Saturday, June 30, 2018

SDG 3 and infant mortality: Ambitious goal trounced by ground realities

(This article was first published at, please click on the link to find it)

The Boali maternity hospital lies less than 100 km from Bangui, the capital city of Central African Republic. Here every day a woman cries over her dead child as one in every 24 child dies due to high neonatal death as well as infant mortality as reported by the UNICEF.

The Central African Republic is a country which has no impression on the world map whatsoever. The country contains one of the poorest and most malnourished population in the world. But it tops the list of infant mortality rate with only Pakistan ahead of it, according to the UNICEF report published earlier this year. The infant mortality rate (deaths in the first 5 years of life) in the country is 124 per thousand. These alarming rates are due to a lot of factors, most prominent among which is the lack of doctors and specialists. UNICEF estimates that half of the country’s health infrastructure is managed by unskilled staff or volunteers.
Dr. N-Eloi Mboufoungou says that he is the only practitioner for a population of over 33,000. Assisted by 25 health workers, of whom only 9 are qualified, he can only deplore the lack of follow-up of pregnant women or young children. "Women come for a consultation for their first pregnancy, then they often disappear in nature" he explains.

A 1906 newspaper clipping imploring parents to attend to the cleanliness of their infants. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Over 1 million babies are estimated to die within the first hour of their birth while over 2.6 million die in the first 4 weeks of life. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 9 children dies before age 5, more than 16 times the average for developed regions in which 1 in 152 dies. 165 million children under 5 are stunted (low height for age) in their growth due to poor nutrition during the first 1000 days of life.

WHO estimates that 20% of under-five deaths, or approximately two million deaths annually, could be prevented with existing vaccines. The top three causes of such deaths are estimated to be:
  • Premature birth, 
  • Complications during labour and delivery, and 
  • Infections such as sepsis, meningitis, and pneumonia. 
The UNICEF report brings to light several aspects of maternity health care across the world. It says that such deaths are not because of poor medical conditions mostly, but a major reason is also that the families of the babies are too poor or marginalized to access the care they need.

The five worst countries to be born are Pakistan, followed by Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lesotho; all low-income countries. While the countries which are safest to be born are Japan, Iceland, Singapore, Finland, and Estonia; all ‘developed’ countries. However, India remains the country with the largest number of newborn deaths overall with 600 thousand infant deaths per year which takes a major share of the world average, i.e. 800 thousand deaths per year.

The Well Being Foundation is one organization that is working tirelessly even in the sub-Saharan deserts of Africa for better health care. With an aim to work only on United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals three, five and six, the NGO is running programs on midwifery, emergency obstetric and newborn care, infant feeding, etc. The UNICEF has also jumped into action by launching the Every Child ALIVE campaign which aims to demand the health ministers around the world to step up the investments for every mother and her baby.

Other NGOs like the EU-funded Alima are also working in countries like the Central African Republic. They run a hospital in Boda region and has safely delivered over a thousand babies last year. They also provide medical assistance for carrying out Caesarean section surgeries which prevent many inevitable deaths.

Reporter Monica Pinna posted their work on twitter:
The United Nations have already set 17 primary goals of sustainable development. But, as the UNICEF says, we are failing our children. Infant mortality should be one of the top priorities of the governments across the world if we are to achieve the #Envision2030. If the children are not even alive then for whom are we setting such ambitious goals?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fear and Loathing in New India: The Assam Lynching and Its Aftermath

(This article was co-authored with Sampurna Bordoloi and was first published in The Wire. please click on the link to find it) 

Observing the present scenario in India, one would be tempted to ask if the spectre of the ‘other’ is veritably created to lynch. The brutal mob lynching of two youths from Assam – Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath – on June 8 seems to indicate just that.

While on a visit to the Kanthilangsho waterfall in the Karbi Anglong district where they were attacked by a crowd on the suspicion of being ‘child lifters’. The killing is said to have been sparked by fake news circulated on WhatsApp about a group of child lifters entering Assam from Bihar. However, latest evidence suggests that it was an altercation between Alphajos Timung, the primary accused, and the victims that may just be the real cause.

Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath were lynched in Karbi Anglong. Credit: Justice for Nilotpal and Abhijeet Facebook Page
This incident perfectly captures several elements which characterise the new normal in India – video graphic evidence of mob killings, often taken by the perpetrators themselves; crowds who take “justice” into their own hands; the discourse of the “outsider” and the large-scale propagation of fake news via social media.

The outrage following the incident reveals a dangerous progression of mounting racist tensions and bigotry. The nature of the furore reveals an endemic problem in our society, which perhaps explains how lynchings have become commonplace. A video was widely circulated showing the last moments of the two deceased where Nilotpal Das is seen pleading for his life repeating, “Moi Axomiya” (I am Assamese).

A screenshot of a post calling for an economic blockade of the Karbi Anglong district.

Social media was soon flooded with angst ridden hate messages calling for counter-violence and revenge. A popular status called for an economic blockade of the Karbi Anglong district while others wanted to inflict counter revenge by capturing any random Karbi person and hacking them to death.

Egged on by others who ‘like’ and ‘share’ the same sentiment, it becomes perfectly normal to condemn a person simply because they are ‘Karbi’. These jingoistic aggressions have to seen in tandem to the socio-political conditions of the state and the Karbi Anglong district in particular.

