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

Though I hadn’t reported on the issue before, I was excited about a series IPS was putting together on the growing menace of forced labour worldwide.

I began by reaching out to activists in my region who work with daily wage labourers and rescue many forced workers. I spoke with people employed in brick kilns, on paddy farms and in individual homes as domestic help.

My own neighbourhood of Huda Sainagar, close to Vanasthalipuram, had been witnessing a construction boom, with over a dozen buildings being constructed every day. Every now and then I would see groups of people being brought in trucks and ‘unloaded’ – like cargo – at the construction site.

There were men, women and small kids. Some of them went back quickly, while others built makeshift tents out of polythene sheets and lived there. Usually, these were the forced labourers who had no fixed ‘work hours’ and toiled all day, from dawn to dusk.

Once day I saw a very small child washing plates near a shack. The next day, she was washing clothes. Her hands were so small she couldn’t hold the soap in her hands. This was Amlu, daughter of Lakshmi, a Dalit woman who worked in a nearby building.

I had to wait until it got dark to speak with Lakshmi, as her employer didn’t allow her to take a break or speak with anyone. When we did speak, she told me that she was working against her will and that she wasn’t paid any money for her labour.

Though the focus of my story was forced labor, I was also equally drawn to its consequences. It was clear to me that if Lakshmi continued to labour in this way, Amlu would not go to school and would soon become a child labourer herself.

This really distressed me. So I did what I usually do in such situations: reminded myself that I was a storyteller who gave a voice to unheard people. And I filed a story.

Being a huge fan of the reach of social media, I always track the impact of IPS stories, which often travel far and wide across countries.

As this particular story traveled on twitter, it reached a local journalist in Hyderabad, capital of the South Indian state of Telengana, who shared it with his friend, who is a doctor and a human rights activist named Veerappa Naidu.

Last week, I received an email from Naidu, in which he confessed to being greatly disturbed to hear of Lakshmi’s plight. So he, along with two of his local friends, sought out Lakshmi’s employer – a real estate developer – and confronted him.

The result was better than could have been expected: the employer released Lakshmi from forced labour and paid her 10,000 Indian rupees (approximate 200 dollars). Naidu and his friends then helped Amlu get into a government school, where she can study for free.

Since being released, Lakshmi has found a job as a nanny in the same neighbourhood. Amlu’s hands haven’t grown much in the few months since I first met her, but they are now holding books and pencils. “I love to draw,” she told me, holding up a coloured pencil.
Amlu goes to school!

Lakshmi has used part of her 10,000 rupees to buy Amlu a uniform, a pair of shoes and a school bag.  And every day, at nine a.m., she takes Amlu to school – a place she never had the opportunity to go before.

“I am thankful to everyone who has helped me get out (of forced labour) and has helped my daughter to attend school,” she told me.

As a journalist, I have always believed that media can be an effective tool to bring about social change. This story has just deepened my faith.

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: