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South Asian Activists Join Hands to Form SAPAN (South Asia Peace Action Network)

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Peace activists from India and Pakistan on March 28th through a virtual session resolved to float a South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) to bring “peace-monger” groups and individuals working towards peace and stability in the region under one umbrella. These activists have been working on these issues for a long time and were talking about such a network much before the recent attempts at reconciliation between Delhi and Islamabad. Through this network they plan to urge both governments to reduce hostility and work towards a peaceful South Asia.

India and Pakistan peace activists came together for a virtual brainstorming session on March 28, inspired by the work of giants like Dr Mubashir Hasan, Asma Jahangir, Kuldip Nayar and Nikhil Chakravarty. On the agenda was the way forward for the movement, how to invigorate it by involving more allies, younger people and expatriates. The meeting coincidentally capitalised on a rare moment in recent years where there has been a deliberate lowering of hostility by both governments. With the recent announcement of a ceasefire by both armies and the meeting of the Indus Water Commissioners last week, a thaw between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours does not seem impossible.

Regional Context, Education and Peace Journalism

“There is a need to place the India-Pakistan issue into a regional context’,’ said Beena Sarwar, senior journalist and editor of Aman Ki Asha, or ‘hope for peace. Then, Milind Champanerkar a Pune based writer and winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2017 also stated that “more progressive groups should emerge in both countries and should make peace building efforts in numerous regional languages of both countries as it would help more on the ground”. Rubina Saigol a Feminist scholar and Educationalist who was a pioneering member of the Women’s Action Forum, Pakistan, talked about how negative nationalism and infighting within the specified countries are derailing the peace process and laid emphasis on having Peace education programs for especially the youth of India and Pakistan which could help in tackling hyper-nationalism and could invariably lead to lesser defence budgets. Further, while speaking about the role of media in fuelling tensions between both countries renowned journalist Raza Rumi, editor Naya Daur said,  “There is conflict reporting, but we haven’t placed enough emphasis on peace journalism,’’ specifying that something needs to be done to build the existing peace constituencies on both sides.

 People to People Contact

Participants stressed the importance of urging both governments to normalise relations between the two countries and allow free movement of people across the borders.

“We need to broaden the peace constituency by bringing people together, learning from each other on issues that affect us and that have the potential to change our future”, said Ravi Nitesh, co-founder of the youth group Aaghaz-e-Dosti. Sheema Kermani, a Social activist from Sindh, Pakistan, also the founder of the Tehrik-e-Niswan Cultural Action Group said that “South Asia requires open borders and more people to people contact”, also emphasizing the fact that a better Visa policy shall be in place concerning India and Pakistan.

Siraj Khan, President of the Pakistani Association of Greater Boston who has also worked a lot in India emphasized having a better Visa regime in India and Pakistan and stated that “the artist connection is the biggest peace-builder, and more focus should be put on connecting artists of both countries”.

COVID and Beyond

Furthermore, Jatin Desai, former General Secretary of Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, the region’s largest and oldest people-to-people group said that “Things are moving ahead. It is a very important moment, and we must take advantage of it,’’ stating that the pandemic has underscored the need for better cooperation within the region and had forced the governments on both sides to moot better connectivity projects. Farooq Tariq a Lahore based activist and General Secretary of Pakistan Kissan Rabita stated that South Asian governments shall all work together in providing Covid vaccinations for their people.

Thus, all activists hoped the current thaw in India-Pakistan relations will lead to more exchanges between the countries which will further strengthen South Asia. Participants in several breakout rooms at the meeting discussing the way forward strongly felt the need to counter the vitriol on social media targeting those who speak for peace. Other noted participants in the discussions included human rights activist Rita Manchanda, artist Salima Hashmi, former Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed, labour activist Karamat Ali, author Urvashi Butalia, General Secretary PIPFPD India chapter Vijayan M.J., Sanjoy Hazarika of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Magsaysay awardee Dr Sandeep Panday, editor Kashmir Times Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, senior journalist Panneerselvan, and former Indian Navy chief Ramu Ramdas who is also a Magsaysay awardee, besides several prominent Rotarians from both sides, among others.

