new internationalist
issue 225 - November 1991

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Smoke screen
Cover of the NI Issue 224 So it's US imperialism and the Thatcherite 1980s which are to blame for the drugs problem (The war on drugs NI 224). This is not a new analysis for the NI. Housing, crime, international debt, hunger, the burning of the Amazon rainforest you name the problem and I have a pretty good idea how the NI will explain it away. But what such analysis can't deliver, and what NI editor David Ransom so conspicuously avoided, was a sense of where do we go from here?

Big metropolitan powers like the US and the UK are not going to become progressive Amsterdams. Just ease up on the crackdown and how many more innocent people will be killed in the drug gangs' cross-fire? How many more kids are going to mess up their lives?

I don't have the answers, but I do expect Ransom to have a bash. Charming admissions about smoking a pipe are not enough to win me over.

Derek Johns
Brighton, UK

Tibet's tragedy
Incredible. A whole issue devoted to refugees (The Dispossessed NI 223) and no mention of Tibet. Occupied in 1950 by the Chinese, there are over 100,000 Tibetan refugees, most of whom left Tibet with the Dalai Lama following an uprising in 1959. They mostly live in India and Nepal where they receive little government aid due to the poverty in these countries, and survive only by their own hard work and with help from Western funds. If readers wish to know more they should write to:

The Tibet Society of the UK,
Olympia Bridge Quay, Russell Rd, London W14,
Tibet Support Group UK,
43 New Oxford St, London WC1 A 1 BH.

Joanna Prescott
Bristol, UK.

Tormented Travellers
I'm sorry your issue on the Dispossessed (NI 223) had so little coverage of Travellers. Human society was all originally nomadic and Travellers are a vital link with the past, continuing a cultural tradition of adaptation and independence rare in the developed world. They also remain relatively immune to the values of consumerism as well as having strong family and community bonds.

However laws in the UK make life extremely difficult for these people. Some families have even been evicted 15 times in one day - a sobering corrective to the notion of tolerance in a society supposedly built on values like freedom and choice.

David Cannon
London, UK

Praise diversity
York Ryding's letter criticizing the divergence in NI's editorial philosophies, is probably dangerous (Letters NI 223). No-one can know beyond doubt that his or her ideas are more correct than others. And the earth has survived because of this divergence of views. Universal agreement tends to lead to monoculture, fanaticism and destruction. Rejoice in difference.

Ian Lanes
Brighton. UK

Red herring
Mari Marcel concludes her piece (Letter from India NI 223) with the following: 'I could not make the moral decision to take away a bit of meat which might mean the difference between life and death to a child. Should I?' This is divisive.

The only moral decision Mari Marcel has to make is whether or not she eats meat and feeds it her Doberman. The Tamil Nadu natives must make their own decisions. These will obviously be largely based on necessity at present. But hopefully they will one day be empowered to take moral considerations into account.

Neil Basil
Bamstaple, UK

Sensitive holidays
Surely your article questioning tourism's impact on Nepal (Updates NI 222) should have coincided with or deleted your review of two travel guides to Nepal which appeared in NI 221? Too often our choice of holiday is ill informed about its likely impact on local people. Tourism Concern's newly prepared code of practice for visitors to the Himalayas - to appear in the literature and briefing materials of many companies - will hopefully encourage sensitive and sustainable tourism in the region.

Alison Stancliffe,
Tourism Concern

London, UK

illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Killing fields
By including 'Civil Strife' in your statistics (Assailed by the cyclone NI 222), you enter a domain of ignorance. To say that Pol Pot 'genocide' killed a million Cambodians in 1975 - 1978 is guesswork: the true figure can never be known. But in early 1975 a senior US health official forecast up to a million deaths from starvation after US withdrawal, due to the aerial devastation of Cambodia's rural infrastructure.

Certainly the Khmer Rouge committed shocking atrocities. But the best researched evidence (Chomsky and Hertman) put the number actually killed at between 100,000 and 200,000 - a slaughter similar in scale to that perpetrated during the same period in East Timor following the US-backed Indonesian invasion. That disaster, incidentally, escapes mention in your statistics.

PG Haig
Wellington, Aotearoa/ New Zealand

Political prejudices
Your Endpiece of NI 222 (Mugging the Good Samaritan) contained one of those all-too-frequent left-wing contradictions. While berating the International Freedom Foundation (IFF) for its prejudiced campaign against the political abuse of taxpayers' money by Third World charities, the author Dexter Tiranti himself launches into a string of prejudiced statements.

The IFF is not a charity, receives no taxpayers' funds and thus is entitled to campaign for whatever it wishes - as is the NI. However while Oxfam, Christian Aid and other organizations continue to receive a subsidy from the taxpayer, they must cease their partisan political campaigns which not only break British law but also their own Trusts.

Marc Gordon,
Director (UK) International Freedom Foundation,
London, UK

Charitable support
How gratifying to read Dexter Tiranti's bold defence of the political' stance of Third World charities (NI 222). It was through Oxfam's visiting work in Cambodia that the world's attention was once again focused upon the continuing tragedy which is now engulfing its people. Of course charities must try to maintain a balanced approach to aid work, yet in countries where the majority of suffering is a direct result of government corruption, greed or incompetence, their task must seem nearly impossible at times. With that in mind let us all salute charities and dig deeper into our pockets.

