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)