Shattering the Silence: Privatisation’s adverse effects on women

This article originally appeared on The F Word.

Recent media reports have highlighted how big outsourcing companies like G4S and Serco are failing to deliver on public sector contracts, and even, making services worse. This is bad news for all citizens of the UK, but particularly for marginalised groups who suffer systemic injustices. Despite being half of the country’s population, women continue to be one of these groups, and recent findings have proved that women are particularly disadvantaged by privatisation.

Women have been disproportionately affected by the economic downturn and by austerity measures, with twice as many women as men losing their jobs in the public sector, and the female unemployment rate at its highest for over 25 years. Women are also doubly impacted as mothers and carers providers by austerity measures, with vulnerable women (PDF) – many traumatised by violence and abuse – the hardest hit. A recent damning report by the think tank the Institute for Government has drawn attention to the many problems with the government’s current programme of privatisation. Outsourcing contracts to organisations that lack the experience, expertise and even willingness to provide effective services is suggestive of the questionable direction the welfare system is being taken by successive governments. The unremitting focus on cutting costs shows a shocking disregard for the many human beings who are suffering and for whom this welfare is (in many cases, literally) a matter of life and death.

One such example of this is Anna, a Nigerian woman, who was trafficked into the UK as a sex slave and fled her captors to seek asylum in 2010. She and her young son have been forced to move five times in six months as a result of the failure of a private subcontractor to pay their rent, electricity and utility bills.

Stories such as hers are sadly not unusual. I recently worked with Kazuri, a social enterprise with a focus on housing as a human right, on a report entitled “Carers or Captors?” (PDF) highlighting the UK asylum system’s abysmal failure to protect women. Many of these women are seeking asylum because of the extreme ordeal they have already suffered, and are thus particularly vulnerable to re-traumatisation. G4S, one of the largest security companies in the world, won £324m out of a seven year £620m contract to house asylum seekers, and has made more than £1.5bn over five years from government contracts in the UK alone. The prospect of large profits awaiting private sector organisations suggest that they will continue to express interest in public sector contracts, but continuous outsourcing belies any real governmental interest in welfare. The report indicates their apathetic attitude towards providing a standard of housing fit for human habitation; this coupled with their policy of intimidation and harassment suggests their motives are unlikely to be altruistic.

When female asylum seekers have been evicted because firms contracted by G4S have failed to pay rent, when a G4S guard involved in the death of a 15 year old is promoted and is behind an application to open a privately run children’s home, and when the government allows known intimidators of vulnerable women to run rape crisis centres, it is time something is done. Evidence given by Stephen Small, the Managing Director of the contract for asylum seeker housing, to the Home Affairs Select Committee looking into the Compass housing contract confirms G4S and Serco are running housing for vulnerable people as loss leaders, in order to get a foot in the door to provide large social housing contracts to vulnerable communities. It should be obvious and yet must continue to be said: security and outsourcing companies have no place in a sector whose responsibility it is to provide welfare to the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our society. Following Kazuri’s report, Margaret Hodge, MP, chair of the UK government’s public account committee, has called a public inquiry into the UK Border Agency’s COMPASS contract and into private sector delivery of public services. Whilst this is an important step, public pressure must continue against privatisation of public services to stop this entrenched institutional bias against women and other marginalised groups. This bias silences thousands of women, often doubly marginalised for their colour, race, ethnicity or social background.

For this reason, in collaboration with Kazuri, I will be co-editing Women vs The State (UK), a compilation of women’s true accounts of injustices suffered due to the privatisation of public services and unfair austerity measures. We intend to shatter the silence around the outsourcing of government contracts, and their sickening effects on the most vulnerable members of UK society. This book will also form part of the evidence base for a broader campaign supporting a formal public inquiry into the procurement, commissioning and monitoring of public services by large private sector companies, to be launched in the House of Lords in November.

These companies continue to abjectly fail to provide services, violate the human rights of the most vulnerable and be paid for the privilege with impunity. Private companies with such dismal human rights records must no longer be awarded public sector contracts, unless uncompromising measures for accountability and monitoring are put into place.

For more information about Women v The State (UK) or to provide an account of gender discrimination due to privatisation or austerity cuts, please contact her on Nanki@kazuri.org.uk.

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Could India Create the World’s (Second) Largest Police State?

This article was originally published here on Eurasia Review.

As the world’s largest democracy, India is known as an emerging economic powerhouse, a new member of the UN Human Rights Council vying for a seat on the Security Council, but also a country whose rampant poverty, corruption and bureaucracy weighs down its every upward stride. Now, imagine if instead of cultivating a culture of openness, transparency and discourse, it gallops towards one of fear, mistrust and closed doors. Imagine if the 1.2 billion people who live here became part of a new era electronic police state.

Could India create an electronic police state (characterised by government surveillance of telephonic traffic, email, internet surfing, video surveillance and other electronic tracking)? It’s certainly trying. Through the Unique Identification Project, the Government is building a database – the largest of its kind – documenting every citizen to create a unique biometric-based identity: the Aadhaar number. The scheme has been lauded for its eventual ability to ensure that benefits and services promised by the government actually reach those to whom they are due. In a country where claiming entitlements under a government scheme is often difficult, and where benefits are given, they are often below par or scarce, an identity number could provide people with an empowering tool. However, cases of fraud, misinformation and unnecessary bureaucracy, exemplified by the fortunate coriander plant in Andhra Pradesh which (or should I say who?) received its own Aadhaar number, have already marred progress. Perhaps what is most concerning is the unreliability of biometric data: fingerprints which are not taken to a particular standard are not accurate, and can change with heavy labour and age. Iris scans can be fooled by something as simple as a contact lens. Neither of these methods then are fool-proof identifiers, especially when the initial data is itself recorded incorrectly. The fact that this technology is already failing calls into question whether a database of such massive scale can be securely maintained.

