Saturday, 3 December 2011

'Why Is Narendra Modi Afraid Of Sanjiv Bhatt?'

("I asked for water; not caste")
A mosaic in the backyard of Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Is this the same Gujarat?


[Sanjiv and Shweta Bhatt are caring hosts to their guests. The large and yet simple Bhatt residence oozes warmth from all corners. This home, that has nurtured this brave family to do what is right before might, leads me to understand them a little better. Over a cup of appropriately-spiced masala chai, I relax in their leafy terrace. Shweta Bhatt narrates to me her feelings and thoughts about the Gujarat that was once safe, her brave husband, and the sea of humanity that keeps her family afloat in these rough times. On the other hand, the suspended IPS officer who is in no hurry to get back to his office, always has a fixed answer with a smile: “Life is good.” The answer and the smile: neither of them are false. Here are Shweta's words, as she urges me to “tell the world the truth about Narendra Modi...”]

I have always been a housewife; I am a housewife still, and am happy to be one. Sanjiv and I both love our families a lot, and our family has always stood by us. We had a love marriage. We were preparing for the UPSC exams, but I did not go for the interview because we were in a steady relationship by then – why waste a seat when I wouldn't be in the Services? When Sanjiv had filled his form, he wrote “IPS”, “IPS”, “IPS” for the three options of choice of the Service. He was always in love with the force; he was in love with the uniform. So when he saw what had transpired in 2002, he was shocked. But more than anything else, he felt sorry for the force. The way the policemen had barged into our house showed us how they stripped away dignity and discipline from the uniform.

There is something special about the police uniform, or any other uniform for that manner. A man who wears even the driver's uniform transforms his behaviour. The uniform commands some respect. Similarly, any police officer would stand up to greet the lady-wife, even if she is the wife of one's junior officer.
But none of that respect for the uniform or the senior officer or for the lady-wife was to be seen, when 35 policemen barged into our house, without any prior intimation or without any search warrant. We realised that this was dictated and threatened to them, on the lines of “Go and abuse your senior officer.”

Sanjiv would discuss everything with me, so I knew what needed to be spoken or asked at the right time. When he decided to speak aloud, we knew that there would be repercussions. But we never dreamt that the police force could stoop to such low levels. When they came to my house, they began to dig through every item. Few of them would apologise for what they were doing, stating that they were under compulsion to conduct such a behaviour. I said nothing to them, because I knew that this was Modi's ways of harassing us, to break our morale. I never resisted what they were doing either. I told filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, “I thought it was only in Hindi films that cops barge into people's homes and throw up clothes and everything around in their search operations. But we saw this happening with our own eyes, in our own home, by the same police force that Sanjiv loves.” मुझे अब तो इस फोर्स पर घिन आती है (I look down at the Force with disdain now). 
The IPS Officers' Association was lying defunct for several years, but then I heard that they had a meeting after many years, when Sanjiv was arrested. Some of Sanjiv's peers would call me up on my landline phone and ask me in whispers, “Can we do anything for you Shweta?” I would reply to them, “At least begin to talk a bit louder so that I can hear you clearly!” This is the level of fear among the officers.
Only one who lives in Gujarat can correctly define the word 'subversion'. Men from the IB (Intelligence Bureau) had begun to jot the phone numbers and car numbers of every visitor discreetly. I finally asked one of those constables to stop behaving like a thief in copying the car number plate. Now, they just thoroughly question the visitor.
We learnt that Special Public Prosecutor SV Raju was being paid Rs 1.5 crore to 'manage' the court proceedings, and on Fridays, he was being paid some more so that the remand would drag onto the next week. But it was heartening to see the media come to the courts daily, to watch the proceedings. When he was finally granted bail, everyone cheered aloud 'Singham'! This sudden fame and hero worship has been overwhelming, yet assuring us about what Sanjiv had done.

I am sure many more policemen would have much to talk about to, but not all have the courage to do so. They are bound by other restrictions. But then again, we have been fortunate to have found the support and strength from so many different directions. So far it has been believed that anyone who speaks against Modi is the enemy. But something changed this year. On Dusshera day, at several places across Gujarat, Modi was portrayed as the Raavan and Sanjiv was portrayed as Singham!

The protection that the Home Ministry is offering us is so weak – just three men, and only one of them with a gun. We do fear for our lives. One of the constables comes with us wherever we go. But now Sanjiv has to travel to Jamnagar for his cases, or even Delhi. He is also being invited at various fora across the country, wanting him to speak to eager audiences. He cannot say refuse such invitations because now it is our time to stand with them. He is the hope for many people today. They stood by us in what was our dark hour when Sanjiv was arrested. But all this travel means he is being watched all the time. The phones are tapped; his official phone number has been cancelled. These are Modi's ways of harassing anyone standing against him.

Sanjiv kept on insisting the SIT that he should be summoned to give his statements. But they ignored him because they knew that मोदी का पोल खुल जाएगा (Modi's secrets would be out). Why is Modi afraid of Sanjiv? Because Sanjiv has everything to say which Modi wants to hide.

What Modi did in 2002 was nothing short of a systematic and well-funded killing of Gujarat, which was once a truly prosperous and harmonious state. We never had a communal flare-up before Modi reign. BJP has changed that picture of Gujarat. There are flyovers being made in Kanpur; there are flyovers being made in Allahabad; there are flyovers being made in Ahmedabad. So why are just flyovers being deemed as development? There is no development in Gujarat; on the contrary, we are moving backwards.
Many have asked skeptically, why is Sanjiv speaking out now? Has he done it for Congress? My answer is this: there is something beyond politics, and that is one's one soul and conscience. Sanjiv is doing what he is doing for himself, and in doing so, to prevent any such communal flare-up ever again.
For all those 18 days when Sanjiv was in jail, my 75-year-old father, despite his ailing knees, would arrive here at 9 am each day, to be with me. People whom I had never known would just come home – they were people from different human rights groups, students from colleges, and others who had no group or organisation as their affiliation. I was buying up to 45 packets of milk everyday, for a constant supply of tea or nimboo paani to the visitors. That strength they offered was unbelievable. They knew that Sanjiv was doing the right thing.
Many many many people stood with candles every evening when Sanjiv was in jail. They would come and say, “We are with you.” We were at the mall the other day, and at least 12 people walked to our table and said to Sanjiv, “You are a brave man. We are proud of what you have done. We are with you.” Saniv and I wonder what it is that they mean by “We are with you.” We wonder if the people uttering those words would also know what they mean by that sentence. But we are happy to hear those words and are assured to know that people can see between right and wrong.

Be it on the streets....

Or on the bus....

On a residential building's wall...

Or on the concrete fence of a beautiful garden....

Just remember: Modi Bhai Is Watching You. It isn't anymore surprising that 'Modi' rhymes with 'moti', which, in Gujarati means 'big'. Literally, Big Brother is Watching You, in Gujarat!

When Modi Bhai isn't watching you directly, he urges you to look up at the photograph of Hrithik Roshan, which in reality is the compulsion for you to check out the gymnasium that has been sponsored by the Hindu Saamrajya Sena (Hindu Imperial Army).

Note: all of the photographs above have been taken within a stretch of 300 metres. On another day in South Gujarat, when I had to change 8 buses, I greeted Modi on each bus as he waved to me from the bus's side panels.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Resistance to dam project grows in south Gujarat

People from 16 villages on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border have been demonstrating their resistance to the Par-Tapi-Narmada river interlinking project, another multi-dam project which is slated to submerge 3,572 hectares of forests and displace 25,000 people

It was noon and the sun could no longer hide behind the clouds. One by one, women trickled in to sit on the black tarpaulin laid under a cluster of bamboo trees. Behind them sat the men, in the shade. K P Sasi’s Gaon Chodab Nahi blared from loudspeakers nearby.

Finally, it was time for the meeting to begin. Anusuya Ben, who had travelled 20 km in a tempo, took the mike and began to sing a song she had composed specially for the event: “Paikhed gaamcha dam aamhi baandhoon denaar naahi” (“We won’t let the Paikhed dam be built”). The assembled crowd of around 200 joined her in song.

