Sunday, December 28, 2008

Woman of steel

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 28, 2008

The Other Half

The State of Jharkhand, that mineral rich southern part of the former State of Bihar, which was hived off into a separate State in 2000, has become famous recently for the achievements of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket captain who seems to be on a permanent winning streak.

But Dhoni is not the only remarkable individual from this State. In the wake of the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai, when the media was understandably concentrating on developments surrounding that tragic incident, a woman from Jharkhand was honoured at a ceremony in New Delhi. This went virtually unnoticed. She is not part of the glitterati, the “beautiful people” who seem to dominate our television screens these days. She will not be invited to television chat shows to give a sound byte. She will not feature on the front pages of our magazines and newspapers.

Yet, this exceptional 44-year-old tribal woman, a journalist and an activist, could probably teach even Mahendra Singh Dhoni a lesson or two about how to fight back even when you are down and everyone expects you to lose.

Worthy recipient
Dayamani Barla was chosen for the Chingari Award for Women Against Corporate Crime 2008. The award itself is remarkable because it has been instituted by two women who took on one of the biggest corporations in the world, Union Carbide in 1984 after one of the worst industrial disasters killed thousands of people in Bhopal. Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi Shukla won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004 for their work in Bhopal to get justice for the victims. Instead of using the sizeable award money for their needs as they could have given that they were victims of the gas disaster, they decided to invest it in a trust that would recognise each year a woman struggling on the same issues as them.

In Dayamani Barla they have found a worthy recipient for the award. Like Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi, Dayamani knows the cost of fighting against the powerful. Born in a village in Gumla district of Jharkhand to a landless family, Dayamani’s father was forced to give up his house to usurious moneylenders when she was still young. Her mother had to find work as a domestic in Ranchi and Dayamani had to work to supplement the family income from the age of nine. But she also continued to study, and worked to support her family by giving tuitions and typing, at the rate of Rs. 1 per hour. Many children under such circumstances would have given up education. But Dayamani persisted and cleared not just high school but even university. She did her Masters in Commerce from Ranchi University and went on to be an award-winning journalist and author. She was clear from the start that she wanted to use her pen to give a voice to those who are otherwise not heard.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

No time for revenge

I am not the first person to recommend peace and restraint since the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Yet, within minutes of my column appearing in The Hindu, the hate mail has already started pouring in. One reader has called me "asinine", and writes: "India can do without weak sisters like you. Perhaps, they can be offered to the terrorists in exchange, if that will placate them." Others are more polite but suggest that I am completely wrong, and I am steeling myself for much more. But why does talk of peace at a time like this provoke such a violent response? Are we in the media partly to blame for drumming up these feelings of revenge each time there is a terror attack?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 14, 2008


No time for revenge

Ever since the terrifying terror strike in Mumbai on November 26, many of us have strained hard to find some voices advocating peace. The overwhelming chant is one demanding war and revenge. It is reminiscent of other times, in other places. In the United States post 9/11. And an echo of that is heard in the India of today.

But after 9/11, there were also strong, public, prominent voices calling for peace, for sanity, for restraint. Some of these individuals were pilloried for flowing against the tide. Yet, they stuck to their convictions. Many of those who spoke out were women.

Robin Morgan, an award-winning American feminist writer wrote in the days after the terror strike, about the mood in New York. “The petitions have begun. For justice but not vengeance. For a reasoned response but against escalating retaliatory violence. For vigilance about civil liberties. For the rights of innocent Muslim Americans. For ‘bombing’ Afghanistan with food and medical parcels, NOT firepower.” She urged people to write to newspapers, use the Internet to talk about the root causes of terrorism. “Ours are complex messages with long-term solutions — and this is a moment when people yearn for simplicity and short-term, facile answers.”

Manufacturing consent

In India too, we have seen how our media forces facile answers. You are compelled to answer “yes” or “no” to questions that have pre-determined answers. You are asked to express “in 30 seconds” why you believe it would be wrong to provoke a confrontation with Pakistan. Then, what you say is misinterpreted and before you can respond, the subject is changed.

As a result, we have been inundated with expressions of aggression, often born out of ignorance. We are being forced to listen to opinions of people who have rarely engaged with issues that confront Indian society outside such times. And we are being informed that the “mood” of people is for “decisive action” to deal with terror. If there are voices saying something different, they are either not heard, or cut short.

Real security

Much of this is the media attempting to manufacture consent. Much of it is limited to the urban middle and upper classes. Proof of this has already been evident in the results of elections in five States where the party that used the “terror” message did not sweep the polls as expected. In rural India, the issue that remains the most relevant is development — sadak, bijli, paani. This is what security means to the ordinary woman and man, not war with Pakistan, not rule by the military, not stronger anti-terror laws, all of which are being demanded by some people in our cities.

Also, while there are voices seeking better governance, better intelligence, better training and equipment for the police, few are speaking out for better relations with Pakistan. Yet, with the backing of civil society groups on both sides of the border, India and Pakistan have made great strides in taking small but important steps to improve relations. The Mumbai terror strike appears to have wiped all this out.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Sixty hours of terror

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 7, 2008

Sixty hours of terror

The sounds of gunfire and grenades have died down. The dust
has settled. The shards of broken glass and plaster are
being cleared. The blood has been washed away. And the eerie
silence has given way once again to the reassuring urban
chaos that is Mumbai. But 10 days after the nightmare began
in Mumbai, one that seemed not to end, that extended for
three nights and two days, the scars are still raw, the
images still sharp and the questions still unanswered.

On Wednesday night, November 26, the gunmen struck. They
were not masked. They were like young people we see on our
streets. By Thursday morning, Mumbai was paralysed. Why?
This is a huge city, sprawling way to the north of where the
attack took place, in the southern tip of the city. Trains
and buses were unaffected. Yet, no one moved on that day.

Staying put

Two factors were principally responsible. One, the apparent
randomness of the attack. Images of armed gunmen spraying
bullets at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a building as
beautiful as it is important for the city, and thereafter
all the way down the street to the junction where another
landmark, the Metro cinema stands, forced people to stay off
the roads. Any of us could have been on the street when the
gunmen opened fire. Any of us could have been walking around
the popular Colaba causeway, buying bags and scarves from
the hawkers that line its pavements when the gunmen barged
into Leopold Cafe and opened fire. Any one of us
could have been like the man who stepped out of his shop to
find out what the noise was about only to be shot by the
gunmen as they made their way to their ultimate target, the
Taj Mahal hotel.

The second reason was the non-stop television coverage. The
terror attack might have been far from our homes. But
television brought to us its terrifying sights and sounds.
And the faces of the gunmen. No one slept that night. Few
could summon up the will power to just turn the television
set off and wait until the next day. As a result, the city
was hooked onto this continuous horror show being played on
all channels.

But the massacre in Mumbai also brought home to the people
of this city a version of urban warfare they had never seen.
The sight of commandos landing by helicopter on the roof of
Nariman House, a little known Jewish centre in the crowded
heart of Colaba, was even more unreal. You only saw such
sights in Hollywood movies. Could this really be taking
place in one part of our city?

To read the rest of the article, click on the link above.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why toilets matter

Another toilet story that should have been posted earlier but got overlooked. Here's the link to the original:

Open defecation in urban India is declining very slowly, with over 5 million people in Indian cities still defecating outside. Could this be because the urban middle class monopolises the existing basic services like water supply and sanitation and therefore does not impel change, asks Kalpana Sharma

At the recent G8 meeting in Japan, world leaders discussed oil prices and climate change. They did not, however, address what is being called a “development emergency” in some countries -- the chronic absence of improved sanitation among large sections of the population, particularly in poor communities, that is contributing to the spread of disease.

Even as countries like India boast of a consistently high rate of economic growth, they cannot hide the abject failure to tackle the consistently low rate of growth in access to improved sanitation.

Year after year, while the number of those getting access to safe water climbs, the equivalent figures for sanitation remain stubbornly low. This is a constant reminder of the failure of many governments to evaluate the importance of improved sanitation and to put enough political will and investment into bridging this deficit.

One of the more unsavoury facts that the government in India would most certainly not want advertised is the fact that one out of every two people in the world who are forced to defecate out in the open is an Indian.

According to a recent report of the Joint Monitoring Project on Drinking Water and Sanitation of Unicef and the World Health Organisation, 18% of the world’s population, or 1.2 billion people, still have no access to sanitation and are compelled to defecate out in the open. Of these, an astounding 665 million live in India.

What is even more depressing is that the rate at which this situation is changing, in India, is slow. Overall, the rate of open defecation has declined from 73% in 1990 to 58% in 2006. However, while in rural India the rate of open defecation has declined from 89% in 1990 to 74% in 2006, in urban India it has gone down by only 10% in 16 years, from 28% in 1990 to 18% in 2006. This means that even today, over 5 million people in Indian cities defecate out in the open. If evidence of this were needed, one has only to take an early morning suburban train in Mumbai to witness the spectacle of people using the open spaces around railway tracks as a vast open-air toilet.

