Sunday, December 30, 2007

It's New Year & Another Editor Goes to Jail...

It was on December 19 that the Kerala police arrested P Govindan Kutty, the 68-year-old editor of a pro-Maoist publication, the People’s March monthly, from his small office at a lodge in Trikkakkara near Kochi. Eleven days after his arrest, the civil society in the State still seems to be completely unmindful, except for a few human rights activists who have threatened to launch an agitation in front of the Kerala High Court protesting against the unlawful manner in which the arrest and incarceration has been carried out.

Govindan Kutty has been on an indefinite fast in jail from the day of his arrest, alleging that even the minimum legal procedures with regard to arrest were ignored in his case and the basic rights of a prisoner like access to a lawyer had been denied to him. When he was arrested and remanded to the Alwaye Sub-Jail, the authorities had insisted that he could talk to his lawyer only in the presence of the jail officials.

Govindan Kutty has been a government servant for some time but later on he came in contact with the Maoist thinking in Andhra. He came to Kerala five years ago and launched his small publication, which is sold only a few hundred copies in various parts of Kerala and outside. It has never been proceeded against, and he runs it with all legal requirements like registration with the Newspaper Registrar of India and has permission to post his magazine at concession rates with the postal department.

The charges now framed against Govindan Kutty are under Sec.134, 124 A, 133 B, of IPC and under the 1967 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is normally used against criminal elements like goons and never against a media-person. One of the main charges against him is that in his magazine, he wrote some five years ago an article hailing the attack on the person of the then Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandra Babu Naidu by some Maoist groups.

The arrest and the consequent developments raise a number of disturbing questions. One is the palpable intolerance being shown by the police and the present government in Kerala towards any kind of dissenting views. The second is the scant respect for human rights and the fundamental rights of every citizen, including prisoners. The third, is the selective and arbitrary manner in which the civil society in Kerala, including intellectuals and mainstream media, seem to behave even on issues where violation of fundamental rights are involved.

Govindan Kutty’s arrest comes as a sequel to the arrest of two Maoist activists Malla raja Reddy and Suguna, a tribal woman, who were whisked away by a team of Andhra police men from a public road in Angamally, near Alwaye, at 7.30 pm on December 17. Both were living among the groups of construction workers from outside Kerala, now widely employed in the State. The plain-clothes police team had come without notice to the local authorities, as required by the law, and were making an attempt to drive away with the two, while the local people raised a hue and cry stopping their vehicle. It was then the Andhra police team agreed to produce the two in a court of law and get a transmit warrant to take them away to Andhra Pradesh to stand trial on charges against them.

Such secret police raids seem to have become a routine affair, as earlier this year, on June 22, another Maoist, Raja Mouli, had been forcibly taken hostage by a group from Andhra Pradesh from the Kollam railway station in south Kerala. He was not produced in any court and his body was recovered two days later from Andhra Pradesh.

The Kerala police pounced upon the offices of Govindan Kutty alleging that he was involved in the Malla raja Reddy affair, helping him find a shelter in Kerala. But they could not find any evidence to prove this allegation and hence the decision to charge him for his writings in the magazine five years ago.

The reports about the arrest in the mainstream Malayalam media also raise some very disturbing questions. The police stories about his personal life, his estrangement with his wife and family, etc, were carried without giving his version at all. What was going on in the first few days after his arrest was a media campaign sponsored by the unknown sources in the police which vilified the man as a demon.

There were only a few exceptions. Madhyamam, a newspaper run by a trust supported by the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Thejas, a recently launched newspaper supported by the National Development Front (NDF), carried reports that spoke about the violation of rights in the case of Govindan Kutty. They spoke to him and took his version of the story, highlighting the blatantly false claims made by the police.

In Kerala the left governments seem to be more prone to this kind of irrational onslaughts against the media. A few years ago, police under the LDF government led by E K Nayanar had ransacked the offices of Crime, a small publication from Kzohikode, on orders from the chief minister’s office following a complaint from a Congress MLA. The police had arrested the editor T P Nandakumar and had forced the closure of his office taking away computers and other equipment. It was again the Nayanar ministry in 1986 that arrested P M Antony, a writer and theatre activist, for staging his controversial play, The Sixth Sacred Wound of Christ, raising a big hue and cry from the intellectuals. Now even as the police behave in an unruly manner, there is no such protest from the media and civil society, raising genuine apprehensions about the state of health of Kerala’s civil society itself.

Devil's Sermon is a weekly political commentary.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tsunami Breaks Villages, But Fails to Break Caste Walls

Remembering the Tsunami Experiences on its Third Anniversary Day

By N P Chekkutty

The tsunami disaster brought into sharp focus the deep chasm between the two Indias : the India that is marching confidently ahead in the comity of nations and the India that lags behind, discriminated against and sorely lacking even in basic necessities. Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, addressing the Confederation of Indian Industry in Kolkata, asserted that India’s decision not to accept external assistance and rely solely on its own resources to fight the calamity was an instance of turning adversity into opportunity, dalit workers who toured coastal areas of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were briefing the national media in Delhi on glaring instances of caste discrimination, even in the face of this horrendous tragedy.

Activists from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Safai Karmachari Andolan and Sakshi Human Rights Watch, who toured dalit villages in the two states for over a week, brought back accounts of serious discrimination in aid distribution and rehabilitation between the fishermen community and dalits, both of whom were equally affected by the tragedy that struck on the morning of December 26. The tsunami knew only geographical boundaries, but we could see the deep and entrenched boundaries of caste dividing the affected people, said Paul Divakar, an activist from Hyderabad who is associated with the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Delhi .

Dalit activists Paul Divakar, Bezawada Wilson (Safai Karmachari Andolan), Dr S D J M Prasad (Sakshi) and others toured the districts of Kanchipuram, Thiruvallur, Chennai and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, and Prakasam and Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, for an on-the-spot assessment of aid delivery and rehabilitation in the weeks following the tsunami tragedy. They reported several cases of caste discrimination against dalit refugees in both states, even amongst the official machinery.

In a note prepared by the activists, based on their enquiries, they report extensive damage to dalit households and property in all the five districts they toured. Livelihoods have been destroyed and water sources contaminated by seawater. In many places relief camps were organised along caste lines, with separate camps for dalits, with aid distribution in the camps often erratic. There were instances of dalit hamlets being completely ignored by officials and organisations involved in aid delivery. Official estimates of loss of life and property have not been properly carried out in dalit areas; where they have, the losses have been underestimated. There were cases of unidentified bodies being buried close to dalit settlements despite the availability of land elsewhere. Restoration of drinking water, roads, public health services, communication facilities etc were done faster and more efficiently in fishermen areas while dalit areas were neglected. The extrication of bodies was done only by manual scavengers who are exclusively dalits. For this, ‘safai karmacharis’, as they are called, were brought in from neighbouring municipalities and corporations. They were offered no additional benefits and were paid only Rs 25 a day as additional wages. They had to work without proper protective clothing like gloves, face masks, etc.

The team of activists visiting villages in Prakasam and Nellore districts in Andhra Pradesh said relief deliveries of rice, medicines etc reached only fishermen communities, not dalit areas. At Urla Palem, in Prakasam, the district collector, local MLA and MP who toured the fishermen village did not visit the dalit colony which was also badly affected by the disaster.

Activists reported that assessments of dalit loss of property were underestimated as the dalits did not own pucca houses, unlike the fishermen community which was comparatively better off. They said revenue officials generally took the view that fishermen communities were the only ones that were financially destroyed by the tsunami, as they owned tangible assets like boats, nets, etc. In the case of dalits, who are equally dependent on the coastal economy and environment and who suffered just as much as the fishermen, the losses could not be quantified in the official sense. So dalits are at the receiving end of a double loss, as official estimates of losses from the tsunami do not take intangible losses, like damage to the coastal environment, into account.

The Urla Palem salt cultivators are an example. Around 500 dalit families in the village of Urla Palem were engaged in extracting salt from 175 acres of land near the sea, under the auspices of the Binginapalli Scheduled Caste Salt Cultivators Society. These fields are now completely submerged, filled with saline water and sand, and it will take at least another month to clean up the area and resume work. Villagers told the team of activists that officials assessing the losses had not visited the dalit colony once to find out what the situation there was.

A survey by the team in five districts of Tamil Nadu reveals the following information: In Kanchipuram, although 2,332 dalit houses were damaged, 365 head of cattle swept away, and 55 acres of land affected, no dalit family had received any aid. In Cuddalore, 20 dalits died, 614 houses were damaged, 13 boats lost and 19 head of cattle perished. But no aid was given to the dalits. In Thiruvallur (16 deaths, 102 people missing, 3,810 houses damaged), there was some aid distribution among the dalits. In Chennai (30 deaths, 2,825 houses damaged), aid has been made available. In Nagapattinam/Karaikkal (113 deaths, 1,914 houses damaged), aid has been distributed among the dalits.

Dalit activists say the discrimination does not seem to be a conscious effort on the part of the officials. It stems from age-old practices and prejudices. Separate camps for dalits and non-dalits were set up in places where there had earlier been incidents of conflict between the communities.

The activists also came across areas where camps had been jointly organised, and where communities lived together. One example was Poppukar camp, in Nagapattinam, where activists witnessed fishermen, dalits and members of other communities living together in a relief camp after the tsunami struck.

Activists say that once media attention is drawn to instances of discrimination, higher officials respond quickly. But lower down the ladder, apathy and animosity towards dalits still exists in many villages.

