Sunday, May 18, 2008

Deleting girls

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 18, 2008

The Other Half

Now, even Amitabh Bachchan is speaking up for the “girl child”. Or so I am told. At a book launch in Mumbai last month, the Bollywood icon apparently spoke about the skewed sex ratio and unwanted girls. The five-star audience that had com
e to celebrate shining and successful India, the subject of the book, might have considered this a little odd. Success at ensuring that girls are not born is certainly not a reason to cheer. But it is also something people don’t like to be reminded of when they are fixated on “super power” India.
So whether it is a statement by Amitabh Bachchan today or the Prime Minister yesterday, the “girl child” issue, or that of sex-selective abortions, keeps popping up with uncomfortable regularity. No amount of cheering about India’s progress can detract from such an unsavoury reality about our country.

Complex issue

Although the issue seems simple — don’t select and delete girls — in fact it is far more complex. The campaigns against sex-selective abortion tend to simplify the issue. They emphasise one aspect so that people are shocked, or feel guilty. It is hoped that such a strategy will actually lead to change. But does it?
Take, for instance, images of a foetus in a womb with a noose around the neck. This is supposed to create a sense of revulsion and guilt about the use of sex-selective abortions. Perhaps it does. But is it also indirectly giving a message against all abortions? Is targeting the act of aborting the foetus the issue, or the fundamental reason why the woman has had to do this? The difference is important, as abortion rights are part of the larger debate on reproductive rights, while the motivation for sex-selective abortion is the prevalence of son-preference, which concerns the status of women in our society.

Need to be specific

Although the problem of sex-selective abortions and a declining sex ratio is spreading, it is confined at the moment to distinct parts of the country. Campaigners on women’s health and reproductive rights have argued that messages on this problem should be clearly targeted rather than universalised, particularly as they could have the adverse effect of making women feel guilty about having an abortion even for a legitimate reason.

India is one of the many countries where abortion is allowed on several grounds and can be done in safe conditions in government hospitals. Yet, although women have been given this right, only a small percentage of them go to government facilities for abortions. Most of them go to private practitioners or to quacks. Often this is due to ignorance. Poor women in particular are unaware that abortions are permitted and available in government facilities. The worst affected are poor, unmarried women who seek abortions for unwanted pregnancies. In government hospitals they often encounter uncomfortable questions. As a result, they are left with no choice but to risk infection or even death by getting an abortion in unsafe conditions.

Against this reality, where literally lakhs of women seek safe abortion because they are denied effective contraception, or are victims of sexual crimes, it becomes imperative that the campaign against sex-selection does not indirectly result in the curtailment of a woman’s basic right to decide whether and when she wants to have a child. The heart of the matter is a woman’s right over her own body. She should be allowed to decide. She should be given a choice. And she should not be made to feel guilty or like a criminal if she chooses not to bear a child.

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

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Connecting to the Northeast

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 4, 2008

The Other Half

You know you have left “mainland” India the moment you leave the outskirts of Guwahati, Assam. Life suddenly takes on a different pace. For the tired eyes of an urban dweller, the green is incredibly soothing. And even the pre-monsoon Brahmaputra, at its lowest water level, is awe-inspiring.

But the scenic beauty, the slower pace at which things move, the abundance and variety of vegetation fail to camouflage the tensions that prevail just beneath the surface. You catch a glimpse when suddenly you come across army personnel patrolling an area. The military presence in Upper Assam is not as obvious as in Kashmir. But it is there, a reminder that all is not well in this beautiful State.

Constant reminder

Even in the not-so-remote parts of Assam, you are constantly reminded of the fact that the entire region remains apart. “Connectivity” was an issue more than three decades back. Assamese and other Northeasterners complained of their lack of access to each other and to India. Today, things have improved. There are more flights and trains coming into the Northeast from the “mainland”. But connectivity between the “Seven Sisters” is still poor. And although the Internet has begun to spread its reach, access is still indifferent at best and non-existent at worse. In fact, despite all these changes, the issue of “connectivity” continues to be the subject of editorials and discussions.

Difference and remoteness from the “mainland” are also evident in the choice of stories in the newspapers of Assam and the Northeast. After days of being assaulted by images of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches on the front page in Mumbai newspapers, it was a relief to read local newspapers for whom the brouhaha over this meshing together of sport and entertainment was a non-issue. In fact, even their sports pages did not carry any reports on this new version of Bollywood and cricket — that ought to be called Bricket.

Instead, the newspapers reported bomb blasts in Manipur, the death of a one-horned rhino in Assam (a reminder of the constant problem of poaching), and the civic problems that the burgeoning capital city of Assam faces. “Mainland” politics, and sports, were a somewhat lower priority.

The visit was also a reminder of how serious environmental concerns are ignored despite studies and reports. The highway that slices through the Kazhiranga National Park, a World Heritage Site, is like a scar. Buses blow loud horns, trucks spew out diesel fumes. Despite this, you can actually spot a rhino or two in the distance. But how long will these animals survive this steady onslaught on the environment that occurs day in and out just a few metres away from where they graze and calmly view the world around them?

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