Sunday, December 21, 2014

Roots of the problem

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 21, 2014


Pooja and Aarti meet the press.
PTI
Pooja and Aarti meet the press.


I am writing this a day before an unfortunate second anniversary, December 16, a day etched in our collective memory as signifying the horror and pain so many women experience for no other reason than that they are women.

But before going into the grim reality of how little has changed since that winter evening in Delhi in 2012, there is some good news. After my last column about a woman taxi driver, who incidentally worked for one of the new taxi aggregators that have now been banned in some cities, there is some encouraging news. The Mumbai transport department has issued 200 licenses exclusively for women taxi drivers; Hyderabad is launching a women’s service; in Chennai, a non-government organisation is training women drivers, and a taxi aggregator has announced that they will encourage more women to be hired.

This is good news. But let us not confuse this with women’s safety. While women taxi drivers would be reassuring for women passengers, particularly late at night, let us not forget that in some cities, like Delhi, women drivers are not safe. The mere sight of a woman behind a wheel seems to trigger primitive instincts in men who proceed to harass them by chasing them, trying to push them off the road and generally making life hell for them. Given these attitudes, who will guarantee the safety of the women taxi drivers? How can we be sure that male passengers will not harass them? Or will they have to stick to women passengers, an unsustainable business model. So, even if more women taxi drivers would be welcome, this cannot be viewed as a quick fix to deal with women’s safety. It is important because it gives women a livelihood option, one that carries with it a sense of dignity and self-worth.

The bad news is that despite a renewed focus on women’s safety, triggered by the December 6 rape in a private taxi in Delhi, the underlying issue has once again been overlooked. While no one disputes that the new app-based taxi services need to be regulated and more important, the corruption that allows serial rapists and offenders to buy character certificates from the police must be checked; this alone cannot guarantee women’s safety.

What is the other option? The safety of a prison; one where women are told when and if to step out? Or the example of those two plucky Rohtak sisters, Pooja and Aarti, who chose to thrash their tormenters rather than sit back and tolerate? We already know how that story has played out. From being celebrated, and even promised a special commendation by the Haryana government, suddenly the victims have become the villains and the men are being projected as victims of a game of blackmail.

I happened to be in Delhi recently when Pooja and Aarti spoke to the press. They faced a room full of journalists, the majority sceptical and even slightly hostile. The girls were remarkable in the calm way they answered all questions. To me, they came across as straightforward and gritty. In a state, where the sex ratio is one of the lowest in the country, where girls are simply not wanted, where every girl grows up in a highly sexualised atmosphere particularly when she enters the public space, the spirit of these two girls has to be lauded. They travel each day almost 35 km to their college and have to change two buses to do this. Their mother has backed them fully in their desire to study, as has their father. Coming from such a family, these girls have been encouraged not to take so-called ‘teasing’ by being quiet.

Without going into the minutiae of this controversial case, we should look at the issues it raises. Given the reality of constant harassment by men of women, particularly in north India, should we train our daughters to fight back as did Pooja and Aarti? Even as I applaud their courage, I fear for them because they are greatly outnumbered. More so, because no one supported them on the bus and since then there is a clear strategy to discredit their evidence. Such a battering, both physical and emotional, could break any ordinary girl. If these two sisters survive and win their case, it will be all the more remarkable.

Instead of seeing women’s safety as a technical issue to be fixed by putting in place ‘safer’ transport — both private and public — or training girls to fight back if harassed, we need to realise that ultimately there is no shortcut to dismantling the institution of patriarchy, an institution that gives all men a sense of entitlement to beat, harass, rape, kill, injure those women who dare to question their authority.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Women can drive

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Dec 7, 2014


Sometimes a chance encounter makes you think that perhaps more things are changing than seem evident. Some of that change is depressing; the kind of change that is making cities like the one in which I live, Mumbai, increasingly unlivable. But there are subterranean processes of change, in people’s attitudes, in what they do, in how they overcome even the worst circumstances that are not noticed.

One such chance encounter was with a taxi driver. The majority of taxi drivers in Mumbai are men. This last week, 95 women managed to get the license to drive taxis. Ninety-five out of some 50,000? That’s not even worth a comment, you would think. But it is.
I chanced on Sindhu one morning when I was looking for a taxi. She does not drive the traditional kaali peeli (Mumbai’s iconic black and yellow taxi). She works with one of the city’s proliferating private taxi services.

