The Week That Is

A landmark legislation, with a potential to change India’s polity and politics (for good or for bad), has been passed in a matter of a few days. Triple Talaq, purported as the legislation that will ensure gender equality and justice for Muslim women, is now a law and any Muslim man divorcing his wife verbally by saying Talaaq Talaq Talaaq will face criminal charges and a jail sentence. Its critics see a bigger BJP agenda behind this, while many find this regressive. Here is a list of countries where Triple Talaaq is banned.

In a tragic development, CCD founder VG Siddhartha decided to end his life in Netravati river in Mangaluru. He was reported to have been under enormous stress, as indicated in a letter media reports claimed, was penned by him. While this is utterly heartbreaking to see an entrepreneur and a successful one at that with an influential network (he was the son-in-law of former Kartanara Chief Minister SM Krishna) commit suicide, it’s also a grim reminder of the bad times Indian economy is going through. With bad loans mounting, banks have sapped entrepreneurs for funds, the tax regime has become too excruciating, and the government isn’t doing much to spur demand as was evident from the lackluster budget this year. Several conspiracy theories on Siddhartha’s murder are now doing the rounds; read them here, here, here and here.

In another development in the Unnao rape case which I had blogged about a couple of days ago, Unnao rape accused Kuldeep Singh Sengar has been expelled from the BJP and the SC has asked the CBI is the rape victim and her lawyer can be airlifted to Delhi.

Former RBI Governor Subir Gokarn has passed away. Read MostlyEconomics‘s opinion piece here. Other obituaries worth your time are here , here, and here.



Much Fuss Over GDP But How Do We Measure Happiness?

The debate over India’s GDP numbers (economists are still locking horns over the truth and objectivity in these figures) was back into currency with this Arvind Subramanian piece published in June this year. He said that India may have overstated its GDP figures by 2.5 percentage points every year since 2011. Another insightful piece said the figures may have been overstated by 1-1.5 percentage points. This is significant, and while there may be a difference in figures quoted, inaccurate reporting of GDP is now an elephant in the room, too big to ignore.

GDP is an important economic tool. It measures the production of all goods and services bought and sold in an economy each year, by this very fact, has been of utmost importance to economists trying to measure economic growth. But of late, there have been concerns that GDP my not be a perfect tool to measure growth. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand PM took it a step further when she said her government is going to look at fresh ways to measure happiness and wellbeing of the people of her country.

So, what are we going to do when we fix our GDP numbers back home? May be, join the global efforts on finding means to measure happiness, because number-driven GDP is already being punched for being an ineffective tool.

Courtney Goldsmith, in this piece, argues why GDP as a measure of economic growth may not be effective:

In an independent review of the UK’s economic statistics published in 2016, Sir Charles Bean wrote that GDP is often viewed as a “summary statistic” for the health of the economy. This means it is frequently conflated with wealth or welfare, though it only measures income. “Importantly, GDP… does not reflect economic inequality or sustainability (environmental, financial or [otherwise]),” Bean wrote. What’s more, GDP is not the precise and flawless figure that many believe it to be – it is merely an estimate. “This uncertainty surrounding official measures of GDP is inadequately recognised in public discourse, with commentators frequently attributing spurious precision to the estimates,” Bean continued.

Sarah Arnold, Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), told World Finance that GDP as a measure of economic activity is simply a means to an end: “It has become so synonymous with national success that the rationale for pursuing economic growth in the first place seems to have been long forgotten.”

Putting the flaws highlighted by Bean and Arnold aside, GDP is still an inaccurate measure of prosperity, as it fails to convey much of the value created in the modern world. GDP was developed during the manufacturing age and, as David Pilling, Africa Editor of the Financial Times, wrote in his book The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty and the Wellbeing of Nations: “[GDP] is not bad at accounting for production of bricks, steel bars and bicycles.” Where it struggles, though, is with the service economy, a segment that accounts for a growing proportion of high-income countries’ economies. “[Try GDP] out on haircuts, psychoanalysis sessions or music downloads and it becomes distinctly fuzzy,” Pilling wrote.

GDP’s preference for tangible goods also means it is insufficient at capturing the value of technology.

