Sunday, June 07, 2015

Rohingya Refugees: Vulnerable on the sea, not much better on land!

You probably have been reading about them these past few days or watching them on TV - the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar who were chased out of their homeland and now floating around the ocean on boats with no food, no water and nowhere to go. Hundreds of them have already died already while death stares at hundreds of others.

Truth is, hunger and misery are also constant companions of even those Rohingyas who live on the land. I met some of them in Hyderabad city of India. Sharing here some of the images that, several months later, still haunt me!

The Rohingya refugees arrived in India from Bangladesh. For some, it has been a few weeks, while some have been here since 2012. Each one of them has a horrific story to share: beaten, tortured, forced to leave home, watching their near ones being murdered and their homes being burned down. The lucky ones survived with no loss of limbs, but others were crippled. Nuruddin, a man in his mid-twenties, was grabbed by a group of Burmese militia who cut off his hands and left him on the street to die.

The Rohingyas first arrived at Chittagong Hill district of Bangladesh. They were in a Muslim-majority country and they spoke a language that was also similar to the local dialect. They should have been safe and comfortable there. Why, then, did they leave and journeyed into the uncertainty again?  It is because they were unwanted there. These men in Hyderabad told me: "there were too many refugees already. We were cursed every day not just by the Bangladeshis but also our own people who had arrived before us.". 

Although their journey from Bangladesh to Hyderabad - via the state of West Bengal  - was relatively safer, some died on the way, mostly from bad health and exhaustion. Nur Muhammed, a refugee, showed me this photo of his son in law and two daughters (starting from left) who had died.

In Hyderabad, the entire Rohingya refugee community is living in a neighborhood called Babanagar. There are no refugee camps for them, so the community is forced to rent an "apartment" which is usually a dark, damp room, no bigger than a closet. In each room, 2-3 families are huddled together. Over 90% of them have already spent whatever little cash they managed to bring from home, on rent. Now, every man and woman is incredibly desperate for money and food - a fact that has made them very vulnerable to exploitation and slavery.

While the men are struggling to find a livelihood, women and children are bearing the brunt of the displacement in silence. Each of the women I met was visibly malnourished.

Many Rohingya women have tuberculosis and almost all the elderly women are suffering from some form of mental illness.  Nobody is seeing a doctor because of the obvious reason: no money!

Children are no better than their mothers. They looked underfed and sad. But the saddest thing to know is that these boys and girls were not at school and would probably never be because their parents were neither citizens, nor registered refugees.

There were about 1500 Rohingyas when I met them and about a hundred of them had either received a refugee status from the UNHCR - the UN Refugee agency, or were in the process of getting it. The problem is, most of them either have no papers whatsoever to prove they were citizens of Burma, or, no money to travel to New Delhi to attend the interview that would determine their eligibility for a refugee card.

But even those with a card are finding it difficult to make a living. Salim Ali, this man in the photo, is a registered Rohingya refugee, but he can only find occasional employment as a laborer at construction sites. Language is a barrier, he says. But a bigger problem is the utter lack of trust among locals. Local Human Rights organizations warn that the desperation may actually drive the youths to a life of crime - something they are already accused of . "People call us illegal Bangladeshi migrants. They treat us with suspicion. Some of us have been called terrorists," Salim Ali told me.

Most Rohingyas ask why the government can not open a refugee camp for them. "There are refugees from so many other countries and they are all treated with respect and sympathy. But nobody gives us Rohingyas a second look. Why is it so?" they ask. 

Is it not the same question refugees on those "floating coffins" asking?

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Toilets: teaching is better than talking!

Sometime in April, I met Roopa, an extraordinary young woman, in a village called Nagenhalli in south-west India. She was smart, friendly, warm and very pretty. But what made me call her extraordinary is this: the woman had built a toilet, all by herself.

Roopa's toilet
Now, before I tell you how she built the toilet, let me share the 'why':

Roopa is a Dalit and her mother is a former temple sex slave. All the men from her village wanted Roopa to also become a sex slave and, as she reached puberty, they began to look at her with lust. So, one day Roopa's mother ran away to another village miles away from her  own, taking along her 6 children.

But in their new village, women and girls were often sexually harassed and assaulted by men from
'higher castes'. Most of these assaults took place when girls and women went to relieve themselves in the open.

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.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Clean India: There's No Glory in Being Stupid!

Last week I was in north Karnataka. One of the biggest attractions there is the dam over river Tungabhadra which provides water to several districts of north Karnataka and neighboring Andhra Pradesh.  I was told that this is a must-see and they were right: the dam was truly beautiful.

But every time I crossed over one of the branch canals of the dam, I saw it littered with trash. So, there were people bathing, washing and drawing water from the canals for their other needs while also throwing their trash in!  How disgusting!

I returned from the trip yesterday and saw the trash collector with her van. The woman -  employed by the  municipality - comes 3 times in a week and collects the trash. We have to pay her 50 rupees which is actually less than what a packet of cigarettes (about 90 rupees) or, a large bottle of Coke costs (80 rupees).

But every time the woman comes, she collects trash from only a few families in our lane. The reason? Others are not ready to pay her 50 rupees for trash disposal. And these are educated people from fairly well to do families!

So, how do they dispose their trash? Well, they go out in the evening with a bundle of trash ( a plastic bag) and throw it by the roadside. Sometimes, the trash collectors stop by and pick them up, sometimes they just rot there. Often, dogs tear them often, if they smell meat or fish.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When Thirst Beats Education

A few weeks back, I was in a village along the border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where I met Sandhya Rani, a 10 year old. She was carrying a bamboo staff on her shoulder and , fastened to its ends, three aluminum vessels. In these vessels, she was going to carry water from a borewell for her family, along with her 7 year old sister Saundrya.

Their parents were working as migrant laborers in a city and the girls lived with their elderly grandmother.

I followed Rani from her house which was at the village' entrance to the borewell at the far end of the village. That was the only borwell in the village - the source of potable water for over 500 people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Girls' Education: Lets Look Beyond Enrollment

I recently met Bharti, a bubbly 13 year old, at a children's shelter 110 km away from Hyderabad. She had been rescued a few of months ago, the staff at the shelter told me.

"Rescued from who and what? Traffickers? Abusive employers?" I wanted to know
The answer was, "from her own parents".

No, Bharti's parents were not abusive or trying to sell their daughter to someone. It's just that they often stopped her from going to school and took her to work in a farm instead.

Now this sounds quite trivial, doesn't it? After all, the parents are just making the girl miss a few days' school now and then, right?

Not quite.

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.