Thursday, April 30, 2015

NTUI statement on May Day 2015

NTUI statement on May day 2015

Build a United Struggle for Safe and Secure Jobs and Freedom

If ever we thought that things couldn’t get worse for the working class, we were wrong!
The last twelve months have seen an unparalleled attack on working people. The BJP, which came to government a year ago, has intensified its attack on all sections of the working class. The BJP has recognised that its principle failure during its last term in office (1998-2004) was that while it had moved policy in the direction of the free market it did not create the institutional framework for it. The journey from ‘India Shining’ to ‘Make in India’ is to translate the ideology of the free market into not just policy but also legislation. Hence, the BJP government has now set about to put in place, not just a stronger legislative framework for the right to property, but also to secure the right to profit and the right of companies to enjoy the same rights as if they are citizens. 

Hindutva for Economic Restructuring
When the Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks about the need for ‘trust in citizens’ for an environment that is business friendly, he equates the rights of corporates with the rights enjoyed by citizens. This ‘trust’ can only be achieved if the right of the corporate displaces the rights of citizens. Hence the BJP government has set about a programme to attack the most marginalised and socially discriminated citizens, be they women, dalits, adivasis or religious minorities. Be it ‘ghar wapsi’ or the proposal for the Freedom of Religion Bill or the legislation on the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and buffalos, the aim of the BJP government is to polarise and divide society around their Hindutva agenda. 

These actions are indeed aimed at communalising society along religious lines but are also a clear attack on the livelihood of those engaged and employed in the meat and leather industry and an attack on small and marginal farmers, a large number of whom are from historically oppressed communities. The BJP governments plan of advancing the ‘Maharashtra model’ on animal slaughter to a countrywide agenda will contribute both to destitution of those related to the industry but also add to the problem of food availability and security of the poorest section of the population.

Access to Land to Promote Low Wage Unsafe Jobs
Along with this is comes the promise to private capital to easy and unlimited access to land and other natural resources, through the amendment to the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act 2013. When the BJP government has failed to obtain legislative sanction, it has forced it, not once but twice, through Presidential ordinances. The ordinance has diluted the principle of informed and democratic consent by removing social impact assessment (SIA) for a range of industrial and infrastructure projects. SIA was a critical component of the 2013 political compromise that led to the legislation and addressed the effect and therefore relief and resettlement issues of not just land owners but also landless workers who are dependent on land for their livelihood. 

Furthermore the restriction the ordinance places on the Gram Sabha takes away key gains made through the Forest Rights Act.  Added to this the BJP has legislated the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) (MMDR) Act and the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act to delink mineral resources from their final use. In effect what the BJP government seeks to do is to create a framework that allows for the transfer of property rights from peasants to corporates and create a ‘market’ for both land and minerals. And yet in the knowledge that such a ‘market’ may in many cases not assure profits, the BJP government is willing to extend state support to this profit model through government guarantees. This, the BJP government says will bring the ‘poor, dalits, tribals, backwards, those who are landless... 300 million would get employment’.

Race to the Bottom
Clearing land of the poor, dalits, tribals, backwards’ will however not be enough to create the 300 million jobs. For this,‘labour law reform’ is the government’s solution. In the first instance through amendments moved in the Lok Sabha to the Apprentices’ Act 1961, the Factories Act 1948 and the Self Certification and then through its state governments, led by Rajasthan, that also amended the Industrial Disputes Act 1948 and the Contract Labour Act 1971. 

Since then the union government has circulated drafts of the Small Factories Bill, the Wage Code and the Industrial Relations Code. These drafts seek to alter the basic framework of labour law by curtailing basic workers’ rights that are today protected amongst others by the Minimum Wages Act 1948, the Trade Union Act 1926 and the Industrial Disputes Act 1948. By amending the PF and ESI Acts, the BJP government is playing on the financial hardship of low income workers and pushing them to low contribution options of healthcare insurance and retiral benefits in the private sector in the name of ‘choice’. The objective is to universalise, in every sphere of economic life, the principle of capacity to pay and ability to pay. 

These proposals are a direct attack on the freedom of workers to form or join trade unions of their choice and shrink the right to strike and all forms of action by workers in order to agitate their demands including on wages and work place safety and security in what are today already very unequal and discriminatory workplaces.

While seeking to attract investment and compromising with imperialist powers, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently assured a global audience that he will ‘Make in India’ by placing ‘the workforce to power global growth’ at the disposal of capital. Let there be no doubt that by this the BJP government is assuring capital that it will lead from the front in the ‘race to the bottom’ by providing a workforce with low wages and unprotected conditions of work and employment. The BJP is assuring capital that it will clear the countryside of the ‘poor, dalits, tribals, backwards’.  The BJP is assuring capital that it will place land and natural resources at the disposal of capital. The BJP is assuring capital that it will provide government guarantees against possible losses. The BJP is assuring capital that it will put down any resistance from the working class and the peasantry since any voice against ‘Make in India’ is a voice against the ‘national interest’.

The NTUI has always recognised the critical importance of both working class unity and advancing the united front. We note the persistence of the 13 central trade union organisations’ effort. We salute the unity of coal workers for their December 2014 strike as we salute the transport workers for their efforts at a one-day nationwide strike yesterday both of which were against privatisation of the sectors. And yet the NTUI has always recognised that if the working class movement has to succeed in breaching the onslaught of capital then we must prepare our movement for sustained struggle. We know that a sustained struggle cannot be built without an intensification of our political engagement. 

Over these past months we have sought to work with others for a convergence between social movements and trade unions. We are willing to experiment with the widest possible alliance of progressive forces. We have worked to build strong relations between ourselves and other militant trade unions. And we know that we cannot fight our battles alone here and to this end we have committed ourselves with militant trade unions from across the world to build an alliance to fight against all forms of contract and irregular work and for safe and secure workplaces. Just as we put our energies in building strong unions we must  also strengthen our efforts to build stronger alliances with other sections of the progressive movement learning at each stage from our experience so that we can together sharpen our political experience and take our movement forward to build a fair, just and equitable social order.

Let us Unite this May Day and

Fight Discrimination - Fight Communal Violence
Fight to Repeal the Land Ordinance:
No Land Acquisition without Consent of Affected People
Resist the Attack on Labour Rights – Fight for Safe, Secure Jobs and a Just Wage


Usha Ramanathan on how the Modi Government is shamelessly flouting three Supreme Court Orders on Aadhaar

By law, you should not be denied any government service in India if you don’t have an Aadhar card number. So why do various government programs continue to ignore three Supreme Court orders and insist on the dreaded number, and how are they getting away with it?

