Saturday, September 30, 2006


My friend Smriti likes to give herself names that almost belie her... Names like Tattle-tale (though she does spin beautiful tales). And Chatterbox (which she can be, too). But the names say nothing of the understanding, the depth, the challenge of her writing.

Most recently, she has made me re-think Sita, as a feminist model. Sample this -

"She remains loyal to Ram during captivity.
She trusts Ram to remain loyal towards her. Upon rescue she does not demand an agni pariksha of him though she could have wondered what Ram had been up to while she was away.
Her trust matches her love.
After the washerman incident she leaves Ram's palace to never return.
Her self esteem is fiercer than her love.
She is proud and capable and does an excellent job at being a single parent."

And here's something equally thought-provoking about Kekayi - why, after all, is it so hard to forgive her?

"Kekai chose the throne over Ram.
Ram chose the throne over Sita.

Why is it so easy to not forgive Kekai?
And why is Ram a god?"

And here, the miserable linkages between religion, war, texts and media.

"Are you very sure the removal of Islam from politics in Islamic countries will bring peace and order?
Stalin ruled and murdered without religion, so did Hitler.
Killing Jews does seem like a very religious thing to do…Jews being a religious sect. How come you don’t view the World Wars as a religious war?... Why is the Abu Gharib just another political/moral crisis?
Would you call such torture if conducted by Iraqies another political/moral crisis?"

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Aggression, nights, news reports

Aggression has a purpose.

Something deeper and more instinctive that most of us understand, but which most of us experience only when we allow it expression, through our eyes, our posture, our tone.

Aggression needs to be restrained. But it also needs to show itself, like a flash in the dark, like a sudden snarl, like the hard assertion of its potential.

This, I have learnt after being involved with the Blank Noise interventions over the last month.

For instance, I learnt to look. To stand in a crowded public space and look. Not to smile, not to shuffle my feet, not to use my phone as a social shield, not to speak to my companions, not to flinch, not to give way.

Not to give way.

Just stand there and look into the eyes of the passersby.

True, I was not alone. There were about eight of us women in a busy subway near a south Delhi market. A few male volunteers accompanied us but did not join us in the more confrontational, challenging actions. They stood to one side and guaged crowd reactions.

We, the women, just stood there and stared back. Some of us sat down on the stairs, others stood right in the middle of the subway, facing either direction. We were instructed not to pay attention to anybody who tried to ask for explanations. We did not owe anybody any explanations. But we did give out letters, starting, 'Dear Stranger', and going to describe a woman's first-person account of street sexual harassment.

We heard a few warnings; for instance, a watchman told a college-going volunteer that she should not stand around because 'koi galat samajhega' (somebody might misunderstand). She retorted with 'Let them misunderstand... I'm just standing'. He tried telling us that it was forbidden. We told him to show us where it said so - any sign saying 'Do not stand'? Any written order?

Somebody suggested that we would be brushed against or pushed about because 'you are in the way'.

The point was - we were not! We were neither pushed about nor brushed against, nor pinched nor groped nor even came up to suggest that 'make friendship'. Nobody dared.

Because all we did was to stand there and stare, right into the eyes of the passersby, men and women both. As soon as they realised that they were being stared at, they'd look away.

And I discovered something wonderful - we women were not just standing there, looking. We were confronting. We were challenging. We were daring.

And nobody dared.

In the face of aggression, there are two ways to react - one is to fight with one's own inherent aggression, which might result in a physical fight. The second way is to look away, acknowledging that, for the moment at least, you are giving way.

Too long, women have given way. When a man comes striding down the street, we step to one side. When a man takes up too much space on a shared bus seat, we cower in our corner, uncomfortable, but silent. When a bunch of men hang round, staring at us, we hurry past, trying to ignore the threat of their eyes.

This time, we did not. No slogans, or placards, or black arm-bands, or violence. All we did was let our inherent aggression loose. Stand there - feet apart, eyes unblinking.

Jasmeen organised interesting variations each time. One evening, there was a sound element - two recordings playing simultaneously. One was that of a group of boys describing what they looked at in a woman - what their bodies should be like. At the other end, there was the sound of a woman's laughter, hysterical, uproarious.... ever noticed, that in public spaces, very few sounds are feminine? Women rarely laugh loudly, uninhibitedly.

[In fact, when I was in school, our Hindi teacher specifically told us not to laugh openly; it was not considered proper for girls].

But before that, there was the night walk.

