Saturday, August 30, 2014

Why I am a Hindu

I was born a Hindu by virtue I guess of both my parents being Hindus. But I chose to be a Hindu through a personal journey orchestrated by my mother with inputs from my father too. I was unwavering in my faith for a long time, but the emergence of a new form of 'hinduism' in the past years has sometimes made me question my own religion and has needed me to dig deep in my past to renew my faith.

Being Hindu is again in the news with sparring going on on the use of Hindi and Hindu.' leaving me a tad flummoxed. First of all I think someone should come forward, by someone I mean an eminent religious or spiritual personality and put an end to this Hindu business. Hindus are those who love in Hindustan, a name that find its roots in the river Indus. The religion we follow when we call ourselves 'hindus' should be, in my humble opinion, called Vedism from the Vedas the precepts of which are the tenets of our religion. Maybe that would solve issues. The question is whether anyone really wants it solved as it is good fodder for wily politicians who need to keep issues alive.

Today I simply want to share why I embraced Hinduism with pride. I grew up in different parts of the planet and always in countries with a different faith: Muslim, Christian, Buddhist but never Hindu. Hence all my friends belonged to diverse religions. On the other hand, my mother who was not into ritualism, mutated into this uber ritual persona and celebrated every festival following all the rites to the T. Come Diwali, Holi, Janmashtami, Shivratri and all else our home was transformed and I was guided through every step of the ritual of the day. Yummy sweets and food was cooked and in her inimitable style which would have made Socrates proud, Mama never said anything but waited for the questions to come from me and answered them to the best of her ability, keeping in mind the age I was and always adding some stories and tales. The one thing I remember of all these celebrations was that everyone in the home participated, irrespective of their creed. At the end of each puja I was asked to touch the feet of everyone elder to me and seek blessings. That included the staff! So festivals were a happy time and the stories of each fascinating to a little girl.

But that is not what endeared me to my religion. What really made me want to be Hindu was how I perceived its relation to other faiths and for that I have to thank my wonderful parents. Whenever I asked them if I could: go to church with my Christian friends; fast on the first day of the Ramadan with my Muslim friends or partake of a sabbath meal with my Jewish friends, go to the Pagoda with my Buddhist friends the answer was always the same: yes as long as my presence was accepted by my friends and their families. Needless to say it was always a yes. Those were days before extremism had raised its ugly head. Hence to me, a religion that accepted all other religions and houses of God was the best I could get.

And that was not all, you could chose a God to pray to and you had so many to chose from. As a child I 'chose' Ganesh! And if I needed more proof, I remember how upset I was when my father cut my holiday in Mauritius because his spiritual leader who was in London wanted to give me a mantra. As a rebellious teenager I entered the sancto sanctorum of the Ramakrishna Mission in London with a frown on my face. Swami Gananandha sat me down and told me he knew that I did not want to be there and that I had come against my will. I looked sheepish but nodded my head, I guess I knew you did not lie in the house of God. But being who I am I told him that I would not chant the mantra. he smiled and told me that it was OK, I could forget about it, but he would still give it to me in case I ever needed it. I did forget about it for a long time, but at a time of extreme need it flashed through my mind and brought me the solace I needed. I chant it every day.

We have a small prayer corner in the house. There always has been a prayer corner in any house I have lived in, even if it was just a shelf in the cupboard. Anyone and everyone is welcome to pray there. The little alter has many idols but if you look carefully it also has a cross, a Virgin Mary and the name of Allah, all gifted to me by dear souls. Every Diwali we are joined by the pwhy volunteers that happen to be here and they too pray with us. In the picture you can see Alan, our beloved magician, who is from the UK and lives in New Zealand. I do not know who will be with us this year but the more the merrier!

That is what Hinduism is to me. A religion that encompasses all others and accepts them with love. And that is the faith I will always follow.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The ice bucket challenge

You would have to be a total hermit to not have heard about the ice bucket challenge, an initiative of of the ALS, an organisation promoting awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The challenge is to pour a bucket of ice over yourself or pay 100$ and then go on to nominate 5 people to do the same. The challenge went viral and the association has raised millions of dollars. Good for them. I wish I could come up with a challenge that would raise the money I need to secure project why's morrows. Am still waiting for that epiphany.

