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Children of a lesser God

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Workers look inside a sewage treatment facility Sunday in a posh neighborhood in New Delhi. Five of their colleagues died of toxic gases that while cleaning facility’s tanks. (Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

Anil, Vishal, Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja, Kiran Pal and Umesh……………..Who are these people? They were all young men with a dream and a family to look after but they are all dead. They were sanitation workers and went inside sewer to clean but never came back.

Last week in Delhi, a photograph of an 11-year-old child crying next to the body of his father went viral on the social media. The pictures, tweeted by a New Delhi-based journalist early this week, showed the child sobbing next to his father Anil at a local crematorium, who died while cleaning a sewer last week in New Delhi prompted social media users to raise nearly 55 lakh rupees to support the family.

To step into a manhole to clean the sewer lines in urban India is as dangerous as fighting insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. In last eight years at least, the death toll among sewer workers has started to converge with that of security forces killed in the beleaguered state. Statistically speaking, it is safer to be a soldier in the army serving in Kashmir than a sewer worker in India.

The Supreme Court has passed strictures against both central and state governments for sending people into manholes without even basic protective gear, and ordered Rs10 lakh to be paid to the survivors of each of those who died in the line of duty. Unfortunately, we don’t recall even a single instance where this compensation was awarded to the family members of dead sewer worker.

Nobody gives a second thought to a man who dies while cleaning the gutter. The best he can hope is just a casual description in the city pages of newspapers unless his death has a horrendous novelty, like in a recent case in Delhi when Anil, a 37-year-old man died of asphyxiation while cleaning a Delhi Jal Board (DJB) sewer in west Delhi’s Dabri last week on Friday.

Police said that Anil, a labourer was lowered in a 20 foot deep sewer by a weak rope tied to his waist which snapped midway. It was a double tragedy for the family as Anil had lost his four-month-old son only six days back. A week back three labourers were asphyxiated while a fourth is battling for life after reportedly inhaling poisonous gases inside a manhole they were cleaning in Lajpat Nagar.

This incident occurred less than a month after four men died while cleaning a septic tank in Ghitorni, Delhi. Joginder (32), Annu (28) and a 25-year-old unidentified man, were declared brought dead at AIIMS. Like in other similar cases reported earlier, the men weren’t wearing protective gear when they entered the sewer line.

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Sewage and septic tank workers, NCR, Delhi

According to reports, in all the death cases of the sewer cleaners recorded so far, none of the workers were equipped with protective gears like masks or any other safety equipment. Inspite of manual scavenging being banned by law, it continues nevertheless. Last month, the Delhi Govt had decided to fully mechanize the cleaning of sewers and provision of life imprisonment was suggested for those who failed to adhere to these new rules.

It is shocking that these sewer workers are forced to operate without bunny suites, masks, and oxygen cylinders. In fact, it was shocking to learn that the workers drink liquor before venturing into these death chambers to numb their senses. It is estimated that almost 90% of the workers are hooked to liquor. Many die young and there are few among those employed with municipalities who live till the retirement age.

Mumbai’s municipal corporation does not have data specifically for sewer workers, but last year, they acknowledged the death of 1386 conservancy workers since 2009. Another report released by the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis, a government agency, said on an average, one manual scavenger has died every five days in India since January 1, 2017.The report also said that if the amount of Hydrogen Sulphide in sewer is high, the death will be instant.

Bezwada Wilson, an activist who launched “Safai Karmachari Andolan” – a campaign against manual scavenging in 1995, told the press that the government numbers are a fraction of the data about sewer deaths as over 300 people were killed in the sewers in 2017 itself. He further added that there is no effort from the government to end this inhuman practice, which primarily employs the lowest rungs of our society, belonging to Dalit caste.

It’s getting difficult for the community of sewer workers to survive because they are already marginalised. If a person calls a worker to clean his sewer, he can neither refuse to work nor can he ask for the safety equipments to enter in the manhole. Though, there is a law in place but nobody gets punished. Law can take place only if there is a political will but unfortunately that is missing. If we look at the budget allocation, it clearly shows that sanitation workers are not a priority for this government.

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Influencers manipulating social media in India, Indian IT Act silent

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Sting operation: Bollywood celebs

New Delhi, Feb 20 (IANS) If the Cobrapost investigation which revealed that several Bollywood celebrities were willing to pass views of political parties as personal opinion for money shook your conscience, but there is not much that you could do to restrict them from doing so because the relevant Indian law is silent on this matter.

The investigation revealed that more than 30 Indian film and TV industry actors/artistes agreed to spread the propaganda of political parties through their social media accounts for money.

“Taking money for tweeting on behalf of political parties is definitely unethical, but it is not illegal. The Information Technology Act, 2000 is completely silent on this,” Pavan Duggal, one of the nation’s top cyber law experts, told IANS.