To our collective discomfort, there was too much media. Too many cameras, too many TV crews. This was a problem, because the point of the night walk was that a bunch of women should be out at night, doing what they wanted, wearing what they wanted, challenging the public space that prevents women from being out at night.

The moment you bring a TV crew into a space, things change. People perceive the whole proceeding as a film shooting, a sham, a staged drama, and not something that is - or should be - a normal part of the cityscape at night.

The TV reporters had been warned - if they wanted to come, they'd have to come as participants and volunteers, not as people who gawk, ask questions and leave. This, perhaps, was too much to expect.

However, what really made me feel ashamed of my tribe was this article.

It says - "the protesters were “leched” at, ridiculed and booed along the three-kilometre stretch of the march, the first of its kind in New Delhi"

Factually incorrect. I did the whole stretch and was neither booed nor ridiculed. Questions, yes. Arguments, yes. Booing, no. Leching? Possible? We were too busy to notice.

Further, "The organisers, who ran into trouble even before the roadside Romeos, managed to round up just 15 participants."

What was this supposed trouble that the organisers supposedly ran into?

"The protesters, in their spaghetti tops and accented English, made quite an impact on the streets. Those who hadn’t turned up in a “mod and hep” attire seemed clearly overdressed."

False. False. False.

Not everyone was in spaghetti tops. [I was.] The women had been asked to come dressed in something they would not normally wear. One friend came in a mangalsutra - the one thing she does not wear. Her friend was in a shalwar-kameez. Many others wore standard T-shirts and jeans.

Also, except for a couple of foreign nationals, nobody's English could be described as 'accented'. Unless they meant Punjabi accent, Bengali accent, Dilli-wala accent etc.

The reporter has placed 'mod and hep' in inverted commas. Any particular reason? Was this supposed to be a reference to western clothes? Also, those who were not in western clothes were in regulation cotton shalwars... Overdressed? Who?

And even if a woman is overdressed. Let us say she feels like walking about in a Benarsi silk saree... when you come to cover what you describe as a protest (it was never described as one by Blank Noise; it was a night walk/night action plan), why are you so busy taking detailed notes about who was wearing what?

There's more.

"Armed with placards, posters and red arrow tags, the protesters..."

We had posters and red arrows. There were no placards. Did the reporter dream those up? What we did have were stencils.

This article got it right. Unfortunately, the same media group carried another article, two days later, about the same event, but in a very different tone, possibly because it re-carried the story as given out by a news service provider.

"A midnight march by women to protest against "touching, staring, groping, pinching and stalking" sounded heroic enough until the protesters ran into stalking Romeos lining up the path."

We did not run into stalkers lining up the path.

I did run into two young men who seemed concerned at my putting up a poster in Sarojini Nagar. One of them said, "Where's the point of putting it here? This is a government colony..."
Implying, of course, that sexual harassment is not a problem in government colonies.

I responded by asking, "Why? You think government people are all very shareef (decent)?"

That made him laugh in an embarrassed sort of way, and leave. That was all.

Anyway, being on the receiving end of media ignorance and inaccuracy is not pleasant. But what really bothered me was the tone of the article. The insensitivity of it. Here is this bunch of women, trying to do something that is generally acknowledged as a huge problem, across the country... And all you can think of writing is the straps on their shoulders or the accents they spoke in?

Music and the minar

The Qutub Festival is back!

This is one of my favourite music festivals because it is the only venue where you can lie on the grass, look at the stars against the lit-up shadow of the Qutub Minar, hear the rising strains of somebody's voice, a tabla, a sitar, a guitar... wander off for some hot chaat or halwa or chai, and have the music call you back to its feet.

The festival organisers also claim that it is dedicated to the youth of Delhi, which is why there is always one popular fusion band each evening, to go with the classical performance.

This year, there are Pt Debu and Prateek Chaudhuri, this Saturday, along with Euphoria (of dhoom pichak dhoom fame).

On Sunday, there are the Nizami brothers, the Qawwals, and Shankar-Ehsan-Loy (of Dil Chahta Hai fame)

Now, I'm happy.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Shit - 3

Most of us, let's face it, do not think about things that do not concern us. We say, or at least, think - "What's it to me?" or "Not my problem" or "Hame kya? Hamara kya jaata jaata?"

Most of us look the other way. I don't pretend to be very different. Things that absorb my time, attention, capacity for outrage, are usually things that I see, feel, fear. Things that resonate with me because, in some form, however briefly, I've experienced them.

