Sunday, December 26, 2010

Too many lacunae

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 26, 2010


Finally we have a law that addresses sexual harassment at the workplace. But some controversial clauses need to be debated…

Days and weeks have gone by with the deadlock over the 2G scam. As a result, laws like this one have been left hanging [in the parliament].

Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

No one wants to talk about it. Even women shy away from discussing it. Do women really get sexually harassed in the workplace? Many women, when asked this question, often give a vague reply. Some are more forthcoming. Others suggest that this is a non-issue, that women need a sense of humour to deal with ‘harmless teasing' at the workplace.

But, as women become more aware of their rights, they are speaking up. Thus, recently policewomen in Mumbai spoke about sexual harassment. Teachers have talked of it. Women in other professions are also acknowledging that it exists. However, one of the reasons many hesitate to bring the issue up is the unequal power equation between them and the harasser. If a complaint means losing a job, then women prefer to hold on to the job and be silent. In any case, even if they wish to complain, very few organisations have mechanisms in place where a woman can give a written complaint with the complete confidence that it will be investigated without bias.

Ineffective guidelines

For many years, the only precedent that operated in this area was the Supreme Court judgment of 1997 in the Visakha vs State of Rajasthan case. In the absence of a law, the court had laid down guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. These included asking employers to set up an internal committee to look into complaints. But this could only work for women employed in formal organisations. What of the millions outside the formal sector? Also, as these were guidelines, and not a law, they were routinely ignored, or followed without any seriousness. Thus, even where committees were set up, they often did not work or women employees were not informed of their existence.
Women's groups have been pushing for a law on sexual harassment so that there are penalties for not implementing its provisions. Finally, such a law has seen the light of day. On December 7, Minister of State for Women and Child Development Krishna Tirath placed the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Bill, 2010 in Parliament.

Unfortunately, this has happened in a session where no work has been done. Days and weeks have gone by with the deadlock over the 2G scam. As a result, laws like this one have been left hanging. One does not know whether it will ever be discussed, leave alone passed, given the amount of work that will be pending if and when our parliamentarians ever get back to doing the job for which they were elected.

Although the introduction of this law is a welcome step, it still needs to be discussed in detail before it becomes law. In its statement of Objects and Reasons, the Bill states: “Sexual harassment at a workplace is considered violation of women's right to equality, life and liberty. It creates an insecure and hostile work environment, which discourages women's participation in work, thereby adversely affecting their social and economic empowerment and the goal of inclusive growth.”

The law requires every employer to set up an Internal Committee to look into complaints and also mandates the setting up of Local Committees at the district level to address the complaints of women who are not in the formal sector. The latter is particularly important as the majority of women are employed in the informal sector and thus would fall outside the ambit of the law if it were restricted to formal organisations.

It lays down provisions for compensation to be paid to the women complainant and punitive measures against the harasser. As in rape cases, the law prohibits the media from publicising the name and address of the complainant or the witnesses.

Yet the law falls short on several important measures. For one, it specifically excludes domestic servants from the ambit of the law. This is a strange exclusion given the millions of women in our cities who survive on domestic work and the problems they face. An alleged rape of a domestic worker by a film star is still being heard in the Mumbai courts. Many such cases never reach the stage of a formal complaint. The women would probably decide to leave the job and look for another.
I know from having discussed this in detail with a couple of domestic workers in Mumbai that they work out their own defence mechanism. So, if they hear that a woman domestic has been harassed in a particular household, they spread the word and ensure that at least young women do not take a job in such a house. Therefore, why the government has chosen to exclude these women, who are as vulnerable if not more so than other women in the workplace, is inexplicable.

Controversial clause

The other mysterious clause seeks to punish women who cannot prove sexual harassment after registering a complaint. While it is possible that some women can misuse the law, should the word of an Internal Committee that is not convinced by a complaint be enough to actually penalise the complainant? When a woman who has been raped cannot establish this in a court of law, she is not penalised. Rape cases fail in court most often because the prosecution cannot, or will not, make a strong enough case.

In sexual harassment cases, women face an uphill task to prove their case. Unlike rape, where there is physical evidence, what can you produce to prove the kind of harassment that consists of words and gestures? Only the woman and the man concerned know the truth. Whose word will be accepted? As in the majority of such cases, the power equation is weighed heavily against the woman, it becomes even more difficult to prove sexual harassment. Against this background, if there is a punitive clause, women will shy away from even trying to prove sexual harassment for fear that instead they will be punished.

These are some of the questions that should have formed part of a discussion in the last session of Parliament. One hopes that our MPs will be attentive when this Bill finally comes up for discussion. However, given Parliament's record on these matters, it is unlikely that too many of them will give the minutiae in the Bill any serious thought. It would be a pity if, after the efforts of so many women's groups at formulating the law, this particular version of it is passed without any changes.

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

Friday, December 24, 2010

New Delhi: Apartheid city

There are chilling parallels between the building of the ‘new’ Delhi by Edward Lutyens exactly 100 years ago and the construction of the global city today. Then as now, the men and women who actually built this increasingly segregated and fissured city have no place in it
In another hundred years, will Mumbai resemble even closely the urban chaos it represents today or will it become an orderly megacity where everything functions?  Will Delhi ultimately fulfil its aspiration of becoming a global city?  And in the process what will these cities lose and what will they gain?

