Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mixed ruling on gifts demanded by in-laws

The mixture of societal norms versus modern age greed makes for a potential minefield of customs. Given the prevalence of dowry in India, it is left for the courts to sort their way through this minefield. What makes the situation more complex is the prevalence of dowry as an abhorrent concept that can (and many times does) lead to harassment of the bride of the family, both verbally and physically as well as the increasing trend to use the harsh anti-dowry laws to threaten and get back at the husband's family. Things are never simple. The classic definition of dowry is when money or equivalent is demanded from the bride and her family for the marriage or after. But what about the case when the husband's family wants the bride's family to give some gifts on the occasion of the birth of a child. If demanded, then it is abhorrent; but is it really dowry. It is part of the same get-money claim, but is not dowry. And that is what the Supreme Court has ruled:

The Supreme Court has ruled that demand for money and presents from parents of a married girl at the time of birth of her child or for other ceremonies, as is prevalent in society, may be deprecable but cannot be categorised as dowry to make it a punishable offence.
This means, if a daughter-in-law is being harassed for customary gifts by parents-in-law, then they could be booked under ordinary penal provisions but not under the tough anti-dowry laws providing stringent punishments.

Such a judgment is never easy. It is easy to condemn such forced demands, and they should be condemned, but the court has to take a stand of law, and this is what they have decided. It must not have been easy for the court to decide on this issue, but given that the various judgments of the court have essentially been set as precedent, this is now the law. The court in the same order also passed more observations on the misuse of the law, but it cannot change things in order to prevent misuse; that can only be done by parliament. The court can only rule on a case by case basis.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 6:18 PM    

Monday, January 28, 2008

Massive kidney scam reported in Gurgaon

Gurgaon, just south of Delhi, is reported as the Millenium City, as a sample of growth. It has gleaming buildings, swanky malls, and plenty of BPO's, IT offices and many other such high-growth industries. It is seen as a self-sufficient township, with a large number of people now living there. However, there are many warts in this story. It suffers from infrastructure problems with poor water and electricity, lack of easy public transport, and sectors not involved in these sunrise sectors feel alienated from all this growth (one just needs to go and see 'Old Gurgaon').
And amidst all this, a heinous trade involving the removal of kidneys from poor people and selling to rich patients needing a kidney was going on (for a long time, maybe more than 8-10 years). Refer this news:

GURGAON: A Rs 100 crore kidney transplant racket that thrived on exploiting the poor and miserable with false promises and then removing their kidneys by force has been busted a few kilometres from the national capital.
The sheer scale of the racket — organized and brazen — that spanned six states and catered to the rich, including NRIs and foreigners, has left the authorities shaken. It was carried out right under the nose of the police in the Millennium City and could have been thriving for the past 15 years, according to one account, though Gurgaon police said it was eight years old.

What seems very clear that such a major operation could not have gone on without the complicity of authorities at some level, given the news that the main doctor involved, Dr. Amit Kumar (maybe not his real name) has been arrested many times earlier and yet was involved again in something of this scale. He is on the run, and even 2 days later, has not been caught. It may be very much possible that he had been tipped off before the raid.
One side-effect of this scandal was that the Government was thinking of making a change in the organ business, with measures to make it easier to get organs, including cadaver organ retrieval. However, the Government needs to ensure that even in such a case, the laws that rule against such organ selling and forcible removal are strictly enforced and maintained.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:34 AM    

How not to handle an epidemic !!

Over the course of the past 2 years, there has been an immense amount of literature and news over the dangers of bird flu, especially the H5N1 variety that is extremely destructive, and has caused human losses elsewhere. There is a lot of worry over the fact that a pandemic has not happened for a long time now, and with the current movement of humans all over the world, any spread of a human version will be a much higher killer than previous pandemics. What can cause such a thing to happen ? Well, the bird flu is mostly restricted to avian creatures, and spreads to humans very rarely. In addition, even if humans are affected due to contact with infected birds, the disease does not jump from person to person. It is feared that if the virus comes into close contact with the human influenza virus, and exchanges genetic material with the virus, it is possible that this may cause the bird flu virus may be capable of becoming capable of getting transferred from humans to other humans. This is one of the most feared scenarios for health care personnel, especially because while humans do not take human flu seriously, the bird flu variety is a much bigger killer.
In such a scenario, it is even more necessary that any case of bird flu may be handled with the utmost seriousness. However, seeing the spread of bird flu in West Bengal makes one believe that the West Bengal government has been in a serious case of dereliction of duty. After all, it has been known for some time that many districts of Bangladesh have been affected by bird flu, and given the close interaction between districts of Bangladesh and West Bengal, there should have been a much better contingency plan. Given the close interaction between man and fowl in many areas of West Bengal, the districts and panchayats should have been sensitized about the seriousness of the issue and about the steps that they should take in this regard.
Instead, the disease was allowed to fester, with initial reports of birds dying being hushed up, culling operations being not adequately backed up by security and authority (even in a case where it seems clear that this is a health emergency), inadequate provision of compensation to people whose birds have been culled (leading them to try and hide their birds), and a general lack of seriousness among the state's politicians and leaders. This was to the extent that the Central health minister criticized the efforts of the state (although she was hushed up later, no doubt with the Big Brother CPM putting pressure on the Congress leadership).
Now the disease has spread to 13 districts, and is on the doorstep of Kolkata, and one wonders whether the inept State Government will be able to do something at all.