Of course, the number-focussed measure of GDP may not be equipped to assess job quality, wellbeing, carbon emissions, inequality, and physical health, key indicators of happiness and wellbeing that development economists have been focussing on.

Goldsmith, in her piece, further argues:

For GDP, which does not distinguish between good and bad production, bigger is always better. …Wars and natural disasters, too, can be a boon to GDP as a result of the associated increase in spending. Comprehensive wealth, on the other hand, accounts for all of a country’s assets, including: produced capital, such as factories and machinery; natural capital, like forests and fossil fuels; human capital, including the value of future earnings for the labour force; and net foreign assets.

GDP’s neglect of natural capital in particular has received more attention in recent years. Natural assets, such as forests, fisheries and the atmosphere, are often regarded as self-sustaining, fixed assets. In actual fact, all of these resources can be – and are being – depleted by humans. Since the 1990s, economists have looked into the possibility of putting a price tag on natural resources to ensure their value is taken seriously. Ecological economist Robert Costanza published a paper entitled ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital in Nature’ in 1997 that valued the whole of the natural world at $33trn. While Costanza’s research was highly controversial, the idea of accounting for natural depletion within the landscape of economic growth is becoming more common.

This McKinsey report says:

GDP as a unit of measure has not kept pace with the changing nature of economic activity. Designed to measure the physical production of goods in the market economy, GDP is not well suited to accounting for private- and public-sector services with no output that can be measured easily by counting the number of units produced. Nor does GDP lend itself to assessing improvements in the quality and diversity of goods and services or to estimating the depletion of resources or the degradation of the environment associated with production. Transformative change in technology is not easy to measure using GDP because so much of the benefit accrues to consumers.

World Bank too has touched upon the subject with its own concept of “comprehensive wealth“, covering in its sweep all produced capital such as factories and roads; natural capital like forests and water; human capital, which leads to earnings; and net foreign assets, to project a fuller picture of economic wellbeing and growth. Experts today are also working out ways to measure intangible qualities of happiness and knowledge but we have a long way to go.

There are interesting cues here, in this Econlife piece published today, which questions if money could indeed buy happiness, by comparing GDP, social support, life expectancy et al of the top 10 happiest countries (according to the UN Happiness Report) in the world.

I think happiness couldn’t ever be measured except in smiles and those trying to chase happiness are the unhappiest lot. Think of this at a national level and tell me: is it possible to make everyone happy? I like it when they say, happiness is a state of mind. Of course, this is because this happiness question weighs heavy on my soul so escapist statements best resolve the moral dilemma. However, honestly, GDP and happiness do not always go together, that’s very much true. 

Rape Victims Are Being Silenced. Will We Just Watch?

Often, I shut myself down when I hear of heinous crime against a woman. Like when Nirbhaya was raped. And now when his girl in Unnao has been raped and seeking justice. But her story is almost like the dirty, scary Bollywood movie you watched and hated: Girl is raped and in no particular coincidence, her family members are wiped out. Oh, I actually have a movie in mind: Damini. Sometimes, life can be stranger than fiction.

Last heard, Unnao girl’s father and two aunts were killed in road accidents, and the victim’s lawyer and the victim herself survived a fatal accident (and it’s anybody’s guess if it was a murder attempt to silence her) – both are badly injured. Police were quoted as saying that even though the victim has police protection, one of the constables deputed for her security were present at the time of the accident. I don’t want to say more because this should say enough. The accused happens to be someone in power, a BJP MLA.

I would rather discuss what this could do to rape victims across India. It’s no secret that reporting and protesting rape has been a difficult effort for women in India. Our rape laws have come a long way today but they once had deeply sexist provisions such as the “two-finger test”. One look at the history of rape judgements in the past would give a sense of how deeply patriarchy has entrenched itself even in ways justice has been delivered. It’s not surprising then that talking about rape too is like breaking open a wound that doesn’t heal. The approach towards dealing with rape survivors  (I reported on this for Mint ) may have changed, but our political and social system ensures that fighting for justice remains a battle fraught with dangers.

