Monday, December 20, 2010

Small Loans a Big Hit

A street shot of a boy looking straight into the camera.

Far from the controversies caused by complex corporate micro finance groups in Andhra Pradesh and farmers suicides in Maharashtra due to non-repayment of loans given by powerful political money-lenders, Delhiites from the sub-prime classes are taking small loans to boost their earning capacities.

Women living in slums and families from the lower socio-economic sections in the Indian capital are taking loans as little as 5,000 at interest rates of around 25 per cent per annum. Even these tiny amounts help them buy a coffee-vending machine; start a business of selling chappals; open a kitchen to supply tiffins to people working in the neighbourhood; make small plastic caps for lipstick covers or manufacture lamp shades from home.

In east Delhi’s resettlement colony of Seelampur, a group of five Muslim women took loans between Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000 all for various businesses. Shaheen from the east Delhi area of Seelampur has opened up a small embroidery unit where she has been able to employ three other women who work alongside her to help her grow her business. “I pay these women according to the number of hours they work, which can be upto Rs 100 for eight hours,” she says brimming with confidence. There was a time just one year back when she used to work alone but the loans she took from Shikhar Finance enabled her to grow her business.

This group of five women - Shaheen, Mumtaz, Nazma, Ishrat Jahan and Shahan at a meeting to pay back an instalment to a representative of Shikhar Finance company. 

So how did she spend her money? “I spent the loan money on cloth and material so that I could make my own cushions and sell them to high-end shops. Instead of just doing embroidery for shops, I started selling them my own stuff.” Her husband, who drives an autorickshaw, did not interfere when she decided to take the loan but did make it clear that she has to take responsibility for clearing the loan amount. Shaheen’s family uses a heater, refrigerator, cooler and her small home has a steel cupboard. Shaheen has actually become the voice of the Delhi-based Shikhar Finance in her neighbourhood.

Inspired by Shaheen’s story, Mumtaz, a distant neighbour, whose son was a chappal salesman and earned a paltry commission that was hopelessly insufficient to meet their meagre ends took courage. She took a loan, bought the footwear herself and set out with her son to sell it at various weekly markets. Now the two of them sell their own product, which is both satisfying and getting them more money, and the thought of repaying the loan with an interest does not scare Mumtaz.

Mahesh Babbar stitches the fabric in his kitchen while the other assembling is done in his bedroom

The harsh truth is that micro loans have not turned around people’s lives dramatically. Most still remain poor and the bigger things in life – marrying a daughter, buying property, adding the barest of comforts – elude them. On the other hand, tiny doses of money have helped them grow their current business and given them hope for a better future. For example, Mahesh and Beena Babbar have been able to expand their lamp shades-making business and now employ a full-time staffer. He has been able to expand his business with the Rs 10,000 loan that he availed.

Less than six months back Babbar, who lives in Trilokpuri, used to get a meagre salary of Rs 4,000 for making lamp shades. Dissatisfied with life, he quit his job and remained unemployed for a while. “A friend’s wife who had taken a loan urged me to start my own business in the same line of work. I took a loan and bought materials to assemble lamp shades. Within a couple of months, I have been able to achieve a turnover of Rs 20,000,” says a satisfied Babbar. He says that he may again take advantage of a similar loan to increase his business. He offers nearly 400-500 lamp shade designs between Rs 85 to Rs 150, which might sell for as much as Rs 1,500 in the plush markets of central Delhi.

The confidence that the lamp shade maker shows is not reflected in Ramji and Seema’s business. The two live in slums in east Delhi and manufacture lipstick caps which are sold to wholesalers. Ramji’s wife took the loan so that her husband could buy another machine – both of which lie on a hard bed in the bedroom of his one-room house. His biggest problem is that he gets to operate his machines only when there is no power cut. With massive power cuts in Ramji’s slum, his work remains badly affected.

Ramji at work in his bedroom factory.

The positive thing in Ramji’s life is that his loans have facilitated him in being able to buy two machines which have increased his manufacturing and selling capacity. But for the father of five school-going children, life continues to remain a struggle as he battles power cuts and saves money for his daughter’s marriage.

The irony is that these impoverished and illiterate families are barely aware of the changes taking place in the legislative sphere that governs micro-finance. For them banks do not exist and most of these people will not be given a loan even by government banks. Alternatively, life in the global economy is such that big businesses access cyclopean loans with bribes and rural money lenders take lives along with interest rates of over 100 per cent in return for the loans they give.

For the poor Indian family, the current financial system is about getting the worst of both - the modern and the traditional economy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jump Start: Join the Dots

 Words of Wisdom. Now you know why publishers never lend and why people don't return. 

It was a festival of writers, editors, publishers, illustrators, teachers, librarians and children. The two-day Jump Start: Join the Dots fest organised in Delhi in August by the German Book Office had interesting workshops, interactions and seminars. The discussions included those on illustrations for children's books, graphic novels, e-readers and also contracts between editors and publishers. For me personally, it was an opportunity to meet up with new publishers as well as understand the industry moods and mechanisms.

That is story teller Paro Anand. She mesmerises children and spins tales too. Reading stories to children helps build mental and emotional images for them.

