Sunday, February 20, 2011

Disappearing warp and weft

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 20, 2011


As urban India moves away from handlooms and takes the high road to fashion, it has left in its wake a cultural legacy and shattered lives…

Can today's generation find reason to use handloom the way our parents' generation used khadi, as a statement rejecting colonialism?

Photo: Kalpana Sharma 

Bleak future:Chandra Shekhar.

The wedding season is still in full flow. A striking aspect of weddings these days is not just the homogenisation of customs. For instance, mehendi and sangeet, formerly common only in the north, are now part of almost every wedding, barring the most traditional.

There is something else that strikes you as a change, especially in marriages taking place in our cities, marriages amongst the middle and upper classes. From the days when the bride and the women wore some of the most intricately woven Indian handloom saris – from Banarasi to Paithani to Kancheepuram to Jamdhani – today there is another kind of uniformity that has replaced this richness and variety. Hand embroidered saris and wedding outfits on chiffon or georgette are now virtually the norm. What has happened to Indian handlooms?

Indian handlooms and the handloom weaver are paying for this change of taste in urban India, a market that helped weavers to survive. From the days when even the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, promoted handlooms by wearing strikingly beautiful saris from all over India, hand-picked and especially woven for her by master weavers, to today, when handloom fairs in different cities barely clear accumulated stocks of handloom products, India has travelled a long way. And on that road have perished not just craftspeople but a cultural tradition that was distinctive.

Chandra Shekhar and his wife Swapna are two of the 43.3 lakh handloom weavers in India, the majority facing severe hardships. They live in the village of Pochampally, around 50 km from Hyderabad. The weave that takes its name after their village is distinctive; it is a kind of tie and dye ikkat that involves dying both the weft and the warp. The planning has to be meticulous, the dying process has to be accurate and the weaving requires immense concentration on every inch that is woven.

Historic event

Pochampally is known not just for its weave; in 1951 Vinoba Bhave stopped at the village while on a padayatra in Telengana. On entering the village, 40 landless families surrounded him and spoke of their desperate lives. During a meeting in the village, he asked if anyone could help these families. Vedira Ramchandra Reddy, a local landowner, stood up and volunteered to donate 100 acres of his land to the landless. Thus began the Bhoodan Movement through which Vinoba managed to get thousands of acres of land donated voluntarily for landless peasants in many states across India. Pochampally now has the prefix, Bhoodan, to its name.

Chandra Shekhar and Swapna are one of the over 3,000 families living in this village who survive on weaving. For hours of work needed to complete one cotton or silk sari of breathless beauty, Chandra Shekhar and his wife, both working together for over seven to eight hours a day, can barely earn Rs. 3,000 a month. They have two daughters who go to school. There are months when there is no work because there is no demand for the fabric. They are literally asked not to weave because there is too much stock with the merchant or the cooperative society.


Almost every day, the number of weavers is declining. The men go and seek work in Hyderabad. The women turn to embroidery or garment making. And the children, who are getting educated, are unlikely to follow in their footsteps. In fact, most weavers would prefer that their children do something else.

Multiple causes

The crisis of these weavers is not just due to lack of demand, but also because of high yarn prices and the import of cheap substitutes. The sector has survived on government subsidies but that too is not as readily available. Even if the present generation of weavers is given some assistance to continue, there appears to be no guarantee that the craft of weaving handloom material like the Pochampally ikkat will survive another generation.

Not many realise that the majority of weavers are actually women. One reason could be the decline in income from weaving. As a result, the men seek other work while the women stay back and weave. This means young women, with the potential to pursue other interests, are forced to remain at the loom. Women like Swapna, now only 20, who regrets she could not continue her education. “After marriage, I started doing this work. It is hard work and we are not getting wages up to our expectations,” she says. She says she has studied up to 12th standard and wanted to study further. She realises that she cannot take up any other work because she does not have the qualifications.