This is the extreme end of the spectrum. What sanitation is available by way of toilets is also generally far from satisfactory. Shared toilets, or community toilets, are generally poorly maintained, leading to contamination of soil and water sources. The problem is exacerbated in urban areas as the settlements where the urban poor live are tightly packed, with few open spaces. In such conditions, open defecation and leaking toilets greatly enhance the danger of contamination and the spread of waterborne diseases.

The link between sanitation and health hardly needs to be emphasised. Yet, although progress has been made in the realm of supplying drinking water, for some reason provision of adequate sanitation continues to lag behind in India. As of now, India is not on target to meet the Millennium Development Goal of providing 46% of its population ply with adequate sanitation by 2015.

The international charity Water Aid put together data on this issue for the recent G8 meeting and emphasised yet again the need to renew commitment and investment in sanitation. According to its report, 40% of the world’s population lacks access to improved sanitation and this, in turn, kills more children than malaria, HIV/AIDS and measles put together.

Water Aid also suggests that as many as 910,000 child deaths from diarrhoea could be avoided each year through the provision of improved sanitation. An estimated 85% of the 1.6 million deaths due to diarrhoea each year can be linked to poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water, it says. Also, the underlying cause of the 5 million child deaths each year is chronic malnutrition. Recurring bouts of diarrhoea in children already malnourished means that nutritional supplements have no impact on their chances of survival, as their weakened digestive systems simply cannot absorb them.

The key input to enhancing child survival is not necessarily more and better food or medical interventions but conditions of living that ensure that children do not get ill. There is simply no shortcut to providing sanitary living conditions and an adequate supply of potable water. Such interventions do not provide instant results that are demonstrable. But they are a long-term investment that pays enormous health dividends for all, poor and rich.

The cost of poor sanitation and unsafe water is borne disproportionately by the poor living in urban or rural areas. However, sometimes the health status of urban poor communities is worse than their counterparts in rural areas.

‘Our cities, our health, our future’, a report to the WHO commission on Social Determinants of Health (the final report is due to be released worldwide in August this year) by the Knowledge Network on Urban Settings, illustrates this point with data from Kenya. The infant mortality rate (IMR) in Kenya is 74 per 1,000 live births -- 76 in rural areas and 57 in urban areas excluding Nairobi. But in the country’s capital city, while the IMR in high-income areas in likely to be under 10, in the slums of Kibera and Embakasi it is 106 and 164 respectively. In Nairobi as a whole, it is 39. This clearly shows that the health status of the urban poor, living in wretched conditions, is much worse than the status of those in rural areas who also live in poverty.

In India too, the data shows that the health status of the urban poor is either the same or worse than that of people in rural areas. For instance, the percentage of underweight children in the urban poor population is 47.1%, compared to 45.6% in the rural population, and stunting is seen in 54.2% of urban poor children, compared to 50.7% of rural children (according to NFHS-3 data). Apart from children, women in poor urban communities are almost as badly off as their rural sisters, with 58.8% of women between the ages of 15-49 years being anaemic, compared to 57.4% of rural women. NFHS-3 data also reveals that there is little difference in the figures for the number of children with diarrhoea in urban poor communities and those in rural communities. This data merely underlines the reality that while urban areas as a whole might have better medical facilities and piped water and sewerage, these facilities do not extend to the urban poor.
In fact, urbanisation should lead to better health for all. That is the lesson drawn not just from richer countries like Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands but also countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. Here, healthy urban living conditions that include provision of housing, water and sanitation have changed the health statistics quite dramatically.
Susan E Chaplin, who did her doctoral thesis on ‘Cities, Services and the State: The Politics of Sanitation in India’ from La Trobe University, Australia, draws a comparison between sanitation in post-Industrial Revolution England and Indian cities, in an essay in the journal Environment and Urbanisation (April, 1999). She looks at the policies pursued in mid-19th century England and now in India, and brings out several useful points.

Sanitary reform in Britain really took off only in the 19th century when the spectre of disease haunted the entire population, rich and poor. Conditions in industrial cities like Liverpool and Manchester were not very different from those that prevail in the slums of Kolkata or Mumbai today. Chaplin quotes Friedrich Engles on these English cities. He wrote that they had “...streets (that) are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead”.

The pattern of urbanisation in the two countries has also been similar, with the advent of work and industrialisation drawing in the poor from villages. But in England, Chaplin writes, three factors contributed to sanitary reform. “These were the campaigns by medical practitioners along with reform of local government, advances in science and engineering, and the presence of a ‘threat from below’, in terms of diseases and organised labour.”

Chaplin argues that in India the urban middle class has not been interested in bringing about any change in conditions because it has successfully monopolised the existing basic services like water supply and sanitation. The British built sewers only in areas they inhabited; the native towns were left to manage with the scavenger system that, shockingly, persists in some of the smaller towns. The better-off Indians today live in areas that have benefited from the colonial sewerage systems, while the poor mostly live in unserviced plots.

Furthermore, science and medicine have reduced the possibility of the spread of disease ‘from below’. And the rich really do not need to fear any revolution ‘from below’, as did the rich in England, because the urban poor are mostly unorganised. As a result the urban middle class, and one might add the policymakers, can continue to be indifferent to the conditions of the poor. Combine this with an ineffective local government and you have the situation we see in most Indian cities today.

In England too, the rich were initially not interested in reform that would benefit all classes. The single factor that altered this situation was the prospect of their getting cholera. An epidemic in the 19th century established the link between sanitation and health as nothing else could have done.

Also, the militancy of the working classes prompted the rich to accept that providing them with basic services was a wiser proposition than risking the disruption that would inevitably follow an attempt to overthrow the hold of the ruling classes.

Between 1880 and 1891, urban authorities in many cities in Britain provided sewerage and clean water supply under the Sanitation Act of 1866. This step benefited all citizens, not just the rich.

In India, the provision of improved sanitation, especially for the urban poor population that is estimated to grow at an annual rate of 5-7%, requires similar action and political will. Already, one-third of the country’s population lives in cities and towns. Of this, anywhere between a quarter and a half live in slums and informal housing with inadequate provision of water and sanitation. Health parameters of the urban poor are uniformly worse than those in formal housing, for the obvious reason that, besides poverty, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions expose this population to ill health. Compounding the situation is inadequate and affordable healthcare.

Health data in India has shown that the poor turn to private healthcare wherever the public health system is inadequate. In urban areas, the absence of adequate public health outposts in slums and the presence of private practitioners guarantee that people turn to the latter rather than seek free healthcare from the public system. The pressure on the budgets of people living on the margins is enormous and often unbearable. For instance, a 2003 study of 850 households in Dhaka, Bangladesh, found that increased expenditure on healthcare due to illness had forced many families to take loans, sell assets and even resort to begging to meet the costs of ill health. This pattern is evident in most developing countries with large populations of urban poor, including India.

“Lack of investment in sanitation reveals a blind spot in development policy: a failure to recognise sanitation’s integral role in reducing poverty,” the Water Aid report rightly points out.

In these times of political turmoil, such issues are not high on India’s priority list. Nor is the media interested in highlighting them. Yet, economic growth cannot be sustained if almost half the country’s population lacks access to something as basic as sanitation. Boasts of being an economic power -- or even a nuclear weapons state -- seem quite hollow against this ugly reality.

The toilet test

Posting this article now. I've just attended Sacosan III, the South Asian Sanitation Conference. Despite the importance of the subject, the conference was more or less ignored by the so-called "national" media.

Published in DNA, Mumbai, September 12, 2008

As a traveller, you often judge a country by its public toilets. India fails this toilet test miserably. For even as our country appears poised to become an economic giant at some future date, one of the many appalling statistics that brings us down to earth is our toilet story, or rather the lack of toilets story.

A recent joint monitoring report prepared by the World Health Organisation and Unicef found that out of the 1.2 billion people around the world who are forced to defecate in the open, half live in India. An estimated 665 million Indians, one in every two, lack access to a toilet. That is not a pleasant statistic. Yet, few Indians would challenge it, as the embarrassing evidence is before our eyes everywhere we look.

While public facilities like bus stations, railway stations and airports have distressingly inadequate toilets, even institutions like hospitals, schools and offices, both government and private, often fail the toilet test. Ask women who work in these places. Even highly placed professional women in India will have at least one toilet story about an office where they have worked.

The problem, of course, is not something to joke about. We know that the absence of sanitation has a devastating impact on health. It affects women and girls more directly as they have to wait sometimes an entire day until dark to relieve themselves. But this unmet need also has another fall out. It is negating efforts to increase female literacy.

The city of Mumbai, which has a high overall literacy rate, provides us with a vivid example of this. According to a report in this newspaper, six out of ten municipal schools do not have adequate or any toilets for girls. As a result, the dropout rate of girl students after Std V is 50 per cent.

