department agency, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, that is generally overlooked and under-funded, found the link between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda "highly dubious". Nobody listened to the Bureau until the Senate highlighted its contrary opinion in its July 2004 report.

The Senate said little about the "groupthink" in the Bush administration, where the strong arm of Vice-President Dick Cheney's staff led the way. In late 2001, Cheney told the press that the connection between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda was "pretty much confirmed," and when President George W. Bush declared victory over Iraq on May 1, 2003, he noted: "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001 - and still goes on. The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We've removed an ally of Al Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding." Dissent to this view within the White House became impossible, as all its functionaries did the rounds of the media outlets to repeat this data-less view.

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Another institution of the U.S. that escaped the Senate's charge of "groupthink" was the corporate media, whose flag-bearer is Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. When Cheney fed the line about Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, the view was repeated not only in the echo chamber of the RadCon (radical conservative) media, but also in the mainstream press. When Cheney's deputy Paul Wolfowitz announced that Iraq had the ability to produce (and possessed stockpiles of) weapons of mass destruction that it could hand over to Al Qaeda for a catastrophic attack on the U.S., none of the major news outlets challenged him or the administration. It was taken as fact. In May 2004, The New York Times offered a delayed apology, after the U.S. had pulverised Iraq, and during an occupation that seems to be as endless as it is brutal. "We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been," wrote the editors. "In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged." They did not refer to any specific articles, but most readers would have remembered reporter Judith Miller's definitive articles on the existence of mobile weapons laboratories and stockpiles of these weapons. Miller's work provided much of the ballast for Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Miller continues to be on the staff of The New York Times, even though she should be investigated for her poor journalistic standards for, what some might call, her fables.

Certainly the government and the media played an enormous role in the creation of fear and anxiety among the general U.S. population. But, the public also fell for "groupthink" despite the sirens from the energetic anti-war movement and from those around the world who cautioned the U.S. through the U.N.

In September 2003, 70 per cent of the U.S. population thought that Saddam Hussein's regime had a role in the 9/11 attacks, while 80 per cent of those surveyed by The Washington Post felt certain that Saddam Hussein had financed the 9/11 attacks. The "groupthink" of the population seems to be terminal.

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During the run-up to the war, we, the American public, were the robots, guided by the strong hand of the Bush War Party and its media. We obeyed their orders to fear our enemies, to watch as the terror alerts went from yellow to red, to yellow, and back to red. We, Robots, continue to believe the hype about the "war on terror", when in fact this war is simply a continuation of U.S. foreign policy. If the U.S. cultivated the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 1980s, and if both became the triggers for blow-back in one way or another against the U.S. geo-political interests, the current cozy relationship between the Pentagon and Uzebekistan's Islam Karimov and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak should be an indicator that the next major terrorist strike when our children are adults will be conducted by Uzbeks and Egyptians. The Bush War Party will then be represented by other members of the U.S. corporate elite who will tell us that we, Robots, must not harm them, that we must obey their benevolent orders, and that we must only protect ourselves as long as it does not infringe on their liberties.

THIS month, both the Democratic and Republican parties will nominate their candidates for the presidential election in November. The country is in ferment, with the two sides gearing up for a stiff contest, and the undecided voters and the alienated non-voters being targeted with advertisements to make them choose and get to the polls.

Michael Moore's rousing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is a populist call to arms for the population to go to the polling booth and send the Bush family back to Texas. The documentary has broken all box-office records in its category, and it has started a national debate on the events of the past three years that have otherwise been utterly forgotten (such as, did George W. Bush really win the election of 2000?). The Bush War Party has unleashed the dogs of political war to rouse their "base", notably evangelical Christians who might be tempted to come to the polls to ban "same-sex marriage". We, Robots, are to forget both the causes of rage against us around the world, and the roots of our own tenuous hold on the American Dream: both the President and his opponent are eager to tell us that each will conduct the war on terror more efficiently, and that each will do a better job to secure the fruits of globalisation for the U.S. public. The rest of the world be damned.

A FEW weeks ago, Australia-based World Peace Society began a virtual Internet election for the U.S. presidency, but with a twist. The Society believes that since the U.S. is the centre of an empire, why the whole world should not vote in its presidential election. In its idiosyncratic election, the independent social reformer Ralph Nader holds a commanding lead, although Democratic candidate John Kerry is not far behind. Perhaps if there were such a global election, the result might not be far from this: how many people in the world would vote as enthusiastically for either Bush or Kerry given the effects that U.S. empire has on the planet? A South Asian American comic web site, Badmash, is running Amitabh Bachchan for President in an Internet campaign, just as the comic strip artist Servando Gonzalez runs Fidel Castro for President of America each year: the presidential election, particularly among young people, has been reduced to a joke, even though young people know that this office is perhaps the most powerful one in the world.

The 2000 election sealed the frustrations of many people, because we could not understand why the winner of the popular vote lost the election. Al Gore, the Democrat, won 48.38 per cent of the popular vote, while George Bush, the Republican, won 47.87 per cent of the vote. How did the winner lose? What did the Supreme Court have to do with all this? Will the election of 2004 be any different? Will the Bush War Party steal the election as it did the last time? In mid-July 2004, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge fuelled all these fears when he ruminated publicly that in the event of a terror attack, the government must cancel or postpone the election. The Bush War Party is afraid of a Spanish scenario, when the terror attacks there perhaps helped in the defeat of the Bush ally, Jose Maria Aznar. A spokesperson of the Homeland Security Department rather ominously said: "We are reviewing the issue to determine what steps need to be taken to secure the election." Everything rests on what he means by "secure".

In fact, the system is designed to "secure" the election against the wishes of the vast majority, because we either do not vote or even if we do, our choice is filtered through an electoral college system. The "Founding Fathers" of the U.S. created an electoral system for the presidency that minimised the influence of the vast bulk of the population. Alexander Hamilton, a close aide to George Washington, questioned the dictum that the "voice of the people" is akin to the "voice of God". "It is not true in fact," he argued. "The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right." James Madison, another important author of the Constitution, wanted a presidential election process that avoided direct election by the people who are "stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men". Instead of direct election of the President or election by Congress, the "Fathers" chose to create an electoral college that would gauge the popular sentiment, but themselves select the Chief Executive of the U.S.

Well-versed in classical theory, the "Founding Fathers" followed the example of the Centurial Assembly of the Roman Republic, where the adult men gathered in groups of 100 according to their wealth to cast one vote on a proposal before the Senate. The votes of all the Centuries (or groups of 100) would be tallied and used to guide the Senators. In addition, the "Fathers" learnt from the Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals which elects the Pope. Only the wise must have the power over the highest office in the land. In the eyes of the "Fathers", the people are a mob, the demos, whose will had to be tempered by their betters.

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The refusal to allow demonstrations at both the Boston Democratic convention in late July and the New York Republican convention in late August is an illustration of this treatment of the people as a mob. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York refused to allow United for Peace and Justice to get a permit for a 250,000-person rally in Central Park on the grounds that "you have a vast bunch of people together with no ways to get in and out and no ways to control entrance and egress". If the rally cannot be controlled, it will not be allowed. In Boston, meanwhile, the officials allowed the protesters a space that would hold about 400 people, a fraction of those who will come to exercise their right to dissent.

No wonder then that those who are considered to be part of the mob do not vote. The U.S. has very stringent rules that disenfranchise felons, and in the course of the 2000 election it became clear that the partisan election officials used these rules to "scrub" voters off the rolls: people whose demographic information showed that they might vote for the Democratic Party in some crucial districts in Florida, found themselves unable to vote. The statistics of those who could vote are damaging without these irregularities. Those who earned more than $55,500 a year voted at a rate of 66 per cent, whereas those who made less than $11,000 voted at 29 per cent. As you make more money in America, you tend to vote in larger numbers. This formula reverses the trend in countries such as India and Brazil, where the impoverished vote at a greater rate than the wealthy. Additionally, the young, those who are 18-24, vote at a much lower rate (28 per cent) than those who are above 45 (60 per cent). The older, richer Americans tend to get to the ballot more often, and they will be dragged there by organisations such as the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). A coalition of half the Fortune 500 firms, BIPAC has created a Prosperity Project to make sure that the rich get to the polls and to ensure that they, as employers, put pressure on their employees to vote for the Bush War Party. Meanwhile, with far less resources and power, the Centre for Community Change has begun its own effort to reach out to the low-income people who are most disillusioned about the ballot box.

The "Fathers" designed a government that is protected from the "groupthink" of the population, but it did nothing to make the people immune from the "groupthink" of the elites. The rich and powerful have always controlled the U.S. institutions and they continue to do so as we move into this election. A victory to Kerry might not change the fundamental direction of the country or the nature of the institutions themselves, but it will surely provide hope to a people who have been led by the nose for far too long.

Koizumi's gambit

Despite electoral setbacks the Japanese Prime Minister remains obstinate on the question of SDF troops in Iraq, but is flexible on his economic agenda in order to attract Opposition members.

in Singapore

JAPANESE Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has become adept at political spin, does not see the results of the July 11 triennial elections to the House of Councillors (the Upper Chamber of Parliament or Diet) as a setback despite the gains made by the Opposition. In fact, he interprets them as a mandate to continue his agenda of structural economic reforms and a United States-friendly foreign policy.

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Councillors serve a six-year term. One half of the seats in the 242-member House are filled through elections every three years.

The main Opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the largest number of seats. However, the interpretation of the results is best told in the Prime Minister's own words. According to Koizumi, the polls "resulted in a reduction of two seats" for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In a statement issued in Tokyo on July 15, he said: "The ruling parties secured an overall total of 60" and asserted that it "was sufficient to retain the majority in all parliamentary committees of the House of Councillors". This tally includes the 11 seats secured by the New Komeito Party, the LDP's partner in the governing coalition.

Conceding that the ruling and Opposition parties attained almost an identical number of seats, Koizumi interpreted this to be a true reflection of "the voices of the people of Japan". They, in his opinion, have called upon the government to "steadfastly advance structural reform, while at the same time taking into account the opinions of the Opposition parties".

Rejecting calls for his resignation over his failure to enhance the LDP's strength in the Upper House, Koizumi sought to explain away his party's poor showing as the result of a campaign that was marked by "strong criticisms" of his policies, especially those aimed at reforming the basic structure of the long-ailing economy and his decision to send troops to Iraq on a "humanitarian" mission.

Despite the poor showing in the polls, he has maintained that the personnel of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) - the name of the military establishment under the country's pacifist Constitution - will remain in Iraq.

Koizumi's charisma or more precisely his image as a leader with a mind of his own is a distinct feature of Japanese politics today. However, his failure to translate his persuasive skills into votes, which could jeopardise the LDP's record as the party that has always been ahead of its rivals but without scoring landslide victories, is cause for worry.

One possibility, which came into focus after the general elections in November last year (Frontline, December 5, 2003), was that Koizumi could perhaps hope to reach out to a wider political audience in a presidential-style of government. The idea was that he would probably seek to win the hearts and minds of reformers in the Opposition camp, notably the DPJ. So far there has not been much evidence of such a political dynamic, judging by the outcome of the July 11 polls.

In fact, in the present context, one wonders whether Naoto Kan, the leader of the DPJ, will succeed in attracting like-minded politicians from the LDP. But, Koizumi himself has not lost his chance to woo reformers from the Opposition ranks, something that can be discerned from his interpretation of the "voices of the people" that would necessitate the "taking into account" of the "opinions of the Opposition parties" on economic reforms.

ALTHOUGH the reforms agenda is vast and complex, the issues concerning the postal services, the pension system and the overall social security norms are at the core of the political debate in Japan. Koizumi believes that the government should "leave to the private sector what it can do". But, in a larger sense, much of the country's need for structural reform can be traced to the "bubble economy" that was created over the ashes of imperial Japan. The country capitalised on the "comfort zone" provided by the security umbrella of the U.S. after the Second World War.

NOT so ironically, and, somewhat coincidentally, an issue concerning Japan-U.S. ties now figures prominently alongside the reforms conundrum - the SDF's presence in Iraq.

According to Koizumi, the SDF units, which were sent to Iraq under a "basic law" enacted on December 9 last year (Frontline, January 16), will now function under Tokyo's command (not under the U.S. occupation forces, as was the case so far). Two nuances, one relating to the SDF's role before the "transfer of sovereignty" in Iraq and the other being the future role of the units have now been spelt out by him.

"Although operations by the SDF have been focussed on humanitarian and reconstruction assistance," Koizumi said, "there may be cases in which assistance has taken the form, for example, of transportation of necessary machinery and components for the U.S. forces (in Iraq) in order for them to conduct (their own) assistance activities and maintain life." The reference to the maintenance of life is a diplomatic euphemism for security-related offensive operations as distinct from "humanitarian assistance". The collateral help, which the SDF has extended to the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq prior to the "transfer of sovereignty" there, pertains to the acknowledged fact that Japan's Air Self-Defence Force had transported equipment for the U.S. military units.

Koizumi's affirmation that "Japan will consider how it will assist other countries when they need support in conducting their activities and maintaining life" is significant. However, according to Koizumi, "humanitarian and reconstruction assistance" will continue to constitute "the main activities of the SDF". The question is whether this new phraseology of "main activities" could drive the SDF away from its sole activity of rendering "humanitarian and reconstruction assistance" in Iraq. This is not to suggest that Koizumi has now hinted at any kind of security-related role in Iraq for a `pacifist' force like the SDF. However, a new grey area about the SDF's possible role in Iraq has now come into view.

Why has Koizumi, who wants to drive the "shadow shoguns" (backstage power-brokers) out of domestic politics, not been equally firm in dealing with the U.S., given the growing opposition in Japan to the "American imperial project" in Iraq? Although there is no definitive reason as yet, a generic factor at work can surely be traced to a specific comment by a seasoned Japanese political observer of the international scene. Says Takahara Akio: "Many Japanese policymakers ... seem to believe that their task is to come up with policies that are immediately acceptable to the United States." Will Koizumi try to break this "mindset"?

The quest for peace

Peace studies: An Introduction to the Concept, Scope and Themes, edited by Ranabir Samaddar; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004; pages 445, Rs.448.

THE word peace almost immediately brings to mind images of negotiations, ceasefire, disarmament - all related to war. Peace and war or war and peace thus go together, possibly because the atrocities of war are more easy to envisage than the attributes of peace. But the notion of peace as the mere absence of war is a minimalist concept, declares the book under review. In recent years, a significant corpus of scholarly work has emerged which challenges the limited approach to peace. Adopting a broader approach, these studies seek to link peace with issues of justice, dignity, dialogue and reconciliation. They emphasise the need to take account of historical, political and civilisational specificities of nations and peoples in understanding both peace and conflict.

Such a comprehensive quest for peace is the theme of the volume. It is the first of four volumes to be brought out. The ones to follow are: "Peace Accords and Peace Processes", "Women and Peace Politics", and "Human Rights, Human Rights Institutions and Humanitarian Crisis", all four specifically related to South Asia.

The introductory volume consists of 19 essays divided into three sections - "Defining Peace Studies", "Borders, Wars and People", "Conflict Situations, Dialogue and Peace". Cutting across the sections and individual essays, I shall comment on selected themes.

The first thing that strikes one in going through the volume is a dilemma inherent in the approach. On the one hand, the maximalist concept of peace that the volume strives to project and defend has to be in terms of what may be referred to as universals - justice, dignity, equality, human rights and reconciliation. On the other hand, the quest for peace will become a vague chase unless it is related to the lives and conditions of people which makes it necessary to situate it in a specific geographical area, in this case South Asia. The task, therefore, is to trace the universals in a specific locale, not merely geographically but in terms of "the historical, political and civilisational specificities of people". Therein lies the dilemma.

One way to evaluate the volume will be to see how it handles this dilemma, an inevitable one. Both the universals and the specifics are dealt with. The universals stand out prominently in the editor's preface, in the introduction and in the concluding essay, "Between Revenge and Reconciliation". Practically in all other chapters the accent is on South Asia.

That, however, leads to a problem. South Asia consists of a number of independent states and - unfortunately - the relationships among the states are noted primarily for tensions, disputes, conflicts and wars. Consequently, even when committed to the maximal concept of peace, the main body of the treatment gets reduced to the minimal concept. Not surprisingly, Kashmir becomes the central piece - the inter-state dispute, conflicts and fights. In fact, there is the firm assertion: "In short, the essential question of peace and concord in South Asia is tied to Kashmir and the aspirations of its people." Other South Asian themes dealt with are the India-China dispute and the India-Bangladesh dispute.

This is not a negative observation. These disputes are dealt with not only as matters of state, but as the live experience of people. Thus, the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir is treated as it impacts the lives of innocent men, women and children. No matter what the political issues and legal settlements are when the old princely state of Kashmir becomes partly the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir and partly Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, those who lived together as neighbours and friends suddenly become members of two hostile nations through no fault of theirs. Even families get divided. Natural and normal contacts come to be viewed with suspicion, as clandestine contacts with "the enemy". And those who are suspected become enemies within, more dangerous than enemies without, and are treated accordingly. So "wars between states are giving way to wars within states", leading to various forms of violence by the state.

A VERY poignant piece in the book has the title "Women across borders in Kashmir - the continuum of violence". When fighting erupts, the women not only face the military onslaughts, but they live in fear of their bodies being violated. Even attempts to protect them are not without adverse effects. From scenes of conflict women and children are usually moved to "safe places" where they live in crowded temporary sheds, without adequate clothing, bedding and cooking facilities.

The condition of young women who become widows is even more pathetic. There is usually a monetary compensation, but the money meant for the widow rarely reaches her. Sometimes "kind" intermediaries take a cut; more frequently men in her own family take it away from her for "safe keeping". In other instances, where there are male relations, force is used to marry her off to one of them so that the money remains within the family.

Another manifestation of the human tragedy associated with war and war-like situations is the forced migration of people within countries and across national boundaries as witnessed, for instance, immediately after Partition and before and after East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Such migrations give rise to the problem of refugees and their rehabilitation. Apart from unsettling human lives directly, this kind of forced migration has other implications related to peace. The phenomenon is usually triggered by threats and violence by one group against another based on religious, linguistic and cultural considerations. One group, thus, succeeds in driving out another and the driven-out group carries with it feelings of humiliation and hatred which find expression wherever its members go. The bitterness of refugees even towards those who try to rehabilitate them is well known. Even when former refugees succeed in rehabilitating themselves in a new situation, they are known to carry with them the sense of venom. The political arena in our country provides several instances of this kind.

The threat to peace can, therefore, arise from unexpected quarters and at unguarded moments. It may be domestic; may be across borders. Religion, language and politics may all contribute to it. But in our time borders between countries play a prominent role in violations of peace. With special reference to South Asia, a historian recalls in the volume that migrations of people from one part of the region to another were quite common without threat to peace. It is well known that during the Vedic period there were movements of people from Central Asia to many parts of South Asia. There were movements of the Mangoloid and Turkic peoples across the Karakoram into the high Himalayan ranges. Similarly, peoples from the Gangetic plains moved to Nepal, those from Yunnan in China to Assam, from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka and so on. The Kabuliwallahs seen in Bengali writings are descendants of those who moved from Afghanistan to the Bengal region in days past.

Such natural movements continued until nation states became the order of the day, first in Europe and then taken by the Europeans to other parts of the world, including Asia. And the Asian continent "was mapped in border lines - the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan which the Afghans still do not accept, the Mac Mohan Line between India and China along watersheds most of which had not been seen or walked along by Europeans or Chinese". How chaotic and crazy the borders are can be seen in northeastern India. From West Bengal one moves east to Bangladesh and east from Bangladesh again to the Indian territory and beyond that to Myanmar. The people in the territory between Bangladesh and Myanmar are Indian nationals, but different peoples who have not stopped fighting among themselves. Borders become fertile grounds for tension and war between nations, but do not prevent conflicts within.

But nation states with their borders are here to stay. Within them and across them there are communities of various sorts with their boundaries which, in some instances, are weaker than national borders but in others far stronger and more rigid. This is true of South Asia; it is true of the whole world. Under such conditions how can the quest for maximal peace - or even minimal peace - be maintained and directed? The volume poses this question, and is far from providing an answer. But then it is only the first in a series and it shows that it is worth waiting for the ones to come.

Armitage mission

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to the subcontinent makes it clear that the Congress-led government is as eager as its predecessor was to strengthen relations with Washington.

UNITED STATES Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made a visit to the Indian subcontinent in the third week of July. It was the first by a high-ranking official of the Bush administration after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was swept out of power.

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The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has signalled that strengthening relations with Washington is its top-most priority. Not surprisingly, therefore, protocol was done away with for the visiting dignitary. Armitage, in the course of his day-long stay in New Delhi, was able to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minster K. Natwar Singh, Defence Minster Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit.

Armitage also found time to have a telephonic talk with George Fernandes and apologised for the serious lapse in protocol that occurred during Fernandes' two visits to the U.S. in 2002 and 2003 when he was the Defence Minister of India. Fernandes had to undergo body searches despite the Bush administration having been notified in advance about his visit. The sorry episode came to light only recently, when Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, wrote about it in a soon-to-be-released book.

The controversy surrounding the "strip search", in fact, took centre stage during the Armitage visit. The Left parties in particular were critical about the incident. According to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the failure of the NDA government to raise the issue with the Bush administration illustrated its servile attitude towards the U.S. The Congress spokesman said that the incidents were an "insult to the nation" and criticised former Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee for not raising the issue with President Bush.

Armitage told the media in New Delhi that he did in fact offer "sincere" apologies to his "good friend" Fernandes for the humiliation. Armitage claimed that the Bush administration was not aware of the incident about which, he added, there was no official Indian complaint.

Fernandes, on his part, is trying to downplay the incident, saying that he was not "strip searched", as reported in sections of the media. He said that he was only asked to remove his coat, shoes and socks. He was also quoted as saying, during a recent visit to Bihar, that he would never again visit the U.S.

Many diplomatic observers are of the view that India should follow the Brazilian example and insist that visiting Americans should be subjected to the same kind of rigorous immigration procedures the U.S. imposes on citizens of most countries. Americans visiting Brazil are fingerprinted and their eyes scanned. The Bush administration has had to lump it.

WHILE in New Delhi, Armitage denied that he had come with a fresh request for Indian troops for Iraq. He, however, admitted that the Iraq issue did crop up at his meetings. He added that the Indian government "has indicated there are ways by which they might be helpful" in defusing the situation in Iraq. Armitage mentioned the possibility of the Iraqi security forces owing allegiance to the U.S.-installed government being trained in India. The Kerala government had rejected a request for the training of Iraqi policemen some time ago. Some countries such as Germany, which were opposed to the U.S. misadventure in Iraq, are, however, lending a helping hand to the beleaguered Bush administration by training Iraqi security men in neighbouring countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

ANOTHER purpose of the Armitage visit may have been to brief the government about the appointment of Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington, as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Iraq. Earlier, media reports had indicated that Annan's choice for the high-profile job was India's former Foreign Secretary Salman Haider. The Bush administration evidently preferred the suave Pakistani diplomat, who has been a High Commissioner in India, and exerted the necessary pressure on the U.N. Secretary-General for his approval. The speculation in diplomatic circles is that Qazi's appointment will provide Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf the pretext to send a contingent of Pakistani troops to Iraq under the guise of providing security for the U.N. representative. The Pakistan Foreign Office has denied that there are plans for the despatch of troops to Iraq.

Pakistan has a tradition of helping the U.S. get out of tricky military and political situations. For instance, when most countries, including India, pulled out peacekeepers from Somalia in the early 1990s, Pakistani troops stayed on, battling the warlords on behalf of the U.S. Sending troops to Iraq will help Islamabad accumulate plenty of political and diplomatic IOUs from the Bush administration, provided it gets re-elected. The UPA government has reasons to be wary about the high-level diplomatic moves being orchestrated on the international stage by the Bush administration in a last-ditch attempt to extricate itself from the mess it has created for itself in Iraq. The announcement of Qazi's appointment came as Armitage was visiting the subcontinent. Pakistan has already been designated a "major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally" by Washington.

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The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said that the two sides exchanged views on the situation in Iraq. Armitage claimed with a straight face in New Delhi that the Iraqi people accepted the new government in Iraq with "alacrity" and that the U.S. was no longer "isolated" in that country. The U.S. official was told that the Indian government welcomed the recent transfer of power to the Iraqi authorities. Indian officials said that they viewed it as the first step towards the goal of full sovereignty for the Iraqi people. New Delhi conveyed its concerns regarding the independence and territorial integrity of Iraq. Armitage was told that India would act in accordance with the views expressed by Parliament.

The visiting U.S. official told the media in New Delhi that he did not perceive any differences in the approach to bilateral relations between the NDA government and the present government. "I must say that there is no difference between the Opposition and the government in power on the desirability of enhanced India-U.S. relations," Armitage said.

To the apparent disconcertment of the Pakistani government, Armitage concurred with New Delhi's view that not all terrorist training camps in Pakistan had been shut. He said that Pakistan had not dismantled the entire terrorism infrastructure. He reiterated the same view in Pakistan as well. He, however, also added that there was violence and human rights violations taking place in the Indian part of Kashmir. Armitage said that he had discussed the issue with Indian officials.

He denied reports that he had requested Pakistan to send its troops to Iraq. Public opinion in Pakistan is vehemently opposed to any such move. Besides, even as Armitage was visiting the Indian subcontinent, more countries signalled that they were pulling their troops out of the Iraqi quagmire. The latest to join the exit queue was the Philippines - another traditional ally of the U.S.

Looking back into the future

in Guwahati

ON April 7, 1912, at a meeting held in Kamakhya, an ancient centre of pilgrimage near Guwahati, and attended by about a dozen persons, a research organisation called Kamarupa Anusandhana Samiti (subsequently also known as Assam Research Society) was founded. Its objective, as stated in its prospectus issued in December 1914, was "to carry on researches within the area covered by the sacred province of Kamarupa" (emphasis added). The initiative for founding such a research organisation, with its focus on the sacred history and geography of the land of Kamarupa, was taken in the course of the deliberations of an older and corresponding research organisation, the Uttara Vangiya Sahitya Parishad (Northern Bengal Literary Council), which had then been meeting at the same venue. The broader inspiration and ideal behind the endeavour, in Kamarupa/Assam as well in several other provinces, has been acknowledged to be the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal.

As the prospectus notes, the idea of founding such an organisation was not original. There had been an earlier proposal to form a `Historical Research Society for the Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam'. But this never took concrete shape because of the dissolution of the Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, announced at the Coronation Durbar in Delhi on December 12, 1911 by King George V, just a little over six years after the experiment was implemented and less than four months before the founding of the KAS.

It is one of those impossible-to-settle debates whether the Partition and the tragedy that preceded, accompanied and followed it on both sides of the border could have been avoided if the `vivisection of Bengal', the highly emotive description of the administrative and political initiative taken by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, in 1905, admittedly to weaken Bengali (Hindu) nationalism and Indian nationalism, had not met with such forceful and violent opposition principally, though not solely, from the Hindu Bengalis in the province.

In the event, less than 40 years later, the very same class that had so violently opposed the partition of Bengal had to acquiesce, in far bloodier circumstances, to Partition, one of the two central features of which was indeed the partition of Bengal, a re-implementation of the old plan with virtually the same relocation of the eastern parts of Bengal as a constituent part of a sovereign country, Pakistan - though these ceased to be a part of Pakistan a quarter of a century later in even bloodier circumstances. These reflections are not a digression; they have a bearing on one of the themes of this essay.

THE KAS had 12 founding members, almost all of them involved in matters of study and research, though not all of them were professionally engaged in study, teaching and research. Overwhelmingly high-caste Hindus, they were from the professional class - scholars, teachers from traditional Sanskrit schools (tol), members of the bureaucracy and so on. One finds much the same kind of spread among the 45 ordinary members, including four from outside Assam (none of them, incidentally, a woman), mentioned in the appendix to the prospectus. The division and distinction between intellectual workers and those labouring in `non-intellectual' professions (though this did not evidently include manual labour) was neither clear nor absolute in those days. It is not so even now, though the exceptional departures from what is now considered the norm tend to be obscure, more eccentric individuals labouring in dim self-effacement than acknowledged members of a scholarly fraternity. One feels confronted with a wholly original, indeed unique, world of scholarly endeavour and engagement when one goes through the membership lists of organisations such as the KAS.

Two aspects of these endeavours that resulted in the foundation of the KAS and its subsequent activities deserve to be noted. One, these were almost entirely the result of private initiative; the KAS itself was (and continues to be) very much a membership organisation, with a constitution and rules and regulations governing all its activities. Although, like all such endeavours of those times, the organisation secured official patronage of sorts (the Government of Assam made a grant of Rs.250 on December 18, 1915 and, from the following financial year, increased this to an annual recurring grant of Rs.1,000), its activities were sustained essentially by the labours of the members and the `munificent patronage' (a favourite expression of these rather impoverished scholars) of well-to-do private individuals, zamindars and others.

For instance, the original proposal to establish such a society was made by Khan Chaudhuri Amanatullah Ahmad, a zamindar of Koch Behar, and supported by Rai Mrityunjoy Chaudhuri Bahadur, a zamindar of Rangpur (now in Bangladesh), both then active in the Uttara Vangiya Sahitya Parishad. The first list of patrons published in the prospectus includes not merely Sir Archibald Earle, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, but also two leading members of the feudal royalty: Maharaja Jitendranath Bhupa Bahadur of Koch Behar and Raja Pratapchandra Barua Bahadur of Gauripur, Assam. And apart from the Chief Commissioner, the two other Europeans included among the patrons, E.A. Gait and P.R.T. Gurdon, were there as much for their scholarly engagement with Assam as for their official positions.

Secondly, the concept of Assam envisaged in the universe covered by the KAS (Kamarupa, the ancient name of Assam, itself an imaginary construct based on puranic geography) clearly included areas of what would now be northern Bengal and Bangladesh, not to speak of Koch Behar which was seen as an integral part of ancient Kamarupa - and is even now seen as having many cultural commonalities with Kamrup and areas to its west, the so-called Lower Assam. "The jurisdiction of its research work", recalled An Account of Kamarupa Anusandhana Samiti issued in 1993 marking 80 years of its work, spread "over the area formerly included in the sacred and ancient kingdom of Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa, comprising modern Assam and the neighbouring [S]tates (sic) of North Bengal including Koch Behar and East Bengal (presently Bangladesh)". Eighty years down the line, one of the defining elements of this initiative, the sacredness of the terrain and, by inference, also of the work undertaken, remains constant.

Indeed, the history and culture of Bengal, in particular the adjoining districts of northern Bengal, including Koch Behar, was seen not so much as an extension of the history and culture of Kamarupa but as an integral part of that history. The KAS set up a branch in Rangpur, with the secretary of the Rangpur Sahitya Parishad functioning as its secretary. Not surprisingly, there was a significant Bengali presence (indicated and identifiable so by the use of the honorific `Babu', while the Assamese names were preceded by the honorific `Srijut') at every level of these endeavours, indicating the strong intellectual inspiration and material support that these received as much from Bengal as from within Assam.

Most significantly, the universe of `Kamarupa', part of the sacred territory of puranic geography as perceived and presented in these efforts, saw Assam not as a remote and isolated outpost of India, as the colonial government did by marking off on its maps large parts of the Province as `excluded areas', `partially excused areas' and `unadministered areas', but in inclusive terms, as part of a larger cultural and geographical terrain that was linked not merely to Bengal but to the broader pan-Indian and even more inclusive universe of `Bharatavarsha' from puranic times - hence its `sacredness'. Thus, Narakasura and Bhagadatta became historical figures in this imagination, not imaginary constructs of myth and legend. Indeed the location of Assam in such a pan-Indian context was the central theme animating the scholarly works produced by many of these intellectual leaders identified with the KAS. As a scholar has argued in a recent essay, the investing of names, either of persons or places, with a puranic epic identity served the purposes of both Indian nationalist historians and colonial administrators ("What is in a Name? Politics of Spatial Imagination in Colonial Assam" by Bodhisattva Kar; Centre for Northeast India, South and Southeast Asia Studies, Guwahati, 2004).

WHILE such an attempt to identify the Kamarupa of myth and legend with a part of historical India could be seen at its most innocuous as a bit of harmless fantasy, the active and living linkages such efforts saw and sought between Kamarupa and contemporary Bengal had other implications for the colonial government still confronting the aftermath, in the form of political protests and radical political mobilisation, of the division of Bengal. These had acquired a momentum and dynamism of their own, taking directions that the colonial government could neither foresee nor control despite the annulment of the partition.

As many historical accounts citing contemporary intelligence reports have noted, `terrorists' from Bengal were routinely moving from Bengal to Assam to escape the police. Volume One of the Political History of Assam (1826-1919) published by the Government of Assam in 1977, part of a three-volume project sponsored by the State government, refers to the cases of "Jadu Gopal Mukherjee, an outstanding revolutionary carrying a price of Rs.20,000 on his head" eluding the police and keeping up his activities in Assam during 1915-16. Then there was the case of "Nalini Ghose and some other revolutionaries who had been hiding in Fancy Bazar and Athgaon in Guwahati, who were arrested after armed clashes with the police on 18-19 January 1918 and later tried and sentenced by Special Commissions under the Defence of India Act".

Such sparks, initially (and quite wrongly) seen as essentially a malignant importation from Bengal to disrupt the imagined tranquillity of Assam, could not anyway be contained, for the objective conditions for such unrest to thrive were present very much in the socio-economic situation in the province. Nevertheless, the knee-jerk reaction was to isolate the province from what were seen as malignant infections. The establishment of a separate department of historical research under the direct control of the government, with the domain of its research activities defined and confined to `Assam' in contradistinction to the universe of Kamarupa was, at that point of time, as much a political necessity as a path-breaking endeavour to expand historical research in Assam.

Like any such voluntary efforts, the KAS did the tasks it had set for itself, sometimes exceedingly well, sometimes in a workmanlike, perhaps even a pedestrian, manner. Its own summing up of its achievements on the 80th anniversary of its founding is modest. It also notes, as if in passing, that the KAS "also paved the way for the establishment of sister institutions in the State, like ... the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies", suggesting an organic continuity between the two structures.

Such, perhaps, is the case now. But such was not the case when the colonial government took the initiative to provide for a separate Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies (DHAS). Rather, the argument of this essay is that the initiative of the colonial government was intended to facilitate and encourage a different focus to historical studies than had been provided by the KAS, in the circumstances of its birth as well as in the direction its work had taken in the first decade of its existence. These went beyond the obvious differences that had been evident from the beginning in that the focus of the KAS was more in the direction of collection of artefacts having a bearing on the ancient history of Kamarupa with puranic undertones - monuments and inscriptions, temple architecture and archaeology, copper plates, ancient coins and so on - while that of the DHAS was more specifically historical, dealing with periods and events identifiably having a focus in recorded history.

KAS says: "Since its inception, the Samiti has been steadfastly working towards the fulfilment of its objective to carry on research in matters relating to history, archaeology, ethnography, etc, and to collect books and manuscripts, coins, copper plates, statues, carved stones, anthropological articles, etc, in short, all things that should find place in a literary museum of such a society and also the establishment of a Government Museum in Guwahati... "

In the course of time, the KAS has now become little more than an adjunct of the Assam Provincial Museum (now Assam State Museum, "a purely government institution but [with] its management... left with the Board of Trustees") it facilitated in bringing into being than its primary moving force. Having been from the beginning and always a department of the State government, the DHAS has not had so many ups and downs, except those that are part of the fate of any government department. However, the bottom line for any scholar, or even a journalist, a visit to these institutes that share as much an inspiring past as a decrepit present and uncertainties about the future, is a depressing experience.

WHAT is in a name? After asking this rhetorical question and dismissing it, the same poet has rather something different to say in his more mature years about names and nomenclature (Othello, Act Three, Scene Three).

Names, like every other physical and cultural artefacts and other creations of the human intellect and imagination, are unique, with an element of magic. It is hardly necessary to press this point, for even now there are societies where people will not reveal their real names but go throughout their lives under a name meant for use in the public domain. For, men and women too, like the cat in another poet's imagination, have names that only they know.

The same uniqueness is a feature of changes in names and nomenclature, a process of reclaiming one's history that has been distorted out of all recognition - and not merely by the colonial rulers. In Assam and the northeastern region, for instance, the nationalist assertion by various minority communities almost always incorporates their own reinvention as well as their local habitation and name, their land and their personal names, in terms defined by them. Instances of such reinvention are to be found among every people of the region.

So, Kamarupa of the puranic epic became a serviceable name, Kamrup, to denote a revenue district created after occupation and conquest by the British. However, Kamarupa itself became Asam, another ancient name, but of a later date, which in due course got anglicised to Assam.

However, it retained in Assamese spelling and pronunciation its subtle uniqueness, not easy for foreigners to comprehend in all its nuances. The Assamese spelling and pronunciation, in their reverse transliteration into Roman script letters and attempts at phonetic spelling, are now represented by two other versions of the name: Asom and Axom, the latter a still to be accepted innovation intended to represent the sound and pronunciation of the uniquely modified Assamese retroflex fricative, represented in an oversimplified spelling simply as `s'. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the voice (and deeds) of an exclusivist Assamese nationalist assertion, claims it is fighting for the liberation of `Asom', not Assam.

The journey from Kamarupa to Assam and possibly to Asom and, who knows, maybe even beyond, is in no way unique. New names for old, like another siren call of new lamps for old, holds promises as well as perils. However, in the present situation in Assam, one is not even clear what the direction these calls will take, let alone worry about what is waiting at the end of the journey.

Debris danger

other

Rubble from the landslide that occurred 10 months ago on the Varunavat mountain in Uttarkashi threatens to swamp the town during this monsoon.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in Uttarkashi Photographs: Sandeep Saxena

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IN the first week of July, the worst fears of the people living at the foot of the crumbling Varunavat mountain, on the edge of Uttarkashi town in Uttaranchal, came true: the first spell of rain brought with it a flood of debris, about three metres high, into their homes. They escaped unhurt as they had fled their homes, something they had been doing for several days at the first sign of gathering clouds, only to return after the sky cleared. Their homes, more than 300 in all, are in the designated `buffer zone' - a half-a-kilometre-wide area near the foot of the mountain - that has to be evacuated permanently. The area, with a population of more than 2,000, also houses commercial and government buildings and continues to throb with life.

The people have been on the alert ever since a lightning strike in September made a huge crack on the mountain and caused a landslide that lasted for a month and displaced over 60,000 cubic metres of debris. A third of the rubble has already come down, damaging several houses and shops in the vicinity, and with the arrival of the rains the danger of the town going under is real.

