Monday, March 31, 2008

Reality shows remain the rage of Malayalam television

REALITY shows on Malayalam television channels are proliferating at speeds that exceed the wildest imagination of media pundits. They are keeping young and old glued in front of TV sets, clutching mobile phones to send messages to boost the prospects of their favourite candidates.

As a contestant move up in the race to the top, the entire population of his or her town or village lines up behind him or her. There is then organised collective messaging to take the hometown lad or lass further up. Some contestants participating in the popular programmes now being aired have fans clubs, which try to drum up support for them through the Internet.

As candidates fall behind and are given tearful farewells in elimination rounds, even the judges choke and admirers break into sobs. Apparently the viewers identify themselves as closely with the reality show participants as with the hapless heroines of mega serials.

The winners of the shows will end up richer for the experience, expensive cars and flats being among the prizes that await them. Even if they miss the big prize, losing participants in shows that focus on singing and dancing may be able to find careers in the entertainment industry.

The main beneficiaries of reality shows are the mobile phone companies. They make money by charging customers exorbitant rates for messages endorsing reality show contestants. They share this money with the channels. Neither the mobile companies nor the channels release data regarding the number of messages received. The size of the jackpot each of them collects is, therefore, not known.

Industry sources indicate that the channels which collect the most money through reality shows are Asianet and Amrita. Asianet, which established an early lead as a pioneer in the field, attempts to strike a balance between serials and reality shows. It divides prime time between the two. Amrita appears to have decided to throw serials overboard and fill prime time with reality shows of one kind or another.

Asianet's Star Singer contest of 2007, said to be the biggest commercial success among the reality shows, has just entered the final stage. It has already started vigorous promotion of the 2008 contest in a bid to make it an even greater attraction than the 2007 one.

Reputed pop singer Usha Uthoop, playback singer MG Sreekumar and composer Sarat are the members of the jury for the 2007 show. TV columnists were highly critical of the tone and tenor of some of their comments. Asianet has responded by giving viewers an opportunity to decide whether they should be on the next jury. The viewers can, if they wish, vote out the present team out and nominate others to serve as jurors and anchors.

With four prime-time reality shows on each day, Amrita has a clear lead in terms of sheer numbers. Of the four, two are for children. Amrita claims it is the first South Indian channel to highlight children in the age group 10 to 15 years in reality shows. Whether 'catching them young' is a good principle in this area is an arguable matter, though.

Amrita provides the most variety in reality shows. It is now airing a programme titled Best Citizen Journalist, which aims at discovering journalistic talent. Thanks to the presence of Sashi Kumar, founder-president of Asianet, as the head of the professional jury, the show commands viewer respect of a high order.

Encouraged by the success of last year's show featuring housewives, Amrita is launching Vanitaratnam II this week. It has also started work on a show, grandiloquently titled the Great Indian Race. It is said to combine elements such as adventure, travel, discovery and self-exploration.

The Great Indian Race is different from other shows in that the participants will travel through other States and will be exposed to situations of a kind they have not encountered before. With this, the great Kerala rat race called reality show goes beyond the State's borders.

Mata Amritanandamayi, the inspiration and moving force behind the channel, is credited with the view that "if culture and entertainment are blended together life becomes a true celebration." While the channel is celebrating, discriminating viewers are trying to figure out what culture it is promoting.

Media critics have started speculating on life beyond reality shows. S Saradakkutty avers that reality shows may not last long. But, she warns, they will be demolished by something that is worse. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 31, 2008.

Friday, March 28, 2008

AHRC takes up case of police torture of a man in Kerala

The following is the text of a communication sent by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, to friends and associates everywhere
Dear friends,
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from Nervazhy, a local human rights organisation working in Kerala concerning the case of Binish, a deaf person who was taken into custody by Pattanakadu police on 28 February 2008. It is reported that the police officers who took Binish into custody, tortured him in an attempt to force him to speak. It is also reported that the police burned Binish's palms until they realised that Binish is deaf and let him go.

Mr. Binish is aged 19, and is from a poor family from Alappuzha district in Kerala state. Binish is from the Pulaya (Scheduled Caste) community, a Dalit (untouchable) community in India. Binish is deaf since birth. Binish works as an apprentice in a local workshop near his house.
On 28 February 2008, at about 3pm Binish left home to the nearby Kanichukulangara temple. Binish went to the temple on his bicycle. When the parents found that Binish had not returned home even after nightfall, they became concerned about Binish. They started looking for Binish in the nearby places, but could not find him. At about 2:30am on the next day the parents lodged a complaint at the nearby Arthungal Police Station alleging that Binish was missing.
On the same day, at about 3pm Binish returned home in a three-wheeler along with his bicycle. According to Binish's parents, Binish appeared to be in a bad state of health suffering from external and internal injuries. When the parents enquired with Binish what had happened to him, Binish explained that while he was returning home he was taken into custody by police officers from Pattanakadu Police Station. Binish used sign language to communicate.

According to the statement given by Binish, while he was returning home from the temple he lost his direction. While he was searching around for the road to his house, he was stopped by police officers from Pattanakadu Police Station who came in a police vehicle. The police officers who stepped out from the vehicle started asking Binish questions. But Binish, as he was deaf, neither could understand what the officers were asking, nor could explain to them his situation.
When the officers found that Binish was not answering the questions one officer slapped him on his face. Then the police officers started forcing Binish to enter the police vehicle. Binish resisted and even tried to escape, but could not succeed. The officers tied Binish's hands and legs with a rope and threw him into the police vehicle. Soon the vehicle reached Pattanakadu Police Station.
At the police station, the officers removed the rope with which Binish was tied up. The officers started questioning Binish, but Binish could not understand what was being asked and could not communicate to the officers. He tried explaining to the officers through sign language that he is deaf. The officers did not believe him. Then the officers burned his toes with cigarette flames. Later they caned Binish trying to force him to speak. Not satisfied with this, the officers brought camphor pellets and forced Binish to hold it in his palms. Then the officers set the pellets on fire, burning Binish's palms. While Binish was forced to hold the burning camphor pellets in his palms, the officers assaulted him. Finally Binish collapsed not being able to bear anymore pain.
Later Binish was taken to a hospital, of which Binish cannot remember the name, where, he was given some medicine. Later the officers realising that Binish cannot speak or hear concluded that he is innocent and decided to set him free. The officers called for a three-wheeler, asked Binish to get in and put his cycle also into the passenger compartment and ordered the three-wheeler driver to drop Binish off at his house.

