Dumped, Abandoned, Abused: Women in India’s Mental Health Institutions

Following the birth of her third child, Delhi-based entrepreneur Smita* found herself feeling “disconnected and depressed”, often for days at a stretch. “Much later I was told it was severe post-partum depression but at the time it wasn’t properly diagnosed,” she told IPS.

“My marriage was in trouble and after my symptoms showed no signs of going away, my husband was keen on a divorce, which I was resisting.”

After a therapy session, Smita was diagnosed as bi-polar, a mental disorder characterised by periods of elevated highs and lows. “No one suggested seeking a second opinion and my parents and husband stuck to that label.”

One day after she suffered a particularly severe panic attack, Smita found 10 policemen outside her door. “I was taken to a prominent mental hospital in Delhi where doctors sedated me without examination. When I surfaced after a week I found that my wallet and phone had been taken away.”

All pleas to speak to her husband and parents went unheeded.

It was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted nearly two months, much of it spent in solitary confinement. “The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.”

On one occasion, when she stopped eating in protest after she was refused a phone call, she was dragged around the ward. “There were women there who told me they had been abused and molested by the staff.”

Not all the women languishing in these institutions even qualified as having mental health problems; some had simply been put there because they were having affairs, or were embroiled in property disputes with their families.

Days after she was discharged her husband filed for a divorce on the grounds that Smita was mentally unstable.

“I realised then that my husband was building up his case so he would get custody of the kids.”

Isolated and afraid, Smita did not find the strength or support to fight back. Her husband won full custody and left India with the children soon after. “My doctor says I am fine and I am not on any medication but I still carry the stigma. I have no access to my kids and I no longer trust my parents,” she told IPS.

Smita’s story points to the extent of violence women face inside mental health institutions in India. The scale was highlighted in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘Treated Worse than Animals’, which said women often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence.

Ratnaboli Ray, who has been active in the field of mental health rights in the state of West Bengal for nearly 20 years, says on average one in three women are admitted into such institutions for no reason at all. Ray is the founder of Anjali, a group that is active in three mental institutions in the state.

“Under the law all you need is a psychiatrist who is willing to certify someone as mentally ill for the person to be institutionalised,” Ray told IPS. “Many families use this as a ploy to deprive women of money, property or family life. Once they are inside those walls they become citizen-less, they lose their rights.“

Ray points to the story of Neeti who was in her early 20s when she was admitted because she said she heard voices. “When we met her she was close to 40 and fully recovered, but her family did not want her back because there were property interests involved.”

With the help of the NGO Anjali, Neeti fought for and won access to her share of family property and was able to leave the institution.

Those on the inside endure conditions that are inhumane.

“There is hardly any air or light. Unlike the male patients who are allowed some mobility within the premises, women are herded together like cattle,” says Ray. In many hospitals women are not given underclothes or sanitary pads.

Sexual abuse is rampant. “Because it is away from public space and there is an assumed lack of legitimacy in what they say, such complaints are nullified as they are ‘mad’,” adds Ray.

Unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions impact their mental or physical health. They languish for years, uncared for and unattended.

“One can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the male and female wards,” points out Vaishnavi Jaikumar, founder of The Banyan, an NGO that offers support services to the mentally ill in Chennai, capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“You will find wives and mothers coming to visit male patients with food and fresh sets of clothes, while the women’s wards are empty.” Experts also say discharge rates are much lower when it comes to women.

The indifference towards patients is evident not just in institutions, but also at the policy level, with mental health occupying a low rung on the ladder of India’s public health system.

According to a WHO report the government spends just 0.06 percent of its health budget on mental health. Health ministry figures claim that six to seven percent of Indians suffer from psychosocial disabilities, but there is just one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people.

That ratio falls even further for psychologists, with just one trained professional for every million people in India.

Furthermore, the country has just 43 state-run mental hospitals, representing a massive deficit for a population of 1.2 billion people. With the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP) present in just 123 of India’s 650 districts, according to HRW, the forecast for those living with mental conditions is bleak.

“Behind that lack of priority is the story of how policymakers themselves stigmatise,” contends Ray. “The government itself thinks [the cause] is not worthy enough to invest money in. Unless mental health is mainstreamed with the public health system it will remain in a ghetto.”

Depression is twice as common in woman as compared to men and experts say that factors like poverty, gender discrimination and sexual violence make women far more vulnerable to mental health issues and subsequent ill-treatment in poorly run institutions.

Gopikumar of The Banyan advocates for creative solutions that are scientific and humane like Housing First in Canada, which reaches out to both the homeless and mentally ill. The Banyan is presently experimenting with community-based care models funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Canadian government.

“Our model looks at housing and inclusivity as a tool for community integration,” says Gopikumar. “The poorest in the world are people with disabilities and most of them are women. They are victims of poverty on account of both caste and gender discrimination and its time we open our eyes to the problem.”