Ironically, in the same village, another young woman, Latha Venkatesh, is the Sarpanch. Smartly dressed in a pale yellow sari, Latha has also studied only up to 12th standard. But she comes from a political family and some suggest she inherited her post from her husband, who was Sarpanch. Latha speaks enthusiastically about the steps she wants to take to improve life in the village, such as dealing with the water problem and “giving self-confidence to the women”. She acknowledges that the weavers of Pochampally are facing a crisis and that the majority of the men are migrating to the city.

One could argue that in many countries traditional weaving and crafts are now a niche activity, available as exotic products for tourists. But handlooms in India have a different story. They have been the source of livelihood for millions across the country. If you look at a map of India, and mark the different types of handlooms available, you will touch almost every state and from the northeast and Kashmir to the southern tip.

Furthermore, the skill involved in producing these special handloom products, such as the silks of Kancheepuram and Benaras, the Kosa and Moga silk from Chhattisgarh and Assam respectively, or the Jamdhani from Bengal, the Bhagalpur silk, the Chanderi from Madhya Pradesh and the Tussar and Ikkat of Orissa, is part of a special cultural capital that ought not to be squandered. In the rush of modernisation and globalisation, we are erasing something very distinctive and special, something that has been accessible to ordinary people and is not restricted to the realm of high design and fashion.

Can today's generation find reason to use handloom the way our parents' generation used khadi, as a statement rejecting colonialism? Or is that completely unrealistic? Having visited Pochampally, watched Chandra Shekhar slowly and painstakingly dying the yarn for the next sari he would weave, marvelling at the varied designs and colours that emerge from the semi-darkness of his house, one hopes that this can still happen.

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

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New CRZ notification: One step forward, and two back?

Even as the new CRZ notification grants fishing communities the right to redevelop the land on which they live, it lays open coastal lands for other forms of development which will adversely impact their livelihoods, says Kalpana Sharma

Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh wants to introduce a River Regulation Zone to regulate activities on the banks of major rivers. “The manner in which the Yamuna riverbed has been devastated by constructions should be a wake-up call to all of us,” he stated at a meeting in New Delhi recently. The statement was made, coincidentally, on the day his ministry announced the new Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011 that replaces the earlier one from 1991.
While the minister’s plans for rivers and their banks might be appreciated, his plan to manage India’s coasts has not been universally lauded. In fact, the very fear he expressed about the Yamuna riverbed could become a reality for India’s coastal cities.
Not everyone is apprehensive about the new regulation. Builders and land developers are viewing it as a positive step. But the fishing communities that dot the 7,500 km long coastline are distressed, for the new regulation gives with one hand and takes away with the other. And environmentalists fear that unchecked development of coastal lands will destroy precious natural buffers and biodiversity.
What the new notification gives is the right to fishing communities to redevelop the land on which they live so that housing conditions can be improved. This is now possible through a change in the classification of their location from CRZ II to CRZ III. (In CRZ II, redevelopment would not have been permitted.) Plus, in the case of fishing communities in Mumbai, they get an additional Floor Space Index (FSI) of 2.5 instead of the current 1.33. In other words, they can build higher on the same piece of land. The justification for this is ostensibly to ensure that everyone is resettled. But it also means that the excess land available once people are accommodated vertically can be used for other purposes. This is where there is ample room for manipulation and misuse of a concession designed to benefit fisherfolk.
But the fishing communities’ concern is not just housing; it is principally livelihood. And on this they are not at all sure that the new notification will help them. For, even as it grants them additional rights to organise their housing it lays open coastal lands for other forms of development.
For instance, one of the issues that fishworkers’ representatives took up with Ramesh in the run-up to the new notification was their opposition to roads on stilts along the coastline. They argued, as the Mahim fishing colony in Mumbai opposing the Bandra-Worli sea link had done for years -- that erecting pillars in the sea along the coast affects tidal patterns and thereby fishing. In the case of Mumbai, their pleas were overruled in the name of ‘development’. And yet their specific request on this count has been left out of the notification. Indeed, the Maharashtra government has already started pushing for a plan for coastal roads on stilts.
There is some sense in the argument made by Ramesh and others that you cannot have a uniform rule for the entire coast of India. You need to factor in the realities of urbanisation as well as the urgent need to preserve natural buffers such as mangroves and reefs that can minimise the damage caused by sea level rise or by natural disasters like tsunamis. Those for a diluted CRZ hold out the example of other cities around the world where such strict regulations are not in place and where the sea front has been exploited for commercial purposes.
However, environmentalists emphasise that even the original CRZ notification had been modified 25 times. And its implementation was followed more in the breach -- with spectacular instances such as the 31-storey Adarsh building in Mumbai, which added a full 25 floors more than it was allowed to under these very rules. If this can happen within shouting distance of the lawmakers of Maharashtra, and with many of them being complicit, one can only imagine what else has been going on. It also means that the new, more lax, CRZ notification will be even more amenable to misuse than the previous one.
V Vivekanandan, advisor to the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies, believes that the new notification cancels out the fishworkers’ struggle against the previous Coastal Management Zone plan that was sought to be introduced in 2008.  It had to be abandoned in the face of trenchant opposition.
Since 1991, he points out, there have been new pressures on coastal lands. In 1981, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi acknowledged the need to protect coastal areas from an environmental and livelihood perspective. The CRZ, 10 years later, was the result of this awareness. But since then, he says, it has been steadily weakened by a combination of groups -- those who want to put coastal lands to other uses such as Special Economic Zones (SEZs), for the construction of power stations, including nuclear, for ports, for non-polluting industries -- and those who want to fence off coastal areas to preserve biodiversity. Both strategies overlook the concept of coastal zones as common lands that should remain accessible to everyone, especially those dependent on them for their livelihood, such as fishing communities.
Take the case of Maharashtra. The government plans to build a series of power stations, nuclear and thermal, all along the Konkan coast. What this will do to the marine resources does not even form part of the discussion. Ramesh was quoted as saying: “India must get used to power plants being located in coastal areas. The availability of water, import of coal or uranium fuel… will necessitate power plants being located here.” Yet, it is an indisputable fact that the warm water discharged from power stations eliminates marine life in coastal areas. In addition, other infrastructure like ports and jetties will further disrupt the marine ecosystem and directly impact the lives of fishing communities along these coasts.
The impact of the new CRZ rules on urban areas like Mumbai will also be considerable. Despite its many limitations, Mumbai’s coastline has been preserved to some extent because the rules forbade development within CRZ I and II. It is entirely possible that if such rules had not existed, popular beaches such as Chowpatty and Juhu, which constitute important democratic open spaces for people of all classes in the city, would have disappeared altogether. In Goa, citizens’ groups had to go to court to ensure that five-star hotels did not cut off access to beaches.
On the other hand, one has to acknowledge that some slum redevelopment schemes have been held up because of CRZ rules.  These are not just the Koliwadas. They include slums that fall within CRZ II. In fact, some of the redevelopment schemes in Dharavi, quite a distance away from the sea, were delayed for over two years because, technically, they had to obtain CRZ clearance. Such anomalies have to be rectified. But they could have been sorted out within the older notification.
The real problem in India with all environmental laws and regulations is their implementation. In Mumbai, as in other cities, those with power and political clout manage to get around every rule, while genuine cases such as those of the urban poor wanting to redevelop their land end up embroiled in endless red-tape.
The importance of strictly adhering to a more stringent coastal zone regulation for a city like Mumbai, and other coastal cities, has become all the more urgent in light of global warming and genuine fears of sea level rise. If Mumbai experiences another episode of heavy rains and high tides, as it did in July 2005, and there is no buffer by way of beaches, rocky outcrops and mangroves, the devastation could be more extensive than that which occurred six years ago.
The question that Ramesh has to answer is why the specific needs of the Koliwadas could not have been met by bringing in amendments to the existing rules without issuing an entirely new CRZ notification. Who will monitor implementation of these diluted rules if the past record has been so murky? Can the Centre really ensure that state governments are not complicit in diluting an already diluted set of rules?
These are not just rhetorical questions. People living in cities along the coast as well as those dependent on coastal lands for their livelihood have a genuine reason to be worried about the future.
Infochange News & Features, February 2011
(To read the original, click on the link above)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Revolution without context