Manual scavenging, as a problem, as an outrage, resonated with me because, although I have never had to pick up anybody's shit, I know what it feels like to step into it.

My real association with this story, thus, begins four years ago...

I was a very young reporter working for Mid-day, and had to be out on the 'field' most of the day. As all women reporters know, one of the biggest problems with being on the field is toilets. Or, the lack of them.

This is not just because of our anatomy, or because of a special need for privacy. This is also because women's toilets - by and large - are non-existent. Especially in cities.

For instance, there are stalls for men - operational urinals, some of which even have running water... the luxury! - at almost all railways stations in Bombay. Not so for women. The few urinals that do exist are often locked - yes, padlocked, for god's sake! - with no attendant in sight. (I once asked why, and was told that this is because 'unsuitable' activities happen inside the women's loos. Go figure.)

Some women's toilets are used as a dumping ground - concrete and rubble from some railway construction project - or as store-rooms (have seen bags of cement stored inside). The logic being that 'women don't like to go here, anyway'.

And some are simply abandoned.

One day, at a station on the western line - somewhere between Andheri and Dadar - I actually managed to find a women's loo that was not locked. And made the mistake of stepping inside the darkened enclosure.

My foot squelched and sank into something soft. It took a couple of seconds to register what the mess was - it was about two inches of shit. Human shit all over the floor.

I withdrew the foot and stepped back outside.

Suddenly, it seemed as if the world had turned dark. As if the station was empty. There was just me, and my outrage. And the overwhelming humiliation.

I didn't recognize the feeling, immediately. At that time, I burst into tears. It took a week to recover, a week before I could stop my mind from going back to that moment of shock and bursting into tears all over again, before I stopped feeling like I needed a million baths.

But now, I clearly recognize that feeling - it was humiliation.

When I discovered that there are people in this country who must handle shit for a living, the humiliation returned. The outrage returned too. If one accidental brush with a clogged toilet could make me so miserable, could reduce me to tears - how must they be feeling? What does it do to you - psychologically, emotionally - to have to do it, day after day?

If I cannot forget that one accidental day, how do they live - constantly struggling to forget? Why should they not live in denial? Why should anyone expect that, one fine day, they will rise up, revolt and throw away their brooms, because we tell them to?

I know that if I had to do their work for even one week, I would be destroyed. My spirit would die. What right have I to expect that their spirit, their sense of dignity, their sense of self, will be intact? Intact enough to make them stop doing their work, without a moment's thought?

No wonder, the one effective bargaining tool activists have is the word 'children'. Your children... do you want them to go on living like this? And it always prompts a response - 'No. Not our children'. For the children's sake, they will throw a lifetime of humiliation away, throw away this livelihood, break down the structures that lead to this humiliation.

And no wonder, public sanitation IS an issue with me. It IS personal. It IS a part of my politics. That day, four years ago, at a suburban railway station in Bombay, it ceased to be somebody else's problem.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Shit -2

Every morning, the women get up and leave their own homes, to go to the homes of people whose excreta they will shortly handle. Some go at 4 am, or 6 am, or 7 am. It all depends on how many homes they have to clean.

Nowadays, there aren't that many. But there are enough to keep an estimated 12 lakh people involved in this shit-handling business.

No gloves, no face-masks. No disinfectant, and often, no water to bathe with, afterwards.

90 % of the time, it is women who do this. Sometimes, they even profess a deep sympathy with their employers, because they understand that women, at least, must have 'a place to go'. Where public flush toilets are not available, it is but natural that dry laterines will persist.

This, I did not understand.

When I pointed out to the scavenger women that these poor women, whose shit they were going to carry, were often loaded with gold jewelry, and that the government anyway gives huge subsidies for the construction of new toilets, they fell silent. They had never thought about that. Nobody had ever taught them to think like that.

So, I prodded - why do they do it?

Because, they said, they didn't know how to do anything else. They were never sent to school. Their brothers were sent, often. But they were not. Or, if they were, they were withdrawn after class 3, or 4 or 5.

And what do their men do?

Some men do the same task. They are more often assigned to community dry laterines, where - because of much larger volumes of shit - they use wheelbarrows to transport the stuff. Sometimes, they get the women to do the actual cleaning of the laterine and only do the transportation themselves. Many more men tackle the sewers.

