Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Endangered Languages - India tops the list with 198

As per the UNESCO's Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger, India, with a total of 198 languages has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of endangered languages and reactions typically have ranged from complete dismissal to criticism of such classification in the Atlas.
Unfortunately, there has been no systematic and official attempt for a proper scientific language census in India. The 1991 census of India found 1,576 "mother tongues" with separate grammatical structures and 1,796 languages classified as "other mother tongues". What’s surprising is that 3 per cent of India’s languages are spoken by an overwhelming 97 per cent of the population, while 97 per cent of the languages are spoken by just 3 per cent of the country’s inhabitants and these are precisely the languages that are vulnerable on the path of oblivion.
Lets look into the issue in detail.
A language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation. Factors such as intergenerational language transmission, absolute number of speakers, proportion of speakers within the total population, shifts in domains of language use & response to new domains and media, availability of materials for language education and literacy, Government and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use, its own community members’ attitudes toward their own language and amount and quality of documentation, when considered together determine whether a language is endangered or not.
A language disappears when its speakers disappear or when they shift to speaking another language – most often, a larger language used by a more powerful group. Increased migration and rapid urbanization often bring along the loss of traditional ways of life and a strong pressure to speak a dominant language that is – or is perceived to be – necessary for full civic participation and economic advancement.

Various degrees of endangerment, as per UNESCO's classification is as under:

Indian Scenario

To Begin with, an accurate picture of the country’s languages does not exist. The last proper survey was the Linguistic Survey of India, often referred to as the LSI, conducted between 1894 and 1928, under the direction of George A. Grierson, an official of the Indian Civil Service which identified 364 languages and dialects at that time. There has been no attempt to track the inventory of languages in the country and their conservation.
The census of India counts speakers rather than languages and does not recognize languages with less than 10,000 speakers as languages at all and just groups them as ‘others’ under major languages. Because of this, the very languages most at risk are the ones ignored by the state. The divide between major and minor languages and the official sidelining of the latter which is enshrined in the VIII schedule of the Indian Constitution – has also set off power struggles among linguistic communities, to the detriment of the weak. Schedule, currently an expandable list of 22 scheduled languages, obliges the state to help the languages prosper and make official documents available in them. The development of non scheduled languages on the other hand , requires no such obligation(Dasgupta). The census 1991 identifies about 3250 languages in India and it should be a matter of pride that we have such a rich multi-cultural society. Unfortunately, there has been almost a criminal neglect in preserving the minor languages spoken by few and with it, we are loosing a rich goldmine of cultural heritage and history along with.
A New Linguistic Survey of India and a Survey of Minor and Endangered Languages under the auspices of the Central Institute of Indian Languages in Mysore, and under the direction of Udaya Narayana Singh was planned in the eleventh Five Year Plan but the fate is not yet clear! A new initiative ‘the People's Linguistic Survey of India’ under the auspices of the NGO called the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre is also on the cards and the project will begin with a survey of Himalayan languages
It is felt (and correctly so I feel) that languages are actually safer when they are left alone by the State. Ironically, where literacy has gone up, the local languages have dwindled because of the imposition of the state’s official language.
Importance of preserving languages
Languages are humankind’s principle tools for interacting and for expressing ideas, emotions, knowledge, memories and values. Languages are also primary vehicles of cultural expressions and intangible cultural heritage, essential to the identity of individuals and groups. Safeguarding endangered languages is thus a crucial task in maintaining cultural diversity worldwide. For speaker communities, languages are the creations and the vectors of tradition. They support cultural identity and are an essential part of a community’s heritage.
It is surprising how little attention is paid to the loss we are having due to extinction of languages. In the mainstream politics and media, there's hardly any discussion ever on the rich cultural reserves and heritage we have in the form of languages and how fast is this reserve being depleted. In this regard, I was pleasantly surprised that GEO issue of Jan 2011 carried a detailed article on "Unspoken tongues - why are so many Indian Languages on the brink?" by Debarshi Dasgupta
The 2003 Convention recognizes the vital role of language in the expression and transmission of living heritage. All intangible cultural heritage domains – from knowledge about the universe to rituals, performing arts to handicrafts – depend on language for their day-to-day practice and inter-generational transmission.
Half of the 6,700 languages spoken, world over today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends, a process that can be slowed only if urgent action is taken by governments and speaker communities. UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme mobilizes international cooperation to focus attention on this grave situation and to promote innovative solutions from communities, experts and authorities.

