How Young Boys Bear The Burden Of Patriarchy In India

Inside a community centre at Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, Umair Khan teaches a group of young boys the difference between good and bad touch.

The 20-year-old is a community organiser with Sneha – Society for Nutrition Education and Health Action. He works with the NGO’s youth programme Ehsaas which, since 2013, has reached out to over 6,000 adolescents and youth between the ages of 15-24 in Mumbai’s slums.

“Like girls, boys too are victims of sexual abuse,” says Mr Khan. “But boys rarely speak about it as they feel ashamed,” he adds.

As a young boy, Mr Khan experienced abuse. “The abusers were older boys in the neighbourhood. I was scared that I would be targeted again and it took me years before I spoke up. I don’t want anyone to suffer the way I did,” he tells NDTV.

At over 243 million, India has the largest adolescent population in the world, as per UNICEF’s 2011 report. However, down the decades, the focus of government programmes has been early marriage and early pregnancy, which is centered on young girls. Boys have been largely left out.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-3 makes a compelling case for interventions among boys. Over 50% of boys between 15-24 years are in the labour force as per NFHS-3 data, while over 80% are married. One out of every five boys between 10-19 years is illiterate.

Over the years, there has been a growing realisation that there is an urgent need for specific interventions among young boys and men who too are victims of rigid gender norms. They struggle with notions of what constitutes a real man.

Being sexually active with various women is seen as a cultural sign of virility and the fallout is a lack of understanding of women’s rights.

Research has shown that men are also victims of many forms of violence, primarily at the hands of other men, and stand to gain from moving towards gender equality.

“Adolescent boys commit sexual crimes because there is a lack of appropriate orientation on sexuality and about matters like consent,” says Neeta Karaindikar, Associate Director, Ehsaas.

“Our films and advertisements show women in a very poor light and boys look at them as item numbers. We have to change this by working with the next generation, to make them see women as equal partners,” she adds.

Ehsaas does this through a mix of street plays and community meetings with adolescents and their families.

“Before I joined Ehsaas, I expected my sisters to do the household work,” says Shahid Shaikh, a community organiser.

“Now I know differently. We teach young boys to question stereotypes that allow boys to play outdoors but force girls into doing household chores. Gradually we are seeing a change,” he adds.

An impact report done six months after Ehsaas was launched in Dharavi has shown positive signs. Over 70% of boys and girls said that both genders should have equal freedom; nearly a 20% improvement.

Reaching out to boys comes with many challenges, as Pravin Katke, a coordinator with Equal Community Foundation points out. The foundation reaches out to boys between 14-17 years from low-income communities in the slums of Pune.

“In the areas that we work in, there is a high rate of school dropouts. There is also a tendency towards risky behaviour and addictions,” adds Mr Katke.

Through interactive sessions and games, the foundation tries to find out what is going on in the boys’ lives and the gender dynamics in the families.

“We have a curriculum where we talk about gender equality, violence, relationships, sexuality and adolescence,” says Mr Katke.

“We raise different situations and discuss their responses,” he adds.

To facilitate a larger change in the mindset, peer educators also meet with the parents every few weeks.

To prevent violence against women and build gender equality, one has to go back to the homes and communities where boys are raised, believes William Muir, co-founder, Equal Community Foundation.

“Boys across all environments are learning that successful men earn money and command respect through aggression and violence,” says Mr Muir.

“When you help them reflect on whether those messages are right or fair, they will start taking their own steps. The goal ultimately is to ensure that every boy is growing up in an environment where they are learning gender equality and in Pune, we are building that model,” adds Mr Muir.

This article was published on NDTV on Nov 4, 2016. http://everylifecounts.ndtv.com/how-young-boys-bear-the-burden-of-patriarchy-in-india-6556

How can Kolkata’s chaotic transport system be untangled?

After 25 years in salubrious California, Bonani and Prahlad Kakkar returned to Kolkata in the 1990s. “The Calcutta [they refuse to call it by the new name, Kolkata] we grew up in was a compact, organic city,” says Bonani, a former public health specialist. “Offices and homes were within walking distance and we had 625 parks in this city.”

