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Social Inequalities and People’s Movements in New Normal South Asia: Emerging Trends

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By Shavini De Silva,

Programme Officer, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

South Asia is home to 40% of the world poor, even though it is considered one of the fastest growing regions in the world. In the last 15 years, South Asia has also experienced the highest number of terrorist activity in the world. The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on multifaceted inequalities in South Asia is profound and it affects vulnerable and marginalized groups disproportionately. It tends to widen inequalities and deepen insecurities in society, particularly among marginalized sections. The paradox of the COVID 19 pandemic, on the one hand, has increased the amount of existing social inequalities and on the other hand it has subdued the vibrant social movements in the region. One of the defining features in social and political landscape in South Asia is the existence of a variety of social movements through history. During the pandemic period, the world also witnessed the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the United States and the West. It was in this context Regional Centre for Strategic Studies held a webinar on the theme “Social Inequalities and Emerging Trends in People’s Movements in Post- COVID South Asia. The purpose of the webinar was to generate a discourse to identify trends in people and movements in post-COVID South Asia.

Four world-renowned scholars/social activists in South Asia spoke at the webinar. The distinguished panelists consisted of Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva, former Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Umakant, a well-known social activists in New Delhi, Prof. Rasul Bakhsh Rais a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and Mr. Hari Sharma, the Executive Director of Alliance for Social Dialogue/Social Science Baha, Kathmandu. Professor Karori Singh the Emeritus Fellow/Professor of South Asian Studies and Former Director, South Asia Studies Centre, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, INDIA, and Professor Keerawela, Executive Director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. moderated the panel discussion.

In bringing Sri Lankan experience to the discussion, Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva stated that Sri Lanka could be seen as an outstanding success in terms of control of COVID-19 during the past six months. The well-developed health infrastructure in the country also reflected in earlier success in malaria eradication and various other public health achievements including reduction in infant mortality and progressive increase in life expectancy and coordinated effort at COVID-19 control by a new political regime committed to the task of containing the disease at points of origin are among the factors contributing to the crisis management.

There are, however, some important concerns about the social inequality connected with the pattern of infection. During the early phase, the community infections were reported disproportionately in urban low income neighborhoods, typically with a notable minority presence. The worker returnees from other countries and the substance users and their contacts have been two groups of civilians most affected by the COVID-19 infections. The decision by the state to impose mandatory cremation on all deaths attributed to COVID-19 has been heavily criticized by the Muslim community, who believe in maintaining religious rituals of burying the dead. The National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 established by the president in response to the pandemic chaired by the military commander is conspicuous by the absence of any civil society representation or any persons with professional skills in understanding and responding to social and cultural issues related to handling the multifaceted social crisis inevitably resulting from the pandemic.

Discrimination and exclusion during COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown in India was the focus of Dr. Umakant’s presentation. He stated that as the number of reported COVID-19 cases has surpassed 3 million in India. It is now high time to not only address the ways and means for ending the pandemic but also to highlight the caste based discrimination and exclusion faced by Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Caste (OBC) people in different parts of India during pandemic. Any disaster is not caste/race neutral, it affects the disadvantaged people quite adversely leading government officials along with society at large to maintaining colossal amounts of socio-economic inequality. The case of sanitation workers stands as a dehumanizing experience can be cited as a case in point. Having to eradicate dirt and filth along with the inhumane fact that society at large practices have remained an issue of great concern. Despite being the frontline warrior against Covid-19, they have not been provided with enough safety equipment and even parity with health personnel’s. The fact that migrant workers are been labeled as nowhere people stands at a critical issue. Within a four-hour notice, the national lockdown was announced by the government which led millions of migrant workers to a state of vulnerability. This in turn resulted them to walk thousands of kilometers back to their villages facing great hardships and misery. In recent research findings, it was also noted that the most marginalized sections of society namely, Dalits, Adivasis and LGBT had to endeavor extreme levels of suffering during the nationwide lockdown Furthermore the response of State has been completely dissatisfying as levels of inequality have risen which may take a long time to overcome. The question still lies at the necessary precautions that need to be exercised during the discourse of a pandemic. Social distancing within the South Asian context has its own connotations of discrimination and exclusion relating to cast which makes it more challenging to combat. More than anything else a sense of solidarity, empathy, generosity, warmth, compassion, share and care is needed, not only in helping the humanity but also to inculcate values in the younger generation. This could be distinguished as Ubuntu, a term popularized by Bishop Desmond Tutu during Anti-Apartheid struggle days. A society without Ubuntu is a dead society.

Traditional caste system, tribal identities and ethnic biases along with minority religion and economic class are the contributing factors that play a role in marginalization and discrimination against certain groups, Prof. Rasul Rais said. The issue of economic and social inequality spans to the vast portion of the countrysides as minority of big landlords own much of the agricultural lands, the rest of the remaining majorities work as peasants. The landowning class dominating the political parties and the electoral system have not allowed land reforms to take place. The urban areas that are growing rapidly, with the migration of landless and the rising middle classes show the same trend in housing, allocation of geographical spaces, access to educational facilities and categories of jobs, or joblessness. As an elite-dominated society, Pakistan runs an “elitist economy” and a hierarchical social order. The decades of economic growth and modernisation have not altered much the social structural reasons that continue to reproduce inequality in different forms. The poor have larger families, mostly illiterate and live in congested places and live on daily wages. By their economic circumstances, they have been exposed to the pandemic disproportionally more than the affluent sections of the society that have better education, living conditions and economic means.

The social movements in Pakistan against class discrimination, land reforms, social equality and equal right are weak or non-existent whereas the liberal sections of the civil society are more focused on political, gender and ideological issues replicating the agenda of political parties. The religious groups that have proliferated and have more means and street powers have greater interest in identity construction, Islamization and conservative social ethos while weak, fragmented and divided social movements, equality, rights, health and justice remain marginalized issues.

Dr. Hari Sharma of Nepali Social Science Baha paid attention to impact of political structures on social and political processes. It is of key importance to take political interests into consideration as it is a main factor in deciding how preventive and remedial measures should be exercised accordingly, especially in the face of social, economic and natural disasters. This could be viewed against the backdrop that populist politics has integrated with nationalism over the most recent years posing a grave threat to the democratic political practices and minority interests. The rational politics in Nepal stands at a critical juncture and the Nepalese people live in difficult times, despite unprecedented challenges created by COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Hari Sharma emphasized that it is a vital fact that democratic elements reclaim political space which has been lost.

Professor Singh moderated the session by questioning what went wrong and how new form of inequalities came into existence. Those who want to stick to the status quo turn a blind eye to growing social inequalities emphasizing the importance of growth and development. One of the outcomes of this approach would be that society at large becomes less sensitive to social inequality and academics also play a very poor role in bringing real social issues to the discussion forums. Hence, it is necessary for new social movements to recognize emerging trends of inequality in post COVID South Asia. The discussion underscored the need to give priority to emerging inequalities in post CIDID South Asia in national and regional discourses.



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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness

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A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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