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April 26, 2014

चीन की महान दीवाल: मगर किसलिए?

[दैनिक जागरण में अपने पाक्षिक कॉलम 'परदेस से' में 26-04-2014 को प्रकाशित] 

अक्सर सोचता हूँ कि राकेश शर्मा को अंतरिक्ष से क्या भारत सच में दिखा होगा? और दिखा भी हो तो सारे जहाँ से अच्छा लगा होगा? फर्क कैसे किया होगा उन्होंने कि ये भारत है, ये नेपाल और ये पाकिस्तान? इस सवाल का जवाब फिर अपनी जलावतनी के बाद ही मिल पाया था. यादे वतन कमाल चीज है. बस दो समन्दर पार बैठे हम जैसों को सपनों में वतन दिखता है तो फिर वहाँ उतने ऊपर से तो सिर्फ और सिर्फ हिन्दुस्तान ही दिखा होगा. 

यह बात बहुत दिन बाद याद आई थी, तब जब अपना कारवाँ चीन की दीवाल के रास्ते में था. उस दीवाल के जिसने अपने इर्द गिर्द चाँद से दिखने वाली इंसानी हाथों से बनाई इकलौती चीज होने का मिथक खड़ा कर दिया. हाँ, आपके यकीन को ठेस पंहुचाने के लिए माफीनामे के साथ, यह दीवाल चाँद से नहीं दिखती. बखैर, हमारा कारवाँ, बोले तो साझे की कार में मैं, पीटर, उसके माँ पिता और कुछ और लोग थे. पीटर बरसों से चीन में था, यहाँ अंग्रेजी पढ़ाते हुए. बीते दशक में पूरे दक्षिण पूर्व एशिया में अंग्रेजी पढ़ाना उल्टे आप्रवासन को जन्म देने वाला वाला एक बड़ा रोजगार बन गया है. ब्रिटेन और अमेरिका से नौजवान लड़के लड़कियों की कतारों की कतारें चीन के जिनजियांग से लेकर जापान के ओसाका तक में फ़ैल गयी हैं. मेरी गर्लफ्रेंड चीनी है, हम दिसंबर में शादी कर रहे हैं. माँ पापा उससे मिलने ही आये हैं, पीटर ने जरा सा शर्माते हुए जोड़ दिया था.

दिमाग फिर ठिठका था. हांगकांग से लेकर बीजिंग तक मैं कितने तो ऐसे जोड़ों से मिला हूँ. कितना सहज होता है उनके लिए प्यार करना और फिर शादी कर लेना. न उन्हें किसी की इजाजत चाहिए होती है न किसी के नाराज होने की परवाह में ही दिमाग खपाना पड़ता है. अपनी जिंदगी है, आप खुदमुख्तार हैं. अपना मुल्क फिर याद आया था जहाँ एक तरफ चन्द्रयान की तैयारी है तो दूसरी तरफ ऐसे फैसलों पर आप की (अ)सम्मान हत्या हो सकती है. वह भी कहीं बहुत दूर नहीं, दिल्ली से सटे हुए हरियाणा और उत्तर प्रदेश में भी.

खिड़की से बाहर के दृश्य पर नजर पड़ते ही विचारों की रेल ठहर गयी थी. बीजिंग के काफी पीछे छूट गए होने के बावजूद बहुत कुछ नहीं बदला था. इमारतें छोटी हो गयी थीं, सड़कें थोड़ी कम चौड़ी पर उतनी ही सुगम, उतने ही रखरखाव के साथ. मतलब साफ़ था कि विकास बीजिंग में पैराशूट लेकर नहीं कूदा था, इन्हीं रास्तों से चल कर आया था.  और फिर अचानक अगले मोड़ पर आँखें चिपक कर रह गयी थीं. दूर पहाड़ों पर आँखों की सीमा के अनंत तक जाती दीवाल हमारे सामने थी. या यूं कहें कि दीवाल नहीं बल्कि दीवाल का बीजिंग से 70 किलोमीटर दूर हुईराओ काउंटी में पड़ने वाला मोटिनयू हिस्सा जो अब अपनी ऐतिहासिकता से ज्यादा तत्कालीन अमेरिकी राष्ट्रपति बिल क्लिंटन की आमद के लिए मशहूर है.

