Final National Report for 9th AIDWA CONFERENCE2010
We now examine the major national issues and developments of the last three years and how they have affected women’s lives and our movement.
Rising Prices and a Weakened PDS
For the mass of women of India, the greatest source of worry and tension has been the huge increase in prices that has led to a collapse of household budgets, especially of the poor. The rise in the prices of essential commodities, particularly food has been astronomical. The price of tur dal climbed to an unheard level of Rs 100 per kg, sugar reached Rs 50 per kg and commonly consumed cereals such as wheat, rice, jowar and bajra, milk, and vegetables have also become unaffordable. This is causing many households to cut back on meals, and the impact is being felt the most by women, who eat last and least. The responsibility for this shocking situation rests squarely with the UPA government. Its neo-liberal policies and its refusal to take necessary measures to curb prices have led to this situation.
Rising Fuel Prices
One major reason for the ongoing inflation has been the continuous increase in the prices of fuels by the UPA regime. The UPA-I government raised the prices of diesel and petrol at least 10 times, and as if that was not enough, they were raised 3 times in the space of 16 months by the UPA-II government. International oil prices that spiked due to speculative trading have declined rapidly after the onset of the global recession. The price of oil rose by only 70 paisa per litre since May 2009, but petrol has risen by Rs 6.44 and diesel by Rs 4.55 per litre. It is a total fallacy to state that the oil marketing companies are facing a loss when the Indian Oil Corporation made a total profit of Rs 10,998 crores during 2009-10. Government taxes make up 51% of the price of petrol and 30% of the price of diesel. So while the increase in prices burdens the common people both directly and indirectly (as transport costs go up), it actually benefits the government the most. Even there the rich are favoured--the excise duty on petrol is Rs 14.75 per litre compared to that on aviation fuel, which is only Rs. 3.60. The Congress led UPA government is clearly working in favour of private oil companies. Recently the price of CNG was increased from 1.8 $ per unit to 4.2 $ per unit, in order to benefit Reliance. Decontrolling the price of petrol will enable them to make large profits in the open market.
Rural women are increasingly dependent on kerosene as wood fuel becomes scarce. Due to a government decision to scale down PDS kerosene quotas, more and more ordinary households and poor working women in cities are changing over to LPG as cooking fuel. The increase in its price by Rs 35 per cylinder and PDS kerosene by Rs 3 per litre has hit them the most.
Secondly, the permission to indulge in futures trading by the government has resulted in the huge increase in the prices of essential commodities. In his Report, the Chairperson of the Expert Committee to Study the Impact of Futures Trading on Agricultural Commodity Prices (ECFT) clearly recommended the suspension of futures trading in six critical commodities, viz. wheat, rice, arhar, tur, sugar, and edible oils. He also noted that futures trading had not benefited Indian farmers in terms of better prices and reduced price volatility. Yet the government has now revoked the initial ban on the futures trade of rice and wheat.
It has also liberalized the inter-state movement of food grains and relaxed the stock holding norms of corporate houses and traders, who are making huge profits at the expense of the common people. This has led to black-marketing and hoarding. There has been poor stock management, especially of sugar and pulses. The government did not build up a buffer stock of sugar. Despite signals of ensuing shortages, sugar exports were encouraged by giving incentives. When a shortage arose, it was imported, but instead of consumers, it is the traders who have benefited in the process. Even today, sugar is not being adequately supplied on the PDS to BPL households.
Further Decimation of the PDS
The further and systematic decimation of the PDS in the last three years has taken away its capacity to rein in open market prices. Even the Supreme Court was moved to take to task the Minister for Food and Civil Supplies, who ignored its earlier order to distribute food stocks procured from farmers to the poor, instead of allowing them to rot in the godowns. As part of its policy to privatize trade in food grains, the government prefers to offload them on to the open market at prices higher than the current PDS prices. In fact, APL quotas to states have been cut by as much as 75%, and additional stocks are now being offered at double the current APL prices. Even BPL stocks are not being adequately supplied.
More Targeting in the name of Universalisation
The much-promised Food Security legislation is yet to see the light of the day. The original proposal to restrict the PDS to around 7 crore BPL households identified by the Planning Commission, who would be supplied 25 kg grains at Rs 3 per kg, has been shelved. The revised proposal based on the recommendation of the National Advisory Council to introduce geographical targeting is even more dangerous. It proposes a “universal” PDS in 150 selected districts that will supply all households 35 kg of wheat and/or rice at Rs 3 kg. In the remaining districts, those identified as “socially vulnerable groups” will be supplied 35 kg at Rs 3 and in the same districts, other households will be supplied 25 kg at some “appropriate price”! The 2.5 crore Antyodaya families will cease to exist. In other words, there will be multiple targeting and different criteria for discriminating between the poor, all of whom are in dire need of food. This is apart from the fact that there are no criteria specified regarding the selection of either the districts or these socially vulnerable categories, and no time frame for extending it to the rest of the country. It confines the concept of “Food security” to the narrow definition of supply of wheat and rice, leaving out important nutritional programs such as the ICDS supplementary nutrition program and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme. It must be soundly opposed.
A Food Security Act that universalizes and strengthens the PDS/A ban on future trading in essential commodities/Strict action against black-marketing and hoarding/ Rollback of increases in the prices of cooking gas, kerosene, petrol and diesel/Specific instead of ad valorem duties on petro-products/Creation of an Oil Stabilisation Fund
UPA–II: Worst than the First!
The two phases of the UPA- before the Lok Sabha elections (in 2009) when the Left was extending outside support, and after the Lok Sabha elections when they have a majority on their own, carry different implications for the women of this country.
Before the elections, national progressive women’s organizations including AIDWA teamed up to formulate a detailed critique of the UPA - I Government’s policies. Recognizing the need and importance of a government that would implement pro-people, pro-women, independent and self-reliant domestic and foreign policies, they appealed to women to vote for a secular alternative that would safeguard the interests of women.
However, the elections threw up a verdict in favour of the Congress and its allies. The terrorist violence culminating in the Mumbai attack in November 2008 heightened the people's concern for unity and the popular mood was against the BJP's communal platform and the agenda of Hindutva. Nevertheless, the third alternative could not become a credible option. The Left parties decision to withdraw support to UPA-I when it signed the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2009 could not become a rallying point in their favour in the elections. A sustained disinformation campaign around the issues of Nandigram and Singur was launched to discredit the Left. The reduction in the Left presence in the Lok Sabha has been a severe blow to the interests of the working people and women, since their ability to intervene and stall anti-people measures has been considerable weakened.
The Congress benefited from some of the pro-people measures it undertook due to the consistent pressure exerted by the Left Parties, such as the passage of the NREGA, the Forest Tribal Rights Act, the RTI Act, the PWDV Act, etc. and the farmers’ loan waiver scheme and increases in Minimum Support Price for certain crops. The worst fallout of the global meltdown was blocked because of the stiff resistance put up by the Left to deregulation of the financial sector. However, these could not be translated into votes for the alternative formation. But most of all, the Congress received massive backing from the big business section in the country, which had registered enormous gains during the five year rule of the UPA-I. India gained 36 dollar billionaires, whose assets equal 25% of the country’s GDP during that period. It is this section that also provided the money and the muscle power for bourgeois parties. The phenomenon of ‘paid news’, whereby candidates paid huge amounts for entire pages of advertisements in the guise of news, and the use of liquor and a variety of appeasements to bribe the electorate was a hallmark of this election. It points to the increasing marginalization of those who stand for the rights of the common people, and makes it even more difficult for women candidates. No wonder that the number of crorepatis in the present Lok Sabha has almost doubled from 154 in 2004 to 304 at present.
It is significant that a government that came to power with a convincing majority in May 2009 has now had to strike all kinds of deals with other parties to maintain its position. The popular response to the call for a ‘Bharat Bandh’ on 5th July on the issue of increased petroleum prices, the 7th September joint strike of the national trade unions that included the participation of the (Congress-affiliated) INTUC, etc., all point to the palpable dissatisfaction amongst the aam aadmi and aam aurat with the UPA-II government, due to its relentless pursuit of the neo-liberal path and its increasing deference to US imperialism.
Crony Capitalism and Corruption
Our country now appears to be in the grip of the limitless greed of profiteers. The latest scandal is the Commonwealth Games, where the Chairperson of the Organising Committee, a Congress MP, has been accused of giving shady contracts to dubious companies, and the Central Vigilance Commission has found that false construction quality certificates have been issued. Nevertheless, the government is unable to dislodge the guilty. None less than the Minister of State for External Affairs was forced to resign after news broke that he used his position to influence the allotment of shares in the IPL (cricket) to his friend. The Telecom Minister has been accused of causing a loss of more than one lakh crores to the exchequer by undervaluing the 2G spectrum auction to favour private operators. It is alleged that Reliance benefited by at least Rs 65,000 crores when the price of its KG basin gas was raised a few months ago. The Chief of the Medical Council of India was arrested for accepting a bribe of two crores to award an affiliation certificate. And in Bellary, Karnataka, the estimated value of the lakhs of tonnes of iron ore illegally mined by elected representatives is more than Rs. 30,000 crores. It is also well known that the UPA-I government survived the no-confidence motion moved by the Left on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal by striking a deal with certain MPs from the opposition benches.
Neo-Liberal Attack Intensifies
Such crony capitalism is indeed the hallmark of the neo-liberalism that is now being pursued even more vigorously by the UPA-II government, especially because it is no longer dependant on the Left.