For the next two hours, Naragdhari village reverberated to the sound of loud, angry, determined speeches. Hot, thirsty and hungry, people from 16 villages on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border sat in the sun to show their collective disapproval of the Par-Tapi-Narmada river interlinking project. A month earlier, they had coloured their thumbs blue and stamped two memorandums to be sent to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Water Resources requesting that the mammoth river interlinking project aimed at supplying water to already-irrigated central Gujarat be shelved.

A few quick figures would best explain the significance of this meeting and other such congregations in the past: seven rivers, seven dams, seven reservoirs, a 401 km-long link canal, submergence of 3,572 hectares of forest land, displacement of 25,000 people, and cattle.

The project is part of the peninsular river development component, proposed in the 1970s. It comprises the building of seven reservoirs on the Par, Nar, Tapi, Purna, Ambica, Auranga and Khapri rivers, and a 401 km-long link canal connecting the reservoirs, to irrigate 1.88 lakh hectares in Bharuch and Vadodara districts which are already slated to be irrigated by the Sardar Sarovar dam waters. The feasibility reports prepared by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) mention that the project will also generate 93 Mkwh of electricity; the end consumers are only vaguely mentioned. The human price to be paid has been calculated using census data from as far back as 1991: the displacement figure has been put at 14,832 people. Today, the number of people likely to be displaced easily stands at 25,000.


One day in 2010, men with large maps and measurement paraphernalia arrived in some of the villages and began taking measurements of the river and the soil. The men told the villagers they were from the irrigation department. “Ramesh called me up to tell me about the measurements being taken. I looked up the Internet and was shocked to find out about the river interlinking project. It was then that we realised that the NWDA had been discreetly conducting its surveys without informing the people about the project or its consequences,” says Michael Mazgaonkar, an activist based in Narmada district. Since that phone call, he and several others have been travelling to villages in Dharampur taluka, Valsad district. Everywhere they go they speak to people and sense their anger at not being consulted on the project.

Collective realisation of their possible submergence, and the subsequent anger, resulted in the formation of the Par-Purna Adivasi Sangathan comprising people from Gundiya, Khadki, Tutarkhed, Chikhalpada, Mohanakavchali, Satvakal and other villages and hamlets across Dharampur taluka.

The NWDA’s feasibility report says surveys could not be completed at sites where the Paikhed, Jheri, Kelwan and Mohankavchali dams are to be built “due to local resistance”. Surveys at other dam sites -- Chasmandva, Chikkar and Dabdar dams -- have been carried out by the Survey of India, entrusted either by the Government of India or the NWDA. “Water from the seven proposed reservoirs will take over part of the command area of the ongoing Sardar Sarovar Project, while irrigating small areas en route. This will save Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) water which will be used to extend irrigation in the Saurashtra and Kutch region,” the report says.

But there are several loopholes in the report: apart from incomplete sub-surface geological and other surveys, there is no mention of the areas to be irrigated, or details of provision of drinking water to Vadodara municipal regions, or data on existing and future industries and their water requirements.


The Miyagam and Vadodara branches of the SSP currently supply water to Bharuch and Vadodara districts. These are regions that also support a large number of industrial estates and Special Economic Zones (SEZ). At the ‘Vibrant Gujarat: Global Investors Summit’, held three times during this decade, 69 and 38 MoUs were signed within Bharuch and Vadodara respectively, with a total investment of Rs 1,01,810 crore and Rs 14,414 crore respectively. These districts get their water from the SSP. Clearly, the surplus water to be brought from south Gujarat -- if the river interlinking project does manage to see the light of the day -- will be directed at materialising these bulky investments.

Based on the 2004-2005 price index, the project was cited to cost Rs 6,016 crore. The NWDA report puts the cost-benefit ratio at just 1:1.08 -- the usual ratio for approval is 1:1.5. The cost to people and the environment have not been factored in.

The catchment area is pristine forestland that falls in a seismic III zone. The NWDA mentions that the reservoirs will together submerge 7,559 hectares of land. This includes 3,572 hectares of forestland, and around 24 villages. The NDWA claims 51 villages will be partially submerged, although people in the area say their common understanding of the hilly terrain places the number much higher. Like any large dam project, this project too will be responsible for large-scale displacement of people and livestock.


Over the past two years there have been several calls for solidarity, culminating in meetings and a massive rally earlier this year. The Par-Purna Adivasi Sangathan has passed at least five resolutions at the panchayat level.

In September, 1,500 residents of Gundiya, Khadki, Tutarkhed, Chikhalpada, Mohanakavchali, Satvakal and other villages in Dharampur taluka, Valsad district, assembled on the banks of the river Nar. By 11.45 am, the grey riverbed, as seen from the winding road leading down to the river, was dotted with colour. A stage built the previous day out of large rocks was the focus. One by one, the sarpanch of each village represented in the Sangathan spoke about why unity was important in protecting rivers, fields, livelihoods, homes, humans, cattle -- indeed all of their futures. “We are happy to come here together, but don’t take our photograph now. Take my photograph when I’m angry, when I’m crying,” said one woman who had walked for almost three hours to get to the meeting site. I asked her if she had come alone. “My whole village is here, my husband, children and grandchildren too. We all woke up early today to clean and cook so that we could be here on time.”

In another corner, a woman was breastfeeding her child. After a while both were still -- the child had fallen asleep, the young mother listened with rapt attention as the details of two memorandums were read out. They were addressed to V Kishore Chandra Deo (Minister of Tribal Affairs) and Pawan Kumar Bansal (Minister of Water Resources), offering scientific explanations as to why the proposed project would only spell doom for the region. The two-page letters detailed the illegal way in which the NWDA had been conducting surveys in several villages without any consultations with the gram sabha.

Besides issues like flood damage and increased river salinity that could be caused by the proposed project, questions are also being raised about the efficacy of the project at a time when the impact of the SSP is yet to be assessed, and the need for additional water clearly established.

Although around 6,500 people eventually signed the memorandums, Sujata Shah, who has been at the forefront of the struggle, believes the fragmented nature of resistance among various sections of the people will weaken the effort. “We need to set up committees in every village, and committees led by women too. While large meetings like this are essential, you have to take the lead in preventing this project from displacing you,” Shah explained at the meeting.

For now, people are contributing small sums of money to fuel the resistance. Anusuya Ben says: “I do not know what to do. My anger and fear about this project come across through my songs. I’m glad that these songs are becoming famous and people are singing them at every meeting. But finally, the sarkar should hear our pleas.”

(This article has first appeared on Infochange News & Features. View it here)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Story of an Ideal Village

(A tightly-abridged version of this story first appeared in Open magazine, September 15-21, 2011. You can read the abridged version here. Below is what was originally written.)

            The entrance to Devli is marked with this board. A significant amount of funds have been raised 
              through fines, which are being used for the development of the village, by its inhabitants.

After a 2-hour rickety bus ride from the cotton town of Sendhwa in Madhya Pradesh, the signboard 'Nasha Mukt Sankalp Sthal' is an intriguing white spot before the serene landscape of the Satpuda mountains. A closer examine mentions a mass vow taken towards complete abstinence from alcohol and other intoxicants, and petty quarrels too. A thin grey ribbon leads to several mud houses interspersed with fields of corn and jowar, and the story of this village began to slowly peal open.

In 2009, 25 Sarpanches of villages from Sendhwa and Niwali blocks headed to Hiware Bazaar, a village close to Anna Hazare's Ralegan Siddi. There they witnessed the Gram Sabha functioning in a Utopian way. Upon returning, Mukesh Duduway from Devli began to discuss his village with the members of Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, a grassroots group which has been working in Badhwani district since the early 90s.

“Our village is home to some brilliant minds – one auditor in the Panchayat, one thana inspector in the police, one engineer and 19 teachers. And yet, we are reeling under bad health, malnutrition, low agricultural productivity, low standards of education and corruption,” Mukesh remembers.

Meanwhile, another worried soul was another resident Kahar Singh Senani, who had a wide perspective on development owing to his job as a senior engineer with the state government. In February 2009, he invited the village folk – mostly by the Bhilala and Barela tribes – to his residence for an informal chat. Surprisingly, the 500 men and women who turned up openly spoke about petty fights being bred through the government's non-delivery of schemes, and alcohol as a nuisance.

