Turkey’s academics pay heavy price for resisting Erdogan’s militarised politics

Turkey’s academics pay heavy price for resisting Erdogan’s militarised politics
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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While the EU and the US have turned a blind eye to the Turkish government’s brutal clampdown in Kurdish regions, Turkish academics who have spoken out about the regime’s increasingly dictatorial policies have faced punishment and even imprisonment.

A petition published in early January by the Academicians for Peace initiative, criticising the Turkish state’s political and military attacks against the Kurdish people, raised a red flag with its signatories stating: “We will not be a party to this crime.” They wrote:

The Turkish state has effectively condemned its citizens in Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre, Silopi, and many other towns and neighborhoods in the Kurdish provinces to hunger through its use of curfews that have been ongoing for weeks. It has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime. As a result, the right to life, liberty, and security, and in particular the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment protected by the constitution and international conventions have been violated.

In response, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan immediately demanded that all institutions in Turkey take action: “Everyone who benefits from this state but is now an enemy of the state must be punished without further delay.”

Academics targeted

Following this, Turkish federal prosecutors have investigated 1,128 of the signatories with33 academics from three Turkish universities in Bolu, Kocaeli and Bursa being detained because of their alleged propaganda for a terrorist organisation and insulting the Turkish nation, state, government and institutions.

Turkey’s top higher education body, the Higher Education Board (YÖK), has called for university administrators to impose disciplinary sanctions against the academics. Subsequently, 109 academics from 42 Turkish universities were subjected to dismissal, discharge, suspension, termination and forced resignation.

A government-backed counter-petition, Academics Against Terror, has also been organised. The Grey Wolves, also known as Idealist Hearts, a formal youth organisation of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the Turkish parliament, has even marked the office doors of signatories and left written threats.

Despite this, immediately after the government’s response, the number of academics participating in the campaign increased from 1,128 to 4,491. There has also been a public reaction against the government’s tactics.

Within just two weeks, independent petition campaigns organised by a variety of civic and professional organisations have collected more than 60,000 signatories, and supporting statements have been released by 65 organisations that have millions of members across the country.

The original petition has also created much-needed international solidarity with more than 60 international institutions, organisations, leading academics and politicians issuing messages of support and ten international petition campaigns being organised worldwide.

The recent clampdown on academics characterises the scope of the new “counterterrorism” strategy of the Turkish state. This “new” doctrine is again promoting a military solution to the Kurdish question by concentrating state violence against the Kurds and supporters of Kurdish rights.

Political plotting

After a period of fragile negotiations with the hope of ending the decades-long conflict, the new doctrine has emerged since the June 2015 Turkish general elections, when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to win a majority in parliament for a single-party government.

The government introduced the strategy after the June elections in an attempt to win back the votes of Turkish nationalists in the MHP, a long standing ultra-nationalist political party, and the “borrowed votes” of Turkish dissidents who temporarily collaborated with the HDP, a pro-Kurdish and pro-minority political party.

The Turkish state is also using the Syrian refugee crisis and military intervention against the so-called Islamic State to gain international support from the EU and the US.

In line with the “new” doctrine, the ongoing ceasefire agreement and peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) were officially suspended in July, with a state of emergency and curfew declared in Kurdish territories by the AKP government.

According to a report in Turkish by the Human Rights Association in Turkey, between June and November, 602 people (including 41 children) were killed, 1,300 people were injured, 1,004 people were jailed and 5,713 people were taken into custody during the military operations in Kurdish towns. There were also 134 people killed and 564 injured in two suicide bombings in Suruç and Ankara.

This campaign seemed to pay off for the AKP, with a significant increase in support within the six-month period. The AKP won 49.50% in a second parliamentary election called on November 1 2015, returning their single party majority.

Entrenching positions

It seems that Turkey’s “new” anti-Kurdish doctrine is a strategic, precautionary manoeuvre to maintain the popularity of Erdoğan’s regime. The government is aiming to avoid potential resistance, such as that experienced in the Gezi Park uprising in 2013, which unified a wide range of dissidents including leftists, Turkish nationalists, capitalists from the upper classes and religious groups.

Through its anti-Kurd strategy, the government is simultaneously deepening localised political and social tensions in Kurdish regions and reunifying right-wing nationalist civil society and political organisations under the flag of Turkish chauvinism.

In this light, the petition by Academicians for Peace is not only a revolt against the government’s Kurdish policy, but also a very effective swipe at the crucial point of the “new” strategy. It draws academics, students, intellectuals and other urban professionals together throughout the country, sending a wake-up call to the international public that Erdoğan’s new political and military strategy cannot be tolerated.

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The dilution of nuclear liability by the Modi government that nobody is talking about

The dilution of nuclear liability by the Modi government that nobody is talking aboutPhoto Credit: India Water Portal
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Once in power, opposition parties rarely retain their dogmas. When the Bharatiya Janata Party occupied the opposition benches in the Parliament, it agitated bitterly on the issue of nuclear liability, maintaining that the United Progressive Alliance’s position on compensation in case of a nuclear accident placed all the burden on the taxpayer. Now that it is in power, it exhibits none of that resolve.

