the day did dawn

the day did dawn

The day did dawn. The lohar camp was raised to the ground courtesy the commonwealth games. And this time we knew it would not be allowed to be rebuilt no matter how large the tithe. The camp had been in existence for over 35 years. Over time it had acquired what we could rightly call civic recognition: a postal address – Maharaha Pratap Camp -, ration cards and voter’s ID card for all its inhabitants, electricity etc. Over the years promises were made by all and sundry – politicians, social do gooders, administrators – that the camp would be relocated and its inhabitants given proper plots with space to carry on their trade. Let us not forget that these are nomads and nomads were promised rehabilitation by none other than our first Prime Minister. I would also like to add that in most other states they have been properly rehabilitated.

For the past 35 years they have lived in this camp. Children are born, they grow up and get married and have their own families. Sanjay and Vicky both teachers at project why were born in this very camp. Over the past 35 years their camp has been raised regularly and then allowed to be rebuilt after payment of an adequate bribe. It was almost a game that we too have watched from the wings helplessly as for almost five years we ran a small creche and primary outreach and got to know and admire this proud clan.

A few years back the head of the clan affectionately known as Tau – elder uncle – brought some papers to me. These were bits and pieces of a file, very official looking with green sheets and heaps of bureaucratic notings by senior officials. A quick look at the papers showed that a rehabilitation plan had been mooted and surveys done. The Lohars of Delhi should have got their place in the sun. But that was not to be. The plan got hijacked probably by land mafias as is always the case and the Lohars remained where they were. We decided to do something and try we did! A PIL was filed in the High Court and a case was also filed with the National Human Rights Commission. Had not the rights of these proud souls been hijacked with impunity. They had been used and abused by all and sundry: hungry politicians prowling for new vote banks, uncaring bureaucrats, greedy land grabbers and so on. No one seemed to care.

The Lohars continued to live with their head held high refusing to give up, their legendary resilience intact watching impassibly the will it won’t it game that was enacted in front of their tiring eyes. And somehow each time we thought the game was over, some extra time was doled out to meet some new wily agenda. Till yesterday when the final blow was dealt courtesy the commonwealth games and the tiny camp was finally destroyed forever. Our Lohar friends are now scattered all over this uncaring and insensitive city.

I will miss them. Over the years I had learnt to love and respect this proud people. I often found myself walking to their camp whenever I felt in need of a shot of optimism. I would spend hours over cups of tea talking to Tau and imbibing his age old wisdom. I would watch the beautiful children playing in the dust breathing the fumes of the cars revving up at the red light. Were they not children of Indian born with the same rights as others, then who had usurped and hijacked their rights! What could one do. The PIL in court was lost in translation.

Sanjay and Vicky have not come to the centre for the past few days. They are busy picking up the pieces of their shattered life and building a new one. I know they will succeed as they have the wisdom of the gypsies in their veins. I cannot begin to imagine what it feels like to have your home and life destroyed in front of your helpless eyes. I just feel angry and sad at the way those in power play with innocent souls and ultimately always win. Is this the India our freedom fighters fought and died for? I just think we have let them down. Is there a way out. I do not know.

The interrupted game

The interrupted game

Sanjay did not come to the project yesterday. The reason: an eviction notice by the Municipality. Sanjay is a Lohar who lives in what is known as the Maharana Pratap Camp but is actually a motley assortment of 40 ramshackle tenements made of plastic sheets and tarpaulin. The Camp has been in existence for 3o years and Sanjay was born there and for the last 30 years there have been innumerable evictions notices. Along the way the camp gained respectability and recognition with a postal address and voter Id cards for its residents: you see they were after all a sizable vote bank. As for the eviction notices, they were warded away with a few coins. It was almost a game being played to perfection, with every protagonist playing its role faultlessly. This by the way is a play running in many locations across our city. However this time there was a new entrant in the plot: the Commonwealth Games and it seemed that this time the denouement could be different.

Sanjay to say the least was definitely worried. Would this eviction be for real? The red letter day dawned and passed. A hurried visit to the local politicos revealed that perhaps the camp would be saved and the ludicrous idea of hiding it, the one mooted by our Chief Secretary, be enforced. The camp would be hidden not behind bamboo screens as once thought, but behind some kind of screen, maybe even publicity ones to rake in more moolah! The jury is still out on this one.