A detailed survey for the 380 households revealed that only 15 families were living off their own agricultural produce, while others survived as daily wage labourers. Despite this poverty, people had been extravagant during weddings, and alcohol and beedi for guests. “Some men had 14 pairs of trousers! What is the need? We concluded that any man owning more than 14 pairs of trousers would be considered rich. Only this way can we ever think of bridging the rich-poor gap,” explains Mukesh, over a cup of black tea in his house decorated with idiosyncratic tribal images in white.

A 14-point manifesto was drafted during a Gram Sabha on April 14, 2009. That's when a collective oath was taken to ban the entry of alcohol in Devli, and slap a fine of Rs 1,500 on any resident who would be found to have entered the village after having consumed alcohol outside. Suddenly, an existing alcohol shop with no permits became an eyesore for the reforming village. “Senani is a rich man. He paid the shop owner Rs 52,000 to shut the shop. Now, we have a general store there which is run by women,” says Mukesh, 42, proudly. Once, a letter was sent to the cops to get 14 men of two other villages punished, as they had been luring the youth of Devli to get back to alcohol.

As part of the manifesto, several committees were created. The senior men and women have been entrusted the work of advising on marriages and compatibility; another committee of women inspect cleanliness within the village. Another committee is helping build a corpus stock of grains with an aim towards entirely doing away with the government's public distribution system (PDS). One committee is investigating the details of families which migrate to neighbouring Maharashtra and Gujarat. The village also has a vision of a colony of concrete homes for all by 2015.

During each Gram Sabha, a new President is chosen, with caution that the Sarpanch and Sachiv never being elected as the President. Money boxes pass around one chosen hamlet, on every full moon night. People contribute Rs 20 to Rs 50. Another money box is circulated among the government employees, who pay a higher annual sum. The people in Devli have also collectively decided against burning wood during Holi.

“We suddenly realised that the women from our village had never stepped out. In November 2010, three men accompanied the women during a day-long trip to Indore. Apart from the tourist attractions, we went to Big Bazaar mall where we used the elevator. We went to the airport, and got each woman a platform ticket to explain the railways to them. The women were surprised to see other women driving cars all by themselves. The journey made our women to think a lot about their own lives,” smiles Mukesh.

A photograph taken during the day-long visit to Indore is cherished.

Mukesh sees himself as the people's mobiliser, and has no ambition of becoming a Sarpanch. He leaves that job to Lakha Duduway, who has recently taken on the reins of the Sarpanch from the younger of this two wives, Jinabai. “I offer my tractors and bulldozers for free for development work within the village. This is my 'shramdaan',” Lakha says. Village naysayers are happy that Lakha is leaving behind his crude ways, albeit in the hunger to be known as the Sarpanch of the 'ideal' village.

“Look at our village today. You will realise that there is no poverty in the world; only laziness,” Lakha says, before he zooms off in his bike. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Who Will Wash The Tribal Blood Stains On Tata's Image?

These are the observations and revelations penned by an activist and filmmaker, Surya Shankar Dash, who has been relentlessly documenting the atrocities on the people of Kalinganagar in Orissa.

A little more than a year ago Nira Radia was heard telling Vir Sanghvi about her fight with the 'Maoists' for the Tatas in Kalinga Nagar. Around the same time Madhyantara Vol 4 (a video magazine by the Samadrusti TV collective) was released and featured extensive footage of hundreds of policemen pillaging villages in Kalinga Nagar. A few defenseless villagers threw stones at a sea of marauding para-military forces but at the end their foodstocks were on fire, their utensils were systematically broken and their water sources were contaminated with kerosene.

This is part of a long drawn battle between the Adivasi inhabitants of Kalinga Nagar and Tata Steel, with the entire administrative and police machinery at Tata's disposal. Had it not been for the Radia tapes then one would have found it almost impossible to prove that indeed the Tatas had campaigned with the media to portray the anti-displacement activists of Kalinga Nagar as 'Maoists'. After the 2nd Jan 2006 massacre of 14 people, Tata Steel engaged in a media war against the tribals of Kalinga Nagar. The strategy was very clear, to paint the movement as a Maoist movement and facilitate excessive police action.

Despite everything Tata Steel was unable to wash off blood stains from its image. Despite attempts to completely censor news from Kalinga Nagar during last year's raids on the villages, illegal evictions and atrocities by a mixed force of goons and para-military, a lot of revealing information came out in the form of videos shot by the villagers that were put up on Youtube immediately. And around the same time even the Radia tapes started surfacing.

A year later, Tata has got much smarter. They are no longer banking on the Nira Radias to do the job. Rather they have hired some of the most credible documentary filmmakers to do the best whitewash job in recent advertising history - a series of TV Commercials highlighting some CSR ventures by Tata Steel - namely Bachendri Pal's mountaineering antics; the story of another woman who has supposedly been empowered by wearing pant-shirt and being employed as an earth-moving vehicle driver, etc. Perfectly timed to bolster the company's announcements, of completing the Kalinga Nagar plant by next year.

In short, the TVCs announce that the Tatas have won Kalinga Nagar. Not only the battle on the ground but the information war as well. 

To get top-notch documentary filmmakers, known especially for their rights based approach, to do their whitewash job is a clean triumph in the media turf. They have won after getting about 20 Adivasis killed by bullets. Including the 12-year-old Janga on the night of December 31, 2010. Hundreds displaced. Villages divided. Scores arrested. Tortured. Many more denied of medical services. Pregnant women unable to go to hospitals fearing they and their accompanying relatives will be arrested. Half a dozen villagers died when Kalinga Nagar remained out of bounds for the rest of the world except for Tata goons and an all pervasive para military force.

What compelled the filmmakers to do the job is hard to put a finger on. Most of them were aware of Tata Steel's doings in Kalinga Nagar. I have reason to believe even some of them had seen the videos on Youtube. In the past, a national Award winning filmmaker had done a similar job for Posco and then more recently another emerging 'development' filmmaker's company was found to be doing videos for Vedanta.

It is sad to see the kinds of Nira Radia being replaced by brighter and more sensitive people which will only lead to more compelling propaganda from the house of Tata Steel. The people of Kalinga Nagar will have to re-invent their communication skills now as a more evolved breed of communicators and media practitioners have arrived to silence their voices.

Below is one of the Tata Steel TVCs. This link gives further details about this campaign.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

This Is About Me

I love animals. I hate to see them dying on TV or on the roads. But I love mutton too.

I do not like what the US of A has done to the world. But I'd love to visit California and Alaska.

I do not like that McDonald's is so unhealthy and that people live on it. But I do sometimes yearn for KFC's chicken.

I respect Gandhi. I do get goosebumps when i think of his work. But I do not like what he did to Kasturba.

I'm scared of lizards. I'm scared of the thunder. But I love the adrenaline high when riding on a roller coaster.

I like khadi. I like the ideology behind hand-woven cloth. But I also like muga silk from Assam obtained from killing millions of silkworms.

I know chemical colours are bad, and hence white is most eco-friendly. But I love fuschia. And lemon green.

I like flat sandals because they are cheap, I can walk miles in them. But I love stilettos.

I respect the Maoists but I do not like them being violent with poor tribals.

I think simple marriages are best. But I'd like to have a good mehendi evening full of dance on the day before my wedding.

I think in English, and can impress boys with nice English words. But I know that without Assamese language, I am rootless.

I respect all politicians and senior police men. But I do not respect their lies, hypocrisy, violence, manipulations.

I hate Mumbai for its traffic and apathy. Yet, I cannot see Mumbai not knowing about the beautiful India that I travel through.

I support the India Against Corruption campaign, but I know that its middle-class supporters are equally corrupt too.

I love Delhi for its wide roads, gardens, open spaces, old Dilli charm. But I hate the expensive transport system.

I do not like the Congress. But I still hope and want Rahul Gandhi to be the Prime Minister, to bring in some youthful ideas to our country.

I stand up for women's rights. But I will wear my bra too and shop for it with utmost care.

I cannot live by excluding some ideas, in order to include some other ideas, into my life. 