Continuing Agrarian Crisis
There has been a further decline in the growth rate of agriculture, which has been negative at minus 0.2% last year. Suicides of farmers continue unabated in most parts of the country despite several Central and State relief “packages”. In Maharashtra, for example, between 2006 and 2008, Rs.20, 000 crores worth of relief was announced, but the total number of suicides rose to 12,493. Although much issue was made of the plight of the suicide affected widows during the May 2009 General Elections, women’s issues continue to be made invisible.
Decontrol of fertilizer prices has resulted in an acute seasonal shortage of fertilizers, leading to riots and deaths of farmers in police firing in Karnataka, Rajasthan and other states. Collapse of exports due to the global recession and speculative volatility in the prices of cash crops such as sugarcane, coconut, cotton, rubber, coffee, tea, as well as wheat, rice and maize have caused farmers to be ruined, especially in the absence of remunerative Minimum Support Prices. The free trade agreement with ASEAN countries will particularly hit farmers in states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and the North-–East region. Despite the negative experience with Bt-Cotton, there was a move to introduce genetically modified Bt-Brinjal seed that was effectively opposed by peasant and environmental organizations.
There is no improvement in credit allocations for the priority sector and the dependence on private moneylenders continues. Huge tracts of agricultural land are being taken over for non-agricultural purposes and speculative trading through distress sales to corporates and private parties; at times, this is facilitated by the land mafia that has the patronage of the ruling political parties. Women without land titles are increasingly becoming dispossessed in the process and losing employment in the agricultural sector. Climate change leading to unprecedented floods or drought has also played havoc with the lives of peasants.
Recognition of women as farmers/Agricultural loans at 4% interest/Remunerative MSP for farmers/Subsidies for agricultural inputs/At least 10% of the budgetary allocation for agriculture
The UPA regime has not learnt the lessons of the global recession. It has continued with measures that will render the country vulnerable to the vagaries of speculative financial capital.
The cap on FDI in the insurance sector has been removed. It is proposed to increase the limit of FDI in petroleum refining PSUs to 49%. 100% FDI is being permitted in mining, defence and other strategic sectors, and 49% in the commodity exchanges. Restrictions on Participatory Notes, a dubious speculative form of investment from undisclosed sources that may be harmful for national security have been removed. Increasingly banks are turning to profitable but high-risk retail credit lending in the form of credit cards, auto, and consumer durable loans. Indirect steps towards full capital convertibility continue in the form of liberalized limits on Foreign Institutional Investments.
Further disinvestment of shares in the public sector banks is planned. 10% shares of profit-making PSUs Coal India, BSNL, Engineers India Ltd., Hindustan Copper, SAIL, etc. are slated for disinvestment in the name of ‘people’s ownership’. The public sector continues to be by far the best employer for women, and the disinvestment is a great cause for concern for us. Around 2,70,000 crores of rupees that are presently part of the Provident Fund corpus of employees is sought to be invested in the share market without any guaranteed returns to them.
One of the companies slated for disinvestment is BSNL. TRAI has ruled that it should pay additional spectrum charges whereas the private companies have been exempted. TRAI has also ruled that it should pay license fees based on its revenue, whereas private parties are to pay based on their income. This is a clear case of discrimination and an effort to convert BSNL into a loss-making unit so that eventually it can be sold off for a song. What is more, the government is offering BSNL employees a 5% discount on the shares to be disinvested; this is a move intended to make employees unwittingly complicit and blunt their opposition to the process of disinvestment.
The proposed new Direct Taxes Code seeks to give further tax exemptions to the rich while the middle class are being further squeezed. For example, the Code intends to tax the post retirement benefits such as Provident Fund, etc. but seeks to raise the exemption limit for wealth tax to Rs 50 crores. The rate of wealth tax is being further reduced from the already meagre rate of 1% to 0.25%! Corporate tax is sought to be reduced by 5%. There is a move to abolish the Securities Transaction Tax (on speculative deals in shares, etc.), the rate of which has already been reduced.
While several services used by ordinary people are being brought into the tax net, thereby raising the indirect tax burden on people, the government is giving away revenue to the tune of 80000 crore rupees in every budget in the form of tax exemptions; on the other hand. This is an important issue for women because the government cites the lack of funds as a reason for privatization of health and education services. Funding for many schemes for women and children (for e.g. the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, universalisation of ICDS, shelter homes for women, crèches, etc.) suffers for lack of budgetary support.
Capital controls in the financial sector/No privatization of public sector banks, insurance companies, and PSUs/Increase in direct taxes to raise revenues for social sector expenditure
Although the Indian economy was somewhat cushioned from the aftershocks of the global recession, it would not be true to say that it remained unaffected. The so-called “de-coupling” theory is fallacious, because the financial sector liberalization and export orientation of the UPA government’s policy has resulted in the Indian economy being inextricably linked to the global economic order. The immediate effects were seen in the growth rates (which had crossed 9%) declining to between 4-6 % in the last two years, with larger variations in different sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, services, etc.
The largest decline was in the export sector. For example, exports in January 2009 declined by 15.4% compared to January 2008. The export sector is estimated to employ around 1.5 crores of people in both direct and indirect terms. The Commerce and Labour Ministries have estimated that around a 10 lakhs of jobs may have been lost especially in the gems and jewellery, garments, engineering goods, chemicals, leather and handicraft industries. As we know, a large number of women are engaged in these sectors. The Apparel Export Promotion Council reported in November 2008 that nearly 7 lakhs or 10% of the total workers in the garment export units of Bangalore had been laid off. The diamond industry in Surat immediately reported a job loss of more than four lakhs. The carpet industry reported a 10% in export orders. Similar trends have been observed in other sectors, but we do not know how many of those affected are women. With increasing competition, where there is a large home based component, piece rate wages are bound to have declined, affecting the livelihood of women dependent on this type of work. It is estimated that of the 1.5 crores of women employed in the unorganized sector, at least half are in home based work.
Another sector in which women are employed is the retail sector. The organized retail sector that had grown in recent years after the IT boom collapsed, and reported an 11% decline in sales in 2008 alone. Several well-known retail chain stores such as Subhiksha and Reliance closed down, causing direct job losses for women. Yet the UPA government recently announced plans to permit FDI in the retail trade sector, which will affect the small petty traders and shopkeepers in a big way. The tourism industry was also affected, and showed a decline of 17% in January 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008. The construction industry also suffered especially as housing credit dried up, throwing millions of women, especially migrants out of jobs.
While estimating the loss of employment, we must not only account for the jobs lost directly, but also those lost due to the decline in the growth rates of these sectors. These itself could run into crores of rupees.
Despite this adverse impact on the economy, the government has done little to actually give relief to the people, relying mainly on monetary measures such as lower interest rates for housing to stimulate the economy. The total fiscal stimulus amounted to just 1.3% of the GDP. The main point is that the trajectory of the UPA government’s policies continues on the same discredited neo-liberal path. They are bound to lead to greater and greater hardships for women and the working class in general.
Roll back of neo-liberal policies/Protection of the Public Sector/An Employment Guarantee Scheme for the Urban Areas
Currently, India is ranked 134 out of 182 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) and 114 out of 155 countries on the Gender Development Index. The slogan of “inclusive growth” that was propounded in the Eleventh Five Year Plan remains mere rhetoric. The Government has been reducing coverage of many social welfare schemes such as widow and old age pension schemes, Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, and the Janashree Bima Yojana by restricting them to the BPL category. This effectively excludes a large section of people who are in need of these benefits.
The latest NSSO data shows that nearly four crore people have been pushed into poverty due to their inability to cope with health expenditures. The major portion of it consists of the cost of medicines, but the government does not include this aspect in its interventions in the health sector. Public expenditure on health as a share of GDP remains at 1%, less than the 2-3% promised by the UPA when it came to power, and the 5% recommended by the WHO. Due to the deliberate closure of public sector units, there is a huge shortfall in the supply of vaccines in the country. This has endangered the entire immunization programme, and proved to be a bonanza for the private pharmaceutical industry.
The death of 49 babies who were part of clinical trials of five foreign drugs in the prestigious AIIMS brought to the fore the issue of unregulated clinical trials in which poor women and children are made into guinea pigs. Similarly in Andhra Pradesh, 4 tribal girls died and it was only the intervention of AIDWA and other organizations that revealed that they were part of a project to test the a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer (HPV). Utmost vigilance is required in this matter, because MNC pharma companies are taking advantage of the situation to push Phase 0 and Phase I trials in India.
The major initiative of the present government in the health sector is the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM). After 4 years, it has received only 57.5% of its total 11th Plan allocation of Rs. 89,500 crores. At present there are around 7.89 lakh women working as ASHA’s under the NRHM.). There has been a 4% decline in India’s MMR, primarily due to the increase in institutional deliveries in some key states. There has also been a marked increase in full immunisation in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, etc. Nevertheless, the government is not willing to acknowledge that the ASHA’s provide such a vital service to the community. They are treated as voluntary workers, and not paid any wages but only given incentives for certain services. In January 2009, the then Health Minister had announced that ASHAs would be paid an honorarium of Rs 500 per month, in addition to the incentives, but this has not been implemented. West Bengal is the only state to pay them a package of Rs 800 for the different services rendered by them.
