The vast majority of India’s 1.3 billion people live in its 630,000 villages. They have seen little or no benefit from the country’s economic growth; over 80% do not have ‘approved sanitation’ accordingto UNICEF, and are forced to defecate in public; village health care, where it exists at all, is poor and inaccessible; education is basic, with large class sizes and schools lacking desks and chairs, let alone books.
The caste system dominates all areas of life, and, despite the fact thatthe Constitution of India prohibits discrimination based on caste, violent exploitation and prejudice are the norm. Add economic and gender divisions to this medieval Hindu social system, and a multi-layered structure of separation begins to surface. At the bottom of the social ladder are girls and women from the Dalit caste (previously known as the Untouchables), who are born into a life of exploitation, entrapment and potential abuse: “discrimination and violence systematically deny them opportunities, choices and freedoms in all spheres of life,” the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) report for the UN makes clear.
The police are negligent, discriminatory and corrupt, and village justice, as dispensed by the ‘Panchayat’, is archaic. The village council or Panchayat, “consists of five members…[that] sits as a court of law,” and adjudicates in cases which the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as ‘relating to ‘caste offenses.’ These ‘offenses’ are trivial one and all, and range from a Dalit woman taking water from a well reserved for higher caste families, breaching eating, drinking, or smoking restrictions, or, God forbid, having a relationship with a man from a neighbouring village. The punishments meted out by the Panchayat are extreme, often brutal, always unjust.
The most common victims of village justice are Dalits (of which there are an estimated 167 million in India – 16% of the population): poorly educated, landless with few employment opportunities, they are dependent on the very people who mistreat them – men and women of the higher castes. It is a dependency based on vulnerability, allowing exploitation and abuse.
Dalit girls and women are victimized and violated in villages, towns and cities up and down the country: Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) records that they are murdered and burned alive, “raped, held captive in brothels and temple ceremonies, and forced to work as bonded laborers;” young girls are kidnapped and trafficked into prostitution or trapped into domestic servitude. All because they happen to have been born into a particular family, in a particular place.
Kessi Bai has lived in Thuravad village in Rajasthan for 21 years. In November last year the 45 year-old mother of five was accused, with no evidence whatsoever, of murder, by a mob of villagers led by the village council and violently punished: stripped naked, her face was blackened with charcoal, her head shaved and she was repeatedly beaten with wooden sticks. Her husband and son were locked inside their home while she was paraded for six hours around neighbouring villages on a donkey.
The procession returned to Thuravad at around 8pm, she was thrown from the donkey and again beaten, before the police finally arrived. When I met this frail, desperately poor Dalit woman in December, she would not show her face, wept repeatedly and had not left her house since the distressing incident.
In a similar recent case in Utter Pradesh, the Daily Mail online reports “15 Other Backward Castes (OBC) villagers stripped five women of the Dalit community, paraded them naked, caned them and then put them on show on the highway because one of their daughters had allegedly eloped with a Dalit’s son.”
And most shocking of this trinity of injustice: last January in the remote village of Subalpur in West Bengal, a 20 year-old Dalit woman who was “found in the company of a married man from another village,” was, The Guardian reported, “dragged out by her neighbours…tied to a tree then raped by up to 15 men as punishment for the illicit liaison.”
The woman, known only as ‘W’ has since been regarded as a ‘woman of bad character’ who “’spoiled the atmosphere of the village’ by going against local customs”; medieval customs of suppression and division enforced by the Panchayats, which are widespread in India’s villages, and support a deeply patriarchal society that has no place in any civilized country.
The Panchayat is elected by villagers and paid by the Indian Government: it is in effect the first level of local governance; all members are duty bound to maintain communal harmony and discharge their office, the official legislation says, in “a fair and judicious manner without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.” Which, as one would expect, all sounds democratically sound; however, as with many areas of Indian life, what is universally lacking is the implementation of such liberally acceptable legislation.
Complacency and corruption are two of the major obstacles to the observation of universal human rights and the realization of democracy in India. If the Indian government, under the leadership of the Hindu nationalist Naredra Modi, wishes to build a truly democratic state, it needs to enforce its legislation on caste, ensure village Panchayats operate within the law, and provide Dalit women with the justice and support that they so badly need.
It is said that India is the ‘most dangerous country in the world in which to be a girl’. A controversial United Nations finding based on a range of distressing social statistics rooted in gender and caste prejudice, much of which can be traced back to 18th century colonialism and the destructive ‘divide and rule’ methodology employed by the British.
Throughout the country and up and down the class-caste ladder the joy of parenthood is conditioned by the gender of the child. If a boy is born, delight amongst the family; if it’s a girl, anxiety and disappointment. The sole reason for this is economic; when girls marry (around 70% of marriages are still arranged in India), the family of the bride is expected to pay a sum of money to the groom’s family – whether they can afford it or not. This is the infamous dowry system, a corrupted illegal method of financial exploitation and violence that, like much else in this extraordinary country, is sanctified by the waters of tradition and culture (a manipulated term often employed to maintain prejudicial social conditioning and resist change), which was banned by the Indian government in 1961. And yet, like so many liberal legislative statements of intent, the system continues unabated. ‘The Dowry Prohibition Act’ which makes clear that anyone giving or receiving a dowry faces five years in prison and a hefty fine, remains unenforced. In 1986 an amendment was added stating that any death of or violence to a wife within the first seven years of marriage would be treated as dowry violence. Indifference, apathy and corruption dog all areas of the many and varied government departments and offices; people have no faith in the police or the judicial system, resulting in the vast majority of dowry crimes, as with all crimes against women, going unreported.
Corrupt Colonial roots
When the British were enthroned in India they enacted various rules to control and divide the people. Two of these legislative tools of repression sit at the poisonous root of the dowry system and gender abuse more widely. In 1793 The British Governor General, Lord Cornwallis introduced ‘The Permanent Settlement of Bengal’, one law of many known collectively as the Cornwallis Code. In the affected states it provided a means of collecting revenue and enabled in many cases for the first time the private ownership and commodification of land (“Notionally, the land belonged to the king and no one could be evicted from it, states Veena Talwar Oldenburg in Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime), which the British hoped would encourage good husbandry amongst landlords and strengthen the perilous agrarian economy. However, social division was reinforced, peasants who were at the mercy of landlords were ill-treated and exploited, land ownership became hereditary and therefore exclusive, the payment of tax mandatory, irrespective of feast or famine. Before this unjust law, the nations rulers would allow 10% tax revenue to be retained by the village official (Panchayat) who would use the money for the benefit of the villagers. The village “functioned on a system of reciprocity which operated like a social glue. After this changeover [imposed by Britain], a brother was no longer willing to share with a brother.” Divide and rule!
At the same time, British shortsightedness, greed and societal ignorance allowed a law to be introduced prohibiting women to own land and property. Giving men exclusive land and property rights as well as responsibility for tax/revenue collection created acute gender imbalance, marginalized women and set the Indian male up as the dominant legal and indeed social subject, creating the patriarchal country we see today.
This was the hammer-blow for women. In pre-colonial times they had been partners in landholding arrangements and – as perhaps one might expect – were the ones who chose their husband, received and kept the dowry payments – described “in the 1870s as a collection of voluntary gifts comprising clothes, jewellery, household goods and cash bestowed on the bride by family and friends at the time of the girl’s wedding.” This provided financial independence for women as well as a greater degree of social equality. With the changes in property rights, girls and women – future wives – were seen by men and their families as potential income; greed and social division was created; boys became a financial asset, girls an economic liability. “The newly enhanced worth of sons saw families demanding cash, jewellery or expensive consumer durables and the situation has steadily worsened,“ Veena Talwar makes clear.
Denied all access to economic resources many women became homeless, all were completely dependent on their husbands, and if they suffered marital abuse or conflict they had no recourse to law. As a result, a stream of gender and caste based social abuses was set in motion which rage throughout the country to this day, causing extreme suffering to millions of girls and women.
Although the laws governing inheritance were reformed in 1956 it was not until 2005 that parity between men and women was established in law. However, due to poor education a mere 22% of women, UN Women found, are aware of their legal right to inherit land and property.
A complex interrelated series of consequences flows from the social injustices perpetrated against young women in the 18th century: abortion of female babies; infanticide; trafficking; forced marriage and a range of sexual abuse – including rape – within the home and the wider community as well as parental neglect and domestic servitude.
Due to the fact that girls are seen as an economic burden and boys a source of income, girl babies have been aborted and murdered – female infanticide or Gendercide – in their millions in India. The Lancet estimates that 500,000 female fetuses are aborted in India every year. As a result according to the BBC, “an estimated 25-50 million women in India are ‘missing’, if you compare the proportion of women in the population with other countries.” Staggeringly, Unicef believes 10 million girls, were killed by their parents in the last thirty years.
Infanticide – the willful killing of a child within the first year of its life – is illegal throughout the world – the British outlawed it in India in 1870, but the practice is widespread (occurring, the UN estimates in 80% of Indian States) and with the introduction of ultrasound in the 1980s this barbaric crime has only grown. It is illegal for Clinics and Doctors to tell parents the sex of the child, but many do so; if it’s a girl her fate is uncertain, if it’s a boy – joy and relief amongst the parents. When infanticide was banned by the colonial government, they claimed the two chief causes of this inhumane act “were pride and purse. ‘Purse’ referred to the dowry. ‘Pride’, to pride of the upper castes and tribes that would rather murder female infants than give them to a rival group [caste or tribe] even in marriage.”
Girls who survive pregnancy and are kept by their parents often suffer mistreatment and neglect. Many are malnourished (India has the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world – Unicef) and denied medical treatment; girls are breast fed for a far shorter period than sons and feed less well “because they fear good nourishment will speed the advent of puberty and the need for a costly wedding. While boys are taken immediately to hospital, sick girls are kept waiting because their families do not have the same interest in their survival,” states Ranjana Kumari of the Council for Social Research. If limited food is available it’s the girls who go hungry and suffer malnourishment, often leading to anaemia and stunted growth – leading to maternal and infant deaths, as well as low birth weight infants. Parents of girls are reluctant to send them to school fearing, if the school is some distance from home and the teachers are male, they may be sexually assaulted, so they are often kept at home and forced to carry out domestic chores. This has led to India having, at 67% (compared to 82% of men) one of the lowest levels of female literacy in the world. Lack of education directly affects the woman’s parenting skills and leads to poor child-care. Malnutrition and high infant mortality is a consequence as illiterate mothers fail to understand and exercise good health-promoting behavior, such as immunization and good personal hygiene.