दीवाल पर चढ़ना शुरू करने के साथ कितने तो भ्रम टूटे थे. जैसे यह एक नहीं, सैकड़ों दीवालों का समुच्चय है. यह भी कि बाहरी हमले रोकने की चीनी हुक्मरानों की सनक में बनवाई गयी इन दीवालों का इतिहास 7वीं सदी ईसापूर्व से लेकर  15वीं सदी में मिंग वंश तक जाता है. फिर तेज ढलानों से लेकर सीधी चढ़ाई वाले पहाड़ों यह दीवाल बनाना आसान तो नहीं ही रहा होगा. हम जहाँ खड़े थे वहीँ वाली ढाल सैकड़ों मीटर गहरी रही होगी. पर कमाल यह कि इन दीवालों ने कभी कोई हमला रोकने में सफलता नहीं पायी. बाहरी आक्रमणकारियों ने जब चाहा इन दीवालों को लाँघ चीन पर हमला बोला और अकसर सफल हुए. फिर इस कवायद का मतलब क्या ठहरा? शायद हुक्मरानों की सनक, आखिर यही सनक है जो दुनिया भर में कैद नागरिकों की मेहनत के दम पर शासकों के कुछ भी तामीर करवाने का सबब बनती है.

आपको पता है कि च्यांग काई शेक ने 1938 में जापानियों को झेंगझाऊ पर कब्जे से रोकने के लिए पीली नदी के बाँध तुड़वा दिए थे, पीटर ने अचानक पूछा था. हाँ, और यह भी कि उससे पैदा हुई आकस्मिक बाढ़ की वजह से कम से कम 9 लाख लोग मारे और सवा करोड़ बेघर हो गए थे. चीन में ज्यादातर लोग उस घटना को राष्ट्रीय गौरव के बतौर याद करते हैं कहते हुए पीटर की आँखें दीवाल के एक पहरा बुर्ज पर टिक गयी थीं. दर्ज करने वालों की कलम के मुताबिक एक पूरे समाज को झूठ की पट्टी पढ़ा सकने में सक्षम इतिहास के पाठ अकसर ऐसे ही अजीब होते हैं.


हम दो तीन किलोमीटर चढ़ आये थे और अब आगे जाने का दिल बिलकुल नहीं था. १९३८ की वह बाढ़ हमारी आँखों में उमड़ आई थी. मेरे हाथ दीवाल के एक थोड़े उखड़े हुए पत्थर से खेल रहे थे और लीजिये, पत्थर पूरा उखड़ कर मेरे हाथ में आ गया था. काश यह पत्थर मैं हुक्मरानों के सर पर मार सकता. 

April 22, 2014

Clinical trials kill 254 women under Supreme Court’s watch

[This is an AHRC statement.]
Unethical clinical trials conducted without obtaining informed consent of the participants have struck India again, killing 254 women from the most marginalised sections of society. The deaths, or rather murders, have taken place in the course of a 15-year long United States funded clinical trial for a cervical cancer screening method. The women who perished were part of a control group kept without screening. This, according to information available through various media reports, was done to study death rates in unscreened populations.
The trials flouted the basic ethical norms of medical research. Approximately 140,000 women were kept uninformed that cervical cancer screening reduces the incidence of cancer, thereby duping them into being part of the control group. That the unethical trials were conducted intentionally is further betrayed from the fact that the participants for the control group were chosen from the slums of Mumbai and villages in Osmanabad and Dindigul, as against the 224,929 women better-off backgrounds who received different types of cervical screening. The the women were not provided adequate information for informed consent was later confirmed by the United States Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP).
Unfortunately, this is not the first time big pharmaceutical companies have turned the lowest strata of Indian citizenry into guinea pigs and gotten away with it. This time it has happened under the watchful eyes of the Supreme Court of India as it is hearing a writ petition (WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO(s). 33 OF 2012) filed by the Swasthya Adhikar Manch, Indore and others against the Union of India over the issue.

