Sunday, September 20, 2009

Invisible people

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 20, 2009


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:

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


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 ( 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

A reprieve for Dharavi
(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)