Murdered or trafficked
UNICEF states that the killing of baby girls has reached genocidal proportions. It is a practice that has gone on “in central India for a long time, where mothers were made to feed the child with salt to kill the girl.” Various other gruesome methods of murder are employed, many dating back to the 18th Century: stuffing the baby girl’s mouth with a few grains of coarse paddy causing the child to choke to death is one, poisoning, using organic or inorganic chemicals, drowning, suffocation, starvation and breaking the spinal cord, as well as burying the child alive. The criminal act of infanticide must (one feels) be traumatic for the parents, who faced with a distorted dowry system based on exploitation and greed, see no choice but to murder their daughters – and in their millions, leading to a serious gender imbalance in the country, with dreadful consequences. In 1991 The Huffington Post reports, “there were 947 girls for every 1000 boys;” in 2012 “that number had fallen to 914, some sources put the ratio as low as 700 girls for every 1000 boys nationwide. The northern states of Punjab and Haryana are particularly affected; the BBC found that they “have the highest proportion of missing girls at birth. Rich and modern cities like Delhi, Chandigarh, and Ahmadabad show some of the worst child sex ratios,” and in over 3,600 villages in Gujarat, The Telegraph records “there are fewer than 800 girls for every 1000 boys under six years of age.” In one village boys outnumber girls four to one.
This regional imbalance has led to the abduction and trafficking of tens of thousands of girls and young women every year, from one State, where there are relatively more girls (West Bengal for example, where in 2011 over 11,000 girls went missing), to another part of the country where, due to rampant female infanticide, there is a deficit. And the numbers are rising. Young women, often teenagers, are kidnapped and taken miles from home and forced to marry (often to be ‘shared’ between brothers), or trafficked into prostitution, as was Rukshana, who told the BBC how she was abducted by three men on the way home from school. “They showed me a knife and said they would cut me into pieces if I resisted,” she said. After a terrifying three-day journey they reached a house in the northern Indian state of Haryana where Rukhsana was sold to a family of four – a mother and her three sons. For one year she was not allowed to go outside. She says she was humiliated, beaten and routinely raped by the eldest of the three sons – who called himself her “husband.”
Millions of girls like Rukshana are the innocent victims of corrupted social practices dating back to the 18th century, practices that have been manipulated by a vehemently patriarchal society to control and suppress girls and women, especially those from the lower castes. All social systems and conventions in India flow around a central divisive core, which is caste – Dalit and Advivasi (indigenous) women have a particularly hard time of it.
The dowry system sits at the rotting heart of many of the interrelated problems girls and women, and indeed families generally face, and whilst it is difficult to break down so-called ancient cultural practices – no matter how destructive they may be, it is clear the criminal treatment of girls and women in India is a national crisis and requires urgent action. The demanding of dowry must come to an end (it is also a major factor in the rampant suicides amongst small-holder farmers); it is no more than financial extortion, is a criminal act that should be seen as such, and families who insist on dowry payments must be brought to justice. The Indian government is happy to pass all manner of laws, but until there is the political will to enforce them they remain largely meaningless gestures.
In a macho violation of common sense and the needs of hundreds of millions of people living in crushing poverty, the ruling elite of India (that’s the government and multinational corporations who own the country) recently launched a satellite that “after a journey of 300 days and 420 million miles…arrived to orbit around Mars,” reported The Guardian. The $74 million ‘Mars mission’ is “cheap by American (or Chinese) standards”, The Economist says, but amounts to a fraction of a much more expensive – not to say insane space programme that drains US $1 billion a year from the national budget. A sum, which “is more than spare change, even for a near $2-trillion economy.”
The ‘Mars Madness’, or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to give it it’s official title, makes India one of four (the US, the EU and Russia being the other three) that have ventured to our closest cosmic neighbor, and constitutes a conspicuously extravagant part of what economist-activist Jean Dreze accurately describes as “the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status.” Competition and nationalism drive such escapades, not the quest for knowledge and understanding. The space race between the US and the Soviet Union for example, “was not an affordable luxury undertaken for the sake of knowledge, but intrinsically tied to the military-industrial complex,” The Guardian rightly states. India’s primary competitor in all things economic is that other mammoth nation, China. The Chinese space programme is advanced (in 2012 it put a Chinese woman in space and last year launched its first un-crewed lunar mission), and therefore intensely intimidating to the Indian nationalists psyche.
This stellar statement of Indian male virility (only men would instigate such a policy) represents the insanity permeating the political pantomime not only inside India but worldwide. Whilst hundreds of millions in the sub-continent live impoverished, degrading lives, the Indian government is investing the nation’s income in sending a rocket to Mars! The Economist asks the collective question: “how [can] a country that cannot feed all of its people find the money for a Mars mission?” As well, we should add, as shelling out US $32 billions on defense each year, making India the world’s biggest arms importer with the fourth largest air force.
And yet India (that has its own overseas aid programme worth £328 million a year) is still receiving international aid amounting to around US $1,600 millions (World Bank 2012 figures) a year. Much of which flows from the coffers of nations (Britain and USA for example) who cannot – the politicians proclaim – invest adequately in public services or pay public sector workers a livable wage.
Rocket science versus sanitation
A third of the world’s poor – that’s almost 1 billion people – are in India. And despite twenty years of so-called development, the World Bank (WB) records that not only has this number not reduced, but, “the absolute number of poor people in some of India’s poorest states actually increased during the last decade.” These marginalised men women and children, live in rural India and, driven from their land by the commercialisation of the countryside, the slums of the cities. In Mumbai alone – a city with a population of almost 21 millions – two-thirds live in rambling slums.
It is estimated that as many as 68% of people (or 885 millions) in India are living on less than US $2 (the ‘official’ World Bank poverty line) a day, over half of whom are persisting on an income of under US $1 a day (WB). Surviving on such a pittance is virtually impossible: parents cannot feed their children or themselves every day, or pay for health care or education; families live in suffocating conditions, a family of five, six, seven perhaps sleeping on the ground in one small room, which functions as kitchen, bedroom and living room. The majority of the population – over 50% – do not have the luxury of a toilet, and are forced to defecate in public. In a recent report on worldwide sanitation, The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF found that, “globally, India continues to be the country with the highest number of people (597 million people) practicing open defecation.”
Perhaps some of the 16,000 scientists and engineers working on the space programme could be employed to design and install a nationwide sanitation system.
The needs and indeed rights of the ‘marginalised masses’ who are primarily from the scheduled castes, the Adivasi (indigenous) and Dalit (previously referred to as ‘the untouchables’) groups, are consistently abused and ignored. State health care for example, particularly in rural India, is virtually non-existent, the government spends a mere 1.2% of GDP on public health, which as The Economist says, is “dismally low” (Afghanistan for example spends 8.7%, the Democratic Republic of Congo 5.6%, WB 2012 figures). In fact I could find no country in the world that spends less. The truth is that the ruling elite care not for those living in abject destitution, they are an embarrassment to the Delhi/Mumbai set, the billionaires (India has 66 of the world’s richest), multi-millionaires and comfortable middle class who are desperate for India to be recognised as a shiny democratic consumer state, albeit a violent unjust nationalistic one. A Hindu state thrusting itself into the global limelight, with a strong army – powerful enough to crush and intimidate its own people – and a US $1 billion a year (a figure worth repeating) space programme to rival other superpower contenders. It is the polluted image of a divided nation, ruled by an uncompassionate, materialistically driven Hindu minority that would shame the vision of the Father of the Nation.
To be born poor in our world, is to be born vulnerable and in danger of exploitation of one kind or another; to be incarnated female and poor is to greatly intensify the risks. If you are born a girl to parents of tea-pickers in Assam in North Eastern India (earning as little as US $1.50 a day) there is a good chance you will be sold to a local recruitment ‘agent’ by your loved ones for around $50, he will sell you on to a city ‘employer’ for up to $800 and into a life of abuse and suffering. When Elaina Kujar was 14, she was trafficked to Delhi from the Lakhimpur district of Assam and spent four years as a sex slave. The Guardian 20/07/2013[i] reports that her owner “would sit next to her watching porn in the living room of his Delhi house, while she waited to sleep on the floor. “Then he raped me,” she says, looking down at her hands, then out of the door”. It is thought there are hundreds of thousands of girls, some as young as 12 years old, being sold into slavery of this kind in the capital. It is a brutal picture repeated more or less throughout India, where there are early signs that the ‘economic miracle’, which has fueled widespread inequality, is beginning to unravel.
Trafficking of persons constitutes the third largest global organised crime (after drugs and the arms trade) and it’s growing year on year. The United Nations (UN)[ii], define trafficking as “any activity leading to recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or a position of vulnerability”. It is a $10 billion a year criminal enterprise fuelled by a poisonous cocktail of factors, including ECPAT, state, “poverty, uneven development, official corruption, gender discrimination, harmful traditional and cultural practices, civil unrest, natural disasters and lack of political will to end it”. The interrelated primary causes stemming from one source – social injustice.
Almost 80% of all worldwide trafficking is for sexual exploitation, with an estimated 1.2 million children being bought and sold into sexual slavery every year, and India is the poisonous hub, for Asia, and, some say, the world. End trafficking in India and the worldwide epidemic in human suffering caused by this crime will be greatly reduced. Each year millions of women and children are trafficked in India, which according to the US State Department (USSD)[iii] is “a source, destination and transit” country for “men women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking”. Whilst the vast majority (90%), remain within the country, moving from one state to another, some find their way to the Gulf States, as well as America and Europe. In amongst the reams of material on trafficking in India, I read the staggering government statistic, stating that a child goes missing somewhere in the country every eight minutes. Almost 35,000 children were officially reported missing in 2011 (latest figures), over 11,000 of them were from West Bengal, however it is thought only 30% of cases are reported.
Although most missing children are trafficked into commercial sex work, according to the USSD, “the forced labor of millions of its citizens constitutes India’s largest trafficking problem; men, women, and children in debt bondage are forced to work in industries such as brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, and embroidery factories”.
Trafficking in India is a violent, complex issue fuelled by a range of factors: economic injustice and social inequality, harmful cultural attitudes and regional gender imbalances, with corruption amongst government officials and police the facilitating mechanism, which allows trafficking of children and women to not only continue, but to expand, illegal brothels to flourish and traffickers to go unpunished. Women and girls are the main victims, trafficked for purposes of prostitution, forced marriage, as well as domestic work, which often entails sexual abuse. The vast majority find themselves working in India’s sprawling Commercial Sex Industry (CSI), which according to the government, has about 3 million prostitutes, of which 40% are children – under 18 year-olds, and they say there is growing demand for younger and younger girls – partly because of the high level of HIV/Aids amongst prostitutes; 70% of those working in Mumbai are thought to have the virus. Sexual exploitation through sex tourism, child sex tourism, pedophilia and prostitution in places of religious pilgrimage and other tourist destinations are all on the increase
Gender discrimination is prevalent throughout India and sexual abuse (including molestation and rape) of women in many parts of the country is widespread. Two recent incidents of rape (notably of middle class women) have captured the media’s attention and to some extent highlighted the issue; the Delhi gang rape on a bus in the city of a 23 year-old physiotherapy student in December 2012, who subsequently died of her injuries, and the recent violent rape in Mumbai of a young intern photojournalist. Rape is but the loudest of a range of atrocities women in India face, many of which feed into trafficking in the country. The BBC[iv] report that “police records from 2011 show kidnappings and abductions of women were up 19.4%”, so too “women being killed in disputes over dowry payments by 2.7%, torture by 5.4%, molestation by 5.8% and trafficking by an alarming 122% over the previous year”.
