Monday, July 25, 2011

Wounded Mumbai

Economic & Political Weekly, July 23, 2011

A city bleeds. Three bombs rip apart some of its many congested localities. Twenty people die, 131 are injured. And the residents of that city collectively ask: Why? Why here? Why now? Why us?

The 13 July serial blasts in Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar, Opera House and Dadar were not the first. The city has a list of significant “terror” dates: 1993, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2008 and now 2011. The 13 July blasts were not as devastating as the previous ones. Many more were killed in the serial blasts that ripped through the city’s “lifeline”, its commuter trains, on 11 July 2006 and even more on 12 March 1993. Yet each time terror strikes Mumbai, people still ask the same question. Why?

The answer to that question is neither simple nor obvious. It has been hovering in the air for decades. It is rooted in the city’s history, its trajectory of maldevelopment and its politics. Yet, the relevant question
is not “why” but “what”, what terms like “terror” and “security” actually mean for Mumbai’s residents.

The first terror strike took place on 12 March 1993 when 13 huge  RDX-laden explosions shook the city from its southern tip in Nariman Point to the Santa Cruz airport in the north. Hundreds were injured, 257 people died.

On 13 March, the city got back to work – much as it did on 14 July 2011. But something changed then. And Mumbai has never been the same again. The 1993 serial bombings sent out a clear message. They came within weeks of the end of the worst communal riots Mumbai had ever seen, the post Babri masjid conflagration that stretched from the night of 6 December 1992 right up to the end of January 1993. The majority of those killed were Muslims. The serial blasts sent out a message – that the victims of the targeted killing would not sit back and accept their fate.

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

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Insurmountable hurdle

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 23, 2011

Not wanted Bad news yet again from the Census 2011. Photo: K. Murali Kumar
The HinduNot wanted Bad news yet again from the Census 2011. Photo: K. Murali Kumar
As the declining sex ratio from Census 2011 shows, merely having laws against sex selective abortion is not enough. Fighting entrenched social attitudes is a much tougher call…
Three cheers for Japanese women. Their soccer team beat the powerful U.S. team and won the FIFA Women's World Cup. Indeed, in a week with much gloom, this was the one cheerful piece of news. Even more to celebrate was the fact that women's sports is finally making headlines, and is not relegated to a single column at the bottom of the page.
But the bad news from Census 2011 about women is relentless. Once again, as provisional data is released on the 2011 Census, and we know now, for instance, that India is becoming increasingly urban, we are also getting confirmation that India is increasingly male. We were warned in 2001 that the situation was alarming; in 2011 that adjective appears an understatement.
Persistent problem
India's declining sex ratio is a subject one has to revisit repeatedly. No matter how often you think about it, or write about, it is difficult to come up with a straightforward or simple solution to the situation we face in India: Where girls are simply not wanted. They can excel in sport, in studies, in jobs, as politicians, as bureaucrats, as writers, as engineers. But none of that changes the attitude of the couple on the verge of parenthood — who long for a boy and grieve if a girl is born.
Now, in addition to the usual breast-beating about this appalling situation, we have people suggesting that access to abortion should be restricted. In Maharashtra, where the 0-6 years sex ratio has seen a precipitous decline, suggestions are flying around of restricting access in different ways. For instance, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation has made it compulsory for all radiologists and gynaecologists to post details of their work online. That might prove a salutary step. But in addition, they must get clearance from the municipality before they perform an abortion. How adding a layer of bureaucracy to the process will check the misuse of abortion facilities for sex-selective abortions beats comprehension.