The reason for this blog is not to criticise; neither it is a case of 'grapes are sour'. It is just a gentle reminder, particularly to those of us who live in country's like India, of the value or water and thus the famed ice bucket that is water in another from. Water is a precious resource that we take for granted until its scarcity hits us. Remember how irate you feel when the tap runs dry as someone forgot to switch on the pump or because of an electricity outage. At most, when there is a water crisis, we have the means to 'buy' water from a tanker and use it with alacrity and impunity till the need of another tanker. But that is just one tiny side of the story.

The picture you see is a picture taken by one of our Okhla kids. It is a picture taken in his 'home'. This is all the water a family of 5 has for a day and that too if someone got up in time, at some unearthly hour, to go to the municipal tap/tanker, fight her/his way and fill as much as possible. This will be used to bathe, clean, cook and drink! And this is the daily routine of most families living in slums. You can see in the picture that one cannot vouch for the quality of the water.

Women have to walk miles and miles in certain states to get access to water and that too is limited to the amount they can carry. Imagine how much energy is spent each and every day. Our project why girls start getting fidgety around 3.45 pm as water comes at 4pm and they have to fill it before the tap runs dry and hour later. Sometimes the queue is too long and they are unable to get their water, that means a sure trashing when they get home.

We have got so used to opening a tap and getting water that we cannot imagine life without it and often do not think at it as the most valuable resource in the world and our critical lifeline. Just imagine if water was taken away from your life for a day, week, month? And yet we waste it every moment of the day. Do you realise that to live you need water first and foremost and then food, the two things we waste with abandon. You would agree that marbled homes, and costly jewellery and outrageously priced cars cannot replace the simple H2O.

But that is not all. Not having access to clean drinking water is the cause of the death of 5000 children a day. It is also the cause of malnourished children, malnourished adults who then tend to catch infections as their immunity is extremely low. Most diseases are water borne, and some can even be fatal.

Lack of water has under consequences. Most of the community toilets and toilets in schools have to be locked up because of lack of water to keep them operational and clean. With no toilet facility in schools, girls often drop out, more so after reaching puberty. Adults have no option than defecate in the open and the risk of illnesses grows by quantum leaps as human faeces carries many diseases. Adequate toilets with proper disposal could end this aberration. And yet in a city like ours we still waste water every second of every hour.

So a challenge like the ice bucket challenge seems absurd in a country where there are still millions who do not have access to clean drinking water. The fact that many of our country mates joined the challenge compelled me to write this blog in order to highlight a reality we all seem to have forgotten: that water is more precious than anything else in the world and it is time we stopped wasting it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Frozen in time

This picture must have been taken sometime in the summer of 1999. The location: the Bhatti Kurd village located near the Bhatti Mines. I had forgotten its existence and was reminded of it last week when reading an article on the very same village. The article begins with the chilling words: most girls in Bhatti Village have never been to school. My memory got a huge jolt as I time travelled 14 years back and recalled our tryst with this very village. This was way before project why as you all know it existed; not even in an embryonic state. At that time, pwhy was still searching its identity and had a multitude of activities mostly related to nutrition. As I have said time and again, the sight of a child begging had and remains unbearable and makes me feel angry, sad and helpless at the same time. That is why one of the very first avatars of project why was a programme aimed at urging the people of Delhi to stop giving money to beggar children and give nutritional cookies instead. The idea was to give every car owner a smart box that would contain 50 cookies and have a tie up with petrol pumps where people could 'refill' their boxes. The cost 100 rupees for 50 cookies! The idea was to stop mafias from using children as children would not get money.  For me it was a win win situation. I was really naive.

