Friday, June 22, 2012

Whose Breaking News is it Anyway?

Breakfast time 'Breaking News' and Sunday afternoon 'Shocking Statistics'. 
Children dying of completely preventable causes; women being ill-treated and traumatized; horrendous health; poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, out-of-control crime and corruption, and overall abysmal levels of human existence, let alone development. 
Do any of these constitute a 'breaking news' or a 'shocking story' anymore? Is surprise even the right word for the 'we've seen it all' feeling which emerges when you hear of many children dying to the ineffectiveness of the health system, or when a new mega crore scam emerges? 

Isn't it all very much a part of your and my day, to have the morning cuppa tea with the so called eminent leaders fighting like wild animals (who may be a tad better!) to select a ceremonial head who in all probability would only increase the tax-payers' burden by taking his/her extended family on many 'foren' trips, without adding anything substantial to people's lives? 

Doesn't this then give way to the headlines of the afternoon which are dominated by rape, murder, child abuse, political mud-slinging, preventable-deaths due to health facilities being over-burdened and thus inaccessible, and the same routine of probes, commissions, inquiries, and investigations? In fact one sometimes wonders where the results of ALL these efforts vanish! I in my mind imagine a huge warehouse. Dark, stinky, with that musty smell associated with storing files and folders for a long time. A tap dripping in an unknown corner, and something scurrying in the darkness, trying to nibble and 'make disappear', the result of one more investigation, the testimony of one more witness. 

Of course the evening and the night bring nothing new. More news, more undercover stories. Stories of 'human interest'. BUT who said anything about being human? We are a nation of walking, talking, zombies. Immune and insensitive to anything happening around us. 

A  nation, did I say? Oh sorry! We are a collection of 'regional groups', who care only if the occasional bomb blast is in our city (or state, depending upon allegiance). Otherwise we tweet about it and put it as our facebook status on the 'anniversary' of the blast. We also religiously watch the 'shocking' show that shows us 'shocking' stories of women's abuse, just as the women of our family get berated, everyday, around us. We shed tears when a woman speaks of how she is rejected by society due to her caste which is expected to carry out manual scavenging and yet, when we hate somebody, we say, "Oh, he is such a Bhangi, Choora, Chamar!". We want the health services to improve and be equitable, however, we only want the attention of the BEST super-specialist in town, that too without any wait, when somebody in our family is sick. We abhor female foeticide and the ill-treatment meted out to girls, but still think that our family should have a son to take the family name forward or to light our funeral pyre when we are gone. We are absolutely against regionalism, but still say, 'Chinki' and think loose, or easy. 

We are actually amazing, aren't we. 

We agree that the environment needs to be saved, urgently, but pride ourselves on never having stepped into public transport, and how it is only meant for the mazdoors (laborers) now. We also think it is our right to throw rubbish anywhere, and mark all our travel routes with our piss and our spit. We crib that the law and order situation in the country is rotten, but never turn up to vote, or even dream of taking the administration of this country in our own hands, be it the bureaucracy or politics. In fact, most of us, take immense pride in saying that, 'I maintain my distance from politics'. Well then, you have no right to crib. Because those who do participate in the game, are obviously setting its rules. Just too bad. 

Sitting in our comfortable air-conditioned room, in front of our direct-to-home service connected LCD, we practice, 'the gloved-hand, armchair concern'. An evolved form of social concern, it causes neither dirty-hands, nor worn-out shoes, and is very effective in today's time where stepping out might involve considerable danger. Is it any wonder that we have reached the place where we are today? We deserve to be here, because society is what we make of it. You and me. Together. 

It is an emergency. We need to get our hands dirty. Practice what we preach. NO we do not need to become 'social workers', and NO social concern is not about traveling to rural India and working in the so called, 'God-forsaken' places. Start where you are. Our cities and towns need help too. They need your time and your talent. Your passion and your genuine interest. Your ability to care, and to 'give a damn', even about things that might not affect you directly.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Droplets of Happiness or Tears of Sorrow?

It started off with a loud prologue. 
Like the drums that precede the 'Baraat' or the procession accompanying the groom in an Indian wedding. Almost like a light and sound show as well, with lightning and thunder setting the stage perfectly, for the first few hesitant drops. 
The barrage followed. And just like that, it was the first rain. 
The Earth responded eagerly with that heady aroma of its quenched thirst, and the birds sang with joy. Trees and leaves, heads and tails, all enjoying and dancing in the drops of happiness pouring forth from the skies. 

And yet, there are many, dreading the onset of the monsoon in this arid part of Central India. 
The reason, when explored, links up to the lack of proper sanitation facilities in the area. Disorganized or rather, 'confused' semi-urbanized settlements like the town of Babina, and other, small, more-village, less-town, settlements in the area, combine the disadvantages of both villages and cities; and lacking the facility of clean, wet toilets (toilets which have a provision for the flushing of the excreta), they still continue with the ancient tradition of 'dry-toilets' which need manual scavenging to clean them. 

This perpetuates discrimination against certain castes, who are the only ones carrying out the 'refuse' of humanity in this part of the world. 

The impact is particularly critical on women. 

They are 'unemployable' in any other role, even as domestic help, in their own words, as the first thing people ask them is their caste, and knowing their so-called 'identity', refuse to let them enter their house for anything other than, 'cleaning their toilets'. 
Meet any woman of the 'Valmiki' caste and she will tell you how her family is called 'Bhangi', a term used to address people of the castes which are expected to carry out manual scavenging including cleaning latrines and handling dead bod es (both human and animal). 