On 29 February, Binish was taken to Cherthala Thaluk Hospital at about 6pm by his parents where he was admitted for treatment to his injuries. In the meanwhile Binish's story was reported in local media. There was an immediate public outcry against the police officers involved in the incident. The Kerala State Human Rights Commission has also taken the case into notice and issued orders for the state police to investigate the case. Meanwhile the local police has issued a statement that Binish was not tortured, but was suffering from chronic asthma. However this statement has been refuted by everyone involved in this case who is concerned about the police atrocities in the state.

The police in Kerala state are notorious for its use of custodial torture. Often the police use torture as a means for extracting statements from suspects. Torture is inflicted upon persons arrested and detained in police custody in connection with the crime and also against innocent persons whom the police question in connection with their other regular duties.

Use of unwarranted force by local police is so common that it is now a practice by the local police to slap persons whom they talk to. It is a common scene in Kerala for police officers to slap a person as they approach a stranger before even uttering a word. This practice has gained approval of senior police officers as a 'shortcut' to psychologically overpower the person to whom the officer is speaking to. It is also a common practice for police officers across the state to take into custody persons whom they suspect of being found at places 'where they cannot explain the reason for their presence'. As strange and loosely worded this expression is, so is the reason for the local police to prohibit persons from spending time outside their house, particularly during evening hours, at open play grounds and village grounds in rural areas of the state.

The common practice is for the local police to roam around in police vehicles in the villages and order persons, especially the youth, to go home, if they are found hanging around in public places. To prevent the people from returning, the police would approach anyone who is found in public places, ask the person why he is hanging around in the locality while slapping him hard on his face and pushing the person off holding him by his neck and ordering him to return home. This is widely practiced in Kerala that parents now advice their children not to go out of the house in the evening. Such practices are mostly focused against young males in the guise of preventing and controlling theft in rural villages.

No law in India or in the state allows police to impose such restrictions. It is true that theft is common in India and Kerala is not an exception. In the recent years incidents of theft have in fact increased. Though this is a reflection of the state of policing in any given area, measures like illegal restrictions upon individual freedom in the name of law and order has not reduced theft, but has in fact further isolated the people from their police. Most probably Binish was also taken into custody by the police on the suspicion that he was scouting around for a place to break in.
According to Section 331 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, anyone who causes grievous hurt for the purpose of extorting from the sufferer, or any person interested in the sufferer, any confession or any information which may lead to the detection of an offense or misconduct can be punished for imprisonment for a period not more than 10 years and also fine. A corresponding provision of the Code relevant to this Section is Section 348 of the Code which deals with wrongful confinement. According to this Section, anyone who wrongfully confines any person for the purpose of extorting from the person confined or any person interested in the person confined any confession or any information must be punished for a period that may extend to three years and also be liable for fine. These two provisions of the Code are incorporated in the penal law in India to prevent custodial torture; though the definition of torture as it is conceived in India is far below the universal standards.

The fact that Binish was brutally tortured shows both the inexperience and the lack of professionalism of the state police and also the widespread acceptance within the force for the use of torture as a means for investigation and to maintain law and order. Further, the use of such force is also a reflection upon the impunity the local police enjoy in the name of law enforcement.

The United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Crime -- vide Economic and Social Council resolution 2002/13, calls for the member states to address crime prevention through a humane and cost-effective method; involving government leadership; considering the socio-economic developments; and with the cooperation and partnership of other civil society players. This obviously involves developing a trust of the local populace as one of the essential elements for effective crime control. However the state police in Kerala have not considered a public trust building exercise as an essential ingredient for crime prevention. Instead the Kerala State Police, like any other police force in India continue to use centuries old practices of imparting fear upon the society as a means to prevent crime, of which Binish's case is a tragic example.
Soon after the police officers involved in Binish's case was placed on suspension pending investigation in this case, it is reported that the officers have now started pressurising Binish's family to withdraw the complaint they have filed at the police station. It is also reported that some senior police officers are also helping the accused officers in this process. In the absence of an independent mechanism in India to investigate complaints against the police the possibilities are that in this case the police will try to cover-up the guilt of the accused police officers, by fabricating evidence or avoiding crucial evidence concerning the incident during the investigation in this case.

The AHRC in the past had experienced such corrupt practices followed by the local police, not only from Kerala, but from other states in India. In the past, when the AHRC wrote to the Kerala State Government calling for immediate attention concerning cases of police torture, the government has only cared to acknowledge the receipt of such complaints and has thus far failed to inform the AHRC or for that matter even the victims in those cases what had happened to the complaints filed by the AHRC with the government. Assuming from the lack of any further action from the state government, the AHRC has to conclude that the state government has taken no action against any police officers, or even cared to investigate the cases brought to the government's notice.

The AHRC is also informed that during the past few months the state government has asked the local police to monitor human rights groups who are communicating cases of human rights abuses, particularly concerning custodial violence to international organisations like the UN, with an intention to intimidate these organisations and groups and to force them to keep silent.
The Government of Kerala has recently launched a state-wide programme to promote and rebuild police-citizen relationship in the state. The programme titled 'Janakiya Police' (people's police) was launched on 26 March 2008. However, to gain any respect and confidence of the people, the state government must first control the abuse of authority by the police and fasten accountability in the police force. Without attempting to this no other efforts will generate public confidence upon the local police, not only in Kerala, but in the entire country.