The Girl With The Peacock Tattoo

It was always the tattoo that stood out. Peacock tattoo on the waist. It hurt to get it done but then, is there ever any gain without pain? Neetu Singh Solanki knew it only too well. She was a girl from Matiala, the congested suburb in West Delhi that we hear of only during elections, or when a teen has shot himself to death over a family altercation, or when a man is shot dead for marrying out of his gotra. Matiala is that kind of a place you never want to go to because you don’t expect any good to come out of the suburb, notorious for illegal factories and colonies.

It is in this milieu that Neetu Singh Solanki appears like the proverbial phoenix attempting to emerge out of darkness, unhinged, a winner of life. Everyone used the words “courageous” “smart” “bright” “vivacious” to describe her. The fact that she was pretty was a bonus. Nothing could ever pull her down, not her modest roots, not her sexist locality, not her contemptuous neighbours. One day, she said to her parents what they always expected she would: she was moving to Singapore. Trusting parents them all, they dropped her at the airport and expected her to stay in touch.

In just a few months, a sack loaded with a woman’s mutilated limbs was found lying near the New Delhi railway station. It appeared like the gruesome murder of a young woman by someone whom she knew well. Her parents identified the body, and Neetu Singh Solanki became the most controversial figure of Matiala.

I wrote a story about her in Mint right after her murder. I travelled to Matiala, met her family, spoke to the cops and tried very hard to make sense of the murder. Eight years later, her boyfriend, accused of murdering her, died of multiple organ failure in Gurgaon and the case was back in news again. What stunned people was that Raju Gehlot had lived and worked in Gurgaon all these years and faked his identity to escape the police’s eyes.

Every report today seems to be calling her the tattoo girl, and she indeed was. But she was much more – a girl trying to rise above her circumstances to do make something of her life. But we aren’t asking any questions. To the police who couldn’t trace the murderer who was in Delhi all along. To the police who never even filed a chargesheet in the case. To the police who now wants to ask the court to allow them to file a closure report in the case.

This murder was no less gruesome than others. In fact, murders can’t be less or more gruesome. Murder is the forced discontinuation of life and no one has a right to do that to anyone. In Neetu Singh Solanki’s case, who was called many names, not all of it good, by her neighbours, her murder served as an excuse for many in Matiala to deny girls their rightful place within families and society.

Never could anyone doubt the free spirit of Neetu from the pictures on the walls of her home, but what was a matter of pride for her parents, became fodder for gossip for uncaring neighbours. All they could talk about was the tattoo. The tattoo stood for something profound: the courage of a girl to make her choices and live with conviction.

Hey Alexa! Say Hello To Q!

Chances are, you have an Alexa at home. So do I. So, this post is for you.

A UN study has found that voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri have been designed excessively servile that perpetuate gender stereotypes about women. The report recommended that companies stop making digital voice assistants female by default, and explore gender-neutral options.

They are programmed to be submissive and servile – including politely responding to insults – meaning they reinforce gender bias and normalise sexist harassment, said researchers from the U.N. scientific and cultural body UNESCO.

The study highlighted that Siri was previously programmed to respond to users calling her a “bitch” by saying “I’d blush if I could” as an example of the issue.

“Siri’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse – and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women – provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products,” it said.

Earlier this year, Q was developed as a gender-neutral voice assistant developed by a team of technologists at EqualAI to promote gender equality in technology and to address concerns of sexism. A Quartz article explained why genderless technology such as Q matters:

Adding a voice like Q’s to a menu of audio options would address more than one ethical dilemma. As Q articulates in its introductory recording, it would make tech more inclusive by recognizing people who identify as non-binary, a population that’s becoming increasingly visible as social norms change. “It’s because Q is likely to play with our minds that it is important,” Kristina Hultgren, a linguist who was not part of the project, told Wired. “It plays with our urge to put people into boxes and therefore has the potential to push people’s boundaries and broaden their horizons.”

Wide adoption of a genderless voice would also pave the way for some much needed women’s liberation among AI assistants, which are infiltrating our lives at a rate that has even surprised industry analysts. Currently, all of the major digital voices who answer our questions about the weather, or provide the exchange rate between the peso and a dollar, or remind us to make a phone call, are undeniably feminine, even though their makers claim the bots are genderless.