Documenting Indian cities today is a tricky affair.  For they are changing at such a pace that even as you produce a document on a city, it gets outdated. In Mumbai, for instance, what were once the landmark textile mills that gave the city its nickname  ‘Manchester of the East’ have been erased and replaced in less than a decade by glass and chrome structures that display not a hint of the city’s industrial past.  Everyday there are reports of plans to replace the old with the new and destroy arrangements that have served a diverse population.

The changes in India’s national capital are in some ways even more emphatic.  2011 will mark 100 years since the British notified Delhi as the capital of India through a proclamation by King George V.  It is a fascinating century to study for it witnessed not just the dramatic political changes accompanying India’s move from colonial rule to independence but the physical transformation of an old walled city to one that aspires to become a ‘global’ city.  What is striking is the disturbing continuity in attitudes and policies of the colonial rulers and those of an independent India.

Finding Delhi, Loss and Renewal in the Megacity (Viking Penguin 2010), an edited volume by Bharati Chaturvedi, attempts to address the changes in the national capital from the perspective of those who are a low priority for the planners.  Perhaps more than any other city in India, Delhi exemplifies the pitfalls of huge investments that produce a city that fails to satisfy the basic needs of the majority of its residents.  Of course things could change and the city could yet become a more democratic and less segregated space.  But from the lived experience of millions of Delhi’s residents, especially those who have been rendered virtually invisible by the visioning exercises of a ‘global city’, ‘new’ Delhi seems less democratic, more fissured, than the old and historic Delhi.

Chaturvedi’s edited volume is an important addition to urban literature in the face of the direction of transformation in Indian cities.  Unfortunately, although she acknowledges that there are gaps in it – such as chapters that look at the disappearing trees and green spaces – the real gaps are articles that look hard at the economics and politics of land use and the absence of an affordable housing policy.  For in the final analysis, no Indian city will ever be deemed liveable if the desperate need for decent shelter by a growing number of city dwellers is not addressed with a sense of urgency. Yet neither local governments, nor state government, or even the Centre, address affordable housing on a priority basis as part of urban policy.  

Despite such gaps in the volume, at least a couple of the essays are important both for the perspective they provide and for the direction for the future that they indicate.

Lalit Batra’a essay, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Slumdwellers in “World-Class” Delhi’, suggests that Delhi today is an ‘apartheid city’ that is the outcome of an exclusionary planning process.  He points out that while the colonial government made no pretence of being inclusive, the post-Independence governments of a ‘free’ India seem to have abandoned all attempts at being inclusive.

The turning point in Delhi’s history was 1857, following the anti-colonial uprising.  Delhi then was seen as a dirty congested place that needed to be ‘improved’.  A municipal committee was set up in 1863 and tasked to improve and ‘sanitise’ it with the help of public nuisance laws that could be used to discourage activities considered unsuitable in a modern city.  Thus tanneries, keeping draught animals and milch cattle, roadside hawking, slaughter houses etc were banned. (There is an eerie similarity to the current attitude towards some of these activities, particularly roadside hawking, something that gives millions of migrants their first opportunity of earning something when they arrive in a city.)

In 1911, Edward Lutyens was given the task of building a new city, away from the old walled city of Delhi, “as the perfect embodiment of limitless imperial power”.  Lutyens’ Delhi continues to be the embodiment of power even as other parts of the city struggle to survive. 

Batra’s essay brings out the chilling parallels between the building of the new capital a hundred years ago and the construction of the global city today.  Then as now, the men and women who actually built it had no place in it. A hundred years ago, construction workers crowded into an already congested old Delhi or went to live on the outskirts.  Today, they find places in slums that have survived demolition or move to the relocated slums outside the city. 

The pressure for affordable housing has been a constant in Delhi, greatly exacerbated first by the wave of refugees post-Partition, an estimated 4.5 lakhs, and thereafter the steady stream of migrants from the states surrounding Delhi and further afield.  As early as the First Five-Year Plan, the presence of slums in urban areas was noted and they were seen as a “national problem” and a “disgrace to the country”.  The Second Five-Year Plan acknowledged that any policy dealing with slums should ensure minimum dislocation of slum residents.  The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Delhi Master Plan were supposed to address the need for affordable housing.  Indeed one of the features of the plan was “getting rid of slums by providing standard ‘decent’ housing for everyone.”  Yet between 1959-75, the slum population grew rapidly as provisions in the master plan were routinely violated. By the late-1990s, despite these efforts at planned development, Delhi had 3 million people living in 1,000 slum clusters.

By the time the age of liberalisation dawned, even this attempt to deal with the problem was abandoned, argues Batra, and was replaced by the concepts of “legal and aesthetic”.  Slums that were illegal and certainly not beautiful could have no place in such a vision.  And so began the policy of slum removal and relocation outside the city.  Batra estimates that between 1998 and 2010, an estimated 10 lakh poor people have been displaced in Delhi.  That is an astoundingly large figure.
The result of such a policy towards the urban poor is the creation of a city that has the superficial markers of a modern city but is based on making invisible the people who actually make the city work. 

A vivid description of exactly who these people are comes through in Vinay Gidwani’s fascinating essay on Delhi’s recycling industry.  It mirrors such industries in other cities, where thousands of silent workers pick, sort and remove the growing mountains of waste that modern urban living produces.  Yet, even as the service they render is being recognised at a time of growing environmental consciousness, there is little or no attention paid to their wages or their health. 

