By Vanita Suneja
In 2030, when I would be turning sixty, I’d like to tell my grandchildren the story of how – once upon a time – the lives of poor people in South Asia were transformed: that leaders came together to bring economic prosperity and social development to people that until then had lived in an unequal and polluted world.
What I am more likely to tell them, is how – even with the knowledge that nearly 800 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation – governments failed to act and people remain locked in a cycle of ill-health and poverty.
Ending the cycle of poverty absolutely by 2030, without leaving behind a single person, is the most ambitious promise made to date by world leaders in 2015 when they adopted the sustainable development goals: which included the provision of universal access to water and sanitation that is essential for achieving significant progress in health, education and equality.
When people have access to clean water and decent sanitation, their wellbeing increases: women and girls have time to go to school because they don’t have to fetch water for their families – this responsibility often falls on the female members or a family, and with better health comes increased productivity both in school and at work.
For every £1 invested in WASH at least £4 is returned in increased productivity, primarily based on improved health and more time to work or study.
With floods and droughts affecting the region at different times of the year, it is important that climate-resilient services are set up. This includes managing resources responsibly and minimising the effects of climate change.
Governments in South Asia have taken steps in the right direction. Nepal has taken a rights-based approach to water, sanitation and hygiene in its constitution, which sets the bar for accountability at the highest political level. The constitution states peoples’ right to live in healthy and clean environment as well as the right to access to safe water and sanitation.
Through its Clean India Mission, an incredible story emerges from India, where considerable progress has been made on sanitation. The Indian government aims to ensure that the entire population will have access to a decent toilet by 2019, so that nobody has to go in the open after that.
Bangladesh has shown the way on inclusion, having achieved the Open Defecation Free status before 2015. The government of Bangladesh has since adopted an inclusive approach to water as well, and is working to connect all those living in makeshift houses in the capital’s slums to a piped network.
Despite this progress, South Asia faces daunting challenges. Governments, donors and the private sector must be held accountable if they are not doing enough. While 88 percent of South Asia’s population has access to at least basic water, still more than half the population of South Asia lacks access to even basic sanitation.
Disparities are large between cities and rural areas: while 5.6 percent of the urban population in South Asian nations defecate in the open – having no other option as no decent sanitation is available to them – yet in rural areas, this is as high as 45 percent.
For all nations to deliver on their commitment to provide universal access to water and sanitation by 2030, governments need to prioritise WASH – the NGO term for water, sanitation and hygiene – and ensure that finances are directed towards achieving those goals.
Sanitation, water and hygiene have a bearing on health, education, nutrition, equality and poverty eradication. WASH is thus crucial to breaking the cycle of ill-health and poverty in which too many people still live today.
An important part of the promise to deliver water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere, is to leave no one behind. This requires renewed focus on addressing the equity challenge.
The private sector and civil society groups have an important role to play in partnering with the government to reach out to marginalized and vulnerable populations.
This week, world leaders are coming together at the United Nations in New York to discuss the progress made on sustainable development goal 6 – to provide universal access to clean water and decent sanitation.
This is an important moment to highlight the urgency of having clean drinking water and a proper toilet, and to ensure that the lives of people in South Asia and beyond will be transformed within a generation.
Published on IPS on July 16, 2018
By Satoshi Matsui
Three years have passed since roughly 9,000 people died in a massive earthquake in Nepal. In the aftermath of the disaster with no way to earn money, there has been no end to cases of women and children falling victim to human trafficking across the Indian border.
"I was locked in a dark room all day, and there were days where I would be forced to service 20 people. I wasn't allowed to even see the light of the sun, and I thought about dying over and over again," a 24-year-old Nepali woman who fell victim to trafficking and was forced into prostitution for roughly nine months in New Delhi said in a quivering voice. She was rescued by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in May 2017.
The woman comes from the eastern part of Nepal. The farm where she lived and worked was destroyed by the April 2015 earthquake, and she lost her job. She worked as a cook at a hotel after that, but once rent was deducted from her monthly paycheck, she was only left with 500 Nepalese rupees (approximately 510 yen) to buy food.
