Balanced on a battered canoe, Aslam gently plucks a lotus that is just beginning to bloom and carefully places it on a pile. He moves through the vast expanse of Valiyaparappur lake in north Kerala’s Malappuram district, collecting more flowers, all meant for different temples across the state.The 25-five-year old belongs to one of the 30 Muslim families in Thirunavaya village, on the banks of the picturesque Bharata river, which share deep ties with Kerala’s Hindu temples.Thirunavaya itself is home to three revered temples ofVishnu, Brahma and Shiva.
It is known to very few devotees that the lotus blooms used in all major temples across the state, including Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple, Sabarimala, Kodungalloor Bhagavathy Temple, Paramekkavu Bhagavathi Temple, Thriprayar Sri Rama Temple and Parshinik kaadavu Muthappan Temple, are all farmed by these families. “We have been doing it for over a hundred years,” says Musthafa Chakkaliparambil, who has a 40-acre farm on the Valiyaparappur lake. He supplies at least 7,000 lotuses a day to temples in Guruvayur and Kodungallur. On an average, the village collects and distributes around 20,000 blooms every day . “Our business has thrived only because of the blessings of the deities and the revenue from temples,“ says Abdul Rahman Karakkadan, who supplies flowers to Guruvayur and Paramekkavu, Thrissur, from his 85-acre farm.
The flowers are handed over to members of the Warrier community , who handle floral decorations in temples.
“The Muslim families of Thirunavaya have maintained a good relationship with all temples,“ says Unni Varrier of Kadambuzha Bhagavathy Temple Devaswom. But lotus farming is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers like Hassan Valiyaparappur . “Water hyacinths pose a major issue. Also, water levels in the lakes have been receding over the years. Sometimes it is difficult to continue farming, especially with nil government aid,“ he says.
(From top) Dalit residents of Ansurda village have filed a police complaint. Shunned by local shops, Dalit residents are forced to travel to Osmanabad, 20 kms away, for daily necessities. Several houses and shops sport saffron flags, which the Dalits feel is meant as a threat. PIC: RAHUL KORE
Ansurda village near Osmanabad, 263 kms from Pune, ostracised Dalit families after a clash over songs that were played during Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in April
Thirteen Dalit families in Ansurda village near Osmanabad, 263 kms from Pune, have been ostracised by villagers, a majority of whom are from the Maratha community, after a flare-up during Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary celebrations in April.
For more than a month now, these Dalit families in the village of 1,500 people are not allowed to fetch water from the community well, the grocers refuse to sell them even day-to-day items, and they are being forced to travel 20 km away to Osmanabad to purchase essentials like daily milk and vegetables.
While approaching the village, this correspondent spotted a police van and a couple of constables stationed near the village temple. While the upper caste population is reluctant to discuss the matter, there is obvious tension as outsiders are looked at with suspicion.
The Dalit houses, easily identified by blue walls and flags, sport a weary look. A group of villagers could be seen gossiping under the shade of a large mango tree and it becomes obvious that a tiny village has been split right down the middle. The Dalit families have now submitted an application to district collector Prashant Narnavre and have asked for accommodation in an urban area out of fear for their lives.
The villagers said the trouble began on April 28 — 14 days after Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary — when the families, who form the Dalit population in this Marathwada village, organised an event where songs dedicated to Dr Ambedkar were played on the loudspeaker.
One of the Dalits, Nishikant Humbe (40), said a few youngsters objected to the songs, demanding that songs dedicated to Chhatrapati Shivaji be played instead. “We have been residing in this village for decades and didn’t want trouble.
We immediately played songs dedicated to Chhatrapati Shivaji but the youths abused our women and desecrated Babasaheb Ambedkar’s statue,” Humbe alleged.
The Dalits filed a police complaint against four people from the upper caste, who were released on bail the next day. That very day, the entire Dalit population of the village was socially boycotted.
“The villagers were offended because we filed a police complaint. They called for a meeting and issued a directive to boycott us,” said Bibhishan Avadhute (54). For the last one month, several public places in the village sport saffron flags, which the Dalits said is a warning asking them to stay away.
One of the upper caste villagers, who didn’t want his name in print, called the families’ boycott a “spontaneous reaction”. He said, “They didn’t listen to us and there was a scuffle. The matter could have been resolved but they took it to the police, so we have stopped talking to them. We don’t want to get involved with them anymore.”
Reacting to the Dalits’ plea to the district collector, the villagers insist that there hasn’t been an “official boycott” of the 13 families. Arun Mane, who heads the village peace committee, said a “few people had stopped talking” to the families. “There was a dispute between a few individuals and the entire village community didn’t get involved. The argument escalated into a heated debate and some people had stopped talking to these families. We held several meetings and have convinced everyone to maintain peace,” Mane said.
Despite Mane’s all-is-well talk, there’s a police van parked 24×7 outside the village temple. Scores of residents and shops sport saffron flags, and district collector Narnavre admitted that the village was tense due to the boycott call.
“The social boycott of the Dalit families had created tension in the village and the neighbouring areas too. I visited the village and held a meeting in the Dalit enclave. The social boycott has been called off and the situation is under control,” he said. “We have initiated several confidence- building measures to make the families feel a part of the community,” the collector added.
The Dalit families insisted that the only way out for them was to leave their ancestral village and homes. Avadhute said, “We have been told not to drink water from the public taps, and our cattle are barred from grazing in the village. Shopkeepers have been told not to sell us groceries.”
Another villager, Sushma Sonawane, a widow, said the cops don’t wield much power in a village as small as Ansurda. “They have put out saffron flags all over the village to threaten us and the police only watch the proceedings. We want to shift out of this village.”
The letter, written by the families to the district collector, lists the alleged atrocities. “From the time the upper caste families have boycotted us, we can’t use the flour mill, buy groceries, or even fetch water. Our cattle are not allowed to graze, nor are they allowed to drink water. The upper caste people abuse us,” said the letter, signed by 21 people.
The villagers have further alleged that the area deputy superintendent of police, Balkrishna Bhange, had threatened them to not pursue the matter.
Superintendent of police A B Trimukhe said DSP Bhange has been transferred. “There was an incident at the village, which escalated into a controversy. We have tried our best to resolve the issue peacefully and there is no tension in the village now.” The villagers have a different version to narrate. “The villagers leave us alone when government officials come for inspection. As soon as they leave, the abuses start again. The boycott has not ended,” Humbe alleged.
Chennai: Facing criticism over the action taken against a Dalit students body, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras on Sunday reinstated Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) which had been derecognised for allegedly criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The members of the APSC met the Dean of Students and told him that the guidelines for students meetings were notified four days after the APSC held its controversial meeting.
The Union Human Resource Development Ministry had directed IIT-Madras to act against the discussion forum which was critical of the Narendra Modi government.
APSC was banned from holding the event after the HRD Ministry received an ‘anonymous’ complaint against the event.
The students body was “de-recognised” following an allegation that it was instigating hatred against the Prime Minister, and policies like promotion of Hindi and ban on beef.
IIT-Madras and the Central government received a lot of criticism from the opposition parties for this decision.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi had criticised the Modi government for stifling dissent and curbing the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.
“The ban imposed by HRD Ministry is a very dangerous step. We also go at these places like Bombay University for speech. This is against the freedom of speech. This is very dangerous, it should be stopped in the beginning,” JDU leader Ali Anwar had said.
On 22 May 2015, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM), a student group namely Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was ‘derecognised’ by the Dean of Students following an advisory note received from the Under Secretary to the Human Resource Development Ministry , Government of India. The note from the MHRD referred to an anonymous complaint that APSC created “hatred” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindus, and subsequently tried to justify the action in the garb of ‘misuse of privileges’.
APSC is a duly recognized independent student body, of about 100 individuals, formed on 14th April, 2014 on the birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar. The group has been facing threats and intimidation from upper caste right wing groups within the campus and administration from the very beginning. Earlier in June 2014 and again in September 2014, the Dean of students had asked APSC to change its name as both Ambedkar and Periyar were political leaders. The immediate provocation was the recent lecture organized by APSC on 14th April 2015 by Dr. R. Vivekananda Gopal of Kuppam University, Andhra Pradesh on the topic “Contemporary Relevance of Dr. Ambedkar”. In his speech Prof. Gopal had accused NDA government of favouring big business and criticised its policies on land acquisition, labour etc.
APSC strongly believes that caste discrimination is very much prevalent, even in current times, and is particularly pervasive in these ‘premier’ academic institutions. APSC aims to make a common platform for all students irrespective of caste and creed, so as to dismantle the evils of caste barriers. Emphasizing the direct linkage between the hierarchical caste structure and conditions of peasants and labour, they have been organizing talks, discussions, debates, movie screenings on labour policies, language politics, communalism, land acquisition ordinance, beef ban and ghar wapasi programmes etc.
IIT Madras is notoriously infamous for its casteist /Brahminical and rightwing ideology and dominance. Making a mockery of the government policies on reservation, IITM had never implemented the policies resulting in very dismal representation of dalits and tribals in both faculty and student front. Socialactivists who have been fighting for proper implementation of reservations for Dalits describe IIT Madras as a ‘modern day agraharam — a Brahmin enclave’. According to WB Vasantha Kandasamy, Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department, of the institute’s entire faculty numbering to 460 a meagre 0.86 percent are Dalits, about 50 are from OBC, and the rest belong to the upper castes(2007). Even at present, the number of Dalits among faculty members is less than 1%. In 2008, IIT Delhi also was in the news for terminating 12 Dalit students citing “poor academic performance”. “So far at least 20 Dalit students from all IITs have committed suicide in the past decade,” says a PhD student from IIT Delhi. There are many such instances of discrimination and persecution of dalit students and faculty in the IITs which are never covered by the mainstream media. A recent survey among first year students (2013-14 batch) belonging to various SC, ST and OBC categories at IIT Mumbai, has revealed that an alarming 56% of them feel discriminated in a very subtle manner. The dropout rate of Dalit students at IITM is among the highest in the country. Even basic freedoms like having food of their choice in a common space is frowned upon by the administration which wanted separate mess halls for students who are vegetarian.
The incidents in IITM in derecognizing Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle expose the real attitude of NDA government towards Dr. Ambedkar whom they are desperately trying to bring into the Hindutva fold. It may be further noted that IITM which has derecognized APSC because of its anti-establishment views is extending all possible help to many rightwing student groups like Vivekananda Study Circle, Dhruva, and Santulan which are engaging in unscientific and religious discourses.
