#MannKiBaat: An Open Letter to PM Modi

First published here: http://coalscam.org/blog/?p=205

Dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

I write to you as a citizen of this country, a consumer of its resources and a benefactor of its largesse. As a citizen, I have what your Environment Minister called a ‘vested interest’ in my own survival- from the quality of air in my city to the quality of water piped into my home, the health of forests that serve as watersheds to  the well-being of Indian farmers who provide for me in times of increasing  distress.

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You could call me a 5-star activist for wanting to talk about things such as the right to a clean environment, freedom of expression, the right to work and the right to Free Prior Informed Consent in the same breath.

I have to admit it took me a while, as a citizen and as a witness confronted with mountains of corruption and subversion of the law, to accept that I had inalienable, defensible human rights, even if there weren’t enough laws to grant them legitimacy.

I strongly believe that my countrymen and women deserve the same dignity and liberties accorded to citizens of any other nation. From my travels across the country and inquiry into social conflicts at the intersection of business and human rights over the last five years, I would argue that the need to guarantee rights is even more acute. For rights assume even more importance where they have been systemically denied, where the risks of fighting for them are far greater, and amongst communities who have seen little to nothing of the economic or social development undertaken in their name.  

We are at a cusp of our nation’s history- economically, politically and socially. While a large portion of us now walk the liberal road of wider economic choices, far greater millions are yet to see evidence of basic development, and are being pushed into wider chasms of inequity.

Almost a year into your term, you stand as a living, elected embodiment of the hopes of millions that change is necessary and so is development. My question to you is, what form will this change take? Who will it take with it? And why do you see rights as inimical to- and not a part of- this process?

Your campaign rode on a clarion call against corruption and crony capitalism. You have said your government has tried to counter this through transparent bidding procedures for natural resources such as mines and coal. However, how truly fair or transparent or accountable are these systems to the millions who stand to be affected?

Transparency is being able to communicate these complex norms to all those who will be affected by them. Fairness is ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in the process, duly informed, given notice of decisions and compensated.  Accountability is involving all stakeholders in decision-making processes through conducting assessments and cost-benefit analyses and arriving at a way forward together. It arises from being able to honestly communicate back to companies these deliberations and what is at stake.

However, by removing safeguards on social impact assessment and acquiring the consent of affected communities’ for a series of different projects, you say that businesses don’t have the time to meaningfully consult with stakeholders, ignoring your obligations to protect citizens from human rights abuses. Especially after the arbitrary allocation of our natural resources that you have sought to confront in your role as a custodian, doesn’t it become even more important to have community and civil society checks and balances for those seeking to acquire these resources? Instead, we have been repeatedly portrayed as obstructionists in the path of our own interests, and told that these are not exercises worth investing in.

Science tells us that it takes millennia of matter under pressure to produce the minerals we seek to extract to propel our growth story. Yet, it has also taken us millennia to arrive at a point where our rights and guarantees are recognized by law, where some have the privilege and means to express ourselves and possibly be heard. The language of our laws, let alone an assumed alphabet of SIAs (Social Impact Assessments) and PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships), has still not trickled down to millions who are yet to have teachers in their schools regularly enough or trainings in their own languages to ensure they know how to exercise their rights.

Your Mann Ki Baats, chai pe charchas and online transparency initiatives are great signs that our government is open to engagement. Then why do away with public hearings, gram sabhas and social impact assessments? Why fear people exercising their right to stand up and be counted, consulted and compensated? Why further silence those whose struggles for accountability are scarcely heard? What could be more in the nation’s interest than to protect the law and the resources of the land? Why thenharass its advocates, and limit avenues for remedy?

You of all people know the power of consent, and the reverse of it, when demonstrated electorally. You called out against people using the Land Acquisition bill for their own gains, and this is what communities have been wary of for centuries. Rights are not supposed to come with so many exemptions to the government of the day. The Land Acquisition Act and the Forest Rights Act were born after years of struggle, upheaval and bloodshed that still continue to play out in the country’s margins. India’s environmental laws emerged from the fallout of Bhopal, which we have still not been able to look in the face, assume accountability for and clean up. It’s time for us to acknowledge that the lack of trust goes back centuries, even before the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. While development is an imperative of the day, a one-way Mann ki baat cannot suffice, especially if it means closing other channels of communication and critique.

To not acknowledge or to erode these hard fought gains in the interest of faster investments would take us centuries behind in opening the channels of dialogue- between citizens, civil society, corporates and government. And that is not something we have the time for, as a country that both prides itself as a democracy and an economic power that wants to conduct business on a truly international stage.

To conclude, at the risk of sounding trite, permit me to paraphrase Tagore and project aloud. Of an India where dignity, consent and respect are non-negotiable. Where development is development for all and stems from dialogue. Where there is room and respect for dissent as a sign of how secure and mature we are as a democracy. And where the doors of justice remain open for anyone who seeks remedy.