Please write to the authorities named below expressing your concern in this case. The facts of the case have to be investigated and the findings made public. If the investigation reveals that the police officers have in fact committed the offense, the police officers must be punished. The AHRC has also written to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Question of Torture calling for an intervention in this case.
To support this appeal, please click here:

Dear __________,
Subject: Please punish the police officers in Alappuzha district who tortured Binish

Details of victim: Mr. Binish, aged 19 years, son of Mr. Gopalakrishnan, Padanilathu Chira house, Mayithara post, Cherthala South, Alappuzha district, Kerala state

Alleged perpetrators: Police officers stationed at Pattanakadu Police Station, Alappuzha district, Kerala (the officers could be identified by Binish)Date and place of the incident: 28 & 29 February 2008 at Pattanakadu Police Station

I am writing to express my concern regarding the case of 19-year-old Binish who was allegedly tortured by the police officers stationed at Pattanakadu Police Station on 28th and 29th February 2008.

I am informed that Binish, a deaf person by birth was taken into custody by the police patrol party on 28th February while he was returning home after attending a local temple festival. I am also informed that the officers further tortured Binish to an extent that they caned him, assaulted and inflicted burn injuries upon him in an attempt to make Binish speak. I am also informed that the next day when the police officers came to know that they were mistaken, they took Binish to a hospital and later send him home in a three-wheeler.

I am concerned about the use of force by the police upon an innocent person merely because of suspicion and the manner in which the state government has approached this case. I am informed that even though the police officers responsible for the incident have been placed on suspension, the family of the victim is under pressure from the police officers to withdraw the complaint. I am aware that the victim is not provided any protection in this case, while at the same time some of the senior police officers have come out openly supporting their colleagues, even alleging that the entire case is false.

I am also informed that the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has written to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture calling for an intervention in this case. I am also informed that the AHRC has been informed that the state government has instructed the local police to keep a watch upon the local human rights organisations who are also reporting cases of human rights abuses to international organisations like the UN in an attempt to intimidate these organisations and groups and to force them to keep silent.I therefore urge you to immediately order an impartial investigation in this case. In case an investigation is already underway, to ensure that such investigation is carried out independently and that the findings of the investigation are made public. I also urge you to ensure that the victim in this case and his family members are not threatened by the police or any other persons associated with the police officers accused in this case.

I further request you to ensure that the victim receives an interim compensation pending the investigation and that further to the investigation, if the officers are found guilty of the offense alleged against them, they are charged under Sections 331 and 348 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and brought to trial for the offense they have committed.
I firmly believe that you will take appropriate and speedy action in this regard.
Yours sincerely,

1. Director General of Police,

Government of KeralaPolice Head Quarters,

Thiruvanandapuram, Kerala state


Fax: +91 471 2729434


2. Mr. V. S. Achuthanandan

Chief Minister

Government of Kerala

North Block, Secretariat

Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala


Fax: +91 471 2333489


3. Mr. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan

Minister of Home Affairs

Government of Kerala

Room No.216,

Third Floor North Sandwich Block

Govt. Secretariat

Thiruvananthapuram 1, Kerala



4. Mr. Oomen Chandy

Opposition Leader

Puthupally House,




Fax: +91 11 471 2315625

5. Mr. A. K. Anthony

Minister of Defense (Elected representative to the Upper House of the Indian Parliament from the State)

104, South Block,

New Delhi, INDIA

Fax: + 91 11 23015403


6. District Collector

Civil Station

Alappuzha District,

Kerala state


Fax: 91-477-2251720

Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme, Asian Human Rights Commission (

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Responsible tourism: prospects and dangers

I grew up hearing the slogan ‘responsible government’. Those who raised it wanted princely regime to be replaced by one which will be responsible to the people. Today we elect our rulers. But the question whether they are responsible to the people is relevant. As the report presented at the Hyderabad congress of the Communist Party of India indicates, when star fund collectors are there it will be difficult to remain responsible to the people.

What prompted me to think of responsibility now is the slogan of ‘responsible tourism’ heard in Kochi. It is only 10 or 12 years old. The Responsible Tourism Conference held at Cape Town, South Africa, in 2002, which was attended by 280 delegates from 20 countries, marked the beginning of a global movement. We got the good fortune of hosting the second global meeting since the State government took keen interest in it. Like the Cape Town meet, the Kochi conference ended with a Responsible Tourism declaration.

Before looking at the declaration, we need to understand how it all originated. The United Nations called a meeting of governmental leaders and representatives of non-government organizations, business and other interests at Johannesburg in South Africa to discuss the challenges to sustainable development. This was in follow-up of the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. NGOs were agitating in different parts of the world highlighting the ill-effects of tourism. It was evident that the issue would come at the Johannesburg meeting. The first Responsible Tourism conference was organized at Cape Town ahead of it, foreseeing this, with a view to cooling the sentiments of the agitators. The initiative was taken by those connected with the tourism industry. The UN World Tourism Organization backed it. They tried to bring in NGOs but did not succeed in attracting those who were active on the tourism front. Last year they made a beginning with a Responsible Tourism Day as well.

The Kochi declaration acknowledges that in the five and a half years since the Cape Town meet, Responsible Tourism has not achieved sufficient progress to make the contribution expected of it to sustainable development. It, therefore, exhorts everybody to work with redoubled vigour. The movement has become a bridge between the tourism industry and the official machinery in Kerala. It is, therefore, necessary to remind those concerned that the government’s primary responsibility is to the people.

It was while working in Kashmir more than 30 years ago that I realized Kerala’s immense potential as a tourist destination. Jammu and Kashmir was the State that attracted the most tourists at that time. Traditionally Indians travelled to visit holy places. Although the State had famous places of worship like the Amarnath cave temple and the Vaishnodevi shrine in Jammu, what attracted people in large numbers to the State was its natural beauty. I often regretted that the government and people of Kerala were not able to recognize and benefit from the State’s green splendour. Later I thought it was perhaps good that tourism had not developed. For neither the administration nor the people had sufficient environmental awareness to sustain the natural beauty. The extensive destruction of forests proves as much.