The international convention requires that in case of a nuclear accident, the liability of paying compensation to the victims falls on the operator of the facility. In India’s case, this is the government-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.

But on February 4, Narendra Modi’s government ratified a global regime called the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, giving a free pass to nuclear suppliers in India.

The previous Congress-led Central government had removed all references to the Convention on Supplementary Compensation from the draft of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, after it met with resistance from the opposition parties, including the BJP. The 2010 Act simultaneously included a provision to hold suppliers (both domestic and foreign vendors of reactor equipment) indirectly liable – its clause 17(b) specifically allowed the operator a “right of recourse” against the suppliers. But within weeks of this, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government hastily signed the CSC, withprovisions contrary to the domestic law.

Since then, the US and other nuclear suppliers have been insisting that India harmonises its domestic law with the global convention, and do away with suppliers’ liability. The Indian government and its nuclear establishment have also been citing CSC as a reason to amend the liability law.

Their arguments have been a farce.

American exceptions

The Convention on Supplementary Compensation did not come into force in 2010 when India signed it. Indeed, at that time, India had an opening to press for progressive changes in the CSC to ensure suppliers’ liability – since India is among the few countries in the post-Fukushima world still importing nuclear reactors, it could have used its attractive market to affect pro-people revisions in the CSC template. Obviously, it did not, and India’s unconditional accession ended up enhancing CSC’s standing. The regime finally entered into force in 2015 following Japan’s accession. But all this didn’t stop foreign suppliers from asking India to do away with its liability clause beginning 2010.

The United States, in particular, has always preferred the CSC over other conventions addressing nuclear liability, such as the Paris Convention of 1960 or the Vienna Conventionof 1963. This is because CSC has a grandfather clause in its annexure 2 that provides an exemption for American domestic laws to supersede in case of an accident on its soil. As a result, in the US, criminal liability lawsuits can be initiated against nuclear corporations. The same CSC, however, requires its other signatories to enact domestic laws as per its annexure and strictly limit it to civil liability.

Though eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee has maintained that India’s domestic law would prevail over CSC, it is certain that, in a conflict, foreign suppliers would try their best to walk away without paying damages.

The Modi government had an opportunity to refuse ratifying the CSC, especially since acase is pending in the Supreme Court on the issue of nuclear liability. Senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, eminent scientist PM Bhargava, Former Navy Chief Admiral L Ramdas, Former Union Power Secretary EAS Sarma and other eminent Indians are party in this case, which urges strengthening of the provisions of the 2010 Act and removal of the liability cap. Ratifying an international convention on an issue which is sub judice is also an attempt to influence the Supreme Court by turning the matter into a fait accompli.

BJP’s U-turn

While in opposition, the BJP was fiercely opposed to any dilution of nuclear liability. Noting the shortcomings of the bill presented by the UPA government, it alleged that “the bill was being brought under US pressure mainly to keep the two American multinationals – Westinghouse and General Electric – from paying any liability and making the Indian government liable to pay in case of an accident”.

Senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha had said at the time: “Clearly, the life of an Indian is only worth a dime compared to the life of an American.” His colleague Sushma Swaraj had called for an India-specific liability law, while likening the Indo-US nuclear deal to Jehangir who allowed the British East India Company to do business in India. Swaraj is now the External Affairs Minister in the Modi government.

Despite the previous government being a coalition and despite its willingness to serve the interests of the US nuclear lobby, it was the strength of Indian democracy that public pressure ensured enactment of a law safeguarding the interests of citizens. The BJP government, failing Indian interests, has resorted to a perverted twist to effectively undermine a law passed by India’s sovereign parliament.

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The Arvind Kejriwal interview: Modi plays the politics of vengeance, not the politics of development

The Arvind Kejriwal interview: Modi plays the politics of vengeance, not the politics of development
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This week, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal completes one year in office. Looking back, he tells Scroll.in on how the Centre has been raising one obstacle after another in the smooth functioning of the Delhi government, the intimidation of its officers, the schemes it has introduced, and about his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who remained silent right through their conversation.

Did you expect so many obstacles in running the Delhi government even after having won 67 out of 70 seats in Delhi? In what ways have these obstacles adversely affected governance in Delhi?
The journey after winning the elections has been far more difficult than the journey before it. It appears winning was much easier than thereafter. I had thought that after our victory we would be able to focus completely on governance. That was the reason I did not keep any portfolio. I wanted to be the wall between the Modi government and the Delhi government and its ministers, in the hope they won’t be affected. However, they [the Central government and the Bharatiya Janata Party] are trying to put obstacles in governance on a daily basis. Despite that, our fiercest critics would admit that we have done a lot of work.