The Hoot

Second Take

The context was missing. Yes, for 18 days the world was transfixed on the people’s uprising in Egypt. Would they succeed, or would they be crushed? Was this going to be another Tiananmen Square? Could a disparate crowd of people of all classes, creeds and ages really shake up a dictatorship that had ruled for 30 years? Yes, they did succeed and no, they were not crushed.
But as with all events, even momentous ones like the January 25 uprising, the media deals with them as they happen and leave the reader/viewer not much wiser about the context. 
For the Indian audience, Egypt rarely features anywhere apart from travel columns. So when the first reports appeared on BBC and CNN, and in some newspapers, most Indians would not have understood why this was happening. The earlier uprising in Tunisia got very little coverage in the Indian press. And despite Al Jazeera English being available in India now, it is still not widely seen in the country as cable operators and DTH platforms are still not relaying it.
What was not reported, either by the foreign channels, or by the western media as reproduced initially in Indian newspapers, was the state of affairs in Egypt before January 25. How high were poverty levels and unemployment? To what extent did crony capitalism operate? How extensive were the emergency powers of the government and human rights abuses? What was the status of women, of literacy, of healthcare, of child survival? Was this ancient civilization just a “stable” autocracy because the West preferred it to be just that, or did Egyptians have ideas about the kind of system of governance they desired? If they could not express their views through normal channels, like the media that was entirely government controlled, then where and how did people talk about alternatives? So many questions, yet so few answers even if you watched each day of the 18 days leading up to Mubarak’s exit.
Occasionally you did get a glimpse of another story. For instance, John Simpson of the BBC, did travel outside Cairo and spoke to fishermen at a seaside resort, normally packed with tourists. The only information they had was from state television. And from it they learned that all the trouble that was turning away tourists and therefore impacting their livelihood, was the work of ‘foreigners’. Simpson and his crew had to be rescued by the Army as the crowd got belligerent.
Through that short news feature, you got a sense of the state of affairs outside the national capital, and the extent to which the state controlled media affected attitudes. It reminded me of the days of the Emergency in India, when press censorship had closed off all avenues to independent information about developments in the country. The vast majority of people got their information from government-controlled All India Radio and Doordarshan. And from these channels it seemed all was well and that the government and Sanjay Gandhi were sincerely implementing the 20-point programme for the benefit of people, and that Indira Gandhi had been compelled to impose Emergency because of the troublemakers out to destabilize India. The 1977 elections allowed the steam to escape. Otherwise one wonders how long India too would have accepted a dictatorship masquerading as democracy, assisted by a controlled media.
The change in Egypt is because despite state-controlled media, information today just cannot be blocked, thanks to the Internet. And for the Middle East, in particular, the existence of a channel like Al Jazeera is clearly beginning to make a difference.
Of course, every channel has its biases. But the difference between a channel based in the Middle East and those outside could not have been more apparent than during the 18-day uprising in Egypt. While the western channels obsessed about the impact of any change on the geopolitics of the Middle East, Al Jazeera informed viewers about the realities in Egypt, including the background of some of those in power who were billed as acceptable faces to replace Mubarak. While BBC and CNN kept raising the spectre of an Islamist takeover – more CNN than BBC – we learned from Al Jazeera and from the voices of the participants the fact that this uprising had nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, which only joined in later. 
For a nuanced understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood one had to trawl the Internet or read a paper like The Guardian, which ran a long interview with its leader. Or read Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent of The Independent. Or listen to Al Jazeera English to understand the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, what it stood for, and how far it could go in Egypt. 
Yet, despite people on the ground and several scholars reiterating that the Muslim Brotherhood did not instigate the January 25, the bogey kept appearing. It sprouted discussions around whether Islam and Democracy were compatible. Perhaps this is a valid subject in the face of the absence of democracy in so many Islamic countries, but coming at a time when people in Egypt, regardless of whether they were Muslims or Christians, were crying out for a “secular, modern, democratic” Egypt, a phrase one heard repeatedly from the people at Tahrir Square, surely the perspective from the ground had to be given some validity.
Unfortunately, the Indian media failed to develop a clear perspective on its own. To its credit, at least some media houses did send out correspondents to report directly, rather than depending on reprints from The New York Times or western news agencies. And most newspapers carried strong editorials supporting the developments in Egypt. Indian television did not do anything distinctive in its reportage barring Barkha Dutt’s documentary on “The Women of Tahrir Square”. Even some of the debates on TV, with the usual talking heads, seemed to take their cue from subjects discussed on Western channels – such as whether Islam and democracy are compatible (CNN-IBN).

