Is Coalition a Euphemism for Collective Big Bucks?


The election results and the announcement of the Goa cabinet brings to mind the  Government in Timor Leste, for it bears a striking resemblance  to the way politics of Government formation in Goa is developing.


About a year and a half ago, I was quite surprised when I landed in Timor Leste, and found that a fellow Goan, Dr. Longuinhos Rabindranatha Tagore Domingues de Castro Monteiro, who was the head of Police had actually become a Minister in the Government.  Wasn’t it just the other day that a friend from Timor Leste had told me that he was head of the police?

He had indeed become a Minister as he was picked by the elected Prime Minister XananaGusmao to be in his Ministry and had to switch from being the CommandanteGeral de PoliciaNacional de Timor Leste to being Ministro de Interior, that is, the Home Minister. As if that was not strange enough, I was also told that this Prime Minister Gusmao had himself stepped down and made RuiAraujo, a member of the Opposition, from the Fretilin Party (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), the Prime Minister, and inducted some others from the Opposition as Ministers. Earlier in 2007, the same XananaGusmao had become Prime Minister after forming a coalition that ran against his former party Fretilin.

An Opposition member being made the Prime Minister by the existing Prime Minister? I have never known anyone giving up power or privilege – at least not so easily. Even if Gusmao explained his choice of RuiAraujo from the Opposition stating that there was no one else in his own government who had the right “theoretical, technical and professional preparation” to replace him. Gusmao created a new Investment Ministry and retained himself in the Ministry. Rings bells?

What was this all about? Why did Gusmao hand over power? Gusmao was after all said to be a guerilla leader who had fought for the freedom of East Timor from the 24-year occupation by Indonesia. For that matter, so was Monteiro.  There was surely something that begged probing.

Questioning people around, one was given to understand that people felt cheated. The contracts, and the corruption associated with the contracts by the Government, were the order of the day.  There were the fuel station contracts, they said. Fuel stations are State-owned, yes, BUT operated by a private company.  The contracts go in substantial measure to the Gusmao family’s businesses. They said Prime Minister Gusmao’s daughter was the biggest business woman in Timor Leste and between her and the relatives of Gusmao, they controlled the oil and gas industry in the Timor Sea, the sandalwood and the marble trade, TV cable and other key businesses in Timor Leste, such as real estate. They also said that the Gusmaofamily were the biggest beneficiaries of the various deals struck. With the Opposition neutered in this fashion, there was nobody anymore as an effective Opposition, to question the Government about the deals they were striking left, right and centre. Former Prime Minister Alkatiri on the other hand had been given the Presidentship of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Oecusse. Like Goa, Oecusse is known as a tourist place. Goa also is not without its share of placating those who have not got the Ministerships in governance, with other key posts that hold the keys of finance, WHILE at the same time placating big corporate houses.


It is by now largely acknowledged even within institutional circles, that even as Timor Leste has billions of dollars’ worth gas production, half the country’s population of 1.2 million is mired in poverty. The country’s politics is fraught with issues like land grabbing and contract level mega style corruption, all of which impoverishes the local people and effectively disenfranchises them. With Portuguese, Indonesian, and also local laws at play when it comes to land rights and tenurial systems, the corporate houses ride merrily through this confusion to acquire huge chunks of land of the already small 14,784 square metre area. Such conflicts over land are also evident in Goa. SEZ’s and big corporate houses walk through while common people negotiate labyrinthine lanes for tracing land transfers and effecting mutation records.

Within the folds of East Timor’s politics, the issue of medium of instruction also lurks. The wrestling, seemingly between indigenous languages such as Tetum and the colonial languages such as Portuguese and Bahasa and English adds in no small measure to the construction of ‘national’ identity and to who gets privileged in such a construction. As a matter of fact, behind the wall of freedom from colonial occupation, there lies a complex identity politics in this part island nation state, and a world of histories that do not quite accept the ‘national’ narrative.  It again rings a familiar bell with Goa where the privileged expect a sustenance of culture and language by the ‘other’ (that is, the lower caste or class), while their privilege provides them the access to English language education, which has been one of their keys to further access and consolidate power.