The Indian government had chosen Kovalam for development as a beach resort on the advice of an expert team which was called in to draw up a plan to attract foreign tourists. Now the Centre has withdrawn from the place. But private entrepreneurs’ presence is strong. Even as Kovalam started growing as a tourist spot, signs of its ill-effects also appeared and non-government organization came forward with opposition. In many countries, including India, organized opposition to the dangers posed by tourism industry has grown to the point of being against tourism itself. This happens mainly because the authorities do not intervene in time and dispel the people’s fears.

Now tourism is one of Kerala’s fast growing sectors. This has been made possible more by the entry of private entrepreneurs than by the campaign the government has been waging for years with the slogan “God’s own land”. The official establishment’s interests often lead to unnecessary projects. The latest example is the hotel project in Chennai, which was taken up as soon as the present Left Democratic Front government came to power. Since entrepreneurs are coming forward to invest in this sector, there is really no need for the fund-starved government to build hotels etc. in the State or outside. The government is an institution with a regulatory function. It must concentrate its efforts in the discharge of this function.

Most of the facilities that have come up in recent years cater to the needs of tourists with big spending capacity. Private investors naturally take great interest in such facilities. The government must encourage those who are ready to develop facilities for middle class tourists by offering concessions or exemptions. Tourists usually buy things to keep memories of places they visit. The government must be able to help those engaged in traditional handicrafts to benefit from this practice. Such activities will help to extend the benefits of tourism to the people at large.

The government’s primary duty is to make sure that development of tourism does not endanger Kerala’s precarious ecological balance. It must never be forgotten that what propels the private sector forward is the profit motive. If the authorities do not closely monitor and regulate their activities, the natural beauty that attracts tourists may be lost in no time.
Based on “Nerkkazhcha” column appearing in Kerala Kaumudi edition dated March 27, 2007

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Join Earth Hour, turn off lights for an hour on Saturday night

On March 31, 2007, more than two million business houses and homes in Sydney turned off lights for one hour in a unique Earth Hour observance to demonstrate their willingness to do their bit to save the world from the impending crisis brought on by climate change.

The powerful message that went out from that Australian city has encouraged many more cities to join in a similar demonstration this year. The date set for this year’s Earth Hour is Saturday, March 29. The time: 8 to 9 p.m.

India is officially not participating in this campaign. However, according to NDTV 24x7, several individuals, particularly students, are planning to observe one-hour blackout.

In December last year, climate crusaders in Mumbai had made an attempt to replicate the Sydney experience. But residents of the metropolis ignored the call.

The Sydney Morning Herald had played a major role in making the 2007 Earth Hour possible. Many newspapers around the world are promoting the campaign in their respective areas this year. Indian newspapers have shown little interest in the subject.

Earth Hour promoters point out that it is about more than one night. It is about inspiring people to make everyday changes that will help achieve Earth Hour's ultimate goal of reducing emissions by 5%.

If you would like to get more information on Earth Hour and to join the global Earth Hour movement, please visit

Monday, March 24, 2008

Nature joins labour union in heaping misery on farmers

AS farmers struggled to cope with heavy losses caused by untimely rain, the ruling Left Democratic Front and the opposition United Democratic Front were involved last week in arguments over the relative roles of Nature and the trade unions in the tragedy.

Farmers of Kuttanad, endeavouring to recapture the region's glory as Kerala's granary, had brought 25,232 hectares under paddy this year, as against 22,814 hectares last year.
As harvesting began, hopes ran high with early reports putting the yield at six tonnes a hectare.
The expected triumph turned into tragedy when an unusually heavy spell of summer rain destroyed the paddy crops awaiting harvest in several parts of the State. Other crops also suffered damage.

The loss, now estimated at close to Rs1 billion, may go up as the rain was continuing unabated during the weekend.

The UDF, which raised the issue in the State Assembly, said the paddy crop in Kuttanad could have been saved if the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union, the farmers' body controlled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had not blocked the use of harvesting machines.
Although Kerala has the highest unemployment in the country, there is acute shortage of labour in many areas of activity, include farming, because young people are unwilling to do manual labour.

The CPI (M), which opposed mechanisation for years to prevent job losses, has now slightly modified its position on the use of machines. It has dropped its objection to farm machines but wants their use restricted in such a way that the farm labourers, who are under its flag, are not adversely affected.

The UDF leaders alleged that farmers who wanted to use machines had to apply to the union and pay a fee to obtain permission. The CPI (M) and the KSKTU denied the charge. They accused the opposition of seeking to politicise a natural calamity.

The fact is that the union leadership had decided last year to draw up an annual farm calendar and enforce it in Kuttanad this year. The party and the union did not deny press reports in this regard.

An Alappuzha-datelined report in the Indian Express of April 10, 2007, had said comrades are making sure farmers stick to the good old sickle just as their forefathers did. It added they were working on a diktat "specifying which individual farmer could sow and reap when, from next year."

Outlining the contemplated procedure, the report, under the byline of Rajeev PI, added that each farmer must apply to the local office of the Travancore Karshaka Thozhilali Union, which was a part of KSKTU, for permission to use machines.

The union will consider the applications on a case-by-case basis. It will send inspection teams to the farms to determine whether union members are really not available do the work manually.
"Any farmer who dares to use a farm machine without union sanction has to be ready for the consequences," it said.

The reporter's source was TKTU general secretary CK Bodhanandan, who was quoted as saying, "We are finalising a calendar for farmers here. From next year, they should plant and harvest at the times specified in it for each, so that enough workers are available, so that they need not come to us asking to be allowed to hire machines." Bodhanandan explained that the union had decided that farm owners should stagger their operations so as to "fit their farming with the availability of union hands to do the farm work."

