Time For Aid Staff To Shun Toxic Mentality

“HUMAN beings are not property… let us reaffirm the inherent dignity of all men, women, and children. And let us redouble our efforts so that the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — ‘no one shall be held in slavery or servitude’ — ring true.”
Kofi Annan

Lately, some aid agencies have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some of their staff have accused of perverse behaviour on duty — they were found offering handouts in exchange for sexual favours. Adding to the shock, however, is the way honchos at these human aid organisations have been trying to explain away this perversity. They are offering alibis like the loneliness of these men, their long deployment away from families, or for being stationed in distant, inhospitable terrains, etc.

Can any of these factors hide the fact that these are the people supposed to be acting as the “protectors” of human dignity, the ones tasked with —and, of course, drawing their salaries for— providing succor to the unfortunate victims of dire circumstances not of their making, in conflict zones, in areas hit by natural calamities, etc.?

Of course not.

The recent revelations by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), that as many as 23 of its staff members had left since 2015 over sexual misconduct charges, make it the latest humanitarian organisation to be hit by abuse allegations. This has virtually shaken the aid sector exposing once more the deep-rooted fault lines that keep popping up every now and then. Sierra Leone, Chad, Liberia, Central African Republic, Haiti… the list is long. A fairly long one at that.


As it turns out, a large number of local women in countries with substantial presence of aid agencies have been made to work as “sex workers”, often in exchange for handouts, and in some cases, even for food.

There have been well documented cases of UN peacekeepers sexually abusing local women with the victims including children as well.

A recent incident involves British charity Oxfam’s country director in Haiti, who has admitted to using sex workers at his residence during a relief mission.

This is a breach of trust of humongous proportions. If those working with humanitarian aid agencies can indulge in sexual exploitation of women, abusing them, forcing them into submission, can we expect the fight against the global trafficking mafia going anywhere in the desired direction? It’s too dreadful a thought, frankly. But this precisely is what has hit us in the face.

Across the nooks and corners of the globe, in situations of natural or man-made adversities, women are being forced into sexual slavery, sometimes reported, often unreported, wherein they have had to forsake control over their very own bodies.

It’s the tale of an unequal and exploitative transaction where the victim hardly has a choice. That there have been instances of women —as well as children— being made to offer sexual services in exchange for food, is a case in point.

Even otherwise, these transactions paint an imbalance of power wherein local women’s vulnerability in conflict zones is exploited to the hilt. These unfortunate beings are being termed as “sex workers” while they cannot even comprehend the exploitative context in which these crimes are being committed.

When it comes to conflicts, mankind has been known to be fighting its wars on the bodies of the women. History is replete with these incidents. It’s been happening in the present. And, it’ll likely continue like this in the foreseeable future unless the men-folk change their mindset. It’s precisely such a mindset that goads an aid worker into offering food to a deprived woman in exchange for sex.

However, what this kind of depravity does is to prevent the light of civilisation from travelling through the conflict zones of our “modern” world.

That’s the kind of message that emanates, for example, from the scandal involving the ICRC, which has more than 17,000 staff worldwide and, as such, bans its staff from paying for sexual services. Or, for that matter, the UN peacekeeping missions, agencies, funds and programmes and the implementing partners, that have time and again faced allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.

With the trickle of allegations now turning into a torrent, and the involvement of even those holding top positions coming into the open, it seems to have forced the system to call for an emergency action.

March 4, 18 Edit 3

Whether such as a course-corrective action is delivered in a fool-proof way is another debate altogether.

While aid agency bosses have promised to crack down on such elements, one would argue, it’s time for immediate, correctional steps towards global safeguarding practices and policies. It’s about creating a culture where those tasked with helping the distraught never ever stooped to such levels where they themselves metamorphosed into exploitative devils.

And to the countless vulnerable women out there, a quote from an Anonymous:
‘Don’t let those wicked men win,
don’t let them destroy you…
(This article was first published on the Edit page of Qatar Tribune on March 4, 2018)
Edit Page March 4, 2018

Palestinian Issue Back On The Front Pages

AS A newsman having spent more than a decade in Middle East newsrooms, it’s a poser one has often found facetious. One is referring here to the coverage in the media of the long-standing Palestine-Israel imbroglio.

Of course the media landscape has undergone humongous changes with focus shifting to the visual and the digital over the last few years. And, unlike in the past, what is overlooked in the print now can always find its pride of place on the new mediums. But despite all this metamorphosis I still find myself slipping into the myriad and, way too often, the incongruous hues of this deeply disturbing issue.

It was partly driven by this ambivalence that this newsman put this poser to Jeffrey D Feltman, the then US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, as he addressed a select group of journalists in Muscat, the capital city of the Sultanate of Oman, on June 21, 2011.

I must also admit here that mine was the only question of all the posers put forth on the occasion, and really I wondered if I were to be seen as the odd-man-out on the Palestine issue. His answer, however, was reassuring.

Replying to my question, Feltman very much agreed that the Palestine issue might have dropped off the front pages but it remained fundamental to achieving any lasting peace in the Middle East region.