On 22 October 2013, the Supreme Court had stopped 157 clinical trials over serious problems in adherence to both the Helsinki guidelines on medical research, which state that “the benefits, risks, burdens and effectiveness of a new intervention must be tested against those of the best current proven intervention” and the guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research, which specify that a placebo can be used only if the disease is self-limiting or when no proven preventive, diagnostic, or therapeutic method exists. (More details in an earlier AHRC statement here). Cervical cancer screening methods exist and often prove to be life saving for many potential victims.
How did this trial continue with impunity? How did the trials escape the new three tier regulatory system put in place by the Supreme Court that consists of New Drug Advisory Committees (NDACs), technical committees, and the apex committee? Finally, what was the Supreme Court doing to ensure that its orders were honoured and enforced by an executive that was primarily responsible for enforcing them on its own, without the intervention of the judiciary? The answers to these questions expose a rotten system, a so-called democracy that does not bother with the death of its lesser citizens.
Clinical trials have ended in serious adverse effects, including the death for more than 4,000 people in 2012 and 2013, of which the government admits to only 506 in the ongoing writ petition. In an earlier response, the government has stated that compensation was paid to only in 22 cases of deaths out of the 89 deaths it conceded. The absurdity of both the response and the data was lost on neither the Court nor the petitioners.
The Court recently asked the government why compensation was paid only in cases of death, and not for the participants that had been seriously affected? The absurdity of the government figures is betrayed by the figures submitted by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which has accepted 2,868 deaths of participants of clinical trials in India during the 2005-2012 period, qualifying a mere 89 of them as trial-related.
On 10 March 2014, the Supreme Court directed the Union government to provide details on the number of deaths and severe adverse effects caused to people subjected to clinical trials. It has also asked the government about the continuing discrimination in compensating only deaths and not the people suffering lifelong adverse effects due to the experimental medicines.
It is in this context that the stakeholders cannot absolve themselves from criminal culpability in these murders. The Indian government is the biggest culprit for firstly failing to institute a foolproof regulatory system, and, subsequently, for protecting those responsible for such murders, from the doctors conducting trials without obtaining informed consent, to the contract research middlemen, to the pharmaceutical companies themselves. Perhaps such behaviour can be seen as consistent for a government that persists in denying starvation deaths in the country by blaming them on diseases ranging from diarrhoea to tuberculosis even while accepting widespread prevalence of malnutrition.
Almost all of the participants for the trials in question, be it in the HPV vaccine trials in Andhra Pradesh, where 14000 tribal girls in the 10-14 age group were made to participate on the basis of consent form signed by their wardens, or the current one, are marginalised and come from poor backgrounds. Many participants are known to be enticed into these trials for ‘wages’ often as low as Rs. 100 ($ USD 1.6). What can one say for a government that pushes its citizens into becoming guinea pigs, a government whose citizens choose possible death by experimental medicines over death by starvation?
The Supreme Court of India appears culpable in this case – being aware of the facts and yet taking no actions against the guilty. Between the Court and the government, why has no one responsible for the illegal trials halted by the Court ever been prosecuted, so as to serve as a deterred to others indulging in similar crimes?

April 13, 2014

वे तिलिस्मी रातें.

[दैनिक जागरण में अपने पाक्षिक कॉलम 'परदेस से' में आज प्रकाशित लेख 'वे तिलस्मी रातें ' से]

‘आपने अपने शहर को गहराती रातों में देखा है? घर पंहुचने की जल्दी में भागती हुई कार या बाइक से नहीं बल्कि अलसाए कदमों से नापते हुए? देखिएगा कभी, पहचान नहीं पायेंगे.’ यास्मिन की नजरें मुझसे हट बीजिंग की खाली होती सड़कों पर टिक गयी थीं और हमारा मन न जाने किन गलियों से इलाहाबाद लौट गया था. हाँ, कितनी बार तो देखा है. हम कुछ दोस्त अक्सर गयी रात निकल पड़ते थे, यूनिवर्सिटी से शुरू कर कभी लोकनाथ होते हुए रेलवे स्टेशन तक तो कभी रामबाग की तरफ. तब कहाँ समझ आता था कि कौन सा जादू है जो दिन में गलियों से पतली लगने वाली चौक की सड़कें को रातों मे चार लेन वाले हाईवे का विस्तार दे देता है. कौन सा तिलिस्म है जो दिन में प्रेमी जोड़ों से गुलजार रहने वाले विश्वविद्यालय परिसर को रात में तिलिस्मी हवेली मे बदल देता  है.