ICDS and MDMS
Although the target for universalizing the ICDS is 2010, hardly 40% of the eligible children under six are presently covered by it. The budgetary increase for ICDS has been around 460 crores, which is just about enough to cover existing centres, but cannot provide for the total 14 lakh anganwadis to become functional as per the Supreme Court directive. The UPA government has decided to ‘restructure’ ICDS in accordance with the directions of the World Bank. The World Bank is advising setting up mini anganwadis and is advocating the targeting of some areas over others, with coverage restricted to BPL children. Most dangerously, in the name of ‘Public Private Partnership’, the ICDS services are being privatized. Big corporate houses are being invited to ‘adopt’ anganwadi centres. The supply, preparation, and distribution of supplementary nutrition are being handed over to NGOs and other private bodies. Against the recommendations of nutrition experts, there is a shift from locally preferred freshly cooked meals to the provision of ‘Ready to Eat’ food in the anganwadi centres that will only benefit the packed food manufacturing companies.
Similarly, the 16% increase in the budget for the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) is inadequate in the context of a 20% rate of inflation in food items. Neither full coverage, nor minimum quality can be ensured. This service is also being farmed off to private companies like Vedanta in Orissa, and other states are following suit.
MNREGA (as NREGA has now been renamed) has been expanded to all 600 rural districts. Micro studies are showing a positive impact of the Act in arresting distress migration. However, the CAG Report released in 2009 pointed out grave deficiencies in the implementation of the Act. The monitoring and social audit component has been found to be extremely weak, allowing for major leakages. There have been complaints of funds getting siphoned off from states with the poorest delivery systems like UP, Bihar, and Jharkhand. There are massive delays in payment of wages. Women, especially single women, continue to face discrimination in access to work under the scheme. The provision for crèches at the work site is sporadic. Convergence of MNREGA with other schemes, revision of the Schedule of Rates and flexibilisation of works from women’s point of view are issues that we need to pursue in the coming days. The Central government has capped the wages at Rs 100, effectively shifting the burden of the wage component beyond this limit to the state governments.
The Right to Education Bill was finally passed 7 years after the Constitutional Amendment that makes it a fundamental right. But it continues with the same inadequacies that we had pointed out earlier - restricting this right to children between 6 and 14 years, and lack of measures to improve infrastructure and to restrict fees charged by private schools. While it talks of mainstreaming physically challenged children into general schools, there is no provision for special teaching. It makes a complete mockery of the concept of ‘neighbourhood school’ by simply stipulating that a certain percentage of less advantaged children should get free admissions in elite private schools, without ensuring their access to all the facilities available to the children from affluent classes. The Model Rules are presently under discussion. In most states, the state governments and local self-government institutions are yet to put in place the mechanism and budget for its implementation. The UPA-II government is pushing ahead with the Foreign Educational Institutions Bill that will result in foreign players opening commercial teaching shops. RTE includes mainstreaming for disabled children by putting them in general schools, but makes no provision for special teaching.
The Bhopal Verdict
The verdict for punishing the guilty in the world’s worst industrial accident finally came after a quarter of a century. More than 20,000 people died and 5 lakh continue to suffer grievous health problems because of the poisonous gas leak in Bhopal in 1984. The then Congress government had accepted an out of court settlement for compensation of only Rs. 713 crores that amounted to an average of Rs 12,410 per person. The Chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) Warren Anderson was allowed to leave the country. 8 Indian executives (of whom one is now dead) of Union Carbide have now been awarded a mere two years imprisonment and a paltry fine of Rs one lakh each. They were immediately freed on a personal bond of Rs 25,000 each. UCIL was fined a bare Rs five lakhs.
It is only because of the national and international clamor raised about the verdict that the Congress government has belatedly announced an additional compensation package of around 968 crores, but that too is inadequate. It has also filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court to challenge the 1996 Supreme Court judgment that pronounced that the Bhopal disaster was an act of negligence and not culpable homicide by Warren Anderson and his Indian colleagues. Even today, the government is not willing to compel US MNC Dow Chemicals that bought UCIL, to clean up the Bhopal site and the environment and take responsibility for compensation claims. This is in stark contrast to the manner in which Obama forced petroleum giant BP to pay $20 billion dollars for a clean-up package for its oil-spill off US shores in the Gulf of Mexico.
Civil Nuclear Liability Bill
Bhopal drives home the need for laws that protect the safety and lives of ordinary people. Most countries have laws that put a minimum floor on the compensation to be paid in case of industrial disasters. But the UPA government has passed the Civil Nuclear Liability Act that puts a ceiling on the total financial liability of a nuclear accident to Rs 2140 crores, and that of private operators to only Rs 1500 crores. This blatantly lets off private US nuclear equipment suppliers (from whom the government is already committed to buy nuclear power reactors) from any responsibility. While the Left Parties stiffly opposed the Bill, the BJP ultimately struck a compromise that allowed the passage of the Act, which was passed in indecent haste to ensure it is in place before the visit of US President Obama to India later this year.
Women’s Reservation Bill
Yet the UPA – II shows no such haste to pass the 33% Women’s Reservation Bill, now pending for the last 13 years in Parliament. Although the Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha by 186 votes to one on the 9th of March 2010, there appear to be no moves to complete the process in the near future. In fact, the Bill has become a hostage in the hands of the UPA government, which is using it to make deals with parties opposed to it in order to pass other contentious legislation. Apart from the long-standing demand to introduce sub-quotas for OBC women, a new point that has been raised is the demand for the representation of women from minority sections, especially Muslim women. The issue of under representation of Muslims in general is a serious one, but quotas based on religion and community cannot be applied only to women reserved seats, and need wider Constitutional changes. However, we must note that the demand has struck a chord within the minority community, and caused further debate within the women’s movement, already divided over the quota within quota issue. For us, it is a challenge to press our view that the Bill in its present form will actually increase the number of women from OBC or Muslim communities, as seen from the experience of 33% reservation in local self-government institutions.
The proportion of women in the Lok Sabha has crossed 10% for the first time and a record 59 women have been elected - The Indian National Congress (23), the BJP (13), the TMC, SP and the BSP (4 each), the JD (U), the Shiromani Akali Dal, and NCP (2 each TRS, RLD, Shiv Sena, DMK and CPI(M) (1 each). Since the percentage of women contestants was 10.61% as compared to 12.67% during the 2004 elections, it would no longer be true to say that giving seats to women is a losing proposition. There are nine (11.53%) women in the Council of Ministers as against 10 in the previous Government, of whom four are of Cabinet rank. It is a welcome fact that at this juncture, the President, the Presidents of the ruling as well as the major opposition parties, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha are all women. However, that does not at all mean that there is a pro-women slant in the government. Nothing exemplifies this more than the long pending Women’s Reservation Bill.
50% Reservation in Local Self Government Institutions
Meanwhile, the Government has moved towards 50% reservation for women in panchayat raj and municipal institutions. We welcome this step, but it cannot be a substitute for the reservation in Parliament and State Assemblies. It will result in around 14 lakh women being elected to these institutions. In Kerala, where the LDF has announced 50% reservation for women, there is a guarantee that both resources and decision making powers will reach the panchayat members, since there is a 10% allocation for gender specific schemes In West Bengal and Tripura, the panchayats and local bodies have a gender focus and a gender allocation. The increased presence of women can become more meaningful only if it is accompanied by other measures including training and other support mechanisms to improve their participation. In many states, dalit women panchayat presidents are still unable to exercise their powers due to the social discrimination. The panch pati syndrome is yet to be rooted out.
Some feminist groups in our country have been campaigning for representation of women as an exclusive interest group separated from ‘party politics’. This age-old effort to separate women’s politics from the broader framework ignores women’s agency in politics arising out of conviction and commitment. Real change is possible only if the women’s movement links up with those fighting a political battle for class, caste, and gender equality. As for fighting patriarchal trends within political parties, they need to be combated internally and not by withdrawing from larger political struggles.
The situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is once again in turmoil. Every day, more and more young people are falling to the bullets of central paramilitary forces. Even juveniles are being jailed. Instead of reacting with sensitivity to a spate of stone throwing incidents, both the Central and State governments are treating it as a law and order problem, resulting in a cycle of violence. They have failed to recognize the deep sense of alienation amongst the common people, especially the youth. No action has been taken against those responsible for killing local people in fake encounters (most recently in Machil). There is a high rate of unemployment. Most of all, the promise to give maximum autonomy to the state remains unfulfilled.
Significant numbers of women are in the forefront of these street protests, especially because their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers are being arrested or killed. They are also protesting the harassment of women by security forces, including forced body searches and instances of sexual assault. The Shopian case, where two women were found murdered in a stream under mysterious circumstances, was botched by the police so badly that it became impossible to find the real culprits. While CBI claims that the two women in Shopian died of drowning, this was rejected by the Commission enquiring into the incident. Despite the tensions, the Amarnath yatra continued undisturbed, a pointer to the inherent tolerance and goodwill of the people of Kashmir.
Separatist and Divisive agendas
Extremistorganizations in Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, continue with bomb attacks that are killing hundreds of innocent civilians, arbitrary kidnappings, and extortions. The continued use of the draconian aspects of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA) in both Kashmir and the North East and the harassment by security forces has sparked off protests amongst women, the most notable being that of poet Irom Sharmila, whose indefinite fast completes 10 years.
The demand for a separate Telangana state continues to divide the people of Andhra Pradesh. Uneven development has given rise to several demands for separate states. This goes against the basic principle of linguistic organisation of states. Smaller states are more vulnerable to pressure of both the Central government and big corporate companies. The real solution is people oriented development.
The BJP’s communal agenda
The BJP continues to push its core Hindutva issues, and its various fronts indulge in anti minority violence and seek to curb women’s democratic rights. It has voiced its vehement opposition to any plan to improve the welfare of the minorities following the Sachar Committee recommendations. It is totally opposed to any move to award greater autonomy to Kashmir.