The incident at IITM is not an isolated one. It is part of the overall strategy of rightwing forces to stifle democratic spaces in educational institutions. In June 2014, nine students including editor, subeditor and advisory members of the college magazine of Sree Krishna College in Kerala’s Guruvayur University were arrested for publishing “objectionable and unsavoury” language against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a crossword puzzle in the magazine. Around the same time seven polytechnic students along with their Principal in Thrissur were arrested for including Narendra Modi in a list of “negative faces” along with Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, George Bush and a few others in their college magazine.
PUDR expresses deep concern over growing intolerance shown by the Modi government which is going for an all out offensive against every form of dissent. We strongly condemn the efforts of government in stifling democratic voices in educational institutions, thus violating the constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression. PUDR also condemns the role of police authorities in containing the protests by various students, civil and democratic organizations both inside and outside IITM. We strongly believe that the action of the Dean of students of IITM in derecognizing the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle is undemocratic and unilateral, and demand its immediate and unconditional roll back.
Packets of Nestle’s Maggi instant noodles are seen on display at a grocery store in Mumbai, India, June 4.(Reuters)
INDORE: With many states banning Maggi over mounting food safety concern, a BJP lawmaker has sought to blame “new generation mothers” for rise in its sale, saying they have become “lazy” and hence feed their children two-minute noodles.
“I don’t know why the mothers have become so lazy (that they feed their kids instant noodles)? Mothers of our generation used to serve homemade food like ‘paratha‘, ‘halwa‘ and ‘sivaia‘ to their children,” Usha Thakur, a ruling party lawmaker from the city had yesterday said while justifying the ban on sale of Maggi noodles.
Ms Thakur’s remarks drew sharp reaction from Opposition Congress which said the woman legislator has disrespected mothers.
“The BJP MLA, by dubbing Indian mothers as lazy, has shown disrespect towards them. For this, she must apologise to them,” Archana Jaiswal, a senior Congress leader, told PTI today.
“Her statement is laughable and has no basis,” said Ms Jaiswal, a former State unit President of Mahila Congress.
Ms Thakur had also said the Government’s banning Maggi was a step in the right direction and served public health interest.
“Instant food items like Maggi noodles should be boycotted,” the BJP legislator had said.
TAILOR-MADE LIVES: Accidents and Discontent among the Garment Industry Workers in Udyog Vihar, Haryana
A joint report by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights(PUDR) AND PERSPECTIVES
On 12 February 2015, hundreds of workers of garment factories at Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon, came out on the streets and pelted stones at some of the garment factory buildings in response to the rumour of the death of a fellow worker, Sami Chand. It was later found out that Sami Chand had not died but had actually been assaulted two days earlier by officials and staff of the company where he worked i.e. Gaurav International, plot number 236, Udyog Vihar, Phase I. The incident was widely reported in national newspapers. This prompted People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) and Perspectives to undertake a joint fact finding in this incident. The team met Sami Chand and his family including his wife and brother, Sube Singh, the SHO of the Udyog Vihar Police Station under whose jurisdiction the factory lies, and the General Manager – Human Resources and Administration, Richa & Co., Amardeep Dagar. The team also met one of the lawyers representing the arrested workers, some workers and worker activists in and around Kapashera.
In the course of the fact-finding, the team was presented with a chance to get an insight into the world of garment industry workers of Udyog Vihar. The team explored the working and living conditions of workers, and their connection, if any, with the recurring incidents of attacks and accidents.
Following were the main findings of the team:
1. Two FIRs have been lodged in the incident of 10 February, one by Sami Chand and other by the management. Consequently, nine staff members of Gaurav International were arrested but are now out on bail whereas four workers are still in jail with bail applications of two of them being rejected. The assaulted worker, Sami Chand along with his wife and brother have also been named in the FIR for spreading rumours.
2. The incident of 10 February was one amongst many incidents/accidents in the garment industry which reflect the discontent amongst the workers and the poor working conditions.
3. The garment units of the area are one of the garment clusters in India which produce for global clothing brands. At least since the 1990s workers have been employed in a ‘chain system’ or an assembly line where each worker is responsible for small part of the work such as stitching the collar or stitching one arm of the shirt.
4. Majority of workers are migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, most of them being Muslims. Despite having lived and worked for 15-20 years, they do not have either ration cards or voter cards.
5. Although, the workers are paid minimum wages as per the notification of Haryana government, the purchasing power of the wages has been continuously falling. The monthly basic salary of one of the most privileged kinds of tailors (Sampling Tailor) is merely INR 6203 after the latest revision in 2015.
A copy of the report is available at the PUDR website. For hard copies, contact secretaries. A hindi translation of the press release is also available.
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A Facebook page named ‘Indian Atheists’, which has close to ‘28,000 likes’, has been marked as ‘unsafe’ by Facebook and its operations restricted.
While the page hasn’t been blocked, users allege they are unable to share images or videos or tag the page on their walls since Thursday. “We have organically built our audience over the years using content directly shared by us. These restrictions affect us,” says Soorya Sriram, one of the administrators of the page.
Whenever one tries to share images or content from the page, Facebook users get a notification saying: ‘The content you’re trying to share includes a link that our security systems detected to be unsafe.’