In the last year-and-a-half, the Supreme Court has said at least three times that having an Aadhaar number is not to be made mandatory. Yet, governments and institutions have persisted with their demand for people’s Aadhaar numbers as a condition for getting entitlements and services. Has the latest Supreme Court order on March 16 – reiterating Aadhaar cannot be mandatory – solved the problem? Here’s the deal with what’s going on.

What is Aadhaar?
Aadhaar is the brand name for the number being produced under the Unique Identification (UID) project. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was set up in 2009 by an executive notification to generate and assign unique identification numbers to residents. There was, and continues to be, no law governing the project. In December 2010, months after the UIDAI had begun to collect data – including people’s biometric data – and after persistent demands that such a project cannot be allowed to be carried on without at least the protection of a law, a Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha. This Bill – the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 – was roundly rejected in December 2011 by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance cutting across party lines: it recommended that the project be sent back to the drawing board.

Although enrolment on the UID database was initially promoted as being voluntary, very soon the element of coercion began to emerge. A notification issued by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas on 26 September, 2011 proposed making the Aadhaar number compulsory for getting gas cylinders. This was soon withdrawn, but, as things turned out, the idea of coercion was not abandoned. Among other things, coercion and threat of exclusion from services has been a way of driving people to enrolment stations, forcing them to be on the UID database.

In the beginning, the central and state governments entered into Memorandums of Understanding(MoUs) with the UIDAI to act as its Registrars. In time, by demanding that the Aadhaar number be seeded in bank accountsgas connectionsration cards and, lately, the voter ID, the governments have been active in introducing compulsion. The reason many people are upset over Aadhaar at this point is that even as the Supreme Court is yet to hear and decide on the many issues raised before it challenging the UID project, and even as the court has directed that Aadhaar cannot be a precondition for accessing services and entitlements, governments have continued to act as if the order of the court does not exist.

For what kinds of services was Aadhaar first made compulsory?
In 2011, Maharashtra was the first state government in which servants and judges were not to receive salaries unless the Aadhaar number was embedded in their bank accounts. As 2012 drew to a close, a series of circulars was issued by various governments that made having an Aadhaar number compulsory for a range of services. In Delhi, for instance, the Revenue Department of the Delhi government issued an order that the application forms for the registration of various documents in sub-Registrar offices – registration of marriages; Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, domicile and income certificates; birth and death orders; surviving member certificates; solvency certificates; nationality certificates – should have the Aadhaar number inscribed on them. Scholarships for students and kerosene subsidies were linked with Aadhaar. As 2013 rolled in, the linking of bank accounts with the Aadhaar number became a prerequisite for receiving subsidies and scholarships. LPG subsidy was made dependent on providing the Aadhaar number and a bank account number. This was launched in a few districts and then expanded to more and more parts of the country. And so it has gone on.

So can I be denied services if I don’t have an Aaadhar number?
By law, you shouldn’t. The first time the Supreme Court ruled that having a UID number should not be a prerequisite for receiving services and subsidies was in an interim order on September 23, 2013, after a spate of cases in the Supreme Court raised a range of concerns about the UID project including the element of coercion that had been introduced into it. “No person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card,” it said.

This order was swiftly followed by a spate of applications – from oil marketing companies like Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation; the UIDAI and the Finance Ministry, among others – asking the court to revise its order and allow enrolment for Aadhaar to be made mandatory. This was a turnaround from the UIDAI’s earlier assertion that enrolment for Aadhaar was voluntary. In a hearing on October 8, 2013, the court declined to change its order.

A few months later, while giving orders in a different case (about transferring biometric data stored with the UIDAI; more on that later) in which the UIDAI was a party, the court added on March 24, 2014: “[N]o person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number in case he/she is otherwise eligible/entitled. All the parties are directed to modify their forms/circulars/ likes so as not to compulsorily require the Aadhaar number in order to meet the requirements of the interim order passed by this Court forthwith.”

Close to a year later, it was much in evidence that the order of the court was continuing to be ignored. On March 16, 2015, when the cases in which the UID project had been challenged in the Supreme Court came up for hearing before a bench of Justice J Chelameswar and Justice SA Bobde and Justice C Nagappan, the deliberate flouting of the interim orders was brought up, leading the court to say: “In the meanwhile, it is brought to our notice that in certain quarters, Aadhaar identification is being insisted upon by various authorities; we do not propose to go into the specific instances. Since the Union of India is represented by learned Solicitor General and all the states are represented through their respective counsel, we expect that both the Union of India and states and all their functionaries should adhere to the order passed by this court on 23 September, 2013.”

So now, after three Supreme Court orders, are the governments paying heed?
Nothing indicates that the government will honour the Supreme Court’s repeated directions.
On 23 February 2015, I accompanied two young persons applying to have their marriage registered under the Special Marriage Act before the Additional District Magistrate (ADM) in Delhi. They were told that the system would not accept their application without their Aadhaar enrolment ID. They categorically refused to comply, and cited the orders of the Supreme Court. They proposed going to court to get a direction issued to the ADM. The ADM then relented and that led to the acceptance of their application – a series of dots (….) in the enrolment ID column did the trick. The form, though, remains unchanged.

On 25 February, 2015, the Ministry of Rural Development sent out a letter about the government's decision that wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) would only be paid through direct cash transfer, and that all states “are to seed the Aadhaar numbers of the MGNREGA beneficiaries and enrol the MGNREGA beneficiaries who have not yet got enrolled for Aadhaar.” Jean Dreze reports from the field that those not enrolled are not being given job cards. There has been no revision of these circulars.

On 3 March, 2015, a Maharashtra Cabinet decision is recorded as having taken the “revolutionary decision to link ration cards and FPSs with biometric database and Aadhaar.” The same day, the Election Commission announced a National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Program (NERPAP) to be done by linking the Aadhaar database with the electoral database to be completed by 15 August, 2015.

On March 19, 2015, just three days after the court order, a circular from the office of the Revenue Commissioner on the use of the Aadhaar card said, blandly, that “all concerned are requested to ensure strict compliance of the orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. Any administrative instructions in violation of the order of Hon’ble Supreme Court will have no validity.” The circular acknowledges the two orders of September 23, 2013 and March 16, 2015. The March 24, 2014 order which requires changes in the forms and circulars is not even mentioned.

On April 3, 2015 it was reported that the Haryana government has made the Aadhaar card mandatory for admission to government schools and for scholarships across the state. This will especially affect students from Scheduled Caste and Backward Caste communities, and those in the BPL category, who depend on government schools and on scholarships. On April 4, 2015, a newspaper reported that the NITI Aayog has decided to set up an elaborate “child-tracking” system. On April 5, 2015, it wasreported that a school in Goregaon has made the Aadhaar card a requirement for admission.

