Sunday, August 30, 2015

Where are the teachers?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 30, 2015

  • General figures of literacy rates do not tell us the full story about education of women in India.
    The Hindu

These questions came to mind as I read a fascinating article in Economic and Political Weekly on how a shortage of teachers in Rajasthan is affecting not just female literacy but also limiting the choices for girls who want to study science and math ( The article, by Kameshwari Jandhyala and Vimala Ramachandran, is based on research in three districts in Rajasthan -- Barmer, Baran and Ajmer. Each of these districts has a substantial percentage of scheduled tribe, scheduled caste or Muslim population.

The article brought out the inextricable link between literacy and the availability of teachers. If there is low literacy, especially among girls, there will be fewer women available to become teachers. If there are not enough women teachers, in conservative and low literacy areas, parents will not send girls out to study. As a result, low literacy amongst girls will continue.

What is even more significant is that although conservative parents are willing to send girls to primary school, this is where their education usually ends. Secondary schools are often too far, and parents prefer girls’ schools with women teachers. But there are not many of them.In Rajasthan the percentage of women teachers is already below the national average. It is only 19 per cent at the secondary level and in some of the poorer districts it goes down to 9. If you look at the enrolment rate of girls and boys, you see a steady decline in the presence of girls in the higher classes. The decline is even steeper if you look at the figures for SCs and STs.

Furthermore, in the few all-girls’ schools offering secondary education, the science stream often does not exist because there are no women teachers available to teach these subjects. Unless we increase the enrolment of girls in secondary schools and colleges, and give them the chance to study science, we will never have enough women qualified to be science teachers.

So, on the one hand, governments give incentives to encourage girls to go to school. Some States offer bicycles, others give free uniforms and books so that even poor families can send their girls to school. Such incentives have increased enrolment even if the quality of teaching is poor. On the other hand, the girls who make it to secondary school are confined to non-science subjects. Without science education, there is not even a whiff of a chance of these girls ever entering the world opened up by science and technology.

The saddest aspect that comes out in the study is the plight of the girls who somehow manage to convince their families that they want to pursue science. They can do this only if they go to study in co-ed schools where there are science teachers. According to the article, the girls who overcame objections from parents and attended co-ed schools had a rough time. They spoke of harassment, sexual innuendos, inadequate physical safety, fear of moving around, even to go to bathrooms within the institutions, derisive talk, and so on. Women who attended college or teachers training institutes also faced this. How can you learn and grow in such an atmosphere?

Reading this, I was reminded of the recent tragic case from Sangrur town in Punjab where a 16-year-old Dalit girl set herself ablaze and died because she was harassed by four young men on her way to the government school. The school was 10 km from her home and these men would follow her everyday and taunt her. In her dying declaration, she said: “I dreamt of becoming a doctor. It wasn’t my dream alone but also that of my brother. I’ve had to kill my dream and take my life. I couldn’t bear the humiliation. They crossed all limits.”

Multiply this, and what the article narrates, and you get a picture of what is happening with education in India. General figures of literacy rates do not tell us the full story. It is this kind of detail — the lack of women teachers, the need for more women teachers to teach science, the importance of a safe environment for girls in secondary schools and colleges — that will make a real difference. It is this that will give substance to the apparent “right to education” that every girl is guaranteed in India.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In media coverage of Sheena Bora case, sensationalism trumps proportionality yet again

Saturday, August 29th 2015

There's no doubt that this high-society crime merits the attention of journalists ‒ but not by disregarding other stories.
Photo Credit: Facebook
“The nation” has come to a standstill.  It only wants to know one thing: Who killed Sheena Bora?

The developments since August 25, when the Mumbai police claimed they had solved a sensational murder case, would make any media watcher feel dizzy.  Like a crime thriller that unfolds in deliberately calibrated detail, the Sheena Bora murder case has unraveled, holding the media and through it “the nation” in thrall.  Apparently.

