Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lessons for new MPs
The Hindu, Sunday May 31, 2009

The Other Half

One of the 59 women MPs elected to the 15th Lok Sabha, that incidentally has more women than in previous parliaments, is Shruti Choudhury from Bhivani-Mahendragarh in Haryana. She should visit the small town of Narnaul in her constituency and go to Nai Basti, a slum-like locality. Talk to the women of Nai Basti. They will speak without a moment’s hesitation if she asks them what should be her priority. Water, they will shout, followed by sanitation.

Even as the new government jostles over portfolios and the media engages in endless speculation about political equations, millions of people around India are going through another year without adequate water. Bhopal has already seen water riots. There are towns in Gujarat where water is provided for an hour every week. Millions of residents in urban India depend entirely on water supplied by tankers though the summer. And in villages, wells are drying up as the water is diverted, either to supply thirsty towns and cities, or industries.
Mutually dependent

Governance and development were the two mantras that the Congress Party believes brought it back to power so convincingly in these elections. But in its second term, will it continue to push these two crucial factors, where one cannot work without the other? The best of schemes falls flat because there are no systems of governance. And even where there are systems of governance in place, nothing changes if there is no investment in basic services like water supply and sanitation.
Narnaul is a good illustration of this. The town, with a population of over 60,000, is located just off the highway between Delhi and Jaipur and is typical of non-descript North Indians towns. Over 18 per cent of its population lives in slums.
I spent a morning with the women of Nai Basti, one of these slum colonies, well before the prospect of a general election had dawned. Women of all ages, their heads covered in brightly coloured dupattas, sat in the verandah of one of the houses and vociferously expressed their views about governance and development.

Pipe dreams

Their biggest problem was water. They showed me pipes peeping out from the ground that were proof that there had once been a plan to supply piped water. But the plan remained, literally, a pipe dream. The water never came, the pipes remained dry and there was no point attaching a tap to a pipe without water. Thus, the women lived with the proof of a dream, one that has yet to come true. Yet, on paper, they get piped water and thus have to pay a flat rate of Rs. 50 a month for water that is never supplied. So much for paper statistics.

“We did a lot of dharnas for water two years ago. We jammed the road, went to the District Collector’s office, sat there for three hours. Everyone came. The water came for two days and then stopped. It is the first time I heard the voices of women drown out those of men!” says one of the women. Despite this, there was little improvement.
How do they get water? The municipality supplies water by filling up tanks some distance from Nai Basti. On paper, this is supposed to happen thrice a week. In fact, the water comes only once a week. Women must wait their turn and fill up as much as they can carry. A couple of hand pumps make up the difference. But the amount they gather and fill is nowhere near their need.

“Gents can go to work. All problems have to be borne by women. We have to collect the water. Women are powerful because they have to bear everything,” says Birna Devi, once a municipal councillor.

You can see this at work as you watch how the women of Nai Basti use and save water. They recycle every drop of water, putting it to multiple uses. The soapy water from washing clothes, for instance, is reused to wash dishes. And water that cannot be used again is then used to flush the drains outside their homes. For, in addition to the absence of running water, Nai Basti has no sewerage. But because of the initiative of these women, the area is surprisingly clean.

So the primary lesson in governance that these women can teach our newly elected MPs is: talk to the women, listen to them, ask them about basic problems and learn from the solutions they have devised.

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

Monday, May 18, 2009

What an election!

This has been an extraordinary election in many ways. It was long, protracted, stretching over a month -- the hottest -- and at times seemed never-ending. Yet even when it began, we knew it would end on May 16. A day many of us dreaded. Everyone predicted a hung Parliament, that neither of the two national parties, the Congress or the B JP would be able to form a government easily, that smaller, regional parties would play a much bigger role and that the days after votes were counted the country would witness horse-trading of the worst kind. This would undermine people's faith in politics and democracy.

Well, as usual the pessimists were proved wrong. The Indian voter surprised everyone, including the Congress and the BJP. And we now have the prospect of a fairly stable five years ahead of us as the Congress, with over 200 seats prepares to take office with a few of its allies.