(The information detailed above is based on discussions with the team members in Delhi on January 12, 2005 . The situation regarding aid delivery is likely to have changed as local officials have been briefed about the survey’s findings)

(N P Chekkutty is a senior journalist based in Delhi )

InfoChange News & Features, January 2005

Monday, December 24, 2007

Tsunami and the Night of `Live’ Terrors

December 26 this year marks the third anniversary of the tsunami that hit Kerala coasts

N P Chekkutty

As the tsunami waves hit the coasts on the morning of December 26, 2004, Sunday, millions of people all over the world were glued onto their television sets, as the trickle of information that came over the tube was so vital for many of us in those crucial days. As a person living in Delhi leaving a family back home in Kerala-- one of three southern states severely hit by the waves along with Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu—and experiencing the agonies of the night, I think the visual media coverage of the whole incident left much to be desired and there seems to be an urgent need to initiate a debate within the media and also among the policymakers on the matter of information dissemination in calamity situations. The experiences of the week immediately after the tragedy bring to our attention the point that the media ought to evolve a policy on how to report calamities of such immense proportions and affecting a large number of people across such a wide geographical area and also how to tackle the issue of dissemination of disinformation, as it has been the experience in the wake of the recent tragedy.

Let me explain my point with my own personal experience: As the first waves hit, the news was not so alarming for any of us, as in the coastal regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh tidal waves are a normal experience especially in the monsoon seasons. When I talked to many of my friends an relatives living in Kerala, most of them in the vicinity of the sea, there was not much of an alarm on the first day. But 24 hours later, on Monday night, the three Malayalam channels operating in Kerala, were reporting on the tsunami developments in such hysteric manners that they were evidently whipping up a scare wave with the oft-repeated rumours of the possibility of another wave of tsunamis hitting the coasts once again, triggering a massive exodus of people from the coastal belt in the entire region.

It was unbelievable to watch the way the channels went ahead reporting on the new threat of tsunamis at their 10.30 p.m. news on Monday , enthusiastically focussing their cameras on the people who started moving out of their beachside homes and running for cover with their little possessions, their families in tow even as they kept on repeating the rumours that water has been rising in various parts of the state till quite early into the day. At 10.30 p.m. news they said the waves would hit in just one hour, and then I could see the same reports being scrolled over the screen even two hours later in the night.

The next day, newspapers reported the horrors of the night of televised rumours when people in the entire area from Thiruvananthapuram to Chavakkad on the Trichur coast had been running away form the coast without any vehicles, with no support from any official agencies only because the rumours first reported at the 10.30 p.m. news remained in the air till early next day. There was no reason why such rumour mongering should continue unhindered all night, because there was no official warning from any corner that night. What is important to note is that these rumours went on air in spite of the fact that there was no official announcement about any threat from tsunami waves on Monday night and the Indian Meteorological department also denied issuing any such warning.

The entire episode of this sordid drama took place on the basis of an unconfirmed report which spoke about a fresh tsunami waves following the after-tremors and an interview with Dr Bhaba, director of the Centre for Earth Sciences Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, who called for caution as there was every possibility of fresh tremors in the wake of a major earthquake. In the usual irresponsible and high-decibel manner in which our channels report, this call for caution by a scientist was developed into a major alarm by the television reporters, who were giving live coverage of the people leaving the coasts from all parts of the state. Unmindful of the consequences and implications, they were also competing with each other repeating the rumours spreading in coastal areas that sea level was rising without even an effort at cross-checking or resorting to any scientific or official machinery for substantiating their claims. In Asianet, a widely distributed channel, I saw the announcement about sea level rise repeated quite a number of times till late into the night even as they went on with other normal late-night programming after predicting deluge in the night news. Kairali News was another channel I watched, and they too were equally irresponsible in their reporting about the imminent waves hitting the beaches.

As the channels went on terrorizing their viewers dishing out the deluge mania in between commercial breaks, there were others who made an equally fast buck that night – they were the thieves, who, according to newspaper reports the next day, had a roaring business in the entire coast line on the night of December 27. Mathrubhumi, a well respected Malayalam newspaper, gave reports on the huge damage done by the channels who went out to report the mayhem live, and in the pocket cartoon of the day, the paper had shown a man throwing out his television set, calling it the real tsunami to hit his household. Most of the readers must have shared the view, I should shy.

Then on December 30, when the Home Ministry in Delhi came out with its half-baked warning of the second tsunami which was laughed off by the Science and Technology Minister, the Malayalam channels showed they did not learn any lessons from their previous faux paus. The Kerala Chief Minister who was in a meeting of the cabinet came out, gave a warning about the threat and soon it was again followed up by the television channels who gave out the alert literally in Red Letter, in full screen even as the national channels like NDTV were giving out the same information in a much more subdued manner, without adding to the alarm among the people. It is sad that these regional channels who speak the language of the local people who are affected by these calamities, failed to appreciate the real implications of such an irresponsible behaviour on their part.

Of course, the catastrophes of the past week are unusual because the tsunami is new to our experiences as the Prime Minister said in defence of the faux paus committed by his own Home Minister who bungled on the warning on December 30. The government is now trying to learn their lessons from the failures, what about the media? There is no comprehensive review or a sustained analysis of the way we reported the national calamity live. There were criticisms on the way BBC and CNN went ahead with cashing in on the Asian tragedy, and the insensitivity they showed towards the Asian victims vis a vis the World Trade Center disaster, etc, but there is no sincere attempts so far on the part of the media here to have an introspection on how we dealt with our own tragedy and how our live television channels across the country handled the situation. Ultimately, the live television is there to stay and they will keep on reporting whether it is death or destruction, come what may, and we will see our own people forced to scramble out of their beds in the dead of night simply because someone in the newsroom heard some rumours and thought it fit to report. So some kind of a commonly accepted norm is now urgently called for on how to report such developments, how to treat warnings from official and non-official agencies, etc. Even in weather forecast for fishermen, the weather department makes use of their own yardsticks with different measures for different levels of perceived danger. But in media, we are still to have any such yardsticks for our guidance.

(Originally published at and Meantime Weekly, 2005.)

Bikaneri Bhujia Battles the World's Titans

By N P Chekkutty

The case of Bikaneri Bhujia, an indigenous variety of sweet quite popular in the north, gives a graphic illustration of the impact of the global market forces on the livelihood of the poorer in Indian villages.
The bikaneri bhujia is a traditional snack produced in cottage industries in Bikaner, Rajasthan. It provides employment to around 2.5 million people in villages, the majority of them women who inherited the know-how and skills to produce this delicacy. The snack is prepared from the moth lentil which grows only in the deserts of Bikaner and Jodhpur and it has had a secure local market all these years. It provided employment not only to the producers and traders and street-vendors but also a large number of farmers in the desert region; another ten thousand women were engaged in the preparation of papads, which are eaten together with the bhujias.
But the cycle of secure employment and local consumption of produce is changing, with globalisation. A recent study brought out by the National Commission for Women, entitled Impact of WTO on Women in Agriculture, prepared by the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science & Technology after detailed research and field studies, provides many examples of what goes on Indian villages - where indigenous know-how is now being widely exploited by multinational corporations bent on monopolizing the traditional markets. Recently, Pepsi, the global food and beverages company, began using this traditional name in their advertisements with a view to underbid the local producers; this would destroy a market developed in the region through the hard work of many generations. The report says that Pepsi had done no special research input into developing it nor had it introduced any new technology in the production of bikaneri bhujia; it simply took the traditional know-how.
The study asserts that the global agribusiness is now attempting to take over food processing, which provides millions of Indians with a livelihood in their age-old ghanis (oils extractors), chakkis (flour millers) and dhabas (foods servers), by labeling locally produced food as inferior, while promoting their stale and frozen food clothed in aluminium and plastic foils as modern. This is the magic of powerful advertising which promotes the market forces even in a highly decentralized and culture-specific sector like food production. What is being destroyed by the food retail chains and packaged foods is the livelihood of millions who include the small farmers, the traders, the mill-operators or chakkiwallahs and the thousands of family-run kirana shops.
It also points out that the US multinational is now trying to undercut the local producers of Bikaneri bhujia, by taking up high-tech production, which holds disastrous consequences for the people of Bikaner. It would result in their traditional product going to the multinational and their market destroyed by its high volume produce backed by massive advertisements flooding the market, in the process driving out the original producers of the snack.
The book gives a description of how Cargill, a US multinational, was making efforts to take over the sphere of activities of our ancient chakkis with its recently introduced Nature Fresh Atta. It points out that Cargill, which controls over 70 per cent of the world's trade in cereals, can dictate the prices of agricultural commodities. Since they entered the wheat food market in India with their Nature Fresh Atta campaign, half the mills in Punjab, a State where wheat flour is the primary item for food preparations, have closed down. As the authors of the report says, the Cargill company had even used the occasion of Kargil war victory celebrations to launch their new brand of 'Nature Fresh Atta' in an attempt to "exploit the sentiments of the people and to create confusion among the consumers with a dexterous and unethical use of the similarity in the names of the place and the company".
What the study undoubtedly proves is the disastrous ways Indian traditional agriculture is being undermined by the invasion of the multinational corporations in the wake of our entry to the World Trade Organization and its multilateral agreements relating to agriculture.
Over 70 percent of Indian farmers depend on traditional systems of production and majority of them are small and marginal farmers in the rural areas. Often, entire communities are organised around local knowledge and production.
Brains and bullocks
Women are a major part of the food industry in the country as they are primarily responsible for most of the activities related to food, from seed preservation to food production, and their role is now being marginalised by the multinationals who are out to take over the Indian food industry. As Vandana Shiva, who led the study on behalf of the Women's Commission, notes, it was the first gender sensitive study on the impact of WTO on agriculture, based on research as well as field work involving public hearings held in four parts of the country. It focussed primarily on two major aspects; the first a review of the shifts of knowledge and control over seed and bio-diversity from women to global corporations and secondly, it examined the impact of trade liberalization in agriculture leading to loss of livelihood, women's employment and entitlement.
The fist part of the book, where WTO and its various agreements are examined with relation to India, makes an objective critique of the major agreements, viz, the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), Agreement on Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary Measures (SPS) and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) on Indian peasants, especially its womenfolk. As it elaborately argues, these agreements have had an extremely negative impact on the women with deprival of entitlement and employment leading to massive hunger and malnutrition; divestment of resources and livelihood and an increase in violence against women. It also notes the catastrophic consequences of the shifting patterns of agriculture leading pauperization and consequent massive peasant suicides adding additional burden on their shoulders as most often women are left behind to look after the deprived families.
The experience gained at the jan sunwais conducted in Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka and Budelkhand actually substantiates what the academic critique of the new regime in agriculture has pinpointed. These jan sunwais were participated in by ordinary peasant women, activists from the peasants and agricultural workers organizations, grassroots level workers, etc. They threw a lot of light on the miserable situation in most parts of the Indian countryside, the deepening debt crisis and the erosion of traditional methods of agriculture, loss of traditional expertise and loss livelihood, and the massive impoverishment of the peasant class across the country.
Here is what Sabitri, a peasant woman from Bhelware, Bishnugarh in Jharkhand says about the way agriculture changed over the years. She said they used to cultivate a number of varieties like bal-bhog, man-bhog, purbi sail, kart baki and maina tho, each of them having different characteristics. They needed less water and no fertilizer. Then came the new varieties of high yielding seeds and what happened? They produced twice as much, but destroyed the fields and drained out the water resources. As Sabiri says, "khet kharab ho gaye. Labh ke liye purao dhan chhod diyo".(Now our fields are spoilt. For profit people have stopped planting the old strains.)
As the book points out, over 70 percent of Indian farmers depend on traditional systems of production and majority of them are small and marginal farmers in the rural areas. Often, entire communities are organised around local knowledge and production; almost the entire population of Bikaner, for example, was involved in one way of the other in the production and distribution of bikaneri bhujias. When traditional methods of sharing and exchange of biological resources like seed sharing are undermined by the new regime being brought in by the Seed Bill and Patent Bill, it would bring more harm to them than the intended benefits. As already seen in the case of Cargill and Pepsi, the traditional systems of exchange of know-how are now being eroded; individuals, organizations and corporations who receive bio-diversity and knowledge from indigenous communities free of charge are converting these gifts into private property.
This work is an important step in the efforts to study the malaise that has befallen the Indian rural life. As the pioneering gender specific study of the impact of the new economic policies, it should attract the attention of policymakers and officials in the government.

