Kishwar has her work cut out for her. As she points out, the Indian government is rife with corruption and redundant, stultifying bureaucratic norms. She describes bureaucracy as a parasitic segment of society. She says the greatest productive and creative potential of India lies latent among the poor of India—instead of supporting this potential, the Indian government lays numerous bureaucratic obstacles in the path of these self-employed. With 90 percent of India’s population belonging to the realms of the self–employed, that’s a whole lot of potential just waiting to be tapped.
Take the example of the absurdity cycle-rickshaw pliers in Delhi have to go through. For starters, there is a quota on number of rickshaw pullers on the road because they can obstruct traffic. There is no quota on the number of cars. Hence, there is a restriction to how many people can be employed in this mode of livelihood, even though it is much needed by the poor of Delhi, and is the most environmentally friendly option for the city. There are further restrictions to ownership: no one can own more than one rickshaw. You can own over 35 cars, a fleet of buses, but you cannot own more than one rickshaw. To further the ludicrousness, if someone else other than the owner plies it, the government can confiscate the rickshaw. So if you are ill, and have to have your brother ply it for a day, that’s a no-no. In addition to these ridiculous regulations, rickshaw pullers need to contend with corruption and bribery: Police Inspectors allow and protect illegal fleets of rickshaws, and take bribes monthly. A rickshaw-pullers rickshaw can be confiscated if there is too much “clutter” on roads. If released, they need to pay a fine of Rs. 350. While a second hand rickshaw can be bought for Rs 1,000–2,000 and a brand new rickshaw can be bought for Rs. 3,500, you pay 10 percent of the cost of your rickshaw as a fine, at the very minimum. It’s like asking a Maruti owner to pay Rs. 40,000 for a fine. Makes you feel like a caterpillar–one in every thousand or so can survive, they have so many dangers to negotiate.
Then Madhu Kishwar puts herself in the shoes of another sector of her fellow Indians, and gives me another example–the agricultural industry. “Why should I need to get permission from the government if I decide to start husking my paddy?” She’s indignant. The government determines who sells what, where, and at what price. It doesn’t allow any interstate movement of crop. Farmers have to get licensing for agricultural selling. The government can take your land away, if you infringe upon these regulations.
She advocates minimal governance–that the government regulate that which is absolutely necessary, no more, no less. “We need a government that is transparent, accountable, and geared towards service–government employees need to see themselves as public servants, not as public rulers to extort and manipulate for their benefit. My most important goal is fixing the ruler/ ruled issue by decolonizing the polity, and creating a healthier ruler-ruled relationship. We work against mal-governance. My dream is a decentralized polity and economy, and a self-governed society. I dream of economic initiatives free from needless bureaucratic controls. People in India can generate wealth with ease. The government ought to gear itself towards removing obstructions from their path, not add them. The people need to be given greater control in civic, economic and political arenas. Institutions of governance ought to be built on accountability, service and transparency.”
And how does she advocate achieving these goals? “Regulations have to change under pressure from popular movements, election issues. People need to have their voices known, and take control of power that governs them. There have been farmer movements – there have been significant changes because of long-drawn out struggles. The Indian President wrote a policy for rickshaw pullers in response to agitations, and special interests are trying to sabotage it. Idiotic laws will lead to civil disobedience. At Manushi, we provide a platform for struggle whose voices are not heard effectively, we hold series with important people media, RAN campaign, films, advocacy to the parliament. We demand that the government include Manushi as stakeholders in their policies. And make sure their laws are implemented.” A sister organization, Manushi Nagrik Adkhikar Manch (the Manushi Forum for Citizens’ Rights) works at democratizing the government (in a democracy!), and strengthening citizenship rights. She appeals to non-resident Indians (NRIs) and Indians residing in India alike: “Don’t confine your engagement with India to religious and cultural for a. Engage in the transmission of India to an effective democracy. NRIs are very important engines of change in India.”
Personally, Madhu is doing everything she can to further these goals. “I have always chosen a career that allows me to pursue these goals to the fullest.” And Lord knows she has. She was the co-founder and Editor of Manushi since 1978 (see www.manushi.org); on the Board of Trustees for the Indian Social Studies Trust, Sambhavna Trust and the Bhopal People’s Health and Documentation Clinic; she was the co-founder of the Forum for Democratic Reforms and the Inter Community Peace Initiative. She has received the Vidula Samman award, the Deshasnehi award of the India Development Foundation in Bangalore, the Prabha Puruskar for distinguished service to the cause of women by the Keshav Smarak Sansthan in Lucknow, the Haldi Ghati Award for the Outstanding Journalist of the Year by the Rana Mewar Foundation of Udaipur, the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Best Woman Journalist of the Year, and the Order of Human Rights from the All India Sikh Conference.
We ask her what keeps her motivated – is she a feminist primarily? She has been fighting for reform for 33 years – since she was a student in college. Manushi has been around for 23 years. She blames it on an obsession with India. “This lifetime is for India. I want to make it a place I can be proud of. Currently India is going through its lowest phase in it’s history. It used to be a grand civilization. My genes rebel against the mess we are in. The physical health of a society can be judged by the toilets of that society, the emotional and cultural health of a nation is judged by how it treats it’s women and elderly.” She laughs and says, I am not a compulsive womanizer. Women are shakti, in this culture women are rendered helpless. It offends my being.
She says, I am not personally ambitious. It helps having parents who do not direct your life for you. “If I were to polish shoes on the roadside, they would say ‘She’s polishing shoes, it must be good for society, it must be what’s needed.’ They don’t make me feel like a failure if I don’t fit into their ambitions for their child.”
Not that they have anything to complain about; Madhu Kishwar has a formidable list of accomplishments – she has authored over a dozen books on subjects such as economic reforms, role of religion and nationalism in Indian life, role of women, analysis of various women’s movements, and other aspects of the Indian ethos, researched, conceptualized, scripted and anchored a prime-time program called News Watch on DD Channel 1, made a series of documentary films on topics such as license permit raaj: a view from below, pauperization of traditional technologists and artisans, agricultural policy, dowry, women and property rights. She has been working on making a new series of documentaries for Doordarshan on the actual implementation of laws intended for the protection of women, has regularly contributed of hundreds of articles and features to Manushi covering women’s issues, entrepreneurship, communalism, religion, bureaucracy, culture, law, governance, and a host of other everyday concerns of people on the Indian subcontinent; authored nearly two hundred articles in prominent, mainstream, national newspapers such as The Times of India, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, and Indian Express and many other regional publications and provided hundreds of lectures in Hindi and English to academic, activist, and grassroots organizations in India and abroad with a special focus on rural Indian economy and society. She has additionally been awarded the Bhikku Parekh Fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, been a Reader at Satyawati College in Delhi University, been a Fellow with the National Centre for South Asian Studies in Melbourne, Australia, been awarded the Rama Watumull Distinguished Scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies in the University of Hawaii, and been a Fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University.
She says she knows the battles she is fighting are epochal battles, they don’t need to have the Madhu Kishwar stamp on them. “My emotional well-being is not linked personally to the causes I fight for. The Gita says, which I follow duly; the karma is in my hands, the rest is not mine to ponder.”
Growing up in India, I have heard an oft-repeated phrase in response to the rampant government corruption “but what can you do?”. Here is a woman who can answer that question, at length. All the more people to help her fight these battles, and the more power to her.