News Wrap


Village councils in India, particularly in the Northern Hindi belt are unelected all-male bodies, which have issued many misogynistic decrees, including ordering ‘‘Honour Killings’’. Their diktats have ranged from banning women from wearing western clothes to ordering the killing of young couples. As a way of coping with an increase in the number of rapes, some councils have demanded that the minimum age of marriage be lowered to 16 from 18  for girls and 21 for boys. Acting as de-facto courts for millions of Indians, the ‘Khap Panchayats’ (village councils) have settled disputes on everything from land and cattle, to matrimony and murder. India’s rural landscape has been governed by powerful village councils, for centuries. Their ‘‘cultural purpose’’ maintains a conservative grip  on rural society, that not only clashes with the current more liberal attitudes toward women, but also challenges the law of the land. Forms of punishment by the councils can be brutal. In the second fortnight of January 2014, 13 men were arrested, after the alleged gang rape of a twenty-year-old tribal woman, on the orders of a village tribal court in Birbhum district (West Bengal) for having a relationship with a man from a non-tribal muslim community.

Diesel Subsidy
The biggest beneficiary of the subsidy the Union Government of India provides on diesel fuel is the country’s heavy and light commercial vehicle segment, and not the agricultural sector. The government bears Rs 92,061 crore (2012-13) of the total cost for the loss incurred by oil companies on selling diesel below cost. On the basis of consumption, Rs 12,100 crore benefit goes to owners of private cars and utility vehicles (UVs), Rs 8,200 crore goes to commercial cars and UVs, Rs 26,000 crore to heavy and light commercial vehicles and Rs 8,800 crore to buses. Only Rs 12,000 crore of subsidy benefits the agricultural sector, and Rs 15,600 crore other sectors. The pricing of petrol was deregulated in June 2010, but diesel prices continue to be regulated. The major beneficiaries of the diesel subsidies are private vehicle owners, and the telecom sector. An estimated 10% increase in diesel price, translates into only a 0.5% rise in consumer prices. Oil firms’ under-recoveries on sale of a litre of diesel currently stands at Rs 8.47. The transport sector accounts for 70% of total diesel sales in the country, and is currently the biggest beneficiary of diesel subsidy. The agricultural sector consumes 13% of all diesel sold in India. For consumption of petroleum products, diesel accounts for 4.4%, and petrol accounts for 10%.

Free water in Delhi
Delhi’s outgoing AAP Chief Minister promised 667 litres of water free for people with water connections. The Delhi Jal Board also announced about 667 litres of free water to users with water connections. It is not clear as to from where will the water come, for all households, beyond those with metered connections. Haryana’s Munak Canal, built with financial assistance from the Delhi government, is still not giving the national capital the promised ‘‘Pipe dream’’ of 80 million gallons of water per day. As an opportunity to co-own water as a valued right, rather than solely a free-for-all commodity, there is a need to identify new sources of water. 667 litres of water per household will also mean an equivalent amount of sewage. Delhi still does not have sewage treatment plants running at optimum capacity. Just over 50% of Delhi’s sewage is actually treated. The 2001 law requiring every building, including fly-overs, on plots above 100 sq metres, to have rooftop rainwater harvesting in Delhi, still remains a fringe issue. The underground wells in Delhi have seriously depleted over 2001-10, with the posh and busy New Delhi, and south and south west Delhi areas, being worst hit. As ground-water extraction increases exponentially, the quality of water goes down. For the estimated 40 lakh people who do not have access to sewage lines in Delhi, there is scope to decentralise sewage treatment and build small sewage-treatment plants ‘‘managed by mohalla sabhas’’. Part of the ecological system is catching rain where it falls through private residences, mohallas (areas), around 5000 schools and 10000 parks in the capital.

Mutilation of Girls
The world has about 140 million girls and women who are estimated to have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The practice is widespread among Somalis, Egyptians and women and girls from Guinea, Djibouti, Eritrea, Mali and Sudan. Conducted on girls aged between five and eight, it is invariably done on girls just before marriage, often in the belief that it will make the girl clean and more marriageable. Campaigners for fair treatment of women and girls, consider FGM as a ‘‘form of extreme violence’’ and ‘‘child abuse’’.

Over the past decade, the number of women and teenaged girls in England and Wales, who are victims of female genital mutilation, has increased to 170,000 because of influx of migrants from countries, where the practice is widespread. The number of girls at risk of becoming victims of FGM in England, has trebled from 20,000 to 65,000, because of girls entering Britain, and high birth rates among immigrant communities. Out of 3032 FGM cases treated by hospitals in England, over the past three years, only 3% were referred to the police and 11% to local authorities. In England, although FGM is against the law, there has not been a single prosecution of either a ‘‘cutter’’ carrying out FGM, or a parent for allowing a child to be mutilated.

Holocaust Pope
Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958, aged 82, headed the Catholic church from 1939 until 1958. He appears to have helped legitimise Adolf Hittler’s regime, and failed to speak out against its atrocities. Pius never revealed the secrets of his dealings with Hitler and Mussolini, details of which are locked in the Vatican archives. Defenders of Pius say he secretly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews by encouraging religious orders to shelter them. He had no choice but to keep the Vatican strictly neutral during the war, surrounded as it was by a fascist state. However, he failed to warn Jews in the Rome ghetto of their imminent round-up in October 1943. More than 1000 were sent to Auschwitz. Pius has been declared ‘venerable’ in 2009, the second of the four stages that culminate in canonisation. Abraham Skorka, an Argentinian Rabbi has discussed Pius XII, with Pope Francis at the papal residence in September 2013. Now Pope Francis is keen to open the Vatican’s secret archives on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, before deciding on sainthood for the controversial wartime pontiff.

Bangladesh Factory Victims
29 international retailers had sold or ordered clothing made in the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which collapsed in April 2013, killing 1127 people, and injuring 2500. A compensation fund to help those hit by one of the world’s worst factory disasters, is overseen by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency. Small amounts of payments have started since February 2014. High Street retail giants including Matala, Mango, Premier Clothing, comprising British brands, have failed to join the compensation fund. None of the US firms on the list, including Wal-Mart, the parent company of Asda, has joined the ILO compensation fund. Planned compensation packages could lead to affected families receiving about 15,000 Pound. The average annual salary in Bangladesh is 1150 Pound.

Vol. 46, No. 35, Mar 9 - 15, 2014