issue 220 - June 1991
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It's a pity you couldn't get to the forest in Ecuador or Colombia for The Amazon (NI 219). You'd have found it quieter there for a start, and got a more powerful idea of what is really being lost.
In Ecuador the results of oil exploration are much worse than you suggest. Colonists follow the oil roads and clear the forest for farming; oil palm plantations have taken over the only fertile soil; major accidents and routine carelessness have polluted the rivers; the Indians have been decimated by disease and malnutrition.
The Government, desperate for cash, has now put up the rest of its Amazon region for bids from companies like Conoco, PetroCanada and British Gas. Neither the Government nor the oil companies have so far properly recognized Indian land rights and representative organizations.
The Indians are fighting back. If they can, so can we. Tell the companies and governments involved not just to stop but to put right the damage they have done already - before it's too late for all of us.
Glasgow, Scotland, UK
Suffering Sri Lanka
We have recently returned from a visit to Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, and saw at first hand the terrible plight of large numbers of Sri Lankans, so we deeply resent the tone of Stephen van Beek's letter in Letters NI 218.
Our investigations - from which documentary evidence was submitted to the United Nations - led us to conclude that since 1987 in the south of the island alone, upwards of 40,000 people have disappeared.
In addition we observed widespread poverty and repression, along with a dramatic rise in the cost of basic necessities due to the Gulf crisis. This is the situation in a country where wages are barely at subsistence level, particularly in the free trade zone where exploitation is rife.
Alex Smith MEP (Labour),
South of Scotland
Christine Oddy MEP (Labour),
Midlands Central Damside,
At best your decision to publish a crude strip cartoon (Starve trek NI 218) was misguided, at worst it is another example of the pernicious influence American so-called culture is having on ours. It reduced your record of serious and progressive analyses to the level of The Sun.
G H Massey,
Your April issue (Starve trek NI 218) insulted my intelligence. I resent the implication that I am only willing to tackle crucial issues in world affairs if they are presented to me as comics. I can only assume that your editors were fed up and took a holiday. If so, I hope it was a good one. I want solid information and thought-provoking analyses, not a giggle over some science fiction nonsense, the concept of which is ten years out of date. In short, I expect more from the NI than that.
Your latest issue (NI 218) arrived at an opportune time for me as I am about to start teaching Developing World Agriculture. The cartoon is a good introduction to many of these issues and will help me present them to my sixth-form class in a friendly way.
Mike Wakely clearly believes that humans are superior to other animals (Letters NI 218), and if arrogance and stupidity are qualifications for superiority, then he must be right. The animal world is very bloody, he says, and indeed it can be. But how does he describe a species which can in just a few weeks, murder over 100,000 people, devastate two countries and cause fires so enormous that they threaten a delicate eco-system for decades to come?
Eric Topp was obviously so contemptuous of your Animal Rights issue that he didn't read it properly (Letters NI 218). If he can give it a second look, he should concentrate on the articles by Mark Gold and Gayle Hardy. It might then dawn on him that one central animal issue - namely meat production - has more than just a passing association with what he terms the 'real issue of global warming and Third World debt'. Who knows - if his concern about environmental degradation and famine is as strong as he implies - he might just decide to become a vegetarian.
Herne Bay, Kent
Ms Thekaekara's question is easily answered (Letter from Tamil Nadu NI 217). Saddam Hussein needs squashing, she admits, but who was Bush to do it? Well think about it - who else could? To Saddam, it means nothing to pump oil into the seas or set fire to oil wells. A man who will use chemical weapons on his own people is not my idea of a 'plucky little guy'.
Contrary to your Africa famine article (Updates, NI 217) Burkina Faso is currently experiencing famine. According to a harvest assessment produced by the US Agency for International Development in January 1991, seventeen of Burkina's thirty provinces have had poor or no harvests, creating a need for immediate food relief now: a total of 1.2 million women and children are extremely vulnerable to starvation. Our field sources report double that number are at risk, as well as several cases of suicide by farmers distraught at being unable to feed their families. This seems to be the only famine in Africa not war-induced or compounded by war.
Manager of Public Information,
Your Country Profile of Malawi (NI 216) completely understates the political and economic stranglehold that Banda has on this country, and fails to illuminate the sinister social constraints, economic hardships and insidious forms of censorship that operate here. Taxi drivers still won't discuss Banda, and women are jailed for wearing wrap-around dresses printed with the President's face which is worn upside down. Locals work for three months to buy a blanket while the military possess unheard-of luxuries like leather shoes, soap and so on. You should be more uncompromising about social injustice in Malawi, regardless of Banda's ailing health.
I have viewed with horror the ghastly plight of those poor Kurds and hope that some law can be invoked to bring the US and Britain to justice for this atrocity. Make no mistake - this was not Iraq's doing. The purpose of this whole sad affair was to ensure that the West has oil.
