By her yardstick

The ethical maturity of our society will be judged by how women fare in it

Societies in rapid transition need to be acutely conscious of two things. Politics is supremely important. But if the obsession with politics remains confined to the surface drama of the ebb and flow of personalities, unconnected to the deep underlying social challenges, it can be counterproductive. It can dissipate energies, and constantly lead us to confuse the urgent with the important. We also risk misrecognising what makes strong societies. Societies are shaped by relations of political power. But fundamentally by the character of their social bonds, the ethical relationships amongst citizens. Politics can be successful, or dance lightly on the surface, if society undertakes the hard labour of making sure that the underlying social transformation is getting its ethical bearings right. If politics crowds out attention to the creation of propitious social environments, we will be in trouble.

The most scandalous example of this is our inattention to the single most important challenge: the transformation of gender relations. This is the bedrock of all social development. Societies that expand freedom for women, create greater opportunities for participation, and provide a safe and enabling environment, flourish. Societies that lose the plot on this issue will flounder.

It is in this context that we need to be reminded that the damning indictment of India that should really worry us is not just the S&P's downgrading. It is a Thomson Reuters Foundation global poll of experts that found India to be amongst the five most dangerous places to be a woman, in the distinguished company of Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan and Somalia. In the WEF's reports on the "Gender Gap", India is almost always near the bottom.

These searing indictments were noted. But response is muted. There is the usual defensiveness: the methodology of these reports is flawed (which in some respects it is), or worse, this is a Western plot to malign India. In some quarters, there was the reaction: so what is new? We don't need the reports to tell us the grim reality. There is enormous awareness of the risks Indian society poses to women. Admittedly, the reality is now increasingly complex. Rapid change is transforming the complexity of a range of issues: from female infanticide to household nutrition discrimination. There are significant gains as well: the enrolment of women in higher education is now unprecedented. Labour force participation seems to be declining, though some evidence presented by Ejaz Ghani suggests entrepreneurship is rising. But India's record on trafficking in particular remains abysmal. These complex changes require more careful discussion.

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