Monday, February 27, 2012

Our Disasters, Their Disasters

This Sunday I heard Sasidhar Reddy, Vice-Chairman of  our National Disaster Management Authority(NDMA) asking each state to create its own 'Disaster Response Force', just like the center's National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). In fact, Reddy said that the response force should be capable enough to manage not just natural calamities, but also the consequences of a chemical and biological attack.

Sikkim earthquake in September 2011
A year ago, when tsunami hit Japan, I remember watching on TV the visuals of rising wall of sea water, floating cars,  submerging building blocks etc and getting awestruck by the way people over there kept their cool, without any visible sign of panic anywhere. I remember sharing this thought on Facebook and learning that almost everyone of my friends also wondered about it.

We knew the answer of course: the Japanese didn't panic, because they had a disaster management system that they could totally rely on.

In contrast, we have disasters by the dozen (flood, cyclones, earthquake, wildfire) each year, but our way to fight them basically means neighbors helping each other out and when things are way too horrific, the local govt. appeals to the army to help, which normally is done after quite a few days. Since the Fukushima disaster, I have often wished, 'if only we could have such a system!' 

This is why I found Reddy's statement quite interesting. Of course, it  was also too ambitious (chemical and biological disaster preparedness, when we don't even have readiness to take care of a flash flood???), nevertheless worthy to be taken seriously simply because to ignore it would mean being stupid.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ulhasnagar and Banaskatha - the great Indian Human markets

No matter how much you love shopping, here are two 'unique' Bazaars in India that you will wish had never existed: Ulhasnagar near Mumbai and Banskatha in Gujarat. And what is so unique about them? Its the goods that they sell: humans

I was born near Ulhasnagar - a township barely 2 and half hours from Mumbai, en route Pune. I knew that Ulhasnagar had a very dubious distinction of being the piracy hub of India. There was a thriving market for selling pirated copies of illegal - and horrible - versions of any electronic 'foreign' goods. But this week I was surprised to learn that Ulhasnagar also has a thriving market for selling human babies. Exposed by Mid-day, a tabloid published from Mumbai, the baby bazaar apparently sells stolen new born babies at INR 100,000 - 300,000. After the report was published, Fauziya Khan, minister of state, women and child welfare, said, "We will carry out an investigation on this issue. After a proper investigation, we will take action."

I think the question that the investigators should begin with is 'where do the babies come from?' The root of the rot has to be there!

Now, while the Ulhasnagar's baby bazaar might see a good intervention and hopefully a closure, a market for adolescent  girls and women in Wadia village in Banskatha district of Gujarat has been continuing smoothly, without any 'disturbance'. In this community run market  men, brothers and fathers of girls pimp for their own sisters and daughters, marketing them to truckers and men from neighboring villages. And this isn't an issue for any politician or opinion leaders

Friday, February 17, 2012

"Do they eat Fetus in China?"

Last December, a fellow journalist asked me "do the Chinese really eat (human) fetus?"

We were in Durban, South Africa, to cover the UNFCCC climate change summit. We were out to eat and I had ordered Chinese food - my favorite. But my friend, a TV producer from Namibia, looked almost sick. When I pressed for the reason, he told me, 'well, they eat fetus. So, just to enter a Chinese eatery makes me puke. I don't know what meat they have cooked.' Then, seeing that incredulous look on my face, he asked 'do you think its untrue?' 

Now, contrary to what you may think, that friend of mine isn't a bum.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Deforestation in India: Why I don't buy the Govt argument (II)

 In my previous blog, I shared with you the government's unacceptable explanation ("Maoists are behind it") on large-scale deforestation in Andhra Pradesh - the state that is the single largest forest cover loser in India.
Today, lets look at North east - the other area with big loss of green cover - 549 square km to be exact. And here the government has blamed two factors for the loss:  biotic pressure and shifting cultivation in the region. Once again, I am not buying that. No, its not as though these don't exist. They do. What I say is that these are neither the 'only',nor the 'main' causes.

The real causes are, and I say this as a Northeasterner, combination of some state-backed or state-neglected wrong activities that include smuggling, allowing of industrial units to operate in forest areas, indiscriminate mining, and illegal logging. 
Lets look at Meghalaya to see an example.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Maoists are India's main forest destroyers? Nah, I don't buy that!

Just a couple of months ago, during the Durban UN Climate change summit, India got a huge pat on its back for increasing its forest cover by over 2%. Piggy riding on that, the government loudly asked for increased funding for its growing carbon stocks under REDD+ program.

