Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Where have all the girls gone?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 17, 2011


Does economic development only reinforce regressive values? How else can one explain the phenomenon of disappearing girls in modern India?
Photo: V. Sudershan 

Will laws alone help?

India's Cricket World Cup victory followed by Anna Hazare's indefinite fast on the Lokpal Bill virtually knocked out of the news arena some really bad news. Just days before all these media-grabbing events, the Census office released preliminary figures for 2011. The most shocking of them is that in the 0-6 year age group, the number of girls to every 1,000 boys is just 914, even lower than the 927 of the 2001 census.

How has this happened even as the adult sex ratio has gradually crept up from 933 women to 1000 men in 2001 to 940 women to 1000 men today? Why has this happened even as women's literacy rate has gone up and the gap between male and female literacy rates has shrunk? Why has this happened even when there are laws in place to ensure that sex-selection does not lead to the elimination of girls?

Perhaps a coincidence, but just a few days after the disturbing census results were made public, a group of activists met in Mumbai to mark 25 years since they launched a campaign against the use of medical technology for sex detection and selection. Their campaign had culminated in the first law against sex-selective abortions being passed by the Maharashtra government on January 1, 1987.

Misuse of technology

In those days, the popular method of sex detection was amniocentesis. It was an invasive procedure involving amniotic fluid being extracted from the womb for testing. The technology had been devised to detect foetal abnormality. Instead, in India it began to be used to detect the sex of the foetus. Women risked an abortion if the test confirmed a female foetus even if they got to know at a later stage of pregnancy.

In the absence of a law or any restraining regulation, those conducting these tests were openly advertising them. Advertisements like “Better 500 now than 50,000 later” were common, suggesting that Rs. 500 on a test to confirm the foetus today was better than spending many times more for a dowry later.

There are several aspects of how this first legislation came about that are pertinent in the context of the recently-concluded agitation by Anna Hazare and his supporters for a Jan Lokpal Bill to check corruption. The Maharashtra law banning sex selection came about through a push from below by the activists and a response from above. The activists tried to gather together as much evidence and data that they could about something that was just below the surface. It was virtually impossible to prove as neither the mother, nor the doctor, would admit that the test had been used for such a purpose. Ironically, they had stumbled upon this issue when a multinational company, concerned about the mounting medical claims from its women employees who had sought abortion, asked women activists to speak to them.

Through a variety of techniques, including sending in decoys to doctors suspected of conducting such tests, the activists assembled some proof. They were lucky to find at least one sympathetic senior bureaucrat, the Maharashtra Health Secretary. Without any dharnas or fasts and little media coverage – there were no private TV channels those days – the government and activists spoke to each other, argued over the provisions in the Bill and ensured that it was finally passed. That law was the precursor to the central law banning sex-determination tests passed in 1994 and amended in 2003 – the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex-selection) Act 2003.


Even after the 1994 Central Act was passed, the activists were not happy. They pointed out that not a single doctor had been convicted under the Act. Also the law made women who undertook the test culpable for the crime. Furthermore, sex pre-selection techniques did not come under the ambit of the Act. After advocacy and dialogue had failed to get the law amended, the activists turned to the courts and presented their case. It was at the intervention of the Supreme Court that the government was compelled to amend the law to make it more watertight.

But given the latest Census figures, it is evident that the law even today is not strong enough. So the question that must be asked is whether making it any stronger will make a difference if the mindset of families remains firmly set against girls. Can laws really deal with what is essentially a social problem in India?

The other question that needs to be raised and discussed is whether high economic growth and women's status in society are necessarily linked. As India becomes economically stronger, will the value and worth of its women also become higher? In 2001, this was disproved as the lowest sex ratios existed in districts that were the most prosperous.

Today, there is an additional and more worrying phenomenon. Like a virus, the declining child sex ratio is spreading to districts that till now had not been affected. More research will reveal why this has happened but could this be one of the negative fallouts of economic growth?

For, has increased prosperity actually resulted in easier access to technology that assists sex selection? Sonography, the technology currently most popular in sex selection, does not come free although it is far cheaper today than when first introduced. Portable sonography machines can be loaded in the back of a car and taken to even smaller towns or larger villages. But even this would not have made a difference had there been no demand for the technology. That a growing demand exists is evident from the census figures.

Getting more conservative?

Also, is the availability of more money actually having the opposite effect? Is it reinforcing regressive attitudes? Instead of bringing in more enlightened and liberal attitudes, is it making people more conservative, getting them to hold on to beliefs that should find no place in a modern India? How else can one explain the story of India's disappearing girls?

Apart from the law, a great deal of work has been done to create awareness about the value of the girl child. There have been campaigns; state governments offer incentives for girls' education, and even the media and the advertising fraternity has been sensitised to the issue.

But all this seems to be of no avail. So while India shines on the cricket field and in other arenas, the darker, uglier side of our society continues to stare us in the face.

