Friday, November 26, 2010

Kuch khwaab, and thodi si daadagiri

The title 'Dreams death' is nowhere as poetic as Gulzar's line (kuch khwaab sisakte rahte hain, kuch khwaab magar mar jaate hain), but this short docu film has enough going on. There's truth and pathos and empathy and Gulzar's swoon-inducing voice. Watch it here:

Before the film begins, you see a clip of Priyanka Chopra reminding viewers about a child's right to education. Applause-worthy. And she looks nice too! Now if only this tall, lissome Punjabi glamour-babe would read this:

Educationists add that often private schools get land, cheaper electricity and infrastructural support from the government. Add to this the tax exemptions they enjoy.

And then this: Ashish Diwedi, who was a part of the same school’s clerical staff till two years ago, says the school first volunteered to admit his children and a year later, turned around. “They offered me Rs.1 lakh per child to take my children out of the school,” he says.

It would be lovely if she could use a couple of her many media-ops (and let's face it: her whole life is probably one big media op) to address the parents who are so afraid of the whole nation getting a decent education. Perhaps she could tell them not to be so frightened of the poor, scared children who do indeed have a right to an equal education. Or perhaps she could just tell the private schools to start acquiring commercial land at commercial prices for their commercial enterprises, if they find the burden of nobility too heavy to bear.

After all, that land (and that water, or that electricity, or that road, paid for out of the whole nation's pockets) isn't theirs. Very few could afford it if the state didn't give it to the urban middle class/elite for a pittance. Nor, for that matter, can they really afford good teachers. Most teachers (at least, up until now) in India have had some sort of subsidized education or training or certification that was state-funded.

The great washed in India can barely afford anything as their own in any legitimate 'private' way. But they forget. Ms Chopra would do well to remind them. Just saying.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Jairam-ji for Renuka-ji, after all?

Update on Renuka-ji dam project:

Just got another press release from the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan and it seems like Jairam Ramesh met the group on hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in Delhi and assured them that the project would not be cleared by the Ministry of environment and forests.

But like they say, this is the ibteda. Therefore, aage, aage dekho...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Witness, the real movie.

So we all saw Slumdog Millionaire. Famous people took sides in the debate around whether Indian poverty should be milked by foreign peoples making Oscar-winning movies. Shouldn't we brown people have the first rights over our own poverty for whatever it is worth - all its spectacular sights and sounds and smells? Besides, it was a matter of izzat. Who knows what poverty and desperation is like, but really, we didn't need to be exposed to white people as being dirty and desperate, our kids blinded to beg, our little girls sold.

But whatever side of the debate we were on, we all agreed that the movie was good. What a story! A kid who has never been to school wins the Crore that has hundreds of millions swatting even when there are no exams to be cracked. And we all applauded loud enough when brown people won prizes given out by the same foreign people whose degree of comprehension and sensitivity we were doubtful of.

And then, of course, we forgot about it - the film, its story, what it was trying to talk about.

Slumdog Millionaire is not just about a poor boy who gets a million bucks and gets his childhood sweetheart at the end. If that was its core, it could easily have been a bank heist or a treasure hunt story. This is about a boy who 'wins' those bucks. Although he has not been to school. Nobody has even taught him informally. He has survived through his wits. And perhaps, life has finally opened a door - shown him a way to use all those hard-won scraps of information he stumbled onto along that dangerous survival track down which he was sprinting. That door was a show called KBC or Who wants to be a Millionaire?

But the main thing is, nobody believes him. Even the host does not believe that the boy knows what he knows, except for poor people in other slums, nobody believes he deserves to win. That story is a story of prejudice. Prejudice and disbelief lay at the heart of the narrative.

And though we have all seen the movie, it seems we never learn anything. We still carry around our prejudice and disbelief and barely concealed resentment at the fact that someone uneducated, someone who has been desperate and thus far unhappy, could have won something precious. Like a crore of rupees.

I don't watch much TV but I do read the news, and had heard about Rahat Taslim winning on KBC. She probably knew a lot of stuff I don't. For instance, while trying to write an article, I happened to need information about women elected representatives. I went online to google it, and happened to discover that Ellen Sirleaf was the first modern woman head of state in Africa. But I also came upon a website article expressing astonishment that a poor Indian woman should know this fact.