The continuing efforts of the Sangh Parivar to create another Gujarat in Orissa were transformed into an anti-Christian pogrom after the murder of VHP leader Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati in Kandhamal. Scores of people were killed, thousands of homes looted and burnt down, over 140 churches and prayer halls attacked and desecrated. More than 20,000 people including women and small children were forced to flee to a precarious existence in relief camps, while an estimated 50,000 were driven to seek refuge in forests and other cities. Those trying to return home were forced to undergo re-conversion to Hinduism by the VHP. Initially, the BJD government, which was earlier in an opportunist alliance with the BJP utterly failed to tackle the violence.
Once again, women bore the brunt of the violence. A 19-year-old girl, working in an orphanage as a nurse, was burnt alive. In one instance, women were taken to the village square, stripped, and tonsured to intimidate them. The rape and public humiliation of a nun was witnessed by 12 policemen of the Orissa State Armed Police, who did nothing to stop it. It took widespread condemnation before the complaint was registered. Even today, widows and women victims live in fear and hiding.
There have also been a series of attacks on Christians and the destruction and the desecration of their places of worship by the Sangh Parivar in Karnataka. Attacks on Christians, their churches, and even their burial grounds have taken place in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Chattisgarh.
In Karnataka, nine places of worship of Christians were attacked in Dakshina Kannada district, three in Udupi district, and three in Chikkamagaluru district on the same day.
The systematic projection of Narendra Modi’s “achievements” dangerously diminishes his criminality in the public mind. The arrest of Home Minister Amit Shah along with senior police officials in the murder of Sohrabuddin Shaikh and his wife Kausar Bano and the Magistrate S.P. Tamang’s report on the killing of 19 year old Ishrat Jahan point to the cold blooded, ruthless and blatant use of state power in so called encounter killings with the purpose of boosting Modi’s image. It is therefore all the more imperative to persist with legal interventions to ensure that those responsible for the communal carnage of 2002 are brought to justice. The sentencing of 11 of the accused in the Bilkis Bano case to life imprisonment is important and helps to strengthen this resolve.
Chauvinist forces such as the Maharashtra NavNirman Sena (MNS) have reared their head and are pursuing a narrow sectarian agenda, targeting “outsiders” such as people from Bihar and UP in Mumbai and other industrial centres of Maharashtra. Unfortunately, such forces quickly assume a communal and casteist colour. Language, water disputes and other such issues are being used to incite people by various political parties. Although there may be a legitimate grievance behind such issues, there is little attempt to find a proper solution since it is raised for the purpose of electoral gain.
Terror attacks continue to be the instrument of destabilization by various forces whose agenda is inimical to the interests of common people. The November 2008 attack on Mumbai exposed the vulnerability of the city to a premeditated armed attack, and the unpreparedness of the Indian State to deal with such an emergency. Unfortunately, sections of the media ran a systematic campaign in order to create a sense of disillusionment and anger about “all politicians”. The 24-hour TV coverage focused on the elite sections, ignoring the plight of the poor migrant workers shot down at CST station. Recently there have been some arrests in the German Bakery blast at Pune. In Kerala, in a shocking incident the Popular Front of India has been held responsible for chopping off the hand of a college teacher.
Common men and women, united by outrage and grief, have not fallen prey to attempts to communalise the situation. Many organizations representing different faiths have come forward after such incidents to join peace initiatives. In a significant gesture, the wife of the slain Anti Terrorism Squad officer Hemant Karkare refused to accept an award of Rs 1 crore from Narendra Modi.
The fact that Islamist fundamentalists were behind these attacks has led to reinforced attempts by Hindutva forces to brand all Muslims as potential terrorists. This contributes to a dangerous communal polarization, which is a matter of constant concern for the democratic movement. In Jaipur, Bengali speaking Muslims have been hounded and harassed by the police after the serial bomb blasts that occurred there in 2008. The encounter deaths of Muslim youth at Batla House, Jamia Nagar in Delhi are still a source of disquiet and resentment. In the aftermath of the Mecca Masjid blasts at Hyderabad, scores of Muslim youths were rounded up and many were beaten and tortured. While there is no place in a democratic polity for heinous acts of terror that lead to the deaths of innocent people, neither is there room for the harassment and victimization of innocent Muslims in the name of combating terrorism. Such injustice will only help to push more young people into the hands of fundamentalist forces.
The rising influence of fundamentalists in the Muslim community must be tackled with a range of interventions. Along with impartial administrative action, there must be a concerted attempt to address the social backwardness and exclusion of Muslims, including women.
The Mumbai attack has also underlined the need for improved intelligence gathering mechanisms and cohesive strategies to counter terrorism at many levels. This includes a common understanding with Pakistan, given the dangers of growing Taliban influence in the border regions.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai attack, the UPA Government passed two new laws with a view to counter terrorism. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act establishes a new federal organization to investigate acts of terrorism and other offences including left-wing extremism. Significantly, it excludes right-wing extremism of the Hindutva variety. The NIA will supersede state agencies, which is an intrusion into the federal system. The second is the amendment to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) that radically changes criminal procedures by extending periods of police custody and detention without charges (180 days compared to the previous limit of 90 days), denies bail to foreigners, and reverses the burden of proof in many instances. There is potential for misuse of these draconian, POTA like measures.
There is mounting evidence that Hindutva fundamentalist forces have planned and executed a number of terrorist attacks across the country. Investigations have pointed to their masterminding the bomb blasts in Malegaon, Ajmer Sharif, and Mecca Masjid, among others. Under the cover of organizations such as Abhinav Bharat, Sanatan Sansthan, etc. they have established a covert network, the reaches of which have not yet been fully explored. These groups have been working actively to undermine communal harmony, with the objective of building a Hindu Rashtra. The arrests of a Sadhvi along with a serving army officer and others reveal the kind of sections that have been infiltrated by this violent ideology. The RSS brigade has tried to defend the so-called sants, and the BJP leadership has joined in their defence, stating that Hindus cannot be terrorists by definition! The revelations expose the biased mindset that has permeated sections of the administration and police, which always suspects minority Muslims and takes the innocence of Hindus for granted that has.
Communal Violence Bill
The Communal Violence Bill needs to be passed in the Parliament without further delay. However, the Bill in its present form requires radical changes in order to serve its purpose. Its present draft fails to clearly define ‘communal violence’ or has no proposals regarding the protection of minorities from communal violence. Although women are amongst the worst sufferers in such incidents, the Bill shockingly does not include sexual assault within the ambit of communal violence.
Fundamentalist Ideology versus Women’s Freedom of Choice:
As AIDWA, we have to work to counter all kinds of terrorist and fundamentalist forces that not only break the unity of the people, but also use women as a site for their politics. In the last few years, there has been an aggressive attempt to impose restrictions and curtail women’s roles and social participation
In Karnataka, Sri Ram Sene goons in Mangalore backed by ruling BJP State Government brazenly attacked women customers in public bars in the name of protecting “Indian” culture. Their leader issued a provocative statement that couples found together on Valentine’s Day would be forcibly married to each other. They have threatened to attack women wearing jeans. A young Hindu college student was abducted from a bus and terrorized for talking to her friend, a Muslim boy. They also attacked our AIDWA leader who supported the freedom of women to clothes of their choice during a TV discussion. However, ordinary women have resisted this cultural policing.
A particularly disturbing form of anti minority communal propaganda and violence was unleashed under the obnoxious term of “love jihad”. The occasional disappearance of a few young women in some places in Karnataka was utilized to set off a rumour that Muslim fundamentalists were deliberately luring Hindu girls into marriage for the purpose of conversion. The virulent campaign intruded the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University at Delhi where objectionable posters appeared but were pulled down by democratic sections amongst the students. The resonance from different sections including the judiciary to this accusation once again brings to the fore the suspicion and antipathy towards minorities, and more particularly towards inter-religious intimate relationships. This poses a special challenge for the women’s movement that stands for the freedom of individuals to choose their partners cutting across communities.
Equally, Muslim fundamentalist have been issuing various types of fatwas. A fatwa opposing women’s participation in politics has been soundly ignored by those women who have become candidates, particularly in elections to local self-government bodies. Although poverty and inflation force Muslim women into taking up jobs, the Deoband ulemas issued a fatwa against women working without purdah alongside men. While such fatwas find little practical support, not only do they underscore the anti-women stance of the fundamentalists, they also reinforce stereotyping of Islam as a dictatorial religion. It was therefore a welcome step when the meeting of the Ulema in early 2008 at Delhi upheld the rights of a Muslim woman to choose her husband, get talaaq, and refuse a coercive marriage.
In Darjeeling, couples walking hand in hand on the Mall were accosted and forced to apologise by Gorkha Janamukti Morcha activists who issued a diktat that expressions of love in public would not be tolerated. This shows how even chauvinist forces also are not far behind in placing restrictions on women’s behaviour.
Resurgence of Patriarchy and Regressive Ideologies
Supporters of globalization have always argued that this would lead to modernization of our lives and freedom from regressive ideologies including patriarchy. There is no doubt that for those who have benefited from globalization, there have been radical changes in lifestyle, in social habits and in cultural practices. This is particularly visible among young women from this class. They are able to flout traditional dress codes, enter new careers (IT, media, fashion, management etc.) and are able to exert individual choice against restrictive family norms.
