Amartya Sen To Aamir Khan

Posted: May 23, 2012

Aamir Khan’s recent appearance on TV in which he talks about sex-selective abortion in India seems to have woken up multiple Rip Van Winkles, however momentarily. Watching the Chief Ministers of Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharshtra and Madhya Pradesh wax eloquent about Aamir’s sudden discovery that sex-selective abortion is a horrible crime rampant in India made me sick to the core. (I didn’t see the episode and I don’t want to see it).

What’s new in what Aamir Khan said? We have known it all along, as have our honorable Chief Ministers; we were just waiting for a so-called celebrity to reduce this sickening reality to a TV show so we could shed our collective crocodile tears and join others of the chattering classes in showing our solidarity to Aamir and the great Indian TV tamasha. 

Our Chief Ministers and others who supposedly matter have probably neither heard of Professor Amartya Sen, nor are they aware of the series of writings that he had written in the late 1980s stating that about a hundred million women were ‘missing’ in the developing world as a result of unequal access to resources. Earlier (1961) Pravin Visaria had raised the issue of gender bias in mortality in the Indian context, but it was Professor Sen who had first termed this gender bias in mortality as among the worst catastrophes of the twentieth century. He demonstrated that the number of ‘missing’ women in the 1990s was more than all the casualties in famines in the twentieth century.

According to him, this figure also exceeds the total casualties in both the World Wars plus all casualties of all major epidemics of the twentieth century, including those in the current AIDS pandemic. Only continuous excessive morbidity and mortality caused by poverty, endemic deprivation and poor public services in developing countries has claimed more victims. [‘Missing Women’: Revisiting the Debate- Stephan Klasen and Claudia Wink in Feminist Economics 9 (2-3), 2003, 263-299]

To me female infanticide and feticide and other nauseous traditions that we are part of are manifestations of what Professor Sen, Jean Dreze, Visaria and many others have been trying to tell us all along- that gender bias reflects itself in mortality too- whether due to unequal access to resources or due to any of the many other reasons, (and what better way of conserving scarce resources than to get rid of girls as early as possible).

I am possibly digressing and see-sawing between mortality, murder and media, but coming back to the TV tamasha and before Aamir Khan was let loose on us; did we also know that a recent Thomson-Reuters survey has termed India the fourth most dangerous place on earth for women to live in? Only Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan are ahead of us, and we are followed by Somalia. And why is India so dangerous for women? The survey says it is because of rampant female feticide, child marriages, trafficking and domestic servitude. (No Chief Minister had heard of this survey either).

We recently had the DIG of police of Saharanpur, Satish Kumar Mathur telling a father whose minor daughter had eloped that if it were his daughter or sister who had eloped he would have shot her; we had a superintendent of police telling the media that if his cops were to chase every girl who went missing, who would chase the thieves?

There was also this news item in a national daily of April 4, 2012-

Father kills girl in womb- (Guntur, AP) “An unborn girl died at her father’s hands, battered inside her mother’s womb with an iron rod in a brutal abortion that followed apparently after a sex test revealed that the woman’s seventh pregnancy wouldn’t deliver a boy…The couple, who got married in 2000, have two daughters. A third died under suspicious circumstances when she was barely a few days old, neighbors said. Three fetuses were aborted…District Health Officer Dr. Gopi Naik said there were around 267 scanning centers in Guntur district where sex determination tests were conducted on the sly.”

Now, this Dr. Gopi Naik by his own admission knows that there are so many sex determination clinics in his jurisdiction, but what has he done about them- has he show-caused any of them; banned any of them; has any action been taken against him for gross dereliction of duty? Not that I know of; possibly they are waiting for a Telugu version of Aamir Khan’s show to momentarily wake from their slumber, make the right noises and go back into hibernation.

If Aamir’s show is any indication, soon various states will be employing actors, acrobats and other performers and reduce this serious issue into a circus, a TV show or a roadside nautanki. Take your pick.

Satyamev Jayate indeed.

Pic credit: Shrini (Used under a Creative Commons license)

I am a former bureaucrat, and have worked a lot on gender issues, disaster management

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  1. Thank you! Precisely my thoughts!

  2. “We have known it all along, as have our honorable Chief Ministers” – I am not sure who comes under this “We”. SMJ, in the last three episodes talked about female foeticide, child sexual abuse, and dowry. In all these issues, there are certainly things that the government should do. But there is something that we as citizens can do, as well. I dont expect SMJ to “solve” the issue. But I am happy that we are talking. I am not sure of hindi serials, but I do know that in malayalam serials and movies (assuming serials and movies are the programs that give company to SMJ), there is either a silence about these issues or it assumes that something like dowry is the norm. News channels seldom give much priority to these issues
    Today, dowry and grand weddings continues to be a status symbol. How can we make dowry transactions as a shameful act? How can we educate our young girls that there are women out there who stand up against such “norms”? Isn’t that good enough? Most people turn their heads to a discussion about child sexual abuse. I was glad he took the issue.

    Aamir Khan may not be saying anything new. But when Aamir Khan talks, people listen. There are so many Indians who may not have heard of Amartya Sen, but few will miss out on Aamir. Considering the quality of programs that accompany SMJ, I am not complaining.

    Finally, I do think that SMJ is not without its flaws. Those can be criticized and can be pointed out. But I will not wish away the program.

