Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thank you, Mulayam Singh Yadav

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 21, 2010


Thank you, Mulayam Singh Yadav


Many have expressed their opposition to the Women's Reservation Bill. Only Mulayam Singh Yadav has been honest enough to say what he really thinks…

Whatever one feels about this Bill, it is astounding that it always raises such strong emotions.

Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A long struggle ahead...

Women who support the Women's Reservation Bill are cursing the “Yadav troika” for their opposition. But I would like to thank one of them, Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav. He is the only one of his brethren who has had the courage to say what he really thinks.

According to a report in this paper (“Mulayam Singh fears male representation will dwindle”, The Hindu, March 15, 2010), Mr. Yadav said that he fears that once this law comes into effect, in little over a decade, the Parliament might well be occupied almost entirely by women. This could happen if successful women candidates refuse to vacate the seats from which they won even after they are dereserved. And if they win in every succeeding election, their numbers, combined with the one third from the reserved seats, could very well unseat the majority of male members of Parliament!

Thank you, Mr. Yadav for being so upfront compared to your other colleagues who prefer to couch their opposition by pleading for the rights of Muslim, Dalit and OBC women to a share of the political cake.

Feeling threatened?

So male politicians fear that if they give an inch, women will take a mile. Politicians at the Panchayat level, who thought women could possibly pose no danger at the lowest tier of government, have already realised this. Even before some states enhanced the percentage of reserved seats to 50 per cent, women had begun to exceed one-third seats by contesting and winning from general seats. If this repeats in Parliament and Assemblies, the gender balance would change, or so fear some men.

Of course, the issue is not just one of gender balance. The 108 {+t} {+h} Constitutional Amendment, or the Women's Reservation Bill, is an important piece of legislation not just because it is a tool to help more women get elected but because it changes the ways in which the system has functioned so far.

Unlike Mulayam, no one will say that they fear that women will some day outnumber the men. No one will openly oppose giving women a share of seats. That would not be politically correct. Yet it is evident that while power sharing at the panchayat and nagarpalika level can be tolerated because these bodies implement laws and policies, it takes on another dimension when it comes to Parliament and Assemblies where laws and policies are made. Relinquishing a share of power in these bodies is not such a simple proposition.

So we have watched with some horror and a great deal of fascination as grown men and women scream and shout at each other over a law that has been cooking for 14 years. The consequence of all this public airing of passionate opposition is that the government has chosen to tread more carefully before it takes the Bill forward to the Lok Sabha and thereafter to the Assemblies. It is clear that there is a very long way to go before this Bill becomes the law, if ever, and the pitfalls are not small ditches — they are huge, yawning craters.

Whatever one feels about this Bill, it is astounding that it always raises such strong emotions. There are many laws in this country that are far from perfect. Many of them have been amended in the course of time. Some have been made stronger. Others have had provisions clarified, the rules made more implementable. But this is the one law where everyone seems afraid if it is even introduced.

I have written on this issue several times and must admit that my views have also changed. Just last June I wrote a piece critical of the rotation principle as it is implemented in panchayats because it leads to men fielding their wives or female relatives from seats they had contested and then reclaiming them once they are dereserved. I have also concurred that merely having more women in legislative bodies does not automatically lead to an improvement in the quality of governance.

Yet, should not a law that has been discussed in committees and outside and on which there appears to be some kind of consensus amongst the majority of political parties, at least be tried out? Why should politicians threaten to “do or die” rather than allow the Bill to go through? Is it really such a threat to Indian democracy? And are those opposing it exemplars of the best of Indian democracy?

No threat to democracy

Apart from the “Yadav troika”, there are many other men and women who object in particular to the mechanism of rotation of seats to be reserved for women. They argue that this will undermine democracy, as it will not allow MPs to “nurture” their constituencies. But has anyone counted how many MPs actually nurtured their constituencies? And if they do, how many such constituencies are now the personal fiefdoms of particular politicians who will not permit anyone, but their kin, to contest from them? Do the vast majority of politicians always get the constituencies of their choice during elections? Or do only those who are powerful and have the clout to insist that they will only contest from their “nurtured” constituency? Why has nurturing constituencies — that exists only sporadically on the ground — become such an important component of Indian democracy and that too only when another system has been suggested?

The rotation system might not be ideal but it is one possible way. What is the harm in giving it a try for a limited period? If those opposing it are really concerned about the democratic principle, perhaps they should push for a provision that gives voters the right to recall elected representatives who are not doing their job. That would introduce far greater accountability than allowing the same individual to contest from a particular constituency for successive elections just because he or she has “nurtured” it.

