Monday, 31 December 2012

My Goodbye to the Braveheart

The sun stayed away and a biting icy wind blew as the family members of India’s Braveheart collected her ashes from the crematorium at Dwarka where she was cremated yesterday under a blanket of fog and policemen.
As I reached the crematorium, the first sight that met me was khakhi uniforms of the police. There were ten of them from constables to the assistant commissioner of police, Dwarka. Two constables stood guard at the gate as the family members performed rituals at the platform where she was cremated, not allowing anyone inside. Apparently, the police had kept watch all night as well.
The police outnumbered the others present there, six journalists (four of them photographers) and a couple of others who appeared to be with Congress MP Mahabal Mishra. Mishra was  was there helping the family, coming out briefly to discuss various arrangements with the ACP, especially about facilitating the family’s travel to Varanasi. 
Soon the girl’s family came out with the urn wrapped in a white cloth. It was a very small group, less than ten of them.  `The ashes should not be taken to the home,’ Mishra explained to them as he instructed police officials to make arrangements for the urn to be kept at the police post in Dwarka Sector 1, close to Mahavir Nagar, where her family stays.
The family looked at us gathered there. Perhaps they were wondering who we were and why we were there. The expression on one young boy’s face – a mixture of bewilderment and grief.
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to them. After all, I was an interloper in their grief.
So why did I go?
When news of the girl’s death broke, I had posted on Facebook that I hoped the media would give her family privacy and not hound them during the cremation. But the manner in which the cremation was orchestrated by the police and the government angered me. Pressuring the family first to cremate her in Ballia, and then to cremate her before dawn (against Hindu custom where it has to be done after daybreak) just so that people don’t come to know (even as political heavyweights attended the funeral) disgusted me. She was a victim of utter indignity before she died. Couldn’t she have been given some dignity in death?
One battle that all women who complain about any form of sexual harassment wage is that of being labeled as the problem. By first making her father issue a statement asking for calm (when the protests were going out of hand), then taking her to Singapore and then cremating her in such a hush-hush manner, the government and the police sent out only message - that she and her dead body were a problem that needed to be disposed off without a fuss.
I went today to say in my own way that she was not a problem. To salute her.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Particular and the General

It often happens that a particular incident turns the much-needed spotlight on a larger issue that has been swept under the carpet for long. The brutal gang rape in Delhi on the night of December 16, whose victim is now unfortunately dead, did that to the issue of safety of women and laws relating to sexual violence.
There are the stray voices asking why the rape of a girl in Delhi should do this, and not the many rapes in other cities or in the deep, dark interiors of the country. There are also people saying where was such outrage during the Gujarat riots when worse was being done to women.
That is not a relevant question. There have been other shocking rapes in Delhi earlier – the gang rape by members of the President’s bodyguards in Buddha Jayanti Park, the rape of the medical student in the afternoon in a Mughal monument on the busy Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, the abduction from Dhaula Kuan and gangrape of a call centre employee – but they have not evoked the reaction that this one has. The `why now’ does not matter. What does matter is that the issue has been highlighted as never before and the focus on it should remain.
But when the particular and the general start getting mixed up, there’s a problem. There is serious danger of that happening in this case.
Let’s take the particular in this case. A girl was brutally assaulted and raped in a moving bus on the night of December 16. Her male friend was also beaten up badly. They were stripped of their clothes and dumped on the road.
The crowds thronging Vijay Chowk and India Gate started with calls for justice for the young girl and steps to ensure safety of women in Delhi in future. All the rapists were arrested in less than a week (four of them within twenty-four hours). The case was given to a fast track court, which is to hold hearings on a daily basis. Now after the girl’s death, they will also face the charge of murder.
The government also announced some steps to ensure safety of women in Delhi – more policing, more buses at night, removing dark films and curtains from windows of buses and making it compulsory for them to keep lights on inside at night. Three police personnel who had been on duty that night were suspended. A man the rapists had robbed earlier that evening had approached them and they had brushed him off. If they had acted, that young girl would not have been battling for life. So they were rightly punished.
The particular incident, therefore, has been addressed.
So why are protestors out there demanding justice for the braveheart, death for the culprits? I’ve got bizarre sms-es saying the culprits should be hanged by the end of the year.
So then we are told that this is about the larger issue – harsher laws, better enforcement, changing the medieval mindset, judicial reforms, police reforms. Sure that needs to be put into focus. But it can’t be done overnight. The protests will help if they keep the pressure on to get these issues addressed, as they must.
But why make it a Congress issue? Why ask for chief minister Shiela Dixit to resign? Why mock Manmohan Singh for not shedding tears like Barrack Obama did after the school shooting in the United States?(Let me hasten to add that I am no supporter of the UPA government or of the Congress party.). How will this larger cause be helped if police commissioner Neeraj Kumar is sacked?
They may currently be the symbols of al that is wrong with the way women’s issues and law and order issues are handled. But concentrating on attacking them will take the focus away from the need to address far more fundamental issues.
We need to separate the particular and general for any lasting solutions to emerge from our anger.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Stop this hysteria

Sunday’s gangrape incident in Delhi is so appalling that it’s easy to go over the top in reacting to it. It makes one feel angry, helpless and extremely vulnerable.
But I am tired of seeing hysterical crowds screaming about death penalty, castration and demanding that everyone from the police commissioner to the chief minister resign.  
The main target of public ire is the police. There are calls for the police commissioner to be sacked. He has to explain to the High Court why the bus passed five police pickets without being stopped. One lawyer is planning to initiate action to ensure that policemen who were on duty on the stretch that the bus drove on that night are penalised. CPM leader Brinda Karat is also the same.
But this is one case where the criticism of the police is totally. Here’s why.
One, there was nothing – absolutely nothing – to arouse suspicion about the bus and the horror being perpetrated inside. It was a luxury bus, with tinted windows and drawn curtains. That’s quite normal. So how can anyone, police included, know what was going on inside? It probably was being driven in a way that it doesn’t attract attention. That could be the reason why the bus passed five police pickets without arousing suspicion.
Two, the police acted promptly once they were informed about the incident. No one is saying there was any delay in the police reaching the scene where the girl and her friend were thrown out of the bus. The bus was traced within hours and four of the rapists were arrested within twenty-four hours. What more could the police have done in this case?
In fact, the real indictment should be of the public. According to a story in yesterday’s Indian Express, when the police reached the spot where the girl and her friend had been thrown out, they found people just standing around, looking at them. “Not one of them took off a jacket or piece of clothing to cover the victims. There were women in cars that had pulled over but they did not approach the victims,” a policeman was quoted as saying.
When people scream into television cameras that women are being raped every day and the police is not doing anything to check it, do they even know what they are saying?
Even as people rallied at India Gate, protested outside the Police Headquarters and the chief minister’s residence, a three-year-old girl was raped in a playschool by the husband of the woman who ran it. In an overwhelming majority of cases, rapes are committed by people known to the victim. A neighbour/colleague/classmate who offers a lift. A family friend/relative who drops in home. A teacher in school or college. How can such rapes be prevented? Who can anticipate them to prevent them from happening? What is important to see is if the police acted promptly in each case. If it did not, then, by all means, ask for action against the police.
Preventing rape cannot be a police responsibility alone. It is also about having well-lit roads. It would make far more sense for resident welfare associations to fight for roads around their colonies to be well-lit, instead of lighting candles for the victim.
Preventing rape is also about good public transport. Why did the girl and her friend board that bus, which was not a regular public transport vehicle? Let me make an educated guess. There is no bus from Saket (where they had gone to see a movie) to Dwarka. So they took an auto-rickshaw up to Munirka from where there is a bus to Dwarka. Given erratic bus timings and the fact that it was getting late, when a bus taking passengers for Dwarka came, it must have been a blessing in disguise at that time. It would be far better for Brinda Karat to press for a proper and reliable public transport system that can ensure that Delhi-ites can travel safely at any time of day. Let’s just keep aside the inconvenient fact that women are groped and molested even within buses in broad daylight for the time being.
Preventing rape is also about each one of us being alert. But we are so inured to irregularities happening around us all the time that we just don’t react. So a bus not authorised to pick up passengers openly does so; we see it and keep quiet. Even if the bus had been driven in a rash manner, that is so common a sight that nobody would have thought of informing the police.
Above all, we don’t want to get involved. Even if someone had seen something amiss, they would have preferred to look the other way.
Perhaps the only person who made sense in the charged-up crowds at India Gate protesting the horrific gangrape was a young long-haired man who asked – can all of us who are gathered here take a pledge that the next time any of us see a woman being harassed, we will not remain silent and will go to her help?
This was perhaps one of the few voices to articulate what is being lost in the hysterical responses across the country – that all of us are responsible for what happened that day.
But it is so much easier to take one day off, scream at rallies and blame the Authorities and the System for everything, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