  3. Preethi, I am glad this has generated a debate. My point is limited to the extent that why reasonably educated and aware people like us need celebrity crutches about any serious or sensitive issue. Can’t we think for ourselves?

  4. 🙂 Sure. But I think this program has a reach much beyond people who generally read and think about these issues. As I said, I would have preferred a debate format and I generally dislike the preacher that Aamir Khan turns into, very often.
    I dont think this program is for people in the government. It is directed to people who have not been sensitized, which could be a large enough number.

  5. Indeed these are issues that everyone knows of, be it sex-elective abortion, dowry deaths or child-abuse. What SMJ is trying to do is get it to the masses, people who are real practitioners of these evils. As Preethi said, a person sitting in some remote village in UP, MP or Andhra may not know Amartya Sen, but they will surely know Aamir Khan.
    Also, if the format was changed to a debate format, SMJ would lose its impact. What SMJ does is smartly play on the sentiments of its viewers by storytelling. A debate reduces the issue at hand to objectivity, whereas the purpose here is exactly the opposite.

  6. Thanks Arunima, one can only wait and watch the impact SMJ has in the long run.

  7. Exactly.! Atleast we educated masses in teh towns don’t need an Amir Khan to tell us why and how this is happening.? Female foeticide is so rampant in posh snazzy areas like South Delhi, and it is not that we didn’t know.! We just chose to ignore.! This show is aimed at the rural population because if they are told of the truth which we can assume in all possibility they aren’t fully aware of, they can indeed make a difference.! After the second episode, the city office of child line in Bhopal was flooded with calls.! It is creating an impact, a kind we needed since long, but yes as you said for educated people like us, an Amir Khan is unneeded to come and tell us about what we are supposed to do about such issues.!

    • Thanks Rinzu. I am amazed as to why we needed someone like Aamir Khan to awaken our collective conscience.

  8. I agree that the show, talks about the topics we have been aware of since years now. Lots have been written and said, but very less has been done till date.

    Yes, to us the educated lot we do not need any Aamir Khan to tell us about all this, neither his discussing serious issues nor questioning will make the difference. Some big names have spoken much about it, but it has never reached the rural crowd, majorly I guess because they do not identify this people. But Aamir khan is a celebrity who I guess is known to lot of people if not all.

    We need to bring about a change , a better education system, as well as creating awareness about this issues.
    The issues which have reached the drawing rooms of the people, if with a bit if tamasha and drama can bring about even a bit of difference in the attitude, of the people, I believe a lot can be done.

    • Shazneen, what you and some others have said is correct, but why do we talk of the rural crowd? Are they any more guilty than us urban educated lot? As Rinzu has pointed out, some of the poshest areas of the country have the worst sex ratios. And incidentally, in most rural communities a girl is as much an economic asset (she works in the fields, fetches firewood and water, etc) as a boy.

  9. the issue raised in AMJ is just a dark reality thru Amir Khan’s or say production team’s point of view. no one is going to the bass of d problems female foeticide are killed not only in poor community but in well educated n posh , rich community. we need to change our law system ! every law has its drawback …we have to come over it , make strict laws to abide .those Dr’s who are culprit need to be scan n punished. recently one more case came into news Dr. used to feed female foeticide to his pet DOGS to clear the evidence ! how horrible. even though its a new in every newspaper , it has to be prove in court then only he will be punished otherwise he is free ! In India court cases goes on n on………. this needs to be change.

  10. My daughter was not able to watch the show with my grand daughter who pestered her with uncomfortable questions. I think SMJ should have a warning in the beginning suggesting the children below 12 ought no to watch the program. It has a negative impact on young minds. I did not watch the episode on female foeticide but the one on dowry demands and ‘pakadwa shaadi’ as a possible dolution had me thinking.

  11. You’re right, even though I haven’t seen any episode, from what I hear there should be such a statutory warning.

  12. Like most recent AK productions, even this fell below my expectations. The format is almost identical to Oprahs’ erstwhile show, including AK’s balanced facial expressions interspersed with an emotional tear or two. While there isn’t anything wrong with that, doesn’t really qualify as ‘creative’ IMO.

  13. I agree with you sir.. these are only marketing gimmicks. Dont know about the crime rate, but TRP rating of channel has surely increased. Thumbs down for such shows !! 🙁

  14. #Momwithadot- As I said, it’s a rehash of what we already know, and not a very inspiring effort at that.

    #Veena- TRPs by commercializing misfortune is how I look at it.

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  17. At the end of the day, Aamir or any other famous personality is still a human being, right? Amartya Sen, Aamir Khan or any commoner on the street, each has the moral right to feel strongly about issues as sensitive and rampant as dowry or murder in the womb. I’m a strong champion of equality and women’s rights, I’m anti-dowry and I have three beautiful daughters that I thank God for every day, But if I express any of this it makes little difference to the mind-set of world at large. On the other hand, a celebrity of Mr. Khan’s status throwing the spotlight on these issues could have huge and lasting impact on our society. The world will wake up and take notice. Please do be aware that the people commenting on this site are all educated individual who subscribe to a certain mind-set, which is why they have even visited this site in the first place. They need no further convincing. But out there are millions who need to be made aware of the truth, and if an Aamir Khan can do the job through a tv show (Oprah-like or otherwise), more power to him. If the TRPs are good it only means that people are listening to him and listening hard, and we should be thrilled about it. I’m proud of Mr. Khan for taking the time to do this.

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