(First published at in July 2005.)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Democracy at Grassroots: Kerala's Sea Courts

by N P Chekkutty

The coastal region of south India, especially the western coast, has seen a series of violent communal clashes in the past few years. Rising incidents of communal confrontation, like the Marad carnage in north Kerala where almost a dozen people were hacked to death in two clashes, have spurred the search for a lasting solution to the growing communal polarisation among the fisher people.

The communalisation of Kerala’s fisher-folk is a recent phenomenon that appears contrary to the social image of Kerala as a place where secular forces are dominant politically. But it is also an indication of the tenuous nature of the secular social fabric here. Many scholars and social activists feel that the deterioration of the coastal region into hotbeds of communal politics ominously points to a similar fate for all of society, because what went wrong during the post-Independence years is the basic approach of social engineering under a welfare state. It gave more power and prominence to organs of the state like the revenue and police authorities, political parties and trade unions, while grassroots-level, people-oriented, traditional social systems were allowed to fade away or were forcibly laid to rest.

The death of the traditional sea courts, a grassroots disputes redressal system that once actively presided over the day-to-day life of all the coastal fisher-folk, is a case in point. According to social activist Civic Chandran, the sea courts, or katal kotathi in the regional language, were the most effective form of grassroots democracy in this region for centuries. Chandran has been at the forefront of a campaign to revive the traditional system as a way out of the politics of communal polarisation that’s currently gripping the fishing community.

Historically, the sea courts (an elected body of elders) constituted an effective system of arbitration among the various fishing communities. They enjoyed supreme power and prestige and were even recognised by the British authorities ruling over the Malabar region whose civil courts acknowledged them as a legitimate system of arbitration over maritime disputes.

The sea courts dispensed justice through their own system of hearings, arbitration, compromises, edicts, punishments and appeals to a higher court. Each court held jurisdiction over a small area called turai, enjoying moral authority over all the boat-owners and fish-workers in the region. It ensured the fisher-folk equitable access to marine resources and harmonious social living, as it arbitrated in almost all areas of the fisher people’s lives. These included relations between boat-owners and workers, disputes over catches on the high seas, disputes arising out of a group of boats coming together to encircle and capture a huge catch known as chakara, accidents and quarrels on the high seas, protection of marine wealth with fishing bans during certain seasons and times, disputes over fish sales, etc.

V K Prabharakan, a social activist from Chombala beach near Vatakara in north Kerala, was witness to the trial of a potentially communal case. It was a dispute between a Hindu, Meethale Purayil Vasu, and a Muslim, Paremmal Usman. Both worked in a boat owned by Chulliyil Moidu, another Muslim. There were eight workers in the boat as it went fishing one day, six of them Hindus and two Muslims. Usman and Vasu were involved in a longstanding quarrel, and, while out at sea, Usman attempted to push Vasu out of the boat. Vasu was saved when the other men intervened. The dispute came to the sea court that arrived at a unanimous decision that Usman had been wrong in raking up the quarrel at sea. He had violated a fundamental principle of work on the high seas: that no dispute from the land shall be carried over to the sea, and vice-versa. Usman was found guilty and penalised.

In another case -- Chulliyil Moidu vs Koora Raman and others -- the same principle was applied to dismiss a verdict given by a lower court by an appeal body. The dispute was over the apportioning of catch. Moidu and his workers had joined a group hunt in which around 30 boats participated. There is an unwritten law about the formation of such groups whilst out at sea that is based on mutual trust and cooperation. The proceeds, if any, of such joint operations are shared equally among the participants. However, in the middle of the joint operation, Moidu withdrew from the hunt without formally informing the others. His boat returned to shore and later went back to sea where it got a good catch of catfish. The other boats claimed a share in Moidu’s catch as he had not formally withdrawn from the group. The local sea court heard the dispute, upheld the fishermen’s claim, and asked Moidu to share his bounty. He appealed and the case went up to the fourth appeal court, a record in recent memory. (Appeal courts are formed by enlisting the immediate northern and southern sea courts.) Finally, the appeal court decided that Moidu was right in keeping his catch as he had returned to land before coming upon the disputed catch. The principle was that any agreement formed at sea becomes null and void once someone from the group touches land.

The sea courts fell on bad days in the post-Independence period when the police and civil authorities took over the administration of justice even in disputes relating to the maritime activities of the fisher people, despite the fact that they had no idea of the special nature of their problems.

“We had an effective court functioning in our region and the people had been settling their disputes there till the police intervened in their affairs and the courts were disbanded as a mark of protest,” recalls V K Prabhakaran who has studied the functioning of the sea courts. Prabhakaran explains that it was around 15 years ago that the sea court in his village decided to disband when the police refused to recognise it as a legitimate set-up in a dispute. The incident is an eye-opener: There was a dispute over the landing of catch at the local beach, as the sea courts had unanimously banned fishing at night in order to ensure the regeneration of the species. One particular group of fishermen from outside the area violated the ban and their catch was seized by members of the sea court. But the police decided it was a law and order problem and ordered the sea court to release the catch, forcing it to discontinue its activities.

“It is an instance of how the revenue and police authorities failed to understand the special significance of these traditional systems,” says Prabhakaran pointing out that this was one of the reasons for the demise of the traditional social fabric of the coast, to be replaced by a system of trade unions, commission agents, political parties and communal organisations, leading to disastrous consequences. Indeed, communal clashes became a regular feature of life on the coast only during the last two decades when such traditional systems were destroyed.

But it was not just an administrative lapse or official apathy that led to the disbanding of the sea courts. The inroads made by technology and capital-intensive practices into traditional vocations (especially gadgets like cell phones and mechanised boats) eroded their effectiveness as those who defied the dictates of the sea courts could easily divert their catch to other landing posts, avoiding court members who had jurisdiction over a limited area.

Following the recent communal clashes and the spread of communalism all over the coast, efforts were made to revive community-based traditional methods of maintaining law and order and dispensing justice. But the sea courts are now almost defunct everywhere on the southern coast; if they do make a comeback they will have to be given proper recognition and legal powers by the civil and judicial authorities. As Suresh, leader of a Hindu fishermen’s organisation on Marad beach points out, these courts were based on finding mutually acceptable solutions, but the problem today is that members of the fishing community are badly divided. But there are others who point out that with proper management and support from society, the sea courts could once again play an effective role in bringing communal harmony back to coastal Kerala.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2005

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Devil's Sermon: Hamara Finance Minister ko Kyun Gussa Aatha Hai?

The Comrades Are Once Again at the Neck of the Bourgeois Press

Media has always been the favourite whipping boy for our comrades in Kerala. Whenever uncomfortable questions are raised, whenever someone in the high levels of the proletarian party is caught with his pants down, like our comrade Jayarajan whose acceptance of Rs. 2 crore from a lottery don made news, they come down like a ton of bricks on the media.

The latest to enter the arena challenging the media is Dr T M Thomas Isaac, our finance minister, who is normally a soft-spoken and mild mannered person. Not any longer. The amiable doctor is now a fierce tiger and he takes the media to task for the way they try to teach him a lesson or two on the business of economics and tax collection. He tells the media not to try teaching him too much.

That, I feel, is a clear indication that our ministers and those in power are losing their temper. And why do they lose their temper, especially with the media? In the case of the finance minister, there has been criticism that the tax collection has fallen short, the tall claims did not materialize and that his department is widely seen as a dog in manger, holding up the work of many other ministries.

And heavy guns are now in the field happily firing at the finance minister. It was none other than Veliyam Bhargavan, veteran CPI leader, who shot poison arrows at the finance minister the other day. He was angry that the finance department refused money for a pet programme of the agriculture minister, his nominee in the government. But, they say, money has been flowing to others from the CPM, like S Sarma of the fisheries.

