Saturday, April 28, 2007

Health as a Human Right: Lifting Dalits out of Deprivation

In India, Dalits bear disproportionate degrees of premature death and illness by virtue of their destitute living conditions. Dalits are individuals who comprise the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system. Inequitable distributions of income and wealth conscript Dalits into poverty and illness. The health and wellness for Dalits can be best pursued through a human rights framework. Only the rights paradigm can attract enough civil society organizations to marshal in meaningful change.

Caste System 101
A caste system is a society that is stratified along the lines of status, class, and party. One’s caste is inherited at birth, caste determines one’s level of purity or impurity, and individuals are encouraged to marry within their own caste group. Caste ideology is endowed as sacred and, as such, assumes the status quo (Gerth & Mills, 1958). The Hindu caste system divides society into four occupational groups that range from priesthood to manual labour. The most marginalized individuals are the Dalits who are considered outcastes; socially and economically confined to working as servants, sweepers, and manual scavengers.
Caste societies produce marked inequalities in health, with Dalits assuming the greatest degrees of mortality and morbidity. Infant mortality, for instance, is significantly greater among the bottom 20% of income-earners in India compared with the top 20% of income-earners (Subramanian et al., 2006).
Ambedkar’s Legacy
B. R. Ambedkar, a former Dalit scholar and politician, mobilized the Dalit population beyond any other movement in the past. As the chief architect of the Indian Constitution of 1950, Ambedkar instituted affirmative action policies that reserved spots for Dalits in universities and government. However, affirmative policies fail to deliver Dalits with meaningful gains in wealth and, more importantly, in health (Banerjee & Knight, 1985). Income refers to one’s earnings. Wealth refers to one’s assets, such as property and land. In India, “the average size of per capita land owned…by [Dalits] is less than half of that for the [non-Dalit] households” (Kijima, 2006). Consider the wealth divide between those who rent versus those who own their home.
Into The Future
Future social movements must rise above affirmative policies; challenging the social, political, and economic conventions that impede Dalits’ access to the human right of health. Since 1978, at least 6 health promotion declarations from the World Health Organization have embodied values of social justice and peace, and the promotion of health as a human right. The Indian People’s Health Charter specifically declares “health as a justiciable right…demand[ing] the provision of comprehensive health care as a fundamental constitutional right” for the people of India.
Even if income inequalities persist in India, as they will, a basic basket of human and health services should be constitutionally guaranteed to all individuals; healthcare, a living wage, education, and affordable housing. The premature mortality and morbidity rates of Dalits, compared to non-Dalit Indians, extend far beyond the issue of caste: it is an issue of human rights.
*images courtesy of

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From Crib to Caste - A Personal Story

