Sunday, December 27, 2009

Will anything change in 2010?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 27, 2009

Can we look forward to development in 2010 that will not make the poor in the country poorer?

PHOTO: PAUL NORONHA

IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS: Farmers protesting land acquisition in Maharashtra.

As the sun gets ready to set, bringing to an end another year, we are forced to pause, to consider how the past year has gone by and whether the next will be different. For millions of Indians, who continue to live in poverty and whose numbers have grown statistically, there is little cause to cheer.

As if developmental policies and environmental degradation were not enough to increase the levels of deprivation of those living at the margins, there is now an additional, and more virulent, policy that will exacerbate poverty all over this country. And that is the policy to forcibly seize thousands upon thousands of acres of land, belonging to farmers and communities, for Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Every now and then, people's resistance to this blatant land grab breaks into the news. When political parties are involved, it is dismissed as the work of a “disgruntled” opposition. When it is apolitical, it is seen as the work of the anti-development brigade who resist any form of “progress”.

Yet you only need to go to the beautiful state of Goa, where thousands of Indians and foreigners go at this time of the year, to realise the extent of the fraud that is being played out in the name of SEZ. For, in a state, where a highly literate and involved citizenry has actively questioned and opposed projects seen to be detrimental to the environment and to Goa's development, thousands of acres of land have been acquired for one purpose and without any explanation diverted to another.

Taken forcibly

The Bhootkhamb Plateau in Kerim, northeast Goa, is one such example. It is one of the many plateaus that dot Goa and that are repositories of biodiversity, the source of much of the water supply and of grazing lands that are jointly owned by the community. In 1989, 123,200 sq metres of land on the Bhootkhamb Plateau were acquired under provisions of the Land Acquisition Act by the Goa Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) for an industrial project — Dupont's Nylon 66 factory. Nylon 66 had tried to set up shop elsewhere in India but had been rejected on environmental grounds. The people of Kerim and surrounding villages realised this and decided to oppose the plant. They put up a spirited resistance and in the ensuing confrontation between the villagers and the police, one young man was killed.

Today, his memorial stands as a reminder to the struggles of the past but the villagers continue to struggle even today. The land taken then for Nylon 66, a project that was ultimately abandoned, is still cordoned off. It has now been handed over to a pharmaceutical company under provisions of the SEZ. But the villagers will have none of it.

Swati, a spirited young teacher from Kerim, stands at the site and tells us what she and her fellow villagers feel. “We don't want industrialisation in our village”, she says. “We have seen in Goa that whenever there is industrialisation, we don't get jobs and the water dries up. We want our land back. We will decide what we want. The government cannot come and force us. We want our village to remain a village.”

Swati's fears are not unfounded. Even though all work on the proposed SEZ was supposed to have stopped as the Goa government has decided not to sanction any SEZs, the villagers discovered that an illegal tube well was being sunk on the site. Over 200 of them forced their way onto the site and stopped work. They fear that such tube wells will ultimately dry up all their sources of water.

In fact, for the first time, many villagers in Goa are experiencing a shortage of water. They are also witness to piles of industrial waste being burned on other plateaus, and hillsides being gouged out by earthmovers as the red sand is indiscriminately excavated for construction activities elsewhere. In front of their eyes, they are witnessing the destruction of their environment. Not surprisingly, even the easy-going people of this verdant state are now angry and frustrated.

Tragic stories

Further north of Goa, in the state of Gujarat, the story is not very different, only more tragic in many ways. Lalit Vachani, in his arresting documentary film “The Salt Stories” captures this in many touching sequences. The film retraces Gandhiji's salt march of 1930 from Sabarmati to Dandi in the context of modern Gujarat. One of the wrenching sequences shows Rajubhai, a slum dweller living on the banks of the Sabarmati, under the historic Ellis Bridge where Gandhiji held a massive rally. He faces eviction because the Government has plans to develop the riverfront, reflecting the global vision that Chief Minister Narendra Modi constantly articulates for the state he rules. But for men like Rajubhai, there is no place in this glittering global vision. He breaks down in front of the camera as he thinks of the future. “All we want is shelter and food”, he keeps repeating. When Vachani filmed Rajubhai, his slum was under threat of demolition. By the time he completed the film the slum had been demolished and Rajubhai had died, probably a broken man.

The film reminds us of the distance we have travelled in this country from when men and women marched alongside Gandhi to defy the Salt Tax imposed by the British, risked beatings and imprisonment but set in motion a form of non-violent resistance that is still spoken of and emulated. The villagers of Kerim in Goa, for instance, are convinced that this is the strategy they must follow today.

Lingering prejudices

But in Gandhi's own state, the message seems to have been lost, as Vachani reveals. The prejudice against Dalits and Muslims needs little provocation to be expressed. A Gandhian who remembers the struggles of the past has no hesitation in calling Muslims “demons” and insisting that they are to blame for everything. He sees no contradiction between calling himself a Gandhian and pouring venom on a community that Gandhi fought hard to protect in India. En route to Dandi, there are “temples” in the name of Gandhi that are locked and places where he stopped that lie in a state of disrepair.

The one glimmer of hope is from the village of Napa, a Muslim majority village, where even today the communities live together and carry forward the Gandhian legacy. And in Dandi itself, where Mohan Dandekar echoes something that Gandhi himself would have said had he been alive today — that development should not make the poor in this country even poorer.

2010 will be a year where this proposition will be tested yet again. In the name of progress, islands of prosperity in the form of SEZs are being created by forcibly depriving people of the one thing they call their own — their land. These islands will be foreign enclaves, not governed by the laws that apply to other Indian citizens. They promise employment but create nothing on the scale promised. And they are swallowing up land and resources at a pace that should make every Indian proud of the history of a country that fought colonial rule, wake up and think again.

(To read the original, click on the link above)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Irom Sharmila's 10-year-fast is ignored

DNA, December 14, 2009

“Isn't it ironic and smacks of the Centre's double standards? One person in AP fasts for ten days and Centre relents. Another person fasts in Manipur for nine years and more, supported by the relay fast of thousands of other women for one year now, and what does the Centre do? -- NOTHING. Wah, wah, Indian democracy!! Not proud to be Indian”.

This is a message sent to some of us by a woman journalist friend in Manipur. Indeed, if you are looking at what they call “mainland” India from the distant Northeast, it must seem strange that a 10 day fast can result in talks for a separate state for Telengana but a 10-year-fast to demand the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur results in nothing.

Irom Sharmila, that iconic 36-year-old Manipuri woman, has spent the best part of almost 10 years being force fed against her will. She has undertaken a fast-unto-death demanding the withdrawal of the AFSPA. Each year, the ritual is played out. Her period of detention for attempting suicide is one year. The authorities have to release her, usually in early March. She leaves the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal where she is incarcerated and being force fed through a tube shoved down her nose.

Earlier this year, many of us were witness to the moving moment when this pale young woman emerged from the hospital and was virtually carried by hundreds of older Manipuri woman who have been on a relay hunger strike in support, to the shamiana where they sit all day and all night in solidarity. Sharmila began speaking as she gained a little strength. But she would not give up her fast. So two days later she was rearrested and once again moved to the hospital.