I am not bothered by the astonishment. Most of us would be, whether we admit to it or not. What bothers me is that somebody thought their astonishment important enough to put it on a website, and then to describe it in those terms: 'viewers balk at Rahat Taslim's 1 crore win'. Viewers balk, eh?

My first thought was that the writer did not fully understand the meaning of the word 'balk'. My next thought was that perhaps the writer didn't care. Perhaps, several readers didn't care either, because they did indeed balk at Ms Rahat's luck, even if luck was all she had.

Why is it still so hard to swallow that someone who had a hard life finally got lucky? When do we stop thinking of ourselves as somehow more deserving of windfalls than women who must sew clothes? Why do we never express such astonishment when middle class guys - people like us, or almost there - go on the same show and win, although we know quite well that we don't know many of the answers to the questions on the show? Just how deep is our prejudice?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Warmth to spare?

I'd just written about the gorgeous, frightening cold in Delhi.

If there's one thing you can do quickly to protect those who suffer winter rather than enjoy, it is this: donate some warm clothes.

Here's an appeal from Khoj.

'Dearest friends of Khoj,

It is that time of the year again and we need your help. Here is your chance to to ensure that Delhi stays warm during the coming winters!

Take out those sweaters/shawls/sweat shirts/shoes that you have been planning to wear since Christmas ten years ago and never actually did so. Add winter protection for Khoj to your winter shopping list. Share your winter warmth and we guarantee you will be contributing a smile to someone's face!

We look forward to all contributions, whether a single sweater/blanket or clothes by the dozen. We only request that they all be in wearable condition.

Send this message to your family, friends and colleagues at work. Each sweater counts!

Please drop all contributions to Khoj's office:
Khoj Foundation
409 3rd Floor, above RAO Travels,
Munirka, New Delhi

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Renukaji turns to Sonia-ji

Got this in a press note from the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan. I have not been following the dam issue in the Himalayas closely but clearly, all is not well.

The Renuka Bandh Sangharsha Samiti is on hunger strike in Renukaji against the Renuka Dam project which intends to supply drinking water for Delhi. The project was denied clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests but the state is just revising the project through reducing the height of the dam.

I am simply putting down below the campaign's fax copy, for those who'd like to and are able to do something with this information. Though I have to say I am a little shocked that they should choose to address it to Sonia Gandhi instead of Jairam Ramesh, who is only marked in the CC, along with Rahul Gandhi. I understand that Delhi is more or less run by the Congress government at this time and that a nod from Sonia Gandhi means more to the state government than a letter from a central ministry. But for every battle, small and large, people cannot go running with their petitions to 10, Janpath. It just isn't sustainable. Nor is a hunger strike, actually. Unless people can persuade their elected representative to starve through the winter session of Parliament. That might be worth a shot.

Dated: 15th November 2010



Smt Sonia Gandhi,

Chairperson, National Advisory Council,

New Delhi

1. In a victory for a safe ecological future and peoples’ livelihoods, the MoEF has rejected the Forest Clearance for the Renuka dam for the 2nd time, based on the massive scale of deforestation that will take place in the submergence area.

2. After the rejection of Forest clearance for this project recently state government is acquiring agriculture land forcefully where as land acquisition proceeding should be stalled till all clearances are granted[1].

3. Award for 447 Bigha land has been recently issued and land compensation Rs 7,22,00,000 has been forcefully distributed including three residential houses with out any R&R of Project Affected Families[2]. This land is having thick forest plantation, HPCCL (the developer) has counted 32640 standing green trees on this 445 Bigha of land.

4. Tree estimates in Renuka dam submergence area

The Renuka dam was initially proposed to be 778 mts high from mean sea-level. Consequent to the rejection of the Forest Clearance, the promoter has proposed to lower the dam height to 762mts. HPCCL is preparing for fresh forest diversion proposal and manipulating the count of standing trees at the site.

HPCCL has counted the trees only in Reserve forest and wild life area. As per their counting total trees are 1,51,439 at sea level of 778 mts. While the actual total number of trees is more than 2,50,000.

HPCCL is currently recounting trees to the lowered height of 762 mts. so that number presented to the MoEF would be much less.

Trees in private land have not been considered for forest clearance case and not counted which is atleast more than 13 lakhs.

