Friday, April 28

Suicides rock Punjab's farmlands

An NDTV report by Swati Maheshwari

The Green Revolution increased farmers' incomes and standard of living but also raised aspirations and consumption, which often became difficult to sustain.
Bonded labour has historically been one of our biggest social evils, but clearly, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
This is reflected in the condition of farmers in the Punjab, some of who have been forced to kill themselves because of debts. Now, their families without any source of income are miserable, often surviving on the whims and fancies of relatives.
Marriage for 18-year-old Satpal is a distant, almost impossible dream. Her father Hakim Singh, a small farmer in Doodhiya Village of Sangrur district killed himself four years ago, when their cotton crop failed.
He had borrowed Rs three lakh to get a tube well installed. It is a familiar tale in Punjab. Hakim Singh was brought back dead one day from the farm by his brothers. He had consumed pesticide.
Today, his wife and children live at the mercy of their uncles. All three children work as daily wagers, but are mainly paid in kind, not cash.
Grim scenario
"I can't think of marriage because if I get married, then what will happen to them? I asked my uncle for Rs one lakh for a nursing course but he refused and instead built this house. Now I am doing my BA," said Satpal Kaur.
"The village women taunt me and say that you don't have a husband, marry them off to anybody. But how can I do that? Even if I look for a middle level family, they will demand a scooter or a car. She is studying while she is with us, the rest is her destiny," said Amarjeet Kaur, Satpal's mother.
Government estimates, which are highly conservative, say nearly 3000 farmers in Punjab have been driven to kill themselves in the last 20years. Rural indebtedness and repeated crop failure are the main reasons.
It's a grim picture. Add to that social problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, conspicuous consumption and unemployment, and escape from conditions like these for families such as Satpal's seems almost impossible.
Satpal's family still owes over Rs 70,000 to the moneylender. She says when she graduates and gets a job in a bigger town, she will ensure that her family is finally free.

Development v/s Displacement

It's the same old debate. They call it development. For 100 odd families of Sanghera, Dhaula and Fatehgarh Channa it's displacement from their ancestral land. A first hand account by Jatinder Preet of the villagers' last ditch effort to withstand the whole state apparatus, bending backwards to help a private company

Deolan Wala Chontra, village Khuddi Kalan near Barnala in Sangrur district

A loudspeaker blares from village Gurdwara appealing to people to come and join the other group of villagers who have come in the shape of a cavalcade here. A speaker exhorts the people to speak up, "It's them today it could be you tomorrow." The protesters comprising of old women who can barely walk to young woman with a child in her lap besides men of all ages nod in unison. They understand the pain of being uprooted. The crowd swells as the cavalcade sets off to village Jodhpur. A young man sings of travails of farming community. Speeches follow on the bank of a pond in the shade of grove of banyan and neem. A posse of bored policemen waits for them to move on. Next stop is village Cheema.
A quite people's movement is taking shape in the villages around Barnala to save their land being taken away. Its 100 odd families helped by farmers groups versus Trident Group of Companies assisted by the state government.
Trident plans to spend Rs 2000 crores over a span of three years in which it plans to set up a sugar mill, a distillery, expansion of its power plant, paper mill and textile mill on 376 acres of acquired land. Mega projects, as the state government officials led by chief minister Amarinder Singh like to call them which the faithful media parrots along.
For the villagers though it means losing land which they have been tilling for generations. Unlike the company and the state this is not mere land for these villagers, its entire support system which sustains these village economies. Right from the farmer who tills the land to the dalit labourer who gets for himself an year's foodgrain every rabi season besides wages to village shopkeeper whose income is on hold till the farmer harvests and sells his produce - everybody is affected.
"After all you can't eat money" a village elder laments. For the record Trident is offering money to the farmers to sell their land. What more can an industrialist do? He needs land to expand and he is paying for it. "Why not pay Amarinder Singh for the land where Moti Mahal is and set up his factory there," suggests a farmer.
Fifty years old Gurjant Singh of Chhana village has suddenly seem to have grown older. All of his ten acres are located in the area where Trident is expanding. Barbed wire fencing has been erected around it where police stands guard. Gurjant Singh tells he has been offered Rs. 9 lacs for his land while a piece of land just adjacent to his has recently been sold for Rs. 13 lacs. Anyway that does not matter as he does not want to sell his land. He has nowhere else to go. "What would I do with the money in this age and where would I go?" asks Gurjant Singh.
There are no answers. In fact, there is no one to answer. The whole state machinery is busy paying obeisance at the altar of "development". Likes of Gurjant Singh are just few sacrificial lambs.
Do you ask lambs for their permission before sacrificing them?