No wonder Veliyam is angry. CPI’s Ratnakaran does not get any money for his peasants’ insurance, but S Sarma who runs fisheries, gets it for his fishermen insurance project. That shows the finance minister is no political novice, he knows from where the barbs will come in the next party conference and he is playing a game in anticipation of the fireworks at the Kottayam conference coming early next year.

But who is to blame for the present situation? Bhargavan, Ratnakaran or the finance minister himself? It is evident that when you are in a united front, you have to compromise and accept the views of the lesser people. The finance minister failed to listen to their grumblings and now all the snakes are out, and let us watch the game as it unfolds…

When dealing with media I think the Kerala comrades should learn a few lessons from their bosses in Delhi. Look at the way Karat and Yechuri deal with the national media there. They do not get angry, they do not call them names and they do not even find any syndicate among the media-persons who descend on the AKG Bhavan, to question, to find fault and to criticize. The comrades in Delhi know the game and they play it well too.

Look at the past elections, there is a great lesson too.

The finance minister's party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had reversed its decision on candidates and political alliance taken at the state committee, central committee and the politburo, after a public outcry expressed through the media. That was a breakthrough development because in no past elections the party had taken such a step and buckled under media pressure. In Kerala this time, the party openly admitted that they had to accept changes owing to media pressure.

Remember the sequence of events: The State committee of the party decided upon a political alliance with the DIC led by K Karunakaran. But after discussion in the politburo, the decision was revoked. One of the reasons cited was that the media in Kerala was extremely influential and could rake up uncomfortable issues like the role of Karunakaran in the emergency period. The CPM national leadership was not willing to fight an election in the company of Karunakaran because it felt it would be a disaster.

The party’s national congress in Delhi, held in May 2005, in its political and organizational report, had even made references to the extremely volatile nature of the electorate in Kerala and the influence of media in shaping public discourse. It had also referred to the efforts made by the party to counter this bourgeois media influence by launching its own media organizations including a twenty-four hour television channel. The results were, however, not very encouraging, the report felt.

Now back to the elections: the CPM state leadership had come to the decision that V S Achuthanandan would not contest. After the state committee decided on the list of candidates the matter went to the national leadership where it was decided that V S Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan would not contest. The party general secretary Prakash Karat officially announced that the PB had decided that both Acthuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan are not contesting. But the announcement had a tremendous impact on the rank and file and for the first time in the party history the cadres came out into the streets in open defiance, raising slogans against the leadership.

Pinarayi accused the media of playing politics. He said they had no ethics, knew nothing about the Communist Party and they were even accused of engineering demonstrations like the one in front of the AKG Center.

But then what happened? General secretary Prakash Karat agreed that there was wide resentment in the rank and file. Then came the anti-climax. The PB met once again in Delhi, discussed the situation in Kerala and Prakash Karat announced that Achuthanandan would contest the poll. Eventually he became the chief minister too.

That is history. Now the party conferences are once again on, the battles within and without are raging, and the leaders are once again in the habit of media bashing. But before striking at the bourgeois press, comrades, just consider the past experiences and see whether you can manage your affairs without dragging the media in.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Response to Story: ‘Get Out Dalits…!’

The special story, 'Get Out Dalits, We Are Here to Develop!' published here earlier this week (see the story below) has evoked a number of responses from readers.

Here are excerpts from a few. Hope this will generate a wide discussion on the plight of the displaced owing to development projects now coming up in various parts of the country:

M K Das wrote:

I wish you had also discussed the likely strategy to develop the
island and the islanders. It is one thing to fight for
the people and their present occupation but another to
chalk out a new strategy to bring them to the
mainstream of development. How long should we allow
them to live primitively and leave them to their fate?
My complaint against people like Neelakantan is that
they offer no solutions. Remember, he along with Sarma
who is a minister now, opposed the new airport and
even described it as the gateway to mass prostitution.
Now they have no shame to praise it and be part of it.

(M K Das, veteran journalist, was formerly Kerala editor of Indian Express.)

Santhakumar Velappan Nair wrote:

There is going to be a number of such incidents and conflicts of this kind in future. Is it possible to have some institutional and governance solutions for such issues without getting into anti- or pro-development rhetoric, and giving opportunities to illegal land grabbers having political support on the one hand and short-sighted activists:

May I outline a few propositions:

1. There is no need of any government intervention in buying land for developing commercial or residential complexes, or even industrial units that house service sector companies. Land acquisition route should not be used here. All land transactions in this case should be voluntary between buyers and sellers.

2. Everybody (large or small holders) is expected to take certain precautions like CRZ regulations while developing ecologically fragile land such as those adjacent to backwaters. These rules need to be enforced, but these rules can also be changed to make them more realistic.

3. Beyond these restrictions, is it possible to stop construction in a plot owned by someone but sold voluntarily to another person?

4. We have the ways of acknowledging some informal rights like the pathway (by giving some pathway while developing the land). Is it possible in someway to acknowledge such rights.

More intense thinking on such solutions is needed rather than changing this into a never ending pro- and anti-development debate.

(Dr. V Santhakumar, who teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, is an eminent economist and author.)

Rajeev PI wrote:

Nice effort Chekkutty, at a time when whatever engagement space
the `insignificant' microcosms in the way of `development' once
had, is closing. Valanthukkad is no big exception though -- many
more are such are on the way in Kochi itself (I looked at some
project proposals in the pipeline the other day.) Unfortunate that
there is, and there will be, hardly much media mainstreaming of
this _ the ad revenues are, and will, continue to be a great
leveller of concerns and occasional conscience pricks, till the
`boom' levels out (and that is quite a long way off in Kochi).
Take a look at the print and TV ad ratios of builders in Kochi, or
take a drive down the city and see the number of hoardings of
builders and developers every 300 metres or so.

(Rajeev PI is the special correspondent of the Indian Express, based in Kochi.)

Biju T G wrote:

After reading your article, 'Get out Dalits, We are Here to Develop', a few questions arise in my mind. Firstly, who are the real beneficiaries of the social movements led by the Communists of Kerala? Secondly, who would emerge to give a proper direction to our leaders, who lost visionary powers?
I reached on the conclusion that there is no chance of any change in the social situation in Kerala. It is certain that the Communist movements destroyed the feudal set up of our society. However, they failed to build a socialist set up here. After the destruction of feudalism, Kerala has been witnessing the rise of capitalism. The communists are compelled to agree with the capitalist ambitions of certain sections of the society. In the newly created situation, poor 'pulayas' --the real sons of the soil-- are still facing exploitation and humiliation. Their effort to rescue from this cruel situation by embracing other religions like Christianity also put them into deep trouble. They are being ill-treated even in Churches. We should examine the fact in this context. A new movement is needed to rescue the dalits from this pathetic situation. The real followers of Communist movement should think in this direction. They should not forget that their forefathers were ill-treated during the cruel era of feudalism.
People must come forward to save the poor people of Valanthakkadu.

(Biju T G is a journalist with News Link, New Delhi.)

Susan Teskey wrote:

Hi NP, how wonderful to hear from you! I am working almost round the clock editing for our insane deadline of Monday for the rough cut of the doc, so it won't be till next week I will get to it. I hope you are keeping up the lobbying efforts with the Minister…[about those people in the island.] Will write more as soon as I get a chance.

Cheers, Susan.

(Susan Teskey is director, documentary division at CBC-TV, Toronto, Canada.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dams: Public Safety versus Development Needs

Mullapperiyar Raises Serious Questions About Dam Safety

The recent bursting of a 116-year-old dam in Rajasthan has sent shock waves down south, in Kerala where a heated debate is going on about the safety of Mullapperiyar hydro-electric dam which is 112 years old and situated in a sensitive seismic zone. The Government of Kerala has been arguing that the dam built by Tamil Nadu in 1895 on the Periyar river is a fragile system as it was built with lime stone and other materials. The dispute between Tamil and Kerala over the safety of Mullapperiyar dam, now a matter of grave emotional impact in both states, has been raging in the Supreme Court for a long time with no amicable solution in sight. With a series of dam bursts in recent years, it is high-time the nation took stock of the threats posed by old dams which are still in operation, thanks to economic and political pressures.

The history of Mullapperiyar dam goes back to the second d half of the 19th century when the British Government of Madras Presidency and the Maharajah of Travancore entered into an agreement for the lease of 8000 acres of forest land in the Periyar river area to Madras to build a dam for irrigating the farmlands of Madurai and adjoining districts. The lease deed which was signed on October 29, 1886, was effective for 999 years while most of the other long-term agreements made by British rulers were for a period of 99 years. As the Maharajah handed over the forest land, the Government of Madras completed the dam in 1895 with a reservoir level of 155 ft. But the water level has been maintained at a maximum of 136 ft. owing to safety concerns.

In 1970 a further agreement was reached between the two states, that allowed Tamil Nadu to generate electricity from the reservoir in addition to the earlier agreement on irrigation.

The current disputes started with Tamil Nadu raising a demand for increasing the water level to 142 ft, in order to meet its growing irrigation and power generation requirements. The Supreme Court in its important order dated February 27, 2006, allowed the Tamil Nadu Government to increase the water level despite stiff resistance from the Government of Kerala. The Supreme Court rejected the argument that the rise in water level would pose a threat to the lives and properties of the people living downstream in the Kerala districts of Idukky, Kottayam and Ernakulam. The Supreme Court allowed Tamil Nadu to strengthen the dam in order to take full advantage of the storage capacity at the dam, as recommended by the Central Water Commission. An appeal filed by the Government of Krala on the above order was also rejected by the Spreme Curt in July last year.

