Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Apex court's anti-corruption move is praiseworthy but not enough

The Supreme Court creates sensation every time it comes up with a new judgment. History repeated itself when the Supreme Court upheld a judgment of the Kerala High Court about sports officials being public servants and hence liable under the Prevention of Corruption Act. This definitely marks a strong commitment on part of the Indian judiciary irrespective of whether it will guarantee the end of corruption in sports or not.

Such a judgment is relevant in today’s context when corruption is rampant not only in sports bodies but also in other streams of life. Sports body officials handle huge public funds. They can’t resist the temptation of misappropriating money. Kerala Cricket Association officials are alleged to have misappropriated Rs 28.42 crore received from BCCI in 2004-08 and Rs 1.88 lakh received from the state for promotion of cricket. There are massive corruption charges on Commonwealth Games officials.

Corruption has also spread its tentacles to other fields like social work and microfinance. Unfortunately, social work is a sector with little accountability but huge responsibility and has exceeded the $1 trillion mark globally. Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in the developing world have recourse to over $15 billion. The number of NGOs in India is estimated to be over 3.3 million with over 19.4 million people engaged. There is evidence of rampant corruption worldwide. Transparency International ranks NGOs in Kenya as the second most corrupted body in terms of taking bribes. The Council for the Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) in India has blacklisted 400 NGOs while another 3,000 NGOs have been blacklisted by the Central Social and Welfare Board (CSWB) on the ground of irregularities of fund allocation and misconduct. India’s microfinance sector has reached the $7 billion mark, with over 120 million homes having no access to banking. About 70 million people have benefitted from microfinance. As per a CRISIL research, there are over 3,000 MFIs and NGO-MFIs, out of which, about 400 have active lending programmes. There are often news of misuse of funds.

NGOs and MFIs handle huge funds, often the same as sports bodies. Under the new SC verdict, if sports officials are public servants chargeable under the Prevention of Corruption Act, social workers and MFIs should be equally chargeable under the same corruption act. This will be another way to push the lazy Indian government to act. To reiterate again, it will not guarantee the end of corruption but will show the commitment of the existing Indian judiciary.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Manipur cops rub scribes the wrong way

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The arrest of a respected editor on an allegedly trumped up charge sees journalists cease work

No newspaper was published in Manipur for six consecutive days as scribes protested against the arrest of A. Mobi, editor of Sanaleibak. Mobi, who is also the vice-president cum spokesperson of the All Manipur Working Journalists' Union (AMWJU), was arrested on the charge of being an activist of the proscribed Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Tabungba Group.

Mobi, who is 55 years old, was picked up at around 9.30 am on December 29 by police commandos in civil dresses who came on a pedal rickshaw. The police claimed to have recovered “extorted” money amounting to Rs 50,000, two mobile handsets, a LML NV scooter bearing no registration number from Mobi's possession. Section 17 and 20 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act were slapped on him and the police filed a case under FIR No 575 (12) 10 IPS. He was remanded to police custody till January 5 and was produced in the court of the chief judicial magistrate, Imphal.

As news of the arrest spread, scribes gathered at Manipur Press Club and discussed the charges levelled against him. Standing firmly behind the editor, AMWJU labelled it as a frame-up. Setting the record straight, AMWJU said that Mobi was in his office room when police commandos arrived in a rickshaw under the guise of KCP members and arrested him.

Apart from being the vice-president of AMWJU, Mobi shouldered the additional responsibility of being its spokesperson to mitigate the various threats that the media in the state is routinely subjected to. With the state police unable to instil a sense of security amongst the media professionals and instances such as sending bombs to media offices, threats issued by armed groups or physical attacks on the offices of the newspaper on the rise, AMWJU turned to Mobi. As Mobi was the contact man of AMWJU, the banned KCP had contacted him some time back for a meeting between them and the Manipuri media outside the state. Since the matter was sensitive, it was kept a secret and not spelt out to all AMWJU members.

However, as AMWJU had no provision to bear the expenditure involved in the travel of journalists to meet the underground cadres, KCP agreed to foot the Rs 50,000 bill. They said the amount would be delivered to Mobi’s office at 9:30 am on December 29. Accordingly, Mobi waited for them at his office.