In addition to trafficking for prostitution, girls and women are bought and sold into forced marriages in areas where there is a deficit of women, (and where practices such as wife swapping amongst brothers are reported) due to female infanticide; the violent act of killing a baby girl in the womb. It is estimated that 10 million Indian girls have been aborted in the past two decades The Lancet[v] report, “due to an overwhelming desire for sons and fear of dowry payments”. Punjab and Haryana in the North of the country have the highest proportion of missing girls at birth, others have a surfeit, in the last year e.g. “15,000 women from Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh”, India Today (26/08/2013) [vi] report, were trafficked into Rajasthan, where female infanticide, despite government ambiguity on the subject, is known to occur. Girls lucky enough to survive pregnancy and early childhood – when babies can be suffocated or drowned within “24 hours of a baby’s birth… by the mother or the midwife”, The Raw Story 3/02/2012[vii] state, face a life of discrimination and prejudice, violence and exploitation. The dowry system that demands parents of a bride pay substantial amounts to the groom is a major cause of female infanticide. “We have to give gold, silver, cash, vessels, beds, television sets, air coolers, clothes to the groom’s family and also arrange for a three-day village feast during a daughter’s wedding. We have to start saving for the dowry since the day a daughter is born. I will have to sell my land to get them married,” a mother in Rajasthan said.
Trafficking of children, (half of whom are between 11 and 14 years of age) and women is a plague of the poor, the vast majority of victims, India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), says, “belong to socially deprived sections of society, including Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, etc.”, and shockingly, ”children from drought-prone areas and places affected by natural or human-made disasters”. The poor and conflict-torn Northeastern states of Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam and Chhattisgarh are high source areas, where victims are transported from village home to city hell via a hectic hub, Kolkata in West Bengal is one such criminal centre. ECPAT relay the story of Deepa, a 15 year-old girl from a village outside Kolkata, her horrific experiences mirror those of many. Drugged by a woman, she was kidnapped and sold into CSW. “I was told that I would have to become a prostitute”, Deepa protested and “was beaten so much, my whole body was covered in bruises, then they used hot iron rods to hit me – eventually I had to agree to it”. She was imprisoned and guarded by the sister of the woman who sold her; “my day began at six in the morning and I had about 12 to 14 customers on a daily basis and my day ended at 3am”. She escaped when a client allowed her to use his phone and call her parents. Trafficked children, NHRC found, are “subjected to physical and sexual abuse” and treated as slaves, with debt bondage one of many tools employed to trap children into perpetual servitude.
Debt or bonded labour, the NGO Anti-Slavery[viii] states, “is probably the least known form of slavery today, and yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people”. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)[ix] estimates there to be a minimum 11.7 million people in forced labour in the Asia-Pacific region, the majority of whom, are in debt bondage. Poverty and criminal exploitation lies at the heart of bonded labour. Often without land or education, people desperate for the cash required for daily survival sell their labour and their life, in exchange for cash. This account from an Adivasi (indigenous) women is typical; “My original debt was 1,563 rupees (just £18). I was promised an annual salary of more than 15,630 rupees, but I worked for almost four years before my landlord agreed to pay me anything. When I complained about not getting paid, he called the police to beat me up”. Despite the fact that bonded labour is illegal in India, the government (as this account records and Anti Slavery make clear), is unwilling “to enforce the law, or to ensure that those who profit from it are punished”.
Young girls fetch the highest prices in the city brothels, where the madams and pimps are concerned about one thing only – making money, no matter the human suffering. On the rare occasion that a victim is found and rescued, and a prosecution brought, children commonly refuse to testify due to fear of retribution by traffickers, who may be family members or ‘friends’. Freed from the horrors of the red light districts, girls who have worked as prostitutes are shunned by their parents. Ostracised by their families, and excluded from society many women, made to feel guilty by community prejudice have little choice but to seek refuge within the world of commercial sex work where they have been imprisoned or in some cases become agents for traffickers, who prey on vulnerable families offering them false hope and a way out of the economic prison in which they find themselves.
The BBC 9/01/2013 [x] spoke to an unnamed trafficker in Kolkata, who said, “I traffic 150 to 200 girls a year, [and demand is rising] starting from age 10, 11 and older, up to 16, 17”, making around $1000 per child. He has agents working in the source areas, who promise parents the girls will find work in Delhi, then they are sold to “placement agencies”, with no regard to what happens to the children, it is after all just a business to such ruthless, greedy men and women. Local politicians and “Police are well aware of what we do. I have to tell police when I am transporting a girl and I bribe police in every state – in Calcutta, in Delhi, in Haryana”. One such girl was 13-year-old Rukhsana from West Bengal, kidnapped in January 2012 when three men pushed her into a car as she walked home from school. “They showed me a knife and said they would cut me into pieces if I resisted”. After a terrifying three-day journey in cars, buses and on trains, they reached a house in the northern Indian state of Haryana, where Rukhsana was sold to a family of four – a mother and her three sons. She was confined to the house for a year, humiliated, beaten and routinely raped by the eldest of the three sons.
Children and women trafficked are at risk of all manner of ills, from unwanted pregnancy to HIV/Aids, cervical cancer, severe physical injury, violence, drug abuse and more, not to mention the emotional trauma and long term psychological impact. Educational programmes are required to alter destructive cultural practices that contribute to outdated gender attitudes and, whilst NGOs working with victims are offering essential support, it is the Indian government that must act to implement the plethora of regulations outlawing trafficking and associated criminality in the country including Police and official corruption. Such urgent and essential measures would certainly help to reduce the epidemic of trafficking in India. However for there to be fundamental lasting change, the extreme levels of inequality and social injustice within Indian society need to be addressed, and, (as the visionary Brandt Report made clear), the most effective way to do this is through the equitable sharing of resources, knowledge and wealth.
The landslide election earlier this month of Narendra Modi does not bode well for the 800 million or so Indians living in destitution, or the 120 million minority Muslims in the country, or the Adivasi (indigenous) people and Dalit groups sitting on resource-rich land in Orissa, Jharkhand and elsewhere. He may well come from a humble background, but Mr. Modi’s loyalties lie firmly with the corporations of India, not the chai wallahs working the train station at Vadnagar in Gujarat State like his father once did. And certainly not the Adivasi families being forced from their homes to make way for multi national bulldozers, or the marginalized millions on the fringes of India’s cities living in tin shacks with no sanitation or health care, where children play alongside open sewers, and women work on mountains of refuse collecting Chinese plastics for a few rupees a day.
Modi is a far right Hindu Nationalist whose election suggests India is “entering its most sinister period since independence.”[The Guardian] Hindu nationalism is an exclusive club made up of upper-caste Hindus who form the ruling elite; it is of course closed to the devout worshipers from the lower castes. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) openly promotes the ideal of an India run by and for Hindus. It is “quite open about its belief in the Hindu India…where everybody else lives…as second-class citizens.” Modi’s rise to electoral stardom is a “terribly sad thing and something to be ashamed of.” [Arundhati Roy]
His election campaign was the most expensive ever staged in India, funded as all these political games are by the men with the money. The billionaires and millionaires, the rupee resplendent corporations that own India; her sacred putrid rivers; the forests and bauxite rich mountains; the media – print, radio, Television, the schools, hospitals and water ways. Everything of value, catalogued within the business portfolios of a tiny few, whilst the majority starve, defecate in public, are violated, exploited, ignored.
Nobody knows the precise cost of the new PM’s campaign: it is estimated to have exceeded Rs. 5,000 crore – that’s about $840 million. The man and his message was polished, packaged and sold like any other fizzy brand, with advertised promises of economic revival and goodies galore. “Can a massively funded and aggressive media campaign make people choose a particular leader?” asked Jayati Ghosh (Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru university, New Delhi); the answer, she says, “Sadly, seems to be yes.” [The Guardian]
No limits are placed on spending by political parties, except what’s in their bank accounts. The BJP staged a media blitz, saturating the television and press with images and sound bites from their charismatic candidate. He ‘received’ “nearly 7.5 times more coverage [2,575 minutes] than Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi [his leading opponent] during prime time” viewing. [The Hindu] Massive exposure facilitated by the corporate media that avoided asking probing questions, or “pointing to some of the clear dishonesty in the claims made about his success in Gujarat.” [The Guardian] Such are the benefits of being in bed with the corporations. Big business rightly saw in Modi someone who would deliver all the benefits they have become used to.
Divisive, violent, prejudicial
Revealing the Prime Minister’s extreme prejudicial leanings is the disturbing fact that Mr. Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “A paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founders believed that Nazi Germany had manifested ‘race pride at its highest’ by purging the Jews.” [The Guardian] Set up in 1927, the far right group admires Mussolini and Adolph Hitler, whom they openly praise. Outlawed by the British Raj, the RSS has been banned three times since independence. It was a former member of the RSS [Nathuram Godse] who murdered Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 for being too soft on Muslims. Traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, the extreme group has led many vicious assaults on minorities, especially Muslims. Assaults threatened in the later stages of the Modi election campaign. Speaking in West Bengal, “Modi declared that only Hindu migrants from Bangladesh were welcome; the others would be repatriated.” And in Uttar Pradesh his ‘henchmen’ made it clear “that anyone who did not support Modi should go back to Pakistan, where they belonged.” [The Guardian]
As chief Minister of Gurjarat, Modi presided over a brutal Hindu pogrom against the State’s Muslim community in 2002. Over 1,000 (many put the figure much higher) lost their lives, and many women were raped, in riots that “began after a train with Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in Godhra, killing 59 people. Hindu mobs then turned on Muslims in Gujarat.” [Ibid] Since then Muslims and other minorities in the State have been marginalized and silenced, terrorized into submission. “Muslim families and individuals are increasingly ghettoised, finding it impossible to buy or rent accommodation in dominantly Hindu areas.”[The Guardian] Young Muslim men cannot find work and suffer police intimidation and violence. They are denied bank loans and “intercommunity social mingling, particularly between young men and women, is frowned upon.” It is picture of social division, prejudice and injustice; it is a picture painted by India’s new Prime Minister.
Whilst it’s unclear what part Modi played in the pogrom of 2002, what is apparent is that when Hindu mobs roamed the streets looking for Muslims to kill and rape, he did very little to stop them. In 2005 the American government felt the evidence against him was strong enough to deny him a US diplomatic visa: “former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarked on a ‘get Modi’ policy while in office, funding European NGOs on a quest to find mass [Muslim] graves.” And to cast further suspicion, in 2011 a “senior police officer’s sworn statement to India’s Supreme Court alleges that…Modi deliberately allowed” the slaughter. [BBC] Modi of course denies this, but his divisive prejudicial approach remains clear.