Socio-political demography of Assam

The Assamese community is made up of various tribal and non-tribal groups such as the Karbis, Bodos, Mishings, Tiwas, Kalitas, and Brahmins, among others. Many groups in Assam have a tribal historical background and were later absorbed into the Brahmanical fold. Despite a significant numerical tribal populace, the ‘surplus producing’ non-tribal communities are culturally and economically dominant. They hegemonise the public discourse.

Karbi Anglong is an autonomous district and also one of the most backward in the country. The Karbis have historically been demanding autonomy from Assam. The isolation of this hill district is both cultural and geographic. The reactions of the people consequent to the incident revealed an ‘us versus them’, a tribal versus non-tribal dynamic.

The privilege of the dominant group to denounce an entire section of people as “uncivilised junglees” reflects that the “civilising” effect of Brahmanical notions still functions in 21st century Assam. A lot of the public outcry was generated over the fact that the mob had dared to kill two Assamese men in their own state as opposed to a more general condemnation of the deaths of two innocents.

This hate-fuelled atmosphere soon spilled over to the streets. Karbi students in several places were hounded by locals seeking revenge. Some paying guests were asked to vacate their accommodations, and immediately a red alert was announced in certain zones of Guwahati.

A predictable pattern of xenophobia

A well-known incident in Nagaon was widely circulated through a video which shows a group of boys trying to stop buses from going to Diphu, Karbi Anglong while asking for Ids to determine which passengers were Karbi. The video has since been deleted as the police have arrested such miscreants. The next few days remained tense as the police was on high alert at the possibility of communal riots.

It is clear that mob killings do not occur in a social vacuum. It is perhaps a violent, overt reaction of tensions in society.

As Abdul Kalam Azad wrote for The Wire: 
For a human being, killing a fellow human is not easy….It requires a special environment to overcome the inhibitions to carry out horrific crimes like a public lynching….. The perpetrators ceased to recognise the victims as the member of their moral group or as a fellow human being, which legitimises their cruelty against the victims.”
Thus, mob violence becomes possible because conditions are created for the perpetrators to dehumanise a fellow human being. This dehumanisation is conditioned by the social, economic and political conditions of a society at a particular moment in time. The increasing cases of mob violence in India have to be analysed within these frameworks.

Mass access to visual violence and the psychological effect on society

The video recording of hate crimes to be circulated for the world to see with an almost gleeful anticipation is a cringing reality of our society now. The human fascination with witnessing barbaric violence inflicted on fellow men predates the invention of videography and social media. Be it the mesmerised crowds watching gladiators fight to death or the thrill-seeking audience who came to witness public executions; the idea of death as a spectacle is not new.

A participant shows a placard during the ‘Not in My Name’ protest held to highlight the pattern of attacks on minorities in the country, in Delhi. Credit: PTI

But, never before did we see a man hacking another man and then burning him alive on camera like the murder of a Bengali Muslim labourer, Afrazul, by 37-year-old Shambhulal Regar in the town of Rajsamand in Rajasthan..

In the context of the 21st century, this perverse instinct is exemplified by video recordings of horrific acts. Facebook has reported an increase of graphic violence posts in 2018. In the race for more likes and shares, more outrageous content garners more publicity.

The mob lynchings in India indicate a similar psychological mania: the killers are often the ones who show no remorse in recording and publicising their crime. In the lynching of June 8, a policeman was recording the crime (albeit with good intentions) instead of taking any concrete measures to save the two victims. This indicates a chillier dimension to the bystander effect.

These incidents can also be ascribed as a failure of the state machinery and the loss of faith in the judiciary by the public. The district administration’s inaction in addressing the tension created by the rumour of child-lifters indicates a serious lapse on their part.

It is time to question why people feel the need to take “justice” into their own hands instead of relying on the judiciary. Protests, observed in various places across the state as well as in Delhi and Russia, reveal a sense of despondency at receiving justice by legal means.

The Dainik Janambhoomi, on June 13, reported that 26 had been arrested in connection to the crime and more than 30 people have been arrested for spreading fake news on social media and making hateful comments that could further fuel unrest. Haren Saikia, the father of Jhankar Saikia, who was also lynched in 2013 in Karbi Anglong, took to Facebook to express how the government had failed to provide justice and how his son’s killers are still roaming free. Civil society and the family members of the victims are demanding absolute justice and no mercy for the killers.

A section of people, particularly from the opposition, were quick to blame the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for the role of the BJP IT cell in creating fake news and spreading superstition. Some, like Akhil Gogoi, are apprehensive that incidents such as this are manufactured by the BJP through communally tinted fake news to divert people’s attention from issues like the Citizen Amendment Bill, 2016.

The myriad cases of identitarian mob violence post 2014 does seem to indicate a normalisation of hatred towards minorities which could not have been sustained in an absence of political motivations.

Notwithstanding the merits of these accusations, one cannot discount the unique cultural politics of Assam which played a role in this instance. The chauvinistic nature of Assamese society, the Karbi resentment towards the Assamese, the tribal-non tribal binary; these divisive forces were existent much prior to the rise of the BJP.

The Sarbananda Sonawal government has announced an awareness programme ‘Sanskaar-Maanuhe Maanuhor Babe’ with an aim to root out superstitious beliefs in rural areas. The state is no stranger to horrific cases of mob violence fuelled by superstitions and rumours. As many as around 300 had been killed in Assam on the suspicion of being witches from 2001 to 2006. It is difficult to predict if ‘Sanskaar’ would be more successful in curbing superstitions where many have earlier failed. As the incident and aftermath reveals, the problem is not merely a lack of education. There is a need to introspect and address the noxious xenophobic prejudices which make it possible to ‘otherise’ and create dissensions.

