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How the Badals spread their control over Punjab (and why it is eroding)

Following up on yesterday’s story, part 3 of our series on Punjab under the Akali Dal.

In Punjab, the domination of the government machinery by the Badal clan is near complete. It starts right from the top, the cabinet of ministers, and trickles down to the ground, to the level of the police station.

Here is how.

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Why children in Manipur are writing postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Stacked on a dining table which doubles up as a workdesk in the office of Human Rights Alert lie postcards written by schoolchildren in Manipur and addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and save democracy in India.

For years, Manipur’s people have been appealing and agitating for the removal of the act which grants immunity to military forces operating in parts of India declared as “disturbed” areas. But in the last week of May, the efforts received an unexpected boost when Tripura lifted AFSPA. “We wanted to send 25,000 cards,” said Babloo Loitongbam, the executive director of Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based organisation, “but the post office did not have enough. We are sending 3,500 in the first batch.”

Unlike Tripura, where the act was put in place in 1997, AFSPA and its colonial precursors have been in force in Manipur since 1950. The colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942 was first deployed in the state to quell popular unrest when Manipur was merged into India. It became the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act in 1958 which was put in place to help the army crack down on the violent ethnic insurgencies taking root in the state.

Sixty four years under AFSPA and its predecessor have scarred Manipur. Despite the heavy military presence, the state remains one of the most violent parts of India. Over the last decade and a half, several insurgent groups in the state have morphed into extortion rackets. There is an accompanying breakdown in the functioning of the state government. Corruption is high. Not to mention a runaway VIP culture.

My field report from Manipur.

soni sori

another face of the indian state.

when claims of indian exceptionalism run into bhopal gas survivors

in a month, it will be 27 years since the gas leaked out of that tank in union carbide’s bhopal plant. it is an event which has never quite lost its ability to shock people — the scale of the disaster; the state’s brutal abandonment of the gas affected; the subsequent discovery that households living near the plant’s toxic dumps and drinking the groundwater there were reporting severe abnormalities in new borns and high incidences of cancer; rapidly followed by the bhopal administration siting — wait for it — the new agricultural grain mandi about 500 metres away from these erstwhile evaporation ponds where carbide used to dump its slurry and, for good measure, allowing new houses to come up in the area; the hospital erected to take care of the gas victims slowly turning them all away and treating the city’s affluent instead… i could go on.

three days ago, my edit page editor, tk arun, and i found something new to be horrified by. new documents have been unearthed which reveal that…

Weeks after the tragic Bhopal gas leak in December 1984, the Indian government mutely accepted a settlement offered by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). Among other things, UCC’s offer outlined the quantum of compensation to be paid out to victims and how injuries were to be categorised and compensated. In exchange , it wanted “extinguishment” of all claims against UCC, its Indian subsidary, Union Carbide India Limited, and its staff.

and, wouldn’t you know it, the government agreed. hook, line and sinker. take a look at this story. it briefly explains what the proposal was, why it was flawed. and yet, the bureaucrats and the rajiv gandhi government accepted the whole thing. no application of thought. even though the scale of the accident (india’s first industrial accident which involved communities living around the plant and not just the workers) far outstripped provisions in existing laws.

and you know the worse bit? it has been said that nothing challenges the idea of india as much as the bhopal gas tragedy. not really. there are a thousand unfolding/unfolded bhopals in this country. plant after plant under-represents the risks they expose local populations to. poverty forces people to live close to these. others, to work in them. their pollution leaches, usually untreated, into rivers and the earth. and the safety mechanisms rarely work.

these are not generalised rants. a friend, who did his phd on the nuke plant at kudankulam, told me once that the plant had told locals about low noise levels. not about the threat of radiation. as for the other assertions. poverty pushes people to live in cheaper, if higher risk, areas — slums along the riverside, next to drains. as for the pollution, i am reminded of a trip as a freelancer to orissa. plants were dumping waste into the hirakud dam’s reservoir! incredible, that. because those waters are then used for irrigation. in the same trip, i also heard about how plants would switch off their smoke/pollution capturing systems to save on bijli (electricity).

and 27 years after bhopal, while we have better laws, we continue to be crap at enforcing them.

not a country given to learning from its much-feted past, india.

ps – also see this story written last year after the court awarded two year jail terms, a mere 26 years after the event, to some of the staff and senior managers in UCC’s Indian ops.

