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An open letter to Bangaru Laxman

by Gail Omvedt

Dear Siri--Sami Bangaru Laxman,

I would like to congratulate you on becoming the president of the BJP. (I should also preface this by explaining why I address you as Siri: Shri is Sankskritised and north Indian; most Maharashtrian Dalits prefer Ayushaman. Tamils, on the other hand, prefer Thiru. You, I understand, are from Andhra and so may not mind if I address you by the term used by the Satavahanas in their inscriptions. They were the greatest rulers in India after Ashoka and may be considered both an Andhra and a Maharashtrian kingdom.

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The Y5K problem

Gail Omvedt

(Probably written before the year 2000)

"Millenniums'' ring few cultural bells for Indians, not when time is envisioned in aeons, 'kalpas', endlessly recurring and unimaginably immense cycles... And so, in a society just being touched by the marvels of the information age, the "Y2K" problem is seen in quite mundane terms.

IT'S official: a recent report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Year 2000 Technological Problems has described Y2K as "diabolical". The concern is over technical problems that will arise in 2000 when older computers whose programmes which register dates only with two digits are not able to distinguish "2000" from "1900" or any other turn of the century year.

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Women and PR

Gail Omvedt

PR, acronym for proportional representation, is new to the majority of Indian feminists - but one that deserves thinking about, now that another session of the Lok Sabha has ended without any significant change on the issue of quota for women. As an editorial in a Women's Studies network bulletin put out by the Tata Institute of Social Studies in Mumbai recently said, "The stalling of the Bill will not be able to reverse the process of women's heightened awareness... and their mobilisation... The time before the legislation is finalised is, therefore, precious time for reflection and deliberation".

It appears there have been some healthy aspects to the last "round" on the Women's Bill issue. Some aspects were depressingly familiar. Once again, in spite of assurances from government spokesmen, no action was taken. Once again angry women party leaders raised an uproar; Opposition leaders such as Ms. Sonia Gandhi accused the Government of "dragging its feet" and vowed their support for the cause. Once again there seems to be a stalemate, with the only declared opponents (under the leadership of the Yadavs of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) saying they would not allow the Bill in its present form, while few of the established women leaders of the Congress or the Left appear ready to rethink their refusal to consider any alternative to what is, after all, a very badly written Bill.

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Women and political power

Gail Omvedt

THE DRIVE for women's political power had its beginnings in the rural areas. Even in 1975, when we had the first major feminist rally, a "Samyukta Stri-Mukti Sangarsh Parishad" in Pune, a group of rural women afterwards went back to their village and decided, with the help of some young male activists, to put up women for the village elections. Ten years later in 1985, women of Indoli village in Satara district in Maharashtra decided to organise an "all-woman" panel for the elections - a decision perhaps influenced by the ``liberationist'' atmosphere around them, but by no means thought of by the more widely known feminist activists they knew.

A similar attempt was made by women from a nomadic community in another Satara district village. Finally, a year later, in 1986, at the founding conference of the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi, women's front of the Shetkari Sanghatana, a resolution was passed to sponsor all women candidates for the upcoming Zilla Parishad elections - and to call on all progressive political parties to participate.

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Rotting food

Gail Omvedt

India's food is rotting. The greatest harvest of foodgrains in the country's history is beginning to waste away in storage, eaten by rodents and insects, spoiled by moisture. Some of it, for want of storage space, is sitting in the open, exposed to the late monsoon rains.

Estimated losses of foodgrains, according to the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies, are about 10 per cent of the total production, or 20 million tonnes a year, about as much as what Australia produces. Most of these losses take place in storage, in the vast godowns of the Food Corporation of India, which are, according to Rohit Saran in India Today, better protected than the nation's borders: the public is forbidden entry. Transparency has never been a characteristic of India's bureaucracy, least of all the FCI. And, while farmers have not done badly at producing food, the bureaucracy of the FCI seems clearly to be failing in its storage.

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Reservation in the private sector

Gail Omvedt

With quotas declared for Jats in Rajasthan and with controversy about some recent Supreme Court decisions, the issue of reservation has again come to the forefront. Probably, though, nothing is as controversial as the whole question of private sector reservation. Here, on the one hand many Dalit leaders have been led to oppose "liberalisation and privatisation" in the belief that the public sector is their main road to economic and political empowerment. And, on the other, those who recognise change as inevitable are now demanding, as Maharashtra's RPI leader and MP, Mr. Ramdas Athavale, recently did at a large rally, "reservation in the private sector". The issue, however, is not a simple one.

There are, in fact, four rather different ways that oppressed communities - such as blacks (African-Americans) in the U.S. and Dalits in India - have organised against the exploitation they have endured for centuries. One is as political communities demanding "compensatory discrimination" programmes from the State which in this respect is taken as representing the ``whole people''. (Reservation in India, "affirmative action" programmes in the U.S. and special subsidies and grants in both countries are the important examples). The second is as political communities, mobilising to achieve political power directly through the force of their votes and the alliances they are able to make. (The BSP in India and the large number of black large city mayors in the U.S. provide noteworthy examples). The third is as cultural communities seeking to confront and change the internalised "cultural" characteristics that result from their centuries of oppression but hamper their movement forward in the present. (The best example here was the "million man march" organised some years ago in Washington D.C. by the black Muslim leader, Mr. Louis Farakhan, which was aimed at restoring the dignity and the family and community position of black men). And the fourth is as economic communities exerting pressure on companies or institutions, both to employ more of their community and to produce the kind of products suitable to their needs.

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