Eleswhere in Jharkhand, in the fact of government apathy, the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra (JBSSA) has emerged as the guardian of marginal languages spoken in the region. Since 2003, the JBSSA has helped writers an cultural activists of endangered languages like Mundari, Ho, Asur, Kharia and Kurux coalesce into a group that has become their best hope of survival yet. (Dasgupta - GEO)

An Evenki poet, Alitet Nemtushkin, summarizes the feelings and the apprehension of speakers of endangered languages:
If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?
If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?
How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last wordsWere in Evenki?

The most important thing that can be done to keep a language from disappearing is to create favourable conditions for its speakers to speak the language and teach it to their children. This often requires national policies that recognize and protect minority languages, education systems that promote mother-tongue instruction, and creative collaboration between community members and linguists to develop a writing system and introduce formal instruction in the language. Since the most crucial factor is the attitude of the speaker community toward its own language, it is essential to create a social and political environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority languages so that speaking such a language is an asset rather than a liability. Some languages now have so few speakers that they cannot be maintained, but linguists can, if the community so wishes, record as much of the language as possible so that it does not disappear without a trace.
And its not just the language alone that's on the brink. So many of our traditions and festivals too face the same fate. I remember the way we used to decorate and celebrate "Janamashtmi" when I was in School during eighties. Families used to go around in the evenings visiting various decorations in the locality and it had an air of festivity all around. But now, I am not sure how many of the kids would even know that a festival by the name of Janamashtmi exists. Likewise, Sankashti or sankat hara Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in January every year. I used to look forward to the festival because we used to get "til ka laddu" as prasad. I confess that I forgot the festival this year and am not sure how many among the younger generation would know about such festivals. I am not preaching any religious practices but am trying to convey that such festivals of any religion have some cultural and often scientific significance and should not be lost in the name of progress and education. We must make a conscious effort to keep our languages and traditions alive and that's what will keep India going!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Female Feticide by Indian diaspora in UK - legacy of an "Indian mindset" ?

We had to, as a part of our Chevening Gurukul sponsored "Leadership and excellence" course requirement in LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) , write a policy strategy paper on any of the issues pertaining to UK and I used the opportunity to explore whether there exists any sex discrimination at birth in UK (in terms of son-preference) and whether there exists any trends ethnicity wise in UK especially among the Indian diaspora. What came out during the research study was shocking and an eye-opener. I will try and briefly put forth the main findings based on my paper. The main source of information for my paper was the statistics from Office of National Statistics (ONS), UK and Department of Health, UK .
Lets first start with the legal status of the foetus in terms of whether it has any Rights as an individual. The debate has varied from
conception is the point at which a new individual comes into being and acquires all the rights of personhood” (John Finnis) ;
“While foetus may be human, it is not yet a person and that’s its potential to become a person cannot justify giving its primacy over the rights of the pregnant mother”(Mary Ann Warren ).
“Abortion deprives foetus of everything it might value in future and thus it amounts to killing a human being” (Don Marquis )
But by same analogy, “using contraception or deciding not to have sexual intercourse on a particular day may also deprive a possible future person of a future value but that does not mean that either is wrong”! (Julian Savluescu )
Deprivation of future of value does not mean that their right to that future has been violated and one’s right can’t be at the expense of the autonomy, bodily integrity and well-being of another person (Mark Brown).
If one looks at the issue from the point of view of Pregnant woman's right to self determination,
restrictions on women’s access to abortion effectively compel them to exercise unprecedented self-sacrifice. (Judith Jarvis Thomson and Eileen McDonagh) and it is felt that even though foetus is not a malicious intruder but the fact remains that the State does not have the right to force the woman to continue in it without her consent.
A middle ground acknowledges foetus’ potential personhood and that the pregnant woman has a legitimate interest in self-determination. This determines her right to terminate pregnancy under certain circumstances. And this is what is followed in most of the countries.