What the investigation unearthed was just the tip of the iceberg. The rise in popularity of social media platforms actually opened up a relatively new advertising economy driven by “influencer marketing”.

Marketing firm Mediakix estimated that influencer marketing on Instagram alone could reach $2 billion by the end of this year from $1 billion in 2017.

While Instagram has over a billion monthly active users globally, its parent company Facebook has over 2.3 billion monthly active users and over 16 million people log in to Twitter every day. WhatsApp is another powerful platform which has over 200 million users in India.

The kind of reach that these social media platforms have can offer some idea about how big the influencer marketing business could be. Important here to mention is that it is not just celebrities who are the stars in this game.

While celebrities with huge following running into millions on social media are known as macro influencers, even some people with small number of followers can earn big sum of money as influencers. They are known as micro influencers.

With a wide array of social media analytics tool available online it is not even difficult to spot the right influencers for their advertising programmes.

“In the starting, celebrities were used as influencers for brand endorsement and marketing purposes, however, after social media, now everyone is a celebrity and everything is business including politics,” social media expert Anoop Mishra said.

In countries like the US, it is mandatory to put proper disclosure on paid posts. But only a few follow the rules.

In India, due to lack of user awareness, it is even more difficult distinguish between a paid post and personal opinion.

With the elections coming, political parties are not complaining much. A top WhatsApp executive recently even warned political parties against abusing its platform.

“More than 10,000 official WhatsApp groups have been created by a leading political party to slam its rivals on social media,” Mishra said.

“Political discourse is going to be impacted by social media influencers. There is no two opinion about it,” Duggal said, adding that the consequences of this can be very serious as social media platforms are being used to create a highly-polarised atmosphere in the country.

Just as social media companies have come up with transparency rules for political ads, they should have similar features for influencers so that people can distinguish between commercial space and personal space.

“Manipulation of social media platform for personal gain must be brought under the ambit of law without putting barriers on free speech,” Duggal added.

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Manipur student activist released on bail by Imphal court

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Veewon Thokchom

Imphal, Feb 19 (IANS) A court here on Tuesday granted bail to Manipuri student activist Veewon Thokchom, who was arrested from Delhi on charges of sedition.

The court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Imphal west, where Thokchom was produced after brought from Delhi, turned down the police plea for his custody and released him on furnishing a bond of Rs 30,000.

Thokchom’s lawyer Meihoubam Rakesh said that his client, who was preparing for examinations in Delhi, was arrested on February 15 by a combined Delhi and Imphal police team. According to his family members, he was not even given time to wear his slippers.

A former president of the Manipur Students’ Association Delhi and now an adviser, Thokchom had opposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which had been passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8. Recalling the mass agitations in Manipur on June 18, 2001 during which 18 persons including a woman had died, he had contended in a Facebook post that if the bill is passed by Parliament, the state’s people may renew demands for self-determination.

There had been demands from various students’ bodies to release Thokchom or face intensified protests from the students and people.

Some time back, the BJP-led state government had arrested Kishorechandra Wangkhem, an anchor with a local cable channel, on charges of sedition.

A local court was of view that that the offence he was charged with was not seditious and ordered his release. However police arrested him at the court’s door and detained him under the National Security Act for one year.

Massive protests from the media circles in India and abroad have been of no avail.

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Pulwama Attack: Terror gets a quantum Jump in Kashmir Under Modi

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suicide attack in Kashmir

In one of the most barbaric and brutal attacks, 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed in a car-bomb explosion triggered by a lone wolf named Adil Ahmad, also known as “Adil Ahmad Gaadi Takranewala” and “Waqas Commando of Gundibagh” in South Kashmir’s Pulwama on Thursday, 14 February.

The ferocity of the terror attack far exceeded even the Uri attack of 18 September 2016, in which four heavily armed terrorists targeted an Army brigade headquarters, killing 19 soldiers. This was clearly, the worst ever terror attack in lat twenty years in the Kashmir valley.

Both the Uri and Pulwama attacks were said to have been carried out by Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed, which has subsequently taken the responsibility for this heinous attack on the CRPF convoy in Pulwama. This was one of the most audacious attacks and it established the fact that the Jaish-e-Mohammed is still very active and holds the capability of carrying out an attack of such a scale. It also reflects the failure of Modi government’s Kashmir policy much more than even the Uri strike.

While carrying out much criticised demonetisation on 8th Nov, 2016, Mr Modi cited checking terrorism in Kashmir valley as one of its objectives . But that never happened. On contrary, the terrorism received an unprecedented fillip post demonetisation. Modi Govt in a reply to the Lok Sabha admitted that terror incidents in Jammu and Kashmir have increased by 261 % in the last five years – from lowly 170 incidents in 2013 to a mind-boggling 614 incidents in 2018.

