Surveillance cameras infringe privacy of citizens

Kerala Health Minister V. S. Sivakumar has announced that surveillance cameras would be installed in Ward 9 of the General Hospital in Trivandrum. Ward 9 is where the hospital authorities admit older persons who require geriatric and palliative care.

The ward is over crowed with double the number of patients against bed strength. There was complaint that the body of a patient who died was left in the ward for hours without moving it out to the mortuary. The Minister visited the ward in view of the the complaint and reports of pathetic conditions at the ward. His prescription of cameras (in addition to promise of more staff) would deprive the old men of their private moments. Many lie there half-naked often without any relative to care for them. The ward sometimes see emotional outbursts as well as intimate moments with family members.

Surveillance cameras in Trivandrum

Surveillance cameras in Trivandrum

It is not clear why the Minister wants cameras in the ward. Is it for the hospital superintendent or other to keep watch on what is going on in the ward? Is it to check whether bodies are lying on the floor? Is it assist the nurses in keeping tab on the patients owing to shortage of staff? Or is it to see whether the patients are being care for or is it to keep prying media men out of the precincts? Whatever it is, surveillance cameras in hospital wards is not a good idea.

It is not even good for classrooms. Some tuition masters and schools in the city have installed cameras in their classrooms to keep tab on the students. What kind of attitudes would children develop when they are aware that they are being constantly watched upon? Classrooms are not private places. Still, they have a right to some kind of privacy, at least during intervals.

Traffic police and Motor Vehicles Department are also increasingly using cameras for surveillance.There are more than 500 cameras installed in Trivandrum city while Kochi have about half the number. Cameras from private establishments are also being connected to the police control rooms. You will be watched as you pray at the Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum (though not at the sanctum sanctorum). Some residence associations are also setting up cameras to find people dumping waste in this locality though the legality of installing such surveillance by private persons in public places is in doubt.

Traffic surveillance camerasVehicles as well as citizens are under constant watch along the main thoroughfares of the city. Though the cameras help to book traffic offences by capturing screenshots of violations, police men are still on the streets directly booking offenders. So, harassment of drivers and corruption do not disappear.

Anyway, the police still need personnel at junctions to regulate traffic and it doubtful whether monitoring of the video feeds are constant. If effective monitoring of all junctions and other points are to be done, one requires a large number of personnel at the control rooms. This cannot be cost effective despite the advantages of the technology and falling costs of equipment. (The 57 cameras at Padmanabha Swamy temple reportedly cost about Rs. 15 millions).

Besides, misuse of the system by police as well as private citizens could not be ruled out. When police criminal nexus exists, surveillance could even aid criminals and quotation gangs. It is any way a case of big boss watching over the citizens from all angles. Police can use the system to track movements of politicians, journalists and others. Though it is said that camera surveillance would help to check crimes, it effectiveness is yet to be proved (except in the case of traffic offences). The advantage could be limited as cameras would only force shifting of occurrence of crimes  from city centres to the suburbs. Somewhere we have to strike a balance between privacy, surveillance and prevention of crimes.

Advertising State lotteries: is it a good deed?

Can buying lotteries be a good deed?  The government says so in its advertisements for Kerala lotteries. It argument may seem right as the revenues from the Karunya lotteries of State government is to be spent for funding assistance to poor patients requiring treatment for serious ailments affecting vital organs of the body.

Lotteries nurture the instinct for gambling. Everybody knows that most of the buyers of the lottery never benefit from it whereas the seller always benefits. However, running of lotteries by the government has been justified on the ground that it provides employment to many and satisfy the urge of the people to try their luck. The justifications get a boost when the government saysTelevision advertisement for Kerala Lotteries that the returns are to be used to fund care of critically ill patients. It also serves as a good marketing strategy for the State lotteries.

However, the picture changes when one examines these arguments from another perspective. The government is resorting to creation of non-productive employment instead of creating real employment opportunities.  Free treatment of poor patients for serious ailments is not a priority of government: it is not willing to spend tax revenues for the purpose; but want people with gambling instinct to do the job. It is promoting the instinct by using fund raising aspect of the lottery for marketing purposes and terming it as a good deed. The marketing campaign would lead to people imbibing wrong values: the buyer of the lottery hides his greed behind altruism.