The Finance Ministry has recently suggested that 16 states link the Aadhaar number to social development programmes – covering everything from Public Distribution System (PDS) to National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 was rejected by Parliament because of the provision to make the Aadhaar number compulsory. This new measure suggests an attempt to supplant this by giving people no choice if they want to receive their benefits. With the Finance Minister’s sanction of over Rs. 14000 crore to enroll 40 crore more citizens, perhaps the government has recognised the benefits of the UID, not to the country’s poor, but to its own welfare.

With all this, the question of privacy is being ignored. A growing number of media exposés highlight the many ways in which the government is watching its citizens, suggesting an implicit lack of respect for this right: to be free from unsanctioned intrusion. The right to privacy is fundamental, enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Indian constitution. Without a law in place, personal security too is sidelined; there is no way to control the government’s use of private data or its access to it.

With the Right to Privacy Bill 2011 to be on the monsoon parliamentary agenda, public awareness of these issues is crucial. Privacy rights are fundamental to put safeguards in place to prevent overzealous government authorities from monitoring innocent citizens. In a country with a long history of corruption, there is no guarantee that this data will not be shared by greedy powers-that-be or handed over to National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), already accesses 21 databases of personal information, under the often alarmist argument of national security and counter terrorism.

To make matters worse, the mounting tension between the Registrar General of Census’s National Population Register (NPR) and Nilekan’s UID, was diffused only by the decision to link the UID database to the Home Ministry’s Crime and Criminal Tracking System (CCTNS) – a complete reversal from the initial assurances that information collected under the UID would not be linked to any other databases. CCTNS is legally bound by the Information Technology Act 2008, amended by the Information Technology Rules 2011. Under these Rules, the Government has unprecedented powers of surveillance, intrusive monitoring and interception of encrypted information. The Rules maintain that “information shall be shared, without obtaining prior consent… with Government agencies… to obtain information including sensitive personal data or information for the purpose of verification of identity, or for prevention, detection, investigation including cyber incidents, prosecution, and punishment of offences.“  If the UID database falls under this mandate, it means that provided the government claims national security or even merely criminal investigation, they can access any information, and privacy be damned.

In a country like India, where there is little discourse between government and ordinary citizens, where government entities are not known for prioritising and safeguarding citizens’ rights, or of being overly conscious of legal practices, access to huge amounts of information can only increase this chasm of power.  After the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the excuse of “national security” to fight against the all-encompassing threat of “terrorism” has allowed the Government free reign to spy on and collect information on its own citizens. The ability to then profile each citizen will give them the ability to decide off-hand who is or isn’t a danger to their personal ideal of a safe Indian nation. When a citizen does something which opposes a traditionalist Government, what is to stop the government from threatening, accusing, or arresting them on mere suspicion?

The ensuing worry that private data may end up in malicious hands stopped a biometric identity from being created in the UK in 2004; the right to privacy is so significant that the Data Protection law superseded even the Freedom of Information Act.

The notion then of a well-understood and utilised right to privacy law is crucial, but over 200 million people have already been registered and the likelihood of the UID’s denunciation is now slim. In countries where ‘big brother’ laws are leading to electronic police states, this culture of monitoring can only be exacerbated by a database of personal information this large and could lead to other violations of human rights. Monitoring, through intelligence equipment, and profiling, through stores of personal data, can become pervasive, invasive and all-encompassing. And particularly in a country with a poor and uneducated populace, governments are able to run unchecked, monitoring their citizens while proclaiming gleefully, “it’s for your own good.” Worst of all, India could lose its crown as the world’s largest democracy and instead become the far less glamorous world’s second largest police state.

As the world’s largest democracy, India is known as an emerging economic powerhouse,a new member of the UN Human Rights Council vying for a seat on the Security Council, but alsoa country whose rampant poverty, corruption and bureaucracy weighs down itsevery upward stride. Now, imagine if instead of cultivating a culture of openness, transparency and discourse, it gallops towards one of fear, mistrust and closed doors. Imagine if the 1.2 billion people who live here became part of a new era electronic police state.

Could India create an electronic police state (characterised by government surveillance of telephonic traffic, email, internet surfing, video surveillance and other electronic tracking)? It’s certainly trying. Through the Unique Identification Project, the Government is building a database–the largest of its kind – documenting every citizen to create a unique biometric-based identity: the Aadhaar number. The scheme has been lauded for its eventual ability to ensure that benefits and services promised by the government actually reach those to whom they are due. In a country where claiming entitlements under a government scheme is often difficult, and where benefits are given, they are often below par or scarce, an identity number could provide people with an empowering tool. However, cases of fraud, misinformation and unnecessary bureaucracy, exemplified by the fortunate coriander plant in Andhra Pradesh which (or should I say who?) received its own Aadhaar number, have already marred progress. Perhaps what is most concerning is the unreliability of biometric data: fingerprints which are not taken to a particular standard are not accurate, and can change with heavy labour and age. Iris scans can be fooled by something as simple as a contact lens. Neither of these methods then are fool-proof identifiers, especially when the initial data is itself recorded incorrectly. The fact that this technology is already failing calls into question whether a database of such massive scale can be securely maintained.

The Finance Ministry has recently suggested that 16 states link the Aadhaar number to social development programmes – covering everything from Public Distribution System (PDS) to National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 was rejected by Parliament because of the provision to make the Aadhaar number compulsory. This new measure suggests an attempt to supplant this by giving people no choice if they want to receive their benefits. With the Finance Minister’s sanction of over Rs. 14000 crore to enroll 40 crore more citizens, perhaps the government has recognised the benefits of the UID, not to the country’s poor, but to its own welfare.