The first cracks on the mountain appeared during the earthquake of 1991, according to experts from the Central Building Research Institute, Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, the Central Road Research Institute and the Geological Survey of India (Frontline, November 7, 2003). But these apparently went unnoticed, and one particular crack, on the Tambakhai side of the town, has been causing landslides for the last 12 years or so, with the debris falling into the Bhagirathi river. Meanwhile more cracks developed.

The charge against the administration is that it made no effort to clear the debris of the September landslide during the dry months. By the time it woke up to the reality, it was too late for any meaningful effort. "The situation continues to be critical and we are trying our best to control the damage potential. The town can be marooned by debris if there is heavy rain. That is why we have asked the residents of the area to move to safer places," said K.K. Pant, the Uttarkashi District Magistrate. For the moment, the poor rainfall has come as a blessing for the administration.

Clearing operations have begun at two of the three critical points, the Ramlila grounds near the main bus stand on the Rishikesh-Gangotri highway and Horticulture Colony. The worst-affected locality is Masjid Mohalla and nothing can be done there. "This portion can't be touched because it can trigger further landslides. We have advised the people living there to shift," says Pant.

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Shift where? "They keep us in a hall at Milan Kendra like cattle. This hall does not even have a toilet. Even if we go there, we have to come back to our homes in the morning," says Anjum, a resident of Masjid Mohalla whose family of 18 has no option but to keep spending their nights in fear. "With no compensation and no alternative accommodation available, where do we go?" ask the residents.

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The people have refused to accept the compensation offered by the government, saying the amount is paltry. Pant pleads helplessness and says it has been calculated on the basis of the guidelines framed by the Government of India. Besides, many residents have built houses in violation of the rules and without the necessary permissions. So even if they occupy a four-storey building at present, the compensation is only for the originally approved one-storey building.

"We have no one to turn to for help except God," says Shobha Ali. Her husband Mazhar Ali, who owns an automobile shop in the Masjid Mohalla area, says they had settled in Uttarkashi after they were displaced from Old Tehri because of the Tehri dam. The family faces displacement once again. "One can live anywhere, but what about the business? How do we earn our livelihood?" he asks. "Setting up shop elsewhere is not easy." "We are waiting for doomsday, waiting to be buried under the debris," says Vishnu Pal Singh Rawat, president of the Uttarkashi Vyapar Mandal.

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VIKRAM GUPTA, a scientist at the Dehra Dun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, said "zonation mapping" placed the area under the "high hazard zone". Even the slightest ecological disturbance, such as cutting of the hill for laying roads or digging a canal can trigger a landslide, he said.

He contends that the September landslide occurred as a result of a combination of natural and man-made factors. The rainfall last year was 60 per cent more than the average and water accumulating in the cracks that had developed since 1991 led to a loosening of the soil. This and the digging for laying roads and for constructing an unlined canal by the Forest Department to divert water from the slopes, were enough to cause the landslide.

The Central government has decided to go in for "treatment" of the Varunavat mountain on the basis of the recommendations of a high-level technical committee headed by a scientist of the Geological Survey of India. The government has approved a Rs.250-crore package for the purpose and for the relocation and rehabilitation of the affected people. But the people do not see any point in spending so much money on "treatment" if the area is to be evacuated permanently. Said Mahabir Singh Chauhan, owner of the 30-room Himanshu Hotel in Masjid Mohalla: "Let the debris lie where it is. Once the area is evacuated, how does it matter even if it comes down? Why spend so much on removing the debris now? Instead, they should give us respectable compensation." According to him, while the residents are being taken for a ride in the name of compensation, hundreds of crores is going down as commissions in the name of "treatment".

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Pant, however, says the "treatment" is aimed at preventing further damage and is not just for the short-term purpose of clearing the rubble. "It involves erecting concrete walls to stop the land from sliding further, greening of the affected area and so on. These will help prevent damage in the long run," he says, justifying the huge expense even though the buffer zone has to be evacuated.

Meanwhile, pilgrimage tourism in Uttarkashi, the gateway to the shrines at Gangotri (the orgin of the Ganga) and Yamunotri (the origin of the Yamuna), has slipped to its lowest since the landslide. "We have been ruined. There has not been any tourist inflow this season. Our business has been destroyed," said Mahabir Singh Chauhan, whose hotel has remained vacant all season. Voicing a similar concern, the manager of the tourist rest house of Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam said the tourist inflow had dipped substantially because of the scare. "It is not as though the entire town is threatened, but people are scared to come. Besides, many people think that the road onwards to Gangotri and Yamunotri is still closed, which is not the case. It has been cleared and is functioning," he said. Until, perhaps, the rubble rolls in with the rain.

Bucking the trend

in Singapore

THE withdrawal of the small military contingent of the Philippines from Iraq has helped secure the release of a Filipino hostage, Angelo de la Cruz, from his captors in the occupied country. As a matter of diplomatic nicety and in regard to the basic humanitarian aspect at stake, the United States lost no time to describe the hostage's freedom, obtained on July 20 at the `price' of the pullout, as a "glad" tiding.

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The hostage-takers, whose identity is not really of material significance to the sordid abduction drama that lasted several days, had threatened to kill de la Cruz, a civilian, if the Filipino soldiers were not withdrawn by an extended deadline. In the event, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered the soldiers out of Iraq. The move, first indicated to circles considered close to de la Cruz's captors, was made in the larger interests of the safety of several million Filipino civilians who work in West Asia and other places.

However, Washington could hardly conceal its "disappointment" over Manila's action of breaking ranks with the so-called coalition of the willing in the ongoing "war on terrorism" in Iraq. Viewed from a Filipino perspective, it was in fact a case of controlled anger in Washington. Obviously, the view from Washington was different.

The simple but significant reality is that the Philippines, designated not long ago as a "major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] ally" of the U.S., has disregarded the "dos and don'ts" of the "anti-terror campaign" as outlined by Washington from time to time. It was during an extensive tour of East Asia in October 2003 that U.S. President George W. Bush designated the Philippines and Thailand as "major non-NATO allies". The specific reference to NATO, in this context, was designed to downplay speculation that he was actually out to create an Asiatic version of NATO.

More relevant to the latest geopolitical situation in East Asia is that Manila is in a minority of one among the U.S.-friendly countries in the region to have bucked the `trend' of siding with Washington in Iraq in the present circumstances.

The Philippines has not, of course, walked out of the U.S.-led coalition in the worldwide "war on terrorism". The U.S., too, is still actively engaged in putting the Philippines through its paces in the battle against sundry terrorists in its own backyard. The real issue in focus, though, is not whether this is Washington's pompous `take' or Manila's grateful view.

Of considerable concern to Washington is the possibility that Manila's decisive pullout may well impinge on the people's mood in East Asia in general and pose a diplomatic challenge to the U.S. itself. There is more to this than the small number of soldiers that the Philippines had stationed in Iraq - 51 soldiers, on purely "humanitarian" duties - as distinct from a "combat-ready" assignment.

The governments in Japan and South Korea, both long-time military "allies" of the U.S., continue to fly against the currents of public opinion in their respective domains in order to keep their troops in Iraq at this time. Units belonging to Japan's Self-Defence Forces remain on a "reconstruction mission" in Iraq, a job description similar to that of the Filipino troops, while South Korea has plans to augment its "non-combat personnel" in Iraq by sending more of them in addition to "battle-ready" soldiers. Seoul's contingent will, eventually, be the third largest foreign force in Iraq, behind those from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The task before an increasingly beleaguered U.S. is to ensure that Tokyo and Seoul, which now cite their compulsions of realpolitik to side with Washington, will stay that course. Two of Japan's diplomats and one South Korean civilian have already fallen victim to terrorist activities in Iraq.

For Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in contrast, considerations of realpolitik of a different kind have come into prime reckoning. To her way of thinking, a symbolic sense of military solidarity with the U.S. in Iraq had become a liability, which could even put at risk the very lives of Filipino expatriates across the world, especially in West Asia.

Not surprisingly, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo not only celebrated the safe release of de la Cruz, but maintained that she would not regret her decision to withdraw the troops. In her view, it was in the final analysis her responsibility to ensure the security of Filipinos, wherever they might be resident. In a sense, this carried an elemental echo of Washington's own assertions about its obligations to protect Americans around the world.

In Washington's official jargon, the latest Filipino move might just be one aspect of what is essentially a "rotational coalition" in Iraq. Whether this means a revolving door for the coalition or not, the question is whether the "offensive realists" in the U.S. will accept Manila's action as an independent move or see it as defiance. As seen in East Asia, this "offensive realism", drawn from the descriptive terminology of John J. Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), may now re-assert itself in Washington. Will the latest Manila move be seen as a new manifestation, even if on a smaller scale, of the Filipino mindset that forced the closure of U.S. bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s?

Winning dreams

A documentary made by children of an orphanage in Kolkata wins the first prize at the Kids for Kids International Film Festival in Athens.

"I will always remember the respect you have given me. Earlier as a beggar in the streets, I was only used to abuse. For the first time in my life I am being honoured for something."

Ashikul Islam, 12, in his acceptance speech at the Kids for Kids International Film Festival in Athens in June after receiving the first prize for the documentary `Aami', which he directed.

ASHIKUL ISLAM lives in the Destitute Children's Home run by the Centre for Communication and Development (CCD) at Madhyamgram in suburban Kolkata. `Aami' (I Am), a 20-minute documentary made by children of the orphanage, all of them between six and 12 years of age, was one of the 45 films shortlisted at the Kids for Kids International Film Festival in Athens from 323 entries received from 40 countries. It was the only film selected from Asia in what is one of the biggest children's film festivals in the world.

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What makes the achievement special is the spirit behind the venture. "The story is about us," Ashikul Islam told Frontline, "the dreams and lives of my friends and myself at the Home." The idea came when some of the children decided to draw pictures of their dreams, aspirations and curiosities. Saiful Mandal, 11, who handled the camera for the film, said, "Some of us want to be pilots when we grow up, some others doctors. We are curious about a lot of things. For example, how can fish sleep with their eyes open and we can't? My drawing was why stars can be seen in the night and not during day time." He wanted to be a doctor, but now he is set on becoming a cameraman. "When I was very small I saw someone use that kind of camera for some shooting in my village, and I was very interested. But they didn't let me touch it. I like to be with the camera all the time," he said.

The children had no idea how to make a film, and started by putting down in writing what their crayon paintings represented. "Before I came to the Home, I was only used to lanterns. I had never come across electricity and was astounded when I first saw it in the Home. I wanted to express that experience through my drawing and the film," said Ashikul.

He learnt to be a director at a two-day workshop on film-making organised for the children by Gauranga Films, a movie production house. "Initially we were shown what to do and then we did it by ourselves. I first arranged the pictures and then made the script. I explained to everyone their roles. I told Saiful how to make the shots and from which angle to take them," said Ashikul. The entire film was shot in 12 hours and Gauranga Films agreed to do the production work. The children took part in the editing work.

Ashikul was the only one who represented the children at Athens. "I am not at all sad that I couldn't go. Ashikul is my friend and he went for all of us. I am very happy," said Saiful. For Ashikul the experience was at once exhilarating and terrifying. "I never thought I would ever get on a plane. I was very scared," he said. However, he enjoyed himself watching the films made by children of other countries and said he liked all of them. The defining moment was when he stood on the podium to receive the prize - a digital camera and a certificate - and spoke from his heart.

Ashikul almost missed the trip to Athens. He did not have a birth certificate and that posed problems for his acquiring a visa. But Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee intervened to sort out the problem. "He [the Chief Minister] asked me what the film was all about and gave me a new set of clothes, pens, exercise books and a camera. He told me to do well," said Ashikul.

ASHIKUL was born in Maricha village in South 24 Paraganas district. His father was killed by dacoits when he was still in his mother's womb. He was born into extreme poverty and begged, along with his mother, for survival. His mother died when he was only five. "I was completely alone and depended on charity. Then I started working in a tea stall, for which I got food twice a day and shelter for the night. If I broke anything accidentally they would beat me and halve my salary," he said. He left the tea stall to work in a restaurant. He was made to wash utensils with hot rice starch, which would scorch his hands. His last job, at the age of eight, was in a leather factory, where he applied glue on the products.

Life was no less difficult for Saiful. Born in Keyadanga Chandpur village in North 24 Paraganas district, he lost his father when he was five. He and his mother used to graze other people's cattle for a living. "They wouldn't pay us for that, but gave us two meals a day. If any of their cattle got lost, they would beat us," he said. His mother then began working as a maid in different houses.

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"Sometimes we did not get food, and sometimes only rotten rice," he said. He joined the Home four years ago because his mother could not cope with the pressures of taking care of a small child and making ends meet. He says he has never been happier, but at times he misses his mother very much.

Saiful's deputy, assistant cameraman Alamgir Mandal, 10, was abandoned by his distraught mother one night when he was asleep at home. His father had deserted the family before he could even remember. "I woke up one morning and there was nobody there. I was scared and hungry and I started crying. The neighbours heard me and unlocked the door and brought me out," said Alamgir.

With nobody to take care of him, the three-year-old was put to work in a brinjal farm. "My job was to run around the field all day, chasing away birds from the crop," he said. When the brinjal season ended he worked in a sweetmeat shop and stayed there. His aunt came periodically and collected all his earnings. One day the shop owner threw hot water on him for breaking a cup. When the local people protested, the shop owner threw him out. Four years ago CCD adopted him.

For the children this documentary was not just an experiment; it was made by them, on them and for the world. "I want our film to be shown to all. There are so many children who are starving and wandering on the streets. They need four things - love, food, education and a place to live. If we only tell people about us, some would listen and some would not. Now the whole world knows about us and children like us," said Saiful.

Ashikul and his friends are already planning another documentary - on beggar-children. This idea is Ashikul's own. "I want to do a film on those children who are not as fortunate as we are and have to live in the streets. They can't even think of their own future and what they will grow up to be," he said. This documentary, if it is made, will again be a world that Ashikul, Saiful, Alamgir and their friends know only too well.

Guilty, by implication

The Butler inquiry avoids blaming the government for using bad intelligence to justify the war on Iraq, but Tony Blair stands accused of misleading Parliament and leading Britain into an unwanted war.

in London

IMAGINE a scandal in which the entire neighbourhood is found to be involved and yet nobody is held accountable because the investigator dismisses it as a "collective operation". In other words, while everyone was a partner in the "crime", no one actually "dunnit".

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This is exactly what the Butler inquiry into the British government's intelligence claims in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq has done. Five months after it was set up to examine the quality and use of Iraq-related intelligence, the committee has produced a report whose findings are dramatically at odds with its verdict. It catalogues a litany of mistakes involving everything from collection and processing of intelligence to its presentation, thereby virtually suggesting that the threat from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was, indeed, "sexed up", as famously alleged by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in a controversial broadcast in 2003. But, in the end, it concludes that no individual or single agency is to blame as everyone acted in "good faith" - and at best it was a "collective" failure.

The front page of The Independent, the morning after the publication of the report, summed it up thus:

"The intelligence: flawed The dossier: dodgy The 45-minute claim: wrong Iraq's link to Al Qaeda: unproven The public: misled The case for the war: exaggerated And who was to blame? No one"

The inconsistency between the committee's findings and its conclusions has, inevitably, raised eyebrows. It is being asked whether the report is a whitewash job for Prime Minister Tony Blair who immediately seized on it to claim that he had been vindicated. Or is it a clever mix of expose and evasion?

Lord Butler, a former Cabinet Secretary who chaired the committee, has a reputation for being a quintessential establishment man, not known to rock the boat even if he has no love lost for the boatman. But as someone brought up on the politically neutral traditions of the British civil service, he also has an instinctive contempt for politicians and is said to be loath to be seen covering up for them - a la the BBC's fictional Sir Humphrey, adept at saying "Yes Minister" at every turn without getting his hands soiled with his political master's controversial or sordid actions.

So, caught between his instinctive loyalty to the establishment on the one hand and a regard for truth on the other, Lord Butler did what years of experience in the civil service taught him to do: walk a tight rope. He did this by laying bare the facts about the government's handling of intelligence but stopping short of passing a judgment. Unlike Lord Hutton, who investigated the circumstances that surrounded the death of Iraq arms expert Dr. David Kelly and dispensed blame selectively (hanging and flogging the BBC while exonerating the government completely), Lord Butler has let the facts speak for themselves.

And the facts are pretty brutal - damaging enough to increase the pressure on Blair to apologise and, preferably, quit for leading the country to war on a false prospectus. Call it a sheer coincidence, within hours of the publication of the report on July 14 the Labour Party suffered humiliation in two parliamentary byelections. It lost a traditionally safe seat in Leicester and barely managed to retain its once "rock solid" stronghold in Birmingham. The defeats triggered fresh calls for Blair's resignation. His own Members of Parliament (MPs) claimed that the Butler report contributed to the anti-Blair backlash over Iraq. "Clearly, the issue was Iraq. Far from drawing a line under it, everything the government does and the Prime Minister says exacerbates it," said Glenda Jackson, MP and a former Minister, urging Blair to "go and go now".

Notwithstanding Lord Butler's reluctance to apportion blame, his findings have confirmed the worst fears about the Blair government and the intelligence establishment's conduct in the build-up to the war. Even pro-war politicians and commentators say that they may not have supported the invasion if they had known then what the Butler report has disclosed. The Times called it an "indictment of our spies and their masters" and said that, judging from it, "everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong" as "bad intelligence was credulously believed and passed on to the public as - in Tony Blair's words - `extensive, detailed and authoritative'".

According to the report, the government stretched intelligence to its "limits" to make the case for invading Iraq, and the way it was presented to Parliament and the public created a misleading impression about the "threat" posed by Saddam Hussein. It sharply questioned the quality of intelligence by saying that much of it was "flawed", particularly the key claim that Iraq could deploy its weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. About the 45-minute claim, which persuaded many anti-war MPs to change their mind at the last minute, it said that it should not have been included at all in the intelligence dossier published by Downing Street in September 2002 and used by Blair to justify military intervention in Iraq.

Echoing the BBC's controversial broadcast, which had accused the Prime Minister's Office of "sexing up" the dossier, the report said that the language used in the document and, subsequently, by Blair did not reflect the "thinness" of the intelligence on the ground. And, in an attempt to present an alarming picture of the threat from Saddam Hussein, the reservations expressed by intelligence agencies about the limits of their information were ignored. The caveats that came with intelligence reports should have been made clearer in the dossier, it said.

The report, though less devastating than the recent United States Senate Committee's criticism of the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, was sufficiently scathing to provoke calls for Blair to acknowledge that his government's case for war was based on false premise. Among other things, the report criticised the "informal" style of decision-making in Downing Street, which undermined the collective principle of Cabinet government and limited the scope for debate.

While the committee said it found no evidence of political interference in intelligence gathering, it did point out that there was "strain" on intelligence chiefs as a result of the tension between the government's desire to make a case against Saddam Hussein and the Joint Intelligence Committee's "normal standards" of neutrality and objectivity.

The committee noted a "tendency" to put forward the "worst case" scenario about Iraq's weapons capability and the threat from Saddam Hussein. It was "surprised" that there was no attempt to "re-evaluate" assessments even after it was becoming increasingly clear that the initial information may have been faulty. The validation procedures were not applied with sufficient rigour, it said.

HOWEVER, the committee did not blame any individual either in the government or in the intelligence establishment for the mistakes; the report called it a "collective" failure. At a media conference, Lord Butler fobbed off persistent questions by saying that there was no evidence that Blair or his government either "deliberately" distorted intelligence or misled the country. The government, he said, acted in "good faith" - words which were seized by Blair to claim that he had been vindicated.

"No one lied, no one made up the intelligence. No one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services," Blair told MPs minutes after the report was released. The "issue of good faith" had been settled by the report, he declared. He accepted "full responsibility" for whatever had happened, but pointedly refused to apologise, insisting that "getting rid of Saddam" was the right decision though no weapons had been found and the "evidence of Saddam's WMDs was, indeed, less certain, less well-founded than was stated at the time".

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Blair has been accused of shifting the "goal post". "After getting Parliament to support an unnecessary and unpopular war on the plea that Saddam's alleged arsenal posed a threat to world peace, he is now saying that forcing a regime change was the real aim," said one MP, accusing Blair of misleading Parliament.

Blair's credibility is seen to have been so irreparably damaged that many in the party and the government are said to be worried about a backlash in the next general elections, barely months away. Successive opinion polls have shown that voters have little trust in him and - as the Tory leader Michael Howard pointed out in the House of Commons - the central issue was no longer one of "prime ministerial responsibility, but credibility". Howard said: "I hope we will not face another war in the foreseeable future, but if we did and this Prime Minister identified the threat, would the country believe him?"

Considering that Howard is no peacenik himself and his party MPs voted for the war with their feet, it is easy for Blair to dismiss his protests as "opportunism". But there are many Labour MPs with impeccable anti-war credentials who feel they were duped. More than 130 Labour backbenchers voted against the war but a fairly large number were persuaded to change their mind after Blair portrayed Saddam as posing a "current" threat to Britain. They now believe they were misled, and want their money back.

Geraldine Smith, an anti-war Labour MP, said: "The Prime Minister would not have got Parliament to agree to commit British troops to the war with Iraq if the true nature of the intelligence was known... I believe that I was deceived into voting for a war I was morally opposed to. I believe the Prime Minister is fatally damaged." She wants Blair to "go" before "his enemies drag him down or the electorate makes the decision for him". A warning he can ignore at his own risk.

Celebrating cultural diversity

Human Development Report 2004 Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World by the United Nations Development Programme, Oxford University Press, London.

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NOW firmly established as a concept in the international policy discourse, "human development" was understood to have a broader and more elusive significance than the strictly economic construction of the growth process. The annual Human Development Report (HDR) has, in recent years, ranged over a wide range of intangibles in examining the performance of various countries - as also their potential - in promoting human development. Among other things, the annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme - now in its 15th year - has examined the quality of a country's political institutions, its commitment to gender equity, and its relative openness to information flows, as factors that have a bearing on the quality of human life. The report is in part about knitting together these diverse factors into a new synthesis. But its main thrust is in expanding the inquiry to a new frontier. And its exploration of the centrality of culture and cultural freedoms is particularly apt in a context when talk of a "clash of civilisations" enjoys a certain vogue. Indeed, it is a frontal challenge to this view and a riveting retrospective evaluation of the politics of nation building. With the 1990s having seen the collapse of several seemingly eternal state structures that had sought to harmonise different ethnicities into a common sense of nationhood, HDR 2004 is entirely topical.

The report confronts the primary question of why the definition of cultural rights has generally lagged behind in relation to social, political and economic rights. The answers are diverse. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was in its preparatory phase, a number of countries, including India and the erstwhile Eastern bloc, argued the case for the inclusion of minority rights. This was opposed by the United States, Canada and most Latin American countries. The report does not examine the reasons for this particular configuration of the ayes and nays on cultural rights. But it is an obvious inference that India and the Eastern bloc were multi-ethnic societies that were aware of the delicate sensibilities involved in seeking the participation of minority groups in a national consensus. Canada, the U.S. and Latin America, in contrast, had overcome the problem of indigenous people through the kind of brutality that they would rather have the world forget. Remnants of the indigenous traditions had been assimilated into a dominant English, French or Spanish cultural idiom, and there seemed little to be gained by bringing minority rights into a universal charter.

The unitary and centralising features of the modern nation state elicited certain reservations among minority groups. These were tackled in the extreme case through outright suppression. In the more enlightened alternative, cultural rights were subsumed under a broad rubric of civil rights. Societies and individuals granted the freedom of conscience, speech and association, it was argued, needed no special dispensation covering cultural rights. The nation state in the throes of modernisation was often apt to look at the plea for cultural rights as an effort to preserve the more regressive features of inherited traditions.

In 1966, a full 18 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognised that ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities "shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their culture, to profess and practise their religion, or to use their own language". This stopped short of being a strong affirmation of cultural rights, since it only trod the more cautious path of prohibiting their denial. Interestingly, the stronger articulation of the case for cultural rights came in the 1990s, the supposed decade of "globalisation", when national barriers and local specificities were ostensibly being broken down as economies integrated and cultures merged.

In part this is because globalisation has engendered deep insecurities in the more vulnerable countries and communities. What would seem "exciting and empowering" to some would be "disquieting and disempowering" to others. Economic opening-up has brought industrial-scale exploitation to traditional habitats, unsettling long-established ways of life. Where resource conflicts have arisen, nation states have failed to defend the rights of indigenous people. The vital life-sustaining purposes served by traditional knowledge have been eroded by the loss of access to these resources. Though recognised by the Convention on Biological Diversity, traditional knowledge is dealt with in an almost derisory fashion by international laws on intellectual property. Further, by according the corporate giants of the West the power to patent aspects of traditional knowledge, the intellectual property laws administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have been deeply corrosive of cultural rights.

HDR 2004 urges the explicit recognition of traditional knowledge in the intellectual property legal framework. It also proposes the documentation of traditional knowledge, which would diminish, if not eliminate "possibilities for (its) uncompensated exploitation". Asserting a community's claim over certain aspects of knowledge - as seen recently with the curative properties of the neem - could be a way of "preventing others from claiming it as their own".

Another area, in which HDR 2004 sees a challenge to the established consensus of the decade of globalisation, is in the case for a "cultural exception" to the free cross-border flow of goods and information. Countries should be free, in this perception, to regulate the inflow of goods and services that have a profound cultural impact. This argument has gained force in recent times because "cultural goods convey ideas, symbols and lifestyles and are an intrinsic part of the community that produces them". The "cultural exception" also implies that countries should have the latitude under trade and investment laws, to foster industries that have a potentially important cultural dimension. Free trade and the iron laws of comparative advantage, in other words, have no validity in the domain of human culture.

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HDR 2004 records the argument but does not explicitly take a stand on the "cultural exception". It is easy to see why. The trade in goods and services - even those without overt cultural overtones - brings in its train the intangibles of marketing strategy and advertising that have immense cultural ramifications. These are adapted to suit local exigencies, because cultural sensitivity is often a powerful marketing tool. But it is widely recognised that Coca Cola and McDonald's are cultural and lifestyle exports with potentially greater social impact than Hollywood movies or the entire output of U.S. television serials. This makes the "cultural exception" a slippery downward slope for the powerful multinationals that dominate global commerce.

THE special role of migration in today's world is another aspect that HDR 2004 deals with at some length. "Driven by globalisation", it points out, "the number of migrants soared in the last decade, especially to the high-income countries of Western Europe, North America and Australia." This has excited deep anxieties in most of the countries of destination and, reciprocally, stirred up some disquiet in the countries of origin. Two kinds of methods have traditionally been used by countries receiving large numbers of migrants to promote the integration of the new arrivals into national life. A practice of "differentialism" - of preserving a separate but secure identity - was evident in the policy that Germany adopted with Turkish guest workers, and the oil-producing countries of the Gulf adopted with expatriates. A policy of "assimilation" was implemented in erstwhile imperial powers such as the United Kingdom and France, especially in relation to migrants from old colonial possessions.

Neither approach, HDR 2004 says, is adequate to the new circumstances that "need to build respect for differences and a commitment to unity". Rather, the challenge of authentic multiculturalism is to provide the migrants with a strong sense of belonging while allowing them to maintain their identity and emotional bonds with the country of origin. The challenge is especially acute in the adverse climate created by the global "war on terror". And in practical policy terms, the use of the Australian example as an illustration of multiculturalism is perhaps unfortunate. The practice of incarcerating economic and political refugees, which Australia has in recent times adopted is not the best advertisement for cultural tolerance.

Since the end of the Cold War conflicts have erupted for the most part within established nation states rather than between them. Conflicts over linguistic and cultural policy have often been an overt factor - for instance, the civil war in Sri Lanka. HDR 2004 seeks to argue that "cultural differences by themselves are not the relevant factor" in sparking off the violence. Indeed, it points out, "cultural diversity" could often reduce "the risk of conflict by making group mobilisation more difficult". And where conflict becomes inevitable, cultural identity is rarely the cause. Rather, it is used in an instrumentalist manner as a "driver for political mobilisation".

Another distinct type of danger arises from the attitudes of the state. The notion that there is an ineluctable conflict between the stability of the state and the recognition of multiple cultural identities has had a powerful influence. This has played itself out in several ways. At the extremity of the spectrum is the kind of ethnic cleansing that the Balkans witnessed in the mid-1990s. And though HDR 2004 tiptoes around the issue with customary delicacy, the continuing definition of nationality in terms of narrow ethnicities, most evident today in the Jewish state of Israel, has been the most powerful ideological ally of ethnic cleansing.

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Without quite going to this extreme though, there are nations that impose "formal restrictions on the practice of religion, language and citizenship". Also evident are tendencies to withhold appropriate respect and recognition for certain peoples and communities. Visions of social progress often animate such practices, with multiculturalism being dismissively viewed as "a policy of conserving cultures, even practices that violate human rights". The report puts forward a notion of cultural freedom that attempts to steer clear of all these pitfalls. The "defence of tradition" has nothing to do with it. Rather, cultural liberty is the "capability of people to live and be what they choose, with adequate opportunity to consider other options".

This does not quite address the latitude that societies can feasibly afford an individual or a people in choosing their modes of life. HDR 2004 makes frequent, and generous, references to the Indian experience, though the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the wave of sectarian violence that began in 1990 merit well-deserved condemnation. India's practice of affirmative action - or reservations - for the underprivileged has contributed to both a growing sense of participation and empowerment, it suggests. Again, the formation of linguistic States as units of administration with a high degree of autonomy, and the adoption of a three-language formula for instruction and governance, has engendered a sense of equality among regions. The care taken to include significant dates from all faiths in drawing up the calendar of holidays is again a practice that conveys a sense of respect for cultural diversity.

YET in all this, HDR 2004 seems to leave out of consideration the momentous question of how India's politics of secularism went disastrously askew well into its fourth decade of Independence, thanks to a state policy of seeking to generate a competitive dynamic between communities in demanding special favours. This phase of yielding to demands of competing unreasonableness from different communities was framed within the discourse of cultural diversity, of allowing communities to decide on the norms that should govern their social existence. But if yielding to the extreme demands of traditional community leaders is not an acceptable way of fostering cultural diversity, India is yet to find the optimal path in practice.

HDR 2004 urges certain policies on all nations for ensuring political participation. The example of New Zealand is cited, where, with the "introduction of proportional representation in place of the winner-takes-all formula, Maori representation rose from 3 per cent in 1993 to 16 per cent in the 2002 elections".

India, of course, has a much older history in guaranteeing political representation for marginalised groups, though the HDR does suggest that proportional representation could improve matters further. Language policies have an especially important bearing on the stability of multicultural societies, since "the choice of official language symbolises the national identity". Here again, the Indian experience draws much attention and approbation, but HDR 2004 perhaps would have been more effective if it had focussed also on where certain other multi-ethnic states - like Yugoslavia, for instance - went wrong in their language policy. By all accounts, Yugoslavia had an equally inclusive language policy and perhaps fewer social barriers to integration between different nationalities. But Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state was one of the principal casualties of the decade of globalisation.

This opens up the domain of socio-economic policies, where perhaps the feasible limits of multiculturalism could be located. With competition and free markets being the governing virtues in the economic realm, is a certain degree of rivalry between ethnic groups inevitable? HDR 2004 suggests that the state could play an active redistributive function in mitigating the disadvantages suffered by certain communities in the process of globalisation. But it is necessary to ask whether this redistributive role is still feasible when the fiscal capacities of the state are on the wane, under the influence of the reigning policy orthodoxy. Economic deprivation often has an ethnic dimension, but just as often cuts across cultural differences. The celebration of cultural diversity cannot conceivably be carried to excess. But it is necessary to be wary of the point at which it begins to undermine the consolidation of other forms of identity that may be crucial in addressing fundamental questions of life and livelihood.

A promise belied

ASHISH KOTHARI environment

The Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance lets go of the opportunity to present a bold new vision to conserve the environment through sustainable development.

GIVEN the excitement generated by the way in which the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power in May, one could be excused for feeling a certain level of optimism on the environmental and social fronts. The UPA's Common Minimum Programme (CMP) was expected to provide a bold new vision of how Indian society should move ahead in a just and sustainable way. Does it live up to the promise? Does it try to ensure that the country's battered environment is given a reprieve? Does it promise steps to help the fishing and farming communities and the Adivasis, who are the most dependent on natural resources, regain security of livelihood and life? And what does it offer to the country's threatened wildlife and biodiversity?

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The CMP has placed strong emphasis on issues such as employment, agriculture, education and health. These are areas that have been generally neglected over the past few years, with economic policies tending to pamper the upper-middle class. A natural adjunct to such a shift in emphasis would have been an equally strong focus on environmental sustainability, an aspect that is almost completely missing in the CMP. The CMP has missed several elements that can be introduced as actual programmes and schemes.

Employment: The CMP does not mention one of India's biggest potential sources of employment - the regeneration of land and water. These essential resources have been exploited to such an extent that productivity has been reduced to abysmally low levels over more than 60 per cent of India's landmass. This will lead to low agricultural yields, water shortages, lower fuel and fodder availability, and so on. The best way to regenerate such lands and waterbodies is to get it done with the help of rural and urban communities that are adequately empowered and supported. The success of the regeneration efforts that have been undertaken by communities under the joint forest management and water-harvesting initiatives over several million hectares is an example. However, the official programmes do not go far enough in sharing power with the communities. A Planning Commission report some years back and the report of the Government of India's Task Force on Greening of India in 2001 highlighted the potential for employment in the field.

Such an approach would help the government tackle three critical issues simultaneously. It would help ease the crisis of land/water degradation, which worsens the impact of droughts, causes the migration of villagers to cities, and destroys wildlife. Second, it would help reduce the massive unemployment prevalent in rural areas. Third, it would arrest the declining economic productivity of land and water. The ongoing programmes of wasteland and watershed development would fare better in the hands of local people as the emphasis would be on local solutions and indigenous knowledge, planting or regeneration of local species, and encouraging indigenous farming practices.

Agriculture: It is surprising that despite the increasing focus on organic farming in the reports of the Planning Commission and other official agencies and despite some initiatives taken by the governments of States such as Uttaranchal and Mizoram, the CMP makes no mention of organic, sustainable farming. Several reports have shown the unsustainability and dangers of chemical-intensive farming, which uses one crop variety over huge areas (monoculture). Studies suggest that many cases of suicides by farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and other States are linked to the high debts incurred in buying expensive inputs with frequently unreliable results. It has been proved that organic and biologically diverse farming is safe, productive and within the reach of poor farmers. The "special programme for dryland farming" that the CMP talks about would predominantly support organic agriculture with high seed and livestock diversity. Such areas are eminently suited for production without expensive surface irrigation facilities and for the continuation of indigenous food crops and varieties such as millets and pulses. Such crops need much greater focus given their proven resistance to diseases and high nutritional value, the deep knowledge people have about the crops, and the fact that farmers can keep the seeds in their control and not lose out to transnational corporations. In the dryland belt of Andhra Pradesh, the Deccan Development Society (DDS) has facilitated such farming among several thousand people, especially Dalit women, and significantly raised productivity, employment and self-reliance in several dozen villages. Agricultural programmes should also encourage the rearing of local breeds of livestock, which have over time proved their worth in difficult situations.

Food and nutrition security: Food security and nutrition are often badly compromised by the conventional system of agriculture, which focusses predominantly on financial returns. On the other hand, a system based on small-scale, organic, biologically diverse farming would go much further in ensuring food and nutrition security. For instance, the DDS initiative has shown how local foodgrains grown organically by farmers, if propagated through the local Public Distribution System (PDS), can provide security to farmers and high nutritional inputs. The implementation of the CMP would do well to focus on reorienting the PDS to procure food locally rather than import it from far-flung centres of rice and wheat production. This could be linked to community-based grain banks (successfully demonstrated in several parts of India by the efforts of the community or non-governmental organisations), which should be promoted instead of the centralised system of godowns of the Food Corporation of India.

Local grain could also be promoted as part of the food-for-work and mid-day meal schemes (treated as a national scheme in the CMP). It would help provide an incentive to local farmers to continue growing indigenous and ecologically safe grain. Such schemes would be critical for women and children.

Women and children: Although the CMP rightly focusses on women and children, two disadvantaged sections of society, it does not explicitly link their rights and interests to natural resources. Such a link is obvious and critical in most parts of India, given women's direct dependence on forests, land and water, biomass-based energy, livestock, or other aspects of natural resources. Nutritional inputs to children are also intricately linked to the availability of natural resources. While emphasising on self-help groups in the "ecologically fragile areas of the country", the UPA could have given an ecologically sensitive orientation to the empowerment of women and children.

Panchayati Raj, SC/ST: The CMP emphasises the establishment of Adivasi rights over non-timber forest produce, mineral resources, and water sources, and an end to the displacement of tribal people from forest areas. It is over a decade since the panchayat-related constitutional amendments were brought in and almost a decade since the even more radical Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act was promulgated. Yet precious little has been done on the ground. Central and State government agencies have been reluctant to let go of power, especially administrative and financial power. From the environmental point of view, a careful assessment is needed on how decentralisation can actually work, how strong rights with responsibilities regarding natural resources can be given to village and urban communities. On the most critical issue, the UPA needs a clearer road map on how it plans to deliver what previous governments failed to.

Economic growth vis-a-vis environment: The CMP acknowledges, only in one or two instances, the need to reconcile economic growth with the environment, one of them in relation to tribal communities. But this is perhaps India's biggest current challenge, for today's growth patterns are clearly unsustainable and enormously damaging to the environment. The CMP's focus on continuing "economic reforms", high infrastructural development, industrialisation of areas like the northeastern region, and so on, are not adequately tempered with strong measures to ensure ecological sustainability. A case in point is the specific commitment in the CMP to complete the Sethu Samudram project (also provided for in the new Budget). The project involves massive dredging of the seabed in the sensitive marine ecosystem of the Gulf of Mannar, which would destroy its globally important biodiversity and affect seriously the local fisherfolk.

A comprehensive review of macro-economic policies from an environmental standpoint is required. Each major sector of the economy, such as infrastructure, industry, agriculture, energy, communications and transport, should be subjected to environmental and social impact assessment procedures (currently EIAs are only applied to individual projects, not to entire sectors). However, EIA procedures and procedures for according clearance to development projects need to be strengthened considerably. Such procedures were diluted by previous governments to such an extent that it is rare to find honest, comprehensive EIAs. For instance, in the case of Sethu Samudram, there is only a preliminary EIA, a rather incomplete one. So it is strange that the government should be committing itself to its early completion.