Proposal for five-day work week in Kerala

The proposal for five-day work week for government employees in Kerala is borne out of financial exigencies rather than any well-thought-out plan to improve administration.  As it stands now, the reduction of a work day result in poorer services for the public though there may be gain in terms of governmental expenditure in running the services. So, it would be lesser service to the public at lesser cost.

However, the situation could be qualitatively different if the government contemplates five-day week after efficiently implementing e-governance. Many of the government services could be offered to the citizen at lesser cost on a 24×7 basis if the e-governance system is expanded to cover more and more areas. Then curtailment of a work-day may not affect the public much.

As to the financial problems of the government, it is the governments own creation. It had created more than 15000 new posts in one year, adding to the burden of the exchequer.  Considerable sums are being spent for welfare though there is no assurance that it reaches the right hands. Government land is being granted for a pittance to the farmers and the landless and also to influential organisations. Many of these gifts are not justified.  This is when it has established schemes and ways for routing welfare assistance. The Government  indeed cared for the poor and disabled by raising the welfare and old age pensions which was a welcome measure. However, a casualty of the financial strain faced by the government was the noon meal scheme in schools.

Secretariat decked up for Onam holidays

Secretariat decked up for Onam holidays (file photo)

It is high time that the government focused on augmenting revenues from the flouring trade in gold, textiles and hospitality. Special concessions to the IT sector are no more needed. Government could either reduce expenditure or improve efficiencies by routing its subsidies in cash through the banks. It is also worth thinking whether government should maintain cars and drivers for its office or provide them with a car allowance. This, in fact, was one of the recommendations of a expenditure commission appointed by the government. Several such recommendations for austerity have been gathering dust.

UDF government courts controversies

The open sparring in the UDF over the lease of estates in Nelliampathy and the controversy over regularisation of conversion paddy fields have dented the image of ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala.

The Government Chief Whip P. C. George took cudgels against Forest Minister K. B. Ganesh Kumar for initiating steps for takeover of estates over expiry of lease or violation of lease conditions including sale or conversion of the estates. Mr. George’s contention is that the Forest Department is acting against farmers, meaning the estate owners.

Nelliampathy Estates

Nelliampathy Estates

Estate owners have been trying every trick in the book to prevent reversion of their estates. They have also gained support of a section of the UDF in favour of their efforts to retain the leases.  However, a section within the UDF is opposed to it. In fact, there was a section favouring the estate owners in the previous LDF government also. However, the CPI which was in charge of the Forest portfolio had favoured take over.  After the UDF government came to power, interested groups were working for change of policy and that yielded some results.

The fight in the UDF over the issue would not die down easily as much is at stake.

Similar is the situation on the question of reclamation and conversion of wet lands and paddy fields. Those attempting large scale conversions had received the support of a section of the previous government. Now, they were getting almost full support from the Cabinet with it approving a proposal to regularize pre-2005 conversions. This would have helped realtors and investors in resorts and other projects. However, opposition is growing in the UDF with V. M. Sudheeran and others openly speaking against the decision. What they are pointing at is obvious.

These controversies are accentuating dormant internal schisms in the front and could even threaten the cohesion of the government.

 

Nuclear power: consider these facts

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha’s Trojan strategy would have seen the melt down of resistance against Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant; but consider these facts:

Kudamkulam nuclear power plant

udamkulam nuclear power plant while under construction. Source IAEA

Japan shut down its last reactor today (May 5, 2012). Host communities and provincial governors have a say in whether they should have nuclear plants.  17 of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors had been damaged in the earthquake and tsunami last year.  The leakage at the Fukushima reactors displaced roughly 100,000 people.

If a similar accident happens in Kudankulam, around 50 lakh people in Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Thiruvananthapuram district would be displaced.  The Nuclear Liability Bill would not even provide for their transportation costs.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is demanding all the power from Kudankulam for her State. If the Centre allows that, Kerala would be taking a risk without getting any power. The situation will be similar to that at Mullaperiyar.  It is high time that Kerala’s political leadership got sensitised about another Mullaperiyar in the making.

