Sunday, January 29, 2012

Healing greens for a sick economy

It’s not every day that you get to hear something good and positive from North East India – an underdeveloped region where dozens of armed insurgent groups are fighting the government, demanding separate states. Today, however, is an exception because, I just learned of something that is worth a thousand smiles: the government of Tripura, the smallest state in the region, has decided to encourage cultivation of medicinal plants and rare herbs among locals.

If successfully implemented, the new plan would boost the economy of the state,” says a press statement by Tripura Forest Development and Plantation Corporation (TFDPC). According to the statement, TFDPC would begin by giving financial and technical support to the locals for cultivating Kalmegh (Andrigraphis Paniculata) and Shatamuli (Asparagus Recemosus Wild). 
Shatamuli or Asparagus Recemosus Wild, a herb used to revitalize female reproductive organs, cure gastrointestinal disorders and as an external wash for wounds.
India has, of late, seen great growth in its herbal industry. According to the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the herbal industry is currently worth INR 7,500,crore (approx $2 billion) and set to reach Rs.15,000 crore (approx $4 billion) by 2015. The growth has increased the demand of herbs and medicinal plants manifold. For example, a kg of Shatamuli seeds now fetches about INR 4,000 in the market.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Female infanticide - what's a float got to do with it?

Yesterday, we celebrated our 63rd day of power to the people or, as we call it, the Republic day. As is the custom, the celebration had, among other things, glimpses of our art and culture, shown through a number of floats. And this year, among dozen+ floats that rolled on the Rajpath - the road that is the main venue of the Republic day parade in New Delhi - was one from the eastern state of Bihar that highlighted a local village tradition in which, when a girl child is born, the family celebrates the birth by planting fruit-bearing trees. There is a deep meaning: the birth of a girl, a life giver , is celebrated by creating a chain of 10 other life-givers (trees that can bear fruits or seeds).
The missing float of Bihar that highlighted a village tradition where birth of a girl child is celebrated by planting 10 trees.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Salman Rushdie vs Sohagi Let: Wrong Reported vs Wrong Unreported

On January 23rd, as India was busy celebrating the birth anniversary of freedom fighter  Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in Jaipur, the government was busy curtailing the freedom of speech of Salman Rushdie and four other writers who read out of his (banned) book the Satanic Verses. And lost between these two incidents was the voice of a frail woman called Sohagi Let - who was paraded, half naked,  around two villages in Rampurhat, West Bengal - the state that now has a woman as its Chief Minister.

Does the name Rampurhat ring a bell? It should. After all this is the same place where, in Aug 2010 (not so long ago, isn't it?) Sumita Murmu - a young tribal woman - was paraded naked around 6 villages. Later, Sumita was honored with a bravery award by the government in New Delhi. (Happy ending for Sumita, but obviously not the end of the sickening act of criminal treatment of women, which seems to have become a trend).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Let Us Go Deaf!

Call it my sickness or obsession, but a day for me isn't complete without reading a bunch of  about 20 newspapers. Today, one of them, published from Bhutan, caught my eye with a headline: Deaf Nation puts Bhutan in it's travel map. Curious, I was soon digging into it. Turns out, Deaf Nation is a community of deaf people. Founded in 2003, - the website of the community calls itself "a trusted one-stop center for deaf and hard of hearing news." The site, among others, has travel videos shot on different locations across the world - all in the sign language. 

Its both sad and stupid that for over ten hundred thousand strong deaf community, not a single TV channels has an iota of space. Photo courtesy: Loghi Dei Progetti

As I toured the site, I was suddenly reminded of our good old state broadcaster Door Darshan (DD); every Sunday, on DD there used to be a half-an hour news show for people with hearing problems. As a kid, I always found it very amusing, to hear a newscaster reading the headlines of the week and then to watch another newscaster translating the same in hand movements that seemed both strange and mysterious.

I have not watched DD channel on a Sunday for ages and don't know if the show still continues. But what I know, and realized as a shock, that out of the 200+ Satellite and cable channels that we have today, not a single one has a single show for deaf people!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cases of river poisoning in India on the rise

It was in November 2011 that I wrote about two rivers in the North East India being regularly poisoned by some miscreants who used Endosulfan in the river upstream to kill fish and make a quick buck by selling them in the market.

A few weeks later, I can safely (and sadly) say that what seemed to be an isolated case of river poisoning barely 2 months ago, is now slowly turning into a sickening trend elsewhere in India. This time, it is the rivers of Dooars (northern West Bengal) that are under attack.

