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.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Devil in the detail

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 31, 2014

Students express solidarity. Photo: Kiran Bakale
The Hindu Students express solidarity. Photo: Kiran Bakale


Crimes against women have become a popular talking point in India. They figure in the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech. They find a mention in a statement by the Finance Minister about how the growing incidence of crimes against women is affecting tourism in India. And they are the focus of a plan by the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to win the 2017 Assembly elections in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, albeit with a twist.

The BJP is concerned about crimes only against women of one community (read Hindu) and has concluded, without any evidence, that the perpetrators are all of another community (read Muslim), who are waging something that exists only in the imagination of the Hindutva rightwing, namely ‘Love Jihad’.

Where does all this leave Indian women, of whatever community? Should they feel reassured, more secure, that the highest in the land are concerned about their welfare? Or should they be afraid that this concern is ultimately only instrumental, to push a political agenda, or an economic one — such as making India a more attractive tourist destination?

Whatever one concludes, it is evident that those making statements from the top have little idea of what happens on the ground when women are assaulted, and particularly when they pick up the courage to report the crime and to fight the case through our courts.

August 22 was the first anniversary of a brutal gang rape in the heart of Mumbai when a young woman journalist went on a work assignment to the abandoned Shakti Mills compound. Her resilience and determination played no small role in ensuring that the case was registered, the perpetrators apprehended, charged and committed. But only now, a year later, do we know the details of what she went through in the process of seeking justice.

These facts are brought out in two important recent articles. One by Flavia Agnes, Audrey D’Mello and Persis Sidhva in Economic and Political Weekly of July 19, 2014 (http://www.epw.in/insight/making-high-profile-rape-trial.html) informs us in considerable detail about what happened before and during the Shakti Mills trial. It exposes the insensitivity that infects the entire system — from police to prosecution to the media — where the welfare of the survivor seems to be the lowest priority. If the survivor did not have the support of the Majlis Legal Centre, to which the authors of this article belong, her fate would have been much worse. For instance, it is they who insisted that her privacy should be protected from the intrusive and persistent media when she entered and left the courtroom during what was supposed to be an ‘in camera’ trial. The authors also write about the mockery of the confidential nature of the trial when the public prosecutor gave out all kinds of details of the trial to a hungry media.

Even more disturbing is an article written for the web by a colleague of the Shakti Mills gang rape survivor. Titled ‘That hashtag was my colleague’ (https://in.news.yahoo.com/that-hashtag-was-my-colleague-060844991.html), the article gives us a different insight into what happens in such a situation, including the gross insensitivity of the media concerned only about an ‘exclusive’.

What I found personally most disturbing was the description given in the article about the Test Identification Parade (TIP). In popular TV crime serials and films based on systems in the West, we see a one-way glass between the survivor and the suspects. Each suspect carries a number and the survivor is supposed to state the number of the person or persons she considers responsible for the crime. In India, the system is truly brutal. In one room, often without any women police, a rape survivor has to face a line-up of men. She then has to walk up to the men she identifies as the perpetrators of the crime, touch them on the shoulder and then announce loudly what they did to her. One cannot even imagine the trauma that a woman who has been brutalised must go through with such a grotesque system in place.

There is much else in both articles that will disturb anyone concerned about the issue. But what speaks loudest is the urgent need to address these details of our criminal justice system so that women subjected to sexual assault do not have to go through further assaults on their selves in the process of seeking justice. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Invisible women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 17, 2014

At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani
At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani

Should women ‘work’ after they get married? I put the word work in inverted commas deliberately because women work all the time but only when they do paid work is it considered ‘work’.

One imagines that this question need not be asked anymore because India is changing. But is it? Going by recent reports and studies, it is evident that some things never change, or change so slowly as to be imperceptible. And the one equation that does not change is the expectation from women once they get married. Their priority has to be ‘the family’ and all else, including jobs that could be something they enjoy doing, must be set aside.

An advertisement that is being passionately analysed and discussed on social media depicts a woman boss instructing her junior, who turns out to be her husband, to work over-time to complete a project. Meantime, she heads home and instead of putting up her feet and relaxing, proceeds to cook up a gourmet meal for the husband. She then sends him the pictures through her phone to tempt him to come home for the meal.