And while this annual arrest and rearrest ritual continues, Manipur – and particularly Imphal – is caught in a permanent spiral of violence. For many months now, since the July 23 “encounter” killing of a young man, Chongkham Sanjit in broad daylight in Imphal’s busy market area (exposed by Tehelka through a series of photographs), the capital of Manipur has not been “normal”. People are demanding that the killers of this young man be prosecuted. But AFSPA gives the security forces impunity. Their powers to act cannot be questioned.

As a result, there has been a civil strike that has immobilised the city. For months children have not attended school or college. There is violence, curfew and an aggravation of the perennial shortages that this land-locked city not far from the border of Myanmar faces even in so-called normal times. The 25 lakh citizens of the state of Manipur have seen little or no development for years while the rest of India, apparently, marches ahead.

So my Manipuri friends have a right to ask why some fasts in the “mainland” yield results while their protests are never heard. Or if they are, then the result is promises that are never kept. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised some hopes in 2004 when he went to Imphal and promised that the withdrawal of AFSPA would be considered. He set up a committee headed by Supreme Court Judge B. P. Jeevan Reddy to look into the issue. The committee strongly recommended that the Act be withdrawn pointing out that the Act, “for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness”. But nothing happened. The promise was forgotten, the recommendation ignored.

The Telangana issue has triggered a series of demands for separate states. The people of Gorkhaland have begun fasts, others are threatening to do so. But in the midst of all this fasting, we would do well to pause and think why only the demands of our “mainland” matter while the “periphery” – places like Manipur – are ignored, forgotten and rendered virtually invisible.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An aniversary of violence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 13, 2009

THE OTHER HALF


December 6, 1992 will not be forgotten for a long time. Even if the memory of that fateful day, when the 400-year-old Babri Masjid was demolished, had begun to dim, it has been brought alive again by the passionate debate in Parliament over the much-delayed Liberhan Commission report and the scenes played out on our television screens of those terrible hours when the structure was brought down. That day the Hindutva proponents destroyed not just a Masjid but shook the secular core of this country. The emotional wounds caused by the riots that followed December 6 have never fully healed.

But December 6 has another meaning — for women the world over. On that day, exactly 20 years ago, a young man called Marc Lepine entered the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada. He walked into a classroom where he separated the men from the women. And then he proceeded to shoot the women engineering students, shouting as he killed them, “I hate feminists”. In the 45 minutes that he spent on that campus, he also wounded 27 students — 23 women and four men. After this he shot himself. It was presumed that he was angry with women because he failed to gain entry to the polytechnic that had a policy of affirmative action encouraging women.

The Montreal Massacre, as it came to be known, was the trigger for what has now become an annual feature observed around the world — Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, from November 25, International Day Against Violence Against Women to December 10, World Human Rights Day.

Violence against women has become so pervasive — not just in the public space but within the household, in situations where a woman might believe she is safe — that the issue has to be kept in the public eye. Thus campaigns like this, that link violence to human rights, are essential.

The latest reports from Afghanistan are an illustration of why such gender-based violence and human rights have to be seen within the same frame. Every other day there are reports from Afghanistan, not just of the never-ending war, but also of women being raped, assaulted and killed. Women who have accepted public office, women journalists, developmental workers — basically any woman who ventures into the public space is a target.

Poverty as violence

Women in Afghanistan face another kind of violence. Poverty and the absence of development is like a permanent blanket of violence that shrouds the majority of women in many parts of the world. In Afghanistan, a woman dies every 27 minutes during childbirth. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan is the highest in the world — 1,600 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births.

War is another killer, of men and women. But in the war-torn countries of Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the stories we hear of what the women go through are blood curdling. Rape has long been established as a weapon of war by all sides. Literally thousands of women have been raped and assaulted. How will these women reconstruct their lives after the fighting ends?

The examples from other countries, horrifying as they are, do not diminish the disturbing reality in our own country. These 16 days should make us in India think whether “development” has reduced the extent of violence Indian women encounter. Ask the women in Kashmir, or in Manipur, or those caught in the fighting between security forces and Maoists in Chhatisgarh. Are their lives safer and more secure?

Poverty continues to kill and maim millions of Indian women. Like their Afghan sisters, an unconscionably high number of them die during childbirth. One reason is the continued practice of child marriage. An estimated 40 per cent of the world's child marriages take place in India. Despite laws prohibiting this, millions of young girls not yet ready for marriage or child bearing are forced into it as pointed out by a recent report titled “Gender Violence in India” by the Chennai-based Prajnya Trust ( www.prajnya.in). The document makes sober reading and looks at six kinds of violence: pre-natal sex selection, child marriage and forced marriage, honour killings, dowry death, domestic violence and rape.

Statistics of the National Crimes Research Bureau tell us that the incidence of reported rapes is steadily moving up. These are only the reported rapes. For every rape that shows up as a statistic, we know there are many more that remain hidden.

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bhopal's night of terror

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 29, 2009

THE OTHER HALF

Twenty-five years after the Bhopal Gas Disaster, justice still eludes the victims…


There are many smaller Bhopals that have occurred since 1984 and keep on taking place, often unreported.



Ongoing struggle: Victims of the world's worst industrial disaster still haven't got their due. Photo: S. Subramanium

This past week has been one where one anniversary has dominated the news — that of the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The date is like a permanent scar on the memory of not only Mumbai but also on the collective memory of the rest of India that watched the 60-hour siege and battle as it unfolded on television.

But in the coming week there is another anniversary that unfortunately will not draw the same kind of media attention. Twenty-five years ago, on a winter night of December 2/3 1984, deadly poisonous gas leaked out from the tanks of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal and killed over 3,000 people. The factory was located in a densely populated area. As the sirens went off in its premises, indicating an emergency, the mostly poor people living around it rushed out to witness a dense cloud of smoke emerging from the factory. In no time, the cloud had spread to the areas close by and beyond. As terrified men, women, children ran in panic, not knowing what this was or where they should run, they inhaled vast quantities of the poisons contained in that cloud. The immediate sensations were burning eyes, breathing difficulties and vomiting. Those who found a quick way to move out of the area survived; the others, including children and the elderly, died on the spot.

Denial

As morning broke, the poison had a name. It was methyl isocyanate (MIC), used by Union Carbide to produce a fertilizer. A runaway reaction inside a tank containing 42 tonnes of this deadly chemical resulted in it spewing out of the tank. Local hospitals, inundated with thousands of panicked residents, had no knowledge of what to administer and the company provided no information or antidote. Indeed, for years it argued that MIC would not lead to any long-term effects. The story of Bhopal has conclusively proved this wrong. An estimated 20,000 people have died from complications resulting from inhaling MIC and other chemicals released into the air that night.

