The Bitter Half

article

The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party is seeing its women voters simply drop out in large numbers, as on all fronts they feel run up the garden path, whether it be education for girl child, unprecedented spurt in child rapes, getting bumped due to AADHAR failure or the skewed Ujjwala Scheme

Rashme Sehgal

Rashme Sehgal

Rashme Sehgal began her career as a poet cum short story writer in 1970s. She then shifted to journalism and worked with several leading newspapers including The Independent, The Telegraph and The Times of India

Twenty-thousand is the double of 10,000, right? Err… sure, but why ask a Class 1 question here? Because that is precisely the increase in the number of child rapes in 2016 in Uttar Pradesh, from 10,000 to 20,000!

More than 10 per cent of women voters dropped out of voting in the last state elections in Modi’s very own Gujarat, and precisely because of Modi.

In the last five years, Gujarat government has shut down 13,000 primary schools, and while the boys went off to distant schools, the girls had to stay back home.And across states, women labourers complain they cannot access their government dues because every time there is a mismatch with the AADHAR imprint of their finger prints

Middle-aged Mandu from Araria district of Bihar expresses this despondency when she said, “Today I consider myself lucky if I can get 30 days of employment in a year under MNREGA, what to talk about 100 days guaranteed!”

Gloomy Half

A sense of disillusionment is sweeping across the hearts of Indian women. Nothing symbolised this more than the recent Gujarat elections which showed a ten per cent dip in the vote share of the Gujarati women, according to Election Commission stats.

Of the 4.3 crore voters in Gujarat, 2.08 are women, and this time around a large percentage of them refused to come out to cast their votes. This is all the more surprising because women played a key role in helping Narendra Modi sweep to power in the 2014 general elections. Then what has brought about this change in the mind set of women just four years later?

Ahmedabad-based political scientist, Prof Ghanshyam Shah, explains this phenomenon. Shah believes: “The Modi charisma amongst women is on the decline. This is something which has been reported about extensively in the Gujarati press. Earlier, women were impressed with Modi’s aura of masculinity and big talk. But now his own supporters and loyalists feel he overdoes his boasting and are disillusioned with his performance.”

Shah also feels that the recent spurt of prices in essential commodities and vegetables especially have led women to feel the BJP and its leaders do not care for the concerns of the common man.

Congress spokesperson Ami Yagnik in Gandhinagar attributes several reasons for the Modi charisma no longer working on women. Scoffing at the Gujarat Model of development, Yagnik said, “During the last five years, the BJP state government has closed down 13,000 government-run schools in which girls and boys from poorer homes were being given an opportunity to study. Families are now saving up to send their boys for education, even if the schools are located several kilometres away. But what happens to the girl child? She is forced to stay at home.”

Demonetisation Despondency

The women from the weaker sections are filled with a sense of despondency. The vast majority work in the non-formal sector, whether it be in the field of handicrafts or assist in diamond cutting. Many are farmers. These women have been hit hard by demonetisation and one year later, complain that their incomes are yet to stabilise.

Indira Hirway, director and Prof of Economics at the Centre for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad, also rues the fact that while the last two decades have seen an unprecedented rise in incentives and subsidies to the corporate sector, the government has been left with limited funds for education, health and employment, especially for women who comprise the more vulnerable sections of society. Hirway said, “The public expenditure on health is 0.8 per cent of the state income, which is much below the national norm of four to six per cent. Forty-five per cent of children are under nourished and the rates of maternal mortality are rising. We have 40 per cent of the population below the poverty line and 94 per cent of the Gujarati population working in the informal and traditional sector.”

Yagnik also points out to the growing sense of insecurity amongst women. “Last year saw 472 gang rapes in our state, but the entire Nirbhaya fund for Gujarat was returned to the central pool without one paisa being offered as compensation to these rape victims.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg, and there seems to be little that the government is doing to reverse this horrific trend.

The kidnapping, gang rape and murder of a sixteen-year old school girl who was dragged from her bicycle while returning from school and bundled into an Alto car last month near Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh, is just one in a series of such incidents.

When the girl’s parents went to file an FIR, it was dismissed as a case of elopement. Later, when the girl’s dead body was found in a Greater Noida canal, the Senior Superintendent of Police G Muniraj claimed the matter was a love affair gone awry and obviously the reason for the murder.

Had some CCTV footage not surfaced, which confirmed that the girl had been forcibly abducted, the police would have stuck to their theory of `elopement’.

What has been the reaction of the Modi government to this galloping crime rate? A deafening silence. The Minister of Women & Child Maneka Gandhi also refuses to comment on this sharp increase in heinous crimes against women and children. And the UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has come up with an almost surreal reaction to these brutal rapes and murders. He was quoted as saying `they should be sent to the same place as gangsters used to be sent in our epics.’