The story is worse in rural schools. Little wonder then that India’s female literacy rate is not advancing at the rate at which girls are being enrolled in schools. The answer is simple: give them toilets that are clean and can be used and they will attend school.
The sanitation story is not just about toilets. It is about investment in sewerage systems.
This can only be done by the State. So why, if water supply is given a priority, is sewerage neglected? Is the government not too concerned because while people riot when there is no water, you don’t see demonstrations demanding toilets? In the water-sanitation duet, the latter is forgotten or overlooked.

What will it take to get the State to act? Before the days of modern medicine, the absence of sanitation would mean the spread of diseases that could afflict everyone, rich and poor. As a result, sanitation could not be neglected. Today, those who can afford medicine, and also have clean water and sanitation, can generally avoid some of these diseases. As these very people also make policies, the problem seems less urgent as it does not impact their lives.

Susan E Chaplin, who did her doctoral thesis on “Cities, services and the State: The Politics of Sanitation in India” from La Trobe University, Australia, draws an interesting comparison between sanitation in the post-Industrial Revolution England and Indian cities. In an essay in the journal Environment and Urbanisation (April, 1999), Chaplin points out that sanitary reform in Britain took off only in the 19th century when the spectre of disease haunted the entire population, the rich and the poor.

Between 1880 and 1891, urban authorities in many cities in Britain provided sewerage and clean water supply under the Sanitation Act of 1866. This step benefited all citizens, and not just the rich. In contrast, in India, the middle class has monopolised those areas where the British built sewers while the poor living in slums occupy low-lying, unserviced areas. As a result, the class that could have taken the initiative to press for sanitary reform remains indifferent to it.

Additionally, in India sanitation also has a caste dimension. As long as there are people available to clean up the dirt, we can pretend it does not exist. In many smaller towns, even a rudimentary underground sewer system does not exist and the disgusting practice of manual scavenging continues. This is something that should shame all Indians.

The toilet story exposes the hollowness of the “India prospering, shining India” imagery. More than the real numbers of India’s poor, this illustrates the daily deprivation and lack of dignity that marks the lives of millions of people in this country. We need to urgently think of a Sanitation Act that makes it incumbent on local authorities to address the issue of sanitation and restore dignity to people’s lives.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Faceless Citizens

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 16, 2008

The Other Half

Every alternate day, for as long as I can remember, a vendor selling vegetables loaded on a handcart parked himself in our neighbourhood in Mumbai. He would push that cart several kilometres from the wholesale market and arrive in our neighbourhood early in the morning. In a few hours, his handcart would be emptied of its load as he made his return trip.

Many people bought small quantities of fresh vegetables from him. Few knew his name. Yet, when he spoke, you could tell he was a “North Indian”. And if you asked, he told you he was from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh. This nameless vendor provided fresh vegetables at reasonable prices to a middle class neighbourhood. He also delivered the goods to your home, free of charge. If you didn’t have enough change to pay him, he would readily agree to wait until the next day. If you complained about the quality of something you had bought the previous time, he could immediately replace it, free of charge.

Our friendly neighbourhood vegetable vendor has disappeared. Without a trace. No one is able to tell me what happened to him. I ask the man who sells bananas. He also comes every day by taxi with a basket load of bananas. In a few hours, his basket is empty. But he doesn’t know what happened to the vegetable vendor.

But we do know what happened. There are two possibilities. He could be one of the many “North Indians” who is now too frightened to live in Mumbai after the launch of the anti-outsider tirade by Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Even if they did not attack him directly, he would have seen the images of hawkers being attacked, their goods splayed on the street.

Another reason could be economic. A new retail store has opened in the area selling fresh vegetables at marginally lower prices than what the vegetable vendor charged. So, even though his vegetables were decidedly fresher than those sold in the store, and people had an old relationship with him, the majority graduated to the novelty of going to the store and buying vegetables wrapped in plastic. The store used economies of scale to lower prices. The neighbourhood vendor could not compete. He tried by coming an hour earlier. He tried by reducing the amount of vegetables he brought on his cart to cut his losses. In the end, he gave up and disappeared.

I narrate this story, which will have echoes in most other cities across India, because it tells us of the largest number of people who are losing jobs and livelihood. The media runs front page stories when airlines staff are laid off. We hear about redundancies in the private sector. Raj Thackeray sends his MNS cadre to beat up Biharis trying for jobs in the railways.

The people who are paying the price for the changes in the economy and the slowing down of the growth rate are people like this vegetable vendor. While the spurt in retail in perishables has destroyed the livelihood of thousands of men and women who survived on their daily sale of fruits and vegetables, the slowdown has resulted in closing down thousands of small manufacturing units that were a part of the informal economy.

Yet, these people remain invisible. Economic problems always mean stock exchange news, or news of some big factories closing down or stopping production for a few days. But what will happen to people who did not have security in their employment, could never dream of a salaried job, but survived nonetheless on their wits and by providing a much needed service? Who is counting these losses? Is anyone even bothered? The tragic part of the agitation launched by Raj Thackeray is not just that it is irrelevant — he is only bothered about the minuscule minority of Maharashtrians who are seeking jobs in the formal sector — but that it is obscuring the real crisis that is facing millions of people in our cities.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Going public

The Hindu, November 2, 2008

Sunday Magazine


On Friday, October 24, a nun from Orissa did something incredibly brave. In full view of television cameras, she went public. For months, no one knew her name or what she looked like. Yet, everyone knew that in the ghastly sectarian violence that has gripped Orissa, one of the foulest acts was the gang rape of this nun. We also knew that the local police failed to follow up the case, despite her having filed an FIR in her traumatised state. We now know that the police tried to dissuade her from filing the FIR. Also, despite the medical report having confirmed the rape, nothing was done.

Now there is some movement, but only as a consequence of concerted pressure from media and civil society. The nun has said she does not trust that there will be justice if the same police that includes men who did not hesitate to warmly greet the men who had attacked and raped her, are entrusted the task of investigating the crime.

We have to salute the courage of this woman. Few if any women are prepared to speak out after they are raped. Hundreds never report rape. Yet, Bilkis Bano from Gujarat did. And as a result, the men who raped her were convicted. But then Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan did. But the men who raped her got away. So going public comes with risk of never getting justice, and living forever with the shame.

Not a random incident

Yet, it is important to realise that this is not just the story of one woman, a nun, who was raped. It is a reminder that rape continues to be used as a weapon of war. This woman was raped because the men waging war against the Christians in Orissa wanted to teach them a lesson they would not forget. So apart from burning homes, beating up people, including a priest, and burning churches, they decided that the rape of a woman who had committed herself to serve the church was the most effective way to make their point. They believed that this would silence their “enemy” forever.

This weapon of war has been wielded for centuries. And women, regardless of race, class or creed, have been its principal victims. For the majority, there has been no justice, no closure to the wound on their bodies and their souls that can sometimes never heal.

Ten days before this press conference in Delhi, another public event took place thousands of miles away — in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Africa’s west coast. Here is a country that has been at war with itself for years. Government forces are fighting many different rebel groups. Every day you hear stories of thousands being displaced as they flee the fighting. Peace seems nowhere in sight despite 17,000 UN peacekeeping forces being stationed there.

The U.N. acknowledges that women in the Congo are experiencing more sexual violence than in any other country in the world. According to a recent survey, one out of every four adults in eastern Congo had witnessed sexual violence and one in six had actually experienced it. Twelve per cent of those surveyed said they had been sexually violated more than once.

Even in such a horrific theatre of war, women are finding the courage to go public, to speak about being raped in the hope that this will put pressure on the government to act against the rapists. Like the nun, these women have little faith that they will get justice. Yet they are willing to try, as there is no other option.

Here are the words of one of these women who spoke at the meeting (as reported in The New York Times, October 18, 2008): “There was no dinner. It was me for dinner because they kicked me roughly to the ground, and they ripped of all my clothes, and between the two of them, they held my feet. One took my left foot, one took my right, and the same with my arms, and between the two of them they proceeded to rape me. Then all five of them raped me.”

Worse than murder

You feel sick when you read this, just as many of us did when we read the full statement of the nun from Orissa. What kind of men are these? How do they get away with such crimes? Why is sexual violence of this kind less important than dozens of other crimes that our law-enforcers seem to have the energy and time to pursue?

The war in erstwhile Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s was another that exemplified the use of rape as a weapon of war. Hundreds of Croatian women were brutalized by Serbian soldiers. Some of these women found the courage to speak out, once the war ended.
Dubravka Ugresic, an author from the region who has lived in exile in Amsterdam, writes in her 1998 book The Culture of Lies: “The war in Yugoslavia is a masculine war. In the war, women are post-boxes used to send messages to those other men, the enemy. And enemies who were their brothers until a short time, at that.”