On any count, this is one of the worst stories of callousness. The Bhopal Gas Disaster is still known as the world's worst industrial accident. The accident itself, what followed immediately afterwards, the manner in which the case against Union Carbide was hastily settled by the Indian government for an unconscionably low amount of just $470 million, the desperate struggle of survivors for payment of that settlement and for medical treatment, the callous and cavalier manner in which the rotting plant continued to stand as a reminder of that night of horror, the fact that it successfully poisoned all the water sources in its surroundings, thereby punishing the victims yet again — the list of crimes and misdemeanors is long and will leave you breathless. Yet, the indifference continues even today. The pleas, demonstrations, petitions of thousands of women, men and children make little difference.

Twenty-five years is a long time. At the time of the accident, the government accepted that the affected population could be over 500,000. It was also known then, that a large proportion of these would be young. Thousands of pregnant women were amongst those affected. Inevitably, the symptoms would appear over time and would need to be treated. If people were unable to work as a result, they would need to be rehabilitated.

The government at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh can claim that it has done all this. But the reality on the ground is that the survivors have had to struggle every inch of the way to get their entitlements — compensation, healthcare, work and a clean environment. To compound the tragedy, the rotting plant remained where it was with no one prepared to accept responsibility for the poisons that still continued to leach out from its soil. Over time, these poisons made their way into the wells and water supply in the surrounding area, adding to the burden of illness that the unfortunate people living around the plant have had to live with.

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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

26/11 and all that anger


The little girl selling candles outside the Taj Mahal hotel was having the best time on November 26. No one quibbled when she asked for Rs. 10 for each candle. All kinds of Mumbaikars bought candles from her and others like her, and lit them ritualistically outside the hotel. Every now and then they would pause as they noticed one of hundreds of photographers positioning themselves to take the definitive picture of Mumbai in mourning a year after the terror attack.

While several thousands of Mumbai’s residents thronged the area in front of the Taj, a virtual wall made up of vehicles with generators separated them from another ceremony on the other side of the plaza around the Gateway of India. This was the VIP mourning session. The aam admi was kept out and Mumbai’s police were tasked with the job of ensuring that this distance between the important and the unimportant remain intact.

The November 26 anniversary in Mumbai was a spectacle in more ways that one. The candle lighting was predictable. Since the Jessica Lal murder case and Rang de Basanti, this form of remembrance, magnified by the electronic media, has now become a virtual norm. But the anniversary went beyond that.

The city seemed to be under siege again, or at least its southern part, as streams of important people went from one location to another paying homage to the dead while the police waved their hands and blew whistles to keep the roads clear for them. Earlier in the morning the flag march by the Mumbai police, when a part of the busy Marine Drive was blocked off at peak traffic time, failed to either awe or to reassure Mumbai’s harried citizens.

Omnipresent at every location was the OB van and dozens of journalists and cameramen. The media circus was on full display and was as much an object of interest as the events. Assorted groups with their own agendas used the presence of the media to put forward their messages. So a group from the BJP shouted slogans like “Phansi do, phansi do” demanding that the lone surviving terrorist Ajmal Kasab be hanged. The Hare Rama Hare Krishna brigade sang bhajans and danced around. An old poster, created after the 1992-93 communal riots by a garment manufacturer in Dharavi, the late Waqar Younis, showing four young boys depicting four different religions under the slogan “Ham Sab Ek Hain” was held up by a woman accompanied by a young man with a cutout of India and a national flag. Within minutes a crowd had gathered around them. And so on. It was a mela of personal messages and agendas. And somewhere in the background was the memory that a year ago the structure before which all this was happening had been under siege in one of the most spectacular terror attacks seen in India.

The odd slogans apart, what one did not sense was any anger. Disappointment, yes. But not anger. Not of the kind expressed a year back. So what had happened? Had people changed? Or had the anger drummed up at that time subsided because it had not been channeled into anything constructive? Of course, if you believed what you heard on television, Mumbaikars apparently were angry. Some of the talking heads on TV—the famous and the glamorous – declared repeatedly that they were angry and fed-up with the government and the political class.

Strikingly, those who said they were not angry were people who were still grieving a personal loss. People like Ragini Sharma, the wife of a ticket collector who was shot down at CST station. Or journalist Sabina Sehgal Saikia’s brother, who suggested that people needed to move on beyond anger.

Unfortunately, Mumbaikars have not moved on beyond anger or disappointment to any kind of engagement or effort to change the system. Venting is the easiest form of expression and the electronic media, in particular, now gives the famous and the ordinary a chance to do just that. But what is achieved at the end of all that except an accumulation of hot air?

In the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, one person did attempt to engage with the system. Banker Meera Sanyal stood for elections as an independent candidate in the sincere belief that the anger expressed following November 26 would translate into votes for someone like her. Nothing of the kind happened. Her supporters deluded themselves up to the last minute. Ms Sanyal lost her deposit. Ms Sanyal has to be saluted for at least taking this step but have those who convinced themselves that she would win because she echoed the sentiments of people upset about the events of last November understood why she lost?

The elite and the middle class in a city like Mumbai are convinced that if they speak, the rulers must listen. So if they shout and say they are angry, those in power should shake in trepidation and immediately set about making changes. If they ask questions like “Why didn’t the NSG use tear gas in the Taj while tackling the terrorists?” they must be given a studied response even though the question arises from complete ignorance about how such situations are handled.

In between such questions being raised on prime time television, there is little or no engagement with the realities of the city. Some are engaged – and they are always the people who speak some sense. But their numbers are few, not enough to make a dent in the city’s development plans, to break the growing and obvious nexus between builders and politicians, to impact the course of decision-making on issues vital to people’s daily existence. The few exceptions are where people have decided not to sit back and protest but to organise and resist. Thus the residents of Gorai in northwest Mumbai, for instance, successfully prevented land acquisition for an SEZ that would have destroyed the lives and livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk and farmers. But apart from a handful of such examples of successful interventions in changing policy, Mumbaikars continue to demonstrate amazing indifference to their surroundings and only wake up periodically when disasters hit them – a flood, a bomb blast or a terror attack.

The problem with the hype around anniversaries like November 26 is that it is only hype. When anger does not lead to constructive engagement, not only does it dissipate but it also serves no purpose. If there is anything we should learn a year after November 26, it is this, a truth that has been self-evident for decades in this city.

(Also read my column on The Hoot on the media and 26/11 --http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=4230&mod=1&pg=1&sectionId=10&valid=true)


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Message for Copenhagen

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 15, 2009

THE OTHER HALF


The environment ultimately is about people and this must drive the negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark next month.


It is the most vulnerable, the poorest, who will be hit the hardest if the earth continues to grow warmer.


Photo: Debatosh Sengupta

Local solutions: Lessons from the women of Ladakh...

Prime Ministers, Presidents, Environment Ministers, scientists, journalists and bureaucrats the world over are counting the days to December 7, when they will gather in impressive numbers at Copenhagen, Denmark for the United Nations Climate Change Conference to discuss what can and should be done about global warming. They will quibble over how to fix responsibility, they will fight over words in long documents, they will challenge evidence presented as proof of the crisis, and they will negotiate percentages and deadlines for curbing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Regardless of how the responsibility for the current mess is apportioned, one factor that everyone agrees on is that it is the most vulnerable, the poorest, those who depend on the environment, who will be hit the hardest if the earth continues to grow warmer. Yet, the most vulnerable are also, often, the most sensitive and the most sensible when it comes to making environmental choices.

Fragile ecology

To understand this, travel up to the rooftop of India, the high Himalayas where in a veritable desert sits Ladakh, a land of history and spectacular geography. Here you see no trees but the presence of those silent snow-capped peaks more than makes up for this. Here streams are so clear you can see every pebble over which their waters flow. Here men and women are strong and sturdy as they battle the harsh climatic conditions every day. Yet the extremes in climate have not affected the Ladakhi approach towards life and people. Hill people are generally known to be friendly. But Ladakhis must qualify as some of the friendliest and kindest people I have ever encountered.

Especially impressive are the women of Ladakh. Kundes Dolma is the Vice President of the Women's Alliance, an organisation set up more than two decades back by a remarkable Norwegian woman who made Ladakh her home, Helena Norberg-Hodge. Ms. Dolma, her weathered face wearing a perpetual smile, recounts the work of her organisation. She tells us how they have managed to stop the use of polythene bags in Leh for the past 10 years. “We saw the problems polythene bags caused for our cattle, which swallowed them and also how they blocked the natural streams that flowed into Leh,” she says. So the women campaigned for an end to plastic bags and today no shopkeeper in the town will sell you goods in a plastic bag.

With the growing number of tourists visiting the town, this is not easy to sustain. But the women continue to campaign and monitor. But what do they do about the impact on resources, such as water, in the face of growing tourism? A decade ago, people in Leh had enough water from the snow-fed streams. Today there are only a few of such streams and the quantity of water in them is notably less. “I worry about the coming generation because of the water scarcity”, says Ms. Dolma.

Some scientists hold that what Leh experiences today is the consequences of decades of accumulation of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. This has resulted in a rise in temperature affecting the glaciers in high mountain ranges like the Himalayas. The evidence of this is still being gathered. Glaciers are notoriously inaccessible and tests and surveys have to be conducted over a span of time to convincingly establish that there is a change in the amount of ice accumulating in them each year. It may take many more years before such scientific proof is available.

But the observations of women like Kundes Dolma suggest that some significant changes have begun to take place and that these cannot be ignored.

Women also tell us that part of the problem is the manner in which Leh is developing. Instead of traditional forms of building that consisted of using mud and rocks, materials that are locally available and suitable for the dry climate of Leh, people are now using cement and concrete to build hotels and guesthouses. Instead of the traditional dry toilets, where no water is used and that produce a mountain of manure for the fields after a few months, people are now using flush toilets that use up precious water. Instead of depending on water from the mountain streams and shallow wells, hoteliers are now sinking tube wells that draw out water from deep in the ground.

Familiar yet strange

The result is water shortage, and no recharge of natural underground aquifers. With less snow in the winter, the quantity of water in the streams has decreased. You now see boys pushing carts full of canisters of water on the streets of Leh, a sight that was unfamiliar in previous years.

In a harsh climate, you need fuel to keep warm. In Leh, people can get gas, although at a higher price. But in the scattered settlements, perched on the steep mountains — where access to a road means walking for three or four days — the only source of fuel is what can be foraged in terms of fuel wood. Dry shrubs and bushes provide a tenuous source of fuel for heating and cooking. It is this dependence on nature for something as basic as fuel that joins the women of Ladakh with millions of women in the rest of India.

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


Thursday, November 05, 2009

Making war over love


The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 1, 2009
THE OTHER HALF
Propaganda wars, such as the recent rumour about the “Love Jehad”, undermine women’s right to choose as citizens of a democracy.


In the war of competing ideologies, women are often caught in the middle.

Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

In a free country? Protesting the attack on women by Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore.
In a recent television discussion on the challenge posed by the spread of Naxalism in India, several participants spoke glowingly about the strength of Indian democracy and how all Indians should celebrate the freedom and tolerance that exists in thi s country. If you constantly compare yourself to countries that work under different systems of government, then perhaps you can persuade yourself to believe that this is indeed a country that allows all its citizens free choice.
The reality, as we know, is very different. There is little of free choice for the small and marginal farmers whose land is forcibly acquired for industries, special economic zones, large dams or other infrastructure. There is no free choice for Adivasis demanding their rights when the land they have nurtured and depend on is upturned for the mineral wealth that lies beneath it. And there is no such thing as free choice for the majority of Indian women whose life choices are pre-determined by patriarchy, community, caste, religion or social class. If any of them dare to break out and actually make a free choice, they risk at worst death and at best being outcast.
Strange rumours
It is against this background that we have the strange case of stories circulating first in Kerala and then in Dakshina Kannada (South Karnataka) about a so-called “Love Jehad” where Hindu girls were allegedly being lured by Muslim youth and forced to convert to Islam. The rumour mill began with a report in a Kerala newspaper and was soon picked up by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (which claims to be “uniting Hindus globally”) and dozens of other similar sectarian groups in Dakshina Kannada. Through the Internet, public demonstrations and statements, they claimed that thousands of Hindu girls were being lured and converted to Islam in Kerala and Karnataka and that the State must intervene.
The courts were also brought into the act, first the Kerala High Court that ordered an inquiry followed by the Karnataka High Court. The Director General of Police, Kerala has already reported to the Kerala High Court that there is no such group or organisation called “Love Jehad” or “Romeo Jehad” (another name doing the rounds). But the reports are being investigated. The Karnataka High Court has also instituted an inquiry and holds that the issue has “national ramifications concerning security, besides the question of unlawful trafficking of women.”
Proved baseless
Like the Kerala police, the Dakshina Kannada police has also clarified that the rumour is baseless in the face of facts. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) claims that 3,000 Hindu girls are “missing” in Dakshina Kannada and 30,000 in the rest of the state. The police have clarified that till the end of September 2009, there were reports of 404 missing girls of whom the police had traced 332. By end October, only 57 women were still missing. Furthermore, the police have clarified that where women were missing because they had eloped, there were many cases of non-Hindus as well as Hindus eloping with Hindus.
The Dakshina Kannada police also explained that in one particular case, that of a 22-year-old girl who had been missing since June and who was rumoured to have fallen victim to this so-called “Love Jehad”, in fact, she had been murdered by a Hindu man, a serial killer who confessed to his crime.
If the Kerala police and the Dakshina Kannada police are right, it is evident that this “Love Jehad” rumour is a figment of the same imagination that concluded that women drinking at pubs in Mangalore were a threat to “Indian” culture. Yes, the same Pramod Mutalik of the Sri Ram Sene and the Mangalore pub attack fame has now re-emerged to fight against “terrorism and love Jehad”.
The story does not end with the so-called Love Jehad. In Kerala, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mouthpiece, Janmabhumi, sacked a woman journalist who got married to a Christian and converted. They claimed they could not employ a convert because they were against conversions.
One could laugh off this as the desperate and ridiculous attempts of the Hindu Right to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment in any way they can. But we cannot and should not take it lightly. Every Indian citizen is guaranteed freedom of choice under the Constitution.
(To read the rest of the article, click on the link below)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fighting urban fires

Cityscapes column on InfoChange India News & Features

By Kalpana Sharma

The urban poor do not worry about earthquakes or floods as much as they do about fires that frequently destroy their inflammable, densely-packed dwellings. In Mumbai, where half the population lives and works from slums, there is no disaster management plan, and only 1,503 fire hydrants out of 10,371 work.

mumbai_city_fire.jpg

This year the monsoon seems to be taking its time to recede. Just when reports began appearing in the media about the monsoon ending, vast swathes of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra were flooded as unusually heavy rains led to widespread devastation.

While seasonal floods are a hazard faced in many parts of India (and they usually get more coverage in the media if they also affect the bigger cities), the frequent disasters that visit particularly poor people in urban areas throughout the year are often overlooked.

Even during the rains, the poor suffer far more than those living in permanent housing. Each year, the monsoon rains in Mumbai bring with them landslides that bury scores of hutments occupied by the city’s burgeoning population of urban poor. Despite repeated notices from the municipal corporation, these people continue to perch on hill slopes and remain optimistic that they will survive the monsoon, because they simply do not have an alternative.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the Slum Improvement Board, under the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), builds retaining walls on vulnerable hillsides. But every year, most of these retaining walls give way under the weight of accumulated silt and water seepage, which weaken the walls. When the wall breaks, it is like a dam that has burst. The force of the water, boulders and mud is much greater than in a normal landslide. In its path, flimsy homes and the belongings of scores of poor people are swept away.

On September 4, 2009, a huge landslide killed 11 people in Mumbai’s Saki Naka area. Not far from the site of this disaster is another site that was affected during the July 26, 2005, rains and where 73 people died. Earlier, in the year 2000, 78 people were killed in a landslide in Azad Nagar, Ghatkopar. Of the 107 landslide-prone areas identified by the BMC, most are in the Saki Naka area.

Many of the retaining walls are, in any case, notional. In 2009, for instance, according to newspapers, the Maharashtra government sanctioned Rs 17.4 crore for 183 retaining walls to be repaired, constructed or built. But work sanctioned in 2007 was still pending -- of the 199 works sanctioned that year, only 111 were completed, 58 were still being worked on, and 30 had not yet started.

Such disasters cannot be called ‘natural’. Nature might help speed them up, but they are waiting to happen at any time. And the solution for these disasters is not just emergency measures and disaster plans but a long-term vision of how to deal with the housing crisis for the poor in cities like Mumbai.

Even landslides get their due in the media when they happen. But there is one category of urban disaster that is not taken seriously; nor are the root causes of these accidents or disasters acknowledged. This is the disaster caused by fires that break out with uncanny regularity in the slums of most big cities.

Fires in well-known locations -- in high-rises where the better-off live and work -- draw considerable attention from the government and the media. Usually, after a fire in an office building in a metro city, the media runs articles on fire hazards in high-rises, raises questions about whether the fire department is adequately equipped to deal with such fires, whether buildings are following the fire safety norms, whether the space around the buildings is adequate for fire engines and for firemen to operate during such disasters, etc.

But increasingly, a major section of India’s urban population does not work and live in such buildings. In Mumbai, for instance, more than half the population lives and works out of informal structures, many built of extremely inflammable material. Fires in slums are so common that they pass unnoticed except when they spread and threaten nearby formal structures, or when there is notable loss of life.

Mike Davis, in his book Planet of Slums, points out: “The urban poor do not lose much sleep at night worrying about earthquakes or even floods. Their chief anxiety is a more frequent and omnipresent threat: fire. Slums, not Mediterranean brush or Australian eucalypti as claimed in some textbooks, are the world’s premier fire ecology. The mixture of inflammable dwellings, extraordinary density, and dependence on open fires for heat and cooking is a superlative recipe for spontaneous combustion. A simple accident with cooking gas or kerosene can quickly become a mega-fire that destroys hundreds or even thousands of dwellings. Fire spreads through shanties at extraordinary velocity and fire-fighting vehicles, if they respond, are often unable to negotiate narrow slum lanes.”

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


Monday, October 05, 2009

A different politics

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 4, 2009

THE OTHER HALF


KALPANA SHARMA

Women in Kavthepiran, a village in western Maharashtra, show how it is possible for ordinary people to have a stake in electoral politics and transform public life.


Sanghi and Kavthepiran are two sides of the same coin....


Photo: D.B. Patil

Mandate for change: Women representatives at a zilla panchayat meeting in Belgaum.

Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana are just around the corner. In Maharashtra, the scene is even more confused than it was during the General Elections. The only thing people can state with certainty is that it will be a fractured mandate. And that dynastic politics is a bug that has bitten all political parties, not just the Congress. So the sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law of a range of politicians of different hues are contesting these elections. Yet, what they have to promise is neither new nor, it would seem, interesting for the aam admi or aurat. In fact, the one fact that comes through in the media reports where journalists have spoken to ordinary people is the increasing disillusionment with politicians and with politics.

In the midst of this rather bleak scenario, reports of a different kind of politics come as a breath of fresh air, and also provide a sliver of hope that another way is possible. In September, communal riots broke out in some villages and towns of Sangli district in Maharashtra’s sugar belt. As usually happens with this kind of news, there is a flurry of stories. And then, when peace returns, there is no further news. But from the initial spate of stories, the name of one village stood out — Kavthepiran.

Not your typical village

In some ways, Kavthepiran is just another typical village in western Maharashtra with a population of around 15,000 people. But it is exceptional for a variety of reasons.

This difference is what made the story of Kavthepiran so interesting. The village came into the news because the communal incidents, sparked by a provocative video circulating through the Internet and the depiction of the fight between Shivaji and Afzal Khan on a Ganesh pandal, led to a mosque in the village being damaged. The hundred-odd Muslim families who had lived for generations in the village took fright and wanted to leave.

The women of Kavthepiran intervened and prevented such an exodus from taking place. The 17-member Panchayat in the village consists entirely of women. They decided not just to repair the mosque but also to personally approach the Muslim families and assure them that they would be looked after. Since then Kavthepiran has disappeared from the news. Good news and peace are not really news.

Possibility of change

But the story of the transformation of this village needs to be told again because it is an example of what is possible even within existing systems of electoral politics. Until 2000, Kavthepiran had nothing to distinguish itself from other villages. Its claim to fame was excessive alcoholism, crime and filth. One man, Bhimrao Mane, ruled the village with his acolytes. No one else could have a say.

In 2001, Bhimrao went through something of a change of heart. On October 2, he called a meeting of the village, a Gram Sabha. Kavthepiran’s women used the occasion to express their disgust with the state of affairs and threatened to migrate from the village en masse. Bhimrao listened and publicly promised to personally give up alcohol and to ensure that it was not sold in the village. Taking the cue from him, the village women went around and destroyed all the liquor shops and stills in the village. Their campaign did not end there. If anyone was caught drunk in the village, his head was shaved and he was paraded on a donkey. Not exactly a democratic way of functioning but perhaps they felt that public shaming was the only effective way of curbing alcoholism.

In the elections that followed, women got elected to the Panchayat. With enthusiasm, they went about cleaning the village and successfully won the State Government’s Sant Gadebaba Abhiyan award for the cleanest village. Three years later, in 2006, they won the Nirmal Gram village award from the Central Government for having completely stopped open defecation. The majority of the houses in the village now have private toilets and public toilets have been built for those who cannot afford to build their own.


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

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Invisible people

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 20, 2009

THE OTHER HALF





Unappreciated work: A still from the documentary “At my doorstep”.


Every morning, before most people in the multi-storied building where I live in Mumbai wake up and virtually unnoticed by its residents, a silent army of men do their work. A young boy, a student during the rest of the day, delivers newspapers, the g arbage bag left outside our doors is cleared and the corridor swept and swabbed by the sweeper and the milkman delivers packets of milk, perching them on a ledge or placing them in a bag hung on front doors. And even as we stir, the “breadman” delivers freshly baked local bread and eggs, the sabziwallah comes to the door with a selection of vegetables, the fruit man brings your choice of fruit, the istriwallah comes to collect and deliver your ironing and the local kirana (grocery) store delivers whatever you order on the phone. This is apart from your domestic help arriving to sweep and swab your house, wash your clothes, cook your meal and wash your dishes. And also apart from the security men at the gate of the building, who check everyone who enters the building and make sure you are not disturbed by strangers coming to your door.


Question we don’t ask


So who are these people? Do we know their names? Where do they come from? How do they survive in Mumbai? Where do they live? Do we care?


Nishtha Jain, a film-maker already known for her remarkable film on the life of her domestic help, “Lakshmi and me”, that brought out the world of the women who literally hold up the homes of the middle class and the rich in Mumbai, has now made another film on the world of these virtually invisible people who hold up the city of Mumbai. “At my doorstep” is the story of the security guards, the men who iron clothes, the boys who deliver newspapers and groceries and the men who clear the garbage from Mumbai’s multi-storied and high-rise buildings.

Set against the background of Mumbai’s Film City, and the dreams that Bollywood weaves for so many who come to the city seeking work, Jain opens our eyes to the world that these men inhabit. Through the words of Dayanand, a poet and writer originally from Bokaro in Jharkhand, who works as a security guard, Jain portrays the philosophical mindset that helps these men to survive.


Dayanand’s arrival in Mumbai begins with the ticket collector fining him for travelling from Bokaro to Mumbai on an Express Train with an ordinary ticket. Unable to pay the fine, he spends his first night in the lockup. His journey then progresses to the point he has a job but no home. A hut in a slum becomes home, embellished with posters and poems pasted on its flimsy walls. In his spare time, Dayanand uses his skill as a writer to help others like him to write home to their loved ones.


While the film fleshes out Dayanand, it leaves us asking questions about some of the other men. Like the young boy who delivers and collects clothes for ironing every day. And his colleagues, who spend the whole day ironing clothes in a hot room and say that if they do such work for more than eight months they fall sick. We watch them cook dal and rice and eat it in the same room where they have worked all day, and where they will sleep. The lucky ones sleep on the ironing tables; the others, like the delivery boy, sleep in the space below the tables. Who are these men? Where did they come from? What is their future?


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


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Uma's world

This morning, as I made my way down the hill where I live, I passed by the family of ragpickers that live on the road. The mother, her two children, a boy and a girl, and another little boy who belongs to another woman, were sleepily making their way up towards the public toilet. Further down, the other woman, a thin tall woman who I see everyday, was fast asleep, on the parapet of a fence not more than 18 inches wide.

Through the rains, this family of five have been allowed to seek temporary shelter in the Central Government officer's colony on this road. Now the rains have ended. And they are once again on the road.

Uma, also called Ruby, the little girl I saw earlier, has luminous eyes. And a wide smile. Most mornings I see her dressed in the dark blue uniform of municipal schools in Mumbai. She trudges uphill each morning to a school that is little more than a shed. Probably illegal. Claiming legality by naming itself the Ambedkar school.

Uma, alias Ruby, is the new India. Yet she is also the old India -- or an India that stubbornly refuses to change. Uma has no home. She sleeps during most of the year, barring the monsoon months, with her little brother and mother, and the other woman and her son, behind large sacks of recyclable material foraged by her mother from the brimming dustbins of the denizens of elite Malabar Hill. For all accounts and purposes Uma's address, if you can call it that, is also Malabar Hill. But neither her mother, or her brother, or she can lay claim to the 10 ft on the side of the road, next to the garbage dump, where they sleep each night.

But Uma is the new India because millions like her, even if they have no roofs over their heads, are now going to school. Will this make a difference? Will she grow up and find some shelter, because she is lettered? Will she escape the indignity and abuse that have been a part of her mother's life?

Call me an unrepentant bleeding heart, but every morning when I bump into Uma, and she gives me a shy smile, I am forced to think about her, and millions of other children. In the new India, what is their future? Will it be any different from that of their parents?


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The truth about Ishrat Jahan

Now that the police team in Gujarat has established that Ishrat Jahan, the suspected "terrorist" was gunned down by the Gujarat police on June 15, 2004 and not killed in an "encounter" as they had claimed, we in the media must ask ourselves why we believe everything that is handed to us on a platter by officials without even asking the rudimentary questions that we should. I'm posting again a piece I wrote after Ishrat's killing, that never saw the light of day. I think the news of this fake encounter, as well as the recent one in Manipur where a young man was shot in broad daylight and the police there tried to pass it off as an encounter killing, should wake up the media in this country. Our job is to report but also to question and to investigate, not to easily accept everything at face value. "National security" should not dilute our commitment to journalism.

See my column on The Hoot on Reporting Encounters:

http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=4072&mod=1&pg=1&sectionId=10&valid=true



This piece was written a couple of days after Ishrat's killing:


A question of guilt or innocence

By Kalpana Sharma

The recent gunning down of four suspected “terrorists” in Ahmedabad on June 15 raises several important and uncomfortable questions. To date, there is no clear explanation either from the Gujarat police or the intelligence agencies (the glaring loopholes in the various versions were evident from the stories carried in this paper recently) about how the information about the intentions of these four was ascertained and why they were killed. The unease is compounded by the death in the encounter of the 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan. What was a young Mumbai college girl doing with a group of “alleged” terrorists? Was she also one?

Everyone who knew Ishrat said it was improbable that she would knowingly join such a group. No one had heard her voice an opinion about Gujarat or about the injustice meted out to her community. She was perceived as a cheerful, hard-working girl who filled her day with activities to generate money to support an impoverished family. Had she been duped? Had her desperation for money got her into something about which she did not know all the details? Or was she a willing accomplice?

