Gloves off!

The following is a guest post by Kisholoy Mukherjee.

The one piece of news that is really doing the rounds the last few days is the face off between the Congress and the opposition regarding the JPC. The winter session of the Parliament was a complete waste of national resources as it was adjudged “sine die” for weeks at a stretch. Not surprisingly, the media has been very “proactive” in bringing out this news as it was unfolding..Now the PM has come ahead and declared that he is “willing to appear before the PAC”…The opposition of course isn’t happy with that and the NDA are holding rallies across Delhi..Few simple but as yet unanswered questions remain:

1. What is the scope of the PAC and that of the JPC and how do they compare in terms of penetrability into the investigation? Why is there even a debate on this in the first place? Why is it not clear?? How is it that so many law graduates and post graduates working in the Parliament (since most parliamentarians are from legal backgrounds) cannot make it clear as to what is the scope of the two investigative committees? Perhaps they should all go back to their books and read up constitution and the laws of the nation once more to end this confusion

2. Why can’t they both operate simultaneously?? Will that cause any particular problem, like coming in the way of one another? But working in tandem should be good in two ways: a) they could help each other with their findings by sharing progress and evidences and b) they could act as each others’ watchdogs. Why then do the two parties not agree?

3. Which investigating agency is really supposed to be the one doing the probe, as per law? Isn’t an Apex court (the SC) the best (available) option when such doubts arise regarding the credibility of all other investigating bodies? Why should ANY parliamentary committee, be it the PAC or the JPC, be any better than a judicial probe, given the high level of corruption among ministers?

4. Also, whether it is the media or even the opposition, there seems to be a presumption regarding the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s credibility and integrity. I really want to challenge this odd notion – why the hell on earth should we have to assume that? So many scams have raised their ugly heads during his tenure as PM, one after the other, and yet we have to assume that despite being the highest minister of the country and also the senior most leader of the INC, he actually knew nothing and remained in the dark? Who are we fooling here? Everybody seems to be so careful about not sounding undiplomatic whenever the PM’s name comes up. The PM’s signature or knowledge is most certainly needed in appointment in top officials like the CVC (‘tainted Thomas’) – what was he doing then? Taking a slumber? And that he was well aware of what was going on with 2G spectrum allocation policy subversion, is quite clear from some letters that were exchanged between him, TRAI officials and A Raja. Why the heck do we have to believe that he didn’t play a part in the scams? And even in the most unlikely case that he wasn’t involved in the scam, his inaction all this time speaks volumes.

5. Why is everyone bending over backwards to shower their praises for the PM, just because he has said he will appear before the PAC? Why shouldn’t he, just because IT IS STANDARD PROCEDURE?? Why should anyone be treated differently in the eyes of the law? If anyone is remotely associated with any criminal case and there is even prima facie evidence of that link (in this case no evidence is needed even to establish such a link…it was his damn party Congress and his govt. that was directly involved in wrongdoings for heaven’s sake!!) then he or she should be made subject to scrutiny and all other forms of rigorous investigative procedure that are deemed necessary, irrespective of whether he is an aam admi or a Prime minister.

6. Also, why is the PM and the Congress so wary of JPC? If they are prepared to go for a probe by PAC, headed by a member of opposition, Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi, then what is the big problem with JPC? Is Mr Murli joining hands with Congress in this matter? Why does the Congress want PAC so much? They haven’t given any good reason why they can’t go ahead with JPC. Just bringing up past failure isn’t good enough. We still do not see why JPC will be any worse than a PAC, then why this stubbornness over JPC? And they just can’t blame the Opposition only for the stalemate in the Parliament this winter session – they themselves have to shoulder 50% of the responsibility for not being able to arrive at a solution and more importantly, for not being able to give a concrete and admissible reason for not taking up JPC, thereby raising suspicions of some conspiracy or secret reason for their extreme obstinacy.

A commoner’s critique: The NREGA

The following is a guest post by Kisholoy Mukherjee.

The NREGA or the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is hailed as the brain child of the INC and has attracted quite a lot of attention. Most people, whether they are in the media or the Congress and even the common man have made very positive remarks about this scheme and have pointed out how this scheme can change the poor conditions that prevail still today in rural areas. (Of course opposition parties have tried to paint this ACT in black but that is purely out of a political motive) Hard to believe that those of us who are already far better off and are living in absolute luxury compared to the rural poor, can actually consider such modest steps as big ones and can find so many positives in such measures which bring about almost insignificant changes in life at the grass root level or none at all for many.  And if you confront them, living in the comfort of proper houses and many of them enjoying luxuries the poor can only dream of, they have a long known defense – the country does not have enough money. Yeah, right.