India's abortion laws are considered to be progressive because they recognise the right of women to have access to safe abortion. The importance of safe abortion cannot be emphasised enough. India has the highest number of unsafe abortions in the world and an estimated 56 per cent or more than half the recorded abortions that take place, are under unsafe conditions. As a result, 15 to 20 per cent of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions. India's maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. So women who need to undergo an abortion for a variety of reasons including rape, or contraceptive failure when they are not ready for another child, should have legal, safe and clean facilities for the procedure.
Unfortunately, even what exists by way of public facilities is grossly inadequate. According to studies on abortion in India, only 25 per cent of abortion facilities are in the government sector. Studies have also revealed that as little as six per cent of all primary health centres have abortion facilities. This means women living in rural areas have no option but to turn to private practitioners, of whom many resort to unsafe procedures.
In cities, health facilities are better. But the people who misuse legalised abortion for sex selection rarely use government facilities. They can afford the private practitioners who ask no questions and charge a hefty fee.
Not a solution
So restricting abortion facilities will affect poor women, already burdened with inadequate health facilities; while those with money, who also seem to have decided they do not want girls, will continue as before.
The dilemma is a real one. Since 2001, when the first shock of the extent of the decline in the sex ratio hit home, there have been many discussions about the problem. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 2003 has been tightened. Despite that, there have only been a small number of convictions; out of 800 cases in 17 states, only 55 convictions. Clearly the law is not being implemented the way it should be.
But even if it were strictly enforced, would there be a difference? Indians are notoriously proficient in bypassing even the best-made laws. If they want to do something, they find a way of doing it.
To give you a simple example of how difficult it is to get people to obey a law. In most states, it is compulsory to wear helmets if you drive a motorbike or scooter. The law has been made for the safety of those who ride these machines, people who should know that the law is in their best interests. Yet, in city after city, you will see people risking their lives and finding ways to evade being caught rather than wearing helmets, or quickly putting them on just before they see a policeman. In fact, there is an advertisement on television these days showing a young man finding an ingenious way to side-step the rule when he sees a cop on the horizon; he puts on a hollowed-out watermelon on his head in place of his non-existent helmet. And the ad is supposed to be light-hearted and funny.
Perhaps this example is not a direct parallel to the ways in which the PC&PNDT Act has failed to make a difference. But it illustrates an approach towards law that makes implementation of any law an even greater challenge in India. When that law meets entrenched social attitudes, the hurdle appears almost insurmountable.
So the dilemma before us is how we get people to actually not resort to sex selection and sex selective abortions. One way is to keep the issue alive in the media, to provoke debates on this in colleges, and to constantly remind people that a country progresses if all its people are secure, if all feel they have rights, and not if one half of the population is made to feel so unwelcome that you ensure that they are never born.
(To read the original, click on the link above)

