Monthly Archives: December 2010

Wikileaks war: Is this the first cyber war?

Chennai: The War cloud hovers over the cyber space, as the first concerted cyber war started by anonymous supporters of Wikileaks, intensifies.

Wikileaks started releasing, in a series of disclosures, thousands of United States diplomatic correspondence to the extreme embarrassment of the US State department. It is widely believed that US government has put pressure on US based web hosting companies urging them to stop hosting Wikileaks’ website, which resulted in the expulsion of Wikileaks from Amazon’s servers and leaving Wikileaks without operating main site. This, along with the arrest and possible extradition of its founder, Julian Assange, on rape charges and withdrawal of MasterCard and PayPal services to the Wikileaks organisation triggered what is called Operation Anonymous by the supporters of the Wikileaks.

Operation Anonymous started launching its cyber attack on MasterCard and PayPal web sites bringing their web services with Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS). Other targeted sites are Swiss Bank PostFinance which froze Assange’s finances and site of US Senator Joe Lieberman, who claimed to have contacted Amazon to pressure it to stop hosting the WikiLeaks site.

Thousands of Wikileaks supporters are downloading the software, which was used in the DDOS attack, in support of Wikileaks in the virtual war declared on it by the US Government. US and UK governments have sounded the alarm bells in anticipation of further cyber attacks. So far it seems like supporters of Wikileaks are winning. Support for Wikileaks is also pouring from various quarters. Navi Pillay UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed her concern over the pressure being created over the Wikileaks website. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism faculty and officers wrote an open letter to the US President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder urging the government to treat Wikileaks as engaging in journalistic activity and to protect it under the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Questions were also raised about the actions of companies that are denying services to the website. An interesting development in this issue is that Wikileaks’ Iceland payment processor, Datacell ehf, toook legal action against MasterCard and Visa for breaching their terms of service with the provider by blocking payments to the whistleblowers’ website for a week, although that could be extended.

Julian Assange, though targeted by the western governments, was termed as the “Man of the year” by Time magazine, and is finding support from various quarters. Number of celebrities turning up to offer Assange, his bail money is a testimony to this. But his persecution has not stopped. Even though he was granted bail by a British court he was sent back to jail as Swedish prosecutors decided to appeal against his bail. With Assange still in the jail and still Wikileaks regularly releasing the cables it looks like the momentum generated by the whistleblower website has gained a greater proportion and is not dependent on its founder.

Wikileaks has its share of critiques who are arguing that in this cyber war business has become a casualty, and some argue that this movement is nothing but a vicious war launched by few people and they are able to launch attacks mainly because security analysts are unable to understand their opponent’s tactics, as DDOS attacks were used against other websites in the past. What ever may be the case, Wikileaks and its actions have triggered a serious debate, whose outcome will define the future of internet freedom.

Bonded Labour – Slavery without chains

I entered the small photo exhibition organised by International Justice Mission (IJM) as a sceptical man. I was of the impression that IJM is any other NGO trying to showcase their work, and I have to attend this exhibition regardless, as a part of my assignment. But my misgivings started to evaporate as I stepped into the hall.

The stories that those photos spoke were straightforward. As a Chinese proverb goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, the candid photographs shown there, were quite evocative. Simple captions written by Belinda Liu, a volunteer working with IJM, conveyed without much ado one stark truth, “Bonded labour does not just exist in India, it is perpetrated with impunity.” As we go through photo after photo a single theme runs through them, the sufferings and brutality these unfortunate victims face at the hands of their cruel masters. Almost all of them are victims of their own innocence and illiteracy, and the modus operandi in enslaving them is always same. They are first enticed to take a loan, some times as paltry as Rs. 200, and in few months this amount is inflated to exorbitant levels with unreasonably high interest rates. Then these gullible people are convinced that they owe huge amounts of money to the lender and to clear this debt they have to work for the lender, almost always for free. As explained by the Community Relations Manager of IJM, Kural Amuthan, most of the victims of bonded labour are people from lesser privileged communities, like those from scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST) and other indigenous tribal communities. He says that according to a government survey 86.6 per cent of the bonded labourers, throughout the nation, belong to the SC and ST communities and almost all the victims are illiterate.

The case of Jayaram* (55) is one such. He was induced to take a loan of Rs. 200 in his need, and was enslaved every since. He was given a daily salary of six rupees and was forced to work for 12 to 16 hours a day. When he protested, he was cruelly punished by puncturing his knee with a needle, used to stitch beige bags, along with abusive words reminding him his caste status. He was rescued by IJM and along with his wife he runs a small shop in his village. The case of Chinnamma* (52) is even more deplorable. Her request for a leave, of one day, from a rice mill in Kanchipuram to attend her blind husband’s funeral in her village, was denied by her master who said that there is no need for her to go and that; others will ‘dispose off’ his body. She too was rescued by IJM.

IJM was founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen, to combat the evils of bonded labour, slavery and human trafficking. Kural explained that, since it started its work in India IJM is more active in South India with Chennai and Bangalore as their centres where they tackle mainly the issue of bonded labour and slavery. They also have offices in Mumbai and Kolkata which are actively involved in tackling female trafficking. Kural also explains how IJM helps local authorities in finding and setting bonded labour free. He said that once a labourer is freed from the clutches of this cruel situation he is given a release certificate by Revenue Division Officer and are given a sum of Rs. 20,000/- as a part of financial assistance for their rehabilitation. All this is done under, Bonded labour system (Abolition) Act of 1976. IJM does not limit its activity to freeing the victims; it also takes care of the recently freed bonded labourers by way of training them and settling them into gainful ventures so that they can lead a fruitful and dignified life. This constant monitoring is maintained for the duration of two years.