Wednesday, April 26

Ailing System

Punjab's public heath system is in disarray, with falling budget allocations and poor utilisation of available funds writes Annie Zaidi in Frontline

With the state spending less and less on public health, government hospitals and health centres in Punjab suffer from a lack of medical supplies, a shortage of doctors, and possibly, a misplaced emphasis on treatment rather than prevention. Even the funds that are available are not being used fully.
Meet Kulwinder Kaur of Kartarpur village: Her pale skin and hollow eyes belie her smile and matter-of-fact narrative. She gave birth to a stillborn because she could not afford to eat well enough. Standing outside the Boothgarh Primary Health Centre (PHC), where she has been diagnosed with anaemia yet again, the 21-year-old told Frontline: "I miscarried twice. This time, the baby died after the sixth month; the doctors say it's because I had only 5 grams of blood [haemoglobin content]."
She cannot do much to improve her health, she added, "I drink milk-lassi since my husband is in the milk business. But they say I must eat more fruits and vegetables. You know how expensive things can be." Asked whether she had not been checked or registered by a government-appointed female health worker during her pregnancy, Kulwinder said she had never seen one in her village. "It is good that we have this small hospital here because I can walk to it, but we get only a few cheap medicines. We have to buy most medicines from private [stores]."
That seems to be the refrain at most public health institutions, from the bustling civil hospital in Karali, where heart operations are performed, to the tiny Ayurvedic dispensary in Mullan-Gariba. Dr. Harinder Kaur, the Ayurvedic doctor posted here, said that she treated at least 20 patients every day although there was an allopathic mini-PHC just across the road. "But I don't have medicines. I can only write prescriptions. The government needs to do something about medical supplies," she said.
Aswini Kumar Nanda of the Population Research Centre at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), Chandigarh, explained that health care in Punjab remained mostly tertiary, boosted mainly by the private sector. "Tertiary health care is curative, while primary is preventive. Over the years, primary and secondary health care systems have been crumbling because they don't yield profit. Also, you cannot talk in isolation about health care. It is linked with transport, roads, sanitation and drinking water."
Most health care professionals agree that the first step is to ensure safe water supply, sanitation and nutrition, but the State has been focussing on a technology-intensive model of health that is expensive and time-consuming. Dr. P.L. Garg, who is the State coordinator of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, and who works with the Directorate, Research and Medical Education, told Frontline: "In Punjab, 11,849 villages are classified as `water-scarce'. There are commissioned water supply schemes in 8,321 villages. What about the rest? Also, nutritional standards are falling, despite the Green Revolution. There is more calorie intake but protein deficiency is rampant since there are fewer varieties of legumes, which were the primary source. And yet, the government has initiated no research on high-yielding legumes."
The other major issue is that of medical supplies. According to Rajesh Kumar Aggarwal, Senior Research Fellow at the Population Research Centre, most of the budget is spent on salaries. "The percentage of public health spending in the State budget lies between 1.8 and 4.5 per cent. There are only a few diagnostic facilities. Some hospitals don't even have paracetamol. We did an exhaustive survey for the Punjab Development Report, 2002, and found that 70 per cent of the sub-centres, 67 per cent of the SHCs [Subsidiary Health Centres or dispensaries], 62 per cent of the PHCs and 51 per cent of the CHCs [community health centres] do not have proper buildings. At least Rs.32,849 lakhs was needed."
A substantial portion of the State allocation for health and family welfare remains unspent. The ratio of total expenditure to total outlay (for the Ministry of Public Health) has been going down, from 0.83 per cent in the Fourth Plan to 0.66 per cent in the Eighth Plan and 0.74 per cent in the Ninth Plan. Most States, including Punjab, do not even have a health policy. Since most States simply implement the national health programmes and fail to develop targeted ones for its own populations, people have been forced to seek private medical services. Said Aggarwal: "Only 20 per cent of our population uses government health services. In Punjab, only 7 per cent of rural and 6 per cent of urban households use public health care facilities for non-hospitalised illness."