 बखैर, रात की घुमक्कड़ी एक और शय है जो समझदार दुनियावी लोगों को बैकपैकर्स से अलग करती है. गहराती रातें उनके लिए अक्सरहा दिन खतम करने का नहीं बल्कि शुरू करने का वक़्त होती हैं. वह वक़्त जब आप शहर और समाज से खारिज या आजिज दोनों किस्म के दीवानों से टकराते हैं. वह वक्त जब आप बस आप हो सकते हैं. आज तक समझ नहीं आया कि रातों को शहर पहचान में नहीं आता कि हमने अपने शहरों को रातों में ही पाया है. आप कभी हिंदुस्तान आइये, आपको अपना शहर दिखाऊंगा कहते कहते जुबान रुक गयी थी. बीजिंग थोड़े हैं अपने शहर, लड़कियां दिन को सहज भाव से नहीं भटक सकतीं और हम रात में शहर दिखाने निकले हैं. एक दिन यक़ीनन, फिर खुद को दिलासा सा दिया था.

पता ही नहीं चला कि स्ट्रीट फ़ूड की तलाश में निकला अपना काफिला कब बीजिंग की मशहूर नाइट मार्किट दोंगहुमेन और इससे सटी हुई वांगफुजियांग के बीच पंहुच आया था. अब मार्केट के पैफांग यानी चीनी शैली के मेहराबदार दरवाजे के एक तरफ हम यानी की मैं, निक, सेबास्टियन, और यास्मीन थे और दूसरी तरफ भोजन की अनंत संभावनाओं का समंदर. सबसे मशहूर व्यंजन पीकिंग डक, सांप और बिच्छुओं से लेकर बरास्ते सीफ़ूड काक्रोचों तक जाने वाला समंदर. मतलब यह कि इस पुरबिये के लिए मामला वैसा ही था जैसे बहुत प्यास लेकर असली समंदर में फंस गये हों कि अथाह पानी है मगर पी नहीं सकते. ‘हम आपके लिए भी कुछ न कुछ ढूंढ ही लेंगे’, इस बार निक ने यकीन दिलाया था. 

इसके बाद के अगले कुछ घंटे अपनी जिंदगी में भोजन के साथ वैसे ही दुस्साहसिक प्रयोगों के घंटे थे जैसे थार रेगिस्तान का कोई निवासी अंटार्कटिका की यात्रा पर निकल पड़ा हो. उस दिन मजे से तमाम चीजों का स्वाद लेते हुए बाकी तीनों को देख पहली बार अपनी सामाजिकता से शाकाहारी होने पर अफ़सोस हुआ तो हमने भी तमाम किले नेस्तोनाबूद करने की कोशिश तो की पर नाकामयाब ही हुए. पर फिर वह टमाटर की इकलौती शाकाहारी सब्जी तो थी ही और फिर बीच की पैटीज़ निकाल देने पर शाकाहारी हो जाने वाले बर्गर भी थे ही. 

बखैर, मार्केट पर लौटें तो सप्ताहांत न होने पर भी बहुसंख्यक चीनी ग्राहकों से एक बार फिर रश्क हुआ. उत्सवधर्मिता का, जिन्दगी जीने का यह चरम हम अपने देशों में क्यों नहीं जी पाते? क्या है जो हमें इन छोटी छोटी खुशियों से रोकता है? ‘यहाँ पुलिस बिलकुल नहीं दिख रही’, अबकी बार सेबास्टियन ने चौंकाया था. हाँ, यह हमारा साझा जवाब था. आखिर पुलिस की सर्वव्यापी उपस्थिति चीन में घुसते ही नजर आ जाती है. फिर भाषा की सीमाओं के साथ साथ गयी रात पुलिस के बारे में पूछताछ करने के खतरों ने हमें वहीँ रोक दिया था. 