Into that paradigm of people-centric development, dear Prime Minister, let our country awake.

Sincerely,

Aruna Chandrasekhar

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#MothersDay: Motherhood, Conflict and Growing Up Too Soon in Bastar

For children in the grey zone that is Bastar- where violence, arbitrary detentions and human rights violations are routine in the continuing conflict between the State and the Maoists- growing up too soon is not a choice. On Mother’s Day, I go back to a chance meeting with three extraordinary children who’ve seen this conflict play out up close, through the life of their mother, Soni Sori.

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“You know, this is the first time in almost 3 years that they are all together,” says Soni Sori, gathering her three children around her. “They had to be sent to hostel while I was in jail.” In a house in Dantewada’s Geedum tehsil, I’m introduced to Muskaan, Soni’s eldest daughter, studying hard for her 10th standard exams as her brother Deependra, who’s in the 7th standard, packs his bags for his maths and physics tuitions. While both are now doing well in school, Soni tells me both circumstance and separation have affected the children’s education in the years they’ve been apart. Ashu, the youngest, clings to her mother, refusing to let go.

It’s a rare privilege for me to meet them here- in Bastar, in their home and as a family. Soni- an adivasi schoolteacher who spoke up against human rights violations by both security forces and Maoists- was arrested in October 2011 on false charges of being a courier for the Maoists, besides other cases. Despite undergoing horrific torture while under police custody and being repeatedly acquitted in numerous cases against her, Soni was only released on bail in January 2014. Finally re-united with her children, Soni chose to return to Chhattisgarh, in spite of the odds, stood for elections from Bastar and continues to work for the causes she strongly believes in, with a special focus on women and adivasi undertrials in Chhattisgarh’s prisons.

Soni shows me around her home. “This was the house that my husband lived in. My daughter wants to live here; she does not want to relinquish the memory of her father,” says Soni. Muskaan’s father, Anil Futane, was also arrested on false charges of carrying out a naxal attack on the house of Avdhesh Gautam, a Congress leader in Dantewada. Futane spent nearly three years in prison before he was acquitted of all charges in May 2013. At the time of his release, Futane was paralysed from the waist down, as a result of alleged torture he faced while in jail. “It was Muskaan who received him and returned home to take care of him,” says Soni. Anil passed away a few months after he was released in August 2013, while Soni was still in jail. Soni was denied even temporary release on bail bail to carry out his last rites.

“Muskaan was the one who was taking care of her father when he was sick and was with him till he died. She was the only one who could visit me frequently when I was in prison,” says Soni, as Muskaan takes a breather from her studies to play dress-up. “She would come to talk to me, bring me biscuits. I would cry wondering how she could afford it.” Meanwhile, Ashu grins for the camera while her brother Deepu tries to take our picture. “This little thing- she would fight with the prison guards, telling them that ‘I want to see my mother fully, properly, not through these bars. I want to hold her.’”

The family has now re-adjusted to its new settings, with the support of those who’d rallied around Soni’s cause. “When I was released, there was nothing here. No one thought that I would come back. This house was in complete disarray, I had to build everything from scratch, which I have managed to do thanks to others who have helped me. Other women under trials have no such luck.” Soni is determined to help other women in similar predicaments return to society and find their footing.

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Soni and Ashu in their new kitchen.

She takes me to her kitchen. “This was a bathroom earlier. It feels good to be able to cook for your children in your own home, especially considering what jail food was like.” It was thanks to Soni’s intervention and hunger strike that women under trials, who were being fed food with worms in it, now have access to clean and better food in the Raipur jail. “This is one of the achievements that I’m most proud of. A woman prisoner came to me recently, with namkeen they had made in jail. I was so happy to eat it.”

I ask Soni how she feels about coming back to Chhattisgarh. “Coming back to Bastar was very important for me. Not only to show that I’ve been released, but to take part in elections, to legitimately participate in the government that once considered me a threat.” Even though she lost by a wide margin, Soni doesn’t consider it a deep setback. “I got an opportunity to interact with my own people, even those who still consider me a Maoist. It was a chance to clear the air and tell people my true story. That people voted for me is a testament of this trust.”

Even so, Soni’s children are getting used to her political life that requires her to be away for long periods of time. “Even now they are ready for anything to happen to me. Such is the political reality of Bastar that my children live with.”

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As Deependra runs out the door for class, I ask him what he’d like to be as a grown-up. “An IAS officer!” What about Ashu, I ask Soni. “This one doesn’t like studying- but she’s a firebrand- she’ll either become a human rights activist or a politician.” I turn to Muskaan, who looks like she’s already made up her mind. “I want to be a lawyer,” she tells me. I ask her why. “So I can fight for and release people like my mother who can be arrested while fighting for the right causes.”

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Soni shows me a shawl hand-embroidered by women undertrials. She plans to help more women who have been released from prison with rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.