One India goes for a toss

Montage from twitter.

ONE INDIA—we hear about that often during these Covid-19 times. But the disease is proving that we are far from achieving unity. Look at the following reports.

Karnataka Closes Kerala Border, 7 Die Due to Delayed Medical Assistance
Telegana Stops Issuing Passes to Migrant Workers and Others Returning from Maharastra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
Karnataka Bans Entry of People from Gujarat, Maharastra and Tamil Nadu till May 31
Kerala Stops Malayalees Returning From Other States at Border
1000 Buses from Rajastran Dispatched from Alwar Stopped at UP Bharatpur Border by UP Cops
40 Haryana Buses from Gurgaon with Stranded Migrants Were Sent Back by UP Police

Indian States were stopping their own people from entering the State on the ground that they were coming from Covid-hit red zone, not to speak of people from neighbouring States. The BJP Government in UP not only refused entry for buses from Congress-ruled Rajasthan but also from BJP-ruled Haryana. So, the migrant drama played out in UP was more than a Congress-BJP tussle.

Centre fails to lead
The Central Government did not intervene or coordinate movement of people wanting to return home for nearly two months now. All it did finally was to send some trains here and there without waiting for clearance from the States.  However, this did not address even part of the problem. In fact, the States were acting as if they were different countries and returning workers were refugees coming to their States. This happened because the Centre did not take overall responsibility for Covid-19 control.

The Union Government, however, tried to achieve a form of paramountancy by dictating orders to the State governments on lock down. But, it failed to address critical issues like financing the fight against the disease and addressing inter-State issues such as that of the migrants, and even inter-State movement of patients. Much of the resources for the fight in terms of equipment, personnel et cetera had to be mobilised by the States. The Central agencies other than the ICMR played hardly any part.

Soon, the Centre lost the plot. By the end of the first phase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who announced the lock down without consulting anyone, started consulting the Chief Ministers. By the time, he announced the fourth phase; the Centre had to concede more freedoms to the States.  This was despite the fact that the lock down measures hardly attracted any Opposition from the States.  The States were allowed additional borrowing from the market and they went into a ‘self-reliant’ mode as if they had embraced the Atma Nirbhar slogan of the Prime Minister.  The borders were made as impermeable as possible, often citing order of the Union Home Ministry.

The Kerala Example
Kerala had done well in containing the disease, but miscalculated on what the lock down will or will not achieve elsewhere in the country.  Its achievements were largely the result of early detection, isolation, contact tracing and better care. It also looked after the migrant workers. The lock down at the national level made it easy for it to enforce social distancing and adopt precautionary measures including closure of places of worship and other establishments.

In its bid to keep its record intact, it delayed steps to facilitate return of Malayalees outside the State and abroad. This was despite some States like UP bringing back students from Kota in Rajasthan. In fact, Kerala could have asked the Centre to facilitate return of Keralites to the State and migrants to their respective States, after the first phase.

Despite claims to the contrary, it was also not well-prepared for a large influx of Malayalees from outside. This caused crowding and other issues at the border check posts. The migrant workers became restless as their return was being delayed, often because other States were also trying to keep matters pending.  Hence, Kerala too had at least isolated cases of migrants trying to reach their homes on trucks and cycles. Even now, the mess is far from over. The State did not operate a single bus or Sramik train for Keralites from Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai till now. Keralites had to arrange their own vehicles for their return to their homes at high costs. Sramik trains from Delhi and other places are yet to reach Kerala.

There is still no national plan as to how to deal with Covid-19 other than extending lock downs. Full mobility may not be restored at least until July. Kerala has a total lock down on Sundays, the scientific reasoning of which is unclear other than delaying the infections by a day or two.  Lower business hours and total closures on Sundays could only increase the crowd. We still have no trajectory either at the national or State levels as to what is to be achieved even by July.