Then came the version 2 whereby we found children in organisations and distributed them these nutritive biscuits which had been specially designed and contained the required daily vitamin and mineral needs. An organisation ran a programme for the Bhatti Mine children and we began distributing them cookies and also a frothy chilled drink called Ice Cream Wash. This was obtained from ice cream factories and was a kind of milk shake that was the result of washing a machine with high pressure potable water before changing flavours. We collected the same in large igloos and every kid bought a glass from home and got its share. Needless to say the kids loved it and so did we as the distribution was accompanied by games and dancing!

It was heartbreaking to read the article as it took me back 15 years in a time warp. It was as if I was reading an piece written in 1999. After 15 years the only thing that seems to have changed is the age of the children. The village still has no amenities: roads, schools, dispensaries, a waste disposal system and even sufficient drinking water.

I sat for a long time lost in my thoughts and in some heavy soul searching. Had I made the right choices? Should I have soldiered on working with the nutrition programme and the very deprived children in villages? Should I have marketed my 'don't give them a coin; give them nutrition!' mantra with more conviction? Could I have, with all my shortcomings been able to make a difference in their lives, keeping my abysmal track record of battling wily politicians and greedy bureaucrats? And most what would have happened to Manu, my alter ego and conscience keeper and above all the indomitable spirit I still draw strength from.

As I always say, I simply do what the (wo)man upstairs wills me to. I cannot afford to look back with regrets or remorse. But I can surely shed a quiet tear for my Bhatti Mine children.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Of hot chapatis for buffaloes and small incidents of rape

Incredible India. It can never cease to amaze or infuriate you. Even when you think you have seen and heard it all wham, you are hit by another salvo you could not have imagined even in your wildest dream. You may recall the 'incident', as that seems to be the word of the day, when buffaloes belonging to a Minister went missing and the whole police set up was on their toes till they were mercifully found. Humans of course do not get the same attention but jack fruits do! This is India my darling and yes you guessed right buffaloes are in the news again and the protagonists are the same: the police and the Minister.

Our buffalo loving Minister, does not seem to like people even if it is they and not the buffaloes who vote him in, wanted some more and someone who states he can give everything to the said Minister decided to gift him... buffaloes! Now these had to be transported and from point A to B and the men in uniform laid out the royal treatment for our 4 legged friends. They were fed hot and fresh chapatis and jaggery rich fodder and a bonfire was lit up to keep the mosquitoes at bay. I wonder if buffaloes can get malaria but I know humans do and die of it. In Tripura there were 67 deaths last month, and the average in India hovers around 50 000 a year. But we are blessed. The Minister's new buffaloes are safe. 

What really made me see red was that police personnel in uniform was making hot chapatis (flat breads) for the buffaloes, mothers in the same State ferret rat holes do find grain for their starving children. These are the Hunger Games that will never be talked about. Should you care to know more, read Ash in the Belly. I am just quoting some lines: On days where there is no food in the house the whole family sets out to find food. They scour the harvested fields of the landlords with brooms to garner the gleaning of the stray grains of wheat and paddy... they follow field rats to their burrows and are skilled in scrapping out the grains stolen and stored underground by the rodents...after each weekly market ends, they collect in their sari edges, grain  spilled inadvertently by traders or rotting waste vegetable... they even sift through cow dung for undigested grain. (Ash in the Belly page 6).

It all seems so wrong and absurd and yet no one reacts and people will still vote for the man and his buffaloes. We are not a democracy but a feudal society.

As if that was not enough for the day, another incident! This one called rape: a beast that lurks at every corner looking for its prey that can be aged a 6 months to 80 years! We all recall the Delhi rape with horror and every single rape after that with despair and helplessness. Well one of our brand new Minister qualified that horrifying crime as one small incident of rape that cost us billions of dollars in terms of global tourism! he has tried to 'defend' his comment but come on Mt Minister no rape is a small incident. Imagine if the victim was your daughter. Are rapes gone be looked  at as revenue loss?

Incredible India!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Long live the Loos of India

Sorry guys here is more about loos and apologies for the 'illustration' but it has not been downloaded from the net but taken by one of our teachers. Poor man! He had to do this on a Sunday and told me that he could not eat a meal for the next two days. I will spare you the innards of the place but I have a collection of pictures that would make you gall.