Mobi received a call in the morning that the sum of Rs 50, 000 meant for the travel expenditure of the media persons has been dispatched and that he may collect the same from two people in a pedal rickshaw parked outside his office.

However, when Mobi went out of his office to collect the money, the two people outside pulled out guns. He tried to fight them, he thought they were underground cadres. But the two identified themselves as police commandos. At that very moment, Mobi received a call from a KCP pointsman who called to enquire whether he had received the money. The police team forced him to say yes. When AMWJU representatives met him in police custody in the evening, Mobi told them that he had not even seen the amount which the police claimed to have seized from his possession. At the time of his arrest, he only had Rs 2000 in his pocket. That amount was seized along with two mobile phones and the keys of his scooter. AMWJU has refuted all charges levelled against Mobi as nothing but a blatant frame-up. The Rs 50,000 which the police claimed was seized from Mobi, was actually brought by the police commandos, AMWJU says.

To settle the matter, AMWJU representatives wanted to meet chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh in the evening of December 29. They were denied permission but nonetheless submitted a memorandum to the chief minister. It highlighted the fabricated charges levelled against Mobi and demanded his unconditional release. The same copy was also submitted to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, seeking his intervention in the matter. A memorandum went out to the Governor of Manipur Gurbachan Jagat too. A 10-member AMWJU team met with the chief minister on December 30. The CM said that the police had a different take on the matter and assured the delegation of needful action after consultation with the DGP and other top ranking police officers.

However, the words of assurance did not translate into real action. The journalists decided to strike to mark their protest. Rallies and sit-in demonstrations were part of the agitation that continued till January 4. No newspaper was published in the state of Manipur from December 31 to January 5. On January 5, Mobi was freed on bail at around 3.30 pm. Scribes resumed work from that very day.

Even though scribes resumed their duties, they decided on a media boycott of ministers and MLAs of Congress and CPI, partners in the SPF government, and all functions and events they were taking part in. Journalists also would not entertain press releases and statements of these two parties. Additionally, newspapers would not publish police statements including those highlighting their achievements till the demands of AMWJU was met by the government, said AMWJU president Khogendro Khomdram.

Mobi was granted bail in consideration of the fact that Sanaleibak daily might remain out of print if its editor continued to remain under police custody. It would amount to denial of information to the people. The health condition of Mobi was taken into account as well. Mobi was released with a surety bond of Rs 50,000 along with a directive that he should report to the investigative officer every Sunday.

After he was released, Mobi called his arrest a sign of danger for media persons. He said, while in police custody, he was forced to sign papers admitting to the charges levelled against him. Apart from this, he was subjected to harassment. No food was provided to him on his release day. He further added that scribes in the state were working under pressure from both the state government and the underground groups and that the police was doing nothing to protect the journalists. He also said that he would give up journalism if the charges were found to be true.

The Ethno Heritage Council (HERICOUN), the All Communities United Front, Manipur (ACUF), National Federation of Newspaper Employees and other civil society bodies strongly condemned the editor's arrest.

One of the oldest regional political parties, the Manipur People's Party (MPP), has also stood by the editor. Party chief Y.Mangi told TSI that the arrest was an attempt to blot the image of journalists working in the state. “Such conduct of the police has raised suspicion as to whether the state government is trying to gag the media,” he said.

Recalling the instances of underground elements being arrested along with arms from the quarters of ministers and MLAs some years back and the killing of SDO Dr Thingnam Kishan and Imphal Free Press' Rishikanta, Mangi demanded to know what steps the government has taken in these cases.

In the memorandum submitted to the Manipur Governor, AMWJU stated that the media was being targeted by the state police for its role in exposing the alleged fake encounter at BT Road on July 23, 2009, which is under CBI investigation. Several police officers were allegedly involved in the incident. So far four scribes have been gunned down by police and underground groups. There have been countless attempts on their lives, numerous arrests, many instances of harassment. Some journalists survive with bullet holes.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Prakash Kaur, 60, began life as a foundling. Today she is mother to 60-odd abandoned girls in a unique shelter in Jalandhar, Punjab

The woman behind the home is Prakash Kaur, who was herself left on the streets as a baby 60 years ago. Since 1993, she has dedicated her life to the noble but onerous mission of rescuing unwanted and unclaimed newborn girls and giving them a secure home and future.