Many toilets - even though they are pour-flush/wet laterines - are built on top of a septic tank. Once every few years, people need this tank cleaned. Once, every few years, the male scavengers will go down into this sewer, wearing only their lungis or their underwear, with a bucket and a stick. That's all.

Some die. All that trapped sewage makes for noxious gases. Open the manhole and, if you don't watch out, the posionous gases knock you out. Once unconscious, if you fall in, you're as good as dead. If you don't fall in, you could be very seriously sick.

Each life-threatening cleaning job will only cost Rs 500-600. It is done mostly at night. Because, in the daytime, the open tank will stink and the house-owners don't want the smell. Also, because the law stipulates that - if such tanks must be cleaned, the worker be provided with proper equipment, and that oxygen masks be handy. Of course, there is no oxygen mask. Of course, there is no protective gear.

But such jobs don't come by every day. In Nand Nagri, I was told that one man only gets to clean a septic tank maybe once in two-three months. The household is run by women, the rest of the time.

These women are not always brought up cleaning shit. Some, like Meena, went to school. She, clearly, did not enjoy lifting shit.

Why did she do it?

Because she didn't have a choice.

If their mothers don't induct them into scavenging, their mothers-in-law do. Or their husbands do. If their husbands are also scavengers, they will often work together. For instance, the man, using a stick, will un-clog the gutter into which the shit is flushed. The woman will pick it up and carry it in baskets.

The filthiest task is left to the woman, wherever possible.


Because, like I've said here, manual scavenging is about caste, about gender, about oppression.

In the caste order, it is not the sudra, but the sudra woman who is at the bottom of the heap. And you oppress those you can oppress, because they're at the bottom of the heap. Those who have been conditioned into thinking that this is their lot, and this is their duty. Those who think they cannot escape, for they have nowhere else to go. Those on whom you can collectively gang up, and whom you can accuse of breaking a social code, should they try to escape. Those whom you can beat the shit out of, because everybody else does it, and has been doing it for centuries.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shit - 1

A month ago, somebody asked me what story I was working on.

I told her.

'Manual? What?"

"Manual scavenging."

"What's that?"

"It's when people lift other people's shit. Real, literal shit, not the metaphorical kind."

She shook her head. "Really? So where will you be traveling?"

"Different places. But I will start will Delhi."

Her husband shook his head. "Delhi? This doesn't happen in Delhi."

He refused to believe it. "It can't be... maybe in villages where people are backward."

I don't blame him. We all think we're so progressive and this sort of thing doesn't happen in India. Not in the cities. Possibly, in the villages, where people don't know any better.

That is what we want to believe. That is what we cannot bear not to believe. That is, nevertheless, the truth. It is illegal. It is unfair. But it is the truth.

Yet, I understand the reluctance to accept it. I find it hard to speak about it. And naturally, even those who must do this ultimate-in-filthy-jobs are reluctant to talk.

In Delhi, in Shahdara, I met the women whom you could call, in polite terms, manual scavengers. In Panipat, in Haryana, I met some more. In Punjab, in Samral, yet more.... when we talked about it, we referred to manual scavening as "ye kaam" or "kacchi khuddiyo.n ka kaam" (work of the dry laterines).

They're usually neat, polite smiling women. Women who scoop up human excreta with a piece of tin and a rough broom and put it in bamboo baskets which they must carry away. On their shoulders. On their hips. On their heads.

Which is why many a government document mentions the term 'headloading'. Some government officials have even been insensitive enough to counter dalit activists' accusations of the continuing of the practice of headloading by saying that "they don't carry it on their heads; only their hips."

It is hard to come to terms with it, is it not? That there are a few thousand, tens of thousand, a few lakh people who must lift other people's excreta to be able to survive. That we immediately take to technology via mobile phones and CD players, the moment we can afford it, but we will not invest a few thousand rupees to build new toilets, to buy better sanitation, to hire consultants to think about what can be done towards better sewage systems.

To think that we let it happen - that nobody takes out processions in protest, that no bandhs are called in the capital, that nobody ostracises anybody in your city who employs another human being (at the rate of Rs 20 a month, and the occassional roti) to lift and carry your shit.

These are not nice things to think about. And I don't blame anybody for not wanting to think about them. But think, all the same.

Listening to radio in Bankok?

"on my way back from the airport, I flipped on the radio to 102.5 and SexyBack by Justin Timberlake was on, followed by silence, then Nelly Furtado's Maneater, and then...more silence. For some reason I have this mental image of a military dude sitting in a closed radio booth trying to decide on what to turn on next -- Stars are Blind by Paris Hilton or Buttons by the Pussycat Dolls? Oh, the dilemma!
In the meantime, all other radio stations have resorted to playing hotel elevator music."

