Saturday, July 04, 2015

Selective amnesia

The Hindu, July 4, 2015

At a mass sterilisation camp.
At a mass sterilisation camp.

Forty years is a long period. Since June 20, and the build up to the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it has been fascinating to watch the politics of selective remembering and determined amnesia. In the former category fall many from the ruling party, barring a few exceptions, who remember their ‘suffering’ during that period and suggest that they were in the forefront of the resistance to the Emergency. The latter are members of the Congress Party, who will not remember even if they have been told, repeatedly, what happened over those 20 months.

What both sides of the political divide forget is that those who really ‘suffered’ during that ‘dark’ period in our history were the poor and the powerless. They were either the targets of Indira Gandhi’s repressive policies, or were foolish enough to try and oppose them. In both instances, there was no recourse to justice.

The silence of the media made this worse. Because the press did not report, there was virtually no record of what happened. Much of it had to be reconstructed after the Emergency. This silence, willing or forced, exacerbated the very real suffering of the people at the receiving end of the government’s policies. Not only were they denied justice but they were also denied a voice. They had been rendered invisible.

Everyone knows now that one of the most atrocious policies of the Indira Gandhi government was the mass sterilisation campaign devised by Sanjay Gandhi as part of his five-point programme. In the name of ‘population control’, poor men and women were rounded up and forcibly sterilised. While the poor were always the principal targets of the government’s population efforts, this time it was specifically poor men. It is now fairly well-established that one of the main reasons for Mrs. Gandhi’s spectacular defeat in the March 1977 elections was the anger among the communities targeted under this campaign.

Was there any rethinking on this policy after 1977? You would think that no political party would risk pushing through a policy that results in such revulsion. Yet, although on paper, population control’ is now ‘family welfare’ and ‘women’s reproductive rights’, in fact sterilisation continues to be the main thrust of government policy. The difference now is that the main target is women, not men. In 2012-13, of the total number of sterilisation cases, 97.4 per cent were women. In fact, since 2005, over 95 per cent of sterilisation procedures have been performed on women.

This government’s stated policy is to encourage sterilisation as a method to control population growth. Incentives for health workers to bring in ‘cases’ for sterilisation have been increased. Women who choose institutionalised delivery are especially targeted; it is so much convenient to coax them into accepting a permanent solution to repeated pregnancies. And most health workers find it easier to persuade or force women than men even though is it well-known that a vasectomy is less complicated, and reversible.

Only a few stories appear about the way these sterilisation camps are conducted. A couple of years back, there was outrage when a story appeared about bicycle pumps being used on 56 women who were sterilised in Banarpal village, 150 km from Bhubaneshwar. The instrument that should have been used is an insufflator that pumps carbon dioxide into the abdomen. As this was not available in the camp where the procedure was being done, a bicycle pump was used. The surgeon in-charge, Dr. Mahesh Prasad Raut, justified this saying: “I am not alone. Surgeons often use bicycle pumps in the rural camps where the facility of an operation theatre and other sophisticated equipment are not available.” This doctor had done 60,000 tubectomies and was awarded by the government for this feat. How many of them were done using bicycle pumps is not known.

And of course, these horrific violations occur not just in Chhattisgarh or Odisha but also in many other places including Faridabad district, Haryana. Neha Dixit, a freelance journalist, has recently written a searing account of what women lined up for a tubectomy faced in the Badshah Khan hospital ( In A Callous Cut, Dixit describes the scene in the hospital where women between the ages of 20-26 await the operation. There are not enough containers to collect urine samples. So only a few women can be tested. They are asked to sign a ‘consent’ form in English, a language they do not understand. And then, dizzy with pain and sedatives, they are sent off to fend for themselves. Little wonder that so many die from sepsis or other complications, or have to be rushed back to hospital.