For further reading:

Washington post report
Nuclear Liability Bill will get you Rs. 1000

 

Mullaperiyar: strategic failure of Kerala government

The report of the empowered committee of the Supreme Court is the result of a strategic failure from the part of the Kerala government.

The Central Water Commission was actually the opposite party in the case for Kerala. Yet, it failed to prevent those associated with the Commission from undertaking safety related assessment of the Mullaperiyar dam.  (Technical members of the Committee C.D. Thatte and D. K. Mehta were former Secretary to the Ministry of Water Resources and retired Chief Engineer, Central Water Commission respectively.)

Kerala nominated retired Supreme Court Judge K. T. Thomas to the committee. This was a strategic mistake as what Kerala needed was a man who could understand and judge technical matters and argue on technical issues.  Kerala could have better argued legal points before the Court itself instead of having a legal luminary in the committee. It seems that Mr. Thomas did not push forward any legal issues. He failed to express his views strongly on technical matters, he being not a technical expert.  The result is the finding by essentially by Mr. Thatte and Mehta that the dam is structurally and hydrologically safe.

In the process, they ignored studies by IIT, Roorkie and IIT Delhi which had found that the dam was not structurally and hydrologically safe.  It was true that they had done the studies in a hurry and this affected its quality. However, there were irrefutable facts in their reports which the twosome has ignored.

Core sampling and its examination for strength was important in determining whether the dam was strong enough to withstand earthquakes and higher water levels.  During drilling, proper samples could not be obtained except from the foundation, apparently because portions of the old dam were hollow.  However, it seems that the committee submitted its report before the results of the study came in.  Kerala should have insisted that the report should wait the finding of the study.

Now, Kerala would find it extremely difficult to argue technical points before the Court. The Court cannot be convinced easily that the dam is unsafe, as judges would attach value to the report of the empowered committee.

It may also be worth examining why Kerala made strategic mistakes.  The government had always failure to act in time and in a coordinated manner. Its engineers did not see eye-to-eye on several matters. Its lawyers were not often briefed properly by its engineers. Politicians concentrated on playing to the gallery and there were often allegations against both the politicians and officials who were in charge of fighting the Mullaperiyar case over the past two decades.  It is also worth noting that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa herself had alleged that Kerala politicians had land in areas irrigated by waters from Mullapeiryar.

For further reading:
Mullaperiyar– in search of truth
Mullaperiyar and dam safety
Mullaperiyar dam dispute
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Endosufan controversy: truth is not easy to decipher

Whether there is any substance in the controversy over the letter written by Principal Secretary (Health) to the Community Medicine Department of Kozhikode Medical College asking, essentially, whether they are willing to make any amends to the report of their studies on endosulfan is not easy to determine.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has denied any wrong-doing by officials of the Health Department in their response to legal notice on endosulfan and that no minister had seen the file or the correspondence.  Even if a Minister has given a directive, the Health Secretary has seen to it that the letter is carefully worded after obtaining the advice of the Law Department.  The letter written by the Health Secretary is reproduced below.

The wordings like the use of ‘impediment’ may suggest a bias in favour of endosulfan manufacturers.  However, the net result of final decision communicated to Mr. Ganesan strengthens the legal case in favour of ban on endosulfan.  From the letter (reproduced below) read with earlier communication to the Department, it would appear that the government is upholding the results of the studies after due process and had shown no bias towards the Department.  It could be that the Principal Secretary Rajiv Sadanandan acted intelligently.

The only problem with the letter is that the date appears to have been over-written. Was it sent before the controversy broke out or after that?

Such doubts arise because the history of the UDF government headed by Oommen Chandy was not one of unblemished support to the victims of endosulfan. As pointed out in an earlier post, the Agriculture Secretary of the Government had signed the report of the Mayee Committee (conclusions are reproduced below) hardly a fortnight before  Mr. Chandy set out to tour the affected villages of Kasaragod district promise solace to the victims in 1984.

