This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
The HinduThese traditional chulhas do more harm than good. Photo: Brijesh Jaiswal
Cow dung cakes are another poisonous option. Photo:AP
The HinduThe daily grind. Photo: Lingaraj Panda
Somehow “electricity for all” still seems a distant dream.
They saw electric light for the first time since India became a free country. A curious news-item reported that Mohanlalganj, a village just 20 km away from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, was connected to the electricity grid for the first time in March this year. Why should we be surprised? After all, an estimated 400 million people in this country that boasts of generating electricity through nuclear power are not connected to the electricity grid. All they hold on to is the promise of light but the tunnel has remained dark and they certainly have seen no light at the end of it.
The lack of electricity apart, there is a tragic twist to the Mohanlalganj tale that speaks of callousness compounding indifference. When people in the village realised that they had finally got electricity, scores of them rushed to the electricity pole that was the source of the “current”. And in their excitement, they touched the electric pole that had finally made them an electrified village. In so doing, they did not expect to be shocked. But that is precisely what happened. The electric supply authority forgot to install insulators. As a result, anyone who touched the pole received an electric shock and many were injured. How can anyone overlook installing insulators? In this instance they did. And needless to say, no one has been hauled up or held accountable, nor have the injured been compensated.
Electric power is a basic component of development. No one will argue that without electricity, the backwardness we see in our villages will continue. Children suffer because they cannot study after dark. Everyone suffers because there is no electricity to pump up water, thereby forcing people, especially women, to walk miles searching for shallow sources of water. Yet even as all this is well known, somehow “electricity for all” still seems a distant dream.
Furthermore, even if on paper, villages are connected to the electricity grid, the reality is often somewhat different. At times, the electricity is only used for agricultural pumps and does not reach homes. At other times it reaches some homes, but each village has its area of darkness, consisting of the poorest who are also often Dalits. Scattered tribal hamlets will not see electricity for a long time. General statistics about the reach of electric power do not reveal these areas of exclusion.
There is another side to this story of electricity, or rather energy that has a specific women’s angle. The most crucial form of energy for rural India remains cooking energy. Yet, the reality in an India that is forging ahead on so many other fronts is that 83 per cent of rural households still continue to depend on firewood, wood chips and cow dung for cooking energy. The task of gathering the firewood and the cow dung falls principally on women. Even today, if you go to any village, you will see women bent double carrying head-loads of firewood.
The story does not end there. While the daily search for cooking fuel increases the amount of work women have to do every day, they come home and literally line their lungs with poison when they light their stoves. Women, children and the elderly sit in poorly ventilated rooms as traditional chulhas using firewood and cow dung belch out poisonous fumes. The chulhas are not just inefficient, in that they use more fuel to generate less energy, but are also dangerous because of the smoke they emit.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, there were many different efforts made to introduce smokeless chulhasinto village homes. This effort was the result of growing awareness of the health impact of indoor pollution on women. But these campaigns slipped on to backburner. Surveys suggested that the smokeless chulhas were not being accepted. Instead of investigating why this was so, the efforts slowed down.
Of late, there has been a renewed push for smokeless chulhas. But this is being fuelled by the realisation that soot from millions of wood fires is contributing to global warming. So there are funds available now for introducing more efficient chulhas that can work on cleaner fuels.
I believe that the campaign for smokeless chulhas never found enough takers among policy makers because the issue concerned women. It is women who cook. It is women who collect fuel. Mostly they do it silently, without complaining, because they have been socialised to accept that this is their work. The men, for whom they do this day and night, also do not question because they too believe that this is “women’s work”.
As a result, the urgency of dealing with something so basic as cooking energy and clean fuel does not make its way into the air-conditioned rooms where energy policy is made. Even if it finds a voice, it is not put on the front burner, or backed by the funds and political will that could make a difference.
Mohanlalganj has got electricity, even if it is of the “shocking” variety. But no one has asked what is the source of energy that lights up the stoves in that village. The chances are that even today the women are out looking for fuel, while the men sit back and enjoy the “current”.