The report said farmers using machines with the union's permission were required to pay the workers nokkukooli (wages for looking on). For years head-load workers' unions have been extracting nokkukooli from those who engage persons other than their members to carry loads.
Bodhanandan said his union had not authorised levy of nokkukooli and would punish members who took it. However, several instances of collection of unearned wages have been reported.
The union has not taken any action in such cases.

Father Thomas Peeliyanikkal of the Kuttanad Vikasana Samithi, a church-based farm development body, told reporter Rajeev that farm owners suggested that the union might form labour collectives to own and maintain farm machines, but the union was not interested.

Nature and the union made their own contributions to Kuttanad's present misery.
The State government, too, must share the blame for the delay in harvesting since it failed to intervene in time and promote a settlement between the farm owners and labourers. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 24, 2008.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rag-pickers of the world, unite

Recently the First World Congress of Waste Pickers met at Bogota, capital of Columbia.

Teo Ballvé, a Colomia-based freelance journalist says agencies like the World Bank and some local governments are beginning to recognize as a section engaged in work that is relevant and serves the society as a whole.

See Ballvé’s report, circulated by New America Media: ‘Waste Picker: 21st Century Profession

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Iraq war completes five years with no end in sight

It was on March 19, 2003 that the United States invaded Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had piled up weapons of mass destruction. Five years later, the war is still on with no end in sight.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed so far and millions displaced. Nearly 4,000 US soldiers, 175 British troops and 134 soldiers from other countries have been killed. For more details, see FACTBOX.

Kerala is a minor beneficiary of the war. Contractors engaged by the US army to provide various services have recruited people from the State. However, sympathy for the Iraqi people has run high throughout the war. There were widespread protests when Saddam Hussein was executed after a sham trial.

There were anti-war demonstrations at several places in the US on the fifth anniversary.

The official US version of war related developments comes to us regularly through the Western news agencies.

For a Black American viewpoint, visit Black Voices site.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua distributed today a commentary by Ghassan Ibrahim, who reports for it from Baghdad. It can be accessed here.

Where do we go from Chengara?

The Left Democratic Front government took seven months to realize that landless Adivasis and Dalits agitating for land deserve to be called for talks. After a date was set for talks, the Front erected a hurdle in the way of peaceful resolution by denouncing the agitation. This is quite enough to determine how Left and how democratic the Left Democratic Front is.

When the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktavedi (the name translates as united front for liberation of poor people) started the agitation there were a few thousand Adivasis and Dalits, including women and children, at the Harrison Malayalam estate at Chengara. Their fighting spirit attracted more landless to the place. Some 20,000 people are said to be in the arena now. What started as a Dalit-Adivasi agitation has now become a wider struggle of the landless.

Some have quit the battlefront. Among them is Thattayil Saraswati who resigned as general secretary following differences with Samyuktavedi president Laha Gopalan. It is not known whether outside forces played any part in the split. After all, the ‘divide and rule’ principle was used by the ruling elite here long before the whites arrived. They still use it. Without realizing it, the ruled get enslaved.

Kerala has witnessed many land agitations in the past 50 years. There were some led by the Communists. There were some led by forest encroachers to escape eviction. The CPI (M)’s support to one such made it a permanent protector of encroachers. The Adivasi agitations led by C. K. Janu were a different experience. They were waged without the support of any political party or caste of religious group.

Following Janu’s squatting stir in Thiruvananthapuram, Chief Minister A.K. Antony promised to grant land to all landless Adivasis. That promise was not kept. Antony sent the police to suppress the agitation at Muthanga to secure the land they were promised. The Chengara agitation also is for fulfilment of that promise. To that extent, it is a continuation of Muthanga. But it claims a longer lineage: that of the struggles B. R. Ambedkar and Ayyankali.

The state of the landless camping at Chengara exposes the superficial nature of the romantic revolution spread through popular drama songs. At the time of Janu’s agitation, Dalit writer Chandrabhan Prasad, quoting 1991 Census figures, pointed out that landlessness among farm workers in Kerala, where there had been land reform, was more than in Uttar Pradesh. These are the figures:
Landlessless farm workers (percentage)
Kerala UP India
Scheduled Castes 53.79 38.76 49.06
Scheduled Tribes 55.47 .. .. 32.99
Others 20.78 13.03 19.66
(UP’s ST population is only 0.1% of the total. Hence its omission)

Despite the pathetic state of the depressed classes, the fronts that have been alternating in power have never evinced as much interest in distributing land among them as they have shown in trying to legitimize forest encroachments.

In the beginning the Chengara agitators had to contend only with local hostility from the owners and workers of the estate. The owners approached the High Court complaining that the agitators have trespassed on the estate. The court orders that the trespassers be evicted. At the same time it said bloodshed must be avoided.

Recently the attitude of the CPI (M) underwent a major change. The party’s State leadership came forward to assume leadership of the campaign against the agitation. They alleged that the agitators have encroached upon private property, that there are landowners among them etc. Even if there is truth in these allegations, it does not take away the legitimacy of the landless people’s agitation for land.

The court’s order to avoid bloodshed precludes the possibility of the government re-enacting Muthanga or the party re-enacting Nandigram. But the door for discussions remains open before the government. Only it must approach the problems with sincerity. If there are landowners among the agitators the government can identify and exclude them.

Instead of choosing the path of prudence, the leadership deployed the media to vilify the agitators and those supporting them. Deshabhimani started playing the old tune about CIA funding. Kairali TV tried a new number with a hidden camera. The dirty tricks department at AKG Centre is working overtime to break the agitation.

It is difficult to believe that this is an idea that originated in Pinarayi Vijayan’s mind. Such ideas can germinate only in minds laden with remnants of feudalism. Borrowing words which Pinarayi Vijayan recently used, one may say someone whispered the idea into his ears. Such devious tactics can only help widen the distance between the party and the depressed sections.
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated March 20, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fish diet may cut sudden coronary death: Dutch study report

Eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent sudden coronary death, according to Dutch researchers.