My honey is your poison. My poison is your honey. 

And someday, I might campaign for your poison because it is healthier than my honey.

Am I a hypocrite? I think I'm just being honest.

Am I a bad person because my interests and disinterests are conflicting? I'm just being honest.

All I know is this: I cannot live in isolation. I cannot live in rejection.
Embrace. Embrace. Embrace.

This is about me. Or you too?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Condom Madam

How one sex worker reformed a brothel in Sangli by counting condoms collected in a bucket

Brothels are dirty places. In Kamathipura, India’s most famous red light area, you will find torn condoms and gutka packets strewn around, paint peeling off damp walls, and posters of C-grade films ripped strategically at the breast or crotch of the actress. There are few condom-vending machines. Then you notice the women—cigarettes dangling from their betel-red lips or between thin fingers with long nails, midriffs exposed, chests protruding from tiny blouses, and a blazing arrogance writ large on their faces. In the brothels of Kolhapur, pigs and women dot the periphery of the road; the pigs scout through the drains, the women scout for customers.

Sangli is clean. It begins with the railway station, which has been awarded the second cleanest station’s title in Maharashtra. A five-minute auto-rickshaw ride takes you to Dusshera Chowk. Through clean roads canopied by huge trees, you arrive at a small junction. A clean swept road from there leads to Sangli’s red light area. Pink doors on pink walls flank the street. There are no open drains with floating condoms in them. A decorative rangoli adorns the doorstep of every house. A few young girls stand next to a door, waiting for customers. Most others are busy with the chores that keep any housewife busy every morning—washing utensils and clothes, running after children, cooking meals, and taking dried clothes off the clothesline. Another lot are languidly grooming themselves—some women are combing their hair, some are painting their nails, and some are pouting their lips with a tiny mirror in one hand and lipstick in the other.

Until about 20 years ago, most people in this place walked with hands covering their nose and mouth. Today, there is a general aura of calm.

A deep female baritone rings out from behind one of the lattice windows. There are a few sandals outside the door. You take yours off,  notice the walls covered with portraits of young girls, and then your eyes move left towards the source of the voice. Her stout body sitting on the bed takes most of the space, with a hand rubbing her knee. A frail boy sits next to her, oscillating between reading a book with pictures and watching a dance show on TV. The lady signals a plastic chair to be brought, and, after the pleasantries, a girl wearing a neatly pinned sari brings in tea. “She is my daughter. I have so many daughters here. Rafiq is my only son,” says Bandawa Madam alias Amirbi Sikander Sheikh, rubbing the boy’s head. The girl standing with the tea tray beams. Another girl comes to greet me with a namaste, while two others peep in from the door.

Suddenly, Rafiq gets up and runs out with his book, calling out another boy’s name. And then Madam says quickly, “His mother died of AIDS. She hardly used the condom, despite my telling her repeatedly. Then he was born, and he had AIDS too. I send him to school but haven’t told the teachers yet. But I do not want any more AIDS in Dusshera Chowk.” The end of the sentence is almost a growl. “Today, my girls will refuse any customer who will not wear a condom.”

Two decades ago, when Madam was just 18, she eloped with a boy, but he was too scared to marry her. She couldn’t go back to her parents and so she decided to stay on in Dusshera Chowk, doing sundry jobs. Eventually, she became a sex worker. Seven years into the business, she saw contemporaries suddenly falling ill, developing blisters in their mouth and on their tongue, and then becoming just a memory sooner than expected. “The fat girls suddenly became sticks. Then someone said it was AIDS. We had never heard of it before. We never thought that our work could kill us,” she says.

She began to work with Sangram, an organisation in Sangli promoting awareness about HIV and AIDS. That’s where she first encountered the condom. “I thought ‘What kind of weird sticky rubber is this?’ But then, since we were getting it free, I decided to try it,” she says, “I eventually understood that it was for my protection as a sex worker.”

She took it upon herself to teach other girls how to use condoms. And also the customers who strode in. “Sex workers saw condoms as a hurdle not just to the sexual act, but to their business,” she says, “The girls would argue that asking the man to wear a condom was as good as showing him the door and not earning anything. They thought that the pleasure of sex would be lost if a condom was worn.”

Since most of the girls were from next-door Karnataka, they spoke only Kannada. Talking about condoms in Marathi or broken-Kannada was not really helping her get the message across to other sex workers. So she had an innovative idea.

“I bought two huge plastic buckets and put them in an intersection of the lanes. I told the girls to throw used condoms into the buckets. Around midnight, I would ask the girls about the number of customers they’d had. Then, I would thrust my hand into the bins, pull out the used condoms, and count them. If it did not tally with the number the girls had told me, it meant someone did not get her customer to use a condom. I just had to call out once, and the errant girl would apologise. If they address me as ‘Maa’, then I have every right to scold them.” She is the boss of about 200 girls now, most of whom are from Karnataka’s Devdasi tradition, with tiny white beads on a red cord around their necks identifying their lineage.

Madam’s efforts took three years to come good. Today, none of the women will ‘bithao’ (seat—for sex) a customer who refuses to wear a condom. But are the men willing to oblige? “Not if they are very drunk,” says Madam. So she does what a good mother will do for her daughters—she screens the customers. By 6 pm, Madam settles herself under a big tree at the entrance of her territory. Every prospective customer has to pass her screening—essentially, an assessment of his level of inebriation. “No man comes to a brothel unless he has had some alcohol,” she says, “I look at a man and I can tell how drunk he is. If he is too drunk, then obviously he won’t be able to wear the condom. Then I send him back, even if that means shouting and pushing him away. For the rest, I ask if they are carrying condoms, though my girls are well stocked in any case.”

Many a times, girls have had to show the door to rich customers who try offering more money for condomless sex. “My man asks me, ‘Why do I have to wear the condom even after being with you for so many years? Don’t you trust me?’ I say that this is the way it needs to be, because I do not want him to bring in diseases from his wife,” she says.

At some point, Bandawa split from Sangram. “I am my own boss; I didn’t like being instructed on how to do work anymore,” she says. In 2004, she started the Vaishya Mahila AIDS Nirmulan Kendra, and had it registered two years ago. She doesn’t reveal how large her family is, or how many condoms are found in the bins every night. “There was once a raid in 2007 because cops thought we had minor girls here,” she says, “Several of my girls were in jail and their children were hungry. I had to sit on a fast until the girls were released. Society will not remove poverty, but when we want to earn a living, they say we are bad.”

Over at Sangram, Bandawa is no longer a popular figure. Meena Seshu, director of Sangram, calls her a publicity hound. “She wants to hog the limelight, and is way too friendly with the cops,” says Seshu, “She wants to be a domineering force among her girls, and keeps saying that Dusshera Chowk is the only clean brothel in Sangli. But she forgets that it was Sangram, 20 years ago, which undertook the work of communicating with the girls of Gokul Nagar—the other brothel in Sangli—to ensure cleanliness and hygiene. We get 350,000 free condoms a month from the government, but Bandawa also gets her girls to sell condoms to customers. That is strictly against the principles of Sangram.”

What no one disputes, however, is that Bandawa is committed to her girls. She is also, in her own little way, trying to give her sex workers a measure of literacy. The effort began with the girls asking her to teach them how to identify the buses they would take to their hometowns in Karnataka. For about three years now, 10 sex workers have been teaching about 50 of their illiterate sisters to read and write. From 4 pm to 6 pm daily, they use a backboard outside a tea stall to impart maths and alphabet lessons. “The girls can now read bus destinations and do a little maths,” says Madam, “But I want them to learn how to speak English.”

After school, it is time for business. Time to dress up, apply make-up, solicit customers, strike deals, provide sex, collect money, solicit men, strike deals, provide sex… the day’s business ends with used condoms going into the buckets. A man has now been hired to collect the used condoms from the buckets, for which the girls pay him Rs 10 each every month.

Apart from this monthly fee, the girls shell out Rs 20-25 every Diwali season to give their tiny home-cum-workplace a facelift. “I get all the houses painted pink at Diwali. Why shouldn’t we?” says Madam, “The whole world looks down upon sex workers, although sex is such a basic thing. People see such violence against women, they see them raped, but society doesn’t want to help girls who come here out of poverty.”