But Kerala Government argues that the Supreme Court had not applied its mind to the recent experiences and fresh evidence which included the seismic activity in the region. Since these points carried weight, the Union Minister for Water Resources, Saifuddin Soz, convened a meeting of the chief ministers and water resources ministers of both states in Delhi earlier this year to sort out the dispute. Mr N K Premachandran, the Kerala Water Resources Minister, pointed out that the serious nature of the leaks in the dam must be taken into account while increasing the reservoir level. He pointed out that there has been acute water seepage from the old dam which has developed leaks in many parts. In the last summer season when water level went down, it exposed the seriousness of the situation as there were heavy leaks in a number of places.

The surprising fact is that even Tamil Nadu does not dispute that there are leaks and that the dam’s safety is to be ensured. The differences are about what steps need to be taken to strengthen the dam. Tamil Nadu says repairs and maintenance work is sufficient to keep the dam safe and strong and it is of the opinion that the reservoir could hold water level up to 155 ft after due repairs.

The Government of Kerala strongly disagrees. The State has been arguing that there has not been any major repairs in the dam except some grouting done in 1930 and again in 1960 to prevent leaks. The normal age of any modern dam is considered to be around 50 to 60 years and Mullapperiyar built with indigenous technology around 120 years ago could not withstand the increasing pressures. Added to the heavy monsoon, there are concerns about the problems of deforestation, land mining and silting in recent years which could make the entire region ecologically fragile.

In the Delhi discussions, Kerala argued that it is absolutely necessary to build a new dam in the region to replace the old one. The new dam could supply water to Tamil Nadu and undertake all other conditions in the 1886 and 1970 agreements. It demanded that the governments of Tamil Nadu and the Centre should bear part of the cost as the State of Kerala, while honouring its agreement with its neighbour, cannot compromise on the safety of its citizens.

Tamil Nadu Government has not responded positively to this demand. In fact, after the Delhi discussions, the talks have broken down as Tamil Nadu refused to send its emissaries to the next round of talks. Its point of view is that as per the 2006 Supreme Court verdict, it has every right to carry out the repairs on the leaking dam. But the problem is that the dam is situated in an area within Kerala borders and no repair work can be done without its consent.

Meanwhile, this month’s torrential monsoon, which took the reservoir level to almost 136 ft, has intensified the concerns in Kerala. The fear is that if the dam gives way, it could deluge the entire Periyar valley region, falling in three districts. This week, Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan declared in the State Assembly that even if the Centre and Tamil Nadu did not help financially, the State would go ahead with its plan for a new dam at Mullapperiyar. That would mean another major battle for the scare resource of water in the deep-south.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Radical and the Faithful

Here is a piece that I wrote in the editorial page of the Indian Express on Thursday, August 6, 1998.

The topic remains relevant and even more urgent these days, especially since the holy war unleashed by George W Bush and his gang of neo-cons on the one hand is sought to be met by the united front now being forged by leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and iran's Ahmadi Nejad, on the other.

This is reproduced with a hope of generating a discussion among the readers. So kindly respond:

Unlike the days when the faithful and the left found themselves divided by irreconcilable differences, ruling out any common approach to social or political issues, contemporary India throws up a host of new challenges and opportunities likely to bring them closer.
Minorities are genuinely concerned that their position is threatened, with the series of provocations on the part of the Hindutva brigade and the secular concept itself being attacked, and their feelings are more or less shared by a left committed to fight the spread of communalism in society and polity.

But in spite of the commonality of interests and even the fact that the minorities do realise the sincerity of the left perceptions and commitment vis-a-vis the minorities, they have failed to work together in a conscious effort to forge a genuinely secular political platform.

What we have seen as the secular fronts in contemporary Indian politics were only conglomerations of casteist and other sectarian interests in alliance with the leftand centrist parties, essentially committed to the single-point agenda of capturing power. In all these experiments ever since 1977, there has been little or practically no participation or leading role for the minorities with their special problems and grievances. Now even this ramshackle alliance has come unstuck with little prospect of a new realignment in the near future. No firm and meaningful secular alliance is possible in India unless it is built upon the solid foundation of the minorities.

In Kerala where the united front tactics were first experimented and perfected, the Christian and Muslim leaderships and their respective political parties have generally remained aloof and alien from the left-led alliances, except on a few occasions. This has been the case right from the first Communist ministry led by EMS Namboodiripad in 1957 and to this date they remain more or less with the Congress alliance. We can cite many reasons for this but it is also to be remembered that until recently the Congresscommitment to the principle of secularism was unchallenged and the minorities had accepted this as a fact. But this mindset is fast undergoing a change as the Christian hierarchy and the Muslim ulema are now amenable to the idea of an understanding with the left to safeguard secular interests.However, this is an alliance based on necessity, a product of compulsions of contemporary political life. As such it would remain fragile and uneasy, showing a tendency to fall apart especially in the event of sections in the minority communities exploring possibilities of accommodation with majority communalism. Such an eventuality would be disastrous for the country's future, but it is a probability as we have seen sizable sections of Muslims, even in UP, flocking to vote the BJP and its allies for ensuring more safety.It calls for a deeper and cohesive new political alliance with a substantial representation for minorities so that they would be in the forefront of the struggle against communalism, and would not cavein under threats. It is high time the left and the religious leadership put their heads together in search of effective instruments cementing the secular alliance, and for this they would have to transcend the political realm and look for philosophical and ideological bonds. But this is a suggestion likely to be frowned upon, both by the ulema and Church, still steeped in conservatism, and also the left, mainly inspired by dogmatic theories of the thirties.

Still, there are feeble indications to the contrary. The minuscule section in the Church committed to liberation theology and the progressive Muslim groups and scholars calling for reforms, have expressed their willingness to work with the ``atheistic left'' giving hopes that in future this could be kindled into a decisive element linking the faithful and the radicals.Just as liberation theology finds common strands in Marxism and Christianity in social and economic concerns, Islam's inherent anti-imperialism and its economic concept vehemently rejectsthe capitalist credo of survival of the fittest. This could be an ideal ground for a new dialogue between the two.

(From The Indian Express, August 6, 1998

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mukundan C Menon: Tribute to a Fighter

Mukundan C. Menon, who died of a massive heart attack in a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram on December 12, 2005, was a rare specimen of a journalist-turned- activist who defied the rules of the game to make his pen a powerful tool to fight for the causes he held close to his heart. He was an activist among journalists and a journalist among activists, combining the synergy of both the professions into his 57 years of active life.

It was early November in 2005 when we were busy with the training programme for new journalists at the offices of Thejas, a start-up Malayalam newspaper in Kozhikode, Kerala, where we both were working, that Mukundan collapsed of a massive heart attack just in front of me. We took him to the nearby hospital where he spent more than a month in coma, then was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram where he finally succumbed.

I had known Mukundan for many years but we were working together in the same newspaper office for the first time, since August that year. He was one of the major forces behind Thejas, a newspaper that seeks to address the minorities, backwards, dalits and other sections of Malayalee population. What brought us together was our firm commitment to the idea of journalism as a socially relevant and responsible calling unlike the newspaper-is-a-product-like-toothpaste gang who had converted the media profession into a kind of Augean stable. We were also firm that while commitment counts, quality and credibility was our first priority. While recruiting and training young journalists for our paper, we discovered each other and in the course of a few months developed a rare intimacy as we both operated from the same room.

Mukundan’s professional life can be divided into three stages: the first , his days in Delhi in the most turbulent period of Emergency and its aftermath; then his life in Andhra Pradesh when the state was the inferno of Indian left extremist movement and the third, his final years in Kerala, his home state where he was known more as a human rights activist and campaigner.

Born at Vadakkancherry in Trissur district of Kerala in November 1948, Mukundan lived in Delhi as a journalist during 1969 -1981, an eventful period in the history of Indian political life. He had raised his voice against the repressive measures against Naxalites and other political prisoners even before Emergency and had organized a number of protest meetings in Delhi as secretary of the newly formed Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) in the early seventies. He took up the cause of two Naxalite tribal prisoners, Xista Gowd and Bhoomaiah, who were condemned to death, but the demand for commutation of their death sentence fell on deaf ears as both were hanged to death during the Emergency. Mukundan himself was arrested as the Emergency was declared in June 1975 and was held as a MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) prisoner in Tihar, Rohtak and Ambala jails, for two years. He used to joke about the innovative ways in which he smuggled out small notes describing the life within the jails where eminent political leaders like Jaiprakash Narain, Morarji Desai and Chandrasekhar were lodged. He used to insert these pieces among the laundry, which his wife carried home to be leaked out to his friends and comrades, thus developing his own version of a Prison Notebook.

From 1978 to 80 he edited a journal known as Third World Unity, which had been widely read among the left-wing intellectuals all over the country. During this period he was also involved with the documentary on political prisoners, Political Prisoners of India (1977) by Anand Patwardhan and the Chattisgarh Mukthi Morcha, a militant trade union led by Shankar Guha Niyogi in the Chattisgarh area in Madhya Pradesh. He cooperated with a number of fact-finding committees which inquired into human rights violations in various parts of India and was even beaten up by police in Tamil Nadu when they were probing the fake encounter killings of 14 Naxalites in Dharmapuri district. When Jaiprakash Narain launched the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in 1978, he was elected as secretary of its Delhi unit.

Mukundan C Menon shifted to Hyderabad in 1981 where he continued till 1993. He was actively associated with newspapers like Udayam (Telugu), and Mathrubhhumi (Malayalam) besides a few English publications. It was from Hyderabad that he reported the speech made by one of the Shankaracharyas defending the practice of sati, which engulfed the country in a huge controversy. Andhra those days was described as a hotbed of terror as the state forces were involved in a bloody pursuit of the Naxalites and other radicals. He was one of the few journalists who consistently exposed the truth about several encounter killings in North Telengana and Coastal Andhra districts as a reporter as well as a member of the fact-finding committees set up by the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC).