Reading her account, and looking back on other such stories in the last 40 years, one is forced to ask: Did sterilisation contribute to Indira Gandhi’s defeat only because the target was men? If not, then how come the callous way in which poor women are being sterilised in India in such large numbers is never a political issue?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Censorship, the Emergency and Himmat

June 23, 2015

It's almost 40 years since the Emergency was declared.  Those of us who lived through it have many memories.  We should have recorded them.  But we got caught up in events and I plead guitly for not having taken the time to write about that period while memories were still fresh.

Here's something I've written in that gives a flavour of those times:

'Himmat' during the Emergency: When the Press crawled, some refused to even bend

When Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution, some journalists maintained their independence despite State repression. Why can't today's journalists find ways to resist corporate control to tell readers the truth?

Photo Credit: Kalpana Sharma
Forty years ago on a rainy evening in Mumbai, a group of friends met in an apartment overlooking Grant Road Bridge. It was June 26, 1975.  We knew that a State of Emergency had been declared. We also knew that there would be press censorship. But what on earth did that mean?

All India Radio did not explain. We had to turn to BBC World Service to get a sense of what exactly was happening. That is how we learned that thousands of opposition leaders and political workers had been arrested under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act.

Some of us in that room were journalists. We worked with a small English-language weekly, Himmat, edited by Rajmohan Gandhi. What would censorship mean for us?

When we went into work the next morning, we heard that the government had sent out “guidelines” that the press had to follow. Number one on the list was: “Where news is plainly dangerous, newspapers will assist the Chief Press Adviser by suppressing it themselves. Where doubts exist, reference may and should be made to the nearest press adviser.” Clearly we had to decide what is “dangerous”.

The guidelines also instructed us not to reproduce rumours or anything “objectionable” that had been printed outside India. Given that only newspapers outside India were reporting what was actually going on in the country, this pretty much foreclosed reporting on anything.

Roller-coaster ride

The next 20 months were a roller-coaster ride, but one that formed us as journalists. The principle lesson we learned was that freedom of the press is not a luxury that the rulers bestow on you: it is a lifeline in an unequal society like ours. Without it, the poor would become invisible because it would deprive them of their basic right to be heard as citizens in a democracy.

As the majority of Indians today were not even born when Emergency was declared and this also applies to most of the journalists in the trade today, let me just briefly recount my own experience with censorship.

In the initial days, there was confusion in the press about what censorship would involve. The office of the Director of Information and Publicity of the Maharashtra government had been converted into the Censor’s office, employing around 15 people. Binod Rau, a former resident editor of the Indian Express, was the Censor. An official from this office was sent to each daily newspaper in the evening. But by September 20, 1975, it became evident that it would be impossible to pre-censor every single word that appeared in print. Hence, we were informed that we were expected to “self-censor” and abide by the guidelines.

White-out protest

In the two issues that came out after the declaration of Emergency, Himmat chose to leave its Editorials blank. Thereafter, we decided that we would write as we always did until we were informed that we had violated some guideline. That didn’t take long. In our issue of October 24, 1975, we had carried a report about a prayer meeting at Raj Ghat held on October 2 at whic Acharya JB Kripalani had spoken. The police broke up the meeting and arrested those who refused to leave, including our editor-in-chief Rajmohan Gandhi and his brother, Ramchandra Gandhi. Although they were released later, some of the others spent several months in prison.

By then, I was the editor of Himmat. I was summoned to the office of the Special Press Advisor (as the Censor was known) and informed that as Himmat had violated the guidelines, we would be under pre-censorship with immediate effect. When I asked which guideline, there was no answer. Finally, one official told me that they had been berated by Delhi for allowing the item on the Rajghat meeting to appear.

Despite this, we found ways to dodge the censor. Additionally, the Bombay High Court ruling in April 1976 in the Binod Rau vs MR Masani case on censorship provided some breathing space. Amongst other things, the Court ruled that “if there is a right to praise either an individual or the government, there is equally a right to criticise the individual or the government…”

For a couple of months, everything was quiet. Then in July 1976, someone from the Criminal Investigation Department turned up at our office with a notice stating that the printer and publisher of Himmat (Rajmohan Gandhi) had to deposit Rs 20,000 within 15 days with the Commissioner of Police because there were “prejudicial reports” in three issues in April. No details were given. These details were provided only when we went to court challenging censorship guidelines. Apparently, we had quoted Mahatma Gandhi saying, “The restoration of free speech, free association and free press is almost the whole of Swaraj” was considered “prejudicial”.