Inside the rooms, the curtains are colourful and frilly, the bedsheets clean, and the walls plastered with posters of Bollywood actors and actresses. Ornate photo frames hold photographs of the girls’ families or of them in pleasant poses. Sharing space with shining steel utensils are bottles of nail polish, lipstick, bangles, packs of bindis, combs and mirrors. The cement floor is shiny and smooth. Every morning, the entrance to their house is swept, and water is thrown to settle the dust before white rangoli floor patterns are made outside the door. Some are simple designs with dots, others are elaborate. The white particles merge with the dried dust by late noon, when the girls begin to head out for school.

Quite a few women in Dusshera Chowk can read and write today. They send their children to schools in the vicinity. Geeta Osmani’s seven-year-old daughter studies in a Kannada-medium school. Geeta was a Devdasi who came to Dusshera Chowk when she was 18 and illiterate. “After having worked for 11 years here, I have made enough money to educate my daughter,” says Geeta, who likes to watch her doing homework, “She needs to study her mother tongue, and so I have enrolled her in a Kannada-medium school. Next year, I will send her back to my village to complete her studies. We women are happy here, but I want her to be as far away from my place of work as possible.”

Madam sees literacy as an obvious tool of empowerment. Yet, it is the condom that holds the key. “No wife dares tell her husband to wear a condom, but my girls can tell another woman’s husband to do so. No mother tells her son to wear a condom, but we teach boys how to become men. Who is more empowered—the housewife or us?”

It’s time for me to leave. I thank Madam, and she asks me to come again. And then, for the first time, her voice turns mellow: “I want to start a playschool for the smaller children. Can you get some help for the children?”

Friday, 3 June 2011

Broadcasting Dantewada

(This was first published in the June 2011 edition of Himal Southasian magazine.)

Earlier, what went on in the jungle remained in the jungle. But no longer.


On 27 March, Anil Bamne gave a missed call to a Bangalore number from his mobile phone. Within ten seconds, he received a call back and, moments later, he had recorded a news report detailing how children less than five years old had been going hungry for the past five months in Bahaud, a village in Chhattisgarh. Bamne’s report described how the children were sitting throughout the day in their aanganwadi – a government-sponsored childcare centre – playing with mud, while the food packets meant for them had never arrived, beyond a few bags of puffed rice. Two weeks after Bamne’s report, food materials reached the aanganwadi. A government programme officer later told a journalist that, although he had been in his position for three years, he visited Bahaud for the first time, thanks to the news story.

This and similar reports have been made possible due to a mobile-phone-based ‘citizen journalism’ system called CGNet Swara. Here, CG stands for Central Gondwana, referring to the area that takes in parts of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh; swara means voice. Despite this geographical designation, since February 2010, CGNet Swara – a free service – has offered a journalistic platform to any caller anywhere in India.

This is how the system works. If a caller has a story to report, or simply wants to hear the news, he or she gives a missed call to a Bangalore-based server number – 08041137280 – and waits to receive a call back. The caller can then choose to listen to reports recorded by others, or record their own piece of news, or even a song or bit of poetry. After a few hours, the recorded news is aired for the world to listen, either over the phone or via the organisation’s website, The gap of a few hours allows CGNet Swara’s editor to check the credibility of the reports, a critical element when callers are leaving significant information about, for instance, violence or corruption. In the year-plus that it has been operating, CGNet Swara has become a potent source of news for journalists and a major tool for activists. It woke up the Chhattisgarh government to realise that there is indeed a malaria crisis in the state, for instance, when 47 malaria deaths were reported from just one of the state’s 18 districts.

The project is the brainchild of Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist who developed the service while he was on a Knight Journalism Fellowship that began in 2010. A native of Chhattisgarh, Choudhary says that he had watched the shift in Adivasi support from a negligent government to the Maoists. ‘Our system wants the tribals to give up their oral culture and be textbook educated,’ he said. ‘The tribal population in central India numbers nine crore, and we do not have a single AIR [All India Radio] bulletin in a tribal language. There is a major communication gap here.’ Choudhary continues: ‘In the end, the tribals have no one to talk to. Who will then listen to them? The Maoists, of course.’ Choudhary says that he sees journalism as one of the least democratic sectors in India.

News For Some
The burgeoning Adivasi allegiance to the Maoists surged when the government signed several new agreements with mining companies that would permanently disenfranchise communities of their land – some 300,000 people in nearly 650 villages, according to estimates. As Maoist activity rose, riding on the back of this growing public frustration, Choudhary says that he observed a simultaneous rise in important news stories going either unheard or, at best, wrongly reported and misinterpreted.

‘The Central Gondwana region is categorised as among the most backward regions of the country,’ he says. ‘The media reports emerging would mostly reflect only the official version. And we have missed the community radio bus. Today, news all over the Internet is legal, but news on the radio is illegal. I know of many men who can make a radio for just 100 rupees, but that has been made illegal. The government wants us to buy transmitters from only licensed vendors – who, of course, sell it at a high price. How then can news be for everyone?’ While Choudhary says that newspapers were a ‘revolutionary medium’ many years ago, ‘Today we need to go beyond the newspaper and make use of the mobile phone, short wave radio, the Internet and oral traditions. In that respect, Swara is a mere experiment in democratising the process of broadcasting news.’

In early 2010, he began training 33 people on how to use CGNet Swara. At that time, the participants were mostly working in Chhattisgarh on various community issues. ‘During the second day of the workshop,’ Choudhary recalls, ‘I realised that asking them to write the news and then speaking it aloud lacked in spontaneity. The tribal communities have an oral culture, which is their essence.’ So, he let the participants ‘speak on their own, asking them to narrate like they would have done it before their family and friends. The idea was to lower the entry barrier into journalism.’ The first batch would talk about Swara wherever they went, and that is how the news trickled in.

Today, the Swara website is overflowing with reports of various stripe, in the primary area of Central Gondwana and beyond. The stories cover, for instance, non-payment of NREGA wages, illegal stone quarrying in Rajasthan, women digging their own bore well in Andhra Pradesh, the push against unfurling of the Indian flag in Assam for Republic Day, Santhali men and women dancing in sub-zero temperature, public anger against new coalmines, anti-liquor campaigns, children’s hopes for their schools, and more.

Given his journalistic background, Choudhary says, he understands the importance of credibility. As such, he has focused on building a wide network of sources who can vet and verify the news posted on Swara. In mid-March, for instance, he began receiving reports of arson, murder and rape taking place by Salwa Judum in Tadmetla, Timmapur and Morpalli; some 300 homes were gutted by fire, while three women had been raped and at least two men murdered. Choudhary says he sat on each of these stories for a week so they could be verified. But almost immediately after these reports were posted, journalists from prominent newspapers began to highlight the ongoing stories. Eventually, the incident led to the superintendent of Police of Dantewada, S R P Kalluri, and the collector, R Prasanna, to be transferred for neglecting to check the abuses; the state government has also ordered an enquiry into the matter.

New Voices
Prior to Swara, Choudhary had tried to connect Chhattisgarh through the Internet, by moderating a Yahoo! Group where people would send news about Chhattisgarh and discuss the issues. However, that still did not cater to Adivasi communities. After all, India does not have a single Adivasi journalist from central India. When Swara was born, the network of these people who had been connecting over the previous eight years began to help Choudhary to verify facts and vet the stories. ‘If there was a news item about a certain incident in a village in Bijapur,’ Choudhary says, ‘I would call up the most reliable person there to check for such an incident.’

Clearly, Swara’s verification process leans on the robust wall of goodwill and the keen outlook of all concerned citizens, however, not necessarily Adivasis – a fact with which Choudhary is clearly uncomfortable. Eventually, the idea is for Swara to become system with many more ‘citizen journalists’, and with Adivasi youths themselves acting as moderators. For now, for instance, Choudhary has to rely on just one person, Himanshu Kumar, for translations into Gondi. (Kumar is an activist who had lived and worked in Dantewada for 17 years before he was thrown out of the state for raising questions about the Salwa Judum.) Choudhary says he now intends to conduct workshops with Adivasis from different parts of the country, who would be given basic training on reporting with an eye to becoming moderators for multiple language channels on Swara.