Friday, July 15, 2011

No lessons learned

When television voyeurs enter hospitals, apart from the assault on the privacy of injured people, people stomping around emergency wards obstructs the work of doctors and nurses. As responsible individuals, surely it is not too much to expect from mediapersons that they recognize this. Yet, it is amazing how the feeding frenzy after a disaster knocks out all common sense, says KALPANA SHARMA
Posted/Updated Friday, July 15 11:10:14, 2011

Second Take
Kalpana Sharma
The government has learned some lessons from its handling of previous bomb blasts. Or so we were repeatedly told by television news channels during their blanket coverage of the three serial bomb blasts that hit south and central Mumbai on July 13, killing 18 people and injuring 131. But the question that needs to be asked after watching the news coverage is: have our TV news channels learned any lessons from coverage of previous blasts? Apparently not.
Within minutes of the serial blasts, the Home Ministry in Delhi apparently confirmed that it was a ‘terror attack’. This led to an almost instant frenzy of speculation: what kind of bomb, whose signature did it have and who was responsible. A little over an hour after the first reports appeared on the channels, Headlines Today was already claiming that the Indian Mujahideen could be responsible for it. Other channels were only a little more circumspect. While they aired statements by Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik saying repeatedly that it was too early to say who was responsible and that he would not speculate, their anchors continued to ask leading questions and to do precisely that: speculate.
And even before the first bits of forensic evidence that would indicate the nature of the bombs planted in the three locations had been collected, the guesswork about the bombs had begun on the news channels. Was it a crude bomb? Was RDX used? Was it an IED? 
This clearly was not enough to fill the time. So TV crews were dispatched to the hospitals where the injured had been taken. After previous such incidents, there had been considerable discussion within the media about the use of gory pictures depicting the injured, or dead, individuals. This time again, the camera’s lens sought, and telecast, the most intrusive shots of people who were in no condition to object.
Amongst the English news channels that I watched, Headlines Today was the worst. It telecast scenes from the hospitals where people were being taken for treatment. No effort was made to mask the individual’s face or his naked body as doctors and nurses were shown treating the person. How can hospitals allow such intrusion and how can television channels justify such an invasion of the privacy of an injured person? Was this done because these were nameless, ordinary citizens and not the rich and the famous? Would anyone have dared to do the same if a well-known person had been injured?
After the August 2003 twin blasts at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazar, the Dean of J.J. Hospital, where many of the wounded had been taken, had put a blanket ban on all television channels entering the wards. Only after some persuasion did he allow some of us print journalists to go in, but without photographers. This time, it was obvious that the hospital authorities did not take quick enough action to stop television voyeurs from entering the hospital. 
Apart from the atrocious and unacceptable assault on the privacy of injured people, the fact of so many people stomping around emergency wards obstructs the work of doctors and nurses. As responsible individuals, surely this is not too much to expect from the men and women of the media. Yet, it is amazing how the feeding frenzy after a disaster knocks out all common sense.
No, the news media never seems to learn. Well-known documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma had this to say during a discussion on Facebook following these blasts: “On 7/7 I was out filming. Post 26/11, I was out filming again from the 29th onwards. It was horrifying to see TV crews shooting on the streets of my city both during and after -- the sheer theatrics, the uncouth, insensitive questions, shoving people, trying to get that dramatic frame or sound bite. I wasn’t the only one repulsed. So widespread was the revulsion that four days later, many victims or their families just refused to speak to any TV crews! In fact, for the first time in my work life, I was welcomed into homes and hospital wards only because I said -- we're not TV; we are documentary film-makers! And really for the first time, I didn’t need to explain what a documentary is and no one asked which channel will it be shown on...”
On the morning after, once again the government came in for some praise, at least for its media management. Apart from the regular briefings by Home Minister P. Chidambaram on the previous night, there was a televised press conference addressed by him and the Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan the next morning. Unlike previous occasions, the government seemed to have understood the importance of being accessible to the media. Yet, despite Chidambaram pleading with the media not to speculate and to give investigating agencies time to arrive at some conclusions about who was responsible for the attacks, several channels had begun their own scenario building in real earnest.
Once again, Headlines Today trounced the others. It had named Pakistan the night before and continued to do so the next day. It invited two former RAW officials to give their views, Jaydev Ranade and Col. R.S.N Singh. Both spoke of the need for “pre-emptive intelligence” but Singh went further when he said India needed to “strike the heart that breeds such terrorists”. Not hard to guess which country he had in mind as he continued about the “proxy war”. Are these television guests handpicked to say what the channel wants its viewers to hear?
What stood out as different about the coverage of these blasts – as compared to the serial blasts on Mumbai’s suburban trains in July 2006 – was the role of ordinary citizens in providing visuals to the channels. Several channels were able to telecast images of the bombs going off thanks to cell phone users capturing the moment on their phones. Yet the dangers of using such footage without whetting were evident when shots of the body of a woman appeared in the initial telecasts. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and that image was smudged in subsequent telecasts.
Twitter and other social networking mediums also apparently played a role in conveying information, channeling offers for help and appealing to people to stay calm. This too is a new development as of the last couple of years. The Internet did help Mumbai’s beleaguered citizens during the downpour and floods of July 2005 but cell phone images and Twitter feeds are an advance on that.

Finally, this might sound like a pet peeve, but I still cannot understand why Delhi-based anchors of television news channels cannot get the pronunciation of names of places right. Zaveri bazaar has been distorted to ‘Zaaaveri’ bazaar, and that too after their own correspondents on the spot are saying it as it should be said: ‘Zaveri’ with a soft ‘a’.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Unjust trials

