Dear Indian men, let’s talk

Have you ever heard someone scream when they are completely silent?

Like all of us, I also come from a country where women are one of the many oppressed(?) groups that face inequality of many types and who, like any other minority group, are working to constantly change the status quo in their respective societies. In India if someone has a baby girl, it can usually not be the happiest moment for the whole family and society. The reaction can range from “let’s kill the girl” or “Oh my god it’s a girl! Yes! Happy!” but in the head they already know that she is going to have a difficult life, not just for herself but also for her family. I am not ashamed to admit that India is the one of the most dangerous places to be born a girl. If you are a girl in India, you are treated as a liability among many other stereotypes that you will grow up fighting, if you got out alive when you were born. And even if you are born in a very supportive family and get a PhD you might give up on life sometimes, like this girl. Some say, the problem are men, some say it’s a problem of the mentality. In any case, you see men is a part of both. The outrageous part is that the father of this girl said, I wish I would have saved the money for her dowry, because one day her husband (and his family) will end up harassing and killing my daughter (paraphrasing). This makes you wonder if such men still exist in India and how many decades will it take to change that.

Please do not let an educated, city living Indian having international friends, living abroad tell you that this is not a real problem in India. It is just like extreme poverty, caste based inequality, racism, bigotry and we must be scoring high on all those fronts just because of the mere fact that we are one of the most populated countries in the world. We will always win by numbers. Most of the time, people get uncomfortable talking about such issues which bring a bad name to our society or we are trying to just be in denial and avoid feeling uncomfortable. But I can assure you, that even when the person is a city living, rich, educated and what not, it does not mean that the said man would not demand dowry, or let her wife practice her ambitions. Many a times you will find that such men are the most dangerous ones, who would make demands of dowry in indirect ways by saying “This is how things have been in our culture. Everyone does it.” We all know such men and we have heard stories of our friends. Even the most lovely couple I know, the man in the relationship’s constant advise to me in terms of women would be, “Ajay, you should know how to show a woman her place. Be a man!“. Sure there are people, both men and women, who accept the definition of certain roles that the society ascribes us and they call it values and culture. Good for them.

Looking at the article above, we can see that such men or families (the girl’s husband) are the ones that need to change. Whenever someone points out an age old problem, the common defense and assumption of people can be, “I am not like that” or “My family is not like that”. Sure. Maybe, But really? The educated brother enjoys a lot of freedom and is able to be out late, but when the sister is out and just doing her daily commute to work and home, a slight delay in the schedule sets panic in the whole family. It’s not safe for her to be out alone you say, but the safety is threatened by whom? Men or Aliens? When the girl breaks all the stereotypes and gets a PhD, even in the search of a mature partner, she might be constantly dealing with men who get intimidated by her being a high achiever. The male ego is so fragile it can not handle a strong woman who is just stable in all aspects, career, emotionally and has ambitions. I understand that all the role models that men are shown, are usually men in our societies and high achieving women are always referred to as the “first female prime minister” and not just the “prime minister”, creating a strong belief that such powerful positions are only destined for men and if someone else is getting to that position it’s an exception of sorts. The journey from being an exception to become a norm is a long one, and we can see it in any other country. That’s OK. I mean my country is probably never going to see the light of having more women in the parliament, because men in power don’t want to let go of the power and also patriarchy (more here and here).

When you are a believer of the fact that any human being has autonomy, agency, free will, dignity and is intellectually capable just like any other, you would find it hard to hear what I did. At the very least, I believe the comparison between men and women is that of apples and oranges, and maybe science backs me up on this too by saying all of us are just immutably different. For me the burning question is not just a simple binary one as “Why do men think women are inferior?” but, “Why are men entitled to have such a view, and where does this mentality come from?