Lock down has failed in large parts of the country — open up now

Lock down has failed in large parts of the country. As the Central government projected, Covid-19 cases are not going to become zero by the middle of this month.  The cases are multiplying at a fast rate in several States. The exceptions are only some small States like Kerala and Chhattisgarh and the North Eastern States. Most of them, especially Kerala and Chhattisgarh achieved control, by early detection, contact tracing and proper care of the patients.

Almost all States could not shore up supplies and create infrastructure needed during then lock down. Several States could not prevent spiralling up of the cases and deaths. While the Centre claimed that curve could be flattened with the lock down and brought down to zero, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had told the people that lock down could only be a pause. Even a pause could not be achieved in cases of several parts of the country during lock down.

State-wise list of Covid-19 cases as on 12-5-2020 morning. Death rate is highest in West Bengal followed by Gujarat. It is less than one per cent in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha and Bihar. Several States smaller States have zero death rates of which Chhattisgarh is notable.

Now, there is little option than opening up fast. The tragedy of migrant labourers is still unravelling. They as well as the rest of the population are increasingly becoming susceptible. While the lower class is facing hunger, the middle class is suffering from lack of exercise and exposure to sunlight (sunlight fortifies Vitamin D in your body). All this reduces immunity. The economy is collapsing and millions are facing unemployment.

There is confusion of policies at the government level both in dealing with the pandemic and economy. There is also a bias against the poorer and less influential sections of the society. Guidelines on dealing with the Covid-19 are changed frequently because arrangements to deal with the disease in the best way are still not in place. Now, there is only one way—to face the pandemic head on and pray for herd immunity, achievement of slower spreading by means of physical distancing and use of masks and faster development of vaccines or medicines.

The government has now resumed rail services in a limited way. But non-AC coaches may be safer than AC coaches. Similarly a few hours of travel by air will be safer than a few days travel by Rajadhani class train. So, flights should be resumed along with metro services with restrictions. All manufacturing units should be allowed to function with physical distancing norms. All services except cinemas, entertainment programmes, sports events, meetings, religious gatherings and festivals should be permitted.

Kerala messes up return of stranded Keralites from other States

Chappals on road

Kerala should have facilitated an ordered return of Keralites stranded in other States by arranging buses and trains for them. This is what other States have done for stranded citizens though belatedly. (However, even those States nor the Centre have taken care of the entire migrant work force till now).

The Kerala government let the stranded Keralites including students to their own devices, subjected them to a cumbersome bureaucratic process and created chaos at the borders. Many had to spend large sums from their pockets to hire vehicles.

This shows the State was ill-prepared for the influx of Keralites returning to their homes. This was despite its claims that quarantine facilities were ready. In fact, the LDF government is facing the consequences of successive governments driving large numbers Keralites out of the State by not creating job opportunities here.

The skewed development process in the past (Kerala model) has resulted in white collar workers from Kerala leaving for jobs outside and blue collar migrant workers coming to Kerala. Neither the State nor the Centre had any plans to deal with their issues before or after declaring the first and second phase of lock down. Even during this third phase, very little is being done compared to the enormity of the problem.

The Centre and States should have jointly addressed this problem long back and funded the process. But the Centre has abdicated its responsibility in an inter-State matter.  So, the States cannot be faulted for much of the problems.  The solution now may be to open up public transport and take the risk (unless the State and Centre can manage the current situation properly). A degree of social distancing, hand-washing and masks could be insisted upon.

Whether you do phased withdrawal of lock down or not, the present humanitarian crisis cannot be allowed to continue. There is now the possibility of corruption rearing its head at the borders —many will sneak in or be taken for a ride by agents, literally as well as figuratively. The government is already bogged down by cases registered for violation of lock down. There is also the distinct possibility that something similar to the tragedy at Aurangabad could happen in Kerala also. People are already taking the forests routes. Migrant workers are trying to smuggle themselves out in truck and some have started long walk from Kasaragod. In Eranakulam and other districts, police have beaten up migrant workers. Someone could die anytime in incidents like these.

It is also notable that Keralites stranded in other States are getting step-motherly treatment compared to those returning from Gulf countries. Politicians know where money and influence are.