This is about the radio situation in Thailand, extracted from a Thai girl's blog, which is being updated fairly frequently.

Here's another blog from Bangkok.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gentlemen's letters

A few months ago, I met an old gentleman (and there is no way you describe him, except as a gentleman) who used to work in public health. In his seventies, and still volunteering, still very upright, very straight-backed, very soft-spoken and very 'correct'... (if it was possible to fall in love with somebody in the future that is suggested by the present, I could easily fall in love with him). The sort of man who will draw up a little cushioned stool to the telephone which is kept in a corner of the corridor near the hall, dial the number for you, hand you the receiver, ask you to sit on the stool while you talk, and step away to stand at a polite distance himself.

I found myself thinking that if only I was sixty years old, I'd marry this old man (except that he already has a charming wife in her sixties).

This is the sort of man who begins his email, addressing me as 'Dear Ms Zaidi' and 'with reference to your letter dated.....' and goes on to tell me about his most recent holiday with his wife, before moving onto more professional matters.

I found myself responding with a letter that began with a prim "hope this finds you in a best of health and spirits".

Having written this line, I paused and thought - I have never, ever, used this line before. We were taught to use it in school, in semi-official correspondence or when writing to a great-aunt you've never met but who religiously sends you boxes of chocolates. Nobody says things like 'hope this finds you in the best of health...' outside of school homework in language class. Maybe not even there.

But I did say it. Because it seemed right. Because now, I know what it means. Because it was a straight-backed, upright, correct, gentlewomanly sort of thing to say.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Night Out; Step Out

Blank (that which is not allowed meaning, form, articulation). Noise (that which heightens, builds itself).

There will be articulation. There will be meaning. There will be a build-up to something we all want.

Safe streets. Safe nights. Women out on safe streets at night.

Friday Night.

9 pm.


[Confirm by calling Blank Noise Delhi at 98734 85284 at Jasmeen]

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Of fruit peel and invisibility

There's a fruit-stall near my office building. Actually, it is not even a stall. It's just a woman sitting on the ground with a basket of fruit, a knife, a bowl, a packet of kala namak and masala, a stack of leaf-bowls (we call them donaa; what's it called in English?) and toothpicks.

I'm a regular customer.

Today, there was some sort of argument going on. A man was berating the woman for leaving fruit-peel lying around. She doesn't, actually. She puts the waste in a separate basket behind her seat and carries it away at night (I think).

The trouble, it turns out, is not littering. The trouble is that a lot of poor kids have been falling sick. The fruit-wali is being accused of letting these poor kids eat her waste.

She denies this. Says that it is the migrant labourers' kids and they don't even ask her permission. They sneak up behind her and as soon as they think nobody's looking, they grab some fruit-waste (cores from apples and pears, papaya or mango peel, badly bruised bananas) and run.

I stood there, looking left and right and all around.

This is an office area. There are no poor kids, except the regular ones begging at the traffic signals; I have seen them hiding their rotis by sticking them in the iron railing on the road-divider. But I saw no labourers, no slums, no shanties, no children.

And suddenly, I saw that it is possible to become invisible.

So invisible that you eat fruit-peel from a trash-basket in a busy office area in the heart of the capital, and nobody really sees.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Evicting thinking minds

Vikram is a good friend who delights in irreverence and for whom I have a great fondness, in part, because of this irreverence, his love of laughter and his quest for the funny side of things.

However, some things are never funny. Mobs, for instance. Especially 'patriotic' mobs who don't have a single original idea in their head. Even their chest-thumping love for the motherland is derivative, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

Vikram writes -

I was already feeling very angry at people who refuse to question their beliefs (of religion, society, childhood conditioning, education, politics, etc.). And instead, choose to push me around to confirm to their beliefs.

So when the national anthem started, it was the LAST straw. I decided I WILL NOT be dictated by politics. And I WILL NOT stand up for the national anthem. I BELIEVE that one can show respect sitting, and so I WILL do what I BELIEVE.

As it turned out, he was abused, assaulted and evicted from a cinema theatre in Mumbai, for choosing to feel patriotic in his own way. This is tantamount to abusing, assualting and evicting a thinking, questioning mind, a creative patriot.

