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Women in India are having to fight for opportunity, dignity and life; and it’s heartbreaking…

No matter where I travel, my heart remains at home in India. Especially in these turbulent times when basic humanity is eclipsed and everything is a public spectacle, a jumble of accusations and vitriolic hatred. It seems to be that dignity and respect is the prerogative of a narrow sliver of India’s population right now- Hindu, male, upper caste. The rest of us do not matter. We are to give ourselves up in the service of the nation- get an education, get a job, toil away, embed ourselves in acceptable social structures and raise children who conform. If we do so, never complaining, we are good citizens. If we speak up, we face vilification and worse, abuse. And ever worse, violence, even death.

Far away from home, I watch the news emanating from BHU, a university campus that is located in the ancient and endearing city of Varanasi, the pulsating heart of Hinduism and the constituency of PM Modi. Here, a girl is assaulted on a dark street in the evening and deigns to complain. The poor response of the university provokes widespread protests, which are met with police force and brutality. The authorities claim the protests are politicized, the students claim their demands are simple- better lighting, more security, accountability and action against those who did not respond and a functional system to address harassment complaints in the future. Instead of asking why a prominent university has been found so lacking, the nation is busy victim blaming and cooking political plots. In the meanwhile, thousands of girls across the country  have lost the chance to study ahead and become independent as their parents stare at TV screens in fear!

For a nation that dreams of being a global power – delusional factions of it believe it already is – this is sheer idiocy! How in the world are we to progress if women, half the nation, is consigned to live in fear and subjugation. I do not have to reel out the stats here. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, marital rape, son preference leading to malnutrition and female infanticide, insufficient public toilets and school latrines, poor public transport, disproportionate familial responsibilities in a patriarchal society, dowry related torture and death, body shaming, trafficking – the list of what women in India face everyday is endless.

Even so, women aspire and dream. They top school leaving examinations. Their performances trump that of boys year after year. They enter college with big dreams, which for most of them are trampled by early marriages decided by their families. Some of them manage to work, but drop out when family responsibilities become too hard to bear. The majority endeavor to make the best of their lives, balancing a heavy load of social expectations. A thin sliver get the right opportunities, live lives somewhat equal to their male peers. An infinitesimally small number breach the glass ceiling. They are celebrated, even as the dreams of millions are crushed.

It is irrefutable logic that India’s dreams of economic success and global power will be more easily met if women are allowed the same opportunities as men, but I will not make a purely economic argument here. India’s female workforce participation is a dismal story, we all know that. Instead of inching up, it has fallen. Yet, women work harder than ever, doing non-remunerative work at home, in family enterprises, and in large number, on the fields. All those hardworking women are counted as out of the workforce, ironically, while those who are in it walk the tight rope every day, torn between home and work, chided for the choices they make and facing increased expectations all the time.

What is the point of it all, if basic dignity is not on offer and if, instead of rectifying the flaws in the system, women are blamed each time for asking for their due? I would think that we would all have given up. Instead, we fight, we scream, we bear the brunt of the lathi charge….because we know that thousands are cowering under the wrath of a husband or the father (or the mother-in law!), thousands still are completely confined and thousand others will not even be born. We know we are the lucky ones and so we fight. Hats off to the girls in BHU who won’t back down and shame on those who attack and vilify them; they must question their own humanity. Hats off to the crusaders who have fought in the courts and campaigned and worked in communities countrywide to help women access their rights, and shame on everyone who thinks this is not their problem; they need to open their eyes. Hats off to the men who have stood by women and seen their cause as human not female, and shame on those who continue to deride feminism and the demand for equality; they need to wake up and smell the coffee!!

Conflicting thoughts on the Uber rape #safety #women

The Uber rape is the latest in the never ending saga of the lack of safety for women in India. The focus of media discussion on the issue has been on verification processes and law. As a number of twitter discussions highlighted, there isnt enough hue and cry about the rape itself. Alarming and depressing as it may be, the idea of India being unsafe for women is no longer news. We have normalized the lack of safety, the patriarchal nonsense, the injustice of it all, the trauma, the shaming, lock-stock-and-barrel.