CV Meenan Durkin
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Dear President George Bush, (Father of the Oppressed, Fountain of Justice, Lover of Peace and Concord), first of all, congratulations for wrenching Kuwait out of the tyrant's grasp. Could I ask a favour? Please send the coalition forces to free Western Sahara from Morocco, and Walvis Bay from South Africa? That way you will finish teaching the lesson that big powerful neighbours should not just strut in and grab territory that is not theirs.
Moussa M Conteh
(Son of the Oppressed),
Milton Keynes, UK
My only complaint about your Vietnam issue (NI 216) is that certain important points were left out - such as the work of the Woman's Union and the opening of Vietnam to tourism. The Woman's Union is a hugely successful grass-roots organisation with 10 million members nationwide, which organises at village, town and provincial levels and in most work places. It has the power to influence Vietnam's national policy and does much welfare work involving education, healthcare and job training.
I am co-ordinating a Vietnam Information Campaign based in Nottingham and am looking for funding. For more information or offers of assistance, please write to: Vietnam Information Campaign, P0 Box 64, Nottingham NG3 5PY
Don Gobbett's letter (NI 218) brought a wry grin to my face when he referred to Australia's 'huge human population'. Don't I recall Australia having a population roughly the size of Greater London?
The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist
Privilege and protest
Rich and poor are locked in a struggle over traditional roles in India.
But who cast the first stone? Mari Marcel Thekaekara explains.
In thousands of towns all over India, human beings still carry night soil on their heads. Night soil? What's that you may ask? It is the Indian Government's euphemism for what ordinary people call faeces - or in more polite circles, human excrement.
The 'privilege' of carrying night soil is accorded to a segment of our society by virtue of their birth, their caste. And the babies born to the people of this community have it ordained that they shall spend their entire lives carrying human excrement on their heads, cleaning public and private lavatories, handling rotting carcasses and sweeping our city streets. That is the birthright of these children, their privilege. By divine ordination. And human concurrence.
After independence, when our constitution was being written, people at the helm of affairs in the country talked about justice, equality and fraternity for all. Especially for the downtrodden. They spoke of righting past wrongs and liberating people who by virtue of their caste had been oppressed for centuries. A special policy of positive discrimination was drawn up to bring the lowest castes into the Indian mainstream.
Over 40 years later, a new commission produced the Mandal Report which declared that the spirit of the policy had not been observed; the status of people from the lowest castes had changed only marginally. It recommended that more low-caste people should receive positive discrimination. And that they should have a larger percentage of jobs in government. The Government - led by VP Singh - announced that it was committed to implementing the Mandal Report: two of its prominent ministers were themselves from the lowest castes.
There was uproar. The media in general and the English-language press in particular launched a scathing attack on the Government and the Mandal Commission. Most vitriolic was the Indian Express with its upper-caste editor spewing venom every day in front-page editorials. Upper-caste students were incited by the press and joined the campaign. There was violence in the streets. Buses were burnt, traffic immobilized. And worst of all, a host of young students proclaiming themselves martyrs for the anti-Mandal movement set fire to themselves in public. They were made heroes by the media and upper-caste mobs. The outcome was inevitable. The VP Singh Government fell. And the Mandal Report was consigned to government files to accumulate dust like many of its predecessors.
The Express editor demanded to know why lower castes should suddenly be given 'special' rights after the country had been independent for 40 years. He argued that this would necessarily imply a promotion of all that was sub-standard and shoddy and prove a disincentive to merit and talent.
That the newspapers shouted about the need for merit is a joke. For in India - as in most countries - there is a system of privilege which works quietly, efficiently and with the tacit understanding of the privileged. The elite invariably think of themselves as the cream of the nation and consider it their divine right to corner the most lucrative jobs going. Nepotism inevitably plays its role. There is the discreet phone call, the letter of introduction, that little extra push which makes the crucial difference.
The waste of real talent is tragic. In the Nilgiris our entire field team consists of tribals - a fact which stuns outsiders because most people consider tribals 'fit' only for specific jobs like clearing forests or acting as guides in the wildlife sanctuary. That our team is capable of social analysis which would - and often has - put social-work graduates to shame astonishes people. Yet if our young people had competed with city graduates for social workers' jobs, they would have failed because the criteria used to judge people in the normal interview is based on Western, urbanized, often totally anglicized elitism.
Undoubtedly there are a few institutions in the country where merit is the sole criterion for entrance. But in the majority, entry depends purely on the economic status of the students' parents. In colleges of medicine, engineering and so on, apart from the fees, there is a prohibitively expensive 'capitation' fee which ensures that only the offspring of the rich get in. What price then, merit?
The system of privilege is not uniquely Indian. We inherited many of our peculiarities from the Empire: the old school tie; the right accent; even, amazingly, the privileges which accompany an Oxford or Cambridge degree.
Everywhere the merest mention of rights for the poor brings forth torrents of protest, while the rich and mighty continue their power games. But then, the story tells us, it is the meek who will inherit the earth. Never the poor or downtrodden.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara has been working for the last seven years on a project she and her husband started for native people in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
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