The violations are everywhere. The Prime Minister’s interest in getting “universal coverage” by June 2015, and his push to make Aadhaar the platform for government schemes – entirely disregarding the directions of the Supreme Court – has contributed to this in good measure.

Where the court has directly intervened, there has been some respite. In a PIL filed in the Allahabad High Court, the court had asked the Principal Secretary (Food and Civil Supplies) in Lucknow to explain how the state government was continuing to insist on the Aadhaar card or number being provided. This seems to have spurred the government to pass an order dated 26 March, 2015 directing District Magistrates and district production supply offices not to compel the production of Aadhaar card or number for getting ration cards.

Otherwise, there is little that has been done to conform to the order of the Supreme Court.
The Delhi marriage registration episode does show, though, that insistence that the Supreme Court order be respected does have an effect, especially since contempt action against those violating the order cannot be counted out. Writing to the court citing narratives of coercion has also found a positive response, as is reflected in the orders of March 24, 2014 and March 16, 2015.

But why this Kolaveri about Aadhaar?
The first order of the Supreme Court in September 2013 followed after a number of persons approached the court raising serious questions about the constitutional sustainability of the UID project, through which the Aadhaar number was being generated. Petitioners in the Supreme Court raised issues about the personal and national security threat posed by the convergence of various databases with the use of the Aadhaar number. So, birth, caste, health insurance, travel, bank, employment, income and education records, for instance, being bridged by the Aadhaar number, were seen to present risks to both personal and national security. The debate that erupted in the US after Edward Snowden’s revelations about how the American security establishment works to collect, collate and use information about persons and people across the globe has deepened these concerns.

There is no law on data protection. There was, and continues to be, no law on privacy, despite the serious privacy implications of projects such as the Aadhaar project.

The security implications of engaging companies with close ties to intelligence agencies of other countries – L-1 Identity Solutions with America’s CIA and Homeland Security, and the company Safran, in which the French government has a substantial share; Accenture with Homeland Security; Mahindra Satyam-Morpho with Safran – have been raised and remain to be answered.

Concerns about surveillance, tracking, the transparency of the citizen to the state (which is an inversion of what the RTI tries to achieve in making the state transparent to the people), the admittedly untested nature of a biometric database, the absence of a feasibility study before launching of such a massive project, and its link to the National Population Register, have been raised in the cases.

A petition in the Supreme Court filed in 2012 by Justice KS Puttaswamy, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court, also raises questions about illegal immigrants being enrolled on the UID database. The most immediate and proximate consequence was of exclusion – where people not enrolled on the UID database may be denied a service because they did not have an Aadhaar number. Those not enrolled for any reason, ranging from those unable to get on to the database to those not wanting to, and those whose biometrics may not work because of the nature of their work – such as manual labor or those working with chemicals – or because of age, could find themselves deprived of their entitlements. There was also in the background the constant iteration of the UIDAI that enrolment was voluntary and not mandatory. This was echoed by government counsel in court when it came up for hearing in September, 2013.

So, on September 23, 2013, the court issued an interim order, till the case could be finally decided, that “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card”, even where some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory. In addition, it said, “when any person applies to get the Aadhaar card voluntarily, it may be checked whether that person is entitled for it under the law and it should not be given to any illegal immigrant.”

So can the data stored on my Aadhaar card be used for any purpose without my consent?
The problems in functioning without a privacy law or data protection law that governs the UID project came to light last year in a case that reached the Supreme Court.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court restrained the UIDAI from transferring biometric information to any other agency without the written consent of the individual. This came as the result of a little-noticed but significant matter. In January 2013, the rape of a young child in the toilet of a school in Goa caused an outcry. As the local police didn’t get anywhere with the investigation, the case was handed over to the CBI. The CBI said it had found a random palm print at the site of the offence, that they could not say for certain if it had anything to do with the crime, but that it may help if they were to be given the UIDAI’s biometric database. Initially, they requested thehanding over of the entire biometric database of all persons enrolled in Goa. That was amended to a request for biometric information of three persons, and, later still, for running the random print against the whole database to see if a match could be found.

The CBI received an order from the court of the Judicial Magistrate First Class, Goa, saying that the “necessary data” that the CBI had sought – “the data base of persons from Goa who has enrolled with the UIDAI” – be given to them. The UIDAI protested this order in the Bombay High Court. One, they said that the biometric database could not help with identifying random prints, that only with carefully collected prints of eight fingers and two thumbs and two irises could de-duplication and identification be done. The Bombay High Court, however, said it could be left to someone deputed by the Director of the Central Forensic Science Laboratory to figure out whether or not the UIDAI's biometric database could help the investigating agency. Two, the UIDAI invoked concerns of privacy, citing that as the reason they should not be required to part with the biometric database. Ironically, the UIDAI drew on the arguments that the petitioners in the Supreme Court had made while challenging the UID project.

With the Bombay High Court decision going against them, the UIDAI appealed to the Supreme Court. By this time, and since the September 23, 2013 order, the court had received a spate of complaints that despite its orders that the Aadhaar be not made mandatory, they were being denied services and subsidies. So, with the UIDAI as a party before it, the court on March 24, 2014 reiterated and reinforced its earlier order even as it restrained the UIDAI from transferring biometric information to any other agency without the written consent of the individual.

What next? Is the March 2015 order the end of the Supreme Court’s involvement in the matter?
No, the matter is far from finished in the court. There is a range of petitions challenging the UID project, including its constitutional validity, which is to be heard by a bench of the Supreme Court presided over by Justice Chelameswar. The case that the UIDAI is pursuing against the CBI has been tagged to these petitions and will also be heard. The hearings are to commence in the second week of July.

On March 16, 2015, when counsel for the petitioners expressed his concern that governments were pushing ahead with enrolment so they could present the court with a fait accompli – that they already have large numbers on the database and so the project should be allowed to go on – the court said during the hearing that that would not hold weight with them. When the matter gets heard, the court may well consider what they need to do in the context of the flouting of the court’s orders by the governments and other agencies and institutions. The multitude of issues raised in the petitions, including its constitutionality and legality, will be heard and decided in court.

In the UK, when their identity scheme was abandoned for being “intrusive, bullying and ineffective,” the database had to be dismantled; that was the only way to respect the law and to protect citizens from a surveillance state.

Usha Ramanathan works on the jurisprudence of law and poverty. She has been interrogating the UID project and writing about it extensively since 2009.


NICHOLAS EPLEY - The psychology of hate: How we deny human beings their humanity

NB: This is a powerful account of how humans can destroy their own natural emotions, throw aside empathy and make themselves sociopaths. An essay on the roots of hatred and the nihilist disregard for human life that is so common in our contemporary world - DS

Empathy: the power of mentally identifying oneself with, and so fully understanding another person. Sociopatha person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.
Profile of the Sociopath

"The essence of dehumanization is, therefore, failing to recognize the fully human mind of another person. Those who fight against dehumanization typically deal with extreme cases that can make it seem like a relatively rare phenomenon. It is not..."