Gholani - one of the rivers that's been poisoned last week

I have been closely following the developemnts and from my observations, almost half a dozen rivers have been poisoned between Dec 15 and Jan 15 alone.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sometimes, Peace Means Letting Go

Sharing my story published on Peace X Peace - a women's media organization based in Washington DC, US.

“With my attacker dead, I decided that there was nothing I could gain by telling his stories. Instead, I could try helping his family…”
Sometimes, to make peace, you get to move on

One evening I was at the dentist’s clinic. I sat listening to him as he showed the x-rays he had earlier taken of my teeth and gum; there were several small cavities, one of my front teeth was almost dead, and, there was a big cyst in my gum.

“I can fix this, though we will need multiple root canal surgeries,” he said, before adding, “But I am really curious about how you got that cyst. You must have had a bad fall, a bad injury. There was internal bleeding.”  “I don’t remember,” I said.

We left his clinic with an elaborate treatment plan in hand.

My best friend, who knew me well, was walking beside me. I could sense her curiosity and her eagerness to know yet another story of my life. But it didn’t come.

I came home, had dinner, and went to bed. But all night through, between the sound of passing vehicles and barking dogs, I kept hearing the doctor’s voice: “There must have been an accident.”

Yes, accident it sure was, but a deliberate one; one that broke my gum, but saved my dignity, my life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Inspiration in the land of despair - A story re-told

The following is my article that has just been published in World Pulse - an action media powered by women of 185 countries. The article is my 2nd assignment as a Voice of the Future Correspondent - an honor I received in Nov'2011 by World Pulse. You can also read it here. Why am I sharing this here? Because, it is not everyday that you get to hear that a landless and tribal woman, despite being caught in between the frying pan and burning pyre (the Maoists and the Army), is trying to do pull a community out of poverty, discrimination and injustice. 

Me and my muse: with Sukhantibai, the barefoot soldier who fights social injustice with the weapons she has: strong will and honesty.
November’2005. In Handitola- a remote village in central India, people were faced with a horrific situation: a young Dalit (a marginalized community) man had hung himself and the body was on the verge of decomposing. But nobody dared go near him. They all had their reasons: for some, the boy was an ‘untouchable’, while others were plain scared. Then, a woman of 50 came up, with a sickle in her hand. She stood upon a stool, and, as the whole village stared in fear and awe, cut the rope and lowered the body. Next week, in a meeting in which they had to decide who would be their ‘Sarpanch’ - the head of the village council, everyone voted for this woman – the most courageous one among them. And that is how Sukhantibai - a Gond (a primitive tribe) woman, became the ‘Sarpanch’.

In The Line Of Fire

7 years later, I am meeting Sukhantibai today. I have traveled for 3 days to reach her village in Rajnandgan – one of the 78 districts identified by the government of India as ‘Maoist affected,’ meaning places that have borne maximum brunt of the Government vs Maoists (communists) armed conflict.

On my way, I have been feeling the suspicious glare of several people, and, since I reached the district, my mobile phone has gone off the network.

Friday, January 13, 2012

NSCN, KNO say 'No' to Land Mines, Will others follow the suit?

 ***Follow me on Twiiter@stellasglobe***

 Its not everyday that one gets to hear news from the North East (NE) India - especially of the insurgent outfits - that can bring a smile on one's face. Well, today is that rare day. Because, today I heard something that is worth a bunch of smiles: 3 insurgent outfits in our NE have taken a pledge against using anti-personnel (AP) land mines. The outfits are the National Social Council of Nagaland (NSCN), Kuki National Organization or KNO (an umbrella organization of several outfits) and Zomi Re-unification Organization (I have never heard of the 3rd, but whoever they are, I am sure they believe in being humane).

Thousands of ordinary citizens in the North east and elsewhere are  helpless preys of the Anti-personnel mines (Photo courtesy: P Min)
The news immediately made me think of my friend Benjamin (not his real name) a Kuki man living near Indo-Burma border town of Moreh. Last year, during a conversation Ben told me that one of the hazards that he risked everyday was getting blown by a landmine. Now, Ben is a Kuki tribal himself. But like thousands of others, he too is just a helpless, possible prey to the mines; not knowing where the mine was buried, he could step on one because the insurgents were not going to tell him 'don't go there brother, we got a mine in there.' Ben's fear is not an imagination; till today, 88 people in Kuki community alone have been killed  by landmine blasts so far - a fact gathered by the prominent anti-mine campaign organization Control Arms Foundation of India.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Women and Voting? Shut Up!