Civil Liberties in an Age of Biometrics

Biometrics are the latest craze in Delhi’s crumbling corridors of power. The census department is capturing them. So is the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). As are a myriad others – banking correspondents, state governments, government programmes like the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, the ministry of rural development for NREGA workers, the home ministry in India’s coastal areas, etc…

…It seems safe to say that, sooner or later, we will all share our fingerprints, iris scans, what have you, with one or more institutions.

Sadly, even as opinion has converged inside government about the desirability of using biometrics, there has been little discussion about the safeguards that need to accompany this transition to biometrics. Think about it. Till now, privacy asserted our rights over our thoughts and interactions with others. Biometrics, on the other hand, capture and share information about our bodies.

As such, they create fresh vulnerabilities…

The complete story, here.

Union Carbide. Reflections

this is the first of three opinionated stories i wrote for et’s 50th anniversary. i cannot find the links to these on the website, and so am pasting the raw text itself.

Blackened and twisted from the heat of the reaction, tank 610 lies on its side. Twenty-six years ago, on the night of 2nd-3rd December, it is from this tank in Union Carbide’s Bhopal factor that Methyl Isocyanate leaked out and spread, cloudlike, across a large part of the city. It was the world’s worst industrial disaster. Official numbers estimate that almost 4,000 people died that night. Tens of thousands were permanently disabled.

It’s an event that exposes a strange paradox about the Indian state. Think about it. On one hand, in the years after the leak, India made radical changes to her environmental law. Till the leak, industrial risk was understood as something confined to the factory. It was not till Bhopal that the definition of the community at risk widened and brought the community living around the project into the calculus of industrial risk.

The legislative response was the Environmental (Protection) Act (1986). It authorizes the central government to protect and improve environmental quality, to control and reduce pollution from all sources, and to prohibit or restrict the setting and/or operation of any industrial facility on environmental grounds. Today, it is an umbrella Act from which myriad other environmental laws, like the Environmental Impact Assessment notification, etc, derive their authority.

Another response came from the Supreme Court where, while ruling on a subsequent Oleum Gas leak in Delhi, Justice PN Bhagwati added the principle of Absolute Liability to India’s legal liability regime. Says environmental lawyer Videh Upadhyay, “When the Indian government tried to hold Union Carbide responsible for the disaster, the best legal principle available to it was the strict liability principle. Derived from British Common Law, this says any industry engaged in hazardous activity is liable for adverse consequences even if the industry/enterprise is not directly responsible for them. However, mitigating conditions could be factored in, like acts of god, acts of strangers, etc.”

While ruling on the Oleum case, Justice Bhagwati did away with the exemptions. His order said: “Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, for example, in escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability.”

This landmark legal principle, says Upadhyay, was developed in the backdrop of Bhopal. Joining other environmental principles like Polluter Pays and the Precautionary Principle, it has been used extensively since then.

It shows the caring side of the Indian state. But, look at how the victims have been treated, and you see something strikingly different.

In all these years, regardless of the party in power, the victims’ struggle for compensation and treatment has continued. A combination of disinterested gas relief hospitals and almost non-existent medical research into the effects of the gas leak on humans has resulted in the gas victims getting little more than palliative treatment for their medical problems. The symptoms get treated but little else more. Poor attempts at social and economic rehabilitation have resulted in them sinking deep into poverty.

Saddest of all, the number of victims has been swelled by a second generation of victims. Some are children born to badly-affected survivors are blind, lame, with limbs twisted or missing, deaf and mute, brain-damaged, with hare-lips, cleft palates, webbed fingers, cerebral palsy or tumours where there should be eyes. Others are those who unknowingly bought land abutting the ponds outside the plant where Carbide used to dump its chemical slurry. This water-affected population, reports Sambhavna Clinic, a charity set up to help gas victims, is showing an incidence of birth defects that is ten times the national average.

A strange paradox, indeed.