Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 - a Year of Traveling and Story Telling

Time flies. 2014 too flew away! But it was a kind year. It gave me opportunities to tell the stories that I CARED FOR. And it also got me the greatest of recognitions! Shared here are some of those moments and some of the stories that I told.

January: Telling the story of the forest women

The first month of 2014 took me to the Eastern Ghat mountains of India, to villages that are home to several primitive  tribes including the Koyas and the Kondas whose livelihood depends on hunting and gathering herbs. 

Here, in the dense forest, I met women who are turning entrepreneurs, using renewable energy. They use solar powered driers to dry their herbs and are selling the herbs to a clientele that includes large corporate houses! Here is one of their stories.

Monday, December 29, 2014

10 Years After the Tsunami : How Are the Women?

10 years have passed since the devastating Tsunami happened.  How have things changed on the ground since then, especially for those who bore the brunt of that disaster? In this second part of my photo blog,  I am sharing few photographs of women in the coastal villages that I met.

 The most optimistic picture that I saw was this...

I met this woman - Shivapiriya - near the famous shore temple of Mahabalipuram. She was there with her sister, speaking to a relative on a cell phone. 10 years ago, she didn't have a cell. But today, if disaster strikes, Kavitha is confident that she can reach out someone- anyone -and call for help, no matter wherever she is. No technology alone cannot guarantee safety, not of the climatic kind, but it can sure decrease the level of helplessness, especially for a woman.

And the most depressing picture was this...

Friday, December 26, 2014

In Photos: Life After 10 Years of Tsunami - Part 1

It's been 10 years since the devastating Asian Tsunami happened. How have things changed on the ground since then, especially for those who bore the brunt of that disaster? To find the answer, I recently visited some villages along the east coast of India. Shared here are few glimpses of life I saw there.

 And now there's another shrine - The Tsunami Temple

The Tsunami in 2004 took a lot - lives, homes and assets included - but also gave something. This structure, for example, emerged out of  the sea  next to the famous shore temple of Mahabalipuram  and quickly gained popularity as the Tsunami Temple. Natarajan, a tourist guide told me, 'this is our latest attraction'  and then, "but you can't go there. It's too slippery".   Now, that's a fitting gift of a disaster!

"Tourism matters, tourists matter, we don't"

Prabhakar Sharma sells souvenirs on the beach. After the Tsunami in 2004, the government was quick to restore the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram, he said. But,  for the owners of over 100 makeshift shops that were also destroyed by the tsunami, there hasn't been any compensation. A bitter Sharma told me this : "The govt invested well into restoring the temple and the facilities for the tourists. But we, the beach traders who sustain the tourists interests, were left to lick our  own wounds. We just didn't matter"

           A new trail of disasters

There is an alarming rate of erosion along the coast and every village has at least half a dozen houses that are in various stages of destruction.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

They said this: Take away messages from CBDCOP12

The 12th conference of the parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (or CBD COP 12) began here in Pyeongchang, South Korea on 5th of October. Since then, I have met and had exclusive interviews with several leaders here. Each of them impressed me with their answers and especially their patience in explaining complicated issues in the most simple terms. You can read the news articles that I filed from the convention on the IPS news site. Sharing  here, below, are some of the statements from each of these leaders that I am calling my take home messages.

Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias – Executive Secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

We now know what we need to do to prevent biodiversity loss and invasive species. We need to integrate biodiversity into our sustainable development.”

Ibrahim Thiaw – Deputy Director, UN Environmental Program (UNEP) 

"Hope that the member countries would really commit themselves to achieve the Aichi targets. It is a collective commitment that needs to be made. If you go back and don’t match your words with action at the national level, it’s not going to work"

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hunted Animals to Haunting Ebola: Nothing’s Too Far-fetched

A few months ago, when Ebola outbreak first began, many of us just didn’t care much. It was a strange disease happening in one part of world - West Africa to be precise -that was far away from us. And, so, we didn’t bother to connect to it at all.