Arbitrary rules

I give these details to illustrate the arbitrariness of censorship during those times. Yet, we had decided that we would rather continue to push the envelope and take risks than buckle under censorship. Such bravado meant that the press where we printed was served a notice to stop printing Himmat, andno other printing press would touch us. Of course, we did not have the money to buy our own printing machines. In desperation, we put out an appeal to our readers. Amazingly, hundreds of readers responded, sending us contributions as small as Rs 5 and going up to a few thousand rupees.  We managed to collect over Rs 60,000 and with some additional funds bought two small printing machines and rented a space in an industrial estate in Prabhadevi. This allowed us to have our own print line and take the risk we felt we must.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was also busted when the authorities found that the bulk of the magazine was being printed elsewhere. So finally, in December 1976, we were left with no option but to go every week to the Censor’s office and be subjected to the irrational and arbitrary slashing of copy. To fill these spaces at the last minute was virtually impossible. Yet we had to because leaving blank pages was also a crime!

The Emergency ended in March 1977 after the spectacular election that threw Indira Gandhi out of office. Although on paper censorship continued during the election campaign, no one paid any heed to it.

The lessons of 1975

Looking back now, four decades later, has the Indian press learned anything from that experience? Do we value the freedom that was snatched away from us?

Some of us as journalists certainly learned important lessons. The 1970s was still a time of idealism. I can count many of my contemporaries who came into journalism believing that our job was to seek the truth and write without fear.

Once the Emergency ended, many such journalists took it upon themselves to unearth the stories that had been suppressed, stories that above all denied poor people their rights. These included slum demolitions in many cities, forcible sterilisation campaigns, torture of prisoners, fake encounters and many others.

Instead of merely reporting on these atrocities, and others like bonded labour, trafficking, denial of human rights, the rights of pavement dwellers and more, journalists followed up these stories by filing Public Interest Litigations in the Supreme Court. No one charged them with being “unprofessional” or “activist journalists”. In the mood that prevailed then, it was accepted that even as we are journalists, we are also citizens and cannot stand by and watch such egregious violations of rights.

If you survey the Indian press of the late 1970s into the 1980s, you see the results of such a commitment by scores of journalists. Newspapers gave space for such writing, even encouraged it. And even though several smaller publications like Himmat closed down because the economics did not work out, many mainstream publications took up the task of unearthing the developments that were hidden during the Emergency.

New priorities

Since the 1990s, there has been a visible change in the Indian media. For one, print is not so dominant, yielding space to the electronic media. In the last few years, the Internet has opened up new spaces.

The growth and variety of the media suggests that there should be greater freedom, that it would be virtually impossible today for the State to control the media. Certainly the kind of censorship regime imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 would never work today.

Yet, has the space for the kind of writing spawned by the experience of Emergency shrunk or expanded? This is a question we still have to ask.

While the expansion of the media space would suggest that there would be much more room for writing on poverty, on human rights, on the invisible and marginal parts of India, on communities that are forgotten, the reverse is true. In a media driven by the market, such news has no value. So while earlier, falling foul of the government restricted the pursuit of such stories, today the belief that such news will not sell your product denies them space.

Secondly, how do we define “free” in relation to the media? “Free” of what or whom? Perhaps the State does not have the same ability it had in the past to control the content of even privately owned media, but today there are other forces that do. When politics and business come together, and define what can or cannot be reported, is this not a form of covert censorship? The increasing consolidation of media ownership in a few powerful hands, and the nexus between some of these owners and the people in power, gives an entirely different spin to the concept of a “free” media.