The average Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) (the number of male live births per 100 female births) worldwide is around 105-106 (Garenne 2002). A slight larger number of boys at birth are because boys have lower immunity levels and these ‘extra’ boys die within one year of birth, ceteris paribus.
A mindset for ‘son-preference’, for various reasons in India has led to a situation where parents, not desiring to have daughters, go in for Ultrasound scan of the foetus during pregnancy leading to Sex Selective Abortion (SSA) if the foetus is that of a girl. Gender discrimination and violence against women takes many shapes. While there have been concerns and concrete actions against violation of women’s rights in reproductive health, education, maternal and child health, economic independence and empowerment, protection against domestic violence, sexual exploitation and trafficking all over the world, the issue of Sex selective Abortions (SSA) of girl foetuses, based on the sex of the Foetus, has largely remained invisible (Croll, Elisabeth J. 2001) and little literature is available to highlight the magnitude of the problem. Thus while Amartya Sen (1990) calculated the figures relating to “missing women” as 100 million, there is none available internationally for missing girl children who are not allowed to be born due to SSA.
However, the magnitude of abortion of girl’s foetuses in these countries is really alarming. What Amartya Sen (1992) called as “early days” for SSA in early nineties has become a fully blown emergency with the advent of and widespread misuse of Ultra-sound scanning for sex detection leading to abortion. While there have been significant reduction in mortality and compression of morbidity and improvements in the life expectancy of women, all these gains are counterbalanced by SSA and that’s the reason that the overall sex ratio might not have caught the severity of the problem (Sen, 2003).
Even though a law was promulgated in India in the year 1994 banning the use of ultrasound scan for sex detection and disclosure, the implementation has been totally lackadaisical and as a result, not only the number of Scan machines have grown in volcanic proportions, but also the number of abortions have gone up and about half million girl foetuses were aborted due to sex selection which is about 9% of all girls’ birth in India and implying that 1.61 girl foetuses are aborted every minute in India.

The worsening sex ratio begs the question what causes parents to prefer sons over daughters so blatantly in India (and other countries suffering from the same malaise such as China).An often cited reason is economic when parents prefer son so as to be looked after in old age (inter-generational obligation). The lack of or inadequate social security measures for the old age, continued poverty where son can work and thus earn from early ages thereby share the burden financially and a patriarchal norm makes son as the natural heir of all the economic hope and dependence. However, paradoxically, the sex ratio is worse in States (Punjab, Haryana) which are economically strong. The second excuse is that of institution of dowry and a mindset that the girl, in any case, will go away after marriage and that all expenses on her that way are a waste. Another strand of explanations stresses the cultural value attached to a male offspring. According to Hindi tradition, only a son can light a man’s funeral pyre and the family lineage is traced solely through the male, and failure to produce a son is considered tantamount to “extinction” of the family line. Tragically, the SSAs are going on under the garb of these excuses and efforts to curb the arrest of female foeticide are far too few. The implementation of Act, aimed to control the misuse of scanning for sex detection, has been tardy and most of the talk of ‘changing the mindset’ in favour of girls has not yielded any results.
This paper makes an attempt to understand SRB in Britain with specific focus on:
i) A look into the SRB in UK by collecting data from the Census;
ii) A detailed analysis of the trends in SRB;
iii) A brief examination of medico-legal framework in Britain regarding abortions;
iv) An analysis of trends in SRB among parents of Indian origin in UK;
UK scenario - the SRB in UK has shown an improvement over the years (1969-2005).
What is striking about the SRB for England and Wales is that not only it is close to natural SRB but in fact, the SRB has been improving overtime. The average sex ratio at birth between 1969 and 1979 was 106.1 and improved to 105.2 between 1980 and 2005 (Dubuc & Coleman 2007). The linear forecast trend indicates a further favorable trend in SRB.

