Sunday, June 24, 2012

No space for women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 24, 2012

Big hit: A ladies-only bus. Photo: Vipin Chandran
Big hit: A ladies-only bus. Photo: Vipin Chandran

Looks, they say, can be deceptive. At first glance, Kerala’s capital city, Thiruvanananthapuram, is not just incredibly green and beautiful but also clean. The latter, in particular, seems a singular achievement given the monuments of uncleared garbage that mark practically all cities, big and small, in India. Yet, open a local newspaper and you read about malaria and dengue, hospitals spilling over with cases and politicians almost coming to blows over the garbage crisis. “So where is the garbage?” I ask the taxi driver. “It is dumped on the inside roads”, he informs me, so that casual visitors like me will not see the ugly sight.

The garbage crisis in Thiruvananthapuram has reached epic proportions. In a state where there is little uninhabited space, creating dumpsites for urban waste has become a challenge. People living in villages such as Vilappinshala near the state capital are refusing to allow dumps or waste processing plants to come up in their vicinity. Not in my backyard, they are saying. So whose backyard will handle the increasing tonnage of urban waste? That is a question that all cities will need to ask — and resolve.

But just as Thiruvananthapuram’s surface cleanliness hides the true story of uncleared garbage and the spread of disease, the experience of women in Kerala also stands out in marked contrast to the popular myth about their status.

We all know that there are more women in Kerala than men — an exception in a country where girls are being eliminated before they are born. We also know that women in Kerala are more educated, have longer life expectancy, and get married later than women in the rest of India. Yet, ask them whether they feel safe, and they will tell you a story that speaks of disempowerment, of helplessness, of anger.

Sakhi, a women’s resource centre, and several other women’s groups set out to survey women’s perception of safety in public spaces in four cities in the state — Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Kochi and Thrissur. Their findings blow the lid off the myth about the power of women in Kerala.
The overwhelming majority of women surveyed in these four cities said that sexual harassment was their main safety concern. They routinely experienced verbal and physical harassment. Buses that the majority of working women are forced to use were a primary site for such harassment. Women passengers were groped, pinched, leaned upon. Apart from male passengers, even the conductors took their chances.

Girl students in particular had a torrid time. One student reported how someone who stood behind her sliced her dress from top to bottom with a sharp instrument. Another spoke of the abusive language used by bus conductors. Other women talked of being leaned upon, about men “accidentally” falling on them when the bus took a turn, of men using every opportunity to touch parts of their bodies.
Auto-rickshaws were not a particularly happy alternative as auto drivers would refuse women a ride much of the time and especially in the evenings when they most needed it. In any case, most women said they did not feel safe venturing out after dark.

While women in many cities have to suffer this kind of daily assault, what was striking was how most women felt unsafe in public parks, beaches, theatres and even standing at ticket counters. Cities like Thiruvananthapuram have beautiful parks that would be the envy of people in cities like Mumbai where we are starved for open spaces. Yet, in the verdant surroundings of Kanakakunnu Palace in the state capital, you rarely see women, or even groups of women. Men accompany the few that come there. My friends tell me that if a group of women decide to break the norm, they will be stared at as if they are entering forbidden territory.
Absence of infrastructure

Apart from the sexual harassment, for women the question of safety was also linked to the infrastructure in these cities. For instance, the majority of women complained about the complete absence of clean and safe public toilets. The few toilets available were filthy and almost routinely used by men. The approach to such public toilets was such that women would feel afraid to go anywhere near them.

Poorly lit roads, uneven pavements, open drain covers — everything that makes the public space difficult for the elderly, for children, for the disabled also impacts women’s sense of safety. Here is an important lesson for urban planners. Make cities safe for women and the most vulnerable and they will be safe for everyone.

Ironically, even the women conducting this safety audit were harassed, stared at, touched, hit and followed. They also found it difficult to persuade women to speak about being harassed because of the dominant perception that only “bad women” get sexually harassed. Hence, the women being surveyed felt that if they admitted to being harassed, they would be considered “bad women”!