A memorable section of the essay describes women removing the PVC outsoles from discarded sneakers.  “As the soles heat up, along with the adhesive that binds them to the body of the footwear, plumes of noxious grey smoke waft into the air.  The smoke catches the back of the throat, so acrid that it is difficult to suppress a staccato of coughing.  ‘Dioxins’, my colleague mutters.  The women, who have no safety gear at hand, merely cover their noses with their chunni or pallu.”  What will be the lifespan of these women workers who inhale poisons on a daily basis?

Gidwani rightly argues that the recyclers of waste illustrate well the interdependence in the urban economy of the formal and the informal.  Yet while the formal is valued, the informal is not.  “How different might Delhi look if its ruling classes learnt to recognise the sprawling universe of people, places, activities and things that they currently scorn as marginal, peripheral, illicit or annoying as the enablers of their own lives in this city.”    Yes, indeed, all our cities would look different if the ruling classes had such an epiphany.

The volume also contains an essay on the Yamuna River by Manoj Misra.  Delhi is described as a city located on the banks of this 1,400-km-long perennial river.  Yet the part that flows past Delhi is pure poison and the city’s residents know little and care even less about this.  Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan illustrates in his essay the callous and ignorant attitude of city planners toward the river and the flood plains that in the past absorbed the excess water in the river during the monsoon.  Today, the threat of flooding has become greater because the Delhi authorities have chosen to exploit what they deem are ‘vacant’ lands.  Despite expert advice to the contrary, they have gone ahead and built a Metro Rail Depot and station, an IT park, the Akshardham Temple, the Commonwealth Games Village, an electric sub-station and a mall on these flood plains.  Needless to say, the poor communities that lived around this area have been pushed out.

Perhaps the volume should have been called ‘Losing Delhi’.  For it is clear from the essays in the book and other writing on Delhi that what marked it out as a city with a history, a beautiful environment and a diverse population is quickly being replaced by an unsustainable and unequal megacity.

FINDING DELHI, Loss and Renewal in the Megacity, edited by Bharati Chaturvedi, published by Viking Penguin 2010, pp 171, Rs 350

Infochange News & Features, December 2010

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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

When girls fear school

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 12, 2010


The reasons for the high drop-out rate of girls are simple: Fear of corporal punishment, sexual abuse and the lack of basic amenities like toilets in schools.
Photo: D. Gopalakrishnan

Pathetic infrastructure...
Sometimes you hear a story, or see a person, and you cannot forget. Last month, I listened to a bespectacled middle-aged woman, dressed in a sari with a scarf tied around her head. She was speaking at a public hearing on “Gender, Equality and Education” in Hyderabad, organised by ASPBAE (Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education) and Asmita, a resource centre for women. In a voice choked with emotion, she narrated the tragic story of her 14-year-old daughter, Renuka.

Renuka was a student of AP Social Welfare Society Residential School at Shivareddypet in Ranga Reddy District of Andhra Pradesh. She was in Std V. According to her mother, she was keen to study even though she was older than the rest of the class. On February 21 this year, a girl screaming in her sleep set off panic in the dormitory. The teachers sleeping in the next room, who were in-charge of the hostel, beat the girls to stop them from screaming. Renuka apparently had a head injury and became unconscious. She was admitted to the government hospital and her family was informed. Incensed at what had happened, her brothers questioned the school staff and also spoke to the local press.

When Renuka recovered, her parents brought her back to the school. But the principal and the staff refused to take her back saying she had brought a bad name to the school. The parents continued to make efforts to get her readmitted. But Renuka was so disheartened that she poured kerosene on herself and attempted suicide. With 75 per cent burns, there was little chance of survival. Her distraught mother wants to know what crime her daughter had committed to get such treatment. A case has been registered against the teachers but you wonder how many more cases of corporal punishment are forcing young girls out of school.

Only half the women in India are literate. The government plans to change this drastically in the next two years and has launched Saakshar Bharat, a programme for adult literacy that will focus on women. It aims to raise overall literacy from 64 per cent to 80 per cent and reduce the gender gap between male and female literacy from the current 21 per cent to 10 per cent by 2012.

Root of the problem

But the problem of the low percentage of female literacy lies at the point when a girl, who wants to go to school, drops out. The reasons are often linked to poverty; parents prefer to keep daughters back and send sons to school as girls are more useful at home and at work. But increasingly, even when parents are ready to send their daughters to school, the girls cannot continue because of simple reasons that have nothing to do with the ‘software' of literacy.

There are millions of girls like Renuka who want to learn, but not at the cost of being beaten. Or sexually abused. Several respondents at the public hearing spoke of sexual abuse, particularly in residential schools where tribal children are sent, as a reason for a high dropout rate among girls. This is an aspect of education that needs to be monitored, documented and dealt with. What parent would risk sending a daughter to a school where she is beaten or sexually abused?

The ‘hardware' issue is a much more straightforward problem. Girls drop out of school, particularly when they hit puberty, because there are no toilets. If they exist, they are usually dysfunctional.
Lalithamma from Thamballapalle Mandal in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh gave a vivid picture of the absence of toilets and the impact on girls. Her organisation conducted a survey of 80 schools in the mandal. They found that 52 schools had no drinking water facilities and 57 schools had no toilets. Five schools had toilets but without doors or water. Girls were forced to use the open space behind the school. But as boys also accessed the same area, the girls could not go.

Lalithamma said girls sipped water through the day to avoid going to the toilet. Her data from just five schools makes horrific reading:

Thamballapalle High School: 172 girls, two toilets, no water.
Kannemadugu High School: 58 girls, two toilets, no water.
Renumakulapalle High School: 40 girls, one toilet, no water.
Gopidinne High School: 60 girls, two toilets, both not working.
Kosuvaripalle High School: 53 girls, one toilet, no water.

