Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Death by coal: our women deserve better

A few weeks ago, I met Minjamma, a woman in her 50s, in Kariganur neighborhood of Hospet town in southern India's Karnataka. And it was a terrible experience.

It was late afternoon and Minjamma was getting ready to cook dinner. She brought out an iron cookstove, placed that in the lane next to her home and lit it. 

Within minutes, a big column of thick, brown, foul-smelling smoke rose and engulfed the whole lane.  My eyes, nose and throat began to burn and water and I found myself nauseated and struggling to breathe. Before I could black out, I ran - to the end of the lane, about 500 meters from Minjamma's house. But from there,  I could still see her bent over the stove, poking it and coughing loudly.

I was wondering when it would the smoke clear up, so I could return to Minjamma's home. However, soon  women from every house in the neighborhood began to light their stoves. The smoke grew thicker, uglier and the air became so smelly, I clutched my chest trying hard to breathe and hoping I wouldn't just drop dead.

 A few teenage girls came out of their homes and sat beside me, asking if I was ok and offered me water.  Once I was able to breathe easy, my first question was what was this horrible thing burning in every cookstove. The answer came as a shock: they were burning coal. 
Real coal.

"Everyone uses it here to cook a meal," said Ganga, one of the girls.

As I was talking to the girls, a man called Sharanappa appeared. He owns the neighborhood's only provision store and also its biggest house. He is also the leader of "Ambedkar Sangha" - a Dalit people's group. As the richest man and a leader of the community leader he has this aura of self-importance and when he heard I was a journalist, he gave small lecture on how his neighbors were doing something very bad, using coal while they all had access to cooking gas. "Everyone has a gas stove. But nobody uses that. Everyone is running behind free things (coal). I told them many times it's bad for health, but nobody would listen" he says.

He was almost touched by his sincerity. But about 20 minutes later, a girl drew my attention to a woman in veil, lighting a coal-stashed stove behind a house. It was none other than that "sincere" man's wife! 

Later, I asked Manjula, an independent social activist who is helping the locals (they are all Dalits) get water and toilets in the area, where the coal came from and how did it become everyone's chosen cooking fuel. This is what she said:

There is a thermal power station ---miles away from this neighborhood. Trains carrying wagons full of coal on their way to Kudgi - a thermal power plant, (about 200 km) often stop at Hospet station. Sometimes they also unload the cargo here.

A group of  local men then steal  from that supply and sell sell it in the neighborhood for a price, usually like 5 rupees a kg.

The girls also told me the same: the coal came from the station they said and it was the men did the "collecting". It wasn't dangerous at all they said because men did all the hard job. "Women only use it for cooking," they said.

It was a bit shocking considering Hospet wasn't really a remote place. It was a municipality and  a business center. Thousands of international and national tourists traveled here every week to see Hampi - a UNESCO heritage site. And here, right under everyone's nose wagons after wagons of coals was being stolen without anyone ever getting caught.

But then I thought of the illegal iron ore mining that went on here for a decade, draining the country of millions of dollars and nobody got caught. What is theft of a few wagons  or even trains full of coals compared to that? NOTHING!

But, look what these seemingly petty and meaningless crime is doing: dozens of women - including Minjamma herself - are suffering from Tuberculosis. Many have died ( Manjula has a list that is quite long. Pampavathy, 40, Huligeamma, 35, Renuka, 34 - are some of the name sin that list - women who died in 2015 itself). 

Many of the kids in the area are suffering from skin diseases - white flecks on hands, face and legs - apparently result of inhaling excessive smoke. This is what I learned in a  few hours. 

Two faces of Hampi: On the left, the famous Virupaksha Temple and on the right, a coal smoke-filled lane near the temple.
Who knows how many problems will come in light if one spends a few days  in the community?

The question is, if they are suffering and dying of it, why are they still using this coal? One answer is, because its free and saves them about 500 rupees (about $9) - the cost of a cooking gas cylinder. . Besides, it seems, many don't really believe that the coal is killing them. Like millions others who use wood, they think this smoke and caughing is just  a part of their everyday life - like it has been for centuries. Dodda Yariamma - one of the women there - actually told me , "the smoke just stays for about 30 minutes. after that, it burns so well, we can cook a meal very fast."

As she was talking, her toddler granddaughter sat beside her. Weeks later, I can still see the child's face - coughing, choking and a look that seemed to ask 'why is it so difficult to breathe?'.

Don't our girls and women deserve a better choice?

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