*Name changed upon request

This article was published in the Inter Press Service news agency here

India’s ‘Manual Scavengers’ Rise Up Against Caste Discrimination

This article was published by the Inter Press Service news agency. You can read it here

Watching Bittal Devi deftly weave threads of different colours into a vibrant patchwork quilt, it’s hard to imagine that this 46-year-old’s hands have spent the better part of their life cleaning toilets.

Born in Sava, a village in the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, Devi is from a community that, down the centuries, has worked as ‘manual scavengers’ . A caste-based profession, it condemns mostly women, but also men to clean human excreta in dry latrines with their hands, and carry it on their heads to disposal dumps. Many men also clean sewers, septic tanks and open drains with no protective gear.

They are derogatorily referred to as bhangis, which translates into ‘broken identity’. Most of those employed are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy and are condemned to tasks that are regarded as beneath the dignity of the upper castes.

“I started doing this job when I was 12 years old”, she recalls. “I would accompany my mother when she went to the homes of the thakurs (upper castes) in our village everyday to clean their toilets.

“We would go to every home to pick up their feces. We would gather it with a broom and plate that we would collect in a cane basket. Later we would take the basket to the outskirts of the village and dispose [of] it.”

They cleaned 15 toilets each day, which earned them 375 rupees (a little over six dollars) per month, plus a set of old clothes from the homes they worked in, gifted once a year during the Diwali festival.

She remembers that she was unable to eat the first week. “I would throw up every time my mother placed food in front of me”. Harder still to bear, were the taunts of her upper caste classmates.

“They would cover their noses and tell me that I smelled. I, along with the other children from my caste, was made to sit away from the rest of the students.” She eventually dropped out of school.

There was no question of refusing to do the work. “From birth I, like the other children from my community, was told that this was our history and our destiny”, says Devi. “This was the custom followed by our forefathers which we had to continue with.”

Caste-based discrimination or untouchability was banned in India in 1955 and several legislative and policy measures have been announced over the decades to end the cruel and inhumane custom of manual scavenging.

As recently as September 2013, the government outlawed employing anyone to clean human feces.

On the ground, however, these measures have proved ineffective – the main reasons being that policies are not properly implemented, people are unaware that they can refuse to work as manual scavengers, and those who do resist face violence and the threat of eviction.

According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, which works towards the elimination of caste-based discrimination, there are an estimated 1.3 million ‘manual scavengers’ in India, most of them women.

Civil rights groups say that often women are victims twice over. Not only are they are looked down upon by the upper castes, they are also forced to do the work by their husbands who find it degrading, but expect the wives to continue with the custom.

Bittal Devi’s neighbour, Rani Devi Dhela, also started working as a manual scavenger at the age of 12, an occupation she continued with in her marital home, as her husband was unemployed.

She enrolled her four children in the village school, hopeful that education would change their future. Reality dawned when her 11- year-old daughter came back home in the middle of the day, sobbing.

“She had worn a new set of clothes to school and the upper caste children and teachers taunted her for showing off,” Rani Devi tells IPS.

Her daughter was told to clean up another child’s vomit and the school toilets. “When she refused they told her that this was her future as she was a bhangi’s daughter and that by attending school she should not entertain any illusions about herself.

“A teacher even threatened to pour acid into her mouth. That was the day I realised nothing would change unless I challenged these people. I put the cane basket down for good and decided that I would rather starve to death,” she adds.

It was a battle that Rani Devi found herself all alone in. The upper castes ganged up on her and her community failed to extend support. Worse still was the reaction from her husband and in-laws, who beat her up.

“The thakurs burned down our hut and told my husband they would throw us out. But my children supported me,” says Rani Devi.

Eventually so did a few other women, including Bittal Devi. Together, they travelled to a nearby town, to the office of the NGO Jan Sahas, which has been campaigning against manual scavenging for over 17 years.

“We had been trying to get the community in this village to stop manual scavenging but they were too scared to resist,” Sanjay Dumane, associate convenor of Jan Sahas tells IPS. “After what happened to Rani Devi, some of them decided to fight back.”

But there was fierce resistance from the village police who not only refused to register a complaint, but also advised the women to accept their place in society.

It was only after they approached police authorities at the district level that action was taken.

“A platoon of police vans came into the village with senior officers who warned the upper castes that they would be jailed if they were found violating the law on manual scavengers,” says Dumane.

As of early February 2014, manual scavenging is no longer practiced in Sava village. “Some of the upper castes have chosen to boycott us,” says Rani Devi. “They don’t invite us to their weddings or for festivals. But my children and husband are proud of me and that makes me happy.”

“A lot of people tell me you had no right to leave the profession,” adds Archana Balnik, 28, who campaigned to put an end to manual scavenging in her village of Digambar in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. “But I want to change my future and that of the children in my village.”

Most of the women who have quit have found work in road and bridge construction projects. A few have enrolled in Dignity and Design, a low-cost, community based initiative launched by Jan Sahas in the states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh for the rehabilitation of women liberated from manual scavenging.