Sindhu was dressed in light blue jeans and a purple-checked shirt. She wore gold studs in her ears and her nose. Her hair was pulled back in a neat bun. If you did not notice her clothes, she would be your normal Maharashtrian woman anywhere in Mumbai.

Sindhu is that, but I found over the course of a one-hour taxi ride, that she is more than that. For one, she has chosen to drive as a profession. Apart from the taxis that she has been driving for eight years, she has also driven trucks that deliver bottled water to different parts of the city. That brought back memories of Shubha Mudgal’s wonderful song Man Ke Manjeere, and the video with Mita Vashisht as a truck driver (www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O4-l84EKRc).

Why has she chosen to be a taxi driver, I ask her. Driving a taxi, she says, is a good career for a woman. It is flexible. You can decide when you want to drive, for how many hours. You can take a break if you want. No one is forcing you to drive beyond your capacity. And best of all, the money is good.

Like other women drivers in Mumbai, Sindhu first got a chance to drive a taxi, a private, air-conditioned one, when two women entrepreneurs came up with the idea of taxis driven by women. Their selling point was that women passengers would feel more secure, particularly at night, travelling in a taxi driven by a woman. Thus, began Mumbai’s taxi services for women by women.
These services continue. But Sindhu decided that she could do better. So she negotiated a loan to buy a car. And when private taxi services began that were willing to let drivers use their own cars in return for a fixed rate, she calculated that this would work out better. Before this, she had to pay the owner of the cab a fixed rate every day.

What about her family, I ask? Her son, she says, has completed his commerce degree and works in a call centre. He works nights. In the morning, when he returns, Sindhu fixes him breakfast and then takes off. The rest of the day, her husband and son, and the household chores, are looked after by a woman she has hired. In the evening, between seven and nine, Sindhu chooses to be home. The traffic is terrible at that time, she says. But by 10.00 p.m., she is ready to hit the road again. “People like to go out to parties, to dinner. They drink. They don’t want to drive. So I get plenty of work at night,” she told me cheerfully.

Sindhu lives in Cotton Green in central Mumbai, an area that is undergoing a schizophrenic transformation. The old and the new coexist. The new consists of gleaming high-rises, housing offices and luxury apartments. The old are Mumbai’s traditional chawls, homes for the working class who were once employed in the factories that populated this area. Today the factories are gone; the workers remain. Some are still unemployed. Others do any kind of work that’s available. And then there are women like Sindhu who have found ways to negotiate this changing environment.

So confident is Sindhu that she is now planning to take another loan to buy a second car. She will then hire a driver, use it to earn additional money to pay off the loan and still have a surplus.
Does she feel comfortable in trousers, I ask? Oh, yes, she says. I used to wear saris, even cover my hair, she laughs. But ever since I became a driver, and I was given a uniform, I decided this is best for work.

People are changing faster than you realise, she tells me. Could her mother have ever imagined that she would be driving a taxi, I ask. Never, she says. But it is a good career for a woman, she reiterates as we roll into my destination. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

No more births... or deaths

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Nov 23, 2014

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Women who underwent sterilisation surgeries receive treatment in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh
PTI Women who underwent sterilisation surgeries receive treatment in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh

Should we forget about the 14 poor women in Chhattisgarh who died earlier this month? Can we write this off as another “unfortunate” incident? Or should we see it as reminder of the fundamental question that Indian policymakers need to ask: are Indian women, especially poor women, entitled to respect and rights due all human beings or will they continue to be viewed as baby-producing machines whose bodies the State can appropriate and control when it deems they have completed their assigned task?

The debate has been sparked by the ghastly tragedy that befell some of the 83 women who were herded into a disused hospital in Takhatpur, Bilaspur district, and subjected to laparoscopic tubectomies within a few hours. The same instrument was used. No time for sterilisation. No time to check if the women were in good enough health to undergo the surgery. And no time to relax and recover before being packed off. And, of course, no one to follow up to see whether they survived the journey home.