Still, for now Swara’s numbers are impressive, if nascent. Since its inception, more than 31,000 calls are reported to have been received (both to report and to listen), about 17,000 of which have come in since the beginning of this year. About 800 news reports have been published during that time. Choudhary says that he has received some opposition to Swara’s work, as well, though he brushes this off by saying that the project is fuelled by the possibility of shaking up callous government institutions. ‘Waking up the authorities and getting them to do their job right,’ he says ‘that’s what gives the people the hope that their basic needs can be fulfilled.’

~Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Call of the Camera

When Rajesh Jala made one documentary on the son of a militant and another on children who stole shrouds for a living, he didn’t expect the films to transform their lives, least of all his own

In May 2004, Rajesh Jala was walking along Srinagar’s Dal Lake with a camera when he saw a little kid scooping water out of a boat. Jala began to photograph him. The kid, seeing his journo jacket and long hair, mistook him for a foreigner and started speaking in broken English—only to be surprised when Jala replied in Kashmiri.

The kid asked whether Jala wanted a ride. Surprised that someone so young could handle the boat, he was thinking it over when another boy came running and warned him against it. The kid had drowned a customer a few days ago, he said. Jala turned a little cautious, but some instinct made him accept the offer. Thus did they embark on what turned out to be a long boat ride. Arif, the kid, was a very good boatman, it turned out.

Jala, a Kashimiri Pandit, had grown up without a mother, and, uprooted from Kashmir in the mid-1990s, he had lived with several Kashmiri families in a cramped hall in a Delhi refugee camp, constantly yearning for his father. Something about Arif struck a chord. The kid was his family’s sole breadwinner, and when Jala met Arif’s mother Farida, he was instantly drawn to their story. “Farida had been kidnapped as a 12-year-old by a militant, and then gave birth to his first child two years later,” says Jala, “Today, in her thirties, she is the mother of five children.”

Jala just knew he had to make a documentary on the family. “It was very difficult for me to come to terms with her story, but I was selfishly involved in my film. I could understand her misery, but did not allow myself to contemplate her misery.” His effort, Floating Lamp of  the Shadow Valley, came out in 2006.

Later the same year, Jala wanted to make a film on Varanasi but did not know how to go about it. He was there for a month, and began visiting cremation grounds. On the second or third day, he saw a little boy snatching a shroud off a corpse and going to his gang of friends. Intrigued, Jala followed the group. There were seven of them—Ravi, Gagan, Sunil, Yogi, Kapil, Manish and Ashish. He struck up a conversation, and became friends with them. He realised that the children regularly stole shrouds and sold them. They fed their families this way. The story of another documentary was staring at him.

Manikarnika Ghat is Varanasi’s busiest cremation ground, with over 100 bodies cremated daily. It is especially hot here in the summer, when temperatures rise to nearly 50º Celsius. “I kept wondering if I would be able to shoot there,” he says, “Then I thought, if these little kids are earning their livelihood here and surviving this place, then why can’t I just shoot this film?” Jala’s Children of the Pyre came out in 2008.

There is nothing to connect the seven boys of Varanasi with Arif of Kashmir, except that the real life sequel to their lives has been similar—the films changed the future of all of them. After the screenings and many awards that the films fetched, none of the eight children are doing what they were when Jala met them.

Jala says he got involved with their future once he began questioning his own motives. During a conversation, Yogi, one of the shroud thieves, had told him that he wanted to escape the cremation ground but his parents forced him to earn money this way. “That echoed in my mind. I realised that these kids needed help,” he says. Also, he felt guilty of having taken advantage of them. “I had this big dream of being a filmmaker since I was 12. When I first met these children, I had a purely selfish reason to make the film. I wanted to make a film that would have an interesting story to engage audiences with, that would also fetch me some money, awards and critical acclaim… But in both cases, especially when I was making Children of the Pyre over 18 months, I developed a deep bond with them. I initially thought that when I sell this film, I would give a certain portion of the profits to these kids. But I wasn’t sure whether anyone would buy a film of this kind.”

Jala’s friendship with the kids grew stronger once he realised how completely they had put their faith in him. They began to give him missed calls when he would get back to Delhi. On calling them back, they would ask him when he would return to meet them, and request him to bring along some clothes or sweets. Though he was giving them some money for their participation in the film, he wondered whether he was exploiting them. “Justifying my actions wasn’t easy. It was okay to give them the little money I was, but eventually, I knew that I was the one gaining the most from the film. So I had to answer that question of my conscience.”

Arif today goes to a private school and has a tutor to guide him. “I assured his mother that I would help them on the condition that he would stop rowing the boat,” says Jala. The boy was miserable at being told he couldn’t row anymore, but Jala says it was important to ensure his future. “Besides, the boat was also in very bad condition, so they couldn’t pull it anymore.” Some friends of Jala who saw the movie donated money to the family. One lady from the US gave $550 in 2007, which ensured that their entire expenses were taken care of for the year. “A publisher friend of mine is now taking care of Arif’s school and tutor fees for a year. But it is complex, giving the family money—the father would snatch it away. Immediately after I had made the film, I opened a bank account in Farida’s name. I direct people to that account when they want to offer help. Last summer, they received two big cheques after a screening in Chennai.”

Children of the Pyre also did well for its subjects. Thanks to its release, in 2009, Plan International, an organisation working to relieve children of poverty, launched the Bhagirathi Project to transform the lives of 300 children working in different ghats of Varanasi, including these seven kids. They don’t give money, but empower them with skills.

Jala was grateful, but didn’t feel it was enough for the seven children. “My immediate concern was to stop these kids from going to the cremation ground. Bhagirathi Project did not yield that result because the kids were still going to there for their livelihood. So I had to find some money that would help them run their families some other way.”

Jala himself is not rich. To make Children of the Pyre, for example, he had to use the money he’d saved to buy a flat. The Best Documentary Award at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2008 came as vindication. After that, whenever the film would be screened anywhere in the world, he would get an overwhelming response, and people would come asking for ways to help these kids. After a screening in New York, a man called Kevin contacted him and offered to educate the Varanasi children. Three of them had crossed that age when they’d want to study, but there was hope for the other four. Kevin found a boarding school in Sarnath run by an Italian man, and the four children have been admitted. As for the elder three, Jala is trying to help out in other ways. “We sent them for English-speaking courses, but they didn’t do well there either. They are not disciplined kids. Their lives can get on track only if I have a more active role in Varanasi. One plan is now to give them driver’s training, and then we could perhaps arrange the capital investment to get them auto rickshaws through a loan, which they could then repay on their own. It’s not final, but I don’t see any other way out. Except for Gagan—I am very keen to see him as a dancer, but it’s all about his own commitment.”

In Children of the Pyre, one of the younger kids, Sunil, says, “I don’t love my father.” That is also what Arif says in Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley. Jala says such moments make him look back at his own dark times. “Working with these children brought back memories of growing up in Kashmir without a mother and an absentee father. In some ways, we were all in the same boat, in different circumstances and at different times. Perhaps this made it easy for me to relate to the kids.”

Whenever Children of the Pyre is screened, Jala says he is typically asked if the experience has changed him. “Considering all the struggles that I have gone through in my childhood and youth, the experience of working with these children has made me very conscious of complaining. I do complain, but now my thoughts immediately go to these kids and their struggles. I am not saying that both these films have changed my life, but… Earlier, I would look back at my childhood and pity myself for having been through hell. Now when I try to do that, which is rare, I realise my agony as a child pales in comparison with theirs. In a way, therefore, these two films are the beginning of what I am.”

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Dr Binayak Sen, Perhaps It's Time For 'Goodbye India'?

Dear Baba,

Everything pales to the warm feeling of returning home. If leaving home means the search for wisdom, then returning home means wisdom soaked under the skin. One hundred and fourteen days spent behind some crude bars, with a stone slab for a bed, a window perhaps to let the eyes travel far, watery or burnt rice as nourishment for the body, and those minutes and hours and days that crawl and whoosh by alternatively -- you surely need rest back at home. Your eyes looked tired in a video made almost immediately after you had reached home in Raipur. 