Water: One of the most heartening announcements made by the new Water Resources Minister is that the government will critically review the proposed river-linking project. The CMP is somewhat equivocal about the issue, but one hopes the government will deliver on its promise to make a re-assessment "fully consultative". The CMP makes only a passing mention of local water harvesting and other decentralised forms of water conservation and use. As an alternative to expensive, ecologically disastrous and socially disruptive mega projects, these decentralised methods need much greater attention than governments have given them so far. If coupled with the promise to give water-related rights to communities, they could bring in a revolutionary change in rural and urban areas.

Administrative reforms: There is an urgent need for reforms in the forestry and water sectors. The departments concerned need to become less of "governors" and more of facilitative partners to help communities manage natural resources. The CMP's commitment to enhance the right to information is welcome as it could be a key plank to make governance more environmentally accountable.

Science and Technology: Given the previous government's distortion of `traditional knowledge and practices' to suit its own communal agenda, it is understandable why the UPA wanted to steer clear of references to tradition. However, an extreme approach in the matter would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is enormous merit and relevance in traditional `sciences' or knowledge systems, technologies, health and agricultural practices, and industrial systems. The country would do well to encourage these strengths while combining them with what is best and appropriate in modern systems. It is strange, for instance, that under Health, the CMP does not even mention the need to provide traditional and local health traditions a major fillip so that they fill the enormous healthcare gaps in the villages and cities.

Energy: It is high time greater attention was given to non-conventional sources of energy and the government stopped treating them as poor step-cousins of conventional sources. The CMP only mentions the "hydrocarbon industry", which is frightening given its known unsustainability and the ecological damage it causes. Non-conventional sources have enormous potential in India (to the order of several hundred thousand megawatts). All that is required is a strong governmental push towards research and development to make them more economical. The CMP's aim to achieve "an integrated energy policy linked with sustainable development" will hopefully give a fillip to R&D in the sector.

In conclusion, the CMP is rather minimalist in its environmental orientation. It belies the expectation that the new government will provide a bolder vision on how development can actually be made more sustainable. It is disappointing that even a mention of wildlife and biodiversity conservation has not been made.

On the bright side, in his address to the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of the need to make growth "environmentally sustainable". He referred to non-conventional energy sources, spoke of an energy policy package that included environmental aspects, stressed on community-based solutions to water issues, and promised action on urban pollution and sanitation. However, he did not touch upon critical aspects such as sustainable agriculture, traditional and community-based health systems, conservation of biodiversity, and specific measures to make the market and the powerful economic forces more sensitive to ecological sustainability. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's Budget too is a mix - although the focus on water harvesting and non-conventional energy is welcome, precious little has been promised on many of the aspects mentioned.

Obviously, the UPA has a long way to go in ecological literacy. But it has the potential, and the opportunity, to show that a socially and environmentally more sensitive development model can be brought in. Hopefully, some of the institutions it has created, such as the National Advisory Council, will help it achieve the goal. Otherwise the country will miss another opportunity to show to the world a sustainable path to achieving human welfare.

Ashish Kothari is founder-member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group based in Pune/Delhi.

All for the cow

ON JULY 10, a young man was done to death in full public view in a crowded weekly market of Barghat, about 20 km from Seoni. The incident went largely unnoticed, as it took place soon after the Bhomatola gang rape. But the one aspect common to the murder of 32-year-old Abdul Waaris Khan and the gang rape of the three Dalit women was that both were carried out publicly. Had there been any intervention by either the administration or the community, both the incidents could have been prevented. It was also the fear of reprisal that seems to have dissuaded bystanders from intervening in both the cases, though in the Barghat incident the fear appears to be more palpable.

July 10 was the day of the weekly market at Barghat. Waaris, a resident of Khari village, had come to sell his bull. Waaris was also unaware of the presence of the "flying squads" of the Shiv Sena, the Bajrang Dal and the Sewa Bharati. The main aim of these squads is to prevent the sale of cattle that they assume are being sold to slaughterhouses. As part of their cattle protection and rescue activities, the squads often "persuade" farmers and traders to part with their old and infirm animals, on the plea that the animals would be settled in a gaushala (cattle home).

Barghat has a sizable Muslim population. Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Uma Bharati assumed office, one of the first pieces of legislation to be passed banned cow slaughter (this covers the entire bovine species). Ever since the government passed the law early this year, "cow rescue" activities have been on the rise. Barghat, a BJP stronghold, is represented in the Assembly by Transport and Forest Minister Dhal Singh Bhisen who has been winning from there since 1990. The Assembly constituency is sharply polarised in the communal sense.

According to a report compiled by a fact-finding team of the Jabalpur district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), at the market Abdul Waaris was accosted by several persons who accused him of trying to sell his bull to butchers. An argument ensued, after which the group, mainly comprising eight persons, beat him to death with sticks. According to the post mortem report, his spleen was ruptured in the beating.

The Seoni administration was cautious about revealing the identity and political affiliations of the persons involved in the murder. "The intention was not to kill," said a senior police officer, almost defensively. The police registered a case of murder against the eight persons. According to the Superintendent of Police, D. Sreenivasa Rao, while four of them have been arrested, four are absconding.

A senior official in the administration confided that the dispute that led to the murder was communally motivated. It was learnt that all the eight persons involved were members of the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and the Sewa Bharati. According to the CPI(M) fact-finding team's report, the accused persons were often spotted moving in a jeep with "Udan Dasta Sewa Bharati (Flying Squad of the Sewa Bharati)" inscribed on the vehicle. On July 10 too, they arrived at the marketplace in a similar vehicle.

It appeared that the administration was under great pressure over the Barghat episode. Officials appeared to be reluctant to crack down on the groups whose activities had the potential to fuel communal tensions. In fact, a senior official in Jabalpur threw up his hands and said: "What can we do? After all, are not these people supposed to bring about Ram Rajya?"

Waaris, who was the sole earning member in his family, leaves his wife, a two-year-old daughter, five unmarried sisters and old parents. It is significant that members of the minority community acted with great restraint. According to District Magistrate Faiz Kidwai members of the community did put up a protest, which delayed the post mortem. But the accused were arrested only because of the protest.

Bengal's bane

With the monsoon yet to run its course, north Bengal, where the rivers are already in spate, lives in fear.

THE recent floods in north Bengal, which affected over one lakh people and rendered more than 70,000 homeless, might just be a warning. Incessant rain since the first week of July has caused most of the rivers flowing through Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar districts to overflow their banks and wreak havoc.

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Thousands of people living in Coochbehar district and the Alipurduar subdivision of Jalpaiguri moved to safe ground as the swirling waters started inundating their land. In Alipurduar, more than 15,000 persons were affected as the rivers Liss and Ghis swelled into a flood. Several tea gardens were inundated and over 60 families of estate workers had to be shifted.

The rain also triggered a series of landslides in Kurseong, severely affecting National Highway 55, which had to be closed. The eastern side of the Jaldapara Wildlife sanctuary, famous for its one-horned rhino, was submerged when a river broke its embankments.

The flood situation in Coochbehar has been the worst in recent times. Owing to continuous rain from July 5 to July 10 almost all the rivers in the district, particularly the Torsa, the Dharala, the Mansai, the Raidak, the Sankosh and the Sutunga, were in spate and led to the submergence of eight of the district's 12 blocks. People took shelter in nearby school buildings and on embankments. The district administration was asked to be on high alert, ready with relief materials and rescue equipment. A flood control room was set up for round-the-clock surveillance.

According to District Magistrate Ravi Inder Singh, 1,40,000 people in the district have been affected by the flood and 17,000 have sought shelter in relief camps, and over 1,320 hectares of cultivable land has been submerged. The district administration was ready to face the floods since the start of the monsoon season. "In north Bengal, every time there is excess rain there is flooding. Before the rain started we were ready with relief materials and were taking all precautionary measures," Ravi Inder Singh told Frontline.

As of July 20, the situation in the district had improved; only the Mansai river was still flowing above the danger mark. "Relief materials of wheat, rice and tarpaulin sheets have been given to people of all the affected areas. Medical camps have been set up and all tubewells in the regions have been disinfected," said Ravi Inder Singh. According to him, two areas that are among the worst affected in the district are the Tufanganj I block and Coochbehar II, where the Gadadhar and Raidak-I rivers have been rising continuously.

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Anil Kumar Dey, a retired teacher of the Sarayerpar New Primary School in Tufanganj I block, said: "The situation in my block is very bad. The rivers Taljani, Torsa and Ghargharia united at a point and broke the protective spurs. All the five lives reportedly claimed by floods were from this block. Though immediate relief is given to all those who have been affected, how long will it last? The water level might be coming down now, but the monsoon is not over yet." The State government has sanctioned Rs.12 lakhs to restore the destroyed spur and revitalise other irrigation works that were damaged. It provided immediate relief by releasing 220 quintals of rice, 120 quintals of wheat, 995 pieces of tarpaulin, 0.5 quintal of baby food and 129 quintals of dry food.

Even as the waters started receding in most parts of north Bengal, Malda district continued to be in a precarious situation. Malda, which has for long been a victim of river erosion, had to contend with the fury of the rivers, particularly the Fulohar, which ravaged Ratua, Harishchandrapur and Kharba blocks.

Another reason for the yearly devastation caused by floods in north Bengal is the dolomite extraction taking place in Bhutan. An informed source in the North Bengal Flood Control Commission (NBFCC) told Frontline: "The levels of the rivers are rising because of the rocks that are falling into it. Further, owing to siltation in the plains, the nature and course of the rivers are also altered." Some of the main rivers that are affected by this activity are the Torsa, the Jaldhaka, the Kaljani and the Raidak, which flow through Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar. "Raising the embankments can be a temporary solution, but it is also a dangerous one. With the way the rivers are behaving, if the embankments are breached a disaster of far greater proportion will be at hand. A team of river experts are required to look into the matter," the source said.

Sukumar Bose, the Chairman of NBFCC, recently met officials of the Water Resources Development Ministry to discuss the recurrent flood situation. According to the NBFCC, the average annual rainfall in north Bengal is 3,500 mm. In the first burst of the monsoon this year, it has already reached 2,800 mm. "With the monsoon around until October, the situation can indeed become very grim," the source said.

Following his visit to north Bengal during the floods, Union Water Resources Minister and Member of Parliament from the region Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said that the Centre might announce soon an ambitious flood-control project. In August, when the India-Bhutan Technical Committee is scheduled to meet in Delhi, the setting up of the India-Bhutan Joint River Commission to control floods in north Bengal might also be discussed. Another option that is being looked into is the amalgamation of the NBFCC and the Brahmaputra Flood Control Commission. North Bengal has been included in the Brahmaputra river basin plan, which is entirely funded by the Union government.

In November, a high-level meeting is expected to be held by the Centre to discuss ways of managing floods nationwide. According to reports, the amount needed for managing the floods in West Bengal is around Rs.200 crores.

The enormity and frequency of flooding in north Bengal underscores the need for comprehensive long-term planning. Stop-gap arrangements such as strengthening embankments or installing speedier warning systems can only serve as temporary measures.

A censorship row

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting faces the ire of documentary film-makers for insisting on Censor Board certification for Indian films that are shown at festivals in the country.

THE new Ministry of Information and Broadcasting faced its first major test when documentary film-makers protested against an advertisement it issued in The Times of India's Delhi edition published on May 7 which said that films required the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) certificate to be eligible for the National Film Awards and for entry into the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2004. The CBFC was set up by the Government of India under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, to certify films for public exhibition. All films, whether foreign, Indian, feature or documentary, have to obtain the CBFC certificate before they are screened at a cinema or broadcast on television. The advertisement also stated that films that were shot in the digital format and were not going to be released in the celluloid format would not be allowed entry. The rules of the 51st National Film Festival say that films shot in the digital format would become eligible only if they are intended to be released in the celluloid format.

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The government's reason for demanding a censor certificate, which is a continuation of the previous Ministry's practice, is that it is a means of determining the date of completion of the film. Film-makers argue that the CBFC certificate is only for public screening and that it has become a means of keeping films that are critical of the government out of film festivals. Says Sanjay Kak, whose film Words over Water deals with the struggle of people displaced by the dams across the river Narmada: "Why do you need a censor certificate to determine the date of completion of the film? In fact, the norm for most international film festivals is not to have any requirements for censorship for any of the films."

Says Rahul Roy, an independent film-maker: "When the National Film Awards were constituted by the government 50 years ago, the digital format was still in its experimental stages. Today film and video technology has advanced to the point where almost all film festivals and an increasing number of cinemas all over the world are equipped to show digital format films." He adds, "Films can be blown up to the celluloid format using a process called `reverse telecine', which costs between Rs.20 lakhs and Rs.25 lakhs a feature-length film. Today, fewer than 5 per cent of the documentary films made internationally are shot on celluloid and fewer than 1 per cent of documentary films shot worldwide are blown up into celluloid. Since the main institution in India that continues to make documentary films in celluloid format is the Films Division, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, by excluding documentary films produced and distributed in the digital format, the Ministry is in effect discriminating against independent film-makers who mostly use the digital format."

Says Kak: "On the surface this may seem to be a discussion surrounding a technological issue but it actually has much larger implications. Films that are made in the celluloid format have to be censored once they are out of the lab, while films made in the video format do not have to be. Therefore there are fewer restrictions with the video format and as a result there is a wider range of subjects that are often more critical that are made in the video format."

The Cinematograph Act requires a censor certificate for the public exhibition of films, but the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has the power to grant exemptions. The norm has been for the Ministry to give regular exemptions for Indian films screened in film festivals within the country. In August 2003, when the government attempted to make the CBFC certificate mandatory for Indian documentaries and short films entered in the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF 2004), around 300 film-makers from all over the country came together in the Campaign Against Censorship on a platform called Films for Freedom (Frontline, February 27, 2004). As a result of sustained pressure, the government withdrew the requirement. However, the organisers of MIFF tried unofficial methods of censorship by rejecting many films that were viewed as exploring "sensitive" subjects such as communalism and globalisation. In order to protest against this, many film-makers organised a parallel film festival called Vikalp through personal contributions of individual film-makers. The films that were rejected by MIFF and the films of six film-makers who withdrew from MIFF were shown at Vikalp.

At this year's Osian's Cine Fan, the 6th Festival of Asian Cinema in Delhi, the only new Indian entry was Rakesh Sharma's Final Solutions, a graphic and powerful indictment of the role of the Gujarat State machinery during the pogrom against Muslims in 2002. The organisers of the festival initially asked him to obtain a CBFC certificate. He refused, suggesting that the organisers seek an exemption instead. The matter was sorted out quickly when the organisers sought and obtained an exemption from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Says Kak: "Not only is the requirement of a CBFC certificate for film festivals illogical, it is discriminatory, as foreign films screened in film festivals in India are exempt from this rule."

The current controversy reflects a long-standing demand of independent film-makers that the government revoke the clause that requires censorship certificates for Indian films for screening at film festivals. Says Subasri Krishnan, a film-maker who is part of the Campaign Against Censorship: "The MIFF was one of the few official spaces for documentary films to be shown. While creating alternative spaces for documentary films, it is important to hold on to existing ones." Says Roy: "We need to evolve a consensus within the film-making fraternity on how to handle the question of censorship. There are other methods of determining the date of completion of a film. The organisers of film festivals could devise a system in which film-makers registered their films and got reference numbers for their dates of completion. Asking for a CBFC certificate does not make any sense."

The `common man approach'

G. SRINIVASAN cover-story

THANJAVUR District Collector J. Radhakrishnan calls it the "common man approach" to crisis management. That the people approved of it is proof that it worked. "I acted like a common man and hence people identified me as one of them. If I had acted as a Collector and ordered that things be done, I would have been a failure in a calamity like this," said Radhakrishnan.

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From the moment he reached the school he was an active coordinator of relief. Be it procuring white cloth from wherever it was available to cover the bodies or getting the higher officials to do away with detailed post-mortems of the bodies, the Collector and his team moved in step with the needs of the traumatised parents. The staff at the burial ground was activated and the expenditure aspect was taken care of so that there was no hitch in the arrangements for burials. Fifty-six bodies were buried the same night.

A complaints cell and a helpline manned by revenue and police officials were also set up to take up important tasks such as locating the children.

Special medical teams were rushed from Thanjavur Medical College even as an SOS was sent to specialist-doctors like plastic surgeon V. Jayaraman of Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai and others at JIPMER, Pondicherry, and CMC, Vellore. They came prepared with large quantities of collage membrane and other materials required for treating burns victims. "Contributions of plasma and collage membrane came also from Kovai Medical Centre, SKS Hospital, Salem, and the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai," he said. While Bharath Sanchar Nigam Ltd opened free helplines at the hospital, Aircel provided cellular phones free.

"Amid all this, I made it a point to pass on correct information to the media to avoid wrong reporting, which is essential in a crisis like this," the Collector said. Simultaneously, all VIP visits were managed without affecting the treatment of the children.

With confirmation coming that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa would be visiting the school the same evening, the local administration prepared cheques amounting to Rs.90 lakhs to be given as solatium to the parents of the victims. The distribution of the cheques began at 10-30 p.m.

The next evening school managements were called and steps were taken to provide initial counselling to the students of Sri Krishna High School and as a confidence-building measure, the next morning itself the process of admitting them in other schools was started. Within three days 572 of the 740 children of the school were admitted in various schools.

Many mothers, who had become hysterical and were in a state of denial, were given counselling by social workers and doctors and specialists for specific problems. "There are two parents who had only one child each and lost them in the accident. They have undergone the family planning operation. For them, it has been decided to perform recanalisation surgery after counselling," the Collector said.

He appreciated the "tremendous strength and courage" that the people showed in coming to the aid of the administration. "The initial phase of the crisis was managed by passing on the correct information. By utilising the services of non-governmental organisations as goodwill ambassadors, not a single incident of anger against any public utility was allowed," Radhakrishnan said.

All the while, the need for quick rehabilitation and relief remained in focus. Natham village, home to 13 children who died, did not have a proper road to the burial ground. A road was laid immediately.

Long-term measures announced by the Chief Minister were also followed up. As many as 159 teams were sent out to survey the 1,500 schools in the district to detect the ones that had thatched roofs. Of the 1,398 noon-meal centres in the district, 198 were found to have thatched roofs. These were removed and steps were taken to put concrete roofs for these structures.

In breach of norms

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR cover-story

There is no dearth of rules to ensure that quality education is provided in safe surroundings. What is lacking is the political will to enforce them.

A PRELIMINARY survey by the Tamil Nadu government after the July 16 fire at the Sri Krishna High School in Kumbakonam shows that of the nearly 62,000 private schools in the State, 16,000 function under thatched roofs. According to some educationists, just removing the thatched roofs will not make a difference to the poor quality of infrastructure in these schools. They ask more basic questions: Why are nursery and primary classes conducted on the first and second floors? Why are kitchens (of the noon-meal centres or of the school) situated close to the thatched roof of a school? How are primary schools allowed to function without a playground and without ensuring proper safety, sanitation and hygiene? How can three or four schools run from one building? How have the schools, which are supposed to follow the Grant-in-Aid Code of the Tamil Nadu Education Rules, been escaping scrutiny?

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According to a retired teacher, most schools are run with a profit motive and their managements are "well-connected". "If recognition is refused by the authorities, within hours the owners of the schools manage to get a note from some influential person to grant them permission," says an educationist who retired after a 55-year stint in the State education service. "What can the authorities do in such a situation?" he asks. Tamil Nadu had one of the most comprehensive rules as early as 1956 for setting up a school - the Grant-in-Aid Code under the Madras Education Rules (now Tamil Nadu Education Rules). The Code sets norms not just for the building, but also for sanitation, hygiene and general safety.

Until 1978, the 34 private matriculation schools in the State came under the University of Madras or Madurai-Kamaraj University and followed the Rules scrupulously. But in 1978 they acquired an independent status and began to function under the Matriculation Board, which framed its own set of rules. Eventually, they ignored the Rules.

Now, the Tamil Nadu Education Rules applies to all schools recognised by the Education Department and under it they are required to follow the Grant-in-Aid Code. The Rules states that "the competent authority can withdraw the recognition given to the school permanently if the school authority violates any one of the conditions stipulated for recognition". Evidence from all over the State points to large-scale flouting of these rules by schools, but until now not one school has had its recognition withdrawn.

According to the Madras Education Rules, elementary schools shall be established on a minimum of three acres and on five acres if the student strength exceeds 800. In case the school building has more than the ground floor and if the length of the school is less than 70 feet (21 metres), there shall be two stairways. If the length of the building is 100 feet (30 m), it shall have three - one at either end and one at the centre. The stairways shall be so designed that all students from the upper floors can reach the ground level in two minutes in case of an accident.

The Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act, which applies to all the schools in the State, also recommends the Grant-in-Aid Code. But even recognised schools seem to be in breach of them. There are also several other provisions such as the Chennai Municipal Corporation Act, the National Building Code and the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority Rules, which prohibit the use of inflammable materials in the construction of public buildings, including schools. For instance, under the Corporation Act, "No external roof, verandah, pandal or wall of a building and no shed or fence shall be constructed or reconstructed of cloth, grass, leaves, mats or other inflammable material except with the permission of the Commissioner." The Act stipulates that even if permission is granted for such construction (this applies mainly for public functions), it can be only temporary and valid for no more than one year.

Matriculation schools drafted their own rules in 1978. According to the Code of Regulations prescribed for matriculation schools, one of the conditions for securing recognition was: "The Educational Agency must satisfy... that it has sufficient buildings, classrooms, laboratories, furniture, sanitary facilities and adequate playground for physical training activities" (Chapter II Section 10C). But the expression "sufficient" has not been defined in the Code. The school managements took advantage of this lacuna and set up schools without any playground, adequate space or proper infrastructure. Schools have come up in thatched sheds, in high-rise buildings and in cramped spaces. In several instances, more than one school - aided, unaided and English medium - is run within the same premises. There are now over 31,000 private, English-medium matriculation schools with an enrolment of some 70 lakh children - practically without any control. Their number in 1978 was 34.

Unrecognised nursery and primary schools have mushroomed in the last decade, primarily driven by the demand generated by the proliferation of matriculation schools. The Tamil Nadu Elementary Education Act does not permit primary education in the English medium. Primary education, under the Act, shall be only in the Tamil medium. Thus, the matriculation schools needed English medium primary schools to feed them with pupils. The infrastructure in these schools is, if anything, worse. Since there was no need to register or secure approval or recognition for these schools, they mushroomed. The government set up the S.V. Chittibabu Commission in the 1990s to study the proliferation of unrecognised primary schools in the State. This committee prepared a code for nursery and primary schools, but this code had no statutory backing. When schools were asked to register under the code, most of them simply refused to do so saying that they did not want to be monitored.

According to the report of the Committee on Matriculation Schools in Tamil Nadu, also headed by Chittibabu, there are some 3,000 matriculation schools in the State. They are required to adopt English as the medium of instruction. The report notes a proliferation of such private schools over the last two decades. From 5 per cent of all schools in the mid-1980s, matriculation schools now added up to 35 per cent.

Of the 1,635 schools that responded to the committee's questionnaire, a fourth were unrecognised. Over 65 per cent of the schools (from LKG to the 12th standard) functioned on less than one acre (0.4 hectare), most without a playground. While only a fifth of the schools had a building area of more than 10,000 sq ft, 10 per cent of the schools functioned in buildings with an area of less than 1,000 sq ft. Some 19 per cent of the boys and 28 per cent of the girls did not have access to "suitable" toilet facilities. Nearly a fourth of the schools were in kutcha buildings with "small classrooms". About 60 per cent of the teachers were untrained and a similar percentage of teachers had less than two years' experience. Nearly a third of the teachers were paid less than Rs.1,000 a month; 67 per cent got less than Rs.2,000.

This report was submitted to the government in March 2003, but little is known of any action taken.

Under the Tamil Nadu Private School Regulation Act, the PWD or a chartered engineer has to issue a "structural fitness certificate". But as every builder is a chartered engineer, the schools get the fitness certificate from the one who built the school. Thus, in some sense, it is self-certification that is happening.

All along the "building fitness" or "structural safety" certificate needed for a school to obtain recognition was issued by the local authorities, but in December last year the Director of Primary Education came out with a set of guidelines governing the inspection of school structures by local bodies. This move came after a school building in Tirunelveli collapsed in heavy rain. The Kumbakonam school fire tragedy is, in some sense, an indictment of the local authorities, such as the District Education Officers, for their failure to monitor the safety of school structures.

The role of teachers in such accidents has also come to the fore after the Kumbakonam tragedy. Says a retired school headmaster: "As a teacher I am ashamed of the way the teachers of the school behaved. But one should not lose sight of the fact that these teachers are paid a pittance and are, mostly, not trained ones. What kind of responsibility can you expect from such teachers?"

One way of dealing with the situation, many argue, is to entrust to the local bodies, such as panchayats, once again the responsibility of approving and monitoring schools. The local bodies had been administering, under the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Elementary Education Act, 1920, schools under their jurisdiction until 1981, when the government entrusted this responsibility to the Directorate of School Education.

There is clearly no dearth of norms or rules to provide good quality education in safe surroundings. What is required is the political will to enforce the rules and implement them scrupulously.

From the Grant-in-Aid Code

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR cover-story

THE Grant-in-Aid Code (Appendix LL, Chapter VIII, Rule 52) is a thoughtfully detailed document that goes into all aspects of setting up a school. It says on:

Selection of site

"Sites should not be selected if its natural position is in a hollow or in the neighbourhood of high trees, or houses that prevent the free circulation of air and access to sunlight... . Sufficiency of space is important, and, in this connection, the possibility of future expansion should be kept in mind... . The neighbourhood of dusty and noisy roads and shops and factories should, as far as possible, be avoided... . The soil should be particularly retentive of moisture... . All site plans should show the nature of surroundings, the height of the neighbourhood buildings and direction of the prevailing wind."

Orientation of buildings

Floor space: The minimum requirement is 9.53 sq ft per student for elementary schools and 10.65 sq ft per student for secondary schools.

Composition of floors: The floors should be made of materials that can be washed. Stone flagging can be used if classrooms are provided with benches and desks. If students have to sit on the floor, stone floors need not be insisted; they should be provided with boards or mats to take care of the cold floors. From a hygiene point of view, the mats must be kept "scrupulously clean".

Seating arrangement: After providing a detailed design for desks and arrangement of dual and single desks inside the classroom, the Rules state that seating without a backrest or desk is objectionable.

"Students are required to be seated in rows with the main light falling from the left side and they should never face the light." This rule applies to teachers also.

Desks and seats should be such that the student is able to sit straight while writing and be able to lean back for reading "without any danger of a pronounced curve of the spine".

Distances between the desk and the seat of one student and between the seat and the desk of the student sitting behind are detailed. The idea is that students should be able to get up easily and also be able to move about freely in the room. Even the dimensions of the desk are prescribed for each class.

Windows: "They must be placed at regular distances to ensure the uniformity of light. Window sills should not be more than 12.2 dm (decimetre) from the floor in rooms where students are seated on desks and between 7.6 dm and 9.1 dm from the floor if students are sitting on the ground. Windows should not be less than one-fifth of the floor area and wherever possible the principal lighting should be from the north."

Doors: "Should not open into one another but only into passages or verandahs. No classroom should have more than two doors and in most cases one is preferable. The door or doors should be at the teacher's end of the room."

Height of classrooms: In the case of elementary schools, the height of the room should be 10 feet (3.04 metres) to the bottom of the beam in the case of sloping roof, and 11 feet (3.35 m) up to the underside of the roof slab in the case of terraced roof (G.O. Ms No. 1454, Education Department, 17-8-64). This rule was included after a roof collapse at the Saraswathi Vidyasala Higher Elementary School at Maninagaram in Madurai, which killed 35 children and injured 137.

Interestingly, while in the cases of secondary schools and training colleges, the height has been given for single- and double-floor buildings, for elementary schools, the height is given only for a single-storey building.

Ventilation: Unless windows reach the top of the wall and are capable of being opened, ventilators are necessary near the top of the wall. "For each student 48 square inches of open ventilator should be provided."

Dimension and fittings in classrooms: "It is important that no classroom should be more than 7.30 metres in width as otherwise the rows of the students will be too long to be properly controlled by the teacher."

"The dimension of a classroom should not exceed 7.30 m by 7.6 m."

"Ample wall for blackboard space should be provided on the teacher's end of the room which should be unbroken by doors, windows or cupboards."

"Rails under the cornice for hanging maps, pictures and diagrams are essential."

"The smallest classroom for 40 students with dual desks should be 6.4 m wide and 7 m long."

Roofs: As far as possible roofs should be impervious to heat.

Sanitary arrangements:

"Latrines should be placed no nearer than 12 m to any school building. They should be so situated that the prevailing wind does not blow from them in the direction of the school building."

The number of latrines should be as follows (the toilet seats to be provided for girls is more than the urinals to be provided for boys):

For girls numbering less than 30, two; 50, three; 70, four; 100, five; 150, six; 200, eight; 300, 12; and 500, 20.

For boys numbering less than 30, one; 50, two; 70, two; 100, three; 150, three; 200, four; 300, five; and 500, eight.

In addition, there should be urinals for boys at the rate of six compartments 51 cm. wide for every 100 boys.

While this is the standard set in 1956 for schools in Tamil Nadu, the schools Frontline visited in and around Chennai were found to be in violation of most of the rules. In fact, the officials of most schools were not sure if the Rules were still applicable. This is because it is not a statutory provision but merely a set of conditions for schools to be "recognised" by the competent authority.

The decline of public education

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR cover-story

The woeful state of India's public education has led to the mushrooming of private institutions that, with abysmally poor infrastructure, cater to the aspirations of the less privileged.

"There is in our time no well educated literate population that is poor, there is no illiterate population that is other than poor."

John Kenneth Galbraith

THIS SIMPLE but forceful message reiterates that education alone can be the salvation for poverty. In a populous country like India where even with education life is difficult, there can be little hope without it. The people too have realised this and are turning to education in a big way. Poor as well as middle-income people, rural as well as urban dwellers, are willing to do anything to send their children to school, particularly to English-medium ones. There is solid evidence from all over the country for this appetite for education across all social groups and across all income groups.

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A recent Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) survey (Oxford University Press, 1999) found that nearly 98 per cent of rural parents believe that it is important to send their children to school. This burgeoning demand has led all those who can just about afford to send their children to a private school - even if it does not adhere to basic safety considerations - to go for it.

What options do people have other than private schools? Not many, considering the appalling state of the public education system. Few schools in the public stream have proper access to drinking water, electricity, toilets, playgrounds, furniture or proper buildings. They also compromise on quality; with high rates of teacher absenteeism, unfilled vacancies of teachers, absence of teaching material and shortage of trained, motivated teachers, education becomes a farce in government schools.

This, says Manabi Majumdar, Fellow, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, led people to seek a "private solution to the public deficiency" ("Classes for the masses? - Social ambition, social distance and quality of the government school system, Madras Institute of Development Studies Working Paper No.158). This trend, which gained momentum in the early 1990s, led to a proliferation of private English-medium schools not just in the urban but also in the rural areas. Thus, between the elite private schools catering to the rich at one end of the spectrum and the government schools serving the poor at the other, there has now emerged an ever-expanding category of private schools - aided (by the government but privately managed), unaided (run with private funds), recognised and unrecognised - mainly targeted at the lower middle-class segment which thinks that, warts and all, it is better than the public school system.

Ironically, such "teaching shops" have been encouraged by the government itself in an attempt to shed its responsibility of providing social good. It even subsidised them as long as the medium of teaching was English. With the increasing reliance of a vast segment of the population on these private schools, public schools, regardless of how they performed, have become voiceless monuments.

The precise number of private schools in the country is not known but available government data show they are mushrooming. While the number of private unaided primary schools increased six-fold and private recognised schools three-fold between 1970 and 2002, the number of government and local body schools fell by over 10 percentage points during the same period. According to the latest National Sample Survey Organisation data, the proportion of students attending private unrecognised primary schools has increased in the last decade. While the figure is 4.8 per cent for the country as a whole (a vastly underestimated figure), it is 18.7 per cent in Haryana, 15.5 per cent in Punjab, 10 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and 9.2 per cent in Bihar.

Yash Aggarwal in his study "Public and Private Partnership in Primary Education in India" (National Institute of Education Planning and Administration, 2000), notes that between 1986 and 1993, the enrolment (to primary classes) in private aided schools rose at a compounded annual growth rate of 9.5 per cent, while the corresponding figure for government/local body schools was 1.4 per cent.

The situation has worsened further thanks to the unregulated mushrooming of English-medium nursery and primary schools where classes are held all in one room, on rooftops, and under thatched roofs as feeders to the "teaching shops".

Quality public school education has never been India's priority. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister and an architect of modern India, laid emphasis on higher learning alone so that the country could churn out its own professionals. Primary education at the public level remained low-priority since many questioned the wisdom of educating the children of farmers, artisans and labourers, who were expected to follow their family vocation; the well-to-do sent their children to private schools, most of them founded by the British. Thus in successive Plans India spent just around 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), or about two-thirds of what was needed to educate all its children, on primary and elementary education.

The late Prof. Myron Weiner, who was Ford International Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, United States and a leading authority on Indian political studies, believed that India's emphasis on higher education had not changed since the Nehruvian era; in fact, it was accentuated by the "educational restructuring" proposed in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's New Education Policy of 1984-85, he said. The last straw came in 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi said: "I do not think literacy is the key to democracy." Said Weiner: "India's policymakers have not regarded mass education as essential to the country's modernisation, leading to all the ills facing the country today. Instead they put their resources into higher education that, it believes, is capable of creating and managing a modern enclave economy" (Frontline, May 11, 1991). Weiner pointed out that India committed less of its resources on primary education than most low-income countries. The expenditure on elementary education had declined from 55 per cent of the total for the sector in the 1950s to less than 35 per cent in the 1990s. As a result, over 40 per cent of India's population is illiterate. An average Indian spends just about two years in school, while a Chinese spends five and a South Korean nine.

Even as the government refuses to change its education policy, the people are doing what they can to make the best out of a bad situation. Many have realised that education is the only thing they can give their children. For instance, today, most farmer families do not have enough land to divide among their children. Some children, out of necessity, have to get a job and for that "solid English education" is believed to be a sine qua non. English education is seen as crucial for upward mobility.

Weiner noticed this trend even in the early 1990s. "The irony is that while the policymakers lack apparent concern for mass education, the middle classes are determined to see their children educated - so much so that the vast majority pay for private education because state education is seen as poor," he noted.

The Education Policy of 1968 focussed on "the common school system" for all children irrespective of social, economic and other differences. But the government hardly kept its promise. The 1999 PROBE report points to the existence of "multi tracks" - different types of schooling for different sections. The poor and the disadvantaged go to public schools; the middle-class and those in the lower socio-economic ladder to private schools that are either aided, unaided, recognised or unrecognised; the rich to the high-fee-charging private schools; the elite to schools offering international certifications; and some to informal or non-formal schools. This is a response not merely to the differentiated market demand, but to government policy. Most are, in a way, it is claimed, an attempt to provide social justice and equal opportunities, owing to deficiency of resources. Thus, now not only children but also schools are socio-economically differentiated.

Going by official figures, the 1990s seem to have witnessed a dramatic increase in literacy, school enrolment and retention rates. How is this possible when the government has all along been "cash-strapped" with over 90 per cent of its education budget going to meet teacher salaries? This is because States have shed their unease about donor assistance for primary education. Funding now comes from international - bilateral and multilateral - sources. With each donor pushing his own agenda and solution, primary education has become further stratified with a variety of schools emerging under different programmes. For example, while alternative school programmes such as the Rajiv Gandhi Patasalas (schools) in Rajasthan, the Education Guarantee Scheme in Madhya Pradesh, and the Sishu Shiksha Kendras in some northern States run in rented single rooms, the regular primary schools have up to three rooms. Also, infrastructure investment, teacher-student ratio, teacher training, learning materials and so on differ according to the programme under which the schools are run.

The recent fire tragedy in a school in Kumbakonam, where 93 children were charred to death and several more impaired for life, is a wake-up call to tackle the poor, even dangerous, quality of schools and education system in the country. The government has all along preferred to ignore dozens of reports - from the (Dr. S.) Radhakrishnan Commission's to the Kothari Commission's - which, if implemented even in a limited manner, could have made quality education a compelling priority. And evidence from all over the country is that the pitiable condition of public schools has made most school-going children gravitate towards private institutions which are at best of indifferent quality.

For example, according to Vimala Ramachandran ("The best of times, the worst of times", Seminar, April 2004), States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with low literacy levels, have seen an exponential growth in the number of private schools - almost every village/hamlet now has a "teaching shop". A study by Amy Louise Kazmin estimates that nearly 36 per cent of children in U.P. attend private schools ("Why India's poor pay for private schools", Business Week, April 2000). She notes that in Naini, a village in Uttar Pradesh, the government schools are a shambles, with no resources and with poor management. So, many villages in the State are pinning their hopes on the new private schools. Though teachers here are not trained or paid well, the villagers believe they are better than those in the government schools. For instance, the Akhil Bharat Vidya Bharti operates some 15,000 affiliated private schools, in which over two million students are enrolled. But, according to the study, these private schools hardly meet parents' aspirations, considering the state of the classrooms or the quality of teaching.

According to a study by Anuradha De et al (Economic and Political Weekly, December 28, 2002), in U.P., Bihar and Rajasthan no new government school has been set up in the last decade in the urban areas. There has been a mushrooming of private schools in the rural areas. In the urban areas, most government schools function in rented buildings, usually old, dilapidated and woefully cramped. Worse, two to three schools function from the same building. Often, children huddle in unprotected places - in verandahs with men playing cards near them (as in a school in urban Bhiwani). In a school in urban Daulpur, primary classes are conducted under the umbrella of a monument for the last 15 years. Aided schools are few and found only in the urban areas, and none less than 30 years old. The study concluded that "on the whole, children in the government schools were not comfortable, nor was the environment secure or conducive to learning".

But, says Anuradha De, the new private schools are no better. For instance, most schools were set up in the house of the school manager concerned, and children crowded in small rooms. Even if the school was a recognised one, the classrooms were cramped and dingy, and lacked teaching aids and other facilities such as a library. If at all there was a playground, it was the 10 feet by 10 feet courtyard of the house. Very few schools had trained teachers. The state of the unrecognised schools was even worse.

