January 26, 2015

Why Bengal was kept out of the Republic Day parade

All day several friends have called to ask why the West Bengal tableau was missing from the Republic Day parade in Delhi. The absence has particularly disappointed and hurt a lot of us because West Bengal had won the award for the best tableau in 2014.

There is a back-story to the missing tableau. Kanyashree is the flagship programme for the girl child in our state, and with good reason. Some 17.5 million people in West Bengal are adolescents aged between 10 and 19. Forty-eight per cent of these are girls. Many are poorly educated and in rural, poverty-stricken families seen as an economic burden and an extra mouth to feed. As a consequence, they are married off early, leading to teenage pregnancy and motherhood, and giving rise to a subsequent generation – the children of these adolescent mothers – who perpetuate the cycle of socio-economic challenges, including infant mortality and maternal ill-health.

Under Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress government has been determined to rectify this. That is why we launched the Kanyashree scheme to support and incentivise girls’ education and the postponement of marriage and thereby pregnancy. We also sought to empower girls, who could get educated up to an advanced level and then become economic contributors and earners.

Kanyashree not only supports families with girl children, it actually pushes them into educating their daughters and keeping them in school, without forcing them to drop out. For each year a girl spends in school her family is given Rs. 500. If a girl is still studying at the age of 18, whether in high school or college, her family is given Rs. 25,000, transferred straight to a bank account. This money can be used for higher education or can help at the time of the girl’s wedding, since weddings can be expensive in our society and can inconvenience ordinary parents. (It doesn’t give me much happiness making that last point, but it is a reality).

Kanyashree has progressed extremely well since its inauguration in October 2013. So far 900,000 girls have started receiving benefits and in 2015 another 700,000 girls are expected to be added. The programme has been appreciated by national and international agencies as a model for developing societies. UNICEF partners the West Bengal government in the roll-out of Kanyashree and the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development has acknowledged the programme’s achievements.

We had planned to make Kanyashree and the girl child the theme of the West Bengal tableau at the Republic Day. It would have fitted well with the overall national message of encouraging and empowering women. The proposal was sent to the relevant Ministries and Departments in Delhi but was rejected. Many submissions were made, formal and informal, but it was to no avail.

Finally, we were resigned to missing out. It hurt and still hurts, but life has to go on. Only, I am left with a niggling question: were some people worried the focus on Kanyashree would have overshadowed another girl child related programme launched a few days ago… Never mind. There’s always next year.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

January 20, 2015

Respite for 4000 soldiers... happy to have played a very small role.

It was a weekend in early August and I found myself watching an NDTV programme anchored by Barkha Dutt. One of the studio guests was an articulate young lawyer called Navdeep Singh. He spoke about how pension claims of disabled soldiers, those who had lost limb or suffered injury in the service of India, were often contested by the Ministry of Defence. In fact 90 per cent of the legal cases being fought by the Ministry related to disabled soldiers and their pension claims.

I was left stunned by the figures and by the sheer insensitivity of our bureaucracy. The following morning I phoned Barkha and got Navdeep’s number. After a series of chats with him, I decided on a Special Mention on the issue in the Rajya Sabha on August 11, 2014. In the Mention, I criticised the “shallow pretexts” being used to deny disabled soldiers pensions.

In many cases, the timing of injuries was questioned.“Military Boards have also been rejecting diseases such as neurosis and schizophrenia for being ‘constitutional’ in nature,” I said, “and not aggravated by service conditions. In contrast, pension claims for such diseases are routinely allowed by medical boards of the Central Armed Police Forces under the Home Ministry. Even though the Supreme Court has rendered a series of judgments in favour of the soldiers’ claims, the Ministry of Defence has continued to file appeals against claims at all stages.

The Income Tax Department does not go to the Supreme Court unless the claim amount exceeds Rs 25 lakh. In contrast, the Ministry of Defence hires top lawyers and takes its old soldiers to court for even a few thousand rupees. It is an unequal and unfair battle: “Most soldiers cannot afford the costs of protracted litigation and are forced to abandon their claims.

