November 29, 2011

life in general & financial markets: a veteran activist's insights into indian govt's handling of land acqusition & other policies

Land acqusition, unemployment, environmental degradation, social justice are critical issues India faces today. Below is an interview of Aruna Roy, a veteran and hands-on social activist, as published on an internet site, which provides useful insights into these issues.

Here is the interview.

28 November, 2011
Magsaysay award winner Ms Aruna Roy has been the member of National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by the UPA Chairperson Ms Sonia Gandhi in both of its Avtars and has influenced several social policies of the country. Ms Roy, also the founder member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a people's organisation in Rajasthan recently visited to the proposed POSCO area in Jagatsingpur district in Odisha to observe the protest of people against the land acquisition there. Speaking to Pradeep Baisakh , she shares her observation on POSCO issue, on Land Acquisition Bill, on National Food security Bill and on the performance of MGNREGA in Odisha.
You recently visited proposed POSCO area in Jagatsingpur district of Odisha. Please share with us your observation.
Aruna Roy: The villagers in Dhinkia are completely opposed to the project, and are unwilling to give up any of their personal, or community land. Attempts by the state government for land acquisition are being made in a legal vacuum, as the MoU of the government with POSCO has been lapsed. This makes this forcible land acquisition morally and legally unjustified.
People's democratic voices shouldn't be crushed. People's consent is a must for establishing any industrial project. This is even more important in the context of the proposed new Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation legislation.
Thousands of trees are being felled by the district administration when the project does not legally exist (MoU is yet to be renewed). How far is this defensible?
Aruna Roy: Exactly that we have to say that now there is no legal ground. Reportedly, several thousand trees approximately 40-50,000 trees have already been chopped by the administration. The government is planning to cut lakhs trees like Casurina casuarinas, Jackfruit, Cashew nut and Mangroves. This tree cutting activities will leave the area exposed to cyclones and other environmental disasters in an area with a very sensitive ecology. Felling of trees is completely unacceptable.
We also have observed that people there want to work but there is no Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the area. MGNREGA has to function as this is the right of every individual. No matter what for the people of Dhinkia have protested, it's still a part of India and people of the Panchayat are citizen of this country.
The Panchayat premises occupied by the police should be vacated. We also have said that the Sarpanch of Dhinkia panchayat, who has been suspended by the state government, should be reinstated. He cannot be suspended for what law requires him to do i.e. for holding Palli Sabhas (General body of the village). This is not a constitutional violation of any sort and this is not corruption.
National Food Security bill does not say about universal PDS. Even the draft recommended by the NAC does not guarantee universal food security despite the people like you, Jean Dreze (Now is no more a member of NAC) and Harsh Mander being the members of NAC?
Aruna Roy: The NAC draft says about 90% coverage. Actually universal PDS is something we all demanded, but somehow in the process of negotiation with the GoI, it got whittled down. This was one of the most painful processes and it has been very difficult to convince government.
The government actually did not look it as the right to food and health issue of people but from the point of view of problems in storage and procurement and from financial point of views. The government bill is quite disappointing and has taken away some of the vital recommendations of NAC e.g. the grievance redressal mechanism. They are for putting in UID and cash transfer in it, two things that NAC totally opposed because they are very dangerous. Recently Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera did a survey and came out with the fact that PDS is doing very well in Odisha and shown signs of revival in other states too. This shows that the system as it is can function.
What's your position on introduction of fortified food? Does not it lead to corporatisation of PDS?
Aruna Roy: It is totally unacceptable. What may be the fortified food and its new definition; you have enough nutritious food in the villages which will cater to the needs of the malnourished children. What's necessary is cooking is done and hot meal is provided. And that is the most important thing.
How do you react to the Supreme Court observation that the current Land Acquisition Law should rather be thrown away?
Aruna Roy: A new land acquisition law is coming which will replace the existing law. We have suggested that the first test of the land acquisition bill and the discussion should take place in Dhinkia Panchayat, because people have been displaced from there. All that is suggesting should now be tested in action. We suggest that there should be public hearing in Dhinkia itself on the project.
You have favoured a direct negotiation by the private corporate with people and acquire land in the new land acquisition law. Do not you think there is risk of people being intimidated and cheated in the process?