Why is it important to read stories to children? Because, it develops listening skills in children, increases their attention span, stimulates creativity and imagination, improves their vocabulary and they learn problem solving skills. Neel Chaudhuri from The Tadpole Repertory said: "A narrator's voice has to be friend. Repetition is the key to reading stories to children. That was something that Paro Anand, writer and story-teller agreed with: "Children read the same story again and again just because they like that story."

This is how a message board of the non-virtual world is.

Swati Mehta from Gali Gali Sim Sim (Sesme Street) said: "It is equally important for children to tell a story as it builds confidence in them, they learn to express themselves and present ideas in a linked-manner." It also helps them build vocabulary and improves diction.

Adults play games too. Story telling for children at the two-day fest. Watching them on the extreme left is Swati Mehta from Gali Gali Sim Sim (Sesme Street).

There was an interesting observation on the reading habits in children by a member of the audience. She said: "Parents now prefer activity books for their children and have started to avoid story books and fiction." Panelist Nina Sehgal said that even though the variety of books for children has been increasing, the variety for Hindi books remains woefully small. "It is here that a big audience exists which is not being tapped by the publishers." Judith Gueyfier, an illustrator from France who does children's books said that in her country there is a tradition to take stories from Africa and India. "I meet a lot of kids and I learn a lot from them."

This is one of Sekhar Mukherjee's works.

Teacher at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Sekhar Mukherjee, who has filled up his home with doodles, is working on a picture book in collaboration with his daughter. "I am making the drawings while she is giving me the ideas." Writer Anushka Ravishankar said: "A picture book is all about balancing text and pictures. Even the illustrations have sub-plots and we as writers have to given space to illustrators for them to be able to add value to the book."

The audience at the session on rights and contracts between authors and publishers. The role of literary agents too was discussed. 

A piece of advice for authors while negotiating a price for their books. "Be selective about your rights and limit the terms and terrritories. The rights for printed books, e-books and audio books have to be negotiated separately. The selling of sub-rights to third parties can be in the original language or another language." says Renate Reichstein.

Don't go by the written word!!  The name plates on the panelists table are wrong thanks to the angle of the camera.

Writer and publisher, Urvashi Butalia from Zubaan Books tread the path cautiously as she listed out how publishers make money. "They get money from two sources. Through the sale of their books and also by selling the rights of books to other publishers and overseas markets." And how do publishers and their editors actually select books? India's first literary agent, Jayapriya Vasudevan who is now based in Singapore, says: "We look at books that are universally acceptable. Also, we withhold the e-book rights on the request of the authors."

Gautam John, Ameena Batada, Akshaya Pathak, Arti Jain and Binoo John at the discussion on new technologies. And I had thought that new technologies have by now become old.

Technology issues and digital divide too came under the scanner. As Ameena Batada from Gali Gali Sim Sim (Sesme Street) asked: "Should children's story books need batteries?" At the same time, her own organisation is moving into audio books, internet story books and even internet-based read aloud books.
But Gautam John from education NGO Pratham pointed out that digital books are being downloaded and printed. Their books are being read by children who are visually-challenged and technology is helping generate volume and content.

Wink, India's own second-e-book reader was represented by their content person Binoo John, whose company is looking at generating content through tie-ups with Indian publishers and also directly from the authors. "Books on e-readers are 25 per cent lesser than the printed versions. We will also ensure that the books on our e-reader cannot be forwarded," John said.

It is a comic. It is a novel. No, it is a graphic novel.

In the session on graphic novels, it seems nobody asked, and because nobody asked nobody tried explaining how are graphic novels different from comics, if at all they are different? We too will leave it at that. But we had interesting discussions as illustrators and 'graphic-novelists' dwelt on why they were doing what they were doing. Some used their illustrations to ask and explore, the others to repackage Indian mythical stuff into six-pack abs (to gain a universal audience) and some dwelt on the tenuous relations between man, environment and the society.
Actor Danish Husain from the movie Peepli Live

On creating stories that hold the attention of people, actor Danish Husain said: "You make a story with 10 per cent skills and 90 per cent passion." What he probably missed was that passion is the only ingredient that is de rigueur for any measure of success in any sphere.

These children made presentations on their reading habits, favourite books and their hobbies.
The event was as much for children as it was for the publishing industry and writers. Young book worms made a presentation at the Pecha Kucha evening on their W's of reading - what, why and also why they are not reading certain books and authors. What was noteworthy was their confidence and their wide range of reading.

Another story reading, but for the seniors this time. The Tadpole Repertory at work.

It was here, at the close of a two-day session, that I leant two things. Either that I suffer from an attention deficit disorder or that long book readings should be held only for children, povided they do not scoot out to play hop scotch.

This is called an APOLOGY. For those speakers, writers, authors, publishers and children, and of course the organisers, that I may have missed out in my writing or my photos. I am sure I have indeed overlooked many creative and excellent people as the event was not small and had many parallel sessions running alongside. Many times I wish I could clone myself.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

View-Cutting Ourselves

The places, three NGOs and about a dozen foreigners, over half of them volunteers. Over the last six weeks I had a chance to interact in substantial measure with three grassroots NGOs in three different towns, all working in different fields. One chose water conservation as its main work; the other had a 360 degree association with orphans – providing them with shelter, food, clothing, high-quality education and tuitions, while the third NGO is skilling girls in the tradition-bound boondocks of casteist north India.