What would you call as the crowning glory of your one-year of governance? The odd-even policy?
Well, odd-even was one thing which caught the imagination of the whole country.

That apart, what else?
Otherwise, there have been several achievements. We reduced the electricity rates, made 20,000 litres of water free for those consuming less than that a month, we gave the highest rate of compensation to farmers [whose crops had been destroyed], we gave Rs 1 crore to soldiers and policemen who die in line of duty.

We made three flyovers in the construction of which Rs 350 crore was saved, that is, we spent Rs 350 crore less than the sanctioned amount. The Rs 350 crore we saved has been utilised to provide free medicine in government hospitals and to make all diagnostic tests – X-Ray, ultra sound, etc. – free. A big hit has been our air-conditioned, swanky mohalla clinic in jhuggi-jhopri clusters. Another 1,000 such clinics are to be set up. They have already been tendered and the work will start on these soon.

Eight thousand classrooms are going to be added to existing government schools, which will be ready by July this year. In addition, 45 new schools are being constructed. The budgetary allocation on education was doubled. Ours is the first government which has had the courage to challenge the management quota in private schools, which we are trying to discipline.

We have also taken measures for ease of doing business. The events management industry had gone out of Delhi, but they have come back because all procedures have been simplified. All certificates, such as marriage and death certificates, can be secured online and are delivered on the basis of self-declaration. We have stopped verifications.

What has been the stiffest obstacle your government has encountered?
Their [the Central government] taking away our anti-corruption branch. That was our biggest tool to tackle corruption. During our 49 days of governance (between December 2013 and February 2014), corruption had come down to nearly zero in Delhi. In the first three months of our current tenure, corruption came down dramatically. However, on June 8, 2015, the Modi government forcibly took over our anti-corruption branch, depriving us of control over it. Plus on a day-to-day basis, whatever order we pass, it is declared null and void.

Basically, the Lt Governor Najeeb Jung is doing it?
Yes.

You said last year that Lt Governor didn’t at times take calls from you and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia. Has his behaviour changed since then?
Whether or not he takes calls, it doesn’t really make much of a difference (laughs).

Has his attitude changed? Has he become a little cooperative?
No, he remains the same. Actually, he is a pawn. The real direction comes from the Prime Minister’s Office, particularly Nripendra Misra [Principal Secretary in the PMO]. I have met several Union Cabinet ministers and just about everyone says that they simply don’t have any control and that everything is being done by the PMO.

Are you saying Nripendra Misra is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hatchet man?
In our case, everyone says Nripendra Misra is controlling Delhi, that is, he gives directions to the Lt Governor.

What problem does Modi have with you?
People tell me that from the time the Aam Aadmi Party won 67 seats, his blood has been boiling about us. Whenever anyone takes my name before him, Modi gets angry. He is wreaking vengeance on the people of Delhi for giving us so many seats. It is his way of telling them, “Why did you elect AAP? Ab main tumhari aisi-taisi karoonga.” [I will hurt you now.]

Or is it that Modi is telling the people that had they elected the BJP, they would have benefitted?
It is plain vengeance. What benefit? You can see what is happening in the MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi].

Do you think there is a conspiracy behind the MCD workers’ strike in protest against non-payment of salaries to them?
Certainly. In fact, some of the union leaders told us that the BJP is just not letting the strike to end. You must have seen that even their mayor was on strike. Can you imagine a situation in which there is a strike and I join them? The mayor’s work is to end strike. There is so much of garbage strewn around. The mayor’s responsibility is to have the garbage removed, to ensure the strike ends. It is not for him to go sit with the strikers. Since the BJP triggered the strike, it doesn’t want to end it.

Was there an attempt to create instability? After all, there was a police report warning that there could be a law and order problem.
As you know, students organised a peaceful protest in front of the RSS office [in Delhi last month]. It wasn’t as if it had many participants. But the Delhi Police beat them severely. Police Commissioner BS Bassi issued a statement that protest in Delhi won’t be allowed without the permission of the police.

Does this mean that the strewing of garbage in Delhi and the protest by MCD workers have the permission of Delhi Police? This is a natural corollary [to Bassi’s statement]. Why did the police allow the MCD workers to strew garbage around in the city? Why did the police allow the strikers to block traffic? Is it the job of police to have garbage strewn around? Or is it of removing it?

Then the Delhi Police writes to us saying that we need to take steps or there might be a law and order problem. Law and order is their responsibility, not ours. Our responsibility is to provide electricity. If tomorrow there is no electricity in Delhi, then we can be asked to ensure its regular supply. The strike was by MCD; law and order is the responsibility of Delhi Police. Why should we get caught between?

Do you fear the Central government is trying to find a pretext for dismissing the AAP government?
They are trying to create a situation… In fact, the Lt Governor wrote a letter in which he used the words “economic emergency”. He said there is an economic emergency in Delhi. They wanted to invoke the clause of the Constitution to declare financial emergency. [Article 360 of the Constitution allows the Union government to give directions to the state government to observe financial propriety.] They would want to create instability and impose President’s rule.

As they say, when you walk the path of truth, then Bhagwan helps you. Whenever they attempt anything [to unsettle us], it boomerangs on them.

Like how?
The CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] raided me. What they found were four mufflers of mine. They didn’t get anything from [Delhi Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary] Rajender Kumar as well. But the raid led to the DDCA [Delhi and District Cricket Association] issue coming to the fore, and one of their important ministers [Finance Minister Arun Jaitley] has come under a cloud. Upparwala [God] watches everything andaur woh unki aiasi taisi karta hai [punishes them].

Have all the dues to the MCD been cleared?
Yes, but even then the BJP doesn’t allow the strike to end.

But the MCD employees say there has to be a long-term solution to their problem of not getting their salaries.
The only long-term solution to it is to call for [municipal] elections. That only the Centre can do. If there is a company and it can’t give salary to its workers, then the management has to change. That is the only solution. In the same manner, the current MCD management has to change.

Do you think the MCD’s problem is linked to corruption?
It is complete corruption. Take East MCD – it covers one-third of Delhi. [The MCD was trifurcated under the Sheela Dikshit government.] Its annual revenue through advertisements is just Rs 12 crore. This works out to Rs one crore a month. The average cost of one hoarding every month is Rs 1 lakh. This means they earn Rs one crore from 100 hoardings. Do you think there are just 100 hoardings in East Delhi? You will get 100 hoardings alone on the stretch of NH 24 that passes through East Delhi. The implication, therefore, is that all other hoardings are illegal or belong to politicians – and the MCD remains mum. If you ask me, they should have been earning Rs 500 crore from advertisements alone.

Similarly, I calculated that its annual share of revenue from parking fees is just Rs 2.5 crore. It comes to Rs 1.5 lakh per day. One parking guy told me that they earn that much from one parking lot in just three days. They should have been earning several hundred crore of rupees.

They get house tax. Where has that money gone? They get toll tax. Where has that gone? They have gobbled up all the money.

When there was President’s rule for one year [before the current government came to power], North MCD got Rs 550 crore from their own government. We gave them Rs 890 crore. Yet its employees did not get salary. How was it that it managed to distribute salary then, but could not now, despite the amount we gave them? Where has the Rs 890 crore gone? Either it has been diverted for other purposes or it has been siphoned off.

We sent a committee to inquire from them what they did with the amount we gave them. But they refused to show their accounts to the committee.

So what is the way out?
Dissolve the MCD and call for elections.

No, what is the option before the committee if the MCD continues to refuse showing its accounts?
We can do nothing because we don’t have the police under us. The MCD doesn’t come under us, but there is one section in the Delhi Municipal Council Act which gives power to the Delhi government to inspect their accounts. We invoked that section. But they still refused to show the accounts to us. What are we to do?

Going to the Lt Governor doesn’t mean much, I suppose.
[Nods.]

Delhi is a semi-state. The Congress has always been ambivalent about giving full statehood to Delhi. The BJP has reversed its position on it. Do you think they are only interested in seeing you run Delhi like an NGO?
They have to answer that question. But, basically, they want to paralyse the administration of Delhi. Today morning, one Delhi government officer came to me. He looked disturbed. He told me, ‘Sir, two officers of the Central government came to meet me. They have issued a warning to me to quit the Delhi government. Come to the Centre, and you will be given whatever post you want.” They also told him that he should leave me or otherwise the CBI would raid him.

Over the last month, around 77 officers have been called by the CBI.

Really, for what?
They raided Rajender Kumar, but even those junior to me, those who are in my personal staff, in Sisodia’s personal staff, Satyendra Jain’s personal staff – they have been all called by the CBI. They are made to sit outside the office for six hours. Then they are called into the room, where five officers grill them. These officers abuse them, inquire who meets the chief minister, who drafts my notes… Then they are threatened that if they continue to stick with me then they would face what Rajender did. This is how they are threatening the Delhi government’s officers.

Is this Modi’s model of governance? To Nawaz Sharif, he goes [over to Pakistan] to wish him happy birthday. Am I worse than Nawaz Sharif?

Are the Delhi government’s officers still cooperating with you?
They are caught between, getting squeezed.

Is Modi opposed to you because he fears you might in the future become a challenge to him at the national level?
I don’t have a clue about that, but this much is there that he wants take revenge for losing so badly in Delhi.

You have met Modi, haven’t you? What kind of conversation you have had?
I have met him twice. In the second meeting, I told him, “Modiji, whatever dreams you have, I will fulfill them.” I said you have the Swachh Bharat programme, I will clean up Delhi in two years, make it shine like any European cities. You have Skill India, we will skill Delhiites. You have Start Up India, we will do that. And I will credit you for it. I am neither asking for money nor for land. All that I am asking of you is that do not interfere in our work. Modi didn’t say anything.