But on the other hand, despite the statedly differing ideologies, everyone in the coalition Government is believed to be complicit in the distortions of history and appropriation of resources, for reasons that clearly stare everybody in the face. The government is even believed to have introduced restrictive media laws primarily so that its ability to use the petroleum fund for their personal gains is not restricted. The Petroleum Fund is a sovereign wealth fund where the East Timor Government is supposed to deposit the surplus wealth produced by East Timor petroleum and gas income. The Petroleum Fund is a sovereign wealth fund where the East Timor Government is supposed to deposit the surplus wealth produced by East Timor petroleum and gas income.

Come 2017, it is as if Goa is getting to Timor Leste. What with the government having been formed the way it has and an opposition MLA already resigning from the party which was elected as the single largest Party in the Goa Assembly, and others on the way.Is ‘unity’ or ‘coalition’ a euphemism for collectively sharing the spoils of a dictatorship of investments? For securing funds that are tied aid?

(A version of this article was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 23 March, 2017. Illustrations by Angela Ferrao.)


When Jallikattu Raises the Dhirio Issues



It is another hot January day in Madras. I have alighted at the Chennai Bus Stand and am heading for the Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conference at the Madras University, near the Marina Beach. There are others headed there as well. There are many, many people present there; quite a number wearing black T-shirts or shirts. Some are carrying placards, others beating drums. First I see a lot of young students, then I see young and old, men, women, they seem to be from different communities. They are all walking towards Marina beach. “We need Jallikattu”, “We want Jallikattu” is written on the placards and also on banners along the way.


As reported in the press there has been an ordinance allowing Jallikattu by exempting it from applicability of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and as such I wondered why they were still agitating. They say they are talking of a permanent solution. At first, in my technocratic lawyerly understanding, I look at it myopically and think that there is something amiss, because the Constitution has no way to ensure permanence except with the calling of an Assembly session and passing the legislation at the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. So why did the people not wait until the summoning of the Legislative Assembly, considering that the Assembly session had anyway been called on 23rd January?


As the drama unfolds, I begin to get a sense of their understandings of permanent solutions. The issue really is far beyond Jallikattu. It seems that Jallikattu has been the point of convergence. The point of convergence for those who feel that Tamil culture is neglected; those who oppose the subsuming of Tamil culture under a homogeneous Indian culture; those who are upset by the disregard for farmers’ concerns; those who have borne the brunt of demonetization; those who have been rearing the bulls for Jallikattu; and those whose livelihoods are at stake anyways. Jallikattu or no Jallikattu, for the Thevar community which like the Patels in Gujarat feel neglected, for those in the city who are threatened by the impending water scarcity, for those who want the Tamilian bull species to thrive, for those who resist controversial state projects that often reinforce hybridization programs of dubious value, for those who see an imposition in aerated drinks of multinationals. Despite the fact that Jallikattu may in some ways be reinforcing machismo, despite the fact that Jallikattu is stated to be a dominant caste traditional practice wherein it is considered a sign of valour to win a bride by successfully hugging the hump of the bull. Despite the fact that the large mobilization of women for the Jallikattu is suspect, considering that women otherwise are not easily permitted to participate in demonstrations and protests.


The people at the Marina are not the ones who are associating Jallikattu with centuries old temple culture, they are talking of Tamil culture. They are also asserting their freedom to express, come what may.


Someone at the demonstration quips, “At Jallikattu or in a boxing match, sometimes there are unintended adverse consequences, just as in a motor vehicle accident. So because there is an accident, will you say ‘don’t use motor vehicles’?”

They also resonate in the context of Goa, where the difference  that is Goa is marginalized, where there has been selective targeting of bull fights, selective targeting of Muslim businessmen when it comes to beef, selective non-implementation of the Constitution, when it comes to reservations, selective stripping of powers of statutory bodies such as the Goa State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, selective  mining loot, selective recognition of what demonetization has meant. There is a convergence emerging, albeit a different sort in Goa.