I usually stand up for anthem without any fuss, partly because it is too much trouble to fight the norm. Also because I don't want to face mobs. But yes, I'd like the option not to. I'd like the legal, constitutional, public option not to.

Because, like the poet said, ishq par zor nahin....

Love (and respect) is about wanting to. Love (and respect) - even if it is for a piece of geography and barbed wire, even if it is an incomprehensible mix of things you love and loathe - cannot be forced. You will, when you will, how you will, if you will.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Complex majority?

Bolivia, it seems, is living the curse of 'interesting times', as are we all.

This situation is very interesting. Some people are on strike, which is not very remarkable. What is, is what the strikers are objecting to. From the report,

"The strikers are objecting to plans to allow a constituent assembly to amend the charter by simple majority vote."

Now, will somebody explain - in a constituent assembly (in a democracy, one assumes), if you can't change things through a simple majority... how are you supposed to change the charter?

The report says that -
"A power struggle between Bolivia's wealthier, white elite - which opposes the changes - and its indigenous majority is at the heart of the row."


Saturday, September 09, 2006

One district, one bureaucrat

Dr Manohar Agnani is one of the few bureaucrats that one is glad to have met.

I've encountered him twice, when our professional paths crossed, in Madhya Pradesh; each time, he showed me how one committed district collector can make the difference between a bad state of affairs and a changing state of affairs.

The first time I met him was in connection with the terrible sex ratio in Morena district, from where he was transferred. However, he'd stumbled upon that problem while trying to tackle another problem - that of malnutrition and inefficient anganwadi centres.

One of the key differences between him and other officials is that he looks upon a problem as a problem - as something that needs fixing, not something to get defensive about. And he knows enough not to be frightened by statistics. For instance, if the data shows that 49.21% of Madhya Pradesh's children are malnourished and this figure is higher than in previous decades, it doesn't necessarily mean that there are more children eating lesser. It could also mean (and probably does) that the most recent data is the most accurate, most comprehensive data ever collected. It is the first time that each block in each district of the state has been covered, through the Bal Sanjivani Abhiyan.

He explained, "Recently, the 8th round of the Bal Sanjivani campaign survey was completed and the figures shot up. But before this, malnutrition data was being collected through the ICDS centres (anganwadis). However, only 60-65% of the children in the age group of 0-5 years are enrolled in ICDS. The remaining percentage is usually the worst affected - the poor, the marginalised, the geographically remote. Any calculation based entirely on ICDS alone was bound to be false, because the incidence of malnutrition is highest in areas that can't be reached through anganwadis. Now, our access to these children has gone up from 60% to 90%. The figures have shot up but there's more objectivity now."

Being a trained professional himself, Dr Agnani is also aware of how the statistical parameters work. For instance, "Internationally (in the West, in particular) the norm is to monitor the child's height against his/her age. Or, to check the weight against the height. But the problem in India was this - a malnourished child will be both shorter and lighter for his age. If you look at height and weight as a parameter of growth, you're bound to be misled. So, we measure weight against age, instead."

The district's medical officials are working with NGOs, with UNICEF, and with anganwadi workers, to operate nutritional rehabilitation centres. In seven months, the district has built up a capacity for 76 beds, and is implementing a scheme that allows the mother to stay in hospital/special ward/rehab centre, and feeding her as well. The centres have, in fact, gone beyond the bare bones of the scheme. Local organisations have been requested to help with space and materials in any way they can - clean bedsheets, old toys, clothes for the children.... anything that could make the place liveable for the fortnight during which the mother and child stay there.

"You have to understand - the government is making an effort. Our target was to reduce severe malnourishment, to bring it down to 1% by the year 2007. That has been achieved (it is 0.91% in MP)."

One of the important follow-up steps is to educate the family of the affected child - to tell them what to feed the child, from amongst foods that are available locally. This is especially significant because along with the 'mainstreaming' of tribal culture, a lot of traditional food-knowledge has been lost; in fact, a lot of food diversity has been destroyed, with most farmers growing only wheat or rice by way of grain and not knowing what to do with the wealth of green, leafy plants that grow easily in their environment.

The district has sent on a list of 70 recipes to the capital. These are recipes that could easily be implemented at anganwadi centres (a move that requires government sanction) at little extra cost, and would do wonders for nutritional diversity.

However, food availability is linked to work availability and public distribution of rations. Any district collector who wants to beat hunger must bring in the NREGA, implement the minimum wage, and ensure that ICDS and PDS work effectively.