Dealing with this is at least as challenging as rooting out corruption. But will people come out and demonstrate for what someone called this ‘invisible constituency'?

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

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where have all the young girls gone?

I will be writing more on this subject -- of the disappearing Indian girls -- but here's a short comment I did for The Guardian.  It is written for a non-Indian audience and I was also constrained by the word length, only 600 words.  But I have tried to convey the conundrum.  Here's the link:


Saturday, April 09, 2011

Anna Hazare's fast

Anna Hazare's indefinite fast, that ended this morning, with the government agreeing to a joint committee of government and civil society to finalise the contents of a Lokpal Bill, brings up many issues that we need to think about and debate.

Our news channels provided little opportunity for that kind of debate as they went overboard projecting the protests as larger than they actually were.  Some even went to the extent of comparing Jantar Mantar to Cairo's Tahrir Square!

The protestors were no doubt sincere.  It is evident that they were fed-up with scams and corruption.  But the problem since the 26/11 demonstrations largely by urban middle class people is that they have simplified all problems to singular solutions -- and most of these solutions hinge on a hatred of politics and politicians.

Surely, this cannot work in a democracy like ours.  Also, those organising or leading these demonstrations, whether for greater security, or against corruption, must articulate clearly how these issues can be tackled.  Can the endemic corruption in the Indian system be sorted simply by creating another centralised institution?  And are all in civil society, even if they have won international or national award, competent, or even desirable, as people who will sit as judge and jury on issues relating to corruption?

These are questions that should be debated through the media.  Instead, the media has simply jumped on the middle-class bandwagon, celebrating the outcry against corruption which can so easily be drummed up in a country like ours.

Here's the link to a short comment I wrote for the BBC:


And here's another link to an interesting and thoughtful article by Shuddhabrata Sengupta on the website Kafila:


Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Match fixation

Kalpana Sharma
As newspaper interviews go, this must stand out as one of the most amazing. Gautam Gambhir, who has come in for much praise for his performance during the recently concluded ICC World Cup, thinks the population of India is 100 million and the interviewer, from Hindustan Times, does nothing to correct him. Instead he repeats the figure in the follow up question!
So is this illiteracy compounded by bad journalism and impossibly poor editing? Or are we expecting too much from Gambhir, from a sports reporter who is not expected to know the population of India any more than Gambhir, or from Hindustan Times that runs this interview? (Click here to read the interview)
There is more to follow and cricket and non-cricket lovers must read the entire interview. Gambhir says that the win against Pakistan followed by a win in the final (the interview was given before the final) should be dedicated to the victims of 26/11. Asked if that would soothe their pain, here is what he has to say:
“I am sure the win against Pakistan would have helped. Once on a trip to Jammu, I met some army men. They told me whatever we do, whoever we play; we should never lose to Pakistan. One of them was posted at the Indo-Pak border and was so emotional that he suggested that I should have a tattoo on my body saying, ‘I will never lose to Pakistan’.”
And then, when asked whether he had such a tattoo, he says:
“No, it's not on my body but is etched on my heart and soul.”
A senior sports journalist, who has followed Gambhir’s career over many years, assures me that the cricketer rarely makes such statements and is usually very balanced in his responses, especially on Indo-Pak cricket. So what happened when he spoke to Dinesh Chopra, who did the interview for ESPN’s Sportcenter, the transcript of which was reproduced in Hindustan Times.
Hyper-nationalism has now become an accepted part of the script during every international cricket fixture where Pakistan is one of the teams playing. Everything revolves around whether and when India and Pakistan will meet and the media on both sides of the border appears to keep its best arrows and bullets for that fixture. It has become such a routine that even in the atrociousness of some of the excesses, it fails to surprise anyone.
But the hyper-nationalism aside, the World Cup has provided entertainment and endless quantities of reports and comment for those who obsess over cricket. For those less interested in the game, it has demanded patience and humour to survive the 35 days until life can revert to some form of normalcy – until the next round of cricket madness begins, the Indian Premier League.
But one thing does stand out increasingly in the coverage of all sport, and most particularly cricket. The merging of sports and Bollywood. You cannot now have a cricket match without a Bollywood star in the stands and the cameras focusing on him or her. Any discussion on a match, and especially the final, must have the mandatory film star – Randhir Kapoor on NDTV the night after the victory who mumbled a few expected lines but had nothing much to add or Amitabh Bachchan’s over-the-top tweet, “Its like we just won our Independence!! Incredible!! Incredible!!” Or cameras focusing repeatedly on Aamir Khan, now sporting a prominent moustache, during the semi-final and final, who was there by virtue of having made a film in which cricket played a prominent role, “Lagaan”. 
More than print or television, some of the more interesting and innovative comments were on the web. Cricinfo, for instance, did a couple of interesting experiments. They got an Indian editor and a Pakistani editor to write why they thought the other team had a better chance at the semi-final. They had a conversation between a veteran Indian cricketer, Sanjay Manjrekar and a veteran Pakistani, Rameez Raja, on Indo-Pak cricket. And the comment section on the site gave you an idea of the feelings cross-border on the match. 
But a web comment that I thought summed up the Indian spectator during the World Cup was a poem written by Sudipto Mondal (I don’t love India but I love cricket). It is an apt comment on the often unsporting attitude of the Indian spectator during matches where only the skill of Indian cricketers is appreciated while that of the opponent is met with a deafening silence. This hardly reflects a real love for the sport. It also symbolizes how nationalism has over-ruled commonsense and appreciation for skill and sportsmanship.
 (To read the original, click on the link above)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