We will never know because the girl is dead. In fact, that is the frustrating aspect of all these stories. The public has to accept what the State puts out as the alleged motives of those gunned down. No one will ever know the complete truth because the dead cannot defend themselves.

So far, all that has appeared in the media about Ishrat’s “motives”, “intentions”, “sentiments” is conjecture. The Gujarat police have quoted from her diary but no forensic test has established whether in fact it is her handwriting. The results of the post mortem report on her death have also not yet been released. We still do not know whether she was shot in the back or how she died. One unpublished photograph shows her slumped back in the front seat but there is no sign of a bullet mark on her clothes. Javed lies slumped sideways, sitting in the driver’s seat but with his head on her lap. The only photograph that has appeared in the media shows Ishrat laid out next to the other three slain men.

The Gujarat police have records of Ishrat’s phone calls to the driver of the car, Javed Sheikh who is alleged to be a Lashkar operative. That too has not been conclusively established although intelligence agencies are convinced. The nature of Ishrat’s conversations with the dead Javed will never be known. Just the fact that she spoke to a man who is allegedly a terrorist does not make the girl guilty by association. Yet, a Home Ministry official is quoted as saying, “Legally and morally, she too was a terrorist”. How has such a conclusion been reached?

The media has also carried stories about a possible “love angle” between her and Javed. Would that explain the phone calls? Her mother, Shamima, has compounded the mystery by first refusing to acknowledge that Ishrat or she knew Javed and then acknowledging, during her interrogation by the Gujarat police, that she did know him. In the end, no one really knows whether Ishrat was duped by Javed, infatuated with him, or was a willing and knowing accomplice. And no one, except Ishrat’s family will speak up for her because they fear that if they do, they too will be questioned, and possibly implicated.

What is worse is that in this rush to establish guilt by association all of Mumbra, a township of 600,000 people on the outskirts of Mumbai is being referred to as a “hotbed” of terrorists activities. It is true that some suspected terrorists have been apprehended from this area. But a handful of such characters do not justify calling a place, which is a Muslim majority area, “terrorist infested”. Mumbra and Kausa are old settlements that grew when many Muslim families were forced to leave their homes in Mumbai after the 1992-93 communal riots. Some families moved because they found they could get a bigger place for the value of just one room in the overcrowded areas of central Mumbai.

Yet, the emergence of a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts does not automatically mean that its youth will turn to terrorism. In fact, one of the striking aspects of the changes that have taken place in Muslims in and around Mumbai since 1992-93 is the thrust given to education, particularly education of girls. In successive matriculation examinations, Muslims girls have done exceedingly well in the last decade. The community’s welfare organisations have made a deliberate effort to push for both education and employment.

At the same time, it is also true that organisations like the banned Students Islamic Movement of India have grown and recruited young men. But the existence of such extremist groups in any community, Hindu or Muslim, does not mean that large swathes of that community have the same mindset.

It is entirely possible that the intelligence agencies will be able to prove their suspicion about the four killed in Ahmedabad. But there is also a good possibility that Ishrat was innocent, that she was the “collateral damage” of the State’s “war against terror”. The chances of proving that are slim because there is no independent authority to investigate such encounter killings. Yet, we must remember that after the Godhra tragedy, the Gujarat police and government had a watertight story about what happened. Yet in the last weeks, the testimonies before the Nanavati Commission are exposing the many holes in that story. Given the lack of credibility in the case made out by the state in many such instances, it is perfectly legitimate to ask questions about what really happened on June 15 in Ahmedabad.

If indeed the authorities conclusively prove that Ishrat was a terrorist, a girl who knew what she was doing and that she aided and abetted men with guns, the import of such a finding will be enormous. This will be a first, for a young Indian Muslim girl to actually join the ranks of terrorists, that too one with their roots in Pakistan. So far we have known of women in the ranks of the LTTE, or women supporters of the militants in Kashmir, or women who are prominent in the ranks of the “naxalites”. But there has not been a “mainstream” Muslim women implicated in terrorist activities in India. In the twin bomb blasts in Mumbai on August 25 last year, a woman, the wife of Sayad Mohammed Hanif, has been implicated. But the charges have only just been filed in the special POTA court. And their daughter Farheen, who was also held on grounds of suspicion, was discharged when no evidence was found against her.

Ishrat’s death is not going to be forgotten, particularly in parts of Mumbai. Already, young Muslim women who are in college or venturing in a career are apprehensive about how other communities will view them. One such woman told this writer that she fears that her parents will now stop her frequent trips with the social service league in her college. Muslim women activists fear that the backlash from the Ishrat case will result in a rise in conservatism, particularly in areas like Mumbra, leading to young Muslim girls being sequestered and ordered to stay indoors. Ishrat, on the other hand, like many young men and women from Mumbra, travelled a couple of hours every day to attend college in Mumbai city.

The Ahmedabad encounter has played into the hands of those who want to reinforce the stereotype of the Muslim as terrorist. Initially questions were raised and Ishrat’s killing in particular was close to becoming politicized. But once the media began putting out the different versions set out by the police or the intelligence, this questioning was silenced.

But the questions remain and they must be asked. Can terrorism be stamped out if the State kills every single “suspected” terrorist? Or as we have seen in so many other countries, such extra-judicial killings will isolate and anger people of one community and destroy their faith in the rule of law and in justice, thus laying the grounds for more violence. Surely, the answer to terror and injustice is not more terror, and more injustice.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Reservation works

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 6, 2009

THE OTHER HALF



Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Against tremendous odds: A delegation of Women Panchayat representatives with the President.

Most people cheered when the government announced that it would raise the percentage of reserved seats for women in panchayats and nagar palikasfrom the current one third to half. Ironically, the State that has led the way in this is Bihar, one that is hardly ever held up as an example. Three years ago, Bihar enhanced the percentage of reserved seats for women to 50 per cent.

Now with the rule applying all over India, the number of elected women representatives in panchayati raj institutions alone will jump from the current 1,038,989 (2006 data) to an estimated 1,400,000. To do this, the government plans to amend article 243D of the Constitution that relates to reservation of seats for women, in the winter session of Parliament. There is some talk of the Women’s Reservation Bill for seats in Parliament also being tabled at the same time although no one is placing any bets on it.

Not the full story

Numbers, however, never tell the full story as we well know. The participation of women in panchayats has been a fascinating and flawed story. Fascinating because it has shown that even deprived, illiterate, marginalised women can become competent and concerned elected representatives. But flawed because the women have to function in a society that will not accept that they can think independently, understand matters of governance, and take responsibility outside the four walls of their homes. Thus, for every success story there are many more of women who front ambitious men.

Women have made a difference where they have been trained and educated about their rights and responsibilities. Sometimes the initiative has come from a committed official, sometime from a non-governmental group. Kerala has been a pioneer in training women in panchayats and its Kumdumbashree Initiative is rightly lauded as imaginative and effective (http://www.kudumbashree.org/). Studies and surveys have established that without such specific input, the majority of elected women would not have been able to function effectively. The Panchayati Raj ministry also initiated with the National Commission for Women a Panchayat Mahila Shakti Abhiyan specifically to inject a level of confidence in the women. The ministry’s report on “The State of the Panchayats” (2006) states, “At present, many women in Panchayats feel isolated and powerless, particularly because of the persistence of gender prejudices and gender discrimination in the social mores of village life.”