The formation of my ethnic and religious identities undertook a rather amusing process. I grew up in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of North York in Toronto, Canada. My family was one of the few Indian (East Indian) families on the block; which was fine by us. I must have been in kindergarten when I learned that I am, in fact, a second-generation Indian. My teacher curiously asked my mother where our family was from. I overheard ‘mummy’ blurt out “India”. Cool! I had no clue. As far as I had known, my siblings and I were Canadians from North York General Hospital.
Down the street lived my childhood companion who was also Indian; though her family had a much darker complexion than our family’s, they spoke an entirely different non-English language, and ate food that was foreign to our family’s plates. It was then that I learned I was North Indian and that my friend was South Indian.
I realized I was a Hindu in grade one when I noticed that none of my friends came to class with a red ‘tikka’ on their foreheads; symbolizing that I had received blessings at the temple. I eventually took pride in being the sole class authority on Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali. I even performed at the multicultural evening in grade four! Haha! I was a cute kid.
Fast forward seven years to grade eight when a friend informed me that I am Punjabi and that she is Bengali. Punjabi? My parents are not from Punjab. They are from New Delhi. When I inquired further with my parents, I learned that India is deeply divided both culturally and linguistically according to state. Apparently, my family is ancestrally from Punjab. What?? Ok Rahul, breathe.
In grade 11, I was instilled with a final and, frankly, somewhat offensive, component of my ethnic identity. An Indian buddy of mine asked me: “What caste are you? My family is Brahmin.” All I said in response was: “WTF?” My buddy informed me that one’s caste informs one’s occupation and, by extension, one's social status. Not at home, not at school, and neither in my community had I ever talked about or been asked about caste. For my parents, caste was a non-issue and as kids in my family, caste was unknown.
Note: The terms Indian, North Indian, and Punjabi refer to one's ethnicity/culture. The terms Hindu and one's caste title refers to one's religious tradition.
What I Learned Was Not Pretty
When I started University, I was keen to learn more about religion and, more specifically, about caste. Throughout my undergraduate years, I completed a few religious studies electives. Specific to caste in Hindu society, I regret to inform that what I learned was not pretty. The Hindu caste system socioeconomically divides society and largely denies lower castes and outcastes, such as Dalits, from social and economic mobility. Because the caste system is endowed as sacred, it remains unquestioned and ingrained as the status quo (mostly in rural India and not in urban India). Ironically, the issue of caste was very closely tied to the degree I was concurrently completing in social justice studies (BHS, Specializing in Health Policy).
My next blog posting combines this notion of caste with my academic and professional interests in social justice and human rights. The results are disconcertingly harmonious.
*image courtesy of

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Salute Your Flag!

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Miller is smart to sit this one out

Toronto Mayor David Miller is no longer a member of the New Democratic Party of Ontario. In response to a Toronto Star article, entitled 'Miller leaves NDP, shifts to neutral', I had the following response published in the Editorial section of the Star's April 20th issue:

Miller leaves NDP, shifts to neutral

April 18.I respect Mayor David Miller's decision. The execution of Canada's urban agenda is long overdue and cities are not in a position to play politics. Tensions between provinces and cities are beginning to reflect the historical fiscal imbalances between federal and provincial actors. But unlike Ottawa and the provinces, cities bear no space within the constitutional arena.
Miller should continue to take baby steps toward a more sustainable urban agenda.

Rahul Mediratta, Toronto

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Namesake - Irfan Khan, Tabu

Last night I feasted on the richness, simplicity, and tranquillity of The Namesake; Mira Nair’s latest cinematic instalment. In stark contrast to the melodrama of Monsoon Wedding and the uncompromising realism of Salaam Bombay, The Namesake features simple characters, a simple storyline, and honesty; raw honesty.
The plot centres on a newly-married Bengali couple from Calcutta who settle in New York City. Away from their family, their community, and their nurturing land, Ashok (Irfan Khan) and Ashima Ganguli (Tabu) make a family for themselves: a son named Gogol and a daughter. Gogol is not the sexiest of names, but it holds a special place in Ashok’s heart. The name 'Gogol' emanates from Ashok’s favourite author, Russian writer Nikolay Gogol, and, more significantly, to Ashok’s near-death experience as a young man.
Nair does not do the audience any favours. She does not spoon-feed symbolism, and she certainly does not provide for the most theatrical and whimsical of endings. Nair is true and respectful to the experiences of immigrants, to the identities of Bengalis, and to the humanhood of persons. On a technical note, the Bengali accent and refined Bengali culture of literature and academia are superbly showcased.
Ashok, Ashima, and Gogol are presented in perfect harmony with one another. None of these characters emerges as the clear protagonist and yet, they each leave an indelible mark on the mind and soul. As Ashok, Irfan Khan’s performance is stellar. Ashok is as simple as he is complicated, and as touching as he is tragic. As an aging Ashima, Tabu is raw, enchanting, and even sexy. Kal Penn’s performance of Gogol is true to the self-hating attitude of second-generation immigrants, but his inexperience comes through in his few scenes of extreme anger and remorse.
My favourite scenes/happenings and why:
1. Tabu fashions Irfan’s loafers. Kya simplicity, yaar! She is so enchanted by the ‘Made in USA’ label. Ishh!
2. The Gangulis’ visit to the Taj Mahal features unconventional angles of this famed world wonder. The awe and greatness of the Taj comes across more from the family’s reaction than the structure, itself! Nair is one of the few public eyes that have done the Taj a comprehensive aesthetic justice.
3. Tabu rediscovers her identity. Her nest is not half empty; it is half full.
*image courtesy of

