Union Women and Child Development MinisterManeka Gandhi, who took on Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar over culling of animals a week ago, speaks toVidya Krishnanabout the importance of not shying away from difficult conversations. Excerpts from the interview:
Are you the conscience keeper of this government, protecting the underdog…
In 1998, when I was an Independent candidate, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked me which Ministry I wanted. I opted for the Ministry of Social Justice and he was surprised, but that’s what I wanted.
It is because nobody does anything for the widows and the differently abled and therefore, I have to do it. In an equitable society, if you don’t make laws that guarantee that everybody has access to justice, then the strongest of us have to spend all our time, trying to right this and make it even. I don’t do this because I love old people or animals. I feel very strongly about inequity. For example, you cannot kill wild animals just because you have created a situation in which they have to leave the forest.
What is a feasible solution to man-animal conflict?
We need to learn to live with them. We have to stop setting forests on fire and stop having an illiterate Forest Department, which only knows how to kill. Our fence is eating the grass, as we speak. We must teach the fence to guard. We need forest services to be made a specialised subject and train people. We need to start teaching forest management in colleges. We should learn to do this scientifically.
How do you react to the tokenism with which politicians approach animal rights — best manifested in the case of Shaktiman, a police horse.
Shaktiman was a beautiful animal but, the truth is, in two years that animal would have been shot anyway — by that very keeper who was howling in front of TV cameras. That’s because at the age of 17, they shoot the horses. Why do we have horses in the police service to begin with? They have no use during riots and they cannot negotiate tar roads. They were brought in by the British — who now use them only during football fights. We do not have such fights in India. In a riot, we cannot use an animal. They cost us around Rs. 1 lakh per month. In Delhi, we have 40 horses and 170 people to look after them. In Ahmedabad, we have 600 horses. For what? Why not remove them using this incident?
It is a great idea, but is your government listening to you?
Sometimes they listen. Sometimes, it takes longer. For instance, animal dissection (in educational institutions) was banned 20 years ago. What are we training these teenagers for? Violence? That they are thrilled at killing rats and frogs. Secondly, you are preventing vegetarians from becoming doctors. I wanted to go into science but I did not want to cut. Additionally, no medical college has ever asked for this in the entrance exam. (Environment) Ministry has asked for everything horrible to be restarted, including hunting. When we don’t want killing, we just call it “culling”. Dissection will not come back. Thousands of doctors have been made in the meantime. Teaching biology has become modern — are we producing frog or rat doctors? Decades ago, Kerala wanted to dissect cockroaches and I wrote to them saying cockroaches have nothing in common with the human anatomy. In this country, breeding cockroaches is anti-national!
How do you feel about using the label of ‘anti-national’ for anything we don’t like?
India is the most amazing country — we are such a mixture of colours, opinions. If you put three people in a room, you will have seven opinions. We need to tolerate all of them. Yes, we need to draw a line at people who create disruption. The idea of who is anti-national cannot exist in this grey area. We need much more clarity on what constitutes anti-national behaviour.
What went wrong during the debate on criminalisation of marital rape?
This controversy spiralled because an official in my Ministry submitted a response to a parliamentary question on marital rape, stating that it does not exist in India. Truth is, I was travelling at that time and soon as I came back, I issued a statement saying that until women, especially abused wives, come out and take a stand against their husbands, we cannot fully address the issue of marital rape. Most women file a complaint and go back on it when they realise their marriage might fall apart. And I believe in the family unit. I cannot be provoking women to leave their families and marriages. But it is important that women understand that they must not put up with abuse from their husbands.
You have suggested progressive policy changes for single women, differently abled persons or animal rights — are these difficult conversations to initiate?
Whenever I say something, it is like giving a dose of antibiotic to bacteria. There is a rise in temperature. But these things need to be said. People come around slowly. For example, when I said we need 33 per cent women in police force, every one said it was a stupid idea — but now it is happening. We reasoned with the authorities that when you put women in the police stations but showcase them as “special women thanas ”, you make them weaker. There is just one thana in the entire district. It is impossible to sensitise men in these settings. How do I get women to come and complain to a man about sexual abuse? The first thing he will say to her is that she invited it. So I suggested, it would be better to have two women for every three men in police stations. It makes it easier for women to come into stations.
What was the rationale behind suggesting extension of maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks?
Again, in the beginning we were struggling — everyone said, nobody will employ women. Most employers find that women work faster, better and can multi-task — they cannot afford to lose that kind of skill, if the law applied to all women workforce. If we give maternity leave, it gives us better employees, healthier children and efficient women. Having crèches in the workplace is not the same as the newborn might get infected and eventually, we have a distracted mother in the office — not an efficient employee.