“Usually, Facebook intimates the administrators of the page when restrictions are placed. What has happened now is unusual,” says Soorya.
The page, set up four years ago, has been managed by members belonging to Nirmukta, an online advocacy group which claims to promote science, free thought, secular humanism in India.
The administrators say restrictions have been placed at a time when they have been critical of the de-recognition of Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras and the manner in which the institution has invited religious leaders to peddle pseudo-science inside the IIT campus.
While Facebook prohibits ‘hate speech’ as per its ‘community standard’, the administrators of the page reject the notion that it had indulged in any sort of hate propaganda.
“We have been vocal about de-recognition of the APSC in IIT Madras and invitation given by IIT Madras to various pontiffs. We have also focussed mainly on current issues, including the Maggi controversy, India’s energy problems and how Bengali writer Taslima Nasreen had left the country for U.S. after being threatened by Islamic extremists. We have desisted from speaking about religion,” an administrator said.
The online group Nirmukta has several active freethinkers groups in major metropolitan and other cities where its members meet regularly to discuss social issues.
Page is managed by a group claiming to promote science, free thought, secular humanism
“Conflict of interest”, now being commonly cited, is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest. Conflict of interest situations can be institutional or personal, and can stem from financial or other interests including post-employment opportunities or during public -private partnerships. Conflicts of interest in the creation of public policy, especially health or nutrition related policies such as the vaccine policy, tobacco control, and research related to health, can have negative impact on the lives of millions of people. While the UN Convention Against Corruption, to which India is a signatory, identifies conflict of interest as often being a precursor to corruption, there is no serious action being taken in this direction by the Indian government, in spite of the fact there are instances of serious nature coming to light that affect our peoples lives. If conflict of interest situations are allowed to continue especially in health policy it could be detrimental to millions of people; therefore, it would be in public interest that India enacts a law to prevent conflict of interest in the making of public policies, comprehensive enough to include financial and institutional conflicts of interest.
Most of us believe that we know what conflict of interest is, as the concept is old and has been used in an English proverb: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Despite its long history, the term conflict of interest is a relatively new one. The first appearance of the term in ethics codes dates back to as early as the 1970s. Thereafter, the medical literature started to pay serious attention to the concept. Now the term is in common use throughout the world (1). Connected with the concept is the “Duty of Loyalty”, a term used in corporate law to describe a fiduciary’s “conflicts of interest” and according to which the fiduciaries must put the corporation’s interests ahead of their own (2). Similarly, government officials/representatives can be considered to be in a position of trust due to their duty of loyalty towards the country’s citizens. They are obliged to work in the interest of the public, which pays for them or has brought them to power, both ethically and legally. A round-table discussion on “Prevention and management of conflict of interest” was organised in Delhi on September 13, 2014, under the aegis of the Alliance Against Conflict of Interest (AACI) by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) /International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) Asia, in which several forms of conflicts of interest in public policy-making were listed. These included the inclusion of “experts” from industry in regulatory bodies; the revolving door phenomenon, which denotes the movement of policy-makers and government officials in and out of the industry that they regulate; incentives for policy-makers, regulators and monitors, including the payment of their salaries; ownership of stocks and shares of a company by its regulators; presence of private-sector experts in policy-making/recommendatory bodies, such as the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI); and institutional conflict of interest and public–private partnerships (PPPs) in general (3). Over the past few years, conflict of interest has become an important consideration in governance. Prime Minister Modi’s 17-point agenda reflected the Indian government’s recognition of the need to prevent conflict of interest (4). Most recently, the issue drew a great deal of attention when the Supreme Court observed that there was a conflict of interest in Mr N. Srinivasan being the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) (5).
This comment is an attempt to highlight some forms of conflict of interest in India, with a few examples of those that have a negative impact on human health. The first example is that of the clinical trials of the HPV vaccine, led by PATH and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) (6). Second, we shall take a look at how the Indian Tobacco Board (ITB) of the Government of India uses public money to subsidise the tobacco industry and promote the use of tobacco, despite having signed and fully ratified the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) (Article 17). Yet another case is that of the National Health Research Policy, which fosters conflicts of interest with its objective of encouraging PPPs by engaging with the private sector. The fourth example is that of the national vaccine policy being in the hands of private bodies. Since conflicts of interest in public policy-making in these areas can have a serious impact on the citizens’ fundamental rights, especially basic human rights to health, we make a case for preventing conflicts of interest in decision-making processes at the very outset, through a legal framework, since prevention is better than cure.
Some of the definitions of conflict of interest are as follows.
Conflict of interest means that the expert or his/her partner (“partner” includes a spouse or another person with whom s/he has a similarly close personal relationship), or the administrative unit with which s/he has an employment relationship, has a financial or other interest that could unduly influence the expert’s decision with respect to the subject matter being considered (7).
A conflict of interest involves a conflict between the public duty and private interests of a public official in which the public official’s private-capacity interests could improperly influence the performance of his/her official duties and responsibilities (8).
Transparency International (TI) defines conflict of interest as a “situation where an individual or the entity for which they work, whether a government, business, media outlet or civil society organisation, is confronted with choosing between the duties and demands of their position and their own private interests” (9).