Within a day, eight women were dead. In the next days, in other locations where similar sterilisation camps were held, another six died, 14 in all. The doctor who performed the 83 tubectomies – he was rewarded earlier this year for having performed 50,000 tubectomies – was arrested. He says he was not at fault and insists that the women died from consuming contaminated drugs post-operation. It is suspected that the ciprofloxacin tablets given to the women were contaminated with zinc phosphide, a rat poison. And the state government refuses to explain why such a camp was held at a disused, run-down private hospital.

Everyone is blaming someone else. In the midst of all this noise, and the silence that has descended on the homes of the dead women, we must remember that what happened in Chhattisgarh earlier this month is not an exception, a one-off aberration that we can all forget about once the blame is fixed. Between 2003 and 2012, on an average 12 women die due to botched tubectomies. That is 12 too many. No woman should die from this procedure.

Also, whatever government officials might say to the media, the reality is that health workers are expected to fulfil targets by bringing women to these sterilisation camps. If such pressure was not exerted on them, it is possible that fewer women would come. But at least those who agreed to be sterilised would do so after having understood the consequences. And doctors would not rush through with the procedure at the vulgar speed as did the doctor in Chhattisgarh.

Government officials have consistently argued, as they do even today, that sterilisation is the best option for a poor woman with more than two children because she cannot insist her husband uses a condom and she cannot use other spacing methods, such as injectables for instance, because of the absence of health care in the case of complications. But by the same measure, how do governments justify sterilising women and sending them back to their villages without any follow-up? The women who died did so because they could not access emergency health care in time.

Even if poor women opt for sterilisation, surely they are entitled some dignity while undergoing the procedure. We thought the days when women were lined up like cattle, as depicted so starkly in Deepa Dhanraj’s path-breaking 1991 film “Something like a war” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fq7HSIPVq4), was something in the past, harking back to the days of the 1975 Emergency when mass sterilisation campaigns were implemented ruthlessly across India. But Chhattisgarh reminds us that this is happening even today, although on a smaller scale.

So respect for poor women is the very minimum that must inform any population programme. India has signed an international convention in 1994 committing itself to guaranteeing women their reproductive choice and rights. Simply put, this means that all women have the right to choose the kind of contraceptive method they want to use. It also means that population programmes must be centered on women’s health and choice.

Clearly, this is so much talk without substance. In 20 years, under one guise or another, central and state governments have continued with the policy of targets and camps. And women are those who are targeted, not men. The skew in the population programmes is more than evident, even if one looks at government data.

Also, despite scores of meeting, conferences, policy documents, including the National Population Policy (2000) that links a decline in fertility to many other aspects such as education, overall health, housing, drinking water and sanitation, the desire to fast-forward population programmes through sterilisation appears irresistible to policy makers of all political hues.

As a result, women continue to pay the price for this persistent myopia – especially poor women. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Crossing over

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 9, 2014

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A stretch of the US-Mexico border. Photo: Reuters
A stretch of the US-Mexico border. Photo: Reuters
 
Sometimes a documentary film speaks louder than a thousand words. And so it was last week when I chanced upon a powerful documentary film, Maria in Nobody’s Land. Made in 2010 by a first-time filmmaker, Marcela Zamora Chamorro, and winner of several awards, the film portrays a picture of illegal immigration into the United States about which I had little knowledge.

If you have lived in the U.S., you would know about the push from people living in the countries south of the border to enter the U.S. in any way they can. This has been happening for decades and continues even today. A stark reminder of that is the U.S.-Mexico border, south of the city of San Diego in California. On the U.S. side of the border is vast open land; some of it declared a protected area to conserve a particular bird species. On the other is the town of Tijuana, visible from the U.S. side, a dense urban settlement with houses almost touching the border. Separating the two countries is a steel fence that extends into the sea, slicing the shared beach into two. The entire area is a militarised zone with helicopters constantly buzzing overhead keeping an eye out for desperate immigrants trying to make their way across. Mexico and the U.S. are not at war. Yet, looking at that border, you would think they are.

But the story of the desperate immigrant begins thousands of miles away from this and other similar border posts all along the south of the U.S. And not just in Mexico but even further south. It is also a gendered story, with many of those taking enormous risks to cross what appears an impenetrable border being women. These are single mothers, sisters, aunts — women who are convinced that by crossing over they will guarantee their families a better life. And, as legal immigration appears impossible, they risk taking the illegal route.

