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Business News/ Opinion / India’s future belongs to its women

India’s future belongs to its women

A new book, combining hard numbers and ground reportage, chronicles a silentand wonderfulrevolution. This is the one book you should read in 2015

‘Half A Billion Rising’ (Rupa, Rs395) is a book whose very page reflects both the sweat and the deep thought the author has invested in the subject.Premium
‘Half A Billion Rising’ (Rupa, Rs395) is a book whose very page reflects both the sweat and the deep thought the author has invested in the subject.

Anirudha Dutta has been in investment banking for most—if not all—of his career of 25 years. You would expect his life to be boundaried by spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations and flickering stockmarket screens, and hasty scrawls and diagrams on whiteboards. But here’s the surprise. He has spent the past few years of his life travelling across the country, pursuing his passion—to record the greatest revolution that is taking place right now, in India—the inexorable rise of the Indian woman.

Half A Billion Rising (Rupa, 395) is a book whose pages reflect both the sweat and the deep thought the author has invested in the subject. It’s a work of love that always has its head screwed tight in the right place. Half A Billion Rising combines extensive ground reportage with keen analyses of statistical data, and a worldview that sweeps across space and time, to document the trend that has the potential to transform India’s destiny in the 21st century: the changing roles, boundaries, aspirations and status of Indian women.

It is a riveting chronicle of the new generations of Indian women who are writing the stories of their own lives, shrugging away the shackles of patriarchal history, from Munger to Mumbai.

The leitmotif: Something is changing, and changing fast. The future of India is right there. Just look.

All of us know that the veneer is thin. The cycle of discrimination, violence and abuse of the Indian woman starts before birth. Sitting in our air-conditioned apartments, we may appreciate (and argue about portrayed gender roles in) a TV commercial where the woman turns out to be her husband’s hard-driving boss at work, and still cooks for him at home. The national truth has been, for many years, perhaps centuries, that cycle.

Dutta asserts: “This cycle is changing and breaking down for good. We are on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime change." He goes on: “(This change) is a an incredibly powerful trend with wide ranging implications over the next decade due to the sheer size of the opportunity. India is home to 586 million women, just over 17% of the total number of women in the world. India is also home to 173 million women below the age of 15, which is about 20% of the world’s young women. So the developments and changes in the lives of these women socially and economically are of import, not only to India, but to the world at large."

If he is correct, we could yet live to see a new India.

The statistics certainly are heartening. Between 1981 and 2011, women’s literacy in India increased from 29.8% to 65.5%. In 1990, only 60% of 21-year-old women were literate and, in 2011, this figure had improved to 85%. The 2011 Census was a landmark because for the first time, out of the total number of literates added during the decade, females outnumbered males.

Between 1980-81 and 2000-01, the percentage of girls who were in school at the primary level (classes I to V) increased from 64.1% to 85.9%. In urban India, women’s literacy levels increased from 58.1% to 79.9% over the last three decades. In rural India, women’s literacy levels improved from 21.4% to 58.8%. Statistics for urban India are expectedly better than the all-India average. But rural India is not far behind in terms of decadal improvement although there is still a long way to go.

The national trend of improving literacy is also reflected in rural areas among the 11–14 year old cohort. However, in the age group of 11–14 years in rural India, 6% of the girls were not in school while the comparable number for boys was lower at 4.8%. While on the face of it, these numbers may be discouraging, in 2006, 10.3% of the girls in the 11–14 years age group were out of school and the comparable number for boys was 7.5%. Clearly, even in a short period of five years, between 2006 and 2011, the enrolment of girls and boys is converging even in rural areas.

The numbers only offer the scaffolding. The meat of Half A Billion Rising is in the author’s journeys across the length and breadth of the country, from Bengaluru to the interiors of rural Bihar to meet the new Indian woman, and the stories he encounters.

Sunita from Noida lost her father at an early age (“he was shot dead by a friend") wants to be an engineer and is working towards it. Saira, who lives in a Mumbai slum, is doing exceptionally well in her studies and plans to be a psychiatrist. Salva, the first Muslim girl from Hyderabad to be awarded a commercial pilot’s license, speaks to the author in the office of the editor of an Urdu daily, and after the interview, in a fluid practiced motion, dons her hijab in less than a minute that covers her from head to toe. Daksha in Bhavnagar tells Dutta matter of factly that if she can exercise her choice, she would never get married. All of the women the author meets are determined that they will continue to work after marriage, and many want their husbands to share the household work and the tasks of bringing up their babies equally.

In most cases, across India, it is the mother who is the moving force for change. This is a litany through the book: “An illiterate mother who was married off early inspires her daughter to study as it is the only possible gateway to a better life, and from a life that would otherwise mirror hers. In many households in India, while the wife or mother is not economically independent, she does have some say and/or control over the finances of the household, especially in nuclear families, and that is making a big difference."

Many of these mothers have lived diminished lives, without any opportunity to achieve their potential, and want their daughters to be educated and be financially self-sufficient. Their faded dreams are finding new lives in their determined efforts for their daughters.

Of course, as we all know, the story is hardly all positive. Patriarchy has certainly not slunk away, neither have khap panchayats (community councils). Gender ratios are still skewed, and as we know, and Dutta demonstrates with figures, female feticide has nothing to do with income and literacy. Many of us do not want daughters, however rich or educated we are. Women are still not safe on the mean streets of our cities, and continue to be portrayed as mere objects of desire in most mainstream films and commercials. Yet, things are changing, and at a pace that is astonishingly fast for a creaking ship like India with 1.2 billion passengers with centuries of prejudice on board. Sometimes, as Dutta, an impartial purveyor when it comes to facts, it is women steeped in some perverted tradition who are the worst enemies of the emerging XX-chromosomed Indian.

Yet, changes are happening, and they are irreversible. “Girls continue to outperform boys in school leaving and other competitive exams. An auto rickshaw driver’s daughter in Mumbai achieved the top rank in Chartered Accountancy exams in 2013. A butcher’s daughter topped the post graduate course in chemistry in Bangalore University and won six gold medals. Her father had studied till Class VII and her mother till Class II. Six newly-wed women in Uttar Pradesh walked out of their husbands’ homes when they found that their homes did not have toilets. A woman in Chhattisgarh divorced her husband as he failed to build a toilet in their home. Today is better and brighter than yesterday, and there is hope that tomorrow will be better and brighter than today; and in many homes, mothers and wives are teaching their sons and husbands how to change diapers."

Half A Billion Rising is that strange sort of book—both necessary and inspiring. Given the author’s extensive research, his felicity with numbers and his ability to get people to open up and tell him their personal histories, it could even end up as a valuable input for government policy. Above all, it is a book that touches the heart, without, at any point, disregarding the head. It is a book of stories, and stories often add up to testaments, doctrines, manifestos, and, for the armchair Indian, as a sense of pride (not unclouded pride, but pride nevertheless, for the space that all these gutsy women have usurped).

India’s future, as my dear departed friend Ravi Vyas used to say, lies with its women. Half A Billion Rising is a chronicle, an explanation, a tour guide, and a celebration of that future that is already upon us. Read it and rejoice.

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Published: 13 May 2015, 12:56 PM IST
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