I requested the defence minister to direct his civil servants to stop filing such frivolous cases. My Special Mention was appreciated by fellow MPs. As I realised, I was not the first to bring the subject to the notice of the House. A parliamentary colleague, Smriti Irani of the BJP, had already done so.

Over the next few months I continued to stay in touch with Navdeep and to be exercised by the cause of our disabled veterans. Unfortunately, the government took no action. On December 10, 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed en masse appeals filed by the Defence Ministry in pension-related matters. After this, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar issued a statement that the Ministry would not be taking forward appeals against old and disabled soldiers in 4,000 separate cases.

Frankly, the Supreme Court has left the Ministry with no choice. This is not a time for point scoring but I do wish the defence minister had made his statement before the court order. I also hope a precedent has been set and in future disabled soldiers, and old soldiers generally, will not have to go from courtroom to courtroom to get due pensions from a government, a system and a country they risked their lives protecting.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

January 13, 2015

House Games in Flannels

While in school, my sport of choice was football. I was a goalkeeper of some reckoning in local and club-level tournaments. The only reason I made it to the school cricket team (as wicket keeper) was that my friend was the team captain. For the past three years I have been keeping wickets for the Parliamentarians' XI. Every December, towards the end of the winter session, MPs play journalists in a 20-over game. The match is held in good cheer and for a good cause—children's health and fighting childhood diseases. The NGO Global Health Strategies organises an event around the game.

This time, the match was played on December 20, 2014, at the Delhi Public School ground on Mathura Road. The MPs' XI was a multi-party team, though Congress MPs, so visible in previous years, were missing. The Journalists' XI had more television professionals than those from print. Perhaps television journalists are physically fitter and simply run around more than a print journalist!

Batting first, the MPs' XI collapsed to 109 in the allotted 20 overs. Our star batsman in 2013, Mohammad Azharuddin, was not with us, having not been elected in the Lok Sabha polls. Navjot Sidhu was not there either, since he didn't contest the 2014 elections (though some say he did manage to stump his party in his former constituency, but that's another story). Sachin Tendulkar didn't show up. He scarcely makes it to the Rajya Sabha, so he couldn't really be expected to come for the MPs' cricket team.

One by one, all our stars failed, even Kirti Azad and our captain, Anurag Thakur, the two former cricketers in the MPs' XI. I was run out early, the fault of a mix-up with the non-striker, Dushyant Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal. The dynamic duo from the Biju Janata Dal, the movie star Siddhanta Mahapatra and Kalikesh Singh Deo, who had a glittering sports career in The Doon School, also scored poorly. It was left to Manoj Tiwari—not the Bengal and India cricketer but his namesake, the BJP MP from Delhi—to play a lone hand and keep our score respectable.

Chasing 110 in 20 overs shouldn't have been difficult but the Journalists' XI made heavy weather of it, losing six wickets before getting to their target. They suffered a shock after a brilliant run out, effected by a sharp throw from Thakur. For me, this was the moment of the match. It was very impressive fielding and an indicator of just how seriously the match was played. This was no exhibition game, but truly competitive.

On January 24, I am organising a match between MPs and Journalists in Kolkata, at the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club. I am proud to be a member of this club. Founded in 1792, it is the world's second-oldest cricket club, right after the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Our MPs' XI for January 24 will comprise both Bengal MPs and those from other states. I am looking forward to Kirti Azad, who is flying down to Kolkata for the game, hitting the ball out of the playing arena, onto the tramlines outside the club.

In the summer of 2015, an Indian MPs' XI is travelling to London for a cricket match against a British MPs' team. The dates have not been finalised but I expect this will be after the general elections in the United Kingdom in May. Let it be clarified, this is not some junket. The 'cricket tour' will coincide with an official trip being made by MPs in their professional capacity. I am excited about playing on English green. Of course, it would help if my Rajya Sabha colleague, the honourable Mr Tendulkar, were to take guard.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress