Thursday, June 08, 2006

Post Op/Ed (June 5, 2006)/Gifting our health away

This week’s revelations that the Federal Minister for Population Welfare Chaudhry Shahbaz Hussain has consumed 100 percent of the “secret fund at his disposal and money meant for gifts and entertainment” and that “amounts meant for purchase of gifts and entertainment has been spent hundred percent even by the four provincial departments of Population Welfare and their attached departments with even the local outlets spreading all over Pakistan not even leaving a single penny unspent (of the amount given to them) to buy gifts”, amazed even those who had grown immune to the actions of our parliamentarians. That many departments had also expressed their intention that they would spend the so far unspent money on gifts and entertainment within the period of May to June 2006 instead of surrendering it to the Finance Ministry did perplex some of us. Had not Pakistani women been reminded in so many forums that it were they and their spending foolishly that had led many a household and the country’s economy to ruin? The media every day bombards us with images of ‘penny wise pound foolish’ Pakistani housewives who are blamed as the chief perpetrators of consumerism in Pakistani society.Didn’t most of the 19th century Muslim reform movements in South Asia focus on rescuing Muslim women from wasteful habits stemming from ‘ignorance and superstition’? The reformers were of the view that the solution to the Muslim community’s decline (amongst a range of other moves) lay in reforming and guiding women. This was because women were viewed — paradoxically — as both the principal executors of wasteful and ‘impossible’ customs and as the chief victims of such customs (Barbara D Metcalf: Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, Princeton University Press, 1982). Reformers like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi in Beheshti Zevar (The Heavenly Ornaments — which to date remains an essential bedside reading for most of our ulema, trying to jot down thinking points for their next lecture, and which, until the Moltyfoam advertisement came along, was the best gift to give to the daughter leaving for her husband’s house) do elaborate with great detail on wicked women who demand more and more money from husbands with “not even thinking for a minute of the difficulties he may face in far away places and the comforts he has to give up”. My copy of The Heavenly Ornaments (translated into English by Dar-ul-Ishaat, Karachi) has a whole section devoted to ungrateful wives who amongst other nasty habits will never use the “plenty of money the husband sends to run the house in a beautiful manner, saving the extra money and handing it over to the husband the moment he returns home”! Oh well, maybe the good Maulana had yet to meet the compulsive shoppers in the Government of Pakistan’s Hall of Fame!But I believe the Federal Minister for Population has something to say in his defence. His ministry has very kindly returned an amount of Rs. 1 billion to the Finance Ministry, which had been given to the ministry to fund Pakistani women’s empowerment and their reproductive health concerns. The programme source for funds returned remains the same for all associated institutions and organizations. Across the board, it is the amounts allocated to fund projects for women’s reproductive health that the affiliate organizations claim to have not utilized! This with the appalling figures for infant mortality, maternal deaths, and women’s access to health providers in Pakistan, which still call for our policy makers’ attention. Was the good Minister trying to hint that his job had been accomplished? That the next big disaster, as our spiraling population growth continues to tax our dwindling natural resources and an infrastructure that just doesn’t manage to cope with these alarming figures, been averted?It is heartening that Ms. Gul-e-Farkhanda, a member of the National Assembly and who currently chairs the National Assembly body on population welfare has taken the Minister to task. She has listed the following concerns that still need to be addressed. They include: “Comprehensive family planning services to males and females; maternal health care including safe motherhood, pre- and post-abortion care in complication; infant healthcare; management of reproductive health; problems in adolescents; management of reproductive health related problems of women and men; prevention and management of reproductive tract infection; sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS; detection of breast and cervical cancer; management of reproductive health related issues of men; management of infancy; gender equality and empowerment of women; programme management; and human resource development.”That this news coincides with the US’s announcements that it has agreed to sell Pakistan $ 375 million worth of military equipment (as reward for good behaviour for being a valuable ally in the war of terror) is worrying. So, while Pakistani women continue to die in childbirth and to date have the highest rate of breast cancer for any Asian population, our government has chosen to spend their savings on 50 Harpoon missiles to be launched from submarines and surface ships! My government’s spending priorities continue to amaze me.While Minister Shahbaz quickly retraces his steps and decides to spend Rs. 540 million in the next two months on bringing some “revolution in the field of population welfare”, his critics express their fears about the quality of the work commissioned in such a short period. In the midst of these revelations, we have also found out that the government officials and the ministry concerned continues to ignore the health concerns of women living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as they fear upsetting the ‘Islamic’ sensitivities of the region. This brings me back to the concerns I had raised last week; our political and military officials are ready to barter the lives of women living in the region, their access to basic rights, education, health providers and expression of opinion, in order to get a ‘negotiated’ peace on the government’s terms in the area.Minister Shahbaz has announced that the ministry has hired female scholars to spread the good word, but what Pakistan should be looking towards (and a source in the population ministry tells me that this movement has already started in some circles), are male motivators. Most Pakistani women are already aware of the risks our current attitudes towards reproductive health pose to our nation. It is only by driving the message home to our male population that we can see some changes. We have tried media campaigns, including the clergy, but to what end? The media campaign of chota khandaan zindagi asaan (small families, trouble-free lives) set in action a spate of bumper stickers of barra khandaan, jihad asaan (large families, trouble-free war). Unless and until the nation’s men are reminded of their responsibilities, and the government agrees to a comprehensive maternal health programme as suggested post-Cairo to be instituted in the country, I don’t think we can have any “revolution in the field of population welfare”.And in the meantime, could someone take the good minister’s and his cronies’ credit cards away?