Welfare Trauma

Let’s look at another facet: How are the schemes that have been specially chalked out keeping women’s welfare in mind, or so the government claims, doing?

The Modi government took a decision after coming to power to make Aadhar mandatory for availing subsidised food grain from ration shops. The rationale for this was to stop leakages and ensure that the 5 kg of food grain per person per month at Rs 1-3/kg to over 80 crore people actually reach the most deserving.

The government had given time to those not having the biometric-based unique identification number to apply for Aadhaar by June 30 2017. But lakhs of people were not able to get this done. The result is that already six starvations deaths have been reported since.

On September 28, Koyli Devi reported how her 11-year old daughter Santoshi Kumari from Simdega district in Jharkhand died because of starvation. The death triggered widespread protests, but two more followed; storms of protest swept the state, but then?

Economist and social activist Jean Dreze said the main problem is the linkage with Aadhar. Dreze pointed out how as per conservative estimates, 10 per cent of card holders in Jharkhand were unable to get rations because of the problems in biometric authentication.

Another important scheme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA). MNREGA, introduced in 2006, is the largest provider of employment to the rural poor, especially women. But this is also facings its share of hiccups.

Women admit that in the initial years, it did help provide employment up to almost 60 days per household in 2009-10 but the numbers have plummeted to 30-40 days per household in 2014-15, and the graph is only on a nose dive.

“Unfortunately, since payments are being delayed by six months or more, the men folk are migrating to larger cities in search of work and we have to manage the entire household single-handedly,” says Mandu.

Sunburnt and wearing a dark green sari, Mandu who is the mother of three girls and two boys, said: “At present all work in MNREGA has been stopped in our district, though I continue to be given five kilos of rice by the state government as I am a BPL card holder. My biggest complaint is that when I ask the village mukhiya (chief) for work, he prefers to give it to people of his own caste and community.”

Ram Beti of Alipur village in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh has been associated with MNREGA from 2006. Ram Beti is also upset by the new technological initiatives in which their payments have been linked to bank accounts and Aadhar cards.

Tech Terror

“Many of us are illiterate and we do daily mazdoori (labour). Hamare haath ghiste rahte hain (Our bare hands get calloused and these keep changing). So we believe our fingerprints can and do change. Using them to provide proof of our identity is useless, because if there is the slightest change in our thumb or fingerprint, and these do not tally with our earlier thumb impressions, we draw a blank.

Her other complaint relates to internet connectivity to collect her wages of MNREGA. “Six times out of ten, when I reach the bank, they are facing a connectivity issue. There are seven members in my family, two boys, two girls, and my aged father-in-law and I have all the household responsibilities on my shoulders. I leave my work and go to the bank and there I am told, I will have to come some other time,” she said.

Ram Beti believes the drive towards over-centralisation of MNREGA has gone against the workers. “The district and village panchayats are helpless, since all decisions emanate from Delhi. Earlier, if we faced problems, they would be resolved at the local level. Now, in the name of stopping corruption, they have only succeeded in creating greater harassment for us,” she said.

Cooking Trouble

But the most important pro-women scheme launched by Modi called the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) is also not fairing well. Launched as a Rs 8,000-crore project in UP’s Ballia on May 1, 2016, it said it would provide 50 million free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to women in poor households over three years. Ujjwala was an instant hit, and more than 30 million connections were given in the first 19 months. The first nine women who joined this scheme were actually flown to New Delhi to meet the petroleum and natural gas minister. They had a great holiday in the national capital for three days.

The majority of the poor households took a stove and the first LPG cylinder on a loan of around Rs 1,500 offered with the scheme. They were then required to pay the market price for LPG cylinders till the loan was repaid. But these nine women along with thousands of others soon realised that it was difficult to pay the subsidised price, let alone buy cylinders at the market price. In UP, most towns are selling a cylinder for Rs 819 in Ballia. That is around Rs 334 more than the current post-subsidy price of Rs 485.

The rate of refills is less than 20 per cent for these new takers. This poor rate of refills raises questions. The government and oil marketing companies have succeeded in rapidly expanding LPG coverage among poor households, but these are not translating into an increase in LPG consumption.

In 2016-17, of the 3.22 crore new LPG connections, two crore were PMUY beneficiaries. While the rate of growth in LPG consumers on a year-on-year basis jumped to 16.2 per cent in 2016-17, the rate of growth in LPG consumption rose by just 80 basis points to 9.8 per cent from 9 per cent in 2015-16.

All in all, it has become an uphill struggle for women who are fighting a rear guard battle to run their kitchens, even as they face rising inflation levels and an extremely hostile and threatening environment.

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