With all this, the question of privacy is being ignored. A growing number of media exposés highlight the many ways in which the government is watching its citizens, suggesting an implicit lack of respect for this right: to be free from unsanctioned intrusion. The right to privacy is fundamental, enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Indian constitution. Without a law in place, personal security too is sidelined; there is no way to control the government’s use of private data or its access to it.

With the Right to Privacy Bill 2011 to be on the monsoon parliamentary agenda, public awareness of these issues is crucial. Privacy rights are fundamental to put safeguards in place to prevent overzealous government authorities from monitoring innocent citizens. In a country with a long history of corruption, there is no guarantee that this data will not be shared by greedy powers-that-be or handed over to National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), already accesses 21 databases of personal information, under the often alarmist argument of national security and counter terrorism.

To make matters worse, the mounting tension between the Registrar General of Census’s National Population Register (NPR) and Nilekan’s UID, was diffused only by the decision to link the UID database to the Home Ministry’s Crime and Criminal Tracking System (CCTNS)– a complete reversal from the initial assurances that information collected under the UID would not be linked to any other databases. CCTNS is legally bound by the Information Technology Act 2008, amended by the Information Technology Rules 2011. Under these Rules, the Government has unprecedented powers of surveillance, intrusive monitoring and interception of encrypted information. The Rules maintain that “information shall be shared, without obtaining prior consent… with Government agencies… to obtain information including sensitive personal data or information for the purpose of verification of identity, or for prevention, detection, investigation including cyber incidents, prosecution, and punishment of offences.“ If the UID database falls under this mandate, it means that provided the government claims national security or even merely criminal investigation, they can access any information, and privacy be damned.

In a country like India, where there is little discourse between government and ordinary citizens, where government entities are not known for prioritising and safeguarding citizens’ rights, or of being overly conscious of legal practices, access to huge amounts of information can only increase this chasm of power. After the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the excuse of “national security” to fight against the all-encompassing threat of “terrorism” has allowed the Government free reign to spy on and collect information on its own citizens. The ability to then profile each citizen will give them the ability to decide off-hand who is or isn’t a danger to their personal ideal of a safe Indian nation. When a citizen does something which opposes a traditionalist Government, what is to stop the government from threatening, accusing, or arresting them on mere suspicion?

The ensuing worry that private data may end up in malicious hands stopped a biometric identity from being created in the UK in 2004; the right to privacy is so significant that the Data Protection law superseded even the Freedom of Information Act.

The notion then of a well-understood and utilised right to privacy law is crucial, but over 200 million people have already been registered and the likelihood of the UID’s denunciation is now slim. In countries where ‘big brother’ laws are leading to electronic police states, this culture of monitoring can only be exacerbated by a database of personal information this large and could lead to other violations of human rights. Monitoring, through intelligence equipment, and profiling, through stores of personal data, can become pervasive, invasive and all-encompassing. And particularly in a country with a poor and uneducated populace, governments are able to run unchecked, monitoring their citizens while proclaiming gleefully, “it’s for your own good.” Worst of all, India could lose its crown as the world’s largest democracy and instead become the far less glamorous world’s second largest police state.

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Impunity Reigns In India

This article was originally published on Eurasia Review.

Once again, it seems India’s pledge to uphold the tenets of human rights has come to nothing. In January this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) painted a damning picture of the state of human rights in its World Report. The report assessing 90 countries indicts India for allowing impunity for human rights violators, for failing to protect vulnerable communities and victims of abuse and for missing vital opportunities to prove its commitment to human rights internationally. Yet, in the 4 months since the report was published, little has been done.

The report illuminates sickening acts of cruelty and brutality perpetrated by the security forces around the country. Forcible disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir, unlawful killings by Border Security Forces at the Bangladesh border and during counterinsurgency operations in Maoist-controlled states, threats, beatings and deaths of activists and whistleblowers, are just some of the violations mentioned. Most damning of all is HRW’s conclusion that little or nothing has been done to end the impunity of the forces sworn to protect the citizens of this country. Christof Heynes’ visit last month, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, reiterated these deep-seated concerns when he mentioned these abuses, particularly focusing on special acts which write impunity into the law.

Only last year, India stood up and solemnly pledged to the Human Rights Council that it “will continue to abide by its national mechanisms… to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all its citizens.” It vowed to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, promote the empowerment of women, ratify the United Nations treaties against torture and enforced disappearances, abide by the Right to Information Act and strengthen civil society. Yet, little progress has been made – perpetrators of grave human rights violations continue to run free whilst millions of innocents remain hidden in the depths of India’s prisons.

Maja Daruwala, Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, points out: “Rights violations take place in all countries but it is the response that matters. Governments must act swiftly and sternly particularly against criminal acts by its own agents but it does not. There is also a high tolerance for illegal behavior within security forces and the police. The senior leadership must speak out and act against bad apples if they really believe in upholding the law.”

A plethora of ‘special’ acts allow for impunity to unreservedly embed itself in daily practice. Even as the Home Minister repeatedly promises to amend and moderate the effects of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a law which provides extensive police powers and wide protections to armed forces operating in vaguely defined “disturbed” areas – no great efforts have been made. Bringing criminal and illegal acts of armed forces, operating in conflict areas, to justice remains absurdly difficult. ‘Special’ acts apart, general protections for government servants written into ordinary law are routinely abused to deliberately delay well-deserved investigation and prosecution. The pace at which the legal system clunks along helps contribute to the culture of ‘getting away’ with abuse under the guise of uniformed authority. Despite the continually piling up evidence, the promised law to severely punish torture remains a pipedream, police reforms are strongly resisted and no overhaul of the criminal justice system is in sight.

