17-23 Aug, 2011
small world
The Politician You Just Cannot Put into Prison

KOCHI ~ Last month, Open published a story,  ‘The Long Arm of the Lawless’, on Balakrishna Pillai, an ally in the Congress-led UDF government in Kerala who’d been sentenced to one year rigorous imprisonment. At the time, of the 144 days he’d supposedly already served, he’d been out of jail for 53 days. Pillai had been convicted by the Supreme Court in a corruption case dating back to 1982, when he was minister for power. His latest parole has just got over and, as expected, Pillai is still not in jail.

Soon after his parole ended, Pillai was admitted to a private hospital in Thiruvanantha-puram.The medical board recommended his admission citing a heart condition and rare disease called haemochro­matosis.  A prisoner cannot be admitted to a private hospital unless treatment is unavail­able in the government medical college. In Pillai’s case, no such reason existed, but the government issued a special order for him. Opposition Left parties are alleging that Pillai didn’t visit a doctor even once when he was out on parole.

Pillai has been granted parole four times already and has spent more than half his jail life outside. The UDF government had reportedly even planned to grant him premature release, but Chief Minister Oommen Chandy postponed this step fearing public anger. On this, a furious Pillai called up the state Congress President Ramesh Chennithala and threatened to withdraw support. The UDF currently rules in Kerala on a slender majority of four. The CM then went to Pillai’s home last week to mollify him. It was during this visit, according to sources, that Chandy assured Pillai that the government would shift him to hospital the day his parole got over.

According to senior lawyer Kelu Nambiar, letting a prisoner roam free in this manner amounts to contempt of court. The government, he adds, should have presented him before a medical board comprising doctors from outside the state before granting permission to have him admitted to hospital.

Pillai’s jail term is to end on 18 November. But as per the jail rules, his sentence must be extended in proportion to the number of days he stays outside.

Take Two
The Congress’ Legal Liability
On Abhishek Manu Singhvi appearing for cases that go against his party’s position

On 28 September 2010, Kerala Congress leaders Ramesh Chennithala and PT Thomas, travelling from Delhi to Kochi, noticed Abhishek Manu Singhvi on the same aircraft as them. Singhvi is a party spokesper­son at the Centre and they were surprised that no one had informed them of his visit. On being asked the purpose of his visit, Singhvi casually said it was a mere stopover at Kochi on the way to Bangalore. Later, Thomas overheard Singhvi talking on the phone, and figured out the real reason. As a senior lawyer, Singhvi was representing Megha Distributors, the promoter of Bhutan and Sikkim Lotteries, in Kerala. This was at a time when the Congress was running a campaign against the CPM-led government for being ‘hand in glove’ with Megha Distributors. Thomas tried to talk Singhvi out of taking the case as it would tarnish the party’s image, but failed. 

Singhvi managed to get a ruling in favour of his client. He was later, as Thomas had forseen, forced to withdraw—following a public outcry in Kerala. Singhvi’s claim that his appearance was for the Bhutan government and not for Megha also turned out false. The drama ended with the Congress temporarily ejecting Singhvi from the spokes­person’s chair.

For the Kerala Congress, Singhvi is a strange bugbear. He turns up in a lawyer’s gown to argue for people against whom the Congress has publicly taken a stand. Lately he has again antagonised the party in Kerala by appearing in the Supreme Court for the producers of the pesticide endosulphan. He is, in effect, arguing that the pesticide does no harm, whereas the Kerala Congress has for years been saying it is disastrous.

The state Congress is embarrassed but does not know how to handle Singhvi. “He should not have done it,” says KPCC President Ramesh Chennithala. Last year, Singhvi had triggered another controversy by advising Dow Chemicals not to bear the liabilities of Union Carbide Corporation in the Bhopal tragedy. He did the same in Andhra Pradesh last year by representing Monsanto Corporation against the state Congress government. Monsanto had challenged the government’s authority to fix the ‘trait price’ (royalty) of Bt cotton seeds.

“I never mix my profession with politics,” is Singhvi’s refrain on all such occasions. But at some point, he will have to decide which is more important for him—his public life or his career in a gown.

No Rise? No Planet of the Apes

After years of wrangling over revenue-sharing arrangements, a few Hollywood studios aren’t playing ball with Indian multiplexes anymore. This has meant that movies such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes are currently showing only in single-screen theatres, not multiplexes.

The holdout seeks to address an issue that recurs regularly on the eve of big-budget movie releases, prompting frantic negotiations that end in agreements just hours before the movies’ opening. Defending them­selves, multiplex owners say that rising costs have resulted in lower net profits. However, multiplexes have also raised ticket prices significantly, making an evening at the movies a visibly more expensive venture. Regardless, the consumer plays no role in these discussions. At the time of this story’s going to the press, both sides were holding firm.

Judge Not

With these words—“There is a smear campaign that the RSS was responsible for Gandhi’s assassination just because the assassin was once an RSS worker”— KT Thomas, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, has set off a controversy in Kerala. He said this at a function organised by the RSS in Kochi and went on to absolve the organisation of any communal bias. He said the popular feeling that the RSS is an anti-minority organisation is a baseless myth. In response, the Congress maintains that a former judge has no business praising the RSS. “It is quite unfortunate that a person of his stature is white-washing a communal organisation,” says KPCC President Ramesh Chennithala.

Indian Onions in Danger

Environment Support Group (ESG), a Bangalore-based NGO fighting against genetically modified food, says biopirates from overseas are having it easy in accessing India’s bio-diversity. After introducing Bt brinjal (eggplant), which generated heated debates and opposition, an MNC now wants to access a variety of homegrown onions to genetically modify this vegetable.

ESG feels that emboldened by weak regulation by the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), Monsanto Holdings has now applied for access to a variety of onions grown in India for potential hybridisation, commodification and commercial release. ESG’s Leo F Saldanha says the NBA has forwarded Monsanto’s application to relevant state regulatory authorities and biodiversity manage­ment committees at the panchayat and nagarpalika levels, with a note that the application be cleared by 27 August 2011.

“The NBA, which was leaden-footed in dealing with a complaint of biopiracy against Mahyco and Monsanto with regard to eggplant, seems to have acted very fast in processing Monsanto’s application to access onions. It is imperative for the NBA to enforce India’s biodiversity protection laws. We fear that such lax behaviour on the part of a key regulatory agency encourages such businesses to continue untrammelled by any fear of punitive action for violating India’s biodiversity protection laws and for compromising India’s sovereign control over its biological resources,” he says.

ESG is currently running an e-cam­paign and is planning to hold a series of meetings on the course of action to stop what it calls biopiracy of indigenous varieties.

A Question of Heritage

Residents of 20 villages in Andhra Pradesh’s Zaheerabad region are fighting a unique struggle to have their region declared a biodiversity heritage site under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. The farmers are seeking to protect over 59,759 acres of farmland where they have been growing as many 100 varieties of crops annually. They are proposing the location as an Agro-Biodiversity Heritage Site “due to its location in a semi-arid region with richness in species and crop genetic diversity and the prevalence of traditional knowledge concerning sustainable manage­ment of fragile dry-land ecosystem and sustenance in such a resource scarce region”. This is seen as an opportunity for the community to protect both wild and cultivated biodiverse areas from external threats and land use conversion. While the Andhra Pradesh State Biodiversity Board has agreed, the eternal wait for the government nod continues. “The villagers had extensive discussions among themselves before sending their proposal to the Biodiversity Board. However, the declara­tion is still awaited even after 15 months,” says Kanchi Kohli, member of the Kalpavriskh Environment Action Group.