In the range of violent attacks against women, acid attacks are one of the most devastating.
In many ways it is worse than death. It is a living hell. And you are plunged into it without warning. One day you are this young woman, looking forward to a new job, a new life. Within the fraction of a second, your life is transformed. Your face, eyes, nose, ears, skin sizzle and burn as someone decides to “teach you a lesson” by flinging acid at you. If you survive, and many do, you must wonder if it was better that you had died.
Death came to 23-year-old Preeti Rathi, after she battled for a month in various hospitals to survive. She has become one more statistic in India’s growing list of people, mostly women, who are punished in the cruelest way imaginable — by being singed with acid.
Preeti came to Mumbai on May 2 from Delhi to start work as a nurse at INS Ashwini, the naval hospital in south Mumbai. She never made it. Even as she stepped off the train, a masked man came up to her and flung acid on her face. Then he turned around and ran before anyone could react and stop him. The grainy footage of him on the CCTV cameras, even as he removed his scarf to wipe his face, has not helped the police catch him.
Meanwhile Preeti, like others before her, was taken from one hospital to another before she was finally admitted to a large, well-equipped private hospital. But even the best surgeons could not save her.
We have no statistics on the number of women like Preeti who die, or are maimed, due to acid attacks. The National Crimes Record Bureau does not include acid attacks as a separate category. In any case, not all attacks are reported to the police, or reported by the media.
While accurate numbers would give us an idea of the extent of the crime, it is the nature of the crime that makes your blood curdle. What kind of men are these that they can plot to inflict this kind of punishment on a woman? Many of the cases are those of women who have refused a man in marriage, or spurned advances.
Some of these stories are now known because the women, despite their unbearable pain and disfiguration, have been brave enough to talk about it and bring out this horrendous crime into the open. People need to know. They should be revolted. And they should demand exemplary punishment for the criminals as also every kind of help for the survivor.
One such brave survivor is Sonali Mukherjee. In 2003, she was a bright 17-year-old from Jharkhand dreaming of doing her PhD in sociology. But before she could realise her dream, three young male students who had been harassing her, decided to “teach her a lesson” because she did not respond to them by throwing a jugful of acid on her face. Within seconds, her face and part of her chest melted away. She lost sight and hearing. She could not walk or talk.
The men were caught and convicted. But they were let off with a light sentence. If this had happened today, under the amended law they would have had to serve a minimum of 10 years going up to a life sentence. Meantime, Sonali continues to fight to live and has been through 27 surgeries. She still has a long road to travel but it is her spirit that is inspirational.
In the range of violent attacks that women can and do encounter, acid attacks must stand out as one of the most devastating. The “weapon” of choice is cheap. It is available at any shop that sells household cleaning liquids. The shopkeeper does not need any special license to sell hydrochloric or sulphuric acid that are commonly used in such attacks. So a criminal can get his “weapon” for less than a hundred rupees.
When it comes to crimes against women, India is in any case fairly high on the list of countries with some of the worst records. Not surprisingly, it is also among the five countries with the highest number of acid attacks alongside Cambodia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Since Preeti’s death, the Maharashtra government is talking of restricting the sale of acid. The Tamil Nadu government and several other State governments have also taken such steps. This might have some impact. In Bangladesh, this apparently did make a difference. A tougher law on acid attacks combined with licensing for acid sale led to a reduction by 75 per cent over a 10-year period of acid attacks in Bangladesh. In Pakistan, where only around 30 per cent of the acid attacks are actually reported, the increase in the jail term to 14 years plus a fine of one million rupees has led to an increase in the conviction rate and more women are reporting the crime.
Preeti’s tragic death might bring the focus back to this excruciatingly cruel form of violence. Yet, given our experience in dealing with other forms of violence against women, even a tougher law, or a restriction on the sale of acid, will not be enough to stop the crime. What needs to change is the entrenched attitude in men that compels them to destroy women if they cannot own them.