 This picture was 'commissioned' by someone who wanted to make loos. He was spot on as everyone is vying for the title of the Loo King of India after our Prime Minister stated the urgency of making loos in his I Day Speech. Today two mega industrialists have pledged 100 crore each, that is one billion! I think I gagged more than my poor colleague. 200 crores are on their fast descent to waste. And I speak with confidence. What makes me choke more is that if someone placed 5 measly crores, the interest could run project why forever and we would do more than make loos.

In our capital city there are loos, believe it or not. There those for the poor like the ones in the picture that are often locked, like the one in the picture or so filthy that you can barely use them, more so as you have to dish out a rupee to do so.

Then there are the ones that were built for the Commonwealth Games but never got used. What you see is not a monument but the Defence Colony loo when it was being made. I do not think it has ever been used. It lies locked waiting for its first user. I believe they are under litigation and I guess will be totally unusable by the time the case is settled.

You may have also seen the new kid on the block: the bright red loos made by the  DIMTS, better known as the BRT gang. They are good looking but are often locked for reasons beyond comprehension. Delhi also has the horrid portable toilets and of course all the walls and open spaces available to 'relieve' ones self. All these have been made at some cost to the tax payer. It is time we asked for an audit before throwing crores to make more such useless structures.

The problem that arises is why these toilets that were at one time totally acceptable reach such a state. The mistakes we often make is 'think' we know what the 'other' wants. Girls need toilet in schools but they also need clean and safe toilets where they live. Why do we always decide for others and never ask them what they want and WHY things have gone wrong. I was myself surprised when a the mother of a teenager brushed aside my worry about safety when we were talking about the toilet in her area. She in the inimitable style of survivors told me that her brother could accompany her. What irked her most was the 1 rupee to be paid reach time. They are a family of 8 with one earning member. Do the maths. Think of how many times we use a loo in a day then multiply by 8 and then 30. It is a huge chunk of the 5 or 6000 the bread earner earns.

The main issue was all cleanliness. Beautiful structures are erected sometimes after international or national competition and then no one sits and thinks of how they will be maintained over the years as loos are needed as long as humans are there. Thinking that the 1 rupee per use will do the trick is ridiculous. A block of toilets needs water of course but cleaning implements, products and people who are given a proper salary. Toilets have to be cleaned almost after each use. But that is not the real solution. The real solution lies with the community taking ownership of the block and then all is well!

When we began our work in Okhla almost 8 years ago, the local mafia did not want us and thus they use to break our 'school' every week end. We simply rebuilt it every Monday and carried on. Today it is located in a flimsy structure that can be broken with a kick but no one touches it. We have expensive equipment that is safer than in a bank vault. The same has to be the case with community toilets which are a must as if the 'fashion' of everyone making some makeshift loo continues, it would be a disaster for the environment. That is why work like we do is important. You can make diamond studded loos but unless you make the community accept and respect them they will have the same fate as all the others.

So you can understand how I feel when I see 200 crores going down the drain as I struggle to keep project why afloat.

Monday, August 18, 2014

All about loos: cynicism versus realism

If there is one topic that has received unprecedented publicity in the last months it has been loos! Unfortunately, the reason 'we' remember the importance of loos are often tragic: rapes, girls dropping out of school or having to defecate in the open even in cities and all related problems the worse in my mind being fatal diseases related to poor hygienic conditions. The reason 'we' think of toilets only at those horrific moments is because 'we' are the privileged 52% of Indians who have access to a loo. Should you be interested in knowing the hazards of open defecation here are some shocking factsA single gram of human faeces contains as much as 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs When ingested it can therefore lead to typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, polio, pneumonia, fatal worm infestation, trachoma, stunted physical development and impaired cognitive function. It makes open defecation a lead cause of diarrheal death; 2,000 children under the age of five die every day, one every 40 seconds, from diarrhoea. These should make us hand our head in shame and scream our outrage, but the reality is that we have access to toilets so why should we waste our time on human waste(sic).