The SRB to mothers born in India was relatively stable in the 1970s and 1980s but started getting unfavorable for girl child from 1980s and the trend accelerated during 1990s (Dubuc & Coleman 2007) with the advent of and widespread misuse of Ultrasound Scan Machines and sex detections and SSAs. The average sex ratio at birth was 104.1 between 1969 and 1989, 107.9 between 1990 and 2005, and averaged 108.3 in the last ten years.
Total Fertility Rate - There are vast variations in TFR if one looks ethnicity wise. The TFR declined from 1991 to 2001 census. The decline was from 1.8 to 1.6 for mothers of UK origin, from 2.5 to 2.3 for mothers of Indian origin, a very marginal decrease from 4.8 to 4.7 for mothers of Pakistan origin and from 5.3 to 3.9 of Bangladesh origin. The TFR has improved since 2002 onwards and the increasing trend is continuing. As a result of wide variation in TFR, the percentage of live births to non-UK born mothers has gone up from 14.3 % in 1999 to 24.7% in 2009 while the percentage of live births to mothers of UK origin has come down from 88% in 1969 to 85.7% in 1999 to 75.3% in 2009 .
Abortion Laws in UK - Abortions in England, Scotland and Wales are governed by The Abortion Act 1967 under which abortion is permissible under the following 4 conditions (Jackson Emily, 2010):
i) That the pregnancy is less than 24 weeks and the continuation of pregnancy will involve greater risk of injury to the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman;
ii) That the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or;
iii) that the continuation of the pregnancy would invoke risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated or;
iv) That there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped

Two Doctors (registered medical practitioners) have to certify that the woman’s circumstances satisfy one of these four conditions and as such, the Act does not entitle a woman to decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In practice, 70% of abortions take place during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy and 90% take place within first 12 weeks and only around 1 % takes place after 19 weeks of pregnancy[ - abortion statistics).

The TFR of India-born women living in England and Wales has declined over time from 4.3 in 1971, to 3.1 in 1981, 2.5 in 1991, and 2.3 in 2001. Accordingly, the proportion of births of orders three and above has declined from 44.2 percent in 1969 to 12.7 percent in 2005, implying parents do not prefer to have 3rd child. It reminds me of the famous quote of Ansley Coale that gender now has been increasingly brought within the “calculus of conscious control” (Coale, 1973 ). As estimated by Dubuc & Coleman (2007), a total of 1481 girls have been ‘missing’ from 1990-2005 among the Indian born mothers. What is however worrisome is that the trend among the parents of Indian origins is worsening over time.

The total number of abortions, as percentage of live births in 2009 is 42.9% among parents of Indian origin while it is 26.8% for UK and is 17.5% and 19.1% for among parents of Pakistan and Bangladesh origins. This is an abnormally high for Indian community and even though live births to parents of Indian origins account for 1.78 % of total live births, they account for 2.9% of all abortions carried out in UK. While the number of abortions at 5,361 (among parents of Indian origin) might look less, most of these presumably are carried out either during 13-19 weeks or above 19 weeks of pregnancy when the sex of the foetus is known. A total of 13,819 abortions and another 2,036 abortions were carried out in UK in the foetus age group of 13-19 weeks and more than 19 weeks. The ONS could not furnish the ethnicity wise break up of timings of the abortions. But, based on my interaction with Medical Doctors of Indian origins, they did (without being quoted) confirm that there are certain Doctors of Indian origin in UK who, for a hefty fee, do certify the late pregnancy (13 weeks and above) to be aborted ostensibly on ground i) and ii) of the reasons mentioned under the Act but actually to enable parents to go in for SSA esp. in the cases of higher birth order. It’s because the overall number of abortions is relatively small that it is not getting noticed but it is happening and that too regularly.
So, there are two aspects which have tremendous bearing on the demographic profile of UK:
1. the ethnic profile of UK population is changing fast. The proportion of livebirths to UK born mothers has already come down to 75% and is likely to be less than 50% by 2030!. TFR differentails among various ethnicities is huge and will lead to skewed population growth in certain communities while others continue to decline.
2. the sex ratio at birth is bound to change and get worse alongwith this changing demographic profile.