Nischala’s Blog-o-Rendezvous with NUPUR BASU

Nupur Basu is the featured STAR in my Blog-o-Rendezvous Series.

Nupur Basu is an independent journalist, award winning documentary film maker and media educator from India.

For the last three decades Nupur has worked in both print and television journalism and reported and filmed extensively from different regions in the world like India, UK, Uganda, Switzerland, South Africa, Spain, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal ,Bangladesh and Afghanistan . She reported extensively on politics, development, gender, child rights, issues of livelihood, hunger, health and environment in print, television and documentary films. Her longest stints in print was with India’s leading national daily Indian Express (1982 to 1991) and in television, with New Delhi Television (NDTV) (from 1994 to 2006) where she was Senior Editor.

In 2010 Nupur was visiting faculty for the spring term at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley teaching a course on ‘International Reporting: India”. She is an Associate Fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) at Bangalore and also on the executive committee of the Delhi based Media Foundation. She is also on the Board of Panos, London.

Nupur has also made five independent documentary films between 1995 to 2008:
 “No Country for Young Girls?” (2008- produced by TVE ,UK and telecast on BBC World)
 “Lost Generations” (2000 – produced by TVE,UK and telecast on BBC World)
 “Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj” (2000 – supported by Media South Asia and IDS, Sussex and Ford Foundation.)
 “Mothers of Malappuram” ( 1997 – produced by TVE, UK and telecast on BBC World)
 “Dry Days in Dobbagunta” (1995 – produced by TVE, UK and telecast on BBC World)- award for Excellence in Television at IAWRT Festival at Harare, Zimbabwe in 1997.)

Nischala: Hi Nupur. Firstly, thank you so much for your time. It’s indeed a pleasure and honour to talk to you.
Nupur:  Hello, Nischala. I am impressed with your patience and perseverance. You would have made a very good journalist – it is the hallmark of a good reporter to chase their story, till they get it.

Nischala: Thank you, for your kind words … So let me start this rendezvous with a subject and topic dear to your heart – Empowerment of Women. What does empowerment really mean?
Nupur: Empowerment of women is simply about giving girls equal opportunities in life to learn, grow and evolve. It is about instilling self-confidence and belief in their own strengths and capabilities.

Nischala: That’s an interesting response. So can you please elaborate on these?
Nupur: All of the above really start with making a daughter feel wanted and special from the time she is born. It’s about how you condition her to perceive a role for herself in life. In a fundamental sense, in our country, it’s linked to survival itself. As you are aware in India we have the shameful sex- ratio distortion due to a son- loving society. As per published data, 70 lakh girls (seven million) have been aborted in India in the last ten years alone through sex-selective abortions.

The situation has got worse year upon year. In the 1991 census, there were 945 girls in India to 1000 boys. Ten years later, in the 2001 census it was 928 girls. In the 2011 census, it is down to 914. Only in the state of Kerala the sex ratio is in favour of women. The Prime Minister of our country has described it as a ‘national shame’ but there is no political will to do anything to stop this genocide. The PNDT (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technique) Act which makes sex selective abortions illegal was passed in 1994. After 18 years, the number of convictions for pre-natal sex determination is abysmally low- only 80 cases have so far resulted in conviction.

Aamir Khan’s recent episode of ‘Satyameva Jayate’ brought this into national focus. Let’s hope it helps our society break the silence on this national crime. I have editorially described it as a very positive effort and a missed opportunity for the national media. Here is the link for that article in the media watch website-The Hoot

Nischala: You have also made a film on this for BBC World on this subject- Tell us about it.
Nupur:  Yes, I made a documentary on this subject in 2008 titled: No Country for Young Girls? . In the film, the protagonist is 27 year- old Vaijanti , a young married women with two young daughters. Like lakhs of women in India, this young married woman too has been rejected by her husband and in-laws for giving birth only to girls. Ironically, Vaijanti lives in Agra just one kilometre from the Taj Mahal , the monument that symbolises eternal love for the world. When we started filming her story, she had returned to her mother’s house and was in a legal battle with the husband. The film begins with petite Vaijanti sitting alone on that lover’s bench in from of the magnificent Taj Mahal saying: “I grew up in the land of Rani of Jhansi and I wanted to give birth to my daughters… my husband threw me out of the house for that but I will fight for my girls till the very end” .  Princess Diana had sat alone on the same bench at the Taj and it had symbolised the end of her marriage with Prince Charles.

Vaijanti then leaves Agra with us and travels across the country meeting women from different economic backgrounds to find out whether she is alone in her suffering. From women ministers, to women construction workers to IT women CEOs- she meets them all and finds that she not alone in her suffering. One woman who particularly inspires her is Jasbir, a nurse in Ganganagar who was rejected by her husband and in-laws because she had triplets- all girls. She had resolved to work and bring up the girls and today they are three lovely 13 year-olds who are studying in school and who adore their mother. No Country for Young Girls? is a story of deep despair and utmost hope.