Aruna Roy: Now there are so much of private investments coming, if government acquires land for them, then it will go into that business. By effect something like Singur and Nadigram will be repeated. It should limit itself acquiring land for projects which serve public purpose e.g. for government offices, schools, hospitals.
If the government acquires land for the privates, then there will be creation of land bank like in Tamil Nadu and in Karnataka. And when the land bank is traded off, the person who is dispossessed of the land gets very little money than what profits are made there after. So it becomes a business. At one level it's much more difficult for people to oppose the government than to the private industries. The government should rather play the role of a regulator in such cases. It should regulate that no land is acquired below some market price, that anyone displaced in this process should get all rights covered by the Resettlement & Rehabilitation policies or laws.
You must be aware that CBI inquiry is going on in six districts of Odisha on the allegations of corruption in MGNREGA. So much of money is flushed under MGNREA to the state which is siphoned off and distressed migration in the KBK region and beyond is actually on the rise. Is it not wastage of public money when the state government is apathetic toward its implementation?
Aruna Roy: You cannot extrapolate the Odisha experience to the whole country. I think it's the administrative failure that people are not applying for work, people are not getting jobs in time. And if you do not receive application in time and you do not give wages in time, then people will go out looking for work. I really do think that there is a conspiracy in the government in general against NREGA because you cannot siphon off money as easily as you can do in other welfare works. If you look at other rural development work those have come to us, you cannot know where and how crores of money is being siphoned off. MGNREGA is the first programme that tells that the money is siphoned off. It is because NRGEA has made mandatory that the transparency and accountability is put into system.
Especially in the areas where there are Maoist influences or suspected Maoist influences it is more than necessary that this programme functions properly to bring in basic needs to the people and ensure that there is peace. Right to food and right to 100 days employment are guarantees against starvation and deaths.
What suggestion do you have for the Odisha government to improve the performance of MGNREGA?
Aruna Roy: I met the Chief Minister about three years ago. I made a presentation on the operation of NREGA in Rajsthan. I said if you paint the basic information of NREGA on walls, like how many job cards issued, and how many people have been given how much money –so translating the MIS to what we call it as JIS-Janata Information System. So you put it on wall, people will take care of it.
Secondly, work must be given in fifteen days time and give unemployment allowance in case of default. For making this work you need political will from the Chief Minister and bureaucratic will from the Chief Secretary and the Secretary from Principal Secretary, Rural Development. Unless you have a trigger of a dated acknowledgement receipt, followed by work and payment, things will not happen. It also means improving your MIS system, whether it means improving the system of payment, it must be done.
And I think any government that neglects NREGA that does with its own risk. So much money that comes in and this money it will provide even political benefit. But to neglect it, in my opinion, is not only a tragedy for the people but also it is dangerous for both administrative and political system.
Do you basically tell that political and administrative will in the state is lacking on issues relating to implementation of MGNREGA?
Aruna Roy: Well, It seems so.
You are the member of NAC in both of its avtars . Do you think that Ms Gandhi and the central government are using NAC as a ‘safety valve' to manage the rising discontent of people owing to the kind of public (economic) policies being pursued which has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots?
Aruna Roy: I do not believe in horoscopes. So I cannot predict nor can I read. As an activist we ask and demand for many things. If in the first NAC there had been no common minimum programme which made the commitment to the people of India and for the first time after 25 years poor and issues of poor surfaced in the political discourse. Now, whatever may be the reason for their putting on this, for people like us its important to grab whatever space we have, catch them on their commitment and make them implement it. The NREGA, the RTI, the forest rights bill and the domestic violence bill all came out of it.
There is some polarity on what the government wants and what social policies demands. It which case, it should be boosted by our public demand. Ultimately if we believe violent revolution, then it's different matter. But if people want peaceful change, then we are also limited in the arenas in which we can get it. We have to make wider push as much as we can in whatever space we get. So those of us who have worked in this space that is provided have tried to push the system.
Pradeep Baisakh is a Freelance Journalist based in Bhubaneswar . He has extensively written on transparency law, right to work and food, environment issues, industrialisation and development, women, tribal rights etc. He can be contacted through e mail: .

