Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Homosexuality is criminal: A note of thanks to the SC!

My open letter of gratitude to the S.Court of India after it upheld that gay sex would continue to be a criminal act in India.

Dear SC of India,
 You have just reasserted that all the people who have sex with people of their own sex are criminals. And, I am just so happy and proud of you! Here, see  the big three reasons below:

courtesy: rude creativity
1. You slapped/woke me up from a day dream!:  Last Tuesday, at this time, I was in Bangkok, taking part in the Global Forum on Media and Gender. I met Michal - a woman from Tel Aviv who fights discrimination and maltreatment of  LGBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) people in her country and her region. Over coffee, I proudly told her "Homosexuality was a legally criminal offense in India, but then our court decriminalized it." She was very happy to hear that. In fact her exact words were "I think India is a good democracy!". Well, dear SC, thank you for waking me up and telling me that we still suck when it comes to treating every citizen equally regardless of his/her sexual orientation.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ending Violence Against Women: First, Lets End Impunity

It's 25th Nov - the day for Eliminating Violence Against Women. I began my day with the news of a senior government official in Uttarakhand - a state in northern India being accused of raping a 29-year old woman.  And I thought "well, here you go - the official proof that we really do need a day to end violence"
:Original image: oil on canvas by S. Ilayaraja

In the following hours, so many other pieces of news came in, each of them about a woman or a girl who's been violated or tortured. For example, in Assam, 4 men gangraped woman, gougeed her eyes out before killing her. In Delhi, a journalist from Tehelka news magazine who was recently sexually assaulted by her boss and chief editor Tarun Tejpal, said that she was intimidated by one of Tejpal's  relatives. Also in Delhi, the court convicted --and Nupur Talwar -a  doctor couple of murdering their teenage daughter four years ago. (And, not to forget, every 40 minutes a girl also got raped).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A toast to Tarun Tejpal!

So, just when you thought you had heard enough stories of  rape and sexual assaults and all that s**t coming of India, here comes yet another headline: Tarun Tejpal, chief editor of Tehelka - an Indian  news magazine that is known for its bold and honest journalism - has sexually assaulted one of his woman colleagues.

Now, sexual assaults are no laughing matter. And yet this one has me in splits. The reason is, this man Tarun Tejpal - one of the country's 'most respected' journalists (and also often seen as a panelist/speaker/chief guest at events organized to condemn rapes/violence against women etc) has figured out the punishment for his crime all by himself :  a 6-month long holiday which he calls "atonement".

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Kartik Purnima: The Moon is beautiful tonight, so is Life!

 Its Kartik Purnima - the full moon night of Kartik - the 7th month in our Indian calendar.
They say, the moon is at its brightest tonight.  And I believe them. Because, the moon is shinning so bright, I can look back and see my childhood. Mooonlight clear.

I see a courtyard - cleaned and mopped with water mixed with cowdung in the morning. Hours later, its hardened, cool and there's not  a speck of dust anywhere.

On that courtyard, someone's drawn paintings with rice powder. This is the courtyard of my Mamu (maternal uncle) Anil Singh.

After the courtyard, comes a large, stand alone, pentagonal room. This is the 'raas mandap' (raas auditorium). On either side of the room's doors, Marigold bushes are on the bloom. Inside the room, a stage has been set for a performance. Tonight, in this Raas Mandap, a little boy and a little girl - dressed as Hindu god Krishna and his lady love Radha will sit . And surrounding them will be sixteen women of the community. They will dance and sing as Gopini (consort of Krishna) all night, enacting roles from stories of  Krishna Leela (romance of Krishna and Radha).

Monday, November 04, 2013

Groundwater: being misers is better than being paupers

Imagine yourself in a situation where a hundred bomber planes flying overhead, ripping your eardrums apart with horrible noise and belching black smoke, choking your lungs. Well I just spent an agonizing 48 ours in that situation. No, I wasn't in Syria or Afghanistan. It happened right next door when yet another neighbor was trying to bore a well. 

The noise, the smoke and a pool of flouride-filled,liquid mud left behind, was the result of that bore well drilling.

It started early morning on Friday and ended last night. In these 48 hours, they drilled up to 60 meters, I was told, but finally abandoned the drilling and left because, there was still no sign of usable water!