It dawns on me that permanent solution means recognizing the federal character of India enshrined in the Constitution. It means recognizing the diversity of cultures – that it is not about one nation, one language. It means recognizing the sustainability of the locally bred animals. It means recognizing that people suffer by acts of the Centre such as demonetization and planning policies that drive the farmers to the margins. It means no selective targeting of certain cultural symbols and projecting of the same as barbaric. Permanent solution in the people’s understanding is not limited to technocratic ‘legal’ solutions, it means addressing the power structures in which decisions are made, and the way the issues are represented be it in the legislature, by the Executive, and before the judiciary.


No doubt this permanent solution idea is fraught with ambiguities on gender and on how Tamil culture comes to be defined. No doubt the permanent solution concept is fraught with shades of Tamil nationalism. As much as Goan nationalism breeds its own disparities.


(First published in Goa Today, February 2017)

A Striking Chief Justice



India has had 44 Judges as Chief Justices of the Supreme Court including the current one. But not all leave the kind of impression that the recently deceased Chief Justice Altamas Kabir did. During his stint as the Chief Justice for barely a year, and prior to that as Justice of the Supreme Court for about seven-and-a-half years, Justice Altamas Kabir did blaze a trail in terms of understandings of justice and crusading for peace.


Not for him the flaunting of Justiceship on the collar, gown and sleeve. Not for him the stiff neck that characterizes many Justices. This Chief Justice was a simple down-to-earth jovial person, who yet was firm beneath his gentleness. I had occasion to meet him on the verge of his elevation as Chief Justice and was struck by this simplicity and also responsiveness. He was prolific with disposing cases with practical judgements that clearly elucidated the rationale: instead of saying the homo sapiens veered from the vertical to the horizontal position to simply say a man fell down.


Justice Altamas Kabir’s minority status perhaps gave him the position from which he could understand the conditions of marginalized sections of society. Justice Kabir reemphasized in the famous IR Coelho case judgement delivered in early 2007 (popularly called the Ninth Schedule case) where he held forth on the basic structure of the Constitution and maintained that the Court has preserved its inherent powers to make such orders as may be necessary in the interests of justice as the guardian of the Constitution. “Justice transcends all barriers and neither rules of procedure nor technicalities can stand in its way, particularly if implementation would result in injustice”, he said and emphasized that “It is necessary to cut across technical tapes”.


Being the incumbent of the post of Chief Justice when the Nirbhaya case and the protests about it were raging, Justice Kabir, on an occasion a few days after this incident, while inaugurating a Fast Track Court in Delhi, expressed his anguish that he could not be part of the protest given the position he was holding. He was however clear that in the process, one cannot get so carried away that we handle the matter with a knee-jerk response where the solution is worse than the problem.  As a matter of fact, he cautioned against vigilantism. He was speaking in the backdrop of strident demands of castration, death penalty, ‘shoot them’ attitudes that were renting the air in those days.


It was perhaps in this spirit that when having to give his considered opinion on reducing the age of a juvenile when it comes to rape murder cases, he did not appreciate the rationale for this and reminded the world that the objective of the Juvenile Justice Act was restorative and not retributive justice. The Juvenile Justice Act, one may recall is meant to ensure that there is justice for a child in need of care and protection as well as a child in conflict with the law so that the child is rehabilitated and does not grow into a destitute or a criminal.


The NEET (National Eligibility Entrance Test) case was the last of the cases on which he delivered judgement before his retirement in 2013. The case had the effect of pushing back the proposal for the single all India entrance test for admission to professional medical and dental colleges all over India. It is hugely significant in the context of Goa. It resonated for Goa which has had just an iota of IAS officers precisely for reasons of language and script, when Justice Kabir opined that apart from the right to freedom of religion, is the right of citizens to a distinct language script culture of their own to conserve the same. Difference in language, culture or script has often given those invested in dominant languages, cultures or scripts an edge over students from minority languages, cultures or scripts, in a situation where the standard of the exam is determined by the practices and standards of the dominant.


“There can be no controversy that the standard of education all over the country is not the same. Each State has its own systems, pattern of education, including the medium of instruction. It cannot also be disputed that children in metropolitan areas enjoy greater privileges than their counterparts in midst of the rural areas, as far as education is concerned, and the decision of the Central Government to support a single entrance exam would be perpetuate such divide in the name of giving credit to merit”, Justice Kabir opined.  Justice Kabir further remarked in the judgement that in a single window competition, the disparity in the educational standards in different parts of the country cannot ensure a level playing field, thereby highlighting the dangers of a single entrance test.


