The Perils of a Two-Child Policy

Underlying the BJP’s concern about a ‘population explosion’ is a false belief that one community, Muslims, are reproducing at a faster rate than others.

Days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of India’s ‘population explosion’ in his Independence Day speech, an RSS-backed organisation declared that there was no need for sex education in schools.

It’s an astonishing stand in a country where 240 million girls are married before 18 and only 7.1% of married women between the ages 15-19 use contraception. Awareness of birth control (along with sex education) is a key driver to fulfilling the PM’s assertion that keeping family size small is an act of patriotism.

At 1.37 billion people, projected to swell to two billion by the end of the century, concerns about India’s burgeoning numbers are not new. In 2016, a BJP MP introduced a bill under which couples opting for a third child would need government permission. That bill never came up for vote and in July, Rakesh Sinha, a nominated BJP MP introduced another bill that singles out couples with more than two children for punitive action, including disqualification of elected legislators, as well as incentives (cheaper health care, subsidised loans) for those who stick with two.

Muslim women: nearly 7% of the population, less than 1% in the Lok Sabha

This is the second in a three-part series on gender and the 2019 general elections I wrote for IndiaSpend

The sarpanch or head of Hussainpur village in Haryana’s Nuh district, I photographed Farhuna, an arts graduate, as she made rotis for her extended family of 22

She may be the head of her village, but making rotis for her extended family of 22 is still her responsibility.

Hunched over the small chulha (earthen stove) in the family house at Hussainpur village in Haryana’s Nuh district, her hands efficiently slapping a small piece of dough into a round roti, Farhuna (she uses one name),  smiled when she recalled the circumstances of her marriage–and election.

It was early in 2016. The panchayat elections were around the corner and the Haryana government had recently introduced a new eligibility condition. To contest the elections, women needed to prove that they had cleared their eighth standard exams; men had to be matriculates.

That year, the seat at Hussainpur was reserved for women. The problem: No woman in her husband’s family had ever been to school.

So Farhuna’s father-in-law began looking for a bride for his son. His only condition: Education. “He didn’t even take any dowry,” grinned Farhuna, proud holder of a bachelor of arts degree.

The family has a gas stove over which the vegetables and dal are made. But rotis taste better when they come out of a mud stove, and that is how they are made–some 70 of them for the afternoon and an equal number for the night meal–said Farhuna.

Life after lynching: The widows of Nuh

Nuh in Haryana is India’s most backward district. It is also where Rakbar Khan and Pehlu Khan were lynched on suspicions of cattle theft. I travel to Nuh to meet their families.

Pehlu Khan’s grave at Jaisinghpur, Nuh/Namita Bhandare/Shot on my iPhone

Lying on a string cot beneath a row of pale green prayer beads that hangs from the wall, Asmeena Khan holds up a frail hand and says softly, “Please pray for me.”

There is no electricity and Asmeena cannot summon the strength to wave away the flies that settle on her face. She has been bedridden since being in a car accident four months ago. Her brother says the doctors have said she is paralysed from the waist down, and will never walk again.

Asmeena is the widow of Rakbar Khan, the dairy farmer who was killed by cow vigilantes on the night of July 20, 2018. After the murder of 28-year-old Rakbar, Asmeena, who has never been to school and is unsure even of her age, was left to raise her seven children. The eldest, 14-year-old Saahila, dropped out of school to help her mother with household chores and add to the family income by working as a daily wage labourer; four younger children were enrolled at a residential school in Aligarh run by a charitable society. The youngest two, aged six and three, have stayed with their mother in Tapkan village in Haryana’s Nuh district.

When the accident happened. Asmeena was on her way to visit her children in Aligarh in a taxi. A truck collided with the car she was in. The driver and a 19-year-old niece accompanying Asmeena were killed. Asmeena was first taken to the medical college in Nuh and then referred to a hospital in New Delhi, as her injuries were serious.

Bedridden and bereft

Four months later, she still lies on a cot in her parent’s home. Rakbar’s parents have refused to take her in, says her brother Irfan. But, reasons Asmeena, “Rakbar’s father is an old man who barely makes ends meet by keeping a few goats. Rakbar’s brothers add to his income, but he can barely feed himself.”

Asmeena got married when she was about 13. Three of her brothers work as drivers, two work in a poultry farm, and the youngest has dropped out of school and is learning to repair tyre punctures. Seventeen family members live in the two-room house at Tapkan. Two married sisters are visiting; they have come to find work as daily wage labourers, harvesting the ripened wheat in Nuh’s farms.

I have just one word on my new year’s resolution list: Empathy

It can help me cope with a changing, unpredictable world, enlarging a personal worldview to embrace those outside my own experiences and ideology.

And before you know it, it’s here again. That time of year to make fresh resolutions, determined to wake up energized and renewed.

Learn a foreign language; meet new people; read more books; exercise more; get a new hobby. After years of facsimile resolutions (and years of breaking them), I gave the ritual a break. But this year, I’m going back, and instead of the usual self-improvement missives, I have just one word on my list: Empathy. Let me explain why.

As individuals, we ask, what can we do to make the world better? Can I take a position that will make society less divisive? Continue reading “I have just one word on my new year’s resolution list: Empathy”

Rohith’s death: India must have conversation on apartheid against Dalits

Rohith Vemula was not just any son. He was a Dalit son, and to ignore his caste is to ignore the significance of his life and death.

We did not flinch at the news that an eight-year-old Dalit boy had his arm amputated after he was thrown into a sugarcane crusher for ‘not working properly’ in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh.

We were not repelled when a seven-year-old Dalit child was hospitalised for six days after his teacher thrashed him for picking up a plate reserved for upper-caste kids for his midday meal at a government school in Osian, near Jodhpur.

When 17-year-old Anil Parashurama Methri was bludgeoned to death in Karnataka’s Mijri village in July after being caught trying to deliver a love letter to an upper-caste classmate, where was our outrage? Continue reading “Rohith’s death: India must have conversation on apartheid against Dalits”

At stake is the dignity of Dalit women

The national conversation, dominated by temples, toilets, has no patience for stories of Dalit women who face humiliation daily. Given the measly media coverage, their stories cause no outrage.

The national conversation, dominated by temples, toilets, has no patience for stories of Dalit women who face humiliation daily. Given the measly media coverage, their stories cause no outrage. Complicit in this are the police, loath to file FIRs against politically connected and rich criminals.

Away from the din of ‘dehati aurat’ and ‘escape velocity’, 45 Dalit women are talking about the daily humiliation that is their life. The women and, in some cases men who are deposing on their behalf, have come to Delhi from eight states across the country, and to them it doesn’t matter if it’s the Congress or the BJP or a regional party or some new-fangled alliance that is in power. For them the story never changes. Continue reading “At stake is the dignity of Dalit women”

They’re not minor offences

The juvenile justice system needs many changes to reflect social reality.

This is what worries me. Three years or two years or how so ever many months from now, the juvenile who at 17 years and six months of age gang-raped, brutalised and eventually killed a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in December will walk free. We will never know his name. We will never know if he emerges repentant or hardened after his time served. His criminal record will remain forever sealed in a dusty file somewhere.

No matter what the juvenile justice court rules on July 25 this is a done deal. The law which sets 18 as the age when people are tried as adults does not have retrospective effect. It does not make a distinction between petty crimes and adult crimes like rape and murder. This past week, in response to a public interest litigation to consider lowering the age to 16, the Supreme Court said no, a move that finds favour with many child rights activists and with the Justice JS Verma Commission. It doesn’t matter if you’re one day short of 18. It doesn’t matter if the crime you commit is murder. Laws do not allow for exceptions. Sometimes, they also make no allowance for justice.

Continue reading “They’re not minor offences”

Make them feel relevant

A State can make it mandatory to look after the elderly. But what about emotional care?

In the sepia-tinted narrative, the parents grow old, earn their place of respect and have hordes of dutiful, loving children and grandchildren worship at their feet. The Grand Indian Family is alive, well and happy. The golden years are 24 carat gilt-edged.

Contemporary reality is uglier. A grey generation is less valued for its wisdom and experience. Our obsession with youth – count the number of anti-ageing cosmetic creams – continues. A new brash India has little time or patience, especially for the elderly. And with stretched resources and even scarcer time, we are increasingly vocal about our resentment for caring for parents at a time when we as caregivers have begun feeling the twinges of our mortality.

Continue reading “Make them feel relevant”