Sampurna Bordoloi is a post-graduation scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Pinak Pani Datta writes at and can be contacted at

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Dubai: A glittering global city built by poor migrant construction workers

(This article was first published at, please click on the link to find it)

Zola (name changed) is one among the thousands who travel from Africa to Abu Dhabi on a promise of a job and life that is beyond imagination. He was hired in his home country in Africa for a contract that his skilled job would make him earn £770 a month with good accommodation, medical insurance, and a food allowance.

But as he landed in Abu Dhabi, he faced the harsh reality. He shares a room with 8 other men and often has to wait in line for using the toilet. His day starts at 6 am and he has to work for 11-hour shifts in the hot Arab summer with no medical insurance whatsoever.

“The temperature in this country right now is piercing and we still work. I have family back home but most depend on me for support and that's why I left my job and took the offer in the first place because of the promise of a huge salary,” Zola told The Independent.

Dubai is a global city. 85 percent of its population are immigrants drawn from dozens of nations around the world. As Hussain Zaidi brilliantly puts in his book Dongri to Dubai, “There are several lingua francas, each offering its own advantage—English for the Brave New World of Emirate futurism; Urdu/Hindi for those who trade in gold or drive taxis; Arabic for the Master Planners; Russian or Pushtu to buy or sell cars; and Chinese for the times ahead.”

Till the end of World War II, the city did not even exist in the world map. But, today it is the fastest growing global metropolis in the world giving tough competition to the likes of London, New York, and Tokyo. Dubai is a small city-state and one of the 7 emirates constituting the United Arab Emirates. Even though ruled by an absolute monarchy of the Al Maktoum family, the city has a flabbergasting GDP of $108.14 billion and per capita income of $28,396.

And this happened overnight, literally!

Dubai used to be a small coastal village in the Persian Gulf. Most of its land used to be barren and the population was very sparse until the British left with all their forces in 1966. Apart from fishing, the other big economic activity used to be the pearling industry. But with the Japanese invention of synthetic cultured pearls, Dubai’s only economic activity also diminished.

In the 1950s, oil was discovered in the UAE, which was fully exploited by the natives as the British had to leave soon. In one decade Abu Dhabi started exporting oil. The seven emirates also started collaborating to form a modern state by then. In 1971, the United Arab Emirates was formally established when Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm al-Qaywayn came together to form a federation. Abu Dhabi’s chief Sheikh Zayed Bin-Sultan AL Nuhayaan became the leader of the new country, Abu Dhabi remained its capital.

The United Arab Emirates is not a nation-state. The seven Emirati constituents are ruled by seven families in a feudal administration.

Since Dubai had a very modest income from oil exports, its ruling family the Al Nahyans banked on another industry which would fundamentally change the landscape of the city. They invested heavily in tourism and developed the infrastructure for tourism. Today the Palm Islands and Burj Al Khalifa are standing landmarks of manmade wonders. The Emirates Airlines, with a market valuation of $25.8 Billion is one of the biggest aviation services in the world.

The other aspect of the new state of UAE was that it had no rigid tax system – neither income nor sales. This helped UAE to exploit the strict import laws of Iran and India. Dubai thus became a safe haven in the Middle East to stash all the money – legal and illegal. Gangsters and their dark professions are therefore well represented in Dubai. In fact, internationally notorious Indian origin gangster Dawood Ibrahim was last spotted publicly in a cricket match in Sharjah, Dubai’s neighbouring emirate ten miles away. Viktor Bout, renowned as the Merchant of Death in Africa and Central Asia also used to allegedly park his planes in Sharjah while receiving his cheques for services rendered to warring factions through the Standard Chartered Bank branch there.

The location is the most important advantage to UAE in general and Dubai in particular. Being in the Gulf area, it had proximity to the Indian subcontinent, the middle east, Africa as well as Europe. It has become the new Constantinople, the centre of the world. Almost all flights from the west to the east and vice versa have a layover at Dubai today.

The workforce of the city comes mostly from the Indian subcontinent – Indian, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankan, etc. Due to a demand for rapid development, it has been alleged that these migrant construction workers and labour forces are often kept in inhumane conditions. Vice news published a documentary called Slaves of Dubai in 2012 which for the first time unearthed the phenomena of modern day slavery.

It is alleged that poor labour forces are picked up from overpopulated regions like Bangladesh and India and brought to Dubai. Once they reach, their passports are taken away and they are made to live in camps which would put Nazi concentration camps to shame. In hot summer conditions of Arab where the temperature reaches as high as 50 degrees Celsius, 20 people are made to sleep in one room. The toilets often run out of the water and there is no proper sanitation as well. Such construction labourers often earn as little as AED 700 (£127) a month.

The other class of workers who are more marginalized is the numerous Asian and African women working as domestic workers who have reportedly been overworked, beaten or sexually abused by their employers but are often trapped in slave-like conditions because they are excluded from the country’s labour law protections.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that the migrant workers’ residency is tied to their employers through a sponsorship system that prevents them from changing jobs and opens them to charges if they run away. It cited passport confiscation, non-payment of wages, long hours of work, forced confinement, food deprivation and psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

The UAE government has not overlooked the matter altogether. According to reports, the Dubai Standing Committee of Labour Affairs said that only 1 percent of labourers housing facilities are in poor conditions. Major General Obaid Muhair Bin Surour, head of the committee, said that policies and efforts made by the committee since its inception in 2011 have enhanced the UAE’s reputation in international forums in terms of labour rights.