Initially, a tender was awarded on 16-3-2007 to a contractor to count the trees in private land. His estimate of 17 lakh trees on private land was uncomfortable for HPCCL, which raised objection to his survey. His contract was terminated with a payment of Rs 6 lakhs.

Our estimate is that the total number of trees in the proposed submergence area is more than 15 lakhs. HPCCL has sent proposal for forest clearance mentioning only 1,51,439 trees but it is compulsory to include private /deemed forest under FCA 1980 for clearance.

5. NAC Chairperson’s Concern over Productive Lands and and a brief on Agro-Horti-Silvi-Cultural Wealth of Renuka Submergence Zone

In light of the recent debate on the Land Acquisition Act 1894, we want to point out that the Renuka dam project will also drown 376 hectares of agricultural and 60 hectares of horticulture land (according the R&R plan), producing food and commerce vital to the people of this country.

"New industries and infrastructure cannot be built without acquiring land. This is obvious and there is no argument about it. But land acquisition must be done in a manner that it does not result in the loss of large tracts of fertile and productive agriculture land." Quoting Ms Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson, NAC The Indian Express: 9th of September 2010

In the light of the statement above, we would like to point out some very important features of the land under submergence by the planned Renuka Dam in Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh where land acquisition process is being conducted forcefully by using urgency clause of LAA 1894. The Renuka Dam will drown an area of 1630 hectares of prime agricultural and dense Shiwalik mix forest land (according to the R&R report from HPPCL), to supply drinking water to Delhi.

According to official records, the total cultivated area in the district of Sirmaur is 70,000 hectares, which is under great threat when any forest and contiguous agricultural land are submerged. Sirmaur’s agricultural land is characterized by a mixture of cash crops like tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and peas, as well as floriculture and horticulture such as peach, pears, mango, citrus fruit, pomegranate, apple etc, as well as ecologically sustainable subsistence agriculture with families growing their own maize, wheat, and rearing livestock.

The low lying areas which are on the Giri river bank and are marked for submergence in the Renuka dam and are the only flat agriculture land with excellent productivity, good soil quality, irrigation, ground moisture. The important feature of agricultural
land here is that it is extremely diverse, with multi cropping and mostly 3 crops a year being grown.

The per Bigha income from growing tomatoes is Rs. 40,000/- per season, Ginger, a crop that made Sirmaur famous as one of Asia’s significant ginger producers, is almost a biological geographic indicator. Families also invest in floriculture as a commercial activity, and have a variety of fruit trees such as mango, litchi, pomegranate, jamun, and pears, amongst other things.

It is evident in this area of Sirmaur’s abundant and thriving agriculture, that fertile land is found in low lying areas slated for submergence, while most of the rest of the land in the district that is not under submergence, is not as productive.

Additionally, the dam submergence area is slated to drown 642 hectares of dense mix Shiwalik forest land, that has been reason enough to deny the project forest clearance. Parts of the Renuka wild life sanctuary are also being acquired for the dam submergence area.

Forest land is the supporting structure for fertile agricultural land. Without forests, lands do not remain moist, winds are not broken, and the whole ecology and balance of a region is destroyed.

It is in light of these facts; we would like to point out that the Renuka dam severely endangers the food producing farmers of the Giri Valley of Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh. The dam will also impact the local climate as well as affect climate change, cause deforestation and destroy bio-diversity.

People of the area are resisting against the acquisition of agricultural and forest land for the last three years, they are opposed to this Dam. We have noticed that the GoI is considering the view of local communities that are opposing Dams and Hydro-projects in Uttrakhand and the North East, and we urge you to do the same in Himachal.

6. We would also like to point out another reporting by the Indian Express epaper, that said: “Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has taken up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demands for a review of all hydro projects in the region and a “moratorium on any further clearances for hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh” since “these are bound to be the subject of agitation” in Assam.”

It is a scandal with green cover which needs to be abandoned and a complete enquiry instituted on how institutions have colluded to hoodwink the decision makers.

We urge you to intervene in the matter of the Renuka Dam and save the beautiful Giri valley and the lives of local farmers by completely scrapping the project. To emphasise this demand. Renuka Bandh Sangharsh Samiti is sitting on hunger strike on 16th Nov 2010 on the eve of Renuka Mela. Chief Minister of HP is coming for opening the fair and the communities feel that it is the appropriate time to inform the Government of its misdeeds.