If you are a little observant, its not that hard to see while growing up that how gender roles and stereotypes exist in your society. [Pick your favourite profession and see how many (straight) men v/s others come up in the statistics to start with, in case you feel like educating yourself.] Obviously, I grew up with a binary view on gender and knew only of men and women. And although I do not have my own sister, I grew up hanging out with a lot of girls (cousins and neighbours). We played all the games together, especially cricket, which is usually considered a boys only sport. Which meant to me that we were able to play every game together. But, I remember girls were always the different kind of players and upon team selection they would be considered to be split equally between both teams to keep the balance of not-so-good players. Probably that’s how kids grow up thinking that there is a difference of capability and performance between boys and girls. There was also a difference in how boys and girls would fight. Boys could get very violent or loud and will think of poking, bullying or showing physical power in some ways right early since childhood. Until the parents stepped in and would have to explicitly state that doing this to girls isn’t right. Slowly that would change to boys just fighting with boys, but resorting to subtle forms of expressing the fight like, shaming, pulling hair, belittling etc. That gradually changes in all of us as we grow up and subtle behaviours take different forms, either fading away or becoming extreme. The whole belief that since as kids we were able to overpower girls in fights or sports, they somehow become inferior to us, is a wrong one. And now when I speak to my female cousins or friends, who are working and they share their stories of what they have to deal with on a daily basis, I lose patience and my usual response is “Why don’t you speak up?” and then usually I get shouted back, “It’s not that easy!”. It’s usually the men in public space, in the bus or on the streets or in the private space like their supportive friend, boss or colleague who would judge their intellect whenever there has to be a salary raise, promotion or task assignment.

I feel like I grew up in a world where men are violent, and women are silent.

I keep going back to how boys and girls are raised in our society, and made to believe a lot of things by virtue of the conditioning from the environment. While there are a lot of people who tell girls and women on how to conduct their business since centuries, I would rather be interested in discussing how boys are raised and how men grow up to become and what they should and shouldn’t do. I understand privilege is a concept that is invisible to the privileged, just like a fish in a bowl isn’t able to see there’s water (privilege), it can’t be hard for men to see that. The easier way is to speak to the female who are close to you and listen to them and how they see and experience life. I would rather be interested in speaking as, and to, men so that the change happens in men and parenting. And we work towards creating safe spaces and environment that promotes change. Basically what I am saying to men is that change begins with you being supportive, accepting, listening and if not, by just not blocking the way for people who are making the change. It is a men’s issue.

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We need plastic bans in villages to protect our agricultural infrastructure

During one of my fieldwork visits last year, I was doing a daylong interactive discussion with NGO staff and community representatives. At some point we had a tea break, and the tea arrived in plastic cups. Obviously, I was not an expert in how plastic can damage our environment and all the ill effects of having that around us so prominently, because as an Indian, I was accustomed to seeing plastic being used for everything. From protecting our TV remotes, to covering anything possible with plastic as a mechanism to protect it from dust. Then it hit me that, this is a sacred land. India is what it is today, primarily because of our agricultural revolution in part. The land is also sacred, because it is where our food comes from. Moreover, the farmers are the protectors of these lands and the caregivers, not just the caretakers, of our land. These lands are also the main source of income and livelihoods for our farmers, either who own these lands or are just working as labourers to feed their families on a daily basis.

The fact is that plastic waste is a known hazardous material not only for the health of humans and wildlife, but also nature in general; that includes our land, rivers, air etc. When I go out to buy food, vegetables or just have a cup of tea at the local tea-shop in the village, I see plastic everywhere. It is cheap, I get it, which is why it is very popular and the supporting industry around it goes well for the same reason. Local shop owners find it cheap to buy it and give it to their customers, and customers find it easy to dispose. Because you can just throw it anywhere and it automatically disappears. Maybe that is why India decided to ban plastics in its capital city of Delhi. However, my concern is to draw attention to the villages, and especially those agricultural lands that feed not just the people in the region but the whole nature. Then go a step further, in incorporating behavioural change in the use, disposal of plastic waste in the villages. When I walked around the people settled around the rivers that come down from Nepal to India, one could see disposed of plastic bottles or bags here and there. The amount of waste obviously increased the moment you went to the more populated areas, which was a bigger hub for everything from markets, to local bus stops to doctors. However, even in the remotest part of our civilisation, plastic made its way. I felt that our modern and developed lifestyle of the cities is corrupting the innocence and vitality of the villages. In addition, the recent ban in Delhi makes one applaud the move as it is a problem in the most polluted city of India, but what about the villages?