Source: Aman Ki Asha, Beena Sarwar, Mandira Nayar, Vishal Sharma and some other peace activists present in the virtual session

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Covid-19 Needs a Regional Response, Say Physicians and Activists at SAPAN Meeting

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Poster

Peace activists under the SAPAN platform conducted an event on Sunday which included prominent physicians like Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, Dr Anup Subedee, Dr Vandana Prasad, and Dr Hamid Jafari of Pakistan (led the team that eradicated polio in India). Speakers included Salima Hashmi, Khushi Kabir, Kanak Dixit, Lalita Ramdas, besides journalists Beena Sarwar, Mandira Nayar and others. Activist Priyanka Singh conducted the event.

South Asian countries cannot go it alone, that’s irrational,’’ said Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, renowned public health activist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee from Bangladesh.

The hard lockdown in his country will lead to furthering the inequalities in society, he warned, emphasizing that it is irresponsible to impose lockdowns without providing food. “Poverty has increased. There are 25 million more poor without food.”

Dr Chowdhury was among the physicians and health right activists across countries who came together on Sunday 27 June at a webinar organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) to emphasize that the coronavirus pandemic must be fought collectively.

The third in the series of SAPAN’s monthly public webinars themed ‘Imagine: Neighbours in Peace’, the meeting focused on health as an entry point to talk about South Asian regionalism and Healthcare for all. Three main aspects deliberated included:

  How the pandemic is affecting rural areas of South Asian countries, hurdles in treatment, and access — or lack thereof — to vaccinations.

  How COVID-19 has affected mental health, women and particularly women in rural areas of all the countries of the region

  How the challenges are similar in all countries of the region and require similar solutions.

The meeting took place at a time when South Asia is reeling from the devastating second wave of Covid-19, especially in India. With Delta plus virus mutation now detected in parts of the region, the possibility of another wave looms large.

Journalist Mandira Nayar in Delhi moderated the physicians’ panel with Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury in Dhaka; infectious diseases specialist Dr Anup Subedee in Kathmandu and public health activist Dr Vandana Prasad also in Delhi. Dr Hamid Jafari of Pakistan, who led the WHO team that eradicated polio in India, joined from his current posting in Jordan. 

Dr Chowdhury advocated challenging vaccine-producing countries and pushing South Asian governments to invest more in public health.

Participants also noted that the pandemic has particularly hit women hard.

“Domestic violence has increased,” noted Dr Prasad. Women often lack control over finances, are primary caregivers and shoulder the responsibility of caring for the ill. The pandemic has pushed women further into the margins, she said, adding that there is also a “gender dimension to the access of vaccines”.

She urged doctors to enter the peace activism domain, because the poor all over are at the brink of disaster.

Dr Prasad drew attention to the gendered nature of pandemic and frontline workers, as well as Dalits, indigenous people, other minorities. “Telemedicine is important, but we must not lose focus on need for ground-based public health to begin with”.

Frontline workers in India, the accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers often lack training, safety equipment and often doesn’t get her wages for months.

While highlighting that a public health system is meant to be a great equaliser, Dr Anup Subedee noted how the pandemic exposed systematic failures in many aspects of life in Nepal, referring not only to the grievous impact on non-Covid healthcare – like child immunization and maternity care – but also the painful ordeals of healthcare community itself. 

He shared how the healthcare community in Nepal has been compelled to deal with threats of violence, lack of access to personal protection equipment, prospects of income loss without any social security system support, and an unaddressed mental health crisis among healthcare workers. 

Doctors at the meeting endorsed the need for greater cooperation and collaboration across borders. Participants called on the governments to allow free flow of critical equipment and medical personnel across borders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had floated the idea of a SAARC medical visas for patients and for medical teams to assist during the pandemic – something that must be followed up.

The doctors also urged the international fraternity to push for a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, waiver so that the Covid-19 vaccine production can be ramped up. “It is the way forward for vaccines for all,’’ asserted Dr Prasad.

Activist Khushi Kabir in Dhaka introduced the event. She talked about connections, sharing her memory of how Dr Haroon Ahmed, one of the event’s speakers, was her physician when she was a child and he was starting work at a government clinic in Karachi. Dr Haroon was unable to join at the last moment due to ill health. 