Who cares if the Patidars of Gujarat are screaming murder, drawing comparisons to Jallianwala Bagh in the way the police attacked participants at their massive demonstrations across Gujarat to demand reservations.  Or that representatives of the Indian army continue to protest and demand One Rank One Pension, one of many promises that the prime minister has failed to keep. Or that apparently another Pakistani has been caught sneaking across the border. Or that the Chinese have successfully shaken up the Indian stock market. All this separately or together counts for little when we have a story of a gory murder committed three years ago that neither we nor the Mumbai police knew anything about until now.

And what exactly have the police found?  There is no body, only remnants of a burnt corpse found three years ago. Some samples, we are told, were sent to the forensic laboratory in Mumbai.  Then we heard that these samples had been misplaced.  Now we hear they have been found and some more discovered at the same spot.  And these have now been sent for DNA testing, a process that takes some time. Until this is done, no one, not even the Mumbai police, knows for sure whether these body parts belong to the missing woman Sheena Bora.

Apart from this the police case has been built on the confession of a man who says he was the driver of the main accused, Indrani Mukherjea.  The confession, on the police’s own admission, was extracted through extreme pressure.  We can only imagine what that could be.  And we also know that such confessions can be retracted.

 A good story

Of course, such minor details are immaterial when there is such a good story to report.  Or to distract the media from generous amounts of speculation and conjecture.  Or the all-too-familiar character assassination considered appropriate, one presumes, as we are discussing murder.

So we are informed, thanks to the endless debates on television, that the main accused is a heartless mother, a “social climber” from a “small town” (people in Guwahati ought to be really offended at this). Arnab Goswami informed us that Indrani is  “a crazy and evil genius” and “maverick murderer” but not a “psychopath”.  An employee from NewsX, the channel that was set up by Indrani and her husband Peter Mukherjea, was quoted in the Times of India saying that there was something diabolical about Indrani Mukherjea's eyes.  And actor Rishi Kapoor tweeted that Indrani Mukherjea is “a real weirdo”.

NDTV has boasted that it is against tabloidisation of the news.  But in this instance, it has done precisely that. In a programme titled “The Indrani Files”, Barkha Dutt asked: “Do we have to reserve judgment? How deep are we going into the lurid details of this saga?”  But then, she proceeded to do precisely that.  The others on her panel liberally dissected Indrani Mukherjea’s character and refused to even consider that she has not yet been proven guilty.  Barkha Dutt asks one of her panelists, Anil Dharkar: “Is this a murder that the media must investigate?”  He replied: “This is a murder that the police must investigate.”

Yet as in the past, the media is all set to investigate this case, and thereby help the Mumbai police crack a case that it claims it has already solved.  So India Today TV went into Indrani Mukherjea’s former husband Sanjeev Khanna’s Facebook page and tried to read all kinds of meaning into his posts on the days before and after the alleged murder.  Khanna has reportedly confessed to abetting in the alleged murder.

 Ridiculous questions

The media are interviewing everyone from the grandfather to Sheena Bora’s friends to Peter Mukherjea to Bora’s brother Mikhail. Arnab Goswami asked Peter Mukherjea, “You believe your wife is the murderer?”  “Certainly not," replies Peter.  What did he expect the man to answer?

Even Karan Thapar, otherwise considered one of the more balanced anchors, cannot resist the running strip under his programme “To The Point” on India Today TV that says it all: “Femme Fatale Indrani’s many truths.”

This, of course, is only a small part of a story where there is romance, deceit, cover-ups and a hundred unanswered questions.

Should the media pay so much attention to this one case?  One cannot argue that it should not because it has everything that people like to read.  Crime is popular reading; note the growing number of pages devoted to crime in most newspapers. A high-society murder case like this is automatically page one material.  The murder of a dalit girl in the backwaters of Maharashtra is not.

But what about proportionality?  Is that something worth discussing?  How much space and attention should you give to one story at the cost of others?  Indian TV has never been the best example of either balance or proportion. And here you have another example.