Update (11-5-2020)

More details are now available as to how Kerala government messed up the return of Keralites stranded in other States.

The about-turn of the government on issuing passes at the borders, suspension of online registration etc caused much confusion. The instruction 3 of Government order dated 6/5/2020 indicated that people could come to the borders without passes. The only condition was that they had to undergo institutional quarantine. However, the government changed tune by May 8 because it could not handle the influx. The Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan stated in his evening press conference that only those with passes from Kerala government would be allowed to enter the State. (The download link to this order, appended below, has now been removed from the official Website of General Administration Department).

Meanwhile, the registration process for issue of passes remained suspended for two days. Many people who thought that no more passes would be issued rushed to the entry points at the borders. Besides, the stranded Keralites were required to take passes from originating State as well as Kerala and valid dates for passage often did not match. So, some landed at the borders ahead of their date of entry to Kerala. (This has now been sorted out with Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu will now issue passes only if passes of Kerala have already been obtained). These were also people who were traveling in a group. While some got their passes, application of others of the same group were pending (and they hoped to sort out the matter at the borders). Sometimes this was because they belonged to different districts. Some districts took longer time to grant the passes after making arrangements for quarantine. (Still the system worked effectively in facilitating and enforcing quarantine). Though the government claimed that it had more than a lakh rooms ready for quarantining people, they were not actually ready for occupations. Besides, the government wanted to give priority to expatriates arriving from abroad.

Everyone has a right to return home.

Information Commission orders release of video footage of polling in Kerala

The Election Commission of India and its electoral officers have been forgoing openness and transparency in the electoral process, thus undermining democratic elections in Kerala and probably elsewhere in the country. A recent order of the State Information Commission may help to restore at least some degree of transparency.

Access to Webcasting to candidates, agents and public during the Lok Sabha polls last year had resulted in detection of several cases of impersonation and bogus voting. However, when repoll were held, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Kerala restricted viewing of Webcasts to ‘election machinery’ citing a letter from the Election Commission issued in 2015. This impeded concurrent social auditing of the election process.

The letter said that the Commission had decided that henceforth, webcasting in polling stations will be restricted to viewing only by the election machinery in keeping with the spirit of Rule 93(1) of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.[ The rule actually deals with production and inspection of election papers. It specifies that used ballot papers, counterfoils et cetera and sealed control units of EVMs should not be opened or allowed to be inspected by any person or authority except under orders of a competent court. This a clause aimed at maintaining the secrecy of balloting. There is no reference to Webcasting or video footage in this clause. How the Commission could take a decision to deny real time access to web footage under this clause and how it could be in the spirit of the Rule is anybody’s guess.

Even if the decision is valid, it did not cover requests for footage under the RTI Act. However, when Advocate D. B. Binu sought the CCTV/Webcasting footage from polling booths that recorded polling percentage of more than 90%, the State Public Information Officer (SPIO) in the Office of the CEO did not release the information. He initially said that a clarification was being sought from the Commission in view of the restriction imposed by the Commission on public access. Later, he claimed that “the final list of polling booths where webcasting was done was being finalised” (sic). He added that no separate details in the manner of polling booths where 90 % and above polling was recorded was kept in that office. The appellate authority dismissed first appeal saying that the Office was awaiting clarification/permission from Election Commission of India on providing such video footage to the public.

This was when there was no provision under RTI Act giving power to the SPIO to get clarification/permission from the Commission. Moreover, the Handbook for Returning Officers had provision that copy of the video footage should be made available on payment of Rs. 50 (fees as per Right to Information Rules, 2012). Hence, the clarification sought was clearly a delaying tactics by SPIO and a clear violation of RTI Act.

The State Information Commission, in a recent order, has now directed the footage to the released. Allowing an appeal from Mr. Binu, Chief Information Commissioner Vinson M. Paul noted that the contention of the Respondent’s office that it was awaiting clarification from the Election Commission of India was not tenable under the RTI Act. Information sought tinder the Act can be denied only under Section 8 or 9 of the Act. Similarly, the argument that the Respondent office did not maintain details of polling booths, which recorded more than 90% polling, was not valid as the CEO’s office is the repository of all such information.