“We provide training in basic skills like tailoring and embroidery and have set up units for manufacturing bags, purses and other products,” Aashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, tells IPS.

“We hope to set this up across India with the support of the government and private sector.”

Women like Bittal Devi and Rani Devi Dhela are the ambassadors of Jan Sahas, which claims to have liberated over 17,000 women from manual scavenging across different parts of India.

Changing attitudes across the country, however, is an uphill battle. The recent India Human Development Survey report highlighted how deeply entrenched notions of untouchability and caste purity are in contemporary Indian society, with a fourth of Indians practicing untouchability.

“There are signs of change especially in the younger generation, which is more educated,” says Shaikh, whose NGO conducts awareness campaigns in colleges and schools. “One human being carrying the shit of another on their head is not the problem of that woman or that community alone. It’s the struggle of the people of this country and together we can abolish this.”

Decline in population of Zoroastrian descent

This article was published in the Express Tribune here

“Isn’t it time you broke up with your mom?” goes the tagline on an ad featuring a man with his aged mother. Another says, “Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight’’. A third, featuring a woman in a ballerina pose, asks: “Who will be snooty about being superior if you don’t have kids?”

The target of this campaign is the Indian Parsi community, whose population is flatlining but it doesn’t seem to do much about it. The media blitz is expected to shake the Parsis out of procreative somnolence. The last census data makes a compelling case for such an intervention – from 114,000 Parsis in 1941, their headcount dropped to 69,000 in 2001, a fall of 39% on an already-small base.

Provocative and cheeky, these ads, all of them published in Parsi publications, are part of the Indian government’s Jiyo Parsi programme, an attempt to shore up the shrinking numbers. The idea was born when, after seven years of research in collaboration with leading Indian institutes, the National Commission of Minorities identified late or no marriage, decline in fertility, and marriage outside the community as the main drivers behind this dwindling demographic. One out of every five men, and one out of 10 women over 50 are unmarried.

“The community has become, sad to say, demographically abnormal, and Jiyo Parsi is trying to address that”, says Dr Shernaz Cama, honorary director of the UNESCO-funded Parzor Project, which is implementing the scheme.

“Parsis have a Total Fertility Rate of 0.88, while a community needs a TFR of 2.1 to survive. Only one in nine families have a child below the age of 10’’. (TFR is the average number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children according to age-specific fertility rates)

The five-year-programme is backed by a Rs. 10 crore government grant, and has a two-pronged strategy – advocacy and medical assistance.

The first includes promoting early marriage and multiple children. Under the second, free fertility treatments are offered to couples whose annual income is below Rs 10 lakhs. The campaign has found eager takers, with over 20 couples availing of treatments like In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF)and Intra-Uterine Insemination (IUI) over the last year.

Equally, the ad campaign has angered many Parsis, who find the ads regressive and sexist. Parizad Mehta, a Mumbai-based bank employee, who has two daughters, says the campaign places the entire onus of procreation on women.

“I welcome the initiative because something needs to be done about our numbers. But why should women carry the burden? At 22-23 years, girls are still finding themselves. How can you expect them to have the maturity to find the right partner? They still have their dreams and ambitions. Why should they have to set those aside because the community needs numbers?”

“They are putting out the message that a women’s life is not complete without marriage and motherhood, and that is appalling”, adds Simin Merchant, a doctoral student from the University of Oxford, whose research is focused on the Parsis of colonial India.

“The message it is sending out about women and couples who marry late – words like `you don’t want parents who look like grandparents’ – breed paranoia. Parsis are known for pioneering ideals of progressiveness and modernity, and this campaign is anything but’’.

Those behind the program say rapid decline is a hard fact and it is time to get aggressive about addressing it. “The fact is that there is a thing called biology and the world over there is growing realization of the need to impart a more traditional feminism”, says Dr Cama.

“It’s a fact that at 25, women have biologically aged – your eggs are not in the condition they were at 22. There is a need to get back a healthy work-life balance. What is the harm in a girl getting married and later continuing her career? Learn from the mistakes we have made in the past’’.

The campaign aside, many within the community are questioning the very approach of the programme as it discriminates against Parsi women with non-Parsi spouses. For example, they cannot avail of the medical benefits offered by the community, while Parsi men who have married outside the faith can.

“How can the purpose of stemming the decline be achieved when Parsi women who have married outside the community – and their children – are not considered Parsi (whereas the same measure is not applied to Parsi men)”, questions Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana, a monthly community newsmagazine and a respected liberal voice. “If women are to be a part of any campaign to benefit the community, how can we treat them as second-class citizens? Why are you denying them the right to marry who they want? Parsis were pioneers of women’s education and industry, and today we have regressed.”

Even conservatives like Mehta agree that this is discriminatory. “On the one hand you say men and women are equal. And then you say that women cannot choose their partners and be accepted within the community’’.