Nischala: Was the film well received?
Nupur: It was on BBC World as part of series called Living on the Edge and it had a worldwide telecast to good reviews. The very first day it was on the BBC website it had 87,000 hits. There is enormous interest in the subject as people cannot understand why a country like India which is supposed to have a vibrant democracy and wants to project itself as an economic powerhouse, should be eliminating its daughters in the 21st century. It is really mind boggling.  In the film an expert on Gandhi pointed out to us that “Gandhi would most definitely have fasted unto death if he had known Indian daughters were being killed in this manner“. Unfortunately there are no Gandhis in our country today who find this practice morally abhorrent. It’s really crazy that as a society we worship women goddesses – but we abuse women in real life.

Nischala: Has it always been this way ?
Nupur: Not really..thanks again to Gandhi, Indian women took part in large numbers in the Indian freedom struggle. By coming out of their homes onto their streets in thousands, to take part in a national political movement, they made a huge statement .  If this was the case in 1946-47, you would have imagined a rising graph of emancipation of women in free India in 2012. Sadly, as you and I know it, that’s not been the case. Although India had a woman Prime Minister in Indira Gandhi for double digit years, and although women are in power at the helm of politics in India even as we talk today – the President is a woman, the Speaker of Lok Sabha is a woman, the head of the Congress party is a women, the leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha is a woman, we have three women Chief Ministers-  yet, ironically, our elected MPs in the lower House of Lok Sabha refuse to pass the 33 per cent reservation Bill for women in Parliament .In January this year it was once again turned down in the lower house. These are the dichotomies we are grappling with as a society/nation.

The truth is that in 21 st century India, both in rural and urban India, many women are not safe in their homes, on the streets or at their workplace. Everywhere there are instances of abuse of women. Honour killings, dowry deaths, rapes of women and minor girls…the list is long and depressing. This is not restricted to specific communities or any particular economic segment. It is endemic, cutting across class, caste. It is as if the whole eco-system is conspiring to keep women down. And the political class and the judiciary is looking the other way. The nation’s capital, Delhi, has a skewed sex-ratio. When we had filmed in 2008 it was 821 girls to 1000 boys. If elimination of daughters through sex selection can happen in Delhi, where the Parliament and Supreme Court are located, it can surely happen anywhere in the country.

Nischala: So, what in your opinion is the cause of this abuse?
Nupur:  We still live in a feudal and patriarchal society in the 21st century. Having shiny metros and IT parks and glitzy cars does not make us modern. In No Country for Young Girls , women IT professionals (who comprise 33 per cent of the workforce- at least you all have breached the figure that Indian Parliament will not allow women Parliamentarians to reach) tell us that they too are still subjected to harassment for dowry and also harassed by their in-laws to part with their own income etc. A woman IT Manager told us on camera how the men in her section openly asked for placements to Dubai and the US, saying it will increase their dowry. The Burns Ward at the Victoria hospital in India’s IT city, Bangalore, used to have an admission rate of 90 women a month. Three a day.  As a journalist I have covered this and I can tell you that some of the cases are simply heart-breaking. Several women are burnt in dowry harassment cases. Another woman was set on fire by her husband ostensibly because she could not conceive after marriage – she had been married only for three months. The list of horror stories could just go on…

One huge problem in our system is that daughters are brought up believing that marriage is the be all and end all of their existence. Marriage should be one thing you do among various things in life. Not the only thing you do. It is this age-old- ‘ladki to paraya ghar ki hoti hain’ (the daughter is reared for someone else) which is the genesis of the problem. It is this conditioning that instils the feeling of inferiority and lack of self-confidence in girls. Adding insult to injury, this message is accentuated by the mass media. The gender stereotypes of a patriarchal society that we see in television serials, makes matters worse. And women are the largest consumers of these TV serials which are reinforcing stereotypes about themselves and it has an adverse impact on them.

Nischala: So any specific observations that you’d like to highlight based on your research as a journalist over the past several decades?
Nupur:  While urban India has benefitted from liberalisation, it is the poor – both urban and rural poor who have been hit badly. Just look at the canvas that we celebrate as India Shining – 840 million people live on less than 20 Rs a day .Ninety three per cent of India’s workfoce works in the unorganised sector and is not paid minimum wages, a large number of whom are women. Thirty-three per cent (one in three) of children in India are born low birth weight (less than2.5 kgs). In the year 2000 I had made a documentary again for BBC World titled- Lost Generations– in which I showed that the cycle of malnourishment of underweight mothers (some of them actually girls of 15 who had been married off) giving birth to underweight children. Research showed that malnourishment at birth leads to diseases like diabetes in later life among other problems. While looking at these children filming in rural Maharashtra, the title of the film came to us. We felt that these malnourished children, many of them girl children, have no future unless there are policies in place that help them – And these have to be proactive.