Worst still, these girls return to a hostel at the end of the day where again the toilet facilities are inadequate. They fear going out in the dark and often skip the meal to avoid having to defecate.

This is just a thumbnail sketch of the situation in one mandal in Andhra Pradesh. But it mirrors conditions in most parts of rural India. The situation is not that different in municipal and government schools in urban areas. Girls from such schools in Hyderabad also spoke of the absence of toilets. We want girls to go to school, get through primary school and persist in the higher classes. Yet how can they in such circumstances?

So while the corporal punishment and sexual abuse are issues that need to be investigated closely and documented, a beginning can at least be made by ensuring that there are working toilets for girls in schools. It is such an obvious point that it hardly needs to be made. And yet numerous surveys on girls and education bring out this one need. Why is it not being given as much importance as curriculum, teaching standards, shortage of teachers etc?

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Journalism after “Radiagate”

My Column on The Hoot on the recent controversy over the Niira Radia tapes in which several journalists were involved.

Second Take
Whatever the justification given by journalists whose names have come up in the `Radiagate' expose, there is no question that it has forced much-needed introspection. For years, the cosiness between prominent media persons and both politicians and the corporate world had become blatant. But rarely to the point where it was flaunted as it is today. In many ways, the 24-hour-news format and television have made this evident with anchors using first names, and cracking `inside' jokes during live telecasts with prominent people.
Yet, these issues have been in the cooker for a long time. At some point they were bound to boil over. The fact that this has happened now is welcome. It allows for some air, and hopefully light, to enter the murky world of influence mongering.
As far as I am concerned, the first signs that journalists had no problem with their rights being curbed were evident in June 1975 when Mrs Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and imposed press censorship.  Barring a few, journalists and newspapers fell in line. They simply flipped over and played dead.
After that as the state withdrew, the world of commerce took over. And once again, there was little protest. Journalists were renamed “brand managers”. No problem. The dividing line between editorial and management vanished. No problem. Editors were declared redundant. No problem.
And then came Medianet, which openly sold editorial space. No problem. A few of us in Mumbai tried hard to provoke a discussion amongst fellow journalists. If the largest newspaper in the country could sell editorial space, then why should readers believe us? What was the guarantee that all news was not paid news? Hardly anyone expressed an interest in the subject.
And then came the private treaties. Again, one thought journalists would object but hardly anyone raised an eyebrow as more than one newspaper adopted the model.
Then you had paid news during elections. This was written about but here the focus was on the politicians who paid and not the media houses that accepted and the journalists who wrote the pieces. For that matter, what about journalists who write articles that are part of the private treaties between newspapers and businesses? (An illustration is the series carried in The Times of India on urban issues sponsored by Lavasa, the hill station near Pune that has come under the radar of the Ministry of Environment.) Our outrage did not interrogate our own culpability in the paid news business.
And now we have this ??" journalists joining in discussions on how to lobby for cabinet berths, journalists virtually taking dictation on the line to take in a column, journalists offering advice to lobbyists on how to position stories in their newspaper etc.
If truth be told, none of this is shocking. Those who have been in the profession long enough know how power corrupts journalists. Have we forgotten the editor of a leading newspaper who sincerely believed that his was “the second most important job” in the country? How many times have we heard our fellow journalists boast about their contacts and how they can get anything done? How many journalists have used such contacts to jump queues, to get out-of-turn allocations for everything from housing to seats in an airplane? In the bad old days, when it was difficult to get things like gas connections and telephones, it was the done thing to use these contacts to jump the queue. And no one thought there was anything wrong with that. In fact, if you did not use influence, you were considered a fool.
The question we as journalists face post-Radiagate is: Who should set the norms? Some journalists have their own norms and principles, irrespective of the media organisation they work for. And a few media organisations have specific rules and codes. These codes cover actual favours taken by journalists, including freebies. But what do you do about influence mongering? Is that a corrupt practice? There can be no code, nor any policing on this.
I believe that the first step on the slippery slope of compromise that ultimately puts in jeopardy a journalist's reputation, credibility and professionalism is taken much before they reach the pinnacle of their careers.
Ultimately, journalists have to ask themselves why they are in the trade " to push agendas, to be kingmakers and queen makers or simply to do a job? Sounds old fashioned, does it not, to even mention something like this?

(Click on the link above to read the original)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Unsafe for women?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 28, 2010


Improvements in infrastructure should make cities safer for women. Delhi is the exception to the rule…
Photo: V.V. Krishnan 

An ordeal for women:On the Delhi Metro.
I f you visit Delhi after a spell away from it, there are several things that strike you. First, the number of buses – green buses running at regular intervals. Then, the bus stops. Well-lit, with bus numbers clearly written on them. Then, the pavements, at least in South Delhi, that have suddenly become walkable. And of course, the Metro, which even people who never considered using public transport are now actually using.

A city with a good public transport system is considered not just a more liveable city, and greener city, but also a safer city, especially for women. So has the infrastructure of Delhi changed the culture of the city so that women feel safe?

Not if you listen to what a former Miss India and Bollywood actor Gul Panag has to say. After participating in the Delhi Half Marathon on November 21, here is what she told the media: “Delhi men won't let go of any opportunity to eve-tease or behave indecently. The people's mindset has not changed despite hosting a mega event like Commonwealth Games in October and it is definitely not an ideal place for women.”