Jane Nicholas
Tyuryn, Wales, UK

Liberating women
The update on population (Motivating men NI 222) was right to argue that men should be consulted more on family planning. But women in the Third World perform a dual role as both child bearers and food producers. It is imperative that their views are sought on family planning so that smaller families will benefit them. Only this way will a decline in the population growth rate of Africa free women from the clutches of domesticity to pursue education and so help to improve equal opportunity on the continent.

Christian Adomako,
Thames Polytechnic,
London, UK

Hitler's phobia
Where is Anuradha Vittachi's evidence that 'many' Nazis were secretly homosexual? (Our boys, our toys NI 221)? This claim has commonly been made by people with an anti-gay axe to grind. Not all macho men are closet gays. Hitler tolerated Rohm and his handful of homosexual cohorts only as long as it suited him - 18 months. Thereafter gay men were persecuted within the party and without. No doubt a number did survive there - we are everywhere - but it had nothing to do with being Nazi.

H Young
Pukerus Bay, Aotearoa/ New Zealand

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Letter from India

For a few dollars more
Babies are being born deformed while Western drug
companies bolster their profits. Mari Marcel Thekaekara
reports on one lawyer's battle for justice.

photo by DEXTER TIRANTI Bommi, a young tribal girl from a small village near here had a problem which millions of young girls like her have faced before. She was unmarried and pregnant - and the father of her child didn't want to marry her. After a month of agonizing, she asked a friend to get her an 'abortion drug' from the local chemist.

Ketan, the friend, can neither read nor write. But he asked the chemist for a drug to 'get rid of a pregnancy'. The chemist obliged with an Estrogen and Progesterone (EP) drug which Bommi took. Next day she was rushed to the doctor with severe stomach cramps and vomiting.

Deva and Roopa - two young doctors who are part of our team working with tribals in the Nilgris - were appalled. Abortion is frowned on by tribal society. But more than this, by taking the EP drugs Bommi could have irreparably harmed her unborn child.

The incident recalled an interview I did some years ago with Dr Vincent Pannikulangara, a lawyer fighting a mammoth battle against Indian and multinational pharmaceutical giants producing and selling banned drugs in India - especially the EP drugs which Ketan had bought so easily. The companies repeatedly procured stay orders to thwart Pannikulangara.

Finally in 1986, weary and dispirited after four seemingly futile years, he made an impassioned plea to the Supreme Court. He informed the bench that for four years he had been fighting in the highest court of the land what he considered 'a patriotic battle for justice against the criminal use of harmful drugs whose presence violates the fundamental right to life guaranteed to every citizen of India by our constitution'.

Pitted against him was the might of pharmaceutical giants that had succeeded in ensuring that the drugs remained on the market even though they endangered the lives of millions. Pannikulangara declared that he had expected the Government of India to respond in a spirit of justice and concern, but after four years he had achieved nothing. He had reached the end of his tether and was ready to step down defeated.

Moved by the sincerity of his plea, Justice RN Mishra - in a landmark judgment - criticized the Union of India, the Indian Medical Council and State Governments for their indifference to the cause of public health. In unusually strong language for a Supreme Court judge, he pointed out: 'So long as you were not aware of the harm to public health it was excusable. Thereafter it was murder.'

Pannikulangara was elated by the victory but was quick to point out that for effective implementation, women and concerned health action groups must take up the struggle to keep EP drugs off the market.

In 1988, two years after this judgment, the Drug Action Forum Karnataka (DAF), a voluntary health vigilance group, proved the banned EP drugs were still around by procuring sales receipts from local chemists.

EP drugs were still being routinely prescribed for women's menstrual problems. For example, a woman comes to a doctor complaining of a delayed period, anxious in case she is pregnant. The doctor prescribes EP drugs supposedly to regulate her menstruation. But if she is already pregnant this is very dangerous for the drug contains an abortion agent, not usually strong enough to induce abortion but definitely strong enough to cause irreparable damage to the fetus.

The DAF approached the State Drug Controller with their evidence and were assured that action would be taken. The Controller then issued a press release instructing chemists not to sell the drugs and people not to buy them. He also sent a circular to drug inspectors throughout the State with orders to seize the drug from chemists stocking it. Even after this, DAF volunteers bought EP drugs from three different chemists and mailed the receipts to the Drug Controller for action. But nothing seems to have happened and the drug is easy to procure.

Governments of developing countries would do well to take a leaf out of Bangladesh's brilliant National Drug Policy which ordered the withdrawal of nearly 2,000 dangerous drugs, and emphasized the manufacture of essential drugs.

On the international front, developed nations must be pressurized to stop their multinationals from dumping killer drugs on Third World populations, in connivance with our corrupt bureaucrats and health authorities.

Last week Bommi lost her baby. But millions of young women like her will not. Their babies will be born deaf, blind, deformed or mutilated. And all so that the drug companies can make a few dollars more.

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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