On behalf of

Renuka Bandh Sangarsh Samithi

Himalaya Niti Abhiyan

Environics Trust


Shri Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment, GOI

Shri C.P Joshi, Minister, Panchayat Raj, GOI

Shri N.C Saxena, Member , NAC

Shri Rahul Gandhi, General Secretary, AICC

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out. Cold

I've been missing Delhi quite a bit these days. Missing the warm sweet potato-n-lime snack sold on leaf-plates. Missing the mysterious mornings when you feel as if all the misty apprehension we carry within our souls had somehow been scooped out and set loose upon the streets. I miss missing heaters. I miss my teeth chattering. I miss monkey caps. I miss rubbing my hands together and feeling the wind cut a rivulet across my eyes as I returned from work in an auto.

Winter makes all of us who have lived north of Mumbai nostalgic. For the fog. For the chill. For 'heaty' snacks. For good gajak and warm naankhatai and smoking little fires on each street. For mufflers on faces. For electricity in hair.

But then, I'm just a northerner in the sense that I'm north of Mumbai. I do not miss places where water freezes in taps and all hotels and restaurants shut down for four long months. I am not from places where schools have a very long winter break instead of a proper summer vacation. I'm not from the hills and certainly not from Leh or Ladakh.

I've travelled quite high in the hills in November but that was in a good year. A year where people had homes, even if the freezing water made pipelines burst. A year unlike this one, where people are living in tents.

I cannot quite imagine how, even though a friend has sent photographs of the way people are still living, post Cloudburst in August this year. He sent back a link to some photos, with a simple message in October: 'Please help them'.

I saw the photos and kept thinking, but this is September. The smiling faces of mothers and children - what do they look like right now? What's happening right now in Leh?

I wish the mainstream media was telling me more about how the state is handling the housing and clothing situation in areas affected by Cloudburst. I hope things are under control, but having seen how bad things can be in Delhi, I wonder if there is any reason to be so optimistic.

If there was one thing I did not like about a Delhi winter, it was the sight of homeless people out at night. It made the city heartbreaking, shocking and frightening. I was shocked and outraged the first winter I spent living alone in an unheated room in Delhi. Some nights were so cold I couldn't sleep. And then I'd see the rickshaw-pullers, curled up under a thin blanket, on a less-than-three-foot long seat.

I'd read snippets in the papers, of course - inside pages, single column, maybe two inches worth of news - about so many dozens dying in 'cold waves'. Such items appear regularly in newspapers in north-Indian cities. Each summer, there's a 'heat wave' and each winter, a 'cold wave' that rises up and snatches away a few dozen people. The papers rarely mention that these people were homeless, or that they possibly provided cheap, essential services to the city, such as transportation or public hygiene. There isn't enough room and anyway, it is understood. Why would anyone die of the cold if they weren't too poor to be able to deal with it?

It made me do one of my first stories for Frontline (appended below) in 2004. It also led me to visit a 'raen basera', an impossibly romantic Urdu word that describes an impossibly inadequate service to deal with this kind of crisis - homelessness in a Delhi winter. Sad, smelly and ill-equipped though the night shelters are, they're there.

With the massive migrant/refugee influx into most (state) capital cities, it is time India began to invest a little more time and money in creating more night shelters. They are as important as hospitals and serve the same purpose - they save lives.

"As the icy fingers of winter send deathly chills down Delhi’s spine, people have begun to hug themselves tight, as if their clothes were a good-luck charm offered by destiny. But for tens of thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of homeless people out on the streets of the national capital, there is no good luck charm and if they had a destiny, they’d gladly set fire to it to warm themselves.

Over the years, Delhi’s population has gone up, and with it, the numbers braving the fatal north-Indian winter. Cold waves are an annual feature, as are the dead bodies found in the foggy morning.

According to media reports, in 2002, beat constables found 3,040 corpses during the winter. Of these, no less than 400 had died in a cold wave.

However, as far as the establishment is concerned, the winter threat to the shelterless isn’t worthy of a long-term policy or plan. The government has done precious little to build a comprehensive policy for urban homelessness, or even conducted a proper census.

