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`Status of women is declining'

Dr. Devaki Jain is concerned with many a social issue

Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

DR. DEVAKI Jain is a development economist. After graduating from Oxford University in 1963, she taught Economics at Delhi University and was director of the Institute of Social Studies Trust between 1977 and 94. She has been a member of several expert committees on social and economic development including the South Commission (1987-90) chaired by the late Dr. Julius Nyerere in which Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had worked. Her list of publications include Tyranny of the Household - Investigative essays on Women's Work, Women's Quest for Power and Indian Women. She has also co-edited several books and is now working on a book related to the intellectual history of the United Nations with special reference to its role in women's advancement. Excerpts from an interview:

The increasing demands of the middle class especially the youth among them is setting a pattern of consumerism, which can be disastrous in the long run. Do you agree?

The increase in demand is as a result of those who have increasing incomes due to either call centres or whatever. We can't stop that in any democracy. I think one can take that in one's stride if one builds up the alternative trade and production systems. What I mean is what Gandhiji thought of. People think if you are quoting Gandhiji you are quoting an ideologue and that's why they tend to say `oh they are Gandhians'. There is no harm in picking up an idea like we pick up Keynes, Adam Smith in Economics. Now people are quoting Amartya Sen. We should deconstruct the marginalisation of anybody who quotes Marx or Buddha. Gandhiji created alternative spaces. India has a tremendous opportunity to provide incomes to the masses because we have the experience of small-scale production, home production which many countries don't. He also created opportunities for marketing. The orientation, which is scary and can be stopped, is that anything you produce must be exportable. That's more important to me than the spurt in middle class disposable income. This middle class disposable income of young people is an infinitesimal spot of the gross domestic expenditure of India.

Shocking data

Has the position of women deteriorated in the last few years?

I was surprised the national statistics in India showed reduction in poverty. Studies by the World Bank show that women in the rural economies have been switched from this place to this - like cultivators have become labourers. Labourers have gone to the corner of the worst paid, most arduous, least regular jobs. So in fine print and not as a big picture you will find amongst the poor women are at the lowest level. The bottom line of data related to economics is the sale of girl children. Even in the last 20 years the sale has increased in south India. The latest shocking data is from Kerala where sex -selective abortion has come in. Somewhere the status of women is declining in spite of our struggle.

What do you see as the future economic and social profile of the country?

The last elections show that there is an awakened mass. You have a live vocalised mass - Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy, Vandana Shiva... everybody is on the job. If only that voice could be translated into a mass sound macro-economic discourse. We have not been able to do it. That is where people like Durgabai Deshmukh and others innovated the institution mechanisms by which one can deliver development. One can change the institutional arrangement for delivery of development especially to the poor.

I think we should shift the entire thing on the Panchayati Raj institutions. The focus within all the development schemes should be for the poorest of the poor. We have the scope and the necessary conditions of a people's movement. We need to make a quantum leap in intellectual discourse to be able to convince them we can make it happen, put a solid act together and have women of the kind of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya or Durgabai - somebody who is respected.

Which part of your social activism gives you great joy?

Right now sharing experience and writing is the one I'm enjoying most. I'm being drawn to juries and panels regarding atrocities against dalits. I find it painful because I have heard it before. I prefer to write and lobby for policy change.

What are your other activities?

The book related to the UN will be released in June 2005. I want to devote time to drafting a report by women to the nation.

Emphasising equality

When you speak of development as waste, is your focus on needless increase in goods and services or on social equality?

It's on social equality. All our energies put into development have been wasted. I'm quoting examples from environmental wastage to make my point but it is wasted unless it could have brought equality. I'm really preoccupied with equality. I feel morally and philosophically, equality is something we should all aspire. I feel equality should be the dream for every young person now. I think it's possible. Again Gandhi showed the way. He said `deny yourself and share'. Young people can do that.

Do you feel the young have a crucial role to play?

I feel so because I find people come back from Oxford and Cambridge to work in NGOs. My husband (Dr. L.C. Jain) mentioned when he gave the convocation address in IRMA (Anand) and asked the students about their future plans he was stunned that 90 per cent wanted to work in NGOs. My son, Srinivasan Jain, and his team at NDTV are constantly uncovering injustice. It is heartening to see the young charged at India's concern. I feel great hope for the young people.

RADHIKA RAJAMANI

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