They found the city of their childhood had changed dramatically. Diesel, a cheaper alternative to petrol, had made an entry, and there had been an explosion of cars, buses and auto-rickshaws on the roads. Out of deep anger and frustration, they decided to launch Public (People United for Better Living in Calcutta), a civic improvement organisation.

Down the decades, Kolkata’s chaos has been compounded with the city prioritising cars over public transport, something all Indian cities are guilty of. Traffic crawls on Kolkata’s roads at an average speed of 14 to 18 kilometres per hour, as against 22 kmph in the rest of India.

The slowdown has had an economic and environmental impact as well, something that Public is seeking to address by working with local authorities on awareness campaigns, such as encouraging citizens to lodge complaints about the worst polluters in the city with the Calcutta Police Traffic Department.

A study of 10 city roads found that just two hours of a traffic jam cumulatively costs commuters 74,000 rupees (£872). Kolkata residents breathe in air that has 3–5 times higher pollution than normal. The impact of this on public health has been studied by the Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute in Kolkata in many reports. One of them shows that more than 7 in 10 people suffer from respiratory diseases in Kolkata.

These factors have put Kolkata bottom of 100 world cities in the 2016 Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, which ranks according to three dimensions – people, planet and profit.

Kolkata ranks last in planet and profit – the environment and economic indicators. On environment, it does badly on sanitation, green space and waste management. On the economic front, it rates poorly in ease of doing business, tourism, connectivity and transport, among others.

There is just 2mm of metro rail per inhabitant as against the average 14mm in our index Alasdair Cavalla, Centre for Economic and Business Research
“The parameters on the transport front are congestion ratings, kilometres of metro or light rail lines per inhabitant, and airport customer satisfaction,” says Alasdair Cavalla, senior economist at the Centre for Economic and Business Research, which provided the research for the index. “There is just 2mm of metro rail per inhabitant as against the average 14mm in our index. Kolkata’s airport does not rank in the top 100 airports by customer satisfaction.”

The hairy transport situation, experts say, is due to a lack of vision and integrity in transport planning down the decades.

Some of the policies adopted in order to ease road congestion are arbitrary. For example, two years ago, the police banned cycling on 174 main thoroughfares, when the national policy advocates the promotion of non-motorised transport.

There was outrage from green crusaders and unions of milk vendors and domestic workers, who filed a petition in the Kolkata High Court. The ban is still in place but only on 62 roads, mainly flyovers.

Kolkata needs to turn the politics of transport provision on its head, says Madhav Pai, India director for WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities. “The majority of people walk and cycle, while the streets are designed for cars, and this has led to huge inequity. Kolkata needs to prioritise pedestrians, cyclists and buses. Instead it continues to invest in flyovers, expressways and more roads.”

Kolkata is exploring options to address its transport problems by sharing experiences through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group that helps mega-cities of similar size and population density to connect. Kolkata was the first city in south Asia to join the network in 2015. Under C40, every mega city has to identify three top priorities it wants to work on. Kolkata has identified solid waste management, transport and air quality.

“Kolkata is the first city in India to look at fare integration, which means a single ticket for bus, metro and tram,” says Sanjay Sridhar, the C40 regional director for south and west Asia. “It is looking at rationalising bus routes to help improve efficiency and reduce fuel usage.” Intermodal connectivity options, using the existing system of ferries, the metro and trams, are also being looked at.

The next decade in India is about “showing citizens that change is possible’’, says Pai. “All these measures are examples of such change being attempted in Kolkata. To see large long-term change, these projects have to succeed and give hope for new innovative ideas to be implemented.”

Thei article was published in The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/oct/10/how-can-kolkatas-chaotic-transport-system-be-untangled

The women who refuse to do India’s dirtiest job

Every morning I would take a broom and tin plate to the homes of the upper caste thakurs to pick up their faeces. I would collect the waste in a cane basket and later throw it in a dumping ground outside the village.”

As you watch a confident Ranikumari Khokar educate a group of boys and girls on how to file a police case, it is hard to imagine that this 21-year-old spent most of her adolescence working as a scavenger.

