Movement of thought

September 29, 2010

Touch and Go

Filed under: Article — movementofthought @ 1:38 pm

by Basharat Peer

[Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night. This article was originally published in Open magazine]

On the morning of 16 September, the doctors at New Delhi’s premier Apollo Hospital gave up on their efforts to save Yasir Rafiq Sheikh, a 27-year-old shopkeeper from Maisuma area in Srinagar. In the evening, on hearing of his death, equipped with a curfew pass, I drove with a few journalist friends past hundreds of edgy soldiers, past the coils of barbed wire blocking the desolate roads, to Sheikh’s home near Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.

Yasir was Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Chairman Yasin Malik’s cousin, and lived in a house next to his. Malik wore a traditional black kurta pyjama, and his phone rang incessantly. “They are bringing him home tomorrow,” he said on the phone. Malik’s nephew, Ashfaq Jan, a tall, wiry, 18-year-old, who had been with Sheikh when they were shot, joined us. On 30 August, around 10 in the morning, Jan, Sheikh and their friends were playing carom on the street outside their houses. There was no curfew that day, but separatists had issued a call for a hartal (public strike). Some teenagers had gathered in the street and the armed police deployed there were asking them not to step onto the main road, a block away.

Jan and Sheikh kept playing carom. A policeman shouted at them to go back in. “We said we weren’t protesting or pelting stones. We were simply playing carom,” Jan told me. As the policeman continued shouting, another charged at them and fired a pellet gun. “I saw a ball of fire rushing at us. We tried to run, but I was hit and lost consciousness,” said Jan, a class 12 student who is preparing for medical school. Jan was saved, but several pellets remain lodged inside his body, forming small lumps beneath his skin.

The pellet-gun fires small pieces of metal, and scores of pellets had hit Yasir Sheikh in his abdomen and shattered his aorta, the main artery from the heart to the kidneys. “He had lost most of his blood by the time they brought him here,” Dr Mustafa Kamal, one of the doctors manning the injured-filled surgical ward at a major Srinagar hospital, told me. “Around 20 cm of his intestines were cut by pellets and had to be removed. We gave him 20 pints of blood, but the loss of blood led to the collapse of his kidneys,” he said. After ten days, he was moved to Delhi’s Apollo, but couldn’t be saved.

It has been getting harder to keep track of deaths in Kashmir. The current wave of protests against Indian rule grew after the extra-judicial killings of three Kashmiri villagers by the Indian Army in April in Machil sector near Kupwara, and intensified in June after 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo, who was returning home from tuition, was killed by a teargas shell fired by the police trying to disburse young protesters. In the following three months, the police and paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have already killed 106 Kashmir protesters and bystanders, including children aged 8 and 9. Kashmir’s bottomless rage against the Indian Government and its troops is only growing. Walls all over Kashmir are painted with the slogans: ‘We Want Freedom!’ ‘Go India, Go Back!’

If one had to think of a singular image that has widened the gulf between Kashmir and New Delhi, it is the killing of eight-year-old Sameer Rah in Srinagar’s Batamaloo area on 1 August. On that afternoon, Sameer asked his father, a fruit vendor who was home because of the curfew, for Rs 5 to buy sweets at a corner shop in an inner lane that was open. Fayaz, his father, gave him Rs 2, and the class 2 student rushed out of the house. Sameer, carrying a cricket bat in his hand, had raised some slogans in the street without realising that a group of CRPF men was around. According to eyewitnesses, the men in uniform caught hold of the eight-year-old, beat him up, trampled upon him till he fainted, and then threw him on the road. Of course, the CRPF claims the boy was killed in a stampede. The crowd that gathered to pick up the eight-year-old’s body was tear-gassed. The doctors at SMHS hospital in Srinagar couldn’t save Sameer.

How does one process that? What effect does that have on a people?

To make things worse, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s callous government has continued a relentless curfew, which has not even made exceptions for pharmacies and medical laboratories. Hospitals have been facing a serious shortage of medicines and the impossibility of conducting various medical tests that depend on private pharmacies and medical facilities. In the intensive care unit of SMHS hospital, where the eight-year-old Sameer Rah died, Dr Mustafa Kamal and his colleagues spoke of the desperate need for medicines and certain foods. Over the weekend, I spoke to one of Kashmir’s foremost eye surgeons, Dr Bashir Chapoo, who runs a hospital in central Srinagar. Troops hadn’t let him travel to his hospital for more than a week. “I have patients with eye injuries who might lose their sight if I don’t reach them soonest,” Dr Chapoo told me. Seventeen of his patients had pellets fired by the police and troops stuck in their eyes. I called him a few days later. “I am still stuck at home despite two curfew passes. Most of my patients have left the hospital now, and I have no idea where they are and in what condition,” Dr Chapoo told me Tuesday afternoon. “I couldn’t help. I couldn’t reach there. Two have already lost their eyes in my hospital, and that is one small hospital.”