At all the three agencies, I came across volunteers – mostly all foreigners and a large number of them women. Tarun Bharat Sangh, the one working on water, had recently launched a campaign to sensitise people about the River Ganga. As its people, led by Rajendra Singh, travelled along the villages and towns on the banks of the river, they had for company a five-member team of American documentary-makers filming their work. These five - a Sri Lankan-American, British, Swiss and two Americans – landed in Delhi after which they went filming the issues and struggles over water in the districts of Ghaziabad and Bulandshahr. Now their assignment will take them to the interiors of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal.

I do not even wish to sketch the state – filthy, poverty-ridden, homelessness and non-existent infrastructure, all clearly visible to the naked eye – of our people that this US team is bound to encounter in the villages. They do not even have to get down from their vehicles to understand the absence of the State from people’s lives. It will be evident to them from the back seats of their made-in-India air-conditioned SUVs as they come across half-clad children and animals foraging dumps of garbage for food, or any other substance of value. But then villages are villages - stinky and filthy.

Therefore, as many of us associate more with the English countryside than our own, let me bring you closer to our capital city. Closer home, in my second visit, this time to Greater Noida, I met five German volunteers working with orphan children - many of them little girls who had been discarded just because they were girls. These volunteers had arrived in India just three weeks back and had generated enormous goodwill among the children.

The Germans were happy to be working here with the children and will stay put for another 11 months. The interesting part is that these five were not alone. They were a small part of a 60-strong contingent that landed in India last month and spread out to other Indian NGOs concentrating their energies on different concerns across the length and breadth of the country. By now they would be toiling on the scores of challenges that the Indian people face - environmental degradation, trafficking of children and women, floods in some parts and droughts in others, concerns over maternal and children health, illiteracy, discrimination and impovrishment, farmers suicides, unemployment, crop failures, indebtedness, not to mention corruption which has become the favourite pastime amongst many - in their daily living.

I am sure that no view-cutter, whether made of vinyl, board or plastic, worth the crores spent on it is capable of hiding either the conditions our people live in or the sad reality that our political leaders have not delivered. My point is, India has at least a million NGOs, and foreign volunteers possibly in their thousands tromping across the country taking photos with their little digital cameras, filming documentaries and writing back to their girl and boy friends, and parents, about the rich experience they gained in the development sector in India, will those handful of glossy and expensive vinyl view-cutters put up by the Delhi Government and the Commonwealth Games organisers hide the slums, the debris of their chaotic construction work and the run-down areas of our ‘world-class city’. So, what are we trying to hide behind those glossy sheets, which, with the winter round the corner, would be soon put to better use by the slum dwellers and the homeless as a roof over their heads.

Now we come back to the third NGO, PPES, educating rural girls in Uttar Pradesh. This one had American volunteers and they were putting in their mite at all levels – right from the headquarters in Delhi to strengthening administrative systems at the village and even teaching English to the village girls. Will they not go back to their countries with an astounding clarity about the country which cuts sharply through the India shining, Incredible India and the Indian Growth Story hypes. And also the sad tales of girls whose parents do not send them to a school because they are both - poor and hold a grudge against educating their daughters.

So, is the Government naive enough to think that the foreign tourists who flock to the city have descended onto India in sheer ignorance.

Or is it that behind the veneer of "tourists will see our poverty," our leaders themselves were trying to camouflage what they do not want to see - the hungry, smelly hordes? Out of sight is out of mind and if people with a begging bowl and a litany of demands can be kept out of sight it is a soothing thought.

Or is it that one of our politicians, or his friend, owns that factory which manufactures those pricey view-cutters? Public money is afterall meant for public servants.

So, whose eyes was the government pulling wool over when it ordered those pricey view-cutters – itself, for it does not want to see its own people; the tourists, who are well-acquainted about the country's conditions or the average Delhiite, whose nimble figures are better at keeping track of the stock market than casting a vote on an electronic voting machine.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Articles of Faith

A shop selling trinklets at Garh Mukteshwar, Uttar Pradesh, has these religious amulets dangling from its ceiling. With a good strong sun, I decided to play with the depth of focus.

The past few weeks, I found myself travelling to the banks of River Ganga twice. One of the trips was planned while the other was not, and I was so surprised to find myself standing on the submerged bank of the river in September when incessant rain caused floods across various parts of the country.

My planned trip to the river was courtesy waterman Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay Award winner for his work in conserving water resources in the desert state of Rajasthan. His work over two-and-a-half decades resulted in the revival of many rivers that were dead and now some of those rivers have so much water that these have become perennial. Seems, I am digressing from my topic of the day, so more about Rajendra Singh in another posting later. As the TV networks say: "So, don't go away. Stay with us (me)."

Rosaries for a holier soul. The same shop at Garh Mukteshwar.

Only want to mention that my photos on the bank of a river that was in spate, have come out wonderfully well. Most are inspired, of course, either by the subject of water and pollution or faith which the Hindus show towards the river. The faith, mind you, does not make them clean the river, it just makes them pray to it undeterred by its filth and pollution.

I wonder that if the same unreasonable faith, I say unreasonable because people still bathe and drink that water thinking that it will cleanse them of their sins, could have been better harnessed, could that not have helped heal the river and revive many associated things with it - the culture, a sailing tradition, an alternative transport system, toursism and, maybe, adventure water sports. As of now, the only thing I notice, and so do other people, is an abundance of faith around the river.