But Modi must have said something to you in these two meetings.
Oh no, it is just me who kept talking. I tried to explain to him that politics was before the election. Now, both the Central and state governments should work together. After all, the Central government is not the BJP’s government; it is everybody’s government. Similarly, the Delhi government is not AAP’s government, it is everybody’s government. Our government is for the Congress people, for the BJP people as well. But Modiji doesn’t simply understand this.

What did he say to you?
Nothing. I kept asking him whether I was wrong in saying that we should work together. But he didn’t say anything.

So the Central government’s response to you hasn’t changed at all, not even after the raid having boomeranged on them?
If anything, I think their aggression has become more and more severe, day by day. I have never seen anything like this – calling ten-ten officers of the Delhi government and threatening them.

Since when has this been going on?
Ever since Rajender Kumar was raided.

They didn’t find anything at his place, did they?
They found nothing other than 10 liquor bottles, all of which were accounted for.

Do you think the media’s response to you and AAP has changed? After all, the media carried your allegations against Arun Jaitley?
I don’t think the media has become less hostile to us. It remains as hostile as it was.

Why do you say that?
They carry whatever story they want against us, regardless of whether it is true or false. They kept talking about the onion scam. What scam? We sent them the relevant papers. Even the editor agreed that there was no scam, that they had been running a wrong story.

Are you talking about Aaj Tak channel?
Yes. So they agreed it was a wrong story and said they would immediately stop telecasting it. We will drop it now, the channel said. They kept saying now, now, now – and the story was run for good six hours.

Have you met Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley?
We keep running into each other in official functions.

Jaitley must be really angry with you.
We haven’t really spoken.

Do you think you will be blocked in cleaning up the DDCA?
It is a long journey there. First, the inquiry [set up by the Delhi government] has to be completed. But the DDCA in its present form is a thoroughly corrupt organisation. It is not just me who is saying that. There are so many others have exposed the corruption in it. A way to reform it has to be found. It is the cricket which is suffering, the children who play the game. There is corruption in selection, they play overage cricketers in categories in which they shouldn’t be playing.

What about Punjab? You…
We are winning it. I am 200% sure that AAP will win the state.

What explains such a huge surge in the state?
[Laughs] So you agree there is a huge surge. I think people are seeing we are doing good work. Good work speaks.

A lot of people feel AAP needs a chief ministerial face in Punjab. Congress leader Amarinder Singh has repeatedly said that you are likely to be that face. Are you open to this idea?
Actually, I come to them even in their dreams. For all of 24 hours, they just see me. When the time comes, the chief ministerial face too will emerge. I am not worried on that score.

Still, would you be open to the idea?
As of now, there is no such thing.

AAP is seen as an urban party. In what ways will the party change its language to appeal to rural voters?
On the contrary, I think AAP has a far greater appeal in rural Punjab than it is has in the urban area. There could be several reasons for our popularity there. It could be because of the compensation we paid to the farmers. Tell me, has any government tried to improve government schools? AAP is the only party which has made improvement of government schools an issue. Has any government tried to improve government hospitals? They haven’t. Have they tried to provide free medicine? These are all issues relevant and affecting the people, who therefore join us.

By contrast, when other parties come to power, they connive in the deterioration of government schools and hospitals. They do so to help the private sector.

Did the popular response to the AAP rally of January 14 at Maghi Mela in Muktsar, Punjab, surprise you?
The turnout at the rally was unexpected. What a response it was. People in Punjab have reposed hope in us, have great expectations from us.

You say you are 200% sure of AAP winning Punjab. But traditional parties have immense cadre strength, and also boast of muscle and financial power. Can AAP counter that?
I will tell you a very interesting thing. From the day before [February 6], AAP began its Parivar Jodo [Join the Family] campaign. In this campaign, our volunteers move from house to house and ask people to join AAP. If they agree, our volunteers seek their permission to put a big board or a large sticker on their houses declaring that their inmates have joined the party. In one village, there were 350 families. Out of them, 300 agreed for the stickers or boards to be put up. This means people are openly coming out in support of AAP. It shows their fear is diminishing, coming to an end.

From you days of activism to now, in what ways have your conception of politics, and how it is practiced, changed?
There is no doubt that doing politics is a difficult task.

You never thought so earlier, did you?
No, I never thought it would be so difficult. Governance is not a rocket science. In running the Delhi government one thing has become clear that if your intention is good, you can provide good governance. It means people can get electricity, water, and medicine for the same amount of money that other governments were spending in the past.

Earlier, governments would repeatedly complain that they didn’t have the money. How come our government has the money? We have made water free. When I did that, the economists declared that the Delhi Jal Board would be financially ruined. They should know that the revenue of the Jal Board has actually increased this year, by Rs 176 crore over last year, and mind you, despite the fact that people consuming less than 20,000 litres get it free.