Due to India’s new economic clout, its presence and influence on the global stage is more visible than ever before. As a member of both BRICS (Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa) and IBSA (India Brazil South Africa Dialogue Forum), India’s human rights stance is now being scrutinised even more closely; the failure to act is noticed and will most definitely be critiqued. As a member of the Human Rights Council, India is positioned at the very forefront of promoting human rights, but credibility can only come if it acts with integrity at home. India’s leadership on human rights is courted by the West as a counter to China, but in reality India’s domestic human rights record repeatedly forces it to be defensive and equivocal on human rights issues.

In light of Katherine Boo’s acclaimed Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope In a Mumbai Undercity which has shaken naïve views of India as an emergent superpower and instead highlighted the rampant corruption and police abuse, the Government of India needs to start taking human rights abuse seriously. Otherwise, damning reports will again humiliate the country as its human rights record comes up at the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review in the next few months. India must prevent the blows of rights violation and impunity from falling upon individual victims, their families and whole communities. Otherwise, another shaming report will be ignored and suppressed by a power-hungry and cavalier political class, leaving behind an enduring mess of human suffering and abuse throughout the country.

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“Asking for it”: Delhi police blame rape on the victims

This article was originally published here on The F Word, an online UK feminist magazine.

A recent sting exposé in an Indian magazine, Tehelka, well-known for its investigative journalism, showed police officials in New Delhi, blaming rape on the victims. Their views ranged from “it was about the money”, “she was drinking alcohol”, these “girls wear short skirts”, “she had sex with her boyfriend, and so his friends joined in” and the all-encompassing “she was asking for it”. The insensitive, misogynistic and deeply horrifying commentary given by high-ranking police officials in the capital and its satellite towns, Gurgaon, Noida and Faridabad, are representative of the embedded misogyny still so prevalent in Indian society.

The problematic nature of casual jokes about rape in the UK have been discussed on The F-Word, and are taken note of in the mainstream media, but what about a society which brushes sexual crime under the carpet, refuses to introduce sex education in schools, and still holds men superior to women in a myriad of ways?

In much of India, women’s rights remain paltry. Recent reports have detailed dowry deaths, child marriage, honour killings, trafficking and domestic violence as rife in both rural and urban areas. These facts are widely noted by human rights organisations, are covered in the media but a culturally lackadaisical attitude (“this is India, anything goes”) has meant that little has been done to combat these issues.

Tehelka’s exposé very baldly paints a damning picture of the attitudes towards women. The fact that these men are police officers, are educated, have been trained and supposedly sensitised, are entrusted with the safety of India’s citizens, gives us an insight into how safe the city really is. Known as the rape capital of India, hardly a day goes by when a case of molestation, rape, or gang rape is not reported by the mainstream media. And yet, for every rape case, studies show that 50 go unreported, because of the social stigma attached to rape. According to the police, only 10% of cases are genuine, because no true victim would report the crime. They claim: “In reality, the ones who complain are those who have made rape a business”.

The propensity of these officers to speak so bluntly about sensitive issues shows a complete lack of sensitisation to the proliferation of rape cases in India. The lack of safe public transport at night limits female independence, so much so that the Gurgaon administration recently told women to stop working after 8pm because they could not guarantee their safety. Instead of attempting to weed out the corrupt, sleazy and untrustworthy forces within the police, the administration chose to restrict women’s freedom. The mentality then that women are to blame is pervasive not just through the police force, but also the government who prefer to blame the victims instead of indicting the actual criminals. This move would take India back decades, creating a greater skew towards men, as employers will resent being told to ensure women have safe transport home. On April 13th, 200 women protested against the 8pm curfew demanding a safer city: these are women who refuse to take this attitude lying down. The feminist movement is most definitely alive then and acting as a counter to a misogynistic and patriarchal society.

As an emerging power on the global stage, which is being considered for a place on the United Nations Security Council, which has gained a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the hypocrisy of India’s ruling class must be addressed. While most articles on India note the economic disparities which permeate the country, rarely do they consider India’s human rights record, its treatment of the stigmatised and unfortunately of women, who remain a vulnerable group. The continued use of the archaic and heinous “two-finger test” to determine a victim’s “virginity” and “habituation to sexual intercourse” merely provides another mode by which women can be subjugated. If the two inserted fingers are easily admitted, the victim is quite literally describes as a “loose” woman. The fact that a victim must be further abused, that her lack of virginity calls into question her moral character, is a sickening violation of human rights. It is no wonder then that so many rapes go unreported.

For India to sit up on its high horse and ignore the extreme rights violations perpetuated by its own forces is quite blatantly ridiculous. The exposé has caused a flood of outrage on both social and mainstream media by activists, advocates and public figures; however, there has been little coverage in the international media. Activists, feminists and indeed, anyone who believes it is the perpetrators not the victims who should be punished, should take note of the vitriolic attitudes towards women still alive in the vibrant, power-hungry and emerging power-to-be that is India.

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The battle for internet freedom (India edition)

This is an update to my last post on this blog which dealt with many of the same issues. Sadly, in the past few months, internet freedom has come under further attack.

The battle for internet freedom is ongoing. With the advent of bills like SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and now CISPA, governments around the world are cracking down on freedom. Iran plans to unplug the internet and create its own internal form. The UK government is attempting to enact legislation to snoop on all forms of communication to mass outrage. Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsburg, Birgitta Jónsdóttir are suing the US government to protect internet freedom. People can now be arrested merely for the vitriol they enjoy posting on twitter.