Four more weeks and India's largest state Uttar Pradesh (UP)will go into election. But in a village called Sehruwa under UP's Lakhimpur -Kheri district, only half the population will cast its vote; the other half  - all of them women - will stay away from the polling booths. Why? Because in this village voting by women is forbidden.

Yes, crazy it might sound, but in Sehruwa village women have never voted. And I mean NEVER.  It is said that soon after 1947, men of the village got together and decided that women need not vote - which has been in practice even today. And guess what! Sehruwa is only 144 km away from Lucknow where Mayawati - the state's (woman) chief minister resides and rules.

By size, Sehruwa isn't very big. Home to 193 families, it has a population of 1278 people, of them  576 are women. 324 of these women (this is the number of women above 18) are illiterate.  None of the women work outside their homes, even in the rural employment schemes, its only the men who take part.

Now, the question that one comes up with is obviously 'why don't women of Sehruwa vote?'  And here is your answer:
Because, they don't have a voter ID card.
And why don't they have a voter ID?
Because, to get that, one has to get photographed. The Sehruwa, 70% people belong to the Muslim Pathan community (the rest are Dalit- just like Mayawati herself is). The men of the community won't allow their women to remove their veils (violates the 'tradition', they say) which makes it impossible to get a photo taken. No photos, no voter id, no votes. Things don't get any simpler - and idiotic - than this, do they? But this has been in pactice since 1847.

If you have any more question, maybe these should be directed to the state Election Commission or,  the political parties, each of which talks of women empowerment?

***This isn't a blog against any religious community, but against injustice and ignorance***

Sunday, January 08, 2012

In Photos: What's on a woman's plate in rural Chhattisgarh?

In the local markets, there are a lot of vegetables. But at INR 20 and more a Kg, most women I met find it beyond their reach. So, what most of them buy are,  the cheapest ones like tomatoes (Rs 10 a kg) or cauliflower (Rs 5 a piece)

Chhattisgarh: How Does a Woman Sarpanch Work in Bastar?

The participation of Indian women in the political process, especially at the hyperlocal level, has been on the rise since reservation of  33% of seats in the village councils came into force. In the tribal belt of Bastar, women actually have 50% seats reserved for them. But, with the Government Vs Maoist conflict raging, how is that reservation helping? How does a woman village head work?
Kalavati and I: It would be easy to criticize this Sarpanch for not doing enough, but it would  be wiser to try to understand the reasons that force this under-performance
To find the answer, I have met 23 women Sarpanch (head of the the village council) in Bastar, 15 of them are in forest areas where the Maoist activists are very active. Let me share the story of Kalavati Salam - the sarpanch of one such village panchayat.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Chhattisgarhnama II: "Keep 16 Suhagans ready"

The twin evils of Displacement and Forced Migration are dogging both  men and women in tribal belt of Chhattisgarh, especially Bastar, but its the women who are the worst affected
So far, I have visited 22 villages in 4 districts of Chhattisgarh that have been officially declared as 'Maoist Affected' (a term used to indicate the intense armed conflict between the government and the Maoist activists). And, everywhere I have heard and seen what I had suspected: its women who are the worst affected by the conflict.

Let me begin with Khemi - a Madia (a primitive trbe) girl who lived in Abujhmarh of the state. Until a year ago, Abujhmadh was a protected area where one needed a special permission from the Government of India to visit. The reason was to protect the unique (and vulnerable) culture of the Madia people.

But as the Maoist vs Govt conflict intensified, the authorities decided to lift the restricted label off Abujhmarh, considered a Maoist stronghold, so the army and other security forces could take action there.

As expected, there has been chaos since then. The Maoists opposed the Government decision, saying it would not fare well either for the government, or for the tribals. But the government was not in a mood to back down.

Caught in this chaos has been Khemi (name changed),

Chhattisgarhnama III: At 56, she labors hard, so her girls can stand on their feet.

Phulwanti - woman who is defying age and poverty to ensure the girls in her home grow up as strong, self-sufficient women.
Like so many of my aunts living in villages, Phulwanti Sahu of Machandur village in Chhattisgarh also can't say the year that she was born, or, how old she really is. Her ration card (the little book that allows her to buy food grains and sugar at a subsidized rate) shows she is 56. On the afternoon that I reach her home, a little girl playing in front of her house tells me that 'Ma' has gone to work in the field. This is, however, only half the truth; contrary to what it sounds like, Phulwanti is not working in her own farm. Instead, she is working as a laborer, in a neighbor's field, cutting the hard, uneven ground, making it even (Chhattisgarh government called it Bhumi sudhar yojana/land improvement scheme). This work, provided to her by the government for 100 days in a year, is Phulwanti's sole source of earning. With INR 122 per day, she earns INR 12,200 a year (about $250), that is, when the 'Thikedar'/supervisor is not corrupt and not cheating on her.