How was this managed?
We improved the management. Not only this, we are saving on water. Every day, we have extra 3 MGD-4 MGD [million gallons a day] water. That is because people don’t want to cross the 20,000-litres limit. This is an example of how honest governance can produce magical results.

The dirty politics that the Modi sarkar is doing with us, well, that is not good. The people are watching, Upparwala [God] too is.

When you say doing politics is difficult, what do you mean by it?
The Central government’s interference in our functioning and its intimidation of our officers. They raided me, as if I am the most corrupt person in the country. It is as if Modi can’t think of anyone else who can be corrupt.

Were you hassled by the raids?
Not at all, they can come and raid me ten times more. Modi’s politics is the politics of vengeance, not of transformation and development.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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How Kolkata’s greying population is feeding a new kind of business

Old is gold: How Kolkata’s greying population is feeding a new kind of business
Photo Credit: Rana Chakraborty
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A drive down Kolkata’s spine, the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass that connects the north and south, will tell you what the city is really worried about. Between signboards advertising new-age condominiums, five-star hotels and schools with “world class” facilities are a number of ads by hospitals and pharma companies promising better care for senior citizens at home and graffiti peddling nursing and ayah services.

According to a Times of India report quoting census figures, Kolkata is home to more senior citizens than any other metro in India, most of whom live alone. Educated Bengalis have always moved out to other cities and countries, but in the last decade there has been an exodus of sorts of young people. Kolkata has the least number of 20-30-year-olds among metros.

Caring for the elderly left behind is thus big business in the city.

The Kolkata police, in collaboration with the non-profit Dignity Foundation, have set up a dedicated helpline and a service that keeps an eye on the elderly who live alone and assesses their security and medical concerns – for those who register for this service. The state has also seen significant investments by private enterprises in healthcare segment. According to government communication, 41 speciality and super speciality hospitals are coming up in West Bengal with focus on geriatric care, and a recently concluded business summit tom-toms investment proposals in this sector to the tune of Rs 1,360 crore.

From apps that connect them to emergency services to home delivery of medicines and essentials, physiotherapists and nurses on call to resort-like facilities for those who want autumnal luxury, the elderly in Kolkata are fuelling the state economy in no small way.

Ads for ayahs and nurses in Salt Lake. Credit: Rana Chakraborty
Ads for ayahs and nurses in Salt Lake. Credit: Rana Chakraborty

According to Meena Ganesh, MD and CEO of Portea Medical that provides home healthcare services, “India’s healthcare industry has been estimated to be worth $160 billion and is split equally between hospital and non-hospital spends. In the non-hospital space, we estimate home healthcare will be a $4 billion a year opportunity. The home health segment is growing at 20% year on year.”

In Kolkata, the market evidently has enough potential to accommodate this fledgling business of domestic healthcare both in the organised and unorganised sectors. The former has big-ticket players such as Portea, Tribea, Medica, Care Continuum among others, while the latter includes nursing and ayah services catering to the more domestic concerns.

The city ranks among the five largest cities for Portea, which is present in 17 other cities. The group offers direct services and also works through hospital partners such as Columbia Asia, providing support to their patients. Their services include doctors, nurses, nursing attendants, physiotherapists, medical equipment as well as diagnostics.

“We also have specific care plans that are popular in the city such as elder care (including NRI plans), palliative care, orthopaedic care, physiotherapy, cancer care,” said Ganesh.

Sanjukta Deb, operations manager at Tribeca Care, says its “one-stop community based care experience is modeled partly on the Community Care concept of the NHS [National Health Service], UK and includes a wide range of medical and non-medical support services”. Nursing, physio, elder care support, medical equipment and supplies, hospital discharge plans, psychological counselling are part of their services, though their most popular service is the elder care programme that is “being constantly developed based on consumer feedback”.

In tandem with the more structured, professionally monitored services, the demand for ayahs or sebikas (attendants who provide non-medical assistance only) has grown significantly in recent years. Care was the first “professionally” managed domestic maid and ayah agency founded by the enterprising Sharmeela Chatterjee from Salt Lake, the affluent suburb in eastern Kolkata. The company, which now has outposts all over the country, is coping with an increasing demand for trusted sebikas for elderly citizens, says Probir Acharya, a coordinator. Besides a caution deposit of Rs 10,000, the services of the registered sebikas come for Rs 270 per day and upwards depending on the job and the hours.

Credit: Rana Chakraborty
Credit: Rana Chakraborty

Salt and pepper city

Care is headquartered in Salt Lake (official name Bidhannagar after the former Chief Minister, Dr Bidhan Chandra Ray, who visualised it), the country’s first planned satellite city. Set up in 1958, it was home to the city’s intellectual elite during the Left Front rule and to senior government officials.

According to the government’s official data: “At the 2011 census, Bidhannagar had a population of 218,323 (Males 111,363; Females 106,960) and an average literacy rate of 90.44% (higher than the national average of 74%), with male literacy of 93.08% and female literacy of 87.69%.”

