Wednesday, September 17, 2008

For Kosi's distressed daughters, September 17, 2008

Swarna Rajagopalan, Kosi's distressed daughters, New Indian Express, Chennai, September 17, 2008.

On August 18, the Kosi river broke through its embankments to flood most of Bihar and change course. The disaster has taken several lives, displaced over a million people and laid waste to hundreds of villages, not counting those who will die of waterborne infectious diseases in its wake.

So far, women have been mentioned in news reports in the context of childbirth and pregnancy. Some pregnant women have been abandoned by their husbands, but many others have given birth, naming their children after the Kosi.

There have also been reports of sexual harassment of female flood victims, describing government concern relating to the same. Many of the consequences of disasters cut across gender lines.

Death, disease, displacement, bereavement and the overnight loss of livelihood and homes are consequences that happen to men and women. The way in which these consequences are experienced is, however, different.

Studies have shown that women form a disproportionate number of those who die during disasters. The reasons reflect the limitations placed on them by virtue of their gender. After the tsunami, for instance, it was found that many girls and women drowned because, in spite of living in coastal areas, they had not learnt how to swim.

A dramatic change in sex ratio results, partly from death and disease and partly from men migrating to seek alternative livelihoods. Scholars have shown with examples from history that when men vastly outnumber women, levels of violence in general increase, and especially violence against women.

In fact, increased levels of violence and increased vulnerability to violence may be described as the second disaster to strike women and girls in the aftermath of natural calamities.

In a 2005 report, the World Health Organisation stated that interpersonal violence including child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and exploitation including sexual exploitation are likely to increase after a disaster. When women and girls lose their homes and livelihoods, they are particularly susceptible to forced marriage and trafficking.

Along with this comes the increased threat of getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

In other contexts, feminist scholars have speculated on what it means to a woman when her home — ostensibly her safe haven — is destroyed. Homes are also the site of their closest relationships and much of their work.

The loss or destruction of a home can be particularly traumatic in settings where women are confined to their homes by the norms of their culture. Researchers have also explored the way the home changes when relatives who are also coping with disaster move in or when the family moves, for instance, to the roof or a boat for shelter.

For young girls, it can mean the loss of privacy for personal rituals, from changing clothes to washing. The risk of incestuous sexual abuse is heightened.

Often, discussions about gender and debates about security tend to dwell on macro-level structural or ideological questions, but for women coping with emergencies of any sort, it is the very personal, immediate needs that pose the biggest challenge.

Whether at home or in refugee camps, safe access to scarce bath and toilet facilities pose a real challenge. Harassment en route, prying and molestation while bathing and using the toilet, combined with the need to observe society’s norms of modesty limit when and how women can address their simplest bodily needs.

They end up limiting their excursions to the point where they are at risk for other kinds of illnesses and infections.

Between falling sick due to lack of basic facilities for hygiene and not being able to walk to work without fear of molestation, the ability of women to take care of themselves is greatly diminished. The loss of children in the tsunami resulted in an increased demand for recanalisation surgery as women came under pressure to give birth again.

Forced marriages occur in these circumstances as men seek to rebuild a family structure soon after the loss of their wives. Orphaned girls are particularly at risk. Female-headed households are not unique to post-disaster settings; however, compensation and relief are often distributed on the assumption that only men head households.

Where existing property papers are lost as are male property-owners, title is hard to establish. This is exacerbated by the loss of livelihood in the agricultural and informal sectors.

Without compensation, relief, the ability to reclaim a home or to access agricultural land or other means of livelihood such as a boat or a loom, women cannot rebuild their lives.

Disasters thus return women to a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, poor, brutish” and if you are lucky, short. If you are not lucky, you have to find a way to survive against the odds. As we look at the Kosi crisis in Bihar, the true challenge is not in providing symptomatic relief to victims. It is in recognising those elements of our social and cultural life that place women and girls especially at risk and in ensuring that these are not reproduced in the post-disaster dispensation. Where disaster is anticipated or occurs predictably, such as the Bay of Bengal cyclones and river floods in northeastern India, planned relief should take into account the special challenges faced by women and girls. Unchecked, the real catastrophe for women and children lies in post-disaster violence and loss of livelihood.

(Copied and pasted here because the link is not stable at this site. E-paper version.)

Cross-posted at The PSW Weblog.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Teaching 'Third World Politics': Reflections 7

The six preceding blog posts are my attempt to begin thinking through this challenge: of designing from scratch with no preconceived ideas about what we are doing a course that captures many of the issues that we are interested in as we reflect on contemporary South India.

Maybe a completely non-derivative way of doing this is impossible. But I am just trying to start as far away from where the course generally is at, in order to be able to approach it in a way that belongs here.