One of the most amazing court cases you probably have never heard of had come down to this. Standing Bear, the reluctant chief of the Ponca tribe, rose on May 2, 1879, to address a packed audience in a Nebraska courtroom. At issue was the existence of a mind that many were unable to see.

Standing Bear’s journey to this courtroom had been excruciating. The U.S. government had decided several years earlier to force the 752 Ponca Native Americans off their lands along the fertile Niobrara River and move them to the desolate Indian Territory, in what is now northern Oklahoma. Standing Bear surrendered everything he owned, assembled his tribe, and began marching a six-hundred-mile “trail of tears.” If the walk didn’t kill them (as it did Standing Bear’s daughter), then the parched Indian Territory would. Left with meager provisions and fields of parched rock to farm, nearly a third of the Poncas died within the first year. This included Standing Bear’s son. As his son lay dying, Standing Bear promised to return his son’s bones to the tribe’s burial grounds so that his son could walk the afterlife with his ancestors, according to their religion. Desperate, Standing Bear decided to go home.

Carrying his son’s bones in a bag clutched to his chest, Standing Bear and twenty-seven others began their return in the dead of winter. Word spread of the group’s travel as they approached the Omaha Indian reservation, midway through their journey. The Omahas welcomed them with open arms, but U.S. officials welcomed them with open handcuffs. General George Crook was ordered by government officials to return the beleaguered Poncas to the Indian Territory.

Crook couldn’t bear the thought. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do most inhuman things in dealings with the Indians,” he said, “but now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before.” Crook was an honorable man who could no more disobey direct orders than he could fly, so instead he stalled, encouraging a newspaper editor from Omaha to enlist lawyers who would then sue General Crook (as the U.S. government’s representative) on Standing Bear’s behalf. The suit? To have the U.S. government recognize Standing Bear as a person, as a human being.

The case lasted several days, during which the government lawyers attempted to portray the Poncas as savages, more like thoughtless animals or unfeeling objects than rational and emotional human beings. Perceiving the Poncas as mindless, after all, is what had made it possible for officials to treat them as property under the law rather than as persons. This perception was clear from the government attorney’s opening question: he asked Standing Bear how many people he had led on his march. “I just wanted to see if he could count,” the attorney explained.

After several days of testimony, the trial drew to a close. Judge Elmer Dundy knew that Standing Bear wanted to address the audience in his own words, as was customary in Ponca tradition, but direct statements at the end of a trial were not allowed under U.S. jurisprudence. Respecting Native American tradition and violating his own, Judge Dundy called the bailiff to his desk, whispered that “the court is now adjourned” to secretly end the official proceedings, and then allowed Standing Bear to rise and address the court.

So it had come down to this. At about ten p.m., at the end of a very long day, Standing Bear rose. Illiterate, uneducated, and with no time to prepare an address, he stood silent for a minute to survey the room. Finally, he spoke: “I see a great many of you here. I think a great many are my friends.” Then he tried to reveal that he was, in fact, much more than a mindless savage. He explained his tribe’s difficulties in the Indian Territory, stated that he had never tried to hurt a white person, and described how he had taken several U.S. soldiers into his own home over the years and nursed them back to health. Then, in a stunning moment that channeled Shylock’s monologue from “The Merchant of Venice,” Standing Bear held out his hand. “This hand is not the color of yours. But if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man.”

Standing Bear was a man intelligent enough to lead his tribe along a six-hundred-mile journey in the dead of winter and back again, a man who felt love so deeply that he carried his son’s bones around his neck to fulfill a promise. Yet he found himself pleading with people from far-off places who had failed almost completely to see his mind and instead viewed him as a piece of mindless property. Facing those unable to recognize a sentient mind before their eyes, Standing Bear had been forced to show his to them.

DISENGAGED : Standing Bear’s case is an extreme example of a surprisingly common failing of our sixth sense. Like closing your eyes and then concluding that nothing exists, failing to engage your ability to reason about the mind of another person not only leads to indifference about others, it can also lead to the sense that others are relatively mindless. Most extreme examples typically involve some kind of hatred or prejudice that distances people from one another. The Nazis, building on centuries of anti-Semitic stereotypes, depicted the Jews as greedy rats without conscience or as gluttonous pigs lacking self-control. The Hutus in Rwanda depicted the Tutsis as mindless cockroaches before killing them by the hundreds of thousands. Exceptions in these extreme cases typically came from those who actually knew the targets of prejudice directly. General Crook had interviewed Standing Bear and his tribesmen in his office; they’d told him directly of their pain and suffering, of their hopes and dreams, of their beliefs and memories. He did not think of the Poncas as mindless savages, and so was willing to orchestrate the legal case in which he was named as the defendant. From these examples, we begin to learn important lessons about what it takes to recognize the existence of a fully human mind in another person, as well as the consequences of failing to recognize one.

Of course, Standing Bear is neither the first nor the last human being to have his mind overlooked and underestimated. The cross-cultural psychologist Gustav Jahoda catalogued how Europeans since the time of the ancient Greeks viewed those living in relatively primitive cultures as lacking a mind in one of two ways: either lacking self-control and emotions, like an animal, or lacking reason and intellect, like a child. So foreign in appearance, language, and manner, “they” did not simply become other people, they became lesser people. More specifically, they were seen as having lesser minds, diminished capacities to either reason or feel.

Similar evaluations play over the course of history like a broken record. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a labor strike by sanitation workers whose rallying cry was “I am a man.” In the early 1990ss, California State Police commonly referred to crimes involving young black men as NHI—No Humans Involved. In 2010, thousands of immigrants protested extreme immigration laws in Arizona while carrying signs saying, “I am human.” When people around the planet demand human rights or claim they have been treated inhumanely, the central issue is their oppressors’ failure to recognize their mind. This may be why Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts a person’s mind front and center: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Apparently, it can be easy to forget that other people have minds with the same general capacities and experiences as your own. Once seen as lacking the ability to reason, to choose freely, or to feel, a person is considered something less than human.

The essence of dehumanization is, therefore, failing to recognize the fully human mind of another person. Those who fight against dehumanization typically deal with extreme cases that can make it seem like a relatively rare phenomenon. It is not. Subtle versions are all around us. Even your refrigerator may hold an artifact of one example. When the French began making champagne for the British, the champagne makers quickly learned that the Brits preferred much drier champagne than the French did. In fact, the French found this version to be unpalatable. They named this inferior champagne brut sauvage, poking fun at the seemingly unsophisticated Brits. The joke was eventually on the French: brut is now the most popular variety of champagne in the world.