One more trinklet (many can be worn as amulets around the arm as well) at the same shop.
Benaras, on the bank of the river, which is as much a tourist city as a holy city is the most photographed city in India. It was the city's holiness that attracted all varieties of photographers - from the amateur one to the cellphone shooter and the first-timer to the foreign professional. Photography, it seems, began here very soon after its invention. The underlying attraction - FAITH.

I have not visited Benaras as yet. I am sure not much has been left for me to click, I will probably still visit it to introduce its sights to my sensor. Till I do that, you will have to settle for these photos from various little-known untouristic destinations along the river. But do remember, these small towns and villages also contribute to the unending pollution as much as the cities do. Yet the intensity of faith remains the same.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Old Man and A Child

An old man, actually a contractor, takes an afternoon nap near the Karkardooma drain in east Delhi in the summer of 2009.

As all fables go, so does this one. There is just one difference. It asks a question towards the end. Neither does anyone get a prize for guessing the right answer nor will I be surprised if you get the answer right.

Here goes the story...

Once upon a time, in not so ancient times, there was a man who was lying critically ill. Nobody could, it seems, revive him. He lay on a cot in that big, important village which was important because it fell on the crossroads to cities and other villages. People, traders, farmers, saints and mendicants had to pass through it and many stayed at the village overnight. Many of these good natured travellers tried to help The Old Man but without much success.

The traders brought gifts hoping that the man would cheer up and show signs of improvement. The saints looked into his future and predicted that he would bring glory to all around him. This gladdened the hearts of his immediate family, the neighbours and also the villagers. The mendicants would give his family antidotes, potions and other plants-based pills but nothing helped. The guests who would come to visit their friends and relatives in the village would come to seek his blessings and pray for his vigour but nothing helped.

The frail old man lay on his cot bedridden, pale and weak. His skin looked as if it had been stretched on his bones to give dignity to him. The scene was stark because the man's fraility was in sharp contrast to the crowd of healthy people that forever surrounded him - relatives, neighbours, visitors, passers-by and saints. Close to his feet lay riches - gifts and donations by his followers - whose sincere hearts wanted him to get well and get going. The gifts were precious and many - money, gold, food, fruits, medicines, potions. In fact so many that a whole village could survive on those donations. This was that could be seen and valued. Then there were those gifts that could not be measured - blessings, prayers and wishes.

Nothing helped. Months turned into years, years into decades but the man's health remained as it was.

One day Three Wise Men from the West came to the village. They had heard of the family's distress and the old man's poor health and had come to help and take stalk. When the wise men entered the village they noticed that it was a village unlike others they had seen on their way.

This was a prosperous village. The people were fatter, wore good clothes, worked less, pursued leisurely interests and their houses showed signs of prosperity. When the wise men reached their desired spot - the brick and mud courtyard of the old man's house - where he lay almost lifeless, they realised that they were entering the portals of a mini-palace, not a rural dwelling. They could discern that the old man's family was wealthy and that the riches were new.

After listening to the family's story and how the old man had contributed to the society and to the village, the three men too reached the decision that he should be revived. It was in the interest of the family, the village and the society at large that the man should be kept alive. After putting their heads together, the three decided to help.

Wise Man One gave a lot of money to the family for the better upkeep of the old man. Wise Man One said: "You have been taking good care of the old man but your efforts have not borne fruit. Maybe you should improve his physical conditions, change his space, get a new bed, put tiles in the courtyard, put the bed up on a stone platform, construct toilets, bathrooms and put some flower pots around him - he may feel important and he just might revive."

The family accepted the money eagerly, which was a lot, with a lot of humility. It promised Wise Man One that it would indeed construct all that he had said and, "we will try to do more so that the visitors who come to meet the old man can stay in comfort," said The Eldest Daughter. Wise Man One was satisfied.

Wise Man Two gave much advice, ideas and invited the family to visit his village in the West to look at their solutions and how they had successfully tackled the health problems in their village. The family was excited because it had never stepped out of their village. The First Son said: "We are so engrossed in trying to bring good health to our old man that the thought of leaving the village never crossed our minds. But you live so far that it would be impossible for us to visit you."

Wise Man Two reassured the family and said: "Don't come together. Visit us in small groups and we will take care of your expenses." The family was very happy because keeping the old man alive was an expensive business and they had not gone out of their village in years.

Wise Man Three looked grave. He had been listening carefully to the conversations. Now he was thinking deeply. Finally he said: "I can see that the whole family has been working sincerely and with a lot of prayers in their hearts for the better health of the old man. Because you have not been successful, I think you should do what I tell you." Because Wise Man Three spoke with so much conviction and so much power, the family quickly gathered around him. For a little while they forgot all about their old man.

As Wise Man Three sat brooding, the family too looked at the mud and the brick floor. Then he said: "I cannot offer you a solution right now. I will go back and consult with my team of experts. If there is a need, I can even ask my experts, the best in the world, to come here and help the old man. I am sure that with their help, the old man can be restored back to health. I will send send my best men and women here - a doctor, a psychologist, a nutritional expert, a cardiologist, a endocrinologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, a skin specialist as well as a geriatric specialist."