The film follows some of these women from the impoverished country of El Salvador, south of Mexico, to the U.S. border. What they encounter en route is a grim and frightening story. That they survive is a miracle; others like them are raped, robbed, kidnapped and killed by criminal gangs along the way. Their own government couldn’t care less. And neither does Mexico. If there is any solace, it comes from voluntary immigrant support groups who provide shelter and food.

One remarkable episode in the film shows a group of women who prepare packets of water and food every day. As a freight train carrying scores of these migrants passes their village, they stand near the tracks and pass out the packets. The train does not stop. It doesn’t even slow down. And yet, these women have figured out a way of getting all their packets to the people hanging on for dear life on the roofs of these trains.

Apart from bringing out the dangers that these women and men face even as they make their way to the American border, the film also reminds us of the gender dimension of immigration. The immigrant — legal or illegal — is not just a man. Increasingly, she is a woman.

In Asia too, women are migrating to other countries to find work and money to support their families. Over the years, women from Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia) and South Asia (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan) have been migrating not just to West Asia but further afield to Europe and the U.S. Unlike the women depicted in the documentary, many of these women are legal migrants. Yet, quite often, the job they think they will do turns out to be something else. Promised jobs as domestic help, for instance, they find themselves in the so-called ‘entertainment’ industry, another name for commercial sex work.

Many of these stories are never recorded. The illegal immigrants constantly fear being found out and deported. And those who have papers fear that if they report ill treatment, they will lose their jobs. Either way, silence is their only option as even the hardships they confront in the countries in which they work are bearable compared to the poverty — and in the case of women, domestic violence — that is the daily burden of their lives at home.

There are many more films waiting to be made, many more books waiting to be written, that will tell these stories. For only then is their hope that countries and their citizens will view the migrant sympathetically and as a person whose only ‘crime’ is to seek a better life. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hunger games

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 26, 2014

Hunger, malnutrition, under-nutrition… are not the talking points at election rallies or television debates .
The Hindu Hunger, malnutrition, under-nutrition… are not the talking points at election rallies or television debates .

In this season of festivities, when urban lifestyle-based diseases are getting a boost as we stuff our stomachs with forbidden foods, and our homes eat up even more of scarce electricity, one in every third child will go to bed hungry. Her home will be dark, without even the light from the hearth that cannot be lit because there is no cooking fuel.

Hunger, malnutrition, under-nutrition… these are not the talking points at election rallies or television debates but they remain a hard and unrelenting reality for million of Indians. I fear that — in the drummed-up euphoria surrounding cleaning up India, making in India and other such slogans — this depressing reality will be obscured and forgotten.

The good news, we are told, is that acute hunger is decreasing. On the Global Hunger Index 2014, prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), India now ranks 55th of the 76 countries and its situation has moved from ‘alarming’ to ‘serious’. That is good.  But is it something to celebrate? That from 45.1 per cent of underweight children under five years of age in 2005-06, there are now 30.7 per cent of underweight children as of last year? It is progress, but that still leaves virtually one in every three children under five years of age that is underweight. This means this child will never be able to catch up as an adult because she has been deprived of adequate and nutritious food in the first five years of her life.

We should also be worried that the very programmes that helped this decline are now in danger of being neglected, or reformulated in a way that could prove detrimental. For instance, IFPRI acknowledges that government programmes that have contributed to this decline in child hunger are the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) under which balwadis in villages provide young children with a nutritious supplement; the committee to monitor malnutrition set up by the Supreme Court; the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) that has increased access to health care for many in rural areas; the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which has guaranteed employment to millions of people; and the Public Distribution System (PDS), which provides subsidised food grains to people below the poverty line.

Apart from hunger caused by inadequate quantity of food, millions also suffer from hidden hunger, due to the deficiency of micronutrients in the food. If you are poor, not only do you get little to eat, but what you eat is also of poor quality. This is what aggravates the already deadly impact of undernutrition. Whenever these subjects come up for discussion — and internationally and in India they do so all the time — there are many technical fixes that are discussed such as bio-fortification, which involves increasing the micronutrient content of food crops.  In other words, the same grain that you eat will be fortified so that even if you eat the same quantity, you will get more nutrients into your system.