Justice Kabir empathized with marginalized sections of society and is fondly remembered by adivasi groups in Jharkhand where he held the post of Chief Justice of the Jharkhand High Court. His invitation to representatives of marginalized sections of society, including Dalits and adivasis, to attend his oath-taking ceremony as Chief Justice is well remembered.  And so are his efforts to get Supreme Court Judges to engage with their concerns, including the time he got a team of Supreme Court Judges to meet a delegation of sex workers at the National Legal Services Authority, in order to enable them to understand what it means to be in those shoes.


It is not as if Justice Kabir did not have his share of allegations of various kinds, and the jury is out on the truth or otherwise of those allegations. But that cannot take away from certain sterling qualities of Justice Altamas Kabir emphasized above, that people in positions of power could do well to emulate.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 23 February, 2017)

Reflections on Republic Day



Come Republic Day and an apparent prevailing disregard for the Constitution becomes an occasion to stock take and introspect.


Earlier this year, the Supreme Court came down heavily on tendency of re-promulgation of ordinances. The apex court reasoned that this can amount to a fraud on the constitution, when an edifice of rights is built by subverting due legislative processes. It termed it as legislative overreach.


Leave alone re-promulgation of an ordinance, even an ordinance is required to be promulgated under exceptional circumstances, as it signifies a departure from the basic constitutional order. In this also, Goa did not lag behind. The Goa Regularization of Unauthorised Construction Ordinance, was promulgated on 24th June, 2016, without any coherent reason for not waiting for the matter to be discussed in the Assembly.


A disturbing development is the accentuation of how ‘difference’ is being treated or deployed. The Constitution of India considers that to treat individuals located differently on the social and economic spectrum, the same way, would be to treat them unequally. But the ruling dispensation does exactly this: it treats differently located people the same way resulting in inequality.


People in an unequal situation cannot be treated the same way. Writing in 1894, French novelist Anatole France had sarcastically remarked, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. Fast forward to November 2016 and there is still a basis for articulating such sarcasm, despite a Constitution that upholds the principle of substantive equality. Prime Minister Modi announced, in the aftermath of demonetisation, that “this (meaning demonetisation) move has brought the rich and the poor on the same tangent”. He completely missed the point that the rich can negotiate tangents with their financial clout, while the poor cannot. For instance, the rich could swipe their cards at malls, while the poor were cashless, cardless and even shirtless. The small vendor has been struggling with her business, which is not something the rich businessman (such as a mall-owner) would have to endure.


Another disturbing aspect is how ‘difference’ is deployed to imply that Goa may not need the special provisions focussed on addressing the discrimination based on difference. Even recently, at a youth convention in Goa, former Chief Minister (and currently India’s Defence Minister) Manohar Parrikar blew hot and cold stating that “though the situation in Goa is different, the social condition of SC and ST people across the country is not good”. Again completely missing the point that the reservation policy mandated by the Constitution, is grossly violated by the State in Goa. And as if this was not bad enough, even the wings of Commissions statutorily set up to monitor the enforcement of rights of marginalised sections, are clipped by a mere executive order when they choose to act on their respective mandate. As has most recently been the case with the Goa State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which has been told in no uncertain terms that it has no jurisdiction to look into denial of constitutional protection in service matters, after some persons began to tap the potential of the Commission for redressing denial of reservations.


It seems that Goa’s difference has over the years been projected to its disadvantage. It was the basis, for the Parliament not extending the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, suggesting that Goa’s women are not afflicted by the problem of dowry because Goa has a uniform civil code, where sons and daughters have equal rights to parental property. As if the uniform civil code has a correlation with the incidence or lack of incidence of dowry demand and dowry related harassment. Thus they made having the uniform civil code a reasonable classification for denying Goa some of the laws enacted in the rest of India to address women’s issues. It took a lot of persuasion by the women’s movement in Goa to get the law finally extended over three decades later.