फिर एक स्थानीय लड़की अचानक हमारी तरफ बढ़ आई थी. ‘हेलो, क्या मैं आप लोगों के साथ अपनी अंग्रेजी का अभ्यास कर सकती हूँ’. लोनली प्लेनेट से शुरू कर तमाम किताबों की चेतावनी हमारे चेहरों पर हिचक बन उतर आई थी. सामान से नजर हटाते ही चोरी और अंग्रेजी के अभ्यास के नाम पर ख़ास पबों में ले जाकर फर्जी बिल से लूट लेना, चीन इन दो चीजों के लिए बेहद बदनाम है. ‘स्वीडिश’, वैरी पुअर इंग्लिश’, यास्मिन ने बात संभाल तो ली पर लौटते हुए हम सभी शायद यही सोच रहे थे कि अगर वह लड़की सच में मासूम हो तो? कुछ लोगों का अपराध कैसे तो सबको संदिग्ध बना देता है. 

अपना काफिला वापस हॉस्टल चल पड़ा था. रुको, चीन की देशी शराब बाज्यू ट्राई किये बिना कैसे जा सकते हैं? कहते हुए निक भागा था और फिर तीन छोटी बोतलें ले लौट आया था. कहते हैं कि बाज्यू दुनिया में सबसे ज्यादा पी जाने वाली और सबसे तेज शराब है. और फिर एक घूँट की शर्त जो मैंने न जाने कैसे जीत ली. आप सच में लेखक हो, लेखक ही इतनी तेज पी सकते हैं, लड़खड़ाती हुई यास्मिन ने हादसे में कमाई हमारी इज्जत और बढ़ा दी थी. 

April 04, 2014

Democracy in a Gutter, Literally.

[This is an AHRC Article 
Republished in Kashmir Times.]

A man entered a gutter to clean it and fainted in the bad air. His comrade waiting outside realized this and entered the gutter to save him. He too fainted. They both died of asphyxiation. This happened a mere two days after Supreme Court outlawed manual scavenging again, and ordering, not 'directing', the states to strictly enforce the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 passed by the parliament last year.

The two men were not supposed to enter the drainage area without written approval of the chief officer and an insurance cover of Rs 10 lakh by the employer under both the provisions of act and the Supreme Court order. The act, in fact, bars anyone from entering such a drainage unless in an extreme emergency and only with full protective gears. These men were bare bodied, armed only with the most rudimentary tools- , namely a broom and a stick to manually break the blockage.

This happened in Gujarat, whose chief minister Narendra Modi never tires of boasting over Gujarat model of development. Being the official Prime Ministerial candidate of Bhartiya Janata Party, the main opposition party in India, singing the praises of developed Gujarat has become his main weapon not merely to canvass for his party's victory, but also to get rid of the blot of 2002 pogrom of Muslims that happened in his supervision. Expectedly, Mr. Modi did not open his mouth regarding these two deaths. Likewise, he remained silent when a third death occurred just a day later.

Interestingly, Indian National Congress, the leading partner of United Progressive Alliance currently in power, did not make it a political issue to address despite being pushed into a corner on other issues ranging from corruption to selling out. Why did it decide to lay low instead of pushing for a resolution after getting such clear evidence of the hollowness of the development claims of Mr. Modi? It could have been the proverbial last nail in BJP's coffin in the polls. The reason behind this is simple. Congress ruled states have performed no better than Mr. Modi on the issue.

The failure is so comprehensive that manual scavenging continues in Delhi, the national capital, as a survey by the Department of Social Work of Delhi University identified 1,085 scavengers still working in Delhi in 2009. Similar is the situation of Karnataka which reported the death of a manual scavenger as recently as March 4 this year. Tamilnadu, another affluent state, fares much worse with 30 manual scavengers having lost their lives since February 2012. With the richer states' performing this dismally, one can easily guess at the state of affairs in poorer ones.

The lack of political will is further confirmed by the fact that while there was no dearth of lip service on the issue there was very little action on the ground. An example of this: Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 that was replaced by the new one was not published in the gazette of India until 1997 and no state had promulgated it until 2000. If there remained any doubts over failure of the 1993 Act, they were all put to rest by the 2011 Census report that counted 7,94,390 operational dry latrines in the country.