By demanding a share of seats in elected bodies, women are not saying they are better than men — although some do believe that. They are not saying that all women are equal. They are not claiming that they will make better politicians than men. And they are not asserting that an increase in numbers in Parliament and state assemblies will change the reality for the majority of women in this country.

Try something different?

All they are saying is that the prevailing patriarchal system in this country blocks the path of the majority of women to elected office. Even though all political parties mouth rhetoric about women's empowerment, they have somehow not managed to increase the number of women they get elected to Parliament or assemblies. So perhaps it is time to think of a way of changing this. And one way is the Women's Reservation Bill. That is all. Is this so unreasonable?

The last word has not been said yet on this jinxed Bill. Take a deep breath, and wait for the next episode.

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

Monday, March 15, 2010

Folly on private wheels

Opinion page, DNA, March 15, 2010

In Mumbai, you cannot travel on top of a train any more. Western Railways has decided that it will not run a train if even one person is found sitting on the roof.

Excellent. How could anyone object? The railways are concerned that people will get electrocuted as they have switched from 1,500 volt DC to 25,000 volt AC current for the suburban electric trains.

But people hang on to the roofs of trains not because they enjoy the cool air. They do so because there is no place in the compartments below. Or they just cannot afford to buy a ticket.

Despite all this, Mumbai’s suburban rail network — one of only four major cities in the country to boast of one — has a great deal going for it. In fact, until the 1960s, Mumbaikars were spoiled for choice of public transport — trams, buses, taxis and the trains. You did not need a car. Indeed, it was difficult to own a car unless you had a good deal of money. Everyone used public transport, unless they were rich, or in government.

A sensible government would have invested five decades back to enhance all modes of public transport, given that they benefit the majority. Nothing of the kind has happened. Instead investment has facilitated the movement of private motorised vehicles — two- and four-wheelers.

Meanwhile, the aam aadmi, unable to access the roofs of trains, continues to figure out a way to squeeze into railway compartments that lack even breathing space.

The crisis faces not just Mumbai. Every big city in India is facing similar choices — how do you provide the majority of urban
residents safe, affordable, and clean forms of transport? By doing so, you also save our cities from becoming the most polluted in the world, a dubious distinction that they have already earned. In India’s three largest cities, levels of suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) are three to four times higher than acceptable levels set by the World Health Organization.

The principal cause of this is vehicular emissions. The growth of motorised vehicles in India at 10% per year is higher than the growth of the GDP. While the population in India’s six major metros grew 1.9 times between 1981 and 2001, the vehicle population grew 7.75 times. Over one-third of the total number of motorised vehicles in India are in our metropolitan cities, where only 11% of the population lives. Delhi alone accounts for 7% of all motor vehicles.

Vehicular emissions increase when the speed of vehicles slows down. In most cities, including Delhi and Mumbai, peak-hour speeds are down to 5-10 km per hour, resulting in a five-fold increase in all pollutants.

If the foul air does not kill you, crossing a road will. In 2001, more than 80,000 people were killed in road accidents in India and
the rate of fatalities is growing at just under 5% per year. Half the traffic fatalities in Delhi are of pedestrians, 10% of bicyclists,
21% of motorcyclists and 3% of car occupants. In Mumbai, 80% of traffic fatalities are of pedestrians.

The mortality rate in India in road accidents is 8.7 per 100,000 as compared to 5.6 in the UK, 5.4 in Sweden, 5 in the Netherlands and 6.7 in Japan. If you take the ratio of mortality per 10,000 vehicles, India’s rate jumps to 14 as compared to under 2 in the industrialised countries.

Road fatalities and air quality will improve if there is better public transport. This is not rocket science. Yet, in every big city, new investment is geared towards facilitating movement of private motorised vehicles.

The new schemes announced for Mumbai, for instance — two more sea links, an expressway and an elevated road — costing thousands of crores of rupees, will help only a fraction of the population. And while people and offices have moved to the north and east of the city, the planners are working out ways to transport people to the south of the city — which hosts mainly government offices.

Perhaps this explains why successive governments pay only lip service to public transport. In Mumbai, politicians, bureaucrats and top corporates live and work in south Mumbai. In other cities, too, they live close to their offices. They do not need public transport.

Unlike the West, where the rich moved to the suburbs as cities grew, in India the poor are pushed out while the rich occupy prime real estate in the centre of cities. The poor commute. Their concerns do not dictate development policy. Indian cities exemplify that tragic reality.