Earlier I was attending state of Bihar’s attempt of formalising the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction into its state DRR strategy i.e. the DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 endorsed and formalised by the state government. If you look at the document, the section on “WASH & Waste Management” probably fits for the problem I am talking about. Also the recent national campaign for clean India drive i.e. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan compliments the commitment top this problem and raise awareness across the country talking about issues like open defecation which speaks to rural India too. So it was really nice to see the inclusion of this strategy in the DRR Roadmap of the state talking about implementing it down to the village (Gram Panchayat) level.

“Include the WASH and waste management related actions in the GP planning through the Standing Committee, Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committee and partnership with civil society organizations.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 78)

What I wanted to understand is that, “Can we consider agricultural land, rivers or our natural resources as part of critical infrastructure?”

Going back to one of the targets of the Sendai Framework,

“Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030. ” (Sendai Framework – Targets)

and connecting it to the DRR Roadmap’s 10 point commitment #7:

“Resilience of critical infrastructure and delivery of essential services will be ensured, including restoration of functionality and continuity, in case of disruptions.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 10)

I understand that conceptually the mention of critical infrastructure is not used in the same sense and context that I am proposing. What I am merely suggesting is that, maybe there is a need to address adequate attention to our natural resources as something critical, especially when it concerns with a multitude of problems that are man made. And when our government can take such measures like banning plastic in Delhi or other bold moves like banning currency or internet censorship, it shouldn’t be difficult for the government to make a blanket ban on plastics in villages too, to protect agricultural land? In disaster prone areas, especially in chronically flood prone areas like Bihar (multi hazardous pp. 47); havoc of nature can cause damages in a flash. Probably a small change like a plastic ban, would have large scale impact or at least not add to creating more hazards (Ref: Chennai Floods). Maybe this requires more thinking on my part.

Uttarakhand Government’s Operation Connect and How can you help!

As a part of the ongoing efforts by the government, the task of reaching out to families seeking information about their relatives has been on top priority by the government officials. I was amazed at the government’s quick deployment of the “people finder” on the Disaster Management portal of the Uttarakhand government which initially had information about tracking rescued people, since army was involved in evacuation or search & rescue. Progressively the site kept being updated with more information and data being gathered and managed by the Uttarakhand government. When I saw a lot of people online volunteering to help with data collection and putting everything at one place and have their own versions of the same task which was already done by the government round the clock, I was just worried about this whole duplication of effort as something that was adding to the chaos. While I was traveling back to India and was in London, I just called the District Information Officer of Rudra Prayag, to check information and convey that some of the documents of rescued people that was being uploaded on their website were actually printed and scanned documents (some word documents but still printed and scanned and some hand written, both in English and Hindi – ref: Screenshot) are not easy to search and ask them if they can upload at least in some searchable format. That is when he informed me that although some of the documents being collected at district offices are scans, there is a separate team that is also translating (from Hindi to English) all the data and putting it online on their own DMS site in searchable format. Now on the same website, you see all the information being managed by any of the offices being put at one place. Like the website says: “This search module has been provided to track a person as per the information provided by concerned District Administration. The original list provided by District Administration has been re-entered/converted in English at State control room to facilitate its users.Kindly refer original list of District Administration to confirm the information provided through this website.” Ref: Screenshot here & Direct website link here.

There is a lot of information coming in and the need to effectively communicate to the families any relevant news and update the status of missing or found people on the database regularly. One of the ways the government is doing it is by Operation Connect where they are reaching out to the general public through Facebook and Twitter and integrating all that information coming in from existing mechanisms like the phone helplines and feeding everything on the central DMS system. They are also reaching out to any organisations, NGOs working on ground who are helping affected people with relief materials to supply them with the information of the people they are taking care of and make use of the already available information.

Mediums – Phone, Fax, Email, Facebook, Twitter. So organisations or people can report or access information about missing or found people using any of the mediums. The team aggregates information from all sources and puts it into the centralised database and ensures any new information is instantly added to the database and made available.

The team designed a form that any organisation can use, they have the same form available on their Facebook page under and various other information being put up online which is also being fed to their twitter feed.