This could be a moment of the deepest of despair. However I do see two small, tiny, fragments of light. One, the raped woman was alert and brave enough to click a picture of the number plate and report the incident. The media attention on the issue of gender and sexual violence is, I think, breaking the silence in many ways. More and more women have been emboldened to report sexual crimes in recent times, reflecting bizarrely in the crime stats but also subtly on the confidence levels of other women.

The second is that victim blaming has not been the focus of the reportage and discussion this time round, though there were some who drew attention to the fact that the lady had fallen asleep in the cab (that, of course, is a crime for woman!)

Another take on this by a well-meaning but cynical friend was interesting too. She said her first thought was that the woman had been planted in the Uber cab by a rival cab company! Chew on that, people ­čÖé

A commitment towards equitable, sustainable growth #kumaon #tourism

My links with Kumaon go back to my school days, when my parents were associated with an NGO called Kassar Trust near Bageshwar and would make frequent trips to hold health camps and plan health-related interventions for mountain villages that had unique problems. In my teen years and into my early twenties, I gathered that life in Kumaon’s charming landscape was hard, especially for women who were often left coping as single parents as the menfolk migrated to the plains in search if employment. In our visits, we observed that Kassar Trust focused on empowering women to be able to take decisions in a stringent hierarchy of both caste and gender; decisions that could impact their lives hugely like signing up for better hand pumps and improve water access or build toilets in their homes. Further, they emphasized that the village people demand accountability from servants of the State and demand access to healthcare, education, etc. My parents and the NGO they worked with were convinced that this is the route to long-term and sustainable progress.

It's like watching a gigantic water colour, being up in the hills!

It’s like watching a gigantic water colour, being up in the hills! View from Te Aroha, Dhanachuli

Graced by a glimpse of the mighty Himayan range on the one clear day among many misty, cloudy ones

Graced by a glimpse of the mighty Himalayan range on the one clear day among many misty, cloudy ones. View from Te Aroha, Dhanachuli

In the aftermath of the recent floods that devastated parts of Uttarakhand, especially the Garwal region, I read articles by several notable experts that suggested that the state of Uttarakhand was born out of pressure from grassroots movements, many led by women. The editorials suggested that the ecological nightmare created by rampant and negligent development and construction and the apathetic and corrupt governance of the State was a betrayal of the local people who fought for and believed in a vision of a smaller, better governed, more productive State that would prioritize the happiness of its people, ecological balance and equitable growth over large investments that might be less sensitive. Knowing what I know of Kumaonis, I could well imagine the determination and perseverance of these shy but tenacious people in wanting more for themselves.

My recent trips to Kumaon have left me with a curiosity to know more about the development of the region and how it is perceived by locals. On one hand, this fruit growing belt appears enchantingly prosperous. You do not see, on the face of it, huge signs of poverty. However, there is more to it than meets the eye. I gleaned some insights from Deepa, who with her husband Ashish runs an enchanting resort called the Himalayan Village, Sonapani tucked away into the hills near the village of Satoli a little beyond Ramgarh and Nathuakhan. Deepa and Ashish have been running The Himalayan Village for a decade now. Cut off from the hordes (you have to trek to get there), they have made their life there and have fantastic insights into the lives of the Kumaoni people. Sitting there amid the beautiful wild flowers with a breathtaking view of the pine scented slopes, I was disheartened to hear about the caste biases that still prevail, the corruption that prevents government schemes from reaching the villagers. Deepa runs a small sewing centre from her property where local women learn to make bags and other small handicraft items that are then marketed and sold by Deepa through various channels. We heard of an upper caste woman, who was freshly widowed but faced criticism from her family when she joined the centre in a bid to be financially independent. We heard about low caste women who politely declined to participate in savings schemes, preferring to focus on ensuring their family gets decent nutrition. Lower caste families usually have very small land holdings and are subsistence farmers. Eloquent and honest, Deepa’s stories painted alive the conditions of women here, still leading tough lives, still tenacious and persevering. I know I will return to Sonapani, the history of which goes back over 100 years and which is the site of an ancient and therapeutic spring, to experience more, hear more, learn more and perhaps even do more…