Same with the acknowledgement of the existence of child sexual abuse and other crimes. The State has always tried to shirk responsibility by denial or by making odious comparisons. Ditto with the existence of AIDS in Goa. In these cases, the myth of difference – of being peaceful and safe, was sought to be deployed to cover up the existence and consequently to deprive the local population of appropriate measures of redressal.


Why, after reneging on last time’s poll promise of special status, as reflected in its 2012 election manifesto, the BJP’s Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar now says that Goa cannot get special status as it tops on all fronts. The arguments of a different history and connected consequences for citizenship, including holding of agricultural property and voting rights, as the rationale for a special status, are quietly swept under the carpet, not even considered.


Thus we see that difference is either not recognised, or the discriminatory attitude to being differently located in or vis-à-vis power, works negatively, but positive discrimination has rarely been the privilege of those in Goa who deserve it most.


Or where the difference is recognised, Goa and its people are commodified, used and abused. Everyone in Goa, it seems, has to remain content with Goa being referred to as a mole that lends beauty to the nation. Amit Shah in his recent visit reflected the spirit in which dominant India, including the ruling establishment, looks at Goa. Different and commodified, for selfish motives of a select few.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 26 January, 2017)

Five Striking Moments of 2016



2016 has seen many striking moments – moments that demand reflection and change.


Coming as a breath of fresh air is the UN resolution that all measures aimed at changing the demographic composition and status of Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, including construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians are in violation of international humanitarian law, and Israel’s obligation as the occupying power according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and previous resolutions. No doubt as someone has well expressed, it is “too little, too late”. But on the other hand, something is better than nothing and can be the plank on which the ideal can be mounted. It is a reminder that despite the despair that looms over the future of Goa, with the nature of its demographics as well as the state of the people living on its margins, there is scope for hope and that persistence and politics pays, provided it is played with a measure of justice.


Lurking gloom and a possible blow beneath the belt has characterised the Brexit referendum.  Goa is surviving substantially on remittances. Brexit and India’s Citizenship rules put together threaten this source of survival and security as well. The Brexit referendum in a context where some 20,000 plus Goans are eking their livelihoods by entry into UK with a Portuguese passport, looms large over especially those who had migrated in the last five years. Without voting rights in Goa, which they will always consider home, the situation of these Portuguese Passport holders in UK is like that on the edge of a precipice The emergence of Trump with his anti-immigrant policies is another threat to global politics of which Goa is bound to face the consequences.


Even the wake up calls for handling crimes against women come when someone from the ranks of India’s occupying elite or tourists, faces sexual violence or is murdered. Check it out. Whether it was Scarlett before or Monica this year, one sees the worst of both worlds. A local patriarchal approach almost saying “these women” deserve it for the kind of lives they lead, and a page 3 crowd that bemoans these crimes as if everyone has to set everything else aside and pay attention to these specific crimes against the page 3 crowd. But it would be a looking ahead situation if we called for accountability of the State in the manner in which crimes against women (whoever they are) are addressed at police stations, including the Women Police Station, and also the State’s accountability for lack of due diligence in ensuring a crime free environment. That would mean leveraging the page 3 power for all women.


Representations of Goa and of its history have made for challenging moments that are opening up space for dialogue on what constitutes history and the factual aspects of history. The recent controversy at the Serendipity Arts Festival is the most recent of the cases in point. Every articulation of history at the end of the day is an articulation from a particular location and also has a political function. It is impossible to be comprehensive. In the attempt to be comprehensive, one only loses unique strands of fact and thought to the dustbin of history as the popular expression goes. For instance, one may deliberately place emphasis on particular aspects of how certain sections of people experienced political rule in the past, in order to ensure that it does not get obliterated. However, there has to be some rigour in putting together the details, and mere articulations by a Mr. X or Ms. Y or because his Majesty says so, cannot be history. That is fascism, to say the least. The ruling dispensation, in Goa and in India, is but a macrocosm of such approaches – no rigour, Hindutva in outlook, erasing other plausible versions of history, what-I-say-is-right-there can-be-no-other-version type of history.


The spectre of ‘Uniform Civil Code’, if one may call it that, in the current context, also raised its ugly head again this year. A Supreme Court Judgement, proved to be an opportunity to resurrect a monolithic agenda where there is no contextualisation and sculpting of rights, but an assertion that a particular religion is supreme and everyone else is to be fashioned in that religion’s likeness. There has been not any significant statement from Goa’s political heavyweight on this point. What happens if a new Uniform Civil Code is enacted for the whole of India? What does that mean for Goa’s family laws? One fails to understand what is so mesmerising about a uniform that is so uncomfortable to wear as against a dress or pair of shoes that fits and is comfortable, provided it stands up to certain yardsticks that specially hold up the interests of the people on the margins.


(A version of this article was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 29 December, 2016)


When Malaysia Looks like India and Vice Versa



Malaysia’s Bersih movement was in the news recently. The Bersih movement is a movement for free and fair elections.  It has raised questions of how electoral rolls come to be drawn, and how constituencies come to be delimited in ways that ensure that the ruling party’s vote banks are appropriately configured within each constituency so as to give the ruling party a lead. This is so familiar to us in Goa where such constituency delimitation has been reorganised to facilitate the ruling party.


The similarities don’t stop there. The Bersih movement was said to be an urban movement, which could well have been the case, however Bersih activists have demystified the process of elections and governance in Malaysia to the extent that even ordinary people from the rural areas have participated in the annual Bersih rally. The Government had been playing the racial card of divide and rule throughout, which is so familiar to Goa. The Government asserted that the Malays are the original people and whoever else has migrated, no matter how long ago such as the Chinese and Indians, are the ones who are fuelling the Bersih movement.


This all too familiar strategy plays out on the basis of religion and caste in India. The people are sought to be polarised so that they cannot unite and organise. We know what happened during the Baina evictions. People were polarised as sex workers, Fakirs, migrant trawler workers, fisher people, local people from Vasco so that they may not organize against port privatisation and the multi lane highways to Verna meant to benefit a high level of trade from the Marmugao port to the Verna industrial estate.


Another familiar strategy was the raids conducted on the Bersih office on the eve of the rally of 19th November, ostensibly looking for incriminating material Bersih’s use of foreign funds to challenge the parliamentary sovereignty of Malaysia. As a matter of fact, the Bersih leader Mandeep Singh was arrested on charges of sedition, just the day before the rally. The offence of sedition forms a part of the same Penal Code that is a legacy of the British in India as well, except that Malaysia has moved to modify the Code to include more sub provisions within ‘sedition’.  This again was reminiscent of India, where human rights defenders are being harassed and the ‘foreign funding’ flag is being waved to mislead.


As if this was not bad enough, the Malaysian Police applied the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, 2012, (SOSMA) against Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah, and arrested her from the Bersih office on the eve of the Rally. The SOSMA law is something akin to India’s National Security Act and does not require the arresting authorities to produce the accused before the Court in 24 hours as is otherwise necessary under the law. This is similar to the draconian laws that are enacted in India in the name of curbing terrorism and ensuring security; while the same are invoked against marginalised sections of society who resist oppression, and human rights defenders. Abdullah upon being arrested was kept in solitary confinement with a plank for a bed, two light bulbs switched on the whole night and no immediate access to lawyers or even immediate information as to where she was finally whisked away to. It was said that, as is possible in SOSMA, she would be detained for 28 days without production before the Magistrate.


But this is where the plus side begins. With global solidarity, it was possible to apply the necessary pressure on the Malaysian Government which finally resulted in her release. As we brace up for elections in Goa, where there is intense dissatisfaction with a Government that rode to power on an anti-incumbency wave, there is every chance that political dissenters and activists exposing harsh realities will be tormented. It is important to be aware of possibilities of global, regional and national solidarity and human rights standards that countries are committed to by their Constitutions and by the International Treaties that they have signed and ratified.


The Malaysian Government reneged on its promises by enacting a law replacing the Internal Security Act, which it promised to repeal with a law called the Peaceful Assembly Act which has all the trappings of a law meant to curb political dissent.  For instance, the law does not allow street rallies, which are defined as rallies started from specified meeting places and then marching in support of a cause!  And then a couple of months ago, Malaysia enacted a National Security Act, which the Malaysian Government was also threatening to invoke against Bersih leaders as they were organising towards the rally. It is therefore important to watch out for possible legislation or policies that are getting enacted/adopted under some benign covers such as curbing black money.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 1 December, 2016)


What Price Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership?