And then she quotes one of her colleagues, a writer, telling her: “Rape in war is quite a normal thing, it’s part of the male psychology, it’s irrational. I hope you won’t get me wrong, but it’s a kind of a negative compliment to a woman, an ugly sexual blunder…”

“An ugly sexual blunder?” I don’t think the nun from Orissa, or the women from the Congo, would see the violent assault on their very being as “a blunder”. These acts are not random. They are not driven by the emotion of the moment. They are part of an entrenched mindset that considers the “enemy” as less than human, particularly women who belong to that “enemy”. Killing or raping them is not a “blunder”. It is considered an act of “valour” in what they believe is a righteous war.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Crime and the media

Chief Justice of India K. G. Balakrishnan has once again reminded the media about its role in reporting crime and on-going investigations. Speaking at a workshop organised by the Bombay High Court on Sunday, October 19 on “Reporting of Court Proceedings by Media”, he said, “Privacy of the person must be protected. Sometimes damaging information is revealed during the investigation. It adversely affects people’s right to a fair trial” (as reported by Express Newsline, Oct 20, 2008). He also reportedly criticised police officers revealing information to the media during investigation and said that this encroached upon the right to privacy.

The Chief Justice’s comments come at a time when there is a great deal of chatter, particularly on the Internet, about the relationship between the police and the media. Author Arundhati Roy has also been critical on this count in her recent interview to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN. It is an issue that we in the media have to consider seriously particularly in the light of the on-going investigations by various police agencies into the string of terror attacks in different cities.

The point that has to be debated and considered is not whether the media should report what the police reveals about a crime under investigation but how it should report it. We also need to question whether the police should leak to a few chosen journalists, or publicly release, incremental information on investigations into crimes. Sometimes the information is not just incremental, it is also unsubstantiated and later contradicted by the police. But in the meantime, the individual involved is victim to grievous injustice, judged without a fair trial.

As far as the media is concerned, the norms of reporting on crime, or terror, should not differ. If suspects are picked up for a crime, they are precisely that – suspects. Until a case is made out that will hold in a court of law, we in the media cannot name them as “murderer”, “thief”, “cheat” or even “terrorist”. Regardless of what the police reveal to the public, based on their investigations or confessions of these suspects, the media must qualify what it reports. That is the only guarantee for the innocent amongst these suspects to have any chance of rebuilding their lives if they are proved innocent, or if the police are unable to establish their guilt. These norms have been well established and just because we now live in a more competitive media environment, they surely should not be abandoned. Yet, even a cursory survey of both print and broadcast would reveal how easily some of these norms have slipped or even disappeared altogether. Their absence does nothing to enhance the credibility of the media.

We should be equally disturbed at the way various police units are rushing to the media with information. During the Arushi murder case, the police was shown up clearly to have crossed the line. The media could argue that it had no option but to report what the police said. But it is also evident that some of the media used the police information to dramatise the ghastly murder to increase their viewership. In the process, where was the individual’s right to privacy or a fair trial?

The rash of media briefings, official and unofficial, continues unabated in the terror investigations. Why are they necessary? Do people need to know every detail about on-going information or is it more important to investigate and produce credible results? Today, ordinary people are genuinely confused about what really is going on and inevitably, there are questions raised about the credibility, and even efficiency, of the various police forces. This is not the result of some inherent suspicion in the minds of people about the police. It is the consequence of the manner in which the police have exposed themselves by putting out half-baked information into the public domain through the media.

Apart from the terror investigations, media briefings are gradually becoming the norm amongst police in different cities even for minor crimes. For instance, earlier this month, the Mumbai police held a media briefing where they paraded a 10-year-old boy suspected of being responsible for spreading a rumour about people being kidnapped as part of a kidney racket. The boy apparently confessed. His father was also present at the briefing. The juvenile offender was photographed and the police officer gave his name and other details even though this is prohibited under the Juvenile Justice Act.

This particular briefing cannot be dismissed as an aberration, the action of a police officer bitten by the publicity bug. It raises the same questions as in the terror investigations -- is the police using the media because the media feeds off such information or is the media’s aggressive demand for information on crime forcing the police to go public?

Another offshoot of the issue emphasised by the Chief Justice impinges on women who are victims of violence. When the rape of the nun in Kandhamal, Orissa, was first reported, no paper gave away her name or identity. And rightly so. Even when she spoke to some television channels, there was no hint of where she was, or who she was. But in subsequent days, some newspapers tracked down her family, carried photographs of the village where they lived, gave details of the location of the village, quoted her father and brother, giving their full names. In other words, every bit of information short of the name of the victim was reported. Can this be explained away as the inevitable consequence of a competitive media? How does such reporting conform to the Chief Justice’s appeal for the individual’s right to privacy? Should we just conform to the letter of the rule of not revealing the identity of rape victims or do we also have a responsibility to adhere to the spirit that informed that rule?

These are questions that the media must address. We need to seriously interrogate our approach towards crime and justice and ensure that we are not abetting the former and negating the latter.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Breaking the silence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 19, 2008


Breaking the silence

The economy is in meltdown mode and our political parties are in election mode. So even as those who cannot take it anymore are opting out of life altogether, old wounds are being opened again to ignite communal passions, resulting in the loss of life and injury to many who want to live. It is a time when it would be easy to panic, about one’s personal future and about the future of the country.

Yet, even at times of apparent madness, you hear sane voices that remind you that all is not lost; that there are still institutions that understand the silent emergencies that people face in ostensibly normal times.

A recent ruling by the Bombay High Court can be viewed as one of these positive flickers of hope. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of the judges’ comments, the case has had little coverage in the media.

Encouraging observations

In a ruling on a case of sexual harassment against a private sector company, the two-judge bench has made observations that would encourage women who face such problems but are afraid to talk about them.

A woman employee of an Indian company filed the case. She says her superior male colleague subjected her to harassment. Initially, she did not complain, as she was afraid of losing her job. But, she alleges, that the officer posted her out to another project site “for not cooperating” with him. Four years later, when the project failed to take off, all the other women employees were given the option of moving out except her. The harassment also continued. In 2004, the woman finally complained to the State Women’s Commission and also to the District Collector. She also filed an FIR with the local police station. The women’s commission sent a notice to the company asking it to inquire into the woman’s complaint. The company appointed an enquiry officer, an advocate, to look into the complaint. The latter exonerated the officer against whom the complaint had been made. Within a week of his report, the woman was dismissed from service.

Even then she did not give up and went to the Labour Court and complained about unfair dismissal. The Labour Court upheld her appeal and directed the company to reinstate her last year. The company failed to comply with the Labour Court’s ruling.

The Bombay High Court’s ruling is important for a number of reasons. For one, it reminds us that the law of the land requires that work places where women are employed must institute a committee headed by a woman and consisting of at least 50 per cent of women members and a civil society representative to look into such complaints. In this instance, the company did not do this and instead appointed a single person to inquire into the matter.

Secondly, the case reminds us of the important role that women’s commissions can play in such cases. Women are often afraid to go directly to court. The women’s commission is often the first step. If the woman had not gone to the women’s commission, perhaps her case would never have reached the court. A woman who suffers sexual harassment is in a very lonely place. She is afraid to speak out for fear of losing her job. And if she does, she faces the additional problem of not being employable as other companies might see her as some kind of “trouble-maker”. As a result, most women silently bear harassment and sometimes voluntarily opt out of jobs or positions where they are harassed. The silence ensures that more of this kind of harassment continues.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

No lessons being learnt

DNA, Mumbai, October 16, 2008

In Loharpura village, Nawada district, south Bihar, over 500 children crowd into half a dozen classrooms in under-construction buildings of a government school. This is the local primary and middle school with classes from standards 1 to 8. Yet there are only four teachers, including the school's principal. By law, there should be four teachers for the primary and 10 for the middle school.

For over a year, children in the primary division have not been served the hot mid-day meal mandated by the Supreme Court. That's because there are no supplies, says the principal. An inspector who surveys 20 schools in the district confirms that none of the schools received supplies for a year. The parents of the children who are listening in to the conversation want to know who is eating up the share of the grain en route? Also, according to law, children should get school uniforms. Have they got these? No, because there are no supplies. Most of the kids come from Dalit families.

This story is not peculiar to Bihar. In every Indian state with low literacy rates, the situation is similar. Schools without teachers, sometimes without buildings, usually without electricity and unable to get even what has been mandated because of entrenched systems of corruption that siphon off development funds.

In nearby Sikandra, the two-storey school building painted a bright pink. Here the full quota of teachers is available and khichdi, the mid-day meal is being cooked. But there is no water, no toilets? That's because the water pump installed outside the school cannot be used as a part was stolen within days of installation. Another pump inside the school building has also been vandalised. So there is water, but it cannot be pumped up. And the toilets built with development funds by a mukhiya who is honest cannot be used as the doors have been stolen and toilets pans smashed.

In thousands of government primary schools and municipal schools across this country, children are enrolled in primary schools. But they learn very little, certainly not enough to lift them out of the poverty and discrimination that has been the fate of their parents. As per data gathered by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by Pratham, an organisation that works on the right to education, enrolment has improved but the quality of education has not.

ASER 2007 confirms that there has been a dramatic improvement in enrolment thanks to campaigns like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and other efforts, and also a marked improvement in the provision of mid-day meals in government primary schools because of sustained pressure from civil society organisations that moved the Supreme Court. However, the quality of education leaves much to be desired.

