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

How Asia’s Largest Human Milk Bank In Mumbai Saves Babies’ Lives

When her son Hassan was born at 28 weeks, Saba Khan was told the baby had slim chances of survival.

“He was very weak and was rushed to the paediatric ICU. He stayed there for nearly 20 days and the doctor told me it would be nothing short of a miracle if he made it alive,” says Ms Khan.

To make matters worse, Saba was very weak and could not nurse her baby. Babies, like Hassan, who are born premature, have higher chances of recovery if they are given mother’s milk.

Luckily for Saba, Hassan started recovering quickly as he given milk from the mother’s milk bank at Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital in Mumbai. From 1.2 kg at birth, Hassan gained up to 1.8 kg within three weeks and was declared out of danger.

“The milk saved his life,” says Saba. “He is gaining weight and now that I have recovered I am able to nurse him in addition to the milk from the bank.”

Started in 1989, the milk bank at Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital, popularly known as Sion Hospital, is Asia’s first and largest such bank. It gets donations from nearly 40 mothers every day and the milk benefits 3,000 babies every year.

According to doctors, breastfeeding within the first hour of birth is one of the measures to fight infant mortality.

“Mother’s milk is a complete food. It is nutritionally optimal and protects the babies from different diseases,” says Dr Jayshree Mondkar, who heads the milk bank at Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital.

Most of the banked milk is given to the babies who are either underweight or to babies who are transferred from other hospitals with jaundice.

Dr Mondkar says there are many situations when the mothers are unable to nurse their infants after birth. In such a case, the milk from the bank is the next best option.

“We have as many as 14,000 deliveries in a week and mother’s milk is only an interim measure,” she says.

Before the milk is collected from the donor mothers, their blood reports are checked for any infections. Good care is taken to ensure that milk is collected hygienically, pasteurized and stored under the correct conditions. The banked milk can be stored for six months but is typically used up in 15 days.

“We tell the donor mothers why we are using the milk and how it is vital to keep another baby alive,” says Sister Sunanda Suryavanshi, a lactation management nurse at Sion Hospital.

“Even if there is some initial hesitation, all the mothers agree to donate when they hear that,” she adds.

This article appeared on the NDTV website http://everylifecounts.ndtv.com/how-asias-largest-human-milk-bank-in-mumbai-saves-babies-lives-6430
To watch the report http://everylifecounts.ndtv.com/how-asias-largest-human-milk-bank-in-mumbai-saves-babies-lives-6430

Afghan refugees are cooking up a better future in India

“Back home in Ghazni, I never used to cook. It was only after I moved to Delhi six years ago that I made my first biryani,” says Farhat. A single mother, she moved to India from Afghanistan in 2010 when the Taliban killed her husband, an Afghan Army officer.

She is a member of Ilham, a catering service that serves traditional Afghani dishes to people in Delhi. Ilham, which means “positive” in the Dari language, was launched in late 2015 by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and its partner Access. The initiative brings together seven women, all refugees from conflict-torn Afghanistan.

“There are too many restrictions on women there,” says Farhat, who tried to support herself and her six-year-old son with odd jobs after her husband’s death. “Neighbours started calling me a bad woman for leaving the house and I was afraid of attracting the Taliban’s attention. So I left for India.”

There are nearly 11,000 Afghan refugees registered with the UNHCR in India, mainly living in Delhi and bordering areas. The influx began in 1979 after the Soviets invaded Kabul and continued through the fall of the Taliban regime. The early refugees were mainly Hindus and Sikhs but with the security situation getting worse, more ethnic Afghans are coming in.

Historically too, India has been a favoured destination for Afghan traders or Kabuliwalas, who would travel across the mountains to sell spices, dry fruits and attars (perfumes), an association that has been immortalised in many Bollywood films and works of literature, including a popular short story, Kabuliwala, by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

“India is also an obvious choice because the government allows UNHCR mandate refugees to apply for long-term visas that regularises their stay and enhances employment opportunities and enables easier access to higher education,” says Shuchita Mehta, a spokesperson at UNHCR India.

As of August 2015, there were a total of 27,000 refugees in India registered with the UNHCR. The total refugee population across the country runs into well over 200,000. India’s liberal approach towards asylum seekers attracts large numbers but there is no specific policy or legal framework regarding refugees. The country has not ratified the 1951 convention on refugees.

Refugees registered with the UNHCR find it easier to get long-term visas and work permits. They are entitled to free education in government-run schools and free healthcare. Others face a miserable existence, confined to illegal settlements, where access to water and electricity is irregular.