Birdflu on Sunday spread to two more districts of West Bengal taking the number of affected districts to 13 out of a total 19 even as the state government said it was fully prepared to face any kind of adversity if any human being is found afflicted by the dreaded disease.
Kolkata Municipal Corporation has formed eight teams to to keep the metropolis insulated from birdflu. The teams were moving in different parts of the city to monitor the situation. The fear that the disease might hit Kolkata has aggravated since the spread to South 24 Parganas, part of which form the city's suburbs.

One can only hope that the Government is serious. It has also been reported that part of the reason that the Government is abstaining from taking the strict (and also seemingly harsh measures) is the fear of offending voters; if such an attitude characterizes the Government response, then god helps up. Instead, panchayats are an ideal medium to spread the message about the harmful affect of the disease, and how cooperation will help all. Couple this with a strong media campaign and adequate compensation, and things would be much better.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:04 AM    

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Govinda to quit politics

India's political parties have typically used the mass star power of famous actors / actresses to get seats, and nothing else. It is only in the Southern states where famous actors / actresses plot to translate their star power into electoral power, but for the rest, getting stars has been nothing but a game to get more votes.
In a major setback for the Congress in Bombay, their MP in the Mumbai North constituency and the film star Govinda has decided to quit politics. When Govinda was brought into the electoral race in the last elections of 2004, there was a large amount of criticism of the Congress for this move, given that Govinda was going through a lean patch in his movies, and he had not shown any inclinations towards political activities before this. No matter, the need was to defeat former minister Ram Naik of the BJP, and that was dutifully done. But now, everything gets reversed.

Actor-MP Govinda's decision to quit politics has shocked Congress activists in his constituency, Mumbai north. "We worked hard for him during his election and now we feel let down," said a senior party worker. Govinda had told TOI on Friday that he wanted to quit politics "like Amitabh Bachchan".
Many Congress workers, however, feel that it was wrong to give a ticket to a political novice like Govinda in the first place. "He had nothing to do with our party, but still our leaders overlooked the claim of loyal workers and gave him the ticket," said a former MLA. A Congress office-bearer said Govinda was fielded only to defeat senior BJP leader and former Union minister Ram Naik. Not only was Naik getting repeatedly elected from Mumbai north, he was also making the constituency BJP's bastion. Congress had virtually no presence. It was only because a popular actor like Govinda was fielded that Congress could wrest the seat from Naik, he said.

Obviously, the next time when the Congress goes to get votes in this constituency, they will have to defend their last MP and the fact that voters in the constituency were severely disgruntled over his performance. Govinda has been seen to be hardly doing anything for the population of his constituency, or doing anything that a MP does.
In addition, when workers and potential candidates see a unknown person suddenly becoming the candidate, then they are disgruntled. It is a different matter if the person has shown the capacity to work hard (like the late Sunil Dutt had done for the Congress). But selecting people just for their charisma is bound to fail in the long run.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:18 PM    

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Issue about ID cards in Delhi

The favorite way for any politician to get out of a jam is to claim that they have been misquoted; that is all that it takes. Even if the media brings out the verbatim text of the previous speech or discussion, all that the politician has to do is to claim that he or she has been misquoted, and everything is forgotten. So it proved for Delhi's Lt. Governor Tejendra Khanna, who had to reverse himself on the matter of ID cards for Delhi's citizens.

Facing flak on the issue of photo-identity cards in the capital, Lt Governor Tejendra Khanna on Monday did a U-turn on the matter, saying carrying of ID proof by the denizens would not be mandatory.
"I had never said that ID proof would be made mandatory. The message has been misunderstood. I never said without ID cards, people will be treated as culprits. Ours is an open society and no citizen can be put to unwanted discomfort," he told reporters.