But the occasional slab of salmon or other fatty fish may not do the trick; following a fishy diet for the long run may be more effective, says WebMD, quoting the searchers.

Over to WebMD report. says all fish contain omega 3 fatty acids, but they are more concentrated in fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and herring.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Indian workers in US on temporary visa exploited

The US temporary work visa programme is rife with abuse and heartache, according to a New America Media report.

Professional high-tech workers with degrees from such prestigious schools as the Indian Institute of Technology come to the United States on the so-called H-1B visa only to find they have to forego all that they have paid into Social Security when their visas expire after six years and the green cards they have applied for is still years away.

See NAM report

See Earlier report

Monday, March 17, 2008

Kannur waits for political parties to turn a new leaf

The all-party conference called by Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan on Saturday having resolved to take steps to end the chain of violence in Kannur district, the people are waiting to see if the feuding political parties will turn a new leaf.

Nearly 200 persons have been killed in recurrent political violence in the district since 1961.
To begin with the combatants were members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, which head the fronts that have been alternating in power for nearly three decades.

The killings began when some CPI-M supporters defected to the Congress and the party tried to liquidate them. After the two parties struck a deal to end clashes, CPI-M defectors started gravitating towards the Bharatiya Janata Party, as its militant partner, Rashtreeya Swayamsevak Sangh, was seen as the only organisation capable of protecting them.

Thereafter CPI-M and BJP-RSS cadres became the main combatants. The worst clashes between them took place in 1981. Twelve persons were killed on each side that year. A scrutiny of the death roll of the clashes suggests that the two sides constantly try to achieve parity in casualties.

The two sides have experienced no difficulty in finding followers who are ready to kill and be killed. One reason is that both the parties command fierce loyalty. Party leaders support families of members who get killed and provide legal and financial assistance to those arrested.

The CPI-M, as a party that comes to power in alternate elections, is able to help its jailed cadres to get parole and other benefits. On more than one occasion the High Court has made adverse references to favouritism shown towards CPI-M prisoners.

The weekend peace effort came after a fresh round of violence in which the BJP-RSS camp lost five lives against CPI-M's two, and its supporters retaliated outside the State. The CPI-M's headquarters in New Delhi, Andhra Pradesh office in Hyderabad and district office at Nagerkovil in Tamil Nadu and the residence of its Karnataka state secretary in Bangalore were stoned.

Both the CPI-M and the RSS are cadre-based organisations with a high reputation for discipline.
Although they have been clashing in Kannur for long, leaders on both sides were able to confine the troubles to the district.

There is reason to suspect that the almost simultaneous attacks on CPI-M targets outside the State were the result of a conscious decision by the national BJP-RSS leadership. The CPI-M alleged as much.

BJP and RSS leaders, on their part, alleged that the CPI-M, which heads the government, initiated the latest series of attacks. They also alleged complicity between the party and the police.

The question who unsheathed the knife first has only limited academic relevance. The first attack evoked an almost instant retaliation at a point not far away. Evidently both sides were ready with theirs knives.

Kannur is a cradle of the Communist movement in the State. Since the CPI split in the 1960s, it has been a stronghold of the Marxist faction. In the State party, the district enjoys considerable clout as the home of a galaxy of leaders from the charismatic AK Gopalan to the present State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.

The BJP is a weak force in the State. Although at one stage it commanded about eight per cent votes, its support base lies scattered and it has not been able to win a seat in the State Assembly so far. Kerala is the only major State where the party has no representation in the legislature.
The poor clout of BPP-RSS in the State is a factor that has precluded the possibility of a deal between it and the CPI-M on the lines of the one that the latter worked out with the Congress.

While the BJP-RSS attacks on CPI-M offices outside the State invited universal condemnation, they have changed the rules that governed the game of political violence in Kannur. Now the CPI-M has to reckon with its rival's clout elsewhere in the country.

A hopeful aspect of the government's handling of the latest bout of violence is the statesmanship shown by Achuthanandan. In his first public comment, he rose above narrow partisanship, which is a hallmark of CPI-M's approach to many issues, and voiced regret over his party's involvement in the violence.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 17, 2008.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Survey among Expatriates in Gulf States

A salary survey conducted by has revealed a high level of discontent among expatriate employees there as living costs are growing faster than salaries.

A report on the major findings of the survey has been posted at BHASKAR blog, where a link to the Arabian Business site is also provided.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

UN Rapporteur asks India to take steps to ensure Right to Food

The following is a press release issued by the Asian Legal Resources Centre, Hong Kong:

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in his report to the Seventh UN Human Rights Council has expressed serious concerns regarding the right to food in India. The report dated February 29, 2008 has cited at least a dozen cases concerning the right to food in which the Rapporteur has requested the immediate attention and affirmative action of the Government of India.

In his communications with the government, the Rapporteur has expressed specific concern about the Public Food Distribution System (PDS) in India. Additionally, the Rapporteur has expressed concern about the non-accessibility to the government health services for the Dalit community in the rural and urban areas.

The Rapporteur has also cited instances of corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) programme in his report. Widespread corruption in the NREG systematically denies the programme’s benefit to the poor.

The cases cited by the Rapporteur were reported to his office by various non-governmental organizations within and outside India, including the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC). The ALRC has also made a written submission to the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of the right to food. The report titled ‘Starvation deaths ongoing due to administrative neglect’ prepared by the ALRC was released on 21 February 2008.

The Government of India’s delegation, in reply to the Rapporteur’s report, merely thanked the Rapporteur for his work and for his visit to India in 2005. In the statement made by the Government of India on March 11, 2008 the government has promised that it is considering implementing the recommendations made by the Rapporteur to prevent malnutrition and starvation in India. However, nothing is visible in India that demonstrates the performance of this promise or even a preparation for it.