Yash Aggarwal in his study of 878 unrecognised private schools in 13 blocks of Haryana, conducted in 2000, observed that teachers were, in general, unqualified and poorly paid and had had no training. The study pointed out that the number of unrecognised schools was doubling every five years.

According to the study "Accessing primary education - Going beyond the classroom" by Rekha Kaul (Economic and Political Weekly, January 13, 2001), in Karnataka, 79 per cent of the government schools lacked the toilet facility; 35 of the 72 government schools surveyed had no drinking water; less than 10 per cent had electricity connection; and less than half a play-area. In most schools, teachers' posts remained unfilled for years. In many schools, one teacher managed four primary classes in a single room. Many parents interviewed planned to shift their children to private schools that would, according to them, only cost a little more than what they were spending now.

The S.V. Chittibabu Commission report (2003) noted that in Tamil Nadu, nearly 23 per cent of the private schools were unrecognised, 10 per cent of urban schools and 16 per cent of rural schools functioned in premises smaller than 1,000 sq. ft, 57 per cent of the teachers were not trained, and 67 per cent of them was paid less than Rs.2,000 a month.

The study "The private sector serving the educational needs of the poor" by Prof. James Tooley pointed out that in Andhra Pradesh, while private schools had proliferated and were emerging as alternatives to the poor government schools, most were not recognised as they were unable to satisfy three important conditions - a 1,000 square yard playground, government-trained teachers and a deposit by the school society of Rs.25,000 or Rs.50,000 in a stipulated bank account depending on the size of the school.

The most damning evidence of the state of schools in the country comes from the PROBE report. According to it, schools in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, U.P. and Rajasthan were in a deplorable state. In Madhya Pradesh's Vidia, for instance, a school did not have any building. Children huddled in a tiny, dark storeroom next to an open space where the owner of the school tethered cattle. In some other places, school buildings are used for drying cow-dung, or as cattle sheds or even public latrines.

In many places in U.P., powerful vested interests are said to have prevented the opening of government schools. In Rajasthan's Vangaon village, the Rajakiya Draupadi Vidyalaya for Girls was run in four kucha classrooms that were on the verge of collapse; six children were injured in the late 1990s when a portion of the roof caved in. There was no toilet for girls in the school. Most schools had no furniture in the classrooms and had only a table and a chair for the headmaster.

According to the PROBE survey, 63 per cent of the schools had leaking roofs, 52 per cent had no playground, 58 per cent had no drinking water, 89 per cent had no functioning toilet, and 27 per cent had no blackboards. Only 2 per cent had all the facilities while 8 per cent had none at all.

Most schools had just one teacher. In Madhya Pradesh, none of the headmasters in the schools surveyed had the minimum prescribed qualification or training. In Andhra Pradesh, one school was run by a mechanic and his wife. The school did not even have a chalk piece. Another school was run by a quack who opened it only twice a week since he had to concentrate on his medical practice the rest of the time.

The survey also broke the myth that education was free in government schools - in the northern States, the study pointed out, the annual cost of sending a child to a government school was Rs.366; in Maharashtra it was Rs.385; in Rajasthan Rs.810; and in Karnataka Rs.1,200.

The Rekha Kaul study corroborates this, and puts the amount spent by parents on stationery, transport, uniforms and so on at Rs.800 for rural areas and Rs.1,200 for urban areas in Karnataka.

Not only is the quality of education in these schools abysmal (it is common to find Class V students unable to read or write), but they work for hardly 150 days a year against the stipulated 250 days. This is because, apart from declared holidays, teachers are often assigned other jobs - Census survey or election work.

One of the main reasons cited for the poor state of government schools is lack of funds. According to Rekha Kaul, the government outlays for creating satisfactory infrastructure in schools continue to remain woefully inadequate - at 3 per cent of GDP, a far cry from the 6 per cent recommended by the Kothari Commission as early as 1964.

According to Jayakumar Anagol ("Compulsory primary education - Opportunities and challenges", Indian School of Political Economy, 2001), an expert group set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development estimates an additional requirement of Rs.140,000 crores for the next 10 years; this amounts to 0.7 per cent of the GDP every year. This, argues Jayakumar Anagol, is easily manageable if there is political will. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze argue that even a country as poor as India can find the means to ensure total literacy and adequate infrastructure for schools.

Prof. K. Nagaraj, Senior Fellow, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, feels that the education cess proposed in the recent Budget should be used to provide quality primary education for all. "But funds," says former director of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) A. Chandrasekhar, "is not a problem." According to him, a major thrust of the SSA is to improve school infrastructure and one-third of the total funds is allotted for this. But there are no takers. Prof. Nagaraj remarks that unless this programme is publicised, there is no way a school in a rural area will know about it. "Thus," he says, "it is important to decentralise the management of public education, by which information is passed on to the local bodies that approves, monitors and maintains the schools."

Myron Wiener had observed that "even the most conservative neoclassical economists will agree that the state has a very positive, very important, role to play in the promotion of mass education, which cannot and should not be left to the private sector alone."

What, then, is the way out of this situation? Says Manabi Majumdar: "There is an urgent need to `fix' the system (public education), not `abandon' it." She argues that it is no solution to let the government schools deteriorate even as the nation turns a blind eye to the deplorable conditions of the millions of teaching shops that have come to substitute the former. It is important to raise and nurture a social spirit that infuses in both teachers and the public at large a commitment to quality education for all. Transformation of the school system under decentralised conditions may be an important way of improving rather than abandoning the public education system.

According to Manabi, "there is no magic bullet to achieve this; there is no alternative to relying on the time-consuming and trouble-torn democratic practices of mobilisation, organisation, advocacy, debate, protest and demand - in short, the assertion of citizenship rights."

A long-running dispute

PRAVEEN SWAMI the-nation

ROOKIE journalists visiting the Press Club in Chandigarh for the first time can, for the price of a couple of bottles of beer, acquire sage advice on how to get three front-page stories without leaving its bar. "Your first story ought to be headlined `SYL Canal Will Be Built Over My Dead Body, Says Punjab Chief Minister'," a veteran will suggest, "and the second `I Will Give My Last Drop of Blood To Build the Canal, Says Haryana CM'. Then, you can do a third piece on the raging controversy, secure in the knowledge that no one can actually deny the words you put in their mouth."

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It all began in July 1955, when the Union government, allotted the surplus waters - those unused at the time by farmers and urban consumers - of the Ravi and Beas river systems. The undivided State of Punjab and the Patiala and East Punjab States Union area received 7.20 million acre-feet (MAF) a year. While Rajasthan, though not a riparian State, was granted 8 MAF on the grounds that the water was badly needed there, Jammu and Kashmir was allotted 0.65 MAF. The treaty with Pakistan was signed in 1960 and, bar some fringe mutterings on the subject, nothing further was heard of the matter for the next five years.

Then, in 1966, Punjab was divided following a prolonged Akali Dal-led agitation and the new State of Haryana came into being. No agreement was reached on the division of the Ravi-Beas waters at that time. In March 1976, under the terms of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, which mandated a division of undivided Punjab's assets in a 60:40 ratio, the Union government split 7 MAF of the Ravi-Beas system's surplus waters between Haryana and Punjab, leaving 0.2 MAF to meet New Delhi's needs. Since the Ravi-Beas system's waters could not be physically imported to Haryana, the latter's water entitlement was to be taken out from the Satluj river in Punjab through a canal fed by the Bhakra-Nangal dam that would empty into the Yamuna after passing through arid southern Haryana.

Work on the Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal started in February 1978, ironically on the orders of an Akali Dal government led by former Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal - now among the most bitter critics of the canal. Dissatisfied by the pace of work, Haryana filed a case against Punjab in the Supreme Court and Punjab responded with a counter-suit. Despite the litigation, however, the Chief Ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan were able to resolve their dispute through a trilateral agreement in 1981, which was brokered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In essence, the agreement rested on new flow data which suggested that there was 17.17 MAF available in the Ravi-Beas system, up from the 15.85 MAF on which the original award had been based. This new flow data allowed everyone's allocations to be increased: Punjab now got 4.22 MAF, Haryana 3.50 MAF, Rajasthan 8 MAF, Jammu and Kashmir 0.20 MAF and Delhi 0.20 MAF.

It all could have ended happily at this point. Instead, the issue got embroiled in communal politics in the region. For the religious right in Punjab, the SYL Canal became one of the several grievances, real and imaginary, on which its claims for a separate Sikh nation-state were premised. Punjab's hard-working farmers, they argued, were being robbed of their rightful waters by a predatory Central government. The Congress regime in Haryana, which had arrogated to itself the task of representing the worst kinds of Hindu chauvinism against Sikhs, argued equally strenuously for the immediate construction of the canal. The partly constructed SYL Canal became a focus for agitation in both States, with the Punjab Assembly at one point declaring the 1981 Accord redundant - a move just one step short of the legal manoeuvre it has now executed.

A final chance for peace came in 1985, with the signing of the Rajiv Gandhi-Harcharan Singh Longowal accord. This envisaged the setting up of a tribunal, which would give an award within six months, subject to the condition that farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan would receive no less water than they were using on July 1, 1985. Even as Justice V. Balakrishna Eradi commenced his hearings, another Akali Dal government, now led by Chief Minister S.S. Barnala, resumed construction of the SYL Canal, hoping to meet its accord mandate of completion by August 15, 1996. The tribunal, for its part, discovered that the usage of Ravi-Beas water by farmers in the three States totalled 9.711 MAF. Haryana accounted for 1.620 MAF, Rajasthan consumed 4.985 MAF, while Punjab farmers used 3.106 MAF, including 0.352 MAF Rajasthan could not utilise.

This left some 6.6 MAF of surplus water to be divided between the two warring States. Justice Eradi made an interim award giving Punjab 5 MAF and Haryana 3.83 MAF. Neither side was happy, though both their allocations had increased. The problem was that the numbers did not really add up. Water below the rim stations of the Ravi and the Beas, the lowest points at which flow data was recorded, made up the difference.

Punjab correctly pointed out that this water was useless, for the simple reason that no dams or barrages could be built along the Pakistan border to store it. Even as debate raged on, so did violence in Punjab. Senior engineers and workers of the SYL Canal were killed by terrorists and Justice Eradi wound up hearings in July 1988.

In fact, any reasonably dispassionate observer would have to conclude that the reason why Punjab received 0.78 MAF more than it had in 1981 and Haryana 0.33 MAF more than it had agreed to then was to placate their respective fundamentalism. Work on the canal came to a grinding halt with just a few kilometres remaining to be built and has since been degenerating beyond repair.

Debate on the issue, if name-calling can be called that, resumed in 1994 and involved two Congress Chief Ministers, Bhajan Lal and Beant Singh. In 1997, another round of confrontation took place, this time between two Chief Ministers backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, Badal and Bansi Lal, just after the tribunal re-commenced hearings.

Now, yet again, the issue is back in court. It is impossible, of course, to second-guess the Supreme Court on how it will respond to the Presidential Reference, but history suggests one of the sides will be unhappy with the outcome. During the 1997 fracas, only one party chose not to join in. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) stayed away from the succession of all-party meetings called in both States on the SYL Canal issue, arguing that the tribunal and the courts, rather than political pulpits, were the appropriate arenas for discussing the issue. It was a sound position. Seven years on, however, the temptation to play politics with water is just too strong for politicians in Punjab and Haryana to resist.

From Indus to Satluj

ANUPAM GUPTA the-nation

The dispute between India and Pakistan over the use of the waters of the Indus and its tributaries and its resolution through a treaty in 1960 constitute a useful precedent to solve the present row.

KARNATAKA, ruled the Supreme Court in 1991, answering a Presidential Reference under Article 143 of the Constitution, "has assumed the role of a judge in its own cause... The action (of the State) forebodes evil consequences to the federal structure under the Constitution and opens doors for each State to act in the way it desires, disregarding not only the rights of the other States, the orders passed by instrumentalities constituted under an Act of Parliament but also the provisions of the Constitution. If the power of a State to issue such an Ordinance is upheld, it will lead to the breakdown of the constitutional mechanism and affect the unity and integrity of the nation".

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Every word of this unusually strong opinion in the Cauvery water disputes case, directed at the Cauvery Basin Irrigation Protection Ordinance issued by the Governor of Karnataka in 1991 to frustrate an Interim Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, applies fully, if not with greater force, to the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, passed by the Punjab Assembly on July 12 in order to defeat a mandatory injunction granted by the Supreme Court itself to complete the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal.

Faced with similar intransigence by an erring State, and a similar response by the Union government - following the 1991 precedent, the President referred the Punjab Act to the Supreme Court on July 22 for its advisory opinion - it is highly unlikely that the court will take a different view of the matter this time even though the Punjab Act is far more carefully worded than the Karnataka Ordinance and has the advantage of a preambulary recital no less than 20 paragraphs long.

In addition to the larger considerations that prevailed with the Supreme Court in the Cauvery case - the threat to the federal structure and the lack of legislative competence in States to enact laws affecting the rights of other States - the Punjab case involves an issue of even greater import extending beyond federal or national boundaries: the sanctity of the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan.

Rightly described by N.D. Gulhati, the principal negotiator of the treaty from the Indian side, as the "biggest and the most complicated river dispute in the world, national or international", the dispute over the use of the Indus waters (including the waters of its tributaries, the Jhelum, the Chenab, the Ravi, the Beas and the Satluj) and its resolution in 1960, constitute a necessary historical and legal background to the current dispute among Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan over the waters of the Ravi and the Beas.

The manner in which the dispute was resolved adds not inconsiderably to the value of the conclusion.

THE Indus diplomacy, writes Gulhati in his book on the treaty, was neither like the highly stylised diplomacy of the old days nor of the "gold-fish bowl" variety. "There was no mass audience to address, no occasion for rhetoric nor for inflammatory debating tactics." The approach was functional and highly professional. The negotiators were "not just playing with opinions and views, they were measuring and proving ideas by facts and figures".

Signed finally by Jawaharlal Nehru and Field Marshal Ayub Khan (and, for certain specified purposes, by Sir William Iliff for the World Bank that had brought the two nations together), the treaty effected a lasting division of the Indus waters to the mutual advantage of India and Pakistan, a division that has survived two full-fledged wars plus a third, the Kargil conflict, that was almost so. A division between the so-called "Eastern Rivers" - the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi taken together - was made available for the unrestricted use of India (Article II) and the so-called "Western Rivers" - the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab taken together - for Pakistan's unrestricted use (Article III).

The significance of the opening clause of Article II - "All the waters of the Eastern Rivers shall be available for the unrestricted use of India" - the single most important provision in the treaty from the Indian point of view, is writ large over the whole of Gulhati's book, a work as indispensable for a proper understanding of river water disputes in the Indus basin as, say, Granville Austin's work on the labours of the Constituent Assembly is for understanding the Constitution. The following passage on page 246 of the book is, however, particularly instructive in the context of the present crisis:

"After ten years of hard and devoted work, we had secured almost a world-wide recognition of our claim to use in India all the waters of the Eastern Rivers, including the 12 MAF which was actually being let down for use in Pakistan as at the time of partition... In India, we had already allocated all these waters, including the 12 MAF referred to above, between Punjab (including the present Haryana), Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir. The scope of the Bhakra-Nangal project had been considerably increased, the Madhopur-Beas Link and the Sirhind Feeder had been completed and opened for operation, several new channels had been built on the Upper Bari Doab Canal and the Rajasthan Canal was under construction."

For anyone to suggest, adds Gulhati, that India should forego the use of the 12 MAF of waters of the Eastern Rivers and allow them to flow into Pakistan "seemed to us more dangerous than a fifth-column activity in the battle for the Indus waters or, to put it more charitably, showed a complete lack of appreciation of the large and vital role this quantity of river flow could play in meeting the food deficit of the country, in the development and prosperity of north-west India".

Both, then, the actual wording of Article II of the Indus Waters Treaty (all the waters of the Eastern Rivers being made available for use by "India" rather than any particular State therein), and its understanding and application by India, embodying what lawyers call contemporanea expositio (contemporaneous exposition) of a statute, rule out a claim or an exclusive claim to the waters of the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi by any individual State within India.

The fact that a sum of 62.06 million (over Rs.100 crores) was paid to Pakistan by India, rather than any State or States within India, under Article V of the Indus Waters Treaty, towards the cost of construction by Pakistan of a system of replacement" works such as link canals (envisaged by Article IV) that would convey the waters of the Western Rivers to areas in Pakistan hitherto dependent for irrigation on the waters of the Eastern Rivers, further confirms this interpretation.

This financial assistance or contribution by India to Pakistan was the third main plank of the Indus Waters Treaty as proposed by the World Bank, the first two being the allocation of the use of the Eastern and the Western Rivers respectively to India and Pakistan.

More than anything else, therefore, Punjab's claim to the ownership of the waters of the Satluj, the Ravi and the Beas flies in the face of the Indus Waters Treaty which, strictly speaking and subject to the provisions of Article IV(15) thereof, recognises no such title or right of ownership even in India - nor, for that matter, in Pakistan in relation to the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab - and grants India only the right of "unrestricted use" of these waters.

Clause (15) of Article IV preserves, no doubt, "existing territorial rights over the waters" of both the Western and Eastern Rivers, a clear reference to territorial sovereignty on either side of the border. This is subject, however, to the phrase with which the clause opens: "Except as otherwise required by the express provisions of this Treaty", which is, by all accounts, a phrase of limitation and cannot be construed otherwise.

Determination of the precise extent of the limitation would entail a minute analysis of all the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty and its various Annexures (which form, by virtue of Article XII, a part of the treaty) and the rights and obligations of India and Pakistan set out therein, an exercise not possible in the present article. It would suffice and be safe to state that any such analysis would vindicate the opinion of the outstanding German international lawyer and expert on river waters, Professor F.J. Berber, that even though "fairly elastic" and not free of "lacunae, obscurities and inaccuracies" the principle of "restricted" and not absolute territorial sovereignty should prevail in this area of international law.

Especially engaged by the Government of India in the 1950s to provide the necessary legal back-up in the negotiations over the Indus Waters Treaty, at first on a whole-time basis and later as a consultant after he left to join the University of Munich, Prof. Berber contributed significantly to the general plan and final text of the treaty. Translated from the German and published by the London Institute of World Affairs in 1959, his work Rivers in International Law is not likely to be surpassed for its depth and maturity of comprehension.

The principle of absolute territorial sovereignty, he adds, joining issue with Max Huber, may be pertinent for the problems of two neighbouring nations in relation to their territory composed of land. Water, however, is not an immovable but a movable element which today is in the territory of one state (or country) and tomorrow in the territory of another, and that creates further problems which are not exhausted by the principle of absolute sovereignty.

COMING back to Punjab's case, its claim to "proprietary rights in the waters of the rivers in East Punjab" was noticed in so many words, albeit only as a contention, in the Inter - Dominion Agreement concluded at Delhi on May 4, 1948 and signed by Jawaharlal Nehru, N.V. Gadgil and Swaran Singh on behalf of India and Finance Minister Ghulam Mohamed, Shaukat Hyat Khan and Mumtaz Daultana on behalf of Pakistan.

Staked by the then government of East Punjab, the claim was strongly disputed by the West Punjab government, contending that West Punjab had a right to the waters of the East Punjab rivers "in accordance with international law and equity".

Neither of the Dominion governments stated their views with respect to the rival contentions, resting content with the "hope" that a friendly solution would be reached. Behind the dull prose of East Punjab's claim in the Agreement of May 1948 lay a dramatic action on the ground, whose reverberations continued to be felt in the corridors of power in Asia and the West long thereafter. In a sudden, unprecedented move on April 1, 1948, East Punjab stopped all delivery of waters to West Punjab from the Upper Bari Doab Canal.

"In an area as arid and densely populated as the Indus basin," Pakistan was to state five years later, unable to forget the incident, "the appropriation by one community of the water of another is an act with tragic and far-reaching consequences. In its implications and results, such an act can be more devastating than an armed attack."

Had the Inter-Dominion Agreement of May 1948, containing East Punjab's claim to proprietorship of the river waters, remained in force, Punjab would have had an eminently arguable case today, Section 78 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act notwithstanding. Its challenge to the constitutionality of Section 78, now rather thin, would also have carried far greater conviction in that event.

Unfortunately for Punjab, however, the May 1948 Agreement did not survive the Indus Waters Treaty. Incorporated in Annexure `A' to the treaty is the Government of India's express declaration, agreeing with Pakistan, that the 1948 Agreement and "the rights and obligations of either party thereto claimed under, or arising out of, that Agreement" shall be without effect as from April 1, 1960, the date on which the treaty itself came into force pursuant to its ratification.

All its claims under the 1948 Agreement having been thus effaced, how can Punjab now legally claim what under the Indus Waters Treaty belongs only to "India" or not even to India?

For all my reservations about the twin judgments of the Supreme Court in the SYL canal case - the specious reasoning employed in the first to assume a jurisdiction expressly denied under Article 262 and the obsessive preoccupation with the technicalities of ordinary civil law in the second - and for all the intensity of sentiment in Punjab today, it is apparent that, in the ultimate analysis, Punjab has no case.

Anupam Gupta is a senior lawyer based in Chandigarh.

A canal crisis

The controversy over the Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal only serves to stoke regional chauvinism and deflect attention from the real agrarian crisis faced by Haryana and Punjab.

in Chandigarh

IT takes a fair bit of asking around to find the dank office tucked away in a corner in Chandigarh's Sector 35, the Office of the Superintending Engineer of the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal. There used to be a board outside, a nearby cigarette-stall owner recalls, but it was removed after Khalistan terrorists shot dead engineers working on the project. For the past 15 years, ever since work came to a grinding halt, the 1,708 permanent and temporary staff hired to build the canal have had nothing to do. Strangely, most of them seem to show up for work, if collecting salaries and letters granting promotions can be called that. Every now and then, there is a rumour that the last few remaining kilometres of the SYL Canal will at last be built: that the water that runs into the right-hand power house of the Bhakra-Nangal Dam will course its way towards Haryana. It almost always turns out to be an illusion.

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On July 22, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam referred Punjab's controversial Terminations of Agreements Act to the Supreme Court, starting what could prove to be the last legal round in India's longest-running and most complex water dispute. In the coming months, the Supreme Court will consider whether the Act is constitutional and whether Punjab must obey a 2002 order mandating that the SYL Canal be completed in a year. The Act is unprecedented: it is the first time a State government has sought to overturn a Supreme Court order through legislative means. Even the Karnataka Assembly, which passed legislation on how much water it would release to Tamil Nadu from reservoirs on the Cauvery, sought to overturn only an award of a water disputes tribunal, not a judicial fiat (see separate story).

Punjab's move has sparked off a furore in neighbouring Haryana, which has threatened to retaliate by abrogating the Yamuna Waters Treaty, crucial to meeting the water needs of New Delhi. The State has witnessed massive protests and its Congress MLAs have threatened to resign en bloc if those from other parties will join them.

By contrast, almost everyone in Punjab is standing behind the Act. It is not hard, however, to spot the many ironies glossed over by the extraordinary support Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's course of action has won him in Punjab. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader and former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, at Amarinder Singh's throat until recently because of the Chief Minister's anti-corruption campaign, has thrown his weight behind the Act. Yet, it was during Badal's term as Chief Minister that work on the canal first began, in 1978. Three Congress Chief Ministers - Punjab's Darbara Singh, Haryana's Bhajan Lal and Rajasthan's S.C. Mathur - along with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the 1981 agreement Punjab now seeks to repudiate (see box).

Punjab has said it does not actually intend to renege on the quantity of river water it has been releasing to other States in past years, but no hard commitments have been made on just how much will be given and when. Just as important, it is obvious that Punjab's course of action takes Indian federalism into uncharted waters. No one is quite certain just how the SYL Canal saga will play out - and what it will mean for emerging and existing water disputes across the country.

For all the opprobrium the Act has earned him, however, it is hard to flaw Amarinder Singh's political survival instincts. Starting work on the SYL Canal would have given a political handle to the SAD, something the Punjab Congress can ill afford. At once, the fact that the Chief Minister chose the path of confrontation with the Supreme Court casts instructive light on the state of the central Congress apparatus. In this case, the interests of the Punjab unit of the party clearly prevailed over its national interests, since the Act is likely to damage the Congress' chances in the elections to the Haryana Assembly. Politicians close to the Chief Minister say that the central leadership was only told that the Punjab Congress was considering a dramatic tactic to avoid starting work on the SYL Canal, but its advice was not sought. Some analysts point to the unusually rapid gubernatorial assent given to the Act as evidence that the Union government preferred to duck a bruising confrontation with the Punjab government. If true, it would suggest that some kind of dramatic shift in the structure of power within the Congress apparatus is under way.

ADVOCATES of Punjab's new law have not, however, put forward a particularly compelling case on the actual issues so far. In full-page advertisements put out in newspapers across India, the Punjab government has argued that the latest flow data shows the amount of water in the Satluj has declined from an average of 17.17 million acre-feet (MAF) a year, on which the 1981 agreement was based, to just 14.37 MAF now. But the significance of this data has not been made clear. The average amount of water available in a river will always fluctuate over the years, depending on several factors, notably rainfall. The latest data include several bad monsoon years; a succession of good monsoon years would raise the average amount of water available to the 1981 levels or higher. The data is at best an argument for a clear distress formula, which would divide the burden of a bad monsoon among all the users. This, however, would have to be hammered out in the Eradi Tribunal or in multilateral dialogue, and does not per se constitute an argument against agreements signed in the past.

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Similarly, Punjab's riparian rights argument is problematic on several counts. Legal convention and discourse on the issue has, worldwide, rejected narrow riparian rights claims and privileges the need for water over territorial rights. Punjab claims that Haryana ought not to have been granted waters from the Satluj since it is not a riparian state, or, alternately, that it should have received a share of the Yamuna waters, which pass through Haryana. This line of argument is specious on a first-principles basis. Until the 1966 division of Punjab, the residents of what is now Haryana had riparian rights, and cannot have lost them simply because of a redrawing of State borders - a redrawing, moreover, demanded by political parties in what is now Punjab, not Haryana. Equally important, Punjab has pressed its own claims to a share of Yamuna waters through the courts. In 1995, after the Yamuna basin States signed an agreement on the use of its waters, Punjab moved a legal challenge to its exclusion from the process. If Punjab believes it deserves a share of the Yamuna waters, it needs to mount a credible legal campaign - not abrogate agreements.

Punjab's argument that the 1981 agreement constitutes unreasonable Union intervention in a State subject is also somewhat perplexing. The Union's rights to the waters of the Satluj, the Ravi and the Beas were the outcome of the Indus Waters Treaty, which gave Pakistan exclusive rights to the waters of the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab and India the use of the three southern rivers. Interestingly, some politicians in Jammu and Kashmir have argued against the Indus Waters Treaty, claiming it robbed the State of rights to rivers that flow through its territory. In this case, Union mediation compelled all States - Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh - to make sacrifices and sought to protect all their interests. Should all agreements be abrogated, Himachal Pradesh could in principle start demanding royalties for the water and power it releases to Punjab and the Union government could, in turn, ask for reimbursement of the funds it pumped into the construction of the dams at Bhakra-Nangal, Ranjit Sagar, Pong and Chimera. It could also begin to unilaterally sell water, to which Punjab is currently entitled, to other States. Himachal Pradesh residents could argue that they bore the brunt of the submergence caused by the dams and ask for recurring compensation.

What none of the States seems to be addressing is the most basic question of all: how much water do the farmers of Punjab and Haryana actually need? According to former Haryana government Chief Engineer Ram Niwas Malik, the command area of the Sirhand Canal, which feeds water released from the right-hand power houses of the Bhakra-Nangal Dam, simply cannot absorb all of the 7.0 MAF diverted to it from the Beas. Therefore, he says, the 3.85 MAF Haryana was granted for use through the SYL Canal would have been diverted without fuss had the division of Punjab not occurred. In other words, Malik seems to believe that chauvinistic concerns, not actual need, have shaped Punjab's move - it simply does not need the water that is Haryana's due.

Others, such as agricultural economist S.S. Johl, believe that any reduction in the canal water available to Punjab will lead to massive problems. In fact, Johl argued in a recent article that even the existing levels of irrigation in Punjab were not enough to stave off a crisis. The "water-table is receding at the rate of 36 to 42 inches per year in most parts of the central districts", he wrote. "If this trend continues, Punjab will be a barren State in less than a decade."

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IF nothing else, these irreconcilable views point to the need for a much more careful and nuanced debate on the use of water in both States, one that transcends any kind of parochialism. Some of the hysteria in Haryana on the SYL Canal issue is particularly hard to comprehend, since the lack of irrigation in its southern districts has not stopped the State from registering impressive growth in agriculture and industry. In Punjab, for its part, agricultural scientists and economists have for decades been calling both for massive investments in irrigation systems, to reduce seepage losses that exceed 30 per cent, as well as measures to contain the irrational use of water on soils that are less than ideal for flood irrigation. The massive rise in land committed to growing water-hungry paddy and sugarcane in both States is a large part of the problem and has caused considerable depletion of the water table. Neither State government, however, seems willing to even discuss the possibility that the right kind of public investment and usage policies could be more important to their long-term water security than the loss or gain of water through the SYL Canal.

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Underlying the desperation, particularly in Punjab, is a larger crisis that confronts the farming community - one that has nothing to do with the SYL Canal debate. As the Punjab University academic Dr. H.S. Shergill pointed out: "[The] falling water table and environmental degradation are, no doubt, serious problems; but are certainly not the central issue. The core of Punjab's agrarian crisis is the stagnation of farm incomes for the past many years, and farmers' fears of imminent fall in their incomes if the World Trade Organisation agenda is implemented thoughtlessly." In several scholarly papers, Shergill noted that efforts to push farmers out of the wheat-rice cycle imposed punitive costs on them and exposed them to dangerous price fluctuations seen in new high-value crops. Instead, he argued, the answer to the agrarian impasse lies in improving the efficiency of cultivation techniques, the increased mechanisation of farming and a real effort to rebuild the public distribution system, bearing in mind that by some estimates, the slow growth of foodgrain production will mean that India will face a deficit by 2020.

As things stand, then, Punjab will face serious problems even if it does not lose water through the SYL Canal. "The scope of further expansion of irrigated areas is very limited," Shergill noted. "Most of the easy options for increasing canal irrigation have already been exploited. Ground water in dry areas has been tapped so heavily that the water table has fallen precipitously and there is little scope of further expansion of tubewell irrigation." Punjab, then, needs to be talking seriously about reducing its usage of water - in its own long-term interests. Haryana, too, needs to seriously consider if the arid southern districts will be well served by massive canal irrigation, or whether other, more cost-effective and sustainable options exist. India's experiments with water imports through canals have not always been happy, and the sad fact is that there is simply not an adequate body of scholarly work on the potential impacts the SYL Canal would have on southern Haryana soils. In both States, however, emotive mass mobilisation on river water issues has been a way for politicians to deflect attention away from the very real agrarian crisis they face and the need for serious, constructive reform.

Where might events go from here? The decision to refer the Punjab legislation to the Supreme Court means that all parties have some breathing space. Judging by past experience in politically sensitive and complex issues, it could be several years before the Supreme Court hands down a final verdict. Most legal experts seem to believe Punjab has a less than fighting chance of securing judicial redress. Should its challenge to the 1981 agreement fail, the State will have little option other than to construct the remaining portion of the canal. Others believe Punjab will use the nuisance value of its legislation to attempt to secure a softer deal, perhaps involving the loss of less water to Haryana, or a face-saving share of the waters of the Yamuna. Whatever happens, it is unlikely farmers in either State will actually benefit a great deal. It is certain, however, that the ugly regional chauvinism unleashed in recent weeks will gather momentum, spurred on by the patronage it has received from politicians in both Punjab and Haryana. So far, there has been little violence on the issue, but it seems possible that the SYL Canal will claim more lives before it is finally built.

A move from the ground

MUKUL SHARMA the-nation

`Asian People's Charter on HIV/AIDS: Amplifying the Voices of the People Affected, Infected, Living With and Suffering from HIV/AIDS; Calling for Immediate Action.'

THE banner calling for action does not sound unique, especially when thousands of other such labels and nomenclatures are floating around at a mega global conference on a subject that has seen the focus of numerous programmes and projects.

Even the presence of more than a 100 participants from several Asian countries could not draw much attention from the larger audiences at the Bangkok conference.

However, the event could not be ignored. Indeed, it managed to get some media attention.

Thailand's trade unions, representatives from the People's Health Movement, mass organisations, parliamentarians, and NGOs from South Asia and South-East Asian countries, including Afghanistan, China, Iran and Palestine, participated in it.

What emerged from the interactions was a common voice that was reflected in the declaration: "Health is a social, economic and political issue and, above all, a fundamental human right. Inequality, poverty, exploitation, violence and injustice are at the root of ill-health and the death of poor and marginalised people. Health for all means that powerful interests have to be challenged, globalisation has to be opposed, and political and economic priorities have to be drastically reoriented. HIV/AIDS is a public health issue that calls for medical, social and political responses."

This declaration, on July 9, marked the launch of the Asian People's Alliance for Combating HIV & AIDS (APACHA).

Representatives of Thailand's trade unions, currently battling to halt the privatisation of the power sector, spoke on how the economic policies of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government, and his brutal handling of drug users and HIV/AIDS patients exacerbated the situation in the country.

Indian trade unionists and health movement activists spoke about the virtual collapse of the primary health care systems and the privatisation of the health sector in the country, leading to a massive spread of communicable and non-communicable diseases among the poor.

APACHA draws much of its vision from the People's Health Movement and its charter from the Mumbai declaration of the III International Forum for the Defence of the People's Health, held just prior to the World Social Forum 2004. The People's Health Movement, a mass movement with a presence in over 100 countries, campaigns for `Health for All'.

It emphasises the importance of primary health care strategies at both the global and national levels. The alliance challenges the power structures and policies the structural adjustment programme of the World Bank-International Monetary Fund, unequal trade agreements, corporate-driven privatisation or free-market fundamentalism - which affect public health systems adversely in developing and underdeveloped countries. APACHA hopes to be a broad alliance that brings together people from various walks of life. The battle against HIV/AIDS has to go beyond the arena of health and medicine and include care and compassion, combined with an initiative to build alliances with trade unions, women's organisations, Dalit movements and so on.

While APACHA deals with the issues of leadership, prevention, care and support, treatment, reducing vulnerability, research and development and resources - identified as the key elements of anti-AIDS campaigns at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in June 2001 - its core area of action lies more in the realm of politics and the political economy of health. It pledges itself to continue with the various campaigns for the right of people to receive anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment as part of the public health care services and opposes changes to patent laws, which are bound to escalate drug prices.

Similarly, APACHA questions several stances of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and asks the two organisations to shift their position on the issue of drug pricing and the 3 by 5 initiative.

An officer's account

A former police officer creates a flutter by stating in court that senior politicians are involved in the stamp paper scam and that the S.M. Krishna government paid Rs.20 crores to forest brigand Veerappan for the release of film actor Rajkumar.

in Bangalore

ASSISTANT Commissioner of Police T.G. Sangram Singh, now retired and under arrest in connection with the multi-crore Telgi fake stamp paper scam, opened a can of worms when he made a suo motu statement in a Bangalore city court on July 8 that he had been made the fall guy in the case and blamed it on former Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna's attempt to protect Cabinet colleague R. Roshan Baig. He also said that in connection with the kidnapping of Kannada film actor Rajkumar by forest brigand Veerappan (July-November 2000) he had visited Chennai twice and handed over Rs.20 crores to film actor Rajnikant's manager (to be sent to Veerappan).

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Besides Krishna, he named Union Minister for Urban Development and Parliamentary Affairs Ghulam Nabi Azad, Karnataka Minister for Water Resources M. Mallikarjuna Kharge, former Karnataka Minister D.K. Shivakumar and Krishna's son-in-law V.G. Siddarath as those instrumental in making him a scapegoat in order to protect Baig.

The accusations, made in the First Additional City Metropolitan Magistrate Court, sent the Congress, which leads a coalition government in Karnataka, scurrying for cover as the BJP-led Opposition stalled proceedings in the State legislature and demanded Kharge's resignation. Chief Minister Dharam Singh said he would not bow to a demand made on the basis of a statement made by an accused in the scam. He reiterated that he stood by all the decisions of the previous government, in which he was the Public Works Department Minister, and that "no ransom was paid to anyone".

The political opposition in the State had all along alleged Roshan Baig's involvement in the stamp paper scam and, despite Baig's denials to the investigating officers, demanded his ouster. Roshan Baig's brother Dr. Rehan Baig was arrested in December on the charge of aiding Abdul Kareem Telgi, the prime accused, and is lodged in a Pune jail. He has been charged with managing Telgi's front organisation Metro Corporation.

It is widely believed that Telgi had many backers both in the police force and in the political establishment in the State. According to BJP leaders, this was the main reason why the Krishna government was reluctant to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) despite being advised to do so by former Director-General of Police H.T. Sangliana, who headed the investigations that led to Telgi's arrest. The Krishna government defended its decision on the grounds that the State's police force was "doing a good job of unearthing the scam" and that the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government at the Centre could have used the investigations for its own political ends. The Krishna government set up the Stamp Investigation Team (Stampit) of the State police, which spearheaded the investigations for over two years, "filing 13 charge-sheets against 69 accused and arresting 59 of the 77 people accused". A special fast track court to try the cases was also constituted.

Though Stampit officials said in December that they had identified certain politicians from the Congress and the Janata Dal and a number of police officers who had helped Telgi, they were unable to make any arrests. The only significant arrests that Stampit made, in December, were of P.N. Jayasimha, a former Superintendent of the Bangalore Central Prison, and Nanjappa, an Assistant Superintendent of the same prison. The first government officials to be arrested in the scam, they were charged with "colluding and conspiring" with Telgi in running his fake stamp paper business from the precincts of the Bangalore Central Prison. Police investigations showed that Telgi was permitted to use mobile phones and laptops freely from his cell. Stampit's efforts also led to the Krishna government suspending Sangram Singh in February, eight days before his retirement.

Additional Director-General of Police R. Sri Kumar, who headed Stampit, said it would not be right to say that the political establishment had stymied Stampit's efforts to make arrests or file charge-sheets. Said Sri Kumar: "We could not have made arrests without ample evidence. Only after we had built up a case of criminal liability against an accused could we have arrested them. In the case of Sangram Singh, we gave a report to the (then) government and they suspended him in February. The CBI arrested him in July. Given more time we certainly could have taken the investigations to their logical conclusion. Many more revelations are bound to be made."

