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Tapping into India's women power

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-05-20

DHARAVI (India) - This sprawling community of narrow winding roads, squat buildings made of locally manufactured bricks, tin-roofed shacks, open sewers, and makeshift playgrounds, contains more than four million people. Most anywhere else, it would be regarded as a city, or, at least, as a burgeoning town. But that's not the official designation for Dharavi, which sits on the outskirts of Mumbai, India's commercial capital.

Dharavi, in fact, is a slum, the world's biggest. Its residents are squatters, mostly people who've migrated from rural regions all over the country in search of jobs. While virtually all homes and shops have electricity, the power is tapped illegally. The authorities don't interfere, however, because Dharavi has long been viewed by Mumbai's politicians as a reliable vote bank. In the recent general election, the voter turnout here was more than 85 percent, significantly higher than the national figure of 65 percent.

It's not only the voting practices of Dharavi residents that offer a lesson for Indians elsewhere. Several unique employment projects for poor women have resulted in thriving commerce. For example, almost all of the papadums - the crisp tortilla-type bread that Indians favour - distributed in the Mumbai region are made by Dharavi's women. Similarly, a lot of condiments, such as pickles and jellies, are produced in small facilities by Dharavi women. They also sew shirts and skirts here, and make school uniforms.

'This is entrepreneurship at its best at the grassroots,' said Mrs Bakul R. Patel, a financial executive and former Sheriff of Mumbai. 'When education and job opportunities are created, you are empowering women to become more self-confident. You are teaching them to become independent of local moneylenders, and sometimes of abusive husbands. And the empowerment of women in poor communities almost always leads to an improvement in family life. Women have more money to spend on their children's health and welfare, and on things for the home.'

Mrs Patel was among those who started women's employment programs in Dharavi and in other poor communities around the country. Unfortunately, successive Indian governments have focused largely on industrialisation and on developing the high-tech sector, neglecting the pressing needs of poor women in urban and rural areas alike. That's why local civic leaders such as Mrs Patel stepped in, raised finances privately, and assembled projects to provide booth adult education and jobs for women.

And now the Dharavi experience is being cited, and replicated, in many other parts of India. Industrialists such as Mr Madhur Bajaj, vice chairman of Bajaj Auto Limited - one of the biggest corporations in the country - have jumped on board of the cause of empowerment of women. Bajaj Auto, for instance, emphasizes corporate social responsibility in which women's empowerment plays a major role. This involves addressing often-neglected issues such as malnutrition, underemployment and spousal abuse.

'It's important that corporations in India be not only benign employers but also active in tackling social development issues,' Mr Bajaj said.

It's encouraging to hear people like him and Mrs Patel, each of whom enjoys public stature. But will others in corporate India display the same kind of sensitive attention to women's issues?

'No one sector can tackle this issue by itself --- the scale of India is much too vast for that,'' Mrs Patel said. 'What's needed is an enlightened partnership between the public and private sectors. Social development is an issue of good governance.'

Professor Prabhu Guptara, a guru of business management associated with UBS in Europe, agrees that more women need to be brought into the economic mainstream in India. 'The most radical suggestion would be to give a bursary or scholarship to every poor girl and even woman who is willing to study,' he told The Straits Times. 'The next would be to ensure entrepreneurial training as well as credit facilities to women with good ideas for potential businesses.'

With a new government coming into power in New Delhi in a few days, social development is likely to figure more prominently in the national agenda. The election results showed that voters - especially women and peasants - viewed the ruling rightwing coalition of the National Democratic Alliance as falling short of delivering on their political promises for sustainable social and economic development. No wonder the NDA fell short of winning power this time around.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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