However, it is only a very small segment that can access these privileges. The growing distance between the economically privileged and the poor caused by neo-liberalism makes all these signs of modernity class-specific. The sense of alienation from this modernity often encourages the continuation of a conservative morality and a resentment of those who go against it.
Even among the supposedly liberated elite classes, there is a resurgence of patriarchy and regressive ideas. If globalization is modernization, how can we explain this resurgence? The reason is that the post-globalization concept of modernity is completely market-oriented. Even a traditional or a regressive idea, if it has any potential for being converted into a commodity, can be polished and packaged for the market and presented to the consumer. The commercial media today abounds with such examples. In spite of all our movements against dowry, ostentatious Hindu upper class marriages are advertised and privileged in media. This shows that the huge market for consumer goods associated with marriage ultimately determines what is fit to be highlighted even if it reinforces the retrograde system of dowry.
Secondly, the state’s gradual withdrawal from its role of general public welfare and its growing abdication from its responsibility to keep a check on coercive and divisive practices has led to a fragmentation of politics. There has been an upsurge of identity-politics of all kinds. The consensus for common social justice is getting lost as different sections - castes, ethnic, regional, linguistic and religious groups - all fight for their separate spaces with growing intolerance against each other. While the intolerance may well be the result of neglect and exploitation, it makes it easier for global capital to make its incursions. The separatism it breeds establishes itself by going back to retrograde ideologies in the name of cultural identity. Just as the RSS seeks to unite all Hindu women under its banner by upholding a Hindu identity, tribal extremists in the North-East also seek to mobilize their women by enforcing a dress code. In this way, the global market, while still paying lip service to modernity, encourages all kinds of regressive ideas.
The Left has been the only political force standing up against the aggressive spread of neo-liberalism and exposing its shocking effect on the lives and livelihoods of the people. While its physical presence may have been small, its role as pioneer in thought, as representing the most advanced ideological positions could never be denied. Today, there is a concerted attack on the Left and an attempt to whittle down its social and ideological influence. The market ideology of neo-liberalism has challenged its position and has weakened the hold of Left ideology on people’s minds. Women’s issues provide an important locus where the effect of this weakening is evident. For example, the social pressure against dowry has weakened; there is open social sanction for the violence of khap panchayats, andthe power of religious rituals in marriage has increased. Strengthening the Left ideological perspective amongst the people is part of the struggle against resurgent regressive ideologies.
Crimes in the Name of Honour
As educational opportunities increase, and the age of marriage gets pushed back, more and more young men and women are entering into self-choice marriages. Equally, social conservatism is raising its head with a vengeance. Women are still seen as the repositories of honour and chastity of not only the family, but also the whole community. Across the country, there is stiff and violent opposition from parents and the community at large to marriages that transcend barriers of class, caste, and religion. This highlights how little democratic norms have filtered into rigidly hierarchical family and community structures. Examples of murder abound; in one ghastly case, the parents of a girl who had formed a relationship with a lower caste boy thrashed them both and then electrocuted them to death.
The most horrendous killings of such young couples in the name of honour are occurring in Haryana, parts of UP, and Delhi, many times such murders arise out of arbitrary and illegal verdicts pronounced by the self proclaimed khap panchayats (community courts). The participation of the community in the crime makes it very difficult to punish the guilty. A mob lynched 22-year old Ved Pal Mor when he went to his village to fetch his wife in the presence of 15 policemen. In the Manoj-Babli case, the killing of the couple for allegedly belonging to the same gotra was planned and executed in a diabolic manner. It became a landmark case because for the first time, the criminals received a stiff sentence from the magistrate, the result of a brave legal fight put up by the boy’s mother for 3 years. Cases of punishment meted out to parents of couples show that vested interests are also using this to acquire land, or other assets, and to browbeat families into submission. In the Mirchpur incident, the upper castes torched a dalit habitation and a handicapped girl and her father were burnt to death. The justification of this violence by the khap panchayat shows how there is a clear overlap between caste and gender violence.
In a sharp reaction to the challenge to their authority, the khap panchayats have sought to consolidate themselves by mobilizing opinion against the constitutional rights of young people. They have raised a demand to amend the Hindu Code Bill in order to prevent intra-gotra marriages. Unfortunately, political leaders from ruling parties such as the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal have yielded to these regressive voices in the interests of retaining their vote banks. A larger social reform based mobilization, along with legal support from the state would be required to counter this trend. AIDWA has demanded the formulation of a special legislation to tackle all aspects of the crime. The role of the police in such cases is also highly biased in favour of the status quo. The girl who makes a runaway marriage is forcibly brought back on the basis of false cases registered by her family.
Special Law to Deal with Crimes in the Name of “Honour”
Paying lip service to the growing demands for a special law to deal with crimes in the name of “honour’, the UPA Government has drawn up a Bill which has been referred to a Group of Ministers. It proposes to introduce a couple of changes to the section on murder (S302 IPC) and makes all members of the khap panchayats culpable. AIDWA, however, has demanded that a stand-alone, comprehensive legislation should be introduced, not only to deal with ‘Honour Killings’ but also ‘Honour Crimes’ and the glorification of these crimes. The law must also reiterate the right to choose a partner in marriage or to have a relationship. AIDW A has drafted a proposed Bill.
Blaming the victim
The callous remark of the Chief Minister of Delhi, herself a woman labelling the victim of a late night murder attack as “adventurous”, revealed how women are still blamed for being victims of crime. Scurrilous mudslinging against the victim or her relatives, propagated widely by the media, has become part of crime reporting. In the Arushi case, a young 14 year old girl who was found raped and murdered, was subjected to the most atrocious character assassination after her death by a gender insensitive and totally inefficient police force of Delhi. In the rape and murder of Scarlette Kealing in Goa, the police investigation into the case was tardy and ineffective but the media shifted its focus to her character, and her single mother’s alleged irresponsibility. In the Shiny Ahuja case where he raped the domestic maid working in his house, the effort was to show that a reputed film actor could not have indulged in such an act.
Pushing Back Progressive Laws
Although violence and dowry-related harassment continues unabated, a concerted bid is being made to push back the gains of progressive laws for women. Under the name of organizations such as the Save the Family Foundation, there is a continuing campaign against the alleged “misuse” of Sec 498-A of the IPC. While attempts to make it bailable and compoundable have not yet succeeded, a general direction has been issued that, no arrests are to be made in such cases without prior investigation by senior police officers. This is a step in the wrong direction, as women’s recourse to justice will be weakened.
Unfortunately, judges too are guilty of conservative and outdated notions. Shockingly, at a time when dowry is seen to be the driving force behind many deaths and cases of domestic violence, the Supreme Court has passed an order stating that gifts given after marriage cannot be deemed to have been given “in connection” with the marriage, and cannot therefore be treated as dowry. This sets a very wrong precedent and the misinterpretation of the words “in connection with marriage” to mean the marriage ceremony rather than the marriage legitimizes and further entrenches the illegal practice of dowry. A review petition filed by AIDWA was dismissed.
The brother of a young UP Brahmin woman killed her husband, father-in-law, brother-in-law, and friend because she had married a Malayalee boy of a lower caste. The SC outrageously reduced the death sentence awarded by the lower courts on the grounds that his was “an emotional and spontaneous reaction.” A review petition filed by the woman with the help of AIDWA is still pending
Similarly, the Chief Justice of India, at a seminar on “Relief and Rehabilitation of Rape Victims” surprisingly suggested that the accused rapist be allowed to marry the victim. There is an underlying assumption that marriage legalizes such a criminal act and normalizes it.
The fact is that relief and rehabilitation measures for victims of rape must be undertaken as a state responsibility, rather than through insensitive solutions like marriage to the rapist. The NCW and the Law Commission had recommended a scheme and a statutory law to deal with victim compensation along the lines of similar Acts in different countries. However, the Government has not taken any steps to do so and has introduced an inadequate amendment in the CrPC to deal with this issue.
In a judgment issued in Aug 2009, the Supreme Court has stated that kicking a daughter in law with a leg or threatening her with divorce will not amount to cruelty. This is a wrong understanding of what constitutes cruelty under Section 498 A of the IPC. It will set an extremely harmful precedent which will influence several lower courts judgements.
Rising Graph of Crimes against Women
The backlash is clearly reflected in the NCRB data on crimes against women (2008). It reveals that there has been a 49% increase in cognizable crimes against women between 1998 and 2008. The crime figures have shown increase in all categories, including dowry deaths, domestic violence, molestation, and sexual assault. There is an urgent need to expose and reiterate how the nature and extent of this violence is closely connected to the policy directions of the state. For example, women who form a large section of the unorganized work force, especially migrants, are extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The trafficking of women and children has increased manifold due to increasing poverty. The policy to liberalize sale of liquor has meant a much greater exposure to domestic violence. Cyber based crimes are yet to be addressed.
Attacks on Working Women
The murder of young TV journalist Soumya Viswanathan who was shot while driving back from work in the early hours of the morning in Delhi highlights the lack of safety for working women in a liberalized era. Pune, a centre of the IT industry has been rocked by a series of rape and murders of young IT professional women. The IT industry which has received huge concessions from the government seeks to save money by outsourcing its transport system at the cost of the safety of its employees. There is yet no sign of the Bill to prevent Sexual Harassment at the Workplace
Sex Selection Unabated
The implementation of the PcPNDT Act is far from satisfactory. A study by the Health Action group in Haryana, MP and UP found that there was pervasive and public knowledge about doctors and clinics which could be approached for performing sex selective abortions. The enforcement of the two-child norm has worsened the problem. Sex-selective abortion is viewed as a ‘modern’, ‘scientific’, ‘rational’ and financially sound practice while planning for small families, particularly in the northern states. In backward areas such as Morena and Dhaulpur in Madhya Pradesh, a range of traditional potions and methods are used and spiritual and religious leaders continue to be approached in order to ensure the birth of a son. AIDWA has to intensify its campaign against sex-selection in the womb.