Given this, it is amusing to watch media persons on TV channels trying hard to justify the over-the-top coverage of this story as a “duty” of the media to keep pressure that the case is solved.  Really?  By repeating what is already being revealed by family members or leaked by the police, by sweating over conjectures, is the media really helping to solve this case?  Some commentators have even drawn comparisons between this case and the Jessica Lal case to justify media hyper activism.

 Playing softball

Instead, is it not our job as journalists to ask the police some difficult questions? Why is Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria not asked to explain why he has gone public with a case when even the DNA analysis on the suspected remnants of Sheena Bora’s body has not yet been done?  What was the hurry?  In any other country, would a police team rush to the media before it had a watertight case, particularly when the people involved are well-heeled and can employ smart defence lawyers?  Instead of asking questions, the media is devouring every morsel that is thrown out by the police or anyone willing to speak about the case.

There have been innumerable discussions about trial by media.  Each time something like this happens – Arushi, Sunanda Tharoor, others – there is a little bit of contemplation, and then business as usual.  Norms or the ethics of reporting on crime have never been seriously addressed.

The media’s obsession with sensation, with news that sells, with whatever feeds the bottom line, has ultimately won over any notion of proportion or balance.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The road to nowhere

My rant in Mumbai Mirror against the crazy idea of building a coastal road in Mumbai.


If you are one of the lucky seven per cent of Mumbai's citizens, you are in for good times. As a car owner, you are being promised a smooth, scenic ride along the city's gorgeous coastline. But if you are one of the unfortunate 93 per cent of the Mumbai's population, you must continue to live with the existing public transport system with a few incremental crumbs thrown your way.

Put simply, this is what the grand Western Coastal Road plan that the Maharashtra government is pushing ahead with means - Rs 12,000 crore and more to be spent for less than seven per cent of the population. The enormous cost to benefit a few is not the only reason we, as Mumbai's 93 per cent, need to wake up and understand the consequences of this foolhardy plan. It is a plan that runs counter to received wisdom from around the world about what makes cities liveable for all citizens.

The supreme irony of the government's grand project is that the Dutch government has offered to help. In Holland, cars are discouraged; people walk, cycle, use buses and trains. For a country that has learned to live with the sea, a road along its coastline for cars would be inconceivable. Yet, with investment opportunities drying up in Europe, the Dutch have found a reason to encourage this foolishness on other shores.

Forget the Dutch, for a moment. What about us Mumbaikars? Our litany of complaints about the way this city is managed never ends. Yet, we seem to wake up to disasters only when it is too late.

The spirited opposition to the municipal corporation's Mumbai Development Plan 2034 earlier this year ultimately resulted in it being abandoned (although one is not confident that a new version will really be better). The process of information, consultation, and participation by the people of Mumbai proved that it is possible to reverse and even stop the government's plans if enough people decide to intervene. No such process has taken place so far on the coastal road.

Initially, the government gave hardly a month for objections. Many questions remain about the process by which the plan was finalised. For instance, how was the Environmental Impact Assessment done? And how did the Ministry of Environment and Forests give environmental clearance with such alacrity despite the adverse impact the road will have on mangroves and the tidal patterns?

The deadline for objections has been extended to August 27. But even today people living along the coast where the road will be built are not aware that this project is imminent.

If the plan goes through, what will certainly happen is that Mumbai's uniqueness, its undulating coastline, will be destroyed by an eight-lane highway running alongside it, or under it in some instances. The ramps for entry and exit from the tunnels will destroy the rocks that emerge on many parts of this coastline during low tide.

Furthermore, the planners of the project seem to be unaware that Mumbai has changed drastically in the last decade. Hence, inexplicably, the road begins in Nariman Point, an area that is getting depopulated as business has moved north for more than a decade now. It ends in Kandivali even though areas beyond that are crying for better connectivity.

If the government has Rs 12,000 crore to spare, why, we should ask, does it not invest it in public transport - enhancing and improving what exists, and adding to it? Why not put every effort to speed up the metro rail, improve existing bus systems and the commuter trains that are stressed to almost breaking point?