According to the ASER survey, 40 per cent of children in Standard V in government primary schools could not read Standard two textbooks and 60 per cent of Standard V students cannot do simple mathematical division. In Standard 2, only 9 per cent were able to read and 60 per cent unable to recognise numbers from 10-99.

Even if more children go to school, and get a reasonably nourishing mid-day meal and uniforms, will it make a difference in terms of their chances to compete later on in life with those who have benefited from a better quality education?

Of course, there is a great variation within states and Bihar, predictably, is at the bottom in terms of both enrolment and quality of education. But what the ASER survey emphasises is that better infrastructure or higher enrolment, are simply not enough unless the quality of teaching improves. It would help if schools had enough teachers who were trained to ensure that the children learn.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Corruption’s real victims

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Oct 5, 2008


She sat on her haunches. Her face was lined by a hundred years of worry. Saraswati Devi, age unknown, is a widow who lives in Sikandra village in South Bihar’s Nawada district. Her story is not unusual. Yet you weep when you hear it because of the sense of helplessness it brings up.

I was asking Saraswati Devi what the Mukhiya of her Panchayat, a remarkable woman called Veena Devi who lives in the same village, had done for women. Even as I asked the question, a dozen other women entered the room, stood in the doorway or craned their necks to look inside the house where this conversation was taking place.

Lack of awareness

“I did not know that I was entitled to a government pension”, she said. “It is Veena Devi who helped me get it.” So now was she getting her pension, I asked. Yes, she said. She had to go to the nearest post office, some distance away, by whatever means of transport available. And then when she got there, the postman cut Rs. 10 from her pension of Rs. 100 a month. Why? That is the “fee” for the work he does to give her the pension, she said, with not the slightest tinge of cynicism. When she was told that she actually did not need to travel to the post office and that the postman was supposed to deliver the pension to her in the village, she could not believe it. “But then he will ask for Rs. 15”, she said.

There must be millions of poor women like Saraswati Devi who either don’t know that they are entitled to a pension, or have to forfeit a part of it to get it. You can’t really blame the postman. He is doing this to recover the costs of payments that he probably has to make at another level. Everyone is trying to recover the costs of corruption. But ultimately the person who pays the price is the most vulnerable person at the very bottom, women like Saraswati Devi.

Of course, illustrations of this are available everywhere. We don’t have to travel to Bihar to see the manner in which corruption has eaten into every facet of life. In fact, apart from an expanding economy, the area covered by corruption in India is also growing every year. According to Transparency International’s 2008 survey of corruption, India’s ranking amongst least corrupt countries has fallen from 72 to 85. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that India’s GDP growth is cut by a quarter of what is possible because of corruption. It is also evident from stories such as this that corruption hits the poor the hardest because they are almost entirely dependent on the largesse of the State.

Apart from Saraswati Devi’s story, there were other illustrations of the costs of corruption. Near Sikandra village is Loharpur, a village with about 400 houses. The majority of the population of the village is Dalit and very poor. The village has a primary and middle school. The same Mukhiya, Veena Devi, is using development funds to build additional buildings for the school.

Yet, for over 500 students, there are only four teachers, including the principal. On the day we visit, an inspector checking the state of 20 schools in the surrounding villages is also present. What about the mid-day meal for the primary school students, I ask. Both the inspector and the principal admit that the children have not received a hot meal for almost a year now. Why? Because there are no supplies available, they say. The inspector admits that most of the 20 schools under him have not been serving a mid-day meal for at least a year.

Meanwhile the parents of the children, who are listening to this exchange, get really angry and begin shouting. They accuse those in-charge of the school of making off with the grain. Everyone seems to know that “No supplies” is a euphemism for supplies diverted for some other use or to someone’s kitchen. Once again, the most vulnerable, children for whom the bowl of khichdi is the only decent meal they will get in a day, are paying the price.

Meanwhile the parents of the children, who are listening to this exchange, get really angry and begin shouting. They accuse those in-charge of the school of making off with the grain. Everyone seems to know that “No supplies” is a euphemism for supplies diverted for some other use or to someone’s kitchen. Once again, the most vulnerable, children for whom the bowl of khichdi is the only decent meal they will get in a day, are paying the price.
Power games

What about electricity? Both Loharpur and Sikandra should have electricity. You can see the electric poles. But there is no light. It comes, I am told, sometimes for a few minutes and occasionally for a couple of hours. In the meantime, kerosene meant for BPL (Below Poverty Line) families also never arrives because it is being diverted — for generator pumps of those who can afford to run them. So while the women in these villages look for firewood to light their stoves every day, we in the rest of the country discuss the “energy deficit”. The energy story in these villages is literally a world apart from our metropolitan cities.

Readers of this column sometimes complain that I only write about problems without giving any answers. It would be too glib, in the light of the extent to which the rot has seeped into our system, to come up with easy answers. Yet, I was encouraged to see the enthusiasm of the children in both village schools, despite all the shortcomings. And the determination of a woman like the Mukhiya, Veena Devi, to overcome these hurdles and do something good for the people. I suppose as long as our system still throws up such individuals, there is hope.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The art of not learning

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 22, 2008

The Other Half

Even as we ponder the randomness of life and death as serial bomb blasts hit our big cities, and we live with the chilling reality that India stands second only to Iraq in the number of people killed in terror attacks since 2004, we also cannot forge t that every day people, including little children, are dying because of the terror of poverty. That people are being killed just because they belong to another religion. That women and girls are dying because they bear a triple burden of work and have little access to health care. These too are perennial Indian realities — a constant state of teetering between life and death.

Perpetuating inequality
Another reality is the entrenched system that perpetuates inequality. Thus, while mention of reservation for schedule castes and tribes and OBCs in institutes of higher learning leads to demonstrations and heated debates in the media, the pathetic state of primary education continues virtually unnoticed and unaddressed. And millions of Indian children still go to schools without buildings, without books and without teachers.

Filmmaker Umesh Aggarwal has made a brave attempt to balance the reservation debate in his documentary “Divided Colours of a Nation” that premiered at the Open Frame International Film Festival in Delhi last week and will be shown shortly on Doordarshan. Whether he has actually managed to strike a balance between the extreme positions on this contentious issue could be debated. He has tried to push home the point that the question is not whether reservation is right or wrong but whether the “creamy layer” within these disadvantaged groups should continue to claim the benefits of reservation.

However, the most striking footage in his film is of the village schools he visits. By focusing on the disheartening state of primary education, he has actually struck the right chord. For, whether there are seats reserved at higher levels for the disadvantaged matters little if they continue to be deprived of quality education at the entry level.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The medical emergency of the urban poor

From InfoChange India, September 2008

By Kalpana Sharma

A man who works as a driver in Mumbai discovered recently that his wife, who complained of breathlessness, had a heart problem. She has a blocked artery and a faulty heart valve. Like others of his ilk, this man lives in a slum. His salary as a driver is not enough to rent, leave alone buy, an apartment anywhere in Mumbai. So he lives in a ‘regularised’ slum, which cannot be demolished, and which is, ironically, located on the most expensive real estate in Mumbai, in the upscale neighbourhood of Malabar Hill.

This preferred location, however, makes little difference to him when facing a health crisis such as this. The choices before him are stark. If he does nothing, because he cannot afford to get his wife treated, then she will die. If he chooses to get her treated, then he faces lifelong indebtedness.

In a city with some of the most expensive and modern healthcare facilities, millions of lower income and poor people face the dilemma of this driver. As opposed to their rural counterparts, even poor people living in cities are well aware of the medical interventions that are possible to prolong life and to deal with life-threatening conditions. But they also know that such interventions are out of their reach in an increasingly privatised healthcare market. The public healthcare systems that exist are simply not enough to meet the demand even for ordinary health conditions, leave alone for specialised care.

Mumbai is actually better served than most other Indian cities with public health facilities. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) runs four teaching hospitals, five specialised hospitals, 16 peripheral hospitals, 28 maternity homes and several hundred dispensaries and health outposts. Out of the estimated 40,000 hospital beds available in Mumbai, around a quarter come under the BMC. In addition the state government runs one medical college, three general hospitals and two health units with a total of 2,871 beds. The Central government also runs one hospital.

Yet, despite the availability of these services, people who cannot afford to spend on private healthcare still do not necessarily see public services as the first choice. Several studies have shown that as many as 77% in urban areas and 63% in rural areas turn to private practitioners for outpatient care because the public facilities are either too far, or their procedures are too bureaucratic and take too long to access. Even amongst poor people who cannot afford private care, the percentage of those who use it is over 60%.

However, for in-patient care, the poor seek out public facilities, even if they are at some distance from where they live, because they are the only ones that are affordable. It is evident that these are inadequate to meet the demand. The overcrowding seen in every public hospital is a stark reminder of the shortage of affordable beds in a city where the majority of people cannot afford expensive healthcare. Furthermore, the big hospitals in Mumbai serve as referrals for people from across the state and other states.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Monday, September 08, 2008

What women "deserve"

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 6 2008

The Other Half

Hillary Clinton has lost her chance to have a go at the U.S. Presidential stakes this time around. Yet, she remains a presence. However much those who hated Hillary might have wished that she would fade away, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will allow her do so. By choosing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, Republican Presidential nominee John McCain has clearly shown that he will go all out to woo Hillary supporters. Some have already joined his campaign. And Barack Obama and the Democrats also know that the 18 million voters who supported Hillary, many of them women, will have to be persuaded to remain with the Democrats.

