Touria Prayag's Blog

Read L’express Weekly, 16 July 2010

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on July 16, 2010

Editorial  Click here to read L’express Weekly

Being economical with the truth

I’m not an expert on Swine Flu and I’m not about to get in between some doctors and their minister who are butting heads with each other on a subject I know little about. We are not into fear mongering or sensationalistic propaganda either. My concern stops at communication between those we have entrusted with the running of this country and us, poor mortals, seeking that precious thing which makes our job possible: information.

“We have nothing to hide,” says Mrs. Hanoomanjee. Sadly, this reminds me of President Nixon’s historical statement in relation to the Watergate case, “I am not a crook.” More defensive than that, you die, as the French would say….

After the psychosis of last year, following half a dozen deaths due to the A (H1N1) virus, we now know that, though the speed of its spread is startling, Swine Flu is no more dangerous than the typical seasonal flu. This does not mean that we underestimate it or that we want to catch it. What it means is that both types of flu can kill and that the seasonal flu appears to cause more deaths than Swine Flu. We also know, having gone through it once, that the psychosis which swamped the world last year is unlikely to get the better of us this year. Our heads have cooled off sufficiently not to cross that fine line between reasonable elementary precautions –basically, wash your hands and stay home if you are feverish- and paranoia –someone sneezed, quick, call security.

So, why is history repeating itself? Why does history always repeat itself? Whether we are in 2006 facing the Chikungunya epidemic, in 2009 facing both Dengue Fever and Swine Flu or in 2010 facing the same Swine Flu again but with a full understanding of it and a stock of vaccines which were in the realm of dreams in 2009, the pattern is the same: the minister gives figures which are systematically greeted by contest from the medical profession and cynicism from the public.

The proliferating secrecy surrounding Swine Flu raises a lot of red flags and a lot of questions that have yet to be answered. Forget about whether the number of people contaminated with Swine Flu did actually grow from 0 to 124 cases almost overnight. Forget about whether the minister did or did not initially say that there were no cases of the virus before admitting to the 124 cases. What is more worrying is that the medical profession seems to be convinced that even the figure the minister eventually owned up to is grossly understated.

The paternalistic (or should I say maternalistic) approach adopted by the minister (I won’t tell you the truth because you cannot handle it) coupled with the line of communication adopted by the ministry (if you want information go and find it somewhere else) do not help the finger of blame to point elsewhere and the minister has missed her chance of making a good first impression.

We are in this for the long haul and there are no quick fixes. So, we have every interest in putting an end to the misinformation chaos. A properly informed population is a properly armed one. And we need every weapon we can use. The minister will not achieve a thing if she does not gain public trust. And public trust can only be gained through clear, honest and ample information.

Yes, of course, the fear of a psychosis is there. But avoiding that is also the minister’s responsibility. And that can definitely not be achieved through being economical with the truth.


L’express Weekly, 9 July 2010

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on July 13, 2010

Editorial            Click here to read L’express Weekly

Can he talk his way out?

The episode of the jailbreak and the manhunt which is going on for those who are still at large has lifted the conditions in our prisons from news pieces which we looked at every now and then with mild interest and turned them into something everyone can chime in on. But, really, did it bring anything new? As far back as 2004, the then commissioner of prisons, Bill Duff, qualified our prisons as “institutions on the verge of collapse” and talked openly about the problems that we all know: drug traffi cking in the corridors of prisons and detention centres, “in connivance with officers of these institutions”, mobile phones (don’t these need to be regularly recharged?!) illegal betting, Aids, theft and general racketeering. If you add to these rape and harassment, you have the full picture. Bill Duff acknowledged then that “80% of detainees were locked up for drug-related crimes.

Six years on and one commissioner of prisons later, the situation is the same. This means that at best, we have been treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Overcrowding added fuel to an already blazing fire and the ease with which the 34 escapees managed to get out is disconcerting. Now with two of the most allegedly dangerous prisoners still on the run (the police being too busy arresting journalists and social workers), a string of guards being accused of collusion and enticing sums of money involved, the finger being pointed at the commissioner of prisons will not fl inch. In all posts of responsibility, when something goes badly wrong, the buck goes no further.