But Baba, as I like to address you with as much love and respect as the civil society does, I take the liberty of sounding like I have been hallucinating. Of course, with a country like ours where one feels empowered on receiving a pizza in less than 30 minutes, but feels impotent on having the ambulance arrive not before 60 minutes, words like 'freedom' and 'equality' and many other simple big words provide that hallucinating experience. But, I will let myself 'hallucinate' aloud: I think it is time you left this country where you were born, educated, worked, served, idolised, harassed, implicated, jailed, and finally freed, which gave the people of this country an illusion of a just judiciary. 

I know how you would cringe when people would shower you with laudatory words of praise. I know how you would just listen quietly to anyone who had much to say. You listened, absorbing every word, as though it were a patient's faint heart beat or deep sigh of pain. And when you spoke, not a pin would be dropped around. But I guess, that's the problem with idolising someone -- we listen, feel charged like that moment of orgasm, and then walk home enlightened but confused about action.

Yet, there will be many who know exactly what you are talking about. Doctors, for example. The website of the Medical Council of India lists 314 recognised colleges which offer undergraduate MBBS courses, and many more which offer PG courses. Your specialisation of Paediatrics alone is taught in 214 colleges. Now, let's assume that each college has an intake of 50 students, which is the number of seats available at the prestigious AIIMS in Delhi. In a year, we then ought to have a minimum of 15,700 MBBS doctors graduating each year. Even if we have half the number of confident Paediatricians graduating each year, why do we still see that of those infants who were lucky to be born alive, 63 of every 1,000 of them die before they cut their first birthday cake? If doctors remember what they had studied, how come do they forget the Hippocratic Oath ever so often -- when they insist that forms be filled before an accident patient is looked upon; when they write references faster than writing their signatures, when they know best that just one bottle of IV drip would provide much-needed instant relief to the dehydrated patient; when they confuse their diagnosis upon assessing the lifestyle and thus the class of the patient; when they give 2 Crocin pills and take Rs 150 from a farmer who can at best offer 2 handfuls of rice?

Despite this grim picture, I had heard of many doctors who chose to go to places where a majority of India resides. Yet when I met you, and got to know you better through your daughter with whom I share some enjoyable girly moments, my one deep regret in life began to resurface: why didn't I study few more extra hours to get into a medical school? Why did I instead write songs and poetry and stories? Why didn't I learn more about the difference between xylem and phloem to understand how chlorophyll would makes its passageway through them? (You see, even if I wanted to be a doctor for human beings, I had to learn about plants first. Never mind.) Why didn't I try to understand the intricacies of the carbon and nitrogen cycles? But I sure did enjoy poring over the diagrams, and would be waiting for the day when we would be shown the diagrams come to life and see the various mechanisms of our bodies play out before my eyes.

Most of my friends at that time drank Horlicks every morning to be able to cram up organic chemistry formulae. I hated Horlicks; a bottle of Bournvita was put on my table instead. I preferred to cut out the wrapper and make snow flakes out of them. I'd spend more time at the Zoology lab watching the different bottles filled with formaldehyde, which had many dead foetuses (would they have been cute babies with black eyes and curly hair?), during their different stages of growth. I drew each of them, while my friends listened to long lectures. I waited desperately for the experiment when we would have had to dissect a cockroach, goroi fish, and a frog's thigh muscle. I had made deals with some classmates: they would complete my magnetism and electricity experiments for Physics, while I would do all the dissection for them, draw all of their diagrams and leave the miniscule work of writing to them. I think I could have been a doctor.

My family in Assam is full of doctors. Almost all of them had cleared their exams with nice numbers before they began to practise medicine in a hospital or in private clinics. Almost all of them would bring their own loved ones to places like Delhi and Mumbai for treatment -- they never trusted themselves or their colleagues. Every news of a relative's death would be followed by either of these statements -- the doctor couldn't diagnose on time; the doctor diagnosed the myocardial infarction (heart attack) as acidity; the doctor wouldn't come late at night because it was raining. And this isn't because the relatives live in villages -- they have good jobs with the government, they own at least one car, they have palatial houses, they eat meat and fish daily, they throw big weddings for their children. The Guwahati Medical College spews out 156 doctors each year; 170 doctors graduate from the Dibrugarh Medical college. Yet, doctors within the family were sceptical of the idea of my father visiting Assam, after he had had a bypass surgery, a failed kidney and pulmonary oedema (water in the lungs) -- they knew that no doctor would be able to touch him if there was an emergency. But I wonder, is it really possible to make palatial homes by just treating patients with Crocin? So what did they really study in the medical school?

Okay I understand the need to make decent money, to live up to the dream of a glowing India. And I do understand that it is much easier to work with bottles of blue Sterillium around, to sanitise the hands before entering a patient's cabin, before wearing the gloves, after wearing the gloves, after shaking hands with an educated and English-speaking patient, after taking the gloves off, and after leaving the patient's cabin. But what about the 'type' of people you worked among, Baba? They may have at best offered you just a 'lota' of water to wash your hands after you had wiped the phlegm and blood off the nose of a little crying thin doll. But you know, every now and then, when I read those philosophical musings that one ought not to regret anything in life, I make this plan in my head: suppose I zero on this little village (or even a slum settlement in many of our shining cities). Suppose I am able to convince 12 doctors working in some Sterillium-smelling and sea-viewing hospital to bring for themselves a lot of genuine blessings. Suppose I am able to get a lot of doctors to give me the free sample medicines that they get from MRs. Suppose I am able to get each of the doctors to sacrifice their one month's salary and comfortable life in the city. Suppose I am able to get a room free in that village, from among the relatively richest person there, for the doctor to stay. Suppose that doctor is given his food on time, while he meets patients, talk to the poor, offers them advice of ways to have a healthy diet within their limited grains and vegetables and the occasional egg. Suppose I am able to continue this every month, year on year, with the same set of doctors or new ones. I am not asking anyone to sacrifice any lifestyle for all their lives. I am not asking any doctor to offer his daughter's bed to check an emergency patient, like you have done so many times. All I am asking for is a chain reaction for health. Is this possible?

But I think it would be best that you not spend more time thinking of solutions or possibilities of my mad ideas. It is best that you leave for a foreign university, and spend your days talking about malnutrition in India, and spend the evenings discussing it again during gatherings meant to honour your release from the jail. I guess you should have done that years ago, like most doctors have done. Because if you continue to stay here, we the young and the not-so-young will continue to idolise you, talk about your work, but would never venture to walk your path. Other than campaigning for your release and then shouting slogans further idolising you (which embarrasses you no end, for you are just a doctor doing your work), it is time you expect something more from the middle class Indians. 

Very soon, you will be invited to talk at different forums about your stint in the jail. You will be asked to comment on Anna Hazare's fasting with a fixed smile which gave the media enough fodder to be sandwiched between the World Cup and the IPL. (Oh, while you were behind bars because the patriot in you couldn't bear to see violence, India won the World Cup, and we celebrated on the streets by scaring the Sri Lankan team and their families on the bus while they were leaving the stadium. We went a step further in being patriotic: we shouted slogans against Pakistan, and we yelled out "Leave India" to any 'gora' that we saw on the streets. The cops were out to ensure that we would have a peaceful frenzy to celebrate, and the next day, the site for most revolutions - Facebook - was filled with colourful abuses against the teams that India defeated. The 'patriotism' was reaching unbelievable heights: people spent Rs 25,000 for a ticket that was originally priced at Rs 10,000.) You will be asked to comment on a book written about you. You will be asked to comment on Jaitapur, Dantewada, Kashmir, Forest Rights Act and much more. But I know you will patiently reply to each of them, choosing your precise words of expression. But that's about it. Your words would stir some, but not the students from the medical colleges across the country who have been agitating against being posted in rural areas. They prefer to treat lifestyle diseases like diabetes and hypertension, rather than really prevent illnesses in the first place. 