What remains the same is the choice that journalists have to make. During the Emergency, as LK Advani famously noted, although the press was asked to bend, it chose to crawl. Yet many journalists chose not to do so, at considerable risk to themselves and their careers.

That choice is one that we still have to make.  If even under overt censorship, some publications managed to communicate the truth to their readers, why can't journalists do it under the indirect forms of control that exist today?

Kalpana Sharma was editor of Himmat from 1976 to 1981 when it closed. She has worked with The Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindu and is currently consulting editor with Economic and Political Weekly.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

India’s 'everywoman'

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 21, 2015
This woman is also ‘everywoman’, or rather every poor and elderly woman living in a poor urban settlement anywhere in India.
The Hindu Archives
An old woman lies in a hospital in Mumbai.  No one knows her precise age — perhaps 80, perhaps 90. She was born in a village near Ratnagiri.  Her date of birth was never noted.  So we don’t know.

What we do know is that she was widowed young, has a daughter who survived but who is also a widow.  The two women look after each other.  Their lives have followed an eerily similar pattern. 

 And both have spent their entire lives caring for others.

Years of standing at the kitchen stove, going down on their haunches as they swept and swabbed, picking up heavy buckets of water and doing all the other chores that domestic helps do has meant that both women have developed acute arthritis.  Their joints are stiff and swollen.  Yet they have no choice but to continue to stress these unyielding joints, forcing them to bend a little as they go about their daily tasks.

Although she does not work as a domestic help anymore, the older woman has suffered unbearable joint pains for years.  With age her condition has worsened. She lives in a 15x10ft house in a Mumbai slum.  There is no running water.  It has to be collected when water is released each evening and stored in a drum.  And there is no toilet.  The nearest public toilet is a 15-minute treacherous walk up and down narrow slippery lanes.  For an elderly woman with unmoving limbs that is a mountain she simply cannot climb. The only option is the indignity of open defecation in the drain outside her house.

Sadly, even as she lies inert in her hospital bed, hooked on to an oxygen tank, she is probably better off than she has been for many years.  The women’s ward has six beds; only three are occupied.  It is substantially larger than the room in which she sits, sleeps and eats in her own home. In the hospital, someone washes her, changes her clothes, puts clean sheets on her bed and brings her nutritious food to eat every day. In her own home, her daughter, already frail and still working as a domestic in two households, has to seek the help of neighbours and family members every time she has to help her mother sit up or move a few feet. It is humiliating and frustrating for both.  

Yet, a hospital bed is obviously not a permanent solution.  It is a temporary respite until a diagnosis is presented. And even when that happens, there will be no easy choices about what to do next.  Can a bed-ridden elderly woman, without access to running water and to a toilet, be nursed back to health in a claustrophobic slum dwelling?

I tell this story not only because the woman is someone I know, love and respect; a woman who has cared for me and my family; who has laughed with us, cried with us, scolded us and fought with us.  And who has never said ‘no’ to anything we asked for; who cared for us in a way we can never repay.

This woman is also ‘everywoman’, or rather every poor and elderly woman living in a poor urban settlement anywhere in India. Her condition illustrates the challenge that poverty, illness and age presents to those living in impermanent housing.

An estimated 26 per cent of people living in urban India live below the poverty line.  Yet, this poverty is not just about numbers, about rupees and paise.  It is the poverty of absence — the absence of basic necessities.  It is the poverty that forces families to make the heart-breaking choice of not treating the elderly, of taking them to their villages to die because they cannot afford to treat their ailments in the city.  It is the poverty that exacerbates the indignities that most elderly people suffer, regardless of their economic situation.  It is the poverty of hopelessness that you see reflected in the eyes of this ‘everywoman’.

I realise that these conditions will not change overnight, that many more like this woman will, and indeed do, suffer a fate worse than hers.  But it does strike me as ironical, and vulgar, that we should obsess about building “smart” cities and “global” cities while forgetting that for the largest number of people the solutions are simple and local.  

Affordable housing, so that people like this woman have an option to be cared for at home, should be the topmost priority if we want to build really smart cities.  With such homes will come water and sanitation.  This is not rocket science.  And is surely not beyond the capability of our “smart” urban planners.