Paramjeet Kaur, director of AAA (Aashray Adhikaar Abhiyaan), an NGO focusing on housing rights, says, "According to our survey in 2000, there were 52,765 people out on the streets. But we missed at least half. Currently, 12 shelters are run by MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi). 10 of these are only night shelters, and about 2,500 people can be accommodated. All of them are pay-and-use, with Rs 6 for 12 hours’ occupancy."

Last year, about 70 deaths were attributed to winter, a marked improvement over previous years. This was possible because a network of NGOs was working in collusion with the municipal corporations of Delhi (old delhi) and New Delhi. Religious institutions like Sacred Hearts Cathedral and Bangla Sahib, and educational institutions like Zakir Hussain College and Zeenat Mahal School, besides a few municipal schools, opened up their doors despite the extra load on water and sewage facilities.

According to a report based on the consultation ‘Space for the Homeless and Marginalised in Delhi’, organized by Action Aid India and the Slum and Resettlement Wing of the MCD in July 2003, the total homeless population in India is no less than 78 million (based on the 2001 census). The report says, "This problem was more acute in the three metros, Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, which put together were reported to have 78% of the houseless population."

Even the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) admits that at least 1% of the population is homeless. This means that no less than 140,000 shelterless people. Incidentally, this figure does not include those who sleep in carts, rickshaws, or under flimsy plastic-sheet roofs. Compare this to the fact that Delhi’s night shelters cater to only about 2,500 people, and one wonders what the government supposes the rest should do during the harsh Delhi winter.

Lalit Batra of the Hazard Centre, another NGO working for housing rights told us, "At least 1 lakh jhuggis (slums) have been demolished since 2000. In Yumuna-Pushta alone, we estimate that roughly 30-50,000 have been rendered homeless. Only 30,000 were rehabilitated. The trend is that only 25% get accommodation after evictions. There is no way but for homelessness to rise."

The paradox is that the state does not seem to be making use of the resources that are available. In September 2004, there was a conference of ministers of housing from all the states and union territories, organised by the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation. According to the agenda report: "it is the ultimate goal of the National Policy on Housing and Habitat, 1998, to provide the basic need of shelter for all, but until such objective is achieved, it is necessary to provide some kind of shelter to the absolutely shelterless urban poor, particularly street children, destitute women and migrant labourers etc."

In keeping with this commitment, the scheme of night shelters for the urban homeless was introduced in 1988-89. According to the government, the scheme was supposed to progress as per demand. This means that the states would put forward proposals, which would then be sanctioned by HUDCO. By July 2004, HUDCO had sanctioned 99 night shelters across India. Maharashtra, which faces one of the worst situations of urban homelessness, has been sanctioned 40 shelters. Delhi has been sanctioned zero.

Also, under the scheme of ‘shelter and sanitation facilities for footpath dwellers in urban areas’, Delhi had been sanctioned zero, as of March 31, 2000. Almost every other state (including a much-maligned Bihar) has a better record of putting forward proposals for the urban homeless, which were accepted.

According to the same report, the National Slum Development Programme has sanctioned Rs 14,053 lakhs to Delhi between 2000-04, of which the entire amount has been listed as ‘unspent balance’. In short, Delhi has the money. It is not being used.

Women and children, the most vulnerable groups out on the streets, have practically nowhere to go. The only shelter within New Delhi limits has also been taken away. Palika Ashray Grih was a shelter that catered specifically to women, and was run by AAA. But the shelter was taken away by the NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) just before the onset of winter, rendering the inhabitants homeless again.

Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, UN Commission on Human Rights, agrees that the government has no definite policy on housing in Delhi. "Historically, we have a grave crisis of housing. Every time the municipality demolishes slums, the vast majority are rendered homeless. We believe this is a violation of human rights. During the recent brutal eviction of women from Palika hostel, there were several human rights violations."

Palika Hostel was the first initiative by the NDMC towards a women’s shelter. On October 16, 2004, the women and children were forcibly evicted, many of them sustaining injuries during the whole procedure.

The women set up tents right outside the building and continue to sit there on a relay hunger strike. However, on November 5, NDMC officials pulled out the tent poles even as women and children were sleeping inside. The AAA team intervened and has since met the Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, sent telegrams to the Prime Minister’s Office, contacted the National Commission for women and complained to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NDMC and the chief minister’s office directed that the women be shifted to Nirmal Chhaya, a home for destitute women. But the women refuse to move because the complex is often mistaken for a detention centre and is even known in common parlance as the ‘women’s prison’, being situated next to Tihar Jail. Besides, it is a short-stay home and has no provision for housing women over 45 years of age.