An economic recipe for disaster
India has witnessed GDP growth of up to 9% per annum since the economic reforms of 1991; it now sits at around 3%. Liberalization, globalization and privatization are the cornerstones of this process, which has involved the transfer of support from the poor to India’s corporations, triggering, amongst other calamities, a plague of farmer suicides – 19,000 according to The Lancet killed themselves in 2010 alone. It has been resource-led growth, based mainly on the extraction of natural resources, cheap labour (including children) and foreign investment. Whilst a small number (15% of the population perhaps) have slipped into the ranks of the middle class, the chief benefactors have been the corporations and the already wealthy who have become extremely rich. India boasts 60 rupee resplendent $ billionaires plus 153,000 millionaires, and 800 million – 60% of the population – living on less than $2 a day. Over half the population has no sanitation and defecates in public and 43% of children are malnourished. It is an unjust and shameful economic system that facilitates such inequality, in India and throughout the world.
An internal armed conflict from the Northeast of the country to Karnataka state in the South West, along with the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Adivasi and Dalit people have been the major consequence of the race for resources; together with an enormous dam building programme and the construction of ‘Special Economic Zones’ (SEZ). Since Independence it is estimated that as many as 65 million people (excluding those displaced through armed conflict) have been displaced in India, mostly due to ‘development’ projects.
Modi’s approach in Gujarat showed him to be in line – in many ways way over the line – with the government’s divisive development policies: Promote and incentivize big business “through all sorts of explicit and implicit subsidies, keeping wages low and suppressing any workers’ action, repression of popular movements and cracking down on dissent.” [The Guardian] At the same time crucify the poor, exclude them and deny them; bury them in the filthy past, as New India embraces the defunct western model of modernity, sanctifies temples to consumerism large and small, enflaming materialism and poisoning the Indian psyche. This is the economic recipe.
The desire for material delights has been sown firmly into the minds of India’s young population (two-thirds are under the age of 35), and Modi has scratched away at the itchy insatiable surface promising consumer heaven. ‘The good days are coming’ was his theme tune, with a ‘B’ side of ‘we need a Corrupt Congress free India’, and ‘give me a massive mandate’. Sounds like the predictable rallying call of politicians worldwide – no wonder nobody trusts them.
Hundreds of millions of Indians (not the 800 million who can barely eat) have seen no benefits from market liberalization and are denied the chance to shop. They have been seduced by Modi’s saccharin-laced images of a consumerist future, where “skyscrapers, expressways, bullet trains and shopping malls proliferate,” [The Guardian] and the Army of Poor are hidden away in the slums and rural India, to quietly die. Along with the Bollywood brigade, the young voted for Modi, seeing him as the one to package and deliver their designer trainers, i-phones and essential cosmetics – the “long-awaited fruits of the globalised economy.” However, because the adopted development model is undemocratic and fundamentally flawed, based as it is on an unwavering belief in the market economy, rewarding the rich, excluding the poor and victimizing minorities, “he actually embodies its inevitable dysfunction.” [Ibid] It is a model that aggravates desire, creating discontent and fear – the essential ingredients of social upheaval and conflict. True democracy, which is based on participation, equality, freedom and the rule of law, is denied. But then India is far from being a democratic nation: “there isn’t a single institution anymore which an ordinary person can approach for justice: not the judiciary, not the local political representative…. all the institutions have been hollowed out and just the shell has been put back.” [Arundhati Roy] The comical catchphrase, ‘the world’s largest democracy’, has little meaning when the voice of the people is consistently and brutally suppressed; the caste system dominates all areas of life – particularly in rural areas where most people live, while the country is run by a group of elite Hindu men. “We’re a country whose elite is capable of an immense amount of self-deception.” [Ibid]
As millions worldwide respond to the tone of the times and demand freedom, justice and a new, fairer civilsation, we ask: is Modi of the time? Is he the kind of man who will be able to empathise with the people; does he possess the vision and imagination needed to create a new way of living; is he kind and inclusive? In a detailed document published by Wikileaks, Michael S. Owen of the US consulate in Mumbai said, “in public appearances Modi can be charming and likeable. By all accounts, however, he is an insular, distrustful person……….He reigns by fear and intimidation,” not “inclusiveness and consensus, and is rude, condescending and often derogatory. He hoards power… and has an abrasive leadership style.”
At a time when the world needs new ideas, politicians who can listen, are inclusive and tolerant, who long to cooperate and understand others and themselves, at such a time India has a man at the helm rooted in the ideological Stone Age, who “resembles the European and Japanesedemagogues of the early 20th century.” [The Guardian]
A suffocating patriarchal shadow hangs over the lives of women throughout India. From all sections, castes and classes of society, women are victim of its repressive, controlling effects. Those subjected to the heaviest burden of discrimination are from the Dalit or Scheduled Castes, known in less liberal democratic times as the ’untouchables’. The name may have been banned but pervasive negative attitudes of mind remain, as do the extreme levels of abuse and servitude experienced by Dalit women. They experience multiple levels of discrimination and exploitation, much of which is barbaric, degrading, appallingly violent, and totally inhumane.
The divisive caste system – in operation throughout India – Old and ‘New’, together with inequitable gender attitudes, sits at the heart of the wide-ranging human rights abuses experienced by Dalit or ‘outcaste’ women. “Discriminatory and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of over 165 million people in India has been justified on the basis of caste” [Human Rights Watch (HRW)]: Caste refers to a traditional (Hindu) model of social stratification, which defines people by descent and occupation, it is “a system of graded inequality in which castes are arranged according to an ascending scale of reverence, and a descending scale of contempt … i.e. as you go up the caste system, the power and status of a caste group increases and as you go down the scale the degree of contempt for the caste increases, as these castes have no power, are of low status, and are regarded as dirty and polluting,” [United Nations (UN) Special rapporteur on violence against women – India visit 2013] – hence ‘untouchable’.
Despite, as Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights states, India’s “far-reaching constitutional guarantees and laws which prohibit caste-based discrimination”, Dalit women are the victims of a collision of deep-rooted gender and caste discrimination, resulting in wide ranging exploitation. They are “oppressed by the broader Indian society, men from their own community and also their own husbands and male members in the family” [UN]. Practices like the Devadasi system (where girls as young as 12 years of age are dedicated to the Hindu goddess Yellamma and sold into prostitution); honour killings; sexual abuse including rape; appalling working conditions; and limited access to basic services such as water, sanitation and employment are commonplace.
All women in India face discrimination and sexual intimidation, however the “human rights of Dalit women are violated in peculiar and extreme forms. Stripping, naked parading, caste abuses, pulling out nails and hair, sexual slavery & bondage are a few forms peculiar to Dalit women.” These women are living under a form of apartheid: discrimination and social exclusion is a major factor, denying access ”to common property resources like land, water and livelihood sources, [causing] exclusion from schools, places of worship, common dining, inter-caste marriages” [UN].
The lower castes are segregated from other members of the community, prohibited from eating with ‘higher’ castes, from using village wells and ponds, entering village temples and higher caste houses, wearing sandals or even holding umbrellas in front of higher castes; they are forced to sit alone and use different crockery in restaurants, prohibited from cycling a bicycle inside their village and are made to bury their dead in a separate burial ground. They frequently face eviction from their land by higher ‘dominant’ castes, forcing them to live on the outskirts of villages often on barren land. This plethora of prejudice amounts to apartheid, and it is time – long overdue – that the ‘democratic’ government of India enforced existing legislation and purged the country of the criminality of caste- and gender-based discrimination and exploitation.
Exploitation and Patriarchal Power
The power play of patriarchy saturates every area of Indian society and gives rise to a variety of discriminatory practices, from female infanticide, discrimination against girls and dowry related deaths. It is a major cause of exploitation and abuse of women, with a great deal of sexual violence being perpetrated by men in positions of power. These range from higher caste men violating lower caste women, specifically Dalits; policemen mistreating women from poor households; and military men abusing Dalit and Adivasi women in insurgency States, such as Kashmir, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Manipur. Security personnel are protected by the widely criticized Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants impunity to police and members of the military carrying out criminal acts of rape and indeed murder; it was promulgated by the British in 1942 as an emergency measure, to suppress the Quit India Movement. It is an unjust law, which needs abolishing.
In December 2012 the heinous gang rape and mutilation of a 23 year-old paramedical student in New Delhi, who subsequently died from her injuries, garnered worldwide media attention, throwing a momentary spotlight on the dangers, oppression and appalling treatment women in India face every day. Rape is endemic in the country: “according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), registered rape cases increased by almost 900 percent over the last 40 years, to 24,206 incidents in 2011” [Foreign Policy (FP)]. With most cases of rape going unreported and many being dismissed by police, the true figure could be ten times this. The women most at risk of abuse are Dalits: the NCRB estimates that “more than four Dalit-women are raped every day in India.” Excluded and largely ignored by Indian society a study from the United Nations (UN) reveals that “the majority of Dalit women report having faced one or more incidents of verbal abuse (62.4%), physical assault (54.8%), sexual harassment and assault (46.8%), domestic violence (43.0%) and rape (23.2%).” They are subjected to “rape, molestation, kidnapping, abduction, homicide physical and mental torture, immoral traffic and sexual abuse.”
The UN found that large numbers were obstructed from seeking justice: in 17% of instances of violence (including rape) victims were obstructed from reporting the crime by the police, in over 25% of cases the community stopped women filing complaints, and in over 40%, women “did not attempt to obtain legal or community remedies for the violence primarily out of fear of the perpetrators or social dishonour if (sexual) violence was revealed.” In only 1% of recorded cases were perpetrators convicted. What “follows incidents of violence,” the UN found, is “a resounding silence.” The effect when it comes to Dalit women specifically, but not exclusively, “is the creat ion and maintenance of a culture of violence, silence and impunity.”
The Indian constitution makes clear the “principle of non-discrimination on the basis or caste or gender,” it guarantees the “right to life and to security of life” and Article 46, specifically “protects Dalits from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.” Add to this the important Scheduled castes/tribes (Prevention of atrocities Act passed in 1989, and a well-armed legislative army is formed. However, because of “low levels of implementation” the UN states “the provisions that protect women’s rights have to be considered empty of meaning.” It is a familiar Indian story: judicial indifference (as well as cost, lack of access to legal representation, endless red-tape and obstructive staff), police corruption, and government collusion, plus media indifference causing (the) major obstacles to justice and the observation and enforcement of the law.
Unlike middle class girls, Dalit rape victims (whose numbers are growing) rarely receive the attention of the caste/class-conscious urban-centric media, whose primary concern is to promote a Bollywood shiny, open-for-business image of the country.
I was in India in January when a 20 year-old Dalit women from the Santhal tribal group in West Bengal was gang-raped, “on the orders of village elders who objected to her relationship (which had been going on in secret for five years) with a man from a nearby village in the Birdhum district.” The violent incident occurred when “the man visited the woman’s home on Monday [20th January] with the proposal of marriage, villagers spotted him and organised a kangaroo court. During the ‘proceedings’, the couple were made to sit with hands tied…the headman of the woman’s village fined the couple 25,000 rupees ($400; £240) for “the crime of falling in love. The man paid up, but the woman’s family were unable to pay” [BBC]: so the ’headman’ and 12 of his cohorts repeatedly raped her.