This is borne out by statistics and the experience of medical professionals. In 2005, Punjab had 2,168 institutions, with a network of training facilities. The State's population increased to 2.42 crores (2001 Census). Compare this to the number of people using public health institutions. In 1980, it was 1.32 crores annually, despite the relative lack of health awareness. In 2004, the number of patients was only 1.19 crores. Fewer patients do not mean better health; it means that fewer people visit hospitals owing to a lack of awareness or resources.
Perhaps, some answers may lie in Punjab's spending patterns. Over the past few decades, the State's expenditure on health and family welfare has been falling as a percentage of the annual Budget. In 1980-81, spending on health comprised 5.49 per cent of the State Budget. By way of comparison, the spending on Police and Administration was 8.28 per cent. In 1990-91, the corresponding figures were 4.61 per cent and 20.83 per cent, respectively. In 2003-04, health commanded 3.86 per cent, while Police and Administration claimed 23.18 per cent.
Even during the Tenth Plan (2002-07), state spending on health formed only 2.28 per cent of the Budget. Compare this to the fact that developed nations spend anything between 14 and 20 per cent of their outlay on health. Punjab's priorities do not seem to be so correct, though the State does better than the nation: India spends only 1.5 per cent on health.
What the State has done is to try to recruit more doctors, while moving towards decentralisation. Doctors would be appointed on a three-year contract, and monitored by the Zilla Parishad. The State Mass Media and Education Officer (Department of Health), Jasbeer Bawa, told Frontline that there was a shortage of about 1,300 doctors. "This new scheme, called the `alternative service delivery system', was initiated under the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution devolving powers to panchayati raj institutions. From April onwards, the scheme will be implemented in all 1,200 SHCs," he said.
Under this scheme, a doctor gets recruited on a non-transferable contractual basis for three years on Rs.30,000 a month, which includes salaries for a pharmacist and a class IV worker. He will also be provided Rs.7,500 worth of medicines each month. The State has set down performance benchmarks, like seeing 20-25 patients a day. The registration fee remains Re.1, as with all government hospitals. This goes to the Zilla Parishad, which is responsible for maintaining the building.
However, researchers who approve of the move warn against a half-baked policy. Dr. Pramod Kumar of the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh, points out that a monitoring system is needed. "Panchayats don't have the institutional capacity to regulate educational and health institutions. What procedures and norms have been instituted? There's a danger that feudal values will dominate professional practices. We must first build the panchayat's capacity to implement these procedures."
According to Bawa, the move is aimed at improving public health care since the social audit is a built-in clause. "If the doctor does not perform well, he will not be awarded the contract, after three years." When asked what the State would do if the doctor did not want to renew the contract, she admitted that the department did not have a plan against that possibility since this was a new experiment, which it hoped would be successful. She also admitted that the contracts would cost the State less than employing 1,300 full-time doctors, pharmacists and other workers required.
Medical professionals have been asking for flexible models of public health for many years now. Some, like Dr. Garg, want the State to invest in mobility rather than setting up more dispensaries. The focus ought to be on bigger hospitals with better facilities and more doctors who travel with mobile units, they say.
Others want the focus on public health as a distinct sector and profession. Dr. Satnam Singh, who worked with the World Health Organisation, believes that decentralisation is in keeping with the principles of public health. "Health care must be bottom-up, not top-down. But you have to build public health as a profession - a bridge between doctors and the government. We need schools of public health at the universities. Public health is a communion of social sciences and life sciences. Treatment should come last - when prevention and promotion fails."