This incident raises once again the question of our attitude towards what we call, for want of a better word, the poor. With the advent of the Games this attitude has come out of the closet and is out in the open. We are ashamed of our poor and yet unable or rather unwilling to address the situation and find lasting solutions. We just want to brush the problem under the carpet and hope it goes away.

A TV show aired yesterday tried to debate the issue. Sadly most participants did not get down to addressing the real issue but simply tried to defend their position rather unconvincingly. The debate was on the lack of concern of the middle class towards what was termed as the other India. It actually became a weak defense on the said lack of concern. This is the sad reality. We have lost our heart and soul in our quest for riches. Yet we forget that to acquire these very riches we need the other India be it to construct our new homes and malls or simply to make our every day life easier and better.

The question that begs to be asked is how long will the other India remain silent? How long are we going to simply ignore the facts that glare at us: children dying of malnutrition, people living in inhumane conditions, farmers committing suicide: the list is endless. It is time we addressed these issues if we want our good times to continue. As one participant tried to say: we need to empower the poor and we need to do it now.

The last few weeks have been replete with stories of corruption in the CWG. Yet nothing much was said about the people who lost their homes and livelihood, about the children who worked on construction sites, about the labourers who lost their lives. They do not make news. Nor does Sanjay and his kin. They may lose their homes or may be hidden behind a screen as we are too embarrassed to accept their existence. And after the games the screens will be removed and the eviction game will resume after a brief interruption.

more loo tales

They came at 1 crore ( 10 million a piece) and were touted as the best ever. They came in all shapes: mausoleums, Indian fort, glass boxes a strange and bizarre mix of style. Prototypes were built and the deal was that the one selected would be cloned in 200 locations while the others demolished. An absurd waste of money in my book. Residents of the chosen colonies went up in arms calling them monstrosities, something I second loudly. According to the latest buzz they will all be demolished!

I watch numbed and speechless. Do we need loos at this cost in a land where many still do not have access to a proper toilet. Oops I stand corrected: by many I meant the ones living on the other side of the fence, those no one cares about.

The reason for this blog is to vent my ire about all that is happening. I have reined my pen for a few days watching the on going saga of the Commonwealth Games or should I say Corruption Wealth Games. People lying unabashedly in front of cameras, letters appearing contradicting the lie and then more lies. People being made scape goats at the drop of a hat, others vanishing altogether like the technicians who were to man the ill famed giant balloon that cost over 38 crore rupees to the poor Indian tax payer. Every day some new scam is brought to light leaving us all bewildered and sadly helpless.

A small question does blink in our exhausted minds: who will pay the bill? And the answer is loud a clear: we! Be prepared dear Delhizen to pay more for everything, even the air you breathe. The likes of me who are in our twilight years will probably pay the bill till we breath our last. The other question that one dares ask is will the guilty pay and the answer is as clear: no! Some poor scapegoat will be found and axed publicly while the real culprits will simply disappear for a while till they regroup for the next kill. This is the sad reality and we are the ones responsible for all the mess as we have allowed our democracy to be hijacked by brigands. So grin and bear it all.

More questions come to mind, at least for those who still care: will those who have been rendered homeless get a roof on their heads; will those who have lost their livelihood be able to earn again once the drama is over – I mean the vegetable vendor, the cobbler, the iron man et al – and the answer is perhaps as the hungry mouth they once fed – the local cop or official – will start lurking again as he misses his weekly tithe. Who knows. Only time will tell.

The real India

The real India

I keep reading your blogs, and they keep me in touch with the real India wrote a friend recently. Made me wonder about what the real India really was. Is is it the one we desperately want to show the world, even if it means hiding all else. Or is it the one that lives in the the very places we so desperately want to hide?

In the recent weeks a saga has enfolded in front of our bewildered and helpless eyes. I refer to the now (ill) famed commonwealth games (CWG). Actually snippets of news about the aberrations committed in the name of the CWG had appeared time and again in the print media, often tucked away on an inside page, and we had not bothered. They did not make headline news and somehow did not touch us where it hurt. I mean the slums destroyed, the people rendered homeless, jobless et al, the shelters raised in the name of beautification, the children working on construction sites, the workers living in terrible conditions, the beggars being branded as criminals, the workers dying…! Somehow we were too blase or inured to even take note. It was only when we were told of instances of corruption that we somehow woke up from our slumber. Treadmills hired @ of 900 000 Rs for 45 days struck a chord in our jaded minds. How could that be, and it was our money to boot. So we needed answers about toilet paper rolls, umbrellas, and shady foreign deals. Homeless people were not up our street.