Disabling Prejudice in the Media

Yesterday I saw a commercial created by an organization from the disability community. The commercial depicts individuals of various ages, ethnicities, and abilities. A byline runs at the bottom of the screen that reads the persons’ names and their profession. The audience is challenged to look at persons with disabilities in a different way; to look beyond the lifeless metal and plastic. Viewers are challenged to permeate the socially constructed ‘perfection’ of able-bodiedness; to swallow a morsel of ‘awkwardness’ as possibly wholesome and good. Representation of persons with disabilities in the media of this nature is unfortunately revolutionary. I say ‘unfortunate’, because, this commercial follows relentless media portrayals of persons with disabilities within stereotypical contexts; weak and powerless victims who are objects of pity, humour, or ridicule.
1980s to mid-1990s: Charitable Organizations
Between the 1980s to mid-1990s, charities arguably served as the predominant platform from which persons with disabilities were represented in the media. Charities habitually represent persons with disabilities as being inherently damaged and that donations are integral for the future prosperity of ‘damaged goods’. Charities motivate the public to donate generously by depicting a person in ‘misery’ and ‘suffering’ as a result of their disability. An old Mencap poster depicts a ‘lost’ looking teenage boy dressed in a mechanic’s suit as he changes the wheel on a vehicle. The caption above the boy reads: ‘Who said he’s beyond repair?’ The poster compares the teenager to machinery and thereby destroys any human element that the young man could have conveyed towards the audience.
These portrayals misrepresent the true capabilities and experiences of persons with disabilities. These representations frame persons with disabilities as survivors of their tragic circumstances. And consequently, charitable donors will ‘give’ as much as they hope to ‘receive’ to insure one against the prospect of damage to their own body.
Disability is Natural
Disability is Natural ( aims to “encourage new ways of thinking about disability and to help create a society in which all people are valued and included”. The organization’s logo depicts a bowl of five apples. Four apples are red and the fifth apple is green. Disability is Natural asserts that “the sun shines equally on all apples in the bowl, and it’s time for the light of inclusion, opportunity, freedom, and dignity to shine equally on all people – including people with disabilities”. Disability is Natural does not portray persons with disabilities within stereotypical contexts of tragedy, inability, nor dependency. However, the charge that “the sun shines equally on all apples” is rather na├»ve. The sun does not shine equally on all persons. And the comparison of persons with disabilities to fruits/vegetables runs a little too parallel to the decades of segregation of persons with disabilities through discriminatory attitudes that label persons with disabilities as ‘unable’ and ‘vegetative’.
Despite which perspective the audience subscribes to, the multiplicity of viewpoints illustrates the extent to which disability issues are finally being represented in a much more progressive and inclusive fashion. However, what is deemed to be accurate today will likely become inaccurate tomorrow. Representations of persons with disabilities in the media must continue to be challenged if full inclusion of these persons will ever be attained and preserved.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Targeting areas divides the city

In response to a Toronto Star article, entitled 'Urban dream deferred', I had the following response published in the Editorial section of the Star's April 12th issue:

The aerial map depicting 13 of Toronto's high-risk areas further ghettoizes these neighbourhoods. Businesses and banks are discouraged from setting up shop. Royson James calls for targeted investments in these areas. But the solution lies in greater investment toward supports that service everyone. Universal programs are less alienating and serve to unify all of the residents within a city.

