Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Do we really want justice?

If we were to make a list of the most urgent problems in India, I can safely bet that ‘politicians’ would be on everyone’s list. They might even top the list. They are on my list too.

Corruption is endemic. We are defeated by it in every way imaginable. And while politicians or bureaucrats are definitely not the only ones guilty, it is actually important to focus on political leaders. Not just because India is represented by politicians, but also because they reflect our own aspirations. They are our face in the mirror — a face bloated out of all recognition but still, there’s no denying that the politician’s face represents the majority.

This is key: Representation. It is why ministers are called upon to resign when something goes very wrong. Say, a railway accident happened and the fault lay with faulty equipment or over-worked drivers. The rail minister may offer to resign, as a way of saying: ‘I am in charge and a systemic failure is my failure’. If it is clear that another group of people are responsible, they must be punished instead.

If we fail to punish politicians in a democratic way, our democracy sours. When we fail to question politicians about why they act in ways that are contrary to the electorate’s values and aspirations, we are building a society without accountability.

If we do this over several years, then there is little doubt that this is what we actually want for ourselves — we do not want to be punished for corruption; we do not want to be held accountable at our jobs; we recognise that we ourselves would divide people on the basis of caste and religion because it suits us to do. We would inflict violence upon other citizens when we think we can get away with it, and that is why we do not really cry out against politicians. Because far too many of us are guilty of the same acts of commission and omission.

This is part of the reason why I was very pleased to hear that Sajjad Kichloo, Minister of State (Home) had resigned in the wake of the violence that broke out recently in Kishtwar, Jammu and Kashmir. Kichloo may or may not have ‘felt’ responsible. After all, the army was called out in a few hours, a curfew was imposed, and hundreds of people were not killed.

Still, there were allegations that the state police did not do its job. And so, the minister shouldered his responsibility and the J&K government promptly ordered an inquiry. Therefore, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has every right to ask — what about Gujarat 2002?

There was evident mismanagement at least, if not a deliberate pogrom. One can ask the same question about Delhi, 1984. In fact, one should ask and one is asking. What about Bombay 1992? What about 1993? Who resigned? How long did it take for someone in power to take responsibility?

Surely, someone should have resigned. Surely, a good leader does not promote and reward trouble-makers? Surely, such leaders don’t deserve to be re-elected?

But if we continue to insist that this is good leadership, if we continue to elect such men and women to office, then that is a way of saying that we are electing what is us. At least, the majority of us. That the twisted face in the mirror does not just wear our face like a mask. That face is our face. That soul is our soul, and it does not crave justice.

Which leaves us with this awful question — if not justice, then what do we actually crave?

First published here

Monday, August 19, 2013

Getting out of the cage

By now, you would have read some reams about what stops our great nation from being truly free etcetera. 

I’ve been reading a lot of books recently that were written before 1947 or set in the ‘Colonial’ era. These books have been breaking down the neat constructs of schoolbook history. We’d been given to understand that the British sailed east (like the Portuguese and French), saw that India was rich, began to wage battles against ‘our’ kings and began to rule India.

But the truth was slightly different. For starters, there was no ‘us’. There were hundreds of kingdoms, all part of a power hierarchy. A kingdom could be ‘sovereign’ but it might have to pay tribute to a bigger, more powerful kingdom. That was the only way to stay ‘independent’. It was the only way a king or queen could stay on the throne. If kings or queens were devoted to citizen welfare, they would also sign peace treaties to save people from violence and total economic ruin in the course of war. Our ‘foreign invaders’ could be Bhutanese (from Assam’s perspective), Maratha (from Bhopal’s perspective), or Tibetan (from Spiti’s perspective).

But Britain gained in power to the extent that almost all kingdoms – despite racial and cultural differences – suffered. Taxes were heavy; wealth was leaving the subcontinent. Now, there was a common enemy, racially different and blatantly discriminatory. So enough people – even the rich – could say: ‘Quit India’.

It took a long time but Britain did quit India, politically at least. And ‘India’ was born. But that didn’t mean we stopped trying to enslave other citizens.

There was a recent news article about a domestic worker from Jharkhand, a teenaged girl, who was beaten and starved for three days by her employer. Does this not sound like a slavery? The teenager survived but imagine her situation – she doesn’t speak any of the three main languages that most neighbours would have spoken; she had no money and circumstances at home were probably desperate enough for her to be sent to Mumbai in the first place.

Another report from Kanpur. A husband asks his pregnant wife to undergo a sex-determination test for the foetus. She refuses. He pours acid on her private parts. Now think of the wife’s situation – perhaps she has no money or property; if she had walked out on her husband before, she would face the risk of attacks from other men. The police and legal system being what it is in our country, she couldn’t have hoped for timely intervention in any case. Does this not sound like a slavery-enabling system?

It has become fashionable to dismiss M.K. Gandhi and his methods of non-violence, non-cooperation, and self-reflection. But there is a reason Gandhi chose these tools in the struggle for freedom. What was being done to us by imperialist forces was violence. Indians were not necessarily being locked up in a cage, or whipped. Those might be our mental images of slavery. Our main shackles were economic and psychological.

We could not make decisions for ourselves, nor controlled natural resources. If we tried to, we confronted physical violence. Which is exactly what is happening to hundreds of millions of Indians today. If one can’t make decisions about how resources will be used, who to have sex with, and whether or not to have babies, how can a citizen be called free?

This is why the question of “women’s freedom” needs the same answer, the same tactics. Non-cooperation. Non-violence. De-conditioning. If freedom means anything to us, we must struggle as if we struggled for India, in the name of humanity and justice.