Patel goes on to add, ”All genetic studies show that Parsi migration was male-dominated. The mitochondrial (maternal line) DNA carried in Parsi women here in India is different from that found among those in Iran. Clearly there is a large mixture of Gujarati genes, so its not as if the racial purity this program is trying to hold on to still exists. It’s morally and ethically wrong to ban women’’.

Dr Cama defends the decision saying that she is bound by the parameters set under the government’s Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, which is patriarchal and do not grant rights to children born of a union between a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man.

“Why don’t Parsi women take up the issue?” she asks. “It is not for Jiyo Parsi to do so. The fact is that our surveys have shown that none of the girls born to a Parsi mother and non-Parsi father who had the Navjote (formal induction into Zoroastrianism), married a Parsi. That threatens Zoroastrian culture’’.

Merchant argues the program would be better off adopting a more inclusive approach; the current one according to her smacks of ‘xenophobia’. She says it is time the community accepts that the demographic decline is terminal, and points to various studies that establish this.

“What they are trying to create is the pure Parsi, which will no longer exist”, says Merchant. “You cannot have programs in this day and age to breed race. It is fundamentally wrong. It is also isolates those from the community who have married outside. All it needed was a gesture to welcome thousands of children born of Parsi & non-Parsi unions to add to the community. There are thousands of ways to make Parsis jiyo and this is not one of them

Blood, Brothers

The Partition was much like a horror film: when Sir Cyril Radcliff hacked India and Pakistan into existence, blood hung in a mist over the countryside. And life was elsewhere.

“I was least affected by the Partition,” recalls film-maker MS Sathyu. “I was a student in Mysore in South India, living far away from the bloodshed that followed. Only years later, while living in Mumbai, after I met people who were forced to leave their homes, did I become aware that it was nothing short of a holocaust.”

That consciousness inspired Sathyu’s directorial debut, Garam Hawa (Scorching Winds), widely regarded as among the best films on the Partition. Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, and adapted for the screen by late poet Kaifi Azmi and scriptwriter Shama Zaidi, it was the first Hindi film to be made on the subject, nearly three decades after the division.

“A lot of film-makers and film financiers came from Punjab and the Sindh, and they had experienced the trauma firsthand. They just did not want to remind themselves of what they had suffered,” says Sathyu.

Now, over four decades after it was released in 1973, a digitally enhanced version is set to make a comeback in theatres across India. Although the Partition as a topic is now largely confined to school textbooks, Sathyu, 83, believes it continues to “hold historical and emotional value, especially for audiences born after India’s independence.”

Set in Agra in the months following the formation of India and Pakistan, Garam Hawa tells the story of a shoe manufacturer Salim Mirza and his family. Despite prejudice and economic pressure, Mirza chooses to stay on in India, even though close friends and relatives shift to Pakistan. It’s a decision that gradually tears his family apart. His daughter Amina’s childhood sweetheart migrates to Pakistan.

Mirza’s business suffers because lenders are hesitant to advance money to Muslim traders who may leave without repaying debts. The family loses its ancestral home. Amina commits suicide after another suitor too goes away to Pakistan. A heartbroken Mirza, left behind with his wife and son, is filled with doubt and contemplates migration.

Mirza’s optimist son Sikander, however, refuses to leave his homeland, preferring to soldier on. The film ends on a heart-wrenching note of hope, as Mirza follows his son into a morcha, with narrator Kaifi Azmi’s words ringing deep in the background, “Jo door se toofan ka karte hain nazaara, unke liye toofan vahaan bhi hai, yahan bhi. Dhaare mein jo mil jaaoge, ban jaaoge dhara, Ye vaqt ka elaan vahan bhi hai, yahan bhi.” (Who sees the storm coming from afar knows that what is there will soon be here …Who mingles with the streams knows this is the cry of the time, both there and here …)

In Sikander’s persona, the scriptwriters represented the voice of the young Indian Muslim. “What the film is trying to show is how people become victims of events they cannot control,” says Farooque Shakh, who was 23 when he played the part of Sikander. “The main character is completely apolitical. He is a decent, upright man trying to live a regular life, but that does not stop circumstances from pulling him down.”

Few films have had the enduring impact of Garam Hawa, which focuses not on the bloodshed, but the violence the Muslim community experienced from within. The sense of alienation and despair felt by a people desperate to hold on to a disappearing world is communicated through real-life experiences which the scriptwriters added to the original story. The scene where Mirza’s old mother hides in the kitchen and refuses to leave their ancestral home is based on an incident from the life of Shaukat Azmi, who plays Salim Mirza’s wife.

Garam Hawa is a standout film not only for daring to take up a sensitive period in Indian history. It was also the first Hindi film to look at the Muslim community in a nuanced manner. Prior to this were the so-called ‘classic’ Muslim socials of the ’50s and ’60s; popular, but their elaborate shayari and courtly sets had little connect with the lives led by ordinary Indian Muslims. The myopic portrayals continued into the ’70s and ’80s, where stock characters like the tawaif with the heart of gold, and the hero’s best friend were almost always Muslims.