The curfew continues with a few hour breaks once a week. The bustle of Kashmiri mornings has been replaced by an eerie silence. Stray dogs stroll leisurely on our street and the sound of chirping birds dominates the day. The publication of morning papers stopped after the troops beat up the newsagents. Internet and Facebook updates by young Kashmiris, giving details of what they witnessed in their areas, are chilling.

I had a glimpse of the sorrow and anger that is swelling in Kashmir on Friday, 17 September, when Yasir Sheikh’s body was flown back from Delhi for burial. Hundreds of men and women stood in grieving circles outside his house. The men raised loud slogans for freedom from India, but it was the women and girls, dressed mostly in floral printed suits, who articulated the loss. As Sheikh’s body was brought out in a wooden coffin, the women sang the songs they traditionally sing for a groom when he leaves to get his bride. The lyrics, sung in Kashmiri, praised the slain boy’s beauty and youth. “Raju morukh begunaah!” (An innocent Raju was murdered!) went the refrain. Raju was Yasir Sheikh’s nickname. As the pallbearers moved past the spot where he had played his last game of carom, a thousand tears dropped. His distraught old father followed, showering him with almonds and confectionery.

Kashmir has seen this moment thousands of times earlier. I walked away wondering: how much sorrow can a people bear? How many more deaths will it take for Delhi to come up with a significant political response?

The Cabinet Committee on Security and All Party meetings in Delhi last week had only added to the disappointment in Kashmir, since even moderate demands like revoking or repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) were rejected—despite recommendations of a committee set up in 2006 by the PM himself that these laws ‘should be reviewed and revoked’ because they ‘impinge on fundamental rights of citizens and adversely affect the public’. Scaling back troops from residential areas wasn’t even discussed, but a delegation of MPs was sent to Kashmir to assess the scene.

Kashmir has been a world away from the hopeful spring of 2007, when back-channel talks between Indian and Pakistani diplomats, encouraged by Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, came close to an agreement on a largely autonomous Kashmir with soft borders between the Indian and Pakistan controlled parts, followed by demilitarisation of the region. “It was supposed to be an interim arrangement for the next five or ten years, and then the people of Kashmir, India and Pakistan could take a call and move towards a final arrangement,” Mirwaiz Umer Farooq told me.

But Musharraf lost power, talks lost steam and then broke down after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008. Moderates like Farooq, who championed peace talks without any results, found themselves marginalised in Kashmir. The popularity of the 81-year-old separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani has soared, and the only lull in the protests in the past few months occurred when he appealed to protesters last month to desist.

On 20 September morning, when the MPs were about to fly to Kashmir, while the Army and police guarded the road from Srinagar airport to the city, the state government got municipal workers to whitewash the separatist graffiti on the walls and houses along the way. The visit was turning out to be of little consequence, as Kashmir remained under lockdown and they met a carefully chosen few at a much-guarded conference centre on the outskirts of Srinagar.

But things can change in a moment. That afternoon, five MPs led by the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury showed up at Geelani’s Srinagar home. Two other groups met Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik. Geelani had set five preconditions for peace talks with India: New Delhi should accept Kashmir as a dispute, set political prisoners free, demilitarise the region, punish the troops guilty of civilian killings, and withdraw controversial laws like the AFSPA. “If the Centre responds positively to these demands, we will review the ongoing agitation in the state and renew the engagement. If there is no response, then we will have no option but to continue our struggle,” Geelani told the delegation in front of TV cameras that he had insisted on. “We will take up the five points with the Government of India,” said Yechury.

The meeting is being seen in Kashmir as an acknowledgement of the troubles and need to begin a conversation. Soon after the meeting with Geelani ended, I walked a few miles from my south Srinagar home to Lal Chowk to the newspaper offices complex. The roads remained blocked with coils of barbed wire, and on producing a journalist’s identity card and requesting the CRPF men to let me proceed, I found myself answering questions they had about the delegation. “Has anything happened?” I was asked at every checkpoint. I repeated the story about Geelani’s meeting with Yechury and others. “Arre yeh toh badhiya khabar hai. Geelani baatcheet karega, tabhi yahaan kuchh ho sakta hai,” one said. “Phir toh shaayad kal parrson se shanti ho sakti hai,” another hoped. They too seemed tired and hoping for a serious conversation to begin that would lead us out of this unending siege.