Well, things have changed a lot since then, haven’t they? Ebola has gone out and beyond of West Africa, infecting, as we speak, 8,300people and claiming 4,033 lives in places including Europe (Spain) and the US. And it’s spreading. Suddenly we realize, nothing in this world is too unconnected. No place in this world is too far away. And, in this blog of mine, I want to also tell you that nothing is also too far-fetched either, especially when it comes to a crime and its effect on our lives.

Just before I began to write this, I spoke with some scientists  at the 12th Biological Diversity convention (CBDCOP12) who have been studying the link between biodiversity and infectious diseases. They are Catherine Machalaba, MPH,Health and Policy Program Coordinator  of the Eco Health Alliance in New York and  Anne-Helene Prieur Richard, executive director of the Paris-based biodiversity research institute ‘Diversitas’. I asked them to explain how destruction of biodiversity could also lead to the spread of Ebola virus globally. 

Before I get to their answers, let me remind you what we already know: The recent Ebola outbreak started where eating the meat of wild animals (popularly known as “bush meat”) has existed for a long time. Bat soup, Meat of monkeys and other apes are popular dishes in many countries including Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. 

But, there is a lot of people also buy these animals for their body parts. As a result, a lot of hunting takes place because people want to make money by selling the animals – dead or alive. And it is with this rampant hunting that the threat of spread of a virus like Ebola also increases.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Ocean Acidification: Do We Give a Fish?

This week – and the next week – I am in Pyeong Chang – a mountain town in the Republic of Korea, covering the 12th Conference of Parties on Biological Diversity (CBD COP). Posting here my views on what’s happening at the venue.  You can also read my news articles from the COP here.

Two years ago, one morning I stood on the beach of  Calangute – a coastal town in western India’s Goa and watched rows of fishing boats returning to the shore. Each of these boats had, wrapped in a large net, the night’s harvest from the ocean. As the fishermen emptied their nets, the sand was instantly covered with a silver carpet of thousands of fish. ‘Blessed wealth of a benevolent sea god’– I remembered whispering to myself.

Today, I am reading a UN scientific report that shows that the blessing and wealth of the ocean is under severe threats, thanks to a rapidly rising level of acidification of the ocean water.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Building climate resilience: Unlock the technology

In 2012, I went to Inner Mongolia to see how local nomadic communities were fighting an advancing desert. I was very fascinated to see how they were building a green wall in the middle of a sandy land. It was then that I heard an expert from the United Nations Convention for Combating Desertification (UNCCD) say, ‘many countries, especially India, have so much of knowledge and technology in their labs. But little of that is reaching the people on the ground. We need to make that happen.”
Putting life back in lifeless sand. In Inner Mongolia, scientists and locals have worked hand in hand to make this miracle happen.
Two year later, today, at the 4th Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum in Kuala Lumpur, I heard many experts expressing the same view again – a logical, practical and extremely timely expression.

One of them was Rajib Shaw, a professor of disaster and risk management at Kyoto University. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Gender-Inclusive Adaptation: Vanuatu Shows the Way

Have you ever been to, or, if you pardon my saying so, even heard of Vanuatu? I honestly hadn’t and actually had to search Wikipedia for help! And this is what I found: it’s a very small country on the pacific coast, next to Fiji and New Guinea. The population of the entire country is just 250,000 – which is smaller than some of our cities.

It was from this tiny, hard-to-find-on-the-map island nation that we heard one of the most powerful pieces of information on the 1st day of the 4th Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum in Kuala Lumpur (APAN2014): the country is following a 50% reservation for women policy when it comes to negotiating climate change and also implementing climate change adaptation projects.

An areal view of Vanuatu

I was at a session on “gender sensitive adaptation” in Johar Keda auditorium of the Putra World Trade Center where the forum is taking place.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Developing like Singapore? Go Beyond the Obvious!

This year, Singapore seems to have emerged as one of the most favored nations of Indian leaders. First, our foreign minister Sushma Swaraj visited Singapore. Soon after, Mamata Banerjee - the chief minister of West Bengal and Vasundhara Raje, chief minister of Rajasthan went there. Next in line was K Chandrasekhar Rao - the chief minister of Telangana - India's newest state. And then we saw the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh playing host to  Foreign Affairs minister of Singapore. Though they all went their own individual way, there was something common about these visits: woo Singapore to invest into and engage with the development process in their respective states.