With few options, a male acquaintance told her that he knew of a safe job in India where she could make money, and she crossed the border in a bus accompanied by the man. But where they eventually arrived was a brothel in New Delhi.
"They watched me carefully and I couldn't escape," she said. "There are many women who are suffering in the same conditions."
According to Indian authorities, the number of Nepali victims rescued on the border rose to 336 in 2015, the year of the quake, while there had only been 33 cases the previous year. In 2016, that number further grew to 501, and ballooned to 607 people in 2017. The majority of those who have been rescued are women aged 16 or younger, and many of them were about to be sold into prostitution.
The Nepali government is also taking countermeasures against the alarming trend, and has already saved roughly 13,600 people before they could fall victim to human trafficking during the 2016 fiscal year.
"The overall number of cases of human trafficking is growing," said Santosh Sedhai, head of investigations for NGO Rescue Foundation, which is leading efforts to save victims. "The traffickers have already thought of how to escape capture." Concerning the present conditions in Nepal three years after the deadly quake, he added, "The tourism industry has recovered, but there are many victims still struggling to make a living. Support for victims and economic growth are important issues."
Published on The Mainichi on April 29, 2018
By Anuradha Nagaraj
Women making clothes for global fashion brands in South Asia are often yelled at by their supervisors and have to take out loans to make ends meet, hundreds of garment workers' diaries showed.
A year-long study of more than 500 workers in Cambodia, India and Bangladesh found women often work overtime or borrow money from their husbands to feed their families and pay rent.
"I wouldn't have enough money if we ate a lot," read one entry by Chenda in Cambodia, where researchers found most workers were in their 20s and married, with some primary education and earned about $45 for a 48-hour week.
Fashion industry manufacturers have come under pressure to improve conditions and workers' rights, particularly after the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh.
The largely female workforce in South Asia is often underpaid, faces verbal and sexual harassment on a daily basis and is forced to work long hours, campaigners say.
The research, published on Tuesday, was carried out by transparency campaigners Fashion Revolution and The C&A Foundation, affiliated with retailer C&A, which partners with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on trafficking.
The diaries' aim, they said, was to show "the human cost" of fashion and improve workers' lives.
"This gives brands something to consider above and beyond their margins when deciding where to make their clothes," Eric Noggle, research director at Microfinance Opportunities, said in a statement.
"Their decisions have a real and meaningful impact on the lives of these women and their families."
Researchers found that India had the best living and working conditions and Bangladeshi women earned the least per hour, often forcing them to borrow money.
In Cambodia, despite earning the minimum wage and supplementing their income with overtime, researcher found that most workers were still short of money, which meant they had limited access to quality food and medical care.
"What we see are stories of endurance in face of a difficult combination of low wages and economic uncertainty," said Guy Stuart, executive director of Microfinance Opportunities.
Published on Thomson Reuters Foundation on February 21, 2018
The diaries are available below, and can be found at: http://workerdiaries.org/garment-worker-diaries-reports/
By Roli Srivastava
On a busy afternoon in the southern Indian city of Visakhapatnam last month, a young man raped a destitute woman on a pavement. Many pedestrians walked by as he forced himself on the woman, but a few paused - to record the rape on their smartphones.
The police seized one cellphone - of the person who alerted them to the crime - but found he had already shared the video on social media, officers in Visakhapatnam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Women's rights campaigners in India said countless rape videos circulate online with few of them reported to the police.
"I receive a dozen rape videos a day from people who are afraid of reporting the crime themselves," said Sunitha Krishnan, a rape survivor and founder of the charity Prajwala.
As the country strengthens anti-rape laws and activists demand better safety for women on the street, public transport and in the workplace, sexual violence in India has moved online.
Krishnan lodged a petition in the Supreme Court in 2015 against rape videos circulating on social media, seeking action from the government and social media giants to end the menace.
Last month, the court asked the Indian government to report by December on the steps it will take to allow the safe and anonymous reporting of videos showing rape and child sexual abuse - as the country witnesses a surge in social media use.