Pune Diary

We drive into Pune on a sugar high after indulging in a chikki invoked binge in the neighbouring city of Lonavala. Shops selling this sweet list more than two-dozen varieties and it is a difficult but definitely pleasurable activity to make your choice amongst those on display. The sweet fudge can keep the small town on India’s map long after its green hills have been taken over by the concrete townships and resorts that threaten to obliterate the beautiful countryside. As it is still the rainy season in the mossy green Western Ghats, the highway from Mumbai is a green-gray mist with the spray of the waterfalls that we cross fogging up our car’s windscreen.
Pune is a flurry of energy and it is hard not to warm up to the town. It is the academic hub for educational institutions old and new. The solemn brick-stoned university buildings set up by colonial India look over the new campuses of the IT and business study institutes mushrooming in the small town. The Indian Film and Television Institute is based in this city and has been the alma mater of leading lights like Jaya Bachan, Subash Ghai and Mani Kaul. At the same time Pune forms an important cyber hub for the country with many of the call center business being trafficked by this town. It is also home to the country’s military academies with a bustling military cantonment. The worlds of the academia, the computer motivated, and the cantonment mold in together, and I believe this is what makes Pune unique. In the many lively cafĂ©’s that dot the town’s landscape, budding film directors try to rope in gawky college students to feature in their final year thesis projects. The cyber yuppies work for corporate America during the day and fight over passes to the military galas and cantonment New Year balls in the evening. Glimpses of British India during these celebrations, be it in the military band, the ceremonial uniforms, or the formal dances enthrall them. This is sophistication they whisper in awe struck tones as they absorb the chandeliers overhead and the ornate history of the buildings.
A study in contradictions, even though Pune is the heart land of Maratha nationalism, it is home to a large expatriate population. Be it the short term New Age visitors curious about enrolling in the commune at the Osho Meditation Resort, the exchange students in the city’s colleges and the prestigious United World College in the suburbs or the employees of the vibrant NGO industry, they all make Pune an extremely cosmopolitan city. A group of Somalian and Thai residents gossip in the parking lot as I enter my apartment, in the city’s restaurant an Iraqi mother patiently feeds her small daughter bun pakoras, students from Papua New Guinea elbow around jokingly in the markets. There is also a steady population trickling in from Mumbai. Pune has emerged as a booming property market for Mumbai’s rich who have set up their summer homes in the city. Other former Mumbai residents have preferred to make it home and commute to Mumbai for work when need be, the new highway between the two cities has just made their job easier. Old time Pune citizens fear this deluge from Mumbai and many have protested the rapid urbanization that this new population has introduced. The quaint Irani snack bar tries to fight off the Barista coffee chain, the Parsi general store the shopping malls and multiplexes. The narrow roads clog up quickly with the increased vehicular traffic. Women driving scooters wrap scarves around their face to avoid the pollution.
However, just as you start mourning the loss of all things unique to the city, it surprises you with a glimpse of its deep soul. In neighbouring Mumbai the spiritual has become a commercial extravaganza, in Pune there is still a reverence for Maharashta’s religious spirit. Though our group had escaped to the Matheran hill station during Ganesh Chatruthi, (the festival that has followed me through my Indian trip—the elephant headed god manages to reincarnate himself in every town till I am quite sure that I have seen all his regional manifestations) I could still witness some of the religious carnival as we drove back to Pune the next day. It is the morning after the holiday, groups of glum men sit on the various floats being wheeled away from the city centre. Their faces streaked pink and blue from the colored powder that forms part of their celebrations, they nurse their heads after an all night revelry inspired by bhang and loud music. Though the Pune city administration like Mumbai’s had been strict to enforce a ‘noise pollution’ ban after 10pm, it is only in Pune that it is flouted by residents who want to keep their celebrations ‘traditional’. Some of the floats moving slowly in the morning traffic carry life sized Ganesha idols with the deity blind-folded with scarves. These are the more important idols on loan from the city’s temples. Though they have formed an integral part of the various street installations, displays and performances during the fortnight, at the time of the immersion another idol has taken a proxy plunge (quite literally) for them. The deity’s image is blind folded on return to the return to the temple avoid being traumatized by the irreligious on the city’s street.
However, Pune is changing. The changing dynamic of the Indian family is what is more obvious. In the apartment building I am living in, most of the flats on my floor have women listed as apartment owners. A ruse by the wily husband to get out of paying property taxes? No, more and more women, and single women at that now own or rent property in the city. The IT business in the city has been good for them. It has obviously introduced a change in their lifestyle but also challenged as mentioned earlier the power equation in the new Indian family. In more and more families the younger members have increasing buying power and are taking decisions. Sandeep and his young wife earnestly tell me about their new life over dinner in ZK, a restaurant owned by the Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan. The hours are tough, they rarely see each other as its difficult to co-ordinate their free time, usually when one is returning after a grueling shift, the other partner’s day is just starting. However, they now own their own apartment and like many of their friends plan to retire by their mid thirties. They lead a good life; they assure themselves and wonder why they have to follow the life path trajectory that their parent’s generation did. They would rather suffer the paranoid supervisors, the erratic hours and unusual working style today for a very comfortable future. The call centers and the working environment have many critics, with even a report sponsored by the national labor ministry commenting harshly on the working environment. Overseas, the move of local business to Indian call centers has angered many. Globalization does have its critics and it is amazing where this opposition crops up. In Australia angry housewives decide to boycott a telecom provider for providing phone numbers to call centers mostly based in India.
On the last day of my visit I get another reminder of where I am. An early morning visit to the city’s Ferguson College brings me eye to eye with a billboard outside the college’s walls bearing Sarabjit Singh’s image and a plea for his release. The campaign to free him has reached this city with many supporters struggling to make the Free Sarabjit cause a more ‘national’ one rather than a cause localized to the states of Haryana and Punjab. The organizers want to win over the heart and minds of the average Maharashtan on the city’s streets, often the most nationalistic of the country’s citizens.