So is this depiction of woman as the boss ‘progressive’ or is it ‘regressive’ because ultimately she conforms to the stereotype of the wife who must please her husband? If the roles had been reversed, would the husband boss have done something similar? At most, he might have ordered in a great meal, or asked the domestic help to cook something special. Incidentally, where was the domestic help when the woman ‘boss’ was slaving in the kitchen? It stretches credulity to believe that a woman at the top in the corporate sector would not have domestic help.

Perhaps we are making too much of this but the advertisement raises other, more important, questions about the ability of women to continue doing paid work after marriage. This paper carried an interesting analysis on this subject on August 11 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/marriage-driving-urban-women-out-of-jobs/article6301574.ece). The article reported research that showed that women dropped out of paid work once they got married or/and had children. The exceptions were women in the upper income bracket and the poorest, who had no option but to continue some form of wage work. Poor women in villages also had no choice although their work was often unpaid as it was part of agricultural tasks that they were expected to do in the family.

What the advertisement represents is the exception to the rule. For the majority of women who are poor, whether in city or village, there is really no choice. Speak to any woman who works as a domestic. You hear identical stories. There is not enough in the house to make ends meet. The man either has no work, or cannot work due to addiction, or is in a low-paid insecure job. Often, the woman’s salary is the only steady amount coming into the family kitty. As a result, these women — come rain or shine, illness or family tragedy — are forced to continue to work. What is interesting is that despite the drudgery of domestic work, many of them persist because it gives them a chance to escape the greater drudgery of the work they must still do in their own homes.

The article in The Hindu, however, does touch upon a group of urban women who are neither so poor that they must work for survival nor so well-off that they can continue to work outside their homes because they have help at home. It is the women in the middle who get caught. For them, paid work is ‘permitted’ so to speak, only until they get married. And then it has to stop. Unless the family into which they marry ‘allow’ them to continue. So the little bit of autonomy they gain through earning something through their own labour is snatched away from them the day they get married. Apart from the blow to their own self-esteem, this is a waste because these women could be productively employed.

We do not read enough about this class of women. They are all around us in our cities — working in garment factories, in offices, as saleswomen in the growing retail sector, in call centres etc. Yet, they are virtually invisible. What are their stories?

Perhaps it is time the camera focused on these lives. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Boy, girl or super athlete?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 3, 2014

Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar
The Hindu Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar


Our sport authorities need to be educated. Urgently. They need a crash course in understanding human biology, that there is no clear binary between male and female and that there are many conditions in-between.  But clearly, this knowledge, that has now become fairly commonplace, has failed to trickle down to those controlling Indian athletics.  They continue to believe that testing testosterone levels will conclusively establish whether a woman athlete is indeed a woman!

 So even as women athletes are bringing home medals from the Commonwealth Games, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Athletics Federation if India (AFI) will be better remembered for denying, virtually at the last minute, the chance for one of our most promising runners to compete in these games in Glasgow.

 The case of Dutee Chand will not surprise people who have followed the often farcical and always tragic cases of leading women athletes around the world who have been barred for something over which they had no control. “Sex tests” as they are called, or gender determination tests, are now more refined than the crude form they took earlier.  But they are still not conclusive because nature is sometimes inconclusive in clearly defining the so-called “maleness” or “femaleness” of individuals. Children born with this kind of biological confusion — that is now recognised medically — grow up as boys or girls depending on the way they are socialised. They believe they are boys or girls. They grow into men or women. But the problem arises when the stereotypical definitions of what constitutes a man or a woman clash with the way a person appears.

 So if women athletes are supposed to be weaker than men, a strong woman is suspect.  Is she really a woman? Is she taking drugs to heighten the male hormones, thereby giving her greater strength? Or was she born this way? The latter question is not taken into consideration. Instead, the so-called “unfair” advantage that a strong female athlete might have is used as a stick with which to beat her. And many times, such promising athletes are ruined for life.

Dutee is regarded as one of India’s most promising track athletes. She has consistently brought home medals, the latest just six weeks ago at the Asian Junior Athletics in Taipei where she won two golds. Just as she was getting set to participate in the Commonwealth Games, she was made to undergo this so-called ‘gender determination’ test and thereafter held back. 