I am going to write about how I feel after going through different Acts of India, mainly those which can have or are said will have a significant impact on people’s lives. I am starting the series with NREGA. Throughout this critique, I will either place you in the shoes of the villager or that of the official responsible for carrying out the provisions of this act.

The ACT basically says that 100 days of employment will be guaranteed* to every rural household every financial year, whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. * Well, conditions apply!!

Indeed, like in the constitution itself, where provisions for applying conditions to things like “no demarcation based on caste, religion etc” actually makes a mockery of the very principle because of which the section was written at first, this act among others does the same thing – it kills the very purpose of the scheme. If there are provisions for not providing even those 100 days of work, what is the point of mentioning in the title it is a “guarantee scheme”??

So, let’s look at it bit by bit…

1. What is the wage that will be paid? It can be decided by the State Govt. or it can be given according to the Minimum Wages Act of 1948. The minimum wage that has decided upon recently  is around Rs. 100 per day (for a six to seven hour labor) by the ministry of Labor and Employment.

However, in the NREGA, there is a way out of this – in section 6, Chapter 3, it is mentioned that the wage decided by the state govts. “shall not be at a rate less than sixty rupees per day.” There you go…so , as a state govt, either you follow the Minimum wages Act (by which according to present standards Rs.100 is the minimum) or you set your own standards which can be as low as Rs.60. Needless to say, it leaves the room open for corruption and misuse of the funds for the project.

2. It is mentioned in sub-section 3, of section 3 of Chapter 2, that  “the disbursement of daily wages shall be made on a weekly basis or in any case not later than a fortnight after the date on which such work was done.” That is funny…they are speaking of treating the daily wage workers as if they are on a payroll and are going to get month-end salaries!! This smacks of insensitivity – do they have any idea that a poor household will need that modest amount of money desperately every day, or else they would have to take loans? Such poor people naturally don’t have savings. Instead, they always have debts way more than their earnings. Why make such a provision for paying a wage not on daily basis?? It is a serious mistake….deliberate or not….

3. Section 7, Chapter 3 perhaps has the most gaping hole, as big as a crater, in the ACT – It lays down the provisions (huh, again!!) for NOT giving the employment. How and when can the poor villager, desperately in need of some money, perhaps to buy some medicines for himself or for his little child or his wife, or to simply feed his starving family, be shooed away?? Well, here are the guidelines that corrupt officials have been given to misuse the scheme’s fund’s money:

You can keep turning them back for 15 days. And even after that, if the poor soul keeps coming back to irritate you for a job, you will then assure him of “an unemployment allowance”. What is that? You may pay as low as  1/4th of the minimum wage that can be paid to him in a day …that comes down to Rs. 15 a day, for the first 30 days (it is not clarified if these 30 days include the initial 15 days or not!!) And on top of that, do not forget that you can also choose NOT TO PAY the wage for each day for up to a fortnight. The official only has to cite special reasons like “economic incapacity” for not giving the employment (i.e. not giving the bare minimum of 60 rupees even). How do you expect a poor villager to challenge him??

Believe it or not, There is no mechanism for appealing either. Something that at least the RTI has. Perhaps the ministers had realized that would be a waste of writing space anyway since poor villagers will naturally be rendered helpless if they are refused, even if they had a chance for appealing.

But this was only about the first 30 days: there is a provision for not giving an unemployment for a whole 1 year!! And during the period after the first 30 days of unemployment, the villager is entitled to get no less than one-half of the wage rate…i.e Rs.30/day.

And what happens if he does not get a job at all, even after one full year and after having to do with such a small  compensation?? Well, there is nothing written about it. And with no provision for appealing, it takes only a child’s guess…

And on top of that, even the unemployment allowance can be skipped on the following conditions and I am quoting directly from the ACT:

(b) the period for which employment is sought comes to an end and no member of the household of the applicant had turned up for employment; or (c) the adult members of the household of the applicant have received in total at least one hundred days of work within the financial year; or (d) the household of the applicant has earned as much from the wages and unemployment allowance taken together which is equal to the wages for one hundred days of work during the financial year.

I leave it to you all to decide what you make of that, since the absurdity of it all is just too self-evident.

Some more ways to avoid giving the villager the unemployment allowance:

-An applicant who- (a) does not accept the employment provided to his household under a Scheme; or (b) does not report for work within fifteen days of being notified by the Programme Officer or the implementing agency to report for the work; or (c) continuously remains absent from work, without obtaining a permission from the concerned implementing agency for a period of more than one week or remains absent for a total period of more than one week in any month, shall not be eligible to claim the unemployment allowance payable under this Act for a period of three months but shall be eligible to seek employment under the Scheme at any time.