The family gasped, for it had had visits by such experts over the years but never had so many of them come together at the same time. The daughters and the sons looked back at Wise Man Three in surprise and gratification.

Wise Man Three continued. "I am willing to help the family and the old man with my best expertise and chosen experts. But you have to bear the costs of such expensive and high-tech consultants."

The family was surprised. The Second Son said: "But we cannot afford to pay for your worthy consultants. We do not have that much money."

In a stern voice Wise Man Three reproached him. "You have the money. Money will not be a problem, I can assure you but you have to be willing first. Wise Man One gave you money in front of my eyes. I can also give you a loan. With that loan you can pay back the fee for my consultants."

In front of so may people and the old man, the family could not say NO to Wise Man Three's proposal. Very bravely, The Eldest Daughter stood up and announced to the gathering: "Please join me in thanking the Three Wise Men from the West for their concern and promises of help. Together, all of us will ensure that the old man is nursed back to health despite whatever. Come what may, our tireless efforts will prevail. We will work ceaselessly till the day he is back on his feet and is walking amongst us." The son started clapping, the Three Wise Men joined in and even the crowd did so.

It was time for the First Son to make a speech. "We will have to use all our resources to restore the old man's health. We will put all our money, all our resources and everything that we have to get him back on his feet. I will need the support of the villagers and I am sure they will not deny that. We will use the money that Wise Man One gives us. We will levy a fee on visitors who come to see the old man. We will also start taking donations from the village. We can ask the people to contibute in other ways - afterall it is to restore the health of the old man."

The Three Wise Men were happy. The people merely nodded their heads. The old man simply stared into the air.

Suddenly a child stood up and shouted: "The old man is fine. Just give him enough water to drink and food to eat and he will be okay. Immediately, the Two Sons and the Elder Daughter pounced upon the boy. The Three Wise Men too jumped up and clasped his mouth shut tight.


Can you identify the people in the story?
1-The Old Man
2-The Daughter
3-The Elder Son
4-The Younger Son
5-Wise Man One
6-Wise Man Two
7-Wise Man Three

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Growth Story: No, Never Heard This One

(Photo of the Week: Sept 22): Two young men prepare for a night's rest at a shelter provided by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, under orders from the High Court, in a South Delhi colony.

These youngsters along with many other families were earlier living under flyovers near the Inter State Bus Terminus. For them, the India growth story might just be an apocryphal one for people of the streets like these boys. This night shelter had almost 50 people, including a large number of children and even babies.

Unfortunately for these people, the residents living nearby were not too happy that a government building in their midst had been handed over to these people. The residents were on the verge of moving court and various government authorities for shifting these people to another space.

Some of the complaints, many were indeed true, included drunken brawls between the relocated people, their unhygienic and filthy ways of living as well the smells that would emanate from their cooking. On the day this photo was taken, some of the families had already fought between themselves and threatened each other with dire consequences. The reason: a very young wife had objected to her husband's frequent bouts of drinking as well as indulging in gambling. And that family dispute soon spread to the other inhabitats of this shelter.

Many of these people work as labourers, most are migrants and they were all rather surprised that they could actually find a pucca roof over their head in a city like Delhi. Before they had moved under this roof, shelters meant working on construction sites - bridges, flyovers, underpasses and houses - and sleeping under the open sky or under one of those constructions.

These people, who are drivers of the India growth story and witnesses to its fast-paced Shanghaisation are themselves ring-side audiences to the country's growth marathon. For them, and these two boys above, the "growth story" remains one to be seen and not to be participated in.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Don't Worry, Be Happy

(Photo of the Week - Sept 17)
People of the streets prepare to go off the sleep near the Ring Road, close to the Inter State Bus Terminus (ISBT) in north Delhi.

Delhi has tens of thousands of homeless people and chances are once the Commonwealth Games are over, there would be many more. The thousands of labourers who are working at the dozens of games sites and who live in tents or makeshift shelters may never actually go back to their states or villages. Most will stay back in the hope of finding work.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Odds and Ends

Time to clean up the act.

A traditional ear cleaner, with his trademark red cap rolled up at the ends, cleans out a young man's ear at Chandni Chowk in old Delhi. The young person most likely works as a loader - a labourer who works in markets loading and unloading goods from trucks.

Both of them are a part of the informal economy and are mostly likely to be people of the streets - living, eating and sleeping on the streets. The old Delhi area, which has a lot of wholesale markets attracks a large number of people from across north India for employment as loaders, labourers and those who provide services to this section of the migrants.

A loader takes a strong puff before starting on his daily chores on a winter morning in 2009.

It is hard work and one with risks. Accidents happen, the goods fall off occasionally and then there is always the risk of not being paid the proper wages. These men live alone, tie their megre savings to their clothes and send money back home as and when the opportunity arises.

Monkeying around. A madari (community that ekes out a living by making monkeys perform) showcases the acting skills of his animals on a pavement.