Investigations into the scam were taken out of the State government's purview in March 2004 when the Supreme Court ruled that of the 158 cases registered all over India the CBI would investigate 48, including 10 from Karnataka. The CBI arrested Sangram Singh and two of his former colleagues, Inspectors Vali Basha and V.A. Khan, on July 7 on the charges of conniving with Telgi in the sale of fake stamp paper and subverting investigations. The charges pertain to 1997-98 when all the three officers were attached to the City Market police station.

According to the CBI, Sangram Singh, who was then the Station House Officer, received Rs.10 lakhs for the release of Telgi's brother Raheem Telgi. Khan is alleged to have received Rs.2 lakhs from Telgi in 1998 for foisting a case against a group that was trying to run a parallel stamp paper racket. Basha filed the charge-sheet in the case. The CBI is trying to find out from where the fake stamps, which were shown as seized, were sourced to Basha.

The CBI is said to have questioned, among others, Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Prisons) Jayaramaiah, suspended Deputy Superintendent of Police K.M. Muddaiah and retired DySP Hunumanthappa. CBI sources said charge-sheets would be filed in the case "within a couple of weeks".

Legal experts opine that Sangram Singh may turn approver. His lawyer has sought permission for him to make a confessional statement under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code, stating that the CBI has so far recorded only 20 per cent of what his client wants to disclose. The request has been posted for July 28.

On July 13, Sangram Singh alleged in the court that Stampit officials Sri Kumar and Deputy Inspector-General of Police Raghavendra H. Auradhkar had destroyed vital documents linking politicians to the scam before handing over the cases to the CBI. Krishna and Kharge had promised to make Sri Kumar Bangalore City Police Commissioner if he protected politicians, Sangram Singh alleged. Said Sri Kumar: "It is now up to the CBI to find this out. They must also find out whether the destruction was deliberate or otherwise."

Meanwhile, on July 14 the CBI raided the offices and residences of two government doctors, K.M. Chennakeshava and Jnanendrappa. They had allegedly issued false medical certificates to Telgi so as to enable him to get better treatment in prison, or even bail.

The CBI has arrested Chennakeshava, who is the Administrative Officer of the Victoria Hospital, Bangalore. Jnanendrappa, who is a professor of medicine, has admitted himself to a hospital in Bangalore. The CBI has also questioned Dr. Sunil Chavan, Medical Superintendent of the Parappana Agrahara Central Prison, where Telgi has been lodged for almost two years.

BEFORE entering the court an emotional Sangram Singh told presspersons that he had gone to Chennai carrying Rs.20 crores meant for Veerappan at the behest of Krishna, Shivakumar, the then Additional Director-General of Police (Intelligence) P.S. Ramanujam, and the then Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Intelligence) T. Jayaprakash.

Notwithstanding the government's denials, the common perception is that the Krishna government, desperate to secure the release of Rajkumar, paid money to Veerappan. Sangram Singh has found a supporter in his former boss Sangliana, who was in charge of the Veerappan operations for a short while and is now a BJP member of Parliament. According to Sangliana, Sangram Singh's allegations on the involvement of Congress politicians in the stamp paper scam and the Veerappan ransom payoff "are 100 per cent correct".

Talking to Frontline, Sangliana said that he saw no reason why Sangram Singh should lie: "He was an officer who always liked to give the impression that he could be relied upon to undertake any clandestine mission. They [the political establishment] have used him and discarded him. After I visited the terrain in which Veerappan operates I gave the Krishna government a six-page letter and one of the points I made was that Veerappan should be given terms to surrender. The government didn't agree. They were probably afraid that all these issues (ransom, and who paid it) would come out if Veerappan surrendered, so they want him killed. Veerappan is also alleged to have paid the election campaign bills of a number of politicians. All this would come out if Veerappan surrendered."

Former Karnataka Director-General of Police C. Dinakar, who was at the helm during the Rajkumar kidnapping, has also stated, in his book Veerappan's Prize Catch:Rajkumar that a huge ransom was paid to secure the actor's release. But questions remain about the amount and source of the money and the channels through which it reached Veerappan. Sangram Singh's allegations could provide some of the answers.

Clearing the air

The SAARC Foreign Ministers' meet in Islamabad provides an opportunity to External Affairs Minster Natwar Singh to dispel the misperceptions in Pakistan about the Indian government's approach to bilateral relations.

in Islamabad

USUALLY during meetings related to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), India-Pakistan relations take centre stage. The SAARC Foreign Ministers meet in Islamabad on July 20-21 was no different.

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It was External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh's first visit to Islamabad after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-led government assumed office. Some of Natwar Singh's statements especially his repeated emphasis on the Simla Agreement being the basis of talks between the two countries, did not go down well with the Pakistani political establishment. The Pakistani leadership is yet to reconcile itself to the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance in this year's general elections. Senior Pakistani officials admit that they had put "all their eggs in the Vajpayee basket". The entire Pakistani establishment, including President Pervez Musharraf, apparently felt that only Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's "statesmanship" would help bring about a lasting solution to the "Kashmir problem".

Natwar Singh, during his five-days stay in the Pakistani capital, worked overtime to dispel the lingering suspicion about the UPA government's motives with regard to Pakistan. Natwar Singh did not mention the Simla Agreement even once in his public pronouncements. He met most of the top Pakistani officials. On his last day in Islamabad he met Musharraf for about 90 minutes. According to Indian officials, the meeting was scheduled for the last day because they did not want the focus to be diverted from the conference.

Musharraf had recently hinted at his dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the talks and the lack of progress on the Kashmir issue. During his meeting with Natwar Singh, Musharraf talked about the need for a final settlement of the Kashmir problem within a "reasonable" timeframe, coupled with simultaneous progress on all subjects, including the "central" issue of Kashmir. Natwar Singh reportedly conveyed to Musharraf the Indian government's commitment to the joint statement issued by Musharraf and Vajpayee on January 6 and to a "sustained dialogue" with Pakistan in general. On returning to New Delhi, Natwar Singh said that the two countries were not in some sort of a race to set a deadline for the resolution of the Kashmir problem.

He emphasised the same points during his two-hour talks with his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, and Prime Minster Shujaat Hussain. Natwar Singh also interacted with leaders of civil society and intellectuals. It was evident that certain misperceptions about his views were dispelled during his stay in Islamabad.

The Foreign Ministers of the two countries are scheduled to meet in New Delhi in the first week of September. Both sides are exuding confidence about the prospects of progress being made on issues relating to Kashmir. Kasuri said that he was "a confirmed optimist" with regard to the future of the ties between the two countries. In the coming weeks the two sides will be holding intensive talks on the six remaining points in the eight-point agenda agreed upon in January.

Senior Pakistani officials, quite like many other foreign government officials, are a bit confused about the chain of command in the present Indian dispensation. Pakistan seems to be a bit wary about the Congress party, given the party's track record in the first 40 years after Independence. Pakistani officials and politicians say that the constant harping on the Simla agreement reminds them of the war that led to the dismemberment of their country in 1971.

However, during their talks on the sidelines of the SAARC meet, the two sides pledged to stick to the timetable of the talks. Kasuri said that his Indian counterpart and he discussed in a "forthright manner" the substantive issues of concern to both sides, including that of cross-border terrorism and Kashmir. Other issues that figured in the talks between the two included the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus link, the Baglihar Dam issue and the reopening of the consulates in Mumbai and Karachi. "Jinnah House" will not be housing the Pakistani consulate - a development that has not gone down well with Islamabad. The Indian government is looking for an alternative address for the Pakistani consulate in Mumbai. Reopening of the consulates in the two cities is evidently going to take some time.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service could take a long time to become a reality. Islamabad has made it clear that it would not compromise on the issue of passports being used as travel documents for Kashmiris wanting to cross over from the Line of Control (LoC). They point out that the LoC is not the legal border between the two countries but only a ceasefire line. Pakistan wants to revert to the system that was in place until the mid-1950s when Kashmiris could travel freely between the two sides with documents authenticated by District Collectors. Pakistan Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokkar, in this context, suggested the "Rahdari" system being used on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. People having relatives on either side are allowed to cross the border on the basis of documents provided by local officials. The Pakistani side has also proposed that identity cards issued by the United Nations could substitute for passports - which is unacceptable to the Indian side. As for travel documents issued by District Collectors, according to Indian officials, it is impractical to revert to an antiquated system.

Indian officials accuse Islamabad of not being sincere about the proposed bus service and trying to thwart New Delhi's initiative. They say that delegation-level talks on the issue could not be held as scheduled in Islamabad because the Pakistan government refused visas to officials from the Jammu and Kashmir government. "Officials from the State government were involved in the Indus and the Baglihar talks. There were no objections from the Pakistani side then," contends an Indian official.

India while rejecting a deadline for talks on Kashmir, has said that another round of talks is scheduled on issues relating to Jammu and Kashmir. The officials emphasise that there is no political hesitation on their part. At the same time they also caution against expectations of simplistic solutions to the Kashmir problem. New Delhi considers "terrorism" as the core issue between the two countries. Its claim that the "infrastructure of terrorism" has not been dismantled completely has been endorsed by even U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Islamabad continues to insist that there are no terrorist training camps on its soil. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman went to the extent of saying that the U.S. intelligence on "terrorist camps" in Pakistan is as credible as their intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. India's position on the dialogue process is "predicated" on Pakistan's position on terrorism. The impression being given is that India is at the moment easing up on Musharraf. If he decides to be tough, New Delhi has the option of turning on the heat on the Pakistani leader on the issues of nuclear proliferation, democracy in Pakistan and terrorism.

TALKING to Frontline, Mohammed Abdul Qayyum Khan, former President of the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, said "Vajpayee had the stature" to bring about a settlement. He said that he was not too impressed by the new political leadership that has emerged both in India and Pakistan. He was referring to the fact that Prime Minster Manmohan Singh and Shaukat Aziz are both technocrats. The Kashmiri leader said that despite the lack of tangible progress so far, India and Pakistan should continue talking, for only then would the influence of hardliners on both sides diminish. He echoed the widely held view in Pakistan when he said: "The talks will go down the drain if India does not address seriously the issue of Kashmir. A courageous leadership is needed in India."

On the issue of travel between the two sides of Kashmir, Qayyum Khan felt that Kashmiris would never accept the use of passports for "travelling within our own homeland". He instead suggested: "Both countries should create a small demilitarised zone along the LoC so that Kashmiris from both sides of the divide can meet."

Significantly, Qayyum Khan said that Kashmiris were willing to look at proposals that did not involve a new partitioning of India. "Independent Kashmir also means another partitioning. There is no mechanism to create an independent Kashmir," he emphasised. Qayyum Khan said that the Kashmiri leaders from both sides should be allowed to meet and thrash out a formula for the peaceful resolution of the problem. Such a meeting can be held in a third country, according to him.

MUSHAHID HUSSAIN, former Information Minister of Pakistan, asserted that the dialogue process would not be derailed. Hussain, besides being Secretary-General of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, is a member of the Senate and chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Upper House. He said that the people of Pakistan had endorsed the peace process. As an illustration, he mentioned the effusive welcome given to the Indian cricket team in three different parts of Pakistan.

"Though we had put all our eggs in the BJP basket, the Congress-led coalition has sustained the BJP initiative," he said. He added that the presence of the Left parties and those representing the deprived sections of society had given him cause for optimism about the peace process. "This year has been a landmark year in India-Pakistan relations. The normalisation process between the two countries is seemingly irreversible."

A.H. NAYYAR of the Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad was of the opinion that both India and Pakistan were in the process of "re-defining" their negotiating positions. He felt that the Pakistani establishment was upset because "nothing much is happening in the core", of the dialogue process. The big increase in India's defence budget this year along with the acquisition of sophisticated military hardware such as the "Phalcon" system has also upset the Pakistani government. The government is in no position to keep up with India in an arms race, given the size of its economy. All the same, Pakistan too has had to increase its defence expenditure. To counter the Phalcon, Pakistan has gone in for an expensive Swedish radar system.

Nayyar said that if Musharraf failed to get some concessions from India on Kashmir, he would come under tremendous pressure from the right-wing religious parties in Pakistan. Nayyar pointed out that it was Musharraf who asked for negotiations with India. Nayyar, like many other analysts in Pakistan, feels that Musharraf has very few cards to play now. "Increasing infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir is the only lever he is left with," he said.

A reality check

V. VENKATESAN the-nation

The Terror of POTA and other security legislation: A report on the People's Tribunal on the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other security legislation, New Delhi, March 2004; Ed. by Preeti Verma, published by Human Rights Law Network, New Delhi, and People's Watch, Madurai.

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THE United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is committed to repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In its Common Minimum Programme (CMP), the UPA has expressed its concern about the manner in which POTA was grossly misused over the past two years. "There will be no compromise in the fight against terrorism. But given the abuse of POTA that has taken place, the UPA government will repeal it, while existing laws are enforced strictly," it has promised. The government may be close to fulfilling the promise, but a reality check on the application of the draconian legislation may help create the right political climate and mould public opinion in favour of its repeal.

In March 2002, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government pushed through the legislation at a joint sitting of Parliament, claiming that it was a national necessity in the fight against terrorism. The Opposition cautioned the government against its abuse and expressed the fear that it would be misused against the minorities and as an instrument of political vendetta. The government ignored the apprehensions.

The present report by civil society vindicates the fears. It brings together testimonies of POTA victims across 10 States through a national framework in order to contextualise the law and its selective use against the poor, the tribal people, Dalits and Muslims.

The report is prepared by a panel of eight eminent persons, namely, Ram Jethmalani, K.G. Kannabiran, Justice Hosbet Suresh, D.K. Basu, Mohini Giri, Syeda Hameed, Arundhati Roy and Praful Bidwai, and edited by Preeti Verma of the Human Rights Law Network. The report grew out of the proceedings of the People's Tribunal on POTA held in New Delhi in March year (Frontline, April 9).

According to the POTA Review Committee's database of cases and complaints, as on January 12 there were as many as 1,376 detainees in 10 States. Jharkhand registered the highest number of arrests under POTA, with 745 accused having been lodged in jail. It was followed by Jammu and Kashmir (181), Gujarat (158), Maharashtra (87), Delhi (66), Tamil Nadu (50), Uttar Pradesh (44) and Andhra Pradesh (36).

The huge number of arrests in Jharkhand would obviously require an explanation. A fact-finding team comprising 10 representatives from civil liberty groups toured several districts of Jharkhand in early 2003 to collect data on POTA-related arrests. The team found that the State government used POTA indiscriminately against ordinary citizens, mostly illiterate tribal people and those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes and that the police booked POTA cases to terrorise people. The team alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in the State used the law to terrorise and wean away people from all Opposition parties, such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and also parties and groups preaching revolution. There were 3,000-odd people booked under POTA in the State, but none among them qualified as an accused under the Act, the team found.

The team reported that the families of most POTA victims did not understand the law; nor could they arrange advocates to invoke the due process under the law to get relief. In cases where the families could arrange advocates, they were not able to meet the expenses: they sold cattle, houses or small patches of land, whatever they possessed. "The POTA is a burden unimaginable on the mere subsistence economy of Jharkhand villages," the team's report said.

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G.N. Saibaba, a member of the team, told the tribunal that they met among the detainees, children including girls, apart from government employees and journalists. A number of people, particularly contractors, had been named in First Information Reports (FIR) and arrested on allegations that they had funded Left extremists.

Some examples from Jharkhand are indeed shocking. In Pipawar, the police slapped a POTA case against people who tried to escape from a village market after the police had beaten up several of them, while seeking information about Naxalites. Those who failed to escape were arrested and booked under POTA. The present report says: "Hundreds of people continue to stay away from their families and villages for fear that the police might still arrest them under POTA." The police consider them absconders, having named them in the FIRs.

The report concludes that in Gujarat POTA was used with great precision to preserve and perpetuate the communal divide. Until March 14, over 280 persons in the State were booked under POTA. The tribunal found evidence that the law was used mostly against Muslims. Four cases in recent times, the tribunal found, had been used to book "terrorists" in Gujarat. The first relates to waging war and conspiring to do terrorist acts. However, no specific instance of commission of any terrorist act is alleged. The police booked 82 persons and arrested 44 in the case.

The second is popularly known as the "tiffin bomb" case, relating to an incident last year in which low-powered bombs in tiffin boxes exploded in different parts of Ahmedabad and injured several people. The police booked two persons and arrested 17 accused in the case. In the third case relating to the murder of former Minister Haren Pandya, which is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the police booked 19 persons and arrested 15. In the fourth case, registered towards the end of last year, it was alleged that the accused planned to kill some important leaders belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP. The police booked seven persons under the Act.

The tribunal found that the first and fourth cases did not require even an iota of proof that a terrorist act had been committed, since both dealt with `conspiracy' to wage war or kill important leaders. "All that is required is a good story of Muslim youth going to Pakistan to take arms training to take revenge for the killing of Muslims in the post-Godhra riot," the report says. It alleges that in all the four cases the accused are first detained without any authority of law and then tortured to secure confessions during the period of legal remand. The story of "conspiracy" is built up without any corroborating proof and given wide publicity in the local press in order to achieve communal polarisation, the report alleges.

The proponents of POTA had suggested that the Act was more effective than the previous law against terrorism, namely, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act or TADA, which was allowed to lapse in 1995 because it had `in-built' safeguards against misuse, compared to the latter. The banning of the Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Ekta Samaj (ABNES) under POTA in 2002, on the contrary, suggests the opposite. Section 18 of POTA, which enables the government to notify an organisation as terrorist, does not require it to justify the ban. The ABNES, which has no history of criminal, violent, or terrorist activities on Indian soil, was banned without a shred of evidence against it, apparently to appease the Nepalese government. Section 19, which deals with the procedure for the denotification of such banned organisations, envisages the setting up of a committee for the purpose so that an aggrieved organisation can approach it for remedy. The previous government ignored the ABNES' plea for the removal of the ban, as it did not constitute a committee for the purpose of hearing such a plea.

In Tamil Nadu, the "safeguards" came to the rescue of the victims only after they underwent considerable suffering. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko and Tamil Nationalist Movement leader P. Nedumaran have both been released on bail, but their freedom of speech has been curtailed by the judiciary. The application of POTA against two minors - Prabhakaran and Bhagat Singh - was reversed on an intervention by the Madras High Court, but the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act were applied in its place. Rightly, the tribunal has raised the issue of compensation to those who unjustly suffered under POTA.

The report draws its inspiration from Irom Sharmila Devi of Manipur, who has been on an indefinite fast since November 2, 2000, in protest against the abuses by the armed forces in the State and to press her demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, following an incident in which Assam Rifles personnel killed 10 civilians. Sharmila Devi is now force-fed through her nose. Her resolve is an amazing story of how an individual, without any organisational support, can offer resistance to the state.

The panel has concluded that POTA should be repealed, and it cannot be "reformed" or "improved upon". It has recommended the law's repeal retrospectively, wherein all charges framed under it will have to be deleted. The charges registered under POTA, the panel says, may continue, if the state so desires, under other laws. However, it cautioned against the use of confessions under POTA for any trial to be continued under normal laws.

Celebrating cultural diversity

Human Development Report 2004 Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World by the United Nations Development Programme, Oxford University Press, London.

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NOW firmly established as a concept in the international policy discourse, "human development" was understood to have a broader and more elusive significance than the strictly economic construction of the growth process. The annual Human Development Report (HDR) has, in recent years, ranged over a wide range of intangibles in examining the performance of various countries - as also their potential - in promoting human development. Among other things, the annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme - now in its 15th year - has examined the quality of a country's political institutions, its commitment to gender equity, and its relative openness to information flows, as factors that have a bearing on the quality of human life. The report is in part about knitting together these diverse factors into a new synthesis. But its main thrust is in expanding the inquiry to a new frontier. And its exploration of the centrality of culture and cultural freedoms is particularly apt in a context when talk of a "clash of civilisations" enjoys a certain vogue. Indeed, it is a frontal challenge to this view and a riveting retrospective evaluation of the politics of nation building. With the 1990s having seen the collapse of several seemingly eternal state structures that had sought to harmonise different ethnicities into a common sense of nationhood, HDR 2004 is entirely topical.

The report confronts the primary question of why the definition of cultural rights has generally lagged behind in relation to social, political and economic rights. The answers are diverse. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was in its preparatory phase, a number of countries, including India and the erstwhile Eastern bloc, argued the case for the inclusion of minority rights. This was opposed by the United States, Canada and most Latin American countries. The report does not examine the reasons for this particular configuration of the ayes and nays on cultural rights. But it is an obvious inference that India and the Eastern bloc were multi-ethnic societies that were aware of the delicate sensibilities involved in seeking the participation of minority groups in a national consensus. Canada, the U.S. and Latin America, in contrast, had overcome the problem of indigenous people through the kind of brutality that they would rather have the world forget. Remnants of the indigenous traditions had been assimilated into a dominant English, French or Spanish cultural idiom, and there seemed little to be gained by bringing minority rights into a universal charter.

The unitary and centralising features of the modern nation state elicited certain reservations among minority groups. These were tackled in the extreme case through outright suppression. In the more enlightened alternative, cultural rights were subsumed under a broad rubric of civil rights. Societies and individuals granted the freedom of conscience, speech and association, it was argued, needed no special dispensation covering cultural rights. The nation state in the throes of modernisation was often apt to look at the plea for cultural rights as an effort to preserve the more regressive features of inherited traditions.

In 1966, a full 18 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognised that ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities "shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their culture, to profess and practise their religion, or to use their own language". This stopped short of being a strong affirmation of cultural rights, since it only trod the more cautious path of prohibiting their denial. Interestingly, the stronger articulation of the case for cultural rights came in the 1990s, the supposed decade of "globalisation", when national barriers and local specificities were ostensibly being broken down as economies integrated and cultures merged.

In part this is because globalisation has engendered deep insecurities in the more vulnerable countries and communities. What would seem "exciting and empowering" to some would be "disquieting and disempowering" to others. Economic opening-up has brought industrial-scale exploitation to traditional habitats, unsettling long-established ways of life. Where resource conflicts have arisen, nation states have failed to defend the rights of indigenous people. The vital life-sustaining purposes served by traditional knowledge have been eroded by the loss of access to these resources. Though recognised by the Convention on Biological Diversity, traditional knowledge is dealt with in an almost derisory fashion by international laws on intellectual property. Further, by according the corporate giants of the West the power to patent aspects of traditional knowledge, the intellectual property laws administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have been deeply corrosive of cultural rights.

HDR 2004 urges the explicit recognition of traditional knowledge in the intellectual property legal framework. It also proposes the documentation of traditional knowledge, which would diminish, if not eliminate "possibilities for (its) uncompensated exploitation". Asserting a community's claim over certain aspects of knowledge - as seen recently with the curative properties of the neem - could be a way of "preventing others from claiming it as their own".

Another area, in which HDR 2004 sees a challenge to the established consensus of the decade of globalisation, is in the case for a "cultural exception" to the free cross-border flow of goods and information. Countries should be free, in this perception, to regulate the inflow of goods and services that have a profound cultural impact. This argument has gained force in recent times because "cultural goods convey ideas, symbols and lifestyles and are an intrinsic part of the community that produces them". The "cultural exception" also implies that countries should have the latitude under trade and investment laws, to foster industries that have a potentially important cultural dimension. Free trade and the iron laws of comparative advantage, in other words, have no validity in the domain of human culture.

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HDR 2004 records the argument but does not explicitly take a stand on the "cultural exception". It is easy to see why. The trade in goods and services - even those without overt cultural overtones - brings in its train the intangibles of marketing strategy and advertising that have immense cultural ramifications. These are adapted to suit local exigencies, because cultural sensitivity is often a powerful marketing tool. But it is widely recognised that Coca Cola and McDonald's are cultural and lifestyle exports with potentially greater social impact than Hollywood movies or the entire output of U.S. television serials. This makes the "cultural exception" a slippery downward slope for the powerful multinationals that dominate global commerce.

THE special role of migration in today's world is another aspect that HDR 2004 deals with at some length. "Driven by globalisation", it points out, "the number of migrants soared in the last decade, especially to the high-income countries of Western Europe, North America and Australia." This has excited deep anxieties in most of the countries of destination and, reciprocally, stirred up some disquiet in the countries of origin. Two kinds of methods have traditionally been used by countries receiving large numbers of migrants to promote the integration of the new arrivals into national life. A practice of "differentialism" - of preserving a separate but secure identity - was evident in the policy that Germany adopted with Turkish guest workers, and the oil-producing countries of the Gulf adopted with expatriates. A policy of "assimilation" was implemented in erstwhile imperial powers such as the United Kingdom and France, especially in relation to migrants from old colonial possessions.

Neither approach, HDR 2004 says, is adequate to the new circumstances that "need to build respect for differences and a commitment to unity". Rather, the challenge of authentic multiculturalism is to provide the migrants with a strong sense of belonging while allowing them to maintain their identity and emotional bonds with the country of origin. The challenge is especially acute in the adverse climate created by the global "war on terror". And in practical policy terms, the use of the Australian example as an illustration of multiculturalism is perhaps unfortunate. The practice of incarcerating economic and political refugees, which Australia has in recent times adopted is not the best advertisement for cultural tolerance.

Since the end of the Cold War conflicts have erupted for the most part within established nation states rather than between them. Conflicts over linguistic and cultural policy have often been an overt factor - for instance, the civil war in Sri Lanka. HDR 2004 seeks to argue that "cultural differences by themselves are not the relevant factor" in sparking off the violence. Indeed, it points out, "cultural diversity" could often reduce "the risk of conflict by making group mobilisation more difficult". And where conflict becomes inevitable, cultural identity is rarely the cause. Rather, it is used in an instrumentalist manner as a "driver for political mobilisation".

Another distinct type of danger arises from the attitudes of the state. The notion that there is an ineluctable conflict between the stability of the state and the recognition of multiple cultural identities has had a powerful influence. This has played itself out in several ways. At the extremity of the spectrum is the kind of ethnic cleansing that the Balkans witnessed in the mid-1990s. And though HDR 2004 tiptoes around the issue with customary delicacy, the continuing definition of nationality in terms of narrow ethnicities, most evident today in the Jewish state of Israel, has been the most powerful ideological ally of ethnic cleansing.

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Without quite going to this extreme though, there are nations that impose "formal restrictions on the practice of religion, language and citizenship". Also evident are tendencies to withhold appropriate respect and recognition for certain peoples and communities. Visions of social progress often animate such practices, with multiculturalism being dismissively viewed as "a policy of conserving cultures, even practices that violate human rights". The report puts forward a notion of cultural freedom that attempts to steer clear of all these pitfalls. The "defence of tradition" has nothing to do with it. Rather, cultural liberty is the "capability of people to live and be what they choose, with adequate opportunity to consider other options".

This does not quite address the latitude that societies can feasibly afford an individual or a people in choosing their modes of life. HDR 2004 makes frequent, and generous, references to the Indian experience, though the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the wave of sectarian violence that began in 1990 merit well-deserved condemnation. India's practice of affirmative action - or reservations - for the underprivileged has contributed to both a growing sense of participation and empowerment, it suggests. Again, the formation of linguistic States as units of administration with a high degree of autonomy, and the adoption of a three-language formula for instruction and governance, has engendered a sense of equality among regions. The care taken to include significant dates from all faiths in drawing up the calendar of holidays is again a practice that conveys a sense of respect for cultural diversity.

YET in all this, HDR 2004 seems to leave out of consideration the momentous question of how India's politics of secularism went disastrously askew well into its fourth decade of Independence, thanks to a state policy of seeking to generate a competitive dynamic between communities in demanding special favours. This phase of yielding to demands of competing unreasonableness from different communities was framed within the discourse of cultural diversity, of allowing communities to decide on the norms that should govern their social existence. But if yielding to the extreme demands of traditional community leaders is not an acceptable way of fostering cultural diversity, India is yet to find the optimal path in practice.

HDR 2004 urges certain policies on all nations for ensuring political participation. The example of New Zealand is cited, where, with the "introduction of proportional representation in place of the winner-takes-all formula, Maori representation rose from 3 per cent in 1993 to 16 per cent in the 2002 elections".

India, of course, has a much older history in guaranteeing political representation for marginalised groups, though the HDR does suggest that proportional representation could improve matters further. Language policies have an especially important bearing on the stability of multicultural societies, since "the choice of official language symbolises the national identity". Here again, the Indian experience draws much attention and approbation, but HDR 2004 perhaps would have been more effective if it had focussed also on where certain other multi-ethnic states - like Yugoslavia, for instance - went wrong in their language policy. By all accounts, Yugoslavia had an equally inclusive language policy and perhaps fewer social barriers to integration between different nationalities. But Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state was one of the principal casualties of the decade of globalisation.

This opens up the domain of socio-economic policies, where perhaps the feasible limits of multiculturalism could be located. With competition and free markets being the governing virtues in the economic realm, is a certain degree of rivalry between ethnic groups inevitable? HDR 2004 suggests that the state could play an active redistributive function in mitigating the disadvantages suffered by certain communities in the process of globalisation. But it is necessary to ask whether this redistributive role is still feasible when the fiscal capacities of the state are on the wane, under the influence of the reigning policy orthodoxy. Economic deprivation often has an ethnic dimension, but just as often cuts across cultural differences. The celebration of cultural diversity cannot conceivably be carried to excess. But it is necessary to be wary of the point at which it begins to undermine the consolidation of other forms of identity that may be crucial in addressing fundamental questions of life and livelihood.

Unsafe motherhood

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR public-health

As the country with the highest number of maternal deaths, India needs to improve on a priority basis healthcare, transport and infrastructure facilities, particularly in the rural areas.

AS Sompi Chinnappa was collecting gooseberries from her farm in Karakavalasa, a tribal hamlet in Andhra Pradesh's Visakhapatnam district, a woman came running breathlessly towards her and shouted: "The pain has started, hurry up and come."

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Sompi, the 50-year-old village dai or midwife, dropped her bag of berries and ran towards the Rallagaravu hamlet a kilometre away, where a 17-year-old woman was writhing in pain. Sompi entered the hut and asked for hot oil. Soon she was massaging the pregnant woman. After about two hours, Sompi pulled out a baby girl with her bare hands. She cut the umbilical cord with a razor blade and wrapped the newborn in a rag. A safe delivery as far as the midwife was concerned. But what about the total disregard for infections? No gloves, not even clean sheets.

But the young mother is happy, for not every woman in Karakavalasa and its adjoining hamlets has problem-free childbirth. Moreover, complications are not easy to handle in remote areas like these. Two months ago, Sompi had tried in vain for hours to help a severely anaemic 19-year-old, Vimalamma, deliver her second baby. The woman was then taken down the hill to a primary health centre (PHC), 10 km away. She died on the way, in the handcart she was being taken on.

In the absence of an accessible and affordable health-care facility, village midwives, mostly illiterate and untrained, are often the only help available for pregnant women in rural and remote areas. But if there is a complication, these midwives are helpless.

Not that the midwives are unaware of the complications that arise during childbirth. By the time they realise that normal delivery is not possible, it is most often too late. The nearest PHC is in most cases some distance away. Reaching the PHC in time is a near impossibility thanks to the rudimentary roads and poor transport facilities. The PHCs are rarely equipped to deal with emergencies. Generally, there is no anaesthetist or blood bank, and medicines are severely in short supply. In most cases it is either too late or too expensive to go to a private facility. With primary medicare being in such a sorry state, the only hope is that complications do not happen.

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According to statistics, every minute in the world, 380 women become pregnant; 190 face unplanned or unwanted pregnancy; 110 experience a pregnancy-related complication; 40 have an unsafe abortion; and one woman dies from a pregnancy-related cause. Social and cultural practices, which themselves are responsible for the poor health conditions of most women, are also among the important causes of maternal mortality. Early marriage and pregnancy, when the reproductive organs are not yet properly developed; high fertility rate leading to recurrent pregnancies; and unwanted pregnancies, when the foetus is aborted crudely most often at home, all leave most women vulnerable. Only one out of six women between the ages of 17 and 35 receives prenatal care while more than half of them are anaemic. Hardly 20 per cent of mothers receive all the required components of prenatal care.

In India, over two-thirds of women give birth at home - close to 85 per cent in the rural areas, and 95 per cent in the remote areas. Every five minutes a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, adding up to around 136,000 fatalities a year, one of the highest numbers of maternal mortality cases in the world; globally, some 550,000 pregnancy-related deaths occur every year and 90 per cent of these deaths occur in the developing countries. Maternal mortality is the main factor that substantially lowers the life expectancy of women.

Maternal mortality, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), is the death of a woman while "pregnant or within 42 days of termination (by delivery, miscarriage or abortion) of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes."

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The country with the highest number of maternal deaths is India, followed by Nigeria (37,000), Pakistan (26,000) and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia (24,000 each). Thirteen countries account for 67 per cent of all maternal deaths worldwide.

Of the world's population of some 6.2 billion, there are 1.5 billion women of reproductive age who give birth to 133 million babies each year, or 247 births every minute, or four every second. Less than half of these births are attended by qualified health workers. Fifteen million of these births (12 per cent) are to adolescent mothers, whose mortality rate is higher than that of adult women (five times higher for girls under 15, and two times higher for those in the 15-19 age group).

"I do not believe for one minute that if men were dying in their prime in these numbers, so little would be done," observed James Wolfensohn, World Bank President, speaking on safe motherhood and maternal mortality on World Health Day, April 7 in 1998.

Of all the social indicators, maternal mortality accounts for the largest gap between rich and poor nations. Over 90 per cent of maternal deaths occur in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, with the latter accounting for 50 per cent of the fatalities.

The number of maternal deaths is a product of the total number of births and the obstetric risk per birth, described as maternal mortality rate (the number of deaths per 100,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49 in a given period). On a risk per birth basis, the list looks different. With the exception of Afghanistan, the countries with the highest mortality rates are all in Africa.

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The maternal mortality ratio or MMR (the number of deaths per 100,000 live births) is a measure of the risk of death once a woman becomes pregnant. While the global MMR is 400, in some Asian countries MMR is as high as 850. For instance, it is 830 in Nepal, 650 in Laos PDR, 600 in Bangladesh, 590 in Cambodia, 470 in Indonesia and 440 in India. But it is as low as 95 in Vietnam, 60 in China and Sri Lanka, 44 in Thailand, 35 in North Korea, 20 in Fiji and in South Korea, 15 in New Zealand, 12 in Japan, nine in Singapore and six in Australia.

A more dramatic assessment of risk that takes into account both the probability of becoming pregnant and the probability of death as a result of that pregnancy cumulated across a woman's reproductive years. The more times a woman becomes pregnant, the greater the risk of pregnancy-related death.

The lifetime risk of maternal death is one in 16 in Africa (one in 12 in sub-Saharan Africa), one in 65 in Asia, one in 130 in Latin America, as against one in 400 in northern Europe. Even more worrisome is the fact that for every woman who dies, at least 30 suffer injuries and often permanent disability. It is estimated that one in four women in the developing world suffers from acute or chronic conditions owing to pregnancy.

For every woman who dies in the developed world, 99 die in the developing world. Moreover, a woman's lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications in developing countries is 40 times higher than that of her developed country counterpart.

Maternal mortality and morbidity are more likely in nations and cultures that give little priority to the needs, status and situation of girls; where girls and women are routinely discriminated against; where girls are married off immediately after attaining puberty; where education levels are low; and where the only roles of women are as wives and mothers. In many of these cultures, maternal illness and suffering are viewed as natural, inevitable, and part of what it means to be a woman.

Hence an understanding of the social and cultural environment is necessary to save women's lives.

Girls routinely face discrimination in many cultures. In many communities, a baby girl is less welcome than a boy; her birth is not celebrated with the same enthusiasm as her brother's; her needs for nutrition and healthcare are likely to be neglected, resulting in poor physical development that will have consequences during childbirth; and a girl child is less likely to go to school and, if she does, will stay there for a shorter period. Indeed, girls comprise two-thirds of the young people not in school; women comprise two-thirds of the world's adult illiterate population. Lack of education, among other handicaps, prevents women from learning about pregnancy and health issues. Girls are married off early and begin child-bearing before they are physically ready. One-third of all pregnancies are unwanted or unintended, and even today about 350 million women worldwide do not have the choice of safe, effective contraceptive methods. Unsafe abortions are estimated to claim 70,000 lives globally each year.

More than 80 per cent of maternal deaths worldwide have five direct causes: haemorrhage (34 per cent), unsafe abortion (18 per cent), obstructed labour (11 per cent), hypertensive disorders (16 per cent) and infections (21 per cent). Indirect deaths are caused by conditions that, in association with pregnancy, precipitate the fatal outcome - for instance, malaria, hepatitis and, increasingly, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Most life-threatening complications occur around the time of childbirth and require recognition and prompt treatment.

Twenty-five per cent of maternal deaths occur during pregnancy; 50 per cent within 24 hours of childbirth; 20 per cent within seven days of delivery; and 5 per cent from two to six weeks of childbirth.

It is, however, difficult to predict which woman will develop a life-threatening complication during pregnancy. But three important ways by which maternal deaths can be controlled are: (a) by promoting family planning - that is, every pregnancy should be a wanted one; (b) skilled attendance at birth - all pregnant women must have access to skilled medical care; and essential obstetric care - all pregnant women must be able to reach a manned and equipped healthcare facility if complications arise.

If antenatal investigations are done for all pregnant women, it will dramatically lower pregnancy-related risks. They help in detecting and treating existing problems and complications and providing counselling thereafter; help the women prepare for birth; and advise women where to seek care if complications arise. It was found that in the three years preceding India's National Family Health Survey 1998-99 (NFHS-2), 35 per cent of pregnant women received no antenatal care.

A 2001 Population Council study in India's most populous State of Uttar Pradesh showed that less than half the pregnant women had sought some form of care. In the rural areas of the State it was particularly bad - more than three-fourths of the women in Sitapur district and three-fifths of the women in Agra district received no antenatal care. Most women tended to see a healthcare professional in the second trimester only to confirm pregnancy.

The reasons given by the survey respondents for not seeking care include: they did not think that check-ups were necessary (60 per cent) or customary (4 per cent); inability to meet the costs of visiting a healthcare facility (15 per cent); and not being allowed by their families to have these check-ups (9 per cent). Lack of knowledge of antenatal care and poor access to health centres were the other reasons cited.

According to C. Jagdish Bhatia ("Levels and Causes of Maternal Mortality in Southern India", Studies in Family Planning; pages 310-318), more than three-fourths (77.8 per cent) of the maternal deaths in Andhra Pradesh's Kurnool district could have been prevented if there were early antenatal care, treatment of existing health conditions, and timely availability of medical care and hospitalisation.