The question is not even whether he should take responsibility for the failure of his staff or not. The problem goes beyond that and begs the question of what Mr. Lingamanaicker Vijayanarayanan has contributed to the situation in our prisons since he took over on an expatriate’s salary. As someone at the top of an organization, he is expected to set the vision for his team, manage it properly and take overall responsibility for the ship; it is the value he adds which should make the difference. So, what value did he add to our prisons if the problems diagnosed six years earlier are the same if not worse today? What did he propose as a long-term plan of action for penal reform and improving the administration of criminal justice?

On another level, it has now transpired that some of the major issues in prison are the lack of segregation of criminals from those who are presumed innocent. Segregation by type of crime and age are also vital in stopping the crime trend.

Prisoners need to be classified and housed according to their level of risk. Lower risk groups require less security and can be managed on a lower security basis.

But above all, overcrowded prisons are more difficult to manage and are frequently plagued by increased conflict and violence. This is caused particularly by a slow court system and, as a result, the number of remand or non-sentenced prisoners increases substantially. For justice to be effective, it has to be quick both for those awaiting trial and the victims of crime.

Dealing with this problem looks urgent. As for the professionalization of correctional officers, well, the commissioner of prisons has talked his way out of all situations so far. How will he talk his way out of this one?

L’express Weekly, 2 July 2010

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on July 2, 2010

Editorial Click here to read L’express Weekly

Jailbreak Mauritian Style

Between two matches, the nation woke up half-incredulous, bemused and certainly shocked by the jailbreak of the largest number of detainees ever recorded in the history of this country.

As we speak, 27 of these escapees have been recaptured while seven are still on the run. If it were only a question of numbers, I would have congratulated the police for their marvellous work.

Unfortunately, many of those who have been recaptured are the ones who perhaps never intended to escape in the fi rst place or at least had little reason to. One wonders in fact why they ever risked adding time to their sentences, this time in a real prison, instead of just hanging on tight for a little while. So I decided I’d hold on until the Monvoisins and Co., who are still lurking somewhere, have been put back in their cells before I say “thank you” to our police force.

But concerning this whole episode, let’s not be quick in apportioning the blame. What happened here, shocking though it might have been, could happen anywhere. For as long as there have been prisons, there have been prison escapes. Absconding is nothing new and history abounds with cases of daring and amazing jailbreaks the world over. Even a high security prison like Alcatraz, in its 30 years of operation, recorded 14 attempts to escape involving 34 inmates. Though offi cially, every escape attempt failed and most participants were either killed or quickly re-captured, some detainees disappeared without trace, giving rise to popular theories that their escape attempt was successful.

But what was spectacular about this jailbreak is that there was nothing spectacular about it. It was a far cry from the intricate attempts which saw Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, for example, burrow out of their cells, cutting through bars and making it to the roof through an air vent then to the shore where they vanished using a raft they assembled.

Over here, the story is not even worth telling. All the ingredients were there, of course: a lot of free time, a healthy portion of desperation and perhaps some complicity. All the prisoners needed to do was to plot, beat some guards up, walk out and disappear into the surroundings. No resistance, no gun shots exchanged, no panic buttons pressed and the out-of-order cameras saw nothing. Above all, no one saw it coming. When rumours swirled that some of the prisoners had made it to “freedom”, there was not a touch of heroism involved to inspire even the simplest of stories.

Naturally, the game that is played from both sides of the law is an unequal one. The detainees have 24 hours a day to plot. The guards have eight hours to catch them at it. But even taking this into account, we cannot help but ask some legitimate questions the main ones being, “was there any connivance on the part of the correctional staff and are our prisons well managed?”

And, more than the questions asked, what is disturbing is the realisation of just how slow justice is; of how long it takes for a suspect to fi nd out his fate; how long small time offenders spend in the “school of crime” before they are tried; how many years the victims of crime sit and wait for justice to be done.

I hope the shock we have had serves as a wake-up call for an overhaul of our legal and penitentiary systems. They badly need it. Let this episode be the silver lining of a cloud which has been gathering in our skies for years.