Sunday, July 26, 2009

This volcano need not erupt

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 26, 2009


An open letter to the Union Minister for Health…

Dear Mr. Azad,

After your intriguing remarks on limiting the growth of India’s population, many people must have written to you. Some, including members of my tribe, have poked fun at you, especially in your belief that late night television is an effective contraceptive. Many are not so amused. In fact, some people are more than a little upset. They wonder whether you are being misled, or misinformed, or whether you really want to turn the clock back.

In an interview to an English newspaper, you are quoted as saying that “India is sitting on a volatile volcano”. Volcanoes, when they are volatile, generally explode. So I presume you meant the same thing as those, in the distant 1970s, who spoke of a “population bomb” or of “population explosion”. In July 2003, even our honourable Supreme Court, while upholding the Haryana Government’s decision to impose a two-child norm on all Panchayati Raj elected officials, mentioned the “torrential increase in population”. The thrust of all these different turns of phrase is precisely the same: that Indians are producing children at an uncontrolled rate and that this must be stopped at all costs.

Wrong reasoning

The reasoning behind wanting to stop this “torrent” or “explosion” also remains much the same. In your words, “When population increases, land area decreases. Each development programme means further reduction of land, causing further shortage of food. Large population means greater number of have-nots which is the root cause of poverty, unemployment and law and order. That’s how Naxalism came up.”

You seem to have spent time reading the works of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) whose most famous premise was: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Malthus has been proved wrong yet new crops of Malthusians keep emerging.

What is surprising about your recent statements on population is that they seem to reflect a total absence of knowledge about the discussions conducted over the last two decades worldwide about the close relationship between population and development. Concepts such as “population control” have long been replaced by “family welfare” and now “reproductive health and rights” even in India. This is not a question of politically correct terminology. The change in the words reflects the growing evidence that population growth decreases as the economic and social status of people, and especially women, improves. This has been more than evident in the countries from where Mr. Malthus originates. And even in a poor country like ours, this trend is evident.

Latest trends

I would draw your attention to data from the latest National Family Health Survey (2005-06). According to it, India’s total fertility rate (TFR) is now down to 2.7 as compared to 3.4 in 1993 when the first NFHS was conducted. In other words, an average Indian woman is likely to produce the equivalent of 2.7 children (we know, of course, that this is just a mathematical calculation and that no woman would produce 2.7 children).

More telling than that is the fact that in no less than nine States, namely Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab — the TFR is now between 2.1 and 1.8, or what is termed the replacement rate. The decline has been steady in all these States, as also in others, but is more marked in the States that also have better indicators for women’s education and social status.

Even in a State like Uttar Pradesh, the TFR has declined, from 4.82 in 1993 to 3.8 in 2005-06. In Bihar, unfortunately, it has gone up — from 3.49 in 2000 to 4.0 in 2005-06. Both States, as you well know, also lag far behind other States in economic and social development.

In 1994, as you surely know, India was one of 179 countries to endorse a Programme for Action at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt, that upheld the concept of women’s rights as an essential part of any programme on population. It specifically advised against coercive policies that deprive women of choice and their human rights. As a result of this, India dropped its policy of punitive disincentives to push its population policy.


Yet, we know some States continue to use disincentives, such as the two-child norm for all elected officials in Panchayati Raj institutions. Apart from Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and Orissa have adopted similar policies. Only Andhra Pradesh, amongst these, falls within the group of States that have reached replacement rates. Therefore, such policies are clearly not effective and on the contrary end up penalising women officials and encouraging sex selection and sex-selective abortions. If you were permitted to have only two children, most Indians would prefer two boys, or at most one boy and one girl.

In that regard, one must compliment you. In the same interview quoted above, you did say, “We have to drill into people’s mind that a child is a child, no matter if it’s a boy or a girl.” Well said, Mr. Minister.

But such good sense will get negated if the imagery of volcanoes exploding catches on in the context of population. Before long, policies to justify controlling women’s fertility could once again find a place under another guise. Meantime the reality that what matters is whether children survive after birth and whether mothers come out alive during and after their pregnancy will remain unaddressed.

Before there is any temptation to change direction, do spend some time talking to women who are, after all, central to any policy for checking population growth. What do they want? According to the NFHS, there is a 13 per cent unmet need for contraception. In other words, women who would like advice, contraceptives, health interventions, are not getting it. This is where your ministry needs to focus.

If you speak to women, you will also realise that their concerns are basic. India’s maternal mortality rate is 301 for 100,000 live births. These women who do not survive childbirth are malnourished, and die from excess bleeding and the absence of basic healthcare. In a State like Bihar, the figure goes up to 371. And even if the mother survives, there is no guarantee that her child will. Too many children are dying soon after they are born. Do something about this, about access to quality healthcare for the most vulnerable — and you will not need to think of volatile volcanoes and torrents.


Kalpana Sharma

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TOI discovers Bharat

For some months now, I have been writing a column on the website The Hoot on media-related issues. Some of the columns pass without a comment, others have generated a heated, and sometimes ill-informed, debate. Here is the latest one.

So what has happened to the Grand Old Lady of Bori Bunder? Why this sudden change of heart, or a “Cinderella moment” as it likes to call it? KALPANA SHARMA is pleasantly surprised at the TOI’s budget coverage. Pix: TOI’s face of the Budget.