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Operation Connect – Missing Cell Uttarakhand Government – Facebook Page Features

The page has links to the following information and forms that you can access/fill up on the facebook page itself like the List of Missing People, Report Missing Person, Report Found Person, Request Supplies (for people/organisations on ground involved in relief), Sponsorship (for donations) and Operation Connect Found People (list of people found using this operation). You can visit their facebook page directly to check those forms or check their screenshots below or by clicking here.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=124984

How can you help?

  • Encourage people to use the government official site/tools in case they are looking for someone.
  • Spread the word. A lot of people are still missing and being found. Just by sharing a photograph of a missing person you might be able to connect missing families.
  • If you are involved in relief activities and are part of an organisation – provide them with any information you have over email or any other medium you have access to (refer contact information below). Help all information reach a central place, and prevent scattering of information everywhere.

Contact Information:

  • Official Site: http://dms.uk.gov.in/ (this website also has links & information on how you can donate directly)
  • Email: missingcell.uk@gmail.com
  • Phone: Missing Cell – 0135-2104175, 0135-2104176,0135-2104180, 0135-2104181 (more numbers on the site)
  • Facebook. Twitter.

If you look at the following images, you can see the team behind this is engaging and constantly updating information.
operation-connect-uttarakhand-united-10July

operation-connect-uttarakhand-1

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PowerCutsIN: A video interview I did in Karcha Village

(originally posted on the PowerCutsIN Blog)

September 16, 2011: This is the house of Mr. Sukhdev from Karcha Village, Banda, Uttar Pradesh where I had a chance  to visit during one of my work visits.

In this report we hear Sukhdev highlight the following key points: [link to report]

  1. When the transformer at their village burns out and needs repairing, unless they pool in money to pay to the district electricity department, they do not get a replacement. Which technically seems to be a bribe.
  2. The load on these transformers is high since many people use wire tap to the source lines to draw electricity to their homes even without a connection, which adds extra load on the transformer beyond its capacity due to which it fires and goes bad.
  3. They have electricity for around 10 hours mostly only during the nights when the transformers are working.
  4. Due to electricity, his kids can study during the dark for a couple of hours.
  5. Using fans, when there is power helps them to get rid of mosquitoes & diseases caused by them during summers.
  6. When there is no electricity during the night its scary because of threat of theft in the village.

You can view the video here with English subtitles below: [YouTube link]

TEDxShekhavati – Bhawri Devi & Mishri Devi – The Illiterate Entrepreneurs

One of the privileges I have had while working at GDS was working with these women farmers as part of our project in Rajasthan. So when Masarat and me met, and she told me about her plans to do another event in 2011, I was excited and was able to invite Bhawri Devi & Mishri Devi (Founder/Directors) along with my dear friend and colleague Shivraj Vaishnav (CEO) of the company Grameen Aloe Vera Producer Company Ltd (GAPCL) to share their story.

Bhawri Devi and Mishri Devi belong to the Jawaja Block in Ajmer, Rajasthan. They own a company that makes aloe vera juice and accompanying them is Shivraj Vaishnav who is the CEO of their company. These women who can barely write their own name are an inspiration to everyone who think that lack of education is an obstacle to achieving their dreams. In this TEDxShekhavati 2011 talk, they share their story and inspire everyone else to follow their heart.

You can view their talk here (with English subtitles) on the official TEDx YouTube channel. The women also appear in the TEDx promo video by TED.

Other speakers at the event included Manpreet Kaur, Osama Manzar, Avika Gaur (Baalika Vadhu fame), Rajvardhan Rathore, Nusrat Naqwi, Omer Mewati and others. Pictures from my camera are here and the other official pictures from the event are here.

The event attracted a huge audience (5000+) and it was bigger than the last edition and it was organised against all odds. Read Masarat’s post on the event here and Chris Anderson’s (TED Founders) post on the story of the event here.

TEDxShekhavati, is an independently organised TEDx event curated by Masarat Daud-Jamadar which takes place in the Shekhavati region of Rajasthan. This event is attended by Shekhavati people: parents, children, school students and others who will be coming from different parts of Rajasthan and India. It’s the first TEDx in Rajasthan and also first TEDx in India for a largely-illiterate audience, which makes it even more interesting!

