Sunday, June 19, 2011

Three days and much to learn - Part 3

Treasures in the Library

Sometime during our discussion on women in rural India, our local friend mentioned a book she'd picked up from the Aarohi library - Oona: Mountain wind.

We'd heard the name before. Oona Sharma was the inspiration behind Aarohi, the NGO we had come to know in Satoli.
"A hugely idealistic person ("each one of us must be crusaders, for this giant nation which is blundering on"), who backed that up with a professional education, solid hard work, sincerity, and a practical hands-on approach ("only action counts," she wrote)," as writer Ranjit Lal remembers Oona on the Aarohi blog.
Even though we never got down to reading that one, we found other treasures in the Aarohi library, that night.

One was a collection of sketch books by a young village girl named Hansi. I believe there were 8-10 of them, though I could be mistaken. The little girl had written her life's tales, just like a children's book. Each page adorned with simple, yet adequate illustrations to go along with the words.

For instance, one book was about her family, with sketches of utensils her mother used to cook food in. One was about her trip to Almora with her friend with sketches of the "snake-like roads", another on her school and so on.  I was amazed with the young mind's thought process and beautiful artistry. I wish a publication like Katha picks it up soon for mass publication. The proceeds of course, can go for the development of Kumaoni villages.

The other was a book called, "If I Were Rain", created by the NGO Youthreach. It was a collection of stunning photographs of urban street children of India, not by famous photographers, but equally talented ones!

But the best part, the book told stories of these children through their profound thoughts, insightful poetry and lovely paintings showcased along with these photographs. There is so much creativity and intellect stored in these kids and the streets haven't been able to dampen their spirits.

A glimpse of the book is in this piece of poetry written by a 12-year-old girl:-

The child's response through a drawing to the question, "What would you do if you were rain?"

"If I were rain,
I would go to those who have no water.
I would say to them 'I am coming."
Everyone on earth would come out
and I would pour water into their
utensils and fill them..."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Three days and much to learn - Part 2

The women of Ramela

Back from the visit to the remote village of Ramela, Uttarakhand, we were keen to discuss our revelations from the trip with a local urban woman we had befriended.

The topic of discussion was how women did most of the work in villages in India and how it was not any different in Ramela. Most Ramela women were uneducated too, similar to other villages in India.

But even without formal education, they understood the importance of the forest cover surrounding their village and worked to protect it.

One village lady even explained to us how they only cut trees in the middle i.e. alternate trees, so that the ones on the sides could can act as wind barriers and hold the soil firm. Moreover, they usually cut branches for the firewood or collect branches fallen off dried trees, not the entire bark of the tree.

She said they had a rule, never to cut a young, green tree. And if they ever did, they plant two more in its place. Despite no formal education, these women were aware of simple lessons of afforestation and conservation.

Then why were those slopes greener the last time I visited Uttarakhand? 

The same village lady had an answer for me. She said the forest cover did not belong to the villagers, it was used for commercial purposes.

Private companies and/or the government collect the tree raisin to make bangles and other things to sell. For that purpose, they make slits into the tree bark every year to collect the sap. The procedure is repeated for the next four years till the tree dries up and is empty of any raisin to live on.

Murdering a tree by starvation.  

Almost every four years or less, a batch of trees is tortured and the mountain slope goes barren. It is also one of the causes of soil erosion which then allows rain water to create havoc on the village below, like it did that September, last year.

However, the men and women of the village did say the rules they followed are not followed by the women of the younger generation. According to them, the new generation of women did not care what happened to the trees or the mountains.

Hearing that, our local friend whom we were telling all this to, said, "The new generation of village women is educated. They just don't want to work. They find the easiest and fastest ways of doing things and that is probably why they don't think much about what happens to the forest cover. As long as their immediate needs are fulfilled."

Is education actually hampering sustainable growth? Can't be. They're just not getting the right kind of education.

What needs to be done?

