Binayak Sen at IISc. Full version.

There was a talk by Binayak Senon January 18th at IISc. The event, advertised as ‘A Discussion’ with Binayak Sen turned out to actually be that. Apart from a two-minute introduction of the speaker (as if anybody needed it) and a three-minute prefatory note by Dr. Sen, the session was spent mostly asking questions which Dr. Sen answered eloquently.

I  took notes, obviously. However, it is entirely possible that my notes and my report here are coloured by my thinking. I write the following, therefore, in first person, as I would something I myself came up with. Take from it what you will; all good points made here may be attributed to Dr. Sen. Any mistakes are mine.

There were three reports in the newspaper in Calcutta. The first was about tea-garden workers in West Bengal who were killed in an accident [I can’t find a source for this: the general theme, yes; this particular instance, no]. The second was about a woman who was refused admission into a hospital, even though she was in labour; she gave birth on the pavement in front of the hospital and died. The third was that Manmohan Singh called the fact that 42% of the children under 5 in this country are malnourished; this was part of the HUNGaMA report I’ve mentioned elsewhere.

But consider that as long as a decade ago, the National Nutrition Bureau Report said, among other things, that 37% of adults are malnourished, that 50% of the Scheduled tribes and 60% of the scheduled castes of this country are malnourished, and one has to ask why these weren’t considered a national shame. More depressing statistics: 23% of infants are malnourished at birth, but that number grows to 46% by age 3, and is roughly constant until age 5. This malnourishment is debilitating for life, if one goes by Barker’s hypothesis. The WHO’s definition of famine is that 40% of the population of a region be chronically malnourished. By this definition, India is in a state of stable famine. The consumption of cereals – the preeminent source of protein – has fallen drastically in the last 50 years. The food security bill, the UPA’s ‘dream bill’, is insufficient (at 7 kilograms of grain per person per month), to say nothing of how we might go about implementing it.

We have failed in other avenues of social progress too. Universal health care, which we’ve been talking about since forever, is still a pipedream. Most villages in the country don’t even have primary health centres, and the PHCs that do exist aren’t properly staffed. Universal education is another one of our dreams-never-to-become-reality. We narrowly beat out Kyrgystan in a recent international test of how the average 15 year old fairs at reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. With all this, should we really be surprised that some people take to arms against the government? The planning commission report on left-wing extremism admits that the government’s policies have been a failure. As Justice Sudarshen Reddy said (5 July 2011, Nandini Sundar and others vs the State of Chattisgarh, at the Supreme Court of India)

Tax breaks for the rich, and guns for the youngsters among the poor, so that they keep fighting amongst themselves, seems to be the mantra from the mandarins of security and high economic policy of the State. This, apparently, is to be the grand vision for the development of a nation that has constituted itself as a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.

Amidst all this, the government seems to be under the impression that speech causing disaffection for the government (define: sedition) should be punishable as a criminal offence. Screw freedom of speech, and screw democracy with its checks and balances.

There isn’t a magical solution to any of these problems, except for you and me to participate in the process. There are no longer any neutral observer positions available. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the reason there isn’t a solution. There is no substitute for participation.

If you think the narrative in the above jumps all over the place, remember that these statements were made in response to questions from the gathering, and as such depended on what the questions were. I’ve taken several liberties of putting together responses from bits and pieces, and of omitting stuff that I couldn’t possibly fit in without also stating the question. As before, any errors must be taken to be mine.

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