You don't need to be a planning wizard to realise that cities improve if you invest in whatever benefits the majority of people. Choosing public transport over private cars is a no brainer. But somehow, this kind of common sense has escaped our government. Our only option then, as citizens, is to assert our right to question and object to a road that is going to lead nowhere. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Targeting women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August16, 2015

The Congress Party, headed as it is by a woman, should have castigated Gurudas Kamat for his sexist comments. Congress President Sonia Gandhi with Kamat in 2013. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
  • The Hindu
    Congress President Sonia Gandhi with Kamat in 2013. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras
Smriti Irani is not the most popular Minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet by a long shot. She has had more than her fair share of detractors. But irrespective of my opinion about whether she is fit for the job of Union Human Resource Development Minister, I believe she does not deserve to be the target of misogyny and sexist comments from male politicians.

The latest to join the club of several anti-women politicians from different political parties is Congress leader Gurudas Kamat. At a recent party meeting in Pali, Rajasthan, Kamat was filmed by television cameras saying (in Hindi): “If a chaiwala (tea seller) can become prime minister, then why not a ponchawali (cleaning woman) as education minister?” He was referring to Irani having worked in a fast food joint in Mumbai at one stage in her life. Although it is this remark that triggered some outrage, it is in fact some of the other remarks that Kamat made, mocking Irani about her journey into politics and using innuendo to suggest that there were other considerations that came into play, that were far worse. It is obvious that Kamat could say this and draw sniggers from his largely male audience because his target was a woman. Has such innuendo ever been used against a male politician in public?

Predictably, instead of ticking him off, his party chose to defend him. And as for Kamat, he resorted to that old trick that all politicians use when caught making inappropriate statements: “I have been misquoted”.

Thanks to the media, which records all such statements and recognises instantly the potential for a story, the clip of Kamat’s speech has been widely circulated. The “misquoted” excuse falls flat on its face under these circumstances. Kamat and his ilk should know that.

The Congress Party, headed as it is by a woman, should have castigated Kamat. Any political party that claims it stands for women’s human rights cannot allow its members to get away with such public statements. And that goes for all political parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (U) (remember Sharad Yadav)? And, of course, the newest kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party, which has its fair share of misogynists.

Remarks such as those made by Kamat produce a reaction for a while and are then forgotten. We have come to accept that male politicians of all hues make such comments because this is how they think. If that is a reality, should we just accept it? Is this preferable to a sham political correctness where the right things are said while in fact the attitude is very different?

Indian politicians are, of course, not an exception in this field. In the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections, even as the Republicans and Democrats are knocking each other out in the race for the nomination, we are getting to hear a fair share of intolerant talk from presidential hopefuls. In the recent much-watched debate of Republican candidates for the presidential nomination on Fox News, billionaire Donald Trump was asked how he could expect to run for president of the U.S. when he had been quoted calling women “dogs”, “disgusting animals”, “fat pigs” and “slobs”. Although Trump did not rise to the bait and launch into another bout of anti-woman talk during the debate, he tweeted immediately after the show calling the woman journalist who asked the question a “bimbo”.
Trump knows how to draw attention to himself. But more than his remarks, what was disturbing during the debate was to listen to the cheers from the audience when he declared that it was better to be forthright about his views than to be politically correct. America, he claimed, was losing out because of such political correctness. Given that there is a fairly good chance that one of the candidates for the U.S. presidency is going to be a woman, Hillary Clinton, this time, misogynistic talk is likely to be the flavour of the year.

And what about us in India? Is it worth our while to expose and oppose people like Kamat and others who think they can get away with such comments? I believe it is. For even if shaming these politicians through the media may not necessarily alter their views, opposition to any kind of sexist, racist, communal or casteist talk ensures that the word gets out that such attitudes are unacceptable.