Therefore, the district administration tackles complaints related to the public distribution system on a war footing. (It is important to mention here that his predecessor, M. Geetha, was equally active in trying to bust PDS-smuggling rackets; during her tenure, there were several raids by the police and lakhs of tonnes of PDS grain was caught, while being diverted elsewhere) Dr Agnani has issued orders to the lead (the person/agency who must take rations from the government godown and send it on to the link/society, who in turn will distribute it from ration shops) - the lead must 'lift' the rations by the 15th of each month and certify that it has been sent on. By the 18th, the administration sends out teams for surprise checks, to see if this has been done. On the 20th of the month, they demand that distribution begins. Officers are made personally responsible and must be present at ration shops during distribution, which must be finished by the 22nd.

No change of schedule is permitted.

This may not be a leak-proof method but it minimizes the window of opportunity for smugglers and black-marketeers. Also, as word spread, the poor know, on which dates they might expect their rations. The shopkeeper can no longer tell them - "The grain hasn't arrived, come later." or "You came too late; the grain is finished."

Another problem is kerosene. Since kerosene (PDS kerosene, in particular) is much cheaper than petrol, it is diverted towards running trucks and cars, instead of the stoves of the poor.

The Shivpuri administration alone caught at least 40 vehicles in a single month. Also, there is a false assumption that vehicle-owners don't use kerosene because it harms the engine. The truth is, the damage is not extensive and the affected part is very easily replaced, while the savings on fuel are much greater.

However, there's a whole mafia involved. One district cannot do much unless all other districts come down hard at the same time. The state, all the states, have to tackle all of these - fuel-adulteration, rations, minimum wage, malnutrition rehabilitation, schools and anganwadis - simultaneously.

Dr Agnani recognizes this fact, when he says - "Those who fail on one front, will fail on all others."

Bad, bad journo!

Apparently, these journalists were paid by the US government to put anti-Cuba things in the media.

Further down in the article is this:

"... a row erupted in Argentina between Cuban President Fidel Castro and Juan Manuel Cao, a reporter for Miami's Spanish-language Channel 41.
Mr Cao put Mr Castro on the spot and the president replied by asking if anyone was paying him to ask that question.
Mr Cao has now admitted being paid by the US government, the Herald reports."

They've lost their jobs now, but I think they've already made a neat little pile.

Friday, September 08, 2006

some more noise

The Blank Noise Project has been active in Delhi over the last few weeks.

Posters have been put up, streets have been negotiated, students have been encouraged to volunteer, plans have been made and re-made.

Like I've said, street sexual harassment is a way of life. But after talking to other people about the project, recently, I found some relevant concerns resurfacing and some of my ideas hardening into a resolve.

For instance, this business of what exactly is street sexual harassment; how do you define it? How do you demarcate the acceptable from the can't-be-helped from the worthy-of-retaliation from the criminal?

How do you tackle this business of 'we feel intimidated even if they are not molesting us'? How do you handle the class factor, the caste factor? How do you make the streets safe, without making them cold and distant and shorn of human warmth and vibrancy?


All of us are agreed, more or less, that we will not put up with groping, pinching, pushing, stalking, threatening etc. If any of the above happens, we feel perfectly justified in slapping/punching/taking-him-to-the-police.

But I cannot, will not, deny a man's right to whistling, song-singing, comment-passing, propositioning, making of kissing-noises, staring etc.

This is a tricky situation.

Because, when they're stared at, commented-upon, sung at, a lot of women feel violated in an intangible way that they can't quite articulate.

What can be done with this sense of violation and fear?

One option - make the women aware, at an early age, that they do have the option of staring back, throwing back verbal insults, turning down a proposition, staring down a man.

This too is tricky - because, we often read of women, when they did rebuke or refuse, were faced with physical assault, or with acid-throwing.

Then, there is the business of a 'good gaze' and a 'bad gaze'. The buri nazar, the lech, the male gaze.... call it what you will - what is it? After all, people must look at each other. Appreciatively, one hopes. The trouble is that one does not want appreciation from everybody. One does not want to be looked at, by everybody.

That is where caste and class come into play. Hemangini has a very well-thought-out post about this tricky question.

A lot of us - a lot of us who are educated, who can read this, who have access to the net, who wear various kinds of clothes at will and not because we don't have other options - are uncomfortable being looked at when we are out on the streets. A lot of us wear jackets, or stoles on the streets, but throw off the outer garment the moment we step into a disco or a party at a friend's home. Because we assume that the people who look at us there are people like us. People who are used to looking at women in revealing clothes.