After complaining about men trying to grope her as she ran the Half Marathon, Ms. Panag went on to say, “I had thought that Delhi would have undergone a change in its attitude towards women in the seven years that I have been away but it continues to be unsafe. I am not sure if they knew who I was but the fact that they misbehaved shows the attitude of the men in the city which needs to change drastically.”

Ms. Panag's statement brings out several important issues. First, that improvements in infrastructure, an important first step in making cities safer and better, are not enough. Cultural and attitudinal changes have to follow, a far more difficult challenge.

Changing mindsets

In fact, the Delhi government has made an attempt at tackling these attitudes, particularly in the men who run and manage the public services. Delhi is the only city in India where the state government has been responsive to a campaign by a women's group, Jagori, to make the city safer for women. It has held a dialogue with this group on how this can be done, cooperated in holding a safety audit, heeded advice on public transport and on street lighting and involved them in training bus conductors and drivers and even the police so that they can be more responsive to the problems women face in the public space.

Delhi's Minister for Women and Child Development, Dr. Kiran Walia, spoke at a conference on “Building Inclusive Cities” organised by Jagori and Women in Cities International earlier this week in the capital. She described, for instance, the difficulty she had in convincing the Delhi Metro to introduce special compartments for women. She argued that this was essential because crowded public transport was the site of some of the greatest instances of harassment that women experienced. She cited Mumbai, where all trains have women's compartments and there are even only-women specials during rush hour, to push her point.

She was first told that separate women's compartments in the Metro were simply not feasible. And finally when they were created, apparently men in some stations through which the Metro passed physically prevented women from entering these compartments! Yet another example of how infrastructure changes do not guarantee a change in attitudes.

So Delhi, with the huge investment of funds that has gone into making it a better city, remains unsafe for women. Not just for women like Ms. Panag, who could insulate themselves from the dangers and never need to rub shoulders with potential harassers but for the millions of women who have no choice but to use public transport and public spaces to survive each day they live in the city. Indeed, the very process of “improving” the city has made the lives of women at the opposite end of the class spectrum from Ms. Panag even more difficult.

Greater stress

Take domestic workers, for instance. In the effort to transform Delhi, thousands of poor people have been pushed beyond city limits to colonies where the public transport system is nowhere near as good as it has now become in the city. Yet, the women who work in the homes of the rich and the middle class in Delhi have no option but to commute in overcrowded buses and tolerate daily harassment because they must hang on to their jobs. Their resettlement colonies do not give them other job options to eliminate the need to commute. Thus improving a city at the cost of laying greater burdens on the shoulders of those who already live at the margins is clearly not the ideal solution.

Ms. Walia also spoke of women's “defecation right”. She pointed out that a crucial part of building a safer city was to ensure that women had access to sanitation. She recounted how women living in slums feared visiting public toilets — where the caretaker was a man — as these were sites of molestation and even rape, especially of young women. So a superficial improvement by way of fancy bus stops, flyovers, airport or a Metro should not detract from more basic components that make cities safer for all it residents. For women, access to sanitation is a crucial part of this.

The concept of inclusive cities articulated at this meeting was, in fact, an important one for India as it races ahead with urbanisation. By 2050, every other Indian will be living in a town or a city. What shape will our cities take by then? Will they continue to be examples of poor planning exacerbated by high levels of corruption that distort land use regulations? Of inefficient implementation of almost every infrastructure project? Of absence of environmental concern? And of projects that divide the city and cater only to the rich? Or is it still not too late to reconsider the basis on which plans are made, to infuse urban planning with an awareness of women's need for safety and security in the public space, to design an urban future that is democratic, equitable and inclusive?

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why public toilets get clogged

The best-designed plans for the building and maintenance of public toilets in India seem to come undone. But the argument that the pay-per-use model popularised by Sulabh is the only workable one is superficial and unrealistic in a country where millions are denied their right to basic services like clean water and sanitation, says Kalpana Sharma

On November 19, the front page of a leading Mumbai daily ran an advertisement that announced that it was World Toilet Day.  The ad was blatantly selling a toilet-cleaning agent manufactured by a leading multinational company.  Interesting, nonetheless, that an organisation calling itself the ‘World Toilet Organisation’ should have decided to choose November 19, the birthday of Indira Gandhi, as a day to remember toilets.