The deals that Governments sign with foreign dealers or countries often receive little popular attention because a number of us assume that it does not have any impact on our lives. The reality, however, is that it is more than just a deal between two countries. These deals can, in fact, have a profound bearing on people’s lives.


Up to 2015, India had entered into 15 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). And yet, as per the database of the International Trade Centre Trade Map, between 2005 to 2013, India’s trade share with its existing and potential trade partners did not show any quantum leap vis-à-vis its trade in goods, as a result of these trade agreements. So the economy as such did not gain from the FTAs. On the contrary, lay people have been at the receiving end of the Agreements. Yet another FTA called Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is proposed between Governments of the ten South East Asian States and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.


Free trade by its very nature involves undercutting. For instance, multinational food manufacturing companies can and will compete with the small and medium enterprises of women. The former undercut the latter with their massive advertising budgets. We saw how multinational products were glamorised, made to appear more hygienic, and their prices reduced to capture the market. The small scale groups could not sustain themselves through this period.


To add to it, the Government do not reveal most of the details of these agreements to the public. They then surreptitiously sign away your fundamental rights through these agreements. The Power Purchase Agreement signed by the Government of Maharashtra and the Government of India with Dabhol Power Company, a subsidiary of Enron behind the backs of people, in 1993, is a case in point. Power tariffs were increased in keeping with that agreement. that implied increase in power tariffs for the common people. Then the Government claims helplessness saying that what they promised you, they cannot do because their hands are bound by these agreements.


According to leaked documents (such as those from wiki leaks), RCEP extends to intellectual property, patents, data exclusivity on medicine decreasing access to affordable medicine. It will regulate every aspect of services such as health, education, water, and banking.


Going by the leaked text, the RCEP will even sign off the minimum protection clause of employment of local labour, because there shall be no preference for local labour. So for example, in Goa, it will mean that when these investors are setting up base, any promises made by politicians that they will ensure that the trading unit will employ maximum Goans, cannot be honoured.


With bilateral agreements where community sovereignty over community resources was taken away by Governments  signing off community’s rights by protecting foreign and multinational investors from labour and environmental rights claims, there were investor dispute settlement clauses (ISDS) in the agreements that guaranteed immunities from people’s assertions.


Take the case of the Anglian Water Group Ltd, a foreign investor in Argentina before the ICSID arbitral tribunal (accepted as the arbiters in such agreements).  Argentina had responded to the concerns of citizens who had not been provided with clean water and faced huge price increases as a result of a new deal with investors, by regulating the prices of water and insisting on the delivery of potable water. It had to pay a price for thus responding to the citizens. The Tribunal held that the human right to water has to be ‘counterbalanced’ against ‘fair and equitable treatment’ to the investor, even if Argentina had agreed to the unfair agreement under pressure of an economic crisis.


Clearly these agreements have adverse implications for people’s survival and particularly for women who bear the double brunt of rise in prices of water, or cutting down of social sector budgets such as for health care.


Governments do not put out the RCEP negotiating text for public discussion because people will oppose such an economic partnership deal being signed on their behalf. It will mean that hidden agenda of subserving big corporates through signing this Agreement, so that the ruling politicos can enrich their coffers, will be defeated.


The fundamental rights of peoples cannot be bartered away at the high table of an RCEP, in which the people and specially its marginalised sections, including women, unorganised workers, depressed castes, tribes, of the concerned countries do not have a say. Activists affirm that people’s rights must prevail over investor’s “rights” and that there has to be equity, justice and fairness in the global trading system.


The memory of the turnaround by the ruling party in Goa with casinos, saying their hands are tied by the earlier Government’s amendment of the law and granting of licences is fresh in our minds. So one can well imagine what the candidates, who have already started coming to your doorstep as elections near, will say post-election, in the face of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that India will have signed by then. “Our hands are tied”! All their election promises will be gone with the wind. Unless we would have succeeded in getting India to retreat from the proposed RCEP, or we decide to hold the elected people responsible if they still sign such an RCEP, with a befitting retort at the hustings, to the ruling party whose Government signs such Agreements.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 November, 2016)