The free web dictionary of West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, defines conflict of interest as “a term used to describe the situation in which a public official or fiduciary who, contrary to the obligation and absolute duty to act for the benefit of the public or a designated individual, exploits the relationship for personal benefit, typically pecuniary” (10).
A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest (11). Institutional conflicts of interest arise when an institution’s own financial interests or those of its senior officials pose the risk of exerting an undue influence on decisions involving the institution’s primary interests. In the case of academic institutions, such risks often involve the conduct of research within the institution and could affect the value of the institution’s patents or its equity positions or options in biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies or companies dealing in medical devices. Conflicts of interest may also arise when institutions seek and receive gifts or grants from companies, for example, the gift of an endowed university chair or a grant for a professional society to develop clinical practice guidelines (11). Conflict of interest can stem from financial or other kinds of interests. A public official who serves on the board of a corporation or explicitly considers post-employment opportunities in the private sector certainly creates a situation of conflict of interest.
Conflicting policies and institutional conflict of interest
How ICMR ignored rules to benefit a vaccine maker
Several instances of conflict of interest have arisen in the past few years during the clinical trials of the HPV vaccine, jointly led by PATH, a USA-based organisation interested in the promotion of the vaccine, and the ICMR, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is noteworthy that India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare investigated this case. Its report (12) highlighted that during the conduct of the trials, there were conflicts of interest both in the ICMR and the inquiry committee appointed to look into the issue of conflicts of interest. The committee noted that the ICMR, the mandate of which is to formulate ethical guidelines for researchers, became a direct party in the study through its presence in the project’s advisory committee. Further, the head of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), a premier public medical institute in the country, was appointed a member of the inquiry committee, in spite of the fact that the manufacturer of the vaccine had funded her department to carry out trials of the vaccine. In addition, the manufacturer had sponsored her visit to a conference in Seoul, a fact that was not mentioned despite the requirement of a mandatory declaration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). The committee found that the ministry had appointed a senior official of the ICMR to assist the inquiry committee. This was a clear instance of conflict of interest, as this person could not be relied upon to provide correct information, having previously been involved in discussions to help PATH carry out the project. The report held the ICMR responsible for numerous irregularities that it had reportedly committed during the study and strongly deprecated the government’s casual approach in appointing a committee of inquiry without finding out whether any of its members had any conflicts of interest (12). The report also noted that the ministry had not sought written declarations on conflicts of interest from the members of the inquiry committee. It said, “No written Conflict of Interest declarations were sought from the core members of the Inquiry Committee, as well as experts. It was understood that if there is any conflict, the highly learned members will point it out.”
Conflicts of interest in tobacco control
At the level of policy-making, conflict occurs when the government has two conflicting policies, i.e. when one department may be mandated to weaken the policy of another. For example, the FCTC (13), a United Nations treaty ratified by 179 countries, clearly recognises “the need to be alert to any efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts…” in its preamble. It is clearly stated in Article 5.3, in the treaty’s general obligations, that “parties, in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, shall act to protect these policies from commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry”. There are detailed guidelines for the Member States on conflicts of interest and the measures that can be taken to protect the relevant public health policies. The Government of India signed and fully ratified the FCTC in 2004 (Article 17) to minimise the cultivation of tobacco and promote viable alternatives to tobacco. On the other hand, the ITB, which was instituted under the Union Ministry of Commerce through a parliamentary Act, uses public money to subsidise the tobacco industry and promote the use of tobacco. In 2012–13, the ITB provided subsidies worth Rs 3.73 crore to farmers growing flue-cured Virginia tobacco (FCV) (14). According to WHO, there is an inherent contradiction between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and tobacco companies, since the industry’s functions are in conflict with public health goals (15) and Article 5.3 of the FCTC explicitly requires de-normalisation and regulation of such activities (16). Section 5 of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act 2003 (COTPA) prohibits both direct and indirect advertising of tobacco, but the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has published rules allowing brand extension in advertising (18).
National Health Research Policy encourages conflicts of interest
The National Health Research Policy, formalised in 2011, also fosters conflicts of interest. Developed in response to the public campaign against trials, it, however, promotes “intersectoral coordination in health research, including all departments within the government, private sector and the academia, to promote innovation or innovative research and ensure effective translation to encourage/ accelerate indigenous production of diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics, medical devices, etc.” Encouraging PPPs is mentioned as another objective of the policy in a section titled “Engage with private sector”. The policy allows for the movement of policy-makers, including technical persons, to and from the private sector, which would clearly lead to a conflict of interest (19). In 2013, we obtained information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) and, for that matter, several ministries of the Central government regarding the existence of any guidelines to prevent or manage conflicts of interest. We found that none of them had any mechanism to deal with conflicts of interest (20). Resolving conflicts of interest is often limited to disclosure and depends on the good intent of the conflicted individual who is expected to recuse herself/himself. That, too, is left to individual minds.
How is the National Vaccine Policy being handled?
It is time that the National Technical Advisory Group on Imuunisation (NTAGI) made a declaration of conflicts of interest, but private monies fund its secretariat, the Gates Foundation being one of them (21). The NTAGI is now being managed by the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a private organisation funded by the government and several private players. Thus, a privately funded, so-called philanthropic agency has been given charge of the agenda and minutes of NTAGI meetings. This agency does not mention the reasons for dissenting votes (22). Such arrangements create serious conflicts in public policy.