So, basically:

a) say you are the jobless or landless farmer/poor villager and you have some kind of disability, which you can definitely have given you are so poor and the nature of your job, you cannot even ask for an alternative job if its physically too hard or impossible for you (at least there is no provision for such a “generous” act on part of the official, and I think we would be asking too much of them to show kindness even beyond the most generous ones already present in the ACT)

b) they can pay you as late as upto fourteen days, but still you have to be law-abiding….after all, Mogambo ko khush karna jo hain

c) If you are for some reason absent for the said number of days, say due to some illness, then you will not be eligible for the unemployment allowance for a period of 3 months. If your absence “for a total period of more than one week in any month”. So, that even includes 8 days. This one has serious implications:

1. You can lose your job suddenly! (since they are talking about unemployment allowance and remaining absent at the same time, clearly, an ambiguity there, perhaps deliberately)

2. And when you do, you will not get the unemployment allowance upto 3 months if you were somehow unable to attend the arduous labor even for 8 days in a month.

3. There is nothing mentioned about why you may lose the job…

Why were such gaping holes left unplugged?? Were they intentionally left? Clearly, the seeds of corruption were all laid even as the bill was being formulated, as is evident from the sheer absurdity of the ACT’s provisions…

But there is more to come:

The Panchayats will be in charge of implementing the rules of this ACT. Needless to say, even though the panchayats may have more favor with the locals of a village, they can often be highly corrupt. So, a whole new commission should have been set up independently, like the Information Commission in connection with the RTI act.

All that is mentioned in connection with grievance addressing is this (section 19, Chapter 3):

The State Government shall, by rules, determine appropriate grievance redressal mechanisms at the Block level and the district level for dealing with any complaint by any person in respect of implementation of the Scheme and lay down the procedure for disposal of such complaints.

Needless to say, it is extremely wishy-washy and vague.

All that is written under the transparency and accountability section of the act, is again very unclear and only touches upon how the complex internal mechanisms of complaint transfers will be (from the Gram Panchayat to the Programme officer etc.) like but does not mention clearly the position of the complainant in all of this.

As a penalty, a maximum of only Rs.1000 will be given to anyone who contravenes the provisions of this act.

A few sections about which I am as yet undecided as to how positively effective or adequate they will be:

….priority shall be given to women in such a way that at least one-third of the beneficiaries shall be women who have registered and requested for work under this Act.

24. If any personal injury is caused to any person employed under the Scheme by accident arising out of and in the course of his employment, he shall be entitled to, free of charge, such medical treatment as is admissible under the Scheme. (???)

Where hospitalisation of the injured worker is necessary, the State Government shall arrange for such hospitalisation including accommodation, treatment, medicines and payment of daily allowance not less than half of the wage rate required to be paid had the injured been engaged in the work.

A few suggestions on how to improve upon this act:

use the same officials under this scheme to make a payment of Rs.100/day 365 days a year (or better still, food and clothing worth Rs.100) without fail to every household as a start without work, and then on top of that make arrangements to provide 100 days of work similarly as provided by this scheme. However, an appeal mechanism is a must.And that mechanism should be made as transparent as possible and not the eyewash type as is presently provided by this act.

Indian Media Watch: Of the hunter who became the hunted

The following is a guest post by Kisholoy Mukherjee.

The phrase deafening silence could not possibly have been better exemplified than by the situation of stalemate that gripped the world of media soon after the Nira Radia tapes were leaked into the public domain. Whether it was CNN or NDTV, HT or Times Now, every single channel seemed to play it safe by ignoring this bit of news as if it did not exist. Yet, newspapers and news channels including the ones above started accusing the ‘media’ (presumably other media bodies) for remaining silent, thereby showing a tremendous amount of hypocrisy. Anyway, it took Ratan Tata’s moving Supreme court against the leaking of his conversations with Nira Radia to make the news agencies to wake up. This action by Ratan, an iconic public figure, gave them the right pretext to finally discuss this ‘sensitive’ issue. The double standards was hardly concealable –  when it comes to other issues, not involving the media (and what interests them perhaps) they are always very quick to react and hold debates and ‘bashing’ sessions in no time (like the Newshour with Arnab Goswami). But it was too ‘sensitive an issue with a possibility of hitting grey areas’ when it came to the exposure of their own misadventures.  Come on now, who are you fooling, guys??

