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)