Today she is a “barefoot lawyer”, an initiative started by Jan Sahas, an NGO that has been campaigning against the practice of manual scavenging for 12 years. Since the launch of the programme in 2014, 800 girls and young women have been trained in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

A caste-based role, manual scavenging condemns mostly women to clean excreta from dry latrines with their hands and carry it on their heads to dumps. Men from the community clean open gutters and sewerage lines, often with no protective gear.

Derogatorily called bhangis, which means “broken identity,” most of the scavengers are dalits, ranked lowest in the caste system and expected to carry out tasks regarded as beneath the dignity of those higher up in the hierarchy.

“We were looked down upon by the villagers,” recalls Ranikumari. “They would never walk with us. At the village well, we were made to wait at a distance until everyone else had filled up.”

Even worse was the discrimination in school. “The teachers would call us bhangans [children ofbhangis] and expect us to clean the toilets and the classrooms. We sat apart from everyone else and were never given a chance to participate in school functions,” adds Ranikumari.

Caste-based discrimination or untouchability was banned in India in 1955 and down the decades several policy measures have been announced to end the inhumane custom of manual scavenging. Article 17 of the country’s constitution clearly abolishes the practice, while the 1993 Dry Toilets Prohibition Act forbids the employment of manual scavengers.

But none of these policies have been effective because manual scavenging was categorised as a health and sanitation issue, a responsibility implemented by state governments. Many states like Delhi and Rajasthan did not even bring the policy into force, and those states that did showed little will to enforce it on the ground. People remained unaware they had the right to refuse this role. The few who dared to came under intense social pressure, and received no support from local government officials. They risked violence and eviction.

The International Dalit Solidarity Network, which works towards ending caste-based discrimination, estimates that there are about 1.3 million manual scavengers in India, most of them women. These women are victims twice over: looked down upon by the upper castes and discriminated against within their homes.

“People from my village would walk far away from us as if we gave out a smell they could not bear,” says Mayu, a resident of Sava village, Rajasthan. “We were made to draw water from a well in which dead animals and birds were found and if anyone gave us any food, it would be thrown in our direction. Even my husband would tell me to bathe many times because I was cleaning other peoples’ shit although he had no problem eating the rotis I brought home.”

It was these attitudes that Jan Sahas had to battle when it started its campaign in 2003.

“They were socialised to believe that they have to be low caste,” says Aashif Shaikh, the founder of Jan Sahas. “They would tell us ‘this work has been given to us by god and we are at an advantage as we get food’. The reality was that they were being treated worse than animals.” Because they were rarely paid in cash, they were dependent on the upper castes for the basics – food, clothing and shelter.

Jan Sahas started working in two villages in Rajasthan. It would take nearly two years before they were able to convince the community to put down their brooms. The gamechangers were the children, especially girls.

“The girls were determined to end the practice,” says Shaikh. “They were deeply unhappy about the discrimination they faced in schools so we would make them speak at our meetings.”

But there was fierce resistance from the upper castes; some Dalit homes were even burned down. The local police refused to act and it was only after district level officials intervened that action was taken.

Since 2003, Jan Sahas claims to have liberated more than 21,000 women in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. These women have become ambassadors for the movement and it was their countrywide agitation in 2013 that led to the Indian parliament enacting a new, stronger law against manual scavenging.

Those who employ manual scavengers face a one-year prison term and a fine of 50,000 rupees (over £500). For repeated violations, the prison term is two years and a fine of 100,000 rupees (£1,000).

Stronger penalties apart, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 makes it mandatory to rehabilitate rescued manual scavengers. They now get 40,000 rupees (over £400) as compensation from the government and get trained for alternative employment.

Many women now work in government-funded construction projects and small factories. Others have enrolled in community initiatives started by NGOs that offer training in skills like tailoring and embroidery.

Changing minds, however, remains a challenge as caste-based discrimination is still deeply entrenched in Indian society.