Our sixth sense’s shortcomings in these cases arise partly from our failure to engage it when in the presence of someone so different or distant from ourselves. It may feed off prejudice and hatred, but it does not require either. Disengagement can come anytime there is a distance between two minds that needs to be bridged. For instance, when team owners in the National Football League proposed extending the season from an already punishing sixteen games to a grueling eighteen, Ray Lewis, one of the most fearsome players in the NFL, protested that the owners had overlooked the players’ experience and were thinking of them only as moneymakers. “[I know] the things that you have to go through just to keep your body [functioning]. We’re not automobiles. We’re not machines. We’re humans.” There’s no reason to think that any kind of prejudice or animosity was involved here. The owners may well have been focused on their own finances rather than on their players’ minds, a focus that would make it easy to overlook or underestimate their players’ pain.

Even doctors—those whose business is to treat others humanely— can remain disengaged from the minds of their patients, particularly when those patients are easily seen as different from the doctors themselves. Until the early 1990s, for instance, it was routine practice for infants to undergo surgery without anesthesia. Why? Because at the time, doctors did not believe that infants were able to experience pain, a fundamental capacity of the human mind. “How often we used to be reassured by more senior physicians that newborn infants cannot feel pain,” Dr. Mary Ellen Avery writes in the opening of “Pain in Neonates.”

“Oh yes, they cry when restrained and during procedures, but ‘that is different.’ ” Doctors have long understood infants as human beings in the biological sense, but only in the last twenty years have they understood them as human beings in the psychological sense. Your sixth sense functions only when you engage it. When you do not, you may fail to recognize a fully human mind that is right before your eyes. It is comforting to imagine that such “mindblindness,” as psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes it, is just a chronic condition or personality trait for some people, a condition that neither you nor I have. Indeed, for some it is. 

This is a comforting story because it makes the inhumanity that can stem from dehumanization, from overlooking the mind of another person or being indifferent to it, seem like something that is likely to exist in other people, not in you. Although it is indeed true that the ability to read the minds of others exists along a spectrum with stable individual differences, I believe that the more useful knowledge comes from understanding the moment-to-moment, situational influences that can lead even the most social person—yes, even you and me—to treat others as mindless animals or objects. Engaging with the mind of another person depends not only on the type of person you are but also on the context you are in. None of the cases described in this chapter so far involve people with chronic and stable personality disorders. Instead, they all come from predictable contexts in which people’s sixth sense remained disengaged for one fundamental reason: distance.

DISTANCE MAKES MINDLESS : For psychologists, distance is not just physical space. It is also psychological space, the degree to which you feel closely connected to someone else. You are describing psychological distance when you say that you feel “distant” from your spouse, “out of touch” with your kids’ lives, “worlds apart” from a neighbor’s politics, or “separated” from your employees. You don’t mean that you are physically distant from other people; you mean that you feel psychologically distant from them in some way. You’ve developed different beliefs than your spouse over time and have “grown apart,” your kids’ generation is so different from your own, or you work in a large corporation with more employees than you can name. These two features of social life—the magnitude of the gap between your own mind and others’ minds, and the motivation to reduce that gap—are critical for understanding when you engage your ability to think about other minds fully and when you do not.

Distance keeps your sixth sense disengaged for at least two reasons. First, your ability to understand the minds of others can be triggered by your physical senses. When you’re too far away in physical space, those triggers do not get pulled. Second, your ability to understand the minds of others is also engaged by your cognitive inferences. Too far away in psychological space—too different, too foreign, too other—and those triggers, again, do not get pulled. Understanding how these two triggers—your physical senses and your cognitive inferences—engage you with the mind of another person is essential for understanding the dehumanizing mistakes we can make when we remain disengaged.
TRIGGER NO. 1: SENSING OTHERS’ MINDS
Read more:

Excerpted from:
Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

Tahir Mahmood - For all the Shah Banos

Na stree swatantramarhati, said Manu, the law giver: the woman does not deserve independence. And it is alleged that the fatal point in Islam is the degradation of woman [as British orientalist Edward Lane once said].” This is how Y.V. Chandrachud, a former Supreme Court chief justice speaking for a constitution bench, began his Shah Bano judgment. Decided on April 23, 1985, the case has kept its proponents and opponents engaged for three decades while the apex court has reiterated its stand in several  rulings, the latest being Shamima Farooqui, decided on April 6.

To tackle the problem of destitution of deserted wives, the old CrPC of 1898 had empowered magistrates to enforce payment of maintenance by their husbands. With the fast-growing numbers of divorcees since the enactment of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, the new CrPC, 1973, extended the same relief to them. This development raised the question whether the provision would apply to Muslims, who had religious rules on divorce. No, said Muslim religious leaders, who believed that women’s post-divorce rights were extremely restricted under their professedly divine law. The late Justice Krishna Iyer of the SC did not agree and enforced the new provision for Muslim divorcees in Bai Tahira, 1980, and Fuzlunbi, 1982. Muslim leaders then decided to challenge his views.

A Muslim lawyer from Indore divorced his 60-year-old wife, Shah Bano, and a maintenance application filed on her behalf under the CrPC was decided in her favour. She was awarded a petty monthly allowance by the lower court. But her husband, instigated by the religious leadership, fought the case right up to the SC. The Muslim Personal Law Board intervened, insisting that the CrPC law  could not be applied to Muslims due to a conflict with personal law. 

Admitting the appeal, judge Murtaza Fazal Ali referred it to Chandrachud for a decision by a larger bench. The chief justice then constituted a five-judge bench and, speaking for it, upheld Iyer’s stand. He took pains to convince Muslims that the CrPC law was in tune with true Islamic law and concluded his judgment with a lament for the lack of a uniform civil code.

He generously cited two of my works. “I have quoted you on some vital points,” he said to me during an accidental meeting a few days after the case was decided. It was indeed a great honour. Though proud of it and in full agreement with the court’s decision, I said that the obiter in the judgment had been insensitive to the known idiosyncrasies prevailing in society. In another chance meeting years later, the learned judge also agreed that the obiter was unnecessary and avoidable.

Shah Bano created a storm. Agitated that vested interests had projected it as a death knell for personal law, Muslims demanded “corrective” legislation. In a bid to enhance its pro-minority image, the government enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. The bill, apart from its confusing wording, was repugnant to true Islamic law. I conveyed my critique to its architects but Parliament was drawing to a close and they were in a hurry to achieve victory. They agreed to suitably amend it later — a promise that was never fulfilled.