Thursday, April 20

Vanishing choes of Punjab

A Tribune report by Ajay Banerjee

Hundreds of ecologically-fragile seasonal rivulets (choes) criss-crossing the Shivalik foothills in Punjab are slowly vanishing. Land-hungry people are either buying the rights of riverbeds from poor villagers, or illegally occupying the same to build farmhouses for themselves.
This unusual phenomena of using the river beds to build farmhouses is a silent operation being carried out in the Shivalik foothills, running across the districts of Mohali, Ropar, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur. There seems to be little official hindrance to this activities. In fact, official connivance in these activities is openly being alleged.
Thousands of acres of land that form the river bed of these numerous choes is being blatantly turned into a "farmhouse" belt with high sounding and attractive names such as "silent valley" , "hidden valley" or "peace farm".
Several palatial farmhouse have come up on river beds as many choes have dried up after dams under World Bank-aided projects harnessed the waters in the hills. The process of building the dams was completed about five -six years ago. The choes once carried torrents of water down the Shivaliks during the rainy season, causing widespread destruction.
Today, these virtually hold no threat of washing away anything as the release of water is now controlled at the dams. Only small amount of water flows in these choes due to local rain.
With the fear of water gone, these river beds are the cheapest possible lands available in Punjab, where otherwise, land prices are skyrocketing and have touched nearly Rs 1 crore an acre along main roads and near urban areas.
A Tribune team travelling along the foothills found that land on the river bed is available at anything between Rs 10 lakh an acre to Rs 25 lakh an acre, depending upon the location from major urban centres.
The Tribune team captured 15 to 20 such farmhouses on camera. At a place near Khirzabad, near Chandigarh, some owners have set up abutments to keep out water. At another place near Jayanti Majri, right at the base of hill in Mohali district, a farmhouse has been divided into two parts, one on the either side of the choe.
For safety, concrete walls have been built that can protect even if excess water is released from the dam upstream. At places tractor-trailers could be seen levelling areas on the river bed.
Explaining how the system works, sources said the land in the riverbeds was either common land of the villagers or was government property.
The owners, even if it happens to be the panchayat of the village, can sell their share to an individual. In case of government lands these cannot be sold or occupied. In its typical lackadaisical approach, the government has not even carried out a survey to identify its lands and the illegal occupation.
With the choes having dried up there is no policy on land use and all area that once formed the river bed is still classified as such.
The biggest loss is of ecology and of the natural habitat of small animals like tortoise, reptiles and birds. The Punjab Environment Report, 2005, which quotes a study by the Zoological Survey of India, says the numbers of several species in the Shivaliks was dropping fast as their habitat was vanishing.

Thursday, April 6

More Power to Medha

Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has been arrested and admitted to AIIMS. It was eighth day of her hunger strike. Here is small profile of Medha, some reactions on her arrest and a NBA press release.

