Acceptance Speech for Jonathan Mann Award: Ilina Sen

Acceptance Speech for Jonathan Mann Award: Ilina Sen.

*Awards Banquet of the Global Health Council.
Washington, DC, May 29, 2008.*

What I speak today reflects the thoughts of my husband Dr Binayak Sen, who, in other circumstances should have been here, as well as of myself. On behalf of PUCL, Rupantar, Medico Friends Circle, Jan Swasthya Sahayog, Peoples' movements and Human Rights organizations across my country, we would like to thank the Global Health Council for the Jonathan Mann Award given this year to Dr Binayak Sen, as well as for the hospitality they have extended to me and my daughters. I can not emphasize how much this honor and recognition of our work, and the support of the global health community, means to us at this time. We would like also to specially remember the Christian Medical College, Vellore, and its alumni all over the world, who have made the cause of Binayak's freedom their own. Binayak would especially like tell you that it is a great privilege to be heir to the legacy of Dr Jonathan Mann and to be able to carry it forward. Like Dr Mann, Binayak believes that unless we try to change the world it will never change, and he is even now paying the price for following this principle..

Both Binayak's and my parents came from the part of the world that is now Bangladesh, and as such, we can perhaps lay claim to a South Asian identity. This is the first time that this award has been given to a South Asian- a region that is home to more than a quarter of humankind, and to some of the world's poorest communities. It is in this context that the intercept between Health and Human Rights acquires the special meaning that it has for us, a meaning embedded in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming the right of ALL to a standard of living adequate for health and well being…including food, clothing, housing, necessary social services, and the right to security in situations beyond individual control.

The critical importance of this section becomes clear when we compare the promises of this ideal with what prevails on the ground. In India, nutrition surveys of the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau have shown that over 33 % of the population have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 18.5, considered to be the minimum level for less than starvation standards. Translated to demography, this means that over 400 million people are exposed to near starvation conditions. To add to this catastrophic situation, we are confronted now with a new set of crises. Between 1990 and 2005, the daily per capita availability of foodgrains has fallen from 510 grams to 438. World food prices have risen, and the concentration of land ownership in a few hands has intensified.

These poverty stricken communities are not mere statistical data sets for us. For the last quarter of a century, it has been our privilege to work with, and share the lives of many such communities in a part of Central India called Chhattisgarh. Our experience with these communities tells us that in the kind of situation we have been describing, it is the communities' access to common property resources – grazing lands, water, forest resources, biodiversity- that mitigate to some extent the baleful effects of an alienated economy. Unfortunately in the recent past, the pressures of 'development' have seen to it that these resources have become increasingly sequestered in private and corporate hands. This new round of resource acquisition has placed major stresses on the modalities of democratic discourse that the civilized world has come to cherish after the bloody history of colonial conquest and intolerance. In our part of the world, Peace has been a major casualty, with official policy often privileging the interests of the few over the well being of many. The work of Rupantar and other groups has attempted to uphold a more convivial model of development, but in the face of contradictory tendencies that are much larger, it becomes very hard to preserve even small islands of common good.

The roots of extremism in many of our societies lie in this kind of a situation. It is impossible to seek a purely law and order or vigilante solution to what are basically the problems of non-inclusive growth. The Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh has actually increased the fissures and increased the violence in our society. Behind the 8% growth rate of the Indian Economy, there are major subsets of the population that are totally disenfranchised. We are firmly committed to Peace: but to a Peace animated by justice and equity and based on the values of life and liberty. In the absence of these, restoration of peace through military action can only lead to the graveyard of peoples' aspirations. I end with a plea that in the twenty first century let us not repeat the bloodshed that our ancestors inflicted upon populations across large areas of the globe. The resources of the world are for us all to share. Let us affirm our faith in that common cause.