When Statements Go Unchallenged

Incidents of atrocities against Dalits in Haryana are increasing, says Prakash Javdekar, Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party on a television show to discuss the issue in the light of the horrible incident in Hissar, Haryana, where a Dalit girl was gangraped and her father committed suicide because of the humiliation.
He is from the BJP and there is a Congress government in Haryana, so political grandstanding is inevitable.
“Crime being committed per lakh [population of scheduled caste] is the highest in Haryana,” asserts P. L . Punia, Congress MP and head of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes on the same show. Grandstanding on his part is also inevitable, given his official position.
“Why is it that only Dalits get raped by upper castes, whether it is Khairlanji [the 2006 carnage in Mahrashtra] or Haryana?” asks activist Kancha Ilaiah, another participant in the show. He too can be forgiven for being dramatic – he has made a name as a Dalit scholar and activist and is expected to take a certain position.
But is it the job of the media to let all these statements go unchallenged?
NDTV anchor Vishnu Som did not ask any of these worthy gentlemen to substantiate their statements with figures.
Does Javdekar have any firm numbers on the rise in atrocities in Haryana?
We don’t know.
Is Punia basing his statement on some study? Can he give any numbers on how many crimes per lakh of population, which is the state with second highest crimes per lakh population? We don’t know.
Can Ilaiah back his startling claim with data? Are upper caste men really raping only Dalit women? Are they not raping upper caste women? Then what about the cases of rape of upper caste women? Who are the perpetrators?
We don’t know.
Okay, so let us concede that Som, in his hurry to wrap up the programme, forgot to ask follow up questions to the panelists. Here's the link to the show.
But does a newspaper have that same excuse?
Punia repeats the same statement in an interview to Economic Times published the following day (Tuesday) and that is taken as the heading of a five-column anchor on page 2: Maximum Anti-Dalit Crimes in Haryana: Punia. Once again, there is no attempt to ask him to elaborate or any attempt to double check on one’s own. The newspaper adds to the whole campaign by saying “several cases of atrocities on Dalits have taken place in the state,” mentioning the Mirchpur incident as the most serious. The only other anecdotal example it gives (again no numbers) is of a wall being constructed around a Dalit village in Hissar last year.
Som does fall back on one report. He mentions a 2010 report of the ministry of social justice and empowerment (the report is not named), which apparently mentions that there is an increase in crimes against Dalits between 2009 and 2010 in Kerala, Haryana, Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. But there is no mention of what is the percentage increase or disaggregated figures on the states, which could, perhaps, show that the increase in Haryana is more alarming than in the rest. In fact, the other figures in the report contradict the thesis that Haryana tops in atrocities. In that report, quoted by Som, Rajasthan tops the list of states with registered crimes against Dalits and five states – Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh – account for 70 per cent of registered crimes.
When my boss got excited by Punia’s statement and wanted me to do a story on this, I took the trouble of checking things out. I downloaded the 2011 statistic of the National Crime Records Bureau. Here’s what I found. In 2011 Uttar Pradesh topped the list of registered crimes against Dalits  with 22 per cent of cases, followed by Rajasthan with 15.4 per cent, Andhra Pradesh 11 per cent, Bihar 10.7 per cent and Karnataka 7.4 per cent. Haryana is only 1.2 per cent.
The only report of the ministry of social justice and empowerment report I could find online was the annual report of 2009-10, which takes figures from the NCRB and that report too showed Haryana was way below several states in terms of Dalit atrocities.
I couldn’t find any report on the website of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
Maybe Javdekar and Punia were basing their statements on some other data or reports, which they were privy to. Maybe Som had access to a ministry report which is not online or I couldn’t find it because I didn’t have the name.
Maybe Haryana does, in fact, top in atrocities.
For me, which state tops in atrocities is irrelevant. Would it be better if some other state topped?
What is relevant for me is that people on television discussions and newspaper articles, whom people will believe because they are experts (as my boss did) are allowed to go unchallenged on facts and figures they dish out. By journalists, whose job is to challenge people.
What is also relevant for me is that television and print journalists are not checking facts properly and are satisfied with vague numbers and generalized statements.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Cash over Price Control

I had made an interesting trip to Alwar, the location of a pilot project on direct cash transfer of subsidies that finance minister Pranab Mukherjee mentioned in his budget speech. This one related to kerosene subsidy. The project started only in December so it is probably too early to draw any conclusive lessons from it but it definitely shows a way forward.
I had gone to Alwar to do a story on the project for The Telegraph. Following is the link to the story. I had to stick to a tyrannical word count limit but have the more detailed piece below the link.