To us in this country, this might seem peculiar as there is still no defined “women’s vote”. In the U.S., however, the women’s vote has become a factor in elections and in the forthcoming Presidential election, it will be particularly important. Yet, why would women, who supported Hillary not just because she was a woman but also because of her position on a number of issues affecting women such as abortion, now contemplate voting for a man and woman who are against women’s abortion rights and for the war in Iraq?

Generational shift
The explanation perhaps lies in the generational shift in the U.S. amongst women that is not so perceptible in this country. The women’s movement in the U.S. has fought hard for many rights for women. The daughters of those who fought for these rights are now entering the work force, women with the confidence to know that they do not need to apologise for being women.

As a result, their take on women’s rights is different from that of their mothers’ generation. It is mediated by a different reality in which they must survive. It tends to be less strident and perhaps more pragmatic. It is not anti-men. On the other hand, the older women who supported Hillary feel affronted that their candidate was treated badly, that she was derided because she was a woman, and that in the end, there was no place for her. They see this as a reflection of the bitter battles they have fought for decades.

An article by Hannah Seligson, a freelance journalist and author of New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches in The New York Times (August 31, 2008) spells out some of the challenges that women in their twenties face in the U.S. And her conclusions possibly explain the difference between the women who support Obama, or have decided to give him their full support even though Hillary lost, and those who remain unreconciled. Young women in this country, particularly the educated urban woman, would find a resonance in what she writes.

Seligson describes how, while growing up and in college, she did not experience any institutional gender bias. It was a time of “girl power”. Women students excelled in academics. They also helped each other and there was a feeling of solidarity.

Then these women entered the work force and realised that they were unprepared. First, the solidarity amongst women that they had taken for granted in college did not exist in the highly competitive space at work. Career mattered first, peer support could wait.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Insidious intent

Indian Express, Aug 30, 2008

The immediate crisis over Marathi signboards for all shops in Mumbai might have subsided with the intervention of the Bombay High Court and the state government’s firmness, but several larger issues remain unresolved. The Bombay High Court, in response to a petition by the retail traders’ federation has insisted that the “rule of law must prevail” and that “no one can hold the state to ransom”. The court was referring to the manner in which activists of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, at the urging of their chief Raj Thackeray, had gone around the city threatening and attacking shops that did not display signboards in Marathi.

However, a far more serious issue remains unaddressed. Besides urging his cadre to virtually take the law into their own hands, Raj Thackeray also wrote an open letter to the Maharashtra police urging them not to “pick up lathis and serve externment notices” against members of the MNS who were terrorising local shopkeepers into displaying signboards in Marathi.
In a letter addressed to “all my police brothers and sisters”, Raj Thackeray has claimed that the agitations conducted by his party are “directly and indirectly for you all”. Maharashtra’s “entire police force (except some IPS officers) is Marathi,” he writes. “You have an idea of the way in which Maharashtra and the Marathi language is being strangled in Maharashtra by bhaiyyas and some baniyas”. He then appeals to their consciences before they move against MNS workers. “Will you and your families like it in case the Marathi language and Maharashtra die at the hands of these bhaiyyas and baniyas?” he asks.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Changing men

The Hindu, Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Other Half

This has been a season of medals — gold, silver and bronze. Men and women, strong and beautiful, have competed as never before. And for a brief moment, the problems around us have evaporated as all of us, regardless of nationality, have basked in the reflected glory of this international bunch of achievers — from tiny Jamaica to the mighty United States of America and China.

The dust will soon settle, the stadia will fall silent, and the achievers and the voyeurs will return to their daily lives. Has something changed in all of us through such an effort? Or are the basics of life and our attitudes untouched by progress on the sporting field, or in the economy or elsewhere?

Incremental change

I would like to believe that there is change. That we should celebrate every little effort at changing entrenched customs and attitudes. And that in the end all this will add up to something.

Last week a friend got married. It was a Hindu wedding. But the person conducting it was a woman. So was her assistant. The ceremony was simple, dignified and participatory. For many of us it was the first time we had witnessed such a ceremony conducted by women. The women priests told me that they and their kin had been conducting religious ceremonies for over two decades now, in Pune and some other parts of Maharashtra. When they began there was opposition. Today, no one questions.

This is only one of several instances we know of where women have broken through stereotypes and roles set for them. Recently, there was a news item in a Bangalore newspaper about women being a part of a Brahmin “thread ceremony” that had remained an exclusive male domain. Not long ago, the Army agreed that women had the right to join the forces as equals. There are scores more of such examples of change. Two or three decades back, none of this would have been considered possible in this country. Yet, it is happening.

We can be cynical and dismiss all this as exceptions that do not reflect the reality of the majority of Indian women. Absolutely true. They do not. Being a woman in India, particularly if you are poor and belong to a lower caste, is not a happy prospect. Despite this depressing reality, however, we can look on these and other developments as small, perhaps faltering, steps towards change.

Yet, while women are breaking new ground almost every day, we hear little about men who are breaking out of moulds. If women feel that they are forced into stereotypes, what about men? Are they not expected always to be strong, hard-working, aggressive, earn money for the family etc? These are roles forced on men by society and any man wanting to break away from these expectations faces ostracism and is considered less than a man. As a result, many men suppress parts of their personalities, often the more creative parts, because they feel they must conform.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Niketa's Choice

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 10, 2008

The Other Half

Thanks to media interest, millions of people have had a direct peek into the life and the choices before a 25-weeks pregnant woman and her husband in Mumbai. Niketa and Haresh Mehta, who were married earlier this year, decided to seek the court’s permission to have an abortion when their doctor informed them that the foetus in Niketa’s womb had a complete congenital heart block. Rather than going through with the pregnancy, the couple decided on an abortion only to come up against stipulations in the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 that permits abortions only up to 20 weeks, and that too on certification by at least two medical practitioners that either the mother’s or the child’s lives are at risk.

The Bombay High Court heard the case. On Monday, August 4, it denied the petition stating that they could not make an exception in the case and that nothing in the report of the expert committee they had instituted suggested that the child’s life was at risk. They also suggested that the court could not change the law, that this was the job of legislators and that people like the Mehtas should seek a change in the law.

The case has thrown up a fascinating number of issues that concern individual choice, ethics, technology and the law. In each instance, there are no clear guidelines, there is nothing that is black and white.

Much of the press coverage, for instance, has stressed the right of Niketa as a mother to choose whether she wants to bring this child into the world or not and whether she wants to be burdened with the possibility of a disabled child. There is nothing wrong with this formulation. The battle for women’s reproductive rights has rested on the issue of choice. Yet, there are limitations — ethical, scientific and legal.

For example, women’s groups around the world have fought for liberal abortion laws so that women do not have to put their lives at risk by seeking illegal abortions as a result of unwanted pregnancies. Yet in India, women’s groups have had to figure out how to prevent a liberal law from being misused for sex-selective abortions. Of course, it could be argued, and indeed has been argued, that this too is a woman’s choice. Women prefer not to give birth to girls because they want to spare them the suffering that they are bound to encounter for the rest of their lives as well as the problems they themselves will face as mothers of girls. Yet, the “choice” for sex-selective abortions has been denied under law in India because of the growing evidence of the impact of this on sex ratios in some parts of the country.

Niketa’s case also brings into focus the question of the use and misuse of technology. Ultra-sonography and earlier, amniocentesis, were principally meant to detect genetic abnormalities. Yet in India they have been deliberately and callously misused to detect the sex of the foetus following which women seek an abortion. There would be cases of genetic disorders followed by abortions too but as these are usually detected at a later stage in the pregnancy, as happened to Niketa, legal abortions are not an option.

But, like choice, technology too has a flip side. Thus, while the technology to detect genetic abnormalities has been misused to determine the sex of the child, advances in science today are ensuring that even children born with congenital problems, such as arterial blocks, can actually be treated and can go on to live normal lives. So the same mother who uses technology to ensure that the child in her womb is normal and healthy also has the knowledge that even if there is a problem, there is now a medical solution.

The case has raised legal issues including the need to amend the MTP Act. Those against sex-selective abortions have argued fiercely for maintaining the 20-week limit while others would argue that there is a case for relaxing it by a few weeks. The time limit varies from country to country where abortion is legal. Therefore, there should be no objection to debating the possibility of amending the law.
Not an easy choice

While changes in the law can be debated, the ethical dimension, on whether abortions are right or wrong, is not as emotive an issue in India as it is in countries like the U.S. Although there are religious groups that strictly prohibit abortion, this dimension has not been central to the debate. Yet, while women constrained by religious belief would not consider abortion as an option, even those not bound by religious belief often hesitate and feel guilty when seeking an abortion. It is never an easy or simple choice for any woman.

