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)