As all these states are governed by political parties and alliances pitted against one another, and thus making manual scavenging a poll issue will harm them all, it seems to be both parties have an interest in this "don't ask, don't tell" attitude over the issue. But for the relentless struggle of Safai Karmachari Andolan and other civil society groups, they have almost successfully swept the issue under the carpet. Rest assured, neither Mr. Modi, nor his opponents, will kick this hornet's nest for the fear of the stings they will receive. They have always showed a great amity when it involves not raising the issues that would shame them all.

This is why BJP never grilled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over his inaction despite describing the practice as "one of the darkest blots on India's development process". He, likewise, has a habit of identifying national shames, blots, and humiliations and then sleeping on them. Remember that he called malnutrition a national shame and then set up a Prime Minister's National Council on Nutrition way back in 2008, but the council never convened except once in 2010 and not a single decision taken in that meeting was ever implemented.

The question, however, is what sort of a democracy can force a section of its citizens into a gutter without any protective gear? What sort of a democracy can watch them dying of asphyxiation, one after another, as each enters the same gutter to save the previous one? What sort of a democracy can then look away with impunity, without doing as much as paying compensation for the deaths?

The sort of democracy that can is India, as evidenced by its actions and more so by its inactions. For the uninitiated, 300,000 manual scavengers (mostly women) form a miniscule part of the very populous India and are therefore disposable for electoral battles. Further, being situated at the lowest rung of the system of graded inequality, in Dr. B R. Ambedkar's words, their issues are rarely picked up by media or even by parties fighting for dalit rights.

The fact that the state is is equipped, both economically and technically, to radically restructure sanitation system and eradicate manual scavenging is the only thing worse than the denial mode it goes into. Just think of the crassness of the system that is planning to send a manned mission to moon while forcing its people down the drains, literally. Think about a democracy that invests a huge part of its budget for buying bombers but does nothing to improve the sanitation systems that caters to a mere 33 percent of population leaving the rest to fend for themselves be it by defecating in open or throw everything in rivers. How does it get away with that? It gets away because it knows that it has a community held to ransom by the repulsive caste system to do the job. It gets away that this caste system that forms the base on which façade of modern democracy is superimposed in India will deflect the blame away from them.

Supreme Court's March 27 order will hopefully make a dent in the system that produces and perpetuates this illegal practice with impunity. That would, however, depend upon the will of the people to stand up and be counted for their struggles as manual scavengers. Compensations, (which often remains unpaid) is a positive step, but definitely not a solution to the problem. The only concrete way is fixing command responsibility and making the officer in charge of the municipality, division, or any other department illegally employing manual scavengers responsible for any accidents including death, and punishing him/her proportionately in such circumstances.

Until this happens, the authorities will keep using compensation as a weapon to silence the manual scavengers as they did in Pune. Indian Express, a reputed daily, had created uproar by reporting the death of 227 sanitation workers,(conservancy staff as the municipality called them) over just 30 months (Link to the story here). The Maharashtra Government deflected the criticism by announcing free houses and free medical facilities to all sanitation workers (Link to the story here). While the move was a brilliant political one, as it led to the rage dying down slowly while the practice continued, one would definitely not want a repeat of that; therefore, linking compensation with fixing command responsibility of the officers responsible for such deaths is a must.

Until this happens and scavenging is really eradicated, all the tall claims of the country will remain hollow words devoid of any meaning. Until this happens, the self-designated largest democracy of the world will keep betraying what it really is- a deficient one at best and a delinquent one at worst.

April 01, 2014

Qatar and FIFA must act now to stop the deaths of migrant workers and resolve labour rights issues.