Finding a steady, well-paid job is hard too. Zameera, a schoolteacher in Afghanistan, had to work as a domestic help in Delhi for years before she became a part of Ilham. “It was a struggle to communicate as I could not speak English or Hindi. I had five children to feed and educate so I was desperate,” she says.

She lives in Lajpat Nagar, home to a large number of Afghan refugees. The community is concentrated in small pockets in parts of Delhi, the ghettoisation preferable to living in a mixed colony where they stand out, their accents and clothes regarded with open curiosity, and occasionally some hostility.

“There is an urgent need for sensitisation programmes,” says Aditi Sabbarwal, project manager at Access. “People have no idea what they are fleeing from, their back stories, so there is a perception among some that they are freeloaders. The government should conduct awareness campaigns so people come to know what’s going on in their countries.” She points to stray comments on Ilham’s Facebook page pointing to the turmoil in Europe over the refugee crises and making the case that India should not take in outsiders.

The idea of starting a catering initiative was born after hours of talks between Access and the Afghan women enlisted with them. “People in Delhi are open to trying out different cuisines but there were very few that served Afghan food,” says Sabbarwal. “So we decided to try some dishes out at a fair last winter. We were sold out in less than an hour. We realised that starting this on a larger scale could guarantee them fixed employment and financial independence.”

The range of dishes is limited but great effort is taken to source the original ingredients to ensure authenticity. The American embassy in New Delhi is among their most regular customers.

The women cook the dishes at their homes and deliver to the designated pick-up centres. Given the growing demand, there are plans to set up a community kitchen.

“We make a profit of Rs 3,000-4,000 a month, which is much more than what we earned working odd jobs,” says Qadria, who left Herat in west Afghanistan six years ago after she was lashed in public for not covering her face properly.

“The orders are growing everyday and the money is good,” says Qadria. “I am able to pay my daughters’ school fees and buy them what they want. I feel happy when I see them enjoy the freedom I never had in Afghanistan.”

Ziyagul, the most vocal of the group, who has dreams of starting her own restaurant, says: “I feel so happy that I am able to share some of my culture with people here. When customers praise my dishes, I feel so confident. I realise that I am as capable and independent as any man!”

Some names have been changed to protect the women.

This article was published in The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/jul/21/afghan-refugees-are-cooking-up-a-better-future-in-india?CMP=share_btn_fb

How Technology is Improving Maternal & Child Health

mMitra, started in Mumbai slums with the support of the civic body, is a free mobile voice call service that gives information on preventive care and simple interventions to reduce maternal and infant deaths. It is given in the language of the user’s choice and sent weekly or twice a week. Launched in 2014, it reaches over 5 lakh women in slums in Mumbai city, up to its far suburbs.

Domestic violence accounts for five in 10 of reported crimes against women in India. Many cases go undocumented, nearly 7 out of 10 women have suffered some form of domestic violence. Domestic violence is linked to posttraumatic stress disorder, gastrointestinal infections, suicide, chronic pain, and increased risk of unintended pregnancy, which, in turn, compromises maternal, infant and child health. The Little Sister’s Project, an initiative that works among victims of domestic violence in Mumbai, has 160 local women to identify and report incidents of gender violence using Android smartphones and an app called EyeWatch.

This documentary was done for the NDTV-Gates Foundation campaign, Every Life Counts. To watch click here 

With Support From An App, Women Stand Up To Domestic Violence In Dharavi

A two-year-old app is helping women in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, to stand up against domestic violence. The Little Sister app, working in 3 languages, is helping women report instances, however small, and get help.

Home to a population of over one million, Mumbai’s Dharavi sees many such cases, say the women who are part of the initiative started in 2014 by a non-profit, SNEHA – the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action.

“Physical abuse and sexual violence is most common,” said Rashida, a sangini or worker in Little Sister.

Violence against women is listed as one of the top 10 reasons of death for women and domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, accounts for five in 10 reported crimes against women in India. Even so, many cases go undocumented, and various studies show nearly seven out of 10 women in India have suffered some form of domestic violence.

A report released last year by Population Reference Bureau, a Washington DC-based think-tank, said India — along with Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – shows a very high rate of violence,  with one in three women reporting sexual and/or physical violence, mainly from a partner.

One of the many reasons why domestic violence goes unreported is because it has cultural sanction. “Everyone, including the mother-in-law, thinks the man has rights over the woman’s bodies, regardless of her feelings,” said Rashida.

“We recently counselled a woman who had been beaten by her husband for 22 years, right through their marriage,” added Saira Shaikh, another Little Sister sangini. “She kept thinking it was OK because her husband was providing for the family.”

Married twice, Rashida was abused both times. She finally found the courage to walk out when she nearly died after consuming poison in a fit of despair. “While in hospital I realised that by suffering violence, I was damaging my children.”