He also pointed out that the state register for the protection of workers’ rights and humanitarian work was praised by the UN Human Rights Council, International Labour Organisation, and the UN secretary-general. He further expressed his appreciation for companies cooperating closely with the committee to improve labour accommodations. He pointed out that some companies have excellent housing quarters that include swimming pools, sports facilities and health centres with clean sleeping facilities all year round.

There have been efforts from citizens as well. Like Prakarti Lakwani, an Indian national who founded the “Shukran Workers” (Thank You, Workers) whose volunteers regularly set up cinema nights for domestic workers. Future plans include adopting labour camps, offering dental check-ups and treatment to workers. Prakarti also wants to see workers upskill – learning to drive and improving their English, so one day they might not be workers anymore.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

FIFA World Cup: Not all game but human trafficking, sex tourism and drug abuse

(This article was first published at, please click on the link to find it)

In Nigeria, ten children, all of whom were in possession of a FIFA fan pass, were rescued by the officials in connection to a human trafficking racket. The group consisting of nine girls and a boy were intercepted at the Lagos’ main airport when the officials of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking of Persons (NAPTIP) suspected them for having only one-way ticket. Five suspects, including a policeman and a quarantine officer, have been arrested in connection to the incident.

Human trafficking is a big menace around the world. The U.S. Department of State estimates that around 600,000 – 800,000 people are trafficked illegally every year. And, when it comes to global events like FIFA World Cup or Olympics the intensity increases manifold.
During the 2014 Brazil World Cup, more than 600,000 fans visited the country out of whom a vast majority, almost 75% were men. These were tourists flying to the host country for a vacation along with the sports festival. According to blogger Michelle Lillie, where there is tourism, there is also sex tourism.

According to the above video, the Brazilian law sets the age of consent to fourteen-year-olds since 2009.

In Brazil, prostitution laws are similar to India and some other countries. All persons above the age of 18 can take money in exchange for sex. But running a brothel or pimping is prohibited by law. But that does not stop the illegal network of sex trafficking. Due to the two mega-events – FIFA World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016, there had been a huge increase in the demand for sexual services. Young girls, some as young as 10 or 11 years of age, were brought from other countries to ‘entertain’ the tourists flying in. They mostly came from extreme poverty. Coupled with selling their bodies, they are also prone to drug abuse, which some victims say helps them go on.

A woman aged 41, who has lived on the streets since she was seven, told The Mirror: “The children are at real risk from local men and tourists. They go with the men because they are high on drugs or need more money to buy drugs. They use drugs to numb the pain of the sexual abuse, become addicted then need to sell themselves over and over again to raise the money.”

During the 2014 edition of the FIFA WC in Rio, Vatican nuns launched a campaign against forced prostitution and sex tourism. They publicised statistics which shows that sexual exploitation rose by 30 percent in connection with the World Cup in Germany in 2006 and 40 percent at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

FIFA and Human trafficking: The other side

Human trafficking is also a perennial problem in soccer-crazy nations of West Africa. There is a scam by a network of fraudsters who offer ‘opportunities’ to young boys who come from a poor background. They promise a trial at any of the big European football clubs for a fee of as high as €3,000 which generally includes their cost of visa, passport, and airfare.

The United Nations opines that football’s obsession with fame, money and the hunt for talent has started a modern day slave trade. There are many unauthorised youth academies which sell adolescents to European or Arabian middlemen who try to sell them further to the European clubs. But often they land up nowhere.

As per a Foreign Policy report, after being recruited from west African soccer playing nations like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, the athletes are abandoned in Europe. The agent vanishes with the money and the young boys are caught with poverty in a foreign land. Hence they take up other options like crime and black economy.

The sport’s governing body FIFA’s response has been pro-active yet ineffective. In 2001, FIFA introduced the Article 19, which sets the regulations of international transfers of players. As per the law, a player below the age of 18 cannot migrate to another country. There are a few exceptions though - if the player’s home and the club’s base is within 30 miles from the international border then he can migrate, if a player is above 16 and migrating from one European country to another then it is allowed, and if a player’s family migrates country for a different reason other than soccer then also it is permitted.

But the regulation has received criticism from the American continents. Young Brazilian and Argentine players are often recruited in big Spanish clubs like FB Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid and due to this ban, the players are on the losing side. The three big clubs mentioned have received short bans regarding the same. English giant Chelsea is also under investigation for possible breaches.

Russia had given a visa-free entry during the Confederations Cup held in Moscow last year which extends to the FIFA World Cup 2018 as well. Julia Siluyanova of Russian anti-slavery group Alternativa last month told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the eased visa rules were a "present for traffickers", as its normally strict system had typically made trafficking time-consuming and costly.

Many women and girls have been lured from Nigeria in recent years with promises of work and good wages only to end up sold for sex and trapped in debt bondage, and the World Cup could see the number of victims arriving in Russia soar, Siluyanova added.

The World Cup kicked off on June 14 with host nation Russia taking on Saudi Arabia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, with the final to be played at the same stadium on July 15. Ten other cities will also be hosting World Cup matches.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

[SATIRE] JNU: An insider's POV from the outside.