Imran Bhat, a college student, is one of the best known stone-pelters of Srinagar. He sees the visit as achieving something only if some of Geelani’s demands are conceded: “It is good they have talked to Geelani, but they need to follow this up with some concrete steps. They must act on some of the demands he placed before them. For one, they must release the hundreds of political prisoners imprisoned under the Public Security Act. Otherwise, we will be back on the streets.” Back? In actual fact, even as the delegation spoke to politicians in Srinagar, there was a fresh bout of stone-pelting downtown.

Under such circumstances, what Manmohan Singh’s Government does next on Kashmir will be its big test. In Delhi, the BJP has already distanced itself from the decision by members of the All Party Delegation to engage with separatist leaders. With little more than a month left for the much-coveted visit of US President Barack Obama, it will take political courage for Delhi to offer what has been suggested among others by the People Democratic Party’s Mehbooba Mufti: unconditional talks. That could open some space not just for Geelani but for moderates as well to become part of the peace process. It may well be the only way to save Kashmir—and India itself—from future calamities.



November 5, 2009

Drought of Justice, Flood of Funds – P. Sainath

Filed under: Article — movementofthought @ 5:47 pm

[ Some times they blame it on drought, some times on flood, sometimes on hoarding and sometimes on  black-marketing. The price rise in the food items is a constant phenomena in the last few years and since 2004, it is the highest for any period in the country. This year also when overall inflation rate remains at around 1.5%, prices of food items have gone up 13.4% in the last one year. In this article, P Sainath is exploring the reason why food prices are going up while cars, air lines and other luxury items are getting cheaper!!

This article was originally published in ‘The Hindu’ newspaper on 15th August 2009.  – Editor]