Officialdom, meanwhile, does its pass-the-buck trick. Frontline spoke to various departments, all of which claim that the problem is not theirs. According to Nisha Agarwal of the Slum and Juvenile Justice wing of the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi), "We have 24 children’s homes. The primary job is to look for the street children’s original home and families. They are brought to us through the police, concerned citizens and NGOs etc. Night shelters are not our mandate. That is MCD’s baby."

She added that night shelters are part of the poverty alleviation scheme of the government. "There are 17 or 18 night shelters maybe. They open up another 17 or so during winters. Last year, we helped MCD cope with the severe winter. We helped monitor the shelters but we don’t really have the budgets or the staff to cope."

Madan Thapaliyal of the NDMC told us, "We are not equipped to run shelters for the homeless population. We don’t have the infrastructure to cope. From December 15 onwards, we will give some extra night shelters. We make arrangements on the requirement of the central government. The responsibility belongs to the state’s welfare department."

Jitendra Narain, Director of the department of social welfare explains that, in a letter to UK Vohra, Secretary, NDMC, he had mentioned that though Nirmal Chhaya was available to the former residents of Palika Hostel, the timing was incorrect for proposing to shift them, with winter being round the corner.

Rashmi Singh, joint director in the department of social welfare, says that the right place to go and ask questions would be the urban development ministry. "We will not shrug off responsibility, because anything to do with social welfare is our business. The census doesn’t even give us the right figures. The secretary of this department had estimated 10,000 homeless people for Delhi. Yet, there is no formal survey." She clarified that the problem has to be tackled through a collective effort. "MCD has 17 night shelters and 7 converted community centres during winters. The development commissioner’s office sets up temporary camps. We have one short stay home for women, Nirmal Chhaya. YWCA has some facilities and there’s Bapno Ghar for women. NDMC has old age homes. Some NGOs are supported by us, round the year. But we cannot usurp the government’s role and mandate for urban homelessness. The Urban development ministry is the nodal body."

Miloon Kothari believes that although "nobody takes responsibility for the poor, but from a legal perspective, according to the NDMC Act of 1994, the NDMC is responsible. Any municipality of the world has to take up responsibility."

Ultimately, help had to come from non-government quarters. Paramjeet Kaur believes that unless more NGO’s, volunteers and civic organisations come forward, this year will be difficult. "Last year was a big achievement for us. We managed 43 shelters, 23 of them temporary and 20 buildings. We had support from MCD’s mobile health unit. How this winter turns out depends on how many volunteers come forward. It is not an easy task managing thousands of lives round the clock, especially those who have health problems. In winter, chronic diseases get aggravated. Every night, we’re on the vigil. Electricity and water is required. Blankets and bedding have to be washed. AAA is also trying to get them (homeless people) organised. We have helped the elderly form a group called Varishtha Nagrik Sangh. They have applied for old age pension and will now apply for ration cards. We run a food and health care program. They are issued ID cards and can stay free."

Kaur adds that the solution is not hard to find. "The state government needs to open up spaces. NDMC has only one shelter at Nizamuddin. You can’t bar certain zones. Delhi has the infrastructure. We only need to make multipurpose use of existing government buildings. Spaces over parking lots are available. Community centre buildings and Baarat Ghars can be used. We have shown MCD and NDMC that this isn’t a wasteful venture. After years, MCD actually made a profit in the year when we ran five community centres as night shelters!"

Among other things, they demand that the official recognition of winter’s duration be increased. MCD and NDMC make arrangements only after December 15. Since winter sets in earlier in Delhi, the government, they argue, should extend facilities from mid-November until Holi. Most activists agree that the homeless have no voice since they do not have votes. They are trying to rectify that by issuing ID cards and helping the homeless to vote.

This year’s general elections saw 500 homeless people on the electoral rolls, of which about 150 voted. They look forward to the day when the shelterless people of this country - all 78 million and more - get organised into a formidable vote bank. The government will have no option but to sit up and take note.