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Photo blog: Meeting the woman sarpanch of the red corridor

Years ago, when I was still in school, my aunt became a sarpanch - head of the village council which is the local unit of governance - in North east India  - a region where several insurgent groups are active and where the government has given the army special power to act. I wanted to ask my aunt - a dirt poor widow who wasn't politically inclined, how she managed the office in the politically hostile area. But before that could happen, she died. Years later, this March, the National Foundation of India offered me a media fellowship to meet and write on women sarpanches working in districts that are affected by the Maoist insurgency.  And thus  began a wonderful journey of meeting the "woman sarpanch of the red corridor'. Below are a few moments of this journey so far.

The first woman I met is Kalavati.
A mother of two she was a woman fighting many a battle at a time: the anti-development stand of the Maoist rebels, the bullish and ever-suspecting army, lack of education among her colleagues and many more. I will always remember her parting words "everyone is quick to see the failure of a woman, but not her struggle." I hope I didn't fail her there.

Maya and me in the village elementary school. It was lunch time, kids were having mid-day meal.

The next woman sarpanch I met is Maya Kavde - a woman who also inspired me a lot. Here is why: A widow with three school-going daughters, Maya is the only sarpanch I have known who is struggling to make ends meet courtesy her father-in- law who refuses to give her any share of her husband's property. Yet she dedicates all her time to develop the village. 'We tribals are living in a dark time. But girls' education and job-oriented courses for the youth can pull us out of this," she told me.

Sukhanti Bai - a sarpanch has something in common with Maya: Sukhanti has no toilets in her home and is regularly bullied by the former sarpanch - a non-tribal man belonging to a "higher" caste. He even sold her some land, but hasn't tranffered the papers in her name because he thinks a tribal woman should not own land. And Saukhanti isn't dragging him to court. Why? because, the villagers' needs are way too grater than hers. Maya told me the same.

Me with Dulmat - in white sari and Maya (in pink).

Dulmat Netam, a sarpanch I met is young and full of smiles. Dulmat loved being  a sarpanch. One day, she would also like to be a member of the legislative assembly (MLA), she said, but what she would really, really love is her husband to understand that being a sarpanch required time and energy - something he wouldn't do.

Vasan and Me.
Vasan Buiki became a sarpanch after the sudden death of one of her sons a few years ago. 'I loved him very much and after he died, I went into depression. Then I decided, instead of mourning my son forever, why don't I dedicate my time to the welfare of my community? Life is uncertain anyway,' she told me. But, like Dulmat, Vasan also doesn't have enough cooperation and under standing of her family  and longs for that.

Me with Sandhya Rani (in white sari) and her colleagues at the all-women village council

Early in August, I met Sandhya Rani - a woman sarpanch in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh. She is the first sarpanch I have met outside of Chhattisgarh, and while she had no political links or no prior experience like those in Chhattisgarh, Sandhya Rani had something wonderful: strong support of an entire village that elected her  -and her all-women village council - unopposed and a social activist husband who swells with pride every time you mention his wife is a sarpanch.

There is a common belief that women in the tribal community/region have more freedom than those in non-tribal society. I used to believe this too. Meeting the women sarpanch of the red corridor has taught me, this is just a myth. Tribal women struggle just as much - if not more - to have their rights over land, property and life in general.

But what I also learned in these 5 months is that none of these women, despite all the difficulties they meet, are ready to quit trying to make things better for those who voted for them and also for themselves. With this very encouraging learning, I will now move to the second phase of my fellowship. The next destination will be Odisha. Stay with me!

Monday, September 02, 2013

Beyond the story: Rohingya refugees in India

A few weeks back, a social worker friend asked me, 'are you aware of the Rohingya refugees in Hyderabad?' I wasn't, of course. Hyderabad is about 3,400 km away from Burma. And, if anyone was indeed coming from Burma to India,  I would expect them to turn up at places like the north east India or, Andamans or Kolkata or Delhi. But not Hyderabad which is way off the trodden road

Anyway, so once morning I went to meet the refugees. And here is the story that came out as a result of that.

But, sometimes, a community has too many stories to tell and you have too many constraints to take them all in. A video with a 3.30 min cap on it is one what I had. And so, after my video was shot, I went back to meet the refugees again. And again. And here's what I learned.

In Myanmar, women are attacked attacked as mercilessly as men. They are beaten, raped and killed with swords. Most of the attacks happen in the night and often led by the militia. This woman was sleeping when a mob broke open the door of her house. Her husband and son died, while she escaped with a deep wound on the side of her stomach.
Two years later, her wound has healed, but she suffers from trauma.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Food wastage: 5 things you can do about it

Wastage of food is a serious issue.Unfortunately, that has not been talked about until now. Fortunately though, its finally out in the open.

