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Children of a Lesser God

February 07, 2011 15:14 IST

Rajeev Srinivasan on how the uncaring State does not give a damn about the rights of the poor and the middle class. Last of a two-part series

Part I: How the State oppresses the 'little people'

Perversion of the judicial process, witness tampering and evidence-destruction are precisely what happened to another 'little person': Sister Abhaya, a 19-year-old nun. She was found dead in the well of a nunnery in Kottayam, Kerala, in 1992. There was a cursory post-mortem, and it appears that there has been a systematic cover-up, including the destruction of crucial evidence, tampering of forensic records, etc.

Although there were accusations from day one that Abhaya had been murdered, there was a campaign to malign her and to pretend that it was yet another case of a nun simply committing suicide -- of which, sadly, there are many in Kerala. Most are quickly settled under the aegis of the powerful church, which manages to hush up and sweep under the carpet anything that might affect its brand identity.

But in Abhaya's case, there was again a single, courageous individual -- a citizen named Jomon Puthenpurackal. He has staged a one-man battle, urging Abhaya's impoverished parents to stay the course to take on the vested interests. For his pains, Jomon got hit in 2010 with an investigation into his financial affairs, with broad hints that he had certain patrons.

After 16 long years, Jomon and his action council succeeded in bringing the case to a point where three of the accused -- padres Kottoor and Puthrakkayil and nun Seffi -- confessed (under sodium pentathol or the truth serum) that Abhaya had chanced upon them in flagrante delicto in a threesome, at 2 am in the kitchen of the nunnery. Thereupon, they had bopped her on the head with an axe and dumped her in the well.

These sensational findings gave us the impression that poor Abhaya was finally going to get justice. However, strange things began to happen. A judge of the Karnataka high court visited the forensic lab in Bengaluru where the testing was done, and was given a private presentation of the evidence. When this was sub-judice, wasn't it against normal judicial practice for a judge who had nothing to do with a case to review evidence?

And then, the Supreme Court, rather conveniently, handed down a new judgment that ruled that narcotic evidence was not acceptable. In effect, this brought the Abhaya case back to square one, and the accused trio are getting off scot-free, because their trial has been for all practical purposes declared a mistrial.

None of the new-fangled 'rights' that have been introduced recently gave Abhaya (or Rajan) the right to justice and a fair trial. But the usual suspects are busy manufacturing new rights. First, the right to information. Then the right to education. And now there is the outstandingly inane 'right to food'. Food will become increasingly scarce (as with onions recently, the reason is that the predatory State has continuously subdued the farmer). The activists will then advise the poor, instead of eating onions, to eat the 'right to food' bill.

The third story of 'small people' is about Endosulfan victims in Kerala. This insecticide was sprayed aerially to control the tea mosquito for over 20 years (1989-2000), especially in 4,500 acres of state-owned cashew plantations in Kasargod district. This is one of the most toxic of agrichemicals, and according to Wikipedia, its potential for bioaccumulation and its role as an endocrine disruptor make it particularly dangerous. It has been banned in 63 countries, and there is a global ban considered on its use.

By 2001, people started noticing the astronomically high rates of abortion, sterility, congenital abnormalities, including physical deformities, mental retardation and growth abnormalities, in addition to skin and lung problems, central nervous system diseases and cancer. Livestock were also affected in similar ways. This is an environmental catastrophe: it has been called a "Bhopal in slow motion". Nine thousand people have been affected, with at least 400 deaths thought to be related to the chemical.

The images of children with serious handicaps including major deformities are heart-rending. I am reminded of the thalidomide crisis in the US in the 1950s which caused thousands of malformed children to be born -- without skulls, or limbs, or with cruelly deformed bodies. Similarly there was the Minamata disease in Japan, the result of mercury poisoning in the 1950s, which also resulted in grotesquely deformed babies being born.