The madaris are a community that resides in a settlement in a state adjacent to Delhi. The people languish in poverty and illiteracy, and are seen as poachers because of restrictions on the trapping of animals. Efforts are on by the Government of India and also by NGOs to persuade them to take up different vocations and give up their traditional means of livelihood, which end up depleting our forests of their wildlife.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

An Ode to God

Photo of the week (August 8)

A quawali session in progress at the Nizammudin dargah (shrine) in Delhi. The dargah which is frequented by the failthful from all over the country, including people from different faiths, hosts a quawali session every Thursday. Usually the quawalis are sung by the famous Nizami brothers from Old Delhi, but this time it was a local group as the Nizami brothers were on a tour.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Making a Point

Photo of the Week (July 28)

The puppets of the Ishara Puppet Theatre on display at the group's workshop. The Delhi-based group has been working across the country holding workshops and generating an interest in the ancient art, putting the traditional puppetry form into focus. 
The puppetry and theatre group has been highlighting social issues and addressing concerns like HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and also works with street children - training them as well as helping them cope with their lives on the street.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Secret Window

First Image of the Week (July 24)

Hi everyone,
My plans are taking off, even though slowly with my first photo of the week update. Henceforth, I will try to put up one picture that I like for its effects - art, asthetics, simplicity - or just if it says something. The photograph was taken at Jantar Mantar, a great tourist draw in the heart of India's capital city Delhi. Built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur around 1710 A.D. it is also called Delhi Observatory. It consists of 14 buildings and the words jantar mantar literally mean the calculation instrument.

It was one of the five observatories built by the Maharaja to be able to compile astronomical tables, and to predict the times and movements of the sun, moon and planets. I chose this particular photo as I liked the position of the staircase behind the jharokha (window). Despite the partially visible staircase, it looks as if the window is trying to hide something. I also like the symmetry that exists in the window's upper curve which is repeated at the bottom of the photograph.

Do put your comments/feedback/thoughts about the picture.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PRESS RELEASE: Frozen pangolins seized

Picture courtesy: TRAFFIC International

Hi everyone,
It was time to update the blog. Between a number of half-baked plans and many incomplete write-ups, this photograph and a press release by TRAFFIC International dropped in my inbox and the photo was such that I decided to highlight it.

The sole image of the frozen pangolins is very disturbing and I believe that the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts is as huge as that in the other illegal global activities - drugs, small arms and human trafficking. Even as we keep getting information, though rare instances, of the discovery of new species and sightings of rare and almost-extinct birds, we more often get deluged by news on the depletion of tigers, hunting of seals, killing of whales and the loss of Amazonian rainforests and tropical greens to farming and mining.

This photograph is a sad pointer to how we are steadily decimating our natural resources and wildlife despite massive local, national and international campaigns. Seems that there are more number of people involved in killing and trafficking than there are who can stand up as protectors. The fact that such activities continue to be reported is also a pointer to the fact that such people seem to have stronger motivation and rewards than those who protect the earth's natural heritage.


The press release by TRAFFIC International

Beijing, China, 13 July 2010—Customs officers in Guangdong, China, have seized more than 7.8 tonnes of frozen pangolins and 1,800 kg of pangolin scales from a fishing vessel after it was stopped for inspection at Zhuhai's Gaolan Island.

International trade in Asian pangolin species is banned under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Two of the four species are classified as Endangered by IUCN.

The suspect fishing vessel was sighted by a Guangdong Jiangmen Customs patrol boat in the Chuandao sea area late in the evening of 5th June and boarded in the early hours of the following morning when 2090 frozen pangolins each weighing between 1–10 kg and 92 cases of pangolin scales were found.

The crew were arrested and included 5 Chinese and a Malaysian national, who claimed they had been hired to sail the vessel from Xiangzhou Port, Zhuhai, to South-East Asia to pick up the illicit cargo.

The Malaysian crew member was said to have received instructions by satellite phone on where to rendezvous at sea to pick up the contraband. The smugglers were intercepted before they could transfer the cargo to another vessel off Gaolan Island.

“The use of satellite phones and trans-shipment of cargo at sea are indicative of the increasingly sophisticated methods being used by the organized criminal gangs involved in wildlife crime,” said James Compton, TRAFFIC’s Asia Pacific co-ordinator.

The Chinese authorities have shared intelligence on the seizures with enforcement agencies operating in the region, including INTERPOL, World Customs Organization (WCO) and ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network, plus CITES officials and are seeking co-operation with Malaysia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on a joint investigation.

“Guangdong Customs are to be congratulated on this important action against wildlife smugglers operating between South-East Asia and China,” said Professor Xu Hongfa, Director of TRAFFIC’s China Programme.

“TRAFFIC stands ready to support international co-operation between enforcement agencies that will ensure those who organize and mastermind such wildlife crimes, as well as those who carry them out, are made to face the consequences of their actions,” added Compton.

A China Customs official quoted by the State news agency, Xinhua, noted that between 2007 and the end of June 2010 a total of 292 cases involving the smuggling of endangered species had been investigated in China. In total, 38,599 animal parts had been seized, weighing a total of 26.63 tonnes plus more than 55 tonnes of 2,753 rare plant varieties.

Dr Richard Thomas
Communications Co-ordinator
TRAFFIC International
+44 1223 279068

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I Promise...

This monkey made itself comfortable on the ruins of the Tughlaqabad Fort in south-east Delhi on a hot grey and listless day.

Hi, apologies for being away for a long time. When I had started the blog, I sincerely had no plans of being away for such a long time.