Violence, exploitation and exclusion, are used to keep Dalit women in a position of subordination and to maintain the patriarchal grip on power throughout Indian society,
The cities are dangerous places for women, but it is in the countryside, where most people live (70%) that the greatest levels of abuse occur. Many living in rural areas live in extreme poverty (800 million people in India live on less than $2.50 a day), with little or no access to health care, poor education and appalling or none existent sanitation. It is a world apart from democratic Delhi, or multi-westernized Mumbai: water, electricity, democracy and the rule of law are yet to reach into the lives of the women in India’s villages – home, Mahatma Gandhi famously declared, to the soul of the country.
After two decades of economic growth, India finds itself languishing 136th (of 186 countries) in the (gender equality adjusted) United Nations Human Development index. Development and let us add democracy (for under the corporate state system of contemporary democratic governance the two are interwoven) confined to and defined by economic data, infrastructure projects and ‘inward investment’ packages; development which celebrates the billionaires billions and is intent on commercializing every aspect of life whilst allowing cruelty, sex slavery, trafficking, forced labour and ritualized prostitution to flourish amongst some of the worlds poorest, most vulnerable women, is a model of development and a type of democracy that should be confined to the smouldering, stinking rubbish heaps that litter India’s cities and towns.
Repressive ideas of gender inequality
Indian society is segregated in multiple ways; caste/class, gender, wealth and poverty, and religion. Entrenched patriarchy and gender divisions, which value boys over girls and keep men and women, boys and girls, apart, combine with child marriage to contribute to the creation of a society in which sexual abuse and exploitation of women, particularly Dalit women, is an acceptable part of everyday life. Sociologically and psychologically conditioned into division, schoolchildren separate themselves along gender lines; in many areas women sit on one side of buses, men another; special women-only carriages have been installed on the Delhi and Mumbai metro, introduced to protect women from sexual harassment or ‘eve teasing’ as it is colloquially known. Such safety measures whilst being welcomed by women and women’s groups, do not of course deal with the underlying causes of abuse, and in a sense may further inflame them. “In India, the age-old code of conduct has been to keep men and women separate. So women are only viewed as sex objects,” [Vibhuti Patel Times of India].
Rape, sexual violence, molestation and harassment are rife, but, with the exception perhaps of the Bollywood Mumbai set, sex is a taboo subject. A poll by India Today conducted in 2011, found 25% of people had no objection to sex before marriage, providing it was not in their family [FP]. Sociological separation fuels gender divisions, supports prejudicial stereotypes and stokes sexual repression, which many women’s organisations (logically), believe “accounts for the high rate of sexual violence” [FP]. A 2011 study by the International Center for Research on Women of men’s attitudes in India towards women produced some startling statistics: One in four admitted having “used sexual violence (against a partner or against any woman)”, one in five reported using “sexual violence against a stable [female] partner.” Half of men don’t want to see gender equality, 80% regard changing nappies, feeding and bathing children to be ‘women’s work’, and a mere 16% play any part in household duties. Added to these inhibiting attitudes of mind, Homophobia is the norm, with 92% confessing they would be ashamed to have a gay friend, or even be in the vicinity of a gay man.
A catalogue of Victorian gender stereotypes, fuelled by a caste system designed to subjugate, which trap both men and women into conditioned cells of isolation where destructive ideas of gender are allowed to ferment, causing explosions of sexual violence, exploitation and abuse.
Since Independence (1947) endemic corruption has been part and parcel of daily life in India. The scale of corruption is immense, the cost to the country staggering; according to Global Financial Integrity (GFI), illicit financial flows since 2007 have averaged 52 million $ US. A staggering “$123 billion was lost in the last decade,” a huge sum, which they state is “thirty times the amount New Delhi spent on social services like healthcare and education last year.”
Corruption divides broadly into two distinct areas: millions of US $ political/corporate scams, involving government ministers, members of parliament and their business buddies; and what we might call ‘domestic bribery’. Forced into criminality by a system of governance built on dishonesty, exploitation and greed, citizens throughout the country – rich and poor – bribe officials to avoid problems with state authorities, speed up applications for permits, licenses and utilities, and secure entitled services. Over 75% of slum dwellers e.g. report, “having paid a bribe to secure basic necessities such as kerosene or medical care.”
Nobody in the country trusts politicians, and figures gathered by Transparency International (TI) an NGO that tracks corruption, places the police and the judiciary second and third as the most corrupt bodies in the country. In fact there are no institutions, including health, education and national NGOs (often little more than a front for criminality and exploitation) that are perceived to be corruption free, and according to 92% of Indians it’s getting worse.
Major fraud or petty backhanders, the process of corruption is essentially the same, albeit more or less intricate: need a driving licence, or land to build on; looking to mine coal, start a small business, sell some helicopters, light up your home or have sanitation plumbed in for your family: an envelope stuffed with rupees or shares in the business is the most persuasive language of facilitation, swiftly cutting through reams of bureaucratic red tape. TI records that “54% of Indians say they paid a bribe last year” (the worldwide average is 39%). Two-thirds of people polled admitting bribing police, 63% paid bribes for Land services (buying, selling, renting and inheriting property), over half confessed to bribing tax officials, 45% to the judiciary. And a quarter paid bribes to secure medical treatment and education for their children; constitutional and human rights, only available through bribery – and this in the world’s ‘largest democracy’, a hollow claim of political hyperbole.
Neo-Liberalism, growth and corruption
Despite recording economic growth averaging 9% for the last two decades, India stands 136th (of 186) in the United Nations (Inequality Adjusted) Human Development Index (UNHDI), below Iraq and Syria. With growth currently at 6% the economic miracle is showing signs of petering out. Not that GDP figures make any difference to the 800 million plus miraculously living on less than $2 a day; high or low, these marginalized masses are paid a pittance, denied sanitation and health care and forced to live impoverished, degrading lives.
The growth ‘slow-down’ is thought by many analysts to be partially caused by corruption. Not the petty daily bribes paid by the poor for electricity, but the multimillion $ US scams that have poisoned Indian politics and created an atmosphere of distrust and cynicism around politicians and officials.
In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which “ranks countries/territories based on how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be”, India finds itself slumbering 94th (of 177), below Djibouti (regarded by many as a ‘failed state’) and Columbia. In the World Bank’s 2014 ‘Doing Business’ report, it comes in 134th (of 189), placing it firmly behind the likes of Yemen, Ethiopia and Uganda as a country to set up, run, and do business in.
Traditionally endemic, but small in scale, levels of state corruption have recently soared to stellar heights with a catalogue of major corruption cases floating to the putrid surface of political life. A comprehensive study by the global consultancy firm KPMG found that corruption today, “is not about petty bribes (‘bakshish’) anymore but scams to the tune of thousands of Rs crores” (ten million rupees, equivalent to $167,000). These large scams can be “attributed to the willingness of the private sector to pay senior public officials to get their work done.”[BBC]
Since market liberalization in the early 1990s the list of large scams involving government officials and billions of US $ have become almost as common as low-level graft. As the economy was opened up and America and ‘neo-liberalism’ became India’s ‘natural allies’, undreamt of criminal riches and veins of dishonesty were discovered. The economic model, which sees everything and everybody as a commodity to be profited from, fitted snuggly into the already corrupt gloves of Indian political corporate affairs.
Property, mining licences and the commercialization of the countryside, involving a plethora of privatisations, together with public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects were gifts from the Gods for the devoutly devious, presenting opportunities for grand scale manipulation. It’s even suggested by some in the know, that “the rupee, one of the world’s most actively traded currencies, is manipulated by politicians for personal gain.” [Economist]
These high profile cases indicate the range of corruption:
In 2010 the Commonwealth Games, which cost almost 18 times its budget estimate was marred by gross misallocation of funds and ‘financial irregularities’. Suresh Kalmadi, who was in charge of the Games, stands accused of corruption, cheating, forgery and criminal conspiracy along with nine others. Cronyism saturates sport: in 2012 the International Olympic Committee suspended the Indian Olympic Committee over its electoral process; the richest cricket tournament in the World, the Indian Premier League has been riddled with allegations of corruption and fraud since its creation in 2008.
There was the 2G telecommunications scam in 2010, in which government officials sold hundreds of licences to favoured telecom companies at basement prices. The loss to the treasury is thought to be £37 billion. [According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)]
The mining sect or is rife with corruption, Human Rights Watch (HRW) states, “India’s mining industry is poorly regulated and the government is indifferent to endemic lawlessness within the sector.” In 2010 e.g., there “were more than 82,000 instances of illegal mining operations.” What little regulation there is, is ‘self-regulation’. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports are “commissioned and paid for by the very companies seeking permission to mine” and pay little if any attention to human rights and community concerns.
Whether it’s violating the land for bauxite in Orissa by the Vedanta Group (which has caused the violent displacement of Adivasi people in the area), illegal mining in Goa, or Hardwar or the Aravali Range in Rajasthan, bribery and corruption is involved from top to tail, beginning to end.
In 2010, a political scandal nicknamed ‘Coalgate’ surfaced. Mines were sold off cheaply to public sector entities and private companies and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was implicated. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) accused the Government of allocating coal rich mines in an underhand manner from five years up to 2009. It is “estimated $34 billion was lost“ to the government. [Council on Foreign Relations] The same year saw the Iron-Ore graft in the State of Karnataka, in which an “illegal mining mafia… made profits of $2 billion or more shipping illegal iron ore to China.” [Economist] Hundreds of local officials and politicians were involved, including G. Karunakara Reddy and G. Janardhana Reddy (owners of one of the key conspirators, the Obulapuram Mining Company) who were ministers in the state Government at the time and seemed to “rule the roost.”
And last year a series of million dollar scams hit the headlines, amongst them a railway promotion scam – predictably named ‘Railgate’. Bribes valued at 9,000,000 Rupees ($150,000) were (allegedly) paid to Pawan Kumar Bansal, the railway Minister at the time. The Augusta Westland Helicopter scam was another. Senior politicians and military men have been accused of taking bribes amounting to Rs 74.5 crores ($15,943,000) from Finmeccanica (the parent company of Westland) to secure an order for the supply of 12 helicopters (worth US $600 million) from the British-based aircraft manufacturer. And let’s not forget Vodafone, which was in cahoots with the Union Minister Kapil Sibal and the Law Minister, in a Rs 11,000 crore ($2,530,000) tax dodge.
Growth for whom?
Whilst twenty years of growth may have spawned a new middle class (approximately 50 million – 5% of the population), it is the elite that has benefitted from deregulation. The number of billionaires has increased from six to 61 in the last decade, concentrating “US $250 billion among a few dozen people in a country of 1.2 billion.” [Oxfam] The elite increased their hold on the country’s wealth “from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 26 percent in 2008,” much of which is hidden overseas in ‘shell companies’, avoiding tax. The very rich “have started buying politics, and the great churning in India you see against corruption is essentially about the purchase of politics by the wealthy.” [FT]
Whilst India’s billionaires wallow in complacent luxury, two-thirds of the population live in dire poverty, almost half the nation’s children suffer from malnutrition and tens of millions, mainly Adivasi (indigenous) and Dalit people, have been displaced by mining and infrastructure projects; forced off ancestral land they gravitate to the urban slums. Government spending on the poorest most vulnerable in society is amongst the lowest of any ‘middle income country’. [Asian Development Bank] Expenditure on health care is a mere 1% of GDP, meaning, in rural areas where 80% of the population lives, there is practically no access to medical services.