The breathtaking view from The Himalayan Village Sonapani, a manicured wilderness...could imagine my children here, running free and wild!

The breathtaking view from The Himalayan Village Sonapani, a manicured wilderness…could imagine my children here, running free and wild!

The resort is as much about the people as the place. Deepa in here element, making us feel so at home!

The resort is as much about the people as the place. Deepa in here element, making us feel so at home!

Caught our fancy...these large colourful spiders all over the, click, click is all we heard for a while!

Caught our fancy…these large colourful spiders all over the property…click, click, click is all we heard for a while!

Charming details

Charming details

Bringing up children here...the mommy in me was impressed, charmed, worried...all at once. But so reassured to see people practice a philosophy so few of us have the courage to..inspired, Deepa!

Bringing up children here…the mommy in me was impressed, charmed, worried…all at once. But so reassured to see people practice a philosophy so few of us have the courage to..inspired, Deepa!

As we drove back from Satoli to Dhanachuli, we observed other contradictions worth thinking about. While this region is not exactly overrun by tourists, many from the plains are beginning to populate these hillsides with second homes. Corrupting village pradhans to acquire land and using insensitive construction practices to build gigantic structures that are barely occupied for a few weeks a year seems like a recipe for disaster to me. As we drove through a protected forest on the way, I could see that year’s abundant monsoon has left the region greener and more thickly forested than before. Sumant Batra who kindly invited us to Te Aroha in Dhanachuli pointed out to us that the monsoons had other impacts too. Nature has had its way with irresponsible developments and we saw more than one spectacular collapse among properties that had been built in concrete using massive retaining wall structures, that had involved large scale and illegal felling of trees and in general been built with scant respect to the local conditions. It angered me, this sort of greed that not only disregards the ecology and culture of the region but actively endangers the lives and property of local villagers!

Clearly, the future of the region lies in empowering local communities with knowledge and power. It is a long road ahead, but I do know that if local governance is possible anywhere, it is in the hills where people are deeply connected to their roots and understand the devastating impact of pushing Mother Nature to the brink. We mustn’t lose hope, perhaps.

There are many ways by which you and me can contribute. By visiting regions like Kumaon in a responsible way, realizing full well that tourism if done rightly can be a strong economic backbone to address issues of poverty and inequity. By ensuring that as corporates and individuals we give back to the society and support genuine not for profits that work to empower local communities in the area. By falling in love with the mountains, again and again!

Some unsolicited advice to men in relationships!

I got a call from a childhood friend last evening. We are particularly close and talk often, especially when we need to share something that we hesitate to even tell our own selves.

She asked me a strange question; in fact, it was a strange conversation:

Her: “Is it ok for me to borrow money from my parents or my brother?”

Me: “What do you need the money for?”

Her: “Just like that, I want to keep it with me. I have no savings.”

My friend is married, with two children. Her younger one will start school soon. She is a trained nursery school teacher and immensely talent with children. She used to teach, but has given up her career for the last three years to bring up her children.

Me: “I would not borrow unless I needed the money for something specific. And how will you pay it back?”

Her: “I don’t know. I don’t have a job right now. When I start working, I will repay I suppose.”

Me: “Would your parents not get worried if you ask them for money just like that? Is everything well at home? Did you have a fight with <husband’s name>?”

Her: “No, no. Nothing like that. But yea, I need money for myself, for small expenses. I have been spending from my savings from when I was teaching and now I have run out of money. I am not used to not having anything in my bank account.”