"I had submitted nine rape videos to the Central Bureau of Investigation (India's top crime-fighting agency). The investigation into these videos brought to light how big the problem is," Krishnan said.
More than 750 cases related to obscene and sexually explicit content posted on the internet were registered with the India police in 2015, government data shows - but the official figures fail to reflect the prevalence of the crime, campaigners said.
In 2015, 35,000 rape cases were registered in India, an increase of 40 percent since 2012 when the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi sparked a national outcry.
"We have (now) taken precautions (to stem sexual violence) but given the scale of digital sexual violence, I am not sure how effective they are," said Asha Bajpai, professor of law at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
VIDEOS FOR SALE
Mobile internet users in India account for nearly 95 percent of the 400 million internet users in the country, which is the world's second largest smartphone market, according to studies.
And with 241 million active users, India has the world's highest number of people on Facebook and is the biggest Whatsapp market with over 200 million users.
"We don't have data (to link rise in smartphone numbers with rape videos) but plenty of anecdotal evidence," Anja Kovacs, director of the New-Delhi based Internet Democracy Project told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"When I speak to people who work on these issues, technology is involved in almost all the cases, particularly in gang rape cases where it (recording of the crime) is very common."
Local media in India often carry reports of rapes that were recorded on mobile phones and circulated on Whatsapp. Last year, gang rape videos were found to be up for sale in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
"While sex or rape videos on Whatsapp are circulated to defame or threaten, many make these videos to sell them to porn portals," said Kislay Chaudhury, whose cyber crime agency advises Delhi police and has a helpline for victims of online sexual violence.
When activist and rape survivor Krishnan received a gang rape video on her cellphone two years ago, she retched. She then got the video edited - removing the woman but retaining images of the eight rapists and uploaded it on YouTube to shame the attackers.
Two years on, however, she is hopeful that circulation of rape content on social media will become more difficult.
Responding to her petition against rape videos, India's Supreme Court has made recommendations drawn up by a court-appointed committee including staff of Facebook and Whatsapp.
The court asked internet companies to provide technical support to law enforcement agencies investigating such crimes and to ensure warning messages pop up for key words people use to search for rape videos and child sexual abuse online.
It has also suggested a central body where all the complaints can be registered.
"There will be a good amount of deterrence to circulate offensive videos. This is the beginning," Krishnan said.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday criminalised sex between a man and his underage wife provided the woman files a complaint within a year.
The court said the exception in the rape law that allowed a man to have sex with his minor wife aged between 15 and 18 was arbitrary and violated the Constitution. It also said the Exception 2 in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code was contrary to the philosophy of other statutes and violated the bodily integrity of a girl child.
Discrepancy in laws
The rape law and the protection of children from sexual offences act (Pocso) disagreed on the age of consent.
Section 375 of the IPC says sex with a girl who is below 18 is rape but Exception 2 allowed a man to have sex with his underage wife even without her consent.
Under Pocso, the age of consent is 18 years.
The exception was also contrary to the child marriage act that puts 18 as the age of marriage for girls and 21 for boys.
Why government defended the exception
The government had defended the IPC exception in the Supreme Court, saying the provision was meant to protect the institution of marriage.
India has 23 million child brides and criminalising the “consummation of the marriages” as rape would not be appropriate, the Centre had said during a hearing in August, opposing a petition that wanted 18 to be the age of consent for all girls.
It also said child marriages were a reality in India where economic and educational development was uneven. “The institution of marriage must be protected. Otherwise, the children from such marriages will suffer,” the Centre said.
What activists say
An NGO Independent Thought, which contested the exception, told the court in August that the inconsistency had split girls below the age of 18 into two categories.
“One, those who are not married and for them, the age of sexual consent is 18. Then there are those who are married and a husband can have sexual intercourse with his wife if she is above the age of 15, irrespective of her consent,” it said during a hearing.