The importance of transport facilities is evident from the fact that of the 140 women who were taken to hospital in a serious condition, 96 (68.5 per cent) were transported by bus, 27 (19.2 per cent) by bullock-cart, five (3.5 per cent) by rickshaw, and only 12 (8.6 per cent) by a motor-driven vehicle or ambulance. Consequently, 24 women died en route to and 54 when they reached hospital.

The Population Council study also found that most deliveries happened in situations in which it was difficult to identify or respond to obstetric complications. Close to 90 per cent of the deliveries happened at home, and in nearly half these cases family members or kin delivered the babies.

"Even these figures are an underestimation," says Jagdish Bhatia. According to him, estimating maternal mortality is very difficult given that most deliveries happen at home and over half of the deaths among women of reproductive age and two-thirds of maternal deaths are not recorded.

Not that the government is not aware of all this. In fact, the latest National Population Policy of India focusses on the government's commitment to safe motherhood. Among the goals identified for 2010 are: reducing MMR to below 100; achieving 80 per cent deliveries within health institutions; addressing the unmet needs for basic reproductive and child health services, supplies, and infrastructure; and the presence of trained personnel in the community at all births.

In a drive to make childbirth safer, the Health Ministry last year decided to pay midwives to bring pregnant women to hospitals for check-ups and delivery, and the latter for having their babies there. The idea, according to an official in the Health Ministry, is to raise the number of women delivering in medical institutions from 33 per cent to 80 per cent.

A happy situation for midwives? Apparently not. People like Sompi, who delivers about a dozen babies a month in remote villages where girls are usually married off at the age of 14 and have five to seven children, feel cheated by the government's policy turnabout. She says: "I learnt this work by watching my mother for years." Sompi is illiterate but is proud of the fact that she can tell the position of a baby in the womb just by touching. But now, she feels the government has not taken her skills into consideration while persuading her to take women to hospital.

Sompi was given a three-day training on hygiene last year. But can she tackle any of the common causes of maternal deaths - haemorrhage, eclampsia, obstructed labour or sepsis? No, say health officials. Only a hospital can deal with such emergencies.

Yet, for the pregnant women who are caught between a poor and inadequate government health system and an unaffordable private one, midwives, though most often from a lower caste, are godsend. Says Sompi: "The government should concentrate on raising the age for marriage (the average age at marriage in rural India is 15), reducing unwanted pregnancies, improving infrastructural facilities such as roads and public transport, and enhancing facilities at PHCs."

According to a WHO study, a safe motherhood programme using existing resources would cost developing countries less than $3 per person a year. The study concludes: "Ultimately, the critical need may be one of generating sufficient political and social will at international and national levels to overcome this avoidable tragedy." Can the government deliver on this?

Rallying for action

The XV International AIDS Conference provided a platform to reflect on the missed opportunities of the past decade to safeguard Asia, Africa and other regions against the epidemic, to create a consensus that it has emerged as a global security threat, and to push the leaders of nations to understand the implications of politicking on such a vital issue.

in Bangkok

One out of every four people infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) in the world last year was Asian. One out of every seven people living with HIV is an Indian.

UNAIDS report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, 2004.

TEN years after the earliest warning bells were sounded for Asia at the X International Conference on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome in Yokohama (Frontline, September 23, 1994), the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok managed to draw global attention to the massive, smouldering HIV/AIDS/tuberculosis epidemics of Asian countries. The meeting was a reflection on the missed opportunities of the past decade to safeguard the futures of Asia, Africa and other regions in transition. It again foregrounded the need to view AIDS as a global security threat in a globalised world, a crisis moving ahead of traditional threats, such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Above all, it underscored the need for assertive leadership from nations to negotiate with one another to shape a safer world for all, not just a few.

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The theme of the Conference was `Access for All', a rallying cry not just for anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment but for, as Joep Lange, president of the International AIDS Society, put it: "Access to unbiased information and education about AIDS, access to effective prevention tools, comprehensive medical care, resources and all things that will minimise the impact HIV/AIDS has on human lives." The theme could not have been better chosen; the events that unfolded in Bangkok showed that the global response to AIDS is still being stymied through an obsessive need to control it for narrow ends such as profit or ideology. The direct and indirect controls come not so much from United Nations agencies as from all levels within governments, big business and global institutions that pit the players against one another, when, in fact, each is a vulnerable stakeholder in the pandemic. The controls reach across the spectrum, from funding to prevention strategies to ARV drugs. The most obvious and earliest casualties are those who are already impoverished, marginalised or victimised as evident from the continued concentration of the epidemic among populations in developing countries, drug users, sex workers and women.

Thailand, a leader in the region's response to AIDS, once again displayed its commitment by hosting the conference, which drew the largest number of delegates to any health conference in history. The over 19,000 participants included injecting drug users and Prime Ministers, sex workers and Presidents, physicians and film stars, people living with HIV and multinational pharmaceutical companies, royalty, Miss Worlds, donors and U.N. representatives, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a jumbo media contingent of over 1,000 people. Yet it was not excitement but a pall of grim, tired resolve that hung over the meeting from start to finish. The restraint was punctuated with the occasional outburst of anger and demonstration against the United States government for its alleged attempts to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies rather than those of people living with AIDS and for indirectly withholding funding from crucial prevention programmes that promoted condom use rather than sexual abstinence and fidelity.

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That high-power international meetings under the glare of the media can also force commitment for the better became evident from Thailand Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra's opening speech. The man who waged a `war on drugs' that sanctioned the brutal massacre of over 3,000 suspected drug users and traffickers in Thailand less than 10 months ago announced a new governmental policy of harm reduction for drug users that would reduce their risk of HIV infection. He said: "In the past, drug use was treated like a crime which warranted heavy punishment. At present, our mindsets have changed and we now see drug users as patients who require our support and treatment." And, in what was seen as a particularly pertinent message for Asian leaders, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed that stronger leadership was required at every level to respond effectively to HIV/AIDS. "We need leaders everywhere to demonstrate that speaking up about AIDS is a point of pride, not a source of shame. There must be no more sticking heads in the sand, no more hiding behind a veil of apathy." he said.

SPECTATORS were treated to a replay of the events at Barcelona two years ago during the XIV International AIDS Conference (Frontline, August 16, 2002). Activism and apathy, foreign aid and advice evoked passion and despair through the discussions, against an increasingly dizzying backdrop of escalating HIV rates in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and - of all places - North America.

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The year gone by notched up 5 million new HIV infections, the maximum number in any one-year period, which takes the global total to 38 million people with HIV by the end of 2003. Increases in HIV infections were reported from every region of the world. Africa's tale is the most chilling: over 25 million are infected and 60 per cent of Africa's 15-year-olds may not live to be 60 years, if the epidemic is not slowed down. If the overall HIV prevalence rate in Africa - the total snapshot of new and old infections present in the population at the moment - appears stable, it is not because there are no new infections, but because the number of the dead is simply replaced by the number of new infections.

Over a million people were infected in Asia last year and there have been an explosive increase in HIV infection rates in Vietnam, Indonesia and China. Central Asia and Eastern Europe are the stage of major HIV epidemics among drug users, with over 80 per cent of those infected below the age of 30.

The vital reminder that the response to HIV/AIDS is going to be a long haul and that no country can afford to rest on past successes came from the U.S. and western Europe, where 50,000 and 40,000 new infections have been added to their 2001 pool of 900,000 and 540,000 respectively. Last year, AIDS became the leading cause of death among African American women between the ages of 25 and 34 years in the U.S.

One out of every two people living with HIV in the world today is a woman and the trend towards the feminisation of the epidemic seems set to continue. Already, women account for nearly 60 per cent of the HIV infections in Africa and women between the ages of 15 to 24 constitute three-fourths of the infections among young people.

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Asia's epidemic is primarily driven by sex work, needle sharing and same-sex behaviours, according to epidemiologist Tim Brown of the MAP (Monitoring the AIDS Pandemic) Network. Prevention efforts focussed on drug users in the form of needle exchange programmes or on sex workers and clients through condom promotion programmes are critical to slowing down the spread of HIV in Asia. However, the coverage of such programmes needs to be large enough to have any measurable positive outcome. According to Brown, over 60 per cent of all contacts of sex workers in a country must use condoms in order to actually roll back the epidemic.

"HIV infections in the so-called general population will not balloon into huge epidemics. This means our prevention efforts must stay focussed on populations where infections are actually occurring," he said.

India has about 821 such targeted intervention programmes on the ground, barely a fraction of the numbers required to deal with the situation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's $200 million will begin to close that gap, as it is poised to carry out focussed prevention among especially vulnerable populations in the six high prevalence States in the country, according to Ashok Alexander, Director of Avahan, the Gates AIDS India initiative.

If India fails to implement aggressive prevention education and condom promotion and work for empowerment among sex workers and their male clients, it could end up sacrificing the lives of millions of India's ignorant, powerless, married monogamous women: the double standards of sexual morality for men and women in Asia may actually ensure that the chains of HIV transmission will stop once they reach traditional Asian households as faithful Asian wives die of AIDS-related illnesses, without spreading the infection.

THE inequitable response to AIDS has led to a situation where only one out of five people in the world has access to HIV prevention services and less than one in 10 people in developing countries have access to anti-retroviral treatment. But people need to know their HIV status in order to know whether they require treatment. The overwhelming majority of people living with HIV worldwide are unaware that they are infected.

Brazil's courage

MUKUL SHARMA the-nation

FOR countries in Asia that are at a critical point in their efforts to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, Brazil, Uganda, Senegal, Botswana and Cuba offer valuable lessons.

A decade ago, the World Bank warned Brazil to be prepared to deal with over a million AIDS cases by the turn of the century. No such epidemic broke out. Then the United States threatened to drag Brazil to the World Trade Organisation for the "breach" of the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Ignoring such threats and warnings and taking international support to avail itself of cheaper, generic drugs, the country made AIDS drugs accessible to all.

But the suffering continues. It has lost 100,000 people to the deadly virus. Poverty, unemployment and violence prevailed and the public health system is starved of funds. More than 100,000 HIV-positive people are receiving drugs, but another half a million infected are not benefiting from government programmes.

The struggle against HIV/AIDS, however, continues. Brazil decided to invest in drug therapies in a big way, so that the people get what they need, including support and clinical treatment. The free distribution of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs to 110,000 registered HIV patients in 2001 by the Health Ministry went a long way in treating patients. It also encouraged more people to go in for tests, which helped in curbing the spread of the disease. Treatment has been followed by prevention strategies, with equal concern and respect for human rights issues.

It was a crucial and courageous decision of the government to start producing the AIDS drugs in 1996, before it signed the TRIPS agreement. Surprisingly the prices of the drugs dropped by 80 per cent. It was a win-win situation, and the patients/public health systems could afford it.

The country could also avoid paying steep royalties to the companies when making generic copies.

There are several cost calculations in this: the Brazilian government saves $250 million a year by not paying for the high-priced, patent-protected imported drugs. The reduction in the incidence of AIDS-related diseases has helped it save $224 million a year.

The public sector drug laboratories and companies have a strong and determining presence in the production of AIDS-related drugs. They currently produce 8 of the 14 ingredients that make up the so-called AIDS cocktail. The government labaratory is diligently working to crack the secret of drugs like Efavirenz and Nelfinavir in order to threaten to break their patents. They negotiate with the suppliers for better prices, or produce the drugs locally. The government has also forged alliances with other progressive initiatives. It allied with the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Frontiers) and entered into agreements with four African countries - Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Sao Tome - for technical cooperation in producing AIDS drugs. Several other countries, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Botswana, are importing Brazil's AIDS drugs.

The infection rate remains at a low 0.6 per cent. When millions of suffering people across the South cannot afford to buy AIDS drugs, Brazil has tried to provide them free of cost to the needy people by manufacturing the drugs locally, by investing in public health systems and by mobilising the people.

Armitage mission

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's visit to the subcontinent makes it clear that the Congress-led government is as eager as its predecessor was to strengthen relations with Washington.

UNITED STATES Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made a visit to the Indian subcontinent in the third week of July. It was the first by a high-ranking official of the Bush administration after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was swept out of power.

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The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has signalled that strengthening relations with Washington is its top-most priority. Not surprisingly, therefore, protocol was done away with for the visiting dignitary. Armitage, in the course of his day-long stay in New Delhi, was able to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minster K. Natwar Singh, Defence Minster Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit.

Armitage also found time to have a telephonic talk with George Fernandes and apologised for the serious lapse in protocol that occurred during Fernandes' two visits to the U.S. in 2002 and 2003 when he was the Defence Minister of India. Fernandes had to undergo body searches despite the Bush administration having been notified in advance about his visit. The sorry episode came to light only recently, when Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, wrote about it in a soon-to-be-released book.

The controversy surrounding the "strip search", in fact, took centre stage during the Armitage visit. The Left parties in particular were critical about the incident. According to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the failure of the NDA government to raise the issue with the Bush administration illustrated its servile attitude towards the U.S. The Congress spokesman said that the incidents were an "insult to the nation" and criticised former Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee for not raising the issue with President Bush.

Armitage told the media in New Delhi that he did in fact offer "sincere" apologies to his "good friend" Fernandes for the humiliation. Armitage claimed that the Bush administration was not aware of the incident about which, he added, there was no official Indian complaint.

Fernandes, on his part, is trying to downplay the incident, saying that he was not "strip searched", as reported in sections of the media. He said that he was only asked to remove his coat, shoes and socks. He was also quoted as saying, during a recent visit to Bihar, that he would never again visit the U.S.

Many diplomatic observers are of the view that India should follow the Brazilian example and insist that visiting Americans should be subjected to the same kind of rigorous immigration procedures the U.S. imposes on citizens of most countries. Americans visiting Brazil are fingerprinted and their eyes scanned. The Bush administration has had to lump it.

WHILE in New Delhi, Armitage denied that he had come with a fresh request for Indian troops for Iraq. He, however, admitted that the Iraq issue did crop up at his meetings. He added that the Indian government "has indicated there are ways by which they might be helpful" in defusing the situation in Iraq. Armitage mentioned the possibility of the Iraqi security forces owing allegiance to the U.S.-installed government being trained in India. The Kerala government had rejected a request for the training of Iraqi policemen some time ago. Some countries such as Germany, which were opposed to the U.S. misadventure in Iraq, are, however, lending a helping hand to the beleaguered Bush administration by training Iraqi security men in neighbouring countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

ANOTHER purpose of the Armitage visit may have been to brief the government about the appointment of Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan's Ambassador to Washington, as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Iraq. Earlier, media reports had indicated that Annan's choice for the high-profile job was India's former Foreign Secretary Salman Haider. The Bush administration evidently preferred the suave Pakistani diplomat, who has been a High Commissioner in India, and exerted the necessary pressure on the U.N. Secretary-General for his approval. The speculation in diplomatic circles is that Qazi's appointment will provide Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf the pretext to send a contingent of Pakistani troops to Iraq under the guise of providing security for the U.N. representative. The Pakistan Foreign Office has denied that there are plans for the despatch of troops to Iraq.

Pakistan has a tradition of helping the U.S. get out of tricky military and political situations. For instance, when most countries, including India, pulled out peacekeepers from Somalia in the early 1990s, Pakistani troops stayed on, battling the warlords on behalf of the U.S. Sending troops to Iraq will help Islamabad accumulate plenty of political and diplomatic IOUs from the Bush administration, provided it gets re-elected. The UPA government has reasons to be wary about the high-level diplomatic moves being orchestrated on the international stage by the Bush administration in a last-ditch attempt to extricate itself from the mess it has created for itself in Iraq. The announcement of Qazi's appointment came as Armitage was visiting the subcontinent. Pakistan has already been designated a "major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally" by Washington.

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The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said that the two sides exchanged views on the situation in Iraq. Armitage claimed with a straight face in New Delhi that the Iraqi people accepted the new government in Iraq with "alacrity" and that the U.S. was no longer "isolated" in that country. The U.S. official was told that the Indian government welcomed the recent transfer of power to the Iraqi authorities. Indian officials said that they viewed it as the first step towards the goal of full sovereignty for the Iraqi people. New Delhi conveyed its concerns regarding the independence and territorial integrity of Iraq. Armitage was told that India would act in accordance with the views expressed by Parliament.

The visiting U.S. official told the media in New Delhi that he did not perceive any differences in the approach to bilateral relations between the NDA government and the present government. "I must say that there is no difference between the Opposition and the government in power on the desirability of enhanced India-U.S. relations," Armitage said.

To the apparent disconcertment of the Pakistani government, Armitage concurred with New Delhi's view that not all terrorist training camps in Pakistan had been shut. He said that Pakistan had not dismantled the entire terrorism infrastructure. He reiterated the same view in Pakistan as well. He, however, also added that there was violence and human rights violations taking place in the Indian part of Kashmir. Armitage said that he had discussed the issue with Indian officials.

He denied reports that he had requested Pakistan to send its troops to Iraq. Public opinion in Pakistan is vehemently opposed to any such move. Besides, even as Armitage was visiting the Indian subcontinent, more countries signalled that they were pulling their troops out of the Iraqi quagmire. The latest to join the exit queue was the Philippines - another traditional ally of the U.S.

Bucking the trend

in Singapore

THE withdrawal of the small military contingent of the Philippines from Iraq has helped secure the release of a Filipino hostage, Angelo de la Cruz, from his captors in the occupied country. As a matter of diplomatic nicety and in regard to the basic humanitarian aspect at stake, the United States lost no time to describe the hostage's freedom, obtained on July 20 at the `price' of the pullout, as a "glad" tiding.

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The hostage-takers, whose identity is not really of material significance to the sordid abduction drama that lasted several days, had threatened to kill de la Cruz, a civilian, if the Filipino soldiers were not withdrawn by an extended deadline. In the event, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered the soldiers out of Iraq. The move, first indicated to circles considered close to de la Cruz's captors, was made in the larger interests of the safety of several million Filipino civilians who work in West Asia and other places.

However, Washington could hardly conceal its "disappointment" over Manila's action of breaking ranks with the so-called coalition of the willing in the ongoing "war on terrorism" in Iraq. Viewed from a Filipino perspective, it was in fact a case of controlled anger in Washington. Obviously, the view from Washington was different.

The simple but significant reality is that the Philippines, designated not long ago as a "major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] ally" of the U.S., has disregarded the "dos and don'ts" of the "anti-terror campaign" as outlined by Washington from time to time. It was during an extensive tour of East Asia in October 2003 that U.S. President George W. Bush designated the Philippines and Thailand as "major non-NATO allies". The specific reference to NATO, in this context, was designed to downplay speculation that he was actually out to create an Asiatic version of NATO.

More relevant to the latest geopolitical situation in East Asia is that Manila is in a minority of one among the U.S.-friendly countries in the region to have bucked the `trend' of siding with Washington in Iraq in the present circumstances.

The Philippines has not, of course, walked out of the U.S.-led coalition in the worldwide "war on terrorism". The U.S., too, is still actively engaged in putting the Philippines through its paces in the battle against sundry terrorists in its own backyard. The real issue in focus, though, is not whether this is Washington's pompous `take' or Manila's grateful view.

Of considerable concern to Washington is the possibility that Manila's decisive pullout may well impinge on the people's mood in East Asia in general and pose a diplomatic challenge to the U.S. itself. There is more to this than the small number of soldiers that the Philippines had stationed in Iraq - 51 soldiers, on purely "humanitarian" duties - as distinct from a "combat-ready" assignment.

The governments in Japan and South Korea, both long-time military "allies" of the U.S., continue to fly against the currents of public opinion in their respective domains in order to keep their troops in Iraq at this time. Units belonging to Japan's Self-Defence Forces remain on a "reconstruction mission" in Iraq, a job description similar to that of the Filipino troops, while South Korea has plans to augment its "non-combat personnel" in Iraq by sending more of them in addition to "battle-ready" soldiers. Seoul's contingent will, eventually, be the third largest foreign force in Iraq, behind those from the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

The task before an increasingly beleaguered U.S. is to ensure that Tokyo and Seoul, which now cite their compulsions of realpolitik to side with Washington, will stay that course. Two of Japan's diplomats and one South Korean civilian have already fallen victim to terrorist activities in Iraq.

For Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in contrast, considerations of realpolitik of a different kind have come into prime reckoning. To her way of thinking, a symbolic sense of military solidarity with the U.S. in Iraq had become a liability, which could even put at risk the very lives of Filipino expatriates across the world, especially in West Asia.

Not surprisingly, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo not only celebrated the safe release of de la Cruz, but maintained that she would not regret her decision to withdraw the troops. In her view, it was in the final analysis her responsibility to ensure the security of Filipinos, wherever they might be resident. In a sense, this carried an elemental echo of Washington's own assertions about its obligations to protect Americans around the world.

In Washington's official jargon, the latest Filipino move might just be one aspect of what is essentially a "rotational coalition" in Iraq. Whether this means a revolving door for the coalition or not, the question is whether the "offensive realists" in the U.S. will accept Manila's action as an independent move or see it as defiance. As seen in East Asia, this "offensive realism", drawn from the descriptive terminology of John J. Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), may now re-assert itself in Washington. Will the latest Manila move be seen as a new manifestation, even if on a smaller scale, of the Filipino mindset that forced the closure of U.S. bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s?

Guilty, by implication

The Butler inquiry avoids blaming the government for using bad intelligence to justify the war on Iraq, but Tony Blair stands accused of misleading Parliament and leading Britain into an unwanted war.

in London

IMAGINE a scandal in which the entire neighbourhood is found to be involved and yet nobody is held accountable because the investigator dismisses it as a "collective operation". In other words, while everyone was a partner in the "crime", no one actually "dunnit".

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This is exactly what the Butler inquiry into the British government's intelligence claims in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq has done. Five months after it was set up to examine the quality and use of Iraq-related intelligence, the committee has produced a report whose findings are dramatically at odds with its verdict. It catalogues a litany of mistakes involving everything from collection and processing of intelligence to its presentation, thereby virtually suggesting that the threat from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was, indeed, "sexed up", as famously alleged by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in a controversial broadcast in 2003. But, in the end, it concludes that no individual or single agency is to blame as everyone acted in "good faith" - and at best it was a "collective" failure.

The front page of The Independent, the morning after the publication of the report, summed it up thus:

"The intelligence: flawed The dossier: dodgy The 45-minute claim: wrong Iraq's link to Al Qaeda: unproven The public: misled The case for the war: exaggerated And who was to blame? No one"

The inconsistency between the committee's findings and its conclusions has, inevitably, raised eyebrows. It is being asked whether the report is a whitewash job for Prime Minister Tony Blair who immediately seized on it to claim that he had been vindicated. Or is it a clever mix of expose and evasion?

Lord Butler, a former Cabinet Secretary who chaired the committee, has a reputation for being a quintessential establishment man, not known to rock the boat even if he has no love lost for the boatman. But as someone brought up on the politically neutral traditions of the British civil service, he also has an instinctive contempt for politicians and is said to be loath to be seen covering up for them - a la the BBC's fictional Sir Humphrey, adept at saying "Yes Minister" at every turn without getting his hands soiled with his political master's controversial or sordid actions.

So, caught between his instinctive loyalty to the establishment on the one hand and a regard for truth on the other, Lord Butler did what years of experience in the civil service taught him to do: walk a tight rope. He did this by laying bare the facts about the government's handling of intelligence but stopping short of passing a judgment. Unlike Lord Hutton, who investigated the circumstances that surrounded the death of Iraq arms expert Dr. David Kelly and dispensed blame selectively (hanging and flogging the BBC while exonerating the government completely), Lord Butler has let the facts speak for themselves.

And the facts are pretty brutal - damaging enough to increase the pressure on Blair to apologise and, preferably, quit for leading the country to war on a false prospectus. Call it a sheer coincidence, within hours of the publication of the report on July 14 the Labour Party suffered humiliation in two parliamentary byelections. It lost a traditionally safe seat in Leicester and barely managed to retain its once "rock solid" stronghold in Birmingham. The defeats triggered fresh calls for Blair's resignation. His own Members of Parliament (MPs) claimed that the Butler report contributed to the anti-Blair backlash over Iraq. "Clearly, the issue was Iraq. Far from drawing a line under it, everything the government does and the Prime Minister says exacerbates it," said Glenda Jackson, MP and a former Minister, urging Blair to "go and go now".

Notwithstanding Lord Butler's reluctance to apportion blame, his findings have confirmed the worst fears about the Blair government and the intelligence establishment's conduct in the build-up to the war. Even pro-war politicians and commentators say that they may not have supported the invasion if they had known then what the Butler report has disclosed. The Times called it an "indictment of our spies and their masters" and said that, judging from it, "everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong" as "bad intelligence was credulously believed and passed on to the public as - in Tony Blair's words - `extensive, detailed and authoritative'".

According to the report, the government stretched intelligence to its "limits" to make the case for invading Iraq, and the way it was presented to Parliament and the public created a misleading impression about the "threat" posed by Saddam Hussein. It sharply questioned the quality of intelligence by saying that much of it was "flawed", particularly the key claim that Iraq could deploy its weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. About the 45-minute claim, which persuaded many anti-war MPs to change their mind at the last minute, it said that it should not have been included at all in the intelligence dossier published by Downing Street in September 2002 and used by Blair to justify military intervention in Iraq.

Echoing the BBC's controversial broadcast, which had accused the Prime Minister's Office of "sexing up" the dossier, the report said that the language used in the document and, subsequently, by Blair did not reflect the "thinness" of the intelligence on the ground. And, in an attempt to present an alarming picture of the threat from Saddam Hussein, the reservations expressed by intelligence agencies about the limits of their information were ignored. The caveats that came with intelligence reports should have been made clearer in the dossier, it said.

The report, though less devastating than the recent United States Senate Committee's criticism of the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, was sufficiently scathing to provoke calls for Blair to acknowledge that his government's case for war was based on false premise. Among other things, the report criticised the "informal" style of decision-making in Downing Street, which undermined the collective principle of Cabinet government and limited the scope for debate.

While the committee said it found no evidence of political interference in intelligence gathering, it did point out that there was "strain" on intelligence chiefs as a result of the tension between the government's desire to make a case against Saddam Hussein and the Joint Intelligence Committee's "normal standards" of neutrality and objectivity.

The committee noted a "tendency" to put forward the "worst case" scenario about Iraq's weapons capability and the threat from Saddam Hussein. It was "surprised" that there was no attempt to "re-evaluate" assessments even after it was becoming increasingly clear that the initial information may have been faulty. The validation procedures were not applied with sufficient rigour, it said.

HOWEVER, the committee did not blame any individual either in the government or in the intelligence establishment for the mistakes; the report called it a "collective" failure. At a media conference, Lord Butler fobbed off persistent questions by saying that there was no evidence that Blair or his government either "deliberately" distorted intelligence or misled the country. The government, he said, acted in "good faith" - words which were seized by Blair to claim that he had been vindicated.

"No one lied, no one made up the intelligence. No one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services," Blair told MPs minutes after the report was released. The "issue of good faith" had been settled by the report, he declared. He accepted "full responsibility" for whatever had happened, but pointedly refused to apologise, insisting that "getting rid of Saddam" was the right decision though no weapons had been found and the "evidence of Saddam's WMDs was, indeed, less certain, less well-founded than was stated at the time".

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Blair has been accused of shifting the "goal post". "After getting Parliament to support an unnecessary and unpopular war on the plea that Saddam's alleged arsenal posed a threat to world peace, he is now saying that forcing a regime change was the real aim," said one MP, accusing Blair of misleading Parliament.

Blair's credibility is seen to have been so irreparably damaged that many in the party and the government are said to be worried about a backlash in the next general elections, barely months away. Successive opinion polls have shown that voters have little trust in him and - as the Tory leader Michael Howard pointed out in the House of Commons - the central issue was no longer one of "prime ministerial responsibility, but credibility". Howard said: "I hope we will not face another war in the foreseeable future, but if we did and this Prime Minister identified the threat, would the country believe him?"

Considering that Howard is no peacenik himself and his party MPs voted for the war with their feet, it is easy for Blair to dismiss his protests as "opportunism". But there are many Labour MPs with impeccable anti-war credentials who feel they were duped. More than 130 Labour backbenchers voted against the war but a fairly large number were persuaded to change their mind after Blair portrayed Saddam as posing a "current" threat to Britain. They now believe they were misled, and want their money back.

Geraldine Smith, an anti-war Labour MP, said: "The Prime Minister would not have got Parliament to agree to commit British troops to the war with Iraq if the true nature of the intelligence was known... I believe that I was deceived into voting for a war I was morally opposed to. I believe the Prime Minister is fatally damaged." She wants Blair to "go" before "his enemies drag him down or the electorate makes the decision for him". A warning he can ignore at his own risk.

All for the cow

ON JULY 10, a young man was done to death in full public view in a crowded weekly market of Barghat, about 20 km from Seoni. The incident went largely unnoticed, as it took place soon after the Bhomatola gang rape. But the one aspect common to the murder of 32-year-old Abdul Waaris Khan and the gang rape of the three Dalit women was that both were carried out publicly. Had there been any intervention by either the administration or the community, both the incidents could have been prevented. It was also the fear of reprisal that seems to have dissuaded bystanders from intervening in both the cases, though in the Barghat incident the fear appears to be more palpable.

July 10 was the day of the weekly market at Barghat. Waaris, a resident of Khari village, had come to sell his bull. Waaris was also unaware of the presence of the "flying squads" of the Shiv Sena, the Bajrang Dal and the Sewa Bharati. The main aim of these squads is to prevent the sale of cattle that they assume are being sold to slaughterhouses. As part of their cattle protection and rescue activities, the squads often "persuade" farmers and traders to part with their old and infirm animals, on the plea that the animals would be settled in a gaushala (cattle home).

Barghat has a sizable Muslim population. Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Uma Bharati assumed office, one of the first pieces of legislation to be passed banned cow slaughter (this covers the entire bovine species). Ever since the government passed the law early this year, "cow rescue" activities have been on the rise. Barghat, a BJP stronghold, is represented in the Assembly by Transport and Forest Minister Dhal Singh Bhisen who has been winning from there since 1990. The Assembly constituency is sharply polarised in the communal sense.

According to a report compiled by a fact-finding team of the Jabalpur district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), at the market Abdul Waaris was accosted by several persons who accused him of trying to sell his bull to butchers. An argument ensued, after which the group, mainly comprising eight persons, beat him to death with sticks. According to the post mortem report, his spleen was ruptured in the beating.

The Seoni administration was cautious about revealing the identity and political affiliations of the persons involved in the murder. "The intention was not to kill," said a senior police officer, almost defensively. The police registered a case of murder against the eight persons. According to the Superintendent of Police, D. Sreenivasa Rao, while four of them have been arrested, four are absconding.

A senior official in the administration confided that the dispute that led to the murder was communally motivated. It was learnt that all the eight persons involved were members of the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and the Sewa Bharati. According to the CPI(M) fact-finding team's report, the accused persons were often spotted moving in a jeep with "Udan Dasta Sewa Bharati (Flying Squad of the Sewa Bharati)" inscribed on the vehicle. On July 10 too, they arrived at the marketplace in a similar vehicle.

It appeared that the administration was under great pressure over the Barghat episode. Officials appeared to be reluctant to crack down on the groups whose activities had the potential to fuel communal tensions. In fact, a senior official in Jabalpur threw up his hands and said: "What can we do? After all, are not these people supposed to bring about Ram Rajya?"

Waaris, who was the sole earning member in his family, leaves his wife, a two-year-old daughter, five unmarried sisters and old parents. It is significant that members of the minority community acted with great restraint. According to District Magistrate Faiz Kidwai members of the community did put up a protest, which delayed the post mortem. But the accused were arrested only because of the protest.

Bengal's bane

With the monsoon yet to run its course, north Bengal, where the rivers are already in spate, lives in fear.

THE recent floods in north Bengal, which affected over one lakh people and rendered more than 70,000 homeless, might just be a warning. Incessant rain since the first week of July has caused most of the rivers flowing through Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar districts to overflow their banks and wreak havoc.

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Thousands of people living in Coochbehar district and the Alipurduar subdivision of Jalpaiguri moved to safe ground as the swirling waters started inundating their land. In Alipurduar, more than 15,000 persons were affected as the rivers Liss and Ghis swelled into a flood. Several tea gardens were inundated and over 60 families of estate workers had to be shifted.

The rain also triggered a series of landslides in Kurseong, severely affecting National Highway 55, which had to be closed. The eastern side of the Jaldapara Wildlife sanctuary, famous for its one-horned rhino, was submerged when a river broke its embankments.

The flood situation in Coochbehar has been the worst in recent times. Owing to continuous rain from July 5 to July 10 almost all the rivers in the district, particularly the Torsa, the Dharala, the Mansai, the Raidak, the Sankosh and the Sutunga, were in spate and led to the submergence of eight of the district's 12 blocks. People took shelter in nearby school buildings and on embankments. The district administration was asked to be on high alert, ready with relief materials and rescue equipment. A flood control room was set up for round-the-clock surveillance.

According to District Magistrate Ravi Inder Singh, 1,40,000 people in the district have been affected by the flood and 17,000 have sought shelter in relief camps, and over 1,320 hectares of cultivable land has been submerged. The district administration was ready to face the floods since the start of the monsoon season. "In north Bengal, every time there is excess rain there is flooding. Before the rain started we were ready with relief materials and were taking all precautionary measures," Ravi Inder Singh told Frontline.

As of July 20, the situation in the district had improved; only the Mansai river was still flowing above the danger mark. "Relief materials of wheat, rice and tarpaulin sheets have been given to people of all the affected areas. Medical camps have been set up and all tubewells in the regions have been disinfected," said Ravi Inder Singh. According to him, two areas that are among the worst affected in the district are the Tufanganj I block and Coochbehar II, where the Gadadhar and Raidak-I rivers have been rising continuously.

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Anil Kumar Dey, a retired teacher of the Sarayerpar New Primary School in Tufanganj I block, said: "The situation in my block is very bad. The rivers Taljani, Torsa and Ghargharia united at a point and broke the protective spurs. All the five lives reportedly claimed by floods were from this block. Though immediate relief is given to all those who have been affected, how long will it last? The water level might be coming down now, but the monsoon is not over yet." The State government has sanctioned Rs.12 lakhs to restore the destroyed spur and revitalise other irrigation works that were damaged. It provided immediate relief by releasing 220 quintals of rice, 120 quintals of wheat, 995 pieces of tarpaulin, 0.5 quintal of baby food and 129 quintals of dry food.

Even as the waters started receding in most parts of north Bengal, Malda district continued to be in a precarious situation. Malda, which has for long been a victim of river erosion, had to contend with the fury of the rivers, particularly the Fulohar, which ravaged Ratua, Harishchandrapur and Kharba blocks.

Another reason for the yearly devastation caused by floods in north Bengal is the dolomite extraction taking place in Bhutan. An informed source in the North Bengal Flood Control Commission (NBFCC) told Frontline: "The levels of the rivers are rising because of the rocks that are falling into it. Further, owing to siltation in the plains, the nature and course of the rivers are also altered." Some of the main rivers that are affected by this activity are the Torsa, the Jaldhaka, the Kaljani and the Raidak, which flow through Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar. "Raising the embankments can be a temporary solution, but it is also a dangerous one. With the way the rivers are behaving, if the embankments are breached a disaster of far greater proportion will be at hand. A team of river experts are required to look into the matter," the source said.

Sukumar Bose, the Chairman of NBFCC, recently met officials of the Water Resources Development Ministry to discuss the recurrent flood situation. According to the NBFCC, the average annual rainfall in north Bengal is 3,500 mm. In the first burst of the monsoon this year, it has already reached 2,800 mm. "With the monsoon around until October, the situation can indeed become very grim," the source said.

Following his visit to north Bengal during the floods, Union Water Resources Minister and Member of Parliament from the region Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said that the Centre might announce soon an ambitious flood-control project. In August, when the India-Bhutan Technical Committee is scheduled to meet in Delhi, the setting up of the India-Bhutan Joint River Commission to control floods in north Bengal might also be discussed. Another option that is being looked into is the amalgamation of the NBFCC and the Brahmaputra Flood Control Commission. North Bengal has been included in the Brahmaputra river basin plan, which is entirely funded by the Union government.

In November, a high-level meeting is expected to be held by the Centre to discuss ways of managing floods nationwide. According to reports, the amount needed for managing the floods in West Bengal is around Rs.200 crores.

The enormity and frequency of flooding in north Bengal underscores the need for comprehensive long-term planning. Stop-gap arrangements such as strengthening embankments or installing speedier warning systems can only serve as temporary measures.

The tears of Assam

Every year the Brahmaputra and its tributaries bring death and destruction to Assam. Yet, there is no long-term plan to tackle floods in the State.

in Guwahati

AS 50-year-old Madan Kalita, was trying to reach a safe place on a small country boat with his wife and son through the surging floodwaters of the Brahmaputra which had submerged his house and paddyfield, childhood memories of similar devastation came alive. Nearly 40 years ago, as a child Madan had helped his father ferry his mother to safety through raging floodwaters. Like Madan Kalita, for generations, Assamese people have been fighting a losing battle against the Brahmaputra and its 55 tributaries.

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The flood, one of the worst to hit the State in recent times, has had 26 of its 27 districts in its grip for more than a month now. At least 82 lives were lost until July 20, and 88.75 lakh people have been affected. The floodwaters have submerged 8,238 villages and forced 16.44 lakh people to take shelter in 1,681 relief camps across the State. Altogether 109 major breaches of embankments have occurred during this period, 77 of them occurred in just 12 days from July 6 to July 18 causing massive damage to houses, public buildings, bridges, roads and railway tracks.

Road links between Assam and the rest of the country were snapped as the national highways on the north and south banks of the river in Lower Assam were inundated. Road communication along National Highway 31 could not be restored until July 20 as a bridge was washed away. The floodwaters damaged an 80 km-stretch of National Highway-31, connecting Changsari in Kamrup district to Abhayapuri in Bongaigaon district. A 20-metre stretch of the highway between Nalbari and Barpeta was breached and the movement of trucks carrying essential commodities from outside the State and other vehicles continues to remain suspended.

In Morigaon district, the National Highway 37 was submerged on July 19, and road communication between Lower and Upper Assam and to the neighbouring States of Nagaland and Manipur got snapped. Similarly, a 1-km-stretch on NH 37 in Tinsukia district was damaged while NH 52 in Dhemaji was partially damaged by floodwaters. The condition of roads constructed by the State Public Works Department is even worse. The roads were badly affected by landslides too. NH-44, connecting Assam and Tripura, was cut off at Sonapur in Meghalaya. Similarly, NH 39 connecting Guwahati and Imphal, remained cut off for days because of landslides at three places.