In response to another RTI application from the writer of this blog, the SPIO is maintaining that the reasons for malfunctioning of the electronic voting machines are not available in the CEO’s Office. As many as 434 balloting units, 391 control units and 1041 VVPATs were replaced in Kerala during Lok Sabha polls. The number of BUs and CUs replaced during the by-polls were 15 each. As many as 56 VVPATs were also replaced.

About a month after the by-elections to the Assembly in September/October 2019, the SPIO maintained that the returning officers were yet to finalise data on the polls except in the case of Pala constituency. Though the data were later released on first appeal, it was provided only in PDF format though the request was for data in excel or similar format that could be easily used for calculations.

If what the SPIO said was true, how the returning officers declared the by-poll results and Election Commission notified the winners without finalising the data?

The appeal before the State Information Commission in this case is pending.

Copy of reply from State Public Information Officer, CEO’s Office, on RTI request for election data
Reply from State Public Information Officer, CEO’s Office, on RTI request for election data- Page 2

Performance of Members of Parliament 2014 – 2019

P. K. Biju meeting voters

Did you know that CPI (M) member P. K. Biju (Alathur) was among the top ten performers of the outgoing Lok Sabha in terms of participation in debates, but the topper beats him by a score more than six times higher?

Congress member K. V. Thomas, who did not get a seat this time, and actor Innocent (CPI-M independent), who is contesting again from Chalakudy, were the poorest performers among members who served the full term from Kerala.

Topper Bhairon Prasad Mishra (BJP) from Uttar Pradesh attended all sittings of the House and participated in 2095 debates.  You may even wonder whether the Sabha had so many debates, considering the poor participation by many of our elected representatives. The average participation was about 67 debates nationally and 142.5 for members from Kerala.

Biju participated in 326 debates followed by RSP’s N. K. Premachandran (300) and Independent Joice George (290).  On the other hand, Thomas and Innocent participated only in 42 debates each. P. K. Kunhalikutty (Muslim League) has the lowest score of nine from Kerala. It may be noted here that he was in the House only for about two years, having been elected in a by-election from Malappuram in April 2017. If we extrapolate his performance for five years, it is still the lowest from Kerala.

The outgoing Lok Sabaha has as many as 32 members who did not participate in any of the debates. They included post graduates and doctorate degree holders. They also included former Chief Ministers Shibu Soren (Jharkhand) and Kamal Nath (Madhya Pradesh) besides actor Shatrughan Sinha.

The oldest member in Lok Sabha, L. K. Advani of BJP, participated in only one debate in  a span of five years. So was the youngest member Pravin Kumar Nishad of Samajwadi Party from Uttar Pradesh who incidentally is a professional graduate.

Supriya Sule of Nationalist Congress Party from Maharastra topped in terms of the questions she had asked the government in the House.  She had asked as many as 1181 questions during the five-year term.  Nishikant Dubey of BJP from Jharkhand presented the highest number of private members’ bills in the House— 48 against average of 2.3 bills nationally.

The following MPs had 100 per cent attendance in the House, besides Bhairon Prasad Mishra.

Kulamani Samal Odisha Jagatsinghpur Biju Janata Dal Professional Graduate 100%
Ramesh Chander Kaushik Haryana Sonipat Bharatiya
Janata Party
Professional Graduate 100%
Bhairon Prasad Mishra Uttar Pradesh Banda Bharatiya
Janata Party
Inter/ Higher Secondary 100%
Gopal Chinayya Shetty Maharashtra Mumbai-North Bharatiya Janata Party Under Matric 100%

Attendance is not marked for Ministers. Niranjan Jyoti from Uttar Pradesh had 100 per cent attendance till she became a Minister in August 2014.