There has also been an escalation in attacks on women who refuse to marry or have a relationship with their aspiring suitors. In retribution for what is seen as a grave injury to male prerogative, acid is thrown on the girl, to disfigure and destroy her for life. Such victims of acid attacks face agony, and long years of medical treatment. They are unable to access employment. The absence of relief and rehabilitation measures for these victims is a tragic lacuna in our system that has to be addressed by a special law. The NCW and then the Law Commission had recommended amendments in the IPC to deal with these crimes but no steps have been taken by the Government. Instead, it has stated before the Supreme Court that no special law is needed to deal with the crimes or its consequences. Our Patron and MP Brinda Karat has moved a private member’s Bill in the Rajya Sabha suggesting amendments in the IPC to address acid attacks.
The trivialization of the molestation case of the minor girl Ruchika Girhotra as reflected in the 6-month sentence handed out to the former DGP of Haryana, SPS Rathore, after 19 long years was a deeply disturbing indictment of our criminal justice system. It showed how influential people can manipulate the system to protect themselves.
The case highlighted the serious infirmities in our justice delivery system and in the law dealing with sexual assault of minors. NCRB data shows that while the rates of crimes against children, including those of sexual assault have increased by 70%, conviction in such crimes has decreased from 39% to 34%. This means a large majority of culprits committing such crimes against children are going scot-free. There is still no differentiation between a major woman and a minor child being subjected to molestation, for which harsher punishments should be provided. There also has to be extensive changes in the procedural laws to make the law more sensitive to women and minors. For example, all cases of rape and sexual assault should be decided within one year. There should be a provision for counselling and rehabilitation of the victims. The comprehensive Sexual Assault Bill prepared by AIDWA and endorsed by the NCW as far back as 2006 is still gathering dust in the Law Ministry.
The passage of the PWDV Act and its implementation after its notification in 2006 has been woefully inadequate in curtailing or tackling domestic violence. A third of the women in our country are still being harassed and tortured within their homes, and the victims have little recourse to the law because its dissemination and implementation is extremely weak. 50% of states have yet to take serious steps for appointing protection officers. Notable exceptions are Kerala and West Bengal where the state governments have designated Protection Officers in each district. In contrast in Maharashtra, the state government has decided to outsource their appointment to NGOs, sparking off a sharp protest from women’s groups. The Centre’s apathy is evident from its persistent refusal to provide budgetary allocations to set up the necessary infrastructure. The interpretation of the law by the judiciary is also flawed at times. As per one judgment, a married woman cannot claim a right of residence in the marital home if the house is owned by the in-laws.
Child Marriage and Age of Consent
The Law Commission has made certain recommendations that seek to restrict the incidence of child marriage, still widely prevalent in the country. The attempt is to make the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act more effective by making all under-age marriages illegal. The important ones are automatically making all marriages under the age of 16 years voidable (permitting any one of the parties to approach the courts to annul the marriage after 2 years of reaching the age of marriage). It recommends that the girl be given the right to maintenance for herself and her children from this alliance. It suggests stipulating the same age at marriage for both boys and girls as 18 years, increasing the age of consent of married girls under Rape Law to 16 years (this is applied only to unmarried girls today) and compulsory registration of marriages. They need to be widely discussed. There should be a clear distinction between relationships between young girls and boys, that clearly should not be criminalized, and instances of minor girls (16-18 years) being married off to men who are much older than they are.
Assisted Reproductive Technologies and Surrogacy
The last two decades have witnessed a rapid development of technologies that assist reproduction. Surrogacy is one method. In this day and age of market driven globalization, everything including motherhood and various body parts have been turned into marketable commodities. The practice of wombs being rented out for a price has become a thriving and lucrative business, and a part of the emerging “medical tourism” industry. What is required are a comprehensive Status Report and a National Policy on Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART).
The draft Bill prepared by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is more concerned with the legal protection of the medical practitioners and technologists involved in such procedures than in protecting the woman who is the subject of such procedures. Particularly in the case of surrogacy, it is mostly poor women in dire need of money who are used as surrogate mothers and they are the ones who require the support of a regulatory framework. This is particularly important in view of the argument that surrogate mothers do so out of their own choice and people have the right to the benefits of technological progress. The economic and familial pressures operating silently behind such ‘free’ choice cannot be ignored. As we saw with pre-natal diagnostic techniques, there is a danger of gross abuse of new technologies for pure commercial profit, especially when there is no system of regulated and informed consent. Issues such as the possibility of multiple pregnancies, sex selection, foetuses with genetic defects, abortions, etc are ignored. As happened in the case of the Japanese couple’s surrogate child whose genetic parents refused to accept her, there are many ethical, social, and economic issues involved. Unfortunately, the UPA Government has no time for such matters, preferring to let the practice flourish to the benefit of the private medical industry.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act
The Nikita case where a woman petitioned the courts to get permission for aborting a challenged foetus that was beyond the legally permissible limit of 12 weeks sparked off a debate on the provisions of the MTP Act. There is a proposal to permit abortion up to 24 weeks if the doctors state that it is medically safe. However, it will no doubt increase the risk of sex selection. The Government has brought forth a proposal to permit “Service Providers” to provide abortion services, apart from Registered Medical Practitioners. While we uphold the right to safe abortion, we cannot permit total deregulation f the system and allow the “marketisation” of abortion services. This will not only push up costs, but also jeopardize the health and safety of women.
Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage
The Government had brought a proposal based on a Law Commission recommendation to introduce a Bill in Parliament making ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ as a ground for divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act and the Special Marriage Act. It is based on the premise that a broken marriage that has no possibility of repair (irretrievable) then it should be dissolved without ascertaining the ‘fault’ (cruelty, desertion, adultery etc.) of either party. It can be obtained without the consent of the other spouse. Such a provision will have disastrous implications on women especially non-working homemakers, who will be at the mercy of their husbands. Today when a man wants to opt out of a marriage, he needs the consent of his wife. This provides an avenue for women to negotiate some economic settlement for themselves and their children. Our present laws do not provide any financial security to women who are separated or divorced, except the right to maintenance, which is inadequate. The amounts of maintenance and alimony awarded to women are meagre. They do not recognize the economic value of housework. There is no law that gives women any right in the assets that are acquired by the spouses during the period they have lived together, unless it has been acquired specifically in her name. Hence, unless the State ensures better economic and financial rights for women, the government should not introduce this amendment.
Amendments to the CrPC
In this period, the Government brought certain changes to the CrPC making it easier to make certain types of cases compoundable. As part of these proposals, there was a move to make S354 (Sexual Assault/Molestation) compoundable. A stiff resistance by our Patron and M.P. Brinda Karat resulted in the amendment being shelved. However, one controversial amendment has been to limit the power of the police to arrest persons who are accused of offences that are punishable with up to 7 years imprisonment. This may have an adverse impact on S 498 (A) - dealing with cruelty and torture - and S 406 - dealing with recovery of stridhan -of the IPC. There are some positive amendments, such as recording evidence at the place of choice of the rape victim, in-camera trials of rape cases, a three-month time limit on the investigation of child rape case, etc., but many others suggested by us have not been taken up.
The original demand that there should be an enumeration of the OBC community in view of the reservation benefits given to them snowballed into a demand for including caste in the 2011 census questionnaire. Now the UPA-II government has taken a decision to conduct a separate caste census in 2011. However, in the absence of correlations with other socio-economic data, it may turn out to be a futile exercise that simply provides numbers, and strengthen those who use identity for political gain.
The failure of the state to protect the rights of dalit women, who suffer from caste, class and gender oppression, has been one of the worst injustices perpetrated by the ruling class. The NCRB reports that the year 2008 witnessed an increase of 11.9% in crime against Scheduled Castes with 33,615 cases in 2008 as compared to 30,031 in 2007. A total of 1,457 cases of rape of dalit women were reported as compared to 1,349 cases in 2007, an increase of 8%. Uttar Pradesh has reported 375 cases accounting for 25.7% of the total cases reported in the country followed by Madhya Pradesh (357) with 24.5% of the total.
In a travesty of justice, the Nagpur bench of the Mumbai High Court ruled that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) was inapplicable in the infamous Khairlanjee case, because it was not mentioned in the FIR. It is well known that in many cases the POA is applied only after political and social pressure is brought on the police. It is clear in this case that the police acted on caste prejudice, but this was not taken into account by the Honourable Court. Secondly, it refused to acknowledge the caste motive behind the murder of the Bhotmange family, narrowing it down to “revenge” for being “falsely implicated” (in a case of minor assault). Worst of all, the order absolves the accused of any crime of a sexual nature, although the mob dragged the women, stripped them, and abused and beat them in public. (It will be recollected that the rape charge could not be made because of faulty investigation). Moreover, the order concludes that since it is not a caste crime, the sentence can be reduced from death to life imprisonment. Further, no action has been taken against erring officials in the police, health, or administration who messed up the investigation.
A research study detailing the psychological trauma of women raped shows that Dalit women who have suffered caste rapes were subjected to more humiliation than other women similarly assaulted. Offenders use foul language vilifying the woman verbally, says the survey, invariably calling them prostitutes. The women who were interviewed said that during the attack, the men seemed to have more pleasure in humiliating their origins and background.