Today, Unique Home for Girls has 60-odd residents who call Prakash Kaur mother. “They are my own children,” the lady says. “They are never made to feel like abandoned children.”

As we walk around the home, it is easy to see that her claim is quite well-founded. Even as her ‘family’ expands and her responsibilities grow, Prakash Kaur’s fount of maternal compassion shows no signs of drying up.

She has touched the lives of many who’ve been cruelly shunned by their own. Siya was only a few hours old when she was found in a drain, wrapped in a black polythene bag. Reva was a newborn when her parents decided to dump her near the highway off Kapurthala. Razia and Rabiya were just a few days old when they were discovered in the fields outside Jalandhar.

These girls have all found shelter in Unique Home, where they now enjoy the real family experience that their pitiless parents chose to deprive them of simply because of their gender. The girls who live here range from the age of four days to 19 years.

Unique Home is run by a trust named after Bhai Ghanayya Ji, a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh. The trust aims to raise these children as healthy individuals and arm them with all the social skills and educational qualifications that they need to face life on their own terms. The girls could not have found a better person than Prakash Kaur for the job of providing them with support and succour.

Most of Unique Home’s inmates arrive here as hapless, barely alive foundlings. So they have no recollections of how they are brought here. But those that have grown up in the life-affirming warmth of this home are proud that they belong here.

Under Prakash Kaur’s care and tutelage, these girls are all well adjusted individuals willing and able to take their rightful place in a society that still seems to harbour a strong aversion to children of their gender.

Prakash Kaur is acutely aware of the challenges that lie before her, but she has faith. “Yeh uparwaale ka kaam hai. Jab ussney yeh zimmedaari di hai to himmat bhi wohi dega. Jab aaj tak mujhe koi mushkil nahin aayee to aagey bhi nahin aayegi. Neki key kaam mein kabhi koi rukawat nahin aati,” she says. She is obviously getting on in years but she still retains the strength to make chapatis for all the inmates of the home three times a day and seven days a week.

The first thing that strikes one in Unique Home is a small hatched box near the entrance. It is called the “cradle”. Flip open the hatch and you see a shelf built into the wall. When a rescued child is placed on the shelf, it sets off an alarm that tells the staff that they have a new girl to take care of. When it comes to christening the new arrivals, names are drawn from all the religions of India. So at Unique Home, girls have Hindu, Muslim and Christian and Sikh names and faith has no restrictions.

Although we visited Unique Home without any prior notice, Prakash Kaur ensured that we were made to feel at home. Not surprising at all coming from a lady who has dedicated her life to dispelling a bit of the darkness that engulfs Punjab, indeed all of India. The girls brought to Unique Home grow up with a sense of belonging. This is the only home they know.

For a home that houses 60-odd girls, the place looks a bit too small. The rather cramped space has limited amenities for the girls, including three small rooms that serve as bedroom, dining area and playroom, in addition to a small kitchen and an office for visitors.

The room that is meant for infants has three big cradles. Each has four to five babies sleeping in them. Unique Home has now acquired a new site and expansion plans are in place.

But living space is the least of the home’s problems for the hearts here are big. This is like a huge family where the older girls take care of the younger ones. We are told by the founder that the girls go to good English medium schools like Saint Mary’s in Mussoorie. A few have since been married into suitable homes. But Prakash Kaur’s responsibility does not end there.

She continues to keep a watch over the girls even after they are married. She fights for their rights if the in-laws prove to be difficult. Take the case of former Unique Home inmate Alka. When her husband died prematurely, her in-laws grabbed all her property and threw her out of the house. Prakash Kaur intervened and fought tooth and nail. She eventually managed to secure for Alka her rightful share in the family property.

So far Prakash Kaur has organised the marriages of 17 of the Unique Home inmates. While a few of these girls graduated from college before they got married, the remaining tied the knot after passing out of high school. However, several of the older girls here have decided not to marry and instead dedicate themselves, like Prakash Kaur, to the service of Unique Home.