What we should be remembering on that day is the absence of toilets in large parts of India. Our record on sanitation is still well below par for a country that believes it has already arrived on the world stage as an economic power.  While some strides have been made in rural sanitation through campaigns like the Nirmal Gram Abhiyan, the urban situation remains problematic.
With liberalisation has come the belief that many social services like providing sanitation and water can be delivered through public-private partnerships, and that the onus for these services need not be borne by the government alone. The private sector has discovered that there might even be profits in this sector. And NGOs working on sanitation have realised that they can intervene in the design and delivery of sanitation services.
For Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the inventor of the Sulabh Shauchalaya, profit was not the motive that led him to devise the simple “twin-pit pour-flush toilet” that brought about a minor revolution in the availability of toilet facilities in many parts of India. Dr Pathak began in Bihar in the early-1970s, and now heads an organisation that has spread to other countries. Indeed, ‘Sulabh’ has almost become a generic term for a particular kind of toilet.
While the Sulabh model has been greatly applauded and has generated substantial revenue for the organisation, not everyone is sold on the idea. Yet, even if there is disagreement on the details, the pay-per-use idea introduced by Dr Pathak has caught on.
Every city has tried variations on this theme. The main issue here is how a toilet block can pay for itself so that its operations and maintenance costs can be covered. On paper, this seems workable. Municipalities give the land for such public toilets, including where Sulabhs are built, free, and more often than not, even water and electricity are free or heavily subsidised. While the Sulabh model does not need to be linked to the sewerage network, as it uses septic tanks, similar toilet blocks in other cities, particularly larger ones, are connected to the main sewer lines.
So if Sulabh continues to make profits out of its toilets, how is it that other such efforts have not worked quite as well?
One reason Sulabh makes profits is because its toilet blocks are usually built in areas with a heavy footfall such as train stations or bus stations or important city junctions. The toilets are heavily used and generate considerable daily revenue. It is estimated that they can cover their construction costs in less than a year. This surplus can then cross-subsidise toilets built in slums where people cannot pay as much and the use is not so heavy.
There should have been similar success stories to report in cities where the private sector was initially invited to participate in providing public toilets. But the outcome has been mixed.
Take Bangalore for instance. The Karnataka government set up the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) in 2000 to help garner private involvement in transforming the city. Sudha Murthy, wife of Infosys founder Narayan Murthy, offered Rs 8 crore from her personal funds to construct 100 public toilets in Bangalore. The toilets blocks were called Nirmala toilets and followed Sulabh’s pay-per-use model.  The Corporation would provide the land free; electricity and water too would be free or subsidised. Private companies were contracted to build, run and operate the toilets and hand them over to the municipality after a fixed number of years.
The location of the toilets included public places, such as major out-station bus stops, and also slums where the charges would be Rs 20 per family per month rather than pay-per-use.
In the initial stages, 27 Nirmala toilets were built with this money at a cost of roughly Rs 10 lakh per toilet block. However, even as the toilets were being built, it was evident that operations and maintenance would be a challenge. 
In the following four or five years, the Bangalore Corporation constructed another 50-60 Nirmala toilets. But according to someone involved with the initial concept, the real problem arose when the Corporation decided to drop the user charges and make the toilets free.
Within a short time, the inevitable happened. Operators running the toilets lost interest as profits fell. Little was invested in keeping the toilets clean and carrying out timely repairs. As a result, dozens of such toilet blocks are now reportedly virtually unusable. 
The Corporation has tried to hand over operations and maintenance to private companies again. But in the interim there has been no real evaluation of why the effort failed and what can be learnt from it. There is no system in place, for instance, for third-party inspection of the toilet blocks. Without regular scrutiny, it is inevitable that standards will slip.
Some argue that if the Corporation had allowed private contractors to continue running the toilets by collecting user fees, the public would have been better served. The profits from such a venture are now well established, as is evident from the Sulabh experience. The revenue is virtually tax-free as it is a cash transaction. And ultimately, both the entrepreneur and user benefit. For women, in particular, who have minimal access to safe, clean toilet facilities in most cities, even paying is better than having no toilet at all.
There is, however, a class angle. Those with money have secure housing and therefore do not need to worry about public toilets. They can walk with confidence into hotels or shopping malls when they are out, and otherwise have toilets in their homes. For the poor living in informal housing without individual toilets, public toilets are a necessity. If, on top of that, they have to pay each time they use it, the burden becomes heavy.
Even if one concludes from the Bangalore experience, and similar ones in other cities, that it is best to keep public facilities on a pay-per-use basis, what do you do about slums where the only toilets available are communal ones usually built by the municipality? The ratio of people to toilets in many slums can be as high as 1:2,500 per toilet seat.
User charges in slum toilets -- Rs 20 per family per month -- are clearly not going to generate adequate revenue to cover operations and maintenance. Hence, here, either a cross-subsidy or a direct subsidy is unavoidable.
In cities like Mumbai and Pune, the municipality has roped in NGOs working with the urban poor to design, construct and maintain public toilets in slum areas. The funds for these projects are with the municipality, usually lying unused. The private part of the partnership is therefore not in funds, but in execution. Here again the story has been a mixed one.
In Pune, for instance, an enthusiastic municipal commissioner encouraged several NGOs, including Shelter Associates and SPARC (Society for Area Resource Centres) to bid for contracts to construct toilets. At first, the outcome was encouraging as these groups consulted communities where the toilets would be built, discussed the design and the location, and encouraged people from the community to be part of the construction process.
These consultations spawned several design innovations. For instance, children would continue to defecate in the open even where a toilet was available because the toilet pan was too wide for the child to straddle. As a result, mothers would let their children defecate just outside the toilet block making the approach to the toilet filthy. The groups decided to design a separate children’s toilet.
In some slums in Mumbai, where SPARC undertook the work, a community centre was built on top of the toilet block. And the caretaker and his family lived in a room above the block. This ensured that it was kept clean.
But even these enthusiastic interventions have not been trouble-free. Some of the problems had to do with the system that operates on the ground. For instance, even if a municipal corporation allows NGOs to bid for the construction of toilets, control of the money lies in the hands of petty bureaucrats. An honest and efficient man at the top does not eliminate the need to grease the palms of middlemen. So, getting funds in time to continue construction, and meeting deadlines, is the first big hurdle that many NGOs face.
The other issue is the NGOs’ approach to these contracts; they see them as not just a way of meeting a community need but also of building capacity within the community to carry out such tasks in the future. But in the process of encouraging community-based contractors, there is always the risk of inexperience leading to basic construction flaws that show up within a few years of construction.
Ultimately, it is the issue of operations and maintenance that seems to clog even the best-designed toilets. Community management of slum toilets has had its share of problems. In some cases where the group is cohesive and has been engaged in other issues such as savings, for instance, management is better. In others, where a group has been formed to manage the toilet, the results have not been entirely satisfactory. In several places, toilets have been taken over by the local thug or moneylender who charges whatever he pleases and virtually makes the toilet hisadda.
The story of public and community toilets in India can be told in several theses and books. In each city, the experiences are specific to the politics and needs of that place. But there are also common experiences from which lessons can be drawn for the future.
It would be easy to conclude that just as there is no free lunch, there should be no free toilet facility. That is a superficial and unrealistic conclusion in the Indian context where millions are denied their right to basic services like clean water and sanitation. Ultimately, the only solution to the toilet crisis is the provision of secure housing in which sanitation is an integral part. But until that can be achieved (and currently it seems an almost insurmountable problem), facilities for the poor will have to be subsidised so that they may be spared the indignity that accompanies the lack of sanitation.
(To read the original, click on the link above)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Contradictions and confusion cloud rape laws. The result is miscarriage of justice