First published here

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Flushing for karma

I was slightly jealous when I read about this Kerela initiative – 'e-toilets' at government medical colleges. These toilets are called Eve's Own for they will reportedly have napkin-vending machines, incinerators, automatic sensor taps, fans and lights that auto-start when you step in. Plans include sensitive doors that open only if the water tank has enough water.

Of course, it is a pity that these are restricted to medical colleges. There is no reason why all public toilets should not be woman-friendly. Even if they're coin-operated, it would be a huge improvement from current washrooms where coins are no guarantee against dry taps, broken door latches, flooded floors, and worse.

Curiously enough, I have often heard it said that “women's toilets are dirtier”. Usually it is women who say this. Having not been in a men's toilet, I cannot compare but I have been to offices and restaurants that have no separate male and female toilets. I found there was very little difference in levels of cleanliness. This must mean that women are either not that much dirtier, or that they become more careful about toilet habits if they know that men will be witness to these habits. Or, men are cleaning up after women (hey, the world is full of wonders!)

Back in college, I recall discussions where girls would swap tales of toilet adventure. I myself recalled how my mother always carried a bedsheet when we went on outdoor picnics. Others mentioned moms who usher kids to the edge of railway platforms, urging them to just 'go'. One girl mentioned that she had witnessed saree-clad women relieving themselves whilst standing upright. This had quite an impact on our youthful imaginations – the possibility of doing such a thing had not struck us before, but in an emergency... Of course! One can and one should!

Over the years, I had my share of fury and frustration. As a young reporter who was always on the move, this was anxiety number one – how far was the nearest loo? I remember times when I was out on assignment in residential colonies, and there was not one public toilet in the area. I waited hours before an option presented itself, then I'd be lucky if the door was not locked. If there was running water, I felt positively blessed.

All Indian women are familiar with this sort of panic, regardless of whether they are 'working' women or not. For one, there is no guarantee that there is a toilet even in the house. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 3), only 26 percent of rural India had access to sanitation. A Unicef report estimates that 54 percent of India does not have access to clean, safe toilets. Hundreds of millions live in mortal terror of – at worst – an attack by human or animal or insect, and – at least – the fear of infections. Things are not much better in cities where there are no semi-discreet woods or rocks or fields, so you could just go under the open sky.

Life is hard enough without having to worry about how much water you can afford to drink before you step outdoors. Many women endorse glassy air-conditioned malls just for their promise of usable toilets.

I have personally lived with the panic for so long, it has made me a believer of sorts. I worry a lot about toilet karma these days. If it is true that what goes around comes around, I better be careful and leave a toilet as clean as I want to find it. So help me god!

First published here

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Down the drain... Back again?

Did you hear about the contamination levels of waterfronts in Mumbai? It's worse than it used to be. The beaches are filthier. And what's more, much of the contamination is faecal matter. Yes, shit mostly.

Before you start blaming the hundreds of thousands of people who must squat on the beach – although there is that problem too – consider the facts. Mumbai generates 2677 litres of sewaage, every day. Of this, only 774 million litres is treated. The rest just goes into the sea.

Perhaps you have heard of men dying in sewers while trying to clear blockages. Sometimes, people die just breathing the noxious air around a manhole. There was a news report about the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation wanting to install a ventilating system over manhole covers, after three people died from the poisonous gases wafting up. There was another report about a seven-year-old boy dying after he fell into an open drain in Mehrauli, Delhi.

India has hundreds of open drains in each city, and there are hundreds of cities. It is high time we began to ask – how is it that we invest hundreds of billions in aircrafts, even space-craft, but are unwilling to find clean, efficient technologies to fix the overwhelming toilet and sewage problem?

How is it that we continue to flush our filth into rivers that form our drinking water supply? In Pradip Saha's documentary 'Faecal Attraction', a dual question is posed to the citizens of Delhi – where did they think their water comes from, and where does the shit go? 

Some respondents sheepishly admit that the answer to both is probably the river Yamuna. Others, including young and educated citizens, seem to think that once they flush the toilet, the sewers carry their shit to a mysterious location, a convenient 'somewhere else'. As the documentary shows, sewage usually flows into water bodies like rivers, lakes, or else, groundwater.

India generates 38,000 million litres of sewage a day. 35 major cities account for over 15 million litres. The government can treat only 12,000 million tonnes, about one-third of the total. The Central Pollution Control Board released a report called the ‘Status of sewage treatment in India’ a few years ago, which said that the problem was likely to magnify to unmanageable levels very quickly.

In one interview, Bindeshwar Pathak (founder of Sulabh Sauchalaya) was quoted as saying that, even if we halt the development of our cities, it would still take India 3000 years to lay safe sewer lines leading to centralised sewage treatment plants. Only 269 towns (out of 7000) have treatment plants. Experts suggest that a large part of the problem is that we depend heavily on the state, and the state itself banks on a centralized system of sewage treatment. Basically, this means that we are not responsible for our own shit.

I can't help wondering why we don't look to our glorious ancient culture when it comes to sanitation? Thousands of years ago, the Indus Valley civilization had invested in sewage systems. Humanity is as much about shitting as eating or procreating, after all.

Nobody likes to embrace shit, of course. But we simply can't go on if we let it flow into rivers and seas. There are other, better ways of treating sewage. The technology exists. And every cooperative housing society, every bunglow, every town ought to invest in it, just as we invest in security systems and water filters. We cannot eternally outsource the problem of sewage to the government. We need to start seeing it as part of our own struggle to build a decent life for ourselves.

First published here

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