None of this was possible even 10 years ago. The way information is created, shared and thought about has changed for the millions around the world with daily access to the internet. Internet freedom is being much debated all over the web this week, thanks to the Guardian’s series ‘Battle for the Internet’, but the mainstream Indian media seems to have decided to remain mute on the issue.

The Information Technology Act 2008 was surreptitiously passed with little notice by the Indian public. The Act grossly undercuts internet freedom and may soon be getting worse. Under the Act, the Government was given unprecedented powers of surveillance, intrusive monitoring and interception of encrypted information. Already, cyber café owners are required to keep backups of logs and computer resource records for at least six months for each access or login by any user – a serious invasion of privacy.

In December last year, the Telecommunications Minister, Kapil Sibal felt that any objectionable content must be “pre-screened” before posting on social media. Clearly, he failed to recognise the physical impossibility and blatant absurdity of such a move. However, his somewhat unhinged ideas about regulating the internet are evident in the IT Rules 2011.

According to the Information Technology Rules 2011, anything which is deemed to be “harassing”, “blasphemous”, “defamatory”, “disparaging” or “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order” must be removed. With such vague parameters, almost anything offensive to the sentiments that the state wishes to perpetuate, to not just the public, but the rest of the world, can then be removed from the internet. It is almost impossible to patrol the web in such a manner, given the sheer amount of content, but that doesn’t seem to stop the government from wanting to try.

At the same time, the Rules require sensitive personal information to be disclosed to government agencies “for the purpose of verification of identity, or for prevention, detection, investigation including cyber incidents, prosecution, and punishment of offences.” This is an extreme privacy violation, but far more worrying is the ability of the government to lawfully create a profile on all of their citizens. If this happens, it is likely to result in a move from the presumption of innocent to a  presumption of guilt. Monitoring, surveilling and profiling will become the norm.

These Rules violate both the Right to Privacy and the Right to Free Speech, and may in fact be in violation of India’s own constitutional laws to free speech, and are in violation of international human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 8, 9 and 10) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 12 and 19).

For a more thorough critique of the Rules, see the PRS brief, and have a look at this excellent blogpost on Govinthelab.

Moves like this reveal an avowal by the government to slowly but surely fritter away our human rights. We cannot let this happen. If we want to stop the government from legally censoring our web content, accessing our private data and monitoring what we say, then:

Sign the petition: www.it2011.in.

While an electronic signature might not seem like much, it could make a huge difference to stop the government from encroaching on all of our civil liberties and tell MPs that we refuse to have our voices stifled. Cracking down on free speech is just the first step.

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Is it time for India’s #blackwednesday?

On the same day that Salman Rushdie’s entrance to the country is being denied because of the banned novel, “The Satanic Verses”, web censorship around the world has come to a fore. India has a decision to make – democracy or not?

In the wake of the world-wide Wikipedia blackout (#blackwednesday), thousands of other sites followed suit, ranging of course from the all-consuming Google’s SOPA/Pipa landing page, the comic Oatmeal, Cyanide & Happiness and icanhazcheeseburger, to the blogging site wordpress and music sharing grooveshark. Both popular and niche audiences lost access to their favourite sites yesterday (unless they disabled JavaScript, but that’s beside the point) all in aid of raising awareness and forcing people to take action on the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills in the United States.

But, why is there no national movement similar to this when a New Delhi High Court judge in India threatens that he can block Facebook, Google, Youtube and others “just like China” for posting anything “obscene, objectionable, and defamatory”? Our telecomm Minister’s crusade against these sites, claiming that we must pre-screen content to remove anything “offensive”, seems to have infected a vast majority of the country to believe that freedom of expression must abide by people’s sensibilities and that in a “socially conservative” country, these freedoms may cause “communal riots”. The irony of course is that there has been no physical violence caused by any of this content in India. At the same time, Vinay Rai, long-time journalist has according to WSJ taken on the role of “India’s Censorship Crusader.” Well, good for Vinay. His argument: “It is the right of every Indian citizen to voice his/her opinion against what he deems objectionable.” While this is true, expressing one opinion should not equate to gagging someone else’s. He elucidates his point by explaining that much of the objectionable content “deeply offends several religions”. Yet, as a secular country, we not only advocate tolerance but healthy debate. If his argument stands, anyone who does not blindly praise all faiths must be censored and shut down. Scientology, anyone?

The Information Technology (IT) Rules 2011 that were added to the IT Act 2000 are key in this debate; it makes companies responsible for the user content posted on their websites, requiring them to take it down within 36 hours if “any affected person” files a complaint. Ironically, the rules state: “an intermediary is not liable for any content hosted or transmitted through it by a user,” however at the same time, they must remove anything that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory” as well as anything “racially or ethnically objectionable, disparaging” or “otherwise unlawful in any manner.” The rhetoric used in this law is completely ambiguous; there are no parameters set out to explain what any of these terms refer to: what is defined as “blasphemous”? Indeed, the Government is putting in place more stringent measures on the internet than on other media (print or broadcast); while you can write a blasphemous article in a newspaper, you cannot post it online. This misguided act makes little sense considering how much harder it is to regulate content on the internet, particularly on social networking or user-hosted websites.

The now pending case between Vinay Rai and 21 internet moguls firms is set to continue tomorrow, sanctioned to be tried for “serious crimes such as fomenting religious hatred and spreading social discord, offences that could land company directors in prison.” In fact, our new trumpeters of “free speech” fail to recognise that there is no mechanism in place, or one that could be put in place to regulate these sites. A search engine indexes already present content; a social networking site like Facebook only hosts content uploaded by its users, and already has safeguards in place. The complete lack of understanding of how these sites work does not put much faith in our Telecomm’s Minister, a High Court judge and a generally pontificating and often unnecessarily pompous Government.