There were two key moments related to major spikes in terror incidents: In 2016, when Hizbul Mujahedeen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani was gunned down in an encounter and again in 2018 when the no of local youth joining the terror outfits surpassed the record level from 16 in 2013 to 191 in 2018, an increase of nearly 1093%.

Now let us find out where Modi Govt went wrong. The problem lies in the way it tackles this decades old problem not as a political, but as a battlefield for some kind of ideological war. The BJP’s policies on Kashmir are guided by its desire to fulfill its ideologue Syama Prasad Mukherjee’s unfinished mission of establishing their rule in the Valley.

This was quite evident in their attitude towards capturing power in the state. They initially pushed Mufti Mohammad Sayeed into a corner to force him for an alliance and later on showed the same brinkmanship to make his daughter and successor Mehbooba Mufti to fall in line. Eventually, she also walked out from the coalition which left Mr Modi no choice but to impose the President’s Rule in the state.

This was diametrically opposite to what Vajpayee government did. The actions taken by the then NDA Govt resulted in fostering a PDP-Congress alliance government led by Mufti Sayeed in 2002.This was said to be one of the few phases in the violent history of Kashmir when the state experienced a relative calm. The intransigence of BJP government under Modi has led to a disastrous Kashmir policy that has nullified whatever goodwill the New Delhi had achieved in Kashmir since 2002.

In the 2014 J & K assembly elections, the highest turnout in Kashmir in last over 25 years was recorded. The increase in voting was more perceptible in the South Kashmir constituencies that have historically seen low turnouts, mainly due to boycott calls by the separatists. The other element which added to this increase in voter’s turnout was the reaction of majority Kashmiri Muslims to the aggressive campaigning by the BJP in the Valley. Kashmiris were apprehensive of BJP’s intention of abrogating the article 370 and felt that their identity as a special status would be in danger if the BJP came to power in the state.

In fact, there were several voters in the valley who came out to vote for the first time since the 1987 elections, which were heavily rigged by most accounts. However, this anti-BJP mood in Kashmir was squandered by the PDP when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed opted to form a government in the state in alliance with BJP.

This must have given a huge setback to the local Kashmiris because soon after this coalition Govt came in power, the increase in local youth joining the ranks of militants began. It just can’t be a coincidence that the PDP’s areas of influence in South Kashmir shortly emerged as the main hub of militancy.

Most of the top militants of the past few years hailed from South Kashmir – Burhan Wani from Tral in Pulwama district, Riyaz Naikoo from Awantipora in Pulwama district, Saddam Padder from Heff in Shopian district and even Ali Ahmad Dar, who carried out fidayeen attack on the CRPF personnel, from Kakpora, also in Pulwama.

Most of the young men from South Kashmir who joined the ranks of militancy, hailed from pro-Jamaat-e-Islami families. Interestingly, in the past, Jamaat is said to have had a tactical understanding with the PDP. In both the 2002 and 2008 Assembly elections, Jamaat cadres were said to have ignored the boycott calls and came out and voted for the PDP but the alliance of PDP with the BJP ruptured the PDP’s traditional ties with Jamaat and alienated its supporters across the Valley. Therefore, when the extremely popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter in 2016, the PDP’s implosion accelerated dramatically.

Soon, a cycle of violence and mayhem began – protests, crackdown by security forces resulting in civilian casualties and sparking more protests. Every civilian casualty and pellet injury created further resentment from central Govt among an average Kashmiri which in turn resulted in more youth joining the militancy. The locals which earlier provided the helping hand to the security forces in its drive against militants stopped doing that and in process, PDP’s credibility nose-dived.
One of the crucial fallouts of this alienation deprived security forces of the human intelligence network almost entirely comprised of local Kashmiris. This breakdown in human intelligence is probably one of the reasons why security forces have become sitting ducks for attacks like the one we just witnessed in Pulwama on the Valentine ’s Day.

It appears, the government has learnt no lessons even after the Pulwama attack as most of its reactions are based on its flawed view of Kashmir. Take for instance MoS in the PMO, Jitendra Singh, who chose to attack NC and PDP, the mainstream political parties of Kashmir, which are perhaps the only set of well-wishers of some importance New Delhi has in Kashmir.

The problem of Modi government is it cannot differentiate between its political opponents and threats to national security. This is the reason; it has been unable to stop the rise of militancy in Kashmir in the past five years. The same is true for its inability to differentiate between Kashmiri civilians and the terrorists. It won’t be an understatement, if we say that armed forces personnel and the civilians in Kashmir are paying with their lives for this disastrous and flawed handling of Kashmir crisis by Modi Govt.

(DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.)

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