True there have been more than sufficient dodgy occurrences in these Games and the jury if out on them or so one would like to believe though it may well seem that the culprits will one again slime out as national (somewhat misplaced) honour is salvaged. Are we not masters at crisis management better knows as jugad. And then is public memory not dangerously short.

When the dust settles on the closing ceremony and the last light is switched off some realities will still remain. In a hard hitting article that I urge you to read an activist writes: In recent months, at least 100,000 of New Delhi’s 160,000 homeless people have been booted out of night shelters, many of which have been shut down or demolished in a bid to spruce up the city before the Commonwealth Games. Besides shutting down 22 of the city’s 46 night shelters, plans are afoot to raze slums, stamp out hundreds of street food vendors and deport 60,000 destitutes to their home states. Voluntary agencies have documented that as many as 300,000 more people may have been evicted from other parts of the city. Recent reports reveal that 44 slum clusters are being removed from around the roads and stadia where the athletes and the delegates to the games will travel and play. To add insult to injury, Delhi Chief Secretary Rakesh Mehta unapologetically preened that since it is not possible to remove all the slums before the deadline, the government had decided to use bamboo screens to simply conceal the slums from sight.

Take a moment and ask yourself where these hundred of thousands of people have gone. What has become of them, of their families, their children. All in the name of beautifying a city for a 14 day show. Are the few medals we may or may not get enough to justify this? One look at the city makes you wonder whether anything will be beautified at all. I am sure we would get medals for numbers of potholes and dug roads if there were any. And do you hide slums behind bamboo screens or any wall simply to conceal them from sight as our Chief Secretary says. Slums are an intrinsic part of the city and if the powers that be are so ashamed of them why has nothing been done to house the city’s poor who Mr Chief Secretary are not second class citizens but precious vote banks nurtured over the years by hungry politicians. Off with their heads seems to be an easy way out but we are not in wonderland!

All this talk about national pride is making me balk. What national pride when 5000 children die of malnutrition every day and rains rots in the open for want of granaries. Something is terribly wrong. So I ask again what is the real India? Is it the one our heartless leaders want to showcase in spite of everything or is it the one beyond the bamboo screen. For me it is the later. The one that carries on living in spite of all odds and is a lesson in courage, dignity and above all forgiveness. We simply seem to have forsaken them.

loos @ of one crore; 3 loos for a planet!

Apologies to be harping about the Commonwealth games again but then every time you step out of your home the common mess hits you in the face and your mind goes into overdrive. Yesterday I passed one of the 50 luxury loos being built for the Games. This is one is a horrendous structure in coloured glass and is tucked away in the corner of a park of a not so upmarket shopping centre in South Delhi, one that I doubt any visitor to the games would drop by. The structure is big by loo standard but actually the size of let us say a drawing room. And quite ugly too! Now @ 1 crore a piece (10 million) it seems obscene. Come to think about it what we are desperately trying to raise to make pwhy sustainable is the cost of 3 loos! (cost of building planet why: a guest house + a children’s centre).

Something is terribly wrong. The Games are under the scanner of all vigilance agencies of the land as corruption seems rampant. As I had written earlier it seems that these Games are an opportunity for all to line their bottomless pockets. So what if the work is shoddy, the material used sub standard and the infrastructure shaky. As long as some become richer, all is well! But as if that was not enough now a UK agency is investigating a dubious money transfer whereby large sums of Indian tax payer’s hard earned money has been given to a shady individual who runs a one man show in London where he provides portable loos, cars, security screens and also hold your breath, consultancy for costume design @ 25 000 pounds a month! This is getting as Alice would say curiouser and curiouser. It is also making the blood of the likes of me boil!

When questioned those in power are quick to either pass the buck or try to appeal to the pride of the country excuse. What pride! One would, as a proud Indian like to wish the whole thing away if that could be done. Stadia are not ready and even if they are they may fall on our heads, the city is a holy mess and only a miracle can salvage things. Maybe we as Indians can be proud of the fact that we have mastered the art of corruption!