In the case of thalidomide, the drug only affected the pregnant women (and their children) who had taken it to control morning sickness. But in both the Endosulfan case and with Minamata disease, there is bio-accumulation: the chemical is poisoning the environment and being absorbed into the food chain and the rivers or sea to such an extent that the area may well be permanently unlivable.

In Kerala, rivers are showing suspiciously high levels of compounds derived from Endosulfan; therefore the lives of those living downstream from these hills in Kasargod are also in possible jeopardy. The river Periyar, the largest in Kerala, shows levels of pesticide that are several times higher than the permitted level.

What is particularly disheartening is the State's response to the crisis. Compare what happened in the US with thalidomide: the onerous and detailed drug-approval process -- it takes about 14 years and requires a container-load of documents -- was put in place to avoid another drug being released to market without exhaustive testing. That State viewed it as its responsibility to look after its citizens.

In Japan, the Chisso Corporation whose factory had spewed methylmercury into the sea paid, up till 2004, a total of $86 million in compensation to over 10,000 people, of whom 2,265 were officially recognised as victims: a per head sum of roughly $1,000 in pre-2004 dollars.

But in the Endosuflan case, in 2010 victims were offered a monthly pension of Rs 250 by the Kerala government, plus subsidised rice. Let us note in passing that the same Kerala government gave Rs 500,000 in compensation for people who died after consuming methyl-alcohol-laden illegal hooch, although they sinned of their own choice, unlike the deformed children of Kasargod.

The Government of India refused in 2010 to impose a national ban on Endosulfan, claiming that the scientific studies have not actually 'proven' a link between the pesticide and the health problems. Even the Kerala ban is partly subverted by people smuggling it in from Tamil Nadu. There will, it appears, be many more blighted lives. Why does the State not care?

A fourth story about 'small people' was about mercy killings in Tamil Nadu. A story about thalaikoothal in Virudhunagar was reported by Tehelka magazine (Mother, shall I put you to sleep?, November 20). I have not seen this corroborated elsewhere, but I shall assume the story is factual: impoverished people in Tamil Nadu ritually murdering their aged parents for a simple, rational reason, that they cannot afford to support them.

This reminds me of a powerful film, The Ballad of Narayama (1983), set in 19th-century Japan. It deservedly won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1983. It illustrates a ritual called ubatse in a poor mountainous area where the land has limited carrying capacity: every time a child is born, an old person has to die, for they cannot afford to feed that extra mouth.

In effect, it means that at the age of 70, every old person will be taken to the snowy peaks and left there to die of starvation and exposure. In the film, an iron-willed matriarch resolves that when her time comes, she will go of her own will, not be dragged kicking and screaming. She methodically arranges her affairs, and then forces her grief-stricken, unwilling son to carry her to the mountaintop, where she will die. It is an indictment of the failure of India's leadership that something from pre-industrial Japan 200 years ago finds echoes in today's India.

This is merely a graphic illustration of the fact that India has a predatory State that is no different either from the much-maligned feudal monarchies of old, or the famously cruel, grasping colonial State that caused the famine deaths of up to 30 million people in the late 1800s. No, baby, we haven't come a long way, alas.

There are 'collectors' doing what colonial tax collectors did, but worse, a whole new job description of 'politicians' who see rent-seeking as their birthright, along with 'journalists' who publish advertorials and opinion that serves the highest bidder (as the Twitteratti forced some senior media mavens to confess). With this babu-neta-journo nexus, the proverbial common man basically has no chance. That this is so is well-known, but 2010 made the breathtaking scale of this more evident: unless you skim off sums in percentage of GDP, you are nobody now. Mere crores are passé.

I have only looked at some 'little people' from southern India here. Undoubtedly there are similar stories from every state in the country. It adds up to a disheartening picture -- despite all the rhetoric, as demonstrated by the scams, the haves are involved in grand larceny while the have-nots are regressing.

The civil rights of Indians are in jeopardy, not to mention their wallets, their land, their health, and their very lives. This is the cruel message from 2010: while children of greater gods are getting rich, others are dying, unsung, unmourned and unwept.

Rajeev Srinivasan