My piece in Tehelka on November 20, 2010

The legal system needs a major overhaul if rapists are to be brought to book

IN EARLY October, three events took place. All relate to women and rape. On 5 October, the Central government decided to make an amendment in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. At the moment, if a woman under 15 is forced to have sex by her husband, it constitutes rape. If she is over that age, it does not. The government has decided to push the age limit up to 18, which in any case is the legal age for marriage.

Around the same time, a 30-year-old woman went to a Puja pandal in Navi Mumbai. She fainted during the festivities and was rushed to a nearby hospital. As she lay unconscious in the ICU, the resident doctor on duty apparently raped her. He has been arrested and the case is being pursued.

In the same week, a fast-track court in Mumbai dismissed a case filed last year by an American woman who had alleged that she had been gang-raped by six young men with whom she had gone out one evening. She was attending a short-term course at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). The judge declared her testimony as “unreliable” and released the accused.

A related development to the above three incidents was the release of a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled Dignity on Trial: India’s Need for Sound Standards in Conducting and Interpreting Forensic Examination of Rape Survivors. It exposed the extent to which even today the ‘finger test’ is used to establish whether the raped woman had been “habituated to sexual intercourse”.

All these developments are related because they revolve around that four-letter word: rape. In different ways, they also illustrate the contradictions and the confusion that prevail on rape laws, their implementation and therefore their efficacy.

Take the first, the issue of marital rape, or non-consensual sex within marriage. Talk about it, or write about it, and you will instantly get media-savvy minority groups like Save The Indian Family jumping up and down and shouting that if there is a law on marital rape, Indian men will suffer even more than they already do under laws like Section 498 A and that the ‘Indian family’ will fall apart.

It would seem that these groups, and I presume their members are men, have never heard of domestic violence that includes all forms of physical abuse, including burning the woman who is supposed to be your life partner. That they do not know that for every rape case reported and recorded in the crime statistics, there are hundreds that are never acknowledged. That they do not know that one of the largest incidents of violence against women in India is not what they experience in the public space but within the ostensibly secure reaches of their own homes.

So, publicly we do not discuss marital rape. As a result, the only step the government can think of taking to deal with this crime is to raise the age limit to 18 years. By doing this, it believes it has solved the problem.
If it has recognised the anomaly in the age factor in this ‘exception’ to Section 375, then why can it not understand that the ‘exception’ itself is an anomaly? Why is it a crime only if a woman under 18 is raped by her husband and not a person over that age? In other words, you accept that husbands should not rape their wives, and yet apparently, they can the day the wife turns 18. Does this make any legal sense? To compound the contradictions, the Domestic Violence Act 2005 offers a civil remedy for marital rape and Section 498 A considers “perverse sexual conduct by the husband” as a crime.

The rape cases of Navi Mumbai and TISS, clubbed with the Human Rights Watch report, bring out another set of issues regarding rape. Both these cases caught the attention of the media precisely because they occurred in a large metropolitan city and also because the survivors and the perpetrators were middle-class people. That rape of poor women and minor girls takes place almost every day in cities such as Mumbai is a subject that creates barely a flutter in the media.

But what happens when the case is dismissed? The testimony of the survivor in the TISS case was judged “unreliable” by the court as were the witnesses produced by the prosecution. Hence, the case was dismissed and all the accused released.

IS THIS the full story? When the TISS rape case occurred, the media was literally salivating over it. One newspaper ran the entire FIR filed by the survivor including intimate details about how it was she realised she had been raped. All newspapers published detailed information about the survivor barring her name. Other newspapers gave character certificates to the accused, all “good” boys it would seem, and ran headlines such as, “What was she doing out with six men?” So, even before the case went to court, the survivor’s character was on trial.
For every rape case reported in India, there are hundreds that are never acknowledged
What we do not know yet is whether she and the woman in Navi Mumbai were put through the standard ‘two-finger’ test that continues to be used despite a Supreme Court order that it should be discontinued. What this actually means is that if you are a woman who has been raped in your home or outside, and you work up the courage to go and report to the police, as part of the mandatory medical examination, the doctor on duty will insert two fingers into your vagina to check whether you are “habituated to sexual intercourse” or if your hymen is intact.

Why is this necessary especially when, according to the law, the character of the survivor, and hence a detail such as elasticity of her vagina, is completely immaterial in a rape case? Yet, the reality is that this method continues to be used across the country and one of the reasons, according to the HRW report, is that doctors are still being trained with outdated manuals that recommend this test.