But the question that needs to be asked is why so many people got it wrong? Has the media stopped going out and trying to get the pulse of the people? Have newspapers and media organisations now become so metro-centred that they believe more in the chatter of the pundits sitting in the big cities than the wisdom of the ordinary woman and man sweating it out in small towns and villages? At least one experienced political journalist told me that anyone covering Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress has made a spectacular come-back, would have sensed the growing presence of the Congress. Yet, there were few reports suggesting this. As a result, by most calculations, the Congress was going to fail miserably in UP because it had spurned an ally like the Samajwadi party.

Even in Maharashtra, when psephologist Yogendra Yadav stated that their survey had indicated that the Congress and its ally the Nationalist Congress Party would do quite well in the state, senior journalists were disbelieving. People in the state were fed-up of the state government run by these two parties. Why should they vote for the same people again?

Once again, it is possible that we in the media failed to understand that people have different compulsions when they vote for Parliament than when they do for the state Assembly. Although it is true that the Congress-NCP alliance gained from the split in votes between the Shiv Sena and its breakway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the increase in its seats tally suggests that voters did apply a different yardstick in voting for the Lok Sabha elections.

The final tally is a sum of the different compulsions that operated in every state. There was certainly no over-arching "national" issue that benefitted the Congress. But what is clear is that increasingly people seem to be veering towards parties that offer a path between two extremes and can also demonstrate an improvement in the quality of governance.

The real test for the Congress-NCP alliance will come this October when Maharashtra goes to polls to elect a new Assembly. It is then that the complaints about the poor quality of governance of this government might translate into a negative vote against the alliance.

These political calculations apart, I have argued for some time that the Indian voter has now got accustomed to using her vote and increasingly believes that her vote counts, that it can make a difference. Every election since 1977, the most spectacular election when Indira Gandhi and the Congress were voted out of power following the Emergency, has thrown up an unexpected result. No party can now afford to be complacent anymore. People are asking questions and making up their minds. They cannot be bribed and bullied into voting a particular way as they could before. Of course, some of that still happens. But not on the scale it did in the past. And certainly not on a scale that it can change the outcome of elections.

So even as there is much to worry about, with the recession, job losses, social indicators that are changing too slowly, the vulnerability of poor women and children etc, we can be glad that democracy is growing deeper roots every day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Getting to the top

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 17, 2009


The people of Sehore, a small town in Madhya Pradesh just 35 km away from Bhopal, have another reason to be proud. Until a few weeks ago, the local people would boast of two things: one, that in 1824, the man who fought and died in what they believe is India’s first war of Independence against the British, Kunwar Chain Singh, lies buried in their town. And two, that former Vice President, Justice Mohammed Hidayatullah, studied in Sehore. Now they have another boast, that a young woman, daughter of a laid-off worker, has got into the Indian Administrative Service.

Priti Maithil might not be one amongst the three women who topped this year’s examination to the civil services but even holding the 92nd position is an incredible achievement. At 23, she got through the examination in the first attempt. Her father, Santosh Kumar, has been unemployed since 2002 when the Bhopal Sugar Industries where he worked closed down. One of the principal reasons for the closure, locals tell you, is because there is no water in Sehore. So how can industries run? This is the story of so many smaller towns where sources of employment dry up even as basic services such as water and electricity evaporate.

Bleak prospects

Yet, towns like Sehore have so much going for them, apart from history. They boast of a good education system, one that can produce people like Priti. But the tragedy is that scores of young people emerge from similar towns, with education and dreams, but few prospects.

But coming back to this year’s civil service examinations, it is interesting that the media made much of the success of the three women who held the top three ranks. Shubhra Saxena, Sharandeep Brar and Kiran Kaushal were interviewed and featured on front pages of many newspapers. But will this alter the realities they will face once they enter the service?

Not all women in the Indian Administrative Service think that gender is a problem. But many do. Some of them have openly spoken about it in the media. In some States, like Maharashtra, the women officers have come together at various times when they have felt that they are being overlooked for promotions. At such times, the issue of their status within the service becomes the subject of some discussion. But whether it leads to sustainable change in the way the service is run is still an open question.

Welcome changes

Some things have changed. Veena Sikri, who was in the Indian Foreign Service, writes about how, in 1971, when she entered the service, married women were not allowed. She had to get special permission to get married! She says that many women left the service when they got married.

Just 30 years ago, women officers like C.B. Muthamma had to fight long legal battles that went up to the Supreme Court because they were denied promotions to the rank of Secretary. Veena Sikri was also superseded to the post of Foreign Secretary and she has still not been given the reason why the government did this. She now teaches at Jamia Milia University in New Delhi.