The first announcement was greeted by a blanket wave of condemnation. Political parties across the board greeted the news with despair and reproached the Congress for trying something like this out. The ruling Congress even more harder hit, since apparently the Delhi Congress Government knew nothing about this, and Shiela Dixit also questioned this policy (a bit strange since the Congress runs both the Central and State Government, and the Lt. Governor is a representative of the center).
Overall, this is a fairly bad idea at this point of time. When a Chief Minister of Delhi has claimed that she is unable to regulate a valid policy about enforcing rules for Bluelines, what is the chance of a draconian regulation such as this being enforced ?
What was the exact news ? The Lt. Governor made a speech a few days back in which he said that come Jan 15, every resident of Delhi will have to have an identification card that will have to be produced if a policeman asks for it. What are the accepted cards ? Any card issues by the Government of India such as voter ID card, PAN card, passport, ration card (if it has a photo), and so on. For people who are working and don't have any of these cards, a card issues by the workplace, or a card issued by the educational institution for students will do. Now, it is nowhere necessary that every resident of Delhi will have any of these cards.
For all the poorer sections of society such as rickshaw-pullers, daily wage labourers, servants, etc, the possibility of having such cards is very low. In addition, there are many more people from other parts of India who come to Delhi, and last I checked, such migration is perfectly legal. Overall, this seemed as a very impractical idea, and the last set of people who Delhiites will believe as capable of honestly enforcing such a law is the men in police clothes. They may be brave, fighting against crooks and terrorists, but they are certainly not incorruptible; and once you have people who can be swayed with a bit of cash, then the people who will suffer the most are honest people.
There was another proposal, this envisaged driving licenses issued in other parts of the country having to be validated in Delhi before being used. This is contrary to the current Motor Vehicles Act where a driving license issued in any part of the country is valid in another part of the country. If such a policy comes in, you can be sure that other states will issue a similar directive against driving licenses issued in Delhi. And it is foolhardy to assume that licenses issued in non-Delhi places are much less safe that licenses issued in Delhi. The only good part about all this drama is that whoever in the Home Ministry thought of these schemes will not try these kind of Big Brother tactic again.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:35 AM    

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Trying to make money out of the school mid-day meal

Ever since the concept of providing a cooked meal to school children as part of school came into existence, India's education system has seen a major improvement. The thought of getting a good nutritious meal has made children more eager to attend school, and at the same time, has made parents see more value in sending their children to school. Continuing this scheme, while making sure that the quality and quantity of food served remains good is an essential ingredient of making sure that India rural children attain more education, and India's targets of making sure that these children grow up into better adults is met. It would not too much to say, that in addition to having good educational facilities and good teachers, providing them good cooked food is essential.
And now enter the money-makers. The very size and reach of this cooked food program makes for an extremely large sum of money that is being spent. This money has attracted many corporates, who have launched a campaign to get biscuits to be served instead of food. The claim is that biscuits will be easier to manage than the logistics of cooking food, and the biscuits can be specially made to be as nutritious as the education program requires. The pressure by this lobby is so large that Members of Parliament have got involved, with many MP's having been swayed to sign a letter promoting this changeover into biscuits.
Hopefully, this latest statement by the National Institute of Nutrition should bring this debate to an end:

Children should not be fed biscuits as lunch under the government's mid-day meal (MDM) scheme. This has been stated emphatically by India's premier agency on nutritional issues, the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition, backing the contention of many states opposing the move to feed biscuits to children under the countrywide scheme.
In what would be the strongest indictment of the biscuit manufacturers' pitch for their products, the institute has written that it has “worked on the recommended dietary requirements for adults and children, and biscuits do not find a mention anywhere, nor is it recommended as a source of calories or nutrients, because biscuits (sweet or salty) are empty calories”.

This should really bring the debate to an end. Politicians really do not need to get involved in this debate. What is needed that the Ministry of Human resources stops this ridiculous attempt to move away from the cooked meal scheme. The cooked meals currently are region-specific, cooking the kind of meals required for that particular region; it is ridiculous to assume that serving biscuits will have the same kind of impression on parents and children.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:46 AM    

Modification of the Domestic Violence Act

Sometimes good intentions can lead to ill-effects as well. The condition of women in India overall needs a great deal of improvement. Dowry deaths, harrassement, female infant killing, eve-teasing and molestation, all of these happen to a large extent in our country, much more than we as a society should tolerate. To change society, there are a number of educational and empowerment measures that should be taken, but giving legal protection to women is also necessary. And hence the need for some strict anti-dowry laws and to protect women against domestic violence.
This is where problems start arising. Owing to the fact that in many of these situation, the oppressed women find it hard to find proof, the laws have been slanted in their favor and the burden of proof has been made much lower. And therein lies the scope for misuse. Given the slant of these laws, it is very easy for a lady to misuse such laws. So, among the many genuine cases of dowry harrasement, there will be cases where innocent people have also been caught.
Misuse can take many ways. If a couple if separating in a bitter way, charging your husband and his family members with dowry demands or harassement can lead to them undergoing severe problems with the police and the law (not to talk of the media that can condemn them without a trial). If, god forbid, a married women dies accidentally within a few years of marriage, the husband and his family can be in for severe trouble, and have to show proof that there was no harassement.
This law is a double-edged sword, being used against both the guilty and the innocent. What is the way out ? For some time now, various courts have been finding a section of the cases as false and asking for more investigation and more safe-guards before acting against the husband's family. And it seems finally that the Government has started listening:

The government has decided to amend the Domestic Violence Act and incorporate certain changes in it to ensure that it is not misused.
Besides, the Women and Child Development Ministry would also organise a conference to incorporate men's perspectives in the Act to give it a holistic view. The proposal is in the process of finalisation, sources said.

One can only hope that this is a genuine effort and not an exercise in futility, or a way to show that concerns about the even-handedness of the law are being addressed. And this still does not address the issues about the other laws such as the anti-dowry laws that have also been mis-used in the past. In order to ameliorate the condition of women, the existence of laws is necessary, but the laws need to re-calibrated so as to prevent misuse.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 7:30 AM