Does this irk you?

I have been trying to recollect and blog things I have experienced and witnessed during my extensive travel throughout India. Recently(December 30, 2010) during one of my travel “dramas” where I took the wrong direction train, I witnessed something really weird and discomforting, to say the least. When the train was standing at this station, I saw this married couple get into the train and stand at the doorside for a moment. And suddenly the man started cursing the lady. Curses of the most ugly kind one can imagine and which, as I would put, can make your ears bleed out of shame. It was obvious from the way they two were dressed and came together, they were married. However, after the “cursing” episode, I was in doubt.

Why? Because the lady didnt utter a word in response to this man insulting in public among a lot of people.

Usually, the kind of women I stay around or work with would at least utter something back and some would just give him a stfu. But noone would just sit there and be insulted. So that left me with a lot of “Why’s” because hearing all those words outraged me.

I usually carry my camera around so I had thought of clicking his picture. I asked him, “Sir! Can I click a picture of you?” And he gave me a strange shocked look, but agreed (in a non-verbal way), so I clicked his picture. I guess as an effect of this action, he calmed down a bit and went out of the train to get some fresh air. I quickly asked the lady who this man was and how was he related to her? She told me, it was her husband. The husband was scolding her because he had asked her to stay at a certain “spot” until he went to buy the tickets and instructed her to not move. And as the train arrived, she might have just moved a little away from the spot. And hence, the husband bombarded her with insults in public.

It was a silly reason in my opinion. I told the lady, the village women I work with would have thrashed and beaten up such a man by now. She giggled and the husband returned.

Other co-passengers started telling the husband that “Its OK, and its not a big deal. Everyone makes mistakes etc and he shouldn’t be cursing bad words in public to her wife..” which was nice, but the husband still tried to make a point.

Anyways, the important point is it left me with a lot of questions:

  • What could be the reason for the lady to not voice back? Why the silence?
  • What could be the reason of her giggling when I go and question her being silent? I have met rural women who “command” the house & are confident however this gave me a different picture.
  • What would you have done in such a situation?
  • And finally, does the look of this man’s face irk you? (apologies for not posting the uncut picture, not sure if the anger on his face his visible)

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Celebrating the Rural Spirit – TEDxShekhavati 2011: Think Ahead

the rural spirit is free. the urban is not. the rural tongue says things that the urban tongue cannot.

– Quote from Masarat Daud-Jamadar’s blog

This quote caught my eyes the first time I read this and since then have been embedded in my mind. I keep telling people that I am a strong advocate of the free(as in freedom) culture and this is exactly what I mean when I say that. Maybe I am a rural spirit as well because of my small town roots connecting back to the villages. Or maybe there is some other connection here…

I heard about TEDxShekhavati last year in 2010 while I had just started working on the first assignment at this organisation. I was working (still am) in the Jawaja (Block) in the district of Ajmer, Rajasthan primarily helping women farmers.

Primarily there were two reasons this event attracted me: first, it was a TED event happening in Rajasthan and second, “it’s the first TEDx in Rajasthan and also first TEDx in India for a largely-illiterate audience”.

I mostly kept track of the event over Twitter and later the talks were released on YouTube as well. Since then I have been keeping track of Masarat’s work over twitter and have interacted with her until I finally met her in London during my visit last year. I was glad to know that TEDxShekhavati was planned for 2011 and I wanted to make sure I am attending this one 🙂
The best part being there would be two events on the same day, TEDxYouth@Shekhavati along with TEDxShekhavati! From what I hear from Masarat that so far everything is going as planned and there have been no major issues like last year (Do read this post on TED Blog).

A lot of people have offered support for the event and I thank them all as well as Masarat for making it happen this year again.

This year’s theme: Think Ahead

Date: 5th February 2011

Venue: Kishan Paathshaala, Fatehpur Shekhavati (Rajasthan, India) [Read: Story behind the venue]

Website: www.tedxshekhavati.com

Fortunately I will be attending the event and live blogging! (yes thats me in the picture).

I am going to be there witnessing the people and be inspired by their rural spirit at TEDxShekhavati 2011. You?