Make a Choice

The Narmada Bachao Andolan and people all over India, who value democracy and equality, condemn the act of the Central government in hiding the real issue of illegal construction on the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), by forcibly removing Medha Patkar and Jamsingbhai on the indefinite fast to hospital, late night on April 5. The large contingent of police also arrested and manhandled about 250 villagers. Curiously, the police have not taken another activist on fast, Bhagwatibai. Thus this show is just a step in the larger game of making the 121.92 meters of the dam irreversible.
The Union government must not deal with the serious issue in such a frivolous way. Instead of intimidating protesting people, it should show courage to stop the crass injustice and illegality of continuing the work on the Sardar Sarovar project (SSP). The Union Ministers are merely making a show of meeting and persuading the fasting activists and appealing Medha Patkar to withdraw the fast. But for what?
Has there been any concrete progress in land-based rehabilitation of over 35,000 families below the height of 121.92 meters? Is there any possibility of resettling all these ousted families before the monsoon of 2006? For last 30 years, despite the best efforts, the three state governments have not been able to resettle more than 10,000 families, that too in a most shabby manner. Now, does it see the possibility to resettle all these 35,000 families, before this years' monsoon? The best and only course is to order immediate stoppage of the dam work beyond 121.92 meters before it became irreversible and inevitable.
For the last fortnight, since March 17, the Central government has been dithering on the issue. Even after the Union Water Resources Minister, Mr. Saifuddin Soz, clearly stated that the decision to raise the height of the SSP from 110.64 meters to 121.92 meters was unjustifiable, on 19 March, there was no action on his or the Prime Minister's part to stop the dam. What has the government been waiting for? Now the Union government has been announced plans to 'visit the valley and verify the contention and information provided by the Narmada Bachao Andolan'! This is to obfuscate the real issue regarding the people's lives and rights as people from the valley have been protesting on the streets of Delhi since March 17 and it has generated a lot of attention in the press and attracted support. The Union government could have done this even before when NBA approached every union water resources minister, time and again. The apparent confusion is but a strategy to allow the dam to be completed upto 121.92 meters at the behest of the national-international contractors-builders, corporates and communalists.
Center Must Stand Up
The real question is ? Does the political leadership in Union government has enough courage to restrain contain the pressure of Gujarat government and the adamant lobby of bureaucrats and engineers at the Center and in the states, for the sake of common people ? the farmers and Adivasis?
If the Prime Minister is sincere about his assurance of November 2004 and the Union cabinet has the respect for the rule of law, they should immediately call a halt to the work on the dam. They must start the process of identifying the real numbers of the affected people, the required cultivable land and undertake land based rehabilitation of all those who have been affected and will be hitherto by the submergence and displacement. The Union Government and the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) must show courage to counter the unholy alliance of bureaucrats in Narmada Control Authority (NCA), in the union water resources ministry and the Gujarat government. It should not indulge in contempt of the rulings of the Supreme Court and provisions of the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal award. Most of all, the Union government must stand by the people ? the adivasis and farmers, discuss and review with these people and their organization, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, about the future course of the dam and displacement.
The people in the Narmada valley are upset over the deliberate stance of the Union government and its inaction aimed to help further submergence and displacement. They are going to intensify their resistance. The NBA has approached all the forums of the democratic system, but found most of them siding with the financial privileged sections of the society. The government, by its own behaviour, has rendered the non-violent and democratic action meaningless. What is the message it wants to convey to the people? It can talk and act on the dictates of all kinds of armed organizations, but it is trivializing the demands of the democratic and non-violent protests. What choice does the ruling class thinks that the common people will make?
The ball is in their court, they will have to make the choice.

Knowing Medha Patkar

Medha Patkar or Medha tai (aunt) - as she is popularly known ? has been fighting for the right to life and livelihood of those sections of people who get nudged to the sidewalks of life in a nation's search for growth and prosperity.
Her odyssey, spanning 21 years, is a struggle against an unjust system that deprives common people - especially the natural resource-based communities - who pay the cost for the benefit of those who already have much more with them.
Hers is a philosophy focussed on achieving marginalised people their rights. The following words, her own, best reflect her wisdom, her vision and the meaning of life according to her.
"I have raised the issue of mega projects, the development planning, democratic and human rights, economics and corruption of monitory and natural resources by such projects and suggested that just and sustainable alternatives in water, energy and other sectors are possible," says she.
"Most of those that I work with in the Valley are going to lose their lands, their homes, their forests, their community, their culture and indeed, their very identity because of this project. I have taken up their cause because I can feel their loss, I can identify with them they are indeed like my family. I will continue to fight for them in every forum and in every way that I can
Patkar was born on December 1, 1954 in Mumbai. Her father was a freedom fighter and later a trade unionist. Her mother worked in a women's organisation named Swadhar.
After earning an MA in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she worked with voluntary organisations in Bombay slums for five years as well as the tribal districts of North-East Gujarat for two years.
She left her position on the faculty of Tata Institute of Social Sciences as well as her unfinished PhD when she got immersed in the tribal and peasant communities in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat - which she eventually organised as the Narmada Bachao Andolan.?