Of course, the question of choice is restricted to an urban class in India that has access to and can afford to use technology to monitor the progress of a pregnancy. Poor mothers have neither the time, nor the money, to go for regular check-ups during pregnancy. If they and the child survive the pregnancy, that in itself is often a miracle given the high rate of maternal and infant mortality in this country. And if at the end of nine months, a deformed or incapacitated child is born, the gods are blamed for it and life goes on. The question of choice simply does not arise, not on whether to get pregnant, or on what to do about an infant with severe health problems.

Niketa and Haresh will now have to live with the choice that has been made for them by the court and the law. But they should be lauded for being open and seeking a legal way out. As a result, they have thrown open an important issue for people to understand and debate.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bad news for Maharashtra

Here are some facts that appeared in different newspapers today, based on data from the National Family Health Survey -3, that remind of us about the real state of affairs in this country:

1. In Maharashtra, one of the better off states in the country, 35 per cent of pregnant women deliver their babies at home. The good news is that contraceptive use has increased from 61 per cent in NFHS-2 to 67 per cent in NFHS-3. But the sad news is that over one third of women in the state cannot access institutionalised delivery and have babies at home.

2. More bad news. Full immunisation coverage of children has decreased in the period between the two surveys. NFHS-2 found that 78 per cent of infants between 12 to 23 months had received all the basic vaccinations. By NFHS-3 this figure had dropped to 59 per cent.

3. The bad news doesn't stop there. NFHS-3 also found that two out of five children in Maharashtra are stunted or too short for their age, a clear indication of malnutrition. 37 per cent of the children were underweight and one out of five was wasted or too thin. All this in a state that ranks amongst the top five in the country in terms of GDP.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Why women?

Here's something I wrote earlier this year that was never published. It incapsulates what I feel about the status of women in India today.

There are fewer women than men in India. That is a reality. You see fewer men than women in the public space in India. That too is a reality.

It’s not a bad idea to ask “why” in relation to both realities.

For the answer to that question explains the paradox of women in India, why they seem powerful and powerless, why they are successful yet bereft, why they are visible yet invisible, why they are desired yet eliminated even before birth, why they count yet do not seem to matter.

Every single day I walk past these two women. There are two women and three children. Once in a while I see a man. They live, eat, sleep next to a small garbage dump on our road. They are rag pickers. When the sweepers from the surrounding multi-storied buildings dump garbage in the large metal bin, the two women rummage through it to extract plastic, bottles, and anything else that could be recycled and sold.

In ten years, I have seen no improvement in their lives. They started as young, single girls. Today both are mothers with no evident male around. Yet, they laugh, scold their children, bathe them and clean them up, feed them and live their lives. Some like me “see” them every day, exchange smiles, a few words. To the majority of the thousands living in the buildings near this small dump, they are invisible.

When I open the newspapers every day, I do not see the women near the garbage dump. Instead I read of women who have “made it”, who are successful in a world of men, who have climbed the corporate ladder, who are in politics, in parliament, in government, who are pilots, models, actors, government officials, software engineers, entrepreneurs… The whole world, it would seem, is their oyster. These too are Indian women. But they do not include the two near the garbage dump.

I also read each day about women who are violated, raped, murdered for dowry, tortured and forced to leave their marital homes, roughed up on the road, harassed in offices, schools and colleges. The crime graph is climbing and women remain the principal victims. The two women near the garbage dump would have suffered their share of such violence. But you cannot tell if you look at them. Yet, this too is the story of Indian women.

And then there are the “missing” women and girls. Even before they are born, the message is clear. “Not wanted”. Women who produce girls are also not wanted. So modern technology ensures that only boys will be born. The more money you have, the more certain you can be of the sex of your child. So the richest parts of India also have the lowest sex ratio in the zero to six years age group – one thousand boys but often less than 800 girls.

Now the inevitable has happened. In some of these areas, boys cannot find girls to marry. So they are importing them from other states. Sometimes, one woman must service a whole family of men. This too is modern India. I am not sure what my two women near the garbage dump think of this. I doubt if they had a choice about the sex of the children they produced.

But then there are also the joyous sights. For me, the best is to see the dozens of girls, hair tightly plaited and tied usually with bright red ribbons, in neat and clean uniforms, making their way to school. Their mothers never had this chance. What these girls will make of what they learn remains a question mark. But a door has been opened for them, one that was tightly closed, one that could swivel and slam in their faces, but they have the option of sticking their toes in and preventing it from banging. At least they can dream now.

And they do. Speak to these girls. There is no limit to their dreams. What will you do when you grow up? Like lightening comes the response – a doctor, a teacher, a singer, an artist, a computer engineer, a pilot. Words that never entered the minds of their mothers, leave alone escape their lips. So some things have changed.

Women’s enhanced visibility in the media is also a change, although not always positive. The media determines how “success” is measured. So if you are photogenic, you are noticed. If you are brilliant, but don’t have the physical attributes to brighten up the grey areas in a newspaper, then your chances of visibility decrease. If you are rich, you will always be famous. If you are poor, you have to be exceptional to get anywhere near that elusive word “fame”.

But even the partial frame held up by the media serves up pleasant surprises. Like girls from conservative Muslim homes topping the merit list. Like girls from the rural hinterland making it in the city. Like women from an area where the media has hardly any reach producing their own rural newspaper. Like women repairing hand pumps, working as masons, designing and building houses and toilets, saving money and shaming the men, standing up for their rights against unimaginable odds.

So all is not gloomy. Yet there is enough and more to be concerned about. There is enough and more that we need to “see” so that we are not taken in by the superficial, by the celebratory, by the glamorous. Yes, let us applaud those women who have “made it”, who have broken barriers, who are doing what their mothers never dreamed of, who are surprising even themselves and everyone else.

Yet, let us also ask: Why?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wrong priorities?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 27, 2008

The Other Half

One out of every two persons in the world compelled to defecate in the open is an Indian. This is one of several unsavoury facts brought out in a recent report by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. According to the report, out of the 1.2 billion people who defecate in the open worldwide because they have no access to toilets, more than half are Indian. An astounding 667 million people in this country have no option but to defecate in the open, a country that would like people to believe that it is on the cusp of becoming a global economic giant.

Why then does sanitation remain a subject that is accorded a relatively low priority compared to many other needs, including water and energy? Could it be because for the middle classes, policy makers, those who live in permanent housing with built-in toilets, sanitation is not an issue? But the lack of water and electricity is? Could it be because the problem is essentially that of the poor and the homeless? Could it also be because the worst affected are poor women?

These are questions that come to my mind almost every day when I walk past a woman with two young children. She is a rag picker. She has permission to sort through the garbage of the large government colony in the area. Usually, she sleeps near the garbage bin. Recently, she was asked to move. So she has found a spot in the colony where she sleeps surrounded by a few plastic bags that contain her meagre belongings.

Each day, the municipal truck clears the garbage bin after she has already rummaged through it and retrieved everything that is reusable and recyclable. This woman has no shelter, although she has an income from the sale of rags. As a result, she has no access to water or sanitation. Her children defecate on the road. I have no idea what she does. She probably has to wait until nightfall to locate a secluded spot. Yet, she “lives” in one of the more expensive parts of Mumbai. And she sorts the garbage of the very people who populate our government — the civil servants.
Larger realities

But this woman’s life is more than just a curiosity. It is illustrative of an ugly and larger reality. The absence of sanitation is not just a question of personal hygiene, or terrible indignity for poor people. It is also principally responsible for the spread of several diseases. According to the international charity Water Aid, which assembled data on this issue for world leaders meeting in Japan for the G8 summit, 40 per cent of the world’s population lack access to improved sanitation and this in turn kills more children than malaria, HIV/Aids and measles put together.

Water Aid believes that as many as 9,10,000 child deaths could be avoided from diarrhoea each year through provision of improved sanitation. An estimated 85 per cent of the 1.6 million deaths due to diarrhoea each year can be linked to poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water, it states in its report.

None of these facts is new. Yet, every few years new reports have to be issued, organisations like Water Aid run campaigns, some statements are made by leaders endorsing the concern — and then little happens.

India has agreed to developmental targets set under what are called the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that should be reached by 2015. One of these is ensuring that the sanitation coverage reaches at least 46 per cent of the country’s population. Yet this is the one area on which the country is falling short.

Once again, you are forced to ask: Why? Why when we want recognition as a nuclear power, why when we want recognition as a growing economic power, why when we want to boast of our educated and trained manpower should we not come to grips with the issue of sanitation?

One reason, as I have suggested above, is that the people most affected are often the most powerless. And those who have the power to make decisions do not feel the need in the same way. Hence, the lower priority.
Not just a question of choice

Secondly, clean and healthy living has now been reduced to a personal choice. Health is all about what we eat or don’t eat, how much we exercise and what kind of exercise, what medicines we take, the kind of doctors we consult etc. But what happens if you live in an area where there are no pipes to carry water, where there is no sewerage? How can you make such personal choices when your environment negates any desire you might have to remain clean and healthy?