In addition to withdrawing support from the poor and subsidizing the elite, economic development has also “expanded the possibilities for rent-seeking.” [Milan Vaishnav] A term coined by economist Gordon Tullock to describe the corrupt process of making money from immoral, if not illegal practices: monopolies fixing prices; lobbyists influencing policy to benefit their companies, disadvantaging their competitors; indigenous peoples, the victims of development. Rent-seeking the Economist explains, is “the use of wealth to distort the allocation of resources from which more wealth could be produced.” Ideologically obsessed politicians have become key facilitators for their corporate donors; the “wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy,” [Oxfam] and fuelling unprecedented levels of inequality.
The last ten years have seen a destructive union between wealth creation and corruption firmly established; during this time “almost all of the billionaires created in India have been created because of the proximity to politics.” [FT] Research by Michael Walton of Harvard University and Aditi Gandhi of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research found that of India’s 66 billionaires, around half made their money in ‘rent-thick’ sectors – “i.e. where profit is dependent on ‘economic rents’ for access to scarce resources, such as land or the telecoms spectrum, which are typically only available via government permissions.” [Ibid] ‘Permissions’ that are bought. Bribes are paid in cash, gold or through a stake in the business. Bribes are also paid into offshore accounts held in Switzerland and other such tax havens.
Not only are the politicians corrupt, but the political system itself is fuelled by bribes. Illegal party funding, the Economist found “is at the heart of corruption.”
At the end of 2013 India’s parliament appointed an anti-graft ombudsman bill. The ombudsman “will be appointed by an independent committee comprising the prime minister, the head of the Supreme Court, the leader of the opposition and an eminent jurist.” [Reuters] The Supreme Court is regarded as one of the few clean institutions in the country, but it’s hard to see how a committee with the Prime Minister on it can be truly independent, or that more laws are needed. India does not lack laws: whether it’s legislation governing environmental issues, women’s rights or corruption – there are laws aplenty. What is lacking is the will to implement existing regulations. On the rare occasion someone is charged with corruption, prosecutions can take up to ten years; as a result nobody bothers to makes complaints. “In the past three years only 25 top civil servants have been investigated and none has lost his job.” [Economist]
India prizes itself on being the world’s largest democracy, meaning it has the biggest population of any country in which citizens get to vote. Self-interest and corruption have no place in a functioning democracy and must be purged from political life and civil society. Democracy is not only the right to vote: participation, social justice and equality are fundamental to the democratic ideal, and are widely absent throughout India.
Along with the choking fumes and piles of putrid waste, sound systems and a constant bombardment of honking horns from cars, lorries and screaming buses assault residents and the unprepared in towns and cities throughout India. Loudspeakers are used to spread political propaganda; celebrate and circulate expensive arranged and prolonged weddings; and, mounted outside temples and mosques, loudly proclaim the jargon of the just and the righteous path to salvation.
Noise pollution in the cities and towns is unbearable and adversely affects people’s health: hearing complaints, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular issues, deteriorating work and school performance are some of the more serious effects of this deafening sociological epidemic, which is adding layer upon layer to the nationwide millieu of stress and environmental degradation.
What may have once been considered simply part of the chaotic charm of this extraordinary country − to be endured along with poor sanitation, burgeoning, filthy slums and open sewers − noise, air and water pollution are now seen as a major environmental issue demanding urgent government and community action
Sound The Horn
In a recent survey of the world’s noisiest cities, India garnered bronze, silver and gold. The capitalNew Delhi comes in first, with seven million plus vehicles on its streets every day (more than in India’s three other major cities combined), followed closely by India’s richest and most populous city (with 21 million people) Mumbai and then Kolkata. Cars and motorbikes are the source of much of the cacophony. Driving is a noisy adversarial affair: the thrusting horn is blasted in place of using mirrors, indicating, pulling out or overtaking. “Instead of slowing down while turning or approaching an intersection, drivers will blast their horns to warn others of their presence. They also honk at cyclists, pedestrians, children, pye-dogs, cows and anyone else unfortunate enough to be slower than them.” [BBC] In case the essential tarmac protocol should be forgotten, lorries and trailers carry the slogan ‘sound horn’ on their colourful rear end. At junctions drivers turning right use all lanes, blocking those going straight, instigating a symphony of horn blowing, loud and angry.
Honking is not allowed near schools and hospitals; but this is another law which remains largely unenforced and dangerously disregarded. Much like little yappy dogs, the smallest vehicles are often the noisiest and most reckless; “kamikaze motorbikes and scooters weave dangerously through traffic, popping out unexpectedly………as they emit a violent buzz.”[Ibid] At night deserted city streets too busy during daylight hours, are invaded by lorries. Kings of the Road, they tear along, with enlarged air horns capable of 118 decibels, equivalent to a thunderclap (WHO guidelines for urban areas are around 50 decibels: “anything above 85 dB accelerates ear damage,” India Health), proclaiming their dominance over all lesser vehicles and quieter, sleepier forms of life.
The driving in both urban and rural areas is appalling and hazardous: in 2010, 231,027 [World Health Organisation (WHO) latest figures] people died on the roads of India. Families, three, four and five, with school bags and the daily shop, squash onto a single moped or motorbike, with not a helmet (another unenforced legal requirement) between them. Bus drivers in poorly maintained, overcrowded buses, race from stop to stop competing for fares to boost their wages – honking as they go. Road courtesy is virtually non-existent as is observation of regulations. Laws in India are seen as liberal ornaments displayed before visiting foreign dignitaries paving the way for their corporate benefactors, and allowed to collect democratic dust the rest of the time. Politicians, from Delhi downwards set the dishonest corrupt tone, sending out a message to all in society − from truck drivers to corporate Indian man − that laws mean nothing, will not be enforced and need not be obeyed.
Colourful chaos abounds, compounded after dark when it is not uncommon to see motorbikes, cares, lorries and tractors driven on unlit roads, without lights and often on the wrong side. Noisy, reckless and unregulated, the driving is dangerous: deadly for many, hazardous for most.
Noise pollution, whether it be from a chorus of angry lorries and cars, a four day long wedding event, or political electioneering, is unhealthy, unpleasant and a gross intrusion of privacy.
Filthy Streets, Poisonous Rivers
The lack of environmental awareness and respect is, it seems part of the consciousness of the society(Indians may say ‘culture’ – an overused word, uttered in justification of all manner of sociologically harmful behavioural patterns). It is a deeply destructive attitude of government neglect and community apathy, most evident in the sea of stinking waste that fills the towns, cities, and villages; polluting the ground, air and waterways.
All the rivers are polluted, resulting in high levels of water-borne diseases: the Mother of them all, The Holy Ganges, flowing over 1,560 miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, is one of the world’s filthiest rivers. Worshipped by Hindus, the river is full of toxic industrial waste, domestic rubbish, clothing detergent and human waste (55% of the population have no toilets); millions defecate in the holy river every day, as well as using Her waters to clean their teeth, for drinking and cooking. One of the many results is faecal contamination, giving rise to a range of illnesses including diarrhoea, which is the second-largest killer of children under five, causing about 1.5 million deaths annually. A study by India’s National Cancer Registry Programme found that levels of cancer in the country were highest amongst people living around the Ganges basin, due to poisonous metals and toxins.
Waste “scars meadows, contaminates streets and feeds a vast and dangerous ecosystem of rats, mosquitoes, stray dogs, monkeys and pigs.” [New York Times] Packs of dogs prowl urban centres, feeding on municipal waste; they fight for territory and bark into the night – adding to the omnipresent noise pollution. Many carry Rabies, which “is responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in India every year.” In the North Western town of Srinagar in Jammu, where the ratio of dogs to humans is a mere 1:13 (it’s 1:31 in Mumbai), “54,000 people were bitten by stray dogs in the last three-and-a-half years.” [The Hindu]
Residential streets and public spaces where children play and adults gather are polluted with litter, food waste, domestic and industrial filth. The cities alone generate over 100 million tons of solid waste annually, a large percentage of which is plastic (America by comparison in 2010 generated 31 million tons of plastic waste according to ‘Plastic is Rubbish’), and it is estimated that (if urban populations increase at the current rate) by 2045 they will be churning out nearly 300 million tons a year. India’s former Minister for the Environment, Jairam Ramesh stated (in 2010) that, “Our cities are the dirtiest cities of the world. If there is a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India will win it, no doubt.” [The Times of India] And the situation has deteriorated further in the years since his damning comment.
New Delhi (population around 17 million) produces almost 700 tons of daily waste, much of which is plastic; even though plastic bags have been banned in India since 2011, they are everywhere. According to the Supreme Court of India, the country is sitting on a “plastic time bomb;” the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) says, “Total plastic waste which is collected and recycled in the country is estimated to be 9,205 tonnes per day (approximately 60% of total plastic waste);” the rest (6,137 tons) remains uncollected in the streets. In a 2013 survey conducted in 60 major cities the CPCB found that “15,342.46 tonnes of plastic waste was generated every day, amounting to 560,000 tonnes a year.”
Plastic is non-biodegradable and takes hundreds if not thousands of years to break down; microscopic plastics may never entirely decompose and India’s cities are awash with them. “Transmission of mosquito-related diseases is caused by non-biodegradable litter, which causes rainwater to stagnate, or clog drains, which in turn create breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” witnessing “a 71% increase in Malaria cases in the last five years.” [The Hindu]
With economic growth, levels of waste increase (on average, for every additional 1,000 rupees of income, solid waste increases by one kg per month), get more toxic, less biodegradable and more deadly. In the cities plastic and electrical rubbish is now the primary problem and lack of segregation means that everything, including biomedical waste from hospitals, gets thrown on the same municipal dumps.
Taking out the rubbish
For most people in India disposing of their waste is straightforward: simply throw it on the road, in the river or, if they’re passing, on the local garbage heap. I was shocked when, travelling by train on my first visit to the country, I saw families gaily throwing their litter out of the window and toilets dropping waste directly onto the tracks. The 20 million plus travelling by train daily produce a mountain of waste around railway lines, which in towns and cities run along densely populated housing/slum dwellings.
In 2000 the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued the ‘Municipal Solid Wastes Rules’, a set of legally binding guidelines agreed by Central Government “to regulate the management and handling of the municipal solid wastes.” The legislation makes clear that “every municipal authority shall be responsible for the implementation these rules, and for any infrastructure development for collection, storage, segregation, transportation, processing and disposal of municipal solid wastes.” Local authorities were instructed to set up waste processing and disposal facilities by the end of 2003; in keeping with government neglect, state corruption (local and national) and lack of legislative implementation, to date none of India’s cities have complied.