If mothers and wives were paid

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 3, 2011


With the burden of domestic work on their shoulders, women spend more time doing unpaid work than men around the world…
Photo: H. Vibhu 

Unrecognised contribution to the economy...

It would be fascinating if someone were to calculate the number of person-hours lost on the days that India played a crucial match during the just-concluded World Cup Cricket series. And especially on March 30, the day of the not-to-be-missed India-Pakistan semi-final at Mohali.

Of course, even if we were to undertake such an exercise, we would only look at those with jobs in the formal sector, who get monthly salaries and various benefits. But millions of Indians, the majority, work in the informal sector, with no job security, living each day as if it was the first and the last. For them, missing a day at work, whether for a match, or for illness, is simply not an option.

All in a day's work

The same goes for millions of women in this country who do unpaid work. Match or no match, most women will have to cook and feed their families, clean their homes, wash the clothes and look after children and elders. Such work has never been given a monetary value. No one knows what they contribute as they do a range of unpaid work — from household chores in the home, to strenuous work in agricultural fields, to helping out in small businesses, to home-based work (that is not always paid), to helping out in a variety of tasks that they are expected to do only because they are women. Only in a few countries has a monetary value been placed on such unpaid work.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has recently come out with an important study that looks precisely at this issue: women's unpaid work. Titled “Cooking, caring and volunteering: Unpaid work around the world”, the report by Veerle Miranda looks at the amount of time women spend on unpaid work as compared to men.
Miranda found that in each of the countries studied, 26 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and three emerging economies, India, China and South Africa, women spend more time doing unpaid work than men. This is not surprising given that in practically all societies, women are expected to bear the maximum burden of domestic work with men helping out if and when they can. This holds true even in households where women go out of the house for paid work. Yet at the end of the working day, when both the man and the woman return home, it is the woman who is automatically expected to do the household chores.

A current TV advertisement for hot meals served on a low-cost airline sums this up rather well. It shows a housewife, obviously exhausted, preparing a hot meal for her husband who returns from a late flight. He takes it for granted that the meal will be waiting for him. There is nothing in the ad to indicate what the woman's day was like but given the way she thumps the plate down in front of the husband, one can well imagine. It would never have occurred to the man to figure out a way of relieving his wife of this particular chore.

Huge differences

The ILO study found a range of difference in the amount of time women in the different countries spent on unpaid work as compared to men. For instance, women in India, Mexico and Turkey spent 4.3 to 5 hours more than men on unpaid work as compared to a difference of just one hour between women and men in the Nordic countries. And while the women cooked, cleaned and fed the children, Indian fathers, husbands and sons spent time sleeping, eating, talking to friends, watching television and relaxing.

Apart from the gender difference in time spent, the value of such unpaid work was not factored into economic calculations that assess a country's development. Miranda concludes, “Our calculations suggest that between one-third and half of all valuable economic activity in OECD countries is not accounted for in the traditional measure of well-being, such as GDP per capita.”

To many, this would appear to be a non-issue given the gravity of issues that women face in terms of violence, inside and outside the home, many forms of discrimination, sexual harassment and assault etc. Yet, there is a good reason for assessing the extent of unpaid work women do, the gender gap between women and men on this count, and the value of their labour.

Quantifying the value

In fact as far back as 1985, women's groups advocated assessing the value of unpaid work. At the Third World Conference of Women in Nairobi that year, it was recommended that the value of household goods and services be included in a country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP): “Concrete steps should be taken to quantify the unremunerated contribution of women to agriculture, food production, reproduction and household activities.”

Another strong reason for putting a value to such work is that it makes us value better those who do such work for money — domestic helps. In India, such women — and they are mostly women — are grossly underpaid. There is no standard set for the amount they should be paid for the kind of work they are expected to do. What is even more disappointing is that women, who earn well in the formal sector, and who realise that they are better equipped to concentrate on their careers because they have such paid domestic help, also do not put a high enough value on this work. If unpaid work was given a voluntary value, all such women could benefit.

Gender assumptions

Ultimately, the issue is not the amount of time spent on unpaid work, or whether women should be paid for such work, but the expectation that they will do it unquestioningly and for all time to come. Surely, with so much changing around us, this is yet another arena where gender roles must be questioned, where the drudgery and burden of household work must be shared by men and women, and where those who work silently to hold up millions of homes around the world should be given the recognition and appreciation that they deserve.

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