Sunday, January 19, 2014

In the line of fire

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 19, 2014

The questions we must address are what do we mean by ‘safe’?
The Hindu Photo Archives

Now that there is a handgun especially designed for Indian women, are we going to be ‘safer’?
On January 6, the Indian Ordnance Factory in Kanpur announced the launch of ‘Nirbheek’, India’s first gun for women. We are told it weighs just 500 gm and is a 0.32 bore light revolver. It will cost a mere Rs.1,22,360, thereby ensuring that it is out of reach to the majority of Indian women who fear for their safety.

How amazing that someone should actually think that a light handgun named ‘Nirbheek’ or fearless will actually make a material difference to the lives of Indian women.

Just to give some perspective, in Uttar Pradesh, where this gun has been manufactured, the police (tasked to ‘protect’ women, one presumes) has 2.5 lakh firearms, while the ‘aam janta’, mostly men, has over 11 lakh firearms. And these are the licensed ones. Can any woman, even if she is equipped with a pricey light gun, feel ‘safe’ under such circumstances?

Let’s discuss the question of women’s safety that keeps popping up over and over again, particularly after the terrible gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012. There have been countless debates and all kinds of demands. Hang the rapists; change the Juvenile Act; have more police; have more CCTV cameras in all public places; train women in martial arts etc.
Writing this literally from the other side of the world, the perspective that greets me is that suddenly all of India has become ‘unsafe’ for women, that our streets are full of sexual predators just waiting to pounce on unwary women and that our criminal justice system is simply not able to deter these predators.

Between these clearly exaggerated images and the drummed-up fears, lies a different reality, one about which we need to be constantly reminded.

The questions we must address are what do we mean by ‘safe’? Are women ‘unsafe’ only in the public space if by safety we mean sexual assault? What if such assaults take place at home, at the workplace, in schools and colleges — spaces that would generally not be viewed as ‘unsafe’ because you are surrounded not by strangers but by people you know?

Every year when data on crimes against women is published, this is the other perspective that emerges, if only people were to read beyond the screaming headlines. So, for instance, a Right to Information petition by social worker Anil Galgali revealed that in Mumbai last year there had been 237 rapes and eight gang rapes, including the one in the deserted Shakti Mills compound in central Mumbai that drew a great deal of media attention. But once you read past the statistics, you realise that in most cases, the perpetrators of the crimes were ‘friends and lovers’ or neighbours of the raped woman. Men known to her. Not unknown men hanging out in public spaces.

In Delhi last year, although the number of reported cases till August are far greater (1,121) there too, according to the police, surveys have established that the attackers are known to the women. This is, in fact, the main factor preventing women from reporting the crime.

Thus, while there is no denying the horror of the gang rapes that have captured media attention, we must not lose the perspective that if safety consists of women not fearing that they will be sexually assaulted, then the main site of danger lies in homes and familiar surroundings and not outside.

Stricter laws, guns, and martial arts will not solve this lack of safety. Here, as has been repeated in these columns and elsewhere, we have to tackle the system of patriarchy, where men believe they are entitled to control the lives and actions of women, where men believe they ‘own’ the women related to them, and where men see nothing wrong in punishing the women who dare question or try and upset the established systems that guarantee their superior status in our society.

To illustrate this further, let me narrate the horrific story I read even as the year began. An 11-year-old Class 5 student from a village in Betul district, 175 km southwest of the capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, was singed on her cheeks and beaten with a rock for refusing to quit studies. The perpetrator of the crime? Her father. The girl, Roshani, is recovering in the district hospital but no member of her family has come to visit her.

How do we ensure that the Roshanis of India feel ‘safe’ enough to get an education? This is the perspective we need when we discuss women’s safety.

(To read the original, click here.)

Monday, January 06, 2014

Gasping into 2014

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 5, 2014

Photo: V. Sudershan
The Hindu Photo: V. Sudershan

It was a strange year. 2014 could be stranger. I use the word ’strange’ because when you look back, you cannot describe it within the binary of good and bad. Some good perhaps, but much more that was depressing.

So given current trends, both political and social, what will the next year bring? If you are a resident of Mumbai or Delhi and were to try and look into the future, you would not see very far. The quality of the air — fog in Delhi, smog in Mumbai — obscures everything. This state of affairs, I am afraid, is the future. Unless something changes. So my New Year wish is that in the next five years, we can breathe cleaner air in our cities.

Many people are hopeful that there can be change, given the spectacular performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi Assembly elections. What is clear now is that you cannot take the voter for granted. However, in this age of single-issue obsessions, driven to a large extent by the media, the beginning of a new year is a good time to remember that there are many more areas that require urgent attention than those emphasised by the shouting brigades on our television channels.

So even as we discuss the quantity of water that every individual living in an Indian city should have or the price to pay for electricity, thanks to the promises made to Delhi’s citizens by AAP, I would suggest that equally important is the quality of air we breathe.

Every winter, when the temperature drops there is a sense of resignation, as if smog and fog are inevitable. But is that true, or have we brought this situation on ourselves by not thinking ahead? We are a land of emergencies. Only when there is a crisis is some action taken. And more often than not, it is too little and too late.

The need for affordable and efficient public transport for our cities is a no-brainer. The most liveable cities in the world are those where people can commute comfortably using public transport. This is a consequence of policies that make public transport more efficient and cheaper than driving a car. The result is cleaner air that all can breathe.

Yet only eight out of 35 of India’s bigger cities have a reasonable bus system. In the smaller towns, the situation is much more dire. Public transport is being built in many cities. But there is randomness in the planning, most visible in a city like Mumbai where despite the impossibly over-crowded local trains and buses, an estimated 88 per cent of the population uses public transport.

In fact, in all the major cities, including Mumbai, the majority of people use public transport not because it is necessarily efficient but because it is cheaper than driving a car. Thus in Kolkata, 76 per cent use public transport, in Chennai 70 per cent and in Delhi 62 per cent. Also, despite the absence of pavements and safe ways to go from one point to another on foot, anywhere between 16 to 57 per cent of trips are on foot. Yet, the 10-15 per cent who commute by car and who use 90 per cent of the road space succeed in contributing a large part of the noxious pollutants that the rest of the population is forced to breathe.

Of course, those driving the cars avoid inhaling the poisons because they have the ability to insulate themselves within air-conditioned houses, air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned offices. The poor and the middle class have no such options. Think of the men who pull handcarts, those who drive auto rickshaws, the traffic police who have to stand for hours at traffic signals, those who commute on bicycles, and the people who live and sleep on pavements in so many of our cities, despite the weather.

Although more studies are needed to make the connection between this pollutant-laden air and disease, it is evident that it has contributed to an increase in asthma and respiratory ailments as well as damage to the heart in the urban population. The most vulnerable are children and the elderly.
So as we launch into 2014, a year that is likely to herald some dramatic political changes, and a year when political parties will be bending over backwards to win the urban vote now that AAP has shaken them up, why not add clean air to the list of demands that we make on those whom we elect to govern us?

(To read the original, click here.)