“You can change your religion in India but you cannot change your caste,” says Shaikh. “You hear of people converting to another religion but their caste remains the same, and this is true for even Muslims and Sikhs although neither religion has the caste system. Even politics runs on the basis of caste.”

The way forward, activists believe, is to educate the younger generation, who are open to change. The barefoot lawyers initiative, which trains men and women from all communities, is a step in that direction.

“I go to different villages and educate the youth about laws relating to caste discrimination, sexual assault and rape,” says Ranikumari. “I even speak to school authorities if I hear complaints of discrimination. As a child I could not speak up for myself but now I have a voice.”

This article was published in The Guardian

Taking Community Health to the Market

As she rocks her restless baby, Tia Pertiwi listens as three women with aprons imprinted with images of the reproductive system explain how contraception works.

Besides her are some 20 odd women, most of them market vendors, and the atmosphere is relaxed and carefree with many asking questions and cracking jokes.

Pertiwi, 25, who recently gave birth to her first child, wants to delay the second by a few years but is not sure what birth control method to adopt.

Fortunately, the answers are available close at hand; at the Pasar Badung marketplace where Tia works at a fruit stall.

Guiding her with information about contraceptive options is the Yayasan Rama Sesana, a health clinic situated inside Pasar Badung, a traditional marketplace in the Bali capital Denpasar, where Tia works as vendor at a fruit stall.

Since 2004, YRS, a non-profit, sexual and reproductive health clinic has reached out to thousands of low-income group women in Bali. Most of them, like Tia, work in traditional market communities with an average daily income of US$5.

The YRS started in 1999 and initially worked in the field of AIDS prevention among risk groups in 1999. It later developed a plan to open health centers to provide information and services on breast and cervical cancer prevention, HIV/Aids, family planning, prenatal care and sexually transmitted infections.

“Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Indonesia and over 9000 women die of cervical cancer in our country every year”, says Dr Luh Putu Upadisari, founder, YRS. “Early detection is key to prevention but women lack information and they don’t have the time and money, especially towards preventive care”.

To ensure maximum reach, these health clinics were set up at traditional marketplaces. “They are open 24 hours a day and thousands of people – girls, women, housewives in particular – come here. This creates a supportive environment to inform them about their reproductive health and empower them,” says Upadiseri.

The YRS has two such clinics at Bali and also runs mobile clinics that carry out monthly visits to markets around Bali. The services offered are on a donation basis and include breast exams, Pap smears, STI and HIV testing, and counseling.

The centers report about 520 clients per month on average – over 67% are women. Their location draws a wide variety of clients – not just market vendors but laborers, cleaners, office workers and shoppers.

Trusting women with information about their health not only empowers them but also helps save lives. And the Balinese approach of reaching women directly at their workplace is one that has the potential to benefit thousands of women in India as well.

Like Indonesia, India reports a high death incidence due to cervical cancer. According to a 2014 study by the Cervical Cancer-Free Coalition, it tops the world in cervical cancer deaths with nearly 73,000 women dying every year. It is also the second most common cancer in women aged 15–44 years.

Cervical cancer is treatable if found early but in the absence of a nationwide screening program in India, there are widespread disparities in screening, treatment as well as survival.

“Early detection is essential as it is completely curable at that stage but we do not have a comprehensive screening program with the outreach required to provide access to services to underprivileged women”, says Dr Aparna Hegde, founder of NGO ARMMAN, which is behind several maternal health initiatives in Mumbai and other parts of the country.

ARMMAN’s mMitra project uses mobile phone technology to take preventive health care information directly to the phones of pregnant women through pregnancy and infancy.

Hegde says innovative approaches could offer the way forward as traditional models of caregiving leave a lot to be desired.