“Invariably in Indian cinema, minority communities are depicted as caricatures and typeset. They are used as comic relief. This is not just for Muslims, but even for Christians, Parsis or Marwaris. They are shown as underworld dons or bootleggers and the portrayals are often crude,” says Sathyu.

“It’s not just about minorities,” adds veteran scriptwriter Javed Akhtar. “In recent years Hindi cinema has shied away from any social issue. We have created a new middle class which just wants to party. With the affluence that came in the ’90s, the urban middle class in India has become inward-looking and insular. They are not interested in seeing things that are not their problem, so middle-class or working-class issues have gone out of the frame.”

So will Garam Hawa touch a chord with this contemporary audience, the post-Partition generation, many of whom have little connection with or interest in events long past?

“When there is a film with human emotions, it will always have a resonance,” believes Shaikh. These problems exist throughout the world. So stories of this kind are pertinent wherever and whenever they are shown.”

The themes Garam Hawa touches on — alienation, exclusion, feeling isolated in one’s own home — have perhaps never been more relevant in India than today, where Muslims have complained of facing discrimination when it comes to renting or buying houses.

And it’s not just Muslims who are targeted. Housing segregation is now an open practice with advertisements freely proclaiming properties open for purchase only to Brahmins, non-Muslims or vegetarians. The practice, while legal, has contributed to a growing ghettoisation and alienation.

“Growing up I never faced any discrimination, even though my father was a Pathan and my mother a Hindu,” says Mumbai-based Anusha Khan. Khan, who is married to a Hindu, says things are different today. “My daughter keeps my last name as her middle name and she is questioned about it all the time by her friends. When I was growing up, my father wrote ‘Humanist’ in the religion column in school forms, and it was accepted. I do that as well, but I am always asked what that means and why. I feel the world was a more accepting place then. There are many more walls today.”

“Today we are vocal about our intolerance,” adds her husband, film director Victor Acharya. “Bigotry existed earlier too, but it was voiced behind closed doors. We cannot deny that it is intimidating to live in India today and be part of a faith that is globally perceived as not being safe. I am not sure things have changed much since Garam Hawa.”

“I have a Muslim colleague who goes to the mosque every Friday and observes roza; much like some Hindus fasting every Tuesday. But he is perceived differently. Today Garam Hawa would probably be about people like him. They are as well-entrenched as anyone else but come up against a few barriers,” says Acharya.

Adds Akhtar, “The film is still relevant and I don’t say this happily, because the whole problem should have been a part of history by now.”

Religion and geography gang up to ensure history still hits the headlines. But perhaps one day, thanks to films like Garam Hawa, we will let bygones be bygones.