Sorry, Cash Only

There’s a small crowd outside Rohitash Kumar’s fair price shop at Gunsar village in the Kotkasim block of Rajasthan's Alwar district.  The monthly supply of subsidised kerosene has arrived and villagers have come for their quota of three litres each.  
Shyam Lal hands over Rs 135 and gets his can filled -- almost Rs 90 more than what those in other blocks of Alwar pay for the same amount of kerosene. 
No, the tailor with a below poverty line (BPL) ration card can't afford to pay Rs 44.50 for a litre of kerosene, three times more than the Rs 15.25 that people in the rest of Rajasthan pay. It’s just that the district administration refunds the extra money he has paid, directly into his bank account. So he winds up paying the same as others in the district.
In December 2011, a dramatic experiment to deliver subsidies directly to the poor, in cash, started in Kotkasim.  So far, the central government has been subsidising fuel prices by capping the prices at which they are sold in the market.
Kerosene is now sold at Rs 44.50 a litre in all fair price shops in Kotkasim. That’s the open market price set by oil companies. However, it is sold through the public distribution system (PDS) at a highly subsidized price (Rs 15.25 in Rajasthan) and the central government pays the difference to the oil companies. For the pilot project at Kotkasim, the central government gave the subsidy amount to the district administration which transfers it to eligible ration card holders.
Why make a poor person pay extra and then return the amount?  Direct cash transfers are widely believed to be a more efficient way of helping the poor, than prices artificially low. For as the Economic Survey of 2010-2011 points out, government price controls "invites adulteration, pilferage and corruption".
Kerosene is a case in point. The interim report of the government's Task Force on Direct Transfer of Subsidies on Kerosene, LPG and Fertilisers pointed out that the use of kerosene for cooking in urban and rural areas has fallen -- proof that subsidised kerosene was being diverted for other purposes, including to adulterate diesel.  Letting everyone buy at the market rate and then compensating the poor through cash transfers, both documents say, not only checks such diversion but also ensures that only the poor get subsidised goods.
In 2011, the petroleum and natural gas ministry invited state governments to take up direct subsidy experiments. Rajasthan pitched for the project on kerosene subsidy and picked Alwar for the experiment.
Alwar collector Ashutosh A.T. Pednekar and district supply office Lalit Jain spent two months on awareness campaigns, holding lengthy sessions with consumers, ration shop owners, wholesale dealers as well as representatives of rural local bodies. Finally, the backing of the zilla pramukh and the village pradhan – both women – saw the project taking off.
Of the 25,000 ration card holders in Kotkasim, those with a double gas connection were weeded out. The project now covers around 20,000 ration card holders. All of them were told to open zero-balance, no-frills bank accounts into which the subsidy would be deposited (even if they had an existing bank account). Till March end, 16,000 such accounts had been opened.  Interestingly, nearly 90 per cent of the card holders did not have a bank account till then and were brought into mainstream banking. “We never expected that this project would help us in financial inclusion,” says Pednekar.
There are some minor glitches that need ironing out. Bank accounts have to be opened in the name of the ration card holder, who is the head of the household. In a few cases, the head of the household has died and the name has not been changed. Such families cannot avail of the subsidy.
The administration is planning to integrate the smart cards issued under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) with this system. Then the subsidy can be transferred directly into the NREGS accounts, avoiding the need to open new accounts. It is also considering roping in the business correspondents of banks who will come to individual’s homes and operate the accounts, as well as mobile banking, considering the penetration of mobile phones is very high. Hari Prasad, a BPL ration card holder, hasn’t availed of the scheme because he hasn’t had time to go to the bank and see if the advance subsidy has been deposited. The Rajasthan Grameen Bank (which has opened the bulk of the accounts) doesn’t have an sms alert facility, he complains!
Yet the project had to battle with public scepticism. When told they would be compensated after they bought kerosene, people flatly refused to play along. Nor were they confident when told they would be given one month’s subsidy in advance. Pednekar than got the state government’s sanction to give three months’ subsidy in advance. With accounts getting credited with Rs 263 (three months subsidy), resistance from the consumers disappeared. Those with a single gas connection get a lower subsidy.
The extent of diversion of subsidised kerosene earlier soon became evident. The block is allotted 84,000 litres of kerosene a month. Before the project started, the entire stock would get sold. Since December, however, monthly sales have averaged 22,000 litres, around a quarter of the allocation. This brings down the subsidy bill by three-quarters. Currently, though, the saving is only notional as advance subsidy has gone into all bank accounts.