Wishing him a speedy recovery, Khushi commented, “Each time we meet, there are more losses people who have been part of our journey”. As at the previous SAPAN meeting there was a commemoration of mentors and leaders whose vision SAPAN is taking forward, like Asma Jahangir and Dr Mubashir Hasan, and Nirmala Despande and others. 

There was also a moment of silence to express condolences and share the grief of the families and friends of those lost to Covid and other causes over the past month. “Since we were unable to memorialise everyone, the presentation could only be symbolic,” noted Khushi Kabir.

The In Memoriam slideshow includes journalist Ghazi Salahuddin’s three siblings taken by Covid in as many weeks, including Dr Aquila Islam, Pakistan’s first woman nuclear physicist. It also included the legendary runner Milkha Singh and his wife, volleyball champ Nirmal Saini who died within days of each other, and radiologist Chinna Dua, 56, wife of journalist Vinod Dua. She had endeared herself to music and poetry lovers across the region when she joined Tina Sani some years back at the Faiz Festival in Karachi – on Facebook at this link.

Ghazi Salahuddin has written about his family tragedy in a brave and heartbreaking oped for The News, Partings without goodbyes (20 June 2021), noting: “my struggle to cope with this terrible bereavement was eased a bit when I reminded myself that this pandemic has devastated so many families across the world…”

Several well known activists and experts also joined from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and elsewhere, including Hina Jillani, Urvashi Butalia, Jean Dreze, Kavita Srivastava, Shireen Huq, Kanak Mani Dixit and others.

The South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) is primarily a coalition of individuals and organisations aiming to take forward a peace agenda for the region, building on the work done by mentors and leaders over the last few decades. 

SAPAN founder and curator Beena Sarwar shared the story of this network and her vision for an inter-generational, multi-sectoral, inter- and intra-regional coalition of individuals and organisations coming together in broad consensus for a one-point agenda.

Facebook live recording is online at this link

Source: SAPAN,  Beena Sarwar, Kanak Mani Dixit, Mandira Nayar, Rida Anwaar, Rehmat Merchant, Priyanka Singh and some other peace activists present in the virtual session

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Editors Guild of India Condemns FIR Against Journalists, Calls it Destructive of Freedom of Speech

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ghaziabad incident
Image Credit: The Cognate

Shimla-The Editors Guild of India on Thursday condemned the filing of First Information Reports (FIRs) by the Uttar Pradesh Police against The Wire and several other journalists for their tweets on an assault on an elderly Muslim man in Ghaziabad on June 5th.

“The Guild is deeply concerned by the UP Police’s track record of filing FIRs against journalists to deter them from reporting serious incidents without fear of reprisals”, it said.

It further added that it is the duty of the journalists to report on the basis of sources and in case facts become contested later on, to report the emerging versions and facets.

The guild called such actions by the police destructive of freedom of speech. It also claimed that the police has been discriminatory in targeting those media organizations and journalists when thousands had tweeted the video- that have been critical of the government and its policies.

“The Guild condemns this wanton misuse of laws to criminalize reporting and dissent to harass independent media and demands that the FIRs be withdrawn immediately,” it demanded.

Several media organizations and journalists had posted the video on their social media feeds. The UP police has filled FIR’s against The Wire, Twitter, journalist Mohammed Zubair, Rana Ayyub and Sana Naqvi and some Congress leaders under IPC Sections 153(provocation for rioting), 153A(promoting enmity between different groups), 295A(acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 505(mischief), 120B(criminal conspiracy) and 34(common intention) against them.

In the video that was posted by those charged, the man is seen alleging that he was beaten up by some people and was forced to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

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India’s Revised Vaccination Policy and Supreme Court’s Role Behind This Change in Approach

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india's revised vaccination policy

Shimla-Free vaccine to all Indian citizens above 18 years of age would be available from 21st June onwards, the Government of India announced yesterday. The Centre has also announced that private hospitals would not be able to levy arbitrary charges for vaccination and the rate would be fixed. The government also rolled back its policy for procurement of vaccines, which was under heavy criticism not only from the opposition but also from the Supreme Court of India.