During the past couple of months, I was struggling because I was up against a trickle of ideas. Then the inexplicable happened. Hard thinking put me on the track to a flood of ideas but then putting those ideas on paper and, well, finding the time to click was the other hurdle.

So, to make myself more visible and be able to sustain the blog, I set out mulling over schemes that would enable me to put up posts every now and then without putting in much of an effort. To be true to all of you, and myself too, I am neither trying to wriggle out of my blog nor am I trying to be a shirker. I am only aiming to make myself more efficient in being able to both click and write. As the wise management guys say: "Don't work hard. Work smart." I am not sure if these wisecracks work in real life.

The silhouette of two doves coochie-cooing on the scaffolding and its attachments at Humayun's tomb. To spot the monument, tilt to your left. You will see the building when you fall off the chair.

When I started the blog, I had a single aim - put up more photos and less of writing. The photos had to say something, which in my case had to be on issues of development, poverty, people, governance, environment and greens, water and its management. But then I had to substantiate those with pictures as well. So, yolking the two remains a bit of a challenge if I do it along with half-a-dozen of my other activities.

Therefore, one of the brilliant ideas I hit upon was to put a photo of the week. That set me on another level - should I actively seek out worthwhile photos every week or should I put up stock photographs as well. But then these could be a couple of years old while the term 'photo of the week' conveys a newsy message. Anyway, I am still to resolve the debate. If you have been better than me on this issue, do let me know.

This heron makes the stone railing as its thinking perch. The bird did not move a bit despite a considerable presence of visitors and tourists.

If I have set you thinking, "where are this guy's flood of ideas that he mentions in paragaraph 2, line 2?"
Well here they are:

1- Pictures from Alwar villages, Rajathan.
2-Photos from intimate theatre that I got to see and participate in (as an audience and photographer) last week.
3-Some bits of text and photos of the flower markets in Delhi which are to be relocated.

4-Then there are some that I have forgotten. But... don't worry, I will remember them soon enough. :-)

For the moment I thought it would be a good idea to at least put up an image of mine. I knew I had a few good shots of myself taken by photographer friends and colleagues, but I could not trace those folders.

So, I finally did locate them. Today.
And I promise to be more regular.
To atone for my disappearances, a bouquet of imported lilies for you.

These marvellous lilies, imported from a South East Asian country, spread cheeer at the Mehrauli flower market in south Delhi.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Women at Work

A tribal woman near the historic old bridge close to the Red Fort in March 2010.

In India, with its fairly large geography and over a one billion strong population - diverse and spread out - there is no dearth of ideas or issues that one can write about, or maybe, even shoot. Still, I constantly struggle to think of ideas to write on, for which I can find relevant photographs also. Maybe it is just that I am a bit lazy or that I get busy or, possibly, it is a combination of both.

So, after an avoidable delay over locating photographs for this wonderfully touching song, Just Another Day in Paradise, I decided to finally rifle through and mix 'n' match my photos with Phil Collin's lyrics. I just wished that I had done this a fortnight earlier and could have worked on the next post instead of pondering over possible photo-shoots which never materialised.

I also hope that, though I have a mildly nagging fear at the back of my mind, nobody is going to haul me up for plagiarising - which, of course, is not my intention at all. I just thought it would be a good idea to put the song under the spotlight in these troublesome dark days, which are haunting the poor little rich boys - from brokers to bankers and property agents to industrialists - particularly when market economies have to be proped up on stimulus crutches.

As Phil's song describes a shelterless girl on city streets, I thought it would be apt to put photos of women in their various roles in the city - right from the homeless to those ekeing out a living doing odd jobs.

City homeless preparing to sleep outside a mosque in old Delhi in January 2010.

She calls out to the man on the street,
"Sir can you help me?
It's cold and I have no where to sleep.
Is there somewhere you can tell me?"

He walks on, doesn't look back.
He pretends he can't hear her.
He starts to whistle as he crosses the street.
He's embarrassed to be there.

Oh, think twice, it is just another day for you and me in paradise. Just think about it.

This old woman was selling religious materials in the open for the pious on the Yamuna river bank near the Inter State Bus Terminus in December 2009.

She calls out to the man on the street.
He can see she's been crying.
She's got blisters on the soles of her feet.
She can't walk but she's trying.

Oh, think twice, it is just another day for you and me in paradise.
Oh, think twice, it is just another day for you and me in paradise.
Just think about it.
Just think about it.
Oh lord, is there nothing more anybody can do?
Oh lord, there must be something you can say

A woman, most probably a sweeper, drinks water after having lunch in the Sanjay Van city forest in south Delhi.

You can tell by the lines of her face.
You can see that she's been there.
Probably been moved on from every place because she didn't fit there.

Oh, think twice, it is just another day for you and me in paradise.
Oh, think twice, it is just another day for you and me in paradise.
Just think about it.
Just think about it.
A small shop selling the very basic stuff manned by a woman in a slum. It can only fetch her a meagre living.

It is just another day for you and me in paradise.
It is just another day for you and me in paradise.

It is just another day for you and me in paradise.
It is just another day for you and me in paradise.

It is just another day for you and me in paradise.
It is just another day for you and me in paradise.

Its another day for you and me in paradise in paradise.