Apart from prejudice, these women function against the background of the reality of women’s status in the country. An increase in the number of elected women does not necessarily alter this reality. Take just four indicators that are also used to judge the status of women in the Global Gender Gap Index — economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival. In 2007, India’s overall ranking was a dismal 114 out of 128 countries surveyed. As if this was not depressing enough, its ranking in the specific areas is even worse. In economic participation and opportunities for women, it is 122; in educational attainment it is 116 (41 per cent of Indian women in the 15-49 age group have never been to school); in health and survival it is 126 (India’s maternal mortality rate is 301 per 100,000 live births) with only Azerbaijan and Armenia lower. Only in political empowerment does it score higher at 21, probably thanks to the million and more women elected to Panchayati Raj institutions.

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

Saturday, September 05, 2009

A reprieve for Dharavi

Cityscapes

(Column posted on InfoChange India News&Features)






Urban planners have proposed alternative approaches to Dharavi’s redevelopment, which would view Dharavi as a thriving and functioning urban settlement and not as a slum that needs to be flattened and rebuilt. The October assembly elections may just have given Dharavi the breathing space required to discuss these alternatives, writes Kalpana Sharma



For months it appeared as if nothing could stop progress on the massive Rs 15,000 crore Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP). Everything was finalised. Only the final bids had to be confirmed. Suddenly, with the announcement of state assembly elections in Maharashtra scheduled for October 13, the project has come to a grinding halt. With the electoral code of conduct in place, the state government cannot initiate any projects. For many people in Dharavi, this comes as a huge relief.

The history of the project, mired in controversy from the start, is a story of how such redevelopment should not be done. It all began when a developer, who already had a couple of projects in Dharavi through the existing Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) of the Maharashtra government, noticed the potential of developing the entire area. Its location next to the Bandra Kurla complex, where land prices were going through the roof, made it even more attractive. Mukesh Mehta of MM Consultants outlined a plan to develop all of Dharavi in 2003. He divided the area into 10 sectors and proposed that each sector should be handed over to a developer through open bidding.

Mehta successfully sold the idea to the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The Maharashtra government responded by following up on Mehta’s proposal, appointed him initially as an adviser and eventually as the consultant for the Dharavi Redevelopment Project.

In the course of time, the original 10 sectors got collapsed into five, a separate authority was created to oversee the project and the government set about finding ways to give special incentives to attract private developers to take on the project. One of these was to increase the FSI (Floor Space Index) from the current 1.33 to 4 and allowing developers to use all the additional FSI in Dharavi itself rather than converting it into TDR (Transfer of Development Rights) to be used in other projects elsewhere in the city.

In the initial years, the project was estimated to cost Rs 9,300 crore. Today it is valued at Rs 15,000 crore. The delay has helped increase profit margins as land prices have steadily gone upwards, by 30 to 40%, although there was a slight dip in the last year. But between the date the project was initiated and the present day, there has been a notable increase in land prices. All of this benefits developers who are aiming to win bids to develop one of the five sectors.

Also in the interim, to pacify Dharavi residents who have argued that their existing spaces are considerably larger than the 225 sq ft apartments promised free to them under the DRP, the government agreed as a special case to increase the size of each apartment to nearly 300 sq ft. For this the relevant Development Control Rule (DCR) needed to be amended.

The project has inched forward, with the government inviting bids, shortlisting 14 possible developers and promising that by July 30 the final bids would be announced. Inexplicably, on that day, the entire process ground to a halt. The government claimed it had not yet amended the DCR to accommodate the bigger apartments for Dharavi’s residents. Hence the bidding process could not go through. In fact, this was a mere technicality. The thought of the impending elections, and having to face the ire of disgruntled residents in Dharavi, was probably a much bigger reason for postponing the final phase of getting the project underway. Now, with the election code of conduct, this government cannot take any more steps and the project will have to be revisited, or revived, by the new government that takes office at the end of October.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Manipur, once more

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 23, 2009

THE OTHER HALF


Manipuri women staging a protest in Delhi (photo: Sandeep Saxena, courtesy The Hindu)



While the rest of India celebrated its 62nd year as an independent country, in its northeast corner there was little to celebrate. On July 23, “an ordinary day” in the Manipur capital, Imphal — if indeed there is such a thing as an “ordinary day” — Rabina Devi, a pregnant woman, was going to the market when she was shot dead as the police chased a young man. At the same time, a “suspected militant” was pushed into a pharmacy and shot. The police claimed he had shot at them. But the fake “encounter” killing was captured by a photographer (who is petrified of being discovered) and leaked to the magazine Tehelka. The 12 pictures are a damning indictment as they clearly show an unarmed Chongkham Sanjit being pushed into the pharmacy and then being brought out dead and loaded onto a truck. All this happened in a crowded market place in broad daylight (at 10.30 a.m.).

Anger on the streets

The Tehelka expose has led to an explosion of anger on the streets of Imphal. Women, men, young people are out on the streets, agitating, demanding justice and an end to the impunity granted security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This demand is not new. It surfaces every now and then but refuses to die out. It requires only one incident for the anger to spill out on the streets. The State’s response to such agitations is also not new. Dusk to dawn curfew, tear gas used against agitators, a show of force. In turn, people respond by calling bandhs, defying curfew and courting arrest. And so the cycle of violence continues.

This time, the problem is not limited to the Imphal valley, inhabited by the majority Meitei. Even in the hills where the Tanghkul Nagas live there have been bandhs and protests over the killing of two “suspected militants” on August 12. Manipur, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address at the recent meeting of Chief Ministers in New Delhi, accounts for a third of all violent incidents in India’s Northeast.

Amazing resilience

What always continues to amaze the outsider looking in to Manipur is the mobilisation of women and their fearlessness. Amateur videos on You Tube show scores of women on the streets, throwing down the gauntlet literally (they spread the cloth they wear as the upper garment as a sign of defiance as no one is supposed to trample on these) and facing a phalanx of police personnel armed with rifles and tear gas shells. The women from Imphal’s remarkable all-women market, the Ema Keithel, have been courting arrest in droves as their mark of protest. The women are calling this another “Nupila” (women’s war), reminiscent of the struggle against the British.

“We women cannot bear anymore as it has reached beyond a tolerable limit. That’s why we have come out unitedly to get ourselves killed or get arrested by the police”, Chaoba Devi, one of the women leading the agitation, told the press. Women talk about how curfew has disrupted education and the livelihood of thousands who depend on daily wages. A visit to Manipur earlier this year showed us the challenge of living under dusk to dawn curfew — and the burden women have to bear to ensure that their children are fed, that there is enough water, and that they can reach a healthcare facility if someone falls ill.

(To read the rest click on the link above)