This article appeared in the newspaper Dawn. The link to the piece is here


Get Thee from A to B

An independent brand positioning consultant, Rini Dutta spends a large part of her day commuting. She had come to terms with Bangalore’s infamous traffic jams. Driving a car saved her from elbow and briefcase jabs. But she was troubled by the environmental impact of using a car.
“I am always looking for ways to reduce my carbon footprint and prefer using buses as much as possible,” says Dutta, 39. “But the bus stop nearest to my house is too far to walk to, and you rarely get autos when you need them. I would end up using my car all the time, something I used to feel quite ashamed about.”
Around a month ago, Dutta heard about mGaadi, an autorickshaw-booking service, available on call and recently launched as an Android app. “It has brought down my travel costs significantly and there is the joy of using public transport,” says Dutta. All Dutta has to do is enter her destination on her smartphone, the GPS fixes on to her location and the auto arrives at her doorstep.
Launched in October, mGaadi is “a systemic and social enterprise solution to the urban commuting quagmire”, says co-founder Vishy Kuruganti. A technologist, Kuruganti, who founded TechSangam.com, a social enterprise blog, and partner Solomon Prakash, a social entrepreneur and former country head for Ashoka India (a global organization that invests in social entrepreneurs), wanted to use emerging technology solutions to create a better commuting experience and a greener city.
“Our vision for a better city is one where more people use public transport and the overall cost of commuting, be it time, money and environmental impact, is dramatically reduced,” says Kuruganti.
mGaadi, which has so far advertised itself solely on social media, has roped in over 500 drivers in Bangalore. The drivers have to go by the meter and while many of the autos come equipped with GPS, the company is looking to add GPS to the remaining autos soon. The GPS enables the call centre to track them 24×7. For the pick-up service, an additional Rs.10 is levied above the fare. Since their launch, they have done about 500 rides.
From the way we work, socialize, communicate and now travel, this is yet another example of how increasing smartphone penetration across India is influencing lives. With India projected to become the world’s most populated country, and an increasing number of cars hitting the roads every year, commuter salvation may lie in computer technology
Ecocabs, the world’s first dial-a-cycle-rickshaw scheme started by urban mobility expert Navdeep Asija, is an example of how, with the right kind of support, such initiatives can take off in a big way. Asija started the service in 2008 in his hometown Fazilka, a small town in Punjab on the India-Pakistan border. A transport engineer, he hit upon the idea after he saw his mother struggling to get a rickshaw to go to the market.
“Small towns in Punjab are largely populated with elderly couples who live alone and depend on cycle rickshaws for their chores. I thought this would be a blessing for them,” says Asija. “Ninety-three per cent of Punjab has mobile penetration, while just one in 100 people own cars, so I thought the simplest solution was to link those who have phone connectivity”.
Fazilka already had an informal network of rickshaw stands. These were linked through local tea stalls where one could call and book a rickshaw. Today, the scheme operates across 23 cities in Punjab with the support of the local district administration and non-governmental organizations.
The service is customized for each city. For example, in Patiala, a popular tourist spot, rickshaw operators are also trained as tourist guides.
Now available as an Android app, the scheme won the 2011 National Award of Excellence in the area of non-motor transport.
For Mumbai-based engineers Nilesh Dungarwal, Rishabh Jhunjhunwala and Nisarg Shah, the idea of designing Meter Share, an app that promotes ride-sharing, was born out of their experience of negotiating traffic and crowded public transport as students. A free app, Meter Share relies on a number of services like Facebook and Google Maps to enable commuters to find others looking to use the same route. All one has to do is enter details into the “to” and “from” locations, and the app comes up with details of others on the same route. Introduced in Mumbai in April, Dungarwal says it has nearly 2,000 users.
“Everywhere in Mumbai people are seen fighting for that one elusive cab or auto to take them to their destination,” says Dungarwal, who designed the app with his friends when they were students at Mumbai’s Sardar Patel Institute of Technology. “But just because there is no centralized way through which they can communicate, they don’t collaborate, and travel alone and waste their empty seats. This made us think of a platform where people can share the empty seats with others travelling on the same route.”
“The beauty of it is that I am not restricted to a fixed set of people and can share my ride with anyone who is travelling on that route at that time,” says IT engineer Shrushti Parekh, who uses Meter Share for the 15km commute from her home in Malad to her office in Powai. Adds engineer Jignesh Darji: “I used to waste time earlier waiting for a bus. I spend about Rs.6, which is what I would pay as bus fare.” If you are worried about safety, you can choose to travel only with women.
Recently launched by software engineer Raxit Seth, Smartmumbaikar runs on similar lines. For a monthly charge of Rs.400, one can log in and connect with people who want to share autos and taxis or carpool on the same route.
“You are using fewer vehicles and creating greater access, so it’s all good,” says Madhav Pai, director of EMBARQ India, a not-for-profit initiative that works with authorities to find solutions to problems of urban mobility, and whose mission is to “catalyze and help implement sustainable transport solutions to improve the quality of life in cities”. The EMBARQ network works in different countries, teaming up with local transport authorities to reduce pollution, improve public health, and create safe urban public spaces.
“This whole trend of sharing is coming, and optimizing resources will make an impact. It is quite interesting that this is all being driven by the Internet,” says Pai, adding that it is critical to encourage such solutions to combat the growing threat posed by air pollution in India.
Kuruganti believes that getting all the stakeholders on board will provide greater impetus. “A majority of auto drivers are unbanked. If public and private sector banks provide priority lending to this sector, it would ease their job of acquiring GPS devices. Also, the cost of 2G data plans could be subsidized by the transport department.”
“In many countries, attempts are being made to facilitate biking and walking,” says Pai. “Flyovers are being taken down. But our solution is to build more roads even though studies show that only 3% of people are actually driving to work. So all these innovations we are seeing are a very small step in the right direction.”
This article was published in the Mint, dated Dec 11, 2013. http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/pBx3ctiGZaEzxqU5iNd1jL/Get-thee-from-A-to-B.html

Taking Sides

History is mythology, a flaming graphic-novel narrative of good versus evil, along with tales of love and loss. Defeat, if at all, is heroic and temporary, as a historic revenge is supposedly imminent. With India and Pakistan, history is also religion.

Using a line from rock ‘n’ roll, history, thus, is partly truth and partly fiction, a walking contradiction.

But few of us, growing up, question the versions handed out by teachers, textbooks and parents; choosing to unthinkingly accept the often black and white portrayals of events long past. Bela Negi, 41, however, was made aware of the shades of grey early.

“The history textbooks we referred to in school were quite polarized in their outlook when it came to the freedom struggle,” recalls the Mumbai-based film-maker. “There were the heroes and the villain, with (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah and the British falling into the latter category. I was fortunate that my parents were not ardently pro-Congress and made me aware that both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were not without faults and made mistakes. So I started questioning the textbook version much earlier than some of my classmates did.”

It’s a bias Negi finds prevalent even today in her son’s history curriculum. “My son has just started studying history and I find that the veneration of certain people continues.”

Sagarika Jain, 15, a class X student from St Mary’s School, Pune, agrees. “In our textbooks, Nehru is shown as an ideal figure, while Jinnah actively sought to divide India,” says Jain. “He is seen as responsible for diluting the spirit of cooperation and unity within the independence movement. When I read that, I had very strong feelings against him.”

