governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘LGBT’

Privacy – an elite fantasy

privacy

Elite concerns are usually disconnected from the ground reality. For the 1 per cent of Indian who live privileged, cocooned lives, the judicial right to privacy created by the Supreme Court yesterday will add yet another layer with which they can insulate themselves from the “barbarians at the gate”. So, here is what the rich may now be able to do which they couldn’t earlier.

Is the right to euthanasia next?

First, they may now be able to refuse medical treatment and die in their beds, peacefully, instead of being compulsorily hooked up to tiresome, life-saving machines in hospitals. But try explaining this “right” to the millions of poor Indians for whom just getting admitted to hospitals is still a dream and refusing treatment would be unimaginable.

Deletable past lives

Second, the well-heeled may now be able to press for being judicially forgotten – all traces of their past lives and identities expunged, giving them a fresh start without having to flee to distant London or arid Dubai. Contrast this with the Herculean efforts the average Indian makes to become part of a database and have an officially recognized identity – a voter card, a passport, a PAN card, anything which proves that she exists.

LGBT sex may become legitimate

Third, those with alternative lifestyles – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community might now hope to be free of the notoriously archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes everything other than straight sex. But would this give them the right to marry a partner of their choice; adopt children or be socially accepted?

Evidencing crime will become harder

Now ponder the downsides. Law enforcement agencies struggle to manage terrorism, Naxalism, urban mafiosi, drug pushers and armed rural gangsters even today. “Privacy” concerns will provide a legal shield to undermine information collection, crime detection and investigation. Nothing less than the over-the-top, draconian Armed Forces (Special Provisions) Act – used today only in the “disturbed” areas in Kashmir and parts of the North East – would be effective. Since gangsters can afford to hire the best lawyers, the violation of their fundamental right to privacy in the process of enforcing the law, will now become a favourite ploy to keep these worthies free to wreak havoc.

How intrusive is the Indian State anyway?

Will this fundamental to privacy help the 200 million slum dwellers or the unknown millions who sleep under the stars on urban streets? Is not our fear of the “big State” overblown? The India I know is under policed, under governed and under regulated. There is a plethora of agencies, laws and rules to bind down anyone and yet very few – mostly the timid, those mindful of their public image and the law respecting middle class get intimidated by the legal spaghetti. The rich buy their way out of any mess and the poor are so inured to danger and risk that it is second nature for them to live with uncertainty.

Biometric targeting of beneficiaries to be abandoned?

Take the case of Adhaar for verifying the identity of those using the Public Distribution System (PDS). Recent studies in Jharkhand by responsible social scientists – Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera – found that 15 percent of the eligible PDS beneficiaries were excluded because of technical glitches or access problems in using Aadhar as a test of identity. But 85 percent of the beneficiaries were targeted correctly. If the right to privacy eliminates the use of Adhaar, we will be back to what Rajiv Gandhi famously called the 25 percent approach to poverty reduction – where 75 percent of the funds are siphoned-off by intermediaries. How and why would a reversion to a system which has huge inclusion errors (ineligible people getting benefited) be any better?

Big data to be throttled?

Finally, consider how retrograde is the fight by “right to privacy” advocates against big data. It is big data – the billions of pieces of information on human behavior and preferences linked to specific human demographics, which enables algorithms to predict trends, thereby aligning products and services with customer needs. This is what makes big data commercially valuable. In price sensitive markets like India, telecom and e-commerce penetration is being driven by the potential to monetize big data. Putting brakes on this process means putting brakes on the rolling out of technology services which will become more expensive if the actual user is to pay for them.

India lost an opportunity in 2014 when facebook- Bharti Airtel wanted to roll out free internet services on mobiles. TRAI regulations ensured that this venture never took off, thereby slowing down internet access for all except the 300 million people in the upper most income segments who can afford it.

Tilting at windmills

Nandan Nilekani is now an evangelist against “digital colonialism” in the context of tech majors like Google and Amazon aggressively expanding their presence in India. We should be wary of tech industry insiders playing the “anti-foreign” card. Similar attempts were made by the infamous “Bombay Club” to scuttle the 1992 economic liberalization. Their contention was that liberalizing the domestic market was fine but Indian industry should continue to be protected from foreign competition. We are fortunate that the government of the day paid no heed to this self-serving agenda.

