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?

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.

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.