This fact is proved by the death of 18-month-old Alina Shahin in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh. Alina died on 13 September 2007. At the time of death, Alina was suffering from Grade IV malnutrition. In an attempt to save Alina’s life, her family had taken Alina to the local public health centre, where she was denied treatment. Alina’s sister who accompanied her to the health centre was assaulted by the staff at the centre. This case was reported by the AHRC to the Rapporteur and also to the Indian authorities. However, the Indian authorities did not take any action in this case. Alina’s case is sited in the Rapporteur’s report.

The ALRC in its written submission to the Seventh Human Rights Council has categorically stated that the concerns regarding the failure in ensuring the right to food cannot be addressed in India without taking concrete actions to prevent corruption within the government health care services and the PDS system in India. Concerning the malnutrition among the Dalit and the other lower caste communities, the ALRC in its submission has also pointed out that the continuation of the caste based discrimination in India is one more reason for starvation deaths in India.

In the recent past, the ALRC and the AHRC have also reported that human rights activists reporting cases of human rights violations from India are systematically targeted by the local administration to silence them. In a recent incident reported by the AHRC, the AHRC has expressed concern about the case of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) when its staff was charged with false cases under the direction of the Varanasi district administration.

Systematic denial of human rights is increasingly reported from India. In spite of this, the Government of India has initiated practically nothing to prevent human rights violations in India, particularly concerning the right to food and caste based discrimination. However, the Government of India wastes no opportunity to make promises and statements. The statement made by the Government of India at the seventh Human Rights Council is nothing but an addition to this empty rhetoric.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Castro Is Out, Christ Is In

There is a resurgence of the Catholic Church in Cuba, which is officially an atheist state and once banned religious schools, closed churches and expelled priests, writes New American Media contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer.

For details, see NAM report.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A feeble attempt to chart a new financial course

A FEW DAYS before Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac presented the state budget, a television interviewer asked him whether it would be a populist budget or one with a sense of realism. He gave a clever answer: "It will be a populist budget with a sense of realism."

Three days after he presented the budget to the state assembly its character is still unclear.
His supporters claim that he has come up with a Left alternative to the Centre's liberalisation programme. Critics say he has adopted the neoliberal agenda.

There are, of course, many populist measures in the agenda. Since the Congress-led Central government's budget, presented a few days earlier, contained indications of early lok sabha elections (general elections), the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led state government, too, had to take electoral considerations into account.

Besides offering a small increase in the paltry pensions now paid to various groups, Thomas Isaac announced a few new welfare measures too. The most important of them is an insurance scheme, which is an enlarged version of the one drawn up by the last government.

In this budget, Thomas Isaac has moved away from loud advocacy of deficit financing.
Until recently he was highly critical of the approach of the Centre and the previous state government, which were moving towards deficit-free budgets. He is now willing to limit deficit financing to the capital account only. He hopes to wipe out deficit in the revenue account by 2010.

The change in his attitude is the result of a hopeful turn in the state's finances, brought about primarily by improved tax collections. Fifty years ago, both Kerala's government and people were poor. The Gulf boom brought a measure of prosperity to sections of the people, but the government continued to be poor. Now, it appears, the government too can look forward to better days.

Most of the taxation proposals have provided relief to various sections. For instance, the tax on used car sale has been lowered and that on mobile recharge coupons has been dropped.

There are just a few proposals that will add to the costs. The most important of them is a one per cent cess of the value added tax, which the Finance Minister expects to yield Rs one billion.
To begin with, he was critical of Vat, but improved tax revenues seem to have persuaded him to change his attitude towards it.

While spokesmen of trade and industry have complemented Thomas Isaac on the budget exercise, they are opposed to the cess and want it to be dropped.

Even as he reduced the tax on all hospital equipment to four per cent, he imposed a 10% luxury tax on hospital rooms fetching rents of Rs1,000 or more a day. He expects the measure to yield only Rs10 million. Considering the proliferation of expensive hospital rooms and their high occupancy rate, this is a low target.

Some tax proposals are clearly aimed at achieving specific goals. The imposition of 12.5% tax on plastic carry-bags simultaneously with the total exemption of paper bags from tax is in keeping with the objective of promoting use of biodegradable products.

A close scrutiny of the proposals reveals the emergence of a new strategy to raise resources.
It essentially involves identification of areas of commercial profit and negotiation of specific deals with them.

In several sectors such as hotels with bars and jewelleries, provision has been made for compounding of tax at specific rates to ensure a certain minimum increase in revenue.
The rates were fixed in private negotiations held before the budget proposals were framed.
In the case of jewelleries, the compounding rate has been fixed at 150%.

In a post-budget discussion, Thomas Isaac revealed that in discussions with jewellers' representatives he had proposed a rate of 200% but eventually settled for 150%. The new strategy has ensured a 50% increase in the tax to be collected from the jewellers.
But it raises ethical questions in as much as private negotiations between the government and the trade offer scope for misuse of authority.

In this particular instance, the state may be losing more than it gains because the price the government has to pay for a settlement is to shut its eyes towards the large-scale tax evasion prevailing in the trade.

The Finance Minister has certainly made an attempt to chart a new financial course. But it is too feeble. With the state's finances showing signs of buoyancy, the time has come for the government to think of a comprehensive social security scheme instead of continuing with the piecemeal approach of the past. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 10, 2008.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

"The jihad in 'God's Own Country'"

The Hindu carries in today's edition a report on Islamist activity in Kerala, under the heading "The jihad in 'God's Own Country'". It says Islamist groups are gaining both followers and influence in the State.

The headline appears to be a little far-fetched inasmuch as the report says Kerala hasn't seen a terrorist strike. In fact, it says Kerala is "an exception among the major southern States" in this respect.

The Thiruvananthapuram-datelined story is by Praveen Swami. His name is familiar to regular readers of The Hindu and Frontline as they have carried innumerable despatches from him on Islamist activity in the country, especially in Jammu and Kashmir.