“But we have to overcome a lot of mistrust, a lot of history for that,” he noted, while adding that the solution would come only through negotiations.

“The Israelis need to recognise the Palestinians’ concerns on territory and the Palestinians need to understand the Israelis’ concerns over security,” he said.

As his interview was carried in the various publications the next day, mine was no one else had any question even remotely connected to mine the only story with Palestine as its ‘lede’.

To be fair, I wasn’t surprised at all. Newsrooms and editors back then were near unanimous about these stories no longer holding the traction to be splashed on the front pages. The take-it-on-the-inside-page tone greeted any such suggestion almost like a clich`.

But that had not always been the case. As one moved to the region in the mid-2000s, one had a fair inkling of these ‘standard leads’ for front pages. This was especially true on days when editors would struggle for ‘leads’ on what newsrooms would typically refer to as a”dull day”!

It’s important for those in the business of news to keep track of what all tingles the nerves of the reader. No denying this. And it’s got to be a rare instance when a personal whim can dictate the agenda of a newsroom.

However, I have a feeling — I have no way of substantiating it, though — that the Palestine issue, for news outlets in this region at least, was never one that deserved to be relegated to the obscurity of remote corners of the printed world.

The two Gulf wars, 9/11, the Afghan war, the emergence of ISIS, the Syria war (that continues until this day) etc. have all contributed their mite in amortising the news value of Palestine-related stories.

Things seem to be changing, however. US President Donald Trump’s announcement in December last year that the United States now considers Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, has helped the Palestine story leapfrog to the front page once again.

The way events have unfolded since that announcement, especially with UN General Assembly rejecting Trump’s Jerusalem move and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling for the convening of an international conference by mid-2018 to pave the way for recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of a wider Middle East peace process, there is little chance this story can be pushed to the inside pages anytime soon.

Whether this media buzz can translate into a meaningful solution one that both sides could count on as an honourable one is another debate, and one can be an optimist or a pessimist depending on how one interprets the power of the media.

Back to the interview with the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, I wonder if it was an untimely poser back then, was it way off the mark? Journalists, after all, are encouraged to nurture an objective outlook and keep their eyes and ears open at all times. Aren’t they?

As it turns out, recent events have further convinced this newsman that it was not an inapt question to ask the US diplomat.

(This opinion article first appeared on the Edit page of the Qatar Tribune newspaper on Saturday, February 24, 2018)PDF-2

The Ethical Doctor

AS A professional, how often does your conscience prick hard enough to push you into pain? Or feeling ensconced by forces you find unremitting, making you question those long established premises?

If your answer is ‘yes’, and you happen to be in the profession of medicine, then, as Dr Kamal Mahawar found out, the dilemma multiplies manifold.

Call it catharsis if you may but Dr Mahawar found a way out, in the shape of a book he’s penned, his first, titled The Ethical Doctor.

“I think the profession has to immediately come up with a robust self-regulatory framework. If we don’t do it ourselves, the public will impose it on us and that will undermine the doctor-patient relationship forever,” says the doctor of Indian origin, who works as a consultant general and bariatric surgeon at the Sunderland Royal Hospital, Sunderland, the UK.

What was the idea behind writing this book? “I got a free medical education in India and when I was in a position to return something to the society that nurtured me, I moved to the wealthy West to live a comfortable life. The guilt has been playing on my mind for quite some time,” explained Dr Mahawar, in an interview with Qatar Tribune.

“The overarching aim of this book is to improve the healthcare provisions for people in India (with possible implications for people elsewhere) but in this context, one recognizes that medicine is a profession, not a business and unethical practices have no place in the practice of medicine. At the same time, no one indulges in these practices out of choice. When the survival of your family is at stake, what will a person not do?

“Hence I felt that a superficial analysis that just ends up exhorting doctors to be more ethical wasn’t going to be successful. Somebody had to put together the myriad of reasons underlying the behavior of doctors and we need to debate the whole situation in its totality in our society. For example, do you honestly believe a young cardiologist setting up a new practice at the age of 32, with a wife, two children, and parents, has a choice?”

However, he agrees that trust is crucial to the doctor-patient relationship and patients have to be confident any medical advice being given is solely for their own benefit.

“In this book, I have attempted to examine if it’s possible in today’s India for doctors to practice ethically and if not, why. The book explores what it means to be an ‘ethical doctor’ today and if a large number of doctors in any society are failing to reach this benchmark, then who is at fault?”

Enunciating the key challenges of the medical profession in India, he says the list is long but the failure of the medical profession to come up with robust self-regulatory mechanisms that can inspire patient confidence would be at the very top.

“Lack of a fit-for-purpose, systematic training program for all fresh doctors; pathetic remuneration for in-training doctors and junior specialists; almost complete concentration of medical facilities in urban areas; lack of evidence-based and India-centric care pathways and guidelines that can improve and standardize care, little incentive and funding for research; and unaccountable, poorly funded public healthcare are some of the others,” elaborates Dr Mahawar, who has been writing academic articles in his area of specialization in addition to his column on IndiaMedicalTimes.