Mukundan C Menon returned to Kerala in 1993 and was busy as a journalist and campaigner in the state where he was a key figure in the alternate media which worked along with civil liberties and human rights groups such as the Kerala Civil Liberties Committee and the Confederation of Human Rights Organizations, both of which he headed. In Kerala he was mainly focused on issues relating to the rights violations of the dalits, minorities and other oppressed sections and was responsible for campaigns like the protests against Tribal Land Amendment Bill 1996, which sought to legitimize the illegal sale of tribal land holdings in Kerala. The movement later on developed into a full-grown aDIVasi movement with leaders like C K Janu taking up the issue of alienation of tribal land holdings.

When Abdul Nazar Madani, a Muslim politician in the state was arrested under charges of complicity in the Coimbatore serial bomb blasts, Mukundan C Menon was the first journalist to come out with a detailed report which exposed the hollowness of the case. Madani after languishing in Coimbatore jail for nine years, was released recently as he was found not guilty by the court.

In his last few years Mukundan C Menon was more of an activist than a journalist though he continued to be associated with Thejas fortnightly, as a consulting editor and as contributor to media organizations such as Al-Jazeera in West Asia, Indian Currents and Milli Gazette in Delhi and Rediffnews from Mumbai.

A People's Court for the High Seas

Sea Courts: Reviving Traditions to Fight Social Strife

By N P Chekkutty

The sudden spurt in violent incidents in the coastal regions of South India, especially in the south-western coast consisting of Kerala and Karnataka, has given rise to intensive searches for lasting solutions.

When Kerala’s northern coast saw a series of violent clashes between the Muslim and Hindu fisherfolk in the Communist-dominated vilage called Marad in Kozhikode, during the past few years, the State Government found that they have no effective strategy to counter the spread of virulent forms of communalism, except using the increasingly ineffective measures of policing the entire region. When the first of these clashes took place three years ago, there were three deaths and when the counter violence took place exactly one year later, there were as many as nine deaths in the course of one night of an orgy of violence between the two communities.

There were other flash points in the entire coastal region, like Vizhinjam in the deep south district of Thiruvananthapuram, Thaikkal in Alapuzha in the middle of the state and Marad in the north, besides many minor incidents in other areas.

“It is a worrying situation because these coastal regions are now being converted to communal hot-spots while till some years ago there were no such incidents of communal division among the fisher people,” says V K Prabhakaran, a social activist who hails from Chombala, a fishermen village in North Kerala where recent years have witnessed deep divisions on religious lines among the people.

“It is important to remember that the traditional methods applied by the State to protect the innocent people, like policing are proving to be failures as the ideology of communalism is spreading,” says a scholar at the Calicut University’s history department who had done a thorough study of the development of communal politics in the North Kerala coastal region. The helplessness of the State was evident when A K Antony, then chief minister of Kerala, had to plead with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership in Marad for permission to visit the village in the aftermath of the nine killings there in the course of one night. In Marad, where the entire Muslim population had to leave the village for safety and spent months together in relief camps, the Government was reduced to the role of a helpless onlooker while it was the communal elements of both sides who took control of the situation.

The developments in Marad, Thaikkal and Vizhinjam also point to another serious turn of events in the Kerala coasts: While most of these villages were traditionally under the Communist domination, they are now fast becoming communal hot-spots with divisive communalist ideologies replacing the left-wing politics. It is a classic case of secular politics giving way to communal frenzy: During elections the fisher folk often vote the left and when communal divisions rage they take up the knives on behalf of either the Hindu or the Muslim or the Christian communal forces.

For example, Marad is a village that falls in the Beypore panchayat in Kozhikode, traditionally a Communist stronghold. Its fisher population consist of mainly the Hindu Arayas and the Muslims, both involved in the deep-sea fishing for many generations. The Hindus voted mainly for Communists while the Muslims were either supporters of Muslim League or the Communist Party. The communal outfits came on the scene only recently but they are very powerful now. The gram panchayat is controlled by the CPM, the local member of the Legislative Assembly is a businessman who was elected on the CPM ticket and the Member of Parliament representing the region is also a CPM leader who defeated the Muslim League candidate in the predominantly Muslim seat of Manjeri in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Still, when the two series of of clashes took place in the span of a few months, there were no traces of the Communists defending the secular domain because most of them had been fighting on behalf of either of two comunal groups or had fled themselves to safety.

The State Government officials have said that of the hundreds of persons arrested and chargesheeted in these cases, a large number belonged to the CPM and many others had either Muslim League or Congress backgrounds showing the infiltration of communal ideology into the mainstream political parties holding power in the state. A K Antony, senior Congress leader who had to lay down office as chief minister following criticism of his mishandling of the communal siuation, had accused the left parties of protecting and encouraging communal elements. But his own party’s records are no better because it has won power with Muslim League as ally and has also enlisted the RSS support to win elections. Pinarayi Vijajan, CPM State secretary, has denied the charges that his party members were involved in the communal incidents. But the complicity of left-party workers and supporters in these incidents is palabale. A study conducted by a group of scholars from the Calicut Uiversity had pinpointed the fact while tracing the history of communal politics in Marad. Intriguingly, the defence team for those accused in Marad case is led by a well-known CPM leader who happens to be a famous criminal lawyer in Kerala.

It is the Catch22 situation of the increasing criminalization and communalization of mainstream politics that has led to a search for a new, grassroots level, and people oriented solution to the tragedy. “It is necessary for us to reinvent the strong elements in our tradition and culture which helped us survive for centuries as one society remarkably peaceful and homogeneous”, asserts Civic Chandran, poet and social activist who organized a major conclave of national-level activists in Kozhikode recently to discuss alternative methods to fight such evils. The conclave was attended, among others, by well known activists like Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, and C K Janu, tribal leader.

One of the suggestions that came up during discussions among activists and social scientists was the need to revive traditional systems of disputes redress and grassroots level democracy like the sea courts, said Tommy Mathew who was instrumental in organizing another conclave in Delhi as a follow up. These two conclaves concluded that the traditional systems of participatory democrary that thrived in the coastal regions of South India helped the region to continue and flourish as a peaceful haven with people of all faiths cohabiting for centuries without friction.

“It is important to remember that for centuries it was the coastal region which remained the points of external contacts in these areas as the outsiders came-- whether they were Arabs, Romans or Europeans like the Dutch,French and the English-- through the sea,” points out a historian who had done extensive research on Kerala’s maritime life. Civic Chandran pointed out that among the institutions of tradition which helped social cohesion, was the system fo sea courts known as kadalkotis in local language, which did a marvellous job of settling disputes among the fisher people for generations. It was, according to him, the most vibrant form of grassroots democracy with its own methods of hearing complaints, arbitrations, penalties and appeals helping the people to settle their disputes among themselves.

“These courts were so effective that even the British authorities in Malabar had accepted their verdict as legitimate in maritime disputes,”said V K Prabhakaran, who had witnessed the proceedings of such courts in his village many years ago. He recalls that they were very effective as they consisted of representatives of all boat-owners in the region and had elected office-bearers who belonged to various communities and their verdicts were accepted by all those who belonged to the area of its jurisdiction. If anyone refused to abide by its ruling, they could not operate in the region because of social boycott as the courts held a great moral authority owing to its roots in tradition. But they allowed complainants and defendants to appeal and there were cases that had gone up to as many as four appeal courts in recent memory. These appeal courts were formed, as the need arose, enlisting the immediate neighbouring sea courts to the north and south of the one that had heard the original case.

But post-Independence, sea courts were on a declining course as the civil and police authorities failed to recognize their important role, says Prabhakaran. In fact, in his own village the sea court decided to discontinue its operations back in the seventies following the interference of police authorities who thought they were encroaching upon their territory. The sea court decided to disband itself in protest, eventually leaving the space of social intervention to political parties, trade unions, commission agents and communal organizations.

Now the disastrous consequences are visible everywhere: The entire coastal belt is in the grip of evil forces who have successfully divided the society and play havoc with human lives. The civil authorities are groping in the dark for a lasting solution. We can only restore a life of social harmony only if we could revive some of these institutions which stood the test of times for hundreds of years, assert social activists and thinkers who advocate traditional solutions to contemporary problems of social strife.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Unsung Heroes of Indian Villages

On the mass literacy movement in India

In the five decades of independent India, the nineties witnessed the biggest achievement in mass literacy, taking India’s literacy level to 65.38 per cent according to the Census 2001 figures, released late last year. It is a great achievement in view of the enormity of the task covering a 1000 million population, the diversity of the languages and terrain, the problems related to a society divided by caste and untouchability, economic disparities and the immense poverty.
The nineties was a decade which saw a great awakening among the ordinary people all over India in a countrywide literacy drive, and the results were evident in the fact that while in all the four previous decades the average literacy growth rate was a meagre 9.41 per cent, in the nineties it was as high as 14 per cent.

The reason for the literacy revolution in the nineties was simple: unlike in the past when the government agencies and bureaucracy led the mass education programmes, the nineties saw a new approach with the non-governmental organizations and the civil society movements taking the lead, converting the literacy programme into a public campaign organically linked to the day-to-day life of the people. The result was a hugely successful mass movement with almost a million volunteers in various parts of India joining the ranks of the literacy movement, taking the message to a phenomenal 100 million people in the far corners of the country in the short span of a decade.

Chelakkodan Aysha, a poor Mulsim woman from Malappuram in Kerala; Usha, a Dalit literacy campaigner from Begusarai in Bihar, and Sagar More, a Dalit woman from the slums of Mumbai, are the public faces of the new movement that has spread all over India in the past one and a half decade. Chelakkodan Aysha is the pioneer of the movement as she was the person selected to make the historic declaration at a meeting held at Kozhikode in Kerala in 1991 when the state declared itself fully literate after a year-long campaign in which tens of thousands of volunteers were actively involved. Now at the ripe age of 80, Aysha is nursing ambitions of learning the skills of computer as her home-town of Malappuram is pioneering another mass education campaign, of making the people fully computer literate.