While the newer parts of Salt Lake city have turned into IT hubs, generating employment for the young, most of this township is residential with large parks, recreational centres and quiet, leafy bylanes. The problem in this “sprawling old age facility” – as locals and residents point out – is peculiar.

What was once a beautiful township of independent villas, low-rise apartments and planned colonies for the middle and upper-middle class, is now a study in extremes – islands of commercial buzz with stretches of desolation.

Almost every household here misses its young residents, who have mostly moved abroad on jobs or for higher studies. The elderly live in paranoia, shutting out the world every evening, thanks to the volatile political situation here (the recent civic polls turned the neighbourhood into a hotbed of political violence).

When Deep Probeen Porisheba (specialising in in-home services with a focus on assistance with counselling, mobility, technology and other social roles) first set up their offices here, they encountered locked doors. “No one trusts anyone here,” said Shirsha Guha, director, who came back from the US to drive Deep Probeen Porisheba. Some of the colonies have installed CCTV cameras and beefed up security, but the bigger concerns remain.

Public transport is still a problem within Salt Lake, save for cycle rickshaws. But the rickshaw, as also the bus, is a challenge for the elderly who find it difficult to clamber on and get down from it. Unless there is a car and a chauffeur on duty, the elderly are trapped in their homes for all practical purposes.

Not surprisingly, the demand for specialised care for the elderly is high here. The township is serviced by Apollo, Columbia Asia and AMRI hospitals in the immediate vicinity and has easy access to Sankara Nethralaya, Rabindranath Tagore Institute of Cardiac Sciences, Ruby General Hospital, Medica and Peerless along the bypass. However, most people will not entertain professional care givers, unless they have been recommended by someone they know well. The directories here list 40 or so registered agencies dealing with ayah and nursing services. There are at least as many more that are unlisted and function purely through word-of-mouth.

There is another factor contributing to the isolation of the elderly in Salt Lake. The civic body did not permit elevators in most houses up to four floors till recently. This did not really matter until the families shrunk and there was no one to run errands or even assist the elderly when they needed to visit their doctors or get some fresh air. In colonies such as Purbachal, which faces the glamorous Hyatt Regency Hotel, discussions on installing elevators have been in limbo with most members hesitating to dish out the money despite the inconvenience caused to the senior citizens living on higher floors.

This is where the hospitals and care giving agencies have sensed opportunity. Some of the more popular services include assisted living – helping the elderly get out of the house, go for their walks, visit the ATM, go shopping or meet a friend.

Take the case of the Bhattacharyas (name withheld on request). The daughters who lived abroad were in regular touch with their parents – father was a retired government official, mother a homemaker. It was during their father’s illness and death late last year that they had to struggle with the system – right from getting tests done, collecting reports to installing a monitoring system at home. Right now, for the daughters the biggest concern is dealing with their mother’s loneliness after 46 years of marriage. “We had used two services such as Care Continuum and Kurves Care for regular care,” said one of the daughters. “Kurves Care is enlisted to get us an ayah or maid and to monitor any urgent requirements. They are in touch with my sister too.”

 The Rabindra Sarovar Lake in South Calcutta is favoured by senior citizens. Credit: Rana Chakraborty
The Rabindra Sarovar Lake in South Calcutta is favoured by senior citizens. Credit: Rana Chakraborty

Only Bengalis, lonely Bengalis?

According to Shirsha Guha, the problem began in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the breakdown of the education system and dismal job scene.

“Parents encouraged their children to move out, pursue their dreams of academic and professional excellence,” explained Guha. “This coupled with the fact that the fiercely individualistic Bengalis had moved further and further away from the joint family system, has resulted in their complete isolation. Bengalis have been so busy following their intellectual and creative pursuits that they have cut themselves off from the larger family support system – something that still works for Marwari and Gujarati families.”

Guha observes that almost all her 100-strong members are Bengalis. “Thanks to their shared business and commercial interests, Marwari families tend to stick together. This is beneficial for the elderly, who are always being watched over. The situation is very different for geriatric Bengalis, who are now mostly on their own.”

Her views are shared by Dr Ajay Mistry, who is setting up a 100-room old age home in Haspukur, in the northern suburbs of the city, next to a hospital. “There has been an increase in the number of senior citizens who have been forced to fend for themselves,” he said. “With the chipping away of the traditional family structure, there is no one in the extended family either to take care of their medical and other needs. The idea of building an old age home in the periphery of a hospital was born from this experience.”

There is also the city’s changing skyline to blame. The old houses that shared walls, terraces and lives, have given way to gated communities. “For those living abroad, it seems convenient to sell off the old property which they feel is their albatross, and shift their parents to the new apartments that offer better security and parks and other facilities,” observed Guha. “But this also leads to their isolation. Most of the flats in these high-rises are vacant. The rest have strangers.”