April 24 is a very special day at Unique Home. It is the day when the children here collectively celebrate their birthday. A huge 100-kg cake is cut and the day is marked by much merriment. That apart, once every year, during the summer holidays, the inmates of Unique Home go on a trip to Darjeeling.

On our visit to the home, we ate lunch with the children. The food was simple but delicious: rice, chapatis and aloo gobhi. Prakash Kaur made fresh chapatis for all the 60 children.

“We don’t want to give our kids up for adoption. People come to us but we refuse,” says Prakash Kaur. Although she did not give us any specific details, she told us that she knows of many cases in which adopted girls have been ill treated.

Prakash Kaur herself has no idea who her parents were. She was found abandoned and grew up in a Nari Niketan. She describes the work she does today as “the lord’s work”.

Asked if she ever faced any mistreatment in the Nari Niketan where she grew up, she smiles and says: “I will never allow my daughters to work as maids anywhere.”

The most essential part of this home is that the children are aware of the fact that their real parents have abandoned them because they are obsessed with boys. But this poisonous truth has only strengthened their resolve to prove themselves. Sheeba, who studies in a convent school in Mussoorie, wants to be a successful neurosurgeon.

“I want my real mother to know that the daughter she threw out of her life is well established. I want to be very famous. I want to prove to her that girls are not a burden,” she says. Sheeba has always stood first in her class with A-plus grades. She is determined to make it to a good medical college.

Lucy is 19 years old. She wants to be a professor of English. “I believe that education is the only way forward in this society which discriminates against girl children,” she says.

Punjab has one of India’s most skewed sex ratios. The percentage of women in the state’s population keeps dipping every year. A growing shortage of marriageable girls has forced men here to find partners in different cultures and states.

“When French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni came to India, they prayed for a boy. I was shocked. I used to think that Westerners treat both genders equally. He could have asked for a girl. It would have sent out a message to the people of India. It’s rather sad,” says Prakash Kaur. The French first couple prayed for a son at the Fatehpur Sikri dargah of Sufi saint Salim Chishti.

Female foeticide is on the rise, especially among the educated class and in higher strata of society. It has assumed alarming proportions. According to NGOs working with issues related to women, every year, 10 lakh cases of female foeticide take place in the country with the help of gender determination tests. The death of young girls in India exceed those of young boys by over 300,000 each year and every 6th infant death is specifically due to gender discrimination.

According to Anjalee Shenoy of Sama Resource Centre for Women and Health, new techniques like PGD (pre-implant genetic diagnosis), a method that involves producing embryos through IVF, cannot just help you decide the gender of the child but the colour of skin and hair. And there is no effective law in place right now to stop this practice. “This falls under the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, but it is going undetected,” says Shenoy.

But there is hope yet. If only Prakash Kaur’s selfless spirit would rub off on society at large.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Salman Taseer, the late Governor of Pakistan's Punjab

IIPM Mumbai Campus

On his Twitter page hours before his assassination, Salman Taseer, the late Governor of Pakistan's Punjab, wrote:

Mera azm itna bulund hai, Mujhe paraye sholon se dar nahin. Mujhe khauf atish e gul se hai, Yeh kahin chaman ko jala na dein//

Salman TaseerAn outspoken critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, most people with humanity and sanity in the country say, is often set upon by extremists and commoners in equal measure to settle personal scores. Salman Taseer infuriated the right-wingers after he called the laws “a slur on the constitution.”

The barefaced broad daylight shooting took place at the Kohsar Shopping Centre in Islamabad’s posh F6 Sector, minutes from where Taseer had a home in the capital city. The culprit, his bodyguard, emptied two full magazines of LMG from a very close range.

Qadri, the bodyguard, told investigators that he had planned the assassination after Taseer sided with Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy, and spoke against the blasphemy laws. Recently, Taseer visited Aasia Bibi in prison in a campaign for her release. He wrote on his Twitter page just last Friday: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

It will be a shame for Jinnah's Pakistan if he turns out to be really the last man standing.

Taseer, a liberal and magnetic politician, was one of the most moderate voices in the ruling PPP. A natty dresser with jet black hair, Taseer was a pleasant sight to see. He was a thorough up-to-date politician and was very active and prolific user of Twitter as a medium for his courageous views.