Yet, however big a deal Q might be, gender bias in technology can’t be fully removed unless diversity and inclusion in technology (AI et al), creative and leadership roles happen. Until then, robots and digital assistants will continue to reflect what they learn from human behavior. 

Wanna hear what Q sounds like? Go here, and use headphones!

Kabir Singh Doesn’t Exist In An Alternate Universe. Fellow Feminists, It’s Time To Accept It

Though it’s a bit late in the day, here are my thoughts on Kabir Singh, the movie, which has been trashed by feminists as utterly vile and sickening for the sheer misogyny of its lead character played by Shahid Kapoor. A few critics have argued that Kabir Singh, the character, is so misogynistic that he couldn’t possibly exist in the universe we live in. Right from his violation of consent while kissing his love interest played by Kiara Advani,  to his treatment of women in general, Kabir Singh many argue couldn’t belong to the world we live in. They say, it’s impossible and I wonder why. Isn’t this the world where men rape women with rods and rape babies when they are as young as two. I have even heard that some of them don’t even spare lesser than mortal animals in their animalistic quest for sexual gratification. I haven’t heard anyone scream over these reports and say that these men couldn’t be from our world. They are in our world and we accept this with great horror and disgust. Kabir Singh needs this acceptance too, an imperfect, deeply misogynistic man tugging at our feminist hearts as a curse only to be condemned.

Yes, life and reality of it can be very difficult to swallow. For someone who feels very strongly about sexism, I hate to be saying this but Kabir Singh is NOT from an alternate universe. I hear you when you insist he is. What you mean, really, is that he couldn’t be belonging to this world. Yes, he couldn’t be, with his ugliness and imperfections but world, as it exists, can be very ugly. Not accepting ugliness as part of your world, I think, is a mostly urban and utterly myopic view of the world, acutely unaware of the small town cultural and social landscape, especially in the Hindi belt of our country.

In a very real world where girls haven’t been raised to be independent individuals, men step in to behave like Kabir Singh, and are welcomed to behave like one. They could be our fathers, boyfriends, and husbands. They could be in our families, or outside of it, but their existence isn’t unreal. I have heard the noise on the male protagonist in the movie not caring about consent to kiss women, or make out with them, but for decades, we have had women allowing men to usurp what’s been theirs, willingly or unwillingly, and it’s this universe (not alternate) that the film portrays. This explains why the struggle for women’s rights_right from a Shah Bano to the pending legislation on marital rape remains a difficult one.

To get back to the film, since when do we label reality as an alternate universe, say it doesn’t exist? That’s like being in a place of privilege and making judgments about a reality that may not be yours. And do I need to say that without placing difficult truths where they belong, we (feminists) could never win any battle? Without accepting what the problem is and why, one couldn’t really address the problem. And that brings me to what I thought the problem is that truly needs to be discussed.

What made me very anxious about the movie was the character of Kiara Advani. Haven’t I seen many of her ilk in the town I grew up in and did they not travel with me when I moved to a global city for my global education? Many landed in the city with their boyfriends hailing cabs, carrying their suitcases to their rooms, showing them the path from college to hostel and suggesting, sounding very concerned, safe ways to navigate in the foreign city and keep themselves surrounded by people (especially Indian friends) all the time. This protective girl gang partied together and ate together and slept together, shutting themselves in the process to the multicultural world they found themselves transported to for their education.

I saw them needing boyfriends or brothers or mothers for security, protection and every day adjustments in life as if they could always have the luxury to live life joined to the hips with those they love and trust. Nothing wrong with this, after all, India is great for the support system that covers in its broad sweep friends and families who are utterly protective and giving.  Perfectly fine, but this may be why the spirit to venture out and live life independently dies early in some girls. and they are not to be blamed. We are in a country where a majority of girls are still raised to get married and start a family. I am not talking in thin air, maybe this UN Women report I wrote about yesterday will give you a sense of the problem.

