Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Weekend With Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi, an eminent Indian social activist, and a truly extraordinary person was in the San Francisco Bay Area a few days ago. I had the opportunity to attend a talk that she gave at Stanford, and also have more informal discussions with her over a lunch and a dinner. It was a wonderful experience.

I have long been an admirer of Ms. Kishwar’s work and I’ve been reading her essays for many years. Now that I have met her in person, I can say that she is also a very warm and friendly human being.

I first came to know of Ms. Kishwar when, some ten years or so ago, I read some of her writing on Indian women’s issues. I found her observations deeply insightful, nuanced and profound. As far as I am concerned, Ms. Kishwar’s series of essays (here is one) on dowry and related issues is some of the best writing I have ever come across on Indian women’s issues. Here is a quote from her.
It has become politically fashionable to attribute all forms of violence and discrimination against women, including female infanticide and female foeticide to the economic burden of dowry that a daughter is said to represent.

Dowry requirements are used as another excuse for considering daughters a burden. The anti-dowry movement, by limiting itself to the constant repetition of ‘dowry abolition’ as a panacea for women’s empowerment and as the primary strategy for ending their oppression, has only helped give further legitimacy to the conventional belief that daughters are an economic liability.

We need to combat the culture of disinheritance if we wish to effectively combat the growing hold of dowry culture.
Though, in my opinion, some of Ms. Kishwar’s best work has been on women’s issues, she has also worked on and written about a myriad other social issues - on communal violence, on Kashmir, on governance, on globalization, on farm policy, on stifling laws and regulations, and so on. On most of these issues I have found her views to be sensible, and in many cases, very close to my own point of view (rather, I found that my own views were close to hers). I fondly recall an incident from a couple of years ago. I had written an article severely critical of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the NBA, the movement opposed to building a dam across the Narmada River). My article was drawing quite a lot of flak from various NBA supporters. As luck would have it, just around that time, Ms. Kishwar came out with her own article criticizing the NBA, which largely validated my own stance.

This is not to say that I agree with Ms. Kishwar on everything. Ms. Kishwar is an unabashed admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. I don’t quite agree with her on this. I greatly admire Gandhi’s non-violence, his humanity, his leadership of the Indian independence movement, and the dignity and self-respect he engendered among so many Indians. However, I have serious reservations about Gandhi’s rejection of modernity and his denunciation of the scientific-technological world-view (for my views on Gandhi, see this). Ms. Kishwar also appears to hold the view that pre-modern pre-British India was a land of milk-and-honey, a land of all-round prosperity and contentment, conceptually very similar to Gandhi’s views expressed in Hind Swaraj. I disagree. I see pre-modern pre-British India as a civilization in precipitous decline, one that had lost its vitality and capacity for internal renewal. I agree with author V.S. Naipaul, who says, “the Indian system [in 1857] ... has come to the end of its possibilities, ... that the India that will come into being at the end of the period of British rule will be better educated, more creative and full of possibility than the India of a century before”.

On the whole, it appears that while I have some disagreements with Ms. Kishwar on how we interpret the past, I agree with her on almost everything she has to say about the present.

In recent years Ms. Kishwar has been working with people who make a living in the informal sector in Delhi, people such as cycle-rickshaw pullers, hawkers, vendors, etc. The talk she gave in Stanford was on this topic.

Consider the case of cycle-rickshaws in Delhi. The law holds that no person shall be allowed to ply a cyle-rickshaw unless he himself is the licensed owner of the rickshaw, and also stipulates that no person shall be granted more than one such license. However, most rickshaw-pullers in Delhi are newly arrived migrants from villages, who have neither the money, nor the desire to buy a rickshaw outright. Most rickshaw owners are themselves enterprising ex-rickshaw-pullers who, through dint of hard work over the years, have come to own a fleet of rickshaws. As a result, almost all the rickshaws on Delhi’s streets are “illegal”. So rickshaw pullers and owners, who are after all providing a legitimate service for which there is a legitimate demand, are forced to pay all kinds of bribes to various officials, just in order to carry on with their livelihoods.

Ms. Kishwar asks a question: suppose similarly restrictive laws were applicable to say cars or aircraft? Suppose, the law stipulated that a person can drive a car or pilot an aircraft only if he owns the vehicle, would it make sense? Why should cycle-rickshaws be treated so differently? We all applaud the business success of, say, Jet Airways when they grow their fleet and expand their network. A migrant from a village who comes pennyless to Delhi, becomes a rickshaw puller, and then grows his business to a fleet of rickshaws, is no less entrepreneurial than the executives at Jet Airways. But far from receiving accolades for building a successful business and creating job opportunities, this entrepreneur is hounded by the police and city administrators and is forced to shoulder the huge cost of predatory bribes.