If you happen to read this posts and have suggestions, please do leave comments.

Teaching 'Third World Politics': Reflections 6

What would I teach? Let me back up and describe the issues I think it would be interesting and fun to explore at this point, sitting in South India. In no particular order.

  • This year, we were struck by urban renewal/conservation issues. Particularly because we were visiting heritage sites that were once an integral part of planned urban centres.
  • I think models of 'development' are interesting. What do people do towards developing specific areas? Whether it is a school or propagating a particular kind of farming. These lend themselves to larger questions about 'development' and about globalization both.
  • Although we decided not to rehearse the nationalism course, I think identity politics is still interesting, particularly in its interface with a rapidly changing political economy.
  • I think that nature and direction of change is always interesting to think about.
  • I remain very concerned about governance issues.
  • And of course, gender.
  • How could we be in Chennai and not think of the role of technology, particularly ICT?
If we did a course on all this, to me the common factor is change. How to change on purpose? How to imagine change and make that come true? What are the sources of such imagination? And also, how to cope with unintended change? What is the politics of change? What is the politics of making a particular change? And what is the politics of change that catches you unawares? How do you manage change politically?

To me, it is the debates surrounding particular choices that are interesting. But the teacher in me is conservative, wanting also to furnish information even as we teach students how to think about particular issues. As Professor Malapur would have put it, to come up with the right questions... because there are no answers.

So I want to design a course whose framework will set us all up to ask the right questions, and whose cases will give us a chance to debate the answers and the discourse itself.

What would I call such a course? "The Politics of Change"? "The Politics of Socio-Economic Change"?

I would lose the 'Third World,' 'Emerging Nations,' 'Development' tags for sure. 'Change' is more open-ended. And not necessarily linear.

And I think I would build the discussion in the course around what now seem to me to be false binaries, but that have been juxtaposed as critical binaries by different schools of thought:
  • Growth versus Equity
  • Small versus Big
  • Liberty versus Equality
  • Market versus State, Civil Society versus State
  • Global versus National versus Regional versus Local
  • Indigenous versus Foreign
  • Modern versus Traditional
    and of course,
  • Third World versus Advanced Industrial,
    to list just a few....
Or maybe not.

Teaching 'Third World Politics': Reflections 5

So what is this course about?

As it is usually taught in the US, it is about everything. A little bit about colonialism, a little bit about nationalism, a little bit about development, a little bit about gender and a little bit about international relations.

In India, we do not teach politics as if it is special in a developmental context but as students in Bombay University a couple of decades ago, we did study Development Administration. In fact, when I think about it, there was a large development component to my own BA degree: Macro-development Economics, a course on Appropriate Technologies which had some other name as well, Planning and Development Strategies, Development Administration. The Political Science classes were classic topics in political thought, international relations, taught more as humanities than as social science.

I think the problem I am having is not WHAT I would teach as much as what the rubric is that I would give it.

Teaching 'Third World Politics': Reflections 4

Courses in this area are usually some extension or variation of "Government and Politics of.." courses. By appending Third World, I think they aspire to capture something of the process of change. Once they do that, they cannot be just about politics.

'Third World' states were more or less the same as those states of Asia and Africa and on some issues, Latin America, that had once been colonized. Colonialism, by the definition of anti-colonial writers everywhere, was only partly about politics and administration. It was also ideological and cultural; and it had begun as economic exploitation. Therefore, studies of these places that were 'Third World' had to be also about other dimensions.

Especially, cultural. Since colonized peoples were somewhat backward and definitely traditional, the most useful variable to explain anything about them must be 'culture.' Not politics. Not economics. Nothing quite so rational and gentlemanly.

And then you look at the origins of the study of these states in American academia. It is rooted in 1950s anxieties about containing communism. What made states stable? What allowed democracies to develop? What would prevent revolutionary activity? These are the kinds of political questions that motivated that literature. It is a different matter that these questions inspired some really interesting empirical work and a useful vocabulary for describing politics. But Third World countries got frozen for a few decades in a certain taxonomy, defined not by them but for them.

The shift occurred when authoritarian governments started falling in Latin America and then in Eastern Europe. Democracy became a topic that could be associated with the 'Third World' suddenly, and there is still an industry of democratization experts, both academic and field, out there. Illustrated best by the Ukrainian expert sent by the National Democratic Institute in Washington DC to advise Sri Lankans on their election process. in 1980.

Then there was the course I taught in my last semester at graduate school: Emerging Nations. I taught it once as the politics of development and then chose to interpret it once narrowly and in keeping with my dissertation, as nationalism and decolonization and the politics of the same. Worked better as the last, but really, that was quite a departure from the intended purpose of the course. But from where were the 'Nations' emerging? Which 'Nations'? Were they also states? And into what were they emerging.