As always, some people are talking the issue by pointing fingers at some countries and communities for wasting food and aggravating food insecurity in the poorer areas. And then there are some who are busy denying the charge. The question is, is there something you can I can do in the meantime to stop food wastage? My answer: yes course!

1. Spot it within, before you spot it outside: Most people in our country think, food wastage is happening only in the developed nations. Well, I say, they are wrong. This is a chronic callousness every country suffers from. And I have a personal story: When I was about 7, I used to leave a little rice on my plate every day. I felt, I was full and would throw up if I ate an extra morsel.  And I also thought, it was ok to leave food. Then, one day, my mom caught me and talked me out of the habit.

Today, when I visit homes of friends, relatives or colleagues, I see the familiar scene: kids - and grown ups - leaving food on their plate and not caring.  These are not rich people, but are richer than those who struggle to buy a single meal. And they waste food.

So, before you write or talk about it, take a harder look at the people sitting at meals at your home and see, are they wasting food? If yes, that's where you spot the problem first!

2. Rid the habit, connect the dots:  When my mother caught me wasting food, she didn't scold or punish. Instead, she told me, 'you see that grain of rice? its for this that your Daddy isn't living with us.'

 My dad was working for a private farm in Dubai. At school/social events, when other kids had their parents by them,  my Dad wasn't there with me or my siblings and I felt sad. Now, my mom made me see the connection between my loneliness, absence and my dad and my eating habit. And even at that age, I could understand that if I wasted food, I would fail my Dad who worked so hard, so far to get me that food. Since then, I have carried that thought with me.

Yes, emotions such as this that can help connect the dots, can be built early on. You can do the same!

3. You see, you show: In 2010, I got my fist dose of large scale food wastage when I was in Germany to attend a youth meet. Our host - a political think tank - had got us there to brainstorm on how the world could be reshaped to make it more sustainable. And everyday, at the lunch and dinner, I saw these huge trays full of food just lying there, cold and untouched. I learned that it was going to go to land fill.  I was horrified.

And I expressed my horror on the last day when the host asked us to give our feedback on the event.'You get us here and ask us about making the world sustainable. Well, this is where it begins - stop wasting food, so there will be food sustainability for all.'

If you think they hated my plainspeak, think again! The organization actually hired me during RIO+20, to write for a new portal they had launched on sustainability!

4. Lose that hoarding habit: My second big food wastage experience happened in New York last fall, when I was touring the US as a speaker on empowering women with digital technology. We - a group of 5 girls - had rented an apartment for a week in Brooklyn. There was a large refrigerator in the kitchen stashed with so much food, you would think there was going to be a war and someone had stacked up for a month!

 But, we were out all day, returning late and had no time to cook. So, we took out food from restaurants on our way back and ate that. The result? The huge pile of food in the fridge just sat there, unused. Then, the day we left, the landlady (who, incredibly, was also very interested in 'green living' and said she grew organic food) turned up, put everything in large trash bags. You can imagine the rest.

If only the lady had cared to NOT hoard so much food, it would NOT have been wasted.  But what she didn't do is what you can do: Not be a hoarder.


5. Care: Of course, it all begins here, by caring to know what happens when people waste food, how people in another part of the world die to have the amount of food that you throw away everyday and how over consumption(which is actually not even consumed, but wasted) of food in one part of the world causes imbalance in food distribution system, creating scarcity in another part. Many people know it, but they do nothing. Because, they don't care.

But if you know and care, you are putting effort to end food wastage, no matter how small. After all, drops do fill the ocean, don't they?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Saluting Forest Rangers - Those Unsung Heroes

Yesterday, 31st July, was the world rangers day. For me, it's a day dedicated to one of the most neglected and unsung heroes of our time: forest rangers. Since in India 'ranger' usually refers to the top post in forest security force which is a privileged one, let me therefore mention it as the world forest guards day. This post is about them.

I grew up in the north east of India - a cluster of 7 states that are often also mentioned as the seven sisters - which is of course the region with maximum (one fourth of the country's total 6,92,027 sq km) forest cover. And as a child, like everyone else, I often sang this rhyme:

Who's famous o mister?

Delhi's minister

Mumbai's film star

Bengal's barrister


Assam's forester

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Singur: it makes sense for Tatas to return the land

Today, the Supreme Court of India asked Tatas Motors - one of the largest industrial groups in India to consider returning the land to farmers in Singur.This isn't a verdict; the Company gets the time to tell the court what it intends to do with the land acquired years ago for setting up a car factory, until of course all hell broke loose.