  • Creating awareness among the so-called "new-generation women" about deforestation, soil erosion and its consequences. Education is more important than literacy. 
  • Hold companies/government accountable for the deteriorating forest cover of Uttarakhand. The least they can do is use natural resources responsibly and plant trees in their place, if they kill them. 
  • They can employ these villagers to plant trees in the region, if they themselves don't have the manpower for afforestation. It's give an additional source of income to the villagers and solves some environmental problems.
  • But it's never about the manpower, it's about the money. Who is going to spend money on restoring a land that they can destroy and leave with nobody to answer to?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Three days and much to learn - Part 1

My last college trip with friends in SoC was as memorable as the first two. Even though, only six of us could make it, what with demanding jobs and internships to take care of.

Five of us, along with our dean on the right. And I am clicking the photograph :D

This time our destination was Satoli, a small village town in Uttarakhand situated a few kilometers away from Nainital, the popular tourist spot.

It had started out as a cool-off trip to the mountains, away from the Delhi heat, the last time together with friends. But Aarohi, an NGO active in the region, taught us more. 

The workers at Aarohi were very discomfited with the petty news coverage of villages in the Kumaoni region and that's where we were brought in. Divided into two teams of three students each, we were sent to two remote villages, Ramela and Khansyu to find stories. 

I was a part of the Ramela team, the village that had been partially destroyed by a flood in September, last year. We had to trek through the rocky mountain for about forty minutes, cross a river and then reach our destination. There is no direct road connectivity to the village. 

I still remember how a number of eyes had lit up with hope when they saw a group of outsiders come towards the village. They always did, since the disaster that September.

The Disaster

It had been raining continuously for eight days back then, not an unusual occurrence in the region. So no one had paid heed to what was happening in the upper regions of the mountain.

A road was being constructed round the village and the rubble had been disposed off in the easiest way possible: dumping it down the slope. There was no drainage system for the water to flow down its natural course, either.

The mound of rubble had turned into a makeshift dam that was readying itself to burst any day. And so it did, taking away four lives (not a significant number, eh?), washing away most farms and hence the livelihood of farmers, burying livestock beneath rock boulders and breaking houses into pieces.

After nine months


Even after nine months since the incident, there hasn't been much improvement in their situation. Some of the natives have been able to repair a few of their farms, some, their homes, but most are still trying to get back on their feet.

Amazingly, even though the villagers are uncertain about their own next meal, they were adamant on inviting us for lunch, or tea. 

Government representatives have paid a few visits since then, some came with compensation money for the families of the deceased while others came with words of hope and promise.

But even now, the village is waiting for another disaster to happen because still no provisions have been made to safeguard it from another flood. The rubble still remains, just moved into the village a little. The houses are still build in the danger zone, vulnerable to another heavy wave of water. 

However, the villagers do not want to move, only shifting their houses to higher altitudes. Primarily, because that land is extremely fertile and produces an abundant harvest and also because they do not realise the danger they are in. 

What should be done?

There is an urgent need for the district authorities to conduct a geological survey of the region to determine if the village still remains a safe place to live or not. And accordingly, the people need to be rehabilitated to a safer place. But that's the immediate solution.

For the long term, a proper drainage system needs to be built into the roads in these mountains along with an appropriate dumping mechanism for the construction debris. 

Why nothing has been done so far? 
  • The village has only 40 houses, not many votes to count for any political party to invest in the village.
  • It is some remote village in Uttarakhand where a flood once drowned four people. Who cares?
  • There are thousand other villages in the country facing similar or worse problems than Ramela, how much and how many can we help? To that, my friend had an answer - you got to start somewhere!
  • The villagers don't know how to voice their opinions to district authorities because they have lost trust in them and are rather intimidated by them.  

{"Na jaane baadlon ke darmiyaan ye kya saazish hui, ki jiska ghar mitti ka tha, ussi ke ghar baarish hui."}
(Don't know what conspired among the clouds, that they chose only huts to burst on)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The List: 3 Babas Who Inspire

("The List" is a new series on the blog. As the name suggests - an occasional list of things, people, places or thoughts that have something to say.)

Moving on from Baba Ramdev and his mission to "cleanse the system", here is a list of other babas who are making a difference through their own simple steps - 

Real name: Swami Sundaranand                                                     Age: 85 years old

Restore the pristine beauty of the Ganga and the Himalayan region before it's too late.