What are the dangers of conflict of interest in public policy-making?
Allowing conflicts of interest to prevail literally means allowing those policies to get changed or distorted in favour of private interests or vested parties. The HPV vaccine trials show, in a very stark and dramatic manner, what can result from conflicts of interest in public policy. The vaccine has numerous adverse effects, including convulsions and death, but still no action was taken. If children are given unnecessary vaccines, it is not just a matter of an economic loss; it could also mean a serious health hazard. This is borne out by the several deaths that allegedly resulted from the injection of pentavalent vaccines (23). As for tobacco, the health hazards (increased likelihood of lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases, etc.) are well known (24). There is a fundamental conflict between the private producer, “industry/corporation” or the organisations/lobbying bodies/front organisations related to these and the public services/institutions. The formation of PPPs, the usual approach being taken these days, actually ends up benefitting the “vested interests” rather than the public. Corporations unashamedly continue to meddle in public policy, and profit, trade and the market give rise to conflicts of interest. For a considerable period of time, corporations had been making the point that the world could survive only if there were “PPPs” and “stakeholder dialogues”. The use of this strategy allowed corporations to get closer to policy-making. As a result of this, conflicts of interest became widely prevalent. On March 4, 2011, the Supreme Court of India passed a historic order to guide policy-makers and parliamentarians on the management of conflicts of interest. The Court has directed that scientific panels of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) should not have representatives of the industry, but independent experts, in consonance with Section 13(1) of the FSSAI Act 2006 (25). Let us look at the simple example of food related policy. Recent reviews revealed how financial conflicts of interests can bias the scientific results in relation to sugar consumption and obesity (26). At the same time negative impact high sugar food can have on public health in terms of obesity and non- communicable diseases is also documented well (27).
Addressing conflict of interest: insights from around the world
There are global precedents in the area of legislation to prevent conflicts of interest that are associated with corruption. Canada was the first to come up with one such legislative framework. Bosnia, Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia and some states of the USA have also passed such legislation (28). Today, there is growing awareness of conflicts of interest, both at the national and international levels, and several national laws have incorporated changes to make conflicts of interest in public policy a punishable offence. For instance, Article 323 of the Italian Criminal Code (29)specifically refers to “the public official or the one responsible for a public function who, as part of these functions or service, by violating the legal rules or regulations, or by failing to refrain when faced with a personal interest or with that of a close relative, or in other cases provided, intentionally procures for himself or for others an undue patrimony or unjustly causes damages to others….” Similarly, Article 432-12 of the Criminal Code of France (30) incriminates the offence of “influence peddling”, calling it “breaches to the duty of honesty”, along with other actions, such as active and passive corruption, taking an unlawful interest (including by a former civil servant), favouritism, misappropriation of public funds, and improper demands or exemptions in relation to taxes (31). An amendment to the new Criminal Code of Romania goes further, and aims to make remunerated and unremunerated public officials who allow conflicts of interest in policy-making criminally liable. The amendment in this law brings within its ambit all levels of the executive branch of the government, as well as autonomous bodies, public sector institutions, private partners executing jobs delegated to them by the government, and others whose actions can have a negative impact on people, such as doctors, chartered accountants, lawyers and pharmacists. The law also holds that passive acceptance of conflict of interest is criminal: it can signify being an accomplice, instigation or complicity. When the decision concerned was taken by a collective body, then all the members who knew of the existence of the conflict of interest, and did not act against it, are liable for punishment, even if they did not materially benefit from the decision (32, 33)
The way forward
Conflict of interest is generally believed to be a situation rather than an action, and thus many do not consider it an offence. The crucial difference between individual cases of corruption and corruption associated with the existence of conflicts of interest in policy-making processes is that the latter has an impact on the lives of all citizens in the country, especially when it is a policy related to meeting the basic needs of food, healthcare, water, shelter and livelihood. The most dangerous thing about such corruption is that it is very commonly disguised as public service and contribution to nation-building. The general trend has been to de-link conflicts of interest from corruption. However, conflicts of interest—both those, which are illegal and those which are present as a part of official policy—are obvious forms of corruption and in themselves contribute to the process of corruption. The UN Convention against Corruption (34) clearly recognises that conflicts of interest can lead to corruption and urges nations to “endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest”. The 69th report on India’s Prevention of Corruption Amendment Bill 2013 recommends that conflict of interest be included under bribery (15A) (35).
Rajeev Dhavan, a senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, and a constitutional expert, recently argued in favour of a law to prevent conflicts of interest. According to him, it should include political interests, it was of the utmost importance and in fact, he questioned the retainer-ship by corporate houses of politician–advocates, who, in turn, may become influential parliamentarians or even ministers. He went to the extent of describing this as nothing short of disguised bribery (36). Even more relevant is the recent controversy around warnings on tobacco products raised by the members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health.
If there were a law to prevent conflicts of interest, Srinivasan would not have been the BCCI president.