[This is a AHRC Statement.]
Qatar, in its desperate rush to host 2022 FIFA World Cup, has emerged as a new killing field for migrant workers mainly from South Asia. With the death toll having gone beyond 1200 already and estimated to reach a staggering high of 4000 before the first ball is kicked in the event opener, it could be nothing else. These deaths have reportedly come from forcing the workers involved in various projects related to the even to work and live in extreme inhuman conditions. The International Trade Union Confederation, for example, had exposed many cases of systemic abuse of migrant labour like forced labour in harsh climatic conditions leading to sudden strokes, withholding access to water even when temperature exceed 50 degree Celsius, confiscation of their passports to prevent them from escaping and so on.
The only thing worse than the deaths is the silence maintained by the world community over the issue despite of it being in the public domain. Just to cite an example, a report in The Guardian elaborated upon the unfolding horror almost a year ago in 2013. The report grimly noted that "[t]his summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022. According to documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha, at least 44 workers died between 4 June and 8 August. More than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents."
The issue was raised even in the European parliament with the officialdom of FIFA in attendance. Similar were the data available with the embassies of the countries these workers came from.  Numbers available with Indian embassy in Doha, for example, put the Indian casualties at 771 while Nepal pegged the same at 385. The forced labour comes from the kafala system prevailing in Qatar for contractual migrant workers. For the uninitiated, workers are tied to their employer and not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without permission under this modern incarnation of slavery.
Despite the unfolding saga, none of the stakeholders from the state of Qatar and the native countries of the migrant workers to FIFA took even the responsibility for the deaths, forget unleashing steps to arrest them immediately. FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in fact, came closest, even if after much criticism from the international trade union and human rights community, to own up that it has 'some responsibility' for workers constructing venues for 2022 World Cup in Qatar even while asserting that it 'cannot interfere in the rights of the workers'. He then held that the living and working conditions of the migrant labor force remained primarily a responsibility of the state of Qatar and secondly of the companies employing them. He did acknowledge that FIFA can help 'resolve this problem through Football' though he did not elaborate how and when. The emptiness of his words, though, is betrayed by a similar in tone, but clearer in meaning, statement of Theo Zwanzinger, Germany's member of the FIFA executive who conceded that the working conditions in Qatar are "absolutely unacceptable" but argued that any attempts of shifting the event would be 'counterproductive'.
The state of Qatar, on the other hand, shrugged the deaths off with an abandon befitting dictatorial regimes. Faced with hard questions, it first went into denial mode and made absurd claims like the numbers of deaths among the Indian community are normal because of their huge numbers. After facing flak for the same, it went on a course correction mode and enacted a Migrant Workers Welfare Charter. The charter pledges that strict standards of health and safety, equal treatment will be taken care of. Another issue was that of payment of wages and confiscation of passports, all of which the government stated will be taken care of. The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee further asserted that the safety, security, health and dignity of workers -- be they professionals or construction workers -- is of paramount importance to it and committed to change working conditions to ensure a lasting legacy of improved worker welfare.
The promises, however, turned out to be nothing more than cosmetic measures as the charter it had drafted 'in close consultation with the International Labor Organization' will apply only on the companies directly building World Cup venues and thereby leaving a humongous section of the migrant workers employed in wider infrastructure projects that are required to handle an influx of players, fans and media.
With both the Kingdom of Qatar and FIFA being cash-surplus, there is no dearth of funds to improve the conditions and stop the deaths immediately. To have an idea of the expenditure on the event, 2011 estimations of the cost of the event were pegged at an astounding $220 billion, about 60 times the $3.5 billion that South Africa spent on the World Cup in 2010.
It is in this context that the inexplicably high death rate of the migrant workers must become an immediate concern for all stakeholders, from hosts and FIFA to the fans. This is high time to assert that no sports event can be bigger than lives of even one death, forget thousands perishing in Qatar. To put things in perspective not a single accidental death had taken place on the construction sites of London Olympics for instance and there is no reason why Qatar and FIFA can be excused for so many.
Thus while all the hype focuses on the hot climatic conditions which would take a toll on the various football teams that would be playing in the World Cup, it is time to take stock of the migrant workforce working in harsh weather conditions, endangering their lives. FIFA which decided to go ahead with its decision to hold a world cup in Qatar, despite perceiving it as a 'risk', is not blame free, it does not own 'some responsibility'; it is fully liable for mounting death toll in Qatar.
The AHRC together with various civil society and labour right organizations calls upon both Qatar and FIFA to act immediately and ensure that no more lives are lost. The AHRC also urges upon Qatar to go for overall labour reforms guaranteeing living wages and the right to collective bargaining for workers.