(This is a guest post by an anonymous research scholar at JNU, it was written one year ago)

I am yet to find a suitable wiki article on JNU, so I wrote one. Yes, that is how I am spending time these days. Read at your own risk.
JNU is a Soviet Autonomous Region within the Republic of India. During the Cold War, when India was growing weary of Amrika, JNU was established. The initiative was taken by scholars and intel-act-uals who could not get their Amrika visas and wanted a piece of their own Zamindari. The name JNU evolved from the Bengali (its former official language) word 'Jani', which means 'I know'. After all, JNU knows everything, every non-JNUite is a potential Jon Snow, or worst, a fascist.

Some argue that it means Jihadi Naxal University, which is an utter lie. According to UNESCO, 127% of JNU students cannot lift anything heavier than a fountain pen, much less become an armed radical.

However, after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, JNU remained a Soviet outpost in South Asia. The Indians tearfully bid adieu to the USSR, singing, "Judaa ho ke bhi tu mujhme kahi baaki hain, mujhe teri yaad JNU dekh ke aati hain". Since then, JNU has thrived on its own, and have maintained its Soviet style economy, including collective farming of bullshit and equal sharing of resources. The idea of sharing has induced many people in its hostels (i.e. Gulags) to steal each other's underwears from the drying ropes, "what is yours is mine".

JNU has a thriving economy, sustained by subsidies and consumption. Assam exports one-third of its tea to JNU, Darjeeling exports two-third, and Sri Lanka exports its entire production. Before the Chai Pe Charcha became mainstream, it was invented in JNU. Later it became JNU's annual and only sport event. You will have to gulp tea and churn out the most outrageous bullshit one ever heard, preferably at Dhabas where everyone can hear you.

JNU's main export is knowledge (which no one is sure what exactly is, apart from Foucault) and propaganda.Every year, the leading giants of the Indian activism sector organise campus recruitments, and hire the jewels of the university.

Within these years, the English language, like its American or Australian offshoots, has evolved differently in JNU. Known as a JNUmese, it is a compulsory language to learn for all the freshers. Somewhere in 2000s, it replaced Bengali as the official language. The language is sweet and very expressive.

An instance-
English: "I need coffee".
JNUmese: "I am sensing a sudden proliferation of a socially constructed urge to consume the beverage which is produced by neo-liberal crooks in the countries of the global south with near-slavery-like exploitation of cheap labour, which is perpetuated and accentuated by the routinised clockwork work-life of the white-collar global north."

JNU has a thriving culture, and glorious music industry. The new heavy metal genre known as a Slogan-Core was developed in JNU. Vocalists regularly practice their skills, by shouting slogans against everyone and everything in this planet, from Barack Obama to Bappi Laihiri, from Coca-Cola to Cardiovascular Diseases. JNU also offers a degree in the most difficult musical instrument in the entire Milky Way galaxy, the Dafli.

As a result of someone farting too loudly last year, JNU is now undergoing a Civil War. The two main ethnic groups in the region, AISA and ABVP are at arms with each other. However, internal sources mention that the reason for this conflict may arise from the fact that the full form of both of their names mean the same thing. The situation at present is tense and UN intervention is being sought. 

Gender discourse in Islamic states: Two case studies.

(This article was first published at, please click on the link to find it)

Soumya Swaminathan withdraws from Iranian Chess tournament

Soumya Swaminathan, the Indian grandmaster and Commonwealth Gold (2012) medallist has decided to withdraw from the Asian Nations Cup Chess Championship 2018 which is to be held in Hamadan, Iran from July 26 to August 4 this year. In a Facebook post, she has criticised the Islamic nation’s hijab policy of public appearance.

She said, “I find the Iranian law of compulsory Headscarf to be in direct violation of my basic Human Rights including my right to freedom of expression, and right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

She has also put the organisers under the scanner, “I am very disappointed to see that player's rights and welfare are given such less importance while allotting and/or organising official championships. I understand the organisers expecting us to wear our National Team Dress or Formals or Sporting attire for our games during official championships, but surely there is no place for an enforceable religious dress code in Sports.”

This is not a new incident in Iran, there are reported cases where other women sportspersons have boycotted championships because of the hijab law. The Iranian Chess Federation had also banned chess champion Dorsa Derakhshani for attending a championship without a hijab. She later played from the US side.

The issue is very subjective yet sensitive. Even though it is a law in Iran, in the general discourse, it stands against the basic tenets of gender equality and human rights.

“The Hijab has an important place in the power dynamic between society and the ruling Iranian regime. During the revolution in 1978-79, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the hijab became a symbol of resistance and protest against the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah. The Pahlavi regime of the Shah and his predecessor had attempted to modernise the country, but its policies clashed with the religious values of a large part of the population.” says Moujan Mirdamadi, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Lancaster University.

She further explains, “Publicly wearing a hijab became a symbol of protest and solidarity against the monarchy, regardless of how religious a woman was. But wearing a veil was not compulsory for protesters, neither was making it so a demand driving the revolution.”

After the Islamic revolution in Iran, during the Iran-Iraq war, the new regime imposed strict domestic laws and in 1985 the Hijab law was imposed regardless of their religious beliefs. The Hijab was a symbol for the Islamic theocratic regime to implement their strict religious ideology. A moral police were also installed to monitor the public appearances of teenagers and young people in the country.

However, early this year, Iranian women have gone on a resistance against the Islamic regime and started breaking the Hijab Law by pulling off their headscarves in some of the busiest public squares and using them as flags. Even though the protest is done in guerrilla mode, the Iran government has responded by arresting at least 29 women. “The Iranian police announced in 2014 that they’ve warned, arrested or sent to court nearly 3.6 million women because of having bad hijab, so these arrests are not new, if people are protesting it’s exactly because of such a crackdown,” Masih Alinejad, a US-based journalist and activist told The Guardian.