Did we need such a useless and mindless extravaganza to acquire pride? What pride is there when people have lost their homes, their livelihood? In all this hullabaloo one seems to have forgotten the people who have lost everything courtesy the Games! It makes me physically sick! These zillions of rupees could have been put to better use. In our very country, the one that is busy trying to acquire misplaced pride, children die of hunger every dayand people are still desperately trying to master the art of surviving. But that is one end of the spectrum. At the other they are mastering the art of corruption. And somewhere in between we are watching helpless.

Enemy no 1

Enemy no 1

A young man came by recently. His dream: to make a difference. His vision: to help eradicate hunger by feeding the poor. His reason: hunger hampers every aspect of growth and development. One could only but agree. In the recent report on the Commonwealth Games, published by Habitat International Coalition and aptly entitled whose wealth- whose commons, we find some startling data: 40 % of the world’s starvation-affected people live in India, 76% families (840 million) people do not get their daily required calories, 55 % of India’s women are malnourished, 46% of India’s children are malnourished, more than 320 million people in India are unable to manage three square meals a day and the most startling one: more than 5,000 children die every day from malnourishment. So hunger is a huge issue and needs to be addressed.

And yet when the passionate young man came to me, I found myself trying to almost dissuade him from his mission, or at least temper it. When we began, a decade ago, we too had a nutrition component in our programme. I remember the bananas and porridge we doled out every day. But after a some time we found that these were often being thrown away by the children who maybe got bored of these items. And how can I forget the irate mother who came screaming that the banana given to her child was rotten! Anyway, we soon stopped the programme seeing that it was getting nowhere.

In spite of the stark reality and need of addressing the hunger issue, feeding the poor is no easy task. We simply zeroed in on education knowing somehow intuitively that this was the way to go.

I have often written about the wastage of food I have seen in the slums of Delhi. It is almost as if throwing food was a way to prove that you had arrived! And yet as I said earlier hunger is a sad reality and needs to be addressed. No child should be allowed to die of hunger in any self respecting society. 5000 do. Yet, if all was well, this should not be happening. In 1975, India launched the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). It was heralded as India’s response to the challenge of providing pre-school education on one hand and breaking the vicious cycle of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality on the other and was to reach all the children in India. Huge funds were disbursed and had the programme worked no child should have been hungry. But that was not to be. As all else in India, the funds were hijacked along the way with impunity to line pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. Come to think of it India is replete with fabulous social schemes that could make all the difference but never do as they simply become ways of enriching wily individuals. I have always held that even if these schemes had been half successful, India would be a different land.

Even today a shocking story was aired on national television. Food meant for children is being eaten by dogs! The reason: lack of storage facility. 50 million people in the state need the food, but bad planning has meant that dogs will eat it! I wonder why sufficient silos and storage facilities cannot be built, it would be better use of public money than beautifying cities for games extravaganzas! But then existent silos are used for stocking, hold your breath, booze!

One can open soup kitchens galore but they will never bring about the change we seek. Change will only come when we break free of the vicious cycle of corruption in which we are all held. Media helps, activism helps but these are simply band-aid remedies. We need to stem the rot and that can only happen when the poor are give a voice. And education is the only answer. Today the beneficiaries of social programmes are unaware of their existence or see them not as a right but as an act of largesse handed out by a local politico. You see we are still a feudal society where the erstwhile landlord has been replaced by the devious politician and the scheming official.

Change will only come when every beneficiary will be empowered enough to ask for his due and seek accountability, and the key is education. But that is the one thing the powers that be do not want. No, don’t be surprised and read on.

Public education is in shambles and the princely pass percentage of 33%, prescribed by the State makes sure that no one from the lower end of the scale gets any proper education. Let me share an incident that occurred a few years back. At that time we use to teach in a reclaimed pig park under a huge tent.One fine morning a posse of officials came and told us to vacate the park. We soon found out that the authorities had decided to build a toilet block in what was once a children’s park. We decided to protest and went to see the local Municipal Councilor. He is semi literate. He brandished a paper shouting that it was not a toilet block that was coming up there but a community centre. Raju, one of our class XI students looked at the paper and pointed out that it said public conveniences and that this meant toilets. You see Raju could reach English and the Councilor could not. From that day on I was branded enemy no 1 (apt title for a Bollywood blockbuster). The reason: I was committing the cardinal sin of empowering the poor and giving them a voice. In today’s India you did not do that. The poor had to remain where they were.

But only if we do empower the poor can we bring about the change we seek. That was the message I was trying to give my young friend!