Rahul Mediratta, Toronto

my thoughts on Arundhati Roy

We are among one of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, and literary artists of our time. Her gutsy brawl and equally as composed wit provokes my mind and wins my heart. Roy's global consiousness distinguishes her from otherwise tunnel-visioned nationalists. I adore Arundhati: her ideas, her imagination, her charm. She is a modern-day Marxist.

Roy has not succumb to the intoxicant of celebrity. She can only move slow and strong against the current. Towards her innate moral fibre. Towards all the she is and will never betray.

**image courtesy of

Million Dollar Baby - Clint Eastwood, Hillary Swank

In Million Dollar Baby, Hillary provides a stellar and utmost oscar-worthy performance. Her character reflects that of what she played in Boys Don't Cry -- trailer trash with disproportionately greater class.

Hillary is a 30-something boxer in training and Clint is the chauvenistic trainer who has already suffered enough betrayal to even consider carrying another boxer to the title-ship.

The boxing scenes are quite disturbing. At one point in time, Hillary's nose splits in half at the bridge and Clint snaps the bone back into place. Clint sticks Q-tips up Hillary's nostrils and forces her to inhale. As the blood quickly dries, Hillary gets back into the ring and in under 20 seconds, Hillary knocks her competitor to the floor.

Once the movie moves past the violent boxing scenes (which concludes in the most dramatic and tragic fashion), the movie slows down and begins to chip away at Clint's true cinematic brilliance. Contrary to glamourous hollywood flicks of the like, Million Dollar Baby is true and candid to athleticism; specifically with respect to the die hard risks associated with such a bloody sport.

This movie deals with human determination, pride, personal will, and end-of-life ethics for both Clint and Hillary's characters. A must-see movie and worthy addition to any movie-buff's collection. Hillary's performance is sheer genius. We are blessed to be a part of a generation that can bear the name of Ms. Hillary Swank.

A Million Little Pieces - James Frey

Last week I finished reading James Frey's controversial memoires entitled A Million Little Pieces. For those of you who are not aware, this book spurred alot of heat in the popular media after investigations revealed that Frey's memoires were highly exaggerated.

The book opens with Frey awaking on a plane with a broken nose, with a hole in his cheek, and three teeth too poor. Frey has seen more cocaine, alcohol, crystal methamphetamine, and crack than any 22-year old should have ever been involved in, let alone any individual at any age.

Reader's discretion is advised. Parts of this book are highly disturbing, graphic, and terrifying. While flipping through the pages, I can remember saying to myself 'I regret ever picking up this book'. But, I continued reading, knowing that I would eventually find myself at a more hopeful end.

Even still, I am happy that I read Frey's work. Against all odds and decades of research that support faith-based treatment for alcoholism, Frey rejects what he understands to be cultures of addiction and rehabilitation that prey on dependancy and submission...submission to either a substance/drug or (in the case of treatment) a higher power. Against all odds, Frey successfully defeats what he characterizes as his inner 'rage' without walking the prescribed 12 steps...

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The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini's 'The Kite Runner' is mesmerizing. I highly recommend that you take the two days to read it. The book is about 375 pages in length, but once you are past the first two chapters, you will not be able to put the book down.

This semi-fiction novel chronicles the life of Amir who is born in 1970s Kabul at a time of wealth and development. Amir has an odd friendship with his servant, Hassan (of the same age), and a less than pleasent relationship with his father; a highly respected man and a rather bold character. The events that tear Amir and Hassan apart are quite devastating and follow Amir all the way to California where he starts a new life post-Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.

The second half of the novel is literary genius. Basic human instinct and minority cultural quirks combine with the complex realities of life and the fears and challenges that drill down towards one's true character. The Kite Runner is an hommage to fathers & sons, courage & fear, and to the fundamental personhood that binds us together. This novel is not your run-of-the-mill, patriarchal, chauvenestic, mice & men story. It is so much more...

**image courtesy of