Instead, we are deluged with plans to make our cities Internet compliant, with advertisements about dream housing where every desire is fulfilled (at a cost that only a tiny sliver of India’s population can afford) and of health care that means being permanently in debt as the medical industrial machine churns out profits.

A compassionate society is one that cares for the indigent and the elderly.  We are nowhere near the mark.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

When women seek help...

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 7, 2015

Why do governments feel compelled to ‘celebrate’ one year in office and use the occasion to boast of their ‘achievements’? Yet, when criticised, they protest that one year is too short a time to pass judgment. If that is true, then why bother to mark one year?

Since May 26, when the Modi government completed a year in office, we have been subjected to a familiar litany of ‘success’ stories by the government’s acolytes and the predictable trashing of its claims by the opposition. Obscured by the screaming matches, particularly on television, is the real story of how difficult it is to be successful in many of the areas that the government wants us to believe that it has done something.

Take the promise of making women more secure and safe in this country. All political parties had to pay heed to the demand for changes in the law that arose following the December 2012 Delhi gang rape. And every party supported the amended rape law that incorporated some of the suggestions of the excellent Justice Verma Committee report. One concrete outcome was the creation of a Rs.1,000 crores Nirbhaya Fund by the previous government.

Not be left behind, the Modi government allocated another Rs.1,000 crores to the Nirbhaya Fund. But the last allocation has still not been utilised. So, merely adding more money to a fund that is not being used will not make much difference for women.

What will make a difference is if some political heft and will is put behind the concept that led to the creation of this fund.  One concrete plan was to use it for one-stop crisis centres, to be called Nirbhaya centres. These institutions, which could be either standalone or part of an existing health facility, would provide a rape survivor with the kind of help she needs when she decides to report the crime. Instead of running from one institution to another — the police, a hospital, a lawyer etc. — she could go to one centre that would provide multiple services: medical, psychological, police, legal and forensic.  Such centres exist in many countries and have proved hugely beneficial.

In the absence of such places, imagine what happens when a woman reports a rape. First she narrates her story to the police. Then she goes to a hospital, where she is taken to the casualty section. Often she has to wait. The doctor in-charge is usually a man. She has to go over all the details again. There is no rule that a woman doctor or nurse should be present. Eventually, she sees a gynaecologist who has to collect samples that could be crucial evidence. Ideally, she should also have the services of a counselor, although in India this is rare. In addition she needs sound legal advice on how to proceed further.
All this constitutes just the first step in the long fight for justice. If rape cases fail — the rate of conviction for rape cases in 2013 stood at a paltry 27 per cent — it is precisely because all these facilities are not in place when the woman seeks help. And, even if forensic evidence is collected in a hospital, it is often not stored properly. As a result, it fails to be useful when called upon during a case. So, clearly, such one-stop centres are essential.

Yet, as we are discussing this government’s first year in office, what is its record? When it came to power last year, it promised 660 Nirbhaya centres. Despite additional allocations, the number has been whittled down to just 36 centres.  What sense does this make? Is the government doing this in phases? Is there a long-term strategy? How will it decide where to locate these few centres? No such details are available making one suspect that this is another of those plans where action does not match the rhetoric.

To make the amended law work, the government has to put in place structures that will aid those seeking justice. A stronger law will not result in a conviction if the prosecution does not make an effort to pursue the case, if the survivor does not get proper legal advice on how to proceed, if the medical and forensic evidence is not properly collected and stored, if witnesses are not protected so that they don’t change their stance at the last minute and most importantly, if the woman’s right to privacy is not respected. There are gaping holes at every step that clever defence lawyers exploit. The result is humiliation and defeat for a woman already traumatised. Every such case that is dismissed deters other women from pursuing the legal option.

The real test of intent lies in the details — not the broad-sweep catch phrases so loved by politicians, including the Prime Minister. The ‘acche din’ for Indian women are a long way off; the ‘burre din’ continue.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mainland apathy

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 24, 2015

Manipur...centre of unrest.
Manipur...centre of unrest.

There are some stories that are never told. Inundated as our media is with the foreign travels of our Prime Minister, statements and actions of other politicians, Bollywood and cricket, murders and crime, large parts of this country are rendered virtually invisible. Newsworthiness is determined by proximity. So if something happens in our big cities, there will be pages devoted to the incident. In Mumbai, where I live, one newspaper devoted as many as six pages to the Salman Khan case. Excessive? Yes, but also all too predictable.

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to two women journalist friends of mine in Manipur, a northeastern state that I have not visited for over five years. During my last visit, many aspects of life there caught my attention. For instance, journalists had to carry two or three mobile phones, as they did not know when there would be electricity to charge them. Internet connections were patchy.

Apart from their professional lives, these women also had to contend with the daily challenges of living in a place where there is no reliable source of electricity, and water shortages are frequent. In a state where dozens of militant groups operate, curfew could be imposed on any day, making movement after 5 pm risky. Public transport was virtually non-existent even in the capital of the state. The transport that you did notice in abundance was that of Indian army jeeps and trucks, some with soldiers standing ready with guns cocked. Not a happy state of affairs by any stretch of the imagination.

We know that Manipuri women are incredibly strong. Irom Sharmila, still on an indefinite fast demanding the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), has more than proved that. This resilience is also evident in the faces of the women who run the main marketplace in Imphal, the Ima market, and in the demeanour of those doughty older women, the Meira Paibi, who have been at the forefront of the fight to highlight human rights offences by the security forces. Yet their courage and strength is severely challenged by these vicissitudes of daily life.

So I asked my friends if anything had changed since my last visit, if daily existence had become a little better and also whether the mainstream media had tapped them for reports about their region that went beyond militancy and politics.  Here is what one of them wrote:

“My answer to that would be that most often there is NO work for folks like us. How many times do we see stories about the people, their issues, lifestyle, politics etc?” She pointed out that only when “the body count goes up in some deadly bomb blast or an economic blockade on the highway that goes into a record breaking three months” is when the Indian media takes note. “They send parachute journalists who even get their vehicle drivers to give them bytes as ‘locals’,” she complains. “National media outlets (whose idea of the Indian nation stops at West Bengal!) prefer to pay for a flight, hotel and vehicle charges for their journalists who get in and get out before they can even spell MANIPUR! Many prefer to buy video clips from local video journalists (cable folks etc.) and use them sitting in Delhi or Guwahati.”

And what about the power situation: “It is like five steps forward and three back.  We have now got a pre-paid facility in most parts of Imphal but despite that, we do not get a 24-hour facility. Since pre-paid installation is going on, we have long spells of darkness. No one can say when the lights will be off or on. Suffice to say that it’s somewhat better but definitely not reliable. We had a 36-hour blackout just the other day, no explanations given!”

You will not know this from following the mainstream Indian media. We are informed that Manipur now has a new governor, Dr.Syed Ahmed. But, days before he was sworn in, the main link of Manipur to the rest of the country, NH 37, was blocked following protests against the killing of two labourers by the Kuki Revolutionary Front (KRF), one of dozens of militant groups operating in the state. That was followed by a 24-hour general strike. The blocked highway meant that fuel prices shot through the roof; a litre of petrol was Rs.120, an LPG cylinder sold for Rs.1,600 in the black. For people in Manipur, such blockades are now a fact of life but for the media in the rest of India, this was not a story worth reporting in any detail.

Is it not ironic that “mainland India”, the term used in many northeastern states, continues to emphasise how even the distant reaches of this country like Kashmir and Manipur are an ‘integral’ part of the country? And yet we, who inhabit this mainland, care little about the daily lives of those who live in these regions.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How not to help Nepal

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 10, 2015

Those giving aid need to take the viewpoint of the affected communities seriously.
Those giving aid need to take the viewpoint of the affected communities seriously.