While all that is well-meant, if you are poor, you need money to buy food, even if it is subsidised. And you need work to earn the money to buy that food. Despite its shortcomings, MGNREGA has been responsible for putting that money in the hands of millions of rural poor. Yet, this programme is being deprived of funds and could end up a mere acronym.

The technical fixes also misfire because the approach is sometimes top-down without taking in the particular needs of different parts of India. For instance, one of the solutions for malnutrition among children is to give them a high-energy protein paste, that includes crushed peanuts, through the ICDS programme. But the solution, although it makes sense, does not take into account the fact that children’s tastes and eating habits differ in various parts of India. Or that severely malnourished children — like those in isolated tribal hamlets in some parts of Maharashtra, for instance — cannot digest this rich mixture because they are so emaciated. Rather than giving them nourishment, the mixture can cause acute diarrhoea. So, universalised solutions do not work if there is no flexibility built into such programmes.

Just as a handful of long-handled brooms will not clean India, there is no magic wand for ending hunger. The real measure of a country’s progress should surely be the child hunger index. And here India continues to fall short. Moving from ‘alarming’ to ‘serious’ is simply not good enough.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Out in the open

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 12, 2014

Absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability. Photo: AP


Absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability. Photo: AP


The absence of sanitation facilities for women during disasters enhances their vulnerability.

Last month, while our attention was diverted by what our politicians were doing on foreign shores and at home, tragedies on a massive scale were being played out in many parts of the country.

Besides the devastating floods in Kashmir last month, vast swathes of the rest of India have also been inundated by floodwaters. Odisha, Bihar, Assam and Meghalaya have seen some of the worst flooding in years. For these states, floods are an annual phenomenon. But this year they have been worse and in places where the waters never advanced with such force in earlier years.

So even as the usual tamashas and tirades occupy our news space, spare a thought for the women, men and children in these states who are still struggling. Even as I write this column, an estimated four lakh people in Assam and Meghalaya, spread over 4,446 villages in 23 districts are homeless or badly affected by the floods. Thousands of people remain in relief camps because they cannot go back to their villages.
In Odisha last month, rising river waters submerged thousands of villages in 23 of the 30 districts in the state. In Bihar, too, the flooding has been relentless, spreading destruction, destitution and disease.

While the reports in the media on these states are few and far in-between — you have to make a determined effort to mine out the news from mainstream Indian media — the few reports that have appeared make heart-rending reading.

One report that I found particularly touching appeared in The Hindu on August 27, 2014, under the headline, ‘Women fight shame in flood hit Bihar’ (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/women-fight-shame-in-flood-hit-bihar/article6356043.ece?homepage=true). It quoted women in Bihar’s Supaul district talking about the particular challenge that they face as women in the wake of floods.

A woman in her thirties was quoted saying, “Poor women like us face more problems to relieve ourselves when floods force us to flee our villages. It is our fate. No one can imagine this except those like us.”
Another older woman said, “We have no option but to relieve ourselves in the open by closing our eyes and minds to the hell-like situation.”

What they are talking about is the pathetic absence of any sanitation arrangement for women during such disasters. You might argue that in any case many of these women would not have toilets and are therefore used to open defecation. But can anyone imagine what this woman means when she says they close their “eyes and minds” when they go out to relieve themselves in a flooded landscape?

Why, people would legitimately ask, should we make such a fuss about women’s problems at such times when everyone — men, women and children, as well as the elderly — are affected? I do so because in many ways women’s vulnerabilities are enhanced at such times. If they confront a daily challenge of sanitation, this is compounded during floods and other disasters. Yet, when relief measures are put in place, the particular needs of women are often overlooked.

In a powerful article that Assam-based journalist Teresa Rehman wrote after the 2010 floods in her state (infochangeindia.org/environment/features/sanitation-in-the-time-of-floods.html), she quotes a woman called Salma Begum from Sonitpur district: “Sometimes we have to seek permission from the owners of a dry patch in order to defecate. Most often we have to do it discreetly, on other people’s land, as it becomes difficult to control oneself. Sometimes, during the floods, we starve ourselves so that we do not need to defecate.”