How did this happen? Earlier, people would collect other’s ration cards and use them to buy subsidised kerosene. That’s no longer possible. Anyone going to ration shops in Kotkasim now has to pay Rs 44.50 a litre. But since the subsidy goes into the bank account of the ration card holder, the actual purchaser only gets a higher bill. “Once I get the money, why will I give it to someone else,” laughs Subhash, another Gunsar villager. With the market price of kerosene higher than that of diesel (Rs 42 a litre) it no longer makes sense to buy it as a substitute for the latter.
But the authorities can’t track what happens to the kerosene once it is sold. So, a person buying kerosene for Rs 15.25 can still sell it for, say Rs 25, pocketing both the government subsidy and a Rs 10 profit. That’s possible, admits Jain, but the whole process is more inconvenient. Going to the shop with a bunch of ration cards and a large container is far easier and more cost-effective than collecting three litres each from individuals. What’s more the price difference between kerosene and diesel also comes down, since the ration card holder is selling it at a Rs 10 premium, instead of just handing over his card as he did earlier. “The whole transaction has become less attractive,” he points out.
To be sure, not all the reduced sales are a sign of diversion. Many eligible ration card holders who never took their kerosene quota are not availing of the scheme. The government giving them close to Rs 90 every month is not incentive enough. Others who have got the subsidy in their accounts but are using part of it to pay someone to cut the mustard stalks in their fields for use as fuel! They are pocketing the subsidy and not buying kerosene as well.   Some card holders are migrant labourers working outside Alwar who come home only during the agricultural season. Sales could pick up then.
But there are also people like Rani Devi of Kotkasim village who genuinely need more than the monthly quota of three litres. She used to borrow her neighbours’ cards and buy more than her quota. Since December, however, she hasn’t been able to do so. She now has to pay the market price for the extra kerosene. “How can I afford it,” she laments.
The project, notes Pednekar, has helped the administration sift genuine users from non-users. Since close to 70 per cent of kerosene allocation to Kotkasim is not being sold, the administration is thinking of doubling the monthly allocation to six litres a month, which will help people like Rani. The administration plans to study the kerosene lifting pattern closely, identify the non-users and then ask them why they are not buying kerosene.
The reduced sales have cut the earnings of fair price shop owners. Rohitash and Mahipal, the manager of a fair price shop in Kotkasim village, used to sell close to 3,000 litres a month before the project started. Since December, however, monthly sales have averaged less than 500 litres. With a commission of 90 paise a litre, earnings from kerosene have plunged from Rs 2,700 a month to around Rs 450 a month. Anticipating this, dealers and wholesalers had put up stiff resistance to the project. The administration has now decided to allow them to sell non-PDS commodities like tea, salt, fortified flour under the state government’s Raj brand name. The government, says Pednekar, is planning to add more products and also help spruce up the shops.
Could this become the model for all future subsidy delivery? The initial results are too tentative to base policy decisions on, cautions Rajasthan’s principal secretary, food and civil supplies, J. C. Mohanty. The experience in Alwar, which is a relatively better off district, will be different from some of Rajasthan’s poorer and backward districts, he points out. There may be more ghost customers in Alwar than in some of the poorer districts where the share of genuine customers may be more. The state government will get the project evaluated by a professional research body once it completes a year. It has, however, taken up a petroleum ministry offer for a one-time grant of Rs 100 crore to implement the system state-wide. The petroleum ministry made this offer to the food and civil supplies secretaries of all states at meeting on 16 March. Apart from Rajasthan, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Maharashtra have also agreed.  
A universal cash transfer scheme has its share of problems. Many poor people don’t have ration cards. Mohammed Ishaq, a roadside tailor in Delhi suburb Dwarka, has been running around for one for two years now. Rekha, a maidservant, has got a ration card but there is no fair price shop in the unauthorised colony in south-west Delhi where she lives. Nor has she been able to open a bank account. A direct cash transfer system will leave such people out of the benefits of subsidy completely.
The pilot project has one universal lesson, though. “The biggest learning is that it is very easy to enlist political and public support for reforms like this once things are explained properly,” says Mohanty. Indeed, now the zilla pramukh is asking for a similar cash transfer for domestic gas cylinders as well.
Change, clearly, is in the air.