Sure, August is proving an unusual month. But what an extraordinary one July was. We celebrated the delivery of the cheapest car in the world and the costliest tur dal (pigeon pea) in our history within the same 31 days. And it took some work to get there. The price of tur dal was around Rs.34 a kilogram just after the 2004 elections, Rs. 54 before the 2009 polls, Rs. 62 just after and now, at over Rs. 90, bids for three-figure status. (49 rupees = $1.)
The euphoria of July also saw Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia of the Planning Commission declare that the “worst is behind us.” (Though it must be conceded he had said that even in June and possibly earlier). That’s good. I only wish they’d told us when the worst was upon us. It would have been nice to know. Otherwise, it gets hard to appreciate improvement.
As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister suggest the worst could be ahead of us. And they don’t mean the swine flu. Both appear to have written off much of the kharif (summer or monsoon) crop. They advise us to buckle up for a further rise in food prices due to the drought they now say affects 177 districts. That they’ve thrown in the towel on the kharif crop is evident in their calling for more efficient planning of the rabi (winter crop). Yet, the government had two months during which it could have opted for compensatory production of foodgrain in regions getting relatively better rainfall. But there was no effort at monsoon management.
Even today there are very useful things that could be done to counter the worst ahead. A positive step taken by the Rural Development Ministry now allows small but vital assets like farm ponds to be created on the lands of farmers through the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme NREGS . A pond on every farm should be the objective of every government. (Incidentally, this would help hugely with the rabi season. It would also ease the hostility of quite a few farmers towards the NREGS.) A massive expansion of the NREGS will also help cushion the hundreds of thousands of laborers struggling to find work and devastated by rising food costs. But it would call for throwing out the entirely destructive 100-days-per-household limit on work under the scheme. With the Prime Minister calling for anti-drought measures on “a war footing,” this should be the time to do it.
The price-rise-due-to-drought warning is a fraud. Of course, a drought and major crop failure will push up prices further. But prices were steadily rising for five years since the 2004 elections, long before a drought. Take the years between 2004 and 2008 when you had some good monsoons. And more than one year in which we claimed “record production” of foodgrain. The price of rice went up 46 per cent, that of wheat by over 62 per cent, atta (whole wheat flour) 55 per cent, salt 42 per cent and more. By March 2008, the average increase in price of such items was already well over 40 per cent. Then these rose again till a little before the 2009 polls and have risen dramatically in the past three months.
The agriculture minister appears to have figured out that the stunning rise in the price of pulses may have little to do with drought. “There is no reason,” he finds, “for prices to rise in this fashion merely on a supply-demand gap.” He then went on to find a valid reason: “blackmarketing or hoarding.” But he stayed silent on forward trading in agricultural commodities. Many senior ministers have long maintained that “there is no evidence” that speculation related to forward trading has had any impact on food prices. (The ban on trading in wheat futures was lifted even before the results of the 2009 polls were announced in May. And existing bans on other items have been challenged in interpretation.)
The price rise since 2004 could be the highest for any period in the country barring perhaps the pre-emergency period. For the media, of course, July was far more interesting for the political price in Parliament over the Gas war between the Ambani brothers. When these two barons brawl, governments can fall. Also, how could atta be more interesting than airline tickets (the prices of which fell dramatically over several years). Food prices may have gone up but airline travel costs went down and those are the prices that mattered.
So the price of aviation turbine fuel became a far more to-be-covered thing as private airlines threatened a strike demanding public money bailouts. At the time of writing, it appears the government will try and make things cheaper for them. These airline owners include some associated with the Indian Premier League cricket enterprise, which got crores of rupees worth of tax write-offs last year. Maharashtra waived entertainment tax on the IPL. And with so many games held in Mumbai that proved a bonanza for the barons paid for by the public.
There’s always money for the Big Guys. Take a look at the budget and the “Revenues foregone under the central tax system.” The estimate of revenues foregone from corporate revenues in 2008-09 $ 14.3 billion. By contrast, the NREGs covering tens of millions of impoverished human beings gets $ 8.1 billion in the 2009-10 budget.
Remember the great loan waiver of 2008, that historic write-off of the loans of indebted farmers? Recall the editorials whining about ‘fiscal imprudence?’ That was a one-time, one-off waiver covering countless millions of farmers and was claimed to touch $14.5 billion. But over $ 27 billion (in direct taxes) have been doled out in concessions in just two budgets to a tiny gaggle of merchants hogging at the public trough, without a whimper of protest in the media. Imagine what budget giveaways to corporates since 1991 would total. We’d be talking many trillions of rupees.
Imagine if we were able to calculate what the corporate mob has gained in terms of revenue foregone in indirect taxes. Those would be much higher and would mostly swell the corporate kitty for the simple reason that producers rarely pass on these gains to consumers. Let’s take only what the budget tells us (Annexure 12, Table 12, p.58). Income foregone in 2007-08 due to direct tax concessions was $ 12.9 billion. That foregone on excise duty was $ 18.20 billion. And on customs duty $ 31.9 billion. That adds up to $ 63.1 billion. Even if we drop export credit from this, it comes to well over $ 41.6 billion. For 2008-09, that figure would be over $ 62.4 billion. That’s a very conservative estimate. This is just from the union budget. It does not include all manner of subsidies and rate cuts and other freebies to the corporate sector. But it’s big enough.
Simply put, the corporate world has grabbed concessions of over $104 billion in just two years that total more than seven times the ‘fiscally imprudent’ farm loan waiver. In fact, it means that on average we’ve been feeding the corporate world close to $ 145 million a day every day in those two years. Imagine calculating what this figure would be, in total rupees, since 1991. Ask for an expansion of the NREGS, seek universal access to the PDS, plead for more spending on public health and education – and there’s no money. Yet there’s enough to give away over $ 6 million an hour to the corporate world in concessions.
If Indian corporations saw their net profits rise in April-June this year, despite gloom and doom around them, there’s a reason. All that feeding frenzy at the public trough. The same quarter saw 170,000 organized sector jobs lost in the very modest estimate of the Labour Ministry. That’s not counting the 1.5 million said to have been lost in just the export sector between September and April by the then Commerce Secretary.
And now comes the drought. A convenient villain to hang all our man-made distress on — and sure to oblige by adding greatly to that distress. A huge fall in farm incomes is in the offing. If the government wants to act on a war footing, it could start with a serious expansion of the NREGS (about the only lifejacket people in districts like Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh have at this point, for instance). It could launch, among many other things, the pond-in-every-farm program. It could restructure farm loan schedules. It could start getting the idea of monsoon management into its thinking. It could curb forward trading-linked speculation that was driving one of our worst price rises in history long before the drought was on the horizon. And it could declare universal access to the Public Distribution System. That cost could probably be easily covered by say, cancelling the dessert from the menu of the unending corporate free lunch in this country.

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