Then, if the case ever makes it to court, you have to contend with a prosecution that might not necessarily be interested in pursuing your case. Ranged against you could be well-paid defence lawyers who can, with ease, pull the prosecution’s case apart if it is not watertight or if it has details such as the outcome of the ‘twofinger’ test. And that is precisely what happens. Nine times out of 10, such cases are dismissed because of lack of evidence, or “unreliable” evidence.
Nine times out of 10, such cases are dismissed due to lack of evidence or ‘unreliable’ proof
AND WHEN you hear that the case has been dismissed, you assume that the survivor lied, and that the charge was false. No one, least of all the newspapers that went to such lengths to pursue the case in the first place, bother to check how or why the case fell apart. It becomes one more statistic in the hands of those who want to beat up every woman who dares to cry “rape” and seek justice.

The government’s decision on amending the section on marital rape is just one more illustration of its refusal to acknowledge the extent of violence women suffer within their homes, or the insurmountable hurdles they face when they try to use laws that contradict each other.

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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Questions we did not ask

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 14, 2010


Even as we arrive as a super power, are we leaving other Indias behind?

“T ell me, this man, the American President who is here, will his visit help us in India?” asked Srinivas, a driver in a private taxi service in Mumbai.

Srinivas once worked in a paint factory. He had a steady job. In 2003, the factory closed. He was laid off. The compensation offered was unacceptable. For the last seven years, he and 105 others have been fighting in court for their dues. In the meantime, he drives a taxi, at half the salary he earned in the paint factory. What did the recent visit of President Barack Obama mean to people like him?

Srinivas asked this question on the first day of the American President's visit to India. Would he have felt satisfied by the third day when Mr. Obama confirmed that India has “arrived” and is now a “global power”? Or would he still have asked the same question?

Deluding ourselves?

In the afterglow of that affirmation by the world's most powerful man, it is easy for us in India to build around us a world of delusion. An Incredible India. Where there is impressive economic growth. Where there is a burgeoning middle class representing a market that rich countries like America are running after to kick start their own faltering economies. Where we are being sought out and invited to join the top table of powerful nations in the world.

Wonderful as that sounds, there is another India we have to remember, and it is not so incredible. Indeed, even as Air Force One took off from Indian soil carrying President Obama and his wife to Indonesia and other countries, the ugly face of Corrupt India was visible on the floor of the very Parliament where he had spoken the night before. The sheen of Incredible India is considerably dulled in the face of such open corruption. And those who pay the real price for these deals that are now being exposed are the millions rendered invisible by all this talk of India, the Powerful and India, the Incredible.

It is interesting that Michelle Obama, who charmed people with her informality and her genuine way of connecting with people of all ages, made a special point of meeting girls as well as children from disadvantaged homes. Although the headlines caught her dancing with children, in fact she has a more serious interest. As The Washington Post reported, “But the first lady arrived in India with a message that goes beyond dancing. She has made education and women's empowerment the focus of her domestic agenda. The message is particularly powerful in India, where many rural women struggle to be educated and where there are enormous obstacles even for a baby girl to be born.” Yet the Indian media was so fixated on whether the US President would use the “P” word, Pakistan, and condemn it for acts of terror, that we barely noticed that Michelle Obama was making a more relevant statement that applies to the other India, one that did not fit into the main agenda of terror and trade.

The other India is known to the world even if we prefer not to acknowledge it. A day before Air Force One landed in Mumbai, the United Nations Development Programme's 2010 Human Development Report revealed how despite a high economic growth rate, India's position in human development terms remained virtually the same over the last five years, improving only marginally. India is ranked a low 119 out of 148 countries.

An important factor pulling it down is its low Gender Inequality Index. And within that, it was the high rate of maternal mortality that contributed the most to its inability to improve. In other words, the real reason for India's low rank in the human development index is because too many women continue to die while giving birth.
But coming back to the Obama visit, within a day of his arrival, after a meeting with some of the most powerful businessmen from both countries, he announced the $10 billion in business deals that would create over 50,000 jobs in the US. This was clearly catering to his constituency at home which has turned ultra-critical of every move he makes. This is what he said:

“From medical equipment and helicopters to turbines and mining equipment, American companies stand ready to support India's growing economy, the needs of your people, and your ability to defend this nation.  And today's deals will lead to more than 50,000 jobs in the United States — 50,000 jobs.  Everything from high-tech jobs in Southern California to manufacturing jobs in Ohio.” 

But what about jobs for Indians, for men like Srinivas? Will American investment in India create jobs here? Srinivas could not understand why an American President should come to India promoting American business. When he lost his job, a local politician told him that this was the outcome of globalisation. So how will more global capital coming into India help people like him, he wanted to know.

Hard questions

In fact, if you scroll down the list of the business deals, there is precious little in it that represents additional employment opportunities for Indian workers. On the other hand, one of the areas where the US is pushing hard for India to open up to foreign direct investment is the retail business to facilitate the entry of some of its large retail giants like Walmart. Will this not kill the small businesses in the informal sector that survive on tiny margins but make the difference between survival and starvation for millions of Indians? Should we not be asking these questions?

In a few days, the Obama visit will be off the front pages. In fact, it already is. But the problems of poverty, of our pathetic gender inequality index, of our unemployment, of our iniquitous growth remain. During those three hectic days, when the media reported every word, murmur and move of the US President and his wife, these stories found no place on the table. Yet, India will not “arrive” until these stories are told, until these problems are addressed, with or without the help of other nations.

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