The coverage of Egypt in the Indian media illustrates how we give far more importance to developments in the western world than in parts of the world with which we have more in common and strong links. For instance, Egypt and India have been closely allied for decades. Yet, so little is written about Egypt in the Indian media except in the context of the Middle East crisis. Even developments in countries like Thailand, or Indonesia, or Vietnam, rarely find space on our international pages unless there is a crisis of major proportions. As a result, even the discerning Indian reader or viewer will know little about such countries when a crisis compels media attention.

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

Monday, February 14, 2011

Child Labour Laws: Lacunae and contradictions

India Together, Feb 2011

The young girl, in a yellow salwar kamiz, spoke hesitatingly into a microphone. The brightly lit stage, the darkened auditorium, the microphone were enough to terrify any young girl. More so if she was not familiar with the big city and came from rural Maharashtra. Yet, Tabassum Sheikh Latif from Shirola village in Maharashtra's Akola district testified clearly and simply about her life as a child worker. The occasion was a public hearing organized by Save the Children on child labour in agriculture in Maharashtra.

A day before the hearing, the Maharashtra government had released data that suggested that enrollment in schools across the state had increased and stood at over 90 per cent. One was supposed to believe from this that the majority of children in the state were now attending school.

Tabassum's story revealed a rather different picture. I want to go to school, I want to become a teacher, said the 11-year-old. But instead she spends her days working with her family in cotton fields like millions of other children across India. During Diwali she works in a factory that makes firecrackers, an occupation specifically banned under the Child Labour (Prevention and Regulation) Act 1986.

Yet, while handling hazardous material is specifically prohibited, all forms of agricultural work are not disallowed for children under 14. So girls like Tabassum can be found in cotton fields plucking and doing cross-pollination. Their hands get cut from the thorny bushes; they inhale the pesticide sprayed on the plants. Some of the pesticide rubs off on their hands, gets into their eyes. They complain of skin problems, nausea, giddiness. Yet, this work is not considered hazardous for young children like Tabassum.

Even as the government introduces new laws aimed at children's welfare, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to look at all these laws together, iron out the contradictions and find ways to make their implementation more rigorous and effective.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Egyptian voices

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 6, 2011

Far from being ‘stable', Egypt is a country of multiple fissures as the current uprising shows…

The world has been transfixed by the developments in Egypt. Out of nothing, it seemed, an uprising of unbelievable proportions has emerged. Women and men, young and old, rich and poor, have all been heard saying the same thing — we want an end to three decades of repression, we want a change. It is as if the steam has been let off from a pressure cooker. There is clearly no going back.

Much of the world saw Egypt as a ‘stable' country in West Asia. For Western nations, it was their most faithful ally. But for Egyptians, the story has been vastly different. For them, Egypt's real face was that of increasing poverty and disparity, of unaccounted riches by the few, of the denial of human rights, of police brutality.
At the time of writing (February 1), it was unclear how this will end. Can this apparently leaderless upsurge lead to a peaceful change? Will the people who lead be able to meet the heightened expectations of millions of people in this most populous Arab country?