The petition called for uniformity in defining the age of consent. The NGO’s counsel Gaurav Agrawal said Section 375 (2) IPC was arbitrary because it discriminated against a girl child who is married off before 18. The rape law made even consensual sex between a man and a minor girl an offence. “Then why should a girl of the same age suffer,” he had said.
Accepting the argument, the court on Wednesday struck down Section 375 (2) of IPC.
Published on The Hindustan Times on October 11, 2017
India’s top court ruled Thursday that privacy is a fundamental right of every citizen, in a landmark judgment that could affect the country’s mammoth identity card system.
The verdict was in response to many petitions filed in courts questioning the validity of assigning a biometric identity card to every individual. The government has made the identity card mandatory for all citizens to receive welfare benefits, but human rights groups raised concerns about the risk of personal data being misused.
“This is a very progressive judgment that endorses and protects the fundamental rights of the people,” said Soli Sorabjee, a leading lawyer and former attorney general of India.
The ruling overturns two earlier decisions by smaller benches of the Supreme Court, which said privacy was not a fundamental right. On Thursday, a nine-judge bench of the court unanimously ruled that the right to privacy is intrinsic to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.
The decision is viewed as a setback to the government’s efforts to make the ID card compulsory. The government will now have to convince the court that forcing citizens to give their fingerprints and a scan of their iris is not a violation of privacy.
The opposition Congress party welcomed the decision, saying the verdict is a victory for individual rights and human dignity.
The verdict “strikes a blow on the unbridled encroachment and surveillance by the state and its agencies on the life” of each citizen, party president Sonia Gandhi said in a statement.
Rights activists hailed the verdict as a win for individual freedom.
“The right to privacy that the court has defended today is essential to ensure individual autonomy, and is closely linked to the exercise of several other rights, from what people say online to whom they love and what they eat,” said Asmita Basu of Amnesty International India.
Published on AP on August 25, 2017 .(apnews.com/12c1222843d24573a74388c3f68d1f69/Top-court-says-privacy-the-fundamental-right-of-every-Indian)
Press freedom in India suffered a fresh blow on Monday when the country’s main investigative agency raided homes and offices connected to the founders of NDTV, India’s oldest television news station. The raids mark an alarming new level of intimidation of India’s news media under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The story is a bit tangled, but here’s the gist: The Central Bureau of Investigation says it conducted the raids because of a complaint that NDTV’s founders had caused “an alleged loss” to ICICI, a private bank, related to repayment of a loan. In 2009, ICICI said the note had been paid in full. Not really, the investigators said: A reduction in the interest rate had saddled the bank with a loss — hence the raid.
That doesn’t wash. India’s large corporations regularly default on debt with nary a peep from authorities. In fact, even as India’s state-owned banks are holding bad debt of about $186 billion, Mr. Modi’s government has hesitated to go after big defaulters. But suddenly we have dramatic raids against the founders of an influential media company — years after a loan was settled to a private bank’s satisfaction. To Mr. Modi’s critics, the inescapable conclusion is that the raids were part of a “vendetta” against NDTV.
Since Mr. Modi took office in 2014, journalists have faced increasing pressures. They risk their careers — or lives — to report news that is critical of the government or delves into matters that powerful politicians and business interests do not want exposed. News outlets that run afoul of the government can lose access to officials. The temptation to self-censor has grown, and news reports are increasingly marked by a shrill nationalism that toes the government line.
Through all this, NDTV has remained defiant. Last year, its Hindi-language station was ordered off the air for a day as punishment for reporting on a sensitive attack on an air base, but it stood by its reporting, insisting that it was based on official briefings.
Praveen Swami, a reporter for The Indian Express newspaper, warned on Twitter that Monday’s raids were “a defining moment,” adding: “The last time this sort of thing happened was during the Emergency,” a reference to the strict censorship of 1975-77 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and ruled as an autocrat. Sadly, Mr. Swami’s warning is warranted. The Central Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday that it “fully respects the freedom of press.” Even if that’s true, the question still outstanding is whether Mr. Modi does.
Published on The NY Times on June 7, 2017.