The examples we have given relating to public health are perhaps the tip of the iceberg, if one considers the size and diversity of the country and the nature of the issues that have to be dealt with. Conflicts of interest have a negative impact on the health of the people and we strongly argue that something be done to prevent them. They can be stopped only through some kind of preventive step, such as a law. Soft policy frameworks, such as self-regulation and “guidelines”, including the FCTC guidelines, have not yielded the desirable results. The actions taken earlier by the Supreme Court in the case of the FSSAI and more recently, in that of the BCCI have certainly given parliamentarians some food for thought. Therefore, we strongly recommend a robust legal framework to prevent and manage conflicts of interest.
We believe that the answer lies in a mechanism of disclosure and recusal from a specific decision. Throughout the world, legislation and directives on conflicts of interest cover these two aspects. The Private Member Bill 2011, “Prevention and Management of Conflict of Interest”, which was introduced in the Rajya Sabha had these elements (37). This has been introduced again in 2015. Clause 7 of that Bill placed restrictions on gifts and benefits. Politicians or government officials who have a duty of loyalty should not accept gifts, payments or any other benefits from, or even to enter into a discussion with, corporates with regard to which they are taking decisions. Such situations must be checked at the very outset as further damage may be controlled if we nip the evil in the bud. What we need is a “Prevention of Conflict of Interest Act” along the lines of the Bill of 2011. In the case of the HPV vaccine trials, the Parliamentary Standing Committee found incriminating evidence of conflict of interest. Even though the trial resulted in the unwarranted deaths of girls, no action has been taken yet, which seems to have set a precedent that those guilty of such actions should go scot-free. The situation is unlikely to change unless preventive action is taken.
However, care should be taken to make sure that the law does not limit itself to disclosure, while allowing conflict of interest in decision-making processes, as is the case in several countries. The law should be comprehensive and cover all aspects of conflict of interest. It should cover financial as well as institutional conflicts of interest, especially in decision-making processes. Political and private interests should also come under the purview of the law, when they are linked.
This can be the beginning of a new era in the history of governance in India, with special reference here to the health and nutrition sectors. The amended Criminal Code of Romania has shown the world how one can go about preventing conflicts of interest in the making of public policy. India should take the step of enacting such a law, which should also allow suo moto cognizance of situations of conflict of interest. If governance moves the PPP way safeguards should be kept and this is the answer. It is only through such strict measures and their stringent enforcement that public probity can be ensured and the lives and well-being of the people protected. Public-spirited lawyers should get together to present a comprehensive Bill to the government which could take further action towards initiating a discussion in Parliament and enacting adequate laws.
Rodwin MA. Medicine, money, and morals: physicians’ conflicts of interest. N Engl J Med 1993;329:892-3.
Institute of Medicine (US). Committee on Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice. Conflicts of interest and development of clinical practice guidelines. In: Lo B, Field MJ, editors. Conflict of interest in medical research, education, and practice. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2009.
World Health Organization. Guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on the protection of public health policies with respect to tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry. Geneva: WHO; November 2008. [cited 2015 May 26]. Available from: http://www.who.int/fctc/guidelines/article_5_3.pdf
Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. Notification G.S.R. 138(E). February 27, 2009. Amendment to Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 [Internet]. New Delhi:MoIB;2009[cited 2015 May 26]. Available from: http://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/in/in079en.pdf
Bes-Rastrollo M, Schulze MB, Ruiz-Canela M, Martinez-Gonzalez MA (2013) Financial conflicts of interest and reporting bias regarding the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review of systematic reviews. PLoS Med. 2013 Dec;10(12): e1001578. doi:10.1371/ journal.pmed.1001578
Moodie R , Stuckler D, Monteiro C, Sheron N, Neal B, Thamarangsi T, Lincoln P, Casswell P, on behalf of The Lancet NCD Action Group. Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries. Lancet. 2013; 381: 670-79
Last August, a group of six young Indians took to the streets of Delhi with one simple aim: to feed the homeless. Overnight, they drove to restaurants, collected unsold food, re-packaged it and gave it to around 100 people sleeping rough in the capital.
For 27-year-old Neel Ghose, it was a wake-up call. Friends, colleagues and strangers soon joined them on drives and their numbers began to swell. In less than a few months, a nationwide volunteer movement known as the Robin Hood Army (RHA) had emerged, on a mission to curb food waste and stamp out hunger.
Founders Ghose and Anand Sinha, also 27, were inspired by Refood International, an organisation based in Portugal. “Using a hyperlocal model, they collect excess food and give it to those who need it. But every community has their own Refood chapter,” explains Ghose. “I realised it was something that can be very easily done in India, where the need would be much more.”
The movement gained huge momentum after the launch of its social media campaign, and now boasts a 500-strong volunteer base spread out across 13 cities, including Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkata. In April, the group also began operations in neighbouring Pakistan, where volunteer groups sprang up in Karachi and Lahore.
“Our Facebook page has helped us get in touch with restaurants and our posts became a form of accountability,” says Sarah Afridi, a volunteer who helped set up the group in Pakistan. Ghose agrees: “We realised that we would be much more legitimate if we showed restaurants pictures of what we were doing. That’s when things took a huge leap forward.”
The Robin Hood Army’s ideology revolves around decentralisation. Small teams, mostly young professionals, become responsible for specific areas; they scout for local restaurants, convince them to donate surplus food, identify clusters of people in need – such as the homeless and orphanages – and carry out weekly distributions.