I still remember my meeting with Taseer at the Governor's house in Lahore just a year back, along with a few other Indian journalists. He was bang on time to meet us. Draped in a spotless white salwar-kameez and a black galaband, he smelt of 'Davidoff Cool Water' from a distance. With his prominent Indo-Nordic features and a clean-shaven face, he could have made any women-of-taste weak in her knees.

Journalists of '70s and '80s still remember how Taseer wooed Indian scribe Tavleen Singh while the former was touring India to promote his biography of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Their marriage didn't last long and left much bitterness, but journos still remember how he swept hard-nut Tavleen off her feet.

I remember his secretary, a dashing Pakistani beauty in the most modern but dignified of dresses, asking us to choose one journalist among us to represent us. The Hindu's Sandeep Dikshit was unanimously chosen to represent us. Dikshit, an extremely well-read and level-minded journalist, was also dressed to the occasion in his white kurta-pyjama. We wanted to put our best in front of our Pakistani host. While Dikshit took the glory, rest of us, me, NDTV's Umashankar Singh and Kashmir Times' Iftikhar Gilani, busied ourselves in admiring the décor of the Governor's house. The jury is still out if that décor included the devastatingly beautiful secretary or not.

But when he entered the hall all of us were spellbound by his personality. Sorry, Sandeep Dikshit, he beat you hands down in the appearance department.

After firm handshakes and bear-hugs we started talking. He had very liberal views on most issues and was a great supporter of the normalisation of relations with India. We cracked some jokes and my my, what an infectious laugh he had. Umashankar Singh wanted a one-on-one interview with him. He was in a tearing hurry, but agreed. While we fumbled with cables, lights and mikes, he waited patiently. In the entire meeting the only whiff of irritation that flashed on his face was when NewsX's Vishal Thapar kept addressing him as “Salman Basheer”. “It's Taseer,” he had hissed.

When he was about to leave he replaced his Gucci reading glasses with the Police Sunglasses. Taseer was a man of taste. I still remember mentioning our meeting to Talat Hussain, Pakistan's most famous TV journalist and anchor. The first question he asked jokingly was, “Did Taseer dazzle you with his sunglasses?” Taseer was a flamboyant man and people loved and hated him for this in equal measure.

Salman Taseer was the son of Muhammad Din Taseer, popularly known as MD Taseer, who was the first Ph.D degree holder in the subcontinent. He got his Ph.D in English Literature from Cambridge University. His thesis was a critical and analytical study of five hundred years of English literature. But what most people don't know is that MD Taseer, as a education inspector in Kashmir, was instrumental in the formation of Sheikh Abdullah's Muslim Conference. He assisted Abdullah in resisting the Dogra rule in the valley. But MD Taseer was also a first rank Urdu poet, a distinguished essayist and a respected English literature critic of his time. But he died with humble belongings.

Salman was a self-made businessman. He began his business career by successfully setting up two chartered accountancy consultancy firms KPMG, United Arab Emirates and Taseer Hadi Khalid and Co, Pakistan. Under him, his group grew remarkably. Taseer also owned the Daily Times newspaper, Business Plus TV channel, Pace shopping malls and the Hyatt hotel range in Pakistan.

But he was never a politically correct politician. He had a long history of struggle against Zia’s dictatorship. After pulling out of politics for years, he returned as the PPP’s voice of reason. He was an avid supporter of the Ahmadi community, which has been persecuted for long in Pakistan and India. His political enmity with the Sharif brothers in Punjab put him in an uncomfortable position as a Governor. But he never let anything affect him.

The Sharifs, on their part, used unfair and untenable ways to discredit him. More often than not, the Sharifs targetted his flamboyant personality, and his and his kin's munificent and reasonably sybaritic—read ‘un-Islamic’— modus vivendi. Photographs of his family enjoying in the privacy of their home were placed under media scrutiny. But Taseer had the old world grace not to get affected by such below-the-belt antics.

While it gives heart that liberal and moderate elements in Pakistan have so strongly reacted to this despicable act of cowardice, it's painful to see the right-wing celebrating his death. I can only remember this line from Punjabi.

Dushman mare te khushi na kariye, sajna vi mar jaana

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