 The girl is just 18. She comes from a poor weaver’s family in Odisha. At one shot, the very people who should have been nurturing her for the future have virtually destroyed her career. Luckily for her, the Odisha government and sports association have promised help and are willing to invest in whatever medical intervention is needed to set right her hormone levels. But the question should still be asked: why do we have these tests? And when it is mandatory that even if tests are conducted, that they be kept confidential, why is this information put out in the public space? Dutee says that within days of the news of the tests, journalists landed up at her home in Gopalpur and demanded from her bewildered parents an answer to the nonsensical question: “Is Dutee a boy or a girl?” 

 A woman who knows well what this feels like is the outstanding woman athlete Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of her silver medial won at the 2006 Doha Asian Games when she failed a “gender” test. Santhi has managed, with immense difficultly, to overcome her despair and has rehabilitated herself.  But when she heard about Dutee, here is what she said, “They have tested her at the last minute, humiliated her and broken her heart… Now, if she re-enters the sports field, things will not be normal. Even if she takes treatment, people will kill her with their suspicious gaze.”

 Depressing words from Santhi, but Dutee should look at the example of another female athlete similarly humiliated. Caster Semenya from South Africa was considered the fastest woman on earth after her spectacular performance in 2009 at the World Championships.  Like Santhi and now Dutee, Caster “failed” the test and was humiliated.  But she dug herself out and went on to compete in the London Olympics where she won the silver medal in the women’s 800 metres. South Africa had her carry the country’s flag.  When will our sports authorities grow up and develop knowledge and sensitivity to nurture our future women athletes?

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In the war zone

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 20, 2014

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Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP
AFP Children flee from the war zone. Photo: AFP

In this escalation of hostilities in one of the world’s most volatile of regions, this nameless boy, and thousands of children like him, force us to face the ugly truth — that wars kill children, not a few, but millions. They wound children. And they leave them bereft and scarred for life.

Earlier this month, the United Nations released its annual report on children and armed conflict. It makes depressing reading. It documents the ever-expanding arena of war and conflict, between and within countries. It states that armed conflict has ‘a disproportionate impact on children’ and that indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas as well as the use of terror tactics was taking a worrying toll on children.

The report also reminds us that despite campaigns to stop using children, national armies and armed groups continue to recruit young children. The UN report says that last year, children were used in 23 conflict situations around the world. It gives a long list of countries where this is happening and specifically names 51 armed groups that continue to use children.

Apart from Palestine, almost every day we are reminded about what war and conflict do to children. Remember the 223 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria abducted by the armed rebel group Boko Haram? It is now three months and they have still not been released. On July 13, the leader of the group released a video where he mocked the efforts of people like the brave Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai to negotiate their release. What is happening to these girls? Will they ever return? And if they do, will they be able to deal with what they have been through?

The UN report also gives us a glimpse of this aspect of war and children, that of sexual violence that boys and girls face. We do not know what is happening to those girls in Nigeria. What is already documented is the violence that children are facing in places like Syria, where there appears no end to the war. The UN report mentions that apart from repeated sexual harassment of women and girls at government checkpoints, there are reports of the abduction of young women and girls in groups at checkpoints. These girls are then released a few days later and sent back to their villages, thereby ‘intentionally exposing them as victims of rape and subjecting them to rejection by their families.’

Children are killed, kidnapped, forced to fight. But apart from that, in on-going conflicts, such as the situation between Palestine and Israel, they live under the daily cloud of violence, where the ordinary routine of daily life like going to school become impossible.

Here is a quote from the UN report about the situation in the West Bank last year. Change the year to 2014, and you will get a sense of what has become a frequent, almost permanent, state of affairs in Palestine: “Fifty-eight education-related incidents affecting 11,935 children were reported in the West Bank, resulting in damage to school facilities, interruption of classes and injury to children. Forty-one incidents involved Israeli security forces operations near or inside schools, forced entry without forewarning, the firing of tear gas canisters and sound bombs into school yards and, in some cases, structural damage to schools. In 15 of the incidents, Israeli security forces fired tear gas canisters into schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), some during class hours, without forewarning. In a majority of instances, schoolchildren and teachers were delayed or prevented from going to school owing to checkpoints, areas closed for military operations or exercises, military patrols in front of schools and preventive closures by the Israel Defense Forces. In 32 cases, teachers and children were arrested inside the school, at checkpoints or on their way to school.”

Like that boy in the photograph, generations of young children in Palestine and elsewhere do not know what it is like to simply go to school, to study, to dream of a better future.

(To read the original, click here.)