Recommendations of Mayee Committee

Sparring between PSC and Government

The PSC and the government are at loggerheads over extension of ranked lists for appointments to various posts in government.  It was usual for the Cabinet to recommend extension of various rank lists for different reasons and PSC used to accept them routinely. This time the left- dominated Board of the PSC has refused to accept the recommendations of the government, leading to almost a show down between the autonomous PSC and the government. Obviously, politics is behind the decision of the PSC though there is some merit in PSC’s stand.

The government wants extension of the ranked lists because of its decision to discontinue unified retirement date introduced by the previous government and fix 56 years as the age of superannuation.  The extension will offset the disadvantage arising from the decision to those in the live ranked lists of PSC.  However, it is notable that for the youth seeking employment in government service and who are yet to be in a PSC list, the decision would offset their entry by about one year. This is partly the result of the previous government’s decision also as the decision by the previous and present governments effectively increased the retirement age by one year in two steps.

The consequence of this to new applicants would be that they would enter government service one year later, on an average, and retire a year later. So, the average age of government servants would shift upwards and the youth who have already passed their examinations would have a longer wait for job.

However, the general consequence of extension of ranked lists is that the quality of those entering into government service would come down. A PSC list is expected to be live for only one year. However, if new list is not published, a list will be valid up to three years. This is what is being extended to up to 4.5 years now. Over such a long period, the best candidates in the list would get other jobs. Finally, those getting advice in the fourth year would be those who would not have normally got into government service.

If the PSC struck to the one year norms, the government would be getting the best of the lot and at an early age. However, the PSC is so understaffed and so bureaucratic that this hardly ever happens. New lists are always delayed. And this is the best excuse for government to seek extension of rank lists when they come under pressure from those in the live lists.

 

Endosulfan: the denouement

The Supreme Court has finally said it: no more studies are needed (to establish the link between the broad spectrum pesticide endosulfan and the health effects on people).  This is apparently the results of work done by Dr. Mohammed Aisheel and others in compiling a large bibliography of studies on endosulfan besides recent studies by Kerala government and various research establishments.

The studies showed   that the endosulfan could cause large number of diseases reported from Kasaragod district of Kerala and Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka and the mechanism of action of the pesticide in human body. Studies may still be needed to conclusively establish that some of the diseases manifesting in the district is indeed caused by endosulfan.

endosulfan

A severely handicapped child who is getting assistance as an endosulfan victim

That is, while endosulfan as cause of many diseases is established, it may be more difficult to establish that the very diseases in a person or group are caused by endosulfan. The disease can be caused by other factors and these needed to be eliminated to prove the latter. However, the Supreme Court is satisfied with the evidence at hand and ordered continuing of the nation-wide ban on endosulfan on the basis of the precautionary principle.

It is notable that the Union Agriculture Commissioner maintained in his report prepared for the committee appointed by the Supreme Court that said that the problems were confined to Kerala and Karnataka and recommended ban only in these two States.  They had even taken the line of the endosulfan manufacturers that endosulfan is safe to pollinators which goes against the findings of the Kerala Agriculture University.

It is also notable that much of the data and studies linking endosulfan to various diseases were available when the O.P. Dubey and C. D. Mayee committees appointed by the Central government declared that no link had been established between the use of endosulfan in the estates of Plantation Corporation of Kerala and the health problems reported from the Padre village. The Director of Agriculture of Kerala Government, who was a member of the Mayee committee, signed the committee report. This was despite the findings of the expert committee (headed by Dr. P. K. Sivaraman), appointed by the Kerala government, which was before him.  The report was submitted in August 2003 and the Director signed the report in December 2004, hardly ten days before then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy visited Kasaragod promising succor to the endosulfan victims.

The victims are yet to get the package promised to them except for sanction given for a project funded by National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). Though it has been shown that the aerial spraying of endosulfan was done disregarding the rules and without valid requirement for pest management, no action had been taken against any of the officials culpable of poisoning entire villages.

Endosulfan: spray of death
Endosulfan: brochure published by Kerala Government
Endosulfan: a Kerala story