About the state of the public healthcare in today’s India, he rues that the poor man, in reality, has nowhere to go. “You’ll end up selling whatever meager resources you have if you are unfortunate enough to fall ill. Millions of families are pushed into poverty as a result of illness every year in India. Where is our social fairness?

“Let’s face it — poor in all parts of the world have to be looked after by the state healthcare system. Our public facilities are ill-managed, ill-funded, and unaccountable. This has to change and I can’t understand why the government is not making a concerted effort in this direction. The medical profession is not raising its voice either. I don’t hear doctors saying people deserve better and we want the government to do these things. I think a beginning has to be made and somebody has to initiate the conversation and that is what, I hope, this book would facilitate,” said Dr Mahawar, who grew up in a middle-class family in Kolkata, went on to obtain his MBBS degree from Calcutta Medical College, did his MS in General Surgery at Pgimer, Chandigarh, and subsequently moved to the UK in 2003 where he now lives with his wife and son.

(Dr Kamal Mahawar’s book, by Harper Collins India, is available on Amazon)

This article first appeared in the Qatar Tribune newspaper on August 25, 2016. Below please find the web link and the page


The Ethical Doctor

Vote For The Taj, Now

“LET INDIA not hang its head in shame on 07-07-07.” For a few moments, this e-mail left me perplexed. I could see it was a chain mail. Crisscrossing continents, the mail, with a bureaucratic beginning, had finally reached me. It was an appeal from an Indian Information Officer. And the last time it was diverted, it was from a scribe friend from the serene lands of the Sultanate of Oman.

Allow me to leapfrog straight to the point. For, do we have the time? Taj needs its admirers to act now.

For centuries, Taj lovers have leaned on the monument to draw inspiration. Today, the monument of love is banking on its admirers to hold on to its pristine glory.

“Are you aware that our beloved Taj Mahal is 30 crores votes short of being voted into the new Wonders of the World… Please inform at least 25 members of your family/friends/biz associates to do so,” the mail exhorted.

“Please do it at the earliest and cast your valuable vote to Taj at www.new7wonders.com as soon as possible,” it added. (The deadline ends on July 6 as the results of the poll will be announced the next day in Lisbon, Portugal). It’s only then we’ll come to know whether the Taj makes it to the Seven Wonders list or not.

Fortunately, until now, Taj figures on the top 10 so far, going by what is arguably the world’s first-ever global vote. The top contenders so far are the Great Wall, the Colosseum and Machu Picchu, with votes reportedly cast, already, by more than 50 million people.

Cut to the monument of love. To an Indian, Taj is part of the individual as well as collective consciousness. The movies, the folklore, the innumerable replicas that adorn our drawing rooms, the text books, young lovers comparing their beau with the Taj, popular songs as paeans to the monument, they all are an intrinsic part of the Indian experience.

But today, when Taj needs us, are we there? Surfing the net for hours and hours, have we bothered to cast just one vote for Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s magnificent ode to love?

But is it the first time we will fail Taj (that is if we fail to post the required votes)?

I am afraid, the answer could be ‘no’.

In 2004, Taj turned 350. The city of Agra, where it is located, has — like most other cities in India — struggled to cope with pollution. With the high levels of carbon monoxide in the air, Taj was diagnosed with a life threatening-disease called ‘Marble Cancer’. In fact, an Indian parliamentary committee had found that air pollution monitoring and curbs on nearby industrial activities had failed to prevent the monument from turning yellow. It is an open secret that the challenge is insurmountable, given the lax attitude of the civic authorities over the years, spanning different governments.

In yet another blow to Taj, the provincial government, some years ago, planned to develop parks, shopping complexes and markets along the banks of the River Yamuna between Taj Mahal and Agra Fort (the other monument of great historical significance in Agra), without seeking clearance from the Environment Ministry, and putting the very life of the monument in danger. By the time the media exposed this grave threat to the existence of the monument, it was late. The damage to Taj, according to some environmentalists, was already done.

Taj has been in the thick of some uncalled-for controversies as well. There have been claims and counter-claims about the ownership of the monument. A BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh (the state where Taj is located) had claimed, a couple of years ago, that Taj was actually a Shiva temple built by Raja Jai Singh and was named ‘Tejo Mai Mahal’.

Not to be left behind in the “real estate” dispute was the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Waqf Board (which maintains unclaimed Muslim property), which had not long ago claimed that Taj was Waqf property and that it should get the right to control and manage it.

Adding twist to that controversy, the Shia community in Lucknow (capital of Uttar Pradesh) claimed that the 17th century monument was a Shia property, as Mumtaz Mahal, in whose name it was built, hailed from that community!

Wouldn’t it be interesting to ask all these gentlemen just one straight question today: Have you voted for the Taj?

For, Taj is not just part of our heritage — it’s a symbol of the great melting pot of cultures that India is. We Indians are a nation of a billion-plus. Isn’t it the time to act? Can we let the Taj down?

(This article first appeared on the Edit page of the Khaleej Times newspaper on June 21, 2007. Below please find the web link of the article and the copy of the write-up)


Taj story in KT