Thank You Medha Patkar
The Police have removed Medha Patkar to a hospital, who was sitting on a hunger strike for more than a week. The action of police is very much in sync with law. Our law does provide such an authority to the state. The state can very well book an adamant agitating activist, whose situation has deteriorated to the worse because of hunger strike, under section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) for attempt to commit suicide. So a week is all an activist has got to make herself/himself heard to the authorities.Now, it seems, Medha Patkar will be charge sheeted and prosecuted too; defense will expectedly fail and Medha Patkar will be sentenced to one year simple imprisonment in pursuit of justice and for maintaining the peace of the ?King?. In the meantime, the DAM(n) height will increase to 121.92 mts, and the so very desired development will take place. The people, who deserve, will not only set up industries but also private nuclear reactors with the direct assistance from the US. If the ignorant undeserving villagers, getting displaced, make noise and fail to shift, they will also be booked under SECTION 309 of IPC, for deliberately trying to get themselves drowned in the proceeding water (the insignia of development). Truly so, it is the problem of the villagers only. Why didn?t they apply wisdom and invest their cash compensations in the Euphoric Indian Capital Markets. They could have made a handsome gain, and in the process, become RICH. The state, through its policy towards enabling growing economy and the associated euphoria, did provide them an opportunity, they only failed. The incorrigible LOSERS! Then, someone else, in all its stupidity, will once again sit on a hunger strike, the state will once again save the lives of people by stopping them from committing suicides. Kudos to the state for acting so efficiently and responsibly and THANK YOU MEDHA PATKAR for making it do so. You have won already, and it?s not because of GOD but you yourself.

Medha Patkar "arrested"

Yeah Delhi Police!! Go go go!! Show your might and your daring by "dramatically swooping" on a woman virtually on her deathbed. You have a Medha Patkar fighting for the displaced - a fight totally justified. She is using the method popularized by a certain Mahatma Gandhi to bring out in the open an issue forgotten by us. And what does the police, arrest her!! They use the same method used by the Britishers on the Father of the Nation. What then is the differance between them and the British?? Medha Patkar, a woman to be admired and idolized. A woman who on her own will has brought a huge and prestigious project on a standstill. And more importantly, on an issue totally justified and support worthy. Because what is the use of a development project if it ruins the lives of the very people who are supposed to be benefitted by it?? What is the use of the 13000 crores put in the Narmada project if a little amount is not spared to rehabilitate the displaced??And what does the Govt do?? It demonizes her. Medha Patkar is known as the most hated person in Gujarat (this was before Godhra, now she is second). And for what?? Asking for support to the people who are sacrificing their livelihood for other?? And they say, we are a free country.

Sad Day

Medha Patkar was arrested, admitted in a hospital and an FIR lodged against her. What was she doing ?she was on satyagrah, satyagrah for something she believed in, something that she has been involved in for 20+ years. Somehow, sometimes the voices of people need to be heard, sometimes the giants have to pause and for a second look at the lives they are trampling.Sometimes revolution has to be startedsometimes a blood bath is neededsometimes wheels have to be set in motionpeople have to rise and become giantsNobody should be allowed to rule us. nobody should be allowed to monitor. we have to rise above this feeling, this need, of order. Nobody wants to be killed, raped, duped, defrauded. no body wants to be ruled. If each one of us understands it, and accepts it, we will resolve all the issues we have.