Full set of sortable data at
http://www.keralaassembly.org/lok/sabha/2019/performance_2019.php4

Save Kurinji Campaign enters new phase

kurinji-bloom in bloom

kurinji in bloom at Kurinjimala Sanctuary, Kerala, India

The Save Kurinji Campaign was started by a group of youngsters in the eighties against destruction of the shola grasslands of Munnar and Palani Hills and its flagship species neelakurinji (Strobilanthuskunthiana) which flowers once in 12 years.

The first of its campaign march from Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu to Munnar in Kerala was inaugurated by none other than Zafar Rashid Futehally (1920 – 2013), Indian naturalist and conservationist best known for his work as the secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1989.

The campaigners marched from Kodaikanal to highlight the loss of sholas to plantations of eucalyptus, wattle and pine. Besides the Save Kurinji Campaign Council, those associated with the campaign included the Palani Hills Conservation Council and High Range Wildlife Preservation Association. This led to increased awareness about the importance of sholas and their flora and fauna. Campaign marches and other programmes were organised in the subsequent decades also.

At that time there was few studies about sholas. But soon there were several, including a book on shola forest published by the Kerala Forest Research Institute.The studies and campaigns led to stoppage of eucalyptus plantations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu though those planted already continued to affect the ecosystem.

In 2006, the campaign met with its major success with the LDF government declaring 3200 hectares of kurinji habitat near Munnar as Kurinjimala sanctuary for protection of kurinji and its habitat. The then Forest Minister Benoy Viswam took special interest in conserving the habitat. Before that, the UDF government led by OommenChandy had cleared the area of ganja cultivators and set up a forest station at Kadavari. The Palani (Kodaikanal ) wildlife sanctuary was formed in 2013 by Tamil Nadu government.

The Eravikulam National Park in Kerala was already a protected area for conservation of shola grasslands. The Year 2006 was a year of flowering of kurinji in several areas including the Park. The Forest Department paid special attention to keeping the Park free of fires in summer. Protective measures were also extended to the newly formed Kurinjimala sanctuary. This helped in maturing of the seeds of kurinji and its propagation. The results are expected to be seen this year when the kurinji plants in these areas are due for their next cycle of flowering (between July and October).

As phase of the next phase of the campaign, those who participated in earlier save kurinji marches and younger nature lovers will be gathering in Kodaikanal on June 1 to 3 to relive the memories and chart out campaign for consolidation of the gains. As done in 1989, they will be going around the Kodai Lake to mark the beginning of next phase of campaign.

Once in a blue moon

How many of you know that a blue moon need not necessarily have a blue shine? Beware of any moonshine over this. A blue moon is the full moon that occurs for a second time in a calendar month. This will happen on Wednesday, 31st January 2018. (This year, it is also the supermoon, along with a total lunar eclipse visible in some parts of the world.) As per an old definition blue moon is third full moon of four in a season which also is rare.

The word *blue* has contributed to several phrases. You know what blue film or blue jokes mean; but a blue blooded man is one of noble birth. At Oxford and Cambridge, you get your blue when you represent the University in a sport. That should take the blues away. That will be all the more true if you get a ‘blue ribbon’, a sign of great distinction. For many, distinctions come out of the blue. But a bolt from the blue is something that you cannot easily take.

You know that the blue chips have nothing to do with computers except that they are traded these days using computers. If you knew that much, better be aware that a blue stocking may not be interested in stocks. She is a woman regarded as having superior literary tastes and intellectual interests. She may not like the blue bottle. (The bottle here has nothing to do with liquor; it is a fly.)

We may not find a true blue these days even in the CPI (M) not to speak of the BJP and the Congress. The blue book, we hear of too often during Prime Minister’s visit, need not necessarily deal with VVIP security. It can be any book published by the Government containing a report– a product of white collar workers as contrasted to blue collars.

While some journalists will submit to the blue pencil, others will fight him/her. You had that experience during emergency when some bent backwards to obey him.