Usha became associated with the literacy movement in Begusarai in the mid-nineties when Bihar took up the cause of mass adult literacy seriously. None of her family members including her husband was literate and it was a hard task initially to get them agree to her desire to join the evening classes, she remembered as she spoke to journalists at the national convention of literacy workers at the freedom grounds near Humayun tomb in New Delhi recently. Through the literacy movement, Usha became associated with public causes and now she is a member of the Bihar Legislative Council and also the president of the Bihar State unit of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, the national level nodal agency coordinating the mass ltiteracy movement in India.

Sagar More recalls that as a small child, she was discriminated against in the class-room because she was dalit and an untouchable. “I was humiliated by the teacher and dropped out after one year in school,” she said. But she went back to the world of letters in 1988 as an adult student in the National Literacy Mission campaign becoming a volunteer in due course. “My daughter has now graduated from university and wants to study for master’s degreee,” she said prouldy in an interview to Unesco Courier, in an article celebrating the unsung heroes and heroines of Indian countryside in this silent revolution.

The paradigm shift in the literacy movement came after the success of a novel experiment in Ernakulam when the district administration joined hands with non-governmental organizations like the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad taking up an experimental programme for total literacy in the coastal district of Kerala in 1989.It was the first time this new approach of mass campaign was put to test and it was a phenomenal success. Emboldened by the successs, the State Government of Kerala took up the campaign a year later culminating in the total literacy declaration at Kozhikode in 1991.

It was then the turn of the Indian Government to take the movement all over the country, with focus on mass participation. The National Literacy Mission was set up in 1988 with the objective of covering 100 million non-literates in the age group of 15 to 35 by the year 1999 and to take the country to the dream target of 100 per cent literacy by the year 2005. Despite the unprecedented levels of achievement, the target of total literacy in the country remains still a dream and the governement has now set 2012 as the target year for total literacy in India.

“There has been shortfalls, bureaucratic hassles and setbacks,but it is fact that we have been able to develop a working model for mass campaigns like literacy,” says Dr Krishnakumar, national coordinator of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, the voluntary agency that spearheaded the movement in the past decade. An asssistant director at the State Institute of Languages, Thiruvananthapuram, Krishnakumar said that it was the active association of popular mevoments and non-governmental organizations that made the programme a great success.

The Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti was established as the main engine for mass literacy in the country after the National Literacy Mission decided to emulate the Kerala model at the national level. The BGVS, as it is known today, was formed with eminent educationist Dr Malcolm Adiseshiah as president and Dr M P Parameswaran, a nuclear physicist turned popular science campaigner, as secretarty at a convention of the All India People’s Science Networks in 1990. After the death of Dr Adiseshiah, Dr Paramewaran became its president and Dr Vinod Raina of Delhi its general secretary.

Dr Parameswaran said that it was the organic relations the movement developed with the day-to-day life of the ordinary people that ensured its penetration to the grassroots. It was not just a movement to teach them how to read and write, but the focus has always been to help them face the hard realities of life, to give them the necessary skills to survive. The methodology adopted for literacy was to link the training programme to their urgent needs like teaching their children, communicating with others, fighting corruption at the village level, demanding better wages and working conditions, developing skills like mobility through methods like cycling, etc, that came in handy to their survival.

There are many interesting examples from the grassroots, which describe the success of this strategy. A classic case is the anti-liquor campaign launched by the rural women of Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, which became a mass movement that forced the cancellation of the arrack vendor auction scores of times in the various Andhra districts. It all started with a small lesson included in the first primer developed for the adult students in Telugu. It described the success of a struggle launched by the women of an Andhra village against the sale of illicit liquor in the countryside. As the literacy campaign spread, the women in various other villages took up the struggle and it became a mass movement very soon.

The women of Pudukkotai in Tamil Nadu have written a different chapter in this saga. Pudukkotai is a coastal region near Kanyakumari and most of the women here eke out a living as fish vendors. As the literacy movement was launched there, Sheela Rani Chungath, district collector of Kanyakumari, came up with a new proposal to add mobility to their skills as part of the programme and a team of women on cycles started moving around the villages singing the “cycle song” they had composed. Voluntary agencies helped them buy cycles and the women, encouraged by the sudden mobility that they gained through this simple means of bicycles, became a powerful medium for the new message in the villages. Today, most of the women travel on their cycles, with fish baskets behind earning their livelihood in a dignified manner.

However, there were cases of opposition and confrontations too. In Dhanbad in Bihar, where the unorganized coal miners who took to the classes, organized themselves and demanded better wages and shorter working hours, the movement was dragged into a class conflict. Through literacy and organization, the poorer sections were slowly enlightened about their rights and started demanding better wages, better living conditions, decent treatment at workplace, etc.

Now the literacy movement is at a turning point: in the past six years the National Democratic Government at the Centre was not very enthusiastic about the mass movement style of its functioning. In fact, former human resources development minister Dr Murli Manohar Joshi described the BGVS as a trojan horse for the left-wingers to penetrate the national political scene. “We were not receiving much support those days and the movement had to suffer because of lack of official support and paucity of funds,”said Dr Parameswaran who thankfully acknowledged a Rs 10-crore grant provided by the Tatas to carry on their operations. But in the past one year, Arjun Singh, Human Resource Development Minister, has had many meetings with the literacy campaigners and has promised better funds and support with a two percent cess for education.

“Now we have to redouble our efforts as we have already missed the target of total literacy this year,”says Dr Krishnakumar, who points out that as a nation we just can’t miss it again seven years hence. That is the new challenge before these unsung heroes and heroines of Indian countryside today.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Get out Dalits, We Are Here to Develop!

Valanthakkadu: A Dalit Island’s Encounter with Development

By N P Chekkutty

The tiny island of Valanthakkadu in Maratu panchayat off Kochi is a unique ecosystem. Just one kilometer away from the national highway in the midst of the commercial capital of Kerala, the 246-acre island is surrounded by the richest mangroves in the southern parts of the State. Situated in the Vembanadu Lake, Valanthakkadu is home to a variety of fishes that are unique to estuaries as the lake itself is a mixed water-body of salt and fresh water extending to hundreds of kilometers to the east spread over the districts of Ernakulam, Alapuzha and Kottayam.

Till a few months ago, Valanthakkadu was a sleepy village where only 44 families lived, all of them poor fishermen who eked out their livelihood from the lake around. The main sources of their livelihood were fishing, collection of shell fish like clams, growing of prawns in enclosures and cultivation of a particular variety of rice known locally as pokkali, a unique rice variety seen only in these parts. The rice plants are seen above the salt water while their roots are sunk in the lake’s bottom.

Valanthakkadu’s social and ecological system is now in turmoil: The island in the heart of the commercial hub of Kerala is the envy of builders and land-developers. Around 200 acres of private land, which remained idle for generations giving a common fishing and cultivation ground for the people – normally they are submerged in water except in summer-- have been taken over by the builders’ lobby with a view to developing it into a high tech city that will bring huge investments and money.

As the workers from the builders’ firms recently descended on the island in large numbers and started cutting down the mangroves surrounding the village, people rose in protest converting this small island into a scene of contest between the band of developers on the one side and the deprived people on the other.

“We lived here for generations and all of us supported ourselves with the natural resources available in the island,” said Sahajan, a youth in his twenties, who is now one of the leading activists of the Committee for the Protection of Valanthakkadu, set up recently. He pointed out that except for a few youngsters who are employed as casual labour in the booming construction business in the city, the entire population of the island depend on the rich ecosystem for their living.

He says the people are not impressed by the offers being made by the builders and developers who have promised the State Government to set up a high-tech city that would generate 75,000 new jobs and modern houses for those who live in the island. “Why do we need those houses as without this ecosystem we will have no way to survive here?” he asked.

But Valanthakkadu has many other aspects that speak of the lesser known casualties of the march of development. On a visit to the island last week, this correspondent came to realize that of the 44 families living in the island, except for one Christian family, all others are Dalits, belonging to the Pulaya community. As untouchables in a caste-ridden society, they were sent to this uninhabited island in the midst of the lake a few generations ago. Now they are once again being uprooted, as much of the land in the island is originally owned by rich families who live in the mainland. Each of the settler family in the island own around 15 to 25 cents of land in their possession, while major share of the land in the island is owned by outsiders whose properties were till the other day hired as common fishing and cultivation areas.

A socio-cultural study of the island revealed much more interesting aspects: Most of the families have their own fishing nets and other traditional implements which are now predominantly used by womenfolk or older people as the youngsters prefer to cross the lake in search of jobs outside. The island is connected to the outside world through a ferry boat manned by 65-year-old Vasu Chettan, who says he gets around Rs. 50 a day. It was evening as we crossed the water, little fishes jumping in the still silver-coloured water partly covered by green hyacinths and the island a majestic view of scenic beauty.

The boat lands at the foot of the Primary Health Centre, the only public institution in the island which has not even a primary school to boast of. The few and scattered houses, a few of them tiled and concrete structures, can be reached through narrow footpaths. Most of the houses are modest dwelling places and one could see the fishing nets and other implements hanging from the walls. There are two types of nets, the prominent one mainly used by men who go out into the lake in boats and swing them wide, and the other- a smaller variety-- used by women who tackle the smaller species of fish. Women also collect clam and other items of shell fish diving deep into the water. The mesh-size of nets are made in such a way that younger fishes are allowed to escape.

“We go for fishing early in the morning and sell whatever we get at the market across the lake,” said Biji, a 36-year-old woman who is unmarried. She said her mother Chinnamma, 65, takes the fish to the market and normally they get nothing more than 50 or 60 rupees a day. “We have no other income, our brother is bed ridden, and we don’t know what we will do when we are forced out,” she said.