Barely 8 weeks later, however, that great green picture is already showing signs of fading: the country has just released India State of Forest Report 2011 which shows, India's forests have shrunk by 367 square km over the last two years.  According to the report, in 12 states the forest cover has fallen by 867 square km since 2009. Among the big losers are the North East - undeniably one of the country's pride green regions – which has lost a whopping 549 sq km of forest area – and Andhra Pradesh (AP), which, with the loss of 281 sq. km, leads this pack of losers. 
A forest in the Maoist stronghold of Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. The govt says, Maoists are prime destroyers of forests. The picture says something else!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Three to Tango: Teaming up with Panos to amplify a grass root voice

A month ago, the editor duo of Lilly Peel and Anna Egan from Panos, London asked me to do something I found both unique and exciting: write a 5-blog series on a social activist who had great stories to share with the world. It had to be someone who matched words with deed - a tough job, if you ask me, in the murky world of  activism where talkers outnumber doers.  

But I had a name ready: Bhan Sahu - a grass root activist from Chhattisgarh whom I have known since 2009. Bhan was introduced to me (and then to Video Volunteers - my then office) by Adiyog, a senor journalist and media trainer who has been Bhan's mentor for years.

Following a quick nod from Panos, I visited Bhan in Chhattisgarh and from 1st week of January, started to write the blogs. And thus began a unique story-telling journey in which I and Bhan and Panos were co-passengers, having a dialogue with the global audience.
A month later, the series of the blogs have garnered great response, with readers from all over Asia and beyond expressing awe and saying how impressed they are to hear a powerful and true voice from the ground. 

Monday, February 06, 2012

Like mother, like child

Shared here is my latest article published in World Pulse -the global women's media group that earlier selected me as a 'Voices of Our Future' Correspondent 2012. You can read the original article here

Last week, Kamala, my 65 year old neighbor, was hospitalized after she had sudden dizziness and showed signs of amnesia. An MRI scan revealed that Kamala had 4 blood clots on the left side of her brain. This surprised everyone around Kamala; nobody could recall her having a fall or a collision – the normal cause of a head injury. The doctors however had a different explanation: Kamala had acute anemia. A widow with no land or other valuable assets, Kamala was earlier a daily wage earner in a village for 20 years. For those twenty years, her daily diet was just a plate of rice and a spoon of yoghurt. With extremely low nutrition level, Kamala soon developed anemia and has been suffering from it since then. 

Kamala represents the vast population of Indian women - over 53% to be precise, who are malnourished and suffer from related ailments such as low blood pressure and anemia.

 India must eradicate malnutrition in its vast female population to save its vast population of malnourished children
This shocking fact was revealed when the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released the India Human Development Report 2011, 3 months ago. According to the report, 55.3% of women aged 15-49 years suffer from anemia. In some northern Indian states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the percentage is nearly 60%. As feared by many, there are more malnourished and anemic women in marginalized communities than in other groups.

Poor nutrition and health in women has resulted in poor health in infants. The Human Development Report states, ‘A staggering 21.5% of babies in India are born with low birth weight, a problem that begins in the womb.’ Little wonder that India now has the largest number of malnourished children in the world.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Songs Of The Battered Women
Reflection of domestic violence in folk music of North East India

Shared here is an article of mine that was recently published by the Folklore Foundation of India - a prestigious research institute working on folk literature.
 ‘Dhamail deo go bherbherir ma/amra dhamail chini na/
Kichu kichu chintam pari/budha betay manoin na

(‘Dance, O mother of Bherbheri.’ ‘We don’t know how to dance. Actually, we know a little bit, but the Big Man won’t allow us’)

Growing us as a child in a village of North-east India, bordering Sylhet district of Bangladesh, I sung this song along with my friends during a session of ‘Dhamail’- the most commonly practiced group dance in our area. In Dhamail,(originated from ‘Dhamal’ or fun) women, accompanied by a drummer, dance in a circular motion, singing songs of love, rituals, rebellion and worship. Such dance is an integral part of any social event, be that a wedding or an engagement or even ‘annaprashan’(first rice eating of a child) in hundreds of villages in the NE region.

Also, Dhamail has always been the most popular game among children, especially girls. Every day while playing, we would break into a ‘Dhamail’ dance and sing joyously whatever we learnt from our female relatives. 

However, this particular song, mentioned above, wasn’t sung at any social event, and was only heard in little girls’ groups such as ours. The reason: it was considered a pariah for elders because of its silly lyric. 

As I danced with my friends, I too would sing and break into laughter. The very word ‘Bherbheri’ was funny as nobody had ever heard a girl with such a name. The laughter kept us from completing our singing.

It’s only after I became a journalist and started covering, among others, women’s issues, that the song started making sense. I started wondering about this mother of Bherbheri. Who was she? Why did she name her girl ‘Bherbheri?’ Why wasn’t she allowed to dance? Who was this ‘Big Man’ who stopped her? Was it her husband or her father in-law? And, above all, why was the song considered silly? Was it because it spoke of an ugly reality?