“Initiatives like YSR emphasize preventive care and this paradigm shift essential because our health care system has almost always focused on curative services”, adds Hegde. “Preventive care will prevent overloading of our public health system and help them provide better care to the patients who access it.“

This article was published in the Business Standard on January 27, 2016

In a corner somewhere in New Delhi, Rohingya refugees find sanctuary

Rohingaya children at a refugee camp in Delhi

Rohingaya children at a refugee camp in Delhi

A Rohingya refugee from Arakan she was forced to leave all her possessions behind

A Rohingya refugee from Arakan she was forced to leave all her possessions behind

Outside her cramped tin-roofed shanty, 15 kilometres from the Indian national capital, Noor Fathima, 30, prepares lunch for her children who wait expectantly. She stirs the khichdi with one hand, battling a swarm of flies and mosquitoes with the other. “Life back home was not so filthy,” she says, pointing to the squalor around.

Home for her is in the Arakan province in central Myanmar — one that Fathima, a Rohingya, fled in 2012 after her village was attacked by local Buddhists.

Victims of a long-standing ethnic conflict, the Rohingyas have been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government on the grounds that they are Bengali Muslims, who were brought in illegally by the British from India and Bangladesh. They are allegedly subjected to forced labour and denied land rights by the Buddhist majority. Some human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

For decades, Rohingyas have been fleeing Myanmar, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In recent years, with these countries cracking down on illegal migrants, there are reports of Rohingya refugees being abandoned mid-sea by smugglers.

The most recent humanitarian crisis, centred on the Rohingyas, to hit international headlines was in May this year, when a boat carrying 130 refugees sank off the border between Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Fathima’s husband Mohammed Haroon says they were lucky to escape when they did. Once a prosperous farmer, he says his family was routinely harassed by local Buddhists and the military.

“My grandfather was a supporter of General Suu Kyi, so when the military came to power, they kept an eye on our family,” says Haroon. “They would tell us that we had no business living there. Local Buddhists would walk into our farm and take away chicken and livestock.”

Haroon made his peace with the harassment coming their way, until the military took over his land and occupied his home. “I had 37 bighas of land. I lost it overnight.” He approached higher officials for justice but faced with threats, he decided to leave with his family.

Abdul Karim

Abdul Karim

After a few months in Bangladesh, they eventually found their way to Saharanpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A year later, they were resettled in Kalindi Kunj, near New Delhi, by the Zakat Foundation of India. Called Darul Hijrat, there are 50 families living here in a makeshift colony of tin-and-plastic shanties.

“We had reserved the land to build a school for poor children,” says Imtiaz Siddique, a project director with ZFI, an NGO that collects zakat or alms for relief purposes. “But when we heard about the plight of the Rohingyas, we decided to house them there.”

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, there are over 25,000 Rohingyas settled in colonies like these in different parts of India, mainly Telengana in the south, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

Surrounded by dense forests, the colony is in a low-lying area and gets flooded in the monsoon. With the assistance of UN funds, the ZFI has made some structural improvements, and yet, their protection against heavy rain and biting winters is inadequate. There are just two hand pumps supplying water to a colony of 250 people. There is electricity, but it is illegally tapped.

“The water quality is poor and children are always falling sick,” says Fathima. There are no toilets, so families use the surrounding fields. Death due to snakebite is common. Again, the most vulnerable are the children — three infants have died in the last eight months. The lack of a doctor or a health centre close at hand leaves families even more vulnerable in the event of a medical emergency. The nearest hospital is about 10km away.

Despite the hardships, there is much hope that they can look forward to a better future. The ZFI has enrolled the children in a local school and is sponsoring their education. The men have found employment in construction sites.

“Our children are finally going to school, we get three meals a day and sleep without having to worry about the military taking away our sons and daughters,” says Fathima. “It’s more than what we can ask for.”

This sentiment is reinforced every time they speak to family and friends back home.

“Friends in Myanmar tell me they are scared to step out of their homes,” says Abdul Karim, who works with the UNHCR’s liaison staff. “We hear that Muslims are not allowed to pray and mosques have been shut down. Now with the world closing its doors, they are well and truly stuck. Myanmar does not want the Rohingyas and the world too, it seems, is shutting its doors on us.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 14th, 2015

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

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.

Former manual scavenger

Former manual scavenger

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.”

Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh

Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh

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.

Dewas, Madhya Pradesh

Dewas, Madhya Pradesh

“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.”

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

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

http://www.dawn.com/news/1061274/foreign-front-blood-brothers