A woman has taken her hijab to show her protest. (Image Credit: Twitter)

Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president for women’s affairs, however, defended the hijab law by saying that it is a “social regulation” and not wearing it amounts to public nudity. “There is no city in the world where you can walk naked in the streets and you won’t be approached by a particular regulatory body,” she said in a press conference.

Transgenders to fight Pakistan elections

Soumya’s public statement comes at a time when another Islamic regime, Pakistan, became one of the first countries to let the transgender contest elections. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) act was passed by a majority in the National Assembly in Islamabad last month. It granted basic rights for the transgender people and bans discrimination against them by employers and business owners. It also allows transgender people to self-identify as male, female or a "third sex" on official documents, such as passports or driver's licenses and outlaws harassment in public places or at home.

The makers of Pakistan dreamt of making a “New Medina”. After years of the bumpy ride between maintaining a democracy and being a failed state, the south Asian state passed a historic law which set the standard for the world to look up to. Mehlab Jameel is an activist in Lahore, Pakistan, who helped write the bill. "I heard about this yesterday morning and I was in a state of shock because I never thought something like this could happen within my own life in Pakistan," she told National Public Radio. "This kind of development is not only unprecedented in Pakistani history, but it's one of the most progressive laws in the whole world."

As a result of this effort, thirteen members of the transgender community will be contesting the July 25 elections on various seats across Pakistan. According to a Dawn report, two transgender leaders – Nayab Ali and Lubna Lal – will contest on Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Gulalai (PTI-G) tickets, while the remaining 11 candidates will run as independents.

In 2009, Pakistan became one of the first countries in the world to legally recognise a third sex, allowing transgenders to obtain identity cards. They number at least half a million people in the country, according to several studies, but their representation in politics and many other spheres of life remains minimal as they are restricted to very few job roles - with many forced to earn their living by begging and dancing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

FIFA World Cup 2018: Festival of humans, death of humanity

(This article was first published at, please click on the link to find it)

On the eve of the 1966 FIFA World Cup, a dog named ‘Pickles’ was in news. On 20th March 1966, four months before the gala event was scheduled to kick off, the original trophy was stolen during a public exhibition at Westminster Central Hall. The Jules Rimet Trophy, which was named after a French lawyer who was a president of the FIFA and initiated the World Cup competition in 1929, was made up of £30,000 solid gold.

The incident was kept confidential and a replica was being considered when the police received a call from Dave Corbett, a resident of Norwood, South London, claiming that he had recovered the trophy. It turned out that his dog Pickles found it. Dave said that when Pickles started going around his neighbour’s car constantly, then he saw a tightly bundled package wrapped in a newspaper. He tore a bit of the package and could see words like Brazil, West Germany, etc., engraved on it, along with a blank shield. His heart started pounding as he finally recognised the priceless piece of gold.

Pickles became an overnight sensation who won several awards, including Dog of the Year and has acted in a few films too. But, died in an accident in the following year. But, for FIFA World Cup, this dog remains a legendary figure out of the playing field. Since then 12 editions of FIFA World Cup have gone by. The trophy has been all over the world from Mexico to South Korea and the United States to South Africa.

Next month the 21st edition of the greatest show on earth is going to kick off in Russia. But for the host country dogs have become a liability. A petition, started by animal rights activist Yekaterina Dmitriyeva, has accused the Russian state of killing homeless stray dogs. More than a million people are already in support of the petition, which is being addressed to Russian president Vladimir Putin, supposedly a dog lover. According to her, “tenders worth $1.95million have been awarded in host cities to deploy ‘canine KGB’ deaths squads. Hundreds of thousands of dogs, cats, and even birds will be killed by terrible poisons and in some cases even more cruel ways.”
The issue has started a social media campaign already.
According to the Guardian, there are approximately two million strays in Russia’s 11 World Cup host cities and it has been estimated that local authorities will spend up to £119 million on catching, caging, sterilizing and euthanizing animals this year. But activists warn that image-conscious officials are trying to remove strays from the streets by fair means or foul play before the arrival of players and fans next month.

Russian officials deny euthanasia as state policy, and some NGOs say the same as well. The allegations of mass extermination are just “gossip”, says Yekaterina Ublinskaya, deputy director of Right to Life, an animal rights NGO operating in the western exclave of Kaliningrad, which won a £21,400 contract to provide temporary accommodation for dogs picked up off the streets for the World Cup. “There are some instances of poisoning, but these are private incidents and there is no mass poisoning.”

The Independent, however, reported that there is a crackdown not only on dogs but beggars, prostitutes, and students as well.

This isn’t the first time that Russia has been slammed for its treatment of stray animals. Thousands of stray dogs were shot and poisoned before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. Yulia Krasavo told CNN that she witnessed the long, agonizing death of a street dog when she walks out of a movie theatre in Sochi. "At first I thought someone beat the dog, she jumped up and started running around in circles. Then she fell down and started spitting up ... I called the veterinarian. He said there is a 100% guarantee the dog was poisoned.”