November 21, 2011

life in general: when police indiscriminately used pepper spray on peacefully protesting students in a US university

In a US university, students were protesting in the campus and occupied a pathway. A few police officers in full riot gear came and ordered the students to clear that pathway. The students chose not to, but held their grounds. The police officers then happened to get surrounded by a circle of students. Pepper spray was used on the sitting students at extremely close range -- it was being directly sprayed on the faces.

The police claims this surrounding was alarming for them and so they used the pepper spray to make way for themselves out of the circle. But as you watch the video that someone shot (one of many) that is given below, you will clearly notice that the commanding police officer cooly walked out of the circle first (and was not stopped) and then started spraying the students.

There is currently outrage in the US over the police act under instructions from the university administration.

Below is the video and a report by a student.

Video taken from

1. The protest at which UC Davis police officers used pepper spray and batons against unresisting demonstrators was an entirely nonviolent one.
None of the arrests at UC Davis in the current wave of activism have been for violent offenses. Indeed, as the New York Times reported this morning, the university’s administration has “reported no instances of violence by any protesters.” Not one.
2. The unauthorized tent encampment was dismantled before the pepper spraying began.
Students had set up tents on campus on Thursday, and the administration had allowed them to stay up overnight. When campus police ordered students to take the tents down on Friday afternoon, however, most complied. The remainder of the tents were quickly removed by police without incident before the pepper spray incident.
3. Students did not restrict the movement of police at any time during the demonstration.
After police made a handful of arrests in the course of taking down the students’ tents, some of the remaining demonstrators formed a wide seated circle around the officers and arrestees.
UC Davis police chief Annette Spicuzza has claimed that officers were unable to leave that circle: “There was no way out,” she told the Sacramento Bee. “They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.” But multiple videos clearly show that the seated students made no effort to impede the officers’ movement. Indeed, Lt. Pike, who initiated the pepper spraying of the group, was inside the circle moments earlier. To position himself to spray, he simply stepped over the line.
4. Lt. Pike was not in fear for his safety when he sprayed the students.
Chief Spicuzza told reporters on Thursday that her officers had been concerned for their safety when they began spraying. But again, multiple videos show this claim to be groundless.
The most widely distributed video of the incident (viewed, as I write this, by nearly 700,000 people on YouTube) begins just moments before Lt. Pike begain spraying, but another video, which starts a few minutes earlier, shows Pike chatting amiably with one activist, even patting him casually on the back.
The pat on the back occurs just two minutes and nineteen seconds before Pike pepper sprayed the student he had just been chatting with and all of his friends.
5. University of California Police are not authorized to use pepper spray except in circumstances in which it is necessary to prevent physical injury to themselves or others. 
From the University of California’s Universitywide Police Policies and Administrative Procedures: “Chemical agents are weapons used to minimize the potential for injury to officers, offenders, or other persons. They should only be used in situations where such force reasonably appears justified and necessary.”
6. UC police are not authorized to use physical force except to control violent offenders or keep suspects from escaping.
Another quote from the UC’s policing policy: “Arrestees and suspects shall be treated in a humane manner … they shall not be subject to physical force except as required to subdue violence or ensure detention. No officer shall strike an arrestee or suspect except in self-defense, to prevent an escape, or to prevent injury to another person.”
7. The UC Davis Police made no effort to remove the student demonstrators from the walkway peacefully before using pepper spray against them.
One video of the pepper-spray incident shows a group of officers moving in to remove the students from the walkway. Just as one of them reaches down to pick up a female student who was leaning against a friend, however, Lt. Pike waves the group back, clearing a space for him to use pepper spray without risk of accidentally spraying his colleagues.
8. Use of pepper spray and other physical force continued after the students’ minimal obstruction of the area around the police ended.
The line of seated students had begun to break up no more than eight seconds after Lt. Pike began spraying. The spraying continued, however, and officers soon began using batons and other physical force against the now-incapacitated group.
9. Even after police began using unprovoked and unlawful violence against the students, they remained peaceful.
Multiple videos show the aftermath of the initial pepper spraying and the physical violence that followed. In none of them do any of the assaulted students or any of the onlookers strike any of the officers who are attacking them and their friends.
10. The students’ commitment to nonviolence extended to their use of language.
At one point on Thursday afternoon, before the police attack on the demonstration, a few activists started a chant of “From Davis to Greece, fuck the police.” They were quickly hushed by fellow demonstrators who urged them to “keep it nonviolent! Keep it peaceful!”
Their chant was replaced by one of “you use weapons, we use our voice.”
Six and a half minutes later, the entire group was pepper sprayed.

life in general & financial markets: (part 4) india's obsession with diesel cars

(previous posts of this series are here --> part 1 dated 28 July 2010,   part 2 dated 14 November 2010 and   part 3 dated 22 February 2011)

The price differential between petrol and diesel has shot up to ugly levels thanks to the free pricing of petrol by oil companies (and the consequent frequent price hikes and particularly the recent weeks' sharp price hikes) and the government-controlled pricing of disel. Diesel is kept heavily subsidised. Petrol is far more expensive than diesel today than it ever was.

