Rasheeda Bhagat

Those worse off than us

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on December 12, 2011

If we in India are fed up with the shenanigans of our corrupt, inefficient and comatose politicians, imagine the plight of our neighbours in Pakistan, or even worse, Afghanistan.

I am yet to meet a CEO or top honcho from India Inc who is not optimistic about the India growth story. Oh yes, there is policy paralysis; our politicians are among the most corrupt in the world; and yes, we have to get our act together when it comes to crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. But nobody, nothing, can hold us back.. the coming decades belong to us.

Each of them says he or she is an optimist when it comes to India's future. While some brush aside questions on the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, others argue that the burgeoning middle-class will have a spiralling effect. Some others say that poor Indians are not poor due to lack of opportunities but their failure to grab these opportunities. After all, it is not easy to find a good plumber, carpenter, electrician or a driver these days. Surely, these skills don't need degrees and can be learnt by anybody, they reason.

The technology Czars, of course, believe that India's IT prowess will enable us to use tech tools to reach excellent education to the millions of children in rural India who, today, have to contend with a poor quality of education from indifferent, uninterested teachers. They argue that technology is a great leveller and give the examples of the N. R. Narayanamurthys and Nandan Nilekanis who came from middle-class backgrounds but could become billionaires, thanks to the IT industry.

And, yet, when an Anna Hazare, backed by however dubious a team, comes on the horizon, frustrated, middle-class Indians — certainly these do not wear the BPL label — are more than happy to cheer him. Of course, Opposition politicians are the first to clamber on to the Anna bandwagon; some hesitantly, others speedily. But for them, and legitimately so, any stick is good enough to beat the incumbent government with. The tumultuous support Mr Hazare got initially, and continues to get, only illustrates the underlying frustration and irritation in the middle classes. And the Delhi protests/fasts are only the tip of the iceberg. The desperation and rage that rule millions of Indians often takes outlets in support of Naxals and other extremist groups.

Horrors in Pakistan

But, if we in India are fed up with the shenanigans of our corrupt, inefficient and comatose politicians, imagine the plight of our neighbours in Pakistan, or even worse, Afghanistan.

Just before writing this column, I answered an email from a Pakistani friend — a textile industrialist from Karachi who has headed influential Pakistani industrial trade bodies. He described how, while driving from his factory to address a press conference, his car was stuck in a traffic jam. “Suddenly a Pathan started banging on the car window and ordered me to pull it down. Even as I thought my car might have hit another in the traffic jam, another Pakhtun joined him and they demanded my cell phone and wallet.”

With a third joining the two, they showed him a gun. But as my stupefied friend stared at them blankly, they quickly moved on to another car. Such incidents are becoming common, he added.

Afghan women's woes

Moving from Pakistan to Afghanistan, the pathetic plight of women can be gauged from the latest WHO data which says one in 11 Afghan women will die due to pregnancy-related issues during her childbearing years. In neighbouring Tajikistan, that figure is one in 430, while in Austria, it is one in 14,300. Early marriage and lack of effective family planning measures results in women having too many babies too early. Analysing the WHO data, a Reuters report said, “Girls who give birth before age 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, UN figures show. A 2010 UN report said some studies showed half of all Afghan girls were married before that age. A weak economy and decades of conflict have hit public health provision, so clinics and hospitals are few.”The WHO report takes my mind back to a visit to Kabul and Bamiyan in 2005. After I had failed to pick up a conversation with women on Kabul's streets, somebody gave away a secret: I could find large groups of women on a Friday at the Bagh e Zanana (Women's Garden). I did just that and with an enthusiastic teenage girl doing the translation, started chatting with scores of women relaxing in the Bagh, sans their ubiquitous blue burqas.

The Taliban rule had ended four years earlier but the women were still petrified and had nightmares of the Taliban's return. “That is why you failed to get any woman to talk to you on the streets because we don't know who is a Taliban spy”, was one comment.

Birth control pills

After they had laughed, joked, asked about Shah Rukh Khan and John Abraham, the beautiful clothes and jewellery that Bollywood women don, these women moved on to a more serious subject. And, by now, they were whispering.

As this writer hails from India, where health care is good, one of the Afghan women asked if she could be given some birth control pills. She explained: “Our bodies are tired and worn out from repeated pregnancies and childbirth. After all, how many babies can we give birth to and look after? Our men will not allow us to get sterilised. If we suggest it, they call us whores and say we want to be with other men…”

Her voice trailed off, her eyes darkened and moistened. All the other women in the group nodded in approval. Digesting the WHO data I relive their torture and torment. Afghans love big families and an average family means five children. The WHO data shows that maternal mortality rates have fallen from the Taliban times — to 1,400 per 100,000 live births in 2008 from 1,800 per 100,000 lives births in 2000. But Afghan men frown on male doctors attending on their wives or sisters. And traditional birth assistants, says the Reuters report, “often don't wash their hands before deliveries, and have been known to sever the umbilical cord with broken glass or the edge of a shoe.”

I wonder about the four Afghani women doctors, who had settled down in Germany and were on a visit to Kabul. After seeing the pathetic state of Kabul's hospitals for women, they had torn up their passports and sworn to stay back and serve their sisters. Are they happy at their decision? Or frustrated? Have they stayed back or returned to Germany, are questions for which I have no answers.

Published on December 12, 2011
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