The Global Health Council’s prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights has been awarded to Binayak Sen of Raipur, Chhattisgarh, India. In an unprecedented step, the Council lifted its customary embargo to reveal the winner’s identity prior to the awards ceremony scheduled for 29 May 2008. This is probably because Binayak Sen is in prison awaiting trial, where reliable sources claim that he has been subjected to mental torture through solitary confinement and threats to deny him a public trial. Each of those measures violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to the award citation, “Dr. Binayak Sen is an Indian medical doctor and national Vice-President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, whose imprisonment for defending the human rights of adivasis (indigenous tribes people) in Chhattisgarh state of India has interrupted his decades-long efforts setting up and guiding pioneering health services for the poorest, as well as his advocacy of non-violence and justice amidst armed conflicts in Chhattisgarh.”
Large areas of Chhattisgarh are embroiled in an armed conflict involving rebels, the state government and law enforcement, and armed civilian militias. Sen was detained on May 14, 2007, and accused of passing notes from a rebel leader he was treating in jail to someone outside the prison. Sen denies committing any crime and says his activities in the jail were supervised by prison authorities. However, the use of force to displace tribals from their lands convinced him of the unavoidable need to advocate and defend human rights if the poorest were to have any realistic chance of health.
“For the past several years, we are seeing all over India – and as part of that in the state of Chhattisgarh as well — a concerted programme to expropriate from the poorest people in the Indian nation, their access to essentials, common property resources and to natural resources including land and water… The campaign called the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh is a part of this process in which hundreds of villages have been denuded of the people living in them and hundreds of people — men and women — have been killed. Government-armed vigilantes have been deployed and the people who have been protesting against such moves and trying to bring before the world the reality of these campaigns — human rights workers like myself —have also been targeted through state action against them.”
– Binayak Sen in a statement prior to his 14 May 2007 detention.
Binayak Sen started out by helping to establish the Shaheed Hospital, financed by contributions from mine-workers. He then expanded into work among indigenous people, running clinics, meticulously documenting their health and nutritional status and training women to serve as basic health workers — a scheme later named Mitanin and adopted by the government across better-served areas. His careful documentation highlighted widespread malnutrition and deaths from starvation.
Binayak Sen and his wife, Ilina Sen founded RUPANTAR, a NGO aimed at addressing health needs, civil liberties, and human rights in an integrated way. RUPANTAR has trained community health workers spread throughout 20 villages.
To raise public awareness about Dr Sen’s detention The Monthly Free Binayak Sen Medical Camps for the urban and rural poor, are being held in cities and towns around India. These camps are also part of an effort to highlight the issues of nutrition, child health and the link between socio-economic rights and health.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, India is the world’s third-largest economy after the U.S. and China, based on purchasing-power parity. However, India has one of the worst health indicators in the world, even lower than that of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the areas of infant and maternal mortality.