It’s clear that the entire web censorship issue in India is more to do with a few politicians’ hurt egos coming out of recent corruption scandals, the Hazare movement’s use of social networking, and a desire to infantalise and control a public, already haunted by a colonial past. Web censorship is clearly not limited to the United States and its sister SOPA and PIPA bills, but is spreading across the globe. If the world’s largest democracy cannot allow freedom of expression on the last open medium, then what are we left with? If our Government cannot allow a dialogue between its citizens and their representatives, but expects merely adulation and praise, then what are we left with? The new rules added to the IT Act allow arbitrary censorship and gag our freedom of expression. If we want to distinguish ourselves from our dictatorial neighbor, perhaps our politicians and censorship crusaders need to grow a thicker skin, accept some criticism and realise that some good-natured ribbing is part of a robust democracy. When the State begins to gag its citizens, it’s only a step away from censoring, well, anything.

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Feature: Aids orphans in India

Rakesh*, aged 8, lives in a village outside New Delhi. Both his parents were HIV positive, diagnosed at the Delhi Commonwealth Women’s Association (DCWA), a social service organisation. His landlord, having been told that the father was HIV positive, threw the family out of their house. Rakesh had three sisters who lived in New Delhi with his parents. Their parents’ symptoms persisted and they died, leaving four orphaned children. The DCWA in partnership with SOS villages, who build families for children in need, took their daughters in, treating and caring for them. A spokesperson from the DCWA explained that the father’s family was so ashamed of his illness that they were unwilling to admit its existence, believing it came only from having “bad sex”. Rakesh is now alone in his village, uncared for, untreated, living with the cultural stigma of his father’s HIV.

The forgotten faces of AIDS orphans do not filter through to the streets ofNew Delhi, which are already peppered with poverty and development campaigns. The stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS exists not only in the uneducated or rural population; it transfers across class and caste boundaries into the educated and wealthy minority, who refuse to employ those with HIV/AIDS for fear of their virus spreading. The ambiguity which surrounds the virus is a result of a lack of clear education, advice and information about the virus and the challenges its victims suffer. The Government of India has set up grassroots outreach programmes through the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) in partnership with NGOs. Yet, there are no published statistics on AIDS orphans. The group as a whole is ignored.

In India, the disease is associated most strongly with injecting drug users, sex workers and homosexual sex; damning because of their place as cultural taboos. The term “AIDS orphans” encompasses vulnerable children both infected with and affected by AIDS, who have lost one or more parents to the virus. The focus of most studies is on sub-Saharan Africa, but very little data is available on AIDS-affected orphans inIndia. The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) 2010 report states: “India possibly has 150,000 vertically infected children; 1,500,000 children orphaned by AIDS; and 7,000,000 children with HIV-positive parents.” It continues: “[National AIDS Control Organisation]… estimates that 57,000 children are infected at birth inIndiaeach year, and is yet to finalise the estimates of Children infected with HIV. Out of over 70,000 children living with HIV registered in 2009, only approximately one third received ART [anti-retroviral treatment].” Although this is only a small percentage of the population, the proportion of AIDS orphans will continue to remain high for at least a decade.

The stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS transfers to these so-called “AIDS orphans”, who remain on the fringes of society. The spiral which begins in childhood often continues to adulthood, disallowing these children from escaping the label of “AIDS orphan”, ensuring their inability to find work, earn money, and thus remain uneducated, malnourished and are denied property rights. The real trauma, however, remains in the mental stigma which prevents them from being a part of mainstream society. In a UNICEF press release, Deputy Executive Director Martin Mogwanja explains: “These children face stigma and dejection within their own community and even within their own families”.

Varun Sharma*, a young professional living inNew Delhi, was asked whether he would be willing to employ someone known to be infected with HIV/AIDS as a domestic. He replied: “No, because everyone with AIDS should be eradicated because then the disease wouldn’t exist anymore.” On asked to explain further, he said facetiously: “I’m not a fascist: it’s because of the threat it poses to my loved ones;because everyone with aids should be eradicated because then the disease wouldn’t exist anymore

AIDS is widespread amongst villagers, who have lower standards of hygiene so they might pass it on unintentionally.”  Although he relented that proper education about hygiene would only be a positive, he stated he would never be willing to employ someone because “my family come first and I wouldn’t want to tempt fate just for the goodwill of others.” Anjali Kumar*, an educated middle-class businesswoman, commented: “I think in an office situation where they’re only handling paperwork, cleaning in a shop or that sort of thing is acceptable, but the minute you have someone in a kitchen who cuts themselves or isn’t properly hygienic, that’s when your comfort level disappears.”

This enduring mindset is crucial in understanding the continuing state of AIDS orphans. The lack of a family structure leaves them without proper grounding or roots, often leading to a hard life on the streets, no proper medical care, the lack of basic human rights, and the mental trauma of being rejected not only from strangers and general society, but from their own extended families. Children from both sexes are led, especially infected girls, into child prostitution and labour. The move into the migrant population of the sex industry only further exacerbates the problem.

The UNGASS report also states: “HIV infection often becomes a defining characteristic in the lives of those affected. It becomes a determinant for their access to services, livelihood options, medical attention, and simple social exchanges.” Orphans, without a familial support system, are more vulnerable to this kind of stigmatised discrimination, leading to their absence from Governmental reports.