As I follow these interactions, I wonder, has any of the dialogues ever moved beyond the obvious roads and ports?  Has any of our leaders thought of partnering with Singapore in areas where the country has failed the most : sanitation, water, hygiene and safety for women?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Impact of my story: woman freed from forced laborer

Its a beautiful, beautiful day. You know why? Because, a woman forced laborer who I had recently reported about,  has just been set free by her employer. Here's the story of her release. You can also read it in the website of IPS News - the media outlet where my story had first appeared.

The first time I met Sri Lakshmi, she was climbing a flight of stairs in a half-constructed building in the residential area of Vanasthalipuram, in the South Indian city of Hyderabad, carrying a stack of bricks on her head. She was a forced labourer, who received no payment for her work. That was in mid-April.

Last week, I met her again. This time, she was carrying something entirely different: a school bag that belonged to her four-year-old daughter Amlu. Lakshmi was a free citizen and Amlu was going to school for the first time.

Separating our two meetings is a story that was published by IPS entitled ‘No Choice but to Work Without Pay. It was this article that stirred action on the ground, paving the way for Lakshmi’s release.

Here is how it all happened:
Sri Lakshmi, a recently released forced labourer, and her four-year-old daughter Amlu. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS
Sri Lakshmi, a recently released forced labourer, and herfour-year-old daughter Amlu

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Day I Couldn't Urinate: Reporting Sanitation Issues In India

It's well known by now: a majority of Indians do not have a toilet. They urinate and defecate in the open. They include men, women, children and adolescent girls. It’s a shame. It's indignity epitomized. But do you ever think what does a journalist who covers sanitation issues in India go through? Well, it’s the same shame and indignity. Let me tell you about one day - JUST ONE OF THE MANY DAYS - that I had to experience this.

I was in Handitola village in Rajnandgaon district of Chhattisgarh state in central India. With me was a local woman social activist. We arrived at the house of the village council head (locally known as 'sarpanch'). As it turned out, she was away from home, and would return in another half an hour. Her son and daughter-in-law were at home and they requested us to sit. They also offered to make tea for us.
A typical community owned pond in a village. Villagers bathe there, as do - often times -their cattle, they wash their clothes and carry home pitchers of water to wash utensils and cook. The banks are usually where they squat on to relieve themselves.The tiny structure is the shrine of the patron god of the village

We were waiting. The house had a neat courtyard, 3 rooms, a nice little veranda and a cowshed. I walked around a bit, peeped here, peeped there. I could see no toilet.

We had eaten a rather large breakfast in the morning at Bhan Didi’s (the activist) place because it was going to be a long day, and I also drank a large glass of chai. Now, I was feeling the pressure on my bladder. I needed to go, urinate. But, there was no place to go.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Fighting desertification: how about some regional cooperation?

There we were – journalists and experts from different countries, discussing, exploring a common problem: Desertification, Drought and Land Degradation (DDLD). It was eating up our land, pushing us at equal risk of losing food security. Yet there were absolutely no words on how we could fight it – together!

Feeling the moving sand: the sand is constantly shifting, which means, the effort to create a green cover must also remain constant.

I was in  Inner Mongolia from 22nd to 25th. If you didn't know this already, the land of Genghis Khan is actually divided into two parts: outer and inner Mongolia. While Outer Mongolia is an independent, sovereign country, Inner Mongolia is actually a province within China. I was in the latter part, in its biggest city called Chifeng (locals pronounce it as ‘Chrifong’) where the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) organized a media workshop on desertification, drought and land degradation (DDLD - an issue that affects over 1.5 billion people globally) in collaboration with the government of China and Xinhua News Agency. Altogether, there were journalists and experts from 10 Asian countries.