The news took me back years ago, bringing alive so many memories! I was at my first job in this TV station - a fresh face in journalism, itching to report . One day I  found in my email an e-petition that said, the government of West Bengal had taken from farmers a very large stretch of very fertile land and leased it to the Tatas for setting up a car factory. The total land was 997 acres. Put together, that is 2 square km of high-yielding rice producing land.

Monday, July 01, 2013

In India, women village heads face gender bias, discrimination

It's been a while since I posted the my last. Here's what kept me away: attending the Dart center media fellowship in Bangkok, Speaking at the Women Deliver maternal health conference in Malaysia and finally, covering the 38th global conference of UN-FAO. And in between all these, I have been traveling across the conflict-ridden districts of central India, meeting women tribal village heads. And sharing here the first of my intended 10-story series on these women leaders. You can also read the original article HERE

Kanker: Vasan Buiki, sarpanch (head of village council) of Malgaon village in central India's Chhattisgarh state wears a permanent scowl: the 48-year old was elected the village head leader three years ago, but still finds it difficult to manage the affairs of her village council, known as 'panchayat'. "Being a sarpanch isn’t easy. There are too many decisions to take, too many people to think of. I wish I had some training!" she says, sitting in a grocery shop next to her house which is owned by her family, but she has to take care of.
Vasan Buiki  head of Malgaon village council in central India s Chhattisgarh state finds it difficul...
Vasan Buiki, head of Malgaon village council in central India's Chhattisgarh state finds it difficult to find time for her work as she is busy taking care of the family-owned grocery store in her village.

Buiki—a Gond tribal woman—became a sarpanch in 2010—the year the government of her state decided to reserve 50 percent of village council seats for women in order to encourage and promote women’s participation in local politics and governance. While the decision increased manifold the participation of women in political system, most of them also came unprepared and inexperienced. To address this, the state government organizes annual training workshops for the village heads. Popularly known as “empowerment workshops,” the training help the leaders acquire the much-needed skills of village administration. Attending the workshop could have been hugely beneficial for Buiki, who had never stepped out of her home alone, had never spoken to men outside of her family and had no idea how a panchayat worked, before she was elected one. But, running the grocery store and doing household chores keeps the sarpanch so busy, she couldn’t find time to attend the workshop. "The workshop was in the capital town Raipur, which is four hours journey from here. My family said, it was too far away," she says, lowering her voice into a whisper as her husband and her son—both farmers—walk into the house. Dulmat Netam, the sarpanch of Pandarwahi, another tribal village in Kanker district, has a similar story. The 30-year-old mother of two says that her husband, a former village head, told her that the training was “not that important” and therefore she need not leave her house to attend one because he could help her run the panchayat. According to Netam, her day begins at five in the morning, but she can go to her Panchayat office only after finishing all the household chores. These include fetching water from the community well, cooking, cleaning and sending her children to schools. "I have to take care of the panchayat, home, my two children. I have to cook, clean, wash, fetch water. Where is the time for anything else?" she asks.
Dulmat Netam and Maya Kavde - women village heads in the former s office.  It is important for women...
Dulmat Netam and Maya Kavde - women village heads in the former's office. 'It is important for women to network. Together we can overcome many challenges', says Kavde

Lack of administrative skills and freedom to take decisions on their own is making women to be increasingly dependent on their male relatives such as husband, elder brother or father in-law, preferring to stay home. There are reports of ‘Pati Panchayat' (meaning husband-run village councils) existing across the state. Says Reena Ramteke, a local gender rights activist and journalist from Gariaband district of the state, The whole idea behind the 50 percent reservation was to encourage more women to take part in governance and empower themselves. But while the former is happening, the latter isn’t; with a non-cooperative environment at home, women are meekly handing over their power to decide to their husbands who then run the panchayat in proxy. The husbands conducts all meetings, take all the decisions and the women leaders only sign the papers. In Netam’s case this seems to a reality. The remedy, says Netam herself, is to conduct the training workshops right in the village. If the training is organized inside the village, nobody can stop me from attending it, she says. However, she refuses to discuss this with her husband saying, "I don’t want a feud in the family." Unlike Netam and Buiki, 38-year old Maya Kavde, of the neighboring village of Makdi Khona has attended all the three workshops which she says has built her administrative skills considerably. The reflection of that is the development works she has carried out in the village: new roads have been constructed, the community village ponds have been de-silted and dug deeper solving the problem of water shortage, the village school which offered only primary education, has been upgraded to a secondary level school and above all, an emergency ambulance service has been launched in the village as well. However, despite her great performance as a Sarpanch aside, Kavde is far from being happy. Widowed in 2008, she was thrown out of her husband’s house by her father in-law. Since then, she has been fighting a battle to save herself and her family from an uncertain future: "My father in-law and his sons do not want to share the property with me. They say, 'You are a sarpanch, so go fend for yourself.' But being a sarpanch doesn’t make one rich. Do they think I should start stealing public money?" she asks, her voice shaking with anger and frustration.
The house where Maya Kavde lives with her three daughters since her father in law threw her out of h...
The house where Maya Kavde lives with her three daughters since her father in law threw her out of her husband's house following the death of his son four years ago