Muslim leaders were not, however, destined to have the last laugh. The constitutional validity of the 1986 act was challenged before the SC. It took 15 years to decide the matter. By then, many high courts had interpreted the act in conformity with the spirit of Shah Bano. In Danial Latifi, 2001, the SC decisively ruled for all time that Shah Bano had not been superseded by the act; it must in fact regulate its implications and application.

Under the Constitution, religious liberty is a qualified right, subjected to the “other provisions of the Constitution”, which include all other fundamental rights and duties. As specified in the Constitution, people’s right to religious freedom does not restrict the power of the state to regulate or restrict, inter alia, “political” activities associated with religion. It is these provisions, not any community’s astha or aqida (religious belief, right or wrong) or claim to hegemony, that should guide the courts in deciding religion-based disputes. Taking a uniform stand in accordance with the Constitution on all such matters, be it personal law, disturbing social bonhomie or anti-minority atrocities, should be as important to the courts as expressing concern about the lack of a uniform civil code.

The writer is former chair, National Minorities Commission

Sumana Ramanan - Film-maker releases a dozen clips of controversial Modi speeches made just after Gujarat riots (2014)

On Sunday Rakesh Sharma, director of Final Solution, the acclaimed documentary on the Gujarat riots of 2002, released a dozen clips online that were not part of the original two-and-a-half-hour version of the film. The film severely indicts Narendra Modi, the state's chief minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate. 

Many of these short films contain speeches that Modi delivered after the carnage, including during his Gaurav Yatra and campaigning for the state election several months after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. Many of these speeches are no longer available online, Sharma said. Sharma will also release six more clips this week and six the next week, containing more speeches as well as portions of his new film on Gujarat in the decade after the carnage. The short films are all less than 15 minutes long. Click here, to watch them. In this interview, he tells Scroll.in why he put the clips up, discusses his new film and talks about Gujarat under Narendra Modi.

Are you putting these clips up now because the general election is around the corner?
Yes, in a manner of speaking. The fact is that Modi's more communal utterances have disappeared online. There's been a whitewash and a PR makeover of his image. I felt that it was important to put in the public realm what I had documented in 2002 – that in his Gaurav Yatra that year, Modi was endorsing the carnage.

In recent months, Modi seems to have toned down his rhetoric. Does this indicate an understanding that this is necessary to gain the support of other parties or even a genuine change in approach?I don't think there has been a fundamental change in his beliefs. His image as the 'Butcher of Gujarat' had to be whitewashed into the one of the 'Development Messiah' who has all the answers. [Lots of money] has been spent on this image makeover. Gujarat has been made out to be an idyllic land, one that all of India must aspire to imitate.

In any case, Modi has never expressed regret about what happened. His ministers are still under the scanner. It's not as if there has been a great realisation. If Modi is at the helm, similar fundamentalist policies to the one we saw in Gujarat will be played out in other parts of the country. Muzaffarnagar is a similar kind of politics – polarisation for electoral gain. It's not as if this has ended.

When there is this propaganda, I want to refresh people's memories and talk about the ground realities in Gujarat.

What are these ground realities?I've been documenting and filming in Gujarat since 2002. If you travel in Gujarat, you will find that even today the fault lines remain deep. In Ahmedabad, for instance, the localities of Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society are on the list of officially declared disturbed areas. If everything is normal, why are they on the list?

What has the Gujarat government done by way of relief and rehabilitation? Very little. The victims of the carnage have suffered twice and thrice over. First they lost everything during the carnage. Then they have been displaced and are living in terrible conditions. For instance, Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad is next to the biggest landfill.

In the districts and villages, it's not as if those who were victimised and lost property have been able to go back and resume their lives in any normal way. Most people have been uprooted and there has not been any state support. So at the ground level there is no evidence to suggest that there has been any change of heart among the political leadership.

Has the propaganda worked?
Propaganda works. That's why money is poured into it not only by oppressive regimes, but also in contemporary politics, such as the American elections.

As far as the media is concerned, the propaganda has worked. I am not talking only about conventional media, such as print and TV, but also social media, whose spaces are very easy to infiltrate and manipulate. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates have managed to do this well. If Facebook were to hold elections, Modi would be the uncontested prime minister.

A part of Modi's image makeover is to remove from online spaces his communal speeches, ones on the basis of which he built up his image in the first place. The speeches he made during campaigns he ran before previous elections, suddenly you find some of them are no longer available online.

The myth of Modi is now as the Vikas Purush, the Man of Progress. A certain section of the middle class has bought into it, but it is only a section. Even within the Gujarati middle class there is a certain opposition to Modi. Even the best opinion polls, many of which have now been discredited, have a sample of 9,000, which works out to less than 20 people per constituency. So the extrapolations based on such a small group of people are open to serious questions. Both in 2002 and 2009, similar overestimations of support for the BJP took place.

What is the basis of this opposition in Gujarat to Modi? 
It is not as if people's lives have become better in the past 10 years. The fact is that from a surplus state, the per capita debt in Gujarat is Rs 26,000.

Take the Tata group's Nano project in Sanand. Not only were many concessions given in 2008, when Tata Motors moved the plant there from West Bengal, but the condition that local labour must be employed was relaxed for that project. Yet the BJP lost the election in that constituency in the 2009 general election despite the fact that it swept Gujarat on the back of Modi's campaign.

So why was that project so necessary? Because it was after the Nano project and Ratan Tata's endorsement that Modi's makeover could begin. I have been tracking the situation in some districts, and through direct interviews and applications through the Right to Information Act, I know that famerrs are committing suicides in Saurashtra and other areas because they can't repay their loans.

The whole policy is skewed, where state funds are being used to create an image. It is not about development but the development of Modi's image.

Prominent economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya say Gujarat has fared well under Modi.
Statistics can be very malleable. Also, we need to step away from the macro-indicators that they are looking at and look at people at the ground level and see whether their lives have improved. Yes, highways have been developed and yes, there is infrastructure. But that has always been the case in Gujarat for a long time. Constructing highways from Gujarat to Mumbai, for instance, has been part of the state's policies, driven by the business ethos in that state.

But the fact is that he has been elected three times in a row
For the past 20 years, there has been no real opposition party. Gujarat has been reduced to a one-party state. The Congress's institutions and agencies, such as dairy and farmers' collectives, have been taken over by the BJP with little resistance from the Congress. The Gandhian activists in these agencies have not resisted. I have no doubt that when there is a credible opposition of any kind, and actual politics contesting issues at the ground level, things will change.

Tell us more about your new film.
It is a critique of the Vibrant Gujarat story and looks at the political and social impact on Gujarat of the carnage of 2002. I have been documenting the situation there for the past eight years. I have gone to the very people I filmed in 2002. Even in the current clips online, there are two clips of several kar sevak families who were cynically exploited for the election and whose tragedies [in the Godhra train fire] were constantly evoked by Modi in the Gaurav Yatra. That's what talked him up in the first place.