In fact, such was the humiliation and the nervousness at the face of an unprecedented adversity and times of crisis for the world of media, that top honchos in the media biz like Sagarika of CNN iBN, Karan Thapar of Ndtv and Arnab of Times Now were found visibly (and audibly of course!) showing signs of the immense pressure that they were reeling under. That they have completely lost the plot, and that they have been exposed and that their credibility as professionals is now going to be questioned more than ever is beyond doubt. They can deny it in our face but they know it damn well.

Consider Cnn Ibn’s “Radia tapes: Has Tata’s right to privacy been violated?” discussion last night. The host, Sagarika, clearly was seen trying to push the agenda that privacy must not be compromised in the name of war of corruption. The pressure on her from her seniors and the team in general was so apparent that she was finding it hard to even conceal the way she was panicking. Firstly, she was hardly allowing the guest panel or rather the Supreme Court advocates to speak their minds. Especially, Prashant Bhushan who gave a fantastic explanation of the situation. But of course it did not suit her and CNN’s agenda-which was clear as a whistle – that they were taking Ratan Tata’s side, lest their own dirty secrets get revealed in subsequent leakages. Apart hearing the tapes, I am inclined to think Ratan Tata and several other media people had engaged in a joint discussion on how to proceed on the matter, given they all shared a common interest.

What is the big fuss about this issue? Two questions are being raised:

1.       When can phones be tapped??

2.       When does the publication of recorded conversations become justifiable?

The party against the publications are citing Article 21 of the constitution to justify their stand. Article 21 of the constitution says “21. No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Now, I really do not understand how this has been a case of violation of personal liberty. No one has suggested that he cannot talk. No one has suggested that he cannot talk to so and so persons. As Supreme Court Advocate Prashan Bhusan aptly put it: the phones can be and in this case were tapped because there was prima facie evidence of a crime (precisely, tax evasion). Hence, the government was well within its rights to ask the Income Tax dept. to tap Nira Radia’s phones as it was her PR company that was under the scanner. However, and this was beautifully put by Prashant Bhusan and my personal favorite in the whole argument, if during the course of the investigation by the concerned agency, some other elements or hints of crimes are revealed in the conversations, which include bribing, links to scams, subversion of public policy etc. then it is not only that the investigative body has the right but it is also its duty to publish such material in the larger interest of the public, as long as those conversations do not compromise national security in some way. I don’t think anything can beat this argument. I can’t find any counter argument that can stand up to the aforementioned one and a supreme court judge, who is well intentioned and just should rule in favor of the parties involved in releasing these conversations.

What was most shocking was that Sagarika was constantly trying to interfere when the two advocates were speaking and were pointing out the obvious loopholes in her argument. She and her buddy journalist from Financial express were making ridiculous arguments like: 1. The conversations were entirely private 2. There were no evidences of criminality in the conversations 3. Anybody could ask the govt./an investigative agency to tap a rival’s phone and 4. In the mahol of corruption, privacy needs to take a back seat

The first point is absolutely ludicrous. Throughout the entire program, Sagarika, her buddy and Amar Singh just kept mentioning the only one private and entirely irrelevant part of the conversation between Tata and Radia – the brazen discussions on some stupid black gown. That alone was enough to brand the entire conversation private, whoa, what an argument!! Gimme a frigging break!! Just going through the transcript is enough to see how much (or should I say how little) was private in nature.

As for the second conversation, well, what can I say…how could one overlook the link of the 2G scam in that conversation is simply beyond me….

The third point was smartly refuted again by the advocate, by saying that there was need of enough prima facie evidence to take such an action.

The last point is another great example of how media has seriously send a wrong, a deliberately convoluted and adulterated message. None of the two advocates were suggesting that. Privacy is definitely important but how on earth can we give importance to privacy of wrongdoers?? Then the same explanation can be used in the case where the telephonic conversations of terrorists were intercepted during the 26/11 attacks – perhaps those terrorists will get this bright idea from Ratan Tata and will move court for invasion of privacy!!!

She saved her worst for the last: she ended by saying “the final results…60% say yes, thank you for watching”. The “yes” people in the poll had voted in her favor of Ratan Tata’s petition. Now, while the poll results as shown by the channel are themselves doubtful, the way she rounded off was clearly trying to suggest that the pro-privacy walas had ‘won’. It was like she had to have the last laugh, but Sagarika, it was not you who had the last word, since you and your channel’s hollowness, its immoral stand in the issue and the hypocrisy and efforts at pushing the agenda instead of honestly debating were conspicuous.

The media, has lost this battle, irrespective of what happens in the court over the Ratan Tata case.