And she has three people to support: herself and two young, school-going girls.

Both the girls are her own grand children, but daughters of two different mothers. The elder one of them, Neha, was abandoned by her mother when she was 3 month-old. Her father, Phulwanti's son, is a migrant laborer who travels from state to state in search of work. A few years ago, he remarried, got three more children and decided to take care of two of them - both boys. So, the girl child - a 7 year old Dolly, was sent to the village, to Phulwanti. The old woman, who struggles to get a square meal for herself, took both the girls under her wings, and is today playing the multidimensional role a parent, a care giver and a friend.

There is a school in Phulwanti's village, but it provides education only upto the elemenatry level. Little Dolly studies here, while Neha, a student of 7th grade,  has to travel 3 Km to go to her school. Under a government scheme, Phulwanti has got a toilet in her house, but like most other villages in the region, there is no water. Both Neha and Dolly wake up early and fill up old plastic cans (Phulwanti can't afford to buy either pitchers or buckets) from a borewell by the road - a good half a km from their house."The girls work very hard", says Phulwanti, with a flicker of pride in her eyes, "they sweep, clean, and store water. Neha also cooks at times. They know their grandmother is getting old and try to decrease my burden."
The burden, however, is not easy to lower. Neha is growing up fast and Phulwanti worries about the time she will get her menstruation. Walking 6 km a day is going to be tough, so will be the job of carrying all the water cans. The girls will need more nutrition in their daily diet. Besides, Phulwanti cooks over wood stove  (cooking gas is beyond her reach and shockingly, the idea of biogas - the most affordable mode of cooking fuel to rural folks, is still alien here) and it might affect the girls' health. 

But not one to watch helplessly, Phulwanti is doing all she can: planted years ago, there is a Moringa tree in her house which has started bearing fruits and Phulwanti, who can't find either the money or the time to buy vegetables from local market, often cooks Moringa for the girls. And this year, she offered her paddy grower farmers, to sell their paddy in the market for them, so she can earn some extra wages and one day buy a cycle for Neha.

'Girls must stand on their own feet', says Phulwanti who, despite having three children, is forced to earn her own bread at the age of 56
'I did not get to study. But two years ago, I learned from my own daughter (who studied upto 8th grade) how to add, subtract and multiply. I also learned how to deposit and withdraw money from a bank. My neighbors, who are busy and are also illiterate, find it convenient if someone did the job for them,' she says.

In villages around here, girls are married off at the age of 18, if not earlier. Phulwanti herself was married at 15. But for her granddaughters, she wants a different future. "Neha was abandoned by her own mother. Dolly has been left here by her father. How can you say that the husband will stay by them?, she asks and continues,"Women must have means to take care of themselves. I want my granddaughters to study as far as possible and start earning. They should never be dependent on anyone in future. As long as my hands and feet are strong enough, I will labor."

As she talks, I look at this woman; dressed in an old synthetic sari, grey, dry hair tied with a piece of cloth (torn off the border of a sari), with no slippers and calloused hands, she is your typical woman living below the poverty line. But her vision, coupled with her courage makes her a woman you don't dare feel sorry for; only bow to, in respect.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Chhattisgarhnama: 'Don't let anyone use that Internet'

There are stories galore, but no means to tell them. It reminds me of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore: 'I closed the door to stop the untruth/ now truth is asking me, 'how do I get in?'
It has been a good 9 days since I came to Chhattisgarh. In these 9 days, I have been able to access internet only once, when a social activist called Keshaw Shori (who heads an organization called Disha) graciously let me use his BSNL internet data card. And that is how I was able to write my earlier blog, as well as upload a picture on Facebook. 3 days later, I am in Kondagaon - a newly formed (1st Jan 2012 to be exact) district where I have met someone who doesn't want to be named. Lets call him Mr X. We met in a overcrowded jeep and after we reached the town, Mr X told me that I could use his laptop and data card for a day, provided nobody knew about it.