I have filmed about half a dozen families, and they unequivocally condemn the violence that was meted out in their name. Several of them are very critical of the BJP. Some say they won't ever vote for the BJP.

So how do you fund your films?
Even when I did not take any funding whatsoever for Final Solution, trolls online hurled invective and allegations that I have been paid millions by dubious sources. When you take money, credibility could suffer. But I also don't want to take funds because I wish to exercise complete control over the way I distribute my films.

In the case of Final Solution, TV channels did not want the film. It was too hot for them to handle. But I earned a lot of money outside India and I used that to cross-subsidise the film in India, by selling it at Rs 20 and Rs 50 to some audiences.

I have clarity that I am making films not to make money but to intervene, and the intervention has to be through a variety of networks that typically don't operate on a commercial basis. It makes no commercial sense for a classic producer-distributor to adopt this model. A foreign co-producer would be aghast at my distribution methods.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Girl, 14, Dies After Being Thrown Off Bus for Resisting Molesters in Punjab

The bus is reportedly operated by an influential political family

MOGA, PUNJAB:  A 14-year-old girl died and her mother is in hospital with severe injuries after they were thrown off a moving bus in Punjab on Wednesday for resisting molestation attempts by a group of men. The teenager, her mother and younger brother boarded the private bus from their village in Moga district, to visit a gurdwara last evening. There were only a handful of passengers at the time.

"They kept abusing us. No one helped. They first pushed my daughter off the bus, then me," the girl's mother, who was unconscious for hours at a district hospital, said on Thursday. The harassment allegedly began the moment the family got on the bus. "The conductor refused to give my daughter a ticket," said the woman, 38. Around 10 km into the journey, a passenger allegedly started misbehaving with the girl. When the woman tried to save her daughter, she was attacked too. The bus conductor, instead of helping them, allegedly also joined in and started abusing both mother and daughter. In desperation, the woman ran to the driver and begged him to stop the bus, but he allegedly kept driving.

The woman and her daughter were allegedly harassed by half a dozen men, said to be the driver's friends, until the bus slowed down at a turn. The woman alleges that she and her daughter were then pushed off the bus. As hours passed before they could get any medical help, the girl died on the road.

A case of murder has been registered. The bus, reportedly operated by an influential political family, has been found but the police are still looking for the driver and the conductor. Angry villagers at the hospital said 12 hours had passed without any action. "We are investigating. We will not spare the accused," said Jatinder Khaira, a senior police officer.

Taliban and Islamic State Declare Jihad on Each Other // Suicide Bomber Killed En Route By Car Bomb

According to reports from Afghanistan's Khaama Press and Pakistan's Mashaal Radio, the Taliban and Islamic State (ISIS) have declared jihad on each other, furthering an already acrimonious relationship between the two groups. Nabi Jan Mullahkhil, police chief of Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, an opium-producing region along the Pakistan border, revealed in an interview that he received documents showing that both groups made the declaration.

This news comes after a brutal terrorist attack on Saturday in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which killed at least 35 people and wounded over 100 others. The Taliban castigated the incident, with the group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stating, "It was an evil act. We strongly condemn it." While Afghani President Ashraf Ghani blamed ISIS for the attack and a spokesman pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility, Maulvi Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, self-declared leader of ISIS in Afghanistan, said his group was not involved. Both the U.S. and Afghani militaries expressed doubts about ISIS's guilt, suggesting it was possibly the Taliban.

It is unclear who was behind the attack, but there is evidently a rivalry between ISIS and the Taliban. Last summer when ISIS picked up significant momentum, the Taliban warned of the former's "extremism" in an attempt to unify the jihad movement. The Taliban views ISIS's declaration of an official caliphate as premature, divisive, and illegitimate.

Earlier this year, Afghan officials announced that ISIS had moved into southern Afghanistan to recruit and establish a base to further its caliphate. ISIS then said it established itself in Khorasan, a historic name for the region that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, parts of India, and surrounding countries. Some Taliban fighters, even commanders, joined ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan, threatening the former's influence. There has also been fighting between both sides, and the Taliban even arrested an ISIS leader. The Taliban and its ally al-Qaeda, however, still maintain a stronger presence in the aforementioned areas than ISIS.

This conflict for political power manifested in the relations between ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Mullah Omar is Emir of Afghanistan, and followers in the Taliban and al-Qaeda have referred to him as "Leader of the Faithful," a title often used for caliphs. Baghdadi, however, called Mullah Omar a fool and an illiterate warlord who does not deserve spiritual or religious credibility. Conversely, the Taliban has been ordered to not let ISIS's flag fly in Afghanistan. Both men represent the larger conflict between their groups and the divide in the global jihad movement.

Now that ISIS and the Taliban have declared jihad on one another, there may be an escalation of violence between both sides. ISIS has a history of going into new territories and assassinating its Islamic opposition, with Syria and Libya as two examples. In both 
countries, ISIS expanded and killed rival Sunni jihadists in an attempt to gain control. 
Furthermore, if the competition between ISIS and al-Qaeda serves as a model, both groups may attempt to outdo one another through terrorism. There is evidence, for example, of the Taliban carrying out more beheadings recently, perhaps in an attempt to match ISIS's notoriety.

While a Taliban-ISIS conflict may seem desirable as a way for both groups to destroy each other, ISIS expansion will only lead to more chaos. Furthermore, such a fight would not eliminate the basic problem that both groups exist in the first place. It is also possible that they will occasionally work together to fight the West, their common enemy, despite their differences, like al-Qaeda and ISIS did with the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Ultimately, clashes between jihadists do not substitute for the international community actively confronting these groups to root out their ideology and ability to continue fighting.

NB: Lest readers take this literally, this is pure gallows humour, posted for light relief:
BAGHDAD—Terrorist cells in Baghdad are in mourning for suicide bomber Ahmed al-Khalaf, 19, who was killed by a car bomb Monday, 200 yards from an Iraqi police station, his intended target. Sources within the insurgency said al-Khalaf was "on his way to becoming a glorious martyr" when he was struck down by the car-bomb explosion. Twenty-three other civilians were also killed.

"What kind of God allows the death of people who are on their way to kill innocent people?" insurgent leader Abdulwahid al-Tomizie said. "On the one hand, I am elated that the car-bomb explosion was successful, but the loss of the suicide bomber is a tragedy, as is the survival of all the innocent people he might have killed." According to al-Tomizie, al-Khalaf could have killed as many as 40 innocent people, had his life not been cut short.