But for the past months loos are the 'flavour' of the day and everyone and anyone wants to set up loos.  The latest commitment came from as high as the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. Yes 68 years after becoming a free nation we are yet to solve our 'shit' issue.

A few months back a modern Croesus came my way and upon learning that I worked for the urban poor stated his desire to build loos. His benchmark was to give the poor the best loo possible. He even went to state that he wanted to make Indians give up squatting and sit instead. Hoping to have a few pennies come my way, I accepted to help this person and in my own realistic way requested him to come and visit some of the existing loos in the slums we operate in. The visit was an eye opener to me though I think our Good Samaritan did not get the picture. My plan was to first try and find out why the loos that already exist do not work and in Delhi we have quite a range: from the filthy loos set up by the State, to the swanky ones made at humongous costs for the Commonwealth Games that have never been used, to the new red ones made by a Transport organisation that seemed locked too! Unless we find out why these have not worked, it is pointless to make new ones. To me it seems not so much the design of the structure but the maintenance, safety and upkeep etc. And the only people who can give these answers are the users themselves.

The state of toilets placed in slums is so bad that one of my staff who lives in such a slum has had to 'rent' a room across the street that has a toilet facility for hide extended family and come rain or fire, if you need to poo then you have to take a walk. Everyone cannot afford such a solution so as it is impossible to even enter the stench infested toilet blocks, you have to find your place in the sun. So to my realist and cynical mind all these promised loos may just go the same way. If I had a say, I would first fix the existing ones and then go on to making new ones that would meet the requirements of the end users.

Should you go to Defence Colony Market or Kailash Colony Market and feel like peeing, then in spite the super fancy loos that were meant to house cafes and flower shops you cannot as these are closed and unused and I am told in litigation. That they were build with millions of our hard earned money does not matter. It never does.

Making more loos in markets or slums makes no sense as they will go the same way unless we audit them and run proper surveys to find out where it all went wrong. If we do not do that, then apart from some pockets becoming heavier nothing will change.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Question your sons too!

I guess we were all waiting for our new Prime Minister's address to the Nation with bated breaths. Many of his admirers as well as detractors were a little discomfited by the fact that one had not heard him at all after he took over as PM. I do not know about you, but I fell vindicated today when I heard his address from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Sixty eight years Kamala my mother was part of the delirious crowd and never forgot the range of emotions she had experienced. All the trials and tribulations she and her family had suffered were forgotten be it the pangs of hungers, the lacerated backs that had to be tended by a 7 year old, the humiliation and sneers. Nothing mattered any more. India was free!

I am happy Kamala is no more as her heart would have been shattered at how badly we tended the fragile sapling the likes of her had gifted us. I do not want to go into details, not today. Today let us celebrate the tree whose roots still stand strong.

Yes we all heard the the new PM's speech and we all heard that he addressed us not as the Prime Minister but in his own words as the Prime Servant. This was balm to the heart but what made me want to hug him was when he addressed parents and asked them the questions never asked. Why did parents question every action of their daughters and not ask then same ones to their sons. As he rightly said, rapists have parents too and maybe if they were challenged at the right time they would not go astray. I guess that is where it all begins. Screaming for rapists to be hanged is not the solution.  

It was refreshing to hear a PM speak extempore! It was comforting to see a PM standing in the open like all his fellow Indians and not behind bullet or whatever proof glass. But what I loved most was when he said that he could not understand why a bureaucrat who comes to work on time is Breaking News!

This again is something that has always annoyed me. In my past avatar I often worked in high profile meetings and my team and I worked our a****** off to say the least. Yet when the time to reward those who were truly responsible for the success of the event, the medals went to bureaucrats. To me it was inane as they were just doing their duty, whereas people like us who were employed for specific tasks and found ourselves cleaning bathrooms or carting luggage because some bureaucrat had forgotten to employ porters or cleaners, we were ignored even when our names were sent up by our immediate bosses. So a bureaucrat who comes on time is no headline news and should never be.

I do not know what will happen tomorrow or in the next months, years or more, I only want too savour what I heard today.

Happy Independence Day!