In this instance, women like Salma were beneficiaries of the government’s Total Sanitation Programme, in particular low-cost toilets. Yet, one flood, and everything including these toilets are washed away. Women like her are then left with no alternative but to revert to the age-old practice of open defecation, with the added complication of not finding a dry spot.

Floodwaters are indiscriminating. They sweep away everything and everyone that comes in their way. But for the survivors, the story varies greatly depending on class, caste and gender. And this is where the voices of women like Salma from Assam or the women from Bihar must be heeded. The process of relief and rehabilitation must necessarily be ‘gendered. The absence of toilets is a woman’s problem in a very specific way.

Sweeping our streets clean is all very well but surely cleanliness must mean that women do not need to live through ‘a hell-like situation’ on a daily basis.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A woman’s worth?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 28, 2014


  • The widows of Vrindavan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
    The widows of Vrindavan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
  • The widows of Vrindavan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
    The widows of Vrindavan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan


So let me add my voice to the controversy generated by Mathura Member of Parliament Hema Malini’s comments about the thousands of destitute widows and abandoned women who live in her constituency. In the fashion of most public figures caught out, Hema has proceeded to retract her remarks, and claims that she wanted the sons and daughters of these women to take responsibility for them.
However, the issue is not just her insensitivity towards these women, many of who barely survive on alms and die miserable lonely deaths, but that the Bharatiya Janata Party member has also cynically used these women to rake up an entirely pointless issue of regionalism. Go back to where you came from, she said in effect. For someone who is supposed to be aware of the Indian Constitution and the rights it gives its citizens, this exceeds limits of not just insensitivity, but ignorance.
The only salutary purpose the BJP MP’s remarks have served is to draw attention again to a shameful tradition that has no place in 21st century India. If Hema is worried about the conditions in which these women live, she should be questioning the very reason that drives them to Vrindavan.
What she and all of us need to question is why in India a woman’s worth is measured primarily through the institution of marriage. Why should a woman’s life end when her husband dies, or abandons her? Why does she become ‘inauspicious’ when this happens? How can we support or justify ‘traditions’ that debase women for no other reason than that their husbands have died or have abandoned them?
We cannot speak of women’s rights and equality as long as traditions like this exist, traditions that are reinforced by politicians who suggest that the solution to the situation in Vrindavan is to get families to send their destitute widows to temples in their own states.
The National Commission for Women (NCW), at the behest of the Supreme Court, had done an interesting survey of the women in Vrindavan. In its 2009-10 report, the NCW makes a number of useful recommendations that Hema ought to read and pursue, given that she represents these women in Parliament. She should also take time to read the report as it contains useful data, including more accurate estimates of the number of widows and abandoned women in Vrindavan. Based on detailed interviews with 216 women, the report documents their pathetic life and the reasons for their coming to Vrindavan. Although the majority of them were from West Bengal, there were also women from other states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Assam, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. Most of the women were in the 60 and older age group. Also, while the majority were widows, among them were women who had been divorced or separated, women who came to Vrindavan with destitute and ailing husbands, and women who had never been married.
The report quotes the 2005 survey conducted by the Vrindavan Nagar Palika Parishad that estimated the number of such women at 3,105. Another survey in 2008-09 of the number of women receiving pensions placed the figure at 3,710. Even if these are underestimates, and they most likely are, the total figure would surely not exceed 10,000 in a population of 63,005 in Vrindavan (2,011 census). Incidentally, between 2001 and 2011, the population of Vrindavan grew by less than 10,000. So there is more than a little exaggeration in the numbers of widowed and abandoned women flocking to the city. Numbers aside, even if a handful of women are compelled to leave their homes and travel to a temple town many miles away just to survive, it is a matter of shame. We have to rethink the value of a woman within the institution of marriage. As long as she is measured first by the amount of dowry she brings, second by her ability to produce a male heir, and third by dying before her husband, the tragic saga of the widows of Vrindavan will continue.
The Prime Minister is busy travelling around the world, projecting the image of an India impatient to change and move ahead. Perhaps he should turn his gaze to the condition of widows in his own constituency, Varanasi, and that of his party colleague’s, Vrindavan. India will move ahead when we understand what is holding back half our population.
(To read the original, click here.)