And yet, as Hemangini points out, these 'people like us' will often slow down while driving their cars, and offer lifts to a pedestrian woman - persistently, without cause. Some of them will race down on a bike, inches from a woman body, sometimes brushing against her, sometimes pulling at her clothes. Will stare at you in malls, outside cinemas, in discos.

But women do not necessarily mind being looked at by 'a certain class of man'. There is much 'eye contact' at pubs and malls, between strangers. This is something people routinely look forward to.

And so, we (at least, I) cannot ask the man on the street to stop staring, leching, whistling. We cannot punish him for his poverty, for the fact that he has nowhere else to be, except the street.

Even so, Blank Noise volunteers have conducted some interesting experiments. Like the one in Bangalore where the volunteers took over a certain railing on a certain road, which was usually occupied by men. They just stood there, and stared, exactly like the men did on a daily basis.

This, to my mind, is a reasonable reaction. Reversing roles. Claiming and using the streets in the same way that has been used against you, until now.

Taking back the night. Taking back the streets. Talking back.

So far, so good.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I'm annoyed.

Somebody from NDTV (or claiming to be from NDTV) called me up. From a 'restricted' number. Asking if I wanted to be a part of XYZ program.

I said, 'huh?'

He said that he had got my cell phone number from a 'database' and could I tell him my name please?

At first, I refused to give him my name.

He persisted, saying that even if my answer was a 'no', it was better to give him my name and other coordinates, so that they did NOT call me in future.

I mean... hello? NDTV?

Calling up random people, without knowing their names or anything about them, and putting them on panels to express views (about what?) is not necessarily the best way to go about news. And picking up people's numbers off databases, making unsolicited phone calls... that's the sort of thing telemarketers do, and that's the sort of thing that has been disallowed, you know. Don't do it!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A little light drinking?

I get some really curious words and their histories, through the World Wide Words Newsletter (on bloglines).

This one - etheromaniac - deserves a post (which is essentially a copy-paste job because the link wouldn't function properly), primarily because I find it somewhat amusing.

Etheromaniac : person addicted to ether as an intoxicant.
Some have been known to inhale it, but true etheromaniacs drank it. The imbibing of ether was a widespread practice in parts of Ireland during the nineteenth century. Some contemporary reports point to a temperance campaign by one Father Matthew in 1838 for starting it, while others say it was an unintended result of a crackdown by the authorities at that time on the illegal brewing of poteen, whiskey made from potatoes.
The effects of ether were like those of alcohol, but the drinker passed through the stages of intoxication to insensibility much more quickly. He also sobered up after only a few minutes with no hangover. One problem with drinking ether was that it turns into a gas at body temperature. To get around this, the usual technique was to drink a glass of cold water followed by a shot of ether. The water cooled the mouth and throat sufficiently to get the ether into the stomach in liquid form. A frequent side effect was violent belching of flammable gas. Since houses were lit by naked flames, ether drinkers sometimes set themselves and others alight.
The practice was etheromania and drinkers were sometimes described as etherists and etheromanes as well as etheromaniacs. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1891 wrote of local women in Ireland holding ether bees.
Etheromania was also recorded from Scotland, Norway, Russia, Italy, France, parts of the USA, and Britain—an article in the Nebraska State Journal in 1897 said, "In London the keepers of the various squares and parks often find under the trees empty vials labelled 'ether' that have been thrown there by the maniacs who quit their homes in order to indulge their favorite passion at their ease".
The practice died out in the 1890s in Ireland after the government reclassified ether as a poison that could be sold by registered pharmacists only.

The Balance of Peril

In 'Do Not Feed The Humans', (and sub-titled 'The global Explosion of Fat') the author says the world has more to fear from food than the lack of it.

Egyptian, Mexican, and South African women are now as fat as Americans. Far more Filipino adults are now overweight than underweight. In China, one in five adults is too heavy, and the rate of overweight in children is 28 times higher than it was two decades ago. In Thailand, Kuwait, and Tunisia, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are soaring.

Hunger is far from conquered. But since 1990, the global rate of malnutrition has declined an average of 1.7 percent a year. Based on data from the World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, for every two people who are malnourished, three are now overweight or obese. Among women, even in most African countries, overweight has surpassed underweight. The balance of peril is shifting.

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