By now, she is sounding really distraught and confused. We talk things through and then agree that it would be best to talk this out with her parents when she visits them next and just ask them for some money to tide her over instead of taking a loan.

I also ended up urging her to look more aggressively for work and not feel guilty about leaving her young ones at home or in daycare. I reminded her that the decision to have a second baby was a joint one and that her husband is also responsible for her decision to be a home maker till the children grow up a little.

I was upset that she hesitated to ask him for expense money. That she felt guilty about wanting little pleasures in life. That she was so conflicted between her duties as a mother to her children and her need to be financially independent.

So many of us women are in this boat. Why do we accept the taunts and jeers, seemingly harmless but actually potent, that our husbands and others dish out to us, about decisions that are perfectly rational- like not going to work for a few years OR choosing to remain working even when our children are small? An individual has her own reasons to take these decisions. There is no formula here. Everyone is entitled to do what makes her a happy and satisfied person. And it is binding on a woman’s partner to support her just as he would expect his wife to stand behind him through the trials of life.

Marriages, relationships are so complex and intertwined, and so so fragile. Communication (especially about aspirations) and financial transparency are key pillars that both partners need to work on together. This is what I would say to the men of this world: If your partner’s happiness is not important to you, if seeing her smiling and confident does not make you proud, if you find yourself unable to respect what she wants and expect her to always pay heed to your needs over hers, then you are not cut out to have a woman in your life! Let her go and let her lead her own life. Whatever that life may be, it will be better than wasting her talents and love and energy with you!

A bit radical, but that is what I really think! I know the black and white options do not work in reality. Many of us struggle desperately to make things work against many odds. And whether to hang in there or make a clean break is also, in the end, an individual decision that we must respect.

Related blog post, also interesting!

We have to listen! Solutions most often come from the community

There are many interesting ways to work with communities. A wide variety of social researchers across the world are learning that there is tremendous knowledge vested within communities and the outside-in, often high-handed, approach used by academicians and policy makers alike can be disastrous, not only because analysis and solutions may be far removed from reality and therefore unsuccessful when applied, but also and more importantly because this sort of approach loses out on the rich understanding that communities have of their environment, the networks that exist among them, their strenghts and weaknesses. Critical knowledge that can make or break their future and that, in turn, can teach those of us from the ‘outside’ that work with them, so much!

Today’s The Hindu carries a piece by Janaki Lenin about Erika Cuellar, a Bolivian biologist who empowered tribals to use their inherent knowledge in mainstream research and be recognized and compensated for it. This is a critical change and an evolving approach in research.

In my experiences with slum communities, I have often had the opportunity of learning from community members. Often, not the leaders, but ordinary members of the community can make astute observations that put us on a path to better design and more appropriate solutions. In the Sundernagari slum redevelopment project that mHS did in association with Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), the frequent mention of community life as enacted in the streets outside their homes led us to a pathbreaking design that focused on the street (at two levels, on the ground and two floors above the ground) as a space for interaction, work and play, a tool for safety and social cohesion and much more.

In our workshop at the Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri earlier this month, I got the chance to see another type of knowledge at work. The issue that stood out in all our conversations here was the low sanitation conditions in the slum. Most homes had no toilets and the community toilets are filthy and poorly maintained; many of the 35 toilets on the male side and the female side were not even functional. I had to see them to corroborate that absolute horror stories we heard. Not a pretty sight!

After the complaining had been done, I engaged the community members in a discussion in an attempt to find the reasons behind the problem and seek possible solutions. Apparently, the toilets used to be maintained by a private operator (charge Rs 1 per use) and were relatively clean, until the current Councillor (a good person, independent candidate, did other really good things for the area) declared them to be free. The maintenance became non-existent; women especially are in a bad shape, complaining of stomach aches and infections, a really pathetic situation. The Councillor is depending on the MLA for funds to remedy the situation, but the MLA is disinterested because he knows he won’t be re-elected when the elections come around. The community, which has represented numerous times on this matter, is caught in the crossfire and they are currently disheartened by the status quo.

