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Women as farmers, feminisation of farming August 21, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala, South Asia - General , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

What is new in the world of farming today? Well, for one, there is a ‘feminisation’ of farming in many parts of the world, and South Asia is no exception to that. Before I explain that process, let me point out first that women have always performed important roles in agriculture, whether in less- or more-developed countries and irrespective of time, but have remained invisible as farmers. This is because when women have worked side-by-side with men on the farm, they often worked as part of a family unit of labour. A powerful sexually-based division of labour meant that women’s labour and active participation were limited only to certain parts of agriculture and to certain tasks, or even to certain crops. Often, the bulk of this labour was performed under the direct or indirect control of men, who also controlled (or owned) land, resulting in both inaccurate information about and the invisibility of women and also undervaluing of their contributions to agricultural production systems.

Photo: K. Lahiri-Dutt

Photo: K. Lahiri-Dutt

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Black dust and bicycles November 4, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

Rural peasants once reliant on farming and forestry for their livelihood are turning to bicycles and India’s massive coal industry to survive.

Coal in India is much more than a mineral resource. For a country where coal-fired thermal power plants produce most electricity and one where 540 million people are still waiting to be connected to the grid, coal has always been ‘a national asset’, a symbolic icon of national pride.

A man and boy push bags of coal on their bicycle. Photo by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt.

India is the world’s third-largest producer of coal, the only country that can boast a separate ministry for coal, and a place where the train to the collieries is lovingly named as the ‘Black Diamond Express’.

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The Delhi gang rape can be explained by India’s gender ideologies February 26, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

Riding a bus in New Delhi was always intimidating. I still remember how, in the early 1990s, a largish, unknown man just flopped on my lap on the aisle seat. When I mildly expressed displeasure, his demeanour switched between menacing and casual, forcing me to shut up and leave him the seat. This was not an isolated experience: many women, whether in Delhi or Bangalore, have had similar experiences in their daily lives and felt amazed at how ‘naturally’ traditional gender ideologies are ‘performed’ in public.

So is what came to be known as the Delhi gang rape case different (and if so, how and why) from the myriad forms of violence that Indian women face every day, whether in urban or rural India, at home or in public, from close family members, spouses or completely unknown strangers?

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FEATURE ARTICLE: Notes from the field: feminisation of agriculture in the eastern Gangetic plains August 14, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Features, India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

… if women enjoyed the same access to productive resources as men in the world, farm yield could be raised by 20–30%…

The driver of the Tata Sumo I was travelling in not only stopped and honked several times, but, on at least two occasions, left the vehicle to physically push off the cows who were lazing on the road and relishing the midday heat of summer. More reluctant than the cows, however, were the black, white and brown goats on our path that were just lazily hanging around without a specific destination in mind. The road had lost its smooth tar cover and the large potholes of unascertainable depth meant that we were driving at not much more than walking speed. Whilst the bovine behaviour of acting as speed bumps is not unfamiliar to those who have travelled in rural India, the number and variety of goats and their goatish behaviour were noticeable at once. They were busier than the cows, chomping away on the leaves of the jute stalks that had just been cut and piled on the roadside before being dumped into the water for retting, or, on one occasion, a single goat was lying on its side, with its head on the tar, like a dead body. The goat had deliberately adopted the posture – actually to scratch its ear.

In an extremely poor area in the eastern Gangetic plains, running roughly from Champaran in North Bihar in the west to Cooch Behar near the Bangladesh border in the east and including the narrow flat stretch of Terai in Nepal, goats have become the new ‘feminine asset’.

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FEATURE ARTICLE: Mamata’s khamota or the backlash of the bhadraloks April 27, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Features, India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

In 1990 after Lalu Prasad Yadav, the lower caste charismatic political leader of Bihar, became the Chief Minister of the state, the young, English-speaking, suave journalists flocked from metropolitan cities like New Delhi and Bombay to catch his sound bites on tape and camera. Their interest in Lalu was not only because of the man himself, but also his illiterate wife, his large family and his domesticated cows that apparently enjoyed chewing the grass of the palatial Chief Ministerial Bungalow built during the colonial raj. It has now become almost a myth amongst these journalists how Lalu chewed his paan (betel leaf) and spat the red spit out into a bowl, and how when asked one of those airy-fairy questions by an urbane young man from New Delhi, he raised one of his profuse buttocks to let out a loud fart before responding.

The story has become a journalistic legend because if there is one thing that India definitely respects, it is behavioural polish, whether in its businessmen or its politicians. Lalu’s lack of sophistication was deemed as crude and lower class, and he was made fun of in English-language dailies and weeklies, turning this story into a myth. There is however, an irony in the story; one might see the fart as the ultimate finger-up – bugger off as we say Down Under – to those who matter very little to Lalu. I am saying this in context of the recent rush of allegations against the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee, by the regional, national and even international press. The didicule-ing and ‘lampooning’ of Didi, apparently in response to her mercurial temperament and unpredictable outbursts, her dictatorial style, her preference for the colour blue, her summary dismissal of the country’s railway minister for raising ticket prices without consulting her (she herself was the previous railway minister and didn’t get a good report card), and her ultimatum to the Prime Minister for revoking the strict yearly repayment of debt by the state. Even The Economist called her the ‘Mischief Minister of West Bengal’ and made fun of her effort to change the name of West Bengal to Paschim Banga. Within a year of her election, the entire world appears to be against her, projecting her as unfit to run the country as Lalu was presented by the bemused media then.