The success of the three women toppers has also brought into the public realm the views of women in the services. Many of them remind us that it is still tough for them to succeed. The issue is not just of the double burden they must carry — of being wives and mothers and professionals. They have to confront a bias that has everything to do with their being women and nothing to do with their competence.

An IAS officer from UP is quoted in Asian Age (May 10, 2009) as saying: “All this talk of women making their presence felt in cadre services is humbug. Women are still discriminated against by their male colleagues in States like Uttar Pradesh. If a woman officer interacts with her male political boss for official purposes, she is linked romantically with him, but when male officers interact with a woman politician, there is no such allegation. A woman officer is made to work twice as hard to prove that she is half as good as her male colleagues.”

The views of this particular officer might not be universal and there are many women who deny facing any discrimination. Yet even a few voices like this suggest that it is not entirely a level playing field once women enter even though they get in through open competition and without any special concessions made to them because of their gender.

Yet, even if women officers face problems, there is no doubt that the civil service still provides a unique opportunity for real “service”. An honest and concerned officer can make a spectacular difference to the lives of people, especially when posted in the districts. Whenever you travel to district towns, you constantly hear stories of such officers. They are long remembered even after they have moved on to other posts.

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

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Narmada's vote

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 3, 2009

The Other Half

Who would Narmada Devi have voted for in this election? I met her on a cool afternoon in the town of Madhubani in Bihar, much before the election dates had been announced. She sat with four other women on a sun-drenched verandah spinning cotton yarn on one of those instruments rarely seen these days, the ambar charkha. The women are paid Rs. 50 for every kilo of yarn they spin. And it takes them eight days of spin that amount.

Narmada Devi walks one kilometre to and from her house to Madhubani’s once-famous Khadi Gramudyog established in 1919. Today, its sprawling 17 acres consists of a collection of crumbling and dilapidated buildings and a handful of old men and women like Narmada Devi. From an institution that supplied Khadi fabric and products to all of India, and employed 22,000 people including 1,100 weavers in the surrounding villages, the Khadi Gramudyog today has barely 100 weavers, a handful of spinners and around 46 other workers. The latter are tasked with protecting the extensive properties belonging to the Gramudyog — a total of 65 acres in the district.

Avadh Narain Jha, who is in-charge of the Khadi Gramudyog, showed me dozens of ambar charkhas lying unused in the room adjoining the verandah where Narmada Devi sat. In another part of the campus, he pointed to the special charkhas that this institution once manufactured that could spin yarn fine enough to make muslin. Today, hardly anyone orders these charkhas, this elderly man who is waiting to retire told me.

Like most women her age, Narmada Devi could not tell me how old she was. But she did tell me the problems she faced sitting on her haunches for many hours spinning the charkha. Her right hand was stiff she said, her chest hurt and she had problems with her eyesight. But she had no option but to walk each day to the Khadi Gramudyog and spin for a few hours.
Steady decline

The decline of Khadi has been steady. But the story of how this has impacted the lives of thousands of workers in India’s villages has perhaps never been adequately recorded or acknowledged. Today, people in these villages would be more than happy to get the kind of work Khadi offered them in the past. But neither Jha, nor those who make policy for the development of Khadi in distant Delhi have the imagination or the determination, to revive this village industry.

The fate of Madhubani’s Khadi Gramudyog takes on a new relevance in present times. Recession is a word that brings to mind the loss of jobs in banking, BPOs, the IT sector, industry and even the media. But thousands of workers like Narmada Devi, including many women who are part of the growing informal sector, have been facing recession for much longer. Their loss of employment is a silent, creeping one, not a sudden termination. And unlike people in the formal sector who have some fall-back, some savings, some compensation paid out to them, some asset such as a house, women like Narmada Devi have nothing. If they lose even the little paid work available, they have no alternative.

The situation is not very different in places where employment is easier to find. The global recession has certainly hit the export sector in India. You see it played out in the lives of those who work in the smaller enterprises that feed into the larger export sector. Thus, in Dharavi in Mumbai, thousands of men and women work in small units producing garments for export. According to one such exporter, who has around eight units employing 700 workers, his orders have come down by one third. This means that the women in particular, who come in to work on a piece-rate basis as and when there is work, get much less work today than they did when the economy was growing.

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