Breaking stories, breaking barriers

Sujata Madhok on the irrepressible Rami Chhabra

 HOW DOES one define a woman like Rami Chhabra? As a glamorous TV anchor or a serious newspaper columnist? A public health professional or a determined feminist? An international development consultant or dedicated social activist? She has played all these roles in a star-studded career spanning decades.

     Stunning in her seventies, she is one of the few Indian women who entered professional life in the 1950s. At 18, she broke into the media with an interview of a famous BBC anchor. Growing up in the first flush of India’s Independence Chhabra was, like the country itself, young, idealistic and full of promise. Out of college, she headed straight for a career in journalism, at a time when the number of women in the media could be counted on one’s fingertips.

     An early marriage and children made her opt for a freelance career, rather than full-time work. She took on all sorts of assignments, both serious and frivolous (fashion/ikebana) for the precious ‘bylines’ she got. When All India Radio began its first daily TV transmission in 1965 Chhabra discovered she loved the excitement of the floodlights and cameras. Soon she was anchoring a weekly magazine show and introduced a quiz programme. In 1967, she was asked to cover Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s press conferences.

     In March 1969, Chhabra started a fortnightly column called “Woman About Town” for ‘The Statesman’, a prestigious and influential daily of the day. This column on women’s issues documented the excitement of the first decade of the Indian women’s movement and the myriad issues it brought into the public arena. It also tracked women who were trying to make a difference, such as Meera Mahadevan who began mobile creches, Tara Ali Baig, who was the moving spirit behind the SOS Children’s Village for orphans, Ela Bhatt, who was setting up SEWA in Gujarat.

     In 1975, she repeatedly questioned in ‘The Statesman’ and the ‘Indian Express’ the suppression of the 1000-page ‘Towards Equality’ report on the status of women that the Indian government had itself commissioned. Two other women journalists, Kamla Mankekar and Promila Kalhan, simultaneously raised the issue in the ‘Times of India’ and the ‘Hindustan Times’. The report was published and was to be a major influence on Indian women, breaking the illusion that they were on the path to progress. It was evident from the findings that women were falling back in many areas, with a decline in the sex ratio, poor work participation and gender gaps in vital areas like education and literacy.

     Chhabra argued in the pages of ‘The Statesman’ for passage of the controversial Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act in 1972, which legalised abortion in India. The Act was to save millions of women’s lives, rescuing them from the dangers of backstreet abortion clinics. Recognising her work, the then health minister actually invited her to witness the debate in Parliament!

     In 1975, she was invited to the UN Women’s Conference in Mexico. She used the ticket to stopover in newly independent Vietnam. In a major scoop, she was one of the first journalists to be allowed to travel the length of war-ravaged Vietnam and document the brave attempts of the Vietnamese people to rebuild their country. The rights to this international scoop were bought by ‘The New York Times’, ‘The Guardian’, ‘Dagens Nyheter’ and other publications, besides the Indian press. The earnings from her travels enabled Chhabra to buy her own car – a second hand Fiat!

     In March 1977, Chhabra began writing the weekly column “A Feminist Viewpoint” for the ‘Indian Express’. It focused on issues like the Mathura rape case, dowry deaths, trafficking and other kinds of violence against women besides the need to raise the age of marriage, legislate matrimonial property rights and address the poor representation of women in Parliament and the legislatures. This column ran for over three years. Samples of these writings and those from her later career are the bedrock of her recent book, ‘Breaking Ground – Journey into the Media and out’, which documents her many contributions to public life and offers valuable perspectives on critical contemporary issues.

     Her career took a turn in 1978 when Chhabra accepted a communications job with the Family Planning Foundation. She brought a feminist perspective to the spectrum of public health issues in which family planning is (or ought to be) embedded. Travel to remote parts of India exposed her to the plight of the average woman worn out by premature marriage and motherhood, repeated child births, poor delivery and health care, in situations of acute poverty. These experiences, coupled with a macro picture of demographic numbers including high maternal mortality and falling sex ratios, led to a lifelong commitment to the cause of family planning. She firmly believes that family planning should be delivered through a Safe Motherhood and Child Survival movement, not a dry demographic approach. In 1986, her expertise was recognised when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi handpicked her for appointment as Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

     The top bureaucratic position brought responsibility for communications. Chhabra drew upon the skills of various experts, inspired Films Division to create films on family planning, persuaded UNICEF to provide TV spots on childhood illnesses and immunisation and brought in other agencies to create social communication messages. Doordarshan was persuaded to telecast one-minute spots for free on prime time. The work was rewarding but after a three-year stint battling bureaucratic resentment of an outsider, Chhabra decided to resign and work independently.

     The move catapulted her into the international circuit, as she was invited to do a series of consultancies for the World Bank in Africa and by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Asia. These provided her first exposure to the HIV/AIDS issue and its handling by international agencies. Although the work was very highly paid and the travel opportunities fascinating, her public health background and feminist perspective made her see the fault lines in the HIV/AIDS game early. When the World Bank dangled before a bankrupt Indian government in the early 1990s the sum of US$ 84 million to set up a National Aids Control Programme she was wary. She began warning women’s groups and public health professionals against the donor creation of a vertical ‘silo’ for treating this new epidemic when money was needed for the entire public health programme. She found a few allies but too many were being co-opted by the new money and new rhetoric.

     Over the next two decades Chhabra was to battle bravely against the dollar-might of the NACP, severely critiquing it on several counts including corruption, falsification of figures of the afflicted and a strategy of legitimising ‘high risk’ groups like prostitutes and drug addicts. As a social communication expert, she condemns the morality and intent of messages such as the hoardings for the Commonwealth Games that said, “Dilli chalo, condom ke saath chalo!” She regrets the iconisation of the women of the red-light district of Sonagachi in Kolkata, which has received huge donor funds and international attention for promoting condoms and commercial sex but no money for curbing prostitution.

     Chhabra’s one regret is the fact that her spirited struggle against the powerful HIV lobby has marginalised her even within the world of media, with little space for her forthright views. Yet, this gutsy woman still finds for herself niches and cracks in the monolithic media bastion of today. The battle goes on. (WFS)