In a shocking incident in Karnataka, people belonging to the bhangi community poured human faeces over themselves in a bid to draw attention to the long-standing demand for housing rights. Despite the 1993 Act, that prohibits the practice, manual scavenging continues in most states. A survey in Solapur city of Maharashtra revealed how it continues in the name of safai karmachari. It also showed that 90% of the manual scavenging workforce is women. A large proportion of them are widows and they face a large number of health problems. We need to study the different forms of discrimination and intervene to highlight them.
Women from De-notified and Nomadic Tribes
The National (Renke) Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi Nomadic Tribes submitted its report in July 2008 to the Prime Minister but no action has been taken on it. It has identified 575 tribes who live an inhuman existence. They have no permanent address, ration card, caste certificate, or any other citizenship documents, and continue to face the stigma of criminality that was imposed on them by the British colonial state. Since they have no primary residence, they are out of the census. The Commission estimates that there are at least 10 crores of them. They included pastorals and hunter-gatherers (Dhangars, Kathiawadis), entertainers and religious performers (Dombaris-acrobats), strolling actors (Bahurupias), snake charmers (Saperas), ascetics (Gosavis) and service nomads like blacksmith (Shikalchi), stonecutters (Vadar), monkey trainers (Kunchikorna), roof-thatchers (Chapparband), etc. They have been driven away from their traditional occupations and today face prosecution under a plethora of new laws in the name of forest conservation, wildlife protection, prevention of cruelty to animals, beggary, etc. Their children remain out of school and the women struggle for dignity and justice in a highly patriarchal setup. AIDWA must turn to these women and take up their specific issues.
The Sachar Committee Report, which made extensive recommendations for the socio-economic and educational upliftment of the Muslim community failed to devote any attention to Muslim women. We do not accept an approach that puts the responsibility of the upliftment of Muslim women in society solely on the Muslim community. Our struggle is to ensure that the Indian government bears its due responsibility and takes concrete steps for the advancement of Muslim women in India. These include a sub-plan with at least 15% of the budget targeting intervention in areas with large minority populations, and measures to improve their additional access to education and health.
The National Commission of Minorities has received a large number of complaints that Muslims are facing discrimination in the banking system, in terms of opening of accounts, grant of loans and even with Muslim employees. There should be an effort to provide 15% of bank loans to Muslims and ensure that Muslim women, their SHGs, crafts-persons and those employed in petty trade get their fair share of these loans. Provision of training and a marketing network is necessary. There should be at least one Muslim representative on all recruitment boards.
In any case, the UPA-II government’s approach is token in nature, with the announcement of a 15-point Programme for Minorities that has no time frame for its implementation. The recommendation of the Ranganath Mishra Committee for 10% reservation for backward Muslims in education and jobs, as well as for Dalit Muslims needs to be implemented without delay. A proportionate share should also be earmarked for Muslim women within these reservations. However, the Union government is evasive about the implementation of the Report.
The gross under-representation of Muslim women in politics became a point of debate during the passage of the 33% Women’s Reservation Bill. This legitimate issue must be addressed independent of the Bill.
The situation of tribal women has to be seen in the context of the onslaught of neo-liberal policies that are affecting the entire tribal population of the country. In particular, their livelihoods are under attack due to the large-scale diversion of forestland for so-called development projects, estimated at an average of 50,000 acres per year. Big corporate houses and MNCs have been given licenses to set up industry or mine for minerals in tribal area. This is leading to massive displacement of tribals, forcing them to migrate as casual labour. They are increasingly joining the unorganized labour force both in rural and urban areas. There are no specific procedures for assessing the gender impact of large projects or ensuring that women’s needs are addressed in relocation or rehabilitation plans. Tribal women are particularly vulnerable and face multiple hardships including sexual exploitation by labour contractors. Women who are dependent on the collection and sale of Minor Forest Produce for their livelihood face exploitation by traders, but there is no scheme to provide them a market with an assured price. The dismantling of the PDS has hit them hard. While the Forest Rights Act gives joint pattas to women, its implementation tardy has been tardy in most states, with the exception of the Left ruled states of West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. Young tribal girls are unable to benefit from education and other welfare schemes because of the difficulties in getting caste certificates. These are the issues on which AIDWA must intervene in a concerted manner.
According to official figures, 638 people have lost their lives in ‘Maoists’ violent incidents in the first six months of this year, including 354 common people, 170 personnel of security forces deployed to deal with them, and 114 ‘Maoists’ themselves. Their violent operations are primarily concentrated in the resource rich tribal belt spread over the states of Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, and West Bengal.
The present day CPI (Maoist) was formed in 2004 after the merger of two extremist groups, MCC and CPI (M-L) People’s War Group faction. Their objectives and methods have little to do with bringing about social and economic change for benefit of the people. Rather, their focus is on establishing control, through violent means, and on individual annihilation of those whom they term ‘class enemies’; all those who oppose them are brutally killed, threatened or penalized in various ways.
Their historical development and recent strategies have shown that far from being a radical political-ideological movement, they have now increasingly turned into a militarist outfit thriving on huge supplies of sophisticated arms smuggled from India and abroad. Their actions are destroying forests, forcing some farmers to cultivate opium so that they can reap the illegal profits, abducting children as recruits and using women as human shields in some of their operations. Their acts of violence are directed not only against the police and para-military forces, but also against government property like roads, railways, transport, electrical installations, and other development infrastructure. They destroy or occupy schools and health centres in rural areas. It is believed that extortion is the primary source of the ‘Maoists’ killer squads.
This shows that there is no question of looking at them as a spontaneous popular response to underdevelopment, as perceived by some sections of urban intellectuals, and projected by the corporate media. This tendency to romanticize their activities gives them credibility and the aura of a ‘People’s War’ against a neo-liberal State. But the truth is that the ‘Maoists’ are more than happy to keep the poor, exploited tribals in a perpetual state of underdevelopment and isolation so that they can exercise absolute control over them. They prevent them from any contact with any democratic mass-movements.
Another defining feature of the ‘Maoists’ is their pathological hatred of the Left forces and their denigration of the electoral system. Their particular hatred of the CPI (M) has led them into an alliance with the reactionary forces led by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Displaying typical opportunism, they justify this by claiming that they are mobilizing the people against police oppression unleashed at the behest of the Left Front. It is shocking that while on one hand the Prime Minister of the country states that Maoist violence is the “biggest internal threat faced by the country today”, he tolerates the presence of a Union Cabinet Minister who is openly in league with the Maoists with the only purpose of dislodging the Left Front from power in West Bengal. It is not a coincidence that this is all happening at a time when the Left and especially the CPI (M) is leading the opposition to the neo-liberal policies of the ruling parties.
For AIDWA, working with the mass of poor tribal women in many states, we need to squarely address these issues for several reasons. Many people, especially youth, are attracted to their ideology because if appears to offer a solution to the present day problems facing the mass of people. However, in reality, instead of organizing people and particularly the tribals for their rights, they aim to set up so-called liberated zones within the forests. These areas become their base to target the state apparatus, and invite state retaliation, setting of cycle of violence. The most backward, marginalized sections are caught in the crossfire between the ‘Maoists’ on one hand and the neo-liberal state and corporate capital on the other. Eventually a process of disillusionment sets in poses a danger to the democratic movement.
Women are soft targets for both the ‘Maoists’ and the security forces. Many AIDWA activists have become the target of violence unleashed by the ‘Maoist’-TMC goons in West Bengal in the last two years. There are cases of sexual torture, severe assault, of torching to death, and some have been shot to death. Older women, children, and adolescents have not been spared. The physical attacks have been accompanied by invasion of homes, looting, and destruction of property and occupation of agricultural land, causing destitution to people. There has been large-scale internal displacement of activists and supporters of political parties considered as rivals by the TMC and/or the ‘Maoists’. Many families have been forced to leave hearth and home under threat or because they are unable to pay the hefty ‘fines’ being imposed on them because of their political affiliation. They are forced to live in camps. Schooling of the children has been severely disrupted. Inadequate food in the camps is undermining their health. Women who stay behind to protect their homes and land become the vulnerable targets of the extremists. Many of the women are afraid of lodging FIRs with the police since they fear reprisals against their relatives who are still living in the affected areas. While the media has focused on excesses of the police and armed forces, it rarely portrays the extent of coercive tactics used by armed extremists on the local people. Typically in ‘Maoist’-dominated areas, whenever there is occasion for confrontation with the police or armed forces, women and children in the locality are recruited and used as ‘human shields’.
Development programs have ground to a halt in the areas under ‘Maoist’ control. Food security, livelihood, health, and education services have been completely halted especially where communication was snapped by digging roads, and planting mines and creating blockades. Due to Levies and fines imposed on schoolteachers and anganwadi workers, these services have naturally been affected. Medical personnel such as doctors and nurses have been targeted leading to deaths of infants and patients due to lack of timely medical attention.
Panchayats, the instruments of local self-governance in the rural sector, that were strengthened and activated during Left Front rule have been particularly targeted by the ‘Maoists’. Those institutions with a Left majority are not being allowed to function. Where the voters are known to be pre-eminently left leaning they are being subjected to torture and harassment. Many women who have been elected as Left panchayat members are being systematically threatened and coerced to disown their political affiliations. We must note that it is after a long struggle against patriarchy both at home and in society that women have been coming forward to participate in panchayat elections and panchayat administration. Continued violence will make it impossible for them to contest elections and to work within the panchayat structure, reducing the participation of women in rural local self-administration.