No idea at all.

Teaching 'Third World Politics': Reflections 3

A linear view of history and the human experience makes it possible to place communities along a continuum and label them 'backward' and 'advanced'. All of us do it in the judgments we pass on each other on a daily basis. However, as an intellectual construct, it is hard to accept and harder still to teach.

One could place colonial-nationalist-postcolonial on some sort of a timeline, but what did they mean for the more practical details of everyday life.
  • In the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru called large multipurpose hydro-electrical projects the 'temples of modern India.' India did benefit from them. But over time, the problems with large projects have become evident as well, whether for their seismic effects as in Tehri or for the displacement of peoples as in Narmada. Are we now moving to the model the Cholas and their Sri Lankan counterparts used--large networks of smaller canals--for irrigation on the one hand and nuclear energy on the other? Is this forward, backwards or lateral movement?
  • Allopathy is regarded as the modern system of medicine. So why are more and more people gravitating towards alternative systems that are older, such as ayurveda, yoga, yunani and siddha? Is this retrogressive motion?
  • Thousands of young Indians work in high-paying but more or less dead-end jobs in the IT sector. Are they doing better or worse than the tradition artisan who earns less but at least has infinite scope for creativity?
  • Or are this last question and others of this sort utterly inappropriate in that they romanticize the past at the expense of well-being today?
  • What is today's well-being if it creates a less than liveable tomorrow?
Because questions like this come around again and again as we travel and discuss Indian history and politics, it seems appropriate to do a course that will ask them formally and systematically.

But that is not what traditional 'Third World Politics' do. The term 'Third World' ties us to development issues, and 'development' is imagined in linear terms. They posit a certain unidirectional journey, in which a large swathe of humanity is condemned to trail the front-runners, fighting neverending battles for unreachable goals. Rostow's four-stage model of growth is an example; as Busybee liked to joke in his Independence Day columns, India was perpetually stuck in the take-off stage.

Teaching "Third World Politics":Reflections 2

Let's start with this 'Third World' tag.

Forget the political correctness stuff. Dress the term any way you like and you still have no way of understanding what it means.

  • poverty
  • inequality
  • tradition
  • old technology
  • unresolved political issues
  • 'backwardness'
Where can you find these? Today, practically everywhere. Being 'Third World' is a condition not a location. Teaching in nice classrooms in the 'First World,' sometimes the 'Third World' was three streets away, sometimes a neighbourhood my student had left behind and sometimes a place far away.

Once you accepted that, what was your course about? Almost everything, every place and everybody.

What was the difference between teaching this course, teaching introductory political science or government and teaching American or Indian politics? Just a little value judgment, a little prejudice and a little historical accident.

Teaching 'Third World Politics': Reflections

One of the crosses one bears when one teaches politics in the West and is a lowly, non-Western person, is that one sometimes has to teach a course that is variously modeled as 'Politics of development,' 'Third World Politics' or in my alma mater, 'Emerging Nations.' I did not enjoy this course in any incarnation for the simple reason that it seemed to need to be about everything with only fourteen-sixteen weeks in hand, a student body with virtually no previous training in world history or geography and an underlying logic that across its incarnations, was rooted in a worldview to which it was hard to make reality conform.

My survival strategy while writing the syllabus was to include what was important to the department and what was important to me, overloading the course even further. My version of the course was an improbable combination of the way development economics was taught by our professors at Elphinstone College; my experience growing up in 1960s-70s India; the political development literature of the 1960s, and a grab-bag of emerging points of view from wherever I had wandered. If the original conception of the course covered, as I snidely put it, everyone but four white men, by the time I was done with it, it was un-teachable.

The worst classes I ever taught were in this course. And this, in spite of this being a subject of interest to me. (Maybe that is why?) Ten years after I was last forced to teach this couse, this summer as we planned a year ahead, I found myself saying very gingerly, perhaps we should offer THAT class. My colleague was shocked, having heard me complain bitterly on more than one occasion. A grab-bag of random reasons made me think this could be workable.

  • The course is located in Chennai, India.
  • We are constantly talking about change, about old and new, tradition and modernity.
  • The interface between global and local, colonial and postcolonial are everywhere around us.
  • So much of the politics we discuss is about social transformation.
  • Governance challenges, heritage and identity come together in the places we visit.
My instinct is that the course can be made to work, but having said that, I am realizing that it can only be done if every assumption upon which the Western courses are based is examined critically. I have to go beyond, gosh, there is, there has to be a better way, and beyond, I will find that way, and I am sure this can work... to making it happen in a way that is worth taking a chance that teaching this course will once more be a miserable experience.

To this end, I am going to start a series of blog posts, where I think aloud and try to make something that I can live with.