I probed into the issue of self-regulation and the awareness of improved sanitation habits, like cleaning up after each use, etc. One gentleman happened to make the remark that ‘renters’ are the ones who leave the toilets dirty, which of course sent me into a whole tirade on how personal hygiene is not related to economic wealth, caste, status or tenure! I was so upset and insisted on knowing why the community isn’t organizing itself to address this issue if it is indeed such a huge issue! I should have expected the reply.

I was told that anyone who takes the lead runs a huge risk of being the object of ridicule and contempt if they fail, and subsequently they also lose whatever social equity they currently have, an important aspect of slum life and one that is traded for money, debt, favors and the like…. and the toilets are an issue that even the local politician has failed to crack! And then, the solution came too. If an NGO or any external organization were to take the lead and outline a strategy, the community members we spoke to felt confident that people would support them wholeheartedly, work for the cause, do whatever it takes to get this done. They desperately need a facilitator, that’s what they were telling me.

And their observation ties up with experiences of development practitioners in a myriad circumstances.They know the solution, they are simply not equipped to take the lead in roping the right people. They have little confidence in their own knowledge or bargaining power, and have been disheartened by recent and persistent failure in negotiation for their needs. Of course, it seems like they just passed the ball into my court and won a battle of words and it’s easy to walk away in scorn, wondering why “these people don’t want to help themselves”! The thought did cross my mind, but I hung my head in shame immediately. Of course they wanted to help themselves. After all, it is they and not me who have to use those filthy toilets every day.

If you have the stomach for it, take a look….


The future’s in our hands: Informal referendums as means to channelize public opinion, influence governments- July 23, 2012

Saturday’s editorial in The Hindu by Prashant Bhushan and Atishi Marlena has been playing on my mind. It talks about how citizens in a democracy can participate in the nation’s decision making processes other than by voting once in five years! The authors describe established instruments like the Referendum (in which “citizens, by a direct vote, can decide whether a legislation passed by Parliament should be rejected”) and the Inititative (in which “citizens initiate a new legislation or constitutional amendment, by putting their own proposal on the political agenda that Parliament is ignoring”). The possibility of making ongoing changes is exciting and I can imagine feeling a lot more motivated as a citizen to be politically active if I knew the fruits of my efforts were not in the oh-so distant past!

Last year, we were in Barcelona in June. A referendum (informal and activist-led, not legal) had been recently held (April, 2011) to decide whether Catalonia would be a separate state from Spain. In the provincial capital Barcelona, one in five people voted for a separate state and there was tangible excitement about this. Rahul and me had inadvertently wandered into the heart of the campaign located in a city park late one night. Sloganeering, brainwashing and lively discussions, music and guitar strumming, pitched tents, quite a mela it was! There were barricades and some police presence yes, but it was all in good spirit.

Perhaps we should also hold informal referendums in cities (or in smaller units like wards) to push decisions on governance issues that affect our lives here and now. I can think of a zillion things right away. Making rainwater harvesting compulsory for all new constructions and offering hefty discounts on property tax if old constructions implemented it would be a good place to begin. Aamir Khan’s piece today in the HT talks about this forcefully (whoever did this one for him was good). If citizens are to be motivated to think about their own good instead of waiting for the government to come around to doing things that are so essential it’s scary, planning a series of referendums could be a good idea.

Of course, as Bhushan’s piece highlights, you need the technology to be in place. Social media cannot really be considered an inclusive medium for a referendum. We need to expand the reach to get a cross section of citizens involved. Second, are citizens in the position to take an informed decision? Who informs them? How do we ensure this information is unbiased? What sort of weight will informal referendums carry?

Lots of questions, fewer answers. But a glimmer of light, nevertheless!

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