Monday, 12 October 2009

No toilet, no bride

Women in rural north India are demanding toilets before consenting marriage. The Washington Post reported today about a 'No toilet, no bride' campaign, whereby parents of girls are insisting that their prospective grooms have toilets in their homes. In Haryana state, 1.4 million toilets have been built since 2005. The local government subsidises the costs incurred.

Globally, some 2.6 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. In India, alone, that number is closer to 700 million, with a greater proportion of Bangladeshis having access than Indians, even though per capita incomes in India are 1.6 times higher. Women are worst affected by this condition, facing a loss of dignity in conjunction with health problems. In addition there is an economic cost in the time spent to walk to a safe place to defecate or to collect water. In 2006 the Human Development Report argued, '[T]he weak voice of women in shaping spending priorities within the household means that the constituency with the strongest expressed demand for sanitation has little control over expenditures...Empowering women may be one of the most successful mechanisms for increasing effective demand.' The ability to say no to a hand in marriage is turning out to be a significant source of such empowerment.

Supported by the Total Sanitation Campaign, in Haryana the idea has caught on in the popular imagination. A radio jingle teases, 'No loo, no "I do"!' Soap operas are using the the campaign for plot lines. And it seems to be having an effect. Christian Science Monitor reported in May that there was at least one case of a woman who divorced her husband for lying that he had a toilet in his house. According to the local representative of Sulabh International (the sanitation advocacy organisation) in the past four years the proportion of rural households in Haryana with a toilet has reached 60% (up from 5%). The Hindu reports that one-third of these toilets have been built by households under the poverty line.

In his autobigraphy, Mahatma Gandhi recounted a meeting in 1896 with the Rajkot Sanitation Committee. At the meeting, members of the 'untouchable' caste voiced their frustration: 'Latrines for us! We go and perform our functions out in the open. Latrines are for you big people.' More than a century later that message is still not heard widely enough but there are signs of change.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Indian embassy in Kabul attacked

At 0827 hours local time, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the Indian embassy in Kabul. Today's attack was similar to the one on 7 July 2008, which had cost the lives of two Indian diplomats and about 60 Afghans. This time the casualties were lower (17) but no less unfortunate. Innocent Afghans on a busy commercial street in Kabul paid the price.

Even as investigative agencies gather evidence (the Taliban has claimed responsibility but they might not be the only ones responsible), a few questions arise immediately.

First, is this a reaction to India's growing influence in Afghanistan? The answer is yes and no. Yes, there is certainly concern within Pakistan that India's activities in Afghanistan are giving it 'strategic depth' at a level that makes Pakistan uncomfortable. No, India's development-related activities in Afghanistan cannot be a justification for wanton acts of terror.

India has no military presence in Afghanistan. It has built a 281 KM road that connects the landlocked country to Iran (and by extension to seaports). It has installed a new power transmission line to bring 24-hour electricity to Kabul. In addition, there are projects for building hospitals, women's training, administrative training, hydropower, solar power, etc. (A fuller listing of development activities can be found here.) Unlike other countries which have built fortresses out of their embassies, and despite the bombings last year as well, India has refused to move its embassy out of a commercial part of Kabul. India believes that a simultaneous and fuller engagement in many sectors of Afghan society and economy is a more constructive approach to nation building than merely military activities.

Many argue that this is mere hogwash, that India has ulterior motives in giving more than $1 billion in aid and that this is just another segment of the Great Game. At one level, this is an obvious point. All official development assistance has explicit political purposes. No one can dispute that. Further, all countries have intelligence assets in regions where their national interests are affected, including in friendly countries. The question should not be whether India has interests in Afghanistan, but how is it exercising its influence? To suggest that development assistance has political motives would imply that diplomatic contact between sovereign states cannot ever be possible without hints of political suspicion. More importantly, there is a tendency to paint the actions of different countries differently. Thus, NATO/western assistance is meant to 'win hearts and minds' whereas Indian assistance is called 'meddling' in Afghanistan's affairs. Diplomacy is the art of finding common interests. The explicit Indian and Afghan position is that it is mutually beneficial for both countries that India engage in development activities there rather than put troops on the ground. This is why India's activities in Afghanistan cannot be equated to NATO's; nor can terrorism against Indian civilians (diplomats as well as private workers, road-builders, engineers, medical personnel, teachers, administrators) be justified.

A second question: do these attacks prove that India (and Kashmir) must be roped in an Af-Pak strategy? This was the original plan of the Obama administration. But there is a serious risk in linking Kashmir to the Af-Pak issue. Just because groups linked to the Taliban are tactically deployed in Kashmir does not make it the same problem. Linking the two would be only a short-term military tactic; it would not resolve the underlying political factors that drive the two conflicts. The administration believes that resolving the Kashmir problem (or in the least easing tensions between India and Pakistan) would free up Pakistani forces to fight the Taliban on its western border. But this would not necessarily increase political stability in Afghanistan. The Af-Pak border has never been accepted by the Pashtuns, an ethnic-political grievance that has taken on religious dimensions. That is a political issue that Pakistan and Afghanistan would have to resolve together - and it is going to be a long process. Kashmir has nothing to do with it. That does not mean that Pakistan's tensions with India do not distract it from the Afghan war effort. The point is that the problems are different and need different political solutions. What is militarily imperative in the short term is not a long-term political solution.