Cattle trade ban: another disruptive action by Centre

Beef fest organised by DYFI in protest against ban on sale of cattle in markets

Beef fest organised by DYFI in protest against ban on sale of cattle in markets

The order of the Central government banning sale of cattle in public markets for slaughter is another disruptive measure of Modi government after demonetisation. It will strengthen the organised sector to the detriment of the unorganised sector.

Of course, it has political objectives as the decision will please the Sangh Parivar outfits. The decision will be hitting a large number of people, including middlemen, who are engaged in trading of cattle and meat. A large section of them are Muslims. This will provide political capital for the BJP to go for its larger objectives.

The ban has been brought in a devious manner under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act as the Centre did not have powers to regulate trade in meat directly. That power rests with the State governments.  Reasons being offered by various quarters for banning trade in cattle for slaughter through markets such as Supreme Court order, need to prevent cruelty against animals and ensuring of the source of meat (traceability) are bogus or devious.

The Supreme Court order did not say that trade through markets should be banned. It will not ensure benign treatment of animals. Traceability of meat reaching slaughter houses could have been ensured through the market mechanism itself. (Note that the farmers are now required to produce several documents to trade in cattle). Ensuring traceability of both agricultural and meat products is a positive measure towards consumer protection and food safety. However, it is wrong to argue that traceability could be ensured by bypassing the market.

The BJP government do plan to ensure traceability and that is the larger story. As the meat business moves into big hands, their sourcing would become traceable. They will do it for their own interest and enforcement of regulation in this respect is easy.

However, small traders, their workmen and farmers who have to sell cattle for slaughter will be the victims. Like demonetisation, the results are not entirely predictable. Middlemen will find new ways to carry on their trade. A new network may emerge for purchase of cattle for slaughter from homesteads. However, the shift will hit those in the business of meat trade on a small scale and farmers at least in the short term. Farmers will not get remunerative prices until a mechanism that could fetch them competitive prices emerge. Prices of even the draught cattle sold though markets may come down as prices in markets are determined, to a great extent, by the value of meat.

However, meat prices are not going to come down. In fact, it is likely to go up in States such as Kerala, which is dependent on inter-State movement of cattle for slaughter, owing to shortages. These movements could be stalled because of restrictions imposed by the Centre.

The requirement of documentation will dissuade farmers from selling even draught animals through market. Eventually, cattle markets, as we know today, may die out with mechanisation of farm sector, and the trade will pass on to organised sector.

The net effect of all these is that meat production will move into the hands of meat production and marketing companies. The positive and negative effect of this shift is another issue. The point is that the measure will cause disruption affecting thousands of ordinary folk. The Centre had done it without even consulting the State or arriving at a consensus.

Beef fest organised by Youth Congress in protest against the ban

Beef fest organised by Youth Congress in protest against the ban

Opposition parties in the State are protesting against the measure on the ground that it hurts people’s food choices. This is not very true as sale of meat has not been banned, though Kerala may face some shortages of meat on a short-term.

It is high time that the politicians cared to study the larger objectives and implications of the Central government’s policy before reacting to this. In a country like India, a quick shift of meat from unorganised to organised sector is not desirable. The farmers are already committing suicides owning to wrong policies followed by governments. Similar thing is going to happen to small traders though we can expect that they would be resourceful enough to survive.

As to the farmers who find it difficult to market their cattle for slaughter at remunerative prices, formation of cooperatives on the model of Amul may be an option. Kerala government will be better advised to develop such a cooperative set up instead of going for a legal battle with the Central government. This is not to say that the government should not oppose the Central government’s policy.

Journalistic values: Stinging without ethics

A. K. SaseendranWhen media coverage of ISRO spy case peaked out, a senior journalist faced some critical questions in a television programme about media coverage of the case. The correspondent explained that news reports are called ‘stories’ in English. That translates into ‘Kadha’ (fiction) in Malayalam. What we do are stories, he asserted.

The journalist was later elected as president of the Trivandrum Press Club. That leader of journalists is none other than the present CEO of Mangalam television channel R. Ajithkumar who is now in the middle of controversy over the channel’s ‘sting’ operation.

