A rupee was all it cost to kill a baby girl, or a rat. Such was the lack of love for the girl child in many parts of Andhra Pradesh, even in the early 1990s. It changed after V. Rukmini Rao, who had escaped ghosts of her own in her native Hyderabad and later in Delhi, took up the cause of such girls. She spent a lifetime fighting to ensure that they did not meet the same fate as the rodents. On June 16, Rao, more salt and less pepper, yet brimming with the enthusiasm and idealism of the young, returned to Delhi to receive THE WEEK Woman of the Year Award 2014.
“Much has changed,’’ said Rao, after receiving the award from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal at a well-attended function. “When I started, it was a struggle for a woman to get an FIR registered if she had been beaten up by her husband. The cop would say, 'So what if he slaps you? Doesn’t he give you your dinner every day?' After all these years, much has changed. Marginalised women are solving their own problems.”
Over the years, Rao has managed to get men to partner in this process and make the panchayats as well as the local communities responsible. This, perhaps, has been the greatest change.
For Rao and her friends, who came out in large numbers to support her, it was a chance to savour the milestones. Kejriwal congratulated THE WEEK for honouring unsung heroes. “I am honoured to be at this function. I am one of you,’’ he said. “A few years ago, I used to work in slums, too. I remember we used go to the government with our demands. But they never listened. Now that we have come to the other side, to politics, we still have friends in NGOs. We listen to their suggestions immediately.”
Kejriwal, who has been bogged down by controversies, took the opportunity to highlight the changes he has made. The Delhi government has seen an increase of 38 per cent in revenue collections in the past three months. “This is because we have implicit faith in our businessmen and traders.... This increase was unheard of in Delhi government. This is without any raid or scrutiny,” he said. “People trust that the tax will be spent on development.’’ Kejriwal said he monitored power cuts. If there were unscheduled power cuts for more than an hour, the power company had to pay a compensation of $50 per consumer per hour.
If that was not enough to win him brownie points with the audience comprising intellectuals, bureaucrats, diplomats and generals, Kejriwal had more. He said he planned to discipline private schools for their bullying tactics and for taking donations. “I have learnt a lesson in my brief political career. The governments do not lack money; they lack intention,’’ he said.
Unlike other awards, the Woman of the Year is not about popular choice. The aim is to honour unsung heroes who have worked silently to strengthen the idea of India. The chosen person is vetted by a group of journalists. The award celebrates courage. “I am proud that we have done this for 32 years,’’ said Philip Mathew, Managing Editor of THE WEEK. “Every December, we ring out the year with a cover story on the Man or Woman of the Year. We look forward to the day we present the award. This is the day we celebrate hope for a better India and a more humane world.’’
Rao is in distinguished company. Some of the previous winners like Baba Amte and Rajendra Singh had gone on to win international accolades like the Ramon Magsaysay award. “I have only one word for her work—admiration,” said artist, dancer and curator Alka Raghuvanshi, who was the guest of honour at the function. “I am sure Rao has made many personal sacrifices on this journey. Women are the repository of heritage and culture and are the harbingers of change.”