Sunday, June 27, 2010

Mothers and sons

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 27, 2010

The Other Half

Mothers and sons

If you happen to be the mother of a teenage boy in Srinagar, your anxiety levels will have hit the roof. Since the beginning of this year, seven young men, the youngest being 13-year-old Wamiq Farooq, have been killed on the streets of Srinagar. The city is literally seething, on the boil, with not a week passing when some incident brings all life to a standstill.

For mothers, the trauma is particularly poignant. Tufail Mattoo, the 17-year-old killed ostensibly by a tear gas shell, although that theory is being contested, was an only son. He was reportedly on his way to tuitions. His mother, who was busy cooking on that day, had never imagined that something like this could happen to him. She realised that something had happened when she saw the crowd outside her house.

Tufail’s mother is inconsolable. Other mothers wonder how to keep their young boys off the roads. One woman, mother of a 14-year-old, told me that she and four other women have pooled their resources to ensure that their children get driven right up to the school gate, are escorted in, and collected from school. Although her son longs to join young boys playing football in a field across from her house, she dare not let him go. So he spends his time in front of a computer or the television or reading or playing in their garden. She says that when he heard the news of Tufail’s death, he burst into a rage, kicked the furniture in the house and screamed at his mother, asking her to let him take a gun and shoot all those responsible for what had happened. How many more such young boys sit locked up in their homes? How many are joining the ranks of the defiant young men who mock and dare the security forces and pelt stones?

The woman quoted above is a professional and leads a comfortable life. Yet the fallout of the Kashmir conflict spares no one, not even people like her. Thus while Tufail’s mother mourns the loss of her only son, other mothers spend their nights dreading the next day and wondering if their children will return home safe from school. Suddenly, conflict is not about “militants” or “insurgency” but the safety of day-to-day existence.

Even a couple of days in Srinagar reminds you that the story of that city, that conflict, that beautiful region, is never fully told in the “breaking news” reports about stone-throwing, deaths and strikes. You can smell the anger, you can taste the disappointment, you can see the disillusionment with talk of “peace” all around you even as on the surface the streets of some parts of the city are crawling with Indian tourists happily escaping the stifling heat of the plains and providing good business to the locals.

At the other end of India, far away from Kashmir and its unending problems, lies the state of Manipur, beautiful and remote. For over 60 days, as we are finally being informed by a media that in the past ignored this region, there has been an economic blockade that has prevented the flow of goods into the state.

This translates itself into unimaginable hardships for people who have learnt to live with a higher degree of daily crises compared to people in most parts of this country. On a good day, in the capital Imphal, people feel lucky if they get electricity for four hours. Like their counterparts in Srinagar, they live with the reality of unexpected hartals and strikes where everything closes down. They have known the struggle to survive and keep their lives running even when there are long spells of dusk-to-dawn curfew. Somehow, people work around all these hurdles and get on with their daily lives. Children go to school – although they miss days on end when there is a disruption. People go to work in government offices and banks, run businesses, big and small, and report for the local and national media. The difficulties journalists face each day with the absence of basic infrastructure are compounded by the insecurity of dealing with literally dozens of militants groups who think nothing of gunning down a journalist they think does not toe their line. This is a “normal” situation.

But the last two months have gone way beyond this “normal” situation. It will take months before things actually become normal. We read news about trucks finally entering Manipur. What we do not read, in any kind of detail, is how ordinary people survived these 60 days, how mothers who delivered babies during this period are doing without essentials, how the elderly are managing without medicines, what people are eating, what is the fuel they have used to cook in the absence of cooking gas – which in any case is always in short supply. “Normal” is a situation they will not experience for a long time to come.

Sometimes people think you are drawing too many far-fetched and even irrelevant conclusions if you try to focus on women in such situations. But it is an angle that is unavoidable in both Kashmir and Manipur. Women are at the centre of it – the mothers of the boys killed, the mothers of the boys who are getting bolder as they hurl stones at the security forces and the mothers of the boys who are now being kept at home for fear they might join the others. Similarly in Manipur, it is the mothers on both sides of the ethnic divide who have watched their children become militants, get killed, get disillusioned with the political system, get killed even if they are uninvolved, stand up and fight for peace and a resolution, and get killed for daring to be different.

So while men decide when to talk and when to fight, when to provoke violence and when to be conciliatory, when to stick to a cause and when to consider other viewpoints, thousands of women, and their young children, live out the reality of conflicts without any end in sight.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Invisible environmentalists

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, June 14, 2010

The Other Half


They forage the city, collecting and sorting often hazardous waste when the city sleeps and by day they are gone. Most of them are women and we have no long-term policy in place that looks at their welfare or health…

Millions of waste pickers in India, who play a crucial role in dealing with the perennial environmental crisis of waste, risk their lives and their health every single day.

Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A city's underbelly: Waste being dumped on the outskirts...

Oil and water do not mix as the Americans are being forced to accept with the tragic oil spill from a British Petroleum oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. For almost two months now, the struggle to cap the oil well and protect large sections of the country's coastline from being devastated has been the top story in the news and the major concern of the US administration. It is an environmental crisis of gigantic proportions, and purely man-made. Whether in the long-term this will compel Americans to think again about their dependence on fossil fuels and seriously embark on the path of scaling it down and encouraging alternatives remains to be seen. At present, one finds little expression of this in the discussions around the oil spill.

On a much smaller scale, and not so dramatic, was the “accidental” exposure to radiation that affected workers and waste collectors in Delhi a few months ago when they handled radioactive material. At the time when this unfortunate incident took place, the issue of waste disposal, particularly hazardous waste, made the headlines. Follow up articles were written. The lives of those who live off collecting and sorting waste came into our line of vision. But then the issue disappeared.

Horror stories

Every now and then we keep reading similar horror stories linked to waste disposal such as the one about the garbage mountain in Jawaharnagar near Hyderabad where three waste collectors were buried under heaps of garbage. The body of one of them, a 15-year-old boy, was retrieved. But the body of a woman also buried was never traced.

Long term policies that ensure that the safety and health of those who do such an essential job — “a community of silent environmentalists” someone called them — are not such a high priority any more. One reason is that the people affected are virtually invisible.

(To read the original click on the link above)

Waste collectors around India work silently, often late into the night, sorting out mountains of waste, foraging for anything that can be sold. If you walk down some streets of central Mumbai after 11 at night, you will see an army of waste collectors. Men, women, children are all hard at work. They work through the night and finally manage to get some sleep on the doorsteps of the shops on those streets. By daylight they become invisible, having stowed their belongings in boxes behind the signs of the shops on whose doorsteps they sleep. These are the people of the night, not noticed by those who inhabit the areas in the day.

What is often not entirely appreciated is that a substantial percentage of waste collectors is women. According to a study by the Stree Mukti Sangathan, a group that has organised women waste collectors in Mumbai, 85 per cent of waste collectors in the city are women, five per cent are children and 10 per cent are men. The majority of them are Dalits and landless people who came to the city because of drought in their villages. The age group ranges from 7 to 70 years and 98 per cent of them are illiterate. A survey by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation of 60,000 waste collectors found a similar proportion: 60 per cent women, 20 per cent men and 20 per cent children.

Studies have revealed that 90 per cent of the women waste pickers are primary bread-winners, often widowed or deserted. It is interesting how the sexual division of labour plays out even in the business of waste. While women, and children, do the more hazardous job of sorting and separating the waste, the men deal with the dry garbage, which they transport to wholesalers and factories. As a result, it is the women who are exposed to hazardous waste — none of them wear any kind of protective gear — and also face the physical problems of constantly bending and carrying headloads of the waste. Look at any group of waste collectors and you will spot the bent old women who have been performing this function for decades.

All their wealth

In the slum-city of Mumbai, waste collectors experience the most acute degree of homelessness. While poor people in other kinds of jobs somehow manage to find some shelter in a slum, irrespective of whether it is legal or illegal, waste collectors sleep next to the garbage they have sorted. This is their “wealth”, something they have to protect after they have collected and sorted it until they can monetise it. Hence, near many garbage dumps, even in the better off localities of cities like Mumbai, you see families of waste pickers asleep in the morning. And most often you see only women and children.

As a result of advocacy and campaigns by civil society groups, many cities have now recognised the work of waste collectors and given them some legitimacy. This is an important step but it is clearly not enough. The issues of safety and health have also to be addressed even as their contribution to the city and the environment is recognised.

Why bring up waste collectors at a time when the main environmental issues being debated are the larger issues of global warming, or environmental disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Because you cannot speak of environment without considering the impact on the lives of people. We have hundreds of small-scale and continuing environmental disasters taking place all around us. But we overlook them so long as they do not impact our lives or our lifestyles. Millions of waste pickers in India, who play a crucial role in dealing with the perennial environmental crisis of waste, risk their lives and their health every single day. This is an on-going environmental issue that requires as much attention from ordinary people, the media and policy makers as the larger macro issues.