Change is here

Whatever the final outcome, the events beginning January 25 have forced the world to look again at Egypt and at Egyptians. We cannot fail to notice the fearlessness of men, as well as women. Within what appears to be a sea of men, you see the women, old and young, conservative and modern — and fearless. Yes, the women are there, but sometimes you have to look closely. One of the most striking images doing the rounds on the Internet is that of an elderly woman kissing a rather startled policeman, dressed in full riot gear.

Egyptian women are as vociferous and as articulate as the men even if the media sometimes fails to make the effort to seek out their voices. Thanks to the Internet, we have heard the voices of so many women in the last week, voices that spoke out strongly against emergency laws, against police brutality. These women were not afraid to state their names nor did they mince words.

Truthful portrayal

An Egyptian woman who first gave me an idea of the real situation within Egypt was the remarkable writer, Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi. Her book Woman at Point Zero, about Firdaus, a woman condemned to death for having killed her pimp, is one of the most gripping and moving books I have read. Dr. Sadaawi, a professional psychiatrist, met Firdaus in the notorious Qanatir Women's Prison in the mid-1970s. She narrates Firdaus' story of violence and abuse. But the book also gives us an insight into the life of millions of Egyptians, particularly women, living in conservative rural societies.

Less than a decade later, Dr. Sadaawi was incarcerated in the same prison for her political views and her trenchant opposition to the treatment of women, especially the practice of female genital mutilation. Such criticism was deemed a ‘crime against the State' and over one thousand intellectuals like Dr. Sadaawi were thrown into prison by the government of Anwar Sadat in September 1981. Her experiences in prison are captured in Memoirs from the Women's Prison, which she wrote on the basis of notes written with the help of a “stubby black eyebrow pencil” and “a small roll of old and tattered toilet paper”.

After her release from prison, she wrote: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”

The repression did not end when Sadat was shot and the present incumbent, Hosni Mubarak took over. Women like Dr. Sadaawi have continued to face problems from the State and from conservative elements, some of whom have functioned under State protection. At one point Dr. Sadaawi chose to leave Egypt and live in exile. Even after she returned, the attacks on her continued.

Looking at the life of just one person like Nawal El Sadaawi gives us an idea of life in Egypt for people who question, who speak out. In fact, the women of Egypt have a long tradition of resistance. They were equal partners with the men who fought against colonial rule. There are newspaper reports from 1919, when Egypt faced political turmoil, that sound almost as if they are describing the scenes on the streets of Cairo — of women of all classes coming out to demonstrate against British rule.

Yet, as Nemat Guenena and Nadia Wassef write in their monograph, Unfulfilled Promises, Women's Rights in Egypt (published by the Population Council, 1999), “it has been noted that women's liberation has never come to assume the primacy of political or economic liberation. Women's particular concerns have been, and continue to be, subordinate to those of society, the nation, and development. Also, Egyptian men like their counterparts in the West have resisted the process of redefining gender roles and allowing women more equality.” Sounds familiar, does it not?

Token gestures

In many ways, Egypt represents the typical contradiction seen in many countries where governments accommodate some changes but essentially deny people the right to question. Thus, some progressive changes were made in laws that affect women, but many more were denied. And statistics, such as the gap between male and female literacy, the increasing incidence of violence against women, the continued practice of female genital mutilation that continues to have cultural acceptance, high maternal mortality and low political participation — only eight out of 454 seats in the current Parliament are occupied by women — reveal the real status of women.

At the moment, the specific concerns of women, or of the poor, will be subsumed under the over-arching demand for a regime change. But in the end, whatever the shape and form of a new government, these basic issues will have to be addressed. One can only hope that the voices of the courageous women and men that are being heard around the world today will not be muzzled.

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