The sport’s international governing body, FIFA and the Local Organizing Committee said in a statement to The Washington Post that they “in no way condone cruel treatment of wild and stray animals” and would be monitoring “the appearance of stray animals in the stadiums” and “responding to any case in a humane manner.” FIFA and the organizing committee also said they were in contact with the host cities and “expect them to ensure the welfare of the animal population.”
This is also not the first instance when the prestigious international football tournament has been tainted for being inhumane. During the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, the authorities drove out tens of thousands of slum dwellers from the city. At least 19000 families were affected as reported by The Guardian.

However, from 15 June, the NIKA Foundation – a non-profit animal rescue group – will be launching a dog adoption campaign titled “Find a Friend in Russia” in all host cities.  “The visitors of the [World Cup] host cities... including foreigners, will be able to pick their new friend from a local [dog] shelter via website,” the organizers told Sputnik.

The World Cup kicks off on June 14 with host nation Russia taking on Saudi Arabia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, with the final to be played at the same stadium on July 15. Ten other cities will also be hosting World Cup matches.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Sexual redemption in times of STD: Should condoms be allowed in prisons?

(This article was first published at, please click on the link to find it)

Alfred Kurai (name changed) is a convict for 6 years in a Zimbabwean prison serving his time on fraud charges. He has a wife and 2 children aged 6 and 8 and hopes to reunite with them soon after his release. But, he is part of the prison community’s men who have sex with other men but do not necessarily identify as gay.

"First, it was because I wanted food. Here and there I would trade sex for food with some male inmates. Knowing I would be behind bars for a couple of years taught me to do what I had to do to survive," Kurai said to The Herald, avoiding eye contact. "Even after the food situation improved I would seek sexual favours here and there, not because I am gay, but because a person has needs, and with a decade to serve, you need that companionship."

Over a 30 million men and women live in prisons all over the world every year. Among them, one third are pre-trial detainees who will return to their families within a few months or a year. However, HIV-AIDS is a major health challenge for prison authorities. According to a UN report (2013), globally, the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, hepatitis B and C and tuberculosis in prison populations is 2 to 10 times as high, and in some cases may be up to 50 times as high as in the general population.

However, prevention measures are lacking in most of the developed as well as the developing countries. In Zimbabwe, legislators and civil right advocates are currently debating whether to allow access to condoms in prisons to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The debate comes after Lesotho, which has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, overlooked its criminalization laws on homosexuality to allow condoms in prisons in late 2017. The highest HIV prevalence rates worldwide is led by the East and South African countries with an estimated population of over 19.4 million infected people as reported by

The biggest challenge to this serious issue of the public health of the most marginalized section of the society is the criminalization of homosexuality. Islamic countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan have death penalties on same-sex unions. In most of the developing countries including India and a series of East African countries, homosexuality is a criminal offence amounting from 7 years to life imprisonment. Homosexuality is decriminalized only in western Europe, North America, and a few Asia-Pacific countries. But, only a handful have experimented with Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) prevention measure inside the prisons. Kurai, who supports the proposed condom policy, says he has seen many fellows die in prison due to AIDS-related illnesses.

India, which has the third largest HIV infected population, has a total population of 2.1 million people living with HIV. In 2016 alone, 62,000 people died due to AIDS-related infection. In 2015, a study was conducted by the National AIDS Control Society (NACO) of men who have sex with men. Conducted across 12 Indian cities, the study found that 7% of the population tested positive for HIV. The legal status of same-sex conduct in India has fluctuated in recent years. In December 2013, India's Supreme Court re-criminalized adult consensual same-sex sexual conduct, after the Delhi High Court had decriminalized it in 2009. This raised fears about access to HIV prevention and treatment for men who have sex with men. However, in February 2016, India’s Supreme Court announced a review of the 2013 decision.

Recently, the NACO launched a prison intervention program which found that the infected population among the prison inmates is much higher than the general population and this is because of unsafe sex as well as drug abuse. According to a UPI report, in 1995 itself, a medical committee appointed by the Indian Council of Medical Research suggested that condoms be made part of prison’s health facilities. However, until as late as 2018, there was no action regarding this.

Among the developed nations, United States has a very high rate of STD-related epidemics. On October 14, 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to determine the ‘risk and viability’ of allowing non-profit or health care agencies to distribute sexual barrier protection devices like condoms to inmates in one state prison facility. His argument was that even though sexual activity in prisons is against the law, providing condoms to inmates is “consistent with the need to improve our prison health care system and overall health.” The pilot project opines that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Programs on HIV/AIDS recommend that prisoners have access to condoms during their time in prison. Studies have found no security problems or serious incidents involving a condom, no increase in sexual activity, and that when condoms are available inmates use them during sex.

In a study published (2002) by the AIDS Education and Prevention journal, researchers J. May and E. Williams found that 55 per cent of inmates and 64 per cent of correctional officers supported the availability of condoms at the Central Detention Facility in Washington DC. The objections, however, were mostly due to moral and religious concerns about homosexual activity. A 1-year pilot study (2014) of wall-mounted condom dispensing machines in one California state prison compared pre- and post-intervention rates of penal code violations related to sexual misconduct, contraband, controlled substances, and violence. The rates of penal code violations were unchanged or decreased compared to the pre-pilot year. Discreetly located condom dispensers were vandalized less frequently than those in plain view. The study suggested that distributing condoms using the pilot model would cost less than $2 per inmate annually. Condoms are available in two prisons and five county jail systems including the Los Angeles and San Francisco County jails in the United States and many prison systems worldwide.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Pigeon Pea Economy and Indo-African relations

(This article was first published at, please click on the link to find it)

Protein hunger, an important aspect of malnutrition continues to be a major concern around the world. The drylands, covering 55 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and inhabited by 2 billion people, 644 million of whom are poor, are most vulnerable to climate change with very little rainfall, degraded soils, and poor social infrastructure resulting in risk of malnutrition and poor health status.