Discriminated against, and abused for literally cleaning our, 'shit', these women silently go about their work to earn the mere, two-rotis (flatbread) a day, or the fifty rupees they are paid for an entire month of insanely difficult work. 

Made illegal in 1993, employing of manual scavengers, and construction of dry latrines, still continue across the country, and can be witnessed easily enough if one wishes to do so.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UN-HRC), at a 2002 meeting of the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, said, “Public latrines – some with as many as 400 seats – are cleaned on a daily basis by female workers using a broom and a tin plate. The excrement is piled into baskets which are carried on the head to a location which can be up to four kilometers away from the latrine. At all times, and especially during the rainy season, the contents of the basket will drip onto a scavenger’s hair, clothes and body.......they are thus exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. TB (tuberculosis) is rife among the community."

Thus the pitter-patter of happiness for some of us, might be the sound of sorrow for many. 

While you enjoy that cup of steaming tea in the rain-soaked balcony, cribbing that your prayers to the rain-Gods for this heavenly nectar were not answered earlier, you might want to ponder on the thought that, the delay might just have been caused by the millions, praying harder than you, for the latrines and their contents to be dry so they could easily, 'scoop them up'.

**For those wishing to read more, WaterAid's insightful report, Burden of Inheritance ( in a hard-hitting tone, analyzes and deconstructs the social conventions that allows this inhuman practice to continue, and pleads for strong action against it. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Go Travel!

Woke up with this Henry Rollins (The Punk Rock World Traveler) thought today and wanted to share it with everybody! Go Travel!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

6 States, 1000 Kilometers, and an Amazing 3 Day Journey

Ferozepur, Punjab, to Babina, Uttar Pradesh. 
A long line on the map....and a longer journey across (the unpredictable) Indian roads!

Starting from Ferozepur, a small city in Punjab, known mostly for its strategic location due to the border that it shares with Pakistan, and ending at Babina, a small city right on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh; the journey took us across diverse landscapes, temperatures, and road qualities!

So while the countryside of Punjab offered lush fields and green streams, and roadside eateries with yum food (also called 'dhabas') aplenty; our drive through Delhi and the region surrounding it took us over some of the best roads the country has to offer. 

Agra, and the wondrous Taj Mahal, and hundreds of temples, Gurudwaras, and Masjids, also, luckily, charted themselves on to our course.

However, the thrill of the ride went up a notch, only after we entered the 'not so famous' Chambal region, beyond Gwalior, towards Jhansi. Once the abode of Phoolan Devi and her gang of dacoits, the terrain of this area as seen in the picture below, offers an almost perfect breeding ground for the dacoits to quickly escape and hide from anyone. 

These shallow valley like formations flanked the dusty roads all the way between Gwalior and Jhansi and the driver's constant narration of dacoity stories on these roads did nothing to help us feel more secure!! The windows were securely wound up and nobody asked for a drink or pee break as we negotiated the broken down and in some places made completely of sand, roads, till Jhansi.

The countryside between Jhansi and Babina, where the border between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh lazes along like a snake on a hot summer day, has a striking feature. Though mostly barren and with small shrubs as the main vegetation, each hillock in the region has a small temple or sacred rock formation, right on its summit. Whether meant to plead for protection from the dacoits or to please the Gods to ask for rain and less harsh weather, these temples or formations are usually small but stand out due to the barrenness of the area surrounding them, and give the region a surreal feel, especially as the sun sets.

The traveler, having made this intriguing and interesting journey, however, did not lose her focus on health :) The first learning from the journey was that across the 1000 kilometeres traveled, we did not come across a SINGLE trauma center or a medical facility capable of handling road accident victims, or even people with basic medical needs, except within the cities of New Delhi, Agra, and Gwalior. It is scary and surprising that one might be expected to travel 10o-odd kilometers to access even basic health services. 

Another observation is the complete lack of facilities for clean washrooms for women, across the entire distance traveled! So while men attend to nature's calls right at the side of the road even within the cities, women are expected to use only the toilets in restaurants (if any!). A huge problem, especially in the completely barren terrain that offers no huge plants or trees to squat behind safely!!

One striking observation is that the more I travel on, the more I realize that the basic problems plaguing health in our country remain the same, whether it is a Gadchandur, an Ahmednagar, or a Babina. While the public health system of the State is defunct, and completely impotent, the medical practitioners of the government hospitals practice privately offering services inaccessible to almost everybody for whom the State's health system is meant. In addition, quackery, as well as uncontrolled private sector health facilities with almost ZERO quality control are rampant. 

The lack of awareness among people, and an almost God-like respect for anybody with a stethoscope, are exploited beyond imagination to lead to a situation where people reject even the few services which are infact offered by the State's health system, and instead opt for private nursing homes which poison the health of the community while maintaining a vice-like grip on the minds of people through their disinformation, and administration of 'injections' which is considered to be the only effective treatment by many. 

I am sure these issues bring back memories of my stories from Gadchandur. They also apply to the area you live in, and if you ponder a little, they apply to the entire country!! But here, I digress :) 

We are currently writing from Babina, and exploring public health in this part of the country. The stories, hopefully, shall continue. Amen.

Friday, June 1, 2012

We Now Have a Facebook Page

Yes we do! 
We are now also available at

Let us use this facebook page to connect; and to discuss, argue, agree, disagree, oppose, support, and collectively brainstorm about public health issues. 
Hope to see you there!!