Sunday, October 27, 2013

Banking on women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Oct 27, 2013

  • An all-women bank in Ahmedabad. Photo: Paul Noronha
    The HinduAn all-women bank in Ahmedabad. Photo: Paul Noronha
  • SBI Chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal
    The HinduSBI Chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal

The appointment of Arundhati Bhattacharya as the head of State Bank of India should prompt a closer look at the financial restraints of millions of Indian women.

The fuss about the first woman to head the venerable State Bank of India (SBI) has subsided. Without doubt, it was an event worth noting, even if before Arundhati Bhattacharya got to that post, many other women had made it to the top position of several banks, both public and private.
There are, however, two different aspects of women and banks that are far more relevant than the ascendancy of one or several women to the top ranks.
One is the rather obvious issue of why so few women still break through the glass ceiling in India. The women professionals who have succeeded are still the exceptions. For every one of them, there are many who were pushed out, pushed down or voluntarily gave up because they could not be super women.
In fact, many of the women who have risen to the top in the banking sector acknowledge that what helped are the pro-active, pro-women policies that some banks adopted a couple of decades back. This allowed women, who had the potential to advance in their careers as managers to opt for flexible hours or even a couple of years away from work because of familial responsibilities. Instead of penalising them for the additional roles they are compelled to play because they are women, these organisations facilitated them. As a result, many of these women were able to pick up where they left off and still do well. So women’s success in the banking sector is not entirely accidental.
The other, more relevant, question for the vast majority of Indian women is why banking is seen as such a natural fit for them. Women are better at managing banks, we are told, because they are more meticulous, more cautious, and wiser in money management. Why women have become like this, if indeed the stereotype is true, is not discussed enough.
By nature, neither men nor women are better bankers. It is ridiculous to suggest that biology determines something like this. But society surely does. Our society virtually forces the majority of women to be more careful about finances because they know that the burden of trying to balance the household budget inevitably falls on their shoulders.
It is also true that because women have no control over the income of their husbands, they tend to manage carefully whatever is given to them to run the house. Once again, this is not a responsibility of their own. Being thrifty is not a choice, it is a necessity.
Even women who have independent incomes often find in our patriarchal households that it is their fathers, their husbands and even their brothers who control the way they spend the money they have earned. So financial independence is not a reality for the majority of women, even if they are in paid employment. And I am not speaking only of poor women.
The fact that so many women responded to the self-help groups and savings programmes launched in the 1980s was not really surprising. That even the poorest of them were willing to put aside something towards savings was because these women knew the value of having something available over which they would have some control.
However, even though the self-help groups were successful initially, the reality today is that the vast majority of women still cannot access formal banking services. Whereas the informal savings groups allow them some credit for emergencies, or as an advance for their small businesses, many women cannot access these services from scheduled banks easily. Even the forthcoming Bharat Mahila Bank will not make a dent in this reality anytime soon.
The reason women cannot avail of bank credit is because the majority of them own too little to put down as collateral. Only 13 per cent of women own agricultural land although their work produces most of the grain and dairy produced in this country. The figures for home ownership would not be very different.
If the first woman to head the SBI in its 206-year-old history has stirred some interest in the subject of women and banking, that is all for the good, so long as it moves beyond personalities to the real-life issues that face millions of women.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A toilet meter?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Oct 13, 2013

At the panchayat and municipal level, toilet talk is an important issue. Photo: N. Sridharan
At the panchayat and municipal level, toilet talk is an important issue. Photo: N. Sridharan

As the 2014 elections approach, the media ought to tune in to issues like sanitation, and not spats between politicians.

In the run-up to the crucial 2014 general elections, who would have imagined that the humble toilet would be the object of competitive politics? Yet there it is, bang in the middle of a tussle between Jairam Ramesh, who claims ownership of the concept that toilets are more important than temples, and Narendra Modi, who has borrowed this without so much as a by-your-leave.
Perhaps both camps believe that the way to the aam aadmi’s (and particularlyaurat’s) vote is linked to toilets. And they are not wrong. This column has argued on many occasions that sanitation is a woman’s issue. The absence of toilets is not some statistical game; it is a harsh and terrible reality that millions of women confront every day. Yet, successive governments place sanitation on the bottom of the rung of priorities.
If the vote of women is to count in the next elections, perhaps a “toilet meter” might be useful. How many toilets have Congress governments built in the States where they rule? What about Modi’s Gujarat? How does it measure up on the “toilet meter”?
I came across a fascinating blog ( that takes data and turns it into maps that tell a story. Its Toilet Map of India ( is something on which you can spend hours as you move your cursor through different parts of the country. You see unfolding before you a story, or rather many stories that are waiting to be told.
For instance, I tried to find a place that had 100 per cent households with toilets and I found it! It is Pumao Circle, in Tirap district, Arunachal Pradesh where 64.6 per cent of households had toilets in 2001 but by 2011 every single household had a toilet. How did this happen? That is a story worth investigating. Another place in Arunachal, Migging Circle, Upper Siang, has shown an even more dramatic jump: from 1.3 per cent of households with toilets in 2001 to 96.7 per cent by 2011.
While Pumao Circle is clearly an exception, there are many places across India where over 90 per cent households have toilets. They range from Leh in Ladakh with 90.4 per cent to Hnahthial in Lunglie district, Mizoram with 96.6 per cent to Sadulshahar, Ganganagar district, Rajasthan with 91.5 per cent. All along the western coast of India, starting with the southern part of Maharashtra down to Kerala, the percentages are high. Yet predictably as you go inland and north, towards Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, UP, the percentages are shockingly low. In Sihawai, Sidhi district, MP, only 4.4 per cent households have toilets; in Barhait, Sahibganj district, Jharkhand, only 6.5 per cent; in Pothia, Kishanganj district, Bihar, only 6.7 per cent; in Tarabganj, Gonda district, UP only 8.4 per cent (down from 11 per cent in 2001) and in Kantamai, Baudh district, Orissa, only 3.8 per cent. Even Modi’s Gujarat rarely crosses the halfway point with places like Detroj-Rampur in Ahmedabad district with only 26.2 per cent households having toilets and Nasvadi in Vadodara district with 10.2 per cent.
I dwell on these statistics because that is what the media should discuss rather than the spat between two politicians. Why is so much of India toilet-less? Is it because the ones worst affected are women and they have no voice? Even where toilets are being built, are women being consulted? Or does the man of the house decide where and what type of toilet will be built. Have women any say in location and design? What about community toilets, who looks after them, who controls access, who determines location? Will there be borders and segregation of community toilets?
Toilet talk might not determine the outcome of the 2014 election. But it is becoming increasingly evident that at the panchayat and municipal level, this is an important issue. People, and particularly women, are forming political judgments not just on the basis of caste and community but on the basis of delivery of basic services like water and sanitation. So instead of rhetoric, the political spin-doctors would get a more accurate picture of their chances if they looked at the “toilet meter”. You never know: the humble toilet might yet determine the direction of our politics.
(To read the original, click here)