And this brings me to the topic of the day: communication in Chhattisgarh. It seems, lack of mobile or web access here is more of a strategic move, than a technical impossibility. And I have reasons to feel this way:

I began my journey from Rajnandgaon - a district in western Chhattisgarh, bordering Maharashtra's Gadchiroli. In this district, there is a town called Ambagarh Chowki, that has at least 5 computer centers with internet connections. But not a single one will allow you to use the internet, even after you show your press card and tell them that it is urgent; that you need to file your story.

'We are not to let any outsider (visitors like me) use the computers here. Also, cyber cafes are not allowed to operate here,' each of them says.

'Have you been denied a permission?' I ask

'Yes, several times. We can only allow people who want to use the computers for learning to type. If there are students of a computer engineering or something similar, they can do their homework here.'

But why is this restriction on Internet use? A local reporter - lets call her Ms Makram - who has faced a lot of questions from the local police for her work, tells me that it is because of Manpur and Mohola - two semi-urban localities within the district where the Maoists are very active. This is something I have been observing as well; in Manpur, I saw a banner that was put up just a couple of weeks ago, giving an open call to avenge the death of Kishenji, the highest ranked Maoist leader, gunned down by the security forces in late November.

In interior Chhattisgarh, the idea of communication facilities is distorted; dish antennas sell everywhere. But there is strict controlling of Information technology.
In Kanker district, where I spent 2 days, I was surprised to find a particular block totally cut off from the outside world. There were shops, a primary health center, a bus station, a taxi hub and several government offices. But not a single mobile network had coverage there, let alone internet. When I asked, everyone said that it was because the Maoists uprooted every mobile tower in the vicinity. However, one woman called Gandai later told me that a month ago, two soldiers (there is a big camp shared by a big police force and a batalion of paramilitary forces) had been talking on mobile phone which was heard by a group of Maoists. Immediately, the Maoists shot the soldiers dead. 'From then on, there has been no mobile network.', she concluded.

On my way to Kondagaon yesterday, I did see two mobile towers (one of them belonged to the Aditya Birla group owned IDEA network)lying on the ground, which I was told, was the handiwork of the Maoists. 'Don't the Maoists use mobile phones themselves?' I wonder aloud. Someone tells me 'they do, but not in areas where they suspect police informers are operating.'

Last evening, I was at a place called Narainpur where a local social activist with a laptop - and I can't take the name again - told me that every single phone here is tapped and everyone has been expected to report if they spot a 'new face'.

Who expects you to report this?
'Dono log'(both sides),' he says. looking around cautiously.

'And do you do this?' I want to know.
'Not on our own. But when you leave, we will be asked who you were, where you came from and what you said and did. The safest way for us is to tell all we know. Otherwise they will come again and again. We are also asked not to let anyone use any of our mobile phones or laptops.'
And this is why my internet service provider (pun intended) today will have to stay anonymous.  But, here's a bagful of thanks, my friend, for your generosity!

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Missing ‘Mawattu’

Three years ago, I met someone who had a poetic way with words. As we grew fond of each other, he had a name for me ’Mawattu’- winter rain. ‘A “mawattu” is different from the monsoon downpour' he had said, 'right in the middle of the cold it comes, taking you by surprise, blowing stormy wind on your face, soaking the ground with hard drops and fallen yellow leaves. And before you know, it’s gone, leaving behind a handful of happiness.’

Flattered I sure was by the poetic comparison, but I remember spending more time thinking about the phenomenon Mawattu than my friend’s affection. My thought tookme to North east where, as a child I saw a woman blowing a conch shell when it rained one winter; she said it was a sign of gods playing and Varun – the Hindu god of rain, throwing his ‘rain ball’ at his divine friends.

3 years passed by. My poet friend and I have come a long way, in our own separate paths. Somewhere along the journey, I almost forgot about the Mawattu, until last evening when in a dusty little village of Bastar in Chhattisgarh state, sipping black ginger tea, an eighty year old man told me about the winter rain.

 We were talking about the weather. I had expected Chhattisgarh to be quite cold and therefore, had come with lots of winter clothes. But it was very warm and at times quite hot. The man – landlord of a friend I was staying with, told me that the climate in the state has been rapidly changing, growing warmer every year. “I have been staying this house for eight years now. Eight year ago, I enjoyed a bonfire in the morning. But now there is no need of  a bonfire. I miss that. But what I miss is the winter rain. I lovedit so much1” he said and fell silent.

‘Winter rain!’ ‘Mawattu!’ I thought.’ and asked ' How was the winter rain?’ The answer brought back old memories in both him and me: 'its sudden, its something you can’t expect and yet it is something you expect to happen. It is a little furious, but it is also gracious’.