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 10, 2011

Structural inequalities... Photo: AFP

                                                        Structural inequalities... Photo: AFP

The Strauss-Kahn case illustrates once again the serious obstacles that women around the world face in getting justice.
For the first time, a woman now heads the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and also for the first time, Thailand has a woman Prime Minister. Women are making news all the time — either because they have done something no other woman has done before or because they are caught in the net of unfriendly judicial systems like millions of their counterparts around the world. Women like the hotel maid in New York who accused the powerful former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault.
This high profile case is now close to collapse. As in so many lesser-known cases around the world, the woman's credibility is being questioned rather than the man's character. Instead of the evidence being used to indict the man, the woman's past record of inconsistency is being used to prove her a liar. And because she is supposed to have lied in the past, there is a presumption that she might be doing so again. Yet, although the man has been accused of similar behaviour in the past, it is not being presumed that he could have behaved the same way again. Instead, he is being given the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because he is powerful and the woman is not.
Much will be written about this case in the weeks and months to come but what it draws attention to is the justice system in all our countries and how it works, or rather does not work, for women. It is significant that in its very first report on “Progress of the World's Women 2011-12” brought out by the newly established UN Women, the theme is, “In pursuit of justice”.
For better justice
The report looks at how justice systems can be made to work for women and sets out examples and suggestions. From the data it puts forth, it is evident that in many countries there are serious obstacles in the way of women getting justice.
Where laws have been changed — such as the introduction of a particular law on domestic violence — a difference has been noted. More cases are reported as women understand they need not be silent and bear abuse. Yet, attitudes do not change overnight when such laws are introduced. For instance, according to the report, in 17 out of 41 countries surveyed, a quarter or more of the respondents thought it was perfectly alright for a man to beat his wife. So between this attitude, and a law against domestic violence, lies the challenge of implementation. And it is here that an indifferent judicial system often fails women.
“All over the world,” notes the report, “the justice chain is characterised by high levels of attrition, whereby most cases drop out of the justice system before they reach court and very few result in a conviction. Attrition is a particular problem in rape cases.” Even in European countries, where you would imagine that this would not be the case, the picture is not that different. “A 2009 study of European countries found that, on average, 14 per cent of reported rapes ended in a conviction, with rates falling as low as five per cent.”
Accessing the justice system is not a simple matter. It starts with reporting a case to the police but then is followed by investigation, legal help, facing the court, and the wait for justice. Most women do not have either the resilience or the support system to fight till the end. The majority gives up at the very first stage, which is at the point of reporting.
In many countries, especially developing countries, even if laws have been enacted that should aid women, the police are not trained to be sensitive to women, or in some places simply do not have the resources. In Uganda, for instance, if a woman goes to the police and reports domestic violence, she is asked to pay for the transport to arrest the suspect! In Cambodia, rape victims are asked to pay for the forensic tests, an amount that is equivalent to what they would earn in two weeks.
Leading the way
Several countries have pioneered solutions to this by providing integrated services. South Africa has a pioneered the Thuthuzela or “comfort” centres located in public hospitals. Here a survivor of sexual assault is given medical help and legal advice and has social workers, doctors and police on call for 24 hours. This has made a marked difference to rates of reporting and conviction. From an average of two years for a trial, the average is now down to seven and a half months and the conviction rate has gone up to 89 per cent.
The UN report makes a strong case for employing more women in the justice system so that the entire process is more sensitive to women's needs. One example of the positive impact of this is the 130-strong Indian women's police contingent in post-conflict Liberia. Reporting of gender-based violence increased because of the presence of these women, states the report.
Yet, worldwide, women make up not more than 13 per cent of the police force and only 27 per cent of judges around the world are women. The report argues that even if gender-sensitive training were imparted to everyone in the system, the presence of more women would make a material difference to the lives of the women seeking justice.
The complex justice systems in all our countries cannot be reduced to a few simple solutions. There are several simultaneous areas that need to be tackled. But sometimes the simplest solutions can make a maximum difference. The South African example, of one-stop shops to deal with sexual violence, is one such step that has already shown results. It does not require the creation of additional institutions. It means using those that already exist, such as public hospitals, and evolving systems that respond to women's needs instead of exacerbating their burdens.
Women's progress can be measured in many ways. The media usually cites the ‘success' stories — of the women who have ‘ made it' to the top in different fields. These are indicators no doubt. But the real measure of women's progress lies in the ability of our societies to deliver justice. And on this measure most countries, rich and poor, fall short.
(To read the original, click on the link above)