Nischala: OK.. These are interesting insights and perspectives.. Thanks for sharing.. Moving ahead, you’ve spoken a little about “financial independence” for a woman. Why do you think this is important?
Nupur: Financial independence is absolutely crucial. Lakhs of women are forced to endure abusive marriages because they have no financial independence. When I talk in colleges in India, I literally plead with women students not to see university education just as a ticket to a acquiring a husband. Instead think and focus only on your career ahead. Marriage should take place when they are ready for it and on their own terms. Marriage needs to climb down the priority list for women in India. A career and financial independence can ensure that to a large extent.

The flip side is that many a times when women do become financially independent, the irony is that many of them do not have control over their money. Their salaries are taken away by their husband or in-laws. This may sound really crazy, but it’s true. A multi-metro research conducted in India recently showed that working women in Delhi had the least control over their finances. Other metros too revealed this shocking trend. Kolkata was the only exception. Women there had control over their earnings.

Nischala: That’s a very interesting response.. And very profound advice.. So What are the three skills that women of today need to build?
Nupur : Well, left to a man a skilled woman is one who brings a huge dowry when she marries, obeys him and his parents, produces his sons, cooks and maintains the house well , entertains, works and hands over her salary to him at the beginning of the month. First of all we need the skill to reject this role for ourselves. Instead we need to build our confidence in ourselves, have the courage to walk down a different path and learn to negotiate life on our own terms.

Nischala: So any specific woman / women who is an inspiration for you personally?
Nupur: Women who have inspired me the most in my 30 -year journalistic career are poor women from rural India. The courage of these women in the face of such gruelling poverty, deprivation and an indifferent government is truly inspiring. Examples that come to mind are women like 60 year old Rosamma who led the struggle against liquor shops in the village of Dobbagunta in Nellore District in Andhra Pradesh . It was one of the most amazing grass-roots women’s struggle in India against the government’s cynical policy on liquor (reflected in a documentary I made in 1995- Dry Days in Dobbagunta). Women like Jasbir from Ganganagar who dared to go ahead and give birth to triplets-all girls- and bring them up as a single mother. The widows of dozens of farmers who had committed suicide as they could not pay back their debts. Even as we speak these women have to struggle for a livelihood so that their children do not go to bed hungry. Their resilience has left a deep impression on me and also left me feeling frustrated with myself, the government and the society I live in, for leaving them out in the cold.

Nischala: That’s really touching Nupur.. So if you had a look into a crystal ball and predict what will make a difference in India 50 years from now with respect to women in modern India… What would be your response?
Nupur: Crystal ball gazing is not my forte. But as a journalist since 1982, I have documented many trends in this country and I think you may not have to wait for another 50 years to feel the impact. To be honest- the dreams in the eyes of girls from towns like Ganganagar, Salem, Kanpur, Aligarh, Pondicherry– will provide the trigger for change in India in the next twenty-five years. Do you know that the rank holders in some of these places are girls from the government schools? They want to study. They have dreams in their eyes and are willing to work hard to make them come true. These girls will source the strength that lies within.

Nischala: Great to hear Nupur.. That’s really promising! Looking back at your own life, what do you think really made the difference to where you’ve come today?
Nupur: First I think it is how my parents raised me and my two sisters.  They made us feel loved and wanted and gave us the best education and opportunities. The one thing that my father drilled into us three girls was :  “Whether you marry an emperor or a beggar- you must be independent and stand on your own feet”. That shaped us to what we are today. Today, in the twilight of their lives, we three sisters try and do everything we can to nurture our parents. Choices of marriage were also on one’s own terms. I have been married for the last 31 years (it was a love marriage) and also have the most wonderful relations with my in-laws, despite all the feminist lectures I have given them over the years.

In one’s professional career, one always pushed the boundaries, innovated, never-took-short-cuts and believed in the old school of journalism that ‘good journalism can change the world’.

I believe that the personal is the political and have lived my life that way.

Nischala: Nupur, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts through your rendezvous.
Nupur: It was good to talk to you Nischala. All the best with your passion for blogging and your career in IT.

3 comments on “Nischala’s Blog-o-Rendezvous with NUPUR BASU

  1. Really nice one. Nupur – Its amazing to read about the stuff you have done. The truth is women are often the cause of this viscous cycle – we train and groom our kids to believe men are god! Just ordered your movie via a link I found. I am thankful for the efforts by individuals like you, Aamir and several people working on the ground to change this ugly truth of India.

    Nischala – to reconsider journalism as an option:-)

  2. rupa ghose dayal

    i am so proud of nupur, my friend ,

    we have seen each other evolve from school.

    i find all her efforts, dealing with such crucial issues , commendable .

    i would love to get the links to order the movies that i am so eager to watch and relish my friend’s creative efforts.

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