[A slightlyedited version of the story appeared in Frontline magazine in Jan 2005]

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Not ikebana, at any rate

The easiest thing to be is a cynic. And I have often behaved like one. I continue to do so (my mother will be nodding her 'aye's at this) even now - constantly shrugging off small attempts at change, constantly asking 'when has it ever been any different?'
Perhaps, it is even wise. Perhaps, the total compounded wisdom of the world comes down to this: 'When was it ever any different? What makes you think things will change this time around?' I don't know if it makes any sense to go on thinking we can - I can - change anything at all. But then I read this:

In 1966, the specialists at the Pentagon went to US President Lyndon Johnson – a thug prone to threatening to “crush” entire elected governments – with a plan to end the Vietnam War: nuke the country. They “proved”, using their computer modeling, that a nuclear attack would “save lives.”

It was a plan that might well have appealed to him. But Johnson pointed out the window, towards the hoardes of protesters, and said: “I have one more problem for your computer. Will you feed into it how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their President?” He knew that there would be a cost – in protest and democratic revolt – that made that cruelty too great. In 1970, the same plan was presented to Richard Nixon – and we now know from the declassified documents that the biggest protests ever against the war made him decide he couldn’t do it. Those protesters went home from those protests believing they had failed – but they had succeeded in preventing a nuclear war. They thought they were impotent, just as so many of us do – but they really had power beyond their dreams to stop a nightmare.

Imagine! A bunch of people - probably not a very large bunch - stood around in a public place to let powerful people know that it wasn't okay - this, whatever was happening, it wasn't done, they weren't going to stand for it. And a nuclear war didn't happen.

Change isn't just about the things you accomplish at the end of a day, or a month, or a even year. Change is also about preventing bad decisions. Too many of us don't show up for protests when it really matters because we think nothing moves. But so often, nothing moving is a good thing.

The odd thing is, change can be wrought in so many small, painless ways, it is almost surprising we don't bother. Take this business of censorship. A few years ago, I remember being in Delhi and attending a show of the play, Line. I forget the name of the theatre company but I think it was a show supported by the First City foundation (somebody correct me if I'm wrong), which does support a lot of cultural activity in the capital. So far, so good.

The script, however, was not an easy one for the average conservative Indian audience to digest. There was sexual content and not of the comic, innuendo-laden type to which we are safely inured. It wasn't particularly brutal sex either. But it was discomfiting. Perhaps, that was the point of the play? We didn't have a chance to find out.

Mid-way through the performance, somebody was discomfited to the point that they asked the group to stop. The director stepped up and apologised and told us, the audience, that the rest of the performance stood cancelled.

Now, this was the point we could all have stood up and gone home. It should have been easy. The play wasn't bad and I don't usually walk out of a performance, but that wasn't the point. None of us had invested enough time and money into attending this show for us to make a fuss about it. The money wasn't the point either.

We - the self-nominated liberalati, culturati, media people in Delhi - stood in the foyer, uncertain. What should we do? Should we just go? Should we... ask somebody? We asked a few questions. Neel, one of the producers, told us that somebody (I can only assume that it was somebody important enough to call off the show) found the play offensive.

That was when we all stood there. Just stood a little longer than necessary and said, no, we want to watch this. Let the full show be performed. I am not very sure who spoke to whom, and when the decision was reversed. But reversed it was. The show went on.

At the end, I have this to say: My sensibilities were slightly offended. I got the point of it but as a woman, I found the premise of the lone woman character and the way the script used her sexuality... well, problematic. The script left me and my friends feeling mildly nauseous. But if a performance of Line was to come to my town, and was to be disrupted again, I would once again be willing to hang around in the foyer. I should be. Because today it's Line. Yesterday it was Sakharam Binder. Today, it is Arundhati Roy. Yesterday, it was Gandhi. People have to have their say. And we have to let them, no matter how strongly we disagree.

And for god's sake, we have to stop thinking that what we think, or do, will not matter. Particularly those of us who are in the business of thinking and expressing. NSR puts it best, as usual:

The best writers in every age have also been deeply engaged citizens, and to ask, as we are now doing in India, for writers to stick to their writing is a little like asking investigative journalists to stick to their knitting. What we’re really asking, when we pose the question of a writer’s responsibility, is for writing to be like bonsai-growing, or ikebana: a strictly ornamental occupation that challenges nothing, shakes up nothing.
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