Karul also explained, citing the case of Arjun* (a third generation bonded labourer born into the slavery and trying to repay a debt of Rs.20 that his grand father took during a famine. He still had to pay Rs.20,000 when he was freed) that since these people spent a lot of time under strict supervision and suppression, they do not have enough psychological stability and are not ready to take care of their own lives. They have to be gradually educated and their fear of mingling with others removed. They also need assistance to make a habit of taking individual decisions, which normal citizens take for granted, with out hesitation.

Belinda Liu, with her few months of experience in India, expresses her dismay at the complete lack of awareness in the labourers and their children (who are never allowed to read or go to school) that they are being deprived of their basic rights. This also shows how morally deprived the slave masters are and the requirement for public as such to address this issue, she says.

The photograph depicting Radha* (8) running towards the IJM activists and away from work, gives a picture of what that little soul thinks of freedom that awaits her. Also the picture of a smiling Jayaram and his wife standing before their own shop, setup with government assistance, conveys the message that words can hardly capture.

* Names of victims are changed and pictures are not uploaded to  respect their privacy.

Roads on Stilts: exploiting an ambiguous CRZ notification

Chennai: Selvi, 35, who ekes out a meager living by selling milk to the residents of Besant Nagar, feels threatened by the proposed elevated expressway from Chennai’s Marina Beach to Kottivakkam. Her fear is that the proposed road will force her to vacate her house, which is in the slum on the fringes of the Eliot’s beach, and complains that there is no proper rehabilitation plan in the sight.

This elevated expressway also faced opposition from various social groups. The shop owners and residents of Besant Nagar complain that because of this project, sound and air pollution will increase. Apart from pollution, Sanjeevan Suryanarayanan, who owns a garment shop on the beach, is apprehensive that real estate prices will fall drastically, as the beach front property will be devalued due to the disturbance created by vehicles, plying on the road throughout the day.

Another notable community that opposes the proposal consists of environmental activists. Siddharth, an active member of ‘Reclaim our Beaches’ (ROB), says that this project threatens the fragile estuarine ecosystem along with the endangered Olive Riddle Turtles which migrate annually to Chennai’s beaches. He is of the opinion that the main benefactors of this venture are the ones who can afford to buy a four-wheeler, as public transport will not be allowed on the road. With a construction of this magnitude, which hugs the seashore, the process of the construction is bound to pollute the sea, and the migrant workers who have to camp on the beaches, will only aggravate the situation to the detriment of the environment. “With the track record of Chennai authorities in constructing mega projects, we can safely assume that this project will wreak havoc to the fragile ecology for five to ten years at least” he laments.

Vaishnavi, of ‘Transparent Chennai’ says that the major source of the problem in this issue is the lack of clarity in the existing regulations. The present guidelines which are published under Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) notification in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part-II, Section 3, Sub-section (ii) of dated the September 15, 2010, does not help clarify the issue. The exemption provided in the notification says that ‘Roads on Stilts’ can be allowed to be built in the CRZ area. The initial exemption was incorporated by the policy makers to allow roads on stilts to avoid disturbing/ destruction of mangroves. But since the regulation is not specific about the exemption, it is being misinterpreted.

The problem of lack of clarity is endemic to the CRZ notification since its inception in 1991. Since the guidelines are only published in the Gazetteof India, and not enacted as a law, there was hardly any discussion on the subject. Manju Menon with her co-authors, in an article in Economic and Political Weekly, says that even though the 1991 notification was welcomed by all the stakeholders, lack of administrative will and pre-occupation with economic reforms resulted in government neglecting the implementation of this notification in good faith. This lack of clarity resulted in a flurry of public interest litigations in various courts.

The Supreme Court in an Order dated April 19, 1993 in Writ Petition No.664 of 1993, directed the Central Government and the coastal States that ‘there is 6000 km long coastline of India and it is the responsibility of coastal States and Union territories in which these stretches exists to see that both the notifications are compiled with and enforced.’ This and various legal litigations forced government to amend the notification time and again along with the setting up of various committees which finally resulted in Draft CRZ 2010 notification. But Menon in her article says, “…. The notification is misleading since the Swaminathan Committee report (on which the present notification relies heavily) is not a widely accepted document devoid of controversy. It falls short on several counts and the absence of citizen participation in its drafting has been a serious concern since its objectives have far-reaching implications. Pro-industry influences are evident in the Swaminathan Committee report.”

When contacted by this correspondent about the proposed elevated expressway, a deputy director in Department of Environment, Governmentof Tamilnadu, was reluctant to identify himself, but shared some information off-the-record. He said that his department did not receive any proposal to build an elevated expressway, nor was any clearance ever granted. Instead, he said that a 169 km circular road, parts of which are elevated and would cover the land falling under CRZ, covering Chennai is under consideration.  He was of the view that it is highly impractical to refuse development projects on the grounds of ecological considerations, particularly in Chennai and that there has to be a balance between both public welfare and ecological concerns.

But the problem of uncertainty in the notification still exists. The information that there was no expressway proposal, as conveyed by the official, on the one hand and the misinformed activists on the other, shows the lack of clear dialog between government and the stake holders. With increasing population, the pressure on the natural resources is bound to increase. Enacting a law by the central government after wider consultation and citizen participation, may remove the ambiguity and potential conflict between various stake-holders, resulting in better management of the fragile ecology.

Parking hassles in Mylapore Chennai

As a part of our project, along with my team mate Nihar Amol Gokhale, I tried to capture the real and chaotic road condition in busy shopping street of  Mylapore, Chennai. This was also our first experiment with flip camera and video editing process.