Unlike other environmentalists, he does not oppose the building of dams in the region. He believes electricity generation is crucial for the development of the nation. It is the rampant construction of hotels and ashrams in Gangotri along with the dumping of wastes in the river that have serious environmental implications. 

"People say it is global warming. I say it is a global warning," baba tells The Sunday Times.

Modus Operandi: 
His passion for photography has led him to take photographs of the Himalayan glaciers, rivers and peaks during his umpteen mountaineering adventures since 1956. He plans to use these photos to spread awareness about the issue. 

Real name: Mukul Chandra Joshi                                                    Age: 75 years old
Catch the young to teach the old a few precious lessons on road safety.

Modus Operandi: 
Spends an hour daily at busy traffic signals in Noida, with pamphlets on road safety in Hindi and English and a loudspeaker in hand. He goes up to drivers who pull over at signals, talks to them about road safety and hands them pamphlets. Been doing it for 6 years. 

After having retired from the Indian Air Force, Joshi was looking for a way to continue serving the country. The death of a friend's son in a road accident prompted him to go out on the streets and teach people the importance of obeying traffic rules. 

"My aim is to make this city an accident-free city. I believe every old person must do some good work for the society to actually prove that old is gold," Joshi tells Hindustan Times.

Real name: Rama Shankar                                                               Age: 57 years old

Organize as many weddings of poor girls as he can. 

Modus Operandi:  
This Baba from Ramgarh, Uttar Pradesh along with his 20-odd disciples begs for alms to organize weddings of impoverished girls. People also generously contribute on their own, when they come to know of his mission.  He sometimes finds matches for the girls too and arranges weddings of several women in mass-marriage functions, as many as 21 in one function.

He helps anyone who approaches him to get his daughter married, the only condition being the family is from a low-income background. He has conducted 600 such marriages so far and hopes to continue doing so, as long as he lives.

"My conscience is clear. I am not begging for myself. It really feels great when you see a smile on the faces of poor, helpless girls, who thank you for performing their marriages," Rama tells India Tribune.

Baba Ramdev's rhetorics or truth?

The night yoga guru Ramdev was evicted from the Ramlila Maidan, the site of his 'satyagraha' against corruption, was the night that made him a bigger persona than he actually is.

I respect the man for his contribution to yoga and ayurveda and his significant efforts to make the two accessible to and popular among the masses. Even if they were accompanied by statements such as homosexuality is a disease that can be treated with yoga.  

But his actions on the night of June 4 are beyond comprehension and what cast doubt on his dauntless persona. Why did Baba Ramdev sprint off from the stage and hide among his followers when the police came charging? 

Baba's claims are that government/police intentions were not saintly and they had orders to either arrest him or kill him in an encounter or take him to an undisclosed location.

Getting arrested should not be a cause of concern for the guru who didn't think much of standing against the most powerful in the country. Politically, it would have strengthened his campaign and there wasn't any charge he could have been booked under, anyway.

Could the police then have dared to kill him in front of thousands of his followers or taken him to an undisclosed location, done the deed and gotten away with it? It wouldn't be too surprising, given the lengths the police went to, to remove people from the ground in an operation being planned for three days.
"Such kind of cruelty was not even seen in Jallianwala Bagh," Baba describes the events of the night in a press conference
Is he comparing British General Dyer's machine-gun massacre that killed thousand unarmed Indians who had no route of escape to this? Another hyperbole.
He also added, "I am not scared of death. But, I didn't want to die in such a barbaric act."
No hyperbole there though. The police was barbaric in its actions. Beating up of children and manhandling of the aged and women could not have possibly been among the Centre's orders for the crackdown. Was the police blind not see where its lathis landed? 

CCTV footage of the horrific night could have answered some of these questions but unsurprisingly, it was confiscated by the Delhi police. 

So, is the baba being his rhetorical self again or has our State turned rogue? Both sides have shown enough antics in their careers for us to safely conclude - a lot of both.