The devastation that Nature has wrought on Nepal, that beautiful but poor nation, makes you weep. Pictures of the ravaged land bring back memories of other times when the earth was still, when people smiled, when temple bells echoed through the narrow and crowded streets of Kathmandu.
Nature does not care to discriminate when it strikes. Yet, once the dust settles — and it has still to settle in Nepal — questions will be asked for which there are no easy answers. Already people are asking them. For instance, why does it take so long for help to reach them? And when it does, why is it inappropriate and uneven?

Such questions were asked so long ago closer home. On January 26, 2001, an earthquake of similar intensity hit Kutch and parts of Gujarat. Entire villages were flattened. In towns, buildings collapsed, roads were split open. Almost 20,000 died; 1,66,000 were injured and 4,00,000 houses were destroyed.

While Nepal is in the Himalayas, Kutch is a desert, flat and barren. Even the worst affected places could be accessed by road and air. Bhuj, the principal city, was also badly affected but enough of it remained intact for some kind of relief effort to be coordinated within a few days.
Yet, what was striking at first, as in Nepal, was the absence of the State. In the first few days, people helped each other and community and non-governmental groups working in the region sprung into action. When aid did come, from all over the world, it was often inappropriate. It came from people who meant well, who were moved by the plight of those affected. But with no one to guide them, they ended up sending things that could not be used.

I was reminded of this when I heard of a group of well-intentioned women in Mumbai deciding to make hundreds of theplas (a Gujarati roti that can last for several days) to send to Nepal. No one told them that cooked food was a waste when the basic infrastructure for distributing aid had still not been established.

I saw something similar in Kutch. Tons of used clothing was sent there by truck. Bundles of used clothes, some torn and damaged, were flung out of trucks as they passed by the devastated villages. No one bothered to pick them up. No one had checked the kind of clothing Kutchi women would find useful. So the clothes lay on the road and in time were dispersed by strong winds. Eventually, they found a perch on the dry branches of the few trees that spotted the barren landscape. It was a bizarre sight that illustrated the pointlessness of this kind of goodwill gesture.

The biggest challenge in the aftermath of natural disasters is when it recedes from our consciousness. That is precisely when disaster-hit areas require the most attention. The slow and tedious task of rebuilding and rehabilitation can take many years. The process exposes the divisions that exist in many societies and sometimes even exacerbates them. Inevitably, the better- off, the better-connected manage while the struggle for those at the margins is prolonged.

Disasters also present an opportunity to think afresh about the kind of development that is needed. In Kutch, as in Nepal, many of the villages badly affected also suffered from lack of water and sanitation. Post-disaster, the emphasis is on rebuilding structures with earthquake-resistant features. But the permanent, and sometimes intractable, problems such as providing basic services are overlooked.

This is where affected communities need to be seen as participants and not as recipients of aid. The latter expects them to be passive, to gratefully accept whatever comes their way. The former demands active participation. Those giving aid need to take the viewpoint of these communities seriously and recognise that people who live in such precarious environments also have a deep understanding of survival strategies.

However, such sagacity is not always present in donors. In Kutch, for instance, many business houses came forward and offered to reconstruct entire villages. What emerged were strong, earthquake-resistant concrete structures. They were uniform. They were laid out in a grid with straight lines. And they looked indistinguishable from other new townships in any other part of India. The distinctiveness of traditional Kutch architecture, which incorporates features to deal with the harsh climate, was missing. Worse still was the almost complete absence of consultation with the affected communities.

In one such township, the women setup temporary kitchens outside their concrete houses. Why, I asked. Because the design of the kitchen, they said, was unsuitable for their style of cooking with wood or coal. So they were left with no option but to cook out in the open.

In any case, in the first year after the new structures were built, people continued to sleep outside because they had no faith that these buildings would survive another earthquake. No one had bothered to explain how earthquake-resistant features work. If the benefactors had taken the time to educate people, particularly the women, and also to consult them about the design of the houses, there would have been greater acceptance.