Sentiments echoed by a 17-year old student of the Karachi-based Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, Iqra Moazaam, 17, except in her case, she says, the tilt was towards the other side. “Textbooks in Pakistan are one-sided,” says Moazaam, a first-year university student. “They portray—and this is the case even now with some college texts—that Jinnah pushed for a separate homeland because Muslims could not freely practise their religion and customs in India. It does affect your perceptions negatively.”

A shared history, yet differing interpretations; bringing them on the same page is The History Project, an initiative started by two young Pakistanis, Qasim Aslam and Ayyaz Ahmed, who are attempting to show how these versions influence perceptions among children from both sides of the border. Aslam, a Lahore-based entrepreneur, and Ahmed, who works with a publishing house in the same city, hit upon the idea in 2005 during a Seeds of Peace camp, held every year for teens from countries of conflict

The project’s first history textbook, brought out earlier this year, was put together by editors and volunteers from India and Pakistan. Compiled using books from the high school curriculum in the two countries, it is aimed at children aged 12-14.

The textbook, which has so far been presented only in workshops in schools in India and Pakistan, has received an overwhelming response. “We got a limited number of copies printed as we were unsure of the demand,” says Aslam. “But it was overwhelming. We gave out all the hard copies free of cost to schools and children.” A soft copy can be downloaded freely from www.thehistory-project.org .

“During our Mumbai workshops, people were amazed to read two opposing accounts of the Bengal partition,” says Mumbai-based Lavanya Julaniya, who is part of the core team. “Pakistani textbooks say Muslims in Bangladesh were happy as this gave them a majority, which meant opportunities for progress. Indian textbooks say Muslims and Hindus protested on the streets together, tying each other rakhis to announce their brotherhood.”

“My favourite part is really the end of the workshop,” says Ahmed in an email. “You can almost feel a sudden shift in the way children view the content. In the beginning, we often get replies in absolutes, a yes or no. By the end, they are curious to understand the other side. That is all that we are trying to do, highlight the other side.”

This exploration of the other side, by going beyond the textbooks, is something many teachers are attempting as well in their classrooms. “History can always be reinterpreted in different ways,” says Usha Jagannathan, who teaches history at Mumbai’s RN Podar School to class X students. “When we talk about it, we say different communities have different versions.”

It’s critical to get this message across to children early, believes Rakesha Chaturvedi, who teaches history to classes XI-XII at the NSS Hill Spring International School, Mumbai, “because of communal pressures and in some cases familial experiences. Children, especially in the subcontinent, form impressions about certain matters early. If they are exposed to different perspectives they will be more considerate towards the other side”.

Shamshad Funiturewallah, a class X history teacher at the same school, adds: “We tell them that we all carry the baggage of events that have shaped the world and that knowing this is essential to have a balanced approach. We have to train children from both sides of the border to look at various perspectives and form a judgement.”

“I have been exposed to history in a way that I am not passing judgement,” says Meher Chhatwal, 14, a class X student of JB Petit High School for Girls, one of the four schools in Mumbai where the textbook was presented in April. “Our teacher teaches the syllabus her way. When we talk about Jinnah, for instance, she shows us how the information varies across different sources.”

“The younger generation might not care as much for history, but they are still influenced by it,” believes Ahmed. “These biases surround us all the time, in the form of literature, stories, even children’s books. Once they take root, they influence us in whatever we do.”

Negi agrees. “There is a tendency towards polarization and we need to address that. When you look back at history, you find it was written again and again in terms of a need. Shivaji was chosen by Bal Gangadhar Tilak because there was a need to motivate people by using a local hero and to create a larger nationalistic sentiment. You needed to create a certain mood at a certain time. We need to relook, reassess.”

“Realistically, Jinnah will always be our hero and Nehru yours,” says Karachi-based journalist and Moazaam’s mother, Farahanaz Zahidi, 43. “We may not be able to reach 100% objectivity, but there are two sides to a story and it is time for the narrative to be revisited for the sake of our children. We need to find some other means to fuel nationalism.”

“I think she is lucky,” says Chhatwal’s mother, Savitri Chowdhury, 46, referring to the exposure her daughter is getting to these different perspectives in school. “Because while growing up, we had no idea there was another interpretation. It was only in college that one realized the different points of view. It’s terrible that we share a common history but learn it in such diametrically opposite ways.”

Realpolitik will always triumph over reality. But surely, a more rounded understanding of our past will make the Indo-Pakistan engagement better, and maybe even a safer place.

This article was written for the newspaper Livemint. To view the link visit http://beta.livemint.com/Leisure/B596oXWaSFTSA3UpfNJifK/Debate–Taking-sides.html


Play for Freedom


In the fringes of Mumbai, a revolution is running free..