All trains to Guwahati had to be diverted through an alternative route along the southern bank because the railway track on the northern bank was submerged at several locations. Railway communication from Rangia in Kamrup district to Dhemaji district (340 km) remained cut off for more than 15 days. Train services in the Lumding-Badarpur hill section had to be suspended for nearly two weeks owing to landslides. Trains in the Rangia-North Lakhimpur-Tezpur section also did not run. The world's largest riverine island, Majuli, remained cut off for more than a week as floodwaters submerged it. More than 1.5 lakh people were affected.

Given the magnitude of the calamity, thousands of marooned people had to be rescued with the help of personnel of the Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF), who worked round the clock and pressed into service MI-helicopters and rubber boats.

In Kamrup district, at Rangia, 281 marooned schoolchildren of a Navodaya Vidyalaya would have met a watery end on July 10, if the pilots of two IAF helicopters did not take the risk of landing on the waterlogged playground of the school, which was inundated following a breach in the Pagladia river. Braving inclement weather, the pilots located the school but could not find a place to land as the entire area was waterlogged. Displaying great courage, they landed the aircraft on the playground and rescued the children, aged between eight and 14 years.

Lt.Gen. A.S. Jamwal, General Officer Commanding, 4 Corps of the Army based at Tezpur, said that 30 columns of the Army were deployed for relief and rescue operations. The troops rescued more than 4,500 marooned people and distributed 72 tonnes of rations. For rescue and relief operations, 100 Army boats and 86 motorboats were pressed into service in different parts of the State, he added.

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The devastation caused by the floods, which Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi described as "unprecedented", brought to the fore the question of declaring the calamity as a national problem. Such a measure would require the Central government to shoulder the responsibility of flood management in the State.

In tune with the long-pending demand of different political parties and student bodies such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Gogoi urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during the latter's visit to the State on July 20, to treat the flood and erosion problem as a national priority and find a permanent solution within a fixed timeframe. Gogoi urged the Prime Minister to release Central funds for taking up urgent repair work of all breached embankments, most of which were constructed in the early 1960s, and initiating anti-erosion measures.

The Prime Minister announced the constitution of a task force to look into the problem of recurring floods in Assam and its neighbouring States. The task force will suggest short-term and long-term measures, sources of funding, and institutional arrangements to tackle the problem. He said that the task force would submit its report within six months so that action initiated on it can be reflected in the next Budget. The Prime Minister also stressed the need to adopt a holistic approach in order to work out solutions for the short term and the long term.

The State government sought Rs.1,200 crores as interim relief although the damage is estimated to be over Rs.3,000 crores. So far the Centre has released Rs.181 crores and promised more, once the assessment is done by the inter-ministerial team.

The flood in Assam assumed an international dimension as the devastation, particularly in the Lower Assam districts of Nalbari, Barpeta, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon, was attributed to the bursting of an artificial lake in Bhutan and the subsequent release of water from the reservoir of the Kurichu hydel project in the Himalayan Kingdom, which flowed into the two tributaries of the Brahmaputra - the Manas and the Beki. The flood in the State is also attributed to the melting of snow in the upper ridges in China. Gogoi urged the Centre to take the initiative for coordination between India, China and Bhutan for joint management of floods so that the damage can be minimised. Moreover, heavy deforestation in the catchment areas in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh over the years and the unstable rock composition of the hills have resulted in the carrying of huge quantities of red soil down the tributaries into the Brahmaputra, causing heavy siltation of the river and its tributaries.

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According to hydrological experts, 45 per cent of Assam's total area is prone to flooding by the Brahmaputra, the country's longest river. It originates in Tibet in the north and flows into the Bay of Bengal in the south, covering a distance of 918 km in India, of which 720 km lies in Assam. The river Barak, originating from Nagaland and Manipur, traverses for a length of 532 km in India and empties into the Bay of Bengal after flowing through Bangladesh.

The Brahmaputra Board was set up by the Central government in 1982 to undertake survey and investigation and to prepare a master plan to control the two major rivers and their tributaries, check bank erosion and improve drainage congestion, irrigation and navigation, harness hydropower, and so on. However, so far the Board has taken up only four anti-erosion schemes at an estimated cost of Rs.62.68 crores; it drew up a master plan for the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, the implementation of which would require more than Rs.50,000 crores. The State government demanded that the Board should be made an executing authority so that it can contribute meaningfully towards finding long-term solutions to the problem of floods and erosion. The Prime Minister also agreed that the Board should be revamped and assured of action in that direction.

Union Minister for Water Resources Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, after an aerial inspection of the flood-affected areas of lower Assam, announced that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would make the Brahmaputra Board a professional executing authority by delegating both financial and executive powers to it. He pointed out that over the years the role of the Board had remained confined to the preparation of the master plan.

Dasmunshi's announcement has revived hopes of allowing the Board an important role in finding a long-term solution to the problem. But both the Central and State governments will have to take Arunachal Pradesh and other northeastern States into confidence in view of their reservations over the construction of multipurpose dams on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra that originate in their territories, as proposed in the master plan.

The fact remains that until a long-term solution is found, floodwaters will continue to wreak devastation. And every year the State government will have to find funds for relief and rehabilitation.

Battling Bihar

As northern Bihar reels under heavy floods, the worst in a decade, the State government struggles hard to take relief to the people.

THE flood that ravaged the northern districts of Bihar in July is arguably the worst in the past decade. According to unconfirmed reports, around 150 people lost their lives and more than one crore persons, in over 751 panchayats across 16 districts, have been severely affected. Most of the rivers in northern Bihar were in spate owing to incessant rain in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. Nepal's discharge of water into the rivers added to the devastation. Reports say that rivers like the Bagmati and the Kamla Balan exceeded their previous highest flood levels.

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Some of the worst affected districts are Sitamarhi, Saharsa, Sheohar, Dharbhanga, Supaul, East and West Champaran, Samastipur, Khagaria, Araria, Krishanganj, Muzaffarpur, Madhepura, Bhagalpur, Katihar and Madhubani. In Saharsa alone more than three lakh people across 35 panchayats were affected. The situation was equally bad in Dharbhanga district and worse in Sitamarhi district where the toll is presumed to be the highest in the State.

A large number of deaths occurred when boats overloaded with people trying to reach dry ground capsized in many places. In Muzaffarpur district, at least 30 people died when a boat carrying around 50 people capsized in the Bagmati river.

Train and road services came to a halt in a large section of northern Bihar. Owing to the inundation of railway tracks, the East Central Railway diverted a number of trains. Many parts of northern and eastern Bihar were plunged into darkness either because of technical faults or because of shutdowns in cases where the lines went under flood waters.

The damage to agricultural land is considered to be enormous, and the extent of it can be ascertained only when the waters recede. After undertaking an aerial survey of the affected districts, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief and Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav promised the people free foodgrains until the next cropping season. Chief Minister Rabri Devi, who also undertook an aerial survey, urged the authorities to step up relief work. By July 10, the Army and the Indian Air Force were deployed to carry out rescue and relief operations. In Dharbhanga district, around 500 students marooned in their school building for more than five days, were rescued with the help of Army helicopters. In areas where rescue work either by air or by road had been rendered impossible, Army motorboats were put to use. The governments of Gujarat, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh sent aid to the flood victims.

The only ones whom the flood brought cheer were 34 prisoners who managed to escape from the Dharbhanga Divisional Jail. Given the shortage of food and the chaotic situation precipitated by the floods, the residents of Dharbhanga and East Champaran took the law into their own hands and went on a looting spree. In East Champaran, villagers reportedly exchanged fire on more than one occasion over the question of cutting an embankment to release water.

In Dharbhanga, mobs broke into government godowns and looted foodgrains, edible oil, salt and other commodities. Goods worth Rs.80 lakhs are reported to have been looted in this manner. As the floodwaters surged, even the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police and the District Judge and their families had to take shelter in a government building.

Rabri Devi urged the Centre to declare the flood situation as a national calamity. She said the flood situation needed to be discussed at the Central level as most of the rivers in spate originated in Nepal. The State government requested the Centre to release 50 million tonnes each of rice and wheat and 10 lakh polythene sheets as immediate relief. According to the State Irrigation Department, the flood situation in Bihar is the worst to have occurred in the past 10 years. The State government has reportedly demanded a grant of Rs.1,000 crores from the Centre to rehabilitate those who have lost their homes and to repair and strengthen embankments. More than 2.38 lakh houses have been destroyed. The State government has requested for satellite phones to enable it to establish contact with the affected areas.

Considering the grim situation, the Centre released Rs.30.525 crores from the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) to the Bihar government on July 12. For the current fiscal the State has been allocated Rs.81.8 crores in CRF, but a bureaucratic hurdle delayed the release of the first instalment, as the State government had not furnished the utilisation report for the previous year (2003-2004). An inter-ministerial team at the Centre has been constituted to assess the flood situation once the waters recede.

Floods have been a recurrent feature in the Indo-Gangetic basin for many years. The long-term solution requires extensive planning, determined effort, and a huge outlay of funds, because it has to include ways to tackle deforestation, especially in the Himalayas, train farmers in soil conservation, and introduce appropriate cropping patterns. In addition, major flood control, irrigation and hydel projects need to be taken up in right earnest and those yet to be completed have to be expedited. Even though all these might not be able to prevent floods, their impact can be mitigated.

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the renowned agricultural scientist, had introduced a `model code' in the 1970s to improve disaster preparedness in flood-prone regions. Many State governments still circulate this code among district officials before the monsoon, but only as a formality. If the measures mentioned in the code, such as installation of early warning systems; dissemination of flood warning by the quickest means among the rural population; shifting of settlements from flood-prone areas to safer locations; and keep in readiness a stockpile of essential medicines, bleaching powder, tents and tarpaulin at strategic points are taken, the impact of floods can be reduced considerably.

Flood of fears

Another monsoon, and the level of fear and tension rises in Harsud and other towns affected by the Sardar Sarovar project.

EVERY year prior to the monsoons, restlessness and fear grip the people in the Narmada valley. "Will our houses go under this time?", "Will our village become an island when the waters slowly rise?", "Will we be cut off from all assistance?" - these are questions that dominate conversations in villages affected by the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

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And the answers continue to be insensitive. Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R), government-style, becomes top priority during the monsoon, with the district administration forcibly evicting people from the submergence zones. During the rest of the year, R&R is a tedious process that consists mostly of hapless and often illiterate villagers doing the rounds of government offices holding pieces of paper that with each visit gradually fall apart, much like their own lives.

And every year the villagers literally take their lives in their own hands. Some refuse to move - in a silent and desperate protest against an insensitive administration - until the water enters their houses and they are arrested by the local administration. Others try and make the best of a bad situation by moving to a higher point beyond the reach of the waters and restart their lives knowing fully well that the next year they will have to uproot themselves yet again, giving up farms and grazing grounds.

Year after year, hamlets and villages in the valley vanish forever under the waters. Some resurface when the floods recede, with their farmland irrevocably lost on account of waterlogging. This has been the state of R&R in the valley, with an entire generation growing up not knowing the security of a home.

"This is a homicide of the people in the valley," says Medha Patkar. And Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati applauds the "sacrifice" the people of the valley were making for the nation.

THIS year the expected partial submergence of Harsud, a town with a population of about 28,000 people, has brought dams in the Narmada valley back into national focus. Harsud, in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh, is close to the Kalimachak river, a tributary of the Narmada.

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R&R in Harsud has so far involved forced eviction backed by government firepower and intimidatory tactics. On June 27, a flag march was held in the town by the Rapid Action Force to quell any protest against eviction. Armed personnel were also deployed in the 129 villages around Harsud. Alok Agarwal and Anurag Modi of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan say that the Chanera rehabilitation site intended for Harsud town oustees is still empty. Only a few hundred Dalit and other poor families have resettled here. Most of these families have not even received their cash grants and are being forced to live in tin sheds, which have been damaged by storms. The plight of people in the surrounding villages of Harsud is even worse.

Harsud is a prime example of the government's failure to carry out R&R as per the directives of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) Award and the Supreme Court. They had stipulated that affected families be relocated at least six months prior to the expected submergence of a village. Instead of spending time and funds on R&R, successive State governments have concentrated on dam construction alone.

Ever since the Narmada Control Authority in its Action Taken Report permitted the raising of the Sardar Sarovar dam to 110.64 metres, the entire tribal belt in the Narmada valley came under the submergence zone. The scale of devastation during this monsoon will depend on the extent of rainfall here.

Exact figures of the number of Project Affected Families (PAFs) are not easy to come by since the State governments and the NBA disagree on the definition of PAF and on what constitutes proper R&R. In Madhya Pradesh, the Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA) meant to assist oustees has endorsed the illegal distinction between temporary and permanent submergence and the State's refusal to allot oustees lands of their choice (the oustees have therefore been forced to file a petition in the Supreme Court). And in Maharashtra, there is a conflict between the State's PAF aggregate and the state-endorsed Task Force.

The continuously changing number of PAFs raises doubt about the R&R claims made by the governments in the States affected by the project. Gujarat initially said that it had 4,600 PAFs but later admitted to having 4,728 PAFs. Maharashtra's PAF figures went up from 3,113 to 3,221 and later, to more than 3,300. In the past two years, the GRA in Maharashtra has declared 400 more PAFs. The Official Task Force set up in September 2002 did a thorough resurvey and included 2,200 more families in PAF list.

Madhya Pradesh, with the maximum number of PAFs - 33,014 - later revised the figure to 35,716. The figures in Madhya Pradesh keep rising since the State has the maximum number of affected people and the worst R&R plan so far. The NBA estimates that a few thousand more families need to be included as PAFs in Madhya Pradesh.

The initial Award had stated that R&R had to be carried out in stages. That is, only after resettling all the people affected by a particular height of the dam could construction be permitted to continue. This stipulation has been long forgotten. People who were displaced when the Sardar Sarovar dam was at a height of 55 m are still awaiting R&R.

The R&R completed so far covers only one-fourth of the total number of people affected just by the gigantic reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar. There is no official tally available of the 23,540 families that stand to lose more than a quarter of their land to the canal networks. Nor is there any record of the 900 families that were displaced to make an R&R colony for other displaced people. And there is definitely no notice taken of the 103 Adivasi families who will lose their land when the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary is expanded near the dam site or the thousands who will be affected downstream by the dammed Narmada river.

Vidarbha's trauma

The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra sees a spate of suicides by farmers, but the State's Agriculture Minister denies any connection between these incidents and government policy.

Text & photographs DIONNE BUNSHA in Yavatmal district

JUST before the monsoon, farmers in Vidarbha arrange frog weddings to welcome the rain god. Villagers make one male and one female frog pose in separate earthen pots for their baraat (wedding procession). The procession finds its way to the local temple, where the frogs are "married". After the wedding, the couple is given a send-off to a local water source and set free. If they croak, it means that they have been told that the monsoon is near. (Local people believe that frogs are harbingers of rain.)

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This year, the frog weddings were followed by several funerals - not of frogs, but of farmers. The Vidarbha region in northeastern Maharashtra, in the cotton belt, has seen a spate of suicides in the past one month. It is close to the Andhra Pradesh border, another State where mass suicides have been reported. Many farmers, disappointed by the poor rainfall and burdened with many debts, killed themselves. Around 45 suicides have been reported since June, but the Chief Minister's Office has awarded compensation to the families of only eight so far.

Atmaram Shinde (55) from Pada village in Yavatmal hoped that this monsoon would help him wipe away his accumulated debts. He sowed his field on time, but the seeds dried up as there was no rain. He planted a second round of seeds, but the monsoon did not arrive. The Rs.22,000 he borrowed to spend on seeds and fertilizers went down the drain. On June 26, Atmaram killed himself by swallowing endosulphan, a pesticide. "He was very disturbed. For the last two years, the crop had failed. Loans had piled up. We have to get our daughters married," said his wife Nirmala. She has not lost hope. She recently borrowed another Rs.4,000 from a local moneylender to sow the field for the third time. But the rains have not yet arrived. Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde visited Vidarbha in an exercise of damage control just before the Prime Minister's anticipated visit. Shinde said that farmers should have no problem getting loans since the government had ordered banks to convert short-term loans into long-term ones. The Chief Minister also instructed district administrations to prepare for a drought situation by starting employment works and providing for the supply of drinking water and foodgrains. However, there has been no mention of compensation for crop loss, which in any case is not a permanent solution.

Mass suicides associated with the agricultural crisis have been reported in Vidarbha since 1986. In 1987, more than 80 suicides occurred, and in 2001, 90 were reported. The underlying factors that have led to such distress need to be tackled. Agriculture is no longer viable for most cotton farmers here. "Whatever we get at the end of the crop season goes into repaying the loans. Yet, every year, we continue to sow the fields, hoping that it will be better. What else can we do? This is the only work we know," said Namdeo Maraskoche, a farmer from Pada village. Last year, after paying off some old debts, he was left with Rs.7,000 - hardly enough to sustain his family. His family works on other people's fields and earns a daily wage to survive. (Agricultural wage rates are Rs.40 for men and Rs.25-30 for women, far below the government-fixed minimum wage of Rs.90 and Rs.70 respectively.)

After liberalisation policies were introduced, agriculture has become unprofitable. The cost of inputs - seeds, fertilizers, pesticides - has risen dramatically. Market prices for farm produce have not kept pace. Even with a good crop, farmers barely break even, and a bad crop can spell disaster. This vulnerability is heightened by the absence of sufficient rural credit. Bank interest rates for farmers are around 14 per cent, much higher than those for urban consumers. Crop loans sanctioned by banks cover barely 70 per cent of the input costs, say district officials. Farmers claim that bank credit provides for only 15 per cent of their needs. They rely on moneylenders and traders for the rest, who charge interest at rates varying between 30 and 120 per cent a year, which is enough to kill any hope of a surplus.

Vidarbha's farmers mainly grow cotton, soyabean and jowar during the kharif season. Most crops are totally dependent on the monsoon. Only 15 per cent of Maharashtra's gross cropped area is irrigated, as against the national average of 32.9 per cent in 1989-90. Amravati division's share of gross cropped area under irrigation is a meagre 9 per cent, says Divisional Commissioner N. Arumugam. Government expenditure on rural infrastructure has also shrunk. Vidarbha has several irrigation projects, which have not yet got off the ground. Development funds have not been utilised, says Opposition leader Nitin Gadkari.

Yields in Maharashtra, especially for cotton, are low. Farmers keep experimenting with costly new varieties of hybrid seeds in the hope of getting better crops. Pests have become resistant to pesticides, so farmers keep increasing the doses of deadly pesticides such as endosulphan, which are banned in other countries. The unregulated commercialisation of agriculture has resulted in further losses for small farmers.

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Maharashtra's Agriculture Minister Govindrao Adik denies that the suicides have any connection with government policy. "What can the government do if the rains fail?" he asked. Adik went on: "The suicides occur for different reasons - some victims were very poor, others had drinking problems, some may have been gambling. What can we do? Are we responsible? In the past also there have been suicides. Why are the media highlighting them now?"

Considered one of Maharashtra's least developed regions, Vidarbha has seen not only farmer's suicides but also malnutrition deaths in its tribal areas.

Vidarbha has of late been an important political battleground. The BJP-Shiv Sena has made inroads into this traditional Congress stronghold. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance won only one of the 11 seats. A few local politicians have also been demanding separate statehood for the region. They complain that it is neglected by the State government compared to western Maharashtra, the domain of politically connected sugar barons. With the State elections in the next few months, the Congress-NDA alliance government has woken up to the suicides.

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But how much will that help Jitru Kannake's family? A farmer from Vadavna Bazar village, Jitru killed himself on July 4. He sowed his nine-acre farm three times hoping for rain. The most recent sowing cost him Rs.29,000. His debts kept mounting. He had other outstanding loans, including one of Rs.50,000, which he took for his children's marriage in May. "He gave last year's entire crop to the moneylender. Still, he had to pay him Rs.20,000 more. Then, there were bank loans pending. And he borrowed Rs.50,000 for the weddings. There seemed no hope of ever paying back," said his son Ganesh. "Farmers never have their own money. We have to keep borrowing from somewhere."

Debt as legacy

THE Minister came and left, but the debt to the bank remains. Saraswati Ambarwar's husband Ramdas committed suicide in January 1997. After local activists highlighted the plight of indebted farmers in Vidarbha, Narayan Rane, the Revenue Minister of the time, visited the area. He met Saraswati and made several promises - the government would give her Rs.1 lakh as compensation, it would waive all of Ramdas' bank loans, it would pay for her daughters' education and for her farm expenses for three years. But the compensation cheque was all she got. The bank loan has doubled from Rs.25,000, because the interest has accumulated. Saraswati keeps getting default notices from the bank, which has threatened to auction her house. Paying off the loan seems impossible. Saraswati barely has enough to survive. "After getting so many default notices, I managed to collect Rs.9,000 and paid back the debt partly. That was three years back," said Saraswati.

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"My husband owed Rs.40,000 to a moneylender in Adilabad, Andhra Pradesh, just 50 km away. When he came to collect his money, he realised I could not pay and cancelled the loan." Saraswati used the government cheque to pay for her eldest daughter's wedding. One of her daughters slumped into a major depression after Ramdas' death. The other has been constantly ill. "Last year I had to take Rs.40,000 from my brother-in-law Arun just to pay for her treatment," she said. When her husband died, he left a suicide note asking Arun to look after his family. Since then Arun helps her to cultivate the 12 acres of land that Ramdas left behind. "Whatever we get from farming is not enough. Arun helps us out when we run short. It may be better if I sell the land," said Saraswati.

Seven years after Ramdas' death, the situation in Vidarbha's countryside has not changed much. Even today, a couple of suicides are reported every day. There are several widows like Saraswati who are struggling with the legacy of loans that their husbands have left behind.

Committed to the line of armed revolution

other

One striking trait of Cherukuri Rajkumar, or Prakash as he is known in People's War (P.W.) circles, is his ability to present logically, simply and effectively his party's ideology and its stand on various issues. An M.Tech. from Andhra University, the lean-built Prakash, in his mid-forties, has been underground for more than two decades. Currently he is one of the seven members of the polit bureau in the central committee of the P.W., which guides the "revolutionary movement" in Andhra Pradesh. K. Srinivas Reddy recently met Prakash, after a gruelling five-hour trek through the jungles of the Nallamala region, to discuss the import of the peace talks between the P.W. and the government. Excerpts from the interview:

There is a feeling that the P.W. will use to strengthen itself the period of the dialogue with the government, when there will be a let-up in the anti-extremist operations.

It is not true. There is no question of the P.W. strengthening itself during this period. The P.W. works for the people and, irrespective of any situation, the party has grown in strength. There was severe repression during the nine-year-long rule of the Telugu Desam [Party], but the party's influence grew by leaps and bounds. By using repression the state only tries to prevent us from meeting the people. But we live among the people. We are certainly not underground.

Do you think the Congress government is sincere about holding talks with the naxalites?

Yes. It appears to be sincere, but there is stiff opposition from a section of police officers who have become a law unto themselves. They would like the status quo [of repression] to continue. On this account, there are some contradictions in the government's stand. That is why there was this Warangal incident where a covert agent shot dead two naxalites and escaped with weapons.

I guess Rajasekhara Reddy is in a position neither to ignore the police nor to fulfil his obligation of holding talks. The Congress government has an obligation to hold talks as it had announced that before the elections. People threw out the Telugu Desam [Party] regime and now [Rajasekhara] Reddy has to fulfil his promise. But the government is in a quandary. Running with the hare and hunting with the hound - that aptly sums up the predicament of the government.

The government has a serious objection to naxalites moving around in villages with weapons.

Please understand that what is important is whether we are using the weapons. Only when the state resorts to violence we use weapons. In Andhra Pradesh, they killed our comrades and sympathisers and we were forced to retaliate. Take the example of the Dandakaranya region, where our party is very strong. There is no violence at all. Why? It is because people solve their own problems. Or, for that matter, even in Andhra Pradesh, if the state allows our mass organisations to meet people, there is no need of an armed naxalite visiting a village. They banned all our mass organisations. There is no freedom even to disagree and call for a meeting. Let this repression go and there won't be any violence.

You say that giving up armed struggle is ruled out. If that is the case, where is the negotiating space? Why should the government hold talks with the P.W.?

What one should understand is that Naxalism is not a problem but a solution. Leaving the line of armed revolution is out of the question. Talks are a necessity for the government now. They [the Congress] had made their stand clear on talks even before the elections. Now that the people threw out the Telugu Desam [Party] regime, it is an obligation on their part. For us it is necessary because we can solve some problems. We are going to demand strict implementation of land reforms and solution for a host of people's problems.

Did your party not issue a circular, during talks with the TDP-led government, that talks are only part of a strategy?

We were sure that the TDP had no sincerity in going ahead with the talks in 2002. Hence we wanted to utilise whatever respite people got from the severe repression at that time. But now the Congress appears to be sincere and we are reciprocating.

A brutal assault

The gang rape in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, a State that has one of the country's highest crime rates against Dalits, once again points to the community's plight in a caste-ridden society.

in Seoni

"Where a village was deeply factionalised, the overall authority of the elders was weak, and the leaders of each faction settled disputes between members of that faction. The village elders were not then able to enforce their decision on a faction, which refused to submit itself to them. In such a situation village law resembled international law."

- From "The Potter and the Priest" in Indian Society through Personal Writings by M.N. Srinivas.

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THE village of Bhomatola in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh derives its name from the adjoining town of Bhoma. While Bhoma is the name of the town, "Tola" means a neighbourhood. Hence Bhomatola. There is nothing extraordinary about the village in order to make national headlines. In fact, the village might just go unnoticed, as it is half a kilometre away from the main highway. A signboard indicating the distance to the famous Kanha National Park is more likely to attract the eye. But recently Bhomatola made headlines, when three Scheduled Caste women of the same family were gang raped.

On July 4, a dispute arose between the dominant Gowli community - an Other Backward Class (OBC) group - and the largely outnumbered Scheduled Caste community of Mahars when a Gowli girl, Santoshi Chandravanshi, and a Mahar boy, Nitesh Kosre, disappeared from the village. (While 125 households in Bhomatola belong to Gowlis, 13 are occupied by members of other castes, which include a handful of Dalit families and a Brahmin household.) When they did not return it was assumed that the two had eloped, as the young couple knew each other well. Santoshi was apparently a frequent visitor to the Kosre household.

Matters took a difficult turn when the Gowlis demanded that the girl be returned to them by the Kosre family. They also filed a complaint at the Kanhiwada police station, under whose jurisdiction Bhomatola falls. On July 6, a meeting of Gowli caste members told Goverdhan Kosre, the boy's uncle, that the girl had to be returned to them. He was warned that otherwise the consequences would be disastrous. Kosre, who is the Panchayat Samiti secretary and the kotwar (a village-level government official who keeps the records of births and deaths and is responsible for informing the administration of any important developments), informed the Kanhiwada police station about the threat. D. Sreenivasa Rao, the Superintendent of Police (S.P.), Seoni, told Frontline that had the Kanhiwada Station House Officer (SHO) known that Kosre's nephew had also gone missing, they would have assessed the gravity of the situation. "People go missing every now and then. It does not lead to anything serious," said Sreenivasa Rao.

Kosre was given two days to locate the couple. On the night of July 6, he left for Nagpur where his relatives lived, thinking that the couple might have sought refuge there. But the two could not be found. On July 8, he informed the village that he had failed to locate the couple. By then members of the Gowli community had decided to teach a lesson to the Mahars, who had "insulted" them. At 8-30 p.m., they held a meeting and decided to confront the Kosre household. Only the women were present at home at that time, said Goverdhan Kosre. The men, Nitesh Kosre's brother Rakesh and father, had gone looking for the couple in the nearby villages. Gowlis, numbering around 150, according to Radha Bai, wife of Goverdhan Kosre, broke open the door, and despite pleadings by the women that the men were on the lookout for the couple, dragged her, Kaushalya Bai (Nitesh Kosre's mother) and Maya Bai (Rakesh Kosre's wife) through the streets of Bhomatola. "Everyone, big and small, cheered and clapped while we were being dragged," said Maya Bai, who was married into the Kosre household in February. The women were taken behind the Panchayat Bhawan and gang-raped.

Peculiarly, the empty tract of land adjacent to the Kosre dwelling was not the spot where the crime was committed. The Kosres live at one end of the village. The women, Goverdhan Kosre said, were dragged from one end of the village to the other, through the lane, with Gowli homes on both sides. It had to be a public spectacle. The intention was apparently more than just rape. While nine persons sexually assaulted Maya, Radha Bai was raped by five and Kaushalya Bai by two. All the perpetrators were in the age group of 22 to 25 and none of them was stopped by the older folk. The Gowli community participated actively in the operation while the outnumbered Dalit families could do little but watch helplessly. The traditional methods of settling village disputes as described in the case study by the late eminent sociologist M.N. Srinivas in Indian Society through Personal Writings had evidently undergone a major metamorphosis. Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, the Seoni District Magistrate, told Frontline that there was no history of reprisals in the area. The S.P. added that normally it was observed that villagers settled disputes by imposing fines. "The idea is to resolve it among themselves. I think, initially, there was no intention to rape. Perhaps they wanted to humiliate them. We spoke to the accused who have been arrested. They had been egged on by the elders," said Sreenivasa Rao.

Importantly, no strict patterns of caste-based segregation existed in the village. "The girl used to watch television in the boy's house. The SHO should have been more vigilant after the first missing report was lodged in his station," said the S.P. The SHO and a head constable have been suspended. A collective fine has been imposed on the village and a compensation of Rs.50,000 given to each of the victims.

The gang rape cannot be seen as a crime against women alone. Its social ramifications are much more. Was this a factionalised village? In all probability, it was. The Kosres are relatively well off and they own land. "None of our women works on the land of the Gowlis," Goverdhan Kosre said. The Kosre children have all attended school at least up to Class VIII. The household has a television as well. Unlike other Dalit families in the village, the Kosres were economically on a par with the Gowlis. A huge portrait of Dr B.R. Ambedkar hung at the entrance of the house. Social interaction in the village barring eating from each other's household was prevalent but dependent on the whims of the Gowlis. Several Gowlis had attended the marriage of Rakesh Kosre and Maya Bai in February.

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The Gowlis and the Mahars vote differently. Once supporters of the Congress, the Mahars have gravitated towards the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Gowli votes are divided between the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The BSP has only a marginal presence in the Mahakaushal region, under which falls the Lok Sabha constituency of Seoni. In this region, it was the Gondwana Republican Party, more than the BSP, that damaged the Congress' prospects in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

According to recent National Crime Records Bureau data, crimes against Dalits and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) in Madhya Pradesh increased between 1998 and 2002. In fact, the highest number of rape cases and atrocities against the S.Ts has been reported from Madhya Pradesh. As for crimes against Dalits, Uttar Pradesh tops the list, closely followed by Madhya Pradesh.

The profile of the perpetrators of the crimes is not clear - whether they are from the upper rungs of the caste hierarchy or from the more vocal OBCs. But it has been observed that the Gowlis of Bhomatola and the other OBCs in the State have been asserting themselves aggressively vis-a-vis Dalits in the past one and a half decades. They have become the landed gentry in villages as the twice-born castes have largely moved to the cities and sold them their lands. They are the new elite in the village.

Badal Saroj, State secretariat member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that political patronage enjoyed by these groups had further emboldened them to commit crimes against Dalits. "It is strange that the BSP leaders hardly raise these issues vociferously when it is an attack by the OBCs on Dalits. They say it is a matter to be resolved between the castes concerned. They react more strongly when the oppressors are the twice-born castes," said Badal Saroj.

MEANWHILE, the Uma Bharati-led BJP government has tried to gain political mileage out of the Bhomatola issue. The Chief Minister even hinted that it could be a Congress conspiracy. While Bhomatola comes under the Keolari Assembly segment represented by Thakur Harbans Singh of the Congress, it falls under the Seoni Lok Sabha seat represented by the BJP's Nita Pateria. Both the BJP and the Congress blame each other for the incident. With hardly anyone to speak up for the Dalits, barring the lone Left party representative in the Assembly, it was not surprising that two other incidents of rape involving Dalit women were reported from Damoh district a few days after the Bhomatala incident.

It is baffling that a host of parallel inquiries are taking place even as half of the accused are absconding. While the Seoni police is conducting its own investigation, Uma Bharati has appointed a delegation led by a woman legislator to conduct an independent inquiry. The State Minorities Commission too has entered the picture, for the Kosres are Buddhists. Representatives of the Buddhist Society of India and the Ambedkar Mahila Samiti from Mandla also came to Seoni and gave a memorandum to the District Magistrate. In fact, the woman representatives were heard blaming the handful of Dalit families for having played a passive role. "What could we have done? They were so many and we were a handful. They would have done the same thing to us," said Chaandi Bai. Unlike the Kosres who have land, Chaandi Bai is a bamboo weaver. Kesar Bai, another Dalit and a widow, works on the land owned by Gowlis. "When they call us, we go. If they don't then we try to look for other kinds of work," she said.

Cases have been registered under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) relating to gang rape, kidnapping and breaking in as well as under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Of the 16 people who have been booked for rape, 11 have been apprehended; 35 others, who abetted the act, are absconding. However, a CPI(M) fact-finding committee that visited the village stated that the women had named 65 persons involved in the abetment of the act.

There is little repentance among the Gowlis. Said Bistobai, a Gowli woman: "Who knows if the women went on their own or not. We did not hear them shout." When asked if she justified this form of revenge, she replied that her caste men had not gained anything from all of this. "They are running from the law, aren't they? They are reaping the fruits of revenge." But Bistobai and a Dalit youth Mansa Ram both agreed that the reputation of the village had been damaged. Sixty-year-old Shyama Bai, an ironsmith and Dalit, wondered why such an uproar had been made over two young people running away. "Have not people eloped before?" she wondered.

Bhomatola is not an isolated village. It too is bound to be influenced by social and economic changes. Panchayati raj elections have created new hierarchies, which may be unacceptable to the dominant elite. It is to be noted that Goverdhan Kosre was the Panchayat Samiti secretary.

Social biases are deep-rooted and they take a criminal turn, as witnessed in Bhomatola, when the dominant political parties look the other way, especially when their particular constituencies are not the victims.

`All we want is peace'

other

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy continues to keep his cards close to his chest as far as the government's strategy of opening a dialogue process with the People's War (P.W.) is concerned. Excerpts from an interview he gave K. Srinivas Reddy:

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The naxalites have repeatedly asserted that giving up armed struggle is a non-negotiable factor. In such a context, what exactly do you want to achieve through the talks?

Our goal is establishing peace in the State. We have succeeded in that to some extent. They may say that they will not give up arms, but I believe that they will ultimately give up violence and join the mainstream of life.

Are you confident that they will join the mainstream?

We are making sincere efforts to see to it that all extremists join the mainstream.

Although the problem was stated to be of socio-economic origin, it was largely left to the police, while the civil administration never took interest...

This time it will be different. We plan to involve the civil administration actively at all levels of development. We are involving the civil administration in all aspects of development. You will see the difference in the future.

What is the Centre's reaction to the effort to hold talks with naxalites?

It is positive. They only want us to ensure that the law of the land prevails; that the law is enforced. At no point of time can we close our eyes to the necessity of law enforcement.

There is a belief among people that if you strike a deal with naxalites they will not attack Congress workers and, in return, you would go soft on them...

It is meaningless. There is no such agreement. I am bothered about the safety of everyone, including Telugu Desam [Party] workers. Are they not citizens of the country? All we want is peace.

A chance to fight

The Supreme Court's order to disburse among the Bhopal gas victims the unspent compensation amount remaining with the RBI presents an opportunity to reopen and correct the distortions in the 1989 settlement reached between Union Carbide Corporation and the Government of India.

in New Delhi

ON July 19, the victims and survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster had reason to celebrate: the Supreme Court directed the Centre to disburse to them Rs.1,505.46 crores lying with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in an account holding the compensation amount paid by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) as part of the settlement with the Government of India in 1989. What made the celebration doubly sweet is the fact that the court order lent legitimacy to the argument of the disaster-survivors and objective observers that the 1989 settlement was arrived at unjustly and the compensation amount agreed upon was grossly disproportionate to the magnitude of the disaster.

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In fact, for most of the claimants, the court order, which directs that the money be distributed on a pro rata basis among the more than 5,66,000 claimants who had been paid compensation, does not signify a windfall. As the petitioners (representing 36 affected municipal wards in Bhopal) in Abdul Samad Khan and Others vs Union of India have revealed, in just one community in Jaiprakash Nagar, which was the most severely affected, 91 per cent of the claimants had received only Rs.25,000 as compensation.

The amount became so low because there were more claimants than what was anticipated at the time of the settlement in 1989. The settlement was based on an illogical estimate that there were 3,000 death claims and 1,02,000 injury claims. In other words, the Supreme Court in 1989 considered the $470 million paid by UCC as part of the final settlement towards compensation as adequate for settling the claims.

According to the 2003 Annual Report of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, as on October 31, 2003, compensation had been awarded to the kin of 15,310 dead and to 5,54,895 for injuries. The total compensation disbursed under both the categories until then was around Rs.1,530 crores.

The petitioners thus argued that only slightly over half of the $470 million (Rs.710 crores at the then prevailing exchange rate of approximately Rs.15 to $1) had been utilised to settle five times more claims than those estimated in 1989. The Supreme Court order of May 4, 1989, directed that 84 per cent of the amount be disbursed as compensation in 3,000 cases of death and 1,02,000 cases under four different categories of injuries, ranging from simple ones to those of utmost severity, and 16 per cent be set aside to compensate those who had lost property and livestock.

On October 16, 1992, the Supreme Court, in response to an application filed by the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan, an organisation representing disaster-survivors, gave a clear direction that the compensation amount lying in the Settlement Fund should not be used for any purpose other than compensating the victims.

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The latest directive of the Bench consisting of Justices Shivaraj V. Patil and B.N. Srikrishna to disburse the compensation amount remaining with the RBI among those whose claims had been settled and in similar proportion to what they had received earlier, tacitly acknowledges the inconsistency in the Supreme Court's 1989 order facilitating the settlement. For the first time, the court has recognised that the magnitude of the gas disaster was five times more than what was estimated in 1989. The court, in other words, has given its stamp of approval to the figures of death and injuries as determined by the claims courts. It is this message implicit in the July 19 decision that pleased the disaster-survivors more than the court's clearance of another round of a protracted measly-claims disbursement process.

Adjudication of claims began in 1992 and several claims are still to be settled. According to one estimate, it would take eight years to settle the remaining 16,000 claims by the present claims courts. That was one reason why the Centre was hesitant to disburse the unspent amount in the Settlement Fund before all the original claims were settled.

Meanwhile, however, the compensation amount, which was retained in a dollar account, not only accrued interest but also appreciated in value with the rising exchange rate of the dollar vis-a-vis the rupee. In 1992, the exchange rate was approximately Rs.30 to $1, and in 2000 it was Rs.45 to $1. By 2003, when the present petition seeking disbursal of the unspent amount with interest was filed in the Supreme Court, the balance in the Settlement Fund almost equalled the Rs.1,520 crores that had been spent so far. Disbursing this amount on a pro rata basis did not appear to hurt anyone's interest since the Supreme Court allowed placing of the management of the Settlement Fund in the hands of the Welfare Commissioner, Bhopal, only on the condition that it would not be utilised for any purpose other than compensating the victims.

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Indira Jaising, Senior Supreme Court counsel representing two organisations working among the disaster-survivors, said: "If, indeed, about 5,70,000 claimants had been paid compensation as per the terms of the settlement, more than five times the settlement amount would have been required to compensate all of them." The court has permitted the organisations BJPMUS and the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti, Delhi, to file an application before it in this regard. In 1991, the Supreme Court had agreed that if the number of victims was more than what was estimated then, it would be open to the victims to come back to the court requesting it to reopen the settlement and review its adequacy to render justice to them.

In 1991, the Supreme Court did not expect the number of claimants to rise five times, and asked the Centre rather than UCC to meet the shortfall in the compensation amount, if any. However, the genetic damage caused by the disaster meant that the children of victims and their descendants also medically suffered the impact of the tragedy in one way or the other, and would add to the number of claimants substantially. The court's July 19 direction to the Centre, therefore, has provided an opportunity to the court as well as the Centre to correct the distortions in the 1989 settlement and even seek legally UCC's accountability in filling the huge gap in the compensation amount that is legitimately due to the victims.

The naxalites' demands

other

Here is a set of demands of the People's War (P.W.), listed under 10 categories.

I. A democratic atmosphere should be created in the State. The government should respect people's right to fight for their democratic demands.

The government should not prevent agitations, peaceful demonstrations and meetings.

Lift the ban on the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) P.W. and other organisations.

Scrap the system of rewards on workers of P.W., People's Guerilla Army and other mass organisations.

Scrap Grey Hounds, Special Security Forces, and the Special Intelligence Branch (SIB) and withdraw the Central paramilitary forces.

Release all political prisoners.

Scrap the system of giving acceleratory promotions and unofficial incentives to police officers who kill naxalites in fake encounters.

Scrap the informant network in villages. The government should end the practice of winning over P.W. workers and using them as covert agents.

Control `lumpen' gangs such as Green Tigers, Kranti Sena, Palnadu Tigers, Tirumala Tigers and Nayeem Gang.

Order a judicial probe into all fake encounters and punish the police officers responsible.

Lift all cases registered against workers of mass organisations and other revolutionary parties. II. Implement reforms in the agricultural sector.

Implement land reforms. Handover to the occupants the endowment, government, and forest land and lands belonging to landlords already occupied by people.

Implement the Land Ceiling Act.

Complete all pending irrigation projects. Farmers should be given irrigation facilities and supplied adequate power.

Waive all private loans taken by the farming community to stop suicides by farmers.

Prepare a permanent and integrated plan for tackling the drought situation.

Scrap corporate agriculture. III. Implement policies of industrialisation and other schemes based on local resources in place of the liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation policies being followed now.

Withdraw all World Bank projects and schemes supported by imperialists.

Stop the retrenchment of workers and the privatisation of public sector enterprises (PSEs).

Protect small- and medium-scale industries from competition by multinational companies (MNCs) and revive cooperative and other PSEs.

Withdraw user charges on drinking water, education and health services.

Scrap all agreements with the World Bank, MNCs and other countries. IV. Recognise the tribal people's rights on forest.

Announce autonomy for the tribal people.

Implement the "1/70 Act", which provides protection against the alienation of land held by tribal people in scheduled areas to non-tribal people. Stop settling of non-tribal people in areas inhabited by tribal people.

Initiate steps to develop and support tribal languages. V. Form a separate Telangana State. VI. Formulate an integrated plan for the development of backward regions of North Coastal and Rayalasseema areas. VII. Punish those who belittle the self-respect of Dalits. Take action against police officers and upper-caste members responsible for attacks on Dalits in Karamchedu, Tsundur, Neerukonda and Vempenta.

Provide job reservation for Dalits in the private sector. VIII. Equal property rights for women.

Reservation for women in the private sector.

Stringent punishment for those who commit atrocities on women. IX. Implement total prohibition. X. Order a probe into the illegal amassing of wealth by officials, politicians and capitalists; corruption scandals by officials and politicians.

Truce and talks

Success of the dialogue process between the naxalites and the government in Andhra Pradesh will largely depend on the civil administration's attitude towards people's problems.

in Hyderabad

BY launching a series of steps intended to facilitate peace talks with the chief proponent of the protracted armed struggle in Andhra Pradesh, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People's War (P.W.), the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government has signalled its decision to tackle left-wing extremism in the State. The initiative, which is in keeping with the ruling Congress' election promise, was unthinkable during the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) regime, which adopted a tough stand against the naxalites. The government offer has been reciprocated by the P.W., which has announced that it will not resort to violence. The P.W.'s offer, of course, came with a rider - it would hold back the weapons only as long as the police did the same.

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Ever since both sides agreed for a "ceasefire" on June 16, guns have fallen silent all over the State. But for an isolated incident of exchange of fire between naxalites and police personnel at Ajmapur village in Nalgonda district and a few incidents of naxalites beating up villagers for tilling lands that were occupied by them earlier, the situation has by and large been peaceful in the State. The seriousness with which both sides have been exploring the possibilities of coming to the negotiating table is such that in spite of objections from various quarters such "minor" incidents are not taken seriously.

So far, it is a win-win situation for both sides. If the government can claim to have halted the spiral of violence, the P.W. can draw solace from the fact that the former has conceded some of its demands, such as a halt to the anti-extremist operations, withdrawal of rewards announced on naxalites, the lifting of the ban on the P.W. and six of its front organisations, and permission to hold public meetings. With the majority of demands being met, a formal ceasefire agreement is due to be signed between the government and the P.W. and another Maoist group, Janashakti. The P.W. had nominated poet Varavara Rao, singer Gadar and G. Kalyan Rao as its emissaries to finalise the modalities for talks. Although the actual charter of demands on behalf of the P.W. has not yet been made public, Frontline managed to get it from a top naxalite leader (see box).

The efforts have become a topic of debate not only in Andhra Pradesh, but also in 14 other States where left-wing extremist groups are active. While the West Bengal government reacted cautiously saying that it was watching the situation in Andhra Pradesh carefully, the Karnataka government made an ambiguous statement about it being ready to hold such talks. However, the government in Tamil Nadu, where naxalites are active only in a few pockets, decided against holding talks with the P.W.

The Centre too has been maintaining an enigmatic silence. When Rajasekhara Reddy met Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil in New Delhi, he was believed to have been cautioned since the outcome of the process in Andhra Pradesh could have a significant impact on other States.

Thus the question whether the exercise will be a fruitful one assumes significance, especially in view of the P.W.'s categorical assertion that its commitment to armed struggle is non-negotiable (see interview). What is the government trying to achieve then? Will it be a working agreement with the P.W. that while the police would not target naxalites, the extremists would not attack political party workers? While the P.W. has made it clear that it will only try to use the opportunity to solve people's problems to the extent possible without abandoning the "Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line" it pursues, the government's reaction has been somewhat vague.

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Could it be that the Congress government is only exploring all possible avenues before launching a severe crackdown? Neither the officials involved in the talks process nor the Chief Minister is willing to part with any information on this count but for asserting that government only wanted peace to prevail in the State.

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AN overall view of the situation suggests that each side is trying to outwit the other. If the P.W. needs a respite from the severe police crackdown that has led to heavy losses, especially in the crucial northern Telangana region, the new government needs some respite from the merciless onslaught of the naxalites on political workers and `police informants' in rural areas. The situation had reached such an alarming stage in rural areas that hundreds of people marked by the P.W. migrated to nearby towns, fearing attacks. The P.W., on the other hand, too was on the defensive with the police managing to infiltrate the underground party by winning over some disgruntled naxalites and making them work as `covert agents'.

That the P.W. leadership was worried was evident when it announced that it had averted a major covert action in which a party sympathiser, `Tailor Venkatesh', was caught trying to mix cyanide in the food of three central committee members in Nalgonda district in 2003. The P.W. executed the `covert' and sent videotapes of his confession to the media. Apart from such `covert' operations, the P.W. was also worried about its dwindling spheres of influence in the Telangana region, though it had spread to various areas in the State and outside too.

In such a context, a clear indication is that both the government and the P.W. are now concentrating on winning the people's support. If the P.W. would try to expose the sheer inefficacy of the bureaucracy in solving people's problems, the government is preparing to prove that the civil administration will now move into the affected areas and try to solve them.

In essence, both sides are now ready to mobilise popular support by seeking to establish and expand their respective strategic bases. And both sides are wise enough to realise that mobilising popular support is more than just winning over the people. On this count, the P.W. appears to have a slight edge over the administration, which is beset with bureaucratic problems. Seen as quick dispensers of justice, the naxalites are sure to expose the inefficiency of the bureaucracy in attending to people's problems. The government has a tough task ahead in winning over the people since the latter would go by deeds rather than promises.

The other major drawback for the government is the apparent lack of a unified effort by the civil administration, the police, and the legislative and judicial authorities to solve people's problems. Despite tall claims by successive governments, the fact remains that the civil administration has shunned the responsibility to attend to the problems and left its job mainly to the police. Now the first responsibility of the Congress government would be to ensure that the civil administration too moves to the villages and is seen as a provider of solutions to problems rather than a problem in itself.

Once more with vengeance

Developed countries are willing to give very little, while demanding too much of developing countries as the price for their endorsement of a framework agreement for the next round of global trade talks, an agreement that reflects a bias for developed countries.

DEVELOPED country negotiators and officials at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the powerbrokers in global trade, are striving hard to impose a limited "consensus" on the members of the organisation. Holding out the threat of the breakdown of the multilateral trading system and the emergence of damaging bilateralism, they are seeking an agreement on the framework for the next round of global trade talks before a self-imposed "drop-dead deadline" of July 31. For the last few days, WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi has been warning the organisation's 147 member-countries that a "failure this month means the continuation of an unsatisfactory status quo, certainly for the remainder of this year and next and possibly for years to come." Trade negotiations are known to extend way beyond the deadlines that members set for themselves. This makes the alarmist statements of the dangers of dissent from interested parties such as the Director-General difficult to understand.

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The Doha Round sought to be launched in November 2001, was expected to go on stream soon after so that an agreement on details could be reached by January 1, 2005. But, halfway through 2004, even the framework for the talks has not been agreed upon. This makes the original deadline impossible to meet, even if consensus on a framework could be forged by the end of July. So why failure to reach a framework agreement by that date implies the end of the road is not immediately clear.

The real concern of those pushing for an immediate agreement on the framework is that unless such an agreement is struck, the new round will not even be launched, given the partial agreement at Doha and the failure at Cancun. As Peter Sutherland, former Director-General of the WTO put it: "Failure this month would mean we had not moved one jot from the Doha Declaration. The Doha Round would, in effect, be dead. When meaningful negotiation is again possible in the WTO - say, in a year from now - we will be looking at a complete relaunch. It might take several years to achieve consensus on a new agenda."

What is more, if negotiations are not formally launched in July, delays driven by politics in the developed countries is inevitable. First, the impending American elections rule out any deal being struck by U.S. negotiators after this General Council meeting on July 27, till late into next year. Second, the impending appointment of a new European Commission in November would introduce new uncertainties about the European position and render consensus on the framework and modalities of a new round elusive.

Thus the "consensus" being sought just now is limited to one that declares that the Doha Round is on. It requires countries to commit themselves to reviving the aborted negotiations and agree to a framework of rules that would govern the conduct of those talks. Once the framework is in place, the modalities can be worked out and a new multilateral consensus negotiated. That would take time, but global trade barons could at least be certain that they are still in the game of shaping a new, more liberal regime.

The problem is that the developed countries are willing to give very little, while demanding too much of the developing countries as the price for their endorsement of a framework agreement. This is not surprising, since they want to load the agenda from the very beginning with rules and caveats that ensure that their interests are protected and advanced, if and when the final agreement for the Doha Round is arrived at. Given the influence that the developed countries wield in global trade and over the WTO in particular, the framework agreement, drafted through a quasi-formal process that was by no means transparent and released barely 10 days before the General Council meeting on July 27, reflects in large measure the bias in favour of the developed countries. Not surprisingly, controversy surrounds the draft - released on July 16 - of even this preliminary agreement.

The lack of transparency reflects the many hurdles that those pushing for a limited agreement have to manoeuvre in a divided world. The stumbling blocks to consensus include: the unwillingness of the developed countries to accept substantial trade liberalisation in areas crucial to each one of them; the consequent divisions within the developed-country camp; the disappointment in the developing world with the actual implementation and the results (that have fallen far short of promises) of the Uruguay Round as well as the position being adopted by the developed countries on old and new issues; and the unwillingness of the developed world to prioritise redressing of the existing inequities in the multilateral trading system rather than seek new advances on the liberalisation front.

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Given these constraints, the only way an agreement can be pushed through is to appease the powerful and pressure the weak into quiescence. This is precisely what General Council chair Shotaro Oshima, Supachai Panitchpakdi and European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, have been attempting to do in recent months. Their problem, however, was that obtaining endorsement from the major trading powers itself has proved extremely difficult. As in the Uruguay Round, the main bone of contention within the developed country camp was the $600 billion global market for agricultural commodities.

During the Uruguay Round, besides the device of defining certain measures of support to agriculture as "non-trade-distorting" and including them in a permissible Green Box, European endorsement of the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) was won through the Blair House Accord, which was an in-house deal struck at an informal meeting between the developed countries. The accord involved the creation of a Blue Box, into which a set of support measures that were officially defined as trade-distorting could be incorporated and exempted from reduction commitments, allowing the developed countries, especially the European Union (E.U.), to provide substantial protection for their farming community. Further, while provision was made for the phasing out of the Blue Box at the end of the implementation period of the Uruguay Round, it was agreed at Blair House that the AoA would explicitly specify a Peace Clause that prevented countries from challenging those measures during the implementation period. In the event, the focus of agricultural reform in the developed countries, especially the U.S. and the E.U., has been the transformation of the nature of agricultural support into measures that fall in the Green and Blue Boxes, so that the support that would be subject to reduction commitments would shrink. By pressurising developing countries into accepting these patently protectionist instruments, a global consensus that yielded the AoA and the WTO was forged.

This time around too, an important step to progress on a framework agreement remains a consensus among the developed countries on agriculture. If at all the developed countries were to be seen as making new concessions towards freeing trade in agriculture, they had to agree to do away with export subsidies on agricultural products, accept larger market access commitments than those required of developing countries, and substantially reduce overall support provided to their agriculture through various Blue and Green Box measures. However, with the E.U. relying heavily on Blue Box support, it was unwilling to consider any framework agreement that did not retract the Uruguay Round commitment to phase out such measures. So the negotiations have focussed on what the E.U. would give in areas like overall support reduction and reduced export subsidies in return for the retention of the Blue Box.

THE first signs of a partial consensus within the developed countries camp came when Pascal Lamy offered to end E.U. export subsidies if the U.S. eliminates subsidised food aid and export credits, and Australia, Canada and New Zealand curb state trading monopolies in agriculture. He also confirmed that the E.U. had softened its position on U.S. farm export credits and might be willing to accept less than their total elimination.

Annex A of the draft agreement, dealing with agriculture, makes clear how much the E.U. has got in return, creating an extremely imbalanced framework for establishing modalities in agriculture and damaging, in the process, the interests of developing countries and agricultural exporters. The draft declares that the Annex details the elements that "offer the additional precision required at this stage of the negotiations" in pursuit of the objective of establishing "a fair and market-oriented trading system through a process of fundamental reform". But it is quick to correct itself and states: "the final balance will be found only at the conclusion of these subsequent negotiations and within the Single Undertaking."

This formulation clearly uses the "single undertaking" notion to provide for the possibility of a compromise. In the language of the draft, too much precision is not possible in the current stage, especially given the need for a quick consensus. Since the single undertaking idea requires countries to take all or nothing, they are expected to make compromises, accepting less in some areas and gaining more in others. Countries are expected to give and take in the agricultural area, for example, in lieu of offers and demands in other spheres, so that the final balance remains tentative. The underlying assumption is that special interests of individual countries vary enough to allow for a consensus to emerge through the single undertaking route.

It should be obvious that a framework of this kind should be relatively flexible in all areas, and equally so, in order to provide space for compromise. This, however, is not the case. In agriculture, the minimum bounds of a possible compromise in terms of reduced support by the developed countries has been fixed at a relatively high level, reducing the space for negotiation. In other areas, however, the floor to which countries can be expected to proceed has either been made flexible (as in the case of non-agricultural market access or special and differential treatment for developing countries) or rendered non-existent.

This bias becomes clear in the discussions on the "three pillars" of domestic support, export competition and market access. The massive domestic support for agriculture in the U.S., the E.U. and Japan, which adversely affects global prices of agricultural commodities as well as the access of developing country exporters to developed country markets, is now well known. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Secretariat, the level of support provided to agricultural producers expressed as the monetary value of transfers from consumers and budgetary payments to producers (the Producer Support Estimate, or PSE) amounted to $230 billion in 2002 and $257 billion in 2003. This was equal to a third of the current OECD gross farm receipts. Reacting to these (or even higher) levels of support, countries have been demanding substantial reductions in overall domestic support.

WHAT the draft framework does is to divert attention from the need to adopt such policies as part of the effort to move towards a fair trading system and focus on the quantum of support that is being provided under heads other than the Green Box. The issue in focus is not the principle, or the nature, but the quantum of support. As a result, there are three different measures of support that are recognised as acceptable and discussed. These are: the aggregate measure of support (AMS), which covers only those payments made through means that are expressly considered trade-distorting; the de minimis level of support, which permits all countries to retain some degree of support through trade-distorting measures independent of their level of AMS in the benchmark year; and the total trade-distorting support, which includes support being provided through these means as well as through the adoption of Blue Box measures.

This leads up to a set of recommendations. The first is the need for substantial and effective reduction in the overall level of trade-distorting support, defined as the sum total of these three. The second is the adoption of a tiered formula for reduction in domestic support: countries with higher levels of allowed support will be expected to make deeper cuts. This tiered reduction approach will also be followed for reduction of the final bound level of aggregate support or total possible AMS, and product specific caps would be specified at their average levels during an agreed historical period, to prevent transfer of unchanged domestic support between categories. The third is the reduction of the permissible de minimis level. The fourth is a cap on the level of Blue Box support as a percentage of the average value of agricultural production. This implies the retention of the Blue Box, which was to be phased out by 2004, as a viable means of agricultural reform. There is no talk of phasing out these measures even by the end of the Doha Round, if such a Round were to begin. What is more, the draft calls for some flexibility to ensure that members providing a high share of trade distorting support through Blue Box measures would not have to make disproportionate cuts. Finally, even though there is mention of the need to review Green Box measures to ensure that they have no, "or at most minimal", trade distorting effects, it has been made clear that the basic concepts, principles and effectiveness of the Green Box should remain.

The concessions offered in return for the right to protect are in the area of export subsidies for agriculture, which are to be phased out. Since this affects the E.U. disproportionately, given its current use of such measures, an effort is made to elicit parallel commitments from other countries. There is to be a parallel elimination of trade distorting elements of export credits and export credit guarantees (that are to be on commercial terms), of practices adopted by State Trading Enterprises in export sales, and of food aid that can used as a mechanism of surplus disposal. But even here, the schedule for implementing new obligations, commitments and disciplines "will take into account the need for coherence with internal reform steps of Members". While concerns of the developed countries are consistently thus addressed, the only special concession being provided to developing countries in this area is a longer implementation period.

Even in the area of market access, there is to be single approach for developed and developing countries, with differentiation based only on the current level of tariffs using a tiered tariff reduction formula in which there would be deeper cuts in the case of higher tariffs. While least developed countries are to be exempted from a contribution, special and differential treatment for developing countries is recognised as "an integral part of all elements" but left unspecified.

Finally, a reference to "flexibilities" for sensitive products, which has pleased Japan, have been made, but concessions to developing countries for special products impinging on issues of rural development, livelihood security and food security is mentioned but left undefined and their accommodation left to the "post-framework stage".

In sum, the concern in the agricultural area during the framework stage has been to take on board the sensitivities of the developed countries, particularly the E.U., while postponing any special specification relating to developing countries. But even this does not seem to ensure full support from within the developed countries camp. French President Jacques Chirac has declared that the draft framework is "unacceptable", and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has warned the European Commission: "France cannot give its agreement to a negotiation concluded on this basis." Resentment about the role played by Lamy runs high, and he is unlikely to get official backing either for continuing in the Commission or finding a slot in other international institutions. But the European Union as a group has implicitly endorsed the draft, which is being pushed because France does not have a veto.

Having partially cleared the stumbling block within their camp, the effort of the developed countries seems to be to split the developing country camp so as to prevent any attempt by them to unite and stall the Doha Round. Interestingly, on July 13, before the release of the draft framework, trade officials from the U.S., the E.U., Brazil and India, issued a statement urging Ministers of the Group of 90 (G90) developing countries meeting in Mauritius, to back the effort to arrive at a framework agreement by the end of July. The ability to win support from India and Brazil can be attributed to efforts by these countries to use a new round to win concessions in areas relevant to them, such as cross-border supply of services in the case of India. This combined plea of two leading developing countries, in collaboration with the developed countries, put pressure on the G90 to dilute some of its demands, including the demand to negotiate separately, independent of the overall negotiations on agriculture and American subsidies on cotton that affect the livelihoods of their peasantry extremely adversely. The draft framework states that the cotton question "will be addressed ambitiously and expeditiously as an integral part of the negotiations". It deserves a mention, in the WTO's view, but not special treatment.

Earlier in May, Pascal Lamy made a controversial effort to drive a wedge into the developing country camp, by proposing that weak and vulnerable countries, which are part of the G90, should be offered the benefits of a new round "for free", by exempting them from making any liberalisation commitments. A similar proposal has come from the E.U., which calls for channelling the benefits of its preferential trade scheme more to the poorest countries, giving them advantages relative to larger developing countries such as China and India that are now the major beneficiaries of the preferential trading scheme. The intention is clearly to divide sections of developing countries and weaken their opposition to the specific form in which the developed country camp wants to push ahead with the Doha Round.

Whether such tactics would work and we would see a replay of the Uruguay Round drama remains to be seen. But as of now, the only hope that remains is that the patently unequal and biased framework draft makes it impossible for developing countries to succumb to a strategy that relies on power rather than reason to realise imperial ambitions dressed in the rhetoric of economic rationality.

In the cause of mass education

FOR visionaries like Kuruvila Jacob, retirement from service would not mean the end of the road. Although he could fulfil many of his cherished objectives as the head of three prestigious educational institutions over a period of nearly half a century (1931-1979), the distinguished educationist would still have much to offer towards revamping the education system. Neither advancing years nor a hemiparesis attack a year after he settled down in Vellore (Tamil Nadu) post-retirement deterred him from pursuing his activities in the field of his choice. Apart from advising local schools and serving on several committees, he wrote articles in newspapers on issues relating to education. The insightful articles he wrote for The Hindu during the last 10 years of his life make a survey of the post-Independence education scene. Significantly, nine of the 15 articles express his anguish over the failure of successive governments to implement the recommendations of the Indian Education Commission (1964-66) headed by D.C. Kothari.

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In the first of the articles, titled "Can we have compulsory primary education by 2000 A.D.?" (The Hindu, October 12, 1982), he identifies the causes for the "national failure" to ensure free and compulsory education for children up to the age of 14 within the 10-year timeframe envisaged by the Constitution. The first major hurdle, he points out, was the very basis of the system of education inherited from the colonial rulers. The system, patterned on public school education in England, was introduced in select areas in India in the early part of the 19th century. It was primarily intended to cater to the elite sections, but was extended to other areas as well. Kuruvila Jacob says that the three main features of the British system followed in India, namely, `single point entry" at Class 1 at the age of six, "sequential promotion", and "full-time institutional instruction", besides the book-centred course content which "cultivated white collar attitudes rather than the dignity of manual labour" could serve only the interests of India's upper and middle classes. Thus, for financial reasons, universal education is impossible under the present system. And, therefore, six nationalist leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, suggested radical modifications in the system. The article states in detail the essential features of the proposals made by the six leaders; all the proposals were shot down, for one reason or the other, by bureaucrats, teachers and political leaders. A set of proposals prepared by J.P. Naik, Adviser to the Ministry of Education and Member-Secretary of the Kothari Commission, drew on the wisdom of the authors of the earlier proposals and provided for "multi-point entry" and "part-time study". According to Kurvila Jacob, "if implemented with sincerity" the new set of proposals will serve their purpose.

In its recommendations on free and compulsory education, the Kothari Commission's report (1966), hailed by the then Union Education Minister, Justice M.C. Chagla, as "unique" and "the Magna Carta of teachers", called for "strenuous efforts" to fulfil the constitutional obligation as early as possible. It observed: "Suitable programmes should be developed to reduce the prevailing wastage and stagnation in schools and ensure that every child who is enrolled in school successfully completes the prescribed course." In an article (The Hindu, January 31, 1989) Kuruvila Jacob recommends that this and two other recommendations of the Commission, relating to "vocationalisation of higher secondary stage" and "education for moral, social and spiritual values", "be taken up seriously without further delay".

Some of the articles call for greater attention to vocational education and seek to clear certain misconceptions about the Commission's recommendations on the introduction of vocational training. The Commission estimated that at the end of the 10-year schooling period, 40 per cent of the pupils would join the workforce as wage-earners, 30 per cent would step off to join vocational courses, and the remaining (30 per cent) would continue in the general education stream for two years. Kuruvila Jacob points out that the Central Advisory Board for Education, which approved the Commission report, did not understand the provision for vocational education in the higher secondary stage and named it the "Plus Two", which, he says, "is true only for the academic college preparatory course". He explains that higher secondary schools are not expected to run all vocational courses and that some of the courses can be left to polytechnics, industrial training institutes (ITIs) and so on.

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The thrust of Kuruvila Jacob's articles is on the need to implement the Commission's recommendations, many of which "are precious for the progress of the country". He makes a spirited appeal to the authorities "to save the recommendations and not allow anyone out of ignorance to produce new policies which could result in serious loss to the country."

He has also expressed strong views against the residential Navodaya schools, which in his perception may not succeed in the Indian context of mass poverty and illiteracy. On the other hand, he advocates well-equipped and well-administered day schools with dedicated teachers as the right model. "The children of the backward communities emerging from the Navodaya schools and returning to their homes are likely to be misfits," he observes. He states emphatically, "India does not need and cannot afford the ill-planned and inefficient Navodaya Vidyalayas." In his opinion, the "folk schools" of Denmark could be the ideal model for India because the two countries, both based on agriculture, have many things in common.

A few of Kuruvila Jacob's articles touch upon issues relating to the high incidence of failure in public examinations, the poor quality of education offered and the resultant dropout, in all of which poor and backward children are the most affected. Well planned and tested syllabi, good textbooks, efficient teaching methods and remedial teaching to benefit the weaker students are some of the suggestions offered. He has made repeated reference to the efficacy of the method of Mastery Learning developed by eminent educators such as Dr. Benjamin Bloom, which improves the "learning grade" of a student and makes learning a joyous experience.

In a couple of articles, Kuruvila Jacob has thrown new light on the three-language formula introduced in schools in the early 1960s. The formula generated a controversy on linguistic and political grounds. Under the formula, students have to learn English and Hindi, the official languages, and the regional language or the mother tongue. In Hindi-speaking States, besides English and Hindi they would learn one South Indian language. There was opposition to the scheme from both Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi speaking States, the former on the grounds that there was no need for their children to learn a third language that could be of little use to them and the latter in protest against "imposing Hindi on the South". Looking at the formula from a pedagogic angle, Kuruvila Jacob states that it is "unrealistic" and places an unbearable burden on the children. Nowhere in the world are children asked to learn three languages, and that too in three scripts, at the school stage, he has pointed out.

A progressive educationist

The birth centenary of Kuruvila Jacob, educationist and institution-builder par excellence, is being celebrated this year.

HEADMASTERS are a class by themselves. They play a significant role in educating their pupils, sharpening their intellect and moulding their character. They live on in the memories of their wards - some as strict disciplinarians, some as scholars, some for their teaching skills, a few for their loving care, and fewer still for all these and more. But men like Kuruvila Jacob, whose birth centenary is celebrated on August 3, 2004, belong to a now-lost generation of headmasters whose influence went far beyond the boundaries of their institutions. Kuruvila Jacob, who served as the Headmaster of the prestigious Madras Christian College High School for three decades, is remembered to this day not only by his wards of two generations but also by enlightened members of the public for his role in shaping the education policy of the new-born Indian Republic.

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Kuruvila Jacob was the first Indian headmaster of the school, which was started by a Scottish missionary, Anderson, in 1835. When appointed to the post in 1931, Kuruvila was only 27 years old. Although he had no previous experience as a teacher, he had a Diploma and a Master's in Education from Leeds in the United Kingdom. Within a few years of his taking over, the school began to make rapid strides into being a model institution. His holistic approach to education and his strenuous efforts to ensure the all-round development of the children under his care began to pay dividends. Many of the school's alumni hail the period when he was the headmaster (1931-62) as "the golden age of the school."

The second half of his headmastership (1946-62) brought greater challenges in its wake. New governments at the Centre and in the States in independent India set in motion development planning, one of the core parts of which was public education. Kuruvila Jacob, with his long experience and proven expertise, became one of the most sought-after educationists for governments to be advised on policy initiatives. He was asked to serve on a number of committees. As a member of various study teams he had to make frequent visits to many Indian States and also to countries such as Germany, Denmark, Britain and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He served as Education Adviser to the Government of Kerala when E.M.S. Namboodiripad was the Chief Minister. Kuruvila Jacob helped the Indian Education Commission (1964-66), headed by D.S. Kothari, make its highly acclaimed recommendations for revamping the education system in the country. Although the Commission's report was termed "unique" by the then Union Education Minister, Justice M.C. Chagla, and hailed as "progressive" by many other national leaders, it saw the light of the day only after 20 years, even after which it was not implemented in full. Kuruvila Jacob waged a spirited battle through newspaper articles in order to get the recommendations implemented (see box).

BORN into an illustrious family in Cherthala in the present Alappuzha district in Kerala on August 3, 1904, Kuruvila Jacob did his school education in several towns in the then Madras Presidency as his father, Kunnerkeril Jacob, held a transferable job as District Munsiff. However, he spent the best days of his childhood in his mother's village, Aymenam, a peaceful green hamlet (which figures in Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things). Kuruvila graduated from the Madras Christian College, Chennai, in 1927. Before leaving for the U.K. to pursue higher studies at Leeds University (1929-31), he married Grace Elizabeth in 1927 as desired by his father. Three months before the completion of his post-graduate studies at Leeds, he received an offer of headmastership from the management of a school in Kottayam, Kerala, where he had studied. The Bishop of Kottayam extended the offer in person. However, Kuruvila Jacob declined it only to accept an offer from the Madras Christian College High School soon after.

When Kuruvila Jacob took charge as headmaster in 1931, he had to face a lot of resentment from the professors of the Madras Christian College because the practice until then was that one of the professors was appointed headmaster of the school. Some of the professors even resigned over the issue. But Kuruvila Jacob was able to steer clear of these hurdles with the splendid support he got from other teachers. He took a special interest in pupils who were weak in studies and introduced several measures to improve the quality of education. He felt that shifting the school from the crowded business centre of George Town to a less noisy place would help extend more facilities to students, and made special efforts to find a new location. He persuaded the management to accept the proposal and arranged for the resources needed. The school was shifted to a new, spacious building, constructed under the supervision of the headmaster, who found time for it amid his tight daily schedule. The school was provided with a number of facilities such as large playgrounds, a fully equipped laboratory and a well-stacked library.

But Kuruvila Jacob was not merely interested in technical excellence in education. He went far beyond this, and incorporated the social issues of his time in the field of education. His interest in and commitment to the cause of advancing education among Dalits, for instance, was notable. Indeed, he proved his contention that even children in the cheris (slums) could imbibe quality education if they were offered good teachers and an environment that compensated for their disadvantages.

Students of Kuruvila Jacob recall with pride their association with the institution. They say that their "H.M." encouraged students to develop their skills in whatever field they could. Marks were not the sole criterion; performance in games and extra-curricular activities was given due importance. He showed a special interest in sports and wanted his pupils to make use of all the three large playgrounds on the campus. He arranged for special coaching in cricket and other games, and encouraged pupils to participate in them. Most of the awards in inter-school competitions went to the school's teams.

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Old students recall how the headmaster arranged for his boys' frequent interaction with reputed players in various games. In 1956, the school received one such distinguished visitor, the legendary athlete Jesse Owens of the United States, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Former students recall the excellent facilities available in the hostel, which was located on the campus close to the residence of the headmaster, and feel the food served there was the "best". The Kuruvilas used to take special care of the hostelers when they fell ill. Recalling old times in an article on his father, Chakko Kuruvila, who too studied in the school, says, "The `sick room' in our house always housed a boarder, over whom my mother fussed endlessly, soothing a real or at times imagined fever which she knew was nothing more than a longing for home and a mother's touch."

AFTER retiring from the Madras Christian College High School in 1962, Kuruvila Jacob became Principal of the Hyderabad Public School at the invitation of the Andhra Pradesh government. The school, started in 1923 for the benefit of jagirdars, was in an extremely bad shape when Kuruvila Jacob took charge of it in 1962. He put it back on track by taking or threatening to take harsh measures against wrongdoers. Thanks to his efforts, the school's educational standards improved remarkably and it started attracting students from all over the country. In 1969, he was offered the post of Principal of the Bombay Cathedral and John Cannon School in Mumbai, a British school, which until then had only British heads. The school was well run, but it was completely cut off from Indian tradition and culture. Kuruvila Jacob's task was to help integrate the school into the Indian education system. One of the first things he did was to organise, for the first time, Republic Day celebrations, when the Indian tricolour was hoisted. One by one, he got rid of many of the British customs practised in the school. A parent-teacher association was formed and several innovative schemes were introduced. Since the school did not have a playground, he hired the playgrounds of some local clubs. It was during his stint at the Mumbai school that he received the Padma Shree (1970), in appreciation of his invaluable contribution to education in India. He retired from service in 1979, at the age of 75.

He and his wife settled down in Vellore, where he spent the rest of his life in the company of his children and grandchildren. He remained an educationist, articulating his views on various aspects of education in newspapers and magazines, until his death on August 25, 1991.

IN the midst of his preoccupation with the Madras Christian College High School, he was invited to join an international team of educationists, comprising four members from India, two from the U.S. and one each from England and Scandinavia. As part of the team, he visited Denmark, the U.K., and the U.S., besides travelling all over India, and made a comparative study of school education in these countries. Kuruvila Jacob found the visit very useful and felt that the Danish model of `folk school' may suit the Indian conditions as Denmark, like India, had an economy based on agriculture. Enriched by the trips, he tried to implement some of the schemes practised in other countries that he found useful. As the founder of the City Headmasters Conference in Chennai, he paved the way for joint action on issues that were of common interest, especially while dealing with officialdom.

Describing Kuruvila Jacob as "a giant among headmasters", educationist and former President of the Tamil Nadu Headmasters Association S.S. Rajagopalan recalled his contribution to the formulation of government policy on education, particularly school education, soon after Independence. "Kuruvila Jacob's role was significant in the revamping of the system at least in three respects," Rajagopalan said, in a brief interview to Frontline. The first was the introduction of the emergency teachers' training programme. When the first Education Minister of the composite Madras State in Independent India, T.S. Avinashilingam Chettiar, wanted to open schools in all villages under a mass education project, he felt that one of the major hurdles was the shortage of teachers. Kuruvila Jacob, who was consulted on this, suggested an emergency short-duration training programme on the pattern of the post-War project of the British government to provide jobs for discharged soldiers. The government accepted the suggestion. The second suggestion, to introduce bifurcated vocational courses such as engineering, agriculture, secretarial practice and teaching, was also accepted. As a member of the Board of Secondary Education he could get the suggestion implemented in Madras Presidency in 1948 with the support of Professor G.R. Damodaran, another member of the Board.

The third area in which Kurvila Jacob played a key role related to the modification of History and Geography syllabi. During the British period, schools taught "The outlines of the History of England and India, and Geography." Indian history dealt only with kings and emperors, the disunity among them, and so on; there was nothing about the people. Avinashilingam Chettiar wanted the history of England to be dropped and the rest revamped with stress on people's history and progress over the centuries. This was sought to be done on the basis of American philosopher John Dewey's views. A new subject, Social Studies, which traced the evolution of human civilisations, was suggested. Kuruvila Jacob played an important role in preparing the syllabus. However, this had to be diluted later, under pressure from a section of teachers. The result was that only the merger of Indian history and geography took place.

Kuruvila Jacob was forthright in his comments on education policies, Rajagopalan said. He added: "Fearlessness and staunch independence were the hallmarks of his character." He said that while dealing with officials Kuruvila Jacob was polite but not docile. The author of Kuruvila Jacob's forthcoming biography, Usha Jesudasan, has found that "faith" and a "sense of gratitude" were the most important elements of his life. In his Foreword to the biography, Editior-in-Chief, The Hindu, N. Ram, who is also an alumnus of the school, observes: "Kuruvila Jacob was a visionary with the gift of practicality, which made him a great institution-builder. ... Strong and clear in his personal faith, he was exceptionally broad-minded, secular, and progressive."

The Chennai-based Late Kuruvila Jacob Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee will soon be launching "Kuruvila Jacob initiative for excellence in school education," according to one of the conveners of the committee, S. Viji. "The basic objective of the initiative is to enhance the operational performance of schools in educating students," explained I. Jairaj, a member of the core committee. There can be no better tribute to a visionary who throughout his life championed the cause of affordable quality education for all.

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Oct 9,2020