Affluent car buyers of India are choosing diesel cars over petrol cars due to the lower price of diesel. This keeps the car sales momentum going. Car manufactuers are surely lobbying (perhaps accompanied by bribing) the government to prevent the rise of diesel price.

Diesel also pollutes the environment much more than petrol. Below is a latest Centre for Science and Enivronment write-up on the subject:

EDITORIAL: Diesel: when bad policy makes for toxic hell
by Sunita Narain

Just consider. Every time petrol prices are raised, oil companies end up losing more money. Simply because the price differential between petrol and diesel increases further, and people gravitate towards diesel vehicles. More the use of diesel, more the oil companies bleed. Worse, we all bleed because diesel vehicles add to toxic pollution in our cities, which, in turn, adds to ill health and treatment costs.

This is very well understood. Yet nobody will do anything to fix the trend.

Today, it makes more sense for the next car buyer to buy an expensive personal car—perhaps even a Mercedes-Benz—but run it on the subsidised diesel. Today, according to government’s own estimates, the use of diesel in personal vehicles has zoomed. Some 15 per cent of the current consumption of diesel is in passenger cars. The agricultural sector uses less—12 per cent of the country’s diesel. This busts the myth that diesel prices are kept low for reasons of
public policy. In fact, keeping the price low but allowing its use in the private transport sector is clearly a deliberate policy to use the poor person’s fuel to subsidise the rich.

Oil companies also say that the under-recovery in diesel is now costing them big time. It is estimated that Rs 67,500 crore is lost annually in under-recovery on account of diesel alone. This is roughly 60 per cent of the total losses of the companies. Assuming that private cars consume 15 per cent of the diesel, the direct subsidy to car owners is over Rs 10,000 crore. This is socialism Indian style: taxing the poor to pay the rich. With each increase in the price of petrol, this gap widens. Bad for oil companies; worse for the environment.

The claim of car companies that the modern diesel vehicle is clean is far from true. Emission data shows current diesel cars emit seven times more particulates and three to five times more nitrogen oxides than petrol cars. There is sufficient evidence that tiny particulates—PM 2.5—emitted from a diesel vehicle are toxic and carcinogenic. This toxin is firmly associated with significant increase in cases of asthma, lung diseases, chronic bronchitis and heart ailments. Long-term exposure can cause lung cancer. The increased level of nitrogen dioxide contributes to the formation of ozone, which, in turn, damages our lungs. So be clear, diesel vehicles, however fancy and fitted, are costing us our health.

Today, Europe, which promoted diesel vehicles, is paying a heavy cost. It is struggling to meet air quality standards, even though it has invested heavily in the cleanest of fuels reducing sulfur levels to near-zero and has fitted vehicles with every kind of anti-pollution gizmo like particulate traps and de-NOx catalyst. Diesel also has higher levels of black carbon, which is today understood to be a key contributor to climate change. In the US, the car mecca, where emission standards and price do not differentiate between fuels, there is no market for diesel cars.

So why does Indian policy continue to provide this perverse incentive to pollute? The irony is that there is no policy that allows this use. It is a loophole. Car manufacturers struck gold when they realised that they could sell more vehicles if they could run them on cheaper and subsidised fuel. They exploit the fact that diesel price is kept lower because of its use for transportation of essential goods and for public transport—trucks use some 37 per cent of the diesel consumed and buses 12 per cent. They also know that dual pricing of fuel—different diesel prices for cars and buses or tractors—cannot be operated. They merrily exploit this helplessness.

Government agencies know this. They make all the right noises about the need to fix the price distortion. The market types glibly talk about the need to deregulate diesel. They say this because they know that even though they sit in power, they cannot remove government control over the price of this fuel, which is also essential for railways, transport of public goods and agriculture. They know that the inflationary impact of raising diesel price will be high; they know it will be opposed. But they use this convenient cover to do nothing about the most glaring of distortions—the use of the subsidised fuel by the rich and for private transport.

But given the rising economic cost and pollution, the option of doing nothing is not acceptable anymore. The options are either to link the price with emission standards or to ban production of personal diesel vehicles. If this is not possible, then the government should tax diesel vehicles—200 to 300 per cent of the price of the vehicle—to remove the fiscal distortion in price and policy. Our neighbour Sri Lanka has done so. In India, committee after committee has recommended that this be done. But it is not done.

Clearly, the lobby for big diesel is powerful. Clearly, it sits in glitzy chambers of commerce, which can bend policy to suit purse and purpose. It’s sad and deadly.