These are not easy decisions for any woman, especially those who are poor, uneducated and lack family support.

This is where the app greatly helps, believes Rashida – its biggest advantage being that women can express their pain in safety and secrecy, until they are ready to speak out.

Registering instances on the app gets immediate response.

Depending on what she wishes, the sanginis contact her and provide counselling. In case of physical violence, they can even contact the police and hold family counselling sessions.

“The project was designed to mitigate under-reporting of violence by providing a tool for women to record instances,” said programme coordinator Damini Mohan. “Most cases are reported to authorities as a last resort, when the violence has severely escalated. It helps us capture instances of violence at an early stage and helps us prevent its escalation.”

Since it was launched in June 2014, Little Sister has recorded 1,062 cases of domestic violence, compared to 200 cases recorded in 2013-2014.

While there are laws against domestic violence, what is not widely understood at the policy level are the health consequences, doctors say.

Women who suffer domestic violence are twice as likely to suffer from depression and about 50% more likely to become HIV positive. Other outcomes are post-traumatic stress disorder, gastrointestinal infections, suicide, and chronic pain. It is also linked with higher risk of unintended pregnancy that compromises maternal, infant and child health.

“Whenever there is violence, physical or otherwise, the physical impact shows up in the form of scars but the impact, internally, is 25% more,” said Praful Kamble of SNEHA. “There is depression, a sense of shock and a major impact on children who witness it. Even verbal abuse can affect pregnancy outcomes.”

This article was published on the NDTV website. To view the video report click here

The Young Rise Against Child Marriage in Bihar

The latest Census report says that nearly one in every three married women in India were married off below the legal age of 18 years, a grim reminder of how widespread child marriage is in the country.

Clearly, the practice continues despite the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act because it has strong social sanction.

What is needed is a change in mindset, and that is what the Jagriti Trust, a youth-driven intervention in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan is trying to achieve. Bihar reports the highest number of underage marriages in India – nearly 60% girls are married off before they are 18, and 74% before they are 20.

The Jagriti Trust tries to motivate young boys and girls from the community to get involved in local issues like sanitation, hygiene and education of girls and become agents of change.

The strongest challenge sometimes comes from within the families.

Pooja, 20, who refused to go along with her parents’ wishes and marry at the age of 14 like her sisters did, said, “My father stopped talking to me and I was ignored in my house. It was very hard to cope but I saw what my sisters were going through and was determined to avoid that fate.”

Today. Pooja is a youth leader with the Jagriti Trust and encourages other girls’ to find their voices. She leads workshops where young boys and girls are taught to question the mindset behind practices like early marriage and dowry.

The Jagriti Trust has set up youth councils in three districts of Bihar. The causes they take up are sensitive, but their patient approach seems to have paid off.

“Village elders initially opposed us”, said Premnath, 19, from Ismailpur, who continues to face intense family pressure to marry.  “But we took our time in explaining our side and participated in other village activities and gained their trust.”

Dr Rema Nanda, founder of the Jagriti Trust says that by reaching out to boys and girls, it hopes to achieve a larger behavioral  change.

“Reaching out to girls alone is not enough because boys too are victims of patriarchal norms and we need to teach them the value of questioning stereotypes. It is time we stopped regarding them as the Other and keeping them out”, she said.

This article was published  in the NDTV website

Not enough in this Budget for Family Planning

Among the most widely reported statements at the International Conference on Family Planning held in Indonesia in January this year was that of the Indian Health Minister JP Nadda who said that the country was committed to meeting the FP2020 goal of providing 48 million additional women and girls with access to modern contraceptives by 2020.

A global partnership, Family Planning 2020, works with governments, civil society and the private sector to enable women and girls to make decisions regarding if, when, and how many children they want.

The Indian Health Ministry team also announced that women would have access to better quality family planning services. A promise that is being met with. Since April, injectable contraceptives and pills are being supplied to all district hospitals across the country.

However, the recent report by the Population Foundation of India points out just how distant that goal of reaching 48 million women and girls is.

While the provision for health in 2016 has grown by 22% over 2015, with FP seeing a substantial increase of 67% compared to previous years, health remains hugely underfunded in India. The rise this year, it points out, is insufficient to compensate for the whopping 54% decline in allocations to family welfare between 2013-14 and 2015-16.

Meeting the 48 million number needs more than simply expanding the basket of choices. It needs awareness campaigns and better rural health facilities to ensure that babies and mothers survive. Campaigns have to be tailored to meet the specific challenges that a country as varied as India throws up.

While the shift away from female sterilization is welcome, there seems to be widespread official myopia in acknowledging just how deep the links between family planning and broader development goals go, and this is disturbing.