This is the reality that confronts my rag picker woman every day. Others of her kin probably live in slums, many located on low-lying flood prone areas that have never been serviced with water or sewerage. Sometimes, the municipal corporation receives funds to build toilets. And these are constructed on land incapable of absorbing the waste from these toilets because it is already sodden. Within a short time the toilets are blocked and overflowing — and people continue to defecate in the open all around the toilets. For this they are blamed — for creating dirt and spoiling the environment.

If I were to make a wish list for whichever party comes to power next in India, I think I would put toilets at the top of that list. Of course, livelihoods are also important. As are pucca houses. And water. And power. And education. And healthcare. But sewerage systems connected to individual or shared toilets would overnight change the look and smell of so many of our cities — and provide enormous relief and dignity to millions of poor people.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Motif of violence

The Hindu, Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Other Half

Afghanistan is once again in the news with the horrific bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. Violence has remained a motif in a country trying hard to build a peaceful civil society. Everyone pays for this continuing violence -- men, women and children-- not just with their lives but also through the abysmal quality of their lives if and when they do survive.

Although some things have improved in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was removed, much remains difficult to tackle, not least the problems women face. Hamid Karzai&'s government has set up a Ministry of Women's Affairs to deal with women's issues, has emphasised education for girls, has tried to deal with the other forms of violence to which women are daily subjected. But the instability in the country appears to undo the good that is being done. Thus, the slow progress of getting girls to enrol in schools has been adversely affected with the forced closure of 350 schools in the last year in the Taliban-dominated southern part of the country. Making a dent on the low literacy levels -- 85 per cent of women are illiterate -- becomes virtually impossible under such circumstances.

Another custom that has been difficult to reverse has been that of forced marriages, where even under-age girls are forced to marry men much older than them. One indication of the desperation of women caught in such circumstances is the increasing incidence of self-immolation as a form of suicide. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (, such acts are increasing. Last year, 165 such suicides were recorded. It is possible that many are never reported.

Universal phenomenon

But violence against women is a motif that extends beyond Afghanistan. It is common to all societies although in some it takes a more horrific form. In several countries around the world, where traditional laws continue to be practised, women have no court of appeal to which they can turn when traditional courts order punishment or death for "honour" crimes. Even where there are laws banning such practices, they continue to be
practised with impunity.

"There is no 'honour'in killing", a report of the South Asian Seminar on Honour Killings that was held in Mumbai in 2006, brings this out vividly. The report was released last month by former Pakistan Supreme Court judge, Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid. It emphasises that the concept of "honour" in all societies is premised on women's bodies and their behaviour. Norms are set on how women should behave, whom they can marry and how they should conduct their lives. These norms are rooted in patriarchy, based on what men believe is a woman's place. "Honour" of the community, the caste and even the nation is vested in women. So if women deviate from these norms, they are
deemed to be violating this "honour". And for this they are punished, sometimes even with death. Men are not spared either. There are innumerable reports of men and women being killed for marrying outside their caste or religious community.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Work matters

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 29, 2008

The Other Half

In Aurangabad, Maharashtra, a group of women have taken on the challenging but difficult job of burying or cremating the bodies of accident victims. The women are a part of a self-help group. Traditionally, most such groups engage in traditional task s — “womanly” tasks, one might say — such as making papads, embroidery, making paper products etc. to earn money. It is rare that you hear of a group that breaks away from the norm.

According to a newspaper report, the women in Aurangabad successfully won a contract put out by the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation for this task. Four groups of men had also applied and had asserted that such work was not “woman’s work”. Yet, the 11 women of the Panchsheel Mahila Bachat Gat managed to win the contract. They are paid Rs. 15,000 per month by the AMC for five bodies and Rs. 3,000 for every additional body. The women say that they manage to save Rs. 500 per body. And amazingly, these women have overcome their own aversion to such a job and their worry about what others would say, including members of their family. They strongly believe that victims of accidents, often unidentified, must be given a decent burial or cremation.

Gendered professions

This story is interesting because it raises questions about the kind of jobs women can do, or cannot do. While women with education have crashed through many barriers and broken stereotypes in this country, choices for work are limited for poor women. Much of what they do is unpaid work, particularly in rural areas where women engage in agricultural work. Even in cities, poor women either work as domestics or do home-based work for which they are poorly paid.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Being Hillary

I must add this note before I post this link to my column in The Hindu on Hillary Clinton. I got a huge response from readers, most of it positive but some of it viciously negative. One reader called Hillary a "bitch" and me a "misandrist". Another suggested that I should stop writing altogether because all I did was write from the perspective of women -- he's probably missed the point that my column in The Hindu is precisely that, a comment from a gender perspective. Some of them said I was ill-informed, that my comments were not factual, that they were biased etc. Somehow the fact that I had tried to separate the personalities of Obama and Hillary Clinton from the way the media handled the race was missed and I was seen as being narrowly partisan. While I expect as a columnist to provoke reactions, I am intrigued at the columns that do bring forth such extreme reactions. I find it even more fascinating that a race in a country where none of us can vote can trigger off such passions. On my part, while I do not celebrate that Hillary lost, I do think it is a historic moment for the US that Obama is the candidate. If he wins, and he should, it will be something the world will celebrate.


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 15

The Other Half

Hillary Clinton is now off the front pages. But she is still simmering on the back burner. The woman who would be President of the United States of America, by any measure the most powerful job in the world, is not going to slink away into anonymity. Someone who managed to get 18 million voters to support her attempt to claim the nomination of the Democratic Party is not a person you can brush off lightly. She has proved that she is someone to be reckoned with, to be taken seriously.

Yet, despite her determined and tireless campaign over seven months, there were many in the US who refused to take her seriously. Or rather they tried to ensure that no one would take her seriously by concentrating their criticism of her on things that have no relevance when it comes to holding political office. TV anchors mimicked her laugh or cackle as they called it --, spoofed her dress sense, railed against her for acting tough, chastised her if she showed any emotion, and made the most
unmentionable personal comments and jokes about her. If anything like this had been said about the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Barack Obama, all hell would have broken loose. In the land of political correctness, you cannot make jokes about colour or about religion. But apparently women are fair game, particularly women who dare to enter an arena that has historically been the exclusive reserve of men.

One can find many faults with Hillary Clinton, as one can with Barack Obama. But these criticisms should be centred on the policies they advocate, the positions they have taken or not taken, their inconsistency, their lack of experience, their ethics, their world view. But surely in a race that is for the highest office, neither should have to face cheap personal attacks of the kind Hillary Clinton faced at the hands of America's "free" press.

Which brings us to the central question that must be asked now that the dust has settled: Is America ready to have a woman as President? Yes, if one counts the popular vote for Hillary Clinton that matched the votes that Obama managed to
get. No, if you read some of the writing and watch some of the television comments made about Hillary. All of them were personal. All of them were in bad taste. And all of them were anti-women.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Diary of the displaced

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 1, 2008

The Other Half

When a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a tsunami, destroys your home and leaves you destitute, you have no one to blame. The trauma and grief are great but most people move on. And there is help available. What happens when your home is flattened by bulldozers because a city decides that you should not live there any more, that the land you and perhaps your parents have lived on is now required for a “public purpose”? Which “public” and what “purpose”? You cannot demand an explanation.

In such an eventuality, the trauma and grief are as great as when hit by a natural disaster, but the sense of hopelessness is greater. For, it comes after years of deception, false hopes and broken promises. There is little help available. The choice has been made for you. Move to a new site, government approved, or perish.

The problem is that even when you do move, often you perish. For, the new locations are distant, deprive you of community, of livelihood, or security. A new, well-researched book, Swept off the Map: Surviving Eviction and Resettlement in Delhi by Kalyani Menon-Sen and Gautam Bhan (published by Yoda Press) brings many of these facts out in a credible and forceful way. The book traces families compelled to move from the banks of the Yamuna from an area called Yamuna Pushta in 2004 to the Bawana Resettlement Colony on the outskirts of Delhi. This was done because the Ministry of Tourism wanted to make the area into a tourist attraction. And the slums there, where an estimated 35,000 families had lived for over three decades, were an eyesore. So they had to be moved. Despite court cases and interventions by activists, the bulldozers moved in and flattened the colony. Only 16,000 families could prove their credentials to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). They were allotted plots in several areas outside Delhi, including Bawana.

Through feminist lens

The above study follows 2,577 households and records the impact of the move on livelihood, quality of life and environment. The research project was novel because it trained community workers to conduct the study alongside trained researchers. And it developed the research through what the researchers call a “feminist lens”. Explaining this, they write: “Methodologically, feminist research differs from traditional research because it actively seeks to address and account for the power imbalances between women and men, and between researcher and subject. It is also a strategy for challenging the social inequality built into mainstream research methods. Most significantly, it recognises and builds on the standpoints and experiences of women in particular and other marginalised groups in general.” In other words, you don’t study women as subjects but study everything from the perspective of women. The results of applying such a lens to research are very different as is evident from this particular study.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)