Most importantly, the people and particularly Left and AIDWA activists are actively resisting the Maoist-TMC combine, putting up a determined fight in the most adverse of circumstances. They are conducting relief and rehabilitation operations in the affected areas, establishing contact with the people and instilling confidence in them. We salute their efforts, and express our deepest solidarity with them. We are sure that they will be able to overcome this challenge in the near future.
Left Front Governments and Women
The Left & Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala is entering its fifth year, and continues with its policy focus on the needs of the less privileged sections. In stark contrast to the Central government, it has designated 35 lakhs households as BPL (as against the Planning Commission figure of 10.45 lakhs) who get rice and wheat at Rs. 2 per kg. to mention a few initiatives. The Public Distribution System has been further strengthened with 25000 new outlets in order to keep a check on prices. Land has been distributed to landless tribal families, provides a monthly pension of Rs300 to farmers above 60 years. A comprehensive health insurance scheme has also been implemented to provide free medical care to the poor patients, which is being extended to 35 lakh families from this year. It has accepted the demand for pension of around 65000 women working in the ICDS-Anganwadi sector in the State and increased the honorarium paid to these workers and helpers by 35%. Kerala was one of the first states to take concrete steps to implement the PWDV Act by notifying Protection Officers and Counselling Centres. It has created 14 posts of Women Protection Officers- one in each district- to give full time attention to complaints of the women facing domestic violence. The functioning of the Women’s Commission, Police Women’s Cells and Jagratha Samithis at the panchayat level have been strengthened to redress the grievances of women. An average of Rs.150 crores is being spent on the Women’s Component Plan by local self-governments bodies each year. Transactions worth hundreds of crores are also being handled through the Kudumbshree network. All these have contributed to improving the economic status of women across the State.
The State Women’s Policy formulated by the Government bears testimony to its commitment to improving the gender status of women in Kerala. The Government has set up a Gender Advisory Board to coordinate and monitor the women’s development activities and programmes of various departments and agencies. The Board has taken many initiatives in Gender responsive budgeting in the state, helping the departments to make more focused interventions for betterment of women’s status.
The Left Front Government in Tripura has recently decided to increase the reservation for women in local self-government institutions to 50% in both constituencies as well as the office-bearers. To start with, this decision will be implemented in the urban bodies’ elections scheduled for December 2010. Actually, in practice, in every local elected institution, the number of women elected exceeds the numbers that have been reserved for them. A large section of women are involved in political and administrative activities.
The State Government has undertaken a 28-point package programme for economic upliftment of women. More than 2600 SHGs are actively patronized by the State Government through financial support and loans at 2% interest. The LF Government has introduced a novel scheme to provide a benefit of Rs. 300/- per month to each female baby born into a family that does not have more than two female children; this benefit will continue to be paid until the age of 16 years. A women’s helpline has been started. Many working women and girls’ hostels are under construction. Pension schemes have been introduced for widows, bidi workers, the aged, deserted women, etc. A unique decision has been to continue to pay the family pension to unmarried daughters after the death of the family pension holder. Many awareness campaigns are being carried out on subjects such as the PWDV Act, etc. A Women’s Cell has been set up in each and every police station.
Tripura has the distinction of the best implementation of the MNREGA in the country, with 90% of the workforce being women. Now, on its own initiative, the LF Government has introduced a new scheme - TUEP (the Tripura Urban Employment Programme) to provide work for the urban poor. To start with, it will generate a minimum of 75 days work a year for each enlisted job seeker. Tripura also has the best implementation of the Forest Rights Act, with joint pattas issued in the name of both women and men.
The LF government has increased the reservation for women in local self-government institutions to 50%. Widow and old age pensions have been raised to Rs 1000 per month. A special drive to issue caste certificates by holding block level camps for the purpose has particularly benefited tribal women in the state.
It should be noted that in contrast to the UPA Government, which is still dragging its feet with respect to improving the situation of the minorities in light of the Sachar Committee Report, the LF Government of West Bengal has started several special schemes for minorities, with special emphasis on minority women. It is called the Minority Women Empowerment Programme, and has several components. It is also now in the process of implementing the recommendation of the Ranganath Mishra Committee.
Under the Skill Development and Credit- Financing Programme, soft loans for undertaking income generation are advanced to minority women through credit financing at an annual interest of 3% activities. The scheme aims at supporting poor minority women of age group of 20-45 years with an annual income up to Rs. 40,000. 50% Subsidy to a maximum of Rs.15, 000 is allowed to each and every beneficiary. A new scheme under the title ‘Destitute Minority Women Rehabilitation Programme’ is being launched in 3 districts viz. Murshidabad, Nadia and Malda. Widows, divorcees, battered women who are extremely poor and with no house and means of livelihood are to be provided with a house unit and some grant-in-aid assistance for handicraft work, etc. so that they can attain some minimum standard of live. Given the high rates of illiteracy amongst Muslim women, the Government has taken up a scheme for construction of hostels for providing facilities to Muslim girl students from remote areas. School uniforms are being provided to girl students from Class I to V in Senior madarasas and from Class V to VIII to the students of High madarasas All girls’ students of all madarasas are being provided with incentive of Rs. 250 per student for purchasing books. Widow Pensions at the rate of Rs. 400 per month are given to minority widows. Minority women in four districts are eligible for the Economically Weaker Section housing scheme in which they are given a grant of Rs. 1, 16,000/- towards their housing needs. Education Loans are being provided to minority students and a special drive has been launched to complete a target of 30% girl students. The Government has initiated a stipend scheme for minority girls belonging to economically weaker families with an annual household income of up to Rs. 2.5 lakhs. They will get a stipend ranging from Rs 5000 to Rs 12000 per month to continue studies from class XI to Postgraduate level.
Thus we see that the Left led governments are making efforts to frame women-specific schemes and provide budgetary support for them. This is in spite of budgetary constraints imposed due to an unjust sharing of tax revenues in which the States are being squeezed by the Central Government. This is in sharp contrast to many State governments, which are only paying lip service to gender equality. The absence of Left’s pressure on the Central government is quite apparent by the fact the UPA-II government has not announced a single scheme or passed a single legislation in favour of women since it came to power in May 2009.
National Commission for Women
Despite the many discussions and consultations that have been organized by the National Commission on Women, it has been ineffective in pushing pro-women policies and laws in the last three years. After the passage of the PWDV Act in 2005, not a single law in favour of women’s rights has been passed by the UPA government. The Commission remains without a whole-time Chairperson. Except in the Left ruled States, there has not been any noticeable improvement in the functioning of the State Commissions.
Women’s Movement and United Actions
The earlier unity of the women’s movement on common issues stands disrupted and there has been a further fragmentation of the women’s movement in the country. This is affecting its ability to intervene effectively on women’s issues. There have been repeated attempts to isolate our organization on the issue of violence against women in Nandigram. It required a lot of effort to thwart attempts to raise anti-left slogans, and target and isolate AIDWA. On our part, we have pointed out the partisanship of those who criticize the Left while blindly refusing to accept that Maoist activities have violently disrupted the lives of thousands of women in West Bengal and other affected regions. The all-out attempt to criticize the organized Left is leading to an alliance with reactionary forces. There has been a systematic attempt by ultra Left forces to exert an ideological influence on joint platforms and some of the Women’s Studies Centres. This was evident in the last national conference of the IAWS.
The general weakening of the influence of Left ideology has also had an effect on the women’s movement; it is losing its links with the radical heritage of the 70’s. Instead, under the influence of post-modernism, there is a tendency to justify retrograde practices such as dowry in the name of ‘culture’. Identity politics has shaped the debate around the issue of ‘a quota within quotas’ in the Women’s Reservation Bill and no consensus has been possible on this contentious issue. This has vastly benefited those who are opposed to the Bill.
The trend of depoliticisation that we had noted in our previous conference has not been halted. Although funding from foreign sources has abated due to the global recession, its influence has not waned There is a marked tendency by various NGOs and platforms engaged with women’s issues to accommodate themselves on government committees and forums, dampening any tendency to critique government policies and link them to the growing marginalization of women. The issues focused by autonomous women’s groups in joint forums are mainly violence against women and freedom of choice in the context of moral policing, cultural stereotyping and right to sexual orientation. Some other groups with broader membership and community based work are based on funded projects and involved in training and advocacy activities with specific sections. Some of them align with other broader networks on PDS, health, education and raise questions about government policy. However, they do not bring political issues onto the joint platform of the women’s movement. As a result, important mass issues that affect poor women, such as price rise and food insecurity, government policies, impact of globalisation and imperialist agendas on women etc. are being highlighted only by us in joint platforms. Even the opposition to communalism and regional chauvinism is taken up in a depoliticised manner.
This period has witnessed a systematic co-option of SHGs by bourgeois political parties, who are seen to utilise them not only as vote banks but also conduits for distributing largesse during elections. The SHGs are increasingly being co-opted by the administration through various government schemes. On our part, we will have to continue with our policy of building issue based joint platforms and struggles. We also need to engage at a more polemical level with other groups on various issues affecting women.
The period ahead is going to be a challenging one for AIDWA. As imperialist forces weaken our national sovereignty and neo-liberal policies intensify, so will the conservative backlash, and the attempt of all kinds of divisive forces to break the basic unity of the people and women. As an organization committed to raising issues of the mass of women in our country, we will increasingly have to turn our face to the most marginalized sections and bring their issues to the fore.