To get her share back, Kavde, who lives in a rundown mud hut, is now talking to other female relatives—including two of her sister in- laws who also have been denied their rights to property—and trying to get their support. It is important for us women to stay close. Together, we can have a chance to win many challenges she says, looking hopeful. Besides bias at home, the women village heads also complain about noncooperation from their male colleagues in the panchayat.

Says Kavde, who heads one of the biggest village councils in the district that has three villages under it with a combined population of 3,000. I am tired of the way my male colleagues treat me. They do not attend the meetings. When they do, they show little interest in the village affairs. Some oppose everything I say. They are supposed to be my allies, but they act like my opponents she says. Despite the difficulties she faces, Kavde wouldn’t name anyone. "I am scared of being attacked," she says, "I have three teenage daughters and don’t want anything to happen to them."

 In India, there is a common perception that women in a tribal society enjoy greater freedom and rights than those in a non-tribal community. However, if the village leaders like Kavde, Buiki and Netam are any proof, this turns out to be a mere myth.

The reporter is a fellow of the National Foundation of India

Sunday, March 10, 2013

War against rape: we must first own responsibility

Something extraordinary happened today: the police re-arrested Bitty Mohanty, a rapist who was convicted 6 years ago but had run away. I call this extraordinary because it shows the administration is ready to take rapes seriously. The question is, can solo action like this make India safe for women? As my answer to this question, I share here my Op-ed that was recently published in Huffington Post..
It has been more than two months since the December 16 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi. Since then well over a million people -- men and women, young and old -- have taken to the streets to condemn the rape and demand justice.

They have marched in silence, holding placards with messages like "Death to the Rapists," "Save Our Women," and "End Rape Now." The protests have taken place in almost every city: Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, and Kolkata. Even small towns like Lucknow, Ahmedabad, and Pune have been a part of the action. In my own city of Hyderabad in the south of India, women have for the very first time taken part in a midnight march to claim their rights to be out on the street at any time. In Bangalore, men marched on the streets wearing skirts -- their way of showing that a woman's choice of clothing does not cause a man to rape.

Photo courtesy: One India

Every day, I see photos of protest marches on my Facebook feed, and Twitter users have generated well over a million tweets with hashtags like "delhigangrape" and "braveheart" -- the name the media gave to the anonymous rape victim.

As yet another Indian woman who has experienced molestation and sexual harassment early in her life, I have found these developments both sad and electrifying. Sad because a woman was tortured and murdered, but also sad because this was probably the 5,000th time I heard of a woman in India being raped. Statistics from the National Crime Record Bureau of India show that since 1953 there has been an 873 percent rise of rape cases in India. In 2012 alone, we have seen horrific rape cases involving four-year-old baby girls and 80-year-old women. But never, ever have I seen a group of even 100 people come together to protest these acts.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Inclusive growth excluding women? Stop kidding!

I just returned from the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS 2013) in New Delhi. And I can tell you this: it was a man's world!

Photo courtesy: Morten Svenningsen

Consider this: a mega 3-day event where a galaxy of stars descending from across the globe on hotel Taj Palace, rubbing shoulders with each other, speaking, sharing ideas and strategies on how to build a sustainable economy that will help us get green, inclusive growth.

(Actually, the event was a follow up on the Rio Earth summit 2012. Therefore, the slogan was 'The future we want.')

And, speaking about the 'future we want' were 101 speakers. Of them, 89 were men.
That's right. Of the 104 speakers deliberating on the future we want, there were no more than 12 women.

What does this tell us? that women don't matter? that, there are no women experts who have enough know how on green growth or green economy or renewable, clean energy?  or, that, the organizers did not think it was a big deal if there were only a  token representation of women at an important meeting such as this?