Posted Monday, Jul 13 22:55:20, 2009

Kalpana Sharma

The world over, newspapers have struggled to recast themselves in the face of competition from the electronic media and increasingly from the Internet. In the US, for instance, media watchers believe that even the Internet will be out of date as people access news through mobile phones and "tweets". They argue that the new generation has no patience to read more than news nuggets in 140 characters.

India's newspapers, however, can relax. This changing media world has not yet landed in India. If reassurance were needed for this, take a look at the difference between watching Budget-related news bulletins and discussions on the electronic media – particularly the 'general' channels that do not specialise in business – and the coverage of the Budget in the 'general' newspapers the next day.

Every newspaper went out of its way to simplify the Budget, to give as much detail as possible, to explain some complex aspects through graphics, to translate the budget into the way it'll impact the aam admi etc.

In the past, many newspapers would reproduce a major part of the Finance Minister's budget speech. This was useful for those who wanted more specific details and not just the interpretation of the Budget. These days, this is rarely done given the cost of printing and newsprint and the downturn in the economy that has impacted the number of pages in most newspapers.

Some newspapers, like The Hindu, have compensated for this by putting this material on their web editions. In fact, The Hindu does a singular service to readers interested in more detail by uploading many documents on its site including commission reports – the latest being the Shopian rape case investigation.

If a survey was conducted the day after the Budget with lay readers and viewers of TV and they were asked what helped them to understand the Budget better, it is more than likely that the majority would refer to their daily newspaper.

In the face of the non-stop onslaught of electronic media, this is, in fact, the role the print media can play for a long time to come. Rather than competing with television, it can give the value addition that makes newspapers indispensable to the reader. Some newspapers are doing this better than others.

A surprising aspect of the Budget coverage this year was the front-page photograph and comment carried by Times of India. This paper has made no bones about its preoccupation with its upper class readership. The newspaper has been geared to meeting, what it deems to be the interests of this class. Hence, if it ignores or downplays news from other parts of the country, or about poverty and deprivation for instance, it has justified it in the name of this readership. It has argued that this class prefers to read about business, Bollywood, sport and a little bit of politics. The rest can wait.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A silent revolution

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 12, 2009

The Other Half

For many weeks in June, Iran dominated the news. Now it has slipped into the background. One of the remarkable aspects of the huge demonstrations challenging the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the presence of women. Iranian women had been largel y invisible to the world. Suddenly, there they were, old and young, barely covered and fully shrouded.

And then young Neda, a music student, was shot dead as she stood on the sidelines of a demonstration. Her dying gasps were captured on camera for the world to see. That tragic moment spoke not just of the mindless assault on ordinary people following the election, but also of the existence of a movement for change that the women of Iran have been conducting for decades now. That story is largely untold. People focus on a country like Iran when there is an event. They rarely know what goes on the rest of the time.

Active participants in 1979

The story of Iranian women’s the struggle for justice and equality began soon after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran. Women were active participants in that movement. They expected that they would get their rights as equal citizens as a result of the end of the Shah’s repressive regime.

Instead, the Islamic Republic took away even the rights that women had won in the previous decades. Except for their right to vote, that was only granted as late as 1963, the Islamic government under Ayatollah Khomeini reversed many laws relating to women. Within a month of the new regime taking power, women’s legal status was reduced to half of that of men — two women witnesses were equal to one male. No woman could be a judge. Furthermore, the Family Protection Law introduced in 1967 that gave women the right to divorce, custody of children and laid down that polygamous marriages required the court’s permission and that of the wife/wives, was reversed. Worse still, the minimum age of marriage for girls was reduced to nine years (14 years for boys) and the veil was made mandatory. Public areas, like beaches, were segregated as was public transit and women were not allowed to participate in sporting events.

A fascinating paper on the women’s movement in Iran, written by Homa Hoodfar for a study on women’s movements, coordinated by the Association for Women in Development ( ) reveals, for instance, that many of the veiled women who actively participated in the movement against the Shah were in fact middle class women who had discarded the veil. They chose to wear it at that time to demonstrate their opposition to the Shah’s regime and believed that its end would lead to equal rights for women.

In the early days after the revolution, many of these women protested. But they got little support from political parties, including the Left, and were attacked by religious zealots and the police. The start of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) put an end to any effort on their part to challenge the anti-women laws.

Different paths

But the churning continued. Secular women believed only a secular regime could restore their rights while the more conservative and religious women held that these rights could not be denied in an Islamic regime. It is fascinating to read how women with different perspectives eventually found a way of working towards the same goal.

For instance, a group of religious women began to publish stories in women’s magazines of how women divorced after 20, 30 and even 40 years of marriage had been left without any alimony because the law favoured men. Stories of young widows of men killed during the Iran-Iraq war began appearing, of how they faced long custody battles for their children. Women’s religious gatherings in mosques discussed these issues. Large-scale letter-writing campaigns to the leaders and to women’s magazines were organised about these injustices. Little of this was known to the outside world.

The first indication that their voices were being heard came in 1985 when Ayatollah Khomeini announced that the widows of martyrs could retain custody of their children even if they remarried. This was followed by a new marriage contract that gave women the right to divorce.

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