On the first and the third day of the event, activities were held indoor. We heard a team experts throwing light on a number of matters related to DDLD: the what, why, where, when and how.  But the 2nd day was set aside for a field trip.  The trip took us to three specific spots where the forestry department of Mongolia, the locals and the federal government of Beijing were running some ‘combat desertification’ projects with the best possible tool:  aforestation. The three projects sites were Qihetang (pronounces ‘Xihetang’) n Linxi County, Sudu in Wengniuta County and Taipingdi in Songsan County.

Everywhere we heard the same story:

Thursday, June 05, 2014

World Environment Day: Can You Feel the Pain of an Islander?

"Everyone talks about disasters and rescues. Everyone has a plan, except us. Where shall we go? We have nowhere to escape" - Leeza, a resident of Malé

I met Leeza, a journalist with a local TV station in Malé , a year ago. We were in Bangkok, attending a media workshop organized for journalists who cover trauma and crisis. During the event, each one of us narrated one of the most traumatic event in our journalistic career - one that left its scar on our mind and heart. When it came to Leeza, it was the 2004 tsunami. People died, properties were lost and as a journalist she sat through hours of that footage, feeling numb. "The numbness didn't come from seeing the destruction, it came from the realization that this is what awaits each one of us. That if a disaster strikes, we have nowhere to go. We just stay here and die,"- said Leeza, tears welling in her eyes. We all were tearful as well. We felt that pain, piercing right through our heart.
Aerial view of Maldives. Credit:mainaurmrsshukla

A year has gone by since then. The world has witnessed quite a few natural disasters since then: earthquakes, bush fire, droughts, floods. In my own country, we have seen a devastating cloudburst and a series of cyclones. In each of these disasters, many lives were lost, but many were also saved. But the number of deaths were always the highest in places where people were surrounded by nothing but water. Typhoon Hayan in the Philippines was one example that claimed over 5000 lives(including relatives of one of my very close friend Paulina who lives in Tacloban). Between reading and writing about them, one voice came back like a wave of stormy water and hitting me, "where will we go?"

Monday, June 02, 2014

Badaun Rape and Murder: Lets Stay Angry

If you have been following the news from Asia in the past few days,  you may have heard of the latest act of violence against women that has horrified India: 2 teen age girls abducted, raped and then hanged in a village called Katra Sahdatganj of Badaun - a district about 220 km north-east of New Delhi. The girls were cousins and had gone out to relieve themselves in the bush because their home didn’t have a toilet, when they went missing. 

The heart-wrenching story told by one of the girl’s father reveals that the girls were abducted in 27th May (Tuesday) evening. The father went to the police that night, pleaded with them to find his girls, but the policemen on duty refused to either listen or act. In fact, one of them mocked the man who is from a 'lower caste' and said ‘go and check, you may find your girls hanging from a tree’. Next day, just as the policeman had said it, the father – and the rest of the village – indeed saw the girls’ bodies hanging in an orchard.

Since the news came in the light, protests and condemnations have poured in from all quarters.  A number of political leaders have visited the girls’ family and expressed their sympathy. The media has been camping in the village and has been reporting many more cases of rape and abduction of women that have taken place in that area. The latest words of condemnation have come from the United Nations which hassaid, ‘Violence against women is a human rights issue, not a women's issue’.

Now, besides the obvious lack of security for women and good governance, the horrible rape and murder also point out another of India’s ugliest truths: women are increasingly falling prey to sexual predators due to lack of sanitation facilities.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Dehorning Rhinos to End Poaching : Theory of the Absurd!

The first time that I heard the government of Assam was planning to dehorn Rhinos to as a means of conservation, I thought it was a joke. And so I laughed. It reminded me of a folk tale where a man ate rice off the floor to prevent stealing of his plates.

Courtesy: Deviant Art
Today, after many weeks , I am still laughing. Because, it seems, the government is indeed serious about severing the rhinos' horns (so what if its not life-threatening?) to keep the poachers at bay. In other words, it is serious about following that man that ate the rice off the floor! 

But, the question is, why would anyone cook up such a plan?