Everyone wants to help victims of natural calamities. But the best help for those who survive is respect. And a listening ear. It is not too much to ask.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Price of war

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 26, 2015

According to reports prepared by the United Nations and Iraqi refugee support groups, there are 1.6 million widows in Iraq today as a direct consequence of what is termed a “low-level war”.
 According to reports prepared by the United Nations and Iraqi refugee support groups, there are 1.6 million widows in Iraq today as a direct consequence of what is termed a “low-level war”.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a country not far from India, women had rights and some freedom. They drove cars, even taxis. They went out to restaurants and cafes. They worked as doctors, teachers, lawyers, and in other professions.

Today, they dare not step out of their homes after dark. It is a rare sight to see a woman behind the driving wheel. In a little over 12 years, this country has changed so drastically as to be virtually unrecognisable.

The country I am referring to is Iraq. Even as our newspapers and television news show images of wars across that region, and we are informed of the war in Yemen as scores of Indians are evacuated, we forget that there was once a country called Iraq where women had freedom of movement.
It is good to remember this because it reminds us, yet again, about the price that war extracts from ordinary people but especially from women.

I was reminded of Iraq when I read a recent article about the situation of women in Iraq. According to reports prepared by the United Nations and Iraqi refugee support groups, there are 1.6 million widows in Iraq today as a direct consequence of what is termed a “low-level war”. In fact, one in every 10 families in Iraq is headed by a woman. There are also over five million orphans.

How do these women support their families? In a country where women were free to engage in all manner of jobs, since 2003, when the United States and its allies decided that Iraqis needed a regime change, and proceeded to destroy a functioning economy, women have been the hardest hit. For many, the only option is low-paid jobs like housekeeping or cleaning, and only if there is someone to care for their children. Many others have resorted to begging. Even this is risky as the police round up such women and throw them in jail.

The luckier ones are those who can still live in their own towns or villages, even if some of these were reduced to rubble during the war and thereafter. The fate of the internally displaced is many times worse. In a population of a little over 36 million, 1.13 million people are internally displaced because of the conflict. Some of them have been uprooted several times in the course of the last decade.

During the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraqi women had access to education. They played sport. “We were like normal people. We would go to restaurants and cafes with our children but now all the women and children rush to their home before the sun sets because they are afraid”, stated Hana Ibrahim, director of the Women’s Cultural Center, in Baghdad when she testified before the World Tribunal on Iraq. Not only are women constrained from going out now, even those with qualifications are not finding work. An estimated 68 per cent of Iraqi women graduates can find no work.
Iraq: the women’s story is a film made three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Two Iraqi women travelled across the country for three months. It was risky, as the war had not ended. They spoke to many women not just in Baghdad but also in places like Basra in the south and in a small town near the Syria border that had been flattened by American bombs. The stories they recorded were heart-breaking. A grieving widow left with six children when her husband, an ambulance driver, is killed during the bombing of their town. An eight-year-old girl recounts her experience of surviving when the car in which she was travelling with her father and some others was shot down by the U.S. military. Everyone died except her father and herself. Her father was imprisoned on suspicion of being a terrorist. The little girl was treated in a hospital by the Americans and finally allowed to return to her family. She was shown the bloodied photographs of the dead men in the car and asked if she recognised any of them. In the film, her grandfather recounts how shattered she is by that experience even if her physical wounds have healed.

These stories of war are familiar. They sound the same everywhere. Only the locations differ, as do the identities of the victims and the aggressors. What is a constant is the fact that at the very bottom of the heap are often the women.

In Iraq, as elsewhere, the war has meant not just the physical destruction of a country, but the specific attack on women, something that continues till today. For the last 12 years, Iraqi women have had to contend with abductions, death, torture, forced marriages and sexual violence. Many are the stories that are never told. How many times can you repeat the same story? Even the media loses interest after a while as it moves to other killing fields, to war zones where the action is more horrific. The situation of women in Iraq reminds us that if women repeatedly speak up for peace, it is because they know the real cost of war.