Ambika Gopi is a mother of two and she was on her way to the lake with her small net as we met her. A former president of the island’s micro finance group, Kudumbasree, she said her family’s only income was from fishing. They have recently bought a small boat and fishing net with a loan of Rs. 10,000 from the micro finance unit and have to repay Rs. 350 towards the loan every month. She said she has two children, a girl going to a degree college and a son who is admitted to a private course for which she has to shell out Rs. 400 a month as fee. “The new owners of the land are not allowing us to fish and we will face doom if the Government does not intervene to save us,” she said.

Most of the families have similar worries to share with the outside world. But except for a few activists like C R Neelakantan, a nuclear scientist turned environmental activist, who is associated with the Valanthakkadu Protection Committee, few people from Kerala’s public life have come here to investigate. One exception was Kallen Pokkudan, a Dalit activist and campaigner for the protection of mangroves, who is known for his heroic efforts for the preservation of mangroves in the northern parts of Kerala. “Pokkudan came here and he was horrified by the way this precious ecosystem is being wantonly destroyed,” said Neelakantan who accompanied him on the visit. An indigenous expert in local mangroves, Pokkudan was able to identify 12 varieties of them in the island. He felt that this is the largest system of natural mangroves in the southern parts of Kerala.

Neelakantan said the Valanthakkadu Protection Committee has petitioned the State Government against any destruction of the fragile ecosystem in the area. The committee also has filed a petition with the Kerala High Court against any move to destroy the mangroves in the island. The Chief Minister has instructed the Industries department to take into account the concerns of the local people before any MOU is signed for the development of the proposed high tech city. But the local people are wary about the promises as they fear they are powerless against the immense resources of capital invading their village.

Originally published at

Media the Scare-Monger?

Media Accused of Being Responsible for Kerala’s Health Care Setbacks

By N P Chekkutty

As Kerala, whose gains in health care had been compared to the first world standards, is facing a huge challenge owing to the spread of epidemic threats on a regular basis and the slippage in areas like vaccination for immunization, the role of media in the downward trend is coming in for criticism. A number of concerned scholars and activists have accused that irresponsible and often ill-informed media coverage of health affairs even in the mass circulated newspapers has had a negative impact on health care activities in public sector.

The accusation about media’s negative coverage of health affairs and its role in spreading half-truths and plain falsehood as news in recent years have raised a question about the media’s preparedness and objectivity in covering matters of scientific and technical nature with little training or expertise to handle such affairs. Many health activists and eminent doctors in the public sector health service seem to share the view that media coverage of health affairs in Kerala is generally ill-informed and biased. There is concern that it could seriously undermine the gains the State had made in health care in the past decades, thanks to a public sector health care system. A number of factors including the decline in budget allocations for health and education since 1991 have contributed to the present situation, where some of the major epidemics which have been eradicated from the State decades ago, like malaria, cholera and polio, are making a comeback. Other seasonal outbreaks like cases of Chikun Guniya, Weil’s disease, etc, are proving to be regular incidents every year. In fact, the President, Prathibha Patil, on her first visit to the State recently, made a pointed reference to the serious nature of the threat to Kerala’s health care and cautioned against slippage in its gains which had received great encomium from the world over, including from scholars like Dr. Amartya Sen.

Even as the government is accused of withdrawing progressively from its health care commitments, it is being pointed out that media has been overtly critical of the public health care facilities indirectly promoting a thriving private sector. The major criticism against media is that reportage on the failures/slippages of the public sector is often highly exaggerated and without any cross checking, giving a false and often misleading picture to the common people. While deaths in government hospitals get headlines, the same in private hospitals generally go unreported. The case of reporting on Chikun Guniya, a disease that is caused by mosquitoes, as it spread across the State during the recent monsoon is an example: Newspapers reported about deaths in scores and then in hundreds resulting in a mass exodus from coastal areas like Cherthala in Alapuzha which had been hit seriously by the disease. The public sector health centres (PHCs) and hospitals and the State Department of Health were particularly targeted for criticism. But the mortality figures were proved wrong later, as proper studies were taken up by the Central and State health authorities. However, the alarming fatalities reported in media during Chikun Guniya season could be attributed to confusion among official sources themselves, as there were differing views on it between the State and Central authorities and even between the Chief Minister’s office and the Health Minister’s office in the State Government.

But that the media coverage often is biased and ill-founded, is beyond doubt. In a recent article, titled Scoop Journalism- A New Threat to Public Health, published in the Journal of the Government Medical College, Kozhikode, and also in Sastragathi, a monthly magazine of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, Dr. K P Aravindan made a scathing criticism on the media for their “irresponsible ill-informed” reporting on health affairs. He cites the reporting on the neo-natal deaths in the public sector SAT Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, in a mainstream newspaper with over a million copies in circulation, as a case in point.(The news item was reported by Mathrubhumi, the second largest daily in Malayalam, though Dr. Aravindan does not give the name of the newspaper in his article.) The initial newspaper report, which was later picked up by other newspapers and various news channels, said that there was a huge increase in the deaths in the neo-natal ward of the Government’s premier mother and childcare hospital with a suspected outbreak of infections.

In his well argued study of the newspaper coverage of the incident, Dr. Aravindan points out: As the visual media and newspapers took up the issue, nobody bothered to check the real figures [of mortality] and compare them with the previous years. It was also not made out in the reports that the problem, if any, was confined to the newborn nursery, where most of the babies admitted were premature and of low birth weight, resulting in a higher mortality rate.

He makes a comparison of the statistics with the previous year’s mortality rates and finds that there has not been any substantial increase in the death rate at all. “Overall, no dramatic difference is perceivable. The data certainly shows no evidence of a major outbreak of nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections in SAT Hospital this year,” he concludes.

Similar conclusions have been reached by other studies on developments in health sector in the State. Recently, the Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies (AMCHS), attached to the Sree Chitra Thirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram, had found that there has been a setback to vaccination campaigns for immunization in some areas, mainly in north Kerala, which scholars attribute largely to negative media coverage of such vaccinations. The study, entitled Current Status of Service Delivery in the Health and Family Welfare Sector in Kerala, released in January 2005, looked at 5000 households from five districts, representing various geographical regions in the State.

The report says: Immunization coverage of children between 12 and 23 months was found to be low in Malappuram district. In all other districts, coverage of DPT 3 and OPV 3 was over 90 per cent. However, in Malappuram district both DPT 3 and OPV 3 coverage was less than 50 per cent. This is surprising since the TT coverage for pregnant women in Malappuram was 90 per cent. After a period of ‘No polio’ case in the State for more than three years, one case of polio was reported in Malappuram district. Therefore there is an urgent need to improve immunization coverage in Malappuram and areas of low coverage in other districts.

The survey report does not make any direct reference to the reasons behind this “surprising phenomenon in Malappuram”, though it points out that lack of access to health care facilities is not the issue here. Dr. K R Thankappan, who led the AMCHS survey, said that there has been a major decline in children’s vaccination in Kerala in recent years compared to the progress registered by Tamil Nadu. Quoting from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) statistics, he said that proportion of children between one and two years who received all the mandatory vaccination was 81 per cent in Tamil Nadu, while it had dropped to a mere 75 per cent in Kerala. According to him, the incessant anti-vaccination campaign carried out by a section of Malayalam media, including highly respected newspapers, is responsible for the situation. As a consequence to the decline in vaccinations, he also refers to another major health indicator, the infant mortality rate (IMR), going up in Kerala, while it is showing a fast decline in Tamil Nadu. (The IMR which had dropped to as low as 10 per 1000 in Kerala in the mid-nineties, stand at 15 /1000 according to recent NFHS data.) Though the NFHS figures may not be statistically very accurate, the trend is unmistakable and they must be seen in the context of a highly negative media atmosphere in Kerala, he felt.

Dr. B Ekbal, an internationally known heath activist and former vice chancellor of Kerala University, in an interview to this writer, said that though the setbacks to the health care gains in Kerala could not be fully attributed to media coverage, there is a real and dangerous nexus between the media and certain groups which campaign against modern medicine and vaccinations. “It is a fact that media in Kerala is generally unscientific and goes by hearsay,” he said. He said that the campaign unleashed by small groups including the anti- vaccination lobbies like the homeo and naturopaths’ groups, some “cultural leaders” and religious fundamentalist groups who get disproportionate coverage in the media, did have an impact on the low vaccination levels in some parts of the State, especially among the poorer sections. He pointed out that the AMCHS study had proved that drop in vaccinations were mainly confined to some backward areas in districts like Malappuram, which show that these campaigns did have an impact on the socially and educationally backward sections like Muslims in the State. It appears that media influence among these backward sections is comparatively higher than among the middle classes who have other sources of information.

To prove this point, Dr. Aravindan refers to a recent media attack on vaccination for immunization launched by some of these groups and the local media in Kozhikode district following the death of a school girl in Kallachi, a Muslim dominated area, a few days after she received a TT vaccination from the school. He says: After the death of the girl in Kozhikode district many weeks after tetanus toxoid vaccination, it was alleged that the death was due to vaccination. The allegation had been proved wrong. The offshoot of the media handling of the event was that immunization rates dropped in the area. He said that the district officials had to carry out a special campaign there to encourage children to accept vaccinations, as the drop was alarming in the immediate wake of media reports about the death of the girl.

What is surprising about these events is that while most of the highly charged reports are proved to be half-baked or baseless later on, there is no soul searching or retraction by the media. In fact, in spite of the serious criticism raised by intellectuals and health activists about the media coverage, there has not been any effort on the part of the media to take note of the situation. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) at its State conference in Thiruvananthapuram recently, made an attempt for a dialogue with the experts and activists on various aspects of media coverage on sensitive issues and their fallout, but it was attended by only a few persons from the media. That calls for some other ways to find a solution to educate the media on simple matters of scientific nature. As one agonized doctor said, the media itself need to analyze these events and try to evolve a code of conduct regarding reporting of public health issues.

(N P Chekkutty, now executive editor of Tejas, daily newspaper from Kozhikode, formerly worked with Indian Express and Kairali Television.)

This article was originally published at