"It is tragic that al-Khalaf died seven minutes sooner than he intended," said Hassan Abdul Aziz, leader of a local cabal of Sunni separatists. "To think that he was just yards from his intended target. Our thoughts and prayers are with his terrorist cell." No insurgent groups have claimed responsibility for the car bomb, although as many as 18 separate insurgency factions have vowed to carry on the fight in al-Khalaf's memory. In the past week, over 170 Iraqi citizens and U.S. troops have died in terrorist or insurgent attacks, but al-Khalaf's death marks the first time a terrorist has been killed by another terrorist while on a different terrorist mission.

Terrorist leaders have called the incident a "wake-up call." "No one likes to see a senseless waste of a willingness to take human life," said al-Qaeda operative Salih al-Shimiri, in a videotaped message aired on Al-Jazeera Monday evening. "However, there are worse problems than having too many suicide bombers on our streets." Insurgent leaders met Monday to draft new rules to prevent bombing mix-ups like the one that killed al-Khalaf. One proposal would limit suicide bombings to odd hours, car bombings to even. Another designates "Car Bomb Only" traffic lanes to help terrorists get to their bombing locations more quickly and efficiently.

"I had a man last week get stuck in traffic while driving a car bomb to the Mendi Temple," al-Shimiri said. "When he arrived, he found it already on fire. We don't fill the cars up with enough gas to make two-way trips, so he was forced to blow up a nearby disco. This is madness." Al-Shimiri added: "We all have the same goal here—the killing of innocent civilians. Let's stop working at cross purposes." Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr believes all insurgents must find direction in their extreme  fundamentalist faith. "When I close my eyes, all I can see are the faces of all the innocents al-Khalaf will never get a chance to kill. It is a sad day, but we must not let it shake our faith in the wrath of Allah."

GEORGE MONBIOT - Coalfields And Legalised Theft

Wrapped up in this story is everything that’s wrong with the way our economy works. Corporations ream the land with giant holes, extract a stack of money, then clear out, leaving other people with the costs. There’s a briefer description: legalised theft.

This is an account, scarcely mentioned in the national media, of the massive unfunded liabilities emerging from coalfields throughout Britain, that opencast mining companies have been allowed to walk away from. It’s comparable in terms of irresponsibility to the failure by the nuclear industry to fund its decommissioning costs. And it offers a solid argument, even to those who continue to reject climate science, for keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

As I write, Neath-Port Talbot Council in South Wales is considering a new application for an opencast coal mine. The mine is unpopular, but its proponents argue that it’s necessary. Why? Because only by digging a new pit, they say, can the money be made to fill in an old one. How could this be true, when millions of tonnes of coal have been extracted? Where did the money go? You think you are inured to the worst of British politics? Read on.

When British Coal was privatised by John Major’s government in 1994, the company that took over in South Wales, Celtic Energy, was granted a 10-year exemption from paying a restoration bond, in return for offering a slightly higher price for the assets. That higher price disappeared into national accounts, doubtless in the form of one of Mr Major’s tax cuts for the rich.

After 10 years, the exemption expired, and Celtic Energy had to start putting up a decommissioning fund. At East Pit, where the application for new mining is now being considered, the bond now stands at around £4m, while the restoration is likely to cost about £115m. At another vast pit, Margam, near Bridgend, there is £5.7m in the kitty – against an estimated restoration cost of £56m.

In 2010 Celtic Energy sold the land rights, and the liabilities, at East Pit, Margam and two other mines, to a company in the British Virgin Islands called Oak Regeneration, for £1 per mine. Oak Regeneration then passed the liabilities to Pine Regeneration, Beech Regeneration and Ash Regeneration, none of which appear to have the assets required for restoration. Five senior executives at Celtic Energy walked away with benefits worth more than £10m.

The people involved in this transfer, including two directors of Celtic Energy and the former chief executive of Cardiff City Council, were charged with fraud. But last year the judge threw out the case, saying that, while some might regard their actions as “dishonest” or “reprehensible”, they were not illegal. So all that is left, the opencasters argue, is to dig more holes. It’s like the old woman who swallowed a fly.

In a paper commissioned by the Welsh government, I was struck by the mention of the Ffos-y-fran opencast coal mine, on which I reported in 2007. This pit was justified as a “restoration scheme”, which would remove the old adits, shafts and spoil heaps left behind by deep mining. Local people were sceptical: one of them told me “you don’t go down 600ft and blast 5 days a week to reclaim an area.” But the report finds that the bond laid down by Ffos-y-fran’s operators, £15m, “falls well short of a worst case restoration cost which could be in excess of £50m”. The “restoration scheme”, this suggests, cannot fund its own restoration.

In some cases, villages and towns find themselves perched on the edge of sheer drops, overlooking running black sores sometimes hundreds of metres wide. At Margam, for example, the pit is some 2km across and, according to the latest estimate I’ve seen, the water gathering there is 88m deep. In East Ayrshire, in Scotland, 22 giant voids have been abandoned by their operators. Restoration work there would cost £161m, but just £28m has been set aside. As the local MP explained, “they are so large they cannot be effectively secured from trespass… unstable head walls and extremely deep water bodies with vertical drop-offs make for dangerous playgrounds.”

An independent report found that the collection of restoration bonds by East Ayrshire Council officials was “wholly deficient and defective”, while the failure to appoint independent assessors was “completely inexplicable”. While officials took their eye off the ball, East Ayrshire councillors took gifts and hospitality from the coal operators, including a trip to watch Celtic play Barcelona in Spain, premier league tickets, lavish meals, food hampers and nights in hotels. When the two companies running the pits went bust, the council was left in a gigantic hole. Nationwide, the unfunded liabilities counted so far amount to £469m. That’s likely to be just the beginning.

This is a price we pay for limited liability. Why should the people who own and run these companies be allowed to walk away with millions, while shrugging off the costs they leave behind? Limited liability is one of our social silences: a giant gift to corporations that we won’t even discuss.

And why are we digging coal anyway, when we cannot afford to burn it? Climate breakdown is the greatest unfunded liability of all, for which future generations will have to pay. Yet in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, the amount of coal for which companies in Britain have permission to dig rose from 12m tonnes to 24m. Eight new opencast pits were approved in that year, and only three rejected. In which parallel universe is this compatible with the commitment to limit climate change?

Last week, lost in the election turmoil, the Welsh Senedd did something remarkable. It voted,by 30 votes to zero, for a moratorium on opencast coal mining. With the Welsh ban on fracking, this could have meant that Wales was the first nation on earth to keep its fossil fuels in the ground. But the Welsh government refused to accept the decision, using the restoration argument. Past crimes are used to justify new ones.

Fire and forget: that’s the psychopathic business model we confront, and the forgetting is assisted by the press and political leaders. To them, the victims are non-people, the ruined landscapes non-places. All that counts is the money.

http://www.outlookindia.com/article/coalfields-and-legalised-theft/294170