“Open dumping, open burning, landfill/dumpsite fires, and open human and animal exposure to waste are common” and widespread. Burning of waste constitutes one of the largest sources of air pollution in cities; in Mumbai “it is the cause of about 20 per cent of air pollution.” [The Hindu]
Nobody wants landfill sites near their homes; in Hyderabad officials have been engaged in talks with local residents for ten years now without success. Burning of waste by privately contracted operators, an environmentally unpopular remedy “worse than the disease”, is being phased-out in industrialised nations, but appears to be Indian local governments’ preferred option. Incinerators and waste-to-energy schemes are “rotten with corrupt practices [and] cost 12 to 43 times more than simple, easily managed, low-cost composting.” [Environmentalist and a member of the Supreme Court committee on solid waste management Almitra Patel in Asian Times] Corrupt local authorities, do not “have the capacity to operate or monitor these plants under the strict conditions required to ensure that there is no environmental pollution from toxic emissions.” The ideal solution for India is composting, because unlike developed countries, “where waste is segregated and has high calorie packaging that works well with incinerators, Indian waste is high in organics and moisture.”
India is facing what The Hindu described as a “waste management crisis”: a national plague that kills children, causes serious health issues amongst millions of people, pollutes the air and poisons the rivers. If the country is not to become the world’s biggest sewer, government complacency and indifference needs to give way to a strategic plan of action. In 2012, large numbers took to the streets in nationwide protests, and roads leading to waste handling facilities were blocked. From Jammu in the Northeast to Tamil Nadu in the South people demanded an end to living in filth, and their right to live in a clean, safe environment.
Implementation of legislation together with a nationwide education programme and a massive recycling campaign is urgently required. Social responsibility needs to be cultivated; communities encouraged to look after their neighbourhood; local authorities to act in accordance with their constitutional and moral duty; and businesses forced to act responsibly. Sound the Horn of Change, India.
Hedonism is said to be the hallmark of a civilization in decline. Is it fear or avarice that consumes the revelers, content to avert their gaze as their countrymen, doused in poverty, burn on the party pyre.
There are many fires raging in India; the agrarian crisis is one of the most shocking and destructive and sits at the heart of a range of interconnected calamities. “Don’t detach this crisis from the overall political, economic social direction of the country” advises P. Sainath. It is a crisis rooted in one fundamental cause – the “predatory commercialization of the countryside,” a destructive development model that includes huge infrastructure and dam building projects (3,600 dams have been built since independence making India the third biggest dam builder in the world after China and America), gifting large tracts of land to corporations for industrial arteries known as ‘Special Economic Zones (SEZs)’ and massive mining projects. It is a collection of corporate sports which together are causing, “the biggest displacement in Indian history,” an epidemic of farmer suicides, the death of ancient cultures, and ecological mayhem. A redundant model of civilization that has fuelled a spectrum of resistance movements from the non-violent Gandhians in the homespun corner, to the armed wing of the Maoists (or Naxalites) in AK47 combat boots, the more militant, members of which want nothing less than the dismantling of the Indian state. . As Kishanji – Maoist leader is reported as saying, “We are the opposition in the true sense. All the political parties are the same in all the states. We want to destroy the state. This is a real war.” [Adivasi Caught Between two Fires (ACBTF)]
The fiercest fire sparked by the commercialization of the countryside has to be the war tearing through parts of the north-eastern and central states. The insurgency, or “corporate war” as Arundhati Roy calls it, covers “over 40% of India’s land area, encompassing 20 of the country’s 28 states, including 223 districts (up from 55 in 2003) out of a total of 640”[The Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG)] and yet it remains largely hidden from the world and the new city dwelling middle class we hear so much about.
India may not be choosing to feed its 450 million plus starving citizens or provide sanitation and health care to the rural poor and metropolitan slum dwellers, or even toilets to 50% of the population who defecate in the open, but it comes tenth in worldwide military expenditure, has the third largest standing army in the world and, Om Shanti, India is a nuclear armed state.
The battlefields for the forty-year internal conflict are the mineral rich afforested areas in some of the country’s poorest regions – where some of the poorest people on earth live. In order of intensity the states affected, (or ‘infested’ as the Indian media describes it), are: Chattisgarh/Jharkhand, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh. These regions comprise the so-called “Red Corridor” (which covers over 1000 km), government slang for the most poor, backward and underdeveloped parts of the country. It is here that paramilitary forces, police and army are pitted against Maoist/Naxalite insurgents (numbering around 20,000 armed fighters with 50,000 supporters), made up largely of India’s indigenous people – the Adivasis (from adi meaning from the earliest times), a marginalised minority accounting for around 8% (or 85 million) of the population. In addition to paramilitary troops, “the state has also used death squads known as Salwa Judum (SJ), [set up in 2005] meaning Purification Hunt, to spread a reign of terror and drive out Adivasis from villages for the benefit of companies — and on a massive scale” [Global Issues (GI)].
The vigilante group, which contained Adivasi in its ranks was banned in Chattisgarh by the Supreme Court in 2011, but the damage done was immense: “displacing 300,000 Adivasis, killing, raping, and looting them and burning down their villages. Five hundred charges of murder, 103 of arson, and 99 of rape have been levelled by citizens against the Salwa Judum, but the Chattisgarh government has not investigated or processed a single case. According to Human Rights Watch” [GI]. In May 2013 in an attack by Maoists in Chattisgarh that killed 28 Congress Party leaders, Mahendra Karma the founder of the Salwa Judum “was stabbed 78 times and shot 15 times”.
The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has called the Maoist insurgency ‘India’s greatest internal security threat’. Such hyperbole is designed to deflect attention from the true cause of instability: extreme inequality and social injustice, feeding crippling levels of poverty. The conflict is a “governance issue that has broken into a law-and-order issue,” revealing the flaws in the “way [New] India is governed”[according to Sudeep Chakravarti – author of Red Sun: Travels In Naxalite Country].
Along with the Dalit community (15% or 190 million people) the Adivasis have been excluded totally from twenty years of economic growth and are seen by the government and the ruling elite in the cities as an embarrassment, an unsightly hangover from the past to be swept aside, allowed to fester and die in rural poverty or urban degradation. Infant mortality amongst Adivasis (or Scheduled Tribes – of which there are 635 distinct groups)_ is 57% and child malnutrition is 73% (the national average is the highest in the world at 48%) [International Institute for Population Sciences].
Ignored, many in desperation turn to the Maoists for support. Some Adivasi groups have formed their own resistance movements – in Orissa for example, several tribes came together forming the Chasi Mulia Sangh, a tribal land movement (unconnected to the Maoists they assert) 5,000 strong. Armed with traditional weapons they are fighting for human rights and collective tribal ownership of their ancestral lands. They “claim they are caught between the two fires of an escalating Maoists/Naxalite insurgency and the governments paramilitary backlash” [ACBTF]. Such movements face injustice and violent repression from security forces, which serve to push these groups into the arms of the Maoists. Once associated with ‘India’s greatest security threat’, “armed police are sent in, and village land is forcibly taken over with impunity” [anthropologist Felix Padel].
The Adivasi people have “an ingrained regard for truth and law”, they have lived in harmony with the land for generations: within their culture the natural environment is sacred and belongs to the whole community – there is no concept of individual ownership. They are ‘the sons of the soil’ condemned to live in grinding poverty outside the economic growth bubble by a government that is firmly wedded to the corporations and sees the shining future of India in post-modern industrialized (meaning market capitalist) colours. Corruption is endemic within all sectors of Indian politics, the police and, it is said the judiciary, and although large sums of money are ‘officially’ “being spent on tribal groups, only 1% or 2% reaches them, 98% is swindled, siphoned off”, states Professor Manmath Kundu.
The government “has done nothing for us, no development, no roads, no drinking water, no schools” and we could add – no healthcare (rural India is deprived the constitutional right to a universal health care system). After twenty years of economic development India has of course progressed – it now produces a food surplus compared to a deficit in 1950, but most of its people have seen little improvement in their lives; on the contrary, there are more poor than ever and the poor are poorer, as Arundhati Roy states, “the price that is being paid for development – for growth, is displacement, deaths, environmental destruction.”
The government has given nothing to its most vulnerable citizens, and taken everything, “thousands of Adivasi farmers have had their land stolen” [Chasi Mulia Sangh leader, Nachika Linga], and with the land goes the culture, including language and traditions. The Adivasi in Dr. Kundu’s view, “have a very bleak future, because the development is not ‘tribal friendly’ and means ‘de-tribalisation… ultimately there will be hardly any tribal groups left in the true sense.”
Angered by such government neglect and extreme levels of social injustice the Maoists are fighting against a political-economic system that (despite constitutional guarantees) ignores the 800 million oppressed and downtrodden: they describe their fight as a “democratic revolution, which would remain directed against imperialism, feudalism, and comprador bureaucratic capitalism.”
Bulldozing the Rural Poor
Corrupt and heavily armed the ‘imperialist’ security forces are acting on behalf of corporate India, Western multinational corporations and governments. A self-interested posse motivated by one thing only – profit. They are determined to loot the land of the vast mineral resources (particularly iron ore and bauxite), inflate their burgeoning multi-national coffers and fulfil the Indian corporate-governments vision of a post-modern industrialised nation, sprinting to the winning line in the race for global economic supremacy. “The Tata’s and the Ambani’s are using armed might. I think everything that happened in Latin America and Central America with the creation of Contras, the arming of society, dividing of society, is being tried in India” [says environmental activist Vandana Shiva]. The Indian state “has been thoroughly corrupted by neoliberalism both at the national and provincial levels,” and in partnership with corporate India is at war with some of the oldest, poorest people in the world, people who find themselves “in the way of the kind of development – rapid industrialization fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources,” being pursued by the government [Mira Kamdar].
A World Bank/IMF model of development that is causing extreme hardship for the majority of Indians, and has displaced millions of indigenous people: as many as 56 million people have been displaced by dam building alone since 1947. According to the 1894 Land Acquisition Act the government is not bound to compensate displaced people with anything other than a cash payment – little use to an illiterate Adivasi man – women get nothing at all, who has just lost his home, his livelihood and his cultural heritage. This is feeding an insurgency which has taken tens of thousands of lives. A media-managed conflict in which paramilitary forces have herded large numbers of forest dwellers off their ancestral land into police camps, or forced to migrate to cities where they join the millions living sub-human lives in the slums. A war, according to Felix Padel, is “the worst war there has ever been in India, because it is directed against village people.” And yet, throughout the world, the majority “don’t know there is a civil war going on in India,” so great is the corporate state’s control over the ‘free press’ and the international community’s indifference to tribal people who are unlikely to be particularly heavy shoppers.
The violent pattern of mining, environmental destruction, death and displacement of native peoples is an ancient story. It is a colonial epic, the story of the powerful versus the vulnerable, corporations versus indigenous people, who happen to live on ancestral land rich in mineral deposits worth trillions of US $. From their exalted point of privilege the rulers of India, the upper and middle classes, “look down on the land and ask [of the Adivasi people] ‘what’s our bauxite doing in your mountains, what’s our water doing in your rivers, what’s our timber doing in your forests?” [Arundhati Roy] Far from understanding the delicate ecological balance all is seen as a profitable commodity. Deep within the Saranda forest in the state of Jharkhand (where Adivasi’s make up 26% of the population) lie’s the world’s largest deposit of iron-ore.
