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)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

After the hysteria

The Hoot
Second Take

By Kalpana Sharma

Namaste Obama, So Long Obama.  And now, for the rest of the news. 

For three days, news died in India.  There was only one story, the first visit of President Barack Obama to India.  For three days, that is all you saw.  Obama landing, Obama walking down the steps of Air Force One, Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan greeting him (with TV channels immediately speculating whether he broke protocol) and the President’s helicopter, Marine One, making its way through the Mumbai smog toward the Taj Mahal Hotel. 

Did Indian news television channels need to give the US President’s visit such “blanket” coverage and a “ball-by-ball” commentary?

It is evident that it is the nature of this coverage, and the compulsion to keep up the chatter and micro-analyze everything, that led to the extraordinary turn of events within an hour of Obama’s arrival.  His 10-minute speech at the Taj Mahal Hotel at a function to commemorate the victims of 26/11 sprouted the most amazing instant analysis. Usually, you comment on what a person says.  But the media took off on what Obama did not say, that he did not take the “P” word, did not name Pakistan specifically as being responsible for the 26/11 terror attack.  Given that the journalists anchoring the shows were experienced, should have been aware of diplomacy, geopolitics and the fact that it was highly unlikely that a domestically beleaguered American President was going to launch an attack on Pakistan within minutes of landing in India, it was an entertaining spectacle to watch practically every channel taking off on this issue.

And of course, the over-the-top and instant response by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Rudi Pratap Singh that was later retracted was probably partly as a result of this concerted harangue by the television channels.

By the end of the third day, NDTV virtually acknowledged that the media might have been a little too obsessive on the Pakistan question and demanding that the US President name Pakistan.  Other channels were not so honest.  In fact, Times Now just stopped short of patting itself on the back when Obama finally uttered the “P” word!

Arnab Goswami of Times Now was, of course, his predictable and entertaining self.  On the first day, the channel kept flashing how the US President was “soft on terror”.  True to style, for the first two days, the channel kept up its tirade about why Obama was not naming Pakistan despite the sentiments of “the people of India”. By day three, and after President Obama’s address to the joint Houses of Parliament, the channel did an about turn.  Suddenly, Goswami decided that this was indeed a “historic” visit and went to the extent of saying that he believed that Obama was a “hawk”!  All this because the American President finally obliged by using the “P” word!

The other issue that media focused on to the exclusion of almost everything else was whether the US would back India’s attempt to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.  If you listened to some of the discussions on this, and were uninformed about the complexities of the UN system, you would be led to believe that all it needed was a nod from the United States for this to happen.  As a result, when the US President did say in his speech to Parliament that the US would welcome India’s entry into the Security Council, people would have thought that this was the end of the story.  The fact that even this endorsement by the US President is only part of a long and complex process that does not guarantee India a seat barely came across. 

If the Indian media obsessed about the fact that the US President did not use the “P” word, it completely missed the fact that he did not use the “C” word, or China.  As far as the region is concerned, and the economies of both India and the US, China looms large and extremely important on the horizon and simply cannot be ignored in any discussion on the future of the world economy.  The Indian media’s focus on Pakistan detracts completely from an important and informed debate that is needed on China.
While there was routine reporting of the $10 billion in business deals that were struck on the very first day between Indian and American businesses, there was no time to analyze what they actually mean for India because the chatter on the television channels – barring the business channels -- was almost exclusively on the Pakistan factor.  President Obama used the business deals to speak to his constituency at home by emphasizing the 50,000 jobs these deals would create.  But how many jobs will they create in India?  No one asked that question.

It is interesting that at least some American newspapers reported the demonstrations by the Bhopal victims about the failure of the US to help in the extradition of Warren Anderson of Union Carbide.  Again, an important issue like this that actually speaks to the absence of adequate regulation in the early years when American companies did set up shop in India was not addressed in the media discussion at all.

Against the background of the agrarian crisis in India, Obama’s promise of another green revolution – an “evergreen” revolution – with the help of American agro-technology was acknowledged by just one channel that thought this important enough.  NewsX invited Devinder Sharma, a specialist in this area, to comment on the issue of American technology and the Indian economy.

And although President Obama did mention climate change in his speech to Parliament, there was practically no discussion on it on the news channels.  Yet, anyone who has followed this issue knows how crucial is the role of the US.  With a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, there could be more problems pushing through legislation in the US to cut down greenhouse gases.  Climate change affects our agriculture, our climate patterns, and the livelihood of millions of people dependent on natural resources.  Yet, it featured nowhere in the television discussions.

But coming back to the first question: was such blanket coverage really necessary? The US President has announced that India has “arrived” as a “global power”.  TV pundits kept emphasizing that the equation between India and the US has now changed and we are now on a more equal footing.  Yet, if you look at the media coverage of the Obama visit, you would wonder.

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