(To read the original, click on the link above. Also a more detailed piece on this subejct on Infochange India:

Sunday, March 07, 2010

What's in a name?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 7, 2010


Last month, divorced women in India must have been startled to read a news item in a leading English language daily newspaper. It stated that the Bombay High Court had ruled that divorced women could not use their former husbands' surnames. The “ruling”, apparently, was in response to an appeal filed by a woman against a judgment in the Family Court in a case filed by her former husband. The judge had restrained the woman from using her former husband's name stating, “By using the ex-husband's name, or surname, there is always a possibility of people being misled that she is still the wife, when in fact she is not.”

The item caught my eye and I decided to check with a well-known lawyer whether there was any provision in law under which a court could give such a ruling. Did it in fact apply to all divorced women, as the story seemed to suggest, or was it just a judgment in a particular case? I was told that in fact the court had not given a “ruling” and that a single judge had merely upheld the judgment of the lower court in this particular matter. This did not mean that it applied to all divorced women. In fact, she pointed out, there could be no such ruling as people were entitled to take a name of their choice and could at anytime change their names simply by filing an affidavit.

Questioning a convention

The story, despite its inaccuracy, has triggered off a debate on whether women should change their names when they get married, and whether they should revert to their maiden names when they get divorced.

Last year, before the general election, actor Sanjay Dutt kicked off a similar controversy when he suggested that married women should adopt their husbands' surnames. He was clearly peeved that his sister, Congress MP Priya Dutt, continued to use her maiden name — which also established that her father was Sunil Dutt — instead of her married name. He was clearly not so worried about her violating a tradition as the political advantage she gained from maintaining her maiden name.

In India, not only are women automatically expected to adopt their husband's surname when they get married, but in some communities, as in Maharashtra, they are also expected to change their first names. As a result, once married, their identity changes completely. It is almost as if getting married also means wiping off your previous identity and completely subsuming yourself in one chosen by your husband and his family.

Politics of identity

Although the overwhelming majority of Indian women automatically follow the custom of adopting their husband's surname, increasingly some of them are asking why this should be so. What does the institution of marriage have to do with your name? Are you any less married if you adhere to the name you were given by your parents? Are you any less your husband's wife if your surname is that of your father? Is not love and understanding more important than unquestioned tradition? Should the choice not be left to the woman rather than being an imposition, one that she might not want?

Professional women, for instance, who marry after they have already established themselves, much prefer to stick to their maiden names. On the other hand, there are many women who marry young and get established in their professions after marriage. As a result, their professional identity is based on their married name, that is, if they have chosen to take their husband's surname. If such women get divorced, what sense does it make for them to revert to their maiden names? In other words, the issue is not so much whether women take their husband's surnames or not after marriage but that they should have the freedom to decide.

And why is it that the burden of name change is put on the shoulders of women alone? After women get married, if they choose or are compelled to adopt their husband's surname, they have to change all their names on their passports, bank accounts, driving licence, etc. It is not surprising then that only around two per cent of divorced women revert to their maiden names after divorce. This is not because they want to misuse their former position as being married to a particular person, or to appear to be married to him, but because it is just too much trouble. And in any case, they also want to remain connected to their children who have the same surname.

Perhaps in the long term, it would be simpler for women to hold on to their maiden names whether they marry or not, and whether they get divorced or remain married. This is not such a radical suggestion as it might sound. Even in very conservative societies, such as Iran for instance, women do not change their names when they get married.

Markers of belonging

In the past, the issue of surnames has often been subject of debate in many social movements. In the 1970s for instance, many young people who were part of the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, chose to drop their surnames because they felt that these identified them as belonging to a particular caste. As one of their principal struggles was against the institution of caste, they felt they should start the trend of dropping surnames altogether. When they got married, their names remained unchanged. Neither the man nor the woman had to worry about a surname. In South India in any case the issue of surnames often does not arise as people use initials.

Surnames are just an instrument for ascertaining family lineage in a patriarchal society. In modern societies, where marriages are registered and courts rule on divorces, why should the last name of a woman matter on issues of succession? Fortunately, some of the bureaucratic hurdles before married women maintaining their maiden names are now being removed and it is a little easier to get a passport, for instance, with your maiden name even if you are married. Schools in Maharashtra now accept the mother's name as the guardian of a child, something they did not do earlier where only the father's name could be entered.

Such changes in rules are important. But the controversy over surnames essentially illustrates the mindset that lays down that a woman's own identity must be submerged in that of her husband's once she marries. Women, married or unmarried, divorced or widowed, are equal human beings, with the same rights as men. Surely this should be reflected in the institution of marriage.

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