The mining giants are firmly in residence in the north eastern state, which is now “a fully militarized zone, there are over a hundred bases with a total of 50,000 official paramilitary troops involved in military action, [plus] the mining corporations’ security forces.” [Xavier Dias, spokesperson for the Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee]. Such government intimidation is designed to create a climate of fear and suppression in which dissenting voices are silenced and the “corporations are free to suck out the minerals and forest resources,” in the process “transforming large fertile areas into industrial wastelands” [Felix Padel relates in Deconstructing War on Terror]. The Adivasi are simply an inconvenient irrelevant gaggle, that need to be cleared away, or at best put to work collecting scraps of coal or labouring on corporate farms for less than US$ 1 a day [Adivasi Caught Between two Fires].
The Maoist insurgency, whilst containing extreme elements that fit neatly into the box marked ‘terrorists’, is the direct result a narrow colonial approach to development, for in a way the India has been colonizing itself since independence. The government has fuelled discontent and anger amongst the marginalized majority “through lack of development, political and administrative corruption, callousness in places where there is less bang for the political buck, mis-governance or non-governance” [Sudeep Chakravarti].
Village life for Adivasis and Dalits is largely an interdependent one in which people share what little they have. If there is any hope for the world at all Arundhati Roy in Trickle Down Revolution suggests, “it lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them. The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination.” A re-imagination based on right relationship, with one another and environment; a life free from the insatiable drive for material possessions and accumulation to one rooted in sufficiency, simplicity and sharing.
To speak of growth is to allude to one thing only: economic development, GDP and GNP figures, which of course should be increasing for the world to stay on track to become a global shopping emporium. The word has been confiscated by the economically erudite and political ideologues. Monthly statistics are chanted, mantra like, by the politically aligned media, ignored by most and washed away with the residue. They are of no consequence to the majority trying to meet the basic requirements of living and are issued along with other contemporary anxiety stimulants: deficit, austerity and debt to name but three of the more popular narcotics of control.
India has recorded two delightful decades of around 9% ‘growth’, which has produced umpteen rupee resplendent billionaires who live in decadent luxury in the cities. Along with the government, which is seduced by all things corporate, they turn a comfortable blind eye to the hundreds of millions living in rural poverty and those in slums on the other side of town, where children play beside open sewage, where there are no functioning toilets or latrines: where child malnutrition is rife and where there are no health care facilities worthy of the name. The billionaires sit aloft a hierarchy of corporate wealth and power: they tower over the lesser millionaires (in 2012 there were 152,750 US $ millionaires); and see in the far distance the desperately upwardly that form a gaggle called the ‘new middle class’. This group of city dwellers has benefited greatly from twenty years of market liberalization and government reforms, which have shifted support from the needy to the corporate greedy, resulting in increased levels of rural poverty and a multitude of suffering. The United Nations Human Development Index (UNHDI)[i], which “represents a push for a broader definition of wellbeing and provides a composite measure of three basic dimensions of human development: health, education and income”, paints a vivid picture of Indian life after years of economic flowering. India comes in 136th out of 187 countries. Factor in inequality – “in each dimension of the HDI” plus gender inequality (considering the disadvantages facing women and girls), and India plummets even further down the table.
So, following P.Sainath’s noble lead, one asks who is this growth for? Not the poor, the marginalized and dispossessed, the Dalit’s (untouchables) or Adivasi (indigenous) people, the smallholder farmers, children and certainly not women.
Inequality and illness
The inequities in health care provision represent the extreme levels of inequality and social injustice pervading the country, as The Lancet[ii] makes clear, “mainly because of insufficient government funding for health.” Although the urban population continues to grow (currently thought to be around 377 million), by most estimates 75% of the population – (a staggering 900 million people) live in rural areas, where health-care is universally appalling. It is here in relation to health, disease and mortality that statistics have meaning to the people. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), India as a whole accounts “for 21% of the worlds global burden of disease”: as a % this is greater than the population ratio. The 21% is concentrated in rural areas where diseases lead to huge numbers of deaths that, correctly diagnosed and given access to treatment, are preventable. It is thought e.g. that over 2 million deaths occurred in 2008 due to preventable causes, such as diarrhea, dengue, measles, typhoid and malaria. The middle and upper classes seduced as they are by multi-national western exports of fast food, cigarettes and alcohol have seen stark increases in obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular problems, records Health India.[iii]
Mahatma Gandhi believed the soul and spirit of India rested in its village communities. He said[iv]: “The true India is to be found not in its few cities but in its seven hundred thousand villages. If the villages perish, India will perish too.” Neglected and ignored rural communities are indeed perishing:
Adivasi people, who have lived on the land for generations, are being displaced in their millions as mining companies move in to extract the bauxite, iron-ore and tin. Trapped into debt and crushed by the corporate take-over of the countryside, smallholder farmers, of which there are an estimated 120 million (down 9 million since 2001), are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of two every hour. Huge infrastructure projects are underway throughout the country, the waterways are being swiftly privatized and millions of villagers, with no access to adequate health care, are dying. One imagines the ‘Father of the Nation’ would be ashamed, as the current government should be.
Within rural areas there is a dire lack of health care resources; human and material, including medicines as well as properly equipped Primary Health care centres (PHCs), which are the main state run facility. Although India is said to have a Universal health care system administered by the various states, who have as their “primary duty” as stated in the constitution[v] the “raising the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health”, up to 60% of the population do not have access to adequate health care provision.
The conurbations, (with just 25%/30% of the population), have four times more doctors and three times more nurses than the PHCs in rural India; this means that of the latter almost 10% have no medical staff at all, 40% are without lab technicians and almost 20% lack a resident qualified pharmacist. The results of this dearth of medical support is (and here are some more statistics that matter) that 50% of all villagers have no access at all to allopathic healthcare providers, 10% of all babies die before their first birthday and 50% of all rural babies are likely to be permanently stunted for want of proper nutrition [according to Health India[vi]].
Water and Waste
Limited access to safe drinking water coupled with non-existent sanitation in rural India (and city slums) is a major factor in the spread of parasitic and bacterial infections, causing disease and malnutrition. Over a third of people living in villages have no access to toilets, while 50% of the population defecate in the open, added to which UNICEF[vii], finds that “44% of mothers are disposing of their children’s faeces in the open”, resulting in “a very high risk of microbial contamination (bacteria, viruses, amoeba) of water which causes diarrhoea in children”, which is the primary cause of childhood mortality. Within rural families they found that only 11% “dispose of child stools safely”, whilst “80 % are left in the open or thrown into the garbage”, and shockingly, “only 6% of rural children less than five years of age use toilets”.
Drinking water is another major source of disease, and whilst UNICEF makes clear that access to safe sources of drinking water has improved, (from 68% in 1990 to 88% in 2008), with under a quarter of slums dwellers having access to this most rudimentary of needs, inequality poisons even their most basic human right. The problem is made worse, they say, by falling levels of groundwater, groundwater pollution and the widespread natural occurrence of “arsenic and fluoride in the groundwater”, which pose a major health threat. Proper sanitation methods and clean drinking water are not an issue of concern within the high-rise middle class city developments, or the gated communities in Delhi and Mumbai: they have toilets, bidets and Evian, or some such. It is the 75% that are left without health care, with restricted access to safe drinking water and no sanitation facilities. Where has the 9% growth gone?
The divide between the tiny percentage that have benefitted from economic development and market liberalization, and the vast majority that have been condemned to a life of extreme poverty and illness, is approaching cosmic proportions. Most people live in rural areas, but the beneficiaries of growth have primarily been city residents, where wealth is concentrated in the coffers of a handful of men. It is said that the 100 richest Indians own wealth equivalent to 25% of the national GDP (Annual GDP $1.84 trillion 2012), and, whilst Mukesh Ambani the chairman of Reliance Industries earns $18 million a year two-thirds of the population (according to the World Bank), lives on less than $2 a day. The 9% begins to rise to the divisive surface.
Two decades of economic growth have granted great benefits to the Ambani’s of India, but no improvements to the lives of rural people, and in particular have effected no change to health provision. Child malnutrition for example, which at 48% (UNICEF) is the highest in the world, fell by just 1% in the years since 2001.
Gender inequality compounds the economic and social divisions in the country. The treatment endured by women is universally appalling across a range of areas. Rape, (although barely reported-there is little point when cases take years to process), is endemic, female infanticide is widespread (12 million girls were aborted during the last two decades according to the United Nations UN), dowry killings commonplace: a trinity of abuse at the top of a list of mistreatment suffered by Indian women (specifically but not exclusively poor women). Add to this poor maternal health, causing 57,000 maternal deaths in 2010 (one mother dying every ten minutes, most of which occurred in rural areas), making India home “to the greatest burden of maternal, newborn and child deaths in the world”, (the WHO report). Forced marriage, although illegal is commonplace causing almost 50% of Indian women to (reluctantly) marry before they reach 18, resulting in early pregnancies, high morbidity and mortality rates, to say nothing of the unrecorded levels of depression and anxiety. Poor health care provision for women sits within a broader, horrific picture of gender inequality and prejudice, state neglect and female suffering. Collectively, according to a recent study by TrustLaw[viii], they make India, the worst country for a woman to live out of the G20 nations, one place below Saudi Arabia.
Health care is offered by public and private providers: with the public Primary health care centers (PHCs) understaffed and under-resourced with restrictive opening times, as well as long waiting times and in many cases sited miles from villages, the majority of visits (92%) are made to private centers. Around 70 % of private visits are made by city dwellers. They pay for their care by making ‘out of pocket’ payments, i.e. not covered by health insurance, which, The Guardian[ix] reports, only 11% of the population possess. The private sector has the monopoly on medical staff and materials, with, according to Government figures, 80% of all doctors, 26% of nurses, 49% of beds and 78% of ambulatory services working for the corporate boys. Care is expensive (up to nine times the cost of PHCs), and consistent with corporate irresponsibility, (sanctioned by government neglect and weakness); according to Gram Vaani[x] it is “often unregulated and variable in quality. Besides being unreliable for the illiterate, it is also unaffordable by low income rural folks”.
With 9% growth for two decades one would expect a major level of government investment into health and education, however this is far from the case. Spending on public health care according to the WHO is 1.1% of GDP, placing India below Pakistan, China and Nigeria in the spending table. Cash (or out of pocket) payments are increasing (up to 80%) amongst those who have the money, but for the majority health care is an unaffordable luxury. In a country with more people living in poverty than all Sub-Saharan African countries combined, an additional 40 million a year are estimated to be forced into destitution by medical costs. So where has the growth gone; who is it for: who has benefitted from the ‘economic miracle’? The middle class have become rich; the rich have become super rich: the super rich stellar rich. This tiny group of city beneficiaries have as Arundhati Roy[xi] puts it, “ascended into outer space from where they look down at the indigenous people and the poor.” And as for the poor: their numbers have grown, their land has been stolen from them, their problems increased: they have been condemned to a life of illness, exploitation and suffering. And their voices are ignored.