“Anand and I don’t have to be in cities physically to set up our presence,” says Ghose. “We simply guide people on how to form communities for the RHA.” Sinha adds: “What’s happening at a grassroots level is completely driven by the locals.”
In Delhi and the National Capital Region alone, some 30 restaurants have been involved with the project, sometimes not only offering leftover food but cooking fresh meals for distribution.
Lawyer Suvarna Mandal, 26, and head of RHA’s social media Aarushi Batra, 24, both volunteer in the city and have distributed everything from biryani and dhal to sweet treats like cakes, brownies and biscuits. While they may not always have the healthiest foods to hand out, Mandal says: “We don’t look into the nutritional aspects per se, we just try to fill their stomachs.”
“Some restaurant owners even join them on drives,” Ghose explains later. “In a way, they’re not just helping the Robin Hood Army, they are the Robin Hood Army.”
During the Indian wedding season, which takes place between November and January, RHA groups also worked with caterers to make sure large amounts of uneaten food would be picked up, no matter how late at night. “It’s no secret that weddings in India are huge,” Batra tells me. “In Hyderabad, four of our volunteers fed around 970 people just with excess food from one wedding.”
According to the Centre for Development Communication (CDC), an NGO in Jaipur, there are an estimated 7m weddings in India during the season. Yet nearly one-fifth of all prepared food is thrown away – a staggering £1.6bn in wastage.
Like the RHA, the CDC developed the Annakshetra initiative, which redistributes food leftover solely from weddings, festivals and other lavish social gatherings. It was set up in 2010 after founder Dr Vivek Agrawal saw children salvaging food from piles of discarded food dumped outside a town marriage hall: “The way food is eaten and wasted in weddings is an eye-opener for everybody,” he says.
Ravi Dhingra, who helps run the foundation, says networks of volunteers collect excess food directly from events, store it in fridges overnight and check it is fit for consumption before organising handouts in the morning. In 2012, up to 10,000 were fed solely on leftovers from 16 weddings held on Akshaya Tritiya, a day considered auspicious for Hindus to tie the knot.
When asked about the RHA’s work, Dhingra tells me: “Pioneering efforts like [theirs] demonstrate enormous opportunities to reduce food waste — and enhance food security worldwide.”
Yet Dhingra and Ghose also believe that while their initiatives are making a difference, there has to be more sustainable ways to tackle widespread food poverty in south Asia. “Food donations are not the solution to food wastage or poverty, [but] food redistribution can help alleviate [its] impacts,” Dhingra says.
According to the most recent Global Hunger Index, while India no longer ranks second-to-last for having the world’s most underweight children, its overall hunger status is still classified as “serious”. Meanwhile, it remains home to a quarter of the world’s undernourished people yet it wastes more than £4bn worth of fruit and vegetables a year. Ghose is well aware of the scale of the problem: “Right now, we feed around 5,000 people a week … In the bigger scheme of things, that’s still nothing.”
But with plans to expand into more areas and partnerships with university students in the pipeline, the RHA’s influence is poised to grow across the continent.
“We’re in an exciting time where more people want to bridge gaps in society,” Sinha says. “Through social media and through our volunteers, we can channel this energy and create something stronger out of this. The Robin Hood Army is just the beginning.”
On the occasion of World Environment Day residents from the neighbourhood of Union Carbide’s abandoned factory in Bhopal demonstrated against the Indian government’s failure in removing thousands of tons of poisonous waste for the last 19 years. Hundreds of residents stood in the form of a question mark and held a banner atop the mound below which the hazardous waste lies buried. The demonstrators said that the question mark was meant to signify the many unanswered questions about the ongoing contamination in an area greater than 20 square kilometres.
According to five organizations who jointly organized today’s demonstration, several thousand tons of hazardous waste from the Union Carbide pesticide factory was buried under the mound in 1996 by the factory management. The waste is known to contain chemicals that cause cancers and birth defects and damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and the brain.
The organizations said that in October 2012 the Lucknow based Indian Institute of Toxicology Research had reported that the groundwater in 22 communities with 10, 000 resident families is contaminated. According to them further tests have shown that the contamination has spread beyond 22 communities and it will continue unless the buried waste is removed from the site.
“It is Union Carbide that buried the waste next to our homes. Why is the Indian government not able to make Union Carbide’s current owner Dow Chemical accept legal liability and clean up the toxic waste?” said Rashida Bee, President of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh.
Balkrishna Namdeo of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogee Sangharsh Morcha condemned the Environment Minister’s recent refusal to seek help from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for a comprehensive scientific assessment of the depth, spread and nature of contamination. He said that without such assessment no clean up could even begin.
“Hundreds of children are being born with horrific birth defects because their parents drank contaminated ground water for upwards of 20 years. Unless the hazardous waste is excavated and disposed off safely, the toxic contamination will continue to maim generations to come.” said Nawab Khan, President of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha.
Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action said that a legal petition for removal of the hazardous waste and clean up by Dow Chemical was pending before the Madhya Pradesh High Court for last 11 years. “It is shocking that the judges continue to drag their feet on an issue that concerns the destruction of lives and future of hundreds of unborn children.” he said.
“The saddest part of this second disaster in Bhopal is that it is finding new victims every day while government agencies that are supposed to protect our health and lives stand by doing nothing.” said Safreen Khan of Children Against Dow Carbide.
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