On the other hand, if we laugh off the Kamats and others today (remember that women are constantly advised to have a sense of humour), we will open the floodgates for more such talk in the future. What hope then of changing the dominant attitude that prevails in our society which women confront everywhere — at home, in the office, on the street?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Hushed voices

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Aug 2, 2015

The Other Half
  • For every case reported, there must be literally scores that are either dismissed as frivolous, or never reported.
    Can a woman who complains about being sexually harassed by her boss actually succeed in getting justice? This is at the heart of the controversy, furiously discussed in the media, after the governing council of The Energy Research Institute (TERI) announced that it had decided on a successor to its current head, R.K. Pachauri.
Pachauri has been embroiled in a sexual harassment case after a 29-year-old researcher at TERI filed a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) against him. The ICC upheld her complaint but the matter did not end there. Pachauri managed a stay on its ruling by moving the Industrial Disputes Tribunal and eventually even managed to get permission to resume work at TERI. Despite the serious charges, he was not asked to step down but allowed to take leave. Even today, he continues in his position and will only handover when his replacement takes over.

What lesson can women who are harassed by powerful men draw from this? One, that even if their organisation has the mandatory ICC and they take courage into their hands to file a complaint, a favourable ruling is not enough. While the ruling of the ICC can be questioned and challenged, as has been done by Pachauri, there is a moral dimension that the organisation has to take on board in such instances because the complainant is usually powerless while the accused is powerful. If the status quo continues, it is the complainant who will crumble, not the accused. Unfortunately, the governing council of TERI has sidestepped this by not acknowledging the ICC’s ruling.

Also, although both have access to the law, it is the powerful that are better placed to use, and even manipulate, the law. This is the story of the Indian justice system. We see it played out repeatedly. A depressing illustration of this is in the data released by the National Law University about people on death row in India. The startling statistics tell us the ugly story of how the law functions. Based on interviews with convicts condemned to death, the researchers found that 75 per cent of them belonged to lower and backward castes, were extremely poor, or were from religious minorities. In fact, 94 per cent of those awarded the death penalty for terror related cases were either Dalits or from religious minorities. We also know that the majority of undertrials in our jails fall into similar categories.

Does this mean that only the poor and the marginalised are criminals in our society? Do the rich and the powerful not commit any crimes? What this data tells us is that even if the latter commit crimes, they know how to work the system to their advantage. The others are either unable to do so because they do not have the resources to get able legal help, or are marked because they belong to a particular religious minority and thus are labeled even before being tried.

Apply this to sexual harassment cases. Union Human Resource Development minister Smriti Irani recently stated that between April 2014 and March 2015, 75 sexual harassment cases had been registered in higher educational institutes. Of these 27, including the TERI case, were in Delhi.
These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. For every case reported, there must be literally scores that are either dismissed as frivolous, or never reported. In innumerable instances, women prefer to quit a job rather than taking on the challenge of pursuing the charge of sexual harassment. And they can hardly be blamed given that the process can break a person.

Vrinda Grover, the feisty human rights lawyer, makes an important point about the process of getting justice in such cases when she says, “From investigation to prosecution to trial, the entire system works overtime to subvert justice. At each stage the investigation is compromised. Evidence is not taken on record. Eventually, when the prosecution fails to prove the case due to shoddy and complicit investigation, the loud chorus of false cases begins.”

So the Pachauri case illustrates several crucial issues around sexual harassment. One, it is imperative that both men and women are made aware of what constitutes sexual harassment as laid down in the law. Two, that the system for seeking justice needs to be in place, such as the mandatory ICCs. These must not be token. They must have credibility so that victims of sexual harassment feel confident to approach them or the police.

And finally, when the harasser is a powerful individual, the woman will need support to survive the process of following through on her complaint as the decks are heavily stacked against her. Here the media, including social media, and civil society can play a role in building up moral pressure on organisations.

Yet, all of this will not be enough if we do not change the way our criminal justice system works. Only if that happens can women who are sexually harassed hope that there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.