Keep India open for competition

India is a big economy with very shallow industrialization. We need to remain open to all economic actors – domestic and foreign who want to invest in India. It would be a huge mistake to emulate the xenophobia of the United States and draw up our bridges. Data is the new oil. Data security needs to be ensured, irrespective of whether data is stored in India, or overseas. But generating anti-foreign hysteria is not in our interest as we try to integrate into global supply chains and become a part of the global value creation eco-system.

It is easy enough to legislate rights. We have many notional rights. Creating a level playing field for all citizens to enjoy these rights, equally, is another matter altogether.

Also at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/privacy-an-elite-fantasy/

The third public toilet

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Public toilets are an emotive subject. The Gates Foundation has developed one which incinerates the waste using solar power; expectedly an innovative and green solution from the Big B of Silicon Valley. The Japanese have for long unleashed their geekiness on customizing digitally operated toilets to become so threatening that just trying to use one becomes daunting for the technologically challenged. But the king of public toilets, in India, remains Bindeshwari Pathak whose brain child “Sulabh” has, since 1970, provided public toilet comfort to travelers, itinerants, slum dwellers and the homeless; an astounding 15 million every day and growing.   

Expectedly, therefore, whilst striking a blow for equity and protection of minority rights, the Supreme Court directed the government that Transgender (TG) be recognized as a third gender and provided with separate public toilets. A laudable objective in a country, where even the existing two genders and the “specially enabled” often “feel” the absence of a public toilet.

Public toilets are certainly the way to go. Private toilets are awfully costly and wasteful. They generally occupy at least 10% of the carpet area of your house. This is valuable space grossly underused in nuclear families. At current realty rates, private toilets need to rank as a luxury on par with air conditioning. If you can’t afford air conditioning you probably should not be investing in a private toilet.

But much depends on the availability and quality of public options. Many public services do not have toilets segregated by gender; think airplanes or railway carriages or even small restaurants. It was only in 1739 that gender based toilet segregation became available in French restaurants.   

The notion of separate public toilets for men and women is related to three cultural traits which vary across the world. First is the “prudish” trait which requires that physical contact between men and women be minimized, just as volatile chemicals are stored separately in laboratories, to avoid mishaps and misadventures from their inadvertent mixing. So separate queues for women in banks, separate buses, separate rail compartments, separate taxis and separate toilets.

Second, is the need for comfort and absence from sexual stress that flows from being with the same gender. After all one is at ones most vulnerable in the toilet and the successful completion of the task at hand requires one to be at ease and relaxed. So there is validity in the assumption that separate toilets for men and women are both more efficient and effective.

Third, is the need for assuring physical safety, especially of women.  A public toilet, by its very character, is shielded from public gaze. In addition, if it is unlit or located in isolated areas, as they often are, they become fertile ground for sexual assault and intimidation. Hence the need for separate toilets.

It is probably in this context that the SC directed a third public toilet for the third gender. The issue that arises is should toilets be segregated by gender (a physical attribute) or sexuality (a mental attribute).

Gay or Lesbian persons would probably choose to use the toilet of their sexuality rather than that of their gender on the grounds of prudishness, lack of sexual stress and safety. Unexceptional, straight people of either gender would probably agree with them on their choice. They probably feel the sexual tension if they are to share a toilet with a gay/lesbian person who only has a common gender with them but a different sexuality.

The key problem with using sexuality to determine which of the three public toilets to access, is that it is not discernible at “face value”. Gender being a physical characteristic is easier to spot but still needs physical examination. Also there is the issue of Bisexual persons who probably deserve a special toilet of their own.

The way to solve the gender/sexuality based toilet access conundrum is to use a proxy. This should be the way you are dressed. Irrespective of gender or sexuality if you dress as a woman, you should have access to the women’s toilet and vice versa for men. Transgenders could also be conveniently accommodated using this metric.

Of course this still does not solve the problem of the closet gay/lesbian persons who hide their sexual orientation by dessing according to their gender, because the law in India criminalises their sexual practices and social norms still discriminate against them. But that is changing. The Supreme Court is considering a curative petition which will likely overturn its recent regressive decision which passed the baton to Parliament to decriminalize “sex against the order of nature”.

Once this happens, the problem of the third public toilet shall have been solved. Everyone shall have access to the public toilet one dressed for, exactly as it is for entry into exclusive clubs and bars. You are only allowed in if you have dressed appropriately.

It is in the government’s interest also to fast forward legislation on decriminalizing gay/lesbian sexual practices and recognizing same sex marriages. Otherwise it faces the uphill challenge of adding a third public toilet to the non-existent two.

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