Everyone says Hasina is too young to play football. A notion this 4-year-old is determined to kick aside. Come Sunday morning, she runs down to the maidan (ground) outside her home, ball in hand, to watch neighbourhood didis (girls), many of them in their teens, play football. Girls of suburban Mumbra, who like her, grew up being told what all they could not do. Like play football.


A mindset a group of 20 girls are challenging, thanks to the initiative of an NGO Magic Bus  which uses sports to engage with children from deprived backgrounds. Through games, children are taught about key issues that impact their lives, like health, education and gender. Magic Bus runs several programs across slum communities in Mumbai, areas where access to basic amenities are poor. Mumbra, where the program was launched last year, is an especially challenging setting.


 Located on the outskirts of Mumbai, Mumbra is home to a large Muslim population; many of them families which fled here in the 90s after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed. Many of them chose to stay on, insecurity being a major factor. The growing ghettoisation, activists say, has impacted the status of women. Levels of illiteracy are high (24%), as are early marriage rates. 28% of girls from Mumbra get married before the age of 17.


“It is difficult to reach out to adolescent girls anywhere, but in a conservative area like Mumbra, it is particularly difficult”, says Saba Khan, co-founder of a local NGO, Parcham, which works with Magic Bus in this initiative. The name Parcham is inspired by the works of Indian Urdu poet Asrar-ul Haq Majaz, also known as Majaz Lakhnawi, who saw women as crusaders, who should revolt against exploitation and injustice. Through his romantic, revolutionary verses, Majaz urged women to look at the hijaab, not as a barrier, but a flag or banner – “Tere maathe pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai lekin, Tu is aanchal se ik parcham bana leti to achcha tha” (The cloth covering your head is no doubt a good thing. But if you make a flag out of it, it would be good).“In Mumbra, where all women wear a hijaab, it seemed like an appropriate name. We are using what many see as a sign of repression, and turning it into a symbol of revolution”, says Khan.


The revolution comes to life when you hear these girls talk about the battles they wage to steal a few hours kicking a ball with friends.


“I tell them I have sewing classes and slip out every Sunday in my hijaab”, says Saba Parveen, 23, one of the older members of the gang. “I can never tell my brothers. They will stop me from stepping out of the house if they get to know. I do feel scared but I am determined to play”. Saba’s brothers and father do not know she plays football. But her mother and sister are a big support.


“In Mumbra, no one lets girls out of the house without a naqaab (veil)”, says Saba Parveen, 23, one of the oldest members of the group. “Initially we were very scared, but as we kept playing, our confidence grew”.


Magic Bus’ usual approach is to work with mixed groups, something they had to change in Mumbra.  “Families here would never have let their girls play with boys”, says coach Shaikh Masood Akhtar, a senior manager at Magic Bus.“ Religious and political groups dominate the area. There is a lot of discrimination here against girls, but we have to work towards finding the solution gradually”, he adds. “A lot of the girls who come here wear the hijaab. They take it off while playing. But we don’t insist either way. It is a personal choice”.


Putting the group together was just one part of the problem. Getting them to stay remains a tough challenge. “Initially we started out with forty girls. Now there are twenty”, says Khan. “We went around to different colleges and residential colonies and distributed pamphlets urging girls to enrol. Many dropped out later”. Family pressure is a big factor. Getting a ground to play was difficult too. Finally a local temple came to their rescue by granting them their ground. The girls now plan to form a club and compete against the local boys’ teams.


 “Just seeing these girls playing here is a huge thrill”, says Khan, “especially to be able to claim public spaces for girls. It is not always safe. Sometimes boys try and intimidate us but we confront them. The most important change is that parents have come to realize that it’s not enough to send the girls to school. They must get the opportunity to venture into the world outside and learn to cope”.


14-year-old Simran’s mother initially refused to let her play, but relented after watching the other girls. “I would watch these girls from my window, and I realized they were having so much fun”, says Noor Mohammed Patel. “They were making friends. They looked so confident. I wanted my daughter to look the same”.


For Neelam Deol, it’s an opportunity to let her daughter Simran mingle in a mixed group. A Sikh, she has lived in Mumbra for the past two decades. ‘I moved here after marriage and I have seen people becoming more divided over the years. While playing, these differences dissolve”.


Larger changes in mindset are now becoming apparent. “Initially the boys resisted our attempts to play in the maidan”, says Kausar Ansari, 32, the oldest in the group. Kausar started playing last year to cope with the depression after her marriage ended. She faced fierce resistance from her brother but refused to back down. “The boys in the maidan would block our way when we would play. But they saw our determination and opened up to us. Now they are very encouraging, and if someone passes comments they fight for us. I have come to realize just how much power we have within us to make a change. I feel that power within me now”.


“I remember when we had our first meeting with the girls, they told us how stifled they felt”, recalls Akhtar. “How hurt that their parents did not trust them enough to leave the house unaccompanied by a male. They want to be seen as equals and that change is becoming apparent in the community. Sports has the power to do that”.


This article was published in the newspaper Dawn. To view click on