Similarly irrational and restrictive laws apply to most other businesses in the informal economy. In recent years, Ms. Kishwar and Manushi have been involved in a pilot project in a hawker market in Delhi (read Ms. Kishwar’s article about it here). This project aims to demonstrate what can be achieved by legalizing the status of street vendors. On one hand this effort has been has been an enormous success. The hawkers have been very cooperative and, together with Manushi, they have indeed converted the area into a clean, attractive, and well-functioning marketplace. On the other hand, this very success has caused problems. Legalization has meant that corrupt officials and the local mafia have not been able to extort money; and the transformation of a slum-like area into a well-developed market has meant that the market value of each stall has gone up tremendously, making the stalls targets of the mafia. The hawkers and Manushi activists have been subjected to continuous harassment and threats of violence. Eventually, after a series of life-threatening attacks on Manushi activists and Ms. Kishwar herself, she is now forced to live with round-the-clock police security.

Ms Kishwar’s work with rickshaw-pullers, hawkers, etc., is driven by the foundational belief that poverty is an unnatural condition for human beings, and given half a chance, the poor will be able to overcome poverty themselves through their own enterprise and hard work. In other words, Ms. Kishwar believes that the key to fighting poverty lies in unleashing the talents and energies of the poor that have been kept suppressed by a web of stifling laws and regulations. It was rather inspiring to hear Ms. Kishwar declare that there is an entrepreneur in every human being - all that is needed is a chance to succeed. Asked what she thoughts would happen to hawkers and street vendors in India if multinationals like Wal-Mart enter the scene, Ms. Kishwar replied that she was not worried. She is of the opinion that as long as there is a level playing field (i.e., if hawkers/vendors don’t have pay a huge overhead in the form of bribes, etc.) they will be able to compete effectively with Wal-Mart, or at least will find niches where they will be able to thrive.

Ms. Kishwar is a strong proponent of economic liberalization for the poor. As we are all aware, liberalization of the Indian economy has given a massive boost to the corporate sector and many Indian companies have now become globally competitive. Ms. Kishwar points out, however, that liberalization has never reached the poor. In the informal sector, which employs the vast majority of the Indian population, the License Raj still rules, accompanied by rampant corruption. This stifles initiative and enterprise, and perpetuates poverty.

One particularly fascinating aspect that I have noticed in Ms. Kishwar’s positions on various issues is her propensity to take a nuanced and independent stand, while taking practical matters into consideration, rather than a stark black-or-white ideologically extreme stand. This is a quality that is unfortunately increasingly uncommon in today’s world. Consider, for example, the issue of multinationals coming to India. There is a strong pro-multinational business lobby that says that multinationals are the best thing that ever happened. At the other extreme there are strongly anti-multinational groups, such as the World Social Forum, who say that multinationals and corporates are the source of all the world’s evil. Ms. Kishwar takes the nuanced view that multinationals are not the solution to all our problems, nor the source of all evil; but economic liberalization, which allows multinationals to operate, is good for all, and should be extended to the poor. So independent is Ms. Kishwar in her thinking that she states that she refuses to subscribe to any ‘isms’; so much so that she is well known for her essay “why I do not call myself a feminist”.

Unfortunately, in today’s world of 20-second TV soundbites, thoughtful and nuanced voices such as Ms. Kishwar’s tend to be crowded out by ideologically extreme black-or-white views on most issues.

An Appeal

After being in publication for many years, and after having carved out a special niche for itself, Manushi has now ceased publication because of lack of funds. Plans are afoot to restart publication of Manushi. I, as well as some others, who met Ms. Kishwar during her stay in the U.S. have offered to help out. If you can help Manushi - either financially or otherwise - please do so.

[Addeed Later] Please sign this petition in support of Ms. Kishwar and Manushi's fight to secure rights for street vendors in India.


Blogger manmeetsach said...

Siddhartha - How do I get a hold of Madhu? She is in one of my films ( If you can send me her contact information in the US - I'd appreciate it. Thank you.


April 28, 2008 9:17 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Manmeet, I do not know her contact information while she is in the U.S. She is anyway returning to India in a few days. You can contact her by email (editor AT manushi-india DOT org)

April 28, 2008 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Lila Rajiva said...

An excellent post. I am in full agreement with Ms. Kishwar's positions and have written on foeticide in India and on the license raj and global trade, from a similar perspective.

We need to form a network of non-ideologues.

December 31, 2011 12:42 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home