Swami rarely identifies his sources but it is not difficult to make out that the information he dishes out comes from the Intellgence agencies. If he had checked the material fed to him carefully he would not have talked of a Kondotty district in the State.

Indian women provide security for Africa’s first woman President

MARCH 8: Here is a bit of information to spread cheer on International Women’s Day.

The President of Liberia is a woman, and her personal bodyguards are women from India.

Located in north Africa, Liberia, "land of the free," was founded by black slaves freed in the United States in 1820. An initial group of 86 immigrants, who came to be called Americo-Liberians, established a settlement in Christopolis (which was later renamed Monrovia, after US President James Monroe) on February 6, 1820.

In the elections held in October 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Union Party was elected President. She is Africa’s first elected woman president.

Security personnel drawn from 23 member-states of the United Nations, including India, are keeping the peace in Liberia which had witnessed ethnic violence in recent times. The personal security of the President is the responsibility of Indians.

An all-woman force from India, which was in charge of the President’s security, returned home last month on completion of its tour of duty. Its place was taken by another contingent of 125 women from the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), led by Commandant Rakhi Sahi.

“We have a defined task of providing security to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, high profile officials and guests,” Rahi told Indo-Asian News Service in New Delhi before leaving for Liberia.” We would also be doing law and order management apart from providing training to police officials in the country.”

Friday, March 7, 2008

Quiet flows the Chaliyar

A decade after the Gwalior Rayons factory at Mavoor, Near Kozhikode, which had been polluting air and water in that area, was closed down, the Chaliyar river has come to life again.

K.A. Shaji narrates the story of the return of normalcy to the area in an article "A River Reborn", distributed by

Shaji's article can be accessed here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

People’s Watch marks 10th anniversary of human rights education programme

The Institute Human Rights Education (IHRE), a programme of People's Watch, Madurai-based national human rights organization, has completed 10 years.

IHRE is engaged in spreading human rights education. It took up the task in 1997, during the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004).

It introduced human rights education in the Adi-Dravidar Welfare and Government Tribal Residential (ADW – GTR) schools under the Department of SC/ST Welfare of the Government of Tamil Nadu in 2002. That was the first time human rights education had been introduced in regular government schools anywhere in South Asia.

What began as a pilot project in nine schools in Tamil Nadu in 1997 has crossed the borders of that State and expanded to more than 3,000 schools in 13 States, covering more than 3,000 teachers and 250,000 school children.

About 800 children and 300 teachers will take part in the IHRE decennial celebrations to be held in Madurai tomorrow (March 7). In the morning, there will be an interactive session with students and teachers of HRE for more than two hours from 10.00 am. They will share the impact of the program, the changes that they have undergone personally and the changes that they have made or tried to make in their families or neighbourhood or in the communities..

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Requiem for a revered cultural institution

AFTER a glorious innings of 44 years, the British Library at Thiruvananthapuram closed its doors to the public on Feb.29. It was a sad occasion for its small staff and an even sadder one for its 6,000 members.

The library, which opened in 1964, was under the administrative control of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations since there is no British diplomatic mission in the city. Officials, professionals and students were among those who used its services.

"Our network of 11 libraries provides you with access to a vast array of resources," the British Council said at its Indian website. "You can use our library for learning, research, professional or recreational needs. At our Library you can borrow books, access an increasing electronic resource collection, get information about studying in the UK, apply for a scholarship programme, or network with other professionals in your area of interest."

Over the decades, several thousand people had made use of these facilities. Citizens of Thiruvananthapuram came to revere the library as an institution that contributes to their educational, scientific and cultural advancement.

The British Council's decision to close down this library, along with the one at Bhopal, came as a rude shock to its beneficiaries, past and present. They raised a hue and cry. They also mounted a vigorous campaign, mainly through the Internet and the local media, to save it.

Booklovers signed online petitions and poured out their agony in blogs. The newspapers joined the campaign. Well-known personalities from many walks of life acknowledged the debt they owed to the library.

A post-doctoral student of the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology wrote that the library network had supported his life in many ways-by lending books, biding time and being a place where he could go on Saturday evenings.

A lady, who gave expression to her feelings in verse, ended with this wrenching line: "If the Library goes, I'll be torn apart."

A special attraction of the library was its children's section. A sixth standard student wrote: "Since the vacation of 4th standard, I have been a regular reader and fan of Wonderland. I have read about 200 books from your library and I am simply attached to those books .The language, grammar and humour of those books made me more imaginative. My language and grammar improved. So did my imagination." She requested the British Council not to close the library which was giving children like her lots of information and fun.

The British Council authorities in London did not change their mind. They explained that closure of two of the 11 libraries in India was part of a scheme to use IT tools and reach out to wider audiences than was possible through a conventional library.

ICCR officials, too, were unmoved. However, the campaign evoked an immediate response from Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. He informed the British Council that the State government was willing to set up an autonomous body to run the institution. The Press Club of Thiruvananthapuram offered a floor in its building to accommodate the new institution.

The British Council agreed to hand over the library's collection of 28,000 books, DVDs, magazines, and the infrastructure to the entity to be formed by the State government.
This is expected to be done before March 31.

There is no word yet on the composition of the autonomous body. According to unofficial estimates, it will need an annual outlay of Rs10 million. It is not clear how the government proposes to find the money.

The British Library closed down on the eve of the birth centenary of PN Panicker, who is considered the father of Kerala's library movement.
Panicker's tireless efforts had resulted in the emergence of a vibrant library movement in the 1940s. The network is still in place but it has ceased to be the intellectual driving force that it once was.

People familiar with the decline of the library movement are not very optimistic about the success of the new dispensation. They point out that the State has big libraries but they are no match for the one that has closed shop. Two factors set the British Library apart from the other such institutions in the State. One was the continuous process of renewal of stocks, which made it a repository of uptodate information. The other was the high degree of professionalism of its small staff. --Gulf Today, March 3, 2008.