How women are treated in the public space provides a true reflection of women’s status and how they are valued by society. You can educate women, give them health care and give them jobs. But if they cannot step out of their homes and offices without the fear of being assaulted for no other reason than their gender, then clearly there is something very wrong. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Taking the stink out of city sanitation

The Hindu, Op-Ed page, June 7, 2012

A scene from Dharavi. In cities like Mumbai, not much attention is paid to the immediate needs of slums designated for redevelopment at some future date. As a result, you have toilets that are nowhere near enough for the colony, yet new toilets will not be built. Photo: SHASHI ASHIWAL
A scene from Dharavi. In cities like Mumbai, not much attention is paid to the immediate needs of slums designated for redevelopment at some future date. As a result, you have toilets that are nowhere near enough for the colony, yet new toilets will not be built. Photo: SHASHI ASHIWAL

Providing the urban poor with toilets that work must become a priority for Indian policymakers

In South Mumbai's upscale Malabar Hill, a neighbourhood of 6,000 people share 52 toilets, 26 for men and 26 for women. That works out to around 115 people per toilet. Nearby live some of the oldest and richest families of the city with homes where one person may have a choice of many toilets.

But this is Simla Nagar, where 720 households are precariously perched on a not so wealthy slope of Malabar Hill. The path to the two-storey toilet block in the slum is like an obstacle race that only the able can undertake. Depending on which part of the slum you live in, it can take you anything from five to 20 minutes to reach the toilets. On the way you climb steep, uneven steps, walk uphill through narrow lanes barely four feet wide that are slippery with soapy water as scores of women wash clothes and utensils, then downhill through equally treacherous lanes to finally reach the destination.

If you get there before 10 a.m., you are lucky. There is water in the taps; hence the toilets are reasonably clean. If you wait longer, the water stops; you carry your own mug of water, just enough for your personal needs but not enough to flush the toilet. By mid-afternoon, all 52 toilets are rendered unusable. People wait in resignation till the evening when the toilets are cleaned. At night, although the toilets are lit, the path leading to them is not.

Some enterprising people have built their own toilets inside their tiny homes. But there is no sewerage. So the waste pipe dumps the human waste in the open drain outside. If you are the unfortunate neighbour of one of these inventive souls, you live with the stench and the flies and mosquitoes. No one complains. You just curse your luck that you do not have the resources, or the space, to copy your neighbour.

For old people, especially old women, getting to the toilet is virtually impossible unless your jhopdi is next door. And children? Mothers say they use the open drain. Who has the time to drop everything and run with the child to the toilet?

So Bill Gates' idea to launch a global quest to “reinvent the toilet” is certainly timely. India has been given the singular honour of hosting the “Reinventing the toilet” summit in 2013. Very appropriate given over 60 per cent of Indians are forced to defecate in the open because they have no access to toilets. If nothing else, the conference will draw necessary global attention to a problem that is often relegated to the bottom of the endless list of challenges poor countries face.

Innovations needed

Technological innovations are needed as in rural areas, and even in some towns, where capital-intensive underground sewerage systems might not be feasible. Also flush toilets waste too much water and are unsustainable given the growing scarcity of water. But coming up with new ideas for toilets should not be rocket science. As Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh stated recently, “We can launch missiles like Agni and satellites but we cannot provide sanitation to our women.”

The real challenge for India is dealing with the sanitation needs of cities and towns, particularly the areas where the urban poor live. Having failed spectacularly all these years to provide affordable housing in cities — Mumbai is now constantly referred to as “Slumbai” — the least governments can do is to put the sanitation challenge within slum settlements top of their list of priorities.
In cities like Mumbai, the problem is partly compounded by the carrot of redevelopment that is dangled before many notified or regularised slums such as Simla Nagar. Because they are designated for redevelopment at some future date, not much attention is paid to their immediate needs. As a result, you have toilets that are nowhere near enough for the colony, yet new toilets will not be built. And you have a water supply that comes for just four hours every evening thereby making the hand-flush toilets unusable for a significant part of the day. Appeals to augment the supply fall on deaf ears. In the end, not out of choice but out of compulsion, many residents of such slums are compelled to defecate in the open at the cost of their own sense of dignity.

There have been efforts, often half-hearted. Funds are allocated but lie unused for years because no one really cares. And the majority of toilet schemes in slums fail for precisely the same reasons: not enough water, zero maintenance and an unresponsive administration.

Even if people come up with innovative ideas, there is little encouragement. Many people from outside government who have tried to intervene in the sanitation sector end up hitting their heads against a brick wall: the unwillingness of much of the bureaucracy to be flexible and open to new ideas, to design adaptations and to the beneficiary community's views. To meet the toilet challenge, it is this mindset that has to be reinvented.

(To read the original, click here)