The Fifth Global Partners Forum on Children affected by HIV and AIDS took place on June 3. Jimmy Kolker, chief of HIV/AIDS comments in a UN radio interview: “The goal of the meeting is to be sure that the issues that have been raised about care and support for AIDS-affected families, in particular those who were orphaned or made vulnerable because of AIDS are still on the global agenda. Some of those commitments are keeping parent and children living with HIV and AIDS alive and well, include strengthening families and communities for prevention, care and support…”

These statements from UNICEF are crucial to the ongoing plight of AIDS-affected orphans, not just in India but around the world, and need to be put into practice to ensure more children do not end up like Rakesh: uncared for, unloved, untreated, often uneducated, reliant on an extended family that may be unwilling to take care of him, and stigmatised especially within his own community, where his only anticipated comfort zone is denied.


* Names changed to protect identity.

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An interview with a Syrian Christian: “I don’t prefer USA’s freedom to Syria’s”

In the age of new media, it has become increasingly easy to have conversations with people you know nothing about, who believe in values completely removed from your own and have opinions on contentious subjects that you can barely believe possible. I had one such conversation with @HumanishTweeter when he responded to something I said about Syria on Twitter.

For a bit of context of the current situation, a New York Times article discusses how squeezing the economy (in the form of sanctions) will eventually put the pressure on the merchant elite to rebel against Assad:

““We’re all waiting for the thing that will crack them,” an Obama administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “And it will be the economy that will wake everybody up, both those who support him, and Assad and his circle.”

“…But uncertainties persist over the international strategy to put pressure on the Syrian economy. American and European officials have debated whether the sanctions will end up hurting average Syrians more than the leadership. Some analysts have contended that the government may try to paint itself as a victim and court support by casting the sanctions as a contest of “us against them.””

These economic concerns are oddly foregrounded by my conversation with a Christian Syrian tweeter whose comments (although vitriolic and angry) echo this unease over economic loss and its effect on the average citizen.

He said: “Millions of them [the people of Syria] despise the uprising as fake, and a mere grab for power.Syriawas extremely at peace in itself for many years now, and there was no reason to do this at all. Ask yourself why Syria is the target of world scorn… but the Saudi King is 100 times worse and people like Obama kiss his ass.”

“It’s all a joke. Israel wants Assad gone because of Hezbollah…Israelis the most powerful lobbyer of American politics, so, we support their bidding.Syriawould be fine, if not for little power hungry killers, aka, “peaceful protesters” [who are] shooting at police etc. Not all of them are violent, I know, but it [Syria] wasn’t some hell hole. The sanctions were the worst thing about Syria, and the very people that set the sanctions up (to get people to topple Assad) are the same people the rebels sided with.”

I commented that there were obviously people not at peace with the regime, who chose to rebel.

He replied: “I believe their motivations are revenge for what happened under his dad, the 20 thousand Hama deaths. It’s the past. Well, see if “families” were tortured for vengeance, of course that’s wrong. But I don’t believe all these stories, either… but if some occur, I can’t believe Assad etc signed off on it. It’s like in theIraqwar, someUSApeople did brutal, sadistic things to prisoners etc, but it’s not like generals wanted it happening…just random crimes.

I pointed to stats, to Amnesty, to the facts that say that these kinds of crimes aren’t random, but a way of inciting terror and keeping the oppressed downtrodden. The recent expose of the use of torture to keep family members in foreign countries from protesting was alarming, not because it’s surprising, but because it points to worse human rights abuses happening in Syria that we don’t know about. I asked if he believed he was truly free under the Assad regime?

“Free. I am Christian. Jesus when he was here never preached overthrow of the Romans. Ever. Why? Because unlike what Jews thought, Jesus knew true freedom is within, spiritual…USApreaches freedom, “land of the free”… know what they did recently? Forced fag marriage on the state of NY, against what violators of NY already said NO to on a ballot. They did the same nationally forcing abortion on our people. Free you ask. To do what? Live? Have families? Be happy? Yes…. to be a fag and get married and kill your baby? No.”

And most importantly, a statement that echoes the youth from all over the Arab Spring countries: “I don’t preferUSA’s freedom toSyria’s. This is my point,Syriain that regard was free. What nation doesn’t have rules people hate? They were as free as anywhere except to make mass money, because of sanctions. Makes many people think “if only Assad were gone we could make more cash.”” Surprisingly, many of his concerns echo orthodox Christians all over the world (the loss of the nuclear family values) and are concerned less with the war, but what the regime change will do to his lifestyle and values (however misguided they may otherwise be considered.)

As part of the Christian minority, perhaps “@humanishtweeter’s” worries are founded in becoming part of a sizable minority in what would otherwise be a Sunni Muslim majority. Media reports suggest that Syrian Christians worry that the unrest could turn into civil war, dividing another country by religion where the divide, previously existent, was not yet so fractured.

The statements portrayed here are xenophobic, racist and bigoted, and yet I see an echo in his worry about Western involvement, in how it will change his country and the way that economic sanctions are, not just potentially, damaging the average citizen. I support the movement in Syria completely, but I cannot help thinking it’s worth listening to the other side, only in the hope of coming to some kind of middle ground, remembering the minority groups which also make up the country, and maybe changing these extreme opinions into something more inclusive.

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Spotlight on: Cageprisoners

This is one of several posts I’ll be doing looking at either lesser known NGOs or those I’d like to point to for doing amazing, ground-breaking work. Below is a video of Moazzam Begg speaking about Guantanamo – unfortunately, I don’t have access to footage of when he spoke at York University.