We are all happy that the Supreme Court has released you on bail. The activist brigade is singing and dancing, before hitting the road with slogans that nobody wants to read or hear, for the next big 'mudda', or writing long petitions to be sent to the President hiding behind her Kaanjivaram veil. But it would be practical that you stay safe. It would be practical that the country decides to wake up to the grim realities you have been talking about. If your work was so good, why are we so lazy to be inspired to really work like you have done? Haven't we all read enough of human rights abuse reports and newspaper articles and theories about 'paradigm shifts'? When will we stop reading and start implementing on what have we read? Hence I say, because I love you, and idolise you, and want you to feel content that hordes will walk up to the weak of our society -- you need to pack your bags for a long holiday. Unless you stop working, nobody else will. 

Would I have been a good doctor? I don't know. But today, where I stand on my life's quicksand, I do know this: when I see your eyes well up each time you talk about violence, I know that those tears are juices of strength to keep you walking where you walk. And I am glad that my tear glands are functional too, each time I sit down to write about yet another smiling bony tribal kid. Three days ago, I heard children from the Bareli tribe in Madhya Pradesh singing out songs of revolution in their language. And then, to honour my presence in their soul-rich and belly-poor lives, the sung to me Joan Baez's "We shall overcome." No, not the Hindi "Hum honge kaamyaab", but the English "We shall overkummmm". Through the hot tears, I was fortified with hope again, just when I was swinging between losing my head and losing all hope. But I have wiped my tears for now, and hence I say this -- unless you make your visits to the embassies, nobody will make their visits to real India.

With love, and in anticipation of your ever-warm hug,
Just another fan -- Priyanka

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Traffic Jam That Was Not

After walking hundreds of kilometres, an Adivasi rally arrives in Mumbai. PRIYANKA BORPUJARI tells their story — of a historic victory and a brush with urban callousness

ON 14 MARCH, about 20,000 Adivasi women and men from all over Maharashtra walked hundreds of kilometres, across the state, to Shivaji Park in Mumbai. The next day, they began their march to Azad Maidan. They had been walking for two weeks. And now, finally, they were in the capital: 20,000 tired but determined protestors of the Jungle Haq Sangharsh Yatra.

For urban spectators, the rally would have been remarkable for its size and spectacle; but mostly all they saw was jammed traffic and delayed transit. Few seemed to care what the march was really about. Even a prominent news daily saw it fit to report on the traffic jams and inconvenience to urban Mumbaikars without looking wider or deeper. The truth is, this massive rally of Adivasi people, far from being beaten into dispersal, as is often the case with protest marches, was escorted by non-aggressive police. And surprisingly, in the searing 38-degree heat, several MLAs in immaculate white accompanied the marathon walkers into Azad Maidan. Was this a rare moment of people’s power peacefully gaining a firm handle on a government ready to run for cover?

It was the Maharashtra government’s neglectful and callous attitude towards the implementation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which had seeded this strong and spectacular protest. The Act had promised to rectify decades of injustice, and validate the right of Adivasis over the land and forest that they have lived in for generations. However, negligible justice has been delivered since. Of the 2.88 lakh forest land claims that had reached the Sub-Divisional Level Committees, 1.7 lakh had been rejected. Further, the average area of approved claims (0.63 hectares) was not even 50 per cent of an economic holding. Many of the “approved” cases bear closer examination; an Adivasi may be in possession of 3 acres of land, have half an acre ‘approved’ and still face eviction from the remaining 2.5 acres.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had apparently earlier requested that the rally should not enter Mumbai. This may have pleased harassed urbanites complaining “protests must happen without inconveniencing the common man”; it seemed no matter that the protesting common man — the Adivasis, rooted to their land for generations — had been indefinitely deprived of their very right to life and livelihood.

However, the Chief Minister had offered to meet the protestors twice and subsequently the Yatra’s representatives were invited to a long meeting with the Chief Minister, Deputy CM, six other ministers and several senior bureaucrats. This high-level political engagement was finally recognition of the determination of the Adivasi protest. The Chief Minister and Chief Secretary agreed that there was injustice in the large-scale rejection of the Adivasi claims to their land and that a review process was required. The Chief Secretary pointed out that there was no procedure for reviewing rejected claims. The political contingent tried to persuade the rally to withdraw their protest, vowing action would be taken. But this proved too vague a promise. The rally would continue in its journey for justice. In Thane on 11 March, the Minister of State for Tribal Development Rajendra Gavit arrived to address the tribals — and also persuaded them to return home. But no one was ready to stop walking. Not until they had been heard. Ulka Mahajan of Sarvahara Jan Andolan, a participating group, said, “Tribals have been on these so-called forest lands for more than a century, long before the government came into existence. But still the lands are not in their name. Sixty years after independence, this is historical injustice. The Act was brought about to undo this injustice. However, it is not being implemented due to several interests involved. Now we hope that there will be the political will to right the wrongs.”

IT WAS in this mood of mountain-moving focus that the rally arrived in Mumbai to assert ‘Adivasi asmita’ or tribal identity in a gargantuan system that barely accounted for their existence. Although jaded and jolted by the city, the tribals persistently coloured Mumbai’s streets with their caps and flags. Led by women holding a banner, the Bhute dancers from Nandurbar and Mawchi tribesmen followed. In the spectacle of painted bodies, turbans with feathers, waists decorated with strings of dried gourd and ghungroos, a sea of banners from participating organisations surged across the urban landscape; slogans emanated from a loudspeaker on a truck. This procession was followed by about 10,000 women rallyists.

Disciplined, the walkers did not veer off their files. When people attempted to cross the road, the women chased them down. “We have been walking for 14 days to talk to the government. Why can’t you respect our wishes?” yelled Raju. However, the walkers did not disconnect from their innate integrity; they waited for a funeral procession to pass. “We are walking for our lives; they are walking for the dead. We cannot be disrespectful,” said Kalawati from Dahanu. Raju stopped the men he was leading to allow school children to cross the road. Many watched from their balconies — a tide of people, some barefoot, braving the burning asphalt of the JJ Flyover.

Sunni from Nandurbar, whose land claim had been rejected, asked with bemusement, “Why do they say you get everything in Mumbai?” Sunni’s sojourn in Mumbai convinced her that it was a place without clean water. The drinking water tanker in Shivaji Park had emanated a strong stench. With the crush for bathrooms, very few could bathe before heading out for the rally. “Walking from our villages, we passed small rivers where we bathed. Along the way villagers offered us water to drink and freshen ourselves. But there is no water facility in Mumbai,” said Anitabai, an old woman wearing thick spectacles.

But it was not just the lack of common resources or generosity in the city that struck the Adivasi protestors. It was the general lack of human engagement. Humabai Gavit, who had been leading the rally, wiped her face as photographers obstructed the walkers near CST station, at 2 pm. One journalist asked rather inanely, “Isn’t it tough to walk in this hot sun?” Humabai smiled, “We work in the sun everyday. We don’t enjoy it, but how will we survive otherwise?” She was too dignified to jeer at the journalist. Is that all they could question, the discomfort of the sun?

This massive yet peaceful assertion of people’s power had effectively pitched a marginalised issue into high-level political discourse; it had urged the police and security infrastructure to allow a large and sensitive protest like this march across a metropolis; an entire community valiantly fights an uneven battle… and the question is about the inconvenience of walking in the sun?

The rally being allowed to wend its way across Mumbai was in itself a rare concession. The Congress-NCP government still carries the acrid hangover of the 1994 Gowari stampede: 120 people from the Gowari tribe had lost their lives while walking towards the Nagpur Vidhan Bhavan, which led to the collapse of the Sharad Pawar-led Congress government. Yet, this rally was not only allowed, but dignified with political engagement. The Opposition moved an adjournment motion in the Budget Session of the Assembly on the morning of 15 March. At 3 pm, a delegation of 50 Adivasis were invited to meet the Chief Minister. After hectic negotiations, it was agreed the Tribal Welfare Ministry would draft exhaustive guidelines to ensure that the rejection of claims was not speedy, furtive or without due process. More importantly, through these guidelines, rejected claims can now be reviewed several times — a historic first, anywhere in India.

By the evening, the resolute journeyers — exhausted but victorious — began to make their way home, back into the green forests. Mumbai looked on from cars and balconies; untouched, but perhaps not unmoved.