If you do not have good grasp of journalistic principles, you are bound to flounder in doing a sting operation which is a tight rope walk on journalistic ethics.  Where Mangalam television erred seriously was in misrepresentation of facts. Its story claimed that Transport Minister A. K. Saseendran’s conversation aired by it was with a housewife.

Confident of success of its manipulation, the CEO told another channel later that his reporters were not involved, only to be forced to make a retreat later. He admitted that it was a sting operation by its staff member.

It is also notable that the reporter concerned did not present the story herself as done in legitimate sting operations.  Besides, what she was telling the Minister was edited out.

Apparently, the channel was not keen to probe further to find out whether the Minister would be willing to misuse his office and grant undue favours for sexual favours. Going by the details that have come out, it was just a honey trap, and what we get is a glimpse of a side of the Minister’s character that, at best, raises questions of propriety and morality. Its prime purpose was to tickle and create a sensational debut for the channel.  There was little legitimacy for the story. Professionalism was absent.

The judicial enquiry ordered by the government is a fair attempt at fact finding though one cannot be optimistic about what ultimately would happen to the recommendations of the judicial commission, given the history of such commissions.  (Reports of several commissions are gathering dust at the Government Secretariat.)

Considering importance of freedom of the Press and larger interests of media and society, it is better for the government not to use police to probe the issues until the judicial commission submits its recommendations. However, police investigation into specific and credible complaints from individuals need not wait.

Tailpiece:  The election of Ajithkumar, whose distorted understanding of journalistic ethics was well known to journalists, as president of Press Club, which also runs an Institute of Journalism, points to the fact that the malady is not confined to a single organisation. Till now, there was hardly any peer pressure on journalists in the capital if they breached journalistic ethics. While majority of the journalists in the city are not grossly unethical, many will not mind some favours from those seeking publicity, in disregard to guidelines issued by the Press Council of India.

(Note: An edited version of this opinion piece appeared in Deccan Chronicle on April 9, 2017)

Violation of concept of open court in Kerala

Photo by Carptrash at the English language Wikipedia The continuing restrictions on the media from entering court premises in Kollam, Kochi and elsewhere in Kerala are in violation of Constitutional principles, common law and freedom of the press.

It undermines the concept of open justice which is one of the fundamental tenets of fair trial in common law. It is a venerated concept which is considered indispensable for fair trial. If some advocates and judges think that they can work the system without media, they are treading a dangerous path. Soon, the legitimacy of administration of justice itself will be in question.

The concept of open court, one should note, is just not of media access. It encompasses the right of public including lawyers not involved in the proceedings to be present in court. The media act as the eyes and ears of the public. Many courts across the democratic world are extending these rights by allowing copying of exhibits and even televising of proceedings.

It is surprising that some lawyers and judges are thinking in the opposite direction now. It is possibly an indicator of rot in the system. Many unhealthy trends are creeping into the administration of justice and presence of media is a hindrance to that. (This is not to say that unhealthy trends are absent in media.)

Many government pleaders these days are not always acting in the best interests of the government. Years ago, many people got favourable verdicts in forest cases since the government pleaders did not question fake documents and arguments presented by the plaintiffs. This forced the government to come up with a law for takeover of ecologically fragile lands. This led to another set of litigations which are yet to end. Besides, some innocents were harmed by forest officials in the process.

It was the environmental organisations and media, not necessarily those reporting from courts, which brought out developments like this. In the absence of media access to court proceedings, instances of liaison between lawyers appearing for government and plaintiffs in civil cases and accused in criminal cases are likely to grow.

Open justice is key to rule of law in democracies and any departure from that should be explained. However, some judicial officers have sought to limit media access to courts without proper explanations. The principle of open court ought to be upheld over concerns of friction or conflict. Lack of openness in court proceedings undermine rule of law. As philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham had pointed out open justice is the keenest spur to exertion and the surest of all guards against improbity.