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Thinking about the defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal Assembly elections, May 2011 May 23, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

On Friday, 12 May, the 34-year old local Kremlin in West Bengal, ruled by a Left Front, led by a Stalinist Communist Party, was pulled down by a straight-talking, straight-forward, simple woman from a lower middle class family of Kalighat, Kolkata. This woman is most unusual to Indian politics: she neither brings a family name to politics (as does Sonia Gandhi), nor did she have a political mentor (as did the dalit leader Mayavati). She is Mamata Banerjee, the leader of Trina Mool Congress (TMC). Soon, she will give up her job as the Railways Minister in the Central Government and walk into the Writers’ Buildings, the hub of government power in West Bengal, where she was pulled by the hair and thrown out in 1993 by the police for protesting in front of the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu’s, office. Although this was not the only time she was physically beaten by the hired goondas of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) (Mamata’s head was fractured in 1991 by a CPI(M) thug), she will have a broad smile on her face when taking the chief ministerial seat, I am sure. This is because she has, at last, succeeded in her often single-handed, decades-long struggle to overthrow a Left Front that came to power in 1977 in a landslide victory.  Politically, it is an important event. But it is more significant because, in the process of overthrowing the Communists, she has redefined contemporary Bengali ethnic identity, loosening the grip of the urban-based, dhoti-clad, intellectual middle class bhadralok ideologues on the state politics.

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FEATURE ARTICLE: Anglo-Indians as part of the Indian diaspora: making a home in Australia May 11, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Features, India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

A different kind of Indian in Australia?

Besides the Afghan cameleers and the Sikhs in the nineteenth century, one of the earliest communities to migrate from India to Australia was the Anglo-Indians. Anglo-Indians comprise one of the largest communities of mixed descent in the world and are most likely the largest single cultural group of Indians in Australia. In this note, I want to show that on the transnational scale, as part of an Indian diaspora, the changing generational needs and changing policy environments can create new longings for the home that has been left behind and in the process give rise to a new politics of identity. My focus is on the diasporic Anglo-Indians in Australia, who, like other diasporic communities, form transnational links, forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that connect them to the country of origin and those of their residence. As part of the Indian community in Australia, the Anglo-Indians enrich Australian society as much as any other ethnic Indian group and, above all, they bring new sensibilities of mixed race and culture and a historicity into the diasporic policy debate. My hope is that this note would lead to the recognition of huge diversity inherent amongst immigrant Indians. Intellectually, such recognition would lead to a rethinking of Indian-ness in Australia. In terms of policy, understanding the historically formed cultural diversity would allow us specific policy needs that smaller groupings within a broad group might have, within India as well as in Australia. Ien Ang and Jon Stratton have pointed out that Australian multicultural discourse is shaped by the national origins of the migrants who are then given an ethnic identity, not a racial one. People migrating from Indonesia, for example, would all be articulated as Indonesians, without a differentiation between the Dutch and the Indonesians. Such a removal of race from public debate implicitly reaffirms assimilationist ideology and a strong belief in the existence of a mainstream Australian culture. Thus, one policy outcome could be a greater attention to the diversities within the migrant groups.

Who is an Anglo-Indian? The Census of India of 1911 described the Anglo-Indians as a ‘domiciled community’ of mixed descent, who were also described as Eurasians, ‘country-born’ or ‘half-caste’. Indo-Briton was perhaps the first ever generally accepted designation of the community. Subsequently, terms such as Indo-European, east-Indian, Eurasian were used, but they were seen as ambivalent because of their failure in reflecting the British lineage. Disparaging terms were not uncommon and some of them – half-whites, eight-annas, blacky-whites – were widely used in popular parlance. Not only are the two names derogatory, they also indicate the wider resistance towards this community in India. Such racial and cultural prejudice, as noted earlier, arose primarily from political reasons and the social segregation of lives in colonial India. The 1935 Government of India Act defines Anglo-Indians in terms of their paternal ancestry and domicile: ‘An Anglo-Indian is a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is a native of India.’

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Indus floods, 2010: why did the Sindhu break its agreement? September 1, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala, Pakistan , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

Something as simple and as small as the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly might set off a tornado in another, far away, place. The ‘butterfly effect’ is a metaphor about ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’ and outlines how a small change in the initial condition of the system can potentially cause a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of or major upheavals in weather events. Was it the flap of the wings of a butterfly that led to the disastrous floods of the Indus? Well, almost so.

If indeed it was an unpredictable (and small) event like the flapping of the wings of a butterfly, were the consequences preventable? What other atmospheric phenomena were connected to the floods in Pakistan? Connected with these questions is yet another point one needs to contemplate: whether it was just the one flood or a series of floods gushing down the channel of the Indus? Lastly, who was affected and with whom does the ultimate responsibility of dealing with the unprecedented scale of the rains lie?

Satellite view of the Indus River Valley – irrigated areas are green. Source: Wikipedia

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FEATURE ARTICLE: Indian Women: Bargaining with Patriarchy March 22, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Features, India, Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala , comments closed

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

On 8th March, International Women’s Day, the parliament of the Government of India introduced a historic piece of legislation that seeks to set aside one third of seats in the Lok Sabha (lower House of the Parliament) and state legislative assemblies for women. The landmark bill, popularly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), was passed by the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) of the parliament, amidst and in spite of chaos that was described by the media as a near-riot. If passed by the Lok Sabha, the WRB would lead to the 108th amendment of the Indian Constitution and reserve as many as 181 of the 545 seats in the powerful Lok Sabha, comprising of elected members. The Bill is historic because it will open the doors of political equity to half the population of India. However, the Bill has been highly controversial and despite the Law Minister, Veerappa Moily’s statement whilst introducing the Bill – ‘I expect men and women to support me’ – a number of opposition MPs tried to stop the Bill from being tabled. Some members from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Samajwadi Party (SP) even climbed into the chairman’s well and tore up the document to hurl the pieces of paper at the Chair. There has also been strong opposition from Indian feminists and political commentators on the content and philosophy of the Bill. (more…)