A marketing professional attached to one of the service providers claims he has received calls from Indians living in Australia and the US, who have sought his help to sell off their ancestral property, move their parents to a well-appointed apartment or old age home. He has not recommended any facility so far, citing the incident of how his employer’s relative was financially exploited at a well-known old age facility run by a religious trust.

A professional friend

Despite the challenges and the loneliness, most senior citizens prefer to cling on to their soil than brave hassle-prone travel.

So when they are desperate enough to dial the helpline numbers or ask for help, what are they looking for? According to Deep Probeen Porisheba, it is “companionship”, the most popular service in their repertoire. “Most senior citizens are lonely and unhappy. They just need someone to talk to,” said Guha.

Take the instance of the Mondals in Dhakuria. Their only child lives in Australia. They lead a reasonably active life and have enough to not worry about emergency hospitalisation. Problem arose when both of them were afflicted with severe arthritis and mobility was restricted. The trips to Australia and other vacations came to a stop. Being bedridden exacerbated their depression. Their son, Sarbajeet, enlisted the help of Deep Probeen Porisheba and a physiotherapist was appointed to visit them at home twice a week. After a year, the Mondals say the sahayak, as the professionals are called, is more of a family member whose presence helps enliven the quiet home.

“He has helped me manage my aches and pains and we went on a vacation to Himachal recently,” said Indrajit Mondal (72). “But more than anything else, we enjoy his company and look forward to his visits,” said his wife Meera (63). What makes the arrangement even sweeter is the fact that the son manages everything from Australia – subscription fees, dealing with reports and discussing further treatments or adding services.

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of opening their doors to rank strangers when they are at their most vulnerable. The Sens of Ballygunje Circular Road, for instance, preferred to continue with the nurses and sebikas who had been recommended by relatives or had taken care of them while they had been hospitalised. The sons – Rajesh and Anamit Sen – were both working in different cities, when their mother suffered a stroke, paralysing her. This was followed by their father’s illness. Since 2010, the family has been relying on a support system of two daytime nurses, two sebikas for the night for both parents, and a trusted family chauffeur who does odd jobs and runs errands.

“For most people of a certain generation, there is a huge trust issue when it comes to letting anyone into the house. They prefer to go by recommendations of other family members and friends than look up the internet,” said Anamit Sen, who recently moved back to Kolkata and joined his brother who had moved back earlier to take care of their parents.

“We had the opportunity of coming back for our parents,” said Rajesh Sen. “But almost all my friends living abroad have to deal with this phase. They visit annually, or twice a year depending on their work and the distance. Some of them have signed up for these services – nurses, doctors on call, someone to monitor BP, give insulin shots, or just monitor reports and manage any crisis that may arise. This may not be an ideal arrangement, but possibly the best under the circumstances.”

For most professionals living in the US or UK, moving back to Kolkata is not an option. “When you have worked hard for a citizenship, you don’t want to give everything up. The annual visits are not enough and you are constantly worrying about the well-being of your parents,” said Guha, who believes the situation in Kolkata is different from that in Kerala where most of the professionals leave on temporary visas to the Middle East countries.

“Our son is not the kind to live away from his parents,” said the Mondals. “But he has two children and he wants to raise them in a first world country.”

Not all the subscribers to these services live alone in the city. According to data provided by the service providers, a significant chunk of the requests come in from the sons and daughters who live in the same city but are unable to give enough time and attention to their elderly parents.

The price of convenience

Whether it is a sebika who comes highly recommended for the Sens or a sahayak who helps Anima Roy Choudhuri of Golf Green to Skype with her daughter in the US and go for afternoon walks or deal with legal work, none of these services come cheap. “Kolkata is an extremely price-sensitive market,” said Guha, who has had problems creating awareness about the exact nature of the services her company offers. One can expect to shell out anything upwards of Rs 7,000-10,000 for any one of the services offered by the companies and hospitals.

Tribeca says its pricing is affordable, customised and caters to people of all socio-economic backgrounds. But it is not easy convincing the parents to sign up for the services. Many of them are not comfortable with the idea of spending their children’s money, and some are so unhappy with the arrangement that they do not want their help.

“It is always a delicate situation,” said Guha, “and we insist all stakeholders in the family be present before working out a solution for the family. After all, no one is happy with their situation.”

Concurs Ganesh, elaborating on the sensitive nature of the work involved. “It is not like selling a book or providing another credit card facility. There is a great deal of emotion involved; people come to us when they are in pain or distress and look to us to solve their problem and give them solace. This is a huge responsibility.”

Anima Roy Chowdhury's daughter has signed her up with Deep Probeen Porisheba for physiotherapy, Skype sessions and trips to the lawyer. Credit: Rana Chakraborty
Anima Roy Chowdhury’s daughter has signed her up with Deep Probeen Porisheba for physiotherapy, Skype sessions and trips to the lawyer. Credit: Rana Chakraborty

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