Though, the Centre claimed that the roll-back was a result of the demands raised by state governments, but some believe this decision came right after harsh judicial scrutiny of the government’s previous policy by the Supreme Court, whose initiation is being lauded by the citizens of India amid this pandemic.

“Many states came forward with a demand for reconsideration of the vaccination strategy and for bringing back the system that was there before 1st May,” the Centre said while defending the rollback.

Also, the Centre was even objecting to the court’s jurisdiction in matters related to policymaking and had termed it as an encroachment on the jurisdiction of the executive. However, very mindful of its jurisdiction, the court had mitigated this allegation of the Centre by explaining how policymaking is subject to judicial scrutiny. The court made the Centre aware of the ‘dialogic judicial review’, where the Court can question the executive and demand justifications from it over non-conformity of a policy to the constitutional rights.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court had grilled the Union government over its faulty and discriminatory policy as states were left on their own for the procurement of vaccines. In its orders passed on May 31, a bench comprising of Justice DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat came down heavily upon the central government. The bench had termed the policy approach as “arbitrary and irrational”  because it did not provide free vaccination for the 18-44 year age group.  The bench had sought clarification on policy and dual pricing in which states were being made to procure vaccines directly from the manufactures and were invariably paying more for vaccines while the Centre procured the same vaccines at lower rates.

“Due to the changing nature of the pandemic, we are now faced with a situation where the 18-44 age group also needs to be vaccinated, although priority may be retained between different age groups on a scientific basis. Hence, due to the importance of vaccinating individuals in the 18-44 age group, the policy of the Central Government for conducting free vaccination themselves for groups under the first 2 phases, and replacing it with paid vaccination by the State/UT Governments and private hospital for the persons between 18-44 years is prima facie arbitrary and irrational” a bench observed while passing an order on May 31, 2021 concerning a Suo moto case on “Re-Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic”.

Further, the court had also expressed concerns over the digital divide which would make accessing vaccine equally difficult for a large section through online registration.

Earlier, in its orders passed on April 30, the bend had observed that this policy approach would be “detrimental to the right to life and health”. The bench had also observed that this policy requires rethinking, as it needs to be formulated in conformity with the provisions of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The bench aggressively went on to order the government to share all details of the vaccine purchase and distribution, as well as provide information on how the budget allocated for the vaccination (₹35,000 Crores ) was used.

Provisions of the New Vaccination Policy

  • Procurement of 25 per cent vaccinations which was earlier with states will now be undertaken by the Government of India.
  • The government of India will buy 75 per cent of the total vaccines produced and will provide it to the states free of cost. No state government would be spending anything on vaccines.
  • The system of 25 per cent vaccines being procured directly by the private hospitals will continue. Private hospitals can’t charge more than 150 rupees service charge over the decided price of the vaccines.

The Centre said that this policy would be rolled out in two weeks.

“In two weeks, the Centre and states will make necessary preparations as per new guidelines,” the Centre announced yesterday.

Till today, more than 23 Crore vaccine doses have been administered in the country.

To ward off the embarrassment caused by such a contentious policy which was not conforming with the constitutional rights of the citizens, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without referring to the judicial review, blamed it on the state governments.

“As the corona cases started declining, questions arose about the lack of choice for states and some people questioned why the Central government is deciding everything,” he said.

“India’s vaccination program was run mostly under the Central government. Free vaccination for all was moving forward and people were showing discipline in getting vaccinated when their turn came, amid all these demands for decentralization of vaccination were raised, the decision about priority to certain age groups was raised. Many types pressures were exerted and certain sections of media took it as a campaign,” the PM said.

But with that being said the role of the judiciary in making the government roll back its policy in the interest of the people is being lauded as the victory of judicial review. Also, it has attracted positive response for the apex court which was being alleged of evading several matters related to the public interest under the pressure from the current political regime.

Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana Extended  Till Deepawali.

In another major announcement, the Central government announced the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana till Deepawali.

As per the announcement, till November, 80 crore people will continue to get a decided amount of free food grain every month.

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