If you aren’t one of them, I must tell you that you (and I too) are in minority. You are lucky you aren’t told to continue in a tasteless, abusive marriage because marriages are forever. You are bright and you deserve it, but those conditioned to act like they would die without a Kabir Singh don’t need your shock and condescension, for Kabir Singh is just the kind of man they may be stuck with for life. What would really help is your acceptance that such men exist just as they do, the rapists and dacoits and murderers do, and then LOUDLY say, cinema reflects life and life is sad. Life is sad, yes. At times. Girls like Kiara Advani’s character exist. They are in a prison cell, the lock to the prison door is missing and yet, they stay.

Why are they staying? Often times, they don’t have the support of parents who say, girl, we are with you, don’t take anyone’s shit. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they should walk out or if it’s okay to walk out. Sometimes, they know but they still won’t. Sometimes, they just can’t. Let us please not forget the real issues, then. The real issues we (feminists) need to be raging about are our unfair inheritance laws, son preference in Indian society, female foeticide, social structures that don’t favor strong and independent girls, cultural underpinnings that wouldn’t allow men to help out women in domestic chores, women sacrificing careers to make way for obligations in a marriage, inequality in families that hinders or limits their access to education, jobs, a career, their rights to property, equal pay …… the list is endless. Don’t say these don’t exist. Next time, you think of Kabir Singh, say this aloud: Kabir Singh is a product of the inequalities women face. Then, be very angry about these inequalities and make this into a chorus. This anger will do justice to Kiara Advanis across India you wouldn’t want to let down.  





How Are Women Doing?

Hello 2019, how are we women doing across the world? Same same, this UN Women report released this month says.

Some progress has been made, yes, but institutional discrimination continues to exist in the shape of family laws, impinging upon women’s status in marriage and family structures, labour force participation and access to income and assets.

Disturbing realities persist. Women of the world even today work three times harder at unpaid care and domestic work when compared to men. Of course, when women work at home more, they are removed from opportunities for paid work and education.

I would sum up the key findings from India, you can read the entire report here:

  • Mothers-in-law still control the choices of their daughters-in-law, whether it is about choosing their clothes or making decisions over childbearing or children’s marriages.
  • Arranged marriage continues to be the most preferred way to marry.
  • Dowry as a practice is far from obsolete, hail feminism (or its failure in prohibiting the ugly practice)! Dowry practices continue to result in violence against women. Available data on dowry-related killings from the National Crime Records Bureau in India indicate that female dowry deaths account for 40 to 50 percent of all female homicides recorded annually between 1999 and 2016.
  • The total fertility rate within the Southasia region is projected to drop from 5.6 live births per woman in 1970-1975 to 2.4 births in 2015-2020 (same rate as the global average). This rate is predicted to further decline in the region to 2.2 by 2025-2030.
  • Son preference is going strong and sex-selective abortions happen with impunity. Countries with abnormally high sex ratios (greater than 105 males per 100 females) in Southern Asia are Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan, and hold your breath, India.
  • Marriages below the legal age of marriage still continue to happen in some regions.
  • Same-sex couples enjoy few rights or legal entitlements despite the Supreme Court of India repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thereby legalizing same-sex relationships.
  • Unpaid work or other economic activities that happen within the families have the weakest potential for transforming women’s lives, yet they are a dominant feature of women’s work in the region.
    • Women who own assets such as land and housing have a greater degree of protection against violence and abusive marriages.
  • Only a fraction of women aged 15-49 in India (estimates ranging from 17 to 26 percent) receive a wage or income of their own, meaning that the great majority of women are financially dependent on their spouses, fathers, in-laws and other extended kin.
  • A majority of divorced women are still dependent on their parents and brothers for financial support and living arrangements after separation.
  • Women are overwhelmingly concerned about the adverse implications of their long working hours (paid and unpaid) for their children.

All of these, especially the last three findings, are alarming facts. Women’s guilt over giving less of their time to their children exists because they are trapped in family structures where women do most of the childcare and other unpaid work, often comprising heir personal and professional goals. Discrimination and son preference within households restricts women’s access to education and hence, jobs, leaving them financially crippled and vulnerable especially after a divorce or breakdown of the marriage. We may have seen changes in family law and criminal procedure code over the years but we have a long way to go. I have always believed that a lot of this comes from cultural underpinnings that influence every decision parents make for the girl child. A revolution is needed, nothing less.