Three years ago, I saw Moazzam Begg speak about the years he spent at the American “secret” prison, Guantanamo Bay, the tortures he suffered and what led him to setting up his NGO, Cageprisoners, which works to ensure the human rights of those still in Guantanamo, despite President Obama’s promise to shut it down. Moazzam Begg was released without charge on January 25, 2005, after being held for over three years. Since then, he has been working to raise awareness of the human rights abuses that have been undertaken by the U.S Government on the ‘detainees’ still in Guantanamo Bay. His story really brought to light the injustices and torture that the detainees of Guantanamo suffer. His University tour was in conjunction with an ex-Guantanamo American guard, who believed in his cause so much he was willing to travel the world with him championing Cageprisoners and helping raise awareness of what really happened at Guantanamo.

In spite of the shutdown of Guantanamo being one of Obama’s major campaign promises, people continue to be detained, often without cause in the symbolic Guantanamo and the other secret prison around the world. This blog-post is merely to recognise and bring to light the amazing work that Cageprisoners has done in alleviating the journey from Guantanamo into mainstream society. Without their work, many would still be imprisoned. Their current focus campaigns can be explored here.

The rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’ has made it seem that secret prisons, detention without charge and torture are acceptable forms of defeating terrorism. Human rights abuses are running rampant in parts of the world that we know about: it would do us good not to forget the masses whose stories we don’t hear, who live without a voice.

The torture practices of Guantanamo have been questioned over the year, but officials have notoriously admitted to using water-boarding, sleep deprivation, climate control amongst other things. Whilst this seems a far cry from the traditional image of torture perpetuated by Hollywood, it is unimaginable to consider these an ‘acceptable method’ to find out information. What is known to the general public is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to actual practices, and when it comes to the myriad of other secret prisons around the world.

Cageprisoners is an organisation worth following for anyone interested in prisoner’s rights – it is an important part of the network of NGOs that are trying to raise awareness of the human rights abuses perpetuated as a result of the ‘War on Terror’.

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Garib or Ameer?

India’s Planning Commission recently filed an affidavit that sets its poverty line at Rs. 32 or just under 50 pence a day in an urban city, enough to buy a bus or metro ticket and a packet of milk. The rural poverty line is set even lower at Rs. 25. The Government claims that this is enough to pay for food, healthcare and education for a family of five.

There has been outrage across the country against this piece of legislation, with headlines reading ‘Jokers of the planning commission’ and similar. Anyone who is able to spend Rs. 985 or more per month (urban) or Rs. 781 per month (rural) is deemed to not be poor and is no longer entitled to many of the government’s entitlement schemes. These schemes, already flawed, do not actually reach enough of India’s ailing population; if the poverty line remains where it is, this can only get worse.

Much of the commentary surrounding this considers the fact that this brings down the percentage of India’s poor in the world’s eyes, seemingly proving a continual economic growth without the ensuing social gap that seems to run parallel to it. This, however, is not the case. As capitalism reigns, people continue to get poorer. The GDP remains a fallacy which does not effect the mass population of India.

The societal apathy, however, which affects a large majority of India’s upper class, continues to remain in play. Although people have jumped on the anti-corruption bandwagon (flawed as it is, see my article here) or taken over the ‘fasting’ movement, the absolute dire poverty that most of our country lives in seems to take to the back-burner. The ever-present site of the little child in rags squatting on the side of the road becomes merely part of the scenery, and irrelevant to lives looking out of (rose) tinted window-panes. The Government, it seems, is not immune to this view of the world. Parliament’s own ivory tower remains far removed from the garbage that lines the streets and the people who live among it.

Tehelka and the New York Times India blog have looked at case studies of workers around India and in New Delhi, respectively, where people who would be considered ‘poor’ by global standards are not considered part of the group that is below the poverty line (BPL). Who then is left to be poor inIndia?

If the Government of India is right, why do we still receive billions in aid from around the globe? It serves their purpose to receive aid money, which is whittled down to the bare minimum before it actually gets to those who need it. The horror stories of those who just barely get by need to resound in the hearts of those who are actually part of the planning commission; the media rhetoric itself will unfortunately not make a difference.

The Government of India claims that only 26% of people are poor. However, Arjun Sengupta's 2007 report doubles this figure. Since his report, the population has increased and with it, poverty numbers.

The Government is constantly launching anti-poverty scheme after scheme, but what needs to be strengthened is the bridge between the theoretical scheme and its implementation. The Public Distribution System (PDS) is supposed to supply subsidised grain and kerosene to those who require it. Unfortunately, it is often ineffective with ration shops squirreling away part of their produce to the black market. The fairly meager amount that people with a ration card actually receive is barely enough to make a difference to their livelihood. To reduce this even further by saying that anyone who can spend Rs. 32 a day is not poor is a shocking understatement, and in fact, a violation of human rights. The Government is essentially admitting that 40.74 crore (407 million) people live under the newly established BPL, and consequently are on the brink of starvation. According to Arjun Sengupta’s 2007 report, the number is actually double these Government figures (836 million). Since 2007, the population has increased, as has the numbers of people living with poverty. In fact, then, there are possibly over 50% of Indians who are actually living in dire poverty, and more who do not come under the new poverty line.

Everyone has a right to food, to healthcare and to basic education. The ineffectiveness of the Government’s anti-poverty schemes coupled with this new Poverty Line ensures that those who are garib (poor) will remain so, and those who are ameer (rich) will turn their faces away. Although the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme has been effective, as has PDS in some states, its unsystematic implementation has meant that certain areas have been ignored.

Coming back to the poverty line debate, an issue is brought to the forefront that is often left dusty and forgotten – it suits the Government’s purposes to keep its population poor and uneducated. I would like to see an official from the Planning Commission living on Rs.32 a day, considering Government wages have just been doubled. It comes back to the problems of urban development (see my last blog-post here), which causes prices to rise, but does not allow wages to rise in accordance. Those on the streets are left behind, the Government blusters publicly about all it does to combat poverty, whilst presenting doctored figures to the world.

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