Young girls and women line up their cans to fill up water - an early morning daily exercise for most slum clusters and resettlement areas in Delhi.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Delhi Coolers

India Gate at night

An ancient city, Delhi is one of the largest metropolises in the world and was home to around 14 million people according to the Census of 2000. Experts estimate that when the time comes for the next census in 2011, Delhi might have up to 20 million residents, which is indeed a lot of people, surpassing the populations of many countries in Africa and Europe.

Leaves and flowers pile up underneth a tree at the Sundar Nursery, one of Asia's largest nursery's, on Lodhi Road in the summer of 2009.

Delhi’s topography is interesting as it is sandwiched between two important natural resources – the Yamuna river and the world’s oldest mountain chain, the Aravalis. The Aravalis harbour a wide range of flora and fauna and act as the lungs of the city. But over the decades, forests have been cut for land and the hills depleted for stone, still the city boasts of small tracts of forests, which have been protected both by law and by environmentalists.
These stones have been stacked to form a bunding on the eastern slope of the Yamuna in Noida.

Apart from these forests, the city has large parks and green areas, many of which are located at the spots where Delhi's ancient capitals, numbered to be around eight, once stood. Now these green areas also harbour water conservation bodies, tombs, forts and other historical structures.

This historical stone structure near the Mehrauli Archaeological Park in south Delhi has been encroached upon and whitewashed. Photo taken in October 2009.

Both the landmark natural features of India's capital city, the Yamuna and the Aravalis, have not been very fortunate. Despite legislation, moves by activists and increased budget, the river’s health has continued to slide downhill because no water is left in the river to flow. Then, the nearly two-dozen drains in Delhi which carry sewage from the residential areas as also effluents from industrial zones, dump their poisonous contents into the river.

A view of a tree trunk with bulges on its body in the Rose Garden, near the Indian Institute of Delhi (IIT) in July 2009.

The Yamuna and various city forests have contributed a lot in keeping the city cool and without doubt are fighting an important battle, though a losing battle very often. Experts are finally realising that urban forests, like the Central Park in New York city and the Hyde Park in London have a very important role to play in keeping the urban environs cool. Delhi, that way is fortunate because it has numerous green pockets of forests and parks.
The footprints of the Yamuna River under the Nizamuddin flyover just after the monsoon season in 2009.

Though the adverse impacts of climate change on a mega city are difficult to prove, this post tries to capture the beauty of Delhi’s green areas and highlight the important role water bodies, green areas and open spaces play in the lives of urban people. In short, these spaces mitigate the effects of pollution, maintain biodiversity, act as groundwater recharge zones and literally giving a breather to its residents by acting as air purifiers and by negating the the urban heat island effect. Because of the urban heat island impact, concrete structures absorb heat during the day and release slowly during the night, thereby making nights warmer.  
The direction to take: recycle for a cooler city and a planet. This cooling assembly was made by the guards in a south Delhi residential area from discarded things.

The temperature difference is even more apparent when one is sitting or taking a walk around the periphery of a pond or lake. Delhi's water bodies like the Hauz Khas lake, the Sanjay Jheel and the Purana Quila lake not only store the water and allow natural life to take root around them but are important converging points for people to visit and take a stroll.

The Hauz Khas lake captures the rays of the setting sun on a December 2009 evening.

On the other hand, Delhi's city forests like the Shahjahan City Forest, Sanjay Van, the south and the central ridge areas are excellent groundwater recharge zones simply because their natural features have been maintained. These greens help in controlling flooding as a city like Delhi is highly susceptible to water accumulation on roads which brings chaos to normal daily living. Just ask any Delhiite during the monsoon months what a person has to go through!! Many even have lost their lives due to drowning or by getting sucked into the open drains and manholes in the city.
A couple in a January foggy morning in the Nehru Park in the posh displomatic enclave area of Delhi in January 2010.

Delhi's water bodies help protect entire eco-systems from the harsh impacts of urbanisation. In the case of Delhi, these water bodies have an added role to play. The Okhla Bird Sanctuary on the banks of river Yamuna is a good haunt for bird watchers to see, photograph and study birds. During severe winter months the sanctuary attracts migratory birds from as far as Siberia and China.

There is room for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed, said Mahatama Gandhi. The painted grasshopper and the bug agree at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary!!

The presence of both water and dense greenry at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary helps create a conducive habitat for numerous species of birds and a wide variety of insects to live. On the other hand, the city forests provide shelter to species as large as the Neelgai or the blue bull, apart from the smaller ones like rabits etc.
This birdie has turned its back on accumulating things in its nest. It plans to live life according to the moto of the bird family - 'free as a bird'. Photo taken in January 2010.

The interesting part is that these natural spaces provide health and environmetal benefits that cannot be quantified and that too at no cost. The green areas do not require any maintance expenditure of repair work. All that is required is very little actually - and that is the municipal corporations, the public works departments and similar other bodies should leave the green spaces alone.

Nothing that the Delhi Development Agency can ever build can parallel the Yamuna or the Aravalis. Nothing that the Public Works Department can construct can rival the beauty of the Asola Bhatti forest. No matter what the architects, urban planners and engineers can devise, it can never equal the cooling that Delhi's forests and lakes can do.
"There is hope," says this sapling in the Sanjay Van forest area in south Delhi.