The Pigeon Pea is a perennial legume from the family Fabaceae which was first domesticated in India at least 3500 years ago. Today the vegetable is, however, common in Asia, Africa and Latin America and all tropical and sub-tropical regions both as a food as well as an agricultural product. In the Philippines, it is regarded as ‘poor man’s crop’. Due to its high protein content, it is being treated as a substitute for meat in many African countries and thus a nutritious food to tackle malnutrition. The shrub can grow up to 3.5 meters and the seeds which come in colours like white, green, cream, brown, purplish or black are rich in nutrients like magnesium, phosphorous, calcium, and potassium. Apart from protein which is 15-22 grams per 100 grams, it also provides an adequate amount of iron, carbohydrates, fats, dietary fibre, Vitamin B and C. The pulse is an affordable source for preventing Anaemia, particularly for pregnant women.

According to a study conducted at the University of Philippines in 2005, the development of new pigeon pea based value-added processed products may kick off an affordable alternative to the meat-based protein market and boost the small hold farmers and rural households with additional income. After testing various recipes using a trial-and-error method, the best recipe formulation for pigeon pea cakes, cookies and polvoron were identified using a 1:5:1 ratio of commercial cake flour and pigeon pea flour. If commercialization of baked products was feasible, this will make available affordable, ready-to-eat, protein-rich food to a broad sector of society and offer livelihood opportunities for housewives, cooperatives, or women's groups as a small scale enterprise.

International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is an India based research centre which through scientific research aims to find solutions for the nutrition security of people in these regions. It has collaborated with NRGene, an Israeli genomic big data company which develops cutting-edge software and algorithms to reveal the complexity and diversity of humans, plants, and animals for supporting the most advanced medical research and sophisticated breeding programmes. Together they have developed a new technology with which genomic process that could have taken years, have been completed in just a few months.

“The developing world has long faced the pressures of food security with limited farmland,” said Dr. Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains and Director, Centre-of-Excellence in Genomics & Systems Biology, ICRISAT. “For effective use of genomics-assisted breeding, we need reference genomes of several varieties of a given crop. Therefore, new assemblies of chickpea and pigeon pea lines by NRGene and ICRISAT will allow our scientists and partners to better understand plant traits to breed more nutritional varieties,” Varshney added. ICRISAT in partnership with other institutions has already decoded and documented genomes of pigeon pea and chickpea.

Tanzania is an East African country known mostly for gems and precious metals which amount to 36% of its total exports. But, that is a colonial legacy. Today the country boasts of sustainable agricultural practices. Out of its total national export value, vegetables amount to almost 5.8%. A major share of the vegetable exports is occupied by the $240 million Pigeon Pea industry. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, the world produces almost 4.49 million tons of Pigeon Pea out of which 63% is produced by India alone. Africa contributes almost 21% which makes it produce almost 1.05 million tons.

In Sudan, the Pigeon Pea is mostly consumed as boiled dry seeds. They add either sugar and fat or salt, with onion and sesame oil. Its consumption is related to the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan, and happy occasions. However, recently experts are recommending the use of pigeon pea for school pupils and student boarding houses, as a cheap and equally nutritional source.

India faced a serious shortage of the highly nutritious legume during 2014-16. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi went around these countries and desperately urged them to produce and supply more to India. The Indian Prime Minister in a visit to Tanzania promised that India would increase imports from the country to one million tonnes annually for all pulses, including pigeon peas. But, in 2016-17, India harvested a record 22.9 million tonnes of the legume while unrestricted duty-free import continued. This led to a drastic fall in domestic prices post-demonetization of high-value currency notes in India.

In August 2017, the Indian state-imposed quantitative restrictions (QRs) on the import of pigeon pea (tur/arhar) and black matpe (urad) and green gram (moong) from Tanzania. The reason behind the ban is not clear but it is assumed that it is because of over-production of the legumes in India over the last two years. India's Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued a Trade Notice No. 13 (2015-2020) restricting imports of the commodity from countries with no bilateral agreement on the crop with the South Asian nation.

This unanticipated move has not only affected the Tanzanian export revenue but hundreds of pigeon pea farmers and traders across the east African country were affected. They, in the peak season for the crop, were unable to sell their hundreds of tonnes of produce because of a lack of market. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that about 300,000 households are involved in pigeon pea farming. Tanzania's pigeon pea exports to India ranged from 160,000 to 180,000 tonnes annually out of an estimated 200,000 tonnes yearly production. That accounted for 97 percent of the exports. The remainder is sold to the Middle East, Kenya, Eastern Europe, and North America.

There is no justification, nonetheless, argues Mr. Charles Mwijage, the Tanzanian Minister for Industry, Trade, and Investment in an interview with The Citizen. "This is a violation of WTO rules. Under WTO this is not justifiable." Best practices in international trade, he pointed out, would only allow increased import duty "even of up to 100 percent" but not quantitative restrictions. "Our exporters are ready to sacrifice 10 percent to 20 percent loss because they can still sell it but now they could not sell because of the total restriction," he explained. Mr. Daniel Charles, the CEO of Kilimo Markets, an Arusha based trading firm has accused India of violating international treaties on trade. He demanded at least a waiver for the ban from India and asked the Tanzanian government to respond and act on the issue.