Two words come to my mind: 1) desperation and 2) laziness. Assam - the only natural habitat of the one-horn rhinos has always been a target of wildlife smugglers and poachers.The largest number of the rhinos (2500) are found in Kaziranga national park. And, 41 rhinos have been killed in 2013 by poachers in this Kaziranga park alone. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Any Time Water - Idea worth spreading

Any Time Water  is a machine that dispenses clean water 24X7 at very low cost. Now that's the kind of  technology we need , right now.

It's only mid - April, but Hyderabad is reeling under a heat wave with the mercury hitting  39 degree celcius. And, adding to the  woes of  locals is an acute shortage of water. How acute is the shortage? Consider this: the government supplies water to every house premise for 1 hour, 3 times a week. Considering every house  has 3-4 apartments which means 3-4 families, this 1-hour of water supply, when distributed among the families, gives only enough water to drink.

And thats what everyone does: store and save the water for drinking.

For the rest - bathing, washing clothes, homes, utensils, water plants, if you have any and bathing pets - you either dig a bore well, or buy from private water suppliers.  In either case, the water either has high level of alkaline or fluoride. In fact, the water supplied by private tankers (they charge INR 400 for about 2000 liters) you don't know where they are bringing it from and how polluted it is. Don't want it? Then sit at home and sulk. Nobody gives a damn!

'Nobody cares.' Well, this is pretty much what I always felt, until I heard of a village not very far from here getting Any time Water.
Now, everyone knows of Any Time Money. But Any Time Water? Well, in a nutshell, its a machine that dispenses water, any time you want!

Here is how it  actually works:

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Women who inspire, women I celebrate

Its International Women's Day. Join me as I celebrate some of the most inspiring women in India

You refuse to suffer in silence any longer. You demand for your right. You speak, to be heard, and to be taken seriously. Rising Army of Indian Women Activists, I celebrate you!   

She grows food for me and my countrymen. She toils on that land that she isn't allowed to own, oftentimes. I salute you and I celebrate you,Woman Farmer of my country. And I wish you ownership of that land. Also, I wish you love, respect, recognition and gratitude.

You are the only worker in my country who works 7 days a week with no break, no holiday and a salary so paltry, it can't even buy you food for a week. And when a mishap happens, you are made the first suspect. Despite all that, you keep homes running across the nook and corner of India. I celebrate you, Woman Domestic Help

You do work that are unrewarded, risky, at places that are dangerous - protecting endangered wildlife in forests that are infested with brutal poachers. Few know about you, even fewer want to follow you. I celebrate you, Woman Forest Guard!

She cleans the filth that we create. And then we call her filthy. She is the waste picker. Always from a Dalit community, she is considered by many of my countrymen untouchable, a lesser human. The truth is, as poet Rabindranath Tagore said, "cleanliness is your shadow/its you who makes our world livable". I can't cure the sickness of my society alone, but I can certainly tell you this: You are lesser than none and I celebrate you!

You try to teach people the importance of safe sex. Yet, instead of applauds, you get brickbats. They laugh at you, some even curse you for 'polluting' minds. Truth is, in a country of millions of HIV-positive people, you are an angel at work. And I celebrate you, the Woman Sex Educator!

They don't invest in you. They dismiss your abilities to make profits. But you don't give up. You gather your coins and go about earning your living - successfully. You inspire me, and I celebrate you, Woman Grassroot Entrepreneur of India!

They allege, you are a puppet, that your husband run the office for you. They don't care to know you - who stands her ground and holds on to her authority. I have met so many of you - risking life everyday in most remotest, most dangerous villages of India, and working for the welfare of people. I celebrate you, the Independent Woman Sarpanch (village head)

Indigenous woman, I know many look down upon you. They think - and I have no idea why - you are inferior to them. In fact, some treat you no better than they treat a Dalit woman.  What a shame! You, TRIBAL WOMAN are beautiful, wonderful, closer to mother earth, bear her smell, her broadness of heart and her simplicity - qualities that I yearn to have! I celebrate you!